Chapter 12: Madame Rosa’s

In which Holly shows off her scar, and Dean visits a place where children aren’t allowed.

Calm and serene.

Those were the words Holly would later use to describe the main room of Madame Rosa’s Tea House. The moment you entered you were greeted by the sweet smell of tea and cinnamon, as well as the serene tones of an enchanted sitar hanging on the wall and playing itself. The wallpapers depicted a beautiful forest landscape where artfully painted animals frolicked about and occasionally stopped to look at you with curious interest. And witches in colourful clothes were lounging on thick pillows and pouffes around low tables, occasionally calling for one of the self-moving kettles to come over to them and pour more tea into their cups.

The atmosphere was so calm, in fact, that the shopkeeper, a pink-clad witch, was fast asleep at the counter, and barely even stirred when they entered.

“All righ’ there, Rosa?” said Hagrid cheerfully. “We’re here for the one o’ clock. Party room ready?”

Without opening her eyes or showing any signs of waking up, the witch lifted an arm and pointed towards a door at the other end of the room.

“Is she all right?” said Holly, looking back at her as they moved towards the indicated door.

“Ah, she’s fine,” said Hagrid. “Rosa’s so good at her job, she can do it in her sleep.”

“That’s one way of coping with a boring job, I suppose,” said Dean.

“C’mon, it’s through here.” Hagrid led them all through the door and down a short corridor towards another door. “Ev’ryone must be wonderin’ wha’s keeping us.”

“Who’s everyone?” said Holly.

“Party guests,” said Hagrid. He reached out an enormous hand to open the second door. “S’meant to be your birthday party, after all!”

The second door swung open to reveal…


A crowd of people were gathered in a large and brightly coloured room, most of them just as redheaded as Ronnie and Molly, most of them dressed in outlandish clothes… and most of them familiar; Holly immediately recognized the Weasley coven, also known as Ronnie’s family. Her father, her coven-mothers and all her sisters. (One of whom was transgender, whatever that was.)

Mr Dumbledore wasn’t there, but before Holly had the time to feel disappointed about that, she found herself surrounded by excited, chattering girls. A little girl, a few years younger than her (and with blonde rather than red hair) was already hugging her, while a taller bespectacled girl was shaking her hand with a rather self-important look on her face, and at least three more girls were jumping up and down.

Six of them spontaneously started singing a birthday song – but they couldn’t agree on which song to sing, so the entire thing ended up as a confusing mix between the traditional “Happy Birthday to You” and two other songs that Holly had never heard before. The entire thing was energetic, but impossible to follow and rather overwhelming…

Luckily, Ronnie was there, and seemed to have caught on to how overwhelmed Holly felt, because she calmy grabbed her by the shoulders and led her out of the confusing mass of people and over to a table at the end of the room.

“Give them some space to breathe, girls!” Molly commanded from behind them. “Marlyssa, I told you not to cling. Ginny, you don’t have to yell. I heard that, Fred!”

“That wasn’t me, it was George,” said one of the girls innocently.

“Me? It was Percy!”

“Don’t call me Percy, Georgina!”

“Don’t mind them, they’re just excited,” said Ronnie. “Look, there’s cake!”

One look at the table made Holly’s jaw drop in amazement. Never – not even at Dudley’s birthday parties – had she seen so many party foods gathered on one table. There was jelly and ice cream. There were pies and sausage rolls. There were sandwiches and crisps and ice puddings and chocolates and pitchers filled with bubbling beverages. And at the centre of the table, there was indeed cake — an absolutely enormous cake bearing the letters HAPPY BIRTHDAY HOLLY!

All of a sudden, Holly remembered how hungry she was.

Hermione, looking a little out of breath, joined Holly and Ronnie by the table. “Charming family you have, Ronnie,” she said, though it was impossible to say if she actually meant it or not. “When you’ve got the time, would you mind helping me rescue Dean from your sisters? One of them has cornered him.”

And just as she’d said, a rather overwhelmed-looking Dean was looking a little uncomfortable as one of Ronnie’s sisters, a rather pretty girl around the same age as him, was getting very close.

“Bugger,” Ronnie swore, before calling out: “Ellie, back off! He’s just a boy, you’ve seen boys before!”

“Not up close!” came the immediate answer – but then ‘Ellie’ was gently but firmly grabbed by the shoulders by one of the mothers and led away from Dean.

Holly briefly wondered if this was some kind of Weasley family tactic to get people away from places you didn’t want them to be… but decided not to ask. At the moment, cake seemed a lot more important.

“Come on!” said Ronnie, as everyone else began gathering around the table. “Birthday girl gets the first helping!”

Holly had never had a birthday party just for her before, but she thought she’d at least partly made up for it with this one. All those wonderful things to eat… she must have put on several pounds all in one go. And then there were all the songs and stories, all the people–.

It took her quite some time to sort out all of Ronnie’s sisters, because they were so many and kept talking over one another, but after a while she thought she had enough on them to make a little mental list:

Will: Oldest sister. Already an adult.
Charlene: Likes animals, especially dragons.
Anna: Smiles all the time. Smart.
Persephone: Wears glasses like me. Don’t call her Percy!
Fred and George: Twins. Fred’s taller. They joke around a lot and start Hogwarts this September.
Ellie: Very pretty, and knows it. Very interested in Dean.
Nella: One of two blondes. Shy, doesn’t talk much.
Ginny: Small but loud. Likes sports.
Marlyssa: The other blonde. (Probably the same birth mother.) Wants to hug everybody.
Lydia: Youngest sister (apart from Dolly, who was born just a few hours ago and isn’t here).

(Which was the transgender one, Holly wasn’t sure, and something told her it wasn’t a good idea to ask.)

Of the Weasley parents, there was Arthur who was the father, and four mothers… well, really five, but the fifth one was resting after having given birth. Holly of course already knew Molly; the other three mothers were Mandy (stern-faced but with kind eyes), Frankie (calm and laid-back) and Alice (blonde and cuddly; easy to see who Nella’s and Marlyssa’s birth mother was!)

Holly wondered a little just how long it would take to get to know every single member of the Weasley coven, especially since they kept talking about other relatives – some of which belonged to other covens and some of which didn’t.

One person they kept talking about was named Sissy, but Holly never quite understood who that was or exactly how she was related to them – only that a couple of the younger girls were disappointed she hadn’t wanted to come to the party, but the adults assured them that Sissy was far too busy fussing over Flora-Mum and the new baby.

At one point Holly asked Ronnie how she managed to keep track of all her family members, but Ronnie just shrugged and said “if they live in the same house as me, they’re probably family” – and that was pretty much the end of that explanation.

One thing that really surprised Holly was how interested they all were in her. Well, the older girls kept their distance a little, but that was older girls for you. Everyone else was full of questions, about what it was like to live with Muggles, about whether she remembered her parents at all, about whether she was ever upset about not having several mothers.

Surprisingly, nobody asked her about Tom Riddle or the night her parents died… at least not until Ginny looked at her and asked, somewhat nervously: “Do you have… you know, the scar?”

“You know about my scar?” said Holly.

Ginny blushed. “Everyone knows about your scar,” she said. “I just wondered if it was really there and what it felt like and… you know.”

Holly hesitated, but only for a moment. A slight thrilling sensation rose in her stomach when she thought about how Aunt Petuna would go spare if she knew about this. She quickly pulled up her shirt to give the girl a peek at her bare belly.

It’s really there… like a lightning bolt,” said Ginny, awed. “Does it hurt?”

“It doesn’t really do anything,” said Holly. “I don’t even remember how I got it. I think I was asleep when it happened,” she added, thinking back on Mr Dumbledore’s story.

“I know how you got it!” said the girl helpfully. “It was Tom Riddle –”

“Ginny!” The stern voice came from one of the Weasley mothers, whom Holly had forgotten the name of. “Did you forget what we talked about?”

As Holly quickly pulled her shirt back down, Ginny gave her coven-mother an innocent look. “No, Mandy-Mum, I haven’t.”

“Well, then, don’t bother Holly with all this!”

Holly wanted to say that Ginny wasn’t bothering her, but at that point there was a bit of a stir at the other end of the room. Holly looked up just in time to see Dean hurrying out of the door. Several of the others turned to look as well, most of them with puzzled expressions.

“’Ere now, where’s he goin’?” said Hagrid.

“He said he needed the toilet,” said Hermione with a small frown.

“Ah… tha’s all right, then. Does he know where it is?”

“I don’t know,” said Hermione. “It’s odd, though… he looked upset. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him upset. He’s usually so calm…”

“He was talking to Ellie,” said Ronnie. She turned to look at her sister. “What did you say to him?”

“I… nothing, really.” Ellie bit her lip.


“I just told him that, you know, if the Ministry decided to take him away from his Muggle family, he could come and live with us.”

“Take him away from his Muggle family?!” Hermione exclaimed, alarmed.

“I was joking!” said Ellie defensively. “Mostly.”


“But then he didn’t know what I was talking about, so… everyone knows the story about Tom Riddle, right? I thought he knew it too! So I told him…”

“Elaine,” said Arthur. “You didn’t tell him about Tom Riddle, did you?”

Ellie squirmed. “No. Yes. A bit.”

There was a collective groan. “That was horribly thoughtless of you,” Arthur sighed. “Didn’t it occur to you at all that he might take it the wrong way?”

“Well, it did when he ran out the door…”

“Ruddy…!” Hagrid was over at the door in two long strides. “I’ll go after ‘im, make sure he don’ do anything stupid. You lot stay here, I’ll be back in a mo’!” 

He rushed out the door. Alice and Frankie looked at each other, nodded, and hurried out after him. The door closed behind them.

For a brief moment, the room was deathly quiet. Everyone was staring at Ellie, expressions varying from shocked to outraged to disbelieving. Only Hermione looked confused – which Holly was secretly grateful for, since that meant she wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand what had just happened.

“Excuse me,” said Hermione, clearly trying to keep her voice steady. “Hello? Would anyone mind explaining what’s going on to those of us who haven’t grown up with tales of Tom Riddle the Terrorist? What does he have to do with Dean? And more importantly, what does he have to do with you taking Dean away from his family?”

There was another silence, this one more awkward. Finally, Arthur, who seemed to notice that nobody else was leaping for the chance to explain, said: “Well, nothing directly. It’s just that he grew up in the Muggle world.”

“So?” said Hermione. “Holly and I did too!”

“Yes, but it’s not quite the same for girls,” said Arthur. “Muggle-born girls aren’t common, but they’re not unheard of. When it comes to Muggle-born boys, though… here in Britain, at least, we’ve only had one of them before.”

“Oh!” Something clicked in Holly’s head. “Tom Riddle was Muggle-born! That’s why Molly and Hagrid didn’t want me to tell anyone that Dean was too! If they found out, they’d think Dean was a terrorist!”

“That’s… one reason, yes,” said Molly carefully. “But it wasn’t the main one.”

“Well, what, then?!” Hermione’s patience was clearly running out.

The Weasleys all looked at one another. This time, it was Mandy who spoke up. “Try to imagine this,” she said. “The Accidental Magical Reversal Squad goes out on what they think is a routine mission to a Muggle orphanage. Some Muggle-born orphan has caused a bit of a commotion, and they’re going down to reverse the magic, give the Muggle-born the standard ‘you’re a witch’ talk… but when they arrive at the orphanage they find out that the Muggle-born is a young boy. There has never been a documented case of a Muggle-born boy in Great Britain, and yet here one is. How do you think they react?”

“Er,” said Holly, a little surprised at the question, but trying to think about it. “I suppose they were very… surprised?”

“Surprised doesn’t begin to cover it,” said Mandy. “They encountered something they hadn’t seen before – a young wizard who wasn’t growing up in the safety of a coven – and they panicked. Without even pausing to consider whether they were doing the right thing, they took the boy from the orphanage and had him adopted by a coven. For good measure, they erased the memories of the staff and the other orphans so that nobody would remember he had even been there.”

“Erase their memories?” Holly repeated. “But… they were Muggles! Mr Dumbledore said we shouldn’t use magic on Muggles unless it was an emergency!”

“And he’s right,” said Mandy. “But we are supposed to keep magic a secret from the Muggles. Sometimes needs must. I know it seems cruel, but sometimes erasing the occasional memory is the only way.”

“But…” said Holly helplessly. And realized she didn’t know what else to say. She herself probably wouldn’t have minded being taken away from the Dursleys, and Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon might not even have minded forgetting that she existed… but then, she thought about Dudley and how he really did seem to be doing better lately. If his memories were erased, wouldn’t he just go back to the mean and obnoxious bully he used to be? Was that even fair?

“So you’re not only going to take him away from his parents, you’re going to erase their memories about him!” said Hermione, her voice shrill.

“Calm, calm,” said Mandy. “It won’t come to that. I was Muggle-born myself. We have a plan – well, Dumbledore has a plan. We were going to go through it when he arrived.” She gave Ellie a stern look. “We’re going to have a little talk about this when we come home.”

“But Mandy-Mum…” Ellie pleaded.

“But me no buts! Let’s just hope that the poor boy doesn’t get into any trouble before Hagrid, Alice and Frankie find him.”

Dean knew as soon as he exited the tea house that he’d done something phenomenally stupid.

He was an eight year old boy, alone in a district where boys weren’t supposed to be wandering around alone. Anyone who saw him would take an immediate interest in him – not to mention, they were all witches with magical powers. All he could do was put people to sleep… and he already knew from experience that he wouldn’t be able to do it to an adult witch. Much less an entire district of them. What exactly did he think he could do?

But he had to do something. Being a wizard sounded awesome, even with that entire bothersome “you have to marry several women when you’re grown up” thing… that was so far in the future it didn’t even seem real. But if it was going to put his family in danger, he wanted no part of it.

His parents, his sisters. They were going to have their memories erased, because of him. He had to at least warn them. He felt a little bad for abandoning Hermione and Holly… but they’d be all right. They were girls, after all.

Of course, he didn’t have any money. But he was in London. He knew how to get around, even if he usually wasn’t on his own this far from home. He felt certain, though, that if he could get out of the witching district and back to Charing Cross Road, he could make it home to West Ham from there – sneak onto the underground, maybe – and then he could wait for his parents to come home from work. And then… he’d have to see what he’d do then. They were going to be surprised to see him home from camp a week early, they probably wouldn’t believe him when he told them about the witches… but he had to try.

There weren’t that many people about at the moment… a few witches were looking in the shop windows, and a couple of them were relaxing by the fountain, but nobody seemed to have noticed him yet.

If he avoided going straight across Hexagon Square and instead stuck to the edges, he wouldn’t be as visible.

He steeled himself and began a brisk walk (don’t run, that’ll just call more attention to you!) towards Diagon Alley, past the many shops surrounding the square.

Florencia’s Ice Cream Parlour, Sugarplum Sweet Shop, Fakery Bakery, Friendly Carnivore Meat Market, Succubus’s Delight… this last shop had black windows that were impossible to see though, and  — of all the bad luck — just as Dean went past it, the door opened and an alarmingly familiar woman stepped out.

“Well, now, what have we here? A young man, braving the witching district all on his own?” The woman stepped out and blocked his path. Her gold dress gleamed in the sunlight. “Did you run away from the Weasleys, boy?”

“Er.” Dean took a step back, at a loss for words.

“We didn’t get to talk at all earlier. In case you forgot, my name is Narcissa. Narcissa Malfoy of the Black line.”

“Right… um… Dracaena’s mother.”

“Birth mother, my dear. Were you looking for Dracaena?”

“Er, no – sorry, I’m in a hurry.”

“Don’t say another word. Those Weasleys can be so uncouth. I don’t blame you for wanting to get away from them. Come on, you can hide from them in here.”

And before he even knew what was happening, she had grabbed him by the hand and pulled him into the shop.

The interior of the shop was dominated by black and pink. Black walls, dark pink ceiling, black and white checkered floor, shelves and highlights in various shades of pink. On display all around were various pieces of cosmetics and lingerie… and a mannequin that looked disturbingly like Narcissa (same skin tone, same hair, even same build and features) posing in a see-through lacy bodysuit that left very little to the imagination. Dean hurriedly looked away.

Narcissa smiled at him. It was a friendly smile – but there was something about it that Dean didn’t like. “Oh, don’t mind the mannequin,” she said sweetly. “I just wanted to see what I’d look like in that get-up. You’re right, it’s not quite me. Thank you, that’ll be all.”

These last words were apparently directed at the mannequin, because it immediately shifted and turned into a blank, pure white, featureless doll, bodysuit and hair gone.

“Now, you’re a little young to be in this shop, so let’s just stay here by the entrance and not make too much noise,” said Narcissa. “Don’t worry, the windows are enchanted so that nobody can see us from the outside… and the shopkeeper won’t bother us as long as we don’t go further into the shop. I am one of the main investors in this place, after all.”

Dean looked out the window. From the outside it had been impossible to see through; from the inside he had a perfect view of Hexagon Square. And there he saw Hagrid, accompanied by two of the Weasley mothers, all three of them looking around.

What was he going to do? He could run out of the shop and join them, but then all chances of getting home to warn his family would be lost – they’d never let him out of their sight again. On the other hand, if he stayed here he was stuck with Narcissa, who was really starting to freak him out.

“Now… Dean, was it?” said Narcissa. “I didn’t catch your coven name. You’re not with the Weasleys, and you’re obviously not a Potter… James died long before he could have a son. So, who’s your coven?”

“Er – My name is Dean Thomas.” At the moment, Dean couldn’t think of any other different surnames than ‘Smith,’ and he had a feeling Narcissa wouldn’t have bought that.

“Thomas? I don’t believe I know the coven.”

“We’re from overseas.” Dean was impressed at how easy the lie came out. “Just visiting!”

“Really? You speak with such a marked London accent. I was certain you must be a local… hard though it is to accept the possibility that there’s a wizard my own daughter’s age around that I didn’t know about.”

“My mother – my birth mother was a Muggle-born from London.” Dean cast a nervous glance out the window. He couldn’t see Hagrid or the Weasleys anymore. “That’s why we’re visiting, to see where she grew up. Now, er, I’m really in a hurry, so –”

“Oh, you’re not in such a hurry that you can’t have a civil conversation.” Narcissa’s voice was gentle, but there was a core of steel there; this wasn’t the tone of someone who tolerated excuses or contradictions. “If what you’re saying is true, then I’ll be more than happy to escort you back to your coven… but there are a few questions I really need you to answer first.”

Dean acted on pure instinct. He pulled his foot back as if he was going to kick her – and when she reflexively pulled back, he tore the door open and stormed out into the sunlight.

He almost collided with a man in a colourful outfit, who had to take a step back to avoid being run down.

“Oh – Dean,” said the man, surprisingly unshaken after the almost-collision. “It’s Dean, isn’t it? I just ran into Hagrid, he was looking for you.”

“Um –” Once again, Dean was at a loss for words.

“Dumbledore!” Narcissa was standing in the doorway. Her pretty face had taken on an almost ugly quality.

Dumbledore, Dean thought. So this was the famous Mr Dumbledore – Holly’s Mr Dumbledore, the one that everyone kept talking about. Apart from the colourful outfit, he didn’t look particularly impressive.

“Ah, hello, Narcissa,” Mr Dumbledore said politely.

Narcissa sneered, but spoke in a calm and almost pleasant tone: “Do you know this young man? If so, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that I find him running around all alone with no adult supervision… not even a sister or two to keep an eye on him.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure yet,” said Mr Dumbledore. “But I was on my way to meet him, so – happy coincidence that we should bump into one another.” He smiled at Dean. “Oh, I do beg your pardon. Albus Dumbledore, at your service.” He held out a hand for Dean to shake.

A little confused, Dean took it.

“So, what is your connection with this boy, Dumbledore?” said Narcissa. Her eyes narrowed in suspicioun. “Dean, my dear… I would be careful about trusting that man if I were you. Albus Dumbledore isn’t exactly what we call respectable. He’s a dangerous influence.”

“There are those who call me that,” said Mr Dumbledore calmly. “I prefer to think of myself as someone who encourages people to think for themselves rather than get too hung up in what’s respectable and what isn’t. But since you ask… young Dean here is part of a new program I’m involved with. We’re hoping to rekindle the old apprenticeship tradition.”

“Er –” Dean was starting to feel like he’d been shoved into some sort of stage play and was the only one who didn’t have the script. What were they talking about?

“Apprenticeship?” Narcissa repeated, and then laughed. It wasn’t a nice laugh. “Dumbledore, do you honestly think the Ministry would allow you – you, of all wizards – to take an apprentice?”

“Probably not,” said Mr Dumbledore. “As you say, I’m hardly what you call respectable. However, my old friend Nicolas is quite respectable – and he’s old enough that he’s had apprentices before. He’s quite ready to take on a new one.  Oh, by the way, while I remember  – your sister Bellatrix. Did you know she was back in the country?”

Narcissa hesitated, but only for a moment. Then, the world’s fakest smile spread on her lips. “Why, Dumbledore,” she said. “Bella’s a wanted fugitive. If I had any idea of where she was, don’t you think I would have done my duty as a good citizen and reported it to the Aurors?”

“You haven’t heard from her, then?”

“I haven’t had so much as an owl post.”

“In that case, I’ll be sure to give her your love the next time I see her.” Mr Dumbledore smiled brilliantly. “Oh – and here comes Hagrid, along with Alice and Francine. If you don’t trust me with the boy, Narcissa, I trust you have no objections if two Aurors are also present? ”

Narcissa looked at the approaching trio. “I’m not sure if I trust any Weasleys with a boy,” she said, though her voice had lost a lot of its strength. “After what they did to their own son…”

“Their daughter is much happier now, Narcissa, and that’s all that should matter,” said Dumbledore.

“I’m only looking out for the boy’s wellbeing, Dumbledore.”

“Oh, I have no doubt. And I suppose you could tell me why you would drag a young boy like Dean into a place like Succubus’s Delight? I was under the impression that children weren’t allowed in that shop.”

“I…” Narcissa hesitated again. “You must be mistaken, I didn’t drag him…”

“Really? My mistake, then,” said Dumbledore. “Ah, Hagrid. And Alice and Francine. As you can see, Dean has been found.”

There was a slam of the door as Narcissa apparently decided to retreat into the shop.

“Are yeh all right?” Hagrid hurried over to Dean. “Look, abou’ what Ellie said – it’s not like that, we’re not goin’ ter – we had a plan – ”

“What did Narcissa want?” said Francine, looking at the closed door.

“She… I’m not sure,” said Dean. “She asked me about my coven, and… Never mind that!” he snapped as he remembered why he had been in that situation in the first place. “You didn’t tell me you were going to take me away from my family! And erase their memories of me!”

“Because we’re not going to do that,” said Alice soothingly. “I get that you’re worried about your family, Dean, but you don’t have the whole story.”

“What is the whole story?” Dean asked, not quite ready to trust her just yet.

“Well – it’s true that Tom Riddle was discovered living in the Muggle world, and that the Ministry panicked and took him to be adopted by a coven,” said Alice. “But Tom Riddle lived in an orphanage. You have a family. It’s not the same. Nobody would want to –”

“Be honest with the boy, my love,” said Frankie. She placed an arm around Alice’s waist and gave her a one-armed hug. “The truth is, Dean, there are plenty of people in the Ministry who would take you away from your Muggle family. You’re a boy, and that means you’re valuable. Too many witches don’t trust Muggles with anything, or anyone, of value. It’s stupid, I know, and if I could change their minds, I would… but since I can’t, we’ll have to do the next best thing.”

“We – we had a plan,” said Alice. “That is, Dumbledore had a plan. I — I don’t think we can get Ministry to agree to let you grow up with your Muggle family, at least not unsupervised… the culture shock is bad enough for Muggle-born girls, but for a boy… you haven’t begun to see the witching world, you don’t know what the social expectations are…”

“Perhaps I should take over,” said Mr Dumbledore. “I have been in touch with my old friend Nicolas Flamel, and if you agree to it, he would be happy to take you on as his apprentice – at least until you’re old enough for Hogwarts.”

“Okay,” said Dean. “Just… one question. What’s an apprentice?”

“In general, it’s someone who learns a trade from an employer,” said Mr Dumbledore. “In this instance though, it’s more like a personal student. We will have to talk to your parents about all this, but I believe we can arrange it so that you won’t have to leave your family. This is probably not the place to talk about it, though….” He looked around. “Would you be willing to come back to Madame Rosa’s with us and hear us out? I did promise Holly I would be there for her birthday party, and I’m already dreadfully late.”

“Mmm…” Dean wasn’t a hundred percent sure if he really should trust any of this. But it didn’t seem like he had any alternatives. If Mr Dumbledore really was sincere, and he certainly seemed a lot more sincere than Narcissa had, then going along with him might be the best bet. “All right then.”

“Oh!” said Hagrid. “Before we do, can we make a quick detour? I wan’ ter get Holly her birthday present. I know jus’ what ter get her!”

Chapter 11: Bigots and Bargains

In which both Holly and Albus learn something unexpected.

“…okay, I think I’ve got it,” said Hermione. “You don’t have surnames as we know them in the Muggle world. You have a coven name, and a line name. And when you’re young, you get the coven name from your father and the line name from your mother.”

Birth mother,” Ronnie corrected her.

“Oh yes, birth mother. And that’s why you’re ‘Veronica Weasley of the Prewett line’, but your new baby sister ‘Dahlia Weasley of the…’ um… ‘of the’…”

“Of the Ziegler line,” said Ronnie helpfully. “Ow! Molly-Mum, don’t pull so hard!”

“I’m just fixing your ponytail,” said Molly. “Honestly, we need to get more of that hair potion for you. Your hair’s quite unmanageable without it. I’m tempted to just give you a short haircut.”

“How about we just shave me bald and be done with it,” Ronnie grumbled. “I’m sure Flora-Mum would lend me one of her wigs.”

They were all standing on a street corner while Molly was fixing up Ronnie’s hair. Holly had discovered soon enough that while her own silky black hair was super easy to manage and probably was a sign of her magical heritage, not all witches were as lucky as her when it came to hair. If anything, Ronnie’s hair was the opposite; that wild red mane turned into a tangled mess if anyone so much as looked at it.

“So,” said Hermione, who was still trying to grasp the witching family situation. “Since my surname is ‘Granger’ but my mother’s maiden name was ‘Puckle,’ would that make me… ‘Hermione Granger of the Puckle line’?”

“You could call yourself that if you wanted to,” said Molly. “But to be honest, most Muggle-borns don’t bother with the line names, at least not when they’re young. My coven-wife Mandy just went by ‘Mandy Henderson’ before she joined our coven and became a Weasley.”

“What about me?” said Dean. “My biological Dad died when I was a baby, and the man I call ‘Dad’ now is really my step-father… whose name do I take?”

“You can just be Dean Thomas,” said Ronnie. “Line names are for girls, not for boys!”

“How come?” said Hermione curiously.

“Well, because… because girls join covens and boys start them!” said Ronnie triumphantly. “But when I grow up and join a coven, whatever it is, I’ll have to change my name to ‘Veronica Whatever of the Weasley line’…”

Holly looked at her. “You want to join a coven?”

“Er.” Ronnie blinked and seemed a little taken aback. “I suppose? I mean… everybody joins a coven when they’re old enough, right?”

“Not everybody, dear,” said Molly. “Plenty of witches don’t join covens. You remember Hortense Slughorn of the Bulstrode line, don’t you? She’s not in a coven!”

“Oh… yeah.”

Molly turned to the other children. “Ronnie’s explanation is a little simplified,” she said. “But I wouldn’t worry too much about it yet, if I were you. You’re all much too young to think about that sort of thing. Legally, you can’t join a coven until you’re eighteen. There, Ronnie, I think we’re good to go.” She finally let go of her daughter’s hair. “How are we for time, Hagrid?”

Hagrid, who had been standing beside her, pulled a gigantic pocket-watch out of his coat pocket. “Ah, blimey!” he said. “S’a good thing yeh asked. We’re s’posed ter be at Rosa’s in ten minutes!”

“What about Mr Dumbledore?” said Holly. “Will he be there too?”

“Hope so, unless those dwarfs are keepin’ him,” said Hagrid. “How’re yeh likin’ the witchin’ district so far, Holly?”

“I love it!” she said earnestly.

The last couple of hours had been magical. The witching district was so full of amazing things, incredible shops and fascinating people that it was hard to decide what to gawk at first.

Ronnie had been very enthusiastic about showing them all a shop called Quality Quidditch Supplies, which sold those amazing flying broomsticks, as well as all sorts of gear and special balls for use in a witch sport called Quidditch, which was played up in the air on broomsticks. Holly had never liked PE at school, but she suspected if they’d played Quidditch instead of dodgeball or football, she’d have been far more into it.

Hermione had liked the book shops the best, particularly the oldest and largest one, which was called Flourish & Blotts (est. 1654), and which seemed to have every single book ever written on anything even slightly magical. It was only with great reluctance and a resolve to return later that Hermione let herself be dragged away from the shop in the end, and Holly got the distinct impression that if she’d been allowed, the girl would have set up camp inside the shop and stayed there for days.

Dean had immediately fallen for the Animated Art Canvas, with art supplies and drawing tools both magic and mundane. Paints and canvases and pencils that were enchanted so that everything you drew with them would come to life, instruction books on how to draw dragons and nymphs, and several paintings which – just like the photographs in The Quibbler – moved around freely and seemed to be fully sentient.

Holly’s favourite had been the Magical Menagerie, the pet shop. There had been so many wonderful animals there; mostly cats and birds, but also some creatures Holly had never heard of before… like the Puffskeins, which were like adorable little balls of fluff that hummed pleasantly when they were cuddled, or the Kneazles, which were like oversized cats with plumed tails and extremely intelligent eyes.

But it was the snowy white owl that had stood out. It had sat majestically in its cage and looked at her with round, curious eyes. Holly had learned at school that despite what all the fairy tales and kids’ books said, real owls weren’t actually all that smart, but this particular owl seemed different. She got the feeling it liked her as much as she liked it.

It had been hard tearing herself away from the beautiful owl, but she knew all too well that Aunt Petunia had a very strict ‘no animals in the house’ policy.

Besides, she was starting to get tired and hungry, so it was a bit of a relief when Hagrid hurried them along on the short walk towards Hexagon Square and Rosa’s Tea House.

Hexagon Square turned out to be a large (and, to Holly’s great satisfaction, hexagonal) public square with several green trees surrounding a large fountain where the water changed colour every few seconds.

Several witches were gathered there, sitting around the fountain or walking in between the various shops surrounding the square… oh, wait, there was a wizard too.

Holly couldn’t help but stare a little. Apart from Hagrid and Dean, who had come there with her (and Gilderoy Lockhart, who had just been a photograph), this was the first man she had seen in the witching district. He was pretty handsome, with a clean-shaven, pointed face, and long, blond hair that flowed freely down his back… and his clothes were just ridiculous; they seemed to be made out of silver embroideries and nothing else, which made him gleam and glitter when he moved. It should have looked gaudy, but somehow he made it work.

He was accompanied by two women and one little girl, all of whom were blonde and wearing clothes that were similarly sparkling and glittering, in silver and gold. The two women were… well, they were gorgeous. Not impossibly beautiful like the nymphs, but stunning enough that model agencies would have fought over them. The little girl, who seemed to be around Holly’s age, wasn’t quite as gorgeous, but the golden dress she wore was extremely flattering.

“Ah, blimey,” said Hagrid as he saw them. “Typical that the Malfoys would be here.”

“Malfoys?” Holly and Dean chorused.

“Bugger,” said Ronnie. “Don’t look at them, maybe they won’t — Ugh, too late. Dracaena just spotted us.”

“Dracaena?” Dean repeated as the little girl motioned towards them. “That’s her name?”

“She didn’t choose it, dear,” said Molly in a hushed voice. “Everyone thought she was going to be born a boy, and they were going to name him Draco…”

“Draco?” Dean repeated, like an increasingly disbelieving echo. “That’s better?”

Molly never got to answer, because by now the group – the Malfoys – had begun moving towards them, with the girl – Dracaena – in the lead.

As they got closer, Holly saw to her amazement that Dracaena’s dress wasn’t only sparkling like gold, it was literally made out of large gold coins that had somehow been fastened together. You’d think a dress like that would be drafty and uncomfortable, not to mention heavy… but the girl was moving quite easily, even gracefully, speeding ahead of the adults.

“Hello there!” she said as she came closer. She clasped Ronnie’s hands and smiled sweetly – but Holly immediately saw that the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Ronnie, sweetie, how big you’ve grown!” Her smile turned slightly nastier. “I almost mistook you for that half-giant there. What is his name again? Hangry? Haggar?”

“That’s Hagrid,” said Ronnie hotly. “And unless you get your pampered arse away from us, I’m going to –”

“Ah, don’ pay her any attention,” Hagrid rumbled. “C’mon, we’re late.”

He began ushering them across the square, but Dracaena wasn’t one to let herself be dismissed just like that.

“And who’re you?” She batted her eyelashes coquettishly at Dean. “I thought I knew all the wizards around my age! I’m Dracaena Malfoy, of the Black line. I bet you’ve heard of me. Do you like my dress? It’s made from real Galleons. Fastened together by dwarfs and placed under charms to be as light and warm and comfortable to wear as real cloth. It cost a fortune to have it made – but that’s okay, because it is a fortune.”

“Er –” Dean looked rather flabbergasted at this.

“And these are your sisters?” Dracaena went on, looking at Holly and Hermione. “What are their names?”

“We can speak for ourselves!” said Hermione, annoyed. “And we’re not his –”

“And what are you doing with the Weasleys, of all people?” said Dracaena. “You really should look better after your brother. Everyone knows the Weasleys can’t be trusted with boys.

“What?!” Dean looked more confused than ever. “What are you talking about?”

“Just that if you want to stay a boy, you’d better stay away from the Weasleys,” said Dracaena. “They brainwash boys into thinking they’re girls, and then –”

“All right, that’s quite enough!” Molly snapped. She looked up at the three adult Malfoys. “Narcissa. Cordelia. Lucius. Will you please control your daughter?”

“Why, hello there, Molly dearest,” said one of the women. “Yes, it’s a pleasure to see you too. How is your darling family? We’re doing quite well, thank you ever so much for asking. Our other wives send their love, I’m sure. And how is your son these days”

Holly looked up at the adult Malfoys. The two women (Narcissa and Cordelia, apparently) were smiling sweetly, while the man (who had to be Lucius) was just watching the scene with reserved interest.

She knew this game all too well; this was the sort of game grown-ups played when they met someone they didn’t like. For some reason, you weren’t allowed to be rude to people you hated… the more you hated them, the more important it was to be polite to them to their face. At the same time, you had to make it clear that you didn’t actually mean any of the nice things you said to them. Aunt Petunia was a master of this game; when encountering neighbours she didn’t care for she could make “hello, how are you” sound like “I hate you, sod off and die” just with subtle changes in her tone of voice.

Molly, however, didn’t seem as good at this game. “My daughter is fine, thank you!” she snapped. “She has made her choice, and we support her!”

“Oh, I’m certain nobody here would ever imply that you didn’t do what you thought was best for your son,” said the first woman. “After all, he had to get his delusions from somewhere.”

“But now that the pleasantries are out of the way,” said the second woman, “aren’t you going to introduce us to these three darling children? Such a handsome young man,” she added with a glance at Dean. “Which coven do you come from, my dears?”

Hagrid, who seemed to sense just how uncomfortable the children were getting stepped up in front of them. “None o’ yer business,” he growled. “Now stop botherin’ them an’ move, before I pick y’ all up an’ throw yeh inter that fountain.”

Whether or not he really would have done it, Holly never knew, but the Malfoys did back off, the two women looking somewhat startled. “You wouldn’t dare,” one of them protested. “This dress is genuine Acromantula silk!”

“Wait.” The man – Lucius – who hadn’t spoken until now, was looking at Holly with icy grey eyes. “I admit I don’t know the other two,” he said, “but unless I’m very much mistaken here, this one doesn’t belong to any coven…. at least not yet.”

“This one?!” Holly repeated.

“You’re James Potter’s daughter, aren’t you? Holly, am I right?” Lucius’s voice was calm and collected, but his wives and daughter all gasped and turned to look at Holly.

“Oh, of course! I can’t believe I didn’t see that! My darling child, you look so much like your father!”

“Holly Potter of the Evans line! So sorry that I didn’t recognize you straight away!”

“We knew James from school – not well, since he was a few years younger than us, but oh, wasn’t he the charmer! Such a tragedy, what happened to him!”

“And his poor sisters, of course!”

“Sisters?! What sis–!”

“That’s quite enough of that!” Molly had apparently had enough. “Veronica, Holly, Hermione and Dean – say goodbye to the Malfoys! We’re late for our appointment!”

And without waiting for an answer, or give them the time to say goodbye like she’d told them to, she ushered the four children along, away from Dracaena and her family, and up towards the other end of Hexagon Square, with Hagrid bringing up the rear.

“How rude!” came Dracaena’s voice from behind them.

 “Don’t look back,” Molly told them. “I’m so sorry about this. Of all the people we could have met…!”

 “What was all that about?” demanded Hermione.

“It was about the Malfoys being bigots and dickheads, that’s what it was about!” said Ronnie hotly.

“I’d tell you to watch your language, young lady,” said Molly, “but in this case I can’t very well argue with you. Are you all right?” She looked at the children with concern.

“Er – yeah,” said Dean.

“It was the parents that frightened me,” said Hermione. “The girl was mostly just a younger and less aggressive Sirena, but the parents… They looked like you and Holly like…” She searched for words, gave up and then finished, rather lamely: “I think I get why witches don’t like to let their boys out in public.”

“Not everyone’s like that,” said Ronnie hurriedly. “Most people aren’t. It’s just the Malfoys, see? All money, no heart.” She lowered her voice. “Everybody knows they were with Tom Riddle back when he was alive, blowing up things and killing people. but when he died they pretended he’d mind-controlled them into doing it. And they weren’t thrown in jail because they bribed the judges…”

“Ronnie, dear…” said Molly. “What have I said about listening to gossip?”

“She’s right, I reckon,” said Hagrid. “Albus always suspected why they some down so hard on things that aren’ ‘traditional’ enough. Don’ wanna remind anyone that they used ter side with someone who was tryin’ ter bring the witchin’ world to its knees, to they jus’ go look at us, what good citizens we are, we jus’ hate an’ discriminate against all the right people…!”

“Even so…”

“You know what Frankie-Mum said?” Ronnie went on. “She said that it’s because of Tom Riddle they only ever managed to get one child! That’s why Dracaena has five mothers and no sisters! And it’s why they thought she’d be a boy, because there was some kind of a spell and –”

“Ronnie!” Molly finally snapped. “I don’t care what Frankie told you, you don’t repeat it outside the house!” She looked slightly pained as she turned to the other three. “I’m sorry, dears. We were going to explain everything more closely when we had a bit more time. This was just supposed to be an introduction to the witching world… a bit of a tour.”

“I didn’t get what they were talking about,” said Holly. “I didn’t know Ronnie had a brother. I didn’t know my father had sisters.”

“I don’t have a brother,” said Ronnie hotly. “Dracaena’s a bigot.”

“But –” Holly began.

“Oh, come on!” Hermione huffed. “Ronnie’s sister is obviously transgender! You’ve never heard of transgender people?”

“Er… I don’t think so,” said Holly.

“Oh.” Hermione seemed to deflate a bit, but then hurried to say: “Well, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Ronnie’s right when she says she doesn’t have a brother, and everyone who says differently… is stupid and wrong.”

“Exactly!” said Ronnie gratefully.

Holly wasn’t sure what had just happened between the two, or what it meant to be ‘transgender,’ but she decided to drop it for the moment and add it to the increasing list of ‘things I need to ask Lily about.’ (She slipped her hand down into her skirt pocket and touched the wand.) For the moment, though, there was another, more pressing question that demanded to be asked: “And what about my father’s sisters?”

“Ah… yeah, we were gettin’ to that,” said Hagrid. “Didn’ wanna overwhelm yeh, an’ on yer birthday an’ all.”

“So my father did have sisters? I have… I have aunts that are witches?” The concept seemed strange and almost alien to Holly. The word ‘aunt’ immediately brought the mental image of someone like Aunt Petinunia; harsh and strict and about as un-witchlike as you could get.

“Yer Dad had five sisters, actually,” said Hagrid, somewhat apologetically. “Like I said, we were gettin’ to it…”

“Five sisters?!”

“Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about this out in the open –” Molly began.

Five sisters?!” Holly repeated.

“Holly, y’gotta unnerstan’, the witchin’ world’s not like the Muggle one,” said Hagrid. “With the covens an’ all, only children aren’ really a thing. If yeh’re a witch-born an’ grow up in a coven, yeh have sisters! Usually many sisters!”

“Except Dracaena,” said Ronnie.

“Right, except her. S’not unusual for a coven ter have six kids, or more.”

“But I have five aunts that I never even knew about!” said Holly. “Five magical aunts. Why didn’t anyone tell me about them? Why didn’t they take me in instead of Aunt Petunia? Why…?” Her voice trailed off as one obvious reason presented itself to her. “…oh. It’s because they’re dead, isn’t it? I don’t have five magical aunts. I just have more dead relatives.”

Hagrid sighed. “Not all of ‘em are dead,” he said. “The three oldest sisters, Rose an’ Charissa an’ Violet, yeah… they were killed, along with their covens, by Riddle’s followers. The middle sister, Alexandra… I dunno what became of her. She went ter travel the world before you were born, an’ jus’ never returned. We haven’ been able ter find her. Maybe she’s alive, maybe not.”

“Oh.” Holly didn’t really know how to feel about this. She had a vague feelings she should probably be upset that three of her aunts were dead and one was missing, but… up until a few minutes ago she hadn’t even known they existed.  “What about the final one? What happened to her?”

“I really think we should do this inside,” Molly repeated, but nobody was paying attention to her. Holly, Ronnie, Hermione and Dean were all staring at Hagrid.

He took a deep breath. “Fine,” he said. “The final one, that’s James’s twin sister Lyra.”

“Twin sister?!”

“Yep. Ten minutes younger’n him, I think.” Hagrid looked miserable. “She’s alive, but… this was really summat I was hopin’ that we could talk about when Albus was here, he’s much better at this sorta thing…”

“Hagrid, please.”

“All right. She’s in jail. She and her entire coven. There was this business with a werewolf, an’… could we please talk about this later? I really think Albus should be the one tellin’ yeh about this.”

He looked so pleading that Holly didn’t have the heart to argue. She looked at Dean, Ronnie and Hermione, and then nodded. “All right, then.”

“Good,” said Molly with forced cheerfulness. “Now that that’s settled… shall we go in? We still have a birthday celebration waiting for us!”

They’d arrived at a cozy-looking little two-story building. Its walls were nearly completely covered in colourful flowers and plants, but the building itself (judging what little was visible of it) was made of pink stone. Two large windows on the front sported multicoloured glass which was hard to see through, and above a big red wooden door a sign welcomed you to MADAME ROSA’S TEA HOUSE in friendly golden letters.

Now Holly remembered that she was hungry. Birthday celebrations usually meant food. If Dudley’s birthday celebrations were anything to go by, they meant a lot of food.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go in!”

Knockturn Alley hadn’t changed much since last Albus had set foot in it. Perpetually dark and gloomy – the sun never reached down between the darkened buildings, which were standing so close together that a mouse would have problems wriggling in between them – and with a narrow, cobbled street twisting and zigzagging past ominous-looking doorways and shop windows with dubious-looking wares on display.

There wasn’t anyone else out and about. In Knockturn Alley, you didn’t walk the streets unless you absolutely had to.

“Never liked this place much,” Darach grumbled. “It’s dark in the wrong way. So, you think we’ll find Ulva Greyback here?”

“No,” said Albus. “But I do think we will see her.”

Darach groaned. “What is it with you private investigators and your cryptic answers? Would it kill you to give a straight answer every once in a while?”

Despite himself, Albus had to chuckle. “Forgive me, Darach. What I meant was that if I’m right about who we’re chasing, she is second only to Tom Riddle when it comes to staying hidden. If she was seen here in Knockturn Alley, it’s because she wanted to be seen.”  

“Awww…. Am I really that transparent?” The throaty half-whisper came from behind them without warning.

They spun around to see the speaker. She was a tall, slender woman with a wild and almost animal-like look about her; she was dressed in a hodgepodge mix of furs and leathers, her body sported several old scars, and her waist-length black hair that clearly hadn’t seen a comb in a while.

“And here I thought I was cultivating an air of mystery,” she said, pretending to wipe a tear from her cheek. “Nobody appreciates a good scary figure in the shadows anymore.”

“Ulva Greyback!” Before Albus could warn him, Darach drew his axe and charged at the woman, with a mighty blow that would surely have sliced her clean in two… if the weapon hadn’t just passed harmlessly through her body, as if it was only made out of thin air. Darach stumbled through her and almost lost his balance, but managed to stay on his feet.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” the woman laughed. “What a way for you to find out what Dumbledore meant. I’m not actually here, you see. Not anymore. It’s just a little trick I’ve picked up…”

“I see you haven’t changed much, Bellatrix,” said Albus calmly.

“Bellatrix,” she repeated mockingly. “Oh, I suppose you can call me that, for old times’ sake. Though I would really prefer ‘Ulva Greyback.’ It’s just a more fitting name for the Queen of the Werewolves, you know? So you finally figured out my clue?”

“The war isn’t so far in the past that I can’t remember that the Triggered Tearing Curse was one of your trademarks,” said Albus. “Add to it the rumours about werewolves in Knockturn Alley, it became fairly obvious. Really, Bellatrix… if you wanted my attention, there would be better ways than murdering an innocent dwarf.”

“Perhaps, but not as much fun,” said Bellatrix. “I’ve got to keep you on your toes, after all – “

“This is for Ragmar!” Darach yelled, swinging his axe at her again. Once more, it passed harmlessly through her.

“Oh, please, will you stop –” Bellatrix began, and cut herself off as Darach’s axe passed through her a third time. “Look, you idiot, this isn’t my corporeal form!” she snapped. “I’m not even here! You can’t harm me!”

“It’s a matter of – hnngh! – principle!” Darach swung his axe again.

 “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Bellatrix vanished. One moment later, she reappeared, hovering eight feet above the ground, too high for the dwarf to reach. “You really should learn to control your followers, Dumbledore. Aren’t you the least bit curious what I wanted to talk to you about?”

“I’m honestly more concerned that you committed murder in order to do it,” said Albus.

“And what were you planning on doing about it?” said Bellatrix smugly. “Blast me with sleeping spells and drag my helpless body to Azkaban? Even you can’t harm a soul projection. You might have been able to do something if you still had the Elder Wand…” Her smile turned cruel. “But you don’t have that anymore, do you? Lily’s brat has it.”

“I suppose the rumour was bound to spread eventually,” Albus sighed. “I had hoped she’d have a few more years before you and your ilk found out.”

“Does she even know what it is she’s carrying around?”

“Whether she does or not,” Albus replied, “as long as she has it she will be safe from you. For the same reason that I suspect that even with the Elder Wand I couldn’t have done anything against you. Or am I wrong when I say that you’re the one who has the Cloak?”

For the first time. Bellatrix looked taken aback. “I… How did you know that?”

“It didn’t take a genius to find out,” said Albus. “You were the only one of Tom’s followers that no one ever found. You’re not as good with the Cloak as he was, I’d say, but using it to stay hidden for seven years? That would be well within your capabilities. So, that seems to be two out of three Hallows accounted for… the only question now is who has the Stone?”

“Hmmph.” Bellatrix crossed her arms. “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m only looking after the Cloak until the Master returns. He’s only biding his time, Dumbledore! But he’s patient, he can wait… and so can I!” Then, her expression softened. “Why did you ever fight against us, Dumbledore? You should have joined us. You still can, you know… I can’t get the Elder Wand from Lily’s brat, but you could. She’d probably give it to you. Then we could prepare for the Master’s return. Bring this fucking system to its knees once and for all. Torch everything and form something new and better out of the ashes!”

“Tempting as you make it sound, I’m going to have to decline,” Albus replied. “What can I say? Refusing to stoop to terrorism and mass murder has always been one of my more charming quirks.”

“Refusing to stand up for yourself, you mean!” Bellatrix snapped. “You don’t owe the witching world anything! They treat you like garbage!”

 “Well.” Albus pulled his wand out of his pocket and twirled it between his fingers. “That is the difference between us, Bellatrix. I don’t think you can save the world by destroying it.” He exchanged glances with Darach, who gave a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. “You’re right, the witching world is not too kind to people like us. But the solution is not to kill them all for it. I prefer to look for other ways. It’s amazing what you can do with a little creativity and cooperation.” He flicked his wand, and Darach shot up into the air.

“His name was Ragmar, you bitch!” the dwarf yelled and sliced at Bellatrix with his axe.

“What – are you mad?!” Bellatrix yelped as the axe once more passed harmlessly through her. “You know you can’t harm me!”

“No, but with any luck, maybe we can make you get to the point faster,” said Albus. “I doubt you went through all the trouble to get me here, just so you could try to recruit me with the same old speech as before. So what do you have to say, Bellatrix?”

“Fine, fine!” Bellatrix vanished again. Within moments she appeared right in front of Albus. “I want to make a bargain.”

“A bargain?” Albus lowered his wand so Darach could get down onto the ground again. “The Elder Wand is no longer mine to give. Even if it was, I wouldn’t have given it to you.”

“Not even if I gave you… Severina?”


Bellatrix must have heard the surprise in Albus’s voice, because her cruel smile reappeared. “Yes. You never did find out what happened to her, did you? She’s been with me this entire time. Not completely willingly, I’ll admit, but… she’s alive and well. Alive, at any rate.”

“I see.” Albus had to take a couple of deep breath to steady himself.

“I see?” Bellatrix repeated. “I tell you that I have a woman that the entire world thinks is dead – a woman who used to work for you, might I add – has been alive this entire time, and all you manage to say to that is ‘I see’?! You’re disappointing me here, Dumbledore!”

“Well…” Albus was used to keeping a cool demeanor even in situations where he rather would have started raging. “I would need some sort of confirmation that what you are telling me is true. For the moment, I only have your word.”

“Are you accusing me of lying?!” said Bellatrix, insulted.

“The thought had crossed my mind, yes.”

“Fine!” Bellatrix crossed her arms. “You want proof? I’m thinking of a cave, and if you’re half as clever as people say you are, you’ll know which one.”

“I think I have a fair idea.”

“Midnight tonight, then. Be there. Come alone, bring that dwarf, or bring that brute of a half-giant. I don’t care. You’ll have all the proof you need. I’ll show you Severina… and I’ll even have a few more surprises for you.” Her smile returned, smugger and more malicious than ever. “You’re going to beg me to trade the Elder Wand.”

Chapter 10: The Witching District

In which Holly is puzzled by magical pictures, Hermione does not stare at naked women, and Albus visits a mine.

“Almos’ there now,” said Hagrid. They had left the motorbike (now fully visible and firmly on the ground) at a motorbike parking bay, and were now walking down Charing Cross Road. It was a little crowded, but, thanks to Hagrid leading the way, people were giving them a wide berth. When Hagrid came walking down the pavement, people tended to be eager to give him space.

Holly, Ronnie, Dean and Hermione followed him closely, with Molly making up the rear to make certain nobody got lost. They had to walk rather briskly to keep up with Hagrid’s long steps, but they managed all right.

“Are you sure this is right?” said Hermione. She had woken up from her calm-weaved trance shortly after the motorbike had landed, and had seemed rather embarrassed about the entire ordeal. “I’ve been to Charing Cross Road with my parents lots of times, and I’ve never seen anything that looked like a witching district.”

“Ah, yeh wouldn’t,” said Hagrid. “Entrance to the District’s hidden, yeh won’ see it unless yeh know where ter look for it… ah, here we are!” he announced as they came to a halt.

Hermione blinked. “But… I’ve been to this book shop!” she said, looking at the large shop to her left, with all the books on display. “Several times! It’s a very nice book shop, they have quite a good selection of –”

“It’s not the book shop, dear,” said Molly. “There, next to it.”

The children looked… and there, nestled between the book shop and an almost as large record shop on the other side, was a small, darkly coloured, rather unimpressive-looking pub, which a grubby sign claimed was named The Leaky Cauldron. Holly couldn’t blame Hermione for not seeing it at first; she herself probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been pointed out to her. What’s more, she had a strange feeling that none of the people who bustled by could see it at all.

“We’re going to a pub?” said Dean.

“No, we’re going through a pub,” said Ronnie. “This is the way to the Witching District. It’s brilliant, you’ll love it!”

“Speaking of,” said Molly and looked sternly at Ronnie. “I hope you remember what we talked about, Veronica.”

“I won’t wander off on my own, I promise,” Ronnie sighed.

“All right then,” said Molly. “Come along, everybody!”

Holly had never been to a pub before, but she had seen enough television that she thought she knew approximately what to expect; lots of dark polished wood, a huge bar with hundreds of bottles stacked up behind it, and a lot of men sitting around, wearing tweed caps and drinking beer.

As she stepped inside just behind Ronnie, she found that The Leaky Cauldron at least partly met her expectations… there was indeed a huge bar and too many bottles to count, and both the bar and the tables placed around the barroom were dark polished wood. The slightly dimmed lights and shabby-looking walls also seemed to give off the right mood for what she thought of as a pub… but of course, there weren’t any men here, with or without tweed caps. Instead, the people who were seated by the bar and tables were all women… or rather, they were all witches.

Holly spent a fascinated few seconds taking in their appearances. The witches she’d caught glimpses of in Privet Drive when they were visiting Mr Dumbledore had mostly been dressed in Holly had thought was outrageous clothing… but leather corsets and tunics made out of leaves was nothing compared to what the witches wore here. Dresses that were clearly made out of paper, skin-tight black jumpsuits that only covered the left side of the body but left the right side bare, oversized hats that doubled as birdcages (with two real live canaries inside!)… one witch even had a shirt with a picture of her own face on it, a face that mimicked the movements and expressions on the woman’s real face exactly and created a somewhat disturbing confusion as to which face you were supposed to make eye contact with.

All the witches looked up as Hagrid entered. He’d had to crouch down in order to get through the door, but luckily the ceiling inside was tall enough that he could stand upright.  

“Mornin’, all,” he said, nodding to several of the witches. “Don’ mind us, jus’ passin’ through.”

“Hagrid,” a woman greeted; Holly guessed she had to be the barmaid. She didn’t seem overly thrilled to see Hagrid, but she looked curiously at Dean, Hermione and Holly. “Not stoppin’ fo’ a drink, then?”

“Not today, Tanya,” said Hagrid. “Meetin’ Albus out in Diagon Alley.”

“Ah, well, he came throo here earlier,” said the barmaid, whose name was apparently Tanya, with a dismissive shrug. “Nar na time fo’ a drink. Both of ye… always in sich a hurry. Ye should learn tuh relax more.” She looked back at Holly, Dean and Hermione. “And who are the bairns? The redheed, I’ve seen around a few times, but these three are new.”

“Oh, we’re nobody,” said Dean hurriedly. “Just visiting.”

“Naebody?” Tanya repeated. “Well, I find that hard tuh believe. Handsome young bloke like yersel’. What coven are ye from?”

“We’re not –” Holly began, but was interrupted by Molly, who placed a hand on her shoulder.

“We really don’t have time to chat, dear,” she said, before she gently, but firmly began leading Holly through the room and towards the back door.

Confused at the sudden hurry, but deciding it was probably a good idea to play along, Holly tried to ignore the looks she was getting from several of the patrons as she was ushered out.

The back door led to what turned out to be a fairly large, but otherwise pretty unimpressive walled courtyard. There was a cobblestone ground, high brick walls, a couple of rubbish bins and a few sorry-looking potted plants that some witch had probably put there in the hope of making the place seem more welcoming.  

Molly gathered the four children in the centre of the courtyard and seemed to take a millisecond counting them to make certain they were all there. Then she looked to Holly and said, in a low voice: “I’m sorry, dear, I quite forgot to tell you this with everything that’s been going on… For now, we’re trying to keep it a secret that Dean is Muggle-born.”

Holly blinked. “Why? What’s wrong with being Muggle-born?”

“Nothing,” Molly assured her. “But Dean is a boy, and things are different for boys. Since boys are so rare in the witching world…” She paused, as if uncertain how to continue, and then finally settled on: “So let’s just try to keep it a secret for now, shall we?”

“Er… okay,” said Holly, a little nonplussed but starting to suspect that this was yet another ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’ situation. “But won’t people guess when they realize he’s never been to the witching district before?”

“That shouldn’ be a problem,” said Hagrid gruffly. “Some o’ the more ol’-fashioned covens hardly ever let their sons leave the house before they’re of Hogwarts age.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed, just slightly. “Why not?”

“Because they’re scared of their boys getting into danger, of course!” said Ronnie sweetly. “Can’t have those precious rare boys wandering around where anything might happen to them, can they?”

Molly sighed. “It’s a little more complicated than that,” she said. “But this is hardly the time to go into details. We can’t stay here all day.” She reached into her sleeve and pulled out what was unmistakably a wand.

Holly forgot her questions about boys and Muggle-borns, and looked at the new wand in fascination. It was the first real wand she had seen other than her own, and it looked very different: It was lighter in colour, a couple of inches shorter, and where Holly’s wand had those characteristic knots and bumps on it, this wand was perfectly straight apart from an elaborately-carved handle.  

Molly lifted it up towards the brick wall and lightly tapped one of the bricks. Immediately, the brick vanished, leaving a hole in the wall… a hole which rapidly grew larger as more bricks shifted and faded away. Like a weird mix of a sliding puzzle and an automatic door, the wall parted to form an archway so large that even Hagrid would be able to walk upright through it.

And on the other side of the archway… was an entirely different world. There was no other way to describe it. What looked like a small village was stretching out in front of them, with a plethora of varied and colourful buildings, several of them so tall that they couldn’t possibly have been hidden from outside view.  Through the buildings, a wide but extremely crooked cobbled street twisted and zig-zagged as if whoever had designed the place had decided that walking in a straight line for more than a few metres at a time would be too boring.

All around were women – women of all shapes and sizes, dressed in outrageous clothes, or relatively normal-looking clothes – walking up and down the streets, moving from building to building or just standing around chatting; three women were riding on flying broomsticks, zooming through the air and landing on the roof of one of the buildings, where a flock of birds were startled and flew off.

“Well,” said Hagrid. “Welcome to the witching district! This here’s Diagon Alley, it’s the main street.”

“It’s amazing!” Holly wanted nothing more than to run down the street and immediately lose herself between all the shops and people and buildings, but she dutifully kept to the group as they began walking down the street, at a complete loss as to which direction she should look in.

Dean and Hermione looked just as awed as Holly felt, but Ronnie was taking it all in stride; she was clearly used to this place and was chatting up a storm as she pointed out all the various building and places.

Most of the buildings at Diagon Alley seemed to be shops. There were apothecaries where bubbling potions were on display in the windows. There were shops selling clothes, advertising “cobweb dresses, made from genuine Acromantula webs.” There were shops selling cauldrons and telescopes in all shapes and sizes. There were shops selling broomsticks, outside of which a group of teenage girls were having a lively discussion about whether the “Nimbus” or the “Cleansweep” was the best one.

One building had the name “The Quibbler” proudly displayed over it in large, multicoloured letters, and a glass showcase in which you could view the pages of today’s newspaper, evidently named The Quibbler.

Hagrid stopped for a moment by the showcase. “Can yeh hol’ on fer a few secs?,” he said. “Won’ be a moment. I didn’ have the time ter read the paper this mornin’, jus’ want to see the headlines, if anythin’ important’s goin’ on.”

“I do miss The Daily Prophet,” Molly sighed, looking over the newspaper pages on display. “The Lovegoods are wonderful people, but their approach to news is so… sensationalist.”

“Ah, Prophet was nothin’ more than a propaganda rag at the end,” Hagrid rumbled. “Leastways the Lovegoods don’ start hate campaigns agains’ people what are different.” He leaned down to look at the headlines. “Don’ seem like there’s much happenin’… oh, wait, they chose a new head o’ Merlin.”

Holly didn’t know what a “head of Merlin” was, but from context it sounded like a title or a job of some sort. Wait, hadn’t Ronnie said something about a “Merlin house” at Hogwarts? If there were different school houses, maybe each house had their own head teacher, someone who was responsible for the students at that particular house. Yes, that made sense.

She peered curiously at the paper… The Quibbler seemed to be quite the colourful newspaper, with bold headlines and large pictures, more The Sun than The Times. There were headlines like “ENTIRE MUGGLE SCHOOL PUT TO SLEEP; MINISTRY CLAIMS ACCIDENT” and “GILDEROY LOCKHART CHOSEN AS THE NEW HEAD OF MERLIN HOUSE – MINISTRY OFFICIAL TRANSFORMED INTO NEWT AS STUDENTS PROTEST DEPARTURE OF FILIUS FLITWICK.”

It definitely seemed like the witching world had more interesting news than the Muggle world. But even more interesting was the fact that the colourful photographs on the displayed pages seemed to be moving; she could have sworn that the picture of the handsome man under the GILDEROY LOCKHART headline made eye contact with her and gave her a roguish wink…

“Ronnie,” said Holly, grabbing the girl’s shoulder. “That picture is looking at me.”

“What?” Ronnie turned to look at the picture. “Oh, don’t mind him. Hey, you! Anyone ever tell you how handsome the back of your head looks?”

The man in the picture looked flattered, and immediately turned around to display the back of his head.

“Good,” said Ronnie. “Stay like that for a bit so we can admire the back of your neck, will you? There,” she said to Holly. “He’s not looking at you anymore.”

Holly opened and closed her mouth a couple of times as words utterly failed to escape. Finally, she managed: “Are all witch photos like that?!”

“Like what?” Ronnie looked puzzled.

Before Holly could decide on what to say, Hermione’s voice sounded: “Why’s there a ruin in the middle of the street?”

“That’s not a ruin, it’s a grove,” said Dean. “See all the trees?”

“Yes, but they’re growing on top of what’s obviously a ruin,” said Hermione. “White stone, see?”

Holly looked up ahead to see that the cobbled street parted to go around a cluster of tall, green trees… which, just as Hermione said, were growing on top of a ruin of white stone.  Parts of the ruin was covered in grass and colourful flowers, and Holly thought she could see some movement in between the trees…

“Oh, that’s Gringotts Grove,” said Ronnie. “It’s been like that since before I was born. Building used to be a bank, but the goblins blew it up.”

“Goblins?!” Dean and Hermione chorused.

“Yeah,” said Ronnie, as if this was a completely normal piece of information. “They used to run the bank, but then they joined Tom Riddle and blew the entire thing to bits. Lots of covens lost all their money. Now the dwarfs have taken over the job as bankers. Frankie-Mum says she misses the goblins ’cause they were more effective, but at least the dwarfs never blew up anything.”

“Goblins used to run the bank, and now dwarfs run it,” Hermione repeated, her tone somewhere between amazement and disbelief. “Goblins and dwarfs. Like in The Hobbit.”

“Er, maybe?” said Ronnie. “What’s a hobbit?”

“It’s a book I… never mind,” said Hermione.

“There are a lot more than goblins and dwarfs around,” said Holly, eager to share the meagre knowledge she had. “Mr Dumbledore told me about them… Centaurs and giants and elves and something called a Veela, and I saw a nymph today… I’m seeing one now!” she interrupted herself.

Newspaper, ruin and even goblins momentarily forgotten, the children looked up ahead. Between the trees of Gringotts Grove, the movement Holly had seen between the trees solidified and took on the shape of a woman, stepping out of the grove on bare feet. She was just as shapely and impossibly beautiful, and just as unselfconsciously naked, as the sky nymph Holly had seen earlier… but instead of the pale blue, her skin was mossy green, and the long hair that cascaded down her back looked almost like long, green leaves. She met their eyes, and then began waving, calling out something that Holly couldn’t hear, clearly trying to get their attention.

“She’s… naked,” said Hermione, unknowingly reflecting Holly’s immediate reaction to seeing a nymph for the first time. “Dean, don’t stare!”

“What?” said Dean. “I’m not staring, you’re staring!”

“I am not!” Hermione averted her eyes.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Ronnie, quite unconcerned. “That’s just Serissa, she’s supposed to be there. She tends to the trees and stuff. Hi, Serissa!” she called, waving back at the nymph.

Serissa smiled and called out again. This time Holly could hear her voice; it wasn’t very loud and had a curious undertone of rustling leaves… but she could just about make out the words “Over here!” Made a little more easily understandable by the fact that the nymph was also waving for them to come over to her.

Dean and Hermione looked a little uncertain about approaching a stark naked woman, but Hagrid who had finished browsing the headlines, spotted her and took the lead.

“All righ’ there, Serissa?” he said when they’d reached the grove. “Y’already know the Weasleys, but lemme introduce yeh to the other three: This is Dean, Hermione an’ –”

“Holly Potter of the Evans line,” said Serissa. Now that they were closer, the undertone of rustling leaves was clearer in her voice, bringing with it a sensation of a sunny summer day and a cooling breeze through the trees. She turned to Holly with a smile. “Of course. You’re early.”

“Er… early?” Holly repeated.

“Yes, I hadn’t expected to see you here at Gringotts Grove this soon,” said Serissa. “I’m glad to finally meet you, of course, but you’re not really supposed to enter the Grove before your eleventh birthday.”

“Is this some kind of destiny thing?” said Dean curiously. “Like, there was a prophecy that she would come here on her eleventh birthday, and then –”

Sarissa laughed, the feeling of sun and rustling leaves getting even more powerful. “No, nothing like that,” she said. “I just meant that there’s an age limit here. You’re not allowed inside the Grove until you’re eleven.”

“Oh.” Dean looked sheepish.

“Hagrid.” Serissa turned to him. “Albus said to tell you that he’ll be with you as soon as he can. He had to go down into the mines for a bit, but he trusted that you could show the children around the witching district in the meantime.”

“O’ course, but… he went down inter the mines?” Hagrid’s bushy eyebrows pulled downwards into a light frown. “Blimey, what’s goin’ on down there? The dwarfs don’ usually like ter have humans down in their mines unless it’s summat serious…”

“I don’t know,” Serissa admitted. “So it can’t be too close to the Grove. Probably miles underground.”

“Do you know everything that happens around the Grove?” Hermione’s curiosity had clearly overridden her awkwardness as talking to a naked lady.

“Yes,” said Serissa simply. “And most of the immediate surroundings. It’s why I’m here to begin with, to keep an eye on the witching district. I have a decent idea of what’s going on in Diagon Alley, Carkitt Market, Horizont Alley and Hexagon Square.  Can’t do Knockturn Alley, though…”

“But you shouldn’t go there anyway, don’t even think about it, Ronnie,” said Ronnie, in the tone of someone who’s heard this particular sentence one times too many.

“Well, yeh shouldn’t,” said Hagrid. “Not a safe place for children, Knockturn Alley, ‘specially righ’ now. Jus’ saw in the paper that there migh’ be werewolves there.”

“It’s not even noon yet!” Ronnie protested. “Everyone knows werewolves aren’t dangerous during the day!”

“These werewolves are,” said Hagrid darkly. “Ever heard of Ulva Greyback?”

Holly hadn’t, but apparently the name was familiar to Ronnie, who suddenly seemed to have gone a shade or two paler. “Oh,” was all she said.

“S’alright, if she is in Knockturn Alley, she’s not gonna leave it, not when she knows Serissa’s on the watch an’ every single witch in the district would try ter hex her on sight,” said Hagrid. “An’ even if she was stupid enough ter try, she’d have ter get past me if she wanted ter get to you kids. If she remembers our las’ dance, she’ll think more’n twice ‘fore takin’ me on again. Nah, I reckon, long as we don’ go anywhere near Knockturn Alley, we’ll be fine.”

“Just stay where we can see you, all right?” said Molly. “Now come along… we still haven’t seen anything. There’s plenty to see here without getting near dangerous places, and then there’s the birthday gathering down at Rosa’s afterwards!”

“Who’s Ulva Greyback?” Holly whispered to Ronnie as they said goodbye to Serissa and began moving past the grove and down the street. “And Rosa?”

“Rosa’s is just a tea house,” said Ronnie. “Ulva Greyback’s Queen of the Werewolves. Nobody knows what her real name is, but everyone knows she’s bloody insane. Likes to kidnap little girls, turn them into werewolves and make them her slaves. S’probably why she’s queen in the first place, she made so many slaves that she got too powerful for the other werewolves to oppose. Didn’t know Hagrid had fought her, though!”

“Was she… was she with Tom Riddle?” Holly asked, remembering that Mr Dumbledore had mentioned werewolves as having joined Riddle’s terrorist movement.

“I think so,” said Ronnie, a little uncertainly. “Molly-Mum, was Ulva Greyback –”

“Let’s save this discussion for later, Veronica,” said Molly firmly. “Come along now; Holly, Dean and Hermione have never seen the witching district before. Help us show them around.”

The light from Albus’s wand swiped over the dead dwarf, causing shadows to dance on the stiff, staring face as light fell on the gaping wounds and half-torn off limbs.

Albus had seen many unpleasant things in his life; several years of trying to oppose and fight the worst wizard terrorist of all times, and several more years of being the private investigator that was unofficially called for when a case got too messy for the proper authorities, had rather desensitized him when it came to seeing dead bodies… but it wasn’t often he saw a corpse this mutilated and bloody. Whoever the murderer was, they hadn’t been satisfied with just killing the dwarf, they must have spent some time mangling the corpse as if it had somehow offended them.

Frowning slightly to himself, Albus and turned to Darach, who was standing beside him.

Humans were seldom allowed this deep down into a dwarf mine other than in exceptional circumstances, and while Albus had built up enough trust with the dwarfish community that they would allow him to come down here and investigate, they still insisted that he had to be accompanied by a dwarf at all times. Darach had been quite polite when he met Albus down at the entrance, but it wasn’t hard to read the stress and worry on his face.

“Ragmar Blackstrand,” said Darach. “Decent lad, had been working for us for about five years. Skilled miner, didn’t have any enemies that I ever knew of.”

“And you found him like this?” said Albus.

“On my inspection rounds this morning,” said Darach. “And before you say anything, I know this looks like a werewolf attack.”

“On the surface, definitely,” said Albus. “Not many creatures are this savage. And It would fit the rumours that Ulva Greyback has been seen in Knockturn Alley.”

“But it wasn’t Ulva Greyback. It wasn’t a werewolf at all.” Darach went on. The tone in his voice dared Albus to contradict him.

“And you’re certain about this.”

“You know almost as much about dwarfish security as any dwarf. You know as well as I do that there has never been a werewolf in a dwarf mine. Not even when that bastard Riddle was about.”

“That is true.”

“Someone wants us to think it’s a werewolf. They want to get under our skin.”

“Hmm.” Albus stroked his beard. “Not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, I suppose, but the question then becomes why.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Darach grimaced. “They want us to doubt ourselves. Start to wonder if the famous dwarfish security is really as airtight as we believe. I shouldn’t wonder if the goblins were behind this. Trying to discredit us in the eyes of the witches. They want their old position as bankers and money-keepers back. They think that if they can make the witches think that we dwarfs are incompetent –”

“The goblins pretty much severed their ties with the witches when they blew up the old bank,” said Albus. “They must know that there is no way they would trusted with that position again. Witches hold grudges as much as any goblin. Besides, if they wanted to discredit dwarfs in the eyes of witches, there would be easier ways.”

“I didn’t say they were smart,” Darach grumbled. “The worst part… well, the worst part apart from the fact that Ragmar is lying dead in a pool of his own blood… is that they are getting under our skin. Workers are starting to talk. They’re all on edge because there’s a killer around. Beginning to doubt the famous dwarfish security. Maybe a werewolf did get down into the mine, they say. Maybe it’s still here, waiting to attack. But that’s hogwash.”

“Hmm,” Albus repeated. He crouched down to examine the corpse a little closer. The light from his wand shone brighter.

“Ulva Greyback could never have come down here,” Darach went on, in a tone of voice that made it a little unclear whether he was trying to convince Albus or the workers or himself. “Security is too tight. You saw the levels of security you had to go through in order to get here. Not only the protective enchantments, but the guards.”

“They did seem very alert,” said Albus. Politely, he decided not to comment that it was fairly typical for guards to be at their most alert immediately after a crime had taken place.

“Exactly! Nobody could sneak in here, and Apparition is out. They could have dug their way in, I suppose, but we could have noticed the new tunnel. No… the goblins are behind this. Mark my words.”

Albus raised himself. “Much as I hate to contradict an expert on the matter,” he said, “I don’t believe this had anything to do with goblins. I do think you’re right that no werewolf came down here in the mines, but a goblin wouldn’t have been capable of doing this. I have seen this before… a particularly gruesome curse.”

Darach scowled, clearly not liking where this was going. “Look here, if you’re accusing the dwarfs of this mine of casting murderous magic on their colleagues –”

“Of course not,” said Albus. “No, this is a very rare curse. It’s called Urguet Discerpens, or the Triggered Tearing Curse. I’m not surprised if you haven’t heard of it,” he added at Darach’s puzzled look. “It’s thankfully very rare. A simple incantation, but I’ve only known a few individuals capable of casting that curse… and even fewer who were willing to.”

Triggered Tearing Curse? A curse that, what, tears people apart when it’s triggered?”

“More or less,” said Abus. “Most curses that witches cast are fairly instantaneous or at least quick-acting. They don’t want to give their victims a chance to cast a counter-curse, after all. But in the case of the Tearing Curse, the victim might walk around for hours or even days after the curse has been placed upon them, as if nothing was wrong. Until they happen to enter the situation that triggers the curse. Then, their bodies start to tear themselves apart… I trust I don’t need to go on.”

Darach shook his head and grimaced as he looked at the bloodied corpse. “What a way to die. But this means the murderer was never down here in the mine. They could be anywhere by now!”

“They could,” Albus agreed. “But I don’t think they are. I think I know exactly where to find them. Find her, I should say. Tell me, did Ragnar visit Knockturn Alley sometime during the last few days?”

“Hell if I know,” said Darach. “We don’t really care what our workers do in their spare time. I know the witches never let their blokes out of sight, but that’s not how we dwarfs do it, He could have, I suppose.”

“Well,” said Albus. “It pains me to say it… but I believe the person who killed Ragnar wanted it to be a message.”

“A message? Who for?”

“Me.” Albus put out the light of his wand. “I believe I need to visit Knockturn Alley. And I hope Holly can forgive me for being late to her birthday celebration.”

CHAPTER 9: Journey to Brighton

In which Hagrid takes Holly flying, and Hermione gets hypnotized.

Breakfast was probably Holly’s favourite meal of the day. Not because she was so incredibly fond of eggs and toast, but because at the Dursleys’, breakfast tended to be a pleasantly quiet and sedate affair.

None of the Dursleys were morning people, and so nobody really felt like making too much of a fuss, at least not before Uncle Vernon had finished reading the newspaper and had his second cup of coffee. After that second cup he might wake up a little and start getting more energetically unpleasant… but until then nobody was paying Holly much mind. Aunt Petunia drank her tea and pretty much ignored Holly unless she was telling her to get the mail or clear the table, and Dudley was usually too busy eating to talk to anyone, other than to ask for a second or third helping. 

Which was why, this morning, Holly felt quite safe risking nabbing a few extra slices of bacon from the pan to celebrate. Today was the day: Finally she was eight years old. No more being “almost” eight for her!

Of course, she wasn’t expecting her family to care or even remember. Dudley’s birthdays were always a huge deal in the Dursley home, with cake and ice cream and lots of presents, but Holly’s birthdays tended to be quietly ignored. This year would be different, though. This year, for the first time ever, she had birthday plans.

As Uncle Vernon folded his newspaper together and raised himself to get ready for work, she said as casually as she could: “By the way, I’m going out for a walk afterwards. I might be home late.”

“So?” said Uncle Vernon, shooting her an annoyed glare.

“I just don’t want you to worry about me,” said Holly sweetly.

“Don’t cheek your uncle!” Aunt Petunia snapped. She hadn’t threatened Holly with another spanking ever since that failed attempt a few weeks back, but she was still as snappish as ever. “Be gone as long as you like, but if you’re not back in time for dinner, you’re not getting any dinner. Understand?”

“Yes, Aunt Petunia,” said Holly, as obediently as she could.

“And stay away from Number Seven!”

“Yes, Aunt Petunia.”

“I mean it. Those two freaks aren’t normal.”

“I’ll stay far away from Number Seven, I promise.”

“And before you go anywhere, you’re doing the dishes.”

“Yes, Aunt Petunia.”

Properly, Holly. I’ll check.”

“Yes, Aunt Petunia.”

Dudley, who had just polished off the last of the fried eggs looked up. He seemed strangely thoughtful.

And as Aunt Petunia followed Uncle Vernon out into the hallway to kiss him good-bye, and Holly carried the dishes towards the sink, Dudley shifted in his chair and pulled a book out of his pocket.  It was a small book, about the size of a common notebook if perhaps a little thicker. It was bound in red leather and its pages were yellowed, but it showed no sign of any wear from being kept in a pocket.

This was, of course, the Guidebook. It was an invention of Mr Dumbledore’s, and it was magic… though, and this was the clever bit, not so anyone who didn’t know about magic would notice. It looked to the world like a completely normal book, and thumbing through it would just reveal completely normal pages with random information about completely normal things… but if you knew the trick, which Dudley did, it was a lot more useful.

Now, Dudley closed his eyes, opened the Guidebook on a random page, and opened his eyes again. As he scanned the page, he at first grinned, and then grew serious. He put the book down, looked back at Holly and said, in a soft voice: “Er… Holly… if you are late for dinner… I’ll save you some.”

“Oh.” Holly wasn’t sure what to say. “Er. Thanks.”

“Yeah.” Dudley didn’t seem too sure what to say either. “It’s. You know. You shouldn’t have to go hungry when it’s your birthday and all. So. You know. Happy birthday and all that.”


The silence quickly grew awkward. Holly began working on the dishes in order to feel less self-conscious about it. Truth was, neither Holly nor Dudley were quite certain how to act now that they were supposed to be civil with one another. But they had promised Mr Dumbledore, and to Holly had to admit that Dudley was making an effort.  He did have a way to go yet. He hadn’t offered to help with the dishes, or to get her a birthday present… but considering how Dudley had never in his life thought about anyone but himself, just offering to save food for Holly so she wouldn’t have to go hungry was a huge improvement. Not that she would need him to save food for her today, but Holly was starting to see the value of having Dudley as an ally rather than an enemy.

“How’s it going with your Guidebook, anyway?” she said after a while, more because she thought it would be polite to ask than because she was actually interested.

“Oh, it’s brilliant!” said Dudley, much more enthusiastically. “It has the answer to everything! I don’t care what Mum and Dad say; if Mr Dumbledore really invented this, he’s all right in my book!”  He beamed at her as if he’d said something clever.

“Er… that’s good,” said Holly.

“Get it? My book?” said Dudley, a little more forcefully, as he picked the book back up.

“Yeah, I get it.”

“Cause, you know, this is a book.”

“I get it, Dudley.”

“Right.” Dudley seemed disappointed at the lack of a reaction, but apparently decided not to make a big deal out of it.

As Holly left Number Four about twenty minutes later, dishes done to even Aunt Petunia’s satisfaction, she mused how much Dudley had improved… a few weeks back, before the “baby girl” incident, Dudley’s idea of a joke had been to act like a bully and laugh as his victim cried. Puns and wordplay, however bad, were a step in the right direction as far as Holly was concerned.

But then, the Guidebook had probably helped. Mr Dumbledore had given it to Dudley on condition that he stopped bullying Holly and promised not to use the book for “anything worse than just mild mischief.” Dudley, who normally thought books were a waste of time compared to television, computers and video games, had quickly taken to the Guidebook after he’d been taught the trick: If you closed your eyes and opened the book to a random page, that page would always tell you the best thing to do at that particular moment. Not just general advice, but fun things to do when you were bored, or clever ways to tackle a particular problem, or words of encouragement, or just suggestions for how to turn a bad situation into a good one.

Apparently, the Guidebook also had a bit of a cheeky sense of humour and could even act as a strategy guide for tricky video games, which had raised Dudley’s esteem for it further. And, like now, it did seem to give him some hints on how to act in order to keep up his end of the bargain and actually be civil to Holly. She was pretty certain that it was the Guidebook that had reminded him that it was her birthday and that it wasn’t nice to let anyone go hungry on their birthday.

But then, Dudley wasn’t the only one who was now the owner of a life-changing object…Holly slipped her hand into her pocket to let her fingers lightly brush against her wand, just to make certain the still had it. She’d long since established that the wand would fit into any pocket if she just wanted it to; even the shorts she was wearing now, which barely had room for a bit of pocket change, still roomed the long wand with no problems.

“Right, Lily, we’re off,” she whispered.

She could almost feel Aunt Petunia’s eyes on her as she walked down the driveway… probably checking to see if Holly decided to cross the street and approach Number Seven. Grown-ups could be so predictable at times, she thought, and headed in the direction of Magnolia Road while making certain to not even glance in the direction of Number Seven.

By Magnolia Road, far away from Aunt Petunia’s prying eyes, Hagrid was waiting for her with his motorbike, wearing an enormous helmet and a pair of goggles.

“An’ here’s the birthday girl,” he beamed as he saw her. “Look at yeh. Eight years old already! Ready for yer birthday trip?”

Holly nodded eagerly, and then pulled her wand out of her pocked. “So’s Lily! She says hi, by the way.”

“Er. Hi, Lily,” said Hagrid to the wand before looking back at Holly. “Still talks to yeh in yer dreams, does she?”

“Yes,” Holly nodded again. She often spoke to Lily in her dreams now. Last night, they had talked for a long time about Holly’s birthday trip to the Witching District in London.

Lily had told her all about the district; hidden from Muggle eyes, it was the centre of the witching world here in England, and housed a handful of markets, alleys and squares, with funny names like Carkitt Market, Diagon Alley, Hexagon Square, Knockturn Alley… well, okay, Lily had made her promise to stay away from Knockturn Alley “at least until you’re a little older, and no, eight is not old enough.” Holly still wasn’t very good at this “having a mother” business, but she was starting to suspect that it involved quite a lot of being told to wait until you were older.

Oh well. Knockturn Alley aside, she’d get to see all these magical places today! She could hardly wait. She’d meet more witches, probably get to see a whole lot more magic…

“Where’s Mr Dumbledore?” she said, noticing that the sidecar on Hagrid’s enormous motorbike was empty.

“Ah, he’ll be meetin’ us in Diagon Alley,” said Hagrid. “Some work-related things he had ter take care of first. By the way, I hope yeh don’ mind, but… there’s a sligh’ change o’ plans. We were gonna go straigh’ ter London for yer birthday celebration, but we’ll need ter pop a quick trip down ter Brighton first.”

“Brighton?” Holly repeated, a little confused.

“Yeah, but don’ yeh worry. We’ll be flyin, so we’ll be there in no time. Shouldn’t take more than half an hour extra, at most.”

“Okay… but why are we going to Brighton?” said Holly.

“Didn’ I say? Blimey, forget me own head next,” said Hagrid sheepishly. “We’re pickin’ up a couple more kids, as a favour ter the Weasleys. New Muggle-borns, ’bout your age, jus’ discovered their magic. Albus has promised ter help ’em out.”

“Oh!” said Holly excitedly. “Muggle-borns!? Witches who grew up in the Muggle world, like me?! What are they like?”

“Dunno,” said Hagrid. “Haven’t met them in person yet. On’y thing I know is that one of ’em’s a wizard.”

“Like a boy?” said Holly. 

“Tha’s right,” said Hagrid. “Firs’ Muggle-born wizard in ages, firs’ one since… but, well, we’ll see what he’s like, won’t we?”

Holly nodded slowly. Even if Dudley was getting more tolerable lately, she wasn’t completely sure about the prospect of spending her birthday with a boy… but if Mr Dumbledore had promised… besides, you never knew, maybe this boy was a decent person. Hagrid and Mr Dumbledore were boys, technically, and they were among the kindest people she knew. And it wasn’t like anyone was telling her to enter a coven with this boy straight away or anything. If she didn’t like him, she just wouldn’t talk to him, and instead focus on all the other strange and wonderful things she’d be seeing in the Witching District. She had no doubt there’d be plenty of things there to distract her.

“Well,” said Hagrid. “Get in the sidecar, now, we’ll be off.”

Holly climbed into the sidecar. She wasn’t surprised to find that it was nice and roomy; even roomier than it looked from the outside… and Hagrid’s bike was large enough that even from the outside it looked like the sidecar would have room for three Hollys. But just like her bed in the garden shed, this seat was somehow bigger than the space it took up; there would have been room for five Hagrids in this sidecar. At least if they were very close friends.

“Comfy?” said Hagrid. “Righ’ then! Don’ seem ter be anyone around… so watch this!”

He pointed at a switch near the speedometer, and flicked it. All of a sudden, the motorbike, Hagrid and even Holly herself… faded.

Well, no, Holly immediately realized. They didn’t fade. They were still there, as solid as ever. They just turned… not invisible, exactly, more like they were taking on the colour and texture of their surroundings.

“Disillusionment Charm,” said Hagrid, who was now rather hard to make out against his surroundings. “Keeps us from bein’ seen. Wouldn’ to ter end up in the newspaper, would it? UFO shaped like motorbike spotted over Surrey.”

With a surprisingly soft, but still notable, roar of its engines, the motorbike started to move. The wind ruffled Holly’s hair as Hagrid steered the bike down Magnolia Road and began speeding up as they reached Magnolia Crescent.

And then… then they were flying. Holly had to bite her lips not to squeal in delight as she felt the bike lift up in the air and saw over the edge of the sidecar how the streets grew smaller beneath her. All thoughts of boys and covens and distractions fled out of her head, crowded out by the sheer exhilaration. They were flying. They were flying. Soon, they were soaring high above Little Whinging, its houses the size of shoeboxes, then of matchboxes, then of ants… and soon they had put left the entire town behind and were flying over the woodlands and green hills of Surrey.

Holly clutched the edge of the sidecar, nearly hypnotized by the incredible view. This must be what it felt like to be a bird, soaring high above the earth, completely free from everything. Nothing but blue skies above you and below you a wonderful mitch-match of woodlands and roads and hills and fields…When she was older and learned how to fly, she’d never come down to the ground. Well, maybe occasionally, to eat and go to the loo and things like that. But the rest of the time she’d be up in the skies, soaring around, free and happy, just like that naked lady over there…

Holly blinked. No, her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her. Right there, soaring on the breeze like it was the most natural thing in the world, was a naked lady. She was beautiful, there was no other word for it… but she was also clearly not human. Her skin was as blue as the sky around her, and her long white hair flowed behind her like a big white cloud, and she was shooting through the air like a playful dolphin, up and down, as if gravity was something that only happened to other people.  

As Holly watched in astonishment, the naked lady twirled around on the winds, and then looked straight at Holly to give her a cheerful wave. Apparently, the Disillusionment Charm wasn’t enough to hide from her.

“Hagrid!” Holly squeaked.

“Well, would yeh look at that!” Hagrid’s voice was easily heard over the roar of the motorbike and the wind. “Don’ see many of them around! ALL RIGH’ THERE, MISS?” he called to the lady.

The lady beamed at him and blew him a kiss. She winked at Holly with an almost cheeky expression, and then swooped around to do an elegant loop around the motorbike before flipping around and flying off in another direction. Holly could hear her laugh as she sped off; a merry and melodious laughter that carried on the wind even better than Hagrid’s voice.

Holly could only stare as the lady vanished in the sky.

“That was a sky nymph, Holly,” said Hagrid. “Rarest kind o’ nymph there is, or so they say. Don’ worry, she wouldn’ta hurt yeh none.”

“That was a nymph?” said Holly. She remembered Mr Dumbledore mentioning nymphs as one of the many magical races that lived in secret for the Muggles, but he hadn’t really gone into detail. “I didn’t know they were so…” Incredibly beautiful. “…naked.”

“Well, yeah,” said Hagrid, as if this wasn’t a big deal. “Nymphs, they don’ like clothes much. Kinda vain, ter be perfec’ly honest, love showin’ off… They’d take it as an insult if yeh tried ter get ’em ter cover up. Yeh’ll prolly see more nymphs at the Witching District, come ter think of it, there’s usually one or two aroun’ the green areas. So… er… y’know, when yeh do see them, make sure yeh don’ tell ’em ter get dressed.”

 “Um… okay,” said Holly, feeling a little embarrassed. “But if the sky nymphs fly around like this, without Disillusionment Charms or anything, why don’t the Muggles see them?”

“Not sure the Muggles can see ’em, at least not norm’ly,” said Hagrid. “Sides, they’re pretty high up, right? So yeh wouldn’ see ’em from the ground anyway.”

“What about aeroplanes?”

“Oh, the sky nymphs stay well away from those,” said Hagrid. “Much too noisy.”

“Wow…” Holly was in awe. So many magical people and creatures that existed all around her, and she hadn’t known about it before now. All of a sudden, she felt sorry for the Muggles… imagine living in a world full of magic, a world where motorbikes and naked ladies could fly, and not being allowed to know about it. If she’d been in charge, everybody would know how magical the world really was. And Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon could grumble all they liked.

She didn’t really have the time to think too much about this, though, because all too soon Hagrid called out: “Goin’ in for landin’ in a moment!”

Holly got a pretty good view of Brighton, out by the sea (and looking like a lot friendlier and more interesting place than prissy old Little Whinging), but they weren’t actually entering the city. Instead, they came to a landing by a cluster of stone buildings by the coastline, a little way away from the city.

Well down on the ground, Hagrid switched off the Disillusionment Charm, and the motorbike faded back into view as they came to a halt outside a wrought iron gate, beyond which were the stone buildings of what looked to be a school of some sort.

A small group of people were waiting for them; three children and one adult. Holly’s heart gave a little skip when she realized that she knew one of the children.

“Holly!” Even before she could climb out of the sidecar, Holly found herself wrapped in an enormous hug from Ronnie Weasley of the Prewett line. “Happy birthday!”

“Ronnie!” Holly returned the hug. It was weird; she’d only met the girl once before, but here and now it felt just like meeting an old friend again. “I didn’t know you’d be here!”

“I nagged them until they let me come!” said Ronnie and eased up on the hug to let Holly climb out of the sidecar. She hadn’t changed at all since Holly saw her last; she was just as tall, skinny and freckled as before. But instead of the blue dress and mismatched stockings, now she was wearing a bright yellow tunic and flowery pink leggings. “Hi, Hagrid!”

“All righ’ there, Ronnie?” he greeted. “Everyone ready fer the trip ter London?”

“Yeah!” said Ronnie. She took a step back to motion to the three others. “Molly-Mum’s with us. She’s my birth mother,” she explained to Holly. “Flora-Mum was supposed to come, but then Dolly decided she wanted to be born tonight…”

“‘Ere now, what’s this?” said Hagrid, his bushy eyebrows raising in surprise. “Dolly?! Flora’s daughter’s born already?”

“It happened at four o’clock this morning, Hagrid,” said ‘Molly-Mum.’ She was a woman of indeterminate age, with a plump build and a round, good-natured face. The red hair and freckles confirmed her relationship with Ronnie. “A healthy little girl, seventeen and a half inches. We’ve named her ‘Dahlia,’ but the children immediately agreed to call her ‘Dolly’.”

“She looks like a dolly,” said Ronnie sweetly. “A tiny, pink, wrinkled dolly. Besides, it rhymes with ‘Holly,’ and since they share a birthday…”

“All right, young lady, that’s enough,” said Molly-Mum before turning to Holly. “Hello, Holly dear. I’m Molly Weasley, of the Prewett line, Ronnie’s birth-mum. Happy birthday!”

“Thank you, Mrs… er… Mrs Weasley of the Prewett line,” said Holly, a little uncertainly.

The woman laughed. She had a nice laugh; not quite like Lily’s, but there was a slight similarity nonetheless… a tone that, for want of a better word, might be called motherly. “Just call me Molly, dear. We witches aren’t that big on formality. And this is Dean and Hermione.”

Holly turned to the two children who weren’t Ronnie, now taking the time to look a little more closely at them. The boy, who had to be Dean, thankfully didn’t seem like too bad a sort. He was tall, taller than Ronnie, and actually kind of handsome with his dark skin and pleasant face. He had an air of laid-back cheerfulness about him that made her think she probably wouldn’t mind spending her birthday in his company. The girl, who of course had to be Hermione, also had dark skin… but that was where her resemblance to the boy ended. She was short, just slightly taller than Holly (and Holly was well aware that she was small for her age), with large front teeth, a mop of bushy brown hair, and an expression of energetic curiosity.

“Hello,” said Holly. “I’m Holly. Are you the Muggle-borns we’re picking up?”

“Apparently,” said Dean.

“We’re not related!” said Hermione, hurriedly.

“Er, okay,” said Holly, a little taken aback.

“Sorry, but everyone else asked if we’re related,” said Hermione sheepishly. “We’re not. We just met up here at summer camp, we happened to be here at the same time, you see, and we discovered that we both had magic powers. And things got kind of out of hand for a bit…”

“We made the entire camp fall asleep,” said Dean cheerfully.

“Right,” said Hermione. “And apparently the witching world watches for really strong displays of magic in the Muggle world, so these two witches from the Ministry for Magic showed up to see what was going on, and they told us they’d help us set everything straight, and apparently Dean being a boy was a really big deal, because there aren’t all that many boy witches – wizards, I mean wizards – and there was this long talk about what to do with him…” Here, Hermione had to stop to take a breath. “Eventually they said they’d arrange for us to get a little introduction to the witching world so we could help explain things to our families, and figure out where to go from here. Oh, happy birthday, by the way,” she added, looking at Holly. “They said it was your birthday. How old are you?”

“Eight,” said Holly proudly.

“Oh! So are we! Well, I’ll be nine in September,” said Hermione.

“We’ll all be in the same year at Hogwarts!” said Ronnie excitedly. “Maybe we’ll even be in the same house! Well, not you, Dean, cause you’re a boy. You’ll be a Merlin.”

“Merlin?” said Holly. “Like, the wizard Merlin? From really, really long ago?”

“Yeah, House Merlin is named after him,” said Ronnie. “It’s the boy house at Hogwarts. Er, you know about school houses, right?” she added a little uncertainly with a glance at Dean and Hermione. “Like, houses for students?”

“Yes, Ronnie, we know about school houses,” said Hermione. “Believe it or not, we do have schools, and boarding schools, in the Muggle world too. This is a school, as a matter of fact.”

“Right now it’s a camp,” said Dean.

“But it’s usually a school.” Hermione insisted.

“Well, I wasn’t sure,” said Ronnie defensively. “I forgot to ask Mandy-Mum about it. Oh, by the way,” she added as she thought of something else. “Holly, is it true what they said, that you didn’t know about magic at all when I met you last?”

Holly could feel herself blush. “Well…”

“Wow,” said Ronnie. “And I was going on about Muggles and the Hogwarts Express and everything! You must have thought I was mental!”

“I didn’t!” Holly assured her. “A little weird, but not mental.”

“That’s all right then,” said Ronnie. “Being weird isn’t bad. I’ll tell you all about the witching world. All three of you,” she hurried to add, looking at Dean and Hermione. “And don’t worry about being a boy, Dean, I’ve met lots of boys before.”

“Er, yeah, so have I,” said Dean.

“I personally know three,” said Ronnie, as if this was an impressive number. “Four if you count Dad. And I’ve seen many more. Can’t even count all the boys I’ve seen, it’s that many.”

Luckily, before any of them had to figure out how to respond to that, Molly called: “All right, everyone, get in the sidecar.”

Just like Holly had suspected, but which seemed to greatly impress Dean and Hermione, all five of them fit in the sidecar with no problem. Holly sat between Ronnie and Hermione, with Molly and Dean on each side, like they were on a roomy couch.

“It’s an Expansion Charm,” Ronnie explained, eager to make good on her word of telling them about the witching world. “Everybody uses Expansion Charms, on cars or suitcases or rooms or beds…It’s a great way to make more room, without taking up more room.”

“I get it,” said Dean. “It’s like the TARDIS, isn’t it?”

“The what?” said Ronnie, confused.

“You know… bigger on the inside.”

“Does it work on books?” Hermione interrupted. “I mean – could you use an Expansion Charm to fit thirty books into a backpack?”

“Probably,” said Ronnie. “Have you been doing that?”

“Yes, but I didn’t know it was magic,” said Hermione. “I thought I was just good at packing books.” She made herself comfortable, looking around with curiosity. “I’ve never been on a motorbike before. How long will it take to get to London? When my parents drove me here in their car, it took about two hours.”

“Well, we’ll be goin’ a bit faster,” Hagrid chuckled and patted the motorbike. “This ol’ girl’s gonna get us there in fifteen, twenty minutes. At most.”

“It’s a flying motorbike!” said Holly.

“F-flying?” Hermione blinked.

“A flying motorbike!” Dean exclaimed. “Now that’s cool!”

“Yes!” Holly agreed. “We flew here from Surrey! It was amazing!” She was already looking forward to flying to London, and this time it would be even more fun because she’d have three other children with her to share the excitement.

“Oh…” said Hermione, a lot more softly.

“Our family has a flying car,” Ronnie offered. “It’s Dad’s pride and joy. But we hardly ever use it, because the Invisibility Booster’s faulty, and my sister Charlie once got in trouble for – are you okay?” she added, looking at Hermione.

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” said Hermione. “Flying motorbike! Really! How fascinating! Not just a regular motorbike with an Expansion Charm on the sidecar, but a flying one! That’s obviously a lot better! Flying is the safest way to travel, my mother says!”

“Righ’ then, we’re off!” Once more, Hagrid activated the Disillusionment Charm, to make the bike and everyone in it take on the colour and texture of their surroundings (which greatly fascinated Dean, who immediately wanted to know if he could learn this kind of spell) and started the engine.

“This is very fascinating,” said a near-invisible Hermione in an oddly high-pitched voice as they picked up speed and zoomed down the road.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” said Ronnie.  

 “Yes! I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m– AAAIIIIEEEEEEEEEEE!” Hermione’s voice raised to a loud squeal, because now the motorbike took off and rose up into the air.

“We’re flying!” Dean called excitedly. “Hermione, look, we’re flying – Hermione, let go!”

Because everything was still Disillusioned, details weren’t the easiest to make out, but Holly found she could still make out the shapes and forms of the others… and what she saw was that Hermione had, on what seemed like pure instinct, grabbed hold of Dean and was clutching onto him as if for dear life. She had shut her eyes tightly and instead of letting go she just clung harder to him, she just clung on harder, letting out a high-pitched whimper.

“Are yeh all righ’ there?” called Hagrid over roar of the wind. “Want me ter land?”

“No!” Holly, Dean and Ronnie all cried at the same time.

“Oh, dear,” said Molly. Unlike Hagrid, she didn’t have to shout to be heard over the wind; it seemed like everyone in the sidecar could hear each other okay. So Holly had no problems making out the words as she said: “Ronnie, Holly, please trade places with me.”

As Holly and Ronnie slid out of the way, Molly carefully sat down next to Hermione, very gently loosening her grip on a grateful Dean. “Hermione, sweetie… you’re afraid of flying, aren’t you?”

“No,” Hermione squeaked. “Flying’s the safest way to travel, flying’s the safest way to travel…” Made to let go of Dean, she instead clutched onto Molly and refused to open her eyes. She seemed so small and helpless that Holly felt incredibly sorry for her,

“It’s all right, there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Molly soothingly as she stroked Hermione’s frizzy hair. “Just focus on me… open your eyes…. that’s good. Now take a deep breath and count to thirty.”

Hermione heaved for her breath. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven… eight, nine… ten…” To Holly’s amazement, as Hermione counted, she started to relax, her grip on Molly easing up. “Eleven… twelve… thirteen… fourteen… fifff-teen… ahh…” The panicked tone on her voice gradually lessened as well, and her counting was going slower and slower.

“What’s going on?” said Dean, alarmed.

“Shh, don’t worry,” Ronnie whispered. “Molly-Mum’s just calming her down. She’s done it to me loads of times. It doesn’t hurt.”

“Sss…six-teen…. Seven-teen… eiiight-tee-e-eeen…”  Hermione droned. She’d gone limp, resting against Molly, her eyes drooping. “Nnn… n-n-nnineteen… twenty.” The last number was almost a whisper.

“There… starting to feel better, isn’t it…?” Molly brushed the hair away from Hermione’s forehead.

“Twenty-one…. twenty…twenny… hhh… twenny-twoo-oo… ah… twenny-three… twennyy-y-y-yyy… ff-fff… fah… aaah-h-h-hhh-hummm…” Hermione’s counting drowned in a long. soft yawn. “…twenny… mmm…” Then, she was silent. She was breathing softly, as if asleep.

“Hermione?” said Dean uncertainly.

“Mmm…?” she answered.

“Are you okay?”


“Are you sure? You sound… hypnotized or something.”

“Oh… okay.”

Holly had been following this little scene with growing fascination. She couldn’t help but think back a few weeks, when she herself had been made to fall asleep by magic. There were some very clear similarities here, except Hermione clearly wasn’t asleep… the Disillusionment charm made it hard to see, but the girl’s eyes did seem to be slightly open, and she was at least responding when they talked to her, even if it was mostly in sleepy murmurs… maybe Dean was right and she was hypnotized.

“She’s calm-weaved,” Ronnie explained.

“Calm…what?” said Holly.

“Calm-weaved,” Ronnie repeated. “It’s a sort of magic that makes you all calm, and you just stop caring about whatever’s scaring you. Makes you sleepy, though, you kind of go into this trance thingy…”

“So she is hypnotized then,” said Holly. “Hermione, meow like a cat.”

Hermione took a deep, sleepy breath. “No thank you…”

“All right, let’s not bother the poor dear,” said Molly in a motherly tone, and began stroking Hermione’s hair. “I am sorry about all this, Hermione. You’ll feel a little drowsy and lethargic for a while, but you’ll wake up when we land. If we’d known you had a problem with heights, we wouldn’t have taken you in this motorbike. We’ll find a different way of getting you back to Brighton afterwards, all right?”

“Mmmmm…” Hermione breathed. “Okay…”

“Why didn’t you just tell us you didn’t like flying before we started, Hermione?” said Ronnie.

It took several seconds before Hermione answered. When she did, she spoke quite clearly, even if her tone was still distant and dreamy. “You seemed so excited… I didn’t want you to think I was a coward or something… Imagine a witch who’s afraid of heights…”

“I’m a witch who’s afraid of spiders,” said Ronnie, wrapping her arms around Hermione in a warm hug. “Ugly, nasty, creepy things. Everyone’s afraid of something, right, Molly-Mum?”

“That’s right, dear,” said Molly.  She slowly let go of Hermione to let her daughter cuddle her instead. “Just relax, Hermione, we’ll be in London before you know it.”

“Mmm…. that’s nice…” Hermione murmured. She flopped against Ronnie, resting her head on the girl’s shoulder.

She spent the rest of the flight dozing in Ronnie’s arms, while the girl cuddled her and talked to her in a soft and comforting voice about pretty much anything she could think about: Her five mothers and their careers, her father’s odd hobby of collecting Muggle devices, funny things her sisters had said and done, the various shops and sights at the witching district, the time she’d met a baby hippogriff and been allowed to pet it, several stories about someone named Cissy or Sissy… of course, the half-asleep Hermione probably didn’t need the distraction anymore, and might not even be awake enough to remember everything that was said to her, but Holly thought it was sweet of Ronnie nonetheless…

Under pretty much any other circumstances, Holly would have been closely paying attention to Ronnie’s stories, and the tales of the witching world she was about to get to know better… but who could pay attention to stories when they were flying? Holly and Dean (who thankfully seemed to share Holly’s enthusiasm for flying, and seemed satisfied that Hermione would be okay) spent most of their time looking out over the landscape far below them.

“I keep thinking how insane this all is,” said Dean after a while. “The calm-weaving, I get. I’ve known how to put people to sleep for ages. But… motorbikes that fly and turn almost invisible? Secret magic societies? A couple of days ago, I didn’t even know things like this was possible.”

“I did,” said Holly. But was honest enough to add: “But I haven’t known it for very long. I found out about magic a few weeks ago.”

“Ever been to this Witching District before?”

“No, but my… er… a girl named Lily told me about it.” Holly almost absently moved her hand down to feel the contours of her wand in her pocket.

“Oh, and she’s a witch?”

“Kind of.”

“Cool.” Dean paused. “Never knew any witches before. But I’m going to have to get used to it… They say there are a lot more witches than wizards.”

“Yeah… I asked Lily why, but she didn’t know. Said she always just thought magic likes girls better than boys.”

“No accounting for taste,” said Dean.


“Joking! Joking!” Dean raised his hands disarmingly, which looked rather odd with the Disillusionment charm. “Did they tell you about the covens, by the way? These two witches held a pretty long lecture for Hermione and me about how witches lived in covens, and one guy had to marry several girls…”

“Yeah,” said Holly. A little hesitantly, she asked: “What did you think about that?”

“Perfectly honest? It sounds absolutely mental,” said Dean. “One guy, having to marry five or six girls? I don’t even want to marry one girl, and now they tell me I have to marry several?”

“I know! It’s crazy!” said Holly, relieved that he seemed to be on the same page. “And when I said that to Lily… when I said I didn’t ever want to join a coven, she just smiled and said we’d see if I felt the same way when I was older!”

Dean rolled his eyes, or at least Holly thought he rolled his eyes. “Isn’t that just like a grown-up? ‘Oh, you’ll understand when you’re older. You’re too young to know any better, you’ll change your mind when you’re a wise and experienced adult like us.’ That’s what the two witches from the Ministry said too. Well, Ronnie’s Mum, I mean Ronnie’s other Mum, the one who’s not here because she had a baby… she was at least nice about it. That other Ministry witch was much worse. When I said I didn’t like the idea of a coven, she went into this long tirade about a bloke called Tom Riddle…”

“Tom Riddle!” Holly repeated.

“Yeah, he was an evil wizard or something, but he died. Have you heard of him?”

“Er… yes,” said Holly, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. “Er… I think my mother kind of… killed him? Or, well, he and my mother killed each other?”

It took her the rest of the flight to explain.

CHAPTER 8: Books and Baby-Prudes

In which Hermione and Dean go to extreme measures to enter a library, and Flora protests the use of slurs.


It had been raining all night, the water puddles on the ground were quite large, and Hermione didn’t even have time to scream before she was lying on her stomach in the largest of them. The laughter of the other children rang in her ears as the cold water soaked through her clothes.

“Oh dear,” came a sweet-sounding voice from above. “Are you all right?”

Hermione looked up into the pale but pretty face of Sirena Engleby, whose mask of innocent concern couldn’t quite hide her obvious schadenfreude. Nor could it erase Hermione’s memories of the hands that had pushed her from behind.

“But how clumsy you are…tripping over your own feet like that,” the girl cooed in a horrible, faux-motherly tone. “Let me help you up…”And before Hermione could respond, Sirena grabbed her and unceremoniously hauled her back onto her feet.

Hermione breathed heavily. She looked at the other children gathered around her. Some of them were still laughing, others were like Sirena and were trying (and failing) to look concerned. She tried not to let her humiliation show, but this was hard when her soaked shirt and shorts were clinging uncomfortably to her skin. Instead she snapped her head back towards Sirena, who was looking at her expectantly.

“What?” she demanded.

“Thank you, Sirena,” said Sirena pointedly. “Thank you for pulling me back onto my feet after I clumsily fell down.”

Hermione was about to answer, but was interrupted by Mr Aston, the instructor, as he came running up.

“Is everything all right here?” he said. He sounded half concerned and half annoyed. “Hermione, what happened?”

“She fell in a puddle and I helped her up,” said Sirena. “Right, Hermione?”

Hermione caught the hidden threat in her voice, but she had never been one to let herself be kowtowed that easily. She looked straight into Mr Aston’s eyes. “Mr Aston, I didn’t fall. Sirena pushed me.”

“I never did!” Sirena’s fake innocent indignation was pretty good. “I was just trying to help you! It’s not my fault you can’t walk two steps without falling over!”

“Settle down,” said Mr Aston. The annoyance was definitely overtaking the concern as he looked at the children around them. “What happened?”

“Hermione fell,” said Sirena’s friend Liv, and several of the girls nodded.

“That’s rubbish!” said one of the boys in the back of the small crowd. “Sirena pushed her. I saw it!”

“Oh, you saw something, Dean?” said Liv acidly. “How did you manage that when you never look up from that sketchbook of yours! Are you in love with Hermione or something?”

“All right, that’s enough!” Mr Aston barked. “Hermione, go change out of those wet clothes. Sirena, I want a word with you.”

Hermione ignored the hateful look that Sirena shot her and ran off. Lucky that Mr Aston hadn’t told her to be quick about it; now she could take her time and be alone for a bit.

This was her sixth day at Keywater Activity Camp (for British Campers Aged 7-17). She’d have to suffer through eight more days before her parents came to take her home.

She hadn’t exactly been thrilled at the idea of going to summer camp in the first place, but she understood why her parents had sent her. The house renovations were taking longer than expected, and of course they’d get a lot more done without an eight-year-old girl around.

Of course, she’d have been happier if they’d signed her up for something sensible, like a Junior Academic course where she could actually learn something… but there had been a lot of talk about summer camps in the media lately. Childcare experts were praising the American tradition of summer camps and were saying how (as long as British conditions like shorter summer holidays and unpredictable weather were met), a week or two at a residential summer camp would bring “character-building and developmental benefits.” Which was exactly what Keywater Activity Camp (for British Campers Aged 7-17) was promising in its brochures, along with “team activities, outdoors adventures and building friendships, all done in a fun and positive environment.”

Hermione knew that her parents sometimes worried that she didn’t get along with other children her age. She didn’t really see the point in worrying about this, since she was also the top of nearly every class in school except PE… but she was a good daughter and so she hadn’t raised too many protests as they had signed her up for Keywater Activity Camp (for British Campers Aged 7-17). Besides, despite the lack of an academic angle, this particular camp was held on and around the ground of Keywater School, an old and prestigious boarding school near Brighton. The school was closed for the summer, of course, which was why it was hosting a summer camp to begin with… but getting to see a prestigious boarding school from the inside would at least hold some interest. Especially since there was a very large school library there…

It had been a huge disappointment to find out (after she had kissed her parents goodbye and watch them drive off) that the library was also closed for the summer and that campers did not have access to it. Even during the rainy afternoons that in Hermione’s opinion were made for exploring libraries or at least curling up with a good book.

An even bigger disappointment had involved Sirena Engleby. The older girl had seemed perfectly pleasant at first, not to mention she was very pretty with her long, silky black hair and heart-shaped face… but she quickly turned to be far less pretty on the inside. She delighted in small cruelties, and had quickly chosen Hermione as her favourite target. It had started as small, passive-aggressive insults about Hermione’s unmanageable bushy hair and large front teeth, but now she had worked her way up to “accidentally” pushing Hermione into rain puddles.

There was of course a chance that the talk with Mr Aston would convince her to back off, but somehow, Hermione doubted it.

Now, she had reached Birch House. One funny little detail about Keywater was that all the buildings were named for trees, even though they were all mainly made out of stone. Birch House was the building where the girls’ dormitories were located, a stone’s throw away from Fir House, which housed the boys’ dormitories. (Where transgender or intersex children went, or even if Keywater accounted for them, Hermione didn’t know.)

She was about to enter the building when she heard a loud “Hey! Hermione!” behind her.

She turned around somewhat tentatively, half-expecting some kind of trouble, but she was relieved to discover that it was only Dean Thomas, the boy who had spoken up on her behalf.

Hermione only vaguely knew Dean, but she did know he had never been one of her tormentors, nor had he been among the ones who laughed when Sirena tried to tease or humiliate. He was about Hermione’s age, but much taller and (she supposed) fairly good-looking, and he seemed to spend most of his time on the sidelines, usually drawing something in his sketchbook.

“Hey,” he said as he came to a halt next to her. “Just thought you should know… Sirena’s pretty angry with you. Didn’t appreciate having to have that talk with Mr Aston. She’s going to try and take revenge.”

“I sort of guessed from the look she gave me,” said Hermione. “Thanks for the warning, though. And thanks for… you know, for telling Mr Aston.”

He shrugged. “I’m not usually a tattler, but Sirena had it coming.”

“Won’t she be angry with you too, though?”

“Probably, but she can’t do anything to me,” said Dean in a self-assured voice. “She may be older than me, but I’m stronger than her, and I’m hard to sneak up on. Besides, I know a few tricks.”

“Tricks?” Hermione repeated.

“Yep, so she won’t lay a finger on me,” said Dean, but didn’t elaborate. “It’s you who should be worried. I mean, you even live in the same building as her.”

“But not on the same floor,” said Hermione, and hoped she sounded as self-assured as Dean did. “Thank you, Dean, but I can take care of myself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going inside to dry off and get changed. No boys allowed at Birch House, you know.”

“Oh, er, right.” Dean seemed to only now remember that she was still soaked. “See you later then.”

Hermione left him and hurried inside.

Birch House had two floors, each floor hosting five separate dormitories, a common room, and a common bathroom with toilets and shower stalls. Hermione’s dormitory, which she shared with four other girls around her age, was located on the ground floor. A nice enough room, though as an only child Hermione was still not quite used to having to share her living space. It was especially awkward when undressing for bed or using the shower, especially since some of those other girls had no body modesty at all… but of course, right now, with everyone else gone and Birch House empty, it somehow felt a little more welcoming. Certainly more peaceful.

This suited Hermione fine; now she could change into her dry clothes in peace and quiet… and, since she still had some time before lunch, she could sneak in a bit of reading at the same time.

She entered the dormitory. It was light and airy, with tall windows, desks and cupboards; during the school year they were used by whatever students were attending Keywater School, but for now it all belonged to the campers.

Hermione made certain the door was closed before she stripped out of her wet clothes, folded them together and placed them in the laundry basket by the foot of her bed. It felt nice to get out of those soaked rags… and it felt even nicer to be able to put on some fresh, lovely dry clothes. Yellow t-shirt, blue shorts… that worked.

Barefoot, she sat down on her bed and reached for her backpack.

Hermione had several curious abilities when it came to books. One of them was the ability to fit an uncanny number of them into any small space. This particular backpack shouldn’t logically have had room for more than, say, ten books, but Hermione had managed to pack thirty. It was just something she could do. Backpacks, suitcases, even bookshelves… she didn’t know how, but if she wanted a book to fit, it did.

Maybe it had something to do with her passion for the written word. Her parents may be worried that Hermione spent more time with her nose in a book than playing with other children, but it was when she was reading that Hermione truly felt alive. Fiction or non-fiction, children’s books or books for adults, it didn’t matter… books spoke to Hermione in a way that people did not.

The book she pulled out now was one of her favourites: Matilda, by Roald Dahl. It was a wonderful story about a genius little girl who gets even with her nasty parents and tyrant of a Headmistress. Hermione identified strongly with Matilda… well, all right, the school she went to was quite nice, and she had kind and loving (if often very busy) parents, and unlike Matilda she couldn’t quite do sums in her head like a calculator. But she felt, oh how much, Matilda’s passion for books and reading, not to mention her unbridled curiosity when it came to learning new things.

She opened the book, and after a moment’s searching found the place where she’d left off. It was the part where Matilda first discovered her strange supernatural powers.

And now, quite slowly, (Hermione read) there began to creep over Matilda a most extraordinary and peculiar feeling. The feeling was mostly in the eyes. A kind of electricity seemed to be gathering inside them. A sense of power was brewing in those eyes of hers, a feeling of great strength was settling itself deep inside her eyes. But there was also another feeling which was something else altogether, and which she could not understand. It was like flashes of lightning. Little waves of lightning seemed to be flashing out of her eyes. Her eyeballs were beginning to get hot, as though vast energy was building up somewhere inside them. It was an amazing sensation. She kept her eyes steadily on the glass, and now the power was concentrating itself in one small part of each eye and growing stronger and stronger and it felt as though millions of tiny little invisible arms with hands on them were shooting out of her eyes towards the glass she was staring at.

“Tip it!” Matilda whispered. “Tip it over!”

She saw the glass wobble. It actually tilted backwards a fraction of an inch, then righted itself again. She kept pushing at it with all those millions of invisible little arms and hands that were reaching out from her eyes, feeling the power that was flashing straight from the two little black dots in the very centres of her eyeballs…

Just then, the book was torn out of Hermione’s hands, yanking her back to reality. “Pay attention, Hermione!” a voice sounded.

She look up to see Sirena Engleby, together with Liv and two other girls. Sirena was holding the book high with a look of triumph on her face.

“And now she notices we’re here!” she said. “All these books aren’t good for you, Hermione! I think you have some horrible allergy to books or something. The moment you have one in your hands, you go blind and deaf! You didn’t hear anything I said, did you?”

The other three girls laughed. It was clear that Sirena was enjoying the attention.

Hermione felt her cheeks grow hot. “I heard every word, actually!” she snapped. “I just don’t answer when people are rude!”

“Oh, you heard me, did you?” Sirena laughed. “What did I say, then? If you can repeat exactly what I said, you can have your book back.”

Hermione glared at her. And then recited: “Oh, there you are, Hermione. I want a word with you about what happens to tattletales. Hermione, it’s rude to ignore people when they’re talking to you. Stop reading and look at me, Hermione! Hermione? Pay attention, Hermione!”

Sirena and the three other girls gaped at her.

This was another one of Hermione’s book-related abilities: She could pay attention and not pay attention at the same time. Even when deeply absorbed in a book she always heard everything that was said to her, and could even flawlessly recite it afterwards, even if the words didn’t actually reach her brain. It was an ability she’d been grateful for more than once.

A burst of laughter sounded from just outside the room. “She got you! She got you good!”

Everyone turned to the open doorway, where Dean stood, laughing and pointing at Sirena.

“Dean!” Sirena yelled angrily. “Get out of here! No boys at Birch House!”

“But bullies are okay, are they?” said Dean. “Go on, give her the book back!”

“I knew you were in love with her!” said Liv. “You know you wouldn’t fit together. You’re not a book and she’s not a sketchpad.”

Dean gave her a look. “Really. That’s the insult you’re going with. Come on, my baby sister could think up a better insult than that, and she’s not even two years old.”

“Stop embarrassing yourself Liv,” Sirena sighed. “Don’t bother. We have better things to do than banter with children anyway. Come on, let’s just go tell the instructors that Dean decided to sneak into Birch House. Here’s your book back, Hermione.” She held out the book to Hermione…

…and then hit her on the head with it.

It didn’t hurt, not really, but something snapped inside Hermione. All of a sudden, she felt… weird. It was like a strange kind of electric heat was welling up inside her, trying to escape through her eyes. The world was a blur around her and time seemed to slow down as she lifted her head and stared hard at Sirena.

Sirena’s eyes widened in surprise. She opened her mouth to say something, and then froze completely. She stood perfectly still, stiff and unblinking, like she was a video recording that someone had decided to put on pause.

Hermione snapped out of her weird trance to realise that Sirena really had gone stiff like a statue. She stood frozen and unmoving, her eyes staring blankly out at the world. She was breathing, Hermione could tell, but otherwise she looked to be completely frozen in position.

“Sirena?” Liv waved a hand in front of Sirena’s face, to no avail. “Sirena, what happened? What did you do to her?” She turned on Hermione, anger and panic on her face. “What did you do to her?!”

“I – ” Hermione began. And stopped. What had she done?

“She’s not moving! She’s not…” Liv’s voice started as a high-pitched and panicked scream, but then and without warning sank to a soft and drowsy murmur. “She’s not… she’s not… ah… I don’t know what… ahh… dunno what’s goin’ on…” Her eyes drooped.

Hermione could only stare as the girl swayed back and forth.

“Dunno wass gooin’… ah-h-h-hh…” With that, Liv’s eyes closed, and she sank down onto Hermione’s bed. “No… I… ahh…. zzzz…” She was snoring lightly even before her head hit the soft mattress.

Startled, Hermione scampered to her feet, and then saw that the other two girls had gone limp as well, and had dropped to the floor like a couple of rag dolls.

Only Dean was still on his feet. He looked agitated, but not surprised.

“What… what’s happening?” Hermione tried to keep her voice from turning into a shrill scream. “Why is… I mean, how… what’s going on?!”

Instead of answering, Dean raised a hand to point at Sirena, who was still like a statue and not reacting to anything. “Did you do that?”

“Did I do what?! No, of course I didn’t –” Hermione stopped her panicked tirade before it even begun. That strange feeling inside her, the weir way time had seemed to slow down… Her initial sense of panic was starting to fade, replaced with a sense of awed confusion. “Actually…” she heard herself say. “Actually, I think I did. I don’t know how… but I must have.”

“Because I did that.” Dean pointed at Liv and the other girls, who all seemed to have slipped into a deep sleep.

“But how…” Hermione began.

“No idea,” Dean said. “Look, I… I can sometimes put people to sleep, all right? I have three younger sisters and they sometimes get annoying and… sometimes I can make them fall asleep.” He pointed at the frozen Sirena. “And it looks like you can freeze people by wanting it.”

“But this is stupid!” Hermione protested. “It shouldn’t be possible to make people just fall asleep like that, or freeze them, or…”

“I know it shouldn’t be possible,” said Dean. “But fact is that three girls are asleep, and I know I did it. And one girl is impersonating a statue, and you know you did it.”

“Wait… was this what you meant when you said you knew a few tricks?” said Hermione. “Is it… is it some kind of hypnosis?”

“I think it’s some kind of magic,” said Dean.

“Magic?” Despite herself, Hermione scoffed. “Don’t be silly. Magic is just superstition. It’s just a term people use to explain away things they don’t understand…”

“Oh, stop talking like a grown-up,” Dean said with a frown. “It’s just your imagination, Dean. Don’t tell stories, Dean. There’s a natural explanation for everything, Dean. I get enough of that from my parents!”

“But it can’t –”

“How did it feel?”


“How did it feel, when you made Sirena freeze up?”

“I…” Hermione paused and tried to recall the moment, before the confusion and panic. “I don’t know, it felt like… it felt weird. Like nothing I’d ever felt before, really. But it also felt… it also felt… good?” Trying to put words around it, she could hear how silly it sounded.

“Like your insides were on fire, except not in a bad way,” said Dean. “Am I right?”

“Huh,” said Hermione. “I… yes. Well, more like electricity than fire, really, but that’s not a bad description.”

“Because that’s how I feel when I put people to sleep,” said Dean. “Don’t tell me that’s just some kind of hypnosis! That’s magic!”

Hermione opened her mouth to argue, but then stopped to think. Magic only existed in books, in fiction and legends; she’d known that for years. And yet… Her eyes fell on Matilda, which was still firmly held in Sirena’s frozen grip. She’d thought that book was just fiction too, but freezing the girl had felt almost exactly like Matilda’s experience had been described. Was it possible that things that everyone knew only existed in books… might actually exist in real life? The thought both excited and scared her. She lived in a world where it was possible to make people fall asleep or freeze in place just by wanting it. And really, hadn’t she already known that? For years she had been able to make dozens of books fit into spaces that should logically only fit six or seven. Wasn’t that just as impossible, when you got down to it?

“All right,” she said. “Let’s call it magic, at least until we find out more about it.”

“And how do you suggest we do that?”

Hermione’s initial panic had all but died down by now. All she felt was a burning curiosity; a need to find out more. “Well, if we have these abilities, there must be other people who do as well, don’t you think?”

“Maybe, but I’ve never met any,” said Dean. “Not before I met you. If you have any ideas on how to find these other people, let me know.”

Hermione pondered. “There’s not a lot we can find out while stuck here at camp. I wish we had access to the school library… or maybe even the computer lab. There must be a book, or at least a website, or… something about people turning into statues…” She looked at Sirena, still stiff like a statue, and then at the other girls, still sleeping peacefully. A slight feeling of concern welled up: she didn’t like these girls, but having them sleep forever or remained permanently frozen seemed like it would be disproportionate retribution. “Do you think they’re going to be okay?”

“Liv and the others should wake up in half an hour or so, and be just fine,” said Dean. “My sisters always do. I can make them sleep for longer than that if I want, but it’s usually just half an hour. As for Sirena… I don’t know. She’s breathing all right, she just isn’t moving. Maybe you should try unfreezing her.”


“I don’t know! You were the one who froze her in the first place! Just do what you did then, except backwards!”

After a moment’s hesitation, Hermione took a long breath, and then stared deeply into Sirena’s unmoving eyes. Move, she thought, trying to summon up the weird feeling of electric heat. Unfreeze. Wake up.

Nothing happened.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Hermione sighed. “I don’t know how. If I had some kind of instructions to follow, or someone who could tell me what I was supposed to do…” She exchanged looks with Dean and knew they were thinking the same thing: The instructors and the other campers wouldn’t be any help. Neither would it do much good to call their parents. That really only left one option… “We’re going to have to check the school library. I’m rubbish with computers, but I’m good with books. Maybe there are some books on hypnosis or mysticism or something that can explain what’s going on.”

“Not very likely, is it?” said Dean.

“No,” she agreed, “but it’s the only plan I have. We’ll have to sneak into the library.”

“Library’s in Oak House, above the dining hall, and it’ll be lunch soon,” Dean pointed out. “How were you planning on getting past all the people?”

“Well…” Hermione sighed. This wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but… “How many people do you think you could make fall asleep at once? And do you think you could teach me how to do it?”

“Oh, will you look at this,” said Phoebe in an annoyed tone. “There’s no way this was all accidental. Nobody could manage to knock out this many people accidentally.”

All over the school grounds, Muggles were lying on the ground, all in a deep sleep. Boys and girls, small children and older teenagers, and a few scattered adults, all blissfully unconscious and unaware that the ground they were lying on was still wet after the night’s heavy rain.

Careful of her pregnant belly (she was really feeling bloated these days!) Flora leaned over one of the smallest girls to make certain she was all right. Luckily, apart from having decided to take a nap in wet grass, the girl seemed quite healthy. “Hope they don’t catch a cold,” she said. “It’s not like they have Pepper-up Potion here. Still… if I’d known everyone was asleep, I would have kept my green wig instead of putting on this dull brown one.”

“Always one to focus on the unimportant details, aren’t you?” Phoebe grumbled. “If I were you, I’d focus more on all the work we have in front of us. A school full of Muggles to wake up from a magical sleep, make sure their clothes are clean and dry, and make sure none of them remembers being put to sleep in the first place… we’ll be here for hours. All because some overeager little Baby-Prude discovered she could put people to sleep and decided to get ambitious about it.”

Flora straightened herself and shot Phoebe a dirty look. “Don’t use that word.”

“What‘Baby-Prude’? It’s just an expression. It means a Prude who isn’t old enough for Hogwarts yet.”

“It’s insulting! And frankly, it’s more than a little disturbing,” said Flora. “Calling Muggle-borns ‘Prudes’ is bad enough, but ‘Baby-Prude’? That’s just icky.”

“”You Yanks are more prudish than the Prudes are,” Phoebe huffed. “One of my coven-wives is Muggle-born, and she doesn’t mind being called ‘Prude.'”

“Well, one of my coven-wives is Muggle-born too, and she does mind,” Flora countered. “Come on, you’re supposed to be working for the Muggle Liaison Office. If I have to say ‘Muggle’ instead of ‘No-Maj,’ the least you can do is say ‘Muggle-born’ instead of… that word!”

“The difference is that nobody here in the UK knows what a No-Maj is, while everyone knows what a Prude is,” said Phoebe haughtily. “Speaking of which, we have a Baby-Prude to find.”

“Will you stop saying that?!”

“Will you stop looking for excuses to be offended? Come on!”

Flora bit back an acidic reply. Why couldn’t she have been partnered with Mandy on this assignment? Her coven-wife was so much more understanding… not to mention, a lot more professional about these things. Despite smart-looking business suits and Flora wearing her most mundane wig, she and Phoebe didn’t come across as a very professional pair.

But then, professionalism was often an afterthought in the Muggle Liaison Office. Honest exceptions like Mandy aside, the entire Office was made up of witches who were either freshly out of Hogwarts and lacked the job experience to get a more substantial job, who simply didn’t have the ambition to get a better job… or were just temporarily re-assigned while on break from more demanding jobs.

Flora belonged to this last category; for as long as she was pregnant her coven had insisted that she take a break from her work with dragons and instead went for a safer and less strenuous job.

So she’d let herself be talked into joining the Accidental Magical Reversal Squad, which was pretty much the least taxing job in the Ministry. Entire shifts could pass without anything happening, so you were free to just sit around and play cards or read Muggle crime novels. And even when there was an assignment, it was usually was just a matter of matter of finding a scared and confused young girl who had accidentally turned her annoying aunt purple or whatever, calm her down and reassure her that nothing was wrong with her, and then give her the standard “you’re a witch, and yes, magic is real” speech, before reversing whatever accidental magic she’d done… and if you had children of your own (and Flora of course had twelve in her coven) reversing accidental magic was pretty much second nature and took very little effort.

Sometimes it could get a little tricky if there were a lot of Muggle witnesses who needed to either have their memories modified or be fed some cover-up story, but this didn’t tend to be too much of a challenge either. As long as you took care to dress inconspicuously and didn’t leave too many traces of magic around where the Muggles would find them, you were pretty much good.

The weird part was that… well, even though Flora missed her dragons and had every intention of going straight back to the Dragon Researchers once her daughter was born, and she was off maternity leave… she kind of liked meeting new Muggle-borns. There was something incredibly adorable about their reactions when they found out that magic was real. Flora, who had grown up around magic, could only imagine what it felt like to make that discovery.

It took a few minutes, but finally the location spells kicked in enough to inform Flora and Phoebe that the Muggle-born in question was located in the biggest building on campus… a large stone building that for some reason sported a sign over the entrance door saying OAK. It made a little more sense once you entered the building and stepped into the entrance hall. The exterior of the building was stone, but inside there was a lot of wood… wooden floors, wooden panels and a grand wooden staircase. Flora had no clue about different wood sorts, but it could very well be oak.

Flora and Phoebe made their way through the entrance hall, taking care to not step on any of the Muggle children who where sleeping on the floor, and up the wooden staircase.

Upstairs, at the end of a rather boring hallway, a pair of glass double doors led to what was obviously a library. Through the glass, behind tall bookshelves, it was possible to make out a moving figure. There, that would be the Muggle-born. Why she had decided to visit the library, Flora had no idea… she’d have to ask about that…. but then, she was surprised to see that there were two figures moving behind the bookshelves.

“Hah!” said Phoebe, sounding oddly triumphant as they approached the doors. “Two Baby-Prudes!”

“You’re just doing it on purpose now,” Flora sighed.

“Course I am, but that’s not the point. If there are two of them, that goes a long way to explain how they could knock out all these Muggles. They teamed up!” She shrugged. “Oh well. Looks like we’ll be giving the standard ‘you’re a witch’ speech to two girls at the same time. That’s convenient. Come on!”

They opened the door. Now, two hushed voices could be heard, one slightly deeper than the other:

“—don’t think you’ll find the answer in a children’s book!”

“How do you know? Maybe the author has the same powers and wrote the book as a hint!”

“I’m telling you, we should look for books about mysticism and hypnosis, not fairy tales!”

“Fairy tales can be very – shh!” The deeper voice suddenly cut itself off. “Did you hear that?”

“It’s all right, girls!” Flora spoke up, making certain her voice was calm and reassuring. “You’re not in trouble. My name is Flora, and this is my colleague, Phoebe. I bet you have a lot of questions right now… we’ll do our best to answer them. Please come out so we can talk.”

Slowly, hesitantly, a girl of about eight stepped out from behind the bookshelf. She had brown skin, an unruly mop of frizzy hair, and large front teeth, and she was clearly trying to look like she wasn’t scared at all. And right behind her –

Flora blinked.

“A boy?” Phoebe sounded about as astonished as Flora felt.

“Er… hi?” said the boy uncertainly. He was almost a head taller than the girl, and his skin was a shade or two darker brown than hers.

“I don’t believe it!” said Phoebe. Her astonishment was quickly vanishing to be replaced with annoyance. “What are you two doing here? And what do you think you’re doing, putting sleeping spells on an entire school of Muggles? Haven’t your parents taught you anything? We thought there was a Baby-Prude here, someone who didn’t know any better, but honestly! What coven do you belong to? Your parents are going to have to have a serious talk with the Ministry – did you just try to put a sleep spell on me?!” She looked at the boy, shocked and outraged.

“Er…” The boy just gaped at her.

“Isn’t this fucking typical!” Phoebe growled. “Whenever a coven gets a boy, they end up spoiling him, and he thinks he’s allowed to do everything.” She turned to the girl. “Young lady, what were you thinking, letting your brother run amok among Muggles?”

The girl, who had looked just as astonished as the boy, suddenly got an indignant look on her face. “He’s not my brother!” she said. “What, just because we’re both black, you think we’re related?”

“Phoebe…” said Flora. “I don’t think they belong to a coven. Either of them.”

“What are you talking about?” the girl demanded. “What’s a coven?”

“Don’t be absurd,” said Phoebe, though her voice was softer now, with a growing edge of unease. “Are you saying they’re both Muggle-borns? There hasn’t been a male Muggle-born since… since Tom Riddle…” She trailed off and just stared.

As Phoebe’s annoyance faded, the Muggle-born girl’s annoyance seemed to rise. “Excuse me?” she said. “Hello? Could someone explain what’s going on here? You said you could answer questions! Well, I have questions!”

“Right. Sorry.” Flora looked at the two children, trying to gather her thoughts. Of course. She couldn’t let her own surprise and confusion get in the way of the most important part of this assignment. No matter the sex, there were still two confused Muggle-borns here who needed answers. It was just that the standard Muggle-born speech she’d had to memorize kind of escaped her mind at the moment. “Um. Sorry, what’s your names?”

“I’m Hermione Granger,” said the girl. “And this is my friend,” (she stressed that particular word) “Dean Thomas. We’re not related.”

“Not even distant cousins,” said the boy. “Far as I know, anyway. I’m not quite up on my family on my biological father’s side… and we do both seem to have these weird powers…”

“Powers. Yes,” Flora said hurriedly, happy to have a topic to grasp onto. “That would be magic. See, some people are born with magic powers. You two are witches.”

“Hah!” Dean looked triumphantly at Hermione. “Told you it was magic!” Then he frowned. “Wait… witches?”

“Yes! Well, that is… Hermione, you’re a witch. Dean, you’d be a wizard. Sorry, there just aren’t a lot of wizards around, so Phoebe and I, we were kinda put off our stride here.”

“So…” said Dean hesitantly. “I’m a wizard? Hocus pocus, light fires without matches, turn people into frogs, control the weather, make broomsticks fly, that sort of thing?”

“Well, broomsticks are traditionally for witches, weather control is restricted by the Ministry, and you really shouldn’t turn people into frogs, that’s just mean,” said Flora. “But… yes, pretty much.”

Hermione opened and closed her mouth a few times, as if about to say something and then thinking better of it. After a few false starts, she settled for: “So it really is magic… I mean, it’s not just some form of hypnosis.”

“Maybe a demonstration’s in order.” Flora pulled her wand out of her pocket. “What’s your favourite colour?”

“Er… pink?”

“Then watch this.” Flora flicked her wand towards Hermione’s yellow t-shirt, which immediately shifted and turned a cute light pink. Her blue shorts followed suit, turning a deeper, darker pink.

Hermione shrieked in surprise.

“That was so cool!” said Dean. “Do me! My favourite colour is red!”

Flora obliged, and Dean’s light blue t-shirt turned a bright, fiery red.

“It could be a trick,” said Hermione, a little shakily. “You could have hypnotized us both and made us think we saw our clothes change colour…”

“But I didn’t,” said Flora. She very gently placed a hand on Hermione’s shoulder. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but magic is real.”

Hermione looked at her and then sighed. “I know,” she said, in a tone that was part relief and part annoyance. “I think I always knew. It just sounded too ludicrous to say it out loud… magic is real and I’m a witch.”

“You get used to it,” said Flora comfortingly.

“I suppose you would,” Hermione agreed. “How, though?”

“How do you get used to it?”

“No, I mean… how am I a witch? What happened to me to make me a witch?”

“Nothing happened to you, you were just born that way,” said Flora. “Just like me… or just like Dean. for that matter. Magic is something you’re born with. it’s as simple as that. Look, how about we all sit down somewhere, and I’ll explain everything. Then we can see about reversing your magic afterwards. I promise you, everything’s going to be all right.”

Phoebe, who had been mercifully silent during all this, suddenly grabbed Flora’s shoulder. “Could I just have a quick word with you first?” she said sweetly.

“Um… okay,” said Flora. “Excuse us for a moment.” She let Phoebe drag her off to a corner of the library, leaving Dean and Hermione to talk excitedly among themselves.

“This is big!” Phoebe hissed as soon as they were far enough away from the children. “The girl won’t be a problem, but the boy… He’s a boy! A Baby-Boy-Prude! What do we do about this? You realize we have to report this to the Office?”

“First of all, never say ‘Baby-Boy-Prude’ again,” said Flora. “Second of all, let’s take a moment to think here. What’s the Office going to do when they find out we have a male Muggle-born here? Place him under supervision? Take him away from his Muggle family and forcibly place him in a coven to ‘educate’ him on the ways of the witching world?”

“Well… probably.”

“That’s cruel! Besides, I’ll admit I’m no expert on recent witching history, but wasn’t that exactly what they did with Tom Riddle? Took him away from his Muggle life to be raised by a coven? Look how that turned out!”

“So what are you suggesting?” said Phoebe. “Let him grow up in the Muggle world and not be prepared for what he’ll face in the witching world? You know that the moment he steps into our world, all eyes are going to be on him. They’ll eat him alive if he’s not prepared! Besides,” she added as she thought of another argument. “No matter if we try to keep this hidden, the Ministry’s going to find out sooner or later. Do you want to explain to them that we found a male Muggle-born and didn’t report it?”

“All right, all right,” said Flora. “I’ve got it. Here’s what we’ll do. If we can put off reporting this to the Ministry for a few days, I can contact someone. A friend of my coven. I’m sure he’ll be able to help.”

“Friend of your… Oh, no,” Phoebe groaned. “Don’t tell me you’re talking about that tosser Albus Dumbledore!”

“Okay, I won’t tell you,” said Flora sweetly. “But I am.”

CHAPTER 7: The Story of Tom and Lily

In which Dumbledore talks about the difference between cocoa and chocolate, and Holly is not afraid of stories about terrorists.

“It’s quite simple, really,” said Mr Dumbledore. He indicated the scarlet bird, now perching on top of a bookshelf and looking very pleased with itself. “Fawkes here is a phoenix.”

“A phoenix,” Holly repeated.

“Also known as a firebird,” said Mr Dumbledore. “Not the type of bird you will ever learn about at St. Grogory’s Primary School, but a fascinating creature all the same. Among many other things, they have the power of Apparition — instantly transporting themselves, and any passengers they might take, from one place to another.”


“Speaking of which, I hope your transportation here wasn’t too startling? I did ask him to be gentle, but it seemed like you needed help rather urgently.”

“It was… no, it was fine.” In truth, with all the magic that had happened the last two days, she’d rather expected for something much like it to happen — vanishing in a burst of flame and reappearing somewhere else — but it had taken the breath out of her for a bit.

It did help that Mr Dumbledore had been quite calm and friendly about the whole thing. He’d been waiting for them as they appeared in his study, and had listened to Holly’s somewhat breathless explanation with a look of understanding.

Now that she had calmed down a little, Holly could look around and appreciate her surroundings a little more. She had never really speculated on what a wizard’s study might look like — but if she had, she would probably have imagined something much like this. Huge and circular, with a glass ceiling, filled with star-charts, strange devices, a work-bench filled with what could only be described as “laboratory stuff” and enough books to start a small library. 

There was also a large table in the middle of the room, currently occupied by the baby-girl-who-had-once-been-Dudley. Watched over by a towering Hagrid, the baby was now wearing an orange baby overall that Mr Dumbledore had made appear out of nowhere, and was happily gnawing on a biscuit.

“Well,” said Mr Dumbledore. “Let’s see about your cousin. How’s it going over there, Hagrid?”

“Oh, fine,” said Hagrid. “Think yeh’re right, Albus. Looks like some variant of an Age-Regression Charm, combined with a Sex-Change Charm. Gotta say, that’s some impressive magic, ‘specially for someone who never had a lesson in her life,” he added with a look at Holly. “Well… since the secret’s out, migh’ as well say it: Welcome ter the witchin’ world, Holly!”

“Er… thank you,” said Holly, feeling a slight blush coming on. Now that the shock was fading, and she was looking at the baby, who was making little cooing noises as she swallowed the last biscuit crumb, she couldn’t help but think that she’d changed Dudley for the better. It was almost impossible to imagine that this was the same Dudley who teased and tormented, who tried to punch her and pull her hair, who always got her into trouble with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and laughed about it afterwards. Was it really so bad that…?

No! What was she thinking? Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon would kill her if she came home with a baby girl and tried to tell them that this was Dudley!

“I shouldn’t worry too much,” said Mr Dumbledore, as if he’d guessed what she was thinking about. “This sort of magic seldom lasts for very long. It takes a lot more than just a fleeting moment of fear and anger to change anyone’s sex or age permanently. Dudley will be back to himself soon enough.”

“Oh…” Holly felt the relief flow through her body, but there was a strange tinge of disappointment there too. Of course she was happy that no permanent harm had been done, but… well… it was almost depressing to think that before long, the Dudley she knew and loathed would be back, and this adorable little girl would be gone forever.

“Of course,” said Mr Dumbledore, in a mildly reproachful tone, “it wasn’t a particularly nice thing to do to your cousin.”

“Ah, bet he deserved it,” rumbled Hagrid. “Yeh know Dudley. Most spoiled brat in Little Whingin’.”

“Perhaps so, but I doubt regressing him to the state of an infant will help him grow up any.” Mr Dumbledore turned to Holly. “Generally speaking, Holly, we do not turn people into babies just because they are acting badly. For one thing, we wouldn’t be able to move for babies. For another, you are not supposed to use magic on those who have no magic themselves. “

“You mean Muggles?” said Holly.

Mr Dumbledore’s eyebrows raised slightly. “Oh, so you know that word already? And here I thought I was making things less confusing for you. Yes, I mean Muggles. And you’re not supposed to use magic on Muggles, unless it’s an absolute, life-or-death emergency. There are strict rules against it… besides, it’s not fair to the Muggles.”

“But…” said Holly helplessly.

He gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Believe me, I understand. Dudley Dursley can be an extremely trying person. And all your life he has been the one with power over you… a power he’s been foolish enough to use, time and again. And then when you are suddenly the one with power over him… Well, older and wiser witches than you have lost control in similar situations. Many of them weren’t even sorry afterwards.”

“Bdumm-bdumm-bdumm-bdummmmm!” The baby girl added, strumming on her lips with a tiny hand.

Holly stifled a giggle.

“To be frank,” Mr Dumbledore continued, “I sometimes worry that witches — and wizards, for that matter — get so caught up in their own magic that they forget Muggles are people too. They have been given a special gift… an amazing gift… and end up looking down on others who don’t share that gift. That sort of thinking leads to some nasty places.”

His tone was light, but all of a sudden Holly felt ashamed. That was exactly what she’d done, wasn’t it? She remembered all too well her own words of ‘I’m a witch and you’re just a stupid Muggle.’ Words that had been immensely satisfying at the time, but now seemed stupid and nasty, even if they were said to someone like Dudley.

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking down.

“It’s all right,” said Mr Dumbledore. “You are young, and you didn’t know. Both Hagrid and I have been trying to convince your aunt and uncle for years that you needed to be told about your heritage, or something like this would happen. But they wouldn’t listen to a word we said. They were convinced that if you didn’t know anything, you wouldn’t end up following in your mother’s footsteps. A foolish hope, of course, but one they kept clinging to.”

“Ma-wiwela,” the baby girl assured her, whatever that was supposed to mean.

Holly looked up again then. “So… you two really are wizards, then?”

“We are,” said Mr Dumbledore. “I’m sorry we didn’t have this talk earlier, but… let’s just say that we don’t have much of a legal standing. Your aunt and uncle don’t like us very much, and neither does much of the witching world, if I’m to be honest.”

Years with the Dursleys had taught Holly all too well that there are a lot of people who will instantly dislike or even hate anyone who is different — either because they look or dress or talk differently, or because they live their lives in ways that’s different from the norm. So she hurried to say, in the most reassuring way she could: “I like you. I think you’re the nicest people in all of Privet Drive!”

Mr Dumbledore smiled warmly. “That’s very sweet of you, Holly. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. Let’s just say we have some ideas and philosophies that just aren’t seen as very acceptable.”

“Is it because you’re bohemians, or because you’re gay, or because you aren’t in a coven?” Holly asked.

Hagrid guffawed at that, but Mr Dumbledore just looked at her in mild surprise. “All of them, I suppose,” he said. “Or I should say, those are the reasons for why the witching world doesn’t like me too much. Hagrid is a slightly more complicated case.”

” ‘M part giant,” said Hagrid gruffly.

“Part giant?” Holly gasped. “Like in the fairy-tales? Castles in the sky, Fee-fi-fo-fum, grind his bones to make my bread, and everything?!” (Though the Dursleys did not like fairy-tales, probably because there was often magic in them, school and libraries had assured that Holly still had a basic knowledge of the more common ones.)

“Well, castles in the sky, I dunno… bu’ the bread outta bones part’s pretty accurate,” said Hagrid. “Witches in general, they don’ like giants much. Got a bit of a reputation, yeh might say. But I stopped bein’ ashamed o’ me family ages ago,” said Hagrid. “Got lotsa friends now what don’ care one way or the other.”

“Oh…” Holly paused and then smiled at him. “Well, I like giants. If they’re like you…”

“Not really,” said Hagrid. “But thank you anyway.” He ruffled her hair, surprisingly gentle for such a large man.

“Years ago, when I decided to become a private investigator, I needed an assistant,” said Mr Dumbledore. “Hagrid was available and willing, and I have to say I have not regretted for a moment taking him in. And so, we both manage quite well without being in a coven.” He chuckled, then he looked at Holly again. “I wasn’t aware you knew about the covens, though. How much do you know about the witching world?”

“I know a bit,” said Holly. “I know that covens are large witch families with one husband, many wives and many children. And that lots of witches are lesbians…” and then she remembered something. “Oh! Lily said to tell you that she knows you let her win that duel!”

That got their attention. Both Mr Dumbledore and Hagrid looked at her with raised eyebrows.

“Lily?!” said Hagrid. “How in the name o’ Merlin did yeh…?!”

“I think,” said Mr Dumbledore gently, “that you had better explain this a little closer. Please, have a seat.”

Holly sat down in the offered chair.

“Now then,” said Mr Dumbledore. “Please, tell us the entire story. How did you talk to Lily?”

And Holly told them. About the cupboard under the stairs that had called to her for as long as she could remember, about how she had met Ronnie who told her how to open the padlock, about the wand and how she’d fallen asleep and met Lily in her dreams. Both men listened intently — even the baby-girl-who-had-been-Dudley was looking at her with curious blue eyes.

When the story was done, Mr Dumbledore stroked his auburn beard thoughtfully for a moment before speaking. “It seems that you have had one of the most unique introductions to the witching world I have heard of. But then, your situation is pretty unique in and of itself.”

“But you believe me, right?” said Holly.

“Of course,” said Mr Dumbledore. “I won’t say I’m not surprised, though. I had no idea Lily was aware I let her win that duel; I thought my loss was quite convincing.”

“How the devil… ‘scuse my French, but how the devil is she inside the wand now?” said Hagrid. “Never heard of anything like that before!”

“Lily was an extraordinary witch,” said Mr Dumbledore. “And that wand is an extraordinary wand. Speaking of which… Holly, may I see it for a moment?”

Holly nodded and held out her wand.

Mr Dumbledore gently took it and he held it up. “Yes, I would recognize this wand among thousands of others. There has never been a wand quite like it… and probably never will be. If Lily wanted to leave part of herself behind to watch over her daughter… Well, this is the wand that could help her do it.”

“So… it’s a good wand then?” said Holly, a little hesitantly. “Lily didn’t really say anything about it, only that it used to be hers and now it’s mine…”

“It’s more than a good wand,” said Mr Dumbledore. “It has a long and very interesting history. One day I’ll tell you all about it… for now, all I’ll say it this: Take good care of it.”  He handed it back to Holly. “Look after your wand, and it will look after you in return. The day may come when it saves your life.”

Holly clutched the wand. “I’ll look after it,” she promised. “Do you think Lily will talk to me again?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Mr Dumbledore. Then, somewhat thoughtfully, he added: “Though I wouldn’t tell too many people about it, if I were you. It’s common enough to dream about the dead, but this is a somewhat unusual situation…”

Holly looked at the wand again. While it would have been interesting to find out more about it, there was another question that seemed a lot more important right now. “Mr Dumbledore,” she said. “How did my parents die? I know it wasn’t a car crash.”

He paused for a bit, and then he nodded. “You do deserve to know.”

One of the good things about Mr Dumbledore, Holly thought, was that unlike Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia, he didn’t get angry or blow you off if you asked him questions. He listened, and he took you seriously enough to have proper grown-up conversations with you.

“I hope you’ll forgive me if I save some of the details for when you are older,” he went on. “But the basic story is one that almost everyone in the witching world knows. In fact, you yourself are famous for your part in it.”

“Famous? Me?!” Holly blinked. “Because my parents are dead?!”

“Not exactly. It’s a pretty long story. Hagrid — would you fetch us some hot chocolate?”

“Oh!” Hagrid suddenly brightened. “Chocolate! O’ course, righ’ on it! C’mon, Dudley, yeh can help me make it!”

“Wah-dah-dah!” the baby cheered, and then squealed in delight as he picked her up in one of his enormous hands and began moving for the door.

“Hagrid is good with chocolate,” said Mr Dumbledore cheerfully as he turned back to Holly. “There’s nothing like a cup of hot chocolate for long stories. Besides, I have the feeling that some chocolate might speed up your cousin’s recovery.”

“That’s good,” said Holly, but and found that she meant it — even if there was a slight twinge of regret. Dudley’s disposition was so much sunnier and sweeter like this — whether it was because he was currently a baby, or because he was currently a girl, or a combination of the two, she didn’t know. This was a Dudley she could have loved… She shoved the thought away. No point in thinking about it.

“Now then,” said Mr Dumbledore. “How much did Lily tell you?”

“Not that much,” said Holly. “She said she and my Dad were killed by some man named Tom Riddle, because he wanted… something. Was he a wizard too?”

“One of the worst,” said Mr Dumbledore. “Or one of the best, depending on how you look at it. He was certainly a very powerful wizard… did things that nobody else could. Unfortunately, he also did things that nobody ever should.”

“Like what?”

“Well… I think, before we get to the story of your parents, I need to tell you a little about Tom Riddle, who he was and why he did what he did. This is a pretty dark story, so let me know if it gets too much for you.”

“I’m not scared!” said Holly immediately.

“A lot of people in the witching world were, when he was at large,” said Mr Dumbledore. “Do you know what a terrorist is, Holly?”

“Er…” Holly thought for a moment. “It’s someone who blows up buildings, hijacks planes, and kills people?”

“That’s a little simplified, but for the purpose of the argument, it’s a good definition,” Mr Dumbledore decided. “Well, Tom Riddle was what we might call a wizard terrorist, though he himself claimed to be a revolutionary. He wanted to change the witching world, turn it into a place more to his own liking. Understandable enough, perhaps, but he decided that the best way to do that was to kill a lot of people.

“You see, like most terrorists, Riddle had a goal: He wanted to get rid of the coven system. He really hated the thought of having to start a coven.”

“But he didn’t have to kill people for that!” said Holly. “If he didn’t like the covens, couldn’t he just do what my parents did and not join one? Or you and Hagrid? Lily said you could say no to joining a coven…”

“Oh, you can,” Mr Dumbledore agreed. “But saying no comes with a price, especially for wizards. If a witch decides she doesn’t want to be in a coven… that she would rather focus on her career, or chooses a Muggle man, or is — as you say — a lesbian… nobody will mind. But a wizard who says he does not want a coven… because there are so few wizards to begin with, he’s not going to make himself very popular with that choice.

“Now, it was really this last part that Tom Riddle had a problem with.  He claimed that the covens were designed to keep wizards under the thumb of witches… not to mention, they unfairly favoured witches who were in some way seen as ‘better catches.’ The rich and powerful, not to mention the beautiful. Those witches never lacked for attention or covens to join. The plain and the poor tended to get bypassed, even if they wanted a coven. And of course, there were the non-humans or half-humans, who weren’t allowed to join covens, even if they wanted to, and who had fewer rights and less privileges because of it…

“Riddle ended up with a lot of followers. Most of them were people who likewise got a bad deal of the coven system or felt unfairly treated by the witching world at large… but there were those who joined him just for the chance of some power, or because they just felt like blowing up buildings and killing people. And Riddle gave them ample opportunity to do just that.

“For more than ten years, Riddle and his followers terrorized the witching world. They had an uncanny way of showing up out of nowhere, wreak a lot of destruction, and then vanish again before anyone could do anything. And even if Riddle did stay to fight… he occasionally did, probably just to show how powerful he was… he never got hurt. People started to call him ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Die,’ because he survived things that would have killed anyone else. Up to and including having his head chopped off with a sword.”

Holly nodded slowly. She was only just starting to discover the world of magic; a few days ago she wouldn’t have thought anyone could have opened a padlock by blowing on it, or changed an eight-year-old boy to a baby girl either, so the fact that someone could survive having their head chopped off seemed reasonable… but from the way Mr Dumbledore spoke, this seemed to be a rare thing even with magic.

 “It got harder and harder to find a safe place, because Riddle and his followers could turn up just about anywhere at a moment’s notice. There are spells and magical charms that can stop intruders, but normal magical protections meant nothing to Riddle. No-one ever found out just how they did it… most people agree that he was using some secret magics known only to him.  The only places he could never reach were the ones that were guarded by elves or nymphs.”

“Elves and nymphs!” Holly exclaimed, momentarily forgetting the tale of horror at this new piece of information. “They exist too?”

“Oh, yes,” Mr Dumbledore confirmed. “Many of the creatures that Muggles only know from fairy-tales do exist. Elves, nymphs, dwarfs, giants, centaurs… unfortunately, Riddle managed to get many of them on his side. He got most of the vampires, the werewolves, the giants, the hags, the goblins, the Veela…”


“Beautiful women who look human but turn into monstrous bird-people when they get angry,” said Mr Dumbledore. “I don’t know what Riddle offered them, but he was good at making promises to his followers. He never got any of the elves or the nymphs, though. There was nothing he could offer that they were interested in, and their protective magics were among the few things his own powers, secret or otherwise, could not penetrate. Which was why so many witches sought their protection.”

Mr Dumbledore paused for a very brief moment, as if he was remembering something. “And then there were your parents. At the time, they didn’t seem like they were in particular danger from Riddle… after all, he mainly went after the covens. And as you know, your parents weren’t in a coven.”

At that moment, the story was momentarily interrupted by Hagrid, who came back in through the door. In one enormous hand he was carrying a thrilled baby-girl-who-used-to-be-Dudley, and on the other he was balancing a tray with four steaming, pink mugs; two normal-sized, one very big, and one about half-size, with double handles. “Got the chocolate!” he said cheerfully.

“You are a treasure, Hagrid,” said Mr Dumbledore. “Sit down, and make sure Dudley is comfortable. I’m just getting to the part where Tom Riddle attacked Lily and James.”

“Already?” Hagrid blinked. “Blimey, we weren’t gone that long. how much did yeh leave out?”

“Enough to fill several books,” said Mr Dumbledore. “But I find it’s best to understand the basic story first, and then details can come later. Try the chocolate, Holly, before I continue.”

“Thank you.” Holly accepted one of the steaming mugs and blew on the hot liquid before taking a careful sip.

The taste almost exploded in her mouth. Aunt Petunia sometimes made cocoa for Dudley, and allowed Holly to have whatever was left of it after her cousin had his second cup, but this was ten times better. It was rich and sweet and creamy, and she had to stop herself from downing it all in one large gulp.

“This is the best cocoa I’ve ever tasted,” she breathed.

“Glad ter hear it,” Hagrid chuckled. “Bu’ this isn’t cocoa. It’s chocolate.”

Holly blinked. “Isn’t that the same thing?”

“Not at all,” Mr Dumbledore said. “Not a bad word about cocoa, mind you; it can be quite nice on a cold day. Even those instant synthetic powder drinks one usually gets nowadays aren’t completely without their charm. But real hot chocolate, Holly, that’s something entirely different.” His voice turned nearly poetic. “Quality dark chocolate and milk chocolate, carefully melted together in roughly equal amounts, and mixed with warm milk. That’s what we serve in this house.”

“Aye-yie-yuh!” said the baby-girl-who-had-been-Dudley. She was stretching out and trying to reach the mugs that Hagrid had placed on the table.

“Bit too hot fer yeh yet,” said Hagrid gently, pushing the mugs a little farther away.

The Dudley Holly knew would have thrown a temper tantrum or at least started whining when not immediately getting his way. The baby girl just looked at Hagrid with big, blue eyes, before sitting down and starting to suck her thumb again.

“Good things are worth waiting for,” said Mr Dumbledore. He turned back to Holly. “Now — where were we?”

“You were talking about my parents and how they weren’t in a coven.”

“Oh, yes. Well, luckily not everyone who disliked or just wanted no part of the coven system went the terrorist route. Lily and James simply decided to, as Lily put it, ‘get married, Muggle-style,’ and not bother too much about what everyone else thought.”

“And you helped them, right?” said Holly. “Lily said they’d never have been able to get married if not for you.”

“Did she, now?” Mr Dumbledore actually looked surprised at this. “I’d say that’s a bit of an exaggeration. As someone who never fit in with the system myself, I’ve always tried my best to help other people who didn’t — but in the case of your parents I barely did anything. I talked to a few people, nothing more.”

“Ah, don’ yeh listen to him,” said Hagrid. “James’s family were talkin’ about disowning him if he didn’ ‘see sense’ an’ get five or six wives like everyone else. It was Albus who talked ’em out of it. An’ James who’d barely set foot in the Muggle world, didn’ have the necessary papers in order ter get married the Muggle way, an’ Albus was the one who fixed all that.”

“I really didn’t do anything they couldn’t have done for themselves,” said Mr Dumbledore.  “I just happen to know a lot of people that could help make things pass a little more smoothly, that’s all. Anyway, it really has nothing to do with this story.

“As I said, at first there was no reason to believe Lily and James were in any particular danger from Tom Riddle. There was a chance he would try to sway them over to his side like he had done with so many others, but there was nothing to indicate that they would be major targets.

“But then… they had only been married for a couple of years, and you were about a year old… At the time I was doing my best to help stop Riddle. And one of the things I had managed was to get a spy in on his side. Well, this spy contacted me and said that Riddle was going to attack Lily and James. I knew they would need my help, so I immediately left for their house.

“I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I’d got the information sooner, or been a little quicker.” He sighed. “But I suppose it doesn’t really do any good pondering what might have been. Riddle got there before me.”

“And… he’d already killed my parents?” said Holly.

“Well…” Mr Dumbledore looked solemn. “That is where the story takes an unexpected turn. James was dead when I arrived, but Lily was still alive. Fighting against Riddle. At the other end of the room I saw you, lying on the floor — luckily, you were just asleep and not dead. I think you had been hit by a sleep spell, and Lily was trying to shield you.  Using the very wand you are now holding in your hand, in fact.”

Holly looked at the wand again.  She felt a weird sensation in her stomach, a sort of a mix between awe and regret. This wand had defended her against a wizard terrorist…

“Lily didn’t even seem surprised to see me,” Mr Dumbledore continued. “She just screamed at me to take you and get you out. Unfortunately, that moment’s distraction was all Riddle needed to send off a curse directed at you.

“To this day, I don’t truly know why he chose to use that moment’s distraction to target you instead of Lily, or even me. One would think that out of the three of us, a sleeping one-year-old would be the one posing the least threat to him. But he seemed determined that whatever else happened, you were not going to survive that night.

“But — and here is the main reason why you have become famous — the curse did not kill you. I had seen Tom Riddle cast that particular curse several times. Whoever he hit with that curse always died instantly… until he tried to curse you. In your case, the curse only graced you, and only left one mark…”

Holly lifted her hand to touch her stomach. Through her shirt she could feel the familiar form of a lightning bolt. “My scar,” she said.

Mr Dumbledore nodded. “Yes,” he said gently. “That’s no ordinary scar on your stomach. It’s the mark that a very powerful wizard tried to kill you and failed. You are the only person in living memory to survive that particular curse. That’s why the witching world gave you the name ‘The Impossible Child.’ “

There was a brief moment of silence as this sank in. Holly traced the contours of her scar through her shirt. She’d always known there was something special about that scar, but this…

“What happened to Tom Riddle?” she finally said. “And to Lil — to my Mum?” (The word still felt weird in her mouth, but somehow this seemed like a time to ignore the weird sensation and use it anyway.)

“That,” said Mr Dumbledore, “is the second reason why you are famous among witches. You see, when the curse failed to kill you, it fell back on Tom Riddle. He tried to block it, but Lily was on him, and they were both engulfed in green fire. Lily once more screamed for me to get you to safety. I knew from experience that I would not be able to put out the fire in time, and that I only had seconds to act. So I did as she said, grabbed you and Apparated out of the house. Just in time too, because just as soon as we were out…”


“The house exploded.”


“The house and everything in it. James’s body, Lily and Tom Riddle… all gone. But we lived, and without a scratch… well, apart from the mark on your stomach.”

Holly let out the breath she’d been holding. She suddenly realised she had forgotten about her half-finished hot chocolate, so she took a big gulp of it, put the cup down on the table and looked at Mr Dumbledore. “You saved my life.”

“I think Lily saved your life more than I did,” he answered. “Something she did… I’m still not completely sure what… caused Riddle’s lethal curse to fail and fall back on him. Unfortunately, it cost her her own life.”  

Holly wasn’t certain what to say. She had often wondered about her parents. She’d known they were dead, of course — that had always just been a plain fact of life that there was nothing to be done about. But she had wondered what they were like… they had to have been better than Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. But she’d never dreamed that they would have such a dramatic story behind them. Getting married even if society itself didn’t want them to, being the targets of a magical terrorist, and then dying while protecting her. And blowing up their house, and the terrorist, in the process. And for all these years, she hadn’t known anything about it.

“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” said Mr Dumbledore gently.

“Yeah…” Holly looked down at her wand. “But… But Lily is still around, right? She’s right here. She’s not alive, but… Wait!” She blinked. “Does that mean Tom Riddle is still around somewhere too?! He had a wand, right? Maybe he’s haunting that wand!”

Mr Dumbledore looked thoughtful. “We never found his wand,” he said. “In fact, the only thing we found in the rubble that had survived the explosion completely intact was Lily’s wand. Or your wand, now. But,” he continued, “I think you might be right. Most of the witching world think that Tom Riddle is dead and gone forever; they’ve been hailing you as a sort of hero because you were the one who made his curse fail and ultimately defeat him. But I have always suspected he wasn’t completely gone. Now that I know that Lily isn’t, I’m more certain than ever that Tom Riddle is still out there somewhere.”

“Got ter be powerful reduced, though,” said Hagrid, who hadn’t spoken in a while. “Reckon he’s out there somewhere, too weak ter carry on. Summat happened to him, cause his followers lost a lotta their power after that day. Without him, they couldn’t come an’ go anywhere they liked anymore, became a lot more vulnerable. ‘Sides. A lotta them kinda came outta trances, they’d been placed under spells an’ curses to make ’em loyal followers, bu’ without Riddle ter keep the spells goin’, they broke free. Don’ reckon they could’ve done that if Riddle wasn’ at least near-death himself.”

“Aaaa-bwoeh!” said the baby-girl-who-had-been-Dudley. She had been sitting there silently and sucking her thumb for a while, but now she seemed to decide that enough was enough. She grasped for the small mug of chocolate on the table.

“All righ’,” said Hagrid. “Reckon it should be cold enough now… here yeh go.”

“Tah,” said the baby girl. She held the mug in both hands and began drinking noisily.

“What about the spy?” Holly suddenly said. “The one who told you that Tom Riddle was going to attack my parent. What happened to him?”

“Her,” Mr Dumbledore corrected. “And I wish I knew. She vanished, and I never found out what happened to her. But, as Hagrid said… Riddle’s followers were reduced. Even the ones who followed him willingly only had a fraction of the power they once had. Most of them were arrested and sent to prison shortly after. It’s not unthinkable that one of them got to the spy and killed her out of revenge.”

“That’s sad,” said Holly.

Mr Dumbledore nodded. “It is.”

All of a sudden, there was a half-choked gasp of surprise where the baby girl was drinking her chocolate.

Holly turned to see that the baby was growing rapidly. Her hair shortened, her face morphed and her belly expanded as her arms and legs grew longer. The orange baby overall thankfully expanded at the same time, and so — just seconds later — where the baby girl had been sitting, there was now the familiar form of Dudley. Wearing an oversized orange baby overall and a shocked look on his face.

“Ah,” said Mr Dumbledore calmly. “I hoped Hagrid’s chocolate would help speed up your recovery. Welcome back, Dudley. How are you feeling?”

Dudley blinked. Then he threw the empty mug down onto the floor and jumped to his feet, pointed a shaking, furious finger at Holly. “YOU!” he roared. “You turned me into a baby! A baby girl!”

Holly instinctively cowered. “I didn’t mean to!” she defended herself. And felt a pang of regret that the adorable baby girl was gone. This had been such a pleasant visit too… well, all right, not pleasant. It hadn’t been pleasant to hear about her parents’ deaths or Tom Riddle. But it had been fascinating to learn about everything, and there was so much more she wanted to know. Not to mention — having a long talk with Mr Dumbledore and Hagrid, and being treated like someone worth talking seriously to, had made her feel quite grown-up.  But with Dudley back and screaming his head off, it looked like the talk was over.

“You’re a freak! You’re a bigger freak than I ever knew! Mum and Dad are going to kill you!” Dudley raged, clearly back to his old loathable self again, even if he seemed far less intimidating dressed in a baby overall. “They’re going to kill you! And I’m going to watch, and I’m going to LAUGH!”

“I don’ think that’ll happen,” said Hagrid firmly.

But Dudley wasn’t listening. “And — and — and you two!” He glared madly at both Hagrid and Mr Dumbledore, so angry that he was shaking and stammering. “You’re — you’re even bigger freaks! I’m going to tell Mum and Dad everything, and, and they’ll call the police, and you’ll be thrown in jail! And — and — and — Holly’s going to do all my homework for the next year!”

“What? No, I’m not!”

“We had a deal!” Dudley screamed, oblivious to what he’d just ruined for her. “You said you would do it! You owe it to me!”

“You said you wouldn’t make a deal!” Holly raised her voice to a near-scream. “I don’t owe you anything!”

“You turned me into a baby!!”

“You deserved it!”

“Excuse me. If I might say something?” Mr Dumbledore’s voice was quiet, but something about it made both Holly and Dudley stop screaming and turn to look at him. “Thank you. I get that you’re upset, Dudley. But this isn’t getting us anywhere productive. So, I suggest that instead of wasting a lot of time screaming at one another, we sit down and make a deal.”

“A deal?” Holly and Dudley chorused.

“Yes. Dudley — this bullying of your cousin has got to stop. It’s unacceptable.”

“Mum and Dad don’t think I’m doing anything wrong!” said Dudley, perhaps a little too hurriedly.

“This is, unfortunately, true. But while I could never make them listen to me, I did hold out hope that you might be more reasonable. While it’s a good thing to honour our parents, I’ve learned long ago that you don’t have to follow them in everything.”

Holly had to bite her lip not to laugh out loud at the idea of Dudley being reasonable.

“I’d also ask you to consider,” Mr Dumbledore continued, “Not only is it a risky business to bully an untrained witch… magic might flare up and do worse than just turn you into a baby for a little while… but it’s also an appalling way to treat a family member.”

Dudley looked at him, and then for some reason looked down. “She’s just my stupid freak cousin,” he said in a low, sullen voice. “She’s not family.”

“Liked yeh better as a baby girl,” Hagrid muttered.

Mr Dumbledore, however, didn’t change his tone at all. “Well, then,” he said. “If familial bonds won’t make you treat your cousin better, what will?”

There was a clear struggle on Dudley’s face. But once again, his greed won. “I’ll leave her alone if she does all my homework for a year. No, for two years. Three years!”

Mr Dumbledore shook his head. “I’m sorry, but that is unacceptable. You’re asking too much and giving too little in return. Besides, you really should do your own homework, Dudley. It may not be fun, but you’ll be glad later on that you put in the work.”

Dudley snorted. “Yeah, right. “

“You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to,” said Mr Dumbledore. “But it’s true. Nevertheless, I think I have a better offer. Please, have a seat.”

Dudley looked suspiciously at him. “If Mum and Dad find out I’m gone, they won’t stop looking for me!” he warned.

“Oh. I would say your father’s afternoon nap will last for a while yet, as will your mother’s television shows,” said Mr Dumbledore cheerily. “We’ll have you both back home safe and sound before either of them begin to worry. Now, let me tell you my suggestion…”

CHAPTER 6: Stupid Baby Girl

In which Holly loses her temper, and Dudley gets in touch with his feminine side.

Holly’s visit to Number Seven did not happen as soon as she’d hoped.

Originally, she’d planned to go straight over there the very same afternoon… but the Dursleys had other plans. Though she’d managed to sneak out of the cupboard and replace the padlock before Aunt Petunia had come home, or Uncle Vernon found out where she was, her aunt and uncle had kept her busy with moving out into the garden shed, packing her meagre belongings and carrying them out to her “new home.”

There hadn’t really been all that much to pack. Her school uniform, of course, and her other clothes. Her school bag and school supplies (second-hand, of course). A few books and blankets. Her secret food stash, hidden inside a rolled-up blanket so that no Dursleys would find it. She wasn’t too surprised to learn that she wouldn’t be allowed to take her desk or bed, because “they belonged to the house!” and that all the furniture she’d get out in the shed was an old, rather lumpy mattress and a small chest to keep her clothes in.

By the time she’d moved everything and tried to make everything as homey as possible, it was time for dinner. Fish fingers and chips today; not the most elaborate of meals, but not bad. As usual Dudley got half the fish fingers and most of the chips.

“I hope you appreciate the trouble your uncle went through for you, girl,” said Aunt Petunia as they ate. “Taking valuable time off work to give you a place of your own. I don’t suppose you’ve even thanked him properly, have you?”

Holly swallowed her chip and then gave Uncle Vernon her sweetest smile. “Thank you for the lovely shed, Uncle Vernon,” she said. “I’ll be very happy there!”

Uncle Vernon’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth as his brain apparently tried to process Holly’s words. Finally, he seemed to draw the conclusion that she was making fun of him, because he slammed the fork down on his plate and gave her a nasty look. “Don’t you cheek me, you ungrateful brat!” he snapped.

“No, Uncle Vernon,” said Holly, the very picture of goodwill and obedience.

“And I hope you’ve noticed that new code lock on the cupboard under the stairs,” Uncle Vernon continued. “Only I know the combination to that lock, so don’t even try to fiddle with it!”

“No, Uncle Vernon,” Holly repeated. In truth, the cupboard under the stairs — the same cupboard that had called out to her all her life — no longer interested her in the slightest. She’d discovered its secret, she’d got the wand that was her birthright, and now the cupboard didn’t have anything to do with her anymore.

She carefully moved her hand down to stroke it over her skirt, to feel the vague contours of the wand in her pocket.

You wouldn’t have thought that a wand that was longer than Holly’s forearm would fit in a shallow skirt pocket, but it was as if the wand shrank, or maybe it was her pocket that expanded into some strange unknown dimension, because it had slid right in with no problem and it was impossible to tell from the outside where it was. Certainly none of the Dursleys had noticed.

Not even Uncle Vernon, when installing the new code lock, had noticed that the wand was no longer in the cupboard. Holly was rather proud of herself for the simple trick she’d performed to fool him: Before she had sneaked out of the cupboard, she’d removed the lower bar from one of the coat-hangers and placed it on the floor where the wand had been, covering it with dust as well as she could. Now it almost looked like the wand was still there… at least if you didn’t look to closely at it to see that the new “wand” was notably shorter and shaped differently. But Uncle Vernon apparently wasn’t in the habit of looking closely at the wands he locked up in cupboards, so the trick had worked.

Dudley polished off the last fish finger and shoved his plate away. “Can I leave the table?” he asked. “I want to go up to my new room,” (he gave Holly a very gleeful look as he said this) “and decide where I want the television.”

“Of course you may, poppet,” Aunt Petunia cooed at him.

Uncle Vernon clapped him jovially on the shoulder. “Just let me know if you need any help, Dudley,” he said. “A boy your age should have a place to call his own.” Then he looked at Holly. “And you can do the dishes. And afterwards you can go to your room — I mean, your shed. You know, to settle in properly.”

“Yes, Uncle Vernon,” said Holly, still keeping her tone sweet.

Uncle Vernon glared suspiciously at her, but didn’t say anything more.

And so it was that Holly found herself in the shed after dinner, with no real way of sneaking off to see Mr Dumbledore.

Not that she was locked in the shed or anything — there wasn’t even a lock on the door — but the garden was fenced in with hedges it was impossible to climb (she’d tried a number of times!) and the only way out was through the house, where Uncle Vernon was having his after-dinner nap and Aunt Petunia was watching one of her inane television programs. It’d be impossible to get past them.

She walked over to the lumpy mattress that had been placed by the far wall, underneath the dirty window, and sat down on it, trying to get herself comfortable as she looked around at what was to be her new home.

It wasn’t exactly a palace. Not even half the size of her old bedroom, but a lot emptier, and (despite the lack of Dudley’s broken toys) a lot dirtier. Uncle Vernon had cleared out the shed, but not bothered to clean it, so there were still cobwebs on the ceiling and dirt in the corners. Over the creaking door, a bare lightbulb promised illumination if she flicked on the light switch, in the opposite corner, an electric heater promised heat if she plugged it into the socket, and that was that.

However… she had a secret weapon. Shifting, she pulled the wand out of her skirt pocket.

Once again, she let her fingers slide over the smooth, polished wood. The wand felt nice to touch. (Holly wondered if Lily could feel this; maybe it felt like having her hair stroked.) “What do you think, Mum?” she said. And grimaced a little. The word ‘Mum’ felt weird and unfamiliar in her mouth, especially when she tried to connect it to the little girl she’d talked to in her dreams. “Lily,” she corrected herself. “I’m going to call you Lily. Is that okay?”

The wand didn’t answer, but Holly had a vague feeling that Lily didn’t mind.

What was it she’d said? You can learn how to fly, how to how to conjure things out of thin air, how to turn invisible, how to disappear from one place and reappear in another. If all those things were possible with a wand, then Holly shouldn’t have any problems sprucing this place up a little… or maybe even get past the Dursleys to go see Mr Dumbledore.

Of course, she didn’t actually know how to use the wand. (She had some vague notion that you were supposed to wave it about and say some sort of magic word… probably she’d learn all the magic words at this Hogwarts place.) Still, there was no harm in trying, was there?

“Hokery pokery!” she commanded, waving the wand about, and completely failed to turn invisible.

“Squiggly wiggly?” she added, thrusting the wand out in the air, and did not rise up in the air.

“Flibbertigibbet?” she tried, tapping her forehead with the wand, and remained exactly where she was without suddenly appearing at Number Seven.

This wasn’t working.

Holly looked at the wand again, thinking back at all the things Lily had said.

Most of the details were still sharp and fresh in her mind, which was rather unusual for dreams. As a rule, Holly only vaguely remembered her dreams; they were clear and vivid while she had them, but the moment she woke up they started to seem vague and indistinct. Lily was different, though; the mental image of the girl was like etched into Holly’s memory. She could have described that red hair and those green eyes in detail, for her inner ear she could still hear that merry laughter… and if anyone had ever asked, Holly was certain she could flawlessly have recited almost their entire conversation.

Holly was a witch. She had magical powers, and now she also had a magic wand. That much was beyond any reasonable doubt. Even if she didn’t yet know how to control her magical powers, they were still there, somewhere deep inside her. Hadn’t she, the last couple of days alone, made a lawnmower move on its own, opened padlocks without a key, and made Uncle Vernon ignore her in the cupboard just by willing it?

Now that she thought about it, she could recall other incidents that might have been magic… strange little things. Wasn’t there something, last year, when Dudley had broken her glasses… and then when she’d looked closer the glasses were fine? At the time she’d just thought that she’d been wrong and that the glasses had never been broken at all, but maybe it was her magic that had repaired them?

She had to talk to Mr Dumbledore. If he really was a wizard, he’d know all about it. He could probably tell her what to do. At least until she was old enough for Hogwarts.

Then another thought struck her. Lily had said that she would try to help Holly out, hadn’t she? No doubt Lily had known all kinds of magic when she was alive, and being a spirit haunting a magic wand probably meant she knew even more. And Lily was here… all right, Holly couldn’t see her or talk to her, but she was holding the wand.

I can only talk to you in dreams, Lily had said. Holly closed her eyes and tried to feel whether she was sleepy enough to take a nap — but she wasn’t.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. She held the wand out, peered at it through her glasses and tried to recall Lily in detail. Tried to imagine that she was talking directly to the girl and not to a wand. “Please,” she whispered. “You said you would help me. Can’t you at least give me a proper bed to sleep on, so I won’t have to sleep on a lumpy mattress on the… on the… oh…”

Her voice trailed off as a strange sense of calm began spreading through her body, and her hands began moving of their own accord. It was as if she had suddenly turned into a puppet, controlled by the will of someone else. It was a thought that should have scared her, but all she could feel was a sense of comfort, combined with the growing warmth deep in her chest that she was starting to think of the feel of magic.

Still on its own account, her right hand brandished the wand and tapped it against the mattress she was sitting on. Then, she felt herself shift and be raised up into the air as the mattress grew… and grew. The lumps vanished, and the mattress turned softer and springier, as a wooden bedframe formed around it. Pillows of scarlet and gold popped up and formed on one end of the growing bed, while one of the worn blankets grew to become a thick, warm quilt.

The feeling of magic faded, and her hands flopped as the controlling force let up on it.

She was sitting on the largest, softest, most comfortable bed she had ever seen. Even Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon’s super-king-size bed was small in comparison. It was a bed that was really much too large for the small shed… but somehow, just like with the wand and her pocket, it fit perfectly while still leaving plenty of floor space.

For a few moments, Holly could do nothing but stare in astonishment. Then, she burst into laughter and planted a big kiss on the wand. She rolled around, jumped and bounced on the wonderful new bed, giggling uncontrollably.

Magic! It was amazing!

After having bounced around on the bed for a while, she flopped down onto her stomach and lay still, just enjoying the feeling of the suddenly-very-comfortable mattress. She’d sleep like a baby in this bed, she knew it. Maybe she should try to…?

Just as she was about to take off her glasses and snuggle up for a nap, there was a pounding on the door. Holly sat up with a start.

“This is the police!” came a depressingly familiar voice from the outside. “You’re under arrest!”

Holly groaned and sat up. Stupid Dudley! Wasn’t it enough that he’d just got a new game room? Did he have to come out here to bother her when she wanted to be left alone? Of course he did. Teasing and tormenting her was his favourite hobby, and it wasn’t like Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia would make him stop.

“It’s illegal to live in sheds!” Dudley’s voice continued from the other side of the door. “You’ll get fifty years in jail for this!”

“Go away, Dudley!” Holly called.

“I’m not Dudley!” said Dudley, trying to make his voice sound as deep as possible. “I’m Chief Constable Carter and I’m here to arrest you!”

Usually, Holly tried to just ignore it when he harassed her in this childish way. Dudley had never been patient, and tended to get bored if he didn’t get the reaction he wanted, so it was usually best to just retreat to a secluded place and wait him out. But now, her blood was starting to boil. Wasn’t she a witch? Didn’t she have a wand, and couldn’t she do magic? Who did this… this Muggle think he was, trying to pick on her?!

Clutching the wand in her hand, she marched over to the door and tore it open, staring straight into the smirking face of her cousin. “Watch it, Chief Constable!” she snapped. “I just happen to be a witch! And unless you go away, I’ll turn you into a frog or something!”

“A witch!” Dudley laughed. “Yeah, you’re ugly enough to be one! Hey, what’s that you’re holding?” he added, looking at the wand in her hand and reaching out a hand.

“Keep your filthy hands off that!” Holly pulled away, clutching the wand protectively to her chest.

“Give it here!” Dudley made a grab for the wand. He couldn’t possibly know what it was, but as so often before; if Holly wanted something, that made him all the more determined to grab it for himself.

“No!” Holly pulled back again as he lunged for her.

“Give it!”


“Give — what’s that giant bed doing there?!” Dudley stopped mid-lunge as his eyes caught sight of Holly’s wonderful new bed. His eyes widened, and he turned to look more closely at it. First with astonishment, then with envy. His own bed wasn’t half as big. “Where’d you get that?”

Holly was breathing heavily. “I told you, I’m a witch,” she said. “I magicked it here. Now get out, or I’ll magic you too!”

“There’s no such thing as magic,” Dudley scoffed, parroting what Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had said. An evil smile spread on his wide face. “I bet you stole it,” he said.

“What?!” Holly’s anger vanished, replaced with a sense of dread. This was going in a direction she hadn’t predicted. “I didn’t steal anything! I’m a witch, not a thief! Besides,” she added hurriedly as she thought of something else, “where’d I steal a bed from? And how’d I get it home without anyone seeing me?”

“I don’t know, but you didn’t get it from us,” said Dudley. “And we don’t know anyone else who would ever give you a present! So you stole it!” He guffawed. “Wait’ll I tell Mum and Dad about this! You’re going to go to prison for real!”

“No!” Holly wasn’t stupid enough to believe the part about going to prison, but she could well imagine the trouble she would be in if her aunt and uncle found out she’d taken the wand, or that she had tricked them about it. As Dudley made for the door, she darted over to the door to block his exit.

“Get out of my way!” he commanded.

“Only if you promise not to tell Aunt Petunia or Uncle Vernon!” Holly tried to make herself as big as possible. Dudley was bigger, heavier and stronger than her, and could probably push her aside with relative ease, but she was determined to do what she could to stop him.

Dudley looked at her. She could tell that he was torn between wanting to torment her a little more, and getting her into trouble with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. Finally, as so often was the case with him, greed won the battle: “What’ll you give me if I don’t?”

“I… don’t have anything,” said Holly. “Unless you want the bed, but I don’t think you could get it out of the shed…”

“I don’t want the bed.” Dudley held out his hand. “Give me that stick.”

“No!” She clutched the wand and shook her head vehemently. 

“Then I’m going to tell Mum and Dad.” He grabbed her by the shoulders to push her aside.

“Wait!” she cried. “I’ll do your homework for a year!”

That got his attention. Dudley hated doing homework, and though his parents never minded that he did poorly in school, teachers did have this tendency to get a little tetchy if the students didn’t do their homework. “Even maths?”

“Even maths,” she agreed, even though she hated maths almost as much as he did.

Dudley paused. He didn’t let go of her, but he looked at her with a slight frown as if trying to figure out whether she was lying or not. “Say you’re a stupid baby girl first.”


“Say you’re a stupid baby girl. Or the deal’s off.”

Holly swallowed. “I-I’m a stupid baby girl?”

“Louder!” Dudley demanded, revelling in his position of power over her.

“I’m a stupid baby girl!”



Laughing, Dudley finally let go of her shoulders. “That’s right, you are!” And with that, he shoved her so hard that she nearly lost her balance. “Only a stupid baby girl would believe that I’d make a deal with her! Mum and Dad are going to kill you!”

That was when something snapped inside Holly. For the second time in as many days, she felt as if something exploded in her chest, sending streams of fire out through her veins. The fire she’d felt when making the lawnmower move was nothing compared to the torrent of white-hot burning that now streamed through her body. She had never hated anyone more than she hated her cousin right now.

The door to the shed slammed shut. With a surprised yelp, Dudley was flung up into the air and was sent hurling through the shed until he landed on the bed, bouncing up and down on the springy mattress.

“Are you… are you out of your mind!” Dudley tried to sit up. He didn’t appear to be hurt, but his voice was strangely breathless, and he was struggling to speak. “I could have broken… could have broken my neck, you stupid…! Aaaah!” He suddenly shrieked, his boyish voice suddenly becoming higher and more feminine, as his short blonde hair decided to grow longer, and his body and face began changing.

Panicking, Dudley tried to raise himself, but now he was starting to shrink. “What’s happening!” he shrieked, his voice now unmistakably that of a girl, as his clothes became looser and hung off his rapidly diminishing body.

No… her rapidly diminishing body. As the clothes fell off and bared Dudley’s shrinking form, it became clear that Dudley wasn’t only shrinking, but turning into a girl as well.

Dudley raged, clutching tiny fists. “Make it stop!” Her voice turned more and more high-pitched and babyish. “I’m telling Mum and Dad! I’m tellin’… I’m tewwin’… I’m… teww… no, pwease, I… pweathe… gaaa bpphh-tthhhh… gooo daaa.” And then, Dudley was gone. In his place, surrounded by his clothes, sat a naked baby girl.

“Hah!” Holly crowed triumphantly. “Who’s the stupid baby girl now, Dudley?! I’m a witch and you’re just a stupid Muggle! You’re a stupid Muggle baby girl!”

But then, reality came crashing down on her. What had she done?! Now Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon really would kill her!

“Dudley!” She threw herself down on the bed next to the baby girl. “Dudley, I’m sorry! I swear I didn’t mean to do that! You just made me so angry, and… Dudley?”

The baby girl looked at her with big, blue eyes, and then started sucking her thumb. The transformation, Holly realized, was complete and total; there was nothing left of Dudley as she knew him in this little baby; those eyes held no anger or recognition, no sign of any mental activity beyond that of a normal one-year-old girl. She hadn’t just made Dudley look like a baby girl, she’d made him… her… think and feel like one too. A baby girl who couldn’t even walk, or talk, or understand what was going on, much less be able to remember that she was supposed to be an eight-year-old boy.

Holly raised herself and looked out the window, half-expecting to see Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon come running… but the garden was quiet and empty. It seemed like the noise from the shed hadn’t reached the house. Holly breathed a very small sigh of relief… but only a very small one, because she was certainly still in trouble. She flopped back down onto the bed and held her wand up in front of her face.

“Lily!” she pleaded. “You’ve got to help me! Dudley’s a baby girl, and I don’t know how I did it, and I don’t know how to undo it!”

A sudden whooshing and crackling noise from above made her lift her head in surprise. And stare in shock as a large bird appeared in a burst of flames, flapped its wings and landed elegantly on the bed next to Holly.

This bird was like no other bird she’d seen. It was slightly smaller than a swan, its plumage was a brilliant scarlet, and it had a long tail that looked almost like a peacock’s, except it was golden in colour. In it golden beak, it was holding a folded-up piece of paper, which it dropped down onto the bed in front of Holly, before looking at her, cocking its head this way and that.

“Er… hello?” said Holly uncertainly.

The bird chirped. It sounded like a strange mix of a flute and a baby eagle. Then it motioned with its head to the piece of paper, which Holly could now see had her name written on it in purple ink. HOLLY POTTER.

“Is that… a letter?” said Holly. “For me?”

The bird nodded, in an almost human way.

The baby girl that had been Dudley had looked at the bird in awe for a while. Now, she eagerly reached for it with her small hands, laughing in delight as the bird ruffled its feathers at her.

Accepting (at least for now) that the bird wasn’t going to try pecking their eyes out or anything like that, Holly gingerly picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. The handwriting was elegant and flourishing; perhaps a little hard to read, but she managed to decipher it:

Forgive me for contacting you in this manner, but it seems like you are in dire need of assistance. The bird’s name is Fawkes; he is an old friend of mine and will help you bring your unfortunate cousin to my home. Just make sure you hold your cousin in your arms, and then grab hold of his tail-feathers, and he will take care of the rest.

I will explain everything when I see you in person. Don’t worry, we’ll sort this out.

Albus Dumbledore.

Holly looked at the bird, which was now having its feathers clumsily stroked by a very enthusiastic baby girl.

“Fawkes?” she said.

The bird chirped again.

“Right,” said Holly.

How in the world had Mr Dumbledore known what was going on here? Maybe the spirit of Lily had contacted him somehow… or maybe, if he really was a wizard, he just knew things. For a few moments, she wondered whether it really was such a good idea to grab hold of strange birds on the say-so of letters with handwriting she didn’t know… but then again, the alternative was to stay here and face the wrath of Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon when they found out what had happened to their son.

“Come on, Dudley.” She scooped the baby girl up in her arms. “We’re off to see the wizard.”

Tentatively, she grabbed hold of Fawkes’s long golden tail.

And the world vanished around them in a torrent of flames.

CHAPTER 5: A Weasley Visit

In which the Weasleys come to tea, and Fred confirms her gender.

“All right… nine, ten… stand still, Lydia! Ten. Did I say ten? I think I said ten.”

“You’ve counted Charlene twice, Dad.”

“Have I? Oh, bother…”

Just as Holly was preparing to break into the cupboard under the stairs at Number Four, the Weasleys were standing outside Number Seven, trying to make certain that everyone was present.

The Weasley coven, at the moment, counted eighteen members. There was of course coven patriarch Arthur Weasley, and his five wives, Molly, Francine, Alice, Amanda and Flora… and of course, their twelve daughters, from sixteen-year-old Will to four-year-old Lydia.

“…eleven, twelve, and six adults make eighteen!” said Arthur, relieved. “Everyone present and accounted for!”

“Why doesn’t this Albus Dumbledore just get a Floo connection?” said Flora. She was the youngest of Arthur’s wives and her American accent stood out in the mix of Devon and Estuary accents spoken by the rest of the family, almost as much as her bright green hair stood out in a sea of redheads and blondes… and her rounded belly hinted that it wouldn’t be long before a thirteenth child joined the family. “You can’t tell me it wouldn’t be more convenient than having everyone arrive on foot. Less chance of wandering children too.”

“I said I was sorry,” Ronnie muttered.

 “It’s okay, Ronnie.” Ten-year-old Fred patted her on the arm. “We had fun while you were gone.”

Fred’s twin sister, Georgina (or “George” as she preferred to be called) nodded. “Especially when that Muggle lady told Flora-Mum her hair looked like…”

“Yes, thank you, George!” said Amanda.

“…And then Mandy-Mum went all…”

“I said thank you! Since we’re all here, maybe someone can finally ring the doorbell and inform the people we’re here?”

“Let me!” said Arthur eagerly. “Muggle doorbells are so fascinating!” He looked about as excited as the youngest girls, as he gathered his robes around himself and walked up to the door. “Let’s see if I remember this… you just put your finger on the button like so…” He looked delighted at the sound of a chiming bell.

Seconds later, the door opened, and the doorframe was filled by the exceptionally large form of Hagrid.

“Hagrid!” a couple of the youngest girls cried happily. While children who didn’t know Hagrid were sometimes intimidated by how impossibly large he was, it seldom took long before they learned that he was much gentler and kinder than his appearance suggested. The Weasleys had got to know Hagrid quite well over the last couple of years, and now four-year-old Lydia and five-year-old Marlyssa stormed up to him to hug him; each girl grabbing onto one of his sides even though he was much too wide for either of them to reach around him.

Hagrid’s bushy black beard split into a grin. “Hello there!” he boomed, gently ruffling the hair of Lydia and Marlyssa. “There yeh are! Was startin’ ter wonder if yeh’d got lost or summat!”

“Yes, hello….” Arthur had the decency to look sheepish. “Sorry we’re late, Hagrid. It’s a little difficult to keep track of twelve children sometimes.”

“And a husband who spends five minutes looking for a parking meter even though his very Muggle-born wife keeps insisting that there won’t be one,” said Amanda dryly.

“Ah, well, you know, better safe than sorry…”

Hagrid guffawed. “No worries,” he said. “Don’ jus’ stand there, come in! Tea’s ready!”

 A few of the Weasleys looked at each other. “Tea?” said Alice. “You mean the, the potion, surely?”

“Yeah, that too! C’mon in!” Hagrid stepped aside (Lydia and Marlyssa squealing in delight as he effortlessly lifted them up and carried them along) to let the flock of adults and children past.

They stepped in through the door and into the hallway. Most of them had never been here before, and the children looked around the unfamiliar room, which had colourful patterned rugs on the floor and magnificent-looking landscape paintings on the walls, so realistic that the many potted plants that were placed somewhat willy-nilly along the walls almost seemed like they were part of the landscapes.

Despite his vast bulk, and despite currently carrying two little girls, Hagrid was surprisingly light on his feet. He led the Weasleys up the staircase that led to the first floor, and none of the steps so much as creaked a protest under his weight.

The Weasleys were almost orderly and well-behaved as they followed. Of course Nella tripped on the first step and had to be picked up and put back on her feet, and Persephone was sighing about how you couldn’t take children anywhere, which again caused Ronnie to suggest that Persephone go and boil her cabbage head… but all in all there weren’t any incidents.

The twins, usually the loudest and most exuberant of the Weasley daughters, were unusually quiet as they walked hand in hand up the stairs.

Fred and George were not identical twins. While they were more alike than different —the same long red hair, the same mischievous brown eyes, and the same freckled noses, and the same colourful dresses — when they were next to each other like this it was easy to see that Fred was slightly taller and skinnier than George. There was another difference too, but that was one the family had spent the last year or so preparing to erase.

“Nervous?” George whispered, clutching her twin’s hand.

“Nervous, me?” Fred’s laughter wasn’t quite sincere. “I’ve never been nervous in my life! What’s that word mean, again?”

George giggled. “That’s it, you’re getting a dictionary for Christmas.”

When they reached the first floor, none of them were particularly surprised to find that it was much larger than the ground floor; really it was much larger than the outside of the house allowed for. The hall they now entered was enormous; there would easily have been room for a hundred people here… or perhaps fifty, if they were all the size of Hagrid.

Here, the décor was wilder and more exciting, to the point of being impossible; here the paintings were grander and livelier; a ship on the sea was moving back and forth, with seagulls flying about, and a stately-looking wizard on the portrait opposite the ship turned to look at the flock of people as they passed, waving and winking to a couple of the girls. There were doors of all shapes and sizes on the walls; some small and wooden, others big and made of iron, and one of them looked like it had just been drawn on the wall with chalk.

And perhaps most fascinating of all: While most of the floor was polished marble, over at the very end of the hall it seemed to fade into dirt and grass, to fit very nicely with the small grove of sturdy oak trees that somehow grew and thrived there and looked perfect for climbing in. Between the trees hung an unusually large hammock, with a patchwork quilt almost the size of a tent draped over it, and on one of the branches, a large scarlet bird was unconcernedly preening itself.

It was the sort of place that just begged to be explored by a group of curious girls, but Hagrid just led them over to the chalk door.

“Everything’s ready here in the study,” he said. He touched the chalk drawing, which slid aside to reveal a new large room.

This room was large and circular, with a domed class ceiling, its walls filled with shelves containing myriads of leather-bound books and strangely glowing devices. The few patches of wall that were not occupied by shelves, had mysterious-looking star-charts, chalkboards filled with strange equations, and — interestingly — a photograph of the Beatles in their heyday, bearing the signatures of all four members of the band. A work-bench opposite the entrance gave part of the study the feel of a mad scientist’s laboratory with its assortment of test tubes, beakers, burettes, Bunsen burners, and flasks with liquid in various colours… but the large table in the centre of the room had a white crotchet tablecloth and a brown clay pot where yellow dandelions were blooming cheerfully, as well as tea cups, classes, a large teapot and several places of cakes and biscuits.

By this table sat Albus Dumbledore, now dressed in a yellow poncho over a smart blue business suit, together with a short plump woman with long, straw-coloured hair, dressed in a scarlet velvet jacket over an embroidered trouser suit that seemed just a little too tight around her belly.

“Weasleys are here, Albus,” said Hagrid, setting Lydia and Marlyssa carefully down onto the floor.

“Welcome to all of you!” Albus raised himself and motioned to the woman, who was just swallowing  a large gulp of tea. “I do believe this is the first time I have had your entire family under my roof at the same time!”

“Well, it was easy to get all the children,” said Arthur, shaking Albus’s hand. “Summer holidays are here and they’re all home from school. Harder to get all the adults, really… work schedules and all that.”

“I’m very happy that you managed, at any rate,” said Albus. “A number of you will no doubt remember Hortense — but for those of you who do not: This is Hortense Slughorn, the mastermind behind the Mulierarius potion.”

“Of course we remember,” said Molly. “How do you do, Professor!”

“Oh, no no no!” said the woman with a shake of her head. “It’s not ‘Professor’ these days, my dear Molly! I haven’t been ‘Professor’ since I made the best decision of my life and opted for early retirement!”

“Sorry. How do you do, Hortense.”

“That’s much better,” said Hortense Slughorn. “Pleasure to see you again, of course! And Arthur! And, let me see… I remember Amanda, Francine and Alice from the old classes, but I don’t seem to remember this pretty young thing. Interesting hair colour… you don’t see many green-haired witches these days.”

“I’m Flora,” said Flora, obviously pleased at being called pretty. “And it’s not my real hair.”

“Well, you never know,” said Hortense. “Dyed? Charmed?”

“It’s a wig.” Flora smiled sweetly. “I’m bald as a cue ball.”

“Bald as a — my goodness!”

“And no wonder you don’t remember me, I didn’t go to Hogwarts.”

“Good heavens, why ever not?” Hortense tried to collect herself. “Oh, wait, no, of course… your accent. Ilvermorny girl, are you?”

“Kansas girl, really… but yes, I did go to Ilvermorny.”

“Fancy that! And now you’re here in jolly old England, and married to the Weasleys… And expecting, I see!” Hortense indicated Flora’s round belly. “I do believe congratulations are in order! This will be your first, will it?”

“Actually, yes,” Flora blinked in surprise as her hand almost absentmindedly stroked her belly. “How did you know?”

“Oh, when you’ve lived a life like mine… I could tell you stories…” Hortense looked at the gathered children. “But perhaps not just now.”

“Indeed not,” said Albus Dumbledore. “Since you have met four-fifth of the adults here, Hortense, let me just introduce the young ones — this is Wilhelmina, Charlene, Anna, Persephone, Winifred —”

“It’s Frederica!”

“Ah, my apologies. Frederica. And Georgina, Elaine, Veronica, Nella, Ginevra, Marlyssa and Lydia,” Albus finished. “Please, everyone, sit! I have tea for those who want, and lemonade for those who want that.”

Under normal circumstances the Weasley children probably would have dearly wanted to explore all the interesting things in the study, but the prospect of lemonade and chocolate biscuits at least temporarily convinced them to take their seats at the table and behave. As they sat down, the teapot stood up on four legs and walked over to each of the Weasleys in turn, pouring hot tea into mugs and cold lemonade into glasses.

There was room for them all around the table, even if Hagrid took up a fairly substantial portion of it.

The adults thanked the teapot, and Albus, politely, but Amanda looked a little sceptical. “We didn’t really come here to have tea,” she began.

“Oh, pish-tosh,” said Hortense, accepting the refill. “I rather insisted on the tea. All for the sake of the patient, of course. When you’re about to have the Mulierarius, it’s always better to have a nice cup of tea inside you first.”

“A truth that applies to more situations than just taking the Mulierarius potion,” said Albus. “Chocolate biscuit, Amanda? Or perhaps you would prefer a ginger snap?”

For a few minutes, talk ceased as everyone got a biscuit.

“So,” said Hortense after she had eaten half her ginger snap. “Take this as a compliment, or an insult, however you choose… but which one of you children will be taking the Mulierarius?”

Everyone looked at Fred, who seemed rather pleased as she raised her hand. “Me.”

Hortense nodded as she looked Fred up and down. “Well, now,” she said. “You do rather look like a girl already, don’t you?”

Several of her sisters winced as Fred frowned. “I am a girl,” she said, in a tone that didn’t accept any counterarguments.

“Of course, of course,” Hortense hurried to say. “My apologies, young lady! I just have to make certain, you know, just have to ask… You aren’t currently under the effect of any other potion or charm, are you?”

Mollified, Fred shook her head. “Molly-Mum said you’d told her I shouldn’t be under any other type of magic when I came here.”

“Quite right!” Hortense nodded. “Mixing magics sometimes leads to unwanted results. But you have been under the effects of temporary potions and charms, am I right?”

“Well, yeah,” said Fred. “But not since yesterday!”

“That should suffice,” Hortense agreed. “And you are sure that this is what you want? The Mulierarius treatment isn’t like those temporary potions or charms. Once you’ve started the treatment, you can’t change your mind.”

Fred looked straight at her. “I’ve tried to be a boy. I hated every minute of it, but I really did try. And I’m absolutely sure I never want to do it again! I don’t care if boys are supposed to be so very special and get all sorts of special treatment. I am a girl.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “We’ve had long discussions about this,” he said. “The entire coven supports Fred’s decision. We know that it won’t make us popular among certain families, but…” He looked around at his five wives, who all nodded. “Our daughter’s happiness is more important.”

“And she’s a much better twin sister than she was a twin brother,” George shot in. “She’s a lot more fun now!”

A few of the other sisters nodded enthusiastically. Molly, who was sitting next to Fred, ruffled her hair lovingly. “A much bigger handful too,” she said. “But it’s a small price to pay, really. We’re far better off with a happy daughter than with a miserable son, even if she misbehaves a little more.”

“You mean I haven’t been the perfect little angel, Molly-Mum?” Fred tried to look innocent and failed spectacularly.

“No, you’ve been rotten to the core, just like me!” said George cheerfully.

Fred giggled. “That’s tough, but fair.”

“Of course, I’m always right!” said George. “Comes with having a vagina, as you’ll soon find out!”

“Who do you think you’re talking to, sister?” said Fred, and pretended to be insulted. “Some kind of novice vagina-haver? I’ve had a vagina dozens of times by now!”

“Temporary vaginas don’t count, sister!” George answered. 

A couple of the other sisters laughed at the twins’ conversation; Ginny laughed loudest.

“All right, girls, that’s enough,” said Molly firmly. She gave Albus, Hortense and Hagrid an apologetic look. “I’m really sorry about this. They don’t mean to be impertinent. They’re just excited.”

Albus, however, had chuckled along with the children, and Hagrid seemed quite unconcerned.

If Hortense disapproved of the conversation topic, she didn’t show it.  She just took another large sip of tea and then turned to speak to the adults.  “So, what sort of charms and potions have you been using?”

“Started out with simple Sex-Change Charms,” said Francine in a business-like manner. “Just to see whether she would take to it. The problem with those charms, of course, is that they are so temporary. Polyjuice Potion gave the most complete results, of course, but…”

“Polyjuice Potion is temporary as well,” Hortense agreed. “Yes. Even I haven’t ever been able to brew a Polyjuice that lasted for more than twelve, thirteen hours, and most batches don’t last for half as long. A couple of hours is the most you can hope for. Much too inconvenient to have to remember to keep drinking the potion, especially for a young lady who is soon off to Hogwarts for the first time.”

“Not to mention expensive,” sighed Alice. “Some of those ingredients aren’t cheap.”

Hortense nodded. “And of course, there’s this pesky limitation that it can only give you a copy of someone else’s body… though I suppose that might be less of a problem if we’re dealing with twins.”

“It was fun being identical twins for a while, wasn’t it?” said Fred to George. “Switching places, confusing everyone…”

“We should be identical more often,” agreed George. She looked up at Hortense. “Can you make Fred look permanently like me?”

“Yeah, can you?” said Fred eagerly.

“NO!” The cry came from Will, Anna and Persephone all at the same time. The three older girls looked at each other, somewhat sheepishly.

Ginny laughed.

“I’m certain you would prefer having your very own feminine body, Frederica,” said Albus. “I would imagine having to live as someone else for the rest of your life would be a strain… even if that someone else is your twin sister.”

“I think I could manage,” said Fred.

“My dear child, I’m afraid the Mulierarius doesn’t quite work like that,” said Hortense. “Whereas the Polyjuice Potion gives you an exact copy of someone else’s body, the Mulierarius Potion simply aims to give you the body you would have had, had you been born female. I can’t say with any certainty what that body would look like.”

Fred pondered for a moment. “Whatever it looks like, it’s got to be better than this one,” she finally said.

“Very well,” said Hortense. “Once we’ve finished our tea, we can start your treatment.”

Fred punched the air. “Yes!”

The adult Weasleys exchanged glances, smiling but not completely without a gleam of concern in their eyes.

They all knew that while there was no actual law against what they were about to do, the witching world in general would not approve. Of course it wasn’t uncommon for witches and wizards to experiment with being the opposite sex for a bit; there were plenty of potions and spells that could temporarily give you the experience of being a different sex, and few people ever batted an eye at this… it was only natural to be curious, after all. Sometimes it could be good to experience life from the other side of the fence, as it were. Not to mention, consenting adults could have quite a lot of fun with a temporary Sex Change Charm.  But a permanent transformation of a wizard to a witch? That would not be met with a lot of understanding.

Still, as Arthur had said, that was a small price to pay for a child’s happiness. If Fred, or Frederica as she was going to call herself, was happy, then who cared what conservative covens like the Malfoys thought?

Yes, when the twins had been born ten years ago, they had been delighted to have a son. With how rare it was for magical children to be male, it was by no means a given for any coven to be blessed with a boy.  

But it turned out that, at least if young Fred Weasley had a say in it, the Weasleys had not been blessed with a boy either. From a very early age, he had preferred wearing the exact same clothes as his twin sister, and refused to have his hair cut shorter than hers. Three times, Molly had tried giving him a short and boyish haircut like the sons in the Diggory and Lovegood covens had, but every time Fred’s hair would grow back again in a matter of hours and be just as long as Georgina’s again. 

At first, the adults hadn’t been too concerned. After all, Fred was the only boy in the household, and it was possible he just didn’t like to be treated differently. Children often had their own very blatant opinions about fairness, after all, and it wasn’t completely unheard of for little boys to grumble and complain because they weren’t allowed to do all the things their sisters were allowed to do. So, thinking that perhaps Fred just needed to see that there were other boys around and that he wasn’t alone, they’d arranged for him to spend some time with other wizard boys.

Luckily, the two covens who lived closest, the Diggorys and the Lovegoods, both had sons close to Fred’s age, and both covens had been more than happy to have the then-five-year-old Fred over to play with said sons.

Things hadn’t really worked out the way the Weasleys had hoped.

The visit to the Diggory coven had been the worst. Fred had not hit it off with little Cedric, who was only a few months older than him, and had spent the entire visit playing with Cedric’s sisters instead.

The visit to the Lovegoods had gone somewhat better, but had led to a rather startling revelation. The Lovegood coven was in the almost unheard-of situation that they had two sons, Lorcan and Lysander, and Fred had been a lot friendlier with them than he’d been with Cedric — but it turned out that this had been mainly because the Lovegoods had immediately accepted him as a girl and consistently referred to him as a “her.”

By the time Fred was seven, it was clear to everyone that this “wanting to be a girl” thing wasn’t just a passing fancy. So after some long and serious talks between the adults, some of which included Fred and some if which did not, it was decided that they would do what they could to help their only son become one of their daughters.

And so, Fred Weasley had been allowed to try out life as a girl for a while, to see if she really liked it.  The family had researched sex-change magics, acquired temporary potions, and (since Fred liked her name better than her sex) spent ages arguing over whether “Winifred” or “Frederica” was a better name for a girl Fred.

The idea of talking to Albus Dumbledore had in fact come from his sister, the Headmistress of Hogwarts. Albus might be an unorthodox wizard, and certainly not a name welcome in the “finer” parts of the witching world, but he had helped out a lot of people over the years, and had several friends and connections among witches and Muggles alike.

Luckily, one of these friends was Hortense Slughorn, the old Potions Mistress at Hogwarts and one of the most renowned potioneers of the century… and, as it turned out, the inventor of the exact potion they needed.

“We really don’t know how to thank you for this, Hortense,” said Arthur as he looked over at said renowned potioneer.

Hortense had chosen a chocolate biscuit, and now she held it in her hand as she looked at Arthur. “The best way to thank me, my dear fellow, is to not tell anyone who you got the Mulierarius potion from. Believe me, I’m happy to do my old friend Albus a favour… but I have no wish to become known as someone who invents and provides potions to permanently turn wizards into witches. My reputation would be quite ruined.”

“I, however,” said Albus cheerfully, “have never had a reputation to ruin, except among the outcasts of witching society. And I feel certain that they would quite approve, or at least understand. So feel free to put the blame on me.”

“Same goes fer me,” Hagrid rumbled between two enormous bites of cake, “Well, ‘cept nobody’d ever believe I’d invented a potion. I can barely make a decent cuppa tea.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Hagrid,” said Albus, his eyes twinkling. “Your tea is quite adequate.” Then, he turned to look at the collected Weasleys. “Mind you… if you really want to express your gratitude, there might be something…”

“Yes?” said Arthur.

“You all know the story of Holly Potter.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement. Everyone in the witching world knew the story of Holly Potter.

“I met Holly Potter!” said Ronnie, in the middle of her third biscuit.

“You never did!” said Elaine, who was sitting next to her.

“I did!” Ronnie swallowed. “Just today, while I was… er… while I was looking for you lot! She showed me the way here!”

Ginny looked utterly betrayed. “And you didn’t tell us about it straight away?!”

Ronnie blushed a little. “I just…” she murmured, without really having any way of continuing that sentence.

Albus, however, nodded thoughtfully. “You’ve already met her, then,” he said. “Forgive me for asking a personal question, Veronica, but what did you think of her?”

“Well…” Ronnie began, a little awkwardly. “I don’t know. I liked her. She was nice. Not, you know, stuck-up or anything.”

Albus nodded again, this time with a smile. “I’m glad to hear that. I will have to talk to her about it, of course, but I might ask your family to do her a favour sometime in the future…”


In which Holly hides in a cupboard and takes an unexpected nap.

Holly took a deep breath. As silently as she could, she opened the door to Number Four, sneaked in and closed the door behind her. Careful, so as not to alert anyone to her presence.

Normally, she would have waited until it was dark and everyone was asleep, but (depending on how fast Uncle Vernon worked) by that time she might find herself in the shed and not be able to get into the house. No… if she was to have any hope of doing this, she had to do it now.

The car had still been gone when she came back home, so she knew Aunt Petunia was still out. From the living room she could hear dramatic music and vague sounds of gunfire; Dudley must have decided to watch one of his action movies again. She didn’t know if Uncle Vernon was out in the garden or not, and she didn’t dare to check; then she would have to move to the living room and risk being spotted by Dudley.

For the moment, nobody was calling out for her or asking what she was doing back already; that probably meant they hadn’t noticed.

She carefully took her shoes off, so she wouldn’t make any noise against the floor as she walked up to the cupboard. Because there, in plain sight, it was. The familiar closed door, the ever-present padlock. Now more than ever she could feel whatever it was inside calling out to her.

Her heart was pounding in her chest. The noises from the telly seemed to fade into the background; all she could hear was her own heartbeat and quickened breath as she reached out and touched the padlock. The metal was cold and heavy in her hand.

She pursed her lips and blew lightly. Once… twice… three times.

Nothing happened.

Holly could have screamed in frustration and disappointment, but she forced herself to stay calm. She couldn’t… she wouldn’t believe that Ronnie had lied to her. The girl had been completely honest when she talked about the trick. It’ll work, Ronnie had said, long as you believe it will.

All right, another attempt. She closed her eyes and believed.

Then, without opening her eyes she pursed her lips and blew lightly. Once… twice… and then, just as she was about to blow for the third time, a strange sense of calm filled her. It was a sensation not completely unlike what she had felt just before the lawnmower incident, but this time it was more like a gentle warmth than a burning fire. An absolute certainty. The lock would open for her; anything else was unnatural. Like water running upwards or Aunt Petunia’s ‘famous spice bread’ tasting nice.

She blew a third time. There was a slight click in her hand. When she opened her eyes again, she was thrilled but not at all surprised to see that the padlock was open.

The warm sensation faded. Holly quickly cast a glance towards the living room, half-expecting Uncle Vernon to come running to pull her away from the cupboard, but all that happened was that Dudley laughed at something silly on the television.

Her heart started pounding again. She unhooked the padlock from the latch and, taking care not to click it shut, held it in one hand while gingerly opening the door with the other.

And gasped in surprise as she looked into — not a fantastic, magical room, not a treasure chamber filled with gold and diamonds, but a very dusty, very dirty and very empty cupboard. The wall opposite the door held a couple of dusty and empty coat-hangers, which couldn’t have been used for years, the wall to her left held three dusty and empty shelves, the ceiling was just the underside of the stairs, covered with dust and cobwebs, and the floor was so dusty that…

Hang on. There was something else on the floor, just by the inner wall. Something small, almost covered in dust. It looked like a long, thin rod or stick of some sort.

Holly entered the cupboard. It was large enough that she could stand upright in it, even wide enough that she could probably lie down flat without problem. Almost absentmindedly, she placed the padlock down on one of the shelves before she crouched down, reached out and picked up the stick from the floor.

Dust fell off it as she held it up to her face, revealing that it was made out of some sort of pale wood, elaborately carved and polished to a smooth finish. It was quite long, longer than her forearm, it had several strange-looking knots on it, and one end was notably thicker than the other. It felt curiously warm in her hand, almost alive in a strange way.

“Hello,” said Holly softly to the stick. “So you’re what the Dursleys have been hiding in here all these years. Have you really been calling for me all this time? Or did I just imagine it?”

The stick didn’t answer, but somehow it didn’t feel silly to talk to it. It just felt right. Just like it felt right to hold it…

A noise from above made her start. Dust fell down from the stair-ceiling as the stairs began creaking. Years of living with the Dursleys had taught Holly to identify which of the three was currently walking up or down the stairs just by listening to the sound of the footfalls — and those firm, heavy steps were an unmistakable sign that Uncle Vernon was coming down the stairs.

He hadn’t been out in the garden, he’d been upstairs!

There was no time to get out of the cupboard. Holly just fell down onto her stomach, grabbed the door and pulled it towards herself, managing to close it just before the footfalls had reached the bottom of the stairs.

The door closed, everything was dark around her. Just a small stream of light came in from the underside of the door. Holly had never been afraid of the dark, but it really did not make the sound of Uncle Vernon’s footsteps any less foreboding.

She clutched the funny-looking stick to her chest. Please, she thought. Please, don’t let Uncle Vernon find me here! Please, don’t let him notice that the padlock is gone from the latch!

She held her breath. The small stream of light was disturbed by shadows; Uncle Vernon was walking past the cupboard… he was stopping outside it…

“Dudley?” came his voice from right outside the cupboard.

“Yeah, Dad?” Dudley’s voice sounded from the living room, a little annoyed because he never liked to be disturbed in the middle of his telly-watching.

“Your cousin didn’t show up while I was upstairs, did she?”

“Nah.” Dudley sounded rather uninterested. “I would’ve heard her if she had.”

“Good.” Uncle Vernon sounded satisfied. “Keep an ear out for her, son! I have a feeling she’ll go for the cupboard again, and if she does…”

Holly closed her eyes. This was it. He’d of course seen that the padlock was gone. Any second now, and he would tear the door open and haul her out. And this time there wouldn’t be any Mr Dumbledore to conveniently show up and spare her a spanking, because he was having company over and would be too busy…

Then, all of a sudden, the shadows vanished, and the stream of light was whole again. Uncle Vernon had moved away.

“Want a cup of tea, son?” he called. “I’m thinking of having one before I finish cleaning out the shed!”

“No!” Dudley called back. “Don’t we have any Coke?”

Moments later, Holly could hear the unmistakable sound of Uncle Vernon, moving about on the kitchen. He was turning on the tap, filling the kettle… and now came the familiar grumblings when he couldn’t find the tea bags.

She had to bite her lip to stifle the sound of disbelief that threatened to escape her throat. Uncle Vernon had been standing right outside the cupboard. He had been talking about the cupboard. He had probably been looking straight at the cupboard. And yet he hadn’t noticed that the padlock was missing. Her prayers had been answered! She didn’t dare exit the cupboard yet, not with Uncle Vernon in the kitchen… but it looked like she was safe for now.

She rolled over onto her back. Her clothes probably looked a sorry state after she’d been lying on this dusty floor, but she didn’t care about that just now. Instead, she held the stick up in front of her face. She could barely see it in the dark, of course, but she could let her fingers slide over the smooth wood.

It felt nice to touch.

Once more, a sense of calm and comfort seeped over her. It did feel right to hold the stick in her hand. It filled her with a vaguely pleasant sensation… a sensation that seemed oddly familiar, even if she couldn’t remember when she might have felt it before. Maybe it had been back when she was a baby… or maybe in a long-forgotten dream….

She stifled a yawn. All of a sudden, she felt very sleepy. Maybe not too strange; this had certainly been an eventful morning. First the mysterious Ronnie, then the padlock and the cupboard and the stick… But it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for her to fall asleep right here in the cupboard.

She’d just wait until Uncle Vernon was out of the kitchen, then she could try to sneak out… oh, and she couldn’t forget putting the padlock back. With any luck, maybe nobody would notice that she’d been here… Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon never opened this cupboard; that much was obvious. There was no way Aunt Petunia would have allowed so much dust and cobweb to gather otherwise.

She felt her eyes droop. She blinked several times to try and wake herself up. Lying down was probably a bad idea, she should sit up, at least…

She rolled over on her side. Idly toying with the stick….

Yes, the stick…

That was a stupid name for it… stick. Not the right word at all… It was more like a… like a… whatever those things were called. She could feel it in her hand, all warm and comforting…

She knew that there was a proper name for these things… she just couldn’t remember what it was. Did it begin with a W…? With an M, perhaps…?

…maybe it was something with an L, come to think of it…

Holly felt warm and heavy. Maybe… maybe just rest her eyes a little… not sleep… she wouldn’t even take her glasses off… she could never sleep when wearing her glasses…

…yes, that was a good idea… there was no way she was going to…

…she was going to…

…going… to…

By the time Uncle Vernon came back out of the kitchen with tea and Coke, and once again managed to pass by the cupboard without noticing the missing padlock, Holly was sound asleep on the dusty cupboard floor.

She opened her eyes and looked around.

She had no idea where she was or how she’d got there. Her surroundings looked… blurry, like she was seeing them through a foggy window or something. For a moment, she thought it was because she wasn’t wearing her glasses, but things were never this blurry and vague even when she wasn’t…

“Holly.” A soft, melodious voice caught her attention.

She sat up and turned her head to see a girl sitting next to her. Unlike everything else, this girl wasn’t blurry in the slightest. Holly had never seen this girl before, and yet she felt familiar. She was about Holly’s age, with kind green eyes and long auburn hair which flowed freely down her back. She was wearing a knee-length dress with a flower pattern and a pair of sandals.

The girl smiled. “Look at you,” she said. “My Holly.”

“Look at me?” Holly repeated. She looked down herself, and discovered to her surprise that she too was wearing dress with a similar flower pattern. There wasn’t anything particularly odd about this, but Holly couldn’t remember ever having owned a dress like this, much less put one on. For that matter, she couldn’t remember walking into a blurry landscape and lying down.

“I haven’t seen you since you were a baby,” said the girl. “And look at what a pretty girl you’ve grown up to be. You look more like your father than I thought you would… you have his hair and his build. You even wear glasses like him. But your eyes… your eyes are mine.”

Holly backed away slightly. “You can’t have my eyes! I’m still using them!”

The girl laughed. It wasn’t a cruel or mocking laugh. “Don’t be afraid, Holly! I just meant that your eyes look like mine!” She reached out and took Holly’s hand. ” I would never hurt you, Holly. My name is Lily, and I’m your mother.”

“No, you’re not!” Holly yanked her hand away.

“I promise you, I am.”

“My mother’s dead! And, and, you’re no older than me! Did you give birth when you were a baby or something?”

Again, Lily laughed. She had a nice laugh, and she seemed to use it rather a lot. “Of course I’m dead! And of course I didn’t give birth as a baby!” she giggled. “I didn’t look like this when I died. But I was rather cute when I was your age, don’t you think? I remember this pretty dress…” Lily looked down herself and ruffled her dress slightly before looking back at Holly. “I’m not completely sure, but I think I just look like I’m seven years old right now because I’m talking to you, and you’re seven years old.”

“I’m almost eight!” Holly protested automatically. “And that doesn’t make any sense!”

“Sorry, almost eight then,” said Lily. “It’s all right, Holly, love… you’re dreaming. Dreams don’t have to make sense! Or rather, they do, but they make sense in a very different way from the waking world.”

“Dreaming?” Holly repeated. “You mean I’m asleep?”

“Yes.” Lily nodded. “I’m sorry about that. But you’ll wake up long before anyone notices that you’re hiding in the cupboard, I promise.”

The word ‘cupboard’ triggered a memory. “Oh,” said Holly. “I was hiding in the cupboard under the stairs… I was holding the funny-looking stick, and then… then I don’t remember…”

“You fell asleep.” Lily looked apologetic. “Like I said, I’m sorry, and I promise I won’t make a habit out of knocking you out like that… But right now, I needed you to be asleep and dreaming.”

“Okay,” said Holly, uncertain of what to say about this. “Why?”

“Because I can only talk to you in your dreams.” Lily shifted and put her arms around Holly. “And I had to talk to you. It’s been so long. For seven years… seven long years… I’ve been in that cupboard. Calling out to you. Begging for you to come find me. And now you’re here. My darling daughter. All grown up…”

Holly felt herself melt into Lily’s hug. This was her second hug, and she was finding out she liked hugs. Ronnie’s hug had been quick, over in a second. This one lasted longer, and felt different. It felt a lot like Holly had always imagined being hugged by your mother must feel like. Even if said mother didn’t look any older than you. She was starting to believe that maybe Lily really could be…

“You were in the cupboard,” she said against Lily’s soft, auburn hair. “You’ve been calling for me for as long I can remember…”

“I have,” Lily confirmed. She hugged Holly a little tighter. “I missed you terribly. I’m so glad to finally be able to talk to you — really talk to you. I knew if I just kept calling, you would find a way to get into the cupboard.”

“So, you were that funny-looking stick?!”

Lilly laughed again and let go of Holly, looking at her with cheerful green eyes. “Technically, it’s a wand,” she said. “And I’m not literally the wand, but my spirit is tied to it. It’s like… mmm… you’ve heard of ghosts haunting houses or castles, right? Well, I’m like a ghost haunting a magic wand.”

“A ghost haunting a magic wand,” said Holly dubiously. “Is that true?”

“No, but as lies go it’s pretty close to the truth,” said Lily cheerfully.

“But Aunt Petunia says there’s no such thing as magic. Or ghosts.”

“Yes, she would say that, wouldn’t she…? I don’t even know why I’m surprised.” Lily sighed. “Poor Tuney, she always was good at denial. I think something broke inside her, back when we were children, and we found out that we really belonged to different worlds…”

“What do you mean?”

“Holly, love, magic is real. It’s just very good at hiding from people who don’t want to accept it. You would have grown up knowing all about it, except…” Lily hesitated and then said in a firmer voice: “But that’s a long story, and we probably don’t have time for it right now.”

“What story?”

“The… story of how your father and I… of how we died.”

Holly pondered. “Aunt Petunia told me you died in a car crash,” she said.

“Car crash,” Lily scoffed, suddenly offended.

“It wasn’t true?”

“Hah! I’d like to see the car crash that could kill your father or me!” Lilly crossed her arms, and then softened again. “No, love… it wasn’t a car crash.”

“What was it, then? How did you die?” said Holly. When Lily hesitated, she pressed on: “Please! You can’t just say that you didn’t die in a car crash and then not say how you did die!”

Lily sighed. “I’d have thought your aunt would have told you at least this much, but… we were murdered.”

“Murdered?” Holly gasped. “Who murdered you? Why?!”

“It was a man named Tom Riddle,” said Lily. “Well, I say he was a man. He was more like a monster, really. One who killed a lot of people and ruined a lot of lives. It happened when you were just a baby. He came to our house, and… he wanted something that we wouldn’t give him. We fought him, but he was much stronger than us. First, he… he killed your father… and then…” Her voice faltered. She swallowed, and blinked several times. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can talk about this right now. This was supposed to be a happy meeting. I’ve missed you so much, and…”

Holly felt bad. “I’m sorry!” she said. “I didn’t mean to make you cry! I just — I just don’t understand…”

“Sometimes, I’m not sure I understand.” Lily had managed to get her voice under control again now, and she placed her hands on Holly’s shoulders. “Holly, love… there’s so much I should tell you. So much you should know. But I don’t really know how much, because… I’m not really up-to-date on your life. Being locked in a cupboard for seven years means you don’t really get to take in a whole lot of what’s going on outside…”

“I’m sorry,” Holly repeated. “I didn’t know you were in there. I should have…”

“You came as soon as you could,” said Lily. “Besides, it wasn’t as terrible as it sounds. Being a spirit possessing a wand… it’s not like being a human. You don’t really get hungry or thirsty or bored or anything like that.”

“But you get lonely, don’t you?” said Holly.

Lily sighed. “Yes,” she admitted. “You do get lonely.”

“I’m —”

“Stop apologising, love. It’s all right. You have the wand now. Where it goes, I go. I’ll be with you as long as you carry the wand… and you have every right to do that. It’s your wand now.”

“Mine?” said Holly. She had felt an unmistakable connection to the sti— the wand, it was true, but…

Lily nodded. “It used to belong to me, back when I was alive. And you’re my daughter, so it’s yours by birthright. Didn’t you feel it, when you picked it up?”

“I…” Holly paused, remembering. “It felt like it was right. Like the stick — the wand, like it belonged to me. No, more than that. Like it was a part of me. Like… like there had been an emptiness inside me that I never knew about, which filled up when I held…” she trailed off, feeling silly.

But Lily didn’t seem to think it was silly. Now she was all smiles again, speaking in an eager voice. “See? II told you, it’s your wand! You and it belong together!”

For a moment, Holly felt slightly overwhelmed. She had a magic wand. “Can I…. can I use it for anything?”

“You can use it for practically everything,” said Lily. “But you have to learn how first. And that takes time. Getting really good with a wand takes years of study and practice.” She smiled mischievously. “I can help, a little. At least sometimes. I couldn’t do anything when I was alone and locked in the cupboard, but when you hold the wand in your hands… that’s different. I can do all sorts of things for you then.”

“Was that why Uncle Vernon didn’t notice that the padlock was gone?” said Holly. “You made him… not notice?”

“Actually, I think that was you,” said Lily, sounding proud. “You’ve got some willpower in you, love! I noticed when I tried to put you to sleep — you resisted for more than a minute! Most children would have been deep in dreamland after five seconds!”

“Er… sorry?”

“No, no, that’s a good thing!” Lily hugged her again. “It means you’re strong! You’ll make a great witch, Holly.”

Holly blinked. “I’ll make a great what?”

“A witch!” Lily repeated. “It’s not an insult, it’s what you are. Some girls are born with magic powers… they can do things other people can’t. And we call those girls ‘witches.’ You’re one of them, you proved that by willing your uncle not to notice that you were in the cupboard. I’ll bet you’ve made other things happen too, right? When you were angry or scared or frustrated, maybe?”

“I… yes,” said Holly. “Yesterday, when Aunt Petunia made me mow the lawn, the lawnmower came to life and did almost the entire lawn on its own. And today I opened the padlock by blowing on it…”

“See?” Lily beamed. “Only a witch could make those things happen! It certainly wouldn’t have worked if you were a Muggle!”

“Muggle?” There was that word again. “What is that?”

“Oh, sorry. A ‘Muggle’ is what we call someone who doesn’t have any magic. Someone who isn’t a witch.”

“Like Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon?”

“And like most of the human population on Earth, really,” said Lily. “Magic is pretty rare… most humans never get to use it, that’s why so many of them keep saying it doesn’t exist. But you, Holly… you’re like me. Magic is in your blood. And padlocks and lawnmowers are just the start. As you get older, you’ll learn all sorts of things! How to fly, how to conjure things out of thin air, how to turn invisible, how to disappear from one place and reappear in another… and so much more.”

Holly was flabbergasted. “How — where do I learn all that?”

“At a school of magic, of course,” said Lily. “At the school of magic. The one you’ve been down for ever since you were born. Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft!”

“Hogwarts?” Holly repeated. That was a word she recognized. “Does — does that mean Ronnie’s a witch too?”

“I don’t know,” said Lily. “Who’s Ronnie?”

“A girl I met, about my age… She said she’d meet me on the Hogwarts Express. And she said ‘Muggles’ were… people who weren’t like us.”

“Definitely a witch, then,” said Lily. “No doubt you will see her on the Hogwarts Express. If she’s your age, you’ll be in the same year at Hogwarts.”

“I’ll already know someone then!” Holly smiled. “By the way… what is the Hogwarts Express?”

“It’s the train that takes the students to the school at the start of every term. A beautiful scarlet steam train.” Lily almost sounded whistful. “I remember how great it was to ride that train… and in three years’ time, when you’re eleven, you’ll get to go to King’s Cross in London, take the Express to Hogwarts, and start your first year of magic school.”

“Three years… oh.” Holly tried to pretend she wasn’t disappointed. She’d hoped she could start at once.

Lily reached out and stroked her hair. “It won’t be so bad,” she said. “Now that you have your wand, I can keep an eye out for you. I can help make your life a little easier, maybe…” Then she changed her expression and tried to look as stern and motherly as her eight-year-old face would allow. “But, when you do get to Hogwarts, young lady, don’t expect me to do all your work for you! In classes you’re going to have to learn magic the hard way, just like everyone else!”

“I — didn’t even think of that!” Holly gasped.

“You would have thought of it. I know what it’s like to be a student.” Lily’s expression softened. “But I will be there for you when you need me. Starting now. As long as you have the wand, I will be there for you.”

Once more, they hugged. Holly could feel the warmth and comfort from Lily’s body. Everything just seemed to feel better when she was in the girl’s arms…

“You’ll have to think about waking up soon,” said Lily softly.

Holly clung to her. “Not yet.”

“You can stay asleep for a little while longer, but not too long. I’m sorry, but you can’t sleep in the cupboard for hours. Sooner or later, your aunt and uncle will notice.”

“I only just closed my eyes. And I want to know more! Tell me —” Holly grasped for the first topic she could think of. “Tell me about the lesbians!”

Lily blinked. “What lesbians?”

“The ones Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon talked about! After I’d made the lawnmower move on its own, they said I was turning into a lesbian freak.”

“Lesbian freak…” Lily took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Of course. Of course they would say that. They’re so frightened of everything even slightly out of the ordinary that they’ll take anything that’s not completely vanilla, and declare it to be bad and unnatural and freakish…”

“Vanilla?” said Holly, puzzled. “Like ice cream? What’s vanilla got to do with anything?”

“Oh. Er.” For the first time, Lily looked a little flustered. “Perhaps that’s something we should save for when you’re a little older.”


“Anyway, not all witches are lesbians. certainly wasn’t! I loved your very male father very much, thank you kindly! It’s just that…” Lily eased out of the hug. “Well, lesbianism is very accepted among witches. Encouraged, even.”


“Because of the lack of magical men. Nobody really knows why… or at least they didn’t when I was alive, they might have found out something in the last seven years… but magic seems to latch on to women a lot more easily than to men.”

“You mean… there aren’t any boy witches?” (Holly really didn’t think this was a huge loss. Most boys she knew were horrid creatures, especially Dudley and his gang.)

“Oh no, there are!” said Lily. “They’re called wizards. It’s just that they’re very rare. Even rarer than witches. I think there are about ten times as many witches as there are wizards. And so, for romance, witches either turn to each other, or they… share their men. They’re supposed to live in these large families called ‘covens,’ with one husband, and five or six wives… either that, or they go without men. Or if they want a man to themselves, they can find a Muggle…”

“Because there are a lot of Muggle boys!” said Holly, who was starting to understand.

“Right!” said Lily. “And it’s not like it’s forbidden for witches to marry Muggles. It’s just… we live in different worlds. It can be frustrating.” She looked proud. “I managed to beat the system, though. I didn’t want a Muggle, and I didn’t want to share a husband with four or five other witches. I’ve always been a one-lover kind of girl. And I was lucky enough to find a wizard who agreed to get married Muggle-style. One husband, one wife, no covens.” She smiled, somewhat sardonically. “I didn’t make myself very popular with that move.”

“Why not?”

“Because a lot of witches wanted to be in a coven with your father, Holly! He was very popular. And for a good reason. He was handsome, charming, kind… he was rich, too. A little immature at first, but all boys are. When he grew up… Half the girls in Hogwarts wanted to get with him. When they found out I wanted him to myself, and that he wasn’t taking any other wives, they got pretty angry with me. Called me selfish and mean and a lot of other things I don’t want to repeat.”

Holly frowned. All of a sudden, Hogwarts seemed a little less inviting than it once had.

Lily seemed to sense this. Her voice turned softer. “Don’t think too harshly about them, love. They weren’t bad people, on the whole. It’s just that to most witches… at least the ones who didn’t grow up in the Muggle world… the idea of what they call a ‘Muggle marriage’ is strange and unusual. To them, it’s all about the covens. Large families, you see. Nobody has to join a coven, but most of them grow up expecting to. So when someone like me takes a man completely off the market, they don’t know how to react.”

Holly thought about this.”I don’t think I want to join any covens,” she said eventually. “I don’t want to marry any boy, Muggle or wizard. I want to be a lesbian!”

Lily chuckled. “Wait a few years before you make a final decision,” she said. “But if you decide you don’t want to join a coven, nobody’s going to force you. Many Muggle-borns don’t like the idea of covens. It’s mostly the witch-borns… Oh, sorry,” she added, as if realising that she was using unfamiliar terms again. “A Muggle-born is a witch who has Muggle parents. Like me; my parents were both Muggles. Your father, on the other hand, was what we call a witch-born.”

“Because his mother was a witch?” Holly guessed.

“Right again! That is, he actually had six mothers. One birth-mother and five coven-mothers. And of course a wizard for a father.”

Holly tried to imagine life with six mothers. It was impossible; she could barely imagine life with one mother, let alone six. “Do covens have a lot of children?” she finally asked.

“Most of them do, yes,” said Lily. “Mostly daughters, of course.”

“Then I’ve seen a coven,” said Holly.


“Today, here at Privet Drive! Ronnie’s family! They were too many to count, but I could only see one man. The rest of them were either women or girls! Ronnie said she had eleven sisters!”

“Twelve daughters? That’s a respectable number,” said Lily. “Did you catch their name?”

“Er… Ronnie said her name was Weasley. Weasley of the… of the line of something.”

“Weasley!” Lily nodded. “That’s a familiar name! Her father must be Arthur Weasley.”

“You know Ronnie’s Dad? Or… knew Ronnie’s Dad?”

“I should say so! Well… I didn’t know him well, but I know who he is. Two of the girls I knew from Hogwarts joined his coven. Francine and Alice. Witch-borns, both of them, a few years older than me, but very nice. They were even among the witches who supported me when I wanted your father to myself. Said that it was our choice and we should do what made us happy.” Lily grinned. “If you see them again, maybe you could tell them I said… no, on second thought, that’s probably a bad idea. Even in the witching world, people usually aren’t prepared for casual messages from the dead. Forget I mentioned it. So, what were the Weasleys doing in privet Drive? Unless they’ve changed a lot over the years, I can’t imagine they would fit in well there.”

“Visiting our neighbour, Mr Dumbledore,” said Holly. “Ronnie told me he was helping them with something, but wouldn’t say what.”

“Dumbledore?” Lily suddenly grinned. “You mean Albus Dumbledore?”

“Er… I think so,” said Holly.

“He lives at Privet Drive?”

“Yes… at Number Seven-across-the-street, together with his housemate Hagrid.”

Lily’s grin got even wider. “Hah! They moved into Privet Drive? Well, that’s a lucky break! Or, knowing Albus, luck had nothing to do with it. When I asked him to keep an eye on you, he took it literally! And of course you don’t get Albus without Hagrid… Holly, this is great!”

“It is?” Holly felt her head spin.

“It certainly is! Listen, Holly… the next time you get out of the house and have the time, go to Number Seven and knock on the door. And tell Albus that Lily knows he let her win that duel. He’ll know what it means. “

“All right… wait, didn’t you just say that people didn’t want casual messages from the dead?” said Holly, confused.

“I did, but Albus Dumbledore isn’t just anyone! If anyone can handle it, he can! He’s the greatest wizard of our time!”

“Mr Dumbledore’s a wizard?!”

“Of course! I wouldn’t have dueled him if he wasn’t, would I?” Lily giggled. “Talk to Albus! He can tell you a lot more about the witching world than even I could. Besides, he was a very dear friend of mine when I was alive. Without him, I would never have managed to marry your father!”

CHAPTER 3: An Unexpected Meeting

In which Holly makes a new friend, figures out the exchange rate between pounds and Sickles, and gets lockpicking lessons.

The next day was bright and sunny. Uncle Vernon had decided to take the day off work, but not because the weather was nice. No, he’d announced at breakfast that he was going to spend the day clearing out the garden shed in preparation for Holly moving in there.

“Your aunt and I have been talking,” he told Holly. “We think — hm! — that it would be good for you to get out of the house a little more.”

Holly tried to look surprised at the announcement. It wouldn’t do to reveal that she had been listening in on their conversation last night. “Right!” she said. “Getting out of the house and into the garden shed.”

Uncle Vernon turned slightly red. “If you only knew how many girls would be grateful to get a garden shed all of their own —” he began in a threatening voice.

“Why can’t I have the shed?” Dudley protested. He had never shown any interest in the garden shed before; he tended to view any building without a fridge and a telly as a waste. But if Holly was going to get something, he wanted it. “I could make it into a clubhouse! I could start a secret club with Piers and Malcolm and Gordon and Dennis!”

“Not much of a secret, if you tell us about it first thing you think of it,” Holly couldn’t resist saying.

Dudley’s lower lip immediately started to tremble in an exaggerated way. “Muu-u-uum,” he whined. “Holly’s being mee-e-e-eean!”

His fake sobbing wouldn’t have fooled a two-year-old, but Aunt Petunia was immediately at his side. “Oh, Dudders, don’t cry! We won’t let that nasty girl be mean to you!” She shot Holly a look of pure loathing, and then she continued: “Just think, when she’s out in the shed she won’t be able to bother you anymore!”

“She won’t bother me if I get the shed,” Dudley sniffled.

“Oh, you don’t want that filthy old shed,” Aunt Petunia cooed. “Tell you what, sweetiekins, when Holly moves out to the shed, we’ll turn her bedroom into an extra room for you. We can make it your — your game room, move in the extra television and your video games, and you can play your games as much as you want! Wouldn’t that be a lot more fun?”

“I… suppose,” Dudley said with the expression of a martyr who has truly suffered. In reality, Holly could tell, he was quite pleased. As soon as Aunt Petunia looked another way he cheerfully stuck his tongue out at Holly, and then he raised himself and plodded off to the living room to watch television.

“Right,” said Uncle Vernon, jabbing a finger at Holly. “And I don’t want to see you out in the garden while I’m working!”

“Why not?” said Holly, and this time her surprise was real. She’d expected that he’d make her clean out the shed, or at least do most of the work. “Don’t you want my help?”

“Help?” Uncle Vernon repeated. “No thank you! You’ve done quite enough! I don’t want you anywhere near that shed until I’ve cleared everything out! Oh, and Petunia,” he added in an exaggeratedly casual tone. “Perhaps while I’m working, you can take the car and go pick up… those things we talked about yesterday. And if you have the time, maybe you can stop by the garden store and see if they have any good lawnmowers? I’ve been meaning to get rid of the old one for ages now… who owns a push reel mower these days?”

Holly wasn’t as gullible as Uncle Vernon thought. She could certainly guess that ‘those things’ Aunt Petunia was going to pick up would include a new padlock, or a code lock, for the cupboard. She hadn’t failed to notice, either, that the ‘old’ lawnmower was standing untouched by the shed at the very same spot it had stopped after yesterday’s inexplicable events.

As Uncle Vernon went out into the garden, and Dudley settled down by the telly to watch some inane program or other, Aunt Petunia went upstairs to ‘fix herself up a little’ before her trip into town. Before she set foot on the staircase, though, she turned to give Holly a stern look. “And don’t even think about trying to break into the cupboard while I’m gone and Vernon is working! I’m going to take the key to the padlock with me, just so you know!”

Holly’s heart sank. “Yes, Aunt Petunia.”

“In fact, why don’t you go for a walk. A long one. Vernon’s right, you need to get out of the house more.”

“Yes, Aunt Petunia.”

“But don’t go near Number Seven! And if those two — men — have some of their freak visitors over, you’re not to talk to any of them, understand?”

Holly thought about this as she put her shoes on and got ready for a walk around the block. Perhaps after Aunt Petunia had left, she could sneak back in and… no. She couldn’t open the padlock without the key.

She stepped out onto the porch and looked across the street to Number Seven. It lay completely still, with no sign of either Mr Dumbledore, Hagrid, or any freak visitors, but of course you never knew…

Number Seven was sort of the odd house out in Privet Drive, and a constant source of gossip among the neighbours.  Oh, the outside the house looked no different from the others. The same two-storey, yellow brick type of house, a with brown-tiled roof and a neat front yard. But the two men who lived there… Mr Dumbledore and Hagrid… they were a different case altogether.

The fact that they were two men living together was only seldom remarked upon. These weren’t the stone ages, after all, and a modern and enlightened society had to show some tolerance and accept that not everyone could help how they were born. It was more the fact that they were so odd.

Aunt Petunia’s friend Yvonne had once said that the men at Number Seven lived like bohemians. Holly could tell that she hadn’t meant it as a compliment.

Perhaps it was because Mr Dumbledore, who was otherwise polite and charming, wore his hair long and had an affinity for dressing like an “old hippie” with colourful and mismatched clothes… or perhaps it was because Hagrid, who had been born with some kind of gigantism and towered over everyone, refused to let anyone call him anything but “Hagrid” and drove a motorbike instead of a car… an oversized, probably custom-made monstrosity with a sidecar, with which he would occasionally “chauffeur” Mr Dumbledore.

And then of course there was the ‘freak visitors.’

They’d occasionally show up to visit Number Seven. Most of them were women — women of all kinds, both perfectly normal-looking ones, and some that… looked less normal. Some of them dressed so oddly that it made Mr Dumbledore’s dress sense seem conservative by comparison. Holly had seen women dressed up in leather corsets and tight trousers, and girls dressed in tunics that looked like they were stitched together by leaves. Dudley had sworn that one time he’d seen a stark-naked lady who had painted her skin blue enter Number Seven, but Holly didn’t believe that part.

Hang on. Holly couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of that before. Could the visitors be the ‘lesbian freaks’ that Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had talked about yesterday? They’d certainly fit the description of what the Dursleys would think of as ‘freaks.’ And maybe they were all lesbians!

Well… If so, Holly wouldn’t mind becoming one of them at all. Going around in strange and colourful clothes and visiting Mr Dumbledore sounded a lot more fun than being stuck at the Dursleys, being yelled at by Uncle Vernon, given chores by Aunt Petunia, and teased by Dudley.

Holly pretended to be a lesbian freak as she walked down the driveway, and down the street. She lived like a bohemian, whatever that was, and she walked around all day dressing like an old hippie. No, wait, in feathers. Yes, she would walk openly on the street wearing nothing but a suit of yellow feathers, so that she looked like a giant canary bird. Of course, on second thought yellow feathers might be impractical to wear, maybe they’d tickle… all right, something else then…

She’d at least make sure to wear a lot of outfits that bared her midriff, so that she could show off her scar, she thought. Of course, Aunt Petunia would have a fit about how it wasn’t “decent” to go showing your bare bellybutton to people just like that, but Holly was pretty certain that lesbian freaks didn’t care if it was decent or not. What was the point of a cool-looking scar if you couldn’t show it off sometimes, anyway?

She turned the corner into Magnolia Crescent and crossed it into Magnolia Road. To her relief, the play park was empty today… sometimes there would be other children there, but if they were very young they’d be accompanied by adults who might start asking Holly about her parents, and if they were around Holly’s age chances were good they were Dudley’s friends. Piers, Dennis, Malcolm and Gordon, who all nearly worshipped Dudley, never got tired of chasing her whenever they saw her, trying to steal her glasses or pull her pigtails or otherwise try to make her cry. She was usually too quick for them to catch her, but the play park was a lot nicer when they weren’t around.

Holly climbed over the fence and into the park. (The gate was open, of course, and she could have just walked in, but it was more fun this way.) She ran up to the swings and sat down on the nearest one, beginning to swing back and forth as her thoughts went back to what she might wear when and if she became a lesbian freak.

She was busy trying to decide whether she should wear a rainbow-coloured poncho with lots of pockets, or just a shocking pink business suit, when she happened to glance in the direction of the corner shop at the end of Wisteria Walk that instantly made her decide: Yes, something like that!

A little girl, who seemed to have come out of nowhere, was just heading towards the shop. She was perhaps Holly’s age, thin and wiry, with a mass of freckles, flaming red hair tied up in a rather messy ponytail, and her outfit was very much like that of the infamous lesbian freaks: A dark blue, thigh-length dress, with a yellow shoulder cape, and mismatched striped stockings in green, white and pink. Around her narrow waist was a white belt with a number of leather pouches fastened to it, and the outfit was completed by a pair of heavy black boots that were probably much too big for her unless she had really enormous feet.

Holly didn’t know who this girl was, but was absolutely certain she didn’t live around here… anyone who dressed like that would have been just as much a source of gossip as Mr Dumbledore and Hagrid. Probably she was one of their visitors or something.

Curiosity burning in her chest, Holly jumped off the swing, sailing several feel through the air before landing on the grass and hurrying over to the fence.

The girl had stopped outside the shop, peering in through the window. She seemed to be looking for something… apparently she found it, because she hurried over to the door, pushing it open and vanishing inside.

Holly waivered a little back and forth on what to do. She knew she was being nosey, and she knew Aunt Petunia had forbidden her from approaching any of Mr Dumbledore’s guests… but Aunt Petunia wasn’t here. Besides, she didn’t know for certain if this girl really was one of Mr Dumbledore’s guests.

After a bit of thought, she slid her hand down her skirt pocket. And just as she thought: She still had that two-pound coin left from the last time she had run an errand for Mr Dumbledore. It had been to this very shop, in fact; he’d asked her to buy a packet of chocolate biscuits for him and told her to keep the change.

Well, she had money, so why shouldn’t she decide to pay a visit to the shop? Maybe there was something she wanted to buy! She climbed over the fence again to exit the park and then crossed the street towards the shop.

As she peered in through the window, she could see the girl, in the middle of a lively discussion with the cashier.

Holly pushed open the door and entered the shop, just in time to hear her say: “—but they’re not fakes, I promise! I got them from my Dad!”

“I didn’t say I thought they were fakes,” the cashier sighed. She was a young woman Holly didn’t know, but who looked rather tired and not in the mood to argue with girls in shoulder capes. “I said I couldn’t accept these coins.” She handed four shiny silver coins back to the girl. “I don’t even know the currency.”

“I’m dead certain it’s enough for a Mars bar,” said the girl. “But I’m in a hurry, have to get back to my family! We’re just here to visit someone, you see… Couldn’t you just…?”

“Sorry, luv,” said the cashier, turning her head to look at Holly. “And how can I help you?”

“Er… just looking,” said Holly. “I have money!” she added, a little defensively, as the cashier gave her a suspicious look.

“Wouldn’t bother if I were you,” said the red-haired girl, who had also turned to look at Holly. “Apparently this shop doesn’t take money.”

“We take money, we just don’t take foreign money,” the cashier protested. “You’ll have to exchange those for British pounds. What country even uses Sickles as currency?”

The red-haired girl just shook her head so her red ponytail swished from side to side. “Never mind,” she said, clutching the four coins in her hand. “I just wanted a Mars bar. I’ve never actually had one.”

“You never had a Mars Bar?” said Holly, surprised.

The girl shook her head again. “My sister Elaine had one last year, and she won’t shut up about how good it was, so I just wanted to grab the opportunity while we were here… But, never mind,” she repeated with a sigh. “It was a stupid idea anyway. My money’s no good and I don’t know where to exchange it…”

Holly made up her mind then and there. “Right here!” she said, pulling the two-pound coin out of her skirt pocket. “Not quite sure about the going rate, but I have two pounds here. If you give me two, er, Sickles for it, you’ll have enough for two Mars bars!”

“Really?” The girl’s blue eyes widened in astonishment. “That’d be great! But… is that all right?” She looked at the cashier, as if afraid she’d be told that this was somehow against the rules.

“As long as you pay me in actual pounds and pence, I don’t care,” said the cashier dryly.

Less than a minute later, Holly and the girl could walk out of the shop; the girl with two Mars bars and Holly with not two but three silver coins in her skirt pocket.

“I’m going to save these until tonight, and I’m going to share them with all my sisters!” The girl was beaming as she slipped both chocolates down into one of her belt pouches. “At least with Nella and Ginny. Maybe Maryssa and Lydia, if they’re good. Oh, and I suppose Fred and George. Elaine only gets a piece if she asks really nicely.” She patted the belt pouch with a soft little hand, and then did something completely unexpected: She turned towards Holly and kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you so much!” she said.

Holly, who wasn’t used to this kind of affectionate thank-you, involuntarily raised her hand to her cheek to touch where the girl had kissed her. “Er… you’re welcome,” she said. And then, to feel a little less awkward, she asked: “How many sisters do you have, anyway?”

“Eleven,” said the girl. It was hard to tell whether or not she considered this a good thing or a bad thing.

“Eleven…?!” Holly began. She couldn’t even imagine having that many sisters. (Or even one sister, instead of just a lousy snitch of a cousin.)

“Yeah, it’s a lot, I know,” said the girl. “I have seven older sisters, four younger sisters.”

Holly opened her mouth to comment on this, but then thought better of it. “You might have some trouble sharing two Mars bars between eleven people,” was all she said.

“Twelve,” said the girl. “I want a piece too. Don’t worry, I’ll manage, I know how to make sweets last. I’ll just split each one into six parts and then — Oh, by the way, I’m Ronnie!” she said, as if suddenly remembering she hadn’t introduced herself. “Well, I’m really Veronica, but everybody calls me Ronnie. Ronnie Weasley, of the Prewett line!”

“Hello, Ronnie, I’m Holly,” said Holly. “Holly Potter. Of the… Privet Drive.”

“Go on! Are you really?!” Ronnie’s blue eyes widened in excitement. “My sisters are never going to believe this! I knew you couldn’t be a Muggle, of course, but I didn’t know you were you!”

“Er,” said Holly again. This wasn’t making any sense at all. “Who would I be if I wasn’t me?”

“I don’t know! For all I knew, your name could have been… Harriett, or Aurelia, or Rosalind, or something!” Ronnie giggled. “Should have known it was you. Everybody knows you live around here! So, you went off to live with a family of Muggles! What’s that like?”

Holly was more confused than ever. This was the second time the other girl had used the word ‘Muggle,’ and Holly had no idea who that was supposed to be. “I… live with a family called Dursley,” she offered. “I don’t know anyone named Muggle.”

Ronnie shook her head. “No, no, no, Muggles,” she repeated. “You know, people who…” (and here she lowered her voice to a whisper.) “People who aren’t like us.”

“You mean…” Holly wasn’t certain how to proceed. She wanted to ask if the girl was a lesbian, but somehow that seemed silly. Especially after that kiss. “You mean… people who don’t visit Mr Dumbledore?” she hazarded.

“Exactly!” said Ronnie. “That’s why we’re here in Little Whinging. Dumbledore’s helping my sister Fred with — er — I’m not actually supposed to talk about that.” She giggled nervously and turned a little pink.

“Your sister’s name is Fred?” said Holly. “Isn’t that a boy’s name?”

“Yeah, that’s… one of the things I’m not supposed to talk about.” Ronnie’s pink shade turned a little brighter. “Look, you did me a good turn, so I’d like to return the favour. Isn’t there anything I can do for you?”

“I don’t think —” Holly began, but then hesitated. Ronnie seemed really sincere, and once more the thought about the cupboard under the stairs was there. “That is,” she said, slowly and without much hope, “I don’t think so. Unless you know how to open a padlock without a key.”

Unexpectedly, Ronnie laughed. “A padlock?” she repeated. “What, just a normal padlock? That’s easy!”

“It is?” Holly felt a surge of hope.

Ronnie nodded and leaned in close. “I’m not supposed to talk about these things, at least not out in the open,” she said. “But since it’s you… my sisters taught me the trick. What you do is you take the padlock, and you blow on it three times.”

Holly stared at her. “And then what?”

“And then it’ll open! I swear, it works. You just have to believe that it will!”

Holly was about to say that this was nonsense, but Ronnie looked so earnest that she didn’t have the heart. Besides… her thoughts went back to the lawnmower incident yesterday. In a world where a lawnmower could decide to move on its own, maybe a padlock could decide to open just because you blew on it? Maybe lesbians could do things like that. If Holly was turning into one anyway…

“I suppose I could give it a try,” she said.

“It’ll work,” Ronnie promised. “Come on, I should probably get back to the family…. Er, you know where Dumbledore lives, right? I’m not sure I do.”

Holly led the way back to Number Seven.  While they walked, she told Ronnie about the cupboard under the stairs, and the feeling that something wonderful was in there, but her aunt and uncle kept pretending that there was nothing there.

Ronnie wholeheartedly agreed that something important had to be in the cupboard, but had no idea what.

“My cousin said he thought it was a treasure,” said Holly. “Gold and diamonds. But I’m pretty sure he was making it up.”

“You’re right there,” said Ronnie. “Gold and diamonds don’t call out for you to come get them. Well, gold doesn’t. I’ve never actually seen any diamonds, but I don’t think they do either.” She shook her head, making her red ponytail sweep from side to side. “Nah — whatever is in that cupboard, must be magic.”

“Magic?” Holly’s heart skipped a beat. She still remembered Aunt Petunia’s harsh insistence that there was no such thing as magic.

“Yeah, must be, mustn’t it?” Ronnie didn’t seem to have noticed Holly’s reaction; her tone of voice suggested that she took it for granted that everyone knew that magic existed.  “Question’s just what kind of magic.”

Holly was about to ask how many kinds of magic there were, and how she might tell them apart, when they rounded a corner, Number Seven came into view, and she saw the huge number of people gathered by the entrance door.

She could at once see that they had to be Ronnie’s family, since most of them had red hair and all of them were wearing the same kind of eccentric clothing as she was… but how many they were! There had to be something like twenty people there, crowding the street outside Number Seven, most of them talking at once. Like almost all of the visitors that came to Number Seven, this crowd was made up of women and girls, though this time Holly could plainly see that there was one man with them; a tall, thin one with glasses and thinning red hair, dressed in a brown tunic-like outfit.

“All right, everyone, let’s not panic,” he was saying. “Who saw her last?”

“I did!” piped up one of the smaller girls, a tiny redhead wearing the same kind of outfit that Ronnie was, only her dress and shoulder-cape were green instead of blue, and her legs were bare.

“When did you see her, Ginny?” said the man.

“Right now!” said the little girl, whose name was apparently Ginny, and pointed eagerly towards Holly and Ronnie. “She’s over there!”

“Oops,” said Ronnie. “Isn’t that always the way. Nobody notices you when you are there, but when you aren’t there, everybody notices.”

The family started to call her name. “Ronnie!” — “Ronnie, over here!” — “Veronica Weasley, you get your arse over here right now!”

“Better get back to the family.” Ronnie sounded annoyed, embarrassed and pleased all at once. And then, just as unexpectedly as the kiss, she wrapped her arms around Holly and gave her a quick hug.  “It was great to meet you! Hey — if I don’t see you before we’re eleven, would it be all right if I looked for you, you know, on the train?”

Yes!” said Holly, almost automatically. That was the first time she could remember anyone having hugged her. “I mean… what train?”

“The Hogwarts Express, of course!” Ronnie giggled. “I’ve got to run! Good luck with the padlock!” And with that, she sprinted over to the crowd.

Holly wanted to call after her and ask what the Hogwarts Express was, but decided against it. Something told her she would find out sooner or later. She decided to go back a little way so as not to disturb the family reunion, and cast a last lingering glance at Ronnie, now in the middle of the crowd.

“What did we say about wandering off on your own?” said one of the women.

“Did we say we liked it and wanted me to do it all the time?” came Ronnie’s voice, as the last thing Holly heard before she rounded the corner again.

She stopped and leaned against the brick wall, letting out a huge breath. That had, without question, been the weirdest meeting she had ever had with anyone…. But it had definitely also been the nicest. Even though Ronnie had been extremely confusing, Holly had liked her very much. And she thought Ronnie had liked her as well. Whatever this Hogwarts Express was, and however Holly was to find it, she couldn’t wait to meet the girl again there.

But first… Holly glanced at her watch. It was an old and battered watch that constantly needed to be set, but if it showed the right time, Aunt Petunia had only been gone for slightly less than two hours. Holly knew her family well enough to know that Aunt Petunia wouldn’t be back home for at least two more hours, and Dudley would remain in front of the telly, deaf and blind to everything, until she came back home to make lunch. The one wild card in this was Uncle Vernon, but with any luck he’d still be busy with the shed… she’d have to take the chance.

It was time to see if Ronnie’s padlock trick worked.