'Er -- no,' said Harry. 'This Christmas I'll be going back to the Dursleys.'
Professor McGonagall's hand jerked sharply, sending the bottle of ink flying.
'You -- you are?' she said.
'Yes,' said Harry brightly. 'I'm making it up with them. We've quarrelled long enough ... and Christmas is a time for family.'
Professor McGonagall stared at him as though he'd gone mad. After several moments, she collected herself sufficiently to summon back the ink bottle (fortunately charmed to be unbreakable and unspillable) and carry on taking names, pausing every once in a while to survey Harry with a very peculiar expression indeed. Harry suspected he'd had much the same befuddled look on his face when Fred and George first revealed this part of their plan.
'I don't see what use the Dursleys will be in getting Percy out of Azkaban,' Harry had objected, 'and Snape will make Neville Slytherin Seeker in Malfoy's place before they forgive me for being a wizard. I couldn't mend fences with them even if I wanted to.'
'I should hope not, it would ruin everything if you did,' said Fred. 'But you need an excuse to spend the holidays at their house. Sneaking away from Hogwarts is too risky.'
'Poor Harry, you wanted so much to finally get on with your relatives --' said George in tones of mock sorrow.
'-- but they weren't having any,' said Fred with a theatrical sigh.
'So on Christmas Eve --'
'-- after that huge row you had with them --'
'-- you went outside to calm down --'
'-- didn't want to risk any more accidental magic, after all --'
'-- and wandered around for simply hours --'
'-- depressed --'
'-- discouraged --'
'-- disappointed --'
'-- completely lost track of the time --'
'-- at least that's what you'll say if you're asked,' Fred finished. 'Not that you're likely to be, if everything goes according to plan. Obviously once the Ministry finds Percy gone they'll suspect Weasleys were involved, but it'll be mainly us older ones, not Ron and his friends.'
'If everything goes according to plan,' George repeated grimly. 'If worst comes to worst and we're caught in the act, your line will be that we tricked you into it. You flew up to visit Ron but we headed you off at the orchard. We asked you to help us get some things for our Christmas party. When you realised we'd brought you to Azkaban, you conjured the Patronus in self-defence.'
The Christmas party was to be the Weasley family's alibi. Charlie, who had come back from Romania to support his parents during the crisis, was arranging for as many people as possible to drop in on Christmas Eve, ostensibly to cheer Mr and Mrs Weasley up. This group, which included a generous sprinkling of Mr Weasley's colleagues from the Ministry of Magic, would serve as witnesses that none of the Weasleys could have been anywhere near Azkaban when the breakout occurred.
'Fred and I will wear our Christmas jumpers,' said George. 'Only one of us will actually go with you to Azkaban. The other will have to stay at The Burrow and make it look like we're both there by changing the letter on his front.'
'And Ron can wear a maroon jumper and turn it blue to impersonate you from behind,' Harry suggested. 'That way some of the guests will be able to swear they saw you together.'
'Absolutely not,' said Fred. 'Ron's knowing nothing about this, nor is anyone else. Why d'you think I picked that fight with Lee Jordan?'
'The only person we're letting in on this is you,' said George. 'If someone let something slip beforehand, even unintentionally, Percy could be stuck in Azkaban for the rest of his life. If someone let something slip afterwards, we could all be. This isn't a kids' joke.'
'But Ron's having nightmares!' said Harry. 'Malfoy won't leave him alone, you heard him at dinner last night. What if Ron tries to -- to curse him or something? Then we'd have two people to break out of Azkaban!'
After some argument, Fred and George reluctantly agreed to give Ron and Ginny a false story.
'We'll tell them the Ministry's got a fresh lead,' said Fred. 'We can always say later we were making it up so they'd have a happier Christmas.'
In exchange for this concession, Fred and George made Harry swear some truly frightening wizarding oaths not to breath a word of their scheme to anyone for any reason. So Ron slept easier, although the Skull Horse and the Hounds of Noon gave Harry a few bad nights, and Malfoy was spared a trip to the hospital wing from the Curse of the Slithering Nasty Accident.
For Harry it was the secrecy that proved to be the most difficult part of the plan. He had never before kept anything so important from Ron and Hermione. They still blamed the Dursleys for Harry's month-long disappearance the previous summer and were exceedingly unhappy about his decision to return to Privet Drive for Christmas.
'What if they go off and leave you again, and You-Know-Who comes back?' demanded Ron.
'If they go off and leave me, I'll know to tell Mrs Figg this time,' said Harry. 'But I don't reckon they will. Don't want their house smashed twice, do they?'
Harry wasn't nearly as offhand about this as he sounded. Having to stay at Mrs Figg's during the holidays would spoil his plans quite thoroughly. To forestall such a contingency, he had taken the precaution of informing Uncle Vernon that his visit was necessary to maintain the magical protection on number four.
Now that Harry knew something was to be done about Percy, the remaining days of term passed quickly. In what felt like no time at all, the students going home for Christmas were gathered in the Entrance Hall, waiting for the procession of carriages that would take them to Hogsmeade. Professor McGonagall gave Harry one last worried look as she handed out the notes that forbade magic during the holidays. (Harry had asked Fred and George if this would be a problem, but they assured him that the Ministry wouldn't be checking for underage magic around Azkaban.)
Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny rode the same carriage to the station. A light snow was falling outside. Ron and Ginny were sober but not deeply miserable. Fred and George had hinted to them that the Ministry was following up on some promising new evidence and Percy might well be free before the end of the holidays. They'd been warned to remain quiet about this, as Lucius Malfoy would certainly try to sabotage the investigation if he got wind of it. Ron had told Harry and Hermione anyway, which made Harry feel all the more guilty about the secret he was keeping from Ron.
The Hogwarts Express was decorated with wreaths of holly and garlands of mistletoe. The lunch trolley brought mince pies, Christmas cake and eggnog as well as the usual pumpkin juice and Cauldron Cakes. Harry seized the opportunity to stock up on sweets, as he wasn't expecting much in the way of food from his relations. Considering what he'd let happen to their house and garden over the summer, Harry thought it entirely possible that the Dursleys would force him spend the whole of the holidays locked in his room, or the cupboard under the stairs.
This troubled him not a bit. He had the penknife Sirius had given him that could unlock any lock, and an escape would be as good as a quarrel for an excuse to fly up to The Burrow. Percy would soon be out of Azkaban and the Weasley family would once more be a happy one, and knowing that made all of the Dursleys' unpleasantness bearable.
As the Hogwarts Express approached King's Cross, students began changing into Muggle clothes. Harry had outgrown his coat two years ago (lengthwise if not widthwise -- it was second-hand from Dudley). He hadn't bothered to ask Aunt Petunia to replace it, as he was never in the Muggle world during winter. Luckily Harry had the jumpers Mrs Weasley knitted him each year for Christmas. He was wearing all four of them: larger, newer ones on top of smaller, older ones.
Mrs Weasley and Charlie were waiting beyond the barrier. Fred and George hadn't been exaggerating: Mrs Weasley looked dreadful. Her face was lined and streaks of grey dulled her vivid red hair. There was a suspicious wetness in her eyes as she hugged her remaining children, and she seemed very reluctant to let go of them.
Hermione's parents stood awkwardly nearby with a pair of trolleys. They were giving Harry a lift to Diagon Alley so he could stop by Gringotts. Fred and George had given him two hundred Galleons to exchange for Muggle money. It would have been considered highly dodgy had the Weasley twins done this themselves, but Harry had Muggle relatives to buy presents for. Harry assumed Percy would lie low as a Muggle after his escape, but Fred and George had told him that the less he knew about Percy's final destination, the better. Once Harry traded the bag of gold (to which he quietly added fifty Galleons of his own) for a stack of fifty-pound notes, the Grangers dropped him off at Paddington station to catch the train to Little Whinging.
He arrived in Privet Drive to find number four looking as if Voldemort had never flattened it. Apart from being constructed out of slightly newer materials, the rebuilt front was exactly the same as the old one. The door was locked and nobody came when Harry rang the bell, so he used the Skeleton Key attachment on his penknife to let himself in.
A tall, blond boy, who would have been rather good-looking if not for the nervous, hunted expression on his face, was emerging from the living room. Apparently Dudley had brought home a friend from Smeltings. Harry was astounded that Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia had allowed it, knowing Harry would be in the house too.
'Hello,' said Harry, holding out his hand. 'I'm Dudley's cousin -- Harry Potter.'
The boy gave Harry an appalled look, turned tail and ran down the hall and up the staircase. Harry heard the sound of a door slamming shut upstairs. Obviously Dudley had told his guest quite a lot about Harry. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia would be livid if they found out.
Harry stayed in his bedroom until the delicious smell of roast beef lured him down to dinner -- at least the Dursleys seemed to have given up on Dudley's diet. Although Harry had expected his relations to be furious with him after the events of the previous summer, he was taken aback at the looks of sheer hatred his aunt and uncle directed at him when he entered the dining room. Neither Dudley nor his friend was anywhere to be seen.
As Harry sat down, Aunt Petunia left the room. Harry could hear her voice in the hall, speaking in low, soothingly tones. She came back in leading Dudley's friend by the hand. He looked petrified. Harry eyed him in confusion.
'Where's --?' Harry started, and then it hit him. The tall, blond boy was Dudley.
Several times over the next couple of days, Harry caught himself ogling his cousin in stunned disbelief. On those rare occasions he could see him, that is -- if Dudley saw Harry first, he would invariably scurry off to hide. Clearly, Voldemort's attack on number four had affected him far more severely than it had his parents. Dudley hadn't dared bully Harry personally since learning Harry was a wizard, but he'd always thoroughly enjoyed it when Uncle Vernon did. That had changed. Dudley now became so terrified whenever Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were horrible to Harry that they soon went back to ignoring him altogether.
All in all, life with the Dursleys was as tolerable as it had ever been. Aunt Petunia was cooking wonderful meals (and not stopping Harry from eating them), though strangely enough there were no puddings. With all the weight Dudley had lost, Harry would have thought surely he'd be allowed them again. Though Dudley was still somewhat thicker than a normal boy, this probably actually was due to having big bones.
In fact, Harry was beginning to feel rather sorry for Dudley. It was difficult to hold a grudge against someone who both looked and acted like a completely different person. If Harry hadn't known better, he would have suspected Smeltings had simply sent home the wrong boy. Harry was also beginning to worry that he might not be able to start a row with the Dursleys when the time came. Fortunately, there was a box of Dr Filibuster's Fabulous No-Heat, Wet-Start Fireworks in his trunk from last Hogsmeade weekend. If all else failed, letting off a few of them inside the house should do the trick.
On Christmas Eve, Harry spent the afternoon poring over a fold-out map of Britain. Before leaving the tunnel behind the mirror, Fred and George had asked Harry to toss a coin to decide which of them would accompany him to Azkaban. George had won; he and Harry were meeting in Grimsby. Harry would make his way up there by following the motorways: circling round London along the M25, taking the A1 to Peterborough and then the A16. It was a journey of nearly a hundred and fifty miles, but on his Firebolt Harry could make it in a single hour if need be.
It was with some trepidation that Harry finally went down to dinner. For all the ill feeling between him and the Dursleys, he didn't normally go out of his way to stir up trouble with them. Doing so when they were still smarting over the damage done to their house on his watch seemed about as safe a prospect as calling a Hippogriff a bastard. But Harry thought of Percy, languishing in Azkaban, and halfway through the meal he nerved himself and launched into a long, pointless tale about his past Christmases at Hogwarts.
Uncle Vernon's face grew redder and redder as Harry nattered on about wizard crackers and fairy lights that were real fairies. Dudley, however, trembled so fearfully every time his father opened his mouth that Uncle Vernon couldn't quite bring himself to give Harry the savage ticking off he so plainly burnt to. When Aunt Petunia stonily began removing the dishes, Harry knew it would have to be the fireworks.
Trudging up the stairs, Harry couldn't help feeling a bit guilty about his cousin. All the talk of magic at dinner had clearly placed a great strain on Dudley's nerves, and a load of enchanted fireworks going off under his nose was unlikely to have a calming effect. As he rummaged in his trunk for the Filibuster fireworks, Harry's eyes fell upon the pile of Chocolate Frogs he'd bought on the Hogwarts Express. If he gave them to Dudley and warned him to eat them out of his parents' view, it would keep him in his room during Harry's upcoming indoor fireworks display. Scooping up an armful of Chocolate Frogs, Harry headed back downstairs.
Dudley was tiptoeing down the hall, seizing the chance to sneak up to his room whilst Harry was out of the way. When he caught sight of his cousin, Dudley let out a petrified squeak.
'No, wait, it's all right,' said Harry. 'I don't want to talk about -- You-Know-What. I've got some spare Chocolate Frogs you can have for a pudding, your mum and dad needn't know ...'
He held one out to Dudley, who drew back from it in horror.
'They're not made of actual frogs,' Harry assured him, 'just chocolate.'
He ripped open the pack and showed the Chocolate Frog to Dudley. Dudley backed away. It suddenly occurred to Harry what must be bothering him.
'It's OK, they're not jinxed,' he said. 'Look --'
Harry took a bite of the Chocolate Frog. Dudley was now sobbing with fright. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon came charging out of the dining room to see what was the matter.
'Darling Duddykins!' wailed Aunt Petunia, flinging her arms around Dudley (who was taller than his mother, Harry noticed with a start). 'What have you done to him?' she spat at Harry.
'I didn't do anything to him,' said Harry in bewilderment. 'I just thought he might like a sweet.'
At these words, Uncle Vernon swelled like a great purple toad and pitched into Harry as never before. From the spittle-flecked diatribe that followed, Harry was given to understand that Dudley had been deathly afraid of sweets since the incident of the Ton-Tongue Toffee, and moreover, that this fact had not gone unnoticed by the many smaller boys Dudley had bullied in his first three years at Smeltings. As a result, not only had Dudley not had any sweets for almost eighteen months, he'd also spent a lot of time running. The secret of his extraordinary weight loss was revealed.
'But I wasn't ... I didn't ...' said Harry. Then he realised he'd been handed his cue. 'You always blame me for everything,' he shouted at Uncle Vernon. 'It's your fault what happened to Dudley, if you'd told Mr Weasley he'd've come and put a Memory Charm on him, but I reckon you hate wizards too much to ever ask one for help. I've had it with the lot of you! I'm off!'
Harry threw the Chocolate Frogs to the floor, shoved past the three Dursleys and stormed out the front door right on schedule. Rather than heading down the drive, however, he slipped round to the back garden and crept into the greenhouse, where he had concealed the things he'd be needing for his trip north: his Firebolt, his Invisibility Cloak, his four Weasley jumpers and the brass compass from the Broomstick Servicing Kit Hermione had given him (his wand, the maps and the bundle of Muggle money he had kept in his pockets). Although Harry was aware he was flying into a fairly dangerous situation, as he soared up into the freezing air his main emotion was relief at leaving Privet Drive and the Dursleys far behind.
Soon Harry was streaking along above the motorway, overtaking the few cars that were out as if they were standing still. The evening was clear, though extremely cold. Harry ran into the odd flurry of snow but no serious bad weather, reaching the Grimsby docks little over ninety minutes later.
He and George had arranged to rendezvous at the hydraulic tower. Circling the Royal Dock, Harry spotted a flash of red hair in the shadows and glided towards it.
'George?' he called quietly.
George gazed upwards, eyes darting to and fro (Harry was still invisible). With a small thump, Harry landed beside him.
'Ah, Harry, good,' said George.
George ducked under the Invisibility Cloak, climbed onto the Firebolt in front of Harry and flew them across the dark water to a rickety wooden shed at the back of a fish curer's. Inside the shed, George pulled a bundle of black cloth out of a backpack that was sitting a stack of crates and tossed it to Harry.
'Here, change into these,' he said. 'If we run into anyone on the way, we don't want to be identified by our clothes.'
Harry put on the outfit George had provided, which he was pleased to see included a thick black cloak. It was an unusually icy night even for December and four jumpers hadn't been enough to keep Harry properly warm whilst flying at high speed.
When George finished changing his own clothes, he opened the backpack again and drew out two leather belts. One of them was strung with a pair of leads and collars; George fastened it around his waist. He passed the other belt to Harry.
'We'll make better time if we use the Firebolt to tow the Cleansweeps. I'll charm you and Percy to be feather-light and attach the collars to your belts,' said George, ferreting in the backpack once more. 'And we mustn't forget this, it's the most important thing.'
He produced a small, grubby-looking square of parchment with a flourish.
'What is it?' said Harry.
'A pass from the Ministry of Magic to visit Azkaban,' said George. 'As long as I'm carrying this, I won't set off the intruder alarms.'
Harry's mouth fell open. 'How'd you get that?'
'Old one of Dad's,' said George. 'The Ministry doesn't bother taking them back. They won't work unless your name's been written on with a special quill by the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and the ink fades after a day.'
'And you got the Head of Magical Law Enforcement to write your name on it?' said Harry incredulously.
'Of course not,' said George, 'but a blank pass will work for a wizard with no name.'
'But you've got a name,' Harry pointed out. 'It's George Weasley.'
'Are you sure of that?' said George with a crooked smile.
By now Harry had no trouble telling the Weasley twins apart at point-blank range. The red-haired boy in front of him was definitely a Weasley twin, but as Harry inspected him more closely an alarming realisation swept over him.
'You aren't Fred or George!'
Harry's wand was in his hand and levelled at the unknown twin almost before he'd had time to think.
The twin laughed. 'Relax, Harry, I am George,' he said, holding up his hands as though to ward off a curse. 'Or I was until I used the Gemini Charm to give my name to Fred.'
'Used the what to what?' said Harry, now completely at sea.
'The Gemini Charm,' George repeated. 'Lets twins transfer powers to each other. And not just magical powers, but things like strength and reflexes. Fred and I use it for Quidditch a lot, we can Dopplebeater from opposite ends of the pitch. If I had a scar like your one, I could move it onto Fred's forehead or we could share it -- both have scars, only fainter. Instead of a scar, I moved my name. Fred is Fred and George now, and I'm no one. See how the ink on the pass turns green when I touch it? That means it's activated. You'll have to stay in the air, but I can go on the island and get Percy without raising an alarm. It'll be days before he's discovered missing.'
George paused for a satisfied smirk, then reached into the backpack and took out a couple of black balaclavas.
'Remember your alibi,' he said as they pulled them on. 'When you flew up to the party, I intercepted you outside the house and asked you to come with me to fetch more food.'
Fred and George's Cleansweep Fives were propped against the back wall. George handed one to Harry and strapped the other to his back with a third belt.
'You should get on your broom before I cast the Feather-Light Charm,' he told Harry, drawing his wand.
Harry swung a leg over the Cleansweep and George performed the spell. It felt very weird being feather-light; the slightest motion sent him drifting gently up into the air. George fastened one of the collars hanging off his belt to Harry's, mounted the Firebolt, draped the Invisibility Cloak over the pair of them and shuffled awkwardly out the shack. Harry was tugged along by the lead and collar, his feet floating inches above the ground.
'Right, Harry, we kick off on the count of three,' said George. 'One -- two -- three --'
And they were off.
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.
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