BACK TO THE BURROW
By twelve o'clock the next day, Harry's school trunk was packed with his school things and all his most prized possessions — the Invisibility Cloak he had inherited from his father, the broomstick he had gotten from Sirius, the enchanted map of Hogwarts he had been given by Fred and George Weasley last year. He had emptied his hiding place under the loose floorboard of all food, double-checked every nook and cranny of his bedroom for forgotten spellbooks or quills, and taken down the chart on the wall counting down the days to September the first, on which he liked to cross off the days remaining until his return to Hogwarts.
The atmosphere inside number four, Privet Drive was extremely tense. The imminent arrival at their house of an assortment of wizards was making the Dursleys uptight and irritable. Uncle Vernon had looked downright alarmed when Harry informed him that the Weasleys would be arriving at five o'clock the very next day.
"I hope you told them to dress properly, these people," he snarled at once. "I've seen the sort of stuff your lot wear. They'd better have the decency to put on normal clothes, that's all."
Harry felt a slight sense of foreboding. He had rarely seen Mr. or Mrs. Weasley wearing anything that the Dursleys would call "normal." Their children might don Muggle clothing during the holidays, but Mr. and Mrs. Weasley usually wore long robes in varying states of shabbiness. Harry wasn't bothered about what the neighbors would think, but he was anxious about how rude the Dursleys might be to the Weasleys if they turned up looking like their worst idea of wizards.
Uncle Vernon had put on his best suit. To some people, this might have looked like a gesture of welcome, but Harry knew it was because Uncle Vernon wanted to look impressive and intimidating. Dudley, on the other hand, looked somehow diminished. This was not because the diet was at last taking effect, but due to fright. Dudley had emerged from his last encounter with a fully grown wizard with a curly pig's tail poking out of the seat of his trousers, and Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had had to pay for its removal at a private hospital in London. It wasn't altogether surprising, therefore, that Dudley kept running his hand nervously over his backside, and walking sideways from room to room, so as not to present the same target to the enemy.
Lunch was an almost silent meal. Dudley didn't even protest at the food (cottage cheese and grated celery). Aunt Petunia wasn't, eating anything at all. Her arms were folded, her lips were pursed, and she seemed to be chewing her tongue, as though biting back the furious diatribe she longed to throw at Harry.
"They'll be driving, of course?" Uncle Vernon barked across the table.
"Er," said Harry.
He hadn't thought of that. How were the Weasleys going to pick him up? They didn't have a car anymore; the old Ford Anglia they had once owned was currently running wild in the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts. But Mr. Weasley had borrowed a Ministry of Magic car last year; possibly he would do the same today?
"I think so," said Harry.
Uncle Vernon snorted into his mustache. Normally, Uncle Vernon would have asked what car Mr. Weasley drove; he tended to judge other men by how big and expensive their cars were. But Harry doubted whether Uncle Vernon would have taken to Mr. Weasley even if he drove a Ferrari.
Harry spent most of the afternoon in his bedroom; he couldn't stand watching Aunt Petunia peer out through the net curtains every few seconds, as though there had been a warning about an escaped rhinoceros. Finally, at a quarter to five, Harry went back downstairs and into the living room.
Aunt Petunia was compulsively straightening cushions. Uncle Vernon was pretending to read the paper, but his tiny eyes were not moving, and Harry was sure he was really listening with all his might for the sound of an approaching car. Dudley was crammed into an armchair, his porky hands beneath him, clamped firmly around his bottom. Harry couldn't take the tension; he left the room and went and sat on the stairs in the hall, his eyes on his watch and his heart pumping fast from excitement and nerves.
But five o'clock came and then went. Uncle Vernon, perspiring slightly in his suit, opened the front door, peered up and down the street, then withdrew his head quickly.
"They're late!" he snarled at Harry.
"I know," said Harry. "Maybe — er — the traffic's bad, or something."
Ten past five…then a quarter past five…Harry was starting to feel anxious himself now. At half past, he heard Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia conversing in terse mutters in the living room.
"No consideration at all."
"We might've had an engagement."
"Maybe they think they'll get invited to dinner if they're late."
"Well, they most certainly won't be," said Uncle Vernon, and Harry heard him stand up and start pacing the living room. "They'll take the boy and go, there'll be no hanging around. That's if they're coming at all. Probably mistaken the day. I daresay their kind don't set much store by punctuality. Either that or they drive some tin-pot car that's broken d -AAAAAAAARRRRRGH!"
Harry jumped up. From the other side of the living room door came the sounds of the three Dursleys scrambling, panic-stricken, across the room. Next moment Dudley came flying into the hall, looking terrified.
"What happened?" said Harry. "What's the matter?"
But Dudley didn't seem able to speak. Hands still clamped over his buttocks, he waddled as fast as he could into the kitchen. Harry hurried into the living room.
Loud bangings and scrapings were coming from behind the Dursleys' boarded-up fireplace, which had a fake coal fire plugged in front of it.
"What is it?" gasped Aunt Petunia, who had backed into the wall and was staring, terrified, toward the fire. "What is it, Vernon?"
But they were left in doubt barely a second longer. Voices could be heard from inside the blocked fireplace.
"Ouch! Fred, no — go back, go back, there's been some kind of mistake — tell George not to — OUCH! George, no, there's no room, go back quickly and tell Ron -"
"Maybe Harry can hear us, Dad — maybe he'll be able to let us out -"
There was a loud hammering of fists on the boards behind the electric fire.
"Harry? Harry, can you hear us?"
The Dursleys rounded on Harry like a pair of angry wolverines.
"What is this?" growled Uncle Vernon. "What's going on?"
"They — they've tried to get here by Floo powder," said Harry, fighting a mad desire to laugh. "They can travel by fire — only you've blocked the fireplace — hang on -"
He approached the fireplace and called through the boards.
"Mr. Weasley? Can you hear me?"
The hammering stopped. Somebody inside the chimney piece said, "Shh!"
"Mr. Weasley, it's Harry…the fireplace has been blocked up. You won't be able to get through there."
"Damn!" said Mr. Weasley's voice. "What on earth did they want to block up the fireplace for?"
"They've got an electric fire," Harry explained.
"Really?" said Mr. Weasley's voice excitedly. "Eclectic, you say? With a plug ? Gracious, I must see that….Let's think…Ouch, Ron!"
Ron's voice now joined the others'.
"What are we doing here? Has something gone wrong?"
"Oh no, Ron," came Fred's voice, very sarcastically. "No, this is exactly where we wanted to end up."
"Yeah, we're having the time of our lives here," said George, whose voice sounded muffled, as though he was squashed against the wall.
"Boys, boys…" said Mr. Weasley vaguely. "I'm trying to think what to do….Yes…only way…Stand back, Harry."
Harry retreated to the sofa. Uncle Vernon, however, moved forward.
"Wait a moment!" he bellowed at the fire. "What exactly are you going to -"
The electric fire shot across the room as the boarded-up fireplace burst outward, expelling Mr. Weasley, Fred, George, and Ron in a cloud of rubble and loose chippings. Aunt Petunia shrieked and fell backward over the coffee table; Uncle Vernon caught her before she hit the floor, and gaped, speechless, at the Weasleys, all of whom had bright red hair, including Fred and George, who were identical to the last freckle.
"That's better," panted Mr. Weasley, brushing dust from his long green robes and straightening his glasses. "Ah — you must be Harry's aunt and uncle!"
Tall, thin, and balding, he moved toward Uncle Vernon, his hand outstretched, but Uncle Vernon backed away several paces, dragging Aunt Petunia. Words utterly failed Uncle Vernon. His best suit was covered in white dust, which had settled in his hair and mustache and made him look as though he had just aged thirty years.
"Er — yes — sorry about that," said Mr. Weasley, lowering his hand and looking over his shoulder at the blasted fireplace. "It's all my fault. It just didn't occur to me that we wouldn't be able to get out at the other end. I had your fireplace connected to the Floo Network, you see — just for an afternoon, you know, so we could get Harry. Muggle fireplaces aren't supposed to be connected, strictly speaking — but I've got a useful contact at the Floo Regulation Panel and he fixed it for me. I can put it right in a jiffy, though, don't worry. I'll light a fire to send the boys back, and then I can repair your fireplace before I Disapparate."
Harry was ready to bet that the Dursleys hadn't understood a single word of this. They were still gaping at Mr. Weasley, thunderstruck. Aunt Petunia staggered upright again and hid behind Uncle Vernon.
"Hello, Harry!" said Mr. Weasley brightly. "Got your trunk ready?"
"It's upstairs," said Harry, grinning back.
"We'll get it," said Fred at once. Winking at Harry, he and George left the room. They knew where Harry's bedroom was, having once rescued him from it in the dead of night. Harry suspected that Fred and George were hoping for a glimpse of Dudley; they had heard a lot about him from Harry.
"Well," said Mr. Weasley, swinging his arms slightly, while he tried to find words to break the very nasty silence. "Very — erm — very nice place you've got here."
As the usually spotless living room was now covered in dust and bits of brick, this remark didn't go down too well with the Dursleys. Uncle Vernon's face purpled once more, and Aunt Petunia started chewing her tongue again. However, they seemed too scared to actually say anything.