"It is not a death sentence," says Mum. "You had fun the first time."
"The second time," I say, dragging at my shirt collar, "was a bit grim."
It really was a bit grim. That was the year Luke got his Hogwarts letter, and Dad spent Boxing Day struggling to keep a straight face while Cousin Dudley was in despair over his parents and Anne was mystified by the whole production and the only thing Luke wanted to do was ask questions about school. You'd have thought it would have been chaos, but it wasn't - instead you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.
Mum sighs. "Look, Jim. I know it's not..."
"You can't tell me it's not easy, Dad thinks it's hilarious."
"Your Dad," says Mum, looking annoyed, "feels like he's got some sort of mystic obligation to poor Luke about the kid's grandparents. I have no bloody clue why, because they were -"
She cuts herself off sharply, but after fifteen years of this family and all the excessive togetherness and the obsession with taking photographs and Dad's trick of being completely honest with us kids about anything we ask about except for the ten-year gap in his childhood between Grandad James and Granma Lily dying and Dad going to Hogwarts, I can guess what the rest of the sentence would look like.
"Because they were vile to him."
Mum catches my eye, and she's unusually sober, almost grave. Mum and Dad don't do grave. They let us maraud through the village and school and in fact our entire lives because to them, having a laugh = most important thing ever. "Don't mention this to him," she says quietly. Twitch of a smile that's not amused; she strokes her hair out of her eyes and her sleeve falls back, showing a glance of scar. "He'd hate to think you knew about it."
"That's stupid," I say before I've stopped to think. "It's like pride, innit? Stupid."
Mum shakes her head. "I think it's more like a determination to protect you," she says. "There's some stuff you shouldn't be protected from, because that'll put you all in danger in turn. And there's other stuff that's never truly hurt anyone but him, and he doesn't see why you should live with that knowledge."
It's the sort of interesting moral distinction that ordinary grown ups are fond of making; I file it away for later examination, on the grounds that if Dad is stooping to it this thing with Cousin Dudley's parents is obviously bothering him rather a lot.
"And they were - are - like that because?"
"It's my understanding they don't much like magic."
I almost laugh. "Reverse Death Eaters. Great."
Mum shrugs, smiles some more, still not amused. More like helpless. "Yes... well."
"Wait." Something's just occurred to me. "She's Granma Lily's sister. Dudley's Mum, I mean."
"And she doesn't... like... magic."
Mum nods again.
Shake my head at her. Out, out now. From the top of the house to the bottom: clatter down the attic stairs, along the hall past the bathroom and our bedrooms, downstairs again and into the empty study, where Dad's photo album lies, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, in a box on the table by the old leather sofa. Granma Lily had eyes like Dad's, and Al's, and I think my Lily's got her nose. Her hair was red, but more sort of auburn-autumny than bright Weasley ginger. She had scars too, you can see them in one of the photos from just before she and Grandad James got married. It's summer and she's wearing a sleeveless top. She's half turned away from the camera and they stretch across her shoulders and her upper arm. I really like this photo of her, she's all sort of solemn and staring into the distance. She never really moves much in this one, I don't know if she even noticed someone was taking her picture. Was it Grandad James, or Sirius, or Uncle Remus, or one of her friends, not a Marauder at all, someone we've never met?
When I was little I used to say to Al and Lily that she was staring into the distance because she was looking through time and was trying to see us.
It's not fair - that someone who knew them and could have kept them close and loved them hated them while us who love them never got them at all.
Listen to me, whining like a baby.
But I haven't been in here long before there's a knock on the front door and everyone starts flying downstairs, popping up out of the kitchen and/or surfacing from underneath a pile of books. Lily's back with the pigtails again, I don't know why. Habit, probably. She had a plait this morning.
Al opens the front door.
"Hi!! There you are!!"
Well, where else did he expect us to be? I swear Luke lives in a state of permanent excitement. It's endearing for the first couple hours, and then you start looking around for blunt objects to cosh him over the head with. There's a bit of a scrum as everyone gets inside - our hallway's a bit narrow - and takes their shoes off and dumps their coats and whatever. Luke thinks Lily hung the moon, and is correspondingly overjoyed to be attached to her elbow on the way into the sitting room. She reckons he's cute, in much the same way she reckons the dog's cute, or so I suspect. Anyway, here they are, and Mum and Dad are all "had a good trip" and "want a drink" and "here, I'll take your coats" and "blooding freezing this year, isn't it". Mum likes Anne, who apparently writes as well, although I'm still not sure what exactly - except that it's not about sports. They're having a good old whinge about missed deadlines already, and Dad is pouring drinks and Al's disappeared and that leaves me with Cousin Dudley.
"So..." he says. "Luke seems to have settled in all right."
"I don't think Luke ever settles to anything." Damn.
But he laughs, surprised. "He doesn't really. Wears everyone out. Sometimes I wonder if I had that energy, and if so, where it went."
I'm looking right at Dad, and I can see perfectly well that he's an inch away from saying something he might regret later. Dad's usually pretty inscrutable, but sometimes it's plain as plain can be; Cousin Dudley, apparently, constitutes a sometimes.
"Ah, the miracle of getting old," I say, because mouthy and indiscreet seems to be working for me. "Nah, Luke's doing all right. Apparently he's got a thing for Herbology and was complaining about not being able to take Care of Magical Creatures till third year."
"I think the thing he's most interested in is how your world works," says Dudley.
The same as yours, only better. Perhaps that would be a bit much.
"Curiosity," I say, best imitation of the Uncle Percy manner, "killed the cat. On the other hand, they're supposed to have nine lives, so who knows."
"Butterbeer, Jim?" says Dad.
Dad nods. "One. Cheers, everyone, Merry Christmas..."
They toast, they drink, I wander off. Al, Lily and Luke are talking in the kitchen, probably pilfering rolls meant to be eaten with veggie broth later on. "Layabout," the hall mirror says when I slouch against the bannister, but it's been calling me that since I was about five. "Fix your hair."
Whatever. The really relevant question is, was Cousin Dudley vile to Dad too?
A blond head appears at my elbow. Luke's not exactly scrawny, and he's not tall either.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Wasn't that stack of books under the mirror a table last year?"
The hall table's done it again. Mum's keys and Dad's gloves are still lying on the topmost book.
I put my glass down on the stairs and go to lift them off; the book on top is Break with a Banshee, by Gilderoy Lockhart, and the inscription inside says Hermione Granger, Gryffindor, with a scribbled note underneath reading why haven't you tossed this thing out yet and Aunt Hermione's neat reply of you don't throw books away Ron and then Dad's wide writing saying you chucked Umbridge's quick enough and then an ink trail leading from the 'h' in 'enough', as if Aunt Hermione caught sight of what he was writing and snatched the book away from him just as he was finishing.
Mum's got a whole box full of old calendars in the broomshed with written conversations just like this scrawled across them.
"What's it say?" Luke wants to know.
"Nothing!" Smack it shut. Not his business. He looks indignant.
"I only -"
"Scoot," I say sharply. "Now."
His face goes red; there's something decidedly ugly about it now. "I want to see!"
"I want never gets."
Steady on Jim, he's only eleven.
What'll be next, poking through our photos, wanting the Marauder's Map? No no never. Sod that. Sod him.
"It's only a stupid book," says Luke angrily. "Why can't you -"
"If it's only a stupid book you won't mind not looking at it." I'm gripping it so tight my fingers are aching. Godawful bloody brat. Why was I so annoyed he was a Slytherin, it's perfect for him, entitled, endlessly curious, always sticking his nose in places in doesn't belong...
"What's going on here?"
Dad, thank God.
"Nothing, Dad." I put the book back on top of the stack. "The hall table's done it again."
"Forgot to put it back last night," says Dad easily and flicks his wand, mutters a word. The stack slims down smoothly, becomes a bit taller, divides into four legs. "There you go."
"I wanted," says Luke, still furious, "to see that book."
"If you're that interested in Gilderoy Lockhart I'll buy you a couple as a Christmas present," says Dad. His voice is steady and his face is expressionless.
Luke glares, but even I know better than to push Dad when he looks at me like that. (Course, he hasn't done it since first year when I tried to get into the Chamber of Secrets and Mum was so furiously upset about it. She didn't care when we used to get Teddy to play Basilisk, but it was different when I was actually there.) Luke folds, of course, like wet tissue paper, which means he doesn't so much fold as flop and then tear nastily; he turns around and marches off without another word to find Lily again.
Dad looks at me.
"Barely half an hour in," he says.
I can't help it, Mum or no Mum. "I'm not stupid, you know."
"No," says Dad. "The kid deserves a chance, though."
"There's a difference between chances and prying," I say.
But Dad grins, all of a sudden. "A tendency to pry at things that are none of their business is a trait no Marauder can get by without," he proclaims mock-solemnly.
"Likewise a tendency to keep their family history secret."
"Touche," says Dad, and raps on the hall table with his knuckles.
Potter saves it, spectacular catch, still ten-zero to Gryffindor and the Quidditch Cup easily in sight for the third year running.
By the time lunch is dished up Luke looks a lot less sulky. He sits opposite me, and something rueful crosses his face when he catches my eye; perhaps there's hope for him yet. Everyone's effusive in the praise of the veggie broth, except for Al, who is well-known to prefer potato but will eat anything you put in front of him regardless. We're just totting up the orders for seconds when there's a knock on the door.
"Wasn't us!" Lily says instantly. "Not a foot out of line all week."
This is an important thing to establish before you open front doors in this house. It's usually Constable Sally Greenwood, acting on requests made by the Dread Mrs Packenham. Mum always says that if we're going to lie to the authorities we have to get our facts straight first.
But today she and Dad just laugh, and get me to go. There's a woman on the front doorstep, but it's not Sally. Her expression is, admittedly, reminiscent of the Dread Mrs Packenham - similarly grim - but where the Dread Mrs Packenham has, upon occasion, shown a flash of humour, of an ability to take a joke if it doesn't go farther than a about half an inch and is of course at the expense of someone other than her, this woman just looks bitter.
Actually she reminds me of Scorpius' Aunt Daphne, otherwise known as Professor Greengrass.
"Hallo," I manage. Manners, Potter. "Can I help you?"
She's got very wide, very pale eyes, and she's looking at me with the strangest twist to her mouth.
"I suppose," she says, "he married the redhead. Well, she would have approved."
It dawns on me that she's talking about my Mum and Dad.
"I'm here to see Dudley," she says in a quick hard voice. "And - and Luke."
"You're her - Granma Lily's sister."
I don't even know her first name. She's just a Dursley.
She gives an irritated sigh, as if she's had this conversation before and I'm too dim to remember it. "Petunia, yes. You are...?"
I grin. It's not always easy being their namesake, but sometimes a moment comes along when you're so sodding grateful you have the name you do that the whole world seems perfect.
"James Sirius," I say, and watch her pale. Slightly.
"Jim?" Dad, sounding puzzled, having fled the kitchen, or maybe just impatient for seconds; then his hand comes down on my shoulder, gripping fiercely tight.
Aunt Petunia actually takes a step back.
"You were quite, quite clear that you'd never come back here," he says. "I can't honestly pretend to think you're a danger to my children but all the same I don't really want you near them."
She twists her hands together and refuses to bolt. Gotta admire that, just a little.
"I came to see -"
"Dudders?" I've never known Dad sound cruel before. "And you had to come here to see him, of course. Does Uncle Vernon know you're out?"
She flushes. I guess that's a no.
"Jim, go fetch Dudley," says Dad. I press against him on my way past; he's as solid and as reassuring as ever. All of a sudden I really want to talk to Aunt Andromeda.
Cousin Dudley actually apologises before he leaves the kitchen. I sodding hope he says it again to Dad.
There's voices out in the front garden, a bit raised, continuous. If they don't stop soon the Dread Mrs Packenham really will knock Sally up. Anne looks awkward; she keeps licking her lips. Luke is pale, and staring in the general direction of the front door.
"Watching won't make them come in quicker," says Al to him suddenly.
Luke barely looks at him. "Grandad said he never wanted to see me again."
"Oh, Luke, sweetheart -" says Anne.
I snort. "Then he's a prat, isn't he?"
This time the kid turns properly.
"A complete prat," says Al. "Hey?"
"He is," says Luke, "my Grandad."
Mum's watching us with her fists half-clenched on the table top and her eyes sort of lidded; I don't like to look at her. To be perfectly honest with you I'm a bit afraid of her, like the first day I realised those scars on her arms are there because she fought, too. All those classrooms, all those lessons where the Professor's in charge and knows so much more about magic than you ever will: Mum stood up in them and mouthed off to them and dared them to put those scars on her, and they did, and then she went back and she did it all over again.
"Pretty bloody useless one, then."
He glares at me. "Yours is bloody dead," he snaps, and again there's that slightly ugly look as he says it.
"Luke!" Anne cries, making him flush - I hope it's embarrassment.
"That's right," I say. "He died here, did you know? He died in this house. Maybe in this kitchen. Maybe where you're sitting. I've got a dead grandfather who would have loved me if he'd lived and you've got a live one who thinks you're scum, so which of us is better off?"
The front door opens; whatever the argument was, Dad's won it.
"I don't know what the hell she's doing here," he says, half angry, half tired. "She's out by the car now, trying to convince Dudley to take Luke out of school."
Rotten brat goes white. "She can't! He mustn't! Mum!"
Anne shakes her head. "Let them fight it out. If this is what you want, Luke... well, we won't stop you." She stands up, tugging at her skirt. "Harry, Ginny, I'm so sorry to have ruined Boxing Day like this..."
"You didn't do anything," says Luke angrily. "It's Her. What the hell's the matter with Her?"
Dad looks at him for a moment. "She lost something she loved," he says. "And then she convinced herself she'd never loved it in the first place."
We're all staring at him, except for Lily, who's huddled in her chair with her hair falling over her face, and Mum, who's holding on to her hand.
Luke still looks angry. "She's stupid," he says.
And unexpectedly, Dad's hands clench around the back of the chair he's leaning on, knuckles white. Scars again, I think.
"It's really not my problem what the hell she is," he says, and I don't think the others can tell how close he is to yelling. "It wasn't when I was a kid, and it certainly isn't now."
Luke stares at him for an angry heartbeat. Then he jumps off his chair and runs out of the kitchen. The front door slams, loudly.
"Was that," Anne asks, "entirely necessary?"
"I don't know where you get the idea from that Harry's in any way indebted to your husband's parents," says Mum sharply.
"Gin, it's all right -"
"It isn't. I'm happy to have Luke here, and you and Dudley, Anne. I'm not happy to have that woman. Or her issues."
Anne sighs. "You're right. I'm - I'm truly sorry. I'll - I suppose we'd better driver her home, I don't know." She stands up, pauses, wavering. "It - thank you very much for having us," she bursts, all stiltedly formal.
"You're welcome," says Mum. "Here, Jim will help you with your coats."
I help her with the coats. She doesn't talk. I'm in no mood to.
"Bugger this for a lark," says Dad when the noise of the car leaving our street has faded and Al and Lily are quiet, almost nervous-seeming. "Let's go to Ron and Hermione's."
I glance at Mum; she smiles at me. I think we're both thinking about the book stack in the hall, and the calendars she keeps in the woodshed.
Aunt Hermione welcomes us with open arms and mince pie.