I am again thankful for my beta NightZephyr, who is so generous with her time.
Nowhere to Run
Just south of Ottery St. Catchpole the road dipped into a shallow valley. It was hidden from the village behind as well as from the road ahead. When Benjamin reached the valley he began to run. He spread his arms and ran into the still July air, faster and faster until he made his own wind to beat against. Then he tried tucking his elbows in so he could slice the atmosphere like a knife. He closed his eyes, even, but it still didn't feel right.
Usually he liked to run. It was something he was good at and he didn't have to pretend otherwise. And he had happy memories of running: of beating all the boys in school in the foot-race, his friends cheering him on. Cath was convinced that some day he would run for Britain in the Olympics. Even though that would never happen, knowing that she thought so felt good.
With little weight to hold him down, Benjamin ran lightly, and sometimes it felt as if there was no ground, only him and the surrounding air. But lately he couldn’t seem to catch that sense of freedom. When he ran, it felt like he was running away from something.
And he was. He couldn’t pretend he wasn't. There was the one big thing he had always pretended, and he wasn't very good at it. It drained him so that he had no will left to ignore the thing from which he was running now. He didn’t know why he was running from it. It didn’t seem like he should care.
He didn’t see what difference it made if the witch who had broken his father’s heart was, in fact, a real, spell-casting witch. Living with the quiet echo of the man who had loved that woman, it was already impossible for him to dislike her more. So it did not effect him, this new revelation.
Even if they said Benjamin was like her, he was not. He wouldn’t be. People had tried to say he was brilliant like his father had been before she left him and Benjamin had refused to be brilliant. He would refuse this as well. Anything else would be like choosing her over him. And he would never do that.
That was a certainty. Yet Benjamin still felt the tug of something holding him down so that he was not running freely, but running away. And running away wasn't even working. It wasn't helping. But he didn't know what else to do.
Benjamin slowed, dejected, as he came up and out of the valley, then stopped in surprise. Someone seemed to be waiting for him on the other side of the hilltop.
It was someone familiar to Benjamin, although he hadn’t seen him in over two years, nor had he expected to see him ever again. There, gazing up and down Queen Mary Road, was Benjamin's thin, orange-haired, be-spectacled schoolteacher from Year Four -- complete with the bright and jaunty bowtie at his collar.
“Mr. Weasley!” Benjamin exclaimed at the man, who beamed with a curious mixture of joy and relief. “What are you doing here?” Benjamin jogged to meet him.
“Looking for you,” Mr. Weasley said when they were in normal conversational range.
“Me?” It came out a bit more as a gasp than Benjamin had intended. He was still catching his breath.
Mr. Weasley smiled, but didn't laugh. He looked unusually serious. “I need to talk to you,” he said.
"So you went for a walk?" Benjamin asked uneasily.
“I asked after you at the Shelly Shop. They said you like to come out here.”
“But,” Benjamin said, looking over his shoulder to be sure, “the village is the other way.”
Mr. Weasley took a few steps closer to the top of the hill so that he could see properly over and across the open country. He pulled at the cuff of one of his sleeves. "Oops."
Benjamin waited for more explanation in patient confusion. He remembered now that his Year Four teacher had on occasion been a bit perplexing.
No explanation came. “Let’s sit down,” the man said abruptly. He stepped off the road to plop himself in the middle of some purple heather much more gamely than most adults normally would have. But Mr. Weasley had always been a little different from most adults.
Benjamin sat, too, a little more carefully because he had bare legs. “Well,” he said lightly to dispel the awkwardness, “It’s nice to see you have your memory back.”
“I'm sorry, my what?” Mr. Weasley asked
“Your memory," Benjamin repeated. "From when you had amnesia. Don’t you remember? Or can somebody forget losing their memory?” That second question was something Benjamin had never thought of before.
“Yes, actually," Mr. Weasley said a bit absently. "Who told you I had am-whatsit?”
“Mrs. Diggory," Benjamin answered, then realized that more explanation was probably necessary. "She was our new teacher, after you. She said you couldn’t come back because you'd lost your memory and you couldn’t remember any of us, but that you’d be fine once you learned to talk again...” Benjamin trailed off. Mr. Weasley was laughing at what he was saying, and he was realizing something. “But that can’t be true," he thought aloud, "because you remember me. Why’d she think that, then?”
Mr. Weasley stopped laughing and answered, serious again. “She didn’t think it. She made it up.”
“Why would she make up something like that?” Benjamin wondered.
Mr. Weasley sighed. “I asked her to. I had to leave and I didn’t want any of you to worry, but I couldn’t have you trying to contact me, either.”
That didn't make sense to Benjamin. He felt a little hurt. “But where did you go that you couldn’t tell us? And why didn’t you want us to find you?”
“I didn’t go anywhere, really. I just had to take a different job. And it’s not that I didn’t want to hear from any of you. But -- I was afraid of what might happen if you tried to find me.”
“But now you’ve found me,” Benjamin said in confusion. “And nothing bad has happened.”
“That’s because it turns out that you can know my secret,” Mr. Weasley said as though it were an explanation, although it didn't make things any clearer to Benjamin. “Just you, though.”
Benjamin was utterly perplexed. “Why me?”
He looked up and met Mr. Weasley's eyes. "Because," Mr. Weasley said gently, "it's your secret, too."
Benjamin felt a chill and he hugged his knees, although he knew it wouldn’t make the chill go away. He did not want to ask what the secret was, so he examined the tops of his trainers instead. His big toe was about to poke through one. There wasn't much time before the school year started for his father to order him a new pair. Maybe his shoes would last longer if he didn't run so much. He had the urge to get up and run away now. But that wouldn't be polite.
“This is harder than I’d expected it would be,” Mr. Weasley admitted finally.
“Okay, then,” Benjamin said brightly, looking up from his shoe. “Let’s talk about something else. One of Margaret’s dogs just had puppies.”
To Benjamin's delight, Mr. Weasley inquired after Margaret's health, and her brother in the Royal Navy, and whether it was still her great ambition to be on the six o'clock news. They grinned together and laughed, remembering Year Four and trying to forget about the secret.
“Does Margaret still think there are aliens landing outside Ottery St. Catchpole?” Mr. Weasley asked next.
"Not anymore," Benjamin told him, still grinning. "Every once in a while she gets it in her head to check if they've 'come back,' but there's never anything to see."
“Thank goodness!” Mr. Weasley said.
“Yes. That’s a relief to me.”
That seemed silly to Benjamin. He wondered aloud, “But why?”
I have a few reasons to be relieved,” Mr. Weasley murmured, cryptic again, “but mostly I was worried for the six of you.”
“You didn’t think we were going to get abducted, did you?” Benjamin asked a little cheekily. He was beginning to feel his nervousness returning.
“No. I knew about too many other real dangers,” Mr. Weasley said gravely.
“The wolf, for one.”
Benjamin looked up with a sharp jerk of his head. “How did you know about that?” he demanded, although he somewhat expected another evasive answer.
But his old teacher’s voice wasn’t evasive at all when he answered simply, “Because I was there.”
Benjamin knew what he was meant to ask next. But he didn't want to. The words slipped quietly out of his mouth, as if they could escape without his knowing. “And why were you there?” Benjamin could hear his heart beating more loudly than he could hear himself speak.
Mr. Weasley answered, “To keep you and your friends from getting hurt. But I was too late. Lucky thing you were there first.”
“Me?" Benjamin shook his head. "I didn’t do anything.”
“You saved your friend's life.”
“You did. You're the only one who could have.”
“No," Benjamin said helplessly, feeling as he had that night. "If anyone did any saving it was Cath. She got the wolf away from Margaret. I wanted to help, but I couldn’t. I couldn't do anything.”
And he recounted what had happened the night they had all snuck out to look for Margaret’s aliens. He didn't think about it often, but memory was one of his strengths and this episode was vivid.
“I jumped out of the tree and I followed Cath and the wolf into the woods. I ran as fast as I could. But it's weird to run in the woods without shoes. And then I fell and I got the wind knocked out of me. And when I could breathe again I couldn’t use my arm to get up with. When I finally found Cath the wolf was gone.
"There wasn't any sign of it. I don't know what happenned while I was on the ground, but when I got up it wasn't there.
"I was more scared then than I’ve ever been in my entire life. Worse than the time I almost drowned in the mill pond. I wished and I wished I could have done something. But I couldn’t.” Benjamin finished, surprised to find his eyes squeezed shut and his hands clenched around the toes of his shoes.
Mr. Weasley just nodded. “It must have been right before you fell," he said. Benjamin was lost again. Mr. Weasley was being more unfathomable than ever. “Did you see her?” Mr. Weasley continued. “In the tree, before you fell?”
Then there was no time to wonder further about the oddness of his teacher, because Benjamin was remembering again. It was dark and chilly and his heart was trying to escape his chest in terror. He was flying into the woods, but Cath and the wolf were too far ahead for him to reach before the lead Cath had on the wolf disappeared.
Just before he had fallen, he’d glimpsed her. He'd seen his friend hanging from a tree limb in trainers and a nightdress, struggling to swing up into the branches, and a ferocious wolf leaping from the ground towards her. And he was too far away to be able to do anything about it.
He’d wanted more than anything in the world for the wolf to just stop, freeze where it was, and let Cath get away. And then he’d found himself on the forest floor, even more useless than before.
In the course of remembering, Benjamin forgot about the question, but Mr. Weasley seemed to take his silence as a response because then he made one of his most perplexing comments yet.
“That’s when you must have done it, then.”
“Done what?” Benjamin asked, shocked back to the warm July afternoon, feeling again the scratchy roadside vegetation on his legs and the almost-too-small trainers on his feet. The night was gone, but the chill returned when his question was answered.
“Your first bit of magic.”
For a long minute after that, Benjamin sat very still. He sat very silently. He stopped feeling cold, but he didn't feel warm. It wasn't night in his head or day. It was his turn to talk, but he waited for his companion to say something to steer the conversation away from where it had always, inexorably, been headed.
Mr. Weasley said nothing. In the silence, Benjamin tried to think of some way to contest the ridiculous idea that he was in any way magical. He couldn't pretend to be shocked, because he wasn't. He couldn't pretend not to believe in magic, because his father had acknowledged it when the letter came.
“I don’t know how to do magic,” Benjamin said finally.
“No, but you’ve done it. You suspended a werewolf in mid-air.”
"I did what?" Benjamin asked, although he didn't really listen to the answer because he knew he hadn't misheard. Instead he blinked in awe. It was odd to be in awe of one’s self. Weakly, he rested his head on his arms and his arms on his knees.
Mr. Weasley took the silence to explain more. “It’s not uncommon for young wizards to do unintentional magic like that, when they’re scared or upset, although yours was the most impressive demonstration I’ve heard of in a while. But once we’re trained up, the uncontrolled bits pretty much go away."
Benjamin moved his head so that his arms covered his ears, but Mr. Weasley didn't seem to notice. He started talking again. "You have a power, Benjamin," he said. Benjamin squeezed his ears more tightly. "You need instruction in how to use it. Otherwise, it could be dangerous.”
“I don’t want to have any power!” Benjamin cried, burying his head further. “I don’t want it. Take it back!”
“I can’t,” Mr. Weasley said calmly.
“Then find someone who can! Please, I don’t want to have it.”
“No one can take it away, Benjamin. It’s how you were born. It’s who you are.”
“It’s not!" Benjamin said vehemently, whipping his head up. "I’ve been me for eleven and a half years. It comes from her and I’m nothing like her!” He wanted to run.
“You can’t lump all witches and wizards together," Mr. Weasley tried to say. "We’re not all--"
“But you are!" Benjamin insisted. "You seemed nice at first, just like I’m sure she did. My dad wouldn’t have loved her if she didn’t at least seem nice. But then she left. And so did you!”
Mr. Weasley stared open-mouthed, which tormented Benjamin more, because he hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. That was what magical people did, not nice boys like him.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you are,” he whispered. “And I fell for it, too, just like my dad." Benjamin paused because he wasn't sure if he wanted to admit the next part out loud. But he needed to try to explain. "I don’t want to be like him, either. He left the village, and he trusted strangers, and look what it did to him. . . He used to be brilliant, you know. He studied engineering. He won awards. And now -- he's like a shadow --"
“That doesn’t have to happen to you," Mr. Weasley said when Benjamin didn't finish describing what his father was like now.
“I know," said Benjamin. "It won’t happen to me. I love Ottery St. Catchpole. I’ve found my friends. We’ll have to leave the village for school now, but just during the day, and we’ll do it together, and we'll be back, and we'll be safe, and we'll be together.” He was sure of this.
“Won’t you wonder?" Mr. Weasley asked. "What might have been? What you could have done?”
Benjamin shook his head. “That’s like wondering what would have happened if Cath hadn’t gotten away from the wolf. I don’t wonder about unhappy things.”
But Mr. Weasley was stubborn. “You don’t wonder now," he agreed. "But you will. You’ve never done something you’ve lived to regret. This choice, Benjamin, will effect your whole life. You won't get to change your mind. Ten years from now, you can’t decide it would have been nice to have learned a little bit about this thing inside you. And I don't want you to look back and wish you'd done things differently."
Mr. Weasley stopped, looking very unhappy when Benjamin didn't find his argument compelling. "Can’t you just give it a try? See what it’s about?” he asked desperately.
Benjamin watched his discomfort in confusion. “I wish you’d stop,” he said. “You’re making us both upset. And I don’t understand why. Why don’t you just let me be?”
“I’m just trying to do what’s right.” The poor man turned away to stare out at the greenish expanse east of the village.
Benjamin bent his head to tug at a bit of roadside weed. “I don’t see how something that’s making both of us so unhappy could be the right thing,” he commented.
“I made a promise,” Mr. Weasley said thoughtfully. “But all I promised was to try, and I’ve done that. I’ve tried very hard. But, I have to tell you, the more we talk the more I believe that I need to keep trying. Because this is the right thing for you.
“You’re a very intelligent boy, and I let that sway me before. You remember that. I allowed you to make a decision about yourself that you were probably too young to understand -- when I didn't tell anyone about your intelligence or that ruse. But I can see now, a little better than you can.
"You are exceptionally bright, but you're not making these choices because you’re smart, Benjamin. You're not giving me good reasons, you're not showing me calm logic. You’re showing me you're scared. This fear you were dancing around -- of becoming a 'shadow' of what you’d once been -- it's keeping you a shadow of what you could be. You’re special, Benjamin. You can't ignore that forever. And you'll be sadder in the end than your father if you try.”
Benjamin listened, but he was shaking his head. “You’re wrong,” he said. “You say I'm afraid to leave but I just don't want to. My friends are here and I'm loyal to them. You don’t understand how my friends are important to me. ”
Mr. Weasley heaved a heavy, grown-up sigh. "I do, though," he said.
"You don't. Or you wouldn't want me to leave! I'd explain it to you, but I can't. They're special. I'm lucky to have found them. They're not the kinds who would ever leave anybody. When you've got friends like that, you don't give them up."
Mr. Weasley looked a little impatient. "I'm not asking you to give them up," he said. "You come home over breaks, and you can always write letters."
Benjamin tried to picture himself, alone in some distant dormitory, writing Cath or Timothy a letter on that weird fancy magic paper. But he couldn't. The picture wouldn't come and instead there was this awful empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. Something fluttered in the emptiness that he didn't want to acknowledge. He shook his head jerkily to make it go away. "That's not the same," he told Mr. Weasley.
"It's not the same as losing them, either," he responded. "And you can't know what it will be like unless you try it. You don't have to stay forever.”
"I don't want to stay at all," Benjamin said, standing up. He brushed a bit of dirt off the seat of his trousers. "I should be getting back. Don't want anyone to worry about me." He put a hand out to help his old teacher up as well.
"Wait," Mr. Weasley said desperately, seizing Benjamin's extended arm. He held him still. "I'll tell the Davies girl -- Cath."
Benjamin recoiled, but his hand was gripped tightly. "What?"
"I'll tell her that you have magical powers, that you're capable of all sorts of great and wonderful things, and that there's a special school for you to learn all about it," the man, who didn't seem so familiar and friendly any more, said quickly and firmly. Benjamin couldn't tell if it was a resolution or a threat.
Benjamin's hand was released, but he didn't notice. He was trying not to think about what it would be like, someone knowing his secret. "You can't do that," he said, hearing his own voice quavering. "You have rules."
"I broke those rules with her a long time ago," Mr. Weasley answered. "It was when you did your magic. I saw it had been done, and thought she'd done it. And then she saw me, and my wand, and I should have made her forget, but I didn't. I thought she was magical and she'd understand in a few years anyway. So I just asked her not to tell anyone, and I Disapparated."
"I disappeared, is how you would say it. Wizards can do that, go from one place to another. It's how I got out ahead of you on the road. I can show you, if you'd like--"
"No!" Benjamin said, a little more forcefully than he meant to. "Please don't. I don't understand. Why would you tell her about me?"
"Because," Mr. Weasley said, "she would make you go. Or never forget it if you didn't. You have a gift. You don't see it that way, but a friend would. And a friend like her wouldn't let you throw your gift away."
Benjamin slumped, defeated, because his old teacher remembered well what Cath Davies was like. It was a great thing about Cath, how encouraging she always was. She did want the best for all of them. She'd made Ezra enter that joke contest. And Benjamin had just that afternoon been remembering how exhilarating it felt to beat all the boys in school the last three years running in foot-races. It had been Cath who had urged him to do that. But it was awful, too. She was persistent. She wouldn't give up until he ended up at that magical school anyway, and she'd know his secret.
He wanted to run away, but that wouldn't help anything. "Please don't," he said.
"I will if I have to," Mr. Weasley told him.
"You don't have to," Benjamin said earnestly. "You can just leave me alone. Please, just leave me alone." He looked beseechingly at Mr. Weasley. He wasn't used to begging for things. Many children begged their parents, but he and his father didn't work that way. His father did the best he could and Benjamin was grateful because he knew it and loved him and wouldn't dream of asking for more. Begging for the first time in his life now felt awkward.
Mr. Weasley wouldn't look at him. He didn't seem to have anything more to say. Either Benjamin agreed to go to magic school or he'd tell on him. It was up to Benjamin to decide what would happen, but it didn't feel like he had a real choice. Either way, he would end up where he didn't want to be, all alone. Only, if he didn't agree now, Cath would know his horrible secret. And she'd have to keep it, too, and things would never be the same in their friendship, even years and years after he turned his back on magic.
"I don't like this at all," he said finally, in a voice that felt very small and made it even more difficult to believe he had great magical powers. Then he had hope, that he wouldn't be magic after all, and they'd let him go home. "How long do I have to stay for?" he asked. "A couple days?"
"A month," Mr. Weasley said, finally looking up. "The first week goes by too quickly, and you don't start real magic that soon, either."
Benjamin nodded because there was nothing else to do. Then Mr. Weasley took some stiff, wheat-colored paper out of his back pocket. With a thin piece of wood that slipped down his sleeve into his hand, he tapped the pen that had been sitting in his shirt pocket, mumbling quietly. Benjamin blinked and the pen turned into a feather.
"I have the paperwork ready to send off," Mr. Weasley explained, "telling them you've changed your mind. You just need to sign here." He kept talking while Benjamin tentatively took the feather, which was dark at the stiff end with ink, and made a wobbly version of his signature. "I'll get a copy of the supply list," he said, "since you've probably thrown yours out. I can lend you a lot of my old things -- Molly and I don't really need two cauldrons, she can alter some of our outgrown robes for you, and they never change the Standard Book of Spells, but you will need a trip to Diagon Alley. That's where wizards do most of their shopping."
"How do I get there?" Benjamin asked, returning the feather.
"I'll take you," Mr. Weasley said. Benjamin made a face. "That is, unless you'd rather take your father into the middle of wizarding London," Mr. Weasley added. "Look, I know you're not happy with me right now, but I can arrange things to save you, and him, a lot of grief."
Benjamin had somehow managed to forget how the commitment he'd just made would affect his father. Blood surged in his head for a moment and he almost took his decision back. But that would only delay things. Telling his father he was going would have to happen either way. The least he could do was drag him into this magic mess as little as possible, even if it meant spending more time with magical people himself. "Okay," he said. "Thank you."
"Let's do it tomorrow, then. If I go into work early I can meet you here with my car at three thirty, and you'll be home by supper."
Benjamin decided not to ask how it was going to be possible to travel to London and back so quickly, with what sounded like a lot of shopping in between. He didn't want to hear the answer: magic.
He turned back towards the valley and the village, but he didn't have the energy to run.