"Master?" croaked Kreacher Harry's elderly house elf, appearing in the drawing room with his customary crack.
Harry sat at the table, trying to help little Lily with her maths. Well, Lily wasn't so little. She was ten years old and quite the young lady, as she would remind anyone who mistook her for a little girl.
"Yes, Kreacher?" asked Harry, looking up from the table where they sat.
"Master has a visitor. Would Master like me to bring her here?"
"Who is it?" asked Harry. The only people who ever showed up unannounced were working right now, Harry knew this probably boded no good.
"It's Headmistress McGonagol, Master." replied Kreacher.
Harry winced, wondering what Al or James (or more likely both of them) had gotten up to now. Harry sometimes wondered why he and Ginny had never considered adopting. There had to be something downright unnatural about the unholy mixing of troublemaking DNA that came from the Potters and the Weasleys. He couldn't think of another reason for Minerva to be here. Minerva sometimes made a visit during the summer or Christmas holidays, but it must be pretty dire for her to be here in the middle of the week, at four o'clock in the afternoon, in the middle of term.
"Send her up, Kreacher, and tell Ginny too, if you haven't already," Harry replied, sighing. He shut the book and told Lily, "We'll finish this later, all right?"
"OK, Dad," replied Lily brightly, clearly pleased to have to discontinue the tutoring session.
"If Miss Lily comes down to the kitchen," Kreacher said fondly, "Kreacher has just taken some biscuits out of the oven."
Lily squealed in delight and ran down the stairs in the headlong fashion that never failed to frighten Harry. As always, he sat on his urge to tell her to slow down. Ginny said she'd been just the same at Lily's age and wasn't any the worse for it.
Harry heard Ginny tell Kreacher that it was fine, she'd see their visitor up.
"Hello, Minerva." Harry said politely as the elderly witch came in through the door, followed by Ginny.
"Good afternoon, Harry." She smiled, but the lines around her mouth were tight and her eyebrows drew together in a way that Harry had come to associate with a worried Professor McGonagol.
"Which one is it this time?" asked Ginny, in a resigned voice. She had quite as much experience with Minerva when she was concerned and trying to hide it. More, since Ginny had actually been at Hogwarts the year that Voldemort had taken it over. Ginny remembered that particular expression as the one she used when trying to reassure frightened students.
"Which one...?" asked Minerva, seemingly confused for a second, "Oh. No, it's not either of the boys this time. Although it does seem that they've inherited your," she cleared her throat, looking mock sternly at Harry and Ginny "Sense of adventure."
"Oh. Good." said Harry relaxing, "Well, sit down. Would you like tea, or perhaps we can have Kreacher find something stronger?"
"Tea would be fine." said Minerva, as she sat, "I've actually come to ask you a favor."
Kreacher appeared with a tea tray, put it on the coffee table and disappeared again. Ginny poured the tea for the three of them,
"You see, I've just received the list of Muggle borns for next year's first year class," she said as she took her tea from Ginny, "And, I was wondering, Harry, if you would accompany me to speak with a particular student's parents." she seemed uneasy asking him. Normally very forthright, she seemed to be avoiding his eyes.
"Okay." shrugged Harry, a little nonplussed at her edginess. He knew someone from Hogwarts always went to a Muggle born wizard's house to explain, and he knew that, these days, Minerva often requested the help of Hermione or another Muggle born alumni of Hogwarts to come with her. SHe'd never asked him before though, "No one else available?"
Minerva sighed and put her tea down, "I think, under the circumstances it would be best if it were you, Harry." She pulled a letter out of a pocket of her robes and handed it to him, "I believe you will recognize the address."
Harry looked down at the letter she handed him.
Second Bedroom on the Left
4 Privet Drive
Harry's breathe caught in his throat. He noticed that his hands were shaking just a little. A cold knot that he hadn't felt in years, seemed to pull itself tight in the pit of his stomach. Wordlessly he handed the letter to Ginny and stood up quickly. Not wanting to trust his voice yet, he turned to look out the window at the courtyard below.
"This is Harry's cousin's child?" asked Ginny carefully.
"Well," said Minerva, "I believe it might be." the names of all children eligible for Hogwarts appeared magically within the admissions book every spring. Every summer, the letters would go out automatically to the wizard born children, to the last place they slept. The muggle born children's letters appeared on the head's desk so that they could be hand delivered.
Harry shivered. He didn't think he could be more unsettled than if someone told him Tom Riddle was downstairs waiting for a nice friendly chat. He kept his back turned to the women, but he could make out Ginny looking at him with concern in her pale reflection in the window.
"Do you know how this will be received?" asked Ginny. Harry thanked her silently in his head, she always knew the right questions to ask.
"No, I don't. That's why I was hoping, you could come with me, Harry." Minerva replied.
"I might make things worse." said Harry. He wondered if Dudley still lived there because he couldn't get along on his own. Perhaps jail time was included somewhere in the scenario if Dudley hadn't given up assault and battery as a hobby. He imagined a jobless, hopeless 'Dudders' flicking through the channels in the obsessively clean living room that Petunia would still keep. What kind of woman would have children with someone like that?
An image of Merope Gaunt as she had had been in the memory Dumbledore had shown him so long ago appeared unbidden. Hopeless, abused, bereft of even enough will for her magic to work properly in her own defense. And then another borrowed memory, of a dark haired woman weeping while a black haired boy comforted her. Harry shook his head to clear it.
"...take her, if it came to it." Ginny was saying stoutly to Minerva, "Wouldn't we, Harry?"
Harry turned around realizing that he'd missed the last part of the conversation, "Sorry?"
"I was saying that, if Eleanor has a bad home situation," Minerva replied, "I would intervene to find a wizarding family to take her in, if necessary." She looked sadly at Harry, "I never could get Dumbledore to do that for you, Harry." she looked away, "I have always regretted it."
"At least it's not addressed to 'The Cupboard Under The Stairs'." said Harry with a sardonic little smile.
Minerva winced as though she'd been slapped, "Are you saying..?"
Harry sighed, wishing he hadn't brought it up, "Yeah, that's where my first letter was addressed to. I thought I told you." He shrugged, "I know you know how much trouble Hagrid had, finally getting it to me."
"I didn't know about the address, Harry." Minerva replied, sighing herself now, "I understand Hagrid quite lost his temper with your relatives when he did get you your letter. I suppose I could ask him to accompany me if you'd rather not."
Now, Harry grinned, "No sense in giving Dudley an early heart attack." he said. He looked at Ginny, losing his smile, "Will you come too?" he asked her quietly.
"Of course. Wouldn't miss it." she gave him a hard smile. "I think it's time I met your dear cousin."
"When did you want to go?" Harry asked Minerva.
"According to my information, both of Eleanor's parents and Eleanor are generally at home by 5:00." Minerva said, standing, "I thought we could take care of this today."
Harry saw the sense in that. He and Ginny ran upstairs to change into something properly muggle. Minerva transfigured her robes into a conservative black dress. Ginny stuck with her old standby of slacks and sweater while Harry threw a sport coat over the shirt and trousers he was already wearing. He was vaguely aware that his muggle clothes were likely about twenty years out of date, but he wasn't much fussed about impressing Dudley.
They apparated in front of the house Harry recognized as once belonging to old Arabella Figg. Harry remembered the Dementor attack that had taken place on the next street over. How he and Mrs. Figg had dragged Dudley back to the safety of Privet Drive.
In a much shorter time than Harry was comfortable with, they stood in front of number four, Privet Drive. It was still neat and tidy, the flowers looking very similar to the ones Harry used to tend. It seemed smaller now though, and not just because Harry himself was taller. It felt claustrophobic to be there.
Harry felt Ginny's small hand clasp his damp one, "It'll be alright." she whispered.
Minerva raised her hand and knocked on the door. They waited a long time with no answer, the curtains didn't even move.
Minerva made an irritated noise in her throat, "I apologize for bringing you out here. My sources told me that they are generally home this time of day." she walked back down the path and out of the gate with Harry and Ginny following.
Harry wasn't sure if he was relieved or not, "Maybe they're running late tonight?" he glanced up and down the sidewalk. The only person in sight was a tall man jogging towards them, "Maybe we should come back after dinner?"
"Hmm," said Minerva, "Perhaps it might be better if..."
"Harry?" called a voice, "That's never Harry Potter?" the jogger had gotten close enough to see them properly.
Harry glanced at Ginny and pulled his "public" smile onto his face. It had been a couple of years since he'd been randomly asked for an autograph, but it still happened.
The man slowed and stopped, goggling at him. He was a powerfully built man, with short sandy hair. He looked as though he could have wrestled hippogriffs for the sheer entertainment of it,
"Yes," Harry said politely, "I'm Harry Potter." He could never bring himself to be rude to those who merely wanted to talk to him. From time to time he met nutters, but for the most part, people wanted to just talk. Sometimes they even bought him a drink.
The man's face lit up, "Harry! You saw the book then? I never thought you'd really come."
Harry glanced at Ginny and Minerva whose faces mirrored his confusion, "Sorry?" asked Harry.
The man started to laugh, "You don't recognize me?" he reached out to clasp Harry's shoulder, "Harry, it's me. Dudley!"
It was as though the man's face suddenly came into focus. Twenty years of sensible eating and exercise had turned Dudley into a handsome man rather than what Harry had been picturing. Harry stepped back out of Dudley's grasp, quelling the urge to whip his wand out and hex him. He remembered that the last time he had seen Dudley, Dudley had thanked Harry for saving him from the Dementors. That one moment didn't erase what had happened in this house for seventeen years.
Dudley seemed a little disappointed by Harry's reaction, but then he flashed a rather resigned smile and said, "I suppose I can't expect...well, we do have a lot to talk about." he almost seemed to be talking to himself, "And who are your companions?" he asked politely.
"Oh. Um, this is my wife Ginny." Ginny cautiously extended her hand which Dudley shook with surprising exuberance, "And this is Professor McGonagol."
Dudley shook Minerva's hand more deferentially, "Ah. Of course. Professor. I'm very pleased Harry brought you." The three looked at each other mystified. Dudley waved them back through the gate, pulling out his keys and unlocking the front door.
On the threshold, Harry found himself hesitating, a visceral urge to back away gripping him. He clasped his hands behind his back, surreptitiously feeling in his left sleeve that his wand was there, squared his shoulders and followed after Ginny and Minerva.
It was ridiculous, he told himself, he was thirty nine years old. He had faced dragons, dementors and dark wizards in his lifetime. He had a wife, three children and a place on the Wizengamot. He had money, prestige and the best friends any man, wizard or muggle, had ever had. It was ridiculous that the sight of a door to a cupboard under a staircase should make him blanch.
A small bolt type lock was still on the outside. The kind of lock that was made to keep something in.
Harry focused his eyes on the lock, his breathing speeding up, the cold knot in his stomach turning to a hot, sick swoop of anger. Why was the lock still there? If he found out they'd been shutting another child in there, he wasn't sure he'd be responsible for his actions.
Ginny reached out to grasp his hand again. After so many years, she knew the signs of his panic attacks. She turned all the way around to look him in the eyes, "Harry." she said very softly, "I'm right here. If it's too much we can just go home and Minerva can handle it, all right?"
"Just don't let me do anything stupid. okay?" he whispered back.
Dudley led them into a very different sitting room from what Harry remembered. Gone were the fussy textiles and immaculate furnishings. In their place were a comfortable leather couch and love seat, a coffee table piled high with books and a small computer sort of thing. Rather than peach wallpaper, the walls were painted muted grey. The television was much larger and thinner than the one the one the Dursley's had owned although there did seem to be some variety of game controllers carelessly shoved underneath it.
Dudley smiled at them, "Just let me nip up and change my clothes." he pounded up the stairs.
Ginny and Minerva sat down on the leather couch and looked interestedly at the stack of books. Harry went to inspect the photos above the mantlepiece. One was of Dudley dressed in a suit standing with another man. Another was of a girl of about Lily's age with dark hair and a tense smile. It was strange to see photographs that just sat there.
Harry turned his eyes to a pen and ink drawing, framed and sitting on the end of the mantle. He stared at it for a moment before turning to his wife "Ginny?" he said quietly, "Does that look like me?"
Ginny stood up again, walking over to look at it, "It does look like you." she said slowly.
Minerva stood to look at the picture too, "Of course that's you, Harry. You looked like that in your sixth year."
In the picture, a young man in clothes that were too large stood gazing out of the picture with a haunted expression.
"What's that doing here, I wonder?" Harry said quietly. He looked round the room, no pictures of Vernon or Petunia graced the walls, although there were several of the dark haired girl and one of an older couple Harry didn't recognize. Harry assumed the girl in the pictures was Eleanor.
Dudley came thumping down the stairs again. If Harry shut his eyes, he would hear Vernon yelling for him. Harry took a deep breath, checking for his wand again. Dudley seemed not to be too horrified that three full grown wizards had shown up on his doorstep. That could change when they explained why they were here