A/N: Now we get to the heart of this Challenge. I sincerely hope I have kept the characters as close to their canon selves as possible without making them seem out of character in this situation. Thank you all for reading and reviewing the previous chapter. I also thank my pre-betas Manatoc Fox, Mutt n Feathers, RSS and Mistress_Lrigtar and RebeccaRipple for their comments and support and speedy reviews of the chapter. Their efforts have made it better than it originally was. To my beta, Aggiebell, I appreciate your efforts to help me over my "that vs. which" problem. Thanks for the help.
"Done!" Harry cried triumphantly as he stepped back to admire his handiwork. The newly installed strike plate he'd been screwing into a doorjamb gleamed in the light of his lit wand. It looked good, and as he reached over to close the door with a soft click to test the placement, Ginny came up the stairs, smiling broadly.
"The last one?" she asked. Harry nodded. "Thank Merlin! You've been at this job for forever!"
Harry chuckled and tossed his screwdriver next to his chisels in his Muggle toolbox. "Fifty-two doors is a lot of doors," he commented dryly.
"You're right, but the new knobs look so much better than the silver snake-shaped ones that were here before," Ginny commented. "The brass makes even this dark hallway a bit brighter, Harry."
"No, the new paint and wallpaper we've put up is what's made the difference, love," he responded. "I'd say between you, me and Kreacher, Grimmauld Place is finally looking liveable."
"It is," Ginny agreed, holding out her hand. "Now come down and have some lunch. I made Kreacher wait to serve until you were done with your project."
Harry picked up his toolbox and followed his girlfriend down several flights of stairs. As they went, he couldn't help admiring the work they'd done in the weeks since his return to London after the Battle of Hogwarts. Because he needed a place to live, due to his declining Mrs Weasley's invitation to reside at the Burrow indefinitely—the absence of Fred made it difficult to move on—Harry had decided to renovate Sirius' house and not just clean it. He had enlisted Hermione, Ron and Ginny's help, with Ginny and Kreacher pitching in more than the other two because, Hermione had confessed one evening, it would be Ginny who would eventually live here with Harry. Kreacher knew some tricks for eradicating the boggarts, pixies and other vermin that even Mrs Weasley didn't know, so it took only a day or two to decontaminate the place using magic. Then the hard work of scrubbing and prepping for painting and wallpapering had commenced.
Eventually, Harry and Ginny had agreed on a colour scheme—Gryffindor red and gold, of course—and they had spent a few days purchasing paint, new fixtures and wallpaper for nearly the entire house. In the last two weeks, Kreacher had helped them transform the house into a place all three of them felt at home in. There was only one room that Harry would never change: Regulus Black's bedroom, because of Regulus' role in defeating Voldemort for good. Harry had given the room to Kreacher as his special place, which pleased the old elf almost as much as the gift of the locket had done.
They reached the entrance hall and noisily clattered onto the gleaming parquet floor and Harry revelled in the silence that greeted the noise they were making. In a stroke of genius and luck, Hermione had come across a spell which weakened the Permanent Sticking Charm holding up Sirius' mum's painting, and after only two applications of the spell, the painting fell to the floor with an almighty thud, Mrs Black screeching her demented last. Next on Harry's priority list had been the Black family tapestry. Hermione's spell had worked well on it, too, and Kreacher had requested it be shrunk and put in Regulus' room. Harry was quite happy to accommodate him. The lounge was now bright with cream coloured wallpaper, red and gold floral curtains at the windows and new upholstery in shades of red and gold on the antique chairs and sofas. Ginny led Harry through this room to the dining room, which had been similarly decorated.
"Master, I will serve luncheon now," Kreacher croaked as the two entered.
"Thank you, Kreacher," Harry and Ginny murmured together. They giggled and sat down at the table.
"What's next on your to-do list for today?" Ginny asked as Kreacher took away their sandwich plates and brought them chocolate mousse for afters.
Harry took a sip of his butterbeer, thinking carefully. "I think it's time to start redecorating Sirius' old room," he said finally. "As much as I like looking at his bikini babes, they're not you, so they need to go."
Ginny's face had gone Weasley red at his comment. "Do you want to take everything off the walls, including the grey silk?" she asked. "And do you think you'll want to keep the bike pictures and Gryffindor banners?"
"Let's take down the bikes and banners and save them," Harry said. He frowned, then continued thoughtfully, "Actually, I like the silver-grey silk," he admitted. "If we did it right, I think it would complement the Gryffindor colours we've chosen. What do you think, Ginny?"
She didn't have a chance to answer because Kreacher popped into the room holding a letter on a silver salver. "Master," he croaked, "you've had an owl."
"Thank you, Kreacher. Did the bird leave?" Harry asked, taking the envelope.
"Yes, it did not wait for an answer," Kreacher said, and bowing deeply, he left the dining room.
"Who's it from?" Ginny asked as Harry examined the letter carefully.
Harry didn't answer right away, he was too busy studying the envelope which was constructed of modern Muggle paper and addressed simply to Harry Potter, Esq. There was no mention of where he might be found, and because he recognized his aunt's handwriting, Harry wondered why she was contacting him.
"Why would my aunt want to write to me now? What does she want?" he mumbled, making Ginny's eyebrows elevate. He opened the letter carefully and began to read.
This is a very difficult letter for me to write, but the time has come for me to admit that Vernon and I were wrong about quite a few things, one of which was trying to keep magic out of our home. You see, it was part of my family even before you were left with us, because Dudley is his Aunt Lily's nephew; he was born a wizard just as you were and Vernon and I knew it before Dudley was even a year old. The signs were all there, since his toys never stayed where we put them at bedtime and he could open the sweeties tin from halfway across the room when we weren't looking. When you entered our family, the problem was more than I could handle on my own and rather than have the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad appear at our doorstep three times a week, Vernon and I decided magic didn't belong in our home at all.
I know I was wrong for indulging Dudley and mistreating you the way I did and I won't blame you if you refuse to help me with my problem. You see, in the last few years, since the Dementor attack back in 1995 actually, Dudley has begun experimenting with magic and while we were in hiding, he began refining his skills. He can now do simple spells using a wand Dedalus Diggle gave him and he wants to learn more. The problem with this is that he is still living with Vernon and me, and Vernon is still very much the man he was when you were living with us: he doesn't understand magic, doesn't want to learn about it and is just as adamant about it not being in his house as he was when you were with us.
Harry, I'm desperate to help Dudley. He needs to know more about magic than Dedalus was able to teach him and you are the only magical person I can trust to know who I can contact to arrange magic lessons for him. I am free this coming Friday for lunch. You can name the restaurant. Vernon is out of town on business until late Friday evening, so I will have all afternoon to speak with you.
P. S. Please bring a guest if you wish.
The letter dropped from Harry's slack fingers as he stared unseeingly down the table.
"Harry, what's wrong?" Ginny asked repeatedly.
It took him a moment to respond. "After… after all these years," he nearly whispered, "she's admitted she treated me wrongly." He paused and then added, "Dudley's a wizard!"
Ginny grabbed up the letter exclaiming, "Let me see that! I don't believe it!" Her eyes zoomed across Aunt Petunia's cramped handwriting. "Merlin! You're right! What are you going to do?"
Harry took a steadying breath. "I'm not meeting her," he said flatly. "She can deal with Dudley on her own."
"Harry, I think you should," Ginny said, smoothing the letter out on the table before her. "She said she trusts you to know what to do. It's not as if she's asking you to teach Dudley what you know."
"Fine, she trusts me." Harry said hollowly. His voice grew bitter as he added, "I think it's a bit late for her to expect me to do anything for her or her precious Dudders after the way she treated me when I was growing up."
Ginny sighed. "I know she hurt you on so many levels, Harry, but she is your mother's sister. She's the only true family you have left on your mother's side. As much as you don't like her, family is important; it's important to know you have someone who knew your mother, who knows stories about her that she just might be willing to share with you if you give her something in return."
"I don't want to have anything to do with her!" Harry exclaimed irritably, but as he shoved his chair back and stood up to pace the dining room, he knew it wasn't true. Something inside him was urging him to put aside his anger and focus on the fact that maybe his aunt was sincere and really did need his help. And as much as he didn't want to admit it, Ginny's argument about Petunia being his last family link to his mother had some merit to it.
By the time he came back around the table, Ginny was on her feet and waiting for him with her arms outstretched. He walked into her embrace asking, "How did you get so wise?"
Ginny shrugged. "I don't know. I just said what I felt was right," she said.
Harry bent down and kissed her gently. When they broke apart, he sighed and said, "I think I have a letter to write."
Ginny smiled up at him. "What restaurant shall we go to?"
Harry thought about this and then suggested, "How about the Golden Arrow near King's Cross Station? Uncle Vernon wouldn't be caught dead there even though it's quite a posh restaurant." He held up a hand and ticked off each point on a finger. His smile grew with each point. "One, it's a hotel restaurant. Uncle Vernon avoids hotel restaurants. Two, the food is expensive, the wine even more so. Three, the food is publicised as 'international,' which he translates to 'foreign' in his book. Four, if we take her there, she'll be rather intimidated and maybe not as dreadful as she can be. I'd say the two of us plan to put on our smart Muggle clothes and prepare to play my aunt's game of who can outsmart the other. Do you think your mum will let me take you to lunch?"
Ginny stepped back and gave him a little push towards the door. "I think she will," she said. Then, just as Harry reached the door, she added, "But Harry, I know I don't have anything appropriate to wear."
Harry grinned. "Neither do I. Looks like a shopping trip is in order. Can you be here at nine o'clock tomorrow morning?"
"If you're taking me shopping, I'll get here any time you want!" Ginny giggled.
Petunia Dursley arrived in the hotel lobby nearly a half-hour before she was to meet Harry and his friend. He had said he was bringing someone, but not the person's gender, so Petunia could only hope the person would not be too badly dressed. She herself was wearing her best, smartest dress—a dark blue raw silk with a matching jacket that she had purchased for one of Vernon's company parties two years ago—but for some reason, she still felt a bit underdressed. No, that wasn't right, she felt… out of season. Maybe once they were in the restaurant she would feel less out of place.
At last she spotted two young people entering the main doors of the hotel. She stood hopefully, but just as abruptly, sat back down again for the couple, although young, was so much better dressed than she ever thought her nephew and a woman of his kind ever would be. She watched as the couple exchanged a glance and then headed straight for her. She remained seated, only because she was too shocked to stand up again.
"Hello, Aunt Petunia," Harry said, his voice sounding much deeper than she remembered it.
Petunia could only stare at him. The suit he was wearing was so understated and fit so well that she knew it could only be Burberry or Versace. His hair was neatly trimmed and combed, his tie was knotted correctly, and his shoes were every bit as expensive as the suit. She tried very hard, but could not find anything to criticize. Clearing her throat, Petunia managed a stiff, "Thank you for coming, Harry," before turning her eyes on the girl at his elbow.
Harry seemed to have followed her gaze for he now said, "May I present Miss Ginny Weasley, a friend of mine from school."
"Mrs Dursley, it's my pleasure," Miss Weasley said, her smile pleasant.
"It's nice to meet you, too, Miss Weasley," Petunia said. She let her eyes slide over Harry's companion. Again, she could find no fault in the girl's appearance, for her dark teal dress with its short sleeves and flared skirt accentuated her figure without being vulgar, and gave no hint of anything unnatural. Ginny wore sheer tights and dainty black cocktail shoes to complete her ensemble and Petunia found herself growing a little envious of such perfection, especially since it wasn't at all obvious that the girl was a witch.
"Are you ready to eat, Aunt Petunia?" Harry asked, his question jarring Petunia out of her inspection.
"Oh, yes, quite," she murmured.
Harry turned and gestured towards the corridor leading to the Golden Arrow restaurant.
Harry breathed a silent sigh of relief that he and Ginny had passed inspection. Already, the trip to Harrods and Marks & Spencer had paid off just because his aunt couldn't seem to find anything to criticize about their appearance. Yesterday's shopping trip had been fun, if expensive, and he already knew he would be wearing his suit again soon, since he preferred it to dress robes any day!
The maître d' led them to a table in the middle of the restaurant and after they were seated, he leaned closer to his aunt and said, "Please order anything you want, Aunt Petunia. You are our guest."
She stared at him. "Thank you, Harry," she murmured, sounding surprised, and returned to her perusal of the menu.
Harry waited until their appetizers had been served to ask, "Did you get settled back in your home without any problems?"
Petunia sipped her wine before answering. "It was almost as if we'd never left. A little dusty, yes, but other than that it was nice to come home to an intact house. I was afraid we wouldn't."
Harry, who had been inside three days before his relatives had been allowed to go back, knew just how much magic had gone into making number four presentable. The Death Eaters had had a field day wreaking havoc and what wasn't too heavy to turn over had been smashed with curses or defaced in some way. It had required all of Harry's concentration to make sure everything looked as it should, even though Kingsley had sent several repair-wizards from Magical Maintenance to help with the clean-up.
"I'm glad you found it satisfactory," he said. "And how are Uncle Vernon and Dudley?"
This seemed to be the opening Petunia had been waiting for. She took a rather deep breath and began her tale. She concluded with, "And now, Dudley's decided he wants to take a gap year, since he has finished his exams, to pursue studying m-magic." The last word was spoken in barely a whisper. "Harry, I don't know what to do to help him. Can you and Miss Weasley suggest something?"
Harry exchanged a quick glance with Ginny who then turned to Aunt Petunia. "Actually, Mrs Dursley, I think he has the right idea taking the gap year. Where will he be going on his holiday? Has he lined up a job yet? Our friend, Hermione, has been talking about taking a gap year next year to go to Australia where she sent her parents last year," she said conversationally as their entrees arrived. "She wants to finish school first, though."
Aunt Petunia sputtered, "Your… your friend is normal? I always thought she was one of your kind from what I've heard Harry say over the years." Harry scowled at that.
"Of course she's normal," Ginny stated, "but instead of speaking of how paranormal she is, you asked how we could help Dudley."
"I did," Aunt Petunia said. Then, looking between Harry and Ginny, she asked, "Will you teach him?"
Harry shook his head. "I can't, Aunt Petunia. I'm going to start the… erm… police academy in September when Ginny and Hermione return to school," he said, suddenly aware of where they were. "I'm to take an accelerated course because of the need for paranormal inspectors after what happened in May."
His aunt seemed to deflate when she realized he couldn't take the time to help his cousin. She finished her salad and laid her fork across her plate, which was promptly removed by their waiter. She sighed. "Thank you for being honest, Harry," she said. "I'll start looking for another way to help Dudley."
Across the table, Ginny was frowning. "Mrs Dursley, Harry didn't say that he wouldn't help Dudley, he was just telling you why he himself can't," she said.
"I apologize," Aunt Petunia said hastily.
"There are other ways he can, we can help," Ginny continued, "and I have a thought, but you'll need to approve it."
Aunt Petunia looked interested. "What do you have in mind?"
"We'd like to introduce him to some of our friends," Harry said. "We know several people who won't be going back to the school this year because of what happened last year, but they still want to qualify and are studying for their own exams. Teaching someone else what they're revising is a very good way to learn the material thoroughly."
"You'd actually want your cousin to meet your friends?" asked Aunt Petunia.
"Why not? Although it might mean that some of them would actually walk up your garden path and have Dudley invite them into the house. Would you and Uncle Vernon have any objections to that?"
"Actually, no, Harry," said Aunt Petunia with a sigh. "As much as I don't want to admit it, I left Vernon last night, although he has yet to come home to find my note. Dudley came with me because he doesn't like his father's attitude. He realizes that if he stays at home, he'll have to stop learning and that's the last thing he wants to do at the moment."
"Where are you living now?" Ginny asked, looking concerned.
"At the moment, we're staying at Mrs Figg's until I can find us a place to live. She's happy to shelter us for the time being, and I'm grateful to her for it," Aunt Petunia said. "So, as much as I loathe the idea of what Dudley is, I know he won't be happy until he has learned more. And as a mother, I want my child to be happy, and right now, with his father being rather aggressive towards him, Dudley isn't happy. So…" She broke off with a tiny sob and searched in her handbag for her handkerchief. "So your friends coming to visit won't be a problem."
Ginny took Harry's hand under the table and gave it a squeeze. "That's good, Mrs Dursley," she said. "We were hoping to introduce the girls to Dudley in the next few days because term for me starts on first September and two of them are my friends. Can we come round at ten tomorrow morning?"
Aunt Petunia raised her eyebrows. "You mean they're girls? I thought you'd contact your male friends seeing as your cousin is male," she hissed, looking scandalized.
Harry frowned and resisted the urge to leave the table. "Aunt Petunia, you're objecting to our friends because they're women?" he asked incredulously. "Are you afraid Dudley will fancy one of them and will want to go out with her?"
His aunt's face turned a delicate shade of pink. "The thought has crossed my mind, Harry," she murmured. "I'm sure there aren't any girls good enough for my Dudley."
"I think it might be the other way round, Mrs Dursley," Ginny told her quietly. "These girls are the best there is. They fought valiantly last May, just as fiercely as our male friends did, and two of them are still recovering from their injuries. None of the wizards we know from school are available because they either died in the fighting or are needed to rebuild the Ministry, Hogwarts and other parts of our social infrastructure. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is."
Aunt Petunia sighed. "Thank you for being honest with me, Miss Weasley," she said. "You must think me an overprotective mother. Unfortunately, you are correct and I know I must adjust my attitude; various feelings have been with me for many years and they're hard to resist. I know you two are doing your best to help me, so thank you. Would your friends be able to come for lunch tomorrow at noon? I don't think Mrs Figg will object to having a few more guests at her table."
Harry smiled. "We'll contact our friends as soon as we get back to Ginny's house," he said. He laid down his fork as did his companions. Almost immediately, their waiter took them away and handed out dessert menus and tea. They ordered and spent the remainder of the meal discussing other things.
Finally, Harry pushed back from the table and laid his crumpled napkin next to his plate. "It's been nice having lunch with you, Aunt Petunia," he said, genuinely surprised that he felt this way.
His aunt raised an eyebrow. "Do you really mean that, Harry, or are you just saying it to be polite?" she asked.
"I mean it," he admitted. "I just wish we could have been this civil to each other while I was growing up."
Aunt Petunia nodded sadly. "Maybe it's because we're not living together anymore that we can speak properly to each other now," she said. "You seem to be your own man now, Harry, and perhaps living apart has helped us, too."
"It could be many things, Mrs Dursley," Ginny added, "that are all adding up to the fact that the two of you are looking for ways to help Dudley."
"I agree," Aunt Petunia said, rising. "I must go."
Harry stood up, too. "May I walk you to the hotel door?" he asked, offering his aunt his arm.
She smiled and as they left the table, Harry mouthed to Ginny, "Be back soon, love."