Harry materialized behind the grove of trees in the middle of the plain bathed in the sunlight of this late afternoon. He put the portkey in the hollow shaft, brushed his jeans, checked one last time his sleeve - the blood of the Death Eater had splashed a bit, but he was almost sure he had cleaned it all - and took off his jacket, that he threw on his right shoulder to hide the thick bandage that protected his arm until the end of the healing spell.
He ran a hand through his messy black hair, wrinkled his nose to bring up his glasses in a mechanical gesture.
It was hot and crickets crackled merrily in the tall grass. Through the branches, he could see in the distance the Burrow with its pointed roof and funny smoking chimney, and, closer, at the end of the path he walked every day to go to work, their home with the letterbox shaped like a London bus, the swing in which Ginny read stories to Lily and the kites the boys had attached to the white fence behind the shed.
This was his favorite moment of the day: when he came back and his home was there, waiting for him.
He rubbed his arm to get rid of the tingling that accompanied the healing. Ginny would raise her eyebrow, but she would not say anything. She knew the risks that came with his job as an Auror.
It was not because of her that he was trying to hide the injury.
He walked to the house, looking for the silhouette that would surely appear as usual at that time.
He laughed, stooping to welcome the little boy running towards him.
- "Hey, Al! Did you have a good day?"
Two big green eyes smiled back at him under the messy dark curls.
- "Yep! What about you? You've beaten the evil and you won, as usual? Supermaaan!"
The child took the pose, one hand on a hip and a raised fist to the sky. Harry laughed and began to tickle him.
- "You shouldn't spend that much time watching cartoons with Granddaddy", he observed. "Real life is not quite like that, and, thanks Merlin, your father doesn't work in blue tights and red panties."
Offering a telly for Christmas to his stepfather had been his idea, though. Mr. Weasely had been thrilled, of course.
Albus was squirming, giggling. He lost his balance and caught himself against his father, putting his arm around the neck of the young man. Harry winced when the weight leaned against his injured shoulder, but her eyes were clear when he turned to the little boy.
- "Did you save some snack for me?"
- "Nah", said the child with a smirk. "Mum said you're getting on weight. Uncle Ron says it's true."
He chuckled and Harry found it very hard to frown.
- "Uncle Ron's looking for trouble", he growled. "I'll report him to his wife."
Albus seemed to find it very amusing. Harry stood up and took his son's hand as he walked toward the house, a very old song on his lips.
He looked down and, surprised, met the child's serious look.
- "Yes, Al?"
- "In September, you know ... I'm going to Hogwarts."
-" I know."
He had been waiting for the letter with as much impatience as his son and read it over his shoulder.
- "So ... are you going to take me to your special place', like you did with James? To give me your speech."
Harry bit his lip to refrain from laughing.
Typical of James. He had just wanted to share a moment with his son when he had reached the age to enter Hogwarts, sharing memories - those the children had not heard during reunions - and ... awkwardly, surely, explaining what he had understood during his school years: friendship is more important than fame, courage more than academic performances, forgiveness more than Houses.
James probably missed half the point, but ... it'd come. Sometimes later.
He wished he could just spare him from suffering.
Albus tugged at his sleeve.
- "So?" he insisted anxiously. "You'll take me there too?"
He seemed to doubt to be entitled to it, as often he thought. Albus was so fragile, compared to the other two. Harry smiled and squatted next to him.
- "Are you ready for your going-to-Hogwarts speech?"
The boy nodded vigorously.
Harry ruffled his hair. He felt the anxiety behind the apparent bravery.
- "No", he said, his elbows on his thighs, his green eyes plunged into the eyes of his son. "I won't take you to James' special place. You and I, we'll go elsewhere."
James had loved the lonesome island and the story of Hagrid barging in the middle of the night, ripping the door open and adding a pigtail to Dudley's chubby posterior.
But Harry knew exactly where he wanted to be with Albus for this solemn moment.
He got up and held out his hand.
- "Come ", he said.
Albus swallowed and put his hand in his father's.
The Knightbus stopped with a jolt, throwing passengers, seats, snacks and shopping baskets against the windows. A cat mewed in a strident manner and something began to smoke at the back with a terrible smell of rotten eggs.
Harry and Albus hurried down the sidewalk and waited for the "bang" that accompanied the starting of the magical bus.
When the silence came back, the boy looked around, blinking in the setting sun.
They were in a quiet suburb, so uneventful, so banal that it looked like any other with neat gardens, identical rooftops and lampposts aligned in an orderly manner.
- "Muggles live here", Albus said, slipping his hand into his father's.
- "Why did we come here?"
There was no disappointment in his voice - there would have been if he had been James - but Albus was simply asking.
- "Because I'll show you my house. The house where I lived when I was your age."
The boy's dark lashes fluttered.
Harry never talked about her life with the Dursleys before he had been admitted to Hogwarts.
Albus looked around him before realizing the bus had stopped in front of Number 4, Privet Drive.
The house looked like any other, except the lawn had not been mowed for years and the closed shutters were sealed with panels "for sale".
- "No one lives here?" Albus asked.
- "No. No one, since...
He smiled at the child.
- "No one was there for a long time."
They walked down to the door. Harry pulled out his wand from the back pocket of his jeans and unlocked after a brief glance around. They went in quickly and shut the door behind them.
- "There's a ton of dust!"
He wrinkled his nose.
- "And it smells weird ..."
Since his father was not answering, he pressed his hand.
Harry shivered and seemed to wake up from a dream. He looked down to the child.
- "Hmm? You were saying? Ah, the smell. Surely my Aunt Petunia's perfume. It was very persistent."
The sun rays filtering through the blinds filled the room with an orange glow, in which danced dust particles. The furniture was covered with sheets thrown in a hurry and there was a shoe in the entrance. A big new sneaker had fallen on the mat when they had left in haste. Harry kneeled down and picked it up after a moment of hesitation.
- "Oh, Dudley, you must have missed it ... he whispered with the shadow of a half-smirk, half-sad smile. "Your favorite sneaker ..."
Albus put a hand on his shoulder to get his attention.
- "There's the kitchen where you inflated your aunt like a balloon!" he said excitedly. "It's just like what you described!"
He hopped and twirled.
- "Oh, and here is where Dobby smashed the cake on the lady's head!"
Dobby was his favorite character in the stories of his father's childhood.
- "Oh, Dad! It's just like you told!"
His eyes shone. Harry led him to the living room, showed him the fire place.
- "The letters came out of it all of a sudden, like a hundred birds", he explained, making big gestures. "They filled the room - Heaps and heaps of letters! This was one of the happiest days of my life!"
Albus laughed with him, dancing in the living room as he had during that memorable moment.
They ran upstairs, together.
In the room where his father had been a teenager, Albus sat on the bed and wrapped himself in the blanket without worrying about the cloud of dust. Chirping with joy, he locked himself in the closet like Dobby had done long ago, asked where Harry hung Hedwig's cage, wanted to hear again the story of the day when Ron had come with the flying car and had torn off the bars of the window.
Finally, his hair sweaty and his cheeks red, he sat on the carpet.
- "Are you happy?" Harry asked, amused, from the desk where he had sit to watch his son.
He hesitated for a moment.
- "Did James come here too?"
- "No. You're first."
The child's eyes widened, proud.
- "Thanks, Dad."
Harry took off his glasses, wiped them on his shirt, then put them back and looked up.
- "Actually, there is one place I wanted you to see."
They went down and the young man stood between the kitchen and the living-room for a few moments in silence.
Albus waited without getting impatient. His green eyes, under his thick dark fringe, were watching his father, trying to understand.
Harry finally approached the stairwell. He opened a door in the wall, a door so small that even Albus would have had to stoop to pass through it.
- "What's that?"
Harry smiled, as if he saw something beyond the child, far away.
Something sad and sweet at the same time.
He held out his hand.
- "Come, Al."
They slipped into the closet, sat with their knees cramped under the wooden steps. Harry banged his head looking for the cord to light the bulb.
- "It's dark", whispered Albus.
- "Electricity is probably cut off", his father said thoughtfully. He took out his wand. "Lumos."
The fragile clarity spread in the darkness, illuminating their faces.
Albus looked around.
They were sitting on an old striped mattress. There were shelves behind him, but they were empty, except for a tin soldier, alone, lying in a corner.
- "Where are we?"
Harry cleared his throat.
- "This was my room, Al."
The child's green eyes stared at him blankly.
- "This is where I was sleeping when I was a little boy", Harry explained, his voice hoarse more he wanted to admit. "Before I went to Hogwarts for the first time. The first letter I received, it was written on it. Mr. Harry Potter, the cupboard under the stairs, 4 Privet Drive. It was my room. "
Albus swallowed and his face reflected his thoughts as they whirled.
He compared his comfortable bedroom with the cramped cubbyhole.
He suddenly realized that the funny stories where Dudley was the main character were actually a report of his wickedness.
Confusingly, he understood that the teasing of James was nothing compared to what his father had lived through.
Slowly, his imagination took off his mother, father and the pretty house near the Burrow to place him in the shadow of the inhospitable cupboard under the stairs.
With no one.
He looked up and Harry saw his eyes full of tears.
He smiled, leaned forward and rested his forehead against the child's.
- "It's okay, Al."
The boy linked his arms around his neck.
- "Dad ..."
Harry pulled him against him and nestled him in his arms.
- "Al. Do you know why I brought you here? When you'll go to Hogwarts, you'll hear a lot of stories about me. Harry Potter, Auror. Harry Potter, the survivor. Harry Potter, who defeated Voldemort."
He tilted his chin, looking for the gaze of the child snuggled against him in the halo of the wand.
- "People love legends and gossip, and it can be a pain. I know James has no problem to endure it because he's very comfortable and confident with himself. He has good grades, lots of friends, and everything seems easy for him, isn't it?"
Albus nodded, a lump in his throat.
- "But that's not the same for everyone. It wasn't easy for me. I was not very good at learning, I often made mistakes and well ... I didn't really know how to make friends. Everything I had learned was that I did not have the right to speak, to exist, to be happy."
He could feel the beating heart of the child close to his, at the same breathless pace.
They were so similar.
Not very confident, always the last, capable of giving everything out of loyalty and love yet unable to express their emotions and feelings.
- "Al, when you go to Hogwarts, don't try to be the best or to prove anything. Just be yourself. Take time to know your friends, even if you don't have many of them. I only had Ron and Hermione at first. And thanks to them, other people became my friends too."
He searched for his words carefully.
- "Remember this cupboard. How dark it is and how it feels lonely. You will be thankful for your friends, for each day when you have fun. You will know that because we are not rich nor beautiful or popular, it doesn't mean that we can not do great things. Okay?"
Albus did not answer, leaving the words slowly sink in his heart.
For a few moments there was no sound in the cupboard under the stairs, only silence filled with invisible images.
Harry saw his childhood and the years that had transformed him, the trials, struggles, losses - and all these moments of great laughter, jokes, friendship so real that it was almost palpable: he could never be enough grateful to have met Ron and Hermione.
Albus saw the man who left home in the morning with a big smile and returned in the evening with the same happy face, hiding his wounds, so strong and humble at the same time. The one that all admired and who always had time for him, who was never irritated by his slowness or his mistakes.
He leaned over and grabbed the tin soldier on the shelf.
- "Yes, Al?"
The child was still staring at the dusty figurine. He finally raised his big green eyes, very serious.
- "Do you think one day I'll be like you? A real hero?"
- "I think you're going to be someone better than a hero."
Albus' smile, filled with confidence, was the most beautiful thing in the world.
James stood in front of his little brother and frowned.
- "Where were you?"
Albus' long eyelashes barely twitched.
Lily jumped over the fence and came to them.
- "You went to the island?"
- "How do you know I went to the island!" James bawled.
- "I heard Mum talking about it" retorted the little girl, sticking out her tongue.
The other two exchanged a glance over his head. The night was filled with stars above the plain. In the house, Ginny was checking the injured arm of Harry who was watching the children through the window.
- "So where were you, then?" James insisted. "What did Dad tell you?"
Albus bit his lip. He forced himself to look in his brother's eyes.
- "It's none of your concern."
- "Oh oh", Lily exclaimed, laughing. She reached out and patted Albus' hair. "You're growing up, big brother."
He quickly pulled away.
- "Leave me alone."
- "Seriously ? Come on, Lily, leave him to his sulking."
Albus watched them go, then puffed out his cheeks.
He shoved his hand into his pocket and checked if the others were really gone before taking out the tin soldier.
He stared at it for a moment, so lost in his thoughts that he did not hear his father approaching.
- "Al? You okay?"
He shuddered when the hand touched his shoulder and looked up. Harry smiled. He sat next to his son, clasped his hands between his knees, looking at the dark sky sparkling with stars.
- "I didn't tell your secret", Albus said after a while.
The secret that you were like me when you were young.
Harry reached out and put his arm around the shoulders of his son.
- "Dad? When you ... since you didn't have ... a father. You, how ... to whom did you speak?"
Harry took a deep breath, then turned to the child, smiling.
- "I had a friend who was almost like a father to me. I could tell him everything I had in my heart and he never thought I was being ridiculous. He always listened to me. He was a very powerful wizard, and a patient man and he had a lot of humor."
- "What was his name?"
- "Albus. Albus Dumbledore."