The morning air on the first of September was crisp and sweet, with only a chilly breeze to suggest Autumn's approach. It was the kind of morning that would brighten anyone's spirits, and not even trudging through the fumes of mid-morning traffic could put a damper on it. The little family crossing to the station, however, barely noticed. Two large cages rattled on top of the packed trolleys the parents were pushing, the owls inside hooting indignantly at every bump. The small redheaded girl trailed tearfully behind her brothers, lower lip thrust out in utter misery as she clutched her father's sleeve.
"It won't be long now, and you'll be going too." Harry's voice was laden with fond exasperation, though this was obviously not a new conversation.
"Two years," was Lily's plaintive reply. "I want to go now!"
Before anything more could be said, Dudley and his daughter emerged from the crowd and fell into step beside Harry, who flashed them a tired grin. "Morning, Harry. Morning, Ginny," Dudley said, with a weary grimace of his own. He, too, was pushing a cart, though the cage on top of this one contained a very irate cat.
Ariana, who was Dudley's oldest, had darted ahead to talk to James - who was in her year - and Albus, and the latter's voice carried back to them over the noise.
"I won't! I won't be in Slytherin!"
"Lay off, James," Ariana said, tying her hair back with her new yellow-and-black ribbon. "Obviously he'll be in Hufflepuff with me. Are you trying out for Quidditch this year?"
Ignoring Al's protests that he didn't want to be in Hufflepuff, either, the two older children immediately began to argue over who was the better player and which team was likely to win the Cup. Harry and Dudley shared a wry look.
"How's Padma?" Harry finally asked as they approached the barrier.
"She's doing better," Dudley said. "Harriet and Parvati were still feverish when we left, though."
The smaller of the two men winced in sympathy - the twins were Lily's age, and more sickly than their athletic older sister. Everyone who knew them dreaded the day they went to Hogwarts, because the girls were also prone to mischief, and being sick only made it worse.
They passed through the barrier and joined the others, Ariana and James sticking around only long enough to grab their trolleys from their fathers and vanish into the mist. "Where are they?" Albus asked, staring intently through the steam from the Hogwarts Express as they made their way down the platform.
"We'll find them," Ginny replied confidently.
Eventually, they reached the last carriage and found their quarry. Ron and Hermione hugged the Potters and shook Dudley's hand, and to his relief, their smiles were genuine. They'd been understandably wary last year, when Ariana had started at Hogwarts, but then Padma had been there to stare them down.
"-didn't believe I could pass a Muggle driving test, did you?" Ron was now saying, throwing a cheeky grin at his wife. "She thought I'd have to Confund the examiner."
Hermione rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. "No, I didn't," she said in a voice that said she Very Much Did, patting his shoulder. "I had complete faith in you." And she drew Ginny into a conversation about work. Ron turned to help Harry lift Albus's trunk onto the train, and judging by their grins, Dudley suspected he had, in fact, Confunded the poor examiner. He shook his head and checked his watch, wondering if he should call Padma after he saw the train off.
As he debated the idea of stopping to pick up lunch on the way, someone said, "Look who it is."
That tone of voice meant only one person, and he lifted his head to look in the same direction everyone else was staring. The steam had thinned, and there stood the Malfoys, prim and respectable as ever. Dudley smiled in greeting, and Draco, who had nodded curtly to the others, gave him the faintest of smiles before turning away. His son stared curiously at Dudley before turning to his mother to ask a question.
"So that's little Scorpius," said Ron under his breath, sneering over the name. "Make sure you beat him in every test, Rosie. Thank Merlin you inherited your mother's brains."
"Ron, for heaven's sake," Hermione said, exasperated. "Don't try to turn them against each other before they've even started school!"
"You're right, sorry." Ron looked about as far from sorry as one could reasonably get, and, unable to help himself, added, "Don't get too friendly with him, though, Rosie. Granddad Weasley would never forgive you if you married a pureblood."
Rose, however, was not listening, because at that moment, Ariana and James had turned up, the latter fit to burst with excitement. They'd divested themselves of pets, trunks, and trolleys, and Ariana had hastily thrown her robes on over her jeans and t-shirt.
"Teddy's back there," James said breathlessly, pointing back over his shoulder into the billowing clouds of steam. "Just seen him! And guess what he's doing? Snogging Victoire!" He gazed up at the adults with the air of one bringing tremendously important news, and was disappointed by the lack of reaction. "Our Teddy! Teddy Lupin! Snogging our Victoire! Our cousin! And I asked Teddy what he was doing-"
"You interrupted them?" said Ginny. "You are so like Ron-"
"He's an idiot," said Ariana primly.
"-and he said he'd come to see her off! And then he told me to go away! He's snogging her!" James added, as though worried he hadn't made himself clear. Ariana rolled her eyes.
"Oh, it would be lovely if they got married," whispered Lily sarcastically.
"Teddy would really be part of the family then!"
As the family descended into affectionate bickering, Ariana sidled up to her father and tugged on his sleeve, staring up at him with serious brown eyes. "Make sure the twins stay out of my room," she said. "Please?"
Dudley patted her hand reassuringly. "Don't worry, we'll keep it locked up. Let us know when your first Quidditch match is, okay?"
She let go of his sleeve and grabbed him for a hug, squeezing as tight as her skinny little arms allowed. "You better not forget to write me," she mumbled as he hugged her back, and he smiled broadly as, not a moment later, she pulled away to punch James in the arm for calling her a baby.
Finally, the children boarded the train, Ariana and James staying only to wave before rushing off to find their friends. Harry quietly spoke to Albus about his fear of being sorted into Slytherin, then let him go after one final hug, and the adults all stood together and watched the train ease out of the station.
When it was out of sight, Dudley turned back to Harry and the others, and his cousin smiled. It didn't quite reach his eyes, but it was friendlier than it had been. "Fancy coming to lunch, Dud?" he asked.
Dudley shook his head. "I'd love to, but I need to get home," he said with a rueful grin, and didn't miss the subtle relief on their faces. "The twins are probably driving Padma up the wall."
The others, knowing full well what the twins were like, groaned. "Well, some other time, then," Harry said as the group began to move back towards the barrier. "Give them our love, will you?"
He was just opening his mouth to reply when there was a terrific rumbling noise, and the platform gave a violent heave. Dudley hit the ground with a pained grunt, and something exploded near his elbow, sending pavement flying. Through the screaming, he could hear Harry issuing orders, and struggled to get up. He lifted his head just in time to see a pillar collapse and fall towards him, and then something struck him from behind and his world went dark.