PT WITH DUDLEY
As the Hogwarts Express neared the King's Cross station, Harry realized he was nervous. It took considerable introspection before he could put his finger on the source. Initially, he thought that leaving the protection of Hogwarts, and the adult wizards there, was the root of his conern, but as he delved deeper he determined this wasn't so.
"I'm not really afraid of going into the "outside" world," he thought to himself. "I may be technically underage until the end of July, but I'm still allowed to protect myself if it comes to it. I can handle myself in a battle and I'm not really afraid for myself. So why the collywobbles?"
Ginny adjusted her position where she had fallen asleep against his shoulder. Her motion made Harry's mind leap. "Maybe I'm nervous about Ginny or the others being vulnerable without me around." The thought had barely surfaced when his mind was thrown back to images of the last several D.A. practices, the Gaunt cabin, and the Room of Requirement. "No," he thought. "I believe that my friends are competently capable of looking after themselves."
Harry allowed an inward smile at the shock any Death Eater would experience if they considered his friends no more than mere teenagers...easy prey. He looked out the window and noticed the bucolic scenery was yielding to homes, shops and factories.
"Only a few minutes left. So...why am I nervous?" The thought forced deeper self-examination. In a blaze of understanding, he recognized the source of his disquietude. "I'm nervous about being with the Dursleys!" He dissected the thought. "My aunt, uncle, and cousin will have no idea what I've been through, and I surely can't explain it to them! They'll be as awful as ever and I'll just have to take it. I can't use magic against them. In fact, I'll have to exert even more self-control when it comes to dealing with them, no matter how horrible they are to me. I'm really weaponless against their emotional onslaught."
The realization did little to comfort Harry; instead it unsettled him to understand what he was getting himself into. "If it weren't for the fact that Albus wanted me to return to the Dursley's home, I'd go straight to the Burrow."
Harry shifted his attention to the small compartment. Ron and Hermione were in the seat opposite, asleep in each other's arms. They looked peaceful, without a care in the world. Ginny stirred. As Harry brushed a strand of flaming red hair from her forehead, her bright brown eyes opened. She smiled at Harry. He smiled back, locking his anxiety deep inside.
"Have a nice kip?" asked Harry. "I tried to let you sleep as long as possible."
"Thanks for that," said Ginny. "Your training helped but I still have some problems when I sleep. Voldemort slips into my dreams. I keep having horrible nightmares about the Chamber of Secrets, and what Riddle from the diary forced me to do."
Harry felt her shudder and he pulled her closer. "I owe you some practice so you can block those thoughts completely. I'll tell you what, give me the requisite week at the Dursley's, and I'll be at the Burrow. We'll have a few days to practice before Bill and Fleur's wedding. I promise that helping you will be my highest priority. However, you have to make me a promise in return. Promise me that you will stay vigilant and stay safe until I see you again."
Ginny smiled a wry smile, "You know I will. A peaceful life, that's me." She leaned forward and kissed him. They were interrupted by the slowing of the train as it braked to a stop at King's Cross.
The train's change in motion woke Ron and Hermione. Stretching and yawning, they both looked quizzically at Harry and Ginny. "And just what have you two been up to?" asked Hermione.
"Not much. And everything," said Ginny.
Hermione gave a knowing look. Ron stood and stretched until his long fingers brushed the compartment ceiling. "That seemed a short go," he said yawning deeply.
Harry felt Capricio tense at Ron's voice. He prepared to intervene if the dragon went back on their agreement, but Capricio settled down to a low grumbling growl.
"Your pet still doesn't think much of me does he?" asked Ron.
"Apparently not," said Harry apologetically. "I've never been able to fully understand why he doesn't trust you. But at least he has agreed to end hostilities for the time being."
"As much as I could ask, I guess, " said Ron, keeping his eyes on the dragon as he pulled the trunks from the overhead rack.
"I have a request," said Harry, finally deciding to give voice to a plan he knew his friends were going to oppose. "I would like to say goodbye on the train. Then I would like to pass through the barrier and back into King's Cross Station alone."
Arguments filled the air, as Harry had known they would. "Look, " he said. "I'm not trying to be contrary. I just need to meet the Dursleys on my own. If you are concerned for my safety, remember, I have a dragon."
"A lot of good Capricio will do in a station filled with muggles. You can't very well pull a dragon from your pocket start blasting Death Eaters!" said Hermione.
"I know that," said Harry. "But if Dumbledore was right about being protected by my mother's blood. I won't need Capricio. All I'll need to do is go with the Dursleys. Voldemort himself said that I had been better protected than I realized, that he couldn't touch me while I was with the Dursley's. Even though Albus is gone, I'm going to trust him on this. The real thing is...I don't know if I can stand to say goodbye on a platform full of strangers. Saying goodbye right here is more intimate...it means more to me."
Ginny squeezed his hand. Ron and Hermione seemed to accept his reasons. Silently, Harry kissed Ginny, hugged Ron and Hermione, stowed Capricio, picked up Hedwig's empty cage and his trunk, and left the train.
He made his way across the platform so quickly that he was the first to slip through the invisible barrier. Harry was almost expecting that the Dursleys wouldn't be in the station given the verbal drubbing Dumbledore had given them in their living room ten months prior. He was surprised therefore to see not only his uncle, but his aunt and also Dudley standing close to the barrier, evidently waiting patiently for his arrival.
The out-of-character action roused Harry's suspicions. He touched his glasses and activated the frequency attenuation. Although he knew he would never be able to hear the pitch of magic in the bustling train station, he knew he could still discern it visually. He was astonished to see no traces of magic except around the invisible doorway to platform nine and three quarters.
Upon seeing him, and without so much as a word, his aunt and uncle turned and marched toward the exit.
"That's more like it," thought Harry, but then he noticed that Dudley hadn't moved from his spot. Alarm bells once again sounded in Harry's brain. He set down his trunk and slipped his hand inside his pocket. His wand felt warm and comforting in his hand. Even though he saw no direct evidence, he readied himself to act the instant Dudley showed himself an imposter.
The first words from Dudley hit Harry harder than one of his punches, "Can I help you with your bag?"
The voice was Dudley's, but Harry was positive the sentiment was not! "Imperious Curse!" screamed Harry's mind. "Someone is controlling Dudley! Why doesn't the magic show any trace?"
Harry stood dumbfounded. "Could I use magic against Dudley if he's controlled by another? That doesn't seem on. This could be much more difficult than I thought."
As the images ran through Harry's mind, Dudley was getting closer. Harry was just drawing his wand when Dudley reached him. He bent, grabbed the satchel handle, turned, and trudged after his parents, carrying the heavy bag.
Harry was unsure of whether to follow or not. "Maybe it would be better outside than in this closed-in station," he thought, watching his cousin's retreating back. Cautiously he followed, keeping a safe distance. As he stepped on the sidewalk outside the station, he could see Dudley hoisting his suitcase into his Uncle Vernon's shiny car.
Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were firmly ensconced in the front seat, pointedly ignoring Harry.
"Now that's more what I expected," thought Harry. Or at least, so it seemed, until Dudley secured the boot. Then he opened the car door and motioned for Harry to get inside.
"That can't be Dudley," reasoned Harry. "He's never opened the door for his parents, let alone anyone else!"
Dudley stood patiently, like a doorman, waiting for Harry.
"If I get inside, the quarters will be cramped for an attack and I'll still have Capricio." He had barely thought of the dragon, when he was suddenly aware that Capricio had given no hint of discomfort of being around the Dursleys. "If muggles would raise Slytherin's monster's hackles, surely the Dursleys would top the list."
Dropping to one knee and pretending to tie his shoelace, Harry surreptitiously spoke to the small dragon. "Cap are you sure it's all right to get into that car?"
A low chirr emanated from somewhere near Harry's vest pocket. Harry relaxed just a bit. He stood and crossed the street to where Dudley was still waiting patiently, holding the car door.
Harry got cautiously into the car. Dudley closed the door and walked around the car and got in beside him.
"We told you we don't approve," said Uncle Vernon in a barely controlled growl.
"I know," replied Dudley. "Just give it a bit of a chance. He's only just arrived."
Completely at a loss for an explanation for the bizarre behavior, Harry pressed himself back into the leather seat and waited.
Miles had passed, and Harry was just about to assume the Dursleys were back to the regime of "Harry ignoring" when the silence was broken. It was so sudden that he jumped when Dudley asked, "Did you have a good school year?"
Harry almost laughed a cruel laugh. "Dudley asking about my school year? As if he cares. Even if he did, which I'm sure he doesn't, where would I start? With the deaths, with the tortures, with the Time-Turner, with giants, or magical accidents...I don't think so." The thoughts raced through Harry's consciousness, but all that he could force out was, "I've had better."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Dudley. "My year has been quite the experience, far beyond Smeltings. If you get a chance I'd like to talk."
Uncle Vernon harrumphed from behind the steering wheel.
Harry was nonplussed. He let the comment go unanswered and the remainder of the trip passed in silence. No sooner had Uncle Vernon cut the engine, than Dudley got out and opened the door for his mother. He then rounded the car and opened Harry's door before going to retrieve Harry's baggage.
Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia swept into the house. Harry followed Dudley at a safe distance. Dudley made his way up to Harry's room. Immediately noticeable was the fact that the door to the room had been changed. It no longer held a huge lock and cat flap. It looked exactly like the other doors leading from the hallway. Dudley pushed his way into the room.
Harry was dumbfounded when he entered the room. There on the wall was a banner proclaiming "Welcome Home Harry" in crude block letters.
Giving voice to his confusion, Harry blurted out, "This is a joke right?"
Dudley set the suitcase against the wall and settled in the lone chair in the room. It wasn't until he was seated that Harry noticed Dudley had lost considerable weight. It was more than Harry could stand. He drew his wand and pointed it directly at what he was now convinced was a fake Dudley. "What's going on? Who are you and what have you done with my cousin?"
As the words left his mouth, he understood that his concern was genuine. Loathsome Dudley was, but he didn't deserve torture at the hands of the Death Eaters.
"Mum and Dad said you would react this way," said Dudley.
"Give me one reason I should believe you," said Harry aggressively.
"You saved my life from the Dementors even after I decked you. You could have just left me to them and saved yourself, but you didn't."
The words had a plaintive, almost pleading, quality that took Harry off guard. "Everyone knows that we were attacked by Dementors. That's not enough." But even as he said the words he remembered that terrible night. He had told the story about the Dementor attack; told it multiple times, but he had never mentioned that his cousin had hit him. An awful truth wormed its way into Harry's brain, "Either this is truly Dudley or the Death Eaters have tortured details from him to cement the facade."
"Give me more," said Harry.
"You talk in your sleep. I'm sorry that I used your nightmares against you. I know how awful nightmares can be." Dudley looked at the floor. When he looked back up at Harry, the last vestige of a tear slid from his cheek. "Right twice, but not on the third. You say you're sorry. That word isn't even in my cousin's vocabulary." Harry held the wand firmly, aiming it directly at Dudley's chest.
"My vocabulary has expanded this last year," said Dudley. "There's someone I'd like you to meet."
"This is it,' thought Harry. "It's all been a ploy to get me outside the house." But the thought didn't gel. "They had me outside in a car. They had me removed from any resources except my own. They could have attacked anytime since I left platform nine and three quarters. The Death Eaters don't care about muggle bystanders. Look at the Brockdale Bridge. This doesn't add up."
Dudley hadn't moved a muscle. He sat patiently as Harry mulled his thoughts. Taking a step into the unknown, Harry asked, "Where do we have to go to meet this someone?"
"You don't have to leave the house. I arranged a visit when mum got the letter telling us when you were coming back on the train. Mind you, it took twice because the first letter said you would be arriving early. The next letter changed that and set the time back to the regular schedule."
"Dudley might have snooped in Aunt Petunia's letters and a fake Dudley might have extracted the information. I'm still not sure. Why is Capricio so contented? I'd think he'd want in on this fight. Even if this is a Death Eater, they don't know about my ability to do magic without a wand, and they don't know about Capricio. It's back to Slytherin tactics, appear less than I am." Satisfied in the thought, Harry put away his wand.
Dudley moved quickly. So quickly that Harry was astonished. His immediate thought was, "We're on. Be prepared. Watch out for the signs of attack." He was comforted at the focus required. It took his mind from what might be happening to the real Dudley wherever he was.
Stopping at the bedroom door, Dudley motioned for Harry to follow. With amazing quickness, Dudley bounded down the stairs and halted in the entry hall. "Wait here and I'll be back directly." With that, he swept through the front door, leaving Harry alone and feeling very foolish.
In a matter of a few short minutes, Dudley burst through the front door. Harry was ready. He had the power for the full body bind gathered and ready. As he prepared to complete the spell he realized that Dudley was not alone. Dragged along behind Dudley was a girl, and she was smiling.
Harry's resolve, and his spell, wilted.
The girl was tall and had shoulder-length auburn hair. She had an upturned nose and grey eyes. When she saw Harry, she laughed. Her laughter filled the hall with warmth.
"If this is a Death Eater, she has the best disguise imaginable," thought Harry.
Dudley pulled the girl up close and introduced her, "Harry, this is Hesper Evans. Hesper, this is my cousin Harry Potter."
Hesper extended her hand but Harry did not take it immediately. He listened for the sound of gathering magic but found none. After a moment's hesitation, he took her hand and shook it. He could feel a disconcerting power behind her handshake.
"I'm pleased to meet you Harry," said Hesper. I was beginning to think you were a phantom pal of Lee's."
Harry noted the nickname and couldn't resist a jibe. "Not Big-D anymore, Dudley?"
Dudley looked at the floor. "No. Not Big D anymore. Hesper saw to that."
"What's going on here?" blurted Harry.
"Well it's a bit of a long story," said Dudley, "If you've got the time. I'd be happy to tell you."
Curiosity gnawed at Harry. He was beginning to think that this might just be Dudley and he might be on the level. "I've got nothing but time. Let's go in here," he said motioning to the living room.
The trio took up seats. Harry chose a large armchair with his back to the wall. Dudley and Hesper sat on the divan.
"Do you recall Mark Evans?" asked Dudley.
"Yes," said Harry, "He used to be one of your favorite punching bags, next to me of course."
"He's the one. He's also Hesper's brother. That is actually how we first met. She...um...she came over to invite me to leave her brother alone," said Dudley his ears glowing pink. "I wasn't pleased by her cheek, and you know I wasn't opposed to hitting a girl. The thing was I couldn't touch her. My friends were over and they egged me on to teach her a lesson. It turned out she taught me a lesson. A great many lessons if the truth be told."
"Lee was a talented brute," said Hesper unabashedly. "It took more than that evening's drubbing to get the point through his rather thick head."
"As I was saying," continued Dudley, "I was going to teach her a lesson for her cheek. It only took a few minutes for me to see I was outclassed. It was like when I started boxing. I ran into a few real boxers. They did more than throw punches. They had style and finesse. They had a plan and thought through their moves. All I could do was try to batter them with my strength. I usually lost. I found the same thing with Hesper. She embarrassed me. My friends...OK...my gang, couldn't believe it. Big D bested by a girl! They took the mick out of me, then they left me alone with Hesper. There I was bruised and bloodied by a girl. Instead of lording over me, she extended her hand and helped me to my feet. Again she invited me to leave her brother alone. Not only was I willing to leave Mark alone, I went with her and personally apologized. It was over two weeks before I plucked up the courage to go see her again. It took about that long for my bruises to heal. She wasn't home but her mum told me where I could find her. When I got to the Centre, there she was doing ballet moves in sweatpants. I was about to leave when an instructor took the floor. All I saw after that was a blur of hands and feet. It was then that I realized just how easy she had been on me. As I watched, I felt every kick and every punch. It was like watching a flick of my life and I didn't like what I saw. I could see every kid I had hit, and your face came up more often than most. As I watched her, all I could think was that she was amazing. But it goes deeper than that. She had a philosophy, a way of looking past the darkness of life and seeing the light. I wanted that. I enrolled in the Centre's classes. At first it was about Hesper. I just wanted to get to know her better. Although my former friends told me that as soon as I could learn her style and hand her her head, they wouldn't be ashamed to be seen with me, I had my own motivation. The Centre's instructors are tough but they're fair. I've been at the Centre for just over eight months now. They finally trust me enough to let me teach the youngest kids. Like I said this last year has been an experience."
Dudley ceased speaking and sat in silence. Hesper sat calmly next to him, patently patient and unruffled.
Harry was astounded. "If this is true," he thought, "Hesper's influence has done more to affect Dudley in the last eight months than the Dursley's did to warp him in sixteen years." Harry recalled his failure during the D.A. training when an image of Snape had been conjured among the teachers. "I would want to believe that Dudley could change. Are the Death Eaters that devious? I have to decide. I don't really want to spent the next week cooped up here with suspicion and doubt."
"Where is this training centre?" probed Harry cautiously.
"Not far. About ten blocks away. They're open now if you would like to see." Dudley sounded excited.
Harry mentally massaged his apprehension. "Give me a minute. I need to change clothes," said Harry, rising and heading for the stairs.
"No problem," said Dudley. "Wear something loose if you plan on working out. There is a class in about an hour. They take walk-ins."
"Right," said Harry over his shoulder.
As he mounted the stairs, he heard Hesper say, "You said he wouldn't come. He must trust you more than you thought."
The overheard statement did little to calm Harry. He made straight for his room and as soon as he was safe inside he locked the door and extracted Capricio. "What do you think Cap? Is this going to be safe?"
Capricio rubbed against Harry's elbow. The dragon pointedly hopped around until he could look Harry in the eye.
"O.K., I get it," said Harry. "As far as you can tell, there's no threat. We've come a long way from the Chamber of Secrets, when you were going to drive all muggles from Hogwarts."
"O.K. I get that too. That task wasn't your idea and we're on the muggle's pitch. We do things their way."
Harry changed quickly. An old athletic bag with a rip at one end allowed Capricio to see out without being seen. As ready as he thought he would ever be, Harry went back downstairs to face Dudley and Hesper.
He found them, waiting for him in the hall, conversing in hushed tones.
"All ready then?" asked Hesper.
"I doubt he's ready for the likes of you," said Dudley as they headed out the front door.
Harry exited the front door expecting to walk to Dudley's mythical centre. He was surprised therefore, by the presence of three bicycles in the front garden.
"I arranged them," said Dudley, noting Harry's questioning glance at the bikes, "At the off-chance we could talk you in to going with us."
"Why?" asked Harry. He visually searched the bikes for magic traces while Dudley struggled with the question. "The seats, tires, and paint have the patina of use. Most wizards would not pay attention to those types of details, and I see absolutely no trace of magic manipulation. This much appears to be on the level," thought Harry.
"That's a question I've asked myself," explained Dudley. "I tried to work out what your Headmaster...I forget his name...what he said about my parents damaging me in some way. I thought I had gotten past it until I met Hesper. Some of the things she made me think about helped me understand your Headmaster's comment. That's the real answer to your question. I came to see myself, what I was doing, where I was headed; and I didn't like what I saw. With Hesper's help, I'm traveling a new path. I just wanted you to see something that's become important to me. An apology of sorts for what I've put you through."
Harry thought he heard sincerity in Dudley's words but he kept his skepticism fresh and his mind alert for danger.
"Choose your weapon, and we'll be going," offered Hesper.
Harry wondered at her provocative tone. Her meaning was made clear one block down. At the stop sign, Hesper looked at Dudley and winked. When the traffic cleared, Hesper pulled away hard with Dudley close behind her. Harry struggled to catch them up. When he arrived at the next intersection, he found Hesper and Dudley waiting. Both were breathing heavily and smiling. Harry realized he had never seen his cousin smile a genuine smile.
Dudley caught the look and asked, "What?"
"Your smile," replied Harry honestly. "I've never seen you like this."
"That's Hesper's doing," responded Dudley. "She makes me feel whole. She brings out the best in me."
"I know someone like that," Harry said thinking of Ginny.
"Don't think a pink compliment will make me take it any easier on you," said Hesper as she pulled away from both Harry and Dudley.
The two boys struggled to match the pace that Hesper laid down, but she was stationary and waiting at the next junction.
"You've the faster bike," said Dudley in a mock hurt tone.
"You think so? Trade me and I'll show it isn't the machine, it's the operator." Hesper swung off her seat and jostling Dudley about, traded him bikes. No sooner was she seated than she was off. Dudley was wrong. The change of bikes did not make a whit's difference. Hesper was waiting again at the next intersection. The race-and-wait continued until they pulled up in front of a grey stone building. It would have been totally nondescript if not for the huge blue letters emblazoned across the front windows proclaiming "Marshalled Arts Centred."
"Isn't that spelled wrong?" asked Harry as they racked their bikes next to a man in a blaze orange sweat suit with a blazing orange bike. He noticed no one used locks.
"No," responded Hesper as she greeted the man in orange. "It is a question we get quite frequently though. It's not a martial arts centre. It's a place where the best of many disciplines are "centred" in the participants. Come in and see."
At the front desk, the clerk greeted Hesper and Dudley, and added, "Who is this young man?" Her tone of pleasant inquiry intrigued Harry.
"Penni this is my cousin Harry. Harry, Penni's the one who keeps us all organized." Then Dudley continued, "Harry takes his schooling away from London and he's home for holiday. He's come to see the Centre."
"Excellent," responded Penni. As she affixed a yellow smiley face sticker stamped "Visitor" to Harry's chest, her hand struck a tin of pencils. As it toppled off the desk, Harry juggled his bag, caught the tin in one hand and the pencils in the other.
"Thanks, sometimes I'm such a stumble," she stammered. "Enjoy your visit. Hesper and Lee can show you around. Have fun."
Harry followed Hesper and Dudley into a large gymnasium. There were practice mats and complicated looking exercise equipment, and about forty people engaged in various activities.
"This class is just ending and another class will start soon," said Hesper motioning to a group on a practice mat. "You would be welcome to participate."
Dudley and Hesper abandoned him and move to a foam mat to warm up. Harry saw Penni come into the room; speak to the instructor in front of the class, and leave.
Harry watched as the class wound down. The sweaty participants were going through cool-down exercises. He took the time to examine the building. Out of habit he scanned the room for magic traces and found none. "This is a totally muggle setting," he said loud enough Capricio could hear him. "Don't go berserk on them. This is their natural habitat. You'll probably see what looks like aggressive fighting, but it's all a show. They're just practicing. It's like our D.A. meetings."
"Do you always talk to yourself, or is it a technique to focus your mind?"
Harry started. He thought he was well away from where anyone could hear him. Standing some twenty feet away was the class instructor, a tall willowy blonde girl. She was smiling.
"I'm sorry," said Harry averting his eyes. I didn't know anyone was listening."
"You'll have to look at me to talk to me," said the blonde. "I wasn't listening. I was reading your lips. I can't hear."
Harry's head jerked up. "If you can't hear, how is it you speak so well?" The words were out of his mouth before he had considered their impact and he was immediately embarrassed.
"I lost my hearing several years ago. An accident. But I still remember how to speak. It's forced me to develop new talents. Now what was that about, talking yourself out of going berserk or something?"
The girl's words carried no hint of self-pity, nor were they accusatory. Harry felt horrified at his own insensitivity. He mumbled a reply.
"Please look at me," she said.
Harry suddenly realized how out of practice he was in talking to anyone except his school friends. He had never had a single friend outside of Hogwarts. He lifted his gaze to the girl's face and tried again, "My cousin Dudley Dursley brought me here. This is my first time and I'm a bit out of my element. My name is Harry Potter, by the way."
"Oh I know Lee. I saw you come in with him and Hesper. He's come a long way. We had to beat some bad habits out of him, but now he's teaching the ickle kids class. I'm V. I've been coming to the Centre for about three years. Can I show you around?" she asked with a mischievous smile.
"That would be great," stammered Harry.
"What? You have to look me in the face or use sign language if I'm going to understand you," she said.
Harry realized he had been gazing around the building and had looked away. "Sorry he said. "This is new to me. You may have to keep reminding me."
"That's normal. I don't mind." As V talked she had crossed to where Harry stood. "This is the Marshalled Arts Centred," she said, extending her arms and pirouetting. Then she laughed, "How was your tour?"
"All encompassing, but not very informative," said Harry.
"You know, that's one thing I do miss about hearing a voice," said V. "I can read the words but I have to guess at the inflection. It could have been humorous, or sarcastic, or honest, or condescending. I can't tell. The words all look the same."
Harry felt his face flush. "How can someone I just met do that to me?" he wondered. "I have to admit I said it sarcastically. Please forgive me. I do want to know what goes on here."
"Your apology is accepted," said V with no hint of offense, and she continued, "There are classes all day. Some are for seniors. Some are for people who can only get away on lunch breaks. We have children's classes and teen classes. Anyone is welcome. Anytime."
"What about bullies?" asked Harry, glancing at Dudley stretching on the mat.
"Bullies don't last long here. We teach more than physical prowess. If someone gets out of line they spend more time with the suits," she said.
"The what?" asked Harry, wondering if he had heard correctly.
"Don't worry. You seem like a bloke who'll learn quickly. Maybe the suits won't bear down so hard on you." She laughed and changed the subject. "What do you think of our motivational motif?" she asked, pointing to large words painted in brightly coloured block letters on the walls.
Harry took in the words...Honest, True, Chaste, Benevolent, Virtuous, Do Good to All, Hope All, Believe All, Endure All, Virtuous, Lovely, Good Report, Praiseworthy, Seek...
"That's quite a credo," exclaimed Harry.
"It's the suits. That's what they beat into you. Anyone can master the techniques we teach. It's this "inside thing" that makes all the rest worthwhile. You have to be right on the inside before you can ever enjoy what's on the outside. Now, as much as I'd like to stand here and watch you talk, I have a class to teach."
"Great! That's what my cousin brought me here to experience," said Harry. "He claims the Centre changed his life. I'm skeptical. I've known him too long."
"Stick around and see Harry Potter," said V, definite challenge in her voice. She turned and put a bare foot on the practice mat. In a five-step run, she had gained speed enough to perform a full-twist back flip, no hands. She landed facing Harry smiling.
He watched enthralled as she strode confidently to the front of a milling group and blew a whistle. "Good afternoon," she said sweetly. "Before we begin, how many are here for the first time?"
Three of the twenty-odd raised their hands.
"That's wonderful. Would you please introduce yourselves?" The three did so. "I happen to know that we have one more first-timer. Harry please introduce yourself.
Harry was surprised at how self-conscious he was to say his name. "Potter," he finally managed to say, "Harry Potter."
The class murmured a greeting similar to that given to the other new students.
"It's nice to be introduced by name and not have commotion follow," thought Harry as he made his way to an empty spot on the practice floor.
"We'll begin by stretching to warm up our muscle groups," said V. She led them through as ten-minute warm-up routine. Harry saw that most of the "regulars" were unaffected by the warm-up, whereas the three first time participants, and a few others, had a struggle with some of the stretches. He kept up well, feeling similar to his preparations before battling Capricio.
At the end of the warm-up, V divided the group into pairs. Harry was partnered with the fit young man in the blaze orange he had seen outside the Centre. V took the only un-partnered person; a grey-haired fellow to the front of the group.
"We begin with basic defensive moves," she informed the group. She mannequined her partner into a defensive stance and staged a slow-motion attack by knife. Her partner blocked the attack, twisted and parried with a preemptive strike against V's elbow.
"That's what it looks like in slow motion," said V. She picked up a rubber knife from a nearby table. "When you are attacked, it looks more like this..." She gave no further warning. She attacked her partner with blinding speed. He, to Harry's surprise, parried each knife thrust with equal quickness. She twisted and turned, varying her attack. Each time the older man blocked the attack, but he was never able to land a disabling counter. After a minute of the demonstration, she blew a whistle to call a halt.
"Now some of you newer students will be thinking that Elmer here is a plant, someone well trained and able. You may possibly be thinking he is a long time student and that you could never do what he just did." She turned to her partner. "Elmer, how long have you been coming to the Centre?"
"An hour a day for a little over two months," he responded, smiling back at V.
"Why did you come to this class in the first place?" questioned V.
"I live in a tough neighborhood. I was afraid to go to the corner market. I wanted to feel more secure," he said, never taking his gaze from V's face.
"Have you ever had to use what you've learned here?" she asked.
""Not what I've learned from you," responded Elmer a little red-faced. "But I have used what I learned from the suits. I've actually gotten to know many of the people in my neighborhood. People, who until I started learning here, were strangers. People who feared me as much as I feared them. Now we've formed into groups to help each other. My neighborhood has changed."
"That's the way we would like to see it turn out for each of you," V said as she surveyed the group. "Learn the skills, feel comfortable in your abilities, but never have to use them."
Having proved her point, V went on to break down defensive moves into an almost choreographed dance. Each move blended into the next. No motion was wasted. Each action was designed to disarm or evade.
"It's like cursive writing," thought Harry. "Any letter, any move in this case, can be joined to another. You could start or end with any of the moves she has shown."
She walked through the group and practiced with each person, giving hint and advice. Harry watched and listened intently to the instruction given to each participant. Lastly she came to Harry and his partner. She took his partner first. It was immediately obvious to Harry that his partner Rhys, as he had introduced himself, had been sandbagging. His speed and agility nearly equaled V's.
She offered a few pointers and turned to Harry. He saw the smile slip from her face a fraction of a second before she attacked. He blocked the first blow and tried to step away. She danced in like a flicker of light and attacked again. Harry blocked feet and elbows, joining basic moves he had just learned, but after each successful defence, she was back.
As the blows became more strident, a terrible thought dawned on Harry, "What if this is the method the Death Eaters have decided to use to kill me? I am reluctant to use magic against a muggle. I can't afford to call Capricio. Is this the end?"
His own question pushed him into action. He no longer took V as an instructor. He viewed her as an enemy. His Quidditch-quick, snitch-snatching reflexes took over. He began to add elements of offence to his defence. The mat became slippery with copious drops of their sweat. Harry drove all else from his mind. His focus came full to V. He blocked out thoughts of calling Capricio from the bag several paces away. He subdued Slytherin's demanding insistence to use magic. Each heartbeat became about a block, each breath, survival. As he arched his body to avoid a callused heel, a whistle sounded.
V stepped away from Harry smiling. The whistle was between her lips. "That's the class for today. Elmer will lead you through a cool-down regime. You have all done very well today. Thank you."
She turned away from the group and motioned for Harry to follow. "Very good Harry Potter," she said. "I had to test you. We get some wise-elbows in here. They come to embarrass the instructors. We sort them out quickly. Are you a wise-elbow, Harry Potter?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Harry stunned. "I was invited here by Dudley. I've not come to embarrass anyone."
"I was hoping that would be the case," said V. "Lee said you were quick. The incident at the desk with the pencils...that was staged. The smiley face was so I could recognize you. Lee said he was going to try to bring you. I had to assume that you were either strong, dangerous, quick, or a crybaby to have lived with the "old" Lee very long. I see you are quick and strong. You've proved you're not a crybaby. Are you dangerous, Harry Potter?"
She leaned conspiratorially close and whispered, "Lee told us you attend a special school...
Harry's heart did a little leap in his chest at the thought, "Surely Dudley wouldn't have been so foolish as to tell muggles about Hogwarts!"
"...Saint Brutus's Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys."
Harry relaxed a degree.
"We don't want to teach you anything here that would make the situation there more dangerous. I hope you can see my point. I need to know right now what you intend to do with any skills you might learn here." She searched his face appraisingly.
"Defence," he responded simply. "I teach a group at my school. The Defence Association we call ourselves. We are committed to protecting each other and to..." Harry paused, measuring his words, "...defeating evil."
"That's a plateful," said V. "The suits tell us that we were all created with an infinite capacity to do good. Be careful what you call evil. I've seen some mighty changes in people. Lee is just one example."
"That still remains to be seen," said Harry glancing at Dudley. "But I do know the difference between cruel and evil."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said V. "The lessons involved in that learning process can't have been pleasant."
"They weren't, and I'm still learning," said Harry. "I understand you do not want to give tools to someone who might misuse them. If it makes you feel any better, let me learn just defence. If you find you can trust me, we can discuss instruction in offence."
"What you just showed in class; your speed and agility, you can't honestly tell me that there hasn't been a significant amount of practice behind it." V said, definite challenge in her voice.
"I've had loads of time for practice," said Harry quietly. He thought of the hours of Quidditch practice, work in the Chamber, and the Room of Requirement.
"Saint Brutus's gives you plenty of time to think; only one brutal sport, few friends, demanding instructors, immediate punishment for rule breaking, all-in-all a tough place." Harry allowed an inward smile at the veiled assessment of Hogwarts.
"Remind me never to go there," said V shaking her head. Then brightening she said, "If you decide to continue to participate while you are on holiday, look me up. I'd be glad to teach you the hands-on skills personally; the suits still get their own time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have other responsibilities." She turned and headed for a staff office.
Harry stood pink-faced. V's offer to teach him personally had affected him more than he was ready to admit. He watched her cross the room. She stopped momentarily and talked with Dudley and Hesper and then disappeared from view.
As Harry stood and pondered V's meaning Dudley and Hesper walked over to him.
"What do you think?" asked Hesper.
"The training was good. I'm not sure how to take V, and what's this I keep hearing about the suits?" asked Harry.
"Good timing," said Dudley motioning toward the Centre's entrance. "A class will be beginning shortly. They've just arrived."
Harry turned and saw two nondescript young men in dark suits come through the front door. He watched as they were greeted enthusiastically by the receptionist and passed on into the gymnasium. Shouts of greeting assailed them as soon as they were noticed. People not directly involved in practice sessions stopped what they were doing and waved. The two smiled warmly at everyone as they made their way through a door marked "Conference Room."
Beyond the open door Harry could see bright white walls and rows of chairs. "They teach in a classroom?" he asked incredulously. "I thought they would instruct on the mats!"
"The instruction inside that room is more demanding by far than anything that goes on out here," said Dudley. "I don't want to prejudice you. Take a one-hour class and see what you think."
"I'm doubtful that a classroom experience can match the demands of physical training, but you've been square with me so far. And, after all, I've got nothing but time," said Harry as he wiped his face with a towel Dudley had offered him.
"We'd better hurry then," said Hesper. "Their classes fill rapidly." She grabbed Dudley by the hand and hurried toward the classroom.
Harry saw that she hadn't been exaggerating. A throng of people had queued at the door. The trio joined the line, and true to Hesper's word, succeeded in acquiring the last three seats available.
The two young men had taken off heavy packs and had written several questions on a chalkboard at the front of the room.
Harry glanced at the questions and assumed they were a method of getting the class comfortable with each other. The list began...Who are you?
With no fanfare, the two young men introduced themselves. Harry was surprised that they had the same first name; a name shared with V's first practice partner.
One young man sat down while the other stood at the head of the class. "Who are you?" he asked without turning to the chalkboard.
Harry squirmed a bit as there was no response from the group. The question hung in the air. Finally, deafened by the silence, Harry raised his hand.
The young man nodded to Harry, and in an inquiring tone, asked, "Yes?"
"My name is Potter, Harry Potter."
"That's a start," said the young man. "But is that really who you are?"
"Here we go again, questions about who I am and why I'm here," thought Harry.
"I'm glad to meet you," said the suit. (Harry realized he had already began to apply the moniker) "Are you more a Harry, or a Potter?" Does either name fully tell who you are? How about together, do the names work together to identify you?"
Once again silence reigned. Harry didn't answer this time. He let the silence sheet his mind as he pondered the question. He discovered he couldn't answer whether he was more of a Harry or a Potter. He came to the conclusion that neither name fully described who he was.
"There is a sheet of paper and a pencil at each desk. You have five minutes to make a list of words that describe who you are. Be creative. The lists won't be read aloud." The suit sat down.
Harry looked at the blank piece of paper on the desk. He picked up the pencil and wrote...Gryffindor. He considered the meaning behind the word. He added seeker. After more pondering he added friend...then trusting...and immediately next to it, distrustful.
"How can I be both?" Harry wondered inwardly. "But I see it's true."
"Time's up," said the suit, bringing Harry from his contemplations.
Harry couldn't believe it had been five minutes. He had only five words on his page and many questions in his mind.
"Surprised?" asked the young man. "Some of you have extensive lists. I saw you writing as fast as you could write. Some of you have only a precious few words, some only one. Look at your list. Do the words tell who you are? If not, I ask again, who are you?"
Harry had an uncomfortable feeling clench the pit of his stomach. "Is this going to be some mystic, get-to-know-yourself prattle?" he wondered.
The second young man took the front as the first sat down. "If my list and your list were exactly the same, would we be the same?" He let the question hang for a moment. "If we were twins, would our lists be exactly the same?"
Harry thought of Parvati and Padma Patil; identical twins, but very different individuals.
A teenage boy raised his hand. With the suit's nod, he answered, "Even if we had the same list, even if we grew up together, we would be different. Even sitting here in this class we would see things differently because we sit at different desks. Our perspectives would be different.
"Francois DePais would appreciate that remark," thought Harry with an inward smile.
"Right you are," said the second suit enthusiastically. "So, if a name doesn't adequately tell who you are; if you are more than descriptive words, if you are infinitely different from everyone around you...I ask again, who are you?"
Harry glanced around the room. A great deal of introspection was obvious. "I have to admit," thought Harry, "I haven't considered this before. Let's see where it goes."
Suit one interrupted his thoughts, "So we are different. That's probably no revelation to any of you. How are we exactly alike?"
"We have to breathe," offer one. "We all have to eat and drink," said another. "We all have a mother and a father," added a third. "Speak for yourself!" berated a voice from the back of the room.
"Let's start there," said suit one. "List how every one of us is exactly, and I mean exactly, the same. You have another five minutes."
At the end of the allotted time, the papers were collected and shuffled. The responses were read and discussed. By the end of the hour, Harry was fully drawn into the discussion. He knew the people in the group by name, and many by opinion. As each similarity was expounded, he found he had more in common with these strangers, these muggles, than he would have believed. He felt a desire to get to know them better.
"That's it for today," said suit one. Groans indicating dissatisfaction with the session's end sounded through the room.
"Nothing says you can't spend more time together. Get to know each other. We just have to go. We have an another appointment to keep."
Amid wishes of farewell, the two gathered packs and departed.
"When is the next class?" asked a woman of the group member she had chided to "speak for yourself."
Harry found himself anxious for the answer. "I can't believe that we are becoming a cohesive group," he thought. "I used similar methods to gel the D.A. What is the goal here?" He looked at the chalkboard and found that only one question of the original four had been touched upon, and that only lightly.
"What do you think?" asked Dudley from behind Harry.
"It was interesting enough," answered Harry. "I have to admit to curiosity. I would like to stay involved. Thanks for inviting me. I've had to ask myself some hard questions."
"Do you want to stay for another physical training session?" asked Dudley.
"Can I? I assumed that I would only be able to attend the one class," said Harry.
"I talked with V after your class," said Dudley. "She said you mastered the basics quickly. If we work with you just a bit, you can participate in the intermediate class."
"Thanks," said Harry. "But first I need to slip off to the bathroom.
Dudley pointed him and went back to the practice mats with Hesper.
Harry looked out the large glass windows that fronted the building as he picked up the bag holding Capricio, and headed across the gymnasium. Outside he saw a huge, rough-looking teenage boy pulling Rhys' bright orange bicycle from the rack.
Harry sprinted to the front door. "Penni, Get Rhys!" he yelled, "someone is trying to nick his bike!"
As soon as he hit the street, he yelled at the teenager, "Oi! You! Hands off! That's not your bike!"
The boy turned and smiled a death's-head smile. "Get out of it if you know what's good for you." He swung his leg over the bike and settled in the seat.
Harry didn't slow down. In less than a second he was next to the bike. "Get off. That belongs to a friend," he said flatly.
"How do you know that I'm not his friend too?" questioned the boy.
Realizing it was a valid question, Harry asked, "What's his name?"
"Same as yours..." said the boy drawing a knife from his back pocket, "...dead, if you don't shove off."
Harry didn't hesitate. He spun and drove the heel of his right foot into the boy's wrist. The knife clattered to the sidewalk just as Rhys came rushing from the building.
"Let him have it Harry!" shouted Rhys.
Harry drew back for another kick as Rhys skidded to a stop beside him.
"No Harry! I meant let him have the bike," said Rhys stepping between Harry and the boy. The boy looked stunned. Leaving his knife on the ground, he pushed hard on the pedals and rocketed away.
"You can't just let him go," said Harry in exasperation.
"He must need the bike more than I do," responded Rhys calmly. "He may need the transportation."
"What if he's just going to sell it for the money?" asked Harry argumentatively.
"Well, in that case, I'd say he was in desperate need of money," answered Rhys. "The bike means nothing in comparison to the boy; nothing in comparison to you."
Harry was stunned by the words. "You only just met me. How can I be important to you?"
"We are all in this life together," said Rhys. "We can make it infinitely harder, or infinitely easier on each other. The choice is ours. I chose the person over the bike. Never become so attached to a thing that it becomes more important than a person. Spend a little more time with the suits and you'll see what I mean."
Rhys picked up the knife and looked at Harry. "I couldn't have lived with the thought of a person getting hurt; or worse, for a thing of such little importance as a bicycle."
"What about what we're learning in there?" asked Harry, thumbing at the Centre.
"The only time I would use what I know is if someone gave me absolutely no chance to walk away, or because others are threatened," said Rhys. He paused contemplating his words. "It actually takes more control to avoid a conflict than it does to fight. In a matter of seconds, I can take away what I can never give back. I can take away the ability to walk, or see, or even breathe. Be careful about taking away what you can't restore. Skill is a tremendous responsibility."
Harry watched dumbfounded as Rhys turned and walked back to the Centre. He dropped the boy's knife in a rubbish bin, and without a backward glance, disappeared inside the Centre.
Harry stood for a moment in the misty afternoon sunlight and considered what had just happened. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it," he said to Capricio. "Rhys, at least, has found a balance between might and right."
Capricio squirmed in the bag against Harry's leg. "I know I've ignored you for too long. Let's go."
Capricio settled and Harry walked back inside. He made his way to the bathroom, and after assuring they were alone, he settled in a stall and took the dragon from the bag. He fed Capricio in silence as he mulled the lessons of the last several hours. When the dragon had eaten his fill, Harry put him back in the bag and headed back to the practice floor.
"I've always aimed at becoming a match for Voldemort," said Harry to the hidden wyvern. "There will be no room for backing away when I finally meet him. Still, I can see the advantage of learning to centre myself. Let's go on with this, shall we?"
He was met by V as he entered the gymnasium. "Still talking to yourself I see," she chided. "I saw what happened outside and turned my class over to an assistant. I'm truly glad that everyone made it out in one piece. I've seen similar situations end rather badly."
For some reason, Harry found that V's words chafed, where Rhys' words had not. "I can watch out for myself," he responded a little too vehemently.
"You can never tell when someone is ready to do a vile thing. You can never tell when they might have a friend in the shadows. You can never tell if another has greater skills, or quicker reflexes, or a more powerful weapon. You can never tell if someone is acting out of ultimate frustration or rage, or if their mind is unbalanced, or shrouded by chemicals. Walk away and you may save two lives."
V put her hand on Harry's shoulder and turned him to the practice mats. "I'll leave my class to my assistant. Let's work on your physical skills. The suits will help you with the esoteric philosophy."
She called Dudley and Hesper over and formed a loose sparing group. As the three instructors taught Harry more defensive moves, he became better and better at integrating the individual actions into a cohesive defensive strategy.
By the time Harry saw the light was dimming outside, he was thoroughly exhausted. He had spent a total of over eight hours on the mat. He felt as if he had been battling Capricio.
"The Centre is closing in a few minutes," said V. "I need to get cleaned up. I hope you can come back again Harry Potter." She smiled broadly and headed for the showers.
Harry felt an odd twisting in his stomach. The inflection in V's words and her smile had done something to him.
Dudley interrupted his mind swell. "If it's all right with you Harry, could we take Hesper home before we head back to Privet Drive?"
Harry was shocked again by the request in Dudley's words. He thought back through his entire life and could not recall his cousin using his name in such an intimate tone. It almost seemed as if Dudley liked him. The thought tested Harry's appraisal of his cousin.
"Yeah, that would be fine," Harry finally responded.
"Thanks," said Hesper. "Things are improving in my neighborhood. For a long time there has been a feeling of despair and pointlessness. The Centre seems to have a healing effect on the surrounding neighborhoods. I see progress every day."
Harry didn't know what she meant. "The Dementors are on the loose and can drain happiness from the muggles. If the Centre can counteract that influence, I want to see it," thought Harry.
As they pulled away from the Centre on their bikes, Harry fell in behind Dudley and Hesper; following at a distance that respected their privacy. He couldn't help but think there was more to Dudley and Hesper than friendship. Their quiet conversation, even their competitive jousting, spoke to a feeling of deep mutual comfort.
Under a streetlight, Harry could see a small crowd gathered. His immediate response was to prepare for trouble.
As they came nearer, Hesper hailed one of the group, "Wotcher, Winthrope?" she inquired as she stopped her bike next to him.
"We finally got the streetlight repaired," responded a middle-aged man covered in paint splatters. "Our neighborhood has banded together to paint over the graffiti," he said motioning to the long, high wall separating the tenements from the street. "We'll stay here tonight to let the gangs know we're serious about the change. We found out quickly that only one of us didn't make a difference. Like the suits said, we have to band together, to care about our neighbors, to make any real sustainable difference. We even found a job for Spike!"
"Well done," said Hesper, the admiration evident in her voice. "If you can get to Spike, maybe the others will follow."
"Follow or no, it doesn't matter. We'll help Spike," explained Winthrope.
Hesper bid the group good night and pushed her bike around the end of the newly painted wall.
Harry looked above the wall as he followed. The row of tenement houses cast a dismal sight in the waning light. They were blockish ancient constructions of reddish-brown brick that seemed to murmur hopelessness. Harry was stopped in his tracks as he turned his bike past the bend of the wall. In the front of each row house was a flower garden. The bright colors were highlighted by merrily glowing porch lights. There was not a speck of rubbish in sight. Bins were tightly lidded and set to the sides of the tenements. Some of the windows held children's drawings of trees, flowers, birds, and the like. Lighted from behind, they painted the well-tended front gardens a stained-glass landscape.
Harry surveyed the area as Dudley said good night to Hesper. It seemed to him that the crepuscular rays of the setting sun shone more brightly on Hesper's neighborhood than the surrounding buildings.
At length, Dudley rejoined Harry, "Home then?" he queried.
"I suppose," said Harry, still unsure of the change in his cousin's behavior.
The pair cycled silently through neighborhoods not nearly as well tended as Hesper's. They rounded a corner and ran smack into a group of teenage boys smoking next to a derelict bus stop.
A tall, thin, angular boy stepped out and blocked their path. "Big D," he said with a sneer in his voice. "Or should I say Hesper's lap-dog?"
The other boys laughed. Harry was tensing for the coming confrontation when he put the voice and face with a name. It was Piers Polkiss, Dudley's erstwhile best friend doing the taunting.
"Nice to see you Piers," responded Dudley mildly, taking no notice of the slur.
"Think by playing nice, you'll get by us, do you?" asked Piers aggressively.
"I thought for old-time sake you might let us pass," said Dudley.
"Well then you thought wrong," shouted Piers, getting right into Dudley's face.
Harry was astounded. "Dudley could break Piers in half. What's going on now?"
"Give us a quid and we might step out of the way," said Piers menacingly. The other boys had formed a tight circle around Harry and Dudley, giving them almost no room to maneuver.
Dudley looked at Piers for a full thirty seconds before he put his hand in the pocket of his jersey. When he withdrew it, he held out a five-pound note to Piers.
Piers laughed scornfully. "You've become such a nancy-boy since you saw the bottom of that bird's foot. I can't believe it." He snatched the bill and stepped aside. "Don't come back this way. We own this street, next time it'll cost you a tenner."
Harry saw the muscles tighten in his cousin's back and shoulders, but instead of striking Piers, Dudley pushed down on his pedal, propelling his bike away from the gang of teenagers.
From behind, Harry saw Piers stoop down and pick up a large cobble stone from the gutter.
As Piers hauled back to let fly, Harry acted. Rhys' words about taking away what you couldn't give back echoed in Harry's mind as he struck the large muscle in Pier's shoulder. The rock clattered to the sidewalk as Piers grunted in pain. Harry pushed his bike away as two boys came at him with knives drawn, a third produced a cricket bat. The flurry of motion was over before Dudley could bring his bike to a halt and get back to Harry. Five boys were on the ground nursing various injuries. Three backed away, eyeing Harry cautiously.
"Harry you shouldn't have," said Dudley. Then with a trace of a smile he said, "I guess it's a hard place, that. I mean Saint Brutus' Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys."
"Yeah, it's a hard place," said Harry picking up his bicycle from the sidewalk.
The three standing boys turned tail and ran. Dudley stooped over Piers. "Would you like me to call an ambulance?" he asked.
Dudley stood looking down at Piers. The old fear of Dudley seemed to return to Piers' eyes. "I'm fine," he said through gritted teeth.
"Glad to hear it," said Dudley. "Sometimes Harry doesn't show restraint. Come by and see me at the Centre Monday. I'd like to talk."
"Not bloody likely," muttered Piers.
"Well if you change your mind, I'll be there the entire day," said Dudley.
Harry could hear the honesty in Dudley's invitation, and the tone surprised him after the last few minute's activity.
Dudley pulled Piers to his feet. Piers rubbed his shoulder where Harry had struck him. Dudley retrieved the two knives and the bat. "You don't mind if I keep these safe for a while, do you?"
No one voiced opposition.
"Good. See you chaps about," said Dudley, as he swung his leg over his bike and pushed off. Harry joined him and soon they were around a corner and out of earshot of Piers and his gang.
"You really shouldn't have done that Harry," chided Dudley. "What if someone had gotten really hurt?"
"Piers might argue about the "really hurt" part, but he was about to clobber you with a rock," said Harry in explanation.
"He's a poor shot," said Dudley and he laughed.
Harry couldn't help it. He laughed too.
"Laughter," thought Harry, "the very last thing I ever thought I would share with any of the Dursleys."
When they arrived at number four Privet Drive, they stowed their bikes in the back garden. As they entered the kitchen door, Dudley announced their arrival. No one acknowledged Dudley's greeting. Dudley surprised Harry by inviting him to share a meal. Harry agreed, and watched as Dudley prepared two sandwiches and a glass of juice apiece. Dudley offered both sandwiches to Harry for first choice.
"Let's take these up to my room," said Dudley. "I'd like to talk if you would."
"OK," said Harry with a bit of reservation. "But I would like to get some rest, before I face your continued training."
"No problem there, the Centre is closed on Sundays. Suit's choice. You'll get at least one day's rest," said Dudley as he made his way up to his room. Harry followed. Dudley remained standing until Harry was seated. They ate their meal in silence. Harry saved a good bit of his sandwich back for Capricio.
"I owe you an apology," said Dudley suddenly. "It seems so inadequate to say sorry. I've worked with kids that have been physically and emotionally abused. I finally recognized just what my parents and I have done to you. I recognized how I took advantage of my parent's enabling. I am trying to right many wrongs. I finally see that we are all connected by what we do. It will take years to make up for what I've done."
Harry was touched by the simple sincerity in Dudley's words and he had to consider his interactions with Dudley. Harry's mind was flooded with memories of teasing and tormenting Dudley.
"I'm also to blame in your past," admitted Harry. "I pushed you when you were afraid of what I might be able to do to you. I fed your fears. I capitalized on your insecurities. I'm sorry." He found he wasn't just saying words. He was actually sorry. His eyes were opened to what he had precipitated.
"I owe many others an apology," muttered Harry as he thought of what he had told V... "I know the difference between cruel and evil"... "I have been cruel on my own part. I need to think this through." Harry arose, gathered his bag and his dishes and made his way blindly to his room.
He fed Capricio and fell to bed. His dreams were saturated by memories of cruel acts, his as well as other's, and his anguish for those very deeds. After a fitful night, he awoke tired and drawn. Going to his trunk, he gathered some of Hagrid's prepared "dragon treats" and fed Capricio.
"We have an entire day to ourselves. Nothing to do. No schedules to meet," said Harry.
In response, Capricio ate his meal and upon returning to the gym bag, settled to sleep.
"I wish I could do that; store up sleep for when I need it," chided Harry, but the dragon was already asleep.
Harry spent the day, reading, planning, and writing. He considered the suits' training. He spent time reading his past plans from his "Grawp days" diaries. He took a considerable amount of thought pouring over what Dudley had said about an apology for past acts. At the end of the day, even though Harry felt physically refreshed, his heart was troubled by past wrongs. He fell to bed and a fitful night's sleep.
When he awoke Monday morning, he felt focused with new purpose. As he fed Capricio, Harry realized that he had neither eaten nor been disturbed the entirety of Sunday. When he put Hagrid's treats back into his trunk, he inadvertently tipped over his worn haversack, spilling the contents across the bedroom floor. As he put the items away, he came across a grapefruit-sized lump of gold. He hefted the lump and estimated its weight at about seven or eight kilos. An idea, a seed of a plan, began to form in his head.
"In for a penny, in for a pound," he said to Capricio. "If I'm serious about making right the things I've done, I might as well start today.
He took a quick shower, put Capricio in the bag with some "treats" and headed downstairs for a talk with his aunt and uncle.
He walked in to the kitchen and found them seated eating breakfast. "Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon," said Harry with no preamble. "I've talked with Dudley, and I've been thinking. It can't have been easy on the two of you to have me here. I think of all the things you've had to put up with because of me, and I'm sorry. I'd like to make amends before I leave. You have fed me, clothed me, housed me, and protected me far beyond what you comprehend. Thank you."
Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon looked at Harry as if he had grown another head. Uncle Vernon spoke first. "I suppose you think a few words will smooth over fifteen years worth of trouble you've caused, do you boy?"
"No. I didn't think words would be adequate,' said Harry. "As I thought about how I could repay you for my life, for keeping me alive; I came up with a possible solution." He placed the lump of gold on the table.
"What's this codswallop?" asked Uncle Vernon, finding his voice.
"I know it must have been expensive to keep me under your roof. Not just emotionally, but financially also. This is pure gold, about one hundred eighty ounces. It's my way of saying thank you for your care." He rolled the gleaming yellow ball across the table to his uncle.
"You'll have to excuse us if we don't quite believe you," sneered Aunt Petunia.
"You've no reason to believe me. I accept that. I also accept the change in Dudley. I was skeptical at the off, but I'm growing more and more convinced he's on the level. The Centre has been good for him," said Harry.
"That Centre...that ruddy place...that excuse for..." stammered Uncle Vernon.
"Dudley isn't my little Dudders anymore," interrupted Aunt Petunia. "Just yesterday he stopped me as I was making a perfectly innocent comment about our neighbor's yard. He seemed to think we should give him the benefit of a doubt about what's going on. As if I would ever meddle in anyone else's affairs!"
Harry worked to maintain a passive look on his face as he considered Aunt Petunia's interest, bordering on mania, about gathering all the gossip she could about her neighbors.
The conversation was interrupted by Dudley coming lightly down the stairs.
"Can I fix you breakfast?" he asked brightly.
"See what I mean," growled Uncle Vernon. "Something is definitely off. Dudley doesn't cook!"
"I didn't, but Hesper taught me some basics. After all, it won't be long and I'll be out of the house and on my own. I have to be prepared," said Dudley as he took several containers from the refrigerator.
Aunt Petunia let out a little sob and ran from the kitchen.
"What was that about?" asked Harry in concern.
"She can't bear the thought of losing our only son," said Uncle Vernon through clenched teeth.
"I have to move on sooner or later," said Dudley.
"That's not what I mean," said Uncle Vernon still biting off his words. "She sees you changing and she can't stand it."
"The changes are for the better," responded Dudley quickly but mildly.
Harry sat in awe at the exchange. Other than tantrums, he had never seen evidence that Dudley had ever challenged his parents. Suddenly his thoughts were drawn back to Regulus Black's letter to his brother Sirius. Regulus had said he realized "too late" that his parent's dogma was skewed.
"It was too late for Regulus but it's not too late for Dudley," said Harry. Only then did he realize he had spoken his thought aloud.
Both Dudley and his Uncle stared at him.
Dudley found his voice first. "I don't think it's ever really too late for anyone. We can all change...if we are willing to confront ourselves."
"That prattle again," sneered Uncle Vernon. Then he turned on Harry. "We'll see how sincere you are boy!" he shouted as he snatched the golden ball from the table and dropped it heavily into his satchel. Without another word, he stormed from the room. The front door slammed and shortly thereafter, Uncle Vernon's car roared from the drive.
"They've had a hard time accepting my new credo," explained Dudley as he prepared an omelet for himself and Harry. "Some...well many, if the truth be told...of the things I now believe have been hard for mum and dad to accept. It has caused them to reassess their lives. It was hard for me. They are older, more set in their ways. I imagine it is much harder for them. If it makes you feel any better, they didn't accept my apology very well either."
Harry was stunned by his cousin's insight. The feeling was compounded by Dudley's next statement. "When we are done with breakfast, would you mind coming with me to visit our neighbor. They seem to be having a spot of trouble, as mum pointed out."
"The world is mad," blurted Harry. "The next thing you'll tell me is that Aunt Marge is adopting orphans!"
"No. That wouldn't be madness, it would be a miracle," said Dudley with a smile. "If it seems mum and dad are strained by my words and actions, just imagine what Aunt Marge says! But I'm taking it a step at a time. Mum and dad first, Aunt Marge when I'm much, much stronger.
Dudley laughed. Harry joined him.
After they had finished an enjoyable breakfast and cleaned up, they made their way next door to number three. Harry could see immediately what had annoyed his aunt. The neighbor's front garden was a shambles of uncut lawn and run-amok bushes. Dudley marched up the front walk and knocked soundly on the door.
After several minutes, the door opened slightly, still secured by a short safety chain.
"What do you want?" demanded a gruff voice.
"I'm Dudley Dursley and this is my cousin Harry. We're your next-door neighbors."
"What of it?" said the man behind the door as he cut off Dudley's introduction.
"I was just wondering if you could use some help around the yard," explained Dudley.
"I've got no money to pay some nosy neighbor kids," growled the man.
"You've got the wrong end of it," said Dudley. "We're not asking to be paid. We just want to help."
The door slammed shut. Harry could hear the safety chain rattle, and the door inched open.
"I know you," said the old man as he squinted in the sunlight. "I've watched you grow up. You never struck me as the helping type. What's your angle?"
"I'm not angling for anything. I just have a bit of time and I thought you might need the help." Dudley waited.
The old man eyed Dudley and then turned his gaze on Harry. "You're the dangerous hooligan everyone say to steer clear of. You're probably looking for a way to rob me. Well I've got news for you boy, I've nothing to steal!"
Harry was stung by the injustice of the remark. He knew the Dursleys had painted him a ne'er-do-well, and the neighbors full-on believed it. Mastering his urge to shout the truth, Harry looked away.
"I'll take full responsibility for my cousin," said Dudley.
"I've no comfort in that thought," said the old man brusquely.
"We'll stay in the garden. We can help with the lawn and the shrubs. We aren't asking for money, really. We would just like to help." Once again Dudley waited for the old man's response.
"My tools are old. They're in a shed out back. My powered mower hasn't operated in years. If you are on the level, you'll have to work by hand," said the man in a tentative acceptance of Dudley's offer.
"Harry is good at fixing things," offered Dudley. "He could look at the power mower. Maybe he could fix it."
"No loss to me if he doesn't," said the old man, and he slammed the door behind him; leaving Dudley and Harry to stare at each other.
"Well I guess we're on our own," said Dudley.
"What's this about me being good at fixing stuff?" asked Harry.
"I've watched over the years. I've actually been a bit jealous," confided Dudley. "You got my broken stuff as hand-me-downs. You never complained. You just fixed it so you could use it. I think that old alarm clock you fixed works better than my new one."
Harry had repaired many of Dudley's cast-offs, but he never knew his cousin had noticed. He smiled. "Let's go get the tools. I'll take a look at the power mower. If it's already broken, I can't make it worse."
A plan in mind, the two went to the back garden and found the shed. The old man had been correct. The tools were ancient. Harry pulled the mower from a dusty pile. One wheel wobbled and then fell off. Dudley found some rusty secateurs and an old hoe.
"I'll start in the front. You see if you can get the power mower going. That would speed things up," said Dudley.
Harry agreed and Dudley left for the front garden. Harry moved as far away from the Dursley's house as the neighbor's yard would allow. "No use in upsetting Aunt Petunia any more than I already have by making a racket with this old mower," said Harry to Capricio.
He reattached the errant wheel and worked the cable controls. They were completely jammed by rust and dirt. He checked the fuel tank and found it bone-dry. He went back and rummaged through the shed. "Success!" he said as he returned with an oilcan and a petrol can sloshing with fuel. He oiled the controls and exercised them until they worked relatively smoothly. He filled the fuel tank and said, "Here goes nothing!" to the hidden dragon.
The first pull of the starting rope produced volumes of blue smoke. On the second pull, the rope was ripped from Harry's hand and back into the mower. Bracing himself for the third attempt, Harry pulled with all his might. The engine coughed, sputtered, and then roared to life. Unrestrained, the mower took off, gaining speed as it went. It struck a footpath, bounded into the air, and zoomed straight at Harry. He ran for his life. The mower was going full-tilt and it seemed to Harry that every time he veered out of the mower's path, the mower struck a hole or tuft of grass and came straight back after him. Almost like a sheepdog hazing its flock, the mower seemed to be herding Harry toward the fence. Very quickly, he found himself trapped in a corner where the back and side fences converged.
Harry was on the brink of using magic when Dudley pelted around the corner of the house. He sized up the situation and headed for the errant mower. He grabbed the handle the instant before Harry would have had to use magic. Dudley reached for the controls, but before he could manipulate anything, the engine dropped to an idle and the drive disengaged.
"That was close," said Dudley still panting from his sprint.
"Yeah it was," agreed Harry. "Controls must have been stuck from disuse." But even as he offered the explanation, he couldn't help but think that the mower had actually chased him.
"Bring it around front and we'll try it again," said Dudley. "I'm almost finished with the hedges.
Harry complied but as he did he looked for traces of magic. He found none, but when he asked Capricio, the dragon growled threateningly. He searched the shadows, every nook and cranny, but found nothing he could blame for the mower's erratic behavior. He finally put away his suspicions. "Can't prove what I can't see," he said to the dragon.
When he walked into the front garden he was thoroughly surprised. Instead of cutting the hedges straight like the others on Privet Drive; Dudley had used the patchily growing furze to make a rolling border that almost teased the eye into believed motion.
"Wow!" exclaimed Harry. "I didn't know you had topiary skills!"
"First time," said Dudley. "Really the only way I could see to hide the fact that there is no hedge in places. It just seemed right. I'm about finished here. Why don't you brave the power mower and we'll see if it will cut this pasture."
Harry ran the controls to their low stops and then, reluctantly pulled the starting rope. The engine fired immediately and ticked over merrily.
"See you've got it," shouted Dudley over the roar of the motor.
Harry made several passes, chewing up the clumps of grass into a more uniform lawn. It seemed to Harry that the farther he got from Dudley the more recalcitrant was the mower's behavior. Finally, to avoid the struggle, Harry stayed near Dudley, mowing only as Dudley moved on to detail spots on the hedge. When the front garden was finished, they repeated the process in the back garden. The instant the mowing was completed; Harry cut the engine and replaced the mower in the shed. Dudley and Harry finished by raking the clippings and securing them in a metal bin next to the shed.
"Ready to go to the Centre?" asked Dudley.
"What about the old man? Aren't you going to say anything to him?" asked Harry.
"No," said Dudley; looking at the yard they had just finished. "He knows where we live. I'll check in on him tomorrow." Dudley slapped Harry on the back. "Let's go see what punishing plan V has in store for us today."
Harry felt odd in the personal connection he was forming with Dudley after so many years of animosity and indifference. "Maybe it was the commonality of the work. Maybe it was completing something together. Maybe it's just remembering working in the outdoors with Grawp. Maybe it was the slap on the back. I don't know what it is, but something just changed," thought Harry with a bit of a smile.