Their morning deed put Harry and Dudley at the Centre just as it was about to open. A small group was standing around the two suits, asking questions and exchanging ideas. After their bikes were racked, Harry and Dudley hurried over to listen to the conversation with the suits.
"...seems like such a long time to me. I can't get my mind around the concept." said a middle-aged woman in glasses.
"It may seem so, but how long will it take for you to reach all your goals?" asked one of the suits.
"I see what you mean," said another. "Even though it may take a long time, working toward the end result will be worth it."
"Exactly," said the suit. "When you take the long view, you realize that direction is more important than speed. Take the time necessary to do the thing right."
The sound of Penni unlocking the Centre's front door obscured the conversation as the group moved forward. Harry was pulled in by the crowd and only caught snatches of questions and answers from those around the suits.
Harry stopped at the inner entrance. He could see V on one of the mats near the front windows. She was standing facing the windows, the sunlight glinting off her gold coloured leotard and streaming through her hair. He glanced over to the classroom. The suits were setting up chairs for a morning class.
Harry made up his mind. He sprinted away from Dudley and over to V. She had her arms raised above her head, her palms together. "She looks like a golden candle," thought Harry as he came to a stop behind her. Suddenly V spun and struck out with her left foot. She stopped with the inside arch of her foot resting against Harry's right cheekbone.
"You couldn't hear me. How did you know I was here?" he asked as a slight shiver raced down his spine. He knew if she hadn't stopped the blow, he would have been sprawled on the floor.
"The light changed as you approached," she said. "It was reflected off you and I could see it. I've had to develop alternate methods of connecting to my surroundings since I lost my ability to hear."
Harry stood in awe. "Can you teach me?" he asked.
"I will make you my special pupil Harry Potter," she said with a smile. "There is more to you than you show the world. We may learn from each other."
"I have to ask you another favor," said Harry a bit red in the face. "I came over here to make sure it wasn't going to be a problem if I took a class from the suits while they are here. I didn't want you to take it as a slight against you."
"You'll not hurt my feelings learning what they have for you." She smiled and continued, "You'll be a better man for their lessons. Go." She nudged him away with the foot still held at his cheek.
He smiled back and then headed for the classroom. The previous class's questions still remained on the blackboard. There were slightly more than a dozen participants in the class. Harry looked around, and was pleased to see that he recognized all of them.
"Such a short time, and I already feel at home here," he mused.
Suit two started the class. "Hello," he said and went around the room greeting everyone by name.
"Impressive memory," thought Harry as the suit greeted him. Then he realized he too knew everyone in the room by first name. Saturday's discussions had formed new associations and the names had stuck.
"Since you were all here previously, we will proceed from where we left off. My companion and I have two hours this morning and one more this afternoon to devote to teaching here."
At the thought of hearing more than a smidgen of teaching Harry brightened.
"We will proceed from Who are you, to the second question; Where did you come from?"
The class spent the next hour discussing origins, putting away prejudices and stereotypes. Harry came to know some of the others very well from their shared comments. Some had harrowing tales of growing up in dangerous places. Others had lived lives of relative ease. Harry shared superficially; guarding how much information he gave about his true troubles. He shared the frustration of living with the Dursley's without mentioning them by name. Others commiserated with him, and in the process, Harry found hard feelings for his relatives softening.
At the end of an hour, the suits called for a break. Harry made to the bathroom and fed Capricio. When he came back, he looked for V. She was instructing a group of older men and women. Harry watched for a moment and saw that, like his D.A., the hidden talents of the group would surprise the unwary. Breaking his attention he headed back to the instruction room. He was disappointed to find all the seats taken.
He made his way to the front of the room and spoke privately with the suit. "Elmer, could I just stand in the back of the room and listen?" he asked.
The suit laughed, and Harry couldn't see the reason. His question had been serious and not intended to be amusing.
"Yes Harry," said the suit still chuckling. "You may stand in the back. If it gets to be a strain, you may sit on the floor. We're glad to have you here."
Harry made his way to the back of the room and stood in a corner. "I feel conspicuous towering above those seated," he thought. He slid down the wall and sat on the floor. "Now I don't feel like I'm part of the group. It's amazing what a small change in perspective does."
The suit to whom he had spoken started the class. "We have a lesson in our midst. I don't want to miss the opportunity to capitalize on it. Harry please stand up."
Self conscious, Harry stood up. The class turned as one to look at him.
"Harry wanted to be part of the class but had no seat," said the suit. "Harry would you please tell us what you have learned?"
Harry stammered. He wasn't sure where the suit was going with the question. He filled the gap with the first thing that came to his mind. "I could have just assumed my chance to participate in the class was unavailable because all the seats were filled. I guess I learned that asking a simple question may provide me with opportunities I might have missed otherwise."
"That's very good Harry," said the suit. "We often turn our backs on opportunities because we are reluctant to ask. Is there anything else you learned?"
Harry paused to think. "Yes, I found whether I was standing up or sitting on the floor, I didn't feel like I was part of this group. I was missing the equity of position."
"Excellent," exclaimed the suit. "That's a lesson that often eludes us. When we deal with others, we have to be on the same level. If we feel either superior or inferior, we cannot reach common ground. If you have the choice, always extend a hand and lift others up, and accept the proffered hand when it is extended to you by others."
The suit offered his pack to Harry. "You may sit on this."
Harry took the heavy pack and wedged it into the corner. It was solid. "Filled with books like Hermione's," Harry decided as he sat on it, his head now level with the others.
Murmurs of understanding rippled through the room. Harry smiled as he understood the impact of the lesson.
The second suit took over. "We've discussed Who are you, and Where did you come from. Now we will progress to Why are you here.
"Not this again," thought Harry. "It seems I am being perpetually asked why I'm someplace." He closed his eyes and prayed for patience.
The class members were honest and very open about their reason for attendance. Some admitted to curiosity. Others said they felt comfort or connection, not only with the group, but also with what they were learning. Harry echoed these sentiments. Questions about crossed-purposes were raised. Harry volunteered his method of focusing on a purpose, but being flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances or information.
"That's a good way to express it," commended the suit. "Be rigidly flexible. Never compromise what is essential, and never be so resolved as to exclude the opportunity to help others."
"Dudley is putting this to practice in his life!" realized Harry. "And it is changing him!"
The suit expanded the discussion to why individuals were in the circumstances they currently held. Harry came to see that his life with the Dursley's had not been as difficult as the lives some of his fellows had endured. In this small sampling, there had been knifings, and beatings, lost family members, and prison stints, and worse, things that some merely alluded to; not yet feeling able to share their pain.
"You will start to put the things we have discussed together to develop a more intricate appraisal of what makes you...well... you," said the suit. "We have to go now, but we will be back this afternoon to wrap up this thought class. See you then, if you can make it."
"Harry, my backpack please," asked the suit.
Harry handed the heavy pack to the suit with reluctance.
The suits left but no one else moved. Finally, a girl Harry knew as Mary, spoke up. "I don't want to leave the classroom."
"Why not?" asked a boy named Jiles.
"Two reasons really," answered Mary. "One, I don't want to run the risk of not getting a seat in the next class; and two, I feel safe here with you lot."
Appreciative voices affirmed Mary's assessment.
"We can face what's out there if we rely on each other," offered an older man who had insisted he be called by his surname, VanDyke.
"But what happens when we leave the Centre?" asked Jiles.
"We just have to start spreading this same optimism, this same feeling of single purpose, in our own neighborhoods," answered VanDyke.
"Like any of my neighbors would listen," argued a pregnant woman named Phyllis. "Most of them don't know me. Why would they care?"
"I didn't know you until a few hours ago," said a spike-haired teen calling himself Theo, "and I care."
"That's it really, isn't it," said Mary. "We have to be willing to take the time and the risk to get to know each other. We can't encase ourselves in a solitary world without suffering from lonliness and despair."
When Harry heard the word despair, he immediately thought of the Dementors. "They remove all hope and leave only despair. Dementors are invisible to muggles. This group has the key to fight what they can't even see! That's why Hesper's neighborhood is changing! The people are becoming friends and the Dementors can't break that bond of friendship. Voldemort's biggest weapon can be defeated!"
Harry had to fight to hold down his feeling of elation at the revelation of the moment.
"Thank you all for your willingness to let me in your lives and your thoughts," said Harry abruptly. "I feel as if we are now related in some way by sharing these experiences. I have been changed!"
Not knowing how to handle the emotions that were surging through his mind, Harry smiled at the group and left the room.
Once outside, he leaned against the wall. The sounds of clinking weights, treadmills, and practice classes were just so much noise as he contemplated what he had just experienced.
"I know that look," said a voice from very near.
"You are figuring out where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Aren't you?" V had stalked silently behind him, and stood smiling at his confusion. "Don't worry, it gets worse. When I finally figured out what the suits were driving at, my life changed. It had to if I was going to be honest with myself."
Harry didn't know what to say.
"You passed the test, Harry Potter. If you had come out of that class unaffected, your participation here would have been at an end. If someone is so closed off, as to not feel for others, after the suit's classes, it's too dangerous to keep teaching them. You will now temper any training with a memory that every other person you meet is important, has feelings, has goals, and has needs. You have changed. You will see the world differently."
V smiled again. "Tell you what. Let's chat for a bit." She led Harry to a contemplation mat near the front windows. She sat cross-legged in the sun and patted the mat across from her. "Sit!" she commanded.
"My life was a shambles when I found the Centre," began V. "My mum had kicked me and my younger brother out of the flat; I was eleven, Derek was eight. We lived on the street for several years. I tried to protect him and I got involved with things...things I'm not proud of...things that could have killed me. I did what I had to do so we could survive. I watched others bleed out their life's energy to gangs and drugs. I became hard and tough and self-contained. I never smiled because someone would take that as a weakness. If you showed weakness, you could die in your sleep. Harry, I've seen people devolve into animals as silent and as deadly as any beast that ever roamed the jungles. I've seen the light of feral survival in other's eyes. I've seen the strong take advantage of the weak in the most foul ways."
Her voice trailed off as she shuddered in a memory.
Harry was touched; not only by V's willingness to share something so private, but by the way she had used his name. It had been personal, concerned. He didn't speak. He let her master her memory.
"When Lee told me he was going to try and get you to attend the Centre, I saw between his words and guessed at what kind of life you must have endured. That may be why I feel a connection, a responsibility, for you. When I first saw you, I recognized that self-contained look of a guarded soul. I've been there. I know what it feels like to worry about tomorrow, or the next hour, or the next minute, or even the next breath." V paused. After a full minute she plunged on. "My little brother disappeared when he was three days short of his tenth birthday. We were living in the back of an abandoned building to stay out of the weather. I went out to try and find a bit of food for us. When I got back, he was gone. No one saw anything. No one heard anything. He was just gone. I never saw him again."
Silent tears were streaming from V's eyes. She ignored them. Harry reached out and touched V's hand.
"I failed my little brother."
Another long minute went by as V cried silently.
"When I first came to the Centre, I came in to get out of the cold. Most places kicked me out when they caught me hanging about, but not here. The people here accepted me. I figured I would learn what I could from them...stuff that would help me on the street. Then I met the suits. Different ones than we have now. They change all the time and yet they're always the same. I went to a class because they had biscuits that day and I was starving. They fed me more than biscuits. They touched what little bit of humanity I had left. Between the suits and the Centre, my life...my soul, was saved. Derek went missing over seven years ago and I have vowed to help anyone I see who is in dire straits. I always hold to the hope that I'll find him, that maybe someday he'll come wandering in here or I'll hear a whisper of him from a participant. So far no."
Harry tried to grasp what V had endured. Tried to comprehend someone, anyone, traveling the path she had trod and enduring it so well.
"I feel I've helped a few here. If I never find Derek, if I were to die now, I feel I have done the best I could with the time I've been given. I hope you understand." V sat for a moment longer. Then as if the sharing had never happened, she jumped to her feet.
"I'll offer you an escape from what you are feeling. Come spar with me. I promise you will only have space in your mind for one thought ...survival." She laughed a hearty laugh and dragged Harry to a mat.
"Now let's clean your mind for a while." She dropped low and swept her leg under Harry. He hit the mat hard but was up instantly.
"Try that again," he challenged with a smile.
They practiced for over two hours. V instructed Harry how to disarm assailants. How to incapacitate with the least damage. How to read situations for possible dangers. Long sequences of action/reaction followed each new skill. V pushed Harry to his breaking point. When they finally stopped, lunch was two hours past. Harry was soaked with sweat. He felt thoroughly spent. V excused herself to the bathroom.
Dudley came over and offered Harry a sandwich he had brought. "I didn't dare interrupt the session between you and V," said Dudley as he sat with Harry to eat. "I've seen some impressive skills demonstrated here, but I've never seen anything like that."
"Like what?" asked Harry as he slipped part of his sandwich into the athletic bag for Capricio.
"You were so focused you really don't know do you?" asked Dudley in amazement.
"Know what?" asked Harry curiously.
"The whole Centre came to a standstill as you two sparred. I've never seen anything like the speed you two have. I've always known that V was holding back. She adjusts her training level to that of her competition. She can spar with the youngest or the oldest and bring out the absolute best in each. She tests to the limit, but she never overwhelms with her skills. She could, but she doesn't. With you, I don't think she was holding back. There were times I couldn't see the blow or the block. It was too fast. I was ear-witness of the strike but that was all. You will have to learn her control, or no one will ever get on the mat with you."
Harry was stunned. "I know we were training hard, but I have very little to judge it against," he said. "and I do have a tendency to focus on what I'm doing."
"Harry, there's someone here to see you," interrupted Penni a bit hesitantly.
Harry turned and saw the teenager who had stolen Rhys' bike the day before.
"I've come to say sorry," said the young man, looking at the floor. "I've set back the bike I nicked. That's not what I fig'ered to do. I was hidin' out 'cross the street. I was going to jump ya and thump ya when ya left. But I watched as ya practiced in here and I realized you could 'uv actually killed me out there."
"It's fortunate," said Harry in a measured voice, "that Rhys has more training here than I do. He stopped what could have been a tragedy. He's the one you should apologize to. And he's the one we both should thank for his wisdom."
"How kin I show ya I mean what I say," the young man asked.
"That's easy!" boomed V as she returned to the floor. "We'll just have to adopt you. Come with me, I know Rhys will want to speak with you."
"OK," said the boy tentatively.
Before she led the boy away, V turned to Harry. "Only a few days here, Harry Potter, and you are already changing lives. Keep it up and we'll have to find a suit for you." V laughed. Harry flushed and smiled.
"Speaking of suits," said Dudley. "They're back."
"Harry you had better hurry if you want to join the class," encouraged Mary as she headed for the classroom.
"Go," said V, seeing Harry's glance from her to the room. "Go and make more of yourself than you are now. I'll be here waiting for you when you're done."
Harry thanked V and headed for the class.
He took one of the last seats and considered the participants. There were new members this time, people he hadn't met. "How's that going to affect the dynamics of what the suits are teaching?" wondered Harry. As he thought back on the previous classes, he saw that like V's defensive moves, they could be put in almost any order. One could miss a class and pick up later and not be terrifically handicapped.
Harry focused as the suit began speaking. "We will start the discussion with the question...Where are you going? Contemplate your goals; are they self-imposed or from an outside source? Will your goals, if met, benefit you or others? What do you want to accomplish, and who do you want to be, when you have accomplished the goal?"
"The last thing these muggles want to know is what my goal is!" was Harry's first thought. His second thought pinched his conscience, "What right do I have to label them? I know these people. I know their problems. I know where they come from. I'm bang out of line, and I know better."
The discussion was heady. Each person shared dreams and hopes. The suits encouraged every participant. Some found common goals. Others offered help to those striving to accomplish what they themselves had already done.
Harry thought he was being milquetoast when he stated his goal was to learn to get along with his aunt and uncle, but he found encouragement and support from the others. Enough so, that he determined he would make a difference in the few remaining days he had with the Dursleys.
As the final minutes of the class ticked down, suit one called a halt to the discussions and went to the board. "Words have power," he said. He erased the word "you" in each of the questions on the board and replaced it with the pronoun "I", then he changed the verb tense to agree. Who are you, became Who am I. Where did you come from, became Where did I come from. Why are you here, became Why am I here. And Where are you going, became Where am I going.
"I may seem simplistic," said suit two, "but that is what this life is really about. When you can answer these questions; you will hold the secret in your hand. You have to make it personal. You have to put the "I" in it. Once it's yours, only you can take it away. I know that seems an odd statement, but if you want something, really want it...you have to go after it. No one can take away that desire, that drive, except you. You alone can take away what you don't have."
The class sat silently, contemplating what the suit had proposed. The two young men gathered their packs and were gone.
It was a full ten minutes before anyone moved, another five minutes before anyone spoke.
Finally the spike-haired Theo spoke, "Wow! We just learned the secret to the cosmos. Now what do we do?"
"There's more that they're not telling us," said VanDyke. "They want us to take the next step on our own. We have more to learn."
"How?" asked Mary. "I don't even know where to turn for those kinds of answers."
"Maybe, that's part of the answer. Finding out where to turn for answers," said Phillis.
"Blimey, I never thought I'd feel like this," said Jiles. "I've got to go think." He stood up and left the classroom. Silently others followed. Finally only Harry was left seated in the room.
He heard someone take the seat behind him but he didn't turn around.
"I understand what you are going through. I've been there. You feel like you've been asked to sit a test in a subject you've never studied." Dudley stood and put his hand on Harry's shoulder. "To me it felt like I was drowning and I needed something to hold on to. The answer, the help, is out there. Bear with it a bit more and it will all become clear."
Harry looked up at his cousin and realized that Dudley was centred. "I want what you have," said Harry in a choked voice. "Thanks for giving me a shot at this."
"I think this is enough for one day," said Dudley. "Let's go home."
Dudley steered Harry through the maze of people. In a fog of deep thought, Harry never really understood how he got back to Privet Drive.
Harry awoke fully clothed. He remembered neither how he got to bed, nor of the night's dreams, but he remembered full well the lessons of the previous day.
He tended to Capricio and found the dragon had eaten ever bit of food he had placed in the bag.
"Don't blame you mate," said Harry. "I more than ignored you yesterday. I'll try to do better today." He showered and stowed Capricio. When he came into the kitchen he was shocked by what he saw. Seated alone at the kitchen table was the gruff old man from number three.
"The world has gone mad," thought Harry.
"You're the other one," said the old man, pointing a bony finger at Harry. "Where's the big one?"
Just then Aunt Petunia came into the kitchen with Dudley. She eyed the man with considerable distaste. "Here he is. What's this all about?" she demanded, her bony arms folded across her chest.
"These two," said the old man, as he squinted his eye and waved his finger between Harry and Dudley, "These two came over to my house yesterday morning..."
Harry held his breath. "What did we do wrong?" he wondered.
"...they got my powered mower going tickety-boo, and without so much as a word, left after they had tended my yard. I wanted three things, four, really; first I wanted to meet the parents who raised such young men; second I wanted to say thank you and say that I'm sorry for the way I acted; third, I wanted to drop off this tin of biscuits my wife and I made; and fourth, I would like to ask if these two would take the bin from the side of my shed to the curb. I can't lift it."
Aunt Petunia melted. "My Dudders did that? He is always such a good boy." She smiled a honeyed smile at Dudley, pointedly avoiding Harry.
Harry and Dudley shared a knowing glance and smiled.
"I should have known you would be his mum," said the man. "When we moved in seven years ago, you was the only one who welcomed us. You brought a plate of biscuits, you did. I still remember. They was warm. Chocolate chip 'n coconut."
Harry knew one of Aunt Petunia's methods of spying on the neighbors was to take baked goods. Once inside the house, she would then examine everything within sight as the treats were taken to the kitchen.
Aunt Petunia shifted where she stood but said nothing.
"Thank you for the biscuits," said Dudley. "Harry and I would be glad to take your bin to the curb before we go to the Centre. As for your yard, no problem."
"No problem for you," thought Harry. "You didn't just about get shredded by a power mower." He had no more than entertained the thought, than he was ashamed of himself.
"My wife has been sick these last few months and I've had to spend all my time and energy on helping her get better. The gardens took short shrift." The old man wiped a tear from the corner of his eye.
Harry wasn't sure how to react. The man's tears, although honest, made him uncomfortable.
"What has happened to your wife?" asked Petunia.
Harry assumed that she was on a gossip-gathering mission.
"I don't want to burden you with my problems," said the old man. "But if you'd like to visit, you're welcome anytime."
Harry thought that it must be the first time anyone in Little Whinging had invited Aunt Petunia into their home. "Another milestone," he thought wryly.
The old man got up, and thanking them again, left for number three. Harry and Dudley followed and moved the bin to the curb.
"What do you say to stopping for a bite of breakfast?" asked Dudley as they walked away from number three. There's a small cafe on the way to the Centre."
Harry considered the offer. "No. I've no money," he explained so Dudley didn't get the wrong impression.
"My treat," said Dudley. "I know you've never had pocket money."
Harry's face burned. He knew he had a small fortune, left to him by his parents upon their deaths, not to mention the inheritance coming when he turned seventeen. But that was in the wizarding world. Here in the muggle world he didn't have tuppence without breaking into his heavy backpack.
Harry fought down the urge to make a caustic remark. "Thanks, I'd like that," he said. But he thought..."Here's a test, Dudley's never shared anything he's had for as long as I remember."
"Great, let's go," said Dudley without a hesitation.
True to his word, Dudley bought Harry breakfast. Dudley talked about Hesper and her family as they ate their bangers and mash.
"...her lot were leery of me at the off," explained Dudley. "After the way I had treated Mark, and the rumors that they'd heard, they had no reason to accept me. It took a long time to win their trust. It was actually easier with Hesper. She had been attending the Centre and she looks for the good in people. Good thing too. If she was the vindictive kind, she could have hurt me badly." Dudley paused and looked out the diner's windows.
When he didn't resume the conversation, Harry prodded, "What's up?"
"Nothing. Must be my imagination. Ever since the run in with Piers, I've kept a look out for trouble. I know them too well to think they'll just let it drop."
"Did you see one of them?" asked Harry, thinking on Moody's insistence on "constant vigilance."
"No, but I could swear that I've seen an odd bloke several times. When I look again, he's always gone. Must be my conscience nagging me about past deeds. Anyway, the Centre is open by now, do you feel like getting the stuffing knocked out of you again?" Dudley smiled.
"I don't know," said Harry. "Look at this." He showed Dudley his hands, forearms and elbows. They bore the bruises of blocked punches and kicks. "I think everything I do in the next couple of days is going to hurt."
"If I know V, she'll understand what you're going through. She's an ace instructor," said Dudley as they left the diner and headed for the Centre.
Upon arrival, they checked in and went in to the gymnasium. Hesper and V were warming up on the practice mats. Harry noticed that V was wearing clothing several sizes too big for her. "She looks like she's the one wearing Dudley's cast-offs," he thought.
The two girls greeted them and invited them to warm up together. Harry watched V closely. She bent her torso parallel to the mat and rotated one-hundred-eighty degrees, flipped over and finished a complete rotation. Then she bent over backward, caught herself with her hands, pushed into a handstand and "walked" off the mat on her hands.
"You nancys about ready?" she taunted with a smile in her voice.
"Let's see what you've got," challenged Harry as he stepped onto the mat with her.
She dropped into a fighting stance and waited. "She wants me to attack," he thought. "What's up with this? She only wanted me to work on defence."
Seeing that she wasn't going to initiate the session, Harry stepped forward with a shortened punch. Before Harry could rebalance, V grabbed a handful of his shirt, rolled backward, put her foot in his chest and threw him over her and onto the mat.
Harry landed hard on his back, the wind knocked out of him.
V bounced to her feet and dropped into her original stance. Harry got to his feet and rubbed his back.
"What was that?" he asked, unsure he really wanted the answer.
"Another art to centre," she responded, never taking her eyes from him. "Sometimes punches and kicks are ineffective up close. This form uses the opponent's clothing as a handle and their momentum as a lever. Most people stay down after the first good throw. What do you say Harry Potter, do you want to learn?"
"Go easy on me," he implored, "I still hurt for our last two sessions."
"This will give you more to think about, and different places to hurt," she said.
They practiced for an hour and Harry became very leery of getting too near V. Each time he got close, he ended up on his back on the mat.
"You've become tentative, Harry Potter. You are staying at a greater distance from me. Don't you want to learn?" she chided.
"I want to learn, not get massacred," said Harry.
"That's what I wanted to hear," said V. She dropped her fighting stance, and motioned him closer. "You had to learn to respect the form before you would accept it. Many see this as a pushy-shovey, beneath their notice. Let me show you."
She proceeded to show Harry the correct way to wrap an opponents clothing for a secure hold and a quick release. She coached him on redirecting another's momentum to work in his favor. Finally she showed him how to take a fall to do the least damage to his body.
"You could have taught me that first," he said as he got up from the mat rubbing his backside."
"I could have. But you wouldn't have appreciated it as much. Now it's your turn to throw me."
Harry went through the moves she had shown him. When it came time for a throw, he slowed down to minimize the impact.
"What was that, Harry Potter?" she asked in a demanding tone.
"I didn't want to hurt you," said Harry honestly.
"If you are ever in a position to use this form, or any of the forms we teach here, you had better be prepared to keep yourself and those around you safe. You don't do that by going half way. When you find you are under attack, don't wait for the second blow to fall. Strike back with all your resources."
"The suits are helping me understand how we are all connected. I am actually reluctant to push this as far as it could go. Someone could get hurt. Badly."
"Lee told me about the run-in you two had the other night. It seems you were willing to use what you knew then." Her tone was conversational, but Harry felt compelled to justify his actions.
"They were going to attack Dudley from behind. That's just not on. I had to do something."
"That's the fine line. Walk away when you can. Protect when you must. The real problem is that you can't really walk away from training. Not if you intend to be your best if the need arises. Let's try again."
Harry squared with V. He watched her hands and her posture. He was so focused he didn't see her right foot until to was too late. He was driven to the mat seeing stars. V stood and waited. When he had regained himself, he got to his feet fuming.
"I thought you said this discipline was throws and leverage. Where did that come from?" he asked, rubbing the bruise on his cheek.
"Think about where you are. I didn't say we would only use one form at a time. Do you think your opponent is going to say, "Oh, by the way, I'm not going to hit you, I'm only going to try and throw you to the ground and stomp you. Not bloody likely! You have to be ready for anything. As we train, any style you've learned may mix in the sparing. Be ready for anything."
They began again. He became hesitant. He watched for hands and feet, and got thrown. He looked for throws, and got punched. It was well into the afternoon before he could go for more than three or four minutes at a time without going to the mat.
"I need a rest and a bite to eat," said Harry, putting up his hands in surrender. "I have found that when I push my endurance, I make mistakes."
"Well we don't want you to make a mistake," said V. "I have a class to teach. You've got one hour to be ready." She turned and walked directly to the front of a starting class and introduced herself.
Harry went to his bag and looked in on the wyvern. Once again, Capricio had eaten everything he had left, including the biscuits number three had given him. "You're not a dragon, you're a pig," said Harry mockingly. The dragon didn't look the least bit ashamed. Harry reached into the bag and stroked the wyvern. "Thanks for your patience."
Suddenly, Capricio growled. Harry's head jerked up. He was tensed for combat and he didn't even see the danger.
"Harry. That's your name i'n't it?" It was the boy who had taken Rhys' bicycle.
Capricio struggled. Harry touched his glasses but he could see no magic threat from the boy.
"I chatted out Rhys," said the boy. "He's 'cepted my apology. I just wanna' be sure we're square. I've decided to see what they teach here, and I don't wanna' have ta keep lookin' over my shoulder for you."
"It's alright," said Harry. "I'm learning too. We'll have no problem."
"Glad to hear that," said the boy with relief in his voice. "I'm starting my first class now so I guess I'll be seein' ya around. I'm Thistle, by the way."
Harry shook the extended hand and Thistle turned to join the class.
"I fergot," said the boy as he stopped abruptly. "You prob'bly should watch your back too. While I was across from the Centre watchin' you, I noticed another bloke payin' close attention ta ya. It can't mean nothin' good."
"What did this bloke look like?" asked Harry.
"An odd sort of a chap, really. Thin, wiry," said the boy looking at the ceiling as if a description were written there. "Dressed oddly. He had on trainers and sweat pants, but he was wearin' a floral button-down an' tie. Keep your eyes skinned Harry."
"Thanks," said Harry not knowing what to make of the warning.
Thistle turned and left. Harry carried the bag holding Capricio to the front windows. He stood for a long time watching the people pass by.
Dudley interrupted his observations. "Here's a bite for lunch," he said, offering Harry a white paper bag with a toasted tunney sandwich and chips.
As they ate their lunch, Harry contemplated the strange turn of events since he had returned to the Dursley's. He was so engrossed in his musings that he was staring, unseeing, out the Centre's front windows. A sudden movement at the edge of a concrete half-wall broke his train of thought. In the instant he focused on the motion, he could have sworn he saw a man disappear.
He turned to Dudley. "Did you see that?" he asked as he stood up.
"Sorry," replied Dudley. "See what?"
"Never mind," said Harry. "I'm not even sure."
As they moved to discard their rubbish, V met them with a smile. "I've a free afternoon Harry Potter. Are you up to a new experience?"
Something in the tone of her voice caused Harry's stomach to swoop.
"I've a class to teach with Hesper," said Dudley and he quickly excused himself.
Harry was glad for the interruption as it gave him a moment to regain his composure. Finding his voice and a modicum of calm, he managed to squeak out, "I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
He followed V to an unoccupied mat in the back of the Centre. He noted, and was relieved, that from this mat he could neither see nor be seen from the street.
Harry stowed the bag containing Capricio and when he got to the mat, V was waiting for him, feet shoulder width apart. "Harry," she began. (He immediately noted the lack of his surname.) "I've been holding back a bit of training. You are as quick a study as I've ever taught. Your reflexes are unlike any I've seen."
Harry felt his face flush.
V continued, seemingly unaware of Harry's embarrassment. "I found out quickly that if I'm to stay ahead of you, I had to keep some techniques to myself. The more I've thought about it, the more I feel impressed to teach you some of my personal tricks."
Harry wondered at the effect V's words had on him. He felt as if his face was on fire. He mastered himself and said, "If you are willing to teach me, I'm ready to learn."
"Good," said V shortly. "I have decided it will be safe to teach you offense, and to do that, I'll need to teach you a few secrets."
He looked down at the mat to escape V's penetrating gaze. The next instant, he was driven to the mat by a blow to the centre of his chest. He popped to his feet, all warm feelings gone.
"Don't ever look away from an opponent," scolded V.
"We're opponents now?' asked Harry.
"Yes," responded V. "I'm going to allow you to attack me. I'll only defend."
"I don't know if..." He didn't get the chance to finish, his attention was immediately riveted on a blur of motion. He twisted sideways as a hardened right heel skimmed the side of his shoulder.
"I though you weren't going to attack," said Harry as he squared with V.
"And I won't. Unless you give less than your full ability." V stepped away and put her hands on her hips. "Attack, or I'll plow you."
Harry heard the utter sincerity in V's statement. He gritted his teeth and went on offense.
He dropped into a loose, stooped stance that lowered his centre of gravity. His first kick was a ruse intended to make V move to her left. Harry intended to move to her weak side, grab a handful of shirt and throw her. V moved from the kick as Harry had anticipated, but when he reached for V's sweatshirt, she was gone. As he recovered from the handful of air he had just grabbed, the lighting changed subtly. Harry dodged away from a shadow and just escaped an elbow to the jaw.
"What?" asked Harry as he contemplated what would have happened had V's elbow made connection.
"That wasn't your best," chided V. "Beware Harry Potter."
Harry tried dozens of feints interspersed with direct attacks, and in each attempt, he came up with nothing but air and shadow. Each time he barely escaped V's counterstrike.
V dropped her hands to her sides. Harry didn't approach lest this be another method to draw him close enough for a pummeling.
"Better," said V. "Don't take an opponent's apparent submission as an end to a conflict. Even defeat may not signal the end. Always be wary of easy victory."
She shook out her arm and hands. "I see I can't touch you coming off my defense..."
Harry considered her words. He had to admit he had though his escapes were due to V taking it easy on him. Her statement made him reconsider.
"...now it's time to show you how I avoid your offense." V rotated her neck as if throwing off a kink, then she looked at Harry. "You really have two choices on defense," she explained. "You can block the attack and set up for a counterstrike, or you can dodge the attack and counterstrike as the opponent's momentum carries him past you. Most block. It's almost natural to use the block as springboard toward a counter. You have to be snake-quick to use the second method."
Harry's mind twinged at the term snake-quick, but he remained attentive to V's instruction.
"I'll show you what I mean." She remained in her stance and motioned him to continue.
Deciding to observe her reaction, Harry used a powerful straight punch directed at V's midsection. Quicker than any Quidditch opponent he had ever faced, V turned sideways and arched her back. Harry's punch skimmed her sweatshirt but made no bodily contact. The power of the strike carried the back of his arm past V, and in that instant, she did not block, but struck a blow to his elbow and danced away.
Harry mastered the urge to cry out at the pain in his arm. He could feel numbness extending from the impact point, down his arm and into his hand. He shook his arm, trying to re-establish feeling, all the while keeping eye contact with V.
"That's a beginning," said V, and she once again waved him back to the sparring. The practice lasted another frustrating hour. Harry was unable to land a single blow, but on the bright side (as Harry saw it), V never touched him either.
"Stop!" said V suddenly. "I've promised that I'd let go some of my secrets. I haven't been doing that."
Harry's mind flashed to V's shared confidence about her brother Derek.
"I have to admit, Harry Potter, I'm hesitant to tip my hand to you because the knowledge will more than level the playing field; it will make it possible for you to eclipse me. V broke her own rule and looked away from Harry. When she turned back her eyes were bright but no tears fell.
"Hold out your hand," she commanded.
Harry held out his right hand. V turned his hand with the palm facing her, then she separated his fingers and pressed the tips of her fingers against his. Harry felt a shiver run up his spine.
"Think about making a move, either offensive or defensive. Don't lose contact between our fingertips." V waited.
Harry had just considered a close range sweep with his right foot when V said, "Right foot."
Harry's eyes widened. He decided on a combination starting with a left punch followed by a throw. The thought had just gelled when V said, "Left hand, beginning a combination."
Harry dropped his hand away from V's and stepped back in wonder. "You can read minds!" he said in shock.
"No Harry. I can read lips and I can read body language, but I can't read minds." She stepped back a step. "Let me show you. Make your attack decision and then stop when I tell you."
Harry looked at her dubiously. He decided on a feint to the left, with a backhand blow to the right.
"Stop!" commanded V. "You want me to think you're going to my right, your left, but you intend delivering the blow with your right hand."
"How could you possibly..."
"It's a subtle thing," she responded. "I can see the tensing and relaxation of muscles, a slight shift in the pressure of your stance, a quick eye-dart to one side, a change in your breathing, the angle of your shoulders and hips. Added together, I can read you. Now that you know my secret, you may be able to hide your intent from me."
Harry thought how he made high-speed decisions during a Quidditch match. He used things like the shift in direction robes blew, the sound off a beater's bat, the way an opponent leaned, the tilt of a head, or the way hands were gripping a broom handle. When he put it all together, he realized he used similar tactics in the air that V used here on the ground.
"I've just got to learn the physical clues and be sharp enough to pick up on them," he stated in understanding.
Exactly," said V. "Let me show you."
She worked with Harry for over two hours, first making him aware of the signals he presented, and then direct observation of how others practicing around the Center did the same.
"It's amazing," marveled Harry at last. "It seems so obvious now. How did I miss it before?"
"I don't think you really missed the signs," responded V. "The first time I sparred with you I pushed you harder than I've ever pushed a first-time attendee. You showed more potential than anyone I've ever met. Lets hit the mat and see what you've learned."
Once his bare feet touched the mat, Harry became consummately cautious. He concentrated on eliminating any physical clues as to his intent. He focused on every nuance of movement and posture that V exhibited. The two combatants circled each other warily. Feints were exchanged, but none were followed through. After a minute the outside world became a distant distraction, after two minutes, it ceased to exist for Harry.
His attention was so encompassing that when V finally did attack, it was as if she had shouted her intent. Harry handily dodged her assault, and with a deft flick of his wrist, drove her arm down toward the mat.
V shook off the parry and took the change in motion to a shoulder roll. She was on her feet immediately.
V's next two dozen attack runs had multiple components. Elbows, hands, feet, fingers, forearms, and even shoulders were thrown at Harry in intricate combinations. Harry finally saw a small window of opportunity. V feinted with her right foot and changed to a left-foot front snap kick. For an instant, both her feet left the mat. Harry shot beneath the kick, caught the front of V's right ankle, and with a mighty sweep, flipped her over in the air.
V contorted like a falling cat, but couldn't get any purchase on thin air. She fell like a stone. At the last instant, Harry rotated his attack and caught V inches from the mat. He set her down and bounded away, least he fall prey to a close attack.
V stayed down. For an instant, Harry worried he had hurt her. Then to his surprise, V popped to her feet and bowed. The world around him came back into focus.
The edges of the practice mat were lined with hundreds of unblinking eyes. The entire Centre had been watching and Harry hadn't noticed. He dropped his hands to his sides in confusion. V crossed the mat and held Harry's hand high in the air.
Pandemonium reigned. People flooded the mat, gushing praise at both Harry and V for what they had witnessed. They shook hands around and gradually the crowd dispersed, still talking about the scope of the spectacle.
Dudley and Hesper were the last remaining. Dudley crossed to Harry and held out his hand. Harry shook it.
"You took away our students," said Hesper. "When over half our class was paying more attention to you two than to Lee and me, we gave it up as a bad job and came over to watch. That was amazing!"
"Thanks," said Harry, not knowing what else to say.
"The queen is deposed. Long live the king!" said V in a regal tone as she bowed to Harry.
"Not hardly," responded Harry. "I just got lucky."
"Not hardly is right," countered V. "Not only did you take everything I could throw at you, you dropped me. I didn't know what hit me until you caught me at the mat. You even avoided my counterstrike. I couldn't touch you."
"I didn't avoid the counter," said Harry sheepishly. "I didn't even see it."
"My point exactly," said V smiling. "I hit thin air. You were gone too fast."
"I'm glad we found common ground before V started training you," said Dudley. "I wouldn't want you for an enemy."
Harry thought ruefully, that speed aside, none of this training would help against his real enemy.
"It's not my training," injected V modestly. "Harry came here with lightning reflexes. I think the real difference in Harry Potter came from the suits."
"I have to admit," said Harry, "the suits have given me a long-term view of short-term challenges. I understand why the martialed arts are tempered by the suits. Otherwise, this would be a training centre for oppression."
"I'm glad you see it that way," said Hesper. "We have a few drop-outs. The only way we have to control that is to stay on top of our game and sort out the wise-elbows."
"When you complete the suit's course, I'd not be surprised if the Director offers you a teaching post." V smiled at Harry. "Would you teach with me Harry Potter?"
"I haven't even given such a thing any thought," exclaimed Harry quickly. "Give me a chance to take this all in. Remember, a week ago I didn't even know the Centre existed. This is a lot to wrap my mind around."
"If you want my opinion..." began V, but she was interrupted by Penni.
V was taken to the side and engaged in an animated, signed conversation. Harry heard only one word uttered by V, "Really!"
She came back, her face more flushed than at any time during the sparring. "Sorry!" she said with no explanation. "I've got to go!" She grabbed a towel Penni offered her and ran from the practice floor.
"What was that about?" asked Hesper.
Penni turned to them with tears in her eyes. "You know Thistle, at least that's what he calls himself, well I was just finishing up his paperwork and I noticed where he had been for the last few years. It was the same neighborhood V came from. Just offhandedly I asked if he knew anyone named Derek...and he did! V's gone to check it out. It's too good to be true, but if it pans out, do you realize she will have Harry and Rhys to thank for finding her lost brother!"
A tear splashed on the practice mat as Penni turned and left.
"Should we go after her and help?" asked Harry looking at the door where V had exited.
"No, I don't think so," reasoned Hesper. "She needs to accomplish this on her own."
"I pray this works out," said Dudley thoughtfully.
"Me too," said Hesper. "V's been looking for so long. I don't think she'll ever be whole until she either finds Derek or finds out what happened to him." She looked hopefully at the door and patted Dudley on the arm.
Dudley covered Hesper's hand with his hand and said, "Let's get cleaned up and head home. We've finished our teaching for the day, and I dare say Harry's done through." Dudley slapped Harry on the back.
Harry nodded, picked up the bag containing the ever-so-patient Capricio, and excused himself to the bathroom to wash his face.