Harry Potter's room was, abnormally, clean. The trunk he'd brought back with him from Hogwarts remained unpacked, opened only to retrieve clothing when the morning brought no evidence of his leaving number four, Privet Drive. Harry stayed mostly in his room, going downstairs only to eat. The Dursleys seemed not to care, or notice, or at least made a good show of pretending.
Harry found it odd. The previous year, when they had been warned not to treat him badly, the Dursley's had used a similar tactic, to ignore him at all times. Harry had at the beginning, been too depressed over Sirius' death; towards the end, he had been so excited by the prospect of leaving so early that he hadn't marked it as more than a passing curiosity. This time, however, he had noticed Aunt Petunia kept giving him fleeting, nervous glances, and Dudley would suddenly find a reason to be elsewhere whenever Harry was in a room. It was almost as if Harry had a Muggle repelling charm cast on him. He'd spent an hour one day walking in on Dudley purposely, amused to see him turn 180 degrees and walk away.
Uncle Vernon, on the other hand, literally ignored him. Harry had even gone as far as to steal bacon from Vernon's plate. His aunt and cousin had gaped at him, but Vernon simply went on reading his paper, the vein in his forehead just beginning to twitch.
However, Dursley-baiting was not as happy a pastime as it might have been. Whereas the beginning of the summer last year had been spent in an almost numb state, Harry's mind raced with all he'd learned this year. The cup, the locket, the snake, something from Ravenclaw or Gryffindor... The litany continued in his hindbrain, brought to the front whenever his fingers brushed against the fake horcrux he'd kept with him since the fateful events of mere weeks ago. The token of this news reminded him of his responsibility. This reminded him of all he'd give up or had given up to fulfill that responsibility.
That unfortunately, led his mind to what was becoming his greatest sacrifice, though he never let himself think of it in those terms. It was, to conscious thought, the necessity, a thing he needed to do. His friends were in danger just knowing them -- Ginny especially, though again he would never let this thought to the fore as often as it tried to be. If he didn't need Ron's skill and Hermione's brain, he'd push them away too.
Something, deep down, nagged at him when his thoughts went to his friends; something important that he just seemed to be missing. Lately, he'd begun to chase it, to try to figure it out. If it was unimportant, at least he'd get over it here while he was still waiting instead of allowing it to fester and distract him when he needed to concentrate on finding the horcruxes. So he chased this errant thought, pursued it as it eluded him, pushed away thoughts of Ron and Hermione and the Weasleys and Ginny, doggedly pursuing the thought like he pursued the snitch.
It eluded him still, almost teasing him. But now, he almost had it. He could feel the realization beginning to dawn.
A splat at the window pulled him out of his reverie, and he stood, wand raised, watching a grey shadow slide down the clear glass. A grey, feathery shadow...
Harry leapt from the bed and threw the window open, gingerly lifting Errol off the sash and bringing him to his bed. He set the owl down and pulled off the letter tied to his leg, then set him in Hedwig's empty cage. Errol opened one eye, gave a soft hoot, and closed it again, drifting to fast sleep.
He unfurled the letter only to find one line, written in neat, gently curling handwriting. The writing had been carefully done, and it brought a lump to Harry's throat.
Coming to get you for the wedding.
Please be ready by Friday night.
Harry stared at the letter, swallowing thickly. His eyes traced every looped line, and, when that was finished, took in what it had been written further. He could see places where the parchment looked smoothed, as if someone had taken a finger and rubbed it, and one spot that looked lighter than the rest, as if it had been wetted then dried.
He pushed the thoughts away, and the concept he'd pursued for so long stopped teasing him from behind it.
Errol stirred again, and Harry numbly set the parchment aside. Hedwig's water dish was empty, so he removed it and took it downstairs to clean and fill it.
Dudley was alone in the kitchen, and, had Harry not been preoccupied, he might have feigned shock at this circumstance. Instead, he jolted when Dudley spoke.
"That's for your owl, isn't it?"
Harry blinked at Dudley, then turned back to the sink, running tap water into the bowl and rubbing the dust out of it with his fingers. "Very good, Dudley."
Dudley, evidently, still didn't walk out. Harry could feel him shift from foot to foot behind him. "So, they're sending you mails again, then?" Harry's brow furrowed as he turned, the running water forgotten.
"Why do you ask?"
Dudley looked away, and Harry shook his head. He rinsed, then filled the bowl, then turned, stopping when he saw Dudley still hadn't moved.
"So you're leaving, then?"
Harry nodded firmly, "Yeah."
Dudley nodded as well, slowly, muttering to himself, then, suddenly, "And you won't be back?"
That was it, thought Harry. The reason his cousin would be gloating soon. Harry, however, was not in the mood to put up with it. He turned and got a glass and filled it, as well, with water. His throat had dried out since he'd gotten the letter. "Yes, Dudders. I won't be coming back. So you can have your second room back." With a sigh, expecting a fight or at least a row, he turned and took a long swig of his water.
"I don't think mum likes that."
Harry almost choked, spitting his water into the sink. "What?!"
Dudley simply stared. "I don't think my mum is happy that you're leaving, is all." Dudley didn't look comfortable with the notion either, and he looked away pointedly, staring out the window.
Harry grit his teeth on a shout. It wouldn't do to get into trouble just before he was free to go, no matter how much he was beginning to dread the destination. He turned, however, and something in the way Dudley was looking out the window, awkward and nervous, seemed to take any sting out of his voice.
"Well... your mother didn't seem to care much when I was chased by..." Again, something stopped him from placing out and out blame, and he cleared his throat, "bullies, or locked in the broom cupboard, or forced to live as if the things I can do were something to be ashamed of." Harry sighed, filled his glass, and turned back to Dudley. "So, I think even you can understand that what your mum is happy about doesn't concern me overmuch."
Harry felt just a little better for having been able to tell Dudley off for years of hardship, but something still was not right. Still, he took up his glass and the bowl and turned to go, and had gotten out the door until Dudley's quiet voice stopped him.
"Why did you save me?"
Harry turned and blinked, thinking in the back of his mind that he'd spent much of the afternoon in that state. When he didn't answer Dudley swallowed. "Two years ago. Against the Depressors--"
"Dementors," Harry corrected automatically, though he still wasn't sure what was going on.
"Yes, whatever they were. I mean, I couldn't see them, but mum knew about them..." Dudley trailed off, swallowed, and sighed. "You obviously don't care much about us. They could have solved a big problem for you if you'd just let them... I don't know... do what they do. So... Why?" Again, he trailed off, and there was silence between them.
Finally Harry blew out breath, his eyes a little wider than he'd ever looked at his cousin. "Ah... because I was the only one who could." When Dudley looked at him, shocked, he shrugged. "You're right, Dud. You're a right pain in the neck. But I know what they can do, and no one deserves that."
"You've been depressed lately," Dudley nodded, as though he'd just revealed a significant truth, "It's all because of this Videl-... Verd-..."
"Right, him. It's because of that guy, right?"
"This is weird, Dudley..." Harry shook his head. "Why are you asking these things all of a sudden?"
"Look," Dudley said, scowling. "It's not like I think we're suddenly going to be best mates or something like that. I know it's probably too late for that sort of thing. It's just... you did save my life. If you weren't really the one making me feel like that in the first place..." He cast a skeptical eye on Harry, who rolled his eyes and sighed.
"Just... You've got friends, I know you do. And I'm not stupid. I know I don't. Not really." He nodded, presumably taking Harry's shocked look at face value. "So maybe I need to change something about myself, and maybe admitting you're not a bad freak is a step in the right direction."
Harry stared at him, deadpan, then sighed. "Maybe half a step," he said coolly. Dudley merely shrugged.
Harry gathered his glass and the water bowl for Errol and turned to leave. Once again, he was stopped. "I'm trying, all right? Just... just look in on Mum once before you leave, ok?" When Harry said nothing, Dudley sighed, exasperated asking, "please?"
Harry turned, eyes popping from their sockets, but Dudley was already gone, out the kitchen door into the garden.
As he was already packed except for the clothing he'd pulled out daily to wear, there was nothing for Harry to do except tend to Errol and wait. Hedwig had returned while Harry was speaking to Dudley, and eagerly accepted the task of responding to the note. "Just stay there," Harry instructed, gently stroking her beak, "I won't be coming back here."
So now, Harry lay on his bed, waiting, mulling over what had been possibly the longest, most intelligent, and oddest conversation he'd ever had with his cousin. In truth, he'd tried to come up with a reasonable excuse not to speak with his aunt, but the more he tried, the more he remembered Dudley's exasperated, "Please".
Finally he sat up and, with a sigh, heaved his way to his feet and out of the room. It didn't take him long to find her, as she was in the sitting room moodily looking out one of the windows, a cup of long cold tea in her hand. Harry cleared his throat once, then a second time, more loudly, before she looked at him, blinking owlishly.
"Dudley asked me to come talk to you."
"Don't lie," she spoke without her usual snap, and looked down before setting her cup and saucer on the table. Harry hadn't moved.
"I'm not lying," he said, shrugging. "I was surprised myself. He even said please."
"He's a well-behaved boy," she started, irritably, then swallowed. "At least, I tried... I..."
Her face crumpled, and Harry was afraid she would begin to cry right then and there. He'd seen her cry before, of course. But it was usually when she felt he was to blame for something or that Dudley had been cheated of getting... anything, he sighed mentally.
The look on her face now wasn't the overly dramatic look of a woman who wanted her way. It was, in its heart, true sadness. Harry had seen it on Ron's face when he'd failed his apparition test, or on Hermione's face when people teased her about answering questions in class.
Or on Ginny's face, the day of the funeral...
Harry closed his eyes and turned to leave. He couldn't bear to remember that, and couldn't bear to see true sadness on his aunt's face. On anyone's face. He had gone so far as to get his hand on the door when her quiet voice interrupted.
"I suppose you hate me now, don't you?"
Harry stopped, facing the door and looking down. He knew he had all the reasons in the world to turn, answer yes, and tear her down with every accusation he could muster about his treatment at her and her husband's hands. He simply couldn't do it. He was shaking his head and turning when she continued.
"I suppose that would be the thanks I get for taking you in, feeding you... treating you like--"
"Don't' say like family." Harry's voice, like his aunt's, was not harsh, but it was firm. "You treated me like..." He shook his head, sighing, "I wasn't family, at any rate."
Silence reigned, but Harry stood still, waiting. She looked like she was on the verge of saying something, even if it was another insult. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have given her the opportunity. Now, however, he realized that he was not coming back. Not ever. Perhaps her reminder that she had, in fact, taken him in, made him feel that he owed her a chance to speak just now. He only knew he should wait, and see.
Then, as if he'd taken a drink of Felix Felicis, he knew what he had to say.
"I..." He swallowed, looking down at the carpet, "I don't hate you." He looked up as she gave a small gasp, and met her eyes, finding he had to steel himself again to keep going. "I don't like how you treated me. I can't stand Uncle Vernon. You all had a chance to treat me like something other than a nuisance, and you failed at it." Petunia's mouth opened in outrage, but Harry cut across her quickly. "All that being said, I don't hate you."
She swallowed, and Harry saw something like hope in her eyes. It was as odd a feeling as when she'd admitted to knowing what Dementors were two years ago.
"I pity you." The hope dimmed, and her eyes filled with confusion. "You had a chance to know my mum, who everyone I've ever talked to said was a wonderful person. Teachers, students, my dad, everyone thought she was a good person to know. And you pushed her away, because she was a little bit different."
Harry could see tears beginning to well up in her eyes, and he almost stopped. As had happened so often, however, once he started stopping was near impossible. "Do you know how my mum, your sister, died? She died because a powerful wizard who was determined to kill me wouldn't listen to her pleas. She died because she wouldn't get out of his way so that he could get to me. And because she died protecting me, he couldn't kill me, he couldn't even touch me for fourteen years."
He was trembling now, and his jaw ached from clenching his teeth, something he hadn't been aware he was doing. He continued, taking no satisfaction in her paling face or spilling tears. "You could have known a wonderful person, and called her your sister. So, no, I don't hate you. I pity you, because it's too late."
"BOY!" The bark came from the closed parlor door, and Vernon Dursley's beefy hand shoved it open. "There's someone here for you! What is th-- Petunia?"
Harry saw his aunt try, valiantly, to wipe her eyes before he was grabbed by the shoulder and forced to turn into the all too familiar sight of his uncle's purple, apoplectic face. "What have you DONE here, BOY?!"
"Vernon, no, it--" Petunia's barely audible denial was drowned out by Vernon's snarl.
"If you've done any of that... that- I'll not- You aren- I'll-"
"I haven't done anything but talk to her," Harry said, coolly.
Vernon sneered. "A likely story. You've not sought out anything but supper, and not even always that. Why would I believe you'd seek us out to talk?"
"Because Dudley asked him to," came the soft, trembling answer from his aunt.
Harry didn't have time to react before Vernon tutted.
"There's someone here says he's to take you away. I don't want you to come back, to you hear me, boy? I never want to see you again!"
Harry had reached the end of his tether. With a mighty heave, he shoved Vernon's arm off of his shoulder. "In two weeks, I'll legally be able to do magic. You had better hope you don't see me again."
He heard Petunia's shout to stop before he saw his uncle's massive fist raise back to strike him. Harry reached for his wand, but before his uncle could let fly, a cool, even voice sounded behind Vernon, halting all action.
"I am of an age that I can legally do magic sir. I think maybe you should let Harry go."
Vernon swallowed, let go of the bunch of Harry's shirt that he had caught, and even went so far as to smooth it down before stepping past Harry to his wife. Harry finally got a clear view of the red headed man standing in the doorway, eyes like chips of ice on Vernon's back.
There was a slight tinge of disappointment as he realized the man was alone, but still, he nodded gravely. "Hullo, Charlie."