Chapter 8 : Harry
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The nine-year-old boy craned his neck around, peering back up the sidewalk he'd just traversed, as though expecting Dudley to have materialized there. Thankfully, there was no sign of him, and the less Harry went without seeing him, the better his day was sure to be. It was already two o' clock, and he hadn't seen him since breakfast that morning, which meant that everything was going rather better than expected. But, as Harry had circled all the houses around Privet Drive already (the farthest he was allowed to go on his own), he knew it was only a matter of time.
It was only this summer, he thought, that Dudley really seemed to have come into his own as far as knowing the power of his own ham-like fists. Before school had ended, it was as though he was always afraid he'd get in trouble if he hit Harry too hard - this wasn't the case, of course, as Harry largely suspected Uncle Vernon would have patted Dudley fondly on the head and rewarded him with a chocolate bar if he should have, say, broken his nose.
Briefly, Harry stopped and reached up to poke the bridge of his glasses, freshly mended with clear tape. Perhaps Dudley knew about the potential chocolate reward, as well.
The play park loomed into sight as Harry trotted on up the curb, holding his arms out while he balanced on the crumbling concrete. Despite having only been built a few years previously, some older boys had already managed to tear it up in a rather admirable fashion. Rude words had been painted onto the creaky old merry-go-round in the park's center, and no one had yet devised a proper way of removing them, although for a large part of the previous summer the area had smelled like turpentine with their efforts. The swings were still intact, but there was no telling how long that would last.
Perhaps, Harry pondered, he might be able to stop and have a quick go on them before he had to move off to keep ahead of Dudley. He'd already passed the park before and there had been no sign of Dudley or Piers, or Malcolm or Gordon. He turned his head to look behind him once more, but the air hung thick and heavy, the silence marred only by the clicking of sprinklers and cicadas alike.
Just a quick turn - only a swing or three - and he'd be off again.
Feeling considerably happier, and not quite so conscious of the thick sludge that seemed to be passing for summer air, Harry set off for the swing set at a brisk trot. The flapping rubber soles of his trainer crunched loudly on the gravel, louder still to his own ears because he was concentrating on being as quiet as possible. The swings seemed to beckon him like old friends, rattling their cheerful chains at him. He plopped onto the rubber, enjoying the clinking sound the buttons of his jeans made on the swing -
"There 'e is!" There was a great crackling and rustling from one of the large shrubberies bordering the park, and with what seemed to be a tremendous effort, Gordon - one of Dudley's newer cronies - emerged from the thorny green leaves. From spots to the left and right of Gordon's place in the foliage, three other boys were wriggling their way from between the branches.
Harry sat momentarily frozen on his swing, sweaty fingers wrapped around the chains. The only thought that managed to cross his brain at that particular moment went something like: Oh, so they were hiding in the shrubberies so I wouldn't see them! That's a bit clever, actually -
And then he bolted, chucking the swing behind him in a desperate attempt to slow his pursuers down before sprinting across the flat, entirely visible ground of the park. Judging from the gorilla-like grunts behind him, his tactic worked, but it would only buy him seconds. Privet Drive and the relative safety to be found there was too far, much too far...
There was only one thing for it. With an extra burst of speed, borne of sheer adrenaline and a bit of luck in that he weighed at least half what each of the gang members weighed, if not more, he scrambled for the line of trees bordering the opposite side of the chain-link fence.
Most of these trees were half-dead with the intensity of summer, following upon an unusually harsh winter (it had snowed a foot and a half, Harry remembered now, although he couldn't say why this particular detail was so clear in his mind as he sprinted for his life). There was, however, one viable option left to him, and it came in the form of a broad-leafed tree, extraordinarily ugly, with a stout, sturdy trunk, right in the middle of the fence. It would be easy to climb.
Which also meant, of course, it would probably be easy for Dudley to climb. But this was - perhaps literally - a matter of life or death, and at that moment, Harry very much valued the former of the two options.
With quick fingers, he wrapped his hands around a low-jutting branch and hoisted himself onto it, silently arguing with his trainers as the peeling soles decided to catch briefly on a bit of rough bark. He hoisted himself off the ground and onto the next branch as quickly as possible just as one of the gang members (it didn't quite matter who yet, as they were all a threat) made a grab for the dangling laces of the previously-offending trainer.
"You can't hide up there forever, Potter!" That voice belonged rather unmistakably to Dudley, and Harry paused in the tree, peering down at his cousin's face from his slight height. That was another thing his cousin had taken to doing that summer, calling him by his last name. Then again, that wasn't quite so bad as the names Harry called Dudley behind his back; "Piggly-Wiggly" was a current favorite of his.
"I think I'll try anyway, thanks," he called back down, climbing onto the next branch and halting for a bit of a breather. This, however, was a mistake; with a very nasty grin, Dudley moved for the tree and placed his fat hands on the lowest branch, one Harry had used to push himself up only a few moments ago. He prayed for a brief moment that it might break – it wasn’t such a far-fetched wish, after all.
“You’re going to wish –“ Dudley grunted, with tremendous effort, but whatever Harry might have wished he never did find out. A very curious thing happened at that moment that cut off all speech, for the moment Harry’s cousin had hoisted himself onto the branch, he slipped right off, as though the bark were covered in thick grease. He fell back to the ground with a massive thud; Harry laughed loudly, unable to help himself.
Piers tiptoed over to Dudley, sticking his head over his friend’s, upside-down. “You fell off, Dudley,” he said helpfully. “Harry’s still in the tree.”
“I know he’s still in the tree,” the massive blond boy snapped irritably. He scrambled ungracefully to his feet, his face bright red; he looked for all the world, in Harry’s slightly biased opinion, like a plump tomato fresh off a vine. The squeezing feeling of panic in his chest eased somewhat as, this time, Malcolm made to climb up the branch that had just sent Dudley sprawling.
He managed to get up onto it, too, and then the branch seemed to sway heavily. Harry watched in a fascinated sort of manner as Malcolm was sent right back to the ground, nearly landing on Dudley in the process, who had to make a hasty retreat so as not to get squashed. Harry remained untouched in the topmost branches.
What was the tree doing? But no – trees didn’t have minds of their own… but it was preventing any of the boys from climbing what Harry had so easily scaled, only minutes before, as if by magic…
Dudley’s face had now turned a shade of purple that would have given Uncle Vernon a splendid run for his money. He balled his great hands into fists and shoved them into the outer pockets of his letterman’s jacket – it had once been his father’s – and glared up at his cousin with fierce, piggy eyes.
“I guess I’ll see you back at the house, then, Dudders,” Harry called down, waving a mocking hand down at him, and nearly losing his balance in the process. Dudley scowled further, whether at the use of his nickname or at the allusion to the fact he couldn’t really touch Harry within earshot of his parents, Harry couldn’t tell.
“Come on.” With a kick at the tree – his foot didn’t seem to collide with it – Dudley sauntered morosely out of the park, every now and then glancing back at Harry, as though contemplating making another assault on his tree. He apparently decided against it, at any rate, because before too long, the sound of the boys’ progress was lost to the shuffling of leaves and spare newspapers skipping along the baking concrete.
Harry patted his tree fondly as soon as he was positive that he was alone. It looked significantly less lonely now that it had protected him. But that's impossible, he told himself firmly, trees didn’t protect people. Dudley was just outsmarted by it, and that’s not so unusual, really…
Still, he reckoned, it might be a good idea to build a sort of hideout up in that tree. Just in case.
Across the way, leaning against another bit of chain link fence, Harry spotted a couple of half-rotted wooden planks that someone had discarded there, rather than driving them all the way down to the dump. He figured they might serve his purpose, and, after peering from between the sundried leaves to make absolutely sure Dudley wasn’t lurking about for a surprise ambush, he scrambled back down the tree. He stepped gingerly on the branch that had tossed Malcolm and Dudley off, but it was just as sturdy as it had been when he’d used it to climb up initially. Strange…
Trying quite firmly to keep his mind focused on the task at hand, Harry trotted quickly across the bark and stooped to pick up one of the planks. It was rather lighter than expected, although quite cumbersome, too, due to its length. He dragged it awkwardly across the hard-packed dirt of the play park, and thought, for a moment, how odd a passerby might find the scene before him: A scrawny boy of nine years, in too-big clothes and broken glasses, dragging a bit of wood over to a tree.
The wooden plank – and, after some minutes had elapsed, its brother – proved surprisingly easy to hoist into the tree. He laid them crosswise to form a small seat on two adjacent branches, and gingerly tested their weight, hoping against hope that whatever mercy the tree had shown him earlier, it would prevail now and not cause him to fall like a rock.
Miraculously – magically – the wood held. It was a bit bendy and still a bit rotted, but Harry could tell that it would last – at least for the time being – and that was all that really mattered at the moment. He swung his legs back and forth, rather pleased at what he thought to be a spot of genius at having picked such a good tree for his fort.
His fort. He rather liked the sound of that.
And he could bring all sorts of things up here, really! Already his mind swam with the vision of it – a sign, painted in slightly drippy black paint, telling Dudley to keep out or else. Perhaps one of the old couch cushions, slightly ripped, that had been placed in the garage by Aunt Petunia, because she couldn’t stand messes. He didn’t care for the pattern, but such was the way of things in matters like this. And biscuits – he knew where Dudley had hidden his stash!
A rather self-satisfied smile crossed Harry’s face, and, bouncing just once more to make absolutely sure that the wood would hold, he scrambled back down the tree. The stifling, humid summer air seemed just a little less suffocating in light of the new plan that had suddenly formed in his mind. Taking one last look at his little tree – which suddenly looked like the most beautiful tree in the world – he started off for home.
No matter how many times Dudley tried to climb that tree – and he tried for an extraordinary number of years after that incident – he was never quite able to reach Harry’s fort, whether it was occupied or not. And somehow, when all the other trees of the park were cut down one summer to expand on the residential lot adjacent, that one ugly tree escaped unscathed.
A/N: First and foremost, I've got to dedicate this chapter to NaidatheRavenclaw. This isn't the first time something like this has happened, but just by talking with her about how I had no ideas for this particular chapter -- lo and behold, an idea was born! It's scary, really, how suddenly some of these ideas come upon us writers.
And I have made an executive decision regarding this story: Two more chapters until completion! One more little childhood snapshot, and then an epilogue. So this feels like as appropriate a moment as any to say a massive thank-you to those who've given the story this sort of response. I never imagined it would mount up to this, and you all are the reason I'm writing these stories in the first place. So thank you, very much -- you mean a lot to me!
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