Harry was six hours into his self-imposed exile with the Dursleys. He stood in the kitchen stacking dirty dishes into the dishwasher and watched the television in the sitting room from afar. The images on the evening news washed over his eyes without making any impression on his thoughts.
The Dursleys had not spoke to him since they had returned from Platform 9 ¾’s. Only his Aunt had made a comment to him. She caught him as they exited the car on the way into the house at #4 Privet Drive. Vernon had driven the entire distance in furious silence. Harry, who sat behind him, saw the back of his neck grow scarlet with the pent-up rage. He knew that Vernon was angry at the confrontation on the platform.
Now his Aunt rounded on him and said between gritted teeth, “You will keep to your room or stay outside, mind your chores and stay out of our way for one month. Then your Headmaster promised that he would send someone to fetch you.” Her gray-brown eyes flashed both in fear and anger. “Is that understood?”
He thought about her words as he put the last of the dishes in the machine and turned out the light. It was still early in the evening and light outside. Since his conversation with Dumbledore and hearing the news of the prophecy, he found he could not keep physically still. The very thought of returning to his room and laying there was more than he could bare. Instead, he slipped out the door and began walking. As long as he was in before Dudley and away from Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon he was free to go where he wished.
Free, he thought. Like being free to wander in a prison yard.
And certainly not free on the inside. The tightness that seemed to constantly compress his chest lessened if he managed to keep his thoughts away from Sirius, from Hogwarts, his friends and from anything to do with the wizarding world. All of which was almost impossible to do. He could walk the street and notice people out in the cool of the early June evening, sitting in their gardens and not think about any of that for a little bit. Then it would all come flooding back.
“A month and counting down,” he murmured to himself. Even that didn’t seem to help. Anything could happen in that month. He didn’t like the idea that Dumbledore had people watching him, that he had agreed to write to someone every three days and let them know about what was happening at the Dursleys; he didn’t like any of it. He also didn’t relish the thought of returning to #12 Grimmauld Place after his tenure at the Dursleys.
Even as he walked the thoughts about Voldemort intruded. How will it be? he wondered. He doesn’t know about the prophecy yet. But he’ll come after me and he’ll keep coming after me. Once he finds out, there is nothing that’s going to stand in the way. He’ll fear no one, not even Dumbledore. And, he’ll kill me. Will it be a blinding green light and nothing else? he wondered.
There it was again, that intense feeling of panic. Harry had seen what Voldemort could do, had watched him fight Dumbledore in the Atrium at the Ministry of Magic.
I can’t fight like that, he thought, I don’t have any special skills.
He’d had these feelings of intense anxiety once before when he was faced with the Triwizard tasks. Now they were amplified by the guilt that almost immediately piggy-backed his memories of the Ministry of Magic. They almost always followed his memory of seeing Sirius fall back through the veil. It was as if the filmy curtain was waving Sirius’ last goodbye. He could see it even now as he walked. Along with it came the guilt, the regret and the remorse.
Harry strolled lethargically at first and then as the thoughts chased him, like a dog after a cat, his pace picked up and he moved more quickly down the street, not noticing direction or surroundings. He was moving ever farther away from Privet Drive and took to making a corner now and again so that he would be able to return before nightfall. Otherwise he thought his feet might just carry him off the ends of the earth.
The sun was just setting, a candied orange slice in the western sky. There was moisture in the air, which meant a cool, possibly rainy night. They’d have these kinds of evening showers through June and then it would turn hot. Harry proceeded up the street and stopped. His thoughts were now moving faster than his feet and he had stopped to catch his breath. He stood gawking at the empty alley that split the neighborhood block.
At first it reminded him of his and Dudley’s encounter with the Dementors the summer before. But this time it didn’t quite feel the same. It wasn’t the same hot muggy summer night like it was the year before. This time it was an cool spring evening and he was seeing something else in the alley.
He saw himself, but different.
It was an image that had flashed before his eyes on the television an hour before. An advertisement for a western movie. Only now, he-Harry- was walking down the center of the street, with worn-out, weathered storefronts on each side, and in front of him was the evil Voldemort, dressed in black, his six-shooter at his side. They were going to duel, he thought. No, not duel. That’s the wrong word, he decided unconsciously. Shoot it out. Yes, that’s what they did in Westerns.
He felt his feet take the measured steps, the sun in his eyes, towards the solitary figure at the end of the street. I will face you alone, Harry thought. People will be watching, hidden; with fear in their eyes. They’ll see us stand here in the street, waiting breathlessly for us to draw our guns. The western storefronts did have people peering out through the mirage windows watching. A few horses tethered at their posts would swing their behinds around as he walked past and stare at him with large brown soulful eyes.
Harry ticked off the seconds, his feet splayed wide, his hand at his holster. Voldemort stood, wide-brimmed black hat shading his ugly face, and cocked his hip, his hand fanned out over the gleaming pistol strapped to it.
Together they drew.
Harry felt his left hand come up, cock the gun and his finger pull the trigger. His looked into the eyes that suddenly revealed themselves from under the brim of the hat. They were evil, insane, laughing eyes. He didn’t aim. He let his practiced, trained hand do the aiming.
The bullets flew and Harry knew it before it happened. He saw himself flying backwards, hot metal piercing his chest, spewing out his red blood in a shower before his eyes.
And then, he stared at the blue sky and thought, I’m dead. He’s killed me.
Harry stood in the middle of the alley and had his head tilted back looking up at the sky, his arms spread-eagled out, mouth agape.
Coming to himself he looked around with some embarrassment and noticed that that the trash bins behind him were laying on the ground, rolling around. He turned and saw the way before him undisturbed. No western town, no dusty street, just a graveled alleyway with turned-over dust bins.
He kicked one in frustration. Once again he pondered what lay ahead. Will I be a coward when it’s time to face him? he thought as he walked through the alley and studied the backs of the neighborhood houses.
Exhausted with his exertions and worry he dropped down on a low stone wall and kicked at the ground. It was getting late and he knew that he should start the trip back.
“What difference does it make if I show up on time?’ he said aloud and heard a responding meow. Walking the tightrope fence-line behind him, Harry turned to see a black cat talking to him. It jumped down lightly with acrobatic agility and walked, feet tiptoeing in a single line towards him. The yellow-green eyes were clear and studied him with interest.
“Did you hear me?” Harry asked. “I’m talking to myself.” He told the cat.
The cat shook its head in an uncharacteristic human-like manner. It’s mouth opened in a yawn and the contrasting red-pink tongue and white teeth set off the cat’s beautiful face. It stared up at him with eyes that reminded him of Cho’s; which only served to bring back his memories of Hermione and Ron.
“It doesn‘t do any good to try and make friends with me,” Harry said aloud. He stared out at the growing dark. “My friends get hurt when they are around me- or they die.”
The toe of his worn-out runners kicked a little hole in the dirt. Harry studied the ground and watched an ant following its’ scent trail back to the nest. I wish I could be you, he said silently to the ant, small- part of the landscape. “I’m next. He’s going to kill me just like I could kill you if I wanted to.” Harry put his foot near the ant and watched it shy away in sudden fear.
The pain was back. “Everyone around me is at risk. I can’t make friends, I can’t let my friends take risks for me. I’m responsible for Sirius‘ death, the only chance I ever had for happiness and I let him die! It’s hopeless!” he cried out in anguish.
He tossed a stone from the wall across the street and watched it bounce into an open field. The cat followed it with her eyes and sat crouched down next to him. It’s black tail was swishing back and forth languidly. “I hate my life!” Harry cried out, bent over with his elbows on his knees and his head hanging down. The cat stared at him. The sound of night crickets and frogs began to erupt in the growing darkness.
Harry finally raised his head and turned to her, “What’s your name cat? Is it safe to know you? Can I trust who you are?”
The cat stared back and then turned to the open field. With some delicacy it jumped down from it’s perch, stopped and looked both ways from the road side and crossed over into the open field. The long shadows of end-of-day sliced through the new green grass and weeds that infiltrated the field. Harry watched as the cat crouched low, its haunches twitching and then disappeared after prey.
Prey and predator, he thought. I can be the prey or I can be the predator. Wishing he could shut off his brain and think of something else, made him also realize that the shades of night were closing in.
Harry got up stiffly, feeling the cold crawling up his legs. He’d been motionless for over an hour. Now the first stars of night were crawling out of the pinks and orange hues of the sunset and twinkling brilliantly against an indigo night sky. A grinning sliver of a moon sat on the horizon like an invisible silly Cheshire cat.
Harry knew the Dursley’s would not be worried about him, probably not even know that he was gone until they went up to bed. They would not be like true parents who would wonder if he’d been hurt, been in an accident or had someone assault him.
“I have no parents, he said to the growing darkness. “No one knows what I’m doing right now; if I’m happy or sad.” The thoughts made him, at first sad, and then, angry at himself. “It’s just rubbish to feel sorry for yourself!”
He was about to head down the street when he heard a voice come out of the dark, from beneath a spreading tree. He hadn’t noticed when he sat down that the stone fence bordered a garden, overgrown with lush vegetation and greenery. “Hello, son,” the man said.
Startled, Harry jerked around. He’d reached for his wand tucked into his pants pocket and withdrew his empty hand slowly.
He saw a short, fat man slowly walk to the fence bracing himself on a cane. He wore a white tee shirt tucked into large clown-like pants of plaid. His hair was white and cut short, almost to the scalp; where there was hair.
“Sorry,” Harry gulped, “I didn’t mean to trespass.”
“No problem,” the man said his head nodding in palsied jerks. He smiled. “I’ve watched you sit there for an hour boy. You’ve got the world on yer shoulders.” He strolled like a sailor on a rolling ship up to the fence and stuck out his free hand. “People call me Tut. Real name is Hugo. I got the name Tut because I was born the day they opened King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.”
Harry stopped short and then extended his hand slowly. “Harry,” he said, “my name’s Harry.” He knew the man was a muggle.
The man nodded. “Couldn’t help but hear you. Wasn’t trying to eavesdrop,” he said, bracing himself against the fence on the other side. He examined the field across from them. It was now almost completely in dark. “I’ve heard young men like you who’d sit in a fox hole and give up. Then there’d be some who’d be laying there in the mud, legs blown off and still have the fightin‘ spirit left in ‘em. Boy, I haven’t heard anyone talk the way you talked since the war, but I know when I hear someone preparing to die. It‘s not what ya said,” he breathed looking over to Harry, “it‘s the way you said it.”
Harry stared at the man’s friendly face, the man once again looking off into the distance. He knew the man was caught up in some ancient memory. Then the milky, aged eyes turned his way.
“Can’t be nothing’ that a healthy young man like you should be worried about,” he said. “But obviously appearances ain’t everythin‘. I will say one thing. It’s not my business who or what you’re dealin’ with laddie, but I’ll go a’ead with what I’m thinkin’ anyway. I faced some serious things in my life. Stuff that scared me to death. When I was young, I wasn’t proud of the fact that I was scared. But I learned it was natural; natural to not want to ‘ave somethin’ bad happen to the people ya love and to yerself, if ya know what I mean.”
Harry’s ears were hearing the words from the soft drone of the man’s voice. He drained the meaning from them and thirsted for more.
“I hear ya talkin’ about friends and such, ‘bout not puttin’ ‘em at risk, about be responsible fer them.” He shook his head and the jowls wobbled, as he continued, “I gotta tell ya that it’s not yer choice. Wasn’t mine anyway. We were in it together, me and me mates. I could’na done it without ‘em and they; well I hope they felt the same, cuz there were a few that gave their lives fer me. I‘ll never ferget ‘em. I know that I would‘na hesitated to risk myself for them; and did, many a time,” Tut said in a low, soft voice.
He cleared his throat in an unhealthy cough, turned and called out loud and clear, “Ruby, Ruby.” His head turned to the open field and Harry saw the sleek figure of the black cat run across the road and jump over the fence. “So here I am. I continued on livin’, an they didn’t. But we’ll meet up agin and I’ll have stories to tell, I will. It don‘t mean I don‘t miss‘em even now.”
“Did you stop being scared?” Harry asked.
He breathed in a gulp of the night air and said with a phlegmy voice, “ Nope. It didn’t stop me from fightin’, I just got over bein’ ashamed about it. Every good soldier is scared, Harry. We all have our share of hurt from watchin’ those close to us die. But it is the way of it you see. And we do it for a reason.“
“What reason?“ Harry asked quietly.
“To protect those we leave behind. To save our way of life. You pick one. It don’t matter, it’s personal ya see. Whatever ya choose, that’s why ya fight. That‘s what yer willin‘ ta die for.” He scratched his pug nose and waved a hand under his whiskered chin. “Good luck to ya Harry.”
Without turning around he started off back to the house and said, “Jus’ remember, ya can’t do it all. The world is a big place. Ya can’t fight a war by yerself.” The short legs in the loose trousers took the man down the uneven, overgrown cobbled path and he disappeared into the dark.
Harry stood for a moment, stared at the dark house, turned and headed down the street. This time his mind had a different fantasy. This time he felt his hand wrap around his wand, felt the tingling sensation he always had when he and his wand were One.
“Your not going to get me or anyone else you foul, evil, inhuman….” Harry breathed with determination. “You’ll have to face me one of these days Voldemort. Before you take another person from me, you’ll have to face me! And I‘ll be ready!”
The figure of the boy disappeared into the kaleidoscope colors of the street lamps, house lights and burnt orange dying sunset.
Dark glittering eyes watched until the figure could not be seen anymore. With a dramatic flourish the cloak was swept up and over the man who stood in the shadows and he was gone.
Ruby watched from the stone fence, studied the furtive figure, hissed, arched her back and then, disappeared into the garden.
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