Uncle Vernon cleared his throat again and looked at Harry. "Happy Christmas, boy. Welcome back."
"Thanks, Uncle Vernon," Harry replied, shifting and hitching his bag up on his shoulder. "Happy Christmas. I'll just, er, get out of your way."
Aunt Petunia didn't say anything as Harry crossed through the room and out into the hallway, but Harry hadn't really expected her to. Dudley overtook him and darted up the stairs before Harry could hang up his coat in the hallway.
"Hurry up, Harry, your present is in my room!"
"I'm coming, just give me a second," Harry said, grinning a bit. Behind the door he'd just come through, Uncle Vernon's deep voice grumbled something, which incited an outpouring from Aunt Petunia.
Without his ear pressed up against the door, the words were muffled and indistinct, but Harry'd spent eleven years classifying and reacting to his relatives' various negative intonations, and he could define these easily. Uncle Vernon was using his 'I'm trying terribly hard to be patient, but one wrong word out of you, boy, and it'll be the cupboard for you for a week!' voice, whereas Aunt Petunia was using her 'even though I have no proof that you broke my favourite picture frame, and in fact, it's almost certainly Dudley's fault, I still cannot believe that you thought you could get away with it, you're such a horrid child!' voice.
It was weird, listening to them use those voices on someone else. Especially each other. It didn't take a genius to figure out what they were arguing about, either. The way they'd both looked at Dudley when he dragged Harry into the room was explanation enough.
Harry hung up his coat, dropped his boots, and hurried up the stairs after Dudley. The next six days couldn't pass quickly enough.
"Is it still too soon to ask how you're enjoying Privet Drive?"
Harry set his quill down, rubbed his eyes, and picked up the mirror. It was mid-afternoon on his third day at the Dursleys, and he was working on his Charms essay in his bedroom. He'd found that the tension between Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon really only tended to saturate the downstairs. If he stayed in his room during the day, above the flood level, it was almost like any other holiday at the Dursleys. Awkward and uncomfortable, but he didn't actually want to pack his things and flee in the night.
"Enjoying isn't even in the same country as the word I'd use," Harry said, propping his chin up on his palm and staring down at Sirius's face. "My essays will be detailed, though."
Sirius laughed, which Harry thought was somewhat cruel.
"Petunia was always a delight to be around when we were younger," he said, leaning closer to the mirror. "Don't tell Remus, and James would have killed me if he'd known, but when I first met her, I smuggled a few pranks along. Replaced her hand soap with frog spawn, added a few nose biting teacups to her china set, that sort of thing."
Harry's mouth dropped open. "Sirius!"
"I'd heard stories about her," Sirius said in his own defense. "She was awful to Lily about magic. She deserved it, if you ask me."
Harry shook his head. "I can't believe you."
From downstairs, Harry heard what sounded like a cupboard banging, followed by a low shout.
"-you can't POSSIBLY think I'd-"
"-don't understand your selfishness!"
Closer to hand, Harry heard a door open and shut. He sighed.
"Sirius, I have to go."
Sirius, who couldn't have heard the background sounds Harry was attuned to, took one look at his face and nodded, his face creased with sympathy.
"You don't have to stay there for the rest of the holiday," he reminded Harry. "You can come back whenever you want, just say the word. Bring Dudley."
As if on cue, there was a knock at Harry's door. He shook his head. "You know my uncle wouldn't let him come. You're that convict on the telly. I'll talk to you later."
Dudley's voice filtered in through the door. "Harry?"
"The offer's always open, either way. Talk to you soon, Harry."
Harry propped the empty mirror up against his inkwell. "Come in, Dudley,"
Dudley came in and shut the door behind him. "I'm having trouble with my essay," he said, showing Harry the parchments he'd brought with him.
"Er," Dudley glanced down at the parchment. "Astronomy."
"Oh, you only need ten inches and a diagram of four of the constellations," Harry said, playing along. "You can copy mine if you want."
Dudley shoved Harry's blankets out of the way and sat down cross legged at the foot of Harry's bed. "Thanks."
They worked in silence for a while. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon fought respectably. Usually, you didn't even know they were having an argument until one of them raised their voice just a little bit too much. Harry hated it. It made it difficult to predict the beginning or end of an argument, since Harry and Dudley usually only heard snatches.
It was a gamble whenever Harry ventured downstairs for food. He might make it to the kitchen and make sandwiches, only to come back out into the hallway and find that they were arguing in the front room and had left the doors open. He hated being near them when they fought. His heart beat a little faster and his movements became clumsier; it felt as though the two of them might spot him and suddenly decide he was a better outlet for their anger.
Dudley made everything much worse. He completely refused to acknowledge his parents' fighting out loud, which made the only potential ally Harry might have in the house null. On the other hand, whenever they started up again, he found Harry and came up with some inevitably uncomfortable topic that had absolutely nothing to do with his parents or the muggle world, and pushed it.
"I found another one of those letters Draco kept sending you over the summer," Dudley said, which was just the sort of thing Harry meant.
Harry nodded and scratched another sentence into his essay.
"You should read this one, it's a good one," Dudley continued. Harry dropped his quill and turned around in his seat.
"You read one of my letters?" he asked, irritated. Dudley let a sly grin spread across his face.
"No, but it got your attention." He pulled a scroll out from under his Astronomy diagrams and showed it to Harry. Sure enough, it was written on the same rich parchment as all of Draco's other letters. Dudley leaned back against the wall and looked down at the scroll. "Although, maybe I should read it, if you won't."
Harry stood up and snatched the parchment out of Dudley's loose grip. He glared as he returned to his seat, ripping open the letter just to get Dudley to shut up.
"I've already read most of Draco's letters," he grumbled. "Why do you care so much if I read them, anyway?"
Dudley shrugged. "Because he's your best friend, and friends read each other's letters."
Harry stopped halfway through unrolling the scroll and stared at Dudley. "Have you just forgotten last year?" he asked incredulously. "How he acted? And what his father did?"
Dudley shifted on the bed and pushed his parchments into a neater pile. "Well, yeah," he said, slowly, looking down at his hands. "But, sometimes... people make big terrible awful mistakes, and they make you miserable for a long time, but... but you forgive them anyway because you want them in your life and they're sorry."
He paused and darted a quick glance up at Harry's face. "I mean, right? That's what you do."
No ready response came to mind, so Harry sat in dumb silence in the face of this outpouring. He looked back down at the scroll he'd been unrolling and willed himself to say something.
Dudley's real meaning was obvious, but Aunt Petunia didn't act like she was sorry. A part of Harry thought Dudley would be better off not forgiving her at all, but he couldn't just tell Dudley to reject his mother.
Instead, he stared down at Draco's letter without reading it, until the moment was broken by another bout of raised voices from downstairs.
"Boys! Wash up, dinner in ten!"
Harry groaned into his History of Magic textbook. He'd been using it as a pillow after skimming through a particularly boring section on some great bloodletting in the fourth century and giving up. He unstuck his face from a portrait of Sidra the Severe and rubbed his eyes.
Aunt Petunia's call had sounded cheerful, which Harry found more annoying than anything else. Experience of the past week told Harry that the more cheerful she sounded, the more time he'd spend that night gritting his teeth as she tried to pretend she had a perfect family and Dudley played along.
Before Harry could pull himself out of his seat, there was a knock on his door and Dudley poked his head in.
"Hey Harry, quickly before dinner, can you help me with this?"
At Harry's nod, Dudley stepped fully into the room and pushed the door closed behind him. "It's for that colour changing spell. I can't tell if I'm doing the wand movement right."
Harry nodded and gestured to Dudley's wand. "Let's see, then."
Dudley took a deep breath and waved his wand in a half arc and a flick over his essay, which they needed to be able to change to their house colours in front of Flitwick when they turned them in after break.
"No, you've got the flick wrong," Harry said, picking up his own wand. "It's an upward flick at the end of the first syllable, and you're doing a weird kind of swooping flick. Remus showed me before I left Devon, watch."
Harry demonstrated the wand movement Remus had taught him a week ago, and Dudley watched with his eyebrows pulled together.
"Try it," Harry said, and watched as Dudley did the flick backward. "No, don't move your hand to your left, it's my left. Your right."
He stood up and turned away from Dudley, which meant that when Aunt Petunia knocked on the slightly ajar door, it fell open to show Harry waving his wand while Dudley stood behind it, watching.
"Put that horrible stick away and come down to dinner," Aunt Petunia said from the hallway, with a bite in her voice that Harry hadn't heard since last holiday. "Have you seen Dudley?"
Harry lowered his wand and stared at her, unable to stop himself from sneering a bit as he pulled the door all the way open to reveal Dudley on the other side.
He dropped the look the second he saw Dudley's face, which had fallen into something lower than the cheerful denial he'd been sporting all week.
"Dudley," he said, but Dudley wasn't looking at him.
"Horrible stick, mum?" he asked, pressing his mouth into a shaky line. "I thought you said it was all fine."
"Oh honey, I didn't mean it like that," she said, putting a hand to her throat and trying to laugh it off. "Of course it's fine, Diddydums. Now come downstairs, dinner is ready."
Dudley didn't move. "How did you mean it, then?"
Harry took a slow, smooth step backward, pressing himself against the wall as he watched Petunia's smile falter.
"Mum, if you think magic is horrible, why did you come back? If you think-" His voice cracked, and he swallowed hard. "If you think I'm horrible-"
"Dudley!" Petunia shook her head and looked hurt. Harry couldn't tell for sure, but he thought it was genuine. "I would never say such a thing! Don't ever say things like that about your mother. Of course I don't think you're horrible, sweetie-"
"If you think magic is horrible, then you think I'm horrible, because I'm magic," Dudley pointed out, his voice getting louder as he went. He showed her the wand in his hand as he spoke. "I have a horrible stick, too."
Shaking her head, Petunia stepped closer to Dudley and smoothed her hand across his hair. "No, that's not true, honey. I still love you."
Dudley leaned away from her hand. "Even though you hate my magic?"
Petunia shook her head and reached out again. "No, darling! I was going to say, even if I -" Her mouth twisted in the pause. "-don't exactly love what you do."
Dudley's face crumpled, and to Harry's surprise, tears started to leak out of the corners of his eyes. These weren't the alligator tears of their childhood. These were genuine distress, and as Dudley stepped back out of his mother's grasp, Harry stepped forward.
"That's not how it works," Harry said in Dudley's place. Petunia looked around, as though for the source of an irritating buzzing. She frowned when she spotted him near the wall.
"You were not invited to this conversation," she snapped, putting her hands on her hips like she was getting ready to shout at him. Harry took a deep breath and talked over her.
"Dudley is magic," he said loudly, angrily. "It's not just a hobby he has on the weekend that you can disapprove of and ignore. He's going to have girlfriends who are witches. He's going to get a job in the wizarding world when we graduate from our magic school."
"He doesn't have to if he doesn't want to," she said, her attention totally on Harry now.
"You mean he doesn't have to if you don't want him to," Harry retorted. "Dudley likes being a wizard. He's good at it. He's happy at Hogwarts."
Petunia glared. "Dudley can speak for himself." She turned to look at Dudley, who had gotten his emotions under control and shook his head at her.
"Harry's right," he said. "I'm happy being magic. It's who I am, mum."
"It's only a small part, though," Petunia said, nodding at Dudley with her eyes wide. "Right, sweetie? It's not all you are."
Dudley's forehead creased, and he looked around at Harry for help.
"It's big enough to matter!" Harry exclaimed. He wished he could grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. The look on Dudley's face should have been enough to tell her that everything she was saying was as wrong as it was possible to be.
Petunia rounded on him. "This is a private conversation between me and my son," she began in a frosty tone.
"That you're having in my room!" Harry pointed out, gesturing around at his desk and wardrobe.
"The room that you live in in my house, under my family's discretion," she said in a low, dangerous voice. "You would do well to remember your place and show some respect."
"Show respect for what?" Harry shouted, moving to stand between Petunia and Dudley. This conversation was a long time in coming, and it was almost a relief to get it all out. "You only live here because Uncle Vernon lets you! You have no right to come in here and start harassing Dudley! You should never have come back, why don't you just lea-"
Harry felt the sharp pain on his cheek before he realised she'd slapped him. He fell back a step and pressed his own palm to the spot, staring at her with incredulity.
"Dudley is my son and I will raise him as I see fit," Petunia said. "You, on the other hand, are not my son, and therefore you have no say in the choices this family makes. You-"
The rumble of a throat clearing had all three of them looking around at the doorway. All the shouting must have roused Uncle Vernon from wherever he'd been in the house, and now he stood staring at Aunt Petunia, his face rapidly turning bright red with anger.
"Petunia, you promised," he said in one of his angriest voices. Harry took another unconscious step back and bumped shoulders with Dudley.
"No, you don't understand, Vernon-" Petunia began, but an angry Uncle Vernon wasn't someone to be placated.
"I asked you not to talk to the boys about their magic," he said sharply. "If we agreed on nothing else, Petunia, we agreed on that!"
Petunia shook her head. "Dudley wasn't-"
"I won't have you filling Dudders's head with your nonsense, Pet!" Vernon gripped the doorknob in one of his big, purple hands, and glared at her. "He's a fine son, and he's our son. He's going to grow up and be a fine man, and you're going to let him, magic or no."
This was clearly an argument they'd had before, because Petunia threw up her hands and exclaimed, "He could just not-"
"I'm paying for him to go to the best school of magic in the country!" Vernon shouted, his face purpling. "He's not going to waste my money by growing up to become an accountant because you can't-"
"Vernon, I've told you, I don't-"
"You're not going to treat him like we trea-"
"Let me finish a sentence, Vernon Dursley!" Petunia shrieked, crimson cheeked and balling her hands up into fists.
"I won't!" Vernon bellowed right back. "Your opinions have no place in this house! In front of my son!"
Petunia breathed in deeply through her nose, and when she spoke again, her voice was thick with anger and tears. "Would you prefer that I had stayed gone, Vernon? Would you prefer it if I stayed away from your son?"
"Maybe..." It was Dudley. Harry could feel his shoulder shaking as he stood next to him. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon seemed surprised that he was even there, let alone interrupting. "We're glad you came back, but maybe you should go. Again."
The only sound in the room was the ever present background buzzing of muggle appliances. Petunia's face was white and fixed.
"We can... we can write. But you don't want to be here, mum." Dudley sniffed and shook his head. "You're miserable. I thought- but, well, you are. Harry's right, you should just leave."
Harry blinked. He thought he was the only one of the two of them that had noticed how Aunt Petunia really felt. He shifted uncomfortably at being brought into the conversation, but Dudley's shoulder followed as he moved. Harry got the hint. He stayed where he was.
"Dudders, sweetie." Petunia swallowed. "You don't mean that. You don't really think that."
Dudley shook his head, angrily swiping tears off his cheeks. "I do, though. I'm going to get a wizard's job and marry a witch and I want you to be okay with that and if you're not, I want you to be someday, and we're going to hate each other if you stay."
Petunia shook her head. Her face had taken on a pinched quality, and she clutched at her upper arms, wrapped across her torso. "I could never hate you, Dudley, don't ever say that."
Harry could hear Dudley take a harsh breath. "I don't want to hate you, mum. And I don't want you and dad to hate each other, either."
The tears that had been pooling in Aunt Petunia's eyes finally fell, and she pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at her cheekbones carefully.
"Well." She swallowed and pressed the handkerchief to her mouth for a long, silent moment. "That seems to be all there is to say. Dinner is on the table. I'll get my things."
She left the room, and Harry and Uncle Vernon stared at each other, for a lack of anywhere else to look. Vernon cleared his throat and looked away first.
"Harry," he said, and cleared his throat again. "Could you send a.. an owl, contact that man who came last summer. He mentioned safe houses. With the war..."
Harry chewed on the inside of his lip and nodded. He knew that Sirius was in contact with Kingsley through the Order. He picked up his mirror from the desk and looked at Uncle Vernon out of the corner of his eye before calling Sirius's name.
"Wotcher, Harry!" Sirius grinned up out of the mirror. "Nymphadora is visiting our humble home! She says wotcher too."
Harry could hear another person muttering faintly in the background, but it was at that moment that Sirius caught sight of Harry's face and dropped the joviality.
"What's wrong? Do you need something?"
"Yeah," he said, glancing up at Uncle Vernon again. He seemed curious about the mirror and Harry's conversation. Dudley, who had already seen the mirror, was still standing next to Harry and shaking. Harry pressed their shoulders together bracingly.
"Aunt Petunia isn't going to be staying here anymore," he said. He would have softened his words for Dudley's sake if he'd known how. "Uncle Vernon wants her in a safe house. It should probably be as muggle as possible."
Sirius frowned. "Hang on." The image in the mirror blurred as it was passed, and soon Tonks's unusually serious face filled the frame.
"Did I hear you need a safe house for a muggle?"
"Yeah, as soon as possible," he said. "She's packing now."
"I'm on it," she said. "We'll have someone over there within the hour, Harry."
Harry gave her a brief, relieved smile. "Thanks, Tonks."
The mirror went blank and he set it down on the desk.
With that conversation ended, the three of them fell silent again, unsure of what to say as Aunt Petunia packed in the room across the hall.
Sure enough, it was only another half an hour before the doorbell rang. Harry pulled the door open to Kingsley and Tonks, and stepped aside to allow them to enter.
"I think she's still in her room," he said, gesturing up the staircase. The two Aurors shared a glance which ended with a nod from Tonks.
"I'll go get her," she said. Her hair was a sober dirty blonde, and she gave Harry a reassuring smile as she passed on her way to the first floor.
Dudley and Uncle Vernon had relocated from Harry's tiny, crowded bedroom into the kitchen. Kingsley followed Harry through and refused a seat with a shake of his head. Uncle Vernon stood up on their entrance, and stayed standing as well. The tension thickened, and to avoid it, Harry dropped into the chair next to Dudley's and slumped in his seat.
Uncle Vernon cleared his throat. "This safe house. I assume she'll be comfortable?"
Kingsley linked his hands behind his back and nodded. "She'll be staying in a well protected home with a small group of similar individuals.
"I see," Uncle Vernon said, squinting. "Individuals who-"
"-are non-magical, but are aware of our world and require protection."
The incredibly formal tone Kingsley was using made the wait all the more awkward, so it was something of a relief when Tonks appeared in the doorway.
"There isn't another floor, is there?" she asked, looking concerned. "She's not up there."
Kingsley straightened his posture and pulled out his wand, looking concerned despite himself. Tonks joined him, and together they cast nonverbally. Shaking his head, Kingsley moved toward the door while tucking his wand away in his sleeve. "She's not in the house. Either she'll have hired a cab, or..."
"I'll alert the guard," Tonks said. She passed Harry and Dudley on her way to the back door, and paused. "Kingsley's probably right, but stay indoors until we give the all clear."
Harry nodded, and the Aurors disappeared. Dudley hovered near the kitchen window, but when Uncle Vernon heaved a sigh and sat down, he pressed his mouth into a line and disappeared out into the hallway. Harry took one look at Uncle Vernon and followed.
It turned out Dudley had gone back upstairs to Harry's room, which only made sense when Harry remembered that his window looked out onto the street and Dudley's didn't. Dudley sat at Harry's desk, leaving the bed for Harry, and they waited.
Sure enough, after about ten minutes, Tonks appeared near Number Seven, walking toward the Dursley residence. By the time she reached the front step, Dudley and Harry were waiting for her in the front hall.
"She's fine," Tonks reported, giving them a mildly relieved grin. "Kingsley was right, she was in a taxi."
"Are you bringing her back?" Dudley asked. It was the first thing he'd said since Harry called Sirius. "We didn't say goodbye."
Tonks blinked, and the grin slid off her face. "Oh." She looked back and forth between Harry and Dudley. "Er, I don't think we can. The, ah, magic on the, the safe house can only be disrupted for so long... It's just safer if we move quickly, yeah? Erm, I'm really, really sorry."
She looked really, really sorry. Harry glanced at Dudley, who swallowed and nodded. "Tell her I'll write to her," he instructed, and Tonks agreed.
Once the door was closed and the house was quiet again, Dudley went back up to Harry's room, apparently to check the street outside one more time.
"I'm sorry," Harry blurted. The silence had been killing him. Dudley frowned, confused.
"For- I made the whole thing worse," Harry explained, dropping into his desk chair. Dudley stood back from the window and looked at him like he was stupid. "I shouldn't have yelled so much."
"You were right, though."
Harry blinked at the carpet, which seemed to upset Dudley even more. He dropped down onto Harry's bed and continued.
"No, Harry, you were right. She was wrong." His face crumpled again, but he continued. "I agreed with everything you said."
Despite Dudley's insistence, Harry still felt guilty. As a result, when it seemed like Dudley just wanted to sit and not say anything for a while, Harry let him. And when Dudley ended up falling asleep on Harry's bed, Harry propped his feet up on the nightstand, slumped down in his chair, and shut his eyes.
A/N: Any issues, let me know. I really feel like I should have had someone beta this before posting, and not just for grammar and spelling. This was a complex chapter to write.