The Last Hurdle
"Lunch?" Harry suggested. "My treat. We'll celebrate Draco's magical freedom. How about Muggle London?"
"Typical, Potter," Draco snarked. "Takes us to a place where we can't use magic, just when I finally can? You're all heart."
Harry grinned. "Let's go see a movie, too! The Mask of Zorro is playing at three o'clock. I saw it in the muggle paper."
"I'm in," Neville said enthusiastically.
"Fine," Draco agreed. "That alright with you, Luna?"
Luna beamed at them. "I've never been to the cinema."
They had a solid two hours before the show began, so they went to a nearby Italian restaurant, where they had a lively conversation about rock music and everyone's favorite songs from both muggle and wizarding bands. Draco and Neville were very tightlipped about their plans for their band, and whether they would sing covers or their own songs. When it was time to order, Harry asked for lasagna, and savored every bite of it. He had a flash of memory of Aunt Petunia making it, and how lovely it had smelled, and how there had only been the crusty edges left in the pan for him after everyone else had taken theirs. But not this time. He cleaned his plate and was quite full, which didn't bother him. He was about to go sit in a theatre for the next couple of hours, so other than the remote danger of dropping into a food-induced coma during the film, he'd be fine.
Harry signaled to the waiter for the check before anyone else at the table tried to interfere.
"Your tab has been paid for, sir," the server told him.
"What?" Harry asked in confusion, but then he saw Dudley making his way over with a nervous smile. His cousin had lost more weight, and looked fit and well dressed. And tall.
"Hi Harry," Dudley said, holding out his hand for a shake. "How are you?"
"Er, fine, thanks," Harry replied. He hated the way his stomach clenched, and knew with absolute certainty that he was going to lose his lunch over this. "Um, thanks for picking up the check. You didn't need to do that."
"Of course I did," Dudley contradicted awkwardly.
Harry looked around at the curious faces of his friends and remembered his manners, although why he would worry was still in question. "These are my friends, Luna, Neville, and Draco. And this is my cousin Dudley." Dudley circled the table and shook hands with each of them. Harry was more than shocked. "What's gotten into you, Dud? It's not like you to want to even talk to me."
"I told you before that I did," Dudley replied. The nervousness was still there, but now Harry could see his determination as well. "And what's the deal with your age?"
Draco was watching Harry struggle to handle whatever was going on in his head at this unexpected confrontation. He flashed a look at Neville, who decided to speak up for Harry.
"It's a condition. A magical one," Neville said with a tone of warning. "It's involuntary."
"From all of that bad stuff that happened, right?" Dudley asked.
Harry sighed, his gaze set on the distance. "Yeah," he admitted, and felt a deep flush surge up from his neck.
"But you're getting better?" Dudley asked. "I can tell, because you look a bit older than when I last saw you."
Harry nodded, he but couldn't speak about this with his cousin. He just couldn't.
"Harry, can we please get back in touch? I'm not living with Mum and Dad. I barely speak to them. I'd rather think of you as my family than them at this point."
Harry clenched his jaw. His eyes were filling and he was losing it. "Why?" he asked, finally looking at Dudley.
"Because they're horrible, and you're not," Dudley said simply.
Luna slipped her hand into Harry's. "Perhaps you could start by exchanging letters," she said to both of them.
Harry squeezed her hand and nodded, but he'd dropped his gaze back down to the table. Draco and Neville were each about to intervene on Harry's behalf when Dudley pulled a business card out of his pocket and handed it to Harry.
"That's my telephone number and address," Dudley said. "I'm in sales - selling cellular phones. Aunt Marge passed away and left me a bit of money too, so I'm doing okay on my own. If you tell me your address, I'll send the first letter, okay?"
Harry shot anxious looks at the two wizards across from him. Draco conjured a slip of paper under the table and passed it to Harry. Dudley handed him a pen, so Harry reluctantly wrote his full address at Grimmauld Place.
"Thanks Harry," Dudley said as he pocketed the paper and his pen. "I'll send you something soon. Nice to meet each of you."
Harry watched his cousin walk away while he tried to reclaim control of his emotions, but between the lasagna, that now felt like an enormous rock in his stomach, and the humiliation he was unable to define at the moment, it was a losing battle. Luna still had his hand, and now her thumb caressed his.
"I think we should see the movie another day, Harry," she said. "And you should have some time to yourself, shouldn't you?"
Harry nodded. He flashed an apologetic look at his two male friends as he got up and rushed out of the restaurant to find a place to disapparate.
"Let's go back to the manor," Draco said.
Severus was at Malfoy Manor when they returned, so all of Harry's parental alternates were present to hear the recap of what had just taken place. Among the lot of them, they'd only ever heard that Harry had been denied food and had slept in a cupboard for a good portion of his childhood while in the custody of the Dursleys. All of which was bad enough, but it was difficult to connect Harry's response to seeing Dudley with just those facts alone.
"A large part of his struggle with this syndrome must go back to his treatment by his family," Lucius said.
"People who are mistreated in that way develop a convoluted self image," Severus said quietly. "I've touched on it slightly with him, because I had similar traumas in the house I grew up in. But there is no real way to undo the damage unless Harry is able to let it go."
"He used to have nightmares, literally every night, in school," Neville told them. "Ron watched out for him, but he's a heavy sleeper, so at times, I'd go check on Harry. After the Tournament, things got much worse. When he came back for fifth year, he started putting up silencing charms around his bed. He wouldn't talk about what was going on in his dreams. One time, though, I heard him pleading to an Uncle Vernon that he couldn't help it. I have no idea what he meant."
"That was also when he was receiving snippets of Voldemort's conscious thoughts," Severus added. His stomach was clenched now with a tension that he imagined rivaled Harry's.
"Harry was humiliated that his cousin saw his Failure To Thrive Syndrome," Luna said. She tilted her head as they all gave her their attention. "He told me once, when we were first becoming friends, that he hated how powerless a bully can make you feel." She had her benign expression on her face, but she circled her gaze around to all of the Malfoys and Severus.
Severus' pallor was taking on the shade of gray that accompanied his deepest shame and guilt. "I will go and see if I can locate him. He may have simply gone home."
Harry had not gone home.
Severus found Hermione sitting at the kitchen table with her books and notes for class.
"What's wrong?" she asked in alarm, as there was no misreading his mood.
"Harry saw his cousin at lunch today and he left upset. Is he here?"
Hermione sighed, knowing instinctively that Harry's upset would somehow overlap his unresolved issues with Severus, and probably Lucius and Draco, too. "He's not here. I have an idea of where he may be. I think you should let me go to him, Severus. I'll send for you if I think it's wise."
He sat heavily in a chair across from her, elbows on the table, just as she stood to make her way out to the back stoop to disparate. Hermione couldn't help circling over to him, tilting up his head, and giving him a warm smooch. "He knows you love him. And he loves you, too."
She left him with his thoughts.
Hermione apparated to Godric's Hollow and made her way to the graveyard, entering so that she'd approach the Potters' gravesite from behind Harry. She knew to take care with how she approached, and she spotted her best friend on his knees in front of the gravestone. She moved slowly until she was beside him, and then knelt as well, but left some space between them.
"I don't want to talk about it, Hermione," Harry said roughly. She could see he'd been crying, but for the moment, he was bubbling with rage. "It's nobody's bloody business."
"Alright," she said softly. "Does it feel better to be here, than at home?"
"For the moment," he said. He glared at her. "I suppose you've got me all figured out, then?"
She shook her head. "I only know that you were having a great time, and then your cousin showed up," she told him. "And that even though it was a civil meeting, that you were really bothered, and needed to leave."
Harry scrubbed at his eyes but then braced his hands on his knees and began to rock forward and backward. "Why does he want to be part of a family with me now? Why not when I really, really needed one?"
His entire body convulsed with the force of the sobs that were wrenched from his chest, and Hermione watched helplessly as he collapsed entirely, forehead resting on his knees, hands laced behind his head. Her heart was in her throat as she scooted a little closer and lay her hand on his back, but let him cry without interfering. She'd never seen Harry like this. She'd always suspected he'd suffered very deep wounds from his childhood with the Dursleys, and now she was witnessing what he'd been holding in, all this time.
Harry eventually sat back up, chest heaving, eyes on his parents' names on the marker stone. "They were pathetic, obnoxious people that I'd never want to know anyway. They hated me - hated having to have me in their home. They would tell people I was wayward and had to go to a special school for corrupt juveniles. They told my primary teachers I was a trouble maker and to keep me on a tight leash," he swiped at his eyes. "I hated them, too. I don't know why it bothered me so much. Why it still bothers me."
"I think it was simply because you were young, and you had no one else," Hermione said softly. She was struggling not to cry with him as he nodded agreement to her comment. The sadness in his profile was heartbreaking. "You deserved so much more. So much more. You were such a wonderful boy, Harry, I don't know how they couldn't have adored you. The flaw was with them, not you."
"I tell myself that, all of the time, but I still feel like a reject, when it really comes down to it," Harry said. He was still keeping his eyes on the stone. "And I'll tell you something," his voice broke again and his shoulders shook as he struggled for a few moments before he could finish his thought, "starting at Hogwarts and having Snape go off on me first thing was just as bad. It was like a continuation of what I'd always known." He wiped his eyes and sniffed, finally conjuring a handkerchief to blow his nose. "And Lucius, and Draco…" He looked over at her finally. "How in the bloody hell did it ever play out like this? That we're all really good friends now? How, when Snape was the one who constantly reinforced my worst feelings about myself? And Draco. And Lucius, whenever I saw him. It was like all three of them could read my mind. Hermione, sometimes Snape would say the exact same insults to me as my uncle would. When I was littler, I actually thought they might know each other, or that my uncle had sought Snape out to warn him about me."
"Harry," Hermione asked carefully, "do you know why seeing Dudley got to you?"
He turned away again, this time glaring at his parents' names. "Because he saw me weak. I'm always bloody weak around him!"
"How are you weak, Harry?" she pushed.
"Do you really have to ask?" he demanded, but the emotion was turning away from rage and back to despair. "I'm a bloody fifteen year old weakling! Dudley's a man, living on his own, and I'm getting cuddles and reprimands from people I'm old enough to have adult relationships with!"
"I just don't see it that way, Harry," Hermione said. "I bet if you were to have a real conversation with Dudley, you'd find out that he's got a lot of hangups, and doesn't feel any more adult that you do, or than any of us do. And Harry, take a step back from yourself for a moment and really look at yourself. You have completely won over three of the most obnoxious men any of us have ever known, for Merlin's sake. They will all tell you without hesitation that they are better people for knowing you. For loving you. The Durleys would have been, too. Maybe Dudley still could be."
Harry sighed. "Don't do that, Hermione," he whined.
"Do what?" she asked, although she knew before he answered.
"Derail my rant so that I can't go completely off center," he griped, defeated. "Too late."
Hermione chuckled softly, but she stayed in place and waited to see what else Harry needed.
Harry rubbed his nose. "They all picked on you, too," he said somewhat sullenly. "Why didn't you shrink backwards?"
Hermione smiled sadly as she thought about how to answer him. "I think it's because I was raised with love. I knew I was awkward, and bossy, and annoying, but my parents adored me. I never complained to them about any of it because I didn't want to worry them, but I knew they were there if I needed them. I think that made all of the difference. For Ron, too." Now she scooted a little closer to him and stroked his hair for a moment. "And, Harry, even with my parents love, I'm not at all sure I could have withstood everything that you have, and still be mentally intact. At the very least, I'd have manifested something akin to the Failure To Thrive."
"Yes, you could have, Hermione," he said, looking at her again, emotions completely unguarded. "You're about as feisty as they come. No one could get the better of you."
She gave him a half smile. "I'm still human, Harry. I have my limits, and I actually get quite bothered by misadventure."
Harry snorted. "Hardly," he said derisively. "Miss Trouser Shrinker." He shook his head. "Who else but you would think of that?"
Hermione laughed shakily. "I was terrified, Harry. I'm really lucky to be someone who doesn't freeze up from fear." She stood up and held her hand out to him. "Severus looked positively nauseated with worry when I left to come look for you. Can you face him yet?"
Harry let her pull him to his feet. "I can't say this stuff to him," he said. "It was hard enough to say it to Lucius. Lucius was a selfish, arrogant, ponce before, for no good reason. He felt horrible about it, and all, but it had been a choice for him. But Severus was wounded, and hopeless, all of that time. He shouldn't have been such a bastard to me, but he was completely trapped in horrible circumstances"
"He was a grown man making a conscious choice to mistreat you. He could have left you alone. He didn't have to constantly provoke you and belittle you," Hermione said firmly. "And he should not be let off for the way he assaulted you with Occlumency."
Harry sighed in defeat.
Severus had the good sense to retreat to the parlor so that Harry could avoid him upon return if he so desired. And that's exactly what the younger wizard did. Hermione came in to sit with him until it was time for her to leave for her class.
"You look positively drained," Severus said to her as she walked in, disappointed that she sat in the chair across from him rather than joining him on the sofa. He was visibly tense, eyes now red-rimmed, and he still looked pasty.
"That was… difficult," she said softly. She held his gaze as she advised, "Brace yourself, Severus, it's not going to be easy to hear, but you need to get Harry to say the things to you that he just said to me. Give him a little while, if you can bear to." She smiled sadly at him. "I'll go back to my flat after class. Let's skip coffee tonight as well. That way, if you need open ended time with Harry, you'll have it."
"And when will I have open-ended time with you?" he growled.
Hermione's breath caught at the desire that flared from the innuendo in such a simple question. She stood and smirked at him to cover the intense need to giggle. "When Harry looks like an adult again," she said.
"Age seventeen, or nearly nineteen?" Severus asked as the floo roared to life.
Luna stepped through and gave them each her trademark innocent appraisal and a mild smile as if she was completely oblivious to the tension between them, but they both knew she could read it for exactly what it was.
"Ready?" Hermione asked Luna.
"Oh, yes," Luna said, turning to tell Severus, "I'm auditing Hermione's class tonight." She leaned forward, toward him slightly, and said conspiringly, "I'm posing as a muggle."
That got a smile out of Severus.
"See you later, Severus," Hermione said, leading the way to the kitchen, and the back stoop. "Oh, and I'm okay with seventeen, if you are," she called over her shoulder from the hallway.
Kreacher informed Severus that he'd taken a light dinner tray up to Harry at about eight o'clock. Severus had taken his meal in the kitchen alone and returned to the parlor. It was now nearly nine o'clock and he heard Luna return from Hermione's Uni class. The young witch waved to him as she passed by to take the stairs up to her room. Severus wondered idly if she was part seer. The girl had an uncanny ability to read circumstances and know exactly when to leave people alone, and exactly how to prod them forward when they were unsure. He nearly called her back to ask her advice on whether to continue to sit here feeling impotent, or to gather his nerve up to go knock on Harry's door, but he refrained when he heard the boy talking with her from one of the upper landings.
A few minutes later, Harry came in and plopped down in the chair Hermione had used earlier. He looked exactly as tense as Severus felt.
"You've been forced to face something again, ready or not," Severus prompted. "And it's time to address the worst that happened between you and I, when I was the adult, and you were the student, and I was an unrelenting bastard to you." Harry raised his eyes to hold Severus' stare. The older wizard could not read what he was being shown. "Perhaps you could begin by telling me about what induced the realization for you?"
"I finally got to have lasagna, and Dudley went and spoiled it," Harry said.
Severus blinked. "I'm not following."
"I sicked it all up, all over my parents' tombstone," Harry said bitterly. When Severus gave him a look of exasperation, he relented. "I finally see what triggers my stomach aches," Harry told the older wizard. "It happens when I feel powerless."
"And this relates to lasagna how?"
About an hour later, Harry had again expelled his inner turmoil, including the wretched truth about the headaches he'd suffered after remedial potions lessons, to the point of feeling depleted enough to not resist at all when Severus came over to him to pull him to his feet and into a hard hug. The older wizard was equally depleted but far more determined to work things through while the subject was on the table.
"Sit with me, Harry, I want to ask you about something else," Severus said as he led the boy over to the sofa and sat with his arm around him, holding him close. Harry scooted down a bit and leaned into Severus letting the man's chest be a pillow for his heavy head. "I've looked in on you on a couple of occasions while you slept and sensed charms in your bedroom. Are you using silencing charms while you sleep?" Harry huffed angrily and started to sit up. "Do not pull away, foolish boy, I'm simply asking to see if there is a connection to all of the rest of this? Do you consider yourself weak because you suffer night terrors?"
"Uhm, yeah," Harry said sarcastically, but he'd relaxed back against Severus.
"So you're ashamed of your nightmares, as if you should have control over them?"
Harry thought for a moment, eyes fixed on the flames in the fireplace, as per usual. He knew Severus was going to corner him into realizing he was being too hard on himself, and felt stupid that he couldn't anticipate what the older wizard had in ready response. "I'm ashamed that I have them at all," he admitted in defeat.
"If I were to confess to you that I had them, would you advise me to be ashamed?"
Harry sighed testily. "No," he said in a put out tone. "Ow," he said in a bored tone next, after Severus' long arm reached his heavy hand down and gave Harry a smack the side of his bum. After that, he was hugged again, so tightly that a laugh was forced out of him.
"I love you, Harry," Severus said with his chin resting on Harry's head. "So very much."
"I love you, too."
"And that's how I know I'm doing something right, for a change, hmmm?"
"If you say so," Harry said.
"I do." Severus told him. "And as for your nightmares, and your shame about them," he started.
"Luna beat you to it," Harry said. Severus couldn't see his face, but he could hear the smile that was there. "She suggested I might begin to grow much more rapidly if I talk about my dreams with people. Like her. Or you."
"And of course you readily agreed, with no argument," Severus said with exaggerated exasperation.