Dudley walked into Clayhall Park, checking to ensure the notes he took with him were securely pinned to one pocket of his shorts, and the key to his flat pinned to the other. He began to jog a route around a particular football pitch. A group of men had been playing a weekly game of footie there for the past several months and one in particular stood out to Dudley. He was tall, nearly as tall as Dudley himself, lanky to the point of being thin, with dark, thick hair that looked as if it was curly if allowed to grow beyond its close-cropped style. Dudley didn't know anything about the man other than the fact he played as if his life depended on it. Dudley kept half his attention on the game, trying to not look as if he was following the actions of the lithe figure playing goalie that captured his attention so fully. He doggedly continued to run, until he had nearly completed his thrice-weekly circuit of six miles, resolutely turning his focus away from the football match when he could feel his pace slowing to a near-walk. Consequently, it came as total surprise when the very person who haunted his thoughts careened off the pitch after the stray football.
Dudley attempted to dodge the man, but he only succeeded in skidding into the man. Unthinkingly, Dudley wrapped his arms around his erstwhile victim, twisting so he himself took the brunt of the fall, tweaking his ankle in the process. 'Sorry,' Dudley gasped, wheezing only a little. 'Didn't see you…'
'Don't be sorry. I ran straight into your path. The fault's entirely mine.'
Dudley was sure managed to mumble something in return, but he was staring at the man's full lower lip, surrounded by the day's bristly growth of beard. He wondered what it might feel like, heat pooling in his belly, as he it slowly dawned on him that he still had his arms around the man and flushed painfully. 'Blimey…' Dudley sat up, dislodging the man and jumped to his feet, wincing as his weight landed on the ankle he'd injured in the fall. 'Oh, bloody hell, that hurts…' he groaned, pulling his left foot off the ground.
'Let me call you a taxi,' the man said, starting for a stack of bags sitting to the side of the pitch.
'No, it's fine,' Dudley protested. 'It's just been twisted. I can walk it off.' He took a few experimental steps away, but was limping badly.
'Oi! Aaron! Are you playin' or not?' a player called from the pitch.
Aaron tossed the football from hand to hand, considering. He threw it to the other man. 'Not!' Aaron replied, darting to grab his bag and he returned to Dudley. 'At least let me buy you a cup of coffee and find some ice for that ankle,' he offered.
Dudley wiped the sweat from his face. 'Okay,' he said nonchalantly. Inside, he was nearly jumping with glee. He wasn't prepared for Aaron's arm around his waist. Aaron grinned at him.
'I know this great place on Longwood Gardens. We – the other blokes and I – go there after our game. Carrie, the lady that runs it, is used to us or the rugby boys coming in with scrapes and strains. She keeps a first aid kit behind the counter. Maybe she'll have an elastic bandage in there. Or we can send for one,' Aaron chattered, keeping up a steady stream of conversation. 'By the way, I'm Aaron,' he said. 'Rather belated, considering I've caused you an injury.'
'You run here a lot?'
'Every other day.' Dudley grimaced as his injured ankle twinged. 'Six miles a day.'
Aaron whistled in appreciation. 'That's dedication.'
Dudley gulped. 'Something like that.' It was far more than mere dedication. It kept all his fears at bay. 'You really don't have to keep supporting me…'
Aaron flashed him a brilliant smile. 'It's fine.' Aaron had noticed Dudley running around the pitch during his weekly football game with some of his school friends. Dudley had yet to miss a Sunday afternoon, even though Aaron and his friends often decamped to their favorite café when the weather was inclement. He was hard to miss. Dudley was just big. There was no other way to put it. He wasn't fat, or overly muscled, just fit. Aaron wondered if Dudley actually liked football, or if he had other reasons for choosing that particular pitch.
They managed to hobble to the crowded café Aaron indicated and he deposited Dudley into a chair at an empty table and disappeared inside. Dudley stretched out his ankle, peeling the top of his sock back to examine the extent of the injury. It didn't look terribly serious. It was only a little puffy and he could point his toes with minimal pain. Aaron returned, leading a grandmotherly woman holding a plastic bag full of ice in one hand and a drab green first aid kit in the other. 'Put your foot up here, luv, and let's have a look at it, shall we?' she told Dudley, patting her lap. Reluctantly, Dudley complied, and she gently worked his trainer off. She prodded it a little, then unzipped the first aid kit and pulled out an elastic bandage.
Aaron nudged Dudley. 'What're you having?'
Aaron mock shuddered. 'That's vile.'
'Acquired taste.' Dudley felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. 'And some water, too.' He had long ago ceased to add milk and sugar to his coffee or tea. He still had a photograph of himself before he started Fourth Form. He never wanted to be that person again. So he strictly regimented what he ate and exercised six days a week.
'Ought to have that ankle looked at by a doctor, luv,' Carrie told him, carefully wrapping the bag of ice in a clean towel, then set it over Dudley's ankle.
'If it's not better in the morning,' he promised.
Aaron once more circled back to the table, bearing two cups of steaming coffee and a bottle of water, tucked under one arm. 'Thanks, Carrie,' he said.
'Not a problem at all.' She gave Dudley's ankle a final pat and cradled it in her hands as she stood and set it down in the seat of the chair she vacated, then bustled back into the recesses of the café.
'So…' Aaron handed Dudley a mug. 'Dudley. Where are you from?'
'Little Whinging in Surrey. I live here in Barkingside. A flat that barely qualifies as a flat.' He sipped his coffee. 'You?'
'Grew up in London. And like you, I live here in Barkingside. I'm a solicitor. Mostly human-rights issues.'
Dudley looked down at his cup. 'I teach,' he muttered.
'You do? That's brilliant!' Aaron leaned forward. 'What do you teach?'
'Maths. Year Three. At Parkhill Junior School.' Dudley felt utterly tongue-tied and far out of his league.
'Are you seeing anyone?'
'At the moment? No.' It had been months since his last date.
'Would you like to have dinner this weekend? With me?' Aaron leaned back in his chair, sipping his coffee.
Dudley's eyes widened, his cup suspended halfway to his mouth. 'What?'
'Oh God. You're not gay,' Aaron whispered, stricken. 'I'm terribly sorry. It's just I've seen you watching the footie, and well, I could see you watching… me… I thought I saw you watching me…'
'Oh, no. I am. And I was…' Dudley took a sip of his coffee to hide his confusion. 'I was just a little surprised, that's all…'
'I don't get asked out very often,' Dudley stammered. 'Well, I don't go out much, either…'
Aaron chuckled. 'Got your mobile?'
Aaron sobered. 'Are you mad? Going out jogging without your mobile? What if you got hurt, and nobody was around to rescue you?' Aaron shook his head. He hailed a passing waiter. 'Let me use your pen, eh?' Taking the pen from the waiter, Aaron jotted his mobile number on a paper napkin and pushed it toward Dudley, then took out his mobile. 'What's your number?' Startled, Dudley gave it to Aaron. 'I'll give you a ring, then. You like chicken?'
'I like chicken.'
'Great. I'll make dinner Saturday night.' Aaron sat back in the small chair. 'Now then. If you won't let me get a taxi for you, maybe you'll share one with me?'
Dudley began to protest, then acquiesced. It was a long walk back to his flat. 'All right.'
Aaron grinned, seemingly pleased. 'And I'll ring you tomorrow.'
Aaron slid a pile of paperwork into the dark brown leather briefcase while he juggled with his mobile. He scrolled through the numbers in his contacts list and pressed the button to ring Dudley. 'Hello?' Dudley's voice sounded muzzy.
'How's the ankle?'
'Who is this?'
Aaron lifted the strap over his shoulder. 'Aaron. Bernstein. You ran over me in Clayhall Park yesterday.'
'You rang…' Dudley couldn't hide the awe coloring his voice.
Aaron strode toward the lift. 'Of course I did. I said I would.' He nodded to a colleague in greeting and continued, 'How's the ankle?'
Dudley grimaced and held up his well-wrapped ankle. 'Horrible. I woke up this morning, and it was the size of a bloody grapefruit. And blue.'
'That doesn't sound good.'
'Bad sprain. Told me to stay off it of it as much as I can and keep it wrapped. Gave me a set of crutches,' Dudley told him. 'It'll take a couple of weeks to heal, so no running for now,' he sighed.
'Do you need anything?'
'Can you stand company?' The silence spooled between them.
'Why?' Dudley blurted.
'Because I'd like to see you,' Aaron prodded.
'Oh. Erm. All right…' Dudley's throat tightened. 'Do you remember the address?'
'Yeah. I'm close to the City, so it'll be a few before I can get there.'
Dudley wildly glanced around the flat. It was, as usual, almost self-consciously clean, save for the trainers he'd dropped at the door last night. 'Brilliant.'
Aaron could practically feel apprehension coming in waves through his mobile. 'Relax, eh? Even if it was strewn with papers to grade, I wouldn't care. I'm coming to see you, not your flat.' Dudley's palpable unease gave Aaron pause. 'Unless you don't want me to drop by for a bit?'
'No. I mean, yes. I mean… it would be nice to see you.'
'Give me an hour.' Aaron disconnected the call and slid his mobile into the pocket of his trousers as he ran down the stairs to the Underground station. Dudley seemed to be a bundle of contradictions. Seemingly comfortable with himself, yet at the same time terrified to be himself. He shrugged as the doors of his train parted and he slipped inside, finding an empty seat.
Trained by his mother to never show up empty-handed, Aaron stopped at his favorite greengrocer's stall and stood examining the piles of fruit, hesitating because he had no idea if Dudley was allergic to anything. He hovered between the oranges and grapes, then finally left with a brown paper bag with oranges, red grapes, and strawberries. Aaron veered into a small corner shop. He had a weakness for chocolate, and if Dudley didn't care for the fruit, he could content himself with the chocolate.
The buzzer jerked Dudley from the magazine he kept trying to read, but repeated glances at the door made him lose his place more often than not. He awkwardly pulled himself to his feet and used the crutches to hobble to the door. He could feel his ears flush when the widening gap of the open door revealed Aaron standing on his doormat. 'Hi,' he said, wincing at the breathless sound of his own voice.
'I'm really sorry,' Aaron said without preamble, as he held out the paper bag.
Leaning on the crutches, Dudley inched back and took the bag, peering inside. 'I love strawberries,' he murmured.
'Who doesn't?' Aaron said cheekily.
Dudley held up the bag of fruit. 'Could you take it to the kitchen? I haven't quite figured out how to carry anything and walk at the same time.'
Aaron slapped himself on the forehead. 'Of course. I wasn't thinking.'
'It's just through there,' Dudley directed, pointing at a swinging door. He maneuvered himself back to the sofa, easing his foot onto a cushion. The sounds of cupboard doors opening and closing were followed by more sounds of rushing water. Aaron presently returned with a plate piled with grapes and strawberries, and a bar of chocolate in his other hand, taking the place on the sofa next to Dudley. He held out the plate with a disarming smile. Dudley's fingers hovered over the dewy strawberries. He selected one and bit into the juicy flesh with a soft hum of pleasure. It was perfect. 'Thank you,' he said, using a thumb to swipe a drop of juice from the corner of his mouth. 'You're going to let me eat this alone?'
'Nope.' Aaron peeled back the wrapper of the chocolate and broke off a piece, offering it to Dudley. Dudley inhaled sharply, but shook his head. 'Don't like it? Everyone likes chocolate.'
'No. I love chocolate,' Dudley said longingly. 'But I…' His voice trailed off as he looked at the small square of chocolate held invitingly under his nose. 'I suppose just one won't hurt…' He gave Aaron a severe look. 'Just one.' He accepted the chocolate and popped it into his mouth, letting it melt creamily on his tongue. Once it was just a lingering memory, he hastily reached for a cluster of grapes. 'Does this qualify as a date?' he wondered aloud, only half-joking.
'If you want it to,' Aaron chuckled. He settled into the cushions of the sofa. 'So… Brothers? Sisters?'
'Only child. You?' Dudley studied the grapes. Even they were the perfect balance of sweet tartness. How does he do that?
'One brother. Daniel. We don't talk.'
'He's older than me. Six years older. And Daniel's never on time to anything. He's always disgustingly early. He had come for dinner one night, and showed up more than an hour before, catching me snogging furiously with Jack Baines from school. More than snogging, really. Jack's hand was in my trousers…' Aaron coughed lightly, a rosy flush brightening his cheeks. 'Jack and I were sixteen. Daniel and I had a terrible row that culminated in his declaring me dead. He'll talk to my parents, but not me. I see Mum and Dad when Daniel's not expected.'
'Did they know about you?' Dudley asked.
'Yeah. Mum just wanted to know if I'd ever give her grandchildren, and Dad asked if I could still be a solicitor. I was lucky. I have a few friends whose parents didn't take it very well.'
'I can imagine.' Dudley bent his head over his grapes. He didn't need to use his imagination. He could hear his mother's protestations if he ever found the courage to tell them. 'Stuart Menzies,' he said suddenly.
'My first kiss,' Dudley said shyly, remembering the feeling of light that surged through him at the touch of Stuart's mouth on his. 'At school at the end of Lower Sixth. I wasn't sure I was coming back for Upper Sixth.'
'Surprisingly, it wasn't due to my academic performance,' Dudley informed Aaron wryly. 'I didn't do very well my first couple of years. No, it was because my parents and I had to go abroad.'
Dudley's jaw worked for a moment. He hated to lie to someone as nice as Aaron seemed to be. 'Business,' he said shortly. 'They arranged for me to complete that year through correspondence.' Actually, it had been Harry's people that had done that. His schoolwork had mysteriously appeared in the house where he and his parents were hiding, and just as mysteriously, it was whisked away to be marked and returned with astonished remarks at the quality of the work. Dudley didn't have anything else to distract him during those months, so he was able to focus wholly on his studies. The witch and wizard were helpful when it came to literature and history, partially so with biology, and useless with trigonometry. Dudley managed to muddle through the trigonometry, which was mostly logic, without too many nights of frustration.
'Who are they in those photos?'
Dudley shook himself and followed Aaron's gaze to the collection of photographs on the small mantle of his fireplace. 'My cousin, Harry, and his wife. Their boys.' Aaron wandered to the mantle and picked one up, handing it to Dudley, who took it, touching each figure with a blunt forefinger. 'Harry. Ginny. They were married, oh, eight years ago. Their oldest son, James, and the youngest Al. Well, not for long.' Dudley's finger traced the visible curvature of Ginny's abdomen. 'She's due in early August. A girl to be named Lily.' Dudley's head tilted to the side. 'And their last, if Ginny has anything to say about it,' he added wistfully.
'You want all that? Babies and marriage?'
Dudley carefully set the photograph down. 'My aunt used to say people in Hell wanted ice water. I might want it, but it's probably best if I don't get it.' He left the idea that he was hardly qualified to be someone's partner, given the example he had growing up.
They talked into the evening, until Dudley's speech was punctuated by yawns. Aaron squinted at his watch, feeling a start of guilt. 'I really will owe you a rather large apology, won't I? First I incapacitate you, then keep you up late. I imagine you've got an early start tomorrow.'
Dudley stifled a yawn and shook his head. 'Spring term just ended. Summer term doesn't start until the end of the month.'
'Changed my mind. I've got excellent timing.' Aaron grinned in smug satisfaction. 'But I ought to get home myself.'
'I had a nice time,' Dudley said. And he meant it.
'Dinner. Saturday. My place. Seven o'clock. And I'll ring you tomorrow.'
'All right.' Dudley couldn't help the wide smile from blossoming over his face. Nor the look of absolute shock that followed when Aaron leaned over and brushed a soft kiss over his cheek. Dudley's hand flew up to touch the spot that tingled from the contact.
'I'll see myself out.' Aaron slid off the sofa. 'G'night.'
'Good night.' Dudley watched Aaron leave the flat, a dazed expression on his features. He hoped he didn't look like a flummoxed idiot.
Petunia peered through the curtains. 'Vernon, someone's arrived in a taxi.' She glanced at him sharply. 'Were you expecting anyone?'
'No, I wasn't.'
Petunia parted the curtains and shrieked. 'Oh my! My Dinky Diddidums!'
Dudley maneuvered from the back of the taxi, using his pair of crutches to leverage himself to a standing position. Normally, he would have used his car, but it had a manual transmission, and he couldn't use his left foot to operate the vehicle.
'Dudley! What happened?' Petunia demanded.
'I tripped, Mum,' Dudley said patiently. He allowed her to fuss over him, while she shed a few tears, nearly wailing over what was in reality a relatively minor injury.
'That flat of yours is a deathtrap,' Vernon rumbled.
Dudley lowered himself to a chair. 'It wasn't in the flat. It was while I was out.' He didn't know why he came to dinner once a week. It was exhausting. Between his mother's histrionics and his father's bombastic pronouncements, Dudley usually went home with a pounding headache. Petunia still insisted, even after more than ten years, on filling Dudley's plate with far more food than he wanted to eat, lamenting over how thin he was. Dudley also tended to go home with a roiling stomach, as well. Tonight would be no different. 'Let's just eat dinner, all right?'
'So how's your life, Son?' Vernon asked. 'Beating off the girls, eh? Eh?'
Dudley sighed. 'Not quite…'
'Still wasting your time at that school?' Vernon barked.
A nascent headache bloomed behind Dudley's right eye. 'It's not a waste of my time, Dad.' He massaged the bridge of his nose. 'I'm good at it. And I also enjoy it.' An overflowing plate appeared in front of him. Nausea rose in his throat. 'Mum, please, that's too much,' he began.
'You need to eat and keep up your strength,' Petunia quavered. 'You've been injured.'
Dudley bit back the retort that surged to his lips. Just do what all the girls at uni did… Move the food around your plate…
The only thing that kept him from throwing his mushy peas at Petunia and the jacket potato at Vernon was the knowledge that at this time tomorrow, he would be with Aaron.
Dudley nervously adjusted his tie and carefully hitched himself up the steps to Aaron's door. He had a small carrier bag looped over his wrist, containing a bottle of wine one of his co-workers had recommended. The door opened before he could knock, and Aaron stood just inside, framed by light. 'I hope you're hungry. I seem to have channeled my mum while I was cooking.'
'What do you mean?' Dudley offered the wine to Aaron he'd brought with him.
'The Jewish mother school of cooking – better to have too much than not enough.' Aaron stood back. 'Come in.' Dudley followed Aaron inside the small house, nose twitching at the scent of roasted chicken. 'Kitchen's this way.'
Dudley stopped and peered at two framed documents hanging on the wall. Oh God… Cambridge… And Inns of Court School of Law… What in the hell is he doing with me?
'Oh, don't look at those… They make me look like some sort of snobbish ponce.' Aaron tugged at Dudley's arm. 'Come on. Dinner's nearly ready.' Dudley gulped and trailed after Aaron into the kitchen. 'Sit yourself down, then,' Aaron ordered.
'Your house seems nice,' Dudley offered. 'Like you could someday…' He looked down at the plate, embarrassed.
'Breast, thigh?' Aaron asked, a carving knife poised over a chicken.
'Thigh,' Dudley murmured.
'You were saying?'
Dudley felt a familiar flush prickle over his face. 'Like you could have a family here.' He seemed to say the silliest things around Aaron.
Aaron set a piece of chicken on Dudley's plate. 'You're the first person I've had here that isn't a platonic friend who's said that.' He passed the plate to Dudley. 'Help yourself,' he said, gesturing toward the rest of the table. 'And maybe someday, I'll meet the right bloke, settle down, and have a few sprogs.'
Dudley jabbed at a stalk of asparagus. 'That doesn't mean you're going to be happy,' he said, cutting himself off before he could reveal any of his skeletons. 'I just mean that lots of people get married, thinking it's going to make them happy.' He pictured his parents. 'And they're not.'
'And sometimes, they are,' Aaron countered.
It was a statement for which Dudley had no argument. He knew such things existed. He saw it in the photographs Harry sent him. Harry looked happy. He deserved it, after everything he'd been through. But it was for other people. Not him.
At the end of dinner, Aaron produced a fragrant apple strudel, making Dudley want to swoon. 'Are you trying to kill me?' he said woefully.
'It's my mum's recipe,' Aaron said proudly. He held a knife over the pastry, glittering with sugar.
'That's too much,' Dudley protested. Frowning, Aaron moved the knife down. 'Smaller.' Aaron brought the knife down and sliced off a mere sliver of the pudding, oozing with succulent apples and redolent of cinnamon. Dudley waved away the proffered cream and picked up his fork. He closed his eyes in appreciation, inhaling the scent of baked apples. He forked a bite into his mouth and his eyes rolled back in his head. 'Oh. Oh my God…' he moaned. 'Mmmmmmm.'
Aaron stared at him, open-mouthed. 'Bloody hell, don't do that,' he ordered. 'You won't make it home until much later.'
Dudley's eyes popped open. 'Is that a promise?' he teased.
'Damn right it is.'
Greedy hands loosened the knot of Dudley's tie, then flattened over the planes of his chest. The bristles of Aaron's growth of beard scraped softly over his face. His body tingled but he needed to stop. He couldn't stand going on and letting Aaron think he was someone he wasn't. 'Wait. Stop.' Dudley wriggled from under Aaron's warm, pliant body. He scooted to the other end of the sofa. 'I need to tell you something.'
'Yes. Because I can't think while you're… Touching… me.' Dudley leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. 'I used to be a fat kid!' he burst out.
'I used to be a weedy, nebbish kid, with a Jew-fro, spots, and horribly thick specs,' Aaron said. 'So?'
'I look like this because I don't let myself eat,' Dudley continued. 'The pudding you made? That was the most of a sweet I've had in over ten years.'
'You hardly ate any of it,' Aaron pointed out.
'It was the next best thing to sex I've had in long, long time,' Dudley said solemnly. 'But I'm going to swim ten extra laps tomorrow because I had pudding that wasn't fresh fruit.'
'Do you have an eating disorder?'
'No, you don't understand…' Dudley ran his hands through his hair. 'I wasn't just fat. I was enormous.' He colored with shame at how large he had been. 'My school didn't have uniforms large enough for me. I ate constantly. To try and do something about how completely awful m life was. I was a bully. I wasn't being truthful with you when I said I was an only child. My cousin Harry was raised with me. He was orphaned when we were a year old. We're only a month apart, and he was sent to live with my parents and me. And my parents treated him horribly. Like he was muck on the bottoms of their shoes. And they encouraged me to be just as nasty to him. And the worse I was to Harry, the more my parents loved me.' Dudley gulped. 'I was a fat, stupid bully.' He scrubbed his hands over his face. 'I was horribly stupid. My mother always said my teachers didn't understand me, and I was more intelligent than they could understand. Then when I got bad marks, it just made me feel even more stupid. The only reason I ever got myself together was when I started boxing. The coach at my school told me he wouldn't let me spar until I could see my feet. He made me work for what I wanted. Worked us all until we could barely walk. But when he told you you'd worked hard that day, you knew he meant it.' Dudley badly wanted to pace, but his sprained ankle kept him anchored to the sofa. 'When we were fifteen, Harry and I got mugged.' Dudley fell back on his cover story that he'd told his so-called friends in those days. 'I was hit on the head, and Harry saved my life. And I didn't defend him when my parents blamed him for the mugging.' Dudley's mouth twisted. 'Harry… he went to a different school, and something happened. A student died, and he saw it. He had nightmares about it, and I taunted him for it. Made cracks about Cedric – that's the boy that died – being his boyfriend, because it was so much easier than admitting to myself that I was a poof. I didn't want to be a poof. I didn't want to be different. My parents hated different. And I didn't want them to treat me the way they treated Harry.'
'I see…' Aaron murmured.
'No, you don't see!' Dudley exclaimed. 'It took me two years to admit to just myself that I was gay. And I'm still not out to my parents. They'll never talk to me again…' He took a deep breath. 'And you're so much cleverer than me. You're Cambridge, for God's sake, and I went to the University of East London…' Dudley felt like a lumpish ox. 'You ought to be with someone who can talk about important things and not that little Oliver Simmons figured out how to add two-digit numbers…'
'I don't follow…' Aaron looked confused.
'I haven't been honest with you. I've been withholding things from you. Things you should know about me.' Dudley hunched his shoulders miserably, then pushed himself to his feet, using the arm of the sofa. 'I'll understand if you don't want to see me anymore.' He headed for the stairs.
'Okay…' Aaron stood up, slipping his hands into his pockets. Dudley felt his heart plummet to his shoes. 'You're not still a bully are you?'
Aaron nodded slowly. 'Would you like to see the rest of the house?'
Aaron stepped to Dudley and wrapped a hand around Dudley's cold one. 'You're not who you were. I'm glad you feel like you could tell me all that. But I like the bloke that teaches eight year olds. And goes into raptures over my mum's apple strudel. But you don't have to hide with me.'
'We don't have to do this,' Aaron commented, as Dudley drove slowly through Little Whinging. Dudley's shoulders rose a little more with every mile they drove. 'We could just go in as friends…'
Dudley shook his head. 'I don't want to lie.'
'We wouldn't be lying,' Aaron wheedled. 'Just not telling them everything.'
Dudley's hands clenched around the steering wheel. 'I'm not not telling them,' he sighed. 'You of all people should understand what that means. There's never been anyone worth coming out for…' His palms slipped and the car lurched to the right. 'Just be prepared for them to chuck me out into the streets.' He pulled to a stop in front of number four Privet Drive and turned off the car, making no move to get out.
Aaron goggled at the antiseptically neat house and garden. 'Oh my God,' he chortled. 'This is where you grew up?' He smothered the chuckles that rose to the surface. 'I don't think I've ever seen a house look like it's got a pole shoved up its arse before.'
Dudley stared at the façade of the house with a glum expression as he heard a high-pitched yipping sound. 'Damn. Aunt Marge is here…'
'At least you'll only have to say it once.' Dudley threw Aaron a look. 'Looking on the bright side…'
'Come on. Get this over with.' A droplet of sweat tracked down the side of Dudley's face that had little to do with the warm June evening. Aaron reached for Dudley's hand and gave it a quick squeeze. Dudley turned and kissed Aaron, hard and quick. 'Give the neighbors something to talk about,' he joked.
'That's for later,' Aaron retorted. 'So you'll have good memories of your birthday.' He opened the passenger side door and unfolded himself from Dudley's small car. Dudley sighed once more and followed suit, closing the car door with a bang. He trudged to the door and closed his eyes for a brief moment before he opened the front door of a house where he no longer belonged.
'Dudders!' Petunia called from the kitchen. She emerged wearing a frilly apron over a party dress. 'Happy birthday!' She threw her arms around Dudley, kissing him noisily on the cheek. 'And you've brought a friend! How nice.' She motioned for them to follow her to the terrace in the back garden. 'Vernon! Marge! Dudley's here!'
'Dudley!' Vernon trundled to Dudley, slapping him on the back. 'Happy birthday, Son!'
'Ah. There's a good-looking man!' Marge waddled over, a dog tucked under her arm. 'You're looking too thin! Good thing you're here. Petunia'll feed you up.'
Dudley gulped, feeling his hands grow cold. 'Aaron, these are my parents, Vernon and Petunia Dursley.' He didn't miss his mother's sniff of disapproval that he'd flubbed the introductions. 'And my aunt, Marge Dursley.' Dudley drew a deep breath. 'Mum, Dad… This is Aaron Bernstein.'
'Well, Aaron. You work at that school with Dudley?' Vernon asked suspiciously.
Aaron held out a hand, and to his credit, didn't wince when Vernon tried to crush it in what passed for a handshake. 'No. I'm a solicitor. I work with a firm near the City.'
'Well, that's fine, then,' Vernon admitted gruffly.
'That's so nice that you've got a friend, Diddiums,' Petunia gushed. 'And a solicitor! How clever!'
'He's not just my friend, Mum,' Dudley said quietly. He wound his fingers through Aaron's hand. 'Well, he is, but he's…' He took a step closer to Aaron and Aaron's other hand landed on their entwined fingers.
Petunia's eyes narrowed. 'What do you mean, Dudley?' she asked sharply.
'Aaron is my…' Dudley felt his throat tighten. 'Boyfriend.'
'Your what?' Vernon roared.
'Boyfriend,' Dudley repeated, a hint of defiance in his voice.
Petunia shrieked and fell gracelessly to the grass in a faint. 'Petunia!' Vernon dropped to the ground next to her, and began to lightly slap her face. 'Look what you've done to your mother!'
'I should have known,' Marge declared. 'Anyone who decides to lose that much weight is nothing more than an arse bandit. That's right, boy, you heard me. Of course that's why you work with young children. Shirt lifters haven't got the morals of a dog. Eh? Turn your ways, do you hear me? No decent family ever produces a fairy. I never thought you were that light in your loafers, but I ought to have guessed when you never had a girlfriend. Vernon, you must write to Smeltings straightaway. Find out what they did to turn your son into a knob jockey.' She looked sympathetically at Petunia, beginning to rouse. 'It's all about breeding. I told you with that no-good nephew of yours. Breeding will out. Not to blame you, Petunia, but it obviously runs in your family.'
Petunia stared wild-eyed at Dudley. 'It was Harry that did this to you!' she screamed, her face draining of color. 'That night when… when you got attacked! He did this!' She dissolved into wrenching sobs.
Vernon's face reddened, then turned an alarming shade of purple. 'Get out!' He lunged toward Dudley. 'Get out of my house! I'll not have any limp-wristed nancy boys in here.' He thrust his face into Dudley's. 'Out!' he ordered, spittle landing on Dudley's cheek.
Dudley stiffly took a step back, then another, still holding Aaron's hand in a death grip. He fled through the house for the relative sanctuary of the front garden. 'Dudley?' Aaron poked his arm. 'Dudley. Give me your keys.' Dudley groped in his pocket and fished out his keys. They clinked together as he handed them to Aaron because his hands shook so badly, Dudley doubted he could drive anyway. Aaron unlocked the car and Dudley fairly dove for the passenger seat, fastening his seatbelt before Aaron could reset the driver's seat and mirrors. He stared straight through the windscreen, stomach churning, saying nothing until they were heading back to London.
'Pull over,' Dudley said, between clenched teeth.
'Just get off the damn road!'
Startled, Aaron swerved to the verge and stopped the car. Dudley lurched out and stumbled away before he fell to his hands and knees and began to be quite noisily and messily sick. He remained there, dry heaves quivering through his shoulders, slowly becoming aware of a hand stroking the back of his head. 'Water?' Aaron asked softly.
Dudley nodded. 'Thanks…' He accepted the bottle Aaron held out to him and rinsed his mouth. Aaron took it and soaked a handkerchief, then squatted next to Dudley, and gently wiped his face with it.
'Come on,' Aaron urged, wrapping a hand around Dudley's arm. 'Let's go home…' He helped Dudley stand and deposited him into the car. Dudley didn't make another sound, but a tremor ran through him every so often, making Aaron drive just a little faster than he normally would. In the end, Aaron didn't take Dudley back to his flat, but rather to his own house. He guided Dudley, still in a stunned daze, up the stairs and to the bedroom, then gingerly loosened Dudley's tie. It was splattered with small droplets of sick. Aaron reckoned it would have to be thrown out. Dudley's head bowed, chin nearly resting on his chest and he seemed to have shrunk into himself. Quickly, Aaron undid the buttons of Dudley's shirt and pulled it off, tossing it to the floor. He made the larger man sit on the edge of the bed, and removed Dudley's shoes and socks, then up once more to divest him of his belt and trousers. Aaron turned back the bed and Dudley fell into its embrace of his own accord. He wrapped his arms around a pillow and burrowed into it.
Aaron hastily undressed and slid into the other side of the bed. He carefully eased the pillow from Dudley's grasp. Dudley's breathing grew harsh and he buried his face in Aaron's shoulder. It was only then that the tears came in a short, bitter torrent. After a few minutes, Dudley lifted his head just enough to meet Aaron's concerned gaze with his tear-blurred one. 'It could have gone worse,' he croaked.
Aaron snorted in disbelief. 'How so?' His hand threaded through Dudley's mussed hair, kneading the knots at the back of his neck.
'When I pictured doing this,' Dudley began slowly, 'I was always alone. I was never out to them, because I was more afraid of being alone than having them reject me. I figured they would, given how badly they treated Harry when we were growing up.' He pulled away from Aaron slightly. 'I never came out to them before, because I didn't have anyone worth coming out for.' One hand floated up to trace the curve of Aaron's lower lip. 'I do now,' he whispered, as if he feared Aaron would shatter if he spoke too loudly.
Aaron didn't say anything. He did, however, close the distance between them, capturing Dudley's mouth with his own.
It was a long time before either of them spared enough breath to speak. Dudley bit his lip, then decided to jump in with both feet. 'Love you…' he murmured sleepily, waiting for Aaron's response with bated breath. He felt Aaron's smile against his chest.
'Love you, too.'