A/N: Thank you to my wonderful beta, Avora SaDiablo. I never would have finished this without her help.

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter.

The Cupboard

For as long as Dudley had been at Smeltings there was something of a routine when it came to the first few days of the summer holidays. Every year he'd sit on an empty bench with his three suitcases and wait for his parents to arrive. There were always tears and copious amounts of kisses from his mother followed by a handshake and a banknote from his father which grew increasingly large with every passing year. The ride home, which always seemed to take forever on the way there, was punctuated with multiple stops for treats which seemed to last only as long as it took them to get back to the car.

The next few days tended to be a whirlwind of new electronics, expensive accessories, and games. All these presents and festivities culminated with his birthday, which, discounting his eleventh, even Dudley had to admit were wonderful. In recent years he'd begun to vaguely wonder just how his parents afforded everything, but he never asked, instead enjoying all his new possessions.

Lying in bed, his stomach filled with cake to the point of seeming it would burst, and surrounded wall to wall with gifts, Dudley often found himself trying to capture the moment. He tried to freeze just how the early summer breeze through his open window felt, and wondered if he would be able to remember the absolute contentment tomorrow, or if it would only be this pure once a year, as his birthday drew to a close.

Just like last year, and the years before that, he sat alone on a bench, his three suitcases at his feet. Even though the scene was familiar, he was slightly apprehensive about what waited for him at home. He didn't expect those awful invisible creatures to pop out at him from behind a corner, but the events of the previous summer still shook him.

The creatures- Dementors, Potter had called them- had left him with a feeling even after all this time he couldn't ignore. In the past, he had believed himself to be alone because he didn't want to share the bench, and because everyone respected his position of authority. But the Dementors left him with a niggling doubt he couldn't shake. Could it be that it wasn't that they respected him, but that they just didn't like him?

He wasn't a bully- well, maybe he was a little bit, but what was wrong with that? It was his right. If he didn't push his way to the top someone else would, and as his parents had told him time and time again, he was the best – so why shouldn't he be at the top? It was better than being a pushover, weak, or a freak like Potter, especially in the eyes of his father, whose approval Dudley enjoyed – it came with wonderful benefits and was hard to get from anyone else. Teachers didn't like him much, and most of his classmates were terrified of him.

Thinking of his father's words, Dudley decided that it didn't matter if he was a bully. It got him the attention and respect he was entitled to.

Still, he found himself thinking about it more often than he liked to admit. When his parents drove through the open gates and up to where he sat waiting, he couldn't help but watch the ensuing dramatics from the perspective of a bystander. His mother burst into tears the moment she saw him, all but leaping out of the still moving car as he rose to his feet. She ran toward him and threw her arms around him, smothering him with hugs. Dudley glanced around and noted that none of the other parents sobbed and fussed over their children nearly as much, not even the first years' mothers.

"Vernon, he's grown so tall!" his mother managed to say in between deep, heaving breaths. "My little Diddykins-"

"Hi, Mum," Dudley muttered, acutely aware of the growing number of glances they were receiving.

Had everyone stared like this last year? It seemed impossible that he wouldn't have noticed the hushed whisperings and bewildered faces, but perhaps he hadn't been paying attention. Perhaps he hadn't cared.

"You're even taller than your father!" his mother went on, oblivious. "You're such a grown up man now, oh, let me give you a kiss-"

People were definitely staring, and Dudley thought he heard a few snickers and hushed comments- someone even pointed. The back of his neck grew warm and he wished it would be over soon. Finally, after being smothered with more kisses and hearing more variations on his name than he'd thought possible, Dudley was released from his mother's embrace.

"Good to see you, son," his father said, sticking out one hand to shake and thumping Dudley on the back with the other.

Dudley pulled his hand back and found the familiar note tucked between his middle and index finger. To his surprise, it wasn't just one this year but several, all with a value far higher than usual. Granted, his father's end-of-term monetary gift had increased with each passing year, but it had never been anywhere near this much before.

"Dad," he said, in awkward greeting, still painfully aware of the stares. He glanced down at the money and, not sure what else to say, added, "Wow. Thanks."

His father winked and bent down to lift one of his suitcases. "Just think of it as an early birthday present."

The ride home wasn't any different than it had been in years past. They stopped for treats, and Dudley's mother bemoaned the relatively healthy meal he ordered despite his claims that he needed to get into shape if he wanted to keep up boxing.

Privet Drive, like the ride home, hadn't changed a bit. Dudley stepped out of the car and was surprised when he didn't feel the surge of happiness he always felt right about now. He was glad to see the familiar house and to be with his parents, but a new uneasiness had settled in, and it was with a more subdued air than usual he went inside to receive the first of many presents. There were a new pair of boxing gloves, as well as a top of the line computer and at least five recently released games.

"It's not much," his father said, looking embarrassed. "There will be more on your birthday, of course."

Dudley glanced down at his gifts and realized they must have cost his parents a small fortune. Before he wouldn't have cared or likely have even noticed, but no matter how much he tried not to he now found himself thinking of the Dementors and of himself as a sobbing, petulant brat of a child. They'd shown him wailing for toys, and his parents obliging. They'd shown him beating up kids half his size and stealing their possessions he didn't even want in the first place. They'd shown him as a coward and a bully, and even as Dudley tried to tell himself that it was all right the spread of gifts before him made him feel almost sick to his stomach.

"I told you we should have bought him the CD player," his mother hissed out of the corner of her mouth, her smile unwavering. She couldn't quite hide a look in her eyes, something that looked almost like fear.

"No, Mum, it's great," he said quickly. "Thank you. You too, Dad."

His mother visibly relaxed, and Dudley realized the look in her eyes was exactly what he'd suspected - she'd been expecting a tantrum. At his age? He was turning sixteen in a matter of days! Still, he'd had one just last year, hadn't he? He'd had quite a few, now that he thought about it. Internally cringing, Dudley told himself the tantrums had to stop - asserting himself forcefully was one thing, but he was getting a bit old for tears and screaming.

It was well past midnight, and Dudley inhaled deeply, trying to savor the moment. It wasn't as hot as the previous summer, but the air seemed more dry than it had been on his last birthday. His presents were stacked on whatever spare surface there was, and Dudley briefly wished that he still had his second bedroom so he could clear up some space.

Potter had that room now, and while Dudley reasonably knew his cousin couldn't keep sleeping in the cupboard he still wished he had his other bedroom to himself. He caught himself as his mind wandered to the possibility of talking to his parents about the spare room which was generally saved for Aunt Marge and other occasional visitors. Other people managed with one room, didn't they?

He thought of the Dementors once more and couldn't suppress a pang of guilt when he remembered how they'd tormented him, showing him how he appeared to others. Despite telling himself that he'd done nothing wrong- his cousin was an absolute freak in every sense of the word- it bothered him. It shouldn't, he knew- after all, those kind had attacked him three times now- but still.


Closing his eyes, Dudley pushed the thoughts aside. He was fine. Everything was fine. The Dementors were full of it. He'd just had a wonderful homecoming and he was going to enjoy the moment just like he always did.

He waited for the usual pleasure to well up, but the minutes stretched by and he only found himself waiting impatiently. Maybe he was trying to force it too much; maybe it had to come naturally. Dudley relaxed and tried to meditate, but the moment he unclenched his muscles he was confronted by the memory of him throwing a house-shaking, earsplitting tantrum over receiving vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate. It didn't help that he'd been thirteen.

Damned Dementors. They'd shown him that memory, along with many similar ones. Dudley gritted his teeth and waited for it to pass. When it didn't, he pushed himself out of bed and started downstairs. He'd been good lately about sticking to his diet, but right about now he fully intended on stuffing his face with sweets until he wasn't able to think of anything else.

It wasn't that bad, he told himself. So he'd thrown a tantrum when he was a bit too old for one. Maybe he was too old for it now, but that had been three years ago. His parents didn't mind, and it brought the desired result- and like his father said, if you wanted to get somewhere you had to trample a few others on the way.

What would he think if he saw a thirteen year old at Smeltings throwing a fit like that, though? He wouldn't think he was being a strong man, he'd think he was a baby. Why would it be any different for him? He'd always thought he didn't have friends because everyone was afraid of him, but was it possible they didn't like him much either? His mum always said he was a sweet, kind boy, but not many people aside from his parents thought the same way.

Bullies other children. Rude to his teachers. Provokes unnecessary and unacceptable conflict.

His end of term conduct reports were quite clear and had consistently been the same for as long as he could remember. His mother always claimed they didn't know him well enough, that they didn't try to understand him, that the other children were just jealous – making up vicious lies to turn the teachers against him. His father said he didn't want a sissy for a son, and that pandering to weakness only created more weakness. But they were supposed to love him no matter what, weren't they? What would they say about him if he wasn't their son?

Dudley descended the stairs, avoiding the creaky one. The kitchen light was on, and he paused at the doorway, rubbing his eyes against the sudden brightness. His father looked up sharply, leftover cake from earlier in front of him on the table, and relaxed almost immediately.

"Come in, come in," he said jovially. Patting his stomach, he added, "I thought you were your mother. She's been on me lately about my weight."

"Really?" Dudley asked, sitting opposite him. His father was on the heavy side, but he'd never heard his mother complain about it before. "I've been heavier and it never seemed to bother her. At least not until school got involved..."

"Yes, well, that's different," his father said, almost gruffly, lifting his fork. "You're a growing boy."

That wasn't what the school nurse had called it. Morbidly obese was the term she had used.

He didn't say anything, though, and instead helped himself to a large piece of chocolate cake. It was delicious, and Dudley was able to push a few of his unwelcome thoughts aside.

Getting up to fetch a glass of milk, he paused at the refrigerator door, carton in hand. "Would you like some?"

"Put that away. I have something more appropriate," his father said, disappearing into the dining room and returning with a bottle of what appeared to be whiskey. With a bit of pride in his voice, he said, "You're nearly a man now; it's time you started drinking like one"

Dudley blinked in surprise and felt a surge of his own pride well up inside his chest. He brought a pair of glasses from the kitchen cupboard to the table and his father poured a bit of whiskey into each.

"Don't down it in one go," he cautioned with a conspiratorial grin. "Your mother'll have me sleeping on the couch for a month if you have a hangover tomorrow."

He chuckled at his own joke, and Dudley didn't have the heart to tell him he'd been sneaking the occasional illicit drink at school for years.

"It's good to have you home," his father went on, not making eye contact and instead staring at the space above his head. "It gets quiet here without you... your mum misses you quite a bit, you know."

"I'll try and write more," Dudley promised, taking what he hoped appeared to be an inexperienced sip of his drink. It was much better quality than the stuff he sneaked behind the gymnasium at Smeltings. "And I'll call as well."

"I know she'd like that," his father said. He shifted in his seat a bit and added, "So, make any new friends this year?"

Dudley shrugged- he hadn't, not really, but he got on well enough with the other members of the boxing team. "A few. Lambourne is all right."

"That's good to hear. Smeltings is a wonderful place to meet people- these are the best years of your life, you know."

If these were the best years of his life, Dudley was certain he'd be dead before he was thirty. But his dad always had such an earnest air of pleasure about him when he talked about the school, and he didn't have the heart to tell him he didn't love it as much as he had. It wasn't a bad school; it was actually far better than any of the local ones. But while his father was deeply invested in the old style of teaching that he often bemoaned was being destroyed, Dudley was indifferent to it. He went to his classes, did his homework, and got his pleasure from the boxing team (or, before that, just beating up other kids).

"Yeah," he said, having realized his father was looking at him, waiting for some sort of response. "They are."

His father leaned back and smiled, and as Dudley glanced around he noticed that he'd forgotten one of his new video games on the kitchen counter. Again he wondered just how his parents had afforded so many obviously expensive gifts.

"Dad?" he asked. "How much did all my presents cost?"

His father lowered his glass, surprised. "Don't you worry about that, son. It shouldn't concern you."

"It was a lot, wasn't it?" he went on, ignoring him. "It's a lot every year."

"We can afford it," his father insisted, shaking his head forcefully. "I'm the director at Grunnings, trust me, we can afford it."

Dudley didn't push the matter- he was enjoying the moment with his father and didn't want to ruin it. He finished his whiskey and returned to the cake, and although he wasn't quite over the moon he was somewhat content. It wasn't as pure an emotion as it had once been, but it was better than nothing, and Dudley was grateful for it.

"Don't tell your mother," his father said, lowering his glass and nodding at the empty one before him. "She wouldn't approve."

"Of course not," Dudley said, and they shared a smile.

Dudley liked his father. They got along well and he seemed to make him proud. His father was a smart man, and a good one- if he thought he was a good son, who were a bunch of teachers, losers, and Dementor freaks to tell him otherwise?

"I'm not a bully, am I?" he asked.

His father gave him a hard look. "Of course not. Are you letting those sissies at school bother you?"

"No," he said quickly. "No, of course not. I just... I don't know. It's hard to explain."

"You're not a bully," his father said fervently, and with such an air of authority Dudley believed him. "You're a dying breed of man- a kind that's demonized these days by the weak. We need more people like you, son- never be ashamed for doing the right thing."

"Yeah?" Dudley asked, already beginning to feel a bit better. His father's words always comforted him, and he was glad now that he'd asked in the first place.

"I'm proud of you," his father said, then cleared his throat in embarrassment- he wasn't the type to display this much emotion ordinarily. Gesturing to the bottle, he asked, "More?"

"No thanks. I need to be up early tomorrow to exercise, and I'm not really used to alcohol and all-"

His father snorted. "Save it for your mother. Remember, I went to Smeltings too."

Potter was back.

Dudley did his best to avoid his cousin and he was certain the feeling was mutual, but it was difficult to keep from seeing someone who slept in the room next to his for the entire summer. Normally he would have gone out of his way to torment him, but after last year that had changed. When they did run into one another they kept to themselves and never did much more than grunt at one another, which Dudley supposed was an acceptable form of acknowledgment, considering their situation.

He'd never understood why Potter was as hostile and unappreciative as he was. His parents had done a good thing by taking him in, and he had never once thanked them or even acknowledged everything they'd done for him. They had tried to squash the freakishness out of him for his own well being, but Potter never did anything other than make sarcastic comments year after year, going out of his way to display his freakishness.

Dudley unconsciously found himself rubbing his backside directly above where he'd sprouted a pig's tail five years before. What had he done to deserve that, anyway? He hadn't said a word; it was his father who'd made the giant bearded man angry. And his father had been completely justified! Those abnormal folk seemed to think they could abandon a baby then show up every so often and berate the good, upstanding people who'd been burdened by their irresponsibility. The giant had insulted his parents and attacked him, those redheaded kids had destroyed their property less than a year later, and then their father had had the nerve to try and tell them how to treat Potter – like he was some sort of hero to them. If he was such a hero, why did they leave him with them every summer? They were a bunch of hypocrites, all of them.

"There you are!" his mother said as he entered the kitchen, brightening considerably. "Let me give you a kiss- I still can't believe how much you've grown-"

"Hi, Mum," Dudley said, dutifully accepting his mother's affections. It was starting to feel more than a little ridiculous, but she was just being friendly. "I was just thinking of going for a walk."

"Stay for a bit," she insisted, and in a lowered voice added, "Your father's at work."

Ah. She didn't want to be alone in the house with Potter. Fair enough, although Dudley doubted he would attack her for simply existing. He was dangerous, but he wasn't the type to lash out unless he'd been provoked quite a bit. Well, except for that time four years ago with the pudding – which he blamed on a house elf, (whatever that was), and the time he blew up Aunt Marge just because she'd spoken the truth about his parents.

While Potter had become reasonably careful with his abilities in recent years, Dudley understood his mother's nervousness nonetheless, and he simply nodded at her request and took a seat at the kitchen table. After all, even though he wasn't 'allowed' to do freaky things out of school, it didn't stop him carrying that stick everywhere he went.

"Let me make you some lunch," she said, already having opened the fridge. "Would you like some leftover chicken?"

"I already ate," Dudley said, but his mother pulled out the plastic container anyway.

"You're getting too thin, darling. I don't like that diet you're on, it's not healthy." Shaking her head, she took a large helping of chicken and nodded at the microwave. "Would you like me to heat it up or do you want it cold?"

"I'm not hungry," Dudley lied, as he wouldn't have minded the chicken at all but he was trying as hard as possible to get into shape. "I'm not too thin, Mum. I'm over twenty-two stone."

"And last year you were over twenty-eight," she said. "You're losing too much too quickly. You're going to make yourself ill if you keep it up-"

Dudley tried not to sigh and just nodded, not in the mood to argue. His mother loved him and meant well, and a bit of chicken wouldn't destroy his diet. "Heat it up a bit, then."

His mother brightened, and he quickly added, "Thanks."

He normally thanked her, didn't he? The surprised glance he received surprised him, and he stared down at the tablecloth, embarrassed at the fact that he was only just beginning to practice common courtesy.

Feeling as though he should offer to help in some way, he asked, "Would you like me to do anything?"

"Absolutely not," she said firmly. "You just sit right there and relax. You're on holiday, after all."

Dudley thought of the Dementors and how they'd shown him sobbing and wailing while his mother ran herself ragged. He thought of the way his face screwed up and turned bright red as he screamed, and how she'd fluttered about nervously, trying to placate him. He thought of himself, and he wanted to punch that little bastard.

"Mum, let me do something," he insisted, standing up. "Please. I want to help."

His mother hesitated, then her eyes welled up and she began to cry. "My sweet, darling Duddly-Wuddly, so grown up and caring-"

Dudley forced himself to keep smiling, even if it was rather strained. He used to enjoy this- he'd liked this ridiculous baby talk. He'd loved the attention. Now he wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

"I suppose you could be a dear and fetch me my spare cleaning supplies if you really want to," she said, wiping the tears from her face. "I ran out of bleach this morning and the old mop has just about fallen apart. They're under the stairs, and only if you don't mind, of course."

Dudley walked from the kitchen to the front hallway and pushed the small latch aside. The hook where the padlock once hung remained but it had been bare for years; his parents had long since given up on locking Potter's school things away.

Opening the door, Dudley forced himself through the narrow opening and onto the camp bed which took up almost all the floor space. It was an extremely tight fit and he doubted he would have managed it last summer. The cupboard was dark, forcing him to sit motionless for several moments to allow his eyes to adjust to the light. How had Potter been able to stand it, living in here? Dudley had never entered the cupboard before, aside from pulling Potter from it to beat him up on occasion, and he hadn't done that in years.

He felt a ticklish sensation on his arm, and Dudley squinted, just able to make out a spider. He swatted at it instinctively and realized there was one on his hand as well. The place was infested. Looking around, he located the bleach and mop as quickly as possible and hurried back to the kitchen.

"Thank you, darling," his mother said, kissing him loudly on the forehead. "You're such a sweet boy."

There was a faint snort from the back door, and Dudley turned to see Potter standing in the garden. His mother hadn't heard, too busy extolling Dudley's virtues, and he glared at him. Potter rolled his eyes and walked past the window and out of sight.

Arse. All he did was judge them and act superior. They'd done so much for him, and-

Dudley paused and glanced through the open kitchen door at the cupboard. He'd probably hate anyone who'd locked him in there. But his parents had a reason for doing that, didn't they? It was to squash out his freakishness and make him normal. They were doing something noble and he resisted them every step of the way.

But the Dementors hadn't shown it that way, had they? They'd shown him beating up a lonely kid who didn't know why no one loved him. They'd shown him a boy huddled in a dark cupboard, punished for reasons he didn't understand, and the door being torn open so he could be beaten up by a spoiled brat utterly oblivious to the concept of compassion for others-

They'd done the right thing. His parents were smart people and Dudley trusted them. Potter was an ungrateful, spiteful freak. So why did his stomach churn for the first time at the idea of Potter spending ten years of his childhood in that cupboard?

The microwave beeped and his mother removed the plate, poking the pieces of chicken and a generous helping of mashed potatoes he hadn't noticed she'd added. "Would you like some gravy with that, Duddy?"

"No, thanks."

He sat at the kitchen table and began to eat, trying not to feel too disgusted with himself for cheating on his diet– again, remembering his midnight snack. He tried to echo his parents' words that he was a growing boy, but they felt false no matter how hard he tried to convince himself. If his parents were wrong about his weight, did that mean they could be wrong about other things?

"Eat up, sweetie," his mother said, patting his shoulder as she passed.

Dudley had often stayed up late into the night last summer, thanks to Potter groaning in his sleep. He still let out strangled noises now and then, but it wasn't anything like before. Dudley had mocked him last year, asking if Cedric was his boyfriend, but now he was starting to wonder- after all, Potter's moans weren't at all pleasurable and he'd reacted violently when Dudley had brought the subject up last year.

Whoever Cedric was, Dudley hadn't heard his name at all this summer, and Potter hadn't talked in his sleep at all tonight. Even so, Dudley found himself unable to fall asleep despite the relative peace.

He was still thinking of the cupboard despite firm admonitions that it wasn't that big a deal. Potter was a troublemaker. He'd always been a troublemaker. Even when they were kids he'd let dangerous snakes loose from their enclosures and climbed on top of buildings with his weird abilities. He'd deserved the cupboard.

But Dudley had been much worse and his parents had never locked him away. They'd rewarded him and often blamed Potter despite it being obvious he'd had nothing to do with whatever Dudley had done. Clearly his parents favored him, which wasn't that big a shock as he was their son and Potter wasn't, but even if they were trying to squash the abnormality out of him couldn't they have been a bit nicer about it? And if not nice, at least fair?

Dudley's teachers at Smeltings were like that- stern and unwilling to put up with crap, but never cruel or needlessly harsh. If someone screwed up they were dealt with appropriately, but the punishment fit the crime, even for the nastiest of students- even for Dudley.

They'd always been harder than necessary on Potter. Even if they were trying to help, there was still a line that could be crossed. Or was there? Dudley didn't know.

When Potter had accidentally turned their teacher's wig blue (which even Dudley had to admit was kind of funny) they'd locked him in his cupboard for a little over a week. Dudley had hardly been able to stand being in there for more than a few minutes, but a week? Granted, he'd been allowed out to go to school, but they hadn't fed him except for a slice of toast at each meal. It seemed like an awfully harsh punishment for something he hadn't even known he was capable of.

Dudley thought back to when he'd run over the neighbors' dog with his remote control tank, which was now gathering dust in his second- in Potter's bedroom. That had actually been an accident, despite the neighbors' claims to the contrary. The dog had been all right, though the cost to have his front legs put in splints was staggering, and his parents had had to pay for it. He hadn't been reprimanded at all for that, his father instead just shrugging and saying that boys would be boys. If Potter had been the one with the remote control Dudley imagined he'd still be in the cupboard to this day.

It didn't matter. Potter was a freak, and he would have deserved it. Dudley rolled onto his side and tried to think about something, anything other than his cousin. But if he didn't think about Potter he thought about the Dementors and that was even worse.

The cupboard kept lingering in his mind, and he wondered how Potter had been able to stand it. Maybe it wasn't as terrible as he was making it out to be, though. He hadn't had enough time to gauge how bad it really was. Maybe it was actually pretty cozy if you had time to get used to it. Unable to remove that niggling sense of doubt, Dudley got up and started downstairs, determined to prove himself wrong.

Once again he struggled to squeeze himself into the narrow space, and once again he was startled at how tiny it was. There was barely enough space to stand or even turn around. Potter had been a runty kid, but this was small even for someone his size. Pulling the door shut as quietly as possible, Dudley tried to find a comfortable spot on the camp bed. The mattress was as thin as a board and just as uncomfortable. He took a deep breath but the air was too stale and dusty to provide any satisfaction.

Potter had spent weeks in here? How? It had barely been two minutes but Dudley was ready to tear the door off its hinges and bolt back upstairs. But Potter hadn't been able to do that; he'd been locked in for days at a time, and for reasons he couldn't explain. He was a freak and he did dangerous things sometimes, but if he'd known maybe he could have done something about it.

Hadn't he always insisted he didn't know how it happened? That he didn't do anything? Maybe he could have tried not to be a freak if they had told him why. Maybe he could have controlled it. It only made sense that he would resent Dudley's parents when it seemed like they were punishing him for random quirks of nature.

With a chill, Dudley wondered what his parents would have done if he'd been a freak too. It seemed like something you were born and stuck with, otherwise Potter wouldn't be one still. What if he'd been the one turning the teacher's wig blue or flying up onto rooftops? Would they lock him away like they did Potter?

No, they wouldn't, they loved him. They cared about him. Dudley didn't expect his parents to love or care much for Potter, but he was still family, wasn't he? His mother didn't like Aunt Marge much, but she still treated her well.

Dudley had never been all that loving or kind to his cousin, but that was different. He'd been a kid, after all. His parents weren't children, and now that Dudley was growing closer to adulthood himself something seemed more and more unsettling about the whole Potter situation.

They had always treated him harshly because they'd wanted to cure him. It was to protect Potter and to give him a chance at a better life. Dudley squeezed his eyes shut, willing it to be true, but the more he thought about it, the more hollow the words sounded.

Whenever his mother or father shouted at Potter there was a gleam in their eyes- it wasn't quite enjoyment, but it was something close to it. They liked treating him like scum. It was almost the way Dudley used to feel when he bullied children smaller than himself- it made him feel powerful. And even though his father told him it was all right, Dudley didn't know whether or not to be proud of that.

What had his father said? We need more people like you, son. Never be ashamed for doing the right thing.

But what was the right thing? He'd always thought his parents were right. They had to be; they were his parents. But there was something seriously wrong with locking a kid in a cupboard filled with spiders and stale dusty air for weeks on end. They didn't even feel bad about it- they never acted as though it was a terrible thing that had to be done to help his cousin. It was something completely and utterly normal to them, and for the longest time it had been normal to Dudley as well.

They were bullies. His parents were bullies, and he was a bully too. It didn't matter what they said about him, because he wasn't someone to be admired. Dudley closed his eyes and shuddered so deeply his entire body shook. A spider ran across his face and he flicked it off with a stifled grunt before carefully extracting himself from the cupboard and quickly returning upstairs. His bed never felt so comfortable or his room so big.

According to his digital clock he'd lasted eight minutes.

Gordon's eyes were closed and his breathing had grown so steady that Dudley wondered if he'd fallen asleep. It was certainly hot enough, and the playground equipment didn't provide as much shade as they'd thought it would. Dennis poked him in the shoulder and he immediately opened an eye.


"Nothing. Thought you were asleep."

"Idiot," Gordon muttered, closing his eyes again.

They'd spent a good deal of time here last summer, lounging on the swings before they'd vandalized them beyond use. Dudley noted that they still hadn't been fixed, and thought back to all the times he'd enjoyed using them as a child. Only one was still functional- the one Potter had been sitting on just before the Dementors showed up.

Dudley closed his eyes and grunted in annoyance. Potter, Potter, Harry bloody Potter. Was he all he thought about these days?

"You all right, Big D?" Gordon asked.

"Yeah," he said, reaching for his bottle of water. He'd been tempted to bring along a soft drink, but he'd been cheating on his diet enough already and he knew he had to get back on track. "Just hot."

Dennis and Gordon nodded in agreement, and for a brief moment he considered telling them all he'd been thinking about lately, about his growing realization that beating up young kids and vandalizing playgrounds really wasn't the noblest of pursuits. About his parents, and how they treated Potter. About the fact that he'd had two bedrooms for years and his cousin had a cupboard.

He couldn't though. How could he talk about that with people who looked up to him? They wouldn't understand. They'd think he was going soft. He might be able to talk about it with Piers a bit- he'd known him longer than any of the others- but Piers was on holiday in France with his parents.

Even then, how would that conversation go? "Hey, have you ever noticed we're a massive pair of bullies and generally kind of suck?"

"Mark Evans is back from school," Dennis said after a moment. "His parents bought him a new bike. He rides it around every evening before dinner"

"If we bang it up a bit he'll probably just tell his parents he rode it into a ditch," Gordon said, sitting up straight and brightening up a bit. "He was always terrified of us."

"Are you in, Big D?"

Dudley had to admit that he rather liked the feeling of power that came with these kinds of acts of destruction. But now a new emotion came along with it, one that was much stronger. His stomach clenched and he felt as though a pit had been created inside it.

"I don't know," he finally said. "My dad's working late tonight and my mum doesn't like being alone with my cousin."

"That scrawny freak? Even your mum could kick his arse," Gordon said, and Dennis laughed.

It was probably true, but despite himself Dudley found himself saying, "He's not that bad."

The two of them stared at him incredulously, and he shrugged, not sure how to defend himself. "I dunno. I mean, I don't like him or anything, but he's not all that terrible, is he?"

"Your parents send him to that school for criminals," Dennis reminded him. "He's a bloody freak."

Dudley shrugged again- Potter was a freak, but it wasn't as though he could tell them that St. Brutus's didn't actually exist. "Just forget it."

They were still staring at him, though. Gordon was wide awake now, and he surveyed him with a surprisingly calculating look, considering he was as dumb as a box of rocks. "You're not going soft on us, are you, Big D?"

Dudley wanted to tell him not to call him that name, but he knew it wouldn't help matters. "Of course not. Idiot."

Was he going soft? Was that really such a bad thing?

For the first time in his life, Dudley wasn't enjoying Gordon and Dennis's company. They were too linked with what he'd seen last year, too closely linked with the parts of himself he was beginning to reject.

"I should go home," he said, pushing himself into a crouched over position so he could crawl out from under the playground equipment. "It's almost lunchtime."

"So?" Dennis asked. "We'll grab a bite to eat in town. Come on, Big D, we haven't seen you since you got home. What's your problem?"

"He's gone soft," Gordon said, the small smirk he'd worn before growing wider. "Big D is best buddies with Potter now."

"Shut up," Dudley snapped. "I'm not."

"Then how come you've been avoiding us?" Gordon asked, crawling out from under the structure as well and leaning against the rungs of the nearest ladder. "You've been home for a week and a half and we haven't done anything. Last year we would've trashed the park and had at least fifty quid by now."

"Well, maybe I don't feel like trashing parks or stealing money anymore," Dudley said, reaching up to wipe the layer of sweat that had accumulated on his forehead.

"So, what you're saying is you've gone soft," Gordon repeated slowly, as though he were a small child. "Never would have expected that from you. Maybe Dennis, but-"

"Hey!" Dennis called out, still under the playground structure.

"I'm not going soft, I just..." Dudley grunted in frustration at his inability to formulate his thoughts. "Forget it. You're too stupid to understand."

"Look who's talking," Gordon said with a laugh. "You're all high and mighty now, aren't you? Too smart for the rest of us?"

It was pointless, Dudley realized. They would never understand because they were exactly as he'd been last year. They hadn't seen what he'd seen, and if he hadn't been attacked he'd still be just like they were.

Had he really been that much of an idiot?

"Why don't you run off to your Mummy for lunch?" Gordon went on. "I'm sure she'll be happy to see her little Diddykins, won't she?"

"Sod off," Dudley growled, his hands clenching into fists.

Gordon's face hardened but he didn't say anything- Dudley was still the boxing champion at Smeltings, whether he'd gone soft or not.

Dudley started back toward home, feeling both furious and deflated at the same time. He wanted to turn around and launch his fist at Gordon's leering face, but the more he walked the more he felt deflated like a tire leaking air.

The gang was finished. Maybe it would go on with one of the others as its leader, but the old days were over and Dudley knew they weren't coming back. He'd just lost two (and possibly three, when Piers returned from France) of his oldest friends in the blink of an eye.

Had they ever really been friends? Or had they just been bullies who had naturally gravitated toward one another because of their shared traits? Now that Dudley thought about it, he realized he didn't know much of anything about Gordon and Dennis. Sure, Gordon threw a great left hook and Dennis was a master at lock picking, but beyond that he was completely unaware of anything about them.

Damn it. Everything was so confusing, and Dudley didn't know what it was he wanted. The gang and his life before the Dementors was so appealing, almost like a security blanket of sorts, but he didn't know if he could stand the guilt that came with it. He wished he could just push it all aside as rubbish created by freaks like his cousin, but he couldn't anymore. He just couldn't.

"Duddykins, you're home early," his mother commented as he walked in through the back door. "I thought you were meeting your friends today."

"It's too hot to do anything so I thought I would just come home," he said, avoiding eye contact.

"Why didn't you invite them back here? It's been so long since you've seen any of your friends," she went on obliviously.

"Maybe some other time," Dudley said, not in the mood to explain to his mother that she probably wouldn't be seeing much of the gang again. "I think I'm going to lie down for a bit."

He hoped she wouldn't follow, but he heard her footsteps behind him as he started for the stairs.

"I hope you're not coming down with something. It's that diet you're on; it's not healthy for you to-"

The cupboard door was open and Dudley's stomach clenched. "I'm fine, Mum. I just need some rest. I didn't sleep well last night... the heat and all."

"All right," his mother said, but her expression remained hesitant.

He even managed a smile- he didn't want her to worry- and started up the stairs. The moment he reached his bedroom he flicked on the air conditioner and flopped backwards onto his bed with all his weight. If he had tried that last year the frame probably would have collapsed in on itself, but now there was only a loud crunching noise, though it still didn't sound entirely safe.

The sound must have startled Potter's owl, as it let out a loud hoot that was audible through the wall. Dudley couldn't help but snort the slightest bit. His cousin couldn't have a pet dog, or a gerbil. No, he had to have a giant flapping monstrosity that startled the neighbors. The freaks really were committed to being freakish, weren't they?

"It's all right, Hedwig," Potter's muffled voice could be heard. "It's just Dudley being an idiot."

Dudley stiffened, and for a brief moment considered confronting his cousin. It wasn't worth it, though, especially not when he was conflicted enough over the way he and his family treated him.

Instead, he rolled onto his side and reminded himself that even if Potter seemed to communicate only in an unending stream of sarcasm, he at least had a good reason for it. It probably had helped keep him sane in that cupboard.

"Hey, Potter," Dudley called out.

There was no response, and Dudley pushed himself up so that he was in a seated position. "Potter."

"What do you want?"

Dudley stood up and walked out of his room, pausing in front of his cousin's closed door. He hadn't been inside since it had been his second bedroom.

"Mind if I come in?"

He didn't know why he was being so polite- it was just Potter, after all. Still, he couldn't help but picture himself barging in, startling him, and ending up with another damn pig's tail.

Potter opened the door the slightest bit and gave him a wary look. Flatly, he asked, "What is it?"

He was taller than Dudley remembered. They were both getting older, and for the first time he wondered where Potter would go once he finished school. Did his kind have universities? Dudley wasn't sure, but he did know that his cousin didn't have anything to worry about. He was famous amongst the freaks, after all.

Potter was still staring at him, and Dudley realized he had no idea what it was he wanted to say. There were too many years of animosity between them for him to just drop by and say, 'I still think you're a freak but I'm sorry about beating you up and my parents locking you in a cupboard.'

"Just thought I'd say welcome back," he finally said, wincing at how pathetic he sounded.

Potter stared at him blankly before saying, "Right, then," and moving to shut the door.

"Wait," Dudley said, moving to stop him. "Wait. I just... I want to ask you something."

The words didn't come easily, and he had to pause several times to properly formulate them. "When we were kids and my parents were trying to help you not be a freak... Is that possible? I mean, if you tried hard enough could you not be the way you are?"

Potter continued to stare at him, his expression blank, as though he wasn't sure if Dudley was serious or not. Dudley parted his hands and held them aloft, a peace offering.

"First of all, I'm not a freak, and it's not a choice, if that's what you're wondering," his cousin said stiffly, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "And your parents didn't give a damn about squashing it out of me. They were going to hate me no matter what I did."

Dudley blinked- he had considered the possibility that his parents had enjoyed being cruel to Potter a bit too much, but they'd at least their main reason for doing so had been a noble one.

"They're good people," he managed to say. "They wanted to help you, and all you've ever done is insult them—"

"Like hell they wanted to help me. Are you really that dense?" Potter leaned against the door frame and shook his head. As smug as always, he added, "Look, are we finished here? I'm working on my homework and right about now I'd even prefer Potions to this conversation."

"I thought you couldn't do that outside of school," Dudley said, surprised, and his heart began to race as he wondered just what Potter was doing holed up in his room all the time. "You're... you're not doing it in there, are you? Dad would-"

"Don't worry, it's only an essay. I'm not about to blow up your father's precious house."

"Why are you always so damn sarcastic, anyway?" he asked loudly. "I'm just asking. Why do you think I'm always out to get you? Maybe I'm just trying to be friendly."

Potter laughed. It was a short, humorless bark of a laugh, and Dudley realized he could count the times he'd heard his cousin genuinely laugh on one hand. "Trying to be friendly? You? Good one, Big D."

"Well, maybe I'm trying to understand you, all right?" Dudley glared at him. "But if you're going to be like that-"

He stopped abruptly and started back toward his room. He turned to slam the door and found that Potter had followed him, a quizzical look on his face.

"So what brought this on?" he asked. His body was far less rigid than it had been just a few moments before, but he was still on the defensive. "Why the sudden interest?"

Dudley shrugged. He didn't know what to say. "I don't know. I've just been thinking a lot."

"I didn't know you knew how to think. Must be painful."

"Shut up. Why are you always so sarcastic?"

Potter shrugged as well. "The alternative would blowing everything and everyone I look at up until I get out of here, and that's frowned upon, so you get sarcasm instead – it keeps me sane."

Dudley paused, not sure to be frightened by this or sympathetic. He settled on a bit of both.

"I'm going to lie down for a bit," he finally said. "Tell your bird to stop squawking at all hours, why don't you?"

"Don't launch yourself at your bed like a cannonball, then," Potter said, turning and leaving without another word.

Dudley flopped onto the bed with intentional force, but there was no malice behind it, just exhaustion. The owl hooted again and Dudley paused, waiting to see if Potter would insult him again. Nothing was said and he instead closed his eyes, wishing he could just go back to blindly hating his cousin – it was so much simpler.

He was back in the cupboard again, and he again had no good reason to explain why.

Dudley shifted back and forth but knew that there were no comfortable positions on the camp bed. He hadn't slept well last night, nor the night before that. His thoughts always drifted back to the cupboard, no matter how comfortable he was in bed. Perhaps it was because he was so comfortable he kept thinking of it.

The cupboard was quieter than he would have expected. Upstairs his father's snores penetrated the walls, and occasionally Potter muttered in his sleep. They weren't moans like last year, but they were still audible. It wasn't like that here- instead all Dudley could hear was the faint hum of the refrigerator and the rare passing car. He was alone with his thoughts, uninterrupted, and able to think clearly for the first time.

Potter said he hadn't had a choice about being a freak. Dudley wondered about that. Surely if he had been able to stifle his powers he would have, considering all the time he'd spent locked away because of them. Was it really possible he couldn't help it? And if that was true, wouldn't his parents have known? His aunt had been one of them before she'd died, so that meant his mother had been exposed to… that from a young age – she had to know something about it.

A spider crawled across his face, but instead of panicking Dudley simply blew it away and rolled carefully onto his side. The air was stale and he started to reach over to open the door a crack, but stopped when he remembered Potter often hadn't had that option.

There was a creaking noise, and Dudley froze as the stairs overhead creaked under the weight of a person using them, dust and spiders being disturbed with every step. The footsteps were too light to be his father's, meaning it was either his mother or Potter. He didn't want to be caught by either, seeing as it would be hard to explain exactly what he was doing, especially when he couldn't satisfactorily explain it himself.

The footsteps stopped outside of the kitchen, and then a faint voice- his mother's- called out, "Dudley?"

He froze- she must have poked her head in his room before coming downstairs and realized he wasn't there. He couldn't exactly pop out now without having a hell of a lot to explain, but what else could he do?

"Dudley?" his mother repeated, then, in a louder voice, she called, "Vernon! Vernon, come down here!"

As quickly and quietly as possible, he pushed open the cupboard door and took a few steps toward his mother. She was in the kitchen, her back turned to him, and as his father's footsteps grew louder he cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes, trying to look as though he'd just woken up.

"Mum? What's wrong?"

He immediately felt guilty upon seeing his mother's face- she'd gone pale and her breathing was rapid. "Oh, thank goodness you're all right- where were you?"

His father hurried into the kitchen just as his mother threw her arms around him. "What? What is it?"

"My little Sweetums, are you hurt?" His mother squeezed him with more strength than he'd known she possessed. To his father, she explained, "He wasn't in his room or downstairs-"

"I was in the living room," he said, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd try the couch."

His mother frowned, relaxing her grip on him slightly. "I don't understand. I looked in the living room just now. Perhaps I didn't see you in the darkness..."

"That's probably it," he said, forcing a smile. "Sorry I scared you, Mum."

Relaxing a bit more, she kissed him several times on the forehead. "Don't apologize, Duddy, I'm sorry I woke you-"

"Well, that's that, then," his father said, shaking his head and rubbing his forehead as though he had a headache. "Petunia, let the poor boy go back to sleep, why don't you?"

His mother reluctantly stepped back, and with several more kisses and squeezes started back upstairs. Dudley made to follow her, but his father put a hand on his shoulder and nodded at the back door. Dudley looked at him questioningly, but he just shook his head and motioned for him to follow.

It was dark outside, the only light provided by the streetlights on the opposite side of the house. Dudley turned to look at his father, wondering if he thought he'd sneaked out.


"I was downstairs twenty minutes ago," his father said, taking a seat on a lawn chair. "I didn't see you on the couch either."

"Yeah, I know," Dudley said, kneeling down and willing himself to sound as convincing as possible. "I only came down ten or fifteen minutes ago. Really."

His father nodded at him, but his unsmiling, stoic expression didn't change. "You forgot to close the door, you know."

For a moment Dudley didn't know what he meant, but then it hit him all at once. The cupboard door. He hadn't closed it behind him upon hurrying into the kitchen. He froze, trying to think up a good excuse, but his father simply held up a hand, silencing him.

"I didn't say anything in front of your mother because I didn't want to worry her."

Dudley's mouth had gone dry, and he swallowed several times before speaking. "Thanks."

"It wasn't for your sake, it was for hers." His father was rarely upset with him, and Dudley hated being on the receiving end of the hard look he leveled at him now. "Would you like to tell me what you were doing in there?"

"I... I don't know," he admitted. "It helps me think. To relax."

"You don't belong in there," his father said gruffly. "It's a cupboard. It's infested with spiders."

"It was all right for Harry, though, wasn't it?" Dudley wished he hadn't said anything because the look on his father's face made him want to shrivel away into nothingness. Somehow he doubted this conversation would end with them drinking whiskey together.

"Your cousin is an entirely different matter."

"But why?" Dudley turned away and closed his eyes. He hated that look of surprise mixed with anger and disappointment. "I mean, why didn't you just tell him why he was so different as a kid? Maybe if he knew he could have stifled it-"

"Dudley," his father said sharply, and he fell silent. In a calmer, more level voice, he said, "His kind can't be reasoned with. They're not like you and me."

"Have you ever tried?" Dudley asked, wondering the same of himself. "Maybe if you just talked with them-"

"Dudley," his father said again, but this time it wasn't in anger, but instead in a tired, almost weary tone. Dudley looked up and found that his father looked older than usual. "It's natural for you to think that way, and believe it or not I once tried to understand them as well, but it just can't be done."

"Why?" Dudley asked, wanting his father to explain things so that everything made sense again, but wondering all the while if he was just full of it.

Exhaling deeply, his father leaned forward and put his hands on Dudley's shoulders. "Your mother and I have always worked for the well-being of this family. We don't accept handouts and we never burden others with our problems. When you finish school, what do you plan to do, Dudley?"

Dudley shrugged, not entirely sure and wondering what this had to do with anything. "I don't know. I suppose I'll go to university and then get a job at Grunnings or something."

His father nodded enthusiastically. "Exactly. You plan to work and to give back to the community. Those kind don't work or do anything for society- your cousin's parents never worked a day in their lives, but they went and had a child anyway. I wouldn't be surprised if they were living off welfare- welfare that our taxes pay for."

Taking a breath, he went on. "What they do isn't right and it isn't natural. From what your mother tells me, her sister knew damn well what she was doing when she showed off her abilities. They think that sort of freakishness makes them better than upstanding people like us."

"Harry didn't know, though," Dudley said, hoping this wouldn't make his father angry again. "He never understood that he was making all those weird things happen."

"Maybe not at first," his father said. "But over time he had to have figured it out. And by the time he went off to that ruddy school he knew exactly what he was doing. Don't tell me you don't remember what he did to your Aunt Marge-"

Dudley nodded slowly- that had seemed more of an accident, sort of like when he'd said he was sarcastic so he didn't accidentally blow everything up.

"We've given him more chances than he deserves. He and his kind have only put us in danger- we've worked hard to keep you safe, but there have been far too many incidents." His father sighed deeply. "That bearded giant disfigured you, and that bloody redheaded family's destroyed our property on more than one occasion. They attacked you and did that- that thing to your tongue- not to mention what happened last summer-"

"Harry tried to save me, though," Dudley said. "Look, it's not that I like him or think he's normal or anything, but... I don't know. I don't know if he's as bad as we make him out to be."

"If it weren't for him you wouldn't have needed to be saved in the first place."

Dudley looked over at the hedge and, before he could lose his nerve, said, "Those creatures that attacked us... They were invisible, but they made me see things. They made me see what I'm like, Dad. They made me see what you and Mum and I are like. We're not good people. We're bullies."

His father tightened his grip on his shoulders, his fingernails digging in and causing Dudley to hiss in pain. "Enough of this. Are you going to trust them to tell you who you are? You are not a bully, and I would think you'd know better than to trust a... a freak over your mother and myself-"

Dudley's stomach was starting to churn and he wanted nothing more than to run upstairs and hide under the covers and make everything vanish. He hated his father looking at him with such frustration and disgust. He hated wanting to believe him but at the same time not being able to.

"No, Dad. I... I'll always love you and Mum, but you're wrong. You said I was someone to be admired when I first got back home, but I'm not. You said that I should never be ashamed for doing the right thing." Dudley swallowed and he stood up, pushing his father's hands off his shoulders. "You're right about that, but up until now I've never done the right thing, and neither have you or Mum."

His father rose to his feet as well, and even in the darkness Dudley could see that his face was contorting and turning that awful purple shade that only his cousin had been able to induce in the past.

"You listen here," he said, jabbing him in the chest with his index finger. "I will not be talked to like that under my own roof-"

"We're not under your roof, are we?" Dudley asked before he could stop himself. He couldn't help but feel a bit proud- he normally wasn't quick enough to come up with a witty reply; that was more Harry's specialty.

His father's face twisted up even more and for a split second Dudley thought was about to be smacked upside the head. That had happened once and only once, the time he'd tried to pack everything he owned into one suitcase when they'd fled the house after the onslaught of letters for his cousin.

He stood his ground, staring right back at his father. He was taller than him now, and for the first time he didn't look as strong and powerful as he usually did. He wasn't the great man Dudley had always given him credit for- he was just a man, and nothing else.

"Don't you get smart with me," he snarled between labored breaths. "You have no idea the sacrifices we've made for you."

"Yeah, lucky me with my second bedroom while your own nephew's locked away in a cupboard." It was wonderfully freeing to let everything pour out at last, and with each word Dudley felt as if he were soaring higher and higher away from the bindings he'd never known were holding him down. "What if I had been like him? Would you have locked me away too? Or did you only care about me because I was normal?"

His father's face contorted into a grotesque expression Dudley hadn't even known was possible, and he jerked his arm up into the air. Dudley closed his eyes and braced himself for the blow he knew was coming.

"Stop it," his mother's voice suddenly hissed behind them. Dudley whirled around, as did his father, unaware that they'd been loud enough to lure her back downstairs. Her voice was low, barely audible, but her fury was clear. "Are you trying to be heard by the entire neighborhood? Get inside!"

His mother rarely took on that tone, and when she did it was almost always toward Harry. Dudley and his father obeyed instantly and almost automatically, following her inside wordlessly.

"What is the meaning of this?" she asked, shutting the door sharply behind them.

"Your son seems to think we're abusing the poor boy," his father practically spat out, leaning against the wall and sweating hard enough to soak through the shirt of his pajamas. "And that the freaks are really just misunderstood-"

His mother closed her eyes and dropped into a chair, rubbing her forehead. "Oh, Diddykins, for goodness' sake..."

"Mum, you had him sleeping in a cupboard!" Dudley protested. "He didn't know why all those weird things were happening! If you'd just explained it to him or gave him a chance to try-"

"He's dangerous!" she cut in. "Why would I tell someone with those abilities who clearly hates anything good and normal that he has the power to kill us all?"

"Why do you think he hates us? Look at how we've treated him!" Dudley angrily slammed his open palm against the side of the refrigerator. "Maybe being a freak isn't that bad at all; maybe you've just never been willing to give any of them a chance-"

He wasn't surprised when he was interrupted, but he was expecting it to be by his father, not his mother, who jumped to her feet and descended upon him like a vulture.

"Don't you dare say a thing like that!" she all but shrieked, her cheeks flushing a deep scarlet. "You don't know anything about that boy's kind! I grew up with them in and out of the house all summer long, blowing things up and showing off their unnatural abilities. My parents might have been proud, but I was the only sane one in that household!"

Dudley took a step back and stared at his mother, something only just occurring to him for the first time. "You were jealous. Bloody hell, you were jealous."

"Don't you talk like that to your mother!" his father shouted, but Dudley barely noticed, instead beginning to pace around the kitchen.

"That's why you hate him, don't you?" he went on. The realization was a slow and choppy one, and he had to pause several times for it to all come together. "You wanted to be like her, but you couldn't, so you decided to hate her and everyone like her instead."

His mother was shaking now, both in anger and in something else Dudley couldn't quite identify, and before anyone could say anything else she burst into furious tears.

Damn it, he hadn't meant to make her cry. Taking a step forward, he started to apologize, but with a roar not unlike a rhinoceros his father shoved him back roughly.

"Look, I-"

"Get out of here!" his father shouted at him. "You've done enough damage for one night!"

Stumbling backwards, Dudley felt his own anger begin to rise again. He was right. He was right, and they were blaming him for it. For the first time in well over a year he felt his fists clench and his muscles tighten and he scrunched his face up automatically, ready to induce fake tears-

No. No, he wasn't going to have a tantrum. The time for that was long gone, and it was like his father had said- he should never be ashamed for doing the right thing. Making his mother cry didn't seem to be the right thing, but the other things he had said- well, they seemed to be a start.

Turning on his heel, Dudley left the kitchen and paused outside the open cupboard door before continuing out the front door and down the empty street. He didn't know where he was going or what would happen next, but he couldn't stand being in the house any longer. He had to keep moving, because if he stayed near his parents and listened to his mother's sobs he was afraid he'd let himself believe their lies.

Someone was coming up behind him, and Dudley jerked around, ready to lash out at whoever it was. His adrenaline waned when he saw that it was just his cousin, and it was replaced by embarrassment and curiosity over just how much he'd heard.

Harry didn't say anything, and neither did Dudley. Together they walked side by side, as though they always went for strolls together at three in the morning. Little Whinging was different at night- It was much quieter than it was during the day. Dudley had never considered it to be a particularly noisy neighborhood, but the absence of everyday distractions like cars and radios and kids on bikes made their surroundings seem abandoned and almost forgotten.

Dudley closed his eyes and imagined for a brief moment that it was just him and Harry in the world and no one else remained. He knew that eventually he'd have to turn around and go back home and deal with the fallout, but for now he was content believing that the moment would last forever.

Before long they reached a dead end. Neither of them said anything or made any movement, and after several moments had passed like this Dudley turned to his cousin.

"What now?"

Harry shrugged. "I don't know."

"I don't want to go back."

"You're going to have to eventually. Believe me."

Dudley sighed and sat on the low brick wall separating them from the front garden of the nearest house. "Damn it."

Harry just nodded and sat behind him. "I know."

Dudley glanced at him and tried to imagine what he thought about, what his life was like. He was still repulsed a bit, still terrified by the destruction he was capable of, but there was a new emotion as well. He wanted the revulsion to go away, and for the terror to be replaced by something more rational. He wanted to think of his cousin as something other than a freak.

"Thanks," he finally said. "For walking with me."

"Yeah, well." Harry shrugged again and said, "Thanks for finally pulling your head out of your arse."

Dudley smiled and inhaled deeply, breathing in the warm July air. In a few moments he would have to get up and go back to deal with his parents. He could already hear his father's shouting and his mother's wailing, and he imagined just how miserable the rest of the summer was going to be. Still, it was better than being an ignorant brat coddled every step of the way, being told how and what to think, wasn't it?

Harry sat silently beside him, staring up at the sky, and Dudley cleared his throat as quietly as possible, not wanting to wake the residents of the house behind them. "Hey."

"What?" he asked, just as quietly.

"Tell me about your school. And your friends. Do wizards have boxing teams?"

Harry smiled. He smiled differently when he was actually amused, Dudley realized, and he stood up, waiting for Harry to rise as well before slowly beginning the walk back home.