Author's Note/Disclaimer: This story was created solely for the purpose of my entertainment and the entertainment of other fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. The characters do not belong to me, and no money is changing hands. I'm poor enough without facing lawsuits

The summer weather was fine, the homework was easy, and the Dursleys seemed to be ignoring him completely. This was all very good news to Harry, particularly the latter, but there was a strange sort of tension in the air that made him edgy all the same. He was inclined to chalk it up to nerves, after all, he'd been through a lot the past year, and he still had nightmares wherein he saw Cedric's lifeless body sprawled on the sickly grass and heard thin laughter and slow footsteps approaching. But he noticed he wasn't the only one who felt restless, not by any means.

Dudley had lost only a few pounds the previous summer, and had gained it all back plus some during the school year, so again he was on a diet. There was a change in him, though. He ate his grapefruit quarter without complaint, and did not ask for more. He went on walks grudgingly, wheezing unhappily upon his return, but again making no verbal complaint, though his set jaw and scowling mouth showed his frustration. He spoke little to Harry, as if tormenting him had become too much effort for too little reward, but his pale, watery eyes followed him frequently as he went from room to room. There was something hungry in their expression.

I don't like it, Harry wrote jokingly to Ron, He's on a diet again, what if he gets so hungry he takes a bite out of me? Or Hedwig, for that matter!

Bite him back? Ron suggested in his reply, but Harry didn't think much of that idea, and the tension continued to build.

One evening as Harry sat in his room reading about the political structure of the fae courts, he heard raised voices in Dudley's room.

"I don't care!" Dudley shrilled, "I hate it! I hate it! I won't go back!"

"Have you lost your mind??" roared Uncle Vernon, "There's no better school in the country than Smeltings! No better school in the world! You're lucky to be there!"

"Don't you want to carry on the family tradition, popkin?" Aunt Petunia's voice was softer, fawning, but there was a strain in it and it quivered slightly. "Your daddy loved it there…"

"I'm not him!" Dudley yelled, "And I won't go back to Smeltings ever! Ever!"

"No son of mine is dropping out of school!" Uncle Vernon thundered, "Unless you want to feel that Smeltings stick across your backside, you'd better…" the voices dropped to inaudible levels again.

Harry's first inclination was to laugh, but his second was to stay quiet. If Uncle Vernon was mad enough to talk to Dudley like that, he'd be just as likely to knock Harry's head off. He got up very quietly and locked his door, then opened the window and let Hedwig fly out. No sense keeping her here with all the yelling; she'd just get upset. He settled back on his bed, trying to hear more of the argument, without much success. He could not remember Dudley ever having talked back to his parents before. He must really hate it at Smeltings.

He wondered what the trouble was. Not that he particularly cared what happened to Dudley, but he had always been popular in school before. More popular than Harry, at any rate. Harry snorted. Maybe he just didn't want to be so far away from Petunia's pampering. He hoped they made him go back. Served him right, anyway. He opened up his book again and thought no more about it. There was no more shouting that evening.

The next morning, a very soft knock on Harry's door awakened him. He stirred slightly, staring at it. No one ever knocked *lightly* on his door. Not in this house. If someone wanted him up, usually they gave the door a good kick. He stared a moment, but just when he had decided he had imagined the noise, it repeated itself: three light taps. He stood, put on his glasses, and walked to the door, then undid the lock, feeling almost apprehensive about what might be on the other side of the door.

To his surprise, it was Dudley. He looked awful. His eyes were even more watery than usual, bloodshot and shadowed from lack of sleep. He took a fearful step back when he saw Harry, covering his rear instinctively for a moment, then waved uncertainly. "Err…ahh…'Morning…Harry…"

Harry stared at his cousin as if he had grown a second head. Since when did Dudley say good morning to him? Come to think of it, how often did he call him by his name?

"Ummm…yeah. So…can I come in? Just for a second? There---there's something I want to ask…you…" He was tense, ready to flee at the first sign of magic.

"Is this some kind of trick?" Harry frowned at him.

"No! No, no, no…Promise. Cross my heart." He bit his lower lip.

Harry studied him a moment, then backed away to let him in, having a feeling he'd regret this.

Dudley squeezed into the room and fidgeted a moment.

"Have you been crying?" asked Harry, taking a closer look at him.

Dudley looked defensive, "No! I mean…why would I be crying? I don't cry!"

"Right." Harry leaned against his desk and folded his arms skeptically.

Dudley's scowl softened into a nervous expression again as he cast about for something to inspire small talk, "Where's your owl?"

Harry couldn't resist, "Behind you."

Dudley whirled clumsily, looking fearfully behind him and cringing, then realized the trick and scowled furiously at Harry, "That wasn't funny." His fists clenched, but he made no aggressive moves.

Harry smirked at him, "She's out hunting. If you wanted to talk about Hedwig, evening would be a better time." He yawned, " It's not even seven AM yet."

"Not…really…" His scowl faded, "I was…just trying…"

Harry interrupted, "To get on my good side? What do you want? You haven't said a friendly word to me since I was born. If you think you can make amends now, you're mental." His tone was harsher than he meant for it to be, and his green eyes narrowed suspiciously at his cousin.

Dudley's shoulders drooped pathetically, "I know…" he sighed, "But I thought…and you're the only…and I never meant…" He stammered a moment, then squared his shoulders again and looked Harry in the eye. "I-I know I haven't been n-nice to you…well…ever…" said Dudley, "But I promise I'll try from now on, if only you'll do just one thing for me."

"Do what?" Harry backed away suspiciously.

"I w-want you to…to… turn someone into a toad!"

"You what?!" Harry stared at him a moment, then bent over the desk and laughed. He clapped his hand over his mouth to stifle the sound, not wanting to wake Uncle Vernon. Dudley watched him with a mix of anger and anxiety, not wanting to ruin what small chance there was of getting his request granted by punching his cousin in the nose. Harry slid to the floor, stifling his giggles. It took several minutes for him to get control of himself, "D-dudley…why on earth…??"

Dudley averted his eyes, "She picks on me."


"The person I want you to change into a toad!" Dudley rolled his eyes, as if this should have been obvious to Harry.

Harry frowned up at him, "At school, right? That's why you don't want to go back to Smeltings? Some girl there picks on you?"

"And all her friends…" his voice got softer, and he refused to meet Harry's eyes.

"Did it ever occur to you that *everyone* at school picked on me, from the time I was five until I got accepted at Hogwarts?" His voice and his expression hardened, "Do you know whose *fault* that was? Can you imagine how *miserable* that made me??" He stood as he spoke, and his voice rose slightly. Dudley stepped back.

"I…can imagine now." He almost whispered.

"Well it's a little late, now!" Harry shouted, forgetting to be quiet.

A loud grumble came from down the hall, and footsteps approached the room. Harry winced as his door flew open, "What the devil is all this racket ab--Dudley?? What are you doing in here?" Vernon blinked blearily at his son and his nephew.

Harry froze, trying to come up with a lie, fast. Uncle Vernon hated nothing so much as being woken early on a weekend.

"Ummm…I came in to ask Harry to help me…help me pack! To go back to Smeltings!" Dudley interrupted brightly. "Right, Harry?" he turned to look at his cousin, and Harry was surprised to see a plea in his eyes.

"Err…right…yes. Of course I'll help you pack, Dudley," he blinked at the other boy.

"Hggmnph." Uncle Vernon grunted, eyeing them both with suspicion, "Decided to go back to school after all, then, Dudley?"

"Yes, sir," Dudley smiled obsequiously at his father, "You were right. It's the best place for me."

"Good lad." He ruffled his hair, shot Harry a venomous look as a matter of principle, then left. Dudley sighed with relief.

"What was that about?" Harry muttered to his cousin resentfully.

"He hates being woken early," Dudley explained, blinking at him, "You know that."

"No, I mean…the…covering up for me…" He frowned.

"I said I'd try and be nicer." He looked at Harry hopefully.

Harry groaned inwardly.

"Besides," admitted Dudley, "I didn't want to get shouted at either."

"You're really serious about this toad thing?" Harry eyed the plump boy dubiously.

"I can't take it any more. She's awful. It never stops. She…she calls me 'Whale', and makes fun of when I get answers wrong in class, and…she says I look like a pig in a wig!"

"I…see…" He stifled the impulse to tell Dudley that he agreed with his tormentor.

Dudley sat heavily on the edge of Harry's bed. The springs creaked. Harry bit his tongue to keep from shouting at his cousin to get his oversized rear off his blankets.

"Will you? Please, Harry? I…I can pay you…I still have some of my allowance…or I can borrow money off Dad and--"

"Dudley!" Harry interrupted, "Assuming I even *wanted* to help you--and you haven't convinced me yet, by the by--you know perfectly well I can't do magic outside of school. I'd get expelled. I've already got two counts against me from the year before last, and I don't think they wipe the record each summer."

"Couldn't you…keep it hidden somehow? How do they keep track?"

"I…never thought about it before, actually…but I do know they'd be able to tell the second I pulled out my wand. I wonder…I wonder if there's some sort of ward on me, or on this hou--" He cut himself short and glanced at Dudley, deciding that it would be a bad idea to voice the idea that had occurred to him, that the house on Privet Drive must be watched and warded by wizards for Harry's protection.

"On this house? There's magic on the house??" Dudley squeaked.

"Hush!! I never said that. I was just talking off the top of my head. I don't know, they may just be watching me…"

"But…if…the house…and…"

"Hush up! You'll wake Uncle Vernon again, and if he hears any of that he'll knock me into next week."

Dudley whimpered, but nodded obediently.

Harry studied him a moment, then relaxed again, folding his arms, "And if the school board didn't catch me, the Improper Use of Magic board would. I could be sent to prison for turning some unsuspecting Muggle into a toad, you know."

"A what?"

"Muggle. Muggle. Non-magic person." Harry enunciated carefully, getting exasperated with his cousin.

"Oh. Is it a nasty name?" He looked interested.

"Umm?" He blinked at Dudley. "I…not really. It depends on who's saying it, I guess. Not all wizards like Muggles."

"Do you hate…Muggles?"

Harry sneered slightly, "The only ones I've ever really known are you and your parents, and you haven't exactly given me reasons to like you, have you?"

"Oh." He shifted slightly on the bed, and the springs creaked. He looked nervous now, and almost…guilty?

Harry sighed, "I don't hate all Muggles as a matter of principle. I'm fairer than that. There are wizards who do, though. I go to school with some of them." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Which is why there's an Improper Use of Magic Board. Otherwise, you'd see a lot more people being turned into toads and snakes and mice."

"So you won't do it?" He looked despairing.

"Hadn't we already established that? I don't think I'm that good at transfiguration yet, anyway. I doubt I could do more than give her a few warts."

"I'd settle for that." He got a dreamy look on his face at the thought.

"No, Dudley. It's not going to happen. Doesn't matter how nice you are to me. Or how nasty," he added as an afterthought, hoping to nip any potential blackmail in the bud.

"Do you hate me?"

Harry, who had just been about to order Dudley out of his room, paused and stared at him. "Ah." His impulse was to say an emphatic yes, but something in Dudley's tone made him hesitate.

"That was a stupid question. I'd hate me if I were you."

"Really." Harry wasn't quite sure what to say, or where this was headed.

Dudley shrugged, looking unhappy. "It's weird, you know…being picked on at Smeltings. I'm…not used to it. I thought it was normal for everyone to be nice, like Mum and Dad, and do whatever you ask them to do and to agree with you…"

"That's called being spoiled, Dudley."

"I *liked* being spoiled, then." He scowled at Harry, then looked thoughtful. "Maybe if it hadn't always been like that I wouldn't mind things so much now. It just…feels like a nightmare whenever I'm at Smeltings, and coming home is like waking up."

"Funny. It's the reverse for me." Harry looked out the window. It was true. The wizarding world, and Hogwarts, were where he felt at home, in his proper place, for all that there were someone there, someone very powerful, who wanted him dead.

"But you're *used* to it," complained Dudley, "I'm not…I'm…I'm sensitive."

Harry turned slowly to give him an incredulous look. "You're…"

"Mum always said so. I'm sensitive and--"

Harry rested his head in his hands, exasperated, "Dudley. Get out of my room." His voice was low and resigned. Why had he even let the conversation continue this long?

Dudley stared at him for a moment, half-scowling, half-pouting, then slowly got up and shuffled toward the door. Harry watched him go, locking the door behind him, then collapsed on the bed. He couldn't believe it, but for a moment there he had felt sorry for Dudley.

More to come!