"Alright class, get into your usual discussion groups. Jeremy, can you pass these out? I'll expect a short presentation of what you discussed in ten minutes. Right, group near the board, discuss question one. Ben, your group is doing question two and if I see that stick one more time, you're getting detention and I don't care about your football game, understand? Why they give you kids weapons, I swear…Group in the back corner gets question three…"
"Question three. Examine the motif of family. How do the parent/child relationships throughout the novel shape the personalities and motives of the characters? What are the effects of different parenting styles, blah, blah, blah." Brian Tipton dropped the piece of paper onto his desk. "Dudley, you're presenting this time, so you better pay attention."
"Fine," Dudley grumbled.
"Did you even read it?" Derek Jones asked in annoyance.
"Yeah, yeah," Dudley grumbled, distinctly lacking luster. The test was coming up, after all, and he desperately needed to pull his English grade up if he wanted to remain eligible for the wrestling team.
He distractedly took notes on the conversation, eventually forcing himself to tune in so he had something to say when he got up in front of the class.
"And then there's the abusive relationship between Elliot and his parents."
"Abusive relationship?" Dudley asked in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
"You said you read it," came the accusing response.
"I did!" Dudley snapped. "But I'm not going to say something dumb up in front of everyone. There's no abuse. I don't remember them hitting him or anything."
He was met with an eye roll that he probably deserved after having failed to read a full book yet that year.
"They don't have to hit him for there to be abuse. He's obviously abused. His parents are always degrading him and, well, you read it, you know."
"He was always causing trouble, of course his parents were going to get mad," Dudley protested. When he'd read it, Elliot had reminded him of his fucked up cousin. The character's parents treated him the same way Dudley's own parents treated Harry.
"There's a line between yelling at your kids because they did something wrong and verbal abuse. This stuff is extreme. I think the author's trying to make a clear connection between the abuse and Elliot's actions. Elliot acts out because he doesn't think anyone cares about him," Derek said, gesturing with the book to Dudley's notes. "You better write that down."
"Look at the future psychologist," Brenden Farn teased.
"Hey, we're being asked to look at family relationships. It's not my fault I'm smarter than you," Derek shot back easily.
Brenden laughed. "Well, I guess because you took psych you're pretty damn special, aren't you?"
"Hell yeah," Derek grinned. "Anyway, they're emotionally abusive too so you better talk about that."
Dudley stared at him blankly and Derek sighed.
"Okay, it means they pretty much torture him by making him feel like shit, yeah? They don't act like parents; they never explain the reasons behind their punishments and they just make it obvious they don't give a damn about their kid. The author shows the consequences of it at the end with the….hold on, let me find a quote to use…"
As the other boys scrambled to put their mini presentation together before time was up, Dudley zoned out, stuck on his incredulity that the other boys all thought Elliot's parents were abusive. The fictional relationship was pretty mild in comparison to the volatile one between Harry and Dudley's parents. Of course, there was the magic thing. That's what made the difference. If Elliot had been dangerous like Harry, the others would understand.
He read off his group's findings to a bored class and finished just before the bell rang for lunch. There was a flurry of activity around him. His teacher called out the homework assignment over chaotic sounds of things being shoved into book bags, relieved chatter and the scraping of chairs.
Dudley slowly packed his bag. He waved on his friends, telling them he'd catch up. When the last boy shoved his way through the door, Dudley approached his teacher's desk.
"What can I do for you, Dudley?" the older woman asked.
Dudley hesitated momentarily, but he had to ask. "You know how in my presentation I said the relationship between Elliot and his parents was abusive? Do you think that's true?"
The woman eyed him in surprise. "Do you?"
"I…well, wasn't it just his parents getting mad at him because he was such a brat? But everyone in my group said it was abuse."
She eyed him seriously. "Why don't you pull up a chair, Dudley. I'll give you a pass for your next class."
Dudley nodded and grabbed a nearby chair.
"Abuse doesn't have to mean physical violence, Dudley. The way Elliot's parents treated him in this novel was not right by any means. Did you notice the way his parents belittled him? The way his mother wouldn't even acknowledge him as part of the family in many ways? The author makes it clear they lack a protective instinct, though it can be subtle since descriptions of his home life are from Elliot himself, who is biased and thinks things are normal that aren't. Did you notice any of that while you read?"
"Not really. I guess now, maybe," Dudley muttered, thinking hard about what he could have missed. "You mean like how they never cared where he was unless they needed something?"
She nodded. "And other things. Maybe you should read it again."
Dudley nodded absently. "So that's really considered abuse?"
"Well, many teenagers have issues with their parents, but Elliot's parents verbally attacked him and manipulated him. Think of how emotionally damaging it might be to have your parents treat you the way Elliot's did," she explained, eyeing him critically. "Dudley, may I ask why this interests you so much? Do your parents treat you similarly to Elliot's?"
"No," Dudley replied quickly. "Not at all. It's just…some people can deserve it, right? 'Cause I know someone who I think really does. His parents died when he was young so his relatives had to raise him but they really hate him. But he makes them hate him."
"Did they tell him that?" his teacher gasped, sounding slightly appalled.
"Maybe. I don't know," Dudley responded sheepishly, his face heating from the lie. "But see, he's not normal. He really is a….what's that word…uh…a burden on them. All he does is cause problems and the family knows he could cause a whole lot more. His relatives never wanted him; they got stuck with him. And he's a lot of trouble….but so was Elliot. I think the person I know is more trouble though."
"How so? Does he get in trouble with the law?"
"No," Dudley reluctantly admitted. "He's just weird. And the family just wants to be normal."
Dudley doubted she did, but let it slide, figuring he probably shouldn't insist she didn't understand and then not tell her. She looked mildly upset and Dudley hoped she didn't do anything like cry. If that happened, he was out of there.
"I know it can be hard for families to deal with difficult children and teenagers, for whatever reason. But no matter what a child does, even if that's breaking the law or having behavioral problems, there are certain ways of treating a child that is always unacceptable. It's sometimes difficult to define when there's no physical abuse, but if you pay attention, you might sense that something's wrong, that it's crossed a line. Like Elliot. Your classmates and I could see that it was wrong." She turned to her computer and began opening the school library website. "If you have time, I think you should check out some books from the psychology section on abuse. It might help you see this boy you know in a different light. And if it's more serious than you realize, these might help you help your friend by at least being aware of it." She scribbled down some call numbers and handed Dudley the slip of paper. "If you ever need anyone to talk to, you can always talk to me, okay? And if you think your friend needs help, please call the phone number on the back."
Dudley nodded as his teacher wrote him a note for his next class.
A week later found Dudley in the library, somewhere he'd admittedly never trekked before. He, like the other boys at his school, usually just used internet bibliographies and the online library information to fake sources for reports.
When he had said he was going to the library, his mates just laughed and rolled their eyes, figuring he was really off to find someone who had cigarettes or alcohol. They'd be disappointed later when he came back with neither, but he could always say he just couldn't find anyone with it.
He found the books he was looking for and brought them to a cubicle that was somewhat out of the way. He had tried to just forget about this whole thing, not wanting to go through all this trouble for what he knew couldn't really be abuse. His teacher and classmates just didn't understand and he couldn't exactly explain the situation to them.
But the more he thought about it, the more he realized he couldn't actually find a logical explanation for the way his parents treated Harry. He'd always just taken for granted that it was because Harry was dangerous and abnormal and ruining their lives, but if it was because of the danger, wouldn't it make more sense to be on Harry's good side? And if it was because of the whole freak thing, well, if he was realistic about it, was that really Harry's fault? After all, Harry's mother was Dudley's biological aunt; what if he himself had been magical? Thinking that he could have easily been in Harry's position made him extremely uncomfortable with using that as an excuse. And if it was because Harry was ruining their lives, once again, how could Harry really have controlled being dropped on their doorstep?
His parents were good people though! They were his parents! They wouldn't do this sort of thing if there wasn't a good reason, right?
He wasn't sure what he was expecting these books to say, but he needed to look at them. He needed them to define what "abuse" was and allow Dudley to safely say that that was not what was going on at his home, no matter what his gut was now telling him.
But as he read, that awful sinking feeling worsened instead of being relieved. Though not everything fit, a great deal of it did. Harry didn't steal or make up medical symptoms or injure himself, as far as Dudley knew, but he certainly showed other signs of being a victim of abuse.
But there were so many symptoms, many that seemed to be complete opposites of each other, couldn't they really describe most people? And they might not have been from abuse either. For instance, sure Harry had low self-esteem, but that could be because he was a freak and knew it! He was weird; nobody wanted to be his friend. They hadn't gotten along ever, and as children friends seemed to flock to Dudley instead of his cousin, and that would be enough to induce a lot of these symptoms it seemed.
The checklists of indicators that behavior was emotionally abusive, though, were more difficult to ignore. "They manipulate the person into feeling guilty for things they have nothing to do with:" they'd certainly done that every time Dudley gave them the opportunity and more. Now, watching his mum make a mess in the kitchen and calling Harry in to scream at him for it didn't seem funny. He remembered when he and Harry were younger, even just beginning primary school, his mum would spill something and give him a conspiring wink before shouting for Harry, who would run in, scared as hell, and practically shake as Dudley's mum screamed at him and smacked him round the head. Dudley had thought it was a riot back then. Harry hadn't even been human to him. That probably meant something bad right there.
"They compare the person negatively to others:" Christ, when didn't his parents compare Harry negatively to Dudley? Did that count if what they said was true? Did it count if it was to try to improve Harry's behavior? But then again, a lot of the stuff wasn't true and wasn't to improve Harry's behavior, Dudley had known that even then. Harry had been the enemy and his parents had protected Dudley from ever feeling less than Harry in any way, and to do that, they'd made it clear that Harry was nothing.
The list just went on: "They treat all other people kindly, and never yell at or emotionally abuse anyone but the victim." "They blame the person for any unfortunate events in their life." "They always put their needs before the victim's." "They dismiss the difficulties or issues of the victim as unimportant or an overreaction." "Verbal threats of violence:" his parents weren't serious though….right? "They expect the victim to perform tasks the victim finds unpleasant or humiliating:" that brought up some memories he suddenly found quite sickening. "They perceive themselves as martyrs or victims and constantly expect preferential treatment:" Jesus.
And the ones that didn't fit were even worse in a way: "They love the victim and treat him like a prince when they are happy with him." Well that certainly never happened. What did it mean that Harry was never shown any affection? "They aren't happy with the victim's behavior very often." Very often? Try not once, ever. "Maltreatment occurs exclusively when they are unhappy with the victim's behavior." What did it mean that Harry didn't need to misbehave to be screamed at or belittled?
What scared him the most though, was when he happened to scan over some information on physical abuse: "…including striking or throwing objects near the victim."
He slammed the book shut at that and ran a shaky hand through his hair. How many times had he seen objects thrown at Harry when his parents were angry? How many times had he seen Harry dive into his cupboard or bedroom or out the back door just before an object struck the wall near him? How many times had he seen those objects hit their intended target? How many times had he seen Harry smacked around the head or the arms or on the seldom occasion, his face? What about those times his mum went after Harry with the frying pan? It hadn't seemed serious then. It had often seemed funny or satisfying.
Now, Dudley felt sick and confused.
What had been really going on in his house all these years? It couldn't really be what these books implied. His parents were kind, loving people! They'd given him everything he had wanted and more. They certainly weren't the kind of people these books talked about. They weren't like the character Elliot's parents.
With that thought, he put the books back, a gesture he wouldn't have bothered with except for the paranoid thought of people finding them and somehow figuring it all out. Not that there was anything to figure out, it was just that people might get the wrong idea if they didn't know. They couldn't know. It was completely different. Harry was…well, what he was. His parents had to deal with him in certain ways. That's just how it was and no stupid psychologist would understand that.
That night Dudley dreamed that he was putting his library books back, only to keep finding them back on the table where he had been studying. After returning from sticking one back on the shelf, he found Harry sitting at the table, looking through one of the checklists.
"It's all here," dream Harry said, softly closing the book and looking up at him with almost a curious expression. "You can ignore Elliot's book, but it's about me, you know. You can't tear up the list, Dudley. It's in a library book and you can't destroy library property." Dream Harry sighed. "I just wish we could eat in here. I'm so hungry I think I might die. And if I do, please don't stick my body in the cupboard. I'll hit my head on the shelves again."
Dudley jerked awake from that feeling slightly ill. Leaning over to his nightstand, he grabbed his cell phone and his English book. Using the glow from his phone, he began to reread the book more thoroughly than he had originally.
This time he saw what he'd missed the first time around: the book was about his family.
Dudley tried to push all these unpleasant thoughts from his mind during the last few weeks of school, but they just got worse. He was now seeing memories that had once meant nothing to him through the eyes of his classmates and his teacher. Through those eyes it looked pretty bad.
He felt like his teacher knew. It seemed like it was written all over his face: "my parents abuse my cousin," and that even his daft friends could read it.
As he sat on the train with his mates going back home, he felt a sense of dread about seeing his parents again that he'd never felt before. He was suddenly embarrassed by them….ashamed even. And of course, then he felt guilty about feeling that way about his own parents. It was all so confusing.
But when he got off the train and actually saw his mother and father beaming proudly at him, he felt instantly comforted. Suddenly the memories of his mother taking care of him while he was sick, his father teaching him to ride a bike, the two of them tucking him in before bed and reading him stories, replaced the ones he'd had earlier. After all, he loved his parents and he knew, whatever he did, they would love him too. That was enough for him.
Of course, when they pulled into the driveway and he caught sight of Harry already at work painting the shed as the rest of them went inside, his certainty faltered.
"Where's Harry?" Dudley asked as his mother brought their food to the table that night at dinner. Usually Harry helped do that. Of course, Harry often wasn't allowed to eat with them, but after them. Yet, Dudley hadn't seen him at all that whole evening.
"He's being punished," Vernon said dismissively. "Ah Petunia, love, this looks wonderful."
"Thank you dear! I found the recipe in one of my old cookbooks, but made a few changes," Dudley's mother said as she gracefully took her seat. "And to think I almost gave it away to the book drive."
"What's he being punished for?" Dudley pressed.
"Being sloppy with his chores," Vernon explained quickly, trying a piece of his meatloaf. "It's delicious, darling."
"Good! It's fairly low fat, so I'm very glad to hear it tastes decent. I am so proud of my Diddykins getting into shape. He's getting so handsome, don't you think, Vernon?"
"How's he being punished?"
"Don't you worry, son, just know he'll be sorry for it," Vernon reassured him. But Dudley wasn't reassured.
"Well, I've been thinking and I'm not sure Harry should have to miss dinner. Isn't that unhealthy?"
His parents cast him puzzled looks.
"That brat will get his dinner when he learns to behave," Vernon said self-righteously after a pause.
"Why does Harry get so many chores and I don't?" Dudley asked, hoping very much that his parents could give him a convincing answer. "It's been like that since I can remember. He can't have done anything that bad back then, could he? And he doesn't really seem to do anything bad, really, except for some back-talking, and maybe that's just because he gets mad about things being unfair."
"Did that boy say he's being treated unfairly?" Vernon demanded, slamming down his fork. "That little…"
"No, he didn't say anything like that," Dudley interrupted, mildly irritated that they weren't answering his questions properly.
His parents stared at him, obviously completely at a loss.
"I was reading this book for English class and the family was like ours and everyone said it was abuse," Dudley revealed petulantly.
"Baby," his mum said with a sigh, "did the characters in your book have to deal with something so abnormal?"
"No," Dudley admitted.
"Son, we have to be strict with the boy for our own safety. We have to let him know his freakishness won't be tolerated. It's the only way to remain safe," his father explained.
Dudley nodded and picked at his food. "Well, shouldn't we be nice to him so he wouldn't want to use magic on us? The only time he ever used it on any of us was when Aunt Marge was saying that bad stuff about his mum. And that giant man gave me that tail, but that was 'cause I was eating Harry's cake and you guys were saying bad stuff about the school and stuff."
"Darling, I grew up with one of them. They're dangerous. You'll have to trust your dad and I to know how to handle Harry," his mum said, patting his hand gently. "Now enough of this talk. I want to hear about your year."
"I have another question," Dudley said stubbornly. He ignored his parents' sighs. "What if I had been a freak? Would you have treated me like Harry?"
His parents stilled and looked mildly ill.
"We would do anything we could to help you," his mother vowed.
"So you'd make me do all those chores and keep me in the cupboard and yell at me?" Dudley asked in betrayal. Tears welled up in his mother's eyes as she clearly became flustered.
"Of course not, darling! We would never treat you like anything other than the angel you are," his mother promised.
"Then why do you treat Harry like that?" Dudley pressed.
"Enough," his dad said sternly. "That's enough with these ridiculous questions, Dudley. You're upsetting your mother. We are your parents and you will just have to accept that we know how best to raise you both. Now tell us about school."
"I don't feel like talking anymore," Dudley grumbled, miffed that his father had snapped at him.
"But Diddykins," his mum said in a panic, "I made your favorite! And I've made chocolate cake for dessert."
Dudley perked up at the mention of cake. He frowned at his food. "Fine, but I just don't think it's right."
"Just tell us about school since we spoke to you last," his mum encouraged. "You never did finish telling me about the wrestling match a couple weeks ago. Why did the referee make you stop the match?"
Looking between his parents, he sighed and began telling them about that incident…or the parent-friendly version at least. They were indignant on his behalf in all the right places, gushed how proud they were, and made him begin to forget all about his cousin. This was how it should be. His parents were fantastic and they loved him so much. And he loved them. But now, even while they all declared the referee biased, ate cake and laughed, a part of him couldn't forget that upstairs, his cousin was hungry and alone.
That evening, the guilt made his chocolate cake taste a little less sweet.
The next morning, Dudley shuffled downstairs with a yawn, his slippers making pleasant scuffing sounds against the floor. He greeted his father, who was reading the paper in the living room.
Wonderful scents of bacon and eggs lured him to the kitchen. The pleasant glow of a late morning soon vanished when he realized who was cooking his meal while Dudley's mother sat at the table flipping through a magazine.
Dudley uncomfortably took his seat next to his mother. Harry was soon at his side, scooping food onto his plate as he'd done since they were children. For some reason, the inequality of the situation had never struck him before. But it certainly did now.
"Morning, Harry," he said, causing his mother to look up uneasily and Harry to look at him as if he had perhaps received a head injury.
"Morning, Dudley," he responded in confusion before going back to fetch the pitcher of orange juice.
When he returned, Dudley turned and took the pitcher from Harry before he could pour. "Have you had breakfast yet?" he asked.
Harry now was looking pretty wary. "No," he said slowly, "I'm on punishment still."
"You should eat. Sit down. You can have some of my breakfast," Dudley said firmly, avoiding his mother's gaze.
Harry stood there, frozen, his gaze darting anxiously to his aunt.
"Harry's busy, Dudley. And you heard him; he's being punished," Petunia said stiffly.
"He hasn't eaten since yesterday, Mum," Dudley pressed. Depriving someone of food was physical abuse according to the books. And though he knew his parents had done it to Harry before for long periods of time, he somehow felt that if his mother would just let Harry eat now, all that would be erased and they could just move on.
He saw the hopeful look as Harry's eyes darted to Dudley's plate and felt even more adamant about the whole thing. He strongly suspected that his mother's presence in the kitchen was to keep Harry from sneaking food.
His mother, however, didn't jump on board.
"Dudley, darling, that's enough. Harry's busy finishing up some cooking. You just eat up your breakfast and we'll do whatever you want afterward. Do you need anything new? We could go shopping. Or you could invite your friends 'round if you'd like."
Harry's face fell fractionally and he went around the table to clear his aunt's plate and resolutely brought them to the sink, dumping the food into the trash. As he turned to walk away, Petunia cleared her throat and raised her eyebrow sternly. Harry sighed and squeezed a trail of dish soap over the top so he couldn't grab some for himself later. It was the same thing he'd done since they were young, but it was the first time Dudley ever recognized it for what it was. If his parents had started the dish soap rule, it probably meant that Harry had, at one point, gotten desperate enough to eat food from the trash.
"Mum, Harry needs to eat! We can't keep doing this!" Dudley protested desperately.
"Harry, you can do dishes later. Go start on the garden," his mum ordered and the skinny teen walked from the room, casting Dudley one last baffled glance before he left.
"Dudley, what is this about? If you're trying to make a point about something, I'm afraid I'm missing it. Are you afraid Harry's doing something to your food? Are you angry because he's here at all? You have to just tell me, darling."
"Mum, I read in this psychology book that depriving someone of food is abuse," Dudley said quietly. "We can't be those people, Mum, we just can't."
His mother sighed. "Dudley, surely you've heard of kids going to bed without meals before when they're bad. We just have to be more extreme with Harry because he is more extreme. Think of what he could do to us if we let him do whatever he wants."
"But Mum, I just…it's wrong," Dudley struggled to describe. "I don't know, after reading all that stuff, and reading my English book again…I hated those people in the book, Mum. And we're treating Harry kind of like that. Can't we just feed him and talk to him and stuff?"
"Dudley, there are things you don't understand, and I'm surprised after all that's been done to you and that you've seen done to Marge that you still don't see how dangerous that boy is. Your father and I are doing this for you, Dudley. You're going to get the life I wanted when I was younger. You'll never have to be second to someone just because they have some freakish ability. You will always be first. And this will protect you from him using his abnormality to harm you in any way. All of it is for you so no matter what you read, no matter what you say, because I love you, I won't change it," his mum said conclusively.
"End of conversation, Dudley," his mother said in sterner tone than she'd ever used with him before. This was the only thing his mother had really fought him on in his whole life. It didn't bode well.
That evening at dinner, Dudley squirmed uncomfortably in his seat as Harry served dinner.
"Thanks," he said when Harry placed his plate in front of him. Harry adopted that cautious look once again. He had been regarding Dudley with confusion all day, so taken aback by Dudley's new attitude that he probably thought it was part of some plot Harry didn't yet understand.
"You're welcome," Harry muttered suspiciously.
Dudley ate the meal feeling too anxious to enjoy it. He would soon know if Harry would get a meal after dinner. When the scrawny teen came back into the kitchen, Dudley's dad would either announce that he was allowed to eat or not, and his mum would decide what he could have.
Wolfing down his food to make things go faster, he watched restlessly as Harry reentered the kitchen. Harry had come before he was called, most likely in hopes that it would increase his chances for a meal. He cleared their plates as Dudley's dad continued his story about an annoying client that had come in that day, not showing any sign that he even registered Harry's presence. Of course, that's how it had always been, but it hadn't seemed bizarre until now.
The sound of their dishes being cleaned behind him made Dudley feel distinctly uncomfortable, especially knowing Harry was waiting with bated breath to hear if he could eat tonight.
When the water finally shut off, his parents stood, discussing a program on the telly that was due to come on soon.
"Er, Uncle Vernon?" came the cautious call from Harry.
"Up to your room and I don't want to hear a peep from you tonight," Dudley's father commanded.
"Dad, Harry hasn't eaten," Dudley reminded him hopefully. He could feel Harry's eyes boring into the side of his face and his parents appeared disappointed.
"Dudley, that's enough of this nonsense. I don't want to hear another word about it, understood?" his father said sternly.
"Nonsense? It's food, Dad! What's the big deal about just giving him something to eat? You'd never make me go to bed hungry. You'd never let me go so long without food!"
"That's because we love you, darling. Of course we would never let anything happen to you," his mum said in a comforting tone, but Dudley was not placated. She'd just said that in front of Harry. What was more characteristic of emotional child abuse than that?
"Well, what about Harry? He's your nephew. You've raised him. Shouldn't you love him too? Enough to not starve him at least?" Dudley asked angrily. Why did his parents have to do this? Didn't they understand what they were doing? They were making his family the bad guys!
"That little whelp is unworthy of our love," Dudley's dad said, casting Harry a look of distaste.
"Like I wanted it anyway," Harry scoffed loudly. Dudley turned to look at his cousin. This skinny boy had his arms crossed and a glare on his face, but Dudley thought he could see hurt etched into those features as well. That had been a really mean thing to say, especially since they were the only parents Harry had ever known.
That thought shook Dudley in a way he hadn't expected. So far, though he'd been upset about the situation because of what it meant for what his parents were, he'd never really looked at things from Harry's point of view. He wondered what Harry thought of it all. He wondered how deeply the things they all had said and done had affected him.
"Don't talk back to me you little shithead," Dudley's dad barked menacingly. "Get upstairs now before I make it a week without meals."
Harry glared and stalked by them out of the kitchen.
"And Dudley, I am serious. No more of this."
"Or what, you'll starve me too?" Dudley retorted crossly.
"Don't talk like that, Diddykins," his mum chided.
"We won't buy you that new game system you've been after," Vernon threatened.
Dudley's anger spiked. He knew he shouldn't be angry about the Playstation, but he was. Plus, it seemed to him that his parents were missing the point.
So, like he did when he was younger, he showed his anger through disobedience. He pointedly went to the cupboard and grabbed a plate.
"Dudley…" his father warned, but Dudley ignored him and went to the food that was still cooling on the counter, scooping bits of everything onto it.
"Darling, remember how much you want that game-player!" his mum said desperately. "The summer will be dull without it, won't it? You and your mates would have so much fun with it and Mrs. Polkiss told me Piers wouldn't be getting one so you'd be the only one of your mates with one. They'd be so jealous. Dudley, please!"
But he just marched past them with the plate, leaving his parents helpless at the bottom of the stairs as he made his way up to Harry's room.
He knocked on the door, feeling quite smug. This was a lot easier to deal with when he was just being rebellious against his parents rather than thinking of the reason.
The door opened to reveal his cousin, who regarded him with uncertainty. Dudley pushed the plate pointedly at his cousin who took it in shock.
"Your dad changed his mind?" he asked in disbelief.
"No, but you need dinner," Dudley said firmly.
Harry paled slightly and tried to shove it back. "No thanks."
"What? You're hungry aren't you?"
"Yeah, and I'd like to have the hope of eating at other points during the summer."
"Just take it," Dudley insisted, feeling slightly deflated. "I'll make sure you get food, okay?"
"Why?" Harry asked in bewilderment.
Dudley shrugged and turned to go to his room. Harry's door clicked shut behind him and Dudley decided to keep his own open for awhile to make sure his parents didn't go and take it back. He wouldn't let his family be that sort. Hopefully his parents had learned their lesson.
That night, Dudley jerked awake for a reason he was unsure of. He glanced at his clock and inwardly groaned. It was after three. He hated having his sleep interrupted. It always took him a while to get comfortable again.
He turned over and closed his eyes, only to snap them open again as he heard a thud. Maybe something really had woken him up.
Feeling more awake, he quietly got out of bed, his mind jumping to thoughts of single-handedly taking out burglars and explaining how he had protected his family to the police as they dragged off the thieves. He'd be the neighborhood hero! His parents would buy him anything he wanted!
When he was in the hall though, he heard muffled sounds, whispering perhaps, and it was coming from Harry's room. Maybe his parents were right about Harry after all! Maybe he was doing some sort of evil spells on them in his room in the middle of the night. He could be melting their hairbrushes over fire and stirring a cauldron at that very moment! That would justify everything!
As quietly as he could, he tiptoed to the door and opened it enough to poke his head in, wanting to catch Harry in the act.
But when he caught sight of the source of the noise, Dudley stilled in shock.
His father had Harry pinned face-first against the wall, his large fist wrapped around Harry's skinny arm, twisting it behind his back. Harry's cheek was pressed against the wall, glasses at his feet, and Dudley could see a mess of blood under his nose. Dudley's dad was hissing furiously at his nephew, twisting Harry's arm up as he made some point and Harry let out a small cry of pain.
"I didn't do anything, I swear!" Harry insisted.
"Keep your voice down or you'll wake Dudley, you little bastard," Vernon growled.
"Dad?' Dudley asked from the doorway, feeling ill.
Vernon immediately dropped Harry, head whipping toward the door. Anger melted off Vernon's face as he made his way toward his son. Over his father's shoulder, Dudley could see Harry cradling his arm and ducking down for his glasses.
"Dudders, what are you doing up?" his father asked a bit stiffly.
"What were you doing?" Dudley asked in horror.
"Nothing you need to worry about," his dad assured him, though Dudley just felt worse that his dad could act like this wasn't a big deal.
Vernon led Dudley from the room, turning at the doorway and glaring back into the darkness.
"No food until I'm convinced you've removed it, boy, and I'll be keeping your stick until the end of summer," he growled and closed the door harshly, twisting all the locks into place. Once his gaze was turned back on his son, his face only showed a warm fondness and, oddly enough, sympathy, leading his son away from the locked door.
"You hit him," Dudley blurted once they'd entered his bedroom. His eyes searched those of his father in vain for any sign of remorse or regret.
"I don't expect you to understand, Dudley. That boy is dangerous and he's done unforgivable things. The only way to protect our family is to be firm with him. Now get to bed and don't worry about it. It's nothing he doesn't deserve."
"What did he do?" Dudley asked weakly.
Vernon clenched his jaw angrily. "I don't want to scare you, but I believe he's bewitching you in some way."
Dudley stared at his father dumbly. "What?"
"Don't worry, son. I swear to you I will make him fix it. I'm going to protect you."
"You can't be serious!" Dudley exclaimed in disbelief. "I'm not bewitched!"
"You wouldn't know if you were," Vernon said regretfully. "Your mother and I discussed it. This strange shift in behavior as if you're taking his side against us….it makes sense."
"You wouldn't know if I was bewitched. This is mad! He'd be kicked out of school if he did anything. And why do there have to be sides in the first place?" Dudley yelled.
His father pulled him into a rough hug. "Don't worry son, we'll have this sorted out soon."
Dudley opened his mouth to yell some more but, in a rare moment of foresight, it occurred to him that he might be making things worse for his cousin. "Look, Dad, honestly, it was just a book at school. I can show it to you. You can ask my teacher. The book was about abuse and it was a lot like how Harry's treated. Then I read more about it at the library. That's why I think it's bad now, not because Harry did any magic on me," he said as calmly as possible.
"Of course you'd think that if there was a spell on you, son. What we do to that boy is nowhere near abuse and the only reason you'd think it would be is if he made you think that way."
"I started thinking it weeks ago!" Dudley protested.
"While the boy was still at school and could do his hocus pocus without being punished by the freaks," his father reasoned. "He thought he could just get away with it, but your mum and I won't let him. We're going to help you. I promise. So no more of this talk for now; just try to get some rest and let your mum and I fix it."
Dudley just stared at his father incredulously as the man left the room, unable to protest any longer out of fear of what doing so might mean for Harry.
He couldn't fall asleep that night, not after what he'd witnessed. What he'd seen his father do… How could it really be like that? He thought they were a bit rough with Harry, but he'd never really believed it would be this bad. Now that his parents thought Harry was doing magic on him, Dudley had no idea how bad it would get. After all, his mum had explained that their poor treatment of Harry throughout his life had basically been because of the threat of using magic against them.
So apparently, the more he tried to turn his parents against abusing his cousin, the more they'd do it. Was he supposed to just sit back and watch it happen then? What if that made them think that whatever spell Harry had supposedly done on him was gone and did something drastic to make sure he didn't do it again?
Things weren't looking good.
Dudley didn't know how to deal with issues between him and his parents without his previous method of throwing a tantrum. But with Harry wincing every time he used his arm while cooking breakfast and the shadow of a bruise on his cheek, Dudley was scared about what would happen if he argued with his parents. It was true now. His dad, at least, was undeniably an abuser.
How had this happened?
His parents made light conversation over breakfast, like everything was just normal. Was this normal for them? Had it happened before? God, Dudley couldn't even believe it hadn't with everything he'd seen.
Harry cleared the table after and Dudley noticed he looked kind of…out of it.
"Uncle Vernon?" his cousin asked, already sounding defeated.
"We discussed this last night," Vernon said dismissively, folding up his newspaper.
"It's been days and I'm not feeling well," Harry pressed cautiously. "I won't be able to do my chores well."
"You're not doing any chores except for fixing meals. You're going to be locked in your room until you've done what we discussed and then you can eat."
"I haven't done anything!" Harry protested angrily.
"Don't you dare talk back to me, boy!" Vernon yelled, standing from his chair.
Dudley sat there stunned, not knowing what to do.
"You can't just starve me all summer. When I stop returning my friends' owls, they're going to come looking for me and…"
"If you haven't fixed Dudley by then, I'll kill you myself, you little son of a bitch," Vernon yelled, his eyes flashing cold. Dudley stilled in shock, staring in disbelief at his father.
"Dad, you can't," he said faintly. Vernon's gaze softened as he turned toward his son.
"If he's dead, he can't bewitch you anymore, Dudley. And I will do anything to protect you." He turned back to Harry, the love vanishing from his eyes. He lumbered forward and Harry scrambled back, but was cornered against the counter. Dudley's father grabbed Harry's skinny arm and gripped it tightly enough for Harry to gasp. "As for you, you've just lost your privilege to leave your room, even for chores. You'll stay in there until you stop bewitching my son!"
"Get off me!" Harry barked, struggling as Vernon pulled him bodily out of the kitchen.
Dudley stood, unsure of what to do. His mother gently tugged on his arm. "Finish your breakfast now, Duddykins. Everything's going to be all right. Mummy and Daddy are going to fix everything."
"Mum, please. This isn't right!" Dudley protested helplessly. "He's not doing anything to me!"
His mother nodded teary-eyed as she ran her fingers lovingly through his hair. "It's okay, Dudley darling. It's all going to be okay."
Dudley let his mother hug him, but didn't return the gesture. It definitely wasn't going to be okay.
Harry wasn't allowed out of his room much after that, at least not that Dudley could tell. During the next few days he saw Harry and his father in the hall a few times, but it was usually just his dad pushing Harry back into the room and either following him in or just locking the door.
Dudley didn't know what to do. If he jumped to Harry's defense, it "proved" he was under a spell. Yet he was wary about doing the opposite. His dad's threat to kill Harry had seemed disturbingly real and if his parents thought Dudley wasn't somehow tied to Harry anymore through magic, Dudley was genuinely unsure whether his dad would commit murder to keep it from happening again.
His home life, which used to be fun and relaxing, was now filled with palpable tension. Often the guilt was just too much, especially when his dad was up in Harry's room trying to "talk" sense into him. He didn't know what actually went on up there, and he didn't want to.
He therefore spent a lot of time out of the house with his friends. Most of the time, they just goofed around and found mischief to cause so Dudley could forget until the time came for them to head home. Each step toward his childhood haven was heavy with dread. He wondered if this was how Harry had always felt about walking home.
It was hard not having someone to talk to. There were many times when he thought about telling Piers when the two of them were alone, but neither of them ever had a serious conversation like this. Why would they? After all, their lives were sheltered, boring and suburban. What did they have to worry about?
Of course, it helped when you ignored your parents abusing your younger cousin.
When you helped them…
Sneaking food was nothing he'd ever done before, though he knew Harry must have. Doing it made him feel like he was betraying his parents.
Listening to make sure they were still downstairs in the living room, he pulled the food from his sweatshirt pocket and shoved it through the cat flap that had been in Harry's door since they were twelve. It had never occurred to him until recently how sick the idea of the cat flap was in the first place, as if Harry was an animal rather than a human.
He clenched his jaw and hurried to his room.
Things continued like that. Dudley never even saw Harry after awhile, something about which he was secretly relieved. It made it easier to pretend things weren't as bad. He liked to think that Harry was just bored in his room, annoyed that he couldn't see his friends, pissed off that his food was cold and shoved through only once or twice a day, but otherwise fine.
Yet one time, after his food drop, a hesitant voice called his name from the other side of the door. Dudley stilled in surprise.
"Uh, yeah?" he answered quietly.
There was a moment of silence, then, "Can you let me out for just a few minutes? I swear I'm not doing anything that'll get you in trouble, it's just, um, your dad usually let's me out twice a day for the, uh, the loo and he didn't, so…"
Dudley felt an overwhelming surge of guilt and pity for his cousin. How embarrassing to have to ask to be let out to use the loo! What if he hadn't been there? Had there been times when his dad hadn't let Harry out?
He pushed his thoughts on that topic aside and quickly unlocked the several locks on the door.
It was the first time he'd seen Harry in days and he looked terrible. Pale and unhealthy with cracked glasses and a big cut on his chin. He avoided Dudley's gaze, looking completely humiliated. He cast a longing glance at the front door, but it was obvious by the sounds of the telly that Dudley's parents were just out of sight. Harry wouldn't make it past the stairs.
"Thanks," he whispered, defeated. "And, uh, thanks for all the food. Could you, uh, lock me back in after so your dad won't know I was out?"
Dudley nodded and Harry tiptoed over to the bathroom. All Dudley could think of was how horrible it must be to have to ask someone to lock you back in somewhere. It was so wrong.
"Dudley, come down here, please."
The first thing Dudley noticed when he exited his room was that Harry's door was open and he wasn't in sight. Unsure of what this meant, Dudley felt very reluctant to see why he was being called.
His hopes of finding Harry back to doing his chores while his parents watched the telly were dashed. Instead he was greeted by the surreal picture of his parents standing in the living room with Harry held in the firm grip of Dudley's father. Dudley caught Harry's eye, the green orbs expressing the same confused fright that Dudley was feeling. As a whole, Harry looked worn out and debilitated.
"He admits to having put the magic on you, son," his dad revealed. Dudley looked to his cousin in surprise. What the hell had Harry been thinking? But that was obvious. Vernon had finally worn him down to the point where there was nothing left to do. "He claims to have taken it off."
What should he do? Either way Harry was fucked.
"Yeah, I can feel it. It's definitely gone."
His parents regarded him with skeptical worry.
"It was weird," he continued, trying to calm down enough to manipulate the situation, "I felt it come off. It was like jumping into the ocean." He didn't know what the hell he was saying. He put on his early-phase tantrum face as well as he could while so nervous. "I don't want to ever see him again. You can't keep him here or he might put it back on. Send him away to live with those freaks and never ever let him come back here again!"
"I want proof," his father said dubiously.
Dudley faltered. "Proof?"
"Hit him," his father instructed gruffly.
Dudley stared at his father in shock. "What?"
"As proof that you're out of his spell, hit him hard."
Harry's whole body stiffened. He looked slightly less surprised than Dudley felt, but the dread seemed about right. After all, Harry looked like being struck might do him in at this point.
"Dad, please," Dudley pleaded, shaking his head in horror. "You can't be serious."
His dad shook Harry violently. "Take it off of him at once or so help me I will kill you!"
Harry kicked out at his uncle's shins wildly, but the kid was too weak to make the attempt anything better than pathetic.
"Stop it, Dad!" Dudley yelled in horror.
In a surprising move, Harry managed a kick to Vernon's groin and wrenched himself free. He dove for the door as Dudley's father bent over with a pained cry, but his mum hurled a heavy picture frame at him with a scream. The corner struck Harry's head knocked him to his knees. Blood trickled down from the wound.
Vernon was up and Dudley yelled for Harry to go, grabbing his mother to keep her from throwing something else. Harry was unsteadily lunging for the door handle, but it was too late. Vernon grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked him back, his hand slipping off the handle without even having managed to get the door open.
"Dad, no! Just let him go and we won't ever have to see him again!" Dudley yelled as his father wrestled his screaming cousin off the ground, getting a beefy hand over Harry's mouth before he could give the neighbors something to be alarmed about and Dudley was frantically glad Harry was quieted. The police getting involved would really be bad and as much as Dudley disapproved of the whole thing, he didn't want his parents in jail. He just wanted this settled and gone so things could get normal!
Dudley followed his father as the man wrangled Harry upstairs.
"Dad, stop it!" he yelled, catching up and grabbing his father's arm. His mother was crying behind him, pleading with him to come back downstairs.
"Dudley, stay out of this," his father said firmly, pulling his arm away while he pushed Harry up the stairs. Harry was digging his feet in at every opportunity, fighting tooth and nail not to be put back in his room. Vernon had to struggle to move him forward and it was only making him angrier. "Stop manipulating my son with your voodoo!"
"You can't do this!" Harry howled, sounding terrified, making Dudley afraid of what would happen once his dad got Harry alone.
"Dad, stop it! If you hurt him I'll run away! I won't live with abusers!" Dudley tried desperately, but it only made things worse. His father slammed Harry into the wall, dazing him enough to get him up the last few stairs and drag him to the door.
His mother wrapped her arms around Dudley from behind. "Duddykins, it's okay. You let your dad handle it. He's going to help you. We love you so much. So, so much. Come with your mummy. I'll make you some tea and it'll all be better soon."
Vernon threw Harry into the bedroom and started in after him.
"Dad, NO!" Dudley bellowed. He did the only thing he could think of and grabbed a nearby lamp and flung it to the ground. His mum shrieked and his dad did turn around. "Dad, if you do this I won't be your son anymore! I will move away and never see you again!"
His father looked torn, but with an angry huff, exited Harry's room and locked it up. He nodded and pulled Dudley into a fatherly hug. His mother hugged her son from behind, crying into his hair.
Their family was falling apart.
"Promise you won't hurt him, Dad. Promise me," Dudley said shakily. "I can't watch you like that. I can't. I want us all to be normal. You have to promise."
There was a long pause before his father sighed reluctantly. "I promise."
Dudley felt a wave of relief.
That night, Dudley realized with a sickening lurch that the screams of the victims in his computer game were being echoed by real, muffled screams from across the hall.
It took a moment for it to sink in that his parents had lied to him, but when he ran to see what was going on and found himself locked in his own room, he knew the extent of their betrayal.
He pounded on the door, but instead of letting him out, his mum's voice just came through telling him please not to worry. He couldn't believe this was happening.
It wasn't going to stop. It was going to keep going until Harry was dead. His parents wouldn't just be abusers, they'd be murderers.
He stared at his room in a daze for a moment, not knowing what to do. He wanted to just turn the radio on loud or play some violent video games to take his mind off of it all.
Instead, he found himself digging through his closet to find the sleeping bag he'd used when he was younger while sleeping over at his friends' houses. His dad had originally bought it with plans to go camping, but the idea of going without TV and lying on the ground had led to a tantrum that ended it all before it began. As Dudley unrolled the sleeping bag, he wondered if Harry would have been brought along.
Probably if there was work to be done.
He dug into the bottom of the sack to find his hidden stash of things he'd taken from his cousin. There wasn't anything big, just stuff he'd found over the years that it didn't look like Harry would miss but that were weird. He would never admit it to his parents, or even to Harry, but a part of him had been deeply curious about Harry's other life ever since he found out that his cousin was magic. So he now had a collection of candy wrappers for the oddest sweets imaginable, a page torn from some weird magazine where the people actually moved, flying around on brooms to be exact, and other things that he'd snuck out of his cousin's room. The item he was looking for, however, he had taken out of the trash. He had actually thought it was pretty funny at the time, though the humor was clearly lost on his parents, but he had grabbed the envelope out of the rubbish bin to laugh at how many stamps Harry's friends had put on the thing.
With the envelope in his fist, he strode over to his computer with a sense of purpose, pulling out his cell phone at the same time.
He used the headset he'd gotten for his birthday to listen to the rings as he typed rapidly on his computer.
"Big D, what's up?"
"I need to tell you something. Something serious. And then, I need your help."
It was half one when the house had been silent long enough that Dudley felt safe sneaking out of his room, which his parents had apologetically unlocked a couple hours before, "explaining" why they had done what they had. They made it clear he was not to visit Harry's room, but wanted to make sure he wasn't locked up in case there was a fire or if he needed a glass of water. They were, after all, very caring parents to one of their charges.
He knew they would have stayed awake for a while to make sure Dudley didn't go to Harry's room. He wasn't even sure if they were asleep yet, which was why he made sure to tiptoe very slowly across the hall. Having snuck out of the house at night plenty of times before, he was well-practiced at the skills needed to get around quietly. He used a heavy towel to muffle the sound as he expertly turned the locks on his cousin's room.
Waiting for a moment, he heard no sound coming from his parents' room except for snoring. So far, so good.
As he entered the room, he was surprised to see that he had been quiet enough to not even wake Harry. He walked quietly over to the bed, listening carefully to make sure his parents weren't coming.
"Harry," he hissed, putting a hand on his cousin's arm and glancing anxiously toward the door. There was no response.
Dudley leaned over and looked into Harry's face. He frowned. Harry looked bad. He was a bit bloodied up, though nothing that looked life-threatening. He definitely had some bruises and there was just something about him that looked unwell.
Christ, his father had really beaten his cousin. He shook the thought away.
"Harry, wake up," he whispered urgently, shaking his arm gently.
Harry woke with a gasp and Dudley had to clamp a hand over his mouth to keep him from crying out, whether from pain or fear, Dudley wasn't sure. Unfocused green eyes looked up at him in surprise.
"Shh," he warned and removed his hand.
"What're you doing?" Harry mumbled weakly.
"I'm getting you out of here," Dudley informed him. "Where's your stuff?"
Harry just looked at him blankly and Dudley was unsure if he had even processed it. "You're gonna get in trouble if they find you here. Go back to bed," he advised faintly, eyes slipping closed.
The scrawny teen shuddered and weakly pulled the too-small, worn blanket up to his neck, curling up his legs to fit his feet under. For him to choose sleep over that declaration was clearly a sign that he wasn't doing so well. And no wonder. Seeing his room properly from the inside wasn't pretty. The bars were back up on the window, not that it mattered because the window was nailed shut, making the room unbearably stuffy. Dudley knew it was never cleaned, but the dust that had accumulated was enough to make anyone's throat sore. The stench from the owl's cage was strong, and Dudley found it curious that the bird looked pretty well fed. He realized suddenly that Harry was probably giving a large portion of the small amount of food he'd gotten to his bird. Dudley felt stupid that he'd forgotten about feeding the thing, but the owl had been so quiet this summer Dudley had almost forgotten about it. The only time he'd heard it screeching was when his dad was in Harry's room.
Even now the bird was staying quiet, watching him with what looked like suspicion. This was going to be difficult though if the bird started squawking.
Yet as he did what he had to, the bird stayed shockingly silent. Dudley swore it looked like it knew what he was doing.
Finally, all that was left was his cousin. Once again, the fact that he had slept through everything didn't bode well.
Dudley shook him again and Harry hissed in pain.
"Leave me alone," he moaned.
"Don't go back to sleep," Dudley instructed harshly. "I've got your owl and that trunk you bring to school in the car already. We've gotta go."
Harry wrenched open his eyes and looked at him as if he'd grown another head. With a wince he looked over to where the bird's cage normally was and inhaled sharply to find that she was, indeed, missing.
"What did you do with her?" he demanded finally looking a bit lucid. He tried to sit up but immediately fell back with a shaky moan.
"Shhh! Look, can you walk if I help you?" Dudley asked, eyeing the doorway nervously.
"What are you doing?" Harry asked, so suspicious he was clearly getting afraid Dudley was setting him up for something.
"I'm getting you out, okay?" he informed him firmly. "But we've got to go now."
"Did he do something to you?" Harry asked, actually sounding concerned.
"No. Can you just shut up and stop asking annoying questions?" Dudley whispered angrily. "I'll help you sit up."
Before Harry had time to continue blabbering on and risk blowing everything, Dudley slid an arm under his back and maneuvered him into a seated position, all the time feeling horrible for the anguished look breaking out on Harry's features.
"There's stuff under the floorboards," Harry gasped out, "under the bed."
As Dudley found the hidden nook, admittedly impressed at the mysterious hiding spot, Harry pushed himself to his feet. The injured boy swayed dangerously, his other arm outstretched and searching for something to grab onto. Dudley was quickly at his side, keeping him from falling.
"How badly are you hurt?" he asked worriedly.
"I don't know," Harry whispered weakly, leaning heavily on Dudley.
"I'll get you help," he vowed and the two quietly made their way to the door. Dudley poked his head out first to make sure the door to his parents' room was still shut.
Harry clutched onto him tightly as they made their way down the stairs and seemed to be getting worse as they moved.
They quietly shuffled to the garage door, Harry leaning more heavily on Dudley as he slid it open.
The pair stiffened as they heard a door open upstairs. Harry's breathing quickened in fright and Dudley pulled his cousin into the garage and shut the door behind them as softly as possible.
"Okay come on," he whispered urgently, helping Harry quickly to the passenger's seat of his father's car. The white owl in the cage seat-belted into the back seat hooted wildly to see her owner. Harry watched him with wide eyes as Dudley shut the door and raced around to the driver's side, pulling the car keys out of his pocket as he slid in.
"Merlin," Harry breathed in astonishment. "We're stealing your parents' car? Do you even know how to drive?!"
"Sure. Piers sneaks his dad's car out all the time. I've been driving for almost a year."
With a loud whir, the garage door slowly began to open and after throwing down the opener, Dudley turned the keys in the ignition. Harry's eyes darted anxiously to the door as the engine roared to life.
"Put your seatbelt on," Dudley instructed shakily as he locked the doors.
The door to the house flew open and Dudley saw his cousin's grip on the seat go white as Vernon lurched into the garage, Petunia right behind him. Vernon caught sight of his son and stilled in disbelief, before his gaze slipped to the passenger side and turned murderous. As the huge, purpling man started toward the car, Dudley shifted into reverse, anxiously watching the garage door slowly open in the rearview mirror.
"Oh god, oh god, oh god," Harry muttered as Vernon jiggled his door handle and banged on the window.
"You're dead, boy! You put an end to this witchcraft on my son this instant or I will bash your fucking brains in!" he bellowed.
At Dudley's window, his mother was also banging on his window, crying hysterically for him to get out, that he was sick and needed to get away from his cousin.
"Dudley I swear, I'm not putting a spell on you," Harry pleaded in terror. "Don't open the doors, please. Please don't. He'll kill me."
As soon as the door behind him cleared the height of the car, Dudley stepped on the gas gently, trying not to hurt his mother as he pulled out. But as his dad grabbed a tire iron and started after them, Dudley quickly scanned for cars and sped out of the driveway. His mother looked ready to throw herself in front of the car, his father ready to smash in Harry's window, so he threw the car into drive as quickly as possible and peeled away, leaving his hysterical parents in the distance.
Harry stared at him incredulously, breathing heavily. "I can't believe you just did that."
Dudley didn't say anything, rather unsettled himself. He wished his parents hadn't woken up.
"Er, I don't mean to undermine this whole thing, but won't your parents just call the cops and report their car stolen?" Harry asked nervously.
"Got it covered," Dudley responded, moving further into the neighborhood.
"Why are you doing this?" Harry asked after a moment's silence.
Dudley kept his eyes focused on the road. "Why do you think, genius? Did you want to stay back there and have my dad beat you up every night and my mum starve you and treat you like shit?" he asked acidly.
"Why now, though? Your parents have always done that stuff. You might not have always known about your dad, but you used to do that stuff. I thought you were fine with it."
Dudley sighed. "Yeah, but I was just a kid doing what I knew my parents wanted me to do. I was an arse to you, but they're adults! They're supposed to look after you! The difference in how they treat us, it's wrong and…and sick. We read this book in English class and I finally saw what was really going on."
The car slowed and pulled right into an open garage.
"Where…" started Harry nervously, but he was cut off as Piers Polkiss hopped off the mini fridge, holding a beer.
Dudley noticed his cousin still with fear, clearly not understanding what was happening. There was no time to explain though.
He turned off the ignition and stepped out, catching a set of keys that Piers tossed him with a grin.
"I owe you big time," Dudley said to his friend who peered over his shoulder at Harry.
"Hey Big D, your cargo looks pretty peaky," Piers said with a frown. "I can't believe your parents ended up being such creeps."
"No shit," Dudley muttered. "Help me move this stuff. Harry, just stay there for a minute. Grab the papers next to my seat."
The pair threw open the boot and tugged out Harry's trunk. Piers carried it to a car parked on the side of the road while Dudley opened the back to get the owl and the bits of apparently meaningful junk found in Harry's floorboards.
"You can just let Hedwig out. Tell her to go to the Weasleys'," Harry said from the front seat.
"Um, okay," Dudley responded hesitantly. He opened the cage door and the owl hopped out. "Er, go to the Weasleys', owl."
But the bird didn't listen. Instead, she flew over to Harry, landing on his shoulder and hooting softly.
"Hedwig, go to the Weasleys. I'll be there soon," his cousin instructed, petting the bird's feathers. He opened the door and with a little nudge, the bird reluctantly hopped out and took flight. Dudley still thought the whole bird as a pet thing was weird, but he supposed it was kind of cool that it almost seemed to understand Harry. In fact, he wondered if it did. Maybe it was a magic bird. He was very glad it wasn't going to be in the car. He didn't really want a magic bird spying on him.
The two boys finally moved to Harry, Dudley helping his cousin gingerly out of the car while Piers shut the door behind him. They moved as quickly as possible to the other car, casting glances back at the house to make sure Piers's parents weren't waking up.
"Is this your parents' car?" Harry asked Piers incredulously as Dudley helped him into the passenger seat.
Piers smirked in a way that promised mischief. "Yup. My dad's going to flip. My mum'll calm him down when I explain everything to her, but it'll be bloody hilarious while it lasts."
"I might have it back before he even finds out. Just make sure your mum's cool with me staying with you guys for awhile."
"Are you kidding? My mum loves you. She'll fucking adopt you tomorrow."
" Cool. Thanks. Here," Dudley pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and plopped it into his friend's palm.
"Pot? Big D, you fucking rock!"
Dudley rolled his eyes as he caught sight of his cousin's incredulous expression, and shut the passenger door.
"Better close up the garage door," Dudley advised his friend before running around to the driver's seat.
Very soon, the two were off again.
"Where are we going?" Harry asked weakly as they made their way toward the freeway.
"To your friend's house."
Harry looked at him in confusion.
"The Weasleys," Dudley elaborated. "I found the address on an old envelope and found directions to Ottery St. Catchpole online. It didn't have their exact address, just said 'The Burrow,' so once we get to the town, you'll have to give me directions."
"I don't really know how to get there," Harry admitted.
"Okay, well, I got my cell phone so you can call them and ask."
Harry winced, which Dudley didn't take to be a good sign. "I don't know their number. I don't even know if they still have their phone hooked up. But we walked to town a couple times. Near the dirt road to their house, there was a pub called O'Malley's, um, a small chemist's, some sort of hardware store and some other little shops. There was an ice cream shop with a big rainbow on the sign."
"'Kay then. Er, there should be a pillow and a blanket in the back seat. You should put the seat back and lie down. Piers was right, you really don't look good."
Harry stared at him again, which Dudley found to be slightly uncomfortable. The smaller boy did try to turn around in the seat to look for the items, but with a sharp gasp, turned back around, wrapped his arms gingerly around his stomach and shut his eyes tightly.
"What's wrong?" Dudley demanded, glancing at Harry worriedly.
"I'm not sure," Harry said weakly.
"Is your stomach hurting?" Dudley asked, reaching back to grab the pillow and blanket while keeping his other on the steering wheel.
"Yeah," Harry muttered, weakly accepting Dudley's offering.
"Are you going to puke?" Dudley asked anxiously. He was pretty sure Mr. Polkiss would be pitch a fit at that and Dudley definitely didn't want to spend the next few hours in a reeking car.
"No, it just hurts."
"Because my dad did what exactly?" Dudley asked darkly.
"Come on, Dud, you don't want to know that," Harry said quietly, hand fumbling with the side of his seat until he figured out how to lower it. He hissed with pain as he lowered himself down.
"I need to know," Dudley insisted with a scowl.
Harry sighed. "Your Smeltings stick."
Dudley frowned. "I'm sorry."
"What do you have to be sorry for? You're the one getting me out," Harry reminded him.
"Well, we've got three hours, so try to rest or something."
"Do we have any water in here?" Harry asked faintly.
The boy emitted a sound of disappointment. "I'm so thirsty," he muttered miserably.
Dudley glanced at him worriedly. His cousin was looking decidedly pale and his face was covered in sweat. He was also breathing strangely despite having been relaxing for a long time.
"Maybe we should go to a hospital," Dudley suggested doubtfully.
"No!" Harry protested. "He'll find me there. Please, please keep going. It can't be that much longer, right?"
"About forty-five minutes," Dudley informed him with a frown. "You look really bad."
"They can heal me, I'm sure," Harry insisted. "Please, Dudley, I know you're probably thinking twice about this now…"
"I'm not; God, calm down," Dudley interrupted. "It just sounds like something might be really wrong."
"I'm just thirsty is all," Harry murmured, letting his eyes close.
"I forgot to bring you stuff to drink this summer," Dudley said apologetically, having just realized his error.
"S'okay. I drank from the sink taps when I went to the bathroom. It was Hedwig that had it bad. Your dad was watching me so I couldn't bring back cups; I could only give her what I carried back in my mouth. I hope she's okay. She'll probably stop for water on the way to the Weasleys'."
Harry shuddered and pulled the blanket up to his neck. He licked his lips and swallowed with some difficulty.
"You look like hell," Dudley protested. "Like you're not just hurt, but sick or something!"
"I'll be fine, just no hospitals please."
"You're breathing weird."
Harry didn't answer, which made Dudley worry that his cousin knew there was something wrong. He didn't know what to do. So he kept driving, pressing the accelerator down a little more.
"'Kay, the exit's coming up. I'll need your help finding this place." After a moment of silence, Dudley reached over and shook Harry's arm. "Hey, wake up."
But Harry didn't respond. Dudley felt a jolt of panic. His cousin was definitely still alive; his harsh breathing and the scrunched look on his face made that clear. But despite any amount of shaking and the rise in volume of his panicked calls, Harry responded with nothing more than a faint moan.
"Fuck," Dudley cursed, pulling off on the exit. At least they were in the town. He hoped their house wasn't too far away.
He pulled his cell phone open with his teeth and quickly scrolled to Piers's name. He hit the send button and anxiously listened to it ring as he turned the car toward the town.
"It's three in the fucking morning," a groggy voice answered.
"Need you to do a search online for me," Dudley said abruptly.
"A pub called O'Malley's in Ottery St. Catchpole."
"Fine," came the reluctant reply. "How's it going?"
"Not so good. Harry's completely passed out and won't wake up. I think he might be seriously fucked up," Dudley said, casting a disturbed look at his cousin.
"Shit, maybe you should get him to a hospital."
"I'm almost at these people's house. I'll let them figure it out."
After much clicking and grumbling on the other end of the line, Piers was able to come up with some directions. Dudley scrawled them down on the back of the directions he'd printed out, thanked his friend and snapped his phone shut.
Holding the sheet to the steering wheel, Dudley navigated the empty streets quickly. The good part about driving through a small town at this hour was that few cars were on the road to get in his way.
A thrill of relief shot through him when he found the pub and was quickly able to locate the dirt road Harry had been talking about. Dudley winced at the grinding sound of the tires on the dirt, hoping Piers's dad wouldn't be too pissed off when his black, shiny car was returned covered in dust.
He came across a couple houses early on, but none remotely fit the description Harry had given him, even if he couldn't read the signs that well in the darkness. Then there seemed to just be a whole lot of nothing. Dudley began to expect the road to simply end or thin into a hiking trail.
Just as he was beginning to consider turning around and finding a hospital, he rounded a curve to find the oddest-looking house he had ever seen. If he hadn't believed in magic before, this house would have changed his mind. It was so lopsided and tall it could have only stayed upright with something beyond the abilities of any regular architect.
"Harry, we're here!" Dudley exclaimed, stopping the car at the front walk. He killed the ignition and tried to rouse his cousin again to no avail.
This was not how he had wanted this to go. He'd wanted to drop his cousin off and stay in the car, or, at the very most, help Harry hobble to the front walk before making a quick getaway. The last thing he wanted to do was explain the situation to these people. He hated them and they hated him. Why couldn't he have just done his good deed and left Harry to badmouth his parents?
But Harry was obviously very bad off if he couldn't wake up and Dudley knew the more he stalled the worse off his cousin would be. With that thought in mind, he threw open the car door and ran to the house, banging loudly on the front door without relenting until the windows in the room lit up and footsteps approached the door.
"Who's there?" came the anxious voice of a man. "Declare yourself."
Dudley took a step back and looked at the door in bewilderment. These people were crazy after all.
"Um, Dudley Dursley? Harry's cousin."
"What?" came the surprised response followed by some low muttering on the other side.
"Look, I have Harry with me. In the car. He's really sick or hurt or something. He needs help."
"Harry's hurt?" came a female voice, sounding alarmed.
"Molly, that's the kind of thing a Death Eater would say! This doesn't make sense. If Harry was hurt, why would his cousin drive him all the way here?" the man's voice said quietly.
"Look, he's really bad off and, er, my parents couldn't help. I wanted to take him to a hospital, but he asked me not to. He said you'd help him," Dudley pleaded. He was met with silence. "Please, he won't wake up!"
There were more footsteps and voices, but the door didn't open.
"What happened when we visited you last time?" another male voice demanded.
Dudley clenched his jaw. "I ate a weird candy someone dropped and my tongue got huge."
"I don't know…we told that story all over the dorms," a younger voice said hesitantly.
"This sounds exactly like something a Death Eater would come up with."
"But what if he's telling the truth?"
"Jesus Christ! I don't have time for this. Don't you get it? Something's wrong!" Dudley yelled at the door furiously.
There was just more muttering.
"Just never mind then!" he finally shouted furiously, slamming a palm against the door. He ran back to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. Harry looked dreadful. Dudley pulled out his phone and dialed Piers again, ignoring his friend's annoyed cursing, and told him to look up the nearest hospital. He plucked up Harry's wrist and felt around for a pulse, not sure what else to do. He found it, but had no idea if it was normal or not. The only information he gained was that Harry's skin was clammy. His breathing seemed even worse than before and his face looked frighteningly pale.
He stood and was about to shut the door but a voice stopped him.
"Step away from the car and keep your hands where we can see them."
Dudley recognized Harry's friend's dad and the twins who had dropped that candy. The father stood closest to him, his sons circling around the car. All had their sticks pointed at him.
"Piers, I'll call you back," Dudley said quickly into the phone, keeping an eye on the older man. He snapped his phone shut and stepped slowly back from the car.
"Fred, George, keep your wands trained on him," the father instructed as he moved to Harry, stick pointed guardedly at the ill boy as if he'd pop up and attack them at any moment.
"Dad, I think he's a Muggle," one of the twins said.
"Well, just keep him guarded, just in case. I don't know what sorts of tricks the Death Eaters have up their sleeves," the father instructed, running his wand over Harry's unconscious form.
"Are you going to help him?" Dudley demanded angrily. "Because if you're just going to poke at him with your stick I should take him to a hospital instead."
"Dad, is it him?" the other twin asked anxiously.
"It looks like him, and he's definitely in a bad way…"
"But Moody looked and acted like the real one as well," one of the twins finished.
"Look, I don't know what you're talking about but I swear, I'm really me and he's really him. You can find all Harry's things in the boot! His trunk and his bird cage and his weird cape thing."
One of the twins pointed his wand to the back of the car, said something that sounded like "Aloha moray" and the boot popped open.
"Dad, it's definitely Harry's things. I see his invisibility cloak!"
"Okay, keep your guard up, but we'll assume they're telling the truth for now," the father said as he patted Harry's cheek and called his name in attempt to wake him.
"I've already told you, he won't wake up! I've already tried!" Dudley shouted in annoyance.
The man undid Harry's seat belt and maneuvered him into his arms. Dudley and the twins followed him to the house.
"Is it him, Arthur?" a plump woman asked from the doorframe, wringing her nightdress anxiously. Dudley recognized the worried-looking boy next to her as Harry's friend. There was also a pretty redheaded girl waiting fretfully.
"I think so, but keep your guard up. Ginny, did you try reaching someone at headquarters?" the man asked as he and the following troop entered the house.
"Yeah, but everyone must be asleep or out on assignment. Nobody could hear me. Do you want me to floo over?" the girl asked, eyeing Harry with a terrified expression.
"First floo St. Mungo's emergency line. Tell them we need a healer over here immediately. Tell them it's an emergency regarding Harry Potter. Hopefully that will get them here faster," the man decided, laying Harry gingerly on the couch. Dudley watched wide-eyed as the girl ran over to the fireplace and went about sticking her head in the flames.
"Shouldn't we just take him there?" his wife asked.
"I will if the healer doesn't come right away or wants us to, but there's so many people in St. Mungo's it would really make him vulnerable to attack, especially in the state he's in right now."
The woman, Mrs. Weasley, nodded and ran to get extra blankets from the cupboard.
"What's wrong with him?" Harry's friend asked, kneeling beside Harry's pale and sweaty form. What was his name again? Something with an R?
"I don't know, Ron," Mr. Weasley said with a frown. That was it: Ron. Dudley jolted as the elder man's gaze turned on him. "What happened, Dudley?"
Dudley felt a wave of shame and knew his face must be turning red. This was why he hadn't wanted to talk with these people. He averted his eyes and stayed silent.
A moment later, the girl's head popped back out of the fire and she moved to let a man wearing lime green step through. Dudley moved back uncomfortably.
After a bit of stick waving, with glowing lights and numbers and odd codes scrawled into the air above Harry's body, the healer pulled out what looked like an oxygen mask with no wires attached and pressed it over Harry's nose and mouth. He pulled a strange orb from his pocket and put it up to his own mouth.
"This is Healer Espinosa requesting an immediate emergency medical unit to the Burrow in Ottery St. Catchpole. We have a patient suffering hypovolaemic shock due to massive internal bleeding. Cause appears to be blunt trauma to the abdomen. Condition is critical."
The orb glowed lime green, and the man shoved it back into his pocket.
Dudley felt sick. Massive internal bleeding? Didn't people die from things like that?
"When did this injury occur?" he addressed the room.
Dudley nervously stepped forward. "I'm not exactly sure. Sometime earlier tonight. Maybe this evening. We've been in the car for two and a half hours, and it had to have happened a few hours before then. But, uh, he was awake and everything until about half an hour ago. I thought he was just asleep."
"Is he going to be okay?" Ron asked, suddenly looking almost as pale as Harry.
"We'll do everything we can. His heart has slowed dangerously, but it hasn't stopped, and that's promising, especially since he's been slowly bleeding out for hours. He's had limited organ failure, and we should be able to fix that up. He doesn't appear to have brain damage yet. But he's also lost massive amounts of blood and it is possible his heart might stop before we finish treatment."
"He wasn't bleeding," Dudley protested in fright.
"A person can bleed to death internally without ever losing blood externally," the healer said grimly.
"Are you going to move him to St. Mungo's?" Mr. Weasley asked quietly.
"His blood pressure is too low to transport him currently. His heart might stop if we attempted it."
Mrs. Weasley let out a sob and dabbed her eyes with her nightdress.
At that moment, the fire roared to life, flashing a brilliant green and many more witchdoctors came through, carrying bottles of potions and weird-looking instruments.
"You and your family may want to wait in another room," another man said gently to Mr. Weasley. Dudley watched, mouth agape, as the back of the couch disappeared and the people in lime green surrounded his cousin. Somebody cut off Harry's shirt with some spell and before they covered his torso back up with a blanket, Dudley caught sight of what his father had really done to his cousin. There were bruises in various stages of healing all over. Some circled his upper arms where his father had grabbed Harry. Bruises littered his chest from whatever the man had done to him.
Dudley felt ill.
He jumped when a hand squeezed his shoulder. Mr. Weasley nodded toward the kitchen and guided him in there with the rest of the family. Dudley was led to a chair and a steaming cup of tea was soon placed in front of him. Mr. Weasley disappeared back into the living room, and Dudley was alone with a table-full of grim, scared redheads, still in their night things.
"What happened?" one of the twins asked him suddenly.
"You heard. Blunt trauma to the abdomen," Dudley responded quietly.
The boy who asked slammed down his teacup furiously. "You think this is funny? What happened to him?"
Dudley averted his eyes
"When they took off his shirt," the pretty redhead girl said in a choked voice, "there were bruises everywhere. Somebody hurt him."
The mother, who was sitting next to him, took his hand gently. "Dudley, darling, are your parents all right?"
Dudley looked at her in surprise. "What?"
"At the door you said they couldn't help Harry. Was there an attack?" she asked gently. "Were there people with masks and robes?"
This was horrible. The woman actually thought Dudley's parents were victims here.
He tugged his hand away. "No. We weren't attacked."
The woman looked confused, but her children seemed to be catching onto things a bit quicker, looking at him in fury.
"Tell us what happened," one of the twins said menacingly.
"I don't want to talk about it," Dudley muttered.
Ron jumped angrily to his feet. "You know what I think? I think you did it! You and your mates beat Harry up like you've done since you were a kid and you went too far. You freaked out and you didn't want your parents to know so you drove him out here for us to fix him before you got in trouble! That's what happened, wasn't it? WASN'T IT?"
"NO!" Dudley yelled. "I don't do that anymore."
"You were always such a bully to Harry! He never said much about it, but from what he did say… Merlin! You beat the shit out of him then and you did it again now, and now you've caused some real damage so you came to us to magically fix it so you don't have to deal with it!"
Dudley slammed his fist against the table. "SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP! You have NO idea what either of us has been through the last few weeks!"
"Well Harry seems to be the only one of you two BLEEDING INTERNALLY!" Ron bellowed back.
"Ronald Weasley that is ENOUGH," the mum said sternly. To his surprise, the redhead immediately backed down. Dudley briefly wondered how she did that without any sort of threat. Harry wouldn't have wanted to come here if these people treated their children the way Dudley's parents treated him, right?
"Now Dudley," the woman continued in a slightly sterner tone than she had used before. "Why don't you tell us what happened?"
Dudley shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know if Harry would want you all to know."
"We're his friends; we deserve to know," one of the twins said with a glare.
Dudley scowled at him. "Really? I didn't see you around the last few weeks when Harry needed help. You wouldn't even open the door for me when I was trying to get you to help him. If he dies now, it might be because of you. Not sure how you deserve jack."
The expressions around him showed guilt and anger simultaneously.
"Look, I'll—I'll talk to you," he said, indicating Mrs. Weasley, "but only you."
The woman nodded. "Alright, Dudley. Let me walk my children upstairs and I will be down shortly."
"Mum, no!" Ron protested, but his mother shook her head in a way that was firm but kind.
"Come along, all of you. I know you want to help Harry and the way to do that right now is to find out what happened, and Dudley is right; what happened may be something that Harry doesn't want you to know about. If that's the case, you need to respect that and if it's not, he can tell you when he's well."
The four went with her from the room, sparing Dudley a few final glares.
Dudley contemplated making a run for it, but knew he couldn't leave without making sure Harry was okay. He therefore shakily sipped his rapidly cooling tea and tried alternately to block out the urgent sounds in the other room of the witchdoctors working, and trying to hear what they were saying. He wasn't sure which was the wiser move.
He avoided making eye contact with the matriarch of this odd family as she reentered and sat with him at the table. When her hand rested gently on his, though, he reluctantly spoke.
"How do I know if I tell you, you won't hurt the person that did it?" he asked, sliding his hand out from under hers.
Mrs. Weasley bristled a bit and frowned. "Why wouldn't I? Whoever hurt Harry like this should pay," she said, sounding a bit dangerous.
Dudley crossed his arms. "Then I can't tell you."
"Why not? Don't you think they should be punished for what they did?" she asked angrily.
Dudley shrugged miserably. "Maybe. But I can't let you."
"So it was a Muggle that did it?" she said in surprise. "What did they….Why would they…Did someone find out he was a wizard and attack him?"
She had given him a perfect out, but suddenly he was angered by her naïveness. Why should it be his job to cover up the misdeeds of one pair of adults to protect the innocence of another? How were these people so dense that they, as people with so much more life experience than he, could not see what was right in front of them?
"How do you people not get it?" Dudley snapped. "Did you never notice how small and skinny he is or how he wears my old clothes when we're clearly not poor? Your husband saw how they treated him at our house and you still can't possibly think of who might think nothing of hurting him? Well good job, because since you didn't help him, I had to and that's why my dad almost ended up killing him! He thought he was protecting me! You people knew my parents didn't understand him. You knew they were scared of him! It's your fault this happened!"
Dudley heard himself seething and put in an effort to calm down as he watched Mrs. Weasley. It looked like the woman was going through a whole bunch of emotions at once, though she kept coming back to what looked very much like horror.
Finally she composed herself and looked at him seriously.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," was all she seemed able to say just then.
Dudley shrugged moodily and looked away. The two remained seated in silence until the urgency in the next room audibly calmed and there was a whoosh followed by a silence that Dudley assumed meant the witchdoctors had left.
He walked to the next room without asking permission, his wary steps contrasting sharply to the stampede of the redhead teens.
Dudley looked down at Harry's sleeping form, while the dad of the family informed him that Harry was going to be just fine.
Dudley sat quietly in one of the living room chairs, staring at his cousin who was sleeping peacefully amidst the torrent of questions and scoldings and finally demands that everyone get to their rooms and let Harry sleep. But Dudley stayed put even after the other teens had reluctantly disappeared.
"Dudley, why don't we go upstairs? We have an extra bed in a room you can have all to yourself," Mr. Weasley said gently, but Dudley shook his head.
"I'll stay with my cousin," he said adamantly.
"Fair enough. Why don't I conjure you a cot?"
Paling at the sight of the man's wand, he shook his head quickly. "No thanks. Er, do you have just, you know, a normal blanket and pillow or something?"
The man slipped his wand out of sight. "Of course. I'll get you a pillow and sleeping bag."
As the ginger-haired man left the room, Dudley kneeled by his sleeping cousin. Harry looked better than he had the last few weeks, but that wasn't saying much. The kid could probably do with a long shower and a hot meal. Not to mention living without the threat of Dudley's father constantly hanging over him.
Dudley just couldn't believe that his cousin had been so close to death. How would his parents have reacted to that?
Probably just scared about getting in trouble with the wizards.
Setting his elbows on the couch, he put his head in his hands.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Harry, of course, made no response. At the sound of Mr. Weasley's returning footsteps, Dudley backed away uncomfortably.
The man handed him a pile of bedding, which Dudley accepted numbly.
"Dudley, I want to thank you for what you did. You saved Harry's life."
All Dudley could hear was the unsaid ending to that sentence, …from your parents. The sentiment was therefore lost upon him and he didn't respond.
"Harry won't be going back there, but I am concerned about you returning," he continued, though Dudley just wished he'd go away. "Have your parents ever harmed you or do you think they have the potential to?"
"No," Dudley snapped. "They would never do anything like that to me. They're good parents." He paused, realizing how stupid that sounded. "Well, they were to me anyway. But I won't be going back for a while. My friend's going to work it out with his parents so I can live with them. I know them; they'll let me stay."
"Alright. Well, if you ever need somewhere to go, you're welcome here for however long you need. We owe you more than we could ever repay," he said, his gaze slipping from Dudley to his unconscious cousin. It was clear to Dudley how guilty the man was feeling because Dudley had been plagued by that same guilt all summer. They had both stood uselessly by when they could have done something much earlier.
"He's going to be okay, right? I mean, all the way better?"
Mr. Weasley nodded. "Physically at least. He should be up tomorrow, though it might take a little while to get his strength completely back. I'm sure he'll be itching to get out on his broom in no time…" He faltered as he looked at Dudley. "I suppose you wouldn't know much about that. Harry's a great flyer. He's the star of his Quidd….sports team."
Dudley silently processed that, not sure what to do with that information. Harry good at sports? The kid was always fast, but so easy to overpower. Just a scrawny little runt, really. It was odd to think of the life that Harry actually led away from home. Dudley always imagined people in weird robes lurking around under the full moon, chanting as they played with voodoo dolls and threw weird powders into fires in the middle of the woods or something. But Harry being on a sports team made it sound more like a real school. There was so much he didn't know about Harry; he wasn't even sure if he wanted to know. It was already hard enough thinking about how he and his family had treated Harry without humanizing him even more.
He therefore remained silent and Mr. Weasley seemed to detect his disinterest. The man patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, though Dudley sensed his disappointment.
"Alright, well, if you need anything in the night, our room is down the hall there. Just knock. And I'll probably be out throughout the night to check on Harry, so don't be alarmed if I wake you. Would you like me to put out the fire or keep it going?"
"Going's good," Dudley murmured, truthfully a bit unsettled at the thought of the darkness of a country house. He didn't want to be lying in this creepy place without even streetlights outside.
He was relieved when the man left and the lights were turned out, and Dudley was alone with the crackling of the low fire and the soft sounds of Harry breathing.
Dudley watched Harry's chest rise and fall in the firelight until he finally was able to join him in sleep.
Harry and Dudley walked alone to the dust-coated car, slowly for Harry's sake as he was still clearly physically weak. Dudley had woken before Harry, which had been a bit awkward as the Weasleys were already up and trying to check on Harry without waking him. Of course, they were unsuccessful and Harry had slowly woken to a mob of emotionally torn redheads peering down at him with Dudley standing uncomfortably a few feet away. At least everyone was tactful enough not to bring up the reason he was there throughout the morning, but Dudley wanted to get out of there before they did. Harry could talk about this stuff in further detail on his own.
Yet, though he did seem a bit embarrassed about the whole thing, Harry seemed mostly relieved and more relaxed than Dudley had ever seen him. It was probably the first time in a while that Harry felt safe.
Harry had requested the Weasleys stay inside for the goodbye after Dudley had made it clear how uncomfortable the redheads made him, but still, flashes of orange could be seen spying out of various windows as if they believed Dudley would try to stuff Harry in the boot when he got the opportunity. He didn't understand why Harry was so attached to such creepy people, but then, his cousin was pretty weird too. Dudley was definitely ready to get out of there and back to the normal world.
"Are you really not going back to your parents'?" Harry asked. "Because I wouldn't think less of you if you did."
"I wouldn't care if you did. I can't be around them when they don't even think they did anything wrong. But I still love them. They're still my parents," he said defiantly.
Harry nodded firmly. "Yeah, I know. And you know they do love you back. Everything they did, it was to protect you."
"Don't. Don't pretend it was something other than what it was," Dudley snapped in annoyance.
Harry said nothing.
Dudley opened the car door, pausing before he got in.
"You're not gonna do anything stupid, right? You're gonna stay away from them, yeah?"
"Yeah. Mr. Weasley said he'd go back and get my wand, but I'll make him wait until he's calmed down a bit and make him promise not to do anything to them." He paused momentarily. "You should stay in touch. I never really got to know you, or this new you at least."
Dudley rolled his eyes. Like he needed the reminder of his family's unraveling. "Don't count on it."
Harry nodded, appearing unsurprised at the response. "Well, if you ever change your mind, you have this address at least."
Dudley snorted to communicate how unlikely another visit was, and slipped into the driver's seat.
With a sigh of annoyance, Dudley looked up at his scrawny cousin.
Responding with only a stiff nod, Dudley pulled the door shut and started up the engine. Harry stepped back from the car, but stayed there watching as Dudley slowly drove down the bumpy dirt road.
Soon, his cousin and even the crooked house faded into the distance.
Unexpectedly, Dudley was filled with a sense of pride. For the first time in perhaps his whole life he had done something right.
He clicked on the radio, rolled down the windows and drove off, head held high, wondering if this was what it felt like to be a hero.