0. Looking Up from the Bottom
"Bitches." Piers watched the women from the next table get up and move away. "Think they're too good for the likes of us."
Since Piers said something along those lines every night after he failed to pull, Dudley ignored him and focussed on getting his glass from the table to his mouth without slopping any more of his ale. Bloody stuff was getting so expensive it might as well be liquid gold.
"Oi!" Piers swiped at him, almost knocking his whisky over. "I'm talking to you."
"Was listening." Dudley closed one eye to peer in the bottom. Definitely no ale in there. He sighed. "Need another though. Haven't had near enough to talk to you about that."
"That thingy I said. You know."
"Don't know." Piers drained his glass. "If I did, I wouldn't be asking."
A large bloke loudly clearing his throat distracted Dudley from his empty glass. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave, gentlemen."
"What for?" Dudley peered at the man who towered above them in his fucking suit and fucking tie. Another bastard showing off, just like that fucking pillock Arkley back at the office.
"We've paid up," Piers said, "and we haven't complained about the—" he raised his voice "—fucking lousy service."
The man gestured for him to keep it down, and Piers started yelling and calling the bastard every name under the sun. Dudley just sat there and wished Piers would shut up. They weren't about to get another round if he kept on like that.
"Shut it," he said. "Not getting any more..."
* * *
The order came from behind Dudley. He turned around and something crunched under his shoes. Sliding his feet back and forth, he could feel shards of something. He frowned and tried to remember what had just happened. Piers had been yelling, and there hadn't been any more drink coming.
"Up you go." Hands grabbed him under the armpits and hauled him upwards.
"Don't." Dudley tried to shake himself loose, grabbing for the table when he almost lost his balance. "Can do that myself."
"Not tonight you can't."
Dudley tilted his head and consulted the closest face, which looked like one of the bartenders. "Geoff? Come on. Let go."
"Can't do that," Geoff said, grasping Dudley's upper arm. "You're done for tonight. Taxi's waiting outside."
"Piers? Left me alone, the fucking tosser." Wrenching himself free, Dudley stumbled into the table and scrabbled through the glasses. All empty. Every last one of them...
* * *
The rain had soaked through Dudley's clothing. He leaned against the wall, forced to breathe through his mouth because some arse had been sick all over the bricks and pavement. He licked his lips and made a face at the awful taste.
Why had he left the pub? He should have known better. It had been warm inside. Spent every night there and days on weekends. Didn't make sense to leave before closing time.
"God, what kind of bloody idiot would want someone like him?" The woman's voice was almost as sharp and mean as Dudley's mum's, and her laugh flayed him open.
"Shut it, you fucking slag." Shoving himself upright, he moved towards her. "Man does his fucking best, and you don't fucking care. It's all do what you say, look like you say, eat what you say."
"Hey, leave her alone."
Dudley squinted at the figure that was blocking his way. Dark and wide, just like that asshole Arkley who'd stolen his job right out from under him. Reason he was out here, all wet, instead of celebrating a raise. He went to shoulder him aside.
Bastard pushed back.
Curling his hands into fists, Dudley swung at him. Something cracked and gave under his knuckles, and he smiled. In the past few months of trying to be a decent man, to put all the damage he'd once done behind him, he'd almost forgotten how good it felt to hurt someone, to feel their skin split and flesh bruise beneath his fists. Forgotten how it felt to let his own frustrations and failures roll over someone else, to hold the power in his own hands for a change.
The woman screamed.
Dudley punched him again. And again. Yelled out his fury as he pounded into the asshole. Spat out his anger as the bloke hit him, as hands grabbed at him, as colours flashed into his eyes...
* * *
"What?" Dudley blinked against the bright lights and stared at the policeman in front of him. He tried to remember the past couple of hours, but only a few images swam into focus. What had he done?
"Do you understand?"
Dudley shook his head, the room spun around him, vomit rose in his throat, and everything went black again.
"So what do I have to do?" Relieved to finally be in a room where he couldn't feel everyone else stare at him, Dudley dropped into the chair across the table from his Offender Manager. Pritha Patil, according to the sign on her office door. She was a tiny woman with dark skin, long, greying hair, and purple-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose.
"Confirming your name and address would be a good start," she said without looking up from her laptop. She spoke with a slight accent that irritated the hell out of his aching head. Just his fucking luck, really.
"Dudley Evans Dursley," he paused briefly to remember his new address, "89 Barton Close, Little Whinging."
Her long, purple fingernails clacked loudly on the keyboard. She frowned at her screen a moment longer before turning to him. "Your Community Order has several requirements that we'll be discussing today. I'd advise you not to muck it up, but I'm sure that you've received that lecture at least once already."
"I won't." Dudley tried to put as much sincerity into the two words as he could muster.
"You'll need to hold on to that." She clacked a bit more and then tapped her nails on the table.
He clenched his trembling hands and wished fervently that she'd fucking stop with all the ruddy noise. Fuck he needed a pint, or maybe two. Just enough to get him past the urge to bash his fists into someone who would hit back.
"Mr Dursley, if you'd bother to pay attention, you might actually manage to stay out of custody." She slapped a sheaf of paper onto the surface in front of him, setting his head off again. "That's your Community Compact. Read it over carefully and let me know if you have any questions. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Fucking insensitive cow. He flexed his hands and licked his dry lips with a tongue that felt thick and furry, despite the fact that he hadn't had a drink in a week or so. He grabbed the pages and leaned back in his chair. When it creaked in protest, he sat up again.
He was still struggling to get his head around what he was in for when a cup of coffee, a container of milk, and several packets of sugar were placed on the table next to him. While she sat down, he put down his Community Compact. Then he dumped in as much of both as the mug would take, gave it a quick stir, and took a gulp of his coffee. Fucking nasty stuff it was, but drinkable with enough sweetening.
"While I'm sure you were given the highlights when you left court, I'm going to go over it all with you again. Your Community Order gives you three years to turn your life around, and I'll be here to help you along the way."
The change in her tone and attitude made Dudley look over at her. She didn't look any happier with him, but he tried anyway, hoping he didn't sound as sullen as he felt. "Thanks for the coffee, Mrs... erm... Patil."
"You might as well call me Pritha, given how long we'll be working together," she said. "You've been sentenced to two programmes: ART, or aggression replacement therapy, and alcohol treatment. You'll do ART here at the Trust and the alcohol treatment at Barton. Don't think that means you can miss a single meeting, however. Mr Thomas at Barton will be reporting to me." She pushed some leaflets over to him. "You'll have sessions with me a minimum of once a week." She pointed to a line in his Community Order. "You're also required to complete your Community Payback hours within your first year."
Dudley listened as best as he could, while she described what he'd have to do over the next three years to avoid going to jail. There were whole lists of things, not just where he was allowed to go and where he wasn't. His head hurt, his stomach churned, but when he finally signed his Community Compact, he thought for the first time that he might make it.
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
After switching the kettle on, Dudley scrubbed the palms of his hands down the sides of his jeans for the umpteenth time that day, trying to get rid of the sweaty, clammy feeling. His head had been aching for days, his heart had started racing, his belly was roiling something chronic, and he had a sinking feeling that things were going to go horrendously wrong any minute.
"A drink would solve it," he said aloud. "Just enough to sleep through the night and get rid of this feeling."
"It might," someone said from behind him, "but then we'd have to report you and that would be that, wouldn’t it?"
Dudley swung around a bit faster than was good for him, or his head, and leaned against the kitchen countertop. He vaguely remembered the other man from when he'd arrived the night before. Dean something or other — Dudley was fairly sure — wandered over to one of the cupboards and began pulling out mugs and plates.
Dean's skin was darker than Pritha's. Insults and names that belonged to his dad crowded into Dudley's thoughts. He massaged his forehead and wondered when he'd stopped thinking of those words as cool because his dad had used them and had started realising that they could hurt almost as much as his fists or his dad's belt.
"Coffee or tea?"
Dudley jumped and then had to hold on to the edge of the counter to make sure he didn't swing out with his fists as he usually did when someone startled him. He cleared his throat and said, "Coffee, as long as it's not that instant muck."
"Not around me, it's not." Dean gave a dramatic shudder and smiled at him. "Coffee it is then."
"If you'll show me where—"
"Might as well make yourself comfortable. The kettle takes forever to boil," Dean said, spooning ground coffee into a cafetière. "You'll be added to the jobs roster tomorrow. Everyone gets their first couple of days off, though."
Glad to be sitting down, Dudley watched and listened to Dean explain the rules of the house. There were fewer than he'd expected, given his Community Order, but there weren't many second chances either.
Dudley rubbed at his badly-shaven jaw, and then pulled his hand down quickly and shoved it under his thigh. Bloody shakes. He hadn't been that much of a drinker, for fuck's sake. "What if I fuck up? Am I out on my arse then?"
"We're bound to hold to the terms of your Community Order." Dean's gaze was sharp, seeming to hold more knowledge of Dudley than ought to have been possible. "If you breach a single one of them, you won't be out on your arse, you'll be back in front of the magistrate."
A shiver ran through Dudley, shaking him right through to the ball of anxiety in his chest. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the memories of his nights in jail. He wasn't like those other men in there, and he didn't want to be.
"We're here to help you, not catch you out." Dean placed a mug of coffee and a couple of paracetamol in front of Dudley and then moved back and forth between the counters and the table, adding a plate of biscuits along with milk and sugar.
After stirring a few teaspoons of sugar into his coffee, Dudley looked up to see Dean giving him an odd look. His stomach lurched, and he suppressed an urge to defend himself against the silent accusation. "What?"
"There's something else you need to know about Barton." Dean picked up a teaspoon and began fiddling with it. "If it's a problem for you, then we'll find you somewhere else. There are other sober living houses, and Pritha's a Squib, so she'll understand."
"She's a what?" Dudley took the pills and a large gulp of his coffee to steady his nerves. He had no fucking idea how he was going to handle whatever it was, about Pritha or Barton, because it didn't sound very good. At least not for him.
"A Squib is a person without magic who was born to magical parents," Dean said, raising his head and looking directly into Dudley's eyes. "Barton is a magic-friendly house. We accept wizards and witches, Squibs and Muggles, anyone who needs a place where they can talk freely in meetings and counselling sessions."
"A bunch of fucking freaks." The words were out of Dudley's mouth almost before he'd thought them, searing through his mind, comforting him with their familiarity amid the strangeness of his life. He punctuated them with the same ham-fisted slam on the table that his dad had used.
But Dean didn't lash back, didn't yell at him or smile at him in approval. Instead he said, "I told him it wouldn't work, but he insisted we give you a chance." And then he stood up and started to hold out his hand to Dudley, but then pulled it back. "Another house it is, then. Better that than wasting the space on someone who doesn't want to be here. Just give us a day or two, and we'll have you sorted out. You can eat in your room if you'd rather."
Dean was all the way to the door before Dudley's brain kicked back in and he blurted out, "Wait."
With his hand on the door, ready to push it open, Dean turned around. He folded his arms over his chest and did as Dudley had asked. Where he was standing, perhaps the way the light caught on his face, a thin scar became visible in the dark skin, cutting upwards to Dean's scalp from the corner of one eyebrow. And suddenly, even though they looked nothing alike, Dudley was reminded of his cousin Harry, the way he'd looked the last time Dudley had seen him, full of determination and faint hope.
Unable to stand that calm gaze any longer, Dudley stared down at his hands and rubbed his left thumb over his right knuckles. "I don't know... anything. I'm pants at this shit, you know? I just... if you..." He blinked and glanced up, but Dean was waiting him out with a patience that Dudley couldn't comprehend. "I need help," he finally said and had to swallow down the bile that rose in his throat.
"There are rules."
Dudley nodded, keeping his mouth clamped shut.
"Other people come here for help as well. I won't allow you to endanger their recovery."
Sweat broke out on his forehead. He swallowed again and then gave Dean another nod when it was clear he was waiting for a response.
"All right," Dean said with obvious reluctance. "One chance, but that's it. If you take a single drink or I hear that word out of your mouth again, you're out of here."
After a cautious clearing of his throat, Dudley felt safe enough to say, "Thanks." He paused before adding, "I won't. I promise."
He was fairly sure he believed himself, too.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Dudley left the Probation Trust offices with his hands in his pockets, whistling. He'd survived four weeks of check-ins and meetings, and he'd not had a drink the entire time. Pritha had even congratulated him, although she'd followed that up with a warning that he still had a long road ahead of him. She'd also handed him his Community Payback schedule, which started on Monday.
Four weeks, though, was near enough to a month, which for this month meant thirty-one days without a drink. He jangled the useless chips they'd insisted on giving him at the stupid Barton meetings where everyone whinged on and on about their horrible lives and rewarded him for sitting in the back and keeping his mouth shut. Coin of the realm would have been better. A pound or two eventually added up to enough for a bit of a celebration.
Something flipped over in Dudley's belly, and he gripped one of his chips tightly as he waited for Piers to get his arse across the road. He'd been his friend, Dudley reminded himself, his best friend since they were kids. There had to be an explanation.
"Long time, Polkiss."
"Too long, mate." They stood for an awkward minute while other people walked around them, muttering complaints about obstructionists, and then Piers said, "Need to catch up, don't we?"
Shrugging, Dudley jangled his chips again. "Got no place to be 'til dinner."
"Lion's started putting on a good tea."
"I dunno," Dudley said. "It gets a bit noisy in there." And they serve alcohol, he wanted to add, but those words seemed to have frozen to his tongue. Just like the ones about how he wasn't allowed in a pub or nightclub. He'd look like a right berk, if he admitted that to Piers.
"Worth it for a bit of that cream cake, though." Piers gave him that careless look that always seemed to end up with Dudley leading them off on a lark. "Besides, the offices won't let out for at least an hour."
Giving him another shrug instead of an objection, Dudley ended up following him down the street, through a wooden door, and into the half-full pub.
"Get us a table," Piers said as he headed for the bar.
"Coke," Dudley called after him. He glanced around the room, rejecting any table that could be seen by someone peering through the windows. He ended up at a small, scarred table off to the side that would be hidden by the door if anyone opened it.
"Nice dark corner." Piers put a coke in front of him, giving the glass a look of disgust, and sat down.
Piers lifted his pint and tipped his head back just a bit to take a deep drink. Dudley was entranced by the way Piers's Adam's apple moved with each swallow, how he licked the foam off his lips when he put the glass down, leaving a tiny spot up near his nose. Dudley could taste the ale as if he were the one drinking it. The familiar scent left him feeling as if he hadn't had so much as a drop of water for years.
"So," Piers said, sprawling back in his chair. "Mum phoned the other day. She said your mum called her to let her know you'd got onto community support. Typical Big D luck, falling on your feet like that."
"I suppose." Taking a sip of his coke, Dudley put it down in another spot and began tracing a finger through the wet circle it'd left on the table.
"Malcolm says it's a right doddle. His brother got on it, and he's been getting paid to laze around the house and not serve his sentence. Says his manager is a bit of a looker, too." Piers gave him a crooked grin. "You're better off than the rest of us back at Grunnings. Arkley's been on a royal tear the last few weeks. Bloody wanker seems determined to make us all work for a living."
As Piers rambled on, Dudley couldn't seem to take his eyes off Piers's glass. His own fizzy drink seemed to taste worse and worse as the level of ale dipped lower and lower until there was nothing left at all.
"Want another?" Piers signalled for the waitress before Dudley could say no.
Not wanting to talk about the job he didn't have any longer or his Community Order, Dudley asked, "Why did you leave me that night?"
"Me? Leave you?" Widening his eyes in a mockery of innocence that hadn't fooled anyone for years, Piers shook his head. "I went off to the loo, and you were gone when I got back."
He was lying, and Dudley knew it. The question was whether Dudley wanted to know the truth and possibly — definitely — lose Piers's friendship. If he'd ever—
"The usual, gentlemen." The waitress placed a pint glass in front of each of them, and then went to deliver an order to the next table.
The satisfaction in Piers's voice made Dudley flick his gaze up at him and take in the way he was licking at the foam. Somewhere in there, Dudley realised, he'd picked up his own glass and had raised it almost all the way to his mouth. The ale was close enough for him to taste. One more inch and he'd have foam on his lips as well.
No one would have to know. It was a week 'til his next test. No one at Barton would be able to smell it on his breath if he went out for a good curry afterwards. And he was damned thirsty.
"I've missed you, Big D." Piers knocked his glass against Dudley's in a toast.
Dudley's hand shook. Ale slopped over the rim of his glass onto the table and his skin, soaking into the cuff of his shirt.
"Shit. Fuck. Piss." Dudley dropped his glass and stared at his sleeve in horror. There was no fucking way to hide that. He'd reek to high heaven, and everyone would know where he'd been the minute he walked into Barton. He'd lose everything.
"Jesus fucking Christ, Dudley. " Piers was standing up and mopping his trousers with a serviette. "You've got to learn how to handle your booze."
"No, I don't." Dudley pulled off his shirt, almost ripping the cuff apart when the button got stuck. The leather strap of his watch was damp, so he unfastened that and threw it down on top of his crumpled shirt.
Then he all but ran out of the pub in his vest and trousers.
Dinner was over by the time Dudley made it back to Barton. He'd had to stop in one of the public bathrooms on High Street to scrub the stink off his hand and arm. He still wasn't convinced that he'd got it all off, but it was the best he could do without a proper shower.
He brushed past a woman with frizzy greying hair and tartan slippers and took the stairs two at a time. Safe in his room, he stripped off and bundled his clothes into the very back of his wardrobe. He'd have to get rid of them, but not until he was sure he could do it without anyone seeing him.
Half an hour later, his skin still tender from a vicious scrubbing, dressed in clean clothing, he went into the sitting room where the meeting was just starting. All of the regular furniture and most of the folding chairs were filled with Barton House residents and visitors from the surrounding areas. His usual chair in the back was unoccupied. He ignored it and went to join Dean, who was leaning against the wall behind one of the sofas.
"All right?" Dean asked, keeping his voice low enough not to interrupt the discussion leaders.
"Yeah." Swallowing against the lump in his throat, Dudley turned his attention to the meeting.
And when his turn came, instead of indicating that they should pass him by, Dudley introduced himself.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a higher power.
"I don't believe in God," Dudley repeated. "All those people sitting there every Sunday. As if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths and they didn't spend six and a half days every week beating the shit out of their kids, cheating on their wives, or worse."
"It's a higher power, not God," said Dean. He was sitting in a corner of the sofa, with his back against the arm and his knees bent, as he did every time he met privately with Dudley.
"Whatever." Dudley snagged a sandwich off the plate, took a bite, and hummed with pleasure. Cheese and branston pickle on thickly buttered wholemeal bread, one of his favourites.
"Makes a difference to some people." A wave of Dean's wand had a sandwich floating over to him.
"Yeah, that's me." Dean grinned at him, unrepentant. "And we're getting off track again."
Dudley snorted. "You mean your big plan to get me used to magic isn't working?"
"I wouldn't say that. You're no longer flinching when I do this." Dean swished his wand through the air.
"But it does distract you."
"I can't do the third step, that's all I was saying."
About to take another bite of his sandwich, Dudley stared at him with his mouth open.
"You can always come back to the third step, if you feel like you've missed something." Dean smiled at him. "Now shut your mouth and eat. You'll need the energy when you hoover the carpets later."
"You could just use your magic."
"I could," Dean said, "but I won't."
Dudley sighed and finished his sandwich while Dean picked up the book beside him and went back to talking about the third step.
As soon as Dudley closed the door to her office, Pritha opened a yellow folder. She barely gave him time to sit down before announcing, "Since you've been in the programme for about two months, we're going to review your progress today." She tapped a long, red fingernail on a little stack of printed reports with his name at the top. Her laptop was closed and pushed off to the side.
Dudley's heart sank. He'd thought he'd been doing so well, but progress reports rarely meant good news for him.
With a quick movement of her right hand, she spread the pages so he could see that some had come from Barton and some from within the Probation Trust. "How do you think you've been doing?"
"All right, I guess," he said. Every breath, every word strangled him as he realised that he'd once again been played for an idiot by people he'd trusted with his secrets. A familiar, comforting onrush of violence flushed away Dudley's fear and insecurities. He flattened his palms on the arms of his chair, fighting the urge to ball his hands into fists.
Pritha ran a fingernail down the report on top and narrowed her eyes.
Relax and listen. Don't assume the worst before you hear what they have to say. Mr Clewlow had said that in last week's ART session. Doing his best to follow his advice, Dudley flexed his hands and forced a few more words out, "What'd they say?"
Seconds passed as Pritha watched him, then her lips twitched and she said, "Nothing personal or private, I assure you. Your trust won't be breached unless it's believed that you're in danger of hurting someone else," she paused before adding, "or yourself."
The trapped air escaped from Dudley's lungs, and he forced himself to inhale. His anger died down but didn't disappear. "A test then," he gritted out.
This time she smiled at him. "An assessment," she said. "Your first of this kind, but not your last. Each one will be different, mind you. So don't get your hopes up that you've got it worked out."
Dudley's forehead crinkled. He looked down, focussing on the feel of the bumps and scars under his left thumb as he rubbed it over the knuckles of his right hand They'd all told and better told him what it would be like, but it felt overwhelming now that he was able to think. A lifelong slog was all he had to look forward to, fighting against the need for that bit of forgetfulness that came from a bottle or from crashing his fists into something or someone.
The unending dreariness was enough to drive a man to drink.
After a while, he heard the clack of Pritha's fingernails against a keyboard. He glanced up from his hands. The reports had been put away, and his file was closed. She pushed her laptop off to the side, leaving the lid open. "Want to talk about it?"
Feeling a bit like he was floating in open water, clutching a life buoy, he admitted, "I'm not sure how."
She smiled at him. "I think I can help you with that, but why don't I get us some tea first."
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Dudley spent most of Saturday morning in the back garden at Barton. To everyone's surprise, and his most of all, he'd grown to love garden duty. He could hide out there and think or, more often, work in an almost mindless trance. On really bad days, he could take out his built-up anger by hacking at the hedges and trees or turning over a bed of soil.
Right then, though, he was trying for mindless because he couldn't bear to spend one more second contemplating himself and what he'd done. Three weeks had been more than enough as far as he was concerned. Especially since he hadn't been able to come up with much of anything he could be proud of. Luckily, Phil Quigley had been on garden duty the week before, and the vegetable garden was just about overgrown with weeds. Phil always claimed a bad back from something called Quidditch. Dudley went along, because everyone else did.
He tossed the dandelion puller off to one side with a snarl of frustration, took hold of the stalk in both hands, and yanked. By the third attempt, his muscles were screaming, he was gritting his teeth against the strain, and the dandelion was still in the ground.
"Sometimes a bit of care does more good than brute strength."
Releasing the weed, Dudley sat back on the grass and swiped a forearm over the sweat running down his face. He squinted at the woman who'd squatted down next to him. She was running a thin, veined hand up and down the stalk. About an inch above the ground, she twisted.
The traitorous fucking dandelion came up out of the ground, roots and all, nice as you please. Dudley would have happily slaughtered the bloody thing if it had been alive enough to care.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, counted to ten, and back down to zero. Then he counted again, and again. When he could trust his temper, he stopped counting and opened his eyes.
Mrs Figg from down the road, he realised. He'd almost not recognised her without her tartan slippers or plastic mac. Instead, she'd squashed an old hat on her head, pulled on a tatty jacket covered in cat hair, and she was sitting on the grass, observing him. A large and vaguely familiar cat with spotted fur and a tufted tail was curled up next to her.
The intensity of her gaze made him think that he had to say something. "Thank you," he managed. "I don't suppose you could show me how to do that."
They worked together for hours. She taught him about pulling dandelions and other things he hadn't known existed when Harry had done the gardening and he'd been out playing. Terrorising the neighbourhood, he corrected himself.
When the garden was as done as it was going to get for the day and they'd both stood up, he said, "Mrs Figg, I—"
She shook her head at him. "Not now. Come around and see me next Sunday. Number forty-two Wisteria Walk. I'm sure you remember it. We can have a bit of lunch and a chat. It's past time you went back there anyway."
And then she was gone, leaving him alone in the garden with the cat. It stared at him for a moment, hissed in what was clearly a warning, and stalked off with its tail in the air.
Dudley hesitated outside the front office. Voices came from across the hall, where people were putting chairs out and getting the living room ready for that night's meeting. Sunday nights always pulled in a bigger crowd.
Come by after dinner, Dean had said, but Dudley hadn't expected the door to be closed. The thump of feet coming down on the stairs made up his mind for him. He gave the painted wood a quick rap and walked inside, closing the door behind him.
Unlike the living room, the front office was sparsely furnished. There was a sofa and an armchair, extra chairs folded against one wall, and a desk squeezed into a corner lined with cabinets. The surface of the desk bore a handmade plaque with Dean Thomas, Wishful Thinker inscribed on it.
"Just a couple more minutes," Dean said, not even looking up from where he was writing up what looked like the next week's job rotation.
As he waited, Dudley wandered around the room. He trailed his hand over the stacked chairs and went over to peer out the curtains. The oak tree needed cutting back a bit more, he noted, considering how close it was getting to the wires. When it looked like Dean was about done, he went to sit down on the flimsy chair in front of the desk.
"All right then," Dean finally said, putting his biro away in a drawer. "What can I help you with?"
Dean got up and went to pin the job rotation up on the board and then came back to perch on the edge of his desk nearest Dudley. "You said you had a question about Barton," he prompted.
"It's about the money," Dudley mumbled, feeling like an enormous lummox sitting in a miniature chair. He shivered and wished he'd put a jumper on over his shirt. "You haven't asked me for anything, but Sheila Higgins said it was expensive. That you don't normally take blokes like me."
"Like you?" Dean's fingers began to rap on the desk, his left leg to bounce. His lips pressed together in a thin line, making it clear that he was upset.
Dudley couldn't think of a single thing to say that would turn Dean's anger on someone else, so he simply repeated what she'd said. "Community support layabouts."
"Sheila was out of line. I'll talk with her about that." Dean's leg stopped moving. He pulled a device seemingly out of nowhere and tapped something into it. "As for the money, you're all paid up for as long as you need to stay here."
Worry flashed through Dudley. "My mum doesn't have that kind of money, and my dad..." he trailed off, remembering what Dean had said when he'd arrived — he insisted we give you a chance. "Who paid for me?"
After another short bout of fidgeting, Dean said, "Your cousin."
"Harry? Potter?" Dudley couldn't picture it.
"Yes, Harry. He and your mother came to see me as soon as they learned the terms of your Community Order and made all the arrangements." Dean rapped his knuckles on the desk, making Dudley look at him. "Harry's usually in and out of here regularly. Still attends meetings from time to time. I was assured that that won't be a problem. That you and he sorted things out between you a few years back."
"Sorted. That's one way of putting it." They'd shaken hands that last time, and he'd... Dudley swallowed. Told Harry he wasn't a waste of space. What a fucking arse he'd been. He hadn't tried to see Harry after it was all over or really thanked him for saving his life.
"He's been staying away."
Dean's words penetrated Dudley's haze, and he scowled. "Didn't mean to do that to him."
"Kick him out of here." The chair fell over as Dudley stood up. "He shouldn't have had to leave because of me."
"No." The warmth of Dean's hand penetrated Dudley's shirt, making him pause. "You're misunderstanding me. Harry wasn't staying at Barton. He attended meetings regularly."
"Harry?" Dudley stared at Dean. It was all too much, really, and that made him feel stupid as it always did. After a brief struggle to come up with something intelligent, he gave up. "He shouldn't stay away."
"That's what I told him." Dean shrugged. "Maybe you'll have better luck persuading him than I did."
"Me? Why on earth would Harry listen to me?" A memory flashed through Dudley's mind, accompanied by the sound of his own taunting voice and the thud of Harry's feet. "I can think of a thousand reasons why he wouldn't."
"Because you know him so well?" From the way Dean looked at him, Dudley could tell there was something he wasn't saying.
"You know better than to expect me to answer that," Dudley said after a while.
"You need to talk to someone about it. You know that, right? It's part of the way the programme works."
Dudley opened his mouth to object and then closed it again. "I'm not supposed to talk about Harry. Not to anyone."
"You have to talk about it to someone," Dean said. "Yes, you need to be careful, and not just because Harry is special to our world. But you can't deal with your problems or where you went wrong without including him in it."
"Maybe I could—" speak to Harry? The idea seemed fantastical, almost unbelievable. Yet suddenly Dudley wanted nothing more than to see Harry, to talk to him and make sure that he was all right.
"I'll work it out," he said. And then he headed for the door and the room across the hall. Sitting there, in that meeting, listening to other people yammer on, would give him a chance to think about Harry and to add to his list of all the things he'd done wrong.
5. Admitted to the higher power, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Dudley walked from the bus stop on Magnolia Road with his hands shoved deep in his jacket pockets. He took the long way around, not wanting to chance the cut-through between Magnolia Crescent and Wisteria Walk. Harry and his friends might have won their war, but no one had ever told him what happened to those Demented thingies.
A cloud covered the sun, casting shadows on the street. Dudley shivered and moved faster.
The cloud was gone by the time he made it to Mrs Figg's house — easily recognisable from the pair of enormous cats sunning themselves on the low wall that separated the front garden from the pavement and the plaster cats scattered among the flowers.
The foyer seemed dim after the brightness outside, but Dudley could tell that the house was laid out just like the one where he'd grown up. Unlike his home, this one smelled of cats and old cooking. However, the kitchen, where Mrs Figg led him, was sparkling clean and full of sunshine. Beef was simmering in a pot on the cooker, and a bowl of chopped carrots and cabbage sat on the draining board.
Dudley's stomach made a noise, reminding him that he'd missed breakfast.
"Come on then," Mrs Figg said. "Might as well sit down and make yourself comfortable."
While she bustled around and Dudley did as she suggested, the spotted cat that had been with her at Barton strolled through a flap in the back door. It sat back on its haunches and stared at him. When it was sure it had his attention, it licked a paw, yawned, and then wandered off through another flap into what had been the pantry at his old house.
"I set that up for the cats. Without my Albert to feed, I don't need that much space to store food and the like, and they need some room of their own."
"Erm, all right." Dudley cast about for something else to talk about but couldn't think of anything. Finally, he just asked, "You managing all right? On your own, I mean."
She burst out with an odd snorting kind of laugh that seemed too loud for someone so tiny. "I've been on my own for longer than you've been alive."
Embarrassment made Dudley's face flush a dull brick red. She didn't say anything else though, just turned around and started setting out tea things. After feeling awkward for a couple of minutes, he realised that he wasn't used to sitting there and letting other people serve him anymore. Not only that, he didn't like how it made him feel.
"Can I help?"
Her smile lit up her whole face. She pointed at a cupboard on the other side of the sink. "There's a plate rack on the top shelf. You'll save me getting out the steps if you can reach it down."
After that, she had him slicing bread. Then it was one thing after another, with her telling him stories about her cats the entire time, until the food was set out on the table, and he was feeling a lot more relaxed than he had been when he'd walked through the door.
He'd just finished his second helping of chocolate gateau and was trying to decide whether or not to let his belt out and have a third when she said, "I was thinking about the fourth step."
And just like that, his desire for more cake disappeared. He picked up the teapot and poured himself another cup. She didn't say anything; just pushed her cup towards him. He added milk and sugar to his, staring at the surface as he stirred it. "I'm still trying to work out how to do it."
"There aren't many of us you can talk with, are there?" She put a bit of tea and a lot of milk in a saucer and moved it to the corner. A different cat, this one black and white with very long whiskers, jumped up onto the table and began drinking from the saucer.
"Dean—" he started to say, but she cut him off, tutting.
"Dean Thomas is a lovely man, don't get me wrong, but he can't be your sponsor. There are things he's better off not knowing. It's not just your past; it's Harry's too. No matter what some folks seem to think, he's allowed to keep secrets, even from his friends."
Dudley kept on stirring. "I thought Dean was one of your lot."
"A wizard? I'm not one of those." Her cup rattled against her plate. "After everything that happened, I'm no longer sure I want to be, either."
"Sometimes I did," Dudley admitted. "Even when my dad was ranting on about Harry and his fr... his magic, and threatening to beat it out of him. I thought it was a bit of all right, you know, being able to cast spells on people and stuff."
"Did you now?" She gave him one of her looks again. "I need you to give me a reason why I should agree to become your sponsor."
Putting his spoon down, he cradled his cup in his hands and focussed on the warmth of it rather than how much he was shaking. How was he supposed to do this talking thing? He started with the first thing that came to his mind. It was about Harry, because back then it always seemed to be about Harry. "I found Mum crying one day when I was about six or seven. She'd cut Harry's hair the day before, and it had grown back again by breakfast. Dad had locked him in his cupboard straightaway and then he yelled at Mum, as if it was her fault."
Taking a sip of his tea, he glanced at her, but she didn't seem surprised or even upset. "Afterwards, Mum pulled me up on the bed with her and cuddled me as she talked. I didn't understand most of what she was saying, to be honest," he said. "At the end, she tidied herself up with a hankie and told me that I had to make sure nobody at our new school got close enough to Harry to find out about his freakiness. She said it would be dangerous for all of us if anyone did."
"I don't know why she suddenly decided it was important. She hadn't said anything all the way through infant school, but after that, it was open season on Harry. The worse I treated him, the more presents and special treatment they gave me. I was spoiled rotten."
Dudley drank some of his tea, grimacing when he realised that it had gone cold. He put it down and considered Mrs Figg. "I didn't treat you well, either."
"No, you didn't."
The problem was that he didn't have too many other people he could talk to about everything, and no one else had offered to be his sponsor. The only thing he could do was to be honest, he decided. "I'll need to make amends with you, but I can't do it today. Not in any way that would matter, at least. I'm still working towards that step."
"I can give you some time to get there." Her voice and gaze sharpened. "Not forever, mind you. I'm a Squib, not a saint."
"Thank you." It felt like jumping out of a plane without a parachute when he asked, "Will you be my sponsor?"
Before she could answer him, the spotted cat jumped into her lap and butted its head against her hand. "What do you think, Mr Tibbles?"
"You're—" Dudley stopped himself and tried again. "I'd really appreciate your help."
Mr Tibbles leapt off Mrs Figg's lap and onto the table. He stalked over to Dudley and stopped right in front of him. Dudley sat there, not knowing whether to pet him or ignore him. After a few moments, Mr Tibbles leaned forwards and licked Dudley. His tongue rasped over Dudley's chin, leaving a small stinging sensation behind. Before Dudley could react, Mr Tibbles jumped off the table and disappeared out the back door.
"That's it sorted then. You'll need to start calling me Arabella," she said, getting up and carrying the teapot over to the counter. "Just be warned that I won't coddle you or let you lie about your childhood, because I was here for all those years and I know how things were in that house."
Dudley rubbed at his chin and wondered what he'd got himself into. Then again, if it took the cat licking him to get her to agree, who was he to argue? Arabella was right, after all. He couldn't imagine telling anyone else exactly what he'd done.
Hours of talking, interrupted by cups of tea and plates of sandwiches and biscuits, had left Dudley tired and drained. He clutched Arabella's front gate as he stood and waited for the couple a few doors down to herd their children inside. He could have just walked past them, but one of them might notice him. See him.
So he waited, used his free hand to rub his other arm, and shivered, although he wasn't really cold. He felt exposed, as if he'd built walls around his life, his heart, his soul, and had spent the last few hours starting to demolish them brick by brick.
When the family had finally gone inside, and the last kid's scream had been cut off by the door slamming shut, Dudley waved goodbye to Arabella, who'd been standing just inside the front door, and let himself out the gate.
Left went to Magnolia Road and the bus, and to all those people, strangers and former neighbours, talking and laughing and fighting and looking at him. He closed the gate carefully, ensuring the latch caught, and turned right. His feet automatically took him down the same path he'd spent his whole childhood on — walking, running, chasing, and hunting.
Their old house looked almost the same as it had all those years ago when they'd packed up and left with that crazy old man. Crazy old wizard, he corrected himself. One of Harry's Order people.
"Harry saved us all that time, not just me," he mumbled to no one in particular. "And all I did was shake his hand." At least he'd done better than his mum and dad that day. They'd been mental about the idea of leaving.
Still, despite all of his yelling and bluster about a plot to steal their house, his dad had refused to return when it was all over. He'd claimed it was infested with freakishness. They had a new house now, bigger and in a better area, paid for by the same wizards his dad despised. And yet, this house still stood empty, because his dad couldn't be arsed to do anything about selling or leasing it while someone else was paying for it.
Closer in, Dudley could tell the house hadn't been kept up to his mother's standards. The paint was starting to peel in a couple of places on the door, and the windows were smudged and filthy.
No Harry around to do the cleaning, he thought as he pulled out his keys. The metal doorknob gave him a tiny shock, making him hesitate. A tremor went through him, and the memories began to pile up. What a spoiled and vicious little beast he'd been.
He was turning the key when he heard the thud-thud of someone running on pavement. The footsteps were heavier, but he could never forget that rhythm.
"Dudley!" Harry sounded a bit out of breath; he clearly wasn't used to running the way he once had been.
Hanging his head, Dudley pulled out his key, let go of the doorknob, and turned around. "Hullo, Harry."
Harry stood in the middle of the path, hands in his pockets, head tilted as he looked at Dudley. He was still shorter than Dudley, and too skinny, but his glasses were better. He'd grown up and gained confidence, and he looked damned fit. Dudley wondered if it would have made a difference if Harry had looked that good when they were teenagers.
The corner of Harry's mouth curled up in a half-smile, and Dudley couldn't help but smile back at him. He hadn't known how happy just seeing Harry would make him.
"Arabella?" Dudley asked.
Harry nodded. "And the wards warned me that someone was trying to get in the house."
They stood there for a while, neither of them making a move. Dudley wished there was something he could say to make everything all right between them, but he was all out of words — if he'd ever known the kind of words that could accomplish a miracle like that.
"I'm not ready for it," Harry said, indicating the house and then flattening his fringe over his forehead. "Not sure I ever will be, or that it matters. We don't ever have to go back in there, you know?"
"Don't know if I am or not." Dudley moved towards Harry. "But I wasn't really thinking when I came here. It was more that I didn't want to go the other way."
"Bus too much?"
"All those people. Looking and gossiping."
"Yeah. Sometimes you just want to be anywhere they aren't." Harry held a hand out to Dudley. "I can take you straight back to Barton... if you trust me"
After everything, Dudley couldn't quite get his head around the idea of not trusting Harry. "Are... are you sure you trust me?"
Harry gave Dudley a look that he couldn’t interpret. "You're not planning on hunting me again, are you?"
"No. Never." Dudley tried to put as much sincerity into his voice as possible.
"That's all right, then."
Harry pulled him into a loose embrace. Not knowing what else to do, Dudley clasped his hands behind Harry's back. When Harry relaxed against him, an odd, warm feeling trickled through Dudley.
"It's a bit like being squeezed half to death sometimes. Although Teddy, my godson, says that it's not quite so bad when I'm the one Side Along Apparating him."
"All right." Dudley closed his eyes and held on.
6. Were entirely ready to have the higher power remove all these defects of character.
Still not quite awake, Dudley stumbled down the stairs and into the kitchen. He hated sleeping through his alarm. It left him feeling out of sorts and meant he couldn't eat his breakfast and get out of the kitchen before the others woke up. Instead, he was faced with a bright, sunny room and a table not-quite-crowded with Dean and a couple of the other residents.
Even worse, the coffee in the cafetière was undrinkable. Wrinkling his nose, he dumped it out and started making more. Food could wait.
"You're the one!"
Dudley was swinging around, ready to defend himself against whatever Phil Quigley was accusing him of, when Phil continued with, "I've been wondering who made the brilliant coffee every morning. Thank you for saving us from having to endure Sheila's grotty stuff."
"I haven't seen you trying to make it with these Merlin-forsaken Muggle devices, have I?" Flipping him a pair of fingers, Sheila's voice softened as she added, "Besides Dean hasn't complained."
"Lucky sod drinks tea on a morning, doesn't he?"
"Someone has to be civilised around here." Dean rattled his newspaper.
For a second, Dudley thought the picture on the front page flickered. He rubbed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief when it seemed normal. He filled his mug from the cafetière and went to the fridge.
"Milk and sugar are on the table," Phil said. "Breakfast as well, if you don't mind Warming Charms."
"Warming—" Dudley gulped and resisted the urge to clutch at his backside.
"Come on." Sheila tossed her blue-striped black hair over one shoulder and gestured at a seat opposite her. "No vampires this time around, so we can guarantee no one will bite you."
"Vamp—" Dudley almost dropped his mug in shock. "They're real?"
She sneered at him. "Don't you Muggles know anything?"
"That's enough," Dean said. "Just ignore her, Dudley. She's horrible before she's had at least three cups of coffee."
"All right." Careful not to turn his back on her, Dudley inched around the table and took a seat near the end, far away from Sheila and the wand next to her plate.
"Honestly, I don't see why we should have to stop using magic just because we've got a Muggle living here," Sheila said.
"There you go again. Banging on as if the world is out to get you and getting it all wrong as usual. Wingardium Leviosa." With a flourish of his wand, Phil floated the plate of bacon butties over to Dudley. "The rule isn't no magic at all, you stupid bint; it's no magic to be used on the Muggles." He shrugged. "Seems only fair to me since they can't hex you back."
Sheila sniffed and used her fork to push an orange slice around her plate. "I still don't see what the big deal is. It's not as if any of the Muggles that come through here don't know about magic."
Dudley glanced at Dean, but he didn't seem to be paying attention to anything but his paper.
"That's not the point, is it?" Phil turned to Dudley. "Help yourself to some breakfast. Dean cooked this morning, so the butties are better than edible, and the Warming Charm seems to be keeping them from going cold without drying them out too much."
"Thanks." Dudley picked the butty closest to him. It didn't feel any different than his mum's, after she'd kept them warm in the oven. He took a cautious nibble before eating the whole thing, alternating bites with sips of coffee as he listened to Phil and Sheila argue.
Then Sheila, who claimed to have pure blood — which made Dudley wonder if Harry's world was more open about AIDS than his own — said, "It's not as if magic hurts Muggles permanently."
Dudley couldn't let that go without saying something. "How do you know that?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do you know magic doesn't hurt Muggles?"
"Why would it?" She looked at him as if he were mental. "All they have to do is go to hospital and get the spell taken off. How hard is that?"
Shifting in his chair, Dudley made sure his arse was pressed against the back. "And which hospital would that be?" He waited, but no one responded. "Muggle hospitals don't know about magic, so they can't use a spell or a... a potion to undo the damage. The poor sod is either stuck with whatever the spell did or has to have it surgically removed."
"Surgically? What's that?" asked Phil.
"They take a scalpel, a kind of knife—" Dudley cleared his throat and looked away from Sheila's shocked face and down into his empty mug "—and they cut off whatever's been spelled onto you. And then they treat you like a science experiment because they've never seen a human being with a pig's tail or whatever else, and you end up in agony for weeks on end and wanting to hurt not just the wizard who did that to you but any wizard you can get your hands on. But even that's better than being treated like a freak of nature."
The words reverberated inside Dudley, and his eyes burned. He shoved away from the table and headed for the back door and outside. He heard Sheila mutter, "I didn't know—" and then, to his relief, the door closed behind him and cut off whatever else she'd been about to say.
Outside, it was chilly and wet. He walked to the middle of the garden and stood there, feeling the dampness of the grass soak through his socks and wishing he'd been smart enough to put on his shoes.
He prodded at the ground with the toes of his right foot and watched a dark stain from the mud and grass spread across the cotton. A quick wash and it would be mostly gone.
"Too bad my problems can't be washed away that easily," he muttered. Closing his eyes, he lifted his face to the sky. The drizzle felt good on his skin, but it did nothing more than make him wet.
7. Humbly asked the higher power to remove our shortcomings.
"I still don't believe in God." Dudley wrinkled his nose and avoided looking at the other people in the group. "Not sure I ever will, either."
"So?" Dean looked far less concerned than Dudley thought was reasonable, given that his future depended on him succeeding at this.
"Well, how am I supposed to do the seventh step then?" Hearing how angry and resentful he sounded, Dudley bit the inside of his mouth to avoid saying anything more and digging himself in any deeper.
Phil said, "There's no magic—"
"Says the wizard," Dudley blurted out before he could stop himself. He shook his head, at himself more than the others. "Look, I don't know that I'll ever believe in God. So it isn't as if he's going to come along and wave his ma... Fuck, now I'm doing it."
"Stop worrying about whether or not you believe in God or a Higher Power or whatever," Dean said. "Even those who do, wizards or not, have to do the hard work."
"Why does the step make it seem as if it just happens then?" Knowing that there really couldn't be an answer to that, Dudley leaned back in his chair and made a dismissive gesture. "Never mind. Just tell me what I have to do here, because I'm completely lost."
"You get someone else to help. Someone you can't control." Arabella seemed to shrink back into her chair in the corner when everyone turned around to look at her. After a long pause, she raised her chin and said, "Like Mr Tibbles."
"A cat?" Sheila snorted. "Oh please."
"Cats are good listeners," Arabella said, before Dudley could work out how to defend her. "They let you talk, and they don't condemn you for anything. They give you time to work it out for yourself."
"She's got a point." Phil nodded. "Until I found my mind healer, I used to Apparate over to Dover and talk to the water. If nothing else, throwing stones off the cliff made me feel better."
"A mind healer?" Dudley distracted himself from feeling like an idiot by balancing his chair on its back legs and rocking it. "Is that a wizard thing?"
"They're a combination of a psychiatrist and a doctor for the brain," Dean said. "And, yes, a wizard thing."
But I'm not mad. Dudley waited for a few seconds, but no one else seemed willing to take a turn. He sighed and asked, "I'll need one of them, won't I?"
"Muggles not good enough for you?" Sheila smirked.
"I can't exactly talk about things with a Muggle, can I?" Dudley let his chair drop back onto all four legs with a thud. "Besides, it's got nothing to do with what I want. It's for Harry. He doesn't need me dragging him through the mud figuratively as well as literally."
"What makes you think Harry sees it that way, Dudley?" Dean asked, interrupting both Sheila and Phil, who'd started talking over each other.
Dudley opened his mouth and closed it again, boggling at the idea that Harry might think differently. Dean was wrong, he was sure, but he hadn't talked with Harry about any of it. In fact, he'd hardly seen Harry since that day he'd... brought him back here.
"You think about that, and I'll talk to some people for you. I know a couple of Muggleborns who'd be able to understand enough to help you," Dean said. "And with that, Sheila, why don't you tell us how you've been doing this week?"
She glanced at Dudley, obviously fighting the urge to ask more questions, but then returned her attention to the meeting and started talking about what she'd been doing at her job in the ministry for wizards. Curious about the world Harry lived in, Dudley listened closely.
Six months was a good anniversary. He'd received a bright blue aluminium chip at the meeting. He'd successfully completed his ART programme, and even Pritha agreed that it was helping. He was also thoroughly enjoying the park project that he was assigned to for Community Payback. Sometimes that seemed wrong when it was a punishment.
Hand in his pocket, he rubbed his six-month chip between his thumb and forefinger and started walking without being sure of where he was going. They'd had to finish early because of a school trip to the park, and he didn't want to go back to Barton before dinner.
Some of the shop windows were vaguely interesting, and his stomach rumbled as he passed a butcher's that was advertising pork pies and then a fish and chip shop. He kept going though, not hesitating until he reached the Green Lion and its partly open door.
He stopped. His nostrils flared, and he turned towards the warmth and noise that were seeping out from the pub.
It was forbidden territory. Pubs were among the exclusions listed in his Community Order, and Pritha had highly recommended that he stay away from everywhere that sold alcohol for the first year. But he was outside by himself, and they were all inside laughing and talking and eating and drinking.
He sighed and changed his grip on the six-month chip, squeezing tightly enough that the edges dug into his fingers. Slowly, one step at a time, he forced himself to keep going. It was harder than he'd expected. Not that he wanted a pint, not really; he missed having a laugh with the lads, tossing around a few darts.
Once he was far enough away that he felt reasonably sure of himself, he ducked into a narrow alley between two buildings, pulled out his mobile, and rang Arabella. "It's Dudley," he said when she answered.
"Are you in a safe place?" He could hear the clatter and rush of water that meant she was putting the kettle on.
He leaned against the wall, trying to stay out of sight of the few passers-by on the street.. "Safe as it gets, I guess."
"I got out of work early so I went for a walk. Ended up going past the Green Lion." After a pause, he added, "I didn't go in, but I sort of wanted to."
"I'm making tea," she said. "Can you find your way over here?"
"No, I can't... don't have the bus money. Not to get all the way out there." Shame washed over Dudley. He kicked the back of his heel against the brick. "Maybe we can just talk for a bit?"
"Are you still over by the Green Lion?"
"I'm not outside it, if that's what you mean." He started rubbing his chip again. "I got myself away."
He could hear Arabella's smile in her voice as she congratulated him, and he answered her questions, told her what he'd done and what he hadn't done, and simply listened to her when he didn't know what else to say.
After a while, he could hear muffled sounds in the background. "If you've got company..." He trailed off, not wanting to let her go but not wanting to ruin her afternoon either.
"Don't be silly. It's just Harry, and he understands. In fact, hold on a minute." The sounds increased, and then she was back. "Where are you?"
"Down the street from the pub." Dudley looked around for a landmark. "In the alley across from Boots."
"Hold on. Don't go anywhere," she told him. "He'll be there in a sec."
"Wait? What are you—" A loud crack echoed off the walls, startling Dudley so badly that he fumbled his mobile and almost dropped it.
Harry stepped out from behind a large skip. "Hey, Dudley."
"Uh hi." Dudley just stared at him.
"You might talk to her before she starts to really worry." Harry pointed at Dudley's mobile.
"Uh yeah." Dudley raised it to his ear.
"—right? Because I'll come out there if you need me."
"I'm good," Dudley said. "Just a bit surprised."
"Harry arrived in one piece, then?" Arabella sounded pleased with herself.
"Was that something to worry about?" Dudley looked at Harry from head to toe; he looked — very good — to him. "I thought Harry was an expert."
"Anyone can Splinch themselves if they're distracted."
"Splinch?" asked Dudley, wondering if that was a real word.
Harry shook his head and grabbed Dudley's mobile. His fingers were warm against Dudley's hand. "Arabella, I'm fine." He paused, listening to something Dudley couldn't hear. "I'll take care of him, I promise." Another pause and then he said, "Yes, yes. Stop worrying." A tap of Harry's finger ended the call, and he handed the mobile back to Dudley.
"She sent you to babysit?" The words were out before Dudley realised what they implied about him.
Offering him a lopsided smile, Harry pushed his glasses up on his nose and shrugged. "I offered."
"You wanted to be with me?"
"Is that so strange?"
"Well... yeah, actually, it is. All things considered."
Shrugging again, Harry put his hand on Dudley's forearm and sent a shiver through him. "I just thought it would be nice to get to know you. It's not as if I have that much family, after all."
Dudley glanced down at Harry's hand and the fingernails that had been bitten down to the quick before raising his eyes to Harry's. He felt leaden, heavy. "Is that what we are? Family?"
"I—" Harry looked surprised, as if he'd never thought of it before. "It's not as if we really knew each other as kids, is it? For all that we grew up in the same house."
A snort of laughter escaped from Dudley. "I can't imagine why you'd have wanted to get to know me."
Harry blinked and rocked on his heels. "True. I mostly wanted to stay as far away from you as possible."
"Sounds sensible to me." Dudley pulled away, stuffed his mobile into his back pocket, and began to move towards the alley entrance.
"I hit you." Dudley kept his voice low enough that it didn't carry to the street. "I punched you, and kicked you, and chased you. I fucking hunted you."
"I know that. It's not like I've been Obliviated or anything."
Whatever the fuck that is. Instead of saying that aloud, he asked, "Why are you doing all this? I haven't done anything to deserve it."
"Neither did I."
Dudley winced. He hung his head and struggled to find something to say, anything that wasn't too little or too much.
"My childhood was totally fucked up," Harry said, "and no matter what you might think, you weren't the worst of it."
"You should hate me."
"I did. For years and years. I hated you so much that I turned my back on someone who wanted to be my friend simply because he reminded me of you."
"Because I've got my own amends to make." Harry sighed and raked a hand through his hair, making strands of it stick up on end. "Because I'm tired of living in a world full of the kind of hate and resentment and jealousy that's almost got me killed more times than I can count."
Remembering the high-pitched, squeaky voice yammering non-stop as his dad drove away from Privet Drive, Dudley turned back to face Harry. "I hurt you, and you saved my life."
Harry looked awkward and uncomfortable. His face was red, and he was playing with an odd, narrow pocket that ran down the seam of his jeans. He was close enough for Dudley to reach out and touch him. The strength of his desire to comfort Harry was shocking.
Before he could make up his mind whether to do that or not, Harry said, "It wasn't all one way, you know. There were times when I hurt you with my magic."
"Like when I trapped you in the snake enclosure, and you ended up twisting your ankle and being banned from the zoo. I didn't mean to do it. Well, not exactly. It was accidental but—" Harry fidgeted, running his thumb over the back of his hand again and again. "I'm sorry. I'd make it up to you if I could."
Heart sinking at the thought that Harry was only thinking about making amends, Dudley said, "You don't have anything to make up to me. Nothing. I was the bully. You were just trying to protect yourself."
"And you were just doing what your parents encouraged you to do."
Dudley scowled. That didn't feel like the complete truth, but it wasn't quite a lie either.
Harry's hand lifted in an aborted gesture. "You're not a waste of space, Dudley."
The wave of emotion was beyond anything Dudley knew what to do with. He pulled out his chip and ran his thumb over the raised lettering and design. "I should go back," he finally said.
"There's a place." Harry moved in front of him and waited until Dudley looked at him before continuing with, "It's got the best ice cream ever. Flavours you can't even imagine."
Unable to resist the cajoling tone, Dudley asked dubiously, "In Little Whinging?"
"No." The corner of Harry's mouth curved upwards. "In Diagon Alley. It's a bit strange at first, especially if you've never been to the Wizarding World, but I think you'll love it."
Fear fluttered in Dudley's stomach, but he ignored it. "You're going to squish me through that tube again?"
"It's the fastest way."
"Well, as long as there's ice cream at the other end." Dudley grinned back, happy at the thought of getting to spend more time with Harry.
"Best I've ever had," Harry said. He moved closer, and Dudley found himself in Harry's arms once again. Just before he was dragged into the darkness between places, Harry almost twisted out of his hold. Dudley tightened his grip, not willing to lose him.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
The list was longer than Dudley had imagined, and yet he knew it wasn't complete. He'd teased, taunted, and tormented so many kids in school, and he didn't remember most of their names. Or even which year they'd been in when he'd bullied them.
His mind healer had asked how much it mattered, making amends to those faceless kids, and he didn't have an answer that made sense to anyone but himself.
Dudley shook his hand to try and ease the cramp. It was hopeless.
"Hey there." Dean sat down on the other side of the table. "I saw the light on and wanted to make sure everything was all right."
"Just—" Dudley scowled at his notebook "—the list."
"Ah, the list." Dean intoned the word. "It's as bad, if not worse, than doing a moral inventory for fourth step."
"Worse definitely." Dudley placed his biro on the centre seam and pushed the book away. "I think I'll be spending the rest of my life making amends, assuming I can find some of these people."
"There are other ways to make amends." Dean looked lost in thought for a moment. "Wait here. I'll be back in a sec."
"All right." Once Dean had left the room, Dudley picked up his biro. He clicked it and spun it, then dropped it in disgust — at himself, his list, pretty much everything.
He got up and went to put the kettle on. A quick adjustment of the radio found Up All Night, and he puttered around the kitchen, making tea and a sandwich.
Dean walked back into the kitchen just as Dudley was taking his first bite. With his mouth full of bread, tomatoes, and cheese, Dudley pointed at the teapot under its cosy and concentrated on chewing and on not asking about the sketchpad Dean had placed on the table.
"You can look if you want." Dean was sitting on the counter, a mug cradled in his hands. He took a careful sip of his tea. "When I got around to making amends, some of the people I needed to talk with were long dead. Most of them in the war. So, I went looking for another way to make it up to them."
Dudley wiped his hands on a serviette and then scrubbed them on his jeans for good measure before gingerly opening the sketchpad. The first drawing was of a boy with an enormous smile and a camera slung around his neck and who seemed to be bouncing up and down on his heels with excitement.
"That's Colin Creevey. Annoying kid, especially with that damned camera of his, but he shouldn't have died at sixteen."
The next boy was wearing a t-shirt with the same crest as one that Phil wore a lot. He was toasting someone with a bottle and seemed to be laughing.
"Seamus Finnigan." Dean's voice was tight, and he cleared his throat. "We shared a dorm at Hogwarts with Harry and some others. He could be a complete wanker, but he didn't deserve the way I treated him."
Harry was next, sitting on a broom and somehow not looking as uncomfortable as Dudley thought he should. Instead he was leaning forward, one hand stretched out, his fingers about to close on a winged ball. He looked carefree and happy, more alive than Dudley had ever seen him, and Dudley wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch him.
"Don't need to tell you about him, huh? Although I bet I could tell you a few things that would surprise you."
"I wouldn't take that bet," Dudley said, unable to take his eyes off the picture. "I'd be happy to listen to the stories though."
"You should ask Harry some time."
"I suppose I could." Before he could reveal how very much he wanted to be able to talk with Harry like that, Dudley moved on to the next picture.
And so it went on. Dudley would flip the page, and Dean would tell him something about the person. There were girls and boys, even a couple of very strange creatures, and Dean described a world that was very different from the street filled with crowded, happy people that Harry had shown him.
Dean didn't talk about Harry, but Dudley felt as if he was being given a glimpse into Harry's life away from Privet Drive.
The last picture was of a man with a hooked nose, shoulder-length hair, and what looked like a permanent scowl. He and his clothes were drawn in a series of black slashes, making him seem ready to leap off the page.
"Severus Snape, our Potions professor. A nasty, greasy git, who treated most of us like Bubotuber pus, and one of the heroes who's responsible for us winning the war."
"They're brilliant." Dudley went back to the beginning, page by page, lingering over Harry's picture as long as he dared. "But I'm not sure what they've got to do with the eighth step."
"The ninth, really," Dean said. "Mostly I just wanted to show you that there are other ways to make amends. I did these sketches in preparation for my part in an art installation dedicated to those who died and those who survived. It's on permanent display in the portrait gallery at the Ministry of Magic."
"You wanted to make sure people didn't forget them?"
"Not just that." Slipping off the counter, Dean came over to stand next to Dudley. He stroked a hand over the cover of his sketchpad. "I wanted to make sure they remembered them exactly as they were. Not idealised heroes, but ordinary people with flaws and warts and brilliance, who made a difference." Dean picked up his sketchpad and squeezed Dudley's shoulder. "You'll get there. Just give yourself time. You don't have to do it all this year."
The kitchen door closed, and Dudley was alone again. He stared at his half-eaten sandwich, but came up with absolutely nothing. No matter what his parents had claimed when he was a kid, Dudley knew that he wasn't talented like Dean, or smart and powerful like Harry.
Being good with his fists had only seemed to get him into trouble, since he wasn't able to make a living with them. If there was something else... Dudley shoved the thought away and got to his feet. No point fretting about it, he decided. He had more than enough to get on with.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
The odd noise made by the cat flap as Mr Tibbles and his family wandered in and out of the house no longer disturbed Dudley. He ate Sunday lunch with Arabella at least once a month and usually twice. He was grateful for the break from the intensity of Barton, its rules and regulations, and the conversations that always seemed to be about sobriety no matter what the subject.
He'd even contemplated getting a cat of his own to give him an excuse for installing a cat flap and make sure he could have those noises in his own home. But that would have to wait until the residence requirement of his Community Order ended in two months, three weeks, and five days.
Dudley forced himself to stop daydreaming and get back to the task on hand: writing letters he might never send.
It was a good idea, he admitted, but remembering all those kids, writing all those apologies, was making him feel a bit sick. The things he'd done, thinking they were all right, so sure that he wasn't doing anything wrong — he could hardly wrap his head around it. The mind healer was helping with that, but—
Shaking his head, Dudley cut off that unhelpful train of thought. He looked over at his list, at all of the crossed-out entries, and the last nameless victim.
"Almost done?" Arabella wandered in, knitting in hand and two cats trailing behind her, occasionally batting at the loose wool.
"Only one left," Dudley said, stretching and twisting his neck. His spine made a loud crack that he felt up into his skull, and he smiled.
"Might as well finish up then." She sat across from him at the table, placing her knitting in front of her. "
"He was a kid," Dudley said as he started to write, not looking up from the page. "Maybe fourteen or fifteen. Could have been a bit older. From somewhere down-under, I think. Visiting his Granny maybe?"
Arabella made a hmmm sound, and her needles began to clack.
"Skinny as a rake, and queer as a two pound note. All poncy hair and skinny clothes, showing himself off."
The cat door swish-thunked, and a third cat joined the two already on the table.
"Piers hated kids like him. Sent him right off the deep-end." Dudley paused in his writing and took a deep breath before continuing with the next paragraph. "I didn't care so much that they were queer. Not as if I could, all things considered. But Piers would grab them and hold them and look at me."
The needles slowed down, the cats' ears pricked, and Dudley stared at the words he'd just written.
"It was easy, hitting him. Pulling my fists back and letting them fly. Not thinking or feeling anything but the thud of my knuckles hitting his flesh." He swiped his nose with the back of one hand. "Easier than thinking about the way I'd been noticing him before Piers jumped him."
Dudley could feel his face go red and his stomach try to flip up into his throat as he realised what he'd just said. Out loud. In front of someone who wasn't his own reflection. He bent his head, closed his eyes, and hunched his shoulders.
And flinched when a cat tongue rasped over his cheek. He opened his eyes just as Mr Tibbles licked his cheek again. Then the cat snagged the spare roll of wool in his mouth and raced off out the cat flap.
"It appears you've been forgiven," Arabella said, sliding a plate with a generous slice of Victoria Sandwich in front of him. She patted his shoulder and went to sit back down. "But that's not much good if you can't forgive yourself, or remember that not everyone's like your father. Lots of people don't care who a person loves, just that they are loved and can love back."
Picking up the fork, Dudley prodded at the cake. It would be good, with all that butter cream and strawberry jam in the middle, but he didn't feel much like eating.
"It was my Albert's favourite. His mother's recipe, too," Arabella said. "She would have taken it to her grave with her, but I got her to make it and let me help. A thousand times, it must have been, until I got it right."
One bite, Dudley told himself, just to make her feel better, and he brought the fork to his mouth. The cake melted on his tongue, buttery and sweet. He felt as if he should say something about what he'd admitted, but took another bite instead.
An hour later, after he'd refused a second piece and helped clean up, he carefully folded his letters away into unaddressed envelopes and stowed them in his rucksack. Slinging it over one shoulder, he said goodbye.
The bus stop he needed was across from the Magnolia Road Park. He waited there, with his hands in his pockets. It was a worse mess than anything his gang had done. Only one of the swings Harry had spent so much time on was usable; the others hung from a single chain or lay on the ground. The roundabout was broken, and sunlight glinted off what had to be shards of glass at the bottom of the slide. Worst of all, there was a teetering pile of rubbish by the fence — clear evidence that someone had been fly-tipping.
Pulling off his rucksack, Dudley dug out a spare envelope and jotted down everything he saw. He'd take it to work with him the next day; see if he could get something done about it.
When the bus pulled up, he grabbed his rucksack and jumped on board. Taking a seat at the back, he watched the park as long as he could and made more notes. Maybe Dean was right. Maybe if he got the park listed for a Community Payback team, he'd feel as if he'd at least got a start on fixing things up.
Dudley was thinking about how much he hated Family Day at Barton for the twentieth or so time that Sunday morning. Announcements had gone out to his parents every month, as they had to the families of the other residents. Unlike those other families, his parents had never shown up.
This time, though, Dudley needed to talk to them. So, he'd written the invitation himself and arranged for a private room. Finally, while he was on his umpteenth circuit of the room, the door opened.
For a minute, he thought his mum was going to walk out again. Then she patted his arm and smoothed down his hair, brushing it into place as she'd always done, and she gave him one of her special hugs. He wrapped his arms around her waist and wished that he was still shorter than her and could comfortably rest his head against her shoulder.
When she pulled back and patted her hair, her hand rose to grasp her shirt at the collar, and Dudley knew that his dad wasn't coming.
"Your daddy has a meeting," Petunia said. "Otherwise, he would have been here."
Dudley wasn't surprised, not really. He managed a strangled "Sit down?"
Sitting down in one of the armchairs, Dudley watched his mum place her handbag on the floor next to the sofa and straighten the cushions before sitting primly on the edge.
"There's tea." Dudley gestured at the teapot with its matching cups and saucers that he'd found on a top shelf in one of the kitchen cupboards. They sat on a tray with a plate of his mum's favourite digestives and caramel wafer biscuits. "I can—"
"I'll pour," Petunia interrupted him. She picked up each of the cups, wiped them out with one of the serviettes, and then lifted the lid of the teapot to examine its contents. At first, Dudley thought she was going to reject the tea. He knew he'd taken a chance, letting Sheila cast a Warming charm on it, but he'd wanted it to be drinkable no matter when his mum arrived.
"Acceptable," she said and began to pour.
Relief washed through Dudley, only to be replaced by worry as he realised that he was going to have to talk soon. He busied himself by taking a biscuit and placing it on the edge of his saucer.
"It won't do you any good if you fade away to nothing." Petunia spread a serviette out on the table in front of him and piled most of the biscuits onto it before taking a single digestive for herself.
"I'm hardly fading away." Dudley was rather proud of the fact that he'd lost weight and gained muscle with all the outside work he'd been doing, but he didn't bother mentioning it.
Petunia gave him one of her 'I'll be the judge of that' looks and added two more digestives to his serviette.
Putting down his cup and saucer before he dropped them, Dudley said, "Mum, I—" he swallowed and tried again, "I'm glad you came. I... I wanted to... to talk."
"Your father is getting a promotion." Petunia sipped her tea, rattling the cup slightly when she replaced it on the saucer. "He'll be an executive vice-president and take a seat on the Board."
"Oh... erm... yeah... that's great."
"There's a nice man at Grunnings who'll be taking your father's job. Arkley, I think he's called," Petunia said. "We're having him and his wife over for dinner next week."
He tried again. "Mum, I wanted to—"
"He does love you, Duddikins, but he's terribly disappointed. There's been no keeping this quiet at all. Your daddy almost didn't get his new job, and I've had to apologise to all of the neighbours, even Mrs Bucket, and you know how I feel about that woman. It's been very difficult for us. We were beginning to think we'd never live it down."
"I'm sorry," Dudley mumbled. "I didn't think about how my drinking and fighting would affect you. I didn't mean to cause you trouble."
"Well, least said, soonest mended, as your Aunt Marge used to say." Lips pursed, she gave a tiny shudder. "Goodness knows what she would have said about all of this. She'd have been so disappointed in her neffy-poo. We'd never have heard the end of it."
"I know it was hard for you, especially for Dad, with me working for Grunnings as well. I'm going to do my best to make it up to both of you."
Dudley thought his mum might cry, but she only blinked a few times and sniffed. "Your daddy has agreed to allow you to come home when you leave this place, and with his promotion, he'll be able to get you a proper job when this is all over. At a field office, mind you, but you'll have another chance to prove yourself." She put her barely-touched cup down on the table and grasped her collar again. "There will be rules, of course, because we can't have the neighbours worrying about you."
"Everything will be fine," she said, reaching out to pat the air over his knee. "I'll feed you properly. Perhaps introduce you to a nice woman who can—"
"No," Dudley blurted out, cutting her off. "I'm not moving home, and I'm," he took a deep breath, "not interested in meeting a nice woman."
"Oh." With a little jerk of her head and a tremulous wobble of her lips, Petunia picked up her handbag and began fussing with the clasp. "Well, this has been lovely, but I should really go. Your daddy's expecting his tea on the table when he gets home."
Three hours from now. Dudley was clenching his jaw so hard that his teeth hurt almost as much as the hole in his chest.
Clutching her bag, Petunia stood up. "You'll telephone me. During the day, while your daddy's at work."
After she'd put her coat on and there wasn't anything else left to do, Petunia kissed his cheek. "You were such a good boy," she said. "My sweet angel."
Dudley stood there as the door closed behind her, staring at his feet. "Love you too, Mummy," he whispered.
"Dean said you were looking for me."
It was Harry. Dudley didn't have to turn around from the sink to be sure. He did, however, stop peeling potatoes when his knife slipped and he almost sliced his finger open. "That was a couple of days ago," he said. When I was ready, he added silently. Before this morning when I saw Mum.
"Sorry. I got caught up in something at work." Harry perched on the counter next to where Dudley was standing, leaving his legs dangling. "You know how it is."
Dudley stabbed the knife into the partly peeled potato and then dropped them into the sink. He didn't know, not any longer, and he resented the hell out of Harry for throwing it in his face like that. From point-blank range, no less. Forcing himself to unclench his jaw, he said, "I have to get dinner ready."
"Want some help?"
"I'm almost done." Dudley picked up the potato and knife and got back to work, skinning the potato in long, curling strips. When he finished that one, he cut it into pieces and added them to the pot of salted water. He concentrated on ignoring Harry and the wobbly, hurt feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"What are you making?"
Heaving an enormous sigh, Harry jumped off the counter and landed on his feet. "I'll see you another day," he said, sounding disappointed. His steps were painfully slow, the soles of his shoes dragging over the linoleum.
Dragging over Dudley's last nerve. He tossed the knife back into the sink and turned around. "So that's it? You're just going to walk away?"
Harry stopped. He raked a hand through his hair and kept his back to Dudley. The long red coat he was wearing rippled with his movements. "For some strange reason, I got the impression you weren't interested in talking to me right now."
"What did you expect? Waltzing in here like that?" Dudley's hands were twitching with the urge to clench them; he gripped the edge of the sink behind him. "Did you think I'd just drop everything because you finally had time to talk to me?"
"I came as soon as I could." Pivoting on one heel, the bottom of his coat flaring around his ankles, Harry faced Dudley. "I've already apologised. What else do you want me to say?"
Annoyed with Harry and disgusted with how he was reacting, Dudley shook his head. Honestly, what was the point? Harry clearly didn't think Dudley was worth an explanation? He blew out a breath and said, "Never mind."
"Look, I'm here, all right? Why don't you tell me what was so important?"
"Just forget it. Forget that I've been trying to reach you for three days. Forget that I even sent one of your fucking owls. Obviously, you had better things to do." Dudley's voice caught in his throat. Horrified, he quickly added, "And, you know what? You're not the only one. So just fuck the hell right out of here and take that fucking piece of wood with you."
Harry glanced down, and his eyes widened. He clearly hadn't realised that he'd pulled his wand. "I didn't think... shit, I'm sorry." He shoved it into his coat so quickly that it took him two or three tries to get it right.
"I'm... I'm sorry, too. It's just not a good night. I need—" Dudley crossed his arms over his chest and hugged them close.
Step by slow step, Harry moved until he was only a couple of inches away. He looked as if he were gong to say something or make an attempt at comfort, and Dudley was stunned by how badly he wanted that. But then Harry put a hand over his heart, made an odd little bow, and backed away. "Why don't I go see if Dean needs help setting up for meeting?"
Then Harry was gone, leaving Dudley with nothing better to do than to peel the last potato and to think about how much he wished he wasn't a complete idiot.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Dudley spent the next three days wondering how things could have gone so horribly wrong. At night, his dreams kept mixing up the memory of Harry shaking his hand before they left Privet Drive and Harry holding him all the way through one of those tube trips.
It wasn't that he'd expected instant forgiveness, but he hadn't thought his mum — and possibly Harry — would reject him either.
On the fourth day, when Harry still hadn't shown back up at Barton, he decided that the only thing to do was to go to Harry. Which would have been easier if he'd known how to find him. He knew someone who did, though.
Squaring his shoulders, Dudley left his room, trudged down the stairs, and stuck his head in Dean's office. Dean was sitting cross-legged on the sofa, bent over a sketchpad. The pencil in his right hand moved in short, sharp lines.
Just as Dudley was thinking about leaving, Dean lifted the pencil off the paper and stretched. Dudley cleared his throat. "Got a sec?"
Dean tensed visibly. One hand went down to the sofa beside him and he shifted his entire body to look at the door. There was a moment of hesitation, then he smiled at Dudley and waved him in. "This is as good a time as any."
"Thanks." Dudley shoved his hands in his pockets and grasped his nine-month chip. He ran his thumb over the raised surface. After a few seconds of thinking, he used one foot to shut the door behind him.
"What can I do for you?" Dean prompted him.
"I need—" Digging his thumbnail into the chip, Dudley reminded himself of why he was there. "Harry. I have to find him."
"The owl post should be here soon. You've got time to write a letter if you want."
"No!" The denial burst out of Dudley. He shook his head and said, as calmly as he could, "I have to go and see him."
Dean's scrutiny made Dudley squeeze his chip until his hand hurt, but he did his best not to flinch or look away. Finally, Dean's gaze became less intense. "All right. You know you'll have to go into our world?"
A shiver went down Dudley's spine. Diagon Alley had been an eye-opener — colourful and fascinating, and so full of magic that he'd been able to feel it. He'd been completely out of place. "Today," he said, proud that his voice had stayed steady.
"I'll need about an hour to sort some things out."
"Th... thanks." Feeling as if he'd run a marathon, Dudley fumbled his way to a chair and collapsed into it.
Tossing the remote control at him, Dean said, "Wait here. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Dudley slumped down in his chair and turned the telly on. He clicked from channel to channel, not really watching anything, simply losing himself in the normality of it all.
The skip was overflowing, and the telephone box next to it was manky. Dudley sucked in a breath and held onto it as long as he could, not wanting to breathe in the stench.
"It's right in here," Dean said, opening the door of the telephone box and stepping inside.
Dudley was so surprised that he followed Dean inside without protest. This telephone box beat anything he'd ever imagined. What kind of people put the entrance to their government in a place like this?
A female voice, loud and close, startled Dudley out of his thoughts. "Welcome to the Ministry of Magic. Please state your name and business."
While he stood there, befuddled, Dean announced them and obtained badges that he pinned to each of them. Then the bottom of the box dropped out, and Dudley clutched at Dean as they fell. Slowly, as if the box were a lift.
"The Ministry of Magic wishes you a pleasant day," said the same woman, and the telephone box door opened onto a long hallway, filled with people moving in and out of fireplaces.
Doing his best not to stare — he didn't want to be cursed for being rude — Dudley followed Dean down the hall to a wide open space with a fountain at the centre. A fountain with statues of weird creatures, a witch, and a wizard who looked an awful lot like Harry.
Just before a set of golden gates, Dean detoured to the left where a security guard in bright blue robes sat at a desk. The line was far too short for Dudley's comfort. He'd only just decided that he really didn't need to speak to Harry, when Dean was introducing them to the guard and an elderly witch with blue hair started waving a car aerial at Dudley.
"You brought a Muggle?" The security guard stared at Dudley as if he were an animal in a zoo. "To see 'Arry Potter?"
"He's clean," the witch said, sounding disappointed. "Nothing to keep him on."
"We'll be off then." Dean grabbed Dudley's arm and began pulling him towards the gates.
By the time they made it into a lift, Dudley couldn't have said anything if he'd had to. Broomsticks! With footrests! Scaly birds! A crying kettle! And those ruddy paper aeroplanes that never stopped flying over his head.
"Come on. This is us."
Dudley stared at Dean, his mouth hanging open, until Dean grabbed his arm again and hauled him out of the lift and into a corridor lit with bright sun that should have been impossible underground.
But that was nothing compared the room behind a sign that read Auror Headquarters. The paper aeroplanes flew faster. People in pictures didn't stop moving. Feathers made words appear on sheets of paper without anyone holding them. And all sorts of people, some in red coats like Harry's and others wearing even stranger clothes, glared at him as he and Dean walked past. A few greeted Dean like an old friend, and Dudley was grateful that he didn't stop to talk.
Their journey ended at a cubicle with Harry's name inscribed on a gold nameplate. Dudley huddled close to Dean, fighting the urge to glance over his shoulder and make sure the other people were staying put.
Harry sat behind the desk with his head resting on his left hand, twirling his wand. Tiny, silver balls danced in a complicated pattern above it.
"Hullo, Harry," Dean said.
Most of the balls thudded onto the wooden surface of the desk. One skidded across an overflowing in-basket, sending paper flying.
"Damn it." Harry flicked his wand. The papers returned to the basket, and the balls put themselves away in a box. When they were sorted, Harry placed his wand in a holder off to one side. "Hullo, Dean. Dudley?" His shock was apparent.
Dean slid out from in front of Dudley and pushed him into the cubicle. "He needs to talk to you. I'm going to catch up with Seamus and Ron." And then Dean left them alone.
"Huh... hi." Dudley swiped a hand over his forehead, wondering why the hell he'd thought coming to see Harry was a good idea.
"Hi." A smile spread across Harry's face, and Dudley stopped worrying. At Harry's invitation, he sat down.
The chair rippled underneath him and began changing shape. Dudley squawked and jumped to his feet, jerking sideways when the chair reached for him.
"It's all right." Harry's voice was gentle, reassuring. "The chair's just trying to make you comfortable. It won't hurt you."
"Uh," Dudley managed.
"Sit back down and let the chair do its thing. It's brilliant."
Dudley perched gingerly on the very edge, but apparently that wasn't good enough for the chair. It slid forward, the back spreading and growing, the seat and arms adjusting until they were at the perfect height. He tried to sit up, but the chair was too damn comfortable.
"Great, aren't they?"
"Uh, yeah." Dudley gripped the arms of his chair to prevent himself from getting up again and, before he could lose any more of his nerve, said, "I'm sorry. For everything. When we were kids. The other day. The whole lot of it."
"Hold on while I turn on the Privacy Charms." Tapping his wand on a metal pyramid, Harry said, "Disturb for level four calls only." The pyramid chimed. A warm yellow light emerged from its tip and spread out, covering the cubicle with a shimmering, opaque dome.
"That's better." Harry relaxed into his chair and gave Dudley a grin filled with mischief. "There have to be advantages to being Deputy Head Auror, yeah?"
Dudley tried to return the grin. "Whatever one of those is when it's at home."
"Sort of like a police officer." Harry shrugged. "But that's got nothing to do with why you're here, does it?"
The silence stretched between them, and Dudley once again felt stupid for thinking that talking to Harry in his world might be a good idea.
"Do you want to go somewhere else?" Harry asked. "We could go get a Butterbeer or some ice cream?"
Dudley's stomach rolled over at the thought of food, and he swallowed down the sour taste in his mouth. "This is fine. I just... I wanted to say that I was sorry. Find out if there's any way I can—" he grasped for words, saying the first that came to mind "—make amends."
"You don't have to do that."
"I do. For me, that is." Remembering the words of the step, he said, "Unless... unless that would just make it worse. For you."
Harry shook his head. Dudley took that as encouragement and shifted until the chair allowed him to get the piece of paper out of his back pocket. He unfolded it and placed it on the desk. "It's a list... on both sides. Of everything I could remember. There might be more, but—" He shoved it towards Harry.
"It's not a letter," Dudley said as Harry stared down at the list without saying a word. "I didn't know how to... to make it... Well, not right, but that amends thing."
"I... thanks." Harry cleared his throat and blinked a few times. "This means a lot. I know how hard these things are to do."
"I'm starting to understand why we have to do it, though." Dudley smoothed his hands over the dents he'd made in the soft material of the chair arms. "I didn't mean to yell at you the other day," he said. "I'd just talked to Mum that afternoon. It didn't go well."
"Yeah. Me too. I don't know what I expected, but I needed to tell her the truth as well as everything else. She didn't want to hear any of it."
"Your mum likes to pretend the things that make her uncomfortable don't exist."
"Like your magic." Dudley took a deep breath. "And me not being interested in women."
Harry looked taken aback, but then he gave Dudley a slow, thoughtful smile. "I like to think that my mum would have been happy with whoever I chose, even it was a man."
"Oh." Dudley thought about what he said for a second and then it sank in. Harry was queer as well. And he was waiting for Dudley to say something. "I heard about it, you know. How much she loved you. It's hard to think that she wouldn't. No matter who you took home."
"Yeah." Harry breathed out the word, looking as if Dudley had given him a gift.
There was silence again. Less awkward than before, but Dudley found himself checking the pyramid, which had developed red flickers, and wishing that a level four would happen — whatever that was. He licked his lips and said, "I should let you get back to work."
Harry gave the pyramid a rueful glance. "Probably yeah."
The chair let Dudley stand up without a protest. When Harry came around the desk, Dudley held out his hand. "Thanks."
They shook hands for the second time. It felt different though. Harry's hand wasn't as small. Their grips were a bit tighter, they held on a bit longer, and Harry just looked at him until Dudley thought he could drown in those green eyes.
"Hey," Harry said.
Harry pulled away, releasing his hand, and Dudley had the sinking feeling that he'd just missed something important.
"Let me take the charms down, and we can go find Dean." Harry hesitated, holding his wand above the pyramid and looked at Dudley through his fringe. "You want to go to dinner? Tomorrow night, maybe?"
"Yeah." Relief cascaded through Dudley only to evaporate when he remembered. "I've got curfew, though."
"We could go early. Maybe to that Chinese restaurant down the street?"
"Yeah." Dudley smiled. "We could do that."
His wand still hovering over the pyramid, Harry, said, "It was sleeping potions for me. I took them for years, trying to stave off the nightmares and stuff. Even after we won the war, it was still one thing after another. Funerals and speeches. Telling my girlfriend why it wouldn't work out between us. I couldn't seem to sleep without help."
Dudley had a strange desire to comfort Harry, but no idea how to go about doing it, so he said, "Sounds like enough to keep anyone awake nights."
"It was. Except that eventually it was all over, and I didn't stop taking them."
"Until you did," Dudley reminded him, sure for the first time that he'd done the right thing in going to find Harry.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the higher power, praying only for knowledge of the higher power's will for us and the power to carry that out.
"Prayer and meditation." Dudley snorted. "Not bloody likely." He gave the church across the street a two-fingered salute for luck, as he'd done every week since he'd noticed it was there, before walking through the doors into the Probation Trust offices.
Pritha was wearing a purple jumper and had changed the polish on her nails to match. Her laptop was closed, and she was looking through a familiar yellow folder. "I've had an enquiry that I'd like to discuss with you."
"An enquiry?" Dudley asked, his heart thumping a little harder than normal. Then she smiled at him, and he really began to worry. "Everything all right?"
"I was told that you entered a park near where you grew up into the Community Payback programme."
"Erm... yeah. Magnolia Road Park's a mess. The kids around there deserve better than that."
"We sent a team out to the park this week. Some of the neighbours appreciated their work so much that they've applied to have their local school added to the list."
"And that leads me to the enquiry."
Dudley nodded again.
"The Magnolia Road Primary School is putting on an anti-bullying programme. The head teacher wrote to ask if we would be interested in taking part. My supervisor believes this is a great opportunity and has asked me to organise a panel that includes Offender Managers and offenders." She arched an eyebrow at him. "Would you be willing to participate?"
"Me?" Dudley gaped at her.
"Are you interested?"
"Erm... yeah." Dudley scrubbed his sweaty palms on his jeans. "I'm rubbish at talking, but I'll give it a try."
"Good." Pritha closed the folder and opened her laptop. "Now that's sorted, I wanted to talk to you about career options after you've completed your Community Payback hours."
"Gardening," Dudley said. "If that's a career, I mean. I don't want to go back to what I was doing before."
She gave him a smile and said, "Gardening can definitely become a career with the right training."
"Can I do that, then?"
The rest of Dudley's session went quickly. They discussed garden design and maintenance, the places where he was allowed to live when his year was up and he could leave Barton, and what rules he had to follow when he was out on his own. Pritha also set up an appointment for him to talk with a career counsellor.
He was feeling almost happy when he left the offices. As if maybe, just maybe, he might make it out the other end of things in a better place than he'd ever been.
Back at Barton, Dudley went directly to the kitchen. He was staring at the shelves in the fridge, trying to decide whether he wanted to eat something before dinner, when the back door opened and Dean and Harry came in.
"Not much in there," Dean said, reaching past Dudley to grab a couple of cans of fizzy orange. "Shopping day tomorrow."
"Fish and chips tonight," Harry and Dudley chorused and then grinned at each other.
Dudley picked a can of Lilt Zero, pineapple and grapefruit flavour, for himself and shut the fridge. He fiddled with the tab while Harry and Dean talked.
Eventually, Harry put his hand on top of Dudley's. "You could just tell us instead of driving us up the wall with that incessant clicking."
"I'm almost done with Community Payback," he said, opening his can and taking a sip.
"And?" Dean prompted him.
"And Pritha thinks I'll be able to get into a good gardening school with the recommendation that my supervisor's offered to give me."
"That's brilliant," Dean said.
Harry raised his can in a toast. "This definitely deserves a celebration."
"There's more." Feeling self-conscious with both of them focussed on him, especially Harry, Dudley clicked the tab once more. "Pritha asked me to take part in a panel on bullying." His face flushing, he looked directly into Harry's eyes. "At our old primary school."
"You'll be great." Harry gave Dudley a smile that seemed to warm him right through.
"Well," Dean said, standing up and making a loud noise with his chair, "I should go get everyone's orders for dinner tonight."
"I'll have—" Dudley hesitated when Harry shook his head.
"We're going out for dinner," Harry said.
Dudley's happiness lasted only a few seconds. "I can't. It's nearly half-past seven. There isn't enough time to eat and get back before curfew."
"I think you're entitled to a pass for this," Dean said. "Just be back by eleven."
"All right!" Dudley's grin felt like it would split his face. "Thank you!"
"Thanks, Dean. I owe you one." Harry gave Dean a one-armed hug.
"Don't worry, I'm not keeping count." Dean snickered.
Harry said something back to Dean that Dudley missed completely in the rushing of blood through his ears.
"I'll just go and get showered." He hurried out the door, wanting to get out of there before anyone noticed his sudden bout of nerves and shaking hands.
As he got ready, he kept telling himself that it was just a friend taking another friend out to celebrate good news. He still dithered over what to wear, a decision made more difficult by the fact that almost none of his clothes fit anymore.
Finally, he settled on his favourite shirt and a pair of old jeans that had been too tight before he stopped drinking and started gardening. They were now too loose but not horribly so.
Harry was waiting in the foyer. He'd changed as well, into a pair of black trousers and a green shirt. Dudley couldn't help giving him a quick once-over and noticing how great Harry looked when he wasn't wearing his Auror uniform.
Giving him a smile, Harry held out his hand. Not for a handshake, but for Dudley to take it. When he did, Harry said, "I want to take you into my world. A town named Hogsmeade near where I went to school. It's all Wizarding, not just a bit of it squeezed in the middle of London like Diagon Alley."
Remembering the craziness in the Ministry, Dudley swallowed and nodded. "All right."
Tension seemed to seep out of Harry, and he squeezed Dudley's hand. "I'll need to cast a spell on you, so that you can see the place. It's got protections to stop Muggles from accidentally stumbling over it. "
"Are you sure..." Dudley trailed off, not wanting to suggest that he wasn't safe with Harry. Because he didn't have any doubts about that.
"All right then. Let's go."
Dudley had never seen Harry smile like that, hadn't known that he could look so happy. He grinned back, holding onto Harry as he was squeezed into a tube that seemed even longer than usual and then spat out into the open air in front of a pile of rubble. An abandoned building with boarded up windows was barely visible in the distance.
"One sec," Harry said. He let Dudley go and pointed his wand at him.
Wracked by shivers — from the cold wind! — Dudley did his best to stand still while Harry mumbled words that made no sense. A rush of warmth went through him. He blinked as the world around him wavered. Then he was standing at the end of a street lit by bright globes that hovered in the air and lined with shops, houses, and restaurants. He could hear people laughing and smell wonderful food.
"Welcome to Hogsmeade." Harry had a silly, lopsided grin on his face.
"I thought you'd wet your pants when I aimed my wand at you."
"I haven't had much luck being at the other end of them." Dudley regretted opening his mouth when Harry's happiness visibly faded. He nudged Harry and said, "But that was your wand, not some stranger's."
Harry brightened again. "I guess you trust me, then."
"I guess I do. It's not like I let just anyone squeeze me into tubes."
"Prat." Harry backhanded Dudley across the stomach, not quite hard enough to hurt, and then cradled his hand. "Ow... fuck. Where did you get those muscles?"
"Gardening." Dudley laughed and reached out, intending to give him a gentle punch, and found himself with an arm full of a snickering Harry.
"Hi," Harry said.
"My hand hurts." Harry held it up. "I think you need to do something about it."
"Oh yeah?" Something fluttered inside Dudley, and he tightened his arms around Harry.
"Yeah." Harry tugged Dudley's head down, and their lips met.
Aware of his strength, of the few girls and occasional boy who'd told him he was too rough, Dudley kept the kiss soft and gentle. Until Harry bit Dudley's bottom lip and silenced Dudley's objection with a thrust of his tongue into Dudley's mouth. This time it was Dudley who gave up control, who was kissed roughly, almost viciously. He was more turned on than he'd ever been in his life, by Harry's mouth and hands, by the way his cock was pressed between their bodies and how Harry was rutting against Dudley's thigh.
The yell caused them to stop kissing, although Harry wouldn't let Dudley go or allow him to back away. He looked over to see three men and a woman watching them.
"The Three Broomsticks has rooms if you can't wait until you get home, Potter," one of the men called out.
"Yeah, yeah," Harry said. "Get a life, Macmillan, because you can't have mine."
Your life? Dudley wanted to ask, but found he didn't really want to know the answer. Instead he stayed silent and let Harry handle them.
The question took Dudley by surprise. Harry's friends were gone, and Harry was smiling at him again. "I could eat," he said, and his stomach growled.
"I can tell." Harry laughed, catching Dudley's hand as he moved away.
They walked slowly down the street. Harry told Dudley stories as they passed the closed shops until they stood in front of a building with a wooden sign with three broomsticks on it hanging out front.
"It's a pub on one side and a restaurant on the other," Harry said, before Dudley could ask. "We're just going to go to the restaurant. It'll be fine."
Despite everything, Dudley hesitated. "You promise the food won't make my tongue swell, or give me a tail, or—"
"Not tonight, I promise." Harry smirked at him. "Don't you trust me?"
"With spells, yes, but this is food."
"And good food at that."
"Come on, then. What are we waiting for?" Dudley took a step forward and yanked on Harry's hand. They entered the restaurant together, and Dudley did his best to enjoy himself and forget that magic still regularly terrified him.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
"We should have a party," Harry suggested. "Invite our friends and family over."
Dudley looked dubiously around the one-room flat that he'd called home the past couple of years. "They might all fit."
"We could have it at mine. It's more than big enough."
"Yeah, I suppose." Dudley scowled at the look on Harry's face. He didn't want to have another argument about why he wouldn't move in with Harry before he could pay his own share.
Harry nudged Dudley, giving him one of those looks from under his fringe, and Dudley relaxed.
"What about holding it at a restaurant then?" Harry asked. "Rosmerta would be happy to reserve the dining room at The Three Broomsticks for us."
"Make it difficult to invite my parents." A stupid objection, and Dudley knew it the minute the words were out. His parents wouldn't accept an invitation from him for anything in the world, and not just because he was with Harry.
"Arabella, too," Harry said, nudging him again. "Not to mention Gordon."
And that was the end of that conversation. Talking about Gordon always shut things down for a bit, because Harry hated talking about Dudley's old gang, and Dudley didn't like to think about how all but one of them had turned their backs on him.
They were quiet for a while. Harry picked up his copy of The Quibbler, and stretched out over the sofa, resting his stocking feet on Dudley's thigh. Dudley went back to the football scores. He was trying to work out if there'd be a match worth watching on the telly when Harry rustled his paper.
"We have to do something, though."
Dudley wanted to say no, but he couldn't turn down Harry. Not when he had that look on his face. Besides, having all three years of his Community Order done and dusted was worth something. He could hardly believe it, even though it had been more than a week since his last session at the Probation Trust offices. "Meeting tonight, though."
"That's the answer." Harry grinned at him and poked him in the thigh with his toes.
"Barton," Harry said. "They'd all be welcome there."
"Would be more than willing, and you know it."
Dudley was still dubious, but he knew better than to object again. So, he tossed the scores on the side table and caught Harry's feet before he could poke him again. Then, just for good measure, he changed the subject. "Speaking of Dean, he called earlier. Wants to introduce me to someone at tonight's meeting."
"It's the sister of a Muggleborn," Dudley said. "She's having a hard time finding a sponsor, and he thought I might be just the ticket."
"You're going to do it?"
"Probably, yeah. If we hit it off."
"Good." Harry wriggled until he was more lying down than sitting up and then batted at Dudley's hand with one of his feet.
"Spoiled brat," Dudley said, more automatically than anything else.
"Takes one to know one," Harry replied, as he always did.
They stayed like for that a while. Harry reading some of the stranger stories in The Quibbler out loud, and Dudley rubbing his feet. Until Dudley's stomach decided it had had enough and announced that it was time for tea.
"Indian?" Harry asked, a hopeful note in his voice.
"That one with the decent chicken tikka," Dudley agreed, knowing that Harry would remember the name.
After Harry got up, Dudley sat there for a few seconds and stared down at his hands. He clenched them into fists and then relaxed them again. Some days, he hardly remembered what it had felt like to hurt people, to hurt Harry. He didn't think it was safe to forget though.
"You coming?" Harry stood there, already dressed for outside, holding out Dudley's jacket.
"Yeah," Dudley said. As he stood up, he slipped a hand into his pocket and rubbed his thumb over the three-year coin that he'd received the night before.
Smiling, he grabbed Harry around the waist, pulling him in for a kiss, instead of taking his jacket. When Harry tilted his head in inquiry, Dudley stroked a thumb over his jaw and said, "Just because."
"Me too," Harry said as they walked out the door and he reached for Dudley's hand.
Maybe for his fourth, Dudley thought, when he was sure he could make it without having a Community Order to keep him on the not-so-straight-and-narrow, he'd agree to move in with Harry.