The Wizarding War was the first time in his life Dudley felt powerless.
As a child, he could send his parents scurrying with a few screams. His teachers were afraid of his mother’s shrieks, the neighbours were afraid of Vernon Dursley’s influence, and the kids were afraid of his fists.
The kids, of course, including his cousin.
But after the Dementors, Dudley realized that his power wasn’t enough to make people like him. And it wasn’t enough now to drown out the voices he’d heard, the voices he could hear so much more clearly now—the ones that said he was slow and clumsy and cruel and stupid, and wouldn’t be worth much once he was alone in the world.
Dudley was lucky during the war. He wasn’t alone; his mother and father were there, and Hestia and Dedalus were there too. They got some snippets of news, terrible as it was, but they were far away from it in that little cabin in Wales.
They were too far away.
Dudley hated the terrible wizard (couldn’t say his name, couldn’t say his name even though he knew it, heard his cousin screaming it in his sleep), hated that he used his power on defenceless Muggles. It wasn’t fair; just like the giant giving him a tail as a child hadn’t been fair. The Muggles had no chance; they didn’t even know what they were facing. They didn’t know what to be scared of.
And Dudley knew then the depth of his own hypocrisy.
He’d bullied and cheated and lied his way through life, letting his parents spoil him, letting himself indulge in whatever he wanted. And now he was being hidden by his cousin’s friends because You-Know-Who might come after them.
Might. They were his blood relatives, the people he’d lived with for so many years, and no one was quite certain that the Death Eaters would think to use them as leverage.
That was terrible. And it was partly Dudley’s fault.
He tried to talk to his parents about it, but his father spent most of those months drinking and staring at the telly mindlessly. When Dudley tried to bring up his fears, his worries, his father would shake his head.
“You’re a fine lad, Dudders,” he slurred. “Better’n any of these freaks.”
Once Dudley would have believed him. Now the words felt like a well-executed series of punches to the gut.
His mother wasn’t much help either. She was thinner now, nearly skeletal, and spent her day wandering the house, trying to clean things again and again, no matter how many times Hestia offered to do it by magic. “Dudley, this isn’t our world. This isn’t our fight. Your cousin had no right to get us involved.”
“We’re his family!” Dudley shouted back one day. “We should be involved.”
He recoiled a second later from his mother’s scream. “We are not his family! My sister made that choice long ago, and now we are suffering because of him!”
Stunned, Dudley went upstairs and locked his bedroom door. That wasn’t right, a voice inside him insisted. Something was wrong.
Dudley stopped bringing up his questions with his parents, but he worked it out on his own as best he could. He even asked Hestia if she could help him. Dudley felt horrible as he choked out what he was, what he’d done, but she listened.
“You need some serious help,” was what she said. “You poor, poor child.”
Hestia had been studying to be a mind Healer—Dudley thought it must be like being a psychologist—and even though she wasn’t fully trained she helped him through some of his problems. They stole moments together late at night and early morning, talking about the problems indulgence causes, the identity crisis that can happen once someone realizes their behaviour has been wrong, and the difficulty of pulling away from toxic behaviour when it is endorsed at home.
Then the war was over—Hestia cried and told him about all the people who were now dead, but not Harry, not Harry, and Dudley was so grateful he almost cried—and they could go home. But Dudley didn’t go with them.
“I’m finished with school,” he told them. “I want to go away for a while.”
His parents let him, still too hurt themselves to really notice his struggles. Dudley moved to Manchester alone. They gave him a small allowance, and that was enough for a small flat. Dudley got a job as a janitor at the news building, and cleaned without complaint. He’d never done it before, but to his surprise it turned out to be interesting and even easy. It brought him a lot of pride to see the clean rooms, and soon he started making friends in the building. Well, friends was perhaps a strong word; he was friendly with some of the people who worked in the newsroom, because he always came and cleaned, no matter what the mess was.
One lady was always nice to him. Her name was Iris. She was a film critic, and she was frightened of him at first. He could see the fear in her face and shoulders. He used to enjoy those signs. Now it made him sad.
That was fixed his second week, when he went to get more supplies from the closet and found Iris struggling with Paula Murt, her boss.
His boxing training got the older woman away from Iris long enough for her to call the police. Iris was Paula’s latest victim, and her other office mates rallied around her, giving testimony to years of sexual and physical abuse. Dudley wished he could have helped sooner, or that he’d hit the woman harder.
From that point on, everyone in that office was kind to Dudley. They chatted with him when he came in, started being more careful about messes, and they told him all about their lives. Pretty soon Dudley knew almost everything about everyone. “You’re good at keeping secrets,” Iris explained, now the head writer in that division. “That’s why we trust you.”
Of course he was good at keeping secrets. He didn’t have anyone to talk to outside of work.
Besides Iris, his favourite person in the office was Beth. Beth was the food critic, she had three sons and a cheerful husband, and she wasn’t scared of Dudley. She was a boxer too, and they’d done a few training sessions together. Afterwards, they would go out to eat. Beth would ask him how he liked the food, and Dudley (who’d kept losing weight and now tried to eat only good food) would give her his opinion. Apparently he was funny, because Beth would laugh.
“You should try writing for the paper,” Beth urged him.
Dudley shook his head. “I’m no good.”
“Oh, go on.”
“I mean it. I’m not good at writing.”
Beth didn’t believe him, but that didn’t matter in the end. The next week all three of her children fell ill, and she had to stay home from work. When she called in, Iris waved Dudley over.
“Beth says you’d be a good replacement. What do you think?”
“I think I don’t write very well.”
“Are you dyslexic?”
“No, I can read.” Dudley bowed his head. “I’ve just always had a hard time writing. It’s not my hands.”
“Show me, please.”
Dudley couldn’t refuse.
Iris looked at his scrawled gibberish. “I think you might have dysgraphia. It’s a problem with writing.”
“What do I do about it?”
“I’m not sure about what you would do as an adult; that probably should have been caught when you were young. I’ll make some calls, alright? See what I can do. In the meantime, can you read your writing?”
“Why don’t you go out then and take notes. When you get back, I may have a solution.”
Dudley returned from the new seafood restaurant having just barely escaped food poisoning. “I want to write about those idiots.” He showed Iris the dozen or so pages of scribbles.
“You can,” Iris replied. She indicated a short man. “This is Leo. He’s an editor, he can transcribe what you’re saying.”
Leo was new to the building, dressed all in blue, and he had the biggest brown eyes Dudley had ever seen. They spent an afternoon going through Dudley’s impressions: “décor like an old antique shop”—“fish on the wrong side of raw”—“my server was the only bright spot; she noticed the mold on the sauce before I did”. Dudley wanted to publish under Beth’s byline, but Leo insisted they make their own. They finally agreed on Lee Durley.
When Beth returned to work, she was delighted to see that Dudley had been hired as a food critic. From then on, Lee Durley appeared every other day, usually covering the extreme restaurants; the cheap, the expensive, the awful, the exquisite (not always at the same time). Leo and Dudley would go out together and eat. They only ate at places once, hence the column name ‘One Time Review’. Beth went to the restaurants a few times to compare, and that created a playful dialogue between the columns that people loved.
It wasn’t long before Dudley and Leo were going out on nights when they had no column to write, just to spend time together. Other nights they would go to Leo’s (much nicer) apartment and Leo would encourage Dudley through writing exercises. After four months of this Dudley managed to write a review entirely on his own by hand, and he’d learn proper shorthand. Ecstatic, Leo kissed him.
And for the first time in years—maybe the first time ever—Dudley was happy.
He was trembling as he tried to decide whether or not to call his parents. He remembered another time that had set him trembling this badly.
“Who’s Cedric, your boyfriend?”
And he’d prayed in the split second before Harry answered that he wasn’t, because Harry was a freak and Harry was wrong and if he liked boys, that meant it was a freak thing to do. And Dudley might have done many things but he’d never hurt someone for being queer. He wasn’t sure what his parents would do. Particularly since it turned out he wasn’t gay at all, because before Leo there’d been a brief fling with Jessica from the finance column that he'd greatly enjoyed. Leo had just gotten top surgery the year before, and he’d told Dudley that he was still willing to bear children. So he was…poly? Pan? He wasn’t sure how to say it right, to say that he understood that there were more than two genders and he liked more than two genders. He just loved Leo.
But his parents surprised him. “Bring him down to meet us,” his mother squealed, and his father said only, “I’m glad you’ve found someone.”
The next few years were cheerful ones. Dudley and Leo got hired full-time to write their column, and apart from occasional experiences with food poisoning (and one memorable day when a restaurant caught fire), it was a pleasant experience. Dudley and Leo moved into a flat together, and they had a decent life.
And then Leo had to make a decision.
“I want to have your baby,” he told Dudley. “And I better do it now, before I start too many hormone treatments.”
Dudley was terrified. A child? Could he do that? The way he’d been raised, he knew next to nothing about parenting. It wasn’t about giving kids what they wanted at all times, it was about raising them, teaching them to be good, all of those things.
But Leo had his heart set on it, and Iris encouraged them, and Dudley agreed. They would try for a child.
Leo became pregnant almost immediately, and the next nine months were hard on both of them. Dudley was frantic, trying to find every book he could and read them as quick as possible, ad he was trying to protect his partner from being attacked.
“I don’t mind them misgendering me,” Leo said through tears one night, a hand on his pregnant belly. “God knows it’s weird to see a pregnant man. But I just…I just want my baby, why do I have to go back to being Rachel to do that?”
Dudley held his hands and took care of him and wrote most of their columns on his own. Leo learned to make concessions; he let his hair grow out again (and after the baby was born, he kept it almost to his shoulders) and wore more ‘feminine clothes’, though he drew the line at dresses. After the first few miserable months of morning sickness, he joined Dudley for some of their reviews. They were actually in a restaurant when Leo’s water broke.
He laboured for twelve hours, and he had to check in as Rachel and Dudley was told to ‘support your girlfriend’. But neither of them minded, because at the end of twelve hours they were together as partners, Leo and Dudley, as they held their baby daughter.
She was named for her godmothers, Iris Elizabeth Dursley. Her grandparents squealed over her, but Dudley took them aside and said something quietly.
“I don’t know if she’s magic. She might be. If she is, you better not turn your backs on her, or you will lose contact with all of us.”
Shaken, his parents nodded. Dudley wasn’t sure if they would actually behave, but he intended to stick to his guns no matter what.
A few days later, Dudley and Leo had their first picture taken of them above their column, with Iris in Leo’s arms. They’d never revealed their real names, and it was a big step for Leo to come out that way, but he insisted he was okay with it. “The more visibility, the better for young kids who don’t feel right in their own skin.”
The photo brought in loads of mail, a lot of it pleasant, some of it so nasty that Iris (the Elder, which is what Leo called her) got the police after the senders, and one letter Dudley had never thought he would see.
It was the last letter of the day, and Dudley was sitting with Iris in a sling, and he read it with utter shock.
Dear Big D,
Congratulations on your partner and your baby! She looks very sweet, she really takes after her fathers. I’m happy to see that you’ve made a life for yourself, outside of our old house. That must have taken a lot of effort, and I hope you feel satisfied.
I’ve wondered where you were for a while now; I didn’t want to contact your parents, and I couldn’t find any record of you in Surrey. I’d be happy to come to Manchester; I don’t to make you travel with an infant, I know how hard that is. If you don’t want to see me, that’s fine, but I thought I’d better take this chance to write.
The return address on the letter was a postal box in London. Dudley waited until Leo woke up the next morning, and they talked about what they should do. Leo didn’t know about the magical world, but he knew the rest of the story.
“It doesn’t sound like your cousin is really asking for anything,” Leo said carefully. “I think he just wants to see you. But hasn’t he heard of Facebook?”
“I don’t think he’s the type for that,” Dudley said carefully. He really wasn’t quite sure how much to say. “I would like to see him. We have unfinished business.”
Leo caught his wrist as he tried to rise. “Dudley, just remember that this is your life now. You’ve done a hard job of reinventing yourself. I don’t want your cousin to trigger you into going back.”
“I’d rather die than be what I once was,” Dudley said. “Because I wouldn’t be worthy of you or Iris.” And he meant it. He hated the person he’d once been, and though he knew parts of it were because of his parents, a lot of it fell on his shoulders.
I think it would be nice to reconnect. Do you have access to a phone? My number is on the back of this, and you can call and arrange a time. If you can’t phone, write me back straight away.
Harry called two days later. “Hello, Dudley.”
“Harry.” Dudley fumbled for words; what should he say? What do you say when you have history like theirs?
He heard a baby’s cry from the other end. “You have a child?”
“I have three.” Harry sounded tired, but very proud. “Lily’s my baby, and I have two sons, James and Al.”
“That’s nice. Leo and I are just going to have Iris.”
“How is she?”
“She’s…incredible. Babies are so small.” Dudley blushed. Obviously babies are small.
But Harry just said, “I know. You’d think after having almost a dozen nieces and nephews and three kids of my own I’d get used to it, but…they’re so small.”
Dudley wasn’t quite sure what to say next.
“Would it be okay if we had a visit?” Harry asked. “I’ve rather gotten out of the habit of using a phone.”
“Sure. I still have some time off, I could come down…do you live in London?”
“Yes, but I can come up. It’s free for me to travel, right?”
Dudley lowered his voice. “You mean the…the Disapparating thing?”
“Yes, exactly. When are you free?”
“I can take Iris to the park tomorrow afternoon. We could meet there.”
And with some directions and a final, awkward goodbye, Dudley ended the first conversation with his cousin in eleven years.
He showed up a couple of minutes late the next day, pushing Iris in her pram. Harry was sitting on a bench. He was wearing a Tshirt and jeans, ones that actually fit him, and he had a few lines around his eyes but nothing major. Dudley couldn’t think what the major difference was, until he realized that Harry looked happy. He’d never seen his cousin look that way.
They shook hands and Dudley joined him on the bench, lifting Iris out of her pram. Harry cooed at the baby. “She’s even more lovely in person.”
“What do your family look like?”
“That’s right, you’ve never met Ginny. I forgot.” Harry pulled a picture from his pocket of a red haired woman with a small redhead boy and a dark haired boy on her lap. Harry sat next to her in the picture, cuddling a baby with masses of red hair. The picture moved, and Dudley watched fascinated as the little family played together.
“They’re beautiful, Harry,” he muttered.
“I know they are.” Harry smiled at his family before he put the picture away. “So…food critic? What’s that like?”
“It’s nice. Better when the food isn’t terrible, but in some ways that makes the writing more fun.”
Harry laughed. “I know. I went and dug up the rest of the columns once I realized it was you and your partner. You write well.”
“Leo taught me. Apparently I actually have a condition that makes it hard to write.”
“Should have caught it ages ago.” People would have, if his dad’s money and mum’s voice hadn’t kept forcing the teachers to move him along, if they hadn’t insisted nothing was wrong with him…
“They fucked us up, didn’t they?”
Harry’s bluntness startled Dudley into honesty. “Yes, they did. I love them, though. They thought they were doing what’s best.”
“No,” Harry corrected him gently. “They knew what they were doing what’s best. They wouldn’t listen to anyone, because you were theirs, and they knew best.”
Dudley couldn’t bring himself to defend his parents to the cousin who’d lived under his stairs, who’d worn his castoffs. “I had their love, at least. I think you had it worse.”
“I don’t think so,” Harry said. “Looking back now, I really don’t. But that’s coming from my end.”
Dudley just nodded. He stood up. “I can’t stay long,” he blurted, and really, he couldn’t. “Leo and I need to work on a quick column. But if you want, we could walk back together, it’s not far.”
Harry smiled. “I’d like that.”
And so began an awkward relationship. Dudley never quite lost his suspicion of wizards and magic, and the looks he got from some of Harry’s family made him suspect he was right to be cautious. Besides, he and his cousin had built separate lives, and with everything in their past it was probably for the best that they kept it that way.
But every Christmas Harry sent cards of cash for him and Leo and toys for Iris, and Dudley sent the same. They kept in touch on the phone once a month, and finally grew comfortable when those calls ended in silence as they tried to bridge a gap that twenty-eight years had dug.
That gap had a helping hand once Iris had grown up brilliant and Muggle, and met Lucy Weasley at university.