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He hadn't known what it meant, when he was younger.  Just that it was bad.  If you were a freak, like Harry, you got less to eat.  Slept in the cupboard instead of in a proper room.  Spent hours doing chores instead of going out to play like Dudley did.

He'd asked, once.  When he was young enough that he didn't quite understand the real, physical rules of the world yet, and all the strange things that happened around Harry seemed perfectly possible.  Not a sign of his utter strangeness, his incurable difference from the normal life his parents wanted.

They'd glanced at each other.  He hadn't understood the uncomfortable expressions on their faces then, either, but he'd known they were choosing their words carefully.

"He's not like you, Dudders, darling.  He was born wrong.  You're normal, sweetheart.  You couldn't ever be a freak like him."

It'd been a comfort, when he lay awake at night, worrying about what might happen if they thought he was a freak too.  He loved his parents, and they loved him, and the idea that they might suddenly change was more terrifying than the monster under the bed.

But it became an excuse, too.  He'd been taught in primary school that you weren't supposed to fight, after all, even if he ignored those rules most of the time.  But did that matter, if Harry was a freak?  His parents were harsher on Harry than they were on him, weren't they?  Because freaks didn't get easy, normal lives.  And his Dad practically encouraged him.  The couple of times Harry tried complaining about him, they ignored him or acted like it was all his fault, and Dad slipped him a few pounds with a wink afterwards.  So he must have been right. It didn't matter what he did to freaks like Harry.

It didn't stop there.  If the rules about playground fighting didn't apply to Harry, shouldn't that mean that the rules about copying homework didn't count either?  If Harry wasn't supposed to have things that normal people had, like a bedroom and time to play, did that mean he shouldn't get other things as well, like friends?  And, while obviously nobody else could be as big a freak as Harry was, there ought to be other people out there who were freaks too, right?  People who needed to be shown what freaks like them deserved.

By the time he and Harry finished primary school, he had a group of friends who were happy to help him go after freaks, most of the other students were utterly terrified of him, and nobody had tried to befriend Harry in a couple of years.  Life was good.

Of course, he wasn't going to be able to keep up with what he'd been doing next year; he was going to his Dad's old school, Smeltings, and Harry was going to Stonewall High.  It made sense, he supposed - freaks didn't get to go to nice schools like Smeltings - but it was going to be strange.  None of his friends were going, either.  Well, maybe they'd keep an eye on Harry for him.

And then things got suddenly and catastrophically freakish.  The letter - the letters - and yet more letters - leaving home in a rush, going from bad to worse until they ended up in a hut on an island, and then -

He didn't like thinking about that part.

Harry wasn't going to Stonewall High after all.  Maybe that was better.  All right, he'd known he was a freak, but not like that.  Better that he went off somewhere else, with all the other freaks.  Somewhere he wouldn't be around ordinary people.  Somewhere he couldn't hurt ordinary people.

It counted, if you hurt normal people.  Not freaks, of course, that couldn't count, it wasn't the same at all.  Freaks hurting normal people… it just wasn't supposed to happen.

Everything felt wrong, that summer.  Out of balance.  He barely saw his friends, hiding away in his room while his parents found a doctor who could fix him.  By the time it was done, he was only too glad to say goodbye to Privet Drive.

Things were different at Smeltings - unsettlingly so.  He missed his parents, with a tight ache in his chest that took him by surprise; he missed his room, that nobody else was allowed into, and tried not to sulk about it when his dorm-mates were around.

The teachers here actually seemed to care about homework and marks.  Nobody here was scared of him enough to let him copy off them, unlike back home, and when he tried to do it surreptitiously - well.  The teacher who spotted him doing it the first time gave him detention, and he couldn't call his parents to smooth it over; the student who caught him the second time asked some of his older friends for help.  For the first time in his life, Dudley found himself on the losing end of a fight.  He didn't like it.

He'd been the biggest fish in the pond, on Privet Drive.  He'd thought things would always stay that way.  This… it just wasn't anything like he'd expected.

He'd thought, listening to his Dad's stories, that Smeltings would be filled with people like him.  Normal people.  But there were all sorts here - skinny kids like Harry who kept their heads down in their books, except they came in groups of friends; big, hulking boys who curled their lips at him when he mentioned the games he'd used to play like Harry Hunting; a whole cluster of boys who liked reading Shakespeare and doing theatre, which his Dad had said was full of nancy boys, which was… something bad, so he avoided them on principle; and a couple of dark-skinned boys who played cricket incessantly, who he supposed might be the immigrants Dad railed about when he read the paper.

He kept away from them, uneasily, clustering together with a few boys he knew had a hard time in classes like he did until he discovered the rugby team.  He wasn't good at rugby - he could tackle all right, but he couldn't run fast enough to keep up, and the less said about his throwing abilities the better - but they took him on anyway, letting him do exercises with a few other first formers while the real team tossed the ball back and forth, arguing about positions and strategies.  He sat with the substitutes when they played, and with the younger team members at lunch, and felt like he might finally have worked out where he was supposed to fit here.

It would've been nice, if he could've found a place to fit that put him on top of the pecking order again - but maybe that was why he was really here.  Maybe Mum and Dad wanted him to learn what the real world was like.  You couldn't count on being able to convince people to go along with your ideas by threatening them when you were an adult, right?  So he had to come up with other ways.  And he would, eventually.  Probably.

Things got worse again, of course, at the end of the year; the upcoming holidays distracted him from his steady slog through his homework, and he found himself barred from rugby practise until he'd dragged his marks up a little, enough to scrape past the exams.  He sat in the classroom, alone except for a tight-lipped teacher at the front, and tried to focus on the maths in front of him instead of the bright sunlight outside the window.  All he had to do was get to where he could convince them all he understood the problems; once he got home for the summer it wouldn't matter.  His parents loved him, and they didn't care about grades.  Dad always said they didn't matter in the real world anyway, not unless you were someone like Harry.  Someone who wasn't normal, who'd have to find some awful job somewhere and convince the owner to take him on.  That wasn't ever going to be Dudley.

The days seemed to drag, right up until the exams hit.  Suddenly there didn't seem to be enough time.  He sweated over his notes, wishing he'd put more effort into them at the beginning of the year, and woke up on odd nights convinced he'd failed everything and was going to be held back.  And then they were over, and he was scrambling to find everything he'd unpacked and left abandoned in some corner or other - and then he was home.

That summer, and the ones after it, were strangely surreal.  He'd gotten used to Smeltings, the portions that weren't ever quite large enough, the teachers' eyes on him constantly, the way the dorms were never quite warm enough at night; going back to Little Whinging, to running around with his old friends, eating his mother's enormous meals, sneering at Harry in the sweltering heat, almost felt like a dream.  Or like Smeltings had been the dream.

Of course, it wasn't quite the same.  Harry wasn't around all the time - off with friends, apparently - and his own friends spent half the summer complaining about teachers he'd never met, or girls who wouldn't go out with them.  He felt weirdly separated from them, even as he laughed along to in-jokes from primary.

It was stupid.  They were his friends, far more than anyone at Smeltings was.  It didn't matter how far separated they got.  They'd always have that.

It was almost easy, during the school year, to forget about what Harry was.  Dudley was off at Smeltings, and he was off at his freak school, and even during term breaks he didn't bother to come home.  Not that he could ever properly forget, of course, but the idea was… distant.  Unimportant.

Summers were different.

He'd stopped doing all the little things that'd happened when they were kids.  But the big things, the freakish events that nobody could've ever managed to ignore, they still happened every year like clockwork.

Exploding that cake, for example.  Dudley wasn't sure he'd meant to do it, in hindsight - he'd have to be stupid to do something like that when he knew how angry Mum and Dad would get, and he'd never been stupid.  And he'd looked shocked as anything when they'd all come around the door to see.

Then there'd been the - well.  He didn't know what had happened, really, since Dad'd been too furious to explain and he'd been asleep when it happened, but it'd ended up with Harry gone for the rest of the summer and a great big hole in his bedroom wall.  Mum had spent the next week calling every builder she could find, panicking that it'd rain and the room would end up moulding and make them all sick.  Still, at least with him gone they didn't have to worry about anything else strange happening.

The next year's Event hadn't been that bad in comparison.  It'd gotten Harry out of the house, and this time his parents hadn't had to worry about fixing anything, since some of Harry's co-freaks did the job for them.  Mum and Dad hadn't liked having them around, but it wasn't like they could've shrunk Aunt Marge again, was it?  And it only made sense that freaks should fix freak problems.

The year after that… was worse.  There wasn't any way he could blame it on Harry, not when he didn't even go to Smeltings, but he resented him anyway, the stupid skinny freak.  He probably never had stupid interfering nurses trying to make him skinnier.  Probably no-one at that stupid freak school of his ever took any notice of him at all.

And it wasn't like it was even his fault.  His Dad was big, so of course he was big too.  There wasn't any point in eating stupid rabbit food, not when he was just going to stay looking like he did.

At least Harry didn't get any treats either.  Not that he deserved them.

And then -

He hated wizards.  Hated them.  They thought they could just waltz into normal people's lives and - and hurt them, just because they weren't freaks - he could have died, if that stupid freakish wizard hadn't decided to help him, he could have choked or suffocated or -

But Harry was gone.  And he didn't have to go to hospital this time, or have surgery, and there wasn't any freakishness at home for the rest of the summer.  So.

He supposed it could have been worse.

Getting back to Smeltings was a relief.  No freaks here, that was for certain.  And now that he'd made it to fourth form he could go out to the town nearby on weekends, since they were supposed to be old enough to be responsible for themselves now.  The girls from the other boarding school would come out as well, which had a lot of the other boys excited.  He didn't see the point, honestly - they were just girls - but maybe that was one of those things he just didn't get yet, like drooling over the dirty magazines some of the others kept around.

He'd never really made it anywhere with the rugby team.  It'd bothered him a little at first, but it didn't really any more; not everyone could be good at it, after all, or what would be the point?  He still went out to practises and sat with the lads at dinner, and that was the important bit, really.  Having somewhere to fit.

But that term, rugby brought him something else entirely, something he'd never expected.  Something he was good at.

He'd been out at the field, demonstrating a tackle for one of the younger boys, and a teacher he'd never met had come over and tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to come see about joining the boxing club, and -

Boxing was easy.

Well - not entirely easy.  He'd still been stuck on the stupid diet once he got back to school, but now it was stricter, focusing on replacing his fat with muscle and slimming down some so he could move quicker in the ring; and he was exercising a lot more than he ever had for rugby, every day and weekends too; and Mr Bole had said he had to learn how to punch without gloves on, so he'd know how to do it properly, and hitting the bags like that hurt, especially when he made a fist wrong and squashed his fingers -

But it was easy.  Everything that bothered him faded away when he was in the ring, every stray thought melted down into one singular focus on his opponent, on winning.  Even afterwards, it all seemed so much further away than it had.  Unimportant.  It was the best thing he'd ever felt.

He needed that focus.  Every other moment of the day, it seemed like his attention was being dragged away onto other things.  People.  It bothered him.

If it'd been girls, girls he'd seen from afar in town, he would've been fine with it.  That was normal.  Everyone knew it was normal for teenage boys to want to look at girls.

He wasn't looking at girls.

It was the other boys' fault, he was pretty sure.  They seemed magnetic, drawing his eye no matter what he was doing: Sanjeev leaping triumphantly as he caught someone out, teeth flashing bright and shirt untucked; Andrew declaiming in the courtyard, standing on a table with his shirt lying abandoned behind him, eyes closed as he ran through a monologue from memory; the boys on the rugby team practising tackles, grunting, muscles flexing in ways that dried his throat.  It had to be their fault.

He'd heard boys in the dorm talking sometimes.  It was all right to touch each other, occasionally, because there weren't any girls around to want instead.  They'd stop once they graduated, or if they managed to convince one of the girls from the other boarding school to go out with them when they went to town.  Wanting girls was normal.

Nancy boys didn't stop.  Nancy boys meant it, when they touched other boys, and they never wanted to try to be normal.  It wasn't just something they were doing to pass the time, or to make the long winter nights easier.

He couldn't be a nancy boy.  He was normal.  He wasn't like Harry.  He wasn't a freak.  Couldn't be.

He wasn't, he wasn't, he wasn't -

No.  He wasn't.  He was just a late bloomer.  He'd heard the nurse say that to one of the other boys once, and it made sense.  One day, he'd wake up and want to kiss girls.  He would.

He had to be normal.  And he would be.  He just had to keep from thinking too hard about it - about them.  Focus on girls.  Focus on the dirty pictures John kept under his bed.  And one day, he'd wake up and mean it.

One day he paused in the courtyard too long, glanced over one too many times, and when he took one final look Andrew was looking back.  He stumbled out, heart in his throat.  He spent the rest of his lessons that day in a panicked haze.

He didn't look anywhere but his own plate at dinner that night.  The boys around him argued strategies and training regimens in low voices, and slowly but surely he relaxed.  If he were going to do anything, it would've happened by now.  He'd escaped.  He'd escaped, and it wasn't like anyone here would believe that kind of rumour about him, anyway, and even if Andrew had seen something - well, so what?  He could look.  He was allowed to look.  There wasn't anything wrong with it.

They spilled out of the dining hall in a clump, released from their obligations for the day, and he turned reluctantly for the library.  As much as he hated studying, he'd have an easier time of it come exams if he actually put a bit of work in now, and he didn't want to risk being pulled out of boxing because he couldn't keep his marks up -

Andrew stepped into his path, head tilted, a strange smile playing around the corners of his mouth.  He stopped short.

"Dursley," he said, as collected as ever.

"Um.  Jones.  Hi."  He rubbed his suddenly-sweaty palms on his trousers and swallowed.

"Here, your -"  He stepped forwards, adjusting Dudley's collar.  The backs of his knuckles brushed against his throat, and Dudley leaped back.  The point he'd touched throbbed hotly in time with his pulse.  His face burned.

"I - uh - that's fine, it was fine, but. Thanks?"  Christ, it didn't make any sense, he was nonsense, and surely it had to be branded across him for everyone to see, the wanting, God.

Andrew's smile deepened.  "You're welcome.  Let me know if I can help you out with anything else, all right?"

"I.  Okay?"

He backed away, light-footed, and swung a sort of sloppy salute in his direction.  Dudley watched helplessly.  He had to be scarlet all over, it had to be so obvious -

The expression on his face changed, from something almost mocking to - pity?  "It's not the end of the world, you know."

He flinched back.

Andrew sighed and turned away.

He dreamed of a touch on his throat, hot as a branding iron, a touch that drifted from his neck to his chest, to other places entirely, a mocking smile and eyes that seemed to know him better than he knew himself.  He dreamed, and he wanted, and -


He woke, sobbing for breath.  Remembering the way his parents had looked at Harry.  Remembering how frightened he'd been when he was a child, that they'd realise someday he was a freak like Harry, that they'd hate him too.

He wasn't the same kind of freak Harry was.  But he didn't think that would make a difference.  Not when he meant it - not when he knew how badly he wanted something he wasn't supposed to want, oh God -

He lay awake, staring at the ceiling, and tried not to think.

It was summer again.  Finally.  As strange as going home seemed these days, right now it was a relief.  It got him away from… distractions.

Harry couldn't seem to sleep the night through.  He didn't understand why it wasn't waking his parents, honestly, he was so loud.  And if he couldn't keep his mouth shut long enough for Dudley to get a decent sleep… well, who cared if he was having nightmares?  He was a freak.  He deserved it, for being so freakish, and he deserved every bit of the shit he got for keeping normal people awake.  That was what happened to freaks.

Real freaks.  Freaks with weird abilities.  Not like -

It felt sometimes like it was branded on him.  Like people should've been able to see it on his face.  He was stomach-turningly sure Harry was going to realise, when he made that stupid crack about whoever-the-hell he kept having nightmares about.  When he didn't say anything, he felt almost cold with relief.

And then just cold.  And then…

He thought about it later.  Couldn't stop himself, really.  It replayed again and again, imprinted on the inside of his eyelids, ringing in his ears.

The looks on the faces of the children he'd tormented in primary school.  And on Harry's.  The look on Harry's face when he did it, when his parents did it, when Aunt Marge did it.  When teachers did it.  The way that look changed, as he got older and realised his life wasn't ever going to be fair.

The way Dudley had felt when he'd lost that fight in first form.  The way he'd felt when he realised that nobody in Smeltings cared about him enough to be his friend, do his homework, scurry away in fear.  That nobody there cared about him at all.

The way he'd felt when he realised he was what his parents hated.  That once they realised, they'd never want him to be their son again.  Never get over it.

It had been bad enough then, a shattering cycle of misery and self-loathing that went on and on and on.  It should've gotten better afterwards.  Once those monsters were gone.

It got worse.

He lay awake in the dark, seeing what he'd done.  To Harry, mostly, but to so many others as well, over and over, from the first moment he'd been able to choose his own path.

And he saw other things, too.  Things that hadn't occurred to him then, when every part of his mind was focused on the terrible things he'd done.

The way his parents had looked, every time they'd caught him tormenting someone, but especially Harry.  Proud.  Pleased.  Encouraging.

The way they'd taught him to hate anyone who wasn't exactly like them.

And he'd done it.

He'd spent his whole life being awful to everyone around him, and believing he was justified.  Believing they deserved it.  Every time he'd come across something that should've made him rethink it, he'd doubled down.  Done his best to ignore reality.  And where had that brought him?

He knew, finally.  He knew what kind of a person he was, what kind of a person they'd taught him to be.  He despised himself.

He didn't know how to stop.

He kissed a girl from the other boarding school one day when they were visiting town.  Her lips were soft and sticky.  She smelled like flowers.

He kissed her and thought about kissing Andrew.  He didn't seem like he'd be soft, or sticky, or flowery.  He had dark stubble on his chin sometimes in the evenings now, if he could manage to stay out of sight of the teachers.  It'd be rough, probably, scraping along his chin - and other places, maybe.  He'd heard people talking about… other things.

He kissed her and thought about rough lips, the long hard planes of another body, running his hands up and down, and down, and down -

He didn't kiss Andrew.

Every spare moment went into training, into trying to capture those moments of pure focus.  They were rarer and rarer these days.  He stopped sometimes, and looked at his fists, the weapons of his childhood -

He trained.

Fights were the only time he could really stop thinking.  He threw himself into them, again and again.  Mr Bole clapped him on the shoulder approvingly and made noises about sending him to the Junior Championships again - or maybe seeing if he could compete with the adults this year, or the next -

He didn't care, he didn't care, but what was he supposed to say?  What if one of the teachers wanted to talk to him about it?  How was he supposed to explain oh, I had a run-in with this magical monster - oh, you don't know about magic?  Yes, it's real - and now I know for sure I'm a horrible person, and by the way I think my cousin probably shouldn't be living with us, my parents haven't been very good to him, and I looked at those pamphlets outside the nurse's office one day and maybe I should've called Social Services or the police or someone a long time ago -

No.  There wasn't anything he could do.  There wasn't any point.  Even telling the authorities seemed stupid at this point.  After all, Harry must've told his people about it, and they'd never done anything, had they? Surely anyone would've, if they'd been made to live in a cupboard, or had bars put on their window, or… anything else, really, any part of his childhood.  He must have told them.

He kept on training.

He did his best to stay out of Harry's way, that next summer.  He didn't know what to do - or how to feel - and he ought to work that out before they talked.  He should've thought about it before he came home, really, but he hadn't wanted to, had wasted all that time trying not to think -

He'd been terrible to Harry.  To everyone around him, but mostly that meant Harry.  And he owed him an apology.

It felt hopelessly little against everything he'd done.  He had to try, though.

But what was he supposed to say?  Would he have done any of it if his parents hadn't taught him he was supposed to - well, maybe not.  He couldn't say well I'm sorry my parents are awful and it's all their fault, though, that'd sound like he was pretending none of it was his doing at all.  If he did that, he might as well not bother apologising at all.

When he let his mind wander away from that pointless back-and-forth, though, he started dwelling on everything else.  Everything he'd done - they'd done - the mass of it, like standing at the foot of a mountain and looking up, knowing you were barely an ant in comparison -

There wasn't anything he could do.  There wasn't any point.  He couldn't fix things, not ever, an apology could never make up for all of that and he was stupid to think it could - not that he'd ever been anything but stupid.  Stupid at schoolwork, stupid to believe he should've ever treated Harry or anyone else like he had, stupid to think his parents would keep loving him if it turned out he was a freak too -

And he was too late.

A stranger turned up late at night, obviously a fr- a wizard, wanting to take Harry away.  He sat there dumbly as he talked, half-ready to leap up and shout a disorganised mess of an apology, half-terrified of the consequences, because it wasn't like he'd get to leave too.  He didn't want to find out what his parents would think if he did.

And he didn't have any idea what'd come out of his mouth, anyway.  Maybe it'd be coherent, but he didn't think so; he couldn't stop thinking about what'd happened the last few times he'd met wizards, the tail and the tongue and the pain, and he was doing magic - harmless magic, maybe, but that didn't mean it'd stay that way.

He didn't want to be afraid of Harry and the people like him.  It wasn't right, or fair - it was just another excuse to be cruel - but he couldn't help but remember, couldn't help but wonder how much worse it might be the next time, as this stranger who thought the worst of him and his parents did magic on them - harmless magic, harmless magic, but the fear of it knotted in his throat anyway -

Harry rushed off to get his things, and a little of the edge came off his panic.  If he wasn't going to be in the house, at least he'd have time to work out what on earth he could say next year.  Or write in a letter, maybe.  If he could work out where to post it.

He could feel his parents twitching to either side of him.  They didn't want to stay here, facing off against a wizard who seemed blissfully unconcerned about their distaste for him, but he was pretty sure they didn't dare leave him alone either.  He might do anything, after all.

A small, rebellious part of himself hoped that he did.  He didn't seem like he was thinking of hurting them, and the magic he'd done before hadn't been anything but annoying, so... why not?  His parents had done enough through the years.  Surely the least they deserved was some irritating spell cast on their house.  Nothing harmful - but they'd find any kind of magic so infuriating it might as well be.

Harry entered the room again, dragging his trunk behind him, and he relaxed a little more.  Surely they were going to leave now.  It'd make everything so much better - oh, his parents wouldn't be pleased they'd had a wizard in the house, but underneath it all they'd be relieved they were free of Harry for another year -

"Just one last thing, then."

Well.  Maybe not.

He flicked a glance at Harry, still standing awkwardly in the doorway.  It was a pity he was wedged in between his parents; whatever details the wizard wanted to hash out with his parents didn't have much to do with him, and if he'd been on the edge, or in a different seat entirely, he might've been able to sneak off and say... something.  If he managed to get anything out at all.

Harry's eyes snapped to the centre of the room.  Dudley followed his gaze, wondering why his parents seemed to be shifting closer to him.

"You have never treated Harry as a son."

That might explain it.

"He has known nothing but neglect and often cruelty at your hands."

Had he known?  Had - had any of them known, and still left Harry here, sleeping in a cupboard and eating scraps and -

"The best that can be said is that he has at least escaped the appalling damage you have inflicted upon the unfortunate boy sitting between you."

He bit his tongue hard as Mum and Dad startled.  The last thing he wanted was for them to think he'd realised how awful they'd all been, not when he was still stuck living here until he finished school - or.  Wait.

How did he know?

He met the wizard's gaze, gut as cold as ice, and recoiled at the knowing.  He knew, he'd seen that secret part of him the same way Andrew had, and if he said anything - anything at all, God, that'd be it, the end, he knew exactly what they thought of freaks -

He was talking again, something he couldn't hear over the panicked buzz in his ears, but he saw the word Harry, magic, Harry again, so it couldn't be about him.  It couldn't.

And he stood up, walked over to Harry, and his parents hadn't done anything.  They were annoyed, but not furious.  Or disgusted.  He was safe.

He stumbled to his feet and followed them, watching them walk down Privet Drive and then vanish.  Mum muttered something uncomplimentary-sounding under her breath.  Her hand was soft on his shoulder, rubbing like she thought he needed comforting.  A child waking from a nightmare gone running to his parents.

More likely she was the one wanting comfort.  The words appalling damage came back to him suddenly, and he had to press his lips together hard to keep from laughing.  They had no idea what they'd done at all, did they?

He mumbled something about going up to bed and strode stiff-legged up to his room.  He paused for a moment at the door; yes, they were still downstairs, talking in low angry voices.  The sounds blurred together into one long growl of unjustified fury.

Just like everything he'd heard them say throughout the rest of his life, really.

He slipped through the door, fell face-first onto his bed, and wept.

Over the next few days, he managed to piece a little of what had been going on around him when Harry left.  Not much - his parents fell silent every time they noticed he'd gotten near enough to hear what they were whispering about - but enough to know they were worried about some kind of reprisal after Harry went off on his own next year.  He tried not to think too much about it. It wasn't like he could do anything, after all, and speculating about whether Harry would do something to protect him, like his parents were, seemed pointless.  What possible reason could he have to do that?  After the way he'd been treated?

He sat in his room, well out of his parents' way, and shuffled through piles of informational pamphlets by way of distraction.  Studying had seemed so pointless when he was younger.  Now, he wished he could go back in time and shake himself.  Or maybe his parents, who'd spent so much time telling him they were unimportant and so little time pointing out that if he wanted to go to university like Dad he'd need to have decent scores.  Maybe they'd thought Dad could get him a job at Grunnings.

He didn't know what he really wanted to do, honestly.  Getting a job through nepotism wasn't on the list - or working at Grunnings for the rest of his life.  It'd always sounded horribly boring.

They'd probably like it if he did that.  Work with Dad, find a nice normal girl, settle down, have a kid or two for them to spoil.  Become his father.

That idea was worse than working at Grunnings at all.

Not that it was all utterly awful - he didn't know that he'd trust himself with a kid, not just now, but having one someday might be all right.  Getting one, though, that'd be the trick.

He couldn't imagine himself with someone.  Not a woman, not a man.  Not that he wouldn't like to - but the idea of being found out filled him with a cold, aching terror, the monster under the bed given a face that frightened him far more than the unknown.  And it'd be worse than cruel to take up with a girl just to camouflage himself, not if she was hoping he'd love her.  Not if he couldn't reciprocate.  It was... no.

Thinking about his future just seemed pointless.  If he couldn't be who he was, and he couldn't - wouldn't - be who his parents wanted him to be... well, where did that leave him?

Still in school, at least, so he had a little more time to work things out.  Not that he thought he'd do well enough on his A Levels to go on, but Mum had refused to consider letting him finish once he'd done his GCSE.  Maybe he ought to try studying harder, or find a tutor, so he'd have university as an option?  Or spend less time studying, since it was pointless anyway, and try to work out what else he could do.

It'd have to be something impressive, to keep his parents off his back.  He could probably spend some time boxing - Dad'd certainly like it - but he wasn't sure it'd really work out as a means of making a living.  Not unless he got lucky and won a fight with a decent prize, or somebody decided to sponsor him, or something along those lines.

He could become a policeman, maybe?  It wasn't like you needed a degree to be a copper.  Probably.

But it came down to the same question as before: could he trust himself with that kind of power over other people?  Should he?  How was he supposed to unlearn all this nastiness he'd been taught since birth?  How would he know when he'd done it?

It was worse than the pamphlets, really.

School was a balancing act.  Studying enough to keep the teachers off his back - and enough to make sure finishing his A Levels wasn't a complete pipe dream.  Boxing.  Thinking about the future.

He still craved those moments of focus he got in the ring.  He'd started working out how to find that clarity of thought when he wasn't fighting.  It seemed like something that might come in handy.  But he'd also started teaching himself how to push those moments away.

He loved the way it made him feel.  How easy it made the world, and how easy it was to ignore the problems he'd been wrestling with.  But his childhood had been easy, too.  Hurting people was so much easier than helping them.  And he needed to think those problems through.

That old cliché about ignorance being bliss had never seemed truer.  But that probably meant that the one about knowledge being power was true, too.

He didn't feel powerful.  He felt confused, and cruel, and angry, and horribly, horribly stupid.  He felt weak.

He'd always defined weakness the way Dad had taught him.

Maybe he just didn't know what power felt like, yet.

He went to town with one of the girls from the other boarding school.  She was big, like him.  Shy.  Barely spoke a word, the first hour they were out.

They passed by a couple of girls in the town square.  Arms about each others' waists, heads thrown back with laughter.  They knew they were being watched, and they didn't care.  Unafraid of consequences.

She glanced at them under her eyelashes.  Not with the disapproval or prurient interest he'd seen other students - and adults - sending their way; no, she was jealous, horribly so.  She wanted to be like them - or to be them - so badly it burned.

This was the future he'd have, if he tried to please his parents.  If he were lucky enough to find someone who didn't want him any more than he wanted her, but who needed to pretend.  Two liars together, dreaming of something they'd never have.

Andrew came around the corner with a few of his friends, talking loudly about something or other.  He cast a sardonic little smile Dudley's way; he returned a raised eyebrow.  Andrew frowned, a brief little thing wiped away as one of his mates caught his attention.

He glanced aside at his date.  She was watching him, relief in her eyes.

"All right, then?" he muttered.

She shrugged.  "At least I guessed right."

"Mm."  He looked around.  Nobody too near by.  "Do you think this... do you think it makes it better?"

"Of course not," she said, snorting.  "But I'm not popular, you realise?  Some people can get away with that sort of thing in school.  I can't.  If I let them get the sort of ammunition that'd let them make my life a proper misery, they'd win, and I won't let them.  So for now, I'll pretend, and I'll go on a date or two with the regional boxing champ, who's a catch and apparently terribly hard to get, and later on, things'll get better.  You'll see."

"I guess."

He couldn't stop thinking about it.  Things'll get better, as if it'd just happen on its own, as if the universe were kind enough to just hand the things you wanted straight to you.  As if anything like that could ever happen without more work than he wanted to think about.

Though, come to think, working to make things better didn't seem like a half-bad idea.  Too bad it didn't come with an impressive career path attached.

He slid out of bed and padded along the silent dormitory corridor, trying to get his mind off the conversation.  He had enough to be going on with, after all, and -

Andrew swung the bathroom door open and stopped short.

They stared at each other for a few moments.  The electric light spilling out around Andrew gave the scene an air of unreality.  Anything could happen, here and now, in this moment when everything he worried about seemed non-existent.

He flicked the light off.

Dudley blinked away sparkles from his eyes.  He could hear Andrew padding towards him, bare feet light on the linoleum, and he felt his heart leap.  Because what did it matter, what he did here and now, who would ever find out but the two of them, what possible repercussions could there be -

Fingertips against his face, tracing their way along his features.  He reached up to reciprocate, hands trembling.

Andrew was standing so close to him he could feel the heat radiating off his body.  He must feel so cold in comparison - he felt like ice near a heater, falling to pieces bit by bit -

And then -

He kissed Andrew.

He hadn't thought it would be so much greater than his dreams.

It made things so much better.

He thought sometimes about telling his parents.  Not so much because he wanted to - he absolutely didn't - but because it would simplify things.  No more worrying about what might happen, if they found out.  He'd know for certain.

He probably wouldn't like what he knew.  But he'd know.

Maybe it'd be worth the consequences.

He still hadn't found the words he wanted by the time summer came around again.

It didn't worry him as much as it had before.  They didn't need to be perfect right now; they just had to be enough, enough to convey that he knew what he'd done and he meant to do better.

If Harry decided he was done with the lot of them and didn't want to see any of them ever again, sorry or not - well, that was fair enough, and if that was what he wanted Dudley'd keep his distance.  If he didn't, though, that meant he had years to work out a better apology.  He'd have more than enough time.

And either way, he knew what he had to do.

Make things better.

Maybe he'd find people like Harry, and stop their childhoods from being shitty.  Or people like him, and help them stop being awful sooner than they might've done on their own.  Or maybe he'd do something else entirely.  He didn't have to make up his mind right now.

The only thing he really had to do now was stop his parents from arguing their way out of going to the safehouse Harry's people had offered them.  He figured the best moment to do that would be at the last minute.  Better not to give them time to come up with counter-arguments.

In the meantime...

Harry had spent most of the time since he'd come back from school in his room.  Dudley didn't blame him; keeping out of his parents' way was clearly the best idea right now.  Still, it was making it hard to get to talk to him.

He set a cup of tea down on the landing by Harry's bedroom door.  Hopefully he liked tea; he didn't have any idea, honestly, but it was a pretty popular drink, right?  Even if he didn't, it ought to confuse him enough that he'd come to find out why he'd left it there.

And he'd finally say what he should've said so long ago.