Disclaimer: Harry Potter, all other characters and the lovely world they live in all belong to the amazing J.K. Rowling. I’m just playing with them; I’ll put them back when I’m done.
That Christmas marked a complete turning point in Dudley’s life. He returned to school the next term with a new outlook on life, and a driving ambition to make something of himself out of the shadow of his family. He threw himself into his course work, surprising himself as well as everyone else at how well he could get along if he put his mind to it. His second term opened new doors for him, including a subject on psychology that intrigued him like no other subject he had ever taken. He was so fascinated with the topic that he sought out every related subject he could find, and by the end of his second year in university, he had settled upon it as a course of study, along with the business subjects he hadn’t yet had the courage to turn away from. His parents were thrilled to be able to brag about not only his continued success in boxing, but for the first time ever, his results at university. Dudley ignored this, starting to distance himself from his family. His mother cried when he decided not to come home for the summer holidays after his second year, finding a part time job and using that as an excuse to stay away. He found himself content in several easy friendships that were as different as night and day from the ones he had held as a young man with Piers and Malcolm and Gordon.
His third year brought in-depth studies in his chosen field, including a course on the effects of abuse that opened his eyes like no other subject he had ever taken. He had never really dwelled on the way his cousin had been treated growing up, having been told by his parents that this was the way things should be; after all, Harry was abnormal. He would never forget the day he realized exactly how very wrong his childhood home had been. The knowledge that he had sat by, said nothing, and even accepted as normal the kind of neglect that Harry had suffered while Dudley had been pampered within an inch of his life made him physically ill.
Upon receiving his undergraduate degree, his father approached him with a job offer from Grunning’s: an entry level position that would pay more than many employees who had worked for the company for years, nepotism being alive and well in his father’s eyes. This was to be a starting point for Dudley, and in less than a year, he could move into management, well on his way to taking over from his father when the time came. Dudley refused it. The row that followed was spectacular: his mother cried, his father yelled and turned a color purple that hadn’t graced his face since Harry had moved out. Throughout the row, Dudley remained calm and quiet, insisting that he was returning to university for a graduate degree. After a long night filled with threats and shouting, a compromise was reached in the wee hours of the morning: Dudley would go to work for Grunning’s, in the position of his choosing, for three years. At the end of these years, if he still wished to further his education, his parents would again foot the bill. Not knowing how he would pay for his education otherwise, he fulfilled his end of the bargain by taking a job as a sales manager at one of Grunning’s retail shops in London. It was not challenging work and only reinforced Dudley’s belief that he wanted to do something different with his life.
Dudley’s job was boring and he hated it with a passion, and days like today made him regret that deal he made with his father. After all, many people managed to pay for their education without help from their parents; getting roped into this horrid deal with his father was just another example of his inability to pull away from his family. God knows he had tried for years, but just hadn’t quite been strong enough to sever all ties. Alone in his flat, he constantly berated himself over this, making plans to tell his father exactly why he didn’t want to follow in his footsteps to become the next in a long line of Dursley men living boring, horrid lives, and tell his mother that he was a grown man and the way she treated him like a little boy was just absurd. He would fantasize about the fight that would follow, and imagine himself walking out the door with his head held high. He would accept his mother’s invitations home, practically quivering in anticipation, dreaming of finally telling them how he felt, of having his say and controlling the conversation on his own terms. Then he’d get home, and see how pathetically happy his mother was to see him as she fussed about how he needed to meet a girl and settle down; he’d see the gray in their hair, and the lines on their faces and know that he would fail once again in his plans to shatter their world. So he sat in his miserable little office behind the shop and suffered another day, another week, another month in a job that he hated, because what exactly what was three years in the grand scheme of things when it came to keeping his parents happy? After all, they were starting to get older, and in spite of everything else, he did love them, and the reality of breaking their hearts was just too much to bear. But he couldn’t help but envy Harry his ability to walk out without a backward glance.
The one thing this job did afford him was plenty of time to let his mind wander: his return to his graduate studies; his need to buy things for his under-furnished little flat; plans for the next pub crawl with his friends; the book he was in the middle of reading; all these thoughts drifted through his mind on a daily basis. Dudley had one year left in his agreement with his father, and as far as he was concerned, it couldn’t pass quickly enough. Stretching back in his chair, he felt his back pop and decided that it was time for a break. Perhaps he’d walk down the street and get a cup of tea and a bun; anything to get out of this wretched little hole of an office and away from the mundane workings of the shop. The shop he managed was located in a busy retail centre in the heart of London. The shops nearby were usually busy and he was normally happy with the heavy foot traffic that kept people moving in and out of his shop. Today however, the crowds of people on the street served little purpose other than to annoy him. Walking out of the tea shop he collided with another pedestrian and automatically murmured an apology without even looking. It wasn’t until they each turned their separate ways that he caught a glimpse of the man with whom he had collided, and his breath caught in his throat. He knew this man; in fact, he used to know him very well. Without stopping to think of what he was doing, he turned to follow him.
Dudley quickened his steps, trying to get close enough to the man to get a better look. The hair was definitely familiar, and within a half block he was close enough to see the green eyes and that oh-so-identifiable scar. The glasses were gone, and Dudley idly wondered if there was some magical explanation for it, or if his cousin had finally decided on either contacts or that new laser surgery to fix his eyesight. For the man he was following was without a doubt his cousin Harry. He hadn’t seen the man in almost six years, and the last time he had, his cousin was still just a boy: a tall, gangly, just-barely-seventeen-year-old boy, who, although he was starting to fill out, was still skinny and awkward. The man he was now observing was anything but. When he had last seen Harry, they were almost the same height, but while Dudley hadn’t grown much taller since then, Harry appeared to have gained several more inches, making him taller than Dudley could have ever imagined he would be, considering how small he’d been as a child. His shoulders were much broader than Dudley remembered, and he was definitely more muscular. The years had without a doubt been kind to Harry. But beyond the physical changes, there was something else about the man in front of him that set him apart from the boy Dudley used to know: this man was not the quiet, meek boy that Dudley had grown up with. Make no mistake, Dudley had known from a very young age that Harry was more than capable of defending himself with scathing remarks and verbal attacks. Dudley had been on the receiving end of these too many times, but this was different. Before, there was always an underlying sadness, almost fear, that seemed to be missing now. Harry was smiling; no, not just smiling, grinning, an expression Dudley had never seen on his face before. He stopped short, trying to reconcile this confident, mature Harry, with the boy he had grown up with. Realizing that he’d lose Harry if he didn’t get moving, Dudley continued to work his way through the crowd on the footpath.
Dudley had been so busy watching his cousin that he had almost missed the girl walking beside him. Very closely beside him. She was pressed up against him, their hands entwined and her head resting against his upper arm. Dudley’s breath caught in his throat. She was tiny, the top of her head barely coming to Harry’s shoulder, and she had long red hair that fell to her waist in a glimmering, silky, copper sheet. Her eyes were bright and sparkling with excitement over whatever it was they were discussing. As Dudley continued to watch, she looked up at Harry, said something to him, and then laughed. He managed to get close enough to the couple so that he could hear her laugh as it rang out over the heads of the crowd. She pulled away from Harry’s side, but didn’t relinquish her grip on his hand. She was an arm’s length away from him now, her bouncy gait making it look like she was almost dancing around him. The grin on her face spoke of a wicked sense of humor as she continued her orbit around Harry until she was actually facing him, walking backwards down the street, her hand still firmly clutched in his. Her eyes flashed as her mouth moved; she was still speaking to Harry, who grinned back at her with an expression so filled with joy and love that it changed his entire face. Dudley couldn’t blame Harry, goodness knows if he had a woman like that hanging onto his hand, he’d be happy too. In his eyes, she was beautiful. Granted, with her vivid red hair and the sprinkling of freckles over her small nose, she wasn’t a classic beauty, but just this quick glimpse he’d seen of her sent a pang of complete jealousy through Dudley’s heart.
He hesitated for a moment, trying to decide if he wanted to actually catch up with them and talk to his cousin. What would he say? He had thought about it for years, since that first horrible time in lectures when he realized just how badly Harry must have suffered at the hands of his family. But all the prepared words and speeches that he had thought of when imagining this meeting didn’t seem to fit now. His mind raced, trying to reconcile the picture that he held in his head of the skinny little ten-year-old locked in the cupboard, with this confident laughing man in front of him. His hesitation cost him dearly. He was bumped into from behind, and when he looked back up after quickly checking to make sure that the person behind him was all right, Harry and the girl hanging onto his hand had both vanished.
A/N: Thanks again to Pumpkin Juice for wading through a bunch of horrible spelling and grammar mistakes and weeding out the overwhelming Americanisms and turning this from absolute rubbish into something readable. And thanks again to everyone who reviewed chapter one, I’m in absolute shock from the response.