The ceremony had been both familiar and strangely unfamiliar to Dudley—or what he'd been able to see of it was, anyway, seated, as he and Petunia found themselves, behind a terrifyingly familiar figure who was about twice the size of a normal man. In fact, Dudley hadn't seen much other than the shaggy back of an enormous head and his own hands as he stared down at them throughout the ceremony.
Dudley hadn't been to too many weddings, it was true, but he'd seen his fair share of them in movies and such. As far as he knew, no ceremony that he'd ever seen ended with doves popping out of golden balloons and singing their way to the sky while the assembled guests laughed and the groom gave a thumbs-up to his one-eared brother-in-law. The bride had seemed less impressed by the display and had grabbed the groom by his face to redirect his attention to a more romantic purpose, eliciting a cheer from the guests.
And then, as if Dudley weren't disoriented enough, the chairs had all risen up in the air before he'd finished standing up. The rest of the huge crowd barely seemed to notice, but Petunia looked like she was on the verge of fainting, and it took Dudley some real, conscious effort to keep his jaw from hanging open. Longbottom reappeared as the throngs surged towards the tables, following the chairs.
"Help you to your seats?" Longbottom inquired politely.
Neither Dudley nor Petunia were able to find their tongues, but they followed Longbottom to a table at the edge of the marquee in which the celebrations were taking place. They were a good ways away from the dance floor, but Dudley thought that might be for the best; it seemed unlikely that they would be dancing, and it wouldn't be bad to be away from the limelight.
The limelight, however, seemed to be following Dudley. Hardly had he and Petunia taken their seats and Longbottom gone off to find his own seat then two men about Dudley's age materialized in front of Dudley, their eyes wide.
"Blimey," the tall black man said, awe in his voice. "You are, aren't you? You're Big D?"
Dudley looked uncomfortably from one man to the other. "Er, yeah," he said after a long pause.
The other man swore and passed a gold coin to his companion. "I thought Harry was taking the mick, claiming his cousin was Big D," he said, an Irish accent tingeing his speech. He held out his hand. "Seamus Finnegan, and this is my mate, Dean Thomas."
Thomas also held out his hand, and Dudley shook them both. "Big fans of yours, Big D, really," Thomas gushed. "We watched your match against that Latvian—ugly bloke, wasn't he? I won a nice haul off of Seamus from that match."
Dudley raised his eyebrows at Finnegan. "You bet on Ozils?"
Finnegan held his hands up in apology. "He's huge, mate. I always bet on size. Don't get me wrong, you earned that win. But there was no way I was putting my money on you, not with his extra reach."
Dudley grinned, glad to be able to talk about something he understood. "No hard feelings, mate," he told Finnegan. "Next time, put your money on skill."
Finnegan laughed. "Yeah, all right, that's fair."
"Hey, Big D, could we get your autograph?" Thomas asked, grabbing a serviette off of a floating tray of champagne glasses.
"Sure," Dudley said. He patted his pocket and grimaced at his new fans. "I haven't got a pen," he apologized.
"Not a problem," Thomas said, plunging his hand into a pocket on his scarlet robes. He pulled out a feather and a small bottle. "What color would you like?"
"Ink. What color ink?"
"Oh, uh, black is fine. Or whatever."
Thomas thrust the serviette and feather at Finnegan, who set them on the table, and then drew a long stick from inside one of his sleeves—a wand. Dudley realized he hadn't seen one yet today, but he knew what he was seeing by the swooping in his stomach and the tightening in his chest. He'd seen his cousin's before on several occasions. Thomas tapped the little bottle, and the cork that was stoppering it flew out and fell to the ground. "Right, black it is," Thomas said, setting the bottle down beside serviette and feather.
Dudley hesitated, then picked up the feather. The tip came to a point, making it, he supposed, a quill. He dipped it in the ink, scrawled his signature even more messily than usual, and made to return the quill to Thomas. His attention was abruptly diverted, though, by the sight of silvery-blonde hair that was painfully familiar.
"Excuse me," he mumbled absently, pushing the inky quill into Thomas's hands.
"Dudley! Where are you going?" Petunia demanded as he started to walk away.
"I'll be right back," Dudley said, waving his hand. He did not take his eyes off the hair that had so arrested his attention.
Wedding guests seemed to think it their duty to stand directly in Dudley's path and then act put upon when he sidled past them. He didn't care, all but shoving them out of his way to get to his target. She was deep in conversation with a tall, redheaded man with a badly scarred face, standing close enough to him that Dudley's stomach clenched.
When he was mere feet away from her, almost able to reach out and touch her shoulder, she suddenly disappeared. Dismay rolled through Dudley's mind, only to be quickly displaced by relief as he saw that she had knelt down, out of his immediate line of sight. She was talking to a little girl, barely older than a baby, who had the same silvery hair and was wearing a little white bridesmaid's dress, rather than the robes that the adults were all wearing.
Desperate not to lose sight of her again, Dudley felt the word slipping out without even intending to say it. "Gabrielle!" he called.
The kneeling woman straightened and turned, and Dudley's heart sank; it wasn't Gabrielle.
"Non, pardon, monsieur, you are mistaken," the woman said.
"Sorry, sorry," Dudley said hurriedly, his face flushing. "I thought you were—"
"My sister, oui," the woman said, her voice weary and annoyed. She rounded on the scarred redhead beside her. "You see, now, Bill, yes? She is more beautiful than me! Everyone they want only to see Gabrielle, they do not want to look at me. I am 'ideous, Bill, ugly! Non alors, do not speak more to me about more children, d'accord?"
Bill smiled gently and wrapped his arm around the semi-hysterical Frenchwoman's waist. He planted a kiss on her cheek and said, "Fleur, my love, my brave, smart, beautiful love, you are not ugly. You are radiant; I don't think I've seen you more beautiful since our wedding day. If anyone confuses you with Gabrielle, it's just a testament to her increasing beauty—she's starting to look like you."
Fleur appeared mollified, and she turned back to Dudley. "And 'ow do you know Gabrielle?" she demanded.
"I'm just—we met and—look, sorry, I didn't mean to offend you—"
"All right, mate, breathe," Bill said, laughing a little. "Gabrielle's just gone into the house to touch up her hair, I think. She'll be back out soon. Should I tell her you're looking for her, if I see her?"
"Uh, no, thanks," Dudley managed to say while his head spun. "Sorry to bother you."
"Not at all. You're Dursley, right?" Bill asked. "Harry's cousin?"
"Yeah." Dudley thought Fleur's eyes narrowed somewhat at hearing this, but his mind was distracted enough that he wasn't entirely sure.
"Bill Weasley, brother of the bride," Bill said, sticking out his hand. "Gabrielle's my sister-in-law."
Mon beau-frère has a sister who is getting married, and I am going. The words ran through Dudley's head as he shook Bill's hand. He knew the wedding she was going to was the same day. Why hadn't he asked for names? She is getting married to the person I first like. Dudley felt slightly sick, thinking that Gabrielle's first crush had been his skinny, spectacled cousin.
Somehow, without quite being mentally present, Dudley parted from Bill and Fleur and wandered away, lost in his own thoughts. When he found himself standing in front of the back door to the crooked house, he was surprised, although not very much so. He barely hesitated before pushing the door open and stepping inside.
The kitchen just inside the door was haphazardly tidy, one of those overstuffed rooms that seems chaotic but with some ill-defined system behind the madness. It wasn't a large space, but nothing in the house was. It took Dudley a moment's cursory glance to discern that there was no one else in the room, so he moved through the only other doorway into the living area.
Comfy, worn couches were spread around a fireplace, beside which stood an old-fashioned radio, as worn as everything else in the strange house. At the other end of the room was a staircase leading up into the rest of the house. Seeing that the room was empty, Dudley considered going up the stairs, since there didn't seem to be anywhere else to look for Gabrielle, but that seemed a step too far for him, for whatever reason.
As he mentally debated his next move, Dudley's eyes lit on a clock standing beside the doorway in which he stood. It didn't draw his attention simply for being a clock but because it had far too many hands. Curious, Dudley looked closer, and saw that, rather than numbers, the clock face's circumference was marked with words, such as "Home," "Work," and "Travelling." Currently, all of the hands were pointed at "Home." The hand on top was labeled "Arthur," and beneath it were another seven hands. Below the clock face was another, slightly smaller face that looked newer, unscratched and shinier; this face had the same labels as the face above it but with only four hands, the top one labeled "Fleur." As Dudley watched, the hand beneath Fleur's—"Victoire"—swept out to point at "Sleeping." Dudley was enthralled, but a creak on the staircase made him whip around.
He saw Gabrielle before she saw him. She was laughing, her face turned back the way she had come, talking to someone still upstairs in rapid French. Her beauty staggered Dudley again. He wanted to call out to her, but he realized he didn't know what to say, didn't know if the words would come out of his gaping mouth.
Time seemed to slow as Gabrielle's head lowered, turned, her gaze lighting on Dudley; his heart was beating frantically, so fast that he felt lightheaded. He watched her face change: laughter to puzzlement to surprise to puzzlement again, finally breaking out into a dazzling smile.
"Monsieur Dudley! Que fais-tu ici?" she cried out.
Time reset itself, and Dudley's tongue felt thick and heavy in his mouth. "This is my cousin's wedding," he said slowly.
"C'est impossible! You are a Weasley cousin?"
Dudley shook his head, his thoughts sluggish. "Potter."
"Harry Potter is your cousin? Non, non, comment est-ce possible? You did not tell me `that you are a wizard!"
"I'm not," Dudley said, and he was angry, suddenly, that his voice was hoarse.
"Not? But you are the cousin of Harry Potter!"
Dudley didn't know what to respond to this, had no idea why his being related to the scrawny, outcast cousin he'd grown up bullying should make any difference. Instead, he blurted out an idea that had been growing and developing in his mind since his first glimpse of silvery-blonde hair in the tent: "You're a witch."
"But of course, oui! Pardon that I did not tell you, but I did not know that you know of magic. Bien sûr, I am happy that you know now," Gabrielle gushed.
A small voice in Dudley's head whispered, It's okay, everything's fine now. You know she's a witch, but it doesn't matter. Seeing that achingly beautiful form before him, Dudley wanted to listen to the voice, but it was silenced by a wave of memories: a lumpy couch in a cold, mouldy hut on a rock in the sea; the pain and the shame of a pink tail curling out of his trousers; his aunt floating like a giant balloon or a blimp on the ceiling, while his father's leg bled from the bites of a vicious, scared dog; and, stronger than anything else, the clammy cold that stole over his skin, bringing with it an intense fear, a sense of impending doom, and the sound of a long, rattling breath…
He didn't remember turning and walking out of the house or returning to the rowdy celebrations in the tent. He didn't remember sitting next to his mother and removing his jacket, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt, and grabbing a half empty glass that sat on their table. His senses were recalled only by the way the amber liquid in the glass burned more like fire than whiskey as it coated his mouth and tongue and slid down his throat.
Recalled to his senses, his eyes streaming as he coughed, Dudley groaned and put his elbows on the table, his head in his hands.
"Diddykins? Dudley? Diddy, what's the matter, tell me, what's wrong?" Petunia sounded frantic.
"It's nothing, mum," Dudley mumbled, swatting her hands away as they patted ineffectually at his arm.
"You can tell me—"
"These people, mum. I dunno, I think you were right all these years. They're freaks," Dudley said bitterly. As he spoke, the music in the tent swelled louder than the yammering voices of the guests, spilling out a slow, sweet melody.
Petunia was quiet for a moment. Then, "Do you want to leave? We could go." The offer sounded flat, a lie that a mother would tell her son to ease his pain.
Dudley suspected that they couldn't leave without Longbottom's help, and he had no idea if that wizard—the word sounded bitter even in the confines of Dudley's head—would be willing to help them so early on in the celebrations. He assumed that was the cause of the lie in his mother's voice, but as the strains of the music soaked into his ears, he looked up, and he saw his mother's expression, her face turned towards the dance floor. Her face was creased in lines of something that Dudley couldn't quite name, something that resided between grief and regret, longing and hopelessness, resignation and resoluteness.
Dudley followed her gaze to the dance floor; the newlyweds had just taken the floor for the first dance. Potter and his new wife were positively radiant, exuding their happiness into the air around them as they stepped to an approximation of the music's beat. Neither of them appeared particularly adept at dancing; neither of them seemed to mind.
It took Dudley a minute, but he eventually realized what that look on his mother's face meant, if not what it truly was. Other couples were starting to drift onto the dance floor, first the dumpy redheaded mother-of-the-bride and her balding husband, then Ron, the best man, and the brown-haired bridesmaid whose name Dudley had forgotten. Dudley stood and held his hand out, palm up, to his mother. "Well, Mrs. Dursley," he said, forcing a smile onto his unwilling face, "would you care to dance?"
As with everything else in this strange new landscape that they were traversing, Petunia hesitated before allowing her son to tow her out onto the rapidly filling dance floor. Perhaps it was fear that held her back—of the unknown, of the past—or perhaps it was that same nagging feeling of not belonging that was eating at Dudley. Whatever it was, the steady rhythm of the music and the dance eased her concerns, if the lines on her face were any means of judging.
While his mother's discomforts faded, Dudley's grew. He had hoped that the dance would distract him from the clamor inside his head, but the repetition of the simple steps left little for him to focus on outside of his own wildly spinning contemplations.
"Dudley, are you quite sure that you're all right?" Petunia asked again, worry creeping into her words.
Dudley opened his mouth to assure his mother that all was well, but the silver hair of Gabrielle's sister whipped past him as she danced nearby in her husband's embrace, and a strangled noise escaped his throat before he could catch it.
"I've made a bloody huge mistake, mum," Dudley blurted out.
Petunia's fingers tightened on Dudley's hand and shoulder. "What is it, Diddykins? We can fix it, whatever it is, we can fix it. Is it your job? One of your awards? Money, Dudley, is it money?"
"No, no, mum, no it's…" Dudley trailed off, shaking his head. "It's a girl," he choked out. Petunia gasped.
"Dudley! Have you gotten a girl pregnant? Oh, Dudley—"
"Mum! I'm not in school anymore, for crumb's sake. If I get a girl pregnant, I've got the means to take care of her without telling my mother that I've cocked it all up!" Dudley's irritation was momentarily stronger than any other emotion, but it was quickly brushed away by the tsunami of hows and whys and what nows hurtling through his brain. He struggled to put words to his inner turmoil, tried to choke out the words to tell his Very English Mother about what was troubling him.
"I—I've never heard this song before," Petunia stammered into the emptiness that Dudley had left. "It has a lovely…tempo."
"Yeah, definitely," Dudley said without thinking. He knew little about music, could never differentiate tempo from melody. With the state his mind was in, he didn't know tempo from shrimp scampi. He wanted to say something, some words that seemed ready to fall off his lips without his brain quite knowing that they were there, but instead of falling out they fell back, snapping elastically towards the back of his throat where he swallowed them down as they tried to choke him. Another long pause followed.
"Rather a lot of color, here, don't you think?" Petunia queried in a worthy attempt at restarting the conversation.
"I suppose," Dudley said noncommittally, seeing only silver.
"I've never been to a wedding with such a variety of bright colors. That man, there, with the yellow outfit, he rather calls attention to himself, I think," Petunia sniffed, her disapproval evident.
Dudley glanced up, noticed the cross-eyed, straggly white-haired man in the canary yellow robes, and glanced back at his mother. "Mum," he said, exasperated. "That bloke would call attention to himself if he were wearing a black suit and tie at a funeral. He's a right old case of crazy, just look at him."
"Then I don't see what he's doing at a formal function like this."
"There's no accounting for the guest list." Dudley heard the bitterness in his voice and hoped his mother did not.
She did. Petunia's brow furrowed. "Is there someone here you know?" she demanded.
Dudley flushed. "I—yeah, I mean, sort of—I…yeah, I guess," he admitted, shrugging to make it seem less consequential.
"I—it was…" Dudley could feel his face glowing red, radiating the heat of his discomfiture, but he couldn't think of a lie, so the truth—or a part of it, anyway—tumbled out. "I had a one-night stand with a girl, and I saw her here. It's weird, that's all."
"Has she seen you?"
"Well, yeah, we, er, spoke. Not much, just a few words."
"And you're sure she's not pregnant?"
"I don't want anyone trying to take advantage of you just because you're handsome and famous, Diddykins," Petunia said sharply. "People aren't to be trusted where money's concerned, you know."
"She hasn't asked for any money, Mum."
"Yet," Petunia corrected.
A wave of anger roiled through Dudley's stomach, and he exhaled a deep, suffering sigh. "Never mind, Mum. Let's drop it, okay? Let's just…let's just talk about something else."
"But think about it, Diddykins, you have a lot of money and regular people know it because you're famous. Be careful about money."
Dudley's nostrils flared, and the wave of anger started to seep out over his tongue. "Enough, mum, drop it. It's ridiculous, what would she need money for anyway? We don't have any idea what these people are like, they probably don't need money, why would they, they could just, you know, abra cadabra, jiggery pokery, alakazam anything they need, couldn't they? Who could possibly need money when they've got magic?" Dudley all but spat the words out.
"Mais, non, Dudley," that sweet French voice answered from behind Dudley's shoulder. Dudley broke away from his mother's suddenly slack grip and whirled around to face Gabrielle. "But of course we have the money. Magic cannot do everything. And when everyone else is also using the magique, then, alors, certainement there are things we must buy."
Dudley stood frozen on the spot, speechless. It was bad enough she was here, bad enough that he was angry and still wanted to ask questions about money, but that she was here and talking about magic stuff in front of his mother utterly destroyed him.
What would Petunia say? How could she possibly react to this? She'd been horrified enough that Dudley had a one-night stand; it was not, to Dudley, outside the realm of possibility that Petunia might have a proper heart attack at the thought of Dudley sleeping with one of them. It had certainly been a shock to Dudley. To Petunia? He could barely entertain the thought.
But here she was, Gabrielle in all her marvelous, breathtaking, wonderful beauty, a mildly supercilious smile playing about her lips as she corrected Dudley about witches and money. And here was Petunia, in all her tidy, anti-magic, no-nonsense properness, and as Dudley's eyes flicked back and forth between the two women in that dreadfully lengthy second, it seemed to him that two worlds were colliding. It was some variety of excruciating anguish, like watching as a Bentley and a Rolls accelerate towards one another down an alley with no escape route; the observer could marvel at the beauty, power, value, and craftsmanship while still mourning an inevitably tragic outcome.
"Pardon, Dudley does not seem to want to introduce me, Madame, but this seems to me most silly. Vous êtes sa maman, non?" Gabrielle's smile lost all its condescension and returned to its usual dazzling state as she raised her eyes to Petunia.
Petunia stared at Gabrielle, and Dudley felt himself reaching without any conscious thought to catch her as she fainted.
But Petunia didn't faint. Instead, she took a deep breath and said, "Oui, je suis Petunia Dursley. Et comment t'appelles tu?"
"You speak French?" Dudley blurted out.
"I studied it in school," Petunia responded, not moving her eyes from Gabrielle's face. Her words wavered slightly. "But I've not had much opportunity to use it since then. Your father isn't fond of…of French."
Dudley leveled an accusing glare at his mother. "I thought you weren't fond of—" his gaze slid to Gabrielle and back to Petunia— "French."
Petunia finally looked back at Dudley. There was a long pause as her expression changed slowly from shock to cold emptiness. "I'm not," she said, and Dudley hadn't heard her speak so icily since Potter had lived with them. "Why don't you two dance. I think I'd like to sit down for a bit," Petunia snapped. Before Dudley could say anything, she had made her way off the dance floor.
Dudley made to follow, but Gabrielle slid into his arms, and before he knew what was happening they were gliding across the dance floor. Dudley's head whirled; when he glanced down and saw her achingly beautiful smile, the world spun away from him and he had to let go and move and—
"Stop it!" he yelled. Their dance had carried them to the far edge of the dance floor, and as he'd pulled away from her embrace he had stumbled out of the tent. The noise was miraculously muffled—no, no, not miraculous, he had to remind himself, magically muffled—so he could hear the way his shout had boomed out over the grassy field. He staggered back a few more feet, pressing his palm to his forehead, as if that simple action could slow the tornado within his head. He groaned. "Stop it, stop, whatever…whatever magic—" and this time he spat the word— "you're using, just stop!"
Gabrielle stood just outside the tent. Dudley couldn't look at her face to read her expression, but he could hear the confusion in her voice. "I am not using any magic, Dudley."
"Yes, you are! You are!" Dudley bellowed. "You are, I know, because when I look at you I can't—I can't think! I can't think!" Dudley removed his ineffectual palm from his forehead to jab his index finger at Gabrielle. "You're confusing me, you're magicking me, stop it!"
"I am not!"
"You are! Witch! Get away from me!" The words tore out of Dudley's lips and slammed into Gabrielle with a force that he could see; she flinched violently.
The moment the words were out in the air, the storm of emotions in Dudley's head faded away, replaced by a dull throb and a hollow ache in his chest. "I'm sorry," he said automatically. "Sorry, please, I didn't mean—" But Gabrielle had already swept around the corner of the tent and out of view.