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Once Upon a Time

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Dudley's got five suits in the closet, one for each day of the week, and three chins like a ladder up from necktie to scowl, and a solid German car for driving to the corporate headquarters of Consolidated Demolitions, Ltd., every morning at half past seven. Dudley sits with thighs pushing knees wide apart, and drips sweat climbing the stairs, and when the receptionist snipes under her breath it's not like you can eat yourself happy Dudley throws such a wobbler that the next day she applies for a transfer to the department of breaking big things into little things with hammers.

She starts Dudley thinking about happiness, though, which leads to thinking about unhappiness. Once upon a time, Dudley had the pleasures of life sucked out by an invisible creeping horror. Knowing that evil really existed, waiting just around the corner from normal life, made it hard to go back to school. After that, Dudley was afraid of being put in the cupboard under the stairs, afraid of dirty old clothes and sharp words and birthdays with no presents or cake, of being laughed at by friends. It's an unpleasant shock to trace the roots of those fears down into the childhood certainty that if ever Dudley were a freak like Harry, there'd be no more love, ever.

Life was so much simpler when unhappiness was cured by bashing someone with a stick or having a go at foreigners or odd-looking people. As soon as school finishes, Dudley gets a job, a flat in London, and learns to laugh too loudly at other people's jokes over plates of greasy food and rounds of overpriced drinks. Dudley's not particularly happy being one of the lads, though. Happiness comes mostly in the recurring dream of being Aunt Marge.

The image that comes to mind is always of Aunt Marge blown up like a balloon, big and round, floating up out of her chair in her expanded tweeds. Dudley keeps getting bigger, year by year, but somehow the inside Dudley is being crushed smaller instead of rising into the sky. It would be fine if that inside Dudley just smalled itself out of existence, but it's always there, unhappy, daydreaming about balloons and huge sturdy skirts.

Dudley's twenty-four when things go sideways all of a sudden. Walking into Jean-Claude's for the usual junior corporate haircut, shave, and head massage, Dudley is full-frontally assaulted by a gilt-framed mirror and turns on one heel and walks out. Each step gets lighter and lighter until Dudley's standing in a dressing room with armfuls of clothes: pleated tweed skirts on the left, and pastel twinsets on the right.

And the clothes are absolutely perfectly right, but it's the man Dudley sees wearing them that's all wrong. Aunt Marge has a moustache, Dudley thinks, sullen the way it felt when a new toy lost its shine, but Aunt Marge also has something intangible that Dudley doesn't and all of a sudden it's what Dudley wants more than anything.

Dudley is very, very good at wanting things, and has a talent for yelling and stomping and being unpleasant until they are obtained. But there's only so much that Dudley can do, even with double strands of very nice imitation pearls and little clips to hold back the hair that Jean-Claude no longer cuts. Dudley's twenty-six and gets funny looks from the men in the office, who don't mention when they're going out for drinks anymore. Mum and Dad think it's time to get married and settle down with a nice girl in a nice house before Dudley turns (Mum lowers her voice to say it) metrosexual.

Dudley twirls in the dream, slowly rising, round and glorious and -- here's a new thought -- full of magic.

That's what Dudley's been overlooking; there is someone who can help, he just needs to be found.

It takes a week of badgering shop assistants in some of London's dodgiest new age and occult supply shops to find one girl who admits to knowing who Harry Potter is, and Dudley nearly yells at her just to have the satisfaction of bullying someone whose hourly wage probably isn't enough to buy a can of tinned tomatoes. Instead, Dudley hands her a note in an envelope sealed with glue and tape and staples, and a handful of banknotes that she accepts with baffled amusement.

Fifteen minutes later Harry rings Dudley's mobile, and at half-past six they're sitting down with large mugs of foamy coffee in a shop the size of Dudley's walk-in closet.

"Looking good," Dudley says heartily, because that's how all conversations start, before moving into a discussion of sport. Harry is still short, but he's muscular, and he wears a grubby hooded sweatshirt and jeans as if clothing doesn't matter to him. Dudley expected him to be more openly freakish.

Harry laughs and gives his coffee a stern look. It stops steaming, and Harry shares a grin with Dudley before he takes a gulp. "I haven't slept through a night since the baby was born, and I know I look it."

A baby is completely blindsiding news, implying things about Harry that Dudley would never have thought possible. Mum would be crushed that Harry turned out to be the normal one, after all. "Oh," Dudley says, not heartily at all. "Boy or girl?"

"Boy," Harry says offhand, and then gives Dudley the sort of look that goes straight through all the largeness to the crushed-down Dudley inside. "You're looking remarkably like Aunt Marge."

"Do you really think so?" Dudley says. The skirt's pleated and heather-coloured, and the green sweater matches the knee-high stockings, and Dudley's never worn these clothes outside of the flat and is nervous enough that it's hard to suppress over-loud jovial anecdotes about shopping. Dudley sips the coffee instead.

"Well," Harry says hastily. "A younger version, of course. With less moustache."

"I thought you'd laugh," Dudley says.

Harry shrugs. "My godfather could turn into a dog, my father into a stag, my godson's a. . . well, I guess the Muggle word is shapeshifter, and his dad was a werewolf. I'm used to people changing." He pauses, and stirs sugar into his coffee absently. "I'm also used to people dying, and it makes family feel. . . important. So yeah," Harry says, and slaps his hands on the tabletop lightly. "You ready to go, then? I'm an Auror, that's like a policeman, so I'm not the kind of wizard you want to see. You're looking for someone who does medical transfiguration. I do have connections."

"Oh," Dudley says again. Harry's talking gibberish, but it's easy enough to nod along. "I can get you a good deal at the company I work for," Dudley says. "If you ever want anything really large smashed down until it's in tiny pieces."

Harry stares blankly for a moment, and then gives one sharp nod. "I'll keep that in mind," he says, standing and starting for the door.

"I will be coming back, won't I?" Dudley asks.

Harry gets to the door first and holds it open. "If you want to," Harry says as Dudley walks through. "Up to you." Outside on the pavement, Harry takes Dudley's arm. "The magical world's pretty brilliant, though."

It takes Dudley a moment to realise that as they walk they're climbing up through the air as though there were invisible stairs. Looking down, everyone's oblivious; looking up, Dudley sees more stars than London's skies have ever shown.

"I'm taking a short cut," Harry says, apologetically, and Dudley feels the skirt snap in the wind.

"I dreamed of this," Dudley says, letting the weight of fear and unhappiness fall away, expanding into the sky.

and they lived, happily, ever after