He could tell that it was the right place. It was the sort of place - and filled with the sort of people - that would have made his parents intensely uncomfortable. Dudley Dursley was not very much at ease, himself, as he made his way up the drive toward a house that would have made his mother gasp and avert her eyes, and his father turn purple with indignation at its mere existence.
He parked the car behind the house, very conscious that it was the only one, though the garden already thronged with people. Never in all his life had Dudley felt so out of place. His khaki trousers and light blue shirt - anywhere else, the epitome of summer nice-but-casual - could not have been more different from the brightly-coloured robes the other guests wore.
I could have worn my dressing gown and fit in better here, he thought gloomily, balling his hands into fists to hide their shaking.
His parents had been horrified when they received the invitation - delivered by owl, of course - and would not even consider accepting, treating the engraved announcement as if it were the deepest of insults. Dudley, who had spent the past four years trying - not always successfully - to root out a similar attitude in himself, had immediately decided that he would accept, and told his parents so. His mother had wept, and his father had shaken his head sadly, declaring that he would not pay to have another tail removed from his son's backside.
Standing at the edge of the crowd of strangers, so remarkably different from everything with which he and his family were familiar, Dudley experienced his own misgivings. Before he could act on them, however, and give the whole thing up as a bad job, a tall man with curly red hair and horn-rimmed spectacles strode forward to greet him.
"Welcome to our home!" the stranger declared pompously. He eyed Dudley's outfit with amusement. "You must be a friend of the groom. I don't believe we have any Muggles on our side."
"Yeah," Dudley said uncomfortably. "Er - family, actually."
"Really?" said the red-haired man, peering at Dudley with much keener interest. "I suppose that makes us family now, too. Percy Weasley. Brother of the bride." He extended a hand.
"Dudley Dursley," mumbled Dudley, shaking the offered hand.
"We'll get you a good seat, shall we?" Percy said, taking his arm and steering him through the crowd. "Your first wizard wedding?"
"Er - yeah."
"Well, never fear. I'm sure you'll - ah - fit right in." He gave Dudley's outfit another doubtful glance, then shooed him into an empty seat, a few rows from the front.
Dudley fixed his eyes on the altar, shoulders tense, and tried to ignore the stares and whispers of the people around him. He wondered whether this was how his cousin Harry had felt, all those years, being treated as something odd and freakish. The thought made him even more intensely uncomfortable.
"Hello," said a low, soft voice to his right.
He turned to find a pretty young woman in dark blue robes sitting in the next seat.
"Hi," he replied uncertainly.
"I was just thinking to myself that at least I'm not the only one who seems uncomfortable about being here," she said, smiling and holding out a hand. "Cho Chang."
She was tall and slender, with long, black hair and dark eyes. Dudley found he did not mind shaking her hand at all.
"You must be Harry's cousin." She looked him over with interest. "A Muggle, right? No wonder you're feeling out of place. You're probably the only one here."
"Is it really that obvious?"
"Sort of," said Cho apologetically. "But don't worry; I don't think anyone here will be nasty about it, or anything like that. I've heard Mr Weasley - the bride's father? - is wild about Muggles."
"Yeah. I - er - think I met him once." Dudley shifted awkwardly in his seat, remembering the day Mr Weasley and three of his sons had appeared in the Dursleys' fireplace. "So ... why do you feel out of place? If you don't mind my asking. You look like you fit right in."
"Oh." She blushed, glancing toward the altar. "It's nothing, really. Just that Harry and I used to go out."
"Really?" Dudley looked her over with new interest. His position as boxing champion at Smeltings had gained him a few dates in his school days, but none of those girls had been as pretty as Cho.
She shrugged. "It was a long time ago, and it didn't end well. We haven't been very good friends since then, but he and Ginny were kind enough to invite me, so I thought I ought to come."
"Same here," said Dudley. "It was nice of them, I guess."
"I was thinking of skipping out after the ceremony," Cho confessed. "Some people will remember that Harry and I used to go out, and I would rather not spend the afternoon answering a lot of awkward questions."
"I was thinking of skipping the reception, too," Dudley admitted. "I mean, I don't know anyone else here, and what would I talk to them about, anyway?"
"What indeed?" She smiled, and the expression lit up her face. "I'll stay, if you do. We can protect each other from awkward questions."
The music was starting. People around them were hurrying to find their seats. She really was very pretty.
"It's a deal," he said, smiling.
The ceremony was surprisingly similar to other weddings Dudley had attended. Some of the vows were a little different, but he had no difficulty following along, which was handy, because he was not paying very much attention. His thoughts - and the occasional covert glance - kept wandering back to the woman seated beside him. Her eyes were fixed on the pair at the altar, and there were tears in them.
Afterward, as they accepted glasses of punch, and negotiated their way through the jubilant throng to a half empty table, Dudley said, "I know I promised to protect you from awkward questions, but would you mind if I asked one?"
She gave him a wary look, but nodded. "Ask away. I'll probably do the same, without meaning to, sooner or later."
"I was just wondering -" he tried to choose his words carefully, but decided there was no delicate way of asking. "Were you wishing, just now, that you and Harry hadn't split up?"
She blinked at him, then laughed, sinking into the chair he pulled out for her. "No, nothing like that. Being married to Harry Potter would be more trouble than I think I'd like."
"Why is that?" he asked, puzzled.
She gave him an odd look. "Because he's - you must know about that."
Dudley shrugged. "I met a wizard once who said that Harry was special or something, but my parents didn't believe him, so I guess I didn't really, either."
"It's true. Harry's famous. A real hero," Cho explained. "Four years ago, he saved - well, all of us, really. There was this Dark wizard who was taking over and killing loads of people. Harry stopped him."
Dudley looked incredulous. "Are you saying - Harry killed a super villain?"
"Well, not killed, exactly." Cho's brow furrowed. "But they fought, and when it was over, the Dark wizard was dead. I don't really understand it, myself. Not many people do."
"Is that why there are so many people here?" Dudley asked, looking around.
She nodded. "You might call this the event of the season. Everyone who's anyone is here." She pointed out a tall black man in long purple robes edged in gold. "That's the Minister for Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt. He's the head of Wizarding Britain."
"Wow," said Dudley, awed.
He wondered whether Kingsley Shacklebolt had a seat in the House of Commons. The man did look familiar. Perhaps Dudley had seen him on television, during Prime Minister's Questions.
They were interrupted by a small man in a mauve top hat. A woman with black hair and pink cheeks trailed reluctantly behind him. Dudley recognised Dedalus Diggle and Hestia Jones.
"Didn't I say so, Hestia?" the little man beamed. He grabbed Dudley by the hand and pumped it enthusiastically. "It's young Master Dursley! I spotted you from across the way. Not to say you stand out, or anything like that, but I did say to Hestia, 'Why, I do believe that's young Master Dursley over there! We must go and say hello!' How are you, my dear boy?"
"I-I'm well. Sir," said Dudley, somewhat overwhelmed. "And you?"
"Absolutely tip-top, my boy! Never better!" Diggle declared heartily. "Tell me, lad, was that your car I saw behind the house? Did you drive here?"
"Er - yes. Yes I did."
Diggle was positively giddy with delight. "How perfectly marvelous! So clever, just like your father! How are your parents, my boy?"
Dudley blushed, and gave Cho a sidelong glance. She looked amused.
"Oh, you know," said Dudley. "They're fine. Same as ever. Mr Diggle, have you met Cho?"
Diggle declared himself absolutely bowled over with joy to meet such a lovely young woman, and even Hestia Jones warmed up a little, though she exchanged no more than a few stiff words of greeting with Dudley himself.
When the two wizards moved on, Cho gave Dudley a teasing smile. "I thought you said you didn't know anyone here?"
"Oh," said Dudley uncomfortably. "I met them a few years back. When - er - everything was going on. My parents and I stayed with them. For protection, you know."
Cho's smile softened. "I'm glad you had someone looking out for you. Harry must have been relieved to know that at least his family was safe."
"I 'spose," Dudley mumbled.
Cho cocked her head. "You and Harry grew up together, didn't you? After his parents were killed? You must have been very close."
Dudley blushed and looked down at his punch. "Not really."
"Was it because he was a wizard?" asked Cho sympathetically.
"No," Dudley admitted. "At least - not exactly. I didn't even know there was such a thing as wizards or magic, until Harry went off to that school. Neither did Harry. My parents - they knew, of course. They don't like magic, though, and they didn't treat Harry very well because of it. I guess I just sort of followed suit."
"Oh." The corners of her mouth turned down in a frown.
"But I'm not like that anymore!" Dudley went on hastily, not wanting her to think ill of him. "I'm here, aren't I? Harry - well, I guess you could say he saved my life, too, at one point." He shuddered, remembering the cold horror of that night, seven years past. "My parents may be too set in their ways to change, but at least I know when to be grateful. I'm not saying Harry and I will ever be best mates, but - he's all right."
Cho's expression softened. "Well, Mr Diggle seemed to like you, so I supposed you can't be all bad. It takes a special kind of strength to change the way you think. It can be hard to admit when you've been wrong."
Dudley shrugged uncomfortably. He did not think he deserved any praise for trying to act like a decent human being, especially not after the way he had acted before.
"So, what do you do?" he asked, changing the subject.
"I'm a reserve Chaser for the Montrose Magpies," Cho said proudly. "But that doesn't really pay the bills, so I also do part-time work for the Ministry as a Charms developer."
He gave her an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, I don't know what any of that means."
She laughed. "No, it's my fault. I don't spend much time talking to Muggles. Simply put, I help make up new spells, and I play Quidditch."
"Quidditch is -?"
That surprised her. "But you must know about Quidditch! Harry was so good at it. Some people wanted him to play for England, after he left school."
"It's a sport," said Dudley, catching on. "You're a professional athlete. Wow! That's really cool."
"Second string," she reminded him demurely, but she seemed pleased to have impressed him. "I don't get to play in many matches. What do you do?"
"I'm a manager at my dad's company. It's called Grunnings. We make drills and things." He shrugged, self-conscious. "It's not very interesting, I'm afraid."
"I'm sure that's not true." She smiled again. She really did have a very pretty smile.
Glancing at the dance floor, Dudley summoned up his courage. "Say, I don't suppose you'd like to -?"
A surprised voice interrupted him. "Dudley?"
Dudley turned to see Harry and his bride, a pretty, redheaded woman whose cream-coloured robes offset a wealth of freckles. The bridal couple had been making a slow circuit of the tables, greeting their guests. Harry goggled at him in disbelief.
"Hey, Harry," Dudley said weakly.
"Harry, Ginny," said Cho, rising gracefully to greet them. "Congratulations."
"I'm so pleased you could make it, Cho," said Ginny, returning her smile warmly.
"Hey, Cho." Harry glanced from his ex-girlfriend to his cousin, looking puzzled. "Er - Ginny, this is my cousin, Dudley."
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you," Ginny said sincerely, squeezing his hand. "Harry's told me loads about you." She glanced back and forth between Dudley and Cho with an odd smile.
Dudley blushed. "Not much of it good, I don't suppose."
"Nonsense," Ginny grinned. "Harry didn't think you'd come, but after what he told me about the last time you two saw one another, I thought you might. You've won me ten galleons."
"Oh. Well, I suppose that's good," said Dudley, flustered. "It was nice of you to invite me. I hope you two will - er - be very happy."
"Thank you," Ginny said graciously as Harry fidgeted. "I'm sorry we haven't more time to chat, but we must be making the rounds. Some people are so keen to monopolise my poor husband." She rolled her eyes and glanced at Harry fondly.
Harry's cheeks flushed dark at the word husband, and he ran a hand through his wayward black hair, grinning self-consciously.
"It was nice to meet you," said Dudley, amazed to find that he meant it. "Maybe we'll see one another again sometime."
"That would be lovely," Ginny called over her shoulder, taking Harry by the hand and leading him to the next table.
"She seems nice," said Dudley.
"I suppose so," said Cho, giving him a sideways look. "Pretty, too."
He shrugged. "If you like red hair and freckles, I guess."
She raised her eyebrows. "And you don't -?"
"Excuse me," a voice broke in.
Dudley looked up to see a young woman with long, dark hair staring avidly at him.
"Can I help you?" Dudley asked, surprised.
"Did Harry just say you're his cousin?"
"Er - yeah," said Dudley, disconcerted. "I'm Dudley Dursley."
"My name's Romilda Vane," said the girl, smiling brightly. "Would you like to dance?"
"Actually, I was just -"
"Great!" Romilda clamped herself to his arm like a vise, and levered him out of his seat.
Dudley threw Cho an apologetic look. "I'll be right back."
"I didn't know Harry had any family," Romilda bubbled, as she steered him rather forcefully around the dance floor. "I mean, I suppose I knew he must have, but I didn't really think about it. You're a Muggle, aren't you? I didn't expect to see any of those here."
"Yeah," said Dudley, managing to squeeze in a word as she paused for breath.
"All my friends were so disappointed when they heard that Harry was getting married. A lot of them didn't even want to come to the wedding! They swore that Ginny must have slipped him a love potion, because no one could tempt him away from her. They'll be kicking themselves when I tell them Harry's cousin was here."
"Are you and Harry good friends?" he asked politely.
"Oh, the best!" said Romilda. "He and I were in the same House at Hogwarts. We had such fun! So of course when I saw the announcement in the Daily Prophet, I just had to come."
I'll bet you were close, thought Dudley cynically. Even my parents got an invitation.
"Doesn't Harry look handsome today?" Romilda gushed. "Of course, Ginny looks awfully nice, too, I suppose, even if she does have that Weasley hair. D'you think they'll last? I mean, I suppose they might, if she's using a love - oof!" She broke off as they bumped into what felt like a wall.
Dudley looked up - and up ... and up - to see a familiar giant, bearded face looming over him. His heart leapt into his throat, and began to hammer mercilessly.
"Why, if it isn' young Mr Dursley!" rumbled Hagrid, raising a gigantic tankard that looked like a small barrel in Dudley's direction. "Fancy seein' you here. Are yeh havin' a good time?" He winked broadly, and staggered sideways, forcing a dozen dancers into a traffic jam.
"Er - yes, Sir," said Dudley, swallowing heavily.
His hands twitched, suddenly damp with sweat. With an enormous effort of will, Dudley managed to preserve his dignity, and did not clutch his bottom in fear. He glanced around, but did not see a pink umbrella anywhere.
"Good ter see yeh, lad," said Hagrid, beaming. "I'm jus' on me way ter get some more o' Rosmerta's rum punch."
Dudley let out a sigh as the huge man staggered away, but his relief was short-lived. Romilda had regained her breath.
"What a clumsy oaf!" she declared. "I don't know why Harry invited him. He's a half-breed, you know. His mother was a giantess! Can you imagine anything more scandalous?"
Dudley tried very hard not to think about how a half-giant might come to be born.
"Oh, the song's ending," said Romilda, disappointed. "But maybe we could -"
"Did I hear you say you're Harry's cousin?"
This woman was blonde. She insinuated herself between Dudley and Romilda, fluttering her eyelashes at him.
"Er - yeah."
"Will you dance with me?"
"Me next!" called another woman.
"And me! I get him third!"
Half a dozen young women crowded around Dudley, and when he saw the look in their eyes, he knew real fear for the first time that day.
As one after another paraded him around the dance floor, to the scowls of her competition, he stopped trying to remember their names, or even keep up polite conversation. The women seemed happy enough to talk about themselves, and an occasional, "Oh, really?" seemed enough to keep them going until the music stopped, and the next one grabbed him.
At last, footsore and exhausted, he made his excuses and hurried toward the house, pursued by cries of disappointment. He ducked around a corner, leaning against the cool stone with a sigh of relief.
If he had not believed before that afternoon that his cousin was famous, he certainly believed it now. Dudley could not fool himself that his own charm and looks would gain him so much ardent attention. Only one person that day had seemed interested in Dudley for himself.
He peered cautiously around the corner of the house, but Cho's chair was empty. If he was honest with himself, Dudley had not expected her to still be sitting there, waiting patiently for his return, while he danced with one woman after another. She had probably left, or maybe someone else had asked her to dance. Someone handsome and intelligent and much less of a ... a Muggle. Dudley sighed.
He had conveyed his good wishes to Harry and his bride, and he had missed his chance with one of the prettiest, nicest women he had ever met. There was nothing to keep him there any longer. It was time to head home.
Dudley took the long way around the strange, lopsided house, avoiding the other guests. He wondered with vague interest how it stayed up. Magic, he supposed. When he reached his car, he was surprised to find Cho scowling at it.
"Did it insult your dress?" he joked weakly.
She jumped. "Oh. Hi. Are you leaving?"
He shrugged. "I thought maybe you'd left. There didn't seem like much reason for me to stay."
"I didn't think you'd notice I'd gone," she said pointedly.
"I'm sorry about those girls," Dudley apologised. "They're a bit odd, aren't they?"
"Are they?" she asked, giving him a sidelong look. "They seemed to like you."
"They like Harry's cousin," he pointed out. "Not one of them asked me anything about myself. No one except you."
She glanced at him, shoulders hunched, uncertain.
He gave her a hopeful smile. "You said you'd protect me."
Cho bit her lip, an answering smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "I suppose I did."
"If you're up for it," said Dudley, "I think I'm not too tired for one more dance."
She grinned, and took his arm. "I'd like that."