|atdelphi (atdelphi) wrote in hp_beholder,|
@ 2014-04-24 15:45:00
|Entry tags:||beholder 2014, dudley dursley, dudley dursley/millicent bulstrode, fic, het, millicent bulstrode, rated:pg|
FIC: "Centaurs and Merfolk" for anguis_1
Title: Centaurs and Merfolk
Pairings: Millicent Bulstrode/Dudley Dursley; past Millicent Bulstrode/Vincent Crabbe
Word Count: 3800
Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): *[Contains non-graphic references to minor character death in canon.]*.
Summary: The last thing Millicent wants to see when she Disapparates from her father's house is a stranger standing at her door. The last thing she expects is her boyfriend's mother.
Author's/Artist's Notes: This ended up being more of a family story (and a lower rating) than I intended, but I hope it works for you, anguis_1. And I particularly hope the love for and between these characters – flaws and all – shines through.
The last thing Millicent wants to see when she Disapparates from her father's house, with the whip crack of her sudden departure still ringing a counterpoint to the blood pounding in her ears, is a stranger standing at her door. Worse, the well-coiffed figure in fashionably Muggle-length robes peering through the darkened first floor windows at the arrangements on display looks like the sort of customer who will spend hours peppering her with pointed questions about her inventory and gardening expertise, only to leave with a single pot of Shrinking Violets. Not for the first time, she wonders why she ever thought living above the store would be more convenient.
"Shop hours are noon to five Sundays, ma'am," she calls out, willing the corners of her mouth upward in what she already senses will be a doomed attempt not to let her typical brusque professionalism err too far on the side of brusque. "Come back tomorrow at nine, or leave your address, and I'll..."
Her hurried spiel trails off as the light from her wand illuminates the details of her visitor's face, and she realizes with a jolt that this woman she has never met before is no stranger. She is, instead, the last person Millicent would ever expect to see here of all places: her boyfriend's mother. "Mrs. Dursley?"
"It's true," the woman whispers, eyes fixed on Millicent's wand, barely able to force the words through a terrified grimace Millicent last remembers seeing on the faces of the dead after the battle at Hogwarts. "I hoped...maybe some mistake...but why else..." Her frozen expression dissolves in a sudden burst of tears. "I didn't want to be right."
Millicent's gut goes cold. And I wanted him to be wrong, she thinks.
She remembers the last discussion she and Dudley had on the subject of his parents, months ago, at the moment as it hovers on the verge of becoming an argument.
"They won't like me. Fine. I understand that," she hears herself saying in barely tamped-down frustration, as she has too many other times to recall. "But what's the plan? Try to keep them from it forever? Won't that make things worse?"
"If you really understood, you wouldn't ask that. You think you do, but you don't." Dudley throws up his hands, then sends them raking through his hair as he paces away from her. She is tempted to arrest the gesture and redirect that grip around her waist instead, as these debates have come to an abrupt end more times than she cares to admit, but restrains herself. "No matter how many times I try to explain it, I know you're just seeing your dad doing his best over small talk to act like he hasn't failed you. It won't be like that with them."
Dad's getting better, she wants to protest, but realizes at least some part of him must be hoping she'll take the conversation in that direction. Which only serves to frustrate her further. "So let me see for myself, dammit!"
She isn't sure, either in the moment or in memory, whether it is the suddenness with which he turns to face her, or something in his eyes, or the way his hand has clenched and appears to be moving upward that triggers her battle instincts. But next thing she knows, she has her wand out and raised with a trembling arm.
A few heartbeats elapse, marked by no other sound in the room than ragged breathing.
"Put that thing down," he growls at last, with the tremor of a trapped animal, "or I leave and don't come back."
She brings it to her side, but does not drop it. "Lower your fist, then."
His movement is an exact mirror of hers, save for the released hand. "Wouldn't have hit a girl even back when I got in schoolyard fights."
"And I'd never hex you," she says, keeping her eyes locked with his as she slips the wand back into her pocket.
He nods, but she can see the words only partly register. She waits for him to speak. "I can't...I won't make you pretend you don't know anything about magic. But I can't make them, either. And if—when—they say something, I can't let you...respond. Can't stop you if you do, can't say you'd be wrong to, but..." He sinks into the nearest chair and squeezes his eyes shut. "I just can't."
She walks over, smooths back his hair as she wraps her other arm around him, and presses a kiss to his forehead. "Then we won't."
"Dudley's not here," is all she can think to say, now that won't has turned to must.
"I know." Mrs. Dursley hiccups out a few more sobs, which are abruptly replaced by a scowl. "You weren't supposed to be, either. Hestia said you spend Sunday evenings out late."
"Hestia?" The name sounds vaguely familiar, for reasons Millicent can't quite recall, except that she hears Dudley's voice when she tries to place it in context. Is Hestia the Squib neighbor?
"Jones," clarifies Mrs. Dursley, and Millicent's vision goes red for an instant as recognition hits her from Dudley's rare, terse accounts of his year spent in hiding. "I asked her if she could find out anything when Dudder...Dudley kept missing family suppers."
"I...see." She will fly into a proper rage at having been spied on when it will not result in an emergency Floo call to Dudley letting him know his mother has been taken to St. Mungo's with symptoms of heart trouble. Though considering Mrs. Dursley appears to be on a first name basis with Auror Jones, perhaps his mother is not so easily shocked as Dudley has led Millicent to believe. The fact she is standing on a street no Muggle should even know... "Is she here? Did she bring you?"
Mrs. Dursley shakes her head once, briskly. "I took the bus."
"The..." Millicent gapes. "The Knight Bus? How...?"
With what might be the faintest trace of triumph, were it not tinged with disgust, Mrs. Dursley reaches into her handbag and pulls out a thin wooden dowel that might – if seen from a great distance by a myopic, elderly bus driver – be mistaken for a wand.
"Well," says Millicent, when she recovers what remains of her composure. Even this short speech promptly exhausts her resources, as she finds herself again at a loss for words. In desperation, she falls back on her limited customer service skills. "Since you've come all this way…want some tea?"
"Had a drink earlier." Mrs. Dursley turns the dowel over in her hands, but makes no other movement or indication she wishes to continue the conversation.
Perhaps she is willing to stand there all night, but Millicent's patience has run out at last. "Well, I need one. Come in or don't; whichever you please." Pushing past Mrs. Dursley, she mutters her password and stomps up the stairs the instant the door opens, leaving it unlocked behind her with a silent prayer that she correctly remembers emptying the till before leaving.
She hears the footsteps she has been waiting for just as she has finished placating Sooty with a saucer of milk and is taking the firewhiskey down from the shelf. When Mrs. Dursley appears at the top of the stairs, Millicent wordlessly hands over a full tumbler pours a second one for herself.
Mrs. Dursley sets her glass down on the table as though afraid it will burn her, glances at Sooty as though she expects an attack at any moment, then edges herself on to a chair. Her eyes as she studies Millicent, though, are the opposite of prey. "So," she says. "Millicent, is it?"
Millicent takes a swallow to fortify herself. "That's right."
"Hestia says your family's…"
"Not fond of Muggles, no," Millicent interrupts, hoping her educated guess won't be taken for Legilimency. "But my mother's father was Muggleborn." Then, because she does not like being the one on the defensive: "And Dudley's been to my father's house several times."
Mrs. Dursley's eyes narrow. "How did he find you?"
She smiles, half pleased to have scored a point, half at the memory. "I found him."
"They're excellent specimens, Mr. …Dursley." Millicent rattles off her pitch, hoping the brief glance down at her list of contacts to confirm which one she is speaking to will not scuttle the remainder. "Well-suited to a range of environments and soils, and brighter and longer-lasting than the varieties you'll find at commercial nurseries." Though not, of course, so bright as to alert the Ministry to Millicent's new sideline. "And because I'm an independent" – and nearly broke – "operator, I can work with you to negotiate quantities or a price per unit that suits your needs."
Mr. Dursley (not yet Dudley) fingers the petals of one of the sample roses she has brought with her: her favorite, the sunset-colored one. She appreciates the care he takes, silently reproaching herself for not having expected it of him at first glance. An excellent specimen himself, for someone who likes men with a certain solidity to them – as Millicent does – but nature often holds a bias against combining those traits with sensitivity. Millicent herself is proof of that.
"These are beautiful, Ms. Bulstrode," he says, further embarrassing her with his easy recall of her name, "but I'm afraid I don't have the authority to negotiate. I'm just the chief landscaper. Final say over purchases rests with our financial officer."
"Oh." She knows where this is going; has heard it too many times from both Muggle and magical prospects. So sorry, can't commit, need to run the numbers. We'll be in touch soon. They never are. She reaches out to gather up her samples. "I'm very sorry to have taken up your time."
"But," continues Mr. Dursley, not letting go of the rose, "we're a small operation ourselves, and as long as I can convince Piers we'll make more money than we'll spend, he usually listens when I want something. Why don't we talk a bit more over lunch? See if we can't come up with something that'll work for both of us?"
Oh, yes. She has heard this, too. Not as frequently, nor half so subtly, but always the same skin-crawling implication: what can we do for each other, girl? If she wanted to go into that business, she wouldn't bother with flowers. She snatches back her rose. "I'll send you a formal proposal."
He moves to intercept her with an alacrity as surprising as his gentleness with the plants. "Ms. Bulstrode, please," he snaps, before she can demand he move or shift the flowers so that she can draw her wand. "If I want to ask a pretty girl to dinner, I'll ask her to dinner."
Reading her stunned silence at this as further dismay or perhaps fear, he flushes and backs away. "I mean…I'm sorry. I shouldn't have…"
"No, I shouldn't have," she says quickly, quashing a brief pang that the dinner invitation is now almost certainly off the table. She knows how hard it is to overcome a blow to one's professionalism, let alone one's character. Perhaps they can at least salvage a business relationship out of it. "Lunch will be fine."
Lunch is more than fine. And when, at the end of it, Mr. Dursley (who is now very much Dudley) asks if she would like to continue the portion of the discussion that has crept beyond business plans and into the personal over dinner, she agrees without hesitation.
"Why what?" Millicent asks, jolted back from pleasant recollections by Mrs. Dursley's far more unpleasant tone.
"Why my Dudley?" howls Mrs. Dursley, sending spatters of whiskey into the air and Sooty speeding from the room as she pounds her fist on the table. "Seven years of his life under a shadow, one in actual captivity, and you drag him back into all this with your…" A few more whiskey drops go flying as she gestures at Millicent's chest – a feature Millicent herself has never considered an asset, particularly when rushing from the garden on a hot day to answer the shop bell, but has long ago stopped caring enough to argue against others' assumptions. "Couldn't you have stuck to your wizard boys?"
"Boy," Millicent murmurs, unable to help herself. Unable to be heard, she hopes, thinking the remark will be misinterpreted, and not relishing the prospect of an explanation to someone likely to press for details. But Mrs. Dursley's anger vanishes instantly, replaced by flushed cheeks and an awkward silence Millicent feels obliged to break, however unnecessary her next words. "And no. I couldn't."
"Who's Vince?" she hears, as she struggles to recapture the first few seconds of floundering her way out of an uneasy sleep. She remembers not recognizing the voice at first; she also recalls being too disoriented to care.
Until the face resolves itself into Dudley's, and her night terrors, already beginning to fade, slip entirely from her thoughts. It is his first time spending the night at her place, after months of dating. Wasted months, she thinks, as she recalls Dudley's unmistakable look of recognition when she finally showed him her wand, and the accompanying mutter of "I should've guessed."
But Dudley repeats – not angry; merely seeking information, or possibly confirmation – "Who's Vince?" And just like that, the chill returns.
"Old boyfriend," she says. Which is not entirely a fair description of her relationship with Vince, considering the speed with which their families began planning their wedding when they sent their owls home seeking permission to date. Or considering the way he looked at her and always saw her, not an easy mark, or waste of space, or the countless other dismissals she has seen in too many men's eyes.
Not Dudley's, though. And right now, he is watching her, waiting to see what more she is willing to reveal.
She sighs. "Go on, ask. But so help me, if you start any jealous nonsense..."
"Didn't think I had to." He reaches out to brush her cheek, then pulls back, a teardrop clinging to one finger. "Don't need to ask, really. Not about that. Just...if you want to talk..."
"Thanks." She thinks she will, eventually. But the offer is what Vince would have done, and for that alone, she is grateful. "What did you want to ask about?"
"...The war," he admits. "They – Jones and Diggle – didn't tell us much, except when Dad would rant about wanting to go out alone or back to work. But...it was bad, wasn't it?"
"Mostly toward the end," she says, matter-of-factly as she can to keep other memories at bay. "The Headmaster kept us safe as he could." She debates qualifying the us, decides against it, and is struck by a thought in the process. "Can I ask you something?"
He shrugs. "If I can answer."
"Fair enough," she says, buying herself time to think through exactly how to phrase the question. Sooty's sudden appearance on the bed buys her a few seconds more, as Dudley scritches behind the cat's ears: a bit more roughly than she would, but Sooty seems delighted by the attention. "Most Muggles don't know about the war, right? The ones that did ran or..."
"Couldn't," he finishes for her.
"Right. So. Why'd you get a guard?"
"My cousin." In the past, this statement has served as sufficient explanation. This time, Millicent waits patiently until he sighs in surrender. "Perk of being the Chosen One, I guess."
"The Chose..." Until now, she'd thought someone's jaw dropping in surprise was merely a figure of speech. She isn't sure who she expected – that Hufflepuff who was always nattering about Eton, maybe, or even some hidden Malfoy connection given Dudley's blond hair – but… "Harry Potter? Your cousin is Harry sodding Potter?!"
In his half-sheepish, half-resigned expression, she can almost detect a family resemblance. "Not as though I had any choice in the matter, is it?"
Flashes of green flame from her dream rush through her head, mingling with her memories: an awareness of a quiet presence as she reads a book in the Slytherin common room; the unexpected pressure and warmth of lips meeting her for the first time; shouted admonitions and tearful pleas at the sight of something lurking beneath an unrolled sleeve; a too-small box being lowered into the earth. She holds a hand to her temple. "I...I don't know what to think about this."
Dudley snorts and heaves himself off the bed. "Good luck. I've been trying to sort through it since we were eleven."
"Where are you going?" she snaps, as she spots him shrugging on a bathrobe and padding toward the door, Sooty close on his heels.
"Kitchen. You can think just as well on a full stomach as an empty one, yeah?"
Her lips twitch in a traitorous smile. "Suppose so."
"You said your family's met Dudley." Mrs. Dursley seems to have recovered enough to change tactics, or at least circle back to one less fraught with peril. "What do they really think of him?"
Millicent considers her father's careful phrasing from earlier that evening, and rejects it as she feels the bile begin to rise in her throat again. "I'm not even sure I know what they really think of me."
"I was in London yesterday," Dad announces, near the end of what is shaping up to be an unusually quiet dinner even by Bulstrode family standards.
"Really?" Millicent nearly drops her fork. In the fifteen years (can it really have been that long?) since Mum's passing, the limits of her father's interest in the outside world – never expansive to begin with – have dwindled to almost nothing. Some Sundays, Millicent can only bring herself to honor her weekly commitment with a stern reminder that if something calamitous has befallen him between visits, there will be no other way of knowing.
"Your young man asked me to meet him." Dad's forced attempt at casualness is not helped by the intensity with which he regards her. "He had an important question. Concerning you."
Millicent's heart gives a jolt, then resumes operation at twice normal speed. "What did you tell him?"
"I told him it was your choice to make."
"Then why are you telling me?" And why did he need to be told? she wonders in irritation, though whether at having the surprise spoiled, Dudley's apparent presumption she's enough of a traditionalist to need her father's blessing, or the realization maybe she does, just a little, she isn't sure. Probably all of the above.
"Because I hope you'll make that choice wisely." Dad reaches across the table and clasps his hands around hers. It is more direct, intimate contact than they have had in longer than Millicent can remember. "I don't dislike him, kitten. If for no other reason than he appreciates what he has in you. But I'm not certain either of you...well –"
"Appreciate what he lacks?" she asks, tartly, pulling back.
Her father spreads his arms and offers an expansive shrug, as if to indicate the matter is beyond him. "As the old saying goes, centaurs and merfolk may fall in love, but where would they live?"
"It's a good thing Dudley and I aren't centaurs or merfolk, isn't it, then?" she snaps. Really, does he want her to elope out of spite?
Is she capable of doing something so stupid without even realizing it?
"No," she says out loud, in answer – and admonition – to herself. "No, Dad. You had your chance at a pureblood son-in-law. Only he believed this shite, and it got him killed. Dudley may be Muggle, but he's Slytherin enough to know what fights aren't worth picking."
Her father's eyes are moist, and she realizes with a lurch that he's missed her point entirely. "And you, Millicent? When Vince died, did you decide to stop fighting?"
"Am I settling, d'you mean?" She waits only half a second for a response from him before pushing back from the table, not expecting any. In this, at least, she is not disappointed. "I don't need Dudley to tell me what I'm worth. But it is nice to know at least one of the people who's supposed to appreciate me does."
She does not – cannot – watch her father's reaction. Instead, she raises her wand…
…And comes full circle. For the second time in an hour, she straightens her spine and draws herself up.
"All right, Mrs. Dursley. You came to find out why. Or at least about me. Well, here I am. Millicent Bulstrode. I could tell you about the shop, or my garden, or school, or my family, or even how I spent the war if you wanted. But all I want to say is that God help me, I love your son. I don't want to have to fight you for him. I don't know I'd win. But I don't know how to do anything else."
For the first time, Mrs. Dursley smiles. It is not a warm or expansive smile, but it is still, unquestionably, a smile. "You remind me of Marge."
Millicent blinks. "Dudley's aunt?"
"Very...solid woman." Before Millicent can draw unpleasant inferences, Mrs. Dursley continues. "No nonsense. Knows what she thinks and what she wants and never apologizes for it. She'd have told Albus Dumbledore to leave her family alone."
So would I, Millicent thinks, but suspects Mrs. Dursley has no more desire to raise the ghosts behind that statement than she does Vince. She waits instead.
At last, Mrs. Dursley sighs. "I can't promise I won't fight this, Miss Bulstrode. It's nothing against you." She seems a bit surprised, as though discovering this sentiment for the first time as she says it. "But I'm certain I'll never stop wishing for something...not this for my Dudley. That I could have made things...easier for him somehow." The smile returns. "But then, how does that make me different from any other mother?"
Millicent refreshes her glass, then tops off Mrs. Dursley's, resisting the urge to Banish the spilled liquor and Sooty's unfinished milk. "So where does that leave us?"
"Next Sunday." Mrs. Dursley picks up the tumbler and drinks without hesitation. "You and Dudley are coming to tea."
Before she can break into a smile of her own, a thought occurs to Millicent. "Mr. Dursley...?"
"Off on a business trip." Any trace of happiness on Mrs. Dursley's face disappears behind a mask: one that appears to have been carefully practiced. Suddenly, the correspondence with Hestia Jones makes more sense. "I make no promises for him."
"Understood." Millicent raises her glass, and holds it out until Mrs. Dursley returns from wherever she has retreated, so that the other woman can bring her own to meet it with a slightly bemused clink. "To peace in our time."