p class="MsoNormal" /p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia climbed the narrowing, creaking stairs of Tattersall Towers, wrinkling her nose—even after a month of living in London she had still not become used to the sharp smell of mould that the walls exuded. Her legs ached, her back ached, her head ached, everything ached after a long day of sitting at a desk and then sitting for unreasonable stretches of time on public transport to get back to her disgusting but very cheap accommodation./p
p class="MsoNormal"On her arrival at King's Cross Station, her first stop had been a jeweller's shop where she sold off several of her gold and silver pendants, necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Whatever else was to be said about Vernon, it was true that he had not stinted her on jewels, it being important to him to be seen to be wealthy. After a single night at a budget hotel she had found herself a very cheap flat, using up most of her money for the deposit, and after barely dropping off her bags had gone to the temp agency that had provided her with work until a year ago. They found her some on-site assignments, all of them short-term, but although they did not pay very well she was too drained to look for anything else./p
p class="MsoNormal"She had sent off a brief note to Arthur to let him know where she could be reached—Dudley she could reach by telephone from work for no cost—and in a week's time a long letter had arrived, most of it filled with an account of the past year's events, but the last page, covered in the round marks of falling tears, had made her weep:/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"The truth is my heart is broken. Every time I see George it breaks again. I can't even be home because I keep talking to Molly and she's not there. Be glad you still have Vernon and Dudley! I have Ron and Ginny and Charlie and George here, and Harry of course. Percy comes by almost every day, Bill and Fleur visit often. You'd think it helps, but it doesn't. We're having the funeral the day after tomorrow, on Wednesday. /em/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"Yours ever,/em/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"span style="mso-tab-count: 1;" /spanArthur/em/p
p class="MsoNormal"For weeks she kept busy, not giving herself time to think about what she had done and the mess she had got herself into. Working full-time exhausted her. Mostly she worked and slept, but did not mind it as it kept her from thinking too much about whether this life was really worth living. The only high points were provided by her correspondence with Arthur, and even that joy was muted by the necessity of implying that her circumstances were very different. She managed to keep from actually em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"lying/em to him by using terms vague enough to be readily misconstrued and making no mention of Vernon or Dudley, her work, or the fact that, no matter how much she stretched her pennies, the ends often refused to meet at the end of the week and she was often reduced to eating from the same tin of beans for the third day running. He had enough to grieve over without Petunia adding her own worries to the pile./p
p class="MsoNormal"She stepped over the uppermost stair which would give an alarming metal squeal if trodden upon and briefly juggled her meagre grocery bags to retrieve her keys. She opened the door with difficulty as the lock always stuck, to find to her shock an enormous brown owl sitting in the middle of her coffee table./p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia gave a startled screech, then lunged inside, slammed the door shut and shooed the thing off her white tablecloth—too late; judging from the evidence the animal had been waiting for her for some time. The owl gave an answering screech of protest and proffered its leg, to which a roll of parchment was attached with a red ribbon. Carefully she detached the scroll, and the owl immediately launched into flight and disappeared out the window, knowing better than to ask for the owl treats she kept for Errol./p
p class="MsoNormal"Scowling at the retreating bird she sank onto the couch and kicked off her shoes before turning her attention to the parchment roll. Her first thought was that it was from the Daily Prophet, whose subscription she had forgotten to cancel and whom she probably owed money that she did not have, but it looked fancier than a newspaper's invoices were likely to be, even a magical one's. The parchment was also thicker than the kind Arthur used. Her eyes slid to his latest letter, the first that had made her smile: Percy was marrying his girlfriend Audrey. Arthur's tone was much lighter, except when he mentioned how happy the wedding would have made Molly, but the letter ended in hopeful plans./p
p class="MsoNormal"She turned her attention back to the current letter and hesitantly slid off the red velvet ribbon. As it came loose it gave off a brief frisson of magic./p
p class="MsoNormal"Instead of a howler from the Prophet, Petunia found herself holding a ticket to the Hogwarts Express and an elegant invitation letter./p
p class="MsoNormal" /p
p class="MsoNormal" style="text-align: center;" align="center"strong style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"span style="font-size: 26.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size: 36.0pt; line-height: 115%; font-family: 'Edwardian Script ITC';"Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardrybr / invites all parents and guardians br / of students whose final year was disrupted by the war br / to a special/span/strong/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="text-align: center;" align="center"strong style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"span style="font-size: 26.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size: 36.0pt; line-height: 115%; font-family: 'Edwardian Script ITC';"Graduation Ceremonybr / and Graduation Ball/span/strong/p
p class="MsoNormal" style="text-align: center;" align="center"strong style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal;"span style="font-size: 26.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size: 36.0pt; line-height: 115%; font-family: 'Edwardian Script ITC';"on July / R.S.V.P./span/strong/p
p class="MsoNormal" /p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia stared at the text with her mouth hanging open. What on earth? Was this for Harry? … Well, of course it was. But how strange that the school should be sending this to em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"her/em, when there was not the slightest chance that she would go. Or could. Harry would have a fit if she went. With a snort she tossed the letter into the wastepaper basket and put the kettle on, and then busied herself by making sandwiches for tea. What an absurd idea—Petunia Dursley at Hogwarts. She sniffed again at the thought./p
p class="MsoNormal"And yet, that night, after tossing and turning for hours, she switched on the light and retrieved the letter and the ticket, unable to shake the persistent mental image of herself boarding the train and seeing the school for herself. Besides, Arthur would have received the same invitation, wouldn't he? Trembling slightly she read the invitation over and over again, with coulds, shoulds and woulds churning in her head./p
p class="MsoNormal"When the dawn sun began to wash the buildings across the street with light, she came to the conclusion that what she needed was to talk to Arthur. It had nothing to do with how much she missed seeing him and talking to him instead of just sending letters, she told herself, she merely needed advice, and he was the only person who could give it./p
p class="MsoNormal" -/p
p class="MsoNormal"She could hardly invite him to her flat without giving everything away and making him worry, so they agreed to meet in Hyde Park Corner the next Saturday. Petunia agonised over what to wear for hours and finally settled on a tan skirt and the one flower-print blouse she had left that actually complimented her complexion. She left early, but with the long Tube journey from Tattersall Towers she was several minutes late; she almost ran the last stretch from the Tube, panicked that he would think she would not come and leave./p
p class="MsoNormal"But there he stood, frowning at his watch, but when he turned around and spotted her his face lit in a delighted smile almost like his old self. For an awkward second Petunia hesitated before wrapping her arms around him, and his hug tightening around her pushed all sorrow and regret away./p
p class="MsoNormal""Well, of course you'll come!" Arthur exclaimed when she had managed to frame her question, hedged about with doubts. They strolled along the Serpentine, enjoying the early summer sun and fresh air and the quacking ducks. Arthur seemed much better now—well, he could hardly be much worse than the morning after the battle and still upright and sane!—and some of the usual liveliness had returned to his voice and gestures. "Merlin's beard! Why wouldn't you?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""It's not my place," Petunia frowned. "I don't think I'd be welcome. Harry can't possibly want me to come."/p
p class="MsoNormal"A horse-drawn carriage clattered past, laden with tourists and followed by a small cluster of young girls with cameras in hand. An elderly man strolled past, shooting a startled glance at Arthur as he passed them./p
p class="MsoNormal""It's the trousers," Petunia explained as an aside in response to Arthur's puzzled look. Did he really think those lemon-yellow trousers were inconspicuous Muggle clothing?/p
p class="MsoNormal""Harry may be a hero but he's also a teenage boy," Arthur sighed. "I know all about teenage boys. I used to be one, in fact, though that was a while ago. And although right now he might think he doesn't want to see you, but he'll be pleased if you come. Later, at least, when his ego's settled down a bit."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia sighed too. The thought of Harry actually touched a soft spot in her heart, a previously ignored one or a brand new one. She and Vernon had been the only parents the boy truly remembered. Should she start acting like one now, or was it too late?/p
p class="MsoNormal"At the same time, the prospect of going to Hogwarts, being the lone Muggle surrounded by what would probably seem like the entire wizarding world, made her more nervous than she cared to admit./p
p class="MsoNormal""I'll be there," Arthur pointed out cheerfully when she confessed to this. "And you won't be the only Muggle. They've invited everyone who's exempt from the Statute of Secrecy and, I think, a few who actually aren't—that means all the Muggles who are married to a magic user and a parent of one. I hear McGonagall wanted to invite absolutely everyone, but the Ministry refused to go along with it. And besides—" He twitched a little grin at her. "You're not even a Muggle!"/p
p class="MsoNormal""You know what I mean!" Petunia scoffed but smiled, happy just to see him not so serious./p
p class="MsoNormal""Please do come," Arthur said quietly after a pause. "Harry might or might not know what he wants and needs, but can you at least believe that I want you to be there?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia's heart swelled. "Oh, Arthur," she said. She longed to take his hand, but he would still be hurting too badly and she did not want to intrude on his grief. She sighed. "All right. I'll come."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur smiled, and from the way her spirits soared she knew she had made the right choice./p
p class="MsoNormal" -/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"London, June 10supth/sup/em/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"Dear Harry,/em/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"I expect you've heard that an invitation arrived for me to your graduation ceremony. Shall we meet at the station before the train leaves?/em/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"span style="mso-tab-count: 1;" /spanYour aunt Petunia/em/p
p class="MsoNormal" /p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"The Burrow, June 13supth/sup/em/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"Fine./em/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"span style="mso-tab-count: 1;" /spanHarry/em/p
p class="MsoNormal" /p
p class="MsoNormal" -/p
p class="MsoNormal"As the heels of her stylish but sensible shoes clicked across the granite floor of King's Cross Station, Petunia was conscious of a slight tremble in her knees. No one would notice anything amiss in her appearance, she knew. Her had not yet completely grown out of its cut, her shoes were meticulous, and her suitcase was expensive and elegant. Few people would spot (or in fact, she had lately suspected, care) that her jacket was four seasons out of date, and no one knew she wore no stockings right now under her slacks because she had to save both her pairs for the afternoon and evening. Of course, with no means to replenish her wardrobe or have her hair done, she would eventually degenerate into dowdiness and be reduced to wearing patched clothes and putting her hair up in a frumpy ponytail, but on this day she could still pass for a woman with a comfortable life. The ball gown she had borrowed from her cousin Helen, or more correctly em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"her/em sister-in-law Janet, was cushioned with paper and carefully folded inside her expensive suitcase where it seemed to radiate sartorial might./p
p class="MsoNormal"Helen had been surprised when Petunia had called, but nowhere near as surprised as she had been to find out about Harry. Petunia had begun the conversation by telling Helen absolutely everything about Lily and James and Harry, and they had ended up arranging to meet and then talking for hours. Helen was quite beside herself at the thought of being related to the famous Harry Potter, and it turned out that the boy had played Quidditch in the same team as Helen's nephew Oliver. The wizarding world, Helen had grinned, was a very small one, after all./p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur, Harry and Ronald were waiting between platforms nine and ten, an island in the middle of a steady stream of travellers only some of whom reached either of the visible platforms. Ginny Weasley and the other younger students, Petunia knew, had returned to their extensively repaired school a month ago to resume their education and finish the summer term, but the seventh-years had been excused. Most of them had taken part in the Battle for Hogwarts, where many had perished and the rest had been severely traumatised. Because there was no way to undo the damage to their education wreaked by the regime of the previous Headmaster (who Petunia had been shocked to learn was none other than Lily's horrible friend Severus Snape), nor of keeping the students behind for a year as that would have strained the resources of the school, the current Headmistress had sensibly decreed that the entire seventh year had graduated with marks derived from their previous years' accomplishments and adjusted for "special circumstances"./p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur smiled at her widely in greeting, while Harry and Ronald simply glared. Petunia nodded cheerful hellos to all of them, although her smile felt stretched a bit tight./p
p class="MsoNormal""I still don't see why the train has to leave so early," Ronald grumbled, continuing a conversation her arrival had disrupted./p
p class="MsoNormal""This is when it usually leaves," Arthur said. Both boys looked startled. "What? It starts later at the start of term, when everyone's travelling with a lot of luggage. There used to be a problem with stragglers."/p
p class="MsoNormal""I thought it was just transport to the school," Harry said./p
p class="MsoNormal""It is, but people need to get to and from Hogwarts more than twice a year. Normally it stops at Edinburgh, too, but I don't think we'll do that now."/p
p class="MsoNormal""What if I can't get through to the platform?" Petunia fingered her ticket nervously. She had run dozens of variations of the scene in her nervous mind last night, ending with her alternately somersaulting over the ticket barrier or fetching up in a limbo between the Muggle world and the wizarding one. At times she felt that the latter was already where she resided./p
p class="MsoNormal""See, all you have to do is walk briskly forward," Arthur explained. "It helps if you…"/p
p class="MsoNormal""…close your eyes," Petunia finished for him and sighed. "Yes, I know, I em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"have/em done it before, but it was a long time ago."/p
p class="MsoNormal""What?!" Harry exclaimed, staring in complete consternation. "When did em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"you/em ever get to the platform?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""To see your mother off." If her tone was curt it was only because that one time had been such a nightmare. She had been so jealous and so angry, she and Lily had quarrelled, their parents had grounded her when they got back home for ruining Lily's departure, and in general the whole affair had been a complete muddle of misery. She had, however, no intention of explaining this to Harry./p
p class="MsoNormal""Well, there, you see? You won't have any trouble," Arthur supplied blithely. "If you're nervous, just hang on to m… er, Harry, for example," Arthur said, and she quickly suppressed a smile at his change of tack. He glanced at the big station clock. "We're still waiting for the Grangers. Hermione's family. Have you met them? Lovely people, just lovely. Toothists."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Dentists," Ronald corrected./p
p class="MsoNormal""Are you sure?" Arthur frowned. "Tooth-doctors, they said."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Both boys shrugged. "It's still dentist," Harry said. "I don't know why."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Dens is Latin for tooth," Petunia put in. Everyone turned to look at her in surprise, and she coloured. "I do quite a lot of medical transcriptions with Latin words in them."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Really?" Arthur's eye began to acquire that familiar gleam caused by all things Muggle, and Petunia had to suppress another smile. She had missed him so. Surely, in time, his smiles and humour would return for good, and she would welcome them heartily even if he never laid a finger on her again… an outcome that was far from improbable. Molly's death had changed everything./p
p class="MsoNormal""Ron!" a girl's voice shouted from across the hall. Ronald's face transformed into a fair copy of his father's as it lit up in a huge grin./p
p class="MsoNormal""Hermione!" He waved at her and almost broke into a run, hurrying to embrace his girlfriend. Arthur followed his son rather more sedately to greet what Petunia supposed were future in-law candidates, leaving her alone with Harry./p
p class="MsoNormal""Nice you could make it, Aunt Petunia," Harry said to fill the conversational void. Then he added quickly: "You know, if you'd rather not come, it's okay. Mr Weasley will be there."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia sighed and ground her teeth. "It's your graduation, you're my nephew, and I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to come. But honestly, I think Ar… Mr Weasley made you write your rather brief letter, so if you want me to stay away, tell me that now, while he can't hear."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry's eyes sought out the Weasleys and the Grangers, chatting amicably while walking slowly back towards them. For several seconds he seemed at a loss for words./p
p class="MsoNormal""No, it's…" He paused and shrugged. "It's okay."/p
p class="MsoNormal"em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"It's okay./em After a decade of looking after him, she got an em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"okay/em. True, things had never been right between them, and Petunia supposed she deserved no better; on the contrary, Harry must think she deserved much worse than that./p
p class="MsoNormal"The Grangers did seem nice and Petunia was not at all sorry to meet them, although their short, willowy daughter kept giving her the same glares as Ron./p
p class="MsoNormal""All right, everyone," Arthur said as the greetings and introductions were over, "let's get to the platform…" he looked around. "Ron, Hermione, why don't you help the Grangers. And, and…"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Come on, Aunt Petunia," Harry said reluctantly. "I'll take you through."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The Grangers went through first with Ron and Hermione, and then it was her turn. She took Harry's arm, eyeing the barrier nervously./p
p class="MsoNormal""You'll be fine," Arthur said. He touched her shoulder briefly, apparently unable to decide between a pat and a squeeze and tried to clumsily do both at once without Harry noticing./p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia scrunched her eyes shut and tightened her grip on Harry. He started walking briskly forward and Petunia followed blindly as well as she could, feeling for the rhythm of his steps so she wouldn't stumble. When would they reach the barrier? Would she feel anything? Would she run headlong into it and break her nose? What if she got stuck halfway through? That thought made her stop dead and open her eyes with a gasp… only to see a gleaming red train that puffed steam into the air like a relic from an earlier time of the world. The words HOGWARTS EXPRESS were emblazoned in gold along its sides, over the heads of the crowd waiting for their turn to board. Most wore wizard robes of varying styles, but there were half a dozen people in Muggle clothes as well, some of whom looked at least as lost as she did./p
p class="MsoNormal"The famous Hogwarts Express. The memory of the eleven-year-old Lily and her own fifteen-year-old self struck her forcibly, how they had stood looking around in amazement, staring at the other children and their parents. Her heart began to beat more quickly, either from panic or from excitement. She was here for another, again, this time Lily's son, but as she mounted the steps of the train she could not suppress an unexpected surge of amused triumph. She em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"would/em go to Hogwarts, however briefly and however much em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"in loco parentis/em, but in her handbag she still carried her very own wand./p
p class="MsoNormal"The train was old-fashioned, but to her surprise not very different from ordinary trains on the inside. Harry and his friends scurried off to get a compartment for themselves while Petunia found herself ensconced with Arthur and the Grangers. The whistle sounded, the steam built up and puffed clouds onto the platform, and slowly, momentously, the train began to move, pulling out of King's Cross in tandem with a Muggle train leaving platform 10. The others chatted together amicably, while Petunia idly pictured herself leaving for Hogwarts as a child and toyed absently with her rings./p
p class="MsoNormal"Her rings. She hadn't even realised she was still wearing them. Suddenly she could think of nothing else than whether or not she should remove them or let them be until after the trip. She was still legally married to Vernon, but hadn't heard a peep from him since she left. Not that she had tried to contact him, either./p
p class="MsoNormal"How em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"did/em one go about securing a divorce?/p
p class="MsoNormal""Mrs Dursley?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia started. "I'm sorry, I was miles away," she stammered at the smiling Mrs Granger. "Yes?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Have you ever been to Hogwarts?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Me? No, no I haven't," Petunia said. "Have you?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""No, never. Though of course it feels like we have, as Hermione can't stop talking about it," Mrs Granger laughed. "Is Harry the same?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Not really." Petunia cleared her throat and had to force out her next confession: "We've not been on very good terms."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Oh, what a shame." Mrs Granger gave a stricken look after the manner of one hearing an unfortunate fact not remotely relevant to oneself. "Well, I'm sure it'll get better. The teenage years are such a burden."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Mrs Granger tactfully changed the topic, and fortunately conversation was soon interrupted by the arrival of the tea trolley, an old-fashioned affair piled high with sweets and an afterthought of a teapot. Arthur rose to pick out things which he then handed to Petunia and the others. The Grangers got Chocolate Frogs with their teacups, and Arthur grabbed a packet or two of just about everything for himself./p
p class="MsoNormal""I've been trying to get Horville Honeyduke to open up a branch in Diagon Alley for years, but he doesn't even have a postal service," Arthur said and handed her a teacup and a packet that read em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans/em. "Be careful with those, Pet, you'll want to lick each one before eating it. The packet says 'every flavour' and they mean em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"every/em flavour."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia almost inhaled the candy bean she had been about to pop into her mouth. Arthur hadn't even noticed that he had called her Pet by accident. The Grangers paid no mind, but she would have to have a word with em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"Mr Weasley/em about how they should conduct themselves in public./p
p class="MsoNormal"After tea the Grangers wandered off to have a look around the train and meet people. Some of Arthur's old friends came round and invited him to sit with them, and although he asked Petunia to join them, she opted for a chance to sit alone and calm down. The whirl of novelty was beginning to overwhelm her just a little. She leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes, letting the steady beat of the rails lull her./p
p class="MsoNormal"The door slid open. Petunia considered feigning sleep for a second or two, but then reluctantly lifted her head and to her amazement saw Harry just about to close the door again./p
p class="MsoNormal""Hello, Aunt Petunia," he said, seeing her move. "Uh…" He glanced around as if looking for an escape route./p
p class="MsoNormal""Mr Weasley again?" Petunia asked, not unkindly. Arthur was clearly on a slightly misguided mission to generate good feeling between them by throwing them together./p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry twitched a smile. "Can I come in?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Of course."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Mr Weasley told me to warn you," said Harry, taking the seat opposite, "about some things at Hogwarts. Nothing dangerous, but he thought you might be frightened, seeing as, well, we haven't really talked about it before. The train takes us to Hogsmeade, the village, and we'll go up to the school in carriages drawn by Thestrals. They're basically invisible flying horses."/p
p class="MsoNormal""I see," Petunia said neutrally, trying to bypass the more outlandish aspects of this announcement. "I used to ride horses as a girl."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry grunted. "Well, don't try to make friends with these ones. They're okay, but a bit fierce sometimes. Mr Weasley seemed to think there was a chance that you'd be able to see them, but if you do, just remember, they're okay."/p
p class="MsoNormal"This description hardly served to make Petunia less apprehensive./p
p class="MsoNormal""Then at the school, there's ghosts," Harry continued. "I em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"really/em don't know why Mr Weasley wanted me to particularly tell you about them as Muggles can't even see ghosts. But they're all okay, except the Bloody Baron that is, but he'll probably behave. Oh, and Peeves, the poltergeist, he gets on your nerves but he's basically harmless. Gryffindor's ghost is Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, he's very friendly, as long as you don't mention his neck."/p
p class="MsoNormal""His neck. Very well," Petunia said weakly. "Sounds charming."/p
p class="MsoNormal""One of the teachers is a centaur," Harry went on in a matter-of-fact tone. "Half horse, half man. The thing to remember is not to stare. He takes offense really easily. It's probably best if you try to avoid him altogether. Then there's Professor Flitwick, who's part goblin. And there are house-elves… you probably remember Kreacher?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm not likely to forget the grime I had to scrub out of the carpet afterward his visit," she sniffed./p
p class="MsoNormal""…right. But you can just ignore them. Usually they're all down in the kitchen anyway." He fell silent, watching for her reaction./p
p class="MsoNormal""Anything else?" Petunia asked mildly./p
p class="MsoNormal""No, I think that's about it," Harry said and rose, relief suffusing his face./p
p class="MsoNormal""Wait, Harry, I need to tell you something," she said, suddenly convinced that she would get no better opportunity for a longish while. "Sit down, please."/p
p class="MsoNormal"With a puzzled frown, Harry obeyed. Petunia cleared her throat./p
p class="MsoNormal""The situation is," she said, "that I'm no longer living with Vernon."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry stared at her, his mouth dropping open. "Why?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""He chose to stay in Glasgow. I came back South."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Where's Dudley?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""With his father," she said brusquely, because any thought of Dudley turned her heart over./p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry was quiet for a while, digesting this and maybe expecting something more from her. He would not get it. Her affairs were her own, and she was not about to start pouring her heart out to Harry of all people./p
p class="MsoNormal""Okay," Harry said at length. "Thanks for telling me."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The train pulled up at the tiny Hogsmeade station at three o'clock, giving everyone plenty of time to make their way to the school, do some sightseeing and prepare. The mass of parents and students debarked and milled around on the platform as they were loaded up into enormous carriages accommodating a dozen people each, and some people gasped and pointed at what was pulling them. Petunia saw nothing, and was glad of it./p
p class="MsoNormal"A gentle hand touched her back and she turned to see a smiling Arthur. "Do you want to ride in the carriages?" he asked. "Or would you like to stretch your legs and walk up with me? It's about half an hour by foot."/p
p class="MsoNormal"She looked round and saw the carriage bearing the Grangers, their daughter, Harry and Ron pulling away at a brisk pace. Clearly Arthur had planned this./p
p class="MsoNormal""Six hours is a long time to sit still," she said with a wry smile./p
p class="MsoNormal""Did you like the sweets?" Arthur asked as the set off along the road. The carriage with the Grangers and the children clattered past and they waved at each other, the children clearly surprised to see them together./p
p class="MsoNormal""You were quite right about them." The coffee-flavoured one had been nice, but Petunia grimaced at the memories of raw potato and ink./p
p class="MsoNormal""Experience talking. I won't soon forget the sweat-flavoured one I once had."/p
p class="MsoNormal""That reminds me, you really shouldn't call me Pet," Petunia said, and on seeing Arthur's face fall, added: "In front of other people, I mean."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Oh." Arthur scratched his head. "Did I do that?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""You did. But perhaps after this walk we could be on a first-name basis."/p
p class="MsoNormal"They came to a spot where the road turned left to go round a forested hill up ahead. A rabbit peered from the roadside, perhaps intending to cross, but turned tail and fled as another carriage rumbled past. Arthur stared after it, momentarily lost in thought./p
p class="MsoNormal""Are you all right?" Petunia asked when the noise had passed./p
p class="MsoNormal""Yes, and no." He sighed. "I take what comfort I can in knowing that Molly and I were happy, in general, and that the way she went… was what she would have chosen. But I miss her, every day." He paused. "And I miss you. How is your London life? Do you think we could meet a bit more often, have tea…?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Of course," she said. "I'd like that very much."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Another string of carriages sped by. They had reached a narrow bridge and stood aside for them to pass./p
p class="MsoNormal""Those were the last ones, I counted. Now we'll have the road to ourselves, unless the first lot have to make another run," Arthur said./p
p class="MsoNormal"The bridge crossed a small stream that flowed between two steep banks of tufted grass. The hot July sun floated flakes of molten sunlight on the waves that broke every now and then into circles where fish surfaced to grab a treat. Petunia stopped at the apex to admire the view. "Beautiful," she sighed./p
p class="MsoNormal""Hogwash," said Arthur./p
p class="MsoNormal""Excuse me?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""The river. It's called Hogwash."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia picked up a pine cone and threw it at him, and he dodged it with a grin. "How old is that joke?" she laughed./p
p class="MsoNormal""Quite old," he chuckled./p
p class="MsoNormal""I've left Vernon," she said. The words came out of nowhere and hung in the air between them. She really hadn't intended to say it out loud, not to Arthur, not yet, not just now./p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur's eyes widened. He opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off./p
p class="MsoNormal""He wanted to stay in Glasgow, but I couldn't stand it and came south," Petunia explained quickly. "And my life wasn't happy with him, especially lately, you know that. He…" She gulped down air. "Never mind. I don't want to talk about him. But it's… it's all over. I'm getting a divorce as soon as I get back to London."/p
p class="MsoNormal"There. It was out, finally, said to the person she most needed to tell. She remembered her rings and tugged them off her finger. The cool air curling around the spot they had occupied for twenty years felt unfamiliar but good. What should she do with them? It felt wrong to keep them now. Sending them back to Vernon would be childish. And she did not want to pass them on to Dudley, lest the bad luck of her marriage follow them. Her eyes hit on the river below. Hogwash, what a perfect place for them!/p
p class="MsoNormal""Pet, wait." Arthur stayed her hand before she could throw the rings in. Although a little shocked he seemed to have recovered most of his wits. "How are you making a living?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""What?" She lowered her hand but Arthur held on to it. "I work. It doesn't bring in much, but… why?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""You're not used to being poor," said Arthur gently and took her rings from her hand. "Throwing the rings away would be a marvellous gesture, but look at these diamonds. They'll feed you for months. The gold from the wedding ring alone would buy you a few pairs of shoes and a thick winter coat."/p
p class="MsoNormal""So you think I should sell them?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I won't say out loud all the things I think about Dursley, but I'd say he owes you whatever you can get for his rings." Arthur placed them back into her palm. "Keep them for now and think about it. If you still want to throw them away tomorrow, I'll walk back here with you and cheer you on."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Fifteen more minutes of mostly silent walking brought them to a large pair of gates with curlicued iron bars that broke the uniformity of the high, grey outer wall of the castle ramparts. Beside her, Arthur inhaled sharply at the sight and stopped./p
p class="MsoNormal"The gates stood open, blasted off their hinges and twisted into blackened iron skeletons. The grounds beyond showed other signs of violence, the lawns and the rising hillsides dotted with craters and marred by burn marks, and huge patches of newly cleared areas disfigured the forest beyond the castle. The road, recently repaired, led up to the castle that loomed on the mountaintop clothing it from end to end in curtain walls of gigantic weathered stones, reaching for the skies with the fingers of its towers. Petunia could clearly see that the castle, too, had been patched up with lighter stone, and that many of the towers were broken and crooked. She recalled the pictures in the em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"Daily Prophet/em of the gutted, burnt castle and the ranks of the dead laid out in the courtyard./p
p class="MsoNormal""I should have taken a carriage," Arthur muttered. "I don't think I can do this."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Of course you can." Petunia stepped closer and, hesitantly, touched his arm for encouragement./p
p class="MsoNormal""I haven't been back since…"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I know."/p
p class="MsoNormal""They died here."/p
p class="MsoNormal""I know."/p
p class="MsoNormal""I can't."/p
p class="MsoNormal"They stood quietly for a while. Arthur rubbed his face with his free hand, and he had tears in his eyes./p
p class="MsoNormal"What would she do, herself, if forced to go back to a place where such horrors had happened? Petunia wasn't quite sure but that she would fall to pieces. She took one of Arthur's hands in both of hers and squeezed tight./p
p class="MsoNormal""When I lost my mother," she said slowly, "I had this trick. I'd imagine a door into a room. Then I'd imagine my mother walking in there with a suitcase where I packed my bad memories from when she was ill, and then she closed the door behind her. With the bad things gone, it hurt much less." Petunia's own eyes stung, but she refused to give in to weeping./p
p class="MsoNormal"Their eyes met. He was pale as a ghost, his haunted eyes black as night. He seemed to have aged twenty years in a few heartbeats./p
p class="MsoNormal""It's not closing the door on whoever goes through," she continued. "Just the bad things that happened. Take the badness, and put it away. You can look at it later, it'll still be there, but for now, you can put it away. And you have to, so you can go to your son whose big day this is and who's waiting for you."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them, some life returned to his face./p
p class="MsoNormal""Better now?" she asked. Arthur nodded mutely. "Then let's go."/p
p class="MsoNormal"She took his arm firmly in the crook of her own and pulled him along. In only a few steps he had recovered enough to grasp her hand where it rested on top of his forearm. His hand was warm, familiar, and comforting./p
p class="MsoNormal""Thank you," he said quietly. "I'm so sorry. I didn't think… I shouldn't have…"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Hogwash," she said, waving a dismissive hand. "It's behind us."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur snorted with laughter, and Petunia knew he would be all right./p
p class="MsoNormal" -/p
p class="MsoNormal"Their luggage had already been taken to the castle's guest quarters. All Gryffindor parents had been accommodated in the same corridor, "as far from the Slytherins as possible," according to Minerva McGonagall, who in her role as the new Headmistress had accompanied Petunia and Arthur upstairs. "I'm afraid there are some old enemies who refuse to settle their quarrels." She glanced at Arthur and continued more gently: "Although truly, some quarrels are more bitter than others."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia's room was not large but it was sumptuous and, she was somewhat surprised to find, meticulously clean. A four-poster bed, large enough for two or three people and hung with golden orange curtains, occupied most of the space, and a goodly chunk of what was left was taken up by a dark wooden wardrobe aired out and left open to await her clothes. The walls and ceiling were panelled in dark oak and hung with tapestries which, to Petunia's relief, contained no moving, watching humans like the paintings lining the hallways, only perfectly stationary landscapes and strange animals. A high, narrow window gave onto the school grounds, and at one end of a large green field, dotted with long empty tables laid with white tablecloths, she could see an unfamiliar sporting stadium which she deduced must be the Quidditch pitch. How lost and panicked she would be now, she reflected, had she not been regularly reading the em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"Daily Prophet/em for a year and a half./p
p class="MsoNormal"She had half an hour in which to change out of her travelling clothes and into a nice daytime outfits suitable for a solemn graduation ceremony. Petunia thanked all her lucky stars that one of the outfits she had taken from the house in Glasgow fitted the description, a light grey dress with its associated matching wide-brimmed hat and silvery shoes. The pearls she had liked to wear with it were no longer hers, but she compromised with an understated chain of silver and small silver earrings. Arthur's teapot amulet was handily concealed by the modest neckline. The wand she transferred from her handbag to the small reticule that went with the outfit, refusing to think more closely about why she did not leave it behind./p
p class="MsoNormal"The ceremony would take place on the front steps of the school, and dozens of rows of chairs had been placed in a semicircle in the front courtyard. A tent of white cotton had been erected to provide some shelter from the July heat. Although the ground had been evened out, not all signs of battle had been eradicated or even patched up. The palings serving to stop people from plunging to their deaths in the depths beside the courtyard were reduced to rubble in places, broken glass littered piles of rocks and debris all along one wall, and an enormous brass contraption, vaguely reminiscent of a pendulum, lay where it had fallen at one end of the front steps. The entire audience seemed subdued by their surroundings as they took their seats, but some of the former pupils laughed and joked amongst themselves, happy to meet again. As they bickered over who would sit where they seemed almost like normal youngsters, Petunia covertly stared at their uniforms and at the four standards that had been erected beside the four sections into which their chairs were divided. If she had gone to school here, if Dumbledore had been bothered to test her and cure her… would she have been a Gryffindor, like Lily? Slytherin, perhaps? Or… she struggled to remember the other houses. Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, yes. Of those she knew nothing./p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur, easy to spot with his flame-red hair, was already deep in serious conversation with a cluster of people and the Grangers were sitting at the front where there were no empty chairs left. Petunia took a seat towards the back, feeling a little lonely and trying to blend in. Other latecomers joined her, most chatting amongst themselves, all but one stately white-haired witch dressed all in black who silently took the seat next to Petunia and sat rigidly upright./p
p class="MsoNormal""Dear parents, guardians, friends and relatives of the brave students who graduate today," came a magnified voice from the castle stairs. Headmistress McGonagall had mounted the stairs, using a spell of some sort to cast her voice across the courtyard. "Throughout the centuries, this school, founded by Helga Hufflepuff, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw and Godric Gryffindor has prided itself on providing its students with a first-class magical education that would make them good witches and wizards. But even more than this, we have tried to instil in every student a set of values and principles that would serve them well in life and make them good people, dependable friends and even-handed citizens." She spread her hands, gesturing at the ruined courtyard. "You witness here the failure of this school to do the latter for em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"all/em its students."/p
p class="MsoNormal"There were surprised murmurs from the crowd. This was clearly not the speech they had expected to hear. Some of the wizards and witches seated around Petunia frowned, but some nodded emphatically./p
p class="MsoNormal""We take a great deal of comfort, however, in knowing that with some students, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," McGonagall continued and was drowned out by loud cheers and applauds from the audience, not least by the young people themselves. The Headmistress let it continue for a few seconds before gesturing for silence. "Be assured that we will be taking measures to ensure that in future, all our students will receive the benefits of compassion, fair but strict discipline and a healthy school spirit, whose lack seems to have contributed to recent events, even if ultimately at a fair distance in time."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The audience applauded again, more sedately, as they worked this out./p
p class="MsoNormal""And now," the Headmistress said, moving to one side and joined by what Petunia assumed were the rest of the teachers, "we will proceed with the graduation ceremonies."/p
p class="MsoNormal"A mountainous figure climbed the stairs carrying an entire dining table piled high with pointy hats. Petunia gasped—it was the same giant who had broken down the door of that horrible seaside cottage Vernon had rented to escape Harry's Hogwarts invitation letters all those years ago! His hair and beard had now been flattened in some attempt at tidiness and he wore a huge version of the teachers' robes that hung on him like curtains, but there was no mistaking him for anyone or anything else. He still looked like a wild man, a wild ogre in fact. Petunia had wondered for years if her imagination had exaggerated his dimensions in her memory, but the creature was in actual fact half again as tall as the next tallest of the teachers. Gingerly he set the table down beside McGonagall and took his place in the line of teachers, causing Petunia to wonder if he could really be one of them./p
p class="MsoNormal"One of the men stepped forward, a plump fellow in tweed robes and a cravat of poisonous green. He picked up a rolled-up parchment from a cup marked with the Slytherin arms and announced the name written on the seal: "Millicent Bulstrode." A heavy-set girl with frizzy brown hair stood up, walked up to the professor and received a diploma and a pointy hat to the sound of extremely scattered applauds—it seemed like the only people clapping were other Slytherins. Puzzled, Petunia lowered her own hands into her lap. "Vincent Crabbe." Instead of a student, one of the guests rose, a plump woman in unflattering robes and a bad complexion, reminding Petunia forcibly of Vernon's sister Marge, and went to collect the diploma and the hat. As she returned to her seat, still to no applauds by anyone other than Slytherins, Petunia could see tears rolling down her fat cheeks. "Gregory Goyle." He was a thick-bodied, dull-looking boy and received his diploma and hat with an insolent air that reminded Petunia rather unfortunately of some of dear Dudley's less desirable friends. "Draco Malfoy." Finally a presentable Slytherin, Petunia thought as a tall, slim young man with blond hair mounted the steps to receive his dues, but as he turned, she was taken aback by the look of bitter hatred that he threw at Harry as he passed. At least she thought it was Harry—it did look like his unruly mop of brown hair there at the front. Icy silence greeted him, not even the Slytherin students lifting a finger to honour him. He lifted his jaw and strode back to his seat./p
p class="MsoNormal"And so it went on. One after one the names of students rang out in the courtyard, their diplomas and hats were retrieved either by the students themselves or, in a heart-wringing number of cases, by grieving parents. After the Slytherins came the Hufflepuffs and the proper applauds began, and the mood of the crowd lifted. Then it was the Ravenclaws, and then, finally, the Gryffindors. The Headmistress herself took up the position beside the table./p
p class="MsoNormal""Lavender Brown," she read out the first name. A large blonde girl stood up with some difficulty and limped to the stairs with a cane for her hat and diploma to lively clapping. "Seamus Finnigan." A short, extremely Irish-looking lad, he grinned and waved at the audience and got his due applause. "Hermione Granger." There were loud cheers and a great clapping of hands and stomping of feet, and not just from the graduating students, Petunia noted. She could see the Grangers smiling proudly from ear to ear, with eyes for nothing but their daughter. Hermione herself coolly retrieved her hat and diploma and sat back down with just a crooked grin and bright pink cheeks. "Neville Longbottom." Again, huge applauds and good-natured whistles as the tall, muscular boy gave everyone a shy smile and a wave. He stopped on the bottom step on his way back, scanning the crowd, and finally waved his new hat in Petunia's direction. The stately witch in black next to her lifted her applauding hands so he could see them. Her wrinkled cheeks were wet with tears. "Parvati Patil." A beautiful girl with long black hair received her hat and parchment with a wide smile and got excited applauds especially from the male contingent of the students./p
p class="MsoNormal""Harry Potter."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The courtyard exploded with cheers and every single member of the audience sprang upright, shouting and whistling and applauding and stomping their feet. Rather stunned, Petunia perforce rose, too, just in time to see Harry receive his pointy hat and diploma with a polite bow. McGonagall, in turn, bowed at him, something she had done for no one else. As Harry turned, the ovations doubled in force. He grinned a little span style="mso-spacerun: yes;" /spanawkwardly, waved with his hat and went back to his seat as the ceremony continued./p
p class="MsoNormal""Dean Thomas." He was a personable lad who didn't seem to mind that people were a little distracted by the business of resuming their seats. "Ronald Weasley." Another wave of enthusiastic clapping, cheering and foot-stomping arose. Arthur beamed and cheered for his son like a madman./p
p class="MsoNormal"Now all the new graduates rose and faced the crowd. The giant hauled away the emptied table and McGonagall resumed her position at the end of the line of teachers. At her signal, all the graduates took their pointed hats and, with a flourish, placed them on their heads. The crowd applauded again, as did Petunia although her hands and arms were beginning to ache./p
p class="MsoNormal"After enduring about a minute of standing and being stared at and photographed, the graduates were allowed, by Headmistressy signal, to disperse and go find their parents and loved ones. From her seat, Petunia could see Arthur heading up to the front towards Ron and, consequently, Harry, and decided to also make her way there to congratulate her nephew. She dodged the large Longbottom boy and the august lady who embraced each other between the seats, wove her way between happy families and tearful parents who, dreadfully alone, clutched ownerless hats, and finally managed to find the large gaggle of people surrounding Harry, Ron and Hermione; at which point she found herself facing a wall of backs with no hope of penetrating it. She stood on the outskirts of the crowd, undecided whether to try to attract Harry's attention or not, until Hermione noticed her and nudged Harry. He extricated himself with apologies and made his way to her, not entirely graciously./p
p class="MsoNormal""Congratulations, Harry," Petunia said. She drew a long breath. "Lily—and James—would be so very proud of you." She knew she was expected to say that she, too, was proud, but as in fact she felt resentful and rather jealous instead the words stuck in her throat./p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry, luckily, did not catch the context. He only blushed, and the redness rising to his face made the lightning scar on his forehead glow vermilion. "Thanks," he said, seemingly at a loss to find anything else to say./p
p class="MsoNormal"The crowd was thinning as everyone headed back indoors or out into the castle grounds in small groups. A fair number of people were standing around, frankly staring at their group, especially Harry. Arthur and Ron came up to them, the former with his arm around the latter's shoulders./p
p class="MsoNormal""So—how about a picnic by the Black Lake?" he asked enthusiastically./p
p class="MsoNormal""Dad, we don't have time," Ron said. "The ball starts in a couple of hours."/p
p class="MsoNormal""That's plenty of time!"/p
p class="MsoNormal""To get a basket, go down to the lake, have a picnic, come back up and get ready for the ball?" Hermione joined them, sporting good common sense. "No way, Mr Weasley. Sorry."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur looked crestfallen. "But all your brothers have had graduation picnics! Not at the school, of course, but home. I should have packed a basket, but it was always…" he broke off. Of course—Molly had always packed for their picnics, and poor Arthur could not bear to say her name./p
p class="MsoNormal""It's all right, Dad," Ron said and shrugged awkwardly. "Really. We'll have two when Ginny graduates."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Ginny, who had joined them, patted his father on the back. "There's a tea set out by the Quidditch pitch, let's go there."/p
p class="MsoNormal"While everyone was watching the ceremony, the tables that Petunia had spotted from her window had indeed been laid out with a tea the like of which she had never seen. Silver platters overflowing with sandwiches, scones, cakes and pastries were interspersed with pots of jam, honey, clotted cream, butter and full toast racks. Fruit of every description provided splashes of colour. Drinks were served from huge teapots and jugs filled with a yellow, frothy liquid that Petunia learned was called butterbeer. Their company filled one entire end of a long table, with Arthur at the head of it and Petunia quite a way down. Neither Arthur nor Harry probably imagined that she had in fact seen the gesture by Arthur that ordered Harry to sit by her, so she made no issue of it./p
p class="MsoNormal"For a long time there was relative silence as everyone did full justice to the food. When the conversation gradually picked up again, Petunia took a package from her purse and self-consciously patted Harry's arm to attract her attention./p
p class="MsoNormal""I don't know if this is the right time, but allow me to present my congratulations on your graduation." She handed him the package. "It's your mother's graduation photo, and your grandparents' wedding rings. They were always happy together; I hope their rings bring you the same luck."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Thank you, Aunt Petunia," Harry said, sounding surprised. As well he might be./p
p class="MsoNormal""For my part…" She hesitated. The words she had planned abruptly seemed like a capitulation, and every inch of her recoiled from it. She forced herself to calm and, with the ease of long practice, pictured herself stuffing the dreadful early years with Harry into a Hogwarts trunk and shutting it away in a tiny cupboard. When the door of the cupboard closed, she felt like she could breathe again, and speak. "For my own part, I also want to offer my apologies. I was never kind to you. Life wasn't very easy, but you didn't deserve the treatment you received from Vernon and myself."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Uhhhh…" Harry stammered at her, completely nonplussed. Whatever he had to say, Petunia suddenly realised she did not want to hear any of it. She sprang up and walked stiffly up the path to the castle, no doubt followed by the stares of Ronald, Hermione, Ginevra and that other sibling present, the one who hadn't spoken a single word—George? She was furious with herself. She would never live this down, not in a million years! She had not meant for anyone else to hear, so why had she not waited to be alone with Harry? Why had she even said it out loud, when she could have written him a letter?/p
p class="MsoNormal"Inside the heavy door the cool stone interior of the school welcomed her, soothing her pounding temples. She made her way up the stairs, and only when she reached a corner where no one else could be seen did she allow herself to unbend. She collapsed against the wall of the hallway, feeling the quiet strength of the monumental stonework, and breathed deeply to dispel the utter humiliation./p
p class="MsoNormal""Petunia Evans!" shrilled a voice next to her ear, full of hatred. Petunia screamed and spun around. Her eyes darted around the hallway, but no one was there./p
p class="MsoNormal""I em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"will/em get you! You deserve it!"/p
p class="MsoNormal"This time the voice seemed to come from above, echoing in the vaults and around the walls./p
p class="MsoNormal""W-wh-who are you?" Petunia spluttered, scanning the ceiling but still not seeing anyone or anything that could have spoken. "What do you want from me?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"There was no answer. Only the heavy brass chandelier swung slowly, perhaps in the draught from the open door, perhaps from… something else./p
p class="MsoNormal"Blissfully ordinary human voices rang out from the other end of the corridor and a gaggle of graduates made their way past her, all of them carrying broomsticks./p
p class="MsoNormal"She fled to the safety of her room, beginning to regret coming to Hogwarts./p
p class="MsoNormal" -/p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm going to visit the Gryffindor common room," Arthur said, popping his head inside her bedroom door. "Join me?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"She had been lying down, trying to calm her nerves, when Arthur's knock had snapped them tight again. She was exhausted and her head throbbed, and in any case she had no intention of setting a single foot into a lair of Gryffindors who would only stare at her and giggle. And then there was the ghostly voice that she really did not want to encounter again…/p
p class="MsoNormal""Not now," was all she managed. "I have to start getting ready. And I have a headache."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Should I fetch Madam Pomfrey, the nurse?" Arthur asked, concerned. "She'll fix you in no time."/p
p class="MsoNormal""No, no, it's all right." Petunia sat up and waved her hands dismissively. "I'll just take an aspirin. It's nothing."/p
p class="MsoNormal"She expected him to go, but instead he stepped inside and said: "Pet, what you did out there, that was an incredibly brave thing to do. And the right thing."/p
p class="MsoNormal""It was so awful." She shook her head with pinched lips, looking at her feet./p
p class="MsoNormal""It meant a great deal to Harry that you spoke up," Arthur said. "We all thought it was wonderful. I admire you for it."/p
p class="MsoNormal"He left and closed the door behind him./p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia stood still for a while in open-mouthed astonishment at his words, before a pleasant heat rose to her face. Arthur thought well of her. Somehow that made it all worth while, and made her feel that even if she had made a dreadful spectacle of herself, perhaps she had not humiliated herself quite thoroughly, after all. Feeling much lighter she started to prepare for the ball./p
p class="MsoNormal"Carefully, she took all her accessories out of their cases and boxes and lay them out at the head of the bed, inspecting them to make sure they had not suffered in transit. The shoes went on the floor, the stockings on her. She freshened up her coiffure and moved a few locks of hair to make it more festive, then added more make-up as befitted an evening occasion./p
p class="MsoNormal"Then came the dress. Petunia opened the wardrobe door and sighed in satisfaction, admiring the garment for a while on its rack. Janet had spilled red wine on the wide hem at a diplomatic event at the Mexican embassy, dyed the whole dress red, and then discovered that the colour didn't become her, so she had made a gift of it to Petunia whose darker hair and green eyes were a better match./p
p class="MsoNormal"Getting into the dress all by herself was not exactly easy, but she used her mother's old zipper trick of threading a length of string to the pull to avoid dislocating a shoulder trying to zip it up. It fit like a glove; Janet was a little shorter, but wore higher heels so the length was right, and although plumper the other woman evidently favoured extremely close-fitting dresses./p
p class="MsoNormal"In her ears, she attached her last pair of diamond earrings. The neckline was decorated with flowers, which meant there was no need for a necklace more elaborate than the silver chain she had worn all day. She had clipped off two flowers and now pinned them to her swept-up hair./p
p class="MsoNormal"In the full-length mirror hanging inside the wardrobe door a stylish, even beautiful woman took a few steps, executed a perfect turn on her high heels, and halted in a straight-backed, stately pose./p
p class="MsoNormal""You do clean up well, Petunia," she told her reflection and it gave her a satisfied smile./p
p class="MsoNormal"She grabbed her beaded purse and her wand and with consternation realised that the one would never fit inside the other. But she could hardly leave it here, either—someone might come into her room, cleaners or servants or maybe a house-elf, and although bringing a wand to Hogwarts was hardly a punishable offence, she was sure she was not fully entitled to carry one. She stood undecided in the middle of the room, wand in hand, spinning like a top to find a good hiding-place while time was ticking away. Sod it, she finally thought, took a knee-high sock and used it to tie the wand under her skirts around her thigh, an uncomfortable but unnoticeable method of transport. Lucky that the skirt was wide./p
p class="MsoNormal"She was just smoothing the fabric back into shape Harry knocked on her door. He wore a set of dark robes with a white shirt and a white bow tie, and suddenly Petunia realised that prior to today she had never seen him in real wizard clothing./p
p class="MsoNormal""Thanks for the present, by the way," he said awkwardly as they headed out the door. "It was… I didn't expect anything."/p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm sorry it wasn't more," she said. "I couldn't think what to give you."/p
p class="MsoNormal""It was the best," he said emphatically./p
p class="MsoNormal"At the top of the stairs waited Ginny, Ron, Hermione and the latter's parents—and Arthur, dressed in the brand new set of dress robes that he had confessed to having bought for this occasion, not black but a deep moss green, completed by a small wizard-style hat over his freshly washed and combed hair. By the rules of the ordinary world he should have looked silly but to Petunia, he looked… inviting. Desirable. And much to her delight, he extended his arm to her to escort her as Ginny and Harry walked away together with eyes only for each other./p
p class="MsoNormal"They hung back a little as the others followed Harry and Ginny./p
p class="MsoNormal""Is everything all right?" Petunia asked him quietly as she decorously wrapped her hand around his arm./p
p class="MsoNormal""These dress robes are ridiculously hot," he huffed. "It's easy for you women, you get to wear thin little numbers like this really beautiful one of yours."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Arthur." She fixed him with a stare./p
p class="MsoNormal""Oh, all right, I'm miserable, aren't I?"span style="mso-spacerun: yes;" /spanhe snapped in a whisper but deflated immediately. "I'm sorry, Pet. It's not as bad as I feared, but it's bad enough. Everywhere I look, I almost see her. We met at school, you know. Got married straight after. Well, basically, we had to, you know that…"/p
p class="MsoNormal"He fell silent. Petunia squeezed his arm, mutely trying to give comfort./p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm so glad you're here," Arthur murmured, returning the clasp. "I couldn't have done this without you, none of this."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Downstairs, the doors to the Great Hall stood invitingly open. As they stepped inside, Petunia exclaimed with delight. The walls were draped with the banners of all four houses, but these were almost hidden behind a multitude of floating fairy lights and glowing ribbons that shone like sunlight in solid form as they drifted gently through the air. Tables filled with snacks and punch lined the walls, and an orchestra was playing on a dais at the end./p
p class="MsoNormal"The Headmistress came to the door to greet them all and Hermione took the opportunity to corner her about how to continue the studies that she, Hermione, felt had been unacceptably cut short. Ron stared at his girlfriend with a mixture of admiration and horror. Harry and Ginny were absorbed into a gaggle of Gryffindors and other students heading for the snack tables. Petunia found herself in the middle of a growing circle of Arthur's friends and colleagues and their friends who spoke of things that she failed to keep track of. Many of them were Ministry employees with incomprehensible titles (what, for example, was Head Greaser of the Quill Committee?) and talked about events she had only read about, sketchily reported, from a single newspaper. She looked around for someone else to talk to and spotted Mrs Granger in the distance; unfortunately she was deep in conversation with the Headmistress./p
p class="MsoNormal"The chamber orchestra was doing its best to enliven the atmosphere and get people to dance, and failing with all other tunes they gave in and began to play a waltz. Petunia watched the dance floor fill up, amused to see that even in the wizarding world, most people knew only one dance well enough to do it sober and that was the waltz. The dress robes worn by all witches and wizards seemed uncannily well adapted to ballroom dancing, too. The Headmistress sailed past in the arms of the portly gentleman who had handed out the Slytherin diplomas and who seemed just a little too full of himself to do justice to the dance./p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur detached himself from his conversation partners apparently almost in mid-sentence and turned to Petunia. "May I have this dance?" he asked. He sounded more subdued than might be expected, and with a flash of unexpected jealousy she understood that he was thinking how for this particular dance he would have asked Molly./p
p class="MsoNormal""Certainly." Petunia took his hand with a smile that was much more cheerful than she felt, and was rewarded by a reciprocating warmth rising to Arthur's eyes./p
p class="MsoNormal"The dance floor was by now so crowded that they had to stand quite close to each other to dance. Petunia slid a hand up to his shoulder, resolutely resisting an impulse to smooth his hair where it was sticking up behind his ear. His hand grasped her waist, resting just on the curve of her hip, and suddenly the perfectly ordinary dance position had never felt so intimate. Petunia swallowed. As he smoothly led her into the dance she spotted Harry, Ron and Ginny standing and staring at them in astonishment from across the room. Ron's punch slowly dribbled from his tilting cup to the floor./p
p class="MsoNormal"A little to Petunia's surprise Arthur, whom no one would describe as athletic, was quite a good dancer. He neither whirled her dizzily around the dance floor nor stood in one place shifting his feet. Petunia gave herself up to thorough enjoyment of the flowing, unpretentious arcs that Arthur controlled with a quiet decisiveness, very unlike Vernon's sweaty shuffling that was always over as soon as possible./p
p class="MsoNormal"And then she suddenly flashed back on something else that Arthur and Vernon did not have in common and felt heat spreading along her skin. She had missed Arthur's closeness so much that it hurt, and regardless of her good resolutions to remain his friend if nothing more, she abruptly became very much aware that she wanted more than friendship. Wanted it badly./p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur cleared his throat. "I've been thinking," he said, "of changing jobs."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Really?" was all Petunia could manage with this unexpected topic, dragging her thoughts back to reality from some budding fantasy./p
p class="MsoNormal""The Ministry isn't what it was, it's gutted and torn. I don't know who to trust with what. I don't even know what my job is exactly anymore."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Surely that won't last long?" They dodged a portly lady in lavender and an even more portly gentleman in taupe. "They'll put the place together again now that… well, now that Voldemort is gone."/p
p class="MsoNormal""But who will?" Arthur shrugged. "No one has enough backing to become the kind of minister who could unite all the factions and get the Ministry working together again. Not that it was very efficient before, but we limped along. Now nothing really works, and more and more I don't want anything to do with it. I'm tired of fighting."/p
p class="MsoNormal""What are you thinking of doing, then?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I don't know." He laughed. "Maybe I should ask McGonagall about teaching Muggle Studies."/p
p class="MsoNormal""You should. You'd be wonderful at it."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Do you really mean that?" He sounded surprised./p
p class="MsoNormal"A couple squeezed past behind Petunia' back, pushing her up against Arthur. She struggled to keep her attention on what he was saying, rather than what his light, eager voice sounded like and how his breath moved her hair when he spoke./p
p class="MsoNormal""I always meant it," she mumbled. "Do ask."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The waltz ended and a little reluctantly they detached. Arthur's hand lingered on her hip a second or two longer than strictly required before withdrawing decorously. Was it intentional or not?/p
p class="MsoNormal""You seem a bit warm," Arthur said. His eyes twinkled. "Would you like a little stroll, to cool down?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""After just one dance?" she countered with a smile that wanted to be mischievous. How tempted she was! But if she left with him now, it would only end with her behaving inappropriately and making a fool of herself, or worse, hurting Arthur./p
p class="MsoNormal""Punch, then?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Yes, please. But I'll visit the ladies' first."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The nearest ladies' bathroom, she discovered with the aid of discreet advice from a tall girl in black braids and an outrageous orange gown, was just off the Great Hall. The bathroom itself was a complete surprise: with its formica-topped tables, gleaming white porcelain washbasins and chipboard-partitioned stalls it could have been lifted whole from some perfectly ordinary school or office. When Petunia emerged from the stall, Jean Granger was powdering her nose in front of the mirror and chatting with another mother in a Muggle dress./p
p class="MsoNormal""Dean didn't write for a long time," the other woman was saying. "I was worried, a bit, but he's not one for letters anyway. And then suddenly I get word that he's coming home! So of course I thought he'd got himself expelled or whatever, and nearly had a heart attack. And em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"then/em I find out that there's been a war! I almost really em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"did/em have a heart attack."/p
p class="MsoNormal""I hardly remember anything from last autumn and winter," Mrs Granger said, frowning. "I didn't know anything was wrong, either, and Hugo and I were in Australia. It's a terrible thing, but I can't even remember if Hermione wrote to us." She looked stricken./p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia took out her compact and was just applying a little powder when unexpectedly a chill ran through her, exactly as if someone had thrown cold water all over the em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"inside/em of her, and for a split second the face that stared at her from the mirror wasn't her own. She screamed and jumped back. The grey shadowy figure in the mirror laughed./p
p class="MsoNormal""I've got you now!" shrieked the same voice she had heard before on her way in from the lawn tea./p
p class="MsoNormal"A vague figure, like a blob of smoke, dashed to door and flowed out of the bathroom, still laughing, and with a bang and an ominous click the bathroom door slammed itself shut./p
p class="MsoNormal"The other two women stared wide-eyed at Petunia and at the door by turns./p
p class="MsoNormal""D-d-d-did you s-s-s-see it?" Petunia stammered. She could not quite keep her legs from shaking./p
p class="MsoNormal""What?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I-I think it was a-a-a ghost. It said 'I've got you now'."/p
p class="MsoNormal""It did get us," said Dean's mother, yanking at the doorknob to no avail. "What does it want from us?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Me," Petunia said. "It spoke to me before. But I don't know why."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Is it getting colder in here?" said Jean Granger. All three women fell quiet. The temperature in the bathroom plummeted sharply and they all began to shiver in their ball gowns. The splashes of water on the floor began to freeze over and the mirrors frosted up. It began to gently snow./p
p class="MsoNormal""We have to get out of here," Petunia said. She twisted the doorknob as hard as she could but nothing happened. "Hello! Out there!" she yelled at the top of her voice and pounded on the door until her fist hurt. The other two joined her. The exercise warmed them a little, but other than that had no effect./p
p class="MsoNormal""They can't hear us," Jean panted after a while and stopped beating on the weathered wood. "This door must be two inches thick."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The floor was now covered in a thin layer of snow. Petunia's toes were freezing and she was really becoming frightened./p
p class="MsoNormal""This is going nowhere fast," said Dean's mother. Her teeth chattered. "We could bang on the pipes. Or take off one of those basins, we can throw it at the door and maybe they'll hear."/p
p class="MsoNormal""We have no tools," Jean pointed out, rubbing her bare arms for warmth./p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia looked around, shifting her feet to keep her toes from freezing. No windows. No fire extinguisher, which was probably against the law. Flimsy plastic rubbish bins. Maybe lift a door off its hinges and use that as a battering ram? To her disappointment she found the doors to have safety hinges with a stopper welded on, probably to discourage student experimentation. She turned angrily and felt a sharp pain in her thigh where an unexpected protrusion hit the partition wall. The wand! She reached under her skirts and withdrew it slowly. While the other two women were debating the relative merits of various noise-making methods she went to the door and took a deep breath. She had no idea if this would work, but what else was there to try? They were all freezing to death. She pointed the wand at the lock./p
p class="MsoNormal""Alohomora," she whispered with lips stiff from the cold. Nothing happened. She briefly closed her eyes and tried to stop shivering. Focus. Relax. Focus. Relax… She opened her eyes and tried again, speaking more loudly this time through stiffening lips. "Alohomora."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Deep inside the door, the lock clicked. Petunia pushed the door wide open./p
p class="MsoNormal"Outside, a long queue of women and girls had formed and they all exclaimed in surprise at the cold air and whirls of snow that washed out of the bathroom and the three half-frozen women who stumbled out of it, lips blue and hair covered in snowflakes./p
p class="MsoNormal""Mrs Granger? Mrs Dursley?" Ginny detached herself from the line to the bathroom, looking stunned. "Mrs Thomas? What happened? Are you all right?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Mum!" It was Hermione, who ran from the door of the great hall to hug her mother. "What on earth…?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""We're fine now," Jean reassured her daughter through chattering teeth. "Thanks to Petunia."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Over Jean's shoulder, Hermione glared at Petunia and her eyes widened. With a sinking heart Petunia realised she was still holding her wand./p
p class="MsoNormal""What is going on out here?" demanded the authoritative voice of the Headmistress. She inhaled sharply as she took in the scene: icy bathroom, three frozen women, a wand. Petunia very badly wanted to hide it behind her back and pretend she had done nothing, but it was too late./p
p class="MsoNormal"span style="mso-spacerun: yes;" /span"Mrs Dursley saw a ghost," said Jean. All eyes turned to Petunia. She flushed but gave the Headmistress (and the rest of her audience, which was increasing all the time as people in the Great Hall became aware of the commotion) a description of how the door had closed and the air got cold./p
p class="MsoNormal""And how did you get out, in the end?" McGonagall asked, eyeing the wand./p
p class="MsoNormal""Just… Alohomora," Petunia whispered and avoided the Headmistress's gaze, feeling like a truant schoolgirl./p
p class="MsoNormal""You must all be very cold," said McGonagall after a breathless pause and looked around. "Hermione, would you show Mrs Granger and Mrs Thomas to the back room of the Hall, please. Ginny, send for hot tea and have a fire lit. Mrs Dursley…" She turned to Petunia. "Perhaps you and I should have that tea in my office."/p
p class="MsoNormal"McGonagall led the way up the grand staircase, her black and violet robes sweeping the marble stairs. Petunia followed. She was still shivering, her frozen toes were killing her and she suspected her makeup and hair had not been improved by the snowfall. She held her wand surreptitiously against her body in the hope that people would stop staring eventually./p
p class="MsoNormal""Sir Nicholas," said McGonagall seemingly at random into thin air. Petunia squawked and flinched to find a ghost floating a few metres off./p
p class="MsoNormal""Yes, Headmistress?" The ghost glided to them and bowed. Its head flopped off and dangled to the side for a moment until it slapped and swung the whole head back on with a practiced gesture. It made Petunia queasy./p
p class="MsoNormal""Please ask the Baron to see me at his earliest convenience, when he has discovered who attacked Mrs Dursley in the downstairs ladies' bathroom," McGonagall said. "Mrs Dursley, was the ghost you saw a man or a woman?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I… I don't know," Petunia said faintly. "Maybe a man. Or maybe not, it was in the ladies'…"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Yes, Headmistress," said Sir Nicholas and began to sink directly downwards through the marble slabs of the staircase. "Never fear, my dear lady, you can count on…" The last word was cut off as his sloppily attached head disappeared./p
p class="MsoNormal"The Headmistress's office was guarded by a grotesque statue that moved aside to let them pass. Petunia barely registered this, her quota for being surprised rapidly filling. Inside was a round room whose multitude of crannies, cupboards and shelves full were of fascinating items. The walls covered in portraits. Every single item was clean and dust-free. A fireplace glowed with the warmth of a cheerful fire being lit by an ugly creature, a knee-high thing with greyish skin and enormous pointed ears, dressed in what appeared to be a teatowel. At least this house-elf and its towel were, unlike Kreecher, scrubbed and washed clean. A tea tray had been sat between two comfortable chairs in front of the fire./p
p class="MsoNormal""Thank you, Ellesmerellender," said McGonagall kindly. The creature bowed and disappeared with a crack. "Please sit down, Mrs Dursley. I do hope that's as long as their names get," McGonagall sighed. She went to a wall cabinet and took out two small glasses and a bottle of brandy. Then she settled herself in the other chair and poured tea and a stiff drink for both of them. "I appreciate that no one wants to be called Wimpy if they can choose any name they want, but it becomes awkward to remember them."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia sank down gratefully in the chair and stretched her feet towards the fire. McGonagall picked up her teacup, while Petunia took advantage of the brandy, hoping that it would stop the shivering that she was no longer certain was entirely caused by the cold bathroom./p
p class="MsoNormal""So, Mrs Dursley—what happened in the bathroom?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia told her again, sipping brandy and tea by turns as she described the events in more detail. Little by little her shivering stopped as the warmth of the fire seeped into her toes and the rest of her body, aided by the brandy. She also told McGonagall about the first time she had heard the voice, and she seemed interested in pinpointing exactly where she heard it./p
p class="MsoNormal""And do you have any idea why it called you by your maiden name?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia shook her head. "I did think it might have something to do with Lily," she said tentatively. She hadn't even noticed at the time./p
p class="MsoNormal"McGonagall pursed her lips. "Perhaps."/p
p class="MsoNormal""She was my sister, and the only Evans who was here."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Yes, she was, although perhaps…" McGonagall broke off, eyeing the wand that Petunia had wedged beside her on the chair. Then she shook her head. "The rest can wait until tomorrow, I'll have my hands full with this ghost business. You must be eager to get back to the ball. Ellesmerellender!"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Instantly the pointy-eared creature reappeared with a bang./p
p class="MsoNormal""Headmistress?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Please take Mrs Dursley back to the Great Hall."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The elf bowed, scrambled up the stairs and held the door for Petunia. She rose reluctantly./p
p class="MsoNormal""What if it happens again?" she asked./p
p class="MsoNormal""I will handle the ghosts," McGonagall said. "The ghosts of Hogwarts are a community, even a law, unto themselves, but although they have their own internal jurisdiction, of course they must submit to the general rules of the school. You may be at ease from now. The Baron em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"will/em deal with the situation, inform me of the culprit and mete out a punishment, I'm sure."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Hearing the iron in her voice, Petunia was sure, too./p
p class="MsoNormal""Thank you, Headmistress," she said, relieved./p
p class="MsoNormal""Pet…unia!" exclaimed Arthur as soon as they emerged from the office. He had obviously been waiting outside. "Hermione told me what happened. Are you all right?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm fine." She smiled bravely at him./p
p class="MsoNormal""As long as you're here, Arthur, you may as well walk Mrs Dursley back," said McGonagall. "But I'll want to see you tomorrow, Mrs Dursley before you go. The Hogwarts Express leaves at two o'clock, we should have plenty of time to talk. In fact…" The woman's sharp eyes moved from Petunia to Arthur and back again. "You should come, too, Arthur."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Do you feel like we're about to be told off?" Petunia asked as they strolled down the corridor. Arthur laughed under his breath./p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm glad she wasn't Headmistress when I was at school. Are you warm enough yet to go dance some more?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Arthur… I'm sorry, but I really don't feel up to dancing right now. So many people saw…" She indicated the wand she still carried in her hand./p
p class="MsoNormal""And?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""They'll stare. I hate that," Petunia said quietly. "And that ghost scared me. I'm still frightened and I just want to go to my room and crawl into bed. I'm not brave, like you and everyone else."/p
p class="MsoNormal""There are some heroes downstairs, but most of them are just ordinary people who went through extraordinary things," Arthur said. "Horrible things."/p
p class="MsoNormal""I know I'm making a mountain out of a molehill," Petunia said. "Just one ghost, having a laugh at my expense. Measure that up against dragons and Death Eaters and giants."/p
p class="MsoNormal""That's not what I meant."/p
p class="MsoNormal"They had arrived at the head of the big staircase that led down into the entrance hall, and where the hallway leading to the guest quarters branched off. They stopped to look down over the balustrades. The music was now an upbeat mixture of pop songs and the lights in the Great Hall had changed to sparkling, pulsing colours. From inside came yells and laughter. Many of their own age mates were yawning theatrically as they climbed the stairs and continued to the guest quarters, leaving the youngsters to enjoy themselves. Some carried bottles, others had loaded up on food as well. In a corner, Ron and Hermione were exchanging a long kiss./p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia glanced at Arthur. He glanced at her, then cleared his throat. "On second thoughts," he said, "maybe it is time for bed."/p
p class="MsoNormal"They made their way to the Gryffindor parents' wing. Petunia recounted the whole bathroom story again, and Arthur was as completely mystified as she was as to why a ghost would torment her of all people. The hallways were lit with strings of fluttering candles in wall sconces, and between candles quivering shadows loomed large on the stone walls. Petunia was more than glad to have Arthur's company./p
p class="MsoNormal"Someone had been in her room while she had been gone, and had left a teapot and a cup on the dresser, drawn the curtains and turned down the bed. A fat tallow candle burned on the nightstand in a protective glass tube./p
p class="MsoNormal""Would you do me a favour?" she asked Arthur who stood in the doorway as though undecided whether to enter or no. "Unzip my dress? My fingers are still stiff."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Of course."/p
p class="MsoNormal"She turned her back, and without further comment he stepped up to her and gently pulled the zipper all the way down her spine. Tiny fireworks seemed to course in the wake of his touch and lit her loins./p
p class="MsoNormal"His familiar fingers brushed the bare skin under the dress, and after a tiny hesitation they spread the halves of the back apart, softly caressing her. She sighed and shivered again, and not from cold. Then she felt his lips on the back of her neck and gasped lightly as her entire body began to burn with desire./p
p class="MsoNormal"Distantly she heard the door close. Arthur's hands slid down to her waist, then around to her belly while his kisses found the sweet spot on her neck just under the ear. Petunia yearned to melt into the touch, his warmth, his tender eagerness… but with an enormous effort of will she pulled away a little./p
p class="MsoNormal""Arthur. Wait." She turned to face him, flushed and out of breath./p
p class="MsoNormal""What is it?" His face was flushed, too, and puzzled./p
p class="MsoNormal""Before… the war, what we had, that was just… the past. We agreed on that, didn't we." He didn't reply. Grasping one of the bedposts for support Petunia forged on: "But now, whatever happens, there's a chance that it, well, turns into the future."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur was quiet for a few seconds. "Couldn't it just be the present?" he finally said. "Could the past and the future just sort themselves out?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"He stepped closer, hesitantly. Petunia put her arms around his neck and pulled him to her. "What a brilliant idea," she murmured just before their lips met./p
p class="MsoNormal" -/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia started awake. For a few seconds was completely at a loss to know where she was in the darkness and had no idea what had wakened her. Then Arthur shifted again beside her with a low moan, and the world snapped back into focus./p
p class="MsoNormal"His brow was knitted in pain. Petunia looked on helplessly as he thrashed around more and more violently, his hands clenched into fists and gesturing with a dream wand. She nudged him gently, but he didn't wake, only continued his battle with ghosts of his own. Petunia stroked his sweat-beaded forehead, wishing she could help./p
p class="MsoNormal"He let out a yell and sprang upright, sitting tangled in covers panting and wild-eyed for several seconds. He looked round, frowned, and then noticed Petunia./p
p class="MsoNormal""Oh, Pet," he sighed and rubbed his face. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Ssshh, it's all right," she said. She sat up and hugged him with one arm./p
p class="MsoNormal""It still happens every night," he said. "I have the same nightmare every night. We're in the middle of the battle for Hogwarts and I'm lost. I hear the battle but I can't see anyone. I run through the hallways, bodies are everywhere, and I know I have to find Molly before she kills Bellatrix. Then I come to the fourth floor walkway and I see Fred…" His voice broke into sobs and his eyes filled with tears. Petunia tightened her grip and stroked his arm with her other hand. "I see Fred lying in the rubble. I stop and try to move him, get him out from under the rocks, but they won't budge. I give up and go on, trying to find Molly. And then I finally do—I see her lift her wand and curse Bellatrix, and then Voldemort turns to her and… and then I wake up, and I wasn't able to stop it." He buried his face in his hands and cried. Petunia held him, hugged him and offered what comfort she could until he was cried out./p
p class="MsoNormal"The sun was rising before they both fell back asleep in each other's arms./p
p class="MsoNormal"The next thing Petunia knew was a knock on the door that woke her from deep sleep. Beside her, Arthur just mumbled something and turned over without waking. She wrapped a sheet around herself and went to open the door just a crack./p
p class="MsoNormal"At first she thought no one was there. Then just as she was about to close the door again she chanced to look down and noticed a small house-elf proffering an enormous breakfast tray./p
p class="MsoNormal""The downstairs breakfast is over," it said in a voice higher and squeakier than the elf, Ellesmer-whatever, who had waited on McGonagall. "Saddy brought you your tray, Mrs Dursley. Should Saddy bring it inside?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Uh…" She adjusted the sheet and took the covered tray from little Saddy's hands, and promptly almost dropped it, surprised by the weight. "It's all right, I've got it. Thank you."/p
p class="MsoNormal""The Headmistress asks Mrs Dursley and Mr Weasley to join her in her study in an hour," the creature added, bowed and Disapparated with a crack, which woke Arthur./p
p class="MsoNormal""We overslept," Petunia said and set the tray on the bed in front of them. It was filled to the brim with croissants, boiled eggs, jelly, sausages, bacon, toast and a blessed tiny teapot and mug./p
p class="MsoNormal""We missed the breakfast in the Great Hall?" Arthur yawned. "Still, we don't seem to have been short-changed by much. There's usually kippers…" He rummaged around the tray until he found a plate of them./p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur boiled water for more tea with a simple spell and Petunia poured it for them, giving Arthur the mug and using the cup and saucer provided last night for her own tea. They set up a peaceful picnic on the covers with the multitude of food that was far too much even for the pair of them./p
p class="MsoNormal"As they sat eating, Petunia noticed something she really should have noticed before. She had no idea when he had removed it, could not remember if had had it last night, but this morning Arthur was definitely not wearing his wedding ring. His left hand looked momentarily strange and empty without it, the skin still lighter where the ring had circled his finger for twenty-nine years./p
p class="MsoNormal""Do you think the children missed us this morning?" Petunia asked, nibbling a piece of toast. "I wonder where they think we are."/p
p class="MsoNormal""They'd never believe it," Arthur grinned and took a big bite out of his kipper on toast./p
p class="MsoNormal""McGonagall wants to see both of us in…" she looked at her watch on the nightstand. "Half an hour! I need to shower!" Hastily she swallowed the rest of her croissant, gulped down her tea and dashed into the bathroom./p
p class="MsoNormal"She had barely started the water running when Arthur slipped in through the door./p
p class="MsoNormal""I need to shower, too," he said smugly and joined her in the stall./p
p class="MsoNormal"They were thoroughly late by the time they emerged, pink and moist and rather giggly. While Petunia got dressed properly, Arthur just pulled on his underwear and top robes and collected his scattered clothing into a bundle. Then she opened the door and peered into the hallway, but just as she was about to signal to Arthur that the coast was clear a student came into sight in the hall. She recognised the blond boy, Malfoy, who had glared at Harry at the ceremony. She paused and pretended to search through her handbag for something, watching as the boy crept stealthily to Arthur's door and knocked./p
p class="MsoNormal""I think I've lost a sock," Arthur said from inside the room. Petunia tried to shush him but too late. The boy turned and noticed her standing there. He flinched, glowered in a slightly puzzled way and scarpered off down the hall./p
p class="MsoNormal""What is it?" Arthur said and came to the door./p
p class="MsoNormal""I think that Malfoy boy heard you," Petunia said. "We're so late. Go change, I'll go meet McGonagall."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Do you know the way?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia fetched up short for a second but then shook her head and continued down the hall. "I'll ask someone."/p
p class="MsoNormal"When after three someones, half a dozen identical hallways and two staircases that she could have sworn had moved during the night Petunia finally found the gargoyle that guarded the entrance, both Arthur and McGonagall were waiting in front of it. He had clearly taken a much shorter route./p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm so sorry," Petunia began but McGonagall silenced her with a wave./p
p class="MsoNormal""Never mind, I got off to a slow start myself. Let's go to my office."/p
p class="MsoNormal"The gargoyle stepped aside to let them pass. Inside, McGonagall went straight to the point as soon as everyone was seated. "I wasn't able to find out who attacked you, I'm sorry to say. I met with the Baron and unless he's playing a em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"very/em deep game to no point I can comprehend, he had no idea who the attacker was. We're forced to the conclusion that Hogwarts has acquired a new ghost, but as to whose shade it might be…" McGonagall shrugged. "That will have to wait until it comes fully back to itself. It can take time, and as it probably was the result of the battle, it's not in the best of spirits, so to speak. It's just as well you're leaving today, Mrs Dursley, and in the meantime, I would ask you not to move around the castle and its grounds by yourself, or we might not be able to guarantee your safety."/p
p class="MsoNormal""I see." Petunia shifted uncomfortably in her seat and tried not to glance around in case the white blob of a new ghost was squatting in wait somewhere./p
p class="MsoNormal""But then there's the other matter," McGonagall continued. Petunia drew an anxious breath and rather thought Arthur did, too. Here came that talking-to. "Mrs Dursley, you used magic. To good effect, I might say." Petunia said nothing—she could hardly deny it. "I take it, then, that when we last met and you were about to be tested for ability, the test was positive?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia nodded./p
p class="MsoNormal""So I seem to have been wrong about you. As was Professor Dumbledore."/p
p class="MsoNormal"She paused to wait for Petunia to speak, but she could think of nothing to say./p
p class="MsoNormal""May I see your wand?" McGonagall held out her hand. Petunia withdrew it from her handbag and reluctantly passed it to her./p
p class="MsoNormal""Seems to be quite old—this style was popular in the early 1900s. Where did you get it?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""It was my great-grandfather's," Petunia said./p
p class="MsoNormal""So there have been others in your family." She leaned forward and winked. "Albus wouldn't have liked that. He had his pet theories, and before Hermione Granger showed up he always pointed to Lily as living proof that wizarding ability didn't depend on whether one was Muggle-born or not. I'm not saying he was wrong, but his favourite proof has been disqualified." She gave Petunia her wand back. "How was it that you were missed?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia told her the whole story of the curse, her great-aunt, the exploding husband and the rest. McGonagall listened attentively./p
p class="MsoNormal""And who taught you to do spells?" she asked when Petunia was finished./p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia could not help her eyes flickering towards Arthur. He cleared his throat. "I did," he said./p
p class="MsoNormal"McGonagall leaned back in her chair with a chuckle. "em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"You/em taught Mrs Dursley magic?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Well, and why not?" Petunia snapped, instantly offended on his behalf./p
p class="MsoNormal""I merely find it amusing that Arthur Weasley, who was only ever interested in the Muggle world, should find himself teaching magic," McGonagall explained to her soothingly but shot them both a brief penetrating glance over the rim of her glasses. Petunia pretended not to notice. "You could have asked Professor Dumbledore for help."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia sniffed and tossed her hair. She had no desire to explain just how angry… no, how furious she had been at Dumbledore for refusing her first request out of hand and, illogical though it was, for failing to notice she was under a curse. And she certainly did not want to tell her, if she didn't already know, how Dumbledore had marched into her home and downright scolded her for how she had raised Dudley./p
p class="MsoNormal""I was learning by myself, too, from books. Besides, I'm too old to go to school," she said stiffly./p
p class="MsoNormal""My dear young lady, you are certainly not too old!" McGonagall exclaimed. "You're barely forty! And obviously you want to learn, which is the main thing. Not that magic will likely ever be second nature to you, but there is no reason whatsoever why you shouldn't learn as much as you can. I would, however, like to see you taught by someone whose interests lie a little further away from electricity and internal combustion engines." She turned to Arthur. "You're a perfectly competent wizard, especially considering that you're not interested in magic for its own sake, but trying to teach an adult untrained witch…"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Arthur's an excellent teacher," Petunia interrupted icily. "And I've learned from him, obviously, since I'm not currently refrigerated."/p
p class="MsoNormal""There is no need to keep taking offence on his behalf," McGonagall snapped. "Arthur is an old friend and I value him highly." She paused to draw a long breath. "I'm merely working up to ask you if you would want me to arrange lessons for you, and I must say you're not making it very easy."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia stared at her, stunned./p
p class="MsoNormal""Lessons?" she asked./p
p class="MsoNormal""If I recall correctly, and I do because I dug up his old report cards and exam results last night, Arthur showed much promise in Charms but none whatsoever in, for example, Potions or Care of Magical Creatures. Am I right in assuming that these have been more or less neglected in your education?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""We also didn't spend much time on History of Magic," Arthur confessed. "The Muggle Studies curriculum was well covered, although she did the teaching."/p
p class="MsoNormal"McGonagall sniffed, not without humour. "There's much more to magic than what you've been taught, Mrs Dursley, more than you can imagine right now. I'm offering you the chance to discover at least some of it."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Judging from those old books of Harry's, Petunia already knew this to be true. Her mind started to race. Would she be able to learn enough to protect herself from magical threats? Could she actually choose to become a real witch? How discomfiting, and exciting at the same time. She glanced at Arthur, who looked only pleased. Then a thought struck her and her heart fell./p
p class="MsoNormal""I… I don't have any money at all," she stammered, her face reddening./p
p class="MsoNormal"The Headmistress looked taken aback. "Now there's a confession I didn't think to hear from you," she said. "But studying at Hogwarts is free, with room and board..."/p
p class="MsoNormal""But not clothes or books, or a permanent place to live," Petunia pointed out. "I scrape together what I can with work from two different temp agencies, but if I suddenly disappear for months at a time, they'll stop sending work altogether. I'll lose my flat in London."/p
p class="MsoNormal""You have me confused," McGonagall frowned. "I was under the impression that you lived in Glasgow with your family. I'm quite sure that was Professor Dumbledore's plan."/p
p class="MsoNormal"With what Petunia thought was heroic restraint she refrained from any choice comments about plans by Professor Dumbledore. "I'm separated from my husband," she said through a clenched jaw./p
p class="MsoNormal""Oh." McGonagall paused to think for a second or two. "Ohhh! Well, that does explain much." She rose and paced. "We have graduate student quarters at the school that can be occupied all the year round, or of course if you'd prefer to live in Hogsmeade… I'm sure some sort of stipend could be arranged with the school board, or failing that, the Ministry."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Because of Harry?" Petunia said. Her voice rose. "Believe me, I am em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"not/em accepting charity given for the sake of what he's done."/p
p class="MsoNormal"McGonagall sighed./p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur cleared his throat. "Maybe you need some time to think it over?" he suggested to Petunia. She drew a deep breath to vehemently deny any need for it, but somehow Arthur's expression disarmed her./p
p class="MsoNormal""That's a good idea." McGonagall crossed her arms at her waist. "I'll expect your owl within a week."/p
p class="MsoNormal" -/p
p class="MsoNormal""The only relevant question is: do you want to?" Arthur said as they slowly strolled through the halls. The students were all in class, and all they saw were a few stray parents sightseeing around the school. Every now and then Arthur would point out to her some landmark statue or a place rich in nostalgia, which made her feel privileged and excluded at the same time. Petunia could not tell if it was just her imagination or if Arthur was a little quieter than usual./p
p class="MsoNormal""It's not so simple," Petunia mumbled without looking at him. The truth was, the more she thought about it, the more terrified she was by the prospect of leaving behind the world she had lived in and been a part of for forty years. Dudley would be puzzled, Vernon would be horrified… and Petunia was bitterly disappointed in herself to realise still automatically consulted his imagined opinions./p
p class="MsoNormal""What's wrong?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I wouldn't fit into the wizarding world. Here, em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"I/em would be the freak."/p
p class="MsoNormal"There was an awkward silence./p
p class="MsoNormal""As opposed to, for example, myself in the Muggle world?" Arthur then asked stiffly./p
p class="MsoNormal""You know I didn't mean it like that! Not you!"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Just other people like me."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia stopped in her tracks. They were in a corridor with large windows set into one wall opening directly into a garden square. The summer heat made the whole corridor hot and muggy but that had little to do with the sudden constricting feeling in Petunia's chest./p
p class="MsoNormal""It just came out. I don't… I…" she stammered in a small voice. Her face twisted, threatening tears, as she threw up her hands in desperation. "That's not even how I think any more, but now I've said it and you'll go away angry and we'll…" She forced herself to take several long breaths in silence. Who knew what strange things might come out of her mouth that she didn't exactly mean. Or did not want to be thought meaning./p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm sorry," she finally managed, burying her face in her hands. "I'm frightened and I say bad things when I'm frightened."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur seemed to hesitate a little, but then in two decisive strides he was beside her and hugged her around her trembling shoulders./p
p class="MsoNormal""I know. Ssh. It's all right."/p
p class="MsoNormal"She turned into his embrace and returned it. For a long moment they held each other./p
p class="MsoNormal""Uh… Mr Weasley? Aunt Petunia?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia instantly flinched out of Arthur's arms with a startled squeak. It was Harry, examining the sight with narrowed eyes./p
p class="MsoNormal""Your aunt's only had a bit of a shock," said Arthur, blushing slightly. "I was, er, comforting her."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry said nothing. Voices rang out from a branching corridor and from behind the corner strolled Ron and Hermione with some of their friends, having a laugh and enjoying their camaraderie like any teenagers leaving school. They paused when they noticed the three of them standing there./p
p class="MsoNormal""Hi, Dad," Ron said and frowned. He seemed to sense the tense atmosphere./p
p class="MsoNormal""Aren't you supposed to be packing?" Hermione asked. "The train leaves in an hour."/p
p class="MsoNormal"That had everyone moving in a hurry. The children were already packed, it seemed, and accompanied them to the visitor quarters for the purpose of carrying their luggage downstairs. Harry lounged around, looking out the window at the Quidditch pitch and examining the room curiously./p
p class="MsoNormal""Here," he said, picking up a stray sock from next to the bed. "Is this really yours?"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia coloured lightly and snatched the clearly masculine sock from him. "It must be one of your uncle's," she mumbled. "Got into my luggage somehow…"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Since when does Uncle Vernon wear green socks…?" Harry asked, then shrugged it off and changed to topic. "So, what was it? The shock you had?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Oh…" She rummaged in the wardrobe mainly to hide her face. He went fluently from one awkward question to the next, it seemed. "McGonagall suggested I take lessons."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Lessons? In… magic? em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;"You?/em"/p
p class="MsoNormal""That's right."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Aunt Petunia… What's going on? Why were you holding a wand last night? Whose was it?" Harry asked plaintively./p
p class="MsoNormal"Maybe now was the time to explain things to him. Petunia withdrew from the wardrobe, holding her folded clothes and tiny laundry bag, and set them all in her suitcase. Then she sat on the bed and motioned Harry to join her./p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm getting a crick in the neck looking so far up," she said when he hesitated, and he settled uncomfortably on the edge of the bed. "That's better. Now. The wand is mine. Or rather, it was your great-great-grandfather's." Again she told the story of her great-aunt, touched lightly on how she had been tested and found to have been cursed, and how she had begun to practice; she left Arthur out of the story as much as she could, even trying to give the impression that she had only been training by herself./p
p class="MsoNormal""Is that why you and Uncle Vernon split up?" was his first question, which took Petunia aback a little./p
p class="MsoNormal""Partly," she said, "although he doesn't know."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry was quiet for a long time as Petunia retrieved her toiletries and folded everything nicely into the suitcase. As she was about to start packing her dress, Harry spoke up again./p
p class="MsoNormal""So let's see," he said slowly. "You spent ten years not talking to me about my parents because they were a witch and a wizard; you did your utmost to keep me from going to Hogwarts and made my life a living hell for using magic; and now that I'm grown up and it's too late, you make a complete about-face, start using magic yourself and come to Hogwarts yourself?" His voice rose towards the end./p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia winced. Could she dump all the guilt onto Vernon? Say that it had only been the curse that made her act that way? If she said that, she would have to further explain the curse and how it had been lifted, and that was impossible without explaining Arthur's involvement. That in turn would take them into a conversation she was not ready to have. She turned her head away. Besides, when put that way it really did sound quite unjust./p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm not going to make excuses for myself," she said. "All I can say is I'm sorry, Harry. I truly am."/p
p class="MsoNormal""You know, I really couldn't figure out why you'd come here for the graduation," Harry said, his voice growing even louder, "but it all makes sense now. You saw how the Daily Prophet made me out like some kind of hero, and you thought you'd come and show your face here and catch some of the glory. You don't care about me, you just want to be seen with The Boy Who Lived and all the guys who killed Voldemort!"/p
p class="MsoNormal"Harry was yelling now, and with the door open his voice carried all along the corridor. And of course, Arthur came running to the door in consternation./p
p class="MsoNormal""Harry," he began, but Petunia cut him short./p
p class="MsoNormal""Arthur, stay out of this," she snapped. "Shut the door."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Arthur spun on his heels and disappeared, and the door clicked shut./p
p class="MsoNormal""Now you be quiet and listen," she said firmly to Harry, looking him straight in the eye. "I've already said I'm sorry. And now I'm trying to start making up for the past sixteen years and trying to treat you like my nephew should be treated, and you yell at me? Don't you DARE talk to me like that again!"/p
p class="MsoNormal""I'm not ten years old anymore, you don't get to tell me how to talk to you!"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Being seventeen doesn't mean you're a grown-up, and you certainly don't get to talk to me that way even when you're thirty-seven! Get over yourself."/p
p class="MsoNormal"Petunia stalked to her suitcase, stuffed in the dress and shoes and zipped it shut. Then she popped it down in front of Harry./p
p class="MsoNormal""There. We have to get going, otherwise we'll miss the train and I can't Apparate."/p
p class="MsoNormal"She was almost out the door before she turned back to look at Harry, who had picked up the suitcase like an obedient nephew escorting his aunt./p
p class="MsoNormal""You can always come to me for help, Harry," she forced herself to say. "Not because I feel guilty, not because you owe me any family feeling, but because I promised to take care of you and I will."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Right." Harry's voice was a mumble and Petunia could not tell what he might be thinking./p
p class="MsoNormal"The carriage ride to the train was awkward to say the least but at least chance put her next to Arthur in the carriage, and she took comfort in his warmth and presence and the delicious tingle it produced in her spine./p
p class="MsoNormal"On the bridge over the Hogwash, Arthur nudged her meaningfully and nodded out the window, and Petunia remembered the rings. She gave him a crooked smile. He had been quite right, throwing the rings away here would have been pointless. She would simply return them to Vernon in person when she next saw him, and that would be soon—he would need to sign the divorce papers./p
p class="MsoNormal" -/p
p class="MsoNormal"The Hogwarts Express made good time towards London. Arthur blatantly manoeuvred people around until Petunia ended up in the same compartment with him. True, it contained also Harry and Ginny, but you couldn't have everything. Petunia sat quietly and gazed out the window, trying to untangle her thoughts./p
p class="MsoNormal""So, Harry," Arthur said to break yet another silence. "Any news on the house hunt?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Yeah, actually," the boy said. "I'm buying one in Earl's Court."/p
p class="MsoNormal""Brilliant! Just call for help when you move! And you know, I'm sure your aunt would be happy to help, too," he said suggestively. Petunia gave him a flat stare but it somehow turned to humour between them./p
p class="MsoNormal""I don't have any stuff to move," Harry said./p
p class="MsoNormal""That's just it, you'll need furniture and, and carpets, and…" Arthur hesitated, racking his brain. "… and lamps."/p
p class="MsoNormal""And you need to go to the power company and the telephone company," Petunia said, drawn out in spite of herself. "Do you even have a bank account?"/p
p class="MsoNormal""Of course he has a bank account!" Arthur huffed, puzzled./p
p class="MsoNormal""Yeah, at Gringott's," Harry grinned wanly. "You're right, Aunt Petunia, I need to get one at a regular bank."/p
p class="MsoNormal"An almost normal conversation ensued, Petunia listing the sorts of items a household generally needed, Harry scoffing at some of them—for example, he quite unreasonably objected to buying a proper electric mixer—but clearly making mental notes. Petunia did not dare to ask where he planned to work and how much money he would earn on a monthly basis, but since he objected to nothing on the grounds of cost she deduced he must be well enough set up. Beside her, Arthur leaned back and closed his eyes with a smile on his face./p
p class="MsoNormal" /p
p class="MsoNormal" /p