Two months, Lily thought as she stared up at her ceiling.
She could hear Petunia coming down the stairs and she pulled her thin blanket tighter around her body, praying she'd be forgotten. That would mean being late for school, with a potentially worse punishment later in the evening, but she needed the rest. She hated being in the dark, but at least here it was less painful.
Petunia passed by her cupboard without a pause, and Lily let out a sigh of relief. When she went to bed the night before, she wished she'd never wake up. All she did was ask for help with her maths. She was too stupid to do it by herself, and she just wanted help. The Dursleys told her what would happen if she turned in another half-completed worksheet. She should have known she'd get it either way.
Lily closed her eyes. Sometimes, when she was particularly bad, Petunia and Vernon would leave her shut up in the cupboard under the stairs even on a school day, claiming she was too sick to attend classes. If she was lucky, she'd get another one of those.
She never got lucky. Petunia was coming back down the hall, steps sounding angry, and she heard the familiar rapping on her door soon after.
"Up!" Petunia barked in her high pitch shriek. She heard the latch click, but the door didn't open. Lily would be expected to do that on her own. Failure to do so would mean much worse.
She knew better than to keep Petunia waiting. Within seconds, she was out of her room and in the kitchen. Petunia didn't bother looking at her or acknowledging her in anyway. She knew what she was supposed to do. It was an old routine at this point.
She started with the sausage. Vernon and Dudley liked it crispy, just on the edge of the skin bursting or burning. If it did go either way, she'd be punished. Vernon liked his eggs sunny side up, Dudley scrambled. If she let the yolk cook too long, so it was no longer runny, she'd be punished. Vernon liked beans with his, Dudley wanted extra meat and bread (with plenty of butter smeared over it). If anything was too cold or slightly too cooked, if the butter didn't melt, if anything went wrong in the slightest, she wouldn't get to eat that day.
Petunia preferred a simple breakfast of fruit and a glass of water. If Lily was lucky, she'd get the same.
Lily set the plates on the table just as the two men came down, not uttering so much as a word of thanks. She set none for herself. She still had to clean up. If she left even a tiny speck of a mess for Petunia to clean up, she'd be punished. She'd only be fed if she did a good job.
Lily stood to the side as she waited for the family to chat and eat. She didn't dare speak; she was expected to stay silent unless given a direct order or question. Occasionally, she'd bring someone something they asked for, not daring to hesitate for even a second. If Dudley wanted a second plate of food, she was expected to already have it ready for him. She made enough for everybody to have four plates, if that was what was wanted. Dudley, at least, almost always did.
Once they were done eating, Lily cleared every spot and washed everything. By the time she was done, Vernon was already gone for work, and she only had a measly five minutes to get herself ready for school. She did so as quickly as she could, wishing she had the time to scrounge around for some scraps. Her stomach was empty and painful. She only got to eat a couple slices of bread over the weekend.
Just a few hours, she thought. She just had to make it until lunch.
Her uniform was baggy and plain. She always wore the boy's uniform, despite being a girl. The Dursleys would prepare nothing else for her, and her teachers gave up long ago. The Dursleys had them believing it was all she ever wanted to wear, and that she refused anything else. None of them argued against it. She was always a troublemaker and a pain, they witnessed it for themselves. Her new teachers every year would give up on her after a single week. The best of them made it a whole month. Lily didn't remember the meeting she had with her. She thought she was going to get help. The woman asked her many questions about her home life and even checked her arms for bruises. The last thing she remembered was heading towards the Head's for a meeting, and then she woke up in her dark cupboard. The next day, the teacher hated her, just like all the others.
Lily waited by the door quietly for Dudley and Petunia to finish their own preparations. She used to try and leave early, always craving the solitude and quiet, but Petunia hated the mere thought of it. Didn't like the way the neighbours talked about her neglecting one of her children. They couldn't have people thinking they were mistreating the Potter child (even if they were a deranged upstart). So, she always trailed behind the two of them while Petunia walked her precious Diddykins to and from the nearby primary school. That way, if asked, Petunia could tell them all that she was a meanspirited little thing who refused every act of kindness. Nobody ever questioned it. She was the child of criminals and drug addicts.
Petunia always tried to hold Dudley's hand as they went, even though the boy absolutely despised it. Petunia always blamed her for filling his head with these sorts of thoughts. Once, Lily begged Dudley to just put up with it, but that just resulted in a split lip and a week of Dudley taunting her. He always taunted her, of course, but it was worse then. Lily tried her best not to think about it. If she wasn't such a nuisance, she'd be treated better. She just needed to learn her place.
That was hard to do when the rules were always changing without anybody telling her.
When they arrived at the school, Petunia gave a warm and fond farewell to Dudley, hugging him and kissing his cheek, and barely looked in Lily's direction as she passed by. Lily didn't mind. As much as she hated school, the short walks in either direction were always the best part of the day. They were the only parts where nobody was telling her how worthless she was or hitting her for whatever indignance they were forced to suffer through.
Lily took her seat in the back of the room just as the class began. She was quiet and didn't volunteer a thing. She did her best to listen. She turned in her worksheet, got scolded in front of everybody, and then took her seat once more, jaw clenched tightly to hold back the tears as the lecture began.
She hated having maths so early in the morning. She wasn't very good at it. It was always so easy for her mind to wander, no matter how hard she tried to focus. The numbers in front of her always seemed to swim around and twist and turn into shapes she couldn't recognize. During such times, she found herself drawing on whatever scrap of paper she had available. She never meant to, and she never even realized she was doing it.
"Potter, are you listening?"
"Y-yes, Mrs. J-Johnson," Lily said, setting her pencil down while the rest of the kids giggled around her. Lily's hourly dressing downs were always the best parts of their day. Only one girl never laughed, but she never did anything to stop it, either.
"What did I just ask you?" Mrs. Johnson said. She had her hands perched dangerously on her hips. Lily's mind worked quickly, trying to think of whatever answer would give her the least amount of trouble.
"I-I don't kn-kn-know, Mrs. J-Johnson," Lily said quietly. She was too stupid to figure it out.
Mrs. Johnson walked over quickly, her heels clacking angrily on each tile. With a swift hand motion, she tore out the little sketch Lily was working on from her notebook and crumpled it right in front of her eyes.
"Next time," Mrs. Johnson said harshly, "You will spend less time daydreaming and more time on paying attention. No break today, Potter. You will spend it writing lines and I will be speaking with your aunt about your continued misbehaviour."
Lily just nodded solemnly. She hardly went a single day without some sort of complaint. Even if a teacher didn't speak with her, Dudley would just invent or twist something around to get her into trouble instead. No matter what it was, she'd admit to it, even if it was completely implausible. It would go worse for her if she tried to deny it.
Lily sat down at a lunch table all by herself. Somebody would, inevitably, be forced to sit next to her, but they always avoided her as long as they could. She ate as much as she could as quickly as she could. Sometimes, she could even get through a full meal before he came. She wasn't that lucky today. This time, she managed only to finish her sandwich before Dudley swiped the rest of her lunch out from under her.
"You know the rules, Potter," he said. He left her there by herself as he went to join his mates at a different table.
Lily sat quietly with her hands perched politely on the table. She never had any idea what she was supposed to do at times like these. She was just too slow. She could never keep up.
"Hullo," a girl said as she sat down across from Lily. Lily said nothing in return. Some people would at least be polite before they started digging into her.
"Mum says you're supposed to respond when people talk to you," the girl said, taking a bite of her apple. "Course, she says a lot of things, but that one makes sense. It's polite to greet someone else."
"H-Hello," Lily said in a whisper. She just kept staring down at her hands. Petunia never liked it when she looked at her. Something about her eyes. It was hard to remember without thinking about being in pain, and she didn't like doing that. She rubbed at her ribs as she thought. The bruises were always gone by the morning, but the pain always lingered. She didn't know why that kept happening.
"Here!" the girl said, pushing her lunch towards Lily. Lily eyed it warily. Nobody ever offered her anything. "Oh, go on, then. Can't stand you looking so pathetic all the time."
"N-no, th-th-thanks," Lily said, ignoring the pain in her stomach. She kept her eyes on the girl in front of her.
Lily had no idea who she was. She wasn't in her class. She had frizzy brown hair that poofed out from the side of her head, brown eyes that matched her skin, and crooked teeth that she still showed off in a wide smile (Lily's were always straight, despite everything), with the hint of a bruise on one cheek.
"I'm Clara," the girl said, sliding her lunch a little closer to Lily.
"Lily," Lily said carefully. She couldn't stutter on her own name. Petunia made that very clear.
"I know who you are," Clara said with a roll of her eyes. "Mum said to stay away from you, but dad said I should be nice, and since he's always nice, I said I would."
"I-I'm a f-f-freak," Lily said. She hated that word.
"So am I!" Clara said happily. "Dad says there's nothing wrong with being a freak and it's perfectly normal. Sounds stupid to me, but what do I know? You should hurry and eat."
"Say, do you really have a scar?" Clara asked, pointing a small finger at Lily's head. "Dad says it looks like lightning. Is that true? I gave you my lunch, so that means you have to show me."
Lily hurried to flatten the hair back in front of her scar, her breathing coming in a panicked hurry. She kept shaking her head. She didn't think she could get the words out if she tried, but she was not supposed to talk about the scar. That meant big trouble. She felt awkward, with Clara staring at her. She needed something to occupy her hands, to keep her busy so she didn't have to talk.
Clara rolled her eyes. "Fine, don't show me. Say, you looking forward to Hogwarts? Dad says it won't be too much longer, now."
Lily just stared, having no earthly idea what the girl was talking about.
"Mum says I can't tell anybody either," Clara said, putting a finger to her lips in a shushing motion. "Said they'll lock freaks like us up."
"They w-will?" Lily asked fearfully. Petunia and Vernon always threatened her they would but hearing it from someone else just made the idea worse, made it feel more real.
"Can't tell no one!" Clara insisted. "Dad says so, too. Aren't supposed to do any of it outside of school! Only telling you because you're one, too. Your cousin isn't coming too, is he? Can't stand him. One of his mates stole my shoes the other day, and nobody'd make him give them back. Had to walk home in my socks. Mum didn't like that very much."
Lily had no idea what that meant, but she was too afraid to ask. She was clearly supposed to know what the other girl was talking about, and she didn't want to seem stupid in front of the first person to be nice to her in years. She looked down at the lunch. She was eating it, even though she couldn't remember ever starting on it.
"I'll find you during break," Clara said as she stood. "I can show you what dad taught me, so long as you promise not to tell. He says its fine, as long as the moldus don't see us."
"Wh-what's a m-moldu?" Lily asked, the word sounding strange on her tongue.
"It means people who aren't like us," Clara said with a shrug. "I heard dad talking with one of his mates, once, and he said they're called Muggles, but dad's French and he insists moldu is proper."
Lily nodded. She remembered hearing the word Muggle before, although she couldn't remember from where, nor what it meant. She supposed it was just another word for normal people.
"Where do you want to meet?" Clara asked, still standing.
"I c-can't," Lily said quietly, taking her last bite of food. She was still so hungry. "Mrs. Johnson s-said I can't h-have b-break today."
"What did you do?"
"D-drawing," Lily said.
"You should draw me!" Clara said excitedly. "Probably won't have time here, but- Hey, when's your birthday? Mum says I can only visit friends on their birthdays."
"Friend?" Lily asked, blinking slowly.
"Of course!" Clara said. "I fed you, that means we're friends. That's the rule, isn't it?"
"July," Lily said after a long pause. She couldn't remember the exact day, no matter how hard she tried. Nobody ever asked before. "End of July."
Clara let out a little groan, her hand going up to rub her sore cheek. "How are we supposed to make it that long?"
Lily spent her time sticking as closely to Clara's side as humanly possible. During every break, during every lunch period, the girls were inseparable. Dudley still kept taking her food, but Clara would always give her own to Lily. She stopped arguing after the first week. Having a full stomach once a day was an entirely new sensation, but she was incredibly grateful for it. It was enough to get her through the rest of her misery, the one bright spot she had to look forward to.
Sometimes Clara would say some very strange things that made Lily uncomfortable. They were almost always about her mother, but Lily didn't try to pry. Clara just seemed to want to talk and hardly ever asked Lily anything about herself other than what she liked to do for fun. Lily never had any idea what to say. The only thing she ever did when locked in the cupboard for too long was draw but admitting that just made Clara ask to see them, and Lily wasn't at all comfortable with that. She was positive that as soon as anybody knew, they'd take them from her, and that would be the end.
"I can't get it to work!" Clara said in frustration one day, throwing the white flower onto the ground and laying back into the grass.
"What is it s-supposed to do?" Lily asked, staring at it intently.
"I could turn it pink at home, but I can't get it to work here," Clara mumbled. "Dad made it look so easy."
Lily poked the white petals with a finger, wondering where on Earth she came up with that one. Yes, sometimes Clara said some very strange things. She leaned back onto the grass with the girl, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her skin, and the sound of Clara's calm breathing next to her.
"Ah, well," Clara said with a sigh. "What are you doing this weekend?"
"Nothing," Lily said, just like every time Clara asked.
"Want to come over?" Clara asked. "Mum doesn't like me having people over, but my dad's visiting, so she won't say a thing."
"Can't," Lily said, wishing very deeply that she could.
"Ah, well," Clara said with another sigh. "Dad says it won't be too much longer until we're at Hogwarts, anyway."
"What's Ho-Hogwarts?" Lily asked.
"You don't know what Hogwarts is?" Clara said in disbelief. "Merlin, maybe you really are stupid. Dad says its where we'll be going to school, after primary. Mum says its where all the freaks go."
"Oh," Lily said. At least that meant Dudley wouldn't be there.
"I might not get to go," Clara said reluctantly. "Dad's trying to get me to go to France with him, says it isn't safe for me to be here with mum for so long."
Lily didn't say anything. If Clara was a freak like her, then, no, it probably wasn't safe for her to be here. She wished she could leave, herself. But she couldn't bring herself to say any of that. She'd only known Clara for three weeks, but she didn't know what she'd do without her.
One month left, Lily thought, swallowing hard.
"Potter!" Mrs. Johnson called for her.
Lily sat up slowly as the woman approached, a furious energy in her gait.
"Up," she said sternly. Lily obeyed immediately, wondering what she'd done this time.
"She didn't do anything," Clara said on her behalf, trying to stand up with her.
"Quiet, Lavigne," Mrs. Johnson said. "Come with me, Potter. Now."
Lily followed along quietly. They passed by Dudley and his friends as they walked. Dudley was laughing at her, his mates joining in. Whatever it was she was in trouble for, she was sure it came from them. It almost always did.
She was led to the Head's office, where Mrs. Johnson knocked sharply three times and then entered alone. Lily stood outside, waiting quietly. Part of her wanted to run and hide, but that would only make it worse once they found her.
Finally, Mrs. Johnson returned, holding the door open for her to enter, a stern and mean gaze staring down at her. Lily tried to seem as small as possible as she entered, the door closing closed firmly behind her.
"Potter," the Head said with a heavy sigh. "Will you ever learn to behave?"
Lily didn't answer that question.
"Have a seat," she said.
"Y-yes, Mrs. D-Davies," Lily said as she hurried to sit in front of the large desk, the sun burning through the window behind and blinding her. Her feet didn't touch the ground and she kept her hands buried between her thighs. Davies hated when she fidgeted around with them. She also hated it when Lily refused to look at her, but compromises had to be made somewhere.
"Do you know what you are here for this time?"
"N-no, Mrs. D-Da-Davies," Lily said, squirming in her seat.
"You've been stealing, Potter," Davies said, putting on her sternest voice. "And don't you dare try to deny it."
"I d-don't st-s-ste-steal," Lily said.
Davies sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.
"How many times have we had this conversation, Potter?" she said. "How many times have you sat in my office, lied to my face about this very thing, only for us to search your belongings and find the exact item we were looking for?"
"Enough, Hazel!" Davies said, slamming her hands down on her desk as Lily sank further into her seat. "I have had enough of your lying!" Lily clenched her jaw and saw (and heard) the window behind Davies crack, just slightly.
"You are!" Davies said. "We've already searched your things. We found Piers's Game Boy in it and we have five witnesses who saw you take it. It is time to come clean."
Lily clenched her jaw again and stared at the carpet. It didn't matter if she took credit for it or not. She knew what was coming either way. Her head was pounding.
Davies sighed and sat back into her seat, rubbing the bridge of her nose again.
"Your aunt is coming to pick you up," she said. "You're suspended until next Monday. You're lucky we're near the end of term, Potter, or we would be considering full expulsion. Your behaviour is unjustifiable. You need to learn better."
"I didn't d-do it," Lily whispered.
"You're still lying," Davies said, sounding fed up. "That's all you've done since the first day you arrived here. You're a liar, your marks are the lowest in your class, you won't pay attention to your lessons, you're a thief, and if you don't get your act together, if you don't start listening to your betters, you're going to end up whoring yourself out on the streets just like your mother."
Lily clenched her jaw, her nails digging painfully into her palms. The lights flickered in the room briefly, but neither person in the room noticed, not with the sunlight lighting everything.
"I'm sorry, Potter," Davies said after a long pause. "But I'm at my wit's end with you. Never, in all my years, have I ever encountered a girl as foul mannered, as delinquent, as unmanageable as you. You need help, help that we can't provide for you. I'm going to recommend your guardians take you in for additional counseling."
Lily heard a throat clearing from behind her, without once hearing the door open, followed by a voice speaking.
"I don't think that will be necessary. I will take the girl from here."
The next thing Lily remembered, she was staring up at the ceiling of her cupboard, her body aching and her mind hazy. She felt sick, but she knew better than to try to move when the pain was this bad. She'd only make it worse. Instead, she brought her knees up to her chest and held herself in a ball, as tight as she could get it, and tried to rub some of the soreness out of her abdomen.
It was a full day, at least by her estimate, before she was allowed any food or water, and she was thrown back inside immediately afterwards. Vernon never hit her during her long lockdowns, and as much as she hated him, she still felt relief every time it was his gruff voice that shocked her out of her stupor. His grip on her hair still brought tears to her eyes, and he would always scream at her impatiently when she took too long to eat or use the loo, but it was all preferable to the pain.
When it was Petunia, though, things always got really bad, as she was reminded the next day. As soon as the door was opened, Petunia was on her, dragging her out by the hair, her nails digging into Lily's scalp. Lily always tried not to cry out, tried not to make her discomfort known, but it was always impossible, and that always earned her a few extra blows.
When it was over, Lily was laying on the kitchen floor, Petunia standing over her impatiently.
"Broom's in the closet, mop's in there, too. We're having guests later. Be thankful I let you out at all, after what you did."
Lily hurried off to the closet, eager to obey, and got to work while Petunia sat in front of the telly, watching one of her dramas. Lily let the noise fade into the background. She'd get in trouble if Petunia thought she was even paying the slightest attention to it.
Once the sweeping and the mopping were done (of every inch of tile in the home, naturally), she vacuumed, trimmed the garden, dusted, scrubbed the dishes, did the prep for tonight's supper, scrubbed out the toilet with a small rag, washed all the dirty laundry, hung it all to dry, brought it back in, folded it, put it all away (under Petunia's supervision, so she wouldn't steal anything), washed Uncle Vernon's car as soon as he got home (so it'd look sparkly and new when the guests arrived), started cooking dinner, swept and mopped again after Dudley dropped a glass of juice (that one earned her a sharp smack across the face), finished dinner, plated it, washed all the pots and pans, scrubbed the toilet again after a nasty trip from Vernon, and then, finally, blessedly, was beaten sharply by Petunia, leaving her bruised and bloodied, before being promptly locked inside her cupboard for forgetting to prepare a salad for their supper.
"Stupid girl," Petunia hissed as the door slammed shut behind her, trapping Lily in the darkness with the lingering smells of all her hard day's labour. At the very least, when her head got this hazy, she tended to fall asleep very quickly. She slept straight through the arrival of the Dursley's guests, and all without making a single sound.
And then, the next day, and the next, all the way up to her return to school, she did the same thing every day, as Vernon entertained a variety of colleagues, suppliers, and businessmen. She always managed to forget something important, something critical, and she'd always end the day in the greatest pain of her life.
But then it was over, and the next time she was let out, it was for her normal school day routine.
She felt oddly excited for it.
Clara wasn't there when she returned. She thought it was her fault, that she'd done something to make the girl leave. When Dudley stole her lunch, she felt like she deserved it. When Piers and Malcolm pushed her into the mud, Dudley laughing and sending a kick into her ribs, she felt like she deserved it. When she got in trouble for making such a mess of her uniform, she felt like she deserved it.
She spent the rest of break trying desperately to clean it up in the loo, running hot water from the sink and scrubbing her hands raw. It wasn't that she didn't want to be messy for the rest of the day; she just feared the reaction Petunia would have later. It only stressed her out further when the dark stains refused to come out. It only stressed her further when she realized she'd have to sit in wet clothes the rest of the day.
She wished she wasn't so stupid. She didn't understand why she couldn't just be like the others. They never brought any of this down on themselves. She spent so long crying to herself in a closed stall that she missed the end of break. She only went back to class at all because a teacher came to fetch her. They made her apologize in front of the rest of the class for wasting all of their time, and then she was made to apologize again when she couldn't get it out through her stuttering. That humiliation was nothing compared to what Petunia did to her back home.
When the next week rolled around, Lily spent the early day classes keeping her head down so she wouldn't be noticed. With term almost over, and classes in full revision mode, it was much easier to go unseen. By this point, all members of staff knew not to expect anything but disappointment from Hazel Potter, and so they'd never call on her.
When they reached lunch, and Clara sat down across from her as if nothing ever happened, Lily'd never been so happy.
"Fell ill," Clara said, her voice still a bit hoarse. Lily thought it sounded like she was pretending, and she could just see the cusp of a faded bruise on her neckline. That was alright, though; she knew better than to draw attention to it.
Time flew by until the last week of term, at which point both girls became sullen and untalkative, each doomed to another long summer of solitude and pain.
"Your birthday is in July, right?" Clara asked on a rare, sunny break. Lily just nodded. "Mum always lets me visit others for their birthdays. I think dad makes her. Want me to come for yours?"
"Yes," Lily immediately answered. Nobody had ever asked before.
"Brilliant," Clara said with a lively smile, one of her front teeth missing (they were both losing them pretty quickly, at this point).
Once the summer actually began, Lily couldn't wait for it to end. She was surprised by how much she missed talking with Clara, sitting across from her, watching the other girl laugh and smile.
It also meant she was now living fully under the wrath of the Dursleys, that they had full reign to do whatever they wanted to her until school resumed. After one particularly painful experience, Lily lay in her bed, crying softly, rubbing at her aching foot. She was supposed to be helping in the garden, but Dudley decided he wanted to play, and when she refused, he got a hold of her and twisted it as far as it could go before she started crying. Petunia blamed her for all the noise, since she knew better than to cause a scene, and promptly locked her in her cell.
The worst part of it all was waiting for a call that never seemed to come. They were halfway through July, and every time the phone rang, Lily's heart would rise in hope. Every time, they'd set the phone back down, and it would fall again. She should have known it was too good to be true.
Lily stared up at the stairs above her, taking in the fragrant aromas wafting her way from the kitchen. By her estimate, it'd been two days since she last ate anything but scraps. Two days since she last saw real sunlight. The injuries in her foot were a distant memory compared to the pains in her empty stomach.
Lily scrawled away with her broken pencil, body twisted and angled so the light coming from under the door could illuminate her paper. When she closed her eyes, she could see Clara's face as if it was yesterday, smiling and telling her some sort of story. She never got to the end of any of them. They almost always turned towards her mother, and then she'd clam up and fall into a sullen silence. Lily knew the feeling well.
"Petunia, dear, I don't see that we have much choice," Vernon said from the hallway. He sounded like he was trying to stay quiet, and Lily did her best not to eavesdrop. She wasn't supposed to know more than she was allowed.
"I don't like the freak giving out our number, Vernon," Petunia said. She definitely wasn't keeping her voice down. Perhaps it was alright if Lily listened in.
"We can't just refuse, dear," Vernon said. "The woman already knows the girl is here. We'll just have to make sure she knows what not to say."
"And have them both sleep in the cupboard?" Petunia said with a laugh. The voices were coming closer, and Lily scrambled to hide her precious belongings under her dirty mattress.
"We'll let them have the spare room for a night," Vernon said. "If the girl behaves, maybe we'll let her keep the bloody thing. Lord knows she's getting too big for the blasted-"
"I will not have her taking up space," Petunia said. "Dudley needs it for all his-"
"Somebody will come visit eventually, Petunia," Vernon said, his voice dropping to a whisper again, even though they were right outside her door. "We can't keep Dudley's friends from staying over forever, the boy is already asking questions."
"We'll talk about it later," Petunia said. "Up, you. You'll need to clean out the spare room if you're going to use it."
Petunia wrenched the door open, bathing Lily's living quarters in far too bright light. Lily shielded her eyes with one frail hand, squinting into Petunia's scrawny form.
"You heard your Aunt," Vernon roared from behind her. "Get up, or there'll be no visitors for you."
"And do not give anyone else our number," Petunia said, dragging her out by her hair. "We already have to abide one freak in this household, I won't have anymore."
Lily stayed quiet, staring straight down at the floor and trying to rub some of the pain out of her scalp. Her foot was fine, now, and she could put her full weight back on it.
"What do you say, girl?" Petunia said.
"Th-thank you, P-P-Petunia," Lily said. She could feel her heart beating quickly in her excitement.
Clara did call! She was coming!
She was getting out of the cupboard forever!
"Up!" Petunia said, giving Lily a shove forward. Lily almost stumbled as she came to the stairs, but she hurried forward, just out of reach of Petunia's hand. She was hardly ever allowed upstairs. Petunia said it wasn't for freaks. She only came up when she needed to clean the loo or Vernon's office. Vernon would always lock the two of them in alone (he just sat in the corner, reading his paper silently while she worked, making occasional grunts or comments whenever the news displeased him). She was never allowed into Dudley's room, the adults' room, or the spare bedroom.
"You aren't allowed to touch a thing," Petunia said as she shoved Lily into the room. "None of these are yours. You are to carefully box them all away before Duddykins returns home. Break or take anything and you'll be right back in the cupboard. Do I make myself clear?"
Lily nodded, her hands wringing together nervously. She wasn't sure how she was supposed to clean the room if she wasn't allowed to touch anything.
"When you are finished, you will return downstairs and cook supper," Petunia said. She slammed the door shut behind her, leaving Lily in the musty, dim room.
Despite only being ten years old, the number of belongings and clutter Dudley accumulated was staggering. Mountains of broken toys and recreational items towered around the room, filling the shelves and spaces of carpet. There was a telly with a smashed screen in one corner and a fully functional telly in another, this one with a few dials missing after Dudley pulled them out. There were three splintered skateboards lining the wall, an empty birdcage, and a whole stereo that mysteriously stopped working after Dudley spilled juice all over it (Lily got blamed for that one, despite being locked in her cupboard).
Lily did her best to clean and prune, knowing full well she'd need more than one day to get it all done. The filled boxes she left in Petunia's care. She had no idea what the woman was doing with them, but she wasn't allowed to witness it. By the time it was done, Lily was exhausted, but she at least managed to make the space livable. As it turned out, there was a bed in the corner, far larger than the one she was accustomed to, even if it did smell a bit musty.
Lily washed up before cooking supper. She went through the motions, not really expecting to eat any of it. She was very surprised when Petunia told her to set not just three plates but five. A quick glance at the calendar on the wall told her she miscounted her days; all days of July were crossed out, only the last remaining.
She thought she had more time, but just as soon as the realization hit her, somebody was knocking at the door. As excited as she was, as desperate as she was to see the girl's face, Lily couldn't bring herself to peer around the corner. She busied herself fussing about the table, making sure everything was perfect, and was very surprised when a pair of tiny arms threw themselves around her torso.
"Lily!" Clara said happily. "Didn't want to see me in?"
Lily pulled away from the contact as quickly as she could, absolutely certain Clara saw how afraid it made her. The other girl was giving her a look full of confusion and hurt, but Lily couldn't even bring herself to apologize or, at the least, say hello.
"Take her things upstairs, Lily," Petunia said, sounding all prim and proper at the kitchen sink. "Then you can eat."
Lily hurried obediently, scurrying off into the hallway, just stopping herself from opening the cupboard door to her old room. It took every ounce of her willpower to walk past it without lingering or giving anything away.
"This is your room?" Clara said when they arrived, still sounding a bit awkward.
"Yes," Lily said, still not quite believing the large space was her own. She had no idea how she was going to steal all her old notebooks and artwork out from the cupboard without being noticed. At the very least, she could just hide them among the other refuse.
"Did you break that telly yourself?" Clara asked.
"Yes," Lily lied. Dudley wouldn't have needed to break it if she hadn't been in the room, trying desperately to just to sneak a glimpse of the funny images on the screen. It was taken away because she didn't deserve it.
"Blimey, you are freak, aren't you?" Clara asked with her beautiful, crooked smile.
"Yes," Lily said, feeling a bit better now. She was worried she screwed something up before.
Lily was surprised by how lively the dinner conversation was. Clara just wouldn't stop talking the entire time, and while it seemed to annoy the two adults, Lily just loved the sound of her voice. It made her feel calm and like nothing would go wrong. She didn't know when Dudley would be returning home, but she hoped he'd stay away for one night, just to give her some peace.
After supper, Lily made Clara go on ahead of her upstairs, and used the time to sneak into her cupboard and grab her sketchbook. She took care so the Dursleys wouldn't see it as she slipped out and then just barely stopped herself from running towards where Clara was waiting.
"Hullo," Lily said stupidly as she closed the door behind her. She didn't want the Dursleys to see anything.
"Hullo," Clara said happily. She was sitting on Dudley's- no, her- bed, hand idly twirling a lock of her hair.
"I brought you a present," Lily said nervously, hands playing with the parchment between her fingertips.
"I was supposed to bring you something," Clara said. "It's your birthday. Don't you know how birthdays work?"
"Yes," Lily lied, wondering what she did wrong.
"Sorry I didn't get you nothing nice, though," Clara said. "Couldn't think of nothing else." Lily just stared awkwardly, wondering what the else was supposed to be.
"How come there wasn't a cake?" Clara asked.
"Never had one," Lily admitted.
"Me, neither," Clara said with a shrug. "Not for my own birthdays, anyway. But all the others I've been to, they had a cake, and mum said the good kids get to make a wish."
Lily nodded. That's what Dudley always got to do, too. She supposed they just weren't good kids.
"What would you wish for, if you had one?" Clara asked.
Lily shook her head. "You'd m-make fun of me."
"No, I wouldn't," Clara said. "Promise."
"I sh-shouldn't," Lily said, shaking her head again. "Not supposed to dream."
"Oh, go on, then, I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours!"
"Alright," Lily said, staring down at her feet.
"Well?" Clara asked expectantly. Lily muttered it, but that clearly wasn't good enough for her. "Go on, Potter, speak up!"
"I want to kiss a mermaid," Lily said, shuffling her feet when Clara started laughing.
"A mermaid?" Clara repeated, her laughter brightening up the darkness in Lily's heart, even bringing a rare smile to her lips. "How come?"
"They're pretty!" Lily said. She hadn't gotten to see the images on the telly for long before Petunia pulled her away, but Dudley had been allowed to watch the whole thing. Lily fought hard on that encounter; she'd been enthralled by the mermaids long, red hair. It looked just like her, even though she'd never be half as nice looking. She never got to see what colour the mermaid's eyes were, but in her imagination, they were always green.
"Don't you mean a merman?" Clara asked coyly. Lily shook her head.
"No," she said. She wanted to be one, too, truth be told, since the ones in the film didn't seem to have any worries, but she knew she'd never get away with that. She'd settle for kissing one.
"Girls aren't supposed to go around kissing mermaids, you know," Clara said cheekily. "We're supposed to think about boys and want to have babies. Everybody says so."
Lily felt her face burn a bright red. She knew Clara was just going to make fun of her.
"What's yours, then?" she asked.
"Tell you later," Clara said with a sneaky little smile. "You ever going to leave that door?"
"I don't know," Lily admitted. It seemed like her legs were too heavy to move.
"I can't give you your present if you stay all the way over there, you know."
"You can have this now," Lily said after far too long, finally stepping away from the door. She handed over the sketchbook in a shaky hand. It felt wrong to give anybody one of her artworks. "You- err- you asked f-for one, s-so I-"
"You drew me!" Clara said happily, face beaming as she stared down at the messy sketch.
"Do you like it?" Lily asked nervously.
"I love it!" Clara said. "Do you know how to make it move?"
"Move?" Lily asked, not understanding. "You mean l-like the telly?"
"No," Clara said with a laugh. "All of dad's pictures move, and he showed me how to do it, once."
"Really?" Lily said, still not understanding.
"Come here," Clara said, tapping the mattress with one hand, eyes still gazing lovingly at Lily's drawing.
Lily hurried to obey, feeling very uncomfortable with how close they were sitting. She didn't like that their knees touched, but every time Lily tried to squirm away, Clara would move closer to her.
"Sorry it's not great," she said sheepishly, eyes staring down at her fidgeting hands. "I had to make it in the dark."
"Can I show you something?" Clara asked, digging into her pocket. Lily wasn't sure she'd heard what she said at all.
"Sure," Lily said, not wanting to offend.
"Dad says we aren't supposed to do it outside of school," Clara said, pulling a stick out. "But we haven't even started school, so it should be fine, right?"
"We're almost done with primary," Lily said, feeling confused. She was looking forward to it, actually. Dudley was going to some school far away, while she was going to the local secondary. Petunia hit her when she asked if it was Hogwarts, demanding to know where she heard the name. Lily couldn't remember much, after that.
"Not moldu school, silly," Clara said, rolling her eyes as if it was obvious. "I'm talking about Hogwarts. Well- for you, anyway."
Lily hardly even processed the name of the school; she was focused on something else.
"You're not going with me?" she said quietly.
Clara shook her head. "Dad's taking me to France with him in a couple of weeks. Says I'll be going to Beauxbatons, just like he did. Mum's not happy about it." She said the last part quietly, one hand going to rub at her ribs.
"Oh," Lily said softly.
Clara rolled her eyes again, poking the paper with that stick of hers.
"You'll be fine," she said. "I'll ring you over the summer, I still have to stay with mum for the holidays. Dad was very clear about that." She muttered that last part, voice full of resentment.
Lily clenched her jaw, trying hard not to feel too hurt. It was stupid to think they'd be going to the same school. Clara kept muttering strange words and poking the paper with her stick, growing increasingly frustrated. She had a slightly dark colouration along the rim of her eye. Lily didn't know why she did it, but she found herself running a finger over it lightly, Clara starting at the touch and moving some hair around her face to block it.
"Sorry," Lily said awkwardly, staring back down at her feet.
"It was your fault," Clara said, voice filling with hurt again. "Told her I wanted to visit, and she- she- dad had to make her."
"Sorry," Lily said again. If she'd known, she never would have told Clara she could come.
"Doesn't matter," Clara said, still a hint of anger to her tone. "I'll be gone, soon."
"But you have to come back," Lily said quietly.
"Only for a few weeks," Clara said. "I can handle it."
Lily didn't know if she could. That was the most frightening part of the idea; she didn't know if she could stand leaving for school, only to return for the summer.
"I don't think I can get it to work," Clara said, setting the paper to the side. "Want to see a different spell?"
"Spell?" Lily asked.
Clara rolled her eyes again. "Don't you remember the flower? We kept changing its colour?"
"Oh," Lily said, her brain feeling fuzzy again. She could have sworn they failed at it, but- no, she just wasn't remembering right, that's all.
"Dad taught me how to fix things, bought me my wand early," Clara said, hopping up from the bed and squatting near the broken telly. "Thought it'd help keep mum from- doesn't matter. Want to see?"
Lily shrugged and followed Clara over towards the broken screen. Clara was already plugging it in, setting the base on the floor. Lily didn't see the point. Clara tapped the telly with her wand.
"Reparo," she said. When nothing happened, she let out a moan of frustration and started hitting her wand against the top, repeating the word each time.
"I don't think it's working," Lily said helpfully.
"Here, you try, then," Clara said angrily, forcing Lily to take the wand. "Go on, then., if you think you're so smart."
"I don't know the word," Lily said nervously.
"You just heard me do it, didn't you?" Clara said.
"Go on," Clara insisted. "Reparo. You do it, if it's so easy."
Lily didn't think it was easy at all, but she was scared about what Clara would do if she refused. She took a deep breath and focused very hard on not stuttering as she touched the wand to the telly.
Lily felt a tingle in her hand, and then felt a smile break out as the screen crackled and popped up, returning to its original condition. She heard Clara swear next to her but found she didn't care.
Clara continued glaring and moping while Lily next fixed a broken VHS player, but she perked up when Lily told her she could pick the movie (they had to sneak downstairs to pick one, but Lily was just feeling daring enough to allow it). Lily didn't much care what they watched; she was just thrilled to be watching anything at all. She felt very embarrassed when Clara picked the same mermaid movie from so long ago, giggling excitedly and poking fun at Lily's dream the entire time.
They sat in her dark room, side by side, shoulders touching, while they watched on the floor. Throughout the movie, Clara started fidgeting and getting bored (while Lily felt fully enraptured), only perking up near the middle of the film, when the pretty mermaid took a magical boat ride with her handsome prince, a talking crab serenading them along with an assortment of wildlife.
"Have you ever wondered what it feels like?" Clara asked, pointing towards the screen as the chorus kicked in.
Lily shushed her, not wanting the song to be interrupted, let alone to bring back her lifelong dream of doing exactly that.
"Mum says you can only kiss somebody who loves you," Clara said, voice going quiet. "She says nobody will ever love me enough for it."
Lily shuffled awkwardly. If nobody loved Clara enough for it, then definitely nobody would like her enough.
"Do you want to try it?" Clara asked after a long pause (long enough for the movie to finish and the credits to begin).
"Try what?" Lily asked, having already forgotten their previous conversation.
"Kissing," Clara said, moving slightly closer.
"Oh," Lily said. "Err- I don't kn-know. Girls aren't supposed to- to kiss each other." She'd heard Vernon and Petunia complaining about it before, after an evening of particularly distressing news.
"It wouldn't be a real kiss," Clara said, rolling her eyes. "It's just practice, for later. Nothing wrong with it, see?"
"I suppose," Lily said. Clara was very pretty, and her smile made her feel very strange.
"To be honest," Clara said nervously, "I couldn't afford nothing for your birthday, so, I- that's what I was going to give you. A kiss, I mean."
"Really?" Lily asked, not sure how else to respond to it.
Clara looked away nervously. "It doesn't mean anything, I just said so. I just wondered what it felt like, is all, and it's not like anybody else would ever want to kiss you, so- well-"
Lily shuffled her feet. She supposed that much was true.
"Alright," she said quietly.
"Really?" Clara said, moving closer too fast, too excitedly. It took all Lily's willpower not to move away. "I mean, I'm no mermaid, am I?"
"Please, don't," Lily said, turning red again.
"You're supposed to close your eyes," Clara said as she leaned in. "That's what they always do on the telly."
"Alright," Lily said quietly.
She felt Clara put an arm around her back, and then, on instinct, Lily opened them back up, just in time to see Clara leaning in, her own eyes closed, placing a quick, chaste kiss on her lips.
"You can't have my room!" Dudley said as the door swung open. Silence reigned supreme as all three kids looked towards one another, Clara's face filling with the same fear Lily's was currently wearing.
"Mum!" Dudley shouted as he ran back down the hall.
"No!" Clara shouted back, hands going to pull at her hair. Lily panicked and froze, still sitting on the floor as Dudley's feet stomped down the steps.
"Mum!" Dudley shouted from downstairs.
"This is your fault!" Clara said, standing and beginning to pace, tears coming to her eyes. "Why did you do that?"
"I'm sorry," Lily said quietly, not sure what else to say. She could already hear Vernon's heavy feet stomping up the stairs, could practically hear his teeth grinding against each other. Before she knew it, his frame was filling the door, and Clara looked just as terrified as Lily felt.
"You," he said in a growl, fat finger pointed at Lily. "Downstairs. Now."
Lily hurried to obey. She wasn't at all surprised when Vernon slammed the door behind so Clara couldn't see. Vernon grabbed at her hair and shoved her down the steps.
"Can't help you this time, girl," he said in a low growl as she began falling.
Lily let out a shout and tumbled down the steps, coming to a painful rest at Petunia's waiting footsteps. Before she could even catch her breath, Petunia's nails were digging into her scalp and hauling her forward.
"Look what you've done now, you freak," Petunia hissed.
"P-please," Lily said, hot tears streaming down her face. "I d-didn't mean t-to-"
Petunia shoved Lily into the open cupboard and then slammed the door behind her, locking her into darkness. With a click the slats were closed tight, prohibiting her from even the tiniest beams of light. Lily tried the door handle, knowing it was a futile effort, and then collapsed back onto her bed, trying her best to reign in her frantic panting.
She heard voices in the hall an hour later, Clara sounding meek and scared as she was forced to leave the house, her mother loud and angry just like Vernon and Petunia. Lily prayed only that Clara would fare better than her.
Lily was left in darkness for hours. Frequently, she could hear Vernon and Petunia arguing in a nearby room, although she could never make out the words. She easily lost track of the days, lost track of the meals she was oh-so-generously allowed. She lost track of the beatings and the scoldings Petunia would frequently deliver, lost track of all the terrible things Dudley would whisper to her during the times she was forced to clean the house before being returned to her cupboard.
Lily was taken out of her haze by a plate of food placed in front of her. She couldn't remember leaving her cupboard, let alone sitting at the table.
"Eat," Petunia commanded. Her voice was filled with disgust and she couldn't bring herself to look her niece in the eyes.
Lily stared down at the plate in front of her. It was a single slice of grapefruit and two pieces of toast, no butter. Dudley and Vernon were already done eating, the greasy remains of their much heartier breakfasts pooling on empty plates. Lily couldn't remember cooking for them or even sitting down. She hurried to eat before Petunia could change her mind and take it away.
"Now listen here, girl," Vernon said boisterously from across the table. "We won't have any more of that- that foolishness at school. No more, do you understand me?"
Lily nodded and ate.
"If we get so much as a peep of wrongdoing or any other freakishness, we'll be pulling you out," Vernon said. "School's almost had enough of it as it is. Want us to enroll you elsewhere, but I won't have it. You are to sit still and listen without a word. Do you understand?"
"We mean it, girl," Vernon said with a glance at his wife. "No more. You've had it too good for too long, and we won't stand for it any longer. It's about time you learn your role in this world, and I'm half a mind to teach you myself."
Lily didn't know how to respond to that one at all. She almost wished Dudley would say something, if only so his parents would get distracted. But he was too busy watching some program on the nearby telly.
"Marge has a neighbour, Colonel Fubster," Vernon said, his fat fingers drumming on the table. "Man has a grandson your age that stays with him. Marge has kindly agreed to take you in once you finish primary, to teach you the respect you've failed to learn here."
Lily just nodded, trying to hide how hard her hand was shaking. She hated Marge more than the rest of them, more than even Petunia.
"Fubster's agreed to have you marry his brat, once you're both of age, and assuming the lad even wants you," Vernon said. "Consider yourself lucky. Marge will teach you how to please him. Disgrace yourself again, and you'll be out on your own, got that?"
Lily set her spoon down, even though she'd only eaten half her plate. The thought of receiving any lessons from Marge made her feel physically ill.
"Did you forget how to speak, you freak?" Petunia asked. Lily felt a sharp twist on her side as her plate was whisked away, but she didn't cry out.
"No," Lily said quietly.
"That insolence will get you nowhere with Marge, girl," Vernon said. "And don't expect us to take you back in if you screw it up with her, we've had enough of your lot trying to tell us what to do. This is your last chance."
Lily nodded and stood from the table. She needed to make herself presentable for school so nobody would ask any questions. She always did as she was told, like a good girl should, even if she was too stupid to follow the instructions.
Lily kept her eyes down on her desk while their new teacher began the lecture. She'd already gotten the privilege of embarrassing herself in front of the other children, both new and old, when she stumbled over saying her own name.
When lunch rolled around, Lily half expected Clara to sit down across from her, just like she always did. Part of her hoped that their kiss ruined any chances of Clara getting away, and Lily hated to think that way at all. But she hated being alone even more, and when Clara never showed, that was how she felt. When Dudley came for his daily tribute, she handed it over without argument.
Lily found she couldn't hear much of anything. She held her pencil in hand, but no matter how hard she focused, she just couldn't understand anything the teacher was saying. She was writing on the blackboard, but Lily couldn't even make out the words. It felt like nothing mattered anymore.
"Potter!" the woman at the front screeched. "Are you paying attention?"
"Yes," Lily said quickly.
Lily didn't know what else to add to it. She couldn't remember the woman's name. She had nothing. Her classmates were already laughing, Dudley the loudest of all.
"Can you repeat what I was just telling the class?" the woman asked, arms crossed against her chest.
"N-no," Lily admitted. She clenched her own teeth together, trying to stay calm.
"N-no, I- I w-wasn't p-pay-paying att-attention," Lily said.
"I was told you had a certain disdain for authority," the woman said. "Next time, you will address me as Mrs. Gunther. You best behave yourself, Potter. I won't put up with your usual shenanigans."
Lily stared daggers at the woman, feeling a strong surge of courage that was quite unlike her. She was just so tired of everything.
"I will have word with your aunt later," Mrs. Gunther said sternly. "You will remain here for your break today."
Lily clenched her jaw and sat back down, her pencil snapping in her hand. She couldn't wait to get to Hogwarts. "One more year," she wrote at the top of her page. That was all she had to do.
The next two weeks were another haze. She hardly remembered doing anything at all. It was a blur of Vernon and Petunia forcing her to do things, her teachers berating her for her terrible attitude, the other children hurting her or mocking her or otherwise completely ignoring her existence.
How she managed to make it to the break on that day without drawing attention to herself, she had no idea, but she very quickly wished she hadn't. The sky was cloudy, threatening rain, but they were allowed outside regardless. Lily sat herself against the wall, legs pulled up at her chest, and she pulled at some weeds that were sticking out through the cement.
"Nobody wants you here, Potter," a voice said. Lily glanced up. The girl was from her class, but she had no idea what her name was. The two girls with her Lily didn't recognize at all. She supposed it didn't matter.
"Sorry," she said quietly, turning back to the weed.
"Dudley says you're a fruit," one of the girls said. "Says he saw you kissing a girl."
"Says you're being shipped off to the loony bin," the other girl said with an added giggle.
"That's where dykes like you deserve to go," the first girl said. "Mum said so, too."
"S-sorry," Lily said one more time, pulling her legs closer to her chest.
"I bet your parents are glad they're dead, now," one of the girls said. "Who'd want you?" Lily clenched her teeth hard.
"And what girl would kiss you?" the other said, coming closer and pulling hard on Lily's hair. "You're so ugly."
"Stop," Lily said, trying to pull away.
"Mum says I'm supposed to teach you a lesson," the girl said, shoving her to the ground. Lily's head hit the ground and set spots into her eyes. "Says we shouldn't have someone like you here."
"Pl-please," Lily said, edging along the ground to try and get away, to try and get into sight of a teacher.
"Grab her, Peg," one of the girls said.
One of the girls grabbed onto her arms and held her in place on the ground. The other one kicked at her ribs while Lily begged her to stop, the ground beneath her rumbling dangerously.
"Please," Lily said as her face was shoved into the hard ground.
"Go on, then," the girl holding her said. "Give her a kick before we get seen, Dudley can't distract the codgers forever."
A girl sent another kick, this one at the back of Lily's head. That sent her face into the cement again, and she could feel it scrape against her skin, could feel a bit of blood on her cheek. Her head was ringing this time, everything going fuzzy around her.
"You can do better than that," the other kicking girl said.
They could, apparently, as they didn't pull their punches after that. Lily kept trying to squirm away, but the other girls were just too big. The girl holding her eventually gave up and released her, allowing her to at least tuck into herself before another body joined in on hitting her, on throwing slurs and taunts at her. Lily shut her eyes tight and forced herself away inside, but the kicks just kept coming, and she was getting mad.
"STOP!" she shouted, flinging her hands forward. There was a strange sort of energy, and a strange glow at the palms of her hands. Lily just wanted it to end, she hadn't meant to do anything more, but then the girls were pushed back, all three of them flying away. One managed to land in the grass, although she was still screaming. The others hit the concrete hard, the lead girl's head colliding with a nasty noise. Lily sat there, staring in horror, as the staff finally noticed the commotion and came to investigate.
"Expelled!" Petunia screamed. "It took three weeks, Vernon!"
"What do you expect me to-"
"She can't stay here!"
"We don't have another choice, pumpkin! Marge won't take her anymore, not after what she-"
"One of the girls is in the hospital!" Petunia shrieked. "She did that, Vernon! I can't take much more of this! Where is she supposed to go now, hmm?"
"You heard her," Vernon said. "They'll take her just as soon as she-"
"I won't have it!" Petunia roared. "I won't have it, Vernon! There will not be one of those under my roof! We promised we'd beat it out of her, not-"
"What else can we do?" Vernon asked. "You saw what she did to those girls! You really want that to happen to us? To Dudley?"
"So, what? We're just supposed to- to pretend everything has gone back to normal? Just like that?"
"Yes," Vernon said confidently.
"What are we supposed to tell the neighbours?"
"We'll enroll her elsewhere," Vernon said. "Somewhere that deals with her kind of issues. I'll look around, Pet, I promise I'll find something for the little freak."
Lily didn't want to hear any more, but she couldn't escape it, not when they were talking so loudly and so close to her prison. She still felt sick about what she did, even though she had no idea how she did it. She tried plugging her ears, but it didn't help with the noise or the feeling.
The shouting cut off when there were three sharp knocks on the front door. Lily pulled further into herself when he heard Petunia pass by to receive their guest.
"Yes?" Petunia said as the front door opened. "Can I help- oh, it's you."
"Yes, me," a strangely familiar, high voice said. "May I come in?"
"You most certainly may not," Vernon said as he thundered down the hallway. "I believe we made it very clear the last time that your sort isn't welcome here anymore."
"I believe, under the present circumstances, an exception could be made," the voice said, moving into the hall anyway. "Wouldn't you agree?"
Vernon grumbled, but from the tone of it, Lily could tell he had no argument. She was very surprised when she heard the locks on the outside of her door click, the whole thing swinging open enough to let light in.
"How about some tea?" the voice said as it passed her door.
"The girl won't be coming," Petunia argued, still standing near the front entrance.
"Oh, I think she will," the voice called from the kitchen.
"She's not supposed to-"
"I'm afraid you get very little choice in the matter," the voice said. Lily couldn't stand the fake sweetness in her voice.
"You heard her," Vernon said as he opened her door fully. "Up." His eyes refused to look at her as he moved down the hall. Petunia acted the same way, walking straight past it without looking.
"Where is the other child?" the voice asked.
"School," Petunia answered shortly.
"You should know that much," Vernon said. "You just came from there yourself, didn't you?"
"I'm afraid I don't have the time to bother accounting for any of the Muggle children," the voice said haughtily. "Especially with the mess the two of you left for me."
"We did no such thing," Vernon growled. "We are not responsible for the freakishness that girl gets up to. We warned you the last time that we-"
"Where is she?" the voice asked. "I would like to see her."
"Lily!" Petunia shrieked. "Get in here!"
Lily didn't want to move, but if she didn't obey, she'd get it worse once the guest was gone. It hurt to limp her way out of her cupboard and into the hallway, and she had to lean heavily on the wall to get to the kitchen. She leaned on the doorway, staring at the floor, as she waited for anything further.
"I see she has been disciplined already," the voice said. "Have you learned your lesson, young lady?"
"It is common courtesy to speak when you are asked a question," the voice said. "As well, you should always look someone in the eye when you are conversing with them. Have you learned your lesson?"
Lily looked up. Their guest was a short, toadish woman wearing a garish pink outfit. She had a false smile plastered on her face that made her feel sick.
"Yes," Lily said quietly.
"Then, sit," Umbridge said, gesturing to the seat opposite from her. Lily did so gratefully, relieved to get some pressure off her injuries. Usually, everything was healed by now.
"Are you taking her, then?" Vernon asked, a hint of hope to his tone.
"Of course not," the woman said. "And it would be wise for you to speak only when spoken to. I have some questions, first. Do you remember me, Hazel?"
Lily shook her head, eyes planted firmly on the table.
"What did I say about respect?"
Lily glanced up briefly, choking on the words as they tried to leave her lips. The woman just smiled at her more widely.
"That is for the better," she said. "I am Dolores Umbridge, Head of the Department of Magical Minor Misdemeanours and Educational Truancy. Do you understand?"
"Y-yes," Lily said quietly. She understood enough; she was in deep trouble.
"What you have done today is a grievous breach of international law, Miss Potter," Umbridge said. "What you have done has put our entire society at great risk, pushed the very Statute of Secrecy nearly to its breaking point. By all rights, you should be in Azkaban Prison, instead of sitting at your wonderful family's table. How about that tea, Petunia?"
Petunia rose without speaking, her lips drawn to a tight line. Lily knew she was expected to serve it herself, but nobody dared challenge Umbridge.
"You're taking her, then?" Vernon said again, sounding even more excited.
"Of course not," Umbridge said. "The staff at her school have already had their memories modified, as well as the children who witnessed it. They'll all think of it as a nasty little schoolyard scuffle, and Miss Potter will be able to return to her classes in two weeks' time."
"Brilliant," Vernon said, sounding not at all pleased. "Well, it was certainly nice speaking with you. Lovely chat, but I think it's time you go."
"Oh, I think not," Umbridge said with a laugh that Lily thought was supposed to be confident. "I'm afraid we need to have a little discussion about the position you have put me in."
"Oh?" Vernon said. "What's that, then?"
"I am the only thing standing between the two of you and your own stint at Azkaban," Umbridge said with that sick smile of hers. "Surely, you understand? The two of you have been entrusted with the single most important person in our world, and you've allowed her truancy to extend nearly to murder. Why, if Cornelius had any idea what-so-ever, you'd already be standing in front of a full Wizengamot!"
"A what now?" Vernon said. "If you're threatening us, I'll have you know that I-"
"I tell you this," Umbridge continued, ignoring her uncle, "because this is the last time I will be able to do this for you. In a month's time, I will be promoted to Senior Undersecretary for the Minister for Magic, now that old Martin's retiring. I have kept Hazel's truancy from the world at large, as she has certain rights as a minor, but I'm afraid it's entirely possible that my replacement will not be anywhere near as thorough, let alone as lenient."
"What are you saying?" Vernon said, narrowing his eyes as Petunia placed a single cup of tea in front of Umbridge.
"I am saying," Umbridge continued, "that the magical world, as a whole, have no idea of Hazel's delinquency as of this moment. I am saying that today was a near thing. I am saying that, if her behaviour does become public knowledge, then the two of you are in very deep trouble. Albus Dumbledore placed her under your care, but it is the Ministry who has been responsible for checking in on her wellbeing. If it becomes known that the two of you have abused the trust placed upon you- well, let's just say it won't end well."
"What do you expect us to do?" Vernon said with a snort. "We've done everything that can be expected of us! It's not our problem that your lot can't-"
"I'm afraid it is your problem," Umbridge said, batting her eyelashes at the two of them. "You see, that we know of Miss Potter's location at all proves that the protection Dumbledore placed for her has failed. We were only meant to check in on her schooling, not her household. And, yet, I am sitting here, now, drinking this dreadful tea."
Petunia sniffed rudely.
"I have kept this a secret to protect the two of you," Umbridge said. "As, ultimately, the girl is your responsibility. In return, I asked only one thing of you: to keep her out of trouble. And, yet, you can't even do that!"
"She's a freak!" Vernon said, throwing his hands into the air. "There's something wrong with her, something mean and foul, everybody can see it!"
"Yes," Umbridge said, staring at Lily and sounding as if she genuinely agreed. She let out a little sigh. "You need only keep her contained for the remaining year. Once she goes to Hogwarts, she will be neither of our responsibilities, and Cornelius will finally see that he was wrong to place so much faith in Dumbledore."
"She won't be going," Petunia said, sounding angrier than Lily had ever heard. "I won't have it. Not again."
"I'm afraid that, too, is out of yours hands," Umbridge said. "She will be going, and I will see to it, personally, if I must."
Petunia kept her mouth clamped shut, but Lily was fairly certain this was a battle Umbridge would never win. Lily could tell that much from the look her Aunt kept giving her. She'd die before she made it to Hogwarts.
She just wished she was dead now.
"Now," Umbridge said. "I think it best if the two of you leave. Perhaps have a nice lunch? It is time I spoke with Hazel alone."
Vernon looked like he was about to protest, but a quick glance from his wife shut him up, and then they both stood from the table.
"Right," Vernon grumbled. "Right. Well- right."
He took one final glance at her before he and Petunia both stomped down the hallway, the front door slamming shut behind their backs. Lily glanced up at Umbridge, horrified that she was now the only person capable of receiving that smile.
"It seems our previous lessons didn't stick," Umbridge said. "Tell me: what caused it this time?"
Lily looked back down at the table.
"If you do not tell me," Umbridge said, "everything will go much worse for you, I'm afraid."
"I k-kissed a g-girl," Lily managed to choke out.
"Well, now," Umbridge said, an excited, terrifying look on her face. "We can't have that, can we?"
Umbridge stood from her seat and crossed the room, Lily's body beginning to tremble when she stood behind her, placing two hands on her shoulders and leaning in.
"Good girls must not kiss other girls," Umbridge said, her smile making Lily deeply uncomfortable. "Girls are meant to kiss boys, and no others. What you have done is an abomination, it is a symptom of a sick mind, and it cannot be allowed to continue. The Ministry can not allow this grievous abnormality to fester within you. Do you understand?"
Lily drew her knees up to her chest, earning a soft chuckle from Umbridge.
"It is unnatural," she continued. "By doing so, you are only bringing further harm to yourself. You understand this, yes? By doing these bad things, you bring these punishments onto yourself. You are getting nothing less than what you deserve."
"You will not kiss another girl," Umbridge said, taking a wooden object from her pocket. "If I must inflict a bit of pain onto you for that lesson to be absorbed, then so be it."
"I-I'm s-s-s-sorry," Lily managed, her body shaking harder.
"Now, now, none of that," Umbridge said sternly. "I only hurt you because I care. It is because I care so much that I need you to learn these lessons. Your poor behaviour reflects badly on me. You don't want that, do you?"
"N-no," Lily said. "P-please, I- I- I d-don't mean t-t-to-"
"Don't worry, sweet girl," Umbridge said, kissing her on the top of her head, Lily unable to move any further away from the woman. "I will leave the lessons in your head, so you do not repeat these mistakes, but I am not cruel. You will not remember the pain. Only the lessons."
"P-please, I- I'm s-s-s-s-"
Umbridge tapped the wood against Lily head and, suddenly, no matter how hard she struggled to get out the words, not a single sound escaped her lips.
"I will instruct your aunt and uncle to work on that stutter of yours," Umbridge said sternly. "A proper witch should never trip over her own words. It is unsightly."
Lily buried her head fully, her entire body shaking beyond her control. Umbridge said nothing else, but she didn't need to.
"There, there," Umbridge said sweetly, brushing some hair out of Lily's clammy face. "There is nothing to fear. It'll all be over before you know it. You'll hardly remember a thing. I only do it because I care. Are you going to be better, now? Do you promise?"
Lily nodded, wishing she'd just die already. Umbridge forced her to look up, to look her in the eyes. Lily couldn't stand it, but she couldn't look away, either. She just kept staring at the pink of Umbridge's cardigan.
"Good girl," Umbridge said, placing one last kiss on Lily's cheek. "Now, what do you say when somebody helps you?"
"Th-th-th-th-" Lily stammered, choking on the words.
"Go on," Umbridge said patiently.
"Th-th-thank you," Lily said, her voice barely audible.
"You're welcome," Umbridge said, running a hand gently across Lily's cheek, her thumb rubbing the spot she'd just pressed her lips to. "I sincerely hope your lesson will stick this time. Bad girls don't get to go to Hogwarts, after all, and I would hate to have to punish you again. Now, be a good girl, and hold still for me. I detest it when you struggle."
Lily closed her eyes as Umbridge raised the stick again, the bright pink still burned into her brain. She tried to think of Clara, wishing she'd never let the girl kiss her, wished she'd never told her about the bloody mermaids, wished she'd never met her at all.