A/N Thanks to Ever Heard of a Dictionary and Sweet Sassy Sarah for taking the time to read this over for me! I really appreciate it, gals! Edited: 10/02/10
Marine was standing by the fireplace with two other women she had never met before, both of whom had known Vernon Dursley through work at... Grannings? She hadn't really been paying attention when they began talking, to tell the truth, and paid even less attention now as they discussed his work ethic and organizational skills in such a vague way as to make it clear they hadn't known him at all. Marine smiled politely anyway, and turned her head to look at the wooden cuckoo clock on the mantel beside her head. It had been only twenty minutes since she and her husband had stood on the perfectly manicured front lawn, sweating in full black as they argued about how long they had to stay in memory of a man they had barely knew and certainly never liked.
There wasn't much to like about Vernon Dursley. He had been horrible as a neighbour, and, as far as she could tell, not much better as a man. They had lived next to the family for twelve years, and had had to deal with the black eyes and whimpering every time their sons got caught by Dudley on their way home, and Vernon's pompous speeches about boys being boys while Petunia fretted over her monster in the background, as he nibbled on some treat or another and smiled. Needless to say, it hadn't created a great relationship between the families from the start. When they had moved beside the Dursleys, Dudley had been eight; Marine's boys barely five and seven.
Marine's husband caught her eye from across the room where he was standing with a group of men who were treating the wake like a sports party, between the snatches of shamed quiet that followed a scolding from one of their wives. Tom's eyes widened in an obvious plea for them to leave immediately.
Marian tilted her head towards the clock in response, reminding him they had agreed to one hour before they would beg off the excuse of a fictional football game one of their sons was participating in, and get out.
Tom noticed the time, did the math, and gave her another begging glance, which she shook her head to. Leaving after only twenty minutes would be positively shameful, even if they hadn't known the man in the least.
That was the truth of it, really. Despite her few visits to the Dursley's kitchen (which she had quickly seen the futility of, and instead decided that turning a blind eye to the boys' karate lessons in the garden would be a better plan of action), she hadn't known the family in the least. She had nodded in the street, had tea with Petunia over fine china and stinted conversation, had chased their son away from her yard, and stayed as far away from the family as possible. They were just so strange. Loud noises, shouting matches, the way that woman doted on her son, and the way they treated the nephew that wandered intermittently around the house and neighbourhood before disappearing for long snatches of time.
Marine scanned the living room. There were clumps of people talking while sipping on punch or nibbling on the cheese and crackers which had been left in perfectly organized trays in the kitchen, none of them looking too emotional and most of them sending frequent glances her way, since she stood beside the only clock in the room. By the door, Petunia stood with a few woman, nodding her head, and reaching out to hold her son's hand every few minutes, only to let it go again as she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. The nephew wasn't here at all.
Marine wasn't sure if she blamed him. He had obviously been a troubled youth—always wandering the neighbourhood looking for trouble as a teenager, and was the source of almost all the shouting matches she heard over the hedges—but still... the Dursleys had just been so strange.
Like that one autumn, while she was planting her tulips, and saw them taking a family photo in the yard, with props and a professional photographer and everything. Vernon stood behind his ten-year-old as Petunia sat in a wicker yard chair (with a watering can on her lap, of all things), but their nephew wasn't in it. She had heard, before the photographer arrived, Vernon talking to the boy,
"Now don't you think you're getting in the photographs!" Vernon had said.
"Certainly not!" Petunia had agreed, sniffing in that annoying way she had.
"This is a photo for family. You have work to do in the back garden, and if I notice it hasn't gotten done just because we weren't there to watch over you...!"
Now, who talks to a ten-year-old boy that way?
And for every bruise her Tommy and Ryan had wailed about, she had noticed five that boy's cousin had gave him. At least, she had always hoped it was his cousin. Tom told her to keep her nose out of their business, but what was she to think, with the way they acted? No wonder the boy had turned out to be a delinquent.
Perhaps she should have said something, to someone. Even if the boy wasn't being hit, he was obviously treated more like a servant than a child, and more often like a terrible burden than even a servant. It was... neglect, or something, surely. But, everyone saw it, and no one did anything... She must have been overreacting.
Marine took a sip from her cup, emptying the punch from it. Saying a suitably solemn 'excuse me' to the ladies, she walked through the room towards the front hall. She shook her head firmly at Tom's hopefully expression as she passed him, and held Petunia's arm for a moment as she passed the doorway, smiling sadly and asking her how she was holding up. She nodded at Petunia's answer and slipped into the kitchen.
The room was empty, which Marine attested to the picked-clean platters and punch bowl that stood on table and counters. Rolling her eyes, she set down the cup and opened the fridge. Sure enough, full platters sat inside, covered in cellophane. Muttering about general laziness—it had probably been the men—she set to cleaning off the counters and tabletops. She had the platters and cups stacked in the sink but when she looked around and there was not a bottle of dish soap in sight. She opened the cupboards above and below the sink and found nothing. Looking around the kitchen, Marine decided she would much rather search the kitchen herself than go out and bother Petunia about such a small problem. It would keep her busy, and make the hour pass faster, anyway.
She searched down the line of counters, to the last one, which was in a small corner made from a wooden pantry and the counters themselves. It was while she was bent over in that last cupboard that she heard the back door open. Looking over the counter, she was surprised to see a man in a long coat, almost a cloak, standing there. He looked around the room quickly, not noticing her where she crouched. His searching gaze looked wary. He wrinkled his nose as he regarded the room, as if the sight of it disgusted him. As he stepped inside, he tucked a polished stick into a loop of his belt.
Marine had ducked down on seeing him, her obsession with thriller novels and television crime programs controlling her initial reaction. To stand up now, though, when her face was bright red from embarrassment at the childishness of hiding, would be mortifying. How to explain a forty year old woman hiding in her neighbour's kitchen? The longer she waited, though, the less she could say she had been searching for dish soap, and she steeled herself for momentary awkwardness before she could slip out and tell Tom she had changed her mind, after all, and that they could leave the Dursley's house and go home.
The door to the kitchen opened before she could move. Marine heard it click shut and then a gasp and the sound of shattered glass.
"Harry!" Petunia's voice, hidden from Marine's view by the cupboard door, was breathy in surprise.
Marine turned her attention back to the cloaked man. She hadn't recognized him in the slightest, although it had been almost six years since she had seen him last. A moody fifteen year old, he had spent more of that summer stalking the streets than in the house next door, and Marine had warned Ryan and Tommy away from him in no uncertain terms. There had been more than one shouting match that she and her family had pretended not to listen to, and he had left the house suddenly and she had not seen him again. Ryan had told her that he had seen him—from a distance, Mum, I promise —the summer after that, but she had never seen Harry again, until now.
He didn't look four years older than her youngest son.
The clothes, of course- a cloak that was out of style by decades, but looked well-made and new, the dark green unfaded- acted to age him in her first impression. More than the clothes though, was the man himself. He stood with confidence, shoulders back and chin up in a way she had seen soldiers stand, but never her sons or their friends, who slouched no matter how she scolded.
But it was his face, his eyes, that made the mother in her want to gather him up. He had looked the room over warily, and that look hadn't faded in the slightest, looked as if it would never fade. He looked worn and tired and there was something in his eyes that said he had seen something he had never wanted to see, and it wouldn't quite leave his mind in peace.
Suddenly, Petunia was in Marine's line of sight. Suddenly, Petunia was clinging to her nephew's shirt and was sobbing into his chest while he awkwardly searched the room, over her head, for an escape.
"It was a h-heart attack, Harry, and we didn't even think—we made no plans for this. We were going to go on holiday this summer! And, oh, poor Dudders f-found him, and had to call the hospital!"
Petunia sobbed, unaware of the struggle Marine saw on her nephew's face. He looked as though he would happily shove her away from him, indeed after the initial look of shock, the same disgust that he had surveyed the kitchen with had crossed his features. As she cried, though, he brought his hand up to pat her, awkwardly, on the shoulder and murmured something Marine couldn't hear.
After a few minutes, Petunia stepped away, bringing out her handkerchief and dabbing her eyes and nose briskly, as though she was embarrassed.
"Well?" she said after a long, silent, moment. "Take off that... that coat and sit. The kitchen is a mess, of course..." she muttered as she ran warm water over the platters and cups Marine had stacked in the sink. She reached on top of the fridge for a bottle of dish soap. Marine rolled her eyes. Who keeps soap on top of the fridge?
"How's Dudley?" Harry had not removed his cloak. Although he was sitting at the table as Petunia had asked, it was at the edge of a seat, feet planted on the floor as if he was ready to run.
"I don't know," Petunia said, leaving the dishes to bring the handkerchief out again. "He won't talk to me about it, just refuses to. I don't know what to do to help him; he gets angry when I bring him snacks and new things... Vernon would have been able to talk to him, but..."
Her sniffs and the sound of bubbles popping were the only noises in the kitchen.
"I'm sorry I didn't make it to the funeral," Harry said, awkwardly.
"I didn't know how to tell you," Petunia said. "You never left an address. We didn't even see you, after... that night. That wiz—man—came and got us and brought us home, but you never came back..."
"No, I didn't." It was not an apology.
"I would have written. No matter how... how things stood, you should have been there at your uncle's funer- funeral."
Harry was silent for a long moment. "We've kept an eye on you, since everything with Voldemort. He is dead, now, but... well, he has supporters and I-we didn't want them to find out about you. I knew Uncle Vernon had died, almost right after Dudley made that call. I didn't come because..." He stopped talking, looking at the tabletop intently.
Petunia sniffed. "I'm surprised you came at all. It's not like I don't know how you feel about us."
"It's not like I don't have good reason," Harry snapped back, his intensity making Marine wince.
"No, I suppose it's not," Petunia said, quietly. Harry sat back in his chair, obviously surprised. Marine shifted her weight, utterly ashamed at being in the middle of this private conversation.
"I know we weren't... we weren't what your mother would have wanted for you. Over the past few years, I've realized that Lily... she would have... she would have been a good mother to Dudley, had it been the other way around." Petunia's voice cracked over the last part of her sentence, making it nearly impossible to understand.
Harry closed his eyes. "Yes, she would have been," he said, barely above a whisper.
"But, I did the best I could, with you being... the way you were," Petunia said, sounding defensive. "It wasn't easy for me! And then that school and everything that happened after..." She shook her head and turned back to the sink. Harry's expression struggled between anger and control of it while he listened. As his aunt spoke, he opened his mouth several times, angrily, as if to argue with what she was saying. "And I know your uncle and I could be harsh, but we had no choice in the matter, no choice at all. No choice in any of it. So, you have to see," Petunia's voice was almost pleading now, as she looked out the window into the now-dark back garden, "that I did my best for you, Harry. I tried to do my best for you, the way Lily would have done. I did. I didn't let her down."
The anger had faded from Harry's face as he listened to his aunt ramble through her tears.
"No, Aunt Petunia. You didn't let her down."
Petunia nodded, wiping her face harshly. Harry stood up, went as if to set a hand on her shoulder, but then stepped back. His hands went, firmly, into his pockets.
"Is Dudley out in the living room? I'll talk to him for a moment."
"Yes, he should be out with the guests." Petunia didn't turn around as her nephew turned and walked across the room. As he reached the door, he turned back to look at her again.
"Goodbye, Aunt Petunia."
The door had swung shut behind him before Petunia had managed to turn all the way around. She stood, braced against the counter for what seemed to Marine to be nearly twenty minutes, her expression torn. Perhaps she had heard what Marine had, the finality of the goodbye?
Marine didn't think Petunia had understood half of what had happened, though. She hadn't seen Harry's expression, when he had accepted that Petunia would not apologize. She had not seen him swallow back his anger and, instead of getting what he had always needed from the only mother he had ever known, instead, give to his aunt the peace she had needed.
Marine waited only until Petunia walked out of the kitchen before she scrambled out of her hiding place and ran out the back door, stumbling slightly on half-numb legs. She ran around the house, unlocking the back gate, and hurrying into the front yard after a striding figure in a long, dark cloak.
"Harry?" Marine called. The young man stopped, already half-way to the street and turned back at her call. "Harry, you don't know me, but—"
"Mrs. Henders, from next door," Harry said. He smiled slightly. "You sprayed Dudley with the hose once, when he was bullying Tommy."
"Well, yes... I did do that." Marine looked Harry over, saw the stress and the pain in his face from this close up. Whatever he had come to this funeral to get, he hadn't received. He had been too busy giving himself for that. Impulsively, Marine stepped forward and, before he could react, pulled him into a hug.
"You're a good boy," she whispered, almost fiercely. Stepping back from him, she held onto his arms firmly, looking into his eyes. She squeezed his arms once, and then let him go, wiping her eyes.
A blue car was pulled to the side of the street behind them. The back door opened, suddenly, and a small boy ran up to them.
"Harry!" the child yelled, jumping into the barely-opened arms of the man in front of her.
"Oi, Teds! You were told to wait in the car!" Harry said, laughing. The five-year old regarded her solemnly over Harry's shoulder as he clung to him.
"I missed you," the boy mumbled, burying his head in Harry's shoulder.
"Sorry, mate!" A man, seemingly not any older than Harry and with shockingly red hair, was standing by the car. "He just got away from me. Your godson is crafty, isn't he?"
"Right. Blame the kid, Ron." Harry turned back to Marine, holding the child expertly. He smiled, and Marine was relieved to see that, with the sudden appearance of these new people, the darkness in his eyes was lifted.
"Thank you, Mrs. Henders," he said, sounding a bit confused, but polite nonetheless.
"Take care of yourself, Harry," she replied. He nodded and turned to walk back to the car.
"I swear, Harry, he was all buckled in and everything!"
"He's five, Ron. He can undo a seat belt if you're not watching him."
"Now, how was I supposed to know that?"
Marine watched as Harry loaded the child into the back seat of the car and opened the passenger door, all while arguing with his friend. He waved once before climbing in, an awkward, self-conscious wave that she barely had time to respond to before he was in the car and gone from sight.
She wiped her cheeks, again. She had no business getting so emotional over some stranger, she told herself. Really, she must be getting old.
Still, she looked down the street after the car as she walked back to the house. And she had to shake herself because, just for a moment, she thought she saw it start to fly before it vanished, out of sight.