VI. Petunia woke in a cold sweat with tears streaming down her cheeks. She wiped at her face with clumsy hands, startled to feel her own clammy skin and realise she was real and solid. Moments ago she had been dead…hadn't she? She remembered watching, observing, but feeling entirely apart and unseen. As her eyes and ears adjusted in the dark stillness of the night, she heard her own breathing and her own rapid heartbeat.
Alive. Still alive, she thought in relief. Had it all been a dream? She slowly rolled over, still adjusting to her corporeal form, and blinked at the clock. Only an hour had passed since she laid down to sleep. How was that possible? A lifetime had just passed before her, a life where her Lily was still alive, a life where her poor little boy had grown up an orphan and yet entirely surrounded by love.
Lily. Her heart sank to her stomach as she realised her sister must still be gone. There had been an instant, in the dream (if it was truly a dream at all), where she had felt so relieved, so overjoyed to find her beloved Lily still alive. She never thought it possible, but her ghostly self had been happy for Lily, happy she had lived even if Petunia herself did not. Such a beautiful little family, so full of love, so full of forgiveness. She thought of that cosy house and its ever-present warmth, thought of the mantle and the photographs so lovingly displayed. A portrait from her own wedding sat next to the more thrilling one of Lily and James kissing at their wedding and then laughing in delight.
Petunia's heart hurt as she realised it was a figment of her overactive subconscious; she'd never even seen a picture of her sister's wedding. Her baby sister grew up and married a funny, handsome, charming man, and she hadn't even been there to witness their bliss, to stand beside the little girl she had loved as she became a woman and married the man of her dreams, the man who would give her a spectacular life and a beautiful child.
She suddenly bolted upright as she thought of the black-haired boy in that strange other world. In her dream, Harry was a sweet boy with a huge heart, a good friend – a good brother – to her Dudley and a brave, talented, quick-witted boy. More tears rolled down her cheeks as she remembered the sound of his laughter mingled with Dudley's and the racket they made exploding things and zooming about the house. That darling boy had a brilliant smile so reminiscent of his mum's, and it lit up a room and always cheered Dudley out of a strop.
But not here. That smile didn't exist in this world. She couldn't remember hearing that laugh, not even once, and Dudley's laughter came most often at his expense. Freak, Dudley called him in this world; in that one, he called him brother.
The words of her brother-in-law taunted and mocked her now. "At the end of the day, Lil, you were both mothers. Petunia protected Dudley with her life, just as you would protect Harry. She knew how precious these boys were. She'd be so proud of the way you've raised him, and I think you know, in your heart, she'd have done the same for Harry."
But she hadn't. She hadn't at all. She had mistreated him, hated him, even. She scorned him, turned him away even when he looked to her with those green eyes so full of desperate need and desire. Just this very morning, those green eyes had turned to her begging for understanding, and she had turned him away. He had been ill for days now, but as was his way, he had not complained or turned to her for comfort. She had worried about his freak germs infecting her sweet Dudley, and so there had been no mothering, no fussing. And at the age of four, Harry did not expect it.
This morning he broke his resigned silence and finally cried in his misery. It had not awakened a dormant conscience; she had allowed Vernon to reprimand him for his impertinence, and she had watched without compunction as the sick little boy was punished and then ignored.
But the dream changed everything. She could not explain it now, could not begin to understand, but she had seen what could have been, and she had seen what her nephew could have become. Would he have any chance of being that brave, sweet boy without the love and support of a family? Would she warp and twist him if she refused him, time and time again?
That was a chance she refused to take. Without hesitation, she was up and out of the bed, hurrying to the cupboard where Vernon had chucked him earlier in the day and ordered him to stop his whining. Her stomach churned violently as she threw off the lock, wondering what sort of monsters they had become to bolt a sick four-year old boy into a cupboard.
The sight of him pale and sweaty and clutching his tatty blanket to his tiny body made her sob in guilt and agony. How could she have done this to Lily's boy? What had gone so wrong, what had twisted her heart so? There was once a time when she loved Lily as much as she could love any person, but time had turned her against her dear sister, and the years had torn them apart until Lily and her family were strangers to her and her boy was an unwanted nuisance. He ought to be treasured, loved, protected, as Dudley had been in her dreams. As she clutched the feverish child to her chest, she knew it was no ordinary dream; Lily and James would have loved her son and treated him as their own. She had treated theirs like vermin.
But no more. Never again. From this moment forward, Harry was as much hers as Dudley. He cried weakly and thrashed against her in confusion, and she could feel the heat radiating dangerously off his small body. He was so very small, and she remembered with a pang that he'd gone without a real meal for days now. "Shh, Love," she murmured to calm him. "Hush now. I've got you. You'll be all right now. I'll take care of you," she promised.
He ceased his struggles, though her vow could not be of much reassurance to him after all she had done – all she had let be done to him. She cradled the boy close and carried him out of that small, awful cupboard, then placed him carefully on the kitchen counter as she hurriedly collected medicine from the cabinet and juice from the refrigerator.
"Here, my darling," she whispered, first holding the cup of juice to his lips. They were painfully cracked and dry, and she didn't even want to think how dehydrated he must be with this fever and sweating and no water in his cupboard. But Harry whimpered and refused the drink, beginning to cry again as she tried to force it upon him. "All right," she murmured. "Medicine first, then." She gave him no choice in this, gently but firmly gripping his head and forcing the spoonful of goopy stuff into his mouth and carefully rubbing his throat to make him swallow. He choked a bit and nearly gagged, but she kept whispering words of comfort until he calmed himself. Still, however, his thin little chest was rising and falling awfully quickly, and even when he grew quiet again he seemed to be breathing too swiftly.
Frowning to herself, she reached for the thermometer and stuck it in his ear, brushing back his damp hair as she waited for the chime. When the thermometer finished, she pulled it out and gasped at the terrible number: 40.2.
"Oh Harry," she breathed, once more loathing herself for allowing it to come to this. How he must have suffered tonight, without ever understanding why. She remembered the Dudley of her dream, who had crawled in bed with Lily and James after a nightmare and been instantly comforted and soothed, the adults wiping away his tears and telling him lovely stories until he slept again. Harry must have yearned for that comfort tonight, for a kind hand on his fevered brow and company to chase away the fears and the hurts. "Let's get you in a cool tub, shall we?" she asked unnecessarily; Harry was far too miserable to answer.
Petunia easily lifted the boy again, settling him on her hip and carrying him upstairs to the nursery bath. He flinched as they entered the tiny room, and she remembered the many times she plopped him in cold water and roughly slapped a bit of soap and shampoo on him, quickly rinsing him and patting him dry. It would never be that way again, but there was no sense telling Harry now. He was far too young to understand, and she could only hope that worked in her favour, that someday he would forget her cruel treatment and love her as she now realised she must love him. Lily would have loved Dudley, and so she would love Harry as her very own from this moment on.
It wasn't hard to do as she settled the tiny lump of boy in a tepid bath to lower his fever. He was too desperate for comfort to reject her, and he leaned into the soothing touch as she tenderly ran the washcloth over his too-warm skin. She had never truly noticed how he resembled Lily, how his eyes were her exact match and his little lips pouted just like hers. He looked so very much like his father, but he had a few of Lily's features and almost certainly her sweetness. He would not have been a difficult child to love if she had only let herself.
As she continued her ministrations, she noticed that his troubled breathing wasn't letting up as she'd hoped with the bath. In fact, he seemed to be getting worse, and his ribs were retracting with each gasp for air. "Harry?" she asked in concern. He tried to speak, but all he managed was a pitiful wheeze.
Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong. Without delay, she pulled him out of the water, wrapped him up in a towel, and bore him to Dudley's nursery, where she located the smallest clothes her son owned and bundled him up as best she could. He needed a hospital, that was certain, but how could they explain this? How could they explain how sick he'd become, why he hadn't been treated previously?
She frowned and rocked him in her arms to soothe him, not sure what to do. Surely someone would notice the neglect and begin to ask questions. He might be taken away from them, even Dudley, perhaps, if they thought she and Vernon were dangerous.
Harry shivered in her arms, and she looked down and noticed in alarm that his lips were turning a pale blue. That settled it instantly. "Vernon!" she cried, no longer worrying about her sleeping son. "Vernon, hurry, wake up!" she demanded.
"What is it, Pet?" he mumbled sleepily, letting out an indignant huff as she threw on the lights.
"Harry is ill. Terribly ill. We must take him to hospital," she insisted. "You grab Dudley. We must go now."
"Don't be absurd," Vernon scuffed. "He's only whinging about. You put him back in the cupboard. You can't coddle him, Pet, or he'll-"
"He has a horrid fever, Vernon!" she cried in outrage. "And he can hardly breathe. I'm taking him to hospital this instant, so either you come with me or-"
Vernon grumbled but begrudgingly agreed, tossing on his clothes as Petunia lay Harry on the bed so she could do the same. He was gazing off in the distance by the time she scooped him up again, and the tears returned full force as she prayed he would not be taken from her tonight. Please, Lily, she begged her sister, hoping she was out there somewhere listening. Do whatever you must, only help him! I promise it will all be different now. I'll love him, as you loved Dudley for me.
The rest of the night was a painful blur. Doctors and nurses had ripped the limp boy from her arms and rushed him away from her, and then she had sobbed her way through filling out all manner of forms as Vernon tried to calm a fussing Dudley and shot her dirty looks. She hated him in those moments, hated that he was not worried along with her. In some ways, she felt he had forced this on her, that he had trained her not to love this child as she did her own. They agreed, early on, to take any measures necessary to drive the magic out of Harry, but she no longer cared about such petty nonsense, so long as Lily's son lived. If magic could save him, she would summon every witch and wizard to this place and swear her eternal allegiance. She would send Harry off to Hogwarts and write him letters every day telling him how very proud she was, how very much he reminded her of Lily. And she would never let a day go by that she didn't think of Lily and apologise for all that had gone wrong, for all the bitterness between them.
It seemed a painful irony that she should realise tonight how little it had ever mattered how different she and Lily were. It had taken that ridiculous dream to show her how love and forgiveness changed everything. In that other world, her nightmares came true and Dudley grew up different and somehow lacking. But he had never felt like a disappointment, never felt less special. Lily and James had gone out of their way to remind him he was as precious as Harry, and aside from a few moments of self-doubt, he never questioned his worth or how much he was loved. Dudley and Harry were each special in their own brilliant ways, as the spectre of her sister had shown to her tonight. Neither had to grow up mistreated and forgotten for the other to feel loved and cherished. Treating Harry as he deserved didn't mean Dudley would get left behind; Harry wouldn't have let that happen.
There was still time for them. They could grow up as brothers, if Harry pulled through. The ugliness could be forgotten by all but her own guilty heart if that precious little boy would just keep breathing.
Vernon and Dudley were dozing in the waiting room when the doctors finally retrieved her. She was led to a small room where Harry lay pale and lifeless in a bed, a long, clear tube emerging garishly from his slack lips. She raised a hand to cover her gasp and amazed herself with yet more tears; she would have thought them long dried up by now.
"Your nephew was a very lucky boy, Mrs. Dursley," the doctor informed her gravely. "He has pneumonia. He was in severe respiratory distress. I doubt he could have survived to morning."
"Oh Harry," she whispered and stepped to his bedside, carding her fingers through that messy black hair.
"Mrs. Dursley, I'll be frank with you. It's very rare that we see a previously healthy child with pneumonia this advanced. Healthy boys in England don't die from pneumonia, and it was a near thing with your nephew. Did you know he was ill? You indicated on his forms he wasn't being treated for anything."
The doctor sounded angry, but not nearly angry enough for the crime she committed against this child, against her sister. "I…I didn't know how sick he was. I thought it would pass," she managed weakly.
"It didn't pass," the doctor responded gruffly. "It turned into pneumonia, which clearly went unchecked for quite some time."
"You…you ought to take him from me," she whispered. She kept her hand on her nephew, not really aware of what she was saying…only that she had nearly killed him. The note she received the day he came to her claimed he had cheated death and defeated that horrid wizard that killed Lily and James, but it was his own aunt's neglect that very nearly wiped him from this world. "He's my sister's child," she explained softly as she stroked the downy soft hair. "We hadn't got on in many years. I never even saw her boy until…until she and her husband were murdered when Harry was an infant. I didn't want him," she shook her head. "I didn't want to look at him and be reminded of my sister. I've ignored him and mistreated him for three years. And now I've nearly killed him. You should take him from me."
"Mrs. Dursley," the doctor sighed heavily.
"I want to do better," she admitted. "I realised tonight what I was losing if I lost him. I know it's much too late for that, but…"
"Stay with him tonight," the doctor offered. "He's sedated and won't wake, but it's good for children to have someone familiar with them in hospital. We'll sort it in the morning, all right?"
She nodded gratefully, then turned to face him. "Will he be all right?"
"He's going to be here a while," the man advised sternly. "He's severely dehydrated, so we're giving him fluids and medicine through the IV, and he'll need respiratory support until he's able to breathe on his own again."
"But he will, won't he?" she asked anxiously.
"He's a very sick boy, Mrs. Dursley, but barring complications, he ought to be feeling better in a few weeks."
Weeks, she thought miserably. Not hours, not even days. At least for now he was sleeping, unaware of what she had almost done to him and free of this world that had been so cruel to him. "I'll tell my husband he can go home with our son, and then I'll come back and stay with him," she said quietly.
"Very well," he nodded. "He'll be carefully monitored, but if you need someone, you can press this button," he instructed, showing her a tiny button to page the nurses. "Someone will be back to speak with you in the morning. Try to get some rest."
"Thank you, doctor," she agreed with a watery smile. Once he left, she spent a few more minutes stroking her nephew's hair and watching him sleep peacefully. It was a grotesque caricature to see him connected to tubes and machines, but at least his tiny brow was no longer knit in pain and his chest moved at a more normal, steady pattern. "I'll be right back, Love," she promised, bending down to kiss his pale forehead before going to find Vernon and Dudley and send them on their way.
True to her word, she stayed with the boy all night, only dozing for twenty or thirty minutes at a time before waking to watch him sleep some more. The sedation kept him still and quiet all night, and she ached to see his green eyes open or to hear some sound other than the rapid beats or the rhythmic whoosh. When morning finally came, a new doctor introduced himself and checked over Harry, declaring him as well as could be at this point and explaining a few of the test results. Petunia didn't really understood anything, except that Harry was very ill but would recover in time.
Vernon didn't call or check in on the boy, and she wept bitterly as she realised loving Harry may lose her the man she called her husband. She comforted herself by holding his tiny hands and taking the time to truly study him, categorising his features and determining which were from Lily, which were from James, and which were entirely his own. She had played the same game with Dudley, and she loved seeing him change and grow and look more and more like his daddy with each passing day. Harry's resemblance to James was remarkable, and she knew Lily would be so happy to see it.
At lunch, a social worker came by to speak with her. The doctor had reported Harry's situation, but the woman was shockingly understanding and agreed to release Harry back into Petunia's custody with a few stipulations. A social worker would be coming by twice a week, and Petunia and Vernon would both receive counselling. Of course, no one could actually know the true problem with Harry, but the animosity between the Potters and Dursleys seemed to be explanation enough for now.
That night, as Harry remained disturbingly still, Petunia wept at his bedside and considered her husband. He had shouted at her when she returned home to shower, change, and cook dinner for him and Dudley, insisting that she leave the boy alone at the hospital and attend to her husband and son. He hated magic as much as she had, but his hatred was born of fear and prejudice, not hurt feelings and grief.
"What do I do, Lily?" she whispered out loud as she gazed at her sister's legacy asleep in the bed.
But Lily didn't answer. Petunia slept that night hoping to be visited by more dreams, but nothing came. When she woke in the morning, there were no calls from Vernon, and Harry was still critically ill.
It took two more days before Harry was deemed well enough to be weaned from sedation and the ventilator. He still received oxygen through a tube under his nose, but he finally opened his lovely eyes and managed to respond to a few simple questions. "Hello, Harry," Petunia whispered as she reached for his hand.
To her surprise, he didn't shy away or flinch as he usually did when she came near. Instead, he just smiled that beautiful smile she remembered from her dream. "Hi, Aunt Tuney." His voice was scratchy, but she knew something miraculous had happened. He had never, ever called her that, and only Lily had ever called her 'Tuney.'
Her sister visited Harry's dreams as well, then. It seemed she was staying busy in her afterlife.
Later that afternoon, Harry let her sit in the bed with him and read him books the nurses brought. He was nestled against her, and she gladly held him close as they laughed over the storybooks together. He fell asleep soon after, still too sick to stay awake for long stretches at a time, and so when Vernon arrived, he found Petunia cradling her nephew as he slept in her arms.
They stared at each other for a long moment, and then Vernon sat down in the chair next to the bed. "How is he, then?" he asked gruffly.
"Better," she managed. "But it's slow."
"Well, he'll heal up quickly. Boys his age do."
Not boys we starve and toss in cupboards, she thought but could not say. "Things are going to change now, Vernon," she told him plainly. "I want Dudley's second bedroom fixed up for him. He'll need furniture and toys and clothes. No more of Dudley's castoffs."
"All right, then," he agreed after a long moment.
He remained quietly beside them both, reading a newspaper and drinking a tea, and it was only when he left that Petunia realised her sister hadn't been silent in this, either.
But it wasn't an easy road. Harry was an angel most of his stay in hospital, but sometimes his tight chest and painful coughing made him so miserable and irritable that he could only cry and whine in distress. Petunia struggled to comfort him and was exhausted each day as she tried attending to all the boys in her life. Dudley was no picnic, either, used to the undivided attention of his mum and unable to understand the sudden shift of dynamics in his family as he was shuffled aside momentarily so they could deal with Harry's illness. He cried for her and begged her not to leave when she went back to the hospital, but Harry cried every time she left. It was impossible to please them both, and she only hoped one day Dudley would accept Harry as his brother.
Harry ended up staying in hospital for nearly two weeks, his little lungs still weak and his cough fierce day after day after day. He had little appetite, but he was already too tiny to fight off illness and needed as much nutrition as he could get. It was a fight to spoon-feed him soup and applesauce each day, and sometimes it was all Petunia could do to escape to the bathroom to cry.
But then, too, were the moments when Harry laughed that beautiful laugh again, or laid his head against her breast and let himself be comforted. She saw her sister in his smile, and it was a balm to her tired, anxious soul. Each minute was worth it to watch the boy grow out of the shell they forced him into, to watch him overcome his fears and hesitations and become comfortable. He even did a bit of magic one day, which scared Petunia half to death. He was thirsty and couldn't reach his cup from the bed, and then suddenly it was floating to him. That was her first true test, and though her instinct was to scream and rail against him, she stepped into the hallway to take a few deep breaths instead.
Magic did not kill Lily, she reminded herself, and your own stubborn pride took her away. This is what he is, it's who he is. Accept it or lose him forever. A few more breaths, and she returned to his side, stroked his hair, and kissed his cheek so he knew all was well. He was still too young to understand this, and someday – probably sooner than she'd like – she'd explain it all to him in terms he could understand.
When he was finally released, Vernon and Dudley picked them up from the hospital. Petunia took his hand and showed him to his new room, pointing out all the new toys and the walls in shades of blues and greens, painted just for him. While he napped, safe and warm in his new bed, Petunia braved the dust and spiders in the attic to pull out an old photo album. It clearly showed its age and neglect, the pictures fading and the pages sticking slightly. But the smiles were still there, and Petunia shed a few tears for the sister she had loved, the sister she lost far before her time. Lily ought to be here to hold her baby, and it made Petunia's arms ache with phantom pain as she imagined being separated from her Dudley. Even that dream had made her hurt as she imagined being so, so far from her boy, and for the first time, she truly contemplated what Lily lost the night she died. The chance to see her son grow up, the chance to hold him when he cried, the chance to see the sort of man he became.
Photo album under her arm, she wandered downstairs and found Dudley playing on the floor with Vernon. He nodded at her, and she scooped up her boy and placed him on the couch. "Come, Sweetums. It's time for you to meet your Aunt Lily," she told him.
Later, after Harry had woken and eaten and had a bath, he was tucked back in bed with the promise of stories until he fell asleep. Dudley reluctantly agreed to join them, though he sat as far from his cousin as he could while still being on the bed with Mummy. As the stories went on, he forgot a little of his anger and inched closer. That night, the boys laughed together for the first time, and Petunia felt quite certain this would all work out after all.
VII. Petunia was standing in a field of brilliant flowers, a field she felt quite sure she stood in once, long ago, in some distant memory. She felt warm and safe and loved here, and even though she was quite alone, she felt someone else here, someone she loved with all her heart.
She closed her eyes and let the presence grow. When she opened them again, Lily was standing before her. She was more beautiful than Petunia had ever seen her, her red hair still vibrant and her eyes still brilliant green, but her skin more pale and glowing and her smile more peaceful and content. "Hi, Tuney," she greeted quietly.
"Oh Lily," she breathed.
Before she could cry, her sister's arms were wrapped her arms. "I know, Tuney, I know," her lovely voice soothed.
"I'm doing better now. I'm trying. I really am."
"I know you are. I know you always will."
"But I didn't," she shook her head. "I failed him. I nearly killed him."
"He's happy and he's loved, and you will never hurt him again," Lily vowed.
"How can you be so sure? What if I-"
"You won't," Lily stopped her. "Things work a bit differently for me, Petunia. I can't see everything, and I wouldn't want to. But I know that Harry is going to grow up safe and strong and happy and that you will never harm him again."
"Oh Lily. Oh, thank you. I've been…I've felt so awful."
"Me too," her sister whispered.
"You tried," she countered weakly. "You sent a present for Dudley, and you-"
"No more keeping score, Tuney. What matters is that for the moment, you and I are both here, together. And I love you. So very much."
"I love you, too. And I miss you. I miss you every day."
"I'm right here with you," Lily smiled. "So let's sit, and you can tell me all about your life."
How are you? How is Hogwarts? I was thinking maybe you could see if you could get a picture of the castle. I think it'd be really cool to see! Is it huge? Are there lots of people? Are you learning wicked stuff, like maybe how to turn someone into a frog? I've met a few people at school that maybe you can help me with.
Smeltings isn't so bad. I don't know how much I'll like it. It'd be loads better with you here, but after you accidentally blew up that vase last week, maybe a big castle is better. Promise you'll write and tell me everything.
I have to do my maths now. I hope there are no maths at Hogwarts. It's hard at Smeltings and the teacher is ugly and mean. How are yours? Made any friends yet?
We received your last letter. Yes, we. I hope you have not forgotten you have an uncle, as well as an aunt, and will kindly include me in any such future news you have to share. Congratulations on your sorting. It all sounds a bit weird, and I'd ask you kindly to leave any talking clothing items in the castle when you come home for Christmas.
The house is awfully quiet without you. There is also much less broken glass and nary a floating pet. I suspect it will remain boring until you return, and we anxiously await the holidays and the chaos you bring with you. I trust you are trying your hardest in all your studies and respecting your professors. No cheek, boy! I suspect you cannot avoid a bit of mischief, but remember your manners and you'll do us proud.
I am relieved to hear you were met with friendly sorts in your first days. You always make friends easily, but it does ease my worries to hear that you are settling in nicely. I hope to hear soon that you are also working hard and enjoying at least one or two of your subjects, though I do not claim to understand precisely what you will be studying.
We look forward to hearing from you again soon. And do not forget, Harry, that I do in fact mean WE.
My Dearest Harry,
Congratulations, Love! You are so very much like your mum that I had few doubts about your Sorting, but I am so happy and proud to hear that you have made the same House as your parents. You have already made them so proud, Harry, and I know you will continue to do so. I hope you also never forget how wonderfully proud I am of you. Your uncle is more reluctant to say it, but he was quite chuffed to hear how well you are doing. I remember Lily often wearing scarlet and gold, her house colours, so you ought to watch your mail closely for a few treats coming your way in the very near future. I'm afraid this old empty house seems quite lonely without you and Dudley, and I suspect I will spend a lot of time knitting and baking in your absence!
Sweetheart, I am so happy to hear that you are making friends and adjusting to Hogwarts. I worry about you, constantly, but I know you will truly be just fine, just like your mum and dad. You have your mother's kindness, Harry, as well as her sharp mind. As you know, I did not know your father well, but he was charming and funny and had many friends, and I see those same traits in you. But never forget that as much as you are like your parents, you are also just Harry. My sweet Harry, who will undoubtedly get himself into a good deal of mischief but also look out for his friends and always strive to do what is right. You are so brave, Love, but remember that anytime you need me, I am only a letter away. And remember also that your mum and dad will always be with you, watching over you, keeping you safe.
Be good, Harry. Be safe. We miss you terribly and have already started counting the days until Christmas.
All my love,