FIC: 'The Exiles' for florahart Recipient:florahart Author:lyras Title: The Exiles Rating: R Pairings: Petunia/Charlie, Petunia/Vernon Word Count: 7,750 Warnings: I think we can assume that Petunia is not entirely faithful here, but I hope I have treated the situation with respect. Summary: Six months into her exile in the wizarding world, Petunia meets someone who forces her to examine both herself and her relationship with her husband. Author's Notes: I hope you enjoy this, florahart! Thanks to mindabbles for making this a much better piece of work than it would otherwise have been.
Petunia awoke, stiff-necked and heavy-eyed, to the sound of raised voices. Across the table, Dudley's head was bent over his Gameboy and he showed no sign of noticing anything else.
"I'm telling you," Hestia was saying, her voice carrying from the deck, "there's no way you can take them on broomsticks. The kid's not too bad, really, and Mrs is all right once you get to know her, but the husband's a nightmare, and they're all really nervous of magic. Dedalus and I have got them a bit more accustomed to it, but still, if you think you're getting them up in the air without them screaming blue murder all the way to Romania, you'd better think again. Plus," she added, "Petunia might weigh about as much as a sparrow, but those blokes are heavy."
"Calm down. I wasn't planning on taking them by broom," said a deep, unfamiliar voice. "What kind of idiot d'you take me for?"
Opening her eyes, Petunia beheld a stocky, ginger-haired man dressed in a cloak that appeared to be made of leather. It was a dull afternoon and she couldn't see his face clearly, but he emanated an aura of calmness and capability - the sort of capability that she had admired in Vernon on first meeting him, when he'd been the sales manager for a building company and had given the impression of knowing everything.
"Well, what do you propose to do with them?" demanded Hestia. Petunia, long accustomed to managing Vernon's moods and now with some experience of Hestia's, recognised that tone. Hestia was reaching the end of her tether, something that had happened rarely since she and Dedalus had spirited them away from Little Whinging six months ago. This wasn't terribly surprising given the day they'd just had - and at Christmas, too! - but it jolted her. She was used to thinking of herself, Dudley and Vernon as being under strain, not their guards.
"Carpet," the man said, or Petunia thought he had - but of course, she must have misheard.
"I see." Hestia's voice was dry. "Well, rather you than me, but it's an improvement, I'll give you that." She yawned. "Does that mean I get a rest? I'm knackered."
"Sure, I can manage," said the man comfortably.
"Well, the sooner we get going the better," put in Dedalus, almost hidden under the life-jackets he was carrying. "We can't bob about on the ocean all day; we'll freeze to death."
"I'll get them."
Petunia shut her eyes hurriedly and then blinked, trying to look as if she had just woken up as Hestia's face appeared in the doorway.
"Last leg," she said heartily. "Should be quite a comfortable ride from here on in." She pointed through the glass towards the young man, who gave them a friendly wave. "If you head over to Charlie, he'll look after you. You too, Dudley. I'll go and see what your dad's up to." To her credit, her tone remained neutral. Vernon had been seasick ever since arriving on the boat a few hours previously.
Petunia gathered her things together, checked that Dudley had looked up from his game, and left the cabin.
The young man greeted her with a grin and an outstretched hand. "Charlie Weasley. Think you've met some of my rascally brothers."
"Oh!" She took the proffered hand mechanically. The resemblance was obvious now; beyond the red hair, he also had Arthur Weasley's gentle features, although his skin was ruddy, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors. She wondered how old he was. Certainly much older than - it was Ron, wasn't it, Harry's friend? - and those two horrible twins.
"Hello," she managed. He wasn't particularly tall, but somehow he gave the impression of being big. After so long in the company of only her family, Hestia and Dedalus, he seemed imposing.
His smile broadened. "Your carriage awaits, madam." He swept his arms to his right, gesturing at an ornate carpet that looked as if it belonged in a stately home. "If you'd like to step this way..." he said when she stared at him uncertainly.
She walked past him and onto the carpet, noticing the warmth that he exuded despite the icy sea air.
Distantly she heard Charlie say to Dudley, "I owe you an apology on behalf of my idiot brothers," but she was already gazing around in shock.
She was standing in a small aisle between two rows of seats. Curtained walls rose to meet a decorative ceiling, and when she turned around she discovered that she had stepped through a doorway. The room looked like a very vague approximation of the aeroplane that she, Vernon and Dudley had once taken on a package holiday to Spain, but the seats were sumptuously upholstered, cushions covered every surface, and an ornate wooden coffee table filled the far end of the aisle.
"Watch out, Mum," Dudley said as he barrelled into her. "Bloody hell!"
"Don't swear, please, Duddy."
"What is this?" demanded Dudley of Dedalus, who had squeezed in behind them and was settling himself into a corner seat.
"It's a magic carpet." Dedalus beamed. "I've never flown on one before; this should be exciting!"
Dudley's mouth fell open. "You're joking!" He strode across the tiny cabin and pulled back a curtain. Through the window, they watched Hestia and Charlie helping Vernon stumble along the deck, head lolling like a drunkard's.
"Sit here, dear," Petunia called guiltily when he appeared in the doorway a few seconds later. "The chairs are very comfy."
"I need a doctor," Vernon groaned.
"You know," said Hestia wearily, "I could fix that for you if you'd let me."
"I should ruddy well think not! Don't you point that thing anywhere near me." He seemed to revive briefly as he flapped his hands in her direction.
Petunia suppressed a sigh. Vernon hadn't made things easy for himself, but he had been having a time of it. And it wasn't his fault that he couldn't stomach the sea. But she really did hope that he wasn't going to be sick in here.
"Not long now," she soothed. "We - we will be arriving somewhere soon, won't we?" she asked Hestia, who fallen into the seat in front with a pleased sigh.
Hestia glanced at Charlie, who nodded. "About an hour's flight should do it, I think."
"We're really going to fly?" Petunia asked tremulously.
He grinned. "We are. Don't worry, it's perfectly safe - much more so than those aeroplane things. And we should have a smooth run today. There's very little crosswind forecast, so we'll get the full benefit of the prevailing currents."
"Wow," breathed Dudley.
"All right," Charlie said. "Everyone comfortable?" He glanced around the cabin. "Then we'll be off."
There was a slight sensation of movement, like going up in a lift. Petunia pulled back a curtain and let it drop with a strangled yelp. The grey English Channel loured far below; already the air outside was misty as they headed up into the clouds. Taking a deep breath, she looked straight ahead and caught Charlie's sympathetic gaze.
"It is safe, I promise," he said. "Nobody wants to put you at any risk."
She thought about protesting - how could this possibly be safe? But there was something very reassuring about Charlie's manner; something that told Petunia that he was accustomed to hazardous situations as Hestia and Dedalus, well-trained and experienced though they might be, were not.
"I suppose I'll just have to trust you."
There was appreciation and a hint of respect in his smile. "Enjoy your flight, madam. Coffee and tea-making facilities are on the table." He gave her a mock bow and turned to face the front of the cabin.
Tea might steady her nerves, she thought, helping herself to a cup. When she turned back, Vernon was curled up in his armchair and looked as if he might be prepared to doze through the journey. Dudley's head was bent once more over his Gameboy. Hestia and Dedalus were both reading, and Charlie appeared to be concentrating on the job of getting them to their destination safely. Petunia sat down, impressed despite herself at the comfortable seat, and tried to make sense of everything.
For the past six months, they had been living in a big, old-fashioned house in a rural village. They had not been told where they were, nor were they permitted to leave the grounds of the house. This was distressing, but not as unpleasant as it might have been. The building was not one that Petunia would ever have expected to enjoy living in, but it had charm, with its high, engraved ceilings and broad dual staircase with ornate banisters, which had made her feel ridiculously like a nineteen-twenties debutante as she descended it. In addition, the back garden had featured a tennis court, a large vegetable patch and a small apple orchard.
According to Hestia, the garden had been intensively cultivated over the past few years to aid the house in its current purpose: as a safe house. The previous owner had recently died - here Hestia's voice had grown muffled - and the property had passed to a new owner who had immediately suggested it for the Dursleys.
Petunia had instantly thought of Professor Dumbledore, and she had been unsurprised to discover, a few days into their sojourn, an old family portrait labelled 'Percival, Kendra, Albus, Aberforth and Ariana Dumbledore'.
It had taken Petunia about a month to stop flinching at every strange sound, give up trying to persuade Dudley to work on his A-level coursework, and weary of Vernon's incessant paranoia. She didn't quite know how she felt about living in what appeared to be the childhood home of Professor Dumbledore. She had never been able to hear his name without cringing in humiliation - he had, indeed, been very kind in the letter he'd sent in reply to her request to attend Hogwarts, but that had only made it worse. But after weeks of jumping at shadows, she was gradually realising that she had achieved what she had wanted so desperately all those years ago. Not that she still wanted it, of course - she despised magic. But it was the teensiest bit exciting to be surrounded by it, finally.
Unfortunately, Vernon was still implacably opposed to their situation. He remained alert to any signs of 'funny stuff' from their minders and constantly checked the windows for signs of intruders. He appeared to have taken it as a personal insult that the people assigned to look after them were a woman and a man old enough to be his father, and even Petunia had quickly become embarrassed by his treatment of them.
Dudley had adapted surprisingly well, between his dumbbells and the computer games with which he was kept supplied. He even read the newspaper! At least, he read The Quibbler, which according to Hestia was the closest thing to a proper newspaper these days. While Vernon prowled through the empty rooms and Petunia fussed in the kitchen (what she was actually doing was rediscovering the art of cooking from scratch, without Marks and Spencer's ready meals), Dudley discussed the political situation and filled his parents in on Harry's latest doings. Petunia was prouder of him than ever.
That morning - Christmas morning - Petunia had woken early as usual and crept downstairs, secure in the knowledge that any noise she made would be disguised by Vernon's sonorous snores. She had popped her head into the lounge (three times the size of her old living room in Little Whinging) to check that the presents were still piled around the tree with which Dedalus had staggered inside a few days earlier.
Then, just as she'd been thinking about putting the kettle on, birdsong had chimed briefly through the house, and something large and silvery had brushed past her on its way up the stairs. Petunia had only just held in a scream. She had seen those things before - in fact, she'd watched Hestia and Dedalus produce them several times - but they still unnerved her. This one, she'd thought, looked familiar and feline, which might mean Kingsley.
Less than a minute later, Hestia had hurried down the stairs, her dark hair wilder than ever, and announced that they had to leave.
The next few hours were a confusion of arguments (Vernon refusing to leave; Dudley refusing to leave without his Playstation) and wrangling (Hestia rolling her eyes when Petunia suggested that they bring the presents and cake; surprisingly, Dedalus had backed her up and Petunia had got her way). Then there was the horrible feeling of being poured through a tiny hole, and next they were on a large motorboat, speeding away from the Isle of Wight (and Petunia had no idea how they'd got there) towards the Continent.
At some point, she must have dozed off, and then she'd woken to find this extremely capable young man in charge. Petunia stole a look at him, or at least, at his back. He was broad-shouldered; not terribly tall, but still, there was something very manly about him. It was a shame he belonged to That Family, but after all, he had apologised to Dudley for his brothers' actions. If there was one thing that Petunia knew, it was that you couldn't condemn a person for their family connections.
She might risk another look outside, she thought, and pulled back the curtain onto a snowy landscape of clouds, tipped golden in the distance by sunlight. One of Petunia's secret passions was travel documentaries, and she felt as if she was looking at the sort of landscape that Shackleton might have faced, or Scott and Oates. An instant later, they dipped into the clouds and the illusion was no more. A moment after that, they emerged into dull grey light and descended towards real snow, which covered the ground as far as the eye could see, and towards a large house which stood on its own in the midst of the snowy landscape.
"So," said Dudley when he had devoured a full Christmas dinner and seconds of sausages and stuffing, "what happened? Why did we have to move?"
Their new hide-out was rather similar to the old one. Petunia liked the rounded, classical lines of the architecture, so different to the small, square rooms that she had inhabited all her life. Fires crackled in all the grates, holding the bitter cold at bay.
Hestia hesitated and then laid down her napkin. "Vo - You-Know-Who was seen in the area last night, in Godric's Hollow. We think Harry might have been there, too."
There was a clatter as Petunia's fork landed on her plate, but she ignored it.
"Harry was there?" Dudley demanded. "You mean, that bloke was after him?"
"We think so," Hestia said. "Someone had put flowers on his parents' graves."
"Lily's buried there?" asked Petunia. All heads turned towards her, and she dropped her gaze to the plate in front of her.
"Yes." There was a hint of sympathy in Hestia's voice. "I - thought you would know that."
"I didn't know where we were," said Petunia. Her mind was whirling. Godric's Hollow. All that time, they'd been in Godric's Hollow, where Lily had been murdered and then buried. All that time, so close, and she hadn't realised.
"So, did Harry get away?" asked Dudley.
"We assume so," Hestia said. At Dudley's look of disgust, she added, "We don't even know for certain they were both there. It's always possible that You-Know-Who was looking for you, not Harry. There was no evidence beyond the sighting and the flowers. That's why we had to move you."
"If Harry wasn't OK, we'd know pretty quickly," put in Charlie.
"I have complete faith in Harry," said Dedalus. "He's a very special young man."
Dudley rolled his eyes, accustomed to Dedalus's hero-worship.
"So you moved us, all well and good." Vernon spoke for the first time. "But what I want to know is, how long is this going to go on? I've got a business that's going all to pot without me, and it isn't right for us to be hounded across half of Europe because of that boy. I knew he'd be trouble from the moment we took him in."
"You're luckier than many others." Charlie looked neither friendly nor cheerful now. "People are dying all over Britain for nothing more than an accident of birth, or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. People are being murdered and tortured because of one man's megalomania. I've lost old schoolfriends - everyone's lost friends. Believe me, you're lucky."
"Thanks," said Dudley, breaking the awkward silence. "Thanks for rescuing us."
Petunia, who seemed to have done rather a lot of crying recently, almost burst into tears. The past few months had been terribly hard, but one of the few rewards had been watching her son mature. Perhaps they'd coddled him rather when he was growing up, she thought. But every day, he proved his ability to cope with things outside his experience. She blinked away tears, unsure whether they were due to desolation at losing her baby, or pride in the adult that he had become.
Life was even quieter here than it had been in Godric's Hollow. There were no other buildings except for a few outhouses for several miles around, and it looked as if this house had once been the manor house from which the area was ruled. On Boxing Day morning, Charlie told them that he had a flat in Bucharest, but would be staying with them for a while. "Just to be on the safe side."
Once a week, Charlie and Dedalus disappeared for the day and came back with bags of supplies: mostly food, but also firewood and winter clothes for them all. Petunia did most of the cooking; she had always prided herself on her desserts, but during their time in Godric's Hollow, she had discovered a love of cooking in general. They developed a routine: she tried to plan the meals in advance; they brought back the ingredients. It was a quiet life, but oddly contented.
It was a while before Petunia discovered what Charlie did for a living. At first, since he was so often there, she had assumed that he worked full-time for the Order of the Phoenix, like Hestia and Dedalus. But he kept mentioning "his girls" and "his lads" in terms of such casual affection that she concluded first that he was a teacher, then some kind of livestock farmer. This surprised her. She had always thought of farming as a very dull job, and Charlie did not strike her as the type to be satisfied with quiet rural life. Nor did she see how this reconciled with his flat in Bucharest; surely they must be miles from the city?
Then one evening, he turned up with bandages all the way up his arm and an raw-looking burn on his temple. "Norberta," he said with a shrug, while she hunted in the kitchen drawers for plasters and dressings. "Old cow was in a right temper today."
"A cow did that to you?" asked Petunia.
Charlie laughed. "No." He hesitated, eyeing her speculatively. "Norberta's - well, she's a dragon."
Petunia felt her legs give way and forced herself to remain upright. "A...dragon?" The word felt strange in her mouth, as if she had pronounced it incorrectly. Dragons were mythical, weren't they? But then, at one time she'd believed witches and wizards to be mythical, too.
"Don't worry, it's perfectly safe." Charlie rubbed his forehead ruefully. "At least, you are. Getting knocked around's an occupational hazard for me, but the dragons can't get anywhere near this place, and it's completely fireproofed, just in case."
Now she really did need to sit down. Their safe haven was surrounded by fire-breathing dragons?
"I know it sounds a bit mad," Charlie said, "but they're a protected species; it's just like looking after animals in a zoo, except the dragons have a bit more space. Well, they need more space. They're amazing creatures, and you're perfectly safe, I promise." He fingered his bandage gingerly. "I'd better go and clean myself up."
Petunia watched him go, but long after he had disappeared she was still picturing his muscular shape, so well outlined by the robes that she had long despised.
It had taken a while to realise that what she felt for Charlie was attraction.
A few years ago, there had been a television advert in which a burly young builder stripped off his shirt and downed a diet Coke, watched longingly by several staid-looking women from a nearby office. Petunia, proud of herself for never looking at another man after she'd met Vernon, had always despised the ad and looked down on her friend Yvonne for going all giggly whenever it came on. But now she realised that, where Charlie was concerned, she was like those women gazing through the window while the diet coke man enjoyed his well-earned break. It was shameful and pathetic of her, but she couldn't help watching him secretly whenever the opportunity arose.
This bothered her for several reasons, not least Vernon's presence, and the fact that her attraction to Charlie underlined just how unattractive she found Vernon these days. Not that it mattered; they had barely touched one another for years. She had discouraged all physical contact after Dudley's birth, terrified that he might be scarred for life by the sight of them in flagrante. And then, after Lily - after Harry's arrival - she hadn't wanted to be touched at all for a while, and it had been rather a relief when Vernon had stopped trying. For the most part, their sex life over the past fifteen years had been limited to nights on which Vernon went out to the rugby and then the pub with his friends, and returned red-faced and incoherent, oblivious to her failure to respond to his clumsy caresses.
Still, Petunia had always prided herself on being the perfect wife, and being repulsed by one's husband was not part of that ideal.
There was also the fact that it was embarrassing having a crush on anyone at her age, let alone a man who must be fifteen years her junior. Finally, and even more perplexing, she was beginning to wonder whether Charlie knew what she was thinking. There was something knowing about his smile when his eyes rested on her - even, perhaps, appreciative.
She was under no illusions: she was almost forty, while he must be about twenty-five. He might easily have a girlfriend in town, but if so he showed no inclination to visit her, and seemed quite comfortable living in the safe house with them. He clearly led an isolated life here; presumably most of the other dragon - whatever they were, keepers? - were men, which meant that she and Hestia might be the only women around. Petunia considered them both, trying to be objective. Hestia was certainly pleasant-looking, with her dark hair and rosy cheeks. Whereas Petunia - well, obviously it had been a long time, but she had been the acknowledged school beauty, and Vernon had proudly called her his blonde bombshell until she'd told him it sounded vulgar. She had kept her figure; aggressive dieting had seen to that. Her hair was shorter now, but she'd always religiously plucked out any grey, and her skin - she touched her cheek and was pleased at its softness. Looking after yourself was one of the rules of being a good housewife, and Petunia had been using Marks and Spencer's own brand of skincare ever since she could remember.
Yes, she thought wonderingly. It had been a long time since the idea had occurred to her, but she believed that she might still be an attractive woman. Relatively speaking.
"Mu-um!" Dudley yelled from his room down the corridor. "C'n I'ave a cuppatea?"
Petunia sprang to her feet and brushed herself down, horrified at her thoughts. She was a wife and a mother; a married woman. As she filled the kettle and put out several of Dudley's favourite biscuits, she vowed to put Charlie out of her mind.
This proved difficult over the ensuing months. He was always wandering in and out, offering Dudley some sparring practice (the sight of him wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and grappling with her son was an image that gave her a lot of trouble), discussing the latest developments at home with Hestia and Dedalus, or watching her with that amused gaze that constantly made her feel as if she'd walked out of the bathroom with her skirt tucked into her knickers.
One day, weary of Vernon's incessant complaints about the weather, the temperature of the house, the food, the company and everything else that didn't meet with his approval (by tacit agreement, the proximity of dragons had not been mentioned to him), she wrapped up and followed Hestia's directions to the dragon reserve.
She heard it before she saw it: an odd bellowing sound, almost like the lions on those nature programmes, but pitched a little higher, more raucous. She stopped and tried to pinpoint the sound, and then she saw it: a large expanse of brownish-red hide, circling in an ungainly manner about half a mile away over the fields. Two dots flew close by like bees buzzing around a flower.
Fascinated despite her fear, she trudged on over the frozen ground until she was perhaps two hundred metres away. The dragon had landed and she realised that the other figures had been people; one might have been Charlie, but she couldn't be sure. The creature turned towards her, and struck by a sudden terror that it might come after her, she turned and hurried back to the road.
She hadn't got far before she heard footsteps and turned to see Charlie, a pleased expression on his face. "Did you see them? What did you think?"
"It was very...big," she said cautiously. Bigger than she had realised, too, if those things flitting around it had been people. "You really fly on broomsticks?" she asked.
He looked at her quizzically. "Well, I don't see how else we can control them when they're in the air. Didn't your sister tell you about flying?"
"She - we didn't talk much about those things," she muttered. She had, of course, seen Lily's broomstick, and Harry's, but the idea of those things actually being used like in the stories, like the clichés, had always struck her as horrifying.
They walked on in silence. The sun was bleeding through the clouds, giving them a heavy, yellowish tint, and most of the snow had evaporated, but the ground was still frozen into ruts left by a tractor. Intent on her thoughts, Petunia caught her shoe on the uneven surface; before she lost her footing, her arm was caught in a firm grip that held her upright as she scrabbled to find her feet. "Careful," Charlie said.
Her breath caught as she gasped out her thanks and she stared up at him for a moment, shocked at the sensations rippling along her arm from fingertip to shoulder.
"You OK?" he asked. He bent towards her, still holding her arm, and for a wonderful, terrifying instant, she thought he might be about to kiss her. Then she pulled her arm away and looked down the track.
"Yes. Thank you." She could not possibly tell him that she couldn't remember the last time anyone had touched her. She wasn't sure when Vernon had stopped kissing her on the cheek when he came home from work, but it was several years ago; and Dudley - well, he was a good boy, but he was a teenager.
"It's funny, you know." Charlie's voice broke in on her thoughts.
"What is?" She looked sidelong at him; his involuntary touch seemed to have increased their intimacy, and the air that separated them felt oddly warm.
"Well, Lily Potter's so famous - I grew up knowing her name, and James and Harry's. My parents took us to see their house, you know. I must've been about fourteen. And yet, here you are, Lily's sister, and you don't even know we fly on broomsticks."
"I know you have broomsticks - I'm not blind. I just...flying on them! But I'm not surprised that Lily's famous. Everyone always loved her. She was so sweet and friendly, so special - she was very easy to love." The words had bubbled forth resentfully almost before she realised, and she forced a laugh to hide her embarrassment. "Nobody really noticed me when we were children."
Charlie grinned, but there was genuine sympathy in his eyes. "You're talking to someone with five brothers, at least two of whom are incurable attention-seekers. So I sort of know where you're coming from on that one." His expression grew serious. "I need to ask you something."
"You need to?"
"I do. Because, look, you're - I think you're a nice person, Petunia. I do, and from what I've seen of Dudley, you're a pretty good mother, and you must have the patience of a saint to put up with that husband of yours."
She opened her mouth to defend Vernon, but nothing came out. "He's - very easy to manage if you know him well enough," she said eventually.
He smiled slightly. "I'm sure you're right. But anyway, that's what I see. And yet, I've heard all these stories. Not just from Ron, but from the twins. From my parents. And so, I have to ask. Why did you treat Harry so badly?"
Petunia was silent, heart full of the chilly morning when she'd opened the front door and found, as well as the milk bottles, a sleeping baby and a letter that had taken her sister away forever. In all the time since they'd been plucked from their home and brought to live secretly in Lily's world, nobody had ever confronted her about this, although she'd waited for it, and for the rejection that would follow. She closed her eyes.
"He - that - Dumbledore. He said Lily had d-died to save Harry. That she was very brave, and that she'd sacrificed her life to save a little boy's, and perhaps a lot of other people's, too. He said she needn't have died." It came out almost as a wail, and she took a deep breath. "It wasn't just everyone else who loved her, you see. I did, as well, she was the only family I had left in the world, but magic took her away, and I tried to follow, but I - I couldn't. I didn't understand." She breathed hard again and again, vainly trying to control herself. "I lost her the day she started school, but I always loved her, and then...to hear she'd thrown her life away." She shook her head. "I couldn't bear to look at him. I know it wasn't his fault, but every time I looked into his eyes it was like a slap in the face."
Charlie seized her hand and turned it over between his own. "Lily didn't throw her life away," he said gently. "If she hadn't sacrificed herself, you'd probably have been dead very soon after - and so would I. You wouldn't recognise the world you'd be living in if you had survived."
"I know." Petunia swallowed. "I realised that, quite soon after...But by then it was too late. We were used to it. And Vernon - I don't want to make excuses, but I think he honestly believed it was best. 'Hide the freak away, never let him have an inkling of his past and perhaps it won't catch up with him, or us.'" Her breath was still coming in gulps. There was more - so much more - but that was the essence of it, she thought.
"I see." Charlie released her hand gently. "I think I see. Thank you for being honest."
He turned and walked back the way he had come, towards the dragons.
"You hate me," she called piteously before he could get beyond earshot.
Charlie looked back and shook his head. "No. You did an evil thing, but you're not evil. I don't hate you."
Petunia rose early, woken by a sliver of bright sunshine between the heavy curtains. Pulling on a dress and cardigan, she crept downstairs, leaving Vernon asleep in bed. To her surprise, Charlie was in the kitchen frying eggs, dressed only in a pair of loose-fitting trousers.
"Morning," he said with a grin. "Want a cup of tea?"
"I'll do it." Petunia had experienced Charlie's idea of tea-making before. She filled the kettle and sat down at the table, trying hard not to look at him.
Charlie, on the other hand, sat beside her without a trace of self-consciousness. "I'd offer you some bacon and eggs," he said between mouthfuls, "but I'm in a bit of a hurry. Going to be a long trip across to Scotland." The previous evening, he had told them the story of the dragon that Harry, Ron and Hermione had ridden out of Gringotts and left beside a Scottish loch. Poor thing's been locked up for who knows how long, it won't be able to fend for itself too well out in the open. I've been telling Bill for years, it's cruelty what Gringotts does to dragons.
"You're not using the carpet?"
He shook his head. "They're illegal in Britain. A bit stupid if you ask me, but what can you do, it's the law. So I'm on my faithful old broomstick. Had her over five years now, but she's never let me down."
"Won't it be very cold?" asked Petunia.
"It will. Which is why I'll be well-wrapped up." He swilled half a mug of tea around his mouth and stood up, pulling a shirt and cloak from the back of the chair. "Hey, do you fancy a walk? It should be pretty beautiful out there at this time of the morning."
It might have been beautiful. Petunia had no idea, because all her attention was focused on the man beside her, so different to the man she'd spent almost half her life with, so gentle and cheerful and nice. Vernon, Petunia admitted, was not nice. He had other qualities, but nice was not one of them. She pushed him out of her mind guiltily. Just for once, she wanted to think about Charlie. Surely it didn't count if it was only thinking.
But then, when they reached the little outhouse where he kept his outdoor gear, he turned towards her, took her shoulders gently between his large hands and kissed her.
Her first reaction was shock. Her second was to kiss him back, but too soon her mind intervened, and she pushed at his chest. He pulled away instantly, waiting to hear what she was going to say.
"What are you - why are you doing - why did you do that?" she asked desperately. She realised that she didn't sound nearly indignant enough for a married woman, and added: "How dare you!"
He smiled at her, but did not back away. "Several reasons. One, there may not be much choice over here, but you're a pretty damn attractive woman, Petunia. And it's been a while, for me. Two, I've seen the way you look at me. Three, I don't think you've had much fun recently, and I certainly haven't. And four, well, you look as if you could use a damn good seeing to, and I'd like to be the one to do it."
She could feel his erection through the fabric of his trousers, and his breath as he leaned in again was warm against her cheek.
"Do you want me to stop?" he said into her ear. She was frozen against him, unable to drag herself away but not daring to follow her body's instructions and arch into him.
"No - yes - I don't know!" she murmured. Suddenly, the rest of her life sprawled before her, a life in which she was never touched by anyone, ever again. Vernon wouldn't bother, and who else would see the person behind the perfect housewife? She took a deep breath.
"No, don't stop."
He smiled, and one hand cupped her hip while the other slid down the zip of her dress.
Petunia was washing up two days later when Hestia's shriek echoed through the house. She hurried into the hall. Hestia was hugging Dudley, who looked slightly horrified, but also rather gratified.
Dedalus kissed her on the cheek and said joyfully, "Wonderful news, Petunia. Wonderful! Harry's done it! Voldemort's dead."
Hestia turned and hugged Petunia, tears running freely from flashing eyes, and Petunia hugged her back before her thoughts could intervene. It was over. Lily's murderer was gone. Tears rose in her own eyes as she seized Dudley and gave him a big cuddle, ignoring his embarrassed squirming.
"Does this mean we can go home?" Vernon demanded from the staircase.
Hestia swiped a hand over her face. "Yes," she said slowly. "I'll have to clear it with Kingsley, but yes. We can all go home."
"And what about the mental strain?" Vernon shouted later. They had opened a bottle of champagne, and his cheeks were flushed. "Let alone the damage to my business. What about what this year's done to my wife and child, eh?"
Petunia thought of Charlie, of the exquisite feel of his mouth against her skin, and wondered how it was possible that she looked just the same on the outside.
With an effort, she brought her mind back to the present. Dudley was studying the table. Hestia looked furious. Even Dedalus was tapping his knee indignantly.
"Vernon, dear, I really don't think-"
"Leave this to me, my dear," ordered Vernon, his moustache quivering triumphantly. "You're too soft-hearted with these people; don't think I haven't noticed. We have to stand up for our rights."
"Dad," began Dudley, but he was waved away.
"We have been uprooted from our homes, brought to some godforsaken country that's barely in Europe -" Vernon wagged his finger in Hestia's direction - "without so much as a by-your-leave...subjected to constant harassment-"
"Oh, for Merlin's sake, I imagine Kingsley'll offer you the opportunity to have your memories wiped if it's been that terrible a time," snapped Hestia. Her cheeks were also pinker than usual.
Petunia stared at her.
"I beg your pardon?" demanded Vernon. He drew in a loud breath. "I BEG YOUR PARDON?"
"You could probably have your memories wiped of the entire existence of the wizarding world if you liked," Hestia said, popping open another bottle and refilling everyone's glasses except Vernon's.
"I shall be writing to the Minister - there's a Minister, isn't there? - to compl- what?" Vernon stopped. It was almost possible to see Hestia's words revolving in his mind. "You mean, we could forget about - him? About her sister?" His eyes flicked to Petunia and then back to Hestia.
"I suppose so," said Hestia wearily. "I mean, I don't suppose it's been done very often, but given your nephew's contribution to wizarding safety, I daresay it might be arranged."
"Mum?" Dudley looked terrified, and Petunia only just stopped herself from hurrying around the table to give him another cuddle.
"No one's going to mess around with your mind, Dudley." She looked sternly at Vernon. "Nor with ours. How could you contemplate that, Vernon? You've always hated the idea of magic."
"Seemed like rather a good idea, that's all," he muttered belligerently. "Forget all about this..."
"I don't want to forget about Lily," she said.
He stared at her. "Why on earth not?"
She looked away. "I just don't."
Charlie arrived during dinner a couple of days later. His face was pale with exhaustion, and with something else that Petunia couldn't pinpoint until Hestia hesitantly asked about casualties.
His face stiffened. "Tonks," he said slowly, "and Remus Lupin."
Hestia gave a cry of shock, and Charlie nodded.
"I know. Pretty damn awful for that little kid. And it means his grandmother's lost everyone - Tonks's dad was murdered a few months ago." He looked down, ostensibly fiddling with the buttons of his robes. "A few others. I don't think anyone you were close to, but I've got the official casualty list somewhere. I'll dig it out. Um...Fred."
The slightly strangled way in which he said it told Petunia everything she needed to know. Hestia crossed the room to touch Charlie's arm, her eyes full of tears. "I'm so sorry."
He nodded. "I know. Thanks."
Petunia did not know whether Charlie would be down at the shack the next morning when she arose, but she had to find out, although every step seemed to her to compound her betrayal of Vernon - and by extension of Dudley. By the time she reached her destination, she felt rather as if she had crossed a tightrope.
He was there, lighting a fire in the grate. She stood in the doorway, without the words to announce her presence, waiting for him to turn around. When he did so, he gave her a small smile and patted the rug on which he was crouched.
In his presence, it was easier to forget her guilt. She crossed the room and sat carefully beside him, pulling off her cardigan.
"I'm going back home in a couple of days," he said. "I could take you, too, if you want. Hestia said you're dying to get away."
Petunia sighed. "Vernon is, anyway. I can't blame him. It's been a difficult time."
It took her a long time to realise that she could not give any reason to look forward to her old life. She shook her head.
"You know, you could stay." For the first time since she'd met him, there was a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
To stay. To hide away in this corner of Europe, and be loved by a man who had brought her body to life with his touch. To leave Vernon; to leave Dudley. To stay in Lily's world.
She took Charlie's calloused hand in hers and tried to imagine being with him for the next five years, ten, twenty. Looking into his eyes, she tried to read the thoughts there as his gaze flickered away and then back to meet hers. No, she thought. Charlie might enjoy her, but he didn't want to be burdened with her - and that was what she would become: a burden. Never quite believing him hers, always looking for evidence of his infidelities. Dependent on him for friends, income, life. Like the diet coke man, he was always meant to be a fantasy.
Whereas Vernon - well, what she had with Vernon wasn't perfect, or wonderful. But it was stable; it was a life. A life where she had a place, friends, respect, a husband who wasn't as young as he had been and, most of all, a son to care for.
"I don't think that would be a good idea," she said softly.
Charlie nodded, but she didn't miss the hint of relief in his expression.
"When you say you're going back - is it for the funeral?" she asked. "For Fred?" She knew him now, one of those twins who had given Dudley that evil sweet, years ago. At the time, she had vented her fury on Arthur Weasley and ridden roughshod over his apologies; had daydreamed for weeks of the Weasley twins being tried and imprisoned for their crime. But she took no pleasure in his death.
"Yeah." He looked away again. "He was such a little bugger, you know. Always in trouble, always causing trouble. You never think people like that are going to..."
She stroked his arm. "I'm so sorry. If there's anything I can do..." The words sounded horribly inadequate, and she wished she could take them back as soon as she'd said them.
But he turned towards her, said, "Well, maybe there is," and then leaned across and kissed her. "Again," she thought; he was going to do all that to her again. And she kissed him tenderly, because he was hurting and she could help him, and when his hand reached under her skirt, she pulled open the buttons of his top and kissed the soft, fuzzy skin of his belly, and reached down shyly to touch him there. And it was different this time, no languorous enumeration of every patch of her body; instead it was hard and soft all at once, quicker, quieter. But Petunia knew as he thrust inside her, arms holding her close, that this time would sustain her just as much as the other.
Returning to Godric's Hollow was like entering another world after the relentless clouds of Romania. Petunia gazed around at the village that she'd previously only seen in window-pane patches, and found a pleasant, old-fashioned place, full of stone cottages and gardens flushed with early summer flowers. Lily would have liked living here, she thought.
"Well, here's the churchyard," Hestia said. "I think the wizarding graves are in that section, over there."
Petunia nodded and glanced at Dudley. He looked serious, aware of the solemnity of the occasion.
"We'll go and check on Vernon." A hint of mischief appeared in Charlie's eyes. "Check he's not ordering the locals around in that cafe." He gave her a smile that was all hers, and for an instant her heart ached at losing him. She made herself smile back, and then he and Hestia were gone.
She had expected to have to search for the grave, but there was no need. It was immediately obvious, covered in flowers, wreaths and notes. Stooping down, she saw that they all contained variations on the same theme. You did it. Your deaths have been avenged. It's over, thanks to Harry. Thank you.
Petunia closed her eyes but the bright flowers flashed in her mind anyway, an outpouring of love, nearly seventeen years after their deaths. Perhaps her sister hadn't died in vain, after all.
Stepping forward, careful to avoid the notes and flowers, she dropped her lilies onto Lily's grave. It was time to go home.