Harry Potter - Series Fan Fiction ❯ A Domestic ❯ A Bang or a Whimper? ( Chapter 6 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Tink.  Just like that, pebbles of pique cracked her detached veneer.  Petunia rubbed her forehead.  “You’re not dim, Harry.  You’ve listened to all the words I’ve said.  Have they not provided a clue?”

Her nephew’s face was stony.  “All I’ve heard was that a tragic series of events resulted in Grampy and Nana Evans dying in a flood.  Mum and I could have died, too.  You said so yourself!  I don’t see—”

“Quite right, you don’t see,” she interrupted, puffing up.  “You don’t see at all!  I never said I was fair, did I?  Were you expecting I’d somehow make the case that you and Lily caused the dam collapse?  For heaven’s sake, boy! I said I blamed you, not that I was justified.” 

Harry looked dumbstruck by her little tirade.  “I don’t know what conversation we’re having here,” he finally managed.

“Ha! I’ve often thought the same during our talks.  Look, we’ve got this far, haven’t we?  Let me tell this as I see fit, won’t you?  You’ll understand soon enough.” 

Her nephew made a moue of discontent but shrugged. “Carry on.”

Petunia’s animus passed and she deflated, leaning into the back of the chair.  “After… well, after,” and she gave a weak smile, “I lost interest in doing things I used to love, like eating and sleeping.  Rather difficult when you keep seeing dead people.”

“That does make for a bad time,” Harry allowed, and she once again felt guilt settle around her shoulders like an iron shroud, for he sympathized too much.  “What did you do?”

“Oh, I drank as much tea, coke, and coffee as I could stand, and I kept the house so clean that Vernon joked about living inside a museum.  Made the most sense to be useful if I couldn’t rest, and Dudley slept like a log as I banged around doing chores.  By the end of August, I’d dropped over a stone, and I was hallucinating from lack of sleep.  One evening I saw fairies dancing in the garden!  Ridiculous.”

“Actually, they—”

“I know they’re real, ya git!  It’s ridiculous to think that I saw them.  How could I when I don’t have magic?”

“If you’ll let me finish, I’ll tell you,” her nephew returned crossly.  “Fairies will occasionally show themselves to Muggles when Muggles are in a dream-like state.  That’s because Muggles, upon reflection, won’t believe they saw fairies.  It amuses the fairies to play these games.”

Petunia’s jaw dropped.  “Blimey,” she proclaimed, as her reality shifted a little more east of normal.  Was Harry smirking?  Next thing she knew, he’d be telling her the neighbor’s garden gnomes weren’t just painted clay!  No.  No going down the rabbit hole, Alice,’ she sternly told herself.  “A-anyway, adding insult to injury was the fact that my…”  She hesitated, feeling the throb of blood in her cheeks and ears.  No, she could say this; let him be embarrassed if he insisted on knowing these matters.  “My breast milk dried up.  I was so torn down that I couldn’t nurse Dudley anymore.  We had to buy formula, which was an unanticipated expense and made our shoestring budget rather threadbare.”

Harry was admirably composed, even if he glowed rosily from hairline to collarbone.  “Bet Vernon didn’t like that,” he said mildly.  Funny how such a small observation held so much weight.

Petunia pressed her lips together.  She didn’t want to defend her husband, not after The Argument.  However, vilifying him on this issue wasn’t right.  “Oh, he did fuss.  Made a show of it, nattering on some evenings about the cost.  Vernon wasn’t really complaining about the money, though.  He was terribly worried about me, and he's rubbish about expressing emotion.  He’s only ever happy or angry, and a lot of that has to do with his childhood.”

“If you’re trying to make me feel sorry for—”

No,” Petunia said emphatically, “I’m not trying anything of the sort.” She truly wasn’t, even if remembering those chats about her husband’s early home life made her ache for the boy he once was.  “Look, I’ve gone off on a tangent here.  All I meant to say is that when Vernon acts irate, he’s often feeling something entirely different.  Fear makes him angriest of all.”  She twitched, suddenly realizing what she’d just revealed.  In Vernon’s eyes, it was tantamount to betraying her wedding vows.  Indeed, she had sworn never to talk about such things with anyone else. Petunia’s heart dropped into her feet.  “That wasn’t mine to tell,” she said miserably.

She could almost see the wheels turning in her nephew’s mind, and she despaired.  It would be so easy for him to exploit this bit of knowledge (to humiliate Vernon, to amuse himself), and she’d handed it over without a thought.  Daft cow! Always a few spanners short—

“I see,” Harry said quietly, disrupting her downward spiral.  Petunia looked into his eyes and saw the promise of a secret shared.  Relief turned her bones to jelly.  “Aren’t there usually, ah, legal matters to deal with, too?” he asked, tactfully steering the discussion elsewhere.  Bless him. 

“Sure, sure.  Luckily, Vernon had connections working sales, and he hired an attorney who agreed to collect his fees after the estate had been distributed.  Mum and Dad died intestate, and it took months to get everything sorted.”  Petunia stopped as rancor filled her veins, arced pain across her temples.  “It was all left for me and Vernon to sort out.” She couldn’t edit the ugliness from her tone.  “Lily and James didn’t offer to help.”

“They were a tad preoccupied," her nephew began, in high dudgeon.  He wasn’t wrong.

I know Moldy-vort’s war was looming, don’t think I’m ignorant of that fact,” she admonished, shaking a finger at him, “but Jack and Rosie were Lily’s parents, too, and where was she?  I had to go through all their belongings and decide what to keep, what to sell, and what to donate to charity shops.  I had to hire an estate agent to sell the family home in order to pay off all of Mum and Dad’s outstanding debts.  I had to deal with the crematorium and later choose whether to keep their ashes or scatter them…” Petunia took a gasping breath as the memories and their attendant pain engulfed her.  And Lily wasn’t there,” she spoke through gritted teeth. 

You know why she wasn’t,’ her conscience noted, ‘and he will know it, too.  Why slant the past this way?’  Because she needed him to see her perspective before she never saw him again.

“Oh,” Harry said.

“Yes, oh.  Oddly enough, the attorney couldn’t disperse any of our parents’ estate to Lily.  According to the county records, she didn’t even exist.  No birth certificate, no booster jabs, no attendance at Sticky Wicket Primary School, no relation to me.  And no one in Cokeworth recalled her, either.  When I asked Mrs. Barker if she wanted to keep Madam Plume-Tail because Lily and I both had husbands allergic to cats, she said, ‘Certainly, dear, but who is Lily?’  I tried ringing your mum several times over those months, but I kept receiving messages that my call couldn’t be completed as dialed, and the phone operators I spoke with had never heard of Godric’s Hollow.  If it weren’t for Vernon, I would have felt like a nutter!”  Now, as then, Petunia felt the curious mix of hurt, disgust, and bewilderment build inside her.  “How did that happen, Harry?  Lily was born on this side of the magical divide.  How did my sister disappear?” 

Her nephew was silent for a moment, then he replied, slowly, “You know, Hermione did something before the last war kicked off.  She cast a series of spells that altered her parents’ memories. I mean, she removed herself from their memories, and gave them all-new identities as a childless couple before sending them off to live in Australia.  Hermione did it to protect them.”  Tentatively, he concluded, “Maybe my mum erased herself from the Muggle world to protect you during the first war.”

As his words sank in, Petunia’s vision clouded.  “That… that sounds like something she would do,” she granted, even though it raised other questions.

“The fact I’m alive is proof of that,” Harry murmured, unconsciously touching the scar on his forehead.  Lifting his gaze to meet hers, he said, “I’ve learnt a new fact about you, Aunt.”

“Have you, now?”

“Yes.  You will talk around an issue you don’t want to address, and you will do it for as long as you can get away with.”  Her nephew’s piercing green eyes were steady on her face. “It’s been enlightening, but Ginny’s expecting me home in the next half-hour, and you promised to tell me why.”

When did her defenses become brittle with rot and so easily breached? Maybe her stronghold was always an illusion, and it took a wizard to see it. “I did,” Petunia concurred, unable to look away.  She owed him this much, a direct regard whilst recounting her cruelest moment.  Even if what she wanted was to become a puddle and drip onto the floor.  “What it comes down to, lad, is that you and Lily were the right fit for the shape of my anger.”

It was about a month after Harry was born; it could have been late August or early September, but Petunia’s days all melted together from lack of sleep, and she wasn’t sure.  What she did know was that Lily appearing in the fireplace that afternoon—a fireplace in use due to the unseasonably chilly weather—made her shriek in surprise, which caused Dudley to howl and thrash about in his baby swing.  Is this real or fantasy?’ she wondered as the rush of adrenaline left her shaking.  Petunia wasn’t kept wondering long.

“Oh, dear, that’s my fault, isn’t it?” Lily asked as she ducked under the brick lintel, wincing at the ruckus.  “Your boy’s got a good set of lungs, Nia.” 

It was the diminutive that cinched it; only three people ever called her by that name.  The rest of the world—true and imagined—knew her as Petunia.  “Well, hello to you, too, Lil,” she huffed, put out by the intrusion.  Just once, couldn’t Lily plan a visit?  How hard was it to give a date, a time, and a knock on the fecking front door, instead of whooshing through her chimney and giving her a fright?  If she knew company was on the way, she’d be wearing something more dignified than shabby grey sweats and pink bunny slippers!

A witch’s prerogative for the dramatic, for sure.  Somehow, the flames didn’t burn her sister, and the filth of blackened kindling settled on top of her without soiling her. Lily was wearing boots, jeans, and an elaborate red wrapping over her jumper. It took a moment for Petunia to see the baby-sized lump under the material.        

She gawked as her sister brushed dust and sparkles and ash from her person onto the freshly-hoovered carpet.  “I just cleaned this room,” she protested whilst lifting Dudley into her arms.  She was caught between glowering at her sister and cooing at her son.

“No worries,” Lily said cheerfully, pulling out her wand.  In a blink, all was set to rights.

“Nice trick, Lil,” Petunia observed, feeling the hairs on her arms stand up straight. She pondered the idea of becoming acclimated to magic, even as she suppressed a shiver.

“Isn’t it, though?”  Her sister dimpled.  “I never used to resort to hocus-pocus for keeping my home tended, but this one—” and here Lily patted her son through the cloth, “—has broken me.”

“Has he?  But Harvey seems like a decent sleeper.”

Lily smiled softly; it was an old game they used to play, misnaming people and objects.   “I can’t say the same for Douglas.”

“Oh, he has his moments, don’t you, sweet pea?” Petunia crooned to the baby sitting on her hip, nuzzling the crown of his bald head.  Dudley had calmed down and was staring at his aunt with drowsy interest. 

“He looks a dear.”  Lily approached them, and Petunia could smell a delicate floral scent beneath the woodsmoke clinging to her sister’s ginger hair.  Caressing one of Dudley’s plump arms, she murmured, “Auntie Lil is sorry for alarming you, little chap.”  Placing a hand on Petunia’s left shoulder, Lily leaned in and kissed her cheeks.  “Nice seeing you, luv.”

It was their mother’s standard greeting, and the simple phrase gutted Petunia.  Her face crumpled.  Blindly, she covered Lily’s hand with her own, gave a light squeeze.  “Been a while, yeah?” she croaked back, blinking hard.

Lily’s own eyes were glossy.  “It has.” 

Grief became a tangible force between them as they stood there touching hands, both shaking as salt spilt down their cheeks, but neither making a sound (they didn’t want to set off their babies).  This was one of many firsts as orphans.  Soon to follow would be birthdays, and holidays, and two anniversaries: one where their parents made their wedding vows, and the other where death parted them. Petunia could see that same knowledge in her sister’s eyes, along with the unfairness of it.  A foul thought floated through her mind, as it had done off and on for several weeks.  She had not given breath to it then and fought it back now.

After several minutes, the emotional storm passed.  Petunia swallowed the lump in her throat and asked, “W-would you like to sit down on the sofa?  I can make a cuppa.”  She placed Dudley in the Moses basket near the end of the sofa.

Lily nodded; her complexion was mottled from weeping.  “That sounds lovely.”

When Petunia returned to the sitting room—noting that her son was fast asleep—she carried a tray with a pot of oolong tea, a small pitcher of milk, a bowl filled with sugar cubes, two cups and saucers, utensils, a plate of raisin scones, some jams, and butter.  “Please, help yourself,” she beckoned her sister as she laid the service on the coffee table.

Lily, who had been gently cradling little Harry’s form (and Petunia still had no impression of the child beyond the clear outline of a bitty foot), rubbed her face in the crook of her arm and looked up.  She brightened upon seeing the small jar of marmalade.  “You remembered,” she hummed happily, reaching for a scone and butter knife.

“Yup.  Same preference as Dad, and I still say you’re bonkers for liking that stuff over strawberry preserves.”  Petunia glanced at the plate of scones and considered nibbling on one, but her vision was instantly overlaid with images of cyanotic skin and swollen tongues, and she felt nauseous. 

“Nia, aren’t you going to tuck in?” Lily asked around a mouthful of scone.

Petunia shook her head.  “I had something at breakfast,” she lied, pouring milk into her teacup before adding the scalding-hot tea.  She dropped in three sugars and stirred until she was certain the cubes had dissolved. 

Lily’s sharp gaze expressed doubt, but she didn’t pursue it.  “Are you feeling as done in as I am?”

“I don’t know,” Petunia replied, raising a brow.  “How done in are you, Lil?  I feel like a lion trampled by a herd of elephants.”

Lily took another bite of scone, looking thoughtful.  “That sounds pretty bad.  I feel like a mountain climber tackling Everest without a Sherpa.”

“Oof!  Well, I’m not sure which of us has it worse, but I think it’s safe to say…”  she trailed off as colored orbs of light floated past her, encircled Lily’s head like a crown.  Petunia stared at the twinkling display.  “Pretty,” she mumbled, almost forgetting that she held a full teacup in her hands.  The vessel tilted dangerously before she righted it.

“Nia?  All right, there?”  Lily’s brows were puckered with concern. 

“Em, yeah… are you not seeing the lights?”

“No.”  Lily paled, and then her demeanor changed.  It was so subtle—a stiffening of posture, a harsher set of her mouth—but suddenly her sweet little sister transformed into a soldier. 

Petunia watched as she rose from the sofa, pulled out her wand (whispering a few words that sparked it to life), and started walking around the room with a look of intense concentration.  She struggled to make sense of Lily’s actions.  Then: ‘There’s war afoot,’ she recalled from their previous phone conversations, and fear sped up her heartbeat as she clutched her teacup.  She held as still as possible, prayed that Dudley wouldn’t choose to be fed or changed momentarily…

Minutes passed, and slowly, Lily relaxed.  “It’s safe,” her sister pronounced as she returned to the sofa.  Those assessing eyes turned on her.  “Well, mostly safe.  Nia, when is the last time you slept?”

“I don’t remember,” she answered honestly.  She was too tired to dance around the truth.

Lily leaned forward, traced the skin under Petunia’s eyes.  Petunia knew she looked haggard, with dark circles and gaunt cheeks.  She marveled that her sister seemed so healthy by comparison (and no, stop, she was in mourning, too).

“Em, repeat that,” Petunia said apologetically, for it registered that Lily had asked a question.

“I said, do you want me to make you a sleeping draught?  I can make one that would give you a good night’s rest.” 

“Don’t be silly!  I’ll be fine.” She laughed, but it was hard to miss the wild, reedy quality of the sound.  Harry twitched under the wrapping and Dudley moaned in his basket.

Lily shook her head.  “You aren’t.  Over the past months, I’ve had colleagues witness unspeakable things, and some of them reacted the way you have. They became too thin and plagued by insomnia, and they didn’t want to talk about it.  They needed restorative potions to deal with the fallout, and someone to talk to.  You need that, too.”

Petunia stared at her sister, and the words tumbled out. “I saw them, Lil.”  Though she whispered, her words held the wail of banshees.  “I saw Mum and Dad, and they have not left me since.  They won’t go.  I have prayed and begged and still they remain.”

“Oh, Nia.”  Lily cupped her cheeks with warm fingers.  Her eyes were liquid emeralds.  “Oh, luv.  How can I help you?”

“Can you bring them back?”

Lily gave a watery chuckle.  “I would have done instantly had I the power.  Magic cannot raise the dead.”

Harry stirred and began whimpering.  It was a welcome distraction. 

“The lad is making his debut,” Petunia remarked, quirking a smile.

“He does have a knack for turning the attention on himself,” Lily said wryly, though her face was all tenderness.  Cradling her baby’s wriggling form with one arm, she uttered, “Solvo alligatio.” 

Petunia jerked as the red wrapping came undone and settled around her sister’s lap.  Nope, magic wasn’t less discomfiting to be around.  Getting over her startlement, she saw her nephew for the first time.  He was a healthy size for a preemie, even if his red-and-gold onesie was a little large. Harry had the rounded cheeks and button nose of most babies, cute if not distinct, but what really captured her attention was… “My goodness, his hair,” she goggled.  Harry had a riot of thick black locks on his head, the strands going every which way. 

Lily grinned widely, her dimples prominent.  “Tell me about it.  This one clearly took after James’ side.”

“I reckon so.  We were as bald as my wee Dudders in our baby photos, weren’t we?”  Petunia gazed at her slumbering boy, watched the rise and fall of his chest.  He was everything to her, a perfect specimen, a bright future, and her failures as his mother made her heart pinch. 

“Yup, we were.”  Lily, oblivious to her turmoil, turned her own son in her arms.  Raising Harry’s bum to her nose, she gave an experimental sniff.  “Well, you’re dry and not smelly, so I guess you’re hungry.”  Sighing, she grimaced.  “No easy way to do this.  Nia, could you hold Harry for a minute?  I have to get arranged.  You know how it goes.”

“Sure.”  She’d never been less sure.  She used to know that difficulty, but she’d been robbed of it.  A tumult of emotion curled in her belly.  So much shame, guilt, helplessness, and fury. Oh, fury, hot and clean.  Ire was easier than angst because it wasn’t self-directed.  There she was, being perfect again.  Always prettier, always healthier, always better. ‘Cut it out!’ Not Lily’s fault, not Lily’s fault, NOTLILY’SFAULT—

She received her nephew and cradled his slight body to her chest.  He stared up at her through murky blue eyes, his rosebud mouth working.  No bottle for this one, of course.  “Give your mummy a minute, little one,” she chided, touching his duck-fluff hair, stroking the side of his face from temple to jaw, willing herself to calm down, to feel familial adoration.  If not for him…’ Petunia offered him her finger and flinched when he latched down hard with his gums.  “Wow. Strong grip.”

“Here, I’m ready for him now.”  Lily had removed the cabled jumper and slung the red material over her shoulder and across her torso like a toga. 

Petunia gently withdrew her finger—aching and drenched in saliva—and handed Harry over to her sister, who settled him under the material and began nursing him.  She could hear him noisily suckling.

Lily smiled at her blissfully.  “Babies are most content when they’re eating, aren’t they?”

She loved her sister, Petunia reminded herself—except when she flaunted her superiority so casually, so thoughtlessly.  How did the second-born always make her feel second-best?  Rage burned like coals in her gut, flames and smoke rising up her throat and billowing past the barrier of her teeth.  “Did you know, I can’t breastfeed Dudley anymore?”  These weren’t the words she’d intended to say, and not in that tone, but it was done. 

“No, I didn’t.”  Lily’s eyes were enormous.

“My O&G doctor says my body is under too much stress to produce any milk.  Guess that’s correct, isn’t it?  I’m practically skeletal, we both know it!”

“Dearest Nia—”

“Am I, though?”

“What?  I-I don’t understand.”

“Why are you here, Lil?  You come here unannounced, upsetting my son and disrupting our routine, and then y-you just sit there, tits out, nourishing your son.  God, your need to be toff—it’s like breathing to you!”

Lily blanched, clearly aghast.  “I don’t think that way, Nia.  I never have done.  You’re my sister and I love you.  We’re all we’ve got now, aren’t we?”

In the years to come, whenever Petunia reflected on this moment, it seemed as if the entire backdrop of life fell away from her and Lily.  Only she and her sister existed as she declared, in a voice made of graves and brimstone, “Yes, we are, no thanks to you.” 

“Are you… you can’t have said that,” Lily rasped, hunching over as she nursed Harry, as if shielding him from the verbal blows that befell her.  “Please tell me I misunderstood.”

“You want unambiguous, do you?  So be it:  you and your brat killed our parents.  Mum and Dad wouldn’t have been out in that horrid weather if it hadn’t been for the two of you.”  She was snarling, hissing, savage.  “Always the punctual one, aren’t you?  Couldn’t stand to pop him out a little late, when the rains dried up, could you?  Why, why did this have to be the one time you made a dog’s dinner of things?”

Her sister turned positively grey, her ruddy freckles and bright hair clashing with her sickly skin tone, and oh, Petunia delighted to see her looking as poorly as she.  “I d-didn’t ask them to c-come,” Lily choked, tears streaming. 

Petunia was unmoved, even as part of her shrieked to cease and desist, she is blood, don’t throw her away— “No, you left that bit to James.” 

Lily positively convulsed with sobs.  Petunia didn’t realize her sister was speaking until she caught the garbled words, “I know,” said over and over. A shock ran up her spine.  It dawned on her—far too late to keep her own counsel—that Lily blamed herself.  Was this a bang or a whimper?  Either way, the world of their sisterhood was permanently damaged.  Hollow men had nothing on mean-spirited women.

Dudley began to fuss in the Moses basket.  Petunia glanced at the grandfather clock.  Time for his bottle,’ she realized.  Unsure what to say to Lily (“Oy, I’m just taking the piss, Lil!  Where’s your humor?”), she picked up the basket from the sofa and walked into the kitchen.  There she placed the basket on the center of the dining table and set about preparing some formula for her son.  She made the bottle, the motions comforting in their ordinariness, and she tested the temperature of the fluid by sprinkling drops on her inner wrist.  Satisfied it wouldn’t burn Dudley’s mouth, she turned around—and nearly dropped the bottle, for Lily stood in the threshold of the kitchen. 

She was fully dressed, Harry once more wrapped up in the red material.  Her eyes and nose were puffy, and nearly as red as the fabric, but they did nothing to diminish her genteel bearing.  “I love you, and I forgive you, because I don’t believe you’re in your right mind,” Lily said, drawing in a shaky breath, “but I shan’t stay and have me or my child be abused any further.  This is our loss, Nia, not just yours.”  Dashing tears from her green eyes, she added, “You need help, luv, and I hope you get it soon.  Be well.”  And with that, Lily turned on her heel and exited her life.

Petunia’s throat was too swollen with grief to make a sound.