bethbethbeth: (HP Beholder (femmequixotic))
[personal profile] bethbethbeth posting in [community profile] hp_beholder
Recipient: songquake
Author: [profile] slytherite
Title: Fostering Witch-Muggle Understanding
Rating: PG-13
Pairings: Hestia Jones/Petunia Dursley, background Vernon Dursley/Petunia Dursley
Word Count: 13,848
Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): * Adultery in a dying marriage, homophobia, a few swears, and strongly implied sex. *.
Summary: One can learn a lot from a freak, Hestia Jones discovers, if one is willing to take the time to listen.
Author's Notes: Songquake requested plot, canon compliance, homo/bisexuality, and collisions between the wizarding and Muggle worlds; the last prompt was absolutely irresistible, particularly when Petunia poked her nose into it. Hopefully I’ve done it justice here.
I’d like to thank bethbethbeth for running this fantastic fest, my fandom-unaffiliated sister for telling me that "whirly blades" is not nearly as mellifluous a phrase as I’d thought (and giving me a much-needed prod to finish), and J.K. Rowling for making the whole thing possible.




"--and do keep hold of my arm."

Her heels sank into the damp grit, and the roar in her ears faded into the slap of sea on stone.

Hestia squinted up the length of the beach; the candle she and Dedalus had set in the cottage's window hours ago was still afire, its light flickering over the garden’s stone path.

"Home, sweet home," she said, and, feeling that this didn't quite cover the emotional depth of the thing, added, "At least until further notice."

Vernon dropped her arm like something dead.

"There's no driveway."

Hestia sighed, chivvying the Dursleys up the walk and flinging the door wide. Petunia edged inside, dragging Vernon by the elbow and glaring around the room with her lips pursed; she quivered in the candlelight, a sliver of nervous energy beside her husband, like a ring peeping around Saturn's outer edge.

"Tacky, I call it."

And--while one had to admit that Petunia was tired, distraught, and likely not at her best--this seemed rather a crude assessment of the room Hestia and Dedalus had spent two days decorating.

"I'm sure you'll grow to like it in time," she said soothingly, tapping the sofa with her wand. The upholstery contracted and turned a sickly mauve, the Dursleys jumped back, and Hestia smiled so widely and falsely that her lips curled in on themselves.

Vernon harrumphed, his eyes black points fixed unblinkingly on the settee.

"You can't turn it green, can you? Petunia's always wanted a green--"

"Don't ask her, Vernon," said Petunia. "With our luck, she'll muck it up and turn the whole thing into frogspawn."

It would have been more offensive a description of wizardry, Hestia reflected, had Alice Prewett not done exactly that in their first year. Still, righteous indignation flared within, and she felt a scowl creeping onto her face.

She settled for chirping, "I'll just brew up some tea," and darting into the kitchen. Conscientiously, she closed the door, giving the Dursleys a bit of privacy; a minute later, telling herself that she might as well know how they were settling in, she pressed her ear to the door.

"--but really, Vernon, it's the boy all over again."

The kettle whistled unexpectedly. Hestia Silenced it with a jab, returning to the door too late to hear Vernon's next words. The floor creaked, and through the sliver of light between door and peeling wallpaper, Hestia caught sight of Vernon pacing and twisting his moustache between his thick fingers. Petunia sank onto the sofa, hands over her face.

"I expect we'll cope," she said through her fingers.

Vernon grunted something that might or might not have been human speech.

"We always have."

"She might be able to get us a car," said Vernon, stopping dead by the fireplace and massaging his temple as if deep in thought. "If. Ah. We're civil."

There was little enough chance of that, Hestia returned mentally; she had been completely unable to requisition a bed, and would be sleeping more or less where Petunia now sat. Cars seemed well beyond her reach.

Still, she might as well humor the man.

"A telly," Vernon added. "God knows I could use one."

"I'm sure she can't just magic up--"

"She brought us here!" thundered Vernon. "As far as I'm concerned, she's got a duty to provide us with a basic standard of living."

"That is, if she doesn't bewitch us and drop us off the pier--"

Vernon cut across Petunia again, storming over to the door behind which Hestia stood, digging her nails into the palms of her hands. "I've got it sorted, Petunia. If she even gives us a funny look--" He drew a finger sharply across his throat. "I'll sue."

Hestia wasn't entirely sure whether it was this or the look on Petunia's face that sent her into convulsive snorts; biting down on her lip to stifle laughter, she whisked the kettle from the heat and poured it into two chipped mugs emblazoned with "Dai Llewellyn: Departed, but Still Dangerous," and "Wales vs. Uganda 1994: May the Best Team Win." As she turned to leave, a phial shoved awkwardly into the spice rack caught her eye, and she hesitated, weighing deep moral questions, before a shout of, "I DON'T CARE IF SHE'S MAGIC! I'LL TAKE HER FOR EVERYTHING SHE'S WORTH, SEE IF I DON'T!" settled the problem. Three smoking drops went into each mug. On reflection, she added several more to Vernon's.

The Dursleys gawked at her as she shouldered the door open, wincing as the tea sizzled in her hand.

"There's nothing funny in that tea?" said Vernon, the red fading from his face.

"Nothing," said Hestia innocently, on the off chance that drugging drinks was grounds for a lawsuit in the Muggle world.

Petunia took her cup with a shaking hand, regarded the legend briefly, and raised it to her lips.

"Better now?" said Hestia as Petunia swallowed.

Vernon snatched up a cup, sniffed it deeply, nostrils quivering, and flung it at the opposite wall. A triangle of damp china, now reading "Danger," clattered into the hearth. The smell of musty herbal tea swelled throughout the room. Petunia whimpered something, and Hestia gaped.

"Well, honestly!"

Vernon stalked forward, a great, furious beet of a man in an ill-fitting sport coat. "That tea," he said, pressing a finger to Hestia's windpipe, "was nothing less than poison, Jones, and you damn well know it--"

"Vernon," said Petunia from the settee.

"It was perfectly good Green Mooncalf, actually," said Hestia, blinking as blood rushed, tingling, to her cheeks. Honesty was probably not the best policy. "And I'd appreciate it if you'd be civil with me."

Vernon growled. She could see stubble dotting his thin skin, feel the heat of his body as he towered over her, and she suppressed the urge to slap away his hand. Violence would get her nowhere.

Though it would feel good.

"And kindly stop destroying my possessions."

"Vernon, you're going too far," said Petunia more sharply.

Vernon threw up his hands, pulling away as Hestia massaged her throat. "Fine. FINE. I'll ignore this one, eh?" He pulled his snarl into a hideous grin, his eyebrows bristling. "For friendship's sake?"

Hestia nodded indifferently, pulling her cloak tight around the bruise forming on her throat. "Why don't you go find your bedroom?"

To her relief, he turned on his heel and lumbered through the nearest door, slamming it shut with a bang that rattled most of the cottage. Hestia, sinking against the wall, exhaled slowly. "Lovely way to get acquainted. Simply charming. Does he, perchance, strangle his business colleagues?"

Petunia shook her head. Some of the color was returning to her cheeks, courtesy of the potion, but her lips were still stiff and her eyes narrow. "I really don't know what's gotten into him."

Hestia flicked her wand, and the mug sailed back into one piece, twirling to dislodge ash from its surface. "I imagine he's tired."

"Yes," said Petunia, rubbing her eyes at the very thought. The candle was shrinking into a lumpy mass, and as Hestia watched, it hiccoughed and died entirely, leaving the corners of the room dark. "I suppose."

"Exhaustion often causes paranoia."

Petunia sniffed. "He's very right, you know."

"What?"

"You spiked my tea. I could taste it. And--" She broke off, grimacing. "My ears are smoking, Miss Jones. Is this your idea of a joke?"

It was true: fine wisps of smoke were collecting near the ceiling. Hestia bit back a fervent appeal to Merlin's ancestors, nappies, and sexual habits (particularly his favorite double-pronged oak-and-dragon-heartstring marital aid).

"Sorry," she said lamely, Vanishing the smoke. "Magical tea."

"Don't expect me to drink your garbage," said Petunia, folding her arms. "No doubt it's carcinogenic."

And, blinking at the strength of Petunia's objection, Hestia discreetly retreated into the back room to find Liverwort's Languages and look up "carcinogenic."

This, as she would soon learn, was not at all an atypical evening with Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Dursley, formerly of Number Four, Privet Drive.

***


"That wand business," said Vernon over supper several nights later, as Petunia poured him his third brandy of the evening. "I've got an idea about it."

Hestia speared a kipper, frowning. "Do tell."

"It's all--" He waved his hands vaguely. "Thingummy."

"Glad we've got that cleared up," said Hestia.

"Freudian," Petunia said clearly, prodding Vernon with the end of her fork.

Vernon nodded. "That. Very suspicious. What with all those--" He squinted down the length of his knife, grasped it in one beefy palm, and began pumping his fist. Hestia cocked her head; it didn't look like a recognizable Earth gesture from that angle, either.

"Broomsticks," said Petunia, shuddering.

Hestia nodded, hoping that Petunia would read from her silence that she didn't know Freud from fritters.

"And those ridiculous getups your men wear."

"He thinks you're all queers," said Petunia, sipping her own brandy. "Not that you are, of course. At the rate you breed. And you marry so young." She sniffed. "All shotgun weddings, of course."

This was further fritters to Hestia, but the rest was enough to make her groan. It was as if Petunia had drawn all her information--and truth be told, there was information underlying the certainty in her eyes--from Hestia's great-aunt in the very twilight of her dotage. Hestia held up her own glass at an angle exposing her unadorned ring finger whilst gesturing to every crow's-foot on her face; Petunia jerked irritably, apparently unwilling to admit that she got the point very well.

"But you have--those sorts?"

"Oh, yes," said Hestia blithely. "We burn them at the stake in the colder winters."

Petunia snorted bubbles into her brandy. Vernon, to Hestia's lasting horror, nodded and smiled.

Later that night, however, motivated in her contemplation as much by the uncomfortableness of the sofa and the stubborn absence of Hypnos as by genuine curiosity, Hestia concluded that things could be far, far worse. Vernon had kept his temper, and her shelves of commemorative mugs had survived the week intact (though really, if someone were to break "Wales Vs. Uganda," she wouldn't have minded too terribly). No limbs had been lost, no vital organs Transfigured into wriggling fish. They had gotten through supper without any threats of a lawsuit--and that was progress, however mean.

And if she was very lucky indeed, Petunia might sidle up to her one morning and hand her The Big Book of Freud (And Other Mugglish Trivia).

If a situation couldn't be helped, Sprout had taught a young Hestia decades earlier (in the midst of a bout of homesickness so terrible that Hestia had attempted to flee school under cover of darkness, it was best to focus on the positives. Well, she'd found them, all three of them: indefinite time by the seaside; intact limbs; and what might well be the softer side of Petunia Dursley.

Hestia rolled over in her chair, pulling the woolen blanket up to her ears and leaving her toes exposed to the cold. By midnight (announced as such by the electric clock Petunia had plopped atop the fireplace after the previous morning's Great Timekeeping Dispute) she had made up her mind. Come hell, hags, or high water, she would make a friend of Petunia. If only for the Freudian benefits.

***


Three days later, when a sufficiently softened-up Petunia told her over chess exactly what a Freud was and how one applied to wands, Hestia regretted ever having allowed the phrase "Freudian benefits" near her vocabulary.

Petunia, prodding her suspiciously immobile chessman, almost giggled at the look on Hestia's face.

"Queen to E4," Hestia said quickly, catching sight of herself, a trembling, beetroot-faced wreck, in Petunia's water glass.

Her queen lay, catatonic, on her square, piling one embarrassment atop another.

"Waiting for it to walk there on its little legs?" said Petunia, sneering over the rim of her glass.

Hestia shrugged. "Stranger things have happened."

"And I doubt they happen very much on chess boards."

They watched the piece for a moment, unblinking, before Petunia rolled her eyes and, muttering about idiots, moved it herself.

"So," she said a minute later. "You don't know about Freud."

"Afraid not."

"Or chess."

"It depends."

"Or," said Petunia, flicking Hestia's knight from the board with a bony forefinger, "graduated income taxes, calculus, or cups of coffee that aren't Godawful."

Hestia ignored the slight. It was no business of Petunia's if she had recently signed a non-aggression pact with the coffeemaker.

"We're experts in one thing, though," she said innocently, drawing her wand under the table and meeting Petunia's wide eyes.

"Oh?"

Hestia flicked her wand.

An armored figure the size of her thumb materialized, with a blast of trumpets and sulphur, atop her remaining knight, which neighed. Petunia gasped, throwing herself backward, as the pair fumbled forward, the horseman wrapping an arm around her queen and dragging it from the board.

"Strategy," said Hestia. "And theatrics."

To her amazement, Petunia hesitated only slightly before agreeing to a second game an hour later.

It was no surprise, perhaps, that the woman had learned from experience.

It was a distinct shock to Hestia's wizardly system, however, when Petunia, smirking, dropped a glass over the newly-conjured rider, leaned back, and moved her pawn forward to lock Hestia's king in place.

"Check and mate."

Hestia gawped.

"If there's one thing we're good at," said Petunia, "it's not being stupid."

***


After that, they abandoned the chess by mutual agreement; some of the magic must have persisted, however, because a week later, a roar from Vernon told Hestia that her knight had made its way into the shower and was mucking out the drain.

Coincidentally, Hestia chose that moment to duck out the door and scarper down the beach. Near the end of the property lay, pitting the sand around them with broken chips of stone and giving a whistle to the wind as it slipped through the cracks, a party of boulders; while hardly absolute, the privacy they afforded was better than nothing for escaping Vernon's attentions. Hestia leaned against the largest of them, rubbing her forehead as the sun's heat trickled behind her ears.

"There you are," said the boulder in Petunia's voice. Hestia jumped, glancing around; Petunia was perched on the nearby sand, sipping from her water bottle and squinting dubiously up at Hestia.

"I gather you were looking for me?"

Petunia drew a postcard from the folds of her skirt and flourished it. "You're to tell me about my son."

"Oh," said Hestia. She paused. "He's, er, blond. Rather large. A bit quiet--"

"What have you done with him?" Petunia cut in, her nostrils quivering. "I know he's in America. You needn't tell me that. But I doubt the postman'll take 'America' for an address--"

Understanding smacked Hestia sharply across the face. "Dedalus has friends at a private school--"

"Pardon?"

"A public school," Hestia corrected herself, remembering. "On the East Coast. They've agreed to take your son."

Petunia's face softened, the hollows in her cheek and the deepest of her wrinkles fading with the tension in her eyes. "And he'll be with other boys his age?" Hestia nodded. "Well, I suppose that's good. He's got only a year of school left."

"You come of age--"

"At eighteen, yes," said Petunia, sounding suddenly tired. "That--other wizard thought it was funny."

"Well," said Hestia, "from our perspective--"


"I imagine it is." She sipped her water. "Sit down."

Hestia alighted on a nearby rock.

"How old are you, Miss Jones?" Petunia's eyes were piercing. "You told me you're unmarried--"

"I'm fifty-nine," said Hestia, waving off the implicit question. Petunia's stare sharpened, growing almost crystalline.

"You can't be. I'm thirty-six. Look at me. Look at me." Hestia stared, and saw: a horse-faced woman, thin and bitter; hair so yellow and so stiff in its neat curls that it seemed to blaze in the sunlight; wrinkles, running deep in skin as thin as tissue, claiming territory from pinched lips to hardening eyes; the cunning swoop of the muscles in her long, slim neck; the icy glitter of the eyes like opals.

She was no beauty, not now--perhaps not ever, if Hestia was any judge of bone structure--but she had a certain stylized elegance. Someone had found her attractive. She was married; she had a son. She was hardly repulsive. Certainly, her looks weren't yet faded enough to motivate a midlife crisis.

But her husband, her son...?

"You look young enough by my standards," said Hestia truthfully. "Perhaps not by everyone's, but--" She waved a hand. "A goblin-made cauldron gets stronger with age."

Some of the forbiddingness slid away, and Petunia's eyes widened, her lips parting slightly; then, one by one, the hard lines crept back into her face. "I heard that one when it was about wine."

"It was about wine?" said Hestia, frowning.

"So Marge says. Only when drunk, mind you, so I wouldn't take it seriously."

This required some explanation, which Petunia gave with much rolling of eyes and waving of hands. Behind them, the shadows of the boulders stretched to cover their feet as the sun dipped and the temperature dropped with it. Goose pimples erupted on Hestia's arms. Still, they talked, ignoring everything but each other (and, truth be told, the increasing agony of the rock under Hestia's bum).

"Well," said Hestia at last, frustrated, "even if it's a tired old cliché, it's true."

"A tired old cliché for tired old cows," muttered Petunia. Groaning, she rose; Hestia offered her a hand, and she batted it away irritably. "I'll post that letter tomorrow if you'll give me the address."

Hestia checked her watch, squinting in the dim light. "Why not now?"

"Supper wants cooking," said Petunia, rubbing her neck and staring up the long flat path to the cottage. "And Vernon'll be furious if it's late. My boy can wait a day."

Over steak and kidney pie, white wine that might or might not have been better with age, and a strangely fluffy torte, they constructed an alibi from sequential and increasingly desperate individual lies, informing a mucky and irritable Vernon that they had been in town, posting a letter to Diddykins. Moreover, anyone who claimed to have seen them by the shoreline was obviously a dangerous liar bent on destroying the country.

As Vernon grunted assent, Petunia shot Hestia a disbelieving look; He's being kind, Hestia mouthed. He doesn't believe a word of it. Petunia kicked her ankle.

In light of her newfound revelations--rr perhaps they were better called suspicions--about Petunia's and Vernon's marriage, Hestia couldn't help but be wickedly pleased when the next few suppers followed the same pattern: Vernon asked a stupid question, received a stupid answer, and accepted it while Hestia and Petunia snickered behind his back. It was a cruel, unhelpful, and vindictive thing to think, of course; while this knowledge didn't stop her, not in the least, it succeeded in instilling guilt.

At least, this was true until, several weeks later, Vernon had the temerity to break her "Wales Vs. Uganda" mug, at which point open season on Vernon Dursley immediately began.

(After all, she told herself, if the man was willing to throw her possessions at the wall when she made one tiny conversational misstep--and if she was willing to go after him with every ounce of cunning and potion she possessed, simply because he broke her mug--there must have been something very nasty about him in the first place.)

Hestia awoke the next morning as sunlight streamed through the curtains. Across the room from her chair, the clock blinked merrily: it was half past six. Silencing the door's hinges, Hestia tiptoed into the kitchen, squinting around for the components of this most clever (if the least subtle) of mug-avenging plans. A phial shoved into the back of the spice rack caught her eye, and she grinned. The contents were harmless--in normal circumstances, and she didn't doubt that it would be difficult to give the great boulder of a man an overdose--even humorous. Her roommates must have dosed her a thousand times in her sordid youth. And yet her hand trembled as she unscrewed its top; if Vernon were to come lumbering in--

Everything went as planned, however, save for one small and inconsequential fire in the coffeepot, and as a pajama-clad Vernon wandered into the kitchen at half eight, Hestia beamed and offered him what might, at half eight, pass for a very good breakfast (if one ignored the scorch marks).

On her knees, digging in the pantry for the new tomatoes, she heard him drain the mug and mentally pumped her fist.

"I'm not an idiot. Those," said Petunia, folding her arms, "are obviously your footprints--"

Hestia raised her eyebrows, maintaining what she thought was rather an admirable pretense of calm. "They might be. Possibly they aren't. I saw a family of Muggles picnicking here not a week ago."

"And those are obviously your boots." Petunia prodded one of them with the toe of her sandal. "Our lot don't wear those silly heels."

"You've clearly not been to the youth hostel up the road."

"Well, I shouldn't think teenagers--hah--count." The wind turned sharply, carrying with it the smack of brine and the cries of distant gulls, and Petunia snatched at her hat as it cartwheeled from her head; the wind carried it past the mossy rock atop which Hestia perched, and her wand flicked out. The hat dropped to the sand. Hestia picked it up, gave it a few experimental whacks to dislodge the worst of the muck, and handed it back.

"Thank you." Petunia patted her neatly lacquered hair before replacing the hat. (Hestia rolled her eyes, but smiled all the same; even when out with no one more threatening than her eccentric, pointy-hatted houseguest, Petunia would care about her hairdo. If they were caught in a light summer typhoon, Petunia would be the one poor soul rushing back toward the cottage, shouting that she'd left her best hat.)

"As I was saying," she pressed on, glancing back at Hestia as if intending to skewer her, "you've clearly been here earlier."

"I don't wear those boots, Petunia," said Hestia, lifting the hem of her robes to demonstrate. "And I must say I'm hurt that you suspect me."

"But those prints--"

"Are pointing toward us."

Petunia subsided, shooting Hestia suspicious glances, as they continued down the beach. Immediately after rounding the largest and craggiest of the boulders, however, she turned on her heel, kicking up a small cloud of sand.

"I knew it! You've been here before--"

Hestia, peering around the other side of the rock, threw up her hands, snorting. "All right, Petunia. You've got me. I came here this morning."

"You could have just told me," said Petunia. "I suppose you don't think it's important enough to--"

"It," said Hestia, "is a picnic. No, I don't think you need advance warning." The unspoken message--which, if the little head-shake, sharp enough to dislodge Petunia’s hat, was any indication, was received and understood--was something on the order of Relax.

Tucked neatly into a gap in the rocks and greenery lay two grubby beach towels, a bucket of chilled (though now lukewarm) butterbeer, what might have passed for a plate of sandwiches, if sandwiches were commonly made by barbaric cannibal trolls, and something that might once have been a rolled-up carpet but was now a repository for airborne dirt.

Petunia shook her head. Evidently she had been expecting something more on the order of the French Riviera; Hestia followed her gaze, almost laughing at its intensity: Petunia wouldn't be satisfied until the rocks split asunder and armies of white-gloved waiters marched from the ground.

"It's very nice," she said with what might have been honesty. "Picturesque."

"Glad to hear it. Sit down. Enjoy yourself. I apologize for the sandwiches, by the by. Your oven wasn't cooperating."

She knew as she said it that there was some dreadful mistake there, and the look Petunia gave her would have chilled the bones of a lesser woman.

"Sandwiches aren't cooked."

"As, I'll warrant, you've reminded me a thousand times," Hestia said cheerfully, patting down her towel and plunking herself down beside a particularly lush patch of foliage.

"Ten thousand, I'm sure." Petunia joined her, wrapping the towel conscientiously around her legs before stretching them. It was a clever move. Her ankles glowed, and her body formed a graceful line, from her sandalled feet to her long neck and gleaming, smooth hair. Hestia found herself tempted to pour butterbeer on her. "Well," she said at last, "this is certainly nice."

It wasn't astounding or charming or fantastic, but it was more than enough to set Hestia's heart soaring.
"Vernon's not coming," Petunia added in tones that Hestia couldn't read: Vernon's not coming, so we'll have to suffer through the unbearable loss of his wit and grace? Vernon's not coming, so thank the Lord, we can finally cut loose and have fun?

Probably the latter. It was difficult to imagine anyone lamenting the loss of Vernon Dursley's wit and grace.

"Lucky, I suppose. I only brought two towels." Hestia shaded her eyes with her hand, staring out over the navy blue plane of the sea. The edges of her towel rippled in the breeze, as did Petunia's hair. "I could Summon a third from the house."

Petunia's sniff said everything that needed to be said about the prospect of towels flying merrily across the beach.

"How did you get out here?" she asked a minute later, glancing back at the footprints.

Ah well. The moment of truth. Hestia patted the carpet beside her.

"I flew," she said to Petunia's uncomprehending stare, and she relished the tiny "oh" that followed.

"Flew?"

"Dreadfully illegal, carpets," said Hestia blithely. "Even among my sort."

"I shouldn't think your sort--" And Petunia said this with the automaticity of a conviction long-since established. "--made anything illegal."

"All lies. We're a dictatorship if we're anything. Carpets are most illegal of all, of course, because they're a Muggle relations nightmare." Hestia Summoned a butterbeer, shaking it once or twice for good measure, and tapped the cap with her wand. It swelled into a coppery bubble and popped, leaving all of the drink safely in the bottle: she'd learned the trick from Nymphadora, years ago, and no doubt her eyes had been as wide as Petunia's were now. "Here. Ladies drink first."

Petunia took the drink as if taking an actively fizzing bomb.

"Would you like a straw?"

Petunia shook her head slowly, her mouth puckered. "What do you mean, a Muggle relations nightmare?"

Oh, of course.

"They're difficult to hide," she explained as carefully as possible.

"I should think so."

"You can't just make them invisible, because then you have wizards scooting through the sky on nothing more than a breeze--"

"And you wear those dresses," said Petunia in an undertone. "Very nasty thought, isn't it?"

Hestia smiled. "So we have to Memory-Charm--that is, we have to make anyone who sees us forget."

"Ah." Petunia put her drink down so abruptly that golden drops splattered from the rim onto the sand.

Hestia resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

"There are no memory potions in your butterbeer."

"That was what you did to Marge," said Petunia slowly, dabbing her lips with a handkerchief. (What sort of person brought a handkerchief to the beach? Only Petunia would bother--) "She'd gone--funny--when she left. I knew you'd done something."

A quick trawl of Hestia's memory produced nothing. She smiled again, raising her palms in surrender.

"My sister-in-law visited--" Petunia's face convulsed sharply, suddenly. "I'd really rather not speak--ridiculous business. Awful."

"If it helps, we do that to our people, too. It's easiest, that's all; nothing sinister in it." But Petunia clearly felt differently. She had begun edging away from Hestia, folding her arms tightly around herself. Hestia reached for her next comforting platitude, and came up empty-handed. The tremble in Petunia's lips sucked at her, and the coldness in her eyes was almost tangible.

A gull alighted on a nearby rock, head bobbing merrily. For a minute, they watched it pecking around the toes of Hestia's boots.

"Odd," said Petunia. "When I was a girl--" She stopped, gulping, and took refuge in a sandwich that disintegrated as soon as she got it to her lips.

"Go on."

Petunia, picking watercress out of her blouse, didn't answer immediately; nor did she meet Hestia's eyes as Hestia helpfully Vanished the lot of it.

"I wanted a house like this ever so badly."

Hestia nodded. "When I was six, I wanted a dragon." Petunia glared at her. "Sorry."

"We grew up--hardly what you'd call poor, of course, but--well, you know what I mean. There was always just enough for my si--for essentials." She took a deep breath. "Then I grew up and married, and thought we'd spend every weekend at the seaside."

Hestia nodded again, putting a hand on Petunia's quivering shoulder. It was understandable. She still rather wanted a dragon.

"I gather that you didn't."

And suddenly Petunia turned on her again, snappish as ever, and the impression of emotional depth in her eyes shut off immediately. But–a small victory, but a victory all the same–she didn't shrug off Hestia's hand.

"Why does it matter? We're here now--"

"And you're living out your childhood dream?"

"My childhood dream was to go to Oxford and marry Prince Andrew," said Petunia, retrieving her butterbeer. "The house was nothing."

At some prodding from Hestia, Petunia patiently--considering the emotional import of the circumstances--explained who Prince Andrew was and why he might (or mightn't) be found at Oxford (whatever that was).

It was gibberish to Hestia, and gibberish it remained, but deeply meaningful gibberish all the same.

"It's a nice day," she said finally, in tones so laden with meaning that Petunia refrained from glaring.

"I suppose it is."

Hestia got to her feet, brushing sand from her robes, and flicked her wand again; the carpet rose from the ground and unrolled itself, resting on a foot-deep cushion of air.

"Care to see some sea?"

Once again, the butterbeer dropped to the sand.

"What d'you think you're doing?"

"Giving a Mrs. Petunia Dursley a grand tour of the seaside." It was the sort of impulse that screamed "SILLY," an idea that was not merely Bad (never mind bad) but Stupendously Terrible. "Dreadfully illegal, I know."

"Never," said Petunia. "Not a chance."

Hestia shrugged, biting back her disappointment, and hopped onto the carpet, Disillusioning it as she went.

Petunia stared up at her from the ground, a tiny white ant-figure among a sea of gray and green blobs, as candyfloss mist licked at Hestia's dark curls and scudded past her carpet. A gull caught Hestia's eye and, startled, hung in midair, wings beating furiously, before taking off in the opposite direction. Hestia, lying back, chuckled. The carpet dipped, and the sea rippled under her as she waved to Petunia on the shore; pulling back, she circled around the rocks, smiling indulgently and, with every flick of her wand, dropping showers of tiny gold chocolates.

"There," she said, alighting atop the tallest boulder. "It's perfectly safe. Have a chocolate. Have two."

"What if we're seen?"

"By whom? Vernon? I imagine he's asleep. Or watching the telly. Or he's broken my wireless. No matter. He's hardly in a position to watch, any way you slice it."

Petunia squinted up at her. "You win."

She trembled as the carpet came close enough for her to mount; Hestia offered her a plump arm, marveling at the warm weight of her, the way her fingernails bit into Hestia's shoulder as she left the ground entirely and collapsed into a cooing heap. Hestia pointed her wand at the ground, and they soared.

"It's perfectly safe," she whispered, her face buried in Petunia's sweet-smelling shoulder.

"I'll be the judge of that," said Petunia, and she rolled over suddenly to face Hestia, her large pale eyes gleaming with the reflected sea. "Make it go higher."

Their laughter echoed against the clap of wave on shore.

***


"You were right," said Petunia, grimacing as she pressed her nose to the back window. "He's well-nigh comatose."

Vernon was sprawled on the settee, rumbling gently.

"And likely to be so for hours, if I'm any judge." Hestia squinted. Perhaps she'd overdone the sleeping potion. The man would be fresh as a Flitterbloom when he awoke, but not entirely cheery.

"Ludicrous," muttered Petunia. "The one time we get a holiday, and he sleeps--or sulks, or what have you--through it."

In all fairness, Hestia told herself, he had slept through yesterday without magical aid.

"But we oughtn't wake him," said Petunia thoughtfully. Hestia, nodding, pointed her wand to the bathroom window and hissed, "Alohomora."

Giggly as schoolgirls, still dizzy from flight, they piled through--Hestia had to hoist Petunia up on her shoulder--and dropped onto the tile floor, shushing each other and sniggering. Petunia yelped as she rose, staring at herself in the mirror and, wild-eyed, brushing sand and sea foam from her front.

"Into the shower with you," said Hestia, snorting and leaning on the counter. The floor swayed beneath her feet.

Petunia gawped at her, and Hestia realized too late that if ulterior motives hadn't exactly motivated her decision, they were definitely peeking around the corner behind her decision's back and whispering naughty things.

"Surely you don't mean--"

"I do," said Hestia. "Or don't do it. It's up to you."

"Vernon will be furious." Petunia glanced at the door, then shrugged. "Oh, what does it matter? I showered with girls at school." She unbuttoned her cardigan and--Merlin's beard--tossed it on the counter in a graceful little gesture that seemed to Hestia to be informed less by carelessness than by the aftereffects of bona fide Fun.

"You really will have to tell me about that sometime," mused Hestia. She closed her eyes demurely, then decided, "To hell with it," and opened them just as Petunia's wristwatch clattered onto the counter.

"But it's different now--"

And yet she was sliding off her sandals and wriggling free of her skirt--

"Not if you don't want it to be--"

"It's completely different and you know it--"

The ulterior motives were seeping from Hestia's pounding heart to her befogged brain and, ultimately, trickling back between her thighs. Petunia's skin glowed under the pearly Muggle lamplight; she dropped her hands from her small, asymmetrical, smoothly perfect breasts as Hestia watched. Her stare sharpened. It was most definitely an accusation. But not, Hestia concluded, a particularly hostile one.

Well, guilty as charged.

"Yes," she whispered, sliding to the floor and watching as Petunia nodded stiffly and turned, pallid back and tissue-paper skin swaying softly, captivatingly, "it is different."

The water spattered against the translucent shower curtain.

Hestia's fingers tightened involuntarily on her wand, and she flicked it once again.

Pink bubbles filled the room.

Petunia, damp, naked, gawky, perfect Petunia, giggled.

***


They lay, twined limbs heavy, among flung sheets hot with their exertions.

"Vernon will be furious," Petunia mumbled to the pillow. "Oh. Lord. Vernon. We're in our bed."

Our bed. And their bed it was (insofar as anything in the house belonged to anyone but the Muggle Hestia and Dedalus had bamboozled out of it).

Surely they couldn't have done it in Hestia's bed, which had been very large for a sofa but now felt very small for a bed.

But the symbolism was the thing to remember here.

"Two women in his bed. That's every man's fantasy, remember?" It was bitter, it was flippant, and if Hestia knew the first thing about Vernon, it was most probably untrue.

"Surely wizards don't think that way."

Hestia sat up, rubbing her eyes. "No," she said quietly. "We don't. I don't think any man in the history of sex--barring the ones in bad novels--"

"There have got to be a few," said Petunia. "The real weirdoes."

Hestia shrugged. "The way you're going, Petunia, I give you three days before you're begging him to let you--"

"No."

And there was more finality in that one word than in a thousand pleas not to be taken aboard the flying carpet.

"My apologies," Hestia said to the wall. Petunia stirred behind her. Their hands brushed, and Hestia bit her lip, feeling her heart start in her chest; Petunia was the first to pull away.

"This was an absolutely horrid idea." Her voice was high, strained.

"Dreadful."

"Likely to wreck my marriage."

"Indeed."

The pause after that chewed at Hestia. She longed to roll over, to stroke Petunia's shoulder and take her into her arms, to look into her eyes. But she kept her silence.

"It was fun," said Petunia slowly, as if she begrudged every word.

"If temptation were dull, we wouldn't give in to it."

"Too fun."

Hestia was not quite sure how to respond to that.

"It's your fault," Petunia sniffed. "You practically made me do it."

And yet Petunia, for all her awkwardness--the sudden knees to the chest, the wrinkled noses and remarks of "Isn’t that dirty?"--had been all too willing a pupil in the art of clumsy Sapphism.

"And it's yours for being far too interesting for your own good. Or, might I add, for your husband's."

She expected Petunia to kick her--welcomed it, really. She knew how to deal with being kicked. The longed-for jab in the side, however, never materialized, and she was forced to continue in a more serious tone.

"Well, we can't do it again."

"I should think that's obvious."

"And I think we can agree on no more outings alone?"

She felt Petunia twitch. "Fine."

"And--" If Petunia agreed to this, Hestia thought grimly, she would really have to reassess her living situation. Was it too late to install the Dursleys across the ocean with their son? "--no more magic?"

"It seems best."

"And no more fostering witch-Muggle understanding, I'll wager."

"That," said Petunia, "and that specifically, is the stupidest idea I've ever heard."

***


"Tell me about the oven, Petunia."

Slowly, but surely, days passed.

"Tell me about Oxford."

They kept their distance at meals, sat with a buffer of at least a chair between them in the afternoons, and slipped out into town without so much as leaving a note, in case the other would happen to find it and yield to the temptation to meet.

Not, of course, that they were that silly or that love-struck. Hestia was almost certain of that. The first time had been an aberration.


But it was nice to have some sort of limits.
"Where did you grow up?"

"You've never heard of it," said Petunia, and she spoke haltingly of sweltering summers and wildflowers, of first kisses and first cars, of boarded-up shop windows, of an economy long soured, of flustered goodbye hugs to friends whose parents left, "following the jobs," of nights spent staring out over the fields and longing to run--

"It sounds" (Hestia paused, watching Petunia's face change) "nice."

"It was dreadful."

Denied physical contact, they retreated into harmless talk.

"What do you do, anyway?"

"I inspected potions for the Ministry of Magic."

Pause.

"No wonder I thought you were unemployed."

"Please, Petunia. Don't let's get into that."

And, inevitably, Petunia drew her life story out of her, with inquisitive glances and murmurs of, "Well, that hardly surprises me," or, more and more frequently, "And you made a living on this?"

Alone together, sitting feet apart in the back garden as vermilion streaks colored the sky and Vernon's bustling noises floated through the open door, they shared everything.

Or if not everything--Hestia sidestepped questions about her marital status, and grew gracious and dull and reticent when the talk turned to her morals--then just enough to let them know that they were officially Confidants.

***


Or perhaps they were more.

"What does it feel like to be magic?" Petunia asked abruptly, rapping the object that Hestia was learning to call a "whisk" against the side of her bowl. Gleaming chocolate syrup slopped from its wires; Hestia, watching and inhaling deeply, did not answer at once.

"Well?"

"Magical," said Hestia, dodging the smack. "I can't answer that, Petunia, because I don't know."

"You can't give me that."

"What does it feel like to be a Muggle?" she shot back, playing for time.

She hadn't really expected an answer, and jerked up, staring, when she got one.

"How do you think?" Petunia's lip curled, and the whisk slipped out of her hand and splashed syrup across the counter. Cursing under her breath, she grasped for a towel.

Hestia hesitated. "Dreadful."

Petunia acknowledged this with a tiny nod as she scrubbed. Hestia Vanished the syrup wordlessly, automatically, and Petunia shot her a nasty look.

"Sorry."

"My sister was a witch," said Petunia, twisting the towel between her fingers until Hestia heard a sharp rip. "Dratted girl. Arrogant."

"I knew her," said Hestia, Lily Potter flashing through her mind. "Not well, of course, but she was a fine girl." In reality, Lily had made little to no impression: Hestia remembered "fineness," certainly, in generic terms, and a certain chirpiness, but could hardly recall any hint of character. She had seemed barely finished, too young and too naive--perhaps that was the several decades Hestia had on the sisters, but the age difference between Hestia and Petunia was still greater, and Petunianess was a distinctive entity all its own, with a whole concert of quirks.

"Kind," she said. "Helpful."

"No doubt she was." Petunia dropped into a chair, cradling her head; Hestia put an arm around her. She could feel Petunia's heartbeat, her sharp shallow breathing, the shaking of her hands. "She couldn't help being a witch," said Petunia in an undertone. "She always told me that. It was a wonderful thing, she said--" And a long shudder ran through Petunia. "But I wasn't to be blamed for not having it."

Ah.

Hestia was an only child, and the closest she had come to managing sibling relationships was, as Hufflepuff prefect, keeping Alfred and Albert Fulton from approaching within ten feet of each other's broomsticks. Petunia's sobs were foreign to her, suggesting that anything she did was liable to make the situation worse.

It was best to be honest. She stroked Petunia's hair, feeling her hot breath on her collarbone, and murmured, "We can't use electrics--"

"Electronics, you mean."

"Those," said Hestia, who had learned the word before ever meeting the Dursleys; Petunia seemed to brighten as she corrected Hestia, and the sudden, self-assured gleam in her eye was worth any momentary display of "memory loss." "They're absolute garbage at Hogwarts."

"And I bet you think they aren't worth tuppence."

"They aren't to me," said Hestia, staring at Petunia's blender. Was it an electronic? What distinguished an "electronic" from a mere garden-variety "Muggle whatsit"? "I can't use them. Haven't the foggiest idea how."

"You can be taught," said Petunia stubbornly.

"In theory."

Hestia paused, a grand, glorious idea breaking over her head and trickling into her bones. It wasn't that Petunia had the stink of magic about her--in truth, there were probably few Muggles more insistently mundane (or, to be honest, few as able to decide that certain segments of reality simply did not apply to her and her nearest and dearest). Nor was she eccentric (if anything, she was terrifyingly normal). But under all of that--very far under it, if truth be told--she had, on her good days, the capacity to be interesting.

And when one compared her to her husband, being interesting counted for a lot. "Would you like to see my wand?"


Petunia pulled free of Hestia's arms, her mascara smeared around her bright eyes. "You'll let me try your wand?"

Hestia shrugged. "It's up to you."

"Why on earth--"

"Your sister was a witch," said Hestia. "I wouldn't be surprised if, with a bit of training up--"

"But honestly, Hestia--"

"Do it!"

Petunia took the wand, her fingers twitching. Her eyes widened, and she held her breath for the tiniest fraction of a second; then something went out of her face, and she sank back, the wand loose in her hand.

"I don't feel anything."

"That's perfectly normal," said Hestia, blusteringly cheerful, and she related the story of her first trip to Ollivander's. Three hundred wands she’d gone through, while Mr. Ollivander grew more and more manic, whisking more wands from the shelves even before Hestia had finished opening the box of the wand she was supposed to be trying, and Hestia's parents quietly despaired in a corner and wondered, not quite quietly enough, about their daughter's Prospects. But the last wand, the very dingy, scratched wand that Petunia held in her hand, had been the one. "I imagine you can still get a bit of magic out of it."

Petunia nodded uncertainly.

"Tell me what to do," she snapped. "Don't just leave me like this. I feel like a twit."

"You'll notice that, when I'm doing magic, I don't sit there like a stump and point the wand at the floor," said Hestia. "Wave it."

The wand bobbed up and down.

"No magic," said Petunia, sounding grimly satisfied.

"You'll need to say a spell," Hestia said. "Try Wingardium Leviosa, that's basic enough."

Petunia tripped over the "gar," and Hestia had to hold her wrist as she swished and flicked; not even the tiniest spark emerged from the wand, and while the syrup bowl did crash to the ground and go spinning across the floor, Petunia announced that she had elbowed it from the table even before Hestia could get out her congratulations.
"Nothing," said Petunia after ten tries.

"It'll come soon," said Hestia after fifteen tries. "It didn't work for me the first time."

"I'm not cut out for this," snapped Petunia after thirty swishes, flicks, and increasingly-mangled incantations. "I can't do it and I don't care to."

After forty tries, when even Hestia felt her high spirits flagging and was beginning to wonder if her first Charms lesson had been anywhere near this dull to watch, Petunia gave the wand a long, dubious stare, and threw it onto the table, where it bounced off the salt shaker and rolled to a rest near the ornamental fruit centerpiece.

"Rubbish," she said, her voice oddly triumphant. "I knew it. Lily was a freak of nature."

"That may be," said Hestia, sighing.

Petunia, wiping the last of the tears from her eye, got to her feet and brandished the whisk. "It's not worth my time. Hold the bowl while I stir."

***


"Where in the devil's name is Vernon?" asked Petunia one morning, looking up from the mutilated thistle in her lap.

Hestia blinked.

"I really have no idea."

They were kneeling in the garden--on a ragged towel, at Petunia's insistence--pulling weeds, in Hestia's case less to improve the garden’s looks than for something to do before going in at three to pick up Potterwatch.

"I was sure you wouldn't," said Petunia. "He told me he was making lemonade."

"Then perhaps he is."

"I doubt it. That was two hours ago. Here I was hoping he'd bring us some." She sniffed, pulling a thorn from the plastic palm of her glove, and abruptly yelped. "Don't you dare pull that!"

Hestia hastily dropped a few clods of earth over the roots of the daisy. "Poor plant. Looks far too much like a weed for its own good." Tamping it down with the back of her spade, she sighed. "I could use a Potting Charm on that, I suppose."

"Or you could garden the normal way."

"That, my dear Petunia, is a battle you will never win." Hestia's wand appeared from the folds of her robe before Petunia could protest--and anything that happened before Petunia could protest was very fast, and very rehearsed, indeed.

"So you're back to doing magic."

The daisy's stem thickened, and its leaves grew jaunty and green.

"For a few things," said Hestia innocently. "I repaired your tap last night. Your coffeepot, too."

"The coffeepot wasn't broken."

"Au contraire. It was squirting coffee in my face."

"Which wouldn't have happened," said Petunia, "if you hadn't gotten it in your head to jinx the thing."

"You wound me, Petunia." Hestia shook her head, raising a hand in surrender. "I never said I jinxed it."

"No, and I guessed." A twig clattered into the rubbish bucket, nearly knocking it into Hestia's lap. Petunia glared at bucket and twig, her nostrils flaring. "Your sort is really very predictable."

"Very perceptive of you. Yes, I enchanted your coffeepot."

"To...?"

"Make lemonade. I wasn't sure of the recipe, but--"

"That," said Petunia, "is such a wizardy thing to do."

"Sorry," said Hestia, unsure why she was apologizing. "It seemed a good idea at the time. Many things do."

"If I wanted lemonade," said Petunia, her back ruler-straight and her eyes closed, "I would make my own, thank you kindly."

"Or you would wait for Vernon to bring it to you," said Hestia, thoughts of lemonade-making and of suburban Muggle life--which seemed, in some way that she couldn't quite figure out, entirely about homemade lemonade and functional kitchenware--floating behind her eyes. "Come now. What do you really think he's doing?"

"Whatever men do. I'm sure I don't know." Petunia's response was too fast, too flat. Her shoulders were tense, cords of muscle standing out in her neck.

They knelt in silence, the sun trickling through their hair and roasting their scalps.

"He's going through a bad patch," said Petunia. "He's not at all used to--well." She pursed her lips. "He's a homebody at heart."

"People under stress," said Hestia gently, "are rarely at their best."

Petunia edged closer, nibbling her lip. "Don't tell me that."

"Pardon?"

"I," said Petunia through gritted teeth, "am coping perfectly well with being ripped from my home, my son, my friends--"

"In that case," said Hestia, nettled, "I won't ask if you need my help." Sweat and dirt were itching in the palms of her clenched fists.

"We've already seen what you consider 'help'--"

"Cheering Charms?"

In the ensuing silence, Hestia wiped her hands on the towel and took three deep breaths.

"Keep your wand away from me," said Petunia, rising and dropping the last of the weeds into the bucket. "I thought we had an agreement."

The cottage door clicked shut behind her, the screen rattling feebly. Hestia, wondering darkly how Vernon would take the intrusion, pulled out her pocket watch, and groaned as the hour hand hovered just past twelve.

At ten past one, she was interrupted by the click of glass on the stepping stone behind her and a strong smell of lemons.

"Why are you trimming my hedge?"

"Because, I fear, it's an eyesore. Good afternoon, Petunia." She turned, brushing a leafy twig from its position behind her ear, and beamed. "Thank you for the lemonade. You're most considerate."

In fact there was an entire jug of lemonade, and a small plate of salmon and cheese.

"It's from a mix," said Petunia, folding her arms. "Don't think I wasted time. And some of it's for me."

At Hestia's puzzled look, Petunia sniffed and brandished a pair of clippers.

"You get that hedge over there," she announced, pointing from her place in the shade of the cottage to a stunted little shrub that practically steamed. "I can't be out in the sun too long. Sensitive skin."

"If you say so."

They clipped in what was so far the longest awkward silence--or relative silence, as Hestia muttered, "Diffindo," every few seconds--of the day. Hestia's shrub was perfectly spherical, and she was turning the leaves a mintier green, before Petunia spoke.

"I haven't changed my mind, you know."

"No magic at all, then?"

"I wasn't talking about the magic," said Petunia, giving the now gumball-like shrub an appraising look. "You can blow yourself up with it, see if I care."

This was progress, and Hestia grinned.

"The day I manage to blow myself up with a Severing Charm will be the day I die." She paused. "Dear me, that makes rather more sense than I intended."

Petunia didn't laugh, but her lips twitched encouragingly.

"Forget the magic."

"Would that I could."

"Don't be stupid," said Petunia. "You're avoiding my point."

"I may be. Just a bit."

Petunia, twisting a stiff curl of hair around her finger, glanced back at the house before speaking in what was probably supposed to be a stage whisper. "I'm talking about that night."

"I see."

"And my marriage."

"Ah," said Hestia.

"Since--since Vernon's gone all funny. I thought you'd need reminding."

Hestia slid her wand back into her pocket. "I don't," she said quietly, staring at a point that was neither shrub nor sea nor sand, but was, importantly, not Petunia. "Do you?"

"Hardly."

"After all," said Hestia, "we're nothing alike."

"I don't need you to tell me that."

"And you're otherwise engaged."

"There you have it." Petunia kicked a pebble, which skipped down the beach, leaving tiny craters as it went.

"And it would never work."

"Even if I weren't married," said Petunia. "Idiotic idea."

"Yes."

The fourth awkward silence came and went as the next wave rose, gurgling, against the shore.

"Still."

"Still?"

"If I had been magic," Petunia said to her shoes, "I'd never have met Vernon."

"And if you had been a witch," said Hestia, "you'd be no more interesting than the rest of us."

The clippers dropped silently to the sand. Hestia and Petunia pressed themselves together, swaying softly, and Petunia's sobs were drawn away by the wind.


Hestia steadied herself on the rooftop with one hand, leaning against the chimney and puffing dispiritedly. The thatch was at once dry from the heat and gummy with dried gull poo, and bits of it flaked off as she moved; she hadn’t the foggiest idea how to repair it, her cheery assurances over breakfast notwithstanding, and, truth be told, would just as soon have gone down to the ground and spent the rest of the day avoiding anything taller than the refrigerator had she not been so keen on avoiding--avoiding--well, avoiding something.

Something that, she was very sure, involved Petunia, her wretched husband, and the whole miserable mess.

Hestia prodded a bit of damp, reeking straw with her wand without expecting it to help. A beetle, clicking angrily, poked its head from the thatch and snapped at Hestia’s callused finger; with a groan, she withdrew her hand and, cradling her head in her arms, told herself firmly that at least she was being useful.

Of course, her usefulness atop the roof was purely theoretical, and the absurdity of it--instead of doing the first thing to save the marriage she’d mucked up, or at least to make things a bit better for all concerned, she was perched on a rooftop squabbling with beetles--made her snort into her sleeve and lift her heavy head to stare down into the garden. The hedges wanted trimming again, and something that seemed to be made mostly of knotty stems was rearing up in the flowerbed. No doubt Petunia would be horrified--

A hard lump of guilt slid from her chest to her throat and back again at the thought of Petunia, lodging somewhere unspecified and extremely painful. Hestia sighed, forcing her gaze away from the plants and, finding little else to look at, contemplating the muddy tip of her boot with an entirely unwarranted intensity.

She thought vaguely about fetching Vernon--she could do with a bit of shouting or, heaven forbid, a bit of indignation at someone other than herself--but, before she could make up her mind, he emerged, lowering himself into the flimsy deck chair with the air of someone who did not intend to rise for some time.

"I fear we’ve got beetles," said Hestia in her most cheerful tone. "If it’s all the same to you, I was going to use Bletchley’s Beetle Botherer--"

"Fine," Vernon grunted. "I suppose it’d be too difficult to call an exterminator."

"We’ve got half a bottle of the stuff in the shed. It’s no trouble at all, though it does have a nasty tendency to go sapient--"

Vernon harrumphed, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. "I’ve been wanting to talk to you."

"I gathered as much," said Hestia, the knot in her sternum twinging. "This isn’t about the knight? Or the coffeepot? Or the vine--and really, I did warn you about that last one."

Vernon reflexively touched his throat (where, Hestia noted, the thin green lines had not quite faded).

"No," Hestia said to the general direction of her boots, "I suppose this is something more serious."

"I generally call near-strangulation serious," said Vernon. "Perhaps you wizardy types don’t." (Had Petunia picked "wizardy" up from Vernon, or--and Hestia couldn’t help but hope this was the case--had it been her idea all along, a fragment of the evenings they’d spent rehashing their lives?) His face darkened, but he continued in admirably level tones. "Petunia’s been getting funny ideas."

"Unless her cooking’s going downhill, you oughtn’t blame me."

"Amusing," Vernon said through gritted teeth. "I want to know what you’ve been telling her."

"I’m fifty-nine, unmarried, formerly a potion inspector, and I wanted a dragon when I was six. Is that what you wanted to know?" It was evasive, inane, vindictive, and yet, even if her conversations with Petunia had been utterly innocent--and in retrospect, they so rarely had been--Hestia knew instinctively that Vernon was to have no part of them.

"I see." Vernon was coloring up, his face darkening to match Hestia’s maroon cloak. "You’re single."

"I am that."

"So I don’t suppose you can understand, ah, marriage."

"Even if I weren’t married,"said a surprisingly solid Petunia in her memory. "Vernon’s not coming. Vernon will be furious. Likely to wreck my marriage."

Hestia bit her lip.

"I wouldn’t say that, Mr. Dursley."

"I’ve known my wife for seventeen years," said Vernon, his hands balling into fists. "Longer than you ever will, Jones. And--" His voice rose with every word, and Hestia recoiled, wondering how, and why, and what could have possessed Petunia to marry him, and why she’d felt guilty for splitting them up. "I know damn well she’d never run off on me without a reason--"

"She has one," said Hestia with an easy shrug. "Spending seventeen years with you."

"Why aren’t you married?" Vernon squinted up at her, a tic going in his forehead. "I’d have thought that even a plain girl like you--your lot’s got love potions, don’t they?"

"We do," said Hestia. "And I like to think I’m above them." She stared down the length of her nose at Vernon, her lip twisting. "I’m unmarried, Mr. Dursley, because I’m a Sapphist. An invert. A Uranian. A tribade--do you Muggles still use that one?"

The slow trickle of comprehension across Vernon’s face, the way he drew his chair back and gawped up at her, was, if not one of the most beautiful moments of Hestia’s life, certainly nudging the other contenders and looking hopefully at the spot.

"A goddamn carpet-muncher," spat Vernon.

"I don’t believe I’ve ever even licked anyone’s flooring," said Hestia calmly, and she dropped from the roof with a grunt, brushed straw from her robes, and headed for the shed.

***


Some hours later, as the sun kissed the gleaming sea and the warm straw under her knees turned a dull orange, Hestia reached for her brush and found a cool plate instead.

People, she reflected, could surprise you the most by remaining consistent; she’d expected tears, shouts, accusations. Anything but a neatly arranged platter of hors d’oeuvres. But then (and she longed to get to her feet and bellow this to the heavens), it would take a hurricane, three Dementor attacks, and a whole battalion of Death Eaters to keep Petunia from doing exactly as she had always done.

Or rather, in this case, exactly as she chose to do.

The distinction seemed rather an important one.

Hestia smiled, peering over the roof’s edge at Petunia, who gave her a thin-lipped grimace for her efforts. The rims of her eyes were a moist, brilliant pink, dabbed with congealing face powder and mascara.

"Vernon’s leaving tonight."

Hestia felt her grin fade, and the warm light seemed to fade suddenly from the roof. She pushed the platter away, proffering her hand; Petunia reached up, trembling, and took it.

"Are you all right?"

"Perfectly fine, thank you very much," Petunia mumbled. Her fingers shook, sliding from Hestia’s even as she clutched weakly at Hestia’s wrist, as if she lacked the strength to hold them up. "I told him he wasn’t wanted."

Hestia slid from the roof into the garden, landing in the house’s shadow, and put her arm around Petunia’s quivering shoulder; together, they sank onto the soft earth.

"Petunia," Hestia whispered, stroking the small of Petunia’s back, feeling her hard muscles unclench as she went limp in Hestia’s arms. "Petunia, Petunia, Petunia. You have my deepest sympathy--"

"Don’t," said Petunia. She turned her face away, plucking feebly at a loose thread on her skirt. "I’m fine. It’s Vernon you’ll want to feel sorry for--"

"You left him."

Petunia buried her face in Hestia’s shoulder. Hot pinprick points of warmth spread across Hestia’s skin in an instant; she pulled away instinctively, but as her gaze caught Petunia’s shimmering face, she realized that her throat was damp with tears.

"Merlin’s beard," she said, her voice hollow, her throat suddenly aching. "You did this for me?"

Petunia jerked away, eyes gleaming. "Not for you--wouldn’t for you, for anyone--couldn’t bear it--" She batted away Hestia’s hand. "For me," she croaked. "I had to."

A light went on in the cottage, and through the curtain, Hestia could see Vernon’s silhouette moving aimlessly from shelf to shelf--packing his things. The rays of candlelight seeping through the crack between curtain and wall hit Petunia’s face at a strange, oblique angle, making her puffy face and damp, matted hair gleam.

"I had to be happy," she said, raising her eyes to the night sky. "It was for the best."

Hestia held her as she sobbed.

***


"Everything is for the best," Petunia whispered, much later, after they’d drifted off into the darkened cottage, "in this best of all possible worlds."

Hestia touched her hand, and she looked up as if startled. They were slumped at the table, the platter forgotten between them, untouched mugs of cocoa steaming; now Petunia reached for hers and sipped it tentatively.

"That’s not drugged, is it?"

"You wound me, Petunia," said Hestia, staring at the linoleum. "I don’t muck about with drinks."

Anymore, she added silently.

Petunia drank the rest of the cocoa without complaint.

"Voltaire," she said a minute later. "Candide. I read it at uni."

Hestia nodded helplessly.

"Stupid book," added Petunia. "Lies."

"This isn’t the best of all possible worlds?" It was neither bitter sarcasm nor gentle teasing--though Hestia had definitely been aiming for one of the two--but certainly not exactly honest.

"If it is," said Petunia, "I wouldn’t know."

"And do you intend to find out?"

Petunia shrugged.

***


The next morning, Vernon was gone, and as Hestia wandered into the kitchen for breakfast, Petunia avoided her gaze.

***


Months passed, built of days in which they barely spoke, whole weeks that vanished without a trace, and hours upon hours of unbroken silence.

If Hestia had expected eternal happiness now that Vernon was gone, she would have been brutally disappointed; as it was, though, she had to admit that she’d been naïve. No, more than naïve. She’d expected Petunia to blossom, to become the Muggle, or almost-witch, or whatever she was, that she had been meant to be--and she had withered, or her love for Hestia had, or her spirit.

Offers of flying carpet rides were rejected without preamble; chocolates were ignored (even those carefully given in a spirit of platonic friendship); tidbits of information that the old Petunia would have seized upon like a hawk were waved aside. The chessmen grew dusty and the knight torpid from disuse. (The plates of food continued arriving whenever Hestia stayed outside for more than ten minutes, but, she suspected, they were given out of a sense of obligation.)

"And it would never work," said a particularly nasty snippet of her memories.

"Even if I weren’t married.
"

Sometime in mid-December, she concluded that the voices in her head were correct. It hadn’t and it wouldn’t. Petunia was stubborn, narrow-minded, concerned only about her own pathetic little life; no, Petunia was a deeply sad woman, a victim of circumstance, really, and Hestia had preyed on her and torn apart her last little refuge of stability; no, Hestia had been as kind as could reasonably be expected, but there was no surmounting the fact that Muggles always had hated the queerest among them, and when the queerest among them were queer, all the worse. (Vernon was probably out of the running as a real hindrance.)

There was no point. Whinging never solved anything, Hestia told herself as firmly as she could. She would simply have to carry on as she always had.

They carried on, side by side, entirely alone.

***


The war ended quietly, without touching the little cottage by the seaside, in early May. All manner of exotic flowers--tulips, roses, marigolds, every last one planted by Petunia--were springing up in the garden, and on the day Dedalus arrived, their petals trembled in a stiff breeze.

Hestia met him at the door.

"Something good’s happened, hasn’t it?" It seemed a safe assumption; he wouldn’t have come for a cup of tea and a bit of light badinage.

He told her, his hands flickering almost too fast for her to follow, what and where and why.

"You ought to tell Mrs. Dursley," he added as the rush of information slowed. "I’d tell her myself, of course--wonderful, wonderful thing--but really, you should do it. You know her better than I."

Hestia nodded vaguely, half-dazed, and closed the door in his face.

After apologizing profusely and seeing him off with--why not?--a cup of tea on the doorstep, she took a deep breath, stopped to wonder why she’d done so, and marched into Petunia’s room.

"Excellent news."

Petunia dropped her book, staring dubiously as if suspecting a joke. "Do tell."

"You-Know-Who is dead," said Hestia, pausing to watch Petunia’s reaction. The expected tight little smile came, late and brief; Hestia wrote it off immediately. Petunia was a Muggle. A bit of slowness of response was only to be expected. You-Know-Who was hardly her problem.

A second later, she realized that she was apologizing for Petunia’s quirks again, and it was this, more than anything, that made her beam and drop onto the bed beside a now utterly befuddled Petunia.

"That’s good, I suppose," Petunia squeaked.

"Yes, I suppose not having to worry about being killed must be such a thrill for us."

Petunia smacked her. Hestia could have laughed, longed to punch the air and shout, "This is the best of all possible worlds!"

***


It was perhaps inevitable, she thought later, that she was soon disabused of that notion.

"Well," she said as the celebratory mood faded inside her, leaving her once again able to think rationally and arrange her face into something other than a smile, “we’ll have to decide what to do with you."

"Yes."

They were sitting, glasses of lemonade in hand, in the back garden. Petunia had retrieved her sun hat from the darkest depths of her wardrobe, and Hestia had made a truce with the bread knife for long enough to make them sandwiches; still, the latter found herself not quite so cheery as they once had been, and even the reappearance of the Wales V. Uganda mug failed to provoke a smile.

As soon as they found a place, Petunia would be gone.

But that was no excuse for dragging her heels, of course. Petunia needn’t be cooped up with an eccentric old bat of a sorceress for the rest of their conceivable future.

All the same, she tried the stupidest ideas first.

"I don’t suppose Privet Drive--"

"It’s legally Vernon’s," said Petunia, and she blanched for the finest sliver of a moment at the name. "Not that I want to go back."

"Unsurprising, really."

A butterfly landed noiselessly on one of the flowers, slipping between the petals until only the tips of its wings could be seen.

"You won’t let me stay, will you?" said Petunia, turning suddenly to stare into Hestia’s eyes.

The butterfly, startled by the sound, zipped away. Hestia composed herself, pushing a coil of hair behind her ear.

"I wouldn’t have thought you’d want to."

"Funny. Here I was, thinking--" Petunia broke off, sipping her lemonade and reddening.

"Yes?" Hestia prodded, knowing that she wouldn’t much care to find out.

"That you--fancied me."

And there was very little that could be said to that without revealing everything that Hestia had felt over the past months--or worse, without admitting that Hestia would happily recant every last thought she’d had from October to April if it would bring a snide, irritable, vivid Petunia back into her arms.

Not, perhaps, that admitting that would be such a terrible thing.

"I might have," she said, watching the sun play on the lip of her mug.

"Yes, and I might be the queen of France," snapped Petunia. "You did. Stop this silliness and admit it."

"Well," said Hestia, "if you really want to know the truth, I was but one bad idea away from feeding myself a Hate Potion to control it."

Petunia looked away, twisting the hem of her sundress between her fingers. Hestia watched her, straining to catch a flickering glance toward her, a sneer, a puckered lip.

"That explains a few things," said Petunia slowly, maddeningly slowly.

"I was silly," said Hestia with a shrug. "I regret it."

And though she’d sworn inwardly never to lie to Petunia, that such things always caused a bit more trouble than they saved, and she could feel Pomona Sprout staring down her neck with the force of a basilisk, she thought that that might, just possibly, have been a tiny untruth.

"Don’t stay with me just to make me happy," she said finally. "I won’t stand for it."

"Good," said Petunia, "because I hadn’t planned on it."

They finished their drinks without another word. The butterfly coasted by, riding another breeze, and landed on the rim of Petunia’s mug.

"I do hope you’ve got a destination planned," said Hestia, getting to her feet and beating the dirt from her robes. "You could stay with Dedalus, I suppose, but he told me his house was--"

"I have friends," Petunia said sharply. "They owe me more than enough favors."

Hestia blinked. "And you can find employment?"

"I expect so." Petunia stared at her feet. "I don’t know. I’ll cope. I always have."

They brought in the dishes; Hestia moved to cast a Scouring Charm, but Petunia elbowed her aside, brandishing a bar of soap.

"I loved you," she said as suds spattered against the window. "I still love you. Don’t think I didn’t. Even when I wasn’t speaking to you—and really, Hestia, you ought to have at least complained. I would have. Probably, though, you were too nice. You’re the kindest, sweetest person I know--"

"If so, I don’t quite trust these friends of yours," said Hestia, shifting her weight uncomfortably from foot to foot as another blasted attack of guilt poked her in the ribs. "They’re bound to be awful."

Petunia tch’ed indifferently.

"I wanted to call you Hetty. Don’t you dare laugh," she added, as Hestia smiled. "I swear, even when we were with Vernon--"

"You could have. When we were alone."

"I couldn’t," Petunia shot back. "Not when I was married to someone else."

Hestia pulled the last of the dishes from under Petunia’s fingers, Scoured it, and put it away. "I suppose you were right."

"Some of us," said Petunia, "have standards."

She wouldn’t, Hestia reflected, be Petunia if she didn’t.

But then, she wouldn’t be leaving on the principle of some outdated, ridiculous Muggle notion--to do with throwing perfectly good things away in the name of propriety, so far as Hestia could tell--either.

***


"Don’t you dare forget me," said Petunia as Hestia folded her socks. "But don’t talk about me to your wizard friends. I don’t want to show up and find I’ve got a reputation."

"I think you’ll find you’ve already got one."

"That’s hardly my fault," said Petunia, taking a blouse from the wardrobe and rolling it up. "I can’t help being your little saint’s aunt."

Hestia, perhaps wisely, held her tongue.

***


"I’m not going to stop you," she said as they picked their way through the garden. "But just in case, do kick me if I try."

The boulders at the water’s edge glittered slightly in the morning sun, the moss in their crannies still damp from high tide and giving off a salty tang. Hestia set Petunia’s neat suitcase down next to the smallest of them, and checked its locks with a quick Anti-Housebreaking Hex. "Well, you’re ready." She smiled encouragingly, avoiding Petunia’s eye, stifling the scream of "Don’t go!" that was building inside her.

Petunia did not smile; she was standing oddly stiffly, as if trying very hard to control herself. "I expect you’ll fly me back?"

"I’m not going," said Hestia. As she rummaged in her cloak’s pockets, her fingertips brushed against the knight, its hooves feebly kicking, and she felt suddenly faint. "You’ll be taking a Portkey."

"Lovely. Magical jargon," muttered Petunia. "Exactly what I wanted to have to figure out."

"Step one," said Hestia, retrieving the bit of junk she judged most likely to be Dedalus’s Portkey (on the grounds that she’d never carry it herself). "Hold the thimble."

It sat, winking brightly, on the boulder beside Petunia’s suitcase. Petunia picked it up uncertainly, turning it over and over in her hand.

"Congratulations. You have just mastered the use of a Portkey." Hestia pulled a wrinkled scrap of parchment from her sleeve, squinting through prickling tears at Dedalus’s spidery writing. "It leaves in five minutes. Don’t drop it until you’re in London or it’ll go without you."

"Our sort," Petunia said, the thimble now glinting on her finger, "needs something like this."

"No, you don’t," said Hestia. "The last time I used one, I locked it in my luggage and it took a week to find." She checked her watch, fumbling so badly that it dropped onto the sand, and heaved a sigh that seemed to draw out all of her strength. "Four minutes."

"You’re sure?"

"No. Make sure you hold on to your bag."

A gull soared high above them, its shadow passing between their feet. Hestia closed her eyes. Petunia’s cool hand touched her cheek, brushing her hair aside; a moment later, she felt Petunia’s comforting presence beside her, Petunia’s best handkerchief dabbing her tears away.

"You’re such--" And Petunia, too, broke into sobs. "Such a kind, sweet, lovely girl, Hetty--"

Petunia’s lips were damp and salty and unbearably hot, her slim fingers instruments of torture as they slid down Hestia’s neck and left trails of tingling nerves in their wake.
She tried to kiss the tears away, but somehow this made them worse.

"I love you," Petunia whispered.

"Stay," said Hestia faintly, stroking Petunia’s hair, clutching at her--but she had to release her: they couldn’t go together, could they?

The last thing she felt, pulling away as Petunia collapsed into empty space, was a sharp dig at her shin.

She returned to the cottage, walking as slowly as she could. At the edge of the garden, Petunia’s lavender roses had just begun to bloom.

***


"It was for the best," she told Dedalus that evening. As he nodded, his tiny hand closing on her wrist, a thought popped into Hestia’s head with the force of an enraged Bludger. "Everything for the best in this best of all possible worlds."

"Ah," said Dedalus knowingly, pausing with his steak-and-kidney pie hovering somewhere near his mouth. "You’ve been reading Leibniz, I see."

When she pressed him for details, he faltered, growing ever redder and squeakier. "I don’t understand it myself," he said at last, throwing up his hands and laughing ruefully. "Tricky stuff, this philosophy. Very odd, isn’t it? That your Muggle--"(Hestia had a brief vision of Petunia’s reaction to being called anyone’s personal Muggle) "--I mean, really, who’d have thought it of her?"

"Not I, certainly." Hestia put down her brandy glass. "I should have asked her."

Dedalus scooted his chair closer to hers, patting her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands. "We’ll look it up tomorrow, shall we?" When Hestia nodded, he beamed, pulling her hands away with such vigor that she snorted and swatted him. "That’s the spirit! Making the best of things..."

***


She read the full works of Voltaire that summer, curled up on the sofa where she and Petunia had once sat, in between visits--sometimes accompanied by Dedalus, but more and more frequently as the days marched on, alone--to Oxford, Surrey, and London. Lingering in Muggle shops, flipping eagerly through the eerie, static photo spreads in Us and People, she searched for some unifying thread, some aspect of Mugglehood that had made Petunia her wonderfully irascible self.

She consulted Arthur Weasley on cars, coffeemakers, and Cuisinarts, and left as confused as before (though she displayed the old, worn-out batteries he gave her on her mantel, beside Petunia’s old clock).

She made a special trip to America, arriving at the Metropolitan Muggle Museum at six minutes before the doors opened, and lingering, her eyes fixed firmly on a display of the Contemporary Muggle Kitchen and its Natural Fauna (the Technologically-Aided Housewife), until the guard gently but firmly jinxed her in the back.

It was little use for psychological analysis, but as an educational program, it worked splendidly.

***


And in the end, she found, she had become quite a target for young Muggle-lovers at fashionable parties; with the war over and the best and brightest dead by the dozens, intermarriage had become all the rage, an easy way to demonstrate one’s loyalty to the new order.

"Is electricity the same thing as lightning?" asked a teenage witch in a blouse and slacks.

Hestia blinked. "So I hear--"

Immediately, she was accosted by a gaggle of wizards bearing a single suit. "You’ve got to tell us," barked the man who looked to be the ringleader, "which way up this thing goes--"

"Can’t seem to get it on," said a crony.

"The other set of sleeves goes on your legs," said Hestia patiently, holding the suit against her own body to demonstrate.

"Nonsense," said one of the wizards.

"Completely impractical," said another.

"But they can see your legs!" gasped a third.

And so on.

"They’re just people," Hestia repeated until her throat grew dry. "Like us."

Perhaps it was an artifact of centuries of separation, she thought every time she saw a determined-looking wizard making his way toward her and gesturing boldly toward his bow tie, but her sort could be extraordinarily dim.

***


In the end, she’d nearly given up on Petunia when she got the Letter.

It had to be called a Letter, because it exemplified all the things that no one did in letters but that everyone privately thought should be done. It was written in graceful script on paper as thick and heavy as parchment, and it smelled of lavender; another sheet of the same paper had been included, apparently to soak up the perfume.

With Dolores Umbridge safely in jail, the only person ever likely to send such a Letter was Petunia.

And besides, no one else in living memory would dare open a letter to Hestia Rhiannon Jones with the salutation "Dear Hetty."

She read the letter, running her finger down every line while her heart skipped beats (especially as she realized, with a jolt, that it had been written with a quill), and drafted a reply within the hour.

Petunia arrived on her doorstep the next day.

***


They lay, limbs tangled, in the damp sand at the water’s edge, while the remnants of the waves licked at their toes.

"So," said Petunia, "I hear you’ve become an expert on us."

Hestia reddened, sliding her arm around Petunia’s shoulder. "I wouldn’t say that."

"Nor would I," said Petunia. "You still haven’t figured out the oven."

Hestia scooped up a handful of grit, molding it, and dropped it onto a smooth patch of sand. Petunia watched through narrowed eyes as she repeated the process over and over, creating a long, misshapen coil of sand.

"What on earth are you doing?"

"Mucking about," said Hestia.

Petunia rolled her eyes, prodding the coil with the toe of her sandal as it rose around her.

"Vernon got the house," she said as Hestia dunked a smooth black rock in the ocean, wiping away the sand. "Not that I expected anything else. So I’ll be living here now--for good, most likely."

"By the sea," said Hestia. "Fulfilling a childhood dream."

"Don’t mock me, Hetty."

Hestia padded away, returning a minute later with her arms full of stones. Wordlessly, she piled them against the sides of the coiled shape, propping them up with shells until each one barely overlapped the next.

Petunia, apparently at a loss for words, edged away from the figure.

"If this is Freudian--"

"It might be."

"I haven’t gone lesbian, Hetty, in case you were wondering--"

Hestia shrugged. "I wasn’t."

"And I’m not about to start wearing combat boots--"

"Funnily enough, Petunia, we freaks don’t even have that stereotype." Hestia smiled ruefully--some things never would change--and laid the last of the rocks in position. "There. Be a dear and get me another butterbeer, or some lemonade."

Petunia, grumbling, got to her feet and stalked up the beach to the garden. Hestia waited, holding her breath, until the cottage door opened and Petunia emerged with the familiar tray of refreshments balanced on her arm.

Hestia flicked her wand, and the black dragon, head pointing toward the garden, reared up on its stony hind legs and roared.




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