Inspired by Pilgrimage by Lyras which can be found on LiveJournal (I'm not sure how to link). Thanks to Olna Jenn for cheerleading and to my husband and evalerie for beta reading. Thanks to paranoidangel and nemo_r for britpicking in the comments.
Petunia pulled the clean plates out of the dishwasher, stacking them, one by one, on the counter. As she pulled out the last plate, she paused to admire her dishwasher. Funny the things we don't notice till we have to do without. She'd almost forgotten that dishwashers were possible. Dishwasher. Washer and dryer. Television. Electricity. Telephones. I missed them all. She lifted the stack of plates to move it to the cupboard. Her hands clenched for a moment. She had to force herself to let go. Being back is almost worse than being away. They'd got used to doing without, to being limited to each other's company. Now they had to reinsert themselves into normal life without explaining why they'd been gone.
Petunia pulled the basket of cutlery out of the dishwasher and started sorting the pieces into their places in the drawer. She didn't let herself think about anything but lining up each fork, knife and spoon in its slot. She almost dropped the basket when the doorbell rang. Who could that be? Her family had been back two weeks now, and all of her particular friends in the neighborhood had called.
She set down the basket and hurried toward the door. She straightened her dress as she walked. Could it be a salesman? Or one of the neighborhood teenagers offering to mow the lawn? She hesitated with her hand on the doorknob. No reason to expect anything out of the ordinary. Really. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Her nephew stood on the doorstep.
That's all it needed. "What do you want?" She couldn't keep sharpness out of her voice. Go away. We were done with you. She felt herself go rigid.
He didn't quite meet her eyes. "I just wanted to... I don't know- Are you all right?"
She felt her mouth set in a hard line. Her hand gripped the edge of the door. She suspected her knuckles were going white. "We're fine." The neighbors will recognize him. They'll wonder why I'm keeping him out here. "Would you like to come in?" She stepped back to let him in. What am I going to do with him? Serve him tea? I don't want him in our house. We're just starting to get back to normal. He's not one of us.
He hesitated, looking past her into the hall. "No. No, thank you. I think not." He shifted from one foot to the other.
He's not sure what to do either. She wasn't sure what to think of that. She wasn't used to any sort of empathy for the boy. "We heard a lot about what you were doing at the end." She thought about the long months with no real news, knowing that there were wizards who would kill them if they found them. She remembered Vernon's anger when he finally started to believe that their future depended on the boy's actions. He has no more love for us than we do for him. "You killed that- that-" She choked over the word 'wizard' and groped for another one. "That maniac, the one who killed Lily."
The boy looked at Petunia's feet. "It wasn't really like that." His hands clenched then released. He met her eyes. "It was complicated."
She sniffed. And what's that to me? "What do you want?" Her instinct was to slam the door in his face. But what would the neighbors think? "There's nothing here for you." She frowned, remembering. "Well, there is some rubbish, books and clothes and that trunk, that you left in the bedroom." I want it gone. I don't want to touch it, but I want the room back.
"I suppose I ought to take that away." He didn't look enthusiastic. "I just took a rucksack. I couldn't carry much."
Good thing Vernon's not here. Well, he left cleaning that room up to me. Better the boy takes his things away. Dudley might get into them, and I'm sure some of them are dangerous. "Come in then."
He swallowed noticeably, setting his jaw as he walked inside. He cleared his throat. "I'll just go up." He passed her, heading for the stairs.
She closed the door and followed him. "I haven't touched the room. There's been too much else to do. With the house empty so long, everything needed cleaning." Why am I apologizing? It's his room. Was his room.
He stood for a moment with his hand on the doorknob. Then, taking a deep breath, he turned the knob and went in.
The boy's trunk stood open at the foot of the bed. The rubbish bin overflowed. A stack of books, clothing and a cauldron occupied one corner.
"Well." He gestured toward the pile in the corner. "It all came out of the trunk. I suppose it can go back in." He reached for his pocket. She must have made some sound of protest because he froze. He looked back at her. "It would be faster to use magic. I could be gone sooner."
Is he asking permission? Don't his lot simply do what they want, the rest of us be damned? "We've had too much of wand waving in the last year." She raised her chin. "Things have just gone back to normal."
He sighed but pushed the trunk over near the pile of his belongings. He started picking things up and stacking them inside the trunk. "Normal? I'm glad." He actually sounded as if he might be.
"Well as normal as we can manage. Grunnings didn't hold Vernon's job. Months of unexplained absence was a bit much." She didn't bother to keep the edge out of her voice. And that was hard. He's always been a company man. She clasped her hands. "He's got another job now, sort of. He's a consultant." She tried to sound pleased. There weren't many clients yet, but Vernon was sure there would be. He has years of valuable experience. "He's with a client right now." I hope. Our savings will only go so far.
"I'm looking at jobs right now," he said as he pushed a bundle of clothes into the trunk. "I'm hoping to be an auror. That's like a-"
"I know what an auror is. Your... friends, the ones who took us into hiding, they got the paper. There was always a lot about aurors."
"I'm surprised you looked at the paper."
"We were- I was- hoping for news." She cleared her throat. "And there wasn't all that much else to do, just the paper, the radio and the household chores. Even Vernon read the paper."
He nodded and didn't look up.
Silence stretched between. Petunia fidgeted. It's not like he's a guest. I don't have to entertain him. "You'll have to take the newspapers, too," she said at last. "We can't exactly bundle them up with the rest of the rubbish. Somebody would notice the pictures moving."
He looked up at her and appeared about to argue. Then he shut his mouth and shrugged. "All right. I think I've got room for them." He wedged the cauldron into the trunk. "What about Dudley? How is he?"
"Oh, well." She hesitated. "Dudley's... Well, it's hard. He should have done his A-levels this year. Instead, he's had a year without any school work. We're... negotiating with Smeltings for him to go back for his final year." They didn't like him disappearing with no real excuse. It's not the Smeltings way. "All his friends have left school, and he's behind on all the things that matter to young men- music, games, the latest gadgets." She put a hand over her mouth. Where did all of that come from? Dudley wouldn't want all his business shared. At least I didn't mention his former girlfriend.
"I'm sorry." He pushed himself to his feet and crossed the room to the rubbish bin. "I'll take the papers, but the rest of this is just ordinary rubbish, no magic in it, and nobody will think twice."
She considered that then nodded. "It would be better if Vernon never sees you again." The things you do to his blood pressure! "I think... Dudley would like to hear from you." Say no. Tell me you'll be gone.
He looked at her, surprise evident on his face. He looked back at the newspapers in his hands, tucked them under one arm and rummaged in the bin. "I think that's all of them."
"Thank you." The words felt stiff, square edged, and she wasn't sure what she was thanking him for. Maybe for the fact that he'll be leaving shortly and won't ever come back? He won't, will he? No. Why would he? He has those people. They're like him. They want him, for all they kept sending him back here. "Are you sure you wouldn't like some tea?" I have to offer.
"No, no thank you. I've got someone waiting for me, and she'll be wondering what's keeping me." He managed somehow to sound as if tea with her was a pleasure he was forgoing instead of an ordeal for both of them.
"You'd better go then." Before this person comes looking for you. She managed not to shudder. "I'll just see you out." She hesitated, not sure she wanted to be ahead of him on the stairs when he was carrying his trunk. "Better you go first."
He didn't try to carry the trunk. He dragged it along, letting it thump down the stairs. She followed, trying not to wince as the trunk banged on the steps. Finally, they reached the bottom, and he tugged the trunk to the door.
As he reached for the door, he said, "Thank you for keeping my things. I thought you'd burn them."
"The neighbors would have wondered what we were doing," she replied. And books are harder to burn than you think. "I'm glad you came back to take it all away. Saves us the trouble."
He nodded. "Well... Goodbye." He looked like he was considering holding out his hand to her but thought the better of it. "If I do write to Dudley, I'll use regular post. I know how to do that. I think it's better I don't call."
"Probably so," she said. Should I say something else? What is there to say? I don't want him here. I never wanted him here. He knows that. She searched for a polite goodbye. "I hope the rest of your life goes well." And I hope I don't hear anything about it. "Goodbye..." She knew she ought to say his name, but she couldn't bring herself to.
He nodded. "Be well, Aunt Petunia." He tugged the trunk out the door. Once he had it on the step, he lifted it and walked away.
She stood in the doorway and watched him go. From across the street, a red haired girl waved at him. After looking carefully for traffic, he crossed the street to her. He didn't look back once.
Petunia closed her door and went back to her dishes.