“There’s more,” Phyllis said, “It wasn’t in the papers, but I’ve heard rumors—Hestia, it’s really bad. I wish I could tell you it wasn’t true, but—oh, I can’t even say it!”
“What does it have to do with?” I asked, filling with dread.
“Peter,” she near-whimpered, her big blue eyes growing, if possible, wider, and shining with tears.
I resigned myself. So the world knew about Peter. Maybe it was better that way.
“What?” I asked, trying to keep myself blank, no matter how my heart was breaking.
“He’s dead!” She began to cry, unleashing everything that she had kept silent for my protection. Her face turned bright red and she wept as if it had been her own lover—ex-lover—dead. She looked at me as she cried, looked away, and then looked again, perhaps surprised at my blankness. I realized she was crying for me. I felt a surge of love for her.
“How?” I asked. I began to cry too before she even answered, moaning as hot tears slid down my face. What did that even mean, that Peter was dead?
“Sirius Black,” she raised her voice over my grief, “Peter tried to get revenge.”
“Oh, but he didn’t.” I cried even harder. “He never wanted any of this to happen! How could I have been asleep so long?” I shoved my face into my lap, so incredibly steeped in grief I could nearly drown in it.
I don’t know if my mind suffered more or less because of what occurred that very night.
I lay in a sleep that I had fought hard to fall into when I felt something moving at my feet. Then tiny teeth bit me straight through the blanket. I kicked—hard—and heard something go squeaking to the floor.
I sat bolt upright, wildly thinking that I had somehow kicked the baby. But no—the bassinet was at peace, baby and all.
I peered down at the floor, at the foot on the bed, groggily thinking that it had been nothing at all. But I saw a tiny shadow, a moving shadow, and growing shadow, and it was—I had seen it so many times before, how could it not be?—a rat, turning into a man.
Peter’s shadowy figure turned solid and grasped greedily at my hands.
My fingers were limp in his, I didn’t know what to think. But my relief was real; he was alive.
“They said you were dead.”
“I am dead,” he whispered. Ideas of ghosts and spirits and phantoms filled my find—but I felt his warm, fleshy hands. It was the same Peter, but different, and for one second we were like before.
He pulled his hands away first. He looked agitated to the point of frenzy.
“I’m here,” he began, “And I forget what I wanted to tell you.” Maybe it’s because he was talking quietly, but his voice sounded different. He turned to me, “Except that I’m alive. I thought you should know. Only I’m a rat from now on. Because it’s that or death.”
“Or Azkaban,” I breathed. I hardly know why I said it. A pause, as he looked steadfastly into my eyes, for the first time since he appeared.
“Then turn me in, Hestia!—For God’s sake turn me in. What good will I be in hiding? A rat. It might be better—it would be better! Hestia, you’re the only one who can give me away, so do it. Call the nurses, right now. I won’t blame you. My own mother thinks I’m dead. I sit in a rat cage all day. I can’t get any lower.”
“It’s not for me to turn you in, Peter.” I said it, sounding far more wise and sure than I ever felt. He cringed under the weight of my words.
“No, Hestia,” he said, “It’s about survival now, I’ve thought—there’s no point—“
I thought telling him I missed him would be stupid, selfish.
“We have a baby,” I said, pointing to Lilianna. Everything was so incredibly out of place that nothing was.
He stared at her, but did not move.
“Does it have a name?”
“Lilianna,” I said calmly, but then burst out suddenly, “Peter—you killed them! You did it, didn't you?”
For it hadn’t really occurred to me before, not in the sense that it occurred to me now. And my words sucked at the air around us—clouding it, tainting it.
And he didn't try to deny it.
“Nothing’s the same, I—“ but he couldn’t finish, just looked around desperately—almost as desperately as I looked at him.
“You ruined my life,” I said, “You killed them. Peter?”
Why did his face turn so blank? Why wouldn’t he look at me?
“I’m not like I was before,” he said, “My life—it…” He searched for words, “James never liked me anyway, you said so yourself. He stepped on me.”
I nearly choked at this. Who was he?
Suddenly his eyes became wild, he sank to his knees beside me in my rickety hospital bed, “Hestia, you don’t understand what it’s like with him. If I hadn’t told him where they were, he would have made me. He did make me. He does things—he—does—things—“
“He’s gone now!” I hissed, “And look at you, still here!”
“I’d thought—I’d thought I could save our lives and keep you with me at the same time. I was foolish.”
“You were, but not for that. Peter, you killed them.”
“No. No I didn’t.”
“Well they’re dead and you’re to blame.”
“I just wasn’t ready to give it all up yet. I didn’t join him because I wanted to.” He looked so miserable.
I almost said something, but I paused, and changed my mind:
“I know you didn’t, Peter.”
He looked up into my eyes, and I almost cried thinking of how he used to smile so much. I knew he would never smile again. He began to speak:
“Hestia, I thought I was being brave—just listen to me, please, this is the only chance I have to say this—I thought that I was being brave because I thought the most cowardly thing would be to watch you die—without doing anything about it. He would have killed you, Hestia, killed you right in front of my face and there’s nothing brave or noble about that.”
I had visions of my own small body being gutted, like a goat sacrificed at the altar, and Peter tied to a column ten feet off, unable to move, unable to look away…
“So the second thing was to die myself—but that’s not brave either, Hestia—don’t say anything, let me finish—it’s not brave because you leave all the problems in the world to everyone else. You save your own spot-clean reputation and let everyone grieve for you, without actually doing anything. You don’t help anyone by dying.”
He paused, and I couldn’t help thinking how young he was. Twenty-two, like me.
“That’s what—that’s what I thought—“ his voice choked up, “I thought I could handle the Dark Lord—not because I’m a strong wizard, but because I thought my heart would save me. I thought that good and evil were like that. But I’m weak, Hestia, and I’m a coward. And I’m ashamed of every waking moment,” he sniffed and looked at me with small, watery eyes, “I was fooling myself just to stay alive—I didn’t even realize. Now I’m too low to even turn myself in. I’m stuck with that false, clean reputation anyway, and living as somebody’s pet, sitting in sawdust and my own shit.” He dissolved into quiet tears. I didn’t even know what to think. “You know they gave me a fucking Order of Merlin?”
“Yeah. It’s…Peter…Did the—did he—torture you much?”
He made a noise, like a hollow laugh, “He told me I was being given preferential treatment. Most people only get the Cruciatus Curse from Death Eaters. I had the Dark Lord himself and a dozen dementors, I don’t…Hestia, he can read minds. He can control every limb on your body, he can—“ he shivered, “It wouldn’t have mattered what I’d done. He wanted the information, he would have gotten it. But that doesn’t make it any better.”
“Maybe to me it does,” I said. And his eyes almost looked a little less miserable.
“Hestia, I want you to know that I’ve missed you—so much—I can’t even say it, I mean it so much. You were everything to me. Everything, and no matter what happens, know that I love you.”
“Peter,” I said, “I know I’ve said this before, but you were the first man I’ve ever loved. And—Oh, I can’t believe this is happening!”
“No,” he said, “You loved a boy. And this—“ he gestured to himself, “I don’t know why we weren’t meant to be together. I’m sorry—so…sorry.”
“You’re not leaving?”
But he was standing up.
“I’ve stayed too long already. I just meant to say sorry and go.”
“Stay!” I grasped for him, feeling helpless, knowing it was hopeless, “What am I supposed to do now?”
But that seemed to remind him of something else and he kneeled back down beside me.
“Hestia, if this were all to blow over, and the Dark Lord never comes back, and if I stay in hiding—if I find you again, could you—ever—take me back?”
I searched for something—anything, all the while wondering why that fifteen year old girl had ever kissed that fifteen year old boy in the library one hundred years ago.
Saying yes would be too much. My heart felt like it was ripping in two.
“I don’t know.”
I could almost see Lily and James’ stone cold bodies. They could never hold each other again—they could never sit in a tiny hospital bed and feel clothing clinging to their bodies and push their hair out of their eyes. They couldn’t even watch their own son grow up—didn’t Peter think about these things? My eyes fell on Lilianna.
“No, Peter, I don’t think I could. What you did—we can’t just pretend—not even in fifty years, you…I need to move on. We both do.”
I didn’t realize how cruel that sounded until later, because really, how could he move on to anything? He’d lost everything.
Peter, however, looked like he had expected it. He nodded and failed at a smile, but his tears were drying.
“Thank you for letting me know you’re alive, Peter,” I began, but starting the goodbyes just brought up fresh tears, “I guess this is the last time we see each other.”
“It’s better that way,” he said miserably.
“Peter!” and I threw my arms around him, and he held me too. There was no way to untangle and break all the ties between us in one short goodbye. Why did he have to still smell exactly the same?
He forced me away, all too soon. If he hadn’t I might never have let go.
He paused at the doorway, however, and looked back at me.
“What are you going to do now?”
I sighed. “Live with my sister.”
“Your Muggle sister?” he asked, though his tone was now deadened, “But you don’t even like her.”
“Yes,” I said, “But she’s my sister. I’ve made up my mind—I need to get away from familiar things. I think it will be good for us. So it’s off to the New World for me.”
“Oh.” He gave one last glance to Lilianna, one glance to me, and, far too suddenly, with maddening abruptness, shrank into a rat. The rat turned a quick circle and ran out the door.
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