Chapter 1 : Tomorrow, Perhaps
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A little while after Percy arrived, she pressed a cup of steaming tea in his hands. And perhaps out of habit, they both made their way to the doorstep of her small home as they had so many summers before. She opened out the door, as he knew she would, to the quiet night and the rustling trees, which spilled out to the silence of the city.
The dimmed moonlight made her seem exhausted. “Any particular reason for the visit?”
“Is this inconvenient?” Percy stammered, “Should I go? I can come later – tomorrow, perhaps – ”
“No, it’s alright.” After some thought, she reconsidered, with all the stillness of a stranger. “Though you’ll want to be quiet. My mum and Julie are still asleep and you don’t want to disturb them.”
There was some silence after this, though it was not as comfortable as he’d hoped. She sipped her tea, her eyes set somewhere in the dark blue sky.
“How’s work been, Penny?” he began feebly. “I heard you’re working at Flourish and Blotts now – it’s an excellent position for you, really – I’ve always said – ”
“Fine.” Another sip. “You?”
He considered her for a moment before saying more jovially than he felt, “Oh, just fine. I’m rubbish at it, of course, but I doubt Harry’ll do anything about it, unless he wants to be bludgeoned by my sister.”
A small wind blew through his words, making them sound even more rehearsed, before fettering away to the cold forms of the stars above them. To his enormous relief, she cracked a hesitant smile.
“I’m sure you’re brilliant, Percy.”
“I’m a first-rate buffoon and you know it.”
“Only when you try.” Her smile suddenly grew more focused. “All the other times, you’re mostly just prone to prat-like tendencies.”
He cocked an eyebrow exaggeratedly. “Surely, Miss Clearwater, you don’t truly feel that way.”
She brushed her brown hair out of her eyes. The effect of the gesture was immediately obvious; she looked more like the bookish fifteen year old girl who had always teased him about his glasses. “I absolutely do, Mister Prat.”
“We have a problem, then.”
She went back to her tea, smiling more than sipping. His was growing colder by the moment. “Do we? I don’t agree.”
He answered her smile and went back to his tea. The silence seemed much more bearable now, with her sitting beside him on the doorstep, watching the night pass in familiarity.
Whatever he had come impulsively wandering into her flat for in that evening seemed oddly fulfilled, though no questions had been asked or answered. It was in everything and it was now so startlingly clear, he wondered why he hadn’t seen it before. Perhaps it was the tea or the stars or the doorsteps.
After a few minutes, Percy turned to her. She was still watching the sky, though now with a lighter gaze, as though her mind had been tinged by the cornerstone of a happier day. “What do you suppose happened to us, Penny?”
The moon slipped behind an ebony cloud and a bright breeze usurped her hair. “A lot of things, I think,” she said.
“Did you know I’d ask?” He pushed up his glasses. “What was it that you’d used to call it? Ah – a ‘thoroughly embarrassing lack of any sort clairvoyance’.”
She gave a school girl’s giggle, the tea in her hands threatening to dip to the ground. “You remembered!”
“I did. You also called me several other things, though none so flattering, I’m afraid.”
“I wouldn’t say quite that much, Percy. I thought up some excellent insults. Remember that one about your – ”
The back of his neck reddened. “Penny!”
She made a dismissive gesture and stuck out her tongue.
“Well, to be fair,” he said, thrusting his chest out to be impressive, “I still snogged you, insults in poor taste and all.”
“That you definitely did, Mister Prat.” She held up her teacup in a salute.
By now, he had finished his tea. The familiar, though long-worn taste had left nostalgia in his mouth and he set the chipped cup and its patterned flowers on his lap. Sitting beside her, he wondered what he ought to feel, besides the heated flush of a five-year old joke on -
He watched her. She’d finished her tea as well, though she was still dangling the cup by her fingers. The gesture and the place were all familiar. How many summer days had they fettered away like this in their grand old romance together? It had been like something out of a novel, though those times were now well past. She’d sat by his side and listened to his endless rants on a future he’d deluded himself was assured. And occasionally, when he’d given her the opportunity to, between his own ramblings, she’d confided in him about her family and her dreams. It really had been a wonderful little thing while it lasted.
“You still haven’t answered the question, you know,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Haven’t I?” She frowned. “I told you. A lot of things.”
Another breeze. “Life. The war’s taken so much from us, Percy…there’s just not time anymore. And growing up. I suppose that was bound to happen eventually. We might’ve worked out when we were sixteen, but I think we were different people back then.” She paused to breathe and he waited for the most honest of her answers. “And – and us.”
He sighed. “That always seems to be the problem, doesn’t it?”
Penny laughed. “Always. We’d have been perfect together, if it hadn’t been for us.”
“Bloody damned fools we were.”
“Of course we were. Otherwise we wouldn’t be us.”
“My mum still asks about you. Honestly, one good snog that my sister told everybody about and all these years later, we’re practically engaged according to her. I suppose she thinks that I ought to snatch up the one girl who’d ever be willing to snog me.”
“Give her my best.” She leaned over and snatched his teacup off his lap. “And tell her there’ll be others. There always are.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Aren’t we being sullen?”
“Don’t tease, Penny, I’m serious.”
“When aren’t you?” she asked lightly. “You don’t honestly think this would’ve worked out, do you?”
“No, it wouldn’t have, would it?” Saying it aloud, he could hear how much it rang true. The lines of the houses beyond them and their rectangular roofs seemed to brim promises of comfort and acquiescence, but Percy cleared his throat. If there had been any doubts in his mind before, looking at the clarity of his own words ended them all.
“I don’t think so.”
“Even if we hadn’t ended it back then, I would’ve ended up on this blasted doorstep at some point or another. I should just be glad you didn’t hex the life out of me when you did end it.”
She gave him an inscrutable expression. “Is this the part where I cry and beg for you to love me regardless?”
“Is this the part where I listen?”
“Only if this is the part where you’re supposed to be my beloved prince.”
“You mean, where I race across a field on horseback with a lance and rescue you from your tower?”
“I’m not in any tower,” she said.
“Even if you were, you’d be more than capable of getting down yourself, I’m afraid. Or you’d wheedle some poor sod passing by to help you and then after he’d helped you, you’d jinx him from here to the next century.”
“Only if he was a cad and tried something on me. Otherwise, I’d be merciful and jinx him just to the next year.”
“You’re such a lovely girl,” said Percy, dripping sarcasm.
“And you’d be awful on horseback,” said Penny wonderingly, still lost in the image of a lavender field among the perfect euphony of the stars. “You’ve got very little coordination and you’re absolutely horrid with animals. And you’re more likely to stab yourself with that lance than actually harm any villain.”
“You always flatter me, Penny.”
“Always happy to do it, Percy, sarcasm and all.”
“Yes, it’s a rather fitting post for you, isn’t it? Personal tormentor Penelope Clearwater. It’s got an admirable ring to it.”
“Personal tormentor?” She stretched her hands to the sky, palms up, both their teacups dangling on her fingers. She drew idle circles in the air where the deep night had chilled to a glazed blackness and the stars strung together like a pearl necklace. “I like it! Personal tormentor Penelope Clearwater to the great Percy Weasley!”
“Then I’ll save that title for you at least.”
She gave him a brilliant smile. “I’ll take that to heart, Mister Prat. You’re absolutely not allowed to give it away to anybody else, no matter how many girls you meet.” When he nodded, she said, “Then it’s a deal. You save me the title and I’ll keep the conceptual tower safe for whoever your princess is. Free of rats and cads.”
“Hearing you say that’s got me worried about the safety of the cads, cad-like or not.”
For the first time, she laughed. She laughed until she leaned over on her elbows, the teacups on her hands brushing dangerously close to the doorstep.
The sudden bubbling laughter stripped away her age; suddenly, it was five summers ago, together on the same doorstep, heads together in the shared, unspoken secret of their adolescence.
“You’re still worried more about the cads than you are of me,” said Penny, wiping away the tears the laughter had slipped down her face. She looked younger – less worried. The Penny that was with him in libraries and Potions dungeons and making haphazard Quidditch bets, not the Penny of this time. When her laughter finished, he watched her, slightly sad at its passing, but unable to shake that both of them – her laughing, him sheepish – on the same blasted doorstep was how things ought to have been. “No wonder we didn’t work out.”
The Penny that was now looking at him was pensive; her glimmering eyes were tributes to the softly scattered stars. She had the self-assured countenance of someone who was putting her dreams to work. Whoever the girl he’d once loved was, the woman before him was who she ought to have grown up to be.
For a while, they rested peacefully in silence, both at terms to what had been had been done and said under the night’s shelter.
Finally, tiring of the silence, Penny asked, “D’you want more tea?”
She flicked her wand and the teapot came soaring across the kitchen to the door. She caught it deftly in midair, before picking up their teacups and filling them up again. They both found that the heat of the tea had cooled in the sweetness of the air, but to a tolerable glow of warmth.
He made some bad jokes. She laughed at him and not his jokes and the familiarity never ceased to escape them. The night faded to a seamless cloth of charcoal, streaked with the dots that had been there when she had leaned against him once so many years ago and began it all. Listening to him, it felt like five summers ago when the trees fanned their leaves and blocked the sky and the heat flanked their skin. He spoke of his dreams again and she listened, now understanding with a temporal bittersweetness that she was no longer part of them.
And they sat on the doorstep, finding themselves at the beginning of another road.
And they finished their tea, friends.