"Come on, Diddykins," Petunia crooned. "Let Mumsie put your hat on."
"No!" Dudley squirmed out of his mother's grasp. "Shan't!"
"But, popkin, your ears will be cold if you don't wear your hat."
"Shan't!" Dudley bellowed, his face turning ominously red.
"All right, love," said Petunia quickly, stuffing the hat into a pocket of her own coat. "You don't have to wear it if you don't want to." Dudley sniffed a bit, but the tantrum had been averted.
Petunia turned to Harry, who was sucking his thumb and watching Dudley with wide eyes. "Get that out of your mouth," she hissed, pulling the small thumb free and wiping it with an old handkerchief. At least Harry kept his hat on — for once, she wouldn't have to look at the messy black hair that reminded her of that awful boy every time she saw it.
She lifted the toddlers into a shiny red wagon, with Dudley in front so he'd have a good view, and pulled them down the street. Privet Drive was reassuringly neat and proper. Petunia scrutinized the evergreen garlands and holly wreaths outside each house, pleased to see that none were quite as impressive as her own.
"Ow!" came Harry's voice. She turned around to see him poking Dudley, who looked up at her with an innocent, long-suffering pout.
"Harry, stop it!"
"Duddy poke!" Harry retorted.
Petunia wouldn't stand for this unprovoked slander of her precious Diddykins. "You behave yourself, or you won't be allowed to play when we get to the park."
Harry subsided, but he still looked petulant. Petunia shook her head and started pulling the wagon again. "Ungrateful boy," she muttered.
The little neighbourhood park was unusually empty for mid-afternoon. Perhaps the other families with small children had gone away for Christmas. The only person in sight was a youngish man sitting on a bench under a tree. He didn't look like the sort who belonged on Privet Drive or Wisteria Walk — to put it bluntly, he was rather shabby, huddled into a worn overcoat and a faded red scarf. But he was reading a book, so he didn't seem like a beggar, either. He looked up when Petunia pulled the wagon past his bench. She gave him her best withering glare and marched briskly on.
"Where do you want to play today, popkin?" she asked Dudley.
"Sandbox!" Dudley grinned in anticipation.
"Swing?" said Harry hopefully from behind.
"Sandbox it is, then." Harry was so tiresome. He always wanted the swings or the slide. He seemed to like whooshing through the air; heaven knew why. But her Dudley loved the sandbox. "Maybe you'll be a big developer some day, Diddykins," she murmured, helping him out of the wagon and handing him a plastic bucket and a small shovel.
Once the boys were settled in the sandbox, she looked up to see what the stranger was doing. To her dismay, she found that he had drifted over toward the sandbox as well. She glared at him again, but he wasn't looking at her. He wasn't looking at Dudley, either. His gaze was fixed on Harry. Just then Dudley pulled Harry's hat off, revealing his untidy mop of black hair. The stranger pressed a hand to his mouth.
Petunia had had enough of this. She put her hands on her hips. "Exactly what do you think you're staring at?"
The man turned to her with a faint half-smile. "Hello, Petunia."
She drew a hissing breath. "Do I know you?"
He came closer and extended his hand. "We've met once or twice. I'm Remus Lupin. I'm —" he swallowed "— I was a friend of James and Lily's."
Petunia took a step backward and pointedly ignored the proffered hand. "Then you're one of those — those freaks. You stay away from my Dudley."
"I only came to wish Harry a happy Christmas." He hesitated. "Could I play with him, just for a minute?"
Petunia didn't really like having this man anywhere near her family, but after all, it was only Harry. "All right. Just for a minute."
The man — Lupin — squatted down by the sandbox. "Hey there, Harry." His voice was gentle. "Remember me?"
Harry stared, his mouth working silently.
"Do you want to play hippogriff? You always liked that."
"Hipgiff?" said Harry, frowning thoughtfully.
"That's right — I'm your hippogriff!" Lupin lifted Harry up and set him on his shoulders. "Now we'll go flying!"
Petunia gave a horrified gasp — surely not right here on Magnolia Road! — but the shabby man merely went running in uneven circles around and around the sandbox.
And Harry loved it. His fists were clenched in Lupin's hair, which was already going grey at the temples. His head was thrown back, his eyes were closed, and he was giggling madly, great peals of baby laughter that Petunia had never heard before.
Finally the man slowed down, and then stopped, breathing hard, but wearing an enormous grin. He tossed Harry into the air and caught him, making the boy giggle again. "Did you like your hippogriff ride?"
"Hipgiff!" Harry crowed. He reached out and poked Lupin's nose gently. "Moony."
Lupin's thin face lit up. He tossed Harry and caught him one more time. Then he pulled the boy into a tight hug before setting him carefully back down in the sandbox.
"I've brought Harry a Christmas present," said Lupin, turning to Petunia again. "May I give it to him?"
She frowned at him. "I won't have anything magical in my house."
"It's not magical — it's just a toy," he assured her.
She watched him for a moment, and then glanced at Harry, now intent on digging with the shovel that Dudley had abandoned. Reluctantly, she nodded.
Lupin reached into the pocket of his threadbare coat and pulled out a long thin package wrapped in red paper. "Happy Christmas, Harry," he said softly, handing him the present.
Dudley made a grab for the package. Petunia scooped him up out of harm's way. He whined, but she whispered in his ear, "Let Harry have this one, love, it's nasty. I'll have better presents for my Diddykins as soon as we go home."
Harry pulled the paper off. He laughed and held up — a toy broomstick?
Petunia set Dudley in the wagon with a thump. "How dare you?" she shrieked, pulling the broom out of Harry's hands. Harry reached for it and began to wail.
"It's not charmed," Lupin insisted. "It doesn't fly, or do anything at all. It's only a toy —"
"There will be no flying broomsticks in my house." Petunia grasped the offending object with both hands, snapped it in half, and hurled it to the ground. Harry's wails grew louder.
Lupin looked at the pieces of the broomstick, and then at Petunia. He opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off.
"I'm raising this boy, and I'm going to do it my way. I'm not having any of this nonsense!" She picked Harry up and plopped him into the wagon behind Dudley, startling him into silence. "You are never to come here again. Do you understand me?"
Lupin froze. "Couldn't I visit Harry even once a year — even just at Christmas?"
"Absolutely not." Petunia's voice was cold. "No freaks. No visits. No owls. Ever. Have I made myself perfectly clear?"
He nodded slowly. For an instant, his eyes held a sadness so deep it almost frightened her. But then it was gone, and she convinced herself that she had been imagining things.
Lupin took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Goodbye, Harry," he said steadily. "You take care." He turned and left the park without looking back.
"Moony," said Harry again, his eyes following the shabby overcoat as it disappeared into the distance.
"Hush." Petunia picked up the handle of the wagon and began pulling the boys toward Privet Drive and home. "We've seen the last of that dreadful man."
. * . * .
A/N: Many thanks to Musings for a wonderful and super-fast beta read at this busy time of year. Happy holidays to all.