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In the language of flowers

Chapter Text

Petunia Evans is three years old the first time she shows signs of magic.

But these signs go unnoticed, because Mr. and Mrs. Evans are busy running after two small girls, and they are muggles. Perfectly normal, mundane people from the suburbs of Birmingham. Contentedly lower middle class. Their house is small but neat, with a little garden in the back and a view of the river. Glenn Evans works at an auto factory, and Violet Evans looks after the house and their two daughters.

Everything is well-ordered and regular. Petunia grows to like this. She likes order because it helps calm her down when her thoughts begin to clutter up like a horde of gnats, gnawing at her brain. She likes knowing that Daddy will be home for supper at five o’clock sharp, and she and Lily must absolutely turn their lights off by eight thirty, or Mum will be annoyed. It makes her feel safe. She counts the flowers on her curtains every night; twenty six. A nice, soothing, even number.

Lily has no interest in order. Lily is older than Petunia by one year, three months, and twenty three days. Lily is beautiful. She was a beautiful baby, a beautiful child, and though Petunia does not know it yet, will become a beautiful woman. Lily is beautiful because she exists outside of Petunia’s systems. Lily has red hair, which is quite rare, but she inherited it from Mum. Lily has green eyes. Again, quite rare, but they are identical to Mum’s. Lily has many more freckles than Petunia, but they are mostly confined to her arms and legs, not her face.

Petunia loves Lily dearly. But Lily does things like not come when Mum calls them in for dinner, preoccupied with the game, while Petunia drops whatever she is holding and bolts for the door. Lily is late, constantly. She takes ages to get dressed, and spends forever in the bath, daydreaming and singing to herself. Petunia cannot stand to sit in the bath for too long. The water is dirty almost instantly, and the thought of it coating her skin once more makes her want to squirm and shudder. Lily doesn’t tie her laces properly, and then complains when she trips. Lily knows three curse words, and whispers them in Petunia’s ear even as Petunia squeals and tries to drown them out.

The curse words are as follows: shit, wanker, slut. Even Petunia knows what the first one means, and Lily says wanker is a word for a bad man, and slut a word for a bad woman. Lily says this, so it must be true, because Lily is quite clever. Certainly more clever than Petunia, who enjoys the ordered nature of school but not most of the exercises. Still, her penmanship is impeccable. No teacher can deny that, although they are always disappointed with her, having had Lily first. That the younger Evans cannot live up the elder is seemingly absurd, in their minds. Lily will go very far, they tell Daddy and Mum. She must absolutely take the exams for university. She will make something of herself, something proper and right and beautiful.

For Petunia, well, there are always secretarial courses, or failing that, perhaps a nice boy. These are the sixties, of course, and there is only room for one exceptional girl in the Evans family. Petunia is alright with this. At least, she ought to be. Why would she want to be an exception? An exception is nothing to be proud of. Exceptions do not keep the world turning. It is all the people who do as they are told and who know their place whom society rests on.

Petunia tries to take comfort in this. She is important. She will matter. People need secretaries, don’t they? “Of course they do, love,” Daddy tells her. “You’ll be just fine, Pet. Can’t all be best in class, can we? I wasn’t.” And then he will laugh and ruffle her hair, and Petunia will scowl and shake a little but accept it, because he means well, despite how much she hates it when people touch her hair.

Daddy calls her Pet, and Mum calls her Petunia because she says it’s a beautiful name, and Lily calls her Tuney. Petunia always writes her full name: Petunia Mary Evans. Mary after Mum’s mother, who died during the Blitz. Petunia Mary Evans. If possible, Petunia would like to marry a man with a last name that has seven letters, so her full name will be balanced. Petunia Mary Allsopp, for example. Or Petunia Mary Baldwin. Or Petunia Mary Chapman. There are many possibilities. Lily’s full name is Lily Jane Evans, so she should marry a man whose last name has four letters. That will be more difficult. Alan? Barr? Cook?

Were Lily not so accepting of Petunia’s many rules, Petunia would probably hate her. Lily thinks some of Petunia’s rules annoying, others funny, but she has never mocked Petunia for them. She has never mocked her for washing her hands so often, or asking three or more times whether or not Mum locked the front door, or arranging all their dolls in a specific order that can never, ever be changed. “Oh, Tuney,” Lily just says, dramatically, blowing out her bangs, but she smiles while she says it, in that warm, soothing Lily-way that makes Petunia feel special, like she is who Lily loves best.

But that’s a lie. Lily loves Daddy best, and that isn’t fair because Petunia is the one who looks most like Daddy. She has his thin blonde hair, the color of ‘cornsilk’, Mum says, and ‘dirty dishwater’, Linda Edison at school says. Petunia fears that one day it will start to fall out and you will be able to see the shine of her scalp, same as she can see Daddy’s. She has his pale blue eyes too, watery and sharp at the same time. Daddy notices everything, just like her. He’s only learned not to say it. Petunia can’t help her questions and her comments and ticks, but she must or she will be a little freak all her life.

Lily has a face like a heart and shows all her teeth when she smiles, straight and white. Petunia’s face is longer, narrower, and she never smiles with her teeth, because it makes her look like a frightened horse. No one would ever compare Lily to a horse. Lily could be a model. Lily could be on the telly. Lily has stains on all her clothes and never tucks her blouse into her skirt and has runs in her stockings and wears down her shoes much quicker than Petunia but she doesn’t have to be careful, because she is so lovely. She doesn’t have to button herself up, tuck herself in. Lily can simply be, with no adjustments, no second thoughts.

Sometimes Petunia feels as though Lily is the initial flow of water, straight and true, and she is the remaining trickle at the very end. The last drops from the tap before you turn it all the way off. The leftover. Mum and Daddy wanted children for ages, and then they had Dale, but he died before he was one. He had weak lungs. Then, finally, three years later, they had Lily. She was all they needed, all they wanted. They just wanted something to love.

Then, entirely by accident, came Petunia, a year later. An unnecessary addition. Petunia tells herself that she is necessary, because otherwise the family would be three, not four. But it’s five if you count Dale, so she tries not to think about him and his little headstone in the cemetery. He was a boy, he had apple cheeks and blonde curls, he would have been Lily’s big brother. He was important. In her dreams, he is tall and strong and he lifts her up on his broad shoulders.

Petunia wishes she were tall like Daddy, like Lily, who is the tallest girl in her year, but the one thing she has of Mum is that she is short. Easily overlooked. Lily Evans’ scrawny little sister, clinging to her like moss on a stone, like ivy on a wall. Like dirt on a kitchen counter. To feel like dirt is the very worst feeling in the world. It makes Petunia want to curl up and die. It makes her say nasty things, although she would never, ever curse. It makes her want to hit and scream and pull up green grass the color of her older sister’s eyes.

Lily’s best friend Severus makes Petunia feel like dirt. He’s a skinny, greasy thing, who only smiles when Lily looks at him, and who only ever acknowledges Petunia with a curl of his lips. Petunia hates him. She hates the way he always watches them from the bank of the river when she and Lily ride their bikes past, hates the way he manages to secret Lily away, whisper and laugh with her, tell her things that make Lily silent and tense on the bike ride home.

Lily says Severus has a horrible home, that his father is a vile, nasty man and his mother not much better. But she knows better than to invite him back for supper, because Daddy doesn’t like Severus Snape any more than Petunia, and even Mum, who is unfailingly kind, always watches him warily from their front stoop, wiping at her hands with a rag.

Petunia wishes Lily would be normal, and make friends with one of the girls on their street. Trisha or Susan or Debbie, any of them. Instead these girls cackle when the Evans girls go by, because they are oddballs who hang around Spinner’s End and act like boys. That’s Lily, not Petunia. Lily is the one who got into a scrap when some older boys were throwing rocks at little Micky Hale. She punched Tony Walcott straight in the gut, left him doubled over and gasping in surprise, then turned on her heel and stalked away. Petunia watched with their bicycles, feeling the growing stab of anxiety in her stomach, which culminated in her bursting into angry tears on their way home.

“Why couldn’t you just leave it alone?” she demands, being nine and frightened, because now Tony Walcott and his mates might come around their house and throw more rocks, and it will upset Daddy and make Mum worry about letting them out to play. This might ruin the whole evening, because Lily will argue with their parents, and Petunia will grow more and more discomfited until she runs into their bedroom and throws herself on the bed, counting back the surge of fury.

Lily, being ten and outraged, glances over at her in indignation, curls blowing in the breeze as they swiftly pedal home. “Tuney, they were going to hurt him!” Lily always has to be the hero. Lily always has to be the one to do something. To lead the charge, to steal the scene. Lily always has to make Petunia watch, her one-girl audience to the great show of Lily Jane Evans’ incredible life.

“It’s not our business,” Petunia says, and purses her lips together. They never even talk to Mickey Hale. He’s just a little boy with taped up glasses and a bowl cut. Lily’s never said a word to him in her life, but now she will because she thinks he need protecting. Now Tony will go after him even worse, because he got saved by a girl.

“It’s everyone’s business if someone needs help,” Lily snaps, and doesn’t speak to her for the rest of the ride home, although she’s over it by the time they sit down for dinner. She can never stay angry at Petunia, or anyone, really for long. Lily’s anger is white hot and blinding, but it passes just as quickly as it comes.

Petunia’s anger is different. Cold and slow, it pools in the pit of her stomach. It bides its time and drips out at the worst moments. Lily is quick to forgive. Petunia is not. She is not as generous with her feelings, because they are precious things, and she can’t afford to waste them the way Lily does. She might run out. She might dry up. She might wither and die.

Petunia drips magic the way she drips anger. Sparingly. Subtly. Nothing overt or obnoxious. Nothing that attracts the stares of other children or the suspicion of adults. Just things that help her. Her dolls line back up after the football Lily was kicking about ruins their perfect symmetry. Her bed makes itself while she brushes her teeth meticulously. Tea that is slightly too hot or too cold settles to the perfect temperature. Magic maintains the realm of order she has built around herself.

Severus Snape explodes the summer when Lily is eleven and Petunia ten. He has been asking after a letter for months, ever since Lily’s birthday at the very end of January. Lily thinks it’s all some running joke, but it makes Petunia nervous. Why would someone write a little girl? Why would Snape know about it? Why would he expect it? Why does he get more and more upset, when the letter doesn’t come? She stands in the sand and silt by the river, taking small, slow steps. She wants to wade in, but she cannot stand the way everything sticks to her bare feet.

Lily is talking to Snape, and finally he says, loudly, fiercely, almost snarls it, “It’s her, not you.” He is furious. Petunia stops. The water is lapping at her pale white toes.

“Sev, what are you talking about?” Lily asks worriedly. “What.. what about Tuney?”

“I thought it was you, I was so sure- but it was her, it’s been her this whole time,” he snaps. “I- I’m so stupid!”

“No, you’re not,” Lily assures him, “come on- what are you talking about? What’s wrong?”

“I thought you were like me,” he mumbles, and the pale blonde hair on the back of Petunia’s long neck stands up. “But you’re not- you’re not magic, you’re not a witch. It’s her.”

The river’s edge suddenly surges up and over Petunia’s feet, splattering up around her ankles with a gurgle, and she shrieks and scrambles backwards, nearly falling down.

“Tuney’s not- Tuney’s not a witch, Sev,” Lily sounds caught between laughter and exasperation. “Don’t be silly. Is this some game? Come on, just tell me-,”

Petunia turns to face them, eyes burning, a strange ache in her throat, and rasps, “I am NOT a witch.” The sand underfoot feels loose and unstable. She feels like she might sink right through, and plummet down into the center of the earth. They are both staring at her. Snape in bitter fury, Lily in concerned shock.

“You are,” he sneers, “not that you deserve it. You act like a muggle. You look like a muggle. It should be her, not you-,”

“Stop it,” Petunia hisses, curling her skinny, witchy fingers into her faded skirt. “Stop it, stop it-,”

“What’s a muggle?” Lily demands. “What is going ON, Severus?!’

“I’m a wizard,” he says through gritted teeth, “magic is real, and I’m a wizard. I can do things muggles- people without magic, people like my dad, and your parents, and-,” he pauses, and his fury blossoms red and ugly in his sallow cheeks, “and you- things muggles can’t. And she’s a witch. It’s not- it’s not fair, it should be you,” he turns to Lily beseechingly, locking his hand in her own.

Lily, for once, pulls away and looks to Petunia. “Tuney?” she asks, slightly wavering.

“Stop LYING about me,” Petunia spits at him. “I’m not- I’m not a witch, you- you- you dirty freak! I’m not like you, whatever you are! I’m normal!”

“You won’t even be a very good one,” he retorts hotly, “someone like you won’t last a year at Hogwarts.”

“What is Hogwarts?” Lily shouts in frustration, hands on her hips. Her trousers are rolled up and the hems are caked with dried silt. “Severus, stop it! Petunia-,”

“You think I’m a freak?” Snape hisses at Petunia, taking a step towards her, too-big coat hanging off his shoulders. “You’re no better. Even worse, maybe. My mum’s a witch. It’s in my blood. You’re just a little mud-,”

A branch of the tree whose shade they’re standing in, stretched out over the river, cracks with an almighty snap, like a clap of thunder, and plummets to the ground between Petunia and Snape. It comes very close to hitting him, and sends up a small cloud of dust that clings to her. She swats at her skirt and shudders away from the massive branch and bursts into angry tears.

Distantly, she hears Lily tell Snape, in as close to anger as she’s ever directed at him, to just go home and leave them alone. And when he protests, his sneers fading to whines, she ignores him, stepping over the branch, and pulling Petunia close, wiry arms wrapped around her. Petunia sputters and sobs denials, resting her head against Lily’s chest, and only calms when her sister begins to hum, her breath evenly blowing out against Petunia’s flushed forehead.

By this time next year, Petunia has her letter.