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Chapter 1: Wither
They had both been flowers, waiting to be harvested; and she had been a funeral flower, and she had grown better without rain, and flourished in the sunlight. The two of them; plucked much too young and left to bloom, or wither, in marriage instead. A thick waxen surface and a delicate frill of a petal – always, there were differences. One from seeds and the other from a bulb – maybe their differences had always been encompassing.
But, sometimes, she might think back and wander: and sometimes, only sometimes, she came to the conclusion that both being flowers should have been enough.
Petunia has never much enjoyed gardening: she has no particular artistic flair or desire to make everything beautiful. Instead, any time Petunia spends in the garden is insuring there is a nice neat lawn and square flowerbeds that are free of weeds – this much, she is prepared to do. But now, of course, she does not have a lawn of her own.
And here, instead, they are at ‘Muriel’s – a cottage drowning in overflowing flower beds, with strange wild flowers that it makes Petunia’s head spin. Here they are to stay for a tangible number of days until they are safe and Petunia thinks that they may be here for the rest of forever, and then everything closes in around her and it is difficult to breathe.
Muriel has roses growing up around her door; but not the sort that Petunia is used to seeing, polished and arranged carefully in bouquets, instead these roses are almost aggressive in their stark beauty – crimson reds, like fairytales, and then a deep purple. Three white roses, too, that almost seem to sparkle. But, alas, roses do not sparkle – and if these roses did sparkle, Petunia would rather pretend that they did not.
She is used to possessing knowledge and pretending that this knowledge doesn’t exist, and in a comparison to all the things Petunia knows a few roses that glitter like diamonds are easy enough to ignore.
Muriel is too old to be real and she is fowl. She tells Petunia that she is too bony and too long, she tells both Vernon and Dudley that they are much too large in every direction. None of the Durselys speak. How are they to live here, in this cottage, where nothing is exactly as it would have been normally? And normality had been the key to it all.
She has always thought that a nice, normal quite life is all that she could have wanted. It was easy to slip away from being the sister of somebody magical (in all the ways that she could name) and to wrap herself in conventions and marriage and having a nice healthy son. Petunia had never thought that sometimes life could be too quiet, leaving much too much room her head to think. She’d never thought their separation was permanent. And then it had happened: it had been so sudden, really, it had been so quick. Of course she resented it – in a singular perfect moment her life crashed around her ears bringing back all those abnormalities.
Why couldn’t things be simple?
Why couldn’t everything be normal and simple and clean?
And why, why, had she not spoken up?
The bed creaks when Petunia moves and the wall seems to progress seamlessly to the ceiling; when she leaves her room and emerges into the main section of the house she changes floors without going down stairs; and the red roses wink at her from outside the windows. They have doubled in size overnight.
She wakes early, that first day, and then she steps into Muriel’s kitchen.
For Petunia, cleaning is as easy as breathing. It allows her to think; it pushes every trivial thought from her mind and grants her, for a few moments, a chance at blessed relief. She likes to clean. Petunia has always liked to clean.
And so, she twists the stiff hot water tap onto full – there is always a certain comforting sameness about the way water emerges from a tap and into a sink – and she starts sifting through the draws of this woman’s, this Muriel, kitchen. She would hate it, if someone were to be so audacious as to intrude on her kitchen – but then, Petunia does not have a kitchen anymore. She takes out plates, cutlery and thick glasses that are more goblets, really.
The woman has no washing up liquid, but Petunia packed some just in case. She leaves the tap on as she retrieves the large bottle from one of the bags in the corridor and then she returns. It is the moment when her hands plunge into the depths of the sink that she treasures, when the hot water rises up around her hand. It is like her hand is drowning in it. Then, she has the power; Petunia has the power to clean, to scrub, to make things normal.
Nothing is impossible to clean, if you are dedicated enough to the cause.
The truth is the world is so full of dirt and grit that it is near impossible to avoid it. You can try. You can clean and you can scrub until your skin is red raw with the effort, but that will not change the fact that your parents are dead and your sister is dead and magic is real and you are still not a part of it. You can scrub until the whole world is sparkling, but there will still be mountains of crap that you cannot move.
And once it has all been cleaned, you find yourself looking for it again, just to wash it away once more.
At around half eight Vernon walks into the kitchen and sits down at the old rickety table – the wood is alive with age and magic and things that make Petunia uncomfortable. Later, she will scrub that too because nothing seems really clean.
Some people weren’t meant to believe in things like magic, but how is she supposed to disbelieve something that she knows, inexplicably, is true?
“Morning Petunia,” Vernon says, in the same way that he does every single morning – his sameness if comforting. She likes the fact that he is unoriginal. In fact, she loves him for it. Dudley too, who will most likely not be awake for awhile – Petunia doubts that even being relocated to live with a strange old witch called Muriel will disrupt her teenage son’s sleeping pattern.
“Cleaning those ruddy plates?” Vernon says with an approving nod, “probably never properly cleaned, these folks, no doubt happy to eat off things crawling with disease...” and then Vernon continues this tirade about witches and wizarding being dirty for enough time for her to be satisfied with the state of the breakfast things.
“Toast, Petunia love.”
“I don’t think they have a toaster,” Petunia says, and she can feel Vernon’s distaste – it pacifies her own, slightly, “I’ll walk to the shop later, then – best not to eat any of these things. Don’t know where they’ve been, exactly.”
“No, no quite right.” Vernon says, and he stretches back on one of the seats. For awhile it seems as though he is quite intently staring at a vase of the sparkling white roses on the counter, as if questioning whether or not it is just a trick of the light. Then, very quickly, he turns away from the flowers and continues to insult everything within the tiny kitchen until he has completely run out of words – during which time Petunia continues to scrub.
Petunia has always been pristine, and nobody had ever thought to ask her why.
It is worse in this strange foreign house, where a woman named Muriel breathes down their necks, and Petunia cannot shake away that feeling of things being dirtied.
Petunia simply likes to be clean and everyone has always accepted that. Words like ‘obsession’ were simply not thrown around in the Dursley household and anything that implied that she wasn’t perfectlyfinethankyouverymuch was shunned and polished away from sight quicker than the lingering dirt and grime seeping through the kitchen counters. She is pristine and she is clean, and nobody had ever asked her why.
There is often a reason for the madness, if you search for long enough, but nobody she knew considered cleanliness akin to madness. Nobody really thought about it all, or sent her long questioning glances as she scrubbed the pots until they were raw and sparkling with her efforts. If she could just get it clean enough.
The roses have all died by the time Petunia has cleaned everything in the house, and she considers that the life cycle of these magical roses is so absurdly sped up – and if one cannot trust the truth of the seasons then what is there left to trust?
Everything, every corner and crevice and hidden room of Muriel’s house is clean. Once, one of Muriel’s red haired relatives had suggested that this tendency to clean was down to a sense of obligation, but Muriel complains about every inch of cleaning she does – it is too clean, it is not clean enough. Muriel seems to be mocking her.
She thought, after this much time, she might be able to live – if not peacefully – but very nearly.
And yet still it nags her so.
“Still cleaning, Petunia?” Vernon asks uneasily.
“Yes.” Petunia says and then makes no further comment. Vernon shrugs his large shoulders before leaving her be in the kitchen, permitting her the space she needs with washing up liquid and the dirty pates and the pure release of manual labour.
Clean, Petunia, you need to clean.
She can feel the moment as if it is tangible – hanging around her. Another drop in her sea of regrets, another drop of water in the garden. And the moment haunts her; swimming around her head as she tries to justify herself. She remembers growing, sunshine and water, and she remembers her sister growing too; together they lived out their childhood mornings in the park, by the stream – together always.
She remembers her sister trying to explain that there was a war Petunia was ignorant of – she can remember the words washing over her. The way she would try to forget. Tuney, James says the dementors might join his side – they can suck out your soul, Tuney. Can you imagine somebody without a soul? It had been inherent that Lily had liked to imagine, half because some of her silly little stories had come into fruition – look, look what I can do! Look, I can make it move! – which may have explained why Petunia took such offence to all of these imaginary things.
She had never really believed that the separation was a permanent one. Yes, she wanted rid of all things strange and magical and abnormal: after everything she had lost; after everything they had suffered through together, separately, she had been entitled to some space. Their parents, wide smiling faces and bright green eyes – and Petunia, well, she had not expected death to be quite so frequent.
Can you imagine somebody without a soul?
The plate has a singular chip in its outmost ring. Muriel does not have crisp white plates, like in Petunia’s kitchen in a home she no longer has, but her plates are covered in delicate little flowers that twist and sometimes – although mostly she tries to ignore this fact – the little flowers and leaves seem to grow; entwining and twisting themselves in intricate and complicated patterns. Sometimes, on occasions when Muriel eats with Durselys (always horrible strained conversations when Muriel sits and begins to boast about everything she has ever achieved, whilst simultaneously insulting everything the Dursleys have ever done – she pokes fun at the fact they are muggles and regularly tries to engage them in conversations about their nephew) she talks about the history of these plates – fifteen generations, she says, hand crafted and a present from her late husband’s sister. The idea that these plates could be so old is intrinsically horrifying to Petunia, who cannot help but think of all the hundreds of hands that have scrubbed these plates (or worse, hands that haven’t scrubbed these plates –she was horribly alarmed when she discovered that Muriel usually cleans her plates with her wand) and all the years these plates have spent in other people’s cupboard.
“Bet they're worth a bit,” Vernon had said once, in an offhand way, “we could do a bunk, Petunia, make a run for it with a couple of her bloody antiques – who’s to say we really in danger?”
“They’re probably charmed,” Petunia had answered primly, “and they could track us down with one of their... curse things.”
And still, she has been staring at this chip for nearly twenty minutes imagining all the horrible things that could be festering there – she can almost see the tiny particles of dirt and the germs that have made the tiny line her home.
Today Muriel has visitors again. The woman is so old that Petunia supposes these people continuing to stop in are to ensure she has not simply died in the night (but it is reassuring to note that none of her visitors seem to find Muriel any less repulsive than she does – a sense of family obligation, she suspects), but they also send the Dursley’s furtive looks – and sometimes she wonders whether they are here just to look at the Dursleys. Here, they are the freaks.
All these visitors are all, apparently, sworn to secrecy. Vernon made a big fuss about it, she remembers, about how this was supposed to be their protection. These two are the same visitors who picked them up from Privet drive, months ago, and even the familiarity of those faces is comforting. Except, of course, their subtle hints about Harry.
And Petunia can feel it again. She can feel the tense expectation surrounding the moment, her nephew’s surprised expression – as if he could barely believe that she might have had something to say after all.
She can feel the dirt crawling up her sleeves and invading her clean pristine life. She can feel it all encroaching on her freedom, pressing down on her chest. Hands gripping her very thin neck. She is being plucked, once more, from a sea of flowers. When was she ever really given a choice?
Then the years of bitter resentment are creeping up on her once more: she blames her sister because if it wasn’t for her then none of this would have bloody well happened. If it wasn’t for Lily then she and Vernon might still be at Privet Drive, or maybe she might have even married someone else. Maybe, if it weren’t for Lily, she wouldn’t be so uptight. Could she help it? It was natural for siblings to purposefully rebel against the other’s choices, it was as normal as anything.... and if Lily was fighting in a magical war, then the only war Petunia would fight was one against bacteria.
And it would have been fine. Years later they would have began to speak again, of course they would, Petunia refuses to believe that they were finished with each other yet – or maybe they would have been. It is difficult to pinpoint a future that never came to be, because Lily is... well, she is dead. She was murdered. After everything she but Petunia through she hadn’t to go and get herself murdered. How selfish of her, really, to throw another hefty portion of grief and regrets at her – an extra son to boot (although she refused to let herself think of Harry as a ‘son’ or a ‘nephew’ or any relation to her at all, really). What was she to do? Without her parents, without her sister, without the normalcy she’d been fighting for?
Petunia Dursely was perfectly normal, thank you very much – but it was difficult to feel normal when, once again, her control was slipping through her fingers.
And why, why, had she not been able to express all these thoughts and mixed up emotions and grief to him whilst she had the chance?
Petunia realises how tightly she is gripping old of the plate in front of her. She grits her teeth and plunges her hands back into the water, it is cold now but that doesn’t matter, and she retrieves the dish cloth and continues to scrub. It is funny how you can clean and clean and never get something clean enough. It is, funny, really how you can scrub something until it hurts.
You can try until your back breaks but you can’t fix everything. You can channel every damn thing that fills your little mind through your hands as you clean, you scrub, you polish until your skin is cracked and your hands ache. It helps, actually, when your hands are throbbing with the effort when you go to sleep. But you cannot fix this: you cannot change the fact that you are here, so far away from home immersed in a world you refuse to believe in. You cannot change the fact that, when it counted, you were speechless.
All you can do is concentrate on the stifling regret until it consumes you.
“Mum?” Dudley asks, blinking in the door way of Muriel’s kitchen – poised, an alarmed expression in his eyes. This, Petunia has registered: that the manic way she cannot stop cleaning is scaring her son and she knows that the logical thing to do would be to pause, to stop, to turn around and acknowledge him – but it is so difficult to drag herself away from the addictive need to not stop moving, to continue. Logic is irrelevant when there is so much in the world that is not logical: to be an orphan, to be without a sibling, to be indifferent to the singular link she had to her parents, magic.
“Mum?” Dudley says again, and this time he approaches her. Petunia is staring at the glittering white roses and the blood red flowers that bloom just outside the window. Just beyond.
And she thinks; why lilies and petunias? Why not roses? Why not pansies and daisies? Why us, she thinks, and then – why me?
“Mum?” Dudley says, desperate this time: alarmed. Once more, an abnormality has crept upon them.
Petunia’s hands furiously chip away at the plate; the plate that has a chip and a growing pattern of flowers. Always flowers, she can never quite seem to escape them. She scrubs-scrubs-scrubs, to the beat of her pounding heart; frantic, winged, pulsating and the need.
She cannot stop. Why can’t she stop?
He is gone and she continues to clean. The water is stone cold but she can barely feel it, barely register anything but the pounding rhythm in her head as she thinks about the moment: pulling her handkerchief from her face and finding herself alone with him (and Petunia has always tried to avoid being alone in a room with him) . He was watching her, his green eyes –Lily’s eyes, her parent’s eyes – but he didn’t seem to be expecting anything. He seemed amused, more than anything. It seemed, through all the years she had left him with so little expectation that he didn’t even believe she wanted to say goodbye. It wasn’t for him, really. She had tried her hardest not to form any sort of connection to the boy who stood in front of her... but then, she caught his eye and then, and then...
“Petunia?” Vernon asks loudly, bustling into the kitchen, “Petunia?!”
She needs to stop. She needs to stop but she cannot. She has to clean, she has to scrub, she has to wash away every last particle of dust or else something will happen – she will not have control, she will not... she will not...
And then she had said goodbye and that had been easy, but there had been something in his voice that made her pause. It had almost been involuntary. It was a sudden realisation that all the people in her life that she had lost, she had never been given the opportunity to say goodbye to any of them. It was just, he was her nephew. It was just, he was Lily. He was her, growing, shooting up and sparkling emerald green eyes.
Vernon has approached her tentatively, and now he is panicking. He tries to grab her arms. He tries to physically stop her. Still she stares at the shimmering virgin white of the roses.
Why hadn’t she been able to articulate how she felt in that moment? Why had she let it slip by so easily? Why had she not been able to voice any sort of affection to her nephew, for Christ’s sake? There were so many things she had wanted to say, in that split second, but...
Lily, your mother, everyone loved her – who couldn’t? I was hardly surprised when she wound up with that James fellow, Head Girl – of course our parents were so proud. She was so good. If it had been the other way around, she would have done a much better job. I kept you safe. I didn’t want you; I never wanted anything to do with you – not the memories, the associations. I don’t blame you for hating me. I don’t blame her for blaming me.
Then, she snaps. She turns. The plate is in her hand, and then it is not in her hand, and then it is shattered against the wall in a thousand tiny pieces of porcelain. Petunia is in shock. She can’t think, breathe, know – she doesn’t know anything at all.
Muriel is in the kitchen, too, leaning against the door frame. Hestia Jones, the visitor, and her son and her husband. They all look at her with absurdly wide eyes.
“Now, really.” Muriel says, but she sounds as though she has been expecting it – she sounds as though she is enjoying it.
And so Petunia swallows and then, she cries.
She cries until she is dizzy.
And then she cleans.
You scratch and you scratch and you pick away at the little flecks of dirt: but the world is so dirty. The world is so full of horrible undesirable things and the world is so full of absence and loss and regret. There is nothing you can do about that now; you are trapped, of course. And you no longer have anything left to wash away.
Muriel has ordered Dudley to read a letter she has received from one of her relatives aloud. In the letter, a woman named Molly thanks Muriel for the offer of letting them relocate to her house if it the need arises – all this remains in cryptic code which Muriel explains to them, as she boasts about how dangerous the war is for everyone in her family. There is something about being magical that makes people believe they are somehow invincible – they had all been the same.
Petunia sits with her back straight in the living room and her hands folded firmly on her legs. Today, she has not cleaned. She cooked for them, Muriel included, a simple meal for lunch and let Muriel wash the plates with a simple flick of her wand (mostly because Muriel had looked to be in one of her moods, or likely to make continue comments about ‘not breaking anything again’). Muriel had sent her ones of those looks: a look of blatant superiority, and an enjoyment at the slight wince Petunia had struggle to withhold at the withdrawal of the wand.
But, she reminds herself, Dudley and Vernon had had to leave the room.
“Molly is Arthur’s wife,” Muriel continues, “the one with all the sons – one of them is supposed to be gallivanting around with Harry Potter, although I suppose they might well have made that up. Still, there’s got to be some reason why the ghoul is currently pretending to be Ronald with Spattergroit.” She cackles, enjoying her frightened audience.
Petunia sometimes wonders whether Muriel simply likes to have somebody to talk at.
“And Harry?” Petunia asks, the words carefully leaving her lips. All three occupants of the room turn to look at her obviously whilst she rearranges her hands in her lap. There is something in her son’s gaze that makes her heart jump, and the incredulity in Vernon’s eyes is almost painful (but then, recently he has been making a point at not looking at her at all very much – he seems to be slightly scared of her), but worse is Muriel – who’s sharp gaze has intensified dramatically. Muriel stretches out her long bony fingers and smiles slightly, “missing,” She says, enjoying herself, “Prophet says he’s done a bunk – might be dead, for all we know.”
Petunia nods once.
Dudley whimpers slightly and Vernon looks between them, as if slightly surprised that anyone seems to care.
Later, in bed, Petunia quantifies this, “he’s supposed to be some hero, if you listen to that Hestia Jones woman,” she says primly, “and if he fixes it, well, then we can all go home.” but she still folds her hands into a silent prayer before she sleeps and she still thinks about that moment whenever she washes her hands.
Lily’s bright red hair fanned out behind her as she sat, leaning forward imploringly in the Evans family kitchen; her green eyes were bright too – everything about Petunia’s sister seemed to shine. Petunia sometimes considered that Lily had inherited all the colour, leaving her with the dregs and the borderline greyscale. Sometimes she didn’t think she would mind existing solely in black and white.
“... There’s going to be a war,” Lily said, but without the glumness Petunia thought should associate with things like war, but the usual translucent aliveness that wreaked from her every pore, “James and Sirius say they’re going to fight. Me too, I think – for the muggleborns,” she offered their parents a sassy smile and stretched out her arms, “for witches like me.”
“For freaks like you.” Petunia added.
“I’m not a freak, Petunia,” Lily hissed back, folding her arms, “its people like you that make muggles so easy to hate.” As always with Lily there was an undercurrent of humour beneath it all, but not quite overweighed by the poorly hidden spite. Petunia was the same, except she usually missed the humour part.
“You’re the ones starting wars,” Petunia sniffed, “not scared, I suppose? All that bravery nonsense.”
“If you went to Hogwarts,” Lily said, pursing her lips slightly, “they wouldn’t put you in a house - they’d just put you with the house elves,” Petunia was never more irritated by her sister than when she referred to things she did not understand, something which Lily capitalised on regularly – all siblings like to wind each other up, after all, “then you could just clean all day.”
“Better than getting killed in some non-existent war.”
Lily leaned forwards again in her seat, brushing some of her red hair out of her eyes and widening her big green eyes. “Worse than killed, Tuney, James says the dementors might join his side – they can suck out your soul, Tuney. Can you imagine somebody without a soul?”
“What are dementors?”
“They guard the wizard prison,” Lily said, “so all the mad wizards could just break out now – there’s nothing to stop them.” and then Lily sent her one last confident grin before hurrying out into the garden where their father was tending to the vegetable patch.
Petunia watched her sister’s back for a few seconds and decided that she really did hate her. Everything about Lily’s presence in her life was irritating and irksome and that, she thought, rather answered her sisters question: can you imagine somebody without a soul?
Well, Petunia didn’t need much imagination for that. Just a healthy dose of self reflection.
I knew exactly where I wanted to go with this, but then I had the biggest problem writing it ever. I suppose it's ironic that the reason I wanted to post a new one-shot was because my story count was at number 19, which was just the most upsetting number - I just couldn't stand it. It was so unrounded.... but, anyway, sorry if this is terrible. Bah. Petunia wouldn't work with me for the longest time, I think I got there in the end though. Just about.
Oh, and I forgot to say before - thanks to Mangagirl/Emma to helping me out with this when I got stuck. This would still be a frustrating idea if you hand't helped :)
(Endless apologies for editing again - I noticed a spelling mistake in my authors note. What a fail.)