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Better Days Than These by Pixileanin
Chapter 4 : Fudge
 
Rating: 15+Chapter Reviews: 9


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Finished with cleaning the finch cage, Peony gazed at the colorful birds that perched and peeped along the canopy rods of her bed. They sounded so happy that she decided to let them stretch their wings a while longer while she sorted through her matched silken underwear sets.

“Don’t do it.”

Peony sighed, tri-folding her baby blue panties, careful to tuck the corners of the little bows into neat creases. Menial chores usually helped to clear her head, but even after three sets of underwear, she couldn’t stop thinking about Draco’s invitation.

“He’s going to soil you, Peony, and you know it.”

“It’s just tea cakes,” she replied, reaching for the matching push-up with the embroidered edelweiss straps.

“Your sister will poison your pumpkin juice when she finds out.”

Peony looked up at the stuffed lamb on her pillow. “You said the other day that she’d never hurt me.”

“Not without good reason,” the lamb said. Or rather it intoned from somewhere within. Its embroidered mouth didn’t move, yet it went on as if all stuffed lambs were magically infused with sound Slytherin logic by loving-yet-strangely-distant-and-cold stepmothers. “Poaching boyfriends is not proper. Breaking the rules gets you punished.” If Lambie could have looked indignant, it would have – the glass eyes only shimmered in the candlelight.

“I’m not interested in Draco,” Peony told her, trying to look innocent and unaffected. But then she sighed and faced her little lamb with resignation. “I don’t want to break the rules Lambie, but he said that Roderick will be there and I haven’t seen him or talked to him in such a long time. We are perfect for each other! We’re both dedicated to community service. We both adore French cuisine and spending long afternoons in the park playing chess under the cherry trees, and he holds my hand so very tenderly.”

Peony sighed again. “I need him, Lambie. If I could only see him, I just know he’d soothe my anxiety over the death of our friend Squiggles and those poor boys. He’d tell me all about our bright future together. And then we might even have time to eat sugar quills and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes.”

The bed was so quiet that she stopped stacking her underthings to look over at Lambie, who had slipped a little and was now lying all wonky-like across her covers.

“I haven’t touched a sugar quill since last summer,” she continued, ignoring her stuffed friend’s almost cross-eyed stare. “I’ve been faithful and true and I know in my heart that he loves me.”

She sighed once more, this time with great longing. “I simply want to know why he hasn’t answered my letters.”

Peony had tried to forget the sting of disappointment at Roderick’s silence. So many people had let her down: her father, the babysitter she had when she was seven, the elderly lady that lived down the street, her best friend when she was ten – all of them left her, never spoke to her again, or died… Peony hadn’t allowed herself to be sad or angry, but that hadn’t stopped the nightmares afterwards. The only thing that calmed her was writing in her dream journal.

Lambie spoke again. “You should be patient. I’m sure he’s very busy following orders. And with so much work to do, even you haven’t kept your promise to write to him every day, have you?”

“Well, no, but…” The last letter still sat on her desk where she’d left it after seeing Roderick at Hogwarts.

“Oh no!” Peony frantically stuffed the rest of her laundry into her dresser and ran to her writing desk. She’d been hurt… no, no… confused when he’d disappeared without a word. Her quill scratched furiously onto a new piece of parchment; “Dearest Roderick, please forgive me. I didn’t know where to send this letter after I saw you at the castle...” She continued for a page and a half, composing a lovely poetic apology at the end. Then she sealed it up neatly.

“What are you planning on doing?” The lamb’s eyes sparkled dangerously.

“I have no choice. I have to go to Hogsmeade with Draco. I have to be sure he gets this,” she told herself.

“Nonsense. You do not need to break rules over a silly letter.”

Peony knew Lambie’s warnings were for her own good, but her Slytherin sensibilities told her that at times like this, personal agendas were more important than following rules. “I’m going to personally deliver the letters to Roderick and tell him I’m sorry that I stopped writing. He’ll understand. He loves me.”

She changed into her pink and green little lamb print pajamas and found Lambie waiting on her pillow, as usual.

“Brush your teeth and hair?”

Peony nodded and kissed every one of her little finches on the head before securing the cage. She patted her friend on the head. “Yes, Lambie. I completed all of my assignments and took my vitamins too.”

Lambie always helped her follow the rules. But today, for the first time, Lambie’s advice didn’t make sense. Instead of talking her through a logical solution, the lamb seemed to be asking her to ignore her promise to Roderick entirely, which was completely unconscionable.

Suddenly, an image popped into her head of the little lamb being pitched out the highest window of the Gryffindor Tower. In her mind, she watched poor Lambie plummet to its morally ambiguous death. Peony turned the stuffed animal around and stared into its beady eyes, squeezing Lambie tighter as she thought hard about how its fluff would be scattered in the wind and blown to all four corners of the Forbidden Forest.

Then she blinked disbelievingly, unsure of where those horrible thoughts had come from. She let up on the stuffing, reminding herself that she was better than her half-sister Pansy. (Pansy’s stuffed bear hadn’t made it past second year, having had an unfortunate run-in with Hermione Granger’s Kneazle when her sister had “accidentally” snuck it into the Gryffindor Common Room with a necklace made of lemon grass and catnip.)

Peony tucked Lambie under her chin. Her lamb kept her on the path of questionable righteousness, even if the road map was inconveniently packaged.

“I love you, Peony,” the lamb said at last.

“Love you too, Lambie.” Peony reached across the bed, took her sleeping draught and blew out her candle.


***
 

Saturday evening, Peony dressed in an I’m-sneaking-out-of-the-castle-so-no-one-will-notice-me-but-once-I’m-in-Puddifoot’s-no-one-will-be-able-to-take-their-eyes-off-me ensemble. She didn’t have a finch for that, so she left them all in their cage for the night, tucked the undelivered letters into her pocket and hurried up the stairs, two at a time at the appointed hour. She snuck past Filch, who was wrestling with a new batch of cursed graffiti.

Draco stood anxiously by the statue, which was odd because the Head Boy should look solid and self-assured, and oh so very hot… but the only thing Draco had going for him tonight was his hair, and even that seemed a little out of sorts this evening.

“Run out of coconut conditioner?”

Draco ran a hand through his hair. “How’d you know?”

Peony magically lit the end of her wand and led the way through the tunnel. She might have wasted an opportunity for an easy insult at breakfast the next morning, but a reunion with Roderick was enough to quell errant thoughts of Draco. She’d taken the time to study the tunnels in and out of Hogwarts , having reviewed the Prefect handbooks, “How to Catch Trouble Makers For Good” and “Sneaky Spots To Hide From Unsuspecting First Years”.

Peony ran her hands along the thick stone walls, thinking that the professors were probably going to close this passage too (All the other secret passages had been closed off. It was only a matter of time), and then the Slytherins would have to find something else to amuse themselves with other than pulling the Hogsmeade Alarms and watching the old barman run out of the Hog’s Head Inn screaming “darned kids” at the top of his lungs (Peony had heard it was quite entertaining).

They reached the end and pushed open the cellar door into the back room of Madame Puddifoot’s. Someone had shoved the tables against the walls, cramming the rolling carts full of silver cutlery into the corners. Peony ignored the makeshift banner supporting the Dark Lord that had been strung up along the rafters, choosing instead to admire the shelves of lovely tea cups.

With all the laundry folding and ink blotter cleaning she’d been doing (after Squiggles’ untimely demise), Peony had been thinking about a lot of things. The Dark Lord had most of Wizarding Britain by the throat and didn’t take kindly to disagreement with his plans. Voicing disagreeable opinions was another valued Slytherin trait that hadn’t been reconciled with the new rules – or at least how they were being interpreted by the Carrows.

As long as the meeting didn’t start off with “Hail the Dark Lord”, she’d probably be alright. More importantly, she had to find a way to convince Roderick that she was still wholly devoted in spite of the missing letters. She’d never broken a promise before now. She’d never snuck out of the castle or attended a secret meeting behind the backs of the faculty either. Peony didn’t like this new string of firsts she’d stumbled into, but she was here now. She might as well make the most of it.

She pushed Draco over to the group of robed figures along the back walls. “I’m here,” she announced. “Where is Roderick?”

Draco shrugged. “Have a seat.” He shoved an empty chair at her. Peony sat down and picked up a stray menu that had been tossed aside, hoping it would distract her from her impatience.

Theodore Nott cleared his throat and banged his wand against one of the tables to get everyone’s attention. “We all know why we are here.”

Peony raised her hand and Draco made noises of protest next to her. “Better clear it up for the new folks,” he muttered to Nott.

“Right. We’re sick of the goodie two shoes that call themselves Dumbledore’s Army. Though the Unforgivables are right wicked, we never practice simple hexes in school anymore. I’ve been reading up.” Murmurs of surprise spread around the room like a vat of melted wax. “It’s no big deal,” Nott countered. “Anyway, if we’re going to be ready for the Dark Lord, what we need is a Broad Arsenal of Offensive Techniques. That means that all our charms and hexes need a good workout. And we need a name.”

“Excuse me,” Peony interrupted. “What about the Students Against Dumbledore’s Army?”

“Yeah, that sounds brilliant.” Someone tapped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. Nott addressed the group again with a broad smile. “He’s here! Our fearless leader of, umm… the SADA, I guess.” He made a grand flourish with his arms. “I present to you, Roderick Spinks.”

Peony nearly fell out of her chair at the sight of him. When his eyes landed on her, she expected a similar expression of jubilance, but he seemed to look straight through her. Then she noticed the familiar looking box under his arm and a bright smile appeared on her face. She almost rose out of her seat and rushed across the room and…

Roderick addressed the group. “There’s no time like the present, so let’s get to it. Anyone who makes it to me unharmed gets a prize. On my mark… one, two, three!”

Peony jumped as the room exploded and the curio box to her right was blasted into tiny shards of wood. She was jolted out of her seat by a hex that hit a few inches away from her ear, crashing into a display of tiny, collectable spoons. The plaster crumbled above her. She glanced over at Roderick in the far corner, well out of the way of the flying spells. Peony gathered herself together and blasted her way through the fray to her one and only true love, who was holding the box of sugar quills over his head like a coveted trophy. He must have been saving up for all the times they had been apart!

Peony’s heart pounded as she deflected a stray curse that threatened her perfect curls and sent a stack of tatted doilies up in flames. When she finally, triumphantly turned around to present her letters to him and receive her well-earned token of his love and affection, she gasped as he handed the last sugar quill to a girl she didn’t recognize.

In fact, as she maneuvered through the smoking velvet draperies and piles of smashed serving dishes, she noticed that almost everyone in the room had a sugar quill, besides herself (and Draco, who had holed up under a table on the opposite side of the room and didn’t look like he was coming out any time soon). Roderick tossed the empty box to the side, along with Peony’s fragile and now bleeding ego.

Disbelief boiled within her as the letters dropped to the floor. It was their special treat all summer long, and here he was, giving out sugar quills to every other girl like it was… candy. He’d promised that he would save his sugar quills for her, just her, and only her, and he’d given away an entire box to everyone else.

“Oh, hello Peony,” he said, pretending to see her for the first time.

Something snapped and the ceiling cracked above them. “Hello?” Peony’s voice rose over the din. “That’s all you have to say to me?” The last of her frayed composure broke. She gripped him and shrieked at the top of her lungs.

“Where are my sugar quills?!?”

“Umm,” Roderick looked like maybe he had forgotten something important.

The realization hit Peony so hard that she nearly toppled into a stack of crisply-folded floral tablecloths. He didn’t love her. Not one bit.

Peony struck at him with her delicate fists. “You gave away all of my sugar quills! Don’t I mean anything to you at all?” Peony felt tears welling up and let out a frustrated scream. Slytherins weren’t supposed to cry.

“What are you talking about?” Roderick asked, trying to pry her hands off of him. “We haven’t spoken in months.”

“What?” Peony let him go in shock. “Didn’t you get my letters?”

“The psychotic series of iambic pentameter that professed your undying love and how we were never going to be apart after you graduated? Yeah, I got those. I thought they were a joke from your meddling sister.”

The crazed contraction of Peony’s irises told him otherwise.

“What was I supposed to think?” Roderick scrambled to put some distance between them. “We held hands and ate sugar quills for three whole months. Draco bragged all summer about what he did with your sister and I never even got a kiss out of you. What kind of girl leads a bloke on like that?”

Peony sniffed. “I thought you were being chivalrous and noble.”

Roderick stared at her like she had two heads. “I thought you just wanted to be friends.”

The oversized crystal chandelier tilted dangerously above them. Peony was about to tell Roderick that she’d never felt so wonderful until she’d been with him. Actually, she’d never felt any different than she normally did when she was with Roderick, but it had been wonderful in her head… it could be wonderful if they tried again, she just knew it!

“I’m sorry,” she pleaded as he backed away. “Please forgive me. I was a little upset. I… I can live without the sugar quills. We were so happy together, Roderick. Don’t you remember? The chess? The community service?”

Roderick was temporarily distracted by Nott, who ran past holding a cucumber serving tray (solid silver, not sterling) over his head as a makeshift shield to protect himself. It might have fit him better if his head had been more cucumber shaped, but both Peony and Roderick admired the ingenuity.

Then Roderick turned back to her. “Sorry Peony, but I’ve moved on.” The girl who had taken Peony’s sugar quill slid up to him and he put his arm around her. “This is Rhonda. We’re getting married.”

The chandelier creaked low and loud and everyone scooted out of the way as it came crashing down in the middle of the wrecked tea shop. Roderick and that girl had scrambled to safety and Peony rolled under the remains of a mahogany china cabinet, ignoring the dark red stain on the Persian rug that would probably never come clean.

When the red and green blasts resumed, breaking windows and leaving cracks in the outer walls, Peony forgot all about reconciling with Roderick, the sugar quills, any of it. She got on her hands and knees and crawled through the debris and discarded sugar quill wrappers to what looked like an exit. She looked both ways before darting out of there and down the hill, wanting to get herself and her singed curls as far away from that disaster as she possibly could.


***

Peony stumbled through Hogsmeade, blinded by her tears and the screaming wind, searching for someplace safe and warm and sugar quill-free. The rational part of her knew that she should turn around, but Peony wasn’t ready to re-enter Madame Puddifoot’s and stumble over the pieces of her broken heart to get back to Hogwarts.

She strained against the locked doors of the Three Broomsticks and then slumped against them. Peony felt a well of panic rise up from within as the wind whipped all around her.

Then she saw a dim light in the distance and stumbled towards it, hoping against all hope that someone would let her inside. But when she got to what looked like an old broken-down shack, the sign alone made her back up a few paces. It was the head of a wild boar, all the gore still dripping out. The light behind the curtains flickered as someone inside moved about.

She was blown against the door by a heavy gust before she could decide whether to turn back or try her luck inside. And then she felt cold. Really, really incredibly cold. And sad. And despairing. Ghostly forms closed in around her. She let out a scream as the door behind her opened and a hand grabbed and yanked her inside.

“Are ya daft?” A crusty old man with a ratty gray beard let go of her collar and stuck his wand out the door. “Expecto Patronum, ya beastly lump o’ pillow stuffing!” A burst of light exploded from his wand. Peony had to shield her eyes from the momentary afterglow through the dusty window.

As the Dementor retreated into the swirling darkness, Peony gave him a wide-eyed stare. “I didn’t know that spell worked with insults,” she said, impressed and appalled at the same time. “Don’t you need to use happy thoughts?”

The old man smirked as he bolted up the door. “A few years back, this brawny woman, came ‘round several times a week. She had the foulest mouth when we, ahh…” He seemed lost in his brief reverie and sighed. “Good memories.” Then his scowl reappeared. “Look. I’m not gonna explain myself to ya. Yer the one sneaking around out where ya don’t belong.”

He sloshed a frothy mug in front of her and soon Peony was crying into a Butterbeer about Roderick, about the lost tea cake opportunity, and all the senseless death. On top of it all, she’d committed several serious infringements that were punishable by expulsion.

“I’m a rule breaker!” she sobbed.

“There, there missy. I’ve been running this pub fer a long time.” He patted her hand. “I know what it’s like ta be utterly disappointed by those ya love.”

Peony sipped her Butterbeer, now a little more salty from the tears, but still sweet. She was starting to tremble a little.

“Tea cakes,” she said weakly, chasing away the memory of Roderick’s fingers entwining tightly around hers for hours… and now his arm hung around another girl. In public even! A chipped plate clattered in front of her. The round, dried out pastries looked more like day-old biscuits, but she was desperate.

“Peach marmalade,” she whispered. People had seen her with Roderick and assumed things about them last summer, and Peony had believed it all. Now, he was going around with someone else, someone who probably let him hold her hand and… and other things too. Her head was pounding and if she hadn’t been sitting down, Peony was sure she’d topple over.

A jelly jar slid under her nose, followed by a dented butter knife. “So ya came from Puddifoot’s, did ya? Ya follow the Dark Lord?” He eyed her suspiciously.

“No, I followed Draco down the hidden tunnel,” Peony told him, scraping a dribble of marmalade off her chin with her fingers. It was too late for daintiness.

“I always told my brother that the castle needed more than one secret passage down to here. A real secret, mind ya. Not one that everybody knows about. That’s right pointless if ya ask me. Especially now that things are getting dicey. But he never listened. What with the Death Eaters taking over, yer all doomed I reckon.” The old man sighed. “We had our differences, me and Albus. But now and then I miss the old fart.”

“You are the late Professor Dumbledore’s brother? You look nothing at all like him,” Peony said, digging into another pastry.

The old man scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Why that’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me,” he told her. “Call me Aberforth. How’s about a little proposition?”

The old man continued on about “what I want” and “what you want” and how they could benefit each other. Peony half-listened as she fortified herself with a stale, crumbly façade of marmalade and biscuits. She’d been so perfect for so long and now her rules had failed her. Her dreams of happily ever after had been shattered. She was broken and her life would never be the same.

Peony gulped down her last bite and reached for another tea cake. “What do you want me to do?”

 




A/N:  I love you for reading this.  I have cookies if you have comments.  Thanks!


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