The next night, Peony tried to focus her puffy eyes at a blank wall on the seventh level of the castle. She rubbed a tear-stained cheek on the sleeve of her loose, yet stylish cotton nightgown, having spent the entire day giving finch pedicures and crying over Roderick.
Peony without a boyfriend…
She took a slow, calming breath, the kind she’d learned from her part-time yoga instructor (who had also introduced her to the fine art of tatting) and pushed away the thought that her devotion to Roderick had meant nothing to him. Instead, she concentrated on the task that Aberforth had given her.
In spite of rules against such things as “adding an extra passage to a mostly impenetrable fortress”, she had to agree that it could be useful if say, certain people (students who were hopelessly addicted to, oh, she didn’t know, tea cakes maybe?) were trapped inside the castle (during an attack of epic proportions where tea cakes would become virtually unattainable) with no way out (and not enough quality rations to survive a siege, including said tea cakes). It all made perfect sense. Aberforth had told her that she could have all the tea cakes and peach marmalade she wanted. Simply do a little magic and the reward was hers.
She didn’t care about consequences. All she had left to live for was behind that wall.
Peony without a future…
Suddenly, the wall shimmered and large, double doors appeared. Peony stared at the polished wood and brass handles, wondering if she’d somehow skipped a step. Before she could review her instructions, the doors began to open and she heard voices coming from inside. Frantically, she ducked behind the nearest tapestry. She silently gasped as the doors opened wider and Luna Lovegood appeared, talking with someone… oh my, it was Ginny Weasley! Luna and Ginny kept watch as a stream of students (at least a dozen!) filtered out and disappeared. Peony thought it might have been a Prefect-In-Training meeting, until she caught sight of Seamus Finnigan (who couldn’t possibly be a Prefect, In-Training or otherwise, bluntly demonstrated by the raspberries he blew behind his friend Dean, and then pointing to the mousy-haired girl beside him). Peony shut off her internal rule-breaking alarms. She wasn’t going to turn in Dumbledore’s Army and earn a Galleon’s worth of House points for Slytherin. The last thing she wanted was to make things easy for Roderick and his resistance-to-the-resistance army.
“Forget you, Roderick!” she whispered to the angry pack of tutu-wearing trolls on the tapestry. “And forget her too!” That Rhonda, or whoever she was, wasn’t worth a Knutt of Peony’s time. When the students disappeared from view, she snuck back out and began walking past the spot where the doors had been, concentrating on light, fluffy goodness with gooey, sugary satisfaction. If they found her pastry-induced-comatose body the next morning and sent her away to St. Mungo’s Ward for luckless victims of a burnt-out youth, then so be it.
Peony with a plan…
As she completed her third pass, the doors appeared and swung open to a cozy parlor, exactly as Aberforth had described. There, on the wall above the hearth hung a picture of an adorable little girl.
The little girl was frowning.
“Hello, Ariana,” she began, smiling brightly at the painting. The little girl’s frown blossomed into a scowl.
Peony unfolded Aberforth’s crumpled parchment and double-checked the barkeep’s scrawl: “make Ariana laugh”. At that moment, all that came to mind was how her housemates had laughed when she’d read her first year essay titled, “How I Chose My Wand At Ollivander’s”. She recited to the portrait as much as she could remember: how a mysterious old wand had flown from the castoffs and trade-ins bin and into her hand. It was worn and weathered and when she’d asked Mr. Ollivander if it was an antique, he’d smiled and patted her on the head. Pansy had teased her for a whole week.
The little girl’s expression didn’t budge and Peony sighed. “I suppose you don’t have a Slytherin sense of humor. Honestly, I didn’t think it was funny either.” Peony pondered the disposition of the portrait as a paisley peach finch poked its head out from under her curls.
“Quiet, birdie. You’re distracting me.” But then Peony saw movement in the painting. She looked up at the little girl who pointed at her finch. “Oh, you like birds?”
Ariana nodded and the frown softened.
“I have lots of birds,” Peony explained. “She’s very excited because I promised her tea cakes when we get this passageway opened to Aberforth’s place.”
The girl’s eyebrows rose as the finch hopped around on Peony’s shoulder, picking a piece of lint from her hair. “She’s a very rare color. You see, she goes perfectly with my underthings. I designed them myself.”
Ariana’s eyes widened and she nodded her head.
Peony wasn’t sure what that meant. “You want to see my underthings?”
Ariana’s head bobbed up and down. Peony wasn’t sure that she wanted to take this much further, but the peeping finch and the nodding girl persuaded her to untie the ribbon at her neckline and slip the gown off one shoulder to reveal an embroidered paisley strap, to which the little girl’s mouth formed an admiring “oh”. Peony flushed with pride. It wasn’t every day that someone appreciated her fine hand-embroidery skills.
“I could show you the other strap too,” she offered. She pulled the gown past her other shoulder, blushing when it fell to her waist. But Ariana’s enthusiasm grew, and before she knew it, Peony was doing a perfect little twirl on the coffee table, modeling her modest camisole and panties.
“See? I sewed little bells into the waist band.”
Ariana clapped her hands and laughed as Peony spun around and around. She was still dancing when the little girl left her frame above the fireplace and the passageway opened up. The gentle tinkling of bells masked the quiet “poof” as a tray of tea cakes and Butterbeer appeared on the side table between the sofa and the love seat.
In the middle of one of her graceful twirls, she caught sight of Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood, standing in the open doorway to the Room of Requirement, staring open-mouthed at her.
Peony froze mid-twirl, her little hip bells jingling to a stop.
“Oh my Godric!” Ginny exclaimed. “Is that Peony Parkinson in her underwear??”
After Luna and Ginny got over the shock of finding Peony in her underthings (and after Peony slipped back into her nightgown behind the sofa), Peony had been obliged to explain herself, starting with the death of Squiggles and ending with Roderick’s betrayal of her heart.
The girls wore slightly unbelieving smiles until she got to the part about the sugar quills. Ginny’s smile had slipped through the retelling of the community service dates and she finally sputtered, “What’s so special about sugar quills?”
Peony looked up with forlorn eyes and sniffed. “Because I thought that was what it would taste like when Roderick kissed me.”
Ginny and Luna exchanged looks. “You never kissed Roderick?” Ginny asked.
“No,” Peony said. “Tea cake?” she offered from the overflowing tray.
“Not even once? I mean, you had this whole summer thing and… wait a minute.” Ginny gave Peony a hard stare. “If you wanted a sugar quill so badly, why didn’t you just go down to Hogsmeade and get one?”
“I couldn’t. I’d promised Roderick…” She grabbed a tea cake and bit down as the mere mention of sugar quills dredged up horrible memories of Roderick saying those awful things to her, like it was her fault that he’d gotten engaged to someone else while she pined for him every day they’d been apart. But even so, she couldn’t deny her burning curiosity about what Roderick thought he had been missing. “What does it taste like?”
“Sweet and sticky,” Ginny said matter-of-factly. She leaned over to Luna and whispered, “It has been a long time, if she’s forgotten what a sugar quill tastes like.”
Peony didn’t hear the whispering part. She licked her lips. She liked the sweet, but wasn’t too sure about the sticky. “People like getting sticky? With each other?” Sticking someone’s lips to someone else’s lips, and possibly becoming stuck…
“Umm, what?” Ginny looked confused.
“I think what she’s trying to determine,” Luna cut in, “is whether eating a sugar quill is like kissing someone.” She giggled. “It’s not, by the way.”
Peony relaxed as the sticky business faded from her mind. “But a kiss is sweet, right? Like candy?”
Ginny sighed with the patience of a saint. “It’s not like candy or sugar quills or any of that.”
Peony blinked with disbelief. “But what about ‘sweet as honey’?”
Ginny shook her head.
“Cherries?” Peony asked hopefully. Ginny just shook her head. “Chocolate? Candy floss?” The checklist of descriptives from all the stories she’d read dwindled to nonexistence.
“Mouths taste like mouths,” Ginny declared and took another swig from her bottle. “That’s all there is to it.”
Luna scrunched up her face. “And on a good day, slightly minty. If you really want to know, I’m sure plenty of boys would be willing to assist you. It’s easy to find out for yourself,” Luna nodded encouragingly.
Peony hadn’t decided if she should be dismayed at Luna’s audacity, or relieved that it could be that easy. Either way, the alarming notion of what she would have to do scared the little downy finch feathers out of her. “I can’t go up to some unclean boy and say ‘will you kiss me because I’ve never been kissed and my stupid ex-boyfriend seems to think that it’s a pre-requisite for life-long commitment and really, I just want to know what it’s like’, because that would sound utterly ridiculous!”
“Well, I’d leave out the bit about your ex, but the rest should work just fine,” Ginny told her.
“Really?” Peony looked hopefully at Ginny as a sudden irrational giddiness took over. “You’ve kissed plenty of boys. At least three, right? You could help me pick out someone nice and preferably with good hygiene?”
“Or…” Ginny looked frantically at Luna and then back to Peony. “You could wait until you meet someone who you might actually want to kiss. Then all you have to do is get his attention.”
“How do I do that?” Peony asked.
“I ate a worm once to get a boy to notice me,” Luna interjected. “I was six,” she added hastily.
Ginny snorted into her Butterbeer. “Last week, Luna hid behind a potted ficus tree in the Great Hall and ambushed Neville when he came around the corner.”
“I wasn’t hiding,” Luna said, wide-eyed at the accusation. “He’d been moping for days and I’d just lost my lucky socks. We were both much cheerier afterwards. Anyway, all Ginny had to do was walk up to Harry Potter and look like she wanted to be kissed.”
Peony remembered that Ginny hadn’t simply kissed Harry the-most-infamous-boy-in-the –history-of-Hogwarts Potter; they had been inseparable for the better part of last year until Headmaster Dumbledore died. After that, Harry had broken up with her and no one had heard from him since.
“It must have been horrible for you, Ginny,” Peony said. “Dating the Boy Who Lived and then breaking up with the Boy Who Disappeared.”
Ginny’s eyes glittered dangerously. “I keep busy and try not to let it get to me.”
Peony could definitely relate to that. “But sometimes, don’t you get mad?” Even with Peony’s community service and all her other activities, she’d slipped into self-pity because somehow, she’d believed that being with Roderick was better than being alone. “Even just a little?”
“She’s not mad,” Luna said. “She’s creating an army. For when he comes back.”
“Oh,” Peony said, taken aback. She supposed that channeling one’s frustrations was important, but creating an army? And then it clicked. “Oh! You mean you’re building Dumbledore’s Army!”
“You can’t tell anyone,” Ginny said in a whisper, glaring sideways at Luna.
Peony nodded in agreement. All good Slytherins were aware that secrecy was key in any hostile takeover from within and she had no intention of helping Roderick’s cause. It was against the rules (and that made sense, because Harry Potter was always breaking the rules) but her experiences in Muggle Studies had shown that the Dark Lord wasn’t doing anyone favors, even if they were pureblooded.
“I think I understand,” she said. “It’s like the detective said: sometimes there’s no right way to stop the wrong people.”
Terrence’s cookies hadn’t lasted long, but his kind-hearted message had made an impression. If he could live with life’s duplicity and still create perfection from a little butter and flour, then perhaps Peony could too. “You shouldn’t follow bad rules.” She stopped herself from grabbing the last tea cake, not needing them anymore. “Or kiss someone just because they expect you to,” Peony added, because that was wrong too. She hadn’t wanted to kiss Roderick in the first place, no matter how super soft and supple his hands had been.
Luna patted her pocket and then looked like she was remembering something. “Oops, wait a sec.” She slipped under the coffee table and reappeared with a shiny gold coin. “I got it! It was here, right where we’d left it.” she exclaimed and held the coin up triumphantly.
“Great. Now we have the whole set.” Ginny snatched the coin away from Luna and palmed it.
“What’s that for?” Peony asked, drawn to the glitter in Ginny’s hand. “I saw you both leave here before I came in. Is it something for Dumbledore’s Army?”
“Oh, well… err…” Ginny said, pretending that she wasn’t holding a shiny, magic-infused item that was probably connected to a secret plan to undermine the authority of the Headmaster (and quite possibly the Dark Lord himself).
Peony’s rule-breaking spree was starting to get the best of her. Maybe she didn’t want the Dark Lord in charge of the Wizarding World anymore. Maybe Harry Potter was right to be wrong. He’d won the Triwizard Tournament after all. And Peony’s Slytherin sensibilities told her that joining the other side would be the perfect payback for all the hurt Roderick had caused.
She put on a genuine smile and flashed it at Ginny and Luna. “Because if it is, I think I might be interested in helping you.”
Weeks blurred into months, which got dumped out the proverbial window, along with molted feathers and empty seed hulls. Every day, Peony pondered her predicaments and after a dismal Easter Break with her family (who had not even bothered to search for their hand-bedazzled Easter eggs because her not-really-but-getting-closer-to-evil-every-day step-mother and Pansy were too busy spouting their allegiance to the new regime) she had come to the conclusion that the Dark Lord’s influence was seriously threatening her happy little world. Additionally, there was a real possibility that unless she took matters into her own hands, she would never have a proper first kiss. So she kept her Dumbledore’s Army communication coin from Ginny and Luna close, and her lip gloss closer.
Prefect rounds were a monotonous solo routine, now that Draco had skipped out on his duties. Peony patted her trusty finch on the head and double-checked behind a tapestry for errant students, more out of habit than necessity. The castle was dead quiet at night. First years no longer fussed when a Dementor drifted too close to their windows and the rumors about what really happened to Hogwarts students who disappeared had put a stop to all rebellious activity.
When she heard footsteps behind her, Peony had every reason to be slightly-yet-not-quite panicky. She walked a little faster, hoping to keep herself and her little finch companion safe. When the footsteps quickened, Peony readied a counter-curse, gripped her wand inside her robe and wished upon a star for the best as she whirled around to face her stalker.
“Draco?” Peony squinted at his wrinkled robes, like he hadn’t gotten them pressed that morning, and dark circles accenting the tired look in his eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I have to talk to you.”
“Oh.” Peony turned around and walked away. The last time she’d talked with Draco, he’d led her heart to slaughter.
”I’m sure that was very nice for you both,” she said, wishing that Draco hadn’t shown up. Being alone with him still made her restless, and he kept bringing up the name of the last person she ever wanted to think about again.
“I heard you the first time,” Peony said, flushing with frustration. Her owl-post therapy sessions had gone so well. There was no reason to backslide now.
“He wants you to come to another meeting. He wants to apologize for how foolishly he acted.”
“He won’t get another chance.” Peony stopped short to face him. “If he was really sorry and wanted me back, then why hasn’t he sent a letter or tried to find me? It’s been months.” She caught her breath, along with a whiff of Draco’s subtle, yet distinctive cologne and suddenly her fluttering nerves made her want to get closer to him instead of walking away again… she realized that she’d lost her place in the conversation and grappled with her sanity. “I don’t think you’re telling the truth. In fact, you probably want me at another meeting so I can help you win the dueling competition.”
Peony looked straight at him to make her point, which was a mistake. Draco’s eyes glistened in the torchlight, but it wasn’t going to sway her into getting her hopes up. No matter what Ginny had said about how she’d “want to kiss” someone someday, Draco was no Harry Potter. He hadn’t killed a basilisk or scored the winning point in the final Quidditch match, but he always smelled fresh. Peony pushed onward down the hall, trying to ignore all that. She was determined to stay strong, even if she was running out of kissing options.
“But Peony, you have to come. We’re all pledging our loyalty to the Dark Lord. It’s the only way.”
Draco wasn’t the only boy in the castle, she reminded herself. Theodore Nott had an alluring I’m-a-loner-and-I-like-to-appear-aloof vibe, but he was always popping Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor into his mouth and she didn’t want to risk her first mouth-to-mouth experience on a bad bean. Blaise had caught her attention too, but his rather large nose had her wondering for days how exactly she would know which way to tilt her head. And what if, on her first kiss, she tilted wrong and missed?
“It’s not the only way.” She flipped aside another empty tapestry, searching for something else to do besides listen to him go on about pledges and promises. He sounded like her step-mother over Easter Break and she still wanted to kiss him. “If the Dark Lord wants to run the world, I don’t have to help. My pure blood gives me rights.”
“Not if you refuse to support him. Halfbloods, purebloods, it doesn’t matter.”
Draco seemed sure of himself, if not a little desperate. And still he was attractive, which Peony hated, since her current kissing prospects had dwindled to “Too Sweaty From Quidditch”, “Clothes Smell Like Mothballs”, “Cracks His Knuckles” and “Swears Too Often”.
“That’s not what they taught us in class. They said there’s a place for everyone.”
She watched a smirk play across his lips, and then her brain fogged over again. There was probably a logical reason that Draco had kissed every girl in the castle (besides her and most likely the first and second years). With all the practice, he ought to have developed a solid technique by now.
“It’s all a lie. He’s feeding them propaganda so they don’t panic.” Draco said, stepping closer to her. Peony’s heart pounded wildly against her chest. It wouldn’t be that bad to kiss him now.
“It’s just a matter of time.”
“Until what?” Peony wanted to know, staring at his clear eyes, his perfect nose...
“Before they’re all dead.”
Peony gasped. “What? Why would anyone want to kill all those innocent people?”
Draco chuckled darkly, but it wasn’t funny, not even to him. “It’s not what anyone wants. It’s just the way it is. Join him, or die.”
Peony couldn’t fathom that the professors had been lying to her all year. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because I have one of these.” Peony stifled a squeak as Draco took a step back, undid a few buttons and whipped it out; the undulating snake tattoo covered his entire forearm. He was branded by the Dark Lord himself!
Wizards were forced to perform terrible acts to earn that mark – torture, tax evasion, teasing elderly people when they’ve fallen and couldn’t get up without calling for assistance… Peony wouldn’t put it past Draco to do any of those things, but up until now, she’d been able to pretend that none of it existed. Her world tilted, sliding her most precious dreams into the abyss, along with the pony-never-ridden, her dream wedding with Roderick in the North Pole and her best friend Squiggles the house elf.
The Dark Lord was evil. His followers were everywhere. In fact, one of them was standing right here.
“It’s all really, really real?” she whispered, unable to tear her eyes away from the dark lines that seemed to move along his arm on their own.
“It’s very real, Peony,” Draco said, flexing unnecessarily.
Peony thought about the people she knew - nice, decent Muggle-borns and half-bloods and what the world would be like without them. Roderick wouldn't want them all to die! He’d already told her last summer that the potential inbreeding hazards of pureblood wizards was becoming a problem. Peony did some quick Arithmancy in her head. In two generations, Roderick’s family would be permanently scarred. She tore her eyes away from the Dark Mark on Draco’s arm, all thoughts of kissing him or anyone else gone.
“I have to find Roderick right away!” Peony said, tears in her eyes at the thought of Roderick’s grandchildren having six toes and heart murmurs and facial blemishes...
Draco nodded. “I’m sure he can’t wait to see you again.”
Peony rushed through the halls, not really paying attention to where she was going. She was so busy composing a persuasive argument to prove to her ex-boyfriend that joining the Dark Lord was not in the best interest of his progeny that she almost missed the giggles coming from the broom closet down the hall. Her Prefect instincts took over immediately. If she wasn’t kissing anyone tonight, then neither would anyone else. She threw open the broom closet door, ready to brandish her Headmaster-approved authority.
Words froze in her throat as Roderick and her half-sister gaped at her. Peony shielded her little bird’s beady eyes and concentrated on a spot above the perpetrators’ heads. She slammed the broom closet door shut and applied a sticking charm for good measure. Ignoring the scrambled rustling noises (that sounded suspiciously like empty sugar quill wrappers) and the frantic pounding on the door, Peony whirled on her heel and stormed off to her dormitory.
It was clear that Roderick was past the point of being saved. She’d feel bad about that later. Right now, the rumors about the Headmaster and her professors that she’d dutifully ignored all year suddenly seemed perfectly plausible.
Peony pulled out the shiny gold coin, rubbed it and whispered, “Ginny? Luna? Can anyone hear me? It’s Peony Parkinson. I’m ready to join Dumbledore’s Army.”
A/N: Extra special credit goes to EnigmaticEyes 16 for her “Mouths Taste Like Mouths” line that I shamelessly borrowed (with her permission, of course!). If I were so clever, I would rule the world. Also, I have to thank ladybirdflying for her tireless eyes, and CambAngst for agreeing to hop on board the beta train and helping Peony to be all the Mary Sue that she can be. Most importantly, if you have read this far, you have my deepest thanks! Cookies if you leave a review!
Write a Review Better Days Than These: Girl talk, more sugar quills and secret passages