The table is set and there are covered dishes on the counter, but Penelope is nowhere to be found when Percy arrives home (he's late, he knows, she's probably worried sick.)
He had to tell terrible lies about her at work today, but he thinks he's convinced them. Percy shudders to know that they think him so easily swayed from what he once held dear, that only a few utterings of ugly words are enough to convince his superiors that they needn't investigate him any further, that he certainly has nothing to do with the disappearance of the mudblood called Penelope Clearwater.
Percy called her terrible things as he sat in interrogation, in a cold, matter of fact voice. He called her a whore, a dirty-blooded slattern with whom he'd ended things months ago. Behind his tenuous occlumency shield, he swore up and down as every ugly, untrue word fell from his lips, that he'd fall to his knees before his princess when he got home and beg forgiveness.
The Fidelius is holding true (it should, he's her Secret Keeper and he'd rather get himself sent to Azkaban than surrender her to Commission), but he doesn't need anyone from the Ministry poking around and wondering why he talks to and embraces thin air.
He finds her in bed, curled up on his side of the bed, still wearing the jeans and cardigan she'd been wearing this morning when he left. Penny isn't asleep, but she doesn't sit up when he approaches. Her fingers are ink stained, but her muggle notebook is open, abandoned on the nightstand.
He used to love reading her stories. She'd write him fairy tales with bespectacled red-haired knights who wielded pens and paperwork instead of sword and shield and former-statue-princesses with proofreading skills beyond compare, with stick-figure illustrations (drawing was never her creative pinnacle) and happy endings. They were sunny and beautiful and so much more elegant than the awkward, nervous love letters he posted to her. He tried to learn for her, to glean what he could from the lyrical, meaningful words she wrote to him to fill up the page after the happy endings had played out, but he feels he'll always be more talented with reports and briefs.
Percy glanced at her notebook a few days ago and promptly glanced away before reading a word. There was a lonely-looking little stick-bird in a cage decorating the corner, and he couldn't bear to read Penny's inked lament.
Since she was fifteen, since those wretched months he sat next to her stone-still form, she has never stopped moving. "I've had enough sitting still for a lifetime," she told him once, grinning as she gathered up a snowball and pelted him with it, running away into the field behind her parents' house until he chased her down and tackled her into a snowdrift.
Penny can't bear to stand still, and she's going mad in the safe little cage he's made for her.
She should be angry, he thinks. He's two hours late, the dinner she made is cold on the table. But Penny just lays motionless like he's not even there.
He's on his knees beside the bed, pushing her hair out of her face, out of her sad hazel eyes with a gentle, trembling hand. "I'm so very sorry," is what he says, whispers.
"It's all right," she whispers back, her hand smoothing over his. "I'm just glad you're home."
"I'll always come home to you, Penny-princess," he promises softly, laying his head down on the bed beside hers. Percy watches her until she falls asleep.
He writes a love letter that night, before he crawls into bed next to her, and leaves it on the desk for her to find after he leaves for work in the morning.
It isn't elegant. It's stodgy and halting and awkward, but he means every word. I'll find the key and unlock your cage someday, Penny-princess, I promise. I love you.
He finds a little story in his briefcase later the next day (she'd woken before him, she must've found it early), written on a ragged bit of paper torn from her notebook.
Once there was a little bird in a cage. Because she was a songbird, the falcons outside thought she was weak and unworthy, and would've hurt her had she squeezed between the bars. She was sad, but she was not alone, because an eagle loved her. Even though the falcons thought he was their friend, the eagle loved the little bird and kept her safe, even if he could not open her cage. Every day the eagle and his friends worked to drive away the falcons, to make outside safe for the little bird, so she might leave the cage.
And the little bird was happy, because she knew her eagle would unlock her cage someday, and until then he'd put his head through the bars and share it with her.
There was a little stick illustration beneath it, two stick birds, one small and one big, on a perch together, with little hearts drawn around them. Percy has to burn it (how would he explain should it be found?) but it doesn't matter because every word in written indelibly in his memory.
She's waiting for him at the door that night, a soft, bittersweet smile on her face, and Percy loves his little songbird so dearly, and he knows with a certainty, as she wraps both arms tightly around his waist, that he will give Penny a happy ending if he has to write it in his own blood.