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Better Days Than These by Pixileanin
Chapter 3: There are boys, and then there are boys... and then there is Draco Malfoy.
Peony drifted slowly through the void, half of her weightless, the other half struggling with… she couldn’t see what had a hold of her legs. Panic rose within her as she writhed in the blackness, trying to break free. Her arms flung about and brushed up against something stone-like… a wall. Suddenly, there was a flash of green in the distance, and then another. Peony saw a pulse of dancing lights far away, and as they got closer she could make out shapes.
Large, animated letters…
Green and glowing…
Then she was running. The two Gryffindor boys’ faces appeared out of nowhere right behind her, pleading – crying out as the phonetic foes closed in and trampled them into the blackness…
… and Peony ran on…
“Michael is so handsome!” Astoria proclaimed at breakfast the next morning, while the other Slytherins snickered over pumpkin juice.
“Your father is a flatulent pig!”
“And so very smart,” Astoria continued, ignoring the outburst down the table from where she and Peony were sitting. “Think of how infectiously cute our children will be!” She batted her eyelashes at the object of her affections who sat obliviously at the Ravenclaw table. Peony managed a wan smile as she speared a thin ring of sliced pineapple from a passing fruit tray and daintily placed it on her plate.
A couple of first-year Slytherins sitting next to the Great Hall doors made rude noises with their hands in their armpits, having not yet mastered any verbal assaults. Ah well, Peony sighed to herself. Becoming a true and proper Slytherin didn’t happen overnight.
Astoria squealed in delight as Peony’s finch gobbled up the crumbs in her hand. She was the only fifth year Slytherin left at Hogwarts, if they didn’t count Myrna (which no one really did). Peony had taken Astoria under her proverbial wing and moved her into the sixth year dormitory. As expected, Astoria filled the extra bed in the corner quite nicely, bringing a long string of disappointing placements to an end and allowing Peony and the other sixth year girls to finally put that nasty incident with the shears behind them like it had never happened at all.
At the other end of the table, the older Slytherins huddled around Pansy, laughing and snickering away as she hung all over Draco, who was single-handedly trying to down his breakfast with civility. He seemed much more interested in his food than his girlfriend.
Pansy cackled gleefully and pointed her finger at Peony. “You smell like a sack of rotting potatoes.”
Peony’s fork skidded over her plate. “Excuse me?”
Astoria nudged Peony. “Go on, it’s your turn.”
Peony didn’t need much inspiration to think up something to throw at her sister, (her spoon, the half-empty goblet of pumpkin juice, and a poppy seed muffin were all well within her reach) but she wasn’t in the mood. Sleep didn’t come easily anymore, especially after the disturbing nightmare from the night before. She made a mental note to ask Headmaster Snape for one of his restful sleeping droughts. Peony swallowed a yawn with a bit of pineapple. At this rate, she’d never keep up with her vigorous Triathlon training program.
Astoria nudged her again.
“Oh, alright,” Peony sighed. Slytherins didn’t share their personal problems with their housemates. That’s what private journals were for. “Ahem. She’s nothing but a two-toed sloth in a three-toed sloth forest… ”
She stared back at the blank looks from her housemates. “Anyone with brains would know that a self-respecting three-toed sloth would know better than to show up with only two toes…” Clearly, they had missed the point of her cerebral insult. “…because you’re missing a toe…”
Perhaps she should try a plebeian approach: “You’re a soft pear – too spotted for me to even consider touching you…” She stifled a sob at the mere mention of pears, bringing up unwanted memories of finding Squiggles in the kitchen, and waved her hand to pass on the rest of her turn. Blaise eagerly cut in with blaring physical humor, this time aimed at Goyle and his “extra-special magical parts”. Goyle laughed along, enjoying the game too much to feel slighted. The way those boys acted, it could have been considered a compliment.
After the clamor died away, Peony glanced over at the Gryffindor table, where everyone was more hushed than usual. It wasn’t long before the whispers made their way over to her without any effort at all. Peony pretended to review her notes for the anticipated pop-quiz in Advanced Charms and strained her ears to catch the news.
Someone said the name “Carrows” and Peony lost her place in her notes. She shuddered at the thought of what had happened to Neville. If those rule-breakers had gone off to bed like they’d promised, everything would have been fine.
The Hogwarts rumor mill ground on and pretty soon the entire hall was discussing how Seamus Finnigan had heard loud sobbing and a gurgling sound from the sixth year Gryffindor dormitory. Ginny Weasley (Prefect-In-Training) confirmed that the two boys from last night had been sent to the hospital wing earlier that morning to be treated for shock.
Peony listened closer, wanting to know what had happened. The last time she’d seen them, they’d looked scared enough. (Technically, she’d last seen them in a dream, where they’d gotten trampled by a glowing green alphabet parade, but she was pretty sure that didn’t count.) When she listened closer, the word she dared not think, the one word she never wanted to hear drifted out of the whispers around her.
Peony gasped and shot a look at Draco, who was busily minding his own eggs, now that Pansy had let his other arm free to discuss the finer points of airbrushed pedicures with the Greengrass sisters. Draco didn’t look like the sort of bloke who’d snitch on his fellow classmates, but right now she couldn’t be sure. Peony glanced nervously around the hall and finally spotted Luna Lovegood at the Ravenclaw table, as shocked as the rest of the students. Had she been wrong to allow Luna to let the boys go with a warning?
A proper Slytherin would have done things differently, she thought to herself. She mulled over the night before, how she’d wanted to march straight up to the Gryffindor Tower and demand an explanation. They’d promised her that they would go to bed... She’d have felt better if she’d confronted them, but then everyone would know that they’d lied to her. So, instead of dealing with the potential embarrassment, she plastered a smile on her face and tried to forget all about it.
She didn’t know why, but all of a sudden Peony had a strangely intense craving for tea cakes.
Terrence stared at the charmed graffiti, wondering where to notate “glowing green letters” in his “Investigate A Crime Scene” checklist. The groundskeeper, Filch, stood to the side and tapped the end of his mop against the floor.
“Defiled the walls again,” the old man muttered, giving the mop a shake. “Headmaster Snape’s had to brew me more of this cleaning concoction, so hurry it up. The fifth floor loo’s clogged and the gears in the clock tower froze up. I told ‘em that Dementors roaming around was a bad idea. ‘Make ‘em shovel manure to keep ‘em busy’ I told the lot of them, but no. Now they get bored and start sucking on things in the rafters. Lost two messenger owls last week.”
When Terrence finished investigating, he backed off and Filch’s potion-infused mop squelched onto the wall. The detective was already riding the nearest floating stairwell when he heard the groundskeeper bellow in shock as a bolt of lightning came out of the graffiti and struck the handle.
Filch’s mutterings about a longer pole echoed through the empty hall as Terrence mulled over the facts. He’d tried his best to appease the elves (“Can I get a witness with this pumpkin tart?”). He’d questioned the Carrows (“We take murder very seriously at the Ministry…”), submitted his preliminary findings and his recommendations for student safety to the Headmaster (There had been two murders already. Three, if Headmaster Snape would bother counting the house elf), and poured every ounce of his energy into the investigation since he set foot in the castle.
All he had was a few glossy pictures with notes on the back and a new corn on his big toe from running about the castle in tight fitting shoes. He’d witnessed other detectives in his department come to “obvious conclusions” and declared similar incidents “accidents”. But he knew from his father that a good detective wouldn’t close a case out of convenience if his gut told him otherwise; he’d sift through the facts over and over to see if he missed anything. He’d find a culprit and bring whoever-it-was to justice (as much justice as a Ministry that supported a Dark Lord could give, in any case). And so that’s what Terrence set out to do.
The kitchen looked ordinary and death-free until he waved his wand and chanted “Vocatio Visionem”. An empty case of Butterbeer appeared by the fireplace and a ghostly likeness of a sobbing Winky coalesced next to it. Everything else that had been moved since the death had been discovered also reappeared, the same as he’d found it on the first night, including an image of the dead elf on the floor in a puddle. Terrence didn’t want to end up like his father, with a load of theories and no proof, but he knew murder when he saw it.
Suddenly the kitchen door opened and a girl in school robes came into view. Terrence hastily reversed the charm. These crime scene charms were excellent for hiding the disturbing details from grief-stricken house elves (and an apparent stream of students who passed through after hours).
Then he recognized Peony’s perfect hair and shiny Prefect badge. She had on an I’m-dressed-impeccably-but-trying-not-to-look-too-pretty-otherwise-I’d-blind-you-with-my-sheer-brilliance outfit. But even with her unassuming perfection, her eyes looked sad and unfocused.
Terrence cleared his throat so that he wouldn’t startle the girl too badly. “What are you doing here?”
The bird on her shoulder let out a frightfully irritating peep and Peony cocked her head to the side. “I’m here for tea cakes.”
Terrence hadn’t told anyone that he had made the house elves leave the kitchens for the night. “I’m sorry, but the elves won’t be back until morning.” Winky had been loathe to vacate the stool at the fireplace, but he’d bribed her away with a case of Firewhisky and hadn’t seen or heard from her since.
Peony blinked, finally seeing the empty kitchen for the first time. “That’s alright.” She hesitated for two ticks and then said, “I’ll make them myself.”
Terrence nodded, assuming that she knew what she was doing. She was such a lovely girl, he was sure she‘d keep whatever she saw to herself. She’d discovered the crime scene after all, he reasoned. He pulled out his notes, reapplied the charm and got to work.
As he went through his checklist, he couldn’t help stealing glances at her from across the room. Peony opened cabinets and pulled out ingredients – pickled onions, sugar cubes, a loaf of French bread and a roll of spell-o-tape. And a bowl. Terrence had never made English tea cakes, but he was pretty sure that wasn’t how it was done. He watched as Peony stood before the strange assortment of ingredients and stared at them for some minutes without moving at all.
The detective remembered his Nonna’s kitchen – she’d made all kinds of sweet Italian treats, but not once had she used pickled onions or spell-o-tape. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Terrence asked her.
Terrence immediately felt sorry for the girl who had finally dropped the charade of having it all together. “May I see your recipe?”
Peony sucked in a breath. “My what?”
“The recipe for the tea cakes… you have one, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course I do.” She fished around in her pockets and the detective noticed the green and silver coloring of her school uniform. He’d taken the time to study the house culture at Hogwarts. A bit of deception from a Slytherin was to be expected.
“I don’t know anything about tea cakes, but I can make cookies. Would you like to try that instead?”
“Yes, please.” Peony looked relieved and Terrence was more than happy to oblige. He smiled at Peony warmly as he replaced the spell-o-tape with almond paste, and traded the pickled onions for a small jar of pine nuts.
“I just love rules,” Peony told him. “I’m so glad there are people like you to make sure they are followed.”
“I quite enjoy order myself. But sometimes it gets in the way of more important things,” he said.
“Well,” Terrence considered. “Sometimes the people making the rules forget about things like ‘just cause’ and ‘basic human decency’.”
“Oh,” Peony said and fell silent.
After adjusting the rest of the ingredients and a quick primer on basic cookie dough assembly, they were soon measuring and mixing. Terrence showed her how to shape the pignolis the way his grandmother had. He was impressed with how quickly Peony caught on and traded smiles with her as they exchanged baking sheets. She seemed to have relaxed in his company. “I understand Squiggles was a good friend to you. Do you know if anyone had a reason to hurt her?” he asked innocently.
“Well,” Peony hesitated. Terrence inwardly cringed, because he’d read that when people hesitated, it meant that they were hiding something. “She mentioned something about the new teachers, the Carrows, but I reported it straight away.”
Terrence popped the baking sheets into the oven and waited patiently for her to continue.
“I told the Headmaster. Squiggles said the Carrows were bad, but she never told me why. And then…” Peony faltered.
This was definitely a bad sign. As Terrence prepared to remove his personal bias from the situation and get his suspicions up, a single, perfectly tear-shaped tear slid from one of Peony’s beautifully two-toned eyes. It glistened down her cheek and as the droplet parted from the delicate point of her chin, Terrence felt like he was watching a diamond fall from the sky.
He shook out the tea towel, Scourgified it and handed it to Peony, sighing as she dabbed her eyes. Obviously, she had nothing to do with what had happened in the kitchen with Squiggles, because she was crying, for goodness’ sake. She was obviously too distraught to be a proper suspect.
“You are so very kind,” she told him. “I don’t understand why Squiggles had to die. And then those poor boys too. They are dead, aren’t they?”
Terrence could not lie to her. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
Peony nodded and continued in a forlorn tone. “She was supposed to bring me tea cakes that night, and I was going to check on her and…” Peony gazed over at the crime scene that Terrence had left exposed. “Oh my.”
Terrence fumbled with his wand. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have left that up.” He began reversing the spell.
“There is that jam thing. I don’t understand that either.”
Terrence paused, mid wand-swipe. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Peony sniffed, “Squiggles always used peach marmalade. It’s my favorite. Why would she have used raspberry jam?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Terrence removed the unsettling scene as Peony sniffled into the tea towel again. He regretted that he had asked her so many upsetting questions, but everything was worth it when she bit into a freshly baked cookie. “These are so delicious!” she exclaimed, her face beaming in absolute adoration as the tea towel landed on the floor.
Terrence chewed thoughtfully. The girl had the emotional stability of a giant blood-sucking gnat, but he still found her irredeemably adorable. “Curfew was an hour ago. Would you like me to accompany you back to your Common Room?”
Peony’s eyes widened, like a baby deer. “Oh, look at the time! I have to go. Thank you so much for the…”
“Recipe,” he prompted. “For the pignolis.” He arranged a platter of pignolis for Peony to take with her for later, thinking she’d need them to help her get over her terrible loss. His Nonna had said they were the perfect comfort food.
She nodded. “Recipe. Anyway, I have Prefect rounds and then I must knit birdhouse cozies before bed. The castle gets drafty in the wintertime.” Terrence watched her rush out the door, her school robe flowing gracefully behind her. When she was gone, Terrence looked down at his checklist and decided that it needed some revision. Below “used various methods of deduction”, he penciled in “made cookies with a beautiful girl who noticed raspberry jam”.
Advanced Arithmancy wasn’t Peony’s best subject, but Professor Vector had always assured her that she could handle the material. The professor adored Peony, and now doubly so because of her newly discovered heritage – “Bridget Wenlock, the famous Arithmancer discovered the magical properties of the number seven!” Vector had gushed for half the class over Peony’s good fortune, being the seventh generation of the seventh son of Wenlock. “Oh my word! You are the most fortunate student I have ever had the privilege of laying my eyes on!” She even got Peony to sign her name on a piece of parchment– seven times – for research that Professor Vector was conducting on a “most exciting” theory. Peony had gladly obliged, happy to help the professor.
In the weeks that followed, Peony tried extra hard to listen to her natural abilities, and open her numerical pathways as Professor Vector advised. But there was something distracting her today. All through class, Peony felt eyes on her. It couldn’t be Draco, she reasoned, not after she’d explained about her devotion to Roderick. She doubled her efforts to concentrate on the class, thinking that maybe he wasn’t actually staring at her. Peony looked around and spotted another girl in the front row. She was the one that always hung out at all the Slytherin Quidditch practices and wore platform sandals on the weekends. Draco would go for a girl like that. When he wasn’t with her sister, of course.
After class was over, Peony lingered, triple checking her figures against the professor’s equations on the board. Her ink blotter was inky and her normally brilliant script had smudges at the edges.
“Oh Squiggles!” she lamented, missing her little friend. Then a form-fitted black robe blocked her view of the board and she sat up straighter. “Could you please move so I can finish my notes?” she said in her mostly-polite-and-not-yet-irritated voice.
“You’ve been finished for ages, Peony.” Draco stared down at her. Apparently, he hadn’t been watching the Quidditch groupie after all.
Peony had wondered why Draco had chosen Advanced Arithmancy in the first place; the only figures he seemed interested in walked around in short skirts after classes, but he did tend to avoid girls when they were at their crankiest – at least he was putting the probability and factoring skills to some use.
Peony, on the other hand, chose the hardest classes because otherwise, her life would have no challenges whatsoever. She packed away her notes and decided the best action would be to ignore Draco Malfoy, but as she stood from her seat, she found that he hadn’t moved.
“I need you.” He leaned closer and Peony’s stomach rumbled silently.
“What for?” Peony asked, because it was more civil than the get-out-of-my-way line she might have otherwise used.
“Come with me to Hogsmeade this Saturday,” he told her. “There’s a gathering at Madame Puddifoot’s.”
Peony was first struck by how well-cut Draco’s robe was, and then her demeanor soured because the Head Boy was blatantly asking her to break the school rules. And then she thought about Pansy’s possessive looks at the breakfast table that day.
“Don’t you think you should be asking my sister?” She tried not to think about holding hands and sugar quills.
Draco snorted. “Your sister’s talents won’t be of much use to me at this sort of gathering. I need a girl who can manage to land a charm further away than the end of her nose.”
Peony opened her mouth to ask Draco whether he was going to tell Pansy about this little tryst and what his true intentions were towards her sister, but she already knew the answers were “No” and “more of the same, if I can get it”, so instead, she managed a weak, “Why me?”
“Because you’re perfect.” Draco leaned closer, his hot breath on her arm.
Peony coughed politely and the proper lady inside of her wanted to shove him aside. But the lure of Madame Puddifoot’s beckoned. She wondered if they’d serve tea cakes there after dark.
The cookies from the nice detective had sated her for a little while, but now they were gone. Draco was much too close to her and the cravings had returned in full force. There was just something so enticing about the scent of his cologne. If she were any other girl, she might have leaned in closer to get a whiff of him. Peony put a hand up to her salivating mouth. She was half mortified that she was having these thoughts about Draco, when Roderick was clearly the better man.
And then, as if by magic, Draco said the words that Peony had been dying to hear all year.
“Roderick will be there.”
“You saw Roderick?” Peony half-jumped out of her skin with excitement. So it had been him the other week in the hallway!
Draco gave her a half-cocked smile. “He wants to see you, Peony. He told me so.”
Peony knew she should say no, but somewhere deep inside, the curious, desperate side of her was flattered beyond belief and was already plotting how to make it happen, rules or no rules. She would do anything to see her beloved Roderick. It had been far too long since she’d talked to him, held hands with him, shared a sugar quill… she turned away from Draco so he wouldn’t see a small drip of saliva escape from her lips. She had to fix this.
“I’ll think about it,” she mumbled into her palm, and brushed past him to her next class.
A/N: I continue to be indebted to my beta team, Inkfire, ladybirdflying and WriteYourHeartOut for their help and inspiration. Thank you! Please leave a little note to tell me how we did, and then go check out their stories!