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Better Days Than These by Pixileanin

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Format: Novella
Chapters: 7
Word Count: 25,278
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild Language, Mild Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Fluff, Mystery, Romance
Characters: Draco, Luna, Pansy, OC
Pairings: OC/OC, Draco/Pansy

First Published: 04/12/2012
Last Chapter: 12/29/2012
Last Updated: 12/29/2012

Summary:
Perfect banner by Bear&fox@TDA!  First place winner in Casius Alcinder's "Mary Sue Challenge".   



Ever wondered about Pansy Parkinson's little-known half-sister?   She's perfect and everyone loves her.  So why do the people that she cares about keep dying?


Chapter 1: I'm perfect and I know it... but I'm not snobbish at all, because that would be wrong and not at all perfect.
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A/N: In case you missed the note in the story summary, this won first place in Cassius Alcinder's "Mary Sue Challenge".  I have to give a big thank you to my beta team: WriteYourHeartOut, Inkfire, CambAngst and ladybirdflying!
 






Downtrodden students kept their heads low and filed into the Great Hall for breakfast. Albus Dumbledore was dead and Lord Voldemort’s minions had begun their reign of terror at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but hope still shone in the eyes of one lovely young lady as she stood before her classmates and gazed around the room. The world was full of happy, fluffy goodness, even in the darkest of days, and she was going to prove it.

Ever since she was a little girl, she’d looked forward to the challenges this year would bring and, aside from a few unexpected changes, it was just as she’d always dreamed it would be. As she sat down at the Slytherin table and tucked in to a glorious breakfast of blueberry scones and caviar-encrusted bacon, the words of her first-year introductory essay flitted through her mind:

My name is Paloma Papillon Pe’onia Parkinson. I know that’s pretty hard for people to pronounce, so you can call me Peony for short. These are going to be the best years ever, I just know it. But I might not need all seven, since I’ll be studying really hard.

As she bit into a scone, she felt a twinge of indulgence. That essay had been written ages ago, but it still flitted through her mind at the start of every school year. But even on the third Thursday of October, the tingle of excitement simply hadn’t worn off. Peony’s favorite house elf, Squiggles, popped in at her side and placed a hand-embroidered napkin across her perfectly creased skirt pleats.

Her sixth-year Prefect pin was polished to a brilliant shine and her hair hung in long blonde ringlets to her shoulders, tamed with a jeweled hair clip. Under her pristine school robe and tastefully modest uniform, the weight of her mother’s locket pressed against her alabaster breast, alongside the Time-Turner, a borrowed gift from the Headmaster himself. As the school rules stated, proper attire was the key to good behavior. She needed only look as far as her sister Pansy to see the truth in that. Although in her sister’s defense, Pansy was allergic to silk, the poor dear.

A flurry of heavily laden owls filled the air above them, and a large bird with an impressive wing span and an even more impressive amount of flight control swooped down to land delicately between the scones and bacon. Her messenger eagle, Ultimus Prime, set down a huge bag of sweets that the rest of the Slytherin table gleefully snatched up.

“It’s like Christmas every day!” exclaimed Astoria, who beamed at Peony with adoration.

Everyone loved Ultimus and his gifts. Everyone loved Peony too, except for her sister. Well, actually Pansy Parkinson was a practiced pain in her nonexistent pimple and technically only her half-sister. And that was alright because the Slytherin rules stated very specifically that everyone in their house must maintain (and exploit, whenever possible) unresolved family issues. It was the one rule that her sister Pansy embraced with every fiber of her being.

My stepmother (of questionable heritage) held me back a year so my sister could enter Hogwarts first. But I am proud to be here now, and doubly proud to be in the House of Salazar Slytherin, the greatest man ever to live.

Peony’s morning had already been eventful, having double-ironed her socks and written off a quick letter to her long-distance beau, Roderick (“I miss you sooo much!! *hearts and air-kisses included* Please write back soon”). She tucked the precious letter between Ultimus’ impressive talons and cooed at him in delight as he presented her with a large crate containing her prized finch collection. She thanked the eagle with a nice piece of fish and made kissy noises to each of her brightly colored finches. The little birds peeped a merry accompaniment to the long parade of somber instructors making their way to the Head Table, eyes forward and arms stiffly at their sides under the watchful eye of the Headmaster. Peony loved following the rules, and there were more rules than ever now that Severus Snape was in charge.

“Hello, Professor Carrow!” called Peony, waving enthusiastically from her seat as the professor and her brother passed by. They were new to the faculty this year, and Peony wanted to make a good impression.

“Psst! Miss Peony!” whispered Squiggles. “I don’t think you should be talking with them.”

Peony frowned. “Why not?” she asked. “They are professors, and professors would never do anything to hurt me.” She had been to two Prefect meetings so far, and though the Carrows sneered a lot, Headmaster Snape had never taken kindly to nonsense. She told Squiggles all of that.

“No, Miss Peony, they are very, very bad!”

Peony patted Squiggles on the head. “If you follow the rules, everything will be fine.” The terrified look on Squiggles’ face made her add, “Perhaps I can put in a word with the Headmaster for you.”

Squiggles opened her mouth to reply, but then the Headmaster cleared his throat to begin the morning “motivational announcements”. The little elf bowed her head and popped away. Peony wondered what that was all about, but before she could dwell on it too much, the announcements were over and she was swept away with the crowd to her classes.


***
 


Later that afternoon, Peony looked both ways and twice behind her. She backed into an empty alcove and pulled out a long chain from under her uniform. (“Safety first when using unauthorized magical devices,” Headmaster Snape had told her.) Because she was brilliant and extremely driven, the Time Turner allowed her to relive each day and attend both sixth and seventh year classes, so she could graduate early and be reunited with her beloved Roderick.

It was true that she and Roderick had had a beautiful summer romance. But he had graduated last year, so she would have to be strong on her own. He’d wait for her, she knew for certain. And when he finally had the time, she knew he’d answer all of the letters she’d been sending to him.

Peony spun the little hourglass and counted the rotations carefully. To an ordinary girl, juggling two years of academics, along with her Prefect duties and countless extracurricular activities, was near impossible, but her loyal friend Squiggles kept her quills sharp and cleaned her ink blotter twice an hour. She even helped Peony relax every evening with tea cakes and peach marmalade.

Just the thought of tea cakes made her tingle with contentment. It was like being wrapped up in a hand-knitted chenille blanket… like eating sugar quills with Roderick… Peony halted her thoughts right there. There would be plenty of time for daydreaming after her assignments were finished.

After classes and homework (and a short meeting with the Headmaster about Squiggles’ concerns), Peony surrounded herself with little containers of the shiniest beads she’d ever seen. She couldn’t wait to make lovely patterns with them on her pre-cut, pre-knotted perfectly-measured lengths of string. Astoria and her older sister, Daphne, plopped down on the settee to help.

One of the best things about being in Slytherin is living in the dungeons. The Common Room is incredibly cold, but I’m getting accustomed to it. And all the green and silver is so pretty. It sets off my eyes.

“Oh, Peony,” Daphne exclaimed, “that emerald-green finch on your shoulder goes so well with the upholstery!” Peony nodded in appreciation. She’d been told that emerald green was one of her best colors. She handed a small box of jeweled beads to Astoria while the girl chatted away about a boy named Colin who had caught her attention.

“He’s so incredibly handsome, and smart!” Astoria beamed, while attaching the beads to each other in long loops. Peony tried to smile politely as Astoria went on, but she couldn’t help thinking of Roderick and how much she missed him. It must have shown on her face, because Astoria let out a small gasp.

“I’m so sorry Peony. I forgot that your boyfriend isn’t here this year.” She dug around in her bag. “Maybe a sugar quill will cheer you up?”

“No thank you, Astoria. I could never have a sugar quill without Roderick.” She chased away a pang of sadness and fastened the end of her own string of shiny beads. “Besides,” she told Astoria as she reached for another string, “Squiggles is bringing me tea cakes soon. They always make me feel better.”

“Tea cakes!” Pansy spat at her from behind. “Who needs tea cakes when everything I have is right here?” she taunted, draping her arms shamelessly all over Draco Malfoy, having dragged him over from the boys’ lounge to the settee for the effect of possessing something that her sister didn’t.

“Leave her alone, Pansy,” Astoria cut in. “You’re being mean.”

“Why yes, I am.” Pansy smiled cunningly. “Miss Perfect Prefect isn’t as perfect as you think! I bet you don’t know the real reason behind the color of Peony’s finches, do you?”

Peony straightened in her chair and Astoria gasped. “Her finches are beautiful, just like her!”

Pansy cackled and Peony glared at her. “You wouldn’t dare!”

“Oh, I would,” Pansy taunted gleefully. Draco yawned with boredom at her side, probably expecting another weak attack on Peony’s impeccable character. “It’s because of her underwear!” Pansy announced triumphantly and the entire Common Room gasped.

“Yes, yes!” Pansy went on, now drawing a crowd. “You see, this green finch doesn’t only set off her eyes and the upholstery. She matches her finches to her ridiculous underwear, all lace and ribbon and frilly nonsense!”

Astoria couldn’t help herself. “What does it look like?” Peony cringed a little. She’d always been so discreet in the dormitory.

“Well,” Pansy continued at Peony’s reddening face, “The bottom half is a strappy emerald green, made of the finest silk, with jeweled trim and tiny little bows that tie it all together.” Draco leaned in, suddenly more awake than before.

“And the top wraps her up in a lacy corset. With tassels!” she said triumphantly. Peony’s bird ruffled its feathers in protest as the crowd whispered around them, probably wondering if it was proper to back up a girl who was intimately familiar with her sister’s underthings. Even Draco shifted his feet uncomfortably and extracted himself from Pansy.

“Where are you going, Draco?” Pansy whined, his absence taking away from her moment of glory.

“I have to go, err…” his eyes were a little glazed over, like he might be catching something. “Quidditch practice tonight.” He backed up to the boys’ hallway. “Gotta polish my broomstick.” Then he turned and hurried through the door without another glance.

With whispers still swirling around the room, Peony stood up and faced her sister.

Pansy smirked. “You’ve got nothing on me, half-sister!”

“Your mother is a hag!” Peony announced to the gasping crowd. She usually didn’t throw around unproven rumors, but in her sister’s case, she didn’t care. “And you still believe that Gilderoy Lockhart’s books are autobiographical.” That one was entirely accurate.

At that, the Common Room erupted into laughter and a defeated Pansy opened her mouth to retort, but no one could hear her over the jeers. When someone threw a day old biscuit at her head, she gave up and stormed out into the hall.

Peony recalled the final words of her first-year essay and smiled. She was well on her way to being Slytherin of the year!

…and that is why I will make the perfect Slytherin. You’ll see. When I’m old enough, I’ll be a Prefect, I’ll save the world, and I’ll marry the man of my dreams. We will all be such very good friends, I just know it!


***
 

In the cool, quiet of the night, Prefect Peony made her rounds through the deserted halls of the school, a little periwinkle blue finch trilling along on her shoulder. Most of the students were put off by the chilled air that seeped into their bones at night from the Dementors patrolling the grounds, sometimes coming far too close to the dormitories and waking the first years with their haunting non-faces peeking through the windows. A scream pierced the stillness and Peony stumbled a little. Oops, she thought. Better report that loose cobblestone.

She was still troubled by Pansy’s rude announcement in the Slytherin Common Room earlier that evening. The girl constantly tried to make trouble for Peony. She’d even convinced everyone in Slytherin (with the exception of Astoria and Daphne) that Peony’s community service project wasn’t worth their time or effort.

Peony couldn’t understand why. Everyone else had gladly helped out. The Hufflepuffs had donated single servings of double-chocolate brownies and the Gryffindors had given her a box of warm, fuzzy stockings. With the Ravenclaw’s motivational haikus and the glittery key-chains she and her friends had made, they were going to deliver the best Azkaban prisoner care packages ever, no matter what!

“It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” she said aloud. Her favorite underwear set, though it was a bit unconventional, gave her a lovely silhouette under her robe, enhanced her posture and made her feel beautiful on the inside, where it counted the most. Perhaps the tassels might have been a little tacky, but a girl like her couldn’t be judged on her attraction to bling.

A rumbling from her stomach reminded her that Squiggles hadn’t come with the tea cakes. Friends checked up on friends, she thought to herself. Making a detour from Prefect rounds, Peony turned the corner away from the Main Hall and stopped short in front of a dimly-lit painting. She put her finger to her lips and considered the bowl of fruit in the picture. Either it had changed since the time she’d hand delivered Squiggles’ birthday present last year, or the Dementors had managed to suck the color out of the paintings as well. Her hand moved to the yellowing pear. That had to be the right one. She brushed her fingers gently over the fruit, giving it the slightest touch. Then she said the magic words, barely above a whisper:

“Gootchie gootchie goo!”

The pear shimmered and the painting swung away from the wall, revealing an unlit corridor. Peony raised her wand and whispered “Lumos”. Stepping lightly down the corridor, she finally reached the hidden kitchen.

“Squiggles?” Peony called out.

“There be no Squiggles here,” said a small voice below her. Peony looked down to see Winky the house elf. Her little pointed ears drooped down below her chin, and her wide eyes blinked up at her with such sadness that it took Peony’s breath away. Sitting by the fireplace was a case of empty Butterbeer bottles. Winky’s eyes stared vacantly into the distance.

“Oh no,” she said. “What’s happened to Squiggles?”

The little elf shook her head sadly. “She is gone.”

“What?” Peony exclaimed in alarm.

How could this be? Squiggles had been the sweetest, most helpful elf ever! A lump formed in the pit of her stomach. “Did she get into trouble?”

“Worse than trouble.” The little elf began to tremble, her voice barely as tall as Peony’s knees. Tiny hands clutched at Peony’s robe and a little bony finger shook as it pointed to a clear puddle in the far corner of the room, over by the pantry.

“An accident? Did she slip and fall?” Peony tried to figure out why all the elves had left the puddle of water on the floor in the first place.

“Much, much worse.” The little elf sobbed into Peony’s robe, and as she stood, her inner Prefect screaming at the blatant safety violation of the puddle, yellow magical lines appeared, shimmering above the floor, in the shape of a fallen elf. A half-eaten tea cake lay on the floor nearby, little red droplets of jam running off the plate and onto the floor. Peony realized with horror that Squiggles must have been right about trouble at Hogwarts. She shook her head, trying to clear it, but the sight stayed in front of her.

“D-dead?” Peony choked out. The finch on her shoulder made a strangled peep and hid its tiny head in her platinum curls.

Winky was openly sobbing. The elf took a deep breath and let out a wail.

“She’s been murdered!”








  A/N:  Hi again!  If you made it this far and are still breathing, then congratulations!  Obviously, this is fanfiction and I do not own Harry Potter.  I also do not own any rights to any material I may or may not have alluded to in this story.  If you recognized any blatant (or not so blatant) references to popular culture, click the box below and let me know what you found.  We can make a list together!  

 

 

 


Chapter 2: Pure blood is pure blood, except when it's not and then it's... not.
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Junior Lead Detective In Training, Terrence Spungen, had been woken from a peaceful sleep and had a portkey and a short file folder shoved at him at a quarter to eleven in the evening. He arrived slightly disoriented outside the Headmaster’s Office at shortly after midnight, and attempted to gather his wits about him before meeting his first real client. As he reviewed the file on the house elf death, a gruff voice called from within.

“Sit.”

Terrence stepped into the Headmaster’s office and sat down, hiding a nervous yawn behind his hand. He’d never done field work before, but he’d memorized his father’s declassified files (and everything else he could get his hands on). Fortunately, the Headmaster’s long scowl didn’t look up from his sheaves of parchment as he addressed the detective.

“I wouldn’t ordinarily bother the Ministry for inconsequential matters. However, with recent reports of dissidence and due to the sensitive nature of this year’s curriculum reorganization…” The Headmaster paused for effect. “We cannot discount any anomaly.”

The detective nodded. “Certainly.”

“The serving staff was rightly put out by the elf’s demise. If the matter isn’t treated with sensitivity, things could go awry. Garbage cannot simply pile up and Hagrid’s low blood sugar will not allow him to miss a meal. The excessive lip twitching of the staff alone would cause my eyes to roll in the back of my head, and I need them to stay where they are.” The Headmaster’s own lip began to twitch and he sniffed abruptly. “And also, there are students here,” he added dismissively.

Terrence shuffled through his copious notes for something, anything that might be helpful. His father’s questionable discharge from the British Ministry had made many of his colleagues reluctant to look on the Spungen name as anything but a synonym for failure. Handling a simple house elf issue would be a good start in proving them all wrong… though he couldn’t deny his father’s warning that these days, uncovering the truth was a dangerous business.

“There is a student in Slytherin who might be able to help you,” the Headmaster finally offered when Terrence hadn’t been helped by his notes. “One of the Parkinson sisters seems to have made a friend with it last year.”

Terrence wrote the name down in his notes. “Where can I find her?”

The Headmaster put his papers down and stared at Terrence. “It should be rather obvious to you, Detective. Go out and detect her.” Then he added, “She’s the clever one with the annoying bird.”

Terrence expected the Headmaster to finish with “that will be all”, but after an awkward silence with the Headmaster’s head buried into his scrollwork, the detective saw himself out. He’d never been to Hogwarts (having spent his school years studying in Italy), but he was fairly certain that the kitchen would be easy enough to find. In his experience, they were generally two flights down and to the left of the Main Office. (At least they had been at his old school, and the Pantheon Bowling Alley in lower Rome, which didn’t have stairs, but followed the same principle.) How different could British architecture be? Unfortunately, he had no experience in appeasing house elves, although it couldn’t be nearly as difficult as negotiating a truce during the Goblin Rebellion of sixteen twelve (which he’d studied on his off time and found particularly fascinating). As he stepped onto the moving staircase, Terrence dug around in his notes from his detective-in-training workshops. Maybe he had a checklist for disgruntled house elves.

Terrence took the nearest left turn and stopped at the sight of two girls arguing, their shrill voices bouncing off the stone walls into the silent night.

“You called my mother a hag! After everything she’s done for you!” The ebony haired girl’s face was red like a beet.

The blonde with the ringlets was stunning, even when slightly flushed. “You exposed my underthings in public!”

Terrence’s eyebrows went up and he concentrated on absolutely not envisioning the fair-haired girl in anything less than her school uniform.

“How are you going to get by now, without your little helper, Miss Perfect?” The ebony-haired girl scrunched her face up. “I heard what she said yesterday. The Carrows probably used her for Dark Arts target practice!”

“Squiggles didn’t do anything wrong, and my corset is nobody’s business. You shouldn’t have opened your mouth!”

Pansy exploded. “You shouldn’t have been born!”

“Excuse me?” Terrence ventured. The argument was clearly getting out of hand and he had someplace to be. “Do either of you know the Parkinsons?”

Pansy shrieked in disgust at the interruption and stormed off. Peony turned to him in surprise. “So you heard all of that? Now everyone knows. Just to be clear, I’m rethinking the tassels.”

“It’s half past midnight, the two of you were very loud and… what?” Terrence hadn’t heard anything about tassels.

“That was Pansy, my ill-tempered sister. My name is Pe’onia Parkinson, but you can call me Peony. What can I do for you?”

“Well,” Terrence began, studying her in the dim corridor and noting her confidence and poise (and the finch, which matched the description that he’d been given). “Headmaster Snape said you might be helpful.” He pulled out a clean sheet of parchment and wrote “Parkinson” at the top. A girl like that deserved her own page. “So you and your, err, sister is it?” Terrence couldn’t believe they were that closely related. If he squinted, their facial features might be similar, except the blonde had an elegant, smoothness and the brunette who’d run off looked like she’d been smacked with the wrong end of a broom.

“Half sister, thank goodness,” Peony told him. “She thinks her mother deserved Father more, but the truth is that he married my mother first. She died when I was three, unfortunately. And then Father married her mother because it was the right thing to do. He was a very honorable man, and then he died too…” She trailed off, seemingly in a world of her own.

Terrence’s quill hovered over his notebook. The girl had such a sad look in her eyes that he couldn’t help but throw in an “I’m sure your mother was a lovely person, just like you.” Gah! She was so… pretty. ‘Talking to pretty girls’ was not on the checklist, unless they were suspects. He cleared his throat and tried to sound professional. “You must be the one who found the house elf.”

Peony nodded. “Water was all over the floor, and poor Winky sobbed into my robe!”

“Did you know the deceased very well?”

She sniffed. “Yes. My sister said she smelled like eggplant, but I happen to like eggplant very much. Squiggles didn’t deserve to die.” Her bottom lip quivered.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Terrence said. “I was wondering…” He scanned down the Junior Detective Checklist, but she seemed so upset. Maybe he could soften the blow… sit down with her later, over a cup of tea and cookies… no, Terrence corrected himself. The Checklist was clear. He put on his most convincing smile. “Could you show me where the kitchens are?”

Peony’s face turned a rosy pink and she smoothed her hair, putting a few curls back in place. “Of course.”


***
 

The next morning, sunlight poured into the Great Hall, casting its brilliance on the four houses of Hogwarts, but Peony’s heart was darkened by sadness and longing. Last night, she’d shown the nice detective to the kitchens and then couldn’t get to sleep, disturbed by Squiggles’ untimely death. She was still uncharacteristically gloomy that afternoon when she returned to the empty Great Hall and spun her Time-Turner back to attend the rest of her classes for the day. (Even though everyone knew about Peony’s impossible schedule, the Headmaster had sworn her to secrecy, or he would have forms to fill out and questions to answer and no one had time for that.) Peony closed her eyes and breathed slowly, trying to clear her head. She needed a glass of water with a lemon spritzer on the side. A dose of headache potion might make the day look brighter too. She almost called out Squiggles’ name, but stopped herself. Poor, poor, dead Squiggles. Peony suppressed a sob and stepped out of the Great Hall, getting swept away by the oncoming crowd of students heading to Muggle Studies.

“Alright class,” the Professor said as she took her seat at the front of the room. She tapped her wand on the display board. “Let’s pick up where we left off on the chart of Muggle-born hierarchy.”

Peony’s quill scratched away as the professor described the finer points of how Muggle blood affected a Wizard’s status in the new regime.

“One eighth Muggle on your grandparent’s side grants you privileges at Gringotts to rent a vault, but not in the restricted section.” Carrow drawled on and Peony scribbled. “One sixteenth Muggle grants access to St. Mungo’s express care services without the three-day waiting period. These persons,” she said as if they weren’t persons at all, “are also granted double rations.”

Angry murmurs rose from the Gryffindors in the room. Alecto tapped her wand on the desk in an impatient rhythm and the room fell back into silence, save the scribbling of quills and a few snickers from the Slytherins in the back.

Most of the seventh-years, particularly the Slytherins, were aware of their heritage. Still, Professor Carrow encouraged them to dig as deeply as they could to find the smallest hint of Muggle ancestry. Peony was paired off with Luna Lovegood and her sister had gotten Neville Longbottom. Pansy spent most of the class primping in her mirror while Neville did all the work, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“That’s right, Pansy Parkinson,” Pansy said to her hand mirror, gazing lovingly at her own reflection. “No one has a bloodline as good as you.”

Peony was in awe of Luna, particularly since she had managed to skip a year ahead in Muggle Studies and ended up in the seventh year class with Peony. The Lovegood line was difficult to trace further back than six generations, but Peony had found no Muggle blood anywhere. Likewise, Luna had found no impurities with the Parkinsons on her father’s side. It was a good thing that Luna was a Ravenclaw, because she had to trace Peony’s mother’s line carefully, being solid-sure that everything was correct. Peony leaned in to watch her, further impressed with Luna’s thorough research.

At the end of the hour, Luna announced to the class that Peony’s birth mother was a direct descendant of Bridget Wenlock and, not only that, but she was the seventh generation of Wenlock’s seventh son. Peony was pleased as pumpkin juice and the class let out impressed murmurs all around her.

“I knew it!” Draco whispered to Crabbe next to him. ” See how her eyes are two-tone, hazel with the green on the outside and brown towards the center? Clear sign of ancient power.”

Crabbe snickered. “Sure is more attractive than Goyle’s sixth toe!”

Pansy, on the other hand, was horrified when Neville uncovered her mother’s great-great Aunt as the infamous hag, Malodora Grymm.

Peony almost smiled that day as Pansy’s mouth opened and closed like a suffocating fish and the boys all around her made rude noises. Luna leaned over to Peony and whispered, “I imagine that explains her fascination with the mirror.”

Professor Carrow rapped her wand on the desk and launched into another lecture on “One sixty-fourth Muggle restrictions”. Right about the moment that Peony’s quill hand started to cramp up, the professor stopped and asked for questions.

Neville Longbottom’s hand shot up. “Professor Carrow,” he said. “I’m having trouble with my ninth generation chart. There’s no Muggle blood anywhere. Maybe you could give us an example and show us how much Muggle blood is in your blood line.”

Peony looked up, hoping to see an educational demonstration. “Good question, Neville,” she had expected. “I’m point seven percent Muggle, twelve generations back, so I fall on the chart right about here,” or something of that nature.

Instead, she was shocked by the stone cold rage in Alecto’s eyes as Neville was wordlessly dragged into the next room by his shirt collar. Peony caught snatches of the commotion in the next room. “How dare you! You will pay for that insolent outburst!” There was a flash of red from the window. Peony and her classmates wordlessly gathered their things and hurried on to their next class.

Later in the Common Room when she was trying to explain the finer points of Charms work to Astoria, she overheard the other Slytherins laughing and saying that Neville was as good as dead.

“Even his pure blood won’t save him now!” cackled Pansy to her friends.

Peony put her head deeper into her textbook. She was starting to feel uncomfortable about the new rules and how a student could be punished for not even breaking them. Did the Dark Lord allow people to break his rules at their convenience? Peony shuffled through her copious notes, reading and rereading them from start to finish. Was there an addendum that she wasn’t aware of?

A noise by the Common Room door caught her attention and she looked up in time to catch sight of a boy disappearing into the hall. It looked like Roderick! Peony leapt from the table, ignoring the call of Astoria and ran right out of the Slytherin Common Room.

“Roderick!”

He turned slightly and Peony rushed to catch up, hoping that he’d offer comfort and reassurance after the horrible things that she’d been through in the last twenty-four hours. He’d obviously seen her – his eyes nearly bugged right out of his head, he looked so excited!

There! He must have ducked around that pillar. Peony’s spirits soared as she hurried onward. Roderick would tell her that everything was going to be alright. And maybe he’d hold her hand again. She rounded the corner and stopped short in the spot she had seen him but the only other person there was Peeves’ ghost who floated above her and cackled at her confusion.

Roderick was gone.


***
 

Peony’s elation had been short-lived. She dragged her feet through Prefect rounds that evening. Even her little finch couldn’t put a smile on her face. Squiggles was dead and Roderick had disappeared. It was hauntingly familiar somehow, the loss and abandonment she felt. She was following the faint sound of voices that were out after curfew and needed to be punished. Peony would feel so much better once the perpetrators were set straight. They might even thank her later for making them realize how important it was to follow the rules. Peony rounded the corner with purpose in her stride and almost rammed straight into Draco Malfoy.

She took a stumble backwards. “Oh my,” she said awkwardly. “What are you doing here?”

“Same as you,” he said. “Prefect rounds. We’re paired up, remember?”

“No, I…” Peony was taken by the arm and swept down the hall, apparently now on patrol with the Head Boy. She thought back to the whirlwind of Prefect meetings and was positive that she’d have remembered being paired off with Draco Malfoy. But with her double load of classes, perhaps it was possible that she could have missed a detail or two.

Draco dropped Peony’s arm at the double doors to the West Wing and made a big show of holding them open for her.

“Umm, thank you?” Peony would expect that kind of gesture from Roderick because he loved her, not from someone like Draco Malfoy, who was rumored to do everything with girls except hold doors open for them. She wanted to remind him that she was already spoken for and also that he should be doing chivalrous things for her sister, the girl he’d supposedly been dating for the last year or so (off and on, she had lost track). She and Pansy barely got along, but she was clear on the rule against poaching boyfriends. Not that she would ever be interested in Draco Malfoy.

Their footsteps echoed in the deserted hall as she thought of an appropriate way to phrase her question. “Do you remember Roderick Spinks? My boyfriend?” she ventured.

“Yes.” Draco smiled knowingly at her.

Peony swallowed uncomfortably. That was a silly question. Of course Draco knew who Roderick was. They had been on the same Quidditch team all last year.

“I’m sure he’s been really busy this year, doing things that older boys do when they leave Hogwarts. I hope I get to see him soon, because I miss him very much.”

She stopped herself from continuing on. It was one thing to babble on about Roderick with Daphne and Astoria, but this was Draco Malfoy. He wasn’t going to squeal delightedly about her long-distance beau with her, no matter how great Roderick was. So far, he hadn’t said much at all. His silence was making her insides jittery.

Maybe this was what Draco Malfoy was like with everyone. Maybe he was completely unaware of how his sideways glances were making her nervous. The silence was making her nervous. Being in this hall with him… she was a nervous wreck. Nervous warmth spread behind her ears and she wished for anything to break the thick layer of nervousness that had built up around them.

Finally, he spoke. “Lovely finch.”

“Thank you,” Peony said, still unnerved, but quite flattered at the same time, which was even more confusing. Draco didn’t sound like he was making fun of her. And most boys didn’t normally comment on her birds. They mostly talked about Quidditch and… err… more Quidditch…

Her internal monologue was interrupted by the voice of Luna Lovegood drifting from up ahead. “What are you doing? The Carrows have been waiting for an excuse to take out a couple of Gryffindors. Now get back to bed... quickly. Before they catch you!"

Peony and Draco approached the small group of students. Luna, her Prefect badge shining in the torchlight, seemed to have taken control of the two boys. Next to her, Ginny Weasley was trying to blend into the stonework.

“What’s she doing here?” Draco pointed an accusing finger at Ginny. “She’s not a Prefect.”

“She’s with me,” Luna told him. “Prefect-in-training,” she added with an unusual air of authority. “Professor Flitwick told us to give it a go before he brought it up at the next meeting.” Luna dug around in her pocket, whispered to a broken quill and tucked it behind Ginny’s ear. “There. Now she’s labeled.”

They all stared at the glittering words, “Prefect In Training” above Ginny’s head for a long, silent moment. Peony thought this was a brilliant idea.

“Are… you going to turn us in?” one of the boys asked.

Ordinarily, Peony would give the boys a well-deserved detention, but the rules weren’t clear on who was in charge if more than one Prefect arrived on the scene. Draco had started picking at his well-manicured cuticles out of boredom and didn’t seem concerned at the oddity of the situation. “Luna found you first.” It was only fair, Peony decided. “She gets to decide what to do.”

“This is your only warning,” Luna said to the boys, and quickly glanced at Draco, who merely shrugged. “Get back to your Common Room!”

“We will!” The boys bobbed their heads up and down. One of them looked straight at Peony. “We promise. We won’t do it again!”

“You did a kind thing,” Luna told her after the culprits scampered away. “I suppose we’ll be on our way.” She took Ginny with her back down the hall.

Draco made one of his I’m-in-charge faces and said, “It wasn’t what I would have done. If something bad happens, I won’t be taking the blame for it. There were witnesses.”

“Hmm…” Peony considered. Being Head Boy came with an immense amount of pressure. She was sure he meant that it was nice to have other people to share the responsibility.

They were well into their second patrol of the same hallway when they spotted the fresh graffiti on the wall. Peony was so put out by the blatant disregard for school property that she almost missed Draco’s blanched face. He rubbed at his arm. “I have to go,” he told her.

Those doors had looked awfully heavy, Peony remembered. Perhaps he’d strained something earlier. The words, “Dumbledore’s Army FTW!!!” glowed green in the dim light of the hallway. She squinted, wondering if the initials spelled “for the win” or “fight the world” or one of many other definitions she’d heard. Just last week, she’d glanced over Astoria’s shoulder at the new Teen Witch Weekly, where Sunshine Sue had written “I got new body piercings, girls, FTW!” Peony was still confused. Maybe it simply meant “ouch”.



 

 


Chapter 3: There are boys, and then there are boys... and then there is Draco Malfoy.
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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.

“…dead…”

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.

“Umm…”

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.

“Like what?”

“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”.

Check.


***



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!


Chapter 4: Fudge
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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!


Chapter 5: Girl talk, more sugar quills and secret passages
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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.

“Peep.”

“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.

“Peony, wait!”

“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 saw Roderick today,” Draco said, falling into step beside her.

”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.

“Roderick…”

“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!


Chapter 6: A private dueling lesson from Headmaster Snape is the best birthday present any girl could ever hope for!
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Green and silver sugar quills flew at her, hard and fast, and Peony dodged and ran through the dark forest the best she could. Roderick’s face, distorted in the haze of the dream-fog was close behind.

She ducked as another sugar quill whizzed by her head. He could have said something about wanting more than holding hands, for Merlin’s sake! Peony shut her eyes and tried to turn the dream Roderick into something else, but the pink fluffy unicorn never appeared. She was well over Roderick, honestly… actually, she was still upset over the sugar quill thing.

Roderick had promised her a sugar quill and that was all there was to it. In spite of anything she had or hadn’t done, a promise made with the silent assumption of getting something he’d never asked for was still a promise. And Roderick had broken his.

At that thought, the sugar quills behind her zoomed upwards into the darkness and turned back on Roderick, raining down on him with fury.

She heard him cry for help behind her as she sought shelter from the torrents of quills. Sharp points brushed against her, nicking her fine, porcelain skin as she paused to catch her breath under a large tree. A thick blanket of darkness loomed ahead where the sugar quills couldn’t reach. She gathered herself together and made a run for it.

“Just a dream!” Peony cried out, as the shelter taunted her, moving farther into the distance.

… and she ran on…

.
***
.

“I did it!” Astoria squealed. “I talked to him!”

She scooted over on the Slytherin Common Room settee to Peony, who was blowing all her frustrations into a small, purple balloon. Daphne flanked her other side, passing out little rubber inflatables. The whole room bustled with gasps and exhales, squeezing air into little balloons, creating the shapes of giant Plimpies and Puffskeins.

“What did Robert say to you?” Peony asked her bubbly friend as she sifted through the bag for another balloon.

“Robert?” Astoria blinked. “Oh, not Robert. It’s Daniel,” she said in a syrupy tone, and then blushed hotly. “He said I was sweet, like candy!”

Peony kicked at a balloon with her impeccably pedicured toe. Her new community service project had seemed brilliant at the time, but that was yesterday, before she’d caught Roderick and Pansy tangled up together in their candy wrapper den of iniquity.

After that, things had taken a turn for the worse. Peony had thrown herself into bed without brushing her bouncy locks one hundred times. Then, when she had woken up and found her evening potion untouched on the nightstand, she’d been too flustered to tell Lambie about her nightmare. Peony lost track of what she was doing as the air seeped out of her balloon. She felt so tired and weighed down. She hadn’t felt this bad since the morning after the last time she’d forgotten to take her sleeping draught, when she’d found out those poor boys were dead. At least today was off to a better start, she tried to convince herself.

But as Peony looked around at her eager Slytherin housemates, she wondered whether what she was doing was really making a difference after all. The cheery balloons would certainly brighten their recipient’s day, but what did it all mean?

Peony shook herself out of her thoughts. She wasn’t the type of girl to leave a project undone, so she picked up the greeting card and inked her quill. “Dear Mrs. Lestrange…”

Astoria fanned herself. “And then he gave me a sugar quill!” She bounced up and down.

Peony resisted the temptation to slap her friend silly and tried to forget that she’d felt the same way about a boy once upon a time. Instead, she reminded herself that she still had her own box of sugar quills stashed away from Christmas Break and, when her roommates were away for a good long while, she’d unwrap one. She’d eaten a sugar quill all by herself and she’d liked it.

That was it, Peony decided. No Roderick. No Draco. Just the happy little thought of triumphing over the Dark Lord and rescuing all those innocent people from future suffering. She shifted uncomfortably in her tight corset. After today, she was going to revisit her Triathlon training schedule. And invest in a case of Pepperup potions too.

Astoria grabbed Peony’s arm, blinking excitedly at her. “Well, what do you think?”

“I think,” said Peony firmly, “it’s time you got over these silly crushes, before one of those boys breaks your heart.” She thought of her sister Pansy, and the unladylike position she’d found her in with Roderick. “Unrequited love only leads to binge eating, and a proper Slytherin girl should never be caught with her mouth full.”

Astoria stared speechlessly as Peony considered that she might have taken the Owlpost therapist’s “speak your mind” suggestion too literally.

“Peony?” Astoria’s voice was barely a whimper.

“Oh, Astoria,” Peony sighed. “A lot has happened to me this year. I’m so…” She stopped herself before the word “sorry” could escape. She wasn’t, really.

Astoria raised her delicately shaped eyebrows. “Ragey?”

“Hormonal?” Daphne offered.

“Perhaps.” Peony thought back to how the last year had been riddled with nightmares, death, and echoes of Roderick’s broken promise.

“I understand, Peony. Really I do.” Astoria reassured her.

Peony’s eyes widened in surprise. “You mean you aren’t mad at me?”

Astoria blinked. “No. Why should I be? I asked for your opinion and you gave it to me. Besides, I’m not sure it’s love anymore. Look at how Blaise is flexing his muscles. Isn’t he dreamy?”

Blaise perked up at his name and sauntered over to their settee, making Astoria blush from head to toe. He reached deliberately across the girls’ laps to the notecard Peony had been penning, waggled his eyebrows at them, and read, “Dear Mrs. Lestrange, on the auspicious occasion of your birthday…” He stopped, frowning. “This is going to be a problem, ladies. Bella’s allergic to latex.”

All the air rushed out of Daphne’s balloon as she stopped mid-blow, her mouth hanging open.

“Oh dear!” exclaimed Astoria, not at all worried over how Blaise had procured this information.

“Don’t worry, Astoria,” Peony assured her friend, “I’m sure we can replace the balloon bouquet with something non-allergenic.”

Blaise continued to pose and flex in front of her. “I can also spell out your name by rippling my tight, six-pack abs.” Blaise pulled up his shirt and began spelling, “P – E -…”

Peony held up a hand. “I’m sorry Blaise. I’m not interested in boys anymore.”

Blaise looked in shock at Astoria. “Why, you lucky…”

“Peony Parkinson?”

Peony’s head whipped around and her heart stuttered into overtime at the sight of Terrence Spungen in the doorway to the Slytherin Common Room. She stood abruptly and walked as quickly as a dignified stroll would allow. “What can I do for you?”

“I need to speak to you about Roderick Spinks.”

Peony sniffed. “I don’t care about him anymore. Roderick is dead to me.”

Terrence’s face softened. “That’s why I’m here, Peony. Roderick is dead.” When she gasped and began hyperventilating, he handed her the paper bag he’d been holding. “I brought cookies.”


.
***
.


With Roderick freshly dead and her nerves frazzled to the ends, Peony allowed Terrence to lead her to the Great Hall, where she swallowed down a cup of tea and tried to answer his questions the best she could.

She felt horrible… worse than when she’d found Squiggles on the floor of the kitchen. Terrence put a plate of pastry in front of her, a small consolation after last night’s indulgence. She picked up a turnover and broke it open, watching its cherry-red filling spill onto the plate below, and froze. Why would Squiggles have used raspberry jam? She’d always ordered a jar of the finest peach marmalade directly from France and set it aside just for Peony. She would never have opened the wrong jar.

But what if she hadn’t? What if the adorable little House Elf had scooped sweet dollops onto the tea cakes as usual, but someone had replaced the contents of her jar with raspberry jam! (Someone with no taste who had clearly not bothered to learn basic French!) Poor Squiggles would have been mortified and of course eaten the tea cakes as she would never let anything go to waste. The jam must have been poisoned! Which meant it wasn’t Squiggles who was supposed to die, it was…

She grabbed Terrence’s arm. “The raspberry jam…”

“Was poisoned. I know that,” Terrence told her. “Were you by any chance at the Wizard Chess Championship Tournament last night?”

“No,” she answered, puzzled by the sudden change of topic.

“You were up late studying in the Library, then?”

“No, Terrence. I wasn’t.”

“On patrol?”

“I was asleep in bed. You can ask my dorm mates. Why does it matter where I was?”

Terrence let out an I-did-all-I-could sigh. “Then the Headmaster wants to see you straight away.” He pushed his notes unhappily back into his binder and stood up. “I’ll have to review my report once more, and then I will meet you at his office.”

“Alright then.” Peony set off straight to find the Headmaster, assured that Terrence would bring the proper perpetrator to justice. Peony decided that when this was all over, she should write a letter of recommendation to the Ministry, telling them how smart and considerate and professional he had been. Surely Headmaster Snape would commend his actions as well. As she stepped onto the third floor staircase that led to the Headmaster’s office, something knocked her back against the statue of a humpbacked witch.

Pansy Parkinson stood before her with a menacing sneer, brandishing her wand in front of her like a troll with a new Bludgering Bat.

“I will end you!” she shrieked. “You and your little birds!”

“Not now, Pansy,” Peony gasped. “I’ve got to see the Headmaster straight away!”

Pansy aimed at Peony’s head and shot off a curse that shattered a window far to the right of her target. “You won’t be able to fool him with your innocent, two-toned hypnotic eyes this time!” Her wand wobbled. “I had to kill your little lamb for that dream journal, but it was worth it. Vengeance will be mine!”

“You killed my Lambie??” Peony blocked a round of Pansy’s mis-cast curses. ”You are the most horrible half-sister ever! Now give me my journal back right this instant, Pansy!”

“It’s too late. I gave it to the Headmaster. Now he knows everything!” Pansy shot off a hex that bounced off the ceiling and hit the opposite wall. Peony backed up, blocked another sloppy curse, and threw a well-pointed hex at her half-sister. Pansy surprised her by deflecting the wand blast into the nearby statue.

The marble witch hit the cobblestones with a resounding crash and finally, Peony had enough. She threw a stunning spell at her half-sister’s shoulder and Pansy’s wand clattered to the stone floor.

“A little to the left.”

They both froze at the low, eloquent voice that had interrupted their duel. Peony turned and gulped at the sight of Headmaster Snape staring them down. A billion things flitted through Peony’s mind, not the least of which included detention with the Carrows. She shuddered at the notion of screaming under the Cruciatus curse.

“If you’re going to hit her in the chest, you need to raise your wand and aim a little to the left,” he continued, as if he were lecturing a class of Second-Years. Then he held out his hand. “The Time Turner, please.”

“But why?” Peony wanted to know. ”The end of the term is still weeks away.”

“For one thing, the Ministry believes them all to be destroyed and I don’t want them to find out otherwise. For another, I’m afraid that your student status has changed.”

The Headmaster motioned for two official looking men to surround her. One of them snatched her wand away while the other one grabbed her arm. As they led her away, someone barked into her ear.

“You are under arrest for murder.”

.
***
.

Terrence flipped through Peony’s dream journal for the hundredth time, scanning through her pink, fluffy unicorn dreams, the graffiti-trampled boys, and all the way up to the angst-ridden sugar quill nightmare, and still found nothing new. The Headmaster needed the matter closed. Peony’s elegant, loopy script screamed “guilty”. But still, Terrence couldn’t force himself to finish his report and condemn the girl for these atrocities. Peony was sweet and kind, and a Slytherin with impeccable penmanship… but that didn’t make her a killer.

He stuffed the journal in his pocket and headed back to the Headmaster’s office. She was probably being detained at that very moment, so he hurried up the stairs to plead for more time to look into the matter.

Terrence slowed his pace at the sound of hushed voices up ahead. Students were roaming the halls after curfew again.

“Not now, Pansy. I don’t have time to talk to you. I’m busy.”

“Let me help you, Draco. Please!”

Terrence came to a complete stop before he turned the corner. Was that Peony’s sister with that brooding, shifty-eyed boy? He tried to take a quick look, but found his view mostly blocked by a large suit of armor.

“I don’t think you fully understand the situation. The Dark Lord will be here any minute and he expects me to hand over that prat, Harry Potter. I was hoping that Peony’s seven generations of magical prowess would give me an edge, but I haven’t been able to find her.”

“You don’t need my half-sister for anything when you have me. Besides, the Headmaster just arrested her for murder and the curse my mother put on her will finish her off before the night is over.”

“Curse? What are you talking about? She won’t be of much use to me if she’s dead.”

“She’s never been much use, alive or dead. If that stupid house elf hadn’t eaten those poisoned tea cakes, Peony would have been long gone by now. I’ve been trying to kill her off all year! But this is even better. Seeing her exposed and humiliated in front of everyone is so worth the wait.”

“You really are related to a hag, aren’t you?”

Pansy snorted. “Everyone says it like it’s a bad thing. My mother’s magic is awesome! When Peony didn’t get the pony that Father promised her for her fifth birthday, she threw a fit and I saw my mother curse her.” Her eyes glittered with madness. “It was supposed to give Peony a lifetime of unhappiness. But the next morning, Father was dead. I knew it had to be her, but I never had any proof, not until now. And when everyone else finds out about her broken-promise nightmares, the curse is going to kill her too!”

“That doesn’t make any sense. If she’s the one having nightmares, why is she going to die?”

“Because when she finds out that she’s been killing people in her sleep, she’ll have to admit that she’s not as perfect as she’s promised. Peony is such a fake! She pretends to be ‘kind’ and ‘good’ and then kills off anyone who breaks their promise to her. Why do you think she got sorted into Slytherin in the first place? She holds grudges, she pees when she gets too excited and she even hates people, just like the rest of us!”

Terrence snuck across the corridor to an opposing suit of armor just as Pansy was trying to snuggle up against Draco, completely oblivious to anyone else who may or may not have been around.

Draco recoiled away from her. “You’re revolting, Pansy, and your curses can’t hit the broadside of a cow!” Draco’s heavy footsteps echoed down the hall.

“Where are you going?” Pansy pleaded.

“I’m going to talk to Peony. If she has the power to kill people in her sleep like you said, maybe we can do each other a favor.”

Terrence peeked out from behind a shield as Pansy drew her wand and shouted through the corridor, “Curse you, Draco Malfoy! With lightning on your head and slugs in your pants!” A red stream came out of Pansy’s wand and the painting three yards away from Draco’s retreating backside burst into flames.

After Pansy ran off, Terrence stepped out into the corridor, scribbling furiously on his worksheets. This was the missing evidence he needed to prove that Peony was innocent. He needed curse breakers, and fast! He turned to go back to the Headmaster’s study, and was met with the lopsided leer of Amycus Carrow.

“Hello, Mr. Spungen.” The squat little man looked like a squashed toad. An evil, squashed toad that smelled like mothballs. Really, bad-smelling, evil mothballs. The hackles on the back of Terrence’s neck bristled. He’d heard what this man had done with the children in his Dark Arts classes, which made him more dangerous than the giant, poisonous, foul-smelling, squashed toad that he appeared to be.


“Good day, Professor,” Terrence replied nervously. He slid to the right, attempting to pass around the batrachian Death Eater. Carrow stepped back into his path, a sadistic sneer painted on his face. Terrence smiled politely and stepped to the left only to find his way blocked once again. Terrence feinted back to the right, and after the stout little man followed, he quickly stepped to the left and got a few paces ahead before he was suddenly pinned to the wall, his toes dangling half an inch above the floor.

Amycus Carrow, clearly annoyed at having been outmaneuvered, flicked his wand and began walking away from the Headmaster’s office, dragging Terrence along the stone wall above him. “Headmaster Snape had a feeling you might have lost your way. He suggested that I assist you to the main gate.”

“You heard those two students. It’s Peony’s mother that needs to be brought to justice. Peony Parkinson is innocent!” Terrence waved the fresh notes non-threateningly at the professor. “The Headmaster will want to hear about this.” He ducked as a torch bracket nearly knocked him in the head.

“Snape’s a very busy man,” Amycus said, grinning at Terrence’s obvious discomfort as he was flung through the air with another swift move of the wand. “He doesn’t have time for complications.” When they reached the edge of the castle grounds, Amycus opened the gates.

“I’ve been appointed the new Head of Ministry Cooperation. All Ministry matters must go through me.” He tossed Terrence on his bum outside the perimeter of Hogwarts and the gates slammed shut. “And I have decided this case is closed.”

 







A/N:  Thank you once again to my fantastic betas, ladybirdflying and CambAngst for helping me with the details.  If you recognize anything in this story, it's because I borrowed it from somewhere else.  If you'd like to help me catalogue all the references, just click that little box down below and we'll start a list.  What fun!  Likewise, if you found the plot to be too predictable, please let me know where I went wrong.  Thanks so much for reading!
 


Chapter 7: An interrogation, another dream sequence, the final battle, and a requisite ball. What more could you ask for?
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After enduring six hours of verbal assault by three serious-minded officials in the Headmaster’s office, Peony’s composure had finally crumbled.  Not only had they dismissed her pleas of innocence, but they had steadfastly denied her request for emergency rations of tea cakes and marmalade.  Feeling faint from low blood sugar, Peony tried to focus on the accusing finger now jutting in her face, when suddenly her finch snapped and flew into attack mode.

 

Once the feathers had settled and the finch was caged, the shortest of the three wrapped his sensible, law-abiding (and recently finch-nipped) finger in a stray piece of parchment. “Enough!  You’re a murderer and we already have your confession,” he declared.

 

At her cry of protest, Amycus Carrow’s sneer peered over the edge of the Headmaster’s desk.  Peony’s dream journal landed with a heavy “thunk” in front of her.  



“This book has detailed accounts that match the detective’s reports,” the second official intoned, sounding eerily like Lambie used to.  “The two trampled Gryffindor boys, the stabbing of Roderick Spinks and even your father’s mysterious accident where he slipped and fell and then drowned in his own tears, it’s all right here.  We assume that the House Elf was your doing too, even if you didn’t write it down, what with your busy class schedule.”



“But I never had a dream about Squiggles!  As for the rest of it, I didn’t mean to!” Peony wailed.  “I don’t even know how any of this happened!”



“Magic, like everything else around here,” drawled the Headmaster with his usual disdain.  “Remove this girl from my office while I finish the mountain of paperwork she has just caused me.”



“We’ll need fifteen signatures to take her off the premises.  What shall we do until then?” asked the tallest man, who was undisputedly in charge.



“Put her in the Medical Wing for now, and for the sake of Great Merlin’s beard, keep her awake until Madame Pomfrey prepares a fresh batch of Dreamless Sleeping Draught!”  The Headmaster had already disappeared behind a towering stack of parchment.



Sometime after the long haul to the Medical Wing, Peony was glued to a bed, her arms and legs immobilized by the application of a partial Body Binding Curse.  Madame Pomfrey took her vital signs and measured her height and weight for a proper dose of Dreamless Sleeping Draught.  Peony tearfully answered Madame Pomfrey’s increasingly embarrassing questions on the state of her health.



“Now dear, do you have any reason to think that you might be pregnant?”

 

Peony shook her head, sobbing something unintelligible about boys and kissing.

 

Satisfied with her answers, Madame Pomfrey left for the storeroom.  Peony shifted her head and rubbed her cheek on the pillow, trying to wipe the tears away, but stopped when she noticed Draco Malfoy sitting silently on the other bed, staring at his hands.   She watched him for a solid minute, wondering how much of her last answer he had heard, when suddenly his cold eyes were looking back at her.



 “Can you still do it?”



“What?”  Peony was tired of all the questions.

 

“Kill people.  I need someone dead.”

 

“I’m not going to murder anybody on purpose!”  Peony said, aghast at the thought.  “It only happens when I’m sleeping, and I can’t control it.  Besides, aren’t you worried that I might dream you up and kill you too?”

 

Draco snorted.  “We’re Slytherins, Peony.  We don’t make promises.  But if you can’t kill someone on purpose, you’re of no use to me.”  Draco sighed with disappointment and got up.  “It’s been nice knowing you, Peony Parkinson.”

 

Peony eyed the officials at the door.  As much as she wanted to believe in truth, justice and the power of a well-placed pout, she’d recently learned that the real world had its own set of rules that she wasn’t ready to take on.  “What’s going to happen to me?”

 

“Azkaban, probably.”  Draco met her panicked eyes.  “Unless you agree to help me.”

 

“That’s blackmail!” Peony gasped. 

 

“It’s what I’m good at.  I can get you out of here right now if you tell me exactly how you do it.”

 

“People promise me something and then they break it.  I have a nightmare and when I wake up, they are dead.  I don’t mean to do it.  I’m cursed!”  Peony boo hoed into her pillowcase.

 

Draco rolled his eyes.  “What if I told you that the Dark Lord promised us all a better world, but all he wants is power?  He doesn’t care about any of us, much less you.”

 

“I… I don’t think that’s going to work,” Peony said with a sniffle.  “I think it has to be personal.”

 

“He’s coming here to kill Harry Potter.  That seems to be personal enough for everyone else around here.  Sheesh!  What else do you need?”

 

It was true.  Even after her arrest, Peony had everything a Slytherin princess could hope for.  She had the answers to next week’s Arithmancy exam and bags of her favorite candies. The cart next to her hospital bed overflowed with flowers, notes of gratitude (for things she couldn’t remember doing) and a handwritten invitation to the Slug Club from Professor Slughorn.  But Peony knew that it wasn’t because they cared.  The whole school was covering their backsides from her deadly subconscious wrath. 

 

Madame Pomfrey returned, eyeing Draco suspiciously, and put the Dreamless Sleeping Potion on the table next to Peony.  “You have one minute, Mr. Malfoy.”

 

Draco sneered after the nurse left them alone again.  “Plenty of time to do this then.”  He picked up Madame Pomfrey’s vial and replaced it with one of his own. “Sorry, Peony.  I have to go.”  He met Crabbe and Goyle at the door and told them, “She’s no good to us now.”

 

Peony strained against her body bind.  “Don’t leave!  If I fall asleep without that potion, someone might die!”

 

Draco grinned at her.  “That’s the idea.  Nighty night.”

 

Peony tried to tell Madame Pomfrey that the vial had been switched, but the nurse quickly forced the contents of Draco’s vial down Peony’s throat.  In moments, she was asleep.

 

***

Terrence apparated to the gates of the castle, accompanied by a strange assortment of Wizards who were clearly not from the Ministry.  He’d tried at first to reason with his supervisor, but for some strange reason, all requests involving Hogwarts were being placed on indefinite hold.  Out of options, Terrence had forged the authorization papers himself and lured a gaggle of Curse Breakers away from Gringotts with a fresh batch of pignolis and the promise of “something big about to go down”.

  

He would likely lose his job over this, or worse. He was risking his short and unproven career for righteousness and deep down inside, Terrence hoped his father would be proud.

 

“I’m not sure how this is going to work,” he said.  “Amycus Carrow threw me out and locked the doors.  There’s probably a spell blocking me.”

 

A dark, gangly man reached out and touched the gate.  It swung open without protest.

 

“Oh.”  Terrence said, awed by their power.  “Headmaster Snape is a man of reason.  Once we’re inside, let me do the talking.” 

 

A crash drew their eyes up to the fourth floor window.  They all watched, openmouthed, as the glass smashed outward and the Headmaster dove out, transformed into a bat-like thing and flew off into the distance.  Shrieks of “Coward!” echoed off the castle walls.

 

Terrence shrugged, not wanting to push his luck.  “Never mind.  Let’s go.”  They ran through the castle gates and after a quick word with Filch, headed straight to the hospital wing where Peony lay, writhing and crying in her sleep.

 

“Peony, wake up!” he called as the Curse Breakers surrounded her bed, chanting in ominous tones.

 

“Pe’onia!”

 

***



Peony floated, weightless over a large field as a lone figure approached her from afar.

 

“Pe’onia,” it called to her.

 

“M-mother?”  Peony blinked as the woman moved closer, graceful as a swan gliding on the water, surrounded by a halo of pure white turtledoves.

 

“It wasn’t your fault,” her mother told her.  “Nothing ever is because you are perfect.  Now it is time for you to die.”

 

A large bird dove down from the sky, reminding Peony of her messenger eagle, but the silhouette was wrong – and it moved differently.  As it circled lower, its growing wingspan blocked out the sun.  The bird swooped down and clambered all over her head and shoulders, attempting to gain purchase with its large, webbed feet.  It finally ended up sitting on her head with one foot on each of her shoulders. 

 

Peony began to cry.  “I’m sorry, Mother!  I don’t want to be perfect anymore!”  She sobbed and sobbed, and then she was floating in her own tears, the weight of the albatross pushing her under and then she was sinking and thrashing –

 

Strong arms hauled her out of bed. 

 

“Peony, wake up!”

 

She gasped for air and trembled as the detective shook her awake, feeling like she had been pulled out of a deep well.

 

“Pe’onia!”

 

She opened her eyes, still disoriented from the dream.  “You… you pronounced my name, exactly how my mother did.  No one has said it correctly in years.”

 

Terrence shrugged.  “I’m Italian.  We pronounce everything correctly.” 

 

 “How did you know what to do?” Peony asked him.

 

“Deduction, guesswork and a crack team of Curse Breakers.”  Terrence motioned to the crowd of straight-faced men off to the side.   “I’d have smeared my lips with Wiggenweld potion if I had to.”

 

Peony blushed at the thought of Terrence actually using the Wiggenweld potion.  “I’m fine now.  Thank you.”

 

A heavy weight lifted from her chest (like the giant albatross of her dreams had finally clambered off her head and shoulders and flapped its large, gangly wings, taking awkwardly to the sky, never to be seen again) and she knew she’d been saved from her step-mother’s curse at last.  Suddenly Peony knew what it felt like to want to kiss someone for all the right reasons. 

 

Terrence held up her communication coin from Ginny and Luna.  “It’s been glowing and pulsing since I got here.”  He looked sideways at the Curse Breakers and whispered, “I didn’t know what it was, so I didn’t tell anyone.”

 

“Oh, thank you, Terrence!” Peony said to him, taking the coin from his hand and clasping it to her chest.  ”The others are calling me.  Something has happened.”

 

Terrence agreed.  “I should bring you up to date on that.  Harry Potter is back, and the Dark Lord is forming an army outside the gates of the school.  He’s given us one hour to turn the boy over, and the school has decided to fight.  The castle is surrounded and all of the underage students are being evacuated.  You have to go!”

 

Peony shook her head.   “I’m seventeen, only three months younger than my half-sister.  Everyone in polite society ignores the math, but never mind that. Luna and Ginny need my help!”

 

“But Peony, I have all the evidence I need for the Ministry to drop the murder charges against you.  If you go with the Curse Breakers now, you’ll be safe.”

 

“I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but this is bigger than you or me, or any other community service project, ever!” Peony continued on, imagining a swell of violins accompanying her melodious voice.  “This is…”  Peony struggled to put her finger on exactly what it was that she was becoming so adamant about.   “It’s important!” 

 

Then she yawned, the commotion of the last twenty-four hours catching up with her.  If she was going to risk her life for the good of all Wizard-and-Muggle-kind, she needed to be in top physical condition.

 

“I want to fight against the Dark Lord!” she declared.  “But first, I need a short nap.”

 

***

 

Forty-seven minutes later, Terrence and Peony came across Luna and Dean running through the halls in a panic.

 

“The battle has started!” Luna shouted at them.  “Someone is trying to breach the South Gate! Can you lend us a hand?”

 

Peony charged ahead, ready to go into battle, but then turned back to Terrence in a panic.  “My wand!” she cried.   “They took it from me!”

 

“Here.” Terrence tossed a wand to her, which she caught gracefully out of the air.  “I swiped it from the Headmaster’s office while you were napping.”

 

Before Peony could properly beam at him for being so noble and smart, a bolt of lightning struck the wall behind her and Peony’s wand went flying.  She scrambled for cover as part of a staircase crashed down to where she’d been only moments before.

 

“Accio wand!” Peony cried, but it was no use.  She rolled on the ground, deftly dodging a killing blow as a black-robed man rushed past, but then an icy cold seeped into her bones. 

 

As the dark cloud of Dementors closed in, all of Peony’s empty, broken promises flashed before her eyes - she’d been a horrible Slytherin this year; her loyalties had changed, she’d broken most all of the rules, gone against her House and family…

 

“Expecto Patronum!” shouted Terrence to her left, and a silver alpaca ran past.  It let out a noisy, high-pitched bray and then hurled green, grassy spit into the midst of the Dementors.  As they dispersed, Peony felt much better.  She tried again for a quick “thank you” and a curtsey to Terrence, but she was definitely wearing the wrong outfit for that.  Before she could think any more vapid thoughts about gratitude, Ginny and Luna rushed past her, white as sheets.

 

“We’re doomed!” Luna cried.  “It’s a hoard of hungry Snorkack poachers!”

 

Ginny gasped for breath.  “Run for your life, Peony!  It’s a storm of cursed bludgers!”

 

Peony saw the oncoming terror and her blood ran cold.  “Zombies!” she breathed, and froze on the spot.

 

A hoard stumbled out of the rubble, like Luna had described.  At the head of them all, her ex-beloved Roderick looked rather put out at being dead.  Behind him, the two Gryffindor boys, her father, and a whole army of people she’d grown to love in her life shook spears and pikes and all other manners of destructive implements in the air.

 

“You suck!” Zombie-Roderick roared, and swung his battle axe at her head.

 

“Get behind me!” shouted Terrence, shoving Peony out of the way.  Then he froze too.  Peony peered around him and saw an entirely different sight.  The zombies had transformed into angry werewolves.

 

“Terrence, they’re Boggarts!  Use the spell!” she urged.  But Terrence remained motionless at the sight of the monsters that had come to exact vengeance for his father’s accusations.

 

All of a sudden, a large white bird swooped down and screeched at her with something wooden and pointy in its talons.  Ultimus Prime had found her wand!  Peony raised her arm to the heavens and her messenger eagle released the wand into her hand.  Peony’s thumb pressed down into a small (and never before detectable) notch in the handle.

 

“Click.”

 

A thin blade shot out of the end of her wand, covered in tiny grey skulls with the initials “S.S.” engraved on the diamond encrusted hilt.  Being the only student ever (besides Hermione Granger, of course) to have memorized “A History of Hogwarts”, including all of the indexes and footnotes, Peony immediately recognized that the hand-me-down wand she’d had all along was the Secret Stiletto of Salazar Slytherin that came to his faithful students in their greatest time of need.

 

Peony brandished the Stiletto of Slytherin before her and thought about the happiest memory she’d ever had: baking cookies with Terrence in the Hogwarts kitchens.

 

“Riddickulous!”

 

Great bolts shot out of the stiletto-wand and bathed the werewolves in a fiery light.

 

Peony sank to the ground and shielded her eyes from the afterglow of the most powerful spell she had ever cast.  Then soft, gentle fur rubbed along her legs and hands.  Peony opened her eyes in surprise.  She was surrounded by a pack of the cutest little puppies she had ever seen!  Unable to resist, she reached out and scratched one behind its ears and it panted and licked at her hand.

 

Then Terrence gathered up a few pups and pitched them into the fray.  The oncoming army screamed as their worst fears hurled through the air at them.  Peony wanted to help with all her heart, but she couldn’t bring herself to watch fuzzballs of cuteness transform into the horrors that only the most evil minions of all time would dream up, so she did the only thing a proper lady could: she squeezed her eyes shut and clutched one of the furry little love balls until it was all over.

 

***

 

After the battle, Peony and Terrence entered the Great Hall and joined the remaining survivors who had fought valiantly for the freedom of all Wizardkind.  The castle was damaged.  Peony was damaged too, but people didn’t seem to care that she wasn’t perfect anymore or that she’d lost her composure and three-quarters of her dignity in the heat of battle. 

 

Terrence spotted Kingsley Shacklebolt and headed over to offer his assistance.  Peony circled the room, comforting everyone she could, except for Draco, since he had basically tried to kill her right before the battle.  Draco appeared to be too busy to help with the efforts around him, not lifting a finger to gather up the injured or count the casualties.  Instead, he dutifully sulked at the edge of the scene with his family, who were inexplicably allowed to remain in the hall while all the other Slytherins had been shunned to the dungeon.  Turning back, Peony tried to find Terrence so she could finally give him the thanks he deserved for helping her with the Boggart-puppies, but he was already gone.

 

There was nothing particularly special about Paloma Papillon Pe’onia Parkinson after that day.  Harry Potter (and some of his closest friends) got all the credit.  Peony didn’t mind because she knew she hadn’t earned any medals of honor for her actions during the war (besides the bit about the Slytherin wand and the Boggart puppies, but she was too embarrassed about the rest of it to mention anything to anyone). She quietly faded into the backdrop of the aftermath, just another pretty girl with problems, and as she turned her back on the smoking ruins of her adolescence, she was finally ready to move on with her life. 

 

***

 

One year later, Peony returned to gaze across the newly renovated Great Hall at Hogwarts.  The large room had been expanded to accommodate a great many visitors.  Candles glowed.  Stars twinkled.  Peony recognized many of her classmates who had also been invited to attend the One Year Anniversary Ball to commemorate the great battle that had ended the second and hopefully final wizarding war.

 

Peony wore a replica robe from Celestina Warbuck’s last concert, except for a much shorter veil that hung from her shoulders down to mid-calf, long enough to whisper in the wind, but short enough not to entangle anyone standing nearby. 

 

She had broken all of her promises that she’d made to herself as a first year at Hogwarts, but she’d made new ones after the final battle, the most important one being that she would be a sensible young woman and make her own rules from now on.

 

Draco asked her to dance, and, having had a whole year to set aside her grudges, Peony accepted graciously.

 

He spun her around and glanced at her shoulders. “No finches?”

 

Shortly after the battle, Peony had found gainful employment in the food industry, which required her to leave her avian collection at home due to industry-specific codes.  But she didn’t mind.  Her new job demanded oh so much perfection of her and she loved every minute.  It took some convincing of the management, but she was now the Head Pastry Chef at “Le Sanglier Tete” (which sounded more elegant than “The Hog’s Head Inn”, but in fact, was the exact same thing, only in French).  Her specialty of course, was tea cakes with peach marmalade.  She also wasn’t too bad at whipping up a batch of pignolis in a pinch.  And when Aberforth got too cranky about the snooty, upscale clientele, she’d slip a bit of Pepper-up Potion into his Firewhisky and he’d settle right down into his new life of running a sanitary and reputable establishment. 

 

She gave Draco the short version of all of that.

 

Draco nodded.  “Good on you, Peony.”  He spun her around the room a second time.  “I don’t see your sister anywhere.”

 

“She’s still got another six months in her court-appointed Hags Anonymous rehabilitation program,” Peony told him.  “Why?”

 

“I guess Pansy had some talent after all.  The day after the battle, my hair fell out.  I thought it would grow back within the year, but it looks like I’ll have to visit the Curse Breakers after all.  In the meantime, I’ve discovered this curious Muggle invention to help keep my toupee in place.  Look at this.”  He pulled a small silver roll out of his breast pocket.  “It has a light side and a dark side, and it binds anything in the universe together.” 

 

Draco stuffed the roll back into his pocket.  “I’m sorry for trying to kill you last year,” he said, and then knelt down in front of her.  “Will you marry me?”

 

Peony raised an eyebrow.  “Aren’t you still attracted to my half-sister?”

 

“She cursed me, Peony.  That took away any feelings I had left for her.”  He smiled, but then it disappeared behind a tired, drawn expression.  “All I want is someone who will be kind to me and not constantly remind me of how indecent I was for all those years.”

 

“Oh Draco,” Peony said with a sigh.  “I was such a silly little school girl and you were an unhinged, self-absorbed prat.  Realistically, I don’t see how we can ever look at each other and not remember how we once were.  That’s why it would never work between us.” 

 

 “I thought you might feel that way.”  He stood back up and brushed some lint off his pant leg.  “You can’t blame a bloke for trying.”

 

Peony watched Draco sulk off to the punch bowl and then scanned the room, her heart full of joy as everyone oohed and aahed over the hors d'oeuvres and light refreshments.  She smiled as she recognized a familiar face exchanging pleasantries with Headmistress McGonagall.

 

She’d run into him a few months ago at a Ministry function, where she’d launched her debut catering branch of Aberforth’s business.  That night, Peony had experienced her first kiss.  It was one of those awkward, bumping-noses-and-too-much-champagne affairs, but all in all, it had turned out quite pleasant.  The second attempt had been worlds better, but Peony preferred to keep that cherished moment between the two of them.

 

Finally, she had found someone who was not only worthy of her affections, but who also looked past her perfect façade and saw her for the histrionic, obsessive-compulsive woman that she really was (and was beginning to accept, thanks to her much needed post-war-owl-post therapy sessions) and still cared for her. 

 

Peony made her way across the room, passing by Ginny, who had been dancing with Harry Potter all night, and Luna, who sat amongst the twinkling ficus trees, sharing a pudding with Neville .    If a high-strung Gryffindor and a Ravenclaw with mild psychosis could find happiness, then an almost-perfect ex-Slytherin could too. 

 

Nothing about her life had turned out as she had planned.  She had lived through one of the most difficult times in the history of Hogwarts School, but she hadn’t single-handedly saved the world (it had been a collective effort in which Peony had learned the true value of her peers).  She had found her best friends at Hogwarts were the ones she’d least expected.  And the bloke with his back to her wasn’t the man of her dreams that she’d written about in that first-year essay so long ago (but seeing that all of the men she’d ever dreamed about were dead, she wasn’t complaining). 

 

It was a moonlit night.  Beautiful.  Perfect. 

 

Peony reached out and tapped her future on the shoulder.  As he turned around to face her, Peony wrapped her arms around him and smiled.  “Terrence,” she whispered into his ear.  “I’d like to dance now.”

 

 

The End




 






A/N:  Thank you again to my beta readers, without whom this would be a gigantic pile of rubbish.  Ladybirdflying and CambAngst are geniuses.  Go and give them gratuitous reviews!

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