On the Turning Away
It was meant as a joke.
The envelope said the card was from Blaise, though I wouldn’t have been surprised if Pansy had had a hand in things. He never could argue her out of a ‘brilliant idea’.
Maybe it was my fault. I was the one who opened it on the terrace outside Mother’s study – I was just so pleased that someone was thinking of me.
Green light burst out and upwards. It turned out to be a Christmas tree: eighty feet high and blazing with fairy lights, vivid and bright against the low winter sky. I know this because Mother told me later. At the time I was too busy cowering in horror and remembering bodies and Morsmorde and consoling myself that at least I had retained control of my bodily functions.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. A middle-aged witch who lived between us and town saw it, thought exactly as I had, and immediately called the Aurors. I can’t say I blame her, but I hope she wet herself.
There was just time enough for Mother to come running out, take stock of the situation and calm me down before two sharp shocks of air announced the Apparation of two red-robed men.
At least I didn’t know either of them.
And they were fair. There had been a report. They would have to take me in. Yes, madam, they could see from the fading shape still visible that it was clearly not a skull, but as things stood, this being Malfoy Manor, they felt sure we understood that it would be for the best and hoped to have me back in a few hours.
She wanted to come with me. Leave Father alone. She would have done it, too, if I hadn’t told her to stay, that I wasn’t afraid.
They treated me well. It was a Side-along Apparition under guard, and I had to hand over my wand, but there were no restraints, no mocking, no brutality. They were polite and professional and in other circumstances I probably would have commended them to their senior officer.
For half an hour I thought it was all going to be all right. They sat me in a quiet interview room with a sign asking me to make an Auror's child happy and give them the gift of holiday parents by not breaking the law this Christmas. They took my statement, left me with a cup of tea and the unspoken knowledge that I was being watched (but nothing so gauche as a guard), then popped back in to say that they were just finalising the confirming statements and that my patience and cooperation were appreciated.
And then Potter came in.
‘You look awful,’ I said, and immediately wished I had bothered to engage my brain before speaking.
He paused, before half-smiling and replying, ‘So do you.’
While he dismissed the other Aurors, I had a few seconds to berate myself. It’s not as though either of us had been lying: he was still using a stick to walk and was skinnier than I had ever seen him. I was aware that I had gone backwards in the personal grooming stakes in recent years, but he had blue shadows and a series of fine lines under his eyes, and his hair looked as though it had been arranged by a blackbird. He was not the Harry Potter who existed in my head.
‘Mr Malfoy,’ he said. The ‘Mister’ sounded wholly unnatural.
‘Auror Potter,’ I replied, managing to keep my voice even.
‘I hear we’ve had a spot of bother…’
This is why I didn’t come to town anymore, because I am not to be trusted in public. ‘We haven’t had a spot of anything,’ I said. ‘I have stupid friends who think they’re funny but they don’t think things through – and yes I am thoroughly aware of the irony there, before you point it out. You have a job to do and I don’t begrudge that, but can we just get the wrist-slapping done so I can get home before my mother starts worrying?’
He took it well. ‘How is your mother?’
‘She’s in perfect health?’
‘And your father?’
I couldn’t think of a way to answer.
I’ll say this for Potter, he’s good at his job. The pause was barely uncomfortable before he put a piece of paper on the table and pretended to read over it. ‘The investigating Aurors say they’re satisfied that no crime has been committed. They were impressed with your cooperative attitude and have recommended you be released with no further action.’
I brightened up, then realised. ‘But you’re here.’
‘Which means it’s gone political.’
I slumped back in my chair. ‘Bugger.’
He pushed his hair back with a hand so thin and white I could see the network of blue veins moving blood through it. ‘It’s not that bad.’ He consulted the paper again. ‘One Wizengamot representative heard your name in passing and is terrified the Prophet know you’ve been brought in. Doesn’t want it getting out if we bring a Malfoy in and send them straight back home.’
‘Again,’ I reminded him.
‘You were innocent of the accusation that time, too,’ he answered seamlessly.
I snorted. ‘I bloody well was not.’
He looked up at me, and his expression was more opaque than anything I had seen on his face before. ‘The charge was that you’d killed Dumbledore. You didn’t. I was there.’
I looked down at the table. I was sure that there had been at least one low point in my life where Potter hadn’t been present, but I was finding it hard to remember what it might have been.
‘And this time there’s a suggestion you’re a Death Eater. You’re not, so again, we work through the process, which is a just and equitable one.’
‘I was a Death Eater,’ I reminded him.
‘You were an idiot,’ he said, so matter-of-factly that I rolled up my sleeve to show him the scars of the Mark that still showed faintly through the fir tree I had had tattooed over it. He glanced at it, then looked at me impassively, until I couldn’t hold his gaze any longer and had to pay an inordinate amount of attention to the process of rolling down my sleeve
‘All right,’ I muttered. ‘I was an idiot. And I have idiot friends. Fine. What happens now?’
‘Now we escort you home. And I find someone who’s happy to have you report to them over Christmas until we can have a quick chat with the Wizengamot in the New Year and get them to officially close the case.’
Going before the Wizengamot … That had nearly ended badly the last time. ‘You seem very relaxed about all of this,’ I said, trying to sound as though I could take it as lightly as he did.
He shrugged. ‘Things have changed a lot in the last eight years.’
‘Seven,’ I corrected him.
‘Seven-and-a-half,’ he compromised. ‘There’s no case. There wouldn’t even be a hearing if you weren’t who you are. It’s really an inconvenience more than anything else. Because the case has alleged Death Eater connections, we can't have you just reporting to your local MLE. It has to be an official Auror parole, which means I have to find someone who’s able to check in with you every day until January the third, when they return from holidays.’
I’ve lost track of all the advice I’ve been given over the years. My father’s turned out to be almost entirely self-serving. Professor Snape had a few useful tips: read the instructions twice before you cut anything; always have an escape route; nothing comes without hard work; if you must lose, take down as many of the enemy as you can – idiot that I was, I thought he meant house points from Gryffindor.
I try not to think about Dumbledore’s.
My mother, though, hers is better. ‘Life can change in an instant,’ she’s told me more than once. ‘The trick is to jump in the right direction. See the moment coming and take the chance as it presents itself.’
I have singularly failed to succeed in following her example at almost every turning point in my life. Except this one.
‘What about you?’ I asked.
He looked as surprised as Pansy had been the day I helped her back into her school robes and told her it was never going to happen. And yes, Potter had even been there for that nadir, in spirit if not in body. Her bitter commentary on homoerotic subtexts had been easier to bear than the alternative, though. Friends don’t take advantage of friends.
Potter was looking at me, one eyebrow raised. ‘Me?’ he asked. ‘I’m the Deputy Chief Auror. Everything else aside, isn’t that a little presumptuous?’
I shrugged; of course it was. But I could see he found the idea entertaining. And to look at him, he needed some entertainment. The last time I’d seen him happy and hale, he’d been stalking me through Sixth Year. Clearly, I was a healthy hobby for the man.
Merlin knew he needed something. In my head, he was still the Sixth Year Gryffindor Seeker: tall and strapping, with lean muscles under leather, linen and wool. He hadn't looked his best the year after that, but none of us had really kept up appearances during the war. But even then, his strength, his indefatigability, they had shone through on those few days that our paths had crossed.
Since the war, whenever I’d seen him he’d looked as though he had the weight of the world upon his shoulders. And now … It had stopped being a metaphor. He was even sitting a little off centre, keeping his weight on his left side … I’d read that he’d broken over a dozen bones in the explosion. And saved hundreds of lives.
‘What makes you think I’d have time?’
I shrugged again. Everyone knew that he had time. Granger and Weasley would doubtless be sharing some token celebration with him, but they had a baby in tow. Girl Weasley and Oliver Wood had been the Daily Prophet’s cover seventeen times since their relationship began in February. I could only imagine how awkward Christmas at Weasley Central would be.
‘And what on earth makes you think I’d be prepared to re-organise my holiday for you?’
I had an actual answer for that. 'I'm one of your success stories,' I reminded him. 'Not a single instance of public evil since you defeated He Who Whatsit.'
He actually smiled at that, but still shook his head. 'I'm not spending my holidays trekking out into the wilds of Wiltshire because you're mildly amusing, Malfoy.'
You're not going to visit the house where your friend was tortured, I thought. 'You won't have to,' I told him. 'I live in town now,'
Potter was surprised. 'London?'
I may have oversold things a little … 'Salisbury,' I corrected myself. 'But it's Plottable, and near the Minster Street Owlery, which is on the Floo Network, if you prefer.'
He was actually thinking about it. I was surprised, but not so much I failed to press my advantage. 'Come on, Potter, you know you've been vaguely wondering what I do with my time now I'm not trying to ruin your school life or support the overthrow of Wizarding Britain. Here's your chance. It'll do you good to get out of London, away from the high profile cases, back to where your Auroring really began. I tell my mother that I was the inspiration for your whole career, you know. Without me, you'd probably have taken to Herbology, or Astronomy.'
That made him laugh, and I knew that I had won. Which was a considerable personal triumph, because he really did look dreadful. And I knew that if I could just spend a few days associated with a drawn and wan Potter who limped like Professor Moody and was bound to lose his temper and probably hex me before Boxing Day, then I could finally, finally, get the memory of what it had felt like to have my arms around him out of my head.
In the end it took a little more than that, but not much. The forms stipulated that I would come into London every second day and Potter would come to Salisbury on the others. Apparently it was more usual for the parolee to travel to the Ministry, or for a house arrest to be in place. It wasn't until much later that I realised Potter had compromised for me from the very start.
He asked if I needed a letter for my mother, I assured him that my return would send all the message that would be required. He called in one of the Aurors who had arrested me and asked him to escort me back to the manor. Wallace Nepeta was his name, he had been the one who apologised to Mother for the necessity of taking me in. In other circumstances I probably would have liked him.
We didn't talk until we were in the tinsel-covered lift. He started it, with a friendly 'Told you there was nothing to worry about.'
I grunted agreement and should have let things rest, except I never could. 'How's Potter going as Deputy Chief Auror?' I asked.
Nepeta smiled at me. 'Good. He deserved the promotion. And it's given us an excuse to keep him quiet for a few months.'
I looked at the inside of the lift doors. 'Is he …?'
'He'll be fine,' Nepeta assured me.
'But, surely, Skelegro …'
'Best for one or two simple breaks. Your own body does the best job for anything more complex, just takes longer.'
'But with knitbone and arnica added …' I had brewed several improved versions of the potion myself and knew that some of its limitations could be overcome.
Before Nepeta could do more than shake his head, the lift pinged and we were in the Atrium, where someone had clearly indulged a lifelong passion for fake snow and robins. Happily, the latter were also fake – convincing little automata – or else the health risk would have been appalling.
'Right,' he said. 'I really ought to take you Side-along under restraint, but it doesn't seem necessary to me. Do you want to Apparate all the way or should we take the Floo for the big jump? I'd rather the latter if it's all the same to you. Big night last night.'
Unless it was a veiled reference to muscular sexual exploits, he was lying. I had rarely met a wizard who looked more alert nor had whiter whites to his eyes. He was even taller than me, a perfect example of the hearty Saxon who would have looked at home with an ox. But since I felt metaphorically buggered, I was happy to go along with the idea.
We stepped out at the Salisbury Owlery, quite close to my own home. Neatly lettered signs scattered around the room requested that, except in cases of inclement weather, Disapparition take place in the courtyard provided. The temperature had plummeted in the last week, but the skies were clear and the air still, so we obediently trotted outside to Apparate back to the Manor together. I wanted Nepeta to reassure my mother.
She had caused a light luncheon to be served in my absence, though it had only just gone eleven. Some poor house elf had spent a good hour cutting the crusts off little sandwiches and jellying a salmon, but I appreciated her optimism. Nepeta looked awkward at the invitation, but courteously agreed to a small snack.
Mother had set the table in the conservatory. It was a thoughtful touch: this was one of the few parts of the house built since the war. No one had ever been tortured in this room, only plants given gentle prunings before being lavished with the best heating spells available.
Nepeta took the conversational lead, apologising to my mother, thanking me for my assistance. Several minutes passed before he ventured the subject of the parole.
Mother immediately leapt to the wrong conclusion. 'You'll stay here,' she said. 'It's a much larger house. We can't have you spending a fortnight trapped inside your … bijou establishment.' Which was a kindness on her part, she usually described my house as poky.
'No need,' Nepeta explained, somehow managing to eat a fish paste sandwich while still exuding an aura of quiet authority. 'He's not under house arrest, he just needs to check in once a day. Deputy Chief Auror Potter has already worked out a schedule with him. Aside from that, he's free to carry on as usual, just no jaunts abroad without approval.'
Mother blinked slowly. 'Potter, you say?'
I cringed pre-emptively. She must have been feeling a little Christmas charity, because she merely smiled and said, 'Well, that's nice. Thank you for taking such good care of him. I was worried.'
I muttered something about being twenty-five, but, since she ignored me, it was wasted breath. Nepeta gave a small wink of sympathy and I had a clear vision of his family life and the fact that mine was not wholly unique. Perhaps this was why he asked me to escort him back to Salisbury, even though there was no need.
Mother shook her head sharply, but I whispered that I thought it would be politic to do as the nice Auror requested. She fixed me with a long look, but didn't argue the point.
'Could I have a moment with my son before you leave?' she asked instead.
Nepeta stood politely. 'Of course, Mrs Malfoy. I'll wait in the hall. Thank you for a delightful repast.'
Mother barely blinked before she smiled and bid him a courteous farewell.
'They've certainly improved their Auror training,' she muttered once he'd shut the door.
'I think he's just a nice person,' I said, feeling contrary.
She jumped on that. 'Marvellous. We'll ask him if you can report to him instead.'
'Draco …' Her tone was an uncanny impersonation of mine. 'It never ends well. Every time you and Potter …' She paused and took a breath. 'That man is not your friend.'
'No,' I agreed. 'He's not.'
'Are an adult,' I interrupted. 'I want to put it all behind me, Mother. We're taking about fifteen minutes a day, during which we be civil to each other and I will be able to get a grip on the reality of the man and not some trauma-induced … Merlin, I don't know what.'
I was lying again. I did know. Seven years of only picking up men with wild black hair had made it very clear, even to me.
She put her hand on my shoulder. 'It's one thing to see him as a hero, darling. Just don't let it become a hope.'
She was one to talk. I had watched the final moments of the Battle of Hogwarts from her arms, and it hadn't been me who whispered 'Yes!' when Potter had lifted his wand.
'I'm aiming for the point where we politely nod heads at each other in passing,' I reassured her.
She drew me down for a hug and held me briefly. 'All right. Just stay safe.'
I kissed her cheek. 'Does Father…?'
'Slept through it all,' she assured me. 'He's having a quiet day.' She squeezed my hand as I stepped past her, and I squeezed hers back.
Nepeta was waiting for me in the hall. 'Lovely woman, your mother,' he said.
'She is,' I agreed in fairness.
'It can be hard for them to remember we grow up, though, can't it?'
I stopped fighting and just gave in to liking the man. 'Yours too?'
'She wiped my face with a hanky the last time we were out on Diagon Alley together.'
I winced in sympathy. He grinned.
Apparating back to Salisbury was the work of a moment. I looked vaguely around the Owlery, unsure what should happen next.
'Are you meant to make sure I go home?' I asked.
'I can if you want me to,' he said, affably. 'Though I trust you to not get lost.'
I grinned then. 'You should come over some time when you're not working. We could have a cider and complain about loving but smothering maternal units.'
He grinned back at me. 'Potter keeps going on about learning Community Policing from the Muggles; I am absolutely his champion employee. Arrest a man at nine, get an invite to hang out before twelve.'
'It's a bit boring out here,' I admitted. 'You leap at the chance of a good conversation.'
'I'm from Leominster, I know what you mean. Loads of Muggles, practically none of us.'
He hesitated for a moment, then spoke quickly: 'You don't remember, but we were at school together.'
I looked at him blankly. I would have sworn his was a face I had seen a few times, but never regularly. But then, to judge from his age, we would indeed have been at Hogwarts at roughly the same time.
'I was three years behind you, in Hufflepuff,' he explained. 'I was one of the quiet ones who got to school and was terrified by stories about Basilisks, Dementors and the return of Voldemort.'
'Ah …' I still couldn't remember him, but I did have a clear recollection of wide-eyed children staring in horror whenever anything disastrous was unfolding.
'And the thing is, I remember that in a weird way you were good for him.'
'No, you muppet, Potter. You distracted him and gave him focus. After Cedric died, we were all gutted, but it did something to him. He wasn't the same after that. When I was in Second Year, he was a bit mental, which was fair enough, because Umbridge was pants. But I was good friends with Dennis Creevey and he told me later about Dumbledore's Army, and the things that happened in the Ministry that got your father arrested. And then you went all Evil is Not My Forte when you were in Sixth Year and he was all Mr Junior Auror. And that snapped him out of it in a way. Because the thing that occurred to me was that he was mostly trying to stop you doing something horrible, not catch you after you did it. That's why I decided to be an Auror, you know, to prevent bad things happening.'
I must have been staring by then, because he stopped and smiled. 'Sorry, I'm rambling. The thing is, he's been very quiet since the attack. Weasley says that it's because he thinks about what would have happened if he hadn't spotted it in time. Proudfoot told all us young 'uns that a big injury makes you go within yourself for a bit. So I think it's good he's going to be your Parole Officer. You really annoy him, but you're not that bad, so it will perk him up a bit having to look out for you.'
A terrible thought occurred to me. 'You weren't at the Battle of Hogwarts, were you?'
He frowned. 'They sent us home. Said we were too little. I was in the D.A. by then, though. Neville had us waging merry hell against the Carrows.'
'I'm sorry.' He shouldn't have had to go through that. Nor Dennis Creevey. Nor Colin …
'You didn't fight in the Battle of Hogwarts,' he reminded me. 'As Neville tells it, you even saved Potter's life at one point.'
'It was about a three on the saving scale,' I admitted. 'Both times. He pulled out an eleven, flying me out of certain flaming doom.'
'That would be him,' Nepeta agreed equably. 'But the point is that I think you're all right. And Potter … he needs a distraction.'
'So you're asking me to be distracting?'
He smiled. 'Without breaking the law or causing a breakdown in public order, yes.'
'As a favour to you?'
His smile broadened. 'I was thinking of it more as a public service. Neville says you've been going in for quiet productive deeds in recent years.'
'That's Longbottom code for I help him out with some potion ingredients and rare herb fertilisers,' I told him. 'But if you're asking that I play nice with Potter and offer him a cider, too, then I could do that.'
'You're welcome, Auror Nepeta.'
'Wallace, mate. Now, listen, I know Potter's told you about your restrictions and the Location spells. Don't let them upset you, we have very good privacy legislation; Granger drafted it. There is more flexibility than it sounds, you just have to let us know in advance. OK?'
'OK,' I agreed.
'Good. Right, I'd better be off then. Mind if I stop in between Christmas and the New Year? Take you up on that drink?'
'I'd like that.'
He grinned, said goodbye and headed in to the Floo chimneys. I headed home to tidy up before Potter arrived at ten the following morning.
My house is a fraction the size of my family home. Tucked between an art supplies shop and pleasant little pub on High Street, it fits me, my research, my laboratory and a bit of recreational space all very nicely, if not particularly neatly.
By the time Potter knocked on the door, exactly at the appointed hour, I had at least dusted and cleaned to a standard that wouldn't have appalled my mother.
I opened the door on the second knock, and was surprised to see a taxi pulling away.
Potter noticed me noticing. 'Leg's playing up,' he said in brief explanation. 'Shall I come in?'
I opened the door fully and stood back to let him pass. 'Auror Potter,' I said.
'Mr Malfoy,' he replied.
'Second door on the right,' I told him, locking the front door. There's not a lot of crime in Salisbury, but having chosen to live in a Plottable house, I take precautions.
He was just making his way into the sitting room when I caught up. I had arranged my most comfortable chairs neatly around the coffee table, making sure to choose the ones with arms so he could lever himself in and out easily. 'I made tea,' I said, realising as I did so that it probably seemed ridiculous. He looked at me quizzically.
'It's not poisoned,' I told him. 'It's just tea. I want some even if you don't.'
'Tea would be good,' he said. 'Black and one.'
I poured while he sat down, even more awkwardly than the day before. He thanked me when I passed him a cup and declined a biscuit. So I had two.
'Nice house. Good central location,' Potter complimented.
'Thank you. There's a small wizarding community in town, about fifty of us, plus a few more living regionally. Enough to have the Owlery and a shop out back of it that doubles as a pub. They have live music on Thursday and Friday.'
Potter nodded. 'Do you go?'
I snorted. 'Of course not. I'm tolerated just enough for necessities and a few drinks over the course of the month.'
He started to frown.
'Don't look like that, my family has been bullying their families for centuries. It's not personal.'
That brought the ghost of a smile. He finished his tea. 'So,' he said. 'First order of business is that I am to inspect your place of residence and satisfy myself that no laws are being broken.'
I put down my own cup. 'Wizarding or Muggle?' I asked.
He hesitated for a moment. 'You ask because …?'
'There may have been a few unauthorised alterations to the house.'
'Wizarding,' he said firmly. 'Let's start here.' He glanced around the room. 'All in order, though I have to confess it's nothing like what I thought your house would be.'
I looked at the tidy bookshelves and clean mantel. I suppose it was a little impersonal. 'I don't spend much time in this room,' I said, though I didn't owe him any explanation. And then, because I was nervous, I added, 'All the How to Be Evil paraphernalia is in the study.'
He gave my remark the eyeroll it deserved. 'Which will be room number six if you come this way…' I said, leading us out as quickly as possible. He was professional and swift as he looked at each room, but he didn't seem overly concerned about being thorough. In the kitchen I asked if he would like me to open out the drawers and cabinets.
'Are you offering?' he asked.
I was, and pulled open the pantry door. He stopped me before I could go any further.
'If you're not trying to hide anything in here, there's probably no point me looking, is there?'
His logic was flawed, but he was right.
We took the kitchen stairs up to the first floor. In the study, he made a show of checking the roll-top desk for How to Be Evil paraphernalia, but made it clear that he was almost entirely joking. 'I did suspect badges, Malfoy,' he said. 'You know, "Goodness Stinks", "Evil is our King", that sort of thing.'
I was startled that he remembered; I hadn't thought of them in years. 'Blaise borrowed all my badge making equipment,' I said lightly to cover up my confusion. 'He's made ones for all his house elves that say "Blaise is the prettiest". Pansy's furious.'
He smiled. A proper smile, which threw me. There were definite lines around his eyes and I could see the muscles in his cheeks as they pulled his lips up. I wondered if he'd take it wrongly if I offered to cook him a steak. Almost certainly.
He stopped in the doorway of my bedroom and gave me an odd look. 'How long have you lived here, Malfoy?' he asked.
'Three years,' I answered, a little defensively. Bookshelves lined two of the walls, but the well-thumbed tomes and the paper and quill on the bedside table were the only sign that someone used the room. I regretted making my bed so well.
'I spend most of my time in the workshop,' I said. 'Come on, it's next.'
He was tired by the time we climbed the last stairs. It was almost distressing to see him without that vigour I had thought integral and inexhaustible. Two steps behind, I watched as his thin right hand gripped the banister to help haul him up each step, while his left did duty with his stick. All the fantasies I had had of being held in his strong arms faded, withering against the reality of a man who had to concentrate on each step.
Nepeta had assured me that Potter was expected to make a full recovery, but looking at him, I was moved to pity.
He was moved to my work-chair, with its comfortable leather seat and backrest. He didn't say 'Oof' when he sat down, but I had the impression that that was an effort of will.
'This is more like it,' he said, when he had had a moment to recover and look around.
I tried to see the room through his eyes. The main table and workbenches down the long sides of the room held either experiments or apparatus. Boxes of ingredients were piled on the shelves: there was an order to them, but it was probably only apparent to me. My notebooks were scattered over the end of the table, three different colours of ink nearby and an assortment of quills. Unlike the rest of my house, this was a room that spoke of living and being. Even the dilapidated sofa at the other end of the room added to the effect. I had tidied the pillows and blankets I used when I needed to stay up here beside a brew all night, but they were still there.
'Neville told me you'd really taken to potion making,' he said. He looked at the bench where I kept my commercial potions, bottled but not yet packed. 'I recognise some of those from St Mungo's.’
'They buy a few things from me,' I admitted. 'Not that they know they come from me. Longbottom took pity on me after I'd been selling to him for a couple of years: he buys in bulk and they sell some of them on from Hogwarts.'
Potter nodded. 'He said as much. I recognise this one,' he lifted up a blue salve jar, 'it's for bedsores. Good stuff: the witch in the room next to mine had been immobilised for four months and she swore by it.'
He looked at me. I tried to hide just how gratified I was by turning to the nearest bottle. 'This one's a general tonic. Most of the other ones on the market contain some form of euphoria spell, but my theory is that sick people ought to remember they're sick. This just gives them a bit more energy and endurance, at the same time as strengthening their natural healing systems. It's not going to have you leaping out of bed, but it will get you well faster, or at least stop you declining until they can work out what's wrong with you.'
'It sounds good. I turned down half the drugs they offered me in hospital because I didn't like the mood-altering effects. We feel pain for a reason.'
'Though it's good to have something when…'
'You need a few levels, don't you?' I agreed, caught up in the discussion. 'Something to take the edge off, something to let you keep going when it's an emergency, and something for the serious cases when they don't need anything except to feel at peace.'
He leaned forward, interested. 'Is there a way of improving that second type? All the ones we have now either mask injuries too effectively, so Aurors can damage themselves more, or else they have a heavy come-down and leave you knackered for days afterwards.'
'Too much Pick-You-Up,' I told him. 'Everyone's using it now instead of the old Vim-You-Need, but it's a really indiscriminate potion – makes your whole system go faster. It's also overkill for everyone who's not studying for OWLs or the like. Most people don't need eight to twelve hours of extra go.'
'And the ones who do need to be able to keep going afterwards, not crash like a stone.'
'Yes! I've been thinking about it and … and …' I remembered who I was talking to. 'I'm going to experiment more.' I looked down at the tonic bottle still in my hand. 'Do you want this? Neville knows the recipe, so you can check it out with him.'
Potter was surprised, but took the proffered bottle. 'Thank you,' he said, simply, which defused the oddness of the moment. He indicated the brown bottle behind me. 'That one's a mind-reviving elixir, isn't it?'
'And the one in the clear bottle by the cauldron?'
I should have put that away. Only I had thought that he would be searching, and that it would just make it worse.
'I'll tell you,' I said, 'but you'll probably want to arrest me again.'
He raised an eyebrow.
'I call it Sleep,' I said.
He nodded slowly. 'But I'm guessing it's not a soporific.'
'No. Well, not only. It lets you slip away, quietly, without pain. It's almost done, I've been working with the local vet to test it. Some animals woke up again, afterwards, so we're still …'
He looked at me and did not speak.
'I invented it for my father …' I don't know why I told him that. There was no need. I could just as easily blathered on about dying with dignity and my commitment to euthanasia reform.
He nodded. Understandingly this time.
I waited at least a minute. 'So, are you going to arrest me?'
He limped over to the workbench stool, sat down and picked up the bottle. 'I was in St Mungo's for a long time,' he said. 'And it really hurt like hell for most of it. But I got through it reasonably easily because I knew that it was all temporary. That it would pass and I would be better.' He grinned wryly and put the bottle back down. 'Obviously that's taking longer than I'd hoped, but still, every day is a better day. And if I had lost a leg or an arm, or ended up unable to walk, or blind, then I would have learned how to live with a body that was different and could do different things. It wouldn't have been the end of the world.'
He took a breath. 'But if I had had to stay in that first explosion of pain… If I had had to spend my life knowing that would be with me every day and that there was no respite …
'I went with Neville to visit his parents just before I got out. They are never going to be any better, and yet they're not actually in any pain now. Just the memory of it … So the day I was released, I sat down with my lawyer and wrote a living will.'
He looked at me meaningly. 'I hope you never have to use this, but I also hope that you perfect it.'
I was startled into honesty. 'Father's not in pain,’ I said. ‘Not that we can tell. He's just … not there any more. Every day he slips further away. If he stops taking nourishment … I won't have him starve.'
Potter nodded. 'Call me if you need to use it. We have Auror mediwizards. There's a certain … pragmatism in the Corps. No need to involve anyone who might think that suffering necessarily equals nobility.'
I nodded dumbly.
He pushed himself off from the stool and steadied himself with his stick. 'Right. Well, is that everything?'
'There's an outside laundry and the garden.'
'Are you hiding anything illegal in them?'
'No.' I thought a moment then corrected myself. 'Some hemp and some overly pure opium poppies, but they're for potions. I've got that part of the garden hidden from Muggles by spells.'
Potter's lips twitched. 'Safest if I don't take a look then, don't you think?'
I had to double check. 'You're trusting me?'
'I have no reason to suspect you given your behaviour over the last seven-and-a-half years,' he reminded me.
He started to walk towards the door.
He paused and looked back at me.
'This is going to sound weird, but the pain in your leg, is it a deep numb ache or is it a sharper tearing sort of pain?'
He turned and looked at me, frowning. 'Both,' he said. 'More tearing, this week.'
I nodded and turned to my table. It took me a little shuffling, but I found the blue bottle I was looking for. 'I think that's your tendons yelling at you,' I told him. 'People forget about them when they break something, but they often have tears in the same accident, or else they stiffen or shorten while you're recuperating. This will help them recover, and it will ease any pain from them.'
He looked at the bottle in my hand, them reached out and took it. 'What if it's not?' he asked.
'No harm, you'll just have really healthy tendons. Dosage is on the bottle.'
'Should I tell my doctors at St Mungo's?'
I scrawled the short ingredient list down. 'If you're taking other potions, then yes, in case this interacts with anything. They can Owl me if they need details.'
'Why haven't they thought about this?'
I smiled. 'Because they don't have anything half as good. Anyway, Nepeta told me you were insistent on natural healing for your bones.'
'I let the Mediwizards set them nicely,' he corrected me. 'But Skelegro can do strange things in complex cases. I'd rather take it slowly and be sure.'
'Fine. Well, this will do nothing to your bones and the only systemic effect it has is a mild pain killer.'
He nodded and slipped it into his pocket. 'Thanks, Malfoy.'
'I probably owe you one,' I mumbled.
He was turning back to the door, so I mostly missed his muttered reply, but I think it was chuckled, and I think the word was 'One?'
He was a bit steadier going down the stairs than up, but still tentative. I offered to Apparate him to the Owlery, but he assured me that he would be fine to walk to New St and find a cab. Our goodbyes were courteous, we even shook hands. His was mostly bones, but his grip was still firm.
I watched him walk away for a moment before shutting the door, impressed by his determination and professionalism. Maybe even by his kindness. It was a novel feeling, but for the first time, I could feel an uncomplicated admiration for Potter. And I didn't fancy him at all.
These are the stages of unrequited passion: obsession, rejection, hatred, self-hatred, substitution, pining and recovery. The sheer physical relief of having finally hit recovery was enough to see me leap out of bed and greet the birds the following morning. Given it was December, there weren't that many of them, but it was the thought that counted.
I was so nervous about being late to report that I ended up arriving at the Ministry half an hour early. This wasn't the problem it would have been in years past: with bureaucrats unable to decide on how to redecorate the Atrium after the war, Shacklebolt had decreed that it would house a cafe, where members of the Wizarding Public could meet with officials informally.
My tea and toast had just reached my holly-draped table when I heard my name being called by a friendly voice. Sure enough, Wallace Nepeta sat down opposite me, takeaway coffee in hand.
'Wotcher, Draco,' he said in greeting.
'Wallace.' I raised a slice of toast in salute, preliminary to buttering it.
'Potter said you gave him a new potion yesterday.'
I paused. 'Was there any problem?'
He stole a slice of my toast. 'None at all, he said it was excellent and that we ought to think about commissioning some work from you.'
I felt a smile threatening. 'He beat me in Potions in Sixth Year, you know.'
'Yeah, he says he cheated and you were distracted. How's your mum?'
'Well,' I told him, not making any fuss over a fact I already knew – Snape had admitted as much on one of the Manor's darkest days. I admit that I may have been disproportionately pleased by the news, and not only because it was the one bright point in a dark, dark month.
'Please pass on my best wishes for the season,' Wallace said. 'Will you be spending Christmas with your family?'
'We have a lunch. It's just me and her these days.'
He grinned. 'So you're free on Boxing Day?'
'Yes?' I answered tentatively.
'Champion! You and me, Wizarding pubs of Wessex.'
I looked at him. 'I might not be welcome in some …'
He took a moment to consider that, but wasn't fazed. 'Muggle pubs it is!' he announced.
I couldn't help but laugh. Wallace's mixture of puppyish good humour and sheer physical vitality were an irresistible combination.
'Excellent. You're in. What time do you report to Potter? I’m on night shift Christmas Day, so we could meet up after that and head straight out. It's early closing for most, so we'll need to go hard and go strong.'
'Fine,' I agreed. I'm not much of a drinker, but I could keep him out of trouble if nothing else.
Another Auror passed the table and exchanged greetings with Wallace. He nodded at me politely in passing. I managed to do the same in reply.
Wallace raised an eyebrow at me. 'What was that? You looked as though you expected him to take a bite out of you.'
I glanced around to make sure we weren't being overheard. 'It's weirding me out,' I confessed.
'You're nice to me. All you Aurors. I expect weirdness from Potter, because he has a Saviour complex a mile wide. But the rest of you …' I shook my head. 'I spent a lot of time in the Ministry after the War. People weren't nice to me back then.'
Wallace was frowning, but he nodded. 'We're not the same people,' he said. 'They were the old guard: petty point scorers before the war and scared, suspicious, battered and bruised for the most part during it. That Ministry made it through by keeping their heads down, or by going on the run and fighting. Which was fine for people like Shacklebolt, but bloody terrifying for the others who bolted.
'So they had personal reasons to … let's say "not be nice". And it wasn't all the Death Eater thing, was it? I mean, don't take this the wrong way, but your dad sounds as though he was a total prick; always coming in here and throwing his weight around. There are a lot of reasons why Malfoys might not be the most popular people with that lot.
'But most of them didn’t last long through the Reconstruction. Shacklebolt's early retirement scheme did a good job clearing out people who’d rather be somewhere else. Things have genuinely changed. Most of us here now are young. More open to new ideas. More open to the fact that thinking in black and white terms was what got us into that whole disaster. And the old ones who stayed on are the ones who wanted to see things improve and were happy to work for it.
'So you get treated well, because there's no good reason not to. Yes, you were a toerag at school, but I was a scared little muppet at school. We were kids. You get to make mistakes and fix them, that's what growing up should be about.
'And he's told us all the stories, you know …' I knew he meant Potter just from the way Wallace pronounced the pronoun. 'You refusing to give him up to your father, defending him from Crabbe and Goyle. Your mum defending him from Voldemort. You saved him, he's saved the entire Ministry at least twice and most of us Aurors more than that. We owe you a bit of goodwill.'
It was wrong to let my curiosity intrude on such a beautiful bonding moment but I couldn't resist. 'What happened that day?'
Wallace looked at me. 'Don't you know?'
'Only what was in the papers and a few other bits and pieces. Fragments of rumour, really.'
He whistled low and long. 'I thought everyone knew. The press agreed to keep quiet so not to cause a panic, but so many people talked.'
I snorted. 'Yeah, well, the only people who talk to me are a couple of charming narcissists, my mother, Neville Longbottom about herbs and occasionally Luna Lovegood when she feels she ought to check up on my family’s mental health.'
'And me,' Wallace grinned.
'So tell me.'
He finished his coffee before he began his story. 'There was a backpack. Scores of us would have walked past it that morning, if not hundreds, and none of us recognised it for what it was, not even the Muggleborns. But Potter did. He saw the boy standing near it, took one look at him and realised what he was about to do.
'Now you saw him the war, you know how good Potter is at shields. He's improved in recent years; you do in this job. There's two basic spells, the one where you put a shield between you and something, and the one where you put a shield around you and something else. You might want to stop someone flinging a hex at you, or you might want to protect a group of people against falling glass. Two spells. He's equally excellent at both. What no-one can do is cast them both at the same time.
'Except that day, he did. He contained the blast and kept himself alive within it. And when it got too hard to keep doing the impossible, he relaxed the shield in front of him, not the other.
'It was only early in the day, but there were about five hundred people already in the building then. And Merlin knows how many Muggles he saved. They were the ones who were the real targets, and not one of them hurt, only a few needing Memory charms. Including the boy, who is now safely studying social work and wondering why he suddenly changed peer groups. So whatever Potter says, we listen. He says you and your mum are all right, then you're all right.'
It was all a bit much, so I took refuge in humour. 'What are you going to do if he ever declares himself your rightful overlord?'
Wallace grinned. 'Take him on a lovely trip to Marbella until he gets over it. Unless that's code for run for Minister when Shacklebolt retires, in which case, we'll campaign vigorously.'
'I'll emigrate,' I told him. 'It will be for the best. I'll admit Potter is admirably suited to Auroring, but as Minister, he'd tank the economy within the year and I am not cut out for a one-man political protest with signs saying "The Chosen One is a Numpty" held up outside this café.'
Wallace had burst into laughter before I was halfway through my rant, which meant that I may have been speaking louder than was advisable. It was inevitable, therefore, that Potter would appear beside us, looking at me quizzically.
'Malfoy, are you corrupting my young Aurors?'
It was already too late to attempt seriousness. 'You declared me respectable only yesterday,' I reminded him. 'Auror Nepeta is being overly generous at a weak joke.'
'Community policing, sir,' Nepeta said, standing up. 'Putting members of the public at their ease in unfamiliar surroundings.'
Potter looked down at the table and the empty toast plate pushed between us. At some point I appeared to have swiped Wallace's coffee in revenge: I rapidly put down the travel mug with his name on it.
'Very at ease, it seems,' Potter noted.
Wallace gathered up his mug and nodded a quick farewell. 'Must dash, Draco. Auroring, you know. See you back in the office, sir.'
Potter took the vacated seat. He seemed to be moving more freely today. He looked after Wallace with mild amusement. 'Nice to see you making friends,' he said.
'It's Nepeta's brilliant plan,' I advised him. 'He's going to make it so that it would be too mortifying to take up a life of crime, in case he'd be sent to arrest me. My mother thinks he's pleasant. Can you imagine?'
Potter mock-frowned. 'Should I ban him from Wiltshire for his own protection?'
'He'll be fine, she's never groped a single one of my friends. That's Mrs Zabini.'
Potter dropped his head into hands. 'Merlin. Malfoy, what a mental image!' He shook it away. 'You're chirpy this morning. And early.'
I admitted he was right. 'I was up before dawn,' I said.
He smiled. 'Not the accomplishment it sounds at this time of year.'
'True. But I went for a walk down by the river as the sun was coming up. Everything had a crisp coating of frost, and was surprisingly beautiful. It put me in a very good mood.'
'Fair enough. You've also put me in a good mood, that tendon potion was fine for me to use and it's already working very well. Thank you.'
I inclined my head graciously. 'You had it tested by your staff before you used it, didn't you?'
He grinned. 'Of course I did. I meant what I said about you not being a Death Eater, or indeed, criminal if we ignore the Muggle legal system, but I'm not an idiot.'
'I'd have worried about you if you hadn't,' I told him. 'There's a difference between exhibiting a persistent and fairly large degree of hope for the world and being a credulous fool.'
'I tested the tonic, too,' he added. 'Quite a nice flavour to that one.'
'Do you need more?' I asked, aware that some of the Ministry's research team weren't efficient in their samples.
'Not at the moment. I had my people do it, they're used to working with trace amounts.'
This was the first had heard of an Auror research team. I wanted to ask him about them, but I was aware that any show of interest could easily sound as though I was poking for weaknesses in their methodology. So I finished my tea, instead.
'Right,' I said. 'Good to go to your offices, if you are.'
Potter looked at my empty cup. 'I came down for a beverage, actually. Would you mind if we stayed here?'
'Can I report to you in a cafe?' I asked.
'Proudfoot's on holiday, so I'm Acting Chief Auror,' he said. 'I say you can.'
'Merlin save us all,' I sighed. 'I hope there's a department left for her when she returns. All right. You've got a gammy leg and I want more toast. Give me your order and I'll get it in for us both.'
He must have been feeling better, because he asked for hot chocolate and savoury scones, which were not the morning tea of an ailing man. The witch at the till let me pay for my own toast and fresh tea, but said she wouldn't dream of charging Potter. I was tempted to make a snide observation as to what she would dream of doing with him, but decided it wasn't the place.
He thanked me on my return. I told him not to mention it. We sat in silence until our orders arrived – I imagined that, like me, he was racking his brain looking for safe conversational topics.
I thought of one first. 'So, what does reporting actually involve?' I asked.
Potter took a few bites of his scone before answering. 'The key part of it is that you're happy to show your face to an Auror once a day,' he said. 'If you turn up, chances are you've not got any bodies hidden at your place. Especially if we've organised to come and visit you at home.'
'I thought you'd be asking all sorts of questions,' I admitted.
'Sometimes we do,' he told me. 'But generally they're not the sort of questions we'd be asking you. They're more along the lines of "Why do we have reports of you and a banned associate robbing Muggles in Swindon between 15:00 and 15:25 yesterday afternoon?"'
I frowned. 'What sort of questions would you be asking me?'
The corners of Potter's mouth twitched up. 'Have you changed so that you are any good at being a criminal? No? Champion. As you were.'
I rolled my eyes at him.
He shrugged. 'I mean it as a compliment,' he said. 'To my mind it's a definite plus.'
'Fine,' I said. 'Still not a criminal. Are we done?'
'You've barely touched your toast, eat up.'
I did, but I left my tea untouched, just to spite him.
'Did you go to one of the Solstice celebrations last night?' he asked after a minute or so.
I wasn't sure I'd heard him properly, but when I had him repeat the question, it didn't change.
'You've got a lot of the big ones out your way,' he said. 'I mean, Stonehenge is for the Muggles, but I hear there are big rites at Avebury and Silbury.'
'I was in the workshop until nine, then went to bed with a good book.'
'Oh.' He looked disappointed. 'I thought you'd be into all that traditional sort of thing.'
I snorted. 'Tradition my arse. Most of the things they call rites are airy fairy twaddle. And those fairies bloody well bite, the vicious little brutes. The only thing worse than all the New Agers looking for any excuse to get their kit off are the ones who've been doing it this way since Merlin. Half of them are there in hope of convincing some silly young witch they should take part in a "regenerative" ceremony, and I think we all know what body part will be doing the regenerating there, and the other half are nasty old buggers out to grab the actual power of the night to work some pieces of old magic that have fallen out of favour for a reason. The only upside is that they're mostly incompetent, so when Midwinter dawns they've got nothing but chilblains to show for their efforts.'
'So you've been before,' he said, straight-faced.
'My father liked them,' I admitted. 'Though, looking back, he'd always make Mother take me home early. I very much hope he was trying to do Dark Magic back then, the alternative is …' I thought for a moment. 'No. Mother would have smothered him in his sleep. It was definitely Dark Magic.'
I looked across the table. Potter was trying not to laugh.
'I'm remembering why I never liked you,' I said.
Potter grinned. 'Can I tell you something odd?' he asked, and didn't wait for me to answer. 'I don't talk about this normally, but on our first night at Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin. Do you think we'd have ended up friends?'
I blinked at him. 'Do you have no recollection of our first two meetings?'
I'd been pleasant enough when I didn't know who he was, but I remembered trying so hard on that train, and then feeling so crushed.
'But that would still have been before the Hat,' he reminded me. 'Those days would have played out just as they did. Except I'd have ended up in your dorm, sitting at your table. Do you think it could have been you and me instead of me and Ron?'
I considered it. 'Probably not,' I admitted. 'I was excited to meet you, but even back then you were a prize prat. And I was hideously jealous of all your fame.'
He shook his head. 'You picked the wrong thing to be jealous of. You should have been jealous of my superior flying skills.'
'I would have been, had you possessed any.'
We grinned at each other.
I thought it through. 'You and Ron were already friends; I'd known Crabbe and Goyle since I was a baby. But, maybe we would have ended up like me and Blaise. He's never been my best friend, but we get on. We enjoy each other's company when we catch up. There are things about him I respect, even when he drives me mental.'
'Or gets you arrested,' Potter reminded me.
'Exactly. What about you? Do you think we'd have ended up friends?'
Potter thought for a moment. 'I think that if I'd been a Slytherin, both of us would have been different.'
'You'd have been less insufferable,' I said.
'I'd have been the Slytherin Seeker,' he pointed out.
I tried to put the best light on it. 'You'd have won us loads of lovely House Points and under my Captaincy, we'd have been an invincible team.'
We grinned at each other again.
For a few minutes, we ate and drank quietly. When we had both finished and I was readying myself to go home, I paused for a moment. 'But you'd still have defeated Voldemort, right?'
He didn't hesitate. 'Absolutely.'
There was no hesitation before my reply, either. 'Good.'
I was up early again on Friday. Mother had threatened to hex me if I didn't give her a brief run-down of the previous few days' events, so I breakfasted with her. She listened to me quietly and mercifully reserved her judgement on what it all meant.
'We've grown up, Mumsy,' I told her, enjoying her mild glare at the disliked epithet. 'Much as it pains me to admit it, Potter is capable of functioning as an adult. As am I.'
'Miracles will never cease,' she said, deliberately obscuring the subject of her comment.
'And I made a new friend,' I said, refusing to acknowledge her barb.
'His name's Wallace Nepeta. You met him, that Auror who came here.'
'The one who came back. The nice one.'
She thought on that in silence for a few minutes. 'He was the tall and handsome one, wasn't he?'
I did not sigh out loud. 'Yes, Mother.'
She nodded. 'Well, perhaps now you've stopped obsessing over Potter, you could …'
'I'm fairly sure he likes girls,' I said before she could venture a verb. It was much too early to cope with any of the verbs she might venture.
Mother sniffed. 'He was very well dressed.'
'He was in his uniform.'
'He's an Auror, it's part of their job.'
'Very well groomed.'
'In order to attract girls.' I held up a hand. 'Mother, I think I am slightly better at spotting men who fancy men than you are.'
She didn't say a word. Though I could tell that she was thinking 'very slightly'.
I lied and told her that I would be meeting with Potter at nine rather than ten, so she let me escape with a quick kiss and hair tidy and promised to tell Father that I had dropped by to see him. I didn't like the acceptance in her voice when she said it wasn't as though he'd know the difference, even if it was true.
Rather than Apparate straight home, I aimed for a quiet spot in the Cathedral Close. The clouds had lifted for the morning and the Cathedral shone silvery in the clear winter light, beautiful above the still-verdant lawn. I shoved my hands down into my coat pockets, wishing I'd remembered gloves, and dropped my chin into my scarf. The clouds had taken the mildness of the winter with them and the day looked to be staying chill. Perhaps we would have snow for Christmas this year after all.
I hadn't lied to Mother about this. Two days of sitting down and taking tea with Harry Potter and there had not been the slightest flutter. I hadn't even needed either of us to attempt homicide. Pity was apparently a far more effective quasher of passion than any years of rational thought could be.
The Muggles were out in force between the Close and home. At first I had found it strange living amongst them, trying to pass as someone I wasn't while all the while finding those who thought themselves 'normal' to be mostly absurd and a small part frightening. And then I had had my revelation: that was how I had lived my whole life.
After that I didn't mind them so much, except at Christmas when they swarmed like panicked ants. Do your shopping in November! I wanted to yell, though I never did. I even patronised some of their shops now and then. You really couldn't tell the difference between their cakes and ours, and they had some beers and ciders that were novel even to me.
Mother had told me it was just as well Father wasn't aware of much these days when she found a shelf of Muggle ciders in my pantry. True.
I made it home in good time and had a lemon drizzle cake sliced and a pot of hot chocolate on the table before Potter arrived.
He did not look as improved as he had the day before, though he still moved with comparative ease.
He thanked me for the thoughtfulness in providing cake and hot chocolate, and then apologetically enquired if there was any possibility of coffee.
I waited until I had it made before I asked if he was all right.
He took a long drink before he answered. 'Murder,' he said. 'It'll be all over the papers later today.'
I frowned. Absurdly, it seemed unfair that after all he'd been through he still had to deal with the worst parts of our society.
'Was it bad?' I asked, knowing as I did that it was a stupid question.
He nodded. 'Bad enough. Domestic case. Muggle father, witch mother, argument over how they were raising the children. It got out of hand, he slapped her, she hexed him. She says that she just meant to push him away, but she put him through a brick wall. The kids were there. Twelve and fourteen.'
'Bloody hell …' Bereft of anything useful to say, I put a slice of cake onto a plate and pushed it across the table to him.
He ate it automatically. I retrieved his plate and passed him another.
'So,' he said after a bit, 'yesterday went rapidly downhill in the evening. I was up half the night dealing with the coronial staff and trying to find a relative who could take the kids in without traumatising them further. Apparently most of the mother's family had always said things would come to a bad end and the Muggle relatives thought the kids were weird. But there's a witch cousin who has always been kind to them, so she's taking them for Christmas and is going to see about making it permanent.'
'Anyone I'd know?'
Potter shook his head. 'I shouldn't think so. She was born a Cricklesworth, family are from Norwich.'
'No, don't know them. Is there anything I can do? Some sort of fund for the children?'
Potter finished his coffee. 'Not yet, but I'll suggest it. I imagine she's going to plead self defence, there will be tests to see how competent she was at controlling her magic, and I suspect most of their money will go on legal fees. The cousin's only thirty. I don't know much about her, only that the kids like her and the grandparents said she was reliable and trustworthy.'
He put his mug down quickly to cover a large yawn. 'Sorry. Haven't even asked how you are.'
'Good,' I assured him. 'No crimes committed or intended since we last spoke.'
He smiled at that. 'Excellent. Actually, that hot chocolate smells really good.'
I poured, and he downed most of his cup, apologising again. Apparently he had worked through till five, then slept for a few hours and come straight to Salisbury without breakfast.
'It's not a good idea for you to strain yourself,' I said, trying not to sound like a hectoring Mediwizard. 'No amount of tonic is going to take the place of sleep.'
Potter looked rueful. 'You're right. I'm going to have a nap in the office when I get back.' He looked as though he had remembered something. 'Listen, I was going to say, tomorrow's Christmas Eve; do you mind if we meet later in the day? We've got a bit of a lunch bash going on and I need to supervise everyone in the morning. Otherwise we end up with tinsel on the cell bars and gin in the water bottles.'
I had a momentary, horrifying, image of the Auror uniform topped with a Father Christmas beard and hat. 'No, that's fine,' I said.
'Would four be all right?'
'Absolutely. Meet you in your office or the Ministry cafe?'
He smiled. 'We'll say office for now, but if you find me down in the Atrium you'll know that I've failed and that there are reindeer in the holding cells and gnomes in the filling drawers.'
'Maybe they're just trying to lighten the mood after an unexpected grimness,' I suggested.
'You may be onto something.' He levered himself up out of his chair. 'All right. Sorry for the short inspection, Mr Malfoy, I'm going to take you at your word that you continue law abiding and see you tomorrow.'
I resisted the urge to offer him a hand and instead walked him unhurriedly to the door. 'Auror Potter. I hope that the day improves.'
'It's on the up. Thanks for the cake and beverages. Definite improvement.'
'Good.' I opened the front door for him.
'Cheers, Malfoy,' he said.
'Cheers, Potter,' I replied.
And there we were. Just like normal people.
Christmas Eve dawned white, but it was fog, not snow, that blanketed the back garden when I looked out from my bedroom window. It had settled like a low-flying cloud on the city, and while some of my taller herbs and shrubs were nodding above the thickest parts of it, I could see that this was a morning for indoors rather than out.
And I had a special order for Neville to finish.
He tells people that I came to him after the war, saying that I wanted to do some serious work and could provide him with a superior set of products if he let me – which is true, though it tells you a lot about him that he said yes and directed me towards research that would be more profitable.
What he doesn't tell them is the reason I went to him. It was in the first days of Father's illness, when he was at St Mungo's more often than not. They were still convinced that a good Mind Healer would cure him, and his case was the subject of much discussion among the staff. Neville must have had his ears open, because he came down to Father's private room, looking for me. And he asked me how I was coping, as though he genuinely cared about the answer.
He could have asked me to brew nothing but diarrhoea potions for him after that and I'd have worked out the best possible one.
Today it was a cough potion, in preparation for all the students who would be coming back from holidays with one plague or another. Rows of sterilised bottles stood ready, each with a matching little jar of crystallised angelica stem to cheer the patient up: the root was used in the potion, so it created a pleasing symmetry in my mind and it made my potion more popular than the others on the market.
I set to work with my pestle, grinding the herb roots and bark, preparing a cauldron's-worth at a time. Once I had all six on steeping over a low flame, I prepared my series of knives for chopping the soft green ingredients and made my way methodically through the second part of the process. The spells were easy enough: this was one of those potions that any semi-competent wizard could brew, but it took a degree of finesse and patience to master each part of it, and a focus on results to tweak the recipe each year for better outcomes. All six cauldrons were at various stages of cooling when I stopped for lunch.
A loud rap on the doorknocker pulled me away from my soup: it was a quartet of local children, singing Christmas carols badly and collecting for 'charity'.
'What charity would that be?' I asked.
'The Foundation for Kids Whose Parents Give Them Crap Gifts,' replied the eldest and cheekiest of them.
I gave them a tenner for honesty and they went away pleased. It was a pleasant change compared to being doorknocked every May by the Wizarding Remembrance Society, who were far less polite and who expected much more.
I spent the early afternoon filtering and decanting 180 bottles of Snot-No-More – Neville had provided the name: he was right, it did find resonance in the target market. It filled the time neatly until I set off for London.
Potter was waiting for me in the Atrium, dressed in warm civvies rather than his Auror uniform. Above him, twelve mechanical robins were flying a complicated routine of synchronised aeronautics. The snow clouds had been cleared from the main part of the Atrium, but drifts were starting to bank up over near the Floos.
'Reindeer in the cells?' I asked.
'If only.' He gave me a half-smile. 'Satterthwaite had the brilliant idea of pulling out all the old Auror portraits and decorating them for the holidays. I've left the team dealing with seventy-three shouting paintings who are raging at everything from the appalling standards of modern Aurordom to the fact they wanted tinsel, not holly, on their frames.'
I pressed my lips together so as not to laugh. Potter clearly felt this was worth some sort of reward and confessed that three of them had ganged up together to interrogate him as to why a child was running the department.
'Like a fool, I mentioned that I was merely the Deputy and that Cicely Proudfoot would be back in a few weeks, after which they tried to out-do each other in outrage that a woman should be leading the department and depriving a vigorous young man such as myself from his rightful position in society.'
I gave up and laughed. 'But there have been several women Chief Aurors …'
'Since 1860, yes. I'll leave you to imagine the scene when Gertrude Bassington and Emmaline Steadfast made their way into the frame.'
'I think they expected Elizabeth Cecil and Margaret Barbarensis to come and give moral support, but Satterthwaite had found the portrait of Mad-Eye Moody that Rufus Scrimgeour had commissioned to celebrate one of their own becoming a Hogwarts Professor. Moody had found a bottle of gin inside his false leg and was hosting an impromptu get-together with those two, while shouting that he thought it looked as though we were running a fun show these days. As I left the three of them were sneaking up behind other portraits and shrieking "constant vigilance", then stumbling away, cackling with laughter.'
'I never liked him,' I said, supportively, though I suspected I had never liked Barty Crouch. This wasn't a time to quibble. 'Should we meet in the cafe, then?'
Potter looked at the neat holly-covered tables over my shoulder. 'I think I might need something stronger,' he said. 'Pub?'
'I'm not welcome in the Leaky,' I told him plainly.
'Can you stand Muggle?'
I assured him I could and he led the way, walking carefully on the now-wet pavement once we got outside. His stick didn't slip, even when we crossed cobbles and I made a mental note to ask him about the charm he was using on it. The pub was only a short walk from the Ministry. The sign outside announced the establishment as The Flying Dragon, est. 1999. I gave him a pointed look and he muttered something about coincidences.
Inside it was sleek and contemporary, but with comfortable banquettes where people could sit and chat. We took one of them and studied the drinks list: I chose the first thing I recognised on the blackboard – cider – and Potter asked for one of the same. It took me a couple of minutes to get them in, there was a medium-sized crowd at the bar who had all clearly skived off early from the same work drinks. The girl who took my order gave me a bright smile, probably for being sober and sitting quietly in the corner with Potter.
He was looking at me oddly by the time I made it back.
'What?' I asked.
'You and Muggles,' he answered. 'It's weird.'
I put his drink in front of him and sat and looked at my own. 'It's not that weird. I shop at Muggle shops sometimes. They have good cakes. Their currency is easier to use than ours. It's a lot less weird than me on Diagon Alley, where half the faces are hating me and the other half are pitying me.'
'That's not true,' he said, far too glibly.
I looked up and raised a sceptical eyebrow.
'Some of them have no idea who you are,' he went on.
I pulled a face, but I think he could tell I was amused.
He lifted his glass. 'Cheers,' he said.
I lifted mine in reply.
'So, still no criminal tendencies,' he asked.
'I sent Blaise and Pansy matching Christmas jumpers so awful a Weasley would shudder at the sight of them, but that's only a crime against good taste.'
He nodded. 'Restrained. You could have gone at least another two revenge levels up and no-one would have blamed you.'
'No, I don't have enough friends left to start upsetting anyone.'
'There's always Nepeta,' he reminded me.
I raised my glass. 'To Wallace!'
We both drank.
I bought little plates of food with the second round, and we managed to share some cheesy toast fingers, chips with mayonnaise and tiny fishcakes without any sort of incident.
'So you just co-exist with the Muggles now,' Potter asked, not letting it go.
It wasn't really worth the line of questioning. I had changed very little; it wasn't as though I was going to marry one of them. 'I nod pleasantly at my neighbours, I frequent a few shops, I'll step into a pub occasionally if I need to be alone in a crowd.'
He looked up at my choice of words. 'You do that, too?'
'Most people do, don't they?' Mother had her days away from Father when she surrounded herself with practically everyone so she wouldn't have to think a single thought.
He shook his head. 'If they do, they don't acknowledge it to themselves.'
'Ah.' I smiled at him. 'Well, we've both had more time to think than most, haven't we?'
He smiled back and, like mine, his was a touch rueful.
'So, where do Pansy and Blaise live?'
'Northern Italy. They come back in August and September for the weather. They're doing well.'
'Do you see anyone else from school?'
'Milly now a few times a year, Neville fairly regularly, Luna pops by every six weeks or so to check I'm still sane. There are a handful of others. Mostly they're busy with their own lives. It's not like it was at school, when we were all such huge parts of each other's lives. I saw my enemies then more often than I see my friends now.'
He nodded. 'I know what that's like. I see the people I work with more often than anyone else.'
I kept silent. I sometimes went whole days without seeing anyone. Maybe that was what had happened to Father? Maybe he had been unprepared for what he would encounter when he had to spend time with himself?
I missed what Potter had said and had to ask him to repeat it.
'Are you lonelier now?' he asked.
'Now?' I was surprised by the question and answered before I had time to censor myself. 'I was entirely alone in Sixth Year, why would it be worse now?'
Surprise and guilt followed each other across his face. I felt a pang, I hadn't meant him to think of that – I almost never did. 'Not… you know … I don't care about that, it was fine, barely a scratch after Snape …' I said, stammering over an explanation. 'It was a bad time,' I settled on, 'when we were all asked to do things no child should and I was very much alone.'
He leaned forward and spoke softly. 'No you weren't,' he corrected me. 'You had Snape and Dumbledore looking out for your every move.'
After a moment, he added, 'We both did.'
I nodded. They had been there beside us for years in reality, but it was in my memories that I had come closest to understanding our teachers. 'I think,' I said, 'that later on, I could do those few things I got right because of them. Because I had seen what courage looked like and I could play-act it when I really had to.'
Potter didn't sit back. 'I was there for a lot of those moments, Malfoy, you weren't play-acting. It took genuine courage to make those choices.'
I brought my face to within a foot of his and lowered my voice to his volume. 'I wasn't brave, Potter, I was desperate.'
He shook his head. 'Time and again, I saw you choose against options that would kill.'
My breath left me as though he had struck a blow to my solar plexus. When I had a chance to catch it again, I said, 'And what good did that do Charity Burbage? She wasn't my professor, but I knew her. I knew she had done nothing to deserve what happened to her. But I just sat there and did nothing.'
Potter shook his head again, gently this time. 'You couldn't have done anything, you'd've died, too.'
'Yes. But I said nothing. That's tacit agreement, isn't it?' I still remembered the explosion of No! trapped in my chest, held there only by the greater horror of what would happen if I spoke.
Potter set his chin in that stubborn bloody way he had always had. 'I could have gone after Voldemort before we destroyed all the Horcruxes,' he said. 'Ultimately, it wouldn't have achieved anything, but I could have done it. That probably would have saved Professor Burbage. I could have actually made a difference for her, but I didn't.'
'No, because you would have died and Voldemort would have won.'
I met his gaze and didn't look down even when I wanted to. 'It is so not the same,' I told him.
He shrugged. 'Maybe not. But if I don't want to go through my life defined by things that happened to me as a child, I am very much convinced that you shouldn't have to, either.'
He sat back then, and so did I, unable to argue because he made such perfect sense and because there was no way to convince a genuine hero that the rest of us can occasionally take a spirited stand while still remaining abject cowards at heart.
'I feel as though we should have been much drunker before having this conversation,' I told him after a few minutes had passed.
He grinned at me. 'If anyone ever hears of it, we'll tell them it was twelve ciders apiece.'
'Possibly thirteen,' I agreed.
His grin began to fade. 'Just, thinking about that murder yesterday, we let such stupid things govern the course of our lives. I think she really loved her husband and he might have loved her, but they just let their anger take over everything. Whereas, if we look for the best, we can find it, in ourselves and in others.'
I stared at him.
'I just said "whereas", didn't I?' he asked.
'Am I not meant to be mixing alcohol with those potions of yours?'
I shrugged. 'It's not a known side-effect, but everyone's metabolism is a little bit different.'
'Will you be mortally offended if I use it as an excuse?'
He looked around for a clock. It had gone five according to the one above the bar. 'I should be heading home,' he said. 'Need an early night after Thursday. I'm up and down the country tomorrow trying to catch up with everyone.'
I wondered if I should offer to forego my parole check-in, but was moderately sure that wouldn't be legal.
'Will ten be all right for me to stop by?' he asked.
'Usual time, usual tea,' I said. 'Unless you are worried you'll be all tead out …'
'No, yours is good, and you always have little treats, too.'
I waited while he put his coat and scarf back on and held the door open so he didn't have to negotiate it with his stick. The rain had come and gone again, and nightfall had brought a chill to the air.
'I don't think it's going to get cold enough to snow tomorrow,' he said, looking at the evening sky.
'Maybe before New Year.' I looked at him, one hand stuffed into his coat pocket, the other turning faintly blue under the electric lights. 'Where are your gloves?'
'Left them back in the office, I was too busy fleeing.'
Shaking my head, I searched through my pockets. 'Here,' I said, pulling a paper bag from one of them. 'I bought these earlier. There were going to be for the boy who brings my woodland herbs, but I've got a bottle of whisky he can have instead.'
He opened the bag and found a pair of cream mittens with a brown snowflake motif knitted into the cuffs. He grinned and put them on.
'Thanks, Malfoy,' he said. 'They're terrific. And very warm.'
'Scottish sheep, I think,' I said. 'The label's in the bag if you're interested in that sort of thing. Anyway, stop trying to make yourself sick, you're already too pale and you're never going to be interesting.'
'And a very Merry Christmas to you,' he said. 'See you in the morning.'
I watched him walk away, to make sure he didn't slip on any of the treacherous pavement, then went and found myself a quiet, dark spot to Apparate from.
At 9.45 Christmas morning, it all went wrong. I had just set out a small Christmas cake and some marzipan fruits and animals when a streak of silver bounded in and stopped in front of me.
Mother's Patronus sat there, flicking its ears anxiously. 'Draco, hurry!' it said in her voice.
I considered writing a note, but there was no time, and I was breaching the conditions of my parole without securing an agreement for change from Potter: note or no note. Instead, I Apparated straight to the manor. I knew where she would be: first floor, southeast corner.
Father was on the floor of his bedroom, thrashing violently. At some point one of his limbs had connected with Mother's face and she had a bruise blooming down the side of her jaw. She was holding his head, trying to stop him from banging it against anything.
I ran in and pulled the pillows and quilt from the bed, pushing them between his body and the heavy pieces of furniture that surrounded him. Once he was well padded, I went into his bathroom and found the valerian tincture I had prepared in case of just such an incident.
It took us time to calm him to the point where I judged it safe to administer the drug. Making him choke, or, worse, allowing him to breathe the fluid in would have made things much worse, but he finally reached a stage of biddability and I encouraged him to swallow two capfuls. In less than five minutes he was pliant in Mother's arms and well on his way to sleep.
I shifted my attention to her, then. 'Your face…'
'It's nothing,' she insisted.
I tried to restrain my anger at the lie.
'Did he break the skin?' she asked, reaching up tentatively.
I smiled weakly. It's a thing that we have in common; our vanity will always win in a competition with our pride. 'No,' I assured her. 'But you should have let the house elves help you.'
She shook her head. 'I don't let them see him when he's like this. They go too far. He'd have been sedated for a week.'
'Well, they're going to be furious when they take a look at you.' She had always been their favourite.
'Arnica and make-up,' she said. 'They need never know.'
I didn't hear the brisk, uneven clip of boots until it was outside Father's room. No time to sort the scene and come up with a composed excuse. Potter opened the door without knocking and came straight in, wand half-visible in his right cuff. I took a second to admire the accuracy of his location spell, and had to admit that, even limping and in a Weasley jumper, he had the finest Auror scowl I had ever seen.
It didn't last, though. He looked at my mother, and then my father, and I realised that I still had the open bottle in my hand. 'Valerian,' I said, in case he was leaping to the wrong conclusion. 'He was having a seizure, this helps to stop it and to let him rest calmly.'
He nodded, and muttered a polite 'Mrs Malfoy' before kneeling down beside me. 'Should we get him back into bed?' he asked.
I was startled at his calm common sense. From the speed of his entry, I had expected terseness at least. 'Thank you. Can you put the pillows back on the bed while I sit him up?'
He moved with concise economy and arranged the pillows in a neat hospital recline pattern. Then he came and took my father's left side, while I took the right, and together we lifted him into place. I arranged him comfortably while Potter retrieved the quilt.
Mother murmured vague thanks, but she was keeping her face turned away. Potter was kind enough to pretend he hadn't noticed.
I had nearly finished when Father's eyes snapped open. He looked at me without expression, but when he turned his head, it seemed that everything came into focus. 'You!' he whispered in a hoarse voice, lifting a finger off his covers and pointing it at Potter. 'You! Get out of my house!'
I looked at Mother. She was trembling. 'Lucius?' she whispered.
He turned his gaze to her.
'Oh, Lucius!' she exclaimed and flung herself on the sheets beside him. I caught a glimpse of her face, alive with hope. It felt as though I had intruded on something secret and sacred.
Potter tapped me on the arm. 'I'm going outside,' he said.
I looked at my parents for a moment. He was patting her gently, but seemed unsure why she was so upset, whispering that she should stop crying. 'I am, too,' I replied.
I closed the door behind us, and we walked a little way down the hall before Potter spoke. 'I'm sorry, I was just trying to help.'
'No, you did nothing wrong,' I assured him, distracted in my astonishment. 'Quite the contrary. That's the first complete sentence he's spoken in nearly three years.'
Potter looked surprised, but I told him it was the truth. 'So it's quite the Christmas miracle, really. Shame you're going to have to arrest me for violating my conditions. That's going to put a crimp in Mother's day.'
Potter rolled his eyes. 'It says I have to check on you in your home, it doesn't say which home.'
'You came in like an angry hippogriff,' I reminded him. 'Surely you planned to arrest someone.'
He muttered something.
He rolled his eyes. 'I was worried,' he said. 'I knew there had to be a good excuse for why you weren't home and when the tracker spell showed you were here, I thought something might have gone wrong. Which it had.'
'You were worried about me,' I realised.
He looked uncomfortable. 'You're my legal responsibility,' he said.
And there it was. That old thump in my chest. I squashed it down in a panic. The last few days had been good. We could talk, almost like colleagues. I couldn't go back to that desperate wanting. That had been a fantasy. This was something real.
I reached for a distraction. 'Where's your stick?' I asked, noticing its absence.
Potter looked down at his hand as though expecting it to appear. 'I think I left it at your house,' he said.
'Oh, for Merlin's sake … Fine. There's nothing we can do here right now, We'll go back to Salisbury and just start the morning over.'
He frowned. 'Shouldn't you stay? Be with your father? Won't he need medical care?'
I hadn't realised that Neville had kept quiet. 'I thought Longbottom told you,' I said.
'Told me what?'
I hesitated for a moment, unsure about sharing more than I had to. But what was the point in keeping secrets from him? 'There's nothing technically wrong with him. He just decided to die and has been going about it the slow way ever since.'
Potter's frown deepened. 'But what about you? And your mother? Why would he do that to you?'
I looked away. 'Anyway. He's conscious and you have a rather good fruit cake waiting back at mine. Hope you like marzipan.'
'Malfoy …' He reached out a hand and grasped my forearm, turning me around to face him.
I'm not sure how he read the anguish on my face. Most likely he ascribed it to my family. But he had a strong core of kindness and he let go of both my arm and the topic.
'Cake sounds good,' he said. 'I think we could even go as far as hot chocolate. Maybe even with whisky in it.'
I smiled my thanks. We paused long enough for me to ask the house elves to come up with a plan in case Christmas lunch didn't happen. They were arguing over whether to par-boil the vegetables as we left the manor.
The journey back to Salisbury was quick and quiet. We Apparated to the Owlery: I could have taken Potter Side-along to my garden or sitting room, but touching him would have been dooming my fragile composure. Instead we took advantage of the break in the morning's drizzle and walked carefully down noisy pavements, filled with children trying out new bikes and shouting news of their hauls to each other. Two dashing boys nearly toppled him with a stray football, but he just laughed. I glared at them and they ignored me completely.
Potter disapproved of my crossness. 'It's nice,' he said. 'Christmas is for kids, really. It should be good for them.'
I looked at him. There was something behind his words, but I could only guess at it. I took a punt: 'Do you miss your mum and dad?'
He looked up from the pavement for a moment to share a small smile with me. 'Yes and no. I miss the idea of them. The life we could have had. My childhood was less pleasant than it might have been before I went to Hogwarts. I used to pretend that it had all been a horrible mistake and that they were going to come and rescue me one day.'
I'm too honest when I don't pause to think. 'That's awful.'
Potter laughed. 'It was, a bit. But at least I always knew that they had loved me. Inside, I still had those memories of being treasured. It made a difference. Kept me going until I could grow up and make my own family out of people I care about. It's a lot more than some kids get.'
On cue, a woman bawled at Charlene to come in here and tidy away her crap right now or all these presents were going to be burned. A small girl who had been skipping around merrily outside her front door stopped, exchanged a tired eye-roll with the two of us, and headed inside.
We walked a little further. 'Would it be unethical of me to hex Charlene's mum?' I asked.
'What with?' Potter asked back.
He bargained it down. 'Laryngitis. And you might need to do the father, too.'
'What if she really is just a lazy child?' I wondered.
'She looked about six. Surely it's fine for six year olds to be lazy on Christmas morning?'
We walked a little more. 'I'll leave it till tomorrow so your tacit approval won't be noted,' I said.
'Appreciate it. Proudfoot would throw the book at me.'
We reached my house without further incident. For some odd reason I had expected to find Potter's walking stick outside my front door, but, of course, it was dumped in the hallway with his coat. However he had got into the house it had been neat: the lock was entirely undamaged.
I picked up his possessions and returned them to him.
'Sorry,' he said. 'I thought there could have been an emergency.'
'Visions of me trapped under a recalcitrant bookshelf?'
'Something like that.'
I led him to the sitting room, where the cake was still waiting, and cut him a slice so I wouldn't have to watch as he lowered himself painfully into his chair.
'Onto the hot chocolate?' I asked. 'Or would you like some tea instead?'
He thought for a moment. 'Both, it's Christmas.'
I excused myself and stopped by the kitchen long enough to spell the tea on to brew and start the chocolate stirring over a low flame. Then I ran quietly upstairs.
He had been here. The door to my workshop had been shut before I left. Now it stood open and I could see where he had grabbed at the table to steady himself. 'Idiot Auror,' I muttered. 'Should have used your locator spell before running all over the place and hurting yourself.'
I quickly found the jars I wanted and made it back to the kitchen before the chocolate had even started to bubble.
A few minutes later I was back in the sitting room with a laden tray and full pockets.
'Tea first,' said Potter.
'You went up to my workroom,' I said, once we had both downed a restorative amount of brew.
He began to apologise, but I interrupted him.
'It's three flights of stairs, Potter. You had a perfectly good spell that would have told you I wasn't there. Can you just remember your physical limitations for a few months?'
He looked uncomfortable. 'The spell takes a while. I thought, what if there was an accident? And there was gas and you were unconscious?'
I rolled my eyes. 'What if I was just late getting back from the shops and there was a shoe on one of the stairs and I came back and found you in a crumpled heap at the bottom of them?'
He started to laugh.
'Oh yes,' I said, 'you can laugh. I'd have Wallace shaking his head in disappointment as the Wizengamot sentenced me to life in Azkaban and Father would be sitting in the court, cheered into perfect health and shouting, "Well done, Son, I didn't think you had it in you!"'
I waited a minute, then passed him a handkerchief to mop up the tears that were rolling down his face. After another minute the guffaws subsided to a point where conversation could be resumed.
'Well, I'm glad you're enjoying yourself,' I said.
'I haven't laughed this much in ages,' he replied. 'You're a tonic, Malfoy.'
I gave him a look and pulled the contents from my pockets. 'No,' I said. 'This is a tonic and it should be enough to see you through to New Year with what's left in your other bottle. And this is more of your tendon potion, and this is a salve that I find reduces pain in joints. And this, which you are to take now, is a pain reliever. You can choose either the Pain-No-More, which you will note is an unopened, tamper-proof bottle or this one, which I make and which is much better but I promise you I won't be offended if you take the shop version.'
He took my bottle and removed two of the cachets, swallowing them down with a mouthful of tea. 'Thanks,' he said, as though his faith wasn't enough for me.
'So,' he said after a moment. 'Your father. Is he going to be all right?'
I shrugged. I really didn't know.
Potter frowned. It looked as though he was trying to think. 'Did Voldemort do something?'
I snorted. 'Nothing. Aside from lose. My father is suffering from exactly the same malady that affects a great many other wizards, and Muggles too, from what I hear. He was told that he was born to rule, and then it turned out that he wasn't. The only difference is that he wasn't satisfied with sulking or writing patronising letters to the Daily Prophet, he decided to outdo his contemporaries and die of frustration instead.'
Potter looked at me thoughtfully. 'You sound more irritated than upset.'
I shrugged again. I had worked through upset some time ago. Also enraged, bereft, determined … 'All I can do is keep him comfortable,' I said. 'If he decides he doesn't want to live, I can't change his mind.'
And Potter looked at me with those great green eyes of his behind his still-stupid glasses and I couldn't look at him anymore, so I poured the hot chocolate and went over to the drinks cabinet to find an open bottle of whisky to splash into it.
'This'll do,' I decided. 'McRinnalch's Seriously Scottish. Nice peaty undertones that work with dark chocolate.'
Potter took a deep drink. 'Worth the morning's dramas,' he declared.
Drinking and eating occupied us for a while. He was a comfortable companion when he wasn't talking. I could see the pain pills having an effect, he held himself less tightly and his face lost its drawn expression.
'Why don't you have any Christmas decorations up?' he asked.
'Oh, for Merlin's sake, I was just thinking that you were pleasant company!'
'Sorry. Forget I asked.' His eyes danced above his tightly shut lips.
'I don't like Christmas,' I said. 'I haven't for years. It's a time that we tell all children to hope, and that joy is coming into the world, which is fine if you have a nice, normal family. But it shows you what you don't have if your family is broken. And poor kids who deserve nice things get crap and entitled little shits get everything, but even some of them would exchange all of that for love, or peace, or safety …' I trailed off, aware that I had said far too much.
'Your mother loves you,' he reminded me.
I breathed out. 'She does.'
I poured more chocolate and whisky.
'Anyway, I'm thinking of converting. Wollheim used to convince Goldstein to come over to the Slytherin common room whenever Hanukkah was early. I quite liked the sound of a religious holiday that involved conscious contemplation. Choose spirituality over crass commercialism, I say!'
Potter grinned. 'I'll be sure to tell Anthony the next time I see him.'
'Oh good god no, he'll come round to discuss theology and he's the most boring man I ever met. Send Wollheim if you must. He may be young, but he's good value.'
'I'll tell him if I see him,' Potter promised. 'Which reminds me—' He picked up his coat and rummaged around in the pockets, withdrawing a box wrapped in brown paper. 'Happy Christmas. Or Hanukkah. Or December 25th.'
I looked at it, embarrassed. 'I didn't get you anything.'
'Malfoy, you muppet. Point one, it's a time for giving, not receiving. Point two, you've given me a pair of mittens and an entire pharmacopeia.'
I'd completely forgotten about the mittens. Chastened, I took the gift. 'Should I open it now?'
Potter shook his head. 'Do it later. And in case you're worried about crass commercialism, I didn't pay a cent.'
I knew what it was, then, and was glad he didn't want me to open the box.
'So, where to next in your Festival of Christmasses?' I asked instead.
'Ron and Hermione's. I got Rose a safe-flying broom, I suspect Hermione is going to smack me, but Ron dropped about three dozen hints.'
I nodded. 'I had one of them when I was little. I rode it till the bristles fell off.'
Potter grinned and refrained from suggesting that it had done me no good in later years.
'If there's any way of working it into conversation, tell Weasley and Granger congratulations on the baby,' I said.
'Hermione knows I'm your supervising Auror, so I feel certain she'll bring it up.
I looked around for something to send with my words. Potter had been right, this room was too bare. The drinks cabinet was the only option. 'Here,' I said, grabbing a bottle of whisky and handing it to him. 'Give them this to toast their daughter's health.'
Potter looked at the bottle. 'But what about your herb boy?'
I looked at him, appalled. 'That's 25-year-old single malt, he wasn't getting that one.'
'You're giving it to Ron?'
He had a point. 'I'm giving it to Granger. She did all the work. Weasley can have some if she lets him.'
'I'll let them know. After that, I'm going to see Andromeda and Teddy. Do you want me to send them a message, too?'
I winced. We had tried, after the war, but once Father fell ill the fragile connection we had built had collapsed into birthday and Christmas cards and stopping for a brief chat if we crossed paths in the street.
'I'll tell them you'd like to catch up early next year, shall I?' he asked.
'Will you be there?'
'All right, then.'
He smiled. 'Excellent. All right, I'd better head off. You going to be OK?'
'I think so. Are you feeling better?'
I walked him to the door. 'Good. Don't do it again.'
He turned and the expression on his face was more inscrutable than I had expected. 'Of course I'd do it again,' he said. 'Merry Christmas, Malfoy.'
'Merry Christmas, Potter,' I replied.
I watched him walk away, steadier now he had his stick. He waved without turning around, and I saw that he had the mittens on.
Laughing, I went back inside. I felt able to open his gift, now. It was going to be my wand and there would be no big discussion about allegiances and lore, it would just be a gift and I could keep it in a drawer if I wanted to.
I was smiling as I picked it up, aware of the size of the hex I had dodged. So he was going to do insanely heroic things. He was Potter. That was his talent. I would learn to react to them calmly and just become another one of the little planets that happily swam in his gravity, warmed by his light.
I peeled the paper back. It wasn't a box. It was a faded blue book with battered cover on which the inked cauldron had started to wear off. I traced the title with a shaking finger, then opened the back cover. There was the name, just as Snape had described it.
I don't know why I cried. Maybe it was because I missed Snape. Maybe it was because I missed being a schoolboy who had one real talent and who was yet to see how horrible the world could be. Maybe it was because no-one had ever given me anything so perfectly right before.
Maybe it was because I wasn't in recovery any more. Because I wanted to hold him and say yes, and that I knew he understood, and that I could, too, if only he would let me.
We did end up celebrating Christmas. Mother and I ate our delayed lunch and exchanged gifts while Father rested. Later, he roused enough to thank me for the scarf I had given him. It was last year's gift, but Mother had rewrapped it and lied for me. She was tired, but delighted. He knew where he was and who we were, which was more than I had expected.
I slept poorly, dreaming of Potter for the first time in months. As always in my dreams, he remained just out of reach. In that half-real place between dreaming and waking I remembered his hand on my arm, his look of concern. It was enough to shake me into wakefulness. And then I cursed myself for being an idiot, because I had been safer in my dreams.
It was a cold Boxing Day. A light dusting of snow was falling onto my still-dark garden. We had missed a White Christmas by a day. Typical. I remembered being very small, back when Christmas was still a time of joy, how Boxing Day had been the worst day of the year, because it was the furthest from next Christmas. Mother would sit down with a calendar and help me count the days until my birthday.
Later, Boxing Day had become the day on which I had to admit that Christmas had failed to deliver me the happy, loving family I wanted. Again.
Which made it ironic that, this year, Christmas more or less had been a day of loving family, yet I felt worse than usual.
I got out of bed and looked out the window, where the first pre-dawn glimmers were shimmering into light. A fox ran through the hole in my back fence and trotted nervously through the garden. A few minutes later I heard the bin being tipped over. My potions refuse was properly disposed of, so it was only going to find a few old meals, which it was welcome to.
I needed a plan, I realised. Because staring aimlessly out the window until I had to see Potter again wasn't going to work. And I was freezing.
Showering and dressing was a good start. It's easier to think when there is hot water running over you. I realised that my options hadn't changed. I could hide away, I could spend a lifetime wanting something I could never have, or I could get over it.
Since getting over it had come so close to working, it seemed only logical to try again. I knew where I had gone wrong: I'd overdone it. I'd been aiming for nodding acquaintance and had instead made it a way down the path to actual friend. Which was never going to work.
A polite, professional acquaintance should be my goal. He respected my work, perhaps he would invite me to look at this Auror laboratory he had mentioned. Or I could work on pain potions for the department. There were myriad ways to yet make this work, all I had to do was to get through the next week of enforced contact. We were doing astonishingly well at the not-hexing each other. Now all that remained was to make certain there were no more incidents of alcoholic beverage or emotionally fraught drama. Easy.
I turned off the taps and rested my forehead against the still-cold tile wall. Perhaps Mother was right and I needed a nice boyfriend. Blaise's friend Toshi Sakamoto was planning to spend all 2006 in England researching rare flora. He was thoroughly beautiful, intelligent and funny. Maybe I should have said yes when Blaise offered to set us up. I resolved to get in touch with Blaise early in the New Year, once he'd seen the funny side of the jumpers.
I realised I was shivering and had to turn the taps back on.
The post arrived over breakfast. A card from Luna, saying she'd stop by this week. A card from Mrs Goyle, thanking me for the gifts. The January edition of the Practical Potioneer. All lovely and normal.
I made it to the Ministry just before ten. It was raining in London, but with that strange light to the clouds that could turn to sun or snow without warning. The Atrium was even emptier than it had been on Christmas Eve. With few people to flit around, the mechanical robins were all sitting above the entrance to the cafe, trilling 'I Saw Three Ships'. There was no sign of Potter.
I made my own way to Level Two. He was out in the central aisle of his department, standing with two other Aurors, all in their uniforms, all soaked to the skin.
He looked up and saw me. 'Malfoy! Bloody hell, is that the time? Sorry, bit of an emergency.'
I smiled politely. 'So I see. It's quite all right. Can I be of any use?'
He grinned. 'Believe it or not, we've actually sorted things, just not ourselves. Can I get you to wait about half an hour for me to clean up and get the reports sorted and then we can grab a bite to eat and I can tell you all the gory details?'
I had walked in there determined to do well, and not 45 seconds later, I was about to say, 'Yes, that sounds great.'
Luckily for me, a voice boomed from the back of the room. 'He can't wait around, he's going drinking with me, and I was off shift an hour ago, not that you'd know it!' Wallace was walking towards us in dry civvies, carrying his dripping uniform at arm's length. I was so relieved to see him that I almost ran towards him.
Potter looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
'I promised Wallace I'd go on a pub crawl,' I explained. 'It was a weak moment.'
Potter looked at Wallace, then back to me. He smiled. 'Well, you may as well head out, then. Technically you've reported, and you're hardly likely to get into too much trouble with Nepeta.'
Wallace was busying himself hanging his uniform up behind his desk and performing a Dry-You-Quick charm on it. 'Exactly right, sir,' he said. 'I will be a paragon of virtue and we will imbibe only tasting volumes of their public house spirits.'
Potter looked at me, wincing.
'I'll keep him out of trouble,' I said.
'Good. See you tomorrow, then.'
Wallace walked between us, which was a relief, because I wasn't able to break eye contact.
A strong arm was clapped across my shoulders and I was turned towards the door. 'C'mon, Draco, there are overpriced bacon butties and watered down beverages awaiting us across the wilds of Wessex.'
'One of your ancestors doubtless said the same when he came riding in from Germany,' I muttered.
'Rubbish,' Wallace replied. 'He would have been looking for the womenfolk. I'm off, you lot, don't call me if anyone else decides to ship a boatload of gnomes down the Thames.'
I found myself looking back at Potter, whose grin broadened. 'Hundreds of the nasty little buggers,' he confirmed. 'We had to retrieve the ones that jumped overboard, striking out for the houseboats.'
A treacherous smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. 'Where's your stick?' I asked him.
'Didn't need it, I had a broom,' he replied, looking as though he had just finished the season's best game of Quidditch.
I bit down on my smile. 'Of course you did. Just try not to do yourself a permanent damage.'
'Promise,' he replied.
'And thank you for the gift,' I said quickly, then left even more so, with Wallace trailing along behind me.
'What did he give you?' Wallace asked, catching up with me at the lift. 'Socks?'
'You didn't seem thrilled.'
'No, it was a book. It was … Look, do you mind if we don't talk about it?'
Wallace shrugged. 'Fine by me.'
The lift arrived, empty.
Wallace waited until we were inside with the Atrium button pushed before he resumed the conversation. 'I thought you two were getting on.'
'Yes, clearly, you seem very enthusiastic on the topic of Potter. Did something happen? Did he say something? Do something? You gave him some new pills that he was raving about this morning, so I get the impression you're not the problem.'
Happily, my bitter laugh made my murmured self-deprecations unintelligible.
Wallace frowned at me. 'What was that?'
The lift pinged and we were in the Atrium.
Wallace didn't let it go. 'Tell me what you said, Draco.'
I closed my eyes. 'I said that I am definitely the problem and that it doesn't have a solution.' I opened my eyes again and looked at him entreatingly. 'Can we please not talk about it?'
Wallace's head was tilted in thought as he looked at me, but he pressed his lips together and mumbled 'Not saying a word' through them. Or it could have been 'Knotted sarongs are bad' for all I could make out, but I laughed at the gesture anyway.
Wallace smiled. 'Good. Laughter. That's what we want for today. I didn't get you a present, by the way.'
I hadn't even thought of it. 'Sorry, neither did I.'
'Probably just as well given how badly you react to gifts.'
'Up your bum,' I replied, maturely.
'Show me on the doll where the bad Auror touched you, Draco.'
I glared at him.
'Too soon?' he asked.
'Far too soon,' I agreed.
'At least three.'
And so we left the Ministry in search of pubs, arguing over whether we should restrict our definition of Wessex to locations mentioned by Alfred and Bede. And if my shiny new plan hadn't gone as well as it could have, at least it hadn't gone pear-shaped.
Looking at Wallace Nepeta, you might think that he would be a wizard who could hold his drink. And you would be right. As it turned out, he could also hold mine, an Australian backpacker called Valerie's, and also Bevan's; Bevan being a red-faced Squaddie who had thought he was in with Valerie until we turned up and who then belligerently challenged Wallace to a drinking contest that ended with a now-convivial Bevan sliding under the table and Wallace telling each and every one of us in that pub that he loved us very much and that we were all good, good people.
Things took a turn for the better for Bevan when Valerie took him home to recover, while I had to enlist the assistance of Corporals Watt and Nevis to manhandle Wallace out onto the street to 'wait for a taxi'. They were very good about it, said it was the least they could do for someone who not only out-drank Corporal Wye, but who had sworn undying friendship to each of them not seven minutes ago.
Since that had been our eighth pub and the afternoon had moved well into evening by then, I'd waited till the coast was clear then Apparated the two of us back to my place without guilt.
I had only consumed a minute fraction of Wallace's tally, but by the time I had levitated him into a quick cold shower to sober him up enough to get some water into him and pyjamas onto him, I was absolutely knackered. I considered quickly brewing a sobering potion for Wallace and something for myself, but decided that sleep could do the trick for both of us.
This wasn't my best piece of thinking. It meant that I woke up just in time to wonder how late it actually was before there was a knocking at the front door.
'Shit!' I exclaimed, stubbing my toe on the table as I tried to run out of my workroom and make it to the front door before Potter did anything ridiculous.
'Hang on a minute,' I shouted as I raced down the stairs.
He was standing there cheerily with a cardboard box in his hand. 'Mince pies,' he said. 'Thank you gift from Hermione. She says she kept Ron away from them, and I had a few quick diagnostics done to be on the safe side, they should be fine to eat.'
I stared at him.
'Is there something I should know?' he asked. 'Only you're standing on one foot and you're wearing a Slytherin Quidditch jumper over your pyjamas.'
I gave up. 'Come in.'
At least the sitting room was close to the front door, so it was easy to get him settled while I dashed off to put the kettle on and grab some plates. I had put a fresh pair of gardening trousers in the mudroom only the day before, so I changed into them and my workboots and grabbed a barely worn top from the laundry. A few splashes of water from the kitchen tap and I was reasonably presentable.
'Coffee, tea or chocolate?' I asked as I returned with a laden tray.
'Tea, please,' he replied, taking the side plates from the tray and serving pies onto each.
I started with a large black coffee, which only began to take the edge off my fuzziness.
'I take it yesterday's outing went well?' Potter asked.
'Believe it or not, it's not a hangover. Just the sheer physical exhaustion of keeping pace with Nepeta was punishing. Are all your young Aurors like that?'
Potter laughed. 'There's only a few years between them and us.'
'Feels like more.'
'You're getting old before your time, Malfoy. Soon you'll have a receding hairline and a walking stick.'
I took refuge from banter in observation. 'Where's yours?'
He shrugged. 'Didn't need it today. Those new potions of yours are good enough that I can do without it.'
'No,' I corrected him. 'They're good enough that you can feel that way. If you've been taking the pain killers they'll just be masking symptoms and you could be making things worse.'
'Relax. I only had the pills you gave me and another two six hours later as suggested on the bottle. Since then it's been tendon medications and tonic only. I'm not completely without common sense.'
I wanted to debate that point, but it would have been presuming a closeness that I couldn't afford. 'All right,' I said instead. 'Be sure to keep your Mediwizards fully informed of your progress.'
He gave me an odd look, but promised that he would. I tried one of the mince pies, they were surprisingly good. 'Did Mrs Weasley make these?' I asked Potter.
He didn't answer, he was looking over my shoulder with wide eyes and a slightly hurt expression on his face.
Wallace was standing there, looking like something the cat had dragged in and then rejected on the grounds of good taste. But he was obviously wearing my pyjamas, as evidenced by the fact they were three inches too short for him and had little dragons embroidered on the pockets.
'Morning, sir,' Wallace said blearily. 'Draco, if that's coffee, I'll be your best friend forever.'
'There's plenty, but you'll need an extra cup from the kitchen.'
He padded away silently on bare feet. I turned back to Potter.
'There is a perfectly innocent explanation,' I began, but Potter raised his hand to stop me.
'It's fine,' he said. 'Everybody knows and nobody minds.'
Whatever I'd been about to say, that derailed it. 'Everybody knows what?' I spluttered. 'And why would I care whether or not people mind?'
Potter looked embarrassed. 'You know, about you …' his sentence petered out. 'Pansy complained for years,' he said instead. 'Loudly. Indiscriminately.'
I was staring at him, and I fear it was with my mouth open, when I was rescued by a knock at the front door.
I excused myself and practically ran to it.
Luna was there. 'Hello, Draco,' she said, kissing me on the cheek. 'As promised, in the flesh, and with a large box of chocolates. How are things with you?'
I smiled wanly. 'Harry Potter is in my sitting room eating mince pies and being the most relaxed parole officer in history. He thinks I'm having an affair with one of his junior Aurors, who crashed back here last night after we went out on a pub crawl. Said junior Auror is probably still somewhat drunk and desperately needs a sobering-up potion, but at the moment I'd probably turn him into a newt if I tried to brew anything. Father is conscious, Mother believes in Christmas miracles, Blaise and Pansy got me arrested and I have rarely been so glad to see anyone in my life as I am to see you.'
She grinned. 'I'd better come in, then, hadn't I?'
Wallace had made it back to the sitting room by the time we got there and was drinking a large mug of coffee, oblivious to Potter's disapproving stare. He looked up muzzily as Luna and I walked in.
'Wallace, this is Luna Lovegood,' I said, unsure as to whether they had met before. 'She's a noted publisher and cryptozoologist. Luna, this is Wallace, junior Auror and bad influence.'
Luna put out her hand, Wallace shook it gently. 'You were at school with us, weren't you?' she asked. 'In Hufflepuff, two years below me.'
Wallace agreed that he had been.
'So why are you wearing Draco's pyjamas?' she asked, with more than a little mischief in her voice.
He looked down at himself. He looked up at me, eyebrows raised. 'Where did we put my clothes?'
Potter put his head in his hands. I ignored him.
'They're in the room you slept in, folded up on the chair, with your boots on the floor beside them,' I told him. 'The bathroom is through the white door and there's a spare toothbrush in the cupboard above the sink.'
Wallace gulped down the rest of his coffee. 'Cheers, Draco,' he said, then padded off to find everything.
'So he slept in your room last night?' Luna asked, ignoring my narrowed eyes. 'Where did you sleep?'
'On the lounge in my workroom,' I told her, also ignoring the fact that Potter's head came back up at this. 'And it was bloody freezing, but I was so knackered I'd probably have set fire to my feet if I tried a heating charm.'
Luna laughed. 'I did that once, up in the Orkneys. At least, my shoes, not my feet. Luckily for me, I only had to stick them outside my tent and the rain put them straight out.'
I smiled at her story, and at her. She had decided to visit us after the war, seen the shambles we had made of ourselves and the guilt Mother and I bore for not having helped her more, and determined that we should be one of her projects. It never bothered me to have her check up on us, she bought such generosity of spirit with her, and chocolates, too.
Potter was peering at me through his glasses. 'So you and Nepeta…'
'Is it any of your business?' I asked, doing my best to keep my voice level.
'No, of course not,' he admitted readily.
I left the two of them together and went to fetch an extra cup for Luna.
They had clearly been talking in my absence, but quietened suddenly on my return. Potter was still looking at me speculatively.
'So, it looks as though I'm intruding on a bit of a social occasion,' he said.
'I apologise, it wasn't intentional.'
'It's my fault,' Luna said. 'I didn't tell him when I was going to arrive. I didn't know myself.'
'And Wallace was in no fit state to make it home yesterday,' I added.
'No, it's quite all right,' Potter said politely. 'I was only going to say that I don't really need to be here, so I should leave you all to it.'
'Don't be ridiculous, Harry,' said Luna. 'You're part of the occasion. Isn't he, Draco?'
'Now tell us what ridiculous thing has kept you busy at work lately, and how did you end up Draco's parole officer?'
Potter told the latter story first, and was then well into recounting how a group of anti-European Union wizards had rounded up a boatload of the meanest gnomes East Anglia and the Midlands had to offer, then made an abortive attempt at shipping them to Brussels.
'Unfortunately, one of the hexes aimed at the captain of the vessel went wide and knocked the corner off one of the crates,' he explained. 'The minute some of the gnomes were free, they released the inhabitants of the next crate, then discovered they were from Warwickshire, and started fighting with them. So we had half the team busy trying to constrain all the criminals, with the other half either being bitten by gnomes or fishing them out of the river.'
'By the end we were all on fishing duty,' added Wallace who had arrived at the door some time during the narrative. 'Both the night shift and the morning shift were back in the office dripping and laughing. We left MLE to see about returning the gnomes, no reason they shouldn't have their holidays bitten into, as it were.'
Luna moved over and patted the sofa beside her, he came in and sat down. Potter made a show of looking at his watch.
'All right, on that note, I really do have to go,' he said.
I saw him to the door. 'Be sure to check with your Mediwizards,' I said in farewell.
'It's fine,' I interrupted him. 'I'll see you tomorrow. Only six more days and then you'll be free of me.'
He opened his mouth to speak, looked at my face and closed it again, his shoulders falling a little. 'See you tomorrow,' he said. I had closed the door behind him before he finished turning away.
I turned around and Wallace and Luna were observing me from the sitting room doorway.
'What on earth was that?' Wallace asked.
'Ooh, I know,' Luna said. 'Do you want me to explain it to you?'
I glared at her, but she ignored me, so I told them they could meet me up in my workroom when they'd finished gossiping. It took them thirty minutes, and I wasn't sure I cared for the knowing expressions they exchanged when they saw me.
Wednesday was a success by my standards. Luna had made a brilliant suggestion: if Potter wanted to talk with me, have him talk about work.
Despite the fact it was even colder than the night before, I spent the evening in my workroom, preparing the bases for potions that could keep Aurors going through emergencies. The pain relief side of the product was going to be tricky, so I started with the invigorating part, rationalising that once we found one that had a decent lifespan and no hard come-down, we could work on the rest of the mix. At least I remembered to cast heating charms early enough to stop the house cooling with the weather.
When I woke up just after eight, I could see the paw prints in the frost where my fox had made another bin raid. I had cooked two extra chops for her, just in case.
I arrived on time at the Ministry with my well-padded box and found Potter waiting for me in the Atrium, where the snow had now ceased and the robins were sleeping in a huddle above the main door.
'Malfoy,' he greeted me with a smile. 'I thought we could sit in the cafe again.'
'Wherever you prefer,' I replied. 'I've been working on that emergency pain tonic we were discussing the other day.'
He was instantly interested. While he drank tea and ate scones, I outlined my work so far. Eight sample bottles of the base preparations, all ready for testing by his department if he wanted, or I would pay some subjects myself if he preferred. I had prepared a series of parchments outlining ingredients, preparation conditions and spells used, with suggestions for future refinements and a series of data points that would need to be gathered from the test subjects, from heartbeat to hours spent awake, length of subsequent sleep to how they felt in the morning.
'It's very preliminary,' I told him. 'There will be weeks, if not months of work remaining after we sort this out.'
'But it's a start,' he said, smiling. 'We've been after St Mungo's to work on the problem for years and they haven't touched it.'
I remembered the busy wards and overworked staff from Father's time there. 'I think they have a lot on their plates,' I reminded him. 'I'm a gentleman of leisure who likes an intellectual challenge and doesn't have a more pressing case of dragonpox to deal with.'
'True,' Potter agreed. 'Do you have time to explain this to some of my research team?'
'In your lab?'
Potter looked down. 'Ah … Best not to go to the lab this week.'
'Because I'm on parole?'
He looked up, apologetically.
I waved his apology away. 'It's quite all right. A perfectly logical decision. If you can bring them down here I'll happily discuss my work with them.'
He reached into his pockets for parchment and a quill and sent a memo flying off. Less than five minutes later we were joined by two bright young witches and I saw out the rest of our meeting talking potions.
As I made a polite departure from the three of them, I reminded myself to send Luna flowers.
It was more difficult the next morning. I didn't have a second brilliant new potion to divert him with and there was no chance of him being distracted by other Ministry staff. So I took refuge in the resources I had to hand.
I met him at the door with a walking stick.
He looked at it. 'I'm actually moving rather well without one,' he said.
'Then you can use it to threaten teenagers,' I told him. 'We're going for a walk.'
I shut the door behind me and he had no choice but to follow. It was a quick jaunt up to New Street and then across the river. The day was cold enough for the frost to still lay thick on the grass, so we stuck to the paths as I led him through Queen Elizabeth Gardens and down towards the Town Path and water meadows.
'It's a beautiful park,' Potter said, limping only slightly.
He was right. Even with most branches bare and the willows drooping forlornly into the water, it was still lovely. I would sometimes come here to walk and sit in the warmer weather, amused by small children and dogs that had slipped their leads and were making a bold bid for the nearest muddy puddle.
'We're lucky it hasn't rained as much as it threatened,' I told him. 'All of this section goes under water and you can't get across to Harnham at all.'
He stopped at his first sight of the channels stretching out to either side of the path, black between the frosted meadows with their traces of remnant snow.
'What is it?' he asked me.
I felt such relief as I launched into my local spiel. 'Irrigation. The meadows were divided up by the channels and hatches controlled the amount of water coming through them. Sheep would be grazed on a particular patch, chewing up weeds and grass and leaving behind dung, then they would give it a light flooding to soak all the goodness into the soil. After that, they’d come along and cultivate it and plant crops. Whenever the crops needed a good watering, they'd open up the hatches and give it a light flooding again.'
He looked out over the channels stretching away from us. 'How did they build so many?'
'We're on chalk,' I reminded him. 'It's easy to cut through, to reshape the land as you need it. Apparently they're a national treasure now. I rather like the idea of dungy old meadows being a treasure, there's a pleasant sense of authenticity about it.'
Potter smiled and agreed.
'They still graze on here,' I told him. 'Though I have no idea what they do with the sheep in weather like this.'
'Probably tucked up in a barn,' he said. 'With little sheepy blankets and hot water bottles.'
I nearly laughed, but caught myself in time.
'Sometimes this is all flooded for over a week at a time. Then the Muggles have to drive if they want to get to Harnham.'
'Is there anything good there?' Potter asked.
'No,' I lied. 'We should go back, you'll be expected at the Ministry soon.'
He looked around instead. 'It's funny how systems exist in such fine tension. When this works, it must have been a thing of wonder to the farmers. But if you tip a part of the system out of balance, it becomes a liability, even a danger.' He looked at me. 'Balance can be such a fragile thing.'
I swallowed. 'We should be getting back. It's cold and damp, that can't be good for you.'
'My Mediwizards say I'm fine,' he told me. 'In fact, I gained two pounds this week.'
'All the baked goods,' I said, starting to walk back.
'And having an appetite,' he replied. 'Which I put down to your tonic.'
I glanced at him. He did look less likely to faint at any moment. 'Come on, before half the Auror Corps shows up wondering what's happened to you.'
I kept the pace a little brisker on the way back. He was able to manage it, but not to converse at the same time. I took us straight to the Owlery rather than risk stopping at my house. He formally handed me back the walking stick, thanking me for the use of it.
'Listen,' he said, 'tomorrow is the first day of my rostered holiday, and I'd rather not go into the office. I was wondering if we could meet on Diagon Alley?'
I racked my brain, looking for an excuse that didn't sound pathetic.
'Luna is in town, she wanted to see you again. She asked if you could bring your mother, but if she can't leave your father, I fully understand and the three of us could just meet up, have a nice cup of tea and head off again.'
I trusted Luna, so I said yes, and promised that I would ask Mother. He smiled brightly, and I looked away.
'Malfoy,' he had his hand on my arm again, 'I'm sorry about—'
'It's fine,' I cut him off. 'It really is fine. Back to work. See you tomorrow.'
Mother agreed to come, which I took as another sign that though she might love me dearly, the Fates clearly didn't. She asked me to pick her up from the Manor and didn't even mention that I had hardly been there since Christmas.
I should have guessed that meant she had a surprise in wait.
Father was sitting up in his study, a blanket tucked around his knees and an open book on the table beside him. He recognised me and motioned me to come closer. Then he hugged me, weakly but determinedly.
'It's good to see you, Draco,' he said. He smelled like a normal human being again, not like soap and fermentation anymore.
'It's good to see you, too, Father,' I replied.
He let me go. 'Your mother tells me you're taking her out for morning tea.'
He looked at me conspiratorially. 'Make sure she has hot chocolate. She orders tea because she thinks it's more mature, but she vastly prefers chocolate.'
I hadn't been expecting that. More, I had never known that. 'I will,' I promised. 'Thanks for letting me know.'
He smiled at me. 'There are a lot of things I should tell you,' he said. 'Useful things. Not the rubbish I told you in the past. But not now. Go, before you're late.'
Mother held my arm tightly as we walked outside to Apparate.
'He's looking well,' I answered her unspoken question.
'He is, isn't he?' she agreed. 'I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but I'm failing.'
I patted her hand and opened the back door. 'Come one, I'll take us Side-along. And not a single glass will be rattled from out here.'
She laughed – a sound I had not heard in a long time – and I managed the step to London with ease.
It had been snowing in Wiltshire. Here it was a cold sleet, and the shopkeepers had set a sheltering spell above the alley, so that the water stopped above the rooftops.
'Grey and grim,' Mother said, and I think she meant the weather rather than the looks a few people threw at us. But then Jane Hunniset, one of the Auror research witches, walked past, recognised me and stopped to tell me how much she was enjoying working with my research.
'We found sixteen volunteers and have a protocol for the first trial already in place. I can't wait to see what you make of it all,' she said.
'Excellent,' I told her. 'I can't wait to see how you go. Jane, this is my mother, Narcissa Malfoy. Mother, this is Jane Hunniset, she works with Potter.'
They exchanged quick how-do-you-do's, then Jane tried to grill me on my favourite types of comfrey before I managed to escape by telling her Potter was waiting on us.
Mother gave me an amused look. 'It's a shame you don't like girls,' she told me.
'She only loves my mind, Mother,' I replied, leading her on at a brisker pace so she wouldn't spot any other glares.
The tea shop was chintzier than I had been expecting, and also fuller. Granger and Weasley were there with their baby. I stopped in the doorway, looking at Mother, who seemed stricken. She hadn't said a word to Granger since Father's trial, where she had made a stiff, but sincere, apology for her sister's barbarity.
Luna stood up and came over to us. 'Hermione wanted you to meet the baby,' she told Mother.
I very much doubted that was true, but if Granger wanted to ask me some probing questions about why I was suddenly supplying Aurors with unauthorised medications, she was more than welcome to. Luna sat Mother down between herself and Granger, which left me on the opposite side, next to Potter. At least he was between me and Weasley.
I gave a general 'Good morning' to everyone, which was lost in the cooing over the baby. Granger was holding her up so that everyone could take a good look. She was a fetching child, intelligent eyes under a shock of reddish-brown hair.
Mother was telling Hermione that Rose had much better hair than I had at her age. 'He was bald as a button until he was nine months old,' she said.
Granger went up in my estimation when she merely smiled and replied that many babies were.
'And how are you feeling?' Mother asked her. 'Tired? Are you getting enough help around the house?' She looked pointedly at Ron.
'Very tired,' Granger admitted. 'You wouldn't believe the volume such a little pair of lungs can generate! But I'm lucky, my mum stayed with us for the first fortnight, and Ron is good around the house and his mother has just been marvellous.'
My mother was on her best behaviour. 'Molly Weasley was always a tremendously efficient woman,' she said. 'Very capable in a number of fields. I'm glad to see you have a useful husband. Mine had a gift for disappearing when it came to dirty nappies and crying.'
'Please kill me,' I whispered across the table to Luna.
'Sorry,' she whispered back. 'Harry would arrest me.'
'I would,' he agreed.
'And how's she going with feeding?' Mother asked, forgetting everything else in this one fundamental kinship.
'Good for the most part, but she gets a little colicky sometimes and she can projectile vomit like a champion.'
'Oh, Millicent had the same problem with Pansy. Have you tried different feeding positions?'
They disappeared into a conversation inaccessible to the rest of us. Weasley, who had clearly had some practice, turned the conversation to the weather. 'They say it's going to stay wet and cold into the New Year. Indoors weather, I think. Which is just as well, because by the time we dress the baby for going outdoors, two hours have gone by and we're usually late. I only managed this morning by putting everything out last night, ready to go. By the time she goes off to Hogwarts, I think I'll really have a handle on this parenting thing.'
I smiled. He had changed dramatically in the months since I had last seen him. He seemed happy. For once, he had beaten Potter to something, and this something was clearly one he valued deeply.
'I hear you're doing potions work for Neville and Harry,' he said, changing topic again. He had recently left the Auror Corps to work with his brother, but it was common knowledge that he maintained an active interest.
The question was unexpected, but the answer was simple. 'Yes. Neville's been ordering from me for a few years now, and I've recently started supplying Potter with a few things I've developed. His team are working on an idea of mine at the moment.'
Weasley looked interested. 'I hope you've retained all your intellectual property on it,' he said.
I shrugged. 'I was thinking that we'd develop it together.'
He shook his head. 'No, that's a certain path to being frozen out of the profits. The Ministry has deep pockets, Malfoy, get your family lawyer in to write up some contracts early in the piece before it all gets blurred and no-one can demarcate whose work is whose.'
I found myself smiling. 'That's good business sense,' I admitted. 'But I don't really care about the money.'
'Then donate it to charity. It's the principle of the thing. The Ministry takes our taxes and charges for non-essential services. If you were developing a vaccine in a crisis, then that would be different, but don't go making them think they shouldn't have to pay for expertise. Just because you can afford to do it for free doesn't mean the next person can.'
'That's a good point,' I agreed. 'I hadn't thought of that.'
'There you go.'
'There goes my budget,' Potter muttered.
'Draco can donate his fees to the Auror Bereft Partners and Children Fund,' Luna suggested. 'That way you're just moving the money around rather than spending extra.'
'Works for me,' I agreed.
'How's your father?' Luna asked quietly.
I checked to see that Mother wasn't listening. 'I think he might be getting better.'
'That's brilliant.' She smiled warmly at me.
Weasley shrugged. 'If it makes your mother happy, I suppose …'
I didn't blame him.
'So what changed?' Luna asked.
'Potter irritated him into recovery,' I said, honesty over-riding my instinct to keep the conversation out of dangerous waters.
Weasley started to laugh quietly. Luna's eyes widened. 'How?'
'By existing,' Potter said, with a sigh.
'Well, yeah, that would totally do it,' Weasley said.
'Shut up, Ron.'
'Though he hasn't mentioned it since. I think he might believe it was all an hallucination.'
Potter shrugged. 'That makes sense. I'd struggle my way out of a coma if I started to hallucinate your father.' He put his hand on my shoulder. 'Anyway, it's good to hear that he's doing well, for your sake if not his.'
I stood up quickly. 'I'm just going to take a better look at the baby. Weasley, when exactly was she born?'
They moved my chair down that end of the table after a few minutes. I was lucky that Rose was a genuinely engaging child, so I could talk about her attention span, her strong grip and her actual cuteness with enthusiasm. In my efforts not to bond with Potter, I may have accidentally found my way onto Weasley's good side.
Luna called an end to the morning after two pots of hot chocolate and a round of cakes. 'It's been lovely seeing you all, but I'm going to take Ron and Hermione home and watch over Rose while they get a few hours' sleep. We have to go now, because they have to be back up by six. I have a date with an eligible young bachelor.'
Granger laughed. 'First I've heard of this. Who's the lucky man?'
Luna shook her head. 'I can't tell you, Harry is tremendously protective of his virtue.'
I laughed. 'You're going out with Wallace?'
She grinned at me. 'Why not? Have you not noticed his arms?'
I snorted. 'Try carrying him.'
Mother was gracious enough to nod her concession that I may have been right about Auror Nepeta's personal preferences. Potter was frowning and looking between me and Luna to see if he could decipher a non-extant subtext. I went round to her side of the table, kissed her cheek and whispered that she was a genius. She whispered back that she knew.
Granger actually hugged my mother goodbye, and Weasley looked as though he was considering a handshake, but we settled on manly nods at each other.
'I'll see you tomorrow at ten,' Potter said, giving up on trying to understand things. 'Should I wear walking boots?'
I hadn't planned that far ahead. 'Wouldn't hurt,' I said. 'Or we could spend the time going over other potions requirements for your department.'
He looked at me oddly. 'Let's decide tomorrow.'
And because I wasn't looking for subtexts, I didn't hear the one that existed there.
The last morning of the year dawned white in Wiltshire. I had left a bowl of scraps out for the fox, regardless of what the council people would say. Come spring I would cover the hole in the fence and give my garden hedgehogs a fighting chance, but next winter, I knew I would uncover it again.
I had thought of a plan. We would walk to the Cathedral and then take whatever tour was available. There was always someone willing to blather on at length about the centuries of building and the height of the spires. I would even listen to a discourse on flying buttresses if necessary.
Potter turned up with snow dusting his coat, carrying a bag of pastries and two cups of takeaway hot chocolate. 'I'm coming inside,' he announced.
He wasn't carrying a walking stick.
I stepped aside and let him through. There was no way of stopping him short of physical violence and, even in his sub-optimal state, I didn't rate my chances highly.
He went straight to the sitting room and took his preferred seat. He put a cup on the coffee table in front of my usual seat and tore open the pastry bag, using it as a makeshift plate.
'Dig in,' he said, picking up a croissant and tearing a piece off.
I sat opposite him and sipped on my chocolate. It was surprisingly good. I waited for whatever it was he was going to say.
After demolishing half his croissant, he was ready. 'So, where I think I went wrong was in jumping to conclusions about you and Nepeta. It was insensitive and I apologise.'
'It's fine,' I said.
'It's clearly not fine,' he argued. 'Look at you, you're all tense and cross. We were getting on before that. You were laughing and we were telling each other things that actually mattered. I can’t talk to most people about any of that stuff, but I can with you. I thought we’d turned a corner and I liked it.'
I focussed on the pastries and chose a little apple galette.
'Oh, come on, Malfoy. It could be your New Year's resolution: be nice to Potter.'
I sniffed. 'I don't believe in New Year's resolutions.'
'And you don't believe in Christmas,' he said.
'What do you believe in?'
I tore a piece from the galette, keeping my attention on it. 'Hard work. Atonement. Research. Being kind to animals. Forgiveness.'
He ducked into my line of sight and caught my eye. 'Then you can forgive me,' he said.
I looked up at him. Still thin, but less gaunt than he had been ten days ago. There were fewer signs of physical pain, but there was an anxiety that hadn't been there before. I realised with a shock that it was over me. 'There's genuinely nothing to forgive,' I assured him. 'You haven't done anything wrong.'
'Then why?' he insisted.
'Because you keep acting as though we could be friends,' I said, then cursed myself.
He sat back. 'And you think we can't be?'
I ate for a minute, though the apples tasted like cardboard to me. I needed time to compose my thoughts. 'I think that we could work together productively and treat each other with respect,' I said at last.
'And that's what you want?'
'That's what I want,' I agreed.
Potter sipped on his chocolate meditatively. He looked at me, frowning and so intent that I had to look away. 'What if it's not what I want?' he asked after a while.
I put down the remainder of my galette, afraid I would choke. On it or on the words I was holding in my throat, refusing to let out.
'What do you really believe in, Malfoy?' he asked, quietly.
I decided to let the axe fall. 'You,' I answered, simply.
He didn't laugh, or look away. He nodded thoughtfully. Then he stood up and took my hands, drawing me to my feet. I was surprised by the strength of his grip. He pushed his glasses back up his nose, so that he wasn't looking half over them. Then he reached out and sank a hand into my hair and drew me closer.
The first brush of his lips against mine was fleeting, like the fall of a silk shirt. When I didn't pull away, he drew me closer still, and this kiss was determined, parting my lips and sending a surge of heat through my veins. He Apparated us a few feet to the left, so the coffee table was no longer in our way and there was no space between us anymore. That kiss left me forgetting how to breathe, but not how to think.
I pushed him away, but didn't let go of his arms. 'Wait,' I said. 'Why?'
'Because you're beautiful and ridiculous,' he said, smiling.
I made a face, he laughed at it.
'All right, because you're kind to animals. Because you worked hard to change your life in ways that made a difference. Because you get me, even when you have no idea why. Because you believe in me as much as I believe in you.'
I frowned and began to formulate a rebuttal. He out-manoeuvred me with another kiss.
'Malfoy, stop,' he said. 'You don't know my mind better than I do. Can you just shut up and let me try, and try with me?'
I looked at him. Real, and in my arms, eyes honest and hopeful.
The first day of the New Year began with Harry Potter.
So did the rest.