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First of December - Sunrise

1st december

The sky outside the windows of Gryffindor Tower glows with soft gold, vivid pink and liquid orange as the winter sun climbs above the horizon, creeping lazy tendrils into the eighth-year boys’ dormitory where Harry is curled on the brightest windowsill, gazing silently into the grounds and attempting, without much success, to put his socks on.

It is well past seven, and he thinks he promised to follow the others down to breakfast several minutes ago, but he can’t quite seem to drag his eyes away from the slowly-waking landscape. He can see movement in the distance as students drift around in the other visible parts of the castle and the stomping gait of Madam Hooch as she stalks across the frosted grass towards the broom shed, breath emerging in visible plumes in the bitter air. The forest, still mostly in darkness, hulks menacingly at the edge of the vast lawn, bare branches and spiky conifers harsh against the gentle colours of the sunrise, but Harry doesn’t shiver at the sight like he thinks the forest wants him to. He knows what’s in there and he’s not afraid. Not any more.

Hogwarts is home, every last bit of it, and he can’t quite believe that after everything that has happened, he has been given the chance to return, to attempt one more year in peace before being thrust out into a world that he’s not quite sure what to do with. The castle, rebuilt by hundreds of tireless, eager hands over a single dry, parched summer, is here once again to protect him, to protect all of them, and he is seized with the desire to appreciate every last moment of it.

Everyone had wanted to help, from students and teachers to Aurors and Apothecaries, ancient witches and wizards with canes and flasks of tea and stories, tiny children clinging to their parents, torn between pleading to lend a hand and peering around for a glimpse of the actual Harry Potter. All had descended on the devastated castle and all had been warmly received by Minerva McGonagall, who had managed the restoration with a wonderful, stern sort of grace that had turned almost everyone involved into friends and colleagues.

Harry smiles to himself, struggling briefly with his second sock and then giving up again. Business partnerships had been made during those long, hot weeks. Romances had sparked in the unlikeliest of places. Lost friends and relatives had been honoured with tears and laughter and stories upon stories of their lives. When Ron had laid a stone into the new parapet of Gryffindor Tower, turned it bright orange and dedicated it to Fred, the idea had spread like wildfire among the volunteers and soon, Hogwarts was alive with the memories of those it had once held, each spirit woven into its walls and preserved for all time. The castle is now dotted with coloured and patterned bricks, each representing the life of a person taken by the war with Voldemort, and Ron, much to his secret pleasure and not-so-secret embarrassment, has received a Special Award for Services to the School.

Harry tries again with the sock, finally looking down to see that he has been attempting to put both socks onto the same foot. He sighs, trying not to think about when or if his focus is going to return, and repositions the sock on the correct foot. His stomach growls and he glances down at it in surprise. He hasn’t been particularly interested in food lately, but he supposes he ought to eat something before Hermione tells him he’s looking thin again. The last time she had said so had been within earshot of Ginny, who may have agreed that she and Harry are better off as friends, but does not seem to have taken this as a reason to cease fussing about Harry’s health. Harry loves her to pieces, of course, but he doesn’t want any more lectures and he certainly doesn’t want any more vile-tasting vitamin potions in his tea, so he heaves himself off the windowsill and goes in search of his shoes.

The smell of bacon and toast and coffee reaches him as he walks down the last staircase before the Great Hall and he inhales deeply, feeling comforted but still unenthusiastic. He searches the Gryffindor table for his friends, finally finding them sandwiched between a group of third-years who are scribbling frantically with their Potions textbooks propped against their juice jugs and a cluster of tiny students who stare and giggle and nudge each other at the sight of him. He’s almost used to it by now, and he only feels a little bit embarrassed as he squeezes in next to Neville and one of them whispers, “Oh my goodness, he touched me!”

Neville grins and pours Harry a cup of tea. “I was just about to come looking for you. Did you get lost in your thoughts again?”

“Something like that,” Harry admits. “Thanks. I was also having some sock trouble.”

“Is that a euphemism?” Seamus asks, looking up from where he and Dean are leafing through a battered copy of ‘Commercial Lettings in Wizarding London’.

Harry wrinkles his nose. “No, but thanks for that,” he says, sensing movement and looking down at his plate to see that someone has placed four rashers of bacon and a mountain of fried mushrooms on it. Across the table, Ginny is staring at her Daily Prophet a little too hard.

“My gran says you need starchy foods if you’re trying to build yourself up,” Neville offers, looking at Harry’s plate and then at Ginny. “Not that I think you need to... sorry.” Nev sighs and closes his mouth guiltily.

“Your gran’s been feeding you something this last year or so,” Dean says, gazing at Neville’s solid form with clear envy.

Neville blushes and Harry focuses on his breakfast in an attempt to spare his friend’s embarrassment, but Dean is right. Neville is now almost the tallest of all his friends, only edged out by Ron, and he has become rather an impressive figure over the last couple of years. Impulsively, Harry reaches for a piece of toast and crunches into it, wondering idly about starches and adding just a couple of inches to his five-foot-not-quite-ten frame.

The thing he really admires about Neville, though, is not his size but his new-found confidence. The war has not been easy on any of them, but it has forced Nev to find his strength and the courage that was always inside him. He has fought fearlessly against the people who destroyed his parents, made his grandmother proud enough to burst and come back to Hogwarts with the weight of uncertainty plainly gone from his shoulders. Of course, he still turns pink if anyone mentions his appearance and freezes with panic at the idea of making a potion, but he is doing marvellously.

“Did your forms come?” Harry asks, noticing that the post owls have been and gone.

“Not yet,” Neville says, turning to Harry with a worried expression. “Do you think they’ve changed their minds? Maybe they did some more research into me and decided I wasn’t the right person for the job at all.”

“No chance,” Ron says stoutly through a mouthful of toast and Neville shoots him a grateful smile.

“Nev, I am pretty sure that there is no one better suited to going to the Amazon and studying tropical Mimbulas,” Harry says, oddly comforted by this exchange, which is now as much of a part of breakfast as staring first-years and Hermione’s horrible cereal. “They have not changed their minds.”

Neville nods firmly. “Right. Yeah. Of course they haven’t.”

“There’s plenty of time,” Ginny says over the top of her paper. “You’re not going until the summer. It’s only the first of December.”

“It’s the first of December?!” Ron splutters, eyes wide.

“All day,” Ginny says absently, disappearing back behind her newspaper.

Harry frowns. “What’s the matter?”

“I forgot to finish that essay for Flitwick,” he says, stuffing half a piece of toast into his mouth and getting to his feet. “And I gotta feed Fang,” he adds, chewing briskly.

“I’ll feed... him...” Harry tries, but Ron is already jogging across the hall, robes flapping behind him.

“Hagrid still away?” Neville asks.

“He’s back on Saturday,” Hermione says, seeming to notice them at last. She smiles at Harry and then pokes at her cereal with her spoon, lips pursed. “I still don’t understand why he hasn’t given me a job to do. It’s not as though I’m not trustworthy.”

Neville laughs. “Hermione, you’re probably the most trustworthy out of all of us. I’m sure that’s not the reason.”

“Of course it’s not,” Harry says, attempting to comfort her. “McGonagall’s the one handing out most of those jobs anyway, and I’m sure she just thought you had enough on your plate, what with taking half a million NEWTS...”

“And the first-year mentoring programme,” Ginny adds.

“And the duelling club,” Neville says.

Harry nods. “And the—”

“Yes, alright,” Hermione sighs, cutting him off. “I just hate the thought that he might think I don’t want to help.”

Harry nudges her knee under the table with his own. “Hagrid would never think that,” he says, and he really wouldn’t.
On the rare occasion that he has been able to catch up with Hagrid since the start of term, he has been nothing but grateful for all the help and support he has received, and he couldn’t be prouder of Harry, Ron and Hermione for returning to finish their education. In turn, they couldn’t be prouder of him for all of his hard work with the post-war Emergency Unicorn Breeding Programme, but it has been strange having him away so much, and Harry makes a mental note to head down to his cabin on Saturday for tea and an update.

“How are the Thestrals doing?” Hermione asks Neville, all traces of petulance gone from her tone.

“Really well, actually,” Nev says with a grin. “It’s all Luna, though, I’m just doing exactly what I’m told.”

“Just so you know, the idea of Luna bossing you about is really funny,” Ginny says, grinning.

“She doesn’t exactly boss me, she just sort of...” Neville pauses. “She’s behind me, isn’t she?”

Harry looks around slowly. Sure enough, Luna is standing behind Neville wearing a beatific expression and an alice band with conkers stuck all over it.

“Hello, Gryffindors,” she says, resting pale hands on Neville’s shoulders. “I think we should check on the foals before lessons start, don’t you?”

“We absolutely should,” Neville says, voice a little scratchy, and he scrambles to his feet, grabbing his bag and hurrying after Luna without another word.

At the table, Harry, Hermione and Ginny exchange glances.

“I think it’s nice,” Ginny says suddenly.

“I think you’re imagining things,” Hermione teases. “Neville and Luna? Really?”

Ginny just shrugs and returns to her paper. Harry abandons his food and leans on the table, cup of tea cradled in his hands. Stranger things have happened than Neville and Luna falling in love, he’s pretty sure of that. Strange things like the two girls sitting at the end of the Slytherin table, giggling like they’ve been friends for years, one in a green striped tie and the other in yellow and black. Even in his very first year at Hogwarts, when Voldemort was all but a memory, he never once saw the Slytherins mix with other houses like that, and looking back, he can’t say he blames them. He wasn’t the only one fed those toxic lies, those ideas about all dark wizards originating in that one house, and he wasn’t the only one who allowed those lies to colour his perceptions for far too long.

The restoration project had helped, of course, but it had been McGonagall’s firm insistence to the press, the Ministry, and anyone else who would listen that any student, regardless of what had happened during the war, who wanted to finish their education, would be welcome at the newly-rebuilt Hogwarts, that had made the difference. The change has not been immediate, but it has begun, and it can be seen in new inter-house friendships, the tentative feeling of unity, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, the presence of Draco Malfoy.

Harry doesn’t know why he had been surprised to see Draco on the first of September; he had, like so many others, spent his entire summer at Hogwarts, and though Harry had been too busy and preoccupied to spend much time with him, he knows that Draco had worked as hard as anyone and perhaps harder than most, working mostly alone and rebuilding entire sections of the castle by himself. He had proved himself skilled and committed, and his inevitable hearing in front of the Wizengamot found multiple witnesses, including Harry, Luna, and McGonagall herself, willing to testify on his behalf. Still, when he returned to the restoration project, changing his sober dark suit for stiff jeans and boots, he had remained isolated, angry, and almost completely silent.

Nothing much has changed since school started, Harry reflects, finishing his tea and heading out of the Great Hall in the direction of his first lesson. Bound over to good behaviour for two years, and with his father starting a long sentence in Azkaban, Draco remains quiet and shadowlike, speaking only when spoken to and hanging back very much on the edges of Hogwarts life.

Something about this tangles up Harry’s insides, makes him want to yell at Draco, to rile and provoke him, to do something so unexpected that he will have no choice but to react, but he resists, knowing that everyone must be allowed to deal with their grief and loss in their own way. The Weasleys are immensely well-equipped for such a process, he has found. There is no holding back or stiff upper lip for them; they cry and rage and hug and drink tea until every last bit of darkness is out, and then they pull tight together, hanging onto each other through tearful celebrations of lives lost and saved. He and Hermione have been folded effortlessly into these rituals, and while Harry suspects that he might have been quite lost without them, he’s still not sure where he belongs.

Here. I belong here,” he mutters to himself, turning down the Charms corridor and slowing almost to a stop when he sees Draco leaning against the wall next to the classroom door.

Are you talking to yourself, Potter? his subconscious demands, but Draco merely glances up at the sound of his footsteps and then stares at the opposite wall again.

Harry bites his lip, discomfited. At one time, a situation like this would have led inevitably to a fight of some kind, but now he has no idea what to do. If it were anyone else, he would try to strike up a conversation, just to fill the silence, but he has tried that with Draco several times since term began, and it has never ended in anything but awkwardness. Still, giving up easily has never been his style.

He takes a deep breath of cold, damp air and scuffs his shoe on the stone floor.

“So... erm... have you done the homework?” he asks, voice seeming entirely too loud in the empty corridor.

“Yes,” Draco says, eyes still trained on the wall, expression blank. “Why, do you want to copy it?”

Harry leans against the wall several feet away, face heating. “No,” he sighs.

“Good.”

Harry looks away. He doubts he could get any more words out of Draco if he took off all his clothes and started dancing around the corridor, and it’s far too cold for anything like that. He supposes that it doesn’t really matter whether Draco Malfoy talks to him or not. There are more important things, like what the hell he’s going to do with his life now, or passing his NEWTs, or...

He closes his eyes and lets out a long breath. The trouble is that somehow it is important. He has seen this person broken, has seen him at his worst, seen him ruined, and yet he’s still here. He’s not his father, perhaps he’s not even a bad person, but as for what he is, Harry doesn’t know.

When he opens his eyes again, the door to the Charms classroom is open, and he is alone in the corridor.

Chapter Text

Second of December – A slightly charred book

2nd december

Harry rolls up his sleeves and swipes his arm across his forehead, pushing his damp hair back from his face and pausing for breath before pointing his wand at his pile of stones and attempting to spell them into flame. He has managed the transformation once already, but the results have been messy and uneven, so he tries again, focusing as hard as he can on his own work. All around him, his classmates are attempting the same spell. The air is full of incantations, muttered swear words and hot, choking smoke, and while a handful of people—Hermione included—have managed to produce neat little fires on their desks, the others, like Harry, are finding the exercise frustrating, and someone in the corner has somehow caused their stones to belch out thick, black smoke that smells oddly of pineapples.

“What on earth are you doing, Mr Finnigan?” McGonagall asks wearily, and Harry grins.

“She should think herself lucky Nev’s not here,” Ron says, picking up a blackened piece of sandstone from his stack and examining it.

“Don’t be mean,” Hermione chides, but she’s smiling as she flicks her wand and her fire turns obediently back into smooth, grey pebbles.

“I’m not,” Ron says. “Even Nev’d admit he had a talent for causing accidents... especially in Potions. Remember that time he and Seamus were paired together to make that hot thing... you know, with all the chilli seeds in it...?”

Harry lowers his wand and laughs. “Agitation Preparation? Oh, yeah, I remember.”

“Me too,” Hermione says darkly. “Those fireballs ruined my new winter robes.”

Ron turns to Harry to hide a snort, which just makes Harry laugh harder. Hermione’s expression, caught somewhere between disapproval and reluctant amusement, just makes things worse.

“Snape’s face!” Ron gasps, no longer trying to hide his laughter. He leans back against the row of desks behind him and shakes his head. “He looked like his underwear’d just shrunk three sizes, bloody hell.”

Harry snorts, amused at the memory. “Maybe it had,” he suggests, narrowing his eyes and taking another shot at his stones. “Anything’s possible with those two at the cauldron.”

“Harry,” Hermione says quietly, but Ron speaks again before she can continue.

“Poor old bugger,” he sighs, scratching behind his ear with his wand. “Wherever he is now, I bet he’s—what the hell?”

Harry turns from his miniature fire to see Draco, who has appeared rather suddenly in the space between their desks and grabbed Ron by the shoulders. His eyes are bright with fury as he glares into Ron’s face, and his voice is louder than Harry has heard it in months as he hisses, “Don’t you dare talk about him, Weasley. Don’t you fucking dare.”

Harry reacts without thinking, raising his wand to repel Draco and instead finding himself pushed against his desk, caught between a furious Slytherin and a small but determined patch of flames. He hisses in pain and pushes back, registering too late that the back of his jumper is on fire. Pulling it off hurriedly, he flings it away and turns on Draco, confusion and rage prickling all over his skin.

“What the fuck was that for?” he demands, realising as he does so that he is yelling into absolute silence; the entire class has stopped what they are doing to listen.

“What was that for?” Draco echoes. “Why don’t you ask Weasley what that was for? Someone needs to teach both of you some manners—don’t you know you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead?”

Harry stares at him, heart racing. He barely recognises this person, so livid and emotional; Draco hasn’t seemed to care what anyone has said about anything for months now. He’s been cool, numb, as though he’s been wearing a mask, and suddenly, here he is, glittering and full of rage, standing in front of Harry with his hands balled into fists as though he’d like to punch him hard in the face.

“Oh, god,” Hermione whispers from somewhere to Harry’s left, and he catches sight of a lick of flame in his peripheral vision before she draws her wand and douses it, leaving only a hiss of smoke and the smell of burned paper.

“He didn’t mean anything by it,” Harry says as calmly as he can, even as his heart feels as though it’s about to burst out of his chest. “Neither of us did. Snape was—”

“Shut up!” Draco shouts, taking a step towards Harry. “You can be as high and mighty as you want for your friends, Potter, but don’t for a single second think you know anything about him.”

“I’ll say what I like, thank you very much,” Harry snaps, gripping his wand tightly, fingers slipping in the oppressive heat. “You don’t own his memory. I think you’ll find that I actually—”

“That’s enough, I think,” McGonagall says crisply.

Harry and Draco turn as one to look at her and the eyes of the class seem to follow them. Somehow, Harry had completely forgotten she was in the room, and he doesn’t seem to be alone. Heart sinking, he waits for his sentence to fall, knowing that he deserves every lost point and detention she has to offer. He is all at once horribly ashamed of himself, not only for his stupid and impulsive behaviour, but also for the way he has almost definitely screwed up any chance of ever having a civilised conversation with Draco. Letting out a long sigh, Harry glances over at him and sees that his carefully blank expression is back in place.

“You will both come to my office immediately after this lesson,” McGonagall says, gimlet eyes flicking over them both before turning her attention back to the rest of the class. “Is something keeping you from your work?” she asks, and the room breaks into murmurs and scattered movement in an instant.

Draco walks slowly back to his own seat and sits down, opening his textbook and pretending intense interest in the contents page. Harry turns slowly back to Ron and Hermione to find both of them staring at him, open-mouthed.

“Bloody hell,” Ron says quietly.

“I’m afraid your jumper’s a write-off,” Hermione says, holding out a bundle of scorched, wet wool which Harry accepts in silence. “And so’s my Transfiguration textbook,” she adds, showing him the collection of charred and curled pages.

“I’m sorry,” he sighs. “I’ll get you a new one, I promise.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve practically memorised it by now anyway,” she says, small smile at odds with her anxious eyes. “What do you think is going to happen now?”

“She can’t expel Harry Potter, can she?” Ron says uncertainly.

“No one’s going to be expelled,” Hermione says, shooting Ron a quelling look.

“Whatever it is, it’s not going to be good,” Harry says, dumping his ruined jumper and raking both hands through his messy hair. “Let’s face it, I should know better than this by now.”

**~*~**

“You should both know better than this by now,” McGonagall says, tone conveying clear disappointment. “Fighting in my classroom—I might expect that sort of behaviour from a couple of second-years, but not from two grown men.”

Harry suppresses a sigh and leans forward in his chair to accept the hot cup and saucer when she offers it. He doesn’t look at Draco, who hasn’t said a word since his outburst in the classroom, but he hears the creak of his chair and the slight rattle of china in unsteady hands as he, too, takes his tea in silence. The tea worries Harry, if he’s honest, because he knows McGonagall pretty well after all these years, and a standard telling-off, even a particularly severe one, doesn’t usually come with a side of Earl Grey and biscuits.

“I’m sorry, Professor,” Harry says pre-emptively, pushing away the part of him that is stamping its foot and squawking that Draco started it, Draco was the one who grabbed Ron over absolutely nothing, Draco was the one who slammed him into his desk and set things on fire... because while that is technically true, it is singularly unhelpful. And because, while he could have done without the burning and the big ugly scene, he had been quite relieved to see that Draco was... still there.

McGonagall makes a small sound of impatience and drops a sugar cube into her tea.

“Nevertheless, Potter, I expected better of you. Both of you.”

Squirming with shame, Harry looks away from her, only to find that every single portrait on the wall to the left of her desk is gazing down at him reproachfully. Harry shivers and concentrates on the shimmering surface of his tea, knowing he daren’t look to the other side, where Dumbledore is hanging. He just can’t quite face it.

“I’m not going to sit here and lecture you about unity and forgiveness, gentlemen,” McGonagall says, and her tone is so unexpectedly weary that Harry’s eyes snap to hers at once. “Those sentiments have been conveyed many times now, by people far more eloquent than myself, and I would hope—I had hoped—that you two, of all people, had learned those lessons.”

“I—” Harry begins, but she cuts him off.

“Please do not interrupt me, Potter.” McGonagall wraps her bony hands around her cup and straightens her shoulders, seeming to shake away her weariness. “I do not need to tell you how important it is that you and your classmates set a positive example for the younger students, and I hope I do not need to tell you that I will not tolerate any further such displays in my classroom. What I will tell you is this, Mr Potter... Mr Malfoy. I have worked very hard to ensure that Voldemort does not ruin another year’s education at this school, and I am not about to allow you two to sabotage your futures for any reason, do you understand me?”

Harry nods, fighting the urge to lean back in his chair and out of range, as though she might start to emit flames from her nostrils at any moment.

“Mr Malfoy?” she presses, and Harry allows himself a glance at Draco, who nods without looking up from the floor.

Apparently satisfied with this, she sips her tea and rustles around in her desk drawers. Harry watches her, puzzled. He’s not quite sure what to make of this response, and though he knows it’s useless to even attempt to understand the workings of a mind like McGonagall’s, he can’t help but wonder where she’s going with this. Slowly and reluctantly, he turns to look at Dumbledore’s portrait, only to find the old man regarding him with shrewd interest. He doesn’t look disappointed at all; in fact, Harry has the oddest feeling that he’s trying not to smile. Beside him, Snape is gazing out of the window as though he couldn’t have less interest in the proceedings, and something about that is rather comforting.

“Yes, I think this will do nicely,” McGonagall says suddenly, and Harry jumps in his seat.

“Er... what’s that, Professor?” he asks, attempting to cover his sudden nervousness.

McGonagall sets down her tea and clasps her hands on top of an open folder. She glances between Harry and Draco, expression calculating as she appears to size them up.

“As I am sure you are both aware, our unicorn population has been heavily reduced by the breeding Dementor clouds and other... abhorrent practices over recent years,” she says, lips pursing as though she has just bitten into a particularly sour lemon. “Hagrid is doing a splendid job with the conservation programme, but, as a result, has been unable to manage all of his usual duties.”

Harry nods again, hiding his confusion in his teacup as she continues. Of course he knows about the situation with Hagrid—everyone knows about it. Teachers have been handing out all sorts of outdoor jobs since the beginning of term, and every time Harry has visited him, his cabin has been awash with books and photographs and paperwork. What any of this might have to do with a stupid shouting match and burned jumper, he has no idea.

“I have been wondering for quite some time to whom I should assign this particular task,” McGonagall says. “Your behaviour today has rather decided it for me.”

Harry swallows hard. A nasty little thrill of anxiety runs down his spine and he glances once again at Draco, who has now lifted his head in order to stare openly at McGonagall. It could be werewolves, Harry thinks, he’s heard there are still a few living in the forest, and maybe that would be alright—after all, Remus... Harry stops that thought in its tracks, feeling sick. Perhaps McGonagall needs someone to liaise with the Centaurs, and while Harry can think of many things he’d rather do, at least he knows of a couple that won’t automatically try to finish him off. God, he hopes it’s not Blast-Ended Skrewts...

“What is it?” Harry asks before he can think of anything worse.

“Frost snails, Mr Potter,” McGonagall says, handing him a piece of parchment and offering Draco the same.

“Snails?” Harry repeats, incredulous. “Are they... giant, venomous biting snails or something?”

McGonagall lifts an eyebrow. “No, they are quite harmless. Are you disappointed?”

Harry opens his mouth and then closes it again. In truth, he has no idea. He is, however, confused, and a quick scan of the parchment doesn’t do much to clear up the matter.

“The breeding window for European frost snails begins during the first full moon of the last month of the year and proceeds for fifteen to twenty days thus. Mating must take place under pure moonlight and within an environment of between minus one degree and zero degrees centigrade; any higher and breeding will be unsuccessful, any lower and there is a ninety per cent chance of fatality,” Harry reads, eyebrows climbing into his hairline. “Are you sure these things want to live?!”

McGonagall sips her tea calmly. “Contrary to logic, I am told that they do. More importantly, these snails are extremely rare and their numbers have suffered greatly without Hagrid’s supervision during last year’s breeding season.”

“Right,” Harry says faintly, setting down his cup and allowing himself to flop back in his chair a little. Beside him, Draco is still completely silent, so he supposes he’s going to have to ask the questions himself. “So... what exactly is it that you need me... us... to do?”

“Isn’t it obvious, Mr Potter?” McGonagall says. “You and Mr Malfoy are going to save our frost snails.”

“We’re going to save them?” Harry asks, unable to push away the thought that this sounds like rather a huge responsibility for two people who just had a fight in the middle of a classroom.

“According to Hagrid, this year’s breeding season will be critical to the survival of the frost snails at Hogwarts,” McGonagall says easily.

“So... don’t you think it would be better if you gave this job to someone who knew what they were doing?” Harry asks.

“Are you questioning my judgement?” McGonagall demands, and Harry wrinkles his nose.

“Erm... maybe a little bit?” he admits, and something curious flickers in her eyes.

“Hagrid feels that you are up to the task, and I agree with him,” she says. “As for you, Mr Malfoy, I happen to know that the grounds of Malfoy Manor are host to a fairly large community of frost snails, are they not?”

“Probably not any more,” Draco says quietly, speaking for the first time since they entered the office. “Anyway, I don’t know anything about them.”

“Well, then I suggest some research,” McGonagall says, undeterred. “The full moon is tomorrow and after that you will be rather busy during the night, so I suggest you start immediately.”

“Every night?” Harry asks, and when McGonagall nods, the true implications of this task begin to hit home. Out in the grounds with Draco, shivering his arse off, probably in complete silence, as they try to persuade a bunch of poorly-adapted snails to get their ends away? McGonagall must be a sadist.

Harry suppresses a groan. “Professor... it’s not that I don’t think I deserve whatever punishment you want to give me, but... we’ve got loads of homework at the moment and I’m not sure there are enough hours in the day for everything.”

 ”Don't think of this as a punishment, Potter, think of it as a learning experience,” McGonagall says. “I will be sure to advise your other teachers to be flexible with their hand-in dates for the rest of the term, and I suggest you take your books with you—from what I’ve heard, there will be rather a lot of waiting around.”
  
Harry just stares at her. He has nothing left to add, and besides, he knows her well enough by now to know that she isn’t going to change her mind.

At the bottom of the stairs, he and Draco share a brief, hollow look, and then Draco is gone, and Harry turns the next corner to find Ron and Hermione waiting for him.

“How was it?” Hermione asks. “Was she angry?”

“More like disappointed,” Harry says, and both Ron and Hermione wince. “Is everyone talking about it?”

“Yeah, but Malfoy’s the one who’s coming off as a wanker, not you,” Ron says. “Most people are just impressed you didn’t hex him.”

“Ron, however, is being very philosophical about the whole thing,” Hermione says, linking her arm through his and pulling him along the corridor.

“There’s no need to sound so surprised,” Ron says, looking secretly rather pleased.

“Well, he did grab you,” Hermione points out. “Once upon a time, you’d have...”

“Yeah, well, it’s different now, isn’t it?” Ron says, and in spite of everything whirling around in his head, Harry has to hide a smile. “He’s angry. He’s messed up.”

“You could say that, too, you know,” Hermione says quietly. “We all could.”

“Yeah,” Ron agrees. “But who has he got?”

Hermione sighs and leans against him as they walk. Harry says nothing, because there isn’t an answer to that question that doesn’t make him feel sad and twisted up inside.

He supposes that for the next few weeks, whether they like it or not, he and Draco have got each other.

Chapter Text

Third of December – A full moon

3rd december

“Harry, please go to bed,” Hermione pleads as he reaches for the coffee pot again.

“You’re still up,” he mutters, holding back a yawn and slumping irritably back into his fireside chair when she pushes the pot out of his reach with a flick of her wand. He knows he’s being irrational now, but it’s past three in the morning and he just doesn’t care.

Hermione sighs, resting a heavy, leather-bound book on her lap. “Yes, but I’m not the one who isn’t going to get a decent night’s sleep until Christmas, am I?”

Harry groans and takes off his glasses to rub weary fingers over sore eyes. She’s right, of course. The information on frost snails that the three of them have been able to scrape together paints a very clear picture of the time commitment involved in supervising a breeding season, as well as the necessity—helpfully glossed over by McGonagall’s fact sheet—of watching over the hatching process and ensuring that the baby snails are strong enough to weather the rest of the winter.

The process hasn’t been helped by the fact that the only truly comprehensive book on the subject, Rare Gastropods of the British Isles, has been checked out of the library by Draco sodding Malfoy.

“He took it out half an hour ago. Seemed to be in a hurry,” Madam Pince had informed Harry, when he had raced up to the library the moment lessons had ended for the day. The fact that she had given him an almost apologetic look before swooping back into the stacks had almost softened the blow for a moment or two, but now, armed with the scant information Hermione has managed to extract from her own personal library, he is starting to wish he had punched Draco in the face after all.

“I still don’t see why you can’t round them up and then cast some sort of temperature-regulating spell over the lot of them,” Ron says, speaking up from the hearth rug, where he has been lounging, barely awake, for the last hour or so.

“Thermo spells are really temperamental,” Hermione says, yawning. “Not a good idea.”

“I’m sure you’ve said that once already,” Ron says, frowning and attempting to push himself up on his elbows.

“Probably,” Hermione agrees, gazing around at the empty common room with weary eyes. “I have no idea any more. All I can think about is snails.”

Harry laughs, and the sound seems to surprise all of them. “You’re not going to give up until I do, are you?” he asks, glancing between his two friends with a mixture of affection and exasperation.

“Nope,” Ron says, flopping down onto his back in front of the dying fire. “We’re with you... all the way to the ice cream van.” When Harry and Hermione turn to look at him, he opens one eye. “What am I talking about?”

Harry grins and shrugs, but Hermione heaves herself and her book upright and regards them both with a level of sternness he is far too tired to fight. “That’s it. We are all going to bed. You know enough to be going on with, and you can just ask Malfoy to see the book tomorrow.”

“Just like that,” Harry mumbles, but he gets obediently to his feet and holds out his hands to Ron, who levers himself up from the hearth rug with only a little bit of grumbling.

They trudge up the stairs in an exhausted silence, and Ron is snoring by the time his head hits the pillow, sprawled out across his sheets and blankets in jeans and jumper and woolly socks. Harry curls under his bedclothes, breathing in the familiar scent of his pillowcase and allowing his eyes to flit around the dormitory, picking out shadowy objects in the moonlight: Dean’s paintbrushes, arranged in a ceramic pot on his bedside table, the softly-breathing shape of Trevor, sleeping in his favourite spot on the windowsill between Nev’s and Seamus’s beds, the framed photograph on Ron’s cabinet, from which all the Weasleys wave excitedly with Fred and George in the centre, pulling faces and making rabbit ears behind each other’s heads.

The photograph makes Harry smile; it always does, and while the accompanying sting of loss still strikes him, it is less keen than it once was, and tempered still further by the knowledge that wherever Fred has gone on to, he is giving the place a good old stir up. For a moment, his smile broadens as he finds himself imagining Snape and Fred attempting to coexist in the afterlife, and then all he can see is Draco’s face and his genuine fury at Ron’s irreverent words, and he closes his eyes, smile fading.

They have all changed; of course they have. They have grown and matured, war making the process hurried and disjointed, but they have, for the most part, changed and survived and carried on together. Ron may be significantly more even-tempered these days, but he is still the person Harry relies on for distraction, for perspective, and for a reminder that life bloody well goes on, mate. Hermione has relaxed, learned, at long last, that she has more to offer than perfect exam results, and is starting—tentatively but unmistakeably—to develop a rather wicked sense of humour.

Harry is still waiting for the wave of ‘I’m an adult and I know exactly what I’m doing now’ to hit him. He thinks it should have happened by now, what with defeating Voldemort once and for all, surviving a couple of killing curses and managing to break it off with his first proper girlfriend without too much of a major incident, but no, he still has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing, supposed to be feeling or supposed to be hoping for.

He wonders if Draco feels the same way.

Ron lets out a particularly thunderous snore and Harry squints at him in the darkness for a moment, trying to work out how he doesn’t wake himself up. Finally, he turns over and attempts to settle, gathering up snails and Draco and Snape and all of it, and forcing the whole lot out of his mind. Pulling in a long, calming breath and pushing it out slowly, he allows himself to drift.

When he opens his eyes again, the room is flooded with early morning light and there is a toad on his pillow.

“Morning, Trev,” he mumbles, closing his eyes again as the vast toad places a cold foot on his cheek.

“Don’t you make a lovely couple,” Seamus says, spraying aftershave and managing to fill the room with the scent of pine.

“I could do a lot worse,” Harry says solemnly, stretching and picking up the toad. He places him on his stomach and forces his eyes open again. “Trevor is very considerate. He never steals the blankets and he thinks everything I say is fascinating.”

“It’s a good thing you’ve an affinity for slimy creatures,” Seamus laughs. “Ron told us about your snails.”

Harry sighs. He had, just very briefly, managed to forget about the bloody snails. “Yeah, it starts tonight, so don’t expect to see me around much in the evening for a while.”

“I think it’s brilliant,” Neville says, emerging from the bathroom with a towel over his shoulder. “You’re going to learn loads... and Trevor is not slimy,” he adds, retrieving the toad from Harry and giving Seamus a mock-severe look.

“Yeah, brilliant,” Harry mumbles, yawning.

Night after night spent out in the cold with a completely silent Draco Malfoy. He can’t wait.

**~*~**

Harry doesn’t see Draco until lunchtime. He is sitting beside Ron and shovelling down food and tea in an attempt to stave off weariness when the pale, solitary figure wanders into the Great Hall and sits quietly at the end of the Slytherin table. Harry chews on his chicken pie for a moment without really tasting it, watching as Draco serves himself a meagre portion and pokes at it with his fork. Next to him, two boys who appear to be third or fourth-years stare at him and mutter to each other, making no effort to hide their contempt. Draco doesn’t appear to notice.

Abandoning his meal, Harry gets up from the table and walks across the hall. He doesn’t give himself chance to examine just what is making him feel so uncomfortable; he just stops at the end of Draco’s table and, as politely as he can, says:

“Please could I see the snail book when you’re finished with it?”

Surprised grey eyes snap to his at once, and the two muttering boys turn to stare at Harry instead.

Without a word, Draco sets down his fork and pulls his bag into his lap. He extracts a small, battered volume and passes it to Harry.

“Thanks,” Harry says, suddenly very aware that the noise level in the Great Hall has dropped significantly, and though he doesn’t take his eyes away from Draco, he has a strong feeling that a large number of students have stopped what they are doing to watch him, too.

Unnerved, he turns the book over and over in his hands, and, after a moment, sneaks a glance at the staff table. McGonagall, sitting between Flitwick and the new Potions professor, Sharma, grants him something that appears very much like an encouraging look.

He clears his throat. “So, erm... what time should we meet?”

The two Slytherin boys snort and nudge each other, and something flickers in Draco’s eyes, just for a second, but long enough for Harry to want to slap himself and hex both of the idiots.

“I’ve obviously got some catching up to do,” he presses on, indicating the book, “but I think we should start early... I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to find them, and I think we should have a game plan in case... will you two give it a rest?” he snaps, and the two boys fall silent in an instant, which only makes Harry feel more irritated.

“Whenever, Potter,” Draco says, sounding as though he could not care less.

“Right then,” Harry says, hating how Draco can make him feel small and stupid with just a couple of words, even now. Straightening his posture, he turns to walk away. “Seven o’clock, then, by the statue of Dumbledore.”

Just before the usual lunchtime chatter starts up again, he thinks he hears Draco sigh.

**~*~**

Harry spends most of the rest of the day with his head buried in Rare Gastropods of the British Isles. With only a mid-afternoon Charms lesson to interrupt him, he spends every other spare moment curled in a high-backed chair in front of the common room fire, book in one hand and coffee mug in the other, attempting to absorb every bit of information he can. He’s almost certain that Draco will expect him to be careless and ill-prepared, and he’s absolutely not going to give him the satisfaction of being right. Not that this is about Draco. It’s about being a bit of a grown-up and doing something to help Hagrid, who has never been anything but wonderful to Harry and who, in all likelihood, thinks of these snails with just as much affection as he had Norbert the dragon or Fluffy the three-headed hell hound.

With a wry smile, Harry drains his mug and turns back to the beginning of the chapter. The sky is almost completely dark outside the windows, and the faint smell of onions and herbs is beginning to drift into the common room. It can’t be long until dinner, and after that, it’s almost no time at all until snail o’clock. He sighs, forcing himself to focus.

The European frost snail, or Helix Glacia, is a once-common but now endangered species of land snail. These snails are native to northern Europe, with higher concentrations in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, and are usually found near sources of fresh water, as their diet consists mainly of...

Harry looks up at the sound of giggling coming from the chair opposite his, which suddenly seems to be occupied by two wide-eyed first-year girls. The common room is filling up, which must mean it’s almost time for dinner.

“You ask him,” one of them whispers.

“No, you,” the other insists.

Harry blinks, sighs, and is just about to return to his reading when the first girl blurts:

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No,” he says evenly and, ignoring their delighted laughter, stares at the pages once more.

Unsettled, he skips to the section marked ‘Breeding’ and attempts to focus his attention.

The breeding season of the frost snail (tripudium) occurs only once per year and is steeped in ritual. Starting at the first full moon of December, the fertile period, or tripudium nocte, can last up to eight hours per night, Harry reads, and though it is far from the first time he has seen these words, he can’t quite suppress a small groan.

Eight hours is a long time to be out in the castle grounds at night, and he is pretty resigned to the fact that no amount of layers or warming charms are going to stop him from freezing his arse off.

Still. He shakes himself and frowns at the page, forcing himself to continue.

During this time, the frost snail—an otherwise hardy creature—becomes exceptionally sensitive to changes in temperature, due to the weakening of its magical energy necessary for breeding, and must keep itself at a constant of between -1 and 0 degrees centigrade or 30.2 and 32 Fahrenheit. Higher temperatures usually result in unsuccessful breeding (see ‘barren eggs’ – page 45) and colder conditions are often fatal to the snail in this vulnerable state. This condition, Tripudium Fragility, also causes frost snails to be unusually alarmed by loud noises and strong smells.

For tips on tripudium supervision, please see our latest publication ‘Keeping the Constant – a guide to non-hermaphroditic snail breeding’,
Harry reads, making a face at the printed words.

“I might just do that... if we had it in the library,” he mumbles to himself, and he has checked. Twice. Madam Pince had definitely stopped looking sympathetic after the second visit and he almost doesn’t blame her.

At this point, all he can do is hope that what he knows is enough. If Hermione is right about the unreliability of thermostatic charms—and she is almost always right about everything—he and Draco are going to have to go right back to basics to safely control the snails’ environment, which means warming and cooling charms and a whole lot of patience, a quality which neither of them possess in abundance. At this point, though, he supposes that they’re just going to have to get on with it. Whether they can get on with each other is another matter entirely, one which Harry is trying not to focus on.

Fortunately, just at that moment, Ron and Hermione appear and he immediately feels a little bit better at the sight of them. Hermione hauls him out of his chair and Ron yanks the book out of his hands and tucks it away out of sight. With the first-year girls staring an admiring hole in the back of his head, they hustle him out of the portrait hole and down to the Great Hall, where they pile great heaps of mashed potato and sausages onto his plate and Ron pours gravy over everything with the grandeur of a wine expert proffering a fine merlot for tasting.

Harry smiles and picks up his knife and fork. “You’re acting like this is my last meal or something... you really don’t need to fuss over me.”

“We aren’t fussing,” Hermione says, spooning peas onto her plate. “We’re just... well, I’d like to think that you’d make sure I had something decent to eat if I was going to sit outside all night. It’s just good sense.”

“Yeah,” Ron says heartily, pushing a cup of hot apple juice at Harry. “And you know, I haven’t forgotten that you’re stuck doing this because of me.”

Harry frowns. “Hardly.”

“If I hadn’t been joking about Snape...”

“Like you said... it wasn’t about you, not really. And I didn’t have to start yelling back, did I?”

Ron wrinkles his nose. “All the same...” He stares at Harry until he gives in and starts eating.

“Can I have my book back?” he asks when two of the sausages and most of the potatoes have been cleared from his plate.

Ron and Hermione exchange glances.

“When you’ve finished your dinner.”

**~*~**

When he walks into the Entrance Hall just before seven pm, Draco is already waiting next to the alabaster statue of Dumbledore, long black coat buttoned up to his chin and expression sour. All at once irritated, curious, and resolute, Harry hangs back for a moment, stuffing Rare Gastropods of the British Isles into his pocket and pulling on the red gloves Molly had sent him when the weather had started to turn cold. Ron has a similar pair in the dreaded maroon, Ginny in green and Hermione in blue. The thought of Molly lifts Harry’s mood, and he approaches Draco with as much enthusiasm as he can muster.

“Ready to go?” he asks.

Predictably, Draco says nothing, so Harry braces himself against the cold and pulls open the heavy doors, letting in a savage gust of wind that whirls and echoes around the Entrance Hall. Shivering, Harry reaches into his coat pocket for his woollen hat and pulls it down tight over his ears, ignoring the quirked eyebrow from Draco and stepping out onto the stone steps, wand drawn.

“So, I thought we should look down by the lake first,” he says, looking around for Draco when the doors crash closed and leave them in complete darkness. “According to this book, they like to eat rushes and... are you there?”

Draco’s lit wand illuminates his pale face, just inches from Harry’s, and Harry looks away quickly, pretending not to be relieved. When he looks back, the silvery eyes are watching him, but still, Draco does not say a word. For long seconds, Harry stares back, shivering as the bitter wind slices around him, searching for gaps in his warm winter clothing, and then he turns away, stomping off down the steps and into the grounds, lit wand held before him.

It’s fine, he thinks, absolutely fine. If Draco doesn’t want to talk to him, that is just... completely... acceptable. They don’t need to communicate to get this job done. Alright, it might get a little bit uncomfortable after a while, but he’s put up with worse in his time, and so has Draco, and besides, he’s fucked if he’s going to make an idiot out of himself for the rest of the term, trying to draw out someone who doesn’t want to be drawn out, trying to make friends with someone who...

He has enough friends, he tells himself firmly when a wave of guilt crashes over him and forces him to look over his shoulder. Draco is still there, stalking along in a pool of wandlight and scowling. He’s fine. He’s angry, he’s alive, he’s surrounded by more walls than an ancient city, and Harry is just going to let him bloody well get on with it.

There are snails to find. Harry quickens his pace, crunching over the frozen grass and exhaling plumes of chilled winter breath. He can see the lake now, its glassy surface reflecting the looming full moon, rings of reeds and rushes billowing in the wind. He skids down the hill towards the water’s edge and stops unsteadily in a patch of rough grass. The air is heavy with the scents of moss and algae, and he breathes it in slowly as he tries to decide what to do first. He is almost surprised when Draco appears next to him, and even more so when he crouches, draws his wand in a wide circle, and murmurs something that turns the patch of stony ground a soft, shimmering blue.

Frowning, Harry flicks through the snatches of information he remembers from Rare Gastropods of the British Isles, and then, in desperation, through every spell he can think of that might produce such an effect, but he draws a blank. Irritated, he stares at the glimmering circle.

“Cooling charm?” he guesses eventually.

With a sigh, Draco flicks his wand and the circle shivers, then begins to emit a soft, jangling sound.

“What is that?” Harry asks, not expecting an answer.

When Draco ignores him again and lowers himself to sit on the ground, Harry rolls his eyes and drops down beside him, pulling out the book and fumbling through the pages with numb, gloved fingers. Tucking his cold nose into the collar of his coat, he reads by the light of his wand, concentrating on the words and ignoring Draco right back. It’s not mature, he knows that, and neither is it easy—there something about Draco that yanks at his attention, always has—but he tries anyway, because this whole thing is ridiculous, and it’s all very well having a fancy, singing circle but if there aren’t any snails in it, they might as well be curled up by their common room fireplaces. Harry stifles a groan at the thought, just as the wind whistles through the trees and attempts to knock off his glasses.

Frost snails live in scattered groups within their larger colonies, often only coming together during their brief mating season, he reads, all but moving his lips along with the words as he attempts to force them into his brain. He has read the whole chapter several times over since he took the book from Draco at lunchtime, but he is so distracted that most of it seems to have flown out of his head.

The mating ritual is initiated by the dominant female of the colony, who produces a characteristic bell-like song, thus attracting all adult frost snails in the area to her locality, where selection and breeding takes place... Harry stops.

A characteristic bell-like song. Slowly, he turns to stare at the shimmering blue circle, and then at Draco.

“How are you doing that?” he demands, dropping the book onto the ground.

Draco looks up. “What?”

Harry sighs. “Don’t be a pain, alright? How are you making that noise? That’s their thing, isn’t it... their mating call?”

Draco shrugs and looks away, wrapping his arms around his knees. “It’s just a charm.”

“Yes, but...” Harry lets out a frustrated breath. “How can you do that? How did you know?”

Draco shrugs again. “I remembered it.”

“From your garden?” Harry asks, bewildered.

“Yes.”

“But how can you reproduce it like that?” Harry presses, staring at the shimmering blue light and noticing that it pulses gently with the sound of the jangling call.

“I don’t know,” Draco snaps. “How do you do all the ridiculous things you can do?”

Stung, Harry falls silent, and then he frowns, turning back to Draco. “You told McGonagall you didn’t know anything about those snails.”

“Was that a question?” Draco says irritably, resting his chin on his knees.

Harry takes a deep breath, feeling the cold air hit his lungs and willing it to soothe his frazzled nerves.

“No, but this is: is there anything else you know? Because if you’re holding out on me, I don’t think...”

“Holding out on you?” Draco looks at him now, pale eyes gleaming. “Good grief, Potter, do you really still think everything is about you?”

“I never thought that,” Harry mutters, but he looks out over the lake because he suddenly can’t quite manage to look Draco in the eye. “I did kind of think maybe we’d be able to learn to get on, but that was obviously a stupid idea.”

Draco snorts. “That’s what you think this is about, don’t you? You and McGonagall think that if you and I spend a few evenings stuck together then you’ll be able to save me? Give it up, Potter.”

Harry tucks himself into a tighter ball and closes his eyes. “I have a name, you know, and it isn’t Potter.”

“Right,” Draco mutters.

“McGonagall and I aren’t plotting anything, believe it or not,” Harry says. “And I’m not trying to save you, Draco. You don’t need saving. You saved yourself already.”

Draco says nothing, and for a long time, there is silence but for the rattle of the wind through the trees and the low haunting call from the blue circle on the ground. Discomfited, Harry draws his wand and casts a slightly sketchy thermo-sensing charm over the area of the jangling circle and watching as the air turns hazy and then clears, leaving a ghostly scale to unroll itself just inches above the ground. The small, glowing pointer hovers just below the marker for three degrees, and Harry applies a cooling charm, holding his breath as the pointer falls slowly into range.

Tucking his wand away, he closes his eyes again, because he doesn’t want to look at Draco and he certainly doesn’t care what he thinks of his charm work. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to be solid enough to keep these fussy buggers alive during their breeding season, and he thinks—he hopes—he can manage that. After a minute or two, he opens his eyes and gazes at the moon. Draco picks up the book and leafs through it far too quickly to be doing anything but pretending to read. Two crows swoop over the water, flapping and yelling to one another. Harry shivers. He wonders if Ron and Hermione have made hot chocolate.

“They’re coming,” Draco whispers.

Harry looks up, and what he sees makes him catch his breath. At first glance, the ground around the lake seems to be shimmering all on its own, but when he looks closer, he realises that the soft moonlight is merely reflecting from the shells of a whole carpet of snails, the biggest the size of a large apple and the smallest compact enough to balance on a Knut. Each individual is moving slowly and smoothly, but the group is so tightly packed that the effect is that of a long, glittering wave.

Harry stares, a shivery smile pulling at his lips as the cascade of snails creeps closer to their position, leaving behind an intricate criss-cross of frosted trails that seems to light up the water’s edge. Beside him, Draco is completely silent, but Harry doesn’t have to look at him to know that he’s just as caught up in the otherworldly vision before them.

When the first of the snails reaches the shimmering blue circle, Harry edges forward cautiously to examine it. He has seen drawings in the Rare Gastropods book, but not even a magical artist could have conveyed the ethereal oddity of these creatures. The shell is round and flattened, completely transparent with scattered reflective particles, the body is smooth and silver-grey, and the long, bobbly eyestalks wave curiously through the cold air as Harry creeps closer.

“Hello,” he whispers, pulling off one glove and pressing his hand to the sparkling frost trail. “It’s actually cold,” he laughs, rubbing the slippery, icy substance between his fingers.

“What did you expect?” Draco says distractedly as the snail slides into the circle and is followed, at a sedate pace, by two more.

Harry says nothing. He doesn’t care. Not right now, when he can sit back down on the ground and watch the stately procession of snails curving around the lake and slowly, slowly, gathering at their feet. It quickly becomes clear that their circle will never hold all of them, and Draco silently casts a spell to enlarge it, stretching the blue, jangling area and Harry’s thermo-sensing charm until it is easily three times as large as before. The volume of Draco’s charm seems to have increased, too—at least, Harry thinks it has, until he catches sight of a vast snail making its way towards the circle. This one has a shell the size of a saucer and seems to be emitting a jangling call of its own.

“That’ll be the dominant female, then,” Harry says, glancing at Draco and noting that he looks somewhat taken aback.

The large female slides into the circle, lowers her head until her eyestalks are sweeping the ground, and lets loose an enormous clanking bellow that easily drowns out Draco’s charm. When the charm continues to sing, she turns in a full circle, clearly indignant, and repeats the process, swaying from side to side as the moonlight sparkles against her gargantuan shell. Within the circle, the other gathered snails twitch their eyestalks with interest.

“Right,” Draco mutters, bewildered, and ends the charm with a flick of his wand.

The female raises her head and waits for a moment before seeming to settle on the edge of the circle, emitting a softer, more musical jangle and looking, Harry thinks, rather satisfied. And so she should be, he supposes. She has won.

Draco doesn’t say another word as they wait, shivering, for the rest of the colony to arrive, but he is restless, changing position frequently and letting out cross little sighs. Harry thinks about asking him if anything is the matter, but thinks better of it when he sneaks a sidelong glance and sees his face.

Not tonight, he decides, and that’s fine; there’s plenty to do. Humming to himself, he checks for any stragglers and then sets about creating a set of strong repelling charms to deter any curious students from wandering into the area and disturbing the tripudium. Draco still says nothing but Harry can feel his eyes on the back of his neck, and before long has to turn around and look at him.

“What?”

Draco looks away, turning to the snails just as the large female finally falls silent and retreats into her shell with a pop.

“You said you hadn’t done this before.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, shrugging.

“You always know what to do, don’t you?” Draco sighs, and he sounds so weary that Harry doesn’t know how to respond.

Instead, he stands at the edge of the lake and fiddles with his gloves while Draco gets fluidly to his feet and starts rummaging around in the roots of nearby trees. When his hands are full of moss and mud, he stalks back to the circle and arranges it into piles, creating cool, damp hiding places, just as the book had described. Harry is quite astonished to see Draco getting his hands dirty, and for several minutes, he just stands there, listening to the rough lapping of the water and watching Draco work. By the time he has repeated the moss-gathering process twice more and created a neat little network of hides, his pale hair is falling into his face and he has had to abandon his scarf.

Harry is just wondering if he should be helping rather than watching when he notices that his last cooling charm is beginning to wear off and the pointer on his thermo-sensing charm is creeping up slowly. He reapplies it and watches the pointer fall easily back into range, wondering pointlessly just how many similar charms he will have to cast before the month is over. According to Neville, some particularly harsh weather is on its way—he’s already panicking about some of his more delicate Herbology projects—and speaking of Neville...

“They’re only temperature-sensitive during the actual mating period each night, aren’t they?”

Draco looks up and swipes his hair from his eyes with his forearm. “The tripudium nocte, yes.”

“Well, I thought we could just cover them with a plant for shelter during the day,” Harry says uncertainly. “Neville taught me this really easy way to charm a plant...”

“That’s just what I need, advice from Longbottom,” Draco says, and then closes his eyes and sighs. “Fine, okay, I’m sure it’s... you’ll have to wait until they retire for the night, though.”

He returns to his fussing with the moss hides and Harry suppresses a smile, watching the slow, almost sleepy movements of the snails inside the circle. Now that he’s looking more closely, he realises that several of the snails have already followed the example of the dominant female by popping back into their shells.

“I think they’re going,” he says, crunching over the stony ground and crouching at the edge of the circle, which is now glittering with a maze of frosty trails. As he speaks, three more snails in succession pop into their shells. “Is that... normal? There’s nothing in the book about this, I’m sure...” he mumbles, retrieving Rare Gastropods of the British Isles and flicking through it anxiously.

Pop, goes another snail, right next to his foot, and another, and two more. Harry stares down at them and tries not to panic.

“I never knew you were such a worrier, Potter,” Draco says, and he almost sounds amused.

“I’m not,” Harry says crossly.

“Could have fooled me,” Draco challenges, lifting an eyebrow. “If you’d like to stop panicking, however, I’d advise you to think about the behaviour of snails and how these ones have deviated from their usual pattern this evening.”

Harry stares at him as he unpicks his words.

“Draco, are you trying to say that they’re tired... because they’ve come a long way?”

“I’m not trying to say anything,” Draco snaps, picking up his scarf from the ground and flinging it around his neck. “I said exactly what I meant to say, but yes, if you insist, they are tired.”

Harry rolls his eyes but turns back to the snails with a warm feeling of relief and rather enjoys watching the last few pop back into their shells for the night. When the entire company appears to be at rest, he draws his wand and murmurs the incantation Neville has taught him, drawing a strong, leafy plant up from the cold ground and directing it to curl around and shelter the sleeping snails.

Draco’s expression is inscrutable as he examines the plant, but he glances at Harry, nods, and stomps up the hill, long coat flapping behind him.

“Bye, then,” Harry mutters, rubbing at his numb face with a gloved hand.

He peers through the sturdy branches of his charmed plant at the many glittering shells below, the sleeping silvery bodies just visible in the moonlight.

“Good luck, guys,” he whispers, and then hurries up the hill and across the grounds as fast as his stiff legs can carry him. The lights are still on in Gryffindor Tower and his hot chocolate prospects are looking unexpectedly promising.

Chapter Text


Fourth of December - A broomstick 

4 december

Following a very welcome mug of hot chocolate and a surprisingly decent night’s sleep, Harry wakes on Friday morning feeling optimistic. The first night of snail watching has passed almost without incident, every last sparkling little gastropod has been tucked up safely beneath charms and leaves, and, most miraculously of all, he and Draco have managed to conduct a conversation of sorts.

Granted, it had been stilted and more than a little snappish in places, he reflects as he showers, dresses and heads down to breakfast, but it had still been the most intensive communication the two of them have had since...  well, perhaps, ever. Suddenly feeling ravenous, Harry eats bacon, toast and tomatoes without any prompting from his friends and heads off to Potions with a light heart, where he and Terry Boot work easily together to produce a Specificity Solution of such decent quality that Professor Sharma grants them a rare smile and ten points each to Gryffindor and Ravenclaw.

When McGonagall collars him on the way to lunch and asks for an update on the snail situation, Harry tells her (almost) everything, and can’t even find it in himself to bristle when she seems surprised that his account matches up perfectly with Draco’s. It’s nothing personal, he tells Ron and Hermione over lunch, when they make cross and scandalised little noises on his behalf; he can hardly expect her to believe that they haven’t even come close to blows after the incident in her class just days earlier. No, it’s all absolutely fine, and when several of his classmates start making noises about going outside and throwing a Quaffle around, he jumps on board immediately.

The afternoon is cold but still and bright, and the air is crisp and sweet in Harry’s nostrils as he walks out onto the lawn with his Firebolt and a motley selection of seventh and eighth-year students, some of whom, like Ron and Ginny and Blaise Zabini, have played for their house teams for several years, and others, like Hannah Abbott, Ernie MacMillan and Luna, have been reeled in by the enthusiasm of their housemates and are carrying broomsticks purloined from Madam Hooch’s shed.

As they kick off into the frozen air, Harry’s thoughts flit to his snails, and then, inevitably, to the fact that tonight’s tripudium nocte will, in all likelihood, be more intensive, and will not leave him time for half a Charms essay and a decent night’s sleep. He’s pretty sure that Hermione had been dying to say something when he’d left the Great Hall with the rest of the Quidditch group, and though she had restrained herself from saying a single word, Harry can still hear her voice in his head as he hovers near the treetops, waiting for Luna to untangle herself from the longest scarf he has ever seen.

‘You should be using this time for studying, Harry, you don’t want to get behind!’

And ‘Aren’t you going to be spending enough time outside tonight?’

And ‘Hey, daydreamer, are you ready to play or not?’

Harry blinks, confused, and when his vision swims back into focus, he realises that Ginny is hovering in front of him, Quaffle tucked under one arm and vivid hair streaking out behind her.

“Of course, I was just thinking about how I’m going to take that Quaffle from you,” he says airily, before diving for her almost quickly enough to do just that.

Ginny laughs, swooping to one side and shaking her head. “Nice try, but we’re on the same team. It’s Luna, Ron, Blaise and Hannah against you, me, Ernie and Seamus.” She frowns suddenly, staring at something down on the grass. “Where did you even get that?” she bellows, and Harry looks down to find Blaise grinning and whipping a Beater’s bat through the air.

“I thought it would add an extra element,” he calls, avoiding the question, and Ginny laughs.

Harry watches her, warmed to see her relaxed and happy at last. It has taken some time, of course, and like everyone who has lost a loved one, she has her moments of sharp, sudden sadness, but the support and camaraderie of the summer rebuild has reignited the spark that first made Harry love her, and he doesn’t think he will ever tire of seeing it, even if his feelings for her are purely brotherly these days. He wants her to sparkle, and he hasn’t failed to notice that her newfound friendship with the once-snobbish Zabini seems be having that effect. He, too, has been altered by the hardships of war, not least by the loss of his mother, and seems to have returned to Hogwarts without mask or filter, unleashing a previously unseen but large and ebullient personality upon the place.

His other returning Slytherin classmates, Goyle, Nott, and Millicent Bulstrode, seem to have no idea what to do with him, and Draco... well, Draco doesn’t really interact with anyone these days if he can help it, but Harry is intrigued. He watches Blaise rise up with effortless grace and then zip through the air with bat held out in front of him like a sword. Ernie yelps and performs a panicky barrel roll to avoid him, and Blaise swoops back to ensure he is alright before poking him gleefully in the side with the bat.

“When you’ve quite finished,” Ginny calls, and when everyone turns to look at her, she flings the Quaffle high into the air.

Within seconds, the makeshift pitch is alive with movement as the two teams attempt to claim the shiny red ball for their own and throw it through one of two glowing hoops charmed into the air by Seamus just moments before. Darting through the air at speed, Harry feels alive, and he grins as he swoops around Ron and startles the Quaffle from his arms, laughing as it falls straight into the waiting hands of Ernie, who has been waiting below, and now looks so shocked to have caught it that it almost slips through his fingers.

As the game goes on, Harry witnesses and is party to manoeuvres that would make Madam Hooch explode with rage. At least twice, Ron grabs hold of an opponent’s broom bristles, Luna quickly takes to singing loudly in order to confuse the other team, and Blaise continues to wield the Beater’s bat, using it to poke, prod, and disorient anyone who might be in his way like some kind of demonic majorette.

“Oh, you’re going down,” Seamus shouts, ducking under Blaise’s bat and pulling hard on his broom handle, causing Blaise to lose his balance and slide towards the end of his broomstick with a surprised bellow.
“Unhand me!” he demands, flailing slightly, and then he’s laughing, and so is Seamus, and both of them are spiralling slowly down to the ground in a heap.

Play pauses for a moment or two to allow them to compose themselves and get back into the air, and Harry leans back on his broomstick, dangling his legs and allowing the light breeze to ruffle through his hair. From this position, he can see all the way down to the lake, and he gazes down at the water’s edge, looking for the charmed plant that covers the sleeping snails. When he finds it, he stops, leaning forward and frowning. Just beside the plant, someone with pale hair and a dark coat is walking around, and, as Harry watches, that someone unloads a bag from their shoulder and begins to unpack what looks like a set of large, white sheets.

“What the bloody hell is he doing?” he mutters, squinting down at Draco, and gasping, winded, as the Quaffle hits him in the stomach at speed.

“Sorry!” Ginny calls from somewhere to his left.

“I’m fine,” Harry gasps, forcing himself to stuff the Quaffle under his arm and pelt across the pitch, dodging Hannah’s very illegal tackle and just about managing to score a goal as the bell echoes out across the grounds for the end of lunch.

“You won,” Luna says, patting Harry on the shoulder, and he turns on his broom to see the rest of his team celebrating with a rather unsportsmanlike victory dance. Blaise pokes him in the back with his Beater’s bat and then drifts over to congratulate Ginny.

“Aren’t you coming in?” Seamus asks as the others start to head for the ground.

“No, I’ve got a free period,” Harry says. Glancing at Ron, he adds, “One or two snail-related things to do,” and Ron nods.

Harry waits, hovering just below the treetops, until he is alone, and then begins to fly slowly towards the lake. His good mood seems to have drained away, and his irritation only seems to increase when he draws nearer and realises that Draco is building something. He is building something right next to the snails, right next to Harry’s charmed plant, and for some reason, this makes the irritation bubble into seething anger.

He can’t exactly put his finger on what is so offensive about the whole thing—perhaps it’s the fact that this is supposed to be a joint task and Draco is sneaking around behind his back; perhaps it’s the fact that he can’t stand not knowing what Draco is up to, or perhaps, and perhaps most likely, it’s the stinging sort of suspicion that Draco is doing a much better job than he is. He already had the fancy mating call charm, he made the moss hides, he didn’t worry when all the snails just went to sleep, and now he’s building some sort of thing without Harry and it just won’t do.

Harry lands his broom quietly and watches Draco from behind a tree, fingers pressed against rough, wet bark and eyebrows pulled down into a scowl. It’s not as though he isn’t used to standing by as someone else goes the extra mile—he’s spent years watching Hermione do exactly that—but if he allows himself to be honest, just in his own head, he hadn’t ever expected it to be that way with Draco.

“Are you going to help or would you prefer to just stand there looking cross?” Draco says without turning around. When Harry says nothing, he sighs and picks up a large metal pole, lifts it and then shoves it into the damp ground with some force.

“What are you doing?” Harry asks at last, emerging from behind the tree and wiping his dirty hands on his uniform trousers.

“Scrambling eggs, Potter,” Draco says irritably. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

Harry lets out a long breath. “If I knew, I wouldn’t have asked, would I?”

“Wouldn’t you?” Draco snorts, aiming his wand at the pole and casting a spell that seems to solidify its position in the ground.

“Why didn’t you tell me you needed my help with something? It’s supposed to be my job, too.”

“I didn’t need your help.”

“Funny, that, because you asked for it about a minute ago,” Harry says, folding his arms.

Slowly, Draco turns around, wand dangling at his side. He stares at Harry, eyes narrowed, and then seems to sag slightly.

“It’s a tent, Potter. We’re going to be out here every night for quite some time and I fancied some semblance of comfort. Judge away.”

Surprised, Harry says nothing for a moment. He rakes a hand through his hair and looks at Draco, at the collection of poles and tough white fabric, at the curled plant concealing the resting snails.

“I’m not judging,” he says at last, and he means it. The thought of having a shelter from the bitter winter nights is extremely appealing, and he has no idea why he hadn’t thought of it first.

He should have thought of it first.

He sighs.

“Are you sure about that?” Draco asks, clearly dubious.

Harry shakes away his irritation with some effort and nods. “So, do you want some help or not?”

**~*~**

By the end of their free period, Harry and Draco have managed, between them, to build a basic but solid little shelter. There is just enough space for both of them to fit inside comfortably, plus a little extra for a small magical fire and a hook from which to hang a lantern, so they no longer have to rely on wandlight. The whole structure has been anchored to the ground with a combination of pegs and spellwork and is, while not particularly pretty to look at, reassuringly sturdy.

“What did you talk about for all that time?” Hermione asks at dinner that night, apparently fascinated with the idea of the two of them working together voluntarily.

Harry shrugs and ladles stew into his dish before someone else does. “Nothing. He doesn’t really do talking any more, does he? It was all ‘pass me the thing’ and ‘hold this’ and ‘cast a freezing charm on that’, you know.”

“Please and thank you wouldn’t go amiss,” Ron says, examining a piece of parsnip closely.

Harry snorts. “One step at a time, eh?”

“Manners cost nothing,” Ron opines, sounding just like his mother, and then slurps the parsnip into his mouth with gusto.

Hermione sighs and ignores him. “Apparently it’s going to be wet tonight—is your tent waterproof?”

“Parsnips,” Harry says, staring at Ron.

Hermione frowns. “What?”

“Parsnips,” he repeats, letting his spoon drop into his dish with a clang and rummaging around in his bag for the battered little book.

“What’s he on about?” Ron asks, and Hermione shrugs.

Harry flips to the frost snail chapter and runs his fingers down each page, hope flickering as he tries to find the words that he thinks he might have seen.

“Where is it... come on... aha,” he mutters, flattening the book to the table with a triumphant smile. He points to a tiny, cramped footnote that is almost too faded to be legible.

Hermione frowns and leans closer, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Though frost snails do not require food during tripudia, they are particularly fond of sweet root vegetables as their complex sugars provide a useful burst of energy during...”

“Breading prods?” Ron attempts, squinting.

“Breeding periods, I imagine,” Harry says. “I bet the house-elves have got loads of parsnips left over from tonight... I could just borrow a few.”

“You do know this isn’t a competition, don’t you?” Hermione says, gazing at him beadily.

“Of course,” Harry says, but as he makes his way down to the kitchens, he has to admit that it is a bit.

The house-elves are delighted to supply Harry Potter with as many parsnips as he can carry, and Ron and Hermione only shake their heads at him a little bit when he returns to the common room and sits on the hearth rug, slicing them into chunks and then feeding a piece of string through each one before tying it to a wooden skewer. His first-year fan club watches in awe as he tests each one, dangling it like a fishing rod and bouncing it up and down to check that everything is attached securely.

“There,” he says, feeling rather pleased with himself. “Food and... what’s the word... making sure they don’t get bored...?”

“Enrichment?” Hermione suggests, dipping her quill and looking over at him with an indulgent smile.

“Yes,” Harry says firmly. “That.”

“And you know,” Ron says, picking up one of the parsnip rods and swinging it about. “If they don’t want to mate, you can just sort of lure them towards each other.”

Harry can only hope that it doesn’t come to that.

An hour or so later, he gathers up all of his parsnip rods, puts on his coat, hat and gloves, and heads down to the lake. He and Draco have not arranged a meeting time tonight, but he is completely unsurprised to reach the tent and find that Draco is already sitting in it. Which is fine, he reminds himself, because he has parsnips.

“Hi,” he says, not expecting a response, and when Draco merely glances up at him and then back down at his hands, he crawls into the tent and arranges himself on the ground next to him, legs crossed and heavy bag in his lap.

There isn’t enough room to do anything except sit right next to Draco, shoulders and elbows and knees touching, and as Harry adjusts to his surroundings, he is hyper-aware of every single point of contact and quite unable to move. He holds himself stiffly, attempting to focus on anything else: the warmth of the ground beneath him—a charm, perhaps, or the small magical fire at the entrance to the tent—or the smell of moisture in the air that tells him Hermione was right and rain is coming.

It is the snails, eventually, that pull his attention sufficiently for him to relax his tense muscles. The charmed plant now drapes softly around the edges of the breeding area, revealing the gleaming shells of the sleeping creatures arranged haphazardly around the gently-lit blue circle. As Harry watches, they begin to stir, and when he pulls out his wand to knock the temperature back into the safe range, Draco doesn’t say a word, but when he unzips his bag and begins to unpack the parsnip rods, he lets out a small sound of incomprehension that warms Harry’s heart.

He waits, unfurling one of the devices and letting the chunk of parsnip swing from side to side on its string. He knows that Draco is dying to ask and trying not to, and it’s just wonderful.

“I think it’s starting to rain,” Harry says innocently, watching a fat water droplet splash into the circle, followed quickly by several more.

To his delight, the snails raise their eyestalks to the sky and arch up into the rainfall, clearly relishing the sensation of the water on their bodies and shells. Soon, the rest of the colony emerge from their sleep and offer their own waving, twisting appreciation to the night sky. They make an arresting display, and for several minutes Harry forgets all about Draco and the parsnips and just watches them, listens to the drum and patter of the rain above his head, and feels surprisingly content.

“Look at them,” Draco says eventually. “A little bit of rain and they forget all about breeding.”

Harry glances at him, trying to figure out if the disdain in his voice is real or just for show. It’s almost impossible to tell.

“They’re enjoying it,” he says, shrugging.

Draco makes a small sound of amusement and looks out over the forest of waving eyestalks and gleaming, water-shiny shells.

“I can see that.”

“Don’t you think they should?” Harry asks.

“It doesn’t matter what I think. Logic, however, might suggest that they apply some focus to not completely dying out. How something so ill-adapted to its own environment isn’t extinct is baffling.”

Draco pulls his knees up and rests his chin on folded arms. Harry looks at him, caught off balance by the movement, and scans his face. The grey eyes are calm, and the expressive mouth is pressed into a soft, neutral shape. Harry has no idea what to say, so he says nothing. The oil lantern squeaks back and forth in the wind, casting strange, sliding shadows over Draco’s pale skin and hair. Harry looks away, feeling suddenly awkward.

“Not everything is about logic, you know,” he says quietly after several minutes of silence.

“Believe me, I have noticed that,” Draco sighs.

“I think they’re beautiful,” Harry says, turning his attention back to the snails, who are now beginning to move slowly around the circle, creating swirls of sparkling frost trails wherever they go. “I think that’s enough reason for them to exist, even if they need a bit of help.”

“And you think I’m saying that they shouldn’t?” Draco snaps.

“Well...” Harry hesitates. “Yeah, that’s the impression I got.”

“Is it hard work, being so wrong all the time?” Draco demands.

Harry stares at him, heart racing. “Yeah, it is, actually,” he says, scowling. “How about you? Is it exhausting, being so fucking cross all the time?”

Draco stiffens, catches his breath, presses his lips into a hard line, and then droops, letting out a sound that is half sigh and half bitter laughter.

“Only you, Potter,” he mumbles, closing his eyes.

“My name’s Harry.”

“Fuck off, Harry,” Draco says, almost in a whisper.

Taking a deep breath, Harry picks up one of his parsnip rods and dangles it into the circle. He smiles, feeling slightly unsteady, as several snails begin to advance on the little vegetable cube with interest.

“I don’t think I will,” he whispers back. “Now, aren’t you going to ask me about my parsnips?”

Chapter Text

Fifth of December – Chocolate Frogs

5th december

By Saturday evening, the rain is coming down in sheets and Harry tries not to imagine the bright, clean warmth of the common room as he huddles by the small magical fire at the entrance to the tiny tent, tucking his chin into the collar of his coat and watching the thermo scroll with weary eyes. It’s all he can do not to lean closer to Draco for warmth, and as he wonders just where that thought has come from, the rain intensifies and attempts to push into the tent. Draco scowls and repels it with a slash of his wand, and Harry glances at him.

He is in a particularly foul mood tonight and has barely said a word to Harry since he arrived. For reasons that he can’t really explain, Harry has asked him, more than once, if he wants to talk about whatever is bothering him, but his attempts to communicate have been met with nothing but glares and dead silence, so he has given up, choosing instead to concentrate on the snails, who also seem bent on frustrating him. According to Rare Gastropods of the British Isles, they should be starting the selection process for their mates by examining each other’s frost trails and assessing them for iridescence, aroma and consistency. He has read that sentence so many times now that it seems engraved on his brain, but the frost snails seem to have other ideas.

As the rain bounces down, they slide around the glowing blue circle in a manner that Harry feels is a little too casual, stretching their eyestalks to the sky and making no attempt to interact with one another at all. Every now and then, a small snail with a curious, unevenly spiralled shell breaks away from the group completely and makes its way towards Draco, waving tiny eyestalks and emitting the same popping sound that the others make when they retreat into their shells.

Secretly, Harry thinks this is rather amusing but Draco’s irritation only seems to grow with each attempt by the snail to leave the tripudium and make contact with him. He watches, for perhaps the fifth time this evening, as Draco sighs and uses his parsnip rod to distract and nudge the snail back into the circle.

“He likes you,” Harry whispers.

Draco glances at him, surprised, and then sets his features into an expression of careful disinterest.

“That would be a first.”

He looks away and sighs, and Harry stares at him, casting around for something to say. When he finds nothing, he just continues to gaze at Draco’s shadowy profile, feeling heavy and uncomfortable. He knows that Draco is still attracting his fair share of snide comments from other students—the vast majority of whom had not taken part in the rebuilding of Hogwarts, Harry thinks irritably—but the idea that no one likes him is... he doesn’t know what it is, but he doesn’t like it.

Draco is an interesting person. He has made mistakes and he has paid for those mistakes, more than most people know. He has made others suffer and he has suffered himself. He is clever and crotchety and not at all boring to look at, and Harry thinks that it is at least possible that the curious snail isn’t completely wrong about him.

“Please stop looking at me like that,” Draco says, and Harry jumps slightly.

“Like what?” he asks, turning away and using a delicate warming charm to adjust the temperature of the circle by a tiny, unnecessary fraction.

“Like you’re about to give me a compliment. It’s very disturbing,” Draco says.

“You have nothing to fear in that department, I assure you,” Harry says crossly. “If you must know, I was thinking about my Charms homework.”

“Of course you were.”

“We’re supposed to be trying to invent a new spell, aren’t we? Well, maybe mine’s going to be an anti-grumpy bastard charm,” Harry snaps.

Draco sighs and leans forward to discourage the wandering snail once more. Harry cringes at his own stupid words and sinks further into his coat. In truth, he probably should be thinking about his Charms homework; he is already woefully behind with all of his assignments, despite having spent most of the afternoon trying to catch up. Unfortunately for Harry, a rainy Saturday in December had inevitably led to a stuffed, noisy common room, and he had been unable to stop himself from being completely distracted by everyone else’s far more interesting activities. Hermione had, of course, suggested the library, but it had been too late for Harry’s concentration and she had merely shrugged and returned to her book when he had allowed himself to be drawn into a badly-organised and impromptu Gobstones tournament.

What he really needs to do is bring his books down to the tent, just as McGonagall had suggested, but some inexplicable sense of pride is preventing him from being the first to give in and do so.

He thinks he could ask... something like: ‘are you finding it difficult to keep up, because I’m definitely not...

Or maybe not. Harry sighs and then frowns at the sound of squelching footsteps beyond the tent. Draco, clearly alarmed, scrambles to his knees with wand drawn and pokes his head out into the night. Two seconds later, he is knocked back into a messy sprawl as a huge bearded face looms into view and rumbles, “Good evenin’!”

“Hi, Hagrid,” Harry manages, realising with a jolt that Draco has tumbled a fair way into his lap in the cramped little space. He goes very still as the surprisingly warm weight lifts away from him and Draco arranges himself into his usual stiff-backed position, eyes fixed on the ground.

“Sorry there, er... Malfoy...” Hagrid mumbles, reaching out a vast hand to pat Draco awkwardly on the shoulder.

Draco blinks and says nothing.

“It’s good to see you,” Harry says, smiling at his friend. “Do you want to come in? There’s not much room but I’m sure we could...”

“Nah, I’ve been cooped up all week at that bloody conference,” Hagrid says, shifting his immense overcoat around himself and settling on a large rock near the mouth of the tent. “Fresh air’ll do me good. Listen, I don’t want to interfere when yer doin’ such a good job, but yeh might want an umbrella charm on that.”

Harry follows his gesture and realises that he is indicating the blue circle, where the snails are continuing to slide around in the downpour.

“Oh,” he says, genuinely surprised. “They seem to like the rain.”

Hagrid laughs. “They do. Trouble is, they’re very easily distracted. They get interested in the rain and then forget about what they’re supposed to be doin’.”

Harry glances at Draco, who is now wearing a slightly smug expression, and decides to cast the charm before he has chance to crow about how right he was, but when the charm stretches itself above the circle, shielding the snails from the rain, Draco doesn’t say a word, and Harry finds himself wishing he would.

“There you are,” Hagrid says with an approving nod as he gets to his feet. “Give ’em a minute and they’ll get back to business. Back in a mo.”

Puzzled, Harry watches the large shape disappear out of sight, and then turns back to the circle, where the snails have stopped their ponderous sliding around and are now twisting around inside their shells in confusion, eyestalks flickering.

“Where did the rain go?” Draco mumbles to himself, resting his chin on his knees and observing the rhythmic bounce of the water against the umbrella charm. “Harry Potter stole it.”

Harry snorts, startled at this tiny, uncharacteristic display of whimsy. “I’m just borrowing it. They can have it back when they catch up with the task at hand.”

Draco glances at him, amusement flickering in his eyes. “How very disciplined of you.”

Harry bites down on a smile. “Don’t worry, I doubt it’ll last.”

Lifting an eyebrow, Draco opens his mouth to speak and then is distracted by the sounds of thumping and rattling that seem to be drawing closer to the tent. This time, he stays exactly where he is, and barely flinches when Hagrid reappears, grinning and bearing a huge tea tray.

“Though yeh could do with warmin’ up,” he says, crashing down onto the rock and handing enormous mugs of steaming tea to Harry and Draco in turn. “Now... I know yeh might be a bit old fer these now, but...” Hagrid raises his bristly eyebrows hopefully and produces several gold and purple cardboard packages.

Harry grins. Part of him wants to wait and see how Draco will react, but there’s no way he’s going to hurt Hagrid’s feelings  by refusing his kindness, so he reaches out and takes one with a hearty, “thanks very much!”

Draco and Hagrid regard each other for long seconds, grey eyes searching beetle black, and then Draco balances his mug on one knee and accepts the offering with a nod.

“You’re never too old for Chocolate Frogs,” he says solemnly.

Hagrid beams. “I reckon you’re right about that,” he agrees, opening a frog of his own and deftly stuffing the entire thing into his mouth in one go before picking up his own mug and wrapping his huge hands around it.

Harry sips his tea and sneaks a covert glance at Draco, who is restraining his frog in one pale hand and examining the accompanying card with interest. His mug, still balanced precariously in his lap, sends spirals of fragrant steam into his face and slightly dishevelled hair. Something about this picture is utterly compelling, and Harry doesn’t know what to think or how to look away until Hagrid’s voice breaks the silence.

“Good idea, this tent,” he says, pulling at the stiff white fabric and rubbing it between finger and thumb.

Harry stares at him, feeling slightly dazed. “Don’t you have a shelter when you do it?”

Hagrid shrugs. “Nah, I don’t really feel the cold.”

“What about the rain?” Harry asks, noticing the rivulets of water now coursing through Hagrid’s beard and splashing into his tea.

“It’s no bother,” Hagrid says, but he smiles when Harry draws his wand and extends the umbrella charm to cover him.

“Don’t you usually have a dog?” Draco asks suddenly, and when they both turn to look at him, he is staring down at his Chocolate Frog, looking completely horrified with himself.

“I don’t generally bring Fang out for this,” Hagrid says, apparently unfazed. “Them frost snails make ’im sneeze, and besides... I told yeh they were easily distracted, didn’t I?”

Harry presses his hands to his hot cup. “Yeah?”

Hagrid shakes his head. “First time I brought him with me, we lost a whole night’s breedin’ because all they wanted to do was look at ’im—he let ’em climb all over ’im, too, the big lug.”

“Poor Fang,” Harry laughs, secretly quite delighted with the image.

“Don’t ‘poor Fang’ me, the bugger’s sleepin’ on my bed as we speak,” Hagrid says, shaking his head and showering Harry and Draco with raindrops from his hair and beard. “Look at that!” he says suddenly, pointing at the edge of the blue circle, where the determined little snail is once more attempting to reach Draco.

With a sigh, Draco sets down his tea and reaches for his parsnip rod. Hagrid watches with interest as he lures the little snail back into the midst of the tripudium, and then lets out a loud, rumbly laugh.

“It does that a lot,” Draco says, reclaiming his tea and sipping at it gratefully.

Hagrid leans forward and examines the snail. “It’s a male, that one. You can tell by the bobbles on ’em. I think he likes you.”

“That’s what I said,” Harry mumbles into his cup.

Draco sighs, shakes his head, and bites into his Chocolate Frog, head first. “I’d rather he didn’t,” he says after a moment.

“Ah, don’t say that,” Hagrid admonishes, eyebrows drawn together. “Brilliant little things, they are. Intelligent, too.”

This time, Draco merely lets out a breath that clearly indicates his doubt about that statement.

“They ’ave sounds, as well,” Hagrid says, undeterred. “I suppose you’ll’ve ’eard the call-to-mating song?” he asks, and Harry nods. “They pop an’ all... pop!” Hagrid imitates the familiar noise.

“Yes, when they retreat into their shells,” Draco says.

“Well, yeah, but not just then,” Hagrid says, looking quite disappointed. “They pop when they’re scared or sad or excited... I think you’ll find ’em very expressive... when yeh get to know ’em.”

“I’m sure we will, Hagrid... it’s early days yet,” Harry says, and Hagrid looks slightly mollified.

“Yeah... I mean, it’s not just that they’re pretty to look at, yeh know,” he continues, looking at the snails with a level of blind affection that Harry has seen many, many times before. “They’re useful an’ all... you’ll’ve ’eard of the spiny-tailed mouse?”

Harry nods. “We’ve used the spines quite a few times in Potions.”

“Well, did yeh know that that an important part of that mouse’s diet comes from the trail of a frost snail?” Hagrid asks, leaning forward on his rock.

“I didn’t,” Harry admits. He glances at Draco, who is fiddling with the packaging of his Chocolate Frog, and then at the blue circle, where the frost snails seem to have forgotten the rain and are now sliding around with a little more purpose.

“And,” Hagrid says triumphantly, “if yeh rub some of that stuff on a burn, it’ll be gone in no time. In fact, I usually wait until they’ve all paired up and then I collect all the trails in a jar for Professor Snape, ’cause what he does with ’em is make a potion for...” Hagrid trails into silence and stares into his tea. Harry glances at Draco to find that he is gripping his cup almost hard enough to crack it; his lips are pressed together in a thin, hard line, and his eyes are burning into the side of Hagrid’s head.

Caught somewhere between confusion and indignation, Harry encourages Hagrid to continue. Whatever Draco’s problem is, it isn’t Hagrid’s fault, and Harry isn’t going to let him be made to feel bad when all he’s trying to do is help them to understand the animals in their care.

“What did he do with them?” he presses, trying silently to let Hagrid know that his accidental use of the present tense is not the end of the world without making a big deal of it.

Hagrid looks up, eyes flitting to Draco and then settling on Harry. “Cooling potions,” he says uncertainly. “Really good ones, an’ all.”

Harry smiles. “They definitely sound very useful,” he agrees firmly. “But even if they hadn’t been, I’d have been happy to look after them for you.”

Hagrid smiles back, dark eyes suspiciously shiny. “That’s good of yeh, Harry. And... both of yeh,” he says, flicking another glance at Draco and then seeming to think better of it.

When Draco draws his wand, Harry and Hagrid startle but he merely rolls his eyes and spells down the temperature inside the blue circle. Nerves jangled, Harry takes a long, deep breath of damp air and attempts to pull the conversation back on track.

“This must have been a nightmare to manage before you got your wand back,” he says, and Hagrid nods heartily, patting one of his coat pockets instinctively.

“It could’ve been, but luckily old Professor Kettleburn used to ’elp me out. Some nights we’d sit out ’ere with a bottle of... anyway, he was a nice old chap. Writes now and then, yeh know.”

Harry smiles. “Where is he now?”

“Last I ’eard... somewhere in Mongolia, lookin’ at three-headed yaks,” Hagrid says.

“I thought he retired,” Harry says.

“Didn’t stick,” Hagrid shrugs, heaving himself up from the rock and collecting his empty mugs. “Some people aren’t meant to do nothin’. Speakin’ of which, I’ve got a pile of paperwork about the size of a firs’-year to fill in. Better be off.”

“Thanks for the tea,” Harry calls after him.

“Thanks for the ’elp,” Hagrid calls back. “Merry Christmas!”

“Christmas my arse,” Harry mutters, leaning out of the tent and peering up at the dull, dark sky and the hammering rain. It doesn’t feel anything like Christmas, and he wishes it would, because this will be his last Christmas at Hogwarts, his first without a peep of Lord fucking Voldemort, and he’d rather like to enjoy it, thank you very much.

At the moment, however, he is stuck in a very small tent with a person who looks as though he is torn between exploding with anger and bursting into noisy tears. It’s already after eleven o’clock and the snails are clearly nowhere near done for the night, and Harry is starting to develop a permanent cramp in his legs from being squashed into this watchful, defensive, keep-to-your-own-side-of-the-tent sort of position for hours on end. The tea and chocolate, though welcome and warming, have left his mouth feeling dry and sticky, and god knows how long it will be before he can get himself a glass of water.

Draco shifts position beside him and lets out a long-suffering sigh.

“Are you okay?” Harry asks, picking up a parsnip rod and playing with it.

Draco says nothing.

Harry unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth and tries again.

“Is this about Snape?”

Draco twists around and glares at him. “Don’t.”

Irritable and uncomfortable, Harry glares back. “Don’t what? Don’t even mention his name? I thought maybe it was just me and Ron you were angry at, but now Hagrid’s not allowed to talk about him either?”

“I do not want to talk about him, Potter.”

“That’s funny, because it sort of seems like you do,” Harry says, and then sighs and looks away, noticing the little snail on the edge of the circle again and absently using the parsnip rod to poke him away.

“If I did want to talk about him, it wouldn’t be with you,” Draco says quietly.

“Why not?” Harry asks carelessly. “I’m here, aren’t I? I’m practically a captive audience.”

Draco snorts. “Such a delicate temperament. Have you ever considered a career as a therapist?”

“Shut up,” Harry mutters, but he’s trying not to smile.

“You see? With a bedside manner like that, you could make a fortune.”

“Yeah? Well, with a sense of humour like that, you could make a bloody awful comedian,” Harry says.

“I think you’ll find that the snails are starting to pay attention to one another,” Draco says, and Harry frowns for a moment, attempting to extract the insult from the statement, until Draco elbows him in the ribs and he looks into the blue circle.

The snails, while still moving slowly over the damp earth, are now lowering their heads to inspect the intricate criss-cross of sparkling trails that covers their breeding ground. Harry smiles, relieved to see that they are now beginning the long process of choosing their mates, and as he watches their curious movements and listens to their chorus of soft, excited popping, his irritation slips away. Draco, too, is leaning forward and observing the ritual with clear interest, and Harry finds himself idly wondering what would shock him more—a punch in the back of the head or a hug.

It’s going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Sixth of December – A leather chair by the fire

 

Harry runs across the muddy grass, slipping with every step and coughing as the driving rain pummels into his face.

“Draco, no! Stop it!” he yells, but his words are lost to the cacophony of water and wind and terrifying laughter.

“I can’t take another second of it!” Draco shouts, and somehow his voice rings out clearly through the darkness. “All of you wish I was dead, especially him!”

“No!” Harry tries to scream, but the words don’t come out, and by the time he scrambles down to the lakeside, Draco has captured Hagrid, holding him inside the glowing blue circle while the snails climb all over him, their silvery trails turning into magical ropes to hold him down.

“He said the name,” Draco says, pointing his wand at Hagrid. The water plasters his clothes to his slender frame and drips from his nose and chin.

“Voldemort?” Harry asks, trying to get closer but finding himself up against an invisible barrier.

“No,” Draco hisses. “I don’t care about him.”

Of course, Harry realises, pushing harder and managing to slip and slide a little closer. “Snape! I’ll say it, then, take me! Leave Hagrid alone! Snape, Snape, Snape, Snape, Snape!”

“You really don’t get it, do you?” Draco snaps, and then he’s running towards Harry, grabbing him by the shoulders and pushing him into the mud, straddling his hips and leaning down, cold and wet, to glare into his face and whisper, “Don’t leave me.”

“I didn’t... I wasn’t...” Harry tries, but the words taste like cotton wool in his mouth and the darkness of the forest is lifting away.

He blinks and finds himself in bed, clutching at his sheets. The room is filled with dazzling morning sunshine and Ron is leaning over him, brow furrowed in concern.

“You alright, mate?” he asks, and Harry nods slowly. “I think you were having a nightmare.”

“Yeah, it was... weird,” Harry mumbles, stomach twisting at the thought. “What time is it?”

“Eight-ish,” Ron says, sitting on his own bed and looking apologetic. “I know you didn’t get in ’til late but you seemed really... you know.”

“It’s fine,” Harry assures, yawning. “Thanks. I will, however, be going back to sleep now.”

Ron nods and heads for the door. “I’ll save you some pastries or something, yeah?”

Harry smiles gratefully at his friend and curls up beneath his sheets and blankets, closing his eyes and allowing himself to relax. All he needs is a couple more hours, and he’ll have plenty of energy for the very necessary, if not very exciting, day of homework he has planned. Unfortunately, the moment he begins to drift, his mind is all at once full of Draco and Snape and Hagrid and snails and, for some reason, a fledgling idea about enlarging and improving their tiny lakeside tent. He tries his best to clear his head, but it becomes apparent after an hour or so that all he is managing to achieve is frustration and a mild headache, so he pushes back his bedclothes and gets up.

He has always liked Sunday mornings, and this one is particularly beautiful. From the window, he looks out over the grounds and smiles, breathing in the crisp, cold air and admiring the clear sky. The rain has disappeared and the temperature has dropped steeply, leaving the grounds covered in a blanket of glittering frost, the damp lawns now sparkling with frozen raindrops. The bright winter sunshine lifts everything into rainbow iridescence, and Harry finds himself eager to see just what the frost snails look like under such conditions. Of course, they are probably sleeping right now, but there’s nothing to stop him just wandering down there and having a look.

Harry can hear the clinking and scraping of glasses and forks as he walks across the Entrance Hall but he knows that Ron will stick to his word and save him some breakfast, so he hurries out into the cold morning wrapped in a heavy scarf, a woolly jumper and his oldest jeans. When he gets to the lakeside, he spells the plant out of the way and crouches on the frosty ground. The rough stones dig into his knees but he doesn’t care; the sunlight on the shimmering shells is one of the most beautiful things he has ever seen. The snails do not wake as he observes them quietly, and he feels rather peaceful as he charms the plant to cover them over once again and turns to head back the way he came.

As he does so, though, something catches his eye. Slowly, he walks back to the entrance of the tent, where he finds a large wooden tray containing a shiny, red whistling kettle, two mugs, a tall flask of water with two glasses, a canister of tea bags, one of sugar, and a milk jug with a little porcelain lid. Attached to a silver teaspoon with a dragon for a handle is a small note written in very familiar handwriting.

Someone told me you might be in need of a few essentials. MM.

Harry laughs and replaces the teaspoon on the tray. He wonders just how long it had taken Hagrid to stomp up to the castle and tell McGonagall, in horrified tones, how those poor boys hadn’t even got a kettle. Amused, he puts everything back where he had found it and walks unhurriedly back to the castle, where he accepts two apple danishes from a surprised Ron and forces himself and his books up to the library. He stays there for the rest of the morning, gnawing on his pastries when Madam Pince isn’t looking, and managing to just about catch up with his work for Herbology and Potions. There is still a long way to go, and when he looks out of the window and sees his friends playing another very dirty game of Quidditch, he longs to abandon his books and join them, but he manages to stay strong, and when the bell rings through the castle for lunch, he feels entirely justified in shoving everything into his bag and sprinting out of the library.

Something about the cold air and the sunshine makes him hungry, and he eats rapidly, managing to put away two plates of roast chicken and vegetables and a bowl of lemon pond pudding and custard before he has to give in. Ron, who has always been a bottomless pit, and Hermione, who eats more slowly than either of them, are still working their way through their meals, and Harry decides to wait for them, pouring himself a glass of hot grape juice and propping his head up on one hand.

At the Slytherin table, Ginny is sitting next to Blaise and taking roast potatoes from his plate when he isn’t looking. At the Ravenclaw table, Luna is picking at her food whilst scribbling in a book and absent-mindedly sending a rippling rainbow out of the end of her wand that lights up the long, wavy hair of Hannah, who is sitting directly behind her and spilling custard on her sleeve because she’s too busy laughing at Justin’s Hippogriff impression to notice what she’s doing.

A soft breeze causes one or two white clouds to scud across the ceiling and Harry finds himself looking over at Draco and wondering what he makes of the change in the weather. He is sitting alone, as usual, slicing neatly into a piece of carrot, and he looks up immediately, seeming to feel Harry’s eyes on him.

He lifts a questioning eyebrow. What? he mouths, looking more puzzled than irritated.

Harry indicates the sky with a jerk of his head and attempts a tentative smile.

Draco looks up, then back at Harry. What? he repeats.

It’s nice, Harry attempts, trying to convey the words across the room without making a sound. He suspects he’s failing, and he also suspects that he looks like an idiot while he’s doing it, but he’s started now. It’s stopped raining, he mouths. RAINING.

Draco frowns and sets down his knife and fork. Slowly, he shakes his head.

It’s stopped raining, Harry tries again, mouth contorting into exaggerated shapes in an effort to get his point across. McGonagall left a tray.

“Harry, what are you doing?” Hermione asks faintly.

“Nothing,” Harry says, feeling his face heat. “What is he doing, more to the point?”

After a moment, it becomes clear that what Draco is doing is pushing away his plate, getting up from his table and stalking over to Harry, where he stands with his arms folded and his eyebrows in his hairline.

“For goodness’ sake, what are you trying to say to me?” he demands.

Hermione seems to bristle slightly, while Ron gazes up at him calmly and continues to eat.

“Just that... well, it’s stopped raining,” Harry says, feeling spectacularly stupid. “And that McGonagall left us some stuff, but it’s really not important.”

“Well, that’s certainly earth-shattering,” Draco says.

“If it had been, I might have come over to your table to tell you,” Harry says, wishing he could tell whether or not the impossible bastard is joking.

“They’re fine, by the way. I checked them this morning,” Draco adds, and then he is gone, and Harry’s ‘so did I’ is directed at empty air.

“He’s in a cheery mood,” Ron says, digging into his pudding.

Hermione just gives Harry a sympathetic smile, as though she has no idea what to say about Draco any more, and Harry doesn’t blame her. Draco is a minefield, and the sensible thing to do would be to stay the hell away, but Harry doesn’t think he can do that. He’s never been able to do that, even when the two of them truly hated one another, and he doesn’t think he can let it lie just because things between them are now a little more... complicated.

“I think... I think I’m trying to be his friend,” he says, more to himself than to anyone else. “Why am I doing that?”

“Because you’re a glutton for punishment?” Ron suggests.

“I think it makes you a good person,” Hermione says. “A lot of people aren’t so forgiving.”

“He’s always wanted to be your friend, you know,” Neville says, and Harry turns to him. “Don’t look like that, you know it’s true. I was there that first day, remember?”

Harry sighs. It seems like a very long time ago now, but the memory of a tiny Draco trying to win his approval and going about it all the wrong ways is as fresh as it has always been. A lot has changed since then, but here they are, still linked together by so many invisible threads. Heart heavy, Harry excuses himself from the table and heads for the common room. He gathers up his books and sinks into an old leather armchair in front of the fire, opening up Advanced Transfiguration and turning to the latest chapter.

The improved weather means that the common room is quieter than the previous day, and Harry manages to read several pages without being distracted. In fact, he’s rather comfortable; the leather chair is wide and supportive with just the right amount of give, the fire is pleasantly warm and crackly at his side, the afternoon sun is streaming in through the tall windows, and his stomach is full of delicious, stodgy Sunday lunch. Feeling more relaxed than he has in a long time, Harry rests his book in his lap and allows his eyes to close, just for a moment.

“Do you think we should wake him up?”

“I’m not doing it! You do it, Janai.”

“I think he’s already awake.”

Harry opens his eyes to find himself surrounded by tiny first-year girls and he jumps slightly, sending his heavy textbook sliding to the floor with a thomp.

“What are you doing?” he mumbles, rubbing his eyes.

“You were sleeping,” one of them says helpfully.

A small girl with dark hair and an astonishingly bright smile picks up his book and passes it back to him.

“Who’s Draco?”

“Is it Draco Malfoy?”

“How many Dracos do you know?”

“Don’t be a know-it-all, Sophie.”

Harry ruffles his sleep-flattened hair and holds up a hand to stop them. “What are you talking about?”

“You said ‘shut up, Draco’,” says the one called Janai.

“In your sleep,” adds the one called Sophie.

“You also said ‘snails’,” offers another.

“How long was I asleep?” Harry mumbles, and the girls merely shrug, but when he finally begins to focus on the room he realises that it is almost completely dark outside, and his heart speeds.

“Alright, come on, shoo,” Ginny says, appearing behind Harry’s chair and chivvying the girls away. “It’s alright, you’re not late for snails yet.”

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Harry groans, stretching and finding that every muscle in his body seems to have gone completely stiff.

“You looked like you really needed to sleep,” Ginny says, wrinkling her nose apologetically. “When did you get in last night? Two o’clock?”

Harry flops back into the chair and looks up at her. “Yeah, but... the whole afternoon...”

“You didn’t miss anything,” Ginny advises. “Ron and Neville found a Muggle quiz book, so they’ve spent most of the last few hours embarrassing themselves.”

Harry smiles and then freezes. “Did I really talk about Draco in my sleep?”

“I don’t know,” Ginny says. “Maybe you secretly love him, who knows. You’d better get ready, your next date starts in ten minutes.”

Harry pulls a face at her, but she just laughs and walks away, leaving him to shake off his lethargy and prepare for another evening of snails. And Draco. As he puts on his coat and yanks his hat down over his messy hair, he finds himself trying to imagine Draco’s reaction to McGonagall’s gift. The idea of missing out on such a thing makes him move faster, until he is practically sprinting across the crunchy grass and down to the lake. When he gets there, face numb with cold, Draco is crouching beside the tent, picking up each item in turn and examining it, eyebrows drawn down and mouth slightly open. Harry hangs back for a moment, watching the picture of confusion as it unfolds with a warm, slightly unsteady feeling in his stomach.

“Want a cup of tea?” he calls, and Draco spins around, losing his balance on the icy ground and wobbling precariously before catching himself with one hand and one knee.

“You didn’t see that,” he says crossly, dusting off his trousers and retreating into the tent.

“See what?” Harry shrugs. “Do you want a cup of tea?”

“Yes, please, Potter,” he says after a moment.

“Harry.”

Draco rolls his eyes and sets to work removing the plant from the sleeping snails and warming their circle until the pointer on the scroll creeps back into range. Harry picks up the kettle and fills it with water from his wand before firing up the magical flames and placing the kettle on top. He settles down beside Draco and adds teabags to the cups, automatically designating the stripy mug Draco’s and the spotted one his. Draco watches this process with interest and then frowns.

“Harry?”

“Yes?”

“How do you know that I take sugar in my tea?”

Harry bites his lip. “Lucky guess, I suppose.”

Draco says nothing. The kettle is whistling violently before he speaks again, and Harry can barely see him through the cloud of steam that fills the tent.

“Do you know what I think?” he says decisively, and Harry’s stomach flips over.

“What?”

“I think McGonagall forgot the biscuits,” he says, and he sounds so scandalised that Harry has to laugh. “I’m serious,” Draco adds.

“I know,” Harry says, pouring the tea and inhaling the comforting scent as he settles in his usual spot and picks up his parsnip rod. “I’ll bring some tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

Seventh of December – A noisy cat

7th december

When Harry goes down to breakfast on Monday morning, he almost walks straight into Hagrid, who is ambling across the Entrance Hall with a six-foot spruce under each arm and a long string of tiny lanterns wrapped around his shoulders.

“Watch where yer goin’,” he says amiably. “You’ll ’ave yer eye out on one of these if yer not careful.”

Harry steps around him carefully, just about avoiding the fresh-smelling spines that are, indeed, hovering just at his eye level. “Aren’t you going the wrong way?” he asks, indicating the Great Hall.

Hagrid laughs. “No, these are just the little ones fer the classrooms. I’m all done in there—me an’ Professor McGonagall’ve been at it since five o’clock this mornin’.”

“You’re mad,” Harry declares, thinking of his late night with the tripudium, his sleep punctuated by Ron’s snores—worse than usual due to a nasty cold—and his harsh awakening at somewhere around half past six to the sound of Dean and Seamus’s whispered argument about pricing structures. He covers a yawn and looks up at Hagrid with a weary smile. “I’m sure it looks amazing, though.”

“Go and see for yerself,” Hagrid says, wriggling his enormous eyebrows and heading off towards the Charms classrooms. “I reckon we’ve done Hogwarts proud.”

In spite of his weariness, Harry feels lighter as he heads for the Great Hall, and when he reaches the arched doorway, he has to stop and stare. The familiar, cavernous space has been transformed into a glittering, dreamlike vision, a winter forest amidst which the four long house tables seem to have been dropped as an afterthought. Vast Christmas trees line the walls, each one draped with lanterns, tinsel, real fairies and translucent bubbles of gold, silver and bronze. The usual white floating candles have been spelled red and green, and a soft, silent drift of magical snow falls from the vaulted ceiling, sparkling in the hair of the students eating breakfast and chattering excitedly below and turning the floorboards opalescent.

The warm scents of pine and cinnamon waft through the air, mingling with the usual aromas of toast and bacon and coffee, and Harry breathes in deeply, leaning against the door frame and allowing the brightness and beauty of the scene to wrap him in a cloak of contentment, just for a moment.

He is certain he will return to Hogwarts to visit after he finishes his education but he also knows that it won’t be the same. This is the last time he will experience Christmas as a student here—a second chance at a last time, at that—and he almost wants to run back up to the dormitory and come downstairs again, just to have another go at seeing it all for the last time, for the first time, for some time that makes sense. In the end, he just lounges there, enjoying the reactions of everyone who walks past him into the Great Hall and then stops to look around in delight.

“It’s just like you said,” whispers someone at his side, and Harry turns.

At first, he thinks he must have imagined the voice, and then he glances down and sees the tiny curly-haired girl standing beside him in the doorway, face tipped up to the snowy ceiling, hands tucked into the sleeves of her cardigan and thousands of tiny lights reflected in her wide brown eyes. With a pang of sadness, he recognises her as Sarah, the first-year sister of Colin and Dennis Creevey.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he says, and she looks up at him, blushing furiously, and then frowns and seems to draw herself up to her full height of four feet and not very much.

“Colin and Dennis always went on about Christmas at Hogwarts,” she says, fiddling with her yellow and black tie. “I always thought they were exaggerating. They weren’t, though.” Sarah shakes her head and holds out a hand to catch a glittering snowflake.

“I don’t suppose they needed to,” Harry agrees, and Sarah gives him a wobbly smile. “You should be proud of them.”

“I am,” she whispers, and then turns away.

For a minute or two, she stands by his side in silence, and then wanders a little way into the hall, stopping in front of two adjacent bricks in the wall, both done up in rich, Gryffindor colours. She takes a deep breath and presses her fingers to each in turn, whispering words that only she can hear. Harry has seen her do this many times before, and she’s not alone. There are memorials to the war-fallen all over the castle, tributes for friends and relatives and teachers, reminders of what has been lost and what has been saved, what all of them must continue to fight for.

He watches Sarah walk to the Hufflepuff table, accept a hug from an equally tiny friend, and sit down to breakfast with her eyes fixed upon the snowy sky. Slowly, his eyes drift across to the Slytherin table, where Draco is nursing a cup of coffee and idly watching two of his younger housemates weave tinsel into their hair. He looks tired and pale, and when he meets Harry’s eyes across the hall, Harry finds himself smiling at him. Draco looks rather alarmed for a moment, and then, quite miraculously, he smiles back, and Harry walks out of the Great Hall without his breakfast.

His stomach grumbles and growls in protest all the way to lunchtime, when he walks out of Potions to find that Hagrid has now decorated the corridors, too, festooning everything in sight with holly, ivy and mistletoe. Every suit of armour is now carrying a wreath, and all the portraits from the dungeons to the Entrance Hall have had their frames trimmed with tinsel, much to the chagrin of several of their fussier subjects.

“What sort of common frippery is this?” demands a snub-nosed lady in an Elizabethan ruff as Harry passes by her portrait with Ron and Hermione.

“Actually, tinsel is a very—” Hermione starts, but Ron pulls her away.

“Don’t get into a discussion with her,” he advises, shaking his head. “Ginny tried to be nice to her once and ending up getting lectured for hours, daft bint was trying to tell her that having her top button undone was indecent when I finally managed to rescue her.”

“Maybe she’s lonely,” Hermione says, but she sounds uncertain and allows herself to be prodded in the direction of lunch without an argument.

After a warming meal of chicken casserole and fresh bread, Harry walks down to the greenhouses with Ron, Hermione and Neville for Herbology. The carpet of frost is still very much in evidence, and Harry finds himself shivering despite his heavy coat. As he works on re-potting his rapidly-growing tentacula hybrid, he finds himself thinking of the tiny white tent and his previously vague ideas of improvement begin to flourish. What they really need is a bit more space to stretch out, to get comfortable and to at least attempt to do some of that homework they—or maybe just he—has been putting off.

And that’s the thing about wizarding tents, isn’t it? They’re usually bigger on the inside, like the one the Weasleys had at the Quidditch World Cup, or the one he, Ron and Hermione lived in while they hunted for Horcruxes. Impulsively, he turns to Hermione, who is struggling to recapture her wand from the mischievous vines of her tentacula.

“What spell did you use to make that tent bigger on the inside?” he asks.

“That’s enough!” she says firmly, slapping the vine away and taking back her wand with a good hard pull. She turns to him, slightly red in the face. “It came like that—I got it from Dervish and Banges.”

“Oh,” Harry says, disappointed.

“Why do you ask?”

Harry slices open a bag of topsoil and sprinkles it into the new, larger pot. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Are you sure? Only...” Hermione hesitates and he looks at her. “It’s probably the same sort of spell I used to fit everything into that little bag—an undetectable extension charm.”

“You are brilliant,” he declares, going to hug her and then pulling back when he realises his hands are covered in soil.

She grants him a tiny, pleased smile. “Hardly.”

“Does it really need to be undetectable?” someone says and Harry and Hermione both turn to regard Draco, who is working alone at the bench behind them.

Startled at Draco speaking without being prompted, Harry says nothing, but Hermione frowns for a moment and then shrugs.

“No, I suppose not,” she says slowly, “but it’s a lot less ostentatious than putting up a tent the size of a house.”

Draco’s eyes widen in surprise, and Harry wonders if he didn’t really expect anyone to answer him at all, and then his more familiar cool expression drops into place.

“Nothing wrong with a bit of grandeur, if that’s your thing,” he says, turning his attention back to his work. Just before he does, though, his eyes meet Harry’s for a fraction of a second, and it’s enough for Harry to know that he will have company for his tent-expanding project, whether he likes it or not. For reasons he can’t explain, he thinks he rather does like it, and he hums to himself contentedly for the rest of the lesson.

When he walks out of the greenhouse, Draco is waiting.

“We should do it now, before it gets dark,” he says uncertainly. “Unless you have another lesson...”

“No,” Harry says, glancing over his shoulder to where Ron and Hermione are hovering and watching their conversation with a little more interest than he thinks is necessary. “I’m finished for the day. Let’s do it.”

Looking almost pleased, Draco slings his bag over his shoulder and starts walking in the direction of the lake. Harry turns back to Ron and Hermione, who are already making their way across the frosted grass to the castle, and then scrambles to follow him. When they reach the tent they find that McGonagall has paid them another visit, this time leaving behind two fat cushions with purple corduroy covers and a string of tiny multicoloured lanterns, along with a note informing them that she expects their Transfiguration reading to be up to date this week, snails or no snails.

“Don’t tell me you’re behind as well,” Harry says, abandoning the note and moving the tea tray out of the tent so that they have more space to work the Extension Charm.

“I won’t, then,” Draco says irritably, but he draws his wand when Harry does and, after a moment’s intense discussion, casts with him, creating a strong, steady stream of magic that seeps into the fabric walls of the tent, making them glow and shudder before bouncing outwards and upwards to create a much larger space around them.

On their first few attempts, the charm flickers and dies, pulling the tent tightly back around Harry and Draco with a sickening lurch, but they try again and again, shedding coats and scarves and bags as the hard work and residual magic creates a stifling heat inside the confined space. Finally, the new dimensions of the tent seem to hold, and they continue to cast, breathing hard and perspiring, unwilling to let the bloody thing go now that it seems to be working at last. Harry vaguely wonders how many attempts it took Hermione to cast the same spell, and then he decides not to think about it.

When they are certain that the charm is complete, they stow away their wands and look around—at least, Draco looks around; Harry spends a good few seconds looking at Draco, who appears to be genuinely impressed by what they have created, pale eyes flicking over the sloping fabric ceiling, now easily high enough for them to stand beneath, to the comfortable living space in which he can now stretch out both arms without touching either side of the tent. Something in his expression makes Harry’s stomach ache and he looks away, scuffing at the groundsheet with one shoe.

His eyes catch on McGonagall’s note and he sighs. Draco may not have admitted it as such, but he is now pretty sure he isn’t the only one who has been hiding behind stupid pride when it comes to his schoolwork, and he firmly resolves to stop being an idiot, at least in this respect, and bring some of his books down to the tent for this evening’s tripudium nocte. The snails don’t seem to need too much of his attention at the moment; he’s certain he can at least catch up with his reading so that McGonagall doesn’t decide to throw a Saturday detention into the mix.

“She wouldn’t,” Draco says, scandalised, when Harry voices this thought as they walk slowly back across the dark grounds to the castle, coats open and flapping in the wind.

Harry laughs. “She absolutely would.”

“That would be unnecessarily cruel,” Draco declares, frowning.

“So is this, don’t you think?”

Draco glances at him sharply. “Do you mean the snails?”

“Yeah, of course,” Harry says. “What did you think I meant?”

Draco stuffs his hands into his coat pockets and shrugs. “Nothing. I don’t really mind it, anyway.”

Harry’s heart skips and he looks quickly at Draco before focusing his eyes on the brightly-lit castle ahead. “No, me neither,” he admits.

Draco says nothing as they climb the stone steps and walk across the Entrance Hall towards dinner, but the silence between them hangs more comfortably than it has before, and perhaps that is why Harry isn’t quite thinking straight when the two of them walk into the Great Hall and he blurts:

“Do you want to sit with us? I mean... me? I mean... you know, over here?”

Draco stares at him, eyes wide, looking to where Harry is flapping a hand in the direction of the Gryffindor table, and then at the rest of the students, some of whom are eating and many of whom are staring openly at the two of them standing together in the doorway. At the Gryffindor table, Hermione has her back to them, but Ron is watching the exchange with a forkful of spaghetti halfway to his mouth.

“I...” Draco mumbles, glancing at Harry and then dropping his eyes to the shimmering floor. He has magical snowflakes in his hair and Harry finds himself wanting to gently brush them away. “I’m not having dinner... I just remembered, so...”

With that, he turns and walks away, disappearing down the nearest corridor and leaving Harry feeling ridiculous and hot with embarrassment. As everyone returns to their conversations, he walks slowly to the Gryffindor table and drops down onto the end of the bench next to Hermione.
“What did you do that for?” Ron asks with interest, twirling his spaghetti and then stuffing it into his mouth.

Harry shakes his head and then drops it onto his folded arms. “I have no idea.”

**~*~**

To Harry’s relief, Ron doesn’t push the subject, and Draco seems equally happy not to discuss it when they see each other again later that evening. In fact, as long as Harry manages to keep his idiotic comments tucked away in the back of his mind, he finds the whole experience rather comfortable. The tent, whilst unassuming as ever from the outside, is now spacious enough for both of them to spread out on the floor, propped up on the corduroy cushions with cups of tea and copies of Advanced Transfiguration. Harry has remembered to bring biscuits, and Draco has astonished him by turning up with a tin of chocolate-covered shortbread and instructing him to help himself.

The warmth from the magical fire and the glimmering light from the tripudium are soothing, and Harry allows himself to relax, looking up from his sprawl every now and then to check the thermo scroll, adjust the temperature or watch with interest as the snails begin to pair up.

“Look,” Draco whispers, breaking a long, pleasant silence, and Harry pulls away from his chapter on magical fluid dynamics to see that once again, the dominant female is being approached by several smaller snails at once.

He shifts onto his stomach and props himself up on his elbows to watch the display, groping around for a biscuit and nibbling the chocolate from the top. The vast female pays no attention to the cluster of males attempting to examine her frost trail until they all try to select her as their mate, each choosing the same moment to do so, swarming hopelessly and setting off a small skirmish in the process. As each male attempts to intimidate the others with the size of his eyestalks and the rhythm of his swaying, unsteady sort of dance, the female slides away and takes up residence on the opposite side of the blue circle, where she pops back into her shell with a clear air of disdain.

“They haven’t even noticed she’s gone,” Draco observes, and Harry laughs, watching the group of males, who are now circling each other and trying to overlay the others’ frost trails with their own.

“I suppose they’re just like us,” he says, flicking his wand to lower the temperature, which is fluctuating rapidly now that the tripudium is intensifying. “Nothing makes sense when it comes to women.”

“Speak for yourself,” Draco says. “I think women make a lot more sense than they let on.”

That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Harry points out. “I suppose they remind me of how weird all the boys went when Fleur was here. The Veela thing, you know.”

Draco wrinkles his nose. “Well, whatever works for you, I suppose.”

Puzzled, Harry glances at him for a moment, and then he smiles, and Harry looks away.

“Oh, here he is,” Draco sighs, reaching for his parsnip rod and stretching out over his cushion to dangle the chunk of vegetable for the little snail who seems to have taken a liking to him.

Reluctantly, Harry returns to his chapter, attempting to read the words but finding himself impossibly distracted by the excited popping of the snail and Draco’s sighs and mumbled instructions for it to bugger off and get back to the task at hand.

“Maybe you should just let him come and have a look at you,” he suggests, stifling a yawn. “He might lose interest when the mystery is gone.”

“Kindly fuck off,” Draco says grandly, and then flops onto his back with his arms folded across his chest. “Anyway, he’s here to breed, not to socialise.”

Harry snorts. “Maybe they don’t all pair up. Maybe there aren’t even numbers of males and females, have you counted?”

“No,” Draco admits, fiddling with the nearest tiny lantern and making ghostly green shadows flicker across his face.

Harry watches him for a moment and then forces himself back into his book. By the time he has finished the chapter, his eyes are sore and his fingers are numb with cold. Head heavy, he glances over at Draco, who is lounging on his side with his chin propped up in one hand, one eye closed and the other fixed determinedly on the snails, all but four of whom are tucked away for the night in their shells. As Harry watches him blearily, he stabs his wand inelegantly towards the circle and the temperature pointer jerks up to zero. Draco sighs and drops his wand at his side.

“What time is it?” Harry asks, not bothering to hide a yawn.

Draco catches it immediately. He squints at his fancy watch and scowls. “Nearly half past two.”

Harry groans. With a massive effort, he gets to his feet and makes two cups of tea, rubbing his eyes and stamping about in the tent while the kettle boils and whistles on the fire. It’s just four snails; he can stay awake. It’s not as though he’s had a decent night’s sleep in a week, but he can do it. He stares irritably at the remaining snails for a second or two, and then suddenly his head is full of Hagrid’s pure joy and enthusiasm about the little buggers and he feels terrible. All he has to do is hang on until they go to sleep, he thinks, handing Draco a steaming mug and curling up on the ground in front of the fire with his own, wrapping his hands around the hot ceramic and breathing in the steam.

By the time he has finished his tea, three of the snails have popped into their shells and the remaining one is circling the tripudium slowly, stopping every now and then to examine a frost trail and seemingly having no idea of the lateness of the hour. Harry hangs grimly onto his wand; he has been watching the thermo scroll for the past half an hour and is aware that the temperature outside the circle is dropping to potentially dangerous levels. As, once again, the pointer begins to fall out of range, Draco shifts wearily next to him.

“I’ll get it,” he mumbles, and casts another awkward but efficient warming spell.

“Mm,” Harry replies, resting his chin on his forearms and taking in a huge gulp of cold air in an attempt to fight off the seductive pull of sleep.

“Go to sleep,” Draco whispers, and it takes Harry a moment to realise that he is talking to the snail.

“Yes... do that,” he agrees.

Pop, goes the snail, drawing in its eyestalks and settling on the edge of the circle.

“S’gone,” Draco mumbles. “Good snail.”

Heavy with relief, Harry smiles and lets his head drop onto his cushion. “Good snail.”

**~*~**

Something has happened to Harry’s mattress. It doesn’t feel right at all. He’s always preferred a firm bed to a soft one, but this is ridiculous. There’s no give whatsoever and every muscle in his body feels stiff. Not only that, but his feet are freezing. On the plus side, he’s pressed up against someone who is warm and strong and smells fantastic, like woodsmoke and lemons. His head is resting on their chest, their heartbeat steady under his ear, and one of their hands is resting possessively against his lower back. On balance, the mattress isn’t all that bad and he thinks he could easily fall asleep again.

Except... there’s that noise again, the one that woke him up. It’s an urgent sort of noise and a familiar one at that. He can’t say it belongs in his bedroom, but he’s starting to think that he isn’t in his bedroom at all. Forcing himself to the surface of consciousness, he opens one eye and is immediately dazzled by the sight of a string of multicoloured lanterns. Stomach tipping, he takes in the white walls of the tent, the spotted cup on its side by his head, and slowly, slowly, the peacefully sleeping figure of Draco, with whom he has somehow become intimately entangled.

Mouth dry and heart racing, Harry extracts himself and crawls to the opening of the tent. The black night is beginning to fade to the deepest blue, and the protesting sound is moving closer. He barely breathes as he scrambles to check on the snails, eyes raking over the glowing blue circle and its occupants. Everyone is sleeping and safe, and he lets out his breath in a messy rush. There’s no protective plant or repelling magic in place, but everything is okay. As the memories of the previous night crowd into his sleep-muddled brain, the noise reasserts itself, and the large, orange form of Crookshanks strolls out of the shadows, brushy tail waving in irritation.

“Oh, it’s you,” Harry mumbles, relieved. “What do you want?”

Crookshanks regards him with huge yellow eyes and then appears to notice the snails for the first time. Before Harry can stop him, he’s leaning down into the blue circle, and in a panic, Harry lunges to grab him, but Crookshanks merely sniffs at the huge shell of the sleeping female and then leaps at Harry, bowling him back into the tent and coming down with a thump on his chest.

“Fuck, you’re heavy,” Harry gasps.

Crookshanks sits down neatly and miaows into Harry’s face at an ear-splitting volume.

“What? What do you want?”

“Where did that come from?” Draco mumbles, and Harry’s eyes snap to him immediately.

Rising slowly from a sleepy tangle on the floor, Draco blinks at Harry and Crookshanks and rubs at his ruffled hair. He looks soft and confused, as though all of his hard edges have been rubbed away, and Harry suddenly doesn’t know what to say. His back is tingling from where he’d been held and all he can think about is whether or not Draco has any memory of doing it.

“It’s a cat,” Harry says after a moment.

“I can see that.”

“It’s Hermione’s cat... it’s...” Harry stares at Crookshanks, who whisks his tail and releases another loud miaow into Harry’s face. The intelligent eyes bore into Harry’s and he laughs, startled. “Did you come to get me?”

Crookshanks flicks his large orange ears importantly.

“How did you even...?”

“Don’t try to work out cats,” Draco says, stretching and getting to his feet with a wince. “They just know things.”

Crookshanks purrs, causing Harry’s chest to vibrate underneath him. He refuses to move until Draco leans down and picks him up, allowing Harry to stand, slowly and stiffly, and make his way out of the tent.

“Ow,” Crookshanks says as Harry spells the plant to cover the sleeping snails.

“Ow!” Crookshanks insists as Draco replaces the repelling magic and puts out the fire.

“OW!” Crookshanks wails as they take a little too long following him up the slippery hillside.

“I’m coming!” Harry shouts, a little louder than he means to, and a flock of birds erupt from a nearby tree in an irritated flutter.

Crookshanks, however, is going nowhere without them, and he trots ahead of them all the way across the lawn, stopping every few feet to turn and check that they are still moving in the right direction.

They trudge along in silence, still half-swathed in sleep, and Harry decides that there is absolutely no need to mention the position they had obviously quite accidentally found themselves in during the night. It’s only natural, after all, that cold, tired people seek out any warmth they can. It’s instinctive and it’s fine and it doesn’t mean anything, certainly not anything that he needs to be thinking about. Maybe it means that they are learning to get along at last, and that can only be a good thing.

“I don’t even want to think about how you got out,” Harry says to Crookshanks as he pulls open the front doors to the castle.

Crookshanks chirrups and darts inside. Harry follows him and walks straight into Filch, who is gripping his lantern and smirking.

“Sneaking about at five o’clock in the morning, are you, Malfoy?” he says, appearing to look straight past Harry as if he isn’t there. “I knew I was right to keep my eye on you...”

“Hang on a minute,” Harry says, indignant, but Draco interrupts him.

“Don’t bother. Filch, it’s amazing just how much of a toss I don’t give about your opinion. Talk to McGonagall in the morning about this if you want to, because I’m going to bed,” Draco announces, and without a backward glance, he stalks past Filch and out of sight.

Harry stares after him for a moment, full of admiration and something that makes him feel completely careless. He turns to Filch and shrugs.

“That goes for me, too, sorry,” he says, and walks away with a purring Crookshanks at his heels.

Chapter Text

Eighth of December – A key in a door

8th december

As the selection process picks up speed, the action inside the blue circle becomes almost frenetic, with those snails who have yet to choose their mates stepping up their efforts to find a match. Tuesday night’s session is so intensive that every single snail is sound asleep by ten o’clock, and Harry finds himself at an unexpectedly loose end.

He and Draco walk back to the castle in weary silence, the previous night’s confusion and lack of quality sleep weighing heavily over them both. In the Entrance Hall, they part ways without a word and Harry heads for Gryffindor Tower feeling exhausted but content. According to Rare Gastropods of the British Isles, it shouldn’t be long before the tripudium moves into its next stage—the mating ritual itself. It is, apparently, a rather drawn-out process, but Harry doesn’t mind; he doubts there is any point rushing things when it comes to mating or snails, and if he’s honest, he’s just happy that so far, everything is going to plan.

At least... it is when it comes to the snails. He’s no longer sure of what to do with Draco, how to behave or how to feel. He has spent a decent part of the last six months trying to be his friend and being repeatedly rebuffed or simply stonewalled; now that they are, against the odds, becoming comfortable with one another, he feels as though he has been set adrift on a sea of what-the-fucking-hell-do-I-do-now, which is nothing less than unsettling.

Still, neither one of them has mentioned the incident in the tent, and neither one of them has heard anything from McGonagall regarding Filch, so it definitely isn’t all bad. With that thought in mind, Harry climbs through the portrait hole and into the common room. The heat from the roaring fire hits him instantly and he hurries towards it, finding several of his friends grouped around the fireplace with steaming mugs which are raised in greeting when he joins them.

“You’re back early,” Dean says, looking up from the sketchpad on his knees.

Seamus, who is peering over his shoulder, grins at Harry. “Snails not in the mood tonight?”

“On the contrary,” Harry says, stepping up to the hearth and warming his cold hands. “I think they sort of wore themselves out.”

“It’s hard work finding the right one,” Hermione says from behind her dictionary of runes, and Ron, who has been scribbling away at a long piece of parchment on the hearthrug, rests his head against her knee and makes a slightly disturbing kissy face that earns him a light whack on the head with Hermione’s book.

“It’s hard work finding some people full stop,” Nev mumbles, and when Harry turns to him, he sees that he is peering at the Marauders’ Map, eyebrows drawn down in concentration. At his side, Trevor looks at Harry and croaks reproachfully. “I hope you don’t mind...” Nev says suddenly, looking up at Harry with a worried expression.

“Of course not. Who are you looking for?”

“I’ll bet anyone five Galleons it’s Luna,” Seamus says.

“Nobody in their right mind would take that bet,” Ron mutters to his homework.

“Well, I wanted to ask her something!” Nev protests, turning slightly pink. “About Thestrals...”

Harry grins and leans over to see the map. After a moment, he points to a small dot moving quickly across the grounds and towards the forest. “There she is.”

“She’s gone to see them without me!” Neville says crossly. “We’re supposed to be partners!”

“I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm,” Hermione says, looking up at last. “You know how scatty she is, she probably forgot all about you.”

Neville’s mouth presses into a tight little line and Hermione wrinkles her nose apologetically, seeming to realise her lack of tact a moment too late.

“Sorry, Nev. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Neville sags, draping the map over the arm of his chair. “I know. It’s probably true, though... no, bugger it—I’m going to find her!” he declares, jumping to his feet and stomping out of the common room without stopping to even put on a coat. Having spent the last three hours outside, Harry shivers at the thought, but he silently wishes Neville the best. Sometimes, a Gryffindor’s got to do what a Gryffindor’s got to do, even if it’s impulsive, ill-advised or downright daft.

“He’s mad,” Ron says, sounding rather admiring, and Harry smiles, picking up the map and scanning it absent-mindedly.

There’s McGonagall, pacing back and forth in her office, Filch, heading down a fourth-floor corridor towards a group of students, Sharma, standing in the kitchen, perhaps helping herself to a late-night snack. To his surprise, Harry’s stomach rumbles in approval at the idea, and he is just about to ask if anyone wants any food bringing back when he notices it: the little inky representation of Draco Malfoy sitting right in the middle of what Harry is almost certain is Snape’s old office.

He frowns, moving his finger across the parchment and counting the rooms along the corridor, just to make sure, and sure enough, according to the map, Draco is currently in Snape’s office. Which is odd for many reasons, not least of which being that that room has been shut up ever since Snape stopped teaching Potions over two years ago. Slughorn had never wanted Snape’s office, despite its convenient proximity to the Potions classrooms, and when Sharma had taken over in September, she had simply moved into Slughorn’s old office.

For several minutes, Harry just stares at the Draco Malfoy dot. It doesn’t move. Conflicted, he taps his fingers on the edges of the map and tries to decide what to do. Part of him is very clearly insisting that whatever Draco is doing is none of his business, but a much louder and more irritating part is yelling and prodding at him, demanding to know what is going on, and when that part of him wins the struggle and forces him to his feet and out of the common room, he quietly loathes himself, but his heart still races as he hurries through the castle and down towards the dungeons.

He stops outside the door, staring at the dark grain of the wood in the flickering torchlight and reminding himself that he can still turn back; he can still walk away and leave Draco alone. When his gaze snags on the key, though, his restraint is all but dissolved in curiosity. He has never seen a key in this door before. When it had still belonged to Snape, the key had been with him at all times, and since then... he must have walked past this door a hundred times since term began, and there has never been a key.

Until now.

The key is large and intricate, made of tarnished brass, and Harry reaches out a tentative hand to touch it. It’s then that he hears the words, muffled beyond recognition but easily identifiable as belonging to Draco, and he barely breathes as he leans closer and strains to make them out. All he can really tell is that Draco sounds upset, distressed, even, and it’s this that makes him do it in the end, makes him turn the knob and push the door open.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Draco demands, rising from the desk chair like an angry snake and glaring at Harry.

He doesn’t draw his wand, and for some reason, this surprises Harry so much that he doesn’t respond immediately.

“Potter—can you hear me? What the hell are you doing in here?” Draco hisses.

“The door was open,” Harry says, looking around at the dimly-lit room. The desk hulks large in the centre, dominating the space, but the walls are lined from floor to ceiling with shelves, all of which are stuffed with books and papers and bottles and jars and skeletons of animals Harry cannot even identify. The whole place smells of damp and leather and pungent spices, and all at once Harry can feel Snape as though he is in the room with them.

“Yes, I know,” Draco snaps, taking a step closer to him, “but that doesn’t explain what you’re doing here, does it?”

“What about you?” Harry asks, pushing the door closed behind him and leaning on it until it clicks. “Why are you here? And who were you talking to?”

“No one,” Draco says, a little too quickly, pale skin flushing. “I was just looking for something, not that it’s any of your business.”

“Okay,” Harry says easily, letting the door take his weight. “Where did you get the key?”

Draco’s scowl softens into a frown of confusion. “It was in the door. It’s been here for days. I... never mind that,” he says, seeming to wilt a little. He drops back into the chair and sighs.
Harry stares at him, taking in his rumpled shirt, his rolled-up sleeves and his hair, dishevelled as though he has been raking his hands through it. His usual composure, which had been firmly in place during the walk back to the castle just minutes earlier, is nowhere to be seen. In its place is a bewildering mixture of sadness, humiliation and a sharp, spiky sort of anger that might just be too much to carry.

Overwhelmed, Harry looks away, examining the dusty green floor tiles as his blood races and his face begins to heat.

Anywhere but here, he thinks, silently cursing his lack of restraint, his curiosity, Neville and Luna and Snape and Draco himself. Without any single one of those things he could be sitting by his common room fire and drinking tea, not here, in this musty old mausoleum with someone who is giving off leave me alone vibes strong enough to knock him over.

“I wanted to see if the cooling potions were here,” Draco says quietly. “The ones Hagrid told us about.”

Harry looks up, surprised. “If Snape made them... won’t they have degraded by now?”

Draco regards him intensely for a moment, then sighs and leans on the desk on his elbows.

“I don’t want to use them.”

Cautiously, Harry steps away from the door and into the room. “What do you want them for?”

“They were his,” Draco says, and when he looks at Harry again his eyes are bright, defiant, daring him to argue. “I just want something that he made.”

Harry’s breath catches in his throat and for several seconds he cannot say a word. Chest aching, he leans against the nearest shelf and scrabbles for a response.

“Did you find them?”

“Not yet,” Draco says.

“You’ve been here before,” Harry says as though it’s obvious, and suddenly it is. All of it.

Draco nods. “Every day since I noticed the key.”

Harry closes his eyes for a moment, letting the realisation crash over him in a vast, painful wave. Snatched images flash through his mind—Ron’s flippant remarks and Draco’s hot fury in McGonagall’s classroom, his tight-lipped distress at Hagrid’s affectionate trip down memory lane, the dark, searching eyes of a man who had loved silently and painfully until the very last.

He forces his eyes open. Draco is now gazing at him from behind the desk with a calm expression that doesn’t fool Harry for a moment.

“I didn’t realise,” he says, almost in a whisper. “I didn’t realise he was special to you.”

Draco swallows hard. “If you’ll excuse the cliché, Harry, he was the father I never had. Lucius Malfoy taught me how to be a Death Eater. Severus taught me how to be a human being. He tried, at least,” Draco says, quirking his lips in a half smile that looks painful. “So, yes, he was special to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, because he has no idea what else to say. He never expected to hear any of this, and Draco’s quiet, stilted candour is both thrilling and terrifying.

Draco nods and then stares down at his forearms, eyes tracing the faded black lines he has always taken pains to conceal.

“He begged me not to do it, you know,” he says.

Something wrenches inside Harry at the thought and he pushes off the shelves, catching his palm on a sharp-edged book. He hisses and lifts his hand to his mouth, sucking at the small wound and tasting warm, coppery blood on his tongue. He stops at the desk, looking down at Draco from the opposite side.

“Why did you?”

Draco’s eyes burn in the low light. “I suppose I thought I didn’t have a choice.”

Harry folds his arms, barely noticing the seep of blood from his palm to his thin shirt. “Did you?”

“There’s always a choice,” Draco says. “Severus taught me that. I wish he’d taught me a little bit sooner, but it wasn’t his fault that I didn’t want to learn.”

Harry finds himself wanting to smile. Instead, he bites his lip and stares at a tiny little skull on the shelf above Draco’s head.

“Will you sit down or something? You’re making me nervous,” Draco snaps, and when Harry looks around for a chair, he rolls his eyes, stands up and lowers himself to the floor next to the desk, then looks up expectantly at Harry.

Taken aback, Harry slides to the floor beside him and leans back against the shelves. The tiles are cold and hard beneath him and the metal-tipped books immediately dig into his back, but he doesn’t move. He can’t, not now.

“How did you find me?” Draco asks, and Harry doesn’t really intend to tell him all about the Marauders’ Map, but the story seems to come tumbling out quite without his permission.

Draco listens with growing interest. “He knew they had something like that,” he says with a tiny crinkle of a smile. “He must have told me a hundred times... and it was real.”

“Yep.”

“Hang on a minute,” Draco says, eyes snapping to Harry’s. “Is that how you knew where I was all the time...?” Harry is about to answer when Draco shakes his head. “Fuck it. It doesn’t matter any more, does it?”

“Not if we don’t want it to,” Harry says, mostly to himself.

Draco pulls up his knees and rests his chin on folded arms. “He’d go mad if he saw us in here.”

“Probably. Did you really come in here looking for cooling potions?”

Draco narrows his eyes. “Yes,” he snaps and then shrugs awkwardly. “I also wanted to say goodbye, if that’s alright with you.”

“You weren’t at his funeral,” Harry says as the thought occurs to him, and immediately wishes he hadn’t because the look Draco gives him squeezes his heart and makes him feel sick.

“Yes, thank you, I was aware of that. I had a secondary hearing. They wouldn’t reschedule,” he says in a small, rough voice.

Horrified, Harry stares at him. “That’s ridiculous... that’s... I really can’t... do anything about it now,” he finishes, feeling idiotic, and Draco gives him a humourless smile.

“What was the point of having that funeral if all the papers were just going to carry on writing about what a terrible person he was anyway?” Draco demands and Harry says nothing, because he’s right. Thanks to the more unscrupulous sections of the media, much of the wizarding world continues to doubt the real truth of Snape’s allegiances and his undercover actions during the war, and in a castle stuffed full of memorials, he has nothing but a portrait, tucked away in the headmistress’s office.

“I don’t know,” Harry says after a moment, because he has nothing better to offer. He can’t change the way people think and he doesn’t know how to help Draco to grieve. He doesn’t know how to make it better, or even if he can, but he thinks he wants to, and maybe that’s enough.

“You don’t have to stay here... Harry,” Draco says, with a fragile attempt at nonchalance. “I’m quite alright on my own, in fact, I—”

“I miss him, too,” Harry says. “I know you probably find that hard to believe, but I do.”

“You know, I would, but you’re a terrible liar,” Draco says after a moment, eyes scanning Harry’s face intently.

“Sometimes we hated each other,” Harry admits, and Draco makes a small sound of amusement.

“Sometimes,” he echoes, lost for a moment in some private memory. When he turns to look at Harry again, his eyes are bright with tears and his voice shakes a little as he says, “I don’t want to talk about him any more.”

“At all?” Harry says, puzzled.

“No, you idiot, now. I don’t want to talk about him any more right now,” Draco says, regaining some of his usual strength in order to raise his eyes to the ceiling.

Harry pretends not to notice the tears that escape and are quickly dashed away with the back of a pale hand.

“I could help you look for those potions if you want,” he offers.

Draco frowns. “Why are you being so nice?”

“I’m always nice,” Harry says, heaving himself to his feet and turning to examine the bottles on the nearest shelf. “Any chance they’ll be labelled?”

He can hear the scrape and rustle as Draco gets up but he still almost jumps out of his skin when he leans over his shoulder to pick up a tall bottle with a blue liquid inside.

“He had a sort of code,” he says, warmth bleeding through Harry’s thin shirt despite a good few inches of space between them. “If you see something with this symbol on it, let me know.”

Harry nods, staring at the spiky little symbol on the label without really seeing it. He has no idea what he is supposed to be feeling in this situation, but whatever it is, it’s confusing, and when Draco moves away, he is both relieved and disappointed.

He isn’t sure how long he spends scanning the shelves of bottles, but he is beginning to feel stiff and leaden on his feet when he finally comes across the mysterious symbol on a tiny, rounded bottle stuffed behind a stack of dusty old crystal phials. He pulls it out and examines it, wondering, not for the first time, why he is here instead of in bed, and then he shows it to Draco and the relief on his face washes away his doubt and exhaustion in an instant.

“You found one,” he murmurs, taking the bottle and holding it up to the light, where the glimmering particles from the frost trails become easily visible.

“What are you going to do with it?” Harry asks, catching his enthusiasm and letting it lift him.

“I don’t know.” Draco wraps his fingers tightly around the bottle and takes a deep breath. “All of his things were... well, they were all destroyed, and I didn’t...” Closing his eyes, he composes himself and meets Harry’s gaze calmly. “I’m going to take care of it.”

Harry smiles at him and he smiles back, passing the bottle from hand to hand and shifting on the spot as if uncertain quite what to do next. The grey eyes are warm and unexpectedly unguarded on Harry’s, making him feel as though he can’t quite take a full breath.

“Thank you,” Draco says, and the fingertips of his free hand graze Harry’s upper arm.

Harry nods, licks nervously at his dry bottom lip, and then gasps as Draco takes a rapid step forward and kisses him, slipping a cold hand into his hair and brushing his mouth against Harry’s. Head spinning, he opens his mouth to draw in air and his tongue slips against Draco’s, sending electricity carving down his spine. His hands clench into fists at his sides, somehow unable to push Draco away or pull him closer, and in the whirl of confusion, Draco steps back, staring at Harry in wide-eyed horror and gasping for breath as though he has been punched in the stomach.

“Erm...” Harry manages, groping behind himself for the solid support of the shelf and grabbing it hard until the fresh cut on his palm begins to sting.

“Sorry,” Draco says stiffly, and before Harry can respond, he lunges for the door and disappears, leaving Harry in the dimly-lit office with only the sound of his own rapid breathing for company.

Slowly and unsteadily, he lets go of the shelf, locks up the office and walks through the silent castle. The common room is deserted, and when he reaches his dormitory, all of his friends are sleeping. Relieved, Harry gets into bed and stares up at his canopy until a restless sleep claims him.

Chapter Text

Ninth of December – Dancing starlings

9th december

“Harry, what are you doing?” Hermione hisses, reaching over and grabbing his wrist just in time to prevent him from emptying the contents of his pencil case into his simmering cauldron.

He blinks, stares down at his hand and shakes his head dully. “I don’t know.”

“The ink would have made your whole cauldron explode,” she whispers, taking the pencil case from Harry and turning her back on Sharma, who is walking between the desks and inspecting their work.

“Yeah,” Harry says vaguely. “And that would be...”

“Bad, Harry, very bad,” she insists, anxious eyes flicking to Ron, who shrugs.

“It’s been ages since we had a good cauldron explosion,” he says, but even through the fog in his head, Harry can detect the note of worry in his friend’s voice.

“Sorry,” he says, taking a deep breath and applying himself to the instructions in his textbook. “I’m just a bit tired, I promise. But I’m here now, I’m concentrating, it’s all fine.”

Ron and Hermione hesitate for a moment and then turn back to their own potions, but Harry can feel them watching him as he stirs six times and adds his next few ingredients, and he can’t say he really blames them. He has barely slept and has been completely all over the place since breakfast, during which he had poured sugar on his eggs and attempted to drink coffee from an empty cup. All morning long, his stomach has been leaping and roiling as he has waited to meet Draco’s eyes across the Great Hall, corridor or classroom, but so far there has been no sign of him, and with every minute that passes, his focus—and, in all likelihood, his sanity—is slipping further away from him.

“This is about last night, isn’t it?” Hermione asks for perhaps the twentieth time as they make their way to lunch, having miraculously avoided any sort of cauldron explosion. “Where did you go?”

“Just for a walk,” Harry says, steeling himself as they step into the Great Hall, but Draco is still nowhere to be seen and the smell of food makes him feel slightly sick. “You know, I think I’m going to go and lie down for a bit, I don’t feel too brilliant.”

He turns to leave, but someone touches his shoulder.

“Hang on a minute,” Blaise says, and Harry stops dead.

“Yeah?”

“I’ve got a message for you—from Draco,” he says. “He told me to tell you that you’ll have to manage on your own tonight because he isn’t feeling well. If you ask me—and I realise you didn’t—he’s faking it.”

Harry frowns, willing away the shiver that accompanies the sound of Draco’s name.

“Why would he do that?” he asks pointlessly.

Blaise smiles, displaying perfect white teeth. “Don’t ask me to get into Draco’s head; there may well be no way out,” he says, and Harry almost thinks he winks when he adds: “But maybe you already know that.”

Harry has no idea how to respond to that, but Blaise doesn’t seem to mind. He grants Harry a polite nod and then wanders over to the Slytherin table, where he seats himself between Millicent Bulstrode and Goyle and starts ladling soup into his bowl with gusto.

Harry can’t be quite certain what happens for the rest of the afternoon; the whole thing seems lost in a haze of staring blankly out of classroom windows, pretending to make notes and wandering up and down corridors, trailing behind Ron and Hermione and trying, every time he sees a bottle or a bookshelf or a desk, not to think of Draco’s tears or the warmth of his body or the way his lips had felt against Harry’s when he’d... he had kissed him, for fuck’s sake.

Draco Malfoy had kissed him. And he hadn’t minded. He doesn’t mind now... in fact, he minds less and less every time he thinks about it, and he wishes he could bloody well stop thinking about it. He probably hadn’t meant it anyway, Harry thinks, fumbling his way out of Hermione’s ‘you really would tell us if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?’ as they leave their last lesson for the day and he escapes out into the grounds, walking quickly until his face and fingers are numb with cold and then collapsing onto a rickety bench set against the castle wall.

He probably hadn’t meant it because he was sad and confused, full of grief and regret and all the sort of stuff that makes people do things they wouldn’t normally do. Besides, people don’t usually run away if they mean it, and there is no doubt in Harry’s mind that Draco is doing just that.

He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, and lets out a long, low groan. Just when he was actually starting to enjoy Draco’s company, to appreciate his dry humour and his calm intelligence and his little fits of crossness, just when he was beginning to look forward to seeing him each evening, just when he was getting to know the person behind the stiff, cold front, Draco has to go and do something like this and completely turn Harry’s world upside down.

It’s typical of him, really, Harry supposes, and he smiles against his cold fingers; just as quickly, he feels the ghost of Draco’s lips brushing his and cool hands threading through his hair and his heart lurches, dashing away his smile and forcing him upright, eyes open and fingers wrapped tightly around the splintered wooden seat of the bench.

Pulling in a wobbly breath, he looks out over the grounds. The sun has dipped below the horizon now and the sky is streaked with pink and purple, lending a rather dramatic air to the shadowy shapes of the trees and the pointed roof of Hagrid’s cabin, from which a lazy spiral of smoke rises. As Harry watches, a swirl of small, dark shapes emerges from the forest and scatters across the pastel-coloured sky, swooping apart and then back together in perfect, dizzying formation.

In his muddled mind, they almost seem to be constituent parts of one fluid, shivering entity, and it takes several seconds for him to separate out each individual bird, gliding and wheeling amid the flock. They ebb and flow, gradually approaching the castle, and Harry tips back his head to watch, momentarily forgetting his worries as he tracks their graceful dance across the fading sky.

“It’s called a murmuration,” says a familiar voice, and then the bench creaks as someone sits down beside him. “Gran’s got a thing for birds.”

Harry glances at Neville, waiting for him to say something more, for him to start asking questions, but he just smiles at Harry and tips his head back to watch the cloud of birds. Harry lifts his eyes back to the sky and tries to relax, breathing the cold, damp air deeply in an attempt to settle his stomach. Unfortunately, it continues to feel the same as it has all day, the way it does when you miss a step on the stairs, or when someone pulls your chair from under you, and even though you know you’re going to fall, all you can do is flail your arms a little bit and hope it doesn’t hurt too much when you hit the ground.

Shooting a quick sidelong glance at Neville and then back at the sky, he wonders if it’s obvious, because despite Hermione’s confusion and barrage of questions, he feels as though it must be shining out of him, written all over him that he’s kissed—or at least, been kissed—by a man and he liked it. He felt... he feels... he catches his breath as once more his insides attempt to completely rearrange themselves, and how dare Draco do this to him, how fucking dare he?

Harry closes his eyes and suddenly all he can see is Draco, sitting in Snape’s old office, in his chair, at his desk, scrabbling desperately for a connection that no one seems to want him to have. Finding it in Harry, and oh, god, it doesn’t matter who or what he is, not when it feels like this.

When he opens his eyes, the sky has turned darker and the birds have disappeared from view.

He turns to Neville, who is gazing calmly at the forest in the distance.

“Thanks,” he says.

Neville frowns. “What for?”

Harry shrugs. “Just... thanks.”

Neville looks down at his hands, expression thoughtful. “I was wondering... not tonight, obviously, but I was wondering if maybe I could see the snails?”

“Of course you can,” Harry says, surprised. “Why ‘not tonight, obviously’?”

Neville screws up his nose. “Well, I thought... you probably wanted to be on your own.”

“I’m not on my own right now,” Harry points out.

“That’s different,” Nev says, shifting on the bench. “I didn’t know you were here. I just came out to see the starlings.”

“Oh,” Harry says, surprised. He hesitates for a moment, thinking about Blaise’s message and Draco’s avoidance tactics and the fact that he really isn’t hungry anyway, and then he turns to Neville, mind made up. “Let’s go now.”

Neville gives him a slightly startled smile and then follows him eagerly down to the lake, where he spells away the frost-covered plant to reveal the snails in their glowing enclosure.

“They’re sleeping right now, I’m afraid,” he says, crawling into the tent and lighting the fire with a flick of his wand. “Come and get warm.”

Neville, however, is far too enchanted by the snails to care about the temperature. He crouches at the edge of the circle, examining the shell of the dominant female with a huge grin on his face.

“I’ve seen pictures of these but they’re so much better in the flesh... or shell, I suppose,” he says, looking up at Harry with shining eyes. “I’d love to see them moving about a bit.”

“Stay,” Harry offers carelessly.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” he says, warmed by Neville’s genuine smile of delight. He had been sure he wanted to be alone with his thoughts, but suddenly he can’t think of anything worse. Besides, Nev is excellent company, will help him to stay awake, and is far less likely to ask difficult questions than some of his other friends. He is an accepting, easy-going sort of entity, and Harry suspects that’s exactly what he needs right now.

As they sit together at the entrance to the tent and talk about nothing in particular, Harry’s mood starts to lighten. His stomach and heart still feel as though they have been mangled by a Bludger, but his head is clearing and he even manages to force down a couple of biscuits when he gets the tin out in an attempt to assuage his guilt over Neville missing dinner.

When darkness falls completely over the tent, Harry lights the large oil lantern and the string of tiny coloured ones, and soon, the snails begin to stir awake. He shows an intrigued Neville how to cast the thermo scroll and bring the temperature of the circle into range, ready for the tripudium nocte to begin. They watch in companionable silence as the snails who have paired up find their partners and the remaining few set to work on sniffing out the perfect frost trail.

“Are they all just going to wait until everyone has a mate?” Neville asks, surprised.

“That’s what they do, according to the book,” Harry says, passing Neville the copy of Rare Gastropods of the British Isles that he has taken to carrying at all times.

“Weird,” Nev murmurs, taking the book and looking through the pages. “Weird but brilliant.”

Harry snorts. “Oh, here he is,” he sighs, automatically picking up a parsnip rod as the little snail with the uneven shell approaches the edge of the circle.

Neville looks up. “What’s he doing?”

“Probably wondering where Draco is,” Harry says, watching as the snail waves his eyestalks and pops in a markedly more anxious way than usual. “He likes him, for some reason.”

“Oh,” Nev says easily. “Like you.”

Harry’s stomach tips. He forces himself to look at Neville. “What? No!”

Neville just shrugs and smiles, and for some reason, this just makes Harry feel hot and indignant.

“No, really... I don’t... I... he kissed me!” he blurts, and then immediately wants to run out of the tent and throw himself into the half-frozen lake.

Neville laughs warmly. “Oh, okay. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Harry groans and rests his burning forehead on his knees. “It was just once... I’m not really... I don’t know what’s happening, to be honest, but please don’t tell anyone.”

“Who am I going to tell?” Neville asks. “Ron would just laugh his head off and wouldn’t believe me, Hermione would go mad at me for keeping it from her as long as it took me to get back to the castle and tell her...”

In spite of himself, Harry laughs, and then: “What about Luna?”

“Luna?” Nev shakes his head. “I don’t need to tell Luna anything. She’s had theories about the two of you for longer than you even want to know.”

Harry looks up, startled. “About me and Draco?”

Neville nods. “Yeah, and not just you two, believe me. There’s a lot of weird stuff going on in that girl’s mind.”

“I suppose the idea of me and Draco is a pretty weird one,” Harry sighs, with a sharp little pang.

Neville shrugs and picks up Draco’s parsnip rod, dangling the vegetable chunk in front of the confused snail. “I don’t think it’s that weird. There’s always been something.”

Heart hammering, Harry looks away from him and at the snails, just in time to see two more pairing up, leaving just three that have yet to find their mates. Inevitably, the snail that has taken a shine to Draco is one of them, and Harry has a sneaking feeling that he is going to be the one left alone at the end of it.

He sighs. “I don’t know, Nev. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t even know what I want to do when I leave here, never mind who I should be... you know. You don’t know. I don’t know.”

Neville makes a small sound of surprise, and Harry glances at him.

“I had no idea you worried about stuff like that,” he says, shaking his head.

“Doesn’t everyone?” Harry asks, feeling suddenly rather exposed.

Nev laughs. “Yeah, of course, but I always thought you were... you know... sorted. About everything—I mean, until recently, I thought you were just going to go off and be a superstar Auror, marry Ginny, have loads of brilliant kids...”

Harry pushes out a long breath. “Wow. No. Absolutely not.”

“It’s quite reassuring, really,” Neville says thoughtfully, crunching into a biscuit.

“For who?”

“For me. And you, if you want to look at it that way... you’re just like the rest of us. We don’t know what we’re doing.”

“Neville, I have literally no idea what I’m doing,” Harry says, and the honesty is liberating.

“Me neither. Do you think Luna wants to go out with me?”

Harry shrugs apologetically. “I have no idea. She’s kind of hard to read.”

“Tell me about it,” Nev sighs, and then turns to Harry, expression intense. “He apologised to me, you know.”

Harry frowns. “Draco?”

Neville nods. “This summer, when I was finishing off some pointing in one of the courtyards, he sort of cornered me and said he was sorry for all the stuff he’d said to me. It was a bit awkward and he clearly hated every minute of it, but I’m pretty sure he meant it.”

“I had no idea,” Harry says, a small, reluctant smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.

“I never thought to tell you before,” Neville says.

“And now...”

“Well, who knows?” Neville says, and Harry doesn’t know what to say, so they both turn back to the snails, silently admiring the glimmer of the moonlight on their shells and the sparkle of the frost trails that curve across the frozen ground and lead them to one another.

The little snail comes back to the edge and turns in circles, popping disconsolately, again and again.

It’s your fault he’s upset, he accuses silently, wondering if Draco really is unwell or if he’s just hiding away in his dormitory and sulking.

“What are you going to do about him?” Neville says, and Harry jumps.

“The snail or Draco?” he asks, and Neville just grins.

Chapter Text

Tenth of December – A winter sunset

10th december

Draco is conspicuously absent from all his lessons the following day, and by the last class of the afternoon, Harry’s confusion is turning to panic. No one seems to have seen him, and though Blaise informs Harry that he has definitely heard him rustling about behind his drawn bed-curtains, he can’t help but think there is something very wrong.

Either that or he is just going to great lengths to avoid Harry, which seems equally possible, and as he half-heartedly practises the inversion charm Flitwick has just shown them, he vacillates wildly between concern, anger and inconvenient longing. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Hermione perform the charm flawlessly and gives up, dropping his wand to his desk with a clack and slumping against the sun-warmed wood. There’s a tiny twist of guilt in his chest at the idea of giving in so easily, but he knows that Flitwick won’t push him; he has twice this week seen fit to comment worriedly on the dark shadows beneath Harry’s eyes, and Harry is pretty sure that he can now play the snail card in Charms any time he likes.

He pulls off his glasses, rubs his eyes and gazes aimlessly out of the window at the blurred shapes of the treetops in the distance. The day has been bright and clear, and the sun that is now sinking below the forest is a rich, dazzling orange that spreads across the grounds like molten bronze and sets everything in its path aflame. Despite the warmth on his face, Harry suspects the night will be a cold one, and just like that, he’s thinking about Draco again, wondering if he’ll show his face down by the lake or if Harry will have to oversee the tripudium alone. Much as he had appreciated Neville’s company, he can’t ask him to sit out with him again; after all, he’s got his own workload and his own romantic issues to deal with.

Stifling a sigh, Harry puts his glasses back on and picks up his wand just as Hermione opens her mouth to tell him off.

“You just need to twist your wrist a bit more,” she says after a moment, and Harry allows her to demonstrate the correct wand movement by grabbing his wrist and twisting it for him.

“Thanks,” he says, smiling at her. Some things never change and in the midst of all of this uncertainty, Hermione is a reassuring constant.

“You’re welcome,” she says, and then, dropping her voice: “Harry, I know something odd is going on in your head at the moment—”

“Hermione...” he sighs, but she fixes him with a stern stare and continues.

“Shut up a minute. What I want to say is that I know you’re not fine and I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I need you to know that when you change your mind, my ears... and my mind... will be open. Alright?”

Harry nods mutely, taken aback by the slightly manic light in her eyes. He has seen it before, and he knows that she means every last word. His heart, already bruised and aching, swells in his chest and he can barely restrain himself from either throwing his arms around her or poking her with his wand; he doesn’t really care which.

Instead, he just smiles at her, takes a deep breath, and has another go at the inversion charm.

**~*~**

Draco does not turn up for dinner, and while Harry can’t pretend to be surprised, he still has to fight the urge to go stomping down to the Slytherin common room and demand for him to show himself. He manages it, partly because he imagines that the result would be just as humiliating for him as it would be for Draco, and partly because Ron is in the middle of a brilliant story about Percy and a disappearing toilet that he really doesn’t want to ruin by suddenly leaving the table.

His appetite is still virtually non-existent, and he avoids the eyes of his housemates as he pushes away his plate of food having hardly touched it. Ginny gives him a warm, spontaneous hug as he leaves the table, and it isn’t until he sits down in the tent an hour or so later that he realises she has managed to slip two cheese scones into his trouser pockets.

It seems that all of his friends are in on the unspoken plan to look after him, and he can’t say he really minds; besides, by the time the snails have all woken up, he has started to feel hungry, and he silently thanks Ginny for her interference as he bites into a still-warm scone. When there is nothing left but crumbs, he dusts himself off and sprawls on his corduroy cushion, watching with interest as the snails begin, at last, the ritual of circling and swaying that signals the start of the mating process. Every snail but one now forms part of a pair, and Harry finds his attention tugged away from the mesmerising, glittering dance by the quiet popping of the lonely snail, who now hangs back on the edge of the circle and stretches his eyestalks up to the night sky.

“I’m sorry,” he sighs, offering the parsnip rod as consolation. “I don’t know what to do. The book doesn’t say anything about anyone getting left out.”

“You know what they say about people who talk to themselves.”

Harry’s heart swoops and he scrambles to his knees, pressing his hands against the cold ground as he leans out of the tent and looks around breathlessly. After a moment, Draco steps into view, long black coat buttoned up to his chin, pale hair gleaming in the moonlight and expression hovering somewhere between solemn and sheepish.

“I wasn’t talking to myself,” Harry says, sitting back down and staring at his hands as Draco ducks into the tent and sits beside him. “I was talking to the lonely snail.”

“They’ve all paired up,” Draco murmurs. “Almost all of them.”

“Yes, they’ve all paired up and they’ve started doing their mating dance and you almost missed it,” Harry says, the words coming out rather harsher than he had intended.

Draco sighs. “I couldn’t,” he says simply, and then there is silence.

Feeling as though someone has swooped in and stolen away all of his words, Harry just sits there, twisting his fingers in his lap and definitely not jumping every time Draco’s shoulder brushes his. He stares at the snails, and they make an excellent distraction, each pair seeming to move in formation with all the others; the males circle the females, slowly, carefully, and then the females circle them back, reversing the direction of movement each time. Every now and then, all circling ceases and each snail moves close to its mate, stretching out and touching eyestalks together, crossing and twisting and stroking them in a graceful, hypnotic rhythm, until a great storm of popping breaks out across the circle, and the process starts all over again.

It’s beautiful, and Harry understands now why the author of Rare Gastropods had called it a dance. He can almost hear the whirl of a waltz in his head, and it isn’t until Draco clears his throat that he realises he has been swaying from side to side along with them.

“So,” Draco says eventually, and Harry’s stomach tightens. “How long will they do this for?”

Harry sighs inwardly. “It doesn’t specify in the book. For as long as they need to, I suppose.”

“It’s important to be ready, I imagine,” Draco says, and something in his voice makes Harry sneak a glance at him, but his expression is almost painfully blank.

“Yeah,” he manages after a moment, turning back to the snails and wondering just how awkward it is going to be to sit through several days’ worth of mating rituals with someone who makes him feel as though he’s coming apart.

Not that it matters, of course. He’s going to sit through them whether he likes it or not.

With a long, controlled breath, Harry picks up his wand and casts a warming charm, keeping the pointer neatly within range. Clearly, Draco isn’t going to start the conversation about what happened the other night in Snape’s office, and Harry is buggered if he knows how to approach a subject like that, so he keeps his mouth shut and watches the snails, allowing their graceful performance to soothe his rattled nerves. After all, he can pretend there’s nothing wrong with the best of them.

“Now what do you want?” Draco mutters, and Harry looks over to see that the lonely snail has noticed Draco’s presence and is making his way across the tripudium with impressive speed, weaving in and out of the circling pairs and popping excitedly.

“He missed you,” Harry says, and when he holds out the parsnip rod, the little snail ignores it in favour of inching closer to Draco, a move which Harry feels rather proves his point.

“Well... aren’t you odd?” Draco says, frowning and leaning forward until he and the snail are almost nose to nose.

Warmth pools in the pit of Harry’s stomach at the sight, and he turns away to hide a smile.
“Takes one to know one,” he says, and he doesn’t give a fuck how childish he sounds, not least because Draco’s mouth flickers at the corners and he reaches out to give the snail’s shell a tentative pat.

The snail’s excited popping increases in volume and Draco draws back, alarmed. He settles back into a cross-legged position and examines his fingertips, which are now slightly iridescent under the light from the multicoloured lanterns.

“Why do I have the feeling that I shouldn’t have done that?” he mutters to himself.

“There’s no reason you shouldn’t,” Harry says. “We’re not supposed to touch them while they’re involved in their breeding rituals, but this one is... well, I don’t know what he’s going to do, but I doubt there’s any breeding on the cards for him this year.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to breed,” Draco says, frowning and fishing about in the tin for a piece of shortbread. “Has someone else been down here?”

“You can tell that from the biscuit tin?” Harry asks, astonished.

“Of course I can. You hardly eat anything at all, I wasn’t here last night, and the bloody thing is almost empty,” Draco says, holding out the tin to show Harry.

“As it happens, Neville was here,” Harry says with a touch of defensiveness. “He was hungry because he missed dinner so he could keep me company.”

“Oh,” Draco says, deflating rapidly. He clicks the lid back onto the tin and sets it aside.

“What is it?” Harry asks, when it becomes clear that Draco has something to say but is trying not to say it. He can feel it crackling in the air between them and it is starting to drive him insane.

“Nothing.” Draco frowns. “Well, alright... I suppose I’m just surprised that you brought someone else down here.”

Harry raises his eyebrows. “Oh? So you thought I should just have sat out here on my own last night while you were... whatever you were doing? Were you even ill? Blaise didn’t seem to think so.”

Draco’s eyes narrow and Harry can almost hear him making a mental note to give Blaise a piece of his mind or worse. After a moment, his face clears and he just looks sad. Letting out a long, shuddery breath, he speaks, staring at the snails the entire time.

“I apologise for the way I behaved today, yesterday... and the night before.”

Harry stares at him, head pounding with confusion. “Is that it?”

Draco turns to him, incredulous. “What do you mean, is that it? Do you need me to apologise for every ridiculous thing I have ever done to you, because if that’s what you want, we’re going to need a quill and a hell of a lot of parchment...”

“No, you idiot,” Harry says, meeting his eyes at last and suddenly feeling unsteady. “I mean... aren’t we going to at least talk about... you know... what happened?”

Draco flushes and looks away. “No.”

No?” Harry repeats. “You can’t just...”

“I think it’s best,” Draco interrupts, avoiding Harry’s eyes and holding himself stiffly, “if we just forget the whole thing. Pretend it never happened. Move on, and so forth.”

Harry shakes his head in disbelief. I can’t, he wants to say, to yell. I can’t do that. You’ve changed everything and now you want to shove it back into its box? Well, fuck you, Draco, it’s not going back in.

In the end, all that comes out is, “Why?”

“It’s for the best,” Draco says simply.

“Why is it?”

“Don’t, alright?” Draco says, so quietly that Harry almost doesn’t hear it, and something compelling in his eyes, something that washes over Harry in a wave, makes him drop his protests and capitulate.

“Fine,” he says. “It never happened. Do you want a cup of tea?”

“Please,” Draco says, seeming to relax a little.

As Harry fills the kettle and places it in the fire, he watches Draco watching the snails, watches his minute changes of expression and the way his hair falls into his eyes when he leans forward to see something more clearly. He’s glad to have Draco back—that much is obvious from the way his whole body is humming with approval and the fact that he keeps wanting to smile at absolutely nothing—but there is no way on this earth that he is going to forget that kiss as long as he lives. With that rebellious thought in mind, he passes Draco his tea with a smile that seems to startle him, and he settles down to enjoy the snails’ dance wrapped in a strange sort of contentment.

It’s almost one o’clock in the morning when Harry slips into his dormitory, but only Dean and Seamus are asleep, a flurry of papers stretching between their beds as thought they have both lost consciousness in the middle of a planning meeting. Neville is propped up in bed with an enormous dictionary of flowering plants and Ron is peering at Harry from beneath his sheets and blankets with a surprisingly shrewd expression.

“Is he back, then?”

“What makes you say that?” Harry asks, flicking a glance at Neville, who offers a tiny ‘no idea’ shrug in response.

“Dunno,” Ron says, yawning. “Just a feeling.”

“He is back, as it happens,” Harry admits, but Ron says nothing, and when he turns to look he realises that Ron has turned over and closed his eyes, and is now breathing steadily. Harry sighs and looks at Neville. “How does he do that?”

“No idea,” Nev says. “Are you okay?”

Harry drops onto his bed, allowing himself to flop onto his back. His mind is still racing and every last part of him feels either heavy or aching or electrified. Draco wants to forget the whole thing. Maybe they should. Maybe it’s a thing that makes no sense... but then again, maybe it’s a thing that makes all the sense and it’s just taken him a very long time to realise it. He has no idea; he’s never felt like this before in his life and it’s extremely fucking confusing.

“Harry?” Neville repeats, and Harry pulls himself up and smiles at his friend in an attempt to reassure him that he’s not going out of his mind.

“You know what, Nev? I don’t know if I’m okay. But I don’t think it matters.”

Chapter Text

Eleventh of December – Leather Gloves

 

Harry isn’t sure what to expect when he walks down to breakfast on Friday morning, but it’s safe to say that he is surprised when Draco appears at the end of the Gryffindor table just as he is about to take his first sip of coffee and regards him with an air of impatience.

“Hi,” Harry says tentatively, ignoring the instant rush of warmth set off by his mere presence. After all, he is supposed to be pretending that none of it ever happened. “Erm... do you want to sit down?”

Draco shakes his head and Harry feels rather than hears Ron’s suppressed groan at his side. He really must stop asking him that.

“It’s minus two degrees already, and it’s going to be at least minus five tonight, so I thought it might be sensible to go down there a little bit earlier,” Draco says, fiddling with a pristine shirt cuff, and Harry realises that his temporary dishevelment has been swept away; he looks perfectly put together once more, and Harry is oddly disappointed. There had been something so human, almost accessible, about Draco’s ruffled hair and creased clothes, and he finds himself wanting to reach out and mess him up a little bit.

“Are you listening to me?” Draco asks, arms folded now.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Harry says hurriedly. “Minus two, minus five, good idea. What time do you want to go?”

Draco sighs. “After dinner?”

“What time is that?”

Draco closes his eyes for a moment and then gazes down at Harry with a worryingly patient expression on his face.

“I don’t know. Just come down when you’ve finished eating, how about that?”

“Right,” Harry says faintly, and Draco turns and walks out of the Great Hall, leaving Harry wondering if he has had any breakfast, and then deciding to put that thought right out of his mind.

He’s not Draco’s mother, after all, which is... he isn’t going to think about that.

“Wonder what was wrong with him,” Ron mumbles, dissecting a grilled field mushroom with vigour. “Whatever it was, he still looks a bit peaky if you ask me.”

“I don’t know,” Harry lies, hiding a small smile in his coffee cup. He could be reading it all wrong, of course—it certainly wouldn’t be the first time—but something about Draco’s appearance at his breakfast table after everything that has or hasn’t happened makes him feel rather hopeful. At this point, he’s not entirely sure what he’s hoping for, but he thinks he’s going to have to trust his gut. And, perhaps, when it’s finished tipping all over the place every time Draco comes near him, it’ll tell him what to do.

The day’s lessons inch by at an excruciating pace, testing every last fibre of Harry’s patience, and by the time the bell rings for the end of his last class he has lost the will to learn altogether and is occupying himself by doodling snails all over his notebook and every scrap of parchment he can get his hands on.

He doesn’t see Draco at dinner, and he briefly considers throwing on his coat and heading straight down to the lake, but he remembers the stealthy cheese scones and opts to first sit with his friends and put away enough cottage pie to satisfy their pointed little stares. He doesn’t really taste the food but it forms a warm, comforting weight in his belly as he heads out into the unforgiving evening. Draco had been right about the drop in temperature, and the razor-sharp wind that slashes across Harry’s face as he walks is enough to make his eyes water.

Inevitably, Draco is already sitting in the tent when he arrives. The fire and lanterns are lit, and the flickering light shivers across his pale skin and hair. In addition to his usual dark coat, Draco is wearing a thick, loosely knitted green scarf and a pair of black leather gloves with neat little silver buttons at the wrists. Harry feels momentarily inadequate in his bulky coat and woollen hat, but he shakes the feeling away and ducks into the tent, pulling off his Molly-knitted gloves and warming his hands in front of the fire.

Draco’s wand is resting at his side, and when Harry checks the thermo scroll, he sees that the environment inside the tripudium is well within range. As Draco reaches for the kettle and sets it to boil, Harry looks over the sleeping snails, checking their transparent shells for damage and ensuring that all mating pairs are intact. He spots the lonely snail just as a single eyestalk emerges, rotates slowly in the biting wind and then shoots straight back in.

Harry laughs and pulls out his wand, casting a spell similar to the umbrella charm to shield the snails from the worst of the wind.

“That was clever,” Draco says, and passes him a steaming cup.

“You sound surprised,” Harry teases.

“I’m not. You know, whatever I might have thought about you in the past, I never thought you weren’t clever.”

Harry looks at him, startled. “I’m not sure I believe that.”

Draco shrugs, wrapping his gloved fingers around his cup. “Everyone always said it was Granger, but I knew there was more to it. It used to drive me mad, to be honest.”

“Hermione is very clever,” Harry says, a touch defensively.

“I know she is,” Draco says, sounding amused. “My point is, I always knew it wasn’t just her. I used to say to Severus...”

Draco stops, biting his lip, and Harry nudges him gently with his knee. “Go on.”

“I don’t know. What’s the point?”

“The point is that you need to talk about him. It’s part of the process. It’s how you grieve. You talk about them, tell stories, look at pictures,” Harry says, thinking of everything the Weasleys have taught him in recent months. “That’s how you remember them.”

“Do you want to look at pictures of Severus with me?” Draco snorts, raising an eyebrow.

Harry shrugs. “If that’s what it takes.”

“Why would you do that?”

Harry’s chest aches and he sighs. “I just would, okay? Now tell me what you used to say to Snape about how clever I was.”

“I wouldn’t put it exactly like that,” Draco says, but there’s a flicker of a smile on his face as he takes a fortifying sip of tea and then begins to talk.

Harry listens, curling up on his cushion with his tea clutched tightly under his chin. Every now and then he flicks a glance at the thermo scroll and makes an adjustment to the temperature, but other than that he focuses on Draco, on the strengthening light in his eyes as he speaks, setting down his mug and gesturing wildly as his cool exterior slips away and he settles into remembering his friend and mentor.

“He was so obsessed with Quidditch,” Draco says. “Looking back, I can’t believe he didn’t have bigger things to worry about, but that first year I played for Slytherin...” Harry raises an eyebrow at the memory and Draco sighs. “Go on.”

“You bought your way onto that team.”

“My father did,” Draco corrects. “And I was a huge brat about it. Are these supposed to be my memories or yours?”

Harry tempers a smile and gestures with his cup for Draco to continue.

Draco pulls his feet up onto his cushion and fusses around for several seconds, getting comfortable.

“He was so desperate for me to beat you. Every time I saw him, he was grilling me on technique, giving me weird little tips...”

“Did he play?” Harry asks.

“Never for his house team, but he said he used to fly a lot as a child. He knew everything there was to know about the game, though; I’ve no idea how he did it,” Draco says, wistful expression darkening as he seems to sink back into his memories.

Harry casts around for something helpful to say but comes up blank. Fortunately, he chooses that moment to look over at the snails and notices that, while most of the colony is still sleeping, the lonely little snail has woken and already made his way right to the edge of the circle.

“Your friend’s here,” he says, deciding that Draco could do with a distraction.

Leaning forward, Draco inspects the little snail. “Yes?” he says, and Harry waits for him to reach for the parsnip rod, but to his surprise, Draco stretches out his gloved hand and lays it palm up on the ground, right across the boundary of the circle.

The snail pops several times and then slowly edges forward, inching its silvery body onto Draco’s fingers. Harry watches in silent astonishment as Draco carefully lifts his hand and rests it in his lap. He looks down at the snail, and the snail, eyestalks waving, looks back up at him.

“What are you doing?” Harry asks.

Pop, goes the snail. Pop, pop, pop.

“He’s not going to breed now, is he?” Draco says, still gazing down at the snail. “All the others are paired off.”

“I suppose not,” Harry concedes. “I’m just...”

“What?”

Harry says nothing for a moment, watching the snail, who has now started to explore Draco’s hand, leaving behind the characteristic frost trails.

“Didn’t Hagrid say that their trails are destructive to fabrics?”

“Some fabrics, yes,” Draco says, frowning and abruptly raising the snail to eye level. “Including leather, apparently,” he adds after a moment, and when Harry leans forward he can see that the sparkling lines left by the snail have now eaten through Draco’s glove, allowing his skin to be seen in long, pale swathes.

Harry cringes. “Shall I take him?” he offers, holding out a bare hand, but Draco shakes his head.

“No, he’s fine. No harm done, really,” he says, tugging at the glove until it falls into pieces on the floor of the tent.

The snail perches happily on his hand, waving bobbly little eyestalks up into Draco’s face and Harry just stares as the pale eyes seem to light up with pleasure.

“Those gloves were very expensive,” Draco says solemnly to the snail, and then he raises his other hand to his mouth and tugs off the undamaged glove with his teeth so that the snail can sit safely in his cupped hands. “You don’t give even a little fuck, do you?”

The snail pops and Harry closes his eyes as his heart drops down to the base of his spine.

“What’s the matter?” Draco asks.

Harry opens his eyes to find both Draco and the snail regarding him with interest.

“Nothing,” he says, faking a yawn. He leans over and picks up a tattered piece of glove, running his fingers over the soft leather and examining the little silver buttons. “Maybe we could put these back together.”

Draco shrugs. “What we really need to do is find out what kind of fabric the trail can’t damage.”

“I bet Hagrid would know,” Harry says.

“Did someone say my name?” Hagrid booms, sticking his head into the tent and narrowly avoiding setting his beard on fire.

Harry is startled but something about Draco’s calm posture tells him that he, at least, had seen or heard Hagrid coming.

“Hiya,” he says, returning Hagrid’s smile after a moment. “Come in, there’s loads of space now.”

With a hop that sends the tea tray rattling, Hagrid clears the fire and ducks inside, straightening up and beaming when he realises he can stand without stooping in the middle of the tent, where the white fabric only just grazes the top of his head.

“Very clever, lads, very clever,” he mumbles, eyes travelling over the tent’s magically extended interior.

Harry glances at Draco, who is watching Hagrid with cautious interest, snail cupped carefully in his hands. He looks as though he can’t decide whether he wants to back off to a safe distance from this enormous, hairy, chaotic person, or whether he wants to creep closer and ask him all he knows. After all, Harry realises, Hagrid is quite a bit older than he looks—he had been at school during Voldemort’s time and was already gamekeeper by the time an eleven-year-old Severus Snape had arrived at Hogwarts. He probably has loads of stories about Snape, and Harry knows it wouldn’t be difficult to persuade him to share them with Draco.

“He was left out—all the others paired up without him,” Draco says, and Harry realises that he has been staring at the little piece of leather in his hand without seeing it and tuning out everything else around him. Irritated, he gives himself a mental shake and starts listening.

Hagrid, who is now sitting on the ground and examining the snail on a huge, muddy finger, nods at Draco. “Yeah, that ’appens from time to time. Doesn’t do ’em any ’arm, y’know, they normally find a mate the next time round.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” Draco says, brow furrowed. “He hasn’t seemed interested in finding a mate at all, has he?” He looks at Harry expectantly.

“No... in fact, the only thing he’s really been bothered about is getting to us... well, getting to Draco,” Harry says, and Hagrid laughs.

“I said he liked you, didn’ I? Here.” He passes the snail back to Draco, who pats his shell with one pale finger. “Some of ’em don’t take to it, yeh know, and yeh can’t force ’em. Like people, I suppose. Gotta let ’em do whatever’s comfortable.”

“You mean that some of them don’t mate at all?” Draco asks, surprised.

“Not many, like, but some of ’em, yeah,” Hagrid says. “He’s new—never seen ‘im before, so he must be a yearling. They live in groups... like packs, I s’pose, or families, only they choose ’em. It doesn’ matter who they mate with, that’s just fer makin’ more snails as far as I can see.”

“What about the baby snails?” Harry asks. Rare Gastropods has been very sketchy on the activities of frost snails post-tripudium and he thinks it might be worth getting as much information out of Hagrid as he can... or ordering the missing book, which for some reason keeps slipping his mind.

“Ah,” Hagrid grins, “wait ’til you seem ‘’em... sweet little things, they are. Still, they’re ready to go after a few days. Usually stick with their mother’s family for the first season, though I’ve seen ’em go off on their own an’ all. Then, when they’ve ’ad their own little ones, they’ll choose a group to live in. A family. They’re quite socially complicated fer snails.”

“Interesting,” Harry mumbles, gazing out at the snails, who are once again performing their shimmering waltz inside the blue circle.

“But... how do you know what they’re doing?” Draco asks, frowning. “How do you tell them apart? This one is obviously quite distinctive, and the female, but the rest just look the same to me.”

Hagrid stares at him, expression pitying. “They look the same?”

Draco sighs and glances at Harry for help. “I didn’t mean it... like that.”

Harry opens his mouth to speak, hoping to offer support in a way that placates both of them, but Hagrid beats him to it.

“Have you got an owl?” he asks Draco.

“Yes.”

“What sort?”

“She’s an eagle owl. Sorrento,” Draco says, confusion clear in his voice. Harry thinks he knows where this is going, and he is warmed by the fact that Hagrid wants to challenge Draco, wants to push him to alter his perspective, and even more than that, despite years of disrespect, he feels that Draco is worth another chance.

Harry smiles. Hagrid is a fiercely loyal man, and far, far cleverer than anyone gives him credit for, but above all, he is kind, and he really fucking hopes Draco appreciates that.

“Right then,” Hagrid says. “She lives in the Owlery, does she?”

Draco nods.

“How d’you pick ’er out?”

“Well, there aren’t all that many eagle owls in there...” Draco begins, but Hagrid holds up a hand.

“Alright then. So I suppose that if I filled the Great Hall with eagle owls, you wouldn’ find ’er.”

“Of course I would,” Draco says indignantly. “She has special markings around her eyes and especially long ears and I know her... oh...” he trails off, dropping his eyes to the snail and letting out a flustered little sigh.

Hagrid laughs softly. “Don’t look like that! I didn’ mean to embarrass yeh... just wanted to explain. Every one of those snails is different if yeh look closely enough.”

Draco looks back at him with a fragile sort of defiance that makes Harry want to reach over and hug him until he can’t breathe. He does no such thing, of course. Instead, he shuffles back on his cushion so that Hagrid can see the snails.

“Tell us about them,” he says.

Hagrid frowns. “Tell yeh what?”

“Whatever you want. If we’re going to get to know them, there’s only one way for us to learn.”

“Alright,” Hagrid says, and he seems to expand slightly. “Well, yeh see that one pair nearest the fire?”

Draco glances at Hagrid, momentarily uncertain, and then he and the not-quite-so-lonely snail turn in the direction that Hagrid is pointing.

“Yes,” Harry says, dragging his eyes away from Draco to focus on the snail in question.

“Well, he’s three years old, an’ last year he paired up with old bossy-shell over there,” Hagrid says, pointing at the dominant female. “He was tryin’ to be all impressive an’ athletic, like, and she crashed down on top of ’im. Cracked ’is shell, an’ all, yeh can still see the join if yeh look...”

Harry looks at Draco, finds him looking back, and they share an amused glance before turning their attention back to the snail in question and agreeing solemnly that the healed crack is indeed still very much visible.

When Hagrid seems satisfied, he continues. “Now, this one... three from the left, little thing... she’s the mother of old bossy-shell, an’ she lays more eggs than any snail I ’ave ever seen. Amazin’ really, where they all come from...”

Hagrid works his way through every snail in the circle, and by the time he has finished and stomped back to his cabin, all of the snails are sleeping and Harry and Draco are covering yawns.

“I’m never going to remember all that,” Draco says, gently placing his new friend back with the others and rubbing at his face. “I’ve also drunk far too much tea. I think I might explode.”

Harry laughs. He spells the plant back into place and scrambles out of the tent, gasping as the biting chill hits him and steals away his breath.

“Don’t be dramatic,” Draco mutters, but he hisses in surprise when he steps out of their comfortable little sanctuary and into the reality of the sub-zero December night.

“You were saying?”

Draco gives him a look and starts up the hill, leaving Harry to jog after him.

“We forgot to ask him about the fabrics,” Draco says suddenly as Harry catches up to him at the top of the slope.

“Oh, yeah. Well, he’ll be back.”

“There can’t be any more to tell us about those snails,” Draco says, turning anxious eyes to him.

Harry laughs, pushing clouds of breath into the freezing air. “Maybe, maybe not. That’s not why he’ll come, though. He’s just a friendly sort of person, hadn’t you noticed?”

Draco frowns. “I thought he didn’t like me.”

“Well, he probably didn’t, once upon a time. With reason.”

“With reason,” Draco repeats, kicking at the frozen grass as they walk.

“Luckily for you, Hagrid is a very forgiving person. And I mean luckily,” Harry says sternly when Draco shoots him a questioning look, “because Hagrid is brilliant and once you’re his friend, he’ll never let you down.”

“That sounds like a Gryffindor thing,” Draco says, but he looks quietly pleased.

“Maybe it is,” Harry concedes. “And here’s another thing—he’s probably got loads of stories about Snape.”

Draco stops halfway across the lawn and stares at him. “Do you really think so?”

“Yeah,” Harry says easily. “It’s like I said before... sort of. If you spend all your time being cross at everyone, you’re never going to find out all the things they can do to help you, and more than that, how many of them want to help you.”

“Harry, you sound like a self-help book,” Draco says, starting towards the castle again.

“I don’t care. And anyway, how would you know?” Harry asks, following him with a cold-numbed grin on his face.

Draco doesn’t answer, but it doesn’t matter. He isn’t going anywhere.

Chapter Text

Twelfth of December – A frosty spider’s web

12th december

Harry wakes on Saturday morning feeling confused, aroused, and half-frozen. He allows the last threads of his dream to wrap around him as he forces himself out of bed, uncertain whether the pleasant tingling sensation in his extremities is due to the hazy image of Draco pushing him up against the wall of the tent or the fact that someone has inexplicably left a window open.

“Wankers,” he mutters, slamming it shut, but his dorm-mates are long gone and Trevor, who is perching on Neville’s pillow, merely gazes at him as though he is quite mad.

After a leisurely shower, during which he unhurriedly relives his dream to a very satisfying conclusion, and a decent hot breakfast that tastes much better than anything he has eaten lately, Harry’s good humour is restored, and he is happy to follow Ron and Hermione wherever they want to go. The corridors are quieter than usual, and it isn’t until they step out into a sunny, frozen courtyard that Harry remembers that this is a Hogsmeade weekend. The place is alive with younger students and a few of those, like Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who have permission to visit the village whenever they like and, as such, have very little interest in stuffing themselves into overcrowded shops on a Saturday morning two weeks before Christmas.

Ron points out a small crowd in one corner of the courtyard and they drift over to investigate, amused to discover that some enterprising third-years have eschewed Hogsmeade in favour of setting up a cauldron on an old table, and are making a killing by flogging steaming tin cups of delicious-smelling hot chocolate to shivering first and second-years.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione buy a mug each and decamp to a wrought iron bench next to a stone archway that, at first glance, seems to be draped with glistening silver lametta. The morning sun is dazzling in defiance to the bitterly cold air and everything in the courtyard seems to glitter beneath it. Harry sips his hot chocolate and finds that it is just about perfect, sweet and rich with just the right kick of bitterness and the perfect temperature to warm his insides.

“It’s quite good, isn’t it?” Hermione says, echoing his thoughts. She pulls her feet up onto the bench, sensible leather boots displacing ice crystals in a small cascade, and tips her face up into the sun.

“Not bad. Could do with a bit of cinnamon, though,” Ron says knowledgably, and he sniffs at his drink as though trying to detect every ingredient.

Harry laughs. “Yeah, but do you think they... oh, that can’t be good,” he mumbles, and as Ron and Hermione frown and follow his gaze, a strange sort of quiet descends over the courtyard.

McGonagall is striding across the cobbles, lips pursed and long green winter cloak swishing behind her. Some of the first-years hide their mugs behind their backs; some of them hide completely, ducking behind benches and larger friends. Behind the table, the two third-years seem to have decided to brazen it out, and they greet McGonagall with bright smiles.

“Mr Ballantyne. Miss Kim,” she says, rapping out their names with deadly precision. “What is the meaning of this?”

“Erm... we’re selling hot chocolate, Professor McGonagall,” says the boy, clutching his ladle for dear life. Neither of the entrepreneurs are Gryffindors, and Harry wonders if it’s true that students from other houses find McGonagall even more terrifying than she actually is.

“I see,” she says. “And how much are you charging for it, exactly?”

“Five Sickles,” says the boy, but the girl elbows him in the ribs.

“For you, Professor, on the house,” she says, and takes the ladle from him.

McGonagall looks down at her for long seconds and Harry finds himself cringing with anticipation. Finally, she nods, accepts a steaming mug and clacks back over the cobbles and into the castle. When she disappears out of sight, the courtyard seems to shiver with relief. Everyone starts talking again, the timid students creep out of their hiding places, and, behind the table, the two hot chocolate vendors exchange astonished grins.

“Well, that took some balls,” Ron says admiringly.

“Why does courage always have to be measured in terms of testicles?” Hermione asks.

Harry snorts and spills hot chocolate on his scarf. Ron pulls a face.

“Don’t say testicles, Hermione, that’s weird,” he complains.

“What do you want me to call them?”

“I don’t... why don’t you just not talk about them at all?”

“I’ll talk about whatever I like,” Hermione says crossly, and Harry decides to leave them to it for a moment. Truth be told, he finds their sillier arguments very entertaining, but they are best observed from a distance at which he is unlikely to find himself accidentally thumped with a book.

Keeping half an ear on their conversation, he gets up and takes himself and his hot chocolate over to have a better look at the sparkling archway. As soon as he draws within a couple of feet of it, he realises that the shining threads are not Christmas decorations at all, but strands of silk. The archway has been spanned by a huge network of spiders’ webs, each anchoring the next into place and each with a large, stripy spider in its centre.

A biting wind sweeps around the edges of the courtyard, and when it hits the archway, the whole patchwork of webs sways as one but the spiders remain still, apparently secure in their impressive collaborative structure. Impressed, Harry leans closer, examining the delicate beads of frozen liquid that line each web and refract the winter sunlight into a shimmering spectrum.

“Oh, god, what is that?” Ron whispers, coming up behind Harry and shuddering.

“It’s just a web,” Harry says. “Well, it’s a lot of webs, but look how they’ve—”

“Oh, that is not good,” Ron groans, and Harry doesn’t turn around but he can hear the thump as Ron drops back onto the bench. “Bloody spiders.”

“Ron, I can’t believe you still feel that way after all this time,” Hermione sighs. “Spiders are really useful and they can’t hurt you.”

“You weren’t there, Hermione,” Ron mumbles. “They can hurt you, believe me.”

“Not little ones like this,” she says, sounding impatient. “Well, isn’t that impressive?” she says, coming to stand next to Harry.

“I don’t have anything against them as such,” Ron says, clearly wounded. “I’m not one of those people who goes around saying ‘kill it with fire’ and all that. I just wish they’d... you know... hide a bit better.”

“I suppose they are being a bit showy,” Harry says, turning to grin at Ron.

“Yeah,” Ron agrees, expression caught midway between embarrassment and amusement. “Look at them, the flash bastards.”

Harry laughs, but when Hermione draws her wand and casts a protective enchantment around the archway, he catches her up in a one-armed hug.

“Thank you.”

“Just a bit of protection from the ‘kill it with fire’ contingent,” she offers. “They’ll be safe now.”

When he releases her, she returns to the bench and rests her head on Ron’s shoulder, whispering something that makes him smile. Harry drains his tin mug and turns back to the archway, idly wondering if Hagrid has noticed it yet.

“Five Sickles?” someone scoffs and a group of others titter appreciatively. “You must be joking.”

Harry rolls his eyes and continues to examine the intricate webs. Someone always has to be a dick, he reminds himself, but that doesn’t mean that he has to get involved. Besides, the third-years seem to be coping perfectly well by themselves; he hears the boy say, “We would never joke about hot chocolate” and the girl adding, “Sorry, no credit.”

Amused, he is just about to return to Ron and Hermione when someone calls his name.

“Harry Potter?”

“Yeah?”

He turns around to see a small group of fifth-year boys and girls, all of them staring at him. At first it isn’t clear who has spoken, but then a tall boy with reddish blond hair separates himself out from the pack and fixes Harry with a self-important stare. Harry thinks he recognises him from the Ravenclaw Quidditch team, but he can’t be sure. He is wearing a long dark coat, not dissimilar to Draco’s, but unlike Draco, he looks rather silly in it, like a child trying desperately to look like a man.

“So... erm... why aren’t you in Hogsmeade? Got detention again?” he says, and a weak ripple of laughter passes through his group of friends.

“No,” Harry says calmly. This is far from the first time that some idiot has tried to rile him in order to impress their friends or a potential love interest, and if he’s honest, he has started to find it funny. He can already tell from the lukewarm reaction of this nitwit’s friends that it isn’t going to end well for him, and it’s far easier to let him hang himself with his own stupid rope than take the bait.

“Yeah, well... I suppose you’re too tired after spending all your time looking after stupid snails,” he says, and Harry almost feels sorry for him.

“Okay. Listen, Lanley... is it Lanley? Congratulations, you know that I’m looking after some snails. Trouble is, it really wasn’t a secret. Shall we just leave it there?” he suggests, maintaining his serene expression and tapping his fingers idly against his mug.

Lanley scowls. Behind him, some of his friends begin to shift about uncomfortably.

“Alright, then,” Harry says, turning away.

“I’ve seen you hanging around with Draco Malfoy,” Lanley blurts.

Harry turns back to him, ignoring the spike of irritation that accompanies that statement.

“Right, well, good for you,” he says, painfully conscious that Ron and Hermione are now listening intently to the exchange, and they are not the only ones. The noise level in the courtyard has dropped considerably, and everyone seems to be waiting to see what he will do next.

They will be disappointed, he thinks, because he’s going to do nothing. Nothing at all.

“Are you friends?” Lanley demands.

“Yes,” Harry says, and the word comes out with a little more vigour than he intends, because all he can think about is Draco hearing about this conversation and thinking even for a minute that Harry is ashamed to be his friend.

Behind Lanley, a couple of the girls murmur to one another. Lanley makes an ugly face.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” he says, and the courtyard falls absolutely silent.

“Excuse me?” Harry says, restraint rapidly dissolving. “What did you say?”

“Oh, no,” Hermione whispers, and Lanley laughs.

“You heard me. You’re Harry Potter. You could help anyone. There are hundreds of people you could be helping, and you choose him? Just so you know, we all think there’s something wrong with you,” he says, indicating his friends, all of whom now look rather pale and all of whom are now edging away from him, not that he seems to notice.

Harry pulls in a deep breath, cold stone, moss, cocoa. He’s had worse accusations thrown at him, and Lanley is clearly an idiot. He can pull this back. He really can.

“Right, fine, so you think there’s something wrong with me. Now we know. Is that all, because I think your friends want to leave,” he says flatly.

Lanley turns to see that his support has all but vanished, and he rounds on Harry, enraged.

“Are you stupid? Can’t you see that he hasn’t changed? He’s just another Slytherin prick who shouldn’t have been allowed to come back here. His father’s in Azkaban, for fuck’s sake, doesn’t that tell you something? He should be there, too, and you should be—”

“Who the hell do you think you are to tell me what I should be?” Harry demands, and a shiver of astonishment makes its way around the courtyard. He doesn’t care. He just doesn’t care. Fingers clenched around the metal handle of his mug, he takes a step towards Lanley. Lanley takes a step back, ugly sneer spread across his face, and something breaks inside Harry. Fuck this, he doesn’t owe anyone a thing as far as the war is concerned, and if he wants to fucking marry Draco Malfoy, it’s nobody’s business but his own.

“I’m entitled to my opinion,” Lanley says grandly. “I lived through the war, too.”

“Oh?” Harry snaps. “Really? Where were you this summer? Because I was here every single day and so was Draco, and I don’t remember seeing you once.”

“You can’t say that to me, I was spending time with my family,” Lanley splutters, looking scandalised that Harry has had the temerity to even question such a thing.

“I’ll say whatever the fuck I want to people who insult my friends,” Harry says, taking another step closer and feeling a dirty rush of pleasure when Lanley turns pale.

“You shouldn’t help him,” he says, but the self-righteous edge has left his voice and now he just sounds irritated and petulant.

Harry lifts a hand to scrub at his face and groans. “Do you really think this is about who I do and don’t choose to help? For fuck’s sake... coming back here, starting again, all of it... it’s about people understanding what other people have lost. It’s about finding comfort and offering it and taking it. Why does it matter to you what I do? Why does it matter what Draco does? It’s over, Lanley... the war is over. Voldemort is dead, and this shit needs to die with him.”

“Don’t say the name,” Lanley mutters, and just for a second, all Harry wants to do is close the remaining distance between them and punch him hard in the face. He could do it, too; Lanley is pretty slight and there would definitely be the element of surprise.

As he stands there, though, breathing hard, someone wraps their fingers around his wrist and tugs gently.

“Leave it,” Hermione whispers, and Harry sags.

“Come on, let’s go,” Ron says from his other side.

They are halfway across the courtyard when a rabble of noise and a flash of movement catches Harry’s eye. He turns just in time to see Lanley being overwhelmed by what appears to be Harry’s first-year fan club. The tiny girls swarm at him like a many-legged, tinsel-decked beast, bobbing up and down like angry little popcorn kernels and shrieking into his face.

“How dare you?” one of them squeals, slapping at whatever parts of him she can reach. “How dare you talk to Harry like that?”

“If Harry likes him, then we like him, too!”

“Yeah! And my brother is in your class! I’m telling him that you’re mean!”

Lanley stands there for a moment, staring down at them with a panicked expression, and then he shakes them off and sprints out of the courtyard with a mass of angry little girls in hot pursuit. His friends burst into laughter, and soon everyone in the vicinity is giggling. Even Hermione, who is clearly still very cross, allows herself to get caught up in the bubble of relieved hysteria.

“I think we need more hot chocolate,” she says, heading for the table, but one of Lanley’s classmates stops her.

“We’ll get them,” he says, pulling out a money bag and ordering three fresh drinks. “We didn’t know he was going to do that. I have no idea what’s wrong with him.”

Harry restrains himself from sharing his opinion on exactly what is wrong with Lanley, and accepts the hot mug graciously. As the noise of excited chatter begins to fill the courtyard again, Harry sits down on the cold bench next to Hermione and allows the last jitters of his anger to fade away. Before long, all that is left is the embarrassment of having made a scene, and he suspects that won’t be going anywhere for quite some time.

Resigned, he sips his hot chocolate and looks over at the glistening archway, and what he sees there almost makes him drop the entire scalding cupful in his lap.

On the other side of the network of spiders’ webs, wearing his coat and scarf and a rather stunned expression, is Draco.

“How long has he been there?” Harry whispers, mainly to himself.

“Long enough,” Hermione says.

He turns to her, horrified. “Oh, god.”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t notice. Lanley certainly didn’t,” she says.

“Great,” Harry says, staring down at his hot chocolate and wishing for something stronger.

When he looks back at the archway, Draco has gone.

**~*~**

“I heard what you said,” Draco says just after midnight, as they are about to part ways in the Entrance Hall.

Harry lets out the long, tense breath that he feels like he has been holding for hours. “I know.”

“What did you do that for?”

Harry stares at him, at his genuinely puzzled expression, the uncertainty in his eyes, the bit of hair that the wind has caused to stick straight up. He is exhausted, every bit of him is starting to ache with longing, and he has no idea how much longer he can keep it all in.

“Because I wanted to,” he says at last, and heads for the stairs. When he reaches the first landing, he sneaks a glance down to the Entrance Hall.

Draco is still standing there.

Chapter Text

Thirteenth of December - A snow-covered Christmas tree

13th december

Despite Harry’s plans to waste his Sunday staring moodily into the fireplace and consuming caffeinated beverages, he ends up spending most of it surrounded by books and parchment as Hermione supervises his latest attempt to catch up with his homework. By the time he leaves the castle to walk down to the lake, he is covered in ink and has a case of cabin fever so severe that he welcomes the blast of icy wind that snatches away his hat and sends it skittering across the grass.

“Come on, then,” he calls into the darkness, casting a spell to Summon the hat back but stuffing it into his pocket and allowing the gusts to tear through his hair.

He has the very real suspicion that he’s going mad, and if he is, it’s almost certainly Draco’s fault. Draco, with his smiling at Harry across the Great Hall at lunchtime, and his ridiculously earnest interactions with the lonely snail, and his silent, stubborn insistence that there’s nothing between them, is ruining Harry from the inside out, and all he can really do is be grateful that this didn’t happen years ago, or he’d surely be in a mental institution by now.

Roommates with Lockhart, maybe, he thinks, shuddering at the thought and sliding unsteadily down the hill towards the lake. Of course, there is the nagging possibility of just talking to Draco about the whole thing, but then their fragile new relationship doesn’t seem to run on such straightforward logic.

He stumbles through the trees, caught up in the momentum of the descent, and comes to a stop right on the edge of the water.

“Where did that come from?” he wonders aloud, and there is no answer, even though the light from the fire tells Harry that Draco is around somewhere.

Someone has planted an enormous fir tree next to the tent and decorated it with fairies, multicoloured lights and strange little wooden animals. The heavy branches are groaning with ornaments and what appears to be a generous dusting of real snow. Intrigued, Harry draws closer and takes off his gloves to run his fingers over the soft, spiky branches. The snow is powdery and cold to the touch—definitely real, despite there not being a single flake on the ground—and the tree smells wonderful, clean and festive and full of promise.

“Are you going to tell me where this came from?” he asks, ducking into the tent and staring down at Draco, who is reading by the fire in his coat and scarf. There is a round ginger biscuit on his left shoulder, and on top of that sits the little snail, looking quite pleased with himself. “What are you doing?”

“Which question do you want me to answer first?” Draco asks without looking up.

“Why are you such a pain in the arse? That’s a question,” Harry says irritably, flopping onto his cushion and wiping his wet hands on his coat.

“There’s no need for that,” Draco says mildly. “I am reading about Australasian Aboriginal runes, and Solomon is admiring the new decorations, which, I believe, came from Hagrid.”

Harry isn’t sure which part of that sentence to focus on, so he finds himself saying, “Why is he sitting on a ginger biscuit?”

“You saw what happened to my gloves. I didn’t want my coat ruined, and as I don’t know which fabrics are safe for him yet, I had to improvise.”

“That... makes a weird sort of sense,” Harry admits. “And his name is Solomon?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know that’s his name?”

“He told me,” Draco says solemnly.

Harry gazes at his sharp profile and his large, serious-looking book, and then at Solomon, perching on a biscuit on his shoulder and waving his eyestalks contentedly. When Draco looks up at him inquiringly, he feels as though someone has scuffed up his heart with a scouring pad. In an attempt to pull himself together, he puts the kettle on to boil and moves around the tent, letting the calm ritual of tea-making soothe his restless spirit.

When even tea doesn’t help, he knows it’s over. He’s in love with Draco, and there’s nothing anyone can do for him.

“What’s the matter?” Draco asks. “You look like someone just told you Christmas is cancelled.”

Harry smiles weakly. “Sorry. It’d better not be—I’ve been looking forward to this one.”

“I’m not sure what to think about it, to be honest,” Draco says.

“Well, I wasn’t really a fan until I came here,” Harry admits, picking up his wand to adjust the temperature as the first snails begin to wake up.

“Your family?”

Harry makes a face. “They’re not my family. We might be related, but the Weasleys and Hermione are my family.”

Draco turns to look at him, eyes intense. “If only it were that simple.”

“Families aren’t simple,” Harry says, pressing a smile to his forearm as he pulls his knees in tight to conserve warmth. “They’re messy and difficult and sometimes they let you down. You put up with stuff because you love them but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with any old crap that they throw at you.”

Draco sighs. “How is it that the boy who grew up without a family understands them better than I do?”

“I probably don’t,” Harry admits. “Besides, our experiences couldn’t have been more different, could they?”

Draco says nothing for several minutes, and Harry lets him. He warms his hands by the fire and admires the way the new decorations cast multicoloured light over the snails, which is reflected back by the particles in their shells, giving the effect of a very slow-moving disco ball.

“We don’t talk about him,” Draco says eventually. “My mother and I. I don’t hate him any more and I don’t think she ever did... it’s just that there isn’t anything left to say.”

A dull sort of pain settles in Harry’s chest. “How is she?”

“Fragile,” Draco says. He unsticks Solomon from his biscuit and lets him slide around on the back of his hand. “She certainly doesn’t want anything to do with Christmas this year. She sent me a letter a few days ago from some village or other in the Alps.”

“So, you’re not going home?”

“To an empty house? No,” Draco says. “I’d rather be here, even if I’m not wanted.”

“You are wanted by some people,” Harry says fiercely, and then looks away, flushing.

“Is that so?” Draco asks, almost sounding amused.

Harry stares at the snails. “Yes.”

“Right,” Draco says, and then lets out a heavy sigh. “She’s going to be okay, you know.”

Harry looks at him. “I know.”

“Things take time.”

“They do.”

Draco bends to mumble to Solomon and Harry just watches him, feeling helpless.

“Severus was my family,” he says after a minute or two. “In that way you talked about.”

“Yeah, he was,” Harry says. “How old were you when you first met him?”

Draco shakes his head, a small smile lifting his expression. “I can’t even say. He was just always there. I realise now where he met my father, but once he and my mother became friends... it was as if none of that mattered. When he came to the Manor, he came to visit us, not him.”

“I can’t imagine him with a really young child,” Harry says, grinning. “It’s just weird.”

“It probably was weird,” Draco concedes. “He hated getting anything on his clothes and I spilled on him a few times. He never shouted, though... he’d just teach me the spells to clean up. I didn’t have a wand, obviously, but he made me memorise them anyway. I suppose he did me a favour... you wouldn’t believe how many cleaning spells I know.”

“I don’t suppose you had much use for them with a house-elf around,” Harry says, remembering Dobby with a smile that hurts just a little bit.

“No, but I’ll need them when I leave here. I’m never having a house-elf again; they give me the creeps.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Oh, don’t you start,” Draco grumbles. “Severus used to think it was funny, too. When I was a child, he used to talk like one to frighten me.”

Harry laughs. “That’s fantastic.”

Pop, goes Solomon. Both of them glance at him for a moment and then back at each other.

Draco’s mouth twitches into a smile, and despite the little voice inside his head pleading with him to fight for his dignity, Harry is powerless to do anything but smile back.

“You’ve got crumbs on your coat,” he says for no good reason that he can see, and before he can stop himself, he is reaching out and brushing the tiny fragments of ginger biscuit from Draco’s shoulder.

“Well, that’s something,” Draco says nonsensically, and then his face creases into a light frown.

Something about this expression makes Harry’s heart leap in his chest and he can’t quite temper an idiotic grin as he attempts to pull his hand away from Draco and instead ends up giving his elbow an awkward squeeze.

“What are you doing?” Draco asks solemnly, leaning closer and fixing Harry with a curious gaze that is warm and flickery with the reflections of far too many tiny lights.

Solomon pops again, louder this time, but Harry ignores him, because Draco’s clean fragrance is drifting around him and his mouth is dry and he can’t quite remember if he’s breathing or not.

“Erm,” Harry says, and wow, that’s articulate, and he wonders what Draco would do if he just leaned forward and kissed him right this second, because that is starting to seem increasingly like the only thing he can possibly do, and Draco is just looking at him, and if that snail doesn’t stop popping, he’s going to...

“It’s starting,” Draco murmurs, and Harry blinks.

With some effort, he looks down at the excitable snail in Draco’s hand and then over at the tripudium, where the slow, stately dance has come to a complete halt. For what seems like a long time, everything is still, and Harry is just about to reach for Rare Gastropods of the British Isles when the dominant female—old bossy-shell herself—stretches up to the night sky and reprises her jangling call at such a volume that the lake itself seems to shudder and Harry, Draco and Solomon lean back in alarm.

When the sound fades away, Harry’s ears continue to ring for a good minute or so but he finds himself leaning forward again, fascinated, to watch this next stage of the ritual. Rare Gastropods had all but skimmed over the actual mating process, and other than some vague and alarming mentions of love darts, the whole thing has, so far, been left to Harry’s imagination.

As it unfolds in front of him, however, he thinks he might understand why the author had not attempted a description. What is happening inside the tripudium is so bizarre, otherworldly and beautiful that dry words on a page could not begin to capture it. Hundreds of eyestalks swivel to fix upon the dominant female and her partner, a snail of healthy proportions that is still a fraction of her size. With one final bellow, she turns in a complete circle. She and her mate slide unhurriedly towards one another until their glistening bodies are touching and then stretch skyward with slow, sinuous grace, arching and swaying together, eyestalks held out straight and proud.

Harry watches anxiously as they continue to surge upwards, soft bellies pressed together and anchoring one another against the fragility of their position, shells tipped backwards and silvery bodies turning transparent and ghostly in the moonlight, ruffled edges pressed together in a pulsing, rippling wave.

Harry hears Draco’s caught breath as the large female arches even further backwards and lifts the smaller male completely off the ground. He pops in alarm and she adjusts her position, allowing the very tip of his body to rest against the ground. Apparently satisfied, he falls silent and the rippling intensifies, their bodies seeming to lengthen and twist together like some kind of shining, shuddering vine, frost trails meeting and combining to create a web of ice around them so dazzling that Harry has to shield his eyes.

The other snails seem to take this as some kind of signal, and, amid a storm of excited popping, each begins to slide towards its mate and commence the stretching, twisting stage of the ritual. Soon, the ground outside the tent is a mass of writhing, rippling snails, and the light from the extra-strength frost-trails is almost blinding. In the sudden brightness, Harry can see that each snail pair has all but merged into one, and each mating entity moves in perfect unison with the next, creating the effect of a single enormous creature, pulsing and glittering and popping in the night air.

Harry grabs his wand to adjust the temperature inside the circle and then settles down to watch, arms wrapped around his knees and chin resting on top. He doesn’t want to miss anything, and the snails don’t seem to be in any sort of hurry. At least an hour passes before he moves again, stiff and cold and parched, and he glances over at the snails every few seconds as he makes the tea and jumps up and down at the back of the tent to stir his half-frozen blood and muscles.

What he has managed to glean from his many re-reads of Rare Gastropods of the British Isles is that the mating ritual of the frost snail is a long process, and if he and Draco are going to be up all night with the randy buggers, they are going to need as much caffeine as they can get. He is also pretty sure that the book mentioned multiple matings, which, if he remembers correctly, means that if old bossy-shell isn’t completely satisfied with this go-around, everyone has to go through the whole thing again.

“Come on, Marv,” he mutters to the partner of the dominant female, who is still fighting valiantly to keep himself anchored to the ground. “Let’s get it right in one, shall we?”

Draco twists around to look at him, scandalised. “You can’t call him Marv.”

“Of course I can. That’s his name,” Harry says, handing Draco a cup of tea and settling back onto his cushion. He is, of course, named for the Seeker of the Chudley Cannons, Marvin Myers, but Draco doesn’t need to know that.

“You keep your terrible taste in Quidditch teams away from those poor snails, they’ve got enough to worry about at the moment,” Draco says.

Harry scowls at his tea for a moment and then decides to ignore him. The snails are very interesting and he certainly doesn’t need to start arguing with Draco over Quidditch, the fucking know-it-all.

By one o’clock in the morning, though, his eyes are sore from tiredness and overexposure to magical light, his nose feels as though it has frozen off, and he can’t find a position on his cushion that doesn’t make some part of him uncomfortable. The snails are still at it, rippling and pulsing away, and while it is still undeniably beautiful, Harry has the feeling he might appreciate it better from the comfort of an armchair, or even better, from under his bedclothes.

“Don’t you dare,” Draco mumbles when Harry ventures this thought.

“What?”

Draco stifles a yawn. “I’m barely keeping my eyes open as it is. No talking about beds.”

Harry smiles in spite of his weariness when his jumbled brain takes the disparate thoughts of Draco and warmth and bed and arranges them into a very pleasing image.

“Didn’t you sleep well?” he asks, rubbing his eyes under his glasses.

“No, I did not, and no talking about sleep, either,” Draco says crossly.

“Why didn’t you sl—erm, what kept you awake?” Harry asks, but Draco doesn’t answer, and then there is a cold hand on his arm.

Harry swallows hard, trying not to focus on how strong Draco’s fingers are. “What?”

“Look.”

Harry follows his gaze and frowns. “Are they...?”

“I think so,” Draco says, and he doesn’t let go of Harry’s arm. Harry barely dares to breathe.

Inside the circle, the snails are exhibiting no such nervousness. Their odd, vertical twisting and rippling has slowed right down, and when Harry looks closely at the pairs nearest the tent, he can see why. The soft, pliable lower bodies of the snails are shifting, forcing themselves into new shapes, the males producing the long spindly dart as if from nowhere, and the females creating rounded, silvery pouches.

“That is very, very weird,” Harry says under his breath.

Draco’s hand relaxes on his arm but doesn’t move away. “It’s snail sex. Of course it’s weird.”

Harry laughs softly, focusing on the pair of snails directly in front of him. As he watches, the male stabs his dart into the pouch, and then, just as quickly, both retreat into their owner’s bodies and the snails settle back into their usual positions with a pop. Within seconds, every snail in the circle has retreated into its shell, and the dazzlingly bright frost trails that cover the ground have faded to a soft, shimmering glow. It is as though nothing unusual has occurred at all, and Harry turns to Draco, bewildered.

“Is that it?”

“I think so,” Draco says, looking amused. “Have you seen what they’re doing?”

Harry looks at the snails again. When he sees it, he can’t help smiling. At first glance, all the snails seem to have retreated fully into their shells, but he can now see that every single pair has left their eyestalks poking out, and every single snail is gently, slowly stroking the eyestalks of its mate.

Draco lets go of Harry’s arm and makes eyestalks with his fingers to wave at Solomon. Solomon waves back excitedly, loses his grip on Draco’s hand and falls onto his knee, leaving a small, sparkling hole in Draco’s trousers. Harry stifles a snort of laughter as Draco picks up Solomon by his shell and regards him sternly.

“This will not do, do you hear me?” he says, getting stiffly to his feet and placing Solomon back in the circle, inside a comfortable-looking moss hide. “You are a naughty snail.”

Harry grins and Draco turns to him, looking indignant.

“Are you laughing at my hole?” he demands, pulling at the knee of his trousers and scowling.

This time, Harry does laugh. “No, Draco, I’m not laughing at your hole.”

Draco stares at him for a moment and then grants him a smile that makes his whole body pull tight. Groaning, he flops back onto his cushion and closes his eyes.

“Are you alright?” Draco asks, charming the plant back into place with a creak and a rustle.

No, Harry thinks mutinously. Nope. No, not really.

Then again, it could be worse, he supposes.

“It could definitely be worse,” he mumbles against his coat sleeve.

“What could be?” Draco asks, clattering around with the tea tray.

Harry covers a long, shuddering yawn and opens one eye. Draco appears to be using one of his many cleaning spells to wash out the cups.

“Never mind.”

Chapter Text

Fourteenth of December – Spilled ink

14th december

By Monday morning, news of Harry’s contretemps with Jonathan Lanley has filtered all the way through the Hogwarts gossip machine, and Ravenclaws that Harry doesn’t even know have started accosting him in the corridors to apologise for their housemate’s behaviour. At first, he is too startled to do anything but nod and offer an awkward ‘thanks’, but by the time a grave-looking Anthony Goldstein stops him on his way out of the Great Hall after lunch and says ‘About Lanley...’ Harry has had time to formulate a response.

“Listen, I appreciate everyone’s support,” he says, “but please stop apologising to me. Look... you’re Head Boy, they’ll listen to you. Tell them that if they feel bad about what happened, they should try giving Draco a break.”

Anthony stares at him, dark eyes anxious. “Well, that makes sense. I should have thought of that.”

Harry shrugs. “They’ve been apologising to me all morning and I’ve only just thought of it.”

Anthony grants him a rare smile and looks down at the gleaming badge on his chest. “Right then,” he says, suddenly all business. “I’ll do that now.”

Intrigued, Harry lingers by the door as Anthony strides across the Great Hall and seats himself next to Draco at the Slytherin table with massive dignity. Draco turns to him slowly, looking alarmed, and Harry decides to slip away before he is seen and blamed for the whole thing.

As the day goes by, it is clear to see that the Ravenclaws have been thoroughly instructed by Anthony (Harry wouldn’t be surprised if there have been diagrams) and have taken on their new orders with relish. Harry spends much of the afternoon avoiding Draco, watching from a safe distance where possible while he is flooded with restrained but friendly greetings, dignified nods and intense, intellectual-flavoured conversations.

When Hermione corners him before Potions and asks him what on earth is going on, he relates his conversation with Anthony and she laughs.

“You know they’re a bit literal,” she says, following him into Sharma’s classroom and rolling her eyes when he takes a seat as far away from Draco as he can. “You told him to tell all the Ravenclaws to give Draco a break, and that’s what they’re doing. All of them. All at once. The subtlety is sort of lost.”

“Remind me again why you didn’t sort into Ravenclaw?” Harry teases, and she kicks him.

“I can be subtle,” she says.

“Of course you can,” Ron agrees, exchanging a dubious look with Harry behind her back.

“It’s like a Ravenclaw inclusion offensive,” Hermione says, gazing across the room with interest as Terry Boot takes the seat next to Draco and starts unpacking his Potions kit. Draco watches him out of the corner of his eye with deep suspicion.

“He’s going to kill me,” Harry says, already resigned to his fate.

“He won’t know it was you,” Ron assures, and he says it with such confidence that Harry almost believes him.

When he emerges from the trees by the lake and finds the tent in darkness, he knows that something isn’t quite right. He has never managed to beat Draco down here; in fact, he has stopped trying. Fighting down his concern, Harry lights the fire and the lantern, flicks on the coloured decorations and spells the plant back from the circle of snails. All are sleeping, now fully retracted into their shells, and he looks over at old bossy-shell, wondering whether or not she will call for a second night of mating.

Time will tell, he supposes, casting the thermo scroll into place and shivering instinctively when the pointer drops right down to minus six degrees and stays there. He applies a sturdy warming charm and retreats into the tent to fill the kettle and thaw his frozen fingers by the fire. He is halfway down his cup of tea when Draco stomps into the tent and throws himself down onto his cushion.

“I have a bone to pick with you,” he says, jabbing his wand viciously at his striped mug and making the tea within bubble until it almost overflows.

“Just one?” Harry asks casually.

Draco gives him a dark look. “A bone consisting of many other smaller bones,” he clarifies.

Harry sips his tea. “Well, I’m glad we got that cleared up.”

“Do you know why I’m late?” Draco asks, continuing before Harry has a chance to answer. “I’m late because every Ravenclaw I passed wanted to stop and talk to me. About absolutely nothing.”

“Well, that’s nice,” Harry attempts, keeping his eyes on the snails.

“No, Harry, it is not nice. It is infuriating. Did you know that Anthony Goldstein came over to my table at lunchtime today and asked me to join the sodding chess club?” Draco demands, and his voice is so full of confused rage that Harry can’t hold his laughter in.

“Wow, Draco, that’s terrible,” he manages, grinning into his coat sleeves.

“Don’t you dare, I know you had something to do with it,” Draco says crossly. “It’s something to do with that idiot, Lanley, as well, but I doubt he’s been telling people to be nice to me.”

“I didn’t tell them to be nice to you,” Harry says. “They were feeling horrible about what Lanley said and they kept apologising to me. I didn’t particularly think that made any sense, so I told them to stop it and give you a break instead. I’m sure it’ll all settle down soon.”

Draco huffs softly. “Yes, well, you didn’t have to do that.”

Harry sighs, irritation prickling at the back of his neck. “I know. I know I didn’t have to. I wanted to.”

“Look, you shouldn’t...” Draco begins, but Harry cuts him off.

“No,” he says, turning to face Draco. “Absolutely not. I’m sick of people telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing... what I should and shouldn’t be using my influence for. I never asked for any of it, but I’ve got it now, whether I like it or not, and if I want to use a bit of it to convince a few people to give you a chance, then that’s what I’m going to do. No one’s saying you have to take it, Draco, but I’m not going to sit here and listen to you telling me I shouldn’t.”

He folds his arms over his bulky coat and meets Draco’s eyes as defiantly as he can for someone who feels a bit shaky, quite a lot in love and more like an idiot than ever before.

Draco sips his tea. “That was a bit dramatic.”

Harry sighs. “Yes. Yes, it was. And I don’t even care.”

Draco smiles, a real smile that makes liquid heat pool in the pit of Harry’s stomach. “I suppose I can put up with it,” he says, turning away to look at the snails, who are now emerging from their shells and inspecting their mates with curious eyestalks.

“Good,” Harry says. “Maybe you should join the chess club.”

“Why does everyone always assume I’m good at chess?” Draco complains.

“Are you?”

“That’s not the point.”

Harry grins. “Looks like they’re having another go,” he says, as the snails start up their slow, circling dance once more.

“Well, last night’s performance did seem a little perfunctory,” Draco says, crawling to the opening of the tent and retrieving a delighted Solomon.

The three of them watch in silence as the snails complete their whirling dance and then, just as before, the dominant female sets off the mating period with her loud, jangling call. Soon, the circle and its surrounding area are illuminated by countless gleaming frost trails, and when Hagrid comes sliding down the hill, he is lit up like the star performer in the world’s strangest cabaret.

“I didn’t miss it, then,” he says, peering down fondly at the snails for a moment before squeezing into the tent.

“This is their second attempt,” Harry says, and Hagrid nods.

“Yeah, these usually ’ave a couple of goes,” he says, lowering himself to the ground with a groan.

“Are you okay?” Harry asks, filling the kettle and sticking it over the fire.

Hagrid grunts. “Bloody back’s done in, leanin’ over these ruddy things all afternoon,” he says, pulling a battered roll of documents from one of his coat pockets and scowling at them.

“What are they?”

“Forms for the blasted unicorns,” Hagrid says and then shakes his head. “I don’ mean that. It’s not the unicorns’ fault, is it? It’s the folks runnin’ the conservation effort, and all their administration I could do without,” he sighs, dragging out the word with an impressive level of contempt.

“I didn’t really think about all the paperwork,” Harry admits.

Hagrid nods. “Well, neither did I, bloody forms. And now I’ve started on ’em, they don’ make any sense!”

“What do you mean?” Draco asks, speaking for the first time since Hagrid’s arrival.

“They just don’ make sense,” Hagrid repeats. “The sentences go round in circles, I don’t know what they’re askin’ me to do, and ’alf the words seem like they’re made up! I don’ know, maybe I’m not meant for this stuff... not clever enough, yeh know...”

“That’s not true,” Harry says firmly.

“May I see them?” Draco asks. He holds out a hand for the papers and Hagrid passes them over.

“Just don’ make sense,” he mumbles to himself. Harry passes him a cup of tea that seems far too small for his hands.

Draco frowns and starts to leaf through the papers, reaching up to tuck a strand of pale hair behind his ear. Harry and Hagrid watch him in silence. Solomon rests on the back of his hand and peers down at the papers as though he, too, can make sense of them for Hagrid.

“You’re right,” Draco says after a minute or two, looking up at Hagrid. “And the reason they don’t make sense is because they’re not written in English, they’re in legalese... and a little bit in French, for some reason.”

“French?” Hagrid repeats, bristly eyebrows rising. “What for?”

“I have no idea,” Draco says. “Tell you what, though—if you talk me through the unicorn stuff, I’ll fill them in for you.”

“Will you really?” Hagrid says, looking genuinely stunned.

Draco frowns for a moment but when he looks up, his face is set. “Yes, of course. Do you have a quill?”

Hagrid stares at Draco, lost for words, and Draco stares back with an air of complete patience that Harry has never seen before. He almost daren’t breathe, desperate not to shatter this unexpected moment of understanding between the first real friend he ever made and the one he almost never had. Finally, Hagrid seems to shake himself and he starts to rummage in his many coat pockets.

“I don’ really do a lot with a quill,” he mumbles. “Always snappin’ ’em, yeh see... I’ve got this?”

He produces a large yellow pencil with a heavily-chewed end.

Draco hesitates. “Er...”

“You don’ ’ave to,” Hagrid says hurriedly. “I can manage. It was nice of yeh to offer, but I’m sure I can make sense of it if I ’ave another go.”

“Don’t be daft,” Draco says, tightening his grip on the papers. “I just work better with ink, that’s all.”

Before Harry can open his mouth to make a suggestion, Draco gets to his feet and strides out into the dark, papers in one hand and Solomon resting on the other. Harry and Hagrid exchange glances, but Draco returns inside a minute with a slender twig, which, after a moment’s concentration, he Transfigures into a simple but handsome quill.

“Look at that!” Hagrid rumbles, beaming down at the little quill.

Harry does look, and a bright bubble of pride settles in his chest. Hermione herself would be pleased with the strong but delicate spellwork, and when Draco reaches into his pocket and produces a small bottle of black ink, he hides a snort of laughter in his teacup. He and Ron have been teasing Hermione for years about the excessive amounts of stationery she likes to have about her person, and, for the first time, he wonders if she and Draco might have more in common than they realise.

“Alright,” Draco says, acknowledging Harry’s amusement with a mere flicker of an eyebrow before turning his attention to the forms. “Let’s start at the beginning. This first section isn’t even relevant to the rest of the document; I have no idea why it’s even here... these people do like to fill up space and make themselves sound important.”

Hagrid blinks, astonished, as Draco skims through the entire first page in a matter of seconds. Harry lounges on his cushion and wonders what Draco would look like with a little pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose.

“These are all just instructions about the forms... how to fill in the forms, how not to fill in the forms... oh, yes, and all the terrible things that will happen if you don’t fill in the forms...” Draco looks up at Hagrid and sighs. “Nothing terrible will happen if you don’t fill in the forms.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Hagrid mumbles, still looking slightly stunned.

Draco flashes him a small smile and turns back to the stack of parchments. “Okay, so this question is about the location of your unicorn population,” he says.

“Is that it?” Hagrid asks, eyebrows drawn together. “I couldn’ make ’ead nor tail of it.”

“Well, of course you couldn’t—like you said, it doesn’t make any sense,” Draco says, unscrewing his bottle of ink and dipping his quill. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to put you down,” he tells Solomon, and he upturns the lid of the biscuit tin, placing Solomon and his ink bottle side by side. He poises his quill. “Now, they’re being pretty specific, so you’ll need to tell me exactly where they are.”

“Right,” Hagrid says uncertainly, and he launches into a description of the exact part of the forest in which the unicorns are currently gathered.

He’s clearly unsettled and startled by the whole thing, but Draco is calm and confident, translating the jargon-filled nightmare and taking down Hagrid’s responses word for word in his small, neat script. Once Hagrid begins to realise that actually, he has all the knowledge he needs to complete the questions, he begins to relax, expanding on his answers and digressing frequently from the matter at hand to tell stories about the unicorns and their individual personalities. He accepts another cup of tea from Harry and crunches down biscuits without stopping to taste them.

“Oh, he was a proper bugger, that one,” he laughs. “Liked to roll in the mud like a dog, he did.”

Draco smiles, still scribbling away, a stack of completed parchments beside him.

“They’re usually very clean, aren’t they?” Harry asks, idly watching as Solomon pauses in his circuit of the biscuit tin lid and slides over to inspect Draco’s bottle of ink.

“Yeah,” Hagrid nods. “The rest of ’em weren’t too impressed with ’im when he did that. I ’ad to give ’im a bath in the stream more than once.”

Draco taps his quill against his lips. “Okay... I think these are some horsy terms in this next question, so you’re going to have to bear with me.”

“No problem,” Hagrid says, leaning back against the reinforced wall of the tent and resting his cup on his belly. “Those I can manage just fine. Where’d you learn to understand all that mumbo-jumbo?”

Draco smiles. Solomon investigates the glass bottle with one eyestalk and then the other.

“Well, my mother loves all things French,” he says. “I learned it from my governess before I came to Hogwarts. As for the administrative nonsense... my father used to have me read aloud from Ministry publications. He thought it would improve my diction for when I became...” Draco stops and shrugs as though attempting to throw the memory from his shoulders.

“I shouldn’ ’ave said that,” Hagrid sighs. “Sorry, lad.”

Draco looks up at him. “Don’t apologise. Please.” He takes a deep breath and continues writing. “He wanted me to be important, anyway. I wasn’t sure about that, but I got tired of reading things I didn’t understand, so I learned to speak Ministry. All this official stuff is basically the same language.”

For a minute or two, no one speaks. Draco writes steadily, Hagrid watches him with a new softness in his eye, and Harry observes with interest as Solomon attempts to climb the side of Draco’s ink pot.

“I reckon your mum’s right proud of you,” Hagrid says at last.

Draco’s head shoots up and his quill slips, causing a blot of black ink to bloom across the page.

“What makes you say that?”

“Yer makin’ yer life, right,” Hagrid says easily. “What more could she want?”

Draco swallows hard. For a moment, Harry can’t tell if he’s angry or upset, and then he nods slowly and whispers, “Thank you”, and all Harry wants to do is scramble across the tent and wrap him up tight. Draco looks down at the parchment in his lap but Harry can see that his eyes are closed, and his own eyes sting and prickle. When Harry looks at Hagrid again, he is startled to find him looking right back, and just for a moment, he feels as though everything he is becomes visible.

A clonk, a gush and a pop in quick succession grabs everyone’s attention, and Harry is amused, though not surprised, to find that Solomon has managed to overbalance the ink bottle, and is now clinging to the glass threads at the neck as the whole vessel lies on its side and ink pours out onto the biscuit tin lid and the corners of several completed forms. As though realising that three pairs of eyes are fixed upon him, he waves his eyestalks and pops quietly.

Harry reaches for his wand to clean up the spill, but Draco holds a hand out.

“No, I’ll get it,” he says, carefully picking up the affected forms. “I’ve got a really good spell for cleaning ink from parchment—you’ll never see the damage, I promise.”

“There’d be plenty worse than that if I’d done ’em, don’ worry yerself,” Hagrid says, but he leans forward with interest as Draco casts a spell that completely vanishes the unwanted ink in a flash of pink smoke but leaves the neat rows of writing untouched.

In an effort to help, Harry spells the rest of the spilled ink back into its bottle and picks up Solomon, deciding to take him well away from the important documents before his curiosity gets him into any more trouble. Together, they head out of the tent and stand by the lake, looking down at the snails and their oddly graceful rippling. Harry casts a warming charm over them and then, despite the bitter nip in the air, tucks his coat underneath him and sits down on the frosty ground to watch. He can hear the mingled voices of Draco and Hagrid from the tent, catching a snatch of booming laughter or inexplicable official-speak every now and then, but the lakeside is wonderfully peaceful, and the coloured lights from the Christmas tree and the rippling sparkle from the tripudium are enough to shield him from the bleak chill of the winter night.

Solomon turns in circles in his hands, leaving his palms streaked with cold, glittering trails.

“You like him, don’t you?” he mumbles, and the little snail stretches out an eyestalk to touch the pad of his thumb. “Yeah... I like him, too.”

“No, no, I think that sounds fine,” Draco says. “You know what you’re talking about.”

Hagrid mumbles something Harry can’t make out and then they both laugh.

Harry’s stomach lurches at the sound and he sighs. It seems that Draco is doing a far better job of forgetting than he is. He seems to have no problem with kissing people unexpectedly in dead people’s offices and then carrying on as if none of it ever happened, and it doesn’t seem fair. Of course, he doesn’t know what Draco was thinking before it happened—he never really knows what Draco is thinking—all he knows is that everything is different now, and it isn’t just because of one kiss that he didn’t even get chance to return.

It’s every night down here, crouching in a tent and watching over a colony of glittering oddments; it’s the friendship that’s worth fighting for; it’s snails called Solomon and precious, dusty potions and more cleaning spells than any one person really needs. It’s the realisation that spending time with Draco Malfoy has made him feel more alive than he has since the day Hagrid crashed into that hut on the rocks and turned his entire life inside out.

And yet Draco wants to forget.

Inside the circle, the mating process peaks and then finishes just as abruptly as it had the previous night; the frost trails fade away and the pairs pop back into their shells, eyestalks waving gently and twining together.

Soon, the snails will lay their eggs, and when the babies have hatched and developed their frost trails, they will leave, all of them, and there will be no more excuses to spend time huddled in a tent with Draco, away from everything, where he can drop his blank mask and let Harry in. It will all be over, and then, before any of them are ready, it will be time to leave Hogwarts for the last time. Harry tucks himself into a ball, wrapping his arms around his drawn-up legs and allowing Solomon to balance on his knee, barely feeling the icy destruction of his trouser fabric over the heavy, prickly ball of loss that settles in his chest.

“Is Harry alright?” Hagrid wonders, and Harry can hear him creaking about in the tent.

“It’s Harry, of course he’s alright,” Draco says, but there’s a fragility in his voice that makes something dangerously hopeful spark through Harry, pulling him upright.

Maybe Draco is brilliant at pretending. Maybe Draco is too bloody brilliant at pretending. As he sits there, Harry is overwhelmed by a mental catalogue of smiles and words and stupid little moments, strong hands and warm eyes and the smell of citrus everywhere. He is tired and freezing cold and lost in a haze of confusion, but one thing, at least, is becoming clear. He has to do something. It’s a strong possibility that the whole thing is crazy, but it might just be crazier to let this feeling disappear because they are both too afraid to try.

Heart racing, he looks down at Solomon, who has managed to destroy a patch of trouser fabric so large that Harry’s entire knee is now visible.

“Excellent,” he says, getting to his feet and placing Solomon back among the sleeping snails.

He charms the plant back into place and is just applying the repelling magic when Draco and Hagrid emerge from the tent. Hagrid is clutching his roll of forms and beaming.

“All done,” he announces, giving Draco a pat on the back that makes him cough. “I ’ope we weren’t bothering yeh or anythin’.”

“No,” Harry says. “I just needed a bit of fresh air.”

“Well, there’s plenty of that about,” Hagrid says. “I’ll get off, then. I really appreciate your ’elp, Draco. If yeh ever need anythin’...”

Draco shrugs. “You’re entirely welcome. It was sort of fun, really.”

Hagrid shakes his head as though unable to comprehend such an idea, and then he waves to them both and stomps off up the hill. When he is out of sight, Draco turns to Harry, eyes bright with accomplishment.

“Well, that was... why are you looking at me like that?”

Harry freezes. “Like what?”

Draco turns out the fire and the Christmas lights with a vague flick of his wand and walks slowly towards Harry, eyes narrowed. He stops on the edge of the lake, just close enough to touch, or, at least, he would be, if Harry hadn’t completely lost his nerve.

“It’s very intense and unnerving,” Draco says. “Either stop it or tell me what the matter is.”

“You’re so demanding,” Harry says absently.

“I know.”

“It’s nothing,” Harry lies, and the wind seems to whisk around him, stealing his breath.

“I don’t believe you.”

Harry closes his eyes and digs his nails into his palms. “I don’t want to forget about it. I can’t.”

“Forget about what?” Draco asks quietly, and something inside Harry breaks open.

Suddenly exasperated beyond belief, he takes two short steps closer to Draco, threads both hands into his hair and kisses him. The flood of relief inside him is incredible and his whole body seems to roar with approval as Draco’s fingers twist into his coat and he kisses back. Lips cold and breath warm, they seem to sink against each other and Harry is falling, eyes tightly closed, and then Draco pulls back and he blinks, startled and protesting, to see grey eyes at close range, warm and anxious. Draco takes a step back but doesn’t let go of Harry’s coat. Confused and aching, Harry holds onto him, desperate to ask what’s wrong but unable to get the words out.

“Don’t,” Draco says stiffly, tone completely at odds with his caught breath and the way his gaze drifts from Harry’s eyes to his mouth. “Not unless you mean it.”

Harry bites back his instinctive, defensive response. Draco’s expression is carefully blank but his eyes are bright with a cautious, burning sort of hope that spreads dull, shivering pain right out to Harry’s fingertips.

“I mean it,” he says, and Draco doesn’t reply, but Harry can feel the curve of his smile against his lips and it’s more than enough. Heart pounding, Harry runs his hands down Draco’s back and drags him closer, every inch of them pressed together and drowning in sensation: soft wool beneath his fingers, the hot, languid brush of Draco’s tongue against his own, the biting wind through his hair and the sharp, clean smell that is brand new and comfortingly familiar all at once.

Draco strokes his face with cold fingertips and he gasps, provoking another smile that is utterly contagious. His face hurts with it even as he continues to reach for Draco’s mouth, warming lips and trading short, hitching breaths.

“It’s snowing,” Draco mumbles, pulling back a fraction to look up at the sky.

“Really?” Harry looks up, too, straightening his glasses.

Draco frowns and holds out a hand, palm up. A couple of small balls of ice drop into it, then another, and then a whole lot more.

“No,” he says, tipping the little balls onto the ground. “Hailstones.”

He looks at Harry and they exchange glances. As one, they look over the secured tripudium, the closed-up tent and the unlit Christmas tree, and then Draco smirks and takes a step back. Harry catches on a second too late and is left trailing as Draco sprints for the hill, but as they reach the flatter ground of the lawn, he begins to catch up, pushing his frozen muscles as hard as he can and trying to keep his balance on the slippery grass. The hailstones are bouncing down now, hammering against his face in frozen waves, but he doesn’t care.

Exhilarated, he edges past Draco with a burst of triumphant laughter.

“Are you going to run away every time we kiss?” he yells, and Draco says nothing, but seconds later, something shoves him hard in the back and then streaks past him with a delighted hoot.

Harry stumbles, hitting the ground hard and rolling over on the crunchy grass.

“Okay,” he gasps. “I deserved that.”

“For what it’s worth, I didn’t mean to push you that hard,” Draco says, walking back to him and holding out a hand to help him up. “You fall rather well, though.”

“Thanks,” Harry says drily, and he threads his fingers through Draco’s as they resume their dash through the hailstorm to the castle.

Once inside, they pause, breathing hard and covered in tiny balls of ice. Draco’s skin is pink with cold and his hair looks like someone has dragged a rake through it, and all Harry wants to do is kiss him again, so he does, right there in the middle of the Entrance Hall. This time there is no hesitation, and Harry doesn’t think he has ever cared less about being cold and wet and sleep-deprived.

“What was that?” Draco whispers against his lips.

“What?”

“Shh.”

“Can you hear something, my sweet?” comes a nasal voice from the nearest corridor, followed by the telltale flicker of a lamp.

“Oh, no, not today,” Draco mutters. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He leans in and presses a quick kiss to Harry’s lips and then takes off in the direction of the dungeons, ruffling hailstones out of his hair as he goes. Harry watches him for a moment, feeling rather light-headed, and then, just as Filch and Mrs Norris come around the corner, he dives for the stairs and doesn’t stop running until he reaches Gryffindor Tower.

Chapter Text

Fifteenth of December – Hanging copper pans



Harry looks down at his notebook and realises that he has written ‘add the porcupine quills when the potion turns transparent’ seven times. Once was probably enough, and not only that, he has managed to spell the word ‘porcupine’ several different ways, all of them incorrect. Shrugging, he looks up at the blackboard and attempts to take down the next line of Sharma’s instructions. He’s not worried; his concentration isn’t anything special at the best of times, and the way he’s feeling today, he’s pretty impressed that he’s managing to write anything down at all.

 

He has had very little sleep, but had somehow managed to wake up feeling wonderful, the mingled dreams and memories of kisses by the lake and in the Entrance Hall wrapping around him in a warm haze that not even McGonagall’s sharp words about very late homework could penetrate. Despite some well-founded worries, Draco had been present at breakfast and had stared at him over his coffee cup until he had turned embarrassingly pink, and then had started buttering his toast with a pleased little smile. At lunch, Harry had attempted not to look over at the Slytherin table at all, but had felt Draco’s eyes burning into the side of his head the entire time he had been talking to Neville about whether or not he should compliment Luna on her new hairstyle.

He glances across the Potions classroom and finds himself staring at the back of Draco’s head. He has taken down all the instructions and is already chopping ingredients with precise, careful movements of his knife. Harry watches him, a pleasant heat spreading through his body, until Sharma calls across the classroom to ask if he is alright and he snaps out of his daze, dropping his quill and looking around to see that everyone but him has now started brewing their potions.

“I’m fine, just a bit tired, you know... snails,” he says in a rush, flashing a dubious Sharma an apologetic smile before ducking under the table to grab his quill and banging his head hard on the underside of it as he emerges.

Beside him, Hermione gives him a long look and then turns away, shaking her head. Hurriedly, Harry scribbles down the rest of the directions and starts work on his ingredients. When his potion turns out better than expected (nowhere near the standard of Draco’s or Hermione’s but enough to earn him a satisfied nod from Sharma) he feels rather pleased with himself. When he walks out of the classroom and straight into a suit of armour, however, he is caught between complete confusion and the desire to sink straight through the floor and never come back.

“Are you alright?” Draco asks solicitously, eyes glinting with amusement as he gazes down at Harry from the classroom door. “I can understand how you missed that suit of armour, it’s only been there a few hundred years.”

“Bugger off,” Harry says, suppressing a daft smile and replacing the suit’s helmet carefully.

“Are you sure you’re feeling alright?” Ron asks when they turn the corner and start up the stairs.

“Yeah,” Harry says absently. “Brilliant.”

Ron frowns and then shrugs. “Well, as long as you’re sure.”

Hermione makes an odd little sound and Harry looks at her. “What is it?”

She sighs and tucks her arm through his. “Nothing, Harry. Absolutely nothing.”

**~*~**

“I think Hermione knows,” he says to Draco several hours later as they settle inside the tent and wait for the snails to wake up.

Draco glances at him with a flicker of fear in his eyes and then seems to relax, picking up his cup of tea and sipping it thoughtfully. “Okay.”

Harry frowns. “I thought you’d be upset.”

“Are you?”

“No,” he admits, resting his chin on his knees and regarding Draco out of the corner of his eye.

All day long, they’ve been sharing glances and smiles and Harry has been walking around as though he’s in a dream, and yet now that they’re alone together, it’s as though neither of them know quite what to do. Last night had been... thrilling, natural, almost easy, and now, here they are, sitting on their separate cushions, too nervous to even maintain eye contact, never mind anything else. Right now, Harry would settle for the careless sparring that has become so comfortable over recent weeks.

The trouble is, his experience with this sort of thing is, at best, patchy, and in reality, useless. The thing with Cho had been a couple of awkward kisses strung together by a series of disasters and he and Ginny had always been better as friends than anything else... this is different; it feels different, and the way he deals with it has to be different. It doesn’t matter that Draco isn’t a girl; it only matters that Draco is Draco and that wherever their relationship is now, it has been built on years of intense emotion from both sides. Attempting to start with light and casual just isn’t going to fly.

Harry sighs and forces himself to look at Draco. “I’m sorry. I suppose I was just surprised.”

“What did you say to her?” Draco asks.

“Nothing. I’m not ashamed or anything,” he adds hurriedly. “It just isn’t...”

“I know,” Draco says, and then there is silence.

The snails emerge from their shells and, for a long time, nothing happens at all. There is no dancing, no rippling and no blinding light. The snails remain in their pairs, completely still apart from the slow, ponderous movement of eyestalks. When Solomon pops gently at the edge of the circle, Draco retrieves him and lets him roam over his hands. Harry keeps an eye on the temperature, but most of his attention is stolen effortlessly by Draco, who somehow manages to be the most interesting thing Harry has ever seen just by sitting there, by drinking his tea, by stretching out his back just so, by pushing back his hair and smudging Solomon’s glittering frost just above his eyebrow.

By the time the snails begin to stir, Harry is dangerously restless.

Do something, he urges silently, desperate to have something other than not communicating with Draco to focus on. When he catches sight of something small and opalescent on the ground, he leans forward to investigate and feels a rush of excitement when he realises that last night’s mating has been successful—the snails are already beginning to lay their eggs.

“Look,” he says, turning to Draco, but he has seen them, too, and he grins.

“How very efficient of them,” he says, and Harry has to agree.

The first few snails lay their eggs in neat spirals on the ground, each perfectly round and no bigger than a grain of pudding rice. Before long, the whole circle has been decorated with gleaming little whirls of eggs, and the proud parents slide around their clutches, surrounding the delicate spheres with double and triple-strength frost trails before settling down protectively beside them.

“Severus said he once had a student who was convinced that eggs were completely man-made,” Draco says as they close up the tent, turn off the lights and head back to the castle.

“How did that even come up?” Harry asks, seizing on the topic of Snape. Inexplicably, it feels like neutral ground, and right now, that is exactly what he’s looking for.

“First-years,” Draco says, as though it is explanation enough.

“Did he convince them they were wrong?”

Draco smiles. “Apparently, the student in question ended up having to give a presentation on the invention of the egg to his entire class. I’m not sure if that convinced him or not.”

“I have to admit, stuff like that is pretty funny when it’s happening to someone else,” Harry says, racing up the steps and pulling open one of the heavy front doors.

“He had his moments,” Draco agrees, stepping into the Entrance Hall.

Harry looks at him, pulse beginning to hammer as he tries desperately to think of something, anything, to steal more time with Draco, and, perhaps more importantly, to pull himself together. Just then, his stomach growls and the sound seems to echo endlessly in the vast chamber.

“Do you want to... I’m starving... we could go to the kitchens,” he says uncertainly.

Draco’s eyes glow warmly in the lamplight. “Do you think they’ll have Butterbeer? I’ve had this ridiculous craving all week...”

“Hot?” Harry interrupts, already leading the way.

“How did you know?”

“Nostalgia,” Harry sighs, tickling the pear in the painting and pushing his way into the kitchen. “Sometimes when you talk about Snape I feel like I’m eleven years old again.”

Draco laughs and disappears into the pantry, while Harry pokes about for bottles of Butterbeer. The kitchen is empty but the light from one or two wall torches bathes the room in a warm glow. The enormous scrubbed pine table, usually crammed full of vegetables and basins and surrounded by bustling house-elves, is completely unoccupied, and when Harry finds the Butterbeer and sets it on the stove to warm, he perches on the table and looks up at the low ceiling, from which many copper pots and pans hang from hooks and gleam in the soft light. Taking off his coat, he lounges back on his hands, listening to the rustles and crashes coming from the pantry.

“The thing about Severus,” Draco says, emerging at last with a pile of boxes and jars in his arms, “is that he did actually have a sense of humour. It’s just that it was pretty much impossible to tell when he was using it and when he was being deadly, deadly serious.”

“If he ever used it on me, I definitely missed it,” Harry says, looking through the things that Draco has now dumped onto the table. “I can believe it, though. I don’t think I really inspired his... erm... puckish side.”

Draco snorts. “Maybe not.”

Harry unwraps a loaf of bread and cuts several uneven slices. “Just so you know, I’m now imagining both of you sitting in his office and telling knock-knock jokes.”

Draco frowns, taking a slice and spreading it with honey. “What’s a knock-knock joke?”

Harry stares at him. “Really? That’s a Muggle thing?”

Draco smiles and bites into his bread. Harry hits him with a box of crackers.

Licking his fingers, Draco sets down his half-eaten bread and honey and inspects several wheels of cheese in quick succession. He levers himself up onto the table and cuts himself a little piece of each, tasting each one in turn before choosing a crumbly Lancashire and adding several thin slices to his original piece of bread. Harry watches him with interest and then retrieves the Butterbeer from the stove, decanting it into two mugs and handing one to Draco.

“Cheese and honey?” he says eventually, as Draco finishes his indecisive snack.

“Why not?”

“Does it go together?”

Draco smiles and sips his drink. “Do we?”

Catching his smile, Harry pulls himself back up onto the table and cradles his Butterbeer in his lap, both hands pressed tightly against the hot mug. “Yeah. I think we might,” he admits.

“And what conclusion can you draw from that?” Draco asks.

Harry looks at him askance. “I don’t know... that you have to try stuff or you’ll never know what you’re missing?”

“Exactly,” Draco says. With an odd little smile, he takes another slice of bread, tops it with honey and pale, crumbly cheese and holds it out expectantly.

Harry knows when he is beaten. He accepts the offering and takes a bite, chewing it boldly and making a small sound of surprise when the results are pleasant. The softness of the bread, the stinging sweetness of the honey and the sharp, creamy flavour of the cheese complement each other perfectly, leaving a gentle tingle on his taste buds that has him reaching for another bite straight away. Halfway through the slice, he glances at Draco; he looks rather pleased with himself.

“I concede,” Harry says, licking a spot of honey from his thumb. “Some things you have to try.”

Draco’s smile fades and he stares down at his cup, expression pensive.

“Severus always...” he begins and then sighs. “You’re sick of hearing about him, aren’t you?”

“No,” Harry says, and he edges along the table so that he can rest his knee against Draco’s. “You need to talk about him, and anyway, I... sort of just like hearing you talk.”

Draco glances at him, surprised. “I never thought I’d hear you say that.”

Harry laughs and takes another bite of his bread. “Don’t worry, I won’t say it again.”

“That seems sensible,” Draco says, and then he lets out a long, careful breath. “So, Severus would try absolutely anything when it came to food or literature or potion-making...”

Harry chews his food and carefully says nothing.

“... but when it came to people...” Draco shakes his head. “He trusted the other teachers, of course, and Dumbledore, even when... he always trusted Dumbledore,” he says emphatically, pale fingers clenching around his mug. “But I honestly don’t think he had a friend in the world except for my mother and me. He was always so alone.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, and he hates how useless those words feel. He stuffs the last of his snack into his mouth and hesitates, wanting to offer a reassuring touch but feeling ridiculously out of his depth. If this were Ron or Hermione, he’d just wrap his arm around their shoulder and give them a hug, but somehow that doesn’t quite feel right. In the end, he just swipes Draco’s hair out of his eyes and then wraps both hands around his mug, well out of harm’s way.

A tiny smile flickers at the corner of Draco’s mouth as he continues. “There was someone once, I’m pretty sure. He was never a drinker, but just once... I went to see him in his office and he was in a filthy mood, tight as an owl. He wasn’t making much sense, but I understood enough to know that there was a girl, a long time ago, and he loved her. Not that I’d ever tell anyone, but I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that he had those kinds of feelings.”

“You just told me,” Harry says lightly, but he feels as though his heart is about to leap out of his chest.

“I suppose I did,” Draco says, and the tiny smile is back.

Harry stares at him in a silent panic. That’s my mum, he wants to say; in fact, he’s dying to say it, to help Draco to fill in some missing pieces, to help him to know Severus Snape as much as he possibly can, but something stops the words from coming out. Does he want to share his mother’s memory with another person? If he tells Draco what he had seen in the Pensieve, is he betraying Snape’s trust? And, even if he can make his peace with all of that, how will Draco react to hearing that Harry’s mother is the only person Snape ever loved, and that she married James Potter and broke his heart?

Realising that he is staring into his half-empty mug in silence, Harry looks up to see that Draco is picking through the assembled food items and humming to himself. He opens a jar of what looks like pickled onions and sniffs at it, wrinkling his nose and then picking one out and crunching into it. Appearing to notice the crumbs strewn down the front of his coat for the first time, he frowns and wanders over to the sink, where he brushes himself down and carefully washes the vinegar from his fingers. When he turns around, he looks at Harry with such contented warmth that the words just tumble out of him.

“It was my mother.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re right, Snape did love someone once, and it was my mother,” Harry says, and for a moment, all he can hear is the blood thundering in his ears, and then Draco is walking slowly across the kitchen tiles to stand in front of him and saying:

“Don’t joke about it.”

“I’m not,” Harry says fiercely. “Snape showed me a memory before he died. He showed me... he wanted me to know that he always...” Harry pauses, breath catching. “That he always loved her.”

“He always loved her,” Draco repeats, eyes wide.

Harry nods, wanting to reach for him but not daring to move. “Yeah.”

“Tell me,” Draco says, and it’s almost a whisper, but Harry knows he has to obey.

He swallows hard and begins, as much as he can, at the beginning, telling Draco about the strange young boy and the flame-haired girl, about their friendship and the shared discovery of magic, about Petunia’s jealousy and Hogwarts letters and summer days hiding in the long grasses. Draco stands there in front of him, arms wrapped around himself and breath coming quickly, and Harry closes his eyes and tries to drag every last memory to the front of his mind, softening the parts that hurt his heart and throwing everything he has into painting a picture for Draco that will help him to heal.

When he reaches the part about Snape’s Patronus, Draco makes a soft, hiccupping sort of sound and Harry opens his eyes.

“That’s why,” Draco says quietly, staring at the floor. “That’s why he always...” He shakes his head.

“Are you okay?” Harry asks, and Draco looks up.

“No,” he says, and then he laughs. “Not really. But thank you,” he adds, and when Harry holds out a hand to him, he takes it, stepping into the space between Harry’s legs and wrapping his arms around him tightly.

“Sorry,” Harry murmurs, but Draco just shakes his head.

In an effort to prevent any more useless words, Harry presses his mouth to Draco’s neck and breathes him in, thrilled when he shudders and catches his breath. The smell of the outdoors seems woven into his skin and hair and coat, and Harry is intoxicated. Allowing his instincts to take over, he trails kisses up the side of Draco’s neck and is only mildly startled when Draco lets out a low hiss and pulls back, grabbing him and kissing him hard.

Draco’s movements are jagged with desperation, fingers tight in Harry’s hair, mouth hot and sweet with Butterbeer and honey, reaching for Harry’s over and over again, messy and close and fierce, as though grasping for something that neither of them can see. Harry is on fire, burning with the need to be closer, to meet Draco’s desperation with his own, to prove that he is here, he is in this, and he is going nowhere. He kisses back, fumbling with Draco’s coat buttons and pushing the heavy fabric away until it drops to the floor and he can pull him closer, gasping as Draco’s erection drags against his own and sends sparks of pleasure racing through him.

Draco lets out a soft groan and pushes against him, creating friction that dissolves the last threads of Harry’s restraint in an instant.

“Yes,” he mumbles against Draco’s mouth, arching and pushing back, sliding his hands down Draco’s back and pulling him in hard, again and again.

Draco kisses him fiercely and yanks at Harry’s shirt, slipping his hands underneath and pressing them to his back, nails digging into his skin as they move together in a rough, chaotic rhythm, clinging to one another with grasping hands and hot, breathless kisses. Each frantic movement pushes Harry closer to the edge and he can barely hold on; his head spins and his chest aches, and when Draco buries his head in his neck and lets out a low, rough cry, Harry loses it, falling back against his hands on the rough surface of the table and coming with a sound that shakes him and seems to echo around the kitchen.

Draco slumps against him and Harry lifts a heavy hand to thread through his hair. Breathing hard, he tips back his head and gazes idly at the shining copper pans above him, head suddenly and unhelpfully full of images of the house-elves gathering to start breakfast in a few hours time and somehow knowing what has occurred on their preparation table.

When Draco looks up, he gives Harry an embarrassed sort of smile that means Harry has no choice but to pull him upright and kiss him.

“What were you thinking about just then?” he asks, straightening Harry’s collar for him.

Harry grimaces. “You don’t want to know.”

Draco regards him curiously for a moment and then shrugs. “If you insist.”

He allows himself to rest against Harry once more and, for a long time, neither of them move. The soft light from the torches is soothing, and Draco’s warm weight just makes Harry want to close his eyes. It is this, in the end, that forces Harry to stir himself, as the thought of ending up in a heap on the cold kitchen floor is unappealing at best. Slowly, they disentangle themselves and Draco cleans up with a couple of spells that Harry hopes he did not learn from Snape. Harry returns the food to the pantry while Draco rinses out the mugs and carefully makes himself another cheese and honey topped slice of bread before retrieving his coat and following Harry out into the corridor.

He eats it slowly as they walk through the dark castle in a surprisingly comfortable silence. Harry is still unsteady on his feet and his stomach effervesces with almost painful delight when Draco kisses him goodnight and leaves the faint taste of honey on his bottom lip. He stands on the bottom step of the marble staircase and watches him out of sight, wondering pointlessly what might happen next if all of his dorm-mates were to go suddenly and temporarily blind and deaf.

It’s unlikely, he’ll admit, but that doesn’t stop him grinning like an idiot all the way back up to Gryffindor Tower. In the common room, Hermione is still up, curled in an armchair with Crookshanks and a big old leather-bound book. She has her back to him as he creeps quietly past her on his way to the stairs, but he’s pretty sure that she’s only pretending not to notice him.

“’Night, Harry,” she calls when he’s halfway up the stairs.

He laughs and runs the rest of the way.

Chapter Text

Sixteenth of December – A Christmas card

16th december

Harry spears another sausage with his fork and is transferring it to his breakfast plate when he realises that he is being watched. Instinctively, he looks over at the Slytherin table, but Draco is peering intently into his cup and is paying him no attention at all. Puzzled, Harry turns back to his friends to find that Ginny is regarding him with interest from the other side of the table.

“What’s the matter?” he asks, realising that he is holding the sausage in mid-air and deciding to place it on his plate next to the last of his fried tomatoes and the piece of toast that he is considering using to make a messy sort of sandwich.

“I was just thinking, it’s been a while since any of us have had to nag you to eat,” she says brightly.

Surprised, Harry looks at his plate and then back at her. She’s right.

“I’ve been feeling more hungry, I suppose,” he admits, and Ginny grins. “What?”

“It’s a good thing. Stop being so suspicious,” she says sternly, looking up as the Great Hall fills with the sound of beating wings. “Post’s here.”

Harry follows her gaze and watches the owls swoop overhead, diving to drop off letters and packages to the students below. He isn’t expecting anything, but something about the daily spectacle retains a sense of wonder for him, even after all these years. Now that the Great Hall is decorated for the festive season, the whole thing looks like something out of a Christmas card with the trees and lights and the owls landing gracefully on tables and shoulders, complete with a dusting of magical snow.

Feeling contented, he adds sauce to his sausage and tomato sandwich and looks back at the Slytherin table, just in time to see a disgruntled Sorrento coming in to land beside Draco and shaking the magical snow from her feathers. Clearly astonished, Draco takes the envelope from her and offers her a scrap of bacon, which seems to fractionally improve her mood. He opens the envelope with a cautious expression that tugs at Harry’s insides. If he remembers correctly, Draco has only just received a letter from his mother, and it’s likely that he cannot imagine why anyone else would write to him at all.

He draws out a large square card, staring at it for a moment and then opening it. Something falls out of the card and into his lap but he carries on reading and a slow, genuine smile spreads across his face. Intrigued, Harry squints across the hall, trying to make out the picture on the card.

“That’s one of Hagrid’s,” Ron says, leaning so close to Harry to peer at Draco’s card that his chin is practically resting on Harry’s shoulder. “Can’t believe I nearly forgot.”

Harry turns to see him rummaging in his bag under the table. After a slightly frantic search, he emerges triumphant with a handful of square white envelopes exactly like the one Draco has just received.

“Is he away again?” Harry asks, accepting an envelope from Ron and watching as he distributes the others to Hermione, Neville and Ginny, keeping the last one for himself.

Ron nods. “He’s in Wales somewhere—unicorn stuff, you know. I think he’s back tomorrow but he left these for me on the table when I went to feed Fang this morning.”

“I think he’s made these himself,” Hermione says, beaming at her card and then turning it around to show the others. On the front of the plain white card, is a simple but rather beautiful charcoal drawing of a stack of books with a cat sleeping on top.

“Brilliant,” Ron laughs, opening his and revealing a picture of a chess set.

Ginny and Neville tear into their envelopes to find cards depicting a Golden Snitch and a reproachful-looking Trevor.

“What did you get?” Ron asks, but Harry’s attention has been drawn back to the Slytherin table, where Draco is examining a piece of dark fabric about the size of a tea towel.

Blaise leans over and points to the fabric, asking a question that Harry cannot make out, and, to his surprise, instead of turning his expression carefully blank, Draco smiles and holds up the piece of fabric to show him. He replies to the question and Blaise listens, nodding and sipping his coffee. Harry smiles and Ron pokes him.

“What?”

“What did you get?” Ron asks, gesturing to Harry’s unopened envelope.

Harry slides his finger under the flap and pulls out the card. He’s not a bit surprised to see that Hagrid has drawn him a pair of frost snails. One of them appears to be wearing a Christmas hat.

“Snails!” Ron announces, and Harry shows his friends the front of the card. “When are we going to get to see them, anyway?”

“I didn’t know you wanted to see them,” Harry says, surprised.

“Well, I do,” Ron says stoutly. “And so does Hermione.”

When Harry looks at Hermione, she just shrugs, but the light of intrigue in her eyes is one that Harry knows well. He hesitates, chewing on the last bit of his breakfast and wondering why it has never before occurred to him that his two best friends might want to be at least a little bit involved with the snails. It had started off as a punishment, whatever McGonagall might have said, but it hasn’t been like that for quite a while now, and he suspects that they know that just as much as he does. The idea of inviting them into what has become very much his and Draco’s space sets off a faint spiral of panic in his chest and he flattens it with quite some effort.

“Of course you can see them,” he says at last. “It’s not the best time right now, though, they’ve just laid their eggs and they’re not doing much.”

“Baby snails,” Ginny whispers, apparently to herself, as when everyone turns to look at her, she flushes and pretends intense interest in the message inside her Christmas card.

Harry opens his own card and reads the message from Hagrid with a smile.

**~*~**

In Transfiguration later that morning, Draco waits until McGonagall is busy at the other side of the classroom and then whispers Harry’s name from the row behind.

Harry turns around, leaning back in his seat. “Yeah?”

“Did you get a card from Hagrid?”

Harry nods. “With snails on it.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “Mine had snails, too.”

Harry grins. “You got something else, too. I saw it.”

Draco glances around and then withdraws the piece of fabric from his pocket. “It’s salamander silk,” he says, holding out the neatly-folded square for Harry to touch.

Harry stretches out a hand and runs the thin fabric between his thumb and forefinger. It is soft and delicate and pleasantly cool against his skin.

“What does he want you to do with it?” Harry asks, baffled.

“It’s for Solomon,” Draco explains. “Hagrid says that if you wrap a salamander in silk the moment it comes out of the fire, the properties of the salamander’s skin seep into the fabric and you end up with a piece of silk that’s resistant to extremes of temperature, which should stop Solomon’s frost trail eating my clothes.”

“Brilliant,” Harry says, and then frowns, noticing Draco’s anxious expression. “It’s a nice thing... why do you look so worried?”

“I am not worried. I am surprised. This is my surprised face,” Draco says sternly.

Harry snorts, leaning further back in his chair. When he catches sight of McGonagall, he attempts to right himself and very nearly ends up in a heap on the floor.

“Do try to keep yourself upright, Mr Potter,” she sighs, and then stops, adjusting her spectacles and peering down at the fabric in Draco’s hands. “Is that salamander silk?”

“Yes,” Draco says, offering it to her to examine. “Hagrid gave it to me. It’s resistant to frost trails.”

Apparently startled to hear so many voluntarily-offered words from Draco, McGonagall stares down at him for a moment before taking the fabric and examining it with interest.

“Hagrid tells me the snails are coming along very nicely,” she says, regarding them both shrewdly over the top of her glasses.

Harry smiles weakly at her, struggling to suppress the feeling that, while she may be talking about snails, she really means something quite different. The trouble is, he has been dogged by the same suspicion since the moment he got out of bed and he has no idea who is completely on the level and who is dealing in layers of sly subtext. Of course, it could all be in his mind, but he feels as though he has a gigantic flashing arrow over his head and no amount of telling himself that no one is really that interested in his sex life seems to be doing anything to dislodge it.

It hadn’t helped, of course, that Ginny and Hermione had burst into laughter the moment he’d walked into the common room first thing this morning. And yes, he might have been wearing his jumper backwards, which can happen to anyone, he’s pretty sure, but that’s entirely beside the point.

When McGonagall returns the fabric to Draco and moves on, Anthony Goldstein leans over to him and murmurs something in his usual sombre tone that sounds to Harry a lot like the words:

“Have you given any thought to my question about the chess club?”

Suppressing a snort of laughter, Harry turns back to his desk and tries to remember exactly what he is supposed to be doing. The Ravenclaw charm offensive, it would seem, is still on, and it seems to be spreading through the other houses at an impressive rate, causing Draco the sort of alarm that Harry thinks is good for him, and Jonathan Lanley to sulk harder than Harry had previously thought possible.

As they pack up to leave McGonagall’s classroom, Ron turns around and fixes Draco with an uncertain but determined look.

“You got a card from Hagrid, too,” he says, and it isn’t a question.

“Er, yes,” Draco says.

“He likes you.”

Draco frowns and looks down at his hands. “I’m not sure.”

“He does,” Harry says, wondering what Ron is up to.

“You should join the chess club,” he says, and then, with a small nod, he slings his bag over his shoulder and walks out of the classroom.

Hermione hangs back, eyes anxious. “He means... actually, I’m not sure what he means. He means well,” she says eventually, offering Draco a small smile. “Me too. I mean... I mean well.”

Draco frowns at her for so long that she sighs and turns to go, but then he says,

“I’m sorry, Granger.”

The words are soft, almost inaudible, but Hermione stops and stares at him very hard.

“My name is Hermione. You should probably get used to it,” she says, and then walks away quickly, unruly curls bouncing behind her.

Harry and Draco stare at each other in silence.

“Are you two still here?” McGonagall sighs, emerging from the store cupboard at the back of the classroom.

“We’re not,” Harry says firmly, and he grabs Draco’s arm and pulls him out into the corridor.

**~*~**

That night, they watch from the shelter of the tent as the female snails venture out of the tripudium, fighting against the fierce winds to gather food while the males remain in the glowing circle and keep a careful watch over their spirals of eggs. After some discussion, they decide to help the process along a little by scattering tiny cubes of parsnip all along the lakeside, and they pull their cushions together at the mouth of the tent and lie side by side on their stomachs to wait for the snails to return.

Draco drapes the piece of salamander silk over his shoulder and Solomon perches on top, happily consuming a parsnip cube of his own and posing no threat to Draco’s expensive coat fabric. His other shoulder presses against Harry’s as they drink their tea, providing a constant, warm contact that makes Harry’s whole body hum with contentment.

“You know, I keep thinking I should apologise for what I did to you in Transfiguration,” Draco says after several minutes of comfortable silence.

Harry runs through the morning’s lesson in his head, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve forgotten already? I suppose you were only on fire a little bit,” Draco says, sounding amused.

“Oh, that,” Harry sighs. “I thought you meant today. Hang on, you keep thinking you should apologise to me? I take it you aren’t going to?”

“No, because if that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be here, would we?” Draco says, voice turning soft. “I don’t want to regret this, so I can’t really regret that.”

“Don’t you think this would have happened anyway?” Harry asks, and Draco just stares at him, eyes glowing in the multicoloured lights.

“Do you?” he says eventually.

Harry doesn’t know what to say, so he sets down his cup and reaches for Draco, pulling him as close as he can without dislodging Solomon, and kissing him.

In the distance, a door slams and the sound of joyful barking echoes through the trees.

Draco pulls back and lifts an eyebrow. “Either Hagrid is home early, or we should probably go and see off the intruder,” he says, adding thoughtfully, “That could be exciting.”

Harry laughs and rolls onto his side so that he can drag the Marauder’s Map from his coat pocket.

“I’ve been meaning to show you this for ages, now it might actually be useful,” he says, unfolding the map and tapping it with his wand. “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

Draco watches, wide-eyed, as the lines spread out across the parchment, sketching out the shape of the castle and adding the small, moving dots that represent its occupants.

“Looks like Hagrid’s home,” Harry says, indicating the dot that is now moving around inside the gamekeeper’s hut. “No skirmishes tonight, I’m afraid.”

“Well, that’s disappointing,” Draco sighs. “Still, what a wonderful thing.” He traces the lines of the castle with his fingertips, searching out his classmates with unguarded delight. “Look at that—Blaise and Ginevra Weasley in the Owlery—I’m sure there’s something going on between them.”

“Maybe they’re just sending a letter,” Harry says, even though Draco is probably right.

Draco frowns, tapping his finger against the section of the map that represents Gryffindor Tower, where Seamus, Dean, Neville, and Ron are clustered together in their dormitory. They do not appear to be in their beds, and every now and then, one of the dots moves up and down the room as though the person it belongs to is pacing.

“What on earth are they doing?” Draco asks. “Having some sort of Gryffindor convention?”

Harry laughs. “Ron did call a room meeting once,” he admits. “He thought someone was stealing his toothpaste. Turns out he was sleepwalking.”

“...and brushing his teeth?”

“Yep.”

Draco sighs. “He is a very strange person.”

“I’m not arguing with that,” Harry says. “Though... you know... it takes one to know one.”

Draco rolls his eyes and settles back onto his cushion, chin resting on folded arms and eyes flicking over the map with calm interest. Harry pushes it towards him, happy to lounge there in silence and watch him. He thinks he could stay like this for hours, and perhaps he does, because he certainly cannot be bothered to check the time, and Draco seems to find the map endlessly absorbing.

When Solomon starts to pop excitedly, they look up to see that the female snails are returning in a long trail, transparent shells glittering in the moonlight. Each is dragging a section of rush with several cubes of parsnip balanced carefully on top, and when they slide back into the glowing circle with their prizes, the males set up a storm of eager popping.

“That is pretty clever,” Harry says, impressed by the efficiency and dexterity involved in gathering the food and parcelling it up for easy transportation.

Draco nods, frowning. “I know some people who couldn’t manage that.”

Harry politically decides not to ask for names and instead settles down to watch as the snails take in their first meal in over two weeks. They make short work of the rushes, each snail taking an end and chomping steadily towards the middle. The parsnip cubes, which have been slowly shaken to the ground in the process, are then descended upon with soft pops and waving eyestalks, and before long, every scrap of food has been cleared from the blue circle and the snails are stretching, sliding into position, one at either side of their spiral of eggs, and then retreating into their shells.

After replacing Solomon, Draco spells the plant into place and yawns, rolling onto his back.

“I don’t think I can be bothered to move.”

Harry shifts closer, resting his head on Draco’s shoulder and smiling wearily when a hand comes up to thread through his hair. The fire is warm at his back and Draco makes a surprisingly good pillow.

“Let’s not,” he suggests.

“What about the cat?” Draco asks warily.

“Let him come. I know a good silencing charm,” Harry says and he closes his eyes.

“That’s useful to know,” Draco says, and Harry registers the smile in his voice just before he starts to drift into sleep.

Chapter Text

Seventeenth of December – Balls of wool

17th december

“I can’t believe you slept in that tent,” Ron says for at least the third time that day, shaking his head and dipping bread into his tomato soup. “It’s fucking freezing outside. You’re mad.”

McGonagall stops briefly on her way up to the staff table to give Ron a sharp look. He quickly mumbles an apology and she moves on without comment.

“A blanket might have been useful, I suppose,” Harry admits. “It wasn’t that bad, though. We had the fire, and... could have actually done with Crookshanks this time, he’s always nice and warm. Where was he?”

“I don’t know,” Hermione says, stirring cheese into her soup. “I try not to wonder where he goes at night. He’s very sensitive, though; he mustn’t have thought you needed him.”

Ron snorts, apparently amused by the idea of ‘Crookshanks’ and ‘sensitive’ in the same sentence, and Hermione shoots him a dark look.

“If that cat’s sensitive, I’m Celestina Warbeck,” Ron says, and Harry can’t help feeling that he will live to regret his words.

Sure enough, when the three of them gather in the common room for a shared free period that afternoon, Hermione exacts her revenge by refusing Ron’s request for help with his Charms homework.

“I think you’d better go to the library,” she says airily, picking up Crookshanks and heaving him over her shoulder. “Celestina.”

When Ron sighs and heads back out of the portrait hole, muttering to himself, Hermione smiles and settles into an armchair by the fire. Crookshanks leaps onto the back of the chair and curls up to sleep, whole body vibrating with contented purrs.

“Poor Ron,” Harry says, flopping into the chair opposite hers with a weary grin.

“Poor Ron nothing. It won’t do him any harm to do his own research.”

“I suppose not. You don’t want to help me with mine, do you?” he teases, enjoying her split-second look of irritation. “I’m kidding, I promise. I’m completely up to date... no, still kidding,” he admits when her eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “I’m sure I’ll catch up at some point. The snails are pretty quiet at the moment.”

“Well, you might as well have something to do while you’re down there,” she says, words muffled by a curtain of hair as she leans down to rummage in her bag.

Harry flushes and rubs at his face, grateful that it takes Hermione a good minute or two to extract and then untangle several balls of wool and a pair of knitting needles.

“What are you making?” he asks, eyeing the riot of brightly-coloured yarn with interest. Hermione’s knitting has improved quite a bit since the days of misshapen house-elf hats, but the item she is working on appears to be at an early stage of development and has not yet made its form obvious.

She smiles. “Christmas presents.”

“Of course,” Harry says, realising with a jolt that he has no idea what he’s planning to buy for anybody, never mind when he’s going to shop for them. “Who’s that for?”

“Never you mind,” Hermione says, batting an orange paw away from the dark green item as she lifts it up to count stitches under her breath.

“What’s the date today?” he asks her, trying not to panic.

“It’s the seventeenth. Crookshanks, stop it.”

Crookshanks withdraws resentfully and tucks his feet underneath himself, forming a fuzzy sort of cat loaf on the back of Hermione’s chair. Harry looks around the room, hoping for inspiration to hit him; with just over a week to go, he can’t really afford to be fussy. When his eyes catch on a glossy magazine that someone has left on a nearby table, he hastens to retrieve it. He is pleasantly surprised to find that it is not a magazine at all, but an owl-order gift catalogue, and he leafs through it, inspecting the strange and useless items pictured within.

Hermione’s needles click in a comforting rhythm, combining with the crackling of the fire and the now-contented purring from Crookshanks to lull Harry into a restful sort of haze. He considers sets of jams and relishes in unusual flavours, discounts bizarre ornaments bearing saccharine verses, and wonders if there is a piece of Chudley Cannons memorabilia in existence that Ron doesn’t already own.

“What are you getting Molly and Arthur this year?” he asks Hermione eventually.

“I’m trying to make all my presents myself... if I have time,” she says. “I know I’ve only got until Sunday if I want to keep them a secret, but I’ve started a scarf for Arthur and I’m doing a knitted brooch for Molly. I feel like I want to give them something I’ve spent time on... because of being away last year, you know. Is that silly?”

Hermione looks up from her knitting, eyes anxious, and Harry shakes his head firmly.

“Not at all,” he says, forcing down a shiver as the bleak memories of that particular Christmas try to steal their way in and ruin his good mood. “I think it’s a great idea,” he adds, and Hermione beams.

“I have no idea what to make for Ron,” she says, returning her attention to her knitting and frowning. “I was going to make him a jumper but it’s supposed to be bad luck.”

“Why?”

“I don’t really know,” she says, mouth flickering in an embarrassed smile. “I don’t really want to risk it, though, stupid as it sounds. It’s our first Christmas together and I can’t stand the thought of ruining it... especially not with my knitting.”

Harry grins. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he says, all too aware of the fact that he is going to have to choose a Christmas present for Draco. Which, for some reason, is a terrifying idea.

“Oh?” Hermione looks up, mouth continuing to flicker.

“Yeah, of course,” Harry says quickly, scrubbing at the heated back of his neck with his sleeve. “I’m empathising. Don’t look so shocked.”

“I’m not shocked. I’m a picture of calm serenity,” she says, and though she’s clearly mocking him, she isn’t wrong. She looks so comfortable there, with her balls of wool and her wooden needles, feet tucked up and a flash of silver tinsel in her hair, just like the first-years, and Harry wants to tell her everything, to confirm all that she already knows, but the part of him that turns somersaults when he kisses Draco just wants it to remain theirs for a little bit longer.

Pushing out a long breath, he looks down at the pages in his lap.

“I wonder if Molly would like singing candles.”

Hermione smiles, and Harry has the feeling that she’s happy to wait. “Probably.”

 **~*~**

“They love those little bits of parsnip, don’ they?” Hagrid laughs, accidentally sloshing tea down his beard in his eagerness to lean out of the tent and get a closer look at the feeding snails. “I always give ’em bits of carrot, but they seem to like the parsnip even better.”

Harry has to agree that the snails are particularly fond of parsnips. He watches, almost losing his balance when Hagrid lowers his weight back to the ground, as the dominant female all but inhales one tiny cube after another. She doesn’t leave many for her mate, but he seems supremely unconcerned with anything except his spiral of eggs, and Harry can’t begrudge him his pride; all of the eggs are beautiful, but the ones laid by old bossy-shell herself are like gleaming pearls, at least twice the size of all the others and covered in a sheen that draws the eye effortlessly.

“No, no, they were brilliant,” Hagrid says, and Harry drags his attention back into the tent.

“What were?”

“Those bloody forms,” Hagrid says. “I was proud as anythin’ to ’and those in, I can tell yeh.”

“Well, any time,” Draco says, and despite his discomfort, Harry can see that he is pleased.

“Do you really mean that?” Hagrid asks in a tone of quiet delight.

“Of course.”

Hagrid sighs. “I wish there was somethin’ I could do for you.”

Draco frowns. “You have,” he says, indicating the salamander silk, which he has once again draped over his shoulder so that Solomon can perch there safely.

“I don’ mean that,” Hagrid says, waving a vast hand and almost whacking Harry across the face. “I ’ad that lyin’ around, thought yeh could use it, that’s all.”

“Well, it’s wonderful,” Draco says, and he glances at Solomon, who waves an eyestalk.

“Good,” Hagrid says, but Harry detects a familiar note of stubbornness creeping into his voice. “Still, if there’s anythin’ I can do for yeh...”

Anticipating a stand-off, Harry glances between them with interest, wondering whether he should step in and risk a telling-off from both sides or just let them get on with it.

“Yes, maybe there is,” Draco says, and Harry chokes a little bit on his tea.

Hagrid leans in. “Go on.”

“Someone told me you might have some stories about Severus Snape,” Draco says uncertainly, and Harry smiles at the ground.

“Did they now?” Hagrid rumbles, and Harry feels the moment when those beetle black eyes come to rest on him, but he doesn’t look up. “I might ’ave one or two.”

“He is... well, he was... no, he is,” Draco says firmly, “very important to me, and I’d like to hear about him. That would be something you could do for me. If you want to. I certainly don’t think you owe me anything, but...”

“That’s enough,” Hagrid says gently. “Yeh don’ ’ave to butter me up.”

“Sorry,” Draco says.

Hagrid laughs. “Don’ be sorry about bein’ sorry, that’s a waste of good breath.”

“Sounds like something Snape would say,” Harry mumbles to himself.

“It does, though no doubt he’d put it into fancier words than that,” Hagrid says with a grin. “He was always good with words, even as a little lad.”

“You remember him then?” Draco says, fingers tightening around his mug.

“Oh, yeah, of course I do,” Hagrid says. “Weedy little thing, he was, quiet, like. Him and his friend...”

He looks at Harry anxiously and Harry nods.

“Yeah, Severus an’ Lily... funny pair, really, but they were friends for a long time. Caught ’em in my pumpkin patch their first week, said they were tryin’ to work out how I’d grown ’em so big!” Hagrid laughs at the memory and Harry grins, heart swollen with the image of his mother as a child, running around and getting into trouble just as he had done many years later.

“What did you do?” Draco asks, looking as though he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“I said they’d better come in and ’ave a cup of tea,” Hagrid says. “They came back a fair bit after that, an’ he came on his own for longer.”

“I had no idea,” Draco says.

“Well, he didn’ ’ave a lot of friends... tried to impress some older kids but they never really... he was misunderstood, yeh know? A bit odd... a bit sad... but clever, oh...” Hagrid shakes his head. “He just knew things. I always liked talkin’ to ’im, even when he was grown up, he’d never bother tellin’ yeh anythin’ that wasn’t true. Didn’ see the point in it, an’ I liked that about ’im. He’d always tell me if I ’ad dirt on my clothes or somethin’ in my beard. Didn’ care who was listenin’, either...”

“Severus was always like that,” someone says from the entrance of the tent. Someone with a crisp, instantly-recognisable voice. “He once stopped me in the middle of a staff meeting to tell me I had spinach in my teeth.”

“Professor McGonagall?” Harry says faintly, and they all turn to stare at her.

“I thought you were due a visit, but you seem to have started the party without me.” She takes a large, square tin from behind her back and pops off the lid. “Ginger newt?”

Harry and Draco exchange startled glances. Inviting the headmistress into their comfortable little lakeside world has never been part of the plan, but now that she’s here, Harry doubts he can refuse her entry.

“Er... why don’t you come in, Professor?” he says, shifting out of the way so that she can duck into the tent.

She steps into the middle of the magically-extended space and looks around. The tiny lanterns bathe her pale skin in multicoloured light and sparkle over the hare-shaped pin that holds her thick winter cloak in place at her shoulders.

“This is some rather impressive charmwork,” she says, turning sharp eyes on Harry and Draco in turn. “Isn’t it impressive what you can achieve when you concentrate?”

Draco looks at the ground, lips twitching, and Harry is just about to open his mouth and attempt to say something... anything... when McGonagall smiles and lowers herself to the ground with surprising grace.

“Have a biscuit, Potter,” she says and holds the tin out to him.

Amused, Harry takes one, and then passes the tin along at her silent request. She fills the kettle without a word and produces a delicate china cup from the folds of her cloak, which Harry fills with tea and returns to her without much hope that it is up to her usual standards.

“Severus was frightened of me for most of his first year,” she says, and Draco’s eyes snap to her in surprise. “I didn’t find out until years later that he’d had a Scottish headmistress at primary school who had been rather fond of the cane.”

Hagrid laughs. “I remember ’im tellin’ me about that... now, what was she called...?”

“Mrs Arkwright,” Draco says faintly. “He told me about her once. But he never told me he was afraid of you.”

“Of course not. I don’t think he ever meant to tell me,” McGonagall says, mouth twisting into a little smile. “He was a colleague by then. I think it just slipped out.”

“He was always tellin’ me off for that,” Hagrid recalls with a sigh. “He’d always say, ‘Hagrid, you must learn to keep your mouth shut. If necessary, sew it up’.”

The sound of Hagrid attempting to imitate Snape’s voice is too much for Harry, and he ducks his head, concentrating very hard on dunking his ginger newt into his tea and trying not to giggle.

McGonagall, however, begins to shake with laughter beside him, and when Harry looks up at her in surprise, her eyes are bright and she is regarding Hagrid with warm amusement.

“What a glorious hidden talent you have,” she murmurs, and Hagrid beams.

“I promise you, Professor, it’s only my loyalty to Hogwarts that keeps me from runnin’ away and joinin’ a comedy troupe.”

“And it is much appreciated,” McGonagall says, biting the tail off her ginger newt.

Harry glances between them, feeling astonished and privileged to witness this lighter side of the headmistress. He has caught glimpses of it before, but now, as she sits on the groundsheet of the tent he and Draco have made and teases Hagrid over tea and biscuits, he is able see Minerva McGonagall as a person rather than a teacher, and it’s both unsettling and wonderful.

Hagrid laughs. “Oh, he’d be furious if he ’eard me takin’ ’im off.”

“Yes, well, he was snoring in his portrait when I left the office, so what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” McGonagall says. She looks at Draco with a mischievous smile. “I once read that ‘Severus’ comes from the Latin for ‘grumpy’... unfortunately for him, the name rather fits.”

Draco returns her smile, and something new and rather hopeful passes between them.

“Please tell me you call him that,” Harry mumbles to himself, jumping slightly when McGonagall says,

“Sometimes, Mr Potter.” She turns back to Draco, voice softening a little. “I dare say he would prefer not to be discussed, but that decision belongs to those of us who remain. We must all remember the people we have lost, and we must find our own ways to keep their memories alive.”

Draco stares at her, catching his breath as some kind of understanding seems to settle over him.

“You left the key in the office door,” he whispers.

She nods and Draco closes his eyes. Solomon pops and stretches out an eyestalk to rest against his skin. Harry and Hagrid glance at each other, neither daring to say a word.

When Draco opens his eyes again, he immediately seeks out Harry, granting him a tiny, wobbly smile that makes Harry’s chest tighten and all the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

“If anybody has any more stories, I would really like to hear them,” he says, reaching up to stroke Solomon’s shell.

McGonagall pushes the biscuit tin in Draco’s direction. “Well,” she says, eyes glinting. “You all know about the time Professor Lockhart decided to involve Severus in his duelling demonstration... I really think the best part is what happened afterwards...”

Chapter Text

Eighteenth of December – Cinnamon sticks

18th december

Harry opens his eyes to find that Neville, Ron, Dean, and Seamus are gathered around the window next to his bed and Trevor is promenading slowly up and down his legs.

“What are you doing?” he asks the room in general, stretching and tipping Trevor onto the sheets.

“It’s snowing,” Seamus says excitedly.

“I’ve heard that before,” Harry mumbles, closing his eyes again and smiling at the memory of Draco’s words at the lakeside, in the brief interlude between their kiss and their stinging, pelting scramble across the grounds.

He had thought it might have been nice to stay in the tent again last night, but by the time Draco, McGonagall and Hagrid had finished trading stories, the snails had popped in for the night and they had had no real option but to secure everything and follow McGonagall back up to the castle. Not that he’s really upset about it; seeing Draco growing in confidence and adding his own memories to those of Hagrid and McGonagall had left him wrapped in a feeling of contentment and pride, and he has had a fantastic night’s sleep as a result.

He is still, however, unconvinced about the snow.

“Come and see, you grumpy bugger,” Ron says, and Harry reluctantly lowers his feet to the cold floor.

He stands on tiptoes to peer through the thicket of heads and pyjamas, and is temporarily blinded by the dazzling covering of pure white that has been secretly laid over the Hogwarts grounds during the night. The snow is still falling, whirling down past the window in soft, thick flakes.

“See,” Ron says triumphantly.

“Real snow,” Harry says, still blinking furiously as he grabs his towel and heads for the shower.

“Why would it not be real snow?” Neville asks, just as Harry leaves the room.

Harry isn’t sure if it’s the weather, the previous night’s conversation, or a combination of both, but Draco is in a spectacularly good mood at breakfast; he is light-hearted and almost playful in every lesson he and Harry share, and at dinner, he walks into the Great Hall at Harry’s side and does something quite unprecedented. Instead of breaking off their conversation with an ‘I’ll see you later’ and heading to the Slytherin table, he continues their discussion and sits next to Harry at the end of the Gryffindor table without even seeming to notice.

Desperate not to make him self-conscious, Harry decides not to comment on this development and instead focuses on his casserole while Draco eats distractedly and talks about the unnecessary level of red tape involved in the unicorn conservation project. Before long, the conversation has caught Hermione’s interest and she hesitates only briefly before jumping in. Draco is surprised, but recovers himself quickly, and Harry is left to consume his dinner in peace and wonder just what the snails will think about the snow.

When he has finished eating, he looks up to find that Draco and Hermione are still talking, and that the conversation has moved on to a subject that involves ancient runes and other things he doesn’t really understand. Amused and bewildered, he decides to leave them to it, running up to Gryffindor Tower for his coat and hat and making his way down to the lake. Draco will come when he’s ready, and Harry is loath to interrupt his first real conversation with Hermione.

The carpet of snow on the lawn is several inches thick already, and he sinks into it with every step. By the time he reaches the edge of the frozen lake, his feet are soaked and the icy water has climbed up his jeans to his knees. He pauses for a moment to admire the heavy dusting of snow heaped upon the charmed plant before crawling into the tent and spelling himself roughly warm and dry.

Next to the tea tray, he finds a package wrapped in brown paper. With a feeling of inevitability, he turns over the label to find the simple instruction:

Keep warm – MM

He weighs the squashy package in his hands for a moment before opening it and gazing down with warm affection at the items McGonagall has sent. A soft, thick blanket in a rich purple that perfectly matches the cushions has been folded into a neat square and tied with a tartan ribbon, and resting on top is a wreath made of cinnamon sticks and holly berries, the warm, spicy scent of which is already rising into the cold air.

Carefully, Harry sets the blanket down on top of one of the cushions, and then casts around for a place to hang the wreath. After a moment, he settles on the wall opposite the opening of the tent, and he draws his wand and sticks the odd, fragrant ornament in place with a spell. He steps back to admire his work and sighs. Something isn’t quite right, and it only takes a cursory glance around the rest of the tent to figure out what it is. The place is a mess, dirty cups strewn about, biscuit crumbs everywhere, one abandoned leather glove and several sections of another stuffed into a corner. Not only that, but in contrast to the clean, sparkling carpet of snow outside the tent, the interior seems dark and gloomy, and McGonagall’s cheery, festive wreath feels completely out of place.

Harry stares at the accumulated detritus of the last two weeks and stuffs his hands into his coat pockets as he thinks. It isn’t as though the mess has passed him by before now; he has definitely been aware of their laissez-faire attitude towards tidiness, the bits of dropped biscuit beneath his feet, the tendency for both of them to Transfigure or conjure new teaspoons rather than searching for lost ones. It doesn’t really make sense for all of it to bother him now, but it does bother him, and he is going to have to do something about it.

Throwing off his coat, he rolls up his sleeves and sets to work, attempting to work logically by first lighting the lanterns so that he can see what he’s doing and then pinning back the flaps of the tent as far back as they will go, letting in the cold breeze and allowing it to sweep through the interior, flushing out the stale, musty scent of old air and wet wool. He stacks the large cushions against the wall and uses a hastily-Transfigured old parsnip wand to sweep the ground sheet clear of crumbs and assorted debris, in the process managing to find six escaped teaspoons, which he cleans and adds to the tea tray.

By the time he pauses for breath, his hair is sticking to his forehead with sweat and his back is beginning to ache from crawling into corners with his wand, but he doesn’t care. Everything is clean and warm and the tent now looks more like a home than a hovel. The strings of little lights glimmer against the white walls, the cushions have been arranged side by side next to the fire and the new blanket has been spread out on top, at what Harry feels might be an artistic angle. He has found his Christmas card from Hagrid and stuck it to the wall beside the wreath, and as he goes to light the decorations on the tree outside, he thinks that the whole thing looks rather festive.

“What have you been doing?” Draco asks, walking unsteadily through the snow towards him.

“Nothing,” Harry says, suddenly feeling defensive as it hits him that what he has been doing, in fact, is fussing around and trying to make the place look nice for Draco. For them. Which is... unexpected.

“I don’t believe you. You look as though you’ve just been for a jog or something,” Draco says, stepping around the snow-covered plant and narrowing his eyes in amused suspicion.

“I just... it’s nothing,” Harry says, realising that Draco is going to see what he has done any second now and wanting nothing more than to block the entrance to the tent until he can make some attempt to return it to its usual chaotic state.

“You’re being very strange,” Draco says, and though Harry makes a pointless effort to stop him, he dodges easily around him and into the tent, stopping immediately to stare at the transformed space. “How on earth did you do this?” he asks, turning to Harry with an expression of genuine astonishment.

Bewildered, Harry looks around. “Erm... well, I just...”

“Did Severus teach you cleaning spells, too?” Draco demands, staring at Harry for a moment longer and then striding over to squint at a wall that Harry has scrubbed with his Transfigured brush and a bit of water from his wand.

“Er, no, definitely not.”

“It’s so clean,” Draco murmurs, gazing down at the floor and vanishing the snow he has tracked in on his boots.

“Yeah, it was getting a bit... so I just... it’s not a big deal,” Harry says, slightly losing his ability to use words when Draco turns around and smiles at him as though he’s done something utterly spectacular.

“It’s brilliant,” he says, and Harry flushes and shrugs.

“If you like.”

“I do. Where did you get this?” he demands, picking up Harry’s makeshift brush.

“I made it.”

“And this?” He points to the wreath, which, Harry is pleased to note, now looks much more at home in the tent.

“McGonagall sent it,” Harry says. “She also sent the blanket.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. He reaches out to touch the wreath, tracing the circle of cinnamon sticks with his fingers.

“I can’t say I ever imagined that a teacher would send me a Christmas wreath,” he says.

“Is it more or less weird that she sent it to both of us?” Harry asks.

Draco laughs. “I’ll get back to you on that one.”

Harry fills the kettle and sets it on the fire. Feeling relieved, he watches the flames flicker, and when Draco comes up behind him and rests his hands at his hips, he closes his eyes and loses himself in the sensation of warmth and anticipation.

“You don’t think Hagrid and McGonagall will visit two nights in a row, do you?” Draco says, words warm against Harry’s neck.

“Probably not,” he says, shivering. “Is that disappointing?”

Draco snorts and Harry leans back against him, warmth licking around the pit of his stomach.

“That isn’t exactly the word I’d use, no,” Draco says, and his fingertips skate along the edge of Harry’s waistband with such careful intention that he has to swallow a gasp.

His eyes fly open and he stares down at the licking flames without really seeing them as the thrilling, terrifying reality of the situation wraps around him, binding every inch of his body and pulling so tight that he can barely breathe. He hasn’t really allowed himself to think about a moment when they might be completely alone together; he has wanted to, and his subconscious has certainly provided a few ideas that have made him wake up hard and breathless, but during waking hours, he has felt far too nervous and perpetually startled by the reality of Draco to actually imagine anything else.

There had been the moment in the kitchen, of course, the memory of which sends a pleasant, hot jolt through Harry every time he thinks of it, but that had been different; it had been rough and needy and unexpected; they had clung to each other and pushed and gasped and it had been the most painfully erotic thing Harry could have ever imagined, but this... this is real and enormous and there is no place to hide. He is going to see Draco, all of him, and Draco is going to see him, and while a part of Harry wants to dash out into the snow and follow his churning apprehension into the forest and as far away from Draco as possible, a bigger, stronger part of him roars in approval and he grabs onto it, turning in Draco’s arms and pouring every bit of his tangled emotion into a kiss that knocks Draco quite literally off balance.

Startled, he grabs at Harry’s coat to steady himself, returning the kiss even as it becomes clear that one or both of them is going to end up on the floor. Harry decides to let it happen, holding onto Draco and sinking into the kiss as they slide unsteadily to their knees, hips snapping together and sending a shudder through both of them.

Pop.

Harry freezes.

“Snails,” he mumbles, horrified as he realises that the plant is still in place and the tripudium is completely without temperature controls.

“What?” Draco says, pulling back and frowning at him, eyes slightly hazy.

“Snails!” Harry repeats, kissing the corner of his mouth and then scrambling to the opening of the tent to hurriedly spell back the snow-covered plant and cast the thermo scroll.

“Bugger,” Draco mumbles, pulling out his wand just as the pointer drops to minus four degrees and flinging a warming charm into the circle.

Harry watches, holding his breath, as the pointer climbs into range, and then searches the circle for any signs of injury. As far as he can see, all of the snails are still sleeping next to their egg spirals, and he exhales slowly, relieved.

“Someone popped,” Draco mutters beside him, scanning the circle on hands and knees. “I heard someone popping... oh, now, why am I not surprised?”

Harry follows his eyes and finally notices Solomon, who is awake and making his way towards the tent, eyestalks waving.

“He seems fine... maybe he’s less sensitive to the cold since he didn’t breed?” Harry suggests.

“Maybe,” Draco says, looking down at the little snail with obvious exasperation but leaning over and picking him up anyway.

The kettle begins to whistle and Harry picks it up, resigning himself to the fact that whatever had been about to happen has definitely been put on hold for the moment. When he settles down next to Draco on his cushion and hands over a steaming cup, Draco meets his eyes with a brief flicker of frustration and then turns back to the snails, who are slowly beginning to emerge from their shells. Draco watches them closely, fingers wrapped tightly around his cup, and Harry follows suit, barely daring to take his eyes off them until he can be certain that his inattention has not caused any lasting damage.

The snow is falling heavily by the time the females venture out on their hunt for food. Feeling a little more relaxed at last, Harry smiles and allows himself to look at Draco for the first time in several minutes. He is rewarded with a flutter and a rush of heat as Draco chooses that moment to do the same thing, grey eyes burning into his for long seconds before Draco looks away, resting his chin on his knees and not quite managing to hide a smile.

“What?” Harry asks, voice scratchy.

“Nothing,” Draco says, but the air between them is all at once rippling with tension, and Harry can feel the two or three inches between their shoulders, hips, and hands as though they are joined by some kind of humming, crackling force field.

Draco watches the snails, and, for as long as he can bear it, Harry watches him, noting with a kick of pleasure that his usual composure has almost completely deserted him; he picks at his trousers with long, pale fingers, smoothes invisible creases from his coat, fiddles restlessly with his hair and changes position on his cushion every five minutes or so, stretching out his legs and tucking them beneath himself and letting out soft little sighs that do ruinous and wonderful things to Harry’s insides.

Draco is just as nervous and strung out as he is, and it’s a revelation. Harry casts bewildered glances over his sensible, slightly scruffy coat, his ordinary hands with scratches from Crookshanks and bitten down fingernails, his legs—a little bit too short, probably—in comfortable old jeans. His hair is beyond hope, he’s covered in scars, and he’s really nothing special to look at, and yet Draco seems to want him, and god, he wants Draco, and all he can do is stare at the falling snow, painfully hard and conscious of every pounding heartbeat.

When the female snails return with the food, they are all carrying small piles of snow on the tops of their shells, and their eyestalks wave continuously in an effort to bat the flakes away from their bodies. Harry laughs, or, at least, he tries to; mouth dry and throat tight, all that comes out is a rough sort of wheeze.

Draco looks at him, alarmed. “Are you alright?”

“Never better,” Harry splutters, and Draco turns back to the snails, but when Harry has stopped coughing, Draco trails his fingertips over the back of his hand, a touch so simple that Harry is embarrassed to feel his cock jump in response.

Draco doesn’t withdraw his hand; he just rests his fingertips there on Harry’s skin as though it’s nothing, and perhaps it would be if Harry weren’t struggling just to keep his breathing under control. The snails seem to be taking far longer than usual to finish their food, and Harry finds himself switching between silently urging them on and darting quick looks at Draco, who is now breathing quickly and licking nervously at his bottom lip.

When the last snail finally pops into its shell, Harry turns to him in a flood of relief only to find him scrambling to his feet.

“Where are you going?” he asks, no longer caring how pathetic he sounds.

“Nowhere,” Draco says firmly, ducking out of the tent and placing Solomon into the circle with the others. His hand shakes as he spells the plant into place, and when he comes back inside, closes the flaps of the tent and lowers himself back to his cushion, his eyes reflect every one of Harry’s stupid worries, panics and desires right back to him.

Harry isn’t sure how long they sit there and stare at one another; all he knows is that when they reach for each other, everything seems to come together. He’s still terrified, and maybe he always will be, but it’s a wonderful sort of terror, a swooping, exhilarating sensation in his stomach and heart and groin that carries him along and refuses to let him go. It makes him do things he never imagined he could, like pushing Draco to the ground and kissing him over and over, straddling his hips and groaning out loud when Draco presses a firm hand to his cock, pulling off his own coat, jumper and t-shirt in one and watching Draco’s face as he strokes pale fingers over his stomach and chest.

The grey eyes are warm and so dark with want that Harry has to lean down and kiss him again, slipping his fingers through soft, pale hair and pressing his bare skin to Draco’s coat fabric.

“I think I should at least take my coat off,” Draco mumbles, smiling against Harry’s mouth and then rolling onto his side in order to displace Harry and unbutton his coat with impressive dignity.

Settling beside him, Harry slides his hands under Draco’s jumper and shirt, pulling his breathing under control and attempting to slow things down, to appreciate every second of this, but when his fingers touch Draco’s warm skin and he lets out a shuddering gasp, Harry is lost. Aching all over, he scrambles to divest Draco of every last piece of clothing, not stopping until he is stretched out on the floor of the tent, wearing nothing but a wristwatch and a startled expression.

Harry stares down at him, astonished by his own boldness but pretty pleased with the results. Draco’s skin is so pale that it seems to luminesce under the Christmas lanterns like the spirals of frost snail eggs. He has scars, too, faint pink ones scattered across his torso, a large, jagged one over one shoulder, and the faded, twisted shape of the Dark Mark on his left forearm. The sight of them makes Harry hurt, and he doesn’t know whether he should try to stroke away each one or pretend that he doesn’t see them at all.

Draco looks at him inquiringly and he pushes the feeling away; this is not the time for sadness or regret. He wants and needs and loves, and suddenly, making sure that Draco knows all of that is the only important thing. He scrambles back onto his side, catching Draco’s wrist as he kisses him deeply, running his thumb over the faded lines of the Dark Mark and then letting go, wrapping his fingers around Draco’s hip and kissing away his soft sound of surprise.

Draco breaks the kiss to tug down Harry’s jeans and underwear and kick them away. His socks and shoes quickly follow, and within seconds they are tangled together, bare skin brushing, hands everywhere, stroking and exploring and learning. Draco’s cock presses against Harry’s hip, hard and leaking, and his mouth drags hot and open against Harry’s neck, making him groan and pull Draco impossibly closer until their erections slide together with every roll of their hips.

Letting out a low whimper, Draco closes his eyes and brushes his thumb across Harry’s bottom lip. He shudders and opens his mouth, flicking his tongue over Draco’s skin and tasting salt and cinnamon. Draco gasps at the sensation and grips Harry’s shoulder hard enough to hurt.

Harry grins and gently pulls away from him, pushing him onto his back and settling between his legs. He gazes at Draco’s cock, hard and flushed against his stomach, and then up at his eyes, which are half-closed and dark with need. To his surprise, Draco throws his forearm over his face in a self-conscious gesture that is charmingly at odds with his small, breathless smile.

Harry’s stomach flutters and he lets it spur him on; he wraps one hand around Draco’s cock and uses the other to steady himself against the cold floor of the tent as he leans down and takes Draco in his mouth. The warm weight of it and the hot, salty leak against his tongue are thrilling, and he aches to be touched, but he can wait. Slowly, he slips his mouth over the hard flesh, acting on instinct and taking his cues from the shaking fingers that have threaded into his hair. When Draco shudders and his cock twitches in Harry’s mouth, he steps up the pace, humming with pleasure and giving in to the desire to touch himself, wrapping a hand around his own cock and hoping vaguely that he doesn’t lose his balance.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” Draco whispers, lifting his hips and tightening his grip on Harry’s hair, and fuck, Harry is so close, too; every bit of him is hot and tingling and almost painful, but when Draco stiffens and comes in his mouth, he forgets about everything and just hangs on.

Slowly, he crawls back to his cushion and flops onto it, pulling Draco’s arm away from his flushed face and kissing him. Draco kisses him back without hesitation and opens his eyes.

“You’re not...” he says, propping himself up on one elbow and looking down at Harry’s neglected erection.

“No,” Harry says, shrugging, and he almost doesn’t care.

“Unfortunately for you, I can barely move,” Draco says, running a hand down Harry’s side. “Fortunately for you, however, I don’t need to.”

“Oh?” Harry smiles, catching his breath as strong, cool fingers wrap around his cock. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Draco says, and he doesn’t look away from Harry’s eyes once as he strokes him slowly, steadily, until he comes all over himself with a cry of relief.

When it’s over, he closes his eyes, no longer caring what he looks like all naked and imperfect, while Draco applies a skilful cleaning charm and drags the new blanket over both of them. Harry is already drifting into a pleasurable sleep when Draco stops stroking his back and says,

“Why do you think she only sent one blanket?”

Harry sighs. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

“Say what?” Draco says, and Harry can feel his grin against his shoulder.

“Goodnight, Draco.”

Chapter Text

Nineteenth of December – Tiny gingerbread houses

 photo 19thdecember_zps7c1cd455.jpg


As he stirs into consciousness, Harry finds himself wondering why neither he nor Draco have yet seen fit to apply some sort of softening charm to the floor of the tent. His head and neck, perfectly supported by the corduroy cushions, are comfortable, if a little chilly, but his back, shoulders, arms and legs are stiff and aching like those of a man several times his age. Wincing, he feels around for his wand, but when Draco shifts in his sleep and tugs Harry back to him with an arm around his waist, he grins and presses back against Draco’s warm chest, no longer caring about anything besides the perfect ache in the pit of his stomach and the urgent hardness in the small of his back.

In fact, the unforgiving nature of the ground below the tent has never been less important, he decides, rolling over and catching Draco’s mouth in a kiss. Still mostly asleep, it takes a moment or two for Draco to catch up, but when he does, he responds with enthusiasm, wrapping a cold hand around the back of Harry’s neck and pulling him down tight, brushing their tongues together with slow, delicious intention.

Impulsively, Harry makes one last grab for his wand and when his fingers close around it, he slashes it at the tent flaps, sending them flying open and flooding the tent with the soft orange light of the sunrise. Draco smiles against his lips and pushes him onto his back, staring down at him with ruffled hair and soft, silvery eyes.

A cool breeze ripples through the trees and into the tent, filling Harry’s nostrils with the scent of winter and shivering over his bare skin. Draco lifts his head, looking out over the snow-covered grounds with a calm sort of peace that, just weeks ago, Harry would not have believed possible.

“You okay?” he asks softly.

Draco meets his eyes. “Very,” he says, and then he doesn’t speak again until they flop onto their backs, sticky and breathing hard, eyes closed and fingers trailing over heated skin.

“I think I need a shower,” he sighs, kicking away the blanket that has become tangled around their feet.

“Might be an idea,” Harry mumbles. “I think there’s supposed to be one of those no-rules Quidditch games going on later. You should come and play.”

“I might,” Draco says. “Alternatively, we could grab some food from the kitchens and spend the rest of the day down here.”

Harry smiles slowly. “Or both,” he says, all at once caught up in the feeling of endless possibility. “We could play Quidditch for a bit and then come down here and... you know.” He shrugs. “Drink tea and stuff.”

“The tea-drinking was going to be a very important part of my plans,” Draco says solemnly, and then he scrambles to his feet and wanders around the tent in search of his clothes.

Harry sprawls on his back and watches him with silent appreciation until Draco throws his jeans at his head with deadly precision and demands that he get dressed before all the good breakfast things are gone.

Suddenly ravenous, Harry complies, shivering as he pulls on his cold clothes. As they set off across the snowy lawn, the last of the orange smudges fade from the sky, leaving a bright, clear blue and the promise of a day of sunshine. The silence is perfect, absolute, and the sound of rapid footsteps seems to come out of nowhere. A split-second after he notices it, Harry is almost knocked over by Neville, who is out of breath and smells of the forest.

For a minute or two, he says nothing and just walks beside them, and then he turns to Harry, grinning.

“Been up with the snails?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, attempting to ignore Draco’s amused expression. Neville doesn’t seem to have noticed it at all; in fact, he is glowing with a happiness all of his own.

“I’ve been to see to the Thestrals... and I asked her out! And she said yes!” he announces.

“That’s brilliant,” Harry says, clapping him on the back and returning his grin.

“I’m sorry, who said yes?” Draco asks curiously.

“Luna,” Neville sighs. “Well, she actually said she thought we were already going out, but it’ll do!”

Draco says nothing, clearly bewildered, but Neville just laughs and takes off towards the castle at top speed, skidding through the snow and weaving up the stone steps like a man possessed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so happy,” Draco says, following at a more sedate pace.

“Me neither. Happy is good, though, you know?”

Draco’s mouth curves into a half-smile that makes Harry’s knees feel weak. “I know.”

When he reaches Gryffindor Tower, he finds the common room deserted, and his growling stomach quickly reminds him that his housemates are probably already at breakfast. Determined to make it down to the Great Hall before the platters vanish, he strips off his cold, damp clothes and races through a hot shower, scrubbing himself with a mint-flavoured soap that makes his skin tingle and standing under the powerful streams of water until every inch of him feels clean and warm again.

The dormitory is shockingly cold and he dresses as quickly as he can in clean jeans and his favourite soft red jumper. Humming to himself, he jogs down the stairs into the common room and stops. Hermione is sitting on the sofa, hands folded around her copy of the Daily Prophet. Her eyes are large and anxious, and when she notices Harry, she bites her lip.

“What’s the matter?” he asks, heart speeding unpleasantly.

“Harry, I have to tell you something,” she says. She takes a deep breath. “Draco’s father is dead.”

Harry looks around the empty common room, half-expecting someone to leap out, point at him, and laugh, but nothing happens. He stares at Hermione, stunned.

“But he’s in Azkaban,” he says stupidly.

“People die there, too,” Hermione says, patting the seat next to her and unfolding the newspaper. “A lot of people, actually.”

Harry walks across the rug towards her without really noticing and sits heavily on the sofa. She passes him the newspaper.

“Page two.”

Feeling sick, Harry turns to the article and stares at it. It takes up a quarter of the page and makes a surprisingly balanced account of the life and achievements of Lucius Malfoy, who Harry can only imagine had lackeys on the payroll of the Daily Prophet right until the end.

“Malfoy, forty-four, died of a massive heart attack in his cell late last night. In accordance with the wishes of his family, he will be buried at Malfoy Manor on the twenty-second of December,” Harry reads. “How is this in the Prophet already?”

“I don’t know,” Hermione says, fingers twisting together in her lap. “Death is big news, I suppose.”

Harry shakes his head and folds the paper, unwilling to look at it any longer. “I can’t believe it.”

Hermione glances at him. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance that Draco already knows, is there?”

Harry closes his eyes against the cold dread filling his chest. “No,” he says, almost in a whisper. “He doesn’t know.” Forcing his eyes open, he gets to his feet. “I can’t let him find out from this.”

“I know,” Hermione says, and the look that passes between them is one of painful understanding. “Go.”

He nods, reaches down and hugs her tightly and then dashes for the portrait hole. His legs are dangerously unsteady beneath him as he hurries down the stairs but there isn’t time to stop. He heads straight for the dungeons, suspecting that Draco is still showering and looking through his clothes, and if he is, there’s a good chance he hasn’t yet thought to pick up a newspaper. Breathing hard, he skids to a stop in front of the entrance to the Slytherin common room and knocks until his knuckles feel bruised.

After a moment, the door flies open and Blaise Zabini is standing there, peering down at him with a solemn expression that makes Harry’s heart drop through his body.

“Is Draco here?” he demands.

“He’s with McGonagall,” Blaise says. “She was waiting for him here. She didn’t want him to find out from some first-year who’d read the paper.”

Unsure whether to feel relieved or horrified, Harry slumps against the doorframe and rubs at his face. It’s good that he’s with McGonagall, of course it is, but the need to be with Draco, to fold him up tight and let everything pour out is so strong that it wrenches at his insides and fogs up his brain.

“Do you want to come in?” Blaise asks, and Harry just stares at him. He lets the door creak open, allowing Harry to see the softly-lit common room and the curious eyes of a small group of Slytherins gathered around the flickering fireplace.

“Is it true that you and Draco are... you know?” asks a girl with long, dark hair, and Harry has the feeling that all of the others are waiting for his answer.

“Does that really matter right now?” Blaise snaps, turning on them briefly, and Harry is distractedly interested to note that they all turn away, seeming to shrink at his harsh tone.

“We are,” he finds himself saying, voice scratchy but strong. “We are, and I have to... I have to...”

“Come and sit down,” Blaise says, reaching out and tugging Harry into the common room. “He’s not going anywhere for a while, and I’ve just made a pot of very good coffee.”

Feeling as though he is watching himself in a dream, Harry allows himself to be led over to an enormous chesterfield sofa, where Blaise pushes a pewter mug of rich-smelling coffee into his hands and then sits next to him without a word. The group by the fireside chatter amongst themselves, looking over at Harry every now and then, but every time their volume lifts above a soft murmur, Blaise shoots them a quelling look and they fall almost completely silent. The Slytherin common room is a surprisingly tranquil place, and Harry feels his pulse steady and slow as he watches the eels in the lake weave their way past the tall windows.

“It’s complicated... Draco and his father. It won’t be the way you think it will,” Blaise says, fixing Harry with cocoa-dark eyes.

“I wouldn’t expect anything else,” Harry says, and then they do not speak again until he thanks Blaise for the coffee, returns his mug, and walks out into the dimly-lit corridor.

When he walks up the stairs and emerges into the light-flooded Entrance Hall, all he wants to do is retreat back into the calm darkness of the dungeons, but he presses on, forcing himself out into the sunshine and across the snow-covered lawns, trying, with every step, not to think about the feeling of contentment and optimism that had carried him over the grounds less than an hour before.

He reaches the bottom of the hill, wet and shivering without his coat, and is surprised to see that the tent is open, the tree has been lit, and the magical fire is blazing brightly. He walks slowly, uncertainly, towards the tent, nervous of what he might find there, but when he ducks inside, Draco is sitting cross-legged on a cushion, frowning in concentration as he uses his wand to stick one tiny piece of gingerbread to another. On one side of him is a box of similar gingerbread pieces, and on the other, a neat little row of completed houses, each so small that it could balance on the back of a Galleon. Solomon is sitting on Draco’s shoulder atop his piece of salamander silk, and he pops gently at the sight of Harry, but Draco doesn’t look up.

“Draco,” he says carefully, lowering himself to sit on his cushion.

“Severus loved gingerbread,” Draco says without looking up. “We used to send each other houses every Christmas.”

Stomach churning, Harry takes a breath and tries again. “Draco, I know...”

“I got these pieces from the kitchen,” Draco continues in a slightly louder voice. “They’re actually leftovers from the big house they’re making for the Great Hall. The house-elves were very polite to me, in fact—”

“I saw the article,” Harry says, desperation speeding his words. “We can talk about it if you want. I mean, your father...”

“No, thank you,” Draco snaps, completing another tiny house and setting it down next to the others.

Harry frowns. “You mean you don’t want to talk about him right now or you don’t want to talk about him at all?”

“There is nothing to talk about,” Draco says calmly, but when he looks up at Harry, his eyes are flashing with anger. “I don’t care that he’s dead.”

Harry’s heart jolts and he pulls into himself instinctively, wrapping his arms around his knees. He presses his mouth against his forearm, keeping the words inside. It’s pretty clear that his words are useless and possibly worse than that. He doesn’t know how he had expected Draco to feel, but this cold, flat fury is terrifying, and suddenly he’s not sure he knows how to reach through it.

There isn’t anything left to say, Draco had told him, and it seems like a long time ago now. As he watches Draco stubbornly assembling gingerbread houses, he lets that conversation drift around in his mind, searching for something to grab onto, something to anchor him.

“You said you didn’t hate him,” Harry says at last, and Draco grants him a humourless smile.

“No. Hating him would require some sort of emotional connection.”

“You seem to be feeling something,” Harry tries, even though he knows he should step back, just leave it alone now. He’s never been good at not poking at sore things, and Draco sure as hell isn’t about to be an exception.

Draco adds the roof to another tiny house and sighs. “Yes, Harry, I’m fucking angry, and I don’t want to talk about Lucius Malfoy. I have already spent an hour talking about him with McGonagall and I am seriously hoping that you might be easier to reason with.”

Stung, Harry opens his mouth to reply and then closes it again. “Okay,” he says quietly, and then: “Sorry, but I just have to say this. Then I’ll be quiet. Then I’ll even leave you alone if you want...”

“Fine.”

“I was wondering if you were going to the funeral... it’s on Tuesday... which you know, obviously,” Harry says, quietly loathing himself. “I suppose your mother will be there, if she’s arranged it, and if you want, I could come with you... what?”

Draco’s expression has shifted from angry to murderous, and Harry has no idea what he’s said wrong this time.

“First of all, my mother did not arrange his funeral, he arranged it himself,” Draco says, lip curling in contempt. “He told me about his plans before the trials, and very pleased with them he was, too. Told me he probably wouldn’t survive another stay in Azkaban and he had it all set up with his solicitors... the guards were to inform them the moment of his death and the wheels of Lucius Malfoy’s grand exit machine would start turning. Daily Prophet, big showy funeral, burial in the Manor grounds, because the family plot is, of course, too ordinary for the great man himself,” Draco says, ticking off the points on his fingers.

“Oh,” Harry says, unable to form a coherent sentence.

“He has already invited all the most important people he can think of, and no doubt some of them will even go along, especially as he has made sure to leave just enough of his estate to the right causes—and believe me, there is no room for ‘what a nice thing to do, maybe he was remorseful after all’ when you’ve witnessed his calculations of what amount will get him the nicest plaque here, or how much will get him a hospital ward named after him there... so, no, in answer to your question, I will not be attending his exhibition on Tuesday, and neither will my mother. Is there anything else or can we talk about something useful, like how many more gingerbread houses I need to make before I stop feeling dirty?”

Harry stares at him, barely breathing. Looking at Draco makes his heart hurt and his stomach twist, but he can’t seem to look anywhere else. Finally, hands shaking, he pulls the box of gingerbread pieces towards him and draws his wand. He doesn’t know how to talk to Draco about his father, but then, it doesn’t seem as though Draco wants to talk about him. He wants to make gingerbread houses for Severus, and Harry thinks he can do that.

“I’m sorry,” he says, sticking his first two walls together without much finesse. “How’s this?”

Draco looks up. “Very rustic,” he says. “Severus would not have approved. He liked his gingerbread houses to be extremely neat.”

“Well, then, he wouldn’t expect any less of me, would he?” Harry murmurs, adding another wall.

“Thank you,” Draco says quietly, and when Harry glances at him, he is focusing very hard on a gingerbread house that seems to be already completed.

He doesn’t ask Harry to leave, so he doesn’t. He sits beside him in silence and helps him to make more tiny houses than anyone could ever need, including Severus Snape. He listens to the shouts and laughter from the Quidditch game when it begins, high above the lawns, the occasional popping from Solomon, and the shiver of the wind through the trees and around the tent. When the light begins to fade for the day, he remembers how they had planned to raid the kitchens for food and he guiltily sneaks a few pieces of stale gingerbread to stop the grumbling of his stomach, all the while trying hard to push down his selfish longing for the day that might have been.

As night falls and the snails begin to wake, Harry walks up and down the lakeside, stretching his stiff limbs and scattering parsnip cubes for the females to find. The lake has completely frozen over now and is covered in its own layer of snow. Idly, he wonders how far he could walk out onto the ice before it shatters and plunges him into the dark water below, but when Draco calls out to him from the tent with a note of anxiety in his voice, he shakes away the unhelpful thought and hurries back to him, skidding across the slippery ground and stumbling through the flaps. Draco says nothing, but the relief is clear in his eyes, and Harry finally dares to lean down and kiss him, just a soft press of lips against his hairline. It’s not much, but Draco closes his eyes and lets out a small sigh, and it’s enough.

Harry puts the kettle on to boil and casts a gentle warming charm over the males and their eggs. The females are already leaving on their nightly search for food and Draco watches them silently over the top of his latest gingerbread house. He shivers, and Harry drapes the thick blanket around his shoulders without a word.

By the time the last snail has eaten its fill and popped into its shell beside its gleaming spiral of eggs, the tent is covered in a carpet of minute gingerbread houses, and Harry’s hands are stiff and half-frozen. Draco rises from his cushion and moves around as though in a dream, turning out lights and spelling the frozen plant back over the snails. Finally, he looks at Harry, blinking as though remembering his presence for the first time.

“I have to go back. I have to write to my mother,” he says.

“I’ll walk with you,” Harry offers, because he has nothing else.

In the Entrance Hall, Draco hesitates, and Harry throws out his restraint, pulling him close and hugging him tightly. Draco holds himself stiffly for a moment and then allows himself to rest against Harry, dropping his head briefly to Harry’s shoulder and resting cold hands at Harry’s hips.

“I’m alright, you know,” he says as they pull apart. “It’s not as though I’m going to miss him.”

Harry says nothing. He’s not sure he believes Draco’s words, and anyway, there isn’t anything he can say that will help. He squeezes Draco’s hand tightly and then lets him go, watching him out of sight before heading for the stairs.

In the common room, Ron and Hermione are waiting. They are sitting by the embers of the fire, one in an armchair and the other on the hearthrug, both apparently reading, but he knows they have stayed up for him. The common room is busier than usual for a little after midnight, and Harry remembers with a jolt that today is the last full day of term, and that by lunchtime tomorrow, the castle will be almost empty as most of its occupants head home to their families.

“How was it?” Ron asks.

Harry sighs and flops onto a creaky sofa. “Weird. Quiet. I don’t know.”

“It’s strange, though, isn’t it?” says one of a group of fifth and sixth-years sitting around a nearby table. “I always thought he was older than that.”

Hermione starts to say something but Harry’s attention is caught, and he strains to hear the rest of the conversation.

“He always looked older,” says another.

A third laughs and picks up his mug. “Well, good riddance, anyway... a toast to the end of another Death Eater—”

“Stop it,” Harry snaps, turning around in his seat and glaring at them. “Just stop it.”

The students around the table look at him in surprise and then turn away. Seconds later, one of them starts talking about Quidditch as though nothing has happened.

“You can’t stop them talking about him, Harry,” Hermione says gently.

Harry groans and rubs at his face with both hands. “I know. They’re not even wrong, are they? I just... I’m going to bed,” he sighs, forcing himself up from the sofa and stalking towards the stairs without looking back. He could have been more grateful for their concern, he knows he could, but right now, he just can’t bring himself to care.

Seamus, Neville, and Dean have all pulled the curtains around their beds, and Harry is just about to crawl onto his sheets and do the same when he spots a mangled copy of the Prophet on the windowsill. Impulsively, he grabs it and sits on the edge of his bed, stomach roiling, as he re-reads Lucius Malfoy’s impressive obituary.

And it is impressive, he thinks, frowning at the words. It’s not just respectful, it’s more than a flattering account of his life with a dash of wrongdoer’s regret for pathos, it’s elegantly written, far more so than the usual rubbish churned out by Prophet reporters. Each phrase is beautifully turned and each sentence crafted with care, and by the time Harry has forced himself to read the sodding thing for the third time, he can only arrive at one sickening conclusion.

Lucius Malfoy has written his own obituary.

Feeling oddly slimy, Harry shudders and replaces the newspaper on the windowsill before getting into bed fully clothed and drawing the curtains to seal himself in. He kicks off his shoes and flops on his back, staring up at his canopy and letting the full unpleasantness of the situation sink in.

What was it that Draco had said?

...the wheels of Lucius Malfoy’s grand exit machine?

Harry lets out a long, painful breath and closes his eyes. Lucius was a clever man, Harry will give him that. Trouble is, he was also a selfish man, a manipulative man, a cruel man. And, though he probably doesn’t deserve the title, he was Draco’s father.

Harry’s thoughts drift inevitably to his own father and he pushes them away, knowing that he cannot even attempt to compare the two. James Potter is a memory, a whisper of a dream that lives, along with his mother, in the back of his mind. He is an image in a photograph, a handful of cherished words from a life beyond this, a smile and a drift of aftershave from a night he barely remembers. Lucius Malfoy is, was, flesh and blood, violence and snobbery, and Harry is helpless.

The one time he had been forced to confront his father’s less-than-perfect behaviour, he had gone to pieces. Remus and Sirius had told him to forgive, that people aren’t their idiotic, adolescent selves forever, and that’s true, of course it is, but now they’re gone, too, and Harry has no one to ask this time.

The dorm room door creaks open and Harry hears Ron’s muffled swearing as he trips over something, no doubt something of his own, that has been left on the floor. In spite of his gloom, he smiles, and then opens his eyes, blinking up at the rich red fabric of the canopy as he listens to the comfortingly familiar sounds of his friend trundling around the room and getting into bed.

Arthur Weasley.

He will always love his father, Sirius and Remus, but there’s no doubt that Arthur is the man who has always been there for him. Despite never quite having enough money or enough hours in the day for the children he already has, he has always looked out for Harry, protected him, taught him lessons in his own quiet way, and, along with Molly, folded Harry into his family without a second thought.

Something about this realisation chases away a little of the darkness that is trying to creep around Harry, and he curls under his sheets, heart full and mind racing with plans to help Draco. Yes, he may be powerless to make everything okay for him, but if he can borrow a little bit of Arthur’s quiet fortitude, he might just be able to offer him the strength he needs.

“Harry? Are you awake?” Ron asks in a whisper.

Harry closes his eyes. “No,” he whispers back.

“Okay,” Ron says after a moment. “’Night, then.”

Harry listens to the creak of Ron’s mattress as he gets into bed. He wonders if Draco is still writing to his mother, or if he’s lying awake in the Slytherin dorms, alone and tangled up inside.

“It’s going to be alright,” Harry mumbles to himself, to Draco, to his pillow. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

Twentieth of December – Canada goose on the water

20th december

Harry’s night is fractured and restless, filled with tangled sheets and twisted dreams, the repeated theme of which seems to be a blank-eyed Lucius Malfoy screaming at him to stay away from Draco. When the sound of Ron’s muttering drags him from the latest episode of this nightmare at just after six in the morning, all he feels is relief. Shaking and drenched in sweat, he takes a moment to calm his breathing and then flings his bed curtains aside.

“What are you doing?” he whispers, squinting through the early morning gloom to see that his other dorm-mates’ curtains are still pulled tight.

“Sorry,” Ron whispers back, emerging from where he has been rummaging through his trunk. “I couldn’t remember where I’d put Dad’s Christmas present... I know it sounds daft but I just woke up thinking about it and then I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

Harry shoves his glasses onto his nose and Ron’s apologetic face swims into focus.

“It’s not daft,” he whispers, all the previous night’s thoughts of Arthur rushing back to wrap around his heart. “Want me to help you look?”

Ron’s surprised smile is all the encouragement Harry needs. He scrambles out of bed and joins the search, finally emerging triumphant just as the others begin to stir awake.

“Sock drawer,” he tells Ron, handing him the box wrapped in shiny red paper.

“Why would I put it there?” Ron sighs, but he thanks Harry and adds the box to the pile of other gifts he has managed to unearth during the search.

Draco isn’t at breakfast. Anxious but unsurprised, Harry picks at a piece of toast and casts around for a distraction; he doesn’t feel much like eating, either, and he’s not going to go dashing off to the Slytherin common room again just because Draco doesn’t feel like facing the end-of-term masses, but he needs something to focus on. To his surprise, he finds it in Blaise, who wanders over to sit beside Ginny and engages him in conversation the moment she takes a bite of her bacon sandwich.

“He’s writing to his mother,” he says, as though reading Harry’s mind.

“Again?”

Blaise nods and pours himself a cup of coffee. “He writes to her several times a week as a matter of course, so you can imagine the amount of ink and parchment the pair of them are running through at the moment.” Registering Harry’s look of surprise, he smiles slowly. “Don’t look so astonished. It’s just the way they communicate. They’ve always been like that.”

“I knew they wrote, but... I didn’t realise,” Harry admits.

“Draco always used to harp on about letter-writing being a dying art, but if you ask me, he and his mother just find it easier to express their feelings in a quieter way,” Blaise says. “Besides, they both have beautiful handwriting; it would be a shame to waste it.”

A small smile steals across Harry’s face, surprising him.

“Do you want some breakfast, Blaise?” Ginny says wearily, and when Harry looks, he sees that Blaise is helping himself to half of her sandwich.

“Goodness, no, I’m still full from the feast last night,” he says, taking a large bite and ignoring Ginny’s murderous expression. “I don’t think I could eat another thing.”

Ginny rolls her eyes and reaches for another bacon sandwich, this time guarding her food with her arm and sharing an exasperated look with Harry.

“You okay?” she asks after a moment.

Harry shrugs. “Yeah. I didn’t even realise I was missing the feast.”

“Some things are more important,” she says, and he smiles at her, letting it hurt.

When breakfast is over, Harry returns to the common room and paces restlessly, unsure of what to do with himself as the end-of-term excitement of his fellow Gryffindors crackles around him. Everyone from the tiniest first-year to Dean and Seamus is dashing around, making last-minute plans, locating lost but essential belongings and chattering at high volume about their plans for the holidays. Harry feels lost, the Christmas spirit having completely deserted him, and when Ron and Hermione accost him by the fireplace, dressed in coats and hats and practically glowing with well-being, he just wants to slump into a chair and put his hands over his eyes.

“We thought you might show us the snails before we go,” Hermione says hopefully.

Startled, Harry stares at her. “The snails?”

“Little things with shells,” Ron reminds him, raising two fingers to his forehead and mimicking eyestalks. “You’ve been looking after them a bit, I think.”

Something in his tone surprises a laugh out of Harry and he nods. “Okay. Snails it is.”

Together, the three of them leave the noisy common room behind and head out onto the frozen lawn. Despite the bright sunshine, the air is bitterly cold, and Hermione quickly pulls up the fur-lined hood of her coat to shield her face from the wind. Ron shivers and stuffs his hands into his pockets. Harry thinks he should probably have stopped to grab a coat or hat; his jeans and jumper offer very little protection against the chill, but it doesn’t matter now. They are already halfway across the lawn, crunching and sinking with every step, and soon he’ll be able to light the fire in the tent, and...

The tent. Harry stops for a moment, heart skipping. He forces himself to keep walking before one of them asks what’s wrong but he’s suddenly very aware of how the tent will look to people who haven’t seen it before. Two fat cushions pushed closely together, one large blanket... lights and cards and decorations stuck to the walls... even without the bizarre addition of at least a hundred miniature gingerbread houses, the space is pretty clearly one occupied by a couple, and though he can think of so many things that matter so much more right now, the imminent statement of what he and Draco have become to one another makes Harry’s heartbeat quicken and his mouth dry.

Fighting down the urge to come up with some sort of excuse, Harry leads the way down the hill and along the lakeside. On the frozen surface, a lone Canada goose is skidding comically, setting its large, webbed feet down against the ice with fierce determination. As he watches, it attempts to run and loses traction instantly, skidding on its belly and letting out a disconsolate honk.

“I know how you feel,” Harry says under his breath, silently urging the goose back to its feet and wondering if he can get away with just nudging it to the edge of the lake with a spell, or if Hermione will...

“Never mind him,” Hermione says, poking Harry in the back. “It’s freezing out here.”

“And there’s me thinking you were a friend to all living creatures, Hermione,” Ron teases.

“Friends let friends make their own mistakes,” Hermione mutters, and she says it with such conviction that Harry wants to laugh. But he doesn’t. It doesn’t seem right.

He pulls open the tent and lets Ron and Hermione step inside, flicking his wand to light the Christmas tree and the lanterns.

Ron stares around the magically extended space, eyebrows knitted.

Harry swallows hard, jumping when Hermione touches his arm.

“You don’t have to explain,” she says softly.

“Speak for yourself,” Ron mumbles. “Harry, if you’ve got an explanation for these things, I’d love to hear it.”

“About Draco, Ron,” Hermione sighs, and Harry realises with a swoop of relief that Ron is frowning at the plethora of tiny gingerbread houses.

“Oh, that,” Ron says, turning to Harry. “No, you don’t need to explain that.”

“I don’t?”

“Mate, it’s been coming,” Ron says, shaking his head. “Mind if I move a few of these so we can sit down?”

Harry shakes his head and Ron produces a charm that stacks the little houses into a fairly neat pile. Looking pleased with himself, he then flops onto the floor, indicating that Harry and Hermione should take the cushions. He watches them closely until they comply, and when Hermione shoots Ron an exasperated smile, a bubble of laughter rises up in Harry’s chest and he lets it out, startling himself with the sheer volume of the sound and immediately feeling guilty.

“Oh, god, I shouldn’t laugh, should I?” he mumbles.

“No, you should,” Hermione says sternly, pulling out her wand and lighting the fire. “You should do whatever you need to do. It’s tiring enough being strong for someone else without giving yourself a hard time.”

Harry doesn’t know how to argue with that, so he doesn’t try. Instead, he spells the plant away from the circle of snails and sits back while Ron and Hermione inspect them. It’s strange, he thinks; he has spent hours and hours looking at the little buggers and has inevitably become used to them. He is accustomed to their glittering, otherworldly appearance, their odd little habits and their glistening spirals of eggs, but watching his friends’ reactions is almost like seeing them for the first time all over again.

“Look at their shells,” Hermione murmurs. “I didn’t realise they’d sparkle like that.”

“That one’s massive,” Ron says, pointing at old bossy-shell. “Why’s that one so much bigger than the others?”

“She’s the dominant female,” Harry says. “She’s kind of in charge of the whole operation.”

Hermione nods and then grabs Ron’s arm. “Oh! They’re coming out!”

Harry leans forward to get a better look and realises that she is right. While the females, exhausted from the night’s food-gathering, are sleeping peacefully, the males are beginning to stir, sliding out to assess the potential threat to their eggs. Harry, Ron, and Hermione stay very still, and, after a minute or two, they retreat, each leaving a watchful eyestalk poking out, just in case.

“I hope they don’t think we’re going to hurt their eggs,” Hermione whispers.

“I think they’ve decided we’re okay,” Harry says. “Who wants a cup of tea?”

This suggestion is greeted with enthusiasm by Ron and Hermione, both of whom are still shivering and edging closer to the fire. When Harry returns and passes out steaming mugs, all three sit for several minutes in companionable silence. Unsurprisingly, Hermione is the one to break it, but Harry doesn’t mind. He’s going to be without them for almost three weeks and as far as he’s concerned, they can say whatever they want.

“Is he going to go to the funeral?” she asks, sipping her tea.

“He says not.”

“I don’t blame him,” Ron says. “I wouldn’t go to his funeral, either.”

“Ron,” Hermione whispers, but he shakes his head and continues.

“Just because he’s Malfoy’s father doesn’t mean he was a good person... we know he wasn’t. You can’t use family as an excuse to do whatever you want.”

“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” Harry says, feeling a chill creeping into his bones at Ron’s words.

His tentative optimism seems to have deserted him overnight, and as he sits there, flanked by his two best friends and a tower of gingerbread houses, he has a very real suspicion that he doesn’t know how to deal with this at all. What does he know about helping other people deal with death, anyway? Faced with Cho’s grief over Cedric, he had all but fallen apart, and he’s pretty sure that the loss of Fred had been at least a contributing factor in the breakdown of his relationship with Ginny.

“My track record doesn’t exactly bode well for Draco,” he says, mostly to himself.

“This is different,” Hermione says firmly, and when he meets her eyes, he knows he doesn’t need to explain.

“How is it?”

“Draco is different. This death is different. You’re different,” she says, wrapping her hand around his and squeezing hard. Her fingers are cold but her eyes are burning, fierce, daring him to disagree.

“Maybe this is just what Malfoys do,” Ron suggests. “Maybe they’re quiet with their grief. If he’s grieving.”

“I don’t know,” Harry says, eyes drawn to the tall stack of gingerbread houses, every one of Draco’s, perfectly neat, every one of his, not so much. He lets out a long, shaky breath. Draco knows how to grieve. It just doesn’t look like this.

“Is there someone down there?” Hagrid yells from what sounds like the top of the hill, and all three of them turn to peer out of the tent.

“Just me and Ron and Hermione,” Harry calls, and then there’s the sound of crunching footsteps and joyful barking.

Harry scrambles to cover the snails with the plant before Fang gets his nose into the circle and causes untold mayhem. Hagrid leans down to poke his head into the tent, just about restraining Fang by the scruff of his neck before he makes a dive for the gingerbread houses.

“I thought I ’eard yeh,” he says, bristly eyebrows drawing together. “Yeh’d better get back up to the castle, ’adn’t yeh? It’s nearly time to go!”

“Looks like we lost track of time,” Hermione says, getting to her feet and stepping out of the tent. “Thanks, Hagrid. Come on, Ron.”

Harry and Ron exchange glances and follow her out into the bright sunlight.

“I saw the paper,” Hagrid says, shifting his crossbow on his shoulder awkwardly. “Tell ’im I’m sorry, won’t yeh?”

“Of course,” Harry mumbles, and Hagrid nods and turns to Ron and Hermione with a smile.

“’Ave a good Christmas, you two,” he says, and then stumps off towards the forest, Fang bounding at his heels.

“I’m sorry we have to go,” Hermione says as they walk back up the hill and across the frozen grass.

The goose, Harry is now pleased to note, has managed to skid its way to the edge of the lake and is now sitting casually in a pile of rushes, humiliation apparently forgotten.

“No, you’re going to be exactly where you should be,” Harry says, slinging an arm around her shoulders and pulling her to his side for a moment. “I’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. I think.”

“Mum and Dad’ll miss you,” Ron says. “They understand and everything, but they’ll miss you.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, already knowing that he’s going to miss them, too. There will be other Christmases, ones where he doesn’t have to choose between the only two places he has ever called home, and Hogwarts is the right place for him this year, but just for a moment, as they step into the Entrance Hall and are swallowed up by hundreds of excited students, he is consumed by envy.

Hermione hugs him tightly and then dashes off up the stairs to retrieve her things. Ron folds him up in an embrace that squeezes the breath out of him, slaps him on the back and gives him a significant nod, leaving him in the midst of the crowd. Slowly, Harry weaves through the goodbyes and the last-minute exchanges of presents towards the promising aroma of coffee. The assembled masses seem to have spilled over into the Great Hall, but here their density is low enough for Harry to spy the pots of coffee and hot chocolate laid out on the Hufflepuff table, and for him to thread his way towards them.

He perches on the edge of the long table, helping himself to a cup of coffee and drinking it slowly as he watches Filch attempt unsuccessfully to get the chattering students to pay attention to him. When a flash of bright blue catches his eye, he turns to see Sarah Creevey, bundled up in a duffel coat just a little too big for her, pushing her way into the Great Hall and heading purposefully over to say goodbye to her brothers for the holidays.

Harry can’t hear her above the noise of the crowd, but she clearly mouths ‘I’ll be back soon’ as she presses her fingers to the red and gold bricks and smiles. He doesn’t notice Draco, who has entered the Great Hall from the opposite end, until he is already pouring himself a cup of coffee, but Sarah has seen him, and she is by his side in an instant, looking up at him with large, anxious eyes.

“Excuse me... erm...” She pauses as though unsure how to address him. “Erm... Draco Malfoy?”

Slowly, he turns and looks down at her. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry about your father,” she says, and she doesn’t take her eyes off him for a second.

“Thank you,” Draco says after what feels like a long time, and then he turns around and walks back the way he came as though he hasn’t seen Harry at all, and maybe he hasn’t.

Sarah watches him, biting her lip.

“He’s not very talkative at the moment,” Harry says to her, feeling as though he should explain.

“It’s alright,” she says, drawing her hands into the sleeves of her coat and looking up at him solemnly. “Colin always said he didn’t get on with his dad. It must be difficult for him.”

“Yeah, it must,” Harry says, and he wonders if losing two brothers has made Sarah wise beyond her years, or if she just understands things that he doesn’t.

“It’s harder to lose someone when you think you should have loved them more than you did,” she says, and then smiles at Harry. “I hope you have a happy Christmas.”

Harry watches her cast one last glance at the bricks before running to join her friends. He sits on the edge of the table and drinks his coffee as the crowd in the Entrance Hall thins and then disappears completely, leaving behind only echoes and bits of coloured wrapping paper. With no better idea of what to do with himself, he retrieves his coat from his dormitory and walks back down to the lake to wait for Draco.

He arrives just as the sun is setting, silent and stiff with tension, and this time, Harry doesn’t ask questions. They sit, side by side with fingers laced together, watching the snails and the clear, star-strewn sky. When the snails are covered and the tent flaps pulled closed, Draco curls on his side and closes his eyes.

“I won’t leave you,” Harry says, speaking for the first time in hours. He wraps himself around Draco and listens to his breathing until they both drift into sleep.

Chapter Text

Twenty-first of December – A snowy village

21st december

Harry opens his eyes and rolls over to find that he is alone in the tent. Stiff and sleep-heavy, he forces his uncooperative muscles into action, crawling to the mouth of the tent and yanking open the flaps. The sun is just lifting clear of the treetops, throwing a long, thin shadow behind the single black-clad figure at the water’s edge. Harry lets his breath out in a messy rush and pulls himself out of the tent. He hadn’t been worried, of course. Draco can look after himself. It’s just...

Harry shakes away the pointless thoughts as best he can and walks across the crunchy ground to join Draco, who is picking up pebbles and skimming them across the frozen surface of the lake. He stands beside him and doesn’t say a word, just tucking his cold hands into the pockets of his jeans and watching the violent but graceful movements that send the pebbles skittering over the ice. He is beginning to realise that when Draco doesn’t feel inclined to communicate, questions do nothing but push him further into silence, and that the best thing to do, much as it tests every impatient bone in Harry’s body, is to wait.

And finally, just as Harry is beginning to lose the feeling in his feet, Draco speaks.

“I’m not sad that he’s dead. I want you to believe that. I know you lost your father and I know you must think I’m heartless, but you need to know that it isn’t the same.”

“Okay,” Harry says uncertainly.

Draco picks up another pebble and examines it. “I’m not saying it because I want to sound like I don’t care. I’m saying it because it’s true. Lucius Malfoy stopped being my father some time ago, and the moment I got away from him, I never wanted to see him again. Neither did my mother. She stayed for a long time out of fear, out of loyalty, out of... she wanted to protect me. She left as soon as she could and both of us have been trying to forget about him ever since.”

“I suppose the whole... grand exit machine hasn’t made that easy,” Harry sighs.

Draco snorts and flings the pebble across the lake, disturbing a bed of half-frozen rushes and causing an offended honk to reverberate through the cold air.

“No, it hasn’t. Believe it or not, though... that’s not what’s really pissing me off.”

“No?” Harry bends and picks up a pebble, drawing back his arm and hurling it out over the lake, taking care to avoid the patch of rushes that might just contain an angry Canada goose.

“Here’s the thing... he lied, he cheated, he manipulated... everything he had he stole, one way or another, and everyone he had he bought. I grew up with that. I thought that was how families were. He made my whole life about power because he was obsessed with it; he might as well have put this thing on my arm himself,” Draco says, fingers pressing against the Mark through his coat fabric. “He tried to convince us that he was protecting us by dragging us into his inner circle... tried to tell us there was no other way, but I saw people who got out after the first time around. I saw people who didn’t invite the dark fucking lord to live with them... and yet I really thought there wasn’t any point fighting him until he did something I couldn’t rationalise my way out of.”

“What?” Harry asks, folding his arms over his chest as though trying to keep his hammering heart from breaking free.

Draco shakes his head.

“The point is, I can let go of all of that. I’m letting go of all of that,” he amends, glancing at Harry. “What I can’t stand is the fact that soon he’s going to have plaques and dedications all over the place with his name on them; he’s going to have a ward named after him in St Mungo’s... he’s already got his portrait at the Tornados’ home stadium, did you know that?”

Harry stares at him. “Er, no, I didn’t.”

Draco lets out a hollow bark of laughter. “Oh, yeah. He paid for all new uniforms and equipment one year and they insisted.”

“That’s...”

“Yes, it is. And in ten, twenty, fifty years’ time, when this war is just something that people read about in History of Magic, people will forget what Lucius Malfoy did, and they’ll just look at the walls and think, ‘oh, what a nice man he must have been’, and Severus Snape, who was a thousand times the man and the wizard he ever was, will just be forgotten,” Draco says, snatching up a large pebble and dashing it so ferociously against the ice that sharp crystals fly into the air and spatter their coats.

“Then we don’t let that happen,” Harry says quickly.

“Right,” Draco mumbles. “It’s that easy.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, heart lifting as the idea stirs into life. “It is. We can’t do anything about Lucius but we can make sure nobody gets forgotten. Let’s make a wall that makes people remember Severus Snape.”

Draco turns to him, pale eyes full of cautious hope. “Where?”

“Here,” Harry says, grabbing Draco and spinning him around to see the spires of the castle in the distance. “I’m sure there’s a wall that’s perfect for him. Can you paint?”

“Paint?” Draco repeats, leaning back against Harry and frowning. “No. Probably not. Why?”

“Well, never mind,” Harry says. He buries his face in Draco’s neck, inhaling warm citrus and letting out a long, relieved breath. “We’ll manage. We’re going to need a trip to Hogsmeade, though.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, why not?” Harry says, growing in confidence now that he has a plan of action.

Draco turns around and regards him with the ‘you are a mad person’ look to which he is becoming accustomed, but when Harry smiles at him, he smiles back and shrugs.

“Fine, if you want to be all mysterious. Showers first, though, I think,” he says, setting off back towards the castle and leaving Harry to scramble after him. “I’ll meet you by the Dumbledore statue in an hour.”

“An hour?” Harry laughs. “What do you need an hour for?”

“I can’t believe you’d ask such a thing,” Draco says, and the lightness in his voice blots out Harry’s curiosity completely.

As they crunch down the winding lane to Hogsmeade just over an hour later, however, the unmistakeable sound of popping reaches Harry’s ears, and he turns slowly to look at Draco.

“Do we, by any chance, have a frost snail with us?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Draco says evenly.

Pop, goes Solomon, and Harry steps around Draco to see that the little snail is sitting on his right shoulder, eyestalks stretched out to wave through the gentle snowfall.

“How did you manage to hide him from me?” Harry demands.

“It wasn’t all that much of a challenge. All I had to do was keep you on my left side.”

Harry groans. “Is that why you needed ages to get ready? So you could run back down and get him?”

“We thought you might try to discourage us,” Draco says, lifting his chin in defiance. “And Solomon has never seen Hogsmeade.”

Pop, adds Solomon, and Harry shakes his head, secretly charmed by this unlikely double-act.

“Well, I hope he behaves himself. I’ve got Christmas presents to buy.”

“I thought we were getting paint,” Draco says.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Harry says, grinning. “But yes, we are buying paint also. I thought a Monday might be a quieter day for the shops.”

“Are you talking to me now?” Draco asks, as the village’s Christmas lights come into view.

“Yes,” Harry admits.

“In that case, it might interest you to know that while today is indeed a Monday, it is also Midwinter.”

Harry glances at him, taking in his amused expression just as the rumble of noise from the village begins to hit him. “Oops?” he offers, and Draco just laughs.

By the time they step onto the icy cobbles of the main shopping street, the rumble of sound has grown into a roar. The streets are lined with stalls selling everything from scarves to hot chestnuts, their owners yelling and entreating the cascades of shoppers to stop and examine their wares. The shops themselves are full of people, the butcher’s in particular stuffed to the limit with a queue of bundled-up customers waiting outside, hoping to fill their larders and pantries for a night of feasting and the dark, cold days ahead.

Christmas, too, is everywhere, with lights and sparkles and brightly-coloured displays in shop windows, a large group of carollers on the steps of the Three Broomsticks, and a pair of young men doing a brisk trade in snow-covered miniature spruce trees from the back of a wooden cart. The warm, spicy scent of mulled cider hangs over everything like a soft cloak, drawing Harry and Draco through the crowds towards a lady in a bobble hat who is ladling out steaming cupfuls through a hatch in the wall of her cafe.

They each hand her seven Sickles and then walk slowly through the crowds, sipping the warming liquid and gazing into glowing shop windows as they pass. The carollers launch into a haunting rendition of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and Draco threads his fingers through Harry’s. He stops in front of a window display full of watercolour paintings and inspects them in a pensive silence.

“He hit my mother,” he says suddenly.

Harry swallows hard. “I’m sorry.”

Draco takes a slow, careful breath, eyes still fixed on the paintings in the window, and, as Harry watches, the last of something dark and heavy seems to lift from him.

“I want to buy her a Christmas present,” he says, frowning. “I know she said she didn’t want one, but I think maybe she’d like one of these.”

“They’re beautiful,” Harry agrees.

“She could hang it in her new house,” Draco says. “Do you like the forest or the sunrise?”

“I like them both,” Harry says, looking between the two different but equally lovely paintings. “Maybe it should be the sunrise, though... you know, for a new start.”

Draco smiles at him and turns to Solomon. “He has good ideas sometimes, you see?”

“Thanks,” Harry says drily, following him into the shop and enjoying the warmth and smell of paint and canvas as Draco points out the sunrise to the shopkeeper and waits for it to be wrapped and placed into a shiny bag.

“Don’t we want paint here as well?” Draco asks, indicating the display of watercolour and oil paints.

“No, those are far too small,” Harry laughs, prodding Draco back into the street. “You need to think big.”

Draco arches an eyebrow. “Should I be worried?”

Harry grins and says nothing. Instead, he grabs Draco’s hand and leads him across the street to Dervish and Banges, where they perch among the enormous tins of Charmable Masonry Paint and Harry shares his idea for a permanent and fitting memorial to Snape. Draco listens, smile growing with every word, and pulls out a piece of parchment and a self-inking quill to sketch out a rough draft. Solomon stretches down as far as he dares to involve himself in the proceedings, popping softly when Draco prods him out of the way with his quill.

When a large man in a tatty apron appears to ask them if they’re actually planning on buying anything, Harry startles, having all but forgotten the real reason they entered the shop in the first place. They order several large tins of paint to be delivered to the castle and Draco refuses to let Harry contribute a single Knut towards the cost, which only leads Harry to stubbornly insist on buying Draco the most elaborate lunch he can think of by way of revenge.

In the afternoon, Draco insists that he has ‘things to do’, and he and Solomon disappear off up a side street, leaving Harry with what seems like a ridiculously small amount of time to find and purchase a gift for him. One look at the overstuffed shops persuades him that the market stalls are the way to go, and while he quickly picks up bits and pieces for Ron, Hermione and Molly, nothing is quite leaping out and presenting itself as something that he wants to give to Draco. Something thoughtful but not over-the-top, something that says, hey, I love you, you idiot, without slapping him across the face with it.

Harry bites down on a smile, transferring his shopping bags onto one arm so that he can examine a set of glowing crystals.

“I’ve sold a lot of those today,” the lady behind the stall says. “You looking for your girlfriend?”

“Er... no, not really,” Harry admits, setting the crystals down. Just as he is about to walk away, his eyes fall on a pair of leather gloves, similar to the ones that Solomon had accidentally ruined. “I’ll have these, please,” he says, handing over the money and tucking the bag containing the gloves out of sight as he hurries across the cobbles to meet Draco.

He is, as always, already waiting, and seems to be talking to Solomon as he looks up with interest at a nearby shop-front, bearing the legend: ‘The Great Library of Alexandria’.

“That’s a bit grand, isn’t it, for a bookshop?” he says to Harry, just as the door swings open and two customers step out with shiny red bags.

“There’s nothing grander than a library... or a bookshop,” someone calls from inside, and, exchanging glances, they step into the shop. “I’m Alexandria. Can I help you find something?”

Harry looks around the interior with interest, noting that, just like their tent, it is much bigger on the inside than the outside. Finally, his eyes settle on the counter, where a smiling dark-skinned woman is leaning on her elbows. She is tiny, probably not even five feet tall, and is dressed in vibrant yellow robes with a matching headscarf that pulls a mass of tight curls back from her face.

“We’re just looking, I think,” Harry says, and she nods.

“It’s a good place to look, I promise. Hey, is that a frost snail?” she asks, scooting out from behind the counter on what appears to be a step ladder with wheels.

“Yes,” Draco says, eyeing her cautiously.

Solomon, however, has no such restraint and pops excitedly as the woman climbs up a step and gazes at him with open delight.

“I love inverts, don’t you?” she asks, looking between Harry and Draco. “You can have a go on my ladder if you let me hold him.”

“That’s alright,” Draco says, gently picking up Solomon and passing him to her.

“Spoilsport,” Harry mutters, and Alexandria grins.

“I was looking forward to seeing him on it, too,” she admits, lifting Solomon to her face and examining him closely. “What a beautiful boy. Where on earth did you get him?”

“We’re supervising the tripudium at Hogwarts,” Draco says, seeming rather astonished to be asked so many questions by a stranger. Or, Harry thinks with a twinge of sadness, maybe just astonished that a stranger is choosing to be friendly to him.

“Solomon didn’t feel like mating,” Harry adds.

“Solomon!” she laughs, stroking the glittering shell with a silver-polished finger. “How wonderful. If you like, I can take care of him while you look around?”

Harry can’t help but suspect that this offer is at least as much for Alexandria’s benefit as it is for theirs, but she has kind eyes and she is clearly quite enamoured with Solomon. Draco appears to be thinking along similar lines; he scans her face for several seconds before granting her a quick nod and instructing her to call for him if Solomon pulls into his shell or starts to pop.

“Absolutely,” she agrees, kicking off from the floor and wheeling herself and Solomon over to the counter. “Now, young man, would you like to help me write some Christmas cards?”

Impressed with this display of trust, Harry goes to follow Draco into the maze of shelves, but he is nowhere to be seen, and, after a couple of failed attempts to locate him, he gives up. He can’t have gone far, and besides, there is so much to see here that doing anything but staring at books seems to be a waste of time.

The Great Library of Alexandria certainly lives up to its name. Bookshelves after bookshelves stretch to the ceiling, towering far above Harry’s head, made of mahogany, pine, glass and copper wire, marble and slate and everything in between. There even seems to be one made out of old bicycle parts, and Harry climbs a sliding ladder to get a better look and to run his fingers along the spines of a set of old ‘Martin Miggs’ comic books in near-perfect condition.

He wanders through the sections, each marked by a creaking suit of armour bearing a wooden sign: Sport and Leisure, Herbology, Magical Healing, Local History... Almost every aisle is occupied by customers, but barely anyone speaks, and when they do, they use hushed, reverent voices, and Harry is reminded of Hermione’s frequent assertion that bookshops and libraries are places of worship, and should be treated as such. The thought of her puts a smile on his face as he meanders on, picking up books, flipping carefully through them and returning them to their places, breathing in the evocative scents of paper and ink and wondering if Solomon is enjoying himself.

In the Muggle Interest section, Harry finds a whole shelf full of books that would make excellent Christmas presents for Arthur. He leafs through several entertaining volumes on electricity, cinema and fashion before stopping short as an unexpected memory echoes in his mind.

Arthur, is that you?

Yes. But I would say that even if I were a Death Eater, dear. Ask the question!

Alright, alright... what is your dearest ambition?

To find out how aeroplanes stay up.

Despite the sadness that tries to bleed around the edges of the memory, Harry smiles. He wonders if Arthur has managed to achieve this humble ambition; he doubts he has had the time, what with his promotion and all those extra hours at the Ministry over recent months. Feeling hopeful, Harry scans the colourful spines for an appropriate title and finds ‘Flying without Magic’ shelved between ‘The Television Box and You’ and ‘Why the Dentist?’

He flips to the chapter on passenger airliners and is delighted to see several diagrams that explain, in wizard-friendly terms, exactly how aeroplanes stay up.

“You wouldn’t catch me on one of them,” mutters an old lady, glancing at the page as she passes.

Harry grins and stuffs the book under his arm. All he has to do now is find Draco, thank Alexandria for the perfect Christmas gift and for her snail-sitting services, and then they can head back to Hogwarts and hole up in the tent for the rest of the afternoon.

He is just passing through Magical Creatures when he hears Draco’s voice at the counter. His words are somewhat muffled, but the tone of his voice suggests that he is enjoying himself. No doubt talking about Solomon, Harry thinks, deciding to hang back and give him a little more time. He looks around at the vast array of volumes on animal care as he waits, picking up a book on canine psychology for Hagrid and balancing it on top of ‘Flying without Magic’. Feeling rather accomplished at having found a decent gift for everyone, he is about to head for the counter when a familiar title catches his eye.

Keeping the Constant – a guide to non-hermaphroditic snail breeding,” he reads, pulling out the book and laughing.

The old woman, who has managed to shuffle up behind him again, shoots him an odd look.

Harry grins and adds the book to his stack. It might be a bit late now, but he thinks that the book they could have done with all along might just make an amusing gift for Draco. Once at the counter, he hands all three to Alexandria, taking care to shield ‘Keeping the Constant’ from Draco.

“We thought you might’ve been lost,” she says, smiling at him and closing the till with a clang.

Harry takes his string-handled bag. “I think I’d be pretty happy to be lost in here.”

Alexandria beams. “Merry Christmas, boys.”

“Merry Christmas,” Harry says, turning to Draco and noting with interest that not only does he have Solomon back on his shoulder, he is carrying a string-handled bag of his own. “What did you buy?” he asks, intrigued.

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “What did you buy?”

Harry pushes open the door of the shop and steps out into the snow. “Nothing.”

“I also bought nothing,” Draco tells him. The door swings shut behind him and they stare at each other.

Pop, says Solomon.

Chapter Text

Twenty-second of December – Oil lantern

22nd december

The day of Lucius Malfoy’s funeral begins with a downpour that turns all the snow along the lakeside to slush. Harry and Draco wait at the mouth of the tent for as long as they can stand it and then make a dash for the castle, even as the rain turns to sleet and splatters around their umbrella charms to soak their hair and clothes.

The Great Hall is almost deserted; only one of the long house tables has been set for breakfast, and most of the dozen or so students who remain seem to have eaten already. Harry smiles at Professor Flitwick, who is piling scrambled eggs onto buttered toast at one end of the table and then takes a seat next to Draco at the other end. They pick at their breakfast in silence, and Harry gazes up at the swirling grey ceiling from which the magical snow continues to fall in a sort of glittering defiance to the gloom. Despite the best efforts of all the glowing decorations, however, the castle seems to be missing a little of its sparkle, as though it, too, has recognised the significance of the occasion.

“I think I need to go,” Draco says suddenly, setting down his fork.

Harry turns to look at him. He can’t say he’s really surprised, but he still steadies himself as he says:

“Okay.”

Draco doesn’t look at Harry; he just continues to stare at his plate. “It’s not for him. It’s for... drawing a line under things.”

“Okay,” Harry says again, this time resting his hand on Draco’s knee under the table.

“The Prophet people will be there, of course, and they’ll probably make a fuss about whatever I do,” he says, frowning. “Draco Malfoy goes to his father’s funeral... Draco Malfoy shuns his father’s funeral... either way, it’s a story, so I think I should just—”

“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?” Harry interrupts gently.

Draco looks at him at last. “You, I think.”

“Don’t bother. I’m with you, whatever you want to do,” Harry says.

Draco’s smile is tight but it spreads to his eyes, washing away some of the prickly anxiety and replacing it with relief.

“Thank you.” He picks up his cup and takes a long gulp of coffee. “Do you have dress robes?”

Harry pulls a face. “Somewhere... possibly,” he says, mentally flicking through his rather limited wardrobe. “I’ve got the suit I wore for the trials, will that do? It’s black... or is that a bit weird?”

Draco smiles darkly. “No, I’d say it’s completely appropriate.”

Relieved, Harry resumes his breakfast with a little more enthusiasm. When Draco pours himself another steaming cup of coffee, Harry looks at the wind and sleet outside the windows and does the same.

Several hours later, they walk down the drive and Apparate to the Manor gates. This time, Draco has managed to find a large, black umbrella that keeps their smart, dark clothes mostly dry, but there is little they can do about the rivers of icy slush that flow over their feet and send cold water snaking up the legs of their trousers, and by the time they have reached the area where the service is to be held, Harry is shivering and casting ineffective drying charms out of the end of his sleeve.

Following Draco’s lead, he stands back from the milling mourners at the edge of the Manor’s vast stone portico and observes the proceedings with silent disbelief. Draco has warned him that the funeral will be elaborate and overdone, but Harry is still astonished to see so many well-known faces in attendance, from top-level charity workers to Quidditch players and politicians, all of whom seem genuinely taken in by the machinations of a man who had cared more about his legend than his life. Several of them approach Draco and he shakes their hands with careful, bland politeness, while Harry stands as close to him as he dares, gripping the umbrella in frozen fingers and focusing hard on every happy thought he can muster, in the hope that he will somehow be able to wrap Draco in a spontaneous Patronus strong enough to chase all of this away.

When everyone sits to listen to the eulogy (no doubt also written by Lucius himself) they take a seat at the back. Draco sits stiffly, tucking his long coat underneath himself and picking at invisible loose threads in his smart black trousers. Harry reaches out and laces their fingers together, and he grips tightly, releasing a long, unsteady breath into the cold air just as a dozen peacocks emerge from behind the funeral director’s lectern, each wearing an intricate arrangement of orchids. Several people in the rows in front of them gasp and whisper to each other, and Draco rolls his eyes.

“Thank goodness my mother isn’t here,” he murmurs. “She always hated those fucking peacocks.”

Harry suppresses a smile. “Did she write back?”

Draco nods. “We discussed all of this, of course. I’ve heard a couple of people wondering why she’s not here, but she knew people would gossip.” He lifts his chin and gazes haughtily into the backs of the heads of the people in the row in front. “I’m proud of her. She’s taking care of herself instead of worrying about appearances. At long last.”

“I think she’d be proud of you, too,” Harry whispers, and Draco’s icy stare softens.

The eulogy is the longest Harry has ever heard, and he has been to more than his fair share of funerals during recent years. After a while, he stops watching the guests and the funeral director and just watches Draco, watches him roll his eyes and scowl and, occasionally, whisper things that only Harry can hear, like, “That didn’t even happen to him, it happened to my Grandfather” or “tell me he didn’t just call himself a devoted family man...”

Harry says nothing but holds his hand tightly, hiding a wince when the ritual of burial begins and Draco’s fingers clench around his like a vice. The scent of freshly-disturbed earth is rich and almost shocking amid the numbing sleet and drizzle, and it catches Harry somewhere raw, dragging him back to a wrenching rush of goodbyes, one after the other, that makes his chest ache and his eyes sting.

They leave as soon as Draco deems it polite, striding through the slush in a silent, mutual agreement to put as much distance between themselves and the Manor as possible.

“What will you do with the house now?” Harry asks, just as the gates come into view.

“Sell it,” Draco says simply. “My mother never wants to live here again, and neither do I.”

“Where will you go?”

“Anywhere I want. I’ll start again,” Draco says with a slow smile. “Are you looking for a roommate?”

“I’m looking for more than that,” Harry says boldly, despite the nervous flutter in his stomach.

Draco spells the gates open and pulls Harry through before pushing him back against the unforgiving wrought iron and kissing him until he drops the umbrella on the wet ground. Harry kisses back, feeling Draco’s smile and tracing the edges of it with cold-numbed fingers. A fraction of a second later, the pull of Apparation consumes him and he finds himself standing at the bottom of the castle drive.

“A warning would have been nice,” he says, still smiling.

“Really? I know you don’t really like Apparating so I thought it would be better to just get it over with,” Draco says, not unreasonably.

“Yes, well,” Harry mumbles. He starts to walk up the drive and it takes him several moments to realise that, not only has the sleet finally abated, but he has left the umbrella by the Manor gates.

“Never mind,” Draco says when he tells him. “It was Lucius’s umbrella anyway. Let’s say we were returning it.”

Harry laughs, feeling surprisingly light, and kicks up slush as he walks. It isn’t as though his feet are going to get any wetter; he might as well enjoy it.

“Do you know what?” Draco says solemnly.

Harry glances at him. “What?”

“I think I’m going to join the chess club.”

**~*~**

As soon as they have been up to the castle and let McGonagall know they have returned, Harry and Draco head straight for the lake. The sun is setting already, and while the sleet has stopped for the moment, the air is damp and bitterly cold. Harry dives into the tent and immediately strips off his formal clothes, lighting the fire and applying warming and cushioning charms to the floor before scrambling under the blanket in his undershirt and boxers. Amused, Draco follows him, sealing up the tent behind them and letting his coat drop to the floor in a heap. Harry watches him stretch, following the line of his back with his eyes and drawing in a sharp breath when his white shirt tugs itself out of his waistband, exposing his hipbones and several inches of pale abdomen.

The interior of the tent is surprisingly dark without the multicoloured lanterns, but the warm firelight flickers over Draco’s face, casting wavering shadows against his angular features. Harry stares shamelessly, flushing when Draco’s eyes meet his but not looking away, mouth turning dry when Draco unbuttons his shirt and kicks away everything but a pair of tight black boxers. He stands there for a moment, eyes locked with Harry’s, and then he shivers and crawls under the blanket, flopping onto his back and pressing his cold feet to Harry’s calves.

“Fuck, you’re freezing,” Harry mutters, tugging him close under the blankets.

“I’m exhausted,” Draco says, closing his eyes. “It’s only... I don’t know what time it is, but I’m sure I shouldn’t be this tired.”

“Funerals are like that,” Harry says. “Even if you aren’t really sad. It’s just how they are.”

“Hmm,” Draco says, opening a dubious eye. “Are you tired?”

“A bit, yeah,” Harry admits. He rests his chin on Draco’s chest and gazes up at him. “Do you want to sleep?”

“No,” Draco says softly, and both eyes are open now. “Not even a little bit.”

Something in his voice sends a slow wave of heat through Harry and he smiles, leaning down and kissing Draco, easing his mouth open and feeling himself harden as Draco reaches for him, kissing him back with unhurried languor and sliding his tongue against Harry’s until he is breathless.

When Draco pulls Harry between his legs and arches up into him, Harry gasps and breaks the kiss, pressing his open mouth to Draco’s neck and twisting his fingers into the blanket. Immediately wanting more contact, more skin, more friction, he pulls back, tugging at Draco’s waistband and then his own, groaning as they come back together, hips and rough hair and heavy, aching cocks.

They move together slowly, skin warming and dampening with sweat as the fire blazes, heating their discarded wet clothes and turning the air heavy and humid; Harry throws off the blanket and his thin shirt, tearing his eyes away from Draco’s for long enough to tip back his head and swipe his wet hair from his face before he is dragged back in, nipping at Draco’s bottom lip as they push and glide, slippery with perspiration, watching silver eyes darken and close.

“Are you okay?” Harry whispers, suddenly and unhelpfully aware of Draco’s tiredness, the day he has had, and the horrible idea that he might, somehow, be taking of advantage of it.

Draco smiles slowly and grips Harry’s arse with both hands, urging him to keep moving. “Yes.”

Heart pounding, Harry whispers the words against Draco’s skin, tasting salt on his tongue as he forces out the question. “What do you want?”

“You,” Draco says, and when he opens his eyes, his meaning is clear enough to make Harry shudder.

Embarrassed, he pulls back, avoiding Draco’s eyes and lowering his head to his chest, sucking and gently biting at his nipples until his cock jumps and he whimpers softly. Having regained some of his composure, Harry lifts his head and immediately finds himself caught up in a kiss so intense and deliberate that he nearly loses it right there and then. Anticipation wild in his veins, he runs his fingers down Draco’s body, palming his cock and stroking over his inner thighs before allowing his hand to drift between his legs. Pouring himself into the kiss, he caresses and circles with careful fingertips, wanting so much and barely able to believe what is about to happen.

Draco wants him. Draco wants Harry inside him and he wants... fuck, he wants it, too. He wants all of it, everything, and all at once, but right now, Draco is looking at him, urging him, demanding him. Draco, who is strong and fierce and refined with his long black coat and his icy stare, and also Draco who is fragile and uncertain and looks, in the light from the fire, like something out of a dream.

“In my coat pocket,” he says, breath hitching.

Harry frowns but obeys, leaning over to search Draco’s coat pockets and eventually coming up with a small, round tin. He opens it and sniffs at the soft, transparent substance inside; it smells warm like cloves.

“It’s just lip salve, but it’ll do,” Draco says, grabbing Harry’s arm and pulling him in for another long, messy kiss.

“Really?” Harry mumbles.

“I’ve used it before... by myself,” Draco clarifies when Harry raises an eyebrow, and the image that suddenly burns itself into Harry’s mind makes him groan out loud.

“Oh, god,” he whispers, pressing himself down tight to Draco and feeling the tip of Draco’s cock drag against his belly.

Draco’s smile is wicked, and Harry doesn’t waste another second. He kneels between Draco’s legs and slicks his fingers with the salve, gazing up desperately at darkening grey eyes as he pushes inside and stretches for as long as he can stand, and then he’s sliding into Draco with a long, ragged breath, watching him shudder and grab at the cushion beneath him, eyes never leaving Harry’s. Slowly, Harry pulls back and then pushes his hips forward, glancing away from Draco’s eyes with the urgent need to watch his cock easing in and out of his body. Already the heat and grasping tightness around him is more than he ever could have imagined and almost too much to bear and he has to stop, hands splayed against the groundsheet, eyes closed, back prickling with sweat as he tries to steady himself and fight off the incredible urge to push into Draco over and over and come inside him within seconds.

“Open your eyes,” Draco says gently.

“I can’t. I’ll... I just can’t,” Harry whispers, and then there are strong fingers around his wrist and he is allowing Draco to pull one of his hands up from the floor.

“It’s okay,” Draco says, wrapping Harry’s hand around his cock and covering it with his own.

Without another word, he begins to move his hand, guiding Harry’s strokes until he is fully hard once more and then wrapping his legs around Harry’s back and pulling him in tight. With a deep breath, Harry begins to move again, finding a rhythm for his hips and his hands that feels incredible and makes Draco arch and groan underneath him. Draco’s cock is hard and pulsing in his fist, leaking against his palm, his chest flushed and heaving, and Harry is so close, wound so tightly, but he has to wait, he has to. The moment Draco comes, shaking, in Harry’s hand, he lets go and pushes into him hard, one, two, three times as his orgasm crashes over him like a tidal wave.

Sticky and shivering as the sweat cools rapidly on his skin, Harry comes down slowly, holding his position for as long as he can, as though breaking it will cause everything around him to shatter. When he can no longer rely on a single arm to hold him up, he carefully rolls away and flops onto his back beside Draco.

“Now I could probably sleep,” Draco says.

Harry smiles against his cushion. “If you could muster up the energy for one of those brilliant cleaning charms first, I’d be forever grateful.”

“I’ll remember you said that,” Draco mutters, leaning over to retrieve his wand from his coat pocket and sending a cool, tingling sensation rippling over Harry’s sensitised skin.

“Thank you.”

“I hope you’re planning to stay very still for the next couple of hours,” Draco says, scooting close and resting his head on Harry’s chest.

“Because you’re planning to use me as a pillow, or something worse?” Harry asks.

Draco yawns. “We’ll see.”

Harry smiles and closes his eyes.

He isn’t entirely surprised when he opens them again and finds that almost three hours have passed. Draco has not moved an inch, and is still sleeping peacefully, tucked into Harry’s side. He watches him for a minute or two, mouth tugged into a daft grin, then gently pushes him onto his cushion and goes to poke his head out of the tent. The sky is now completely dark, stars obscured by a blanket of cloud, and only the firelight allows him to see the charmed plant that covers the snails. He lights the large oil lantern that hangs from the entrance of the tent and then stops; the soft, yellow light is soothing and gentle, and somehow it feels like enough for tonight.

He creeps, as quietly as he can, back inside and picks up his clothes. His undershirt and coat are almost completely dry, and he puts them on, trying one more time with the drying charm on his damp trousers and socks. The results are mixed to say the least—both socks are dry but smoking slightly, and the trousers are still wet around the knees—but he gets into them anyway, and sets to work spelling back the plant from the circle of snails and adjusting the temperature inside.

The snails begin to stir and Draco sleeps on. Harry sits beside him and shushes them when they break into a storm of popping for no particular reason, reaching over and extracting Solomon, who seems happy to perch on the back of his hand, eyestalks waving. When the females do not leave on their usual nightly hunt for food, Harry doesn’t know what to do. He thinks anxiously of the brand new copy of ‘Keeping the Constant’, which is sitting at the bottom of his trunk back in Gryffindor Tower and can offer no help whatsoever.

“What are you doing, guys?” he whispers, scanning the circle for some sort of clue as to what is going on.

And then he hears it. It starts as a low, crackling sort of sound that draws his eyes from one side of the tripudium to the other, and it builds slowly, rippling around the circle until it reaches a deafening volume and Draco jerks awake.

“What the fuck was that?!”

Harry leans forward, eyes fixed on the gleaming spirals of eggs, as, all at once, tiny fissures begin to appear in each one.

“I think they’re hatching,” he says, grinning with relief.

Draco scrambles onto his stomach and cranes his neck to watch. The purple blanket slips down to his waist and Harry is momentarily distracted until Draco elbows him in the ribs.

“Never mind looking at me—when are you going to see this again?” he points out.

“Sorry,” Harry murmurs, biting down on a smile and turning back to the tripudium.

In the soft light from the lantern, the adult snails circle their eggs, poking at the crackling little spheres with anxious eyestalks and popping gently to one another. Harry watches them, ignoring as best he can the fact that Draco is lying naked under a blanket beside him and instead focusing on the spectacle unfolding in front of him. It is worth every last bit of his focus; the adult snails glitter and circle and pop, the eggs shiver and crackle in their spirals, and before long, the pearl-like spheres begin to break open and the first tiny eyestalks poke out into the night.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first snail to hatch belongs to the dominant female and her partner. It climbs slowly from its egg, miniscule but fully-formed, and heads towards its parents, making unsteady but determined progress over the rough ground. Unlike the adult snails, the new hatchling is completely transparent. Its shell and body glow in the light from the lantern as though made of delicate swirls of glass.

“I suppose they get their colours later on,” Harry says in a whisper.

“Probably,” Draco whispers back. “We should ask Hagrid.”

“Tomorrow?” Harry suggests.

Draco pulls the blanket more tightly around himself. “Obviously.”

Harry smiles and shifts closer to him. By the time the first baby snail has reached and been thoroughly inspected by its parents, several more eggs have hatched, revealing more transparent additions to the colony, each barely half the size of the first. Harry watches, staggered, as every new snail finds its way towards its parents, just seconds old but already operating under its own tiny head of steam. Soon, the circle is strewn with fragments of iridescent eggshell and miniature waving eyestalks, each little family flanked by proud parents and surrounded by a chorus of gentle popping.

Solomon stretches from his seat in Harry’s hands and sways back and forth, adding his own voice to those of his friends and colleagues.

“Do you think he feels like he’s missing out?” he asks.

Draco glances at him. “I don’t know. Maybe he knows that families are hard work,” he says, stretching out and resting his chin on his forearms. “Thank you for coming with me today,” he adds quietly.

“You’re welcome,” Harry says, surprised. He looks out over the circle at the gleaming forest of snails, big, small, old, and brand new. “Families can be rewarding, too.”

One corner of Draco’s mouth lifts in a half smile and he holds his hand out for Solomon. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Twenty-third of December – A prowling cat

23rd december

It comes as no surprise to anyone that the funeral makes the Daily Prophet, and Harry merely feels resigned when he realises that the accompanying photograph of himself and Draco has managed to kick the whole thing onto the front page.

“Below the fold, at least,” Draco says, examining the copy that someone has abandoned on the breakfast table and then pushing it away. “I suppose I should get used to having my picture taken if I’m going to hang around with you.”

Harry is secretly impressed by his good humour and resilience but that doesn’t stop him from feigning offence as they leave the Great Hall and head back down to the lake.

“You make it sound like such a trial,” he sighs, just about resisting the urge to lift a theatrical hand to his forehead.

“That’s not exactly the word I’d use,” Draco says. “A challenge, maybe...”

“Oh, that’s good coming from you,” Harry laughs.

“I will not be drawn into this argument,” Draco says loftily, but despite his best efforts, the light-hearted and utterly pointless debate continues all the way across the lawn, pausing for a minute or two while they stop at Hagrid’s hut and invite him over to see the baby snails, before resuming with ease and continuing until Harry grabs Draco by his lapels, pushes him up against the wall of the tent and kisses him into startled silence.

Fire lit and tiny lights glittering, the tent is soon warm and comfortable, and by the time the kettle has boiled for tea, they have settled into a discussion on the finer details of their memorial project. Several enormous tins of paint have been delivered and are now stacked in one corner of Harry’s dormitory, ready to be used in just a few hours. Harry still isn’t quite sure how their plans—now occupying several pieces of parchment—are going to work, and at this point, triumph and disaster seem equally likely outcomes, but he is looking forward to having a go, having another adventure while the castle sleeps, and Draco’s enthusiasm makes every part of it seem childishly easy.

Of course we can, he thinks, sipping his steaming tea and gazing between Draco and Solomon, who, by the level of muttering, popping, and pointing at diagrams that is going on, seem to be engaged in intense discussion. Of course we can, why wouldn’t we, and we absolutely should.

Hagrid soon joins them, ducking into the tent and producing a vast mug which Harry takes and fills with something like a gallon of tea.

“What’re yeh up to?” he asks, gripping the mug in one huge hand and leaning forward to get a better look at the scattered pieces of parchment.

Harry and Draco exchange significant looks. They have already agreed to include Hagrid in their plans but Harry finds himself staring at Draco extra hard, just in case, scanning his face for any signs of reluctance before he says another word. When he nods and turns back to Solomon, Harry gathers up the parchments and hands them to Hagrid with a grin.

“Okay... so, this is absolutely top-secret,” he says, and Hagrid’s black eyes gleam with excitement. “Tonight, when everyone is asleep, we’re going to go down to the dungeons...”

In between sips of tea and the odd interruption from Solomon, Harry outlines their plan of action and Hagrid listens, smile growing wider with every word. When Harry has finished, he bursts into warm, rumbling laughter, clutching his mug and beaming delightedly at all three of them.

“Oh, that’s wonderful, that is,” he says, and Harry secretly swells with pride.

 “Do you really think so?” Draco asks.

“Oh, yeah,” Hagrid laughs. “Thing is, he would’ve loved it an’ hated it, which is what makes it so brilliant. Tell yeh what, though,” he adds, brow creasing. “Yeh don’ want to do it tonight.”

Harry frowns. “Why not?”

“What’s so special about tonight?” Draco asks, puzzled.

“Nothin’, but if yeh don’ want to get caught, do it tomorrow night instead,” Hagrid advises. “Trust me, that’s the time to do it. It’s Christmas Eve... ’ardly any of ’em’ll be out prowlin’ around the corridors, they’ll all be locked away in their rooms doin’ their last minute things... in fact...” Hagrid leans in and lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper: “I ’appen to know that Professor McGonagall stays up late wrappin’ presents and then she runs ’erself a bath and—”

“Not another word,” Draco interrupts, grimacing, just as Harry asks:

“How the hell do you know that?”

“She told me,” Hagrid says, laughing at the look of horror on Draco’s face. “Couple too many sherries, yeh know. Years ago, it was, but she’s a creature of ’abit.”

Harry grins, even as he attempts to expunge the unwanted image of McGonagall and her special Christmas bath from his mind.

“We’ve got the map,” he reminds Hagrid.

“Well, take that with yeh an’ all,” he says. “Better safe than sorry.”

Harry looks at him askance, unable to reconcile that statement with the man who has voluntarily involved himself with biting books, baby dragons, and three-headed dogs.

“Do you want to see the baby snails?” he says at last, and Hagrid grins.

“I’d love to see ’em. Yeh’ve done so well, gettin’ ’em to hatch an’ everythin’,” he enthuses.

“I don’t think we could have stopped them,” Draco says, spelling back the plant and pulling his feet up onto his cushion so that Hagrid can shuffle to the front of the tent and examine the hatchlings.

“It’s a thing to watch, isn’ it?” he mumbles. “Oh, bless ’em, they’re lookin’ at me.”

“They’re awake?” Harry says, surprised. He crawls over to crouch next to Hagrid and sees that the delicate, glasslike snails are very much awake, sliding around slowly and tapping their eyestalks over the shells of their brothers and sisters. All of the adults, meanwhile, are sleeping in their shells as though the previous night’s hatching has had no impact on them whatsoever.

“Aren’t the parents worried that something will happen to them?” Draco asks, appearing on Hagrid’s other side and peering down at the snails with genuine concern.

“Well, not right now,” Hagrid says. “As far as they’re concerned, it’s time for sleepin’. The little ones’ll settle in a day or two, and besides, they’re independent little things. As soon as they get their frost trails, they’ll be ready to go.”

“And when will that be?” Draco asks, reaching up to stroke Solomon’s shell.

“Oh, not long,” Hagrid says, leaning down and picking up a tiny snail with the utmost care. “Could be today, probably tomorrow or the day after.”

“Right,” Draco says, and there’s a waver in his voice that pulls Harry’s eyes to him.

Solomon, perching happily on his salamander silk, lets out a series of soft pops, and Draco sighs. It is all at once painfully obvious just how attached Draco has become to the little snail, and vice versa. Solomon has popped and glided and waved his way into their affections, into the newly-woven fabric of their relationship, and yet, somehow, in just a couple of days’ time, he will be gone. All the snails will leave, and that will be that.

A hollow sort of pain asserts itself deep in Harry’s chest and he fights against it, pulling in huge lungfuls of cold air and pushing them out slowly, mastering himself and immediately feeling ridiculous.

“See, there’s nothin’ there yet,” Hagrid is saying when Harry turns his attention back to him, and when he leans in closer he can just about make out the light sheen of moisture tracking across the rough skin of Hagrid’s hand where the snail has begun to explore.

The tiny creature is barely a quarter of an inch long and seems smaller still against Hagrid’s enormous palm. To its credit, though, it is fearless, sliding around with eyestalks waving, making its way to the tip of a massive thumb and perching there with such an air of triumph that Hagrid laughs, delighted.

“Look at ’er, thinks she’s climbed a mountain,” he says, beaming. “She’ll ’ave her frost trail in no time. All of ’em will, they look like a strong bunch.”

“And then they’ll leave,” Draco says with a sigh, and both Harry and Hagrid turn to look at him.

“Yeah,” Hagrid says gently and then brightens: “But they’ll be back next year, and yeh can come an’ see ’em whenever you like! If yeh want to, that is...”

Suddenly uncertain, Hagrid draws down his bristly eyebrows and focuses on the snail, which is now descending his thumb in a slow, looping spiral. Draco says nothing for several seconds and Harry watches him anxiously, wanting to leap in and say, ‘Don’t be daft, of course we want to!’ but knowing that this is Draco’s line. He has to be the one to reassure Hagrid this time, and he knows it.

“Yes,” he says at last, and when he meets Hagrid’s eyes, his expression is oddly defiant, as though he is waiting for someone to swoop in from behind a tree and tell him that he has no business being friends with a bristly old half-giant, and that under no circumstances must he agree to visit him or his army of glittering snails. “Yes,” Draco repeats solemnly. “We would like that very much.”

“An’ we’d be honoured to ’ave yeh,” Hagrid says, drawing himself up and blinking furiously.

Harry grins, suffused with affection for the soppy old bugger and for Draco, who is watching Hagrid rub at his face with a grubby coat sleeve and wearing an expression of quiet alarm. He has made the big, tough gamekeeper cry, and Harry makes a mental note to explain to him, once they are alone again, that Hagrid keeps his emotions surprisingly close to the surface, and that, if they are to remain friends, this won’t be the last time Draco finds him with a beard full of tears.

Hagrid is still suspiciously bright-eyed at midday, when he returns the tiny snail to her parents and leaves to give Fang his lunch. Stirred by the idea of food, Harry and Draco follow him, tracking across the slushy lawn and heading for the castle kitchens, where the house-elves seem delighted to abandon work on a vast array of delicious-smelling festive treats to swarm upon them with endless inquiries regarding their health, happiness, and nutritional needs. Despite their best attempts to retrieve their own food, the elves insist upon fetching and preparing it for them, and in the midst of his amused exasperation at not being trusted to make his own sandwich, Harry wonders if some of them are just fed up of filling mince pies and looking for a change of pace.

All he can really do is let them get on with it—it is their kitchen, after all, and with this thought comes an immediate thrill of pleasure and a lick of hot shame as Harry glances at the long pine table and remembers desperate, grasping fingers, shuddering breaths and Draco’s mouth against his skin. A sidelong glance reveals darkened grey eyes and an amused smirk, neither of which does anything for Harry’s composure. When he is handed a small wicker basket, he startles and almost drops it, and beside him, Draco barely stifles a snort of laughter.

“They knew,” Harry sighs as they make their way back across the grounds with their lunch.

“No, they didn’t,” Draco laughs.

“They were looking at me... you know, in that way,” Harry says, cringing.

“They were looking at you the way they always look at you,” Draco says. “With adoration and delight and a level of devotion that, quite frankly, terrifies me.”

Harry gives him a dubious look. “And that’s better?”

Draco skids down the hill and spells the tent flaps open. “If the alternative is ‘ooh, Harry Potter, we is knowing what you did on our table’ then... yes.”

Harry wrinkles his nose, ducking into the tent and kicking off his shoes. He settles on his cushion and rifles through the basket while Draco lights the fire and flings cleaning spells around, seemingly at random. To their credit, the house-elves have provided an excellent lunch, packing all of the items requested plus a whole lot more. Harry finds cakes, pastries and miniature sausage rolls, a bottle of ginger ale and a tin of gingerbread men, which makes him groan out loud. They are still only partway through the mountain of tiny gingerbread houses which sits in one corner of the tent, and Harry already feels quite strongly that he has had enough of the stuff to last him a lifetime.

That being said, he knows that being with Draco probably means an imperial fuckton of gingerbread houses every Christmas, and he thinks he’s okay with that. As they sit there by the fire and work their way through their house-elf-made picnic, Harry lets his mind drift, picturing next December and the one after that, a house decorated with lights and memories, a bed that belongs to both of them, a dinner table big enough for Ron and Hermione, Neville and Luna, Ginny and Blaise, a kitchen filled with steam and the scents of tea and food that has turned to charcoal as they stand on stone flags in bare feet and kiss in the winter sunshine.

Draco wants a new start and he can have one; Harry has the keys to Grimmauld Place, but he also has piles of Galleons that he doesn’t know what to do with, and piles of Galleons can buy a house that is a beginning for both of them. It can be anywhere, it can be anything, Harry realises, and all at once he is swept up in a feeling of possibility that courses through his veins and lifts him up, making him grin down at the pork pie in his hand until his face hurts.

“What are you thinking about?” Draco asks, glancing at Harry and reaching for another mince pie.

“You,” Harry says, knowing Draco won’t believe him.

He rolls his eyes. “Of course you were. Hang on... did you eat the last bit of Wensleydale?”

“No,” Harry lies through a mouthful of pork pie.

Draco huffs but quickly brightens when he finds some little round truffles in the bottom of the basket. As the food slowly disappears, they grow sleepy and contented, curling under the blanket and watching the baby snails. They are already so full of personality, some stubborn and bold, others cautious and uncertain, sticking by the sides of their sleeping parents while their more confident friends and siblings spread out across the circle in a quest to explore every inch of their new world.

By mid-afternoon, it has started to snow once again. The falling flakes seem to intrigue even the most timid of the glassy little creatures, and they stretch towards the sky, tiny eyestalks quivering. When darkness falls, Harry rolls out the thermo scroll and gently warms the circle, but he puts a hand on Draco’s wrist when he goes to cast a protective, repelling bubble over the snails.

“Don’t,” he whispers. “They’re enjoying it.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow but lowers his wand. “You’re as bad as Hagrid.”

“I’m not,” Harry protests half-heartedly.

“You are. Maybe you should become a gamekeeper. Or a zoo-keeper,” he adds with a sly smile.

Harry snorts. “Shut up.”

“Oh, that was eloquent,” Draco says, grinning now.

“I’ll have you know I’m extremely... what was that?” Harry squints into the dark and frowns.

“What?”

“I thought I saw something moving,” Harry says.

“Probably a fox,” Draco says, kissing him on the shoulder and rolling out of their makeshift bed to refill the kettle. “Or, you know... a bear... great white shark... dragon...”

“Oh, you’re funny,” Harry mumbles, scanning the darkness and finding nothing.

“Of course I am,” Draco says, and Solomon pops loudly from the opening of the tent, where he is sitting on his salamander silk and devouring a parsnip cube. “You see, he agrees with me.”

Solomon pops again, louder this time, and Harry frowns, crawling to the mouth of the tent and peering into the night. This time, something definitely does move, but by the time Harry lights his wand, it has vanished. He waits, wand poised, breathing shallow and ragged. There is definitely something out there, and while it is unlikely to be something that can do them any harm, the need to protect his snails and his little castle is overwhelming. When a twig snaps on the ground, Draco is at his side in an instant.

“I heard that,” he whispers, crouching beside Harry with the kettle in one hand and his wand in the other.

Harry nods. He sweeps the light from his wand across the ground, finding nothing but slush and tree roots, and then everything seems to happen at once.

A grey cat, eyes gleaming and tail held high, walks slowly into the light from Harry’s wand. Mrs Norris, he realises, just as she breaks into a run, barrelling towards them and plunging into the glowing tripudium, sending baby snails flying and the adults popping out of their shells in a startled rage. Instinctively, Harry surges forward and makes a grab for her, fingers grasping at her bony ribcage for a fraction of a second before she wriggles free, hissing and baring pointed yellow teeth. She flicks her tail in fury and lunges for the baby snails, catching one in her mouth and spitting down at the others, who are swarming to the other side of the circle as fast as they can.

“Fuck,” Harry hisses, coming down hard on his left knee and ignoring the jolt of pain in favour of scrambling for a spell that will save the snail without permanently harming the cat.

“Stupefy!” Draco yells, and Mrs Norris falls to the ground in a flash of red light.

Heart racing, Harry grabs her, successfully this time, and pulls the tiny snail from her mouth. It lies motionless in the palm of his hand, tucked tightly into its transparent shell, and he has no idea if it’s even alive. Frost snails are fragile at this time, he knows that, and the shock of being wrenched from the tripudium and held in a cat’s mouth might just have been too much.

He turns to look at Draco, who is kneeling at the mouth of the tent, breathing hard.

“Is it...?” he asks quietly.

Harry turns back to the snail. It hasn’t moved. In desperation, he pokes it gently with his finger. Nothing happens. Feeling suddenly heavy, he strokes the little shell in mute apology.

I should have been quicker, he tells it silently. I should have let Draco cast that protective charm. I’m so sorry.

The snow is falling heavily now, but Harry barely notices it settling on his hair and clothes. A large, intricate flake drifts from the sky and drapes itself over the tiny, inert body, and Harry’s eyes prickle and sting. When a cautious eyestalk pokes out and twitches around in the cold air, he catches his breath. The eyestalk is quickly followed by another, and Harry grins, flooded with pure relief as the snail unfurls itself and perches in his hand, trembling, but otherwise unharmed.

“Well, I think that took ten years off my life,” Draco says crossly, but when Harry looks at him, he is smiling, holding Solomon close in cupped hands. “They’re furious, listen to them.”

Harry turns to the circle to see that the adult snails have gathered in a seething, glittering ring around Mrs Norris and are popping angrily and swishing their eyestalks from side to side.

“Do you blame them?” Harry says. Carefully, he places the frightened baby snail with the others and scoops up the stunned Mrs Norris in his arms. Much as he doesn’t want to deny the snails their revenge, he also doesn’t fancy being blamed by Filch for whatever they do to her.

He carries her over to the tent, startled by how light she is in comparison to Crookshanks, and sets her down beside the fire.

“She’ll probably just run away when she comes round, but if not, I can take her back to the castle.”

“Well, one of us should,” Draco says, regarding her with distaste. “She certainly isn’t staying here all night.”

Harry nods, watching the snails disperse, still popping noisily, and the babies begin to slide towards their parents.

“It’s weird, though,” he says, looking at Mrs Norris as the thought occurs to him. “When do you ever see her on her own? I mean, you might for a minute or two, but Filch is always really close behind. Where do you think he is?”

“Just at the top of the hill,” Draco says.

“Yeah, probably... wait, what?” Harry turns to look at Draco, who is wearing an oddly philosophical expression.

“He’s just at the top of the hill,” Draco repeats, pointing. “I can see his lantern.”

Harry cranes his neck to see, and yes, there is the familiar shape of Filch’s lantern, swinging back and forth in the dark like a glowing portent of doom.

“Where did you go, my sweet?” he calls, the lamp swaying wildly as Filch makes unsteady progress down the hill. “I’m coming, don’t worry!”

Harry and Draco exchange long, weary glances and stay exactly where they are. There is no use trying to avoid the confrontation; it is stumbling towards them whether they like it or not, and they might as well meet it with dignity. Just as Filch stumbles out of the shadows, Harry casts a protective charm over the snails. He then sits back and waits calmly for the storm.

“Oh, it’s you two and your snails,” Filch says nastily, holding up his lantern to examine the tent and the tripudium with a sneer. His eyes fasten on the motionless shape of Mrs Norris and he lets out a wail of anguish. “What have you done to my cat?”

“She’ll be fine in a minute,” Draco says. “It was just a stunning spell.”

“What? You cursed her? You cursed my cat!” Filch cries, pushing his way into the tent and giving Harry a faceful of musty old coat as he bends down stiffly and picks up Mrs Norris. He turns wild eyes on Harry. “Why is it always you? What have you got against her, you horrible boy?”

“If you’re talking about what happened with the chamber of secrets...” he begins.

“She hasn’t forgotten it!” Filch snaps, cradling his cat against his chest. “She’s never been the same since!”

“I’m sorry about that,” Harry attempts. “But... you must know by now that it had nothing to do with me.”

“And it wasn’t a curse,” Draco puts in. “It was a stunning spell. I cast it because she was trying to eat the baby snails.”

“Oh, it was you, was it?” Filch says, turning on Draco. “Shouldn’t be surprised, I know all about you, I know what you’re like... cursing innocent cats for your own entertainment. I’ll see you’re expelled for this, mark my words...”

“That’s enough,” Harry snaps. “It wasn’t a curse, and you... you should control your cat.”

“We’ll see what Professor McGonagall has to say about it, shall we?” Filch says, face twisting with contempt. “You’ll both come with me now, and get what’s coming to you.”

“We can’t,” Draco says, as though talking to a small child. “We have to stay here and take care of the snails.”

“Never mind snails, what about my cat?” Filch snaps.

“She’ll be fine in a minute or two,” Harry says wearily, but the look on Filch’s face tells him that he is going nowhere without at least one of them. “I’ll go,” he says.

Draco opens his mouth to argue but quickly closes it again, mouthing ‘thank you’ when Filch turns away to glare at the snails.

Filch rants all the way back to the castle, and though Harry isn’t listening to a word of it, he suspects that he is getting the telling-off of his life. By the time they reach McGonagall’s office, Mrs Norris is conscious and fussing noisily in Filch’s arms, but this doesn’t seem to temper his rage even a little bit. He fumes and vents his spleen at length, going on until McGonagall sighs and perches on the edge of her desk and then going on for several minutes more. The portraits, having initially watched the scene unfold with interest, are snoozing in their frames once more by the time he finishes, wipes his mouth on his coat sleeve and adds, one more time for good measure:

“They should be expelled. Both of them.”

“I think that may be a little disproportionate,” McGonagall says, and Filch shudders with rage.

“They tried to hurt my cat.”

“She looks alright to me, Argus,” McGonagall says, peering over the tops of her spectacles.

“They cursed her, Professor! They tried—”

“It was a stunning spell,” Harry interrupts, losing his patience somewhat. “We were just trying to stop her from eating the baby snails.”

“Is this true, Argus?”

“I didn’t see her trying to eat anything,” he says, tightening his hold on Mrs Norris. “It’s lies... it’s all lies... him and that Malfoy boy...”

Filch goes on, but Harry isn’t listening any more. He is watching McGonagall, who is nodding along with Filch and gazing just over his left shoulder at nothing in particular. When he pauses for breath, she rises and arranges her features into an expression of the utmost gravity.

“Very well, Argus, you may leave.”

Filch opens and shuts his mouth several times in succession. “But—”

“You need to take care of that cat,” she says, “and I need to have a serious word with Mr Potter about the consequences of his actions.”

Filch seems to expand right in front of Harry’s eyes. “Oh... yes, Professor,” he says, shooting a filthy look at Harry and shuffling out of the office.

McGonagall sighs and sits down behind her desk, picking up the cup of tea she had been forced to abandon when Filch had dragged Harry into her office.

“Are the snails alright, Potter?”

He nods uncertainly. “A bit unimpressed, but yeah, I think they’ll be fine.”

McGonagall purses her lips. “I wish I could tell you why Argus has decided to focus his frustration on you and Mr Malfoy recently, but to do so would involve attempting to make sense of a rather troubled mind,” she confesses, and Harry hides a smile.

“I’ve had worse,” he says, shrugging. “So has Draco.”

McGonagall fixes him with sharp eyes. “How was the funeral?”

“Impressive,” Harry admits. “A bit weird. I think he’s just relieved it’s all over.”

“Do give him my best,” she says, conjuring a silver flask and tapping her wand against it. “And some of this.”

Harry takes the flask, surprised to find it warm against his cold hands. “Thank you.”

McGonagall nods and he knows he is being dismissed.

“Have a restful night, Potter,” she calls after him, and halfway down the rotating staircase, he opens the flask and sniffs at the liquid inside.

Hot chocolate, definitely, and a hint of something else, something familiar. He walks out into the corridor, making his way slowly back to the Entrance Hall with the flask held under his nose. Finally he stops next to the statue of Dumbledore and dips the tip of his little finger into the hot liquid, licking it and tasting rich cocoa, milk, sugar, cinnamon, and... he laughs, recognising the barely-there hint of bitterness at the back of his mouth. Dreamless Sleep—just a couple of drops, but it’s enough.

Have a restful night indeed, he thinks, screwing the lid back on and heading out into the snow, where Draco and the snails are waiting for him.

Chapter Text

Twenty-fourth of December – Presents on a chair

24th december

At exactly twelve minutes past ten on the night of Christmas Eve, the last frost snail pops into its shell. By thirteen minutes past, the fire has been extinguished, the lights doused and the tent closed, and by ten fifteen, Harry and Draco are walking quickly across the snow-covered lawn to the castle.

Their mission is clear; it has been planned to perfection, with every step accounted for and every obstacle neatly taken care of. In a stroke of uncharacteristic planning genius, Harry has made a list of all possible distractions and ensured that each one is neutralised—all snail protective devices and charms have been checked and double-checked, Draco has already been down to the Owlery to send off all their Christmas presents, including the one to his mother, Filch has been distracted with a Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes Swamp-in-a-Box  and can be currently seen on the map, moving around the Trophy Room, and both of them have shovelled down a simple but sustaining late supper of bread, honey and cheese. Harry isn’t exactly sure how long this is going to take, but the last thing either of them needs is to come over all lightheaded and fling paint all over the Potions corridor.

In the Entrance Hall, they separate, trading excited looks. Harry puts his finger to his lips, grinning, and Draco grins back before giving him the finger and taking off in the direction of the Charms corridor. Alive with adrenaline, Harry races up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower and crawls through the portrait hole into the common room. All the lights are out, but the Christmas tree in the corner sparkles with darting fairies, and the moon hangs heavily outside the window, spilling silvery light over Harry’s favourite fireside chair, where a stack of neatly-wrapped gifts are now sitting.

Harry moves towards them and picks one up, momentarily forgetting the mission as he wonders how the hell Hermione has managed it. And it is Hermione; he knows that without even looking at the labels. Only she would think of charming presents to turn up on the night before Christmas, rather than leaving them with Harry before she went home for the holidays, or sending them by owl like a normal person. He smiles, squashing the soft package and wondering what sort of knitted item it contains. As he replaces it, he notices a second squashy package, and when he turns over the tag he is surprised and delighted to read the words:

Happy Christmas, Draco – love from Hermione.

Beneath it is a large, flat box wrapped in scarlet paper, and when Harry picks it up he can smell the tangy sweetness of fizzing whizzbees and lemon snappers. The label is made out to Draco, and Harry stares at the words written in Ron’s scrawling handwriting until the clock in the corner chimes for half past ten and he jumps, setting down the box and scrambling for the stairs.

“Focus,” he mutters to himself, stacking the tins of paint, one on top of another, and drawing his wand.

Taking care to avoid any collisions, Harry levitates the tower of paint tins down the stairs, through the common room, and out into the silent castle. As he steps into the Entrance Hall, two ghosts drift by, deep in conversation, and he ducks behind a stone statue, swearing under his breath when the topmost paint can carries on floating and whacks him in the back of the head.

Scowling, he rubs at the sore spot and waits until he is sure that the ghosts are out of sight before checking the map one last time and scuttling across the Entrance Hall and down to the dungeons. When he gets there, he is slightly out of breath, and Draco is just coming around the corner with a small set of wooden steps under one arm.

“Everything okay?” Harry asks, lowering the tins to the ground and ending the levitation charm.

“Yes,” Draco says, resting the steps against the wall. “I told you, Flitwick hardly every locks his classrooms at night. He’ll never even know they were gone.”

“Do I want to know why you know that?” Harry asks.

Draco turns away from him and casts fire into the nearest wall sconce. “I don’t think you do.”

Harry watches him for a moment and then gives in to the urge to tug him close, press his face into his neck and hold him tightly in some vain attempt to capture the horrors of the past and stamp them into nothingness. When Draco’s arms come up to wrap around his back, he exhales slowly, pushing the pain out into the cold, dark corridor.

“Not that I’m not enjoying this,” Draco says, words muffled by Harry’s shoulder, “but aren’t we on a bit of a deadline here?”

“A bit, yeah,” Harry admits, drawing back and catching Draco’s smile.

Draco leans down and opens the paint tins. He peers into each one with narrowed eyes.

“Right, then,” he mutters, hesitating for just a second or two before drawing himself to his full height and staring at the expanse of blank wall with an expression of pure challenge.

Amused, Harry takes the large paintbrush that is held out to him and, as per the plan, plunges it into the can of black paint and retreats to the far end of the section of wall. Sensing Draco’s eyes on him, he makes a long, bold swipe of paint across the wall, and then another and another, covering the grey stone in a coat of rich black. After a moment, he hears the creak of the step ladder as Draco climbs to the top and starts work on the upper section of the wall. He smiles, stepping up the pace of his brushstrokes and working his way efficiently along the wall.

By the time they meet in the middle and apply the final few dabs of paint, Harry is sticky with exertion and his right arm is beginning to ache, but the entire section of dungeon wall between the Potions classroom door and the bottom of the stairs has been covered in an even layer of black paint, and is now ready to receive the slightly more artistic element of their project.

Harry casts a very careful drying charm over the whole area, pleased when it fills the corridor with strong-smelling steam but doesn’t actually set anything alight.

“I think I’ll dry the next layer,” Draco says, coughing and wafting steam away from his face.

Harry strips the paint from his brush with a flick of his wand. “You do that.”

When the steam has dispersed, Harry checks the map and then stands with his back against the cool stone at the opposite side of the corridor, both keeping watch and keeping well out of the way while Draco climbs up and down the ladder with his paintbrush, sketching out the words that are to form the main part of their mural in silver-grey paint. His expression as he works is painfully intense, and Harry knows without needing to ask that he is thinking of Severus with every single brush stroke. Every now and then he pauses, paintbrush dripping, to stare critically at his work or ask Harry a question. After answering the same enquiry five times, Harry takes a scrap of parchment from his pocket and starts to keep a running tally.

“I feel like I’ve missed a word out,” Draco says, now crouching to paint along the bottom of the wall. “Have I missed a word out?”

“No,” Harry says, shaking his head and adding a thirteenth mark to his parchment.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Harry says, then shrugs and adds another mark.

And Draco hasn’t missed a word out, not a single one. It’s all there, and while there is some way still to go, the wall is beginning to look as though it has been decorated rather than vandalised. This is due in large part to Draco’s painting, which, like his handwriting, is neat and easy to read, and which, despite his early lack of faith in his ability, has been far more successful than any of Harry’s chaotic efforts during practise runs.

“Do you think I haven’t noticed that you’re doing that?” Draco says, and Harry stuffs the parchment into his pocket.

“Doing what?”

Draco rolls his eyes and cleans his paintbrush with an explosive little spell. “Are you coming?”

Harry grins at him, watches with amusement for a moment as Draco tries not to smile, and then joins him at the wall, ready for the next stage. He looks up at the letters, pulling in a deep breath and gripping his wand tightly. It isn’t that he’s nervous, but... well, he might be a little bit nervous. According to the plan, Draco will add the next colour of paint to the letters, and he will follow with his best attempt to charm them into something beautiful and impressive. No pressure.

“You’re thinking too much,” Draco says.

Harry looks up to where he’s standing at the top of the stepladder. “I don’t think anyone’s ever accused me of that before.”

Draco laughs. “Well, they’re missing out, aren’t they?”

Feeling more relaxed, Harry pulls a face at him and then turns to the wall. As he focuses on charming the first letter into shape, he finds himself wondering just what Snape would think of his efforts, and the expression his imagination provides him with keeps him going until the very last, even when his hand is cramping and he has stared at the words for so long that they no longer make any sense.

Finally, he steps back to regard their work. His eyes are heavy and sore, and he leans against Draco when he comes down from the ladder and stands beside him.

“I think that’s it,” Draco says, drawing his wand and casting an irritatingly perfect drying charm.

Harry closes his eyes for a moment and says nothing. When he opens them again and allows himself to see their finished work as a whole, his mouth tugs into a weary smile. It might not be completely perfect, but there is no denying that an ordinary, bare stone wall has been transformed into something rather spectacular. The letters, twisted and charmed into marbled strokes of silver and pewter, glow warmly against the black backdrop like frost trails against the night sky, spelling out their message of remembrance:

You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making.

I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death.

-- Severus Snape, 1960-1998

Harry steps back, warmth creeping through him as he reaches out and catches Draco’s hand. It’s true that the rest of the world might never understand about this man, but he will always have a home at Hogwarts, and now, there will be a place where those who loved him can remember him.

Maybe that’s enough.

“What do you think?” he asks.

Draco smiles. “I think he’ll hate it. It’s perfect.”

Harry looks at him, alarmed. “You’re not going to tell him about this, are you?”

“No,” Draco says, eyes gleaming in the low light. “I’m going to show him.”

“You—” Harry begins, falling silent when he hears footsteps nearby.

He grabs the map and scans the surrounding corridors but it’s too late. The footsteps are almost upon them and Draco is standing up rather straight and hiding his paintbrush behind his back.

“Good evening, Professor Sharma,” he says smoothly.

“Good evening, Draco,” she says. “Good evening, Harry.”

“Hello, Professor,” he mumbles, forcing himself to look up.

She is wrapped up in a thick, quilted dressing gown, her long dark hair loose over her shoulders, and she is carrying a candle in a brass holder and a plate of mince pies. Her eyes linger on him for a moment and then settle inevitably on the enormous section of painted wall behind him. There is no hiding it, and there is certainly no chance of pretending they didn’t have anything to do with it. The empty paint cans and the ladder are screaming for attention, and Draco is still hanging onto his paintbrush for dear life. He is also exuding pride and a careless sort of serenity that Harry thinks is worth detention until the end of the school year.

Sharma, however, almost seems to have forgotten all about them. She is examining the wall at close range by the light of her candle, and when she finally steps back, she is smiling.

“Severus Snape,” she sighs. “What a talented man he was.”

Draco stares at her, astonished. “He was... of course he was... but aren’t you angry?”

Sharma shakes her head slowly. “He deserves to be remembered, and you’ve done a wonderful job.”

“Oh,” Harry says, surprise and weariness making him completely inarticulate.

“Of course, as your teacher, I saw none of this,” Sharma says, indicating the wall and the paint tins with her candle and fixing them with a sharp look.

“Naturally,” Draco says.

She turns to leave and then stops, glancing back at the gleaming letters. “He’s been using that speech for a lot of years, you know.”

Harry frowns. “How do you know? I thought you were a lot—”

“I am a little older, yes,” Sharma interrupts, and Harry flushes. “However I do have three children... three boys. They’re all grown up now, but each one of them wrote to me about that speech in their first week at Hogwarts.”

“Sorry,” Harry says, feeling horrible. The fact that he can feel Draco smirking beside him isn’t helping one bit.

“Not to worry,” she says, already starting to walk away. “I shan’t lose sleep over it... sounds as though I can’t afford to.”

As she turns the corner and her footsteps recede into silence, Harry covers his face and groans.

“You are covered in paint,” Draco says.

Opening his eyes, he sees that Draco is right. His hands, jeans and t-shirt are all streaked with black and his hair feels suspiciously crunchy.

“So are you,” he says, wiping a sticky hand down the side of Draco’s face.

“Thank you,” Draco says solemnly.

Harry smiles, forgetting all about his embarrassment as an interesting idea pops into his head.

“There’s no one in my dorm right now—do you want to come up for a shower?”

Draco shakes his head. “I’ve got a better idea.”

Harry regards him dubiously. Right at this moment, cold and weary and covered in paint, he cannot imagine anything better than dashing up to Gryffindor Tower, stripping off his clothes, and standing with Draco under the pounding hot water for as long as they bloody well feel like.

“Don’t look like that, I do have a good idea occasionally,” Draco says, vanishing the tins and brushes and picking up Flitwick’s step ladder. “Trust me?”

“Of course,” Harry says, enjoying Draco’s pleased little smile.

Taking care to clear away every last bit of painting debris, they walk quietly through the castle to the Charms classroom, where Draco returns the steps, apparently failing to notice that they are still lightly spattered with silver paint. He then leads Harry all the way up to the fifth floor and along a vaguely familiar corridor. Harry is pretty sure he has been up here before, but he can’t remember when or why until Draco stops in front of a closed door and confidently declares, “Peppermint ice.”

“Ah,” Harry mumbles, finally recognising the corridor as the location of the Prefects’ Bathroom. “How do you know the password?”

“Blaise,” Draco explains, pushing open the door and pulling Harry inside. “Never met a secret he couldn’t share.”

Harry smiles, stretching languorously and looking around at the beautiful room.

“How very generous of him.”

The enormous sunken bath is already filling itself, sending spirals of delicious steam into the air; the golden taps—even more of them than Harry remembers—are gleaming in the soft torchlight, and the stained glass mermaid is flicking her tail and casting jewelled shadows across the floor. When he looks at Draco to see that he has already started removing his clothes, his heart thumps in approval and he scrambles to do the same, flinging everything into a pile on the floor and plunging into the bath.

The water is hot enough to make him gasp but he waits it out, watching his skin turn pink and feeling the cold in his bones melt away. By the time Draco lowers himself into the water with a little more care, Harry has adjusted to the temperature completely and he glides over, pushing off the bottom and catching Draco around the waist. Unfortunately, Draco takes this moment to make a grab for him, too, and they crash into the water in a tangle of limbs, going under for a second or two and then emerging, soaked and spluttering.

“You wanted to wash your hair, didn’t you?” Harry laughs, pushing his own dripping mop back from his face.

Draco’s hair, drenched and turned golden by the water, is plastered to his forehead, forcing him to comb and ruffle it into submission with his fingers. The effect softens his pointed features to such an extent that Harry can’t decide whether to stare at it or seize Draco and charm it back into its usual neat configuration.

In the end, he settles for staring.

“Never mind my hair. You’re still covered in paint,” Draco says, and he swims through the steaming water to reach the golden taps. After a moment’s thought, he holds out his hands under a tap with a pale opal set into it and collects a swirl of clear liquid.

Expecting to be given the soap and instructed to wash himself clean of paint, Harry is startled when Draco glides back to him and begins to stroke the stuff over his arms, back and chest, using gentle pressure and taking advantage of the slightly grainy texture of the liquid to loosen and then wash away the streaks of paint on Harry’s skin.

“How do you make such a mess?” he mutters, pressing himself full length against Harry in the water to scrub carefully at his back.

“How do you not?” Harry asks, and he feels Draco’s smile against his shoulder.

The feeling of Draco’s hands against his wet, heated skin is blissful, and Harry soon closes his eyes, resting against Draco and letting out soft sounds of pleasure whenever a kiss is pressed to his neck or his half-hard cock brushes against Draco’s hip. The soap smells wonderful, clean and fresh, and he idly wonders if it is, in fact, Draco’s usual soap of choice. The tiny grains feel like a thousand gentle back-scratches all at once, the water is hot and perfect, rippling gently around his waist, and he has no idea how he has managed all these years without this bathroom in his life.

Draco pushes him down gently, submerging him in the water up to his neck. When he stands up again, steam is rising from his skin and he feels brand new. He floats unhurriedly to the golden taps and spends some time deciding which one to choose for Draco, eventually settling on a golden coloured soap that smells like oranges and warm spices.

“I’m not covered in paint,” Draco points out, mouth twitching into a smile as Harry kisses him and begins to work the golden liquid into a lather on his chest.

“I don’t care,” Harry says, and Draco kisses him hard, pushing both hands into his hair and brushing his tongue against Harry’s, hot, soft, demanding. Harry’s hands, slippery with soap, slide down his back and grip at his arse, dragging a groan from Draco and a giggle from somewhere behind Harry.

He freezes. Slowly, he lifts his eyes to Draco’s and sighs. “Where is she?”

“Over by the taps,” Draco says, glancing over Harry’s shoulder.

Harry turns, suddenly very aware of his nakedness and the fact that they have yet to add any bubbles to the bath.

“What do you want, Myrtle?”

“Nothing,” she says, blinking innocently behind her glasses. She drapes herself over the taps and gazes at Harry with her head on one side. “I heard someone in here and I came to wish them a Merry Christmas. I didn’t know you were going to be here... doing that,” she says lasciviously.

“Right, well, you’ve done that, so is it possible for you to leave now?” Harry says. He glances at Draco, who seems quite unhelpfully amused by the whole thing.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” she says, turning upside down for a moment. “It’s nice to see you both so... happy.”

Harry wrinkles his nose. “Yeah, well, not any more,” he mutters, struck by the feeling that he might just never want to have sex ever again. At least not tonight. With a sigh, he swims to the edge of the bath and heaves himself out, trying not to think about the fact that Myrtle can see absolutely everything he has. “Are you coming, Draco?”

“Not any more,” Draco mumbles, but he rinses away the last of the golden soap and gets out of the bath.

“You’re terrible spoilsports,” Myrtle says sulkily, and when they wrap themselves in the biggest towels they can find, she huffs and disappears into one of the toilets at the other side of the room.

 “Does she do that a lot? Turning up when you’re in the bath, I mean?” Harry asks, throwing on his clothes for the short walk back to Gryffindor Tower.

“I haven’t seen her for months,” Draco says, worrying his wet hair with his fingers. “She certainly knows how to pick her moments.”

“Yeah,” Harry sighs. “I think that pretty much ruined the mood.”

Draco says nothing. He says nothing when Harry heaves a huge sigh, nothing when Harry flicks a sidelong glance at him, nothing when the Fat Lady takes one look at him and says, “Oh, really?” before allowing the portrait door to swing open. He says nothing when they step into the empty dormitory and Harry quickly sheds his paint-covered clothes and sits on the edge of his bed. There is an odd little smile on his face as he looks around the room with interest, and then he is practically bounding onto the bed and pinning Harry by his wrists, kissing him just fiercely enough to make him breathless and just gently enough to make him ache all over.

Within seconds he has abandoned any idea of avoiding sex and is grasping and writhing and whimpering under Draco, lifting his hips and brushing bare skin against expensive wool. Already he is hot and hard again, and nothing matters except how much he wants Draco. How much he needs him. This. Now. His breathing is rapid and shallow as he helps Draco to take off his shirt and jumper and watches him shed the rest onto the floor. When Draco leans down and takes him in his mouth, he swears loudly and twists his hands into the sheets as the hot, wet pressure around his cock makes everything else shatter into points of light. His hips jerk and Draco does nothing, just takes him deeper, and Harry cries out, looking around wildly at the empty room as though to reassure himself that they really are alone.

Gently, Draco lets him go, keeping a possessive hand wrapped around his cock as he glances up at Harry—so fucking beautiful, so hot, mine—and skates his fingertips down, down, until Harry gasps.

“Yes,” he whispers, already burning with the thought of it. “Yes. Please.”

Draco’s smile is a mixture of surprise and longing. “Do you have anything...?” he asks.

“In the drawer,” Harry says, flushing and turning to bury his face in his pillow as a sudden and nonsensical feeling of embarrassment washes over him.

He hears the drawer open and close and then Draco’s palm is sliding down his back, warm and comforting, and when he gently nudges him all the way onto his stomach, he doesn’t resist. The feeling of Draco’s slicked fingers is electrifying, the stretch and the burn and the raw, hot intimacy of lying there with his face in his pillow while Draco Malfoy ever-so-gently finger-fucks his arse is almost overwhelming. His cock, trapped between his belly and his bed sheets, fills and aches, and all he wants to do is touch himself, but he keeps his hands up by his head because, fuck, he wants Draco to do it, and he doesn’t care what that means about him. He trusts Draco; not just to not hurt him but to take him over and make him feel good, and, god, he wants it.

“Would you judge me if I said I’d thought about this once or twice?” Draco says, pressing his fingers deeply into Harry and making him gasp.

“Which part?” he asks, breathless.

For a moment, there is no answer, and Harry lifts his head to see Draco gazing around the empty Gryffindor dormitory and then back at him with a slow smile. “All of it.”

Harry suppresses a whimper. “I promise not to judge you... if you fuck me now.”

Draco laughs. “Sounds reasonable. Come here.”

He slides his fingers free of Harry and grips his hips, pulling him back onto his knees. Mouth dry, Harry steadies himself and wraps his fingers around his headboard, closing his eyes and arching his back as Draco pushes inside him, easing forward until his hips press against Harry and he is full, heavy, aching with the sensation. Everything about it is new and intense and a little bit too much, and the fact that it is happening right here is just as rebellious and thrilling for him as it is for Draco.

“Harry?” Draco asks, and there’s a note of anxiety in his voice that makes Harry turn around and look at him. “Oh, wow,” he whispers, and Harry’s stomach flips over.

“I’m fine,” he whispers, turning back to the wall and pushing back hard.

Draco lets out a rough sound that goes straight to Harry’s cock and then begins to move, slowly picking up the pace until Harry is digging his nails into the headboard and gasping with every stroke. When Draco stops, he turns his head to protest but is soon pulled back hard onto Draco’s lap, back flush to Draco’s chest and gravity pushing Draco still deeper inside him.

“Oh, god,” Harry whispers as they start to rock, damp skin catching where they touch, sweat and citrus and spices warm in his nostrils.

“That feels... perfect,” Draco murmurs against his neck, and Harry nods.

He leans back against Draco, grinding on his cock and crying out as their slow, dirty movements catch a place inside him he has only ever read about. Draco wraps one arm firmly around his waist, leaving the other free to grip Harry’s cock and jerk it slowly, barely hanging onto his rhythm when Harry turns his head for messy, desperate kisses.

Just as Harry is about to lose control completely, Draco comes with a surprised gasp and a long, low groan, mouth pressed to Harry’s neck and fingers digging into his hip.

“Stay there,” he whispers. “Just stay there.”

Harry glances at him, confused, but when Draco catches his breath and continues to rock into him, he closes his eyes and lets it happen. He moves with him, pushing his cock into Draco’s shaking hands and then sinking back onto him. He knows it won’t be long, and when Draco whispers, “Please” he loses himself in long, shuddering pulses.

Trembling, he lets himself rest on Draco’s lap, dropping his head back and smiling wearily when he feels a gentle brush of lips against his neck.

“Merry Christmas?” Draco says uncertainly.

“Is that a question?”

“I didn’t know if it was an inappropriate thing to say at a moment like this,” Draco says.

Harry laughs and the vibration shakes his voice into a whisper. “Are you planning to stay the night?”

“In the Gryffindor dormitory?” Draco asks, attempting to sound scandalised but falling rather short.

“Yes.”

“That’s Weasley’s bed, isn’t it?” Draco says, glancing over at the four-poster next to Harry’s, where a collection of objects that Ron has decided to leave behind sit in a colourful sort of soup on top of the rumpled sheets.

“Yes, yes, it is,” Harry says, slightly concerned as to where Draco might be going with this and hoping as hard as he can that he never has to utter the phrase, ‘No, Draco, we aren’t having sex on Ron’s bed’.

To his relief, Draco merely stares for a little while longer and then sighs, “Weird.”

Slowly, they untangle themselves and crawl beneath the sheets and blankets. Feeling tender and tingling all over from Draco’s cleaning charms, Harry shivers as they settle into a comfortable position, Draco stretching out on his back with one arm tucked beneath his head, and Harry curled on his side, bedclothes pulled up high and skin pressed against skin wherever possible.

Harry rests his head on Draco’s chest, letting his mouth go slack against his skin and inhaling him with every slow breath. After a minute or two, Draco’s fingers start to slip lazily through his hair and he smiles. In the contented silence that weaves around them, he lets his eyes drift around the room, taking in Dean’s paintbrushes, Trevor’s favourite windowsill, Ron’s framed photograph of all the grinning Weasleys... everything is the same and yet everything is so different that it might be difficult to believe if he weren’t right in the middle of it. He flattens his hand against Draco’s abdomen, feeling the rise and fall of his steady breathing and the warmth of his skin; he’s real and he’s here and Harry isn’t quite sure how it used to be any other way.

He yawns, pressing his face to Draco’s chest, amused when, a second or two later, Draco catches the yawn and smothers it with his forearm. It’s late... or early, Harry supposes, and either way, it’s Christmas day. He thinks of the book and the gloves, hidden in the bottom of his trunk and wrapped in the daftest paper he could find—shiny silver and covered in tiny cauldrons—in an effort to seem a little less sentimental, even though he secretly cannot wait to give them to Draco and make him smile.

And actually, that’s fine. It’s good, he tells himself firmly, shifting position slightly so that he can watch the snow falling past the window, it’s good because Christmas is for families, and families are whatever you make them—they’re loud and demonstrative, full of food and knitted jumpers, they’re quiet and close with love poured into ink and parchment, they’re mentors and educators who let you paint a dungeon wall in the middle of the night because the message means more than the rules, they’re old friends who care enough to give second chances, and new ones who bring colour and kindness that you never expected.

Harry smiles sleepily at the cards on his bedside. Most of the ones he has received have made their way down to the tent to be stuck onto the wall with Hagrid’s, including the one signed by what seems like every member of Harry’s first-year fan club, but for some reason, these two have ended up sitting beside his brass alarm clock and his water glass painted with swirling Gryffindor lions that was a late birthday gift and an early sample from Dean and Seamus’s line of homewares.

Blaise’s card, a large, ornate, snowflake-encrusted thing, takes up most of the available space and advises Harry, in a sprawling midnight blue script, to ‘have a splendid Christmas, old chap’. Neville’s is much smaller and depicts a mistletoe plant, neatly-labelled, with a paragraph or two of information in impressive scientific language. Inside, Neville has sent his warmest wishes and the news that the long-awaited forms for his Amazon trip have finally been delivered to his grandmother’s house by a very weary owl.

“Where on earth did he get those cards?” Draco asks suddenly.

“I’ve wondered that a few times,” Harry says. “Probably some sort of owl order thing for people who are obsessed with plants.”

Draco laughs. “Not that one. I mean that monstrosity from Blaise. For someone who dresses as well as he does, he has appalling taste in Christmas cards. In fact, I think it’s Christmas in general... I’m sure I saw him with glitter on his face on the last day of term.”

“I can believe it,” Harry says, grinning and stretching.

When Draco falls silent again, Harry turns back to the window, watching the snow and wondering what Ron and Hermione are doing. Weasley Christmases are an energetic affair, and if they have any sense—and he knows that Hermione has—they’ll be fast asleep by now, or maybe pretending to be, while Molly creeps around downstairs, shelling chestnuts and filling stockings above the fireplace. The image is soothing, and Harry’s eyes are heavy as he lifts his head and looks up at Draco. He seems to be sleeping lightly now, face relaxed and damp hair waving over his eyes, and he looks so tranquil that Harry doesn’t know whether to keep on staring or to curl back up beside him and give in to sleep.

The bed is so warm, so comfortable after all those nights in the tent... all those nights... Harry blinks slowly, a heavy, creeping sensation stealing through his veins and pulling him down. Draco sighs in his sleep and Harry clings on to consciousness, needing to hold on, to give this tiny, insignificant moment the attention it deserves. He stares at Draco, eyes half-open, and though coherent thought is slipping away, his mind is alive with images, vivid snapshots of the dark, stiff figure at the Ministry, the silent worker in jeans and boots, the isolated shadow, the fury in a Transfiguration classroom and the raw grief in an abandoned office... then glittering snails and magical fires and unexpected smiles over hot tea cups, trading memories and kisses and bread and honey with crumbly cheese.

Harry lets out a long, shuddering breath and lets his stinging eyes close.

“Why are you staring at me?” Draco mumbles.

“I’m not,” Harry says, sinking down into the bedclothes and pressing himself against Draco’s warmth.

“I know when you’re staring at me,” Draco insists. “I always know.”

“Shush,” Harry says, and Draco’s indignant huff is the last thing he hears.

Chapter Text

Twenty-fifth of December – Pencil crayons

25th december

Harry stretches awake, reaches up to ruffle his sleep-flattered hair and lets out a hiss of pain. His eyes fly open in surprise and he looks around dazedly at the blurred colours of the dormitory and then at Draco, who seems to be regarding him with interest from just inches away.

“What’s the matter?”

Harry touches the back of his head again, more gently this time. “Ah,” he mumbles after a moment. “Paint tins.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Never mind,” Harry says, groping across his bedside for his glasses and shoving them onto his nose. Now that he can see more clearly, he realises that Draco has reached over to Ron’s cabinet and retrieved his framed family photograph, which he is staring at intently.

“Didn’t he want to take this with him?” he asks, poking gently at Percy Weasley, who stops waving and folds his arms instead. “It has his brother in it,” he adds, lifting the frame closer to his face to examine the twins.

Harry laughs and Draco looks at him, affronted.

“What?”

Harry shakes his head and props himself up on one elbow. “If you’d seen... when you see the Burrow, you’ll understand.”

Draco’s eyebrows climb up under his dishevelled fringe. “Why?”

“They have pictures of Fred everywhere,” Harry explains. “There probably isn’t even room for that one.”

“Portraits,” Draco says, seeming to understand.

“No, mostly photographs. Portraits are kind of... they cost...” Harry stops, pride cutting off the words before they escape, but it’s too late.

“They’re poor,” Draco says, frowning.

Harry bristles. “Well... relatively, yeah, but—”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Draco interrupts. He sighs and glances at Harry for a split second before turning his eyes back to the photograph. “I’m sorry. I only meant... well, they don’t seem to have a lot but they always look so happy.”

Something about his quiet confusion pulls a smile from Harry and he shifts closer in the bed, resting one hand on Draco’s bare abdomen. “Yeah. They’re pretty happy people generally. Grateful for what they have... which, in terms of stuff, isn’t all that much, but in terms of what’s really important... I think they have more than most and they know that.”

Harry watches Draco, waiting for a sharp retort or a prickly accusation of cliché-ridden soppiness, but he says nothing, just continues to gaze at the picture as though lost in thought.

“Lucius hated them,” he says eventually, voice contemptuous.

“I know.”

“I probably owe them an apology.”

“Probably,” Harry agrees without thinking.

Draco smiles slowly. “Well, maybe next year.”

“You’re going to wait a whole week?” Harry teases, pressing his mouth to Draco’s shoulder.

“Oh, you’re funny,” Draco mutters. “He thinks he’s funny,” he tells the photograph solemnly. “But he’s not. He’s got a tiny little Gryffindor brain, rattling around in his head like a loose walnut. It’s really quite fortunate that he’s so good in bed.”

“And I love you, too,” Harry snorts.

Draco’s eyes flick to him immediately and his heart lurches. “Do you?”

Harry opens his mouth to reply but the words seem stuck, as though every one of them has tried to push its way out into the expectant silence at the same time and caused a pile up in his throat. Instead, he does the only thing he can do; he seizes the glittering warmth that is creeping through his veins and he smiles at Draco, hoping to show him everything that he can’t yet say. Slowly, Draco smiles back, eyes silver-bright and warm, and he places the photograph back on Ron’s bedside with the utmost care before dragging Harry into a dizzying kiss.

Several minutes later, they wander down the stairs to the empty common room. In light of the fact that all the other Gryffindors have gone home for Christmas and therefore cannot mock him, Draco has been persuaded into a spare pair of Harry’s pyjamas—blue and white checked flannel—and a thick towelling dressing gown that, together with his uncharacteristically messy hair and slightly startled expression, makes him look so ordinary and un-Malfoy that Harry doesn’t know whether to hug him or take his picture for posterity.

In the end, he just pokes him onto the hearthrug in front of a fire that the house-elves have apparently seen fit to make just for Harry, and heads for the leather chair to retrieve the presents. When he gets there, he stops, astonished. The pile of gifts seems to have multiplied in the night and now includes several packages with tags in Molly’s handwriting and a couple of items that appear to have been wrapped in the dark by the Giant Squid and can only have come from Hagrid. Harry adds his own gifts to the pile and floats the whole lot over to the hearthrug, all the while trying not to think of how the person or elf who delivered the extra gifts knew where to find Draco.

“You go first,” he says, settling on the rug next to Draco.

Draco stares at him. “I’ve got presents?”

Harry grins, revelling in his surprise and laughing as he repeats the answer that Ron had given him all those years ago.

“What did you expect, turnips?”

Draco gives him an odd look but Harry doesn’t care. He grabs the packages addressed to Draco and dumps them in front of him in a small pile. For a moment, he stares down at them in astonished delight and then his face falls.

“I really wasn’t expecting anything,” he says, sounding quite horrified. “All I bought was that painting for Mother and a book for you, and that was really more of a—”

“You got me a book?” Harry interrupts, amused.

“Yes, but...” Draco trails off, defeated, and sighs. “Do you want it?”

“Of course,” Harry says.

Cautiously, Draco draws a neatly-wrapped package from the pocket of his borrowed dressing gown and passes it to Harry, who thanks him and tears into it with enthusiasm. When he pulls the book free of its wrappings and sees the cover, he bursts into laughter.

“I didn’t think it would amuse you that much,” Draco says, regarding him with bewilderment.

“Open this one,” Harry says, grinning as he leans over to extract one of the gifts from Draco’s pile.

He complies, all the while gazing at Harry as though he has lost his marbles, but when he reveals the contents, he smiles, understanding at last.

“‘Keeping the Constant – a guide to non-hermaphroditic snail breeding’,” he murmurs, running his fingers over the embossed words. “We bought each other the same book. Well, that’s enough Christmas for me, I think...”

“Don’t be a miserable bugger,” Harry laughs, thwapping him gently with his new copy of ‘Keeping the Constant’. “Maybe it’s a good omen.”

“It’s a weird omen,” Draco says, but he is already leaning forward to inspect the other presents in his pile.

“If you like,” Harry says. “And believe me, none of the people who’ve sent you these things have done it because of what they might get back, so just let them be nice to you.”

“It’s that easy?”

“Yes,” Harry says, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice. “Just... give it a go.”

Draco looks at his presents as though waiting for one of them to explode, but after a minute or two, he picks one of them up and opens it, seeming genuinely surprised to find something pleasant inside. Harry works his way through his own things, watching Draco out of the corner of his eye as he opens the box of sweets from Ron, a tin of chocolate shortbread from Molly, and a long green scarf with a snail pattern from Hermione; Harry’s leather gloves are received with grave thanks and tried on immediately, and soon there is only one present left to be opened.

Harry leans over to fling his wrapping paper into the fire, and when he turns back to Draco, he is holding a small, round bottle containing something that glitters in the soft light.

“What is it?” he asks.

Draco lets out a long breath. “Frost trails.”

“Hagrid?” Harry asks softly.

Draco nods and hands him a scrap of parchment that is still clinging to the wrappings with a bit of Spellotape.

I recon this is your job now. Thats what he would of wanted. Merry Christmas, Hagrid x

Harry shivers and wraps his arms around Draco, fingers clenched into soft fabric and mouth pressed against warm skin. Draco grips the bottle tightly and brings one hand up to cover Harry’s. The fire roars at their back; outside, the snow continues to fall, and they sit, tangled together on the hearthrug, until the flames die down and the savoury aromas of Christmas lunch begin to drift up the stairs.

**~*~**

As Harry hurries across the Entrance Hall towards the warm smell of roasted meats and spices with Draco trailing just behind him, he can already hear the laughter and chatter of what sounds like at least a hundred people, and, for a moment, he finds himself wondering if all his friends have changed their minds and decided to return to the castle for lunch. When he reaches the Great Hall, he is startled to realise that the babble is being produced by a single table-full of people, at least one third of them Hogwarts staff, and that he and Draco are apparently the last to arrive. There are only two places left at the table, one between a couple of Slytherin first-years and the other beside McGonagall, who is sitting at the head of the table and regarding them with sly amusement.

“She’s laughing at my jumper,” Draco whispers, scandalised.

“She wouldn’t dare,” Harry says, grinning at him and then taking the seat next to McGonagall.

It has taken him at least fifteen minutes to persuade Draco to wear his Weasley jumper to Christmas lunch, and there no way he is going to admit that, yes, perhaps the headmistress is a little amused by the sight of it. He suspects that Molly and Hermione have been comparing knitting projects, because like Draco’s new scarf, the jumper is a rich, forest green and absolutely covered in little bobbly snails. It is quite a work of art, and Harry can’t seem to stop glancing over at Draco as he settles himself at the table and pours himself a glass of mulled punch.

“Is that a real snail?” asks one of the first-years, gazing up at Draco’s shoulder with wide eyes.

“Yes,” Draco says, seeming surprised to be addressed by such a tiny person. “His name is Solomon.”

“Hello, Solomon!” Hagrid booms, lifting his goblet in the direction of the little snail.

“Of course there is a snail at the dinner table,” McGonagall says faintly. “I should have expected nothing less.”

“He ran down to get him this morning,” Harry explains, still watching Draco, who is now holding Solomon in his cupped hands and talking quietly to both of the first-years. “They’ll all be moving on soon, and Draco... well, I think he’s going to miss that one. He’s become sort of a pet.”

“Perhaps I only have myself to blame,” McGonagall says drily.

“Don’ be like that, Professor, them snails are wonderful things,” Hagrid puts in, picking up a cracker and offering her one end.

“I’m sure they are, but—not on the tablecloth, Mr Malfoy!” she calls, and Draco looks up.

“Of course not,” he says innocently, and McGonagall sighs.

“Very well, Hagrid, Merry Christmas,” she declares, seizing the cracker and fixing Hagrid with an impish smile before tugging hard and ripping the paper apart with a loud bang.

Hagrid grins and wipes glitter from his face. Harry picks up his cracker and pulls it with Professor Flitwick, who tumbles off his seat but emerges victorious with several fluorescent beetles, a miniature Christmas pudding and a velvet top hat. Halfway down the table, Draco wins a horned helmet from one of the first-years, which they immediately insist that he wears, and a little set of colour-changing all surface pencil crayons, which he shows to Harry with a smile.

“Here you are, Mr Malfoy,” says McGonagall, fishing a tiny sketchpad from her cracker and throwing it to him. “Perhaps you can use this to develop your artistic talent before there are no blank walls left in Hogwarts.”

Draco catches the sketchpad neatly and stares at her.

Harry scowls. “She said she wouldn’t tell,” he mutters to himself.

“I have no idea who you are talking about, Potter, but nobody told me anything,” McGonagall says calmly. “There are, however, only sixteen students left in the school. I merely put two and two together.”

Harry looks at her, startled. She looks right back, sharp eyes steady, and then she turns away to take the end of another cracker held out to her by a hopeful younger student. When he is certain that she is distracted, Harry glances over at Draco, who is looking at his sketchbook and pencils with amused interest, and then at Sharma, who is watching him from the other end of the table and smiling with an impressive amount of dignity for a person who is wearing a sequinned sombrero.

When McGonagall stands to carve the enormous, glistening turkey, Harry’s stomach grumbles impatiently and he scans the long table in an attempt to decide what to put onto his plate first. In the end, he takes some of everything he can reach and then swaps dishes and platters with teachers and students further down the table, heaping roast potatoes and parsnips next to carrots, balls of herby stuffing and sausages wrapped in bacon, roast duck and turkey and Brussels sprouts, covered in pools of steaming, fragrant gravy.

He eats until he is full to bursting and then eats some more, chatting away to everyone around him and glancing over at Draco as often as he dares. He, too, seems to be putting away more food than Harry has ever seen, every now and then feeding a little bit of parsnip or carrot to a softly-popping Solomon. His hair is sparkling with magical snow and his pale skin is lightly pinked with good food and laughter and Molly’s heavy-duty knitting.

Harry turns back to his plate, relieved when the last traces of his meal fade away to be replaced by an unnecessarily large serving of Christmas pudding and a heap of brandy butter so strongly alcoholic that it makes his eyes water. It is, of course, delicious, but he barely manages half of it before he has to push his plate away with a groan. Hagrid, flushed and glittering, swaps their plates without a word and dispatches Harry’s pudding within seconds.

Glancing at Draco and receiving a subtle nod, Harry excuses himself from the table and walks slowly out into the Entrance Hall where he slumps against the cool stone wall, clutching his stomach.

“I told you not to eat too much,” Draco says, slipping out to join him five minutes later.

“It’s Christmas,” Harry says by way of explanation and closes his eyes.

Draco leans against the wall beside him and sighs. “Maybe we should do this another time.”

Harry opens one eye. “What? Why?”

“We’ve only just had that drama with Filch, and now McGonagall knows it was us that painted the wall... I probably shouldn’t get myself into any more trouble for a while.”

Harry turns to face him, both eyes open now. “That’s where you’re wrong,” he says firmly. “You might as well do it now, in for a Knut, in for a Sickle, and all that... besides, when’s the next time you’re going to have the chance to sneak into McGonagall’s office while she’s a bit sozzled? Never, that’s when.”

Reluctant amusement flickers in Draco’s eyes. “There’s some sort of logic to that, I suppose.”

“Of course there is,” Harry says. “Come on.”

He grabs Draco’s hand and pulls him in the direction of the headmistress’s office, attempting to ignore the discomfort in his overfull stomach as he jogs up the stairs. By the time they reach the stone gargoyle, he has a painful stitch in his side, but he doesn’t care.

Catching his breath, he casts around for the password he heard Filch use just the other night.

“Coltsfoot rock,” he says, and Draco arches an eyebrow.

“Is that a Muggle sweet, too?”

“Yep,” Harry says, as the stone staircase begins to grind its way open.

“Sounds horrible.”

Harry laughs and the sound reverberates around them as they step onto the staircase and it begins to carry them upwards. Once inside the office they move quickly and quietly, trying not to disturb the other snoozing portraits. Snape is sleeping peacefully when Draco grasps his frame and lifts him from the wall, but the movement wakes him and he startles, black eyes darting from side to side and thin mouth flattened into a disapproving line.

“Put me back this instant, Potter,” he snaps, glaring at Harry. “Don’t think for a moment that I can’t still take points.”

“Can he?” Harry asks, unconcerned but curious.

Draco shrugs and Snape turns in his frame, attempting to see who Harry is talking to.

“Well, I suppose we’ll find out, won’t we?” Harry says.

Snape lets out a furious sort of growl and from behind Harry comes the sound of familiar soft laughter.

“Is someone attempting to hijack you, Severus?”

“Albus, please see to it that Potter puts me back where he found me at once,” Snape hisses. “He might listen to you.”

“I fear there is very little I can do from here,” Dumbledore says mildly. “These frames are rather restrictive, you see. Hello, there, Draco,” he adds, and Snape’s eyes go entertainingly wide.

“Draco?”

“Sorry, Severus,” Draco says, peering over the top of the frame so that Snape can see him. “I just want to show you something. We’ll bring him right back,” he adds, looking at Dumbledore.

The pale blue eyes watch them with interest all the way back to the office door, and the portrait of Snape complains bitterly all the way through the castle and down to the dungeons. Draco holds him carefully, making sure his frame is level and that he can see every step of their journey, and Harry walks quickly ahead of them, ensuring that the way ahead is clear of teachers and curious students.

“I know you’re probably going to go mad at me for damaging school property,” Draco says, just before they turn the corner and reveal the painted wall, “but I don’t care, because you are a part of this school and I don’t want anyone to ever forget that... including you. So, here it is.”

Draco takes a deep breath and steps around the corner. He tightens his fingers around the edges of the frame, letting the portrait rest against his body, and waits. Harry watches Snape’s painted features anxiously, silently pleading for a reaction. He stands perfectly still, heart slamming against his ribcage, wondering helplessly what would be worse—anger, disappointment, or nothing at all. When he glances at Draco, he isn’t looking at Snape at all, but straight ahead, directly at the shimmering silver words, face white and lip caught painfully in his teeth.

Snape’s dark eyes flit over the wall, over the message, his name, the dates that mark his life.

“You did this, Draco?” he says at last, and his voice is quieter than usual.

“Harry and I did it,” Draco replies, and as though in compensation, his voice is just a little too loud.

Snape’s eyes fix on Harry, seeming to pin him to the spot.

“I see that the two of you are something of a... team now,” he says slowly.

Harry shifts uncomfortably. “Er, yeah. Professor,” he adds.

Snape nods, and just for a moment, the inscrutable mask slips away, and something all at once insignificant and staggering passes between them before he slides his eyes back to the wall.

“Thank you,” he says simply, and Draco’s eyes close in relief.

“We’d better take him back before...” Harry starts, but there are sharp, clicking footsteps on the stone and he sighs, bracing himself for the worst.

“Sharma?” Draco whispers hopefully.

Snape smirks in his frame and Harry shakes his head.

“Albus said I might find you down here,” McGonagall says, striding towards them and swiftly reclaiming the portrait from Draco. “I take it you are unharmed, Severus?”

“Let’s not be too hasty,” Snape mutters, and Harry has the sudden feeling that McGonagall is trying not to smile. Even as she peers sternly at them over the top of her spectacles, her cheeks are pink and her hair is beginning to escape from its usual severe knot.

“Have you two quite finished, or shall I expect to be roused at midnight because you have started a full-scale riot?” she asks.

“I haven’t got anything like that planned,” Harry says, fighting to keep a straight face.

“And you, Mr Malfoy?”

Harry looks over at Draco, who is fiddling with the sleeves of his snail jumper and attempting to look contrite.

“No. I mean, yes, I have quite finished,” he says after a moment.

“I’m glad to hear it. You know, Mr Potter, you still owe me a piece of homework,” she says, and despite her flushed cheeks and bright eyes, Harry has the impression that he had better find out what it is and hand it in on the very first day of term or reap the consequences.

“Sorry, Professor,” he says solemnly, crossing his fingers behind his back as he adds: “I’ll start it tomorrow.”

McGonagall gives each of them a sharp look and then stalks away. “Come along, Severus,” she says as she disappears out of sight. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of excitement...”

**~*~**

Ten minutes later, they are lighting the lanterns and the fire inside the tent and curling up on their cushions with cups of tea. Both Gryffindor and Slytherin common rooms have been considered and dismissed, and the lure of their own little space has been more than strong enough to overpower the thought of a trek through the snow and ice. With boots kicked off and socks charm-dried, they pull up the blanket and huddle beneath it, spelling the plant back from the tripudium and talking lazily as they watch the curious baby snails.

The circle is strewn with delicate little frost trails and each tiny snail is now leaving a perfect, glittering path wherever it goes. Harry is caught between pride and overwhelming sadness, and though he knows that Draco has noticed the trails, too, neither one of them says a word. Solomon sits on his piece of silk at the mouth of the tent, watching the other snails and stretching out his eyestalks pleasurably whenever Draco strokes his shell.

Letting go is never easy, Harry thinks, watching Draco and Solomon and feeling heavy with love for them both. He’s going to miss the snails, with their popping and their waving and their odd little personalities, and he’s going to miss sitting down here every night with Draco and hiding from the world. Perhaps, though, they don’t need to hide from the world any more. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks, and now that he considers it, no one seems to be upset about them at all—at least, no one who matters.

And yes, there’s still a very significant part of him that wants to remain at Hogwarts forever, but if these tiny, fragile snails can plunge out into the world then so can he. He’s not alone and he’s not incapable, just a little bit uncertain, and maybe that’s absolutely fine.

“I think that’s his serious face but it’s difficult to tell,” Draco says quietly and Solomon pops.

Harry tries to look offended and then gives up and smiles. “It’s my thinking face, and if Solomon must know, I’m wondering what I’m going to do when I leave here.”

“Anything,” Draco says, looking at him as though he has said something very strange indeed.

“Anything?”

“Yes,” Draco says firmly. “You can do anything, don’t you realise that? You can be a Healer or an Auror or one of those people who sells cakes from a cart in the street. You can raise yourself an army of frost snails and take over the world. You can play professional Quidditch. You can come back and teach here; I’m sure McGonagall would be thrilled to have you. I don’t think you realise the ridiculous number of opportunities that you have.”

“Yeah, well...” Harry mutters, taken aback. “So do you.”

To his surprise, Draco grins. “I know. I just haven’t decided whether I want to be disgustingly successful or just let you keep me.”

“Oh, really?” Harry laughs.

“No,” Draco says, eyes bright with amusement. “I think I’d be bored stiff if I didn’t have something to do, and when I’m bored I get a bit...”

“Dangerous? Explosive? Really, really annoying?” Harry suggests.

“Saved by Sorrento,” Draco sighs, turning to break off a piece of gingerbread for the owl that has just swooped into the tent.

He takes the letter and spreads it out on his knees to read it, while Harry gently strokes Sorrento’s soft feathers. After several minutes of silent reading, Draco hands him the last page of the letter. Harry takes it, admiring the elegant script and the thick, heavy parchment.

brought so many challenges. I promise you, Draco, that this coming year will be brighter for all of us, and we will have a different sort of Christmas. Thank you again for the beautiful painting. I have hung it in my kitchen so that I may look at it as I wait for my tea to steep and think of all the new chances that lie ahead of you.

Please give my best wishes to Harry and Solomon.

With love,

Mother

“She knows about Solomon?” Harry asks, smiling.

Draco takes the page back. “She knows about everything,” he says, and when Sorrento hoots and takes off for the Owlery, he tugs Harry down under the blanket and kisses him, catching him up in a warm, loose embrace that is all trailing fingers and closed eyes and contentment.

As darkness falls, the soft sound of popping rouses Harry, and he grabs his wand to roll out the thermo scroll, but when he looks, he realises with a jolt that the snails are beginning to leave the circle. Those at the head of the exodus, behind old bossy-shell herself, are already making their way along the lakeside, glittering in the moonlight with their young at their sides.

“Draco,” he whispers, throat dry, and Draco looks up.

“They’re leaving,” he says, and he sounds so sad that Harry wants to Accio all the snails back into the circle and make them stay there. Instead, he just threads his fingers through Draco’s and nods.

“Yeah,” he says quietly.

Draco sighs. He picks up Solomon and gets to his feet, ducking out of the tent and walking to the edge of the circle where several snails are still tacking themselves onto the end of the procession. Harry watches for a moment as Draco mumbles to the snail and strokes his gleaming shell before following him out into the cold air.

“We’ll miss you,” Harry says, surprised to find himself stingy-eyed when an eyestalk stretches out to touch the palm of his hand. “But, you know, you have to choose your family now, so you can go off and do snail things.”

“That’s right,” Draco says firmly. “You must come back next year. Goodbye, Solomon, you’ve been a very good snail.”

With a gentle sigh, Draco places Solomon on the ground inside the circle.

“I think I want to go back now,” he says to Harry, chin lifted proudly. “They don’t need us for this.”

Harry’s chest aches. “Okay. Just give me a minute.”

Draco turns away to look at the castle in the distance and Harry darts around, turning out the lights and sealing up the tent. He can’t quite bring himself to get rid of it, even if they aren’t going to need it for watching snails any more. Taking one last look at the glittering carpet of shells creeping along the edge of the lake, he turns to Draco and takes his hand, gripping hard.

“Let’s go.”

Draco nods and grips back. They have barely taken two steps when the most heartbreaking popping Harry has ever heard stops them in their tracks. He and Draco look at each other and then whip around to see that Solomon has made his way out of the circle and onto the snow, and he is sliding towards them as fast as he can, eyestalks waving in desperation. He pops and pops and pops as he forces himself forward, finally sliding onto Draco’s boot and popping even more frantically.

Astonished, Draco leans down to pick him up, barely even seeming to notice the damage to his shoe leather.

“What are you doing?” he asks, as Solomon lets out one last loud POP and settles into silence.

Harry stares at them, a grin creeping onto his face. “They choose their families.”

Pale eyes snap to his. “What?”

“That’s what Hagrid said. He said that frost snails choose which other snails they want to live with. You might not be a snail, but I think he’s chosen you.”

Draco stares at him and then at Solomon, who is waving his eyestalks from side to side with obvious contentment. Slowly, Draco draws the salamander silk from his pocket and drapes it over his shoulder before setting Solomon carefully on top.

“He’s chosen us,” he says, blinking rapidly and letting out a ripple of delighted laughter. “He’s mad.”

“Probably,” Harry agrees, tugging Draco up the hill and onto the lawn. “Maybe we should hang onto the tent for a bit longer.”

“About six months, do you think?” Draco says.

Harry grins. Through the snowfall, he can see the lights of the castle glowing in the distance, and he can already feel the warmth from the common room fireplace and the hot chocolate that the house-elves probably won’t let him make by himself. Draco’s hand is cold in his but their fingers weave together as though they’ve been made that way, and on Draco’s shoulder, Solomon pops at snowflakes and reminds Harry of just how far they have come.

It’s still only the beginning.