19th December 2017
Harry glares up through the windscreen of his borrowed SUV and makes eye contact with a shrivelled, disapproving old woman half a second before the heel of his hand slams into the steering wheel and the horn blares loudly at the bus full of senior citizens that has just cut him up. It’s the third time something like this has happened since he pulled away from King’s Cross and he’s had enough.
“Learn to drive!” he complains pointlessly. The offending driver can’t hear him, he knows that, but the sour-faced old lady shakes her head and elbows her friends, tutting.
“Dad, calm down,” comes a voice from the magically-enlarged back seat.
Still fuming, Harry meets his daughter’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “I’m perfectly calm, Lily. I’m just a little bit fed up of buses thinking they can do whatever they feel like because they’re big. That’s all.”
Lily scrunches her nose up. “You need to untwist. Seriously.”
“Untwist,” he repeats under his breath. He looks away from her know-it-all expression and focuses instead on the reflection of his own eyes, just for a moment. He really doesn’t remember when he got those dark circles and crow’s feet. Where they came from, or what they want. Tearing his eyes back to the road, he catches one last glimpse of the bus’ elderly occupants—he doesn’t suppose they remember either.
Fuck, he’s tired. He’s never been very good at driving, either, but here he is, trundling along at sixty miles an hour with a pounding headache, a short temper, four children and Lily’s cat, who doesn’t seem capable of being parted from her. It doesn’t matter that he only borrowed the new (and heavily modified, much to Molly’s chagrin) car from Arthur because it’s his turn to get the kids from the station and that Lily could have quite easily stayed at home. No, because she’s horrified at the idea that she might miss something, especially something to do with Hogwarts.
So there she sits, cross-legged next to the window, holding a purring cat-ball on her lap and telling Harry to ‘untwist’ himself. He supposes he should feel fortunate that she’s not adding her voice to the nonsensical argument that’s currently raging between Al, Rose Weasley, and James. Harry pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs as the road in front of him swims momentarily. It’s a shame that ‘not wanting to know’ doesn’t lessen the pain in his skull.
“Err, that’s disgusting!” Rose cries, to scattered laughter from the back seat.
It’s not as though he isn’t pleased to see them; the winter term always feels like the longest, and he has missed James’ little acts of rebellion, Al’s strange questions, and the Siamese twin act with Rose that often leaves him puzzled over how many children he actually has. But... he wishes they could be pleased to see him in a quiet way. Just for a little while. Just until he can get the last of this day off his skin. And see what sort of mood Ginny is in.
Untwist, he intones gamely inside his head. Untwist.
“Anyway,” Al is saying to Rose, “Scorp says that now his mum and dad are getting divorced, he’s going to—”
“What?” Harry interrupts, turning around in his seat to look at his son so sharply that the car veers to the right and Lily jumps and grabs onto the arm rest. The cat, it seems, has secured itself by hooking sharp claws into her thigh. “Sorry, Lil.” He straightens up the car with some effort and instead regards Al in the mirror. “What was that about Mal... about Scorpius’ mum and dad?”
Al looks back, all green eyes and ink-smudged nose. “They’re getting divorced.”
“Scorpius told you that?” Harry presses, feeling unexpectedly jarred by the news.
“Yeah. But it’s in the paper, too... Oi, James. James! Let me borrow that a minute.” Al leans across Rose and tries to take the Daily Prophet behind which James has been hiding since the journey began.
James glowers. “No.”
“Just for two seconds!”
“No, Al, bugger off. I’m reading.”
“Language,” Harry murmurs absently. He hasn’t read the Prophet in forever, but he still finds himself craning his neck pointlessly, trying to see the printed pages James is hanging onto.
“You’re not reading, you’re perving on Reeda Rathbone!” Al crows.
James glares in the way only a teenage boy can as Lily and Rose set up a chorus of “James loves Reeda, James loves Reeda...” which makes Harry smile to himself despite the pounding in his head.
“You’re dead,” he mutters darkly, clutching more tightly onto the paper.
“James, stop being an arsekettle,” Al whines. Rose snickers approvingly.
“Language,” Harry sighs again, secretly amused at the creativity of the insult.
Lily sighs and then there’s a flurry of rustling paper and discontented protests from which emerges a smug looking Lily, a mildly ruffled James, clutching the pages with the pictures of the windswept captain of Puddlemere United, and a delighted Al, who is now rifling through the remaining pages, eyes narrowed.
“Here it is,” Al says, folding over the newspaper and balancing it on his drawn-up knees.
Don’t sit like that in the car, Harry thinks idly, but says nothing. Takes a deep breath.
“It is with regret that Draco and Astoria Malfoy (nee Greengrass) announce their separation after a marriage of fifteen years. The separation will be made formal in the New Year, and the couple’s only child, Scorpius, will remain at Malfoy Manor with his father,” Al reads, finishing with a flourish and an ‘I told you so’ smile.
“Poor Scorpius,” says Rose, holding out her hand and allowing Lily’s cat to lick it.
Al shrugs. “He’s always saying he never sees his mum anyway.”
“Isn’t he embarrassed?” Lily puts in. “You know, having it all over the paper?”
“He doesn’t really...” Al starts.
“... get embarrassed,” he and Rose advise as one. Lily lifts her eyebrows.
Divorced, Harry thinks, switching off from the noise in the back seat once more. Malfoys don’t get divorced, surely. It has been less than four months since he saw Malfoy again in the flesh after all those years, and now Harry can’t help wondering what he missed. It had been so startling to see him again, just standing on the platform with his lookalike son and his pointy wife, that he hadn’t paid attention to much else. Now he thinks about it, he doesn’t suppose Malfoy did look all that happy. But then, he never has, has he?
Harry doesn’t care what some of the more sensible voices in his head have to say, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of natural curiosity about the strange people in one’s life. Or the strange people who used to be in one’s life...
Harry jumps, startled by a series of frantic horn blasts from behind him, and realises that he’s slowed practically to a standstill in the middle of a dual carriageway. Horrified, he puts his foot down and makes apologetic hand gestures at the other cars as he scrubs at his heated face and wonders if this headache can possibly get any worse. It’s a good few seconds later that he realises he has let go of the steering wheel completely.
“Fucking Malfoy,” he mutters to himself as he corrects the swerve and holds on tight to the wheel.
As they drive into Ottery St Catchpole, everyone falls silent, just for a second or two, to look out of the windows and admire the glistening frosty coating on the road and the grass and the trees. He drives past Ron and Hermione’s cottage on the outskirts, past the cluster of village shops, the post office and the pub, the duck pond, Lily’s school—closed for Christmas—and finally pulls into his own driveway.
When he gets out of the car and stretches, he can see the Burrow in the distance. He inhales deeply and savours the smell of winter, the cool air, and the faintest hint of the smoke curling from Arthur and Molly’s crooked chimney. A faint ripple of a child’s laughter on the wind could be Hugo playing in the cold air with his grandma, but it’s soon buried in the bangs of car doors and the scraping and thumping of trunks. Somewhere to his left, Lily’s cat chirrups in protest at the sudden change of temperature.
“Right,” Harry calls, dragging the freezing air into his lungs and shaking himself into action. “Hang on for two seconds while I lighten your trunks.” He draws his wand and casts the spell on each in turn, as he does so, darting anxious glances at the paintwork of Arthur’s car—he knows better than to return it scratched twice in a row.
“Coats and shoes off, trunks upstairs,” Harry attempts, sighing. “Quietly? Quietish?”
“Cheers, Dad... race you upstairs... give me that back, James... ergh, what’s that? ... GIANT HIPPOGRIFF!” assaults his ears from several different angles and then he’s alone in the driveway.
The house smells cold and musty, as though it’s been empty all day, but he can hear Ginny in the kitchen. Kicking the door closed behind him, he heads toward the sound of clacking plates, pulling off his winter coat as he goes. He’s only barely aware of the pre-emptive intake of breath as he enters the kitchen and attempts to shake off his horrible day and tune out the clatters and raised voices of his children upstairs. With a soft sigh, he realises that he has forgotten to take Rose home.
It’s not the first time, either.
“Everyone in one piece?” she asks without turning around from the counter. Her work robes are flung over a kitchen chair as though she hasn’t been home for long.
“All four of them,” he admits, and it takes a moment for Ginny to catch his meaning.
She swipes her long hair out of her face and then lets it go. “Head Auror and you’re incapable of bringing home the right number of children. What’s that about?”
“At work I have other people to do the counting for me,” Harry says, knowing she’s half-joking. But only half. “Old age?” he suggests instead when there’s no response.
Ginny laughs shortly and flicks her wand, sending a flurry of plates flying across the room and into a cupboard. Harry steps back as he always does, each time thinking they are certain to collide and shatter in mid air, but as usual, they stack themselves neatly and the cupboard door clicks shut. She starts on last night’s pans; Harry frowns.
“I said I’d do that,” he says softly.
Ginny looks up briefly, expressive eyes harassed. She shrugs awkwardly and Harry, who has been leaning against the worktop, stiffens slightly and presses his hands to the marble.
“It was a mess. It was annoying me. I thought you were supposed to have the afternoon off,” she says accusingly.
Harry winces. He was, but as usual, it hadn’t quite worked that way. It had taken him until almost three to fight his way out from under a mountain of paperwork and he had taken it right down to the wire with the drive into central London to meet the Hogwarts Express. The trouble with his job is that even though he’s ostensibly in charge of the department, everyone wants his help and he finds it almost impossible to say no.
“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. Still, I don’t think they’ll be able to tell if the house is clean or not,” he says, quirking a small smile and hoping for the best.
“Don’t you?” she snaps, turning to look at him with hands on her hips, and just for a moment, she looks a lot like her mother. It’s not a bad thing, not really, but it makes his stomach ache to see it.
“I was joking,” he says, keeping his tone light and fishing around for a distraction. “Hey, did you hear about Malfoy?”
“Of course I did.” She fills the kettle and looks up at him, apparently placated. “It’s been flying around the office all day. Even the goblins are talking about it.”
Harry snorts. “I forget that you work together sometimes.”
Ginny’s eyebrows lift into her hairline and her mouth twists. “No you don’t. And we do not work together. I work for Gringotts; he is an independent financial advisor. There’s some overlap, that’s all.”
Harry pauses, stung. He actually had forgotten this time. He might have mentioned Malfoy a few times since the first of September, but he hadn’t realised she was so tired of hearing it. That being said, he can understand tired. And perhaps her day has been as bad as his. There’s no use arguing in front of the children, even the ones that don’t belong to them.
“Al said that Scorpius didn’t seem too upset,” he says at last, closing his eyes and trying to work the kinks out of his neck.
“No?” Ginny hums thoughtfully as she pours hot water into six mugs and releases fragrant steam into the air. “Well, children are pretty resilient. Maybe it’s been coming for a while.”
Harry’s eyes snap open but the scene in front of him remains unchanged. “Hmm.”
Just then there’s a rumble and a clatter and the kitchen is full of children. They throw themselves on Ginny, making her smile in a way that lifts years off her face. In spite of her digs at Harry, she’s equally delighted to see Rose, who gets a hug and a “Wow, don’t you look tall!” along with everyone but Lily, who hoists her cat up over her shoulder and carries it to the kitchen table.
“What’s the matter, Dad?” she asks.
Harry’s heart twists. He swallows dryly as he looks away from the joyful pileup and down at his daughter. “Nothing, Lil. I’ve just got a bit of a headache.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Boys are noisy. I understand.”
Harry smiles, genuinely now. “Yeah. Except Frank,” he adds, ruffling the cat’s stripy head where it dangles over Lily’s shoulder.
“Frank is noisy sometimes,” Lily says darkly. “But at least he doesn’t argue with me or borrow my books and put them back in the wrong order.”
“Those are important things,” he agrees, thinking that just in this moment, he would settle for a relationship without arguing or egregious disordering of his possessions.
“Frank’s a good cuddler, too,” Lily adds.
Across the room, Ginny is still squashing James tightly against her and asking him what on earth he has done with his hair.
Harry gives himself an internal shake, leans down and, with some effort, sweeps both girl and cat into his arms. Lily giggles and Frank licks his earlobe with a raspy tongue. “So am I.”
After returning Rose to her ‘other’ family and squeezing in a catch-up session with an equally frazzled Ron and Hermione, Harry returns the car to Arthur—scratch-free—and savours the walk home through the cold, crisp evening. The fresh air shifts his headache so effectively that he’s able to enjoy the squabbling and giggling and general camaraderie of dinner time. Granted, most of it is aimed further down the table where Ginny, Albus and Lily sit, but Harry sits back, crunches his roast potatoes and lets it flow over him like a balm.
Incredibly, everyone is in their bedroom before ten. Harry trails up the stairs, covering a yawn and turning out each light with a lazy flick of the wrist. He lets out all of his breath in a soft sigh as his bare feet sink into the thick carpet of the landing and he at last feels the stress start to leave his body.
He pauses at Lily’s bedroom. Her door is open, as always, and Harry smiles as he watches her sleeping, cuddling the stuffed fish he won for her at a fair when she was tiny, while Frank curls protectively at her feet.
James’ light is on but he’s snoring loudly. Harry contemplates casting a silent ‘nox’ for him, but remembers that, with teenagers, it’s best not to interfere.
He moves on to see that Al has left him a note, Spellotaped to the door, as he often does when he’s at home. It says:
Dad – the wise man does not play leapfrog with the unicorn.
Harry snorts, carefully unpeeling the note and slipping it into his pocket. He smiles and pushes open the door at the end of the landing. It closes softly behind him and he gravitates toward the bed, sitting down and sleepily undoing his buttons.
“Did you tell James he could put blue streaks in his hair?” Ginny demands around her toothbrush.
Frowning, Harry turns to look at his wife. She steps into the bedroom and wraps one arm around her flannel-clad torso. “Did you?”
“What? No!” Harry rubs his face, confused. Then, trying to keep his voice down, “What are you talking about?”
“The fact that my son looks like... like a... I don’t know, but he must have asked you!”
“Er, why?” Harry asks, fumbling at his cuffs and shaking his head at Ginny, who is still brushing her teeth furiously and starting to look as though she’s foaming at the mouth. Immediately, he pushes that thought out of his head before it starts to amuse him. In all seriousness, he hadn’t even noticed James’ hair until Ginny pointed it out.
“Because he likes you better than he likes me,” she says softly, ceasing her brushing.
“Are you serious?”
She pauses and wipes her mouth. Sighs. “Sometimes I think so.”
“Ginny, don’t be daft. He loves his mum.” Harry shrugs off his shirt and takes a step toward her. “And I didn’t know anything about it. To be honest, I didn’t even notice it in the car.” He reaches out, stomach in knots, and slips a hand around her waist. Tries to pull her to him, but she holds herself stiffly, resistant.
“Didn’t even notice,” she sighs, almost too softly for him to hear. “Too busy noticing everything else.”
Her eyes are tired and disappointed, and she allows herself to lean against Harry for a second or two. Her breath is hot against his bare skin and he slides his fingers through her hair... he’s always loved her hair. It feels like silk and smells like coconut, like twenty years, like a familiar embrace that doesn’t quite feel right any more.
“I’m just worn out,” he says against the top of her head. “Let’s get some sleep.”
It’s a plea, not a request. Not a suggestion. She sags. Nods. Acquiesces.
When they climb into bed, Ginny immediately turns her back on him and curls into a tight ‘C’ shape to sleep. It’s nothing personal, he knows that. She always sleeps that way. He faintly remembers a time when they used to sleep in a sated tangle, arms and legs threaded together and faces close, but it hasn’t been like that for many, many years.
Exhausted, Harry flicks out the lights and punches his lumpy pillow into submission. In the darkness, he can see the Christmas lights from the village sparkling on the frost, and he smiles wearily before letting his eyes close.
Confused, Harry looks around for the sound and then pulls in his breath sharply. He knows this place. He’s been here many, many times before. It’s always the same.
“... I can’t do it... I can’t... it won’t work.”
Harry looks, even though he knows what he’ll see. It’s always the same. The fretting ghost and the anguished pale figure leaning on the sink. The boy. And he’s crying.
“... he says he’ll kill me.”
The words echo over and over until they become meaningless. He waits, frozen to the floor, knowing what’s coming next and yet being powerless to change a thing.
He turns, sees Harry, and the room tilts and blurs.
There’s crashing and yelling and water everywhere. There’s “Stop it! No! Stop!” but the curse that flies from his wand anyway—he feels it—can’t breathe—and then just blood. So much blood. Seeping through white cotton and making terrifying swirling patterns in the water.
“No,” he whispers over and over as though it’s the only word he can remember how to say.
Short, shallow breaths. Scrabbling fingers. A shattering moment of eye contact. Snape.
The room swirls sickeningly and Harry is creeping through a darkened corridor, barely breathing, fingers curled into the cloak in front of his face. Fingers that are stained with dried blood, nails bitten down to the quick. A flight of stairs and a light.
Something is wrong this time. Something is different. He steps toward the light and the world dissolves.
“Oh,” he gasps, jolting into consciousness. Heart pounding, he blinks in the darkness and focuses on Ginny’s concerned eyes as she leans over him, propped up on one elbow.
Harry nods and rubs at his eyes. It’s not the first time he’s been back to that bathroom and he knows that he long ago wore out his wife’s patience for discussing it. He supposes he should have seen it coming tonight, not that it would have helped.
“Yeah,” he says eventually, eyes flicking to the bedside clock. It’s just after ten thirty—he can’t have been asleep all that long. He sighs, bracing himself for the cold as he rises. “I think I’ll just go for a quick walk... get some air,” he mumbles.
As he dresses, pulling on his abandoned clothes from the floor and wincing at the temperature of the fabric against his skin, he glances over at Ginny, who is watching him silently in the dark. Her face is caught somewhere between concern and exasperation. He thinks she wants to say something but after a moment she just curls back into herself and looks at the wall.
“Won’t be long,” Harry offers into the silence.
His night-time wandering years are well behind him, but the instincts come back in an instant, and he finds a quiet thrill in making it through the house without a sound. Grabbing a heavy coat and tucking a warm woollen scarf around his neck, he steps out into the night and lets the door close quietly behind him. The air bites at him as he starts to walk, but it smells and tastes delicious-cold-fragrant in the back of his throat and the clear, star-bright sky draws him down his driveway and into the village, head tipped back and hands stuffed in pockets.
The earlier frost has now settled in earnest and sparkles impossibly from every surface. The village glows jewel-like in the darkness and as Harry heads toward it, he can hardly stop himself from recalling that one Christmas he and Hermione had spent at Godric’s Hollow. He exhales slowly, breath curling in front of him, unsettled by a tangling of sadness, relief and nostalgia in the pit of his stomach.
He doesn’t suppose it will help to think about that too much. He doesn’t suppose that having nightmares about Draco bloody Malfoy does him much good, either, but knowing that is about as useful as a Cheering Charm against an Unforgivable.
As he approaches the village pub, the soft light and warm chatter spilling from within makes him painfully aware of just how fucking early he goes to bed these days. He doesn’t remember when that happened, either, but suspects it had something to do with having children. He has one hand on the stained glass of the door when he catches sight of movement out of the corner of his eye.
Just on the other side of the road, a crooked old man is stepping off the pavement, lowering one unsteady foot and then the other onto the icy tarmac. He glances periodically between the road and the pub, as though willing his destination closer, and Harry hesitates, uncertain whether an offer of assistance will offend.
“Blast,” the man mutters, losing his balance; he teeters for a moment and then his legs shoot out from underneath him. Harry acts without thinking, casting a spell from inside his coat to slow the fall and dashing into the road to grab the man’s shoulders before he hits the unforgiving ground.
The old man grunts in surprise. Harry knows he is probably a Muggle and he knows that he probably shouldn’t have interfered, but it’s difficult to break the habit of a lifetime.
“Are you alright?” Harry asks, linking his arms under the man’s shoulders to hoist him to his feet. He’s astonishingly light, and it appears as though his scruffy oilskin coat makes up a good proportion of his weight. He smells like rotten leaves and smoke, and his beard grazes Harry’s chin as he looks up with eyes that are nearly opaque in the moonlight.
“Appears I am, young man,” he murmurs, a soft local accent colouring his words. “Thank you. Now ’elp me over the road so I can buy you a drink.”
Harry pauses, surprised, and from somewhere inside the tangle of beard, a mouth opens in a grin and reveals several glinting gold teeth.
This is all very strange, he thinks, but then... it has been one of those sorts of days.
Embrace the madness.
“Right you are, then,” he says gamely, taking careful steps toward the pavement and letting the old man lean heavily against his side. “I’ll have a pint with you.”
The man laughs. As he reaches the tiled vestibule of the pub, he turns and shakes his head at Harry.
“Oh no, young man. It’s a gin night tonight!”
Harry blinks. Says nothing. The man pulls open the door with a creak, letting out a blast of warm, beery air that washes over Harry’s face. He inhales the comforting mixture of aromas and shrugs, following the man’s shuffling progress toward the bar.
The pub is bustling, alive with the chatter of Muggle villagers and one or two local faces he recognises from his own world—there’s Camille Roth, a sweet old lady who sells excellent home-made remedies and potions from her cottage on the riverbank, drinking sweet sherry and flirting outrageously with Eddie, the middle-aged barman. Over in the corner, apparently holding a conversation with his black Labrador, is Grady, the village curiosity. To Harry, he’s always been quite ordinary, if a little eccentric, with his purple frock coat and ever-present watercolours, but he supposes his definition of what’s ordinary has been skewed for a long time now.
Grady looks up from his conversation and waves so hard that his coat sleeve trails in his brandy. Harry returns his greeting across the room, pointedly looking away when he sees the tip of a wand emerge to separate cognac from velvet. He’s not on duty tonight, after all, and he doesn’t even want to think about just how horrified Jeremiah from Improper Use would be if he were here.
Because he’s not.
No one’s here that knows him apart from Grady and Mrs Roth... and half of those other softly-lit faces, now that he looks around. And the old man in the oilskin coat, wherever he is. Harry turns slowly on the spot, realising he’s been swimming around in his own world for some time now, and there’s no sign of his new friend. He’s just beginning to think that perhaps this is for the best—he’s not sure how well his cosseted digestive system will deal with unexpected gin on a weeknight—when there’s a tap, or rather a prod—at his shoulder.
“Have you not found a table yet?” demands a softly chiding voice, and the man scrutinises him with unfocused pale eyes. “Come on, lad, come on.”
Harry reflects that no one has called him ‘lad’ in a very long time, and even though he knows it’s a relative term and nothing more, it makes him feel a little younger than his thirty-seven years. It makes him forget, momentarily, that he’s a man with three noisy children, a boring desk job and a dissatisfied wife.
He looks around quickly. Points. “There’s one over here,” he says, weaving through the laughing, clinking crowd at the bar and sliding into the empty settle by the fire. The wood is old and hard, fissured and weathered under his fingers, but the long cushion on the seat is soft enough for his tired bones. Leaning back, he unzips his coat and puts his feet up on the low table in front of him.
“Hmm,” the old man grunts approvingly, before slumping down next to Harry. The heavy glasses in his hands are so full that the simple action sends clear liquid sloshing over his coat. Harry cringes, but the old man doesn’t even seem to notice. “Your good ’ealth,” he says, pushing one glass into Harry’s hand and raising the other in his own.
“Erm... good health,” Harry echoes, lifting his glass. It’s not even halfway to his mouth before the stench of neat alcohol floods his nostrils and makes his eyes sting. He pauses, swallowing nervously, but the oddly intense eyes are trained on his glass, watching Harry expectantly as he gulps at his own drink. Harry rests his head against the hard back of the settle and inhales, thoughtful.
The man can barely see or walk, and yet there’s a small part of Harry that is always suspicious of strangers, even these days when he hasn’t fought a war or caught a criminal in years. His head fills with questions. Who is he? What does he want? What good can come of drinking straight gin at this time of night?
And then another: what kind of a paranoid, boring, old... arsekettle am I turning into?
Amused in spite of himself, Harry allows himself a smile, takes a deep breath and an adventurous swallow.
“It’ll do you good, that,” advises the old man, and when Harry splutters, coughs and somehow manages to inhale gin through his nose, he cackles and pats Harry on the thigh with a gnarled hand.
“Really?” Harry says faintly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “What makes you say that?”
There’s another hearty gulp, and then: “It’s good for the misery, is gin.”
“Misery, young man, I can tell from the way you was walkin’.” The grey hair and beard nod earnestly. “Full of it. And as me mother always said, rest her soul, ‘when you’re miserable as sin, crack out the gin’.”
Harry grins. “Never heard that one before.”
“Well, no matter. It’s still good advice. Drink up, son,” he says, tipping back his head and draining his glass.
Harry thinks he must be imagining the beginning of a warm, creeping languor in his veins and a rising sense of wellbeing, because even as he forces the rest of the alcohol down in an effort to keep up, he hasn’t really had all that... much...
... he examines the empty glass calmly. It’s a very large glass. He sighs. He’s not really used to this sort of thing any more—if he ever has been at all—but as the man takes his glass and hobbles to the bar, refusing Harry’s money or offers of help, he finds he’s not too worried about it any more.
“How ’zactly does a miserable person walk, anyway?” Harry asks, cradling his third or possibly fourth gin on his knees and frowning.
“Like this,” says the man, screwing up his face and wobbling stiffly from side to side in his seat, sloshing yet more gin over his coat and Harry’s trousers.
Harry rubs vaguely at the wet spot and laughs. “Am not miserable... m’just... having a difficult day,” he says stoutly.
“Life is difficult,” opines his companion, and Harry nods.
“’Tis. ’Tis difficult. And things are surprising... you know... flash! Bang!” Harry says, waving his free hand around illustratively and marvelling at the lights that seem to follow his fingers through the air.
“S’ a lot like fishin’, really,” comes the mumble from beside him, and Harry sighs, shaking his head so vigorously that it hurts.
“There’s nothing surprising about fishing.”
“That’s what you think,” the old man says mysteriously.
Harry wants to ask, he really does, but for some reason he finds himself saying: “I don’t mean... the fish sort of surprise. I mean... I don’t know what I mean.”
“I’m sure you do. Young men usually do.” The beard quivers and the old man coughs into his hand as he once again collects the empty glasses and leaves Harry alone.
He stretches out his legs, trying to warm his feet on the dying embers of the open fire that he has, very courteously, he thinks, allowed his companion to sit by. Exhaling slowly, he looks around the still-busy pub until the lights and the swirly carpet start to make him feel seasick. He’s not sure what time it is but for the life of him he can’t remember why that would matter anyway. His head is full of soft, gently waving pictures of fish, Lily and her cat, Ginny—a younger Ginny—laughing, sparkling frost and buses full of old biddies and Malfoy, Malfoy, Malfoy.
Harry startles, blinking. His mouth tastes sticky and dry but he still accepts the refreshed glass and raises it to his mouth.
For the misery. Apparently.
“Do you ever wonder if things would have been different... if you’d done something else?”
The old man shifts thoughtfully beside him, ancient coat and ancient bones creaking. “Depends on the things... ‘n’ the somethin’, I suppose.”
Harry fiddles with his cuffs and sighs. “There’s someone I could’ve helped... a long time ago. I’m always wondering if... if I’d helped... things’d been... you know,” Harry trails off, worn out by the effort of searching for the right words.
“Forgive m’rudeness,” mumbles the old man, squinting up at Harry. His eyes are positively milky now—like Aragog’s, Harry finds himself thinking. “But why didn’t you help when you ’ad the chance?”
Harry’s heart twists and he lets his shoulders lift and fall without a word.
“You do know,” the man grunts. “Drink your gin.”
“Scared,” Harry murmurs, more to himself than to anyone else. “I was scared.” He throws the rest of his drink down his throat just as the bell is rung for last orders.
“One more for the road?”
Harry laughs uneasily. “I really don’t think I should. Not unless I want to... um... fall down.”
“Suit yourself,” rasps the old man. “Maybe you’d ’elp me to my gate... it’s only one of them cottages across the road.”
“Alboslutely,” Harry mumbles through thick, rubbery lips. “No problem.”
Very carefully, wary of the reliability of his own legs, he stands and manoeuvres through the pub, old man wobbling along behind him. When he opens the door, the cold air shocks him into immobility for a good few seconds, and when he starts to walk again, the world somehow feels as though it has tilted even further on its axis than before.
“Just over there, lad.” The old man points, grabbing Harry’s arm, and together they make a weaving, treacherous progress over the icy ground, huffing out hot streams of air and making soft, nonsensical conversation.
At the gate, the old man creaks open the catch and pauses, looking up at Harry with knitted eyebrows, as though coming to a momentous decision.
“You’re a good boy,” he says, still frowning.
“Thank you,” Harry mumbles, oddly touched.
“Don’t thank me yet. I’m going to do you a favour... but there are rules, y’understand?”
Harry tilts his head on one side, just to see if the statement makes more sense that way. “Hm?”
“Rules!” The tangled beard bristles in a sudden chilled breeze. “Rule number one—tell no one. Rule number two—tell no one. Rule number three—send up red sparks if you need me.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Harry protests.
“Don’t worry about it for now, eh?” The old man pats his arm and trundles away up his garden path, feeling his way along the door to find his keyhole. Harry watches in slightly blurry silence. “Go to bed, Harry.”
“Good idea,” Harry says to the night as the cottage door slams shut, leaving him alone.
He pulls up his collar, slides his hands into his pockets and starts back up the lane. When he lets himself back into the bedroom, undresses and creeps under the sheets, Ginny doesn’t even stir.
There’s that light again. The one at the top of the stairs. He takes a step, and another and another.
Frightened pale eyes in the darkness.
No cloak now. “What the fuck are you doing here?” Fright turning swiftly to anger and then curiosity.
Sitting on a hard floor, and words that he’s straining so hard to hear.
A sound he’s never heard before—a brilliant sound—and then someone is calling him, and everything is dissolving.
Harry lies as flat as he can, not daring to open his eyes. He feels more disgusting than he remembers feeling in nearly twenty years. So much fucking gin. He can taste it in his throat, his mouth, coating his arid, stinging tongue.
“No,” he states firmly to what is definitely an empty bedroom, judging by his lazy groping of the sheets. “Just... no.”
Did he really spend the night drinking with a strange old man? Harry sighs and lifts his hands with some effort to rub at his eyes. All signs point to yes.
“Are you going to spend all day in bed feeling sorry for yourself, you lazy sod?”
Harry jumps. His eyes are still squeezed tightly closed but if he knows nothing else, he knows that is certainly not Ginny’s voice. Heart pounding, he bites the inside of his mouth and thinks fast—he definitely managed to get home last night, so why is there a strange man in his bedroom?
A man who is sighing and sitting down on the edge of the bed. “I can tell when you’re pretending to be asleep, you know,” he says, and he sounds as though he’s smiling. “I’ve had seventeen years of practise.”
Harry’s stomach flips over. Seizing the few strands of fortitude the hangover has left him, he scrambles into a sitting position and forces his eyes open. And blinks. And rubs at his face, wondering if it’s possible that he’s still asleep.
“Well, don’t you look healthy?” Draco Malfoy remarks from inches away.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Harry demands, bringing his knees up under his chin, feeling exposed but relieved that he’s wearing boxers. Horrified that he isn’t wearing anything else.
Malfoy raises an eyebrow but doesn’t seem at all ruffled. “There’s no need for that. I came back for my notes, that’s all. Whoever scheduled a meeting for nine o’clock in the morning this close to Christmas genuinely deserves to be thrown into an active fucking volcano.”
As he speaks, Harry takes a second to glance around the room and it is immediately obvious that this isn’t the bedroom he shares with Ginny. This bedroom is bigger and lighter and looks both familiar and all wrong at once. And it has Draco Malfoy in it.
A different Draco Malfoy, he’ll admit—he looks younger and happier than the man in the Prophet or the man at the train station—but Draco Malfoy nonetheless. Insides in knots, trying not to panic, Harry inhales deeply and decides to try again. The last response didn’t seem to make sense at all, and some part of him, a small part he calls reason, tells him that getting angry isn’t going to help here. If Draco Malfoy hasn’t, in fact, invaded his bedroom, then there’s something potentially very odd going on.
“I mean, where’s Ginny?” he attempts.
Malfoy frowns. “What?”
“Where’s Ginny?” he repeats, shifting position so that he can slide his feet to the ground, needing the solidity. “What the hell’s going on here, Malfoy?”
“Malfoy?” He smirks—at last an expression Harry recognises on his face. “Oh, I see...”
Suddenly there’s a hand on Harry’s bare thigh. A warm hand. Malfoy’s hand. And Malfoy himself is close enough to smell (clean, toothpaste-minty, citrusy) which is all kinds of wrong and the light in his eyes hammers the meaning through Harry’s brain hard enough to hurt. Swiftly, he scrambles out of reach and gets to his feet.
“Ah... seriously, er, Draco, where’s Ginny?”
Malfoy throws him a very strange look. “Ginevra is at her house, with her husband and child, I would hope.” He pauses, rising from the bed and running a thoughtful hand through his hair, which immediately flops back into his eyes.
“With her...?” Harry whispers, but is interrupted.
“You’re always so strange when you’ve had a drink... I’ll have to ask Blaise what he put in those cocktails.” Malfoy sighs and grabs Harry by the wrist, dragging him close and brushing a soft kiss across his mouth before he can react. “I’ll see you tonight.”
With that, he turns and stalks out of the room, long coat and striped scarf whipping behind him. Harry watches, motionless, hand rising slowly to graze his lips. He has no idea what is going on here, wherever here is, but it probably has something to do with gin.