Chapter 1: First of December
First of December – a bus in the fog on Westminster Bridge
Harry squints through the fog, trying to fix his eyes on something that will anchor him into a definite position. At the moment, he is drifting helplessly, somewhere between the iron wall of the bridge and someone who is grabbing his arm for balance every few steps. The warm, creeping glow of firewhisky insulates him pleasantly against the cold night, and relaxes his inhibitions more than enough to let him join in with a rousing chorus of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’.
It’s at least the fourth one so far, though Harry is beginning to lose count. Still, it’s fine, because George is a jolly good fellow and fully deserves to be told so in song. He is getting married, and anyone choosing to do such a bizarre and wonderful thing should definitely have a party with antlers and fireworks and anything else they bloody well want. Of course, it has been Fred’s duty, as the best man, to organise the event, but Harry has helped with a few of the finer details and there will be no surprises for him tonight.
The fog shifts slightly, bringing the lights of the London Eye out of the gloom and making it hang there in the distance like a shimmering, circular spectre. Harry slows to admire it and immediately finds himself knocked off balance as the person behind him collides with his back.
“Sorry,” mumbles Ginny, who has somehow found her way onto her brother’s stag party, despite being also included on the guest list for Angelina’s hen. “What did you stop for?”
“I saw something,” Harry says grandly. He points at the Eye and manages to knock Ginny’s antlers askew. “Sorry.”
“Ooh, life beyond the fog,” she murmurs, tucking her arm through Harry’s and sending him veering into the unforgiving side of the bridge. “Where the bloody hell are we going, anyway?”
“Never you mind that,” comes a voice from the void. “You’re not even supposed to be here.”
Someone else laughs. “Yeah, you’re behind enemy lines here, Ginny. You could be a spy.”
“Well, it’s my stag and I’m glad she’s here,” George says stridently. “It’s not fair that she should miss out on the fun because she’s a girl.”
“Thank you, George,” Ginny says. “You lot are just jealous because these antlers look better on me.”
Harry says nothing. He’s pretty certain that they look ridiculous on every last one of them, but George had been insistent – there could be no stag party without stags, and as such, Fred had been dispatched to every fancy dress shop in the greater London area and forbidden to return until he had obtained a pair of antlers for everyone invited. Plus Ginny.
Despite having found himself stuck with a sequinned pair, Harry counts himself lucky. Lee’s are pink and fluffy, and Percy, who had arrived late, is now wearing a majestic headdress including antlers that play a tinny version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ whenever they are touched.
“What’s Angelina having for her party?” Neville asks, or at least, Harry thinks it’s Neville. His Northern accent is pretty distinctive, but Harry hasn’t actually seen him since they left the last pub.
“A spa day,” Ginny says gloomily.
“What’s wrong with that?” asks someone else. From the rough position of the voice, Harry estimates Charlie. “Have a swim, have a massage, it’s all good.”
“It’s not that kind of spa day,” Ginny says. “We’ve got to do an exercise class and then we’re getting wrapped up in Kelpie slime and then having lunch.”
“Kelpie slime?” Harry mumbles to himself, baffled.
“Yeah. It’s supposed to make you look thinner and make your skin ‘glow’,” she says, and Harry feels rather than sees her vicious air quotes.
“Why?” George asks. “You all look fine already.”
Harry winces, and sure enough, a second or two later, George yelps. Neville looks at his wife admiringly and she shoots him a shark’s grin.
“Lunch is good, though,” Lee ventures. “Nothing wrong with lunch. In fact, I could just go for a sandwich.”
“You ate three packets of pork scratchings in that last pub,” Percy says.
“That was just a warm-up,” Lee explains.
“It’s not proper lunch,” Ginny says, stuffing her wand into her coat pocket. “It’s carrot sticks and celery and something called tofu that I’m not even sure is food.”
“Do you want me to have a word with her?” George asks, sounding scandalised.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Ginny laughs, and then pauses. “Shall we find a kebab shop?”
“I’m afraid there won’t be time for that, little sister,” Fred says.
Harry draws in a deep breath of cold, smoky air and grins. “Think we’re in a good place?”
“Harry, I think we might be,” Fred agrees. “Alright, all stop!”
In the chaos of surprised stumbling and trampled feet that follows, Harry stands in silence. He’s rather excited about the next stage of their evening. It’s been a long time, and he can’t help holding his breath as he waits. For long seconds, nothing happens, and then the hulking purple shape leaps out of the fog with an almighty crash, forcing everyone to step back as one. The bus seems to shimmer in the fog, radiating an aura of magic and nostalgia strong enough to make Harry’s heart race in his chest.
“Fred, you brilliant bastard!” George pelts out of the gloom and tackle-hugs his brother until their respective antlers are tangled and Bill has to step in to help.
The doors of the bus swing open at last with a hiss and a creak, and everyone stops their chatter to peer into the shadowy interior.
“Didn’t there used to be a conductor?” someone asks, but Harry isn’t really listening.
There is something very familiar about the man behind the wheel, and though there’s no way in hell that Draco Malfoy would be driving the Knight Bus, this man resembles him so strongly that he can’t believe no one else has noticed. They’re just piling onto the bus as if he’s not there, laughing and stumbling and adjusting their antlers. Fred, bringing up the rear, drops several extra coins into the metal scoop with the request that the driver “loop around a bit, you know… we’re not in a hurry.” Then he, too, joins the others inside, leaving Harry alone on the pavement.
Harry stares, taking in the sharp profile, the hair that gleams like silver in the near darkness, the strong pale hands that grip the oversized wheel just a little too tightly. The man gazes fixedly ahead at the pool of tarmac now illuminated by the bus’s headlights.
“Come on, Harry!” Ron calls, stumbling back to the front of the bus and dangling towards him from a metal pole. “Charlie’s got some of that Dragon Spirit and he says the last one to drink a shot has to drink two.”
At the sound of the words ‘Dragon Spirit’, Harry scrambles onto the bus without hesitation. He has been talked into testing several of the local drinks Charlie has brought home from Romania over the years, and he remembers this one particularly for its propensity to make him take complete leave of his senses. The last time he had ventured a single shot of Dragon Spirit, he had walked into the Leaky Cauldron, declared his undying love for Tom the barman, and flung himself across the bar, weeping, when Tom had refused to run away with him. At least, that’s what Hermione had told him, and she very rarely lies. Ron had insisted that he had also performed a striptease for the patrons of the Leaky, but he does tend to embellish his tales.
Putting the driver out of his mind, Harry hurries to the back of the bus, where his friends have taken up residence around a large, circular table. Relieved to be able to see them all at last, he glances around at their varying states of inebriation with interest. Fred and George, sitting side by side under a vast, glittering chandelier, are grinning and nudging each other as they watch Charlie pour out nine shots of Dragon Spirit. Lee is quietly absorbed in straightening out the fluff on his antlers, Percy is frowning and counting the glasses, and then the people around the table, and then the glasses again, and Neville seems to be attempting to tell Bill a story that, judging by his hand gestures, is either about steam trains or sex.
“Sit down, both of you, before it—” Ginny begins, but falls silent when the bus lurches into motion, seeming to hover in space for a fraction of a second before pelting across the bridge at eye-watering speed.
Harry flings himself into a chair, fully expecting it to slide across the floor the moment the bus turns a corner. To his astonishment, though, he stays put, and so does all the rest of the furniture. Only the chandelier seems to be affected by the bus’s movement, swaying and clinking above their heads like a lamp in a hurricane.
“Well, that’s a nice feature,” Harry mumbles, remembering his previous trips and feeling slightly sick. He wonders if the beds upstairs are also now stuck to the floor, or if indeed they are still there at all.
Now that he has started to adjust to the speed, he looks around the bottom deck and is interested to see that, apart from the heavy duty sticking charms obviously at work, very little else has changed. The bus still smells warm and slightly musty, like a bag of lavender left forgotten at the bottom of a drawer. It’s a strange smell, but not unpleasant, sending Harry back to his teenage years in an instant.
The chair he is sitting on is old and rickety, made of dark wood with a striped cushion on the seat. None of the chairs around the table seem to match, and the table itself is covered, he now notices, in a vast white lacy cloth. Around him, the walls are painted a soft shade of violet, and between the notices warning passengers to ‘remain seated’ and ‘don’t touch this button’ are strange little pieces of art: small tapestries, sketches, and a collection of watercolours of the same cat—a vast, grey and white specimen with extraordinarily long whiskers. The whole place looks as though it was designed for old ladies and by old ladies, and he has no idea how he never noticed it before.
“Breathe in,” the driver calls suddenly, and Harry looks up just in time to see him pulling down the handle that squashes the whole bus thin.
He definitely knows that voice, but suddenly all he can think about is the long, distorted faces of his friends and Ron’s strange, echoey laughter as he passes him his drink. They slide slowly between two red double deckers, and when the bus snaps back to its usual shape and darts off into the fog, Harry is startled to realise that he hasn’t spilled a drop.
“Down in one, me old mateys!” George cries, and Harry obeys, wondering just where he got that eyepatch from.
Even though he is prepared for it this time, the spirit burns so fiercely that it steals his breath, stinging his mouth and throat with the rich flavour of aniseed, closely followed by pepper, blood orange and saffron. Head spinning, he closes his eyes and pretends he is sitting on a nice, soft chair in a completely calm room where there is no screeching of brakes, no pitching around corners and definitely no Ron standing on his foot. When he opens his eyes, he sees Charlie rather gleefully pouring a second shot for George, who had apparently been too busy pretending to be a pirate stag to finish his drink in time.
Relieved that he doesn’t have to have another one, Harry joins in with another encouraging round of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, this time with the improvised last line: ‘So get it down the hatch!’
George obeys and slams his glass down on the table to a delighted chorus of laughter and applause. Moments later, an old man creaks down the stairs and peers at them in bewilderment.
“What’s happening?” he asks, clutching a heavy dressing gown around his body. “Who are these people?”
“Don’t worry about them, Mr Barleycorn,” the driver says, still bathed in shadow as he looks over his shoulder at the old man. “Everything’s fine. You go back to bed and I’ll put up a Silencing Charm.”
“Are you sure?” Mr Barleycorn mutters, clearly unconvinced.
“I didn’t think there’d still be people sleeping here,” Fred whispers apologetically.
“Neither did I,” Harry says, watching the now whispered exchange between the driver and the old man, after which Mr Barleycorn creaks off to bed.
Eyes fixed on the driver, he drifts out of the conversation around him and waits. After a moment, the bus grinds to a halt in the middle of a quiet residential street and the shadowy figure climbs out of his seat, wand drawn. Carefully, he traces a spell across the purple ceiling, making the air ripple around the chandelier and forming a shimmering barrier across the opening that leads to the stairs. He scrutinises his work for a moment and then lowers his wand, glancing around the bottom deck and meeting Harry’s eyes.
He looks away quickly but Harry has seen enough. He knows those eyes and he should always trust his instincts. Letting out a ragged breath and attempting to calm the tangle of eels in his stomach, he turns away from the driver and back to his friends, just as the bus launches itself back into motion.
“You look awful,” Ginny says helpfully. “Shall I pour you another one?”
“No,” Harry says quickly, and the others laugh. “Thanks. I’m fine. I just saw something weird.”
“Was it this?” Lee asks, twisting his face until one eye threatens to pop out, and the giggles intensify.
“No, but thanks,” Harry says, unsure whether to laugh or retch. “I think… I think I saw Malfoy.”
Ron groans and drops his head onto his arms. “Where did you see him? Is he in the walls? Is he on the ceiling? Is he up my dress?”
“What dress?” Neville asks, adjusting his antlers and leaning one elbow on the table with great dignity.
“It’s a figurative dress,” Ron says. “Stop fosucking on the wrong thing.”
“Foe-sucking,” Ginny repeats, giggling into her hands.
“Right,” George says grandly, banging on the table to draw attention to himself. “Here’s the thing.”
“Oh, god, he’s had two,” Bill says. “Has he had two?”
“He certainly has,” Fred says, delighted. “We should all listen to what he has to say.”
“Thank you, Fred,” George says, inclining his head so far that his antlers fall down around his neck. “First of all, no sucking at my party. Things will get awkward. Secondly, Ronniekins, you would look most fetching in a dress. Thirdly… is that a word? Oh, well. Thirdly, Harry, if you think you’ve seen the Malfoy, then of course you have. For we all know, that like the spirits of old, Malfoy is everywhere. He is with us in our times of trouble. He is with us in our times of joy…”
“He is with us when we are buying underpants,” Lee puts in, lifting his empty glass. Charlie fills it.
“He is with us when we soar on our brooms,” Ginny says.
“And when we fall offeth them,” adds Neville, now looking a little misty-eyed.
“He is with us in the dead of night,” Bill says in a sombre tone.
“And in our morning glory,” adds Fred, and his voice is so loud that it echoes around the bottom deck, as do the groans and cackles that follow.
“Speak for yourself,” Ginny laughs. She stands, somewhat unsteadily. “All hail Malfoy, for he is omni… omni… erm, he’s everywhere and does all the stuff, and that’s good because…” She pauses, staring down at her stomach as it grumbles loudly. “I really want that kebab now.”
“Do we have time for a quick stop?” George asks Fred. “I think a snack is in order.”
Fred consults an imaginary list through imaginary spectacles. “You know, I think we do.”
His statement is greeted by cheers from most of the group and only a small amount of complaining from Percy, who has never liked to divert from a schedule, even if it’s someone else’s.
“Driver, my fine man!” Fred calls. “To the kebab shop, please!”
Harry doesn’t think he imagines a gentle sigh from the man behind the wheel, but the bus soon veers into a different line of traffic, and before he can make a decision on whether or not to speak to Malfoy, they are pulling up outside a brightly-lit shop and the doors are hissing open to let them out.
Once back on board, the musty air now heavy with the scents of grease, garlic and fried potato, everyone else has forgotten all about Draco in favour of an in-depth and determinedly embarrassing dissection of George’s love life up to this point. Harry joins in, always happy to discuss the lady with twenty-eight cats or the one who had been interested in Fred all along, but he can’t seem to stop his mind or his eyes drifting back to the man in the driver’s seat. The curiosity pulls at him, even through the haze of alcohol and laughter, and in the end, he gives in. When the bus pulls up for the final time that night, Harry tacks himself onto the back of the exiting line, watching his friends thank the driver and stumble out, none-the-wiser, into the night.
Approaching the front of the bus, he waits for Ron to step off and then goes to lean in.
“Listen, sorry for all the weird stuff, we were…” Harry stops, puzzled.
The driver has disappeared.
“Come on, Harry, move your arse!” Ron calls.
Harry takes one last look around the empty bottom deck, sighs, and follows him.
Chapter 2: Second of December
Second of December – rain on a window pane
The sky outside the windows is grey and the fog has turned into a downpour, but the Burrow’s kitchen is warm and comforting even to Harry’s fragile nerves. He is alone, sitting in a sturdy chair at the scrubbed pine table and idly watching the hands of his watch drift towards eight in the morning. Molly’s wall clock lists almost all the Weasleys as ‘in bed’, with only Molly’s, Arthur’s and Ginny’s hands pointing elsewhere.
Despite the pounding in his head and the very real temptation to close his eyes and go to sleep with his head on the table, Harry has long abandoned his floating camp bed in Ron’s old room. With the combination of the violently orange walls and the chainsaw sound of his best friend’s snoring, Harry had been left with the feeling that he was lying in a very angry oven, and when he had started to feel as though the walls were closing in on him, it had been time to get up.
He slouches in his chair, immediately stopping when the motion threatens to make his head explode. Groaning quietly, he lifts his mug to his mouth and sips at his steaming tea. It’s his third cup and he’s not sure it’s actually making a difference, but the hot liquid is soothing, and the fragrant scent seems to drive away the worst of the sour taste from his mouth. It could be worse, he knows that. Ron, Neville and Lee had ended the night in a far messier state than him, and George had had to be levitated up the stairs with his antlers and eyepatch still in place after vomiting into Molly’s geraniums. Still, it had been his stag party and it had been a rather brilliant night.
Harry remembers dancing—or at least his best attempt—under plastic palm trees somewhere in the North East; he remembers Fred and George performing a wobbly but spirited jig on the bar of a wizarding pub in Wales; he remembers a very spicy kebab that his stomach now very much regrets, and he remembers the Knight Bus.
Dragon Spirit on the Knight Bus and a drunken ode to Draco Malfoy. Harry closes his eyes. He attempts to ignore the shame rushing through him as it seems to be increasing the feeling of nausea with every second. He had been so certain last night, so sure that the mysterious bus driver had been Malfoy, but in the rather painful light of day, the doubts are already beginning to creep in.
No one has definitely seen Malfoy in years. He had stopped appearing in the Prophet shortly after the end of the war and has, since then, seemed to keep his business to himself. Not that Harry has a problem with that, of course. He had been happy enough at the time that his testimony had helped keep Draco and his mother out of Azkaban, and since then… well, he hasn’t really given it much thought. He has caught glimpses from time to time, of course, but he has stopped mentioning those to his friends because all they do is make fun of him.
He has mostly stopped mentioning them, anyway. The bus driver really had looked a lot like Draco.
Harry sighs, gulping his tea and pulling his feet up onto the chair in an attempt to make himself as small as possible. He watches the rain hammering against the window, feeling like a tiny island in the middle of the vast kitchen. He won’t be on his own for long, though. Bill, Neville, Ron, and Lee will have to drag themselves out of bed for work soon, and the others are unlikely to hang around for long after breakfast. Everyone has responsibilities, and no amount of Dragon Spirit will put off schedules and meetings and children.
Having absolutely nothing to do can feel rather lonely, and despite his hangover, Harry finds himself wishing that he had organised a project for over the holidays. Having finally come to the realisation that the Potter name could be used for good, Harry has been all over the world with his charity work, gathering and leading teams of volunteers in everything from the repair of magical buildings to founding and staffing safe homes for curse victims.
His most recent endeavour, a campaign for the protection of magical creatures, has come to a successful end, and with the next project not due to start until well into the new year, Harry is at the loose end to end all loose ends. It will be fine, he supposes. Christmas will be here before anyone is really ready for it, and George and Angelina’s wedding is less than three weeks away. He still hasn’t found anyone to bring with him, despite Ron and Hermione’s best efforts to fix him up with any vaguely attractive male they come across, and while he’s fine with attending by himself, he doesn’t think they’re about to give up.
“How old am I?” comes a scratchy voice from the door.
Harry turns to see Ron, eyes hollow and hair everywhere. He flicks his wand to set the kettle boiling and studies his friend.
“Thirty,” Harry says reassuringly, and then adds: “But you look ninety-two.”
Ron groans, wrapping a bathrobe around himself and slumping into a chair at the table.
“I feel ninety-two,” he sighs, rubbing at his face and wincing. “Did I really try to climb that lamp post?”
Harry snorts and his head pounds. “I’d forgotten about that.”
“I hoped I might have imagined it,” Ron mumbles, face flushing violently. He brightens. “Does that mean that Ginny really did try to steal a chair from the Leaky?”
“No, that was you as well.”
Ron groans. “Don’t tell Hermione?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Harry assures, just as the back door swings open and Ginny hurries inside.
She shakes the worst of the rain from her hair and then casts a neat little charm that has her looking dry and pristine within seconds. She also looks sickeningly healthy, Harry notes with some envy. She had put away just as much as everyone else. It’s just not fair.
“I went to get some extra bacon,” she says, and Ron’s eyes light up. “You two look dreadful.”
“Thanks, Gin,” Ron says, grimacing. “Where’s Mum?”
“Oh, she’s coming. I think she’s in a state of excitement about cooking breakfast for everyone… you know, like we’re all home again.”
Harry smiles, flooded with warmth for Molly and her love of a house packed full to bursting.
“I was telling her how you thought Draco Malfoy was driving the Knight Bus,” Ginny continues, hopping up onto the counter. “She thought it was the funniest thing she’d heard since Fred told her that joke about the goblins and the cucumber.”
“I don’t remember that one,” Ron says, puzzled, and then: “You mean you really did see him?”
“Of course not,” Ginny laughs.
Harry shrugs, even as intrigue pools and flickers inside him. “It’s hardly likely, is it?”
Ron opens his mouth to speak but falls silent as Molly bursts into the kitchen, soaked to the skin and struggling with a large basket.
“I’ve got fresh eggs and hangover potions,” she announces, bustling over to the oven even as Ginny blasts her with a drying spell and wrestles the heavy basket away from her.
Ron scrambles to grab a bottle, leaving Harry to stare at the window and wonder. It’s not very likely, that much is true, but there’s only one way to find out for certain.
Chapter 3: Third of December
Third of December – a proper cream tea
It’s still raining heavily when Harry leaves the house the next afternoon. After a moment’s hesitation, he grabs an umbrella from the stand in the hallway and heads out into the street where he stands, uncertain, for several minutes, letting the rain bounce off the fabric above his head and fighting the sudden urge to scurry back inside.
It’s not that he’s nervous… at least, it’s not that he’s very nervous, but the whole situation carries a high potential for embarrassment. He isn’t sure what would be worse – finding out that Draco Malfoy really is the driver and having to talk to him, or finding out that he’s made a mistake and being forced to sit on the bus and pretend he wants to go somewhere. In addition to all that, he hasn’t hailed the Knight Bus in years and he’s not completely sure he remembers the procedure.
Perhaps it’s altered since the last time he tried. Perhaps it’s more complicated. Perhaps he’s being an idiot and should get on with it before one of his neighbours pops out to ask why he’s standing in the middle of the pavement and staring at nothing in particular.
Harry huffs out an irritated breath and holds out his wand, clearing his mind of all but the bus, and, just seconds later, it is skidding to a stop before him, splashing water under its great wheels and drenching him from head to foot.
“For fuck’s sake,” he mutters, shaking out his now useless umbrella and folding it up. He sweeps his dripping hair out of his eyes and waits, all ready to give the driver—whoever he is—a piece of his mind.
When the doors open at last, he is startled to hear the sound of laughter and the clinking of ceramic emanating from within. He cannot see through the steamed-up windows to identify the source of the sound, but the bus is definitely not empty. When he leans in slightly, he is hit by a waft of heat and a drifting scent of roses, and he almost forgets about the driver until he clears his throat and speaks.
“Stranded, are you?”
Harry’s eyes snap to his, and this time the thrill of recognition is overpowering. The man now regarding him from a battered leather armchair, one hand resting on the wheel and the other wrapped around a mug of tea, is unmistakeably Draco Malfoy.
“Malfoy?” he says faintly, no longer noticing the hammer of raindrops on his head, shoulders, and clothes.
“Yes. Stranded, are you?” he repeats, raising an inquiring eyebrow.
“Er, no,” Harry admits.
“In a state of emergency?” Malfoy asks, sipping his tea with a nonchalance that makes Harry want to leap onto the bus and strangle him.
“No, but I just—”
“Do you have a ticket, at least?” he interrupts, hand straying towards a nearby lever.
“No, but I thought—”
Harry falls silent as Draco closes the doors and nudges the bus away into the driving rain. For a moment, he contemplates abandoning the whole venture, heading back into the house and warming himself in front of the fire, but it’s no good. Curiosity is one thing, but now he’s feeling stubborn, and nothing in the world is going to stop him from getting on that bus. Malfoy doesn’t know it yet, but his petty little display has just made Harry more determined.
If he remembers correctly, tickets for the Knight Bus can still be bought at the Leaky Cauldron, and even in sodden shoes that squelch with every step, he can get there in less than ten minutes. As it turns out, he makes it less than halfway before the bus once more pulls up beside him, showering him with cold water for a second time.
“Are you doing this on purpose?” he demands, when Draco opens the doors. “Or is that a silly question?”
Draco gazes at him evenly for what seems like a long time. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Potter, but I have been persuaded to take pity on you.”
Harry frowns. “What?”
“One of the other passengers thought I was a little bit harsh with you just now,” Draco explains, as though it should be obvious. “Are you getting on? I haven’t got all day.”
Feeling as though he has taken leave of his senses, Harry steps onto the bus. The moment he is aboard, Draco puts his foot down and sends them barrelling through traffic, darting between cars and leaving Harry stumbling. In desperation, he reaches for something solid, fingers closing around a piece of smooth metal which immediately springs out of his grip, sending him into a chaotic spin that ends when he is deposited without ceremony on a cold, hard seat attached to the wall opposite the driver’s chair.
“Have you been drinking again?” Malfoy asks, eyes fixed on the road.
Harry pauses in his examination of the strange little spring-loaded seat. “Oh, so you do remember?”
Draco sighs, hands tightening around the wheel as though he is fighting the temptation to pull the bus into a violent swerve in the hope that Harry will slide off his chair and onto the floor. Of course, he could be over-thinking it.
“I remember everything,” he says and Harry groans inwardly, embarrassment prickling at the back of his neck. “And you saw me. You shouldn’t have been able to see through that charm, Potter. Why are you always the exception to every fucking rule?”
“Why no charm today, then?” Harry asks, opting to ignore the question. He suspects that Draco hadn’t really wanted an answer anyway.
“What exactly do you mean by that?” Draco snaps, eyes flicking to his for the briefest moment.
Harry rolls his eyes. “I mean… why did you use a charm to hide yourself the other night if you’re not using one today? Or, you know… vice versa.”
“I don’t need charms to do my job, Potter. The night before last, I simply happened to spot an awful lot of Weasleys waiting to board and I wasn’t in the mood to be noticed.”
It makes sense, Harry supposes, but his attitude still rankles. “What’s wrong with Weasleys? It’s been a long time since school, Malfoy… or does your father—”
“Don’t,” Draco interrupts, and something about his tone makes Harry drop the subject.
“Okay.” He falls silent and leans back in his seat, taking advantage of his position directly facing Draco to study him as he drives.
In his neat, tailored jacket, dark trousers and teal-coloured shirt, he is definitely the most smartly-dressed bus driver Harry has ever seen, but there is something in the world-weary expression on his face that suggests he would blend in rather well. Harry wonders just how long he has been doing this. Why, of course, is a much bigger question, but he doubts it is one into which he can just leap without a little bit of groundwork.
“You’re dripping on my floor,” Draco says.
Harry looks down at his saturated clothes and the puddle growing around his feet and shivers violently. Forcing his cold-numbed fingers to work, he retrieves his wand and dries himself with a fierce spell. It’s not as good as Ginny’s, but he is no longer dripping, and that will do.
“Your floor?” he says as the thought occurs to him. “Is this your bus?
“Who was getting married?” Draco asks as if he hasn’t heard the question, and Harry lets it slide.
“You mean the stag night? George, but the wedding isn’t until the twenty-first,” he says.
Draco frowns, navigating the bus around such a tight bend that Harry has to hold his breath.
“I don’t pretend to be an expert on these things, but doesn’t a stag night usually come immediately before the wedding?”
“Yeah,” Harry says, wanting to smile but feeling too uncertain of his surroundings to do so. “Usually. Not when you’re marrying Angelina Johnson.”
“That’s a familiar name.”
“She was at school with us. She plays Quidditch for Lancashire now,” Harry says.
“I don’t really follow Quidditch any more,” Draco says, seeming to sag slightly in his seat at the admission.
“Why not?” Harry asks, in spite of his better judgement.
Draco’s fingers wrap more tightly around the wheel and he directs a cold look at the road that Harry suspects is really for him. “I’m a very busy man, Potter.”
“Of course,” Harry says, and in the face of bewilderment, he opts to carry on. “So, anyway, Angelina’s treating the whole lead up to the wedding as some kind of training exercise, and there’s no way George would get away with a night out anywhere close to the day, so we decided…” Harry falls silent as a large dark shape swishes through the curtain that separates the driver’s area from the rest of the bottom deck. “What on earth is that?”
“It’s a cat, Potter, and don’t be rude. I’m sure she’s wondering the same thing about you,” Draco says without looking at him.
The cat in question, now leaping onto the dashboard and miaowing loudly at Draco, is the biggest Harry has ever seen, larger even than Crookshanks, and with an elegant bone structure that gives off the impression of fine breeding and great intelligence. Her long fur is mostly dark grey, with sections of pure white under her chin, great tufts from both ears, and whiskers that seem almost comical in length.
“Yes, yes, it’s fine,” Draco is saying, and as Harry watches, the glowing green eyes turn to fix on him.
He has always rather liked cats, with the notable exception of Mrs Norris, and he stretches out a hand to stroke her.
“I wouldn’t, Potter, she doesn’t like new people very much, especially men,” Draco says.
Harry withdraws his hand, but to his surprise and delight, the vast cat springs from the dashboard and onto his lap. She lands heavily, spreading her weight between four paws of relatively little area, and Harry has to suppress an ‘oof’ of discomfort. Still, he manages to feel rather smug as he strokes the soft fur and watches the massive ears twitch.
“Really, Juno?” Draco sighs, glancing at them crossly before turning back to the road. “Potter, now that you’ve quite finished showing me up, is there somewhere I can drop you off? It’s not that I’m not thrilled to have you on board and it’s not that I’m not dying to hear more of your fascinating stories, but I have real passengers to transport and I haven’t had a single Knut out of you.”
Harry strokes Juno and watches him, wondering whether he should be amused or alarmed by his quicksilver changes of mood. Worryingly, he thinks he might like to see more of them.
“I’ve got money,” he says, digging in his coat pocket. He catches Draco’s eye and adds, “Can I still get a toothbrush for fifteen Sickles?”
“You’re not funny. You’re also not staying the night.”
“You’re very rude,” Harry says, allowing Juno to arrange herself into an enormous loaf shape on his lap. “I demand to see the manager.”
“The price list is here,” Draco says through gritted teeth, indicating a long metal plaque screwed to the side of his chair. “No one ever buys the toothbrushes.”
Harry scans the list with interest. “What’s the BC rate? It’s very reasonable.”
“None of your business. In fact, I think I’ll just drop you back where you got on,” Draco says, whipping the bus around at speed and causing Juno to stick four sets of claws into Harry’s thighs. “No charge. Just an interesting experience for all.”
“I’ll pay,” Harry insists, gently dislodging Juno and grabbing a handful of coins from his pocket and scanning the list again. “Unlimited day ride with a cup of tea. I’ll have that.”
“Potter,” Draco says, and there is a warning in his voice but he ignores it because all at once the curtain swishes open and an elderly lady is stepping into the cab.
“Draco,” she says, clutching the nearest metal pole and swaying slightly. “Have you forgotten Ida?”
Astonished, Harry stares at her and then at Draco, who is edging around a line of traffic with a rather hunted expression on his face.
“When have I ever forgotten Ida?” he demands, looking at Harry as though daring him to comment.
“Well, there was that time you left her in Windermere,” the lady says.
“In the lake?” Harry asks. He can’t help it.
The old lady laughs, looking down at him as though noticing him for the first time. “Goodness, no, dear, just in the town. If he’d managed to leave her in the lake, she’d have had his guts for garters.”
“Yes, alright,” Draco snaps. “Eilish, I have not forgotten Ida. She is at her Healer’s today so she’ll be joining us later in the afternoon.”
“I told you,” someone calls from the back, and Harry cranes his neck to look, but he can’t see anything for Eilish’s ample frame and full skirts.
“Is this your friend, Draco?” she asks coyly. “Would he like some tea and cake?”
“No, he’s just leaving,” Draco says, but Harry is already out of his seat and tipping twenty silver Sickles into the metal scoop.
“I would love some tea and cake,” he says, and Eilish beams.
“Make room for one more,” she calls, gesturing for Harry to follow her beyond the curtain. “Smile, Draco, it might never happen!”
Harry feels Draco’s frustration billowing around him like a cloud. He hangs back for a moment, folding the red velvet between his fingers, but when Juno jumps down and trots after Eilish too, he decides to leave him to it.
“Look what I found,” Eilish declares, turning and presenting Harry as though he is a prize at the fair.
Two elderly ladies regard him with interest from their armchairs and Harry, feeling rather self conscious, glances around at the interior of the bus. In daylight, the violet walls and ceiling seem even more vivid and the endless pictures of grey cats now make a little more sense. Juno herself now leaps onto the luggage rack and curls up on a pile of brightly-coloured raincoats.
The lace-covered table he had sat at the night before last is now smaller and covered in an array of knitting needles, books, sweets, and what seems to be the aftermath of a game of Exploding Snap. In the middle of it all sits a large teapot wearing a bright green knitted cosy and a tray full of scones, tea bread, and a whole host of little pots containing butter and fruit jams.
Everything looks homemade and smells delicious, and Harry can’t decide what he really wants most – to find out what on earth is going on here or to pull up a chair and just enjoy it.
“Aren’t you going to sit with us?” asks a lady with a heavy West Indian accent, and Harry turns to her.
“Er… yes, of course. If you want me to.”
“Listen to him,” she laughs, her dirty cackle echoing around the bus. “Sit yourself down, boy. Danica’s tea bread can’t be had standin’ up!”
“That’s very sweet of you, Corrie,” says the woman called Danica, and Harry looks between them as he allows Eilish to shove him into a spare armchair.
Corrie, ensconced in a patchwork chair with a half-knitted stripy something on her lap, has freckled dark skin and a mass of pure white curls. She is dressed brightly but comfortably in jeans and a jumper so violently patterned that looking at it makes Harry’s vision blur. In contrast, Danica’s severe bun and square glasses put Harry in mind of a schoolmistress, and her pin-neat dark blue robes make her almost blend in to her navy corduroy chair. Both women look to be at least eighty, and Eilish, who is now bustling around the table and pouring him a cup of tea, could be even older.
“Scone?” she asks. “Tea bread? Buttered?”
Harry says yes to everything and doesn’t regret it one little bit. The ladies watch him raptly as he tries the tea, the cake, and various combinations of jam and cream on his scone. He doesn’t think anyone has ever just sat and watched him eat before, and it’s a strangely humbling experience. He still has no idea what kind of madness this is, but he is warm and comfortable and full of cake and it doesn’t seem to matter any more.
When he settles in his chair with a second cup of tea, Corrie asks:
“What’s your name, then? Seems we haven’t been properly introduced.”
“You can’t ask him that,” hisses Danica, nudging her friend with a sharp elbow.
“Yes, why not?” Harry asks, amused.
“Because he’s Harry Potter,” Eilish whispers. “We know who he is.”
“Why didn’t you say so, woman?” Corrie demands. “You know I can’t see a thing.”
“She’s exaggerating,” confides Danica. “She can see if someone takes the last biscuit.”
“I heard that,” Corrie says.
“Nothing wrong with your ears, then,” Eilish puts in. She turns to Harry. “Sometimes I have to use a trumpet, you know.”
“For attention,” Danica mouths, and Harry grins.
“I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself,” he says. “I think I was a bit surprised to see all of you, but that’s no excuse.”
“There’s nothing surprising about us,” Eilish says, combing through her silver grey hair with a gnarled, ring-decked hand. “We’re here every day.”
Harry blinks. “Here? On the Knight Bus?”
“Well, sometimes we get off it,” Corrie points out, picking up her knitting. “Draco takes us to nice places, doesn’t he, girls?”
“We went to Brighton Pier last week,” Danica says. “You saw that, didn’t you?”
Corrie sniffs. “Nice man lent me his Omnioculars.”
Harry stares at them, bewildered. “I’m sorry, are you telling me that Draco Malfoy—that man driving the bus—” He points at the red curtain, “lets you sit here every day and takes you on outings?”
“We pay our way,” Eilish says, bristling slightly.
“Of course you do, I just meant… I know Draco from a very long time ago and it just surprises me to hear that about him, I suppose,” Harry admits, suddenly feeling rather at sea.
“We’ve been coming here for years,” says Danica, sharp eyes scanning his face. “And there are others.”
“He says he hasn’t forgotten Ida,” Eilish offers. “And Audrey comes on a Monday. And Merla comes when her family goes abroad…”
“That mad woman comes on Mondays as well,” Corrie interrupts, shaking her head. “Something wrong with her.”
“You can’t call someone mad just because they don’t like tea,” Danica says reproachfully.
Maybe a bit, Harry thinks, but he doesn’t say so. “So you all… come and ride on the bus and Draco just drives you around?”
“He’s a funny boy,” Eilish says with a fond smile.
“He’s a grumpy boy,” Corrie mutters, but she, too, is smiling.
“Yeah, he is a bit,” Harry says, but his eyes drift to the curtain and he wonders. “Does he always shut himself off like that?”
“Only when we’re being a nuisance,” Danica says cheerfully. “I think our little game of snap was a bit too much for him today.”
Harry nods, scanning the table and noticing that some of the cards are still smoking slightly.
“He’s sulking,” Corrie laughs.
Harry glances at her, feeling more invested in her response than he thinks he should. “Why?”
Corrie leans towards him, needles clicking. “Because last time we played, I beat his little bottom at it!”
Her burst of laughter sets off the other two, and despite his confusion, Harry is soon caught up in it with them.
“I like you,” Eilish announces breathlessly. She turns to the others. “Shall we keep him?”
Chapter 4: Fourth of December
Fourth of December – blanket
“The funny thing is, they all seem to think Draco is wonderful,” Harry says, shifting Hugo’s weight on his hip and refilling his unspillable cup with warm milk. “I know you haven’t met him, but you’re going to have to trust your Uncle Harry on this one. He is definitely not wonderful.”
Hugo reaches out a starfish hand and makes a grab for Harry’s glasses.
“I’m not saying he’s a bad person… I mean, we all have a past, and I saw a lot of things that made me… you know what? You don’t need to know about those,” Harry says, reclaiming his glasses and exchanging them for the cup decorated with tiny fishes. “The point is, he’s very cranky and I’m pretty sure he’s being mysterious on purpose.”
“Yes?” Hugo tries, and Harry laughs. The fantastic thing about talking to tiny children is that it doesn’t really matter what he says as long as he’s smiling when he says it. Rose had been the same, listening quite contentedly to Harry’s waffling about charity budgets and terrible dates and hangovers until about the age of two, at which point she had learned the word ‘boring’ and had started to use it with worrying frequency.
Hugo, fortunately, is still young enough to enjoy his uncle’s venting, and Harry has spent a rather pleasant morning telling him all about the goings on aboard the Knight Bus, while Ron and Hermione walk around the Natural History Museum with Rose.
“I bet Daddy’s bored, do you?” Harry says, heading into the living room and settling Hugo on the floor amidst the vast array of toys Hermione has provided. “And I bet he’s touching all the things you aren’t supposed to touch.”
“Ahahaha,” burbles Hugo, abandoning his cup and picking up a caterpillar made of wooden beads that lights up when shaken. Harry isn’t sure about the logic of teaching children to shake caterpillars, but Hugo seems to enjoy it, and the lights make the living room look rather festive.
“The ladies are lovely, though,” he continues. “Of course, they all think I’m lovely, too, because, well… your Uncle Harry is charming and delightful.”
Hugo blows a small milk bubble and then belches.
“I’m glad you agree. And, you know, it’s the not knowing that bothers me. It’s not that it matters what Malfoy does or why he does it…” Harry sighs and rubs at his face. He fixes Hugo with a conspiratorial eye. “Okay, it does matter a bit, but I’m not sure why, and I’m not asking Mummy and Daddy because no doubt they’ll tell me why and I don’t really want to know. Do you know what I mean?”
Hugo stares up at him, eyes huge and fathomless. After a moment’s thought, he presents Harry with the light-up caterpillar and beams.
Touched, Harry takes it and thanks him solemnly. As he does so, a roar emanates from the kitchen fireplace, and, moments later, Ron, Hermione, and Rose appear in the living room doorway looking windswept but happy.
“Did you have a good time?” Harry asks, scrambling to his feet and lifting Hugo back into his arms with some effort.
“Yes, thank you,” Hermione smiles, already hurrying to him, arms outstretched for her child.
“I set an alarm off,” Ron says, sounding quite proud of himself.
“Daddy touched a big bone,” Rose announces, and Harry bites his lip hard to suppress his laughter.
“Did you?” he asks, smirking.
Ron snorts. “I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to touch things.”
“Mummy told you that before we went in,” Rose says helpfully.
“Has he been alright?” Hermione asks, cradling Hugo in one arm and using the other to flick her wand and summon all of Hugo’s toys into a string bag.
“He’s been great. We’ve had some very rewarding conversations.”
Rose pulls herself up to her full height and adjusts her glittery reindeer antlers. They look rather better on her than they had on her dad, Harry decides, but keeps the thought to himself.
“Are you coming to my Christmas play, Uncle Harry?” she asks. “It’s about all the different animals at Christmas time and I’m going to be a giraffe so I have a lot of reading to do.”
“Well, yes,” Harry says, amused. “All that neck. Of course I’m going to come, I wouldn’t miss it.”
“You can bring a friend or a special person if you like,” Rose says earnestly. “We have extra tickets because Mum’s the Queen of the PTA.”
“I’m the treasurer,” Hermione corrects. “And he doesn’t have to bring anyone unless he wants to.”
Rose frowns. “I don’t want him to be lonely. And Mummy, queens have treasure, don’t they?”
Hermione gazes at her daughter. “Rosie, I’m not sure how to argue with that. Come on, we need to get home and have some lunch.” She smiles at Harry. “Thanks for having him. I’m sorry we have to rush off.”
“No problem,” Harry says, already halfway into his coat. “I’m off out now anyway.”
“Where are you going?” Ron asks, eyes travelling over his outfit with interest. “You look a bit fancy.”
“No, I’m just…” Harry flushes, cursing his decision to wear something slightly smarter than his usual jeans and jumper to today’s on-board tea party. “I’m going… shopping for… erm… shoes,” he improvises, looking at his sturdy but serviceable brown boots.
“Why?” Ron asks, clearly baffled.
“Because some people like to look as though they’ve made an effort sometimes,” Hermione says pointedly, glancing at her husbands ancient corduroy jacket and worn trainers.
“I think you look nice, Uncle Harry,” Rose offers, and he smiles.
“Thank you very much,” Harry says, following them to the fireplace and holding out the pot of Floo powder.
Ron and Rose disappear into the flames but Hermione hangs back with Hugo, scrutinising him with an intensity that is familiar but no less unsettling.
“You’ve got cat hair on your coat,” she says suddenly. “Who do you know that has a cat?”
Harry’s heart tightens. “Er… you?” he attempts.
“A grey cat?” she says, leaning down and plucking several of Juno’s long hairs from the bottom of his favourite red duffel.
“I have no idea where that came from,” he lies. “Honestly, Miss Marple.”
Hermione smiles. “Sorry, Harry. It’s working for MLE that does it; I can’t seem to switch it off. I hope you have a great time shoe shopping, and if you ever do have anything to tell me, you know where I am. I know I’m really busy these days with work and the kids and everything, but I just… I don’t want you to ever doubt how important you are to me.”
Harry lets out a long breath and smiles back at his friend, pulled one way by affection and then the other by guilt. She knows that he’s keeping something from her, and even though it’s just a couple of bus rides with a man neither of them have seen for years, it’s significant somehow.
“I know,” he says at last, and as she disappears into the flames, he can’t help wondering what he’s getting himself into.
Not that any amount of wondering is about to stop him hailing the Knight Bus and settling in the spring-loaded seat before five minutes have passed.
“Oh, good,” Draco says drily. “You’re back.”
“Yes,” Harry agrees. “I intend to keep coming back until at least some of this makes sense.”
Draco lets out a short bark of laughter. “The best of luck with that.”
Harry says nothing and Draco shakes his head, immediately lifting a hand from the wheel to tuck a stray swathe of hair behind his ear. Today’s shirt is a rich sort of wine colour, and Harry finds himself drawn to the way it sits in bold contrast against the pale skin of Draco’s neck. He seems to have aged well and is changed barely at all from then young man Harry last saw—at least saw for certain—at the age of eighteen. All of his lines are still sharp and sweeping, and as he urges the bus along a winding country road, concentration makes his profile harsher still.
Something is different, though and perhaps it is the strength and confidence of his movements as he controls the difficult vehicle, hands swift and sure and posture almost fluid in the leather chair that seems to support his every decision. The man he remembers was always stiff, pointed, hiding his uncertainty behind swaggering bravado, but this Draco seems possessed of a control that Harry can’t help but admire. He wonders just what the man behind the wheel thinks of him, and then he stops because he doesn’t want to know.
“I believe the ladies have just brewed a fresh pot of tea,” Draco says, startling Harry out of his thoughts. “If you’ve quite finished staring at me.”
“I wasn’t staring,” Harry mutters, feeling his face heat. “And anyway, I wanted to sit here with you for a bit.”
Draco glances at him, one eyebrow slightly lifted. “I see. That’s the conductor’s seat, you know. Are you looking for a job?”
“I’ve got a job, thanks.” Harry pauses. “What happened to Ernie and Stan?”
Draco scoffs, yanking a lever that brings the bus screeching to a halt. “Don’t you read, Potter?”
“Yes, but not the Daily Prophet,” Harry says irritably.
“Of course, because you’re an intellectual,” Draco says. He pulls the lever that opens the doors and turns to Harry. “Stan didn’t want to come back after his experience with the Death Eaters. Ernie passed away just before the war ended. He was a very old man.”
“Oh,” Harry says, surprised. “So when did you—?”
“Hello, Ida,” Draco calls, and Harry turns to see the tiny, white-haired lady making her way up the steps with her dachshund under one arm.
“Good afternoon, Harry,” she says, beaming at him as if he has addressed her, and then turning to Draco.
“Why don't you put the lights up?”
Draco sighs. “Ida, as I have told you before, I do not decorate the bus until—”
“Mrs Next Door had hers up on the first,” she says reproachfully. “Paper chains and everything.”
“Mrs next door is mad, Ida,” Draco says patiently.
The old woman peers at him, screwing up her little eyes. “Is she?”
“Yes,” Draco says, leaning on the arm of his chair. “She thinks Montague is the devil, doesn't she?”
Ida looks at the little brown dog in her arms and then smiles, face clearing. “Oh, yes, that’s right.”
“Alright then,” Draco says, displaying surprisingly good grace when Ida throws her coins into the scoop, ruffles his hair, and stuffs a handful of humbugs into his top pocket before disappearing through the curtain and into the back of the bus.
“Can I have a humbug?” Harry asks, deciding to chance his arm while Draco is obviously thrown off balance.
“No, you cannot. They already like you better than they like me and it’s ridiculous,” Draco snaps, pulling a sweet from his pocket, crinkling the wrapper obnoxiously and stuffing it into his mouth.
“They do not,” Harry laughs. “I’ve been here five minutes and you’ve been… how long have you been doing this, exactly?”
“Fine,” Draco sighs, fishing out another humbug and throwing it at Harry.
Catching it easily, Harry sucks the minty sweet and wonders exactly what he’s going to have to do to squeeze some answers out of Draco. Attempting to outmanoeuvre a Slytherin when it comes to secrets is probably an exercise in futility, and he certainly can’t force Draco to tell him anything. Perhaps persistence is key. He’s had some very interesting results with it in the past, and there’s every chance that he will irritate the ever-loving fuck out of Draco in the process.
And it’s easy. All he has to do is be the last one to give up.
“Don’t you have a very important job to go to?” Draco asks.
“Not right now, no,” Harry says pleasantly.
Draco sighs. “So, what is it you do?” he mumbles, tapping his fingers on the wheel. “Let me guess. Do you… run the Ministry? No… still too young. Are you an Auror?” Draco glances at him, eyes narrowed. “No. What about some extremely impressive… charity work?”
Harry folds his arms.
“I’m right. Am I right?”
“Yes, Draco,” he concedes. “Well done.”
“I should have known,” Draco says. “Saint Potter… building schools for African children… telling us all not to step on bristle beetles…”
“It’s nothing to do with being a saint,” Harry says crossly. “I assure you I’m not one. I do the work because I enjoy it, and… hang on… how do you know about those campaigns?”
The smile that tugs at the corners of Draco’s mouth is almost serene. “I do read the Prophet, and they always have plenty to say about you.”
Harry’s stomach tips unpleasantly. “I don’t want to know.”
“I’ll spare you the details,” Draco says. “They have two favourite topics when it comes to you—‘isn’t Harry Potter a wonderful humanitarian?’ and ‘oh, look, it’s another week and another new boyfriend for the Boy Who Lived to—”
“Alright,” Harry says a little too loudly, knowing his indignant flush is visible on his face and hating it. “They are not boyfriends, they are people who my friends set me up with. I don’t ask for it, but they insist, so I go for drinks with them or have a meal with them, and most of the time I don’t even… you know what? I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Fine,” Draco says, and though his tone is light, his expression is rather satisfied. “And I don’t want to talk about how I came to be here. Deal?”
Harry rubs his heated face and nods. Suddenly ashamed of himself, he turns away from Draco and gazes out of the nearest window. Fir trees seem to flash past the bus as they speed along, shading the cab from the winter sun in odd, staccato bursts. Harry has no idea where he is or what he should do next. All he really knows is that he’s an idiot and the last thing he wants to do is make it worse by opening his mouth again.
“I thought I heard you,” Danica says, sticking her head around the curtain. “Ida said I was imagining things.”
“Ida spoke to me when she got on the bus,” Harry says, forgetting his silence.
Danica glances at him as she tugs the curtain all the way back to the wall. “She’s a little bit forgetful sometimes. Are you going to come and have some tea?”
“What are you doing with my curtain?” Draco demands.
“It’s very unsociable to have it closed two days in a row,” Danica says briskly, and before Harry knows what’s happening, she is pulling at his arm and propelling him towards the rest of the group. She is, he notices with resignation, at least three inches taller than him and doesn’t seem to have any problem pulling out a chair and pushing him into it.
“Hello,” he says, smiling at Corrie, Ida, and Eilish and finding an admiring look for Danica when she takes up her chair and gives him a shrewd little nod.
The ladies greet him with enthusiasm and Montague, who has been licking up tea from a saucer near his feet, plants his paws on Harry’s knee and lets out an impressive sneeze.
“What does Juno think about him?” he asks, and Eilish laughs.
“She’s watching him, look!” She points, and Harry follows her eyes to see the vast cat sitting on the stairs with her eyes fixed intently on Montague.
“Don’t they fight?”
“Of course not,” Corrie laughs. “She’s a classy lady.”
Amused, Harry takes his cup and saucer and attempts to put Draco out of his head, at least for a little bit. He feels accepted by these ladies and he doesn’t want to think about how they would feel if they knew he had upset Draco. The disappointment of a little old lady is a powerful thing, and he has seen men much stronger than himself crumble beneath it.
“What are you knitting?” he asks Corrie, who is working on the same stripy project he had seen the day before.
“Just a blanket,” she says, holding up her needles to show off their sheer size of the blue and yellow object. “Do you like it?”
“It’s brilliant,” he says, and Corrie beams. “I try to knit sometimes but I’m not very good at it.”
“More boys should knit,” Ida says over the top of her cup. “They can’t always expect their wives to do it for them.”
“Harry Potter ain’t going to have a wife, Ida,” Corrie says before Harry can respond. “He’s a ho-mo-sexual.”
“Oh,” Ida says. She shrugs. “Well then, it’s even more important that he learns to knit.”
Eilish grants him a coy smile. “You do court some very handsome young men.”
“Ooh, like the Egyptian chap with the wonderful beard,” Danica almost sighs.
Harry just stares at them, feeling rather staggered. He can’t decide whether to be pleased at their easy acceptance or concerned that they seem to know all about his life without a single word from him. In the end, he can’t help but smile.
“He was a bit strange, actually—the Egyptian man,” he admits. “He was very nice but he would only talk in whispers because he thought there were goblins in the walls… listening.”
Corrie laughs delightedly. “Goblins! Oh my lord… now, see, I’ve almost finished.”
She shakes out the blanket over her knees. Harry reaches out and strokes the soft wool.
“What are you going to do with it when it’s finished?” he asks.
“Same as always. I knit ’em and give ’em to the children’s home,” she says. “Keep the little ones warm.”
“That’s lovely,” Harry says, and before he can stop himself, he adds: “Don’t you want to keep some for your own family?”
An odd sort of stillness descends over the table and Harry wishes he could have the words back.
“Haven’t got one,” Corrie says simply. “Don’t look like that, boy, you didn’t know.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, gripping his cup a little too tightly.
“You see,” Danica says, patting his hand, “that’s why we come here. We’re all alone in one way or another. My husband died five years ago and I lost my son and my grandchildren to the Death Eaters.”
Harry freezes, feeling as though all of the air has been sucked out of the bus.
“We know,” Eilish says softly. “It’s alright. We all know.”
“The boy was nothing but a child,” Corrie says, soft brown eyes pinning Harry to his chair.
“Yeah… he was… we were… I’m so sorry,” Harry stumbles, setting down his cup and pulling his hands into his lap, where they twist into painful shapes.
“You saved thousands,” Danica says, and he meets her eyes. It hurts.
Montague jumps into his lap and licks his hands until he allows them to relax. Slowly, he strokes the silky coat and lets his breath out in a messy rush. He looks around at them all, at their kind eyes and wrinkled faces and knows there are no words good enough.
“My daughter studies rare magical artefacts,” Eilish says, breaking the silence. “She travels all over the world. One day she said to me, ‘Mum, I’m going to come home so I can look after you’ and I said, ‘Flora, if you do that, I will never forgive you’.”
“Because you didn’t want her to look after you?” Harry asks, puzzled.
“No, because I don’t need looking after, and even if I did, I’d rather she had her life,” Eilish explains. “I’m very proud of her. Every day. Would you like to see a picture?”
Harry nods and accepts a small, leather bound book filled with photographs of a grinning dark-haired woman who looks so much like her mother and is clearly in possession of her bright spirit.
“She’s beautiful,” he says, and Eilish beams.
“She’s clever, just like her dad,” she says proudly. “Rest his soul. Dodgy heart.”
“My son sells houses,” Ida says, and then frowns. “At least, he did.”
Danica shoots Harry a look that is clearly meaningful, but he’s not sure what to make of it.
“This is the place where we can come, you see,” Corrie says, reaching for the tea pot. “When we come here, we’re not alone.”
“And it’s more fun to do things with your friends,” Ida puts in, smiling again now. “We’re going to make hanging baskets and window boxes for the spring. I’ve got spare bulbs!”
“Draco said no to the window boxes,” Corrie says, lips pursed.
“Draco says a lot of things,” Eilish declares. “He’ll like them when he sees how pretty they are.”
“He likes pretty things,” Danica says slyly. “Perhaps he’ll learn to like you.”
The other ladies laugh uproariously and it’s all Harry can do not to sink into his seat with hot, prickly embarrassment.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever called me pretty before,” he says at last, and the ladies exchange gleeful glances. “If you’ll excuse me for a minute, I have to go and have a word with Draco.”
He can feel their eyes on him all the way to the front of the bus, but he doesn’t turn around, and when he pulls the curtain closed behind him he doesn’t think he imagines a collective sigh of disappointment. For a moment, he watches Draco steering the bus easily along a winding coastal road and fumbles for words.
There is so much yet to know about this man and his strange little social club on wheels, but he is starting to think that the experience might be more important than the details. The affection and forgiveness shown by Corrie, Eilish, Ida, and Danica is extraordinary, as is their no-nonsense treatment of a man so determined to be hard to know.
“Is there any particular reason why you’re standing there and staring at the back of my head?” Draco asks, gazing calmly at him in the rearview mirror.
“Yeah, I’m just…” Harry trails off, voice grating. “I’ll go now, but tomorrow… do you think we could start again?”
Draco doesn’t look away from the road but the surprise is clear in his eyes and his fingers tighten almost imperceptibly around the wheel. He is silent for so long that Harry is ready to give up, and then he nods.
Chapter 5: Fifth of December
Fifth of December – frosted leaves
On Sunday morning, Harry is startled from a heavy sleep by the sound of scraping, whooshing, and finally coughing from his bedroom fireplace. Caught between alert suspicion and the last threads of a dream about driving the Knight Bus while having his hair stroked by a ghostly, pale figure, he scrambles upright, grabs his wand and yells, “Malfoy, stop it!”
For a moment, the coughing continues, and then the smoke clears and Ron’s head emerges from the flames.
“I can’t decide if I want to know or not,” he says, grinning at Harry.
Letting out a caught breath, Harry drops his wand and shoves his glasses onto his nose.
“What are you doing, you idiot? It’s… well, it’s very early, and… I didn’t even know that fireplace was connected to the Floo Network,” he admits.
“Well, I wasn’t getting any response in the kitchen so I thought I’d give it a go. Chimney needs a sweep, mate,” Ron says, starting to splutter again.
Harry crawls to the end of the bed and wrinkles his nose guiltily. “Sorry. Do you want to come through?”
Ron shakes his head. “No, just wanted to check you were coming to Mum and Dad’s for Sunday lunch.”
“Ron, I come every week without fail. What’s going on?”
“Hermione thinks something weird’s going on with you,” Ron admits. “She thinks it’s important that we ‘maintain regular contact’.”
“Did she tell you to tell me that part?” Harry asks, unable to decide if he’s amused or exasperated.
“Er… not really, no.” Ron sighs. “Listen, I’m not going to push you. If you want to do something weird, it’s your own business.”
“Thanks, Ron,” Harry says, deciding to settle on amusement. They mean well. They always do.
“Just, you know… constant vigilance,” Ron adds, pulling off a pretty good impression of Mad-Eye Moody.
“I promise,” Harry says. “See you later on.”
When Ron retreats from the fire, leaving a soot-spattered hearth behind him, Harry discovers that it’s already half past nine and decides that he ought to get moving if he wants to spend some time with his new friends before lunch at the Burrow. Molly’s roasts are legendary, and though he can cook well enough for himself, he lacks the enthusiasm to create anything elaborate when he knows he’s going to be eating it alone, and he knows that her vast portions and tubs of leftovers will see him through half of the week.
Already idly wondering whether she’ll be making chicken or beef, lamb or pork, Yorkshire puddings or stuffing, he showers, dresses warmly, throws down a cup of coffee and hurries out to hail the Knight Bus. Aware of their agreement to start over, he greets Draco with a smile and relishes the look of bewilderment on his face.
“Did you know?” Draco asks, eyebrows knitted.
Harry tips some coins into the scoop and sits down in the conductor’s seat.
“Did I know what?”
“Did you know that we had an outing today? Is that why you came early?”
Harry frowns, puzzled. “No, I just felt like it. Well, I didn’t want to come too late and miss Molly Weasley’s Sunday roast,” he says, deciding on total honesty. He can’t imagine it will do any harm at this point, and besides, Draco’s confusion is just delicious.
“Did it occur to you that you could… not come at all?” he asks, and there is a complete lack of sarcasm in his tone.
Harry laughs. “No, not really. I enjoy myself here. Did you say something about an outing?”
Ten minutes later, he is walking at Draco’s side through a vast park he has never seen before. Several yards in front of them, the ladies amble along the frosted path, chattering and laughing and acting for all the world as though Harry and Draco are invisible to them. All four are dressed up for the occasion, most notably Corrie, who has swapped her usual jeans and jumper for what Harry assumes is a traditional West Indian dress in vibrant yellow and green, with bold geometric patterns and a matching head scarf. She is also wearing a battered old denim jacket, but only, she has insisted, ‘to keep the cold out’.
Next to him, Draco walks in silence, hands tucked into the pockets of a long, dark coat that whips around his calves in the biting wind. Harry watches him, eyes flicking back occasionally to the ladies to check that no one has fallen or grown too cold. None of them seem to need his attention at all, but he can’t quite help it.
He sighs, watching his breath dissipating into the cold air, and then laughs as Juno barrels across the stiff, icy grass and skids to a stop in front of them with a large sycamore leaf in her mouth. The lawns are strewn with them, frozen almost solid into spiky little plaques, and Juno has made a game of retrieving as many as possible and gifting them to Draco.
“Thank you,” he says gravely, bending to take the leaf and running his thumb over the sparkling frost as Juno flies over the grass in search of her next prey.
Draco tucks the leaf into his pocket with the others with an odd little half smile.
“Does she always do that?” Harry asks.
“No. She only likes them when they’re frozen,” Draco says. “In the summer she brings me berries and little stones. What she really likes is snow—I suppose it’s in her genes. She’s a Norwegian Forest cat.”
“Is that why she’s so big? I mean, is that a feature of her breed?” Harry asks, keeping half an eye on Ida as the wind surges around her tiny frame and whips her long white plait from side to side.
Draco nods. “Some people call them fairy cats. I can’t imagine that any of those people have tried to pick one up when it doesn’t want to be moved.”
Harry grins, or, at least, he tries to. His face is almost completely numb with cold.
Draco seems disinclined to say any more, and Harry is no longer in the mood to push him. Instead, he looks around at the glittering trees, the Sunday morning dog walkers and the colourful lights strung between each old fashioned lamp post. The sky is clear and the pale sun shimmering over everything seems to make the air taste pure and sweet. The wind slices through Harry’s hair and clothes and brings with it a warm, festive smell that is instantly recognisable.
“Is that mulled wine?” he murmurs, glancing around until his eyes fix upon a little wooden building, towards which the ladies are already trundling with purpose. “… at half past ten in the morning?”
Draco shrugs, accepting another leaf from Juno. “When you get to their age, none of that rubbish really matters.”
Harry chews his lip thoughtfully, watching Danica stepping to the head of the queue and the others, behind her, digging in their purses for coins.
“How old are they, anyway? I didn’t really want to ask.”
Draco glances at him, eyes bright with amusement. “Good decision. When I asked I thought they were going to stab me with their knitting needles. It was a long time ago, though. I think they’ve forgiven me.”
“Or forgotten,” Harry says.
Draco shrugs. “The ones who only come a day or two a week are younger, but these ladies… anywhere between ninety and a hundred and twenty. Actually, I think Eilish turned a hundred and twenty-two this year.”
Harry stares at him, astonished. He knows that witches and wizards live longer than Muggles on average, but he still can’t quite get his head around the idea that a woman who stomps around on a moving bus and bakes scones every day, a woman who is currently sipping mulled wine from a paper cup and laughing until her hat falls off, could possibly be four times his own age.
“Look at them,” he says, shaking his head. “How is that even possible?”
“Most things are possible if you’re stubborn enough,” Draco says, glancing sideways at Harry. “Are you going to buy me a cup of mulled wine?”
Harry rolls his eyes and searches his pockets for coins. For some reason, the ‘buy it yourself, you cheeky bastard’ just doesn’t come, and he purchases two steaming cups and follows Draco and the ladies over to a set of benches next to the duck pond. Danica produces an enormous loaf of bread from her tiny handbag and passes it around. Within moments, they are surrounded by ducks, geese, and a pair of very determined swans. The racket is incredible. Harry has to lean right in to Draco to make himself heard, finding out in less than a second that he smells clean and citrusy and that he has a small piece of leaf stuck to his left eyebrow.
He opens his mouth to speak and finds that not only has it turned completely dry, but that he has forgotten everything he wanted to say.
“What?” Draco asks, raising his voice above the quacking and honking.
“Er…” Harry manages, gulping his mulled wine and burning his tongue. Juno appears at his feet, takes one look at the mass of birds and leaps onto his lap, purring and sticking her claws into his legs. “Fuck,” he whispers. Juno peers at him with her head on one side.
“There is something wrong with you, you know that, don’t you?” Draco says calmly.
“You’re a naughty swan,” Ida shouts, and Harry looks just in time to see her leaning over and tapping the enormous bird on the head with a wrinkled hand. “Very naughty swan.”
Harry starts to get up from the bench but to his astonishment, the swan merely bobs its head for a moment and then continues to reach for the bread.
“She has a way with birds,” Draco says, shrugging. “They never go for her. She’s the only person I know who can make a falcon look sorry.”
“We’ve got time,” Harry says, and then stops. “Hang on, if we’re here, what happens when someone hails the bus?”
“I’ll know.” Draco reaches into his pocket and extracts a slightly battered Galleon. “It’s linked into the bus’s own magic. If someone needs us, it vibrates. I can’t say I’m expecting anyone—Mr Barleycorn will probably get on later, but he likes to ride overnight.”
“May I?” Harry asks.
Draco hands him the coin and he examines it in disbelief. “I used to have one just like this.”
“Where do you think I got the idea?” Draco says, mouth twitching as he takes the coin back and drops it into his pocket.
“Stole it, you mean,” Harry mutters, but he doesn’t really mean it.
“No one has called me by my last name for well over a decade, Draco,” Harry says pointedly.
Draco scowls. “You—”
“I’ll stop it if you will,” Harry cuts in, and, for no good reason that he can see, he reaches out and removes the piece of leaf from Draco’s eyebrow. “There you are.”
Accepting the leaf fragment with an air of utter confusion, Draco nods. “Thank you.”
“It wasn’t my idea, you know, it was Hermione’s,” Harry says, a little too quickly.
Draco sighs. “Can’t say I’m surprised. She always was irritatingly clever.”
“She still is. Clever, not irritating.”
“I didn’t say she was, actually,” Draco shoots back.
Harry strokes Juno’s soft fur, everything inside him prickling with confusion. He has no idea what to say or how to act; somehow the rules have been changed without his knowledge and he isn’t sure whether or not he wants them back. In the end, he gazes over at the mass of water birds surrounding the old ladies and sighs.
“I know. I’m just used to arguing with you.”
To his surprise, Draco laughs, a real laugh, not a snort or a sardonic bark but a warm, dry sound of real amusement. Harry smiles into his cup and leans back on the bench, letting the warm wine dissolve his tension and watching with interest as Eilish fishes a tin of cakes out of her bag and starts handing them around. As she turns around to offer the tin to Harry and Draco, the badly behaved swan stretches its neck and steals an iced bun.
“Should I tell her?” he whispers.
“I don’t think you’ll need to,” Draco advises.
“Bad swan!” Ida cries, shaking her fist as the bird hurries into the water with its prize.
“That swan does not look sorry at all,” Harry says under his breath.
“We should probably be grateful she can’t use her wand in the park,” Draco shrugs. “She likes to turn things purple.”
“Draco, Harry!” Eilish calls, before Harry has time to process that statement. “Would you like a cake?”
“Thanks,” he says, reaching into the tin and taking a rock bun.
Draco raises an eyebrow. “You’ll ruin your lunch.”
“Shut up,” Harry says cheerfully through a mouthful of cake. “Bad swan.”
“Potter, you make no sense.”
“Harry Potter, you make no sense,” Draco sighs, taking an éclair from Eilish’s tin.
Harry smiles. “I know.”
Chapter 6: Sixth of December
Sixth of December – lake and fell
Refreshed by the morning spent in the park and then stuffed full of roast chicken, vegetables, and Arthur’s mixed berry crumble, Harry sleeps deeply and rises early, not at all surprised to be the first to arrive at the Burrow to meet the others.
“Back already?” Molly laughs, hugging him tightly and clonking him on the head with her feather duster.
Harry hugs her back, inhaling the warm smell of beeswax and rosemary and smiling against the top of her head. She has more than a few greys these days but compared to the ladies from the Knight Bus, she seems vigorous with youth and the realisation lifts him.
“Yeah,” he says, releasing her and dropping into a kitchen chair. “I ran out of food.”
Molly abandons her feather duster and draws her wand from her apron, summoning a selection of little tubs before Harry can stop her.
“I’ve got leftover chicken, potatoes… the carrots have all gone, I’m afraid,” she mutters, granting Harry a look that is equal parts apologetic and concerned. “There’s plenty of fresh bread if you need—”
“Molly, I was kidding,” Harry says, regretting his careless comment already. “I’ve got loads of stuff—I still have most of the things you gave me yesterday, and I’ve got a cupboard full of stuff from the supermarket. I promise I don’t need anything.”
Lowering her wand, Molly sighs. “It’s not real food, you know, that stuff from the supermarket. You won’t grow eating rubbish out of boxes.”
Harry smiles. “I don’t think I’m going to grow now, unfortunately. I think this is it.”
“It will be if you don’t eat properly,” she says darkly, looking oddly lost as she sends the little containers back to their places and stares at him, hands on hips.
“I eat fine, I promise,” Harry says, heart twisting. “It would have been nice to have been six foot, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Molly picks up the kettle and smiles at him, purpose seemingly restored. “Height isn’t everything, anyway,” she says. “Look at Ron—six foot four and built like a toothbrush.”
“Oh, thanks, Mum,” Ron says from the back door. “Good to know what you really think of me.”
“Nonsense, Ron, you just need to eat a bit more,” Molly says, beaming at her son.
“How long have you been there?” Harry asks.
“Long enough. Fred and George are on their way,” he says stepping into the kitchen and shutting the door behind him.
“It’s so nice to see you all,” Molly says, poking at the kettle with her wand to make it boil faster.
“You saw us all yesterday,” Ron points out. “I would’ve thought you’d be ready for some time to yourself after all that racket.”
“It’s not a racket when it’s family,” Molly says firmly, and then: “Fred, George, it’s wonderful to see you, but if you walk on my nice clean floor in those great big bother boots, you will be getting down there and spelling the mud off it.”
“Calm your dusters, Mum, we’ll Apparate from here,” George says, halting in the doorway.
Molly eyes him sternly. “Tea first.”
“Hermione’s found another man for you,” Ron whispers, leaning closer on the low, squashy sofa in the corner of Madam Malkin’s and almost pitching himself right into Harry’s lap. He prods the soft, slippery fabric. “What the bloody hell is this made from?”
“I don’t know,” Harry whispers back, “but you really needn’t bother. I’m happy coming to the wedding on my own and I’m sure you and Hermione both have better things to do.”
“Well, that’s what I told her,” Ron says airily, scratching at his nose and doing an excellent job at letting Harry know that he’s lying through his teeth. “You know ’Mione, though… she enjoys it.”
Harry sighs heavily. “Who is it this time?”
“Team-mate of Angelina’s,” Ron whispers. “Brian something, I think.”
“No,” Harry says flatly. “No way. No more sportsmen.”
“You know why not. Because every single one of them has been arrogant, vain, and obsessed with Quidditch to the exclusion of everything else, including manners,” Harry hisses, and for no helpful reason that he can see, a voice in his head that sounds a lot like Draco says, oh, that’s good coming from you, isn’t it?
“Angelina’s a Quidditch player and she’s not like that,” Ron says, shrugging.
“Angelina is a girl and I’m pretty certain she isn’t interested in dating me,” Harry points out. “Tell Hermione no. Please,” he adds, trying to appeal to Ron’s better judgement.
“Fair enough. You know, I bet this thing would be really comfortable to sleep on.”
Harry snorts, and then pokes him. “Here they are.”
Madam Malkin emerges from the fitting room and holds open a red velvet curtain almost identical to the one Draco has hung to separate the two parts of the bottom deck, and for the first time, he wonders just where he goes when he’s not driving the bus. What he does in his spare time. Whether he still flies, and if he likes reading or music or noisy clubs. If he and Juno go home to a little cottage or a swanky apartment or a country manor. He has no idea, and all at once that fact seems ridiculous.
He wouldn’t say so in as many words to Draco, but he thinks they are becoming friends of a sort, and in that moment the realisation is so surprising that he fails to notice Fred and George emerging from behind the curtain in their formal robes.
“Harry seems to have slipped into a trance,” someone says, and then: “Ronnie, did you slip him a dodgy memory charm again?”
“Again?” Ron repeats, attempting to sit up straight and sending Harry sliding almost all the way off the sofa. “You know, Fred, the Auror Department does have a reputation to protect.”
“Ooh!” Fred and George cry as one, and the sound shakes Harry out of his thoughts, allowing him to admire their wedding outfits.
George’s robes are surprisingly traditional, made of a midnight blue fabric that sets off his bright hair and pale skin. Beside him, Fred stands awkwardly, clearly uncomfortable with the formality, wearing almost identical robes in a lighter grey-blue that matches the dresses Ginny and Angelina’s sister will wear on the day. Content in the knowledge that his usual dress robes—the ones he has worn to every formal event since the age of eighteen—have been approved by bride, groom, and Molly, Harry gives Fred and George the thumbs-up.
“You both look great,” he says.
“Yeah, brilliant,” Ron adds. “Very… blue.”
“Are you sure these sleeves aren’t too short?” George asks, pulling at the fabric around his wrists and provoking a fierce look from Madam Malkin.
“No, Mr Weasley, they are not too short. I fitted those robes to you exactly, and I would have done so much more quickly if you had trusted me at any point,” she sighs, hanging on to the measuring tape around her neck and looking rather harassed.
George stares at her for long seconds and then shrugs. “Fair enough. Right, let’s get to the travel office before they give our tickets to someone else.”
Madam Malkin gazes at them in bewilderment as they disappear back into the fitting room. After a moment, she shakes her head and wanders off to straighten the window display, still muttering to herself about sleeves when Fred and George return, dressed in their usual jeans and pulling on coats and hats before they step out into the frozen street.
“Who’s looking after the shop this morning?” Harry asks, gazing up at the sky as he walks and wondering when the snow everyone keeps talking about is going to arrive.
“Verity,” George says.
“A most wonderful employee,” Fred declares, looking much happier to be back in his own clothes.
“Though we may not have her for long. She’s studying again,” George says.
“What is it this time?” Ron asks, blowing on his hands for several seconds and then giving up and casting a warming charm.
“Alchemy, was it?”
Fred shakes his head. “Care of Magical Wigs?”
“Could be something about mushrooms…” George muses.
“Care of Magical Mushrooms?”
“You don’t know, do you?” Harry asks, amused.
“No,” they say as one, grinning at each other as they push open the door of the travel office with a rattle and step inside.
Fortunately, George and Angelina’s honeymoon tickets have not been given away, so they take the fat brown envelope and head to the tea shop next door, where they all order hot drinks and buttered toast and examine the contents.
“Here we are,” George says, picking up a pair of train tickets with scalloped golden edges. “First class all the way to Edinburgh, and then we’ll Apparate the rest of the way.”
“You? First class?” Ron laughs. “They’ll never let you on. Angelina’ll have to go on her own.”
“How dare you?” George hisses, sticking his little finger out from his cup and slurping loudly. “I am a man of fine breeding and impeccable manners.”
“His father will hear about this,” Fred adds, and Harry laughs with the others but can’t quite suppress a twinge of guilt for doing so.
“Anyway, this is where the cabin is,” George says, sliding a glossy photograph into the centre of the table. “Angie wants to hike up that fell but I’ve got quite a few other ideas.”
“Don’t make me picture it,” Ron grumbles, but Harry isn’t really listening.
He can’t seem to look away from the photograph. The lake is beautiful and the vast, craggy fell is certainly impressive, but it’s the light in the picture that makes something inside him ache; falling across the land and water in great glowing swathes, the setting sun sweeps the landscape into life, turning the lake into golden flame and the sky above into velvet. He can almost feel the cool air on his skin, the taste of the woodsmoke and moss on the wind, the ripples of perfect calm that surely only exist in a place like this.
“You’re really going to spend a week here?” he asks, completely failing to keep the envy from his voice.
“Doesn’t really look like my scene, does it?” George laughs. “I wanted to do swimming with sharks in the Caribbean but I was told I’d be doing it by myself. In the end we sort of just stuck a pin in a map.”
“I would’ve gone with you,” Fred says, scandalised. “Sharks are brilliant.”
“I think it’s supposed to be just the bride and groom on the honeymoon,” Ron says, biting into a piece of toast and wiping his fingers on his trousers.
“Ah, that’s just convention!” Fred says. He slings an arm around George and grins. “Blood is thicker than… um… is it still water if you’re married?”
“Maybe it’s wine,” Harry suggests, still looking at the picture.
“Maybe it’s pea soup,” Ron says. “Biting pea soup.”
“I think I’m going tell Angelina when I next see her,” Fred says serenely. “‘Angie,’ I’ll say, ‘you’re more like a bowl of biting pea soup every day’.”
Ron and Harry exchange glances and grin. George heaves a theatrical sigh.
“That’s it. You’re all uninvited. No wedding cake for you.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Harry protests. “I was good.”
“You were good,” George agrees. “But I can hardly go back on my word now, can I?”
“I understand,” Harry says. He finishes his tea and sets the cup down with a clank. “Can I borrow this photograph instead? I’ll owl it back to you.”
George regards him with mild confusion and then shrugs. “You can have it. There’s loads more in the guidebook.”
Harry smiles and tucks the picture away. “Thanks.”
“If I buy you a piece of cake, can I be re-invited?” Ron asks. “Only, I’ve bought new robes and everything.”
George regards his brother with great benevolence. “Chocolate fudge, please. And I’ll think about it.”
“Would you like my chair, Audrey?” Harry asks.
Thora, the woman who doesn’t like tea, peers at him with coal black little eyes and Audrey, a round, sparky character with hair coloured a determined pink, continues to throw spells at her armchair without appearing to hear him. Having met both members of the Mondays-only contingent just hours ago, he is now certain of two things—that Audrey is as mulish as himself and Draco put together, and that Corrie had been right; Thora is a bit strange.
While the other ladies have welcomed him to the table with genuine pleasure, Thora seems to regard him as… if not a completely unwelcome interloper, certainly an object of suspicion. She sits squashed into a corner, clutching the flask of black coffee she has brought from home and screwing up her face whenever the teapot is proffered. Most of the group seems to ignore her odd behaviour and engage her whenever they can, but Corrie, now working on a new blanket in bright red yarn, seems to regard her with equal distrust.
“It wouldn’t do that if you held your wand properly,” Thora says, and Audrey turns to her, clearly insulted.
“There’s nothing wrong with my wand grip,” she declares, setting her face. “I’m just trying to make my chair a little bit softer. Why don’t you leave me to it?”
Eilish turns in her seat next to Harry and rolls her eyes. He grins.
“Audrey, I’m sure you know what you’re doing but if you want, you can have my chair. It’s quite soft already and I’m just going to go and talk to Draco,” he says, getting to his feet.
“Isn’t he nice?” Audrey beams at him and then turns straight back to her chair, slamming it with multicoloured spells that seem to be doing nothing but making it smoke slightly.
The red curtain is open today, and Harry heads through to the front of the bus without losing his balance once. It’s possible that Draco has chosen straighter roads today, but he thinks he might just be getting used to it.
“Had enough of Thora’s sunny disposition, have you?” Draco asks when he sits down.
“She’ll hear you.”
“I doubt it. She’s deaf in one ear and she refuses to wear any kind of hearing aid.”
“Maybe that’s why she’s so cross,” Harry suggests.
“Maybe. Or maybe she’s always been cross. In my experience, people only seem to get crosser as they get older.”
“You’re not as cross as you used to be,” Harry says, and immediately wants to hex himself in the face.
Draco snorts. “Of course, because you’re an expert on me, aren’t you?”
“You know what, Draco? I take it all back. You’re a very cross man. Crosser than ever before, and crosser than any other man could hope to be. Is that better?”
This time, Draco laughs. “Yes, much.”
“Maybe you’re cross because you work too much,” Harry says, pulling out the photograph of the Scottish landscape and gazing at it.
“Not all of us can just stop working whenever we feel like it,” Draco snaps, and then he sighs. “You’re right, you know. What you said yesterday… I’m just not sure how to stop arguing with you.”
“Practise, maybe,” Harry suggests, and when he looks up from the photograph, Draco is regarding him with interest.
“Maybe,” he says softly, and turns back to the road.
“When exactly are you off duty?” Harry asks after a moment.
“Do you have to fuss?” Draco sighs, pulling the lever that compresses the whole bus to allow it to slip between two heavy goods vehicles. “You’re like a mother hen,” he adds, voice seeming slow and distorted in Harry’s ears.
When the bus snaps back to its usual shape, Harry lets out a long breath and closes his eyes for a moment. He swallows hard, attempting to equalise the pressure in his ears, and shakes his head.
“Not a fan of that, I have to admit,” he says at last.
“You get used to it. What do you have there?”
“The picture. Is it your new boyfriend?”
Harry grimaces. “Don’t you start. The new one is a Quidditch player, apparently, and I am not going out with him.”
“Alright,” Draco says with a small smile that makes Harry feel inexplicably out of sorts.
He takes a deep breath and shows the picture to Draco. “This is where George is going on his honeymoon. I’d like to go there.” He pauses, frowning. “Not with George. Or on a honeymoon. It just looks nice. I’m going to stop talking now.”
To his surprise, Draco pulls the bus onto a broad grassy verge and stops completely. He leans over and takes the picture, examining it with lips pressed thin in contemplation.
“Is this Callach Muir?”
“Er… yeah, I think that’s what it’s called,” Harry says, startled.
“I thought so. I went there in September with the biddy club.”
“The what?” Harry asks, eyebrows disappearing under his fringe.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Draco says, mouth twitching. “That’s what they call themselves.”
Draco nods. “Eilish and Danica came up with it. They were the first to meet here, and then it grew from there.” He taps the photograph. “If you stand in just the right place at just the right time, the fells sing.”
“And I suppose you know where and when that is?” Harry asks hopefully.
“Of course. Harry, I am the elderly woman’s tour guide. I know every biddy-friendly place on this bizarre little island,” Draco says, eyes glinting. “I know how to get there, I know how much they charge for a cup of tea and a bag of chips, I know how close the ladies’ toilets are in every location and I know which parts of the beach you can stand on without having your ice cream stolen by seagulls.”
Harry smiles until he has to look away. “That’s very impressive.”
“Of course it is,” Draco says, handing him back the photograph. “I’m surprised it’s impressive for you, though. Haven’t you travelled everywhere?”
“Seventy-eight countries so far,” Harry says, shrugging. “But you don’t really see them properly when you’re working, and I do work, whatever you might think. Thing is, I’ve barely travelled here at all. I haven’t even been to Scotland for anything except school.”
“Aren’t you odd?” Draco murmurs. He picks up his cup of tea from the dashboard and sips it thoughtfully.
“Maybe you can educate me,” Harry says. “Let me come on some of your outings.”
“You’ve been to the park, what more do you want?”
“I don’t know… where are we going next?”
Draco eyes him sternly. “My schedule is top secret. Only me and the biddy club know where we are going, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”
“Maybe I’ll get it out of them, then,” Harry says, allowing his eyes to stray to the back of the bus, where Audrey is now sitting in his chair and Eilish has set up an easel, upon which she seems to be painting a rather impressionistic picture of Juno.
Draco huffs. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“They wouldn’t dare,” he says, folding his arms.
Harry grins. “I think they might. They think I’m a lovely young man.”
“You aren’t,” Draco says. “You’re extremely annoying.”
“You might think that…” Harry begins, now relishing the chance to wind Draco up.
“That’s right. I do.”
“But old ladies love me.”
“Perhaps that’s because their judgement is impaired,” Draco says.
“I’m going to tell them you said that,” Harry threatens, grinning. “I’m going to tell them you said that and then they’ll all attack you with their crochet hooks.”
Draco’s eyes flit to the chattering old ladies and then back to Harry.
He holds his hand out and Harry shakes it, surprised to feel his skin heat with embarrassment. He takes a deep breath and allows the mingled aromas of tea and lavender and watercolour paints to surround him, feeling the deep rumble of the bus engine through the soles of his feet as Draco pulls them back into traffic, and deciding that overthinking this thing will only make it worse. For now, he’s just going to see where it leads him.
Chapter 7: Seventh of December
Seventh of December – Snowy bridge and a lamp post
By the time he wakes up on Tuesday morning, Harry’s blithe, go-with-the-flow attitude has deserted him completely. He lies flat on his back, breathing hard, sheets and insides in knots as the last threads of his dreams slither over him and pin him to the mattress.
There had been more, and there had certainly been images more unsettling, but all Harry can really remember is the handshakes. The one he had never accepted on his first day of school, the ones, begrudgingly and perfunctorily given after Quidditch matches, the strange, tentative one offered for the return of a wand, and the most recent: cool, strong fingers wrapping around his and pale eyes bright on his in the cab of the Knight Bus.
Feeling rather dazed, he lifts his hand and stares at it. His skin is grey in the early morning gloom, his nails ragged, and his palm covered in tiny scars from the attentions of an over-enthusiastic wild puffskein he had been asked to hold for a photograph during his most recent campaign. The sight of the marks makes him smile, and then Draco’s words drift back into his head and he shivers.
“Saint Potter… building schools for African children… telling us all not to step on bristle beetles…”
“Shut up, Draco,” he says loudly to the ceiling, but the cultured, sardonic voice seems to follow him all the way down to the kitchen and all the way through boiling the kettle and buttering his toast.
Despite his best efforts to push the lot of it away, he barely tastes his breakfast and manages to wash his hair three times in a row before he realises that once probably would have been enough. Irritated, he brushes his teeth with more vigour than necessary and throws on the first jumper and pair of jeans he sees without bothering to dry himself. Finally, with very clean hair, sore gums and an all-over feeling of damp discomfort, he stands in the middle of his bedroom, folds his arms, and scowls.
The clock on the wall ticks mockingly, reminding him that it is only twenty minutes past eight in the morning and Draco Malfoy has already ruined his day. And he doesn’t care if that sounds ridiculous and dramatic, because there is no one here but him, and besides, it’s the truth. He’s spent the last decade wondering about that idiot, thinking he might have seen him in the street or in the queue at the Apothecary or hurrying into a Muggle sandwich shop, and now he’s everywhere.
Granted, Harry is the one who is seeking him out now, hailing the Knight Bus and sitting in the conductor’s seat and… oh, god, he really needs to stop it. He’s not entirely sure what it is about Malfoy that makes him feel so churned up inside but whatever it is, he’s only making it worse.
He doesn’t need to hail the bus today. He can do anything he wants. Forcing himself to take a deep breath, Harry walks to the window and pulls open the heavy curtains.
“Ah,” he says, surprised. It’s snowing, and not just a little bit.
Great, fluffy flakes are drifting down past his window, adding themselves to the thick, sparkly coating that has already turned Grimmauld Place into a scene of iced perfection that makes Harry taste sugar and marzipan on his tongue. A pair of deep tracks—one human and one canine—tell him that Mr Glenister next door and his collie Max have braved the weather for their morning walk, and also that the snow has fallen heavily overnight.
“Inside it is, then,” Harry mumbles to himself, leaving the window behind and starting to wander around the house.
Ron and Hermione will, of course, be working, as will most of his other friends. Of course, if he were to hail the Knight Bus, he could be sitting in an armchair and drinking tea with the biddy club in minutes… but he’s not going to do that. Perhaps Rose’s school will be closed for the day. He could Apparate over and visit her at the Burrow, because… Harry sighs.
Because he’s incapable of entertaining himself? No. Of course he fucking isn’t. With some effort, he pushes dreams and snow and Malfoy and all the rest of it out of his mind, and stomps off to find something to do.
By midday, he has cleaned everything in sight, filled the house with the scent of beeswax and cleaning charms, and washed every item of clothes he owns, including the ones that were probably already clean.
By three o’clock, he has organised all of his paperwork, photographs and newspaper clippings, filing them away by individual campaign and using a neat little charm taught to him by Hermione to compress the lot into a space no bigger than an average spell book.
By five-thirty, he is beginning to weaken. Already wondering what kind of gossip he has missed out on, he almost catches himself dashing out into the snow to find a copy of the Daily Prophet, at which point he sits down at the kitchen table with his head in his hands until the last of his sanity prevails.
Horrified with himself, he takes tea and biscuits into the living room, settles in his fireside chair and opens the book Ginny gave him for his birthday. He has no idea what it’s about, and when, by seven o’clock, he realises that he still has no idea what it’s about, he gives in. Abandoning the book and dousing the fire, he pulls on his duffel coat, grabs his wand, and heads out into the street.
He immediately sinks up to the tops of his boots in the snow and is still swearing, loudly and creatively, when the bus screeches up beside him and Draco leans out.
“What time do you call this?”
Harry sighs. “Is it after hours? Right. I’ll go back in.”
“No, you idiot, that’s not what I meant,” Draco says, coming to the door and descending the steps with Juno leaping ahead of him into the snow. “Where were you earlier? The biddies were extremely concerned for your welfare.”
“Oh, I… sorry,” Harry mumbles distractedly, watching as Draco stalks out into the snow and sweeps his wand through the air, causing the Knight Bus to shimmer and disappear almost completely.
“Juno and I were just about to go for a walk.” He hesitates, looking away from Harry and focusing on his cat, who is already rolling around on her back in the snow. “You’re welcome to join us.”
Startled, Harry nods. When Draco turns and starts to walk away, he hurriedly dries and snow-proofs his boots and scrambles to catch up with him.
“I take it there’s no one on the bus now?” he says.
“Only Mr Barleycorn. I think you met him once before,” Draco says, directing a small smile at the snowy ground.
Harry nods. “I remember. He thought we were being too loud.”
“You were,” Draco says. “He’s been travelling with us for two nights a week for as long as I can remember. I don’t think we’ve ever had a stag party before.”
“Sorry about that,” Harry says, now feeling idiotic. “Where does he go?”
“Cardiff to Edinburgh. He doesn’t really need to take a bed for the night but that’s what he likes. He’s not much of a talker, but I’ve gathered he has a very noisy family.”
Harry bites down on the urge to apologise again. Instead, he stumbles along beside Draco, still sinking into the snow but no longer caring, shivering as the flakes settle on his face and hair. In front of them, Juno leaps and dashes delightedly, pouncing on invisible prey and gathering snow in her long coat. Draco’s expression is surprisingly serene, his posture relaxed, hands tucked into coat pockets and shoulder brushing Harry’s every few steps.
Steeling himself, Harry jumps. “So, if you’re driving the bus during the day and in the evening, how do you have any time to yourself?”
“There’s another driver,” Draco says. “Vesseur.”
“He’s French,” Draco sighs, and then glances at Harry. “But that’s not what you really want to ask, is it?”
Harry says nothing for a moment, feeling caught. “No,” he admits finally. “But you said you didn’t want to talk about it, and I was trying out ‘being respectful’.”
Draco’s mouth flickers at one corner. “Well, perhaps I want to talk about it now.”
Harry stares at him, suddenly taken by the urge to kick snow at him. Instead, he accepts a frozen crisp packet from Juno and then takes a deep breath.
“Okay. I suppose the biggest question is, how did you end up driving the Knight Bus?”
Draco smiles slowly. “Community service,” he says with an odd sort of relish.
Startled, Harry turns to him. “You mean you’re…? For god’s sake, Draco, it’s been twelve years,” he hisses.
“You know, you should really wait for people to finish their stories before you explode,” Draco says calmly. “Juno, stay out of the road.”
The cat chirrups, shakes some of the snow from her coat and barrels off in the direction of a stone footbridge up ahead.
“You are so annoying, do you know that?” Harry snaps, attempting to hide the way his every fibre feels pulled tight at the thought of twelve years’ worth of enforced labour. He’s well aware of the Ministry’s decision to apply ‘useful’ punishments where possible after the war, but this seems… at best, bizarre and at most, sadistic.
“Believe it or not, you aren’t the first person to have ever told me that,” Draco says. “I did this for two years with a rather measly stipend from the Ministry, and then I decided to stay on.”
Draco shrugs. “Why not?”
At the highest point of the bridge, lit by a traditional iron and glass streetlamp, Juno is waiting, perching on the rough stone wall and gazing out regally over the streets and houses. Harry leans next to her, resting his arms on the wall and letting out plumes of white breath into the night. His face and hands are almost completely numb, but he doesn’t care. The air tastes sharp and cold, and Draco is talking. He’s being somewhat cryptic, of course, but Harry hasn’t ever expected anything less.
“You could have done whatever you wanted,” he says at last. “You could have gone to live in another country. You could have been a… man about town, and had loads of beautiful women fighting over you, and then married one and had lots of posh, blond children.”
Draco laughs. He leans beside Harry on the wall of the bridge. “I’m not sure where even to start with that,” he admits. “A man about town?”
“Oh, shut up,” Harry mutters, smiling. “I mean that… well, you can hardly be doing this for the money.”
“If you’re referring to my father’s money, I refused to have anything to do with it,” Draco says, tone turning icy. “It may surprise you to hear that it didn’t take me all that long to grow up and realise that the whole Malfoy estate is tainted and will bring nothing but misery to anyone who inherits it.”
Harry’s heart stutters painfully and he turns to stare at Draco. “I’m sorry. Seriously. I didn’t realise. What did you do with it?”
“When my father died, I signed it all over to the Ministry,” he says, catching Harry’s look of astonishment. “No, I’m still not their biggest fan but I made them sign a contract promising that they would use the money for useful things, not for pointless bureaucracy and certainly not for wars.”
“Oh,” Harry says, words yanked away from him by the admission. “I had no idea.”
“Of course not, and why would you?” Draco says. “And before you ask, MLE knows nothing about it, so neither do Weasley and Granger.”
“Right,” Harry says, resting his chin on his arms and gazing out into the darkness. He wants to say ‘well done’ or ‘are you mad?’ or ‘fucking hell, Draco, I’m actually really impressed’ but his throat feels tight and dry and unable to let anything more than single syllables pass.
“My mother gave me the Black inheritance early,” Draco continues, reaching out and combing snow from Juno’s fur with his fingers. “I used it to buy the bus, and here we are. It’s ironic, really… Mother had her community service taking care of old people. Now she’s living on a commune in Belgium with people half her age, and I’m here, driving the biddy club around the British bloody Isles.”
Harry turns to look at him and is immediately caught by the way his hair gleams almost golden in the lamplight. Shivering, he finally finds his voice.
“You can say it like that, but I think you enjoy it,” he says.
“I do. I can go wherever I want, whenever I want,” Draco agrees, shrugging. “The ladies don’t care where we go, as long as it’s pretty. I get very few hails out of the ordinary. The Knight Bus isn’t really a fashionable way to travel any more, but we manage. I don’t need a conductor and I can’t really afford one. Between Juno and I, everything gets done.”
“And Vesseur,” Harry reminds him.
Harry glances around before pulling out his wand and casting a warming charm. He loops it around himself and Draco but opts not to include Juno, who seems to relish the cold. As he watches her, she leaps down from the wall and dives into a drift of snow that has gathered alongside a large holly bush.
“You know, I never imagined you as an animal person,” he says, mostly to himself.
Draco makes a small sound of surprise. “I’ve always had cats.”
Harry glances at him. “What, even when you were at school?”
“Yes. Since I was three years old. My first cat was a tabby called Moliere. I taught him to fetch my socks in the morning. All my cats have been retrievers ever since,” Draco says, looking at Harry as though all of this should have been perfectly obvious to him.
“Why didn’t you bring them to school?”
“My mother,” Draco sighs, clearly torn between exasperation and affection. “She had a cat who was hurt at Hogwarts in an accident. She would never allow me to take mine with me in case the same thing happened. Of course, now she’s off picking flowers and chanting, I can do what I like.”
Amused, Harry runs his fingers through the patch of snow atop the wall where Juno has left neat, if rather large, pawprints.
“You’re very quiet,” Draco says. “Should I be worried?”
Harry laughs softly. “I’m just thinking.”
To his astonishment, Draco reaches out and touches the back of his hand to Harry’s forehead. The contact makes him shiver and he takes a step back, pretending offence.
“Alright, thank you, I have been known to think occasionally,” he mutters.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen any evidence of it,” Draco says, but he withdraws his hand and turns, leaning with his back against the wall of the bridge and his elbows resting on top.
“Kindly go and fuck yourself,” Harry says, copying his posture before he realises what he’s doing.
“I’ll do nothing of the sort.” Draco smiles slowly. “Anyway, you’ve heard my tale now, and a very dull one it is, too. I think it might be time for you to tell me about all those men.”
“It’s not all those men, you make it sound like I’ve dated the entire Quidditch League,” Harry protests, but he knows that fair is fair, and if he wants Draco to continue to open up to him, which, for some reason, he really does, he is going to have to spill at least some of the beans.
“That would be a good story, too,” Draco says innocently. “You could make it up. I wouldn’t mind.”
Harry grins. “Well, maybe one day. The truth is that Ron and Hermione have been trying to find me a man ever since they got married. Which was ten years ago.”
Draco winces. “So they were…?”
“Twenty. Yes. But that’s fine, some people are just made for each other.”
“And how many have been made for you so far?” Draco asks.
Harry sighs. He sticks his tongue out and catches a snowflake on it, letting it dissolve as he organises the facts in his head.
Draco’s eyes go entertainingly wide. “Good grief.”
“Sixty-seven first dates, sixty-seven dinners or drinks or Quidditch games… the most recent took me to a boxing match, which I hated, and another insisted we go to Ollivanders to get our… oh, god… to get our wand grips checked,” Harry says, closing his eyes and groaning.
Draco laughs, filling the cold air with a sound that wraps around Harry like his fading warming charm.
“Start at the beginning. Please.”
“We’ll freeze,” Harry points out. “And Mr Barleycorn might need you.”
“We’d better go back to the bus, then,” Draco says. “Come on, Juno.”
Knowing he is defeated, Harry gives in, falling into step beside Draco and casting his mind back.
“Barnsley Boulderstone,” he says, stepping into the snow just as the rushed protective charms on his boots begin to wear off. He grimaces. “Twenty-five. Liked to wear a kilt… in fact, often wore nothing but a kilt. I hadn’t come out long before and I think they assumed I’d be looking for hairy, burly, and covered in tattoos of unicorns. No.” Harry pauses, shaking his head. “I don’t think they could have assumed I was looking for that. I’m not sure what was going through their heads at all, but after he got up in the middle of dinner and dangled me upside down by my shoelace, let’s say I made my displeasure obvious to them.”
“By your shoelace?” Draco mumbles faintly, and then when Harry turns to look at him, he loses it and laughs delightedly.
Harry kicks him in the ankle. “Do you want to hear another one or not?”
Draco presses his lips together and nods. “I do. I really do.”
Harry takes a deep breath, ignores his freezing, wet feet, and relents. “Number two was a poet. He passed out after two firewhiskies and then when I revived him, he wouldn’t get up off the floor until I’d heard all thirty-two verses of the poem he’d written about me.”
“I’d like to hear that,” Draco says.
“It was very rude,” Harry informs him. “And anyway, I can’t remember it.”
Draco spells the bus back into visibility and opens the door. “Try.”
Chapter 8: Eighth of December
Eighth of December – leather arm chair
After being unceremoniously ejected from the bus at around ten o’clock, Harry stands under a hot shower until his extremities begin to thaw out, takes Ginny’s book to bed and falls asleep with the taste of Draco’s hot chocolate lingering on his lips. This time, when he wakes, he doesn’t even bother to tell himself that he’s going to avoid the Knight Bus. Not only does he think he has made a breakthrough with Draco at last, he misses the biddy club and he doesn’t know how to make his house any cleaner without inviting Molly round to inspect it. While he suspects she has both the time and the inclination to do so, he’s not going to ask.
The snow is still very much present on the street, despite the midday sun making its best efforts to shift the lot, and when the Knight Bus careers into view, its wheels kick white powder over everything in sight. Harry, however, has learned, and protects himself with a Shield Charm until the bus comes to rest.
Draco pulls the lever to open the doors and then disappears out of sight. Intrigued, Harry climbs on board, waits for the doors to close behind him and then proceeds into the main body of the bus, where he finds Eilish, Corrie, Danica, and Ida seated around their usual table and Draco hurrying to join them. All but Eilish are scrutinising playing cards and glancing at little piles of Knuts at their side, while Eilish, sporting a bright green croupier’s visor, oversees the whole thing and keeps an eye on the larger pile of bronze coins in the centre of the table.
“Am I on the right bus?” he jokes, and all the ladies look up as though they haven’t heard him arrive.
“Calm yourself, it’s just a little bit of poker,” Corrie says. “It’s no good, girls, I’m gon’ to have to make these cards bigger.”
“You can’t,” Ida says, scandalised. “You’ll be able to keep track of the deck. It’s cheating!”
“That’s right,” Draco says, still staring at his cards. “And you don’t need any help; you’ve won twenty-five Knuts from me today already.”
“Well, I can’t help it,” Corrie says, dark eyes appealing. “And how’m I supposed to know if this is an Ace of Diamonds or an Ace of Hearts?”
“Corrie! Your cards are a secret,” Danica reproves, counting out her Knuts with a long finger.
Harry, who is standing at such an angle that he can clearly see Corrie’s cards, thinks they would all be very interested to know that she has neither an Ace of Diamonds nor an Ace of Hearts. He is also completely unsurprised that her pile of Knuts is the biggest by far.
“Alright,” Eilish says, holding up her hands. “Corrie, I will whisper to you what cards you have because I am not playing, I’m just dealing. Okay?”
Corrie acquiesces, still mumbling to herself, and Harry sits on the top bar of the luggage rack to watch their game. He has never seen such serious faces on the ladies, and Draco’s little frown of concentration makes him want to smile.
“I’ll see you,” he sighs, dropping several coins into the centre and making his sleeve ride up his forearm.
The sudden combination of pale skin, faded ink and midnight blue fabric makes Harry feel weak, and he grabs the cold metal bar tightly, stomach lurching.
“Are you alright?” Danica asks, sharp eyes fastening on him.
“Yeah,” he lies. “Can I play?”
“I’m afraid we’re rather in the middle of it here,” Eilish says with an apologetic smile. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Thanks, in a minute. Draco, do you want me to go and shield the bus? It’s still very much… there.”
“Hmm?” Draco looks up, blinking.
“The bus,” Harry repeats, fingers slipping on the bar. “Would you like me to go and make it less visible?”
“That’s a good idea,” Draco says vaguely, and then turns back to his cards.
Harry sighs and levers himself to the floor. When he has obscured the bus with a couple of charms that are, to his irritation, not quite as effective as Draco’s, he lets himself back on and hesitates, listening to the clinking and shuffling and arguing coming from the players at the table.
“Oww,” says Juno, brushing past his legs and leaping up onto the dashboard.
Harry instinctively looks for Montague, quickly finding him sleeping at Ida’s feet, paws and nose twitching in silent dreams. Juno, disinterested in both the sausage dog and the idea of rest, walks up and down the dashboard, rubbing herself against the steering wheel and then springing onto the back of Draco’s leather chair.
“Are you supposed to be on there?” he asks, but Juno merely flicks her large ears and gazes at him calmly. “It does look like a nice chair…”
With as much subtlety as he can muster, Harry leans back and scans the table. No one, least of all Draco, is looking his way, and it’s just possible that he’ll get away with it. He has always wanted a go at driving a bus, ever since he was a small child, and the Knight Bus is a very special bus indeed. Granted, he’s only going to pretend to drive it, but that knowledge doesn’t dampen his excitement one bit as he slides into the chair and rests his hands on the wheel.
Juno leans over his shoulder, long whiskers brushing his face, as though waiting to see what he’s planning to do.
“Look at all these levers, Juno,” he whispers, tracing his fingers over rows and rows of mysterious brass knobs. “Here’s the one to open the doors, and here’s the one to squash the bus thin…”
Juno lets out a soft chirrup and rests her paws on his shoulder, settling her weight until he feels as though he is providing a perch for a very large and very furry parrot.
“More pedals than I was expecting,” he continues, frowning.
Very gently, he presses his foot against seven pedals in turn, and then lets his feet rest on the floor, all at once finding a new admiration for what Draco does, and the way he appears to expend no effort at all when doing it.
“Look, Juno, we’re being hailed,” he whispers, smiling when the cat presses her cold nose against his earlobe. “We have to get to… erm, Birmingham, and we have to get there fast!”
Harry pretends to pull several levers in turn, swinging the wheel around and throwing himself with it as though the whole bus is pelting around corners at top speed, stamping his feet into the floor in front of the pedals and reaching out for the handbrake. He makes a soft screeching sound under his breath, and Juno digs her claws into his shoulder, apparently as caught up in his game as he is.
“Oh, no, this alleyway is too narrow! Breathe in, everyone!” he whispers, hand coming up to grasp the imaginary handle and not realising his mistake until Juno lets out a surprised little sound and there’s the scrape of wood on wood, and someone is coming towards them, backwards and stretched thin in the rearview mirror.
The feeling of compression forces his breath out of him, and in the confusion, he hangs onto the very real handle for dear life.
“Let go of that,” Draco says, and of course it’s Draco, but he doesn’t sound right and he doesn’t look right and it takes Harry a moment too long to release the handle, and there are cool fingers wrapping around his and tugging them away.
The bus pings back to its normal shape in an instant, but Harry’s ears are ringing and he can’t decide if Draco looks cross and amused or just cross.
“What are you doing in my seat?” he demands, hands on hips.
Harry blinks repeatedly, waiting for the world to come back into focus.
“I was just… playing,” he admits finally, face heating. “I didn’t actually mean to pull that.”
Draco’s eyebrow flickers. He looks at Juno and shakes his head.
“You were encouraging him, weren’t you?”
Juno peers at him for a moment and then abandons Harry’s shoulder, dashing across the floor, up the stairs and out of sight.
“Did you touch anything else?”
“No,” Harry says hotly. “I just wanted to see what it was like. It was an accident.”
“Don’t interfere with my bus, Harry,” Draco says, and though his voice is stern, there is a flicker of humour in his eyes that both confuses and intrigues Harry.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and it’s almost a whisper.
Draco holds out a hand to pull him up and Harry takes it, leaving the worn softness of the chair behind and standing slowly. He doesn’t let go of Draco’s hand, and Draco doesn’t pull it away. Instead, they stare at each other in silence, Harry’s heart beating so loud in his chest that he thinks the biddies must be able to hear it over the sound of their card game.
Draco’s eyes burn him. He wants to look away but he seems to have lost control over his muscles to the point that he has no idea how he is continuing to stand.
“Why do you really come here?” Draco asks quietly.
“I like you… I mean… I like it,” Harry mumbles, and just when he thinks he’s going to burst into flames, Draco whips the curtain shut with a slash of his wand and steps close, threading his fingers into Harry’s hair and kissing him hard.
Flooded with sensation, Harry kisses back, heat rushing to every part of him as he pushes Draco back against the dashboard. Pulled tight together, mouths slipping in a desperate rush, Harry is dizzy and breathless, wanting more but feeling his knees turning to water beneath him. Everything inside him hammering and sparking, he presses close, tasting tea and humbugs on Draco’s tongue and wondering how any of this makes sense, or if he even wants it to.
Draco lets out a small, uncontrolled sound that rips down Harry’s spine, dropping his mouth to Harry’s neck and then turning stiff, still, unresponsive. With aching gentleness he holds Harry at arm’s length and just stares at him, breathing hard.
“I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have done that,” he says at last.
“What?” Harry frowns, wanting to reach for him again already. “Why not?”
“It just wasn’t a good idea,” Draco says, and the ragged kindness in his voice makes Harry’s heart sore.
“I don’t think you mean that,” Harry says, confused and careless.
“My life is very complicated,” Draco says, releasing him and taking a step back. “I think we… maybe we could start again?”
Harry scrubs at his hair. “Again again, you mean?”
Harry stares at him. Draco’s eyes are bright and his skin is flushed, and static seems to leap between them in strands, harsh enough to hurt, but he doesn’t really understand any of it. Draco’s expression dares him to try, and suddenly all he wants to do is go home, sit in front of the fire and sulk. Fortunately, the bus is still parked outside his house and no one is making him stay here.
“I’d better go,” he says, stuffing his hands into his pockets and heading for the door.
“Harry,” Draco says suddenly, and he turns. “Please don’t stay away. We all liked having you here. I shouldn’t have ruined it.”
With no idea what to say, Harry just stares at him. When the curtain is opened and Eilish appears, it seems to him as though it must be obvious to her, all of it.
“Draco, we can’t wait for you forever,” she says. “Danica is about to invoke some kind of poker by-law that I’ve never even heard of. Oh… Harry, are you leaving already?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a lot to do today, I’m afraid,” he lies.
Eilish smiles. “I’m sure you have. But you’ll be back tomorrow, won’t you?”
Something heavy rests in Harry’s stomach. He looks at her expectant face and sighs. Pretends that Draco isn’t staring holes into the back of his head.
“Yes, Eilish. I’ll be here tomorrow.”
Chapter 9: Ninth of December
Ninth of December - mouse
After several hours of fractured, restless sleep, Harry gives up and hauls himself out of bed well before sunrise. Wrapped in a soft, old bathrobe, he curls up on his bedroom windowsill and rests his forehead on the cold glass, breathing slowly and tracing patterns in the condensation with a lazy fingertip. Grimmauld Place is sleeping, as, he supposes, is anyone with a bit of sense. Even Rose, who is an obscenely early riser, will still be tucked up in bed with her one-eared woolly rabbit, and Harry smiles for a moment at the thought, pushing away the sudden urge to forget his manners and firecall his friends.
They need all the sleep they can get, and besides, he has no idea what he’d tell them even if they were right here in front of him.
“The thing is, guys,” he mutters, addressing the stick pictures of Ron and Hermione he is now drawing on the window, “It was Malfoy that night, and not only have I been riding around on his bus every day since but now I’m starting to feel… I’m starting to feel something for him and now we’ve kissed, but according to him, we shouldn’t’ve, and I don’t know what I think but it’s all a bit overwhelming and I probably like him more than I should, and that’s pretty much everything, so… your thoughts?”
The stick figures glimmer back at him but remain stubbornly silent.
“Good,” he says, wiping away all the patterns with his hand and gazing out at the snow, now littered with tracks and turned orange by the streetlamps.
It’s fine, because he doesn’t need any help. He suspects he’s too caught up now for even the sagest of advice to do any good. He brushes his thumb across his lower lip and shudders as the memory of Draco’s mouth, his hands, his warmth, echoes against his skin and pulls him tight with longing.
Letting out a long, controlled breath, he wraps his arms around his knees and tucks himself in tight. He’s going to go back, because he promised Eilish and because he is not the sort of person who runs away from his problems. All he has to do is not think about it.
As it turns out, not thinking about it works wonderfully all through the morning, all the way out into the street and right up to the moment when Draco opens the doors of the bus. The second the cautious grey eyes meet his, however, Harry is rooted to the spot, feeling as though his face is on fire and his insides are trying to completely rearrange themselves.
“Are you getting on?” Draco asks, and there’s a tone of nonchalance in his voice that Harry doesn’t quite believe. His fingers grip the wheel tightly and his posture, usually relaxed when in command of his bus, is rigid and uncertain.
Harry nods weakly and steps inside, barely pulling his coat out of the way as Draco yanks the doors closed behind him. He drops his coins into the scoop and reaches for the curtain, sensing that he will have a warmer reception from the ladies.
“Are you not speaking to me?” Draco asks, and Harry turns, astonished.
“I didn’t think you’d feel like talking,” he says irritably.
“I never said I didn’t want to talk,” Draco says, now avoiding his eyes. “You were the one who buggered off. You shot into your house like something was chasing you.”
“You… you…” Harry catches his breath and lowers his voice, “You were the one who started it, and then you said it was all a big mistake! What did you expect me to do?”
“Well, yes, I did say that, but maybe that’s not what I really meant,” Draco hisses, turning now to meet his eyes.
Harry’s heart clenches. “Well, what did you mean?”
Draco stares at him, flushed and startlingly vulnerable. “I don’t know.”
Harry closes his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them again, the pale eyes are still fixed on him with more intensity than he can take.
“Okay, well, if you work that out, feel free to let me know. I’m going to go and have a cup of tea,” he declares, already cringing at his theatrics as he ducks through the curtain and heads for the table.
The ladies are oddly quiet as he takes his seat, but he is quickly lifted by their smiles, their immediate pouring of tea and the offer of home made cakes from a tin with a painted stag on the lid. He settles back into his chair, a solidly-made thing in soft, forest green fabric, and sips the fragrant liquid from his cup.
“I think that’s your chair now, you know,” Eilish says. “You’ve had the same one for the last few days.”
Puzzled, Harry looks at his chair. “What do you mean?”
“The bus created chairs for each of us,” Danica says. “Sometimes it takes a few tries to get the right one, but then it remembers.”
“I didn’t realise the bus had its own magic,” Harry says, scanning Corrie’s patchwork and Eilish’s dusky pink velvet. Each of the chairs seems to fit its owner perfectly in everything from size to style and individual fabric.
“It does,” Ida says, leaning forward to beam at him. “But it’s Draco’s magic, too. His magic and the bus’s magic are linked. It’s all very clever.”
“A connection like no other,” Corrie puts in. “You see, he’s in a funny mood this morning and the bus can feel it.”
As she speaks, the bus splutters loudly, engine protesting so violently that the whole bottom deck seems to shiver. After a moment, it settles back down into its usual vibrating hum.
“I don’t think Harry wants to talk about that, Corrie,” Ida says, but Corrie just laughs.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Harry lies, heart speeding.
Eilish looks around the table, sighs, and brushes chalk pastel dust from her hands.
“Right. How old are you, Harry, dear?”
“Thirty, but…” Harry mumbles, frowning.
“Ladies, give me your ages,” Eilish says, raising her wand.
As Corrie, Danica and Ida do the same, several fine, gold numbers float towards Eilish and tangle in an elegant spell that Harry has never seen before.
“We have four hundred and twelve years of experience,” she says, flicking her wand so that the number spins in the air and then disappears.
“We know about men,” Ida says with a rather naughty smile.
“Jamaican men are the most stubborn,” Corrie insists. “So I know more than most.”
“So do I,” Danica says, and the others cackle delightedly, while Corrie slaps her friend on the shoulder with a knitting needle.
Bewildered, Harry looks around at them all. “What makes you think I need help with men?”
This just sets them off giggling again, and all he can do is wait. There’s no way they can know anything about the situation with Draco. He’s pretty sure. And yet.
Danica whips a spell at the closed curtain and fixes him with a motherly eye. “Just a bit of a silencer. He doesn’t need to know that we’re talking about him.”
“Oh, no, he wouldn’t like that,” Ida says, pale eyes large with anxiety.
“Don’t fuss,” Corrie tells her. “What he don’t know won’t hurt him.”
“We know he’s a strange young man,” Eilish says, lowering her voice in spite of the silencing charm. “He’s dedicated… solitary…”
“Pigheaded,” Corrie puts in, nodding at Harry.
“But he likes you,” Ida says, patting Harry’s hand. “He hoped you’d come back after that night, and when he kissed you first—”
“Hang on, what?” Harry demands, pulse quickening.
The ladies glance at each other, each nodding slowly before Ida reaches into her handbag and pulls out a small object. As Harry watches, she uncoils a long, flexible pole with a gleaming, brass eye-shaped device attached to the end. The eye blinks at him and he blinks back in surprise.
“I’m not sure I want to know,” Harry says, but if he’s honest, he doesn’t think he needs to.
“We only like to make sure he’s alright,” Eilish says guiltily.
“By spying on him with an eye on a stick?” Harry asks, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice.
“He spends a lot of time alone,” Danica says. “It’s for his own good.”
Harry smiles but says nothing, suspecting they are motivated at least as strongly by the urge to mother as they are by their concern for Draco and their own curiosity.
“The point is,” Eilish says, “don’t give up on him. He might have a funny way of showing it, but he’s pleased you’re here.”
Harry nods, gazing at the curtain as a confused sort of hope adds itself to the tangle of emotions in his chest. He has no idea what to do with it, but perhaps that’s okay for now. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, picking up his neglected slice of Victoria sponge and biting into it.
“This jam is fantastic,” he mumbles, and Danica beams.
“Audrey makes good jams,” Ida says. “She wins prizes in the village fete. Where is Audrey, anyway?”
“Audrey doesn’t come on Thursdays,” Corrie says. “She comes on Mondays.”
“That’s right,” Eilish says. “On Thursdays she has her lunch at the Leaky Cauldron and then her son takes her to do her food shopping in Diagon Alley.”
“Isn’t it Monday?” Ida asks.
“No, woman, it’s Thursday,” Corrie says, shaking her head.
Ida tucks the brass eye back into her bag and shrugs. “Oh.”
“Doesn’t her son have lunch with her?” Harry asks, impressed and entertained by the way his new friends seem to know each other’s lives inside out.
“Oh, no,” Ida says. “He’s very busy, you see.”
“Works at Gringotts,” Corrie adds, glancing at Harry in a way that tells him he ought to be very impressed.
“Where?” Eilish asks, leaning across the table.
“GRINGOTTS!” Corrie bellows, just as Eilish plugs her trumpet into her ear.
“No need to shout, dear,” she says, shaking her head and removing the trumpet. She frowns. “There’s something wrong with this.”
“Yes, it’s ugly,” Corrie mumbles, and Harry snorts.
Eilish either doesn’t hear or doesn’t appear to notice, so focused is she on peering into the instrument, and when she lets out a shriek of surprise, everyone around the table jumps.
“Are you alright?” Harry asks, already out of his seat.
“Good heavens,” Eilish murmurs, shaking the trumpet violently until something falls out of it and drops onto the floor.
Just then, the bus gives an enormous lurch and takes a corner at speed, causing Harry to stumble, crashing to the floor on his hands and knees, and the thing which has been shaken free of Eilish’s trumpet to scuttle under the table.
“What is it?” Ida asks.
“It’s a rat,” Eilish says with more than a touch of drama.
“In your ear trumpet?” Danica says dubiously.
“Probably was trying to gnaw its way to your brain,” Corrie says, and her laughter vibrates through the floor and into Harry’s body.
“Alright,” he says, peering under the table. “It’s not a rat, it’s a mouse. I don’t know how it got into your ear trumpet, Eilish, but I don’t think mice eat human brains.”
“What shall we do with it?” Danica asks, edging round the table and kneeling beside Harry with impressive nimbleness.
“It’s only a mouse. Will it really do much damage if we just leave it alone?” Harry asks. He can see the light reflecting on the tiny creature’s beady black eyes. It seems to regard him appealingly, whiskers trembling and breathing rapid.
“I don’t know,” Danica says, but when she leans forward to get a better look, the mouse takes off, spooked, and runs straight into the sleeping form of Montague.
The dog wakes instantly and Harry holds his breath, waiting for some sort of horrible carnage to unfold, but the moment Montague lays eyes on the mouse, he lets out a terrified whimper and pelts out from under the table, tail down and ears flapping. Harry has never seen him move so quickly; within two seconds he is through the curtain with the mouse now in hot pursuit.
“What’s happening?” Ida demands, just as Harry grabs his wand and freezes the little creature in place.
“Draco’s not going to like Montague being in there,” Danica says darkly.
“No, but a mouse would be worse,” Harry says, getting to his feet and scooping it up. “He could get under the pedals and cause a crash.”
“Very wise,” Danica says, getting to her feet with a few creaks and returning to her seat.
Eilish regards the mouse in Harry’s hands with deep suspicion, but the others lean in to inspect it, touching its whiskers and little paws as it remains magically frozen.
“I wonder where Juno is,” Harry says. “He’s lucky she wasn’t here to eat him.”
“She’s here, sitting on my feet,” Ida laughs. “I think chasing mice is a bit beneath her.”
Amused, Harry lifts the tablecloth, and sure enough, there is Juno, curled around Ida’s legs and gazing up at him calmly with serene green eyes.
“Bad cat,” Eilish mumbles, but the others shush her immediately.
“I’ll take him if you like,” Danica says. “He’s got spirit.”
“Where you going to put him?” Corrie asks. “In the biscuit tin?”
Danica empties several biscuits out onto a plate and pushes the tin towards Harry. Carefully, he places the mouse inside as Danica punches air holes through the lid with her wand. Once everything is secure, he lifts the spell, allowing the mouse to dart in circles around the tin, picking up biscuit crumbs and nibbling on them contentedly, seemingly none the worse for his adventure.
“My Christmas biscuits are going to go stale now,” Ida sighs, but she’s smiling as she watches the mouse scuttling around in his temporary home.
“I won’t let that happen, Ida, even if I have to eat them all myself,” Eilish says.
“I’ll help,” Harry promises, and not just because Ida’s Christmas biscuits are the best biscuits he has ever eaten.
He takes one from the plate, biting into it and showering his jumper with crumbs. The biscuit is short and buttery with orange peel, chunks of cranberry and a mix of spices that is, Ida has assured him, completely top secret.
“So, we got Christmas biscuits, a Christmas mouse, but still no decorations,” Corrie sighs.
“Not even a bit of tinsel,” Ida says gloomily, looking around at the decidedly un-festive interior of the bus.
“They’ve got the tree up in the town,” Danica puts in. “They had some kind of singer come to switch the lights on.”
“Who was it?” Harry asks.
“I don’t know, but he had very tall hair.”
Harry grins. “Maybe you should tell Draco you’d like some decorations.”
“We do,” Eilish says. “It takes him a long time to get the hint.”
“You could protest,” Harry jokes. “Stage a sit-in. ‘What do we want?—Decorations! When do we want them?—December!’”
The ladies laugh delightedly, and it’s almost enough to stop Harry wondering how Draco is getting on with an unimpressed dachshund under his feet.
“Let’s sing a carol!” Ida says suddenly. She screws up her face in thought for several seconds and then launches into song, voice sweet and rather quavery: “Ding-dong merrily on high! In heaven the bells are ringing!”
“Ding-dong, verily the sky!” Harry sings, throwing himself into it and hoping for the best. He’s never been a confident singer, but belting out a familiar tune always seems to lift his spirits, and he’s obviously not alone; by the time they reach the climbing, breathless ‘glorias’, everyone around the table has joined in.
As he tries to remember the words to the next verse, the bus comes to a halt and Draco pushes the curtain aside, standing and staring at them all with Montague at his heels.
“Hello, Draco, have you come to join in?” Eilish asks brightly.
“I have come to see what you are all up to. And,” he says, trailing his wand over the curtain and then hitting it with a shimmering spell, “why you seem to have put a silencing charm on my curtain.”
Harry swallows dryly. Everything the ladies have told him about Draco now seems to wrap around him, squeezing him tight and making it hard to breathe.
“Well,” Harry says slowly. “Eilish found a mouse in her ear trumpet and it tried to chase Montague so we put it in a biscuit tin and decided to sing some Christmas carols.”
Draco arches an eyebrow. “Right. Well, if you decide to tell me what actually happened at any point, I’ll be driving the bus. No more charms on my curtains, do you understand?”
The ladies nod, and Harry doesn’t think he imagines the tiniest flicker of remorse on Danica’s face. Draco boots Montague gently towards the table and sits in his leather chair, releasing the handbrake and nudging the bus back onto the road.
Harry stares at the back of his head and sighs.
“Come on, Harry,” Eilish says, patting his shoulder. “It’s your turn to pick a carol. He’s not going anywhere.”
Chapter 10: Tenth of December
Tenth of December – a Cotswold village
Feeling somewhat restored by an afternoon of enthusiastic carol singing and the ladies’ repeated insistence that he absolutely mustn’t give up on Draco, Harry sleeps well and drinks his coffee in the kitchen as the sky turns from orange to pink and finally a calm, clear blue. Despite the bright winter sunshine and the fact that the snow has all but turned to grey slush in the street, there is a fierce nip in the air, and when Harry prepares to leave the house just before eleven, he hunts around for gloves and a hat.
Ida has accidentally let slip that an outing is on the cards, and if he’s going to spend another day walking around the park, he’s going to be well insulated. After a brief rummage in the cupboard under the stairs where disorganisation reigns, he finds a pair of violently orange Chudley Cannons gloves and a knitted hat that has ‘Save the Bristle Beetle’ emblazoned across the front of it. In the same bag, he finds scarves, pins, t-shirts and canvas bags left over from the same campaign, but decides against the full set, at least for today.
Draco takes one look at his hat and turns back to the steering wheel, eyebrow flickering dangerously. He starts the bus, sighing when it splutters and turns over with a whine before finally roaring into life.
“It’s not a fan of the cold,” he explains.
Harry thinks that sounds like an excuse, but he doesn’t say so. “It’s in the wrong country,” he says instead. “Maybe you should take it for a drive around Spain.”
“I’m hardly going to up and leave when business is booming like this,” Draco murmurs. “You should go and say hello to the ladies. We’ll be there in a minute.”
“Where?” Harry asks innocently. “Are we going somewhere special?”
Draco snorts. “Don’t let them play poker with you, Harry. You won’t stand a chance.”
Pretending offence, Harry sweeps through to the table, where all four ladies are buttoned into their coats, with various handbags, walking sticks and dachshunds gathered around them. Next to Danica’s teacup is a small, delicately-meshed silver cage. It has a little handle for easy carrying, a miniature water bottle strapped to one side, and seems to be stuffed full of dangling ribbons, little wooden toys and seeded treats. Somewhere amid the colourful jungle, Harry can just see the bright eyes and twitching whiskers of the mouse.
He laughs. “Look at him! He’s got more toys than my niece and nephew put together!”
“It’s called enrichment,” Danica says, smiling proudly. “I’ve been reading up on mice and all the things they need.”
“They need to stay out of people’s ear trumpets,” Eilish says, but even she seems happier to share her space with the mouse now that it is safely in a cage.
“That mouse is going to be spoiled,” Corrie pronounces, and Danica stares at her.
“You were giving him a bit of biscuit five minutes ago!” she points out.
“Hmph,” Corrie huffs, returning to her knitting.
“What’s his name?” Harry asks, taking his seat at the table just in time, as the bus whips around in what seems to be a complete circle.
“Harry, of course,” Danica says.
Surprised, Harry stares at her, and then at the mouse, who is now dangling upside down from the top of his cage.
“Of course. You rescued him for me.” She shrugs. “I couldn’t very well name him after anyone else.”
Harry grins, feeling rather touched. “That’s really nice of you, Danica, but don’t you think it might get a bit confusing?”
Ida laughs gleefully. “I don’t think anyone’s going to mix the two of you up!”
“No,” Draco calls from the driver’s seat. “The mouse would never wear such a ridiculous hat.”
Harry laughs, but Ida fixes the back of Draco’s head with stern little eyes. “You behave yourself,” she reproves. “We must save the bristle beetle. They’re very important. My garden is full of them,” she says proudly. “It’s mating season, you know.”
“I know,” Corrie says. “I can hear the little buggers crackling away when I’m trying to sleep.”
“You mustn’t hurt them, Corrie,” Ida says anxiously. “You could catch them and bring them in—I’ll put them in my roses with the others.”
“Don’t fuss, I’m not going to hurt them. I just turn the wireless up until the woman downstairs bangs on the ceiling with her broom,” Corrie says calmly.
“Nobody is bringing any beetles onto this bus,” Draco says, raising his voice above the increasingly noisy protestations of the engine.
“What’s wrong with beetles?” Danica asks.
“Nothing. But we’ve already got a cat, a dog, and a mouse, not to mention a Gryffindor. Any more and this bus is going to turn into a mobile menagerie.”
“Calm down, or you’ll age before your time,” Corrie advises, sticking out her tongue as she picks up a dropped stitch.
Draco shakes his head and says nothing. Harry bites down on a smile.
Minutes later, the bus comes to a stop, tyres crunching on gravel and engine coughing. Draco opens the doors and the ladies pile out, chattering excitedly. Harry follows and pauses at the door, appearing to notice at the same time as Draco that Danica has left her mouse cage on the table.
“Are you leaving Harry behind?” Draco asks, amused.
“Four-legged Harry,” Harry clarifies pointlessly.
“It’s very cold for him out here,” Danica says, poking through her enormous handbag. “Juno and Montague are coming with us, are they not?”
Before she has finished speaking, Juno is hopping down the steps and onto the gravel with a crunch, fluffy tail held high as she sniffs the new air. Montague stands patiently at Ida’s side, soulful eyes full of promises to be good.
Draco glances at Harry and then shrugs, grabbing his coat and stepping off the bus. Feeling suddenly rather warm all over, Harry follows him, standing by his side while he shields the bus from view. The biddy club, closely followed by Juno, are already stumping off down the lane.
“Welcome to Hattersley-Mumble,” Draco says, following them at last.
Draco smiles but says nothing. Seconds later, they turn a corner to find a beautiful, frost-covered village set out before them. The snow might have turned to slush in London, but here, every building, wall and hedgerow is covered in pure, sparkling white and the ground beneath their feet glitters in the midday sunshine. Without the shelter of multiple tall buildings, the bitter wind slices around them, making Harry grateful for his hat, however ridiculous it might look.
As they head further into the heart of the village, there are signs of festivity everywhere. The shops and houses, made of warm, honey-coloured stone, are lit from within by gentle lamps and strung with multi-coloured lights. The iron railings and neat rows of conifers sparkle with frost and delicate decorations, and in the square, an enormous spruce sits slightly askew, dotted with glimmering bulbs and towering over a traditional wooden nativity scene, the likes of which Harry has not seen since he was a child. Behind the tree looms a black and white fronted Tudor building with its sign, flapping in the wind, reading ‘The Cart and Earwig’.
“The best mulled cider I’ve ever had,” Draco says, seeming to read his mind. “We should go if we have time.”
“Are we likely not to have time?” Harry asks, shivering and sniffing the air hopefully as the pub door opens and the warm smell of hot chips and beer wafts towards him on the breeze.
“I have a few things to do,” Draco says mysteriously. “Still, we should be alright. They like to do their Christmas shopping and then they like to wander around in the church, looking at all the lovely architecture and lighting candles for anyone they can think of. It usually takes a while.”
Harry watches them with a little pang of sadness for all they have lost, and then they burst into such delighted laughter that Montague barks and demands to be let in on the joke. He doesn’t really know how to feel, so he breathes in the cold, clean air and continues to walk beside a man who is, he’s almost certain, just as confused as he is. Maybe it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t fully understand these tough old ladies, or that he has no real idea what he’s going to do about Draco. Maybe the important thing is that he wants to be with them, all of them, and that right now, in this place, he doesn’t feel alone.
They soon lose sight of the ladies and fall into a wandering pattern of their own, ducking into little shops and peering at window displays of artworks and chocolates and obscenely expensive things for the shower. In a delicious-smelling bakery, Harry finds pork pies of every variety he can imagine and buys a miniature version of every single one. In a tiny local gallery, Draco buys postcards to send to his mother and six delicate teacups, each painted with the image of a different winter plant.
“How do you know they won’t buy the same ones?” Harry asks, knowing immediately that these gifts are for the ladies of biddy club.
“They know not to,” he says with a small smile. “The same way I know not to buy myself jumpers or scarves or biscuits.”
“I wish Molly would just know not to give me treacle toffee every Christmas,” Harry sighs, rubbing his jaw at the thought. “All it does is stick my teeth together so I can’t talk.”
“Perhaps she’s trying to tell you something,” Draco says drily, and then continues before Harry can get a word in. “We’d better get back. There’s work to be done.”
“You’re not going to tell me what that is, are you?” Harry says, picking up his pace when Draco starts striding back to the bus without warning.
“Would it hurt you to learn some patience?”
“Would it hurt you to be less of a controlling tosspot?” Harry snaps, skidding on a patch of black ice and banging his knee on the base of a lamp post.
“Yes, probably,” Draco says mildly, and then falls silent.
When they reach the bus, Harry stops and frowns. “Where’s Juno?”
“With the biddies, I imagine,” Draco says, poking Harry up the stairs and closing the doors behind them. “This will be easier without her, believe me.”
Harry turns, opening his mouth to ask another pointless question, only to find that Draco is already halfway up the stairs. Intrigued, he follows, pausing to look around the second deck and its collection of comfortable brass beds before realising that Draco has once again left him behind. Feeling oddly wary, he climbs to the top of the second set of stairs and stops dead, fingers wrapping tightly around the rails in his surprise.
“Where I keep the Christmas decorations, yes,” Draco says briskly, striding across the floor and hauling an unwieldy box out of a tall cupboard. “Every year they complain that I haven’t decorated, and every year I do it when they aren’t expecting me to. It’s rather fun, actually.”
“Right,” Harry says faintly. “What I meant was… this is where you live?”
“Yes,” Draco says, expression defensive. “I had a flat in London but it cost a small fortune and I was hardly ever there, so I converted this deck into living quarters. It’s perfectly habitable, you don’t have to look so horrified.”
Harry meets his eyes. “I’m not horrified, Draco. I’m just surprised. And it’s brilliant.”
“Do you think so?” Draco asks cautiously.
“Yeah, it’s…” Harry trails off, allowing his eyes to flit over the entire space.
The deck clearly benefits from some extension spells, but it remains a charming, astonishingly cosy little place. At one end, a large, brass-framed bed much like the others sits under the curved roof, layered up with soft, cream-coloured quilts and blankets and looking so inviting that Harry wants to kick off his shoes, pick up a book from the pile on the bedside and climb in for the afternoon.
Tiny lights dot the ceiling, fading from warm white in the bedroom area to gold and green where Draco’s low-slung sofa and chairs crouch around a round coffee table, and silvery bright around the gleaming sink and counters, glinting off an array of kitchen utensils and pans that Harry finds rather stunning, both in their appearance and the fact that Draco possesses them at all.
In a magically-created alcove sits an enormous copper bathtub that seems to glow in the soft light from a single, hanging gas lamp, and above it, a shelf stocked with potions every colour of the rainbow draws Harry’s eyes effortlessly.
“It’s what?” Draco presses, and when Harry looks at him, his eyes are bright with anxiety.
“It’s brilliant,” Harry repeats, lost for words. “It’s… home.”
Draco’s mouth tugs into a smile. “You think it’s brilliant that I live on a bus?”
Harry shrugs. “Why wouldn’t I? This is fantastic. Don’t the ladies like it?”
“They haven’t seen it,” Draco admits. “No one has seen it.”
Something sweet and unexpected wraps around Harry’s heart. He grins.
“You’re not going to wipe my memory, are you?”
“No,” Draco says, nose wrinkling. “I’ve never been very adept with memory spells.”
“Oh, good. Can I sit on your sofa?”
“Absolutely not,” Draco says, pushing the box into Harry’s arms and nudging him towards the stairs. “We have far too much work to do.”
As Draco had predicted, they have plenty of time before the ladies return, but by the time they have finished, Harry is no longer questioning his decision to leave the village early. As it turns out, a magical triple-decker bus takes a long time to decorate, and they aren’t helped by the fact that the bus itself keeps trying to stick its oars into the process. Harry and Draco have just about finished wrapping strings of green lights around the poles on the bottom deck when the bus sets off an enormous shiver and shakes them all free.
“The engine’s not even running!” Harry says, gazing at the tangle of rejected lights on the floor.
“It doesn’t need to be,” Draco mutters. He picks his way through the lights and addresses the bus from next to his leather chair. “Will you stop that? White lights? Red ones? I haven’t got any purple ones,” he sighs, pushing his hair out of his face in irritation.
“We could try turning these ones purple,” Harry suggests, pulling his wand out of his pocket.
Draco nods. “Right. You try that and I’ll go and do the tinsel on the outside.”
Harry watches him go, wand out and what seems like several miles of tinsel wrapped around his shoulders. When Draco is out of sight, he settles down to his task of turning several hundred green Christmas lights into purple Christmas lights to appease a finicky bus.
“If anyone around here is spoiled, it’s not you,” he tells the mouse, who is now poking his nose out of the cage and sniffing with dedication. “No,” he mumbles to himself. “It’s not the mouse, it’s the bus. And all of this is completely normal.”
To his relief, the charmed lights are accepted and the interior of the bus soon looks thoroughly festive as well as thoroughly purple. In the luggage rack, they set up a large tree that gleams with baubles and fills the bottom deck with the clean scent of pine. The exterior, too, is sparkling, with tinsel tracing every window and glittering snowflakes fixed to every wheel.
“That should do it,” Draco says, brushing pine needles from his shirt and producing two steaming paper cups, apparently from nowhere.
“Mulled cider,” Harry sighs happily, inhaling the aromatic steam. “When did you get this?”
“Have you any idea how long you were looking at those pork pies?”
“It wasn’t that long. I was just—”
“It was ages. It was long enough for me to go to the pub and buy these and come back,” Draco argues, sipping his drink. “And when I did, you were still talking to yourself.”
“I was talking to you,” Harry says. “I didn’t know you’d buggered off. Anyway… oh, look—they’re coming back!”
He nudges Draco, and together they watch Eilish, Corrie, Danica, and Ida making their way back to the bus, loaded down with bags and followed at a careful distance by a snow-covered Juno with a sweet wrapper in her mouth.
“Oh!” Ida cries, grabbing Corrie’s sleeve. She points at the bus. “It’s Christmas!”
“You see,” Danica says, beaming. “The protest carols worked.”
“They didn’t,” Draco mumbles. “I was going to do it today anyway.”
“Are you going to tell them that?”
Draco attempts to hide a smile in his cup, but Harry sees it. “Of course not.”
Chapter 11: Eleventh of December
Eleventh of December – French style bakery
The streets of London are heaving with Saturday morning shoppers when Harry strikes out in search of treats for the biddy club. And maybe Draco, too, if he behaves himself. The thought puts a smile on his face that doesn’t falter even when a girl with a clipboard and a foghorn voice attempts to trip him up in the name of completing some sort of market research.
“No time,” he says, holding up his hands and hurrying away from her, and it’s not completely untrue.
He has been chomping on all manner of cakes and biscuits baked by the ladies since he arrived on the Knight Bus, and he is now ashamed that it has taken him so long to think of reciprocating. Still, it’s better late than never, and he knows that for maximum impact, he needs to turn up with his offering before the first tea break of the day. Lacking confidence in his own baking skills, he has decided to head for his favourite patisserie, the charmingly-named ‘Les Deux Magots’.
The scent of sugar and pastry and hot coffee hits him before he even opens the door, and when he steps inside, the buttery warmth washes over him and drags out a sigh so loud that the man behind the counter laughs.
“Hello, Mr Potter,” he says, grinning and displaying a mouthful of pleasantly uneven teeth. “Coffee and an éclair?”
“Yes, please,” Harry says, peering at the glass cabinet stuffed full of beautifully delicate treats. “I need a few extras today, though.”
The man brandishes a pair of tongs. “Romantic breakfast?”
Harry pulls a face. “Don’t you start.”
The man shrugs. “What can I say? I enjoy your tales of woe. What can I get you?”
Harry hesitates, wondering if Danica would prefer a madeleine or a miniature tarte tatin. Wondering if this whole adventure is going to end up as just another story on his list of failures. Wondering what it would feel like to smear millefeuille against Draco’s face and then kiss him into sticky, sweet, irritable abandon.
When the man laughs and snaps his tongs together, Harry looks up and flushes.
“You like this one,” the man says, dark eyes sparkling.
Harry smiles reluctantly and makes his order, opting to say no more about it. He pays, hails the bus from the nearest corner and steps inside, taking a moment for his eyes to adjust to the glow of myriad purple lights and the dancing reflections of baubles on every surface.
“You brought food,” Draco says, eyeing the cardboard box with interest.
“I did,” Harry agrees, fishing out the paper-wrapped millefeuille and setting it on the dashboard with a secret little flicker in the pit of his stomach.
“Hello, Harry,” Eilish says, waving from her chair and seemingly trying to pretend she hadn’t been sticking her finger through the gaps in the cage for the mouse to lick.
Danica lifts the teapot and pours steaming cups for herself, Corrie, Eilish and Harry.
“We don’t usually pick you up here,” she says. “Have you been somewhere exciting?”
“I’ve been shopping for pastries. I’m sorry I didn’t make them myself but these will definitely be better than anything I could produce,” Harry says.
He opens the box and distributes the treats, pausing when he reaches Ida’s rose macaron.
“She’s late,” Corrie says, inspecting her little stack of profiteroles at close range.
“Ooh, those are her favourite,” Eilish says, taking the macaron from Harry and placing it next to Ida’s empty cup with great care. “Her husband used to go all the way to France to get them for her.”
Harry smiles and takes his seat. “Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine if she eats it soon.”
When, half an hour later, everyone is drifting in a sugary haze and Ida’s chair still remains empty, Harry starts to feel anxious despite assurances from everyone on board that she will be along soon. By the time the teapot has been refilled and emptied, though, the ladies are darting concerned glances at each other and the jigsaw in the centre of the table has barely been touched.
“Do you think she’s forgotten what day it is?” Corrie asks, breaking a long silence.
“What difference would it make?” Danica says. “She comes here every day.”
“I never said it made sense,” Corrie mumbles.
“Something could be really wrong,” Harry says, startling as Juno jumps onto his lap and miaows loudly in his face. “Get down, Juno.”
“It could, but we could also be fussing for nothing,” Eilish sighs. “She doesn’t have to get on the bus, but…”
“But she always does,” Danica finishes.
Juno fights her way back onto Harry’s lap and touches his face with her paw.
“I’ll stroke you later, okay?” he mumbles, displacing her again. “Draco, your cat is being odd.”
“It’s after twelve,” Corrie says firmly. “Woman is always here by now. It’s not right.”
Harry gives her what he hopes is a reassuring smile and turns to Draco, who chooses that moment to look over his shoulder and meet Harry’s gaze.
“Juno…” Harry sighs, wincing when the heavy cat once more leaps onto his lap, ears twitching furiously.
“Right, that’s it,” Draco says, turning back to the wheel and putting his foot down. The bus lurches, shivers, and then hurtles along the road so rapidly that the chandelier pitches and rattles overhead and Juno leaps onto the table in surprise.
“What on earth are we doing?” Danica asks, hanging on to her teacup.
Harry watches Draco’s hands, sure on the wheel as he urges the bus through wild countryside, trees and hedges springing out of the way in alarm.
“I think we’re going to find Ida.”
The house that sits at the top of a long, winding drive is unlike any Harry has seen before. An eccentric mix of old limestone and what appears to be hammered metal, it sprawls against the landscape like some sort of sleeping beast, full of rounded corners and circular windows and quirky little chimneys. The grounds are part-manicured and part wild, rows of neat winter blooms forming a tapestry with swaying meadows full of grasses. Harry is surprised only by the scale of the place; everything else seems to embody Ida’s character perfectly.
“So fancy, and she doesn’t bother to mow her lawn,” Corrie whispers as they leave the bus and head cautiously over to the house.
“That part’s not a lawn, it’s nature,” Danica says. “It’s supposed to be like that.”
Harry glances at Draco, anxiety only increasing when their fingers brush together for a fraction of a second. He takes a deep breath and forces himself to focus.
“What are you going to do if she doesn’t answer? Break in?”
“If I have to,” Draco says, lifting his chin and quickening his pace.
At the door, Harry watches as each of them in turn tries knocking and yelling through the letterbox. He has a go himself, though he doubts it will make a difference, and sure enough, there is no response from Ida.
“Would she have gone out on her own?” he asks, and the ladies shake their heads.
“She’s here or she’s on the bus,” Draco says, fingers clenching into fists at his side for a moment as though in preparation. He closes his eyes briefly and then takes out his wand.
“Diffindo,” he mumbles, aiming at the weakest part of the door and casting with a calm steadiness that Harry envies.
There are no explosions, no smoke, just a soft thud, and then the door is swinging open on its hinges.
“That was rather good,” Danica says under her breath, and Draco smiles to himself.
He steps into the hallway and calls out, voice echoing around the high-ceilinged chamber.
“Ida! It’s Draco… well, it’s all of us. We’re just here to see if you’re okay.”
Quietly, they cross the entrance hall, and at the bottom of the far staircase, crumpled and unresponsive, they find Ida. Montague, curled at her side, spies them and sets up a volley of barking, refusing to leave his owner even when Harry rushes over and kneels at her side. Draco is right behind him, and the others come as quickly as they can.
“Is she breathing?” Eilish demands, and Corrie and Danica each grab one of her hands and hold on tight.
Harry leans down, pressing his face against Ida’s and his fingers against her wrist. Her skin is paper-thin and cold, but her breathing is steady and her heartbeat strong. He nods, and there is a collective sigh of relief that fills him and makes his eyes sting. Ida smells like humbugs and flowers and her long hair is loose, fanned out around her like a halo. She also appears to be wearing her nightclothes, which would certainly explain why she is so cold. She could have been here for hours.
Harry shakes himself, grasping for the first aid training he hasn’t had to use since a campaign in India several years ago. He casts a basic diagnostic spell over her, staring at the flickering light and holding his breath until Draco drops down next to him and lays a hand on his shoulder.
“Breathe,” he murmurs, and Harry exhales messily. Draco points at the shimmering spell. “What does this mean?”
Harry swallows hard. “It means… erm… it means she’s unconscious and I think there’s a broken bone, but I’m not exactly qualified.”
“Maybe she fell down the stairs,” Eilish suggests, voice much smaller than usual.
“Maybe she fell over him,” Corrie says, indicating Montague. “He looks guilty.”
Harry glances at the dog, and though he opts not to say so, he can’t deny that the dog looks rather remorseful.
“Shall we warm her first, or just take her to St Mungo’s straight away?” Draco asks, and Harry says nothing for a moment, startled at being deferred to so easily.
“We should get her back to the bus,” he says. “We can warm her there and that way we can all go together.”
“Yes, you’re not leaving us behind!” Danica says fiercely, still hanging onto Eilish’s hand.
“I wouldn’t dare,” Draco mutters, and he urges them on ahead so that he and Harry can lift Ida between them.
She seems to weigh almost nothing, even with the additional mass of Montague, who insists on being scooped up along with her. They proceed back through the entrance hall and out to the bus, pressed together for stability. Draco locks the front door with his wand. When Ida is safely laid in a quickly-Transfigured armchair with her friends fussing over her, Draco starts up the bus.
Harry sits in the conductor’s seat, shaking with adrenaline.
“Are you alright?” Draco asks, and Harry wants to laugh.
“No, but I’ll be fine. She had pictures up of her family… kids… grandkids, maybe,” he says, finding safety in Draco’s eyes and holding fast to it. “Why is she so alone?”
Draco shakes his head and turns away, sending the bus bumping back down Ida’s driveway.
“Harry, I don’t know.”
As soon as they reach St Mungo’s, an impressive machine seems to take over the situation, leaving Harry with nothing to do but watch, as Ida is borne away on a floating stretcher while the rest of them are grilled by a pin-neat mediwitch for the details of the accident and any pills and potions that Ida might be unable to take. Another member of the team shows them where they can wait for news and, crucially, where tea and coffee can be obtained in the meantime.
The whole admission procedure is over so fast that Harry is left feeling dazed, looking around at the others and wondering exactly what has just happened. Draco fetches watery hot drinks for all of them and then sits beside Harry, staring into the middle distance and absently stroking Montague, who has finally been forced to stay behind, much to his displeasure. Harry secretly thinks he should be grateful that he is allowed to stay in the hospital at all, but he keeps the thought to himself. Juno, as far as he knows, is still perching on the luggage rack in an attempt to show the Christmas tree just who is boss.
“She knew something, didn’t she?” Harry asks suddenly.
“Yeah. She wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“She’s a very intelligent young lady,” Draco says, and though his face is tight with worry, there is a real, rather promising smile for Harry.
He watches the little huddle of Eilish, Danica, and Corrie in the seats on the opposite side of the corridor. They are lost in their own private conversation, all whispers and flapping hands.
“Will they come, do you think? Her family?”
“I’ve made a couple of firecalls and sent an owl, but I’m not holding my breath,” Draco says, setting Montague down so that he can rest his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. “Her step-children are the only ones still alive, and they’re… let’s just say they’re not very nice people.”
“Why not?” Harry asks, knowing he should leave it alone.
Draco pushes his fingers through his hair and sighs. “Ida’s husband was very wealthy. When he died, everything went to her. The children are in their fifties now, though you would hardly believe it, the way they act.”
“They want the money,” Harry says, stomach tipping slowly.
“Yes. They have plenty, too; their father gave them everything they ever wanted when he was alive,” Draco says. He glances at Harry. “And we all know what a fantastic idea that is. Anyway, while they’re waiting for her to shuffle off this mortal coil, they like to try persuading her to move into a retirement home so they can sell her house and her things and have done with it. So, no, I don’t think they’ll turn up here, unless they see it as an opportunity to nudge her in their preferred direction.”
“Wow,” Harry mumbles. “I take it they don’t see her as a mother, then?”
Draco snorts. “She brought both of them up from a very young age, but who knows. I don’t know what goes on in their heads and I don’t want to.”
Feeling slightly sick, Harry closes his eyes. Ida is a sweet, eccentric old woman and he can’t comprehend how her family could be so cold. All he does know is that when he sees Molly tomorrow, he’s going to hug her until she makes him stop. When he opens his eyes, Corrie, Eilish, and Danica are peering at him, faces creased in concern. He smiles at them and they seem to relax, sipping their horrible tea and watching the nurses and Healers hurry by. They are sitting so patiently, despite the uncomfortable chairs and the crowds, waiting for news of their friend, and perhaps, Harry thinks, that’s the point.
Ida’s stepchildren can neglect her, they can treat her shabbily and they can grasp at her possessions without a care, but they can’t touch the camaraderie and devotion of the biddy club. Were any one of them in the same situation, Harry knows that the others would be there to wait and fuss and throw cake at the problem until it ran away with its tail between its legs. They are as hard as nails and as soft as marshmallow and somehow, they have absorbed Draco into their midst, and are well on the way to claiming Harry, too. He doesn’t think he minds.
All at once feeling weary, Harry picks up Montague and cradles him against his chest, closing his eyes and allowing the warm, furry body to settle comfortably against him.
Seconds later, Draco’s voice penetrates his contented haze and he opens his eyes.
“No, I’m sorry, but it’s been two hours and we should be able to see her! I have it on good authority that it’s a simple broken bone and I can’t understand what’s taking so long!”
Harry cringes. He is not a good authority on medical matters and he hopes that whoever Draco is shouting at doesn’t decide to come and quiz him.
“What’s he talking about, two hours?” he asks Montague, who merely yawns and settles down with his nose in the crook of Harry’s arm. “We’ve only been here a few minutes.”
“You’ve been asleep,” Corrie says. “You’ve been snoring.”
“I haven’t,” Harry whispers, scandalised.
“Mr Malfoy, we are only letting family members see the patient at the moment,” says a weary-sounding woman, and Harry looks around, finally spotting her. “Are you a family member?”
“We’re the only family she’s got,” Draco snaps, and there’s something about his ramrod posture, his hands on hips and his air of don’t-even-try-it defiance that makes Harry’s heart roar with approval.
“Even so, Mr Malfoy,” the nurse says. “I can tell you that she’s doing fine, her hip has been completely healed and she’s awake. We just want to keep her in overnight for observation. You can wait here if you like, or you can come and pick her up in the morning. Those are your options.”
“Is she asking for us?” Draco demands.
“She needs rest,” the nurse says firmly. “I have other patients to attend to now, so if you’ll excuse me?”
“Of course,” Draco says, tone suddenly smooth and polite. When the nurse leaves, he turns back to the group. “We aren’t allowed to go in.”
“That’s not fair,” Danica says, and the others nod vehemently.
“She’ll want to see us,” Eilish says.
“They saying she’s better?” Corrie asks, somehow still knitting.
“Well, then, we should be let to see her.”
“When Ron gets hurt doing Auror stuff, they always let me in,” Harry offers.
Draco smiles slowly. “We can’t all be Harry Potter.”
“That wasn’t really what I was saying,” Harry attempts.
Draco ignores him. “People who aren’t Harry Potter have to be sneaky,” he says. “Ladies?”
Harry turns to see all three of them getting to their feet.
“We did this when Eilish had her funny eye,” Danica confides, taking out her wand and ducking behind a pillar.
“What are you doing?” Harry asks, but the ladies just grin at him, stepping behind the pillar one by one and apparently disappearing.
“We’re still here, it’s only Notice-Me-Not,” Corrie laughs, and when she waves her arms around, he can just make out the flap of her sleeve and the wiggle of her fingers before she fades into the background again.
“You taught them that, didn’t you?” Harry says to Draco, recalling the stag night and the driver that no one but him could remember.
“Come on,” Draco says, grabbing his wrist and pulling him behind the pillar just as the stern nurse hurries by. “We’re just going to check on her and say hello… or don’t you like to break the rules any more?”
Harry knows a challenge when he hears one, and his blood is already racing as Draco casts the charm over both of them.
“Hang on… I can still see you,” he whispers, stopping Draco with a hand on his arm just before he steps out into the corridor.
“I can’t,” Eilish says brightly from somewhere near his left ear.
“You saw me that first night,” Draco says quietly. “I think you’ll always be able to see me.”
Harry freezes, breath hitching in his chest. Slowly, he lets go of Draco’s arm, shivering inside as his fingertips drag against his soft shirt fabric. Tangled, with all of his words snarled up somewhere inaccessible, Harry just nods.
They head out into the corridor in silence, stopping whenever someone dashes by or tries to cross their path. After a few false starts, they find Ida’s room at the end of the corridor, check for hospital staff, and then slip inside. Eilish, Corrie and Danica dispel their charms and drop Montague onto the sheets.
“You took your time,” Ida says, smiling up at them from her pillows and squeezing the little dog tightly. “Do I look ghastly?”
“You look a damn sight better than you did when we found you,” Corrie says sternly. “What potions’ve they got you on?”
While Corrie, Eilish, and Danica examine the contents of Ida’s bedside cabinet, Harry hangs back in the doorway. Relieved to see some colour in her cheeks again, he relaxes, taking out his wand to remove the Notice-Me-Not spell, and then hesitates.
“Draco?” Harry whispers.
“We’ve only got a couple of minutes, Ida,” Draco says, dissolving his own charm with a flick of the wrist. He glances at Harry. “Hmm?”
“Can you see me?”
Draco grants him a half-smile that steals his breath. “Definitely.”
Chapter 12: Twelfth of December
I would just like to point out that Marie chose all of the prompts this year, so this Drappley interlude is her doing. Not that I didn't enjoy it. For a truly maddening prompt, you will have to wait until the 23rd to see what I ended up with O.o
Twelfth of December – apple
“Mr Malfoy? Have you got a minute?”
Harry stops dead at the sound of the familiar, stern voice, and Draco walks straight into the back of him.
“Oh, fucking hell,” he mumbles, making the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck stand up and prickle. “It’s her, isn’t it?”
“Yep,” Harry says, sketching an awkward little wave at the nurse who is now bustling towards them across the crowded hospital foyer. “Why exactly is she so cross?”
“I have a pretty good idea,” Draco mumbles, and then he is stepping out gracefully from behind Harry, exasperation hidden behind a polite smile and a deferent nod. “Good morning, Nurse. We’ve just come to collect Ida Skower.”
The nurse regards him with a look that clearly says ‘I am taking no shit from you, young man’ and then seems to notice Harry for the first time.
“Mr Potter,” she says, eyebrows lifting towards her severe hairline. She glances between the two of them, momentarily speechless, and then grants Harry a little smile. “Well, obviously you had nothing to do with this, but Mr Malfoy, I distinctly remember telling you that you were not permitted to enter the patient’s room yesterday.”
Harry doesn’t dare to smile back; instead, he looks at Draco, too.
“Yes, I remember,” Draco says, nodding.
“Why is it, then, that when I went to give Mrs Skower her potions yesterday evening, she told me all about how wonderful it was that her friends came to see her, and that one of them,” she hisses with a shudder, “was a sausage dog?”
Draco’s bland expression flickers for the briefest of moments, but it’s enough, and Harry has to turn away to suppress a snort of laughter.
“Ida has a very vivid imagination,” Draco says.
Ida has forgotten that the whole visit was supposed to be a secret, Harry corrects silently.
The nurse scowls. “Rules are there to be obeyed, Mr Malfoy. You might slip past me once but you will not manage it again. Do I make myself clear?”
“Of course,” Draco murmurs, hanging his head slightly for effect.
Harry bites the inside of his mouth and presses his lips together.
“Thank you, Nurse, we must be off,” he manages, placing a hand on Draco’s back and steering him into the mass of people heading for the stairs.
As soon as they are out of earshot, he lets his laughter out, following Draco up the spiral staircase with light, giddy, two-at-a-time leaps.
“Do I make myself clear?” he demands, imitating the nurse’s severe tone.
Draco shrugs. “Until the next time, I suppose.”
“Let’s hope that’s not too soon,” Harry says, mostly to himself, wondering just which factor influences Draco’s behaviour most strongly—the need to protect his adopted family or the pure desire to break the rules and get one over on an authority figure.
The moment they step into Ida’s room, though, all doubt dissolves into nothing.
“Draco,” she cries, springing to her feet with no sign of stiffness in her hip. “Oh, hello, Harry, dear,” she adds, beaming at him, but it is Draco who receives her fierce hug and Draco who returns it instantly, wrapping the tiny lady in his arms and mumbling to her fiercely.
Harry catches, “Don’t you dare do anything like that again,” and then the rest is lost against silky white hair and hospital-issued robes. He leans against the doorframe and aches for both of them, and when Ida pulls away and asks after Montague, he can’t help smiling. She has already admitted to tripping over him on the stairs, but there’s no resentment; all she wants is to have him back by her side. He supposes that love can be funny like that.
“They sent me grapes,” Ida says, holding up a large bunch and a scrap of parchment. “Grapes, and a note saying it might be best for me to sell the house now.” She screws up her face. “They know I don’t like grapes.”
“I like grapes,” Harry says, forcing himself to stay silent on the subject of the note.
Ida brightens. “Here you are, then. I don’t like to see good food go to waste.”
Harry accepts the grapes and ignores Draco’s raised eyebrow.
Following a ride in a floating chair and a short trip home on the Knight Bus, Ida is installed in her most comfortable armchair, with Montague on her lap and her friends fussing around her, delighted to have something to do at last. Eilish builds and charms an enormous fire in the grate, while Corrie arranges Ida’s pillows and blankets and Danica bustles around in the vast kitchen, putting together a tea tray for a table that plans to stay put.
“We’ll stay here with her,” she tells Harry, placing his namesake on the marble counter in his cage and smiling at him. “Wonderful house, isn’t it?”
“Yes, definitely. Haven’t you been here before?”
“No, we’ve always just met on the bus,” Danica says, drawing an enormous patterned teapot from a cupboard and admiring it. “We’ll be back tomorrow. She won’t rest for long, you know how she is. You two have a nice time by yourselves.”
Her encouraging little nod is far from subtle, and Harry prides himself on not turning bright red in the face of it. Once back on the bus, they head immediately for their usual seats and just sit in silence. It’s too quiet without the biddies, and the sunlight streaming in through the windows only seems to highlight their empty armchairs and forgotten cups. The scent of hastily-abandoned tea still lingers in the air, mingling with the freshness of the tree and the clean, citrus tang that seems woven into Draco’s very being.
Harry bites into a grape, letting the cold juice burst on his tongue. “Do you want one?”
Draco shakes his head, starting the bus after the third attempt. “I think I’ve got an apple in that cupboard next to you.”
Harry looks. “Which cupboard?”
“The one next to you,” Draco repeats, pointing.
“Draco, I hate to break this to you, but there are no cupboards anywhere near me.”
“If you put your hand on the dashboard, there will be,” Draco says firmly, edging the bus into a snarl of London traffic and yanking three different handles in turn.
Feeling dubious, Harry obeys, and the moment his hand touches the polished wood, an outline appears, followed by a soft click as the little compartment falls open. Inside, an improbably wide selection of fruits are packed into the small space in a riot of colour and delicious, heavy scents.
Harry sighs. “I have so many questions.”
“Tell me something new,” Draco mutters, wincing as a pigeon misses the windscreen by a fraction of an inch.
“Erm… apples are part of the rose family?” Harry offers, picking up a shiny Granny Smith and handing it to Draco.
Taking it, Draco glances at him. “Really?”
“Ida told me. She has roses and apple trees,” Harry says. “Why do you have a secret drawer full of fruit?”
“Because if I didn’t, I’d eat nothing but cake all day,” Draco says, biting into the apple and wiping his mouth on his shirt sleeve with infuriating grace. “I’d be the size of a house and my teeth would have all fallen out. The compartment is not a secret, it is merely conveniently located. I think the driver and conductor used to keep their wands in it during the bus’s… rowdier years.”
“Well, that’s quite exciting,” Harry admits, and Draco smiles. “Don’t you cook? You seem to have quite a fancy little kitchen up there.”
“I cook things,” Draco says defensively.
“Maybe you can cook for me some time,” Harry says with more boldness than he really feels.
Draco smiles but doesn’t look away from the road. He balances his half eaten apple against the steering wheel and pushes a fall of pale hair out his eyes with his free hand.
“Maybe I will,” he says at last, and for several minutes, there is silence between them.
Harry listens to the splutters and rasps of the engine, the uneven rhythm of Draco’s breathing and the tapping of his fingers on the wheel. There is a distinct discomfiture that connects the bus and its driver, and he can’t help wondering how much truth there is in Ida’s supposition that the two of them are magically linked. Of course, if that’s true, the question is: who started the cycle? Is Draco unsettled because the bus is unsettled, or did his presence here unnerve Draco, who in turn is causing the bus to misbehave?
“You’ll give yourself a stomach ache,” Draco says suddenly, and when Harry follows his eyes, he realises that he has eaten almost all of the grapes without even noticing.
“Probably,” he sighs, but when he reaches for more words, he comes up with nothing.
All he can do is stare at Draco, which sends his stomach into freefall, or stare out of the window, which, by virtue of Draco’s speeding or too many grapes, is making him feel rather nauseous. He is suddenly and painfully aware that they have never before spent time together without the distraction of biddies or a time-sensitive task, and now that they are alone, he has no idea how to behave.
Draco’s presence seems to fill the space, pinning him into his fold-up seat and forcing him to fight his urge to fidget, to chew his nails and shuffle his feet. He bites back an offer to tidy up the mess left on the table just as Draco glances at him, and when he frowns and turns back to the wheel, Harry sighs inwardly and attempts a more neutral expression.
He doesn’t think it’s working, and it doesn’t help that he can’t stop darting glances at Draco any more than Draco can stop looking over at him. Harry has no idea how much time has passed since they last spoke, but his hands are sweat-slippery and his nerves are jangling, and god, it feels like days. He’s never let anyone unsettle him like this, and yet somehow, what many have tried with fancy dinners and boxes at the Quidditch and epic poetry, Draco is achieving without a scrap of effort. He is just sitting there, very slowly eating an apple and driving a crotchety old bus down a country lane at ninety miles an hour.
He’s just there, and Harry can’t breathe.
Holding onto his remaining grapes for dear life, Harry attempts to steady himself, anchoring his racing heartbeat to the throbbing vibration of the floor and reminding himself firmly that nothing is going to happen. However often those eyes might drift in his direction, Draco had pulled away from him and said that their kiss was a mistake. Well, Harry concedes, he had said that he didn’t know what he really meant, so he might as well not have said anything at all.
And there’s the thing. Having spent all of his adult life going out with anyone his friends have pushed in his direction, every bit of this is new. He has always had the control, always been the one to say ‘thanks but no thanks’ or ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ or fall into bed, knowing that his heart would be safe in the morning.
Right now, as Draco swings the wheel and plunges them into a huge, frost-glittery meadow, just because he feels like it, Harry has absolutely no idea where he stands, and he’s terrified. When Juno appears from nowhere and leaps onto his lap, he startles and swears under his breath. When he looks at Draco, he is smiling and luminous in the pale sunlight and Harry wants to put a stinging hex up his shirt.
Instead, he strokes Juno, noting the cream on her nose and the pink crumbs in her whiskers.
“You’ve eaten Ida’s macaron, haven’t you?” he asks her, and she purrs so deeply that he feels the vibration right up to his shoulder.
To his surprise, his stomach rumbles along with her, and he glances at the clock on the dashboard. It’s almost midday. The kitchen at the Burrow will be full of delicious, savoury smells by now, as Molly hurries around, stirring things and basting things and peering over Arthur’s shoulder while he makes one of his wonderful desserts.
He leans over to store the rest of his grapes on the dashboard and the question slips out without his permission.
“Do you want to come for lunch with me?”
For what seems like a long time, Draco says nothing, and Harry hopes to disappear into the secret compartment full of fruit, never to be seen again.
“Where?” Draco asks eventually, and Harry’s heart leaps until he remembers exactly what he’s asking.
“Well, I always go to the Burrow—you know, the Weasleys’ place—for Sunday lunch, and I thought you could come with me,” he says, shrugging and trying to brazen it out.
Surprise clear on his face, Draco lets up on the accelerator and the bus slows almost to a standstill. All around them, silvery winter grasses wave against the windows, swishing the glass like the rollers of an enchanted car wash.
Finally Draco turns to him.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“They’re nice people, Draco,” Harry says, unsure why he’s pushing the point.
“I’m sure they are, and I’m also sure they don’t want someone like me at their table,” Draco says, and while his face is hard and unreadable, the words are sighed softly, and he shoots Harry a tiny smile before urging the bus into action again.
Harry opens his mouth to protest and then falls silent. In truth, he has no idea what Molly and Arthur would say if he brought a Malfoy to lunch, and while one side of him insists that there’s only one way to find out, another, usually unheeded, suggests caution.
In the end, Draco drops him off at the end of the lane, some two hundred yards from the house, and Harry doesn’t comment on it. Instead, they part with a promise of tomorrow and a moment of intense eye contact that ensures Harry’s walk along the stony path to the house is an unsteady one.
He is greeted with enthusiasm by every member of the Weasley family present, hugged by Molly, invited to view the crumble by Arthur before it goes into the oven, and dragged into the living room by Fred to advise on whether or not the incident with the mummified dragon penis should make it into his best man’s speech. Having hugged Molly until she squealed, admired Arthur’s crumble and informed Fred that, in his opinion, the speech would be incompletewithout the mention of mummified dragon penises, Harry sprawls in an armchair and is immediately set upon by Rose.
“Uncle Harry,” she says, clambering into his lap and showering his jumper with glitter from her sparkly t-shirt. “Are you definitely coming to my Christmas play?”
“Definitely,” he promises. “How’s the giraffe research going?”
“Good.” Rose smiles and then wrinkles her nose. “You know how I’ve got you coming, and Mummy and Daddy, and Grandma and Grandad, and Uncle Fred and Uncle George and Auntie Angelina?”
“That’s a lot of people,” Harry says gravely.
Rose nods. “I know. But Grace Wright—she’s in my class—she doesn’t have any family except her mum, and she can’t come to the play because her work said that no, she couldn’t. Isn’t that sad?”
“That’s very sad,” Harry agrees. “Can someone make a video so that her mum can watch it later?”
Rose twists in his lap and fixes him with wide eyes. “How did you know about that?”
Harry laughs. “Magic.”
“That’s not magic. Anyway, Mr Troughton is doing that. But I thought… you’ll know some people who can come and wave to her. You know lots of people.”
“I do,” Harry admits, amused and rather touched. “Does Mr Troughton know you’re asking?”
Rose gives him a withering look. “Of course, Uncle Harry.”
“Well, in that case, I might know a few people who would love to see a Christmas play,” he says. “And if you’re good and eat all your vegetables, I will ask them tomorrow.”
Rose practically bounces off his lap, dashing across the room and running straight into Ron, who catches her and swings her into the air, red pigtails flying.
“Thanks,” he says softly. “She was really worried about that.”
“Not a problem. Are Hermione and Hugo about?”
Ron shakes his head. “Hugo’s got that cold that’s going around. It’s a bit grim. Hermione decided to stay at home with him.”
Harry wrinkles his nose in sympathy. “Reckon I’ve got time to nip and see her before lunch?”
“I just heard Mum shouting at someone for turning the oven too low, so I think you’ll be alright for a bit,” Ron says. “Although… if you’re late back, you didn’t hear that from me.”
Harry grins and Disapparates. Hermione opens the front door of the cottage and greets him with a weary smile. After the brightness and activity of the Burrow, her kitchen seems dark and silent, at least until Hugo bursts into an ear-splitting scream that turns quickly into wet, furious sobs. Hermione rushes to him, lifting him out of his chair and cradling him against her chest, but the sobs do not subside. She turns to Harry, apology on her lips, and he shakes his head. Her hair is in complete chaos, her skin grey but for the dark smudges under her eyes, and her jumper is covered in stains that he doesn’t want to think about.
“Need a hand?” he offers, and she stands stubbornly firm for a moment before allowing him to take Hugo from her.
She collapses into a chair and rubs at her face. “He only started last night but I feel like it’s been a week,” she says. “None of the Muggle medications do anything, and I can’t get him to take Pepper-up at all. I don’t think he likes the taste… he just spits it back out.”
She rubs at an orange stain on her sleeve and sighs. Harry rocks Hugo slowly, ignoring the cries as best he can. He’s burning up, nose streaming and face sticky with sweat even though he knows Hermione will be changing and bathing him as often as she can manage. At the table, she has closed her eyes, resting her elbow on the surface and her chin in one hand. All around her are abandoned bottles of Pepper-Up, cups of milk, dirty tea towels and boxes of children’s cold remedies. His friend is frazzled, and her usually pin-neat kitchen is in complete disarray.
Harry shifts Hugo to one hip and fills the kettle, setting it to boil and wondering if Hermione has somehow managed to fall asleep.
“Shh, now, Mummy’s sleeping,” he whispers, and to his astonishment, Hugo’s cries seem to soften, just a little bit.
“No, she isn’t,” Hermione murmurs, but Harry isn’t convinced.
It’s always so easy to believe that she doesn’t need any help from anyone, and he knows that as soon as everything is back to normal, she will hate the fact that she made herself so vulnerable, but Hermione Granger-Weasley is mortal and fallible and sometimes she needs a good friend to carry the load for her, even if it’s just for a little while.
He wonders what Draco would make of all of this, how he’d deal with a sick, fussy child and a messy kitchen. And then he thinks of Ida, of all of them, and the Draco who had risked a nurse’s wrath just to see his friend for five minutes and make sure she was okay. A wave of painful warmth spirals through him and he closes his eyes, holding on to Hugo tightly.
While the kettle bubbles away, he opens a window, allowing the cool air to sweep into the stuffy kitchen and clean away the musty smell of sickness. Carefully, and with one hand, he tidies the dirty dishes into a pile and wipes the sticky surfaces with a cleaning spell. He clears the table with a controlled sweep of his wand and stacks everything into a neat pile. When some semblance of order has been achieved, he opens the fridge to grab the milk and stops.
“I don’t think it tastes very nice either,” he tells Hugo, who opens his mouth in a trembling wail. “Why don’t we try it another way?”
He glances at Hermione, who hasn’t moved or made a sound for several minutes. He Accios the Pepper-up bottle and scrutinises the label.
“Okay, so you only need two teaspoons of this. We can do that, can’t we?”
Hugo sneezes, blinks in surprise, and then resumes wailing.
“What would the biddies do?” he murmurs, mostly to himself. He scans the contents of the fridge. “Jam. Jam is good.”
He pulls out the jar of blackcurrant jam, tips half of it into a bowl and mixes in the dose of Pepper-Up with a spoon. Now all he needs to do is get all of it into Hugo before Hermione wakes up and demands to know why he is shovelling refined sugar into her child. He’s pretty sure she’ll thank him when Hugo stops oozing and screaming.
Once Harry has managed to convince Hugo to accept the first mouthful, the rest is easy. The huge, wracking sobs soon settle into hiccupy breathing and then almost silence, and when the steam begins to pour from his ears, Harry knows he has won. His temperature is already coming down when Hermione lifts her head and frowns.
“I can’t hear anything.”
Harry grins at her. “He’s stopped.”
Hermione stares. Harry steps in front of the incriminating jam jar.
“Harry… you’re amazing. I don’t know what you did… I don’t want to know. Thank you.” She looks at the clock. “Shouldn’t you be at the Burrow?”
“Probably. I’ll go in a minute. Here, drink your tea.”
Hermione picks up the cup at her elbow and sips it gratefully. “Something’s different,” she says.
“Oh… did I put too much milk in?” Harry asks, peering into his own cup.
She laughs softly. “No. Something’s different with you. I can’t decide if you’re happier or just a bit confused.”
Harry looks at her for a long time, feeling stuck. Her eyes are kind. She loves him. He should just tell her all of it, right here, right now, and get it over with.
Then again, he is late for lunch.
“I don’t know either,” he admits.
Chapter 13: Thirteenth of December
Thirteenth of December – frosted blue pumpkin
Harry climbs aboard the Knight Bus on Monday morning to find Draco grimacing, narrowing his eyes against the non-existent sunshine and losing humbugs from his breast pocket every time he moves. Grinning at the realisation that Ida must be back with them, Harry automatically looks to the back of the bus, only to find the curtain firmly shut and the tell-tale ripple in the air that comes with a hastily-applied silencing charm.
“Yes, I have given in to the window boxes, and I don’t want to hear a word about it from you,” Draco says.
Harry turns to him, wondering if he has started a conversation without realising it.
“What? I haven’t said anything… have I?”
“You haven’t said anything yet,” Draco says darkly, wrenching at a lever and wincing in pain when the bus grinds its gears and shudders.
Screwing up his nose in sympathy, Harry says nothing for several seconds, instead watching the little lines of tension on Draco’s face and the rigid set of his shoulders, silently wondering if finding it all rather stirring means that something is very wrong with him.
“How is she?” he asks at last, and a flicker of a smile troubles the hard set of Draco’s mouth.
“She looks really well, actually.”
“Then why are you so grumpy?”
Draco gives him a look that could freeze lava and then sighs. “Because I have a splitting headache and the bus is testing my fucking patience,” he mutters.
Feeling certain now that the two problems are linked, Harry wonders if he should say something. One look at Draco’s scowl, however, tells him that he should leave well alone, at least for now. Ignoring the unhelpful urge to sit in the conductor’s seat and stay there until Draco feels better, he pushes through the curtain, making sure it falls closed behind him.
What he finds at the table makes his heart swell with relief and prickly warmth. The lacy tablecloth is strewn with earth, gardening tools and plants. Each of the ladies, including Thora and Audrey, has a long wooden box and is working away with gusto. Even Corrie has put down her knitting needles and is stuffing poinsettias and stripy grasses into her box, which she has spelled a vivid shade of scarlet.
Danica is feeding what looks like miniature sheaves of wheat into the cage of Harry the mouse, while simultaneously curling ribbons into spirals and throwing them into the centre of the table. One catches in Eilish’s hair and she giggles, opting to arrange it on top of her head like a fairy crown.
“Pumpkins aren’t Christmassy,” Thora says solemnly, looking up from her own rather drab efforts and over to where Ida is now lifting the tiny orange thing and examining it from all angles.
Something about the collective sigh from the group tells Harry that this isn’t the first time they have heard Thora’s opinion on the subject. He hovers by the curtain, waiting, and wondering if Draco’s silencing charm isn’t at least a little bit because of Thora’s rather grating voice.
“Well, they’re not,” she repeats when none of the others challenge her.
“Neither are elephants, but that doesn’t stop my son putting a whole box full of them on his tree every year,” Audrey says brightly. “Light-up, they are, and all different colours.”
Harry smiles. Today, Audrey’s hair is a vibrant mint green, which clashes wonderfully with the pink and purple theme she has chosen for her window box.
“Anyway, this one will be,” Ida says, lifting her chin.
Harry watches as she turns the tiny pumpkin red, green and gold, before settling on a shimmering blue with a glittery finish that makes it look as though it has been caught in a sudden frost. She places it in the centre of her window box and then reaches into the plants with soil-covered hands.
Draco is right; she looks well, seemingly delighted to be back at the table with her friends. Even Thora, who is still peering sourly at her from under her pointed hat, gets a bright smile when she looks around the table and then finally sets eyes on Harry.
“Hello,” she beams, and Harry finds himself the focus of six pair of eyes.
“Don’t lurk around over there, come and sit down,” Eilish says, gesturing furiously until Harry is settled in his chair.
“How are you feeling, Ida?” he asks, just as the bus lurches violently, sending everyone scrabbling for their boxes and the little mouse cage flying off the table and onto the floor, where it rolls twice and then comes to a halt inches from Juno’s twitching whiskers.
“Is he alright, Juno?” Danica asks, and before Harry can make a grab for the cage, Juno is carefully picking up the handle in her teeth and bounding onto the table.
She presents the cage to Danica and then sits down on a pile of leaves and ribbons, tail whisking.
“Thank you,” she says. She peers into the cage. “He’s fine. I don’t think he even stopped eating.”
The ladies laugh, and Thora cracks a reluctant smile that takes Harry by surprise. Under the table, something brushes his ankle, and he bends to see Montague cowering between his feet, brown eyes fixed on the mouse cage with deep suspicion.
Harry laughs. “I’ll try that again, Ida—how are you feeling?”
“I’m fine, Harry, don’t fuss,” she chides, still beaming. “They fixed me up wonderfully; in fact, I think my hip is better than it was before! I could do without all this pitching about, though, I keep spilling my tea.”
“That’s serious business,” Corrie says, casting a spell to steady the teapot as the bus yet again shivers and lurches.
“It’s still the best way to travel if you ask me,” Eilish says.
“Oh, definitely,” Audrey agrees. “I never got my Apparition test, you know. All that determination and deliberation stuff… couldn’t stick it.”
“Flooing makes me feel sick,” Danica says.
Harry shares a look of commiseration with her. “Me too.”
“I like the train,” Thora says unexpectedly. “Still, you are rather limited on where you can go.”
“This bus can go anywhere,” Ida sighs happily, arranging spirals of ivy around her pumpkin.
“Unless it breaks down,” Danica points out. “I don’t like the sound of some of those noises.”
“Draco knows what he’s doing,” Eilish says. “He works ever so hard.”
“Never stops,” Corrie agrees.
Harry glances at the charmed curtain and then turns back to the table. He wonders.
“So, have you met the other driver?”
“Oh, Mr Spain?” Danica says, pouring a cup of tea for Harry while the bus seems to be behaving itself.
He takes it and thanks her. “Spain? Like the country?”
“I don’t think he’s Spanish,” Ida says, frowning.
“No, I… never mind,” Harry says. “So you have met him? What’s he like?”
“None of us have met him,” Corrie says. “By the time he’s working, we’re all in our beds with a saucy book!”
“Speak for yourself,” Thora mumbles.
“Yes,” Danica says, elbowing Corrie. “Some of us stay up all night!”
Harry snorts. “Do you really?” he asks, easily thrown off his line of questioning.
Danica grins, thin mouth curving into a devilish smile. “Insomnia,” she whispers.
“Don’t be, I get an awful lot done,” Danica says. “Baking in the middle of the night is very therapeutic.”
“With delicious results,” Audrey adds. “Anyway, Draco says that Mr Spain doesn’t talk much anyway.”
“You’ll never believe this,” Eilish says, thrusting a biscuit into Harry’s hand, “but Draco used to operate this bus all by himself. Night and day. We made him hire another driver. We said we wouldn’t come any more if he didn’t. That’s when he took on Mr Spain.”
“I would believe it,” Harry says. “He’s always been very stubborn.”
“Perhaps that’s why you get on so well,” Danica offers, not looking up from her planting.
“We made an enormous fuss,” Corrie says proudly.
“I bet you did,” Harry says, suddenly feeling very dizzy.
Leaning back in his chair, he closes his eyes and controls his breathing. Eilish touches his arm.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I just feel… a bit weird. Is it hot in here, or…?”
“It really isn’t,” Danica mumbles, and her voice feels very far away.
Feeling prickly all over, Harry goes to shrug off his coat until he remembers that he had left it at home because the morning had felt unusually mild. As the ladies fuss over him, placing their hands on his forehead and pressing his wrist for his pulse, he begins to feel heavy, fractious, fidgeting in his seat and fighting to take a full breath.
“You should drink some tea,” one of them suggests, but when he tries, the hot liquid stings his throat and he splutters, coughing until he is bent double and his chest is wracked with pain.
Overwhelmed and beginning to panic, he staggers to his feet and makes for the front of the bus.
“Draco,” he mumbles to himself, forcing his way through the fog and tumbling easily to the ground when the bus swings and throws him against the luggage rack.
“Never mind Draco, come back here,” Eilish says, or at least, he thinks it’s Eilish.
Someone warm and squashy is helping him back to his chair and he allows it to happen. Sweating profusely now, eyes stinging and skin on fire, he curls into a ball and lets himself drift, barely hearing the discussion taking place at the table.
“It’s that virus,” someone says, and they sound very certain about it.
“You know, they keep talking about it on the wireless—comes quick and goes quick but it’s a nasty thing…”
“I heard that. Stupefy, they called it. All the symptoms of a very bad cold, all at once.”
“I heard it took down the Minister in the middle of a meeting.”
“It’s the thing Hugo had,” Harry mumbles, every word scraping his throat like a knife.
“What’s that, dear?”
A hand on his arm. A nice, cool hand.
“It’s that… this is disgusting… my nephew had it,” Harry manages, opening one eye. Feeling renewed sympathy for the little boy who had had no idea what was happening to him, he struggles into an upright position. “Has anyone got any Pepper-Up?”
He blinks slowly, and when the table comes into focus again, every single lady is holding out some form of the bright red potion, be it a bottle, a vial, or, in Danica’s case, a jar of scarlet granules, which she shakes in his direction.
“Just add water,” she says cheerfully.
In the end, Harry takes the bottle nearest his hand and downs half the contents. Each swallow is painful, but within seconds, he can feel it working. While a pleasant warmth seeps through his veins, the uncomfortable heat of his skin is soothed away, leaving him sticky but otherwise comfortable. The potion is spicy and familiar on his tongue, as is the sensation of clarity that surges through his sinuses and allows him to take in a deep, gasping breath for the first time in several minutes.
“Here comes the steam,” Corrie says, laughing, and Harry tries to pretend that they aren’t all staring at him while the hot vapour pours out from under his hair and attempts to fill the space around them.
After a cup of tea and a couple of cleaning spells, Harry is feeling restored, if slightly weak. He leans back in his chair and watches the biddies working on their window boxes, handing out reassuring smiles each time one of them looks over at him.
“Well, that was a bit frightening, wasn’t it?” Ida says at last.
“That’s good coming from you,” he teases.
She sighs. “Thank you for helping to rescue me, Harry. The girls told me what you did.”
“I didn’t… it wasn’t… you’re welcome,” Harry mumbles, wishing they would all stop staring at him like that. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
In an effort to avoid their admiring glances, he turns his head and gazes at the red curtain, wondering how Draco is doing and whether Mr Vesseur Spain will have any better luck with the bus when he takes over later tonight.
Something about that thought jars inside him and he frowns, looking around and waiting for it to come to him.
“Draco was driving the bus when we came out for that stag night,” he says, mostly to himself. “Where was the other driver then?”
“Ill, I imagine,” Danica says, shaking her head. “Like you. Close your eyes and get some rest.”
Harry does as he’s told. When he wakes up, he’s alone. Night has fallen and the bus is in darkness but for the glimmer of tiny purple bulbs all around him. Six neat window boxes sit on the table, guarded by a watchful Juno. The whole thing leaves Harry feeling disoriented, and it takes him a moment to centre himself and climb stiffly out of his chair. As he does, he hears footsteps on the stairs, and then Draco emerges from the forest of lights and grants him a weary smile.
“I didn’t want to wake you. The biddies told me about your dramatic turn.”
“It wasn’t dramatic,” Harry protests. “Well, it was a bit, but it wasn’t my fault.”
“It never is,” Draco murmurs, amusement flickering in his eyes. “You need to get some rest.”
Harry looks around, but the windows are steamed up and offer no clues.
“Where are we?”
Draco almost smiles. “Your house.”
“How long have you been waiting here?” Harry asks, twisting around to see a clock and losing his balance.
He steadies himself on Draco’s shoulders, catching his breath when their eyes meet. A hand comes up to support him at the waist, fingers brushing his skin and pouring hot lead into the pit of his stomach.
“What’s happening here?” he asks, hating that it comes out in a cracked whisper.
Draco’s eyes darken. The hand at Harry’s waist tightens and then falls away.
“Like I said, it’s complicated.”
“Is it really?”
Draco gives him a rueful smile. “You should go. You’ll feel better after some more sleep.”
“How do you know I’ll come back?”
“I don’t. I’m surprised every day,” Draco says, and Harry’s chest aches.
“I’m learning to be patient,” he says, forcing himself to step around Draco and walk to the front of the bus. As the doors hiss open, he pauses. “I think you might be worth it.”
He steps down onto the pavement and walks slowly up to the house, leaving Draco staring after him.
Chapter 14: Fourteenth of December
Fourteenth of December – spilled glitter
“Harry?” Draco shouts, and Harry wants to tell him to whisper because his head hurts, but when he opens his mouth, nothing happens.
“Harry! I know you’re there, I can see your coat and shoes by the back door,” Draco continues, yelling into Harry’s face and stroking his hair with gentle fingers.
“Shh,” Harry manages, resting his head on Draco’s shoulder. It’s nice there. It’s nice there until he bellows:
“Harry, if you don’t come down right now, I’m coming up. I’m worried about you!”
Confused and tangled in something soft and strong, Harry tries to curl into a ball. None of this makes sense and he doesn’t want any part of it. Except, perhaps, the part with Draco’s stroking fingers and warm skin. He’ll take that part.
Unfortunately, that part disappears altogether when the noisy part crashes into his bedroom and shakes him awake with no regard for the fog in his head or the fact that it is clearly the middle of the night. The noisy thing sits on the edge of his bed and catches his hand when he reaches for his wand.
“Harry, it’s me,” comes a gentle voice, and he opens his eyes.
“Hermione,” he mumbles.
She smiles, but the tightness of her face betrays her anxiety. “I called you four times last night and three times this morning and you didn’t answer. I promised Ron I’d leave you alone after the last time but I was worried sick.”
“Hermione, I’m fine,” he mumbles, touched by his friend’s concern but still hazy from sleep. “I didn’t hear the fire last night. I slept… I think I slept a lot.”
She gazes at him for long, silent seconds and then sighs. “You caught Hugo’s cold, didn’t you?”
Finally, the fog clears and Harry remembers. He remembers the fever and the coughing and the fight for breath, and he thinks he remembers leaning against Draco in a forest of sparkling purple lights. It is, however, quite possible that he dreamed that part.
“I’m alright now, I think,” he says, finding a smile for Hermione. “How’s Hugo?”
Hermione laughs. “You’d never know he’d been ill. His appetite has sort of exploded, but fortunately, Molly is in full-on baking mode and keeps sending us extra stuff. I left some bread and some cheese scones on your kitchen table.”
“Thank you,” Harry says, stomach grumbling loudly. He looks at the drawn curtains and frowns. “What time is it?”
“I’m not sure. My lunch break started at one and I’ve been shouting at you through the fire for a good few minutes,” Hermione says. “I’d better go. Please eat something.”
“I promise,” Harry says, already thinking about splitting open some of Molly’s scones and filling them with butter and crispy bacon.
She gets to her feet. “Listen… I know we’ve been really busy lately, and I thought maybe you could come over tomorrow night for dinner. Ron’s doing a big shepherd’s pie and we can open a bottle of wine and catch up,” she says, regarding him hopefully.
“Sounds good,” Harry says, and she grins before kissing him on the top of the head and hurrying off down the stairs.
Brightened by the prospect of a nice dinner with his friends, Harry heads for the shower. His legs are a little unsteady beneath him but he thinks he can fix that with coffee and a good breakfast, and by the time he has sluiced away all traces of sweat and Pepper-Up, he is feeling much more like himself.
As he waits in the drizzle for the Knight Bus to appear, he’s still a little frayed around the edges, but most of the previous day is sliding back into focus. He remembers the window boxes and the discussion about Mr Spain, but when he thinks about being alone on the bus with Draco in the darkness, he can’t be certain it happened at all.
The moment the doors open and Draco meets his eyes, though, he knows that it did.
He smiles and climbs the steps, pretending that his heart isn’t trying to hammer out of his ribcage and that the smile Draco returns doesn’t make him hard and breathless. Settling into the conductor’s seat, he takes off his damp coat and drapes it over his knees, just for something to do.
“Feeling better?” Draco asks, frowning as the bus begins to rattle loudly.
“Yes, thanks. Apparently, what I needed was sixteen hours of sleep.”
“Hello, Harry!” Eilish calls from the table, and soon, the others are waving and calling out greetings, too.
“Are you feeling better?” Ida asks.
“He looks a bit pale,” Danica puts in.
“He needs a cup of tea,” Corrie says firmly, reaching for the pot.
“I’m fine,” Harry says faintly, but no one is listening.
By the time he has drunk his tea and squeezed two pieces of chocolate cake into his already full stomach, the ladies have at last stopped watching him and have returned to their task of grooming an astonishingly compliant Juno. The bus, meanwhile is rattling for all its worth, and despite Draco’s best efforts, it soon begins to fill with acrid smoke. Finally, the engine shudders, lets out an explosive crash, and the bus lurches to a stop in the middle of a wet country lane.
Draco closes his eyes and yanks the handbrake into position. Harry coughs and gets to his feet, flapping his coat at the smoke and hurrying to check on the ladies, who are still sitting calmly at their table in a little pocket of clear air.
As he watches, Ida sweeps the spell from one end of the bus to the other, dissolving the smoke in an instant. She puts her wand away and gazes up at him.
“Useful spell, isn’t it? I learned it in the first war,” she says matter-of-factly. “The enemy liked to throw smoke bombs, you see.”
“Very impressive,” Harry says, and he means it.
“Do you think we should go and help?” Danica says, getting up with wand in hand.
“Danica, do not even think about it,” Draco warns, now halfway out into the lane. “The last time you interfered with my engine, it blew bubbles for a week.”
Harry and Danica exchange glances, and then he heads out to find out if he, too, is banned from helping. When he finds Draco, he is already damp and swearing under his breath, stripped down to a pristine white undershirt and wrestling with the engine cover. Fighting to bite back the ‘are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ that wants to escape, he instead asks, “Is there anything I can do?”
Draco snarls at the engine and blasts it with a spell that makes Harry taste metal in the back of his mouth.
“What… the actual fuck… is wrong with you?” he demands.
Harry thinks he might know the answer to that one, but he decides not to offer it. As far as he can see, what is wrong with one is wrong with the other, but apparently, it’s complicated.
He lets out an audible sigh and Draco looks at him.
“Nothing,” Harry promises. “Does this happen a lot?”
“More than I’d like,” Draco mutters, dropping to his knees on the wet path and levering himself under the back of the bus. “I’ve learned to fix most of the things that go wrong, but sometimes…”
There’s a pop and a rustle and Draco crawls out just in time to see an explosion of silver glitter from the engine. The shimmering particles seem to hover in the air for a moment and then rain down all around them, covering the path, the back of the bus, and Draco. Wearing the weariest expression Harry has ever seen, he pulls himself into a sitting position and sighs, letting the glitter waft around him and stick fast to his wet skin.
“Not a word,” he says, swiping a sparkling piece of wet hair out of his eyes.
“I don’t think I could find one that covered this, don’t worry,” Harry admits, unable to keep the smile off his face. “Does it… do that often?”
“That sounds like words to me,” Draco says, but he gets to his feet and leans back into the engine, reaching inside with a glittery arm and wrenching at some unseen object until his face twists into a grimace.
Knowing what’s good for him, at least this once, Harry watches from a safe distance while Draco twists things and pushes things and brings things out for inspection, peering at sticks and pointy things grasped in fingers slick with oil and sparkles. Every now and then he grabs his wand and casts tight, powerful spells that Harry doesn’t recognise, some creating further smoke and rattles and others causing the engine to click and spew out more glitter.
When the rain stops and the sun comes out, the shiny particles gleam all over Draco’s skin, making him look ridiculous and magnificent all at once. His undershirt, turned translucent by the water, sticks to his body, and the light, wiry muscles in his arms make Harry want to touch. He wonders what would happen if he just pulled Draco against him, cold, wet skin and warm mouths, rain dripping from the ends of hair and… Harry blinks.
“Are you listening?”
“Of course,” Harry lies.
“Well, just in case you weren’t, can you go and start the bus for me? I think I might have cracked it.”
“You want me to start the bus?” Harry repeats, not quite believing what he’s hearing.
Draco regards him impatiently, one sparkling eyebrow raised. “I’m not asking you to drive it up a mountain, Harry… I just want you to try the engine so I can stand here and see what happens. Can you do that?”
“Alright, alright,” Harry sighs, secretly delighted at the opportunity. He listens to Draco’s instructions and then returns to the front of the bus, stepping inside and finding that the ladies are now watching him with interest.
“Is he glittery?” Ida asks hopefully. “I do like it when he’s glittery.”
“Yeah,” Harry says, sliding into the driver’s seat. “Just a bit.”
“He never lets us drive the bus,” Corrie says, sounding rather put out.
“You can’t drive a bus, you’re half blind!” Danica says.
“I can see perfectly well,” Corrie insists, and Harry smiles to himself.
“Right,” he mumbles, scanning the controls. “This lever here… and then this stopper here, press down the third pedal, and then…” Harry lets out a small sound of triumph as the engine roars into life and then settles into a low, healthy-sounding rumble.
The biddies applaud as though he has just successfully conducted a symphony and he nods graciously, deciding to pretend that he deserves their praise. He turns in the leather chair and flings his arms out with such drama that his left hand smacks against the dashboard.
“Bugger,” he mumbles, and then something rather unexpected happens.
The outline of a compartment appears, much like the one that had contained the fruit, but this time, when it opens, a yellowed copy of the Daily Prophet falls out. Puzzled, Harry bends over and picks it up, and several more drop to the floor, followed by a cascade of others. By the time the compartment seems to be empty, Harry is ankle deep in newspapers and Draco is standing at the doors, coated in grime and glitter and wearing an expression of utter horror.
“What are you doing?” he demands, apparently addressing the bus. “That should not have happened. That…”
“I opened the one with the fruit,” Harry says, staring down at the deluge of papers.
“That was different. These are my… newspapers,” Draco says, climbing slowly onto the bus and looking as though he wants to gather up every single copy and vanish them completely.
Intrigued, Harry crouches and sifts through the papers, checking the dates. He looks up at Draco, who is now folding his arms across his chest and shivering.
“Is this like… every Prophet from the last five years?” he asks, bewildered.
“No, he only keeps the ones you’re in,” Corrie says gleefully.
“Corrie!” Draco gasps, flushed and horrified and glittering.
He’s exposed, and Harry’s heart almost can’t cope. He wraps his arms around the newspapers and grasps them tightly so that he doesn’t reach for Draco.
“How did you even…?” Draco asks, helpless to finish a question that he probably doesn’t want an answer to.
“I’ve got eyes!” Corrie cries.
“When it suits you,” Eilish mumbles.
“I didn’t think it would be her that would let the cat out of the bag,” Danica says, leaning back and sipping her tea calmly.
“Me neither,” Ida agrees with feeling.
“Right,” Draco says after a moment of silence. “I’m just going to close this now.”
He pulls the curtain across and slumps into his chair, head in his hands. Harry wades through the sea of newspapers and sits in the conductor’s seat.
“Do you… want to talk about it?” he tries.
Draco regards him through the gaps in his fingers. “Would you want to?”
“I don’t know,” Harry admits. “If I was interested in someone, I think I’d probably want them to know. Especially if they might be interested in me, too.”
Draco leans back, dropping his hands into his lap and leaving behind a smudge of engine oil under one eye.
“It’s not… weird, or anything,” he says, flushing again. “I just liked reading about what you were up to. I’ve always been…” He stops and takes a breath, composing himself. “I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that we’ve both found each other interesting.”
Harry shifts in his seat, suddenly feeling warm and flickery inside.
“That’s one way of putting it, but hey… let’s forget all the crap for a minute, okay?” Harry says, knowing he has to be the first to break. “I like you, Draco. I really like you. I meant what I said last night. I’m not going anywhere. I don’t care how complicated your life is… if you want me to be part of it, I will be. Because I like you,” he finishes, already knowing that it’s so much more than that.
Draco stares at him, posture rigid and wet hair everywhere, dirty and glittering and fragile. Slowly, he turns away and takes the wheel, resuming their journey along the country lane with the sun pouring in through the windows and the engine purring gently.
“I like you, too,” he says, mouth flickering, and behind the curtain, the biddies cheer.
Chapter 15: Fifteenth of December
Fifteenth of December – outdoor table set for four
Wednesday is crisp and cold and bathed in bright sunshine. The biddies are in high spirits as Draco drives the bus, now behaving rather nicely, through the countryside to a series of waterfalls somewhere in the north, and all of them, including Juno, Montague, and Harry the mouse, head off to a cosy little tea room. Under the linen tablecloth, Draco’s knee brushes against his far too regularly for it to be accidental, and when their eyes meet again and again over delicate china cups, Harry can feel himself falling hopelessly.
On the walk back through damp, cool mosses and the perilous leads of wayward dachshunds, Harry stumbles every few steps but doesn’t care, because each time, Draco grabs his arm, steadying him with strong fingers and hiding smiles in puffs of white breath.
By the time he gets off the bus at the end of Ron and Hermione’s street, he is humming with wellbeing and absolutely ravenous. The afternoon tea he had shared with Draco and the biddies is a distant memory, and there is no way he is going to risk being late for Ron’s shepherd’s pie, even if he is a bit windswept and a bit covered in cat hair.
When Hermione opens the door, she looks him up and down and folds her arms.
“Harry, I know you don’t always make sense, but if you’ve bought a cat and you’re keeping it a secret… well, that’s strange, even for you.”
“It’s not my cat,” Harry says, knowing he’s going to have to tell them sooner or later.
“Is he here?” Ron bellows from the kitchen, and Hermione rolls her eyes.
“Weasleys don’t have inside voices, you know that,” Harry says, grinning, and follows her into the house to find Ron stirring something on the stove and looking so much like his mother that Harry has to bite his tongue.
The kitchen is warm, brightly lit, and filled with delicious, savoury smells, but Hermione stops only to grab a bottle of wine before propelling him out into the garden.
“Hermione, it’s freezing out here,” he complains, immediately starting to shiver, but she just indicates for him to keep walking.
When he turns the corner, he stops. In a sheltered section of the garden, someone has set up Ron and Hermione’s beautiful wooden table with plates and cutlery, glasses and a basket of fresh bread that is still steaming gently. Strung up between two small trees is a selection of glowing white lights, each made from an old-fashioned light bulb and no two the same.
Harry steps closer, relishing the feeling of an expertly-cast warming charm.
“This is pretty fancy for a Wednesday night,” he says, impressed, but as he scans the table more carefully, his heart sinks. “Four plates. Hermione…”
He turns to her, unsure whether to be irritated or amused. She smiles appealingly and opens her mouth to speak just as there is a firm knock at the front door.
“Don’t worry,” she says, dashing into the house and leaving Harry alone in the garden. “You’ll like this one.”
Harry stares after her, scrubbing at his messy hair and then looking down at his scruffy outfit. When a tall, handsome, well-dressed man follows Hermione out into the garden seconds later, he decides that there’s only one thing for it. He’s going to have her murdered.
“Harry, this is Marius,” Hermione says, and fuck, she doesn’t look even a little bit guilty. “He’s a curse breaker.”
Marius smiles with perfect white teeth and sticks out a tanned hand for Harry to shake. His grip is firm and his skin is smooth and dry. He smells like winter spices and he has kind eyes like a Labrador retriever.
“Harry, it’s really good to meet you,” he says, and there’s just the slightest hint of a Scottish accent.
Harry smiles back and says something, anything; he has no idea because his friends have finally chosen someone who seems wonderful in every way, and all he can think about is Draco. About his stash of Prophets and his badly-behaved bus and his skin covered with glitter and engine oil. About the way that he is difficult and cranky and confusing as hell, but also clever and sharply funny and secretly kind.
“Shall we have a glass of wine?” Hermione says, and Harry takes his seat at the table and allows her to fill his glass without a word, because he’s in love with Draco, and ten thousand Mariuses couldn’t turn his head now.
The four of them clink glasses and Ron excuses himself to collect the shepherd’s pie from the oven. Harry stares at his wine without really seeing it, feeling as though he’s been knocked off his broom in midair. He doesn’t know what exactly is surprising about this feeling, but it’s almost too much to contain, and Marius’s warm laughter beside him makes his heart hurt with longing, closely followed by guilt. He seems like a nice man, and it’s certainly not his fault that Ron and Hermione are relentless and that he is keeping things from them.
“This is wonderful, isn’t it?” Marius says, and Harry smiles at him weakly. “I’d better just go and wash my hands, if you don’t mind?”
“First door on the left,” Hermione says. She waits until Marius has disappeared into the house and then turns to Harry expectantly. “Well, what do you think?”
Harry hesitates. “He seems… very nice.”
Hermione raises her eyebrows. “Very nice? Harry, he’s perfect for you. He’s handsome, he’s funny, he cooks… he even does charity work, just like you,” she whispers, setting down her wine glass and leaning forward on her elbows. “Tell me what’s wrong with him.”
“There’s nothing wrong with him,” Harry insists, lowering his voice. “I’m a bit blindsided, though; couldn’t you have given me some warning that he was going to be here?”
Hermione regards him, gaze calculating. “No. It’s not that. Tell me something else.”
“What are you talking about?” Harry demands, already beginning to panic.
Ron carries the steaming dish to the table and looks between them with interest.
“Harry is just about to tell me why he doesn’t want to go out with Marius,” Hermione says.
Harry stares at her. “No, I wasn’t.”
“You should,” Ron says, sitting beside Hermione as though none of this is a surprise to him, and maybe it isn’t. Harry just doesn’t know any more.
In the end, he gulps at his wine, sets down the glass, and takes a deep breath.
“Fine. Look… it’s complicated,” he says, hating the word as soon as it’s out. “There’s someone I’m interested in and I don’t want to mess it up.”
“Who?” Ron asks.
“Never mind who, it doesn’t matter,” Harry sighs. “The point is—”
“It does if you’re bringing him to the wedding,” Hermione says. “Angelina’s already having a nightmare with the place cards.”
“Place cards,” Harry repeats, bewildered.
“Erm… I think perhaps I should go,” Marius says, and they all whip around to see him standing awkwardly on the patio.
“Oh, no, of course not,” Hermione protests, leaping up from the table. “We were just…”
“It’s fine,” Marius says, attempting a smile. “This was obviously a misunderstanding.”
“Did you… hear much?” Ron asks without much hope.
“Well, none of you have particularly quiet voices,” Marius says, and Harry isn’t sure if he wants to smile or die of shame. “Thank you for inviting me. You have a lovely home.”
He nods and turns to go. Harry gestures for Ron and Hermione to stay put and hurries to see him out.
“I’m so sorry about all this,” he says at the door, and to his surprise, Marius shakes his hand again.
“Any man would be lucky to have you. Goodnight.”
Humbled, Harry watches him go and then walks slowly back through the house and to the table.
“Are you going to tell us who it is now?” Hermione asks as Ron dishes up the shepherd’s pie.
Harry gazes at her, bewildered. “Don’t you feel bad about Marius? I feel bad and none of this madness was my doing.”
“He’ll be alright,” Hermione says, accepting her plate with a sly smile. “He owed me a favour anyway.”
Ron grins. “And he did a brilliant job. It went completely to plan.”
Harry groans. The two of them do look very pleased with themselves. “Explain. Now.”
“Like I said, Marius owed me a favour. I helped him out with a little red tape problem at MLE and he was happy to repay my kindness,” Hermione says, still smiling to herself.
“We knew there was someone, but you weren’t going to admit it on your own,” Ron says through a mouthful of mashed potato.
“You knew,” Harry says, opting to let the whole thing wash over him. Yes, his friends are insane, but he has the feeling they mean well and he’s not about to let a delicious meal go to waste because of a little bit of scheming. He gathers potato and seasoned meat on his fork and conveys it to his mouth, sighing pleasurably at the warm, familiar flavours.
“Of course we know. You’ve been acting very oddly,” Hermione says. “And then there was the cat hair, and the fact that you’re out all the time even though you’re not doing a campaign. We know you, Harry.”
“I see. And you thought you’d set me up with a fake date because you just knew I’d say something and ruin it?”
“That was my idea,” Ron says proudly.
Harry frowns. “What if I’d liked him?”
Hermione laughs. “To be honest, I don’t think he’d have minded.”
“You never really liked any of the other ones,” Ron points out. “I don’t know why you put up with it all these years. If it were me, I’d have told you to bugger off by now.”
Harry says nothing for a while, picking the crispy bits from the top of his mash with his fork and crunching on them.
“I didn’t mind,” he says at last. “Not really. It’s not as though I’ve had much time for a proper relationship and sometimes it was sort of nice to just be able to go out for a night with someone. I met some interesting people and everyone always seemed to get a kick out of my stories about the weird ones. You’re both mad but I don’t think I’d have changed any of it.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Ron says, and this time, when they touch glasses, Harry smiles.
“And now you’ve met someone,” Hermione says, and he doesn’t know why he’d bothered to hope that she might let that part go.
“Well, that’s brilliant!” she declares. “When can we meet him?”
Harry gazes at his friends, at Hermione’s hopeful eyes and Ron’s relaxed, open face with just a small smear of gravy on it. He has to tell them. He has to, and he’s unlikely to find a better moment than this.
“Actually, you’ve already met,” he says, rubbing sweat-damp hands on his jeans under the table. “It’s Draco Malfoy.”
Hermione’s face falls and Harry feels his insides shrivelling in panic.
“Fine,” she says, turning to Ron and holding up her hands. “You win.”
Ron grins. “Thanks, Harry.”
“Don’t tell me you put money on this,” Harry says, caught between relief and astonishment.
“Not money,” Hermione says. “A month’s worth of nappy-changing duty. Draco Malfoy. I can’t believe you called it.”
“I’ve wondered ever since George’s stag,” Ron admits. “So he really is driving the Knight Bus?”
“Yeah. He owns it,” Harry says, still feeling uncertain. “So, this isn’t… a thing for you?”
“I’m prepared to keep my mind open,” Hermione says, digging into her food. “As long as he behaves himself.”
“Me too,” Ron says. “Dad fancies the Knight Bus for his birthday—do you think he’d do us a group discount?”
“Are you bringing him to the wedding?” Hermione asks before Harry can open his mouth.
“I don’t know,” Harry says, addressing Ron, and then, turning to Hermione: “I really don’t know. We’re just… I don’t know what we are right now.”
“Nice to have a bit of excitement in our lives,” Ron says, emptying the rest of the wine into their glasses.
Hermione’s wand begins to vibrate beside her plate and she sighs.
“It starts now, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” Ron says, kissing her on the cheek and smiling beatifically as she gets up and heads inside to attend to Hugo. He turns to Harry, fork held aloft. “Now, tell me everything before she gets back.”
Chapter 16: Sixteenth of December
Sixteenth of December – steaming cup in the morning light
The sky is still stubbornly dark when Harry stumbles out of bed with a raging thirst and an unsettled mind. In the bathroom, he drinks cold water straight from the tap and then stares at himself in the mirror. Blurred green eyes stare back, then blink slowly, and he smiles as the previous night’s conversation with Ron and Hermione floods back into his mind. They had been wonderful. Curious and cautious and concerned by turns, but wonderful, and he knows already that sharing his secret has lifted a weight from his shoulders.
With the benefit of hindsight, of course, he realises that he should never have tried to hide something so important from his best friends. Apart from anything else, they seem to know him better than he knows himself. He wanders back into the dark bedroom, puts on his glasses and finds that for once, it actually is the middle of the night; at least, it’s four o’clock in the morning and that’s close enough.
Now inconveniently wide awake, he gazes at his rumpled bed for a second or two and then abandons it, heading downstairs with a warm robe wrapped around himself and a thick pair of woollen socks on his feet. He makes tea and drinks it slowly, peering out idly at the coloured lights on the houses nearby and resolving to retrieve his own decorations from the attic just as soon as he has time.
And then he stops, frowning into his half-empty cup. It’s four in the morning. There’s no one to distract him. Draco won’t be driving the Knight Bus for hours and the biddies, with the possible exception of Danica, will still be warm in their beds.
“No time like the present,” he mumbles, enthusiasm growing as he thinks about the box of festive things, untouched since last year, sitting on a floor way above him and gathering that cold, musty aroma that, for him, always marks the start of Christmas.
Setting down his cup, he runs up the stairs, taking each flight two by two, feeling like a child and loving every second. He hauls the box down to the living room and then returns for the tree, the skeleton of a large spruce that he has kept and re-used for as long as he can remember, carefully spelling it a different colour every year. Once in place in front of the living room window, he touches the tip of his wand to the uppermost branch, thinks for a moment, and then casts until the whole thing is a shimmering silver-grey.
“Good colour,” he mumbles to himself, smiling and turning to the fireplace.
Seconds later, the dark room is licked by dancing flames, and when Harry turns on the wireless, soft carols fill the air. The streets beyond the window are empty and silent, but Harry can feel the spirit of the season in every string of lights he hangs, every Christmas card he displays and every bauble he adds to his spindly tree. His favourites are those collected on his travels and those made for him with such care by Rose, as well as a rather brilliant star given to him by Molly and Arthur several Christmases ago, carved from a single piece of wood and packed with enough warming and glowing magic to light the tree all on its own.
Harry is in no mood to rush, and by the time he steps back from the finished project, the sun is beginning to rise. He rubs at the patches of skin where the tree has scratched him, dusts glitter from his hands, and surveys his work. It’s a little chaotic, but he wouldn’t really want it any other way. Satisfied, he goes to the kitchen, picks up the kettle and puts it back down. Tea’s no good for this job, he thinks, instead rummaging through his cupboards for cocoa, milk, and a whisk.
Five minutes later, he settles cross-legged on the hearth rug with his steaming mug, letting the sound of the carols drift around him as he breathes slowly and watches the sun come up. Just for a moment, he feels warm, content, and perfectly calm, and then he wonders what Draco would think of his decorations and all at once his heart is attempting to climb into the back of his throat.
Flustered, he tries thinking of something else, but his mind just helpfully provides an image of the third deck and the first rays of the sun on Draco’s back as he writhes sleepily amid his layers of white bedclothes.
“Oh, god,” Harry whispers, pressing his hot cup against his face and closing his eyes. “That’s not better. That’s not better at all.”
In his mind’s eye, Draco smiles and rolls over, holding out his hand to pull Harry into bed with him, laughing as the bus veers around a corner and sends them sprawling in a delicious, tangled heap.
Bloody Vesseur Spain, Harry thinks, and then the image dissolves. It’s a stupid name, anyway.
He opens his eyes and frowns.
“Spain, like the country?”
“Oh, I don’t think he’s Spanish,” Ida’s voice echoes inside his head.
“None of us have met him,” Corrie adds.
“Spain,” he mutters to himself. On impulse he draws his wand and a small notepad and pencil come drifting through the air towards him.
Vesseur Spain, he writes, and then just stares at the letters.
Vesser? he tries underneath. Veseur?
None of his attempts look right but he has no idea why. It doesn’t matter, of course, plenty of people have ridiculous names, but something about it won’t quite leave him alone.
Irritated, he sips his cocoa and looks out of the window, where the sun has almost completely risen. The light is pale and ghostly, illuminating the steam from his drink in spirals all the way to the ceiling.
Spirals, he thinks, watching the steam and then glancing back at his notebook. Circles?
Upside down and inside out.
Slowly, he turns the page and starts again, writing each name in a rough circle and then staring at it hard, chewing on the end of the pencil until it almost cracks. After several minutes of silence, he pulls the pencil out of his mouth and writes:
VESSEUR = SEVERUS.
Something unpleasant tips in his stomach but he continues to stare at the page.
“It’s not ‘Spain’,” he murmurs, crossing out the name. “It’s ‘Spane’. It’s Snape.”
SEVERUS SNAPE, he writes, scratching each letter into the page in his fury.
The biddies have never met the other driver of the Knight Bus because he doesn’t exist.
“They forced you to hire another driver because they were worried about you, and you never did it,” Harry says, ripping out the page and crushing it into a ball. “You lied. You fucking lied to a bunch of little old ladies.”
Harry lobs the ball of paper into the fire and flops onto his back on the hearth rug, hands over his eyes. Every last bit of his warm contentment has drained away, to be replaced by a swirl of confusion, betrayal, and stinging regret. He’s not sure if he regrets getting involved with Draco in the first place or just regrets not just leaving the issue of the other driver well alone, but either way, everything is upside down and he hates it.
Yes, Draco’s life is complicated, he thinks bitterly. It’s complicated because he drives that fucking bus every minute of every day and lies his arse off so that nobody finds out.
Why, is a good question, but as Harry lies there, Christmas lights seeming to glimmer mockingly down at him, he almost doesn’t care. Someone is going to have to have words with Draco, and he’s pretty sure it’s going to have to be him, but not today.
Suddenly feeling weary, Harry gets slowly to his feet and regards his decorated living room with a sigh. He puts out the fire, finishes his cocoa, and climbs the stairs.
“Tomorrow,” he says, and crawls back into bed.
Chapter 17: Seventeenth of December
Seventeenth of December – ball of string
The next morning, Harry waits in the rain for the Knight Bus to appear, barely noticing the water soaking through to his skin as he fights desperately to take control of the writhing tangle of emotions that has crept around his heart in the night. He’s still angry, there’s no doubt about that, but he’s also hurt and more afraid of this confrontation than he really wants to admit.
He doesn’t want to step onto the bus, open his mouth, and ruin everything, but he knows there is no way of keeping it to himself. Not now.
When the bus pitches up and the doors open, he boards with a heavy heart. The driver’s seat is empty. Puzzled, he closes the doors and steps beyond the curtain.
“Hello,” Eilish says, waving a pinecone at him. “You’re drenched!”
Harry takes an involuntary step back when the drying charm hits him and sneezes violently.
“Thanks,” he manages, almost forgetting why he’s here as he admires Eilish’s spellwork. His clothes are bone dry, including his coat, his cuffs, and the bottoms of his jeans.
“You missed all the excitement yesterday,” Danica says. “We picked up a whole family of passengers.”
“Real passengers,” Ida says, eyes wide.
“What are we, chopped liver?” Corrie grumbles, and Harry almost smiles.
He takes a deep breath. “Where’s Draco?”
“Upstairs,” Eilish says, pointing. “He knew it was only you, so he went up to fetch some string for us.”
“We’re making a wreath,” Ida adds, and for the first time, Harry notices that the table is covered in bits of greenery.
“Great,” Harry says absently. “I just need a word with him. I’ll be back down soon.”
He walks up the stairs slowly, half-listening to the ladies’ conversation above the pounding of blood in his ears. When he steps onto the top deck, he finds Draco standing at the window, gazing out into Grimmauld Place and winding the last of an enormous ball of rough brown string into place.
At the sound of Harry’s footsteps, he turns and smiles.
“We missed you yesterday,” he says. “Well, the biddies missed you, I found it pleasantly quiet.”
Something about his warm, casual manner makes Harry feel slightly sick.
“Why did you lie?” he asks, words coming out too loud and too fast.
Draco’s smile disappears. “What are you talking about?”
“You lied about having another driver for the bus. Vesseur Spane?”
“You’re making no sense,” Draco says, but his face has turned blank and his fingers are digging into the string, forcing their way between the layers and gripping tightly.
“I’m a bit slow, maybe, but I worked it out,” Harry says, needing something to anchor him, too. He grabs the nearest metal pole. Breathes. “Vesseur Spane is Severus Snape, and unless he’s come back to life somehow, you lied to those ladies. You never hired another driver.”
Draco lets out a slow breath and stares at the floor. “Does it really matter?”
“Yes!” Harry snaps, caught in a rush of anger that makes him feel unpleasantly hot all over. “Of course it matters. They asked you to get some help. They insisted, and you told them you’d done it. Lie to me all you want, Draco, I don’t know why I expected anything different, but those ladies trust you. Don’t you think they’d be upset if they knew what your life was really like?”
Draco looks up, and the eyes that meet his are cold and hard.
“Why do you give a fuck about this?” he demands. “We were fine without you and we’ll be fine again once you’ve lost interest.”
Harry stares at him. “What makes you think I’m going to lose interest?”
Draco lets out a humourless snort. He unwinds a section of string, wrapping it around his hands and pulling tight until his fingers turn white.
“I thought we…” Harry begins, and then Draco cuts him off.
“You thought, you want, it’s all about you, isn’t it? You turn up here, walk around like you own the place, charming everyone in sight and turning everything upside down.” Draco scowls, unwrapping and rewrapping the string through his fingers as though trying to keep his feelings under control. “This is my bus, Potter, and my life, and you are not going to be the golden boy here, alright?”
“I’m not trying to do anything like that,” Harry insists, wanting to grab the string out of Draco’s hands and stuff it into his mouth. “But you can’t keep—”
“I can’t keep what?” he demands, eyes glittering. “Tell me, please do, because I just know that you’ve got it all worked out!”
“I haven’t!” Harry shouts, gripping the metal pole until his fingers hurt. “I haven’t got anything worked out, you idiot, I just fucking hate lies, especially when they’re not necessary. Those women down there—”
“This isn’t about them,” Draco says, mouth flickering in a bitter smile. “This is about you. You can’t stand the thought that you didn’t know everything about me.”
Harry shakes his head in disbelief. “For god’s sake, Draco… this is about all of it. It’s about them and it’s about… about you and me, whatever that is, and it’s about the fact that you do nothing but drive this bus because you’re too stubborn to ask for help. You’re absolutely—”
“Why are you trying to rescue me?” Draco demands hotly.
“I’m not trying to rescue you,” Harry grinds out. “I’m trying to yell at you, but you keep interrupting me!”
Draco stares at him, mouth slightly open, and Harry wonders if he’s finally lost for words. When the grey eyes shift somewhere to Harry’s right, though, he turns, and isn’t as surprised as he thinks he should be to see the brass eye hovering on its long stalk and rising up through the stairwell.
“This doesn’t concern you,” Draco calls, scowling, and after a moment, the eye begins to retract out of sight.
“I think it sort of does, actually,” Harry says.
“You don’t understand anything,” Draco snaps. “It’s—”
“Don’t you dare say ‘complicated’,” Harry warns, and beneath the fury surging in his chest, something like electricity crackles in the air between them. The combination is so confusing that the next words are out before he can stop them. “Don’t. Your life isn’t complicated. You have no life.”
Draco seems to draw back as though he’s been hit, and then his eyes narrow, he extracts himself from the ball of string and throws it at Harry in one violent movement. The ball hits Harry with surprising force, bounces off his shoulder and tumbles into the stairwell. For a moment, their confusion pulls them together, eyes locked and breaths held.
“You really are a wanker,” Draco says eventually, and the spell is broken.
“I suppose trying to reason with you was pointless, then,” Harry says.
“I suppose it was.”
Draco turns away, and Harry hesitates only for a moment before stomping back down the stairs, failing to notice the unravelled string and stumbling out onto the bottom deck in a tangle. In his frustrated efforts to extricate himself, he steps heavily on Juno’s paw and receives a warning hiss from her as she pelts up the stairs away from him. No doubt she’ll find Draco, and the two of them can talk shit about him until the cows come home, because he doesn’t care and he’s getting off this bus right now.
Well, in a minute.
He gathers up the string and sets it down on the table, feeling all four pairs of eyes on him.
“I have to go now,” he says, voice shaking slightly.
“You’ll come back, won’t you?” Ida asks.
“I don’t know.”
“We heard everything,” Danica says. “He’s just cross now. He’ll calm down.”
Harry meets her eyes. They’re wonderfully calm. “I’m pretty cross, too.”
“So are we,” Corrie says with feeling. “But we can have words with him, thanks to you.”
“Everything will be alright in the end,” Eilish says, patting his hand.
Harry sighs. “How do you know?”
“One way or another, it always is,” she says. “You go and have a think, he’ll do the same, and in the meantime, there are plans to be made.”
“She means we’re going to give him a telling off,” Ida explains.
“That boy needs to learn not to interrupt,” Corrie adds helpfully, and Harry flushes, remembering all the ridiculous things he has said and wanting to cover his face.
“I’ll see you all soon,” he says, and all he can do is promise and hope.
With the worst of his anger now drained away, he leaves the bus and walks slowly back to his house, every step heavy with uncertainty and the very real feeling that he could have handled things a whole lot better. Yes, Draco is an idiot, but in all likelihood, he is one too.
At the front door, he turns and looks up at the top deck of the bus. Draco looks back at him for a moment, then scowls and walks away. Ten seconds later, the bus disappears completely, leaving Harry alone on his doorstep.
Chapter 18: Eighteenth of December
Eighteenth of December – stile over a wall
As night falls, Harry wanders around his house without purpose, drifting from room to room in search of something that will settle the chaos in his head. In the end, he deposits himself in a weary heap on the hearth rug, and after a couple of hours of shivering, he gathers the wherewithal to light the fire in the grate. When his stomach begins to protest his lack of attention, he grabs a tin of biscuits for cheese and eats them dry until his tongue is sore and his throat is arid.
When the clock strikes for midnight, he stirs and trundles to the kitchen, half-awake and half something else completely. He gulps down water, staring out at the dull night sky, and then returns to his position with a large, steaming mug of tea.
He has had arguments before, he thinks, gazing into the flames. Loads of them. With bells on. He has been insulted, snapped at, told to go and fuck himself more times than he can count, plenty of those times by Draco, but somehow this is different. He’s restless with it, unable to settle or to fall into bed and designate the whole thing tomorrow’s problem. Draco has royally fucked with his head, and he can’t decide if he’s furious or a little bit impressed.
He’s a mess. He’s exhausted, covered in cracker crumbs and his hands shake when he reaches for his tea. And yet, when he thinks about the stupid lying bastard, his heart still aches and his stomach still fills with heat.
“Fuck you, Draco Malfoy,” he mumbles, and something low down inside him twinges at the idea.
Harry groans and drops his head into his hands.
Go home and have a think, that’s what the biddies had said. As though it’s that simple. He wonders if Draco is having a think of his own, or if he’s driving around the countryside in the dark, crunching on apples and waiting to be needed.
Harry supposes he can’t blame him completely. It’s nice to be needed. And, he realises, with busy friends and no work to do, travelling on the Knight Bus as an unofficial, unpaid conductor has made him feel useful, too. In the space of two and a half weeks, it has become his place, and when he sits at that table in an armchair made for him by a crotchety bus, he feels as though he has always been there.
Draco is an idiot of the highest order for misleading those ladies, but when Harry really allows himself to think about it, he knows there was no malice or even self interest in those actions. Stubbornness, certainly, and an bullish independence that borders on self-destruction, but Harry knows that if he prises himself off the floor and looks in the mirror, those same ridiculous qualities will look right back.
Perhaps that’s why you get on so well, adds Danica’s voice inside his head, and he can picture her sly expression perfectly.
Perhaps, he thinks, getting to his feet and brushing crumbs from his clothes, it would have helped if I hadn’t gone in there and started throwing accusations around.
He sighs. It’s not that Draco didn’t lie, or that he isn’t a horrible pain in the arse, but Harry loves him, and what’s important now is finding a solution.
“I love him,” he mumbles to himself in the mirror, and the irritation and guilt continues to prickle over his skin, but the sudden smile lights up his weary face and he knows that it doesn’t have to make sense. Some things just are, and it’s just possible that he and Draco Malfoy have been an accident waiting to happen for a very long time.
Humming to himself, he runs a bath, peeling off his dirty clothes and sinking into the hot water right up to his neck. He closes his eyes, inhaling sage-scented steam, and allows the problem to drift around him.
If Draco forgives him, which he thinks he might, he still needs a night driver and he also needs a way to take a couple of days a week to himself without disturbing the activities of the biddy club. Those ladies need each other, and they seem to thrive on daily meetings where they can chat and craft and consume vast quantities of tea and cake.
And if it doesn’t always have to be on a bus… Harry sits up in the bath and the sudden action causes a wave of hot water to crash over the side and onto the tiles. He hardly notices, because he thinks he might have had a genuinely brilliant idea. He is halfway out of the bath, mind racing, when he realises that it is still the middle of the night, and that people being asked for favours should at least be allowed a full night’s sleep first.
Reluctantly, he lowers himself back into the water, using his foot to turn the hot tap.
He’ll go in the morning.
Harry wakes at first light, groaning as he remembers his argument with Draco and then brightening at the thought of a possible solution. He dresses warmly and Apparates into a silent, frosty field less than half a mile from his destination. A short walk will do him good, and besides, the morning is beautiful, clear blue sky, the scent of winter on the breeze, and cold enough to turn Harry’s face numb within seconds.
He walks slowly, boots crunching on the grass with every step. He can already see the house in the distance and he smiles to see the smoke curling from the chimney indicating that someone is definitely awake. At the dry stone wall that forms part of the boundary of the property, Harry climbs onto the stile and lingers for a moment.
Just ahead is the sprawling patch of grassy land where George and Angelina will be married in three days’ time. The marquee lies folded flat in a halo of protective magic, and beside it, stacks and stacks of wooden chairs that he knows Ron is planning to turn orange. Amused, Harry turns back to the house, wondering what Molly is up to with the wedding so close.
He hopes she’ll be pleased to see him, and then he stops and shakes that idea from his head. Molly is always pleased to see him; she’s delighted to welcome any guest into her home, and Harry is rather counting on that fact. Whether Draco sees the whole endeavour as helpful or unwanted interference is another matter, but he has to try, and he has to do it now, because the stile is cold and hard and he can no longer feel his backside.
Climbing down, he heads to the house with an odd, sideways gait, and knocks at the back door. Molly opens it and beams to see him, all but dragging him into the house by his coat sleeve.
“You’re shivering!” she says, directing him into the kitchen chair closest to the fireplace and flicking her wand at the kettle. “Why didn’t you Floo in, you daft thing?”
“Fancied a bit of a walk,” Harry says, wincing as his fingers start to thaw.
Molly looks at him as though he’s just announced he’s planning to swim up the Thames naked, and then she brightens. “I’ve been practising cup cakes for the wedding. Well, Angelina says that’s what they are but they just look like big fairy buns to me. They taste nice, though… do you want one?”
“I’d love one,” Harry says, suddenly very aware that he has neglected to feed himself properly over the last day or so. “How’s the wedding cake going?”
“All seven tiers baked,” Molly says proudly. “It just needs icing now. Here, try this.”
Harry takes the small cake and admires it. The pure white icing shimmers with the most delicate glitter, and a wafer thin sugar snowflake balances on top. With Molly’s eyes on him, he takes a bite, and of course it’s wonderful. The sponge is light and soft, concealing a well of chocolate sauce that goes perfectly with the buttery mint of the frosting.
“That’s fantastic,” he mumbles, wiping frosting from his lip. “And these are the practise ones?”
Molly beams and then instantly shrugs off the praise. “Well, I’ve had a lot of time to get them right. It’s nice to have something to do.”
Her words poke Harry somewhere sore, and he has barely taken a sip of his tea before the words are out.
“I need to talk to you.”
To his surprise, Molly nods, takes off her apron, and sits down next to him.
“I thought you might.”
“Did you?” Harry asks, puzzled.
“Ron told me about you and the Malfoy boy,” she says calmly. “He says you’re thinking of bringing him to the wedding.”
Caught by surprise, Harry says nothing for several long seconds.
“I never said that, Molly, honestly I didn’t,” he says at last, and she fixes him with a stern eye.
“Are you saying that Ron lied to me?”
“No! I just…” Harry pauses, wondering how the conversation got derailed so quickly. “I’m not bringing anyone to the wedding that you wouldn’t want… anyone that… without asking you all… and Draco and I, it’s…”
Molly sips her tea. “Complicated, is it? That’s what Ron says.”
Harry sighs heavily. “Wait until I see Ron.”
“Oh, don’t be cross at him,” she says. “He’s pleased for you. He needed to tell someone.”
“Molly, I have no idea what to say to that,” Harry admits. “The thing is, I didn’t come here to talk to you about Draco. Well… I did, but not in that way. Oh, god, do you mind if I go back outside and come in again?”
Molly laughs. “You sound a little bit confused, Harry.” She pauses, narrowing her eyes. “Are you eating properly?”
“Of course,” he lies, and takes another bite of his cake. “So, aren’t you upset about all of this?”
Molly rests her chin in one hand and purses her lips. “I’m not a big fan of that family.”
“I know,” Harry says, grimacing. “The thing is, though… the family sort of… isn’t… any more. Lucius is dead, Narcissa lives on some sort of commune in Europe, and Draco is alone, driving the Knight Bus pretty much twenty-four hours a day so that these mad old women have somewhere to meet up.”
“Mad?” Molly says, and Harry smiles.
“Yeah. But brilliant. There’s Ida, who’s a bit forgetful and really clever with plants, and Corrie, who knits all the time, and…”
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” Molly says gently. “I’ll make another cup of tea and you can tell me all about it.”
Harry nods, realising that he’s holding himself so stiffly that he can hardly breathe. With some effort, he relaxes his muscles, watching Molly as she refills their cups and bustles around the kitchen just like always, as though none of this is really strange for her, and perhaps it’s not. Perhaps, after seven children and a war, there are no surprises left.
“Okay,” he says, wrapping his hands around his second cup of tea. “It all started when George had his stag night.”
“I should have known that George had something to do with it,” Molly says, but then she whispers, “Sorry” and settles down to listen.
She sits in absolute silence as Harry tells her about how Draco came to take over the Knight Bus, smiles as he explains all about the biddy club and their outings, and barely raises an eyebrow when Harry gives her a stumbling, heavily-edited version of his friendship with Draco and their recent argument. By the time he stops talking, the tea in their cups has gone cold and the kitchen is full of the warm smell of roasted meat.
“I’ve done a chicken,” Molly says suddenly. “I completely forgot. Would you like some?”
“Yes, please,” Harry says, confused but still very hungry. “Who did you cook it for?”
“You, silly,” Molly says, pulling out the roasting tray and setting it to stand. “I’ll make sandwiches, shall I?”
Harry nods absently. “How did you know I’d be coming?”
“I’m your mother, I just know,” she says, and then turns to him, aghast. “I’m so sorry, Harry. That just came out. I know I’m not your mother.”
Harry gets up and hugs her, heart warm and full to bursting. “You are, in all the ways that matter. I know my Mum and Dad are really pleased that you and Arthur could take over for them.”
Molly says nothing but hugs him tightly, face pressed into his chest. When she steps back, her eyes are brimming and Harry’s jumper is slightly damp. Deciding not to draw attention to it, he sits down and allows her to resume buttering large, floury bread rolls.
“Well, it’s a very interesting story,” she says at last. “But where do I come in?”
Harry takes a deep breath. “I need to find a way to persuade Draco to take some time away from the bus. He needs another driver, but I’m not sure how I can help with that beyond offering to pay for one, and I know he won’t take my money. The thing is, he’s very attached to these ladies and the bus is the only place they’re not alone. If I could find somewhere else they could meet… maybe a day or two a week… I could…” Harry trails off when Molly turns around and stares at him, hard.
“Harry, when you first started telling me about this biddy club, I thought you were suggesting that I join it,” she says, and Harry shakes his head vehemently. “Are you asking me to have them here? At the Burrow?”
“Only a couple of days a week and only if you want to,” Harry says, crossing his fingers under the table. “They just need somewhere to gossip and do their crafts and things, and they’d love it here. You can absolutely say no, I just thought it was worth asking.”
Molly turns back to the oven and doesn’t say a word as she slices the chicken and packs it into the rolls, places each one on a warmed plate and sets them down on the table. She sits down and fixes Harry with a look that he can’t quite read.
“Do you know how much time I spend on my own in this house?” she asks.
“Not really,” he admits.
“Arthur’s promotion was a wonderful thing, but it means long hours. None of my children live at home any more. They come back and see me, and that’s wonderful, but then they go back to their houses and it’s just me.”
“I’m sorry,” Harry says quietly.
“Don’t be sorry, Harry,” she says, eyes crinkling as she smiles. “You’ve just offered me the most wonderful opportunity. Where do I sign?”
Harry grins, taking a bite of his sandwich. “You are amazing, and your roast chicken is the best I have ever tasted.”
Molly grins and throws her apron at him. “If he’s as polite as you, he’s welcome at the wedding,” she says.
“If you like him and he’s kind to old ladies, there must be something decent there,” she says.
Harry smiles, heart speeding. “You know, I think there is.”
That evening, Harry stands at his front door and hails the Knight Bus.
Draco opens the doors and peers at him through the darkness. “Yes?”
“Can we talk?” Harry calls.
“I can’t hang around here all day,” Draco says, ignoring the question. “Are you getting on or not?”
“Draco, is there anyone on the bus?”
Draco sighs. “Not right now, no. What’s your point?”
“Will you please park that thing up and come inside? I’ve got coffee, and, er, roast chicken,” Harry says, looking at Draco’s face and suspecting that not even Molly’s leftovers are going to get him off that bus.
To his astonishment, though, Draco pulls the bus into a safe place, shields it from view and walks slowly up to number twelve. In the light from the hallway, Harry can see that he, too, has had a restless night. The circles under his eyes stand out in stark contrast to his pale skin and his hair is ruffled and untidy. Harry grips the doorframe, desperate to reach for him and stroke him smooth and calm.
Mouth dry, he mumbles, “Come in,” and Draco follows him inside in silence.
Harry directs him into a chair and pours the coffee, releasing the rich scent into the air and watching Draco’s eyes close gratefully.
“You look tired,” he says. He can’t help it.
“‘You look tired’,” Draco mumbles. “Most heard phrase today, closely followed by ‘Where’s Harry?’”
“I’m sorry,” Harry says, perching on the coffee table with his cup. “I had some stuff I needed to do. Also… I’m sorry for saying you have no life.”
Draco snorts. “Don’t be. It’s true enough.”
“It isn’t,” Harry says fiercely. “I said it because I was mad with you but I actually think what you do is pretty amazing.”
Draco looks up at last. “Like fuck you do.”
“Draco, don’t be a prat when I’m trying to apologise to you,” Harry sighs. “I’m probably interfering where I’m not wanted here, but I want to help. Today I sorted out a bit of a solution with someone I trust, and if you want it, it’s there.”
“What kind of a solution?” Draco asks, eyes guarded but hopeful.
“Somewhere for the biddies to go every week while you have a break,” Harry explains, suddenly self-conscious. “A way for you to have time off from the bus. You know, time for a life.”
“You are interfering,” Draco says, and a tiny, crooked smile ignites something in Harry’s chest. “But I think… perhaps you’re wanted, too.”
Harry leans closer, breath caught. “Wanted by who?”
“By whom,” Draco mumbles, and then covers his face with his hands. “I don’t know where that came from.”
Laughing, Harry gently tugs his fingers away, tangling them in his own and gently drawing Draco closer.
“By whom?” he asks.
“All of us,” Draco says. “The biddies miss you. The bus misses you. Juno misses you, even though you stood on her foot. I miss you.”
He leans, and Harry leans, and their lips brush together so gently that Harry shivers all over.
“Is this an apology?” he mumbles, and he feels Draco’s smile against his lips.
“If you like,” Draco says, kissing the corner of his mouth. “It’s… oh, for the love of…”
He pulls away, scowling, and reaches into his pocket, pulling out the Galleon, which is now vibrating rather urgently.
“It’s Mr Barleycorn,” he says. “Of course it is.”
“You’re not going to ignore him, are you?” Harry says hopefully. “I mean, you’re too honourable for that these days.”
Draco laughs. He touches Harry’s face with his fingertips and then gets to his feet, finishing his coffee in two gulps.
“I have to go. You can tell me more about this scheme of yours tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there,” Harry promises, following him to the door.
“Yes, you will,” Draco says, grinning and leaning in for the briefest moment before hurrying into the darkness, leaving Harry feeling shaken but wonderful, alive with anticipation and arousal, and the scent of lemons everywhere.
Mr Barleycorn, he decides, will not be getting a Christmas card this year.
Chapter 19: Nineteenth of December
Nineteenth of December – blue tit
In the hope of getting some time alone with Draco, Harry hails the Knight Bus as early as he dares. The sun hasn’t even started to struggle above the horizon yet and the headlights of the bus illuminate glittering frost on every surface.
“Good morning,” Draco says, and something in his tone makes Harry shiver.
“Hi,” he says, hurrying onto the bus and into his seat. He lowers his voice to add: “I’m sorry you had to rush off last night.”
Draco smiles at the steering wheel and pulls away from the kerb, taking it slowly for several seconds before putting his foot down and sending the bus whizzing along the quiet streets at breakneck pace.
“So am I,” he says. “But you should know that we’re not alone.”
Harry turns slowly to look through the curtain, and there is Danica, sitting at the table and apparently teaching Harry the mouse to jump for treats.
“She’s been here since four,” Draco says, and he suppresses a yawn, which Harry immediately catches.
“Hello, Danica,” he calls, and she looks up and waves to him.
“You’re up early,” she says. “Are you alright?”
“Fine, thank you,” he sighs, and turns to Draco. “Should I take that as an insult?”
“I wouldn’t bother,” Draco advises. “Everyone gets up later than you if you hardly ever go to bed.”
“She’d better not decide to finally fall asleep in the middle of this play,” Harry mutters. “I’ll never hear the end of it from Rose.”
Draco glances at him, eyebrows knitted. “Do you really think they don’t mind giving away five extra tickets?”
Harry laughs. “God, no. The more the merrier. Anyway, they aren’t giving them away. They’re two pounds each. The kids have decided to give the money they make to an animal charity.”
“Save the bristle beetle?” Draco asks innocently.
“It’s a Muggle primary school. Most of those kids have never even heard of a bristle beetle,” Harry says. “Anyway, I’ve got our tickets, all paid for,” he adds, producing a sheaf of pink sugar paper strips from his pocket.
“I’ll have to owe you,” Draco says. “I haven’t got any Muggle money with me today.”
Harry grins. “I’m sure we can work something out.”
Draco catches his smile and very deliberately does not look at him, instead focusing on the empty road ahead. For some reason, Harry can’t tear his eyes away, and soon stops trying, instead settling in his seat and openly admiring Draco’s sharp profile and strong, sure hands.
“Will you stop looking at me like that?” he whispers after a minute or two. “I’m trying to drive a very large bus.”
“I’m not looking at you like anything. You’re imagining it,” Harry says, grinning like a loon.
“The girls will be so pleased that you two have worked things out,” Danica says loudly, reminding Harry of her presence and ensuring that he suddenly feels more awkward than he is really able to cope with at this time in the morning.
“Any chance you can drop me off at the Leaky Cauldron?” he asks, and Draco frowns.
“You’re leaving? Already?”
“I’m coming back,” Harry promises. “I’ve just remembered something I need to do.”
“If you say so,” Draco mumbles, shooting him a searching look as he swings the bus around and speeds off in the opposite direction.
By the time Harry has explained to Danica that he really is coming back this time and that they are definitely still going to the Christmas play, made his way into the Leaky, had an involved conversation with Tom the barman about the rising price of turnips and opened the archway into Diagon Alley, the sun is rising and the shopkeepers are lighting their coloured lamps and unlocking their doors.
He buys himself hot coffee from a cart and wanders the cobbles, looking into all the shop windows and attempting to focus on his mission. His presents for family and old friends have been bought weeks ago in an uncharacteristic stroke of organisation, but now Christmas is almost upon them and he can’t, in good conscience, forget about the ladies of biddy club.
Diagon Alley is peaceful, empty shops and soft, quiet air giving the impression that the whole street is still sleeping. Harry walks with care under the twinkling white lights, loath to disturb the sensation of almost perfect calm. When he meets another shopper coming from the opposite direction, he is amused to notice that this man, too, is taking gentle steps and merely grants a polite nod to Harry as they drift past each other outside Hester’s Haberdashery.
Harry pauses, taking in the shelves full of yarn and wondering if he might find something for Corrie inside. Five minutes later, he emerges with a paper bag containing a set of decorated wooden needles and a ball of wool as soft as Juno’s fur. In Flourish and Blotts, he picks up a book about endangered magical insects for Ida, and in the shop next door, he finds a baking tray for Danica that can be altered to cook cakes in a whole array of shapes, just with the tap of a wand, and a subscription for Eilish to a ‘Rare Tea of the Month’ club.
Feeling rather accomplished, Harry buys himself another cup of coffee and sits down on a bench to examine his purchases. Now the shops are beginning to fill and the sound of festive music is echoing down the street, mixing with the chatter of children and the repetitive calls of the stall-holders all around him. And he’s going to have to fight his way back into that, because he still needs a present for Draco. Of course, what he really wants to give him is time, and with Molly’s help, he is working on that, but the idea of Christmas coming and going without at least a small gift to hand over is a very unappealing one.
Gathering his bags, Harry steps into the crowds, immediately beginning to procrastinate by heading to the Magical Menagerie and buying festive treats for Juno, Montague, and Harry the mouse. In a tiny shop that smells of incense and candles, he finds a vivid, multicoloured scarf for Audrey, and for Thora, a tin of very fancy coffee that might, he hopes, cheer her up for a minute or two.
From a brightly-lit market stall he buys wrapping paper with shiny red stars and five rolls of Spellotape because he knows he will lose the first four. He pauses for a bacon sandwich and then, finally, he sees it, sitting on a market stall full of similarly shiny objects, the gift for the man who loves his bus.
Feeling rather pleased with himself, he pays for it with a handful of coins and then Apparates on the spot back to the kitchen at number twelve, half-eaten sandwich still in hand.
When he returns to the Knight Bus, Draco is sucking on a humbug and reading aloud to Juno from the Daily Prophet. At the sight of Harry, he stops abruptly and takes the wheel with an expression that clearly says, ‘You saw nothing.’
Harry just smiles at him and sits at the table, allowing the ladies to fuss over him and push tea and cake in his direction.
“I hear that you’ve come up with a plan,” Eilish says approvingly. “Well, so have we.”
“You first,” Harry says, intrigued. From the front of the bus comes an audible sigh.
“We’ve been fooled once, but we won’t allow it a second time,” Danica says. “This time, there will be a second driver, and we are going to make sure of it.”
“Yes,” Ida says, nodding furiously. “We’re going to be at the interviews.”
“You’ll scare them to death,” Harry says, smiling. “But… how are you going to pay for it?”
“Woman is filthy rich,” Corrie says, indicating Ida with a jerk of her head.
Harry looks at Ida, who merely smiles at him and nods.
“You should tell him,” Danica says, dropping a crumb of cake into Harry the mouse’s cage.
“You’ll have heard of Mrs Skower’s Magical Mess Remover?” Ida says.
“Yeah, of course, Molly loves that stuff… hold on, are you the Mrs Skower?” Harry asks, eyes wide.
“I’m not as old as all that, Harry,” Ida says mildly, and though she doesn’t seem in the least offended, Harry feels guilty anyway.
Ida shakes her head. “It’s alright. The original Mrs Skower was my mother-in-law, you see, and my husband was her only child. I’ve been left with rather a lot of money and, to be honest, I’d much rather give some of it to Draco than let those ungrateful children of Henry’s have it.”
“Quite right,” Eilish says. “Draco is your friend. He rescued you. What have those two ever done for you?”
“If I had that sort of money, I’d spend it all and have the last laugh in my coffin,” Corrie says sternly, and Harry has to bite down on a smile.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Ida says, “but the way I see it, this club has given me a lot of lovely times, and if it needs a sponsor, I’d like it to be me.”
Harry smiles at her, surprised and warmed. “Ida, that’s wonderful. Have you told Draco?”
“Oh, he knows,” Corrie says. “He heard, he tried to argue. We didn’t take no for an answer.”
“We were very stern with him,” Danica puts in.
“I can hear you, you know?” Draco says without turning around.
“What’s your plan?” Eilish asks, ignoring him completely.
“I’ve got a friend who’s going to help us,” Harry says, glancing at the back of Draco’s head. “All of us.”
“Okay, so is everybody ready?” Harry asks some hours later, and the ladies gathered around the table in their coats nod seriously. “Draco?”
“Of course I’m ready,” Draco says, sitting in Harry’s vacated chair. “This is a children’s play, not a military operation. What are you doing now?”
“This is our girl,” Harry says, holding up a photograph and enlarging it with a spell. “Her name is Grace, she’s six years old and she’s going to be playing the part of a jellyfish.”
“How many animals are going to be in this production?” Draco asks, folding his arms.
“I don’t know. Rose is going to be a giraffe, and I think I heard her say something about a flock of sheep. Look… just stop picking it apart and suspend your disbelief,” Harry says.
“I think it’s lovely,” Ida sighs, buttoning her coat right up under her chin.
“Me too,” Harry says firmly. “Now, when we see Grace, we need to smile and wave and look proud, stuff like that. No whistling, no critiquing, and definitely no mice.”
Danica blinks. “I was planning to leave him here, of course.”
“You’re being very bossy today,” Corrie opines. “It suits you.”
Just at that moment, he meets Draco’s eyes. He grins, and Harry immediately feels the flush creeping up the back of his neck.
“Er, right. Well, let’s go, it’ll be starting in a few minutes,” he says, mildly surprised when all the biddies get to their feet and file past him to the door.
“Why do they always listen to you?” Draco grumbles, shrugging on his long coat and winding a grey scarf around his neck.
“No idea,” Harry says, too caught up in his dark, effortless style to form a proper sentence.
“You look very nice, too,” Draco says, quirking one eyebrow and one corner of his mouth, and Harry shakes himself, trying to smile back like a normal person and failing miserably.
“What are you doing in there?” Corrie calls from the pavement.
“Give them a minute,” Eilish chides, and Harry practically throws himself out of the bus before he has the chance to die of embarrassment.
Inside, the wood-panelled hall is bustling with people, some looking for their seats, others handing out paper programmes or chatting animatedly with the parents of their children’s classmates. Every now and then, a teacher with bauble earrings or tinsel in their hair pops their head through the curtains and looks around, and at the side of the stage, an elderly lady is playing carols on the piano. The distinctive smell of school floods Harry’s senses and surrounds him in a bubble of nostalgia that is almost potent enough to make him long for his school days.
“Ooh, this is lovely,” Eilish says, clutching her programme and beaming.
Danica scans hers with interest. “It says there will be tea and coffee and mince pies at the end,” she says, eliciting a little rumble of excitement from the others.
Harry catches sight of Ron and Hermione in the second row and waves to them. He has a few questions for Ron, but there’s no time now. It’s fine, he thinks, showing the ladies their seats at the back of the hall and smiling to himself. None of them are going anywhere.
He has just squeezed into his seat beside Draco and accidentally-on-purpose let their cold fingers fall together in the gap between their chairs when Hermione is turning and gesturing for him to come over. Glancing at the clock, he hurries to the front and crouches beside Hermione’s seat.
“What’s the matter?”
“We just thought you should know that Rose isn’t going to be playing the giraffe now,” Hermione whispers. “She’s going to be head bird.”
“What?” Harry whispers back, puzzled. “She was really excited about being the giraffe.”
“I know… but Elsa Graham—that’s the girl from second year who was supposed to be head bird—she’s had an attack of nerves and she can’t do it,” Hermione explains. “This happened all of half an hour ago. The teachers were panicking.”
“It’s the main part,” Ron says with obvious pride. “And Rosie was the only one who knew all the lines. She’s been so excited about the whole thing that she’s learned everybody’s lines.”
“So, who’s going to play the giraffe?” Harry asks, just as the piano music stops and a smiling man in a suit walks out in front of the closed curtains.
“Elsa,” Hermione says. “The giraffe doesn’t have to say anything.”
“I’m glad someone’s going to wear that costume,” Ron says with feeling. “We only finished it an hour ago.”
“I wondered where you were at lunch. Your mum said you were working.”
“We were,” Hermione hisses. “Have you ever tried to make a giraffe neck that stands up on its own without magic?”
Harry grins. “Well, not yet. Look, I’d better go—I’ll talk to you afterwards. You can meet the biddies.”
“Mum and Dad are here somewhere, and the rest of them,” Ron says, and he looks around just as the lights go down.
Harry nods and scarpers, secretly terrified that the spotlight now fixed on the man in the suit will follow him back to his seat and light him up in shame as the man who doesn’t know how to behave at a primary school Christmas play. Fortunately, he makes it back just as the man introduces himself as the headmaster and starts to thank various teachers and parents for their hard work.
“Rose isn’t being a giraffe any more,” he tells Draco, leaning in close and inhaling the clean scent of his cold skin. “She’s the head bird, whatever that means. Apparently it’s a very important role.”
“It’s funny,” Draco says, letting his knee rest against Harry’s. “I recognise all those words but I still have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Harry grins. Ida leans over and shushes them both. The curtains rattle open, and Harry shares an amused glance with Draco before giving the play his full attention.
The play, entitled ‘We Wish You a Feathery Christmas’ turns out to be both bizarre and compelling, and Harry can’t seem to take his eyes away from the stage, even when Ida starts handing out humbugs and Corrie goes one better with a flask of something steaming and spicy. The plot is a rather loose affair, shifting from the plains of Africa to the bottom of the sea and the wild Antarctic with little warning or explanation, but the birds, led by a beaming Rose in a papier mache blue tit costume, appear in almost every scene, telling the story of each group of animals in loud, confident voices.
When Grace weaves across the stage, iridescent jellyfish ribbons swaying, all six of them wave, grin and give thumbs-up in various combinations. The little girl beams in surprise and waves back, adding an extra twirl and a little bow. At the front of the stage, Rose steps forward.
“It’s Christmas time, too, for the creatures of the sea; there’s seaweed for tinsel and sandwiches for tea,” she recites, pausing for a soft ripple of laughter from the audience.
“Mr Robin, Mrs Sparrow, and Little Miss Blue tit, won’t you dance with me?” asks the electric eel, whose battery-powered tail lights up in a dizzying rhythm.
As Rose and the other birds arrange themselves around the eel and the piano starts up for another song, Danica leans over and whispers:
“When I was their age, I would never have been able to say the word ‘tit’ without collapsing into giggles.”
“Me neither,” Harry says with a snort. “From what I’ve heard, the teacher in charge is one of those ‘it’s not funny because I say so’ types.”
“Be thankful it’s not a great tit,” Corrie says loudly, and in the row in front of them, several people giggle.
“Behave yourself, you’re going to get us thrown out,” Draco mutters, but he, too, is smiling, and all of them manage to make it to the end of the performance without another word.
When the applause has died down at last and the curtains have closed, Harry, Draco and the biddies follow the printed signs to a warm classroom, where everything seems to exist in miniature. The ladies have cups of tea and mince pies in their hands before Harry has time to take a breath, and quickly content themselves with their surroundings, admiring splotchy paintings and reminiscing about handwriting lessons and long division.
“I’ve never been in a place like this before,” Draco says.
Harry looks at him askance. “Never?”
Draco shrugs. “I was taught at home and then I went to Hogwarts. Are all school plays so strange?”
Harry laughs. “In one way or another, yeah. Sometimes there’s Jesus, sometimes there’s a jellyfish.”
“Never both?” Draco asks, and Harry has no idea whether he’s being serious or not.
At that moment, the room seems to fill with Weasleys, and in the middle of them, beaming with pride and still covered in blue face paint, is Rose.
“Wow, you were brilliant!” Harry says, crouching down and hugging her tightly. “You were the best blue tit I’ve ever seen.”
Rose giggles. “I was supposed to be the giraffe,” she says, and Harry nods, attention pulled by the sound of Molly introducing herself to the biddies somewhere behind him.
“Good evening, Mrs Weasley,” Draco says, and the tight caution in his voice yanks at Harry’s heart.
“Why don’t you call me Molly?” she offers, and Harry drags his attention back to Rose.
“Did you see us all waving?”
“Yes, and Grace saw you waving as well. It was really nice,” Rose says happily. “Ooh, Uncle George!” she cries, eyes drifting over Harry’s shoulder and he relinquishes her.
“Ron,” he says, standing up straight and regarding his friend with such a stern look that the mince pie stops halfway to his mouth.
“Er… yes, mate?”
Harry glances over his shoulder to check on Draco, only to find him engaged in what looks like a very intense conversation with Molly, Ida, and Danica. Deciding to leave him to it, he turns back to Ron.
“So, you told your mum everything, did you?”
Ron hesitates. Looks over at Hermione, who just silently shakes her head.
“Not everything… I mean… pretty much everything,” Ron mumbles.
“Just out of interest… why?”
“She’s my mum,” Ron says, shrugging.
“She has ways of making people talk,” Hermione says darkly.
Harry smiles. “Okay, but did you have to say I was taking Draco to the wedding?”
“Well, aren’t you?” Ron asks, biting into his mince pie.
“I don’t know,” Harry hisses, glancing over his shoulder again. “I haven’t asked him.”
“Well, you could always bring Marius,” Hermione says, all innocence. Harry opens his mouth to retort but then Rose reappears, grabbing her mother’s hand and peering up at her.
“Mummy, can we go on the big purple bus now?”
Harry looks at his friends and sighs. “Really?”
“You never said it was a secret,” Ron mumbles through a mouthful of pastry.
“I didn’t,” Harry concedes. He turns to Rose, deciding to offload the decision onto Draco. “You see that man there? With the dark coat and the blond hair? If you want to see the bus, he’s the person you need to ask.”
“Why?” Rose asks, looking over at Draco and then back to Harry.
“Because it’s his bus,” Harry says.
Rose’s eyes widen and she hesitates only for a moment before letting go of her mother’s hand and hurrying to Draco’s side.
“Excuse me, Mr… erm… Mr Bus?” she asks, touching Draco’s coat with a little hand.
Draco looks down at her, clearly startled. “Mr Bus? Yes, I suppose that’s me.”
Rose’s next question is lost to the rising chatter as another group of children filter into the room, but before he really knows what’s happening, Harry is being led out of the classroom along with Draco, the biddies, and what appears to be half of the Weasley family. As they approach the place where the bus is hidden, Draco hurries ahead and whips away the shielding charms before flinging open the doors and lighting the purple bulbs. He looks so proud as he turns around and gestures for them all to come inside, and he absolutely should be, because the bus is magical in every sense of the word. It is his home, his business, his social club, and so much more.
“This is amazing,” Hermione says, walking through the bottom deck and looking around at everything: the chandelier, the tea set, the quirky armchairs and the paintings of Juno.
“Bloody hell,” Ron mumbles, glancing at Draco and shaking his head. “It looks a bit different when you’re…” He looks at Rose and pauses. “… tired.”
“Yes, Daddy was very ‘tired’ that night,” Ginny says. “I like these window boxes.”
“We did those,” Ida says. “Mine’s the one with the pumpkin.”
“And here’s Juno,” Danica says, leaning over and picking her up from Eilish’s armchair.
She goes easily to her, sleepy and stretched out with green eyes blinking slowly. Molly reaches for her immediately.
“Draco, what a beautiful cat,” she says, beaming when Juno begins to purr against her shoulder.
“What sort of an engine have you got under this, then?” Arthur asks, standing on the bottom step and peering around for clues.
Draco hovers by the driver’s seat, clearly thrown off balance by a bus full of people, all paying attention to him at once.
“What sort?” he says at last. “The sort that misbehaves.”
“Can I have a quick look?” Arthur asks hopefully.
“Leave him alone, Arthur,” Molly says, still cradling Juno against her shoulder.
“Have you still got beds upstairs?” Ron asks, peering into the stairwell.
“Shall we make the table bigger?” Eilish wonders, drawing her wand. “Then there’s space for everyone to sit down.”
“We’re going to need a bigger teapot,” Corrie says, digging in her handbag for her knitting.
“I know a good extending charm,” Angelina offers, squeezing past Arthur and onto the bus.
“Is that a mouse?” Ginny whispers, leaning down to inspect Harry’s cage.
“He’s mine,” Danica says proudly.
“I’ve got rats at home,” Ginny says. “Rodents are brilliant.”
“Welcome to my life,” Harry says quietly, perching on the back of Draco’s leather chair and gazing up at him. “Are you going mad yet?”
“I’m not sure,” Draco says, face the picture of confusion. “Are they always like this?”
“Sort of, but… I hate to have to tell you this, but… this isn’t all of them.”
“No, you need to extend the table this way,” Hermione calls, just as a loud creak-scrape echoes around the bus. “Otherwise, Danica’s going to be squashed in that corner.”
“Where’s Percy when you need him?” Ron mutters. “He’s really good at this sort of stuff.”
“Looking after our son?” Hermione sighs.
“Oh, yeah. Okay, let’s go the other way…”
Draco stares at the chaos spreading all over his lovely, neat bus and then shrugs.
“I’ll adapt,” he says, leaning against Harry for a moment and then getting to his feet. “Would anyone like a ride?”
Chapter 20: Twentieth of December
Twentieth of December – barometer
Harry wakes with a feeling of warm contentment that rapidly turns to longing as he remembers Draco’s hands on the wheel, his startled but pleased little smile as Rose had hung onto his chair and asked question after question and the way the bus had trundled around London at an almost sedate pace to avoid knocking her off her feet. There had been secret glances for Harry in his conductor’s seat, and an almost-hidden sigh of genuine regret when he had been swept back to the Burrow along with the rest of the Weasley clan.
That sigh sits heavily in the very pit of his stomach, taking root there and seeming to stretch out soft, aching tendrils to wrap around his heart, spine, and thighs. Closing his eyes, Harry splays himself on the sheets in an indolent sprawl, arching his back and almost vibrating with a jittery blend of frustration and warm anticipation.
Everything Draco is wild in his veins, pulling him tight and stretching him thin with wanting. It’s been a strange journey, like nothing he has ever experienced before, and though he knows now, he knows, that he is just one step from losing himself completely, it could happen at any time, and the sensation of being constantly on edge is almost more than his heart and his mind and his body can endure.
That said, he’s not about to upset the balance. Everything about this is brand new and not new at all. Draco isn’t just a man who has admired him from afar, wants to get him into bed, and happens to know Ron or Hermione. He’s been there from the start, and the fact that it has taken them the best part of two decades to get to this point only makes Harry more certain. In one way or another, they have always belonged to each other, and now, finally, he loves and desperately needs this strange man with his strange bus more than anything.
When he shifts under the covers, the soft fabric slides over his erection, sending a pleasurable shudder through his body. Throwing one arm up over his eyes, he wraps his fingers around the heated flesh and strokes himself gently. Already worked up from a night full of dreams about pale skin, messy kisses and slow, filthy friction, he doesn’t have to do much before he is gritting his teeth and coming hard all over his chest and fingers.
He keeps his eyes closed as he breathes slowly and allows every muscle in his body to relax, but when, after ten minutes, the feeling of longing is, if anything, more intense than before, he sighs and heads to the bathroom. After a hot shower, a hearty breakfast, and an admirable attempt at domestic organisation, he steps onto the Knight Bus with a large box of Molly’s practise cupcakes. On realising that all six biddies are wearing their coats and hats, Harry asks,
“Are we going on an outing?”
“Possibly,” Draco says, meeting his eyes in the rearview mirror.
“We have discussed this. You’ll see when we get there,” Draco says, eyeing the box with interest. “Is one of those for me?”
“They’re all for you,” Harry says nonchalantly, slipping his finger under the lid. “It is, of course, a box of spiders, but…”
“You’d be sorry if I liked eating spiders, wouldn’t you?” Draco mutters.
“Well… I don’t know. I might consider it an early warning sign that there was something very wrong with you,” Harry says, shrugging, and when Draco merely blinks at him, he gives in and places a minty chocolate snowflake cupcake on the dashboard.
“I’m going now, to talk to people who make sense,” Harry announces.
Draco looks over his shoulders at the biddies and just laughs. “You do that.”
The cupcakes are admired at length before anyone actually takes a bite, and then there is silence as everyone chews thoughtfully.
“That Molly Weasley is a marvel,” Eilish says with a happy sigh.
“Such a clever idea, putting the chocolate in the middle,” Danica agrees. “I’ve never thought of doing that.”
“There’s still time,” Corrie says, peering at her hopefully.
“What’s Molly Weasley got to do with anything?” Thora demands, cross expression rather undermined by the blob of frosting on the end of her nose.
“She made these cakes,” Ida explains. “In the new year, she’s going to do biddy club at her house two days a week so that Draco can do nice things.”
Everyone around the table immediately turns to look at Harry.
“If you want to put it that way,” he mumbles.
“I do,” Ida says brightly. Pauses. “What was the question again?”
Feeling Thora’s little black eyes on him, Harry turns slowly.
“Why don’t you make your own cakes?” she asks, and Corrie sighs loudly.
“Why don’t you, woman?”
Harry suppresses a smile. “Well, I suppose I could, but Molly made these because she’s practising for her son’s wedding tomorrow. Actually,” he adds, lowering his voice, “I wondered if I could ask you all a question about that.”
Danica gets out her wand and gleefully whips a silencing charm around the table while Draco is stretching the bus frighteningly thin to fit down a narrow alley. When it pings back to normal, Harry takes a moment to readjust and then asks his question. The reaction from the biddies is immediate and enthusiastic, and it seems like no time at all before Draco is pulling up the bus and Danica is hurriedly dispelling her charm.
Juno, fast asleep in her current favourite spot under the Christmas tree, and Harry the mouse are left behind in the warmth of the bus, but Montague is clipped onto his lead and quickly winding his way through everyone’s legs, full of excitement at the prospect of a walk.
Harry follows the ladies out of the bus and is surprised to find himself on a beach. Set above it in odd little layers is a small town, bustling with mid-morning shoppers, but the coastline itself is deserted, stretching for miles in a smooth, curved bay, seaweed-strewn sand licked by moody grey water that echoes the overcast sky. Harry has always rather liked the beach in winter, and this one has a particular wild beauty about it that appeals to him.
The ladies walk out in front, cold wind catching at their best clothes, and Harry hangs back at Draco’s side, kicking gently at pebbles and dragging the salty air deep into his lungs.
“Are you tired of waiting for me?” Draco asks suddenly.
Harry’s heart lurches. “No. What do you mean?”
Draco makes a pointless swipe at his hair as the wind whips it in every direction.
“Well, this… us… I do realise that it isn’t following the usual plan,” he says, frowning, and if Harry didn’t know better, he’d think he was nervous. “It’s been a while,” he adds quietly.
“I don’t need things to be usual,” he says, nudging Draco’s shoulder with his own until he stops looking so worried. “I like unusual. Unusual is fun. You’re unusual.”
“Harry, that word is about to lose all meaning,” Draco sighs, but he can’t hide his smile.
“Good. I like my words meaningless.”
“And your men unusual.”
Harry nods. “That’s right. Listen…” He glances ahead at the biddies, who seem to be walking faster than they are and have almost reached the steps up to the promenade. “I’d like you to come with me tomorrow. To the wedding.”
Draco comes to an abrupt halt and turns to him. “Why?”
Harry rolls his eyes. “Because it’s a nice, happy event and I’d like you to be there with me. Is that so strange?”
“It is for me, yes.”
“Is that a no?” Harry asks, heart sinking.
“It’s… I can’t,” Draco says. “I can’t just abandon the biddies without any notice.”
Harry smiles, hope rising in his chest. “Ah, well, strange you should mention that. I just had a chat with them, and it turns out that they all have other plans tomorrow and won’t need the bus at all.”
Draco’s eyes hold his for what feels like a long time. “What a coincidence.”
“Yeah,” Harry says, grinning. “Weird.”
“I still can’t, I’m afraid,” Draco sighs, shivering as the wind whips his coat around his legs.
Harry folds his arms. “Why not?”
“I’ve got nothing to wear.”
“That’s your excuse?” Harry demands, trying not to laugh.
Draco lifts one eyebrow. “As you might have noticed, I’m not exactly living the high life here. I sold most of my dress robes years ago. I have one set left and it’s at least ten years out of fashion.”
“Draco, I can assure you that no one at the wedding will give a shit about whether your robes are fashionable or not,” Harry says, rubbing at his cold face with equally cold fingers. “And besides, everyone will be looking at the bride. No one will be looking at you.”
Draco looks at the sand and frowns. “No one?”
Harry smiles and turns away to gaze out over the choppy sea. “Almost no one.”
“Are you sure?”
“About which part of it?” Harry asks, looking around and realising that the biddies are nowhere to be seen.
“All of it.”
Impulsively, Harry turns and presses a soft kiss against Draco’s mouth, lingering for the briefest moment and then pulling away. It’s nowhere near enough but he’s on fire anyway, cold skin heating and prickling as he waits for a response.
“Well, then… I accept,” Draco says, lifting his chin and tucking his hands into his pockets.
He looks so stiff and uncertain that all Harry wants to do is kiss him again, but then he remembers the disappearing biddies.
“Good. I mean, that’s good, but have you noticed that they’ve all disappeared?” he says, indicating the empty beach with a sweep of his arm.
“They’ll be in the antique shops,” Draco says, unconcerned. “And the charity shops, and the pet shop. Essentially, they will be buying things they don’t need.”
Harry smiles. “More beach for us, then.”
Draco nods and laces their fingers together. “Come on. There’s a little van up here that sells the strangest and most fantastic ice cream.”
Harry follows him easily, relishing the casual closeness of their linked fingers and just listening as Draco tells him stories about previous outings to this beach, with the biddies and alone. It’s easy to understand why someone would come back here again and again, he thinks. The landscape is scrubbed and bleak in the most wonderful way, and the air tastes just like the ice cream that Draco buys for him, cold and sweet and salty all at once.
They are perching, side by side, on a rock, chilly but content, when the ladies finally begin to straggle back. Judging by the profusion of paper and plastic carriers, every one of them has made multiple purchases, but Harry is surprised when Eilish holds out a string handled bag in his direction.
“We bought this for you,” she says.
“Which one of us?” Harry asks.
“Both of you.”
Harry and Draco exchange glances. After a moment, Draco takes the bag, peers into it, and frowns.
“It’s a barometer,” Corrie announces, and all the others nod.
“I can see that,” Draco says faintly, pulling the gift out of the bag for Harry to see.
It seems like an attractive thing, perhaps a foot long, made of dark wood and brass, but Harry isn’t exactly an expert.
“Thank you,” he says, touched, if also confused, by the gesture.
“You’re welcome,” Ida beams.
“Yes, thank you,” Draco says, still frowning. “It’s very nice.”
“It measures pressure in the atmosphere,” Danica says. “We thought we could hang it up in the bus and see how long it takes to explode.”
For a second or two, there is silence, and all Harry can hear is the howling of the wind, and then the biddies burst into laughter. Even Thora is cackling away, and he thinks Corrie is in danger of bursting a blood vessel.
“We have noticed, you know,” Audrey says, grinning. “You should get on with it before you get old like us!”
Harry grins, completely unable to look at Draco. “We’ll take it under advisement.”
“When you’ve quite finished interfering,” Draco sighs, but Harry can hear the smile in his voice. “Have you spent all your
“I’ve still got these,” Thora says, producing a wad of twenty pound notes. “Does anyone want one? I don’t think they’re worth much.”
“They’ll make pretty bookmarks,” Ida says, accepting one and tucking it away.
Harry shakes his head. “Thora, one of those could buy chips for all of us,” he says.
“Well, that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” she says, and before anyone can reply, she is stumping off across the beach in the direction of the steps.
Harry, Draco, and the rest of the biddies stare at each other for a moment before shrugging and hurrying after her in search of a fish and chip shop with a table for eight.
Chapter 21: Twenty-first of December
Twenty-first of December – Lancashire hotpot
“These really are very out of date,” Draco says, coming down the stairs and smoothing invisible creases out of what seems to Harry a perfectly serviceable set of black dress robes.
He leans back in the driver’s chair and studies Draco’s appearance.
“I think they look nice.”
“Harry, that doesn’t help me. Your robes are even older than mine,” Draco points out.
“And they are fine, too,” he says decisively, getting to his feet and holding out his hand to Draco. “Come on, or we’ll miss the best part.”
“And what part is that exactly? The ‘I do’ part? The food part? The part where we all sit around and watch the groom stepping on the bride’s foot for three excruciating minutes?”
Harry laughs and attempts to twirl him around, resulting in both of them overbalancing and almost knocking over the Christmas tree.
“Okay, maybe no dancing for us,” he concedes. “I can see that you’ve been to your fair share of weddings, but a Weasley wedding sort of exists in a category of its own.”
Draco rakes an anxious hand through his hair. “Should I be worried?”
“Not if we hurry up,” Harry says, and flings open the doors of the bus. “Ah. I’d forgotten about that.”
The snow that had begun to fall overnight now lies in pristine white drifts over the countryside surrounding the Burrow, and every whirling snowflake seems to settle and stick fast. It’s a dazzling view from the steps of the Knight Bus, but Harry can’t help wondering how George and Angelina are feeling about it. The whole event is supposed to take place outside, and though he’s always privately thought it a risky choice for December, he hadn’t really expected this.
“I thought we were in a hurry,” Draco says.
Harry nods vaguely. “We are.”
“In that case, I say we make a run for it,” Draco says, making Harry turn to him in surprise. “I can’t get the bus any closer without blocking the lane for everyone else, so let’s just get inside and dry whatever needs to be dried when we get there.”
Harry grins at him, caught suddenly in a tide of giddiness and love. Without another word, he grips Draco’s hand tightly and yanks him out of the bus. They both sink straight into the snow up to their ankles but Harry keeps moving, tugging at Draco’s arm until they are running through the falling snowflakes, faces cold and laughter muffled, damp dress robes flapping around them.
Once inside, they are immediately pulled into the kitchen and all but thrown into chairs by Bill, who is wearing smart brown dress robes and an improbably tall green hat.
“Have we missed it?” Harry asks.
“You just about got here in time,” says Ginny, hurrying over with a couple of steaming glass mugs. “Ginger mulled mead,” she informs them, handing over the glasses and smirking without a shred of shame as Draco thanks her.
“Where are the girls?” Harry asks, craning his neck to catch sight of the marquee out of the window.
“In the tent.” Ginny rubs her hands together. “It’s much more exciting in here.”
“You are a girl, are you not?” Draco says, and Harry can’t help but feeling he’s straying into dangerous territory, but he decides to keep his mouth shut anyway.
“I’m a Weasley first,” she says, regarding Draco with her best no-nonsense expression, the one she saves for special occasions.
“You’re here,” Ron cries, hurrying over to join them with Hugo perched on his shoulders and clinging to tufts of his father’s hair. “Not that I was worried.”
“Malfoy… Draco… you with the bus!” George bellows, joining them and pointing at Draco with his glass so vigorously that the warm liquid sloshes over the rim.
Draco lifts an eyebrow. “Er, yes?”
“Angelina wants to talk to you about using the Knight Bus for transporting her Quidditch team—you know, after matches and that sort of thing,” George says, and the look on Draco’s face is one of utter astonishment.
“She wants to use my bus?”
“Yeah.” George shrugs. “I bet you could get loads of business from the Quidditch League. You should advertise. Most people don’t even know the Knight Bus is still running. Oh—I think Dad’s got my buttonhole, hang on,” he says suddenly, taking off across the room in the direction of his father with more energy even than usual.
“He looks happy,” Harry says.
“He does,” Ginny agrees, smiling. “Hermione says Angie’s so nervous she looks like she’s going to be sick.”
“I don’t blame her,” Neville says, appearing at her side and putting an arm around her waist. “Getting married is terrifying.”
“Do you want to rephrase that?” Ginny asks, eyebrows raised.
Neville smiles. “Nope.”
“Did that just happen?” Draco mumbles, still staring after George.
Harry gazes around at the kitchen full of Weasley men, steaming drinks and freshly-pressed dress robes in all colours of the rainbow. He squeezes Draco’s shoulder.
“I think it did. Are you going to do it?”
Draco hesitates, taking out his wand and drying Harry’s feet and robes and then his own.
“Perhaps,” he says at last. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with my regulars.”
Harry smiles to himself, thinking of Eilish, Danica, Ida, and Corrie, of Audrey and Thora and Mr Barleycorn, wondering what they have chosen to do with their busless day and if they know just how much their driver cares for them. He hopes they do, and he has the very strong suspicion that they care about him right back.
“Right!” Bill shouts, climbing onto a kitchen chair and straightening up until the pointed green hat brushes the ceiling. All conversations cease at once as every eye in the room, including two wonderfully baffled grey ones, turns to focus on him.
“Who presents this man?”
“I do,” Fred booms, grabbing George by the shoulders and pushing him into the centre of the room. “Best of luck, favourite brother.”
“I thought I was your favourite!” Ron protests, grinning.
“I might be completely losing my marbles here, Harry, but aren’t we supposed to wait for the bride for this part?” Draco whispers, leaning close enough to make Harry’s skin heat.
“That comes later,” he whispers back. “I told you we didn’t want to miss this bit.”
“Shh,” Ginny hisses, “You’ll miss them doing the jumper.”
“The jumper?” Draco repeats, eyebrows knitted.
Harry grins and ignores him. Arthur emerges from the crowd with a collection of familiar items, which he places on the table with care.
“The ultimate Weasley jumper, so you will never be cold,” Bill intones, and Arthur holds up the monstrosity that has been present at all Weasley functions ever since its creation by Molly during a course of rather strong healing potions. The garment is big enough to fit at least three people inside, with long, trailing arms and a bewildering pattern made up of yarns in violent shades of turquoise, purple and brown.
“Bless Mum, she still doesn’t know we’ve got it,” Ginny whispers, grinning.
George gamely struggles into the jumper and somehow keeps it on, even though the sleeves are at least two feet too long and the neck hole is wide enough to send the whole thing slithering to the floor.
“Aunt Mildred’s black hole bread, so you will never go hungry,” Bill pronounces.
Arthur produces a small, square object on a plate, and George shudders.
“Do I have to?” he asks, blinking hopefully up at his towering, pointy-hatted brother.
“Yes, you bloody well have to,” Ginny shouts. “I had to eat it at my wedding and I was wearing a corset!”
“So’s George,” Fred laughs. “How else do you think he maintains his dazzlingly slender shape?”
Harry laughs along with everyone in the room but Draco, who is still regarding the whole ritual with deep confusion.
“Alright,” George says, holding up his hands. “Angelina, this is for you.”
He grabs the black bread and stuffs it into his mouth, chewing rapidly with his eyes tightly shut until finally he swallows, holds his hand out for his mulled mead and performs a little bow. The room explodes into applause. Harry jumps when Ginny wolf-whistles right next to his ear. Bill abandons his sombre role momentarily to give his brother the thumbs-up.
“And finally,” he says, master of ceremonies mask firmly back in place. “You must construct a shelter, without the use of magic, for when you inevitably displease your wife and she makes you sleep in the garden without your wand.”
Arthur hands George a bundle of green fabric and then steps away, delight clear on his face.
“This is madness,” Draco whispers. “Complete madness.”
“This is my family,” Harry whispers back. “And yes, they’re all completely bonkers.”
George surrenders his wand with some ceremony, and then, against the backdrop of cheers, encouragement, and the occasional insult, he kneels on the stone flags and begins to erect his tent. He clearly hasn’t been practising, because within seconds he has managed to tangle the ridiculous sleeves of the Weasley jumper in the assorted tent poles, and when he finally manages to get the tent to stand up, it immediately collapses and he has to start again.
“Not that way, you daft bugger!” Ginny calls, giggling helplessly.
“Can I help him?” Percy asks, taking a step towards the tangle of tent and George.
“You may not,” Bill says, straightening his pointy hat.
“I did it in two and a half minutes,” Ron tells Draco, who stares at him and says nothing.
“That’s a family record,” Harry says.
Finally, after almost eighteen minutes have elapsed, George steps back from the completed tent, breathless and red-faced.
Bill exchanges a significant glance with his father and then bows so low that the hat falls off his head.
“You may now get married,” he declares, and the room bursts into applause, hugs, and the clinking of glass and against glass.
In the middle of it all, George, still wearing the ridiculous jumper, is leapt upon by his gathered family members and congratulated as though he has just won the Quidditch World Cup.
At Harry’s side, Draco looks on. He sips his drink slowly. Thoughtfully.
“I can see why you didn’t want to miss that,” he says at last.
Harry smiles. “It’s tradition.”
“Tradition is very important,” Draco says, meeting his eyes. “It’s something to hold on to.”
Harry grips his hand tightly, feeling warm all over.
“Alright, let’s do this!” George announces, emerging from the crowd and freeing himself from the gigantic jumper.
The kitchen clock strikes the hour with a bong and everyone scrambles to their feet, adjusting their robes and heading for the door, leaving only Fred and George behind. After the warmth of the kitchen, the icy air hits Harry like a slap to the face, but once they have found their seats he is pleased to discover that the whole area has been magically warmed. The snow remains on the ground, however, and when Angelina starts up the aisle on her father’s arm, he is amused to see that she has abandoned her fancy wedding shoes for a pair of glistening, pure white Wellington boots.
“Ever practical,” Hermione says admiringly, having appeared in the row behind Harry seemingly from nowhere. “Her sister decided to stick with the heels. Hope she doesn’t get frostbite.”
Harry notes the flimsy footwear of Angelina’s bridesmaid and shivers in sympathy. Beside her, at the top of the aisle, the bride looks radiant, and her wellies do nothing to detract from her beautiful lacy dress, her long, dark hair glittering with jewelled pins, and the smile of sheer delight on her face when she looks at her husband-to-be. George, too, looks surprisingly debonair and as proud as can be to be holding the hand of the woman he loves.
As they exchange vows and rings, the snow continues to fall, spiralling down in bigger and bigger flakes until several of the guests have to produce a magical shield just so that the couple remain visible. Angelina’s dark skin and hair are soon dotted with flakes as lacy as her dress, and when George attempts to put the ring on her finger, his numb hands fumble it and only the quick actions of the officiant prevent it from being lost in the snow.
For a tense moment, everyone watching seems to hold their breath, but then Angelina laughs, George grins at her, and it’s clear that everything is going to be okay.
“Snow’s lucky on the solstice,” Molly says a little too loudly, and at either side of her, Ginny and Ron whisper, “Shh!”
As soon as the happy couple have been officially pronounced husband and wife, everyone hurries inside the marquee, where the air has been warmed and miniature fires glow in glass jars on every table. Neither bride nor groom are interested in photographs beyond the most basic shots of wedding party and family, and it is a delightfully short time before the food is brought out.
“Stew?” Draco says, peering into his bowl with interest. “I’ve never seen that at a wedding before.”
“It’s Lancashire hotpot,” Harry corrects. “Angelina chose this because when she went to play for Lancashire, she sort of fell in love with it. It’s a proper northern dish.”
“I’m not complaining,” Draco says, catching a piece of carrot on his spoon. “Every wedding I’ve ever been to was just a competition to serve the fanciest thing possible. Have you ever eaten camel?”
“Er, no,” Harry admits.
“Well, believe me, it isn’t improved by being pureed with caviar and served on beetle wings.”
Harry wrinkles his nose. “I hope it wasn’t a bristle beetle.”
Draco smiles. “It was not.”
“George picked jam roly poly for dessert,” says Ginny, who has apparently been listening to their conversation without a word. “With custard. It’s like school dinners.”
“I liked school dinners,” Harry says. “They were comforting.”
“I hope you finish yours before Fred’s speech, then,” she says. “I overheard him practising it and there’s something about a dragon’s willy—”
“Oi, no previews!” Fred calls from the next table over.
Ginny looks around for her mother and then grins and gives him the finger.
When the last of the plates have been cleared away, the speeches have been made and the cake has been cut, both sets of parents work together to clear the tables and chairs to the edges of the marquee and lay a shimmering, pearly white dance floor. Fleur gets up and plays the harp while the Weasleys, Johnsons and various others mill around, circulating and chatting to everyone without a care. Draco sticks to Harry’s side and continues to look blindsided as people approach and ask questions about the Knight Bus.
“Word travels fast in big families,” Harry tells him as a giant of a man, possibly Angelina’s uncle, finally ambles away after a lengthy discussion. “And there aren’t any secrets. Believe me.”
Draco’s eyes flick to his at once. “I was afraid of that.”
Harry just laughs, catching him by the wrist and pulling him over to where Ron, Hermione, Rose and Hugo are gathered around a table on the periphery of things, watching the first few brave dancers moving around the floor. Bill is now perching on the edge of an empty table and playing the guitar while one of Angelina’s relatives, a tall teenage girl in a ruby red dress, fills the marquee with her enormous voice.
It’s the perfect blending of two families that are both similar and different, and Harry has genuinely never seen George look happier. His pride is glowing around him in a glimmering corona, much like the one that surrounds and startles Harry every time Draco rests a hand on his thigh or straightens his posture to smile at someone he has only just met.
“At this rate, it’ll be you next,” Ron says, just loudly enough for Harry to hear.
Hiding a smile in his wine glass, Harry kicks him. He swears loudly and rubs his ankle.
“What was that for?” Draco asks, and Harry lets out a contented sigh.
Chapter 22: Twenty-second of December
Twenty-second of December – knitted bobble hat
Harry stirs, yawns, and frowns without opening his eyes. The soft thing currently supporting his weight definitely isn’t his mattress, and the moment he tries to stretch his legs it becomes apparent that wherever he is, he’s definitely not alone. Reluctant to open his eyes, he runs his fingers along the soft thing over which he is draped and pinned, and the familiar bobbly fabric provokes a rush of relief.
It’s just the sofa. Molly and Arthur’s sofa. He also appears to be wearing his dress robes, no doubt crumpled to hell, his shoes, and a hat that doesn’t belong to him. The matter of the warm, gently breathing thing sprawled on top of him remains uncertain, but there’s something about the smell of lemons and—he thinks—gin that stirs his memory.
The wedding hadn’t exactly been a raucous, drunken sort of affair. In fact, he remembers everything perfectly until the moment, just before midnight and the newlyweds’ departure, when Charlie had rounded up all the remaining guests and brought out a bottle of…
“Dragon Spirit,” he mumbles through lips that feel like rubber. “Oh, fucking hell.”
“Shh,” insists the person now using his chest as a pillow.
Harry opens his eyes now, waiting, motionless, for the jolts of pleasure and panic to fade away. Fine blond hair turned white in the early light that snakes through a gap in the curtains. A pale hand twisted into his dark robes. A rather pointed knee pressed into an uncomfortable place. Draco, too, is fully dressed, and now mumbles to himself as Harry lifts his free hand and threads it though soft, sun-warmed hair.
“Any idea what happened?” he ventures, not really expecting to get a useful answer from Draco.
“I do,” offers someone else, and Harry whips his head around so quickly that he fears his head might fall off. It feels quite delicately-attached as it is.
Ron, unfurling his long limbs from an armchair across the room, grins at him.
Harry blinks and rubs his eyes. Ron does the same, stretching and inspecting his creased robes with interest.
“Shh,” Draco mutters again.
“Erm, so… this is probably a bit weird for you,” Harry says, trying not to cringe.
“I’ve seen weirder things,” Ron says, shrugging. “I’ve seen you doing weirder things. Remember that time you, me, Hermione and that Ferdinand bloke went to—”
“Fernando,” Harry corrects. “And I really don’t want to hear that story.”
“I do,” Draco says, opening one eye and fixing it on Ron.
“Shh,” Harry tries, but he knows there is no point.
“We went to see this cabaret thing, right?” Ron says, and Harry just rests his head on the arm of the sofa and closes his eyes. “It was a Muggle thing, ’Mione’s parents told us about it. Anyway, one of the acts was a hypnotist and he picked Harry out of the crowd, because… you know… he’s got one of those faces.”
“He has,” Draco agrees, at last disentangling himself from Harry and sitting upright, crossing one leg over the other and managing to look impossibly dignified for the situation. Harry doesn’t need a mirror to tell him that he looks like a hungover scarecrow, though the one in the Weasleys’ bathroom will probably take great pleasure in informing him of the fact.
With some effort he tunes out Ron’s unnecessary gleeful retelling of the hypnotist story and peers at the clock on the mantel, working out how much time he has to get home, shower, change into normal clothes and then, most crucially, obtain coffee and bacon before he’s needed on the Knight Bus.
He turns back to them just in time to hear Ron’s sputtering laughter as he says:
“So, he’s just about stopped trying to do a handstand and the bloke says, ‘right, now it’s time for bed’ and Harry starts stripping off, right in the middle of the stage. He tries to stop him, you can tell he didn’t expect him to do that, but Harry just keeps going until he gets to his boxers, at which point the audience start wetting themselves laughing because his boxers have got little blue pixies all over them!”
“Your mother bought me those bloody boxers,” Harry mutters, but Draco is laughing so hard that he opts to cover his eyes and quietly die with shame.
He still remembers absolutely nothing about the whole fiasco, and if it weren’t for Hermione—once again an unhelpfully reliable witness—he might think Ron had made it up for his own amusement. Still, he never thought he’d see the day when Ron and Draco shared a joke, and all things considered, he doesn’t mind too much if it’s at his expense.
“What happened to Fernando?” Draco asks eventually, wiping away a tear.
“Nothing,” Harry says before Ron actually does make something up. “He went home and I never heard from him again. I don’t think he could take me seriously after that.”
“You know,” Draco says thoughtfully. “I don’t think we ever finished going through your list of dating disasters.”
“They weren’t all disasters!” Ron protests, deeply wounded. “Some of them were nice.”
Harry rubs his face and sits up, head pounding. “Alright. Let’s put the madness on hold, shall we? What happened with the fucking Dragon Spirit?”
Draco groans and Ron instantly perks up.
“It was brilliant. Mum and Dad had some, and Angelina’s parents,” Ron says, grinning. “You two had yours and started having this weird conversation that nobody could understand. You kept pointing at each other and mumbling about glitter.”
The memory washes over Harry in an instant and he forces himself to nod as though it’s fine and he isn’t burning up inside with embarrassment and helpless arousal.
“And then what?” Draco asks.
“And then you wandered in here, collapsed on the sofa and fell asleep,” Ron says. “You missed the best part. Mum kept grabbing Mr Johnson and trying to pick him up. Mrs Johnson seemed to think it was hilarious but Dad kept shouting at her to stop because she was going to put her back out like that time she did on their honeymoon.”
Harry stares at him. “Do I want to know?”
Ron screws up his nose. “I didn’t ask.”
“Wise decision,” Draco says, getting to his feet. “I’m sorry about taking advantage of your sofa, but I had a wonderful time. Thank you.”
To Harry’s astonishment, he shakes Ron’s hand and stalks into the kitchen. Five seconds later, the back door clicks shut and Ron and Harry stare at each other.
“I’d better go, too,” Harry says.
Ron nods slowly. “He’s weird, isn’t he? Has he always been weird?”
Harry laughs, all at once feeling light. “I don’t know. I’ll see you on Saturday.”
With the help of food, caffeine, and a gulp of hangover potion from the back of his bathroom cabinet, Harry makes it onto the bus by mid-morning. Despite his hot shower, the scent of Draco’s hair and clothes lingers in his nostrils, catching him unawares at regular intervals and making his heart skip.
The bus, having behaved nicely for over a week, is becoming fractious again. The engine is running smoothly but the internal systems and fixtures are going haywire: the chandelier is spinning like a glittery, clanking top above the heads of the biddies, the steering wheel is flashing hot and cold in Draco’s hands, and fruit is being flung out of every secret compartment.
“There has never even been fruit in this one,” Draco says crossly, leaning down to pick up several plums that are threatening to wedge themselves under his pedals.
“What’s this?” Harry asks, retrieving a stray spherical item from under his seat.
Draco glances at him and exhales heavily. “Can I have it back, please?”
“Of course.” Harry turns the object in his hands and laughs, recognition hitting him in an unexpected place. “This is Snape.”
Draco turns his attention to the road with obvious reluctance. “Yes.”
Harry gazes at the painted face of his old Potions master and smiles. “Can I ask why?”
Draco hesitates. “I don’t imagine you’ll see it this way, but it wasn’t a complete lie when I said there was another driver. Obviously, I’m the only one who drives the bus, but Severus, or Vesseur, is always with me.”
Harry doesn’t know what to say. For a minute or two, he says nothing, just watches Draco driving and glances down at the strange little object that apparently means so much.
“You were close,” he says at last.
“He was my best friend.”
“Yes, really,” Draco snaps, and then softens. “You didn’t really think Vincent and Greg were my bosom pals, did you?”
“The phrase ‘bosom pals’ certainly didn’t enter my head,” Harry says, and then, “Sorry.”
“It was an arrangement, that’s all. I helped them to pass some of their classes and they helped me to not have the shit beaten out of me,” Draco says, offering the words easily and without emotion.
“What about Parkinson?” Harry asks.
Draco smiles. “Pansy was a lot of fun. I haven’t seen her in years, though. Last I heard, she was marrying an Archduke.”
Surprised to find himself reflecting Draco’s smile back to him, Harry dangles the little Snape from his finger on its fine golden string. He holds it out to Draco.
“Do you know what this is?”
“It’s my Severus bobble and I’d like it back,” Draco says, eyebrows knitting.
“It’s not just a bobble,” Harry says, admiring the spinning object. “It’s a bauble. It’s a Christmas bauble.”
“How on earth do you know that?”
“Because I watched it being made. I think it was in fifth year… these were all over the Christmas tree in the Gryffindor common room. Hermione found some plain baubles in a box somewhere and Dean Thomas painted each one to look like a different teacher.” Harry inspects the pale face with its hooked nose and cross little eyes. “It’s a good likeness, isn’t it?”
Draco stares out through the windscreen, looking absolutely staggered.
“I found it,” he says. “I was making a cup of tea in his rooms and it was just sitting there in the teapot.”
Harry smiles. “He probably confiscated it. I doubt he saw the humour in it.”
“He did have a sense of humour, you know,” Draco says, glancing at him. “He would have found it hilarious that I ended up driving a bus. He always said I wasn’t mechanically minded, but to be honest, I think that’s just made me more determined.”
“Don’t knock stubbornness,” Harry says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I weren’t so bloody-minded.”
“And where is that?” Draco asks, mouth twitching. “Driving around in a purple bus with a group of old ladies and a reformed idiot?”
“I’m pretty sure you’re still an idiot,” Harry says, and Draco swerves the bus so that he has to hang onto his seat in order to avoid falling off. Several strawberries shoot out of the newspaper compartment and pelt into his glasses.
“I didn’t even buy strawberries,” Draco mutters, shaking his head. “What is wrong with this bus today?”
“I don’t know,” Harry says, “but maybe it’ll feel better if we put your other driver on display.”
He gets carefully to his feet and loops the string around the rearview mirror so that the little Snape bauble dangles neatly below and glares at the biddies through the red curtain.
Draco watches him bobble around for a moment and then smiles.
“I think he’d like it there. He could keep me out of trouble.”
Harry grins, tucking a strand of pale hair behind Draco’s ear. “He could try.”
As he wanders into the back of the bus to join the biddies, he can hear Draco humming to himself. It sounds suspiciously like a Christmas song.
“Here we are,” he says, sitting in his chair and pulling out a sheaf of cards for the ladies.
“Are those Christmas cards?” Danica asks.
“Yep. They’re good ones, I promise, lots of glitter and stuff,” Harry says, shuffling the cards to find the right one for each lady.
“Not until Christmas Eve, Harry dear,” Eilish says, patting him on the arm and handing him a cup of tea.
“No Christmas cards until Christmas Eve?” Harry clarifies, puzzled. “Why not?”
“That’s the way we do things at biddy club,” Corrie says, shrugging.
“It’s our tradition,” Ida says, beaming and pushing a plate of mince pies towards him.
Understanding now, Harry takes one and nods. “I respect tradition. What about presents?”
“Presents are for Christmas Day,” Danica says sternly.
“I know, but I’m not going to see you on Christmas Day, so I thought perhaps I could give them to you now,” Harry says. “You can open them when you want.”
The ladies exchange significant looks, leaning in and conducting a whispered discussion that provokes Eilish to shout ‘what?!’ no less than three times. Finally, they sit back and pick up their teacups again.
Eilish clears her throat. “I was going to invite you to my house for Christmas dinner,” she says, sounding disappointed. “My Flora’s coming home and I thought it would be lovely if all of us could celebrate together—all the girls and you and Draco, you see.”
Harry sighs, heart sore. “Thank you so much, Eilish, and I’d love to come, but I’ve already promised my family.”
“What about you, Draco?” Eilish asks.
Harry turns, startled to see Draco standing behind him and to realise that the bus is now stationary, parked up beside a frosty, sun-dappled forest.
“Of course,” he says, folding his arms. “This is the first Christmas we aren’t going to spend on the bus—I can’t believe you’d even think I wouldn’t be there.”
Harry smiles to himself, both at Draco’s indignation and the way the biddies are beginning to strike out on their own, visiting each other’s houses and taking their friendship out into the world beyond the bus.
“It’s a shame we won’t have both of you,” Eilish says. “Still, you mustn’t let your family down.”
“Never mind,” Danica says, brightening. “Ida’s having a Burns Night supper in January. You can both come to that.”
“And you can wear this,” Corrie says with a triumphant grin, shaking out a scarlet knitted object and giving it to Harry. “Fresh off the needles!”
“It’s not Christmas Day,” Ida says, scandalised. Pauses. “It’s not, is it?”
“No,” Corrie says. “It’s not. But I’m a rebel and I want to see Harry in his hat. Ah, I want to see all of you in your hats!”
As Harry examines his intricately patterned bobble hat, Corrie produces four more, all knitted from the same pattern but each in a different colour. Ida’s soft pink makes her silvery hair glow, Danica’s pistachio picks out the green flecks in her eyes, and the russet yarn Corrie has chosen for Eilish warms her skin the moment she jams it on her head. Harry puts his on and looks to Corrie for approval.
“You all look fabulous,” she cries, clapping her hands. “Oh, I wish I had a camera.”
“I’ve got one,” Draco says. “But I don’t have a hat.”
“Of course you do,” Corrie says, shaking her head. She reaches into her bag and pulls out one more bobble hat, this one in thin black and white stripes.
Draco puts it on with impressive disregard for his hair and the ladies giggle delightedly.
“It’s a humbug hat!” Ida whispers.
“Where’s yours?” Harry asks, and Corrie shrugs.
“I didn’t make one for me,” she says.
Draco stops, halfway to the stairs. “If we’re going to have a photograph, I think we should all be wearing hats.”
“Did anyone bring a hat today?” Eilish asks, looking around the table.
“I didn’t need one,” Danica says regretfully. “It’s so mild, even with the snow…”
Hearing Draco’s footsteps on the decks above, Harry glances around the table, certain he can fashion a hat if he can think creatively.
“Aha,” he mutters, eyes settling on the teapot. He leans over and removes the lime green cosy.
“What are you doing?” Corrie asks, eyeing him with suspicion.
“Improvising,” Harry says, and before she can protest, he plonks the tea cosy on her head.
It sits there quite nicely, resting on her mass of white curls, and when Draco returns with the camera, he seems satisfied that Corrie is now wearing a hat.
“Right. I’ll set it up on the overhead rack and then we can all be in it,” he says, and when he has done so, he perches on the arm of Harry’s chair, leaning against him and flooding him with a tide of aching, jittery warmth.
Just before the flash goes off, he wraps his arm around Harry and squeezes tight.
I mentioned that Marie was trying to explode my brain with some of these prompts... this one was the most impressive of all. Sure, let's have a bonfire on the 23rd of December. For what it's worth, all the weird shit that goes on in this chapter is, according to my research, based on real festive tradition. Batshit brilliance :)
Twenty-third of December – bonfire
Thursday races by in a flurry of festive activity, with the biddies hunched over Christmas cards and Draco adding yet more decorations to the bus in between picking up flung fruit and shoving it into any compartment he can reach. Harry is quickly assigned a variety of tasks including, but not restricted to, tea-making, keeping the idling engine warm, and attaching tinsel to the wriggling forms of Juno and Montague.
By the time he has finished and Draco has dropped off the last of the ladies at home, Harry is covered in animal hairs and quite ready for a good sit down on something that isn’t moving. He fishes out a vanilla slice from the patisserie box that is now almost empty and drops into his conductor’s seat to enjoy it. Ida has, at last, had her rose macaron, and she hadn’t seemed in the least disturbed that every bite had been watched at close range by a covetous Juno.
Harry grins and takes a messy bite, knowing that the pale green eyes are following him from the luggage rack.
“Poor Juno,” he mumbles. “No cake for you.”
“Don’t feel too sorry for her, she has a very fancy dinner waiting for her on Christmas Day,” Draco says, and Harry can feel his eyes, too, all over him as he licks cream from his fingers and flushes.
“How do you do that?” he asks, not really meaning to say the words aloud.
“Do what?” Draco asks, and the tone of his voice suggests to Harry that he knows exactly what.
Harry looks at him, and his bright smile shocks his heart. “That,” he mumbles, scrubbing at his hair. “I don’t usually care when people look at me. People have looked at me for years, I’m used to it. When you do it, it’s different.”
Something thrilling flickers in Draco’s eyes. “How so?”
“Stop it,” Harry says, stuffing the rest of the vanilla slice into his mouth, just for something to do. “You’re trying to embarrass me. And it’s working.”
Draco leans back in his leather chair and laughs. “You started it.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“Is this the part where I should ask you if you’re scared?” Draco says, and Harry just stares at him, eyes caught by the striking lines of long legs in dark jeans, emerald cotton against pale skin, arms folded in a challenge that takes him back years.
Outside the bus, the sky is inky black, and inside, the soft purple lights make everything around Harry feel not quite real. His heart pounds and his hands are damp when he rubs them together.
“I am a bit, actually,” he admits, and then almost jumps out of his skin when something starts tapping at the windscreen right next to his head.
“Apparently,” Draco says with some amusement, opening the doors and admitting an elegant tawny owl.
“Where the bloody hell did that come from?” Harry demands, trying to peer into the darkness without success.
As far as he is aware, the bus is still parked up outside Ida’s house, but he can’t be certain. The owl swoops into the bus and perches on the steering wheel, allowing Draco to remove a small package before hooting and taking off into the night.
“It’s just my mother,” Draco says, unwrapping what appears to be a small notebook and smiling to himself. “She sends me these once in a while.”
Harry hesitates. “Do you want me to go, so you can…?”
Draco looks up sharply. “I’d rather you didn’t. There’s something I want to show you.”
“Oh,” Harry says, surprised. A lick of anticipation speeds his heart. “Well… okay. It’s not anything formal, is it? Because these are scruffy clothes even for me, and I’m covered in cat hair. And dog hair. And probably mouse hair, if that’s a thing…”
Looking up from the notebook, Draco swishes his wand in Harry’s direction and in an instant, every last hair is gone.
“What? You think I grew up with cats and my mother and didn’t learn how to make bits of fur disappear?”
“Was your mother particularly hairy?” Harry asks innocently.
“Behave. It’s only a matter of time before you feature in one of these,” Draco says, waving the book at him.
“Should I be worried?”
“Probably,” Draco says, smiling, and for the first time, Harry notices that the book is bulging with things stuffed into its pages, leaves and pressed flowers and ripped sections of parchment. “She calls them mind books. Whenever she thinks of me, she writes in it, and when she fills the book, she sends it.”
“That’s… I’m not sure what to call it but it’s a very creative way to communicate,” Harry says, admiring the spellwork that makes the cover of the book seem to luminesce in the soft light.
“She is very creative,” Draco agrees. “It’s been very good for her to be away from everything.”
“Do you miss her?” Harry asks, knowing it’s a stupid question.
“Of course.” Draco wraps his fingers around the book and flattens its unruly pages for a moment. “But one day, she’ll finish finding herself and she’ll come home.”
“And then what?”
“She can join the biddy club,” Draco says, smirking.
Harry laughs. “Isn’t she a bit young?”
“Oh, she’s going to like you,” Draco murmurs, starting up the bus and flicking on the headlights to illuminate the winding driveway.
All Harry can really do is hope that’s true, and after everything that has happened this week, he is definitely beginning to believe that anything is possible.
“Where are we going?” he asks after several minutes of silence and an unexpected trip along the motorway.
“Nowhere special,” Draco says, nudging the bus in front of a large coach. “Just the usual evening out—fire, alligators, that sort of thing.”
Harry frowns, wondering if the bus has fired bits of fruit into his ears without him noticing.
“Did you just say—?”
“Shh, I’m driving,” Draco says, trying and failing to hide a smile.
Baffled, Harry sits back and attempts to behave himself. It isn’t that he doesn’t trust Draco—he really does—but he’s already on edge in the most wonderful way and it’s just possible that the intrigue is going to finish him off. He strokes Juno when she leaps up onto the dashboard and allows her to lick the paper wrapping from his vanilla slice. By the time she has finished, she looks as though she might be ready to forgive him for the tinsel.
After the best part of an hour, Draco finally stops the bus. Something about the glint in his eyes makes Harry wonder if he has deliberately chosen a circuitous route in order to prolong the suspense, but he decides to claim the higher ground by not mentioning it.
“Can I ask where we are now?” Harry says, stretching as Draco opens the doors.
Draco prods him out of the bus and onto the grass. The snow has dissolved almost completely in London, but here it clings in large, determined patches; the night sky is clear and strewn with stars, and there is the most wonderful, evocative scent on the air that Harry thinks he could identify immediately if it weren’t so out of place.
“This is Tewkesbury,” Draco says, gesturing vaguely. “That is the river Severn, and this…” he grabs Harry’s hand and pulls him around to the other side of the bus, “…is the annual Christmas Eve bonfire.”
The source of the familiar smell now becomes blatantly obvious as Harry finds himself staring at an enormous fire, crouching on the river bank and licking at least twenty feet into the air. Around it, people are talking quietly, drinking from mugs and throwing pieces of wood into the flames as though concerned the whole thing might fizzle out at any moment. As he steps closer, a wall of heat hits him and forces him to close his eyes, tip his head back in submission and wait for his body to adjust. He inhales deeply, drawing in the aroma of burning, crackling wood and a hint of warm, spicy food that makes his stomach growl.
When he opens his eyes, Draco is watching him anxiously.
“This is fantastic,” Harry says, grinning. “But you do know it’s not Christmas Eve, don’t you?”
“It will be before this has finished,” Draco says. “Do you want something to eat?”
“Please,” Harry says, and before he can say another word, Draco has pulled his humbug hat right down to his eyes and stalked off in the direction of a little stall set up with steaming cauldrons and a flickering sign that reads, ‘SAUCISSON’ in bold red letters.
The stall is surrounded by the shimmer of magic, as, Harry now realises, is the bonfire. He can see the lights of a small town in the near distance, and it is odd to think that the occupants cannot see him. They have no idea that this strange event, about which he still has many questions, is even taking place, and there is something about the whole thing that makes him suspect that it has been taking place for many years.
“Come on,” Draco says, returning with two bowls of food and indicating for Harry to follow him.
On top of a small hill, set back from the rest of the attendees, Draco conjures a blanket and they sit, watching the bonfire and eating a spicy sort of sausage stew that goes perfectly with the cold air and the roaring flames. It’s so good, in fact, that Harry waits until both of them have finished before saying another word.
“So, this is… different,” he says, and Draco nods.
“You could say that.”
“You could say more,” Harry says. “I still have no idea what’s going on.”
“Well, as I understand it, the originators of all of this come from the United States—Louisiana, I believe. In their town, there would always be a bonfire on Christmas Eve, and when they settled here, they decided to keep the tradition going,” Draco explains.
“And how do you know… what are their names?”
Draco’s eyebrows knit together in thought. “I think they’re Bill and Annie, but I wouldn’t put any money on it.”
“You think?” Harry asks, puzzled. “How long have you been coming here?”
“This will be my tenth year,” Draco says, pulling up his knees and wrapping his arms around them.
“And you always do this? Sit back here and not talk to anyone?”
“I usually use a Notice-me-Not charm, actually,” Draco says, pulling his wand out of his sleeve and casting the spell around them both. “Thank you for reminding me.”
Harry stares at him, watching him take off his hat and ruffle his hair with his fingers.
Draco shrugs. “I like it here. I like to sit here and enjoy the atmosphere and just be. I’m not the only one—haven’t you noticed how quiet everyone is?”
“I suppose,” Harry admits.
“Well, like everything, this event has evolved over time. It started to attract magical people who wanted to get away from everything and just enjoy the spirit of Christmas. It became quiet… atmospheric. And when everyone started to grow older and have families of their own, they couldn’t stay up all night on Christmas Eve any more, so it moved.”
“So, the whole thing is about being quiet?” Harry asks, tucking his cold fingers into his sleeves.
“Until midnight,” Draco says. “That’s when Papa Noel comes down the river in a boat pulled by alligators.”
Harry frowns. “Seriously?”
“Draco, you do know that all of this is mad, don’t you?”
Draco grants him a serene smile and then turns to watch the bonfire. “Yes. And so is forcing someone to put up a tent before they get married, but I imagine that both things have their place in the world.”
“I suppose that’s a fair point,” Harry concedes. “What if—?”
“Shh,” Draco whispers, shuffling close and tucking his arm through Harry’s. “Just listen.”
Harry listens. He listens to the crackling and popping of the bonfire, the rushing of the river and the soft, hushed voices of people in winter robes and Wellington boots. He listens to the whoosh of the wind through his hair and the hitch in Draco’s breathing when he leans in and brushes a kiss behind his ear. He gulps the sweet, frozen air and leans back on his elbows, pulling Draco down with him to watch the sparks spiralling in the night sky.
Draco leans over him, eyes silver-bright, pinning him with one hand either side of his shoulders.
“Be quiet,” he whispers.
“I am being quiet,” Harry protests.
“Be quiet now,” Draco amends, and there is a twist of heat in the pit of Harry’s stomach, just as Draco kisses him.
“I can’t,” Harry whispers against his lips, resting his hands on Draco’s waist and seeking out warm skin under cold cotton.
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t be quiet,” he murmurs, dragging Draco into another kiss and then another. “I’ve never been very good at following instructions.”
Draco smiles against his mouth and slips his tongue against Harry’s, hot and soft and over too soon. Harry gasps, woodsmoke and spices and lemons, feeling the blood rush away from his head to press his cock, already needy and aching, against his fly. He knows that the people near the fire can’t see them, but he can hear their voices and smell their food and he doesn’t know if he is terrified or if he wants Draco right now on this frozen hillside.
Cold fingers slip into his hair as Draco kisses him again, this time without stopping, mouths sliding together and pressing close, hot, breathless, over and over until Harry’s heart is hammering an erratic rhythm and all he can do is hold on. Draco is lithe and responsive against him, surprisingly strong and hard as a rock against Harry’s hip.
When he opens his eyes for a split second, the sparks and the stars seem to swirl above him in dizzying patterns, and the pure heat, from the bonfire, from Draco, from waiting and wanting and knowing, is all over him, rushing through his veins and turning their kisses messy and desperate.
“Let’s go back to the bus,” Draco whispers against his ear, breath catching with every word.
“We’ll miss the alligators,” Harry says, staring at the sky and feeling rather light-headed.
Draco grins. “You can see them next year.”
Harry’s heart thumps in approval at the promise and he reluctantly lets go of Draco so that he can struggle to his feet. Grabbing the blanket and his hat, Draco takes off towards the bus at a run, and Harry follows him, stumbling on legs that clearly belong to someone else.
The moment the doors are closed, Harry reaches for Draco, pushing him back against the nearest metal pole and catching his shiver when the cold surface touches his skin. He unbuttons Draco’s shirt with fumbling fingers, yanking it off his shoulders so he can press his mouth to the pale skin. Draco shudders and Harry smiles against his chest, nipping at his collarbone with his teeth, raking his fingers over skin dusted with tiny, unexpected freckles, rubbing thumbs over hipbones under denim and groaning to feel the damp patch when he presses his palm against Draco’s cock.
“Oh, fuck,” Draco whispers, fingers caught in Harry’s belt loops. “That’s just… oh, fuck.”
“Yeah, I know,” Harry mumbles, one hand coming up to splay against Draco’s jaw as he kisses him again, needing more but needing this, just this.
“Upstairs,” Draco says urgently, pulling back to meet Harry’s eyes.
“What’s wrong with here?” Harry whispers, digging his nails into Draco’s back and watching his eyes darken.
Draco lets out a sound that is half laugh and half whimper. “Everything. Table. Armchairs. Biddies. I can’t.”
“Okay,” Harry manages, grabbing his wand and pulling Draco close.
They appear at the end of the bed, swaying slightly, and Draco lifts an eyebrow.
“Was that necessary?”
“Yeah,” Harry says, kicking off his shoes and crawling onto the bed. The bedclothes are just as soft as he has imagined, and when the last item of clothing has been stripped away and flung onto the floor, he stretches out, relishing the feeling of the quilts and blankets against his bare skin. Draco sprawls out beside him, arms and legs forming only the faintest contrast against the pure white fabric, cock flushed and hard against his stomach.
“Are you still scared?” he asks, wrapping his hand around Harry’s erection and stroking it slowly.
Harry smiles and shakes his head, arching into the touch for a moment before pulling Draco towards him until they are tangled together, citrus and cold skin, hands moving slowly, slowly, and quick-quick-slow, matching their rhythm and reaching for kisses broken by hisses of pleasure. So ready for this, Harry needs it, and when Draco’s hand flies frantically over his cock and then stops completely, he lets out a soft cry of frustration.
“I want you,” Draco says, releasing his cock and skating both hands up his back.
At the sound of his words, Harry’s cock jumps between them and a fierce heat wraps around his spine.
“It’ll be over in about a second,” he admits.
“I know,” Draco says, and then kisses Harry with such slow, teasing care that his heart swells painfully and he has to wrap his hand around himself and grip almost hard enough to hurt to avoid coming all over himself with a whimper.
Draco leans over to rifle in a bedside cabinet and Harry gazes at him, sprawling on the impossibly soft quilt and mentally tracing the graceful line of his back, so much in love that he can’t keep the smile from his face. When Draco pours oil over his fingers and bites his lip as he slicks himself open, Harry is lost. Barely breathing, he pushes inside, grasping at the bedclothes for control when Draco immediately pulls him deep.
“I can’t,” he whispers, hanging onto his control by a thread.
“Of course you can,” Draco murmurs, eyes hazy with need, breath coming quickly now. “We’ve waited long enough. Please.”
Trembling, Harry kisses him and rocks gently. So close. He holds his breath.
Draco shifts his hips and Harry bites his lip, tasting blood on his tongue. Slowly, he draws back almost all the way. Draco’s cock jerks and leaks against his belly.
“Fuck,” Harry whispers, and the thread snaps.
He pushes inside hard, making them both cry out, and then slides out, every muscle in his body pulled tight. Gasping, he meets Draco’s eyes and holds them, shuddering with each stroke until Draco twists beneath him, throwing back his head and coming in hot, pulsing waves against his own skin. Harry hasn’t even touched him, and the realisation is enough to push him over the edge; he stares at Draco’s stomach, fingers sliding through the warm fluid as his release surges through him and he thrusts into Draco, pushing deep and groaning when the grey eyes turn back to him and seem to urge him on.
Resting on his hands, he breathes slowly, shivering with the aftershocks of the sensation. Draco strokes his hair out of his eyes, fingers now warm and gentle. Carefully, he tugs at Harry’s arms until he collapses onto the bed, presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth and gets to his feet.
“Where are you going?” Harry mumbles, frowning and reaching for him.
“Not far,” Draco promises, and Harry is gratified to see that he is moving around the deck unsteadily, usual grace having apparently deserted him.
“Too far,” Harry sighs, but he lifts his head at the sound of running water.
Hot water is now pouring into the copper bath and Draco is peering out of the window, nakedness just about covered by the condensation.
“I’ve seen you looking at my bath,” he says with a sly smile. “If we have one together, we might be done in time to see the alligators.”
Harry eyes the bath with interest. His temperature seems to be dropping rapidly, and besides, there’s plenty of room in there for… all sorts of things.
“Okay. But I thought we were seeing the alligators next year?” he asks, reluctant to let go of that particular promise.
“We’ll see them next year, too,” Draco says, sweeping a hand through the bath water. “I doubt you’ll get bored of them.”
Harry smiles and gets to his feet. “I doubt that any of this will ever be boring.”
Chapter 24: Twenty-fourth of December
Twenty-fourth of December – handwritten letter
Something heavy drops onto Harry’s chest and he groans.
“No,” he mumbles, eyes still closed. “You’ve got a whole bus to sleep on.”
The heavy thing purrs loudly, leaning close enough to brush Harry’s nose with curious whiskers. He ignores it, shuffling closer to Draco and winding a possessive arm around his waist. This is a nice place. It’s a warm place, a soft place, and a place where Draco’s naked body is tangled comfortably with his, pale hair ruffled against his shoulder and fingers splayed over his belly, fractions of an inch from the ache of his morning hardness.
He has ignored that, he has ignored the uncomfortable fullness of his bladder, and he can ignore an enormous, vibrating cat on his chest. He can do it, because he’s so perfectly content with the morning sunlight streaming in through the window, setting the copper bathtub aflame and warming his bare skin. All he needs to do is…
“Did you just bite my nose?” he demands.
Juno blinks slowly, and Harry can feel Draco’s laughter against his shoulder.
“Thank you for your support,” he mutters, touching his nose and frowning.
It wasn’t a hard bite, more of a gentle gnaw, but he can’t help feeling indignant.
“She does that to me all the time,” Draco says, nudging Juno to the floor with a practised movement and catching Harry in an unexpectedly intense kiss. “I’ll go and let her out. She probably wants to play in the snow before it all disappears.”
Harry sprawls comfortably for a moment, watching Draco walk down the stairs without a stitch of clothing, Juno capering at his heels. Amused, he gets out of bed and swipes condensation from the nearest window with his palm. Juno is soon visible, leaping from one patch of snow to the next and rolling around in delight, but there is no sign of the previous night’s festivities. The only evidence that any of it happened at all is a rectangular indentation in the grass where the sausage stall had stood.
“They clean up very efficiently, don’t they?” Draco says, reappearing at the top of the stairs.
Harry turns just in time to see him pulling on last night’s jeans. To his surprise, Draco stops there and wanders over to his kitchen area, where he collects a cast iron pan, a sharp knife, and several items from a cabinet tucked away beneath the chopping board. Shivering, Harry throws on his jeans and t-shirt, sniffing the fabric and rediscovering the thrilling scent of burning wood.
He leans against the wall and watches Draco moving around his tiny kitchen. He is different, somehow, yet again—more at ease in every action than Harry has ever seen him before. He hums to himself, pushing the hair out of his eyes and tipping sliced mushrooms into the sizzling pan, reaching up for fresh herbs and allowing Harry to admire the way his dark jeans hang on his hips. He is beautiful. The harsh morning sunlight illuminates every visible rib, every slicing pink scar, every faded grey line against pale flesh, and he is beautiful.
“It isn’t just you, you know,” Draco says.
Harry meets his eyes. “What isn’t?”
“I don’t like to be looked at,” Draco says, fiddling with a bunch of basil. “Not any more. It makes me feel exposed. When you do it… it’s different.”
“You don’t feel exposed?” Harry asks, stepping closer and facing him across the counter.
Draco doesn’t smile, but his eyes are warm on Harry’s. “I still feel exposed. But I don’t mind.”
Harry’s heart clenches tight. He slides his hand across the counter and Draco meets him, pressing their fingertips together in silent understanding.
“Do you want some help?” he offers after a moment.
“No, thank you.” Draco chops the basil and throws it into the pan with a flourish. “You can make the next one.”
Harry thinks about his neglected kitchen and wonders how it will look with an expectant, tea-drinking Draco sitting in it. He grins. “You’re on.”
After a startlingly delicious breakfast and an even better morning soak in the copper tub, Harry heads home, with a great deal of reluctance, to change his clothes and ensure that number twelve has not crumbled in his absence. He finds an owl waiting on his living room windowsill with an official-looking letter, which he takes into the house and reads by the fire.
Dear Mr Potter, he reads.
I hope this letter finds you well and full of the joys of the festive season. I am writing to you because we need your help. Times are slowly changing for the better for the people of Eritrea, but there is much work still to be done. More and more people are being treated for the most dangerous Muggle and magical diseases, but there are still not enough doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to heal everyone.
Less than thirty per cent of births are attended by trained medics, and infant mortality remains shockingly high. Following your similar work in Ethiopia last year, we are hopeful that you will choose to join us on our next campaign. Starting in March 2011, we will be…
Harry stops reading. He looks at the emblem at the top of the page and sighs.
MEDICS FOR ERITREA.
He has a pretty good idea already, but just in case, he summons an atlas from the bookshelf. It lands on the hearthrug with a thump and he flicks through the pages until he finds it, and there it is, a small country in the north-east of Africa. Thousands of miles away from London, from the chaotic route of the Knight Bus, and from Draco.
Harry shuts the atlas and pulls up his knees, resting his chin on top and staring without really seeing into the fire. He doesn’t want to go. He just doesn’t, and his heart hammers a guilty rhythm in his chest. A month ago, he would have jumped at the chance to travel somewhere new, to motivate other volunteers and help a new group of people. He would have been delighted just to have a new campaign to pencil into his calendar. He would have been relieved to have something to do. Now all he can think about is the fact that there are tons of fantastic people out there who are just as qualified as him and who would probably be delighted to lead this campaign.
It isn’t that he doesn’t care any more, but things are different now.
It seems ludicrous that his life can have changed so much in such a short time… and yet. Here it is. He has Draco and the bus and the biddies, and the idea of leaving them behind for—he checks the letter—three months makes him feel torn up inside. He has a small children’s campaign lined up for the new year, but it’s only in Ireland and he’s already starting working out how many days a week he can come home. There must be plenty of home-grown charities that would appreciate his assistance and still allow him to play Knight Bus conductor on a part-time basis.
Once upon a time, it was returning from his trips that made him feel lonely. Now he wonders if he ever really knew anything about loneliness at all. He has grown to know and love this group of tough old women who have rejected their solitude and built themselves a family of their own, clinging to one another no matter what and enfolding into their midst a man who has quite literally tried to drive away his isolation and failed, because they love him just the way he is.
Harry is a part of that now, as much as he is a part of the madness at the Burrow and the lives of his best friends, both of whom might just actually need him more than he has previously understood. His eyes are drawn to a picture on the mantelpiece, in which he, Ron and Hermione cling to each other in a fit of giggles. Rose had taken it by accident with her granddad’s camera when Hugo was only a twinkle in someone’s eye, and Harry has always loved it.
According to Hermione, Rose is already asking after ‘Mr Bus’, and it’s only a matter of time before Draco hears from Angelina’s team coach and everyone in his life becomes connected by tentative, sparkling threads, like the web of some chaotically scheming spider.
Taking a deep breath, Harry reads the rest of the letter. There are no surprises there, and it doesn’t matter. He knows what he has to do, and it feels good. He isn’t going away for three months, to Eritrea or anywhere else; finally, something, someone, is anchoring him, needing him, holding him steady, and all he has to do now is accept the weight of it.
With an odd feeling of excitement, he grabs quill and parchment and, in his neatest handwriting, he composes a reply.
“Personal reasons,” he mumbles, dipping his quill and grinning. “That’s a new one.”
By the time he has finished, he has filled two sheets of parchment and packed in at least five apologies, plus a promise of a donation to the cause and a recommendation for a lovely lady named Penelope, with whom he has worked on several similar projects.
He changes into clean clothes and leaves the house with the letter before he can change his mind, Apparating into Diagon Alley and heading straight for the Post Office. Feeling unsettled and liberated at the same time, he nips into the shop next door and emerges minutes later with a set of photographs from Draco’s camera. Shivering in the biting wind, he buttons up his coat, pulls his new red bobble hat over his ears and hangs back from the crowds of Christmas panic-buyers to look at them.
The first picture is of Montague, perching on Ida’s lap with his mouth open in an enormous yawn, while in the background, Corrie is pulling a similar face in order to get her teeth around one of Molly’s cupcakes. Harry grins and flicks through the others: there’s Danica, making Harry the mouse jump for a sunflower seed; Eilish and Ida gripping cups of tea and laughing; Juno on her back in the aisle, rolling around with all four feet in the air; Draco, caught by surprise, turning around in the driver’s seat as though someone has just called his name, and several fantastic snaps of all six of them wearing their hats, plus a close-up of Corrie and the tea cosy. There are pictures of him, too, and he almost doesn’t recognise himself in a single one of them.
“You look happy, that’s all,” Eilish says, when he shows her the photographs. “You look a lot happier now than you did when you first came here.”
“Do I?” Harry asks, cradling his cup of tea and tucking his feet up under him.
“You don’t look quite so worried now,” Danica says.
“You won’t live long if you worry too much,” Corrie tells him. “We stopped bothering, that’s why we’re still here.”
The ladies giggle and Harry just soaks it up. He glances at Draco, who chooses that moment to glance at him, and the bus fires a single pomegranate into the chandelier.
“Bless them,” Eilish says, and the others murmur their agreement.
Harry turns back to the table, determined not to blush. “Bless yourselves,” he mutters.
“Draco, it’s four o’clock,” Danica calls. “Time for Christmas cards.”
“I am one step ahead of you,” Draco says, sounding pleased with himself.
Carefully pulling the bus to a stop, he spells the steam from the windows to reveal a magnificent Christmas tree, draped in blue-white lights and surrounded by a snarl of cars, cyclists and red buses. Harry peers out into the night, impressed by the way that Draco has managed to park the Knight Bus on a section of pavement that is usually inaccessible.
“This is Trafalgar Square,” he says.
Draco sits on the arm of his chair and shrugs. “Naturally.”
“Alright,” Eilish says, wafting her stack of cards in the air. “Time to exchange!”
Hurriedly, Harry retrieves his cards and attempts to spell away the bent corners. In a flurry of movement, envelopes are distributed around the table and before long, he has a small pile in front of him, each with his name written in green or red or gold script. Following the example of Draco and the biddies, he opens each one, admires the picture and reads the message before setting it aside. Each card has clearly been chosen with care, and he can only hope that his own choices are up to scratch.
The fifth card depicts a beautiful but bleak forest of bare trees, and inside, he is surprised to see the name at the bottom.
“This is from Thora,” he says, frowning.
“Yes, dear, I had hers and Audrey’s to give out,” Eilish says without looking up.
“Yeah, okay, but… I thought she didn’t like me.”
Draco laughs and leans against him. “She doesn’t really like anyone. It’s not personal.”
“Oh,” Harry says absently, returning to the card. This time he reads the message.
I hope you have a very nice Christmas. Did you know that I spent over sixty years as a senior governor at Hogwarts? I have watched you grow up and do wonderful things. You are a talented, kind man and you should be happy. I am old, bitter, and alone, and you must not end up like me, Harry. I have watched him, too. He is waiting for you. Don’t let it go to waste.
All the best,
“Are you alright?” Ida asks, and he looks up.
“Yeah, just… zoned out for a minute there,” he lies, closing Thora’s card and picking up the next one in the pile.
The raw candour of Thora’s words has crept under his skin, scrubbing him sore, and he’s not ready to share any of it. He can’t help wondering what she has written in Draco’s card, but he’s not going to ask. Not yet, anyway. A cool hand rests on the back of his neck and he breathes quietly, closing his eyes for a moment.
When something flies into the window and crashes with a damp thud, his eyes fly open and he is surprised to see Eilish beaming and getting to her feet.
“Open the door, Draco,” she calls, and when he does, she trundles out into the night and returns with a very fat owl in her arms. “It’s Flora’s owl. I’m afraid he’s… not quite right.”
Eilish sets the owl down on the table and removes the letter tied to his leg. Juno jumps up to sniff at his feathers and he takes off, flapping for all he’s worth, colliding with the chandelier and coming to rest in the overhead luggage rack.
“What does she say?” Corrie asks, picking feathers out of her tea.
Eilish shakes out the letter. “Dear Mum,” she reads. “I thought you’d like to know that I caught an earlier Portkey and I’m currently wandering about in your house, drinking your tea and raiding your cupboards. Don’t rush home, I just wanted to let you know so that you didn’t have a fright when you came in and saw me eating biscuits in my pyjamas. Merry Christmas, love from Flora.”
Eilish looks around the table, face lit up with delight. “She’s home three hours early! Draco, can we…?”
“I’m going, I’m going,” he mutters, returning to the driver’s seat, and though there is studied ennui in every step, he is smiling almost as broadly as Eilish.
“She said not to rush home,” Danica says, but when Corrie prods her with a knitting needle, she holds her hands up and grins. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t do the same.”
The journey is a brief one, with Draco pushing the bus to its limits to get Eilish home to her daughter as quickly as possible. By the time she waves goodbye to everyone and steps off the bus with her handful of cards and Flora’s fat owl, she is almost vibrating with excitement, and it is infectious.
The ladies open their remaining cards and Corrie teaches them all a Jamaican Christmas song that is so complicated that Draco has to stop the bus and pull up a chair to join in.
“No, no, no,” Corrie sighs, waving her hands as yet another attempt ends in failure and giggling. “Where’s your rhythm? I know you’ve got it!”
“He has,” Draco says under his breath, and then drops his face into his hands when the biddies exchange gleeful glances.
“Thank you, Draco,” Harry says gravely. “I’m sorry, Corrie, let’s try again.”
“You mustn’t open it until tomorrow,” Ida says, lingering on the steps and looking anxiously between Harry and Draco. “It’s for both of you. But you mustn’t open it yet.”
“We promise,” Draco says, opting not to tell Ida that she has already issued this warning at least three times, as have Corrie and Danica as they have left the bus.
“Well, alright then,” Ida says. She tugs at Montague’s lead until he leaps down the steps and stands looking up at her, tail wagging. “Draco, I’ll see you tomorrow. Harry… I’ll see you soon. Merry Christmas, and don’t open that present!”
They stand together in the doorway, watching Ida until she and Montague are safely inside the house and a light appears in the kitchen window.
“Where to?” Draco asks.
“You’ve never asked me that before,” Harry says, surprised.
Draco closes the doors and turns to him, hair ruffled and eyes warm. “Choose wisely, then.”
Harry shrugs, tugging him close and kissing him. He responds immediately, slipping his fingers under Harry’s jumper and making him shiver. Every touch, every contact, seems designed to make him fall apart, and he can hardly suppress a rough whimper when Draco pulls away from the kiss and brushes warm lips against Harry’s neck.
“I don’t care,” he whispers, closing his eyes. “I don’t care where we go.”
Draco trails soft kisses along his jaw and sighs against his skin. “We should probably move from here before Ida spots us from her kitchen window.”
“That sounds sensible,” Harry says, feeling a pang of loss as they part and he slumps into his conductor’s chair. As Ida’s house fades from view, he finds himself wondering about Christmas with Draco and the biddies and just what he might be missing out on. “I’m sorry I won’t be there tomorrow,” he says at last.
“We’ll manage,” Draco says, but then his eyes flit to Harry’s. “I’m not saying you won’t be missed.”
“Will you miss me?” Harry asks, feeling curiously vulnerable.
“Yes,” Draco says as though it should be obvious. “Of course I’ll fucking miss you, but Christmas isn’t just a big meal and a few presents.”
“Are you actually going to tell me the real meaning of Christmas?” Harry asks, amused.
“You’re a huge pain in the arse, did you know that?”
Harry laughs. “Absolutely.”
“Good. Well, now that’s sorted, why don’t you hail the bus tomorrow when you’ve finished at the Burrow, and we’ll take it from there?”
“Sounds promising,” Harry says, suddenly beginning to feel rather festive.
Draco smiles and swings onto a roundabout, making Harry grab the seat underneath him.
“Marvellous. Now, where do you want to go?”
Chapter 25: Twenty-fifth of December
Twenty-fifth of December – northern lights
Despite his best efforts, Harry is the last to arrive at the Burrow for Christmas lunch. He throws as much self control as he can muster into getting out of bed at a reasonable hour, but Draco is warm and languorous and already seems to know exactly how to touch Harry to make him lose his higher brain functions. It’s not Harry’s fault, the man just makes him weak, and by the looks on the faces of everyone present in the Weasleys’ kitchen, every last one of them knows it, too.
“I’m sorry I’m late, not a word, merry Christmas,” Harry says all in one breath, shutting the back door and inhaling the delicious savoury steam that almost seems to fill the kitchen.
“Here, get this on,” Ron instructs, flinging a wrapped package at Harry, who catches it and smiles.
Everyone else is already wearing their new Christmas jumpers, including Hugo, who is sitting on the floor and chewing on his blue woollen sleeve. Harry rips off the paper and inspects this year’s offering, a soft, chunky knit in deep red with a small ‘H’ over the breast and a large picture of a triple-decker bus.
“Thank you, this is brilliant,” he says, pulling the jumper over his head and turning this way and that to allow everyone to view it properly.
“Isn’t Draco coming?” Molly asks, rattling a tin of roast potatoes. “I’ve done one for him as well. It’s got a cat as well as a bus.”
“No,” Harry says, surprised. “He’s with the bi—erm, with the ladies,” he amends quickly.
“See, Mum, you actually have to invite people if you want them to turn up,” Ron says, and Molly gives him a stern look. He holds his hands up. “Just saying.”
“I’m sure he’ll be pleased he was invited,” Harry says, touched and bewildered by how easily his family and Draco seem to have accepted each other.
“Everyone’s just happy that you’re happy,” Hermione says quietly, displaying the sort of perceptiveness that makes Harry want to hug her and shake her at the same time.
In the end, he decides to hug her, wrapping his arms around her smile and her curls and her brand new lavender-coloured jumper.
“Merry Christmas, Hermione,” he mumbles. “Let me know if you need anything. I’m not going to Eritrea.”
She peers up at him, eyebrows knitted. “Well… alright.”
“Right, you two, less hobnobbing and more…” Molly frowns, bustling past them and setting an enormous, gleaming turkey on the table. “More sitting down and eating your dinner before it gets cold.”
“Can we hobnob while we eat?” Ginny asks, pulling up the chair next to Harry’s and yanking Neville into the one on her other side. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“Of course,” Fred says grandly. “How now, brown cow?”
“Behave yourself, Fred, George,” Molly says, handing the carving knife to Arthur.
“George isn’t here,” Percy points out. “He’s on his honeymoon.”
Molly frowns, turning to look at Fred and seeming startled to see only one twin looking back at her.
“Oh. Well, never mind. Everyone should be behaving—it’s Christmas,” she says.
“I’m behaving,” Rose says, accepting the slice of turkey held out to her by her grandfather.
“For now,” Hermione says under her breath. “At least one sprout, Rosie.”
She wrinkles her nose but obediently takes a single sprout from the platter before beginning to pile stuffing and roast potatoes onto her plate.
“They’re just like little cabbages,” Harry says, nudging her and making sure that she sees him scooping several sprouts onto his plate.
Rose regards her single sprout with deep suspicion. “Uncle Harry, that’s not better.”
Her indignant expression makes everyone else around the table burst into laughter, and it takes a solemn promise of an extra large piece of Christmas pudding to put a reluctant smile back on her face. Placated, she chews through the sprout in record time and begins attacking her potatoes, at which point the rest return to their food. As usual, Molly’s festive spread is outstanding, and Harry helps himself to a little bit of everything in sight, taking care to save room for dessert as well as the inevitable piles of mince pies and biscuits.
As he listens to a spirited discussion between Ron and Ginny about the right way to construct a Christmas dinner leftover sandwich, he wonders how things are going at Eilish’s dinner table: if she has cooked by herself or ordered in, what everyone is talking about, whether or not Montague and Juno—and, indeed, Harry the mouse—have been allowed to attend or whether they have been relegated to the bus to plot their revenge.
He crunches Molly’s crisp, herby roast potatoes and nods while Hermione tells him an MLE story that he doesn’t understand but is happy to hear nonetheless. When Arthur offers him a glass of sherry, he drinks it and then remembers, just like he does every year, that it tastes disgusting. He wears his paper cracker hat and spends the best part of an hour trying to guess which famous person’s name Fred has written on it during the lull between turkey and pudding. Percy grills him at length about his Irish campaign and all the while, his mind is helpfully flashing images of Draco on an endless loop; kisses on frozen riverbanks, pale limbs stretched out and trembling, a real smile in a haze of scented steam.
He tries to reason with himself, tries to insist to his churning stomach and sore heart that it has been a matter of hours since he saw Draco and that is absolutely fine. Normal, in fact. It’s healthy and it’s Christmas and he’s here with his family, trying not to choke on Christmas pudding when Arthur tells a joke so terrible that it’s automatically hilarious.
When night falls and everyone gathers in the living room to listen to carols on the wireless, he sits on the floor and lets Hugo fall asleep on his lap. He’s totally fine, and all of this is lovely, just like it always is, comforting and familiar and right, but whenever a car passes the bottom of the lane, the headlights make him catch his breath whether he likes it or not.
“Harry, just go,” Hermione whispers, leaning down to touch his shoulder.
“You can go. Look at them, they’re fine,” she says softly, and he follows her eyes to where Molly and Arthur are curled contentedly together on the sofa with Rose squashed between them. “I think we both know that there’s somewhere you need to be.”
“Is it that obvious?” he mutters, allowing her to lift Hugo from his lap.
She smiles. “It is to me.”
“And me,” Ron puts in helpfully.
Harry groans and rubs his face with both hands. “I’m starting to think that both of you know me too well,” he says, getting to his feet. He takes a deep breath. “Erm… I’m afraid I have to be off now. Thank you for the lovely dinner and I’ll see you all very soon, but I have to… I have to go.”
With that, he hugs Molly and Arthur and hurries to the back door, pretending that he doesn’t hear the giggling that follows him all the way outside. In the lane, he draws his wand and waits, heart pounding. The bus lurches up beside him within seconds, and Draco has barely opened the doors before Harry is up the steps and catching him up in a dizzying kiss that tastes of sugar and rich, dark fruit.
“That was ridiculous,” Harry murmurs, pressing his mouth to Draco’s skin and revelling in the rough sigh that slams right to the base of his spine. “I’m not doing that again.”
Draco drops his head to Harry’s shoulder and exhales against his jumper. “You won’t be surprised to know that I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
“Why wouldn’t I be surprised?” Harry asks, grinning.
“Oh, shut up.” Draco steps back, frowning. “What on earth are you wearing?”
“My Weasley Christmas jumper, of course,” Harry says. “And before you laugh, this one’s for you.”
Draco takes the parcel and unwraps it slowly, revealing a jumper in Knight Bus purple with a glittering white triple-decker and the promised cat.
“Where the actual fuck did this come from?” he asks, regarding it with astonishment.
Harry laughs. “Molly made it. She makes us jumpers every year.”
“And she made one for me?”
“She did. Do you like it?”
“It’s completely bizarre,” Draco says, shaking his head. “I love it.”
As is customary with Molly’s knitting, the jumper is a little on the large side and Harry imagines that, with a bit of wriggling, they could both fit into it at once, but Draco doesn’t seem to mind at all. He rubs the soft wool between his fingers and smiles, turning to Juno and gazing at her expectantly.
She looks up from a rather involved stretch on the arm of Corrie’s chair and regards Draco with her head on one side and her ears twitching. After a moment, she sneezes and then settles down to sleep.
“A mixed review, I think,” Draco says. The purple jumper swings on his slender frame as he turns to grab Harry, poke him into a chair at the front of the bus and retrieve the biddies’ gift from under the driver’s seat.
“I wouldn’t mind her,” Harry says, stretching comfortably. “She wears fur and she doesn’t seem to feel guilty about it at all.”
Draco laughs, and the lights turn his eyes a glimmering silvery purple. “Shall we open this?”
“We must be allowed by now.”
“I was warned throughout dinner not to touch it until you were with me,” Draco says. “I was tempted to turn it into a drinking game, but I resisted.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Harry says, feigning disappointment. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drunk.”
Draco grimaces. “I become very loud and very insistent on interfering with people’s clothing.”
“In that case, I definitely wouldn’t have minded,” Harry laughs.
“Perhaps another time,” Draco says with a smile that feels like a promise. “When I don’t need to drive the bus.”
“Oh? Are we going somewhere?”
“There are one or two things I thought you might like to see,” Draco says, waving a dismissive hand and placing the parcel in Harry’s lap. “Open it, then.”
Intrigued, Harry unties the ribbon from the bright red box and removes the lid. Inside, a layer of tissue paper conceals most of the contents, but a folded note sits on top. He smoothes it out, admiring the quality of the parchment under his fingers and the neat copperplate handwriting that almost certainly belongs to Eilish. He reads it aloud.
“Dearest Draco and Harry,” he begins, already smiling. “We of the biddy club offer you the gift of time and space. Now that you have found each other, you must strengthen your bond in a place where elderly passengers and the obligations of the modern world do not exist, at least for you and at least for a few days. Your Portkeys leave at 2pm on the 31st of December, and they will bring you home four days hence. With love and gratitude for all that you do, Eilish, Danica, Ida, Corrie, Audrey and Thora.”
Harry sets down the note and stares at Draco, relieved to find the astonishment he feels written all over the pale features.
“I think there’s more,” Draco says faintly.
Harry looks. “Oh. PS, Molly has already agreed to take care of Juno,” he reads.
Draco twists around to gaze at his sleeping cat and Harry removes the tissue paper from the box to find it stuffed full of extra gifts. There’s a set of scarf and gloves for each of them, one in green and one in soft slate grey; a selection of biscuits that smell like warm spices; a hand-written list of the best spells to ward off cold weather; a battered set of Omnioculars; a collapsible teapot, and, perhaps most telling, a pair of guidebooks—one to Iceland in general and one to Reykjavik in particular.
Harry sorts through the items in quiet disbelief, opening the topmost book to find Portkey passes and a note from Ida with tips on how to remember what their individual key will look like.
“Am I losing my marbles here or are they giving us a holiday?” he asks.
Draco nods. “A very cold holiday,” he says, and he seems torn between pleasure and irritation.
“What’s the matter?”
Draco takes one of the books from the box and flips through it, expression of disenchantment growing with each page.
“Nothing,” he says, returning the book with a sigh. “Except that they may have just one-upped me in rather spectacular style.”
“Was your present a trip to Iceland, too?” Harry asks, regarding him with curiosity.
“Actually, you’re sitting in it,” Draco says.
“My gift to you. You’re sitting in it,” Draco says, crossness fading to exasperation. “Harry, you really are about as observant as a brick wall.”
As he speaks, it finally occurs to Harry that he is quite a bit more comfortable than usual, and that is perhaps because his spring-loaded metal conductor’s chair has been replaced by something wonderful. Setting down the box, he scrambles to his feet to examine it.
“Oh! I didn’t… wow,” he mumbles, and he knows that Draco is smiling now.
His new chair is a thing of beauty. It is compact and unfussy but perfect in every way, made of a dark, chocolate brown leather that contrasts warmly with the lighter driver’s seat. When he sits down this time, the cushioned frame hugs him perfectly, and the back is set at exactly the right height for him to lean back and rest his head. The whole thing also smells fantastic, fits inexplicably into the same little space as the tiny flip-up seat, and is quite possibly the best chair Harry has ever had the pleasure of sitting in.
“I’m sorry I didn’t notice,” he says, stretching out one leg and resting his ankle against Draco’s. “You can be very… distracting. In a good way. And I think it’s brilliant. My own chair! Thank you.”
“You are welcome,” Draco says. “But you should thank the bus, too. Alterations of this type are very much a joint effort, and believe me, if it hadn’t approved of you, there would have been nothing I could have done.”
“In that case, thank you very much,” Harry says gravely, patting the dashboard and waiting for a piece of fruit to fly out and hit him. Nothing happens. The idling engine continues to purr and his lovely new chair doesn’t dematerialise beneath him. “Looks like there’s no getting rid of me now.”
“Shall we get you a conductor’s uniform?” Draco asks, all innocence.
Harry snorts. “If that’s what does it for you.”
“You’ll be sorry if that turns out to be true,” Draco says, and when Harry makes a rude gesture and hands him a badly-wrapped package, he manages to look surprised.
“This is for the bus as well as you, I suppose,” Harry says, chewing anxiously on his lip as Draco unwraps his gift. “It’s a bit scratched. I tried all sorts of removal charms but it wouldn’t go. I got it from this dodgy-looking bloke on a market stall…” He pauses, scrubbing at his hair, but Draco is staring at the object with wide eyes. “Yeah, okay, I’m, not really selling it, am I? It’s just… when I saw it, I couldn’t resist.”
“I see,” Draco says, and Harry just can’t read him.
“It’s got all this diagnostic magic built into it, and all these different settings for fixing engines,” he says, words just spilling out as he begins to panic. “I think it works… I mean, I tried it and set my curtains on fire, but I think you’re probably only supposed to use it with a… what?”
Draco is staring at him now, mouth twitching at the corners. “You set your curtains on fire.”
Harry shrugs. “Only a little bit.”
Draco laughs, fingers curling around the battered old spanner and holding tight. “Do you see these letters?” he asks, relaxing his grip.
“Yeah. I said it was scratched but I did try,” Harry says.
“This isn’t just a scratch. These are initials.”
“Are they?” Harry says, squinting at the three etched letters. “I thought it just said ‘EEP’.”
“I suppose it does,” Draco concedes. “The thing is, these are very rare. Very few were ever made, and this one happens to be marked with the initials of Ernest Egbert Prang.”
Harry’s eyebrows lift under his fringe. “Seriously? Ernie Prang, who used to drive the bus?”
“The very same.”
Delighted, Harry laughs. “In that case, I think I got a bargain. Poor dodgy-looking man.”
“Yes, I feel terrible for him,” Draco says, weighing the spanner in his hands. He is clearly itching to have a go with it, but his self control prevails and he tucks it away carefully in one of his not-so-secret compartments.
“You’re not going to set the bus on fire?” Harry says, taken by surprise when Draco kisses him and then immediately starts the engine.
As the bus speeds away from the Burrow, Harry settles in his chair and enjoys the ride. He has learned by now that Draco is very unlikely to answer questions about their destination, particularly when he is in what Harry thinks of as his magical mystery tour mode. Instead, he makes himself comfortable and reads aloud to Draco from ‘A Magical time in Iceland’ and ‘Resplendent Reykjavik’, deciding not to dwell on the cross little exhalations that issue from the driver’s seat whenever he mentions the Northern Lights.
The drive is a long one, and by the time Draco parks up the bus, every muscle in Harry’s body has turned stiff and even the most comfortable chair in the world has been unable to prevent his backside going completely numb. When he stands, the blood races back into his extremities, making him swear and hop from foot to foot.
“Pins and needles or interpretive dance?” Draco asks, stretching until his Christmas jumper rides up, exposing a flicker of pale abdomen.
Harry grins. “Shut up. Where are we?”
Draco opens the doors, letting in a rush of icy air. “Callach Muir.”
Harry stops hopping and stares at him, heart thumping. “The place in the photograph?”
“Yes. This is it.”
“You remembered?” Harry mumbles, and Draco shrugs as though it’s nothing, but it’s not. He knows it’s not. It’s everything, and just for a moment, the world beyond the Knight Bus ceases to exist.
Wrapping him tightly in cold, stiff arms, Harry buries his face in Draco’s hair and breathes him in, feeling his whole body sing with belonging. Draco’s fingers slip into his hair and he sighs, letting go of everything that doesn’t matter to this, now, here.
“I love you,” he whispers, because he does, and because he can’t hold onto it any more.
Draco stiffens against him, fingers coming to rest in his hair. Harry forgets how to breathe. Everything is pulled tight, motionless around him, and then there is a warm mouth pressed to his, a smile against his lips and three words spoken into the space between them that make his heart swell and ache.
“I do love you, Draco murmurs again, kissing him and frowning. “I didn’t ever imagine saying it, though.”
“You can keep saying it,” Harry offers. “I don’t mind.”
Draco lets out an inelegant snort and grabs his hand, pulling him out into the freezing cold night. There isn’t an artificial light for miles around, and it takes Harry several seconds to adjust to the blanket of complete darkness, but when he looks up, his mouth drops open. The sky is littered with more stars than he has ever seen in one place, more even than seems reasonable, and wherever he looks the tiny points of light seem to follow him.
“I realise that you wanted to see the loch and the mountains, hear the landscape sing and such,” Draco says, gripping his fingers tightly, “but they’ll still be there in the morning, and I thought you might enjoy the night time view.”
“Yeah,” Harry says, gulping at cold air that tastes like clean, damp moss. “Hang on, though… this is where George and Angelina are staying. What if they see us?”
“Do you honestly think I didn’t consider that?” Draco sighs. He lets go of Harry’s hand and leans into the bus to turn on the headlights. “Can you see how the water curves around the crag there?”
“Well, their little cabin is on the other side. They can’t see us and we can’t see them.”
“Okay,” Harry says, allowing himself to relax. Seconds later, he is on his hands and knees in the cold, wet grass. “Look at this!”
“What is it?”
Harry grins, balancing himself on one hand and reaching out gently with the other. There, illuminated in the bus’s headlights, is a whole family of bristle beetles, scuttling around like little black nail brushes, cutting the tips from the frozen grass with shiny pincers and leaping, crackling, into the air to impress one another. Harry stays as still as he can, and his patience is rewarded when a large male crawls onto the palm of his hand. Slowly, he gets to his feet and shows the beetle to Draco.
“Do they just know where to find you?” he asks, peering at the beetle. The beetle peers back, wiggling long, upright antennae and flailing its little legs.
“Possibly, but the bristle beetle is native to Scotland,” Harry says. “It’s unusual to find a whole family group out in the open, though.”
Draco regards him thoughtfully. “You do seem to enjoy all this conservation stuff. Perhaps you should focus on that.”
Harry laughs. “Thanks for the career advice.”
“It was just a suggestion,” Draco says, startling when the beetle jumps several inches in the air and lands back on Harry’s palm.
“It’s a good suggestion,” Harry admits. “I’ve already decided to focus on projects a bit closer to home. Isn’t he handsome?”
“Yes, he’s very handsome,” Draco says, adding with a small smile: “And I’m glad to hear that.”
“Do you think the bus needs a mascot?” Harry wonders, inspecting the beetle’s characteristic bristles.
“I don’t know, but I doubt he’d last long with Juno around,” Draco says.
Harry wrinkles his nose. “She wouldn’t eat him?”
“No, but it would only be a matter of time before she stood on him with one of her great big feet, and that would be the end of it. Shall we go inside? I can’t feel my… anything,” Draco says, and Harry takes one last look at the stars, returns the beetle to his family and follows him inside.
Cold to the bone, they trudge up to the top deck and fill the copper bath with water so hot that it turns their skin pink. In a haze of delicious-smelling steam, they trade lazy kisses and slow strokes until, finally returned to a comfortable temperature, they retreat to the bed, splashing footprints on the floor and flinging big white towels over the bedclothes.
Clean and warm and aching hard, Harry gives himself up to sensation, drifting in comfort and pleasure with no need for a rush to the finish line. He sprawls, feeling every brush of Draco’s damp skin against his as a thrill in his veins, every gentle creak of the bed and every press of rough, air-dried towel underneath him. He trails kisses over every inch of pale skin he can reach, closing his eyes when Draco leans over him and slides his cock into his mouth. He groans and lifts his hips and Draco just slows down, making heated, amused eye contact until Harry grabs his hips and pulls him closer, close enough to let Draco’s cock slide, heavy and leaking, against his tongue.
Harry hasn’t ever been very good at multitasking, but he holds on for as long as he can, urged on by Draco’s shudders and gasps and the unhurried flicker of a hot tongue exactly where he needs it, until all he can think about is that mouth on his and Draco’s cock inside him. Without a word, he summons the oil from the bedside into his hand and rolls Draco onto his back, feeling himself flushing all over as he fucks himself on his fingers and holding the eye contact anyway, because Draco’s breathing is ragged, beautiful, and he can’t look away from Harry.
“Oh my god,” Draco whispers, eyes fluttering closed as Harry sinks down onto him and stays there, hands resting on Draco’s chest and thighs clamped tightly around his hips. “Just… give me a second.”
Harry stares down at him and bites his lip. He’s already burning up, tight and full and impossibly turned on just by the thought of having Draco inside him. The sensation itself is almost too much to bear and it takes everything he has not to move immediately. He breathes slowly, pressing his heated cock against his abdomen. The cold outside is already forgotten and he can feel the sweat prickling at his hairline and slipping down his back.
Finally, Draco grips his hips and urges him to move. Harry closes his eyes and allows himself to be guided, rising and falling and rocking in a rhythm so slow that he wants to cry with the intensity of it. Draco’s fingers dig into his hips, holding him firm and pulling him down onto his cock again and again. Tension vibrates through every line of Harry’s body, making his muscles ache and his skin slick with sweat, but he pours himself into it, staring down at Draco and frowning to see him holding his wand.
“What are you doing?” he pants.
“Look up,” Draco instructs, and when he does, he laughs.
It all makes sense. All of it, even the part where he’s having sex with Draco Malfoy on the top deck of a magical bus while the sky is lit up in swathes of green and blue and gold.
“Don’t stop,” Draco murmurs, and Harry hesitates only for a second before abandoning himself to it, losing himself to the slide of Draco’s cock inside him and tipping back his head to watch the stunning, swirling colours of the Northern Lights.
The icy air whips into the exposed top deck, sweeping over his heated skin, and it’s glorious.
“Did you really think I’d get bored of seeing this?” he laughs, shuddering when Draco wraps a slicked hand around his cock and strokes him. “Did you—oh, god.”
With a mingled laugh/groan, Harry looks up at the sky and fights for control, but Draco’s fingers are insistent and the slow, languid rhythm inside him is gaining momentum and all he can do is let go, intense pleasure spreading through him as he looks up at the glowing lights and comes all over Draco’s fist.
Head spinning, he closes his eyes, rocking his hips to a new, more urgent pattern until Draco groans and holds onto him so tightly that his fingernails cut into Harry’s skin. Falling forward on his hands, Harry kisses his chest, tasting salt on his tongue and smiling wearily.
“I think we might need another bath.”
“I don’t know,” Draco says, picking up his wand again. “Look how the last one ended.”
Harry says nothing, just watches in confusion as Draco casts a spell that protects them from the icy wind while leaving the view of the Aurora intact.
“Why didn’t you just do that before?”
“I did my best,” Draco says, resting cold hands on Harry’s waist. “I’ve never had to use that feature while distracted before.”
“Distracted?” Harry repeats, amused.
He disentangles himself from Draco, looks over at the bath and then shivers. After a moment’s thought, he hits them both with cleaning charms and then scrambles under the quilts and blankets, pulling Draco with him.
“Do you have to put your cold hands all over me?” Draco grouses.
“Yes, I do. And a Merry Christmas to you, too.”
Draco shuffles back against him, pressing his back to Harry’s chest and attempting to hide a smile in his pillow. They fall into a comfortable silence, warming gently and watching the lights ripple across the sky. When Juno leaps onto the bed, she stares at the place where the roof should be for several minutes and then gives up, curling up to sleep at their feet.
“I think Juno wants to hear more of your dating stories,” Draco says.
“Juno is snoring,” Harry mumbles against Draco’s shoulder.
“We only got to number twenty-nine,” he says, and Harry already knows he’s going to give in. He doesn’t mind.
“Okay,” he says, heaving a dramatic sigh. “So, number thirty took me to the circus.”
“I don’t know what to say to that.”
Harry presses a cold foot to the back of his leg. “Good. So, here’s what happened…”