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Through the May Air, Over the Ocean

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It was warm.

Draco groaned and pushed himself up, opening his eyes. A fire blazed in the hearth a few feet away from him. That was the first thing he noticed: the golden firelight lapping on the walls, logs crackling. Draco stared at the flying sparks, the small, elegant arch they leaped and disappeared in.

Wind howled at the windows. That was the second thing he noticed: it was snowing. Heavily so. Tiny flakes swirled wildly in the wind like a thick blanket, eerily pale against the dark night.

Draco looked around. Then he noticed that he was, in fact, sitting on a couch. A hard one at that, the mattress barely giving; sooty, the edges rubbed raw. What covered him was the ugliest quilt he had ever seen. Blocks of brick red and pear yellow sewed together, and on top were embroidered patterns Draco made out only after straining his head an odd angle: a sun surrounded by exaggerated waves of beaming lights, the thin nail of a crescent moon, winding vines that stretched and thickened and thinned, curling at the tips. On one corner was a patch of wildflowers of all colors: violet, sorbet, icy blue. The edges were held together by a thin thread of silver that was coming loose. Draco rubbed his fingers against it.

The walls around him were short, pressing in. The ceiling hung low with kerosene lamps and—he recognized—illuminating charms. With the firelight they baked the whole room golden and warm. It was warm underneath the quilt, too, so warm his fingers felt like burning.

The door swung open, followed by a gust of chilly wind. The fire swayed and dimmed, then resumed.

In walked Harry Potter.

“Oh, you’re awake.” Potter took his glasses off and wiped the snow off them. He was covered in white: the folds of his thick coat, his trousers, his heavy boots. His beanie and his scarf. Potter unwrapped the scarf from his neck and batted the flakes off. “Have you had any cider?”

Draco stared at him.

Since when did Potter have a bloody beard?

“You alright?” Potter asked. He didn’t look particularly concerned as he shrugged his coat off. “Do you remember anything? Getting lost in this hell of a blizzard, maybe? You were barely conscious when I found you. Brought you back and told you to drink some cider...I think you fell right asleep, though. Did you hear that part?”

Draco felt like he should say something.

Potter waved his wand and, one by one, sent his coats and layers of shirts and vests to the railing by the burning hearth, where they hung themselves by the fire. Potter sat down beside Draco with a huff, grabbed the jar of cider from the short table in front of them—which sat on a ragged rug, each wooden leg scraped or chipped—and poured some into a mug. Handed it to Draco.

Draco took it. The warmth of the mug soaked through his palms. Potter poured himself a mug, too, and leaned back into the couch. Gulped down a few drinks.

“Where am I?” Draco finally asked.

“Southern border of Scotland,” Potter replied, closing his eyes. “In the fells. In the mountains, I mean.”

Scotland?

“Well, I wouldn’t know what you were doing in Scotland, would I?” Potter sat forward to the edge of the couch, and tilted his head with curiosity. “Actually, what are you doing in Scotland? I can’t even see my own fingers out there.”

“None of your business. What are you doing in Scotland?”

“I raise sheep.”

Draco choked on the cider—burnt his tongue, coughed, spluttered all over himself. Potter looked at him amusedly as he struggled to recover himself. When he did, he tried to glare at Potter, but all that came out was disbelief.

“You raise sheep.”

“I raise sheep.”

“Ten years, and all the while you’ve been…hiding in the mountains and—making cheese?”

“Hey.” Potter sounded offended. “I don’t make my own cheese.”

Draco made an incredulous noise. “Either way. You might like this life, Potter, but I would love to head back to my flat in London. So if you would so kindly point me in the direction of the Ministry…ah, tomorrow morning, perhaps, so I can—”

“Ah,” Potter said slowly. Took a slow swig of cider. “They just closed off international travel for the whole winter.”

It took a second for Draco to register. “What?”

“International Floo, portkeys, brooms…doesn’t open again until March. It’s only September and this is already the second blizzard. They’re not taking any risks.”

March. That was six months away. Draco tightened his grip on the mug. Potter sighed.

“Drink your cider, Malfoy. It’s hot.”

Draco brought the mug to his lips, numb. The warm liquid slid down his throat, sweet and strong and tangy, the sourness lingering. It warmed him up from the inside. Draco looked, again, to the blizzard raging outside the window. Six months. Was he to stay here with Potter, whom he hadn’t seen nor heard from for the last decade? Who had disappeared from their world without a single word and was now in front of him again, sporting a beard?

Raising sheep?

“Listen,” Potter said, “I’ll see if I can get you an owl tomorrow, or…yeah, an owl. Maybe you can write home, or to your job, or…”

But Potter’s eyes weren’t on him. He looked to the blizzard, too, a faint crease between his brows. Firelight caught on the thin frame of his glasses and glinted golden, traced the tiny scratches on the hooks. His hair wild and untamed—the tips damp with melted snow. That hadn’t changed, Draco thought, and was surprised to find solace in Potter’s messy hair.

Young logs crackled in the hearth, sending golden sparks flying.

***

There must be something we can do. I can do.

Draco, you know it’s not like that.

It must have been me. Something I’ve done wrong. Tell me and I’ll change, if you’d just tell me—

Draco woke to a faint headache. Disoriented and bleary, he tried to open his eyes as he pushed himself up.

It was quiet. Sunlight streamed in from the windows, faint and cold the way it often was in winter. The couch and the short table, the clothes draped all over the railing, the ragged rug, all bathed in dove white. The hearth was silent. The whole room echoed of the lingering sense of loss and ache from his dreams.

He rubbed his eyes, tired of it all. Six months. Six months, and he was still dreaming about it.

The kitchen, too, was empty. On the side of the sink sat an illegible note which probably said something about helping himself to breakfast, so he found the small, cranky fridge that sat under a cupboard and pulled it open. Bottles of milk clinked, and in the middle sat half a stick of butter—nothing else. Irritated, he rummaged through the cupboards, through a strongly smelt ham and tins of tea until he found a dry, hard country boule in a basket, which he munched on and swallowed the best he could. All the while trying not to think about the fresh, hot coffee he could have had in his flat in London, toast, thick-cut orange marmalade. Tried not to think about his flat, his balcony that overlooked the city and stood beyond all busy traffic and bustling crowd, the rapid flow of movement. In the morning when the fog was still heavy, only the tips of buildings would be peeking out from the thick mist, the vague sharpness of grey. The sky translucent, the first of dawn radiating through the empty canvas, shining through with the first faint streak of blue—

He looked out of the window.

The world was white.

Ten minutes later, after a brief debate on whether it would be too cold and how he’d manage if he got lost, eventually deciding there was nothing else, at all, to do, Draco was out in the snow, bundled in a thick coat and wrapped up in a large scarf Potter left. Draco buried his nose in it, trying to hide from the chilliness. The soft wool smelt faintly of sheep. The cold air cut his frozen cheeks and slithered through his trousers to his thighs. Draco, clutching the coat as tightly as he could, muttered a warming spell.

It swelled, then quickly dissipated into the cold.

Ah. London charms weren’t enough in Scotland, then.

He wandered about. His boots were heavy as he lifted them above the deep layer of snow with each step. There was more than white in the world, after all, in the endless rolling hills. Angular oak trees and thorn dykes stood in the snow like coal; far in the distance, a forest of Scottish Pines stretched over the bottom of hills. He discovered a short stone wall and walked along. Hares burst out of their burrows without warning, shooting by his feet—he stumbled and almost lost his balance. A flock of fieldfares stroked the pale sky and disappeared.

It was quiet. The world around him seemed to have stopped breathing. He hadn’t been able to hear silence for years, not back in London. Now all there was left was his boots crunching against the snow.

The wall ended where the hill broke into a fell. He stood, one hand on the smooth, round stones, and tilted his head to look far. The North Sea was a faint smudge of blue beneath the white fells. He remembered, then, why he was here at all. Why he almost died in a blizzard and was now stuck in Potter’s cottage where there wasn’t even a decent breakfast, wasn’t even a single egg, wasn’t even marmalade. It rose like a gentle wave, surrounding him, welling to his chest, made it difficult to breathe.

Somewhere in the distance, a crow screeched.

“So, what did you do today?”

Draco scrunched his nose. Potter sent a spoonful of stew into his mouth as he watched him. The stew was salty and tasted vaguely of sheep and aside from that…nothing much. Draco ate another spoonful and tried not to ask for water.

Outside, the night had fallen, the dark sky clear.

“I saw your boot tracks. Did you follow that wall?”

“Yes.” Draco’s mouth was dry as he swallowed. “There wasn’t much else to do.”

Spoons clinked in the silence.

“So you really—” Draco swallowed— “raise sheep?”

“Oh. Yeah. You really didn’t know? I thought the Prophet would be all over it.”

“They were dying to. Didn’t get any news, though.” Draco sunk his spoon into the plate of stew. “You should have seen all the guesses. Merlin, were they wild. I think I saw stripper in the states. And leader of backstage Ministry overthrow. I cannot decide which is worst.”

Potter chuckled. “They had their fun, that’s for sure. How about you?”

“What about me?”

“How’s everything going?”

“Oh, splendid. I’m stuck here for six months, just what I always—”

“No, no. I mean back in London. I heard you’re dating Astoria…err, what was her last name—Greengrass?”

Splendid. Really. Potter looked at him as though he was genuinely interested in his life. Draco ate another spoonful of stew out of spite. “There is nothing to say about it.”

“Come on, Malfoy.”

“How is it you’re suddenly interested in my love life?”

“Is it some kind of pureblood tradition to not talk about it? It’s alright, you know. Ron and Hermione are married, too. Have a kid already. And Hermione’s pregnant again.”

“Great Circe, spare me the details of their love life.” Draco rolled his eyes, but was unable to restrain his own curiosity. “What’s the child’s name?”

“Rose. A darling babe.” Potter smiled, as if to himself. It made Draco lost for a moment. Then Potter turned his attention back to Draco, and it was gone. “Well? Information exchange. What about Astoria?”

“Merlin, Potter, are you tenacious.”

“So are you. How is it you’re so tight lipped about your girlfriend?”

“It really is none of your business—”

“Malfoy, I’m not trying to pry.” Potter began to sound vaguely annoyed. “I’m just trying to talk. If you mind so much you can’t even spare a single word—”

“We broke up.”

It was almost funny to watch Potter’s face, his mouth dropping open just a little. Draco almost wanted to laugh.

“I’m sorry,” Potter said a while later. “I didn’t know—”

“No, no. Of course you didn’t. I forgot that no news reach this godforsaken place. No owls, no Floo, no—”

“Malfoy.”

“—nothing except for running water. Listen, I don’t want to be here, either. So can we just pretend we don’t know each other and make it through the next six months?” Draco trembled with rage, his fingers shaking as he pushed his plate away. “This stew is horrible.”

Potter stared at him for a long time. Then he looked down and finished his stew.

***

The thing about Astoria was that she was always right.

The first time Draco met her was at a charity gala that served Brundlmayer Extra Brut in thin wine glasses. On the balustrade, where the night had fallen over the gardens and little floating lights hovered mid-air, she held the stem of her wineglass between two fingers, loose and elegant. Her hazel hair flipped to one side, cascading down her bare back like a waterfall. Her violet dress hugged the curve of her waist.

You’re shaking these hands, she said, just for a sense of production. Not for redemption, not for the Malfoy name, not for your job. Just to feel as though you were doing something. But you’re lying to yourself because this isn’t going to do any help. And you know it.

She’d turned to him, then, the wine sparkling in her glass. It was the first time Draco ever wanted to punch a woman.

It had not been easy for him after the war. He was prohibited from leaving the Manor where it locked all his nightmares and two years later, no one would accept him for education. Eventually his mother pawned her silver necklace to find him a tutor. Her pearl hairpin, her gilded snuff box which she’d inherited from her great-grandmother, her emerald family ring embedded with the Malfoy crest—gone. Then no potion workshop would hire him. He settled for a small company which conducted research and collected data for potion prototypes, and started in a tiny office he shared with twenty others. He’d shaken hands, attended charity galas, bowed his head low and learned to stay silent. Learned to ignore the spits and snarls in streets, the condescending glances at his workplace. It would, as he’d later learn, take him years to finally earn a promotion, and years more before he would finally be able to afford his flat in London.

No one had ever spoken so bluntly to him like that. Astoria never talked less just because she talked straight. It would forever be a mystery to Draco how she survived this world to her twenties without being hexed every five minutes. But survive she did, and told Draco the only reason he still hadn’t asked her out was, instead of the pureblood courting tradition facade he’d pulled, because he was scared of his own past. Draco had spluttered, blushing down his neck and defenseless.

She teased him for loving his flat. For loving to stand on the balcony and look down as though looking at the world below. But there was more to it. It was what he’d fought for and earned with dignity. Not with the Malfoy name, not with bribes; he’d earned this, had carved out a place of his own in this unforgiving world. Had suffered the consequences of his wrongdoings and now, for the first time, he could lift his chin and breathe.

You want to ignite the world, Astoria said one day at his kitchen. He’d barely moved in for a week, the boxes still scattered all around. All that was in place were the plates and silverware and the couch, sitting in the living room facing blank walls. And you would have, had you not been a Death Eater.

The name still made him flinch, even though once it had been all he’d admired. He walked close to her and slit open the cupboard box with mugs. Is that a compliment?

It is. Astoria fetched her wand and, one by one, levitated the mugs into the cupboards. And you still do. Want to ignite London, even though it is constantly wet.

Sounds like a vain attempt to me.

Ah, darling. Nothing is done in vain.

Draco had fallen in love with her way of speaking before anything else. Her brown eyes always looked as though they held secrets; in the sun they melted into gold, an array of a sunset. She told him that he would spend his whole life trying to escape his father’s shadow. That he would never be able to forgive himself for the war, and that it was okay.

It was what she told him on the last day, too, at the train station. She was going to head to Oxford to work at Ashmolean Museum and study the History of Arts. She could have taken the Floo, but she liked the way sceneries rolled back from the compartment windows. Wanted to see the turning colors of leaves: the red, the orange, the ochre. It had been weeks after their breakup. Astoria had already cleaned up all her belongings from his flat, and by all means he should not have come to see her away. But see her away he did, with a tight smile he held onto.

You will move on, Draco. She placed a light hand on his arm. You will not forget us, but you will move on.

Draco tried to be witty, his throat thick. He dropped his head and managed a wet laugh. How do I move on when I won’t be able to forget?

Moving on isn’t moving over.

The train whistled, the station steaming up. Astoria pressed a quick kiss to his cheek, gave him a small smile, then disappeared into the crowded compartment. The air was cool, still lingering with the last traces of warmth from August. Draco thought he saw a glimpse of Astoria’s purple beret, but it might have been anything. Around him people were hugging goodbyes from compartment windows, waving, laughing, couples kissing. Someone forgot their handkerchief and a middle-aged man waved it violently, yelling and running towards the train from the other side of the platform.

Perhaps everything is done in vain, he thought, as the train started and slowly slid away.

***

“Listen, I’m sorry.”

Draco pulled open a drawer. The napkins were piled neatly in one corner, towels so thin they sported holes in the other. He pushed it back. “Drop it, Potter.”

He had woken up at four this morning. His back hurt from sleeping on the stiff couch. He’d lain there, staring at the ceiling. A faint creak climbed from one corner to the near middle like the strings of a spider web. Faded stains blossomed like withered petals, yellow and soft. Grudgingly, he got up when Potter entered the living room and pushed past him to the bathroom. Came back to Potter sitting on the couch—the quilt pushed to the side, crumpled—pulling on his boots. Ready to leave.

“I shouldn’t have prodded like that, I’m—I’m sorry.”

Draco pulled open another drawer. Tiny tea spoons. He pushed it back, annoyed. “The Great Harry Potter apologizing. What a sight to behold.”

“Malfoy—”

“Potter, drop it.” Draco straightened up. “I was being dramatic last night. It was nothing, I wasn’t offended, alright?”

It was just that it was the first time in six months he was asked. And speaking it aloud made it real, somehow. A phantom ache given a physical shape. Every syllable on his tongue the sharp edge of a knife.

“—I’d appreciate it if we changed the topic.”

Potter seemed lost and still, guilty. Draco stifled a sigh and resumed his opening and closing of drawers. A while later Potter asked, uncertain, “Are you looking for something?”

Draco sighed. “Coffee, please. If you have any.”

“Third drawer down the middle cabinet. No, not that one, the one on the—yes.”

Draco retrieved the coffee. A tin of instant, looking untouched for months. He bit back a bitter insult and started looking for the kettle.

“You know what—” Potter pushed himself up, strode into the kitchen—into the space beside Draco. Fetched the kettle from a cabinet under the sink, ran the tap for water, turned on the stove. Draco watched it all with uncomfortable silence. Noticed, as they stood side by side, that he was taller than Potter. A mere inch, but still.

“The owl is arriving today.”

Draco blinked. “And that is supposed to mean…?”

“It’s for you. So you can contact your family, your job, or…your friends, I don’t know. You’re going to be here for a long time.”

“Oh.” Then, after a moment too long, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The following silence was just as uncomfortable. The water boiled, and Potter added two teaspoons of instant coffee. They watched the powder swirl, rising and falling with the bubbles, with the flow of heat.

“Would you like to see my sheep?”

Draco blinked again, turned. Potter was worrying his lip. Saw something in Draco’s expression, and quickly explained that—

“It’s just you said you had nothing to do, and I, well. Thought maybe you’d…you know, they’re pretty gentle, so—some change in scenery, maybe. It’s all snow out there, not to say it’s not beautiful but it could get quite…oh, Merlin. What I mean is—”

“Yes.”

Potter stopped dead in his tracks.

“Yes,” Draco repeated. “I’d like to see your sheep. Do they stink?”

Slowly, Potter grinned. “Oh, very.”

They didn’t stink much, really. The barn was warm and smelt more vaguely of animals, of the golden hay that layered the ground, of summer. Draco loosened the scarf. He’d wanted to come in his own clothes, but the disgust must have shown on his face—all the clothes cleaned only with a rough Scourgify— so Potter threw him a sweater and a thick pair of pants last minute. They, like Potter’s scarf, smelt faintly of sheep and were much warmer than his own clothes. The sweater hugged him gentle and loose, and Draco couldn’t stop tugging at the tiny fuzz balls where the wool was rubbed rough.

A Border Collie barked and straightened, alert. Potter scratched its ears as he headed to the back. The barn was bathed in warm lights, brighter than the grey, quiet morning outside. Draco followed Potter—taking his time to finally feel solid ground underneath his boots again—stopped when Potter crouched in front of a baaing pen, and there they were.

The sheep.

They were beautiful. Their faces black like coal, beige-colored wool long and thick and airy around them like a coat. White markings splashed across their faces and ears, shining like fresh snow—splashed across their short, thin, knobby legs like a mindless painting. Horns curved elegantly around their heads. Their amber eyes caught the warm lights as they baaed, wandering about.

“Scottish Blackface,” Potter informed him as he stood up again and headed to the other corner. Came back with a large bale of golden hay—fixed it between his legs and, swiftly, slit it open. The thick smell of summer made Draco dizzy. Timothy seeds, meadow grasses, common bent. He recognized each and every faint trace of them; had once spent day and night immersed in the rich smell of them. Of wild summer fields, of the sweet scent of baked sun. Potter cut the large bale into thick slices and stuffed them into a wire net fixed on the fences. The sheep started to tug at it, chewed and quieted.

“To appease the ladies,” Potter explained with a quick smile, “so they don’t scream the whole time.”

“Are these—are these all of them?”

“No. These are the ones that need…err, extra care.” Potter knelt down again, and began to examine the mouth of a sheep. Seemed to be satisfied, tuned and grabbed the horns of another. “The rest are in the fells, though I guess…yeah, in the fells. We might need to bring them to lower shelter, though. It’s going to snow again, and if…”

Potter trailed off, distracted as he fished a pill out of a ragged satchel. Draco turned his attention to the other sheep. They all looked the same save for the white markings. Draco tugged loose a strand of hay and tried to bribe a sheep to come near.

“You can pet them, you know,” Potter said. Draco shot his head up. Potter looked amused—definitely too amused. “They don’t bite. Ah, I mean…yeah, they bite, but only under extreme circumstances. They’re usually really gentle. Not Lettuce though, she definitely bites.”

Embarrassed, Draco tried to hide his blush by turning his head back to the pens, seeking. “Which one is Lettuce?”

“Oh.” Potter laughed. “Lettuce is my sheepdog. The one sitting at the door? The Border Collie?”

“Ah,” Draco said flatly. Attempted to retrieve his dignity with a turned head, a short, “of course.”

A sheep suddenly wrenched the hay off his hands. Draco started. The sheep was unimpressed and chewed slowly as she stared at him.

“That’s Cho.”

“What…” Draco looked at Potter, bewildered, then shocked when realization dawned. “You did not name your sheep after our classmates.”

Potter grinned.

“No. No, this is so undignified! How did they even let it happen, Cho and—oh no, there’s a Weasel in here, isn’t it? And a Granger? Merlin’s tits, and—”

“Hey, language.”

Draco snorted in disbelief. “As if you don’t say fuck yourself!”

“The sheep don’t. They’re rather well mannered and I intend to keep them that way.”

Cho, unfussed by the conversation, walked closer to the edge of the pen—to Draco—and tore loose strands of hay from the feeder. Draco hesitated, then pulled his gloves off. Carefully scratched her head. Her hair was short and tufted, her ear pliant to the bend of Draco’s fingers. Cho seemed to enjoy it and tore more hay from the feeder.

The rest of the flock could only be reached after a long, bumpy ride on Potter’s tractor. The hills rolled back on both sides, a sea of white. Draco could not register a single turn, and would not have recognized his way back had he been left here, but Potter seemed to know his way around and turned the steering wheel with ease. Potter cursed when they arrived at a wooden gate half buried in snow, collapsed underneath the weight, jumped off the tractor—trudged over with difficulty. He pulled the crooked gate straight, tightened the knot on top, and settled for the temporary solution.

It had begun to snow again. Tiny flakes drifted and landed on their scarves, on their shoulders. They found the flock under a couple closely grown Scottish Pines, branches bent under the weight of snow—like a shelter. The ground was bare, the blizzard blocked off by the trees, and some sheep grazed while the others huddled close together.

Potter counted them, then visibly relaxed as he fished out little, round cakes from the satchel. The sheep scurried close, nudging his thighs for food.

“This is Luna,” Potter said as one of the sheep munched away a cake from his palm. Her horns curled twice around her head. “She’s one of the oldest. She must’ve led them here, they would’ve starved otherwise.”

The sheep did look starved, though, impatient in their seeking for food. Potter laughed lightly as he nudged some away with his knee, looked at Draco.

“Want to feed them?”

Draco, startled, held out his palm. Potter placed a sheep cake on it. As soon as he lowered his hand, a sheep munched it away. Draco blinked.

“That’s Neville,” Potter said with a crooked grin.

“Neville? He’s a ram?”

“Oh, no. They’re all ewes, all ladies. I only keep rams for mating season.” Potter fed another sheep. Saw Draco’s expression, and explained, “Neville doesn’t mind, of course. He’d wanted a sheep named after him for so long that he was quite on the top of the world when he heard about it. I don’t think he actually heard her gender.”

Draco let out a laugh, unable to control himself. Potter grinned, and started to introduce the sheep around them. Anthony, Ron, Parvati. Hermione had a white mark around her left eye. Hannah, Dean…crowding around them were balls of fluffy wool, scurrying up flurries of snow as they walked, baaing. Draco tried his best to remember their names—greeting each and every one of them with a scratch on the ear—and somehow lost himself in the coarse, long wool, in the faint curve of his own smile.

***

“Have you ever had any pets?”

Draco took a sip of warm cider. He’d never really noticed, but it tasted different from the ones he was used to, the ones back in London: tangier, sourer. Tasted closer to apples.

The fire crackled in the hearth, casting warm lights on the rug and dragging long shadows over the short legs of the table, over the scarves hanging on the rail. Over Potter’s knee, which he’d drawn close to his chest. He had settled in the armchair beside the couch, nursing a mug of cider himself.

“No,” Draco said. “Why?”

“You seemed to like the sheep.”

Draco huffed. Potter laughed, slow and relaxed.

“Also, I guess I always thought you pureblood families would have some…I don’t know, ponies? Horses?”

“Ah. I didn’t know you’d count my father’s peacocks.”

Potter laughed. “Why am I not surprised you have peacocks?”

“Scary things, they were. Not entertaining at all.” Draco pointed his mug at Potter. “They chase you to death. Either they win or they go down with you.”

“What happens if they win?”

“They bite you is what happens!” Draco stared at Potter incredulously. “Hurts like hell, let me tell you. Half of the healing spells cast on me was because I got bit.”

Potter couldn’t seem to stop laughing. “You chased peacocks quite often, then?”

“Ah, well. I had little else to do, did I? White peacocks were fascinating enough for a four-year-old to chase after their tails. Even if sometimes the roles are reversed.”

“White peacocks? They’re albinos?”

“Yes. All of them. It was quite breathtaking, really. Especially when they flaunt.” Draco swirled the cider, drank a little. “Such a pity you’ve never seen them. They don’t look like they belong to this world at all, what with their tails all out…like ghosts. Do you know peacocks fly? Not so high but, still. When you have a tree of white peacocks staring you down with their red eyes, and they take off…it’s magnificent. They look like they are all royals and they know it. The grace and intimidation…all come so naturally. Like it’s in their blood to expect others to bow to them, knowing they—they will.”

His own voice sounded distant to himself. The peacocks were all gone, now. Not killed for entertainment, or seized by the Ministry; they simply were not built for dark magic. The Manor during the war had worn them out and eventually, one by one, they had all died. Their eyes like rubies as they lay on the ground, moribund.

“They sound beautiful,” Potter said softly. Draco caught his eyes. They reflected the firelight, golden in the center of green like a candle, like a firefly.

Something flapped at the window. Potter went over and pushed the windows open—a barn owl. It landed on the table and flapped its wings, thin eyes blinking.

“Well. Here’s your postman.”

“My what?”

“Ah, never mind.”

Draco tied his letters to the owl’s legs as Potter fed it treats and scratched the tufts of feathers at its chin. With a strong flap of wings it took off and, within seconds, disappeared into the night.

***

The next few days passed with Draco wandering about. He’d wake up to bitter coffee, dry bread, and a bleary Potter entering the living room. His back didn’t hurt as much as it slowly got used to the stiffness of the couch. He changed into Potter’s jumpers and trousers—as Potter got him essential clothing, yes, but still the amount didn’t suffice. They were warm, anyway, so Draco was only pretending to complain.

After the barn, he was left to explore while Potter took care of the sheep. Tried to decipher the endless white carpet of hills, the pattern in which they rolled and rose and dipped and turned. Tried to recognize the winding paths, now cleaned off snow, the directions in which they bent, stretched, and disappeared. More short stone walls marked inexplicable places: big, round stones smooth to the touch, piled atop one another; tiny, scattered rocks smeared on top, rough; cement filling the gaps, covered in deep green moss underneath thick layers of soft snow. He bumped into sheep occasionally. He recognized some of them by markings now, albeit their odd names. Ravens stretched out their black wings and glided, circled. Once he saw a fox at the skirt of a forest, a snippet of burning red disappearing into the dark woods. He exclaimed—giddy, desperate to share the bubbly news. He’d never seen a fox before.

“Are there a lot of foxes out here?” Draco asked once Potter picked him up on the tractor. Potter turned the wheel with the hint of a smile.

“Ah. You saw one?”

“Yes.” Draco’s face was flushed as he waved his hands about, clamping them down in embarrassment—then uncontrollably gesturing again. “This big! It disappeared into the forest. Merlin, was it beautiful—”

The tractor tumbled. Their arms bumped.

“You like animals?” Potter asked.

“Not like, I guess, more—marveled. Fascinated. There were quite a few illustration handbooks in the Manor. I used to flip through them as a kid to kill time.”

“That sounds nice,” Potter said. Then, as if remembering, he laughed. “You sure hated Magical Creatures for someone who’s fascinated by animals.”

Draco shook his head, still smiling. “I was prejudiced, Potter.”

Potter eyed him. Knowing he couldn’t brush it off, Draco got the words out with a tight smile. “I was. I sure hope I know better now.”

The air between them fell silent. Draco stifled the urge to pick at his scarf.

“You know. Hagrid wasn’t exactly the best teacher.” Potter quickly glanced at him, his eyes back to the road. “Remember the blast-ended skrewts?”

Draco shuddered. “I’d rather not.”

Potter laughed. “They were horrible. I think I burnt my arm at least twice a week.”

“Poor Madam Pomfrey. I have no idea how she managed.”

“They stink, too. Did you know we helped him with it even after the lesson ended? Merlin. The whole open ground stunk of rotten fish.”

“The giant squid would have suffocated had it come to the surface for air. No wonder I never saw it that year.”

Potter laughed again, bright and open. From afar emerged the tiny cottage. It was only a grey dot among the vast white, but closer he could see the stone walls, the roof. The jagged, thin line of surrounding wooden fences, the crooked gate. Potter turned the wheel, spilling up snow from under the tires.

Draco headed to the bathroom and came out to Potter in the kitchen. His socks were ridiculous: buttery white and dotted with tiny broomsticks, pulled up to different lengths at his shin. Draco snorted until he saw Potter trying to pick up at a large piece of bloody meat, then all amusement dissipated.

“No. No, no-no-no-no-no, you are absolutely not cooking stew again.”

“Well.” Potter dropped the meat onto the cutting board without looking at him. “I guess you’ll just have to deal with it.”

“That thing is inedible.”

“You can cook then, if you’re so good at it.”

Draco huffed, pushed Potter to the side and took his space. He checked the fridge as Potter stood, incredulous, before finally moving over. The tap ran as Potter washed his hands.

“Merlin, Potter. How is there still not any food in the fridge. What exactly were you even going to cook with?”

Potter dried his hands with a towel. “There’s salt,” he said defensively.

“Salt,” Draco said flatly. He rummaged through the cabinets, dug through the tins of tea and unopened biscuits until aha! He fetched a couple potatoes, a tomato, an onion. “Please don’t tell me they’ve been here since the age of Merlin.”

“No.” Potter let out a laugh. “I got them from the village last week.”

“And you just forgot their existence?”

“Ha ha, very funny.”

“Any chance you got spices? Let me guess. No?”

“Nope.”

Draco sighed dramatically as he ran the vegetables under the tap. Sliced them, diced them, heated the pan; cut the meat. It flowed through his fingers like a revisit, like climbing onto a bike for the first time in years and finding balance after a heartbeat. The pan sizzled, and soon the robust aroma of fresh tomatoes and lamb filled the warm air. Waiting for it to simmer, Draco turned to wash his hands. Caught Potter’s eyes. He’d been watching in silence the whole time.

“I didn’t know you cooked,” Potter said quietly as he handed Draco the towel.

“Ah. There is a lot you don’t know.”

“I’ve always imagined, well.” Potter laughed, a soft chuckle. “Purebloods lounging on velvet couches and eating grapes while the house elves serve them. Things of the sort.”

“You sure have a lot of pureblood stereotypes.” Draco paused. “Take away the grapes and insert wine. That would be more apt.”

“Oh.” Potter looked taken aback. “How come you cook, then?”

“Wonders never cease, Potter.”

Potter shook his head with a smile and disappeared into his bedroom to fetch cheap wine. Draco stared at the empty space before shaking his head, lifted the lid. The fresh smell of tomatoes poured, thick and sour.

The stew tasted better than everything he’d eaten in the past week combined. Potter teased him for cooking stew wholly out of spite. Draco solemnly denied. The wine was corked and spilled a little before it was poured into the mugs, and Draco had to refrain from cringing at drinking wine straight from mugs—albeit a cheap one—but eventually the world blurred and lost focus, like an old camera.

Dinner was finished and the rest of the bottle was enjoyed in front of the fireplace. They sat on the floor, Draco’s back against the couch and Potter against the armchair, their feet touching. Draco couldn’t help the chuckle bubbling at Potter’s ridiculous socks. He felt hot on the inside, his cheeks flushed from the wine and the burning fire.

“What,” Potter kept asking, amused. “What?”

“Did you knit your socks yourself?”

“My socks?” Potter wiggled his toes, a slow movement. “So what if I did?”

“Ah.” Draco nodded grandly. “That explains everything.”

“Does it, now?”

“Yes. You, Harry Potter,” Draco pointed his mug to Potter, words slurring, lowered his voice, “are a grandma.”

Potter snorted. “Am I, now?”

“Yeeeeees.” Draco downed the rest of his wine, poured some more. “Very good at crochet. Grandma. Ha! Oh wait, wait wait wait wait. No. Grandmas are good at cooking. You, are not. Therefore no grandma. Ta!”

Potter smiled, exasperated. Draco swirled his mug. The wine glinted off the firelight like amber.

“How come you don’t know how to cook, huh?” Draco looked at Potter. It was hard to do so. His eyelids were heavy and wanted to drop of their own accord. “Ten…ten years. You don’t know how to cook? A grandma? Impossible. How?”

Potter took a heartfelt swig. “Wonders never cease, Malfoy.”

“Uh-uh.” Draco shook his fingers, leaned forward. “Come on, Potter. How come?”

“Maybe I just don’t like cooking.”

“Non…nonsense. Who doesn’t like cooking? Is it because…ah, ah. Is it because you kill your own sheep? So you can’t bear to cook them?”

“Believe what you want, Malfoy.”

“Hurts, doesn’t it? Ha. Cooking your own sheep. Know their names as you chop them. Chop, chop, chop—”

“Malfoy.” Potter’s face turned ghastly. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

Draco flinched. All emotions reverberated with the blurriness of the world, echoed and amplified until fear swallowed him up, as if a monster he could not name was chasing him. Potter looked guilty, nudged his feet.

“Hey. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Draco whispered. “It hurts when cooking. I know it does.”

“Yeah.” Potter shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the armchair. Let out a rough laugh, quieted again. “It does.”

***

It hadn’t hurt for a long time when he cooked.

But it did. At the beginning.

He’d only started cooking because Astoria cooked. Baked, more like. Macaroons, Battenberg cake, chocolate truffles, crème brûlée…she served all the desserts they’d have with their tea, arranged them carefully on tiny porcelain plates accompanied with tiny forks. Because of this, she only allowed the use of the fine china tea set gifted by Narcissa on Saturdays, and started working in the kitchen as soon as the clock struck two in the afternoon. She’d cover herself in flour with her hair tied loosely into a bun, her wand tucked behind her ear. Draco made it his mission to steal one from her and had never once succeeded, always batted away and once hexed as soon as he laid a finger on a madeleine.

He’d started cooking just to prove a point—people can’t live off desserts, Astoria—but it flowed effortlessly into his life like a stream coalescing into a river. It was like potions, in a way, the cutting and dicing and stirring and timing; calmed him, allowed him to breathe. A leftover of something he couldn’t have properly. He soon cooked all their dinners every night. Astoria smiled at him as if she knew something he didn’t, teased him about his apron as he placed the plates.

It wasn’t the desserts which made him ache. It was the ghost of her darting about the kitchen, bending to check the oven and stirring the batter, absentmindedly smearing a streak of flour over her cheek. It was her batting away his hands with warning eyes as she placed a finger into her mouth, tasting. He saw her everywhere: in the baking equipment displayed inside a gleaming shop window, in the cheap desserts served at the café where he worked, in every bakery and every shop selling sweets. He once broke down by the frozen aisle in a Muggle supermarket next to the tiramisus. He couldn’t cook. Couldn’t step into the kitchen and hold the pots, the heavy pans. The apron lay in the second drawer down with a thin layer of dust. He couldn’t not see her. Couldn’t not see her hazel hair warm in the afternoon sunlight, the loose strands curly by her ear. Couldn’t not see her smiling, teasing, her eyes focused as she decorated the tiny tarts with whipped cream.

The ghost of the memory of her was all he could see.

He learned to let go, eventually. Someone had to cook the dinners. Stepped into the kitchen again, cleaned the pots and the heavy pans. Bought a new apron. Then before he knew, it didn’t hurt anymore. The twisting knife, the sharp pain of it; the tearing of the middle of his chest, faded. All that was left was a dull ache, rising and dipping like a gentle wave. A deep well he couldn’t get to, intangible. On the good days he didn’t even feel it. On the bad days he gritted his teeth until he dumped the whole pot into the sink and called takeout.

Time caressed his face. Hang on, it said. Hang on.

***

He woke to a splitting headache and a disgusting taste in his mouth. He groaned, pushing himself up. A cold vial was pushed into his arms before he even opened his eyes.

“Hangover potion,” said Potter’s voice.

Draco gulped the thing in one go. The familiar bitter taste left him grimacing as he opened his eyes. Potter was crouching in front of the couch, looking almost sympathetic.

“Want to sleep it off?” he asked.

Draco swung his legs off the couch. It made him dizzy, and he had to close his eyes. “No, thank you very much.”

“I think you should sleep it off.”

“And I do not care what you think.” Draco shook his head, trying to clear it. And, with no other choice, “Water, please.”

He still went to the barn with Potter. The cold winter air cleared his head, as did the lifting of his heavy legs. Today Potter would, like every other day, collect the sheep that had recovered well enough and send them back to the fells. Draco was ready to head to the back and chat with Cho when Potter eyed him, and then tasked him with bringing Cho to the front of the barn. So we can load them onto the tractor, yeah? It’s an easy task. She’s good to go, I’m sure you’ll manage—

And this was how, fifteen minutes later, Draco was stuck with tufts of hay in his hands and a stubborn Cho refusing to move.

“Come on, young lady.” Draco waved tiredly about the hay in his hands. “Come—on.”

The back of the barn was faintly illuminated with the winter lights streaming in from the open doors. Lettuce, the Border Collie, had already ushered the rest of the sheep to the front, and Potter was loading them onto the back of the tractor. They were tiny figures from here, a vague hubbub of noise. Of sheep baaing, dog barking, a man commanding, voice strong.

Draco looked back at Cho. She chewed on the hay she’d stolen from him, unfussed.

“Any progress?” Potter called from afar, walking close. Draco groaned.

“If I could just levitate her—”

“Merlin, no. That’s cheating.”

“That’s taking advantage of the knowledge I have.”

“Which is cheating.”

Potter walked behind Cho and a few seconds later, Cho was moving. Potter grinned as he followed behind, shifting between left and right to keep her on the correct track.

Draco dropped his mouth. “This is outrageous. I can’t believe you played favoritism, young lady. Impossible. Impossible, you hear me?”

Potter laughed. Draco followed and climbed onto the tractor as Potter nudged her on, and was still incredulous about it all when Potter started the engine.

Potter was smug. “The sheep know their people, Malfoy.”

“Outrageous. Unbelievable.”

“You’re unbelievable. Levitating! Imagine if you were a sheep and suddenly you’re floating in the air!”

Draco huffed. “It would have been exhilarating.”

“It would have caused mortal panic.”

I would have enjoyed it immensely.”

“Oh yeah? Like that time you turned into a bouncing ferret?”

Draco’s mouth fell open. “How dare you!”

The sky was, for once, clear today, the blue soft like a chiffon. They arrived, and the sheep scattered off at their own pace once released. Cho flicked her tail before wandering off.

Draco trudged after Potter as he counted the sheep, still muttering. Potter finished and found a flat surface of rock, wiped the snow off. Sat down. Draco stood with his arms crossed.

“Aw, come on.” Potter patted the space beside him. “Surely you wouldn’t mind my recounting a fond memory?”

“A fond memory!” Draco spluttered. “I’ll have you know, Potter, never in my life had I been—”

For all his furore, however, for all his grand display of stuttered words and flushed cheeks, Draco sat down. Potter grinned. Draco pointed a dangerous finger at him, narrowed his eyes.

“Some day, Potter. Some day I will obliviate you and murder you and dump you in this godforsaken place.”

“Ah. If you do, face my body to the west. I rather enjoy the view there in summer.”

Draco huffed and looked away. In front of them, the land opened and stretched out. The hills rolled and disappeared underneath the edge of the fell then reappeared further, like waves towards sea. A thin valley carved through—the bare, rocky path of a stream—disappeared once again. Sparse trees and skirts of forests dotted the silent world afar, as did thorn dykes, the occasional tiny silhouette of a gliding raven, the couple sheep that had wandered down.

The white faded as it approached the end of the land, and blended with the nebulous edge of the North Sea, smudged with faint blue. Open, to a wider world beyond.

“Ginny loves this spot,” Potter suddenly said.

Draco slowly turned his head. “Excuse me. Did you actually just compare me to your ex girlfriend?”

Potter smiled and shook his head, continued. “It’s high enough up here to feel like flying. There are higher grounds, you know, but I guess you can’t really get that high into the sky on brooms. So it doesn’t really feel like it. Flying, I mean.”

Around them the hills parted ways—around them, but not for them. Draco suddenly felt tiny. This land, every rise and dip of it, was the result of centuries and centuries of icebergs forming and melting, forging and retreating. Of earth pushing up and wind eroding, rocks crumbling; of oceans lapping relentlessly at the bay, day after day and never once stopping. All around them was the great flow of time, something bigger than them, something they had not seen the beginning of and would not see the end of either. Something they are part of but not in the center of, merely passersby—who don’t matter, really, in this grand, endless river rushing forward.

How they had cared about the tiny things, Draco thought. How they had clung to them like a matter of life and death. It all seemed so light now, so insignificant.

“I haven’t flown a broom in years,” Draco said quietly.

“Why?”

“Ah, it just…seemed like a kids’ sport, I guess.” Draco laughed softly. “I mean, when have you ever really seen an adult ride a broom? In leisure?”

It seemed ridiculous, too, to have cared about it. He missed flying.

“Do you miss them?” Draco asked. Potter tilted his head. “Your friends, I mean. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you apart in Hogwarts.”

“Of course. Of course I miss them.” Potter smiled tightly, then swallowed. “I do. So we owl, you know, and they visit during the holidays. They can’t always come. They have their jobs, their families...but when they do, it’s—it’s fun.” Potter let out a laugh. “Really noisy. They’re bloody loud all the time.”

“Why don’t you go back?”

“Go back where?”

“London. Why do you stay here if you miss them that much?” Draco couldn’t understand. “Why don’t you go back?”

“I don’t—” Potter inhaled. Silenced. Then, a long while later, his gaze fixed somewhere afar, “Did you know that I died?”

Draco’s mouth fell open. No voice came out.

“I died,” Potter said quickly, swallowing, “in that forest. And then for some reason I came back again. At first everything was alright. But—but then everything changed. It was so…bloody loud, all the time. The press, the people, the funerals…the Muggle traffic. I couldn’t stand the Floo so I shut it down. Ron and Hermione had to walk to my flat to see me.” He laughed lightly, as if to himself. “I hated my job. Four…no, three weeks into the training session I quitted Auror because I couldn’t stand the hexes. All the wands shooting spells, all the people around me…I froze. I was—a liability. I couldn’t make it through a week without taking sleeping potions because every time I didn’t, I…I dreamed. Of where I went after I died. King’s Cross.” He glanced at Draco, then, a smile playing at his lips. “It was all white. Nothing else. Just…white.”

Draco didn’t know what to say. Potter, looking away, unconsciously touched the center of his chest. As if touching a scar.

“So I left London. For years, just the thought of going back was nauseating, and then…and then this is it.” Potter spread out his hands a little. “I’ve never been back.”

A small smile played at the corner of Potter’s mouth, but it didn’t look like a smile at all. Draco couldn’t find anything to say. Who was he to say anything to a man who had died once and come back?

“Ah. This is weird.” Potter laughed, trying to lighten the air. “I’ve never told anyone else about it before. Seems fitting for this to be what finally made you speechless, eh?”

“But Potter.” Draco tilted his head, trying hard to seek the right words. “It’s…it’s been ten years. Don’t you want to go back and just…see? For yourself? London has changed. You have changed, and—no, no. Listen to me. Look around you. There’s no one, nothing. How can you just let it...slip away? When you get to come back after all you’ve sacrificed? You are barely thirty. You have friends who care about you. There are so many places you can go, so many people you can meet…and instead you just sit here and watch sheep?”

“Hey,” Potter warned. “Watch it—”

Listen. You have...so much that people envy. And I’m not talking about the fame. You have people who love you and people to love. You have the chances, the potential, hell, the gallons—to travel, to change to any job you’d like. You have so much you can do, so much to do, experiences people would die to have—and instead you waste it away.” A sharp pang of jealousy shot through his chest. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are? Do you have any idea how precious all that you have is?”

“Lucky?” Potter let out a hollow laugh. “You don’t understand anything. Do you have any idea how I don’t care about the gallons, at all, because none of it can buy me a night’s sleep?”

“You are even more self absorbed than I give you credit for if you believe only you have—”

“Do you have any idea how it is to see the face of every single person who died because of you whenever someone casts a spell? I don’t care about traveling, or meeting new people, or all the potential and experiences. I just want peace. I just want to be able to sleep at night without screaming into the white of a void. Is that too much to ask?”

Draco pushed himself up, shaking with rage. “That is what we all are asking for. But guess what, Potter. Life moves on. You can’t hide here forever. You are a coward and I can’t believe I ever thought otherwise.”

Potter laughed, sharp. “Says the guy who can’t even get over his ex after six months.”

The world stopped. The air stung from the words, and before Draco could feel it tears slid down his cheeks. It seemed to stun Potter out of his haywire rage as his eyes suddenly widened. “No, wait. Malfoy, I didn’t mean—”

Draco stormed off. His boots were too heavy to run through the snow so he trudged, dragged himself as he wiped at his cheeks. He didn’t even feel the tears, his mind numbed with fury. The cold wind bit his cheeks, bit frozen the wet traces of tears.

Potter didn’t follow.

***

He didn’t cry after Astoria left, as he didn’t the first night after their breakup. The second night he did. The third night he climbed off bed and walked laps around the park two corners away from his flat. Around and around and around until the streetlights dimmed and then extinguished, until from the gaps between the still empty shops lit the faint hours of dawn. The warm air nestled tenderly through his linen shirt. He watched the sprouting tiny leaves of trees and blooming bluebells and was numb, as if looking through a glass in a museum. The knowledge of happiness somewhere distant in his mind.

It was what he did, too, two nights after Astoria left the train station. Except now it was autumn and the night air was cooler, seeping through his thin shirt. He shivered. Yet still he could not go back, could not go back to the flat where memories suffocated him, the soft bed slowly killing him with warmth. So he walked laps. Walked laps until his legs were numb and toes unfeeling, until he could barely see straight from the shivering of his body. The sprinkled stars of London blinked at him as he tried to shove the keys into the door lock with trembling fingers. The keys dropped. He bent, teeth clattering, picked them up and tried again. His fingers were frozen. Every contact with the ridges of the keys stung like needles. Keys, he thought. Keys.

In hindsight, he had seen the breakup coming. It was just there, like a pebble on the side of a road, nearing as he kept walking forward. You are not happy, Astoria had told him one day. Draco had brushed it off. He should have known better.

What difference does it make? he’d asked, desperate.

All the difference in the world, Astoria had said. She sat at the dining table like she always did, and yet the familiar flat was a strange place. Everything seemed to have rearranged themselves: the books on his shelves, the napkins on the table, the tins of tea in the cabinet. Her arm on the table—strange.

He started to slip. A calculation handed in last minute at work. A ten-minute running-late in the morning. Mixing two clients’ data together. A report detailed with information for the wrong potion. His department manager warned him twice and suspended him once, sending him home for the day. He wasted himself in sherries until he vomited into the toilet. Goddamnit! he’d cried, gritting his teeth through the bitter taste of bile. Stay strong, goddamnit!

Panic was a distant thing, rising through thick fog as he watched himself destroy everything he’d worked for for the past decade. He wanted to scream but couldn’t. Wanted to hang on but couldn’t. So he walked laps at night until he couldn’t feel anything through his frozen cheeks, couldn’t even speak without slurring. Arrived at the office last minute next morning with coffee and heavy bags under his eyes. He’d survive. He just needed to make it through today. It was going to be okay. He watched his feet take one step after another in the cold night, wondering, wondering. This seemed to be the only thing still going on in his life. His feet, lifting and falling forward. Again, and again, and again.

This was what he was doing now, in the distant fells of Scotland. Walking and walking and walking. Dusk fell, and only then did he realize that he was lost. All around him were hills he couldn’t recognize. Panicking, he turned wildly, and yet nothing made sense. He passed boot tracks which, at first glance, seemed to be Potter’s but then seemed to be his very own. He was circling the same path. So he took another wild turn in what he thought was the opposite direction, yet no matter how long he seemed to have walked there was nothing but snow-covered hills. The night dropped colder and colder, his legs number and number until at last, he saw sheep. So relieved he could almost cry, he stumbled forward and recognized her as Cho. He fell onto his knees, buried his face into her wool. Cho didn’t seem to mind him and flicked her tail.

“God,” he sighed, trembling. His legs were trembling. His fingers were trembling. “So nice to see you. So nice to see you.”

Cho turned her head back to nudge at him. He let out a laugh. Cho was warm beneath her coarse coat, so warm Draco thought he could fall asleep right there. Right there in the cold night, his knees in the snow.

He didn’t know for how long he knelt. His thoughts were murky with sleep when footsteps approached—hasty, distant yet undeniable. Boots crunching through snow. Accompanied was Potter cursing, his wand high in the air with a Lumos.

“You’re insane,” was gritted through teeth before suddenly, he was hauled up. Draco’s legs gave before he could react—falling sideways before clinging onto Potter, breathing harshly. Potter arranged his arms, supported Draco’s body weight with a lift.

Cho, frightened by their hassle, quickly tumbled away to the rest of the flock.

“Can you walk?” Potter asked. Draco tried standing on his own—couldn’t. His legs were exhausted as well as numb, and now felt as though a thousand tiny ants were eating them alive. He held onto Potter’s arm, yelped in pain when Potter tried to move him. At last Potter lifted him onto his back with an annoyed huff and started his way.

The world was quiet save for Potter panting, his breaths quick puffs of cloud dissipating into the cold night. Draco, abashed, tried to make himself as light as possible until Potter gritted a stop moving. It was minutes later that Draco realized, like a striking lightning, that Potter was not carrying him to the tractor but straight back to the cottage.

“No tractor?” he asked, hesitant and embarrassed.

“No…tractor,” Potter said through heavy breaths. “Didn’t think you’d…get this far, you…bastard.”

The sky was clear above them, thousands of stars embedded in the soft darkness. They seemed to be moving backwards with each step Potter took, but were back at their coordinates with a blink. Draco’s arms loosely circled Potter’s neck, his legs dangling at his waist. Potter was warm, too, his neck burning, a bare strip between the collar of his coat and his thick hair.

Back at the cottage, Potter unloaded him onto the couch—didn’t sit down, went straight to the kitchen instead. His heavy coat shed, Potter looked thin, bare. His back to Draco as he busied himself in the kitchen, clad in a thick, steel blue sweater, Draco suddenly felt guilty.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Backtracked the last moment and quickly fell quiet. Potter paused, the tiniest of movement, then resumed.

“I shouldn’t have said that.” Potter reentered the living room with two steaming mugs in hand. Hot chocolate. Draco took one and gripped tightly, the heat seeping through his frozen fingers almost too much to take. “When I said you were…a coward. I wasn’t thinking, I—I didn’t mean it.”

“You did,” Draco pointed out, quiet. “People don’t say things they don’t mean without thinking. It works the other way around.”

“Okay, fine.” Potter sighed. His feet were bare on the armchair, and now he dropped them to the thin rug. “Maybe I did. But that doesn’t make you a coward, not…not breaking up. Not unable to let go, not grieving. It doesn’t…” he sounded distant, “it doesn’t make you any less of a person.”

Still distant, Potter flicked his wand at the hearth. A small fire started, timid, logs crackling. Potter poked at the logs with a rusted iron. The wooden blocks tumbled, cracked, sent sparks flying. The fire grew until it warmed the air, warmed the room. Draco took a sip of hot chocolate. The rich sweetness lingered between his teeth.

“Did it hurt, too?” Draco asked, quiet. Afraid, suddenly feeling like a child. “When you broke up with Ginevra?”

“Yes. No. I mean…” Potter laughed, helpless. Draco laughed, too. The air was relieved of its weight, light again. “I mean, Ginny and I, it just became so…different. We didn’t see each other for a whole year, and when I came back, everything changed. We tried but we both knew it wasn’t going to work. But still, I was…yeah,” Potter said softly, as if to a memory, “Yeah. It hurt.”

Draco swallowed. The firelight bathed Potter in warm, golden light and softened his hard edges. There was a scar on his left cheek, Draco noticed. A faint one, a thin line that cut to the corner of his jaw and disappeared into his beard.

“But you’ll move on,” Potter said. He was looking at him again. “Trust me. It might not feel possible right now, and healing might not…healing isn’t what you picture it is. You know about it. It’s not a happy forever and thinking back occasionally with a—a wistful expression. It’s living with it, and…and someday, loving someone again.”

Draco swallowed, looked down to his toes. Wiggled them. They were slowly regaining sensation, slowly warming up. “I’ll move on?”

“Yes.”

It was impossible; it seemed impossible. To imagine falling in love ever again. To imagine falling in love with someone else ever again. Was it going to be like this forever, he thought. His lungs filled with dread. To think he was going to grieve for the rest of his life. To think he was going to live in melancholy, to always flinch when he heard her name, to always go back to an empty flat at night.

To always be alone.

“Can we change the topic?” Draco asked quietly.

“Okay.”

Draco fetched the ugly quilt, the one he’d been using every night, and covered his lap with it. “Why are there no marshmallows in the hot chocolate?”

Potter was taken aback. “What?”

“Marshmallows, Potter.”

“I don’t have any marshmallows.”

“Who drinks hot chocolate without marshmallows?”

“Err, me? And you just did, too.”

“Only under dire circumstances. Marshmallows add to the taste, Potter.”

“Alright, alright.” Potter’s expression softened with a small smile. “I’ll buy marshmallows next time.”

***

Draco worried his bottom lip.

Sitting in the middle of the flock with his legs folded, he felt foolish. Around him sheep wandered, unconcerned. From time to time one came forward and nudged his arm as though asking for sheep cake. Draco pushed them away with a faint, fond smile.

The charcoal in his hand had covered his fingertips in soot, had left a tiny line where it pressed against the parchment on his lap.

The thing was, he drew. Oil paint, charcoal, watercolor, pastel; he could work with a single quill. He used to paint in the gardens of the Manor: the peonies, the primroses, the willows and the oaks. Bathed himself in their Latin names as he carefully captured the patterns of leaves with thin quills, as he stood back and brushed thick colors for their petals on canvases. The day he turned fourteen he slipped to Diagon Alley and bought, with the gallons he’d half bribed from his mother, a pair of paint brushes he’d wanted since the start of term: made with sable hair, the thin wooden handle varnished. The shop owner, a middle-aged man who had tiny eyes and a round belly—always covered underneath a painting apron splashed in dried pastel—recognized him and gifted him a box of paint. Not as Lucius Malfoy’s son, but as the boy who paints beautiful things. Keep it up, son. It was the first time he was ever distinguished in such a way, not by his family name but as an individual—and it had felt odd. It was the only time, he corrected himself when he thought back years later.

The shop owner died in the Battle of Hogwarts.

Sometimes, questions fleeted the back of his mind. Did he know I was on the wrong side? On the enemies’ side? He had to. Draco was Lucius’s son, after all.

Did he still think I was a boy who painted beautiful things?

Draco looked down at the parchment. His fingers yearned to move of their own accord. He hadn’t drawn in years, and yet it thrummed at his fingertips as if it was never really gone, matching the beat of his heart.

He didn’t know how much time had passed when Potter dropped down next to him. Time was measured in rough strokes, in thin, drafted lines, in the rustle of charcoal against parchment—and then it was thrown into disarray. Draco hastily crumpled the paper to the side. Potter’s eyes flickered, but he said nothing.

“What are you doing?” he still asked.

“Nothing.”

“Ah.” Potter raised a brow. Then, out of nowhere, “Christmas is coming.”

“It’s still November.”

“It’s around the corner, then.”

“No it really isn’t.”

“Killjoy,” Potter said. He was smiling, looking somewhere afar. Draco absentmindedly wiped his sooty hands into the snow, then thought of something.

“Will your friends be visiting?” His mind was reeling now. To think he was going to see the bunch of Gryffindors again. Weasely would probably punch him in the face. He wouldn’t be able to face Longbottom, or Finnigan, or…dear Circe, Lovegood. He would have to stay out of it all, but where could he go? There was no room save for the barn and Potter’s bedroom. Maybe if—

“No.” Potter’s voice cut through it all, stopping him dead in his tracks. “No, they won’t be coming.”

“Wha—but why not?”

“The weather,” Potter said, lifting his brows. He looked at him funnily, as though explaining to a child. “The international travel ban, remember?”

Draco’s mouth dropped open. “But—but it’s Christmas.”

“Yes, it’s Christmas.” Potter teased. Saw Draco’s face, then shook his head with a smile. “It’s fine, really. Not the first time anyway. At least you’re here for entertainment, eh?”

Entertainment? What do you think I am, a—”

“There’s a market we can go.”

“—hippogriff in a circus? Should I jump through rings of fire for your pleasure? Or—”

“Malfoy.”

“—try to balance myself upside down on a flying broom? Huh? How else—”

“Draco.”

Potter looked exasperated. Draco continued his melodrama just to keep Potter’s small smile at his lips. It was awfully sad, Potter all by himself on Christmas. Potter seemed to understand this and did little else to stop him. Draco thought he could go on forever, right then and there: sitting beside Potter, waving his arms about in the snow.

The letters arrived next morning. The owl dropped them between plates of toast and sunny-side up, almost tipping over a glass of orange juice. Draco was just jotting down the seventh item on the shopping list when he was interrupted; the list was to be brought to the village by Potter and the items were to be purchased by Potter. Draco would no longer tolerate country boules and bitter coffee for breakfast.

“Yours,” Potter said without looking up, fastening his boots.

One was from his work. The other was from Astoria.

Draco swallowed the mouthful of toast.

Potter caught up on the silence and stood up, pulling into his coat. “You want to stay back and read it?”

A no was on the tip of Draco’s tongue. He swallowed it. “I’ll catch you in the barn.”

Potter nodded.

It was funny, wasn’t it, that he thought himself a self-preserving man and yet when the opportunity presented itself, he wrote to his ex. Draco unfolded the letter. Astoria was well and sent her condolences to him being stuck in Scotland, but—as her jesting hinted—wished him to enjoy it. She always wanted to visit Scotland, she said. Ashmolean Museum was wonderful, just as it always was, and there was to be a new exhibition in two weeks… A photo in the envelope showed a windy day in Oxford, fallen leaves whirling over streets. The museum stood, in silence, at a distance down the road, softened by the grey sky and the camera lens.

Wish you well, Astoria had signed.

Draco touched his finger to the letters.

Later Potter found him, again, this time by a protruded rock on the edge of the fell side. A piece of parchment in the cradle of his rigid fingers—blank.

He felt Potter’s gaze before he heard his boots crunching in the snow. Draco chose not to say anything. He heard Potter shooing the sheep away, could imagine Potter nudging them away with his knee. Then, tentative, Potter sat down next to him.

Molly the sheep came close still, determined to stand her ground in front of them. She had a pristine white mark that covered half of her black face like a masquerade mask. Potter reached out, scratched her head.

“I don’t remember her,” Draco whispered. His sooty fingers clutched tighter on the parchment. “I don’t…remember her face.”

He couldn’t unsee the letter. He tried to draw her—sitting here, in the middle of an endless sea of white, he tried to draw her. Found her face a blur in his memories, only a faint tinge of what it had been: a curve of a smile, the color of her hair. He couldn’t remember the tilt of her brows, the mesh of her lashes. Couldn’t remember the bridge of her nose, the cant of her jaw. Couldn’t remember the shape of her eyes, only that they were brown and melted into an array of a sunset—the glinting of golden light, a fraction of a memory. He panicked and tried again, yet no matter how many times he erased the previous sketch she didn’t look right. Not Astoria. Not Astoria.

The blank parchment was smudged in soot, crumpled.

She was slipping away.

“Did you know I didn’t come to Scotland right away when I left London?” Potter asked.

Draco was reeled back. In his frightened silence, he had forgotten Potter’s presence. Now he couldn’t speak.

“I didn’t know where to go,” Potter continued, “so I went north and stopped at Lowestoft. A B&B. Worked there for a couple months, and then kept moving north. Grimsby, Bridlington, Whitby…”

Potter recounted his journey on his fingers, one by one. His hand was bigger than Draco’s, rougher. The back of it covered in hair. The hints of healed cuts slit messily through the firm of his palm.

“I was trying to find something, I guess. And avoid the press. I thought I was bound to live a certain way, you see, and I hated it. Couldn’t stand it anymore, so I left, and…and really, without the frame I thought that caged me, I was lost. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do. There are so many options, so many…possibilities. I had nowhere to start. Who am I if I’m not who the world thought I was—who my friends thought I was? What could I do except to work at a B&B?”

Silence, the question echoing between them.

“So I was lost,” Potter said, “and I looked for the answer.”

“And you found it here?” Draco asked. Swallowed. “In Scotland with your sheep?”

“No.” Potter smiled faintly. “No, I didn’t find it. I just arrived here and never left. But maybe there is no answer. Maybe I can be whoever I want to be; maybe I am all of the possibilities. There isn’t a fixed definition. I can be the Golden Boy, and I can be a shepherd. I don’t have to be just one. The thing is, there are things that have defined us for such a long time, things that, somehow, shaped how we look at ourselves. So when we lose them, we’re lost. But we don’t have to be.” Potter swallowed. “This is you, too. You’re not lost; you’re still here, just different.”

Draco stared forward. Dusk was settling, veiling everything in mauve shadows. The sky spilled in an array of rose, of sorbet, fading into lilac and dainty blue. He’d seen sunsets countless times before, but never from this angle. It looked different, somehow, as if the tilted skyline behind the rolling hills stretched thinner, as if the clouds were closer and farther away all at once. Crooked branches of oaks clawed against the sky down the hills, dark like coal; farther away lit the village of tiny houses like scattered fireflies. The tip of pines fogged the edge of the sky, a mesh of thin matches.

“She said I wasn’t happy,” Draco spoke, quiet. “Sometimes, it still sounds like an excuse to me.”

Potter regarded him for a long time.

“But were you?”

“I don’t know.”

I am content, he’d said to Astoria, desperate. What difference does it make?

All the difference in the world.

From across the fell, Cho approached them. She bumped into Molly, stumbled forward, and nudged at Draco’s hand. No sheep cake, Draco thought, and offered his palm for her to lick. Her ears were dipped in the colors of the sunset, like petals.

“She likes you,” Potter said.

“Of course she does.” Draco turned his hand over. “I’m a charming man.”

Potter laughed and squeezed his arm. Draco sighed.

***

By early December, Potter started bringing bales and bales of hay with him for the sheep in the fells. Every time he cut it loose filled the air with the smell of summer and meadow grasses, and Draco with intensity. Draco watched Potter do his counts and checkups for infections and diseases, greeted nearby sheep with a scratch on the ear. He recognized most of them now, not by marks but naturally, like remembering a friend.

Then he sauntered off and found a corner and drew, or wandered to the edges of forests, to the backside of fells. He knew his way around the snowy hills now, and could find his way back to the cottage himself.

Then he cooked dinner.

Tonight was pumpkin soup. Potter had brought back one of the last pumpkins of the season. Draco tried to make do with the herbs but still grimaced, though there was nothing he could do: if he wanted to pick his own herbs he’d have to wait at least for the snow to melt. Potter didn’t seem to mind. Not that he could tell the difference. He sent spoonful after spoonful into his mouth, looking happy.

“Okay,” Draco finally said. “Spit it out.”

“What, the soup?” Potter widened his eyes and swallowed. “I’m not spitting it out.”

“Not the soup, you oaf. Why did you ask for my favorite color today?”

“Just for the record, I asked what colors you liked, not what your favorite—”

“Stop playing with semantics!”

“Alright, alright.” Potter ate another spoonful, unbothered. “Such impatience.”

Only after dinner did Potter emerge from his bedroom with a parcel in hand. He stuffed it into Draco’s hands with a shallow smile. “Go on.”

Draco eyed him warily as he peeled off the paper.

Sweaters pooled into his hands. Not just one sweater—but three, each a different color, each thick and woolen and soft. Ink green and cream, which were what Draco had answered; the last one wine red, a joke to making him wear Gryffindor colors. Draco pulled up the sweaters. They were warm where they rubbed at his fingers.

Draco looked up, his chest inexplicably full.

“Something more for your wardrobe,” Potter grinned, abashed. Proud and awkward in his shrug, trying to brush it off. “You know, so you don’t have to always wear mine. They’re new so they don’t stink of sheep.”

Draco had indeed been wearing Potter’s clothes. But he had stopped remembering. Had stopped putting his mind to it, had grown used to the gentle and loose hug of jumpers, the patches of fuzz balls where the wool was rubbed rough. Had grown used to the faint smell of sheep. He himself smelt of sheep when he showered, the steam amplifying it tenfold.

“Potter,” Draco swallowed, “I…I don’t have my gallons with me, I can’t—”

But it wasn’t about the money. Potter waved a hand, brushing him off. “It’s for you. A gift. You know, when someone willingly gives you something and doesn’t want anything in return?”

Draco blushed without reason and blamed it on the warm living room. In the hearth, the fire crackled. Draco drank cider from his mug—he’d come to think of it as his mug now—and finished the last bits of his drawing, the strokes of charcoal rough under the golden light. He chose a sheep each day to hustle and annoy by trailing closely behind for hours like a fly, and drew their portraits. Today it was Hannah. She had flicked her ears, displeased, but stayed rather still.

“Hannah?” Potter guessed, looking over curiously .

“Yes.” Draco blew at the tiny motes of charcoal, lifted the parchment for Potter to see. “Look like her much?”

Potter sank back into the armchair. “Quite, yeah.”

Firelight bathed him in gold, traced the curled tips of his hair, glinted off the thin frame of his glasses, which had slid down his nose. Potter cradled his mug close, and with the reflected golden light it was difficult to tell if he’d closed his eyes or was simply gazing at the fire. Draco wondered if this was how an evening had looked like, too, before he stumbled in months ago. If Potter had also sat by the fire, had also relaxed in the armchair with his mug on his lap. If he’d also looked so simply content he was falling asleep.

“She’s pregnant, you know,” Potter said, syllables coalescing with the crackling of fire like an afterthought. “Hannah, I mean.”

Draco paused. “Abbot?”

“No. The sheep.”

Draco’s mouth dropped. Apparently most of the sheep were pregnant, of course. Lambing would most likely start somewhere through March and no, they wouldn’t need to take them into the barns, most of the sheep lambed well on their own. They’d just need to keep an eye on them, especially in early April when the rain would start; the first ones to lamb, too, since they’d have time for them before it got busy… Minutes later Draco learned that Cho and Luna had twins, Hannah a single lamb, Molly was the only one with triplets, Ginny and Anthony…

Two days before Christmas found Potter standing excitedly at the door, buttoning up his coat. He’d come back later than usual, and Draco, having come back for some time and was stealing biscuits from the kitchen, came out to inspect. Potter had on a different coat: the black wool neat and firm, collar folded up at the back and flattening down the front into a deep V. Lining down the middle were buttons the color of fine ivory. Potter’s usual one, smudged and dirtied and wet with the now-melted snow, was hung up on the rail at its usual place.

Potter caught Draco and grinned.

“Going to the village?” Draco asked, skeptical. “Isn’t it a bit too late?”

“Well, no. It’s perfect timing to go to the Christmas market in the evening.”

It took Draco moments to recall, then widen his eyes. “Are we not going to finish dinner before we go?”

“Of course not. The food stands will all have emptied, then.”

“But…but the Brussels Sprouts, they will have spoiled by tomorrow,” Draco spluttered, “And the butter, I’d left it out for—”

It took Potter fifteen minutes to stuff his arms with sweaters, trousers, coats, and woolen socks as Draco continued to babble, lamenting his dissatisfaction over the absence of prior notice and demanding an answer to how else am I supposed to plan the dinners, huh? Which then turned into chastising Potter in his lack of ability to cook for himself, then turned into a complaint for Potter’s inadequate sense of fashion in clothes. Potter turned him towards the bathroom, exasperated, as Draco persisted with give me one single excuse as to why all your clothes are so bland, one single—

“Calm down, Merlin.” Potter pushed him in the direction to the bathroom, down the short corridor, with a hand on his back. “It’s just Brussels Sprouts.”

Potter’s clothes were, true to Draco’s complaints, all bland except for the socks, which were maroon and dotted with tiny snitches. Draco pulled his limbs into the sweater, leaned against the door of the tiny bathroom as he stepped into the trousers. Snorted as he pulled on the socks but pulled them on nonetheless. Snorted again when he ambled back into the living room and discovered, on Potter’s feet, the ridiculous cream socks with broomsticks.

“Matching, Potter?” he asked, wiggling his toes. Potter winked.

The night air was clear, icy. They Apparated to a deserted street two blocks from their destination. The shops were already closed, only golden chains of light shining along the edges of large display windows. Two blocks down, where faltering music and laughter echoed, gleamed a golden smudge like a jewel against the night sky.

“Well?” Potter asked, buzzed. His hair was swept wild by the Apparition, half of his coat collar lifted. His glasses reflected the empty street as he strode forward—Draco reeled him back. Folded down Potter’s collar, tidied his scarf, and patted his hair with more force than necessary. Trying, to no avail, to flatten the wild strands.

“Why must I be responsible for everything,” he sighed exaggeratedly. “You have a baby’s capability to take care of yourself, Potter. I’m not—what? What are you looking at?”

Draco touched his cheek self-consciously. Potter just continued to smile at him with faint amusement, shook his head. “Let’s go, shall we?”

The market bustled with people and Christmas carols. Men bargained in turkey shops, kids marveled at floating magical trinkets. Cinnamon buns gleamed underneath warm lights, candied almonds gleamed in glass tins, and in people’s hands steamed hot pies, sausages and hot chocolate. Shops packed tight alongside one another, selling a house of Christmas decorations, handmade dolls, wooden crafts… Potter bought a stuffed pie and chewed, asking Draco whether he wanted one with a mouthful.

“No,” Draco insisted, then gave in. “Later. I just ate a biscuit.”

Potter’s eyes widened. “You stole my biscuits?”

“I cook you dinner,” Draco argued. Potter’s eyes had already drifted to the mulled wine.

Hours later, they each had a stomach full of sausages and pies and hot chocolate, and a handful of bags filled with jars of marmalade, tins of tea, packages of biscuits (“Stop saying I stole your biscuits, Potter”). Potter wandered into shops and came out with wrapped parcels—Christmas gifts he would later send, after the transportation ban lifted. Draco wandered into shops of his own and smoothed a finger over varnished photo frames, over musical boxes, over pots of herbs in a particularly warm shop. The shop owner was an old man in a beret and thin-framed spectacles, with a long beard. Oddly, he reminded Draco of the painting shop owner years ago and filled him with sadness as he looked over the tiny leaves of each herb. He’d had a few mugs of mulled wine by then, and the world had turned into a frizzy blur of emotions. A pot of rosemary curled around his touching finger. Draco chuckled and muttered a hullo.

“A potioneer or a gardener?” The old man asked.

Draco whipped his head around. The world temporarily lost its balance.

“Potioneer,” Draco replied, only to be knocked over by a sudden grief.

The old man nodded. “Only ever see ‘em do it with one of the two.”

His emotions stumbling over one another, Draco was gripped by an ache to brew again. Right then, right there. To immerse himself in the aroma of shaved barks and dried leaves, to feel the thrumming flow at his fingertips as he adjusted his hold on the knife handle to chop, to mix, to stir. To coax the potions to shimmer and gleam in the color he wanted them to. To create from broken pieces of nothing, knowing, by heart, that they still held value.

Minutes later he emerged from the shop into the cold night, a pot of rosemary cradled close to his chest. It likes you, the old man said, and gifted it to him. Draco was drunk enough to accept and, through his tipsiness, remembered to ask about the warming charms. Now the rosemary curled around his wrist with thin and tentative stems, a pot of warmth.

Potter regarded him amusedly.

“How much did you pay for this one?”

“Free of charge,” Draco mumbled.

Potter whistled. “I should bring you to the groceries with me next time.”

“Shut up,” Draco mumbled again, his cheeks still flushed.

Potter caught a glimpse of something. His eyes distanced as a faint blush seeped over his cheeks, and trailed away, murmuring about, as he disappeared into a shop at the corner. Draco watched curiously at the little thing in his hand, clinging onto him despite its warming charms. Stroked the leaves, muttering, as he lifted his head—

And saw Astoria.

Hazel hair, dark navy coat. Bent slightly forward, talking to a shop owner.

His blood pulsed in his ears. Heart pounding painfully against his chest.

The world whirled to a singular focus, the rest a blur. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t move, a million things reeling and blending into one another. Legs like steel. Opened his mouth. Lost his voice.

His breath was a puff of white in front of him.

Astoria moved. Turned, her silhouette halfway to—

“Hey.” Potter suddenly appeared. “You okay?”

Draco’s eyes shot to him. To his eyes, unbelievably green behind his glasses.

A singular focus.

“Draco.” Potter placed his hands onto Draco’s scarf, wrists at his collar, concerned. Tugged, a tether. “Breathe.”

Draco gasped. Cold air filled his lungs to the brim. The world snapped back into focus, moving again, its noise slowly seeping through, the hubbub flowing around them. Draco breathed heavily, barely registering Potter’s shoulders slumping in relief as he stumbled, looked over—

The woman had turned, was grinning as she called for someone in the crowd.

She wasn’t Astoria.

Draco let out a long breath. Suddenly, hysterically, wanted to laugh at the stupidity of it all. Potter watched him, worried.

“You okay?”

“No,” Draco said. The strange smile tugging at his lips a moment ago slipped away, and all that came out was a choked sound. Draco closed his eyes, tired. “I want to go back.”

Potter herded him through the market with a gentle hand at his back, a light touch. Draco let himself be guided, let Potter dart anxious glances to him from time to time, distant from it all. The crowd thinned into a trickle as they stepped, once again, into the deserted streets. The air was quiet, suffused of the lingering warmth of a drunken night.

Potter Apparated them back to the cottage. Draco let him unbutton his coat, let him push it off his arms. The image of a mistaken Astoria replayed in his head in loops like a broken film projector. Draco let Potter push him gently onto the couch, blank.

Potter started the fire in the hearth, and was beginning to sort through the things they bought when Draco said, voice hoarse, “I want to drink.”

Potter paused, looked up. There were faint creases of worry between his brows. “You shouldn’t.”

“I want to.”

Potter didn’t move. So Draco pushed himself up, swaying, and stumbled to the kitchen. Rummaged through the cupboards, knocked over a bottle of vinegar and sent potatoes and onions rolling until he found a bottle. He raised it into the air in hollow triumph, then dropped his arm. Made his ungainly journey back to the couch as he uncorked it, and gulped down straight from the mouth of the bottle as he climbed back onto the mattress. The liquor burnt down his throat and set his neck on fire. Dribbled down his chin as he tipped it, again, slumping against the back of the couch.

Potter watched it all in silence, then went back to his sorting.

Draco watched him through his heavy, cottony head. Watched him journey back and forth between the living room and his own bedroom, disappearing and reappearing from the shadowed corridor into the warm firelight of the living room. His footsteps, clad in socks, were soft in their padding. The closing of kitchen cabinet doors careful so they didn’t slam but shut with a dull thud instead. Potter cradled the pot of rosemary, worrying his bottom lip, until he gently placed it on the windowsill. Stepped back, then forward again—turned the pot a little. The thin, branched out leaves of the rosemary uncurled in the warmth of the fire, muddy green lapped in golden light.

And then, when all was finished—when every tin of tea was arranged side by side in the cupboard, every package of biscuit piled in the cabinet, everything, everything—when all was finished, Potter crouched in front of him, careful.

Draco stared into his eyes.

Potter gently pried the bottle from his rigid fingers. Placed it on the table.

“Why am I so useless?” Draco asked him, slow and slurred. His breath stank of alcohol.

“Hey.”

“Fucking…” Draco’s throat thickened. “Why can’t I move on?”

The couch dipped, and then Potter was beside him, pulling him close. Draco, again, let him—like he had for the whole night. Tucked his head to the dip of Potter’s shoulder, curled himself into a ball—pulled his knees to his chest. Closed his eyes, inhaled a shaky breath. Potter’s thumb traced nonsensical patterns into the turn of his shoulder.

“I want to…move on,” Draco mumbled, slipping away. “’m so tired.”

It felt nice to be held like this, warm and close. Enveloped. The fire crackled in the silence, startling him from drifting into sleep every now and then. Potter chuckled. Draco felt it reverberate through his chest and closed his eyes again.

He woke to a splitting headache. Groaned, the sound cutting through his sandpaper of a throat.

“Ah.” Potter’s voice came from above. “The beauty awakens.”

Draco, head muzzy, tried to find a comeback. Instead a warm hand threaded through his hair and lifted his head, palm fitting to the shape of it. Draco panicked.

“Relax, gee.” Potter sounded amused. “I’m not going to dislodge it.”

The cold lips of a vial pressed gently against his chapped own. Draco parted them. Cool liquid slid through in a steady flow and he swallowed, choking on the last bits, coughing. The hangover potion worked through his rigid muscles in a warm tingle and dulled his headache into a distant hum. Mouth a mixture of the sweet aftertaste of the potion and the foul aftertaste of alcoholic sleep, Draco pushed himself up.

He didn’t recognize the room. The walls, clean and stained with age, pressed in like they did in the living room. At the corner below the large window sat a wooden table dotted with photographs and quills. Above, thin booklets and thick books with loose spines slumped against one another on the mounted, half-empty bookshelf. Cold morning light slanted through the windows from behind the heavy curtains, illuminating a patch of triangle across the wall, over Potter’s sweater—the one he wore last night, draped over a half-pushed chair.

On the bed, crumpled slightly around him, was a duvet as ugly as the quilt in the living room.

“This,” Draco croaked, pinching the embroidered golden vines and leaves against brick red, “is awful.”

Potter laughed. The corner of his eyes crinkled with his smile. “The first thing you say when you finally can talk again is to criticize my bed?”

“No, really.” Draco coughed a little more. Potter leaned over him to fetch the glass of water on the nightstand. “Your quilt is horrible, too. Where did you even get it?”

Potter’s shoulder, clad in a thick jumper, brushed Draco’s nose. Fractions of memories of last night flashed through Draco’s mind, and he briefly closed his eyes. Accepted the water, sipped. Coughed some more.

“Luna made the quilt,” Potter said, with the hint of a smile.

“Lovegood?”

Potter hummed a confirmation. Draco recalled the peculiar patterns, the vines that stretched and curled, the moons and the suns. The patch of wildflowers at the corner, blooming with every color. It made sense, now, that it came from Lovegood’s hands.

Then Potter suggested that he stay and rest, to which Draco replied that he was perfectly fine to head out. Potter insisted with if you’d already slept until noon—! Draco retorted that it obviously meant he’d gotten enough rest already, he wasn’t in need of more, he knew how to take care of himself, thank you very much—Potter got up in the middle of their quarrel, muttering about stubbornness, muttering about the one thing that hadn’t changed since eleven, muttering about Draco acting like a child, it was for his own good for Merlin’s sake, couldn’t even stay back for five minutes—

Draco slipped out nonetheless, swinging his bare feet to the floor and wincing at the chilly floor as he padded to the living room. He collected his charcoal and parchment, greeted the pot of rosemary. It seemed to have settled well—sitting happily on the windowsill, stretching in the sunlight. Draco let it curl its tips around his finger as he murmured to it, like he used to with the plants in the gardens of the Manor, nonsensical.

The air was light and charged with chilliness. The sky, tenderly blue, saw only faint blankets of clouds over the top of faraway hills. He found Cho huddled with two other sheep by scattered pines and sat down, starting again on his half-finished portrait of her. Now that he knew she was pregnant, he felt the need to include her belly in it to show that she was, in all seriousness, a proper mother.

“Are you not, young lady?” he asked, picking up strays of loose hay from the snow-covered ground to lull Cho near. Cho tugged the dried grass away from his hands and chewed, amber eyes eyeing his coat.

A flock of swallows started from their hiding places in the forest, gliding above his head. With each stroke on the parchment the world faded around him until at last, it was just this: his mind, a resounding well. It quieted, the leftover hum of emotions lapping against the wall, echoing and amplifying, throwing wavy lights all over the place. Warmth laced with grief and overlapped with his memories, scattered pieces: of Potter’s woolen sweater rough against his cheek, of the cold lips of a bottle knocked against his teeth. Of the hazel of mistaken-Astoria’s hair. Of the moment the sharp pain stung through his chest and he thought his heart stopped beating but it didn’t—pounding, instead, brimming with life. The strokes became a thing of its own, his sooty fingers guiding the charcoal of their own accord, tracing lines, thickening—

Potter sent a Patronus. The silver stag galloped from across the fell with wisps of glittering light. Slowed, taking small steps until it reached Draco. I knew you’d slip out, Potter said, voice blooming across the hills. Stubborn git. Come back anytime, yeah? The cottage is warmer. The stag dissipated into thin air, lingering only with Potter’s trace of magic, like wood smoke. Like the spiced tang of cider.

Draco stared into the empty air, fingers loose on the charcoal.

Then came another Patronus. The same silver stag, only this time in no hurry: strolled, at its own pace, towards Draco. Its antlers like thin, strong branches of trees, its legs long. Head turned from time to time, but never distracted; the direction at which it came for never diverted. It stopped in front of Draco, bowed its head.

Draco touched it.

A wave of warmth rushed down his spine, soft and bubbly like Butterbeer. Tingled, and all around him was the scent of wood smoke, of cider. Draco let out a shuddery breath—a sigh. His shoulders, tense without his notice, relaxed. The warmth seeped into his bones, pushed loose the knots tight at his chest until it filled, gently, to the brim with the golden hue of distant happiness.

The stag looked at him with its almond-like eyes. Allowed him to brush his fingers along its silvery contour, to smooth down its back. A while later it flicked its tail and folded its legs, settling in front of Draco. Draco touched his hand to its neck, to its head. Immersed himself in the warmth of magic, of memory.

Then the stag, too, disappeared at last.

Wind swept over the empty space, chilly. Draco stared, like in the aftermath of a dream. Cho baaed at him and nudged his hand. Stepped forth and smothered his face with her belly.

Draco buried his face into her coarse fleece and cried. Quiet sobs wrenching their way from his lungs as he gasped, as he felt the wetness on his cheeks. Warmth emitted from Cho’s body. He clutched his hands in fistfuls of wool as he sobbed, shoulders shaking. Something bled out of him: sadness, grief, something akin to life. For the first time after the war he felt completely broken.

Cho flicked her tail, quiet.

In the distance Lettuce barked, the sound fading over the valley.

***

Draco spent the night getting as drunk and as happy as he possibly could. Dinner was buttered Brussels sprouts which, in fact, had not spoiled. Potter was triumphant when he pointed it out. Draco rolled his eyes.

“They will have by tomorrow.”

“That’s not what you said yesterday.”

“Wrong. That was exactly what I said yesterday, I said—”

“—not how logic works, at all—

He’d washed his face in the bathroom. Potter noticed his red-rimmed eyes but said nothing. Now all that was left on his face was a clean grief, which was quickly forgotten after two mugs of wine. The living room was warm. Potter dug out an old wireless and turned it on, looping the same twelve Christmas carols over and over, old-fashioned and high-pitched. A small sapling of a pine tree was decorated and placed in the corner next to the hearth, flashing its golden lights to an imaginary rhythm. Draco, just for the sake of it, charmed the large and glittery baubles tiny and draped them over the rosemary. The tiny plant bent slightly underneath the weight but seemed rather happy about the ordeal.

Potter laughed. Draco smiled, humming, tracing the chipped edge of his mug. It hadn’t been there when he first arrived. He couldn’t recall when he’d dropped it, or bumped it, or clashed it against the corner of the sink, the table, the window—he wept, then was overwhelmed by affection over the tiny chip and was laughing again, the corner of his eyes still wet. He laughed at the coats dumped onto the rail, at the soot smeared over the left corner of the rug, at Potter’s socks. They were dotted with tiny long-eared owls with large, round eyes. Ridiculous. Potter laughed again, loud and clear. It was the clearest sound Draco heard all evening. At some point he picked Potter’s hands up and inspected them closely. With dumb fingers, he traced the rigid cuts that dug along the lines of Potter’s palm—a result of never hesitating before dipping his hands into freezing water in winter.

Draco wept for Potter’s hands. Potter watched him with an amused smile, eyes crinkled at the corners and cheeks flushed.

He must’ve fallen asleep at some point. He didn’t remember it, but he must have, for the next time he climbed blearily back to consciousness it was to the soft grey lights of a quiet morning. The hearth was silent; the fire had burnt out. Cracked pieces of logs were covered in ash, the heart of it still red, like a burning rod.

Draco, muzzy and half-asleep still, looked over. Potter was sleeping on the other side, his back against the foot of the armchair, head lolling on the mattress. His mouth had fallen open, slanted. The soft, vague marks of sleep imprinted on his cheeks.

When he finally woke up, daylight had already brightened the cottage. The air was cold. Draco pushed himself up, stretched his rigid legs and sore back, groaning. Cracked his neck. A small fraction of the sky, framed by the windows, was blank. The sign of a blizzard.

He pushed off the quilt he didn’t remember pulling over and noticed, on the table, a vial. On it stuck a tab scribbled with illegible letters, For Beauty (when he wakes up).

Draco snorted and downed the potion, let it work its way through his aching muscles and dizzy head. Around him, the world was quiet. Still. The furniture looked as though it was covered in a thin layer of frost. The world had stopped its moving, had paused in the track it slowly, continuously spun along. Time had forgotten this corner, had left it behind.

Draco sat and stared into midair, the quilt tangled between his legs.

The half-day was spent in refining the last details of his latest portrait of Cho. Potter came back hours later and seemed surprised that Draco had woken himself up, as if he’d expected him to sleep well into the night. Before dinner he disappeared into his bedroom again and reappeared with, like he once had, a package. It looked like a box, and was wrapped neatly in cotton paper the color of jade and knotted with twine. In the center sat a grand, graceful bow-tie, its two wings like a butterfly.

Draco refused to believe it was for him.

“It’s for you,” Potter said, and slid it over the still empty table. They were waiting for the roast to finish. “Christmas gift.”

“Christmas gift,” Draco said flatly, but was unable to hide the blush creeping along his neck. The guilt. “I cannot take it. I did not…I didn’t get you—”

Potter rolled his eyes and pushed it all the way to Draco. Draco swallowed. Looked at it as though it might explode. Pushed it away.

“I can’t take it.”

“Draco,” Potter said patiently, leaning forward, “if you can cook us dinner every day, then I can get you a present.”

I cook you dinner every day. But he’d been jesting, then. Potter was jesting now, too, in all seriousness. Draco swallowed and pulled the wrapped package close. Loosened the knot, unwrapped the paper.

Inside sat a wooden box. Draco unclasped the leather straps, opened it: two tiny shelves lifted up with the lid, revealing tube after tube of oil paint. Draco’s heart pounded. He touched a finger to them, slid it over; Sennelier Paint. One of the very best brands. The tubes of paint, filled to their fullest and packed closely to one another, glinted silver under the lights, exuberant.

Draco clasped it close. “No.”

Potter widened his eyes, incredulous. “You love it!”

“How many gallons did you pay for these?”

“Merlin, Draco. It’s not about the gallons.” Potter leaned back, dropped his hands to the table. All the while staring at Draco. “It’s never about the gallons.”

This was foreign to him. The warm tingle in his chest—foreign. This wasn’t about favors, wasn’t about bribes. Potter didn’t want anything from him. He had thought of Draco for Christmas, had put his mind to it and probably thought it over and over—had noticed Draco drawing, even though Draco still never explicitly allowed him to watch. Had paid attention to what he liked, had taken a guess, and had acted on it. Had paid heavy gallons for it and hid it in his room until tonight. Had even thought of an excuse, knowing Draco wouldn’t just accept it.

And he didn’t want anything from Draco. Just for him to accept his gift.

“Thank you,” Draco said quietly. They had been staring at each other for too long, the air strained tight. He touched a finger to the leather straps. “Yes. I love it.”

Potter let out a laugh, looked away. His cheeks looked warm. “Good,” he mumbled, “good.”

The roast was slightly burnt. After dinner they repeated what they’d done the previous night, the Christmas spirit jolly in the air with mulled wine, falling asleep an hour earlier. The blizzard loomed at the corner and finally decided to hit two days later. It raged overnight, rattling the windows against their frames and startling Draco from his shallow sleep on the couch. Draco, bleary-eyed, caught only fractions of it: of chilliness seeping in through the windows, of the fire swaying and dimming before burning ablaze once again.

He was again pulled out of sleep when Potter, in the soft lights of the hour before dawn, crashed into the coat rack as he was pulling on his boots. Draco pushed himself up, eyelids still heavy. Potter whispered an apology as he fastened his coat.

“It was worse than I thought it would be,” he said quickly, now wrapping his scarf, “I need to bring them to the shelter on the backside of the fell. Go back to sleep, eh?”

Draco wanted to help, wanted to tell Potter as much—but drifted back into sleep before he could, burrowed deep inside the warm cocoon of the quilt.

The sleep, however, was uneasy, filled with dreams half-baked with memories. Astoria stood at the balustrade in the violet dress, saying you don’t know what you want. Cho baaed at him, then morphed into Lettuce who charged, leapt, fangs bared—Draco stumbled back, fell into the snow, found himself at the edge of a forest. A fox burst from powdered snow. Draco followed it into the forest when suddenly Potter stood in front of him, so close he could see the tiny scratches on his glasses. His face dirty, his Muggle jacket loose, telling him to stay here, just go back to sleep, eh? He’d be back, he’d be back right away—the bright green of an Avada Kedavra blinded his eyes. Draco jolted, breaking out in sweat. His heart hammering in his chest.

He was back at his flat in London again. The late summer breeze, soft and warm, filtered through the opened French windows to the balcony, blew the gauzy curtains heavy-bellied. Astoria was in the lounging chair with her back to him. She wore a thin, floral shirt that revealed her shoulders. Her hazel hair swept to one side, cascading down her neck.

Draco, an inevitable pull at the center of his chest, followed. Bent, and pressed his mouth to the crook of her neck. Brushed his lips along her bare shoulder. The skin was warm, sweet like honey.

“Baking?” Draco murmured. Buried the words to the soft skin of her neck.

“Ah. You know me.”

“I know you,” Draco echoed. More in question than in statement. Astoria sensed the shift in his mood and reached a hand back, covering his on her shoulder.

The sun was setting. Draco remembered this, too. The sky spilled in yellow and orange, coloring the underside of clouds a tender pink. Down below, the hubbub of pedestrians was distant. The honking of cars, the gliding away of trains—distant. A couple buildings had already lit up, tiny windows bright in the falling dusk. The sun, large and glowing red like a lantern, caught on the jagged tips of the edge of the city at the skyline.

Astoria, when she turned and looked at him, was basked in the soft, red glow of dusk. The city, too, was basked in it. Her cheeks caught the rosy glint like a blush, her eyes the color of an array of a sunset.

“Always.”

Draco woke in cold sweat.

Breathing heavily, he stared at the ceiling. His surroundings came to him slowly, bit by bit: the winter light, casting the furniture in a cold hue. The short table beside the couch. The empty hearth, cinders piled haphazardly in ashes.

A cavernous ache ate him alive.

He pushed himself up. The sheen of sweat had plastered his clothes to his back, had left him cold. The pot of rosemary sat by the window, bathed in the winter glow. Draco pushed his hands into the heavy quilt. The curled vines that once came to life in the warm firelight were silent, nothing more than a pattern in the cold winter light.

***

You’re quiet, Potter said over dinner one night.

Am I? Draco asked, absentminded. Helped himself to a second serving of scalloped potatoes.

He wasn’t quiet, he didn’t think so. He just…zoned out a little more often. Tuned out of conversations without noticing. He would be tracing over the lines of Molly-the-sheep’s face and pause, his charcoal stilling on the parchment as he stared, unseeing. His mind elsewhere. The charcoal leaving a tiny, thick mark, an indent in the parchment.

The memories came back to him in trickles, then widened into rivers. The thin stem of a wine glass dangling at Astoria’s fingers. Astoria in his grey sweater, leaning against the kitchen island. The day they first kissed—after finishing ice cream, her lips tasting like strawberries. She liked strawberries, but only the flavor and not the fruit itself.

The river flooded. Draco could only fall to his knees on the bank.

He wanted liquor. Potter wouldn’t give it to him and stuffed him with cider and hot chocolate instead, but still, every night after Potter had gone to bed, Draco rummaged through the kitchen. He couldn’t fall asleep sober. Could only stare at the empty ceiling, at the faded yellow stains spreading out like petals until dawn crept its way in. Just a little wine. Potter hid the bottles under concealment charms and, after the third night, brought them to his room for good measure.

That night, Draco saw her again. Baking in his kitchen, cheek smeared with a white streak of flour. Bending down to check the oven, the apron folding in itself at her waist.

A part of him, locked deep where sunlight couldn’t penetrate, screamed desperately at being back in the same place all over again. Drowning in sorrow, in memories he couldn’t touch if he reached out. At having spent so long, so long, trying—trying to move on, only to turn his head and find himself in the same place still.

Draco drowned himself in the supple of her arms, in the darling nook of her neck.

The fire crackled. Potter had been talking. Something about the sheep, about Lettuce chasing Hannah too far over the hills until she panicked, until Potter commanded Lettuce back. Draco listened, distant. A mug of hot chocolate cradled loosely in his hands, tiny marshmallows floating on top. Potter looked at the hearth then back at Draco—his eyes catching the golden light of the fire. Holding the mug in his hands. Draco traced Potter’s nails at the back of his head. Blunt, the center tinting with the soft pink of a seashell.

Tiny marshmallows, too, floated on top of Potter’s hot chocolate.

He was shaken awake in the middle of sleep. Potter was crouching by the couch, his hat and coat already on. He whispered something.

“Whu’…” Draco yawned, tried to check the time. “Whu’ time is it?”

“Thirty to twelve.”

“What ‘re you…”

“Come on. Dress up.”

Draco reluctantly complied. Potter waited for him at the door, his face hidden in a crisscross of shadows.

They didn’t even need Lumos. The snow reflected the moonlight and glowed sliver; above them, stars lit the night sky like broken diamonds. A million pieces of them, until the dark sky was nothing more than a foil alongside. The night was quiet, tranquil. Their boots crunched in the snow, leaving a long trail of footprints behind.

An owl hooted, glided, then disappeared into the woods.

The silence was a thing of its own, a hush not to be broken. So Draco watched Potter as they walked. Watched his back swaying with each step he took, watched his hands stuffed in his pockets. Moonlight glinted off the back of his coat, softened it. Occasionally Potter looked over his shoulder, as if making sure whether Draco had followed.

Draco lost track of time. It felt like an endless journey, him and Potter: one in front and the other behind, walking. Two silhouettes under the silver moon. At last they arrived at the edge of a forest, but Potter didn’t stop, didn’t make a turn—simply continued. They trudged through the mesh of scattered pine trees, batting away and pushing through needling branches—then, as if in a single breath, the ground cleared. Surrounding them still was the forest they had just passed, but in the middle the sky opened up to a plate full of blinking stars. Baubles of light, tiny and warm—a candle lit in the middle of glass orbs—floated in the air, casting a faint yellow glow over the pine branches whenever they drifted close.

“It’s…ah, we’re five minutes late. Oh well.” Potter cast a Tempus, then sheathed his wand back. Smiled at Draco. “Happy New Year.”

Draco stared blankly at him. He hadn’t even noticed it was New Year’s Eve.

Potter tugged at him to sit on the ground and pulled out two thermos of hot tea. They smelt of chamomile and figs, like the early breaths of spring.

“You did this?” Draco asked, slow. His mind still trying to catch up. “All by yourself?”

Potter looked at him, amused. “I suppose so, yeah.”

“I didn’t help,” Draco said softly, as if to himself. “I didn’t—”

“Hey.” Potter squeezed his arm. “It’s alright. I just thought…I just thought you might need—want—a distraction. You don’t seem very…” he paused, searching for the correct word, “yourself, these days.”

Draco was at a loss for words. Potter turned back and, a while later, lay down on the ground with a soft grunt, head pillowed on his folded arms. Looked at the stars. From this angle Draco could see the faint scar that cut from his cheek to his jaw, the white line nearly invisible under the night sky. He couldn’t see, but could imagine nonetheless, the lightning bolt that cracked down Potter’s forehead on the other side of his face. It must be faint, too, after all these years. Now, under the stars. A history; a past. Nothing more and nothing less.

Draco couldn’t help but feel the mark on his left forearm.

Around them, the baubles of light danced to a meandering waltz. Hovered above and away from Potter, softening the lines of his face in a golden glow.

“Happy New Year,” Draco said quietly. Potter turned his head, acknowledged it with a small smile. Turned back.

“I just…” Draco trailed off. “I just really miss her. And I don’t know if I will ever stop.” A part of him thought he never will. Thought he didn’t want to. A part of him thought he’d miss her even as she went on—even as she moved over him. He’d settle for that: watching her from afar, knowing he wouldn’t be able to come near again.

“Maybe,” Potter said, pushing himself up, “maybe you will always miss her. Maybe ten years later you still miss her. Maybe one day you think you don’t anymore but the next day it hits harder than ever. And that’s okay.” He was looking at Draco in the eyes. The green caught on the tiny candle lights, like a firefly in the middle of a field. “And maybe, one morning, years later—or months later, or weeks later, or even tomorrow—when you wake up, you don’t miss her anymore. And that’s okay, too.”

Draco let out a tight laugh. “It doesn’t make it any easier, though.”

“No,” Potter agreed softly. “It doesn’t.”

An owl hooted deep inside the forest. Above them the stars moved—just a fraction of an angle. Potter stuffed a thermos into his arms. Draco unscrewed the bottle; the tea was still hot and it burnt his tongue. He hastily retreated, caught the tail end of Potter’s scattered laugh. Tentatively, he tried again. The tea warmed him. Between his teeth lingered the faint taste of figs.

The stars blinked, lost.

“Tell me a joke,” Draco suddenly said.

Potter blinked. “I don’t know any jokes.”

“Make one up, then. This is depressing.”

“But I—”

“Potter.”

“Alright, alright.” Potter lay back onto his folded arms. “Err, let me see…ah. Okay, so. A centaur walks into a bar…”

***

When Draco was seven, his mother gave him a small patch of land in the far corner of the Manor. Do with it whatever you please, his mother had said. So Draco, determined, weeded it with his tiny hands, flipped through the yellowed illustrated handbook in the Manor’s library, and ordered, with as much authority he could muster, the house elves to bring in whatever greens he desired. It bloomed when he finished, beds of peonies, primroses, and lavenders swaying in the wind. Swaying in the falling dusk, stars twinkling at the horizon.

His mother lay next to him on the grass. Young, and somehow more beautiful than Draco had ever seen her to be: blond hair curled elegantly at her nape, the sleeves of her blouse translucent, ballooning at her wrist and folding neatly into the crook of her elbow. She pointed at the northern sky.

“There, see?”

The sky had darkened into a deep purple, clear. Here at the countryside where the Manor was located, they had the whole night sky to themselves.

“Above Hercules, the four stars…yes, that’s it. Then follow the tail…it winds up through Ursa Major and…yes, Ursa Minor…”

It all seemed so clear now, the separate stars shining together, linked.

“That is your constellation, darling. That is Draco.

***

This was how they found themselves one night: sitting in front of the blazing hearth, slumped on the floor and back against the couch. January was not all that different from the previous months. They were both tipsy enough to crash their shoulders into each other when they laughed, enough to sit so close their thighs touched. Enough for Draco to see the flush in Potter’s cheeks. They were also, in Draco’s opinion, disproportionately happy, considering they’d slipped off a steep rock earlier that day and had rolled off into the valley, yelping as they dragged each other down, screaming in laughter. His bum still hurt where it hit the hard rocks at the river bank.

Draco stretched his legs alongside Potter’s just to show his were longer. Their ankles touched. Potter was wearing the pair of socks with the tiny broomsticks again.

“Right, right. Show off.” Potter chuckled, brought the mug of wine to his lips. “You can’t be taller than me by more than one inch.”

“Still taller.” Draco tilted his mug to his temple in a mock salute. “And a better cook, too. What are your excuses for that?”

Potter looked at his own mug with a small smile. “I never liked cooking.”

“No?”

“No. They…they always made me cook. I always burn one thing or another, and that’s what I get to eat.” Potter let out a laugh. “Once it was when…when one of Uncle Vernon’s managers visited, I think. I burnt the peas. For a whole month all I had to eat was canned tomato soup. I wanted to vomit whenever I smelt tomatoes at school for the rest of the year.”

The following silence was dense. Potter sensed it, and smiled faintly at Draco—but Draco saw it now, the tension in it. The tension in his shoulders. Potter downed the rest of his wine, head tilted back, Adam’s apple bobbing. He seemed to want to slam the mug but didn’t know where to. Dropped his arm to the floor instead.

Draco squeezed his wrist.

“God,” Potter whispered. Closed his eyes. His shaky smile dropped. “Such a mess.”

His wrist was warm underneath Draco’s fingers, covered in hair that stretched from his arm to his knuckles. Draco could feel the turn of bones, and if he pressed his fingers—at an angle just slightly lower, just slightly to the right—he could feel the pulse underneath the thin skin, the thrum of heartbeat.

“Would you like to hear a joke?” Draco asked.

Potter let out a laugh. “Sure. Tell me all your jokes.”

So Draco did. It was a wondrous thing to watch Potter laugh, like watching a flower unfurl its petals—breath held—one by one. First the corners of his lips curl; then his eyes crinkle, his cheeks folding into themselves. His laughter bloomed from his chest: still wet, yet the clearest thing Draco heard all night. All day. His shoulders shook as he threw his head forward before slumping back. Draco, awed, threw one horrible joke after another just so he could watch it happen again and again. At some point the jokes turned into memories, into how they’d slipped from the steep rock and hit their buttocks, into that one time Draco crashed the vase in his Charms OWLs because Potter made a face. The last laugh still lingering at the corner of his mouth, Potter reached out and touched Draco’s jaw, amused.

“Stubble?” he teased. Grazed the rough pad of his thumb along Draco’s jaw, like a feather. “Are you trying to grow a beard? Copying my looks, are you?”

“Yes,” Draco joked. His cheeks were warm. He was happy. “I’m trying to become a transcendental shepherd.”

They were so close. The faint puff of Potter’s breath caught on Draco’s cheeks. Potter’s eyes dropped to his mouth, his own lips parting. Just the slightest. Soft pink. Chapped.

He could hear Potter swallow. In slow motion, yet amplified at the same time—echoing, with the pounding of his own heart. Steady, fast. Hard. Their body heat, too, echoed, radiating and catching and reverberating in the thin air between them. Draco was out of breath.

“I’m not really…” Words evaporated from Draco’s head as Potter leaned in, just a fraction. Faltered, then leaned in all the same, slowly—slowly. Draco caught him tilting his head before his own eyelids dropped close, still trying to make out the words, still trying to say as his voice trailed off, “I’m not really trying to…”

Potter kissed him.

Chaste, a tentative press of lips. Yet the seconds were hours, were days, were years—and when Potter pulled back, Draco couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t sense anything save for the wild warmth of his heart.

Potter whispered, every syllable a hot puff of air. “Should I not…”

He didn’t know who leaned back in, who closed the thin space between them. Only that Potter was kissing him again: soft, deeper. His finger trembling against Draco’s jaw. Potter lingered as he pulled back—leaned in again. Kissed him again. Like tumbling off a hill and unable to stop.

The fire crackled, blazing in the hearth.

***

Draco woke up on the floor. Woke up to the fragmented memories of crackling fire, of sweet wine, of Potter’s chapped lips against his own. A soft ache, muzzled by the bleariness of an early morning. Draco touched his plump lips. Wanted to trace them; didn’t want to erase what there had been. He didn’t remember falling asleep, didn’t remember pulling the quilt over him, yet there it was—the patch of embroidered wildflowers right at his shoulder, the vines tangled between his legs.

The day went about its usual course. Potter didn’t speak much, but didn’t dodge him, either—didn’t step away when Draco quickened his steps and fit himself into the space next to him when they walked. There was something distant about his eyes, about his words. Something horrible whenever he smiled. Draco pushed down the muddled mess in his head and pretended nothing happened, tried to breathe through his tight chest.

He didn’t know what he wanted. He wanted Potter to go back to how he was before, easy grins and teasing jokes. He wanted last night to just be a dream. He wanted Potter to tell him it was nothing, to tell him to forget it. He wanted Potter to kiss him again, hard, like he meant it. Potter finished checking about Neville’s hooves, stood up. Let out a long breath. The sky was murky today, glooming.

“I’m not trying to copy your looks,” Draco said. The words strung at an odd angle, forcibly pushed out of his mouth. The empty shell of a joke.

Potter’s smile, too, was empty. His shoulders tense. He looked away, and when he looked back, Draco dreaded everything he had to say.

“I’m sorry.”

The soft ache intensified into a blooming demand. Draco tried to make light of it, tried to laugh. “For inadequate techniques?”

“I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

“Because we’ve been arch rivals since we’re eleven?”

“Goddamnit, Draco, no. I shouldn’t have…” Potter rubbed a hand to his face, ran it through his wild hair. Dropped it. “I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

Draco’s mind was a tangled mess. There was want, grief, anger—at Potter, at Astoria, at himself—fear. A warm ache, all threaded tightly together. Couldn’t tell one from another.

“It would have been unfair to you,” Draco said, voice low.

“It’s not about me. It’s—”

“I know,” Draco said, even if he didn’t. He just wanted to end this conversation altogether. Didn’t want to listen to Potter go on about how he regretted it, no matter the reason.

“I’m sorry.”

“Stop saying you’re sorry.”

“Draco—”

“Stop.”

Neville had tumbled to the others, scurrying up powders of snow until it slowed, blending into the flock. Potter watched with his hands stuffed in his pocket. Somehow, standing right beside him, he felt a universe away.

***

Lambing season started. First hit another snowstorm: it covered the world in heavy blankets of white overnight, thinned to drifting flakes at dawn. The mesh of surrounding forests saw only thin traces of dark green, the messy hint of needling leaves under snow. In the quiet hour of early morning, a hush fell over the world. There were no swallows, no ravens, no fieldfares stroking the thin edge of sky, no hares hopping through the heavy layer of snow, pausing every few long moments. Only the drifting of tiny flakes against the grey morning, aimless and light.

It was the last snow of the year. Draco had hurried out of the cottage in a roughly pulled-over jumper, had slowed his breath in the silence. Had stilled alongside the world, as if he were a part of it—a needle on a branch, or a feather on the wings of a tiny fieldfare—as if he were in it and not merely a watcher. He stuck his tongue out in the air—hesitant and tentative, after checking back and forth that no one was watching—trying to catch a piece of flake on the tip of his tongue. He did, and tasted nothing. Tiny, folded flakes landed and melted on the warmth of his palm. His body was still warm from sleep, soft. He looked over his shoulder and caught Potter leaning against the doorframe. From this distance he couldn’t make out his face, and yet he blushed still. A while later Potter walked back into the cottage, the door shutting without sound.

In a way, it was as if nothing had happened. The kiss floated between them like a bubble, gleaming like a jewel under sunlight but otherwise unnoticeable.

The first lamb arrived on the hour before dawn, when the last of night still lingered and the first of dawn had already crept in, the soft lights mingling and catching on the thorn dykes. All Draco knew was that one day there was Hannah with a heavy belly, and the next Hannah with a mini-Hannah. Draco’s mouth fell open, his chest swelled. The tiny lamb trailed behind her and bleated. Short wool curled around its body, both of its ears black like earmuffs. The bottom of its four legs were also black, so it looked as though it wore thick socks.

“Fred,” Potter announced after he checked the lamb, scratching its ears. “Hello, buddy.”

The lamb bleated loudly and scrambled back to its mother.

Daylight bled into the hours as lambing trickled into a steady stream, until it had Potter hurrying into the barn before the first light of dawn, trekking through the morning drizzle in the dark. Draco woke up in the cottage later, alone, and finished breakfast without hurry before he, too, headed to the barn under a light umbrella charm. The drizzle would heavy into a downpour by midmorning as he sat inside the barn, dry and warm. Greeted the sheep and newborn lambs, held out his finger for them to sniff, laughed when they walked awkwardly about in the pen and scrambled to their mother for milk. The thick smell of dry hay and summer seeds in the air, the barn quiet save for lambs bleating and the distant sound of rain, it was as if this was a world of its own.

All peaceful until Potter barged through the doors.

The barn descended into chaos as Lettuce barked by Potter’s side, chasing the sheep in. The mothers usually weren’t the ones in need of help but the lambs, having fallen into the freezing river and struggled until it lost strength, or lost their body heat under the heavy rain—cold, lifeless. Draco helped with what he could: rub the lambs with a dry towel, lower the lamps and intensify the warming charms; tube, carefully, warm and creamy colostrum into the lambs’ stomach. Potter took over whenever he deemed necessary, taking Draco’s place with a grim face and without words. Then he’d leave for a second round of checkups, for the mothers in labor that needed help, for the lambs that have gotten lost…

In the midst of chaos, Draco would stuff the breakfast he’d packed for Potter into his arms with a thermos of hot tea. Potter never paid it any attention, accepting it with his mind reeling elsewhere about sheep. Luna had lambed without incident, two lambs running vigorously in the drizzle. Parvati had taken her time in the barn, breathing heavily and pacing—had taken a twist of Potter’s arms to adjust the lamb into the correct position before it slid out. Cho still hadn’t lambed. Molly had needed a trip from the vet, and after long, agonizing hours, only two of the triplets were saved. She lay in the corner of the pen, tired, licking her lambs dry.

After the day slipped into night, nothing really changed. Draco cooked dinner, and afterwards they moved to the living room. Potter sank into the armchair, cradling a mug of cider on his lap. Quiet, exhausted from the day.

“Sleep early?” Draco would ask, also quiet. Potter shook his head, mumbled, but eventually retreated to his bedroom and extinguished the lights.

So Draco folded his legs and continued with his portraits, charcoal in hand. The fire crackled in the hearth, cast golden lights over the now empty living room. He’d started with the lambs and wanted to capture each and every one of them. The mug of hot cider steamed on the table, the chipped corner smoothed in the warm hue.

In the midst of life and chaos, spring arrived.

“The whole United Kingdom,” Draco argued loudly, waving his arms about, “is a great wet drain. The whole sixty million acres of it. Not a single inch of it is dry. Not a single inch.”

Potter’s smile was faint but amused. It was difficult to see it on him, these days. Not in their conversations, not after a whole day of intensity, not after dinner in Potter’s sleepy exhaustion. Draco wanted to keep it there. Kept waving his hands dramatically, kept going on about his lecture, over-enunciating each word.

The short grass, sprouted in patches and still wet from the rain, dampened the rim of their trousers. On the ground still lay snow that hadn’t melted. Lettuce jumped by Potter’s side, jogging in small steps as they headed back to the cottage. The air tingled with a trace of chilliness, still clinging onto the last of winter.

“If I get another day of rain, I swear to Circe—”

“You know, I thought you’d be pretty used to rain,” Potter quipped. “Living in London and all.”

“Ah, yes. I am used to it. It doesn’t mean I tolerate it.”

“No? So you just fight it every time it rains?” Potter grinned. “That’s got to be…what, every two days?”

“Great achievements come from perseverance, Potter.”

“Ah, I get it. So every two days you shout out to the world from your balcony—”

“No—”

“—waving your arms about, like an old prophet, yelling—”

“That is totally not the picture—”

Fight me, rain!

Potter laughed. The corner of his eyes crinkled, his cheeks folding as he sent his fists flying in the air. Draco hadn’t seen this in what felt like a lifetime, and it left him breathless to see it again—strung his chest tight. He hadn’t realized he’d missed this. Missed Potter laughing easily around him, missed their banter and silly jokes. Missed his laughter, loud and clear, ringing across the hills. And he must’ve lost himself in Potter’s grin, must’ve gotten distracted by the knot in his chest, because Potter’s eyes suddenly widened. Before Draco could register it, a sharp pain shot through his hand.

Everything was distant. Draco shouted and gripped his hand in the other as Potter bellowed commands for Lettuce to stay down. Draco tried to examine the wound, hissing. Potter gently pried it from his grip.

“It’s not too bad,” he said, eyes anxious. “I have cream.”

So he was herded into Potter’s room, seated on Potter’s bed. Draco had a mind to say that he could wait in the living room, that it was just a bite, that it didn’t require such fuss—but didn’t, instead watched mindlessly as Potter rummaged through his room. Potter had taken off his coat, had tossed it onto the piling sack on the back of his chair. His sweater hugged his sturdy back. Draco looked at the frames of pictures on the table, at the thin booklets lying flat on their backs, Potter’s words a faint blur at the edge of his mind. It’s not too bad. She doesn’t usually bite, really. You were in her way, I think, and when I saw it I was too late, we were both…

The sentence was trailed off as Potter fished out the cream and bandages. He came back, distant, too, and crouched by the bed. One hand light on Draco’s knee, the other taking Draco’s wounded hand.

It shouldn’t have made Draco’s face warm, but it did. Draco looked away.

A warm tingle of Potter’s magic, of wood smoke and cider, then Potter’s fingers were on the back of his hand: cool with cream, rough with callouses. He gently spread the cream out. His head was right at Draco’s nose, so close he could see every strand of messy hair—could smell the faint smell of clean soap on him, of sheep, of the sweet grass after rain. Could feel the heat radiating off him, a steady hum. Warm. Lulling.

A sharp pain shot up his hand. Draco hissed, stifling his wince. Potter noticed nonetheless, paused, then took the curled hand further into his. Spread the fingers out.

“Is it worse than the peacocks?” he asked, voice low.

Draco snorted, then couldn’t control it anymore and laughed, proper and loud. Potter smiled, going back to his hand.

“No,” Draco said, helpless. The mirth still bubbling, still giddy. “No, it’s not worse than the peacocks.”

Potter hummed. Loosened a roll of bandages and wrapped it around his hand. Pulled it tight, then fixed it with another spell. He seemed to be pleased with it, patting lightly at the bandaged hand. Looked up. Caught Draco’s eyes.

Draco’s breath held.

They were so close.

“This should be enough,” Potter said, wrecked, looking away. Pushed himself up with a deep breath. “It’s not deep, so it should heal quick. Just tell me if anything doesn’t look right, if it’s still bleeding, or…”

Potter left the room. Draco, still transfixed in the moment of haze, still holding his breath—let it out. Buried his face into his hands, the bandage rough on his cheek. He pushed himself up and made to leave the room, made it to the door when he caught sight of the messily piled coats and sweaters, draped over one another on the back of the chair.

Draco didn’t hesitate, didn’t think. Walked over and folded them, his limbs of their own accord; noticed, distantly, the smudges and the dirt, the rough wool at his fingers. He placed the neat pile on Potter’s bed and uncertainly looked around. Again, he made to leave, when this time he caught sight of the photographs on the table.

They were all of people, some moving and some still—magical and muggle photos both. Weasley and Granger at their wedding, arm in arm, smiling and waving—breaking into a laugh last moment. Lovegood exclaiming at a snail on a sunflower. Longbottom grinning, a pot of succulent held high. A baby girl furiously waving a plush dragon with her tiny mouth hung open—Charlie Weasley barging in last moment with a large grin. Thomas and Finnigan standing, hand in hand, in front of a bright blue door of a two-storied house. Ginevra, holding a broom with her chin tilted up and a coy smile. A younger Weasley and Granger, splashing water at each other, yelping and dodging. Then younger still, the three of them—Potter in the middle—grinning at the camera. First year, it seemed. Weasley rubbed Potter’s hair messy, Granger scoffing at him.

Then there, at the far left corner of the table, were the Potters. James laughed his head off while baby Potter zoomed in and out of the picture on a tiny broom, frightening a ginger cat into screaming and scrambling. Lily tried to catch him but got an armful of cat instead, which bolted into her arms with so much force it knocked her down. She laughed, too, on the floor. Baby Potter’s eyes were huge, face split in an enormous grin. His hair already messy, twitching in every direction.

Down the middle of the photograph was a thin, jagged line, as if the photo had once been torn and mended.

“I found it in Sirius’s bedroom.”

Draco started, turned. Potter leaned against the door frame. Shook his head when he saw Draco ready to apologize, smile faint.

“Half of it, anyway. The other half was…” Potter trailed off. “I just thought it’d be nice. You know, to see them…like this. I never really had anything when I was a child, and it felt…”

A long pause, as if he was lost in his own memory.

“Right,” Potter said at last. Looked up to Draco with a small smile. “Sorry, now it’s gloomy. Err…how’s your mother?”

“She passed away,” Draco replied. “Last June.”

“Oh. Oh, I’m…I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. She was happy with it.” Draco shook his head, words soft. “It was…nice, she said. To leave on a summer day. She just fell asleep with the windows open. She never left the windows open when she slept before, not after—well, not after the war. You could see the garden from her room. It was June and the flowers were blossoming. They’re something, those flowers. Some bloomed overnight and withered the next morning. Just like that. You could smell them from her room. The windows faced the wind, and they wafted…”

Draco remembered her room, remembered how it was to look out from the windows and see the whole garden. She must’ve seen the roses before she fell asleep. The white roses, climbing onto the wooden fences on the east side of the garden. They had just started to bloom. Many were still buds, buttery petals only beginning to sprout.

“It was nice. For her to leave on a summer day. She was happy with it,” Draco echoed his own words, pulled a shaky smile. A tear fell without warning. He hastily wiped it away. “I’m sorry. Circe, why am I—I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Tears followed as he laughed wetly, as he tried to wipe them away. Potter touched him tentatively—Draco hadn’t even noticed him approaching—and pulled him into a loose embrace. Draco dropped his head on Potter’s shoulder and cried silently.

“I’m so sorry,” Draco kept saying, voice muffled and wet, “I’m so sorry. This is such a horrible thing to do. You didn’t even have a mother, and now I’m crying in front of you for—oh dear, that was even more horrible. I’m sorry.” He let out a wet laugh, cried some more. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Potter said softly. “You’ve said worse.”

Draco remembered every insult he’d thrown during his teenage years and cried even more. Potter swayed them slowly, slightly, from side to side. Draco felt it like a distant lullaby until he tired out. Potter led him to bed, sat himself on the edge as Draco climbed onto the duvets, curling into a ball against the headboard.

“’m sorry,” he mumbled. He didn’t even know what he was apologizing for anymore. For anything; for everything. Potter squeezed his wrist.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll go get you something to drink, eh?”

Draco mumbled, nodded. Potter’s footsteps were soft; paused, as the lights shifted behind Draco’s half-shut lids—the door closing, leaving only a thin gap—then resumed again, faded. Draco burrowed himself into the duvet. The mattress, warm and welcoming, gave in under his weight. Took him in. Draco clutched the duvet close and rubbed his head into the pillows. They smelt faintly of Potter, of the clean scent of soap. Draco shifted and sank further into the bed, letting out a deep breath.

Sleep washed over him in waves.

He woke up an hour before dawn, muzzy and confused. The bed was much more comfortable than what he was used to. Disoriented, to find himself not facing the quiet hearth but stained walls instead, with its bookshelf and thin booklets, the thick books barely held together at their spines. He closed his eyes again. The morning was quiet, needless for thoughts. Minutes later, it landed like a feather: ah. Potter’s room.

He stayed for a while longer—perhaps five minutes, or perhaps thirty, forty minutes—before slipping out of bed, and padded towards the living room. The morning air was cold, chilled overnight with early spring. He stopped at the end of the short corridor, under the joined arch that led to the living room.

Potter was sleeping on the couch.

Heart heavy in his chest, Draco slowly padded towards Potter. Potter had clutched the quilt to his chin, hiding the hint of a sleep mark on his left cheek. He looked strangely soft, strangely open without his glasses—his eyes closed, lashes long. Hair mussed up with sleep. His glasses lay on the short table, folded half-heartedly.

Draco was upset for the rest of the morning. Potter woke not much later to sausages, scrambled eggs, and fresh coffee, toast cut in halves and spread with orange marmalade. He blinked, still sleepy.

“Morning,” he mumbled. Then, in afterthought, “You’re up early.”

“Great observation,” Draco muttered, dumping the sausages into a plate. “Pray tell why you slept on the couch last night?”

Potter didn’t hear him. Went straight to the bathroom, yawning. Sleep marks tender on his left cheek.

He caught up on Draco’s mood only after they headed to the barn. He laughed, incredulous, as he secured the barn door to one side. Draco muttered darkly as he did the same on the other.

“You were asleep, what am I supposed to do? Get into bed with you?”

Draco’s face heated. “Wake me up, that’s what you’re supposed to do! It’s your room, for Merlin’s sake! What did you expect me to think, finding you on the couch and myself in the bed? I was not brought up like this, what—what place do you think it puts me in? What do you think—”

“In the bed,” Potter suggested helpfully. “That’s where it puts you in.”

“And you have the audacity to joke!” Draco bristled. “Not again! Never again! Circe forbid I ever fall asleep before you do again, I will make sure you get to bed—into the bed—before I do. Great, now I am the babysitter. I enjoy it immensely, no doubt—”

“Calm down, gee. You’re making the sheep anxious,” Potter said, nonplussed, as he cut open a bale of hay. The thick smell spilled, immersed both of them in a lost summer. Potter’s face softened. “Hey, it’s not a big deal, alright? You were tired, so I let you rest. It’s nothing, I’ve slept worse. I’ll wake you up next time if it bothers you that much.”

“No,” Draco said sulkily. “No you won’t.”

Potter shrugged. Draco turned away in pique and greeted the lambs instead. He recognized each and every one of them as he knew his own family tree. It came so naturally to him he didn’t even need to think, didn’t even need to pay any mind to the marks on their face—one glance, and he knew this was Hannah’s son, and that one was one of Luna’s twins. Knew which ones liked to gallop and crash into its siblings, which ones liked to stay by their mothers. He held out his fingers for them to sniff, scratched their ears, let them scramble back to their mothers for milk. He was still sulking, though, by the time he walked out of the barn. Potter was trying to get a lamb to swallow a pill, cursing.

“Check on Fred for me if you see him,” Potter called. “He looked a little tired yesterday.”

Draco waved half-heartedly. Outside, the sun had just begun to creep alongside the hills—climbing, a thin line of gold spilling into the still world. Mist veiled the grounds, the newly sprout grass and buds, the tumbling earth—thin like chiffon, dampening the air. The hills looked lilac under the early light, looked a soft shade of blue and green as they rolled away. Down the fells the forests were green again, the tip of pines bathed in mist, the thin, crooked branches of birches a vague silhouette.

Draco started to search, over the fells and near the forest, for what he was looking for. The unfurling leaves of herbs, the tiny, frizzy buds of comfrey dangling like bells. He gathered some, gingerly placed them into his coat pockets with a preserving charm; marked the locations of others with his wand, to come back later when the flowers bloom. He’d found a hill of blooming yarrows the other day, a sea of white swaying alongside the linger snow. Had laughed, unbelievably, like it had choked itself out of his chest. The land dormant underneath the frozen winter had now woken, letting out a long held breath, the plants coming into life in its wake. So many hidden secrets had passed right underneath his eyelids, underneath his very feet—and he didn’t even realize. He’d kicked off his boots that day and laughed, the earth pulsing with life under his bare feet, his toes digging into the rich soil, the dewy grass. A victory yell almost tore out of his chest, building at the bottom of his throat. He’d opened his mouth, feeling possibly mad with happiness.

He hadn’t done this in decades, the gathering ingredients from plants with his own hands: the leaves, the stems, the roots, the flowers. Had only realized that he’d missed it immensely after he started again a few days ago. The delicate unearthing of roots, careful not to hurt the skin of it; the picking of leaves, the ginger plucking of petals. To know that there is neither a best ingredient nor a best part of plants, only the most suitable for its purpose. Dirtying his fingertips, feeling the soil, body focused on the task at hand whereas his mind wandered somewhere else altogether. It brought him peace he hadn’t realized he’d yearned for years, like staying with the new-born lambs in the barn, like drawing with charcoal. Quieted his tangled mess of a mind. There was something about watching plants sprout and unfurl in spring, of watching the buds bloom into flowers and carefully, unapologetically, stretch its petals. His rosemary had blossomed happily by the window, in the soft light of spring. Decorated in purple flowers like a bridal dress. Potter caught him murmuring to it as it curled its tip around his outstretched finger—caught him blushing furiously down his neck, and smiled. Suggested he try and contact Longbottom. Who knows, you might make good friends.

There was something, too, about Potter’s smile. Of watching his cheeks fold, watching the lines at the corner of his eyes crinkle. His eyes were a depthless green, bright. Something that softened a spot in Draco’s chest, something he looked away to altogether.

Out of nowhere he thought of Astoria. Where was she now, he wondered. A soft ache paused his picking hand on a leaf. What was she doing now? What was she thinking, at this moment?

He shook the thought off, plucked the leaf with a gentle twist. Muttered a spell, and placed it carefully into his pocket. Around him the sheep dotted the hills, lambs galloping after their mothers. He wandered, followed the meandering trail of whatever herbs he found—through the skirts of forests and pass the highlands—until he ended up at the bottom of a valley, three or four sheep grazing the lands nearby. It took him a minute to recognize it as the valley he’d seen months ago, when he and Potter sat together on a flat rock, the faint smudge of North Sea in the distance.

The stream, bare with its rocky bed in winter, was now flowing with water again. The current spiraled around sharp rocks where they peaked out of the surface, shallow at the edges where it met land. The water was clear, the bottom cut into sections by wavy lines of sunlight. Grasses sprung from underneath rocks on the bank, early flowers blossoming without pattern. Tiny fish appeared and disappeared into shadows. Draco chuckled.

Then he caught a glimpse of blossoming calendulas—a bush of lovely, tiny, bright yellow, flowering crowns—at the bottom of a rock, sprouting with green, hearty leaves.

Draco’s lips parted. Then he registered that it was, in fact, on the other side of the stream.

Worrying his bottom lip, Draco set his destination. He tucked off his boots and socks, rolled his trousers up to his knees. Then, carefully trudging along the edge of the stream, he dipped one foot in. The chilliness made him jump—the water was freezing. Muttering a few warming charms that barely worked, Draco dipped his whole foot in, pressing it to the slippery bottom.

The current flowed more rapidly then he’d expected, crashing and parting at his shin. Draco bit his bottom lip, carefully took a small step forward, desperately trying to grapple at the slippery bottom with his feet. Took another step—lost his balance and swung wildly forward—reeled himself back, hands swaying in the air. His heart pounded in his chest. Small step by small step he managed to cross the rapid stream, his feet frozen numb, and then the bush of dear, dotted yellow was in front of him. Draco let out a breath, reaching out to grab at the rock, any place on the rock, when suddenly his feet slipped from underneath him—

The world swung sideways. Pain burst dully from his bum, his knee, a sharp stab at his hands where they scraped against the rocks. Draco gasped, scrambling out from the cold stream. His clothes were soaked from the inside out, plastering to his body. Shivering, he cast another incompetent warming charm—gave up. Carefully, still, he reached out to the flowers—picked them carefully from the bottom. Cast a preserving charm with his shaking wand before placing them inside his chest pocket.

Cho baaed at him, mouth still moving as she chewed on grass.

“What are you looking at,” he muttered, teeth clattering. Cho still hadn’t lambed yet, her belly heavy underneath the coarse wool. She looked altogether unimpressed, baaing again before she bowed her head and continued to graze.

“And you call yourself the babysitter,” Potter muttered, peeling the wet bandage off Draco’s hand. Potter changed the dressing and wrapped on a dry, clean bandage. “Look who the baby is.”

Draco, avoiding Potter’s gaze, stared at his hand. The wound had already mostly healed, the skin pink around the shallow indents. Potter had dropped his mouth open at a single glance at Draco, had been furious—chased him into the hot shower, shouting as he went. Now, sitting in front of the fire, baked warm and quiet, guilt was a tiny snake that curled in Draco’s chest.

The fire was too hot for this weather already. Potter had rolled up his sleeves, the stripes on his sweatshirt crammed into a smudge of maroon at his elbows. He stood up and, holding another salve in his hand, carefully smeared it over the cuts on Draco’s face.

He’d bruised himself all over, the pain now pulsing dully underneath his skin. Had slit his face and hands, too, where they scraped against the sharp edges of rocks on the river bed. Draco hissed when Potter brushed over a spot, winced. Potter paused. When he started again, his touch was gentle despite his brows a grim knot.

“I didn’t mean to fall,” Draco whispered. The pot of rosemary waved its thin stalks from the windowsill, showing off a braid of tiny purple flowers. The herbs he’d gathered today now lay between a stack of parchment, neatly and gently arranged. The yellow calendulas shone their lovely petals a bright egg-yolk.

Potter finished with his face, pulled back. He didn’t look at Draco. His face was half-hidden in shadows, unreadable.

“No one ever did,” he said, as if talking about something else entirely.

***

It was raining.

The slanting lines of droplets weren’t visible in the dark night, only the sound of them falling against the windows, against the roof. A steady hum, barely noticeable yet soothing. Draco sat by the window with his knees drawn to his chest. The droplets collected each other until it became too heavy and raced down the glass, leaving wet trails behind.

The rosemary curled its tip around his finger. He stroked it, absent-minded.

London always rained. He remembered how it was, looking from above by the French doors to his balcony, or being a part of it down in the streets. The asphalt darkened and glinted with the blurry reflections of the lights of cars, of trains, of illuminated shops. A stillness fell over the city. There were no hubbubs among pedestrians, no calling between vendors and customers; only umbrellas moving up and down the wet streets like bright flowers. The occasional honks were dampened, softened at the sharp edges. The dusty air washed clean, a fresh coolness that made you close your eyes and slow your breathing, made you want to savor. Made you want to stay in this exact moment just a while longer.

On the other side of the living room, Potter sat in the armchair and read letters, his glasses sitting low on his nose. The owl perched on the rack covered in coats. Occasionally it shook its feathers, a little stretch of wings and a rustle—folded them back with a tilt of its head. It had flown through the heavy rain for miles and miles, was worn out upon arrival. Now it baked itself quietly in front of a burning kerosene lamp, its snowy feathers dry. It reminded Draco of Potter’s old owl, which always lifted a lazy eye whenever he visited the owlery before going back to sleep. Hedwig, he remembered. He wondered where it had gone.

Three weeks ago, the international transportation ban lifted. The letters were now free to come and go. Potter, in turn, started receiving letters every two or three days; from Weasley and Granger, from Longbottom, and occasionally from Dean Thomas. He read them aloud to Draco whenever he found the news amusing. Granger had delivered on the twenty-fourth of February. Attached in her letters was a photograph of baby Hugo, who had a large wrinkly face and looked as though he was squinting. His tiny fists, enclosed in his baby clothes, waved about in the air.

He has an ugly face, Draco had said, as all babies do. Potter had tried to defend Hugo before admitting that yes, all babies do have ugly faces.

Draco himself had received several letters from work, hinting at his supposed return and not so subtly threatening about consequences, mentioning his Death Eater past as if it were an afterthought, an ugly smile baring fangs. Draco ignored all of them.

Neither mentioned the lift.

“London always rains,” Draco said, nonsensical. Across from the room, Potter lifted his gaze.

“Yeah?”

“Yes.”

Draco looked out of the window again. There was only darkness. Not vague shadows, or nebulous contours of their surroundings; just darkness. Engulfed them as if they were a lighthouse at sea, as if they existed among nothingness. It still frightened him a little even after all these months.

He turned back, only to realize that Potter was still looking at him. There was something soft about the way he looked, about the way his head tilted a little. About the way his fingers stilled on the letter. His eyes were impossibly green. Draco wanted to hold it, wanted to—wanted to immerse himself in it. Wanted to recognize it as what it was, wanted to return. Wanted to give Potter something that bared himself but at the same time didn’t, that made him see him but at the same time didn’t—wanted to hold in his hands the soft ache that suffused his chest and ask, can’t you see? Can’t you see?

Draco dropped his gaze. The pot of rosemary had turned its attention to the windowsill, was tentatively touching its tips to it.

“The weather’s nice here,” Potter said, returning to his letters. “I like it here.”

“There’s not much difference between here and London.”

“No, probably not. Save the busy streets.”

“And the blizzards that almost killed me.”

Potter chuckled as he scribbled something down. “Aren’t there blizzards in London, too? Don’t tell me they discriminate between nations.”

“Not lethal ones, no.”

“The blizzards aren’t really at fault, you know. I think you were the one wandering about. If you wander about in London in the middle of a blizzard, I’m sure they’d be lethal, too.” Potter joked, looking up. “Speaking of this, you should thank the sheep. I only found you because I was trying to bring them to shelter. Ah, and Lettuce—she sniffed you out. Probably thought you were a piece of ham or something…”

But Draco lost track of the conversation. He could only see himself dressed in a thin linen shirt, shivering in the early autumn night. Walking laps around the park until he couldn’t feel anything, until his toes had frozen numb and his trembling fingers thick, unable to hold onto the keys. Unable to jam them into the locks. The numbness that felt closer to sadness, like drowning in a frozen sea and slowly losing strength, losing feeling. Losing the fight even as you were still fighting. Giving up.

The sadness rose around him like waves, like the gentle embrace of an old friend.

“Draco?”

Draco shot his eyes to Potter. Everything snapped back into focus—the black iron of the kerosene lamps, the pear yellow and the brick red of the quilt. The rain falling against the window. Potter, sitting on the other side of the room, his eyes soft. Kind. His fingers stilling again on the letters, the blunt tips smudged with ink. Suddenly he couldn’t take it. Potter sitting there and regarding Draco with such kind eyes when Draco couldn’t return anything he wanted, when Draco only took, and took, and took—his comfort, his presence. Draco had averted his gaze again and again, had shut his eyes and leaned onto him whenever he needed to, had pretended not to see what was between them—had pushed him away whenever he felt as though it was too much, the soft ache in his chest was too much, whenever he was afraid—and still Potter never hesitated to look at him. Never hesitated to lead him back when he lost himself in the middle of a frozen sea, never hesitated to lead him back to light from the middle of darkness.

And there it was again. The soft ache, tugging at his sternum. Demanding.

“How can you do this?” Draco asked, trembling.

Potter sighed softly, an understanding. Draco hated this, too, hated that he saw through him like an open book. Hated that he understood, that he wasn’t just pretending to.

“Draco.”

“How does it not hurt? How can it not hurt when I keep doing this to you?”

“You’re not doing anything to me—”

“I am! I know I am.” Draco took a shaky breath. “I know I am. Stop pretending it’s nothing, stop lying to yourself—”

“I shouldn’t have kissed you—”

“It’s not about the kiss, goddamnit!” But it was. They both knew it. Potter looked at him with such sad eyes that Draco felt as though he was bleeding. As though he would bleed to death if he didn’t stop, if he didn’t do something. If he didn’t— “I want you. I want you, but I am too much of a coward to do anything, to—move on, and you can’t just…sit there and take it all, stop being generous to me, I don’t—fight back! Fight back, you bloody—”

Then Potter was in front of him. Close, crowding Draco back into the wall, both hands on either side of his head—his breath hot on his lips. Draco couldn’t think. Potter held his gaze, dropped it to his mouth—reeled it back up. His hands clenched into fists against the wall.

“Is this what you want?” Potter asked, voice breaking towards the end. Every syllable brushed their lips together, made Draco shiver. Or maybe it was just the weight of them at being so close. Just an imaginary touch, a hopeless hallucination.

“Is it?” Potter asked again, voice hoarse. “Is it what you want?”

Draco’s lids dropped. He couldn’t help but seek—couldn’t help but fear, couldn’t help but succumb.

Then Potter was gone again. In a faint whirl of wind, the air in front of him cooled. Draco opened his eyes, lids still heavy, and swung slightly forward—as though drunk, out of his own volition. All there was left was the echo of unsteady footsteps down the corridor, the slamming shut of a door.

Draco stared at the empty space in front of him.

That night he couldn’t sleep. His mind a dull storm of ache, of want, of anger, tossing and turning him on the couch as he stared at the empty hearth. At the kerosene lamps, now extinguished, the glasses grey and nebulous. At a sooty mark on the back of the couch, a smear like the trailing end of a comet. Like a heartless stroke of charcoal, a brush. Remembered Potter’s fingers gentle on his cheek, days ago, his face hidden in shadows. Remembered the first night he woke up here, right on this couch. He’d come to Scotland wandering in the snow, like he had back in London, walking until he was numb frozen—until the numbness in his chest was at last tangible, was not only a hollow in his chest eating him alive. Instead he had woken up in front of a fire. Had woken up covered in a heavy quilt, warm all over.

Is it? Is this what you want?

When he finally fell asleep, it was uneasy. A dream, an echo of a memory—of white peacocks perched on the low branches of trees, staring. Red eyes gleaming like the shiny seeds of pomegranates. Of them flying all together at once, giant wings flapping as they took off, rattling the branches, the leaves—their tails an exquisite Japanese fan spreading, chiffon, a bridal dress of a ghost.

***

Three days later Cho went into labor. Three days during which Draco had argued with himself, had blamed, had attempted to put it behind, joking around Potter as if nothing had happened—and in turn was suffocated by Potter’s usual banter, by his quiet remarks. Three days during which Draco had contemplated, in all lightness and seriousness, to apologize—even though he wasn’t sure how to, or why. Rolled the idea back and forth on the tip of his tongue until he tasted the bitterness of it. Like regret, even though he didn’t regret it. Or at least he didn’t think so. He watched Potter tending to sheep from behind, mustering his courage, rehearsing the words and punctuations again and again in his head, refining them last minute—then hastily shunned at Potter’s approach, as they brushed their shoulders. Next time, Draco told himself, desperation welling. Watching Potter walk farther and farther away, his silhouette shrinking.

In the end, Draco could only watch from afar. Potter sat in the armchair across from him, reading a thin booklet on his lap. The corner of the pages were ruffled with frequent touch, the colors on the cover faded with age, the tiny printed letters crammed against the yellowing paper. Draco thought he’d seen it in Potter’s room, on Potter’s single line of a bookshelf. He wanted to ask about it. Wanted to tease Potter for it, for finally picking up a book for the first time since his arrival, finally reading the poor dusted thing. The words clogged at the top of his throat. I should apologize, Draco thought to himself, watching Potter anxiously. Come on, Draco. It’s only two words. But in the end he didn’t, only noticed—traced, as though with a careful finger to the contour of a painting—the angle at which Potter’s head tilted. His glasses, scratched at the hooks, sliding down his nose just the faintest so his eyes peered like crescent moons from above the frames. His socks, peeping out from underneath his folded legs. The tiny long-eared owls and their unblinking eyes.

Cho’s labor came to a standstill. Potter couldn’t get his hands in and help with the three centimeter dilation. They waited in the barn, but when the afternoon dwindled towards its end and Cho stood, frantic and panting and still unable to move things along, Potter called the vet. The vet wouldn’t be persuaded to come. Potter sent one Patronus after another, each time shouting louder then the last, frightening Cho until at last he stormed out of the doors and cursed. The string of words dampened by the heavy doors left ajar, the silver of a Patronus flashing before it galloped away. Cho had lain down at a corner layered with thick hay, was breathing heavily, gritting her teeth and throwing her head back. Draco tried to calm her down, tried to shush her, tried to hold her head or scratch her ear—wouldn’t do. Eventually Potter had to call the Muggle vet, who spent two hours on the road before arrival. She diagnosed her with hypocalcemia and administered calcium directly to her abdomen before leaving.

But still the lambs wouldn’t come. Dusk bled into night. Potter went out and made another call to the Muggle vet. She was out with other emergency calls and wouldn’t be back until a good few hours later. Potter cursed again and tried sending Patronuses to his original vet, who missed his messages. He cursed again. Cho was worn out, lying on the ground. Draco knelt beside her and pressed his head to hers, trying to hold back his constricting throat. Cho lifted her head slightly, breaths puffing out.

“It’s going to be okay,” Draco whispered. He swallowed, blinking hard. When he spoke again, his voice was a rasp. “You’re strong. You’re strong, aren’t you, young lady? Hang in there. Hang in there, okay? I promise you it will be alright. Everything will be alright…”

And Cho, for all her indifference and stubbornness, for all her eyeing about Draco and refusing to move—weakly licked Draco’s hand. Draco broke and sobbed, burying his face into her coarse wool. Trying, still trying to get the comforting words out. In the dark night, the barn was a dim halo. Muffled by the door was Potter arguing with the Muggle vet. Cho was warm underneath Draco’s hands, warm against his face—warm.

***

They couldn’t save her.

Draco sat at the far corner of the couch, his knees drawn to his chest. Stared, unblinkingly, into midair. His eyes were sore from all the crying, puffed. It was as if his mind had left his exhausted body, and now he couldn’t control it. Couldn’t move his limbs. Couldn’t feel.

He heard the door creak as it was pushed open, shut close. Heard footsteps—the dull thump of boots, heavy. It was this beyond everything else that told him of Potter’s arrival, and before he noticed Potter was already crouching in front of him.

Potter looked horrible, too. His eyes bloodshot, hair wild, jumper clogged in dried dirt and loose stalks of hay. He looked as though he hadn’t shaved for weeks. There was a bone-deep tiredness in his eyes, in the way he crouched, in the way his shoulders hunched as he leaned his weight onto his own knees. He still hadn’t showered, and smelt strongly of afterbirth and blood. Of sheep. He placed a gentle hand by Draco’s socked feet. Not touching, but close enough to.

“Hey,” he said.

Just like that, Draco’s eyes welled again.

The vet had to perform a caesarean section in the barn. By the time it was transformed into a surgery room and the vet had arrived it was already two in the morning, and Cho had to be wheeled in on a wagon—too weak to walk. At last Cho’s twins were pulled out. A dead little ram, and a tiny ewe who miraculously survived.

Weak, but alive.

Cho had to be put down in her rough shape. Draco had stormed out of the barn before they could do anything.

“Hey,” Potter said again. “It happens. It happens, I’m…I’m sorry.”

There was only silence. Dawn had inched its way through, casting tilted triangles of light onto the corner of the short table. The foot of the empty hearth. A small section of the pot in which sat the rosemary, standing by the half-drawn curtains.

“I didn’t say goodbye to her,” Draco whispered hollowly, as if to himself.

“Hey. She knows.” Potter squeezed his ankle, pushed himself up. “I’ll make you hot chocolate, alright?”

Draco meant to say no. He meant to say he didn’t need hot chocolate, that Potter should go take a shower, should go sleep. That Potter had it worse than he did, that he was even more exhausted and still had a full day ahead of him, that he shouldn’t spend his time fussing over Draco—but his voice was a dull thing that wouldn’t cooperate with his thoughts, and before he could say anything Potter was already back with two mugs of hot chocolate. He handed one to Draco. It was piled with a tiny floating hill of marshmallows.

Draco, despite himself, laughed wetly. Potter smiled as he pushed the mug into Draco’s hands.

“Adequate amount of marshmallows?” he asked, sitting down beside him.

“Adequate amount of marshmallows,” Draco answered. The warmth soaked through his fingers.

They sat, side by side, in silence. Potter took a sip of his hot chocolate then cradled it on his lap. Draco couldn’t bring himself to drink it. The marshmallows melted into foamy clouds on top of the chocolate.

“Did you know Cho once head-butted me into the river?” Potter suddenly asked. “Scottish Blackface are usually pretty gentle, but…it was a summer, I think, and I got too close to her lamb. I’d just started, then, foolish—didn’t know anything. So she charged. I didn’t even see her coming. Just like that, she shoved me into the river. I didn’t even know what happened. Just scrambled up, gasping and coughing on water like a fool, massaging my buttocks—”

Draco laughed. The tears fell, sliding down his cheek, and then he was crying again. Potter pulled him close, tucking his chin on top of his head. His arms tight around his shoulder, as if he, too, was holding on.

“I miss her already,” Potter said, voice breaking on the last syllable. Draco turned his face and buried it into Potter’s chest, shifted his body—wrapped his arms around him. Clutched at his dirt-clogged sweater. In their awkward embrace, he felt Potter’s tremors wrecking through his body.

“I miss her, too,” Draco whispered as Potter tightened his arms, pulled him closer. Draco swallowed. Shut his welling eyes. Held Potter tighter. “I miss her, too.”

***

Cho’s lamb was a beautiful little thing. Her entire face a pristine black, except for only the tips of her ears—stark white. Draco learned to feed her with the bottle after the first few days, learned to heat the bottle to blood temperature and test it with the inside of his wrist as one would with a child. Learned to arrange her legs between his folded own so their limbs didn’t tangle—wholly for his own benefit, as Cissy didn’t care one bit as long as she got her milk.

Potter let him name her, and so he named her, per Potter’s example, after his mother. Potter squeezed his wrist before teasing him for naming the sheep as mundanely as he did. For all your talks!

But they weren’t mundane. Potter knew this, too, if the glistening of his eyes was anything to go by.

It was a strange comfort, feeding her. To cradle her chin in his palm, tilting the head up; to listen to her suckle, the squelching of milk through rubber teat. She was strong, and hungry. Vigorous in her suckling, as though every mouthful of milk were a victory. The milk always disappeared rather quickly from the bottle, occasionally dribbling down her chin. Her belly warm afterwards, she followed Draco around in the cottage, bleating for attention. Folded her legs and cuddled against the puddle of clothes Potter had made for her as a makeshift bed by the hearth. Tilted her chin up and poised herself gracefully whenever she sensed that Draco was drawing her, no matter how discreet Draco thought he’d been.

It was a comfort, too, to watch her sleep. To watch her fold in on herself, her belly rising and falling with each breath. Her eyes closed, her ears spread out like two tiny wings. One night Draco pillowed his head on his folded arms, was dozing in and out of sleep when a loud bleat woke him. Cissy had stumbled out of her bed, was staring unblinkingly at him. She bleated again.

“Hey, hey. Sh. What’s up?” He blearily scratched her ears and checked the time. She had just been fed, so she shouldn’t be hungry—he pressed a hand to her belly. It was, as expected, warm from milk.

Cissy bleated loudly again and started tugging at the quilt he was covered in.

In the end, partly so she would quiet down—so not to awaken Potter—and partly because he himself also yearned to sleep, he dragged a kerosene lamp low and settled on the floor, Cissy snuggled close to his chest. He covered them both under the quilt. She, too, was warm, like a tiny burner. He stroked the curly wool on her head, stroked her lithe ear, and dozed off. Sometime during sleep he climbed back awake to the hem of cotton pajama pants and bare feet, the heavy settle of something over his back.

Harry? he wanted to ask, but drifted back asleep before he could.

***

May arrived quietly, settling over the hills with blooming wildflowers and bleating lambs chasing after one another. Mother ewes grazed the land and called for their children. The air warmed, and stayed: the soft breeze no longer freezing, no longer holding the lingering chill of early spring. Fieldfares disappeared and were replaced by the bobbing of stonechats among leafing trees, the curlews walking their long legs in and out of flowing rivers, the buzzards and their outstretched wings, circling high in the sky. By flocks of geese flying over the skyline, a long-stretched V, calling to and forth—settling on the fresh pastures at the bottom of the fell.

The sun warmed the grounds. The fell side an embroidery, dotted with melting snow and patches of purple flowers. Buttery clouds piled at the far hills, softening everything in sight—as if dipped in milk. Draco inhaled, filled his lungs with the warm air. Closed his eyes. His hand resting on the short gate, in the middle of pushing it open. Late spring nestled close to his thin shirt, intimate.

He pushed the gate open.

It was near dusk when Potter came back. Draco, curled against the foot of the couch, hunched over the small piece of parchment on the table—his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, the soft side of his palm smeared in charcoal soot—acknowledged him with a soft ah. Fumbled with his pockets and pulled out a small thing: a small, round container made of cherry wood, the amber tree rings stretched long and etched in. He tossed it to Potter, who caught it mid-air—surprised.

“For you,” Draco simply said. Then went back to his drawing and tried to ignore his pounding heart.

It was a while later—after Potter unscrewed the lid, after he sniffed from it—that he finally asked, “What is it?”

“Hand cream,” Draco replied. Carefully shaded the side of the lamb’s face on the parchment. Added, dumbly, like an afterthought, “For your hands.”

“Where did you get this?”

“Where did I get this?” Draco mocked. “From Mother Nature, from the vast land and rivers, from the almighty Circe who—”

“Wait, you—you made it yourself?”

“Why yes Potter, yes I did.”

He was met with silence so long that finally, he had to look up. Potter looked dumbstruck. His cheeks flushed; faint, but blushing nonetheless. Somehow that made Draco blush, too.

“But how did you—” Potter started, cut himself off. Tried again. “How did you get all the ingredients, you’ve been…drawing, and—to brew, where did you even—”

Draco gave a soft ah, waved his hand—tried to brush off the efforts. It made Draco dizzy, to see what such a small container had done to Potter. Made him proud in a way he hadn’t in a long time. He’d spent weeks making it: gathering the herbs, drying them, finding a corner to brew. Had meant for it to be a surprise, a belated gift of sort—a gift given with no reason other than it was a gift and should, thus, be given. Had dipped the comfrey roots and leaves in oil, the snowy yarrows, the bright yellow crowns of calendula flowers, the thin leaves of rosemary—picked as he cradled the pot of plant in his arms, humming. He’d noticed Potter’s hands for a while now. Always cut in one way or another when he came back to the cottage, the calloused skin cracking whenever the weather was cold. Potter didn’t care, of course, about the thin bleeding cuts, about his own hands: they were just hands, knocked hard like bark after years of chores. Never hesitated before hauling up a bale of hay onto the tractor. The thick ropes indented deep into his palm, cut through every rise and dip of skin, the exquisite web of veins.

His fingers had trembled by Draco’s jaw the night he kissed him.

“For your hands,” Draco repeated. Was suddenly embarrassed, rubbing his hands over his face—linked them at his nape, trying to cover the maddening blush there. Potter looked at him and laughed all of a sudden. Draco, even more abashed, tried to cover his face.

“No, no—stop. Wait, Draco.” Potter laughed, made to grab his arm—paused, and reeled himself into the kitchen instead. He fetched a hand towel and ran it under the tap water. Smiling faintly, he walked over, the heavy towel dripping in his hands. Crouched, gently grabbed Draco’s hand and moved it away from his face. Touched the towel to his cheek.

Draco started at the chill. Potter shushed him, amused, wiped at his face. Retraced the wet track.

“Your hands,” he explained. “They were sooty.”

The cloth was rough against his skin. Draco closed his eyes as Potter ran it gently over his temple. They were close. He could feel the warmth radiating off from Potter, a steady hum, and thought he could fall asleep like this. Potter huffed a laugh and moved the cloth to a different place.

“Gee.” He chuckled, incredulous. “How did you make it to your neck?”

Draco had a retort in mind, a fragment of a sentence. It flowed through his mind, came out as a hum of acknowledgment.

“Who were you drawing today?”

“Take a guess.”

“Cissy?”

“Mm hmm.”

Potter huffed a laugh. “I don’t know why I even ask.”

“She’s great at it. She can go model professionally some day.”

“She’s a muse, that’s no doubt.” Potter dabbed at his jaw at last, and pulled away. Draco instantly missed the closeness, but was clearheaded enough to refrain himself from leaning in, to open his eyes.

Potter was smiling at him, the towel sooty in his hands.

“Thank you,” he said. Solemn, even though he was putting it lightly. “Thank you for the hand cream.”

Draco, abashed, tried to brush it off. “Don’t mind it. It’s…something in return for the sweaters. And the paint. One favor for another, yes? You did buy me an awful lot of things.”

“Oh.”

Draco, mind still dizzy, didn’t catch up immediately. It was only after he saw Potter’s strained smile that he realized he’d fucked up. The towel was awkward in Potter’s hands, as if he were trying hard not to look away. Trying hard so his smile didn’t fall apart.

“I’m joking! I’m joking,” Draco hastily added as he pushed himself up. Leaned forward, but felt as though he shouldn’t—fell back onto his heels. He wanted to laugh, didn’t want to sound like a maniac. Wanted to see Potter’s smile again, not like this, not as if he was wounded when there was nothing to be wounded from. He managed a forceful laugh. “It’s a joke.”

“Ah.” Potter nodded, squeezed a smile that quickly fell. Then abruptly, he pushed himself up. “I should go change.”

Draco nodded, not knowing how to tell Potter to stay. Desperate, but all that came out was, “I’ll make dinner, then.”

“Yes. Okay.”

Potter raised the towel—didn’t know what to do with it—dropped his hands back. Then he disappeared into the corridor.

Draco stared at the spot long after he was gone.

***

Once upon a time, happiness was simple. Finding a flowering bud amidst the thick gardens. Casting his first spell and screaming up and down in excitement. Seeing his constellation shining in the dark, a dragon spaced out in the northern sky. Once upon a time his mother was happy, too. He preferred to remember her that way, a soft smile at her lips as she sat facing the gardens, her dress billowing in the breeze. She was tenacious as a dandelion was, sprouting out of the thin crack between rocks: against all odds. Swayed in the wind and was proud of the sunlight she’d fought for and believed in.

She was a fighter. He remembered her that way, too, in the dark times. Remembered her firing her wand in the Manor even as the chandelier dropped, crashing on the floor, sending debris flying. She already seldom talked and was even more silent. No one was happy. She wasn’t, either, after the war had ended. Receded to drifting in the Manor which Draco wouldn’t return to except to visit her twice a week, touching her hand to the gilded edge of the lounging couch, to the curled edges of the wrought iron that fenced the hearth. To the heavy curtains draped over the windows, the tassels on the rope that held them at the waist.

Draco preferred not to remember her that way.

His mother liked for them to sit in the gardens when he visited. Facing the flowering vines and bushes, the birches and oaks thick with foliage, she closed her eyes. Draco thought he saw the smile again in her wrinkled cheeks, or perhaps the ghost of it. The breezes wafted the faint aroma of flowers near, folded it into her billowing dress.

“The gardens are flourishing,” Draco said one day. Narcissa smiled and opened her eyes. Looked at the gardens as if she hadn’t seen them in a long time.

“They are, aren’t they?”

“Do you still garden them yourself?”

“I do.”

The tea smelt of roses. Narcissa had probably picked them herself by hand just this morning, when the petals were still dewy and the bushes bathed in mist, the grass dampening the hem of her dress. Had made the tea herself over the stove, the kettle humming quietly as the rose petals floated, rolling about in the boiling water.

“Do you like the gardens?”

“Well, Draco, obviously.”

“I mean—”

“I know what you mean.” Narcissa placed her porcelain cup back to the plate. Her eyes were soft in a way he’d only seen when she was with him, and more so nowadays. She turned back to the gardens. “I never thought they’d flourish again. The gardens, I mean. The Manor had been through so much…darkness. The peacocks didn’t survive.”

Draco smiled. “I didn’t know you liked the peacocks.”

“Ah. They were spoiled things. Pecked everywhere and destroyed my dahlias. I never liked them since, but stubborn creatures they were and they flourished and grew to a family of eighteen.”

Draco laughed. Narcissa smiled, too.

“So much comes back unexpectedly, Draco. Small things, but nevertheless. Sometimes you learn to appreciate the beauty of it all, the things you never expected to see again…and in it you forget that they are so small. It doesn’t really matter, then, what you’ve wanted, what you’ve once had, what you’ve chased your whole life after and thought it grand…it doesn’t matter. This, this is beautiful. There is no need to think about anything else.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes again. “I do miss my gardens.”

Draco looked at the gardens, then. Dusk had just begun to fall, covering the bushes and grass in a thin veil of mauve. The setting sun hemmed a ring of gold around the contours of oaks and birches and shadowed the tips of winding vines, framed the supple willow a few feet down. The sky weaved a smudge of pink into the blues, the yellows.

“I miss the gardens, too,” he whispered, voice low.

“Ah, I remember. You had yourself a little corner, didn’t you? Tidied it all up?”

Draco chuckled. “That was a long time ago.”

“Are you planning to resume anytime soon?”

Draco let out a breath. His mother was jesting, of course. But there was, for once, no need to remember his life outside of the gardens. No need to remember the charity balls he still had to attend, the hands he still had to shake, the stack of papers he still had to look over. No need to remember the sneers passersby threw and the condescending glances. Just a summer evening with his mother, having tea in the gardens. He let out another breath, and closed his eyes, too. Bathed himself in the faint scent of roses and the warm air. Sank himself deeper into the chair.

In the dusk, the crickets began to chirp.

***

It rained. Heavily so, the sky opening up for downpours that darkened and cloaked the surrounding hills.

The umbrella charms barely worked. When Draco finally got to the barn his hair was dampened, his shirt and trousers soaked. Mindlessly, he cast a drying charm. Potter had already come and had gone out again for the sheep on the fell side. The barn bathed in the warm, golden light of old-fashioned bulbs and charms. The air was thick and heavy, warm. Threaded with the faint smell of hay layered on the bare ground. Draco headed towards the back corner, couldn’t help but smile when the pristine black face and white-tipped ears emerged into view.

“Ah, lovely darling my sweet!” he called, crouching in front of the short pen. Cissy galloped towards him—tripping over her own legs—stumbled, scrambled close. Draco laughed and scratched her ears. Cissy bleated, loud and impatient.

“Hungry, yes? Potter’s coming back with your food. He’ll be here soon. Be a patient lady, won’t you?”

They’d moved Cissy to the barn just a couple days ago. She was big enough for it, now. Draco sat down with a huff, folded his legs. Cissy lost interest in him a while later, turning her attention to a small beetle on the fence.

The rain didn’t let up. Draco waited, absentminded, sitting on the ground and watching Cissy fuss about the beetle. A while later Potter came back, letting in the sound of falling rain as he pushed the barn doors open. Soaked from head to toe, he smoothed his fringe back and shook the water off his face like a dog. Draco wanted to laugh. But he didn’t, and instead only watched with warmth spreading over his chest.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that Potter had become quieter around him, that he was trying to avoid him without looking too conspicuous. Perhaps he wasn’t. He still smiled, still laughed, still teased Draco about, but there was a distance in every word they exchanged, in every sentence. Draco couldn’t unsee the wounded look on Potter’s face, didn’t know how to make Potter believe him—couldn’t think of a single explanation that didn’t sound like a feeble excuse. It clogged thickly at the bottom of his throat, made it difficult to be with Potter alone. Made it difficult to look at him smile.

Perhaps it was all about Draco himself.

Cissy bleated loudly at the intruder. Potter, nonplussed, walked over.

“Ah. She’s hungry.” Potter mocked, casting a drying charm on himself. Still, it left the tips of his hair damp. He reached into his satchel and fished out a bottle of warm milk, picking Cissy up. “Whatever should I do? Huh, young lady?”

In a fluid motion, he tilted her head up and rubbed the teat to her mouth. Within seconds Cissy started suckling and fell quiet, busy eating.

Silence fell over the barns.

There was something about watching Potter bottle-feed Cissy. Something about his mug-clad boots, about his water-proof jacket glinting off the warm lights with a faint hue, about his smile, just a barely-there curve—as if he didn’t notice he was smiling himself. Cissy, standing inside the ring of Potter’s folded legs, angled her head further and further as she suckled. Potter laughed and guided her back. She rapidly drained the milk from the bottle, the muscles at her stomach rippling. Potter’s hand was gentle but firm around her chin, keeping her head tilted and in place. Draco remembered the time he woke up to a hand at the back of his head, lifting. The palm fitting to the shape of it. He thought he understood, now, where the tenderness had come from.

Cissy quickly finished the bottle and was, once again, languid in her fullness. She let Potter pick her up and place her back into the pen, ambled around.

“I should get going.”

It reeled Draco back to reality. Potter had stood up, had had his satchel on his shoulder, had stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I need to fetch something, so I—”

“I’ll go with you.”

Blurted without thought, Draco scrambled up. Potter blinked, looked as though he wanted to say something—didn’t. Turned instead, and headed to the doors.

The rain had stopped. The dampness, though, lingered like a temptation for another downpour. The air dropped cool with a bone-seeping chilliness. Draco shivered. In his hurry, he had forgotten his coat at the barn. He tried to cast wordless warming charms as they walked to the tractor, as the muddy ground clung to his boots, but none of them worked. He was never good at wordless. Draco tried again and again, the tingling warmth of his magic slipping into the cold air with every incantation—

Warmth settled over him like a soft blanket, warmth like wood smoke and cider. Draco snapped his head up. Potter’s silhouette didn’t stop, didn’t look over his shoulder. Hands stuffed in pockets, his body swaying with each footstep.

Draco swallowed and looked away.

They reached the tractor and climbed into the seats. The engine started, the whole vehicle rumbling. Draco didn’t know where to settle his eyes. He dropped them to his lap, stared towards the empty path on the front, and glanced, in an accident, at Potter’s hand resting on the gear between them. A loose hold like an afterthought. Draco quickly looked away and for the rest of the journey, turned his head stubbornly to the scattered trees rolling back with the endless hills.

The rain had started again by the time the cottage emerged into view. Sparse, heavy droplets smashed onto the tractor as Potter cursed, hastily parked the tractor, and fought the keys with a mouthful of fucks before finally pulling it out. The rain quickly heavied into a downpour, relentless.

“Come on!” he yelled, slipping out of the seat. “The last one to the front door is a baby mandrake root!”

“Wha—wait, you can’t go first, you cheater! You—” Draco fumbled with the door handle and jumped out, stumbling as Potter turned back and laughed, loud and clear. He was thoroughly soaked. It was difficult to see with his fringe clinging to his eyes, but at that moment he wanted to laugh, too, wanted to use all his strength to do so. His lungs wanted him to, needed him to, pushed the sound through his chest and up his sternum—so Draco did. Potter turned his head and grinned, then stumbled. Draco only laughed louder. They dashed under the patio, panting, Draco’s chest so full it could combust.

Potter grinned as though it split his face. At that moment, everything was clear. Draco couldn’t take his eyes off him. His hair plastered to his forehead, droplets dotting his glasses. His eyes bright despite the darkened sky. His cheeks flushed from the run, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. The faint scar on his left cheek that disappeared under his jaw.

The rain pattered against the patio, clinging onto the edge before falling in pellucid strings.

They were so close Draco could feel the heat rumbling off Potter, hot in the cold air. Still panting, their breaths mingled together like waves crashing against one another in a stormy sea. Potter never took his eyes off him, as if he was helpless to do so. Something laid bare between them, raw and vulnerable in its pulsing.

Draco’s lips parted.

“I’m sorry,” Potter said, wrecked. Reached back until he grabbed the door handle and pushed, stormed in. Slammed the door back.

Draco stared at the door as if from a dream. He had never heard his heartbeat louder, clearer. All around him was the haze of heat, slowly fading, fading—until at last he felt nothing other than the cold air, the bone-seeping chilliness.

***

The letters came two days later, hours after dinner. Night had already fallen. Potter was dozing off with one of the thick books with loose spines on his lap, flipped to a dog-eared page. He had slid off, his chin tucked close to his chest, as if engulfed by the armchair. Draco was still refining his drawing with thin, careful strokes when the window rattled with the flapping of wings, so he walked over and let the owl in. The long-eared owl swooped around the cottage in a wide arch before landing, folding its wings as it looked around. Draco lifted a brow and glanced at Potter’s socks. It was the tiny snitches today.

Potter was woken by the noise and, half-asleep, reached out and fetched the letter. They were mostly for him. Probably from Weasley and Granger, accompanied with a photograph of a sleepy Hugo, a crying Hugo, or a toothless laughing Hugo. Or from Dean Thomas, who kept Potter updated on his and Finnigan’s new two-story townhouse. They were going to paint the living room this week, had a skirmish about the colors and eventually compromised to paint two walls each with their color of choice. I’m the artist, Thomas had complained, this oaf can’t even tell turquoise from cyan!

“Why did you not tell me they’re calling you back?”

Draco’s head shot up. Potter skimmed the letter, lifted his gaze as well. “They’re threatening to sack you. Why did you not tell me?”

Draco grabbed for the letter, but Potter lifted it out of reach and kept reading. “Has already informed you six times, twice with express owls…last warning before discharge. What is this?”

“My bloody letter is what it is.” Draco snatched it from Potter’s hands. “Now you’re just reading my letters like they’re yours?”

“I wasn’t paying attention, I thought it was mine—”

“—not an excuse, you didn’t stop when—”

“Stop dodging the question! Why didn’t you say you have to go back?”

Because he didn’t want to. It was a stupid question to ask, even stupider to answer. Potter saw through it; the hard lines of his face softened. “Draco. You can’t hide here forever.”

“I’m not hiding.”

“Then what are you doing?”

Draco opened his mouth. The answer choked him like the pit of a fruit. He could see nothing other than the green of Potter’s eyes.

Under the warm lights, the owl stretched its amber wings.

***

London was loud.

The crowd bustled around him. People talked on their Muggle devices, the heels of their shoes clicking on the asphalt. Vendors called out to customers. A woman was laughing and couldn’t stop. The cars swept past him, their honks impatient. Everywhere he walked he seemed to be brushing someone’s shoulder, bumping into someone’s knees, pushing past.

Walking the streets made his head hurt.

His flat looked exactly as he’d left it. The stale air was suffused with the smell of sherries and dust. The French windows leading to the balcony were shut tight—the curtains half-drawn, a thin streak of light branded onto the floor. The mugs on the kitchen island, the dishes piled half-heartedly in the sink, the books sprawled all over the living room…Draco sighed, and rolled up his sleeves. Wiped the table with a piece of cloth, dumped the contents in the mug to the sink, washed the dishes. Spelled the coats and sweaters to fold and levitate themselves back to his bedroom as he mopped the floor and dusted the cabinets. Pulled the curtains, fastened them to the side, and pushed the French windows fully open. Wind gushed in, replacing the stale aroma of sherries with the fresh smell of the city: the baked asphalt, the cool air. Draco closed his eyes and inhaled. Up here, it was quiet. Precious sunlight flooded his balcony and bathed him in warmth, tickled his eyelids. Summer was warmer than he remembered, warmer than in Scotland.

He bought groceries and cooked dinner. It always pleased him to fill up his fridge, and he thought the fridge was pleased, too. He set up the table on one side—placing the fork on the left, the knife and spoon on the right—lifted his head and caught sight of the empty space across, and decided the bring dinner to the couch instead. Facing the hearth, he laid the shallow bowl on his folded lap and ate the poached fish and tomatoes in silence. It was odd to be eating in his flat again. Everything was as he remembered, but with a distance; like meeting with an old friend you hadn’t met for years, trying to know him again with the intimacy once shared. His inky green couch lounged like a shadow in the falling night, the Persian rug stretched in front of him foreign. The white marbled tea table, the brown maple double bookshelf, the wine glasses shining in the cabinets in the kitchen—odd pieces of a puzzle that somehow fit and, in a long-lost way, comforted him.

The sound of his chewing was loud in his ears.

He poured himself a mug of cider after dinner. He’d seen it in the market and, on impulse, decided to buy it. Leaning back onto the couch, sinking into the soft mattress, he let his rigid back stretch then relax, let loose his shoulders. He was to return to work tomorrow morning and he’d prefer not to think about it. He drank the cider cold, but it was all wrong. Not the tangy sourness bare at his throat, not the faint sweetness that lingered afterwards, clear like apples itself. The blandness of it made it hard to swallow. He dumped it into the sink and shut his eyes. Breathed through his nose. Poured himself whiskey instead.

“Are you not going to say goodbye?”

Draco turned, one hand holding the suitcase. Potter folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe. There was a smile at his lips that didn’t look like a smile at all.

“I thought you were busy.”

All day long Draco had watched him. Packing took little more than an hour; he didn’t have all that much with him. He watched, something suffocating at the bottom of his throat. Watched from afar as Potter tended to the sheep, each motion gentle but firm. Each command to Lettuce echoing across the hills, as if to a companion instead of a dog. He was only a small figure among the flock of sheep, alone in a way Draco hadn’t really seen but had probably been for years. Just him and the sheep, in the vast mountains.

Potter shrugged at that, then let out a breath. “Come back anytime. Cissy will miss you.”

“I will.”

“Enjoy London.”

“I will.”

Potter must’ve seen through his tight smile and mistaken it for something else. Reaching out, he squeezed Draco’s arm. “Hey, you’re going to do great. You’re made for it. And who knows, maybe…” he hesitated, “maybe everything will go better than you think.”

“What are you talking about?”

But Potter only smiled, shook his head. The last of the afternoon sun spilled, painting everything golden. Potter’s hair, thick and soft and messy. His green eyes caught the honey-like sun and melted, shone.

Draco smiled tightly. Even until the last moment, he couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye.

Work was, beyond doubt, as friendly as ever. His department manager dumped eight stacks of paperwork on his desk before he’d even set foot into office. He stifled a sigh and set himself to work, tired but determined all the same. Didn’t turn at the hushed conversation two desks down. Didn’t turn at an argument outside of the doors, a muffled but he—! He had long learned to ignore the voices if he wanted to carve out a life of his own. He was good, no one could deny that. They could use his past against him, shun him, throw him out again and again—but no one could take away what he really was.

He met with Astoria at Ashmolean Museum. He arrived with thirty minutes to spare, so he wandered through the corridors, the sculptures, and looked at oil paintings, the landscapes and still-life. Passed a man shooting a deer, the arrow flying across the quiet valley. Paused in front of blood red flowers lying on an ochre ground. Spent eight minutes in front of Ennui by Walter Sickert, staring at the chubby woman looking at a glass case of stuffed birds over folded arms. Chin rested in one hand. The rich, yellow, patterned wallpaper crowded behind her, quiet. On a chair, a plump, middle-aged man with a golden mustache smoked his cigar.

He stopped by a violin displayed inside a glass case. The carvings were exquisite on the tailpiece and the pegs, the varnished wood amber underneath the lights.

“Ah, the Messiah Violin by Antonio Stradivari.”

Draco turned. Beside him stood Astoria, who was smiling faintly at the violin.

It was like turning a memory over and over until it faded at the edges, like a camera losing focus. It was replaying it again and again until the soft glint of it was all you could see in mind, every ragged edge smoothed and every color a gentle smudge—then seeing the memory in front of you again. Her nose was sharper than he remembered, her cheekbones highlighted under the display lights. She had braided her hair; it curled around her nape and down one side of her neck, down her shoulder. He had never seen her braid her hair before. It made her seem younger, somehow, as if she was a young woman who’d only left her teens, who’d only started her twenties—then Draco remembered, stunned, that she was.

“It must…” Draco took a deep breath. “It must have played really beautiful music.”

“To be in here, you mean?” Astoria asked, still looking at the violin with a faint smile. “No, not at all. It is more famous for the condition in which it has survived. The varnish is unworn since 1716, the painted edge-work on the scroll still intact. It’s probably because it has always been a collector’s piece. Initially purchased by Cozio di Salabue from one of Stradivari’s sons, sold it to Luigi Tarisio in the 1820s, who kept it in a case…” She turned, tilted her head at Draco. “It’s rather sad, don’t you think? A violin that was meant to sing, locked in a glass box for three hundred years?”

Draco let out a laugh. “Only you can turn a piece of instrument into a tragedy story.”

Astoria smiled. “Let’s find somewhere to sit, shall we?”

He followed her to the café. She pulled her chair out, smoothing down her beige green dress as she sat; Draco ordered Earl Grey. It was a cloudy day, the heavy sky looking as though it would rain any second.

“So,” Astoria said as she poured her tea. Looked up. “You’re back.”

“I am.”

“You look tired. Is it the traveling? How long have you been back?”

Draco laughed. This, this was as he remembered. “It probably is. I’ve been back for a little more than two weeks, I think.”

“Isn’t Scotland in the same time zone as London?”

“Ah…yes, yes it is.”

Astoria tilted her head. Then, deciding to let it go, she placed her cup down and leaned forward. “Tell me about Scotland. I’ve always wanted to visit.”

So Draco did. The Earl Grey, sugarless as it was, left a bitterness on his tongue. He told her about the fells, the sheep, the faint smudge of North Sea in the distance. The snow covering the endless surrounding hills. The needling branches of Scottish Pines, the thorn dykes, the fox. The stars at night, a sky full of broken diamonds. Spring, the wild flowers sprouting in the wind. The rain, the barn, the lambs. Potter growing a beard. He told her about Lettuce and the bite wound, but left out the steady hum of heat rumbling off Potter’s body. Left out the careful way he wrapped the bandage around his hand, the way he uncurled his fingers, one by one, like an unfurling of petals. Left out the blazing hearth, the thermos of tea smelling of figs and chamomile. Left out the falling into a chilly stream for a bush of bright yellow flowers.

Astoria listened, eyes intent. Laughed when she heard about the sheep and Potter’s beard.

“You’re happy,” she said when Draco came to a pause. “I’m glad.”

Draco smiled, something hollow in the center of his chest. “You sound like a grandma.”

“Perhaps. But I am.” She clasped her hands together. “Tell me, how is Potter?”

“He is…fine. I suppose.”

Astoria regarded him for a moment longer. Then her smile widened as she looked down, brought tea to her lips again. “You think you are good at masking yourself, Draco. But you never have been.”

“That’s not true.”

“Are you doing this because we have dated? Because you feel sorry for me if we talk about it? Guilty?”

Draco laughed shakily this time, looked away. “Merlin, Astoria.”

“Because there is nothing wrong with moving on. I have never seen you this happy. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed yourself, or that will be a lie.”

Draco looked back at her again. Astoria was still looking at him, gaze unwavering—his smile fell. He brought the cup to his lips, looking away. “It’s just. I can’t…Merlin, this is weird.” He forced a laugh. “See, there was a time when I thought…when I believed there would be things in life that would continue. Something that would stay. Something that…wouldn’t change. And around this axis, I built my world. It’s alright if everything else changes as long as this one doesn’t. I only need—I only need one thing to be as it always is.” He smiled tightly. “A child’s logic, no doubt. Things change. The world knocked itself over, and for a while there was no axis. But then—but then there was, again. And it stayed for years. Then suddenly it…disappears, too. Everything I believed about it, everything I thought I had, everything I built around it…gone.” He took a deep breath, shaky. “And I can’t—I can’t dive in head first, Astoria, knowing some day it will disappear again. I can’t pour myself in knowing one day I can lose myself all over again. It’s too…it’s too much. I can’t. I can’t…go through it again, all of it. I—I can’t.”

He couldn’t look at her, but he made himself to. Astoria looked as though she wanted to hold his hand. In the end, she leaned closer, hesitant.

“Draco. There is no way to guarantee for a relationship to work out. You know this, I know you do, but sometimes our hearts and our logic don’t exactly fit their jagged edges.” She thinned her lips into a resemblance of a smile. “I am sorry about all you went through. I wish there was something I could do. But Draco, this is the point about love. You are bound to get hurt, bound to be vulnerable. Only when you lay yourself bare do you get something beautiful. Shelters go both ways. It may be for a month, or it may be for the rest of your lives. It doesn’t really matter in a way, does it?”

Draco let out a laugh. “That sounds awfully Gryffindor. I don’t think it suits me.”

“There is something awfully brave and unbearably fierce about falling in love, don’t you think?” Astoria smiled, too, and squeezed his arm. “Be terrified. It’s okay. Just don’t forget to open your arms.”

He remembered the exact moment. He’d just fastened the locks on his suitcase, pushed himself up. The cottage was empty. The late afternoon sun poured through the windows, bathed the living room in a honey-like glow. The short table, marked with cuts and scrapes, shone amber. The marks smudged over and, in their vagueness, were adornments instead of blemishes.

It was quiet. On the windowsill, the rosemary waved with its thin stalks. It would travel with him back to London.

He looked around and, in a sudden realization soft like a landing feather, noticed that surrounding him, were all the traces he’d left. The patterned tablecloth on the dining table, two thick flannel blankets folded neatly on the arm of the couch, the small lamp placed beside Potter’s armchair. Potter had read a lot lately, and Draco had simply thought it’d be better for him to have some light. Herbs he’d gathered for cooking sat in glass jars in the kitchen cabinets: chives, thyme, dill. The thin leaves of the rosemary sat, too, in a glass jar among all others.

He ran a hand over the embroidered patterns on the quilt. Traced the thick, winding vines, the petals of the blossoming wildflowers. Followed the wavy beams of sunlight, the thin nail of a crescent moon. The threads were firm underneath his fingertips, the colors vibrant. In the quiet, honey-golden sun of the afternoon, they seemed to live a world of their own.

Draco woke up, disoriented to be in his own bedroom. Five thirty in the morning. London was still asleep, the soft, mellow lights of early morning filtering through the gauzy curtains.

He drank coffee, bleary. Pulled his arms into a button-down shirt, stepped into his trousers. Headed to work through the morning hubbub. Sat in front of his desk with another pile of paperwork. He worked through them with a detachment like a theater screen, as though watching someone else. The talk with Astoria hovered at the back of his mind, a brewing storm. Sometimes, in the middle of the day, it swelled when he least expected it to—made it difficult to breathe.

Work ended at five thirty in the evening with a disapproving eye from his department manager, as though he expected him to stay late and work extra hours for the months he’d missed. Draco supposed it was reasonable. He didn’t care enough, though. Once in every few days he walked home instead of taking the Floo so he passed the market. Then he cooked dinner. The chopping was loud in the silent flat, the stirring as spoons clinked against pot, the water boiling—loud. He couldn’t help but feel as though something was missing, the way you still glanced at your empty wrist even if you forgot your watch. A phantom weight leaned against the counter of the sink, arms crossed and teasing. A glint in the eyes, a faint smile warm on the lips. He stared determinedly at the pot of mashed potatoes, stabbing and stirring with a fork. Glimpsed the cider sitting in the fridge when he opened it in search of butter. Paused, then poured himself a mug-full and downed it all.

On the windowsill, the pot of rosemary waved its thin stalks.

The words wouldn’t leave his mind. He sat in a meeting with colleagues whose faces he couldn’t name, lukewarm coffee in hand. Reread a passage on test results of a burn-treating potion three times before registering the words. Unconsciously tapped his feet against the floor until the woman next to him, in her mid-thirties with square-framed glasses and a tight bun, whispered fiercely for him to please stop. He apologized and went back to his paper. He was supposed to take notes. There were still four more to go. He had been on this one for an hour already. You are bound to get hurt, bound to be vulnerable. He could think of nothing else. It doesn’t matter in a way, does it?

Does it?

Potter sent a letter, wishing him a happy birthday. He didn’t even notice the date himself. The letters scrawled all over the place, messy and wild, nearly illegible, but Draco spent a good hour after work sitting at his dining table, his nose pressed close to the parchment, deciphering the words one by one. There were inquiries about how he was, whether his job position turned out fine, jokes about the cottage finally being quiet for once without all his rambling, and when was he coming back to cook stew again? He’d starve without his splendid meals, no doubt. Cissy was fine, Molly’s lambs stuck themselves in a fence (took him hours to get them out), Luna was eating a little less since she was old but she should be fine, too, still vigorous. By the way, Granger and Weasley visited with Rose and little Hugo. Enclosed were countless photos: Cissy sleeping in the barn, Fred-the-lamb bleating fiercely at the camera, Luna gazing into the distance as she flicked her tail and grazed. Baby Hugo, his face no longer all scrunched together but with large eyes and flushed cheeks instead, giggling with wonder. There was one of Potter, too, swinging Rose back and forth from underneath her armpits. Rose screamed with delight. Potter pretended to drop her once or twice and Granger, from the background, yelled as she strode forward while Weasley apparently laughed his head off, the photo wobbling.

All in all, I hope you are doing fine. Happy Birthday. Best wishes, Harry.

That night, he couldn’t sleep. Drank whiskey clean by the balcony. Sometime during the night he climbed out of bed, hazy with determination. He needed to find it. He rummaged through his wardrobe, dug pass the scarves and three-piece suits and dress robes, pass his socks and heavy coats—and still he couldn’t find what he sought. But he couldn’t stop. It was to be found, as a destiny was to be fulfilled. He flung open the suitcase he’d unpacked several weeks ago, threw his boxers all over the floor, until eventually he pulled open the very bottom of his five-drawer dresser beside his bed, and there they were: the three woolen sweaters, inky green and cream and wine red. He crawled back into bed and curled himself into a ball underneath the duvet. Clutched the sweaters tight in front of his chest. He was at rest now that he’d found them. Breathed in the faint smell of sheep, stilling lingering between the threads. Fell asleep.

The next day, he could not focus on a single word in his papers. The letter Harry sent was folded, tucked to the inside of his beast pocket. It pressed against his chest. Inside the office people walked past him, nodded aimlessly at him as he got himself a cup of tea. Faces he couldn’t name. All of them swarming pass him day after day, year after year, and yet he couldn’t name them. Not a single one. He panicked. Not a full force that swept the floor from underneath his feet, but a little nag, faint but consistent at the edge of his mind. Was the man at the tea stand John? Or George? Surely he would have remembered if it was George. Was the woman sitting next to him Camille or Carla? His mind drifted. The tip of his quill leaked ink into the report and blocked, with a stain the size of a dime, a great portion of the second passage. He spent fifteen minutes cleaning it out, and even then threads of blue still lingered. His department manager gave him a thirty minute lecture when he received the notes on the report. Draco stared out of the tiny window.

Is he Harold or Charles?

Back in his flat, he pushed the windows wide open and stepped out to the balcony. The dusk had just settled, a bruising skyline. Down on the road dotted scattered lights of cars, of illuminated windows. A drunk sang, notes dragged on and out of tune, tinny in the warm air.

He wondered what Harry was doing now. He’d probably returned back to the cottage already. Reading, perhaps, like he often did lately. It would be one of the thick books with loose spines—a novel? A record of a sort? Draco thought he’d glimpsed pictures on some pages, though he couldn’t be certain—or a thin booklet, the corners rumpled and smoothed. Lounged in the armchair, his legs folded, thin socks peeping out from underneath. The warm yellow hue of the small lamp caught on the pages, on the strands of his hair. His glasses would slide down from his nose, sitting low. He’d nudge it up every now and then, unaware of the gesture.

A soft ache bloomed in his sternum. He couldn’t name it, couldn’t grasp it, could only tighten his grip on the railing so his knees didn’t give. His knuckles turned white. In his mouth was the aftertaste of the bland cider. He shut his eyes, breathed harshly through his nose.

The ache found a direction, demanded. He walked through the thin corridors to his desk at the office, feeling as though he’d suffocate from the tiny, shut windows. The perfume of the woman next to him made his head hurt. Every click of heels cross the floor, every murmured conversation, every scratch of a quill against parchment made him want to leave, now. His mind wandered back to endless hills parting around him, rolling towards the North Sea. The wide sky, the clear air. It’s high enough up here to feel like flying. Potter, a small figure, standing amidst the flock of sheep in the vast mountains. He’d walked Cho to the front of the barn with such practiced ease. Draco slotted, carefully, a small piece of his own drawing into his wallet. It was of Cho, a mindless piece with few careless charcoal strokes that made up her contour. He touched his fingertips to it. She was always warm underneath her coat of coarse wool, underneath his fingers. He’d buried his face into her belly and cried. She’d indulged it all with a silent flick of tail, her ears like petals under the sorbet sky.

He ran out of cider. Had discovered it too late, noticing only as he picked up the empty jar in a careless swig. That night he was restless. Unable to stand still with the tiny glass of whiskey—he still had a meeting to attend next morning—shifting his weight from one leg to the other on the balcony, his hands on the railing like birds jumping through branches, easily startled and hurried to flee. The next morning his mind was a haywire. He entered the conference with a cup of coffee already cold in his hands. The caffeine left him jittery. He shifted to the edge of his seat, hiked a leg up, then leaned back against the back of the chair. The department manager—Leonard? Howard?—pointed vivaciously to something on the board with his wand. Draco couldn’t hear a word. It piled and piled and piled until it spilled—

He pushed himself up from his seat. The roomful of people silenced. Leonard or Harold stared at him, face blotchy and agape.

“I have to go,” he said, then pushed his way out of the doors.

***

It was nearly sundown when he finally made it to Harry’s cottage.

Draco had seen it halfway up the hill. It was wondrous how his heart still pounded even in exhaustion, how he still worried his bottom lip before remembering, and stopped. Everything so familiar, coming back slowly but all at once. He pushed open the short gate—it had been fixed, the loose joint secured so it didn’t crook—and made his way to the front door. Standing under the patio, he took a deep breath. Knocked, then stood on the tip of his toes as he waited.

No one came.

Draco waited until his nerves got the better of him, and then tentatively pushed at the door. It opened without a budge. He was mildly astounded to find that the wards still recognized him, accepted him and let him in. Something warm tingled and spread across his chest, something foolishly akin to hope.

But Gryffindors have always been fools.

He looked around, stepping into the living room. The cottage was empty. Harry, it seemed, hadn’t come back yet. A mug was left on the short table, the curtains half-pulled. The quilt was nowhere in sight, leaving only the two blankets on the couch. Draco walked to the windows. The hills, now every shade of green, were starting to turn pink and purple in the moments before a sunset. Rolled back, blended into the far mountains where the very tops were still covered in snow, white blending into blue.

He had had to take the only available portkey left. After weaving through crowds on the streets in humid air, sweat gathering at his nape where his collar rubbed his neck raw, the cool air in the Ministry seemed all too silent, dead. Only after he’d arrived at Scotland did he realize that he had no idea where Harry’s cottage was located and therefore, could neither Apparate since the distance might be too far, nor take any other kind of transportation. It took him another four hours trying to communicate—first to the witch at the information center, then to anyone who passed him—the tiny village where he and Harry had been for Christmas. Finally a local farmer in khaki suspenders with a thick accent recognized where he was talking about and cheerily showed him the apparition points across a gigantic, yellowed map that took up a whole wall in the lobby. He clapped Draco on the back as he bellowed his farewells, voice blooming over the near empty lobby.

Now, standing in Harry’s cottage by the window, he just wanted to fall asleep. Warmth, tired and gentle, welled in his chest and then settled with a soft sigh. He’d lie on the couch and pull one of the blankets over him. Fold his arms on the short table, curl himself up in the armchair. Anywhere. Just being here would be enough.

“Draco?”

By the open door, Harry stood. His contour framed by the golden rays of the sinking sun, so for a moment it was difficult to see his face, but then he did: his eyes wide, mouth slightly open. One hand still on the door knob. His flannel shirt half-tucked into his trousers, the other half pouring out like a tail. The dishevelment was such a darling sight that it knocked him over like a tide, and for a second Draco couldn’t speak, couldn’t move—could only see, and seeing alone was too much. He wanted to laugh, wanted to cry. In the end he buried his face into his hands with a strangled sob.

“Wait, what—what did I do? Is that really you? Merlin, it’s really you. Gee.” Harry laughed, incredulous, as he walked over. That, too, was too much. A sudden spring of waterfall over a croaked land that for a split second, shook the land with its simplicity. Draco’s throat thickened. Such stupidity. “Am I that horrifying to see? Am I that dirty? I mean, the hills were pretty muddy with the rain last night. Gee, the first thing you do when you see me again is to cry. What else did I expect?”

Harry laughed and rambled as he took Draco gently by the elbow and led him to the couch. Squeezed Draco’s wrist, then rummaged through his fridge and took out a jar of cider and two mugs—his mug—settled back beside Draco. Draco traced his thumb to the chipped handle, an intrinsic touch.

Harry looked at him over the rim of his mug as he drank. His eyes were brighter than he’d remembered, the corners crinkling faintly. When he brought his mug to his lap, he was smiling. “What brought you back? I thought you’d at last give me a heads up, so you don’t—” he gestured vaguely, laughed— “break down over the mess?”

How could he start? Everything that happened in the past two months stumbled over one another all at once, rushing to the clog of his voice. He could not start, but amidst the toppling of emotions, words fell out before he could even comprehend them—a simple truth. “I ran out of cider.”

Harry grinned. There was no condescension, only teasing. “Ah. I have plenty if you’d like to take some back. London had awful cider, doesn’t it? There goes another reason why I can’t go back. I do live off cider...”

Draco, as though through a fog, as though watching someone else do it, as though inevitable—raised his hands. Placed them by either side of Harry’s face. Harry’s words faltered, trailed off. Draco’s hands hovered by Harry’s cheeks, trembling slightly. Swallowed.

And, in the no-man’s land between touching and not touching, between having and unable to, Draco leaned in and kissed him.

Harry gasped. Draco pressed his lips lightly to Harry’s—barely a brush—made to pull back, but then Harry started kissing him back. It was nothing like the day by the fireplace, the drunken endeavor: Harry opened his mouth up for them, winded his hands to Draco’s nape. His short beard rubbed at Draco’s cheek as he pulled him close, kissed him hard and full, his fingers a rough path at his jaw. His mouth hot, and Draco felt like dying and rebirth all at once. Felt like life itself, the unfurling of leaves in spring—his heart thrumming until he couldn’t think, could only touch, only sense. He cupped Harry’s jaw in his hands, tilted his head. Angled them deeper. Harry made a soft, muffled sound from the back of his throat. It unlocked a cupboard in Draco’s chest, something he’d covered up and long gathered dust out of fear—now it opened, welled, immersed Draco in the wild warmth of it all.

Now that he’d finally worked through the treacherous path of his heart, now that they’re finally in each other’s arms, Draco couldn’t imagine letting go. Couldn’t imagine stop kissing. To breathe was only to dive deeper. He caressed Harry’s cheek, traced the rough patch of his beard—his fingers clutching at his nape where the skin emitted warmth. The kiss slowed to a hum, to a lingering, unwilling to let go. Their breathes hot and fragmented, mingled. Draco half-opened his eyes, as though waking from a dream in the morning and still trying to sink back in. Harry’s lips were parted. Draco couldn’t help but put two fingers to them, dazed at how easily the tenderness gave in.

He remembered the words, spoke them without thinking. His voice hoarse, throat thick. “I’m…” Their lips brushed with every syllable, every faint puff of air. “I’m not trying to copy your looks.”

Harry huffed a laugh. It was as if nothing had happened between that cold, drunken night and the present. A mere continuing, loose threads joined once again. “Are you not, now?”

“No.” Draco’s lids dropped as he tilted his head, leaned in. “I can’t…pull it off.”

Harry shut him up with a kiss, like Draco meant for him to. A slow drag of lips, as if making up for lost time. And how much time they had lost to his own foolishness, to his own pride, his cowardice. He wanted to pull away and apologize. Tell Harry how much of a fool he was. The soft ache tugged at his chest again, the very center of him, a thin thread. Draco wanted to tell him everything. How much he’d longed for him, all those months wasted—

Harry’s hand dropped to his nape then down, to his chest. Left of it, where his heart beat. Pressed it close until there were no seams, only skin against skin through a thin layer of fabric. His palm warm all over, and Draco melted underneath. The soft ache flowed into the stream of warmth, into the air, away, away.

Dinner was cooked with a strange familiarity, as though reliving an old dream. Harry leaned over the counter by the sink with his arms crossed, teasing. Draco complained about the emptiness of the fridge, that Harry didn’t know how to buy groceries, didn’t how to feed himself, and how did he even manage these two months without Draco if he couldn’t even buy the right vegetables? To which Harry replied that there were obviously enough in the fridge and cabinets combined, the fridge was over half full and there were onions in the cupboards. Draco murmured as he stirred the pot of lamb stew. Harry laughed, bright and clear, and kissed him from behind, leaning his weight onto him as he dragged Draco sideways so Draco nearly fell over. Draco nearly knocked over the pot—spluttered, incredulous, reached for his wand to hex Harry out of the kitchen, but before he could Harry kissed him again. There was something about every kiss they shared, as if they couldn’t refrain from closeness any longer. As if they couldn’t bear not to lay their hearts out so the other knew for certain. In the end, Draco knocked his head into the top cupboards, Harry crowding into him—his hands roaming over Draco’s back, his sides, up and down as if mapping out his body—before Draco smelt the burnt stew and startled, jumping to shut the stove.

He was clumsy. He never knew he could be, but he was, in his spluttering and flushing as Harry brought him to his bedroom. They stumbled all the way back from the couch, Harry knocking the short table sideways and pushing him into the wall twice. Draco didn’t know anything, only that he wanted. Wanted, with a clear-headedness that startled him through the haze of his mind. They slowed, though, once on the bed. Harry took his time unbuttoning Draco’s shirt, fingers pushing the buttons through, one by one. Took his time tucking Draco’s trousers off, out of his legs. Kissed along his warm, bare arm, his lips a slow drag. Each gentle press like a blossom.

Draco ran a hand over Harry’s fringe, brushed it out of his eyes. Harry looked at him from underneath his eyelashes, dropped another kiss on the soft skin of his inner arm.

The embroidered patterns on the duvet was rough against his back. The air cool, heat tumbling off his own body in waves. He gasped, nails digging into Harry’s back—then everything was pleasure, sending him high up the clouds and hot everywhere. He cried Harry’s name like a prayer. Harry cradled him through it all, his head close to his chest, murmuring—panting by his ear. Broken words, stumbling phrases, asking if he was alright, if he needed, if he wanted—

Draco thought he saw stars.

Later, coming down from soaring high, they were quiet. Draco found Harry’s hand underneath the duvets, hooked their pinkies. Harry turned his palm up and intertwined their fingers. Held Draco’s hand loosely in his.

Strange, how after all that they’d done this was what made him warm all over his chest. Giddy and intimate, wanting to laugh out of pure happiness. He turned, only to find Harry already looking at him with a faint smile at his lips. It was still odd to see him without his glasses, the openness on his face. It must’ve tumbled off the bed, must’ve dropped to the floor, perhaps with a thud, like their shirts and trousers did. Like their belts and their socks.

Draco pressed his thumb to the corner of Harry’s eye. Harry closed his eyes.

“I can feel your smiles here,” Draco whispered.

“Is that so?” Harry whispered back. Turned, fit his mouth to the inside of Draco’s wrist, murmured. “I’m old, then.”

“No you’re not.”

“No?”

“No. I’m not old yet and I’m older than you.”

“By barely a month.”

“By more than a month.”

“Okay, you win.” Harry pressed a kiss to Draco’s wrist. “Old man.”

Draco pressed his hand to the side of Harry’s face. Fit his palm to the shape of it, the rise and dip of bones, the plains of his cheek. Even underneath the humming heat of the duvets, the air warm against his bare skin—his arm, his shoulder—Harry still felt like a dream. It seemed impossible to have him right underneath his fingertips, right beside him, after two lonely months in London.

“I’ve missed you,” he said. Quiet, a little helpless in the searching of Harry’s face. Harry noticed his tone and shifted closer, wrapped his arm over his back. His fingers a mindless caress, light.

“I’ve missed you, too,” Harry said, closing his eyes as he sighed. Nudged their noses together, kissed him again. “I’ve missed you, too.”

Epilogue

It was two weeks before the exhibition that Draco sent the letter. It had all been so bizarre, how it all started, that every process which followed seemed surreal, as if it could stop rolling at any moment and Draco would wake up to discover that none of it had actually happened. So he waited for the waking up until it was clear that it really was happening, that there was no going back now, and only then did he mention it in the letter. Bizarre was not the word he chose—only a small sentence. An afterthought, a small wonder in the midst of all other mundane things he’d mentioned. And I’m having an art exhibition. How quaint.

He and Harry had been exchanging letters for nearly a year now. Every now and then he wondered what it would have been like if he’d stayed in Scotland and not returned. No art exhibition, that was for sure. But perhaps he wouldn’t have minded that much.

He’d stayed at Harry’s for three days after his breakdown in the middle of the conference, and was fired the instant he set foot back into London. The Howlers shrieking by the doors of his flat were, to be frank, quite unprofessional. That was when the first letter was sent, with distant amusement. Look, now I’ve got no job. Should have stayed with you in Scotland, yes? A mere week later the reply arrived—rather fast, Draco remembered thinking—but it wasn’t from Harry. Isla Allen, she introduced herself, from another potion company. She was sorry to hear what had happened recently, but perhaps he’d like to spend an afternoon with them to discuss a couple things?

See? Harry replied after this recent news, no doubt smug. I told you.

It was bizarre, too, that for all their discussion about finding themselves and not wasting their lives it was Harry who insisted he come back. Draco remembered the day; it was hard to forget. Second morning, waking up slightly disoriented on Harry’s bed. His heart warming as he noticed Harry looking at him already, his green eyes clear in the morning lights. A kiss, clumsy with sleep but still had his heart speeding, a little doe bumping against his ribcage. Everything was new and giddy. Every time Harry reached for his hand he grinned helplessly.

“Morning,” Harry murmured into his mouth. His hand in Draco’s hair, slow and light.

Draco sighed. “Morning.”

After breakfast, after the sausages and scrambled eggs and orange juice—Draco wearing Harry’s loose t-shirt as he cooked, Harry grinning and teasing—Harry said he wanted to show him something. They climbed onto the tractor. Harry explained that the sheep were in the fells now and would stay there for the rest of the summer until it was time to clip them. They required little care and would do well on their own.

“Is that where we’re going?” Draco asked. The engine rumbled to life, drowning his voice. “The fells?”

“You’ll see.”

The grasses were tall, rolling pass them as they drove. They swayed in the wind, a rippling sea of green: timothy, common bent, meadow grasses. The stone wall he once followed was now buried underneath the yellow rattle, its scattered flowers. Draco closed his eyes and let the wind caress his cheeks, let it comb through and rumple his hair. Beside him, Potter’s hair was wildly flipped back. His unbuttoned flannel shirt flapped on both sides of his white t-shirt, two wings of scarlet red. He turned the wheel with ease, a faint smile at his lips, the other hand resting on the gear between them.

Blushing fiercely, Draco covered Harry’s hand with his—looked away in abashment only to throw a quick glance at Harry, whose smile widened. Draco looked away, but traced the rough edges of Harry’s fingers, his blunt nails. His large hand, underneath his.

He saw it before they arrived. Just a small patch at first, blocked by the angles of closer fells, but then widened as the tractor climbed uphill and slowed to a halt, as Harry turned off the engine. His breath stopped.

The hills, the endless rolling waves of them, were a sea of blooming heather.

A thousand shades of pink, of purple—a thousand different shades of a single color, laid bare. Not for them, but in front of them all the same. They swayed slightly in the wind, rippling, stretching until the hills faded out of sight, until it coalesced with the soft blue of the North Sea.

“My favorite place in summer,” Harry said, soft.

Draco looked at him, then back at the hills of heather. For a couple minutes they simply sat. Hands joined loosely on the gear, beside each other. Then Harry slipped out of his seat with a huff. Draco followed.

He couldn’t see the flat, protruding rock they’d once sat on, but Harry pulled him down and they settled on the hard earth. The air was cool up here. Draco wanted to close his eyes and take in the sea of heather all at once.

Beside him, Harry squeezed his hand.

“I can stay,” Draco suddenly whispered. Turned to Harry. Harry looked slightly bewildered.

“I don’t have to go back. It’s meaningless, anyway. I can stay here with you. I don’t have to…” Draco took a shuddery breath and looked away. “It’s nonsense. Never mind.”

“No." Harry twined their fingers together, traced the knuckles at his thumb. "Tell me.”

Draco let out a laugh. “That’s cheating.”

Harry smiled. “It’s taking advantage of the knowledge I have.”

“Knowledge being?”

“You like me.”

Draco blushed faintly. Still, hearing it out loud made him want to shy away. “I like you.”

“Yes. And I like you, too.” Harry grinned. “Very much.”

Draco’s cheeks burned. Harry laughed and pulled him in, as Draco burrowed his face into Harry’s neck. Harry curled his fingers into the short hair at his nape, stroked.

“They’re not going to forgive me anyway,” Draco whispered. Closed his eyes. “No matter how hard I try. Why bother?”

“You’re not doing it for them. All that you’ve done, you’re doing it for yourself.”

“I know. I’m just tired.”

“I know.”

Perhaps Harry did, just in a different way. Perhaps this was why he came to Scotland. The following silence, though laden, was comfortable. Draco turned his head to an angle that fit better to Harry’s shoulder. He didn’t need to think about it right now. He had tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that…

“We should travel together to some place,” Harry said.

“I thought you didn’t want to travel.”

“You made me want to.” Harry mouthed his hair. “You and your filling up the fridge and cupboards, buying patterned tablecloths, putting a pot of rosemary on the windowsill and insist it turn a correct angle so it got enough sunlight...I thought there was nothing more to life. But there was. And you, you’re in the center of it.”

Draco couldn’t look at him with his burning cheeks, his burning neck.

“So, where do you say?” Harry pressed a sloppy kiss to the top of his head. “Paris? The States? Somewhere farther…Hokkaido?”

Isla Allen was a short, round woman, white hair weaving through dark brown. Her thin eyes made it look as though she was always smiling. Draco was hired the very next day after their cuppa and was to start work the next week. The new company was larger, its lobby marbled, and Draco had his own office. He spent a weekend collecting the things he’d bring: photos of Cissy, quills and bottles of ink, a mug and extra sugar packets. Longbottom, out of the blue, sent a pot of succulent with a brief letter of congratulations, hinting at Harry’s mention of his rosemary and love for plants. Draco thanked him and, in his next letter, threatened to murder Harry. Harry simply ignored the notion.

The letters barely sufficed, though they had little else to choose from: Harry didn’t want his cottage linked to the Floo network, so Firecall wasn’t an option. Draco couldn’t go on holidays every weekend, and Harry didn’t want to set foot back to London, especially considering the hungry press. The letters weren’t enough, but little was more than nothing. There was something sweet about the hand-written words, the illegible scrawl (though he always complained about it), the thick parchment piling up on his nightstand. They wrote about ordinary stuff: Draco’s colleague at his office two doors down, baking hay under the sun for winter, the pot of succulent Longbottom gifted, clipping sheep—enclosed with photographs of naked ewes and their frightened, puzzled lambs. Draco reread them again and again until the parchment was worn smooth, the inked letters smudged. Sitting on his bed, the letters illuminated by a small lamp, he tried not to imagine Harry perhaps doing the same thing at the same exact moment. Three hundred miles apart but close all the same.

The exhibition had started as an accident. A joke, almost, or so Draco thought. His colleague two doors down glimpsed the tiny portrait of Cho he’d kept in his wallet, marveled at how good it was, to which Draco nodded awkwardly in response. The colleague—Michael you can call me Mike—then brought up the incident to Isla Allen, who agreed that it indeed was quality artwork, and did Draco draw it himself? Must have taken a lot of time, what was the inspiration behind it? Did he have more drawings at home? They could possibly arrange an exhibition if he’d like, if there were enough drawings. Where to set it up? Could be the lounging room. No, too many people use the space during lunch. How about the garden in the back? They could set up temperature charms since it was outdoors, and humidity charms if necessary, surely Briony would be happy to help… In the end it was decided that the lobby would be the best choice, and that it would probably take them a week to clear the space, but setting it up could be done in no time. Could Draco bring the artwork here himself? Were special preservation charms to be cast during the transportation? If it was a bother they could arrange, too, for a team of five or six to help…

So it was set up. Portraits were framed and titled, partitions were set up, and the drawings were brought—including some watercolor paintings he’d done in leisure after he came back to London, using the set of paint Potter gifted him on Christmas, of the Scottish forests and hills in his memory. Draco watched everything as though watching a dream, still waiting, in part, for someone to laugh out loud all of a sudden to put a stop to it. To say it was merely a joke, how funny that everyone went along, now life was to be put back on its tracks—

No such person appeared.

It was with the same dream-like quality that he stood among his work, watching his colleagues disappear and reappear through the partitions. Dream-like, too, when he saw Harry standing in front of one portrait, head tilted. For a moment he thought that it must really be a dream, for it was impossible for Harry to be here. He wanted it to last, though. So he watched, silently willing the dream not to end, until Harry glimpsed him and grinned.

Draco was stunned frozen.

Then Harry was walking towards him. Casually, not especially fast or strong or slow, but to Draco it felt like a thousand years as he took the steps. A thousand years, his hands stuffed in his pockets, glasses catching the light of the lobby. He wore a cornflower blue shirt, had left his collar unbuttoned, and it looked exceptionally smart on him. How unfair, that he looked so at ease as he took the steps that would end the distance between them? Seconds before Harry reached him, when Harry had opened his mouth to speak, his lips parted—Draco grabbed his arm and dragged him all the way back to his office.

“What are you doing here?” Draco asked in a furious hush, shutting the doors behind him.

“To see your exhibition.”

“You didn’t tell me—”

“Well, no. It’s a surprise. You know, when you’re not supposed to know about it until it actually happens?” Harry tugged Draco close, then his smile dropped. “You’re upset.”

Draco tried to look away. “I’m not upset.”

“You’re certainly not happy.”

“I am happy. I am—” Draco dropped his head to Harry’s shoulder, inhaled deeply. Harry covered his nape with his hand and, carefully, stroked the short strands of hair. Draco let out a deep breath. “I am.”

They stayed like this, Harry swaying them gently. Draco loosened the clutch on his shirt and wrapped his arms loosely around Harry’s back. Buried his face into his neck. He hadn’t seen him since Christmas, and that was nearly six months ago. A soft ache tugged at his sternum. Was the rest of his life going to be like this, he wondered. Missing Harry like an endless stream until the next time they met again.

“I’ve missed you,” he finally said, voice muffled. Harry combed a hand through his hair, lifted Draco’s face. Draco, adamant, tried to look away but gave in—looked into Harry’s eyes. His face was just as he remembered, his eyes just as green. Just as bright. The corners of his eyes crinkled with a faint smile.

“I’ve missed you, too,” Harry whispered, then kissed him.

It was meant to be chaste, but they drew it long—Draco unwilling to let go, Harry complying. It slowed into a drag of lips and mingled breaths, until someone knocked on Michael’s door two offices down and Draco, suddenly remembering where he was, pulled away. Harry’s eyes were still dazed, and it took Draco three tries to successfully stop him from chasing him back into the kiss.

“No fair,” Harry muttered. “You started it.”

Draco fingered at the buttons at Harry’s collar. Pushing it in, pushing it out. Breath still laden, he inhaled and cleared his throat before speaking again. “Work ends in three hours.”

“Three?”

“You can stay in my office if you want.”

Harry covered his hands at his collar. “Where else could I go?”

So the three hours were spent distracted, with Harry lounging on a chair and watching him—Draco knew he was, he could feel his gaze on him, could feel his teasing grin—and Draco blushing down his neck as he worked through the papers. Michael came once to discuss a research that was to be conducted in two weeks, and raised an eyebrow at Harry. Draco cleared his throat to focus Michaels’s attention as well as his own back to work matters.

“He’s bound to ask questions next Monday,” Draco muttered as he picked up his light coat. They were ready to leave, Harry waiting by the door. “All the questions he’d come up with after a weekend of brooding. Circe, kill me now.”

“What is it?”

“Nosy colleagues.”

“Ah—”

“Don’t ah me, this is entirely your fault!”

They walked through the lobby to the front gates, again passing Draco’s exhibition. Draco noticed people murmuring about in their direction and felt uncomfortable down his back. Apparently Harry noticed it, too, if the stiffness in his shoulders was anything to go by. Draco pushed the gates open and Apparated them to his flat with a faint pop.

***

Harry was to stay for two days. He’d leave tomorrow morning, and visit Granger and Weasley before heading back to Scotland. He’d paid a kid from a nearby farm to look over his sheep for these two days. Seventeen years old, Harry said, and had been helping on his family’s farm since he was a child. Still, he didn’t want to leave the sheep for too long.

It was odd, seeing Harry in his flat. Harry, with his messy hair and scratched glasses, among his London-styled furniture. He seemed to belong to the small cottage in Scotland instead of here, looking around as if he didn’t know what to do.

Draco cooked dinner. Harry first wandered about, peeking into rooms, then rounded his way back to the counter by the sink, teasing as he leaned over. Draco muttered about the lack of ingredients, about the lack of prior notice, saying that if Harry had at least sent a Patronus ahead of time he’d have taken twenty minutes to pick up something fresh at the market, but no, instead they had to make do with fish—

They ate, Harry much quieter than usual. Draco tried to chat but to no avail, getting nothing more than a remark, a quick laugh. He sent Harry to the living room while he did the dishes. Dried his hands with a towel, and when he stepped into the living room Harry was studying a tiny cherry tree on the hearth. It was wooden carved, sat in a tiny pot with a tree full of blossoms. The petals, now and then, fell in a soft shower of pink, as if a breeze had brushed through the branches.

“Japan,” Draco said. Harry startled, straightened and turned. “It’s from wizarding Japan. I’ve traveled there once.”

“Japan?”

“Hokkaido.”

“You never told me.”

“Well. It has never exactly come up in conversations, has it?”

Harry looked torn. Draco didn’t know why, only that it was getting on his nerves, too. He stepped closer to Harry. “Hey.”

“I’m fine.”

“I didn’t say anything—”

“It’s fine.”

“Harry.” Draco touched Harry’s face. Harry looked away as if trying to escape, still saying that he was he was alright, he didn’t—Draco cupped his cheeks. “Harry, look at me.”

The bright green eyes were a haywire. Draco caressed his cheeks, searched his face. Harry’s breath was heavy, his shoulders tense. Why hadn’t he noticed?

“Hey,” he said again. “Okay?”

Harry nodded, taking a deep breath. Draco pressed his lips lightly to his. Harry let out a shuddery sigh, clutched his shirt. Draco kept it slow, opened his mouth. One hand cradling Harry’s face, the other holding his nape. Harry’s breath slowed as the kiss turned deep, as the world confined to this—their breaths mingled, gentle hearts laid bare. Draco caressed Harry’s cheeks as he pulled away, his fingers at the tail end of his beard where it blended into short tufts of hair, scratchy.

“Okay?” he murmured. Harry nodded again, closed his eyes. Dropped his head to Draco’s shoulder.

They decided to go for a walk. A skirmish took place before the decision: Draco suggested, but then backtracked when he realized that the Thames went through wizarding London. People had seen Harry already, the press was still as hungry. Harry said that he’d made his decision to come back, so he would bear the consequences—something about reckless Gryffindors, something about Slytherins. In the end Draco compromised, agreeing to go through only the Muggle portions of the river.

“After I take a shower?” Harry asked, gesturing. “I stink of sheep.”

“I’m used to the smell.”

“And sweat.”

“Never mind. Go take your shower.”

Harry grinned and made to leave. Draco held him back by his elbow at the last minute.

“Thank you for coming,” he said quietly. “I…I am happy. I am.”

Harry’s face softened. He quickly pecked Draco on the lips, then headed to the bathroom.

Draco sat on the couch. Soon the tap started running, the plumbs humming through the walls. He wrought his hands on his lap and looked around, the edge of his mind still nagged. Worried his bottom lip and then, in a rush, pushed himself up and marched straight to the bathroom.

The steam had already fogged up the shower doors, the air warm and humid. Draco stripped. Harry’s silhouette was a blur behind the glass. He grinned when Draco pushed the door open, stubbornly refusing to look straight at him naked.

“Hello?” he teased. Draco flushed like a lobster.

They washed each other and ended up kissing, rocking slowly, Harry pressed against the cold tiles. The spray down Draco’s side burned his skin red. His hands buried in Harry’s thick hair, finally tamed once under the cascading water. Harry’s mouth was hot, the sounds of their kissing dampened by the shower.

“I’m alright,” Harry murmured into the kiss. Roamed his hands down Draco’s slippery back. “I’m alright. You know that, right?”

Draco nodded even though he didn’t believe a word, opening his mouth up again.

Afterwards, Harry seemed ridiculously happy. They walked along the Thames, the back of their hands brushing. The air was warm. Pink clouds piled along the edge of the sky, above the running river reflecting the last of sunlight. At some point it was just them: no one else on the nearby bridge, no one else riding bikes down the pavement. Draco held Harry’s hand, then, and realized that it had softened. He stopped them, surprised, and brought Harry’s hands to his face. They smelt like rosemary.

Harry looked at him with a faint smile.

“You’re using it,” Draco said, soft with disbelief. The hand cream. The memories rushed back to him: the bright calendulas, the falling into a river, gasping. Cho. Scraping his hands and face, sitting in front of a fire, Harry spreading salve over his forehead. They seemed so faraway, coming back bright and blurred with a warm halo, with a whirl of intensity. How foolish they were, then, sitting so close yet so faraway. How young they had seemed when it was merely a year ago.

“Draco.”

Harry. Now he was here, walking alongside him in London. The moment struck Draco with the finest details: Harry’s messy hair, the curled strands against the pink clouds. His brown skin, the faint, white lighting zigzagging down his forehead and cutting through his brow. His eyes behind the glasses. Green, so green Draco thought he lost himself in them. His heart flooded with warmth, like the early summer air around them.

Harry laughed and tugged him along. Draco spent the rest of their journey with his cheeks tinged pink. He could get used to this, he thought. Walking along the Thames by sundown with Harry. Once in a year, perhaps. Maybe twice. But this was good, this was enough.

This was more than enough.

They took their time on bed. Both half-naked, Draco sat on the edge of the bed as Harry, knelt between his legs, tucked his trousers off inch by inch. He kissed Draco’s inner thigh, trailed his way up—his beard scratching the warm and tender skin. Draco gasped, hands clutched tight in Harry’s hair. Gasped as he was pinned into the soft bed, underneath the hot weight of Harry’s body. His chest was so full he could combust. His limbs singing, his own body expiring as he wondered, through a haze, if he would ever not lose himself in this. If this would ever not fill him to the brim.

Later, they were quiet. They seemed to always be quiet in the aftermath. There was something—the night breeze through the window, the crumpled sheets, the sweltering heat underneath the duvet—that made it feel as though silence meant more than words. Draco put his hand to the center of Harry’s chest, the oval scar. The skin was so oddly smooth that it lured him like dancing fire. He had seen it before, knew what it was. Harry said his death never left a mark, but this felt like it: at the very center of him.

Draco touched it with the tips of his fingers. He probably shouldn’t look at it so blatantly, so often, shouldn’t touch it as though he was drawn to it. But he was. This scar, this pink, oval mark the size of a coin, was the lock to Harry’s death—and his life. If he touched it, some day he would unlock it. Harry never stopped him, only watched. Sometimes he fell asleep like that, Draco’s hand warm against his chest.

He didn’t stop him now. Reached down, threaded his fingertips loosely though Draco’s, as though he wanted to hold his hand—changed his mind, pressed it to his chest instead. Against the sparse hair, against the heated skin, Draco could feel Harry’s heart beating. A little fast, the muscles of his chest moving with it. Right underneath his fingers.

He dozed off like that. Remembered, at the verge of drifting into sleep, Harry’s face underneath the soft moonlight. The carve of his nose, the plains of his cheeks. The faint scar on his left cheek, disappearing into his beard. His lips, soft and open. Sometime during the night he woke up to Harry’s cries, the moment Harry jolted awake from his nightmare—his eyes wide open, a sheen of sweat on his forehead. Staring at the ceiling, as though still seeing the haunted memory.

“Shh,” Draco murmured. Groggily, he reached for Harry’s face, cupped it in his hands. Pulled him close. He’d seen this before, too, one too many nights to finally understand why Harry thought to live was not to be adventurous, but to find peace. Draco held his nape as Harry burrowed his face into Draco’s neck, breath still harsh. Rounded his arms around Draco’s body, clutch tight. Draco carded through his hair and stroked, mumbled. “Shh, it’s alright…c’mere. It’s alright…”

He did not wake again until dawn. Climbed blearily awake, searched for the space beside him—empty. It was just a morning like any other, him splayed out alone in his bed. Then he remembered and jolted, head pounding clear. Pushed himself off the bed, hissing at the cold floor as he stumbled to the living room, a name ready on his tongue—

And found Harry on the balcony, his silhouette half-hidden behind the gauzy curtains.

Draco sagged. He walked over, pulled the French doors open, and stepped into the cold morning air. Harry was in only cotton pajama pants. Draco wrapped his arm around Harry’s warm, bare torso, dropped his head to the crook of his neck. Now that the crisis was over, he wanted to sleep again.

“Sorry,” Harry said softly. Turned his head a little, his mouth to Draco’s temple. “Didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Draco’s voice was muffled with sleep. “Morning air ‘s good for health.”

Harry chuckled. “Is it, now?”

Draco hummed, nonsensical. Harry covered his hands with his own and stroked his knuckles. His hands were larger than Draco’s, calloused but soft, firm. Draco, in turn, stroked Harry’s belly and earned another chuckle.

“It’s just odd,” Harry said with a sigh. “I haven’t been back in ten years. So much has changed. But so much hasn’t, either.”

Below them, the city was still asleep. The street lamps still lit, faint in the dove grey of dawn. A car ran down the long street and disappeared with a turn into the buildings. The sun was rising, but they couldn’t see it from here save for the bland light inching up the sky, bright white among foggy blue.

“It’s still the same,” Draco said. “Just different.”

Harry’s neck was warm, smooth, a lovely nook. Draco buried his nose deeper. The city slowly woke under daylight, the street lamps extinguishing. Down the park, the earliest of birds chirped.

“Yes,” Harry whispered. “Still the same, just different.”