Chapter 1: 1 December
Harry never sleeps well, exactly. So there’s always a disorienting moment just as he’s waking, when his pulse starts to race and his body tries to decide if he’s in danger. Even ten years after the war he can still jerk upright convinced he’s in the Forest of Dean trying to pull together some final strands of hope. It always takes a moment to recognise the thick blackout curtains of his own bedroom at Grimmauld Place, or to rub the crick out of his neck and find he’s fallen asleep at his desk. Or, like now, to breath in a deep lungful of antiseptic potion, feel the stiff institutional sheets, and realise he’s in St Mungo’s. Again.
He blinks slowly, taking an inventory of his body. A twinge in his lower calf. A vile taste in the back of his throat that suggests he’s had a broad-spectrum anti-curse potion fed to him at some point. Sight’s a little blurry, but that’s probably…
“Here. Your glasses.”
Hermione passes him the frames and he slips them on, watching her weary expression sharpen into focus. Her hair is escaping its elastic. She’s still in uniform, one shoulder of her Auror robes singed black and ragged. Gladys in Requisitions is going to be so mad.
It comes back to him in flashes. His own deeply-held conviction that he knew exactly what the suspect was going to do. Hermione’s furious shout. The spelled tripwire. The blinding glare of the explosion.
“The hostage?” he asks, panicked.
“Alive, but critically wounded. They have her in a spell-induced coma.”
Alive is something. Alive he can work with.
Hermione’s whole face is a mask of tired disapproval. In the years they’ve been Auror partners, it’s a look that’s become all too familiar.
“You’re suspended, of course. Robards doesn’t want you back until the new year.”
That almost feels like a relief, though he tries not to let it show. The idea of fronting up on Monday for a bollocking from Robards is not exactly appealing. “Only a month. That’s not so bad,” he says tentatively, steeling himself for Hermione’s reaction.
“For you, maybe! It’s December, Harry. On top of my already frankly ridiculous workload, I’m supposed to be getting ready to host the Weasley family Christmas, because for reasons passing understanding, Ron thought Molly needed a year off. As if that woman has ever enjoyed someone else hosting her for anything.”
Hermione’s really gearing up, now. If Harry squints he can almost see the steam coming out of her ears.
“Ron works half the hours that I do in the shop, but I’m the one who’s been receiving “helpful” recipe suggestions since August. And now, in addition to cooking practice turkeys on the weekends so we don’t poison the entire extended family at the end of the month, I’m lumped with your paperwork and covering your arse! Again!”
Harry sinks back into his pillow, looking up at the ceiling guiltily.
“I thought Marsden was going to—”
“That’s the point, Harry! You always think you know what you’re doing. But protocol is there for a sodding reason. So that you don’t get injured, hostages don’t get knocked out, and suspects we’ve been tracking for six months don’t escape!”
Harry bristles. That feels a bit unfair. It’s true that he hates the rules and the procedures and all the nonsense they’re supposed to go through. Regulations are no substitute for what it's like in the field. Being an Auror should be instinctive.
Though it’s also true his instincts have been a little off lately.
“What’s her prognosis?” Harry asks. The furious energy leaks out of Hermione and she slumps back in her seat, frowning at him.
“The curse damage was extensive, and reacted poorly with that case of potions that exploded when you fired at the suspect. They need a specialist. But fortunately someone is starting here in the morning who has the right experience. A transfer from the wizarding wing of Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris. She’ll be his first case.”
Harry nods. At least the young woman will be getting the best care. Hard enough to learn that your fiancé was a dangerous sociopath bent on poisoning wizarding Britain’s supply of Pepper-Up just in time for the Christmas holidays. Maybe she’s better off asleep for a while.
“You need to stay overnight for observation. Luna said she’d be back to check on you soon.”
At least she’ll be a friendly face. Hermione’s pinched expression is making Harry feel tired.
“I have to go.” Hermione gets to her feet with a sigh. She glances at her watch. “Fuck practice turkeys. I’m buying everything from the Harrods Food Hall on Christmas Eve, Muggle crowds be damned. And I guarantee she doesn’t even notice. She’ll be too busy rearranging the way I’ve set the table.”
“Send my love to the kids,” he mumbles.
“As if I’ll get to see them for the next month. The presents better be good this year, Harry. I’m serious.” She stalks from the room letting the door clang shut behind her with a bang.
One time, he thinks with a scowl. Just one year when he’d been a bit distracted and only remembered he needed to buy gifts at the eleventh hour and everyone had gotten something from the sale table at the local Muggle shop. He’s sure Ron’s used that souvenir mug in the shape of Big Ben at least once. Probably.
The door opens again more gently and Luna comes in, the hideous lime green of her Healer’s robes somehow made worse by having been edged in red tinsel.
“Welcome back, Harry,” she says with a broad smile, as if finding oneself in hospital again is something to be genuinely delighted about.
“You look very festive,” he manages. He suspects her earrings might be actual Christmas tree baubles. They cycle through a series of different coloured lights in a way that is already starting to give him a headache.
“Thank you! Christmas is one of my favourite holidays. Everything is very colourful and sparkles. And I just take down mistletoe whenever anyone is foolish enough to hang it up. We have enough on our plate this time of year without adding Nargles into the mix.” She casts a series of diagnostic charms.
“You’re in good shape. We’ll keep you here ‘til the morning because you lost consciousness briefly when you hit your head, but you should be fine to go then.”
“Have you seen her? The woman who came in with me?”
Luna’s smile flickers and fades.
“She’s young and healthy. That’s a good start. And Hermione got you both here very quickly.”
Not exactly encouraging answers, Harry thinks morosely.
“She’ll be in good hands,” Luna continues, jotting some notes on the parchment charmed to the end of Harry’s bed. “Draco will look after her.”
“Draco … Malfoy?!”
There’s a name he hasn’t thought about in a long time. He knew Malfoy had left the country straight after the trials, but in truth the only time he’s crossed Harry’s mind since has been when he’s woken with the sulphuric scent of Fiendfyre still in his nostrils.
“You remember my cousin Draco, Harry,” Luna chides gently, patting his hand like a senile patient destined for the Janus Thickey Ward. “We all went to school together.”
Harry snorts in disbelief. “Of course I remember him. He’s the specialist?”
“Oh, yes,” she says, straightening the cover on his bed, and tucking her quill into her hair, where it joins another knot of tinsel and something that might be a candy cane. “He’s been working in France, but Narcissa needs him home now. He’ll be here tomorrow.”
What a confusing thought. Draco Malfoy, a French-trained Healer. On his way here.
“Sleep well, Harry. If you’re up early enough you might get to open one of the Advent calendar doors.”
Harry’s pretty sure that’s not the reward Luna thinks it is, but nods as she drifts from the room humming Deck The Halls under her breath.
He tries to shape the thin pillow into a more comfortable position, flexing his leg and feeling the calf muscle twinge again.
He’ll get some sleep, check on the victim, and then maybe he’ll try and make it up to Hermione by doing some of their paperwork at home.
Maybe he’ll even volunteer to get her her Harrods turkeys. Harry thinks about the claustrophobic press of Muggle crowds on an ordinary shopping day and tries to imagine what it would be like at the end of December.
Maybe he’ll leave that one to her.
Chapter 2: 2 December
In the morning, Harry transfigures his thin hospital pyjamas into a grey sweatshirt and joggers. The spell is pretty shabby and leaves him looking a bit like a prisoner, but it will mean he can get home with a little dignity. Hospital pyjamas leave nothing to the imagination and there’s no sign of his Auror robes anywhere. Based on the damage Hermione’s suffered they probably didn’t make it.
He’ll have to bring Gladys more than a coffee this time if he wants to get new ones that fit.
Harry’s stayed at St Mungo’s often enough to know leaving before Luna signs him out is a mistake. Healers tend to get cross, reports get written, DMLE verbal warnings have to be endured. But he also knows rounds won’t be until mid-morning, so he has time to try and find out how the victim of the raid is doing.
He scratches a note on the bottom of his chart that reads “Still in the hospital! Send a Patronus when you’re ready for me.”
The Emergency Ward is busy—crowded with the first patients of the day who’ve woken up to find that whatever they’re suffering from didn’t get better overnight, or the drunken injury they thought was just a scratch is considerably worse than first thought. Harry ducks around a man reeking of Firewhisky who seems to have had both hands hexed to grope his own arse. “Can’t even scratch me nose!” he bellows in indignation, which wouldn’t be top of Harry’s list of problems in his situation, but whatever.
He cuts through the main foyer, where an enterprising wizard has wheeled in a cart with a little red and green striped awning over it and a large chalkboard sign announcing Piping Hot Roasted Chestnuts. A conjured fire dances merrily below his pan and the warm earthy smell makes Harry’s stomach growl in protest. He hasn’t eaten since breakfast yesterday but it will have to wait.
The central Healers’ station is an island abuzz with activity. Someone has hung long bowers of tinsel above it, but the Spellotape is losing its stick and one end hangs limply, making the whole thing look more defeated than festive.
Harry hangs back a bit while planning his attack. He recognises Magda, who’s sitting behind a towering pile of patient files, but she stands for even less of his nonsense than Hermione and will probably just turn his clothes back into pajamas right here in front of everyone for the fun of it.
Two Trainee Healers, identified by mustard-coloured robes rather than the bilious green of their qualified colleagues, are clutching cafeteria coffee cups and staring up at the giant charmed board showing Healer assignments for the day.
“And the suit…” the shorter witch says, her expression dreamy. “Randall said he took one look at the uniform robes, swore in French, and just walked away.”
“The suit is amazing,” the blonde witch agrees with a sigh. “He looks like someone from a Muggle fashion magazine, but all … buttoned up.” Harry’s definitely met her before. Melissa. Or Melinda? “I’d really like to unbutton him.”
He’s about to step forward and ask her for her help when a third Healer joins them, waving his wand at the board and shuffling the assignments for half a dozen rooms around. “Who are we talking about?”
“McFrosty,” Melissa-maybe-Melinda replies.
The Healer groans. “Gods, I’ve never seen someone make casting diagnostics erotic, but he manages it.” In side profile, Harry realises it’s Casey. A wizard whose owls he definitely should have returned after a particularly proficient blowjob in a potions cupboard last year when Harry had sliced his arm on a rebounding curse. He definitely won’t help.
He’s about to give up when he hears a familiar voice behind him.
“Harry. I said early. We opened the Advent calendar hours ago.”
“Luna!” He gives her a hug, absurdly grateful to see someone he hasn’t burnt bridges with, and follows her away from the group at the board. “I wanted to find out about the woman they brought in with me.”
Luna is wearing a short strand of tiny Christmas lights as a necklace and has holly leaves and berries poking out of her hair where it’s fastened up in a bun. She adds another couple of files to Magda’s stack, oblivious to the venomous glare fired in her direction.
“Her name is Belle, Harry. She’s still in intensive care. We have her in Spell Damage, but her case is pretty complicated because it’s actually the interaction of the potions and the spells that have affected her.”
“Has Malfoy seen her?”
“Draco’s been with her all morning. He’s using Mason’s old office in the East Wing, if you want to find out more?”
Harry feels immediately torn. On the one hand, he wants to see Draco Malfoy like he wants a splinching, but on the other he really needs to know Belle’s going to be okay.
“Thanks Luna,” he says, pressing a kiss to her temple, and hurrying away before Casey notices him.
Healer Mason’s old office has a slightly funereal air about it, though Harry’s pretty sure the old man didn’t actually die here. A Venetian blind with several broken slats sags over the window, and the walls have faded rectangles all over them where paintings used to hang. The only furniture is a large institutional-looking desk and a single office chair with one wheel missing, that lists uncomfortably in a corner. Draco Malfoy has eschewed both and is leaning against the wall, reading a file.
Harry always imagined that Malfoy would grow up to look like his father—poncy and mean-looking with long hair and an ornate pureblood wardrobe. But in ten years Malfoy has grown into the masculine version of his mother. He’s tall and elegant; his blond hair short on the sides and tousled on the top. And his long limbs are currently shown off to their very best advantage by one of the most impeccably-tailored three piece suits Harry’s ever seen. Harry’s pretty sure he came here to ask Malfoy something but it’s going to be a while before he remembers what.
“Did you need something, Potter? Or is it your habit these days to just wander the halls in misshapen rags like the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
Harry’s not sure which part of this is more shocking: hearing Malfoy’s cut-glass accent wrap around his name after so long, the Muggle movie reference, or the truly icy expression he’s been fixed with.
McFrosty, he thinks, with sudden understanding.
“I...I wanted to find out how Belle is doing,” he manages, wishing his voice didn’t sound quite so squeaky.
“The woman you’re treating?” Harry asks in confusion.
“You don’t know her last name.”
“Not next of kin then,” Malfoy says drily.
“Obviously not. But—”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss her case with you, then,” Malfoy says, closing the file he is holding with an air of finality and walking past Harry right out of the office leaving him gaping at the wall. He takes a second to process this, before spinning around and going after Malfoy.
“Look, I know you’ve only just gotten back and maybe you don’t realise how things work around here.”
Malfoy doesn’t break his—ridiculously long—stride, and Harry is forced into an awkward trot to keep up.
“But, I’m an Auror, and there are certain understandings between law enforcement and Healers when it comes to open cases.”
“Je m’en fous,” Malfoy mutters as he strides ahead through the foyer. Without so much as pausing, he draws his wand from his sleeve and aims a spell at the chestnut cart, causing the fire to immediately go out.
“Hey!” the wizard tending the stand yelps indignantly, trying and failing to relight it. Malfoy doesn’t stop.
The wide double doors marked Intensive Care are up ahead, and Harry knows once Malfoy pushes through them he won’t be able to follow, understandings or no. He reaches out impulsively and grabs Malfoy’s sleeve.
Malfoy comes to an abrupt halt, staring down at Harry’s hand on his arm with an incredulous expression. There’s an awkward silence, and Harry lets go at once, irrationally hoping he hasn’t wrinkled the cuff in some way.
“It’s just,” he tries again, levelling his most charming smile, “I’d like to know that she’s going to be okay. Just the basics. You don’t need to tell me anything private.”
Malfoy eyes him with that cold, grey stare.
“I don’t care how you usually do things, Potter. All I care about is my patient. And from what I understand you’re the reason she’s here. So, if you’ll excuse me—”
Malfoy certainly doesn’t wait to be excused. He shoves through the doors and disappears.
Harry watches them swing back and forth against each other noisily for a moment, his mouth hanging open.
He turns and slowly retraces his steps. In the foyer, the angry vendor has bagged up the chestnuts, crossed out the part of his sign that says Piping Hot, and lowered the price. Harry buys a bag for Luna.
Maybe it will help him convince her to sign him out early.
Chapter 3: 3 December
Harry’s alarm clock is an oversized charmed Snitch that takes off at the appointed hour and won’t stop making a truly harrowing whistle until he’s got out of bed and caught it. It was a “present” from Hermione in their second year as partners when she finally lost patience with Harry getting into work a tad late. It’s an evil little piece of spellwork, too. He’s tried hiding it in other rooms, putting it outside in the bin, and once in a slightly tipsy rage slamming it into a wall until it cracked into three pieces. Every weekday morning at six a.m. it’s back at his bedside, wings beating noisily as it takes to the air.
It feels particularly unfair this morning given Harry’s been suspended and doesn’t even need to be at the Department briefing. Even more so because he came home from St Mungo’s yesterday to discover that, now it’s officially December, Kreacher has begun preparing the house for Christmas.
The first winter after the war, Harry lived at the Burrow. It was only the following year when he started to try and make Grimmauld Place liveable that he began to realise the full extent of Kreacher’s rigid Advent rituals. He and Hermione would stumble in from training exhausted and aching to find Ron staring in open-mouthed bemusement as the grouchy old elf dragged miles of decaying festive bowers down out of the attic. They ate takeout stacked on boxes of Black family Christmas heirlooms, and ducked under a ridiculously oversized wreath he’d somehow managed to fix over the front door. But even in those early years, with everything covered in dust and grime and a layer of tragedy, by the time Christmas Eve rolled around and Kreacher’s house-elf magic worked its miracles, the house shone from every corner.
It left Harry overwhelmed to see the lights and the tree, feeling a bit the way he had that first Christmas at Hogwarts. And so now each December he leaves the aging elf to it. Even if it means he was kept awake half the night as Kreacher clanked around in the attic above him.
He showers and dresses before heading downstairs. He digs around the teetering piles of files and paperwork in his study for a scrap of parchment, penning a quick owl to Luna asking after the patient before heading to the kitchen for breakfast.
Breakfast is the one meal Harry still lets Kreacher make him. They’ve argued repeatedly over the years, but Harry can tell the elf doesn’t have full service in him anymore, and Harry’s erratic work hours mean he’s far more likely to be dropping bits of kebab all over Hermione on a stakeout—and hearing about it—than he is to be sitting down to a beef Wellington at his dining table. Besides, as time goes by, even breakfast can be a little … unpredictable.
A St Mungo’s owl swoops in through the high windows from the garden, and Harry unrolls the parchment.
It’s very kind of you to ask, Harry, but she passed during the night.
Fuck. Malfoy was so bloody self-assured that Harry had been convinced it would be okay.
What happened?? He scribbles on the note and sends the owl off with some crumbs of very blackened bacon from the edge of his plate. He pokes at the watery pile of eggs and something that might be kippers, his heart sinking.
The owl is back promptly, and Harry tries to entice her to try the probably-kippers, but she flicks a wing at him disdainfully.
Well, it’s lovely of you to be concerned, Harry. But she was very old, and really never recovered properly from that bout of dragon pox last spring. We did everything we could to make her comfortable.
Harry rubs tiredly at his eye with the heel of his hand.
Thank you, Luna. I was actually enquiring about the patient who was brought in with me. Her name is Belle.
He’s scraping most of his breakfast surreptitiously into the compost when Luna’s return owl reads:
Harry, Belle is Draco’s patient, silly.
No help at all, then. He holds the plate out to the owl, who flaps menacingly at him, shaking off a light dusting of snow before flying away.
Harry floos to the office, figuring if he can keep his head down Robards won’t necessarily see him. The office he and Hermione currently occupy is in a back corner along a corridor past the loos—not a lot of foot traffic. Hermione blames Harry for this, which isn’t really fair. He obviously meant to take the artifact recovered from that raid down to Evidence to have it logged and inspected for Dark Magic, but he had this idea about the runes inscribed along the edge of the small box. They looked a lot like the ones he’d found on a carved walking stick recovered from the Charlington Estate the previous month, which he would definitely have been able to demonstrate to Hermione had the box not unexpectedly proven to be very explosive, taking the contents of their very nice office with it overnight.
Robards is just a petty-minded bureaucrat. And Harry will find a way to get them a office that isn’t about one-third occupied by rattling steam pipes eventually. Besides, no one really wants to spend time in an office anyway. The whole point of being an Auror is to be out in the field.
He picks his way around some stacks of paper and books to get to his desk. He figures he can probably find some way to get Malfoy to tell him how Belle is doing if he can just… Well, that pile was probably always going to fall over, at some point. Now it gives him a reason to sort it out.
Hermione is clutching her chest in the doorway in fright.
“You scared the living shit out of me, Harry. What are you doing here?”
“Lovely to see you too, partner,” Harry says, trying and failing to scoop an armload of files back into some semblance of order.
“You’re suspended, Harry. If Robards finds you here he’ll do his nut.”
“I just thought I could…” he tries to think quickly, “... help you with the paperwork. For the raid.”
Hermione gives him a practised eye-roll. “Please. The last time you completed a case report, Robards said—and I’m quoting here—the chances of anyone gleaning anything useful from it, or even being capable of understanding it, were somewhere between zero and fuck-all.”
Harry frowns. His penmanship could certainly do with some work. But it’s usually just easier to let Hermione write things up. She’s been better at that since they were eleven. It’s not like that’s going to change any time soon.
“I could do the other bits, then. The...uh...incident checklist. And the form with the numbers.”
Hermione snorts, shrugging off her outer robe and hanging it on the coat rack. “Why are you really here, Harry?”
He sighs. “I want to see Belle at the hospital but Malfoy won’t let me.”
“Draco Malfoy?” Hermione’s eyebrows hit her hairline.
“He’s the fancy French specialist. He’s treating her, but he’ll only discuss her case with next of kin.”
“Well, that’s Marsden. And if Malfoy knows where he is we’ll all be grateful.”
“There’s no one else?”
Hermione shakes her head, flipping open a beige folder in the centre of her desk. “Belle Russell. Twenty two years old. Born in Surrey to magical parents, both of whom were killed in the war. No siblings.”
So many orphans.
“So if she has no relatives, Malfoy can release the information to me.”
“Harry, what are you doing," she sighs with a rueful smile. "When Russell comes out of her coma, I’ll question her as to Marsden’s whereabouts and how much she knew. Until then, go home. Or make yourself useful and help Ron and George at the shop. I don’t need Robards finding you here and bringing more plagues down upon our house.”
“That’s Passover,” he muses, dumping the last of the files he’s collected back on his desk and backing away from them carefully, hands out in front of himself to catch any that threaten to slide again. “Not Christmas.”
He thinks about going to the shop, he honestly does. But he then he decides it can’t hurt to try once more and Floos to the hospital instead.
Healer Mason’s old office is empty, and looks even sadder than it did the day before. Harry fires a special mending spell at the chair wheel. It’s one he knows well because he developed this habit of rocking his own chair back on two legs while he stares up at the roof and thinks. After about the third or fourth time he’d broken a chair that way Hermione resolutely refused to help him fix it or to countersign the requisition form for a new one. She threw a book of home repair spells at his head—and it was a good shot, he’ll give her that—and left him to it.
“Why are you here?”
Harry spins around to find Malfoy standing in the doorway. His suit today is a charcoal with a very faint pinstripe, and his black necktie is held in place with a delicate silver tie-pin. Harry can’t stop staring at the lowest button of his waistcoat, where it’s unfastened.
Harry snaps his eyes up to Malfoy’s. His expression is implacable.
“She has no next of kin.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your patient, Belle Russell. She was orphaned in the war.”
“You knew that?!” Harry huffs indignantly. “Then why—”
“Why are you here?” Malfoy repeats.
“I want to see her. And as an Auror—”
“You’re not in uniform,” Malfoy cuts him off again, looking pointedly down at Harry’s worn jeans and slightly misshapen jumper. Harry tugs at his cuff, embarrassed. He thinks quickly about lying, but there’s something in the cold gleam of Malfoy’s expression that makes it seem a bit pointless.
“I got suspended,” he admits with sigh.
“I see.” Malfoy offers nothing further, waiting. It makes Harry squirm.
“Look, what about visiting hours? Everyone gets visiting hours.”
“Not in Intensive Care. Not unless you’re next of kin.”
“Will there be anything else?” Malfoy asks, entering the office past Harry and rounding the desk, looking curiously for a moment at the chair before taking a seat.
Harry thinks about Belle, lying in that bed by herself.
“Can she hear?”
“Excuse me?” Malfoy looks up at him, frowning fractionally in confusion.
“You have her in a coma, while you’re treating her. I’m asking if she can hear people around her.”
Malfoy tilts his head slightly, giving Harry a considering look. “The studies suggest that patients can. Though brain activity tends to be recorded more commonly when the patient hears a familiar voice. I’m assuming Ms Russell wouldn’t recognise yours?”
Get down! Harry remembers screaming at her.
“I doubt it,” he mumbles. Then he takes a deep breath and straightens up. “Let me read to her.”
“You say she can hear. I’m suspended and have the time. Let me come in during visiting hours and read her a book. That’s all. It can’t hurt. And it might help.”
Malfoy blinks slowly in confusion. Harry becomes momentarily distracted by the pale sweep of his long lashes.
“Why would you do that?”
Harry shrugs, feeling his cheeks heat. “She doesn’t have anyone else.”
There’s a long silence while Malfoy just stares at him, as if he’s trying to solve a particularly difficult puzzle. Harry’s determined not to fidget under his gaze. Finally Malfoy picks up his quill and turns to the file on his desk.
“Visiting hours only. From tomorrow at two.”
If Harry does a sort of victory wiggle as he walks down the corridor, no one needs to know.
Chapter 4: 4 December
On Tuesday, Harry barely manages to make an effort with the pile of toast Kreacher has made out of something that resembles slices of fruit bread covered in peanut butter. When the elf wanders out of the kitchen muttering about missing nativity figurines, Harry levitates the whole mess into the bin.
He Floos straight to the shop, startling George who is wanding huge cardboard boxes into a towering stack in the back room.
“Some warning, mate,” George sighs, sliding the last one into place as Harry dusts himself off.
“Sorry. Last of the Christmas supplies?”
“If only. This is just a staging area between the shop and the warehouse. I swear, with the new range, we’re going to have to hire extra staff on top of our extra staff to keep up with demand. Here, take a set.” He reaches into one of the crates beside him and pulls out a gaudy green and red box and tosses it to Harry. Chattering Cheer Christmas Decorations sparkles across the top of the box above an illustration of silver and gold baubles that appear to be singing to one another.
“Kreacher would skin me alive if I tried to decorate the house,” Harry muses. “But I’ll take them to the hospital.”
“St Mungo’s? Everything okay?” George looks up with concern.
“Yeah, I got a knock on the noggin on the weekend, but I’m fine. Just visiting a patient who’s involved with one of our cases.”
Ron shoulders through the door arms laden with oversized candy canes as large as golf umbrellas.
“Harry, you better be here to help. You’re persona non grata in our house at the moment.”
He gives Ron a guilty shrug. “I’ve got a couple of hours.”
They leave Harry in the back room stacking and sorting the new stock. They’ve all learned the hard way that putting the Harry Potter in the store is just a recipe for overcrowding, and the Christmas rush is bad enough without starstruck fans insisting Harry sign their purchases, their parchments, or their body-parts. It’s simple, mindless work, and it stops Harry’s brain from going over the weekend’s raid again and again in his head, trying to make it play out somehow differently.
At lunch, he scribbles Ron and George a note and heads along the back alley behind the stores to Flourish & Blotts. If he’s going to read to Belle he needs a book, and he’s pretty sure the dark, leather-bound tomes in the Grimmauld Place library would do more harm than good.
The bookstore is as packed as Wheezes, and Harry tries to tug his beanie down low over his ears and flip his coat collar up a bit, though he suspects that probably makes him look more like someone who should be investigated closely, rather than less. He’ll just have to be quick. He slips past the Bestsellers table at the front, stacked high with shiny copies of Skeeter’s latest nonsense—Voldemort’s Hidden Side—and finds himself in a corner with a silvery banner hung proclaiming “Holiday Classics”.
Most of the books are aimed at children. Muggle stories like The Snowman and The Night Before Christmas sit alongside wizarding titles like Sally’s First Solstice and The True Spirit of Yule. Such a change from when he was a boy, when a Muggle book wouldn’t have made it into Diagon Alley at all.
On the shelf are few adult titles. He reaches for a copy of A Christmas Carol, and thinks back to Draco calling him the “ghost of Christmas past”. Harry’s pretty sure he’s seen a few different versions of the movie. He’s definitely seen A Muppet Christmas Carol, because he remembers trying extremely hard to even explain the concept of the Muppets to Ron and failing so miserable his sides hurt from laughing. He’s definitely never read the book.
A witch has sidled up next to him and keeps looking at him out of the corner of her eye. He recognises that pause all too well. It comes just before, I’m sorry, but aren’t you… Before she can work up the courage, he slips past her and strides straight to the till, giving Bethany a wee wave, and holding up the book. She gives him a thumbs up to indicate she’ll add it to his account. He ducks into the back room and straight into the Floo to St Mungo’s.
Harry heads to the Healers’ station to find out which room Belle’s in. Scary Magda glares at him over her stack of files, so he looks for someone a little more approachable. The other staff are gathered in a huddle discussing something stuck to the wall.
“Excuse me, can I—”
One of the Trainee Healers turns, creating a gap through the group and Harry feels himself immediately blush with embarrassment. There, stuck to the wall in pride of place beside the patient assignment board, is a calendar featuring his own extremely naked torso wrapped in nothing but Christmas lights, one hand cradling a bunch of bulbs suggestively to preserve his own modesty. Like a very tacky Roman sculpture.
“Well, if it isn’t Mr December.”
Casey has turned around now, and stands with his arms crossed, arching an unimpressed eyebrow at Harry.
“December 2001!” Harry splutters. “That calendar is nearly ten years old! And it was for charity. How does anyone still even have that?!”
“It’s a very nice picture of you, Harry,” Luna says diplomatically, coming up behind him and giving him a not-at-all comforting pat on the shoulder. “Very festive.”
Harry feels like he’s turned a vivid scarlet colour.
“You can’t use a calendar that’s almost a decade old!”
“Well, that’s the funny thing about calendars,” Casey says, with a smirk. “Wait long enough and they’re useful again. See, December fourth in 2001 was also a Tuesday. Good as new.”
Harry feels his mouth opening and closing but no sounds come out. In the end he gives up and looks at Luna. “I’m here to visit Belle, Draco said I could.”
Luna nods serenely. “She’s in room 43.”
Harry flees immediately, fidgeting with his collar in discomfort, his skin feeling hot and prickly all over. He really thought he’d lived down that particularly embarrassing period of his history—when almost anyone had been able to convince him to do almost anything if it was for charity. But apparently not.
Room 43 is at the end of a corridor and the room itself feels like a tiny oasis compared to the noise and bustle of the hospital outside. A large charmed picture window shows a snowy garden with an iced-over fountain at its centre.
Belle is lying propped up against several pillows, her blonde hair limp and her skin so pale Harry feels like he’s able to see more of her veins than he should. Malfoy stands at her bedside casting, so Harry waits quietly at the door, taking a moment to appreciate Malfoy’s form-fitting navy suit and very smart scarlet tie. It seems completely implausible that he can keep dressing this way in a hospital of all places. Harry knows Healers. The only people who ruin more robes on the job than Harry himself are Healers.
Malfoy finishes his incantation with a flourish, watches the coloured spell-lines over Belle’s body dissipate, and then exchanges his wand for a quill to start taking notes.
“You can come in, Potter,” he says, without turning around
Harry wonders for a moment how he does that. Harry doesn’t even wear cologne, so it can’t be that he smells him coming, can it? He gives a surreptitious sniff in the direction of his armpit but learns nothing.
There’s a visitors chair beside Belle’s bed, and Harry goes to take a seat, but is interrupted by Malfoy reaching out his hand. Harry stares at it in confusion.
“The book, Potter,” Malfoy explains, as if to a particularly slow child. “Whatever it is you’re going to read her?”
“Oh!” Harry laughs in sudden understanding, reaching into his satchel and passing over the novel. “You mentioned it the other day, and I’ve never read it through, so I thought—”
He watches in confusion as Malfoy opens the book at the last page and reads it, then closes it and hands it back.
“Did you just—”
“Visiting hours are over at four.” And without looking back, Malfoy sweeps from the room. Harry has an uncanny recollection of Snape for a second. Malfoy should really take to wearing robes again if he wants to make the most of that move. Though he absolutely should not take to wearing robes again, because the suits…
Harry sinks into the chair with a sigh.
“Hello, Belle. I’m Harry. I thought it might be a bit lonely in here with no one to hang out with other than bloody Malfoy. He doesn't seem like much of a conversationalist. So I thought I’d read to you for a bit. We can try this one. It’s pretty old, so it might be a bit dull, but they say it’s a classic. I’ll warn you in advance, I’m not a very fast reader. Hermione loses patience with me a lot of the time. But I guess you’ll just have to put up with it.” He pats her still hand in a gesture he hopes is friendly.
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
It’s nice, really. To just sit and read. Harry hardly ever sits still for anything. Some of the old-fashioned words are a little confusing, but he asks Belle’s forgiveness and says that when she wakes up they can look up what they mean together. Before he knows it, the soft chime sounds announcing four p.m. Harry closes the book, and shuts Belle’s door quietly on the way out.
As Harry walks back past the Healer’s station toward the Floos, he steels himself for another wave of mortification over the wretched calendar, but is surprised to find there’s no sign of it. Just a lone Trainee filling out some paperwork. Fortunately today she must be on rotation in the children’s ward, because she’s wearing a large lighted nametag. Melinda.
“Hello, Melinda!” Harry’s delighted to have solved that particular social conundrum without having to ask.
“Hi Harry,” she grins, closing the file and reaching for another one.
“Who do I have to thank for taking pity on me about the calendar?”
She leans forward conspiratorially, lowering her voice to a whisper. “It was all a bit much really. Specialist Malfoy took one look at it, lost his absolute mind at us in French, and then tore it down and stomped off.”
Melinda nods glumly. “I think he thought we were unprofessional. I’m sure it’s going to affect my evaluation. We were only having a bit of fun, you know.”
At my expense, Harry thinks, relieved that the calendar is gone. Of course someone as straitlaced as Malfoy wouldn’t have approved. Merlin knows what he thinks of Harry for having posed for it in the first place.
He digs in his bag, and pulls out the Wheezes box of decorations. “Here. Maybe these will be a bit more seasonally appropriate.”
“Thanks Harry!” she says, gratefully.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
"It was a really good picture," she calls after him, sniggering, and he flips her off as he rounds the corner to the Floos.
Chapter 5: 5 December
Hermione herself beats even his evil alarm Snitch on Wednesday morning.
“Harry! Are you decent?” she shouts, clattering up the stairs to his room, her Auror boots making a fierce noise on the polished wood. Harry rubs the sleep from his eyes and sits up, dragging the covers around himself before the door flies open.
“Is everything okay?”
Hermione looks livid, her mouth set in a thin line. Four year old Rose is balanced on her hip.
“Not exactly, Harry, no. Our nanny has spattergroit, which neither of the children have had yet. And I am not one of these witches that subscribes to that awful pureblood tradition of encouraging them to catch it. Merlin, did you know Parvati had a play party when her daughter fell ill last month? Barbaric.”
Rose is squirming to be let down and when Hermione deposits her on the floor, she immediately climbs up onto Harry’s bed. He’s pretty sure he’s not going to like where this is going.
“Ron has taken Hugo to the shop, but he can’t cope with both of them with the Christmas rush. I’m in the field on the Marsden investigation until lunch.” She levels Harry with a look that says that if he was pulling his weight she wouldn’t be doing that on her own. He glances helplessly at Rose for reinforcement, but she just kicks her little feet at his legs under the covers, her red ponytail bobbing.
“No. Not Molly. I have enough to prove to my mother-in-law this month without hearing the seventeenth iteration of you know, your career will still be there when the children are a little older, dear. You owe me, Harry.”
And really, there’s no arguing with that. Hermione kisses Rose on the top of her head. “Be good for Uncle Harry.”
Then she leans over and kisses Harry on his, giving him a wry smile. “Return her in one piece at lunchtime.”
Before Harry can even think of a witty retort, she Apparates away.
“Well,” he says to Rose, defeated. “Shall we see what Kreacher’s made for breakfast?”
Rose wrinkles her nose in disgust.
“Exactly,” Harry replies with a sigh.
When they get downstairs, they’re confronted with a surprise. Somehow, overnight, Kreacher has managed to get an absolutely enormous eight foot spruce tree into the sitting room. Harry has literally no idea how. It smells magnificent and Rose is delighted. “Can we decorate it?”
“Never,” mutters Kreacher, leaning over to half disappear into a large cardboard box of ornaments.
Rose’s lower lip quivers.
“Kreacher, surely we could just hang one or two,” Harry says placatingly. “At the bottom, maybe. Round the back.”
“No! Black family tree, Black family decorations. There will be no …” Kreacher pauses for a long second, his wrinkly little legs wiggling as he leans further into the box and Harry thinks if a slur comes out of the elf’s mouth now he will push the him into the box and tape it shut. Kreacher emerges, scowling, holding a clutch of tiny silver stars on strings. “No Weasleys.”
There’s a split second where Harry feels like taking out every ounce of his tired frustration on the weird little creature, but then he remembers Rose is in the room and decides it’s not worth it. He takes her hand and squeezes it. “Come on Rosie, we don’t need his decorations. We’ll make our own.”
In his study, he finds a stack of blank parchment and charms it into a rainbow of different colours, showing Rose how to make a paper chain, one of the very few crafts he remembers from his Muggle primary. She sits cross-legged and happy, sticking the strips of paper together with Spellotape and laughing when Harry wands up her chains around the room. He finds some crayons from a previous visit and they both lie on the floor in front of the fire drawing stars and Christmas angels. Harry’s spellwork isn’t that sophisticated, but he soon has a little flock of angels fluttering above the mantle.
“That’s not very Christmassy,” Rose complains after a while, pointing at Harry’s page.
He looks down at what he’s been drawing and starts. It’s a snake wrapped around a cup. The image is weirdly familiar, like he’s seen it somewhere recently, but he can’t think where.
“You’re right, Rosie, that’s terrible,” he laughs, screwing up the paper and throwing it into the fire.
“I’m bored now,” she announces, dropping her own crayon back in the pile.
It’s a cold, clear day and Harry figures getting outdoors would probably be good for both of them. He’s learnt that parents always appreciate you tiring their children out. “Why don’t we walk to Mum’s work?”
He buttons Rose into her little duffle coat and finds the hat and mittens Hermione stuffed into the pockets. The light dusting of snow that’s been flurrying around all week has startled to settle, leaving drifts on the grass and everything a bit slippery, but the sun is out and it’s a bright and crisp. Rose chatters all the way along the road about everything they encounter. How noisy the dog that lives on the corner is. How you have to wait for the green man at the traffic lights even if there are no cars coming and you’ve looked both ways. How Muggle-born children think Santa brings them presents at Christmas and it’s not nice to tell them that it’s not true and their parents are lying to them. Harry holds her hand and makes affirming noises in all the right places.
They squeeze into the red telephone box outside the Ministry together, and Harry dials the number.
“Welcome to the Ministry of Magic. Please state your name and business.”
“Auror Harry Potter, accompanying Miss Rose Granger-Weasley to see her mother, Auror Hermione Granger.”
Rose gives him a big smile at the use of her full name and clutches his hand in excitement. The phone rattles and he pulls out the badge.
Harry Potter - Suspended Auror and Acting Nanny.
Harry stuffs it into his pocket with a scowl.
Hermione seems pleased to see them both, setting Rose up with some parchment to write a story about her morning.
“Any luck on Marsden?” Harry asks.
“Vanished without a trace. There was too much damage in the basement to leave any useful evidence.”
Harry’s replayed the raid in his head almost constantly for days. He feels like the answer is just beyond the reach of the tips of his fingers.
“Thank you, for this morning.”
“Any time,” he says, looking wistfully at his overflowing desk and wishing he could stay and dig into the investigation himself. A glance at the clock on the wall snaps him out of it. He has somewhere to be.
Belle’s room is occupied when he arrives. Melinda and another Trainee are pulling up fresh sheets and carefully levitating Belle back into bed. Harry is about to go in when he something makes him pause.
“I heard he was a Death Eater,” the Trainee hisses in a whisper.
“No way. He’d be in Azkaban if he was.”
“I heard that’s why he went to France. To escape justice.”
“What, and ten years later no one noticed when he came back and they gave him a really senior job at a public hospital?!” Melinda scoffs, placing another pillow behind Belle’s motionless head.
“Bet there’s some truth to it,” the other Trainee mumbles. “Anyway, it’s pretty hot.”
Melinda snorts with laughter. “You find Death Eaters hot?”
“No, I find McFrosty hot,” the Trainee sighs, waving her hand around. “All that icy demeanor and air of mystery.”
Harry loses his patience, stepping into the room and causing them both to startle. “Specialist Malfoy’s experiences during the war are a matter of public record,” he says, giving them both his best Auror don’t-mess-with-me glare. “If you bothered to study a little more during History of Magic, you’d know he saved my life.”
Both Trainees look embarrassed, scuttling past Harry to the door and apologising.
He hears Melinda groan, “God, now we’re in even more trouble. I’m never passing this rotation.”
Their voices get further away, but Harry can still hear her colleague. “You’re missing the important part. He saved Potter’s life. It doesn’t get more hot.”
Harry rolls his eyes, and sits down with Belle.
“I’m glad you’ve got clean sheets today,” he says quietly. “The ones in here are a bit scratchy, but clean sheets always make me feel better when I’m sick or when I can’t sleep.”
He takes out the book. “Now, where were we—”
Chapter 6: 6 December
When Harry comes out of Belle’s room on Thursday afternoon, he goes to find Luna. She’s not at the Healer’s station, but Scary Magda tips her chin in the direction of the Staff Lounge and so Harry decides to try it without risking any further questions.
The Lounge is comfortable enough, but drab. Luna snuck him in here once years ago for a few hours nap when Hermione had been in labour with Rose. It hasn’t changed much since. The same saggy, lumpy couch. The same half-empty vending machine. What is new is the giant hanging that dominates one wall—an enormous wooden depiction of St Mungo’s itself. Not the actual real-world outsides of Purge and Dowse, but the wizarding space within. Twenty-five little wooden doors are embedded in the frame, all over the hospital. Harry can see the one near Belle’s room in Spell Damage has been opened, the tiny space behind it empty and he realises this is the famed Advent calendar.
Luna stands in front of the calendar, comforting a sobbing Melinda.
“It’s okay, we’ll fix it,” Luna murmurs, looking sadly at the ornament and patting the young Trainee on the back.
“What happened?” Harry asked.
“He—He hexed... windows…” Melinda bursts into another round of sobs, wailing, “I worked so hard…” She dashes from the room wiping at her eyes.
Harry studies the wall-hanging again. Sure enough, the little doors marked One through Five are standing open, their cavities empty, but the closed doors marked Six on onwards have tiny little windows in them revealing their contents.
“I don’t understand.”
Luna packs away the empty containers she must have been eating from, stacking them in her bag. “It’s an Advent calendar, Harry. You get to open a little door each day and there’s a surprise.”
Harry sometimes wonders why Luna stays friends with him given how truly stupid she appears to think he is. He thinks about Dudley’s Advent calendar, taking pride of place on the refrigerator each year, a piece of chocolate behind every little cardboard door. Dudley would always have eaten the whole thing by about the 12th of December.
“It was Draco’s turn to open a door today,” she continues. “But there was a little misunderstanding. Rather than picking a door he cast a spell to put windows in all of them.”
Harry’s still pretty confused. Cheating on an Advent calendar seems like classic Draco Malfoy, but one bit of chocolate is surely the same as the other. He says as much to Luna.
She gives him a puzzled look. “It’s a wizarding calendar, Harry.”
He shrugs at her, still failing to understand. He supposes this is why she takes the time to explain everything to him. She's never really sure which aspects of the wizarding world have passed him right by.
“Well, it’s a bit like Bertie’s Every Flavour Beans, isn’t it? You’re just as likely to get a nice piece of chocolate as you are to get double bed-pan duty for the month.”
Harry’s mouth drops open in horror. “At Christmas?! What’s festive about that?”
Luna slings her bag over her shoulder and takes Harry’s arm. “Well, the chocolate is very nice. But unfortunately now everyone can see which doors have the chocolate behind them. Come on, I’ll fix it tomorrow. We’re going to be late.”
As they walk back past the Healer’s station, Casey is hugging a very glum-looking Melinda, while a burly orderly hefts a half-dead spindly-looking spruce into a bucket beside the desk. Melinda opens the box of Wheezes decorations Harry gave her and lifts out a sparkling silver ball that immediately opens it’s tiny mouth and begins to sing in a tinny little voice, “On the first day of Christmas…” Scary Magda gives Harry a look that could melt stone. He tugs at Luna’s arm to drag her more quickly toward the Floos.
After the war, Harry offered Grimmauld Place to Andromeda for her and Teddy to live in, but she’d declined, saying the old house held no warm memories for her and that she’d rather stay in the home she and her late husband had built together. Teddy goes to a local Muggle primary, and this year he won a poster competition that meant he was invited to be a guest of honour at the local council’s annual tree-lighting ceremony. He’s been telling Harry for weeks that means that he gets to turn on the lights himself, even though Andromeda always gently corrects him to say that he gets to be on the stage while the lights are turned on. Nevertheless, the little boy is puffed up with pride and has made Harry promise to be there.
Luna and Harry stand toward the back of the little crowd, which Harry secretly suspects is made up entirely of the parents and relatives of the group of twenty children chattering in their coats and scarves on the stage. One way to ensure a turn out, he supposes. The Mayor, a rotund little man with a very red nose who looks a little like a painted Muggle garden gnome, gives a short speech about the Christmas season, which veers strangely into a bit of a lecture about buying your presents in the local village shops rather than from the Argos. The children behind him start to fidget.
The Mayor then makes a big flourish of introducing the tree-lighting celebrity.
“Who is he?” Luna whispers.
Harry consults the crumpled paper programme he’d been handed, with the lyrics to Joy to the World printed on the reverse. “He won a Muggle television competition.”
“Ooh, doing what?” Luna asks, impressed.
Harry wracks his brains trying to think how to explain reality television to Luna. “He lived in a house with some other contestants, and he lasted the longest.”
“There were challenges,” Harry explains. “Trials and tribulations before an audience. It was very much like a Triwizard Tournament.”
“Goodness. A brave champion then.” She claps enthusiastically for the over-tanned young man with his slicked-back hair and giant gold chain.
And just like that, the switch is flipped, and all around them the trees surrounding the snow-covered town square are lit up with Christmas lights in greens and reds and golds.
They dutifully mumble through a few tuneless verses of Joy to World, before the restless children are ushered down off the little stage. Harry and Luna give Teddy hugs and tell him what an amazing job he did “lighting the lights”. Andromeda gives them both wry smiles as she thanks them for coming and pushes Muggle cash into Harry’s hand.
“Buy yourselves some hot chocolate, it’s freezing.”
Teddy complains loudly that he wants hot chocolate, which his Grandmother promises he can have at home, before marching him off to a side street to Apparate away.
The rest of the crowd is seemingly just as determined to get out of the cold swiftly, and before long the only people left are the Mayor, his slightly hapless assistant, and the very-orange celebrity who is signing autographs for a small crowd of besotted-looking teenagers.
Luna comes back from the coffee cart with two steaming paper cups of hot chocolate, and Harry casts a surreptitious drying charm at a park bench for them to sit.
“How was Belle today?” she asks.
“No change. Draco won’t tell me anything, obviously. But he doesn’t appear to be very optimistic.”
Luna nods, blowing the steam over her cup.
“He’s the very best, Harry. If anyone can help her, he can.”
“You’ve been in touch with him all along?”
“Yes. He came to see me after he was acquitted. To apologise and to talk about what happened when I was the Manor. We had a lot of things to talk about, as it turned out. So we just kept writing to each other, after he moved to France.”
Harry tries to picture it and can’t. His interactions with Malfoy so far have been forced and brittle. The idea of Draco owling his heart out seems laughable.
“You said he’s back because of his mother?”
Luna nods again, but doesn’t volunteer anything further. Harry doesn’t press.
“Why Belle, Harry? What is it about her?”
Harry sighs, leaning back on the cold bench, looking up at the gaudy lights around them.
“I missed something, Luna. And I don’t know what it was. I keep turning that day over and over in my mind. But it’s eluding me.”
She gives him a comforting pat on his hand. “It will come back to you, Harry. You’re very good at your job.”
Harry wonders morosely if that’s true, but he takes Luna’s hand and walks with her along the icy cobbles, listening to her sing “All I want for Christmas…..is stewwwww”.
He thinks about correcting her, but to be honest, her version sounds better.
On Friday, the view from Belle’s windows has changed. They now look out on a stable, eaves laden with snow. The doors are wide. Abraxans, Harry thinks. Not horses. A wizarding farm, maybe. It’s peaceful. Pastoral. Oddly incongruous with the noise and bustle in the hospital’s corridors and the chaotic press of shopping Muggles out on the street.
Malfoy is at Belle’s bedside when Harry arrives. He’s taken off his suit jacket today. Somehow seeing his crisp white shirt sleeves—French cuffs forming sharp lines at his wrists—makes him seem more vulnerable than if his arms had been bare.
Harry expects Malfoy’s arms are never bare.
“How is she?”
“Merde,” Malfoy curses softly, looking up from his chart. He’s tired, with dark circles like smudged bruises under his eyes. He glances at his watch as if he’s surprised it’s time for Harry to be here. Harry wonders how long he’s been on duty.
“Stable. But no better.” He straightens up, and wands Belle’s chart to the foot of the bed. Harry can almost feel his armour slot back into place, unwilling to show any weakness, as he strides out of the room without another word.
“Someone’s overdue for a nap,” he says to Belle, sitting down and opening the book.
There’s something unnerving about how still she is, lying there. Worse, somehow, than watching someone who is sleeping. She looks unbearably frail. Harry keeps thinking about how vibrant she’d seemed in that split-second as he stepped into the room. Her head tipped back in laughter at something Marsden had said. Her eyes bright and alive in that instant before everything fell apart. Had she known what Marsden was doing? And if not, what had she thought was in all the boxes in their basement? It replays in a loop: her laugh, head tipped back, the popping sound of the tripwire, the flash. Harry shakes his head to clear it, and tries to concentrate on the words swimming on the page in front of him.
When he leaves her room an hour later, he walks straight into a very tall shrub.
Stumbling backwards, the shrub starts to apologise, and Harry realises that the man standing in front of him in wellies absolutely laden down with bowers of greenery is Neville.
Harry laughs as he takes a few giant wreaths off his hands. “You all right, mate? What are you doing here?”
Neville spits a twig out and redistributes his remaining load.
“Brought the potions ingredients down for this month’s delivery. The Hogwarts house-elves usually take care of it all, but they’re run off their feet in the lead-up to Christmas. Plus, the hospital is always a bit depressing this time of year so I like to bring some decorations down.”
He and Harry carry their haul to the staff lounge. Neville picks up a particularly mammoth wreath to examine it for damage. “Buxus and evergreen oak. Not a Nargle in sight,” he says with a wink. “What about you, what are you doing here?”
“Had a raid go a bit pear-shaped,” Harry concedes. “I got suspended until Christmas so I’ve just been in visiting a woman who got hurt.”
“Rough luck,” Neville says sympathetically, stacking a pile of ivy in a corner. “For her I mean. I mean, also for you. You know what I mean.”
Before Harry can reassure him that he does, Neville gets distracted. “Bit of a weird Advent calendar, that. Why do you think it has windows?”
Harry realises Luna hasn’t fixed the broken display yet. Or maybe the staff have abandoned the idea altogether.
“Malfoy,” he grimaces.
“Oh yeah,” Neville says, seemingly unsurprised.
“You knew he was back?”
“It wasn’t a secret, was it?” Neville looks startled, as if he’s worried that he’s done something wrong. “Only he never said it was.”
Harry feels like they’re in two different conversations. “You were in touch with Malfoy, before he came back?” he asks.
Now it’s Neville’s turn to seem confused. “Of course. Oh. Ohhhhh. Yeah, there’s no reason you would have known that. He’s a very specialised kind of Potions Master in France. Something connoisseur something pharmacien. I forget. It’s a really long title.”
Of course he is, thinks Harry, mentally rolling his eyes.
“He wrote to me, after the war. To say sorry, you know, for being such a turd in school, and on the wrong side of everything and whatever. And a few years later, once he qualified, he got in touch to see about being able to get his hands on some ingredients that are only grown in the Hogwarts greenhouses. And then he was able to get me some European plants that are very rare. And well, here we are.”
Neville Longbottom and Draco Malfoy—owl pals. Will wonders never cease.
“Anyway, it’s good that he’s home for Christmas. I know he’s been worried about his Mum.”
Harry’s about to ask Neville more questions, but gets cut off when Luna barrels into the room, her lime robes flying. “Oh it’s gorgeous!” she squeals, clutching at the wreath. “Come on, you can help me decorate!” She thrusts an armload of ivy at a hapless-looking Neville, and Harry mumbles an excuse about being late for an unspecified engagement and scuttles for the door before he can be pressed into service up a ladder.
"See you tomorrow, Harry!" he hears Neville call behind him, but he doesn't risk pausing.
The lopsided half-dead Christmas tree by the Healer’s station looks like it’s most in need of Neville’s help. Perhaps if they wrap it in some of the fresh greenery he’s brought with him it won’t look quite so sad. The Wheezes decorations hung across its spindly branches are currently singing an up-tempo version of Feliz Navidad, except that a lone red bauble on a lower bough is out of time and starts each line a beat late, giving the whole thing a tuneless, grating quality. Scary Magda does not look impressed.
Harry tugs the red ball off the tree guiltily, and stuffs it in his pocket. He’ll work out how to charm it off at home.
Later that night, on the millionth rendition of Prospero añooooooo y felicidaaaaaaad, a volley of foul-tempered curses from Kreacher about garbage modern ornaments ringing in his ears, Harry pads outside in his dressing gown and hangs the stupid ball on a tree in the street.
Statute of Secrecy be damned.
Thanks for following along! I've been so grateful for your comments each day. You can find me on tumblr.
Chapter 8: 8 December
The Weasley family Secret Santa draw was instituted the year Hugo was born and Ginny and Neville got engaged. The sheer number of gifts people felt like they needed to buy had become unwieldy, and even though the family was much more comfortably off than they had been in the past—given the success of Wheezes, and the Order of Merlin stipends—Arthur finally put his foot down. Molly sobbed for two days straight that he’d destroyed the spirit of Christmas, but now seems to have been won over by the ritual of the draw and the chance to host the whole family for yet another occasion.
When Harry arrives, the house is already overflowing. Victoire and Rose are chasing each other up the stairs in peals of laughter, and George and Percy seem to be having one of those extremely loud discussions that is one well-timed insult away from an actual fight.
Bill hands him a glass of red wine with a wink. Harry accepts it gratefully.
Harry loves the Weasley clan more than he can say, and there’s never been a single moment where he’s felt like anything less than a son and a sibling. But around the holidays it’s always a little tough. Ever since it became clear that he and Ginny weren’t remotely suited to each other, coming to family dinners solo has always made him feel self-conscious. Even Charlie has stopped gadding about Romania and settled down with Andrei, the innkeeper who lives next to the dragon sanctuary.
Harry, on the other hand—the most action his bedroom has seen recently is Kreacher deciding all his bed linen should be changed out for festive sheets bearing giant snowflakes and reindeer. Harry’s suspicious. The sheets look a lot less like Black family heirloom linen and a lot more like something he saw in the Winter Wonderland window display at John Lewis.
Dinner is a boisterous affair. Arthur has the whole table in stitches with a story about the toilet entrance to the Ministry malfunctioning the day before, flushing employees to random wizard’s homes like some sort of possessed Floo network.
“Dawlish apparently emerged in the bathroom of an elderly witch in Yorkshire, just as she was about to get undressed and take a shower. She hit him with a Body-Bind, went downstairs to call the Aurors, and promptly forgot what she was doing and made a cup of tea.”
Ron is laughing so hard tears are starting to run down his face.
“He was there for hours!”
The food is delicious and comforting and Harry starts to relax. Hermione nudges his knee under the table and gives him a warm smile. He realises he’s missed seeing her at work every day.
Percy is in charge of the draw, naturally. Over the years George has cheated in innumerable ways, including the Christmas he famously managed to get all the names in the hat changed to his own. It was only the fact that Ron and Hermione always tell each other who they’ve drawn—in flagrant breach of the lengthy (and growing) list of rules—that flushed out his scheme.
Now the “official” hat is warded tighter than Gringotts, and Percy conducts the whole ceremony with the seriousness of a Wizengamot election.
Harry draws Hermione, which is a blessing and a curse in equal measure. It’s very easy to buy her a book, but he feels like he owes her a lot more. Still, he stands a better chance of getting her something she likes than the year he drew Fleur.
Everyone heads into the sitting room with glasses of eggnog. Arthur wants to play Pictionary—part of his ongoing quest to try every major Muggle board game. Harry figures it can only go better than last year’s attempt at Cluedo, when George and Ron got bored and charmed the tiny weapons to chase the pieces around. It was all fun and games until Molly wound up with a miniature dagger in her finger.
Harry ends up on a team with Ron and Hermione, which goes about as well as expected.
“It looks exactly like a vacuum cleaner!”
“I have no idea what a vacuum cleaner even looks like, Hermione! Just drawing it wasn’t going to help. And what the hell is this?”
“A chair,” Hermione replies primly, as if that should be obvious.
“A chair?! What’s a chair got to do with vacuum cleaners?” Ron tugs at his hair in frustration.
“It was for perspective.”
Harry waits for his turn, doodling on the pad of paper on his lap. Rose sits beside him on the floor teaching Victoire how to make paper chains with all the cast-off drawings. The Weasley family tree is already laden with decorations. Old family ornaments, mixed in with odd-looking things that resemble craft projects, and tiny charmed fairies that flutter and dance. Harry’s not sure they need any more paper chains, but he figures Molly will find room for them somewhere.
Ron elbows him in the ribs.
“That’s a bit morbid, mate,” he says, pointing at the pad on Harry’s knee. “What is that, the Dark Mark?”
Harry looks down at his doodle with a start. Once again, he’s drawn a snake coiled around a sort of cup or goblet, this time with a forked tongue licking out. He stares at it in confusion. It’s familiar, but it’s not the Mark.
“No, uh...I don’t know. Just scribbling.” He tears the page off the pad and crumples it up. No need for mysterious snakes to wind up in Rosie’s paper chains.
He thinks about Morsmordre. The smell of sulphur in the air. The full-blown terror that settled itself somewhere in his bones and maybe never left.
He thinks about Malfoy’s arm, hidden beneath those perfectly-tailored layers of clothes. He wonders if the Mark is still there, or if it vanished when Voldemort did. Is it ugly? Or has it lost its power? Stripped of meaning. A faded reminder of a time long passed.
“Oi, you’re up,” Ron nudges him again, but Harry puts his pen and paper down on the floor.
“Fleur can sub in for me,” he says wearily. “I need some air.”
It’s too cold to be outside, really, but he casts a few lazy warming charms and perches on the back step anyway. The night sky is clear and the stars seem impossibly bright. It doesn’t help him to shake off the slightly haunted feeling. He hears the door open and close behind him.
Ginny sits beside him, one hand rubbing a soothing circle on his back.
“Yeah, you know what I’m like around the holidays. Sometimes it gets a bit much.”
She tilts her head to rest on his shoulder. They’d lasted three years after the war. She knows exactly what he means without asking, and that’s somehow more comforting than any other gesture.
“Nev said he saw you at Mungo’s.”
“There’s a woman...she got injured in a case Hermione and I were working.”
Ginny is quiet for a moment, as if she’s waiting for a further explanation, but Harry doesn’t have one.
“A lot of people have gotten hurt in your line of work before. You don’t usually camp out at their bedsides.”
Harry doesn’t have a good explanation. Just that it’s something he needs to do.
“Do you think Malfoy still has the Mark on his arm?”
Ginny gives a soft laugh. “Oh, Harry,” she says fondly, pressing a kiss to his temple. “Come inside, it’s freezing.” She gets to her feet.
“What?” he asks, confused. “Do you?”
He looks up at her, silhouetted in the warm light of the Burrow, her hair a radiant halo around her head. His life would have been much simpler if she had been what he’d wanted. She gives him a knowing smile.
“I think if you want to know, you should ask him,” she says finally, and then goes inside.
Chapter 9: 9 December
Hermione owls him on Sunday morning.
Come over for lunch, we have so many leftovers from last night even Ron is admitting defeat.
“Where are you?” he calls out as he steps through their Floo.
“In the dining room!” Ron calls back, which is a strange answer, because the cottage doesn’t have a—
“Oh my god.”
Harry stares in shock at the alcove off the kitchen where they normally squeeze around a little square table designed for four with Hugo’s highchair perched on the corner. Now it’s an actual, functioning dining room, stretching out in front of him into wizarding space, with a table that could easily seat a dozen people.
Ron is leaning against a window frame. Clearly a charmed window, given the room they’re in doesn’t exist outside the four walls of the house. Hermione looks exhausted and sweaty, blowing a stray strand of hair out of her face and scowling at a wooden chair.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Ron crows, waving his arms around proudly. “I reckon we should keep it.”
Hermione scoffs. “It’s going to be hard enough for me to maintain this magic for all of Christmas Day. If we could just keep it, don’t you think I’d have doubled the size of the house by now?”
“This is amazing, Hermione,” Harry whistles, looking up at the sturdy-seeming roof beams and down at the flawlessly duplicated carpet.
“Yes, well,” she says, flushing. “The chairs don’t match yet. But I figured I should practise. The last thing I need is for the spell to fail and Percy to get squelched in a collapsing wall before the turkey is served.”
She drops her wand tiredly on the table. Ron gives her shoulders an affectionate squeeze.
“It’s perfect. None of the chairs at the Burrow match either.”
Rose is particularly delighted with the sudden expanse of space, crawling under the table and announcing she is going to make that her new bedroom, her little legs peeking out as she weaves between the chairs.
Ron brings in bowls of leftovers from the night before and starts to arrange them on the table. He gives Hugo a soft roast potato, and the baby starts mouthing at it happily.
Harry reaches down to catch Rose by a protruding ankle, resulting in a delighted little squeal.
“Come and sit up beside me for lunch.”
The cold cuts are delicious and Ron chatters happily about the shop, the unexpected Christmas bestsellers, and the burgeoning romance between two of his youngest employees. “You should see the way Mark looks at her,” he rolls his eyes. “Merlin, he’s so besotted it’s revolting.”
Harry pushes the last of his food around his plate with a small smile. Ron’s one to talk. He complains about the singing Christmas decorations he’d given Melinda, and Ron concedes the charms could use a little work.
“We had one lady bring them back because hers had just started singing thrash metal instead. I mean if you could call it singing. Merlin knows what happened there. Wasn’t very Christmassy.” He gathers up their empty plates and takes them to the kitchen. Rose decides their conversation is boring—her new favourite word—and goes off to her room to play.
“You’re still visiting the hospital?” Hermione asks, always one to pick up on the smaller details.
“Yeah. I’ve just been...you know. Sitting with her. Reading a bit.”
Hermione gives him an inscrutable look.
“What’s Malfoy think?”
“You know him. Always slightly bent out of shape about something. I don’t think he wants me there but he can’t think of a reason to object, I guess. Striding about like he owns the place.”
Hermione laughs softly.
“I meant, what does Malfoy think about her prognosis.”
Harry feels his face flush inexplicably.
“Draco Malfoy?” Ron asks as he returns carrying pudding. Harry wonders for a second why everyone reacts that way, himself included. Lucius is in Azkaban and there’s be no reason for it to be Narcissa.
“He’s transferred to St Mungo’s from that hospital he was at in Paris,” Hermione explains, and there’s something off about the way Ron just nods, clearing the salt and pepper shakers to make room for his platter.
“Wait. You knew where he was?”
Hermione shrugs. “Sure. I didn’t make the connection when I was there with you last weekend. He hasn’t written for a while.”
“He writes to you?!” Harry glances in astonishment between her and Ron, both of whom seem unfazed by this clearly earth-shaking revelation.
“I mean, not often,” she clarifies.
“He did send a nice card when Hugo was born, though,” Ron adds, as if this is a perfectly normal thing to say.
Harry feels a bit like he’s not just sitting in an illusion of a dining room but in a whole other dimension.
“But why would you....why wouldn’t you….” He runs out of words. The entire situation is too weird.
Hermione pats his hand. “It’s not a big deal, Harry. He wrote after he moved to Paris. Apologised and so on.”
“Don’t you hate him?” Harry asks in confusion. Harry finds it strange enough to have Malfoy back in his orbit after so long, but Hermione has many more reasons to feel more strongly about it than Harry does.
She tilts her head slightly, as if she’s considering the question.
“We spend our workdays chasing Neo-Death Eaters, Harry. Malfoy left his ridiculous upbringing behind, went and forged a career for himself, and now saves lives. I’m happy to leave the past where it is and concentrate on the very real threats to the present.”
Harry opens his mouth to object but finds he can’t. He has no more interest in scratching at old wounds than Hermione. Maybe even less.
“Bet he’s still a pain in the arse, though. Right?” Ron asks with a grin.
“One hundred percent,” Harry replies with a laugh, the tension leaking out of him like a deflating balloon.
“Okay. Let’s see if we can get this right,” Hermione draws herself up with determination and stares at the Christmas plum pudding in front of them. She takes a little jug of brandy and pours it, raising her wand and casting an Incendio. The blue flames lick up the sides dramatically, and baby Hugo lets out a squeal, reaching a chubby hand toward the table. Harry instantly has a horrible moment where he can feel the fierce heat and smell the sickening destruction of Fiendfyre, and before he can think about it he casts the flames out wandlessly.
“Sorry, Hermione. I just—” He can’t really explain it. Fire doesn’t bother him normally. It was just something about this up close and in his space.
Ron shrugs, and reaches forward with a knife. “S’okay, mate. Just don’t do it on Christmas Day. Now for the important part, the taste test!”
The plum pudding is dry and uneven. Harry gets a clump of unmixed flour in one bite. The three of them stare at each other as they gamely try to chew and swallow. Hermione folds first, spitting her last mouthful out onto the plate with a sigh.
She looks glum for a second, and then resolute, vanishing the inedible mess.
“Harrods, it is then.”
Chapter 10: 10 December
Harry enjoyed A Christmas Carol, sort of. It was more of a grim morality tale than he was expecting based on his limited memory of the Muppet movie, but at least it had a happy ending. Still, he feels like he should pick something a little lighter this week.
He can’t face the crowds at Flourish on a Monday morning so he decides to see what the hospital gift shop has to offer. The kiosk is a riot of floral bouquets in buckets, bright foil balloons emblazoned with cheery messages like “It’s a girl!”, and a big seasonal display of stuffed animals with names like “Mistle-toads” and “Santa-claws”. The last thing he expects is to see Malfoy in the book section.
His suit is a tan checked tweed and it makes him look like an aristocratic country gentleman, which, Harry supposes, is exactly what he is. Or what he would have been, if circumstances had been different. Harry’s about to greet him and ask for a suggestion for a book for Belle when he finally focuses on what Malfoy is doing: taking each novel off the shelf and opening it to the last page, before skimming it and then putting it back. Harry watches, confounded, as Malfoy proceeds along an entire row of titles, finally pausing on one. The ending must meet with his approval, because he tucks it neatly under his arm and spins toward the counter, nearly crashing into Harry in the narrow aisle.
“Sorry,” Harry apologises, feeling a bit creepy, like he’s been caught snooping.
Malfoy’s eyes narrow, as if he’s expecting some sort of trap. Harry thinks about what Hermione said at lunch yesterday, about leaving the past where it belongs.
“I finished the book I was reading Belle,” he hurries on, by way of explanation. “I wanted to get another one.”
“Well, if you’re planning on reading her a bodice ripper, the selection is almost limitless. Based on the title alone, Highlands romance Mad, Bad and Dangerous in Plaid looks like a page-turner. Or you could keep it a little closer to home and read her The Boy Who Loved.”
Malfoy doesn’t sound like he’s joking. His tone is as cold as ever. But there’s just the hint of something at the corners of his mouth. Just the tiniest twitch, that Harry swears could be somewhere on the way to a smile.
“I wouldn’t inflict that garbage on anyone, even an unconscious woman, Malfoy. But it’s nice to know more about your interests.” Harry goes so far as to brave a wink along with his smirk.
Malfoy just looks a little startled, collects himself quickly, and walks to the counter to pay for his book.
Harry looks up at the shelves, ignoring the overly large romance section. He finds a clutch of books with an accompanying card penned by a staff member that reads: Muggle novels exploring their views of “wizards” and “magic”. Harry takes a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and heads to the till. Malfoy is long gone.
Belle’s windows still show the low red-painted stables, covered in snow, but today it’s as if there’s been a snowstorm in the charmed landscape, and the panes themselves are covered in icy snowflakes. It’s a beautiful piece of magic, Harry thinks. Much more detailed than he’s ever seen in windows at the Ministry. The light refracts through the icy patterns casting a dancing rainbow of light on the covers of Belle’s bed.
“Right,” he says, shaking off the distraction, and settling into his armchair. “We’re leaving Dickensian England behind for something more wondrous. Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?' Quite right, Alice. This one does actually have pictures, Belle, so I’ll try my best to describe them to you.”
He’s knotting his scarf around his neck as he walks to the Floos when he hears Luna’s voice warbling nearby and diverts to the Healer’s station to say hello.
“Dashing through the snooowwwww, with one horse, soap and haayyyyyyyy….. ”
Her green robes today are offset with tiny charmed reindeer that chase each other around the hem. Her earrings are giant flashing stars. Harry absently wonders how she manages to avoid a deafening headache.
“Hello, Harry,” she says, giving him a kiss on the cheek and pushing a box of chocolate santas toward him. “Have one!”
“Your chances are one in five that it contains a chilli so hot you’ll want to hex your own tongue out.”
“Draco, that’s part of the fun,” Luna chides, as Malfoy comes up to the desk beside them, opening a folder and proceed to start filling out a form in cramped, neat script.
Personally, Harry’s with Malfoy on this one. And he thinks the wizarding world should do some soul-searching about its tendency to hide unpleasant flavours in things.
“That’s okay, Luna, thanks. I just had lunch,” Harry lies, watching the way Malfoy smirks without looking up from the page.
“Suit yourself,” she says happily. “I have rounds.” She drifts off in the direction of the general wards, her voice lifting up again in song. “Let everrrrryyyyyyy heartttttt, prepare a brooooooom….”
“D’you think she knows the right words to any of them?” Harry’s not really asking anyone in particular, but Malfoy’s the only one there.
“I think her versions are better,” he responds easily, closing his file and resting his chin on his hand with a slightly mournful expression. Harry follows his line of sight to the depressing Christmas tree, still listing unsteadily in its pot. Someone has managed to mute the Wheezes decorations so that they hum quietly. It sounds a little like the hold-music Muggle telephones sometimes make.
“It’s a bit sad,” Harry agrees with Malfoy’s unspoken assessment.
“It’s pathetic,” Malfoy sighs. “When I was a child, the Christmas trees at the Manor would be these enormous, vibrant evergreens. The ornaments were sometimes hundreds of years old. Delicate glass and silver filigree. Charmed lights that danced on the tips of the branches. And a star on the top so bright, I thought someone had actually spelled it down out of the sky.”
Harry thinks it might be the first time he’s ever heard Malfoy talk about his personal life without grandstanding. The memory just sounds wistful. Harry has a hundred questions, none of which he feels he can ask.
“Anyway,” Malfoy says abruptly, standing up and picking an invisible piece of lint off his waistcoat, his cheeks pink as if he’s embarrassed. “That stick in a bucket is a disgrace.”
Harry’s still thinking about it when he gets home to find Kreacher’s put the finishing touches on his own Christmas tree. It’s warmer than the one Malfoy described. Gold baubles and rich red velvet bows. But it’s lush and opulent. The Black family decorations nestled in among the bright green needles.
Malfoy would like it, Harry thinks.
Chapter 11: 11 December
On Tuesday he gives his alarm Snitch a solid backhand that dents it slightly and causes it to fall to the floor. He knows from bitter experience that the damage won’t last, but he decides to roll over and get what sleep he can before it revives itself.
Instead, he’s woken by the sound of his name being shouted as someone comes bounding up the stairs. He groans and buries his face under a pillow and makes a mental note to rethink all of his wards.
“Get up, you great Dugbog,” Ginny laughs, jabbing at his ribs where they’re hidden under the covers with unerring accuracy.
“Why are you here,” he groans casting off the pillow and propping himself up on his elbows, pretty sure that when they broke up many years ago and she married someone else he became exempted from this sort of abuse.
“To save you from yourself,” she announces, striding around the bed and pulling the curtains wide, letting the cold snowy light blind him. “We are two weeks out from Christmas, and I’m betting you haven’t even thought about gifts.”
“We only did the draw on Saturday,” he protests, rubbing the sleep out his eyes.
“And you drew Hermione.”
“How did you—”
“Process of elimination,” she waves dismissively, in a way that suggests she and George are definitely in cahoots. “Do you really want to just give her whatever book looks most incomprehensible at Flourish & Botts?”
“Exactly,” Ginny agrees triumphantly. “Come on, get dressed. I’ll stop you from embarrassing yourself on Christmas Day, you buy my lunch at Auberge. It’s win-win.”
It does actually sound like a pretty good deal. When they were together, Ginny always bought their presents for the rest of her family, and he’d never got the slightly strained expressions he sometimes now receives in response to his solo endeavours. He doesn’t let her know that, though, keeping up a steady stream of complaints as he heads into the shower.
Ginny bypasses Diagon altogether, rolling her eyes at Harry’s look of surprise. “Please. You want to be hounded by fans all morning? Because I don’t.” Ginny’s starting for the Harpies again this season and attracts almost as much attention as Harry.
“Where are we going then?” he asks, as she detours toward the Portkey Office.
“Where did you think Auberge was?”
To be honest, Harry’s never remembered the name of a restaurant in his life, and Ginny’s a runaway train once she gets going, so he just tugs his scarf tighter, hopping from one foot to the other, as he waits for her to emerge. She comes out holding a hairbrush, offering it to him to grasp.
The snow in Paris is falling like a fairytale, drifting in pretty flakes to the cobblestoned streets. Nothing at all like the grey sleet and the piles of dirty slush banking up in the gutters in London.
Ginny’s hand is warm in the crook of his arm as she directs him to a gift shop in a wizarding quarter buried somewhere in Le Marais. The store is luxe and quiet—the sort of place where Harry fears knocking something off a shelf, because he has a lot of Galleons in his vault but something about the shop still makes him feel like maybe it won’t be enough.
Ginny disappears to look at vintage jewelry for her mother.
Harry gets distracted by a charmed arrangement of tiny glowing spheres floating above the dark panelled wood of a nearby table.
“Comment puis-je vous aider? ” A wizard in robes that look like they’re worth more than Harry’s house sidles up alongside him. Harry flicks a translation charm into place.
“How do the stars work?” he asks.
“Ah, Sir has excellent taste,” the man gives him an obsequious smile. “Let me show you.”
Once their purchases have been gift-wrapped, Ginny leads him back out into the snow.
"You can be surprisingly thoughtful sometimes," she says fondly, squeezing his arm.
"I bought her a glorified table lamp!"
"It's more than that, and you know it. You don't spend half an hour making the shopping assistant pre-charm a table lamp."
Harry feels his face heat. “Where is this bloody restaurant?”
Lunch is ludicrously over-priced, but the food is wonderful, and it’s nice to sit with Ginny and enjoy a meal free of any expectation. When they were together it always felt like such work. Their conversation was always stilted, and Harry always felt like he was just generally doing a bad job of being a boyfriend—that he was broken in some undefinable way.
He figures he may still be broken in some undefinable way, but at least now he knows that trying to date women definitely doesn’t help matters.
They head back to a narrow side street to await the Portkey’s activation. Harry glances at his watch. With the one hour time change, he’ll still easily make visiting hours. When he looks up he realises they’re waiting beside a toy shop. At the door is a display of little brightly-coloured badges and pins.
“We’ve got a minute,” he says, ducking into the store and buying a tiny pin with a troll on it.
“Who on earth is that for?” Ginny frowns at the purchase in distaste. “Teddy?”
Harry just shakes his head and tucks it in his pocket. “Never mind.”
She shrugs as she holds out the hairbrush for him to take.
When he gets to St Mungo’s he realises he’s forgotten his copy of Alice. He sighs in frustration, about to Apparate home to fetch it, when he remembers a pile of books in the Staff Lounge. Even if they don’t have that book, he’s sure Belle won’t mind something else for one day.
In the Lounge, the giant broken Advent calendar has been taken down and in its place is a charmed illusion of a cosy fireplace. The stones are fat and round and the high mantlepiece has stockings hung across it, each spelled to change through the names of the Healers on duty at the time. A Yule log burns merrily in the hearth, giving off no heat, but all of the warm light of a real fire. Casey has his wand out and is putting the finishing touches to it.
“Impressive,” Harry whistles.
Casey spins around, but the smile slips from his face when he sees who it is, and his lip curls. “Oh, it’s you.”
Harry is about to make some sort of apology or offer an explanation for his own poor past behaviour when the door behind him bangs open. Malfoy strides into the room but stops short when he sees the charmed wall.
“Merde,” he spits out, drawing his wand and casting it at the beautiful illusion, causing the fire to go out and leaving the Yule log a blackened, ashy lump in a cold grate.
“Hey!” Casey yells, rounding on Malfoy, incensed at having his hard work ruined.
Malfoy doesn’t move, fixing him with a cold stare, and not lowering his wand an inch.
“Dégage!” Malfoy shouts, and for a second Harry thinks he’s cast a curse, before his brain catches up and he realises he’s just yelling in French.
Casey looks shocked, stilled by the venom in Malfoy’s tone.
Harry notices the vein standing out on the side of Malfoy’s neck and the way his non-wand hand is trembling slightly at his side. There’s colour high on his cheeks, and his eyes are so bright they might almost be tearing up.
“I said get out! ” Malfoy shouts again, his voice strained and tight.
Casey looks helplessly at Harry, who finds himself giving a small nod, and they walk silently to the door, leaving Malfoy in the drab empty lounge, staring at the darkened fireplace.
“Ugh, he’s so awful,” Casey sighs, slumping against the corridor wall outside. “How does someone that brutally good-looking wind up being such a pill. It’s so unfair.”
Harry, bizarrely, finds himself wanting to defend Malfoy. He’s had his own share of overreactions over the years. Trauma does odd things to people.
“What do the Muggles call it?” Casey continues, straightening himself up and heading off down the hall. “The Scrinch who stole Christmas?”
Something like that, Harry thinks.
He tugs a flyer off a nearby noticeboard, flips it over and scribbles Meeting in Progress on it in large letters, sticking it to the Staff Lounge doors.
It’s a ruse that won’t last long, but it might give Malfoy some peace for a moment.
Chapter 12: 12 December
Wednesday, Kreacher’s breakfast is so bad—a kind of porridge that's an uneasy pink colour—Harry decides to stick to his usual workday routine of intercepting Hermione at the little café near the Ministry where she likes to get her espresso and a sticky cinnamon brioche. She’s surprised to see him.
“Well, the Snitch alarm doesn’t seem to understand I’m suspended,” he grumbles, which just provokes a laugh.
They perch at a stools in the window, half-watching the witches and wizards hurrying past in the cold outside, chatting about the kids and the plans for Christmas.
“How’s the case?” he asks, finally, when idle small talk seems to have gone on for a suspiciously long time. Hermione’s mouth twists a little and she picks at the crumbs on her napkin with too much interest. “Hermione?”
She sighs. “We’re actually investigating an anonymous tip-off this morning, but it’s probably nothing.”
“If it’s nothing then—”
“It’s Malfoy Manor.”
Harry feels a chill run down his spine. He shifts uneasily on his stool.
“As I say, it’s probably nothing. Someone who is pissed off that Draco is back, I imagine. We’ve come across absolutely no evidence that points to either Draco or Narcissa being involved with the Neo-Death Eaters. But I’ll be honest, Harry—we’re running out of leads. Dawlish is insistent we follow up on every single one.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Hermione rolls her eyes, screwing up her napkin and stuffing it in her now empty coffee cup. “You can’t. You’re suspended.”
“Who’s going to know? You’re just going to ask a few questions, right?”
“My acting partner, Gibbens, for one?”
Harry scoffs. Gibbens is straight out of Auror training and looks like he’s going to wet himself every time he sees Harry. “Gibbens isn’t going to report me.”
“No, Harry. Be sensible. You’re suspended because you couldn’t follow protocol if your life depended on it, which it often does. Don’t prove them right by refusing to follow it now.” She refastens her robes as she stands. “It’s nothing. I’ll check it out, sign the Manor off as uninvolved, and you can go about your day.”
There’s a blast of cold air as she leaves the café and the door swings closed behind her. Harry remains sitting for a second, but his mind is still racing. Hermione will need to go in for the morning briefing, collect Gibbens, and then Apparate to the Manor.
He can beat her there.
The stately home feels far less intimidating than the last time Harry saw it, with a closed-up, slightly disused air. The gates stand open, and he walks up the long driveway, glancing around for signs of life. Everything is under a thick blanket of snow. The enormous double doors loom above him, dark and imposing, as he knocks.
A young house-elf wearing the simple uniform shift of the Free Maids opens the door. It feels incongruous but reassuring that Narcissa Malfoy now has a paid staff.
“Mr Harry Potter sir,” the elf says, blinking wide eyes up at him.
“I’m here to see either Draco or Narcissa Malfoy,” Harry says, and the elf nods, showing him into a room on the left. He supposes it probably has some fancy name, like receiving room or drawing room. It’s clean and well-kept but feels tired. The antique furniture has faded fabric, and there are no portraits on the walls. He also realises, with a start, that unlike his own house, there are no Christmas decorations at all.
He can't help but think about Malfoy's heart-felt description of his childhood Christmas trees. Enormous, vibrant evergreens, he'd said. Charmed lights that danced on the tips of the branches. He thinks of his own oversized Christmas tree at home, nestled against the hearth, lovingly decorated by Kreacher. If anything that crotchety old elf does could be considered "loving".
“What are you doing here,” Malfoy says, his voice sharp as he stalks into the room, snapping Harry out of his Christmas tree daydreams. He’s wearing dark suit trousers and a crisp white shirt, but the cuffs are unfastened and the top button undone. It makes Harry’s mouth go dry, as if he’d appeared in some state of indecent undress, even though there is literally no more of him on display than there normally is at the hospital.
Harry coughs to clear his throat. “Aurors are on their way here. Hermione and her … acting partner.”
Malfoy freezes, his pale features somehow even paler.
“They got an anonymous tip-off. But don’t worry, Hermione thinks it’s bullshit. She knows you and your mother aren’t involved. She just has to check.”
Malfoy’s frame relaxes just a fraction, but his face remains tight.
“And what, she sent you to warn me?”
At this, Harry shifts uneasily, his face heating up. “Not exactly—”
They both hear the knock at the front door. The house elf pops into the room to announce Aurors Hermione Granger and Matthew Gibbens. Malfoy instructs her to show them in, still eyeing Harry with a suspicious expression.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Hermione says tiredly as she walks into the room and sees Harry.
It’s this that manages to startle an almost laugh out of Malfoy, who glances between the two of them in astonishment. Gibbens’ mouth has fallen open, and Harry thinks that will probably put him out of commission for a while.
“What in Merlin’s name do you think you’re doing Harry?” She glares at him.
Harry tugs at the sleeve of his jacket uncomfortably for a second. “Visiting our old school friend?” he suggests, more of a question than an answer.
Both Malfoy and Hermione look at him as if he’s lost his mind.
Hermione turns to Malfoy and explains why she’s there. That they’d like permission to look around the Manor, but that he doesn’t have to grant it. That if he doesn’t, she may be forced to get a warrant and come back. She’s brisk and professional, and completely ignores Harry throughout. Gibbens has managed to close his mouth but keeps stealing wide-eyed glances at Harry who has to suppress a childish urge to stick his tongue out at the young man.
Malfoy nods curtly, and says that Hermione can look wherever she likes, other than his mother’s bedroom on the second floor. “If you really feel that Neo-Death Eaters may have set up camp under my mother’s sick bed, I can accompany you.”
Hermione assures him that won’t be necessary, and heads out into the house with Gibbens on her heels.
“Why did you want to warn me?” Malfoy asks, and his voice is so quiet, Harry has to pause for a second to make sure he’s heard him correctly.
The thing is, Harry doesn’t have a very good explanation. He feels like he discharged whatever debts he might have owed Narcissa and her son both when he spoke for them at their trials. And it’s not as if Malfoy has been particularly friendly or even approachable since his return.
“It just didn’t seem like a very nice thing to have happen out of the blue,” he manages, which is both true and not much of an answer.
Malfoy bites at his lower lip as he considers this for a moment. “Would you like a coffee?”
“What?” Harry’s startled by the segue.
“Coffee. Or tea, if you prefer. There’s both in the dining room.”
Harry takes a beat too long to answer, and Malfoy’s expression starts to shutter again.
“Of course, if you just came to alert me to the incoming investigation, I won’t keep you—”
“Coffee,” Harry blurts quickly, before the invitation can be rescinded.
Malfoy nods and leads the way to a cozy informal dining room with bright blue walls. It feels much more loved, more used, than the other room, but still there's absolutely nothing festive here either. No wreaths or baubles. Not so much as a Christmas card on the mantle. Tall French doors look out over a snow-covered garden, with an iced-over fountain at its centre. In the distance, Harry can see a glimpse of a bright red stable.
“Belle’s windows!” he gasps in sudden recognition, as Malfoy passes him a coffee cup.
He seems surprised at being caught out, his cheeks pink, and he looks down at the floor, leaving Harry to stare at those long, pale lashes.
“Yes, well, the preset view was terrible,” Malfoy almost mumbles. It might be the least articulate Harry’s ever heard him.
“It’s beautiful,” Harry assures him, and they drink their coffees in silence, looking out at the silent expanse of winter.
Hermione returns promptly, Gibbens lolling around her heels like an overeager puppy.
“Thank you, Draco,” she says, shaking his hand. “Your co-operation is appreciated.”
She turns a particularly stern glare on Harry as they leave. “You and I will have words later.” And doesn’t that sound like something to look forward to.
“Will your mother be alright?” Harry asks Malfoy, as he returns his cup to the sideboard and walks with him to the front door.
Malfoy runs a hand through that bright blond hair, and looks tired. More uncertain than Harry’s seen him.
“I hope so,” Malfoy says, as he opens the door.
It’s only as Harry reaches the driveway, the crunch of frozen gravel noisy under his boots, that he hears Malfoy call, “Thank you,” from behind him. He gives a little wave, but doesn’t look back.
Chapter 13: 13 December
He figures the best way to delay the inevitable bollocking that Hermione has in store for him is to not be where she expects. It won't work for long, and it's certainly never stopped him receiving an incensed dressing-down from an otter Patronus before, but he'll take it. So, on Thursday he Apparates to Andromeda’s house. He’s thinking he might be able to ask her about Narcissa, but he’s surprised to find Teddy answering the door.
“Are you on holiday already?” he asks, as the boy tears off back down the hall calling for his grandmother.
Andromeda appears from the kitchen, drying her hands on a tea towel. “He has a cold,” she explains. “Nothing Pepper-Up hasn’t already dealt with, but he was a bit miserable when he woke up and really, all they’re doing at school at this point in the year is making Christmas decorations and practising for the end-of-term show.”
“Help us make biscuits, Harry!” Teddy shouts from the kitchen, not sounding very sick at all.
“We’re making gingerbread biscuits. Why don’t you roll out some dough and I’ll make you a coffee.”
Harry agrees, washing his hands in the sink while Andromeda waves her wand at the kettle. Teddy is standing on a low stool to put him at the height of the kitchen bench, and already seems to have more flour on his hands and face than can conceivably be involved in biscuit dough.
“How many bad guys have you caught this week?” he asks, eyes bright, as Harry picks up the rolling pin.
“None this week,” he’s forced to admit, thinking back to Malfoy’s pale, frozen expression. He snaps himself out of it and tries to think of a child-friendly story Teddy will enjoy. “But last month, Hermione and I had to chase someone on our brooms!”
Teddy’s face lights up, and Harry loses himself in the rhythmic action of rolling out the rounds of dough, chattering to the little boy about his job.
Andromeda gives him a coffee and hands Teddy the gingerbread cutters, shaped like round little men, trees, and stars. Harry helps him lift the floppy shapes onto a tray, scooping the leftover dough back into a ball and rolling it up.
“These ones are for you, Harry,” Teddy announces, sliding dough in the shape of a letter H onto the tray. Harry looks at the cutter and at Andromeda, curious.
“There’s an O somewhere there too. I think you’re supposed to make ho ho ho biscuits.”
“Cool snake,” Teddy says, and Harry’s pretty sure there are no Christmas snakes, unless wizards have a very different version of the Advent story he’s somehow missed. He’s surprised to find the boy looking at him, and realises he’s distractedly rolled the leftover dough into a long thin coil. He smashes it flat with the heel of his hand.
“Okay,” he rushes on, before Teddy can object, “Let’s get these in the oven.”
Teddy seems dismayed to learn there is now nothing to do but wait for the biscuits to cook and cool, and when Andromeda suggests he help with the washing up he’s immediately overcome with a theatrical range of cold symptoms and assures them he really needs to be back in bed.
Andromeda shoos him out of the room with a wry smile.
“I was at Malfoy Manor yesterday,” Harry says quietly, as he spells water into the sink and sets the bowls and mixing spoons to wash themselves.
He knows that, over the years, Andromeda and her sister have reached a tentative reconciliation, but he’s not sure that they see each other very much.
“A routine investigation,” he goes on, in response to her questioning look. He figures he can leave out the bits about him being suspended and going anyway. They’re not really germane to the story. “Probably someone trying to cause trouble now that Ma...Draco is back.” The name feels thick and unfamiliar in his mouth.
Andromeda gives a sad nod, as if this is to be expected.
“It’s just...I understand Narcissa isn’t well. And the house seemed very closed up. Not at all...Christmassy,” he fumbles, waving an arm around Andromeda’s warm and inviting kitchen, already heavy with the smell of baking biscuits, a wreath hung above the back door and tinsel strung across the kitchen Floo. “Do you know if she’s okay?”
Andromeda turns her teacup around and around in her hand, as if she’s trying to decide what to say.
“Cissa’s seen the very best doctors. None of them have been able to help. I know that Draco is convinced that what ails her isn’t natural. That someone has done this to her, whether as retribution for the past or because she’s kept herself out of anything unseemly that’s going on now.”
Only Andromeda could use a word like unseemly to describe the Neo-Death Eaters and have it not make Harry bristle with irritation.
“But I’ll be honest, Harry. I think she’s just tired and lonely and heartbroken. Lucius was an evil man, but the Lucius she knew was the love of her life. Azkaban has turned him into a shell of a person. And I think she’s just...given up.”
Harry will never feel an ounce of sympathy for Lucius Malfoy, but his heart tugs a little when he thinks about Narcissa. And the idea that Malfoy thinks a third party is involved makes him uncomfortable. Why hasn’t he said anything? There are things the Aurors could do, ways to determine if Dark Magic is involved—
“Anyway, I don’t think she’s really even that aware that it’s Christmas, so I imagine Draco just hasn’t bothered with the decorations and so on. He works very long hours at the hospital, there wouldn’t be much point.”
Harry keeps thinking about this as the Tempus charm sounds to let them know the biscuits should come out of the oven. He’s still thinking about it later that morning, as Teddy squeezes the piping bag too hard and red icing shoots all over both of them. Harry smears it all over this nose, calling him Rudolph and producing squeals and giggles. He’s definitely still thinking about it as he finishes cleaning up, and packs some of the biscuits into a tin to take to St Mungo’s.
That evening, when Harry finally returns home after visiting Belle and then catching up with Ron for a pint, he finds himself in his sitting room looking at the giant Christmas tree. What had Malfoy said? A star on the top so bright, I thought someone had actually spelled it down out of the sky.
Harry makes up his mind. Kreacher will probably flay him in his sleep, but he’ll worry about that later. He can’t remember the right spell and is forced to dig out an old textbook from the top of a dusty shelf. He sneezes repeatedly as he flips the pages looking for it, and then slaps the book closed in triumph.
He takes out his wand, concentrating hard on the tree. “Excambio!”
There’s a sort of wooshing noise and a very bright light that causes Harry to squeeze his eyes tightly shut for a moment. When he opens them again, his face breaks into a wide smile.
There, in his sitting room at Grimmauld Place, is a very lopsided, half-dead spruce in a bucket, strung with Wheezes Chattering Cheer decorations that seem to have been so startled by their sudden relocation, they’re not even humming.
Kreacher’s definitely going to kill him.
Harry thinks it will be worth it.
Chapter 14: 14 December
“Yell at me.”
Hermione looks up from her desk, and arches one sharp eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“Yell at me. I know you want to. You know you want to. You clearly haven’t had time yet or your otter would have chased me down yesterday.”
Hermione leans back in her chair, putting down her quill and staring at him as if he’s gone quite mad.
“Harry, did you come into the office while suspended—again—for the express purpose of letting me tell you off?”
“No. But it seemed efficient to get that out of the way at the same time.”
Hermione gives an exasperated laugh. “You’re in luck. Whatever seething irritation I felt on Wednesday has left me. If you want to be friends with Draco, it’s nothing to do with me, but if you let that friendship interfere with an investigation again I’ll hex all the bones out of your feet.”
Harry has a horrifying flashback to school and his very floppy arm. He shudders involuntarily.
“We’re not friends. It’s just—”
“Why are you here, then, if not to subject yourself to a scolding?”
“I keep thinking about the raid. There’s something I’ve missed, and I can’t put my finger on it. I wanted to look at it in a Pensieve.”
Hermione’s face softens into sympathy. “Harry, you know with head injuries—”
“I know, I know,” he rushes on. “It’s a long shot, but I want to look.”
She nods, walking with him to the Department’s Pensieve Room and waiting while he draws the memory from his head, pouring it into the shimmering bowl. They both immerse themselves, and Harry takes a moment to shake off the creepy feeling of seeing themselves in the memory.
He watches them, holding their crouched positions at the back door, a few steps between them and Marsden’s basement. Waiting on the signal from the team at the front. He studies his own face, a mask of concentration that suddenly slips into action. Hermione shouts. The memory shimmers and disappears.
Harry lifts his head out of the Pensieve, frustrated.
“Harry, you know memory is never reliable when you’ve been knocked out. If I’d thought it would offer us anything I’d have made you look sooner.”
It’s bloody annoying, is what it is. Harry was hoping he’d see just a little of the seconds after he entered the basement. Something that would help Belle now.
“You found nothing at the Manor?” he asks, pushing his luck. Hermione isn’t supposed to tell him anything, and he only made that worse by turning up there before her.
She shakes her head. “I really do think it was just someone trying to cause trouble for the Malfoys.”
It’s an idea that makes Harry unaccountably irritated—vengeful cretins wasting valuable Auror time. He leaves Hermione with a tin of gingerbread biscuits, and heads to the hospital.
It’s not that he forgot about the tree, exactly, but seeing it at the Healer’s station is still a bit of a shock. Eight feet tall and glowing in its reflected light, the ornate decorations dance and sparkle against the drab institutional backdrop. Somehow, outside of the setting of Grimmauld Place, it seems even more impressive.
“Merlin,” he breathes.
“Isn’t it extraordinary?” Melinda agrees, her smile wide. “It just appeared, last night. Terrified poor Magda half to death.”
Harry risks a glance at Scary Magda, whose eyes have narrowed at him. He looks quickly away.
“It’s so beautiful,” Melinda sighs. “A proper tree. And Casey says the decorations are really old. Like pureblood ancestral heirloom old. The magic in them is something else.”
Harry bites his tongue and hopes none of the decorations are engraved with Black crests or family slogans, or are prone to insulting Muggle-borns the way old Walburga did before he finally managed to get her down off the wall.
“And, in another Christmas miracle, it positively melted McFrosty.”
“When he came on duty this morning, he nearly swooned. I swear he sat here for a full five minutes just staring at it with this faraway smile on his face. We all thought he hated Christmas, but he definitely doesn’t hate that tree.”
Harry ducks his head, hoping his own smile doesn’t give him away.
“Of course, moments later he let loose a tirade in French so ugly our translation charms bleeped it,” she continues. “But for that brief glorious interlude, he seemed like an actual human being, and not a Venomous Tentacula in the body of a runway model. It was nice.”
Definitely worth it, Harry thinks.
When he gets home to Grimmauld Place, he sneaks a look into the sitting room. The St Mungo’s tree is nowhere to be seen. The empty space has been filled with pair of decorative reindeer, fairy lights twisted through their antlers. He’s starting to relax and think maybe he’s gotten away with it, and Kreacher’s not really that mad, when above him he hears a terrible, shattering noise: Bong!
At first he thinks perhaps Kreacher’s knocked over something in the attic, but then it sounds again, a higher, off-key note: Bong!
On the third peal, Harry stomps up the stairs to investigate, the terrible noise only increasing in volume as he reaches the ladder to the attic.
"Kreacher, why in God's name is there now a very loud and particularly hideous bell tower sticking out of the roof?!"
"Master has been spending days having to visit bells and read books. Kreacher has reinstated the Black family bell and expanded the family library. Though Master might not find some of the additional catalogue to his... taste." The wizened little elf crosses his arms and looks up at Harry defiantly.
"Right. Before I explain to you what a demented, deaf bit of old boot leather you are, why on earth does it sound so awful?!"
"The family bell was rendered somewhat discordant when a giant took exception to a perceived lack of courtesy from Caledonia Black and chose to smite the bell tower. And half of that particular residence."
The bell sounds again, so horribly out of tune Harry has to cover his ears. “Bloody hell, make it stop!”
“Bells are being part of the traditional Christmas season,” Kreacher assures him, and disappears with a pop.
Harry has no idea how to stop the bell, and a raft of spells produce no results. Eventually he conjures some nearby boxes of old clothing into a big, soft comforter and wraps it around it to deafen the noise. Then he casts every silencing charm he can think of on the attic before his neighbours call in a noise complaint and he has to explain how he has a sodding cathedral-sized bell tower atop a townhouse in Islington.
Still, if the bell tower is Kreacher’s only retribution for stealing the Christmas tree, Harry figures he hasn’t fared too badly. Until he goes to bed that night, and discovers the St Mungo’s tree sitting in pride of place against the wall of his room, affixed firmly to the floor with a sticking charm.
With every single one of the Wheezes decorations full-throated in song.
Chapter 15: 15 December
Around two in the morning Harry concedes defeat and sends a Patronus to Ron begging for instructions to disable the Christmas decorations.
“You’re lucky I’m up with the baby,” his Jack Russell responds a few minutes later. “Why don’t you just chuck them in the basement and I’ll deal with them tomorrow.”
Harry sighs, sending his stag back to explain haltingly that he’s unable to remove the baubles from his bedroom.
Harry reckons he could have lived without hearing a glowing spectral dog say, “This better not be a kinky sex thing, mate.” An owl arrives moments later with the written instructions for the counter-charm. Harry’s room falls blissfully quiet and Harry falls into an exhausted sleep.
In the morning he figures he better go and explain himself to Ron, before he tells George and the whole family is speculating about what he gets up to of an evening. Even as he steps out of the Floo, the noise from the shop indicates that it’s pretty crowded. Ron is filling another bucket with giant candy canes.
“Doing a spot of decorating at two in the morning, were you?” Ron laughs, as Harry dusts himself off.
He sighs, explaining Kreacher’s mad revenge and that he now needs Hermione to help him remove a bloody bell tower.
He reaches out to help Ron straighten a clutch of the canes, but Ron slaps his hand away. “Careful, what are you doing? You don’t have gloves on.”
This is the first time Harry’s noticed that Ron is, in fact, wearing gloves.
“They’re dangerous?!” he asks, flabbergasted.
“No,” Ron scoffs, “but they’ll give you a nip if you’re not careful. Stings a bit.”
Harry eyes the oversized candy canes with horror.
“Well, what did you expect, Harry? Them to just sit there placidly and wait to be eaten?”
Harry thinks he needs to rent the Willy Wonka DVD and show it to Ron. Wizarding sweets are getting out of control.
When he opens the book at Belle’s bedside that afternoon, he thinks about the giant canes, and about Alice growing and shrinking. About not feeling quite like you fit in one place or another.
“ ‘Get to your places!' shouted the Queen in a voice of thunder, and people began running about in all directions, tumbling up against each other; however, they got settled down in a minute or two, and the game began. Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life; it was all ridges and furrows; the balls were live hedgehogs, the mallets live flamingoes, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and to stand on their hands and feet, to make the arches. ”
Harry thinks about an eleven-year-old Ron, atop a stone horse, facing down McGonagall’s merciless white queen.
“I think Lewis Carroll may have been a wizard after all, Belle,” he sighs, putting the bookmark back in place and closing the novel.
Harry decides to go and ask Malfoy more about his mother and his suspicions that her illness might not be natural, but when he gets to his office, Malfoy is nowhere to be seen.
Someone has covered up Healer Mason’s name plate with a peeling sticker that reads Specialist Malfoy. It’s such a lazy fix that it causes irritation to well up in Harry. He waves his wand at the wall, causing the sticker to vanish and the letters underneath to change into Malfoy’s name. He wonders why Malfoy hadn’t done the same.
The door to the office is standing open, and when Harry steps inside he has more questions than answers. Malfoy’s been back two weeks and it still looks like he’s barely set foot in this room, even though Harry knows he works long hours and is here all the time. Someone has brought in a filing cabinet, but other than that the bleak space remains unchanged. There isn’t even a chair on this side of the desk, as if Malfoy never has—or perhaps never encourages—visitors.
Something about the grim little room makes Harry feel sad. As if Malfoy doesn’t plan on sticking around long, or as if he doesn’t feel like he deserves an office of his own. It all feels so temporary.
Spurred into action, Harry returns to Belle’s room, using a spell Hermione once taught him years ago to duplicate magic. Then he goes back to Malfoy’s office, vanishing the broken Venetian blind and sizing up the dull opaque glass behind it. He casts at the window. “Similo! ”
The window pane ripples, and for a second he worries it hasn’t worked, but then the image flickers and sharpens, like a television set being fine-tuned. The snow-covered gardens of Malfoy Manor come crisply into view.
Satisfied, Harry closes the door carefully.
“He’s making a list, of chicken and rice…” Luna warbles, levitating potion bottles out of a carton and into neat rows on a shelf inside the open cupboard. Today her green robes have tiny wrapped presents dangling off them, a sleigh circling her hem like a toy train.
“Hello Harry. Draco’s not on duty today.”
He’s about to object that he wasn’t actually here to see Malfoy, so it doesn’t matter, but he supposes he has just come from his office, so that isn’t one hundred percent accurate.
“It was nice of you to visit him at home,” she continues, the line of little blue glass bottles following the gentle arc of her wand.
Harry starts. He wonders what Malfoy told Luna, and how she’d have the impression that he just called by for a visit and not in an official capacity. Or unofficial capacity. Suspended capacity. Whatever. He didn’t drop by for coffee.
Although he did end up having coffee.
Harry shakes his head to clear it.
“Just be a little careful with him, Harry,” Luna cautions, finally finishing her task, and closing up the doors, warding them shut with an intricate security spell. “He seems very tough, but his heart is very fragile. I don’t think he’d enjoy being one of your potions cupboard friends.”
Harry’s jaw drops open and his face heats up. That was one time, with Casey. Two times if you counted that orderly the year before, which he doesn’t because they were interrupted by a medical emergency that resulted in the potions cupboard being flung wide open and Harry Apparating away with his trousers still open.
He really needs to get out more.
“Luna,” he hisses, embarrassed. He wants to insist that he would never, but unfortunately now all he can think about is Malfoy pressing him up against the shelving on the other side of these very doors, the gentle clink of the tiny glass bottles and the only light illuminating his sharp features coming from around the hallway outside.
Luna doesn’t seem to notice, patting him comfortingly on the arm as she waltzes away, singing, “Later onnnnnn, we’ll perspire, as we dreeeeeam, by the fire….”
Harry's the one perspiring, and there's no fire in sight.
Chapter 16: 16 December
On Sunday the hospital is inexplicably quiet. It’s not ordinarily quiet on the weekends, Harry’s been here often enough to know. There’s usually a press of amateur Quidditch injuries, home improvement accidents, and people for whom Saturday night took a turn. But this afternoon there’s an unexpected lull. Peaceful enough he can hear the repeating chime of heartbeat monitoring charms, a baby crying somewhere in the maternity ward.
And the only person at the Healer’s station is Malfoy.
“You fixed my window,” he says, without looking up, and seriously, Harry wonders if Malfoy’s tagged him with some sort of tracking charm because the way he can do that is creepy. And impressive.
Harry thinks about denying it, more for fun than because he doesn’t want to admit to it. But if Malfoy has some sort of sixth sense for detecting Harry’s approach he’s bound to know when he’s been in his office.
“It was depressing,” he shrugs. “The whole office is. You should decorate.”
“Hang a calendar, perhaps?” Malfoy asks, arching an eyebrow at Harry, who feels himself go red immediately. Malfoy’s suit today is grey with a wide checked pattern, and a maroon tie fastened in a beautiful neat knot that Harry knows he couldn’t manage in a day of trying.
“No. But some pictures, maybe. A photo of your mum.”
Malfoy tenses up, the line of his shoulders tightening.
“You turned up at my house uninvited one time. Don’t presume to think you know us.”
Harry bristles, feeling himself slip into the familiar energy of gearing up to fight with Malfoy, before he remembers that’s not what he wants.
“You believe someone’s hurt her.”
He doesn’t express it as a question. Malfoy will only read doubt into that. He blinks up at Harry in surprise, whatever cutting remark he’d planned clearly discarded. But almost as quickly his expression shutters, becoming carefully blank.
“It’s none of your business, Potter.”
Harry leans his hip against the edge of the desk, just a fraction too close to Malfoy to be entirely comfortable. Malfoy pushes his chair back to put more space between them.
“It’s exactly my business. I’m an Auror—”
“Details,” Harry waves away the objection. “If you think someone has poisoned or cursed your mother, Malfoy, I want to help.”
“Why.” Malfoy’s tone is just flat, like he can’t even muster up his usual suspicion.
“Don’t pretend to be stupid. I’m an Auror, this is my job.”
“Not at the moment, it’s not,” Malfoy repeats. “And trust me when I say your colleagues don’t share your enthusiasm.”
Malfoy lets out an exhausted exhale, as if he’s finally conceding he’s not getting out of this conversation easily.
“She’s been sick for months, Potter. Of course I reported it. I Portkeyed back here on my days off and sat through endless, pointless interviews, where the questions were all about me, and what I’d been up to in France, and whether I was still in touch with any of my Father’s associates. And I let them into our home, where they proceeded to dig around looking for dark objects and more or less ignore her completely. So, excuse me if I don’t have much faith that the Auror force gives a flying fuck about my mother.”
Harry frowns, irritated that he didn’t know this, He’s sure Hermione doesn’t either or she would have mentioned it when she went to Malfoy Manor this week. Hermione is thorough that way.
“What do you think happened?” Harry asks, even as he makes mental plans to be at the Ministry first thing tomorrow cracking skulls until he’s found whoever investigated this and taken their files.
Malfoy scrubs a hand over of his face.
“I don’t know,” he says honestly, and Harry can see how much the confession costs him. “But Belle is exhibiting a very similar set of symptoms.”
Harry straightens up with a start. “What do you mean?”
“Not identical,” Malfoy warns. “And certainly Belle’s case is much more severe. But, here, look.” He opens the file in front of him and extracts a sheet of parchment. It’s covered in diagnostic results. Coloured lines and graphs. It looks like ancient runes to Harry and half as clear.
“You don’t need to know what these mean, exactly,” Malfoy says, and he reaches into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and retrieves another, folded sheet of parchment. He smooths it out on the desk alongside Belle’s results. Even Harry’s extremely untrained eye can see that the arcs and lines follow similar shapes.
“I believe they’ve been exposed to the same thing.”
Harry sucks in a breath, his mind racing. “But your mother’s conscious. Surely she can tell us what happened?”
“Conscious and confused, Potter. You’re as likely to get a tale about how she needs to study more for her Transfiguration exam as you are to find her on a day when she knows what day it even is.”
The admission seems hard won. Malfoy looks grief-stricken. He reaches out idly to pluck at a decoration on Harry’s tree: a sparkling heart in a deep, ruby red.
“That’s why you didn’t bother decorating, for Christmas.”
Malfoy gives a disaffected shrug. Harry forces down an absurd urge to comfort him, because that’s clearly ridiculous. This is the longest conversation they’ve had in a decade. It might even be the longest conversation they’ve ever had, given their childhood exchanges consisted largely of flinged insults.
He thinks about Luna. He seems very tough, but his heart is very fragile. Harry wants to take advantage of this moment where Malfoy seems willing to be honest with him. It doesn’t feel like it will last.
“Why did you write to everyone except me?”
Malfoy looks at him quizzically, still fiddling with the dark red heart, his pale fingers smoothing over the bauble’s sparkling edges.
“You wrote to Neville. You even wrote to Hermione.”
Malfoy laughs, but there’s no humour in it at all. The sound falls flat in the silence between them. Harry listens to the distant chime of a heartbeat monitor.
“What would I have said, Potter?” Malfoy finally asks softly.
“Harry,” he finds himself correcting quickly, though he has no idea why. He just wants some distance between the children they were then and the men they are now.
“Harry,” Malfoy—Draco—concedes, with a rueful smile. “What would that letter even have said? How could I have apologised sincerely enough, thanked you genuinely enough for saving my life, without also demanding apologies for the scars you left on me. Without screaming at you for not saving me from myself. There aren’t words, Harry. To untangle all the ways we wound ourselves up with each other back then. The things we did right and the things we did wrong. Believe me, I know. I tried to find them.”
Harry’s chest feels tight. He realises Draco might be the only person besides Ron and Hermione who doesn’t see him as the caricature of a War Hero. Who knows just how much he lost to gain the victory. He thinks about Draco lying on that wet tiled floor. How vibrant the blood had seemed. How much of it there had been. He looks at the blood-red ornament in Draco’s pale hand and suddenly can’t stand it, casting wandlessly to send it back to the tree.
Draco looks up from his now-empty palm in surprise, but before he can say anything Scary Magda appears out of nowhere, slamming a towering pile of files down on the desk and eyeing Harry with a threatening look. Behind him, the Emergency Department alerts start to sound, and a Patronus in the shape of a cat leaps up onto the desk asking for Specialist Malfoy to come at once.
The fragile moment between them shatters instantly. Malfoy folds his mother’s test results and tucks them back into his suit jacket as he stands, fastening his buttons.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Harry,” he says quietly, and doesn’t wait for a response before striding away.
Chapter 17: 17 December
Harry wakes up before the Snitch alarm on Monday morning, feeling a grim sense of triumph as he glares at it on his way to the shower.
Kreacher’s decorating is starting to reach its peak. The bannisters on every floor are wrapped full to bursting with tinsel and bows. White doves peak out from behind lit stars and there is literally nowhere to put your hand any more. Harry doesn’t remember it being quite as voluminous in previous years. He may still be paying for the tree.
Harry gets to the Ministry just as the main entrance hall is starting to fill with employees starting their days. The Welcome Witch gives him a smile and a wave, so he decides to chance it in Archives and Records. He’s not actually sure what he is and isn’t allowed to do while suspended, but there’s only one way to find out.
But first he has to find Archives and Records. Leaving Hermione to take care of their paperwork over the years has its downsides and it’s not like he can ask anyone without looking like a madman or an impostor. So he finds himself staring at the Floor Guide by the lifts trying to decide if it might be near Wizengamot Administrative Services, or is more likely to be somewhere around the Magical Office of Law. Three floors, six wrong turns, one interrupted interdepartmental meeting, and an exasperated request for directions later, Harry finally finds himself in the right place.
Except that the place seems deserted.
There’s nothing but a counter with a magical inbox atop it, constantly receiving a flow of memos flapping their paper wings down from the rafters. And a small bell that has a sign beside it reading Ring only when help is genuinely required. A limp piece of tinsel has been tied around the handle.
It feels a little too much like one of Alice’s adventures, Harry thinks, picking up the bell and ringing it with obnoxious vigor.
He waits, but nothing happens. A long silence stretches unbearably, and he’s just about to reach for the bell again when a door appears out of a previously solid wall and a wrinkled, bent-over old wizard appears. He peers over the half-rounds of his spectacles at Harry.
“There’s no need to be so impatient, young man.”
Harry snatches his hand back guiltily.
“I...uh...I’d like to look at a file.”
“I’d like to go to Majorca for Christmas,” the man says, with absolutely nothing in his tone to indicate if he is joking, or being sarcastic, or if these are just his actual holiday plans.
Harry eyes him warily.
“Draco Malfoy reported his mother falling unwell in suspicious circumstances. It was investigated by the Auror Department. I’d like to see the file.”
“And you are?” the wizard asks.
Harry’s mouth falls open.
“Harry Potter,” he manages in disbelief. This odd little man must be pulling his leg. He waits for the chuckle that must surely follow.
But instead, the wizard draws out a piece of parchment, and locates a quill and begins to scratch out Harry’s name with agonising slowness.
“Is that Potter with two Ts?” he asks, without looking up.
“How else would you bloody—yes with two Ts!”
“I don’t know.” Harry tries to keep his voice patient.
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m—”
“Date of complaint?” The little man drones on.
“I don’t know . All I know is the name of the complainant.”
He supposes he could just go up to the bullpen and ask around until he finds which of his useless colleagues were involved, but he wants the file first. He needs the upper hand.
“Look,” he tries again, his tone pleading. “Surely there’s a way to search using Mr. Malfoy’s name.”
The little wizard huffs, and then turns around and totters back through the little door behind him. For one terrible moment Harry thinks he’s pushed him too far and the recordkeeper has just abandoned him in protest. But a few minutes later the wizard returns, bearing a giant leather-bound ledger almost as big as himself. He hefts it up onto the counter.
“Complainant index - M.”
“Brilliant!” Harry says, swinging the enormous volume towards himself and flipping it open. “So I can just find the page with Mr. Malfoy’s name—”
Harry runs his finger down the first page, presuming it will be somewhere near the beginning.
“Wait a minute…” he looks at the list in confusion. “These aren’t in alphabetical order?”
The little old wizard gives Harry a disgusted look. “Why on earth would they be in alphabetical order? Complaints are listed in the order in which they are received.”
Harry gives a tired sigh, eyeing the hundreds of bound pages of parchment.
“I’ll ring you when I find it, I guess,” he says glumly.
“I will count the minutes,” the recordkeeper retorts, disappearing through the little door, which promptly vanishes behind him.
Harry tries several versions of locating spells, but the ledger seems to repel all of them and in the end he gives up, turning the pages as swiftly as he can, starting from June because Draco had said “months” and it seems fair to guess he wasn’t talking about the beginning of the year.
It takes him almost an hour. Harry's back hurts and he wishes he’d conjured a chair, but just as he feels like the letters are starting to swim on the page he sees it.
August, 9. Malfoy, Draco. Subject of Complaint: Malfoy, Narcissa. Case number #390765.
Harry rings the bell continuously in triumph. The little recordkeeper is wholly unimpressed.
Clutching the file, he heads back up to his and Hermione’s office. She’s nowhere to be seen, so he makes himself a cup of tea and sits down to read. The Investigating Aurors were McCabe and Dillon—two men nearing retirement who vastly prefer the comfort of their overly cushioned office chairs to anything approaching real Auror work. Harry suspects the investigation suffered more through apathy than malice. The file is thin, and reflects exactly the kind of cursory, biased approach that Draco described yesterday. The sheer laziness makes Harry’s blood boil.
The office door clangs open and a parade of levitating shopping bags come floating through it, bulging with boxes and bright tubes of wrapping paper. When Hermione catches sight of Harry she startles, losing control of the spell. The bags slump to the floor in a noisy crash.
“You’re just lucky I have children and all the new champagne flutes in that bag are plastic,” she sighs. “We’ve talked about this Harry, you can’t be here.”
“I know, I know,” he says, getting up and helping her collect and stack the scattered purchases. “I won’t stay. Come with me, for a coffee. I’ll explain.”
He must have caught her at a weak moment, because she agrees, and they walk to their favourite hole-in-the-wall place in Diagon.
Hermione wrinkles her nose at the chalkboard decorated with holly leaves. Their usual offerings have been replaced with eggnog lattes and chestnut praline hot chocolates.
“Why does anyone want to drink a bloody Christmas sampler,” she complains, insisting on her usual black coffee and refusing the barista’s valiant attempts to upsell her to a peppermint mocha.
Harry had been about to order a gingerbread latte, but he knows better than to incur Hermione’s seasonal wrath. “I’ll just have a cup of tea,” he says, paying the disappointed young woman.
They perch at their usual spot in the window, and Harry explains about Draco’s mother, and the perfunctory investigation.
“I can fully believe McCabe and Dillon half-assed it,” Hermione agrees, chewing on the end of her stirrer. “And I’m annoyed they didn’t mention it when we discussed going to the Manor last week. But I don’t understand what you want to do now? Reopen it?”
“That’s just it. I think it’s part of our investigation.”
He repeats what Draco showed him, the diagnostic test results and the similarities with Belle’s condition.
“That doesn’t make any sense, Harry. We found nothing to suggest Narcissa Malfoy’s involvement with Marsden and co. The only link between the two is Malfoy.”
Harry tugs his lower lip between his teeth as he thinks. It’s not that he hasn’t considered this conclusion already, it’s just that he’s seen how hard Draco is working to try and heal Belle. And he knows how much he cares for his mother.
“It’s not Draco,” he says with conviction.
Hermione narrows her eyes at him but says nothing.
“Just. Promise me you’ll look into it,” he pleads.
“Give it,” she says finally, with a tired groan, reaching for the file.
Harry hands the folder over with a wide smile.
“I’d say you owe me one, but the list is so long now we’ve left traditional methods of counting behind.”
He gives her an impulsive hug, kissing the top of her head, and calling out to the barista for a gingerbread latte to go.
Chapter 18: 18 December
Castor Seymour has been the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts for eight years now, long enough for everyone to relax and agree the position is definitely no longer cursed. Before that he’d been an Auror Trainer, Harry’s favourite. He taught duelling and defence with an energy and practical enthusiasm that was contagious. So whenever Seymour asks Harry to come up and do a guest class with his students, Harry’s always delighted to say yes.
He thinks Seymour secretly likes the wide-eyed way his students stare at Harry as if he’s just sprung from the pages of one their textbooks. The Seventh Years are bright and friendly, keen to show off what they’ve already learned to Harry, who puts them through their paces, pushing them now and again with harmless little hexes they haven’t come across in their studies. By the time they break for lunch, he feels run ragged and he wonders how Seymour keeps up with them all term.
Outside the castle, a serious snowstorm is settling in. Even at midday, the sun stands little chance of penetrating the thick blanket of grey cloud, and the Great Hall is lit with a thousand charmed candles floating over the tables as if it were night. Harry stares up at the candles above the staff tables, bright red for the Christmas season, and absently wonders where the wax goes so that it doesn’t drip on all their heads.
“How’s your friend in St Mungo’s?” Neville asks, slicing off another thick slab of ham and adding it to his plate. Harry loves the Christmas food at Hogwarts. He considers asking Seymour if he can help out all week. It would definitely beat the sausage roll Kreacher served this morning that Harry’s pretty sure had raisins in it. At least he hopes they were raisins.
“No change,” he said, stabbing his fork at another potato.
“Are you going there this afternoon? Only I’d an extra box of dried nettles that Hannah doesn’t need in the Infirmary here. I thought they might as well have it over the holiday.”
Harry agrees readily, and after they finish more trifle than is probably sensible for the middle of the day, he dons his thick winter cloak and follows Neville down through the snow to the greenhouses.
“Reckon you should put in a Floo, mate,” he gasps, as they manage to close the thick glass door against the elements. The warmth of the greenhouse and the thick tropical scent of the plants around them start to thaw his frozen bones quickly, and he unwinds his scarf.
“Fire and plants don’t really mix,” Neville explains. “Well, other than Fire Seed, obviously, and there’s a reason we keep them in a cave.”
Harry follows him through the trays of seedlings on tables, and mimics the way Neville ducks exaggeratedly under the bough of a thin tree Harry doesn’t recognise but also doesn’t want to mess with. They reach the doors to Neville’s office, and Harry waits while he unwards them.
And waits some more.
“Merlin, Nev. The Unspeakables don’t have security this tight.”
Neville laughs, finally lowering his wand and unlatching the door. “Legal requirement, I’m afraid. Since I started handling Level Four Restricted ingredients.”
“Which are—” It’s possible Harry dozed off a bit whenever the legal restrictions parts of his training came up.
“Seriously poisonous or contagious in some way. Needed to get a special licence and so on. And obviously having anything like that near children is an added risk. But the magic in the Hogwarts greenhouses is ancient and powerful, so it makes sense to cultivate some of these things here. I just have to be very careful.”
“These are the sort of things you help St Mungo’s with?” he asks.
Neville nods distractedly, opening a tall set of cupboards packed tight with cardboard boxes, each with neat parchment labels on them.
“So there might be something here that could help Belle?”
Neville laughs. "You think I have a miracle cure-all herb growing somewhere here that one of the world's most preeminent doctors is unaware of?"
"Not exactly. I just—"
"Don't get me wrong Harry, I think it's dead lovely, but why this sudden need to assist Draco Malfoy?"
Harry sputters in protest. Dead lovely.
“I’m not—” but then his eye catches on something over Neville’s shoulder and his heart stops.
Right on the top shelf of Neville’s cupboard are three very small boxes, and stencilled on the front of each is a symbol of a serpent wrapped around a cup, its forked tongue licking out. Harry staggers back a step, pointing up at them.
“What are those?”
“The snake boxes,” Harry yelps, pointing insistently at the top shelf.
“Oh!” Neville looks startled, probably because Harry has started acting like a crazy person. “That’s a pharmakon.”
Harry feels unaccountably relieved that the image he’s been repeatedly recreating has a name. His brain is racing, trying to make the connections he needs.
“In magical philosophy it means both remedy and poison,” Neville goes on. “It has another Dark meaning involving...human sacrifice.” He whispers the last words, as if the two of them weren’t completely alone in a greenhouse, surrounded by a howling snowstorm.
“What the hell, Nev?”
“No one uses it to mean that any more,” Neville hastily adds. “The symbol is used to mark Level Four ingredients. Those boxes contain dried leaves of Swiss hemlock. About ten times as deadly as the common kind.”
Harry experiences a strong surge of adrenaline. There’s an answer here to a question he can’t quite force into shape.
“And these ingredients are heavily restricted?”
“Of course. My greenhouse is the only licensed premises in the United Kingdom allowed to hold them in bulk like this. Potions Masters come to me to sign out what they need.”
Restricted and traceable.
He stares at the boxes again.
The red ink of the stencil against the brown cardboard.
Belle’s head tipped back in laughter.
Harry grabs Neville by the face and smacks a noisy kiss to both cheeks. “Neville, I bloody love you mate!”
He grabs for his cloak and scarf, tearing back through the greenhouse, leaving the startled Professor in his wake. “Merry Christmas to you too, Harry!” Neville calls.
It’s only as Harry’s forcing out into the cold onslaught of snow that he hears a distant, “You forgot the—” but whatever Neville is yelling is swallowed by the wind around him.
He sends a Patronus to Hermione immediately and then thinks about the fastest way to get off the Hogwarts grounds. In the end he forces the lock on the Quidditch equipment shed, which is closest, and grabs a crappy, half-broken broom. It’s too small for him by half but gets him to the school gates far faster than walking. He briefly considers trying to Apparate straight to the Ministry, but it’s too far in one hop and he can’t be bothered trying to think of the waypoints so he goes straight the Broomsticks and into the Floo.
Hermione is waiting in their office, pacing.
“What kind of message is I’ve cracked it, meet me at work ?!” she snaps. “Cracked what ? The case? A glass? Your fat head?”
“I was in a hurry. There was a pharmakon, on the boxes in the basement. Marsden’s basement,” he pants out.
Hermione’s eyebrows shoot up. Clearly she was paying attention in whatever class they covered that in.
“You’re sure? What colour?”
“Red. I’m sure. I didn’t remember it properly until now because of the ding on the head, but I saw them in Nev’s greenhouse this afternoon and it came back to me, crystal clear.”
“Oh, Harry this is brilliant, this is...those ingredients are so heavily controlled. God knows how he got his hands on them, but he’ll never have been able to cover his tracks completely. We’ll be able to find him.”
Her whole demeanor changes as she switches gears, rummaging around on her desk for something and firing out a string of Patronus charms, summoning various team members and records. Harry loves her when she’s like this, so bloody efficient and organised.
“I’ll get the briefing room ready,” he suggests, heading for the door to their cramped little office.
“Oh, Harry,” she says quietly, in a sad tone that causes him to spin around, surprised.
“You can’t,” she continues, her expression sympathetic but firm. “I’ll tell Robards about the breakthrough, obviously. Maybe he’ll lift the suspension early.”
Harry’s heart sinks. He looks around the room, at his overflowing desk and the rattling steam pipes.
“No, of course. I’ll—”
He didn’t really realise how much he’d missed it until this moment. Missed the crummy office, and the weak Ministry tea, and the rush of hurrying into battle alongside Hermione.
“I guess I’ll be at the hospital,” he finishes, leaving before he has to think about it any more.
Chapter 19: 19 December
The glowing otter isn’t really pulling a face, but Harry feels like it is when it opens its little mouth and yells in Hermione’s voice, “If you send me one more blasted Patronus I’ll request Robards assign you to cold cases as soon as you're back! Nothing but Archives and Records!”
Harry shudders at the thought. He just wants an update. She’s off tracking Marsden, and Harry’s stuck with his annual Solstice visit to the War Orphanage. He likes visiting the kids there, ordinarily. But today he just wants to be out in the field where he belongs.
Maisie Llewelyn, the no-nonsense witch who runs the place, is waiting for him on the top step, looking curiously at the shouting otter.
“Sorry, work,” Harry hastens to explain, shooing the Patronus away and dashing up the stairs to join her.
“The children are doing crafts in the main room this morning,” she says, leading the way into the brightly-lit hall. A squat Christmas tree absolutely laden with hand-made decorations dominates the entry hall, with presents stuffed underneath it. Harry feels a warm sense of pride that his fundraising efforts this year have made sure every child who lives here is going to have a special Christmas Day.
The main room is a hive of activity, with a dozen children sitting around small tables. Harry finds a gap and pulls up a chair, earning an impulsive hug from the little girl sitting next to him.
“We’re making Yule logs,” she says, turning the decorated stick she has in her hand around to show him. It’s so covered in glitter glue and ribbons, you can’t really see the wood anymore, but Harry figures that’s not really the point.
An earnest little boy about Teddy’s age is sitting opposite, trying to glue a pinecone on the end of his small log. Harry reaches out to hold the wood steady.
“Thanks,” the boy murmurs, concentrating hard as he applies more of the gummy substance than is probably necessary. Harry’s not entirely convinced the pinecone isn’t going to wind up glued to his hand. “I’m trying to copy Miss Llewelyn’s.”
Harry looks over at the teacher’s desk, where a truly stunning Yule log sits. Full size, the wood has been wrapped with thick plaid ribbon, and tucked beneath the bows are a riot of holly and berries, ivy, sheaves of wheat, pine cones and needles.
“I think you’re doing a great job,” Harry assures the boy, pulling his thumb away before it becomes one with the pinecone.
He spends the morning tying bows, and cutting out star shapes. Refilling glitter pens and helping write cards to friends and teachers. It keeps him happy and distracted, but in the back of his mind he’s still thinking about Hermione.
As he gathers his things to leave, he compliments Maisie on the log.
“It’s really stunning. Far too beautiful to burn.”
She nods. “Yes, that’s the idea. I make them and sell them in the Christmas market at Diagon each year. People use them as table centrepieces, or if they’re living in a flat that doesn’t have a fireplace. It represents the Yule tradition without needing a hearth.”
Harry hums in thought.
“Can I buy one?”
Maisie looks surprised, but agrees at once, showing Harry in to her back office where an array of the beautiful decorations are laid out on a shelf. He picks a log that has a thick green bow, a rich smell of pine, and little acorns tucked in and around the leaves and berries. Maisie carefully tucks it into a large gift bag.
When he finishes reading to Belle, he goes to find Draco in his office.
To his surprise, Draco hasn’t changed out the magic on his windows, which still show the Manor grounds. In fact, the office now has two visitor chairs and an actual pot plant. It’s a spiky, ugly thing that doesn’t do much to soften the room at all, but Harry feels like it’s progress.
“We had a breakthrough, in the case,” he announces without waiting for Draco to look up. “It might mean we can find Marsden, and then maybe we’ll have more information. For Belle.”
Draco’s in shirtsleeves and a burgundy waistcoat. The fabric looks ridiculously expensive and it just makes Harry want to reach out and touch it. He stuffs his hands in his pockets.
“And I found your mother’s file.” At this, he gets hit with the full force of the Malfoy glare.
“I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“I know, but if there’s a link, it’s relevant to our case. The information might be important, and even if it isn’t, it ought to be investigated properly.”
Draco gives a sort of disbelieving snort.
“I know you, Harry Potter,” he snaps. “You’re a permanent fixture in this hospital because you’re reckless. There aren’t any other Aurors on a first name basis with half the staff. You get injured all the time because you’re not careful. Excuse me if I doubt that you’re the right man for the job.”
“That’s not—” Harry starts to protest.
“You’re a shambles. Wandering around here dressed like a rag bag,” Draco gives a wave of his hand to indicate his outfit, which would rankle, but Harry’s pretty sure he has pine needles and glitter stuck to places he can’t even see. “Wheedling your way in where you’re not supposed to be. With your Christmas decorations and your gingerbread biscuits and your …” he trails off, seeming exasperated, though it’s hard to tell if it’s with Harry or himself.
“You inspire many feelings, Harry,” he continues with a sigh. “Confidence isn’t one of them.”
Harry’s very interested in what the other feelings might be, but he’s also a bit afraid to ask.
“Well, lucky for you I’m here and Hermione is the one investigating. She’s careful, and organised, and clever, and follows all the rules.”
Harry lifts the heavy gift bag up and clunks it down on Draco’s desk in frustration.
Draco flicks his wand at the present, vanishing the bag altogether.
“Christ, Draco,” Harry laughs abruptly. “That’s not how you unwrap a gift.”
Draco is staring at the Yule log sitting on the centre of his desk, the gentle scent of the wood and foliage suddenly more apparent in the small office. The ornament is larger than Harry had appreciated, and considerably more ornate. It looks beautiful.
“It’s a Yule log,” Harry supplies helpfully, because Draco just seems to be staring at it without comprehension.
He looks up at Harry, incredulous.
“I know what it is, Harry. I don’t know why it’s here.”
“It’s a gift. I bought you a gift. Because it’s Christmas. And because I know you too, Draco Malfoy. You love Christmas and you wish your mother was well enough to celebrate it with you. You came home from France because you don’t trust anyone else to save her, even me. Probably especially me. You hate surprises, which is why you read the last page of a book before the beginning. Why you need windows in your Advent calendar and why you vanish the wrapping on a gift. You never want to be surprised again, in case it turns out as poorly as it did when we were kids.”
Draco is staring open-mouthed at Harry, but he’s on a roll and can’t stop now.
“You hate fire. You’re scared senseless by it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a real flame under some chestnuts or an entirely fake one in a charmed fireplace. But you love Christmas. So I bought you a Yule log that you don’t need to burn. You can—I don’t know. Take it home, give it to Casey to build into the staff display. Hell, you can throw it out if you want. I just thought you might like it.”
Harry looks down at his hands where they’re gripping the back of the chair in front of him. When he chances a glance up, Draco is staring at him, his eyes bright with unshed tears. He says nothing.
The silence between them becomes awkward. Harry stuffs his hands back in his pockets.
“Anyway. I’ll let you know when I hear from Hermione.”
Harry spins on his heel quickly and leaves.
Chapter 20: 20 December
Harry knows Hermione will contact him once she has more information. He knows this, and yet his wand still itches in its holster. He decides the only way to keep from annoying her is to stay busy, and so he braves the crowds in Diagon for the last of his holiday errands.
He goes to Quality Quidditch and picks up the training broom he’d ordered for Teddy, and he ducks into Gringotts, bypassing the queues and sitting with the goblin in charge of trusts and estates to sign off the end of year paperwork for his donations to the War Orphanage. The whole time his knee bounces and his fingers flex and it’s all he can do not to just go to the DMLE and find out what is going on.
As he leaves the bank, a small clutch of children are singing off-key carols on the wide marble steps in lopsided Santa hats. As he throws some Sickles into their collection hat, he remembers that Teddy sent him an invite to his school carol service. He supposes it might be marginally more musical than Luna’s attempts.
Thinking about Luna makes him think about the hospital. And Draco. He’s far too early for visiting hours, but he’s sure there’s something else he can do. Visit the children’s ward, maybe or...Merlin, anything to keep his mind busy for a couple of hours. He Apparates to St Mungo’s.
Luna’s looked like a Christmas tree every day this month, but today she’s really excelled herself. Her blond hair is pulled up into a bun on top of her head and encased in a gold star. Harry thinks if she stands still for too long someone will probably tuck a present under the hem of her green robes.
“He rules the worrrrldddd, with Ruth and Grace! Oh Harry! It’s so good of you to come today.”
Harry frowns. “I come every day.”
“Yes, but today is a particularly good day for you to be here. Belle isn’t doing so well.”
Harry’s stomach drops. Belle seems exactly the same every visit. He always pats her pale hand and smooths out her covers before he goes. She always seems wan, but no different from one day to the next.
“Time,” Luna shrugs. “It’s not good to stay in that sort of stasis for so long, and without knowing exactly what she’s been exposed to, poor Draco is working against the clock.”
“Around the clock,” Melinda corrects. “When was the last time you were here and he wasn’t? He must be exhausted.”
“I’m just going to—”
“He’s in his office,” Luna says, without looking up. And Harry’s about to object, because he could have been going to finish that sentence any number of ways, but she’s moved on, drifting off down the hall like a sentient spruce.
Draco really must be exhausted, because when Harry approaches his office, it doesn’t seem to trip his sixth sense. Expecting a cutting remark, Harry just pauses on the threshold and watches him for a second. Draco has his back to him and is unwarding a tall cupboard. Harry looks around the tiny office. The cupboard is new. As is the coat stand in the corner, and a lamp on the desk, casting a warm light over piles of paperwork. Draco’s suit is a deep blue; almost black. Harry takes a moment to appreciate the way it’s cut perfectly across his shoulders. Casey is right. Draco manages to make even the dullest casting seem erotic. Harry’s about to say something about his wards being a bit excessive for locking away his lunch when the cabinet pops open and he sucks in a horrified breath.
Draco spins around, startled. He looks as bone-weary as Melinda had described, his face sallow and his eyes dark, but Harry can’t concentrate on that at all. Not with the contents of the cupboard on display behind him.
“What the fuck, Draco?”
“Salazar, Harry, I don’t have time for whatever this is right now. Can’t you just...I don’t know, take whatever revelation you’re having elsewhere and we can discuss it another day.”
“You must have had a right old laugh, with me here yesterday saying I know you,” Harry spits out.
Draco scowls at him.
“Hermione warned me,” Harry seethes. “She said you were the only link between the two cases and I defended you.”
Draco’s scowl turns murderous. “Explain yourself,” he snaps.
“ME?!” Harry is incredulous. “How about you explain why you’ve got a cupboard in your personal office locked up tighter than a Gringotts vault with a stash of illegal fucking Level Four ingredients in it?”
Draco’s whole countenance turns to shock.
“What did you say?”
Harry’s adrenaline is surging now. He feels like an idiot for getting this so wrong, and he’s half expecting Draco to try and make a break for it. They always try and make a break for it. But Draco is just staring at him, his expression suddenly urgent.
“Potter, come on, what is it??”
Harry points at the boxes in disbelief. “What, you want to pretend I can’t see them! They’re sitting right there on your shelf with the sodding pharmakon stamped on them!”
“How do you know what a pharmakon is?” Draco is insistent, taking a step towards Harry and searching his face, as if he’s trying to solve a puzzle.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Harry sighs. “You can make jokes about how I’m not detail-oriented when you’re in a bloody cell. I saw the damn symbol at Marsden’s before Belle was injured, I know what they look like.”
He starts to reach for his wand. He feels sick about the whole thing. Draco steps right into his space and for a fractured second Harry thinks he’s going to lunge at him, but Draco just grabs both of his upper arms and gives him a shake.
“Focus, Harry, please. Where did you see this symbol, tell me exactly.”
He’s not exactly giving off the air of a fugitive about to take flight and his hands are very warm on Harry’s biceps, which is oddly distracting. Harry takes a confused step back, out of his grip, trying to clear his head.
“In the basement. We—” He gathers his thoughts, trying to focus on his fuzzy memories of the raid, rather than the creeping sense of disappointment that Draco has turned out to be nothing like he’d imagined and exactly like he should have expected.
“I went in first. Marsden was standing behind a brewing bench. He wasn’t brewing at the time, but there were cauldrons. Ingredients. Belle was sitting opposite him. Laughing at something. Behind her was a stack of boxes. And some of them had fucking pharmakons on them. Happy now?”
He should send a Patronus to Hermione. If she’s not at the office, she can meet them—
Draco is still right there, in his personal space. Far too close. Harry can see the bruised circles under his eyes.
“How big were the boxes? The same size as these ones? Bigger, smaller?” Draco waves frantically at the cupboard behind him.
Harry looks over his shoulder, and then closes his eyes briefly as he tries to remember the scene accurately. “Smaller. The size of a shoebox.”
Draco nods, quickly. “And the pharmakon, what colour?”
“Red,” he answers, exasperated. As if you don’t know, with them sitting behind you in your sodding office.
“Good. And the symbol itself—exactly the same as this one?”
Harry looks at the stamped stencil. The snake coiling around the cup.
“Yes. No, wait, no,” he pauses, staring at the boxes again. “The snake had a forked tongue.”
Draco lurches forward, seizing the front of Harry’s robes and dragging him into a wholly unexpected hug.
“You’re bloody brilliant,” he says, before stepping away, leaving Harry in an addled cloud of heat and expensive cologne. Draco turns back to the cabinet, slamming the doors shut and casting rapidly.
“What the fuck are you doing, Draco?” Harry yelps. “Do you not understand what’s going on here? I have to arrest you!”
Draco finishes locking the doors, and hurriedly grabs a stack of parchment and files from his desk.
“Yes, yes. Arrest me. You can do that later, I promise.” He pushes past Harry to the door. Harry sighs. They always make a break for it.
He’s about to draw his wand when Draco says the only words that would stop him.
“I know how to save Belle.”
Chapter 21: 21 December
Harry jerks awake. His neck sends shooting pains of protest where he’s managed to sort of fold himself in half in a hard plastic waiting room chair.
Hermione sits opposite him, writing up her report in her quick, flowing hand.
“How is she?” he asks, rubbing furiously at the cramp in one shoulder. Hermione picks up her wand and fires a muscle relaxing spell at him without looking. She’s always the one who remembers things like that. Harry almost forgets he’s a wizard some days. At least until he gets downstairs and discovers Kreacher in the kitchen.
“Draco hasn’t been out,” she answers, picking her quill up again and continuing to write.
When Draco said he knew how to save Belle, Harry let him go. If Draco was lying, he wouldn’t be hard to find. Then he immediately sent Hermione a Patronus.
It’s Malfoy, you were right. He’s involved.
Then he went straight to hospital security and said that Specialist Malfoy wasn’t to leave the building without Harry being informed, and settled into a chair to wait.
Hermione arrived an hour later.
“I was an idiot, Hermione. He’d written all of you those letters and—”
“We’ve got Marsden,” she cut him off with a tired smile. “We arrested him half an hour ago.”
“That’s fantastic, Hermione.” Harry’s heart leapt, before he caught up with himself and remembered what he’d discovered. “I know where he got the poison.”
Hermione stared at him for a moment, a long appraising look. The kind she usually levelled at an Evidence Wall whenever she was trying to unpick a particularly difficult problem.
“No, Harry. I know where he got the poison. He stole the boxes containing Blue Snakeroot from a medical courier company. They didn’t report the theft for fear of the repercussions for their licence and their business.”
Hermione passed him a sheet of parchment. It held a short list of company names, and an even shorter list of individuals.
“He’s a licensed permit holder, Harry. He qualified in France, and had his registration transferred here to Britain a month before he arrived. Whatever ingredients he has here, he’s legally entitled to hold.”
Harry drew in a sharp breath, feeling like his view of the world had been twisted and reordered all over again.
“Completely sure, Harry. He’s in with Belle?” she asked, and when Harry nodded, she took off her outer cloak and sat down in an uncomfortable-looking chair opposite him. “Then we wait.”
That was... Merlin, hours ago.
Harry stands, stretching out the kinks in his legs that Hermione’s spell hasn’t unknotted. He goes to fetch them both coffees—his with far too much sugar; Hermione’s black as tar, the way she likes it.
He comes back to find her looking at the Christmas tree by the Healer’s station.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, running a gentle finger over the surface of a delicate glass bauble, hand painted with spindly silver snowflakes. Then she arches an eyebrow at Harry. “And very familiar.”
He bites his lip. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
She laughs. “I know a certain house elf who feels very proprietary about Christmas decorations. I can’t imagine, hypothetically, that he’d take very kindly to misplacing any of them.”
“It’s possible I need you to help me vanish a bell-tower without destroying the structural integrity of my roof.”
“Oh Harry ,” she giggles, and for a second he can forget where they are. Forget how hard she’s been working and how awful it will be if Belle doesn’t get better. For a second Hermione just looks the way she did when he managed to make her laugh during Auror training. Exhausted but delighted.
The wide double doors behind them bang open with a clatter, and Draco finally appears.
He’s lost both his suit jacket and his waistcoat at some stage during the night and Harry can see damp patches where he’s sweated through his shirt. His hair is all over the place, and he looks like he aches more than Harry does. He wonders if Draco’s been on his feet the whole time, casting and combining potions and Merlin knows what else.
“She’s okay,” he says, and even his voice comes out broken and croaky, as if he’s been shouting. Harry has to tamp down the urge to offer him his too sugary cup of half-drunk coffee. Harry’s so relieved, is the thing. Belle is okay. And Draco is here looking all dishevelled and definitely not a terrorist. It’s a lot to process.
Draco looks at Hermione, file tucked under her arm.
“Do you think I could clean up a little, before you take me in? Only I smell like the inside of a day-old cauldron.”
“I’m not taking you anywhere,” she says with a smile. “It would be useful to have a statement from you at some stage to confirm that Belle was exposed to—”
“Blue Snakeroot,” Draco says immediately, his professional demeanour partly returning. “In combination with the effects of the curse, and other more harmless ingredients, the effect was magnified. But that was the missing puzzle piece. It simply never occurred to me it could be involved because it’s so hard to get your hands on and so strictly controlled.”
Hermione agrees, explaining Marsden’s heist, and how they eventually managed to track him down.
“And, if you’re amenable Draco, I’d like to reopen your mother’s file. Harry tells me that you think she might have been exposed as well. I’d like to look into that properly, if you’ll let me.”
Draco gives a startled nod. “I...yes. Of course.”
“Thank you. Now, I’m going to go to the office and finish up this paperwork. Contact me there when you’re happy to come in.”
She fetches her cloak, and gives Harry a quick hug as she leaves.
Suddenly it’s just him and Draco in this oddly empty waiting room, the noise of the hospital receding around them.
“I jumped to all the wrong conclusions,” Harry says quietly, acutely aware that isn’t an apology, but he still feels raw. Like his feelings are all shaky and unformed and he can’t push them into any sort of shape that he recognises.
“I didn’t give you any reason not to,” Draco responds, his tone still tired. "Former Death Eater, in possession of deadly substances, in close proximity to those dying from deadly substances. It was actually surprisingly well thought out for you for a change, Harry."
"I don't think of you that way," Harry insists, and realises he means it.
“No, I know,” Draco says with a sigh. “You’re an investigator, Harry. You were doing your job, which—against the odds—you seem very good at.”
Harry gives a small scoff. “You might be the only one that thinks so. And even then, you very recently called me a shambles.”
Draco runs a hand through his limp hair. Even sweaty and out of sorts, he’s still unbelievably good looking. It takes Harry’s breath away.
“Yes, well. Your wardrobe could obviously do with some work. But when it comes to your job, no one notices things the way you do, Harry. You’ve been here three weeks, and you’ve pieced more together about me than my mother or my Mind Healer.
There’s something warm expanding in Harry’s chest. He doesn’t know what to do about it.
“Is Belle really going to be okay?”
“And your mother?”
“I hope so. Now I know the poison, I have a proper set of diagnostics and a whole range of new treatments I can try. So if you’ll excuse me, I really do need to Incendio these clothes and spell a whole layer of skin off before I’ll feel clean.”
Harry nods. “I guess I’ll…” he trails off. He’s not sure what to do now. The case is wrapped up. Belle is going to be fine. He doesn’t have any reason to be at the hospital any more.
Draco seems to take pity on him.
“You can visit her tomorrow. I’m sure she’d appreciate putting a face to that droning voice.”
He’s already walking away down the hall toward his office. Harry takes a moment too long to appreciate the view. Draco gets almost all the way to the end of the corridor, far enough that Harry can only just hear him, before he calls out.
“And, thank you.”
Prompt Twenty One:
Chapter 22: 22 December
Harry figures he could go to the hospital in the morning, because Belle’s awake and recovering, and the concept of visiting hours is stupid anyway, but there’s something that holds him back.
Ha can follow rules. Even stupid ones.
So he eats breakfast: a poached egg balanced on half a grapefruit for some unfathomable reason. And then he wraps his Christmas presents, which requires more Spellotape than should be strictly necessary and leaves even the ones in plain square boxes looking like misshapen lumps. Finally he throws open the doors to his wardrobe and actually looks at his clothes, instead of grabbing whatever is at the top of the clean pile of laundry Kreacher has returned to his room and stacked neatly on the armchair by the window.
There’s no reason for Belle to meet him looking like a … like a shambles.
He settles on a new pair of jeans that he hasn’t been wearing because they aren’t quite as comfy as the baggy pair with the hole over the knee. And a thin grey jumper Ginny bought him for his birthday once that he’s always avoided because it’s so soft he feels like he’s going to spoil it. The jumpers Molly knits for him are thick and hard-wearing and can take the odd stray bit of kebab. By the time he’s shaved and dressed and made himself a sandwich that he eats carefully over the sink so that the tomato doesn’t explode all over his clothes, the clock as finally ticked around to 2pm.
Casey does an actual double take when he sees Harry approaching, and then looks disgusted with himself. “You’re lucky McFrosty’s not on duty this afternoon. Even those jeans wouldn’t be tight enough to stop him from hexing your balls to the ceiling.”
Harry stumbles to a confused halt. He was pretty sure that when he left yesterday Draco wasn’t mad with him. Tired. Resigned, maybe. But not angry.
“He was in the treatment room with that patient for nearly twenty hours. And he comes out of the Staff Lounge after he’s cleaned up and changed, and announces that he’s going to sleep the sleep of the righteous and no one should send him a Patronus under any circumstances or they’ll find their toenails have fallen off and blah blah,” Casey waves a dramatic hand around as part of his impression,”Threats in French, etcetera.”
Harry can imagine it.
“And then,” Casey smirks, hugging a file to his chest and leaning back against the desk. “He gets to the door and Hospital Security stop him.”
“Apparently they had orders that Specialist Malfoy was not to leave the hospital without your permission.”
“So as you can imagine, the threats started to ramp up a little. I learnt a little French at night school years ago, so I recognised bits and pieces. The word putain was thrown around a lot. McFrosty demanded they send you a Patronus immediately, but the two guards were so scared of him neither of them could manage it. So, McFrosty fires his Patronus off, and boy did that silver fox have some choice words for you.”
Harry cringes. Casey looks triumphant.
“But you never got to hear them did you, Harry? Because—”
“Because my house is warded against unsolicited Patronus charms.” Harry finishes with a sigh.
“Yes,” Casey nods sagely, unable to contain his smug grin. “And unsolicited fire-calls. And unsolicited owls. And the four very filthy Howlers that were also composed.”
“So by the time Auror Granger finally answered, and confirmed that Specialist Malfoy was free to leave, I feel like all of us had really had an education, you know? I certainly heard suggestions about what’s going to happen to parts of your anatomy that really made my blood run cold, and I’m a qualified Healer.”
Casey pats Harry on the shoulder as he leaves the station.
“You have a great day.”
Harry closes his eyes and takes a deep, resigned breath, hoping to be hit with inspiration about how to fix that little mess, but nothing immediately comes to mind.
He heads to Belle’s room instead.
She’s sitting up in bed, her hair tied back and colour returned to her face. The change is remarkable, and Harry feels like a weight comes off his shoulders at the sight.
Harry hesitates in the doorway for a second.
“Salazar, it is you!” she exclaims, waving him in. “One of the Healers said that Harry Potter had been visiting me every day, and I thought she was pulling my leg.”
Harry laughs, rounding the bed and sitting in his usual chair. It feels so different.
“Is this some charity gig, then?” she asks. “You come and visit weirdos and orphans in hospital on your days off?”
“No, I…” Harry searches for the words to explain. “I was one of the Aurors that day, at Marsden’s place.”
Belle looks stricken. “I didn’t know what he was up to, I swear. I’ve already said to Miss Granger, but—”
Harry shakes his head quickly. “No, I know. But if I’d been doing my job properly that day, you wouldn’t have been injured. So I just wanted to stop by.” He glances at the copy of Alice on her bedside cabinet. He’d almost finished.
Belle follows his line of sight. “You read to me!”
“I thought I’d imagined that. My dad used to read me stories when I was little. I assumed I was dreaming about that, but it was you.”
Her eyes are watery, and she has a bright smile. Harry looks away, suddenly embarrassed.
“Do you know where that is?” Belle asks, and he’s grateful for the change of subject. Harry follows her gesture to stare at the window. The snow has melted away a little, and a cold wintery sun is showing through tall evergreens.
“Malfoy Manor,” he answers softly, hoping it looks just as optimistic there now as it does in this charmed imitation.
That evening Hermione brings takeaways over on her way home.
“Ron has the kids at the Burrow this evening,” she explains, unpacking curry and naan on Harry’s kitchen table while he opens two bottles of beer. “Why are you dressed like you’re going out on a date?”
Harry flushes, but waves the question away. They talk about work, and the gossip from the DMLE Christmas party the night before. Hermione fills him in on the loose ends from the Marsden case.
“And Narcissa Malfoy?”
“Recovering well,” Hermione confirms. “Once she was lucid again, it was straightforward. Marsden’s Neo-Death Eater cell had approached her assuming she would be an ally. They wanted to use the Manor as base; wanted certain Dark artefacts they thought Lucius had stashed there. They didn’t expect for a second that she would say no.”
Harry thinks about Narcissa, leaning over him in the Forest. Thinks about just how much she loves her son.
“When she told them to sod off and threatened to report them, they attacked her. They didn’t have the formulation right yet, so her exposure wasn’t fatal.”
Hermione goes up to the attic with him, bending double with laughter when she sees the enormous bell wrapped in a quilt. Harry concedes it wasn’t his best work. Together they dismantle the bell, levitating it into a corner of the attic and removing its charmed clapper altogether. Hermione casts a vigorous set of warming charms and the two of them climb out onto the roof to knit the tiles back into place. It’s a clear night, and the stars seem impossibly close. Around Grimmauld Place Harry’s neighbours have decorated their houses. An inflatable Santa is stuffed into the small balcony of a flat across the way. The bare branches of a tree in the front yard at number eight have been hung with brightly coloured lanterns. Number three has a row of giant light-up candy canes—presumably not the carnivorous wizarding kind—all along the rails of their fence. Everywhere he looks there are fairy lights.
“Almost makes you wish your house was visible,” Hermione murmurs as they look at the sparkling decorations in awe.
They make short work of the roofing tiles and Hermione readily agrees to hot toddies afterwards. They cup the warm mugs in front of the fireplace.
“Only a week to go,” she muses.
“Do you want me back?” Harry asks, and he means it as a joke, but it comes out more insecure than he really intends.
“Harry.” She sets down her cup and leans forward in her chair, placing a firm hand on his knee so that he’ll know she’s being serious. “You are the most infuriating person an Auror could hope to be partnered with. Your casual disregard for the rules will only ever be completely exasperating. You always act completely on instinct. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Harry laughs a little in relief.
“You mean that?”
“Of course I do. We’d never have found Marsden without you, you know that. You and I have been a team since we were eleven years old. I’m not giving up now.”
He gives her an overly tight hug.
“Let me go!” She wriggles away from him, but she’s smiling all the same. “Right. You have a roof, and I need to turn in. Tomorrow I head into the breach. Armed with nothing but a three-page shopping list and a Muggle credit card, I will conquer Knightsbridge and save Christmas.”
And Harry knows if anyone can, she can.
Prompt Twenty Two:
Chapter 23: 23 December
On Sunday morning Harry decides to continue making an extra effort choosing his clothes. It’s Teddy’s Muggle primary school carol service, and Harry’s never been one for spending time in churches as a general rule, but he’s pretty sure you’re supposed to look neat and tidy. He pulls on the new jeans from yesterday, and dark green shirt and charcoal pullover—again from the pile that Ginny bought him. He even cleans the mud off his boots.
Andromeda said she would sit near the back and save him a seat, so he’s not too worried that he’s running a few minutes late as he dashes up the steps.
It turns out she neglected a slightly more important piece of information. That she apparently invited Draco.
Harry tries to slide into the pew quietly, but only succeeds in knocking a hymnal to the ground with a noisy clatter, just as some poor child is getting to the bit in her reading about Caesar Augustus giving some sort of census decree. The girl stutters and starts her line again.
Draco leans around Andromeda to fix Harry with a stare that would petrify a weaker man. Harry’s died once already. He doesn’t even blink.
“What’s he doing here?” he whispers to Andromeda as the crowd gets to its feet, rustling the paper orders of service and starting into a droning rendition of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night”.
Andromeda looks bemused. “Narcissa got in touch to let me know she was feeling better. And that she had both you and Draco to thank for it. Now he’s back I thought it would be nice for him to get to know Teddy a little.”
Harry can’t fault her logic, in theory. More family is always better. But in practice, Teddy’s a boisterous child whose clothes always seem to be muddy, sticky, wet or all three. Harry can’t for the life of him picture any of Draco Malfoy’s three-piece suits surviving a single encounter.
The first French words Teddy learns are definitely not going to be the kind you should use in public.
The boy in question comes out with his class to sing Away in a Manger. He’s dressed as a shepherd, with one of Andromeda’s best tea towels on his head, and a big fuzzy fake beard.
Harry wants to applaud wildly as the song ends, but apparently that’s not something you do at a nativity so he just winds up being the one person to noisily give a single clap in the quiet church. Draco glares at him again.
Harry’s not sure how the hell he knows what to do in a Muggle carol service.
Afterwards, the four of them stand a little awkwardly on the icy street outside. Harry gives Andromeda a bag with shrunken gifts for the pair of them. Teddy eyes it keenly, but Harry’s inept wrapping will make it impossible to guess the contents even when they’re returned to normal size to put under their tree. Teddy’s is the training broom he’s been pleading for all year. For Andromeda, Harry asked Kreacher for help. Her gift is an ornate Black family brooch that Harry had cleaned and repaired—a pair of tiny silver dragons holding a ruby between them. Kreacher assured him that the women of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black treasured the piece for generations, which only resulted in Harry having it checked three times by Ministry Curse-Breakers.
He’s comfortable now that it’s just a brooch.
Andromeda takes Teddy home with promises of Boxing Day lunch, leaving Harry and Draco standing beside the iron railings of the little church.
“I’m sorry about the hospital,” Harry mumbles.
Draco’s bright blue scarf is wound twice around his neck, swallowing his throat in vibrant, soft looking wool. It makes his grumpy face look even more startlingly pale.
“You mean you’re sorry for detaining me and then forgetting about it completely, demonstrating once and for all how little regard you have for me?” His voice is chillier than the icy breeze whipping around the stone edges of the building.
“I have regard,” Harry protests, but then he doesn’t know what to say next.
Draco takes out a pair of leather gloves and tugs them on to his hands, and Harry starts to feel a bit frantic. He’ll leave and then Harry won’t see him again until the next time he’s injured. Which, granted, happens pretty regularly, but still.
“How’s your mother?”
Draco pauses for a second, taking a slow breath in as if he’s trying to summon patience, or calm.
“Improving, thank you.”
“Are you headed there now?”
Harry wants to kick his own shin for the tedious small talk, but he doesn’t want Draco to go and he can’t think of a reason to get him to stay.
“No, I’m going to St Mungo’s. I’m on duty tonight and tomorrow. I have Christmas Day off.”
Harry wonders if Narcissa will have had the house elves decorate now. He thinks of the pair of them having lunch together in that mausoleum of a house. He hopes they use that friendly little blue dining room, instead of some ornate monstrosity where they sit at opposite ends of a table that could seat sixty.
Two little girls dressed as angels run past, chased by a third dressed as a chicken.
“I don’t remember a chicken playing a big role in the Christmas story,” Harry muses.
Then a very unexpected thing happens. Draco laughs. A gentle, genuine sound that Harry’s not sure he’s ever heard before and very much wants to hear again.
“It happened in a barn, Potter. There’s always a chicken somewhere.”
“Harry,” he corrects quietly.
“Harry,” Draco agrees with a small smile.
“I really am sorry about the security guards.”
Draco nods. “I would have murdered you that day, but I was too tired.”
It’s far too cold to just keep standing there, shifting his weight from one foot to another. There’s a warm-looking pub across the street, and Harry very much wants to suggest a drink, but Draco’s headed on duty and how would Harry even ask, anyway? Draco’s only going to say no, and it’s going to be cutting and dismissive, and probably in French.
“Have a good Christmas, Harry,” Draco says, offering one leather-clad hand to shake.
Harry takes it, because he doesn’t know what else to do. The glove is buttery and warm against Harry’s cold and calloused palm.
He can still feel it, long after Draco’s walked away.
Prompt Twenty Three:
Chapter 24: 24 December
Somehow, it’s suddenly Christmas Eve. Harry’s year seems to have sped by and now he’s sitting here again, alone at his kitchen table trying to eat a giant bowl of porridge littered with walnuts and prunes.
Tomorrow will be brilliant, he tries to convince himself. Christmas lunch at Hermione and Ron’s, with all the family and the children and the songs and the presents. Today just feels a little low. He can’t escape the sense that all over the neighbourhood people are starting their holidays together and he’s just here. By himself with a senile old elf and a house full of decorations.
He tries to snap himself out of it. No point in being maudlin. Harry has one Christmas Eve tradition of his very own and that’s to take treacle tarts to the War Orphanage. He orders them weeks in advance from the Hogwarts house elves and they came through the Floo yesterday, boxed up and tied with pretty green bows.
He ransacks his wardrobe and finds a smart pair of grey trousers and black shirt he’s pretty sure he’s never worn. It is sort of embarrassing when he realises how much of a creature of habit he’s become.
The Orphanage is warm and homey. Fires burn brightly in the hearths and Christmas music filters through the rooms. Harry carries the boxed tarts to the kitchen and thanks each of the staff for their work during the year, giving them cards with generous little bonuses inside. He’s so glad that this place feels happy every time he visits. He can’t return these children’s parents to them, but he can make sure that none of them ever feel unloved.
“Too much, too much,” Anka, the chef, complains with a smile. She’s a stout Polish witch who is very good at her job, and she forces two of the tarts back into Harry’s hands. “You take.”
Harry’s about to protest that showing up at Hermione’s with desserts of his own is likely to end their friendship for good when he thinks of a better idea.
The Healers’ station at St Mungo’s is unattended. A small sign says Ring for Help , though Harry notes there isn’t actually any bell in sight. He feels a bit disoriented. Usually he heads straight to Belle’s room, but there isn’t any need to go there today.
The doors to the Staff Lounge are standing open, and from inside he can hear music and the unmistakable sound of Luna singing.
“Good King Wenceslas looked down… on his feets uneven…”
Harry approaches to the doorway. All of the on-duty staff are gathered around Casey’s charmed hearth, but in place of the previously destroyed grate is the Yule log he’d given Draco.
“Oh Harry, you made it!” Luna cries, delighted, as if Harry was a long overdue guest expected all along. He steps awkwardly into the room.
“I brought treacle tart,” he manages, lifting the boxes by way of explanation with a little shrug.
“Over here,” Melinda says, taking pity on him and shepherding him toward a long side table. “We have a potluck.”
It’s a pretty lush looking potluck, Harry thinks, taking in the turkey still snug in its foil Waitrose tray, plastic containers filled with potatoes and stuffing, and a Christmas cake with lopsided iced handwriting spelling Merry Christmas among holly and berries. He stacks the tarts toward the back.
He spins around at a popping sound behind him, before he realises that Casey and Melinda have started pulling Christmas crackers. Paper hats are donned and weird plastic trinkets exchanged.
“They’re Muggle crackers,” Luna explains sagely, handing Harry a paper cup of something that might be mulled wine. “They have jokes and funny little toys inside.”
Harry opens his mouth to ask what’s inside a wizarding cracker, but then thinks better of it. He’d rather not know.
“What do you call a crate of ducks?” Casey calls to the room at large.
Everyone shakes their heads, bemused.
“A box of quackers!” Casey announces, snorting to himself and reaching for another mince pie. The staff groan.
“Okay, okay,” Scary Magda clears her throat, and everyone falls immediately silent. “Why did the mechanic sleep under his car?”
No one so much as breathes.
“He wanted to get up oily in the morning.” Magda breaks into a honking laugh. “OILY, get it?
“Is the entire point that the puns are terrible?” Draco’s voice at his ear makes Harry’s knees feel a little weak. “I must have missed that part in the nativity. Some time after they get to the inn and before the baby is born, Joseph presumably says, Now, we share bad jokes.”
“Draco, you don’t have a hat!” Luna calls, waving a cracker in his direction. Draco looks pointedly at Harry’s equally unadorned head, but reaches for the cracker anyway, yanking it with a snap. He lets Luna fetch the contents as they fall to the floor and bends obediently as she crowns him with a green paper hat. It softens him in ways Harry wasn’t expecting. In ways the other staff weren’t expecting either, if the sly grins and hushed whispers are anything to go by.
Harry thinks he might be about to suffer the same fate, but the carol changes and Luna wanders off singing loudly.
“Darn we now, our gay apparel…”
“You certainly seem to have darned yours,” Draco mutters beside him.
“Nothing. You look different. Did you dress up for the St Mungo’s staff potluck?”
Harry takes a moment to really look at Draco, standing beside him. He’s relaxed for once, despite his starched collar and cuffs. Even the tissue paper crown somehow doesn’t make him look ridiculous, sitting at a jaunty angle in his bright blond hair.
“Can we talk for a minute,” he finds himself asking. “Somewhere else?”
Draco pauses, and for a horrible beat Harry thinks he’s going to say no, or mock him in some unforeseen way, but eventually he just nods toward the door.
Harry follows him back to his office, and does a double-take when he reaches the threshold. Thick dark curtains hang at the sides of the window, now looking out on a dark, snowy vista. Two additional lamps have joined the one on the desk, casting warm and inviting light. A painting of Hogwarts is hung on one wall, showing the castle bathed in summer sun, the Giant Squid lazily breaking water in the foreground.
“Wow, Draco this is—”
“Better,” Draco acknowledges, drawing the hat off his head and tossing it onto his desk. He looks at Harry expectantly.
Harry tries to summon some of his famed Gryffindor bravery, so that he can find words to tell Draco that he’s miserable about the idea of not seeing him every day from now on without the excuse of visiting Belle. That he doesn’t want to wait until the next time a curse rebounds badly to find out what colour suit Draco’s wearing. That he’d like to have coffee in the blue dining room again.
“Come home with me,” Harry finally manages on a whisper, the last of his courage leaving him.
Draco’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise, but he doesn’t laugh or say no, so Harry forges on.
“I am a bit of a shambles, it’s true. Maybe too much for someone like you who needs a lot of order. But you’re so clever and so...” Harry waves a helpless hand at Draco, trying to indicate his whole flawless appearance, “... like that. And it’s Christmas Eve and I’m tired of pretending I don’t want to snog you senseless.”
Draco opens his mouth and then closes it again. He reaches for his cloak on the coat stand, and Harry wants to cry with relief.
They walk back in silence down the corridor. In the distance he can still hear Luna.
"Join the triumph of disguise. Withhhhh the jellied toast proclaimmmm….”
Harry's about to turn to the Floos when Draco catches his wrist, and Harry thinks he's changed his mind, but he just glances past Harry toward the giant fireplaces and asks if Harry can Side-Along him instead. In a single disorienting second they’re back at Grimmauld Place and Draco’s suddenly larger than life in his front room, shaking out his cloak as he takes it off, draping it over the arm of the sofa.
“I have some Ogden’s somewhere,” Harry says, racking his brains for a way to get them a nightcap without summoning Kreacher.
Draco pulls a face.
“Or there’s a whole cellar of wine that I couldn’t tell from vinegar,” Harry offers, but loses his train of thought as Draco takes a step toward him.
“Or I could—” Harry immediately forgets whatever it was he was about to suggest, as Draco’s hand lands on his hip, drawing him forward into a kiss. It’s soft and warm and full of promise. The sort of kiss Harry wants to wake up to every morning.
“Or I have a bed,” he manages gamely, as he draws back for breath.
Draco looks radiant. His lips pink and his eyes bright and everything about him so vibrant Harry’s afraid to move in case he spoils it, but Draco’s nodding, and his hand is on Harry’s wrist, tugging him toward the door. And he’s still there, warm against Harry on the stairs, and pushing him against the door frame, tugging the buttons on his shirt loose.
And then suddenly they’re in the middle of Harry’s bedroom, and all the blood has definitely departed from Harry’s brain, and so he’s confused when everything jerks to a halt and he’s left half-in, half-out of his shirt, Draco frozen still in front of him.
“It was you,” Draco murmurs.
“What was me,” Harry mumbles, confused and still trying to tug at Draco’s belt. When he processes that Draco is really no longer cooperating, he swivels around to see what he’s staring at.
The tree. Still on a dreadful lean, decommissioned decorations strung across its meagre branches.
“Oh. Well, the Black tree is a little much for just me. And as you’ve seen this evening, I don’t exactly want for Christmas decorations. And—”
Draco cuts him off with another searing kiss.
When he pulls back, he smooths Harry’s hair back gently from his forehead, looking at him as if he’s something precious. Harry’s not sure anyone has ever looked at him quite like this before.
“I took the calendar,” Draco confesses.
“Your naked calendar. I took it. And not just so that those ingrates at work couldn’t have it.”
Happiness bursts wide inside Harry at the revelation. He fairly tackles Draco to the bed, attacking him with kisses as he tugs at both of their clothes, desperate to peel away the layers between them. Draco seems equally enthusiastic, laughing as Harry tumbles him, pulling back only to unfasten his cufflinks.
And then it’s as if he suddenly catches sight of his surroundings.
“Gods, Potter, do your sheets have reindeer on them?!”
Harry pins him to the mattress in lieu of an answer. He figures Draco can’t have cause to complain about the linen if he stays on his back.
Judging by the way Draco surges up at him, he figures the sheets probably aren’t a deal-breaker, but he keeps his mouth occupied for quite some time, just to be sure.
Prompt Twenty Four:
Chapter 25: Christmas Day
Harry never sleeps well, exactly. He usually jerks awake—pulse racing, fearing danger. But this morning he comes to the day slowly, vaguely aware of the beating of wings, a whispered curse, and then silence. Harry snuggles into the warmth beside him and goes back to sleep.
Some time later, he rolls over again, stretching his muscles and feeling rested and content.
“You have an alarm in the shape of a Snitch.”
Draco’s still here, Harry’s brain catalogues happily. Still here and still naked and still capable of sounding really annoyed, even though it’s Christmas Day and Harry feels like there are more important things they should be focussed on. Like the naked part.
“How did you make it stop,” he mumbles against Draco’s shoulder.
“It’s your alarm clock,” Draco laughs. “What do you do every other morning?”
Harry’s not sure he wants to admit to the litany of things he’s tried.
He runs his hand down Draco’s arm, the pads of his fingers smoothing over the faded Mark.
“We probably should have talked about that, before…” Draco sighs, pulling his forearm away and tucking it under the covers. Harry makes a grumpy noise of protest, chasing the disappearing limb under the sheet and lacing their fingers together.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” he says, squeezing his hand and rolling up onto an elbow so he can lean down and kiss him properly.
He thinks about what Hermione said. Malfoy left his ridiculous upbringing behind, went and forged a career for himself, and now saves lives. I’m happy to leave the past where it is.
“You’re not the same person who took that Mark—terrified for your family, scared for your life.”
Draco gives a disbelieving sort of hum, but his hands slide to Harry’s hips and Harry forgets what they were talking about for a bit.
Later, he convinces Draco to at least join him for coffee, trying to explain as they descend the stairs that breakfast is likely to be an unwelcome surprise. Turns out, Harry’s the one in for a surprise. The kitchen table is set properly for two. Kreacher hums contentedly at the stove cooking eggs, and in front of them is a platter of perfectly crisp bacon and pile of golden, buttered toast. Draco quirks an eyebrow at Harry as he sits, helping himself to the steaming pot of coffee.
“Kreacher, this is...really good,” Harry says, unable to keep the shock out of his voice.
Kreacher doesn’t even turn around, but Harry’s pretty sure he hears several approving mumbles about Blacks finally occupying the Black house that might account for the marked improvement in the quality of the food.
“You have lunch with your mother today?”
Draco nods around a mouthful of toast, thanking Kreacher as the little elf slides a perfectly poached egg onto his plate.
“Yes, she’s well enough to be up and eating properly, so we’ll have lunch together. You’re celebrating with a bevy of Weasleys, I take it?”
“Would you come back here, this evening? I mean, for a nightcap or...whatever. We can eat leftovers and watch some dreadful Christmas movie on the telly.”
Better to know now, he thinks. Better to find out right away if this is something he can get his hopes up about. Before he gets used to the idea of Draco in his boxer shorts and Harry’s robe, sipping coffee at his kitchen table.
“Mother retires early,” Draco says, which is about as good an answer as Harry could want for, particularly given the way Draco’s cheeks look pink and his expression is pleased, though he seems to be trying to hide it behind his mug.
Lunch is a roaring success. Hermione’s dining room is a triumph, and there’s absolutely no sign of any of the Harrod’s packaging. Just a table laden with a giant golden turkey and all the trimmings.
“You’ve done us proud, dear,” Molly Weasley gushes, with a tear in her eye. “You must have followed my recipes so closely.”
Hermione gives Harry a very smug smile over her shoulder.
The family exchange presents after lunch. Harry’s Secret Santa doesn’t stay secret for long, Victoire positively vibrating with excitement as he unwraps a handmade clay Christmas ornament in the shape of an H.
“For your tree!” she exclaims. Harry thanks her profusely, thinking sadly that Kreacher will never allow it to see the light of day.
The whole family gasps and whistles in appreciation when Hermione lifts her gift from Harry out of its box. The tiny charmed spheres hover gently over the table and on the ceiling above them, the stars of the night sky appear.
“Harry,” she whispers, awed. “It’s beautiful.”
“There’s a charm,” he explains, digging around in the box for the piece of folded parchment. “So you can change the location. You know, what stars you can see. I had them set it to start for—”
“I know where it is,” she says quietly. He thinks about the two of them, sitting in the cold by the fire. Hungry and alone but never quite losing hope.
The smaller wrapped gift tumbles loose from the box and she pulls off the paper.
"Harry... Of all the many reasons I expected to end up in tears today—"
“What is it, Mum?” Rose asks, wriggling onto her mother’s lap and reaching for the little troll pin. “It’s so ugly.”
“It’s a troll,” Hermione says with a wet chuckle, swiping at her eyes with her sleeve. “Your Uncle Harry and I first became friends because of a troll, when we were eleven years old.”
“Still ugly,” Rose concludes, sliding back to the floor and heading off in search of more presents to hand out.
“I love it,” Hermione says, pinning it to her blouse.
Later, Harry carries yet another platter of leftovers into the kitchen, trying to find an unoccupied spot of expanded bench space to slip it onto. He notices an extra place setting, unused, cloth napkin still tucked in its shiny ring.
“Were we expecting someone else?” he asks Ron, picking at a piece of turkey.
“Hermione thought you might have brought Draco,” Ron shrugs, setting another load of dishes washing in the sink.
The turkey gets lodged in Harry’s windpipe and he finds himself coughing and short of breath.
He wants to object. To tell Ron that he’s got the wrong idea or to defend himself in some way. He hasn’t even talked to Hermione about Draco. But then she’s always been cleverer than a squad full of Aurors put together.
Ron’s looking at him quizzically.
And all of a sudden Harry doesn’t really want to protest at all.
“Maybe next year,” he says, putting the unused cutlery away in the drawer, and trying very hard not to think about whether such a fragile thing can last that long.
When Harry gets home, he douses the fire and warms the rooms with charms instead. Draco knocks at the door just as he’s piling leftover turkey and gravy into two massive sandwiches.
“Salazar, it’s freezing,” he complains, shoving past Harry and shucking off his coat and scarf.
He’s dressed as casually as Harry’s maybe ever seen him, in dark trousers and a sky blue shirt, and he kisses Harry hello as if he does it every day, and the whole effect leaves Harry a bit breathless.
“Next year, I’m taking Mother somewhere warm. We’ll do Christmas in the Maldives. Nothing but white sand and clear water and swimsuits with our Santa hats.”
The mental image of Draco in a swimsuit further stalls Harry’s brain.
“Good to see your resolution to dress better was short-lived,” Draco snorts, waving a hand at the maroon jumper Molly gave him that morning.
“Molly knits them every year,” he explains, tugging self-consciously at the bobbly wool of one baggy sleeve.
“Does Mrs Weasley perhaps mistake you for someone three or four sizes larger than you actually are?” Draco’s tone is arch, but he’s smiling and slipping his hands under the hem of the jumper and so Harry’s not going to complain.
They eat the sandwiches in front of Harry’s television. Draco apparently got used to the Muggle technology in France but doesn’t have one in the Manor, so he’s content to tuck his socked feet under Harry’s leg while they watch a movie.
When the credits roll, Harry shifts to look at him.
“I got you a gift,” he says, suddenly uncertain. The gesture feels a bit much, but he’d seen it and known exactly what he wanted to do and it’s only now—faced with Draco real and vivid and in person—that he’s second-guessing himself.
Draco blushes faintly and ducks his head.
“I may have something for you too.”
Harry feels triumphant. “You first,” he insists, nudging at Draco’s ribs with an elbow. Draco produces a small, square package wrapped in silver paper. Harry takes a moment to turn it in his hands and admire the tight folds and square corners. He wants to hope Draco had it wrapped in a store by some professional, but he knows that’s probably unlikely.
Inside the paper is a velvet box and inside the box is a small silver amulet on which two tiny dragons hold a green gem. The magic in the amulet is very, very old. Harry can feel it dancing lightly underneath his fingertips.
“It’s a family heirloom,” Draco says softly. “And before you overreact, I don’t mean the Malfoy line.”
“This is Black jewelry,” Harry realises, recognising the similarities to the piece he’d given Andromeda.
“Yes. My mother has had it until now. It’s imbued with healing properties—really ancient enchantments. It’s very rare.”
Harry feels a bit overwhelmed.
“It’s not going to save you. Merlin knows you like to throw yourself into the path of danger, don’t let this encourage you further. But it might keep you alive long enough to get to me.”
“I’m a very good doctor, Harry. But from what I understand, you wind up in hospital a lot.”
“This is—” Harry can’t even finish the sentence.
“It’s nothing.” Draco seems embarrassed, as if he’s worried the gift’s excessive. “You’re the Black heir, it’s yours anyway. And—”
Harry cuts him off with a kiss.
“Thank you,” he insists, fastening the chain around his neck.
He hands over his own lumpy, poorly-wrapped gift. Draco unwraps the book.
“The Once and Future King ?”
Harry’s relieved that he doesn’t seem to recognise it.
“Dudley—the cousin I grew up with—he didn’t really like to read. His books were largely ignored. And so one day I was feeling extra brave and I took this one from his second bedroom. I mean, not this copy, obviously but this book.”
Draco turns the novel over, studying it carefully.
“I hid it, in my … room.” It’s Christmas, Harry thinks. There’s time to talk about cupboards another day. “And I used to read it over and over again, because it was the only one I had. The spine cracked, and some of the pages came loose, but I kept it all carefully tucked together under my pillow.”
Draco’s eyes narrow at him a little, and Harry knows that his giant brain is storing all these details away for later.
“Anyway, it’s a famous Muggle story about Merlin. And about King Arthur as a child and the difference between might and right. I think you’ll like it.”
Draco flips the book open at the back and makes a wounded sound.
“You tore the last page out!”
“I did,” Harry laughs. “But I kept it safe.”
Draco looks so vibrant, tucked into the corner of Harry’s couch, the Christmas lights on the bookshelf behind him illuminating his hair. Harry wants to keep him. Just like this, his face open and his eyes bright.
“I want you to stick around to find out how it ends.”
He gets a very small smile in return. It’s more than enough.
When they go up to bed, Harry looks at the St Mungo’s tree. Clearly magical, the deformed little spruce is still green and hasn’t dropped a single needle. He sticks a sagging bit of tinsel back to the bucket where it’s come free of its Spellotape. And then he has a sudden thought.
Draco comes out of the bathroom as he’s rummaging in the pocket of his cloak.
“What are you doing?”
Harry unwraps Victoire’s decoration and hangs the brightly-painted uneven clay letter from one of the branches.
“Christmas is about tradition,” he explains, sliding under the covers and pulling Draco close. “Kreacher likes the Black family traditions.”
He kisses him.
“And they’re very nice traditions, but they’re not mine. Christmas for me is Nev’s Nargle-free wreaths, Rosie’s paper chains and Luna’s bizarre carols. Those evil Wheezes decorations, treacle tarts for the Orphanage and a Food Hall turkey.”
Draco laughs softly.
“And that tree—that disgraceful stick in a bucket as I believe you once described it—is ours.”
He snuggles into Draco’s side.
“So, I’m keeping it. I think it’s time to make some traditions of our own.
Prompt Twenty Five:
Thank you so much for coming with me on this journey over the last twenty five days. It's been such a delight to get your comments on the way through cheering me on to the end. Thank you also to the organisers, particularly @sassy-cissa who kept this going even when she's been so sick over the last few days.
Merry Christmas to those who celebrate and to those who don't, I hope you have a wonderful and peaceful holiday. Come hang out on tumblr and say hi.