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Headlights in the Snow

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First of December – a bus in the fog on Westminster Bridge

Harry squints through the fog, trying to fix his eyes on something that will anchor him into a definite position. At the moment, he is drifting helplessly, somewhere between the iron wall of the bridge and someone who is grabbing his arm for balance every few steps. The warm, creeping glow of firewhisky insulates him pleasantly against the cold night, and relaxes his inhibitions more than enough to let him join in with a rousing chorus of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’.

It’s at least the fourth one so far, though Harry is beginning to lose count. Still, it’s fine, because George is a jolly good fellow and fully deserves to be told so in song. He is getting married, and anyone choosing to do such a bizarre and wonderful thing should definitely have a party with antlers and fireworks and anything else they bloody well want. Of course, it has been Fred’s duty, as the best man, to organise the event, but Harry has helped with a few of the finer details and there will be no surprises for him tonight.

The fog shifts slightly, bringing the lights of the London Eye out of the gloom and making it hang there in the distance like a shimmering, circular spectre. Harry slows to admire it and immediately finds himself knocked off balance as the person behind him collides with his back.

“Sorry,” mumbles Ginny, who has somehow found her way onto her brother’s stag party, despite being also included on the guest list for Angelina’s hen. “What did you stop for?”

“I saw something,” Harry says grandly. He points at the Eye and manages to knock Ginny’s antlers askew. “Sorry.”

“Ooh, life beyond the fog,” she murmurs, tucking her arm through Harry’s and sending him veering into the unforgiving side of the bridge. “Where the bloody hell are we going, anyway?”

“Never you mind that,” comes a voice from the void. “You’re not even supposed to be here.”

Someone else laughs. “Yeah, you’re behind enemy lines here, Ginny. You could be a spy.”

“Well, it’s my stag and I’m glad she’s here,” George says stridently. “It’s not fair that she should miss out on the fun because she’s a girl.”

“Thank you, George,” Ginny says. “You lot are just jealous because these antlers look better on me.”

Harry says nothing. He’s pretty certain that they look ridiculous on every last one of them, but George had been insistent – there could be no stag party without stags, and as such, Fred had been dispatched to every fancy dress shop in the greater London area and forbidden to return until he had obtained a pair of antlers for everyone invited. Plus Ginny.

Despite having found himself stuck with a sequinned pair, Harry counts himself lucky. Lee’s are pink and fluffy, and Percy, who had arrived late, is now wearing a majestic headdress including antlers that play a tinny version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ whenever they are touched.

“What’s Angelina having for her party?” Neville asks, or at least, Harry thinks it’s Neville. His Northern accent is pretty distinctive, but Harry hasn’t actually seen him since they left the last pub.

“A spa day,” Ginny says gloomily.

“What’s wrong with that?” asks someone else. From the rough position of the voice, Harry estimates Charlie. “Have a swim, have a massage, it’s all good.”

“It’s not that kind of spa day,” Ginny says. “We’ve got to do an exercise class and then we’re getting wrapped up in Kelpie slime and then having lunch.”

“Kelpie slime?” Harry mumbles to himself, baffled.

“Yeah. It’s supposed to make you look thinner and make your skin ‘glow’,” she says, and Harry feels rather than sees her vicious air quotes.

“Why?” George asks. “You all look fine already.”

Harry winces, and sure enough, a second or two later, George yelps. Neville looks at his wife admiringly and she shoots him a shark’s grin.

“Lunch is good, though,” Lee ventures. “Nothing wrong with lunch. In fact, I could just go for a sandwich.”

“You ate three packets of pork scratchings in that last pub,” Percy says.

“That was just a warm-up,” Lee explains.

“It’s not proper lunch,” Ginny says, stuffing her wand into her coat pocket. “It’s carrot sticks and celery and something called tofu that I’m not even sure is food.”

“Do you want me to have a word with her?” George asks, sounding scandalised.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Ginny laughs, and then pauses. “Shall we find a kebab shop?”

“I’m afraid there won’t be time for that, little sister,” Fred says.

Harry draws in a deep breath of cold, smoky air and grins. “Think we’re in a good place?”

“Harry, I think we might be,” Fred agrees. “Alright, all stop!”

In the chaos of surprised stumbling and trampled feet that follows, Harry stands in silence. He’s rather excited about the next stage of their evening. It’s been a long time, and he can’t help holding his breath as he waits. For long seconds, nothing happens, and then the hulking purple shape leaps out of the fog with an almighty crash, forcing everyone to step back as one. The bus seems to shimmer in the fog, radiating an aura of magic and nostalgia strong enough to make Harry’s heart race in his chest.

“Is that…?”

“Bloody hell!”

“Fred, you brilliant bastard!” George pelts out of the gloom and tackle-hugs his brother until their respective antlers are tangled and Bill has to step in to help.

The doors of the bus swing open at last with a hiss and a creak, and everyone stops their chatter to peer into the shadowy interior.

“Didn’t there used to be a conductor?” someone asks, but Harry isn’t really listening.

There is something very familiar about the man behind the wheel, and though there’s no way in hell that Draco Malfoy would be driving the Knight Bus, this man resembles him so strongly that he can’t believe no one else has noticed. They’re just piling onto the bus as if he’s not there, laughing and stumbling and adjusting their antlers. Fred, bringing up the rear, drops several extra coins into the metal scoop with the request that the driver “loop around a bit, you know… we’re not in a hurry.” Then he, too, joins the others inside, leaving Harry alone on the pavement.

Harry stares, taking in the sharp profile, the hair that gleams like silver in the near darkness, the strong pale hands that grip the oversized wheel just a little too tightly. The man gazes fixedly ahead at the pool of tarmac now illuminated by the bus’s headlights.

“Come on, Harry!” Ron calls, stumbling back to the front of the bus and dangling towards him from a metal pole. “Charlie’s got some of that Dragon Spirit and he says the last one to drink a shot has to drink two.”

At the sound of the words ‘Dragon Spirit’, Harry scrambles onto the bus without hesitation. He has been talked into testing several of the local drinks Charlie has brought home from Romania over the years, and he remembers this one particularly for its propensity to make him take complete leave of his senses. The last time he had ventured a single shot of Dragon Spirit, he had walked into the Leaky Cauldron, declared his undying love for Tom the barman, and flung himself across the bar, weeping, when Tom had refused to run away with him. At least, that’s what Hermione had told him, and she very rarely lies. Ron had insisted that he had also performed a striptease for the patrons of the Leaky, but he does tend to embellish his tales.

Putting the driver out of his mind, Harry hurries to the back of the bus, where his friends have taken up residence around a large, circular table. Relieved to be able to see them all at last, he glances around at their varying states of inebriation with interest. Fred and George, sitting side by side under a vast, glittering chandelier, are grinning and nudging each other as they watch Charlie pour out nine shots of Dragon Spirit. Lee is quietly absorbed in straightening out the fluff on his antlers, Percy is frowning and counting the glasses, and then the people around the table, and then the glasses again, and Neville seems to be attempting to tell Bill a story that, judging by his hand gestures, is either about steam trains or sex.

“Sit down, both of you, before it—” Ginny begins, but falls silent when the bus lurches into motion, seeming to hover in space for a fraction of a second before pelting across the bridge at eye-watering speed.

Harry flings himself into a chair, fully expecting it to slide across the floor the moment the bus turns a corner. To his astonishment, though, he stays put, and so does all the rest of the furniture. Only the chandelier seems to be affected by the bus’s movement, swaying and clinking above their heads like a lamp in a hurricane.

“Well, that’s a nice feature,” Harry mumbles, remembering his previous trips and feeling slightly sick. He wonders if the beds upstairs are also now stuck to the floor, or if indeed they are still there at all.

Now that he has started to adjust to the speed, he looks around the bottom deck and is interested to see that, apart from the heavy duty sticking charms obviously at work, very little else has changed. The bus still smells warm and slightly musty, like a bag of lavender left forgotten at the bottom of a drawer. It’s a strange smell, but not unpleasant, sending Harry back to his teenage years in an instant.

The chair he is sitting on is old and rickety, made of dark wood with a striped cushion on the seat. None of the chairs around the table seem to match, and the table itself is covered, he now notices, in a vast white lacy cloth. Around him, the walls are painted a soft shade of violet, and between the notices warning passengers to ‘remain seated’ and ‘don’t touch this button’ are strange little pieces of art: small tapestries, sketches, and a collection of watercolours of the same cat—a vast, grey and white specimen with extraordinarily long whiskers. The whole place looks as though it was designed for old ladies and by old ladies, and he has no idea how he never noticed it before.

“Breathe in,” the driver calls suddenly, and Harry looks up just in time to see him pulling down the handle that squashes the whole bus thin.

He definitely knows that voice, but suddenly all he can think about is the long, distorted faces of his friends and Ron’s strange, echoey laughter as he passes him his drink. They slide slowly between two red double deckers, and when the bus snaps back to its usual shape and darts off into the fog, Harry is startled to realise that he hasn’t spilled a drop.

“Down in one, me old mateys!” George cries, and Harry obeys, wondering just where he got that eyepatch from.

Even though he is prepared for it this time, the spirit burns so fiercely that it steals his breath, stinging his mouth and throat with the rich flavour of aniseed, closely followed by pepper, blood orange and saffron. Head spinning, he closes his eyes and pretends he is sitting on a nice, soft chair in a completely calm room where there is no screeching of brakes, no pitching around corners and definitely no Ron standing on his foot. When he opens his eyes, he sees Charlie rather gleefully pouring a second shot for George, who had apparently been too busy pretending to be a pirate stag to finish his drink in time.

Relieved that he doesn’t have to have another one, Harry joins in with another encouraging round of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, this time with the improvised last line: ‘So get it down the hatch!’

George obeys and slams his glass down on the table to a delighted chorus of laughter and applause. Moments later, an old man creaks down the stairs and peers at them in bewilderment.

“What’s happening?” he asks, clutching a heavy dressing gown around his body. “Who are these people?”

“Don’t worry about them, Mr Barleycorn,” the driver says, still bathed in shadow as he looks over his shoulder at the old man. “Everything’s fine. You go back to bed and I’ll put up a Silencing Charm.”

“Are you sure?” Mr Barleycorn mutters, clearly unconvinced.

“I didn’t think there’d still be people sleeping here,” Fred whispers apologetically.

“Neither did I,” Harry says, watching the now whispered exchange between the driver and the old man, after which Mr Barleycorn creaks off to bed.

Eyes fixed on the driver, he drifts out of the conversation around him and waits. After a moment, the bus grinds to a halt in the middle of a quiet residential street and the shadowy figure climbs out of his seat, wand drawn. Carefully, he traces a spell across the purple ceiling, making the air ripple around the chandelier and forming a shimmering barrier across the opening that leads to the stairs. He scrutinises his work for a moment and then lowers his wand, glancing around the bottom deck and meeting Harry’s eyes.

He looks away quickly but Harry has seen enough. He knows those eyes and he should always trust his instincts. Letting out a ragged breath and attempting to calm the tangle of eels in his stomach, he turns away from the driver and back to his friends, just as the bus launches itself back into motion.

“You look awful,” Ginny says helpfully. “Shall I pour you another one?”

“No,” Harry says quickly, and the others laugh. “Thanks. I’m fine. I just saw something weird.”

“Was it this?” Lee asks, twisting his face until one eye threatens to pop out, and the giggles intensify.

“No, but thanks,” Harry says, unsure whether to laugh or retch. “I think… I think I saw Malfoy.”

Ron groans and drops his head onto his arms. “Where did you see him? Is he in the walls? Is he on the ceiling? Is he up my dress?”

“What dress?” Neville asks, adjusting his antlers and leaning one elbow on the table with great dignity.

“It’s a figurative dress,” Ron says. “Stop fosucking on the wrong thing.”

“Foe-sucking,” Ginny repeats, giggling into her hands.

“Right,” George says grandly, banging on the table to draw attention to himself. “Here’s the thing.”

“Oh, god, he’s had two,” Bill says. “Has he had two?”

“He certainly has,” Fred says, delighted. “We should all listen to what he has to say.”

“Thank you, Fred,” George says, inclining his head so far that his antlers fall down around his neck. “First of all, no sucking at my party. Things will get awkward. Secondly, Ronniekins, you would look most fetching in a dress. Thirdly… is that a word? Oh, well. Thirdly, Harry, if you think you’ve seen the Malfoy, then of course you have. For we all know, that like the spirits of old, Malfoy is everywhere. He is with us in our times of trouble. He is with us in our times of joy…”

“He is with us when we are buying underpants,” Lee puts in, lifting his empty glass. Charlie fills it.

“He is with us when we soar on our brooms,” Ginny says.

“And when we fall offeth them,” adds Neville, now looking a little misty-eyed.

“He is with us in the dead of night,” Bill says in a sombre tone.

“And in our morning glory,” adds Fred, and his voice is so loud that it echoes around the bottom deck, as do the groans and cackles that follow.

“Speak for yourself,” Ginny laughs. She stands, somewhat unsteadily. “All hail Malfoy, for he is omni… omni… erm, he’s everywhere and does all the stuff, and that’s good because…” She pauses, staring down at her stomach as it grumbles loudly. “I really want that kebab now.”

“Do we have time for a quick stop?” George asks Fred. “I think a snack is in order.”

Fred consults an imaginary list through imaginary spectacles. “You know, I think we do.”

His statement is greeted by cheers from most of the group and only a small amount of complaining from Percy, who has never liked to divert from a schedule, even if it’s someone else’s.

“Driver, my fine man!” Fred calls. “To the kebab shop, please!”

Harry doesn’t think he imagines a gentle sigh from the man behind the wheel, but the bus soon veers into a different line of traffic, and before he can make a decision on whether or not to speak to Malfoy, they are pulling up outside a brightly-lit shop and the doors are hissing open to let them out.

Once back on board, the musty air now heavy with the scents of grease, garlic and fried potato, everyone else has forgotten all about Draco in favour of an in-depth and determinedly embarrassing dissection of George’s love life up to this point. Harry joins in, always happy to discuss the lady with twenty-eight cats or the one who had been interested in Fred all along, but he can’t seem to stop his mind or his eyes drifting back to the man in the driver’s seat. The curiosity pulls at him, even through the haze of alcohol and laughter, and in the end, he gives in. When the bus pulls up for the final time that night, Harry tacks himself onto the back of the exiting line, watching his friends thank the driver and stumble out, none-the-wiser, into the night.

Approaching the front of the bus, he waits for Ron to step off and then goes to lean in.

“Listen, sorry for all the weird stuff, we were…” Harry stops, puzzled.

The driver has disappeared.

“Come on, Harry, move your arse!” Ron calls.

Harry takes one last look around the empty bottom deck, sighs, and follows him.