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Blood and Choice

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Harry stormed back into the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom minutes after leaving it. His mood was not improved when Remus looked up from gathering papers and burst out laughing.

"It's not funny!"

Remus's querulous "No?" was choked out between spasms of laughter. With a wave of his wand, he managed to turn the wall behind his desk reflective, and Harry was confronted by his own image.

Streams of bright silver and more subtle dark green descended down the straight, black hair which was just starting to cover his ears. His Gryffindor tie had taken the appearance of a pair of serpents -- properly red and gold and most improperly intertwined. His nose had turned black and leonine. The overall effect was amusing, or would have been on someone else.

"Fine, it's --" Harry swallowed. "I'm just sick of it, that's all."

Remus smiled sympathetically. "It's over at the end of next week, though -- he's only going until the end of term."

"And that's another thing -- I'm afraid I won't get to say goodbye to everyone, or if I do, I'll look ridiculous and be angry at him, and it's hard enough convincing people he's not torturing me as it is."

With a frown, Remus nodded. "There's that. I'll see if I can talk him into ending a few days early."

"Think you could?" As he asked the question, Harry realized the predictable answer. He scowled. "I know how effective your last conversation with him was."

"I'm certainly not promising anything." Remus walked around the desk to lean easily back against it. "But the last exchange wasn't too bad, after all. Yes, when I complained he was penalizing valuable reflexes, he shouted at me for interfering, ordered me out of his office, and gave me the cold shoulder for a week, but when I next went down for my potion, he told me a few things he was planning and asked my opinion -- not directly, but he asked, nonetheless."

"You've been helping him?"

Remus eyed Harry's bizarre appearance. "Not with the penalties -- he does have rather juvenile taste, doesn't he? -- but with the structure of some of the traps, yes. And there are two I talked him out of."

Harry gritted his teeth. "So, Professor," he forced out, "what was I supposed to do about finding Knorpelrand Fungus in the back stairway? Go tell a master?"

Remus raised his eyebrows. "As you were less than a hundred yards from the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the fungus is stationary? Yes."

"But I know what it is! I know how to deal with it!"

"If you had come and fetched me, I would have pointed out that Knorpelrand is never red. If you had checked your third-year text, you could have discovered that on your own." Remus looked steadily at Harry. "You did not know what it was."

Harry growled and slouched back against one of the student desks. "I'm sick of this," he repeated.

"As I said, I'll try." Remus stepped forward and clapped him on the shoulder. "Lunch in my rooms, perhaps? If we go there now, we have time."

 

 

"I thought things would be better after everyone knew."

Remus looked up from his soup at the confession, cocking his head slightly as his focus narrowed to Harry. "Have they not been, then?"

"Well...." Harry shifted in front of the small table, nearly dislodging the napkin in his lap. Describing it was difficult. "Some things, but ... but then this punishment started, so things between us are strained, and I don't think Draco will ever forgive me, and...." He swallowed. "Better with Gryffindor, at least," he said bravely.

"I thought you had reconciled with Draco."

Harry's mouth twisted at the turn of phrase. "I apologized to him, a few days ago, and he said I could sit with him in Potions, but then he didn't move over at the next lesson. He hasn't invited me again. I think we're ..." He couldn't find a word that fit. "... not friends."

"I see." The ghost of a smile played around Remus's mouth. "Have you asked if you may sit with him?"

"I --" Harry frowned. "I apologized! Why should I have to do everything?"

With a sigh, the slight smile vanished. "Quite honestly, Harry, because you were in the wrong. If he forgives you, you should move now -- every time you walk past him, he'll only grow further away from wanting to reach out."

"Thank you for the advice." Harry heard his father's acid bite emerge in his own voice, but Remus neither flinched nor smiled.

"Harry -- listen, please. I am telling you this because I was ultimately glad that Lily explained it to Sirius after what he did in our sixth year. She gave us five years -- or seven, I suppose -- that we otherwise would never have shared." He cut a slice from his pork chop. "You need to make an effort -- invite him to join you in things he enjoys. Draco is a proud young man, and you are hardly the most approachable of people." His mouth quirked up. "And I've been getting a lot of practice, lately, in approaching the unapproachable."

Harry coughed, and managed a smile. "Is he --? He doesn't mention you, but I've seen you talking at the staff table...." Indeed, his father seemed to exchange words with Remus -- without scowling, at least -- more frequently than with anyone else. In response to a questioning rise of Remus's eyebrows, he took a step, with some embarrassment, towards clarifying the question. "Does he ever to talk to you privately?"

Remus shrugged, and swallowed. "Only when I come to him, and only about you -- or your punishment." He winked, and Harry grinned back. "Keep a secret?"

"What?"

"I plan to invite the two of you to some sort of outing during the Christmas break. I'm not set on what, yet, but will you try to coax him into accepting?"

"Of course!" In the middle of thinking how he would enjoy that, a memory of the previous Christmas struck Harry with sudden melancholy. He poked at his food. "Do you ever miss Sirius?"

"Often." Remus hesitated. "But it's better than the first time -- the years he was in Azkaban. Now, at least, I can remember him with the affection he deserved." He reached across the table. "People die suddenly in war. He wasn't my first loss; he wasn't in the first dozen. He was past the point I stopped counting. Closer than most, but still ... you need to let the dead go, Harry."

"Would he still like me, though?"

The hand on Harry's wrist gripped tight. "Yes. Sirius was loyal, above everything. He would still love you, and he would make it painful and difficult, regardless." He took a deep breath. "Perhaps he has more perspective, now." He smiled, although it wavered slightly. "Perhaps Lily is telling him that you need to let the living go."

 

 

Lunch was a respite, but Harry still needed to go to afternoon lessons. He walked into Charms to predictable sniggers and sympathetic looks, some from the same people in sequence. Sighing, he swung his bag down to the floor and dropped into the seat next to Hermione. Ron, having already argued the point of Snape's malice several times with both Harry and Hermione, sighed and shook his head, but forbore from indignant exclamations.

"So," Harry asked, turning towards them, "imagine that you're walking down a back stairway that isn't used very often--"

"Well, there's your mistake right there!" Ron exclaimed, and Seamus, nearby, snorted.

"Tch, Ron!" he scolded. "It's not sporting if he stays out of play."

"Well, that's rather the point, isn't it?"

"Will you listen? So, in this stairwell, growing low down on the wall, you see globs and strings of a dark red fungus growing along the edges of each stone. What do you do?"

Ron scratched his head. "That has that German name, right? Freezing charm, I think?"

"No, Soaking charm," Padma interrupted.

Harry wondered if everyone was listening to them.

"Not either," Hermione said, exasperated. "Knorpelrand Fungus is always grey or brown or blue. I don't know of anything that's--"

Harry threw up his hands in disgust. "Right. They want me to be you."

Hermione sighed, but reached out to lay a hand on his arm. "I really don't think so, Harry."

"But they do! I'm supposed to know everything."

Shaking her head, she squeezed his arm a little. "No. He just wants you to know when you don't." She smiled, her cheeks dimpling. "But I'm flattered that you think I know everything."

"What 'they'?" Ron asked. "Isn't this just Snape?"

Harry dropped his voice a little. "Remus has been helping him."

"Re--!" Ron caught himself. "Why would he do that?"

"Well, helping with the traps. He didn't approve of some early ones, so Dad started consulting him, apparently." He looked at Hermione, feeling his leathery nose wrinkle. "But he told me he hasn't been helping with the penalties, which he thinks are rather juvenile."

Ron sniggered. Hermione bit her lip.

"Well, you have to expect that, don't you?" she said uncertainly.

"Expect it? Why?"

"Well.... I mean, he became dangerous rather young, didn't he? So I doubt he has much range between juvenile and hazardous, and I know he doesn't want to hurt you."

That made Harry feel better. He smiled at her as he got out his notebook, although it took some effort not to twitch his nose.

 

 

It wasn't until leaving Transfiguration that Harry encountered a friend who wasn't in his lessons. Olivia was descending from some upper-floor classroom, apparently heading for the dungeons. A few of her friends were with her, and they pushed her and whispered when they saw him. From the pained look on Olivia's face, Harry suspected that his punishments embarrassed her.

"Hi, Olivia," he called, pausing a few steps below them. "See you this weekend? It should have worn off by then." Long before, he hoped.

Olivia turned her face down, not quite hiding her smile. "I'll need to revise some, but of course." To his surprise, she walked down to him and laid the tip of one finger on the front of his nose. The touch felt odd on his transfigured flesh. "My foolish lion," she whispered fondly, and then, giggling, headed off down the stairs, followed by the girls who had been with her.

 

 

By breakfast the next morning, most of signs of the attack had already faded, leaving only faint silver streaks in Harry's black hair. In the Potions classroom, he gathered all of the vaunted courage of his house, and forced himself to stop beside Draco's bench, where Draco had his cauldron and scales spread out to leave little room on either side. Draco glanced up from his text, but quickly looked down again.

"Draco?"

Another flicker of silver eyes. "Yes?"

Harry nearly walked away. He took a slow breath and told himself that he'd make Remus regret it if Draco told him to go hang. "May I sit wi--" with you "-- here?"

Draco met his eyes this time, and for a moment, Harry thought he saw relief on those haughty features. "Of course."

Draco shifted over on the seat, and the act of closing his book somehow involved sliding his scales further to the side, so there was adequate room for Harry's equipment. Severus swept in while Harry was still setting up, and gave a slight nod that Harry recognized as approval. His voice, however, was clipped and critical.

"Potter."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Yes, sir?"

"Five points from Gryffindor for being unprepared. Do you at least know today's exercise?"

"Detection of certain potions that weaken the will -- all the ones using hellebore or fairy wings, and some others."

Severus sniffed. "Adequate. Mr. Malfoy, tell me two uses of these potions."

"To increase susceptibility to the Imperius Curse, and to make the victim less likely to check for tampering or poisons in another tempting object."

"Good. Five points to Slytherin."

Harry glanced at Draco, who smirked at him. He felt his mouth twitching as he tried not to grin widely in response.

They didn't speak during class. It wasn't until Harry was stuffing his equipment into his bag that Draco shifted just a little closer, and said, "Miss me, Potter?" and Harry knew that was Draco's version of "I missed you."

"Loads," he answered, his heart lifting, and he waited for Draco's more meticulous packing job so they could walk up to Remus's class together.

 

 

Severus glanced up as Harry entered his rooms. "You have made peace with Draco Malfoy, I see." Without waiting for a reply, he returned to marking the essay in front of him.

Harry crossed to the sofa, sat down, and waited. He was shifting position for the third time when his father finally set parchment and quill aside and moved to the armchair. Harry looked pointedly at him. "Yes."

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, I've made peace with Draco -- somewhat."

Severus rubbed his forehead, but did not apologize. "You have reservations?"

"I -- no." Harry looked down, thinking of yesterday's quiet walk to Remus's classroom. "He does."

"Of what sort?"

Harry shrugged. "I'm not sure. Just ... we walked up to Defense together, and he sat with me, but ... well, he didn't joke around like he used to."

"It will take time, I expect." Severus looked uncomfortable. "About your punishment...."

"Yeah?"

"Since you appear to be ... trying, and your level of comfort in public seems appropriate ..." He struggled for a moment. "I thought we might end early."

"Really?" Harry felt his cheeks lift in a grin. He wondered if Remus had brought this about. "That would be wonderful! When? Now?"

Severus sat back, poised again, his hands steepled before him. "Let us say ... after dinner tomorrow? That finishes off the school week."

Harry eyed him suspiciously. "You have something planned."

A twisted smile met his regard. "Why would I not?"

 

 

Harry was pensive as he made his way to dinner. He chatted with Ron, Hermione, and Dean as he ate, and if anyone noticed how frequently his attention strayed to the Slytherin table, they did not comment on it. When he saw Draco shift back from the table, he stood himself.

Ron's eyes darted over, and he frowned. "Do you really need to?"

"Yeah." Harry gripped his shoulder briefly. "Later."

He left the Great Hall a few yards behind Draco and quickened his pace as soon as he was through the door. Draco glanced over his shoulder.

"Harry."

"Hi." Harry hurried up to him. There were a few other people in sight, but no one was near. "I ..." He felt awkward. "Would you like--?"

"Spit it out, Potter," Draco said, smirking in undisguised amusement. Harry felt a flash of fierceness and took a step forward. Suddenly, he had no problem either finding words or saying them.

"I have a Kerner Dark Detector. Want to play?"

Draco's eyes widened. "How did you-- Never mind. Yes. I would very much like to 'play,' Harry."

 

 

Harry led Draco up to the Room of Requirement. He hadn't arranged for a Kerner Dark Detector, but he was certainly feeling desperate enough that the room should oblige him. Draco watched him, eyes narrowed, as he paced and the door appeared, but did not ask questions. Harry opened it with some trepidation.

It wasn't quite his lounge, although it did have the same facing couches. It certainly wasn't the DA practice room, although the area directly in front of the door looked like a small square of that. In the center of that square was a Kerner Dark Detector, set on a stand. Harry gestured toward it with a flourish, as if he had known it would be there.

Draco entered slowly, and shut the door behind him. "You still haven't explained this room." He looked around. "I mean, it hasn't been the same twice when you've brought me, and it's not here when I come alone. Does the door go to different places?"

Harry cast a quick privacy spell on the door before answering. All of Gryffindor and most of the D. A. would probably consider what he was about to say an act of treason.

"It's whatever you need." He shrugged. "For its interpretation of 'need.' I'm not clear on that part. It won't provide things you think would be sort of fun, but it's not things you'd die without -- obviously."

Draco watched him intently. "In what sense do you 'need' a Kerner Dark Detector?"

"I ..." Harry looked over at the gleaming cylinder. He didn't know how to explain it. Because it was what had made them be friends in the first place? "To ... to have something to invite you to do."

Draco's mouth turned in a partial smile. "I suppose it is a bit cold for flying." He glanced to the side. "And the couches?"

Harry reddened. He had no idea about the couches. "I ... it usually does when I have friends here? I don't know. I didn't ask for them."

Draco looked amused, but didn't question any further. Instead, he gestured toward the device. "Will you start?" Harry nodded, but when he tried to gather his control, Draco, reading his intent, caught at his arm. "No. I want to hear all of it."

Harry stared. He remembered the cacophony the first time he had approached the Kerner Dark Detector. Why would anyone want to be subjected to that?

"All of it," Draco repeated, his eyes icy.

When Harry nodded, Draco released his hold, allowing him to step away. Harry took two steps towards the Dark Detector before the noise started. It was a low, teeth-jarring roar. Moving few inches closer raised it to a strident cacophony. He looked back, but although Draco's face was tight with withstanding the racket, he gave no sign that it was enough.

Please, Harry mouthed, and after a moment of hesitation, Draco nodded sharply. Relieved, Harry began Occlumency, and within a minute, had lowered the noise to a dull rumble. Draco came carefully to stand across from him, and brought his own sound in at a harmonious tone. Harry, pleased, smiled a challenge at him, but before he could do anything, Draco shifted back again.

"What?" The noise spiked as Harry's control wavered, and he took a step back. This was going all wrong. Draco shouldn't have that tight, scornful look on his face.

"I want to hear the Fealty charm."

"What?" Harry said incredulously.

"The Fealty charm. Move back and prepare to cast it. I want to know how it sounds."

"Draco, I swear I won't ever--"

"Shut up! I want to know how it SOUNDS. Do it, or I'll leave!"

Hysteria brought a quaver to Draco's voice, and in resignation, Harry stepped forward. There was a low buzz from the Kerner Dark Detector, but he tried to ignore it and remember how the spell was cast. The subject would be kneeling. He looked at the base of the stand, trying to imagine someone there, and his memory was far too happy to oblige with night-black mail and pale hair that had shimmered in the light of a waning moon. For a moment, dismay broke his focus and the muddled roar of Voldemort's darkness began to rise again. Harry Occluded.

"Sorry," he said through clenched teeth, and worked on picturing it again, but accepting the picture. You will be mine, he thought, as he raised his hand, as if wielding a wand. All your heart, all your power devoted to ME.

The sound rose, growing clearer and stronger, like the deep-throated note of a hunting horn. Grimly, Harry raised his eyes to meet Draco's stare. Draco stepped in. The noise of his power was strident, disruptive, and free. Harry dropped his head back, letting it push over him. The energy he had massed for the Fealty charm dissolved, and he pictured Draco from earlier that same evening, bright and dangerous with grace, dancing across from him with the energy of a duelist. There was no spell he knew for that -- just pure intent, to match and counter -- but his tone shifted higher and brighter.

Draco smiled.

They played.

**********

Sometimes, Albus Dumbledore moved into action immediately when one came to him with a crisis. This, Severus realized, was not going to be one of those times.

"I am confident young Mister Malfoy is well, Severus. You really should go back to bed; you have morning lessons."

"You don't understand!" Severus could hear his voice starting to rise, but he couldn't be bothered to control it. "His refusal to take the Dark Mark has put him a precarious position. Someone may have decided to make an example of him."

"Perhaps, Severus." The twinkle in the old man's eye kept Severus from taking any hope from his mild acquiescence. "Still, don't you think it more likely that he has simply strayed afield? Young men do still do that you know; young women too."

Quick footsteps approached the office door. "Headmaster!" Professor McGonagall entered, looking flushed. Her hair was down in nighttime braids and her robes askew. "Harry Potter is missing!"

Severus's heart tightened with fear, but before he could speak, Dumbledore was turning to him with a warm smile.

"There, Severus, as I said: nothing to worry about."

"Nothing--!" McGonagall choked indignantly.

"Draco is also missing, Minerva." Severus scowled at the headmaster. "A second disappearance is hardly reassuring."

Dumbledore waved his hand in dismissal. "Tut, tut. I suggest you try the seventh floor, across the hall from the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy. I heard the most interesting music emerging from there, earlier."

"Music--?"

"Run along, now. I, at least, need my sleep."

Severus found himself in the corridor -- although he did not remember descending the staircase -- and facing an alarmed Minerva McGonagall.

"Well?" he asked.

"There is no room across from that tapestry! It's a blank wall!"

Severus snorted, his mood slightly improved by knowing something about Hogwarts that his chief rival did not. "There is a room -- sometimes. Remus used to take me there when we were students, but I could never find it on my own. I though that possibly it appeared only to Gryffindors. Apparently I was mistaken." As he raised his head to look down his nose at her, an alternative explanation occurred to him: Perhaps it only appears to mismatched pairs. Didn't Harry take me to another place on that corridor once? Try as he might, though, he could only remember one door. "Come, then. Let us hunt them down."

 

When they reached the corridor, Severus was relieved to find that the elusive door was visible. He sliced his hand down in front of McGonagall's extending arm.

"I was only going to knock."

"I know." Severus set a hand cautiously to the knob. It wouldn't turn. "I prefer to enter unexpected."

Minerva rolled her eyes, but she did step back from the door. She stood, her arms crossed over her chest, impatiently tapping the toe of one shoe, while Severus worked on dismantling the protections that Harry -- or possibly Draco -- had placed on the door. He didn't bother with disrupting the spells that blocked sound -- once they were inside, it wouldn't matter. His lip curled in a sneer as he recognized the block to scent. Definitely Harry, then.

Unless... His jaw clenched at the thought it might be Remus. Remus tangled with a lover on that bed in the corner.... He felt his nails digging into his palms and forced himself to relax. Ridiculous. Lupin has his own rooms; he wouldn't bother.

The block collapsed. Severus scowled when there was no sign of a trap or even an alert charm. Harry needs more lessons in security. He set his hand to the knob again, and gave McGonagall a nod. She straightened and nodded back, and he quickly and smoothly opened the door, taking care not to let it bang into the interior wall.

The room was larger than he remembered -- about twice the size of his sitting room -- and dimly lit by tiny, colored, floating lights that bobbed and swirled through the still air. There was no sign of the bed that Remus had pulled him down on. In the center of the room, a large cylindrical object rested on a stand that raised it to about waist height. He took several steps towards it before recognizing that it was a Kerner Dark Detector. Music. Of course. To the right, two low, cushy sofas made an alcove with the wall. Severus stepped forward to look in the alcove. Both sofas were empty. The floor between them was covered with a thick sheepskin carpet. Harry and Draco were lying there, facing each other, with about eighteen inches of space between them, and hands just touching. As Severus watched, frozen, Harry's side rose and fell in a reassuringly visible breath.

Minerva shifted closer. "At least they're dressed," she whispered, with a trace of amusement. "Shall we shout?"

Severus touched a finger to his lips. Carefully, he stepped gently across the carpet and turned so that he had one booted foot between their faces. He lifted it. Unfortunately, it wouldn't make much noise on this thick covering, but....

He stomped it down as hard as he could. With a satisfying "thwup!" dust flew up around the soft fleece.

Harry's eyes flew open. After a second of complete immobility, he twisted, surged to his feet, and drew his wand, all in one motion. Severus was impressed by his reflexes, but kept up a sneer of scorn as he stared down the extended length of wood to Harry's fierce alarm. Harry's face suddenly relaxed.

"Dad!" he complained, annoyed.

Behind him, Minerva cleared her throat, and Harry whirled, alarmed once again. "Shit!"

"Five points from Gryffindor, Mr. Potter." Before Severus could do more than choke at that absurdly light sentence, Minerva added, "--for language. Thirty for wandering the school after lights out --"

"I wasn't!" Harry protested. "We just fell asleep --"

"That is not an excuse." She looked at Draco, who had slipped quietly to his feet, and was standing behind Harry, as pale as Harry was red. "Thirty points from Slytherin also, Mr. Malfoy."

Severus watched with interest and concealed amusement as Draco's features smoothed into his most sincere well-bred-boy look.

"We were working on an extra credit project for Defense Against the Dark Arts, Professor. It was more exhausting than we expected."

Minerva, Severus thought, might actually have fallen for that if Harry hadn't interrupted. Of course, he would have disabused her of that notion himself, had Harry not done so.

"No."

"Harry!"

"Draco, do you have any idea how well both of them know Re-- Professor Lupin?" Harry seemed to draw confidence from the exchange, however, and when he turned to Minerva, his blush was abating and his voice steady. "It was further research on something R-- Professor Lupin showed us in class, but he didn't assign it. It was just for fun." He glanced over at Severus. "Well, and Occlumency practice."

"And this exhausted you sufficiently that you collapsed onto the floor and fell asleep?"

"Yes."

Severus snorted at Harry's sincerity and Minerva's subsequent weakening.

"That, at least, I can believe," he interjected. He was tempted to mention the cost of controlling Dark energies, just for the delight of watching Minerva explode, but he decided he would prefer to keep that lecture private.

"Draco, ten points from Slytherin for attempting to lie to your professors." Five for one of them being me, and five for the lie being inept. "Harry, you will come speak to me at the end of lessons, tomorrow. Draco, an hour later. Both of you have three nights of detention, each starting directly after dinner." He looked at Minerva. "But for now, perhaps, we should get them to their beds?"

"Agreed." Minerva's mouth set in a thin line. "Come along, Mr. Potter."

 

Severus led Draco down to the dungeons, but not directly to Slytherin. Instead he made a detour to his office, ushering the Malfoy boy through the doorway in front of him.

"I thought you were talking to me tomorrow, sir."

Severus sneered. "I see no point in giving you additional time to devise stories, Mr. Malfoy."

"But Harry is allowed that?"

"An unfortunate necessity of Professor McGonagall's presence. I don't want to place him in more trouble than I consider appropriate. Now, what were you doing?"

Draco raised his head very high, until he looked like a mediocre imitation of his father. "Playing with the tonal aspects of the Kerner Dark Detector," he said precisely. His lip curled in scorn. "Sir."

"Did this involve casting any spells?"

"No."

"Were you gathering energy to cast spells?"

Draco hesitated. "For some of it. But we didn't cast anything."

"What spells?"

"That's none of your business."

Severus snarled. "I am your head of house and his father! I declare it my business. Which spells?

"I am not speaking for Harry. For the most part, we didn't discuss how we were achieving the tones."

"And the exceptions?"

In a momentary loss of poise, Draco glanced down. "I wanted ...." He glared. "I asked him to prepare for the Fealty spell. I wanted to hear it."

Severus only barely restrained himself from asking how far that had gone. From Draco's coherency, it had obviously not exceeded the mimicry of intent. He cleared his throat.

"Very well. Since you are here ..." He sat back, giving Draco time to worry. He was pleased to see that Draco had enough presence of mind to recognize the maneuver and concentrate on breathing, instead of letting speculation fray his control. When it was clear that Draco was not going to break and prompt him, he continued. "I wished to ask you about your plans for the holiday."

"Plans, sir?" Draco sounded politely confused. Severus felt his face twist in a snarl.

"Mr. Malfoy, you have been quite blatant about your lack of interest in serving the Dark Lord. You have also become associated, to some degree, with Harry Potter. For your own safety, I would advise you against returning to Malfoy Manor."

"My mother loves me."

"She may nonetheless be angry. And she has never been good at standing up to those stronger than herself."

"She won't allow anyone to hurt me."

Severus wanted to shake the boy.

"If they have deduced that you helped me escape, she may not be capable of protecting you, even if she tries. I doubt she even knows which of her husband's allies has access to the property, much less how to bar it."

Draco looked momentarily panicked, but his fear was soon replaced by anger. "So help her!"

"You are assuming I know."

Draco raised his head in scorn. "So you're just guessing."

"I know I can get in -- and I'm not going to help her prevent that. I was not, by far, the closest of Lucius's associates, so it is more than a guess that there are others with that privilege."

For a moment, they just stared at each other. When Severus opened his mouth to ask again, Draco took a step back.

"I'm going home. You can't stop me."

Severus considered that. He could, of course, stop the young fool, but the price would be high. He pointed his wand, and the door swung open.

"To bed then. Now."

 

**********

 

Harry heard the great clock striking three as he went up the stairs, and he tiptoed into his dormitory hoping everyone would be asleep.

"What's the damage?" Ron asked, as Harry stepped in between their beds.

"What? Oh. Thirty-five points from Gryffindor, and three nights' detention."

"Thirty-five points?" Ron yelped.

"Well, it was forty from Slytherin."

"Oh." Ron settled back against his pillow. "Who caught you, then?"

"Dad and Professor McGonagall. I lost extra points for swearing, and he lost them for attempting to lie about why we were out."

"What were you doing? Trying to prank your Dad back?"

"God, no!" Harry shrugged and pulled off his shirt. "Just playing with a Kerner Dark Detector, but we fell asleep -- or passed out, more like -- you saw how I was after that the first time. But Draco tried to say it was a Defense Against the Dark Arts project."

"Oh, like Snape wouldn't ask!"

"Exactly."

"Will you two shut it?" Seamus growled. "It is dark-thirty on a school night."

"Sorry!" they chorused, and Harry, by now in his pajamas, squirmed into his cold bed and shivered until it grew warm.

 

 

On Friday morning, the House counters had obviously changed, and breakfast was uncomfortable. Harry entered the Potions classroom with something like relief. Draco was already there, and already fully set up, although it was still early. Harry sank to the seat beside him and plopped his own equipment down in an untidy heap. Behind them, Millicent Bulstrode sniggered. Harry froze.

"Be glad Pansy isn't here," Draco muttered. "She went on about my 'boyfriend' all through breakfast."

"What?" Harry asked incredulously.

"She overheard some Gryffindor seventh-years asking Longbottom when you came in."

"Oh." Harry didn't want to think about that too closely. "Well, I do that." He frowned. "I mean, it's not the first time I've been missing at odd hours. I got ragged about being out all night, after Halloween, but not about last night. What my housemates care about is the loss of points."

With a soft snort, Draco reached over and began setting up Harry's scales. "Well, I'm getting all the hassle of an affair with you, to no benefit at all. At least tell Olivia it was nothing, won't you? She might believe you."

**********

Severus paused in the door to Remus Lupin's office. As expected, the werewolf glanced up, already speaking a greeting. "Come in! It's--" He froze, voice failing, at the sight of his visitor, but recovered quickly. "Severus! To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Your annoying usefulness," Severus sneered, but he didn't put any real malice into it. He found himself as drawn to Remus as he had been as a teen; had he seen any way past the accumulated barriers of the intervening years, he might be taking it. As it was, he was willing to settle for a civil relationship marked by occasional intelligent conversation. He walked into the room, and when Remus gestured at a chair beside the desk, consented to sit in it.

"Oh -- am I useful, now?" Remus asked teasingly.

"I can hope." Severus cleared his throat. Now that he was here, the question seemed even more embarrassing than it had when he left his classroom.

"When we were ... young, there was a room that you liked. It was on the seventh floor, across from a tapestry with some trolls in ballet tights...." and it had a large bed, and a cozy fire, and the softest carpet; pitchers of water, goblets of wine.... He hoped what he felt didn't show on his face.

Remus licked his lips. "I remember."

"I-- That room was never there when you were not with me."

"Ah." Remus cocked his head to one side, regarding him with what might have been amusement. "Was there another room?"

"No!" Severus hadn't meant to snap. He looked away. "No -- there was nothing."

"So what do you want to ask?"

"What," Severus hissed, "calls the room? Does it require two people of different houses to find the door? Is there a charm? Does it appear only to lovers? I had thought it was a Gryffindor secret, but Minerva had never heard of it, before last night."

"Last night?" Remus raised his eyebrows inquiringly.

"Harry and Draco were in there. Asleep." At the widening of Remus's eyes, Severus relented and flicked his hand to the side in dismissal. "On the floor, and fully clothed, but nonetheless.... What calls it?"

"Ah." Remus shrugged. "It is what you need. Think of what you need, and walk back and forth a few times--"

"You needed a bedroom?"

Placidly, Remus looked back at him. "Outside of Gryffindor or Slytherin. Yes. Desperately, as I recall."

Severus looked away. Need. "It ... it cannot evaluate...."

"The Room is not judgmental." Remus shrugged slightly. "As to what Harry -- or Draco -- needed, I cannot say."

 

 

When Severus put the question of need to Harry, after lessons, the answer seemed to be "a Kerner Dark Detector."

"To be friends with him again, you required a powerful magical device?" Severus asked incredulously.

"You know how it's been. And that was how we became friends in the first place."

Severus sighed. "Be that as it may.... Did you cast anything?"

"No."

"Did you prepare to?"

Harry made a face. "The Fealty charm, but only because he insisted. I don't know if it made him feel better or not, but once that was over, he relaxed."

Severus relaxed as well. "Acceptable. That brings us to the next issue...."

"Oh?" Harry, of course, refused to be cowed by the threat in his tone.

"Your pitiful security."

"I'd put up protections!"

"But I broke them. And all protections can be broken -- but you had nothing more."

"What should I have had?"

"A trap. An alarm."

"If I'd been awake--"

"You were NOT awake! What I did should have woken you!"

"Oh!"

"I'll teach you some spells. Also, I'd like you to leave an opening, when you construct such protections -- something that will admit me or Professor Dumbledore." Severus took a breath. "Professor Lupin, if you wish."

"I'm not sure...."

"If something happened to you, we could lose valuable time reaching you."

Harry nodded. "Yes, but ... Draco expected privacy. If I wasn't providing that, I'd need to let him know."

"You are far too trusting."

Harry laughed harshly. "I'm not even sure I'm trusting enough."

"Hm." Severus studied him for a minute. He knew what Harry meant; he had much the same sort of lack of trust himself, and it was not always useful. "I've heard the rumors around Slytherin," he said, changing the subject.

"And you know they're not true."

Severus nodded. "However -- are you interested in Draco?"

Harry frowned. "I don't think so," he said, but Severus thought he said it slowly, with the thought perhaps not ending as he spoke. Harry shrugged. "Anyway, I wouldn't do anything."

"An interesting response, as such things don't appear to bother you, in theory. Why would you not act, in this one case?"

Harry looked exasperated, as if whatever strange tangle had formed in his mind should be obvious. "Well, I don't think I'm interested -- I mean, I can tell he's attractive, but that's not the same -- so it would be mostly curiosity, if I were to, you know, snog him or whatever. And I...." What had been a light blush deepened to true red. "I think he might, um, to me? Well, he flirts," Harry said defensively. "I can't tell. But if he means it, I shouldn't do anything I'm not sure I mean."

"Ineptly expressed, but well reasoned," Severus said, pleased enough with the response to release the boy from his humiliation. "I would agree that he is 'interested' in you -- and that is why there are rumors, or at least why the rumors have taken this form. I also agree that any experimentation would be inadvisable. He would treat it as an offense if you encouraged him and then backed off again. Furthermore, while he is still legally a minor, his family could use him against you."

Harry nodded. "And then there's school. We couldn't avoid each other if we needed to." He grinned. "And Olivia would kill both of us!"

 

Chapter Text

Relatives

 

The next day was Saturday, and Harry, still tired, slept until Ron hit him in the face with a pillow.

"Oi! Do you want breakfast or not?"

Harry glared. "Since I'm awake," he said pointedly.

"I'll wait five minutes," Ron stated, uncowed.

"Right." Sighing, Harry got up and pulled on trousers and a shirt. He shook his hair out, ran his fingers through it, and stepped into shoes. "Just let me stop by the loo -- I'll meet you in the common room."

 

They sat down at the Gryffindor table, joining Hermione just as the owls were arriving. A score of birds, maybe more, descended from the opened windows and soared down over the tables. A telltale flash of red caught Harry's eye, and he winced as he recognized the owl carrying it.

"Is that Malfoy's?"

Harry nodded at Ron's question, but by then his reply was unnecessary -- the owl had swooped down and dropped the Howler in Draco's lap. As soon as it touched him, a flash of silver shot out of the envelope, surrounding it and Draco in a shimmering bubble. Harry surged to his feet, but Ron yanked him down again.

"Privacy charm, Harry. He'll be okay." Ron reached for the marmalade and began to spread some on his toast. "Though I don't see the point of a Howler, then, if he's the only one who's going to hear it."

Watching Draco's face, Harry could understand. The red missive had unrolled and was quivering indignantly before Draco, who had frozen with dread. He would be humiliated, even if people only saw.

"Hell."

"What?" Ron frowned at Harry for a moment, and then his face cleared. "Oh -- you think it's about you? Or, um, Halloween?"

Harry reddened. "Thursday night -- some of the Slytherins decided we must be, er, together."

Hermione looked up. "Just because you were both out?"

"Because he doesn't do that."

Ron snorted. "Can't see that that means anything --

"Other than that you're a bad influence," Dean interjected. He laughed. "And that's a strange thing to say about you and him."

"Malfoy has the nerve when he's with Harry, more like," Ron objected.

Harry didn't care, really. He shrugged miserably. "But we were friends again, and now he'll be upset by it."

Draco had grown whiter and whiter in his bubble, and when it finally flared and popped, he sank back into his seat. Olivia leaned forward and called something to him. Harry couldn't hear it across the room, but several people near them laughed, and Draco got unsteadily to his feet. Harry started to get up also. This time it was Hermione who pulled him down.

"I need to talk to him!"

"Harry," she whispered urgently. "If people think you're involved, that will only make it worse."

"Right," Dean agreed. "Talk to him privately later."

"When half the school isn't watching."

 

After the others went back up to the tower, Harry loitered around the Entrance Hall, wondering where to search for Draco. He might have retreated to his dormitory, but that seemed unlikely if he was avoiding his housemates. The library provided security against louder taunts, but nothing against private ones. In Draco's position, Harry thought he would go outside. Before he could decide, another group of students emerged from the Great Hall. When footsteps approached him, rather than passing through the room, Harry turned. Olivia stood there, looking almost as upset as she had on Halloween.

"What?" he snapped, wincing as he heard his own tone. "Sorry."

Olivia took a visible breath. "Look," she said, "I don't expect kissing a few times to mean anything exclusive, but if you're seeing Draco, I am not covering for you."

"I am not seeing Draco!"

"He was out almost all night, and he hadn't been drinking."

"We did some very exhausting magic, okay? We both passed out on the floor, and we got in trouble for it. It wasn't romantic, and it wasn't sexual; it just took a whole lot of energy."

She appeared to be considering this. "What kind of magic?" she pressed.

Glancing around and seeing only other students, Harry stepped closer and lowered his voice. "I got hold of a Kerner Dark Detector."

Frowning, she stepped back. "How would you set off a Dark Detector? Were you casting Dark curses at the walls?"

"I set it off just by existing," Harry explained. "Voldemort's curse is sort of a bond -- you remember Halloween -- but if I try, I can filter out parts of it. Draco has to do more, I think, but he didn't actually cast anything." He frowned over her shoulder at her housemates. "Ask any of the sixth years who take Defense with us what we were like using one in the lesson. They all saw, and they can tell you I nearly fell over afterwards."

"I'll do that." Olivia sighed. "Harry, I just-- I will not look like a fool. Even if it just appears that you're courting him, it's still a problem for me."

"I'll get him home by lights out from now on, okay?"

"But you'll still be alone with him."

"What does that matter? I'm alone with a lot of people!"

"But now everyone's watching."

"Too bad. You can't choose my friends. I didn't even let Hermione do that!"

She sighed. "All right. I'll wait and see. For now ... don't expect me to sit with you for a while."

"Fine." Inwardly, Harry resolved to avoid the library. He wasn't going to show up just so she could show she was snubbing him. "Enjoy your weekend."

Annoyance made up his mind for him, and he turned and opened the door. A warning blast of cold air greeted him, but he didn't want to turn back and look ridiculous, so he stepped out into the oblique sunlight of the chilly December day. As soon as the door closed behind him, he cast a warming charm, but the gusting wind kept it from being fully effective. He would walk down to the pitch, he decided, and if Draco wasn't there, he would go back inside.

He was less than halfway there when he saw a figure coming towards him. Draco, he decided, and he moved into the lee of a rhododendron to wait.

"Merlin, Potter," Draco said, when he was in conversational range. "Shouldn't you at least wear a cloak to loiter in this weather? Winter robes? A hat?"

"I was just looking for you," Harry admitted, falling into step beside him. "Anyway, I had a fight with Olivia, and outside was the best exit."

"You too, then? Did you at least convince her we're not having a torrid affair?"

"I think so, but she says it doesn't matter if we still look like we are." Harry gestured vaguely around them. "Which I don't think we do, honestly."

"I don't think so either." Draco smirked. "Although we did dance at the ball, didn't we? My housemates, of course, are quite adept at seeing secret messages -- including some that are not actually there."

Harry had to smile. "It was quite the dance, I'm told. Honestly, though, if I was out till three with Ron, it would just be my housemates asking how many points I lost this time. Which is really all they're doing." An exception occurred to him. "Although I found out some people had wondered if I was cheating on Hermione, back when I was visiting my dad in secret."

Draco sniggered. "It could be worse. I decided you were involved with him after all, when I found you in his rooms that morning."

"You did?" Harry felt his eyes widen.

"Well, honestly! What else would I think? He wasn't even dressed, and you didn't deny that you'd spent the night." Draco shrugged. "So I was quite as surprised as everyone else by his later announcement," he said loftily.

They had reached the doors. With his hand at the latch, Harry hesitated. "Want to come down to my room?" he asked. "We could talk there -- about the Howler, or whatever."

"And that wouldn't cause comment!"

"Not if no one saw us."

Draco laughed. "Sorry, Gryffindor -- I'm not risking it." He shot Harry a challenging look. "You can walk with me, though, if you were planning to go down to the dungeons."

Harry hadn't been, but he nodded. "Okay."

There was no one in the Entrance Hall when they came in. Still, Draco kept his voice low. "Someone -- I suspect Pansy -- wrote Mother and told her that I was out 'all night' with you, and possibly other things. The Howler wasn't terribly specific, just a lot of general 'a disgrace to the family and to your ancestors' and that sort of thing." He raised his nose haughtily. "There was a reference to Halloween, which could have been about dancing with you -- or worse yet, with a Muggleborn witch ... but I suspect it was rather about not taking the Dark Lord's Mark."

"She's angry at you about that?"

"That's been clear ever since," Draco answered soberly.

"Ah."

They were walking down the stairs, now, leaving the pale light that filtered through the Entrance Hall windows for the flickering torchlight of the dungeons. Harry trailed his hand along the stone ridge that served as a handrail. "Are you staying at school for Christmas, then?"

Draco huffed in response. "Why does everyone ask me that? Of course not! I'm going home. If anything, this makes it more important. I need to show her that I'm rational and respectful and not abandoning my family."

"But ... would she try to make you? I mean, Him?"

"My mother loves me, Harry. She has never let me go without anything I desired, and I am certain she would not subject me to the displeasure of the Dark Lord."

 

When Harry got to Professor Snape's apartments, his father wasn't there. He considered writing a letter to Draco's mother, explaining what had happened, but every time he tried to put it down in words, he looked at the result and decided he would only make things worse. After a few attempts, he left the rooms and went back up to Gryffindor.

The common room, as often on winter weekends, was crowded. He spotted Ron and Hermione sitting near the chess boards, although Ron wasn't playing anyone at the moment. Instead, their heads were close together and they were talking. Quickly, he walked over.

"Hi."

"Harry!" Hermione shifted over.

"We were hoping you'd show up," Ron said.

They looked uncomfortable for a moment. "McGonagall just put up the sign-up sheet for the holidays...." Hermione tried.

"And we were thinking--"

"We'll stay if you want us to, Harry, but we were wondering if you'd, perhaps, like...." Her eyes dropped to her clasped hands. "Well, since you have family, now...."

"Oh." Harry caught the drift. "Um, if you want."

Hermione's lip was red from the press of her teeth. "It's just ... last year ... my parents realized how long it had been...."

"You won't be going to the Burrow, then?" Harry thought that shouldn't make him feel better, but it did, somehow.

"No, just ... home."

Harry nodded. "That makes sense. You've stayed with me a lot." He looked at Ron. "Both of you," he said sincerely.

"Are you sure, mate?" Ron asked. "I can't imagine Snape will be much fun."

Harry shrugged. "I'll have to work on it. It will be okay. It's not like we'll be the only people here."

"Mum said you should visit for a day, at least, sometime Christmas week. She'll settle that with him, I reckon."

Nodding, Harry thought how odd that was. No one settled things for him. He'd have to make sure his father knew what he wanted. "I suppose." His friends still looked worried. Sighing, he sat down. "You're making things difficult for me, you know. Now I have to finish my Christmas shopping before you pack."

Hermione giggled. Ron relaxed. Harry bumped him with his shoulder. "No problem."

 

"Potter," Draco said quietly, as he sauntered past at the end of Potions on Monday morning, "hang back."

Harry slowed in packing his Potions supplies and considered the request. Draco had avoided sitting with him that lesson, and Harry suspected that another letter he had received from home that morning might be involved. It hadn't been a Howler, but Draco had withdrawn just as much while reading it. Now, Harry wasn't sure whether Draco was warning him off or planned to speak with him alone.

Deciding to accommodate him, Harry lingered, smiling nervously at his father's eye roll. He left the room a few seconds after the last of the other students, and trailed a distance behind them. Draco had vanished. Harry was relieved when he emerged from an alcove just as the group in front of him disappeared around a corner.

"Thanks," Draco said. Now that they were alone, he looked miserable, rather than haughty.

"No problem." They began to walk, slowly, up to their next lesson. "What's wrong? This morning's letter?"

With a quick sneer, Draco nodded. "Right. Mother wants me to break off with you."

"Does she think--" Harry started, but Draco cut him off.

"That doesn't matter. That I'm seen with you is enough. After her Howler, I explained my opinion of the benefits of the matter, and she does not agree. She said to come home prepared to serve our lord, or not to come home."

"Oh." Harry bit his lip. "I'm sorry. I just wanted--"

"It's not your fault."

Draco's pace quickened. His face, despite the effort of the stairs, was white. Harry nodded grimly. "You thought she wouldn't."

"She has never made me do anything that I didn't want to do!"

"Did you like dress robes as a child?" Harry asked pointedly.

Draco snorted. "I had a governess to make me dress."

"But appealing to your mum didn't help."

"No," Draco admitted. "And she treats it about like that," he said gloomily. "As a matter of propriety. I'm not to associate with Professor Snape more than necessary, either, although with him, she does understand that complete avoidance is impossible." They had reached the door to the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. It was already closed, which meant a reprimand at best when they entered. Draco opened his mouth as if to say something more, but then shut it again.

"We better go in," Harry said quietly

Draco nodded.

Harry paused with his hand on the doorknob. "Sit together, or separately?"

"Oh, we may as well sit together," Draco answered bitterly. "It will hardly matter."

"Oh?"

"I'm not taking the Dark Mark, Harry. I saw Professor Snape at that meeting! She's lost all leverage about you, if that's what it will take, so what choice I might have made is immaterial."

Draco was trembling. Harry stepped back from the door and put a hand on his arm, but Draco shook it off. "Not now. Is that ... that invitation still open? Your room?"

"Of course."

"Instead of lunch, then."

**********

The fourth year Hufflepuff/Ravenclaw lesson had been a near-disaster, and cleaning up after it could not be safely delayed. By the time Severus had recovered the last hippogriff scale, he had decided to eat lunch in his rooms. It would save the walk upstairs and back, and he wouldn't be arriving when everyone else was already seated. He was surprised, as he closed the classroom door behind him, to hear footsteps hurrying down the stairs. He turned and faced them, folding his arms over his chest.

He had expected an upper-year Slytherin, and when Remus rounded the corner, they stared at each other in surprise.

"Well," Severus said, recovering. "May I presume that you are looking for me?"

"Yes," Remus admitted. "Just ... a concern, Severus, and when I glanced into the Great Hall and didn't see you there, I decided to check down here, in case you were being reclusive."

Shrugging, Severus unfolded his arms. "Careless students," he said dismissively. "By the time the classroom was safe again, my rooms seemed like a better option." He inclined his head to the side, indicating the hallway. "If you have something to say, walk with me. I have limited time."

Nodding, Remus fell in beside him. It felt curiously comfortable to have him there.

"Is it Harry?" Severus asked.

Remus sighed. "Harry and Draco."

Severus grimaced. "You are not still objecting to their association?"

"No. In fact, I gave Harry advice about making up with him. This morning, however, they were late to my lesson and whispered throughout it. They generally do some of that, but it's usually remarks they find witty -- about the lesson, from what I can catch. This time, they were distracted -- and distressed. I kept them after to inquire, but Draco told me that nothing I did could matter, and then Harry got protective and told me to back off."

"I see. And you wish me to talk to him?"

"Actually, I want you to talk to Draco. Either of us could talk to Harry, I believe, if Draco were not there. I'm not objecting to the impertinence, Severus -- it was in private, by then, and not meant in offense. Rather, I am concerned that something may be seriously wrong, and Draco seems to be the one directly affected." Remus lifted his shoulders in a tight shrug. "And he trusts you far more than he does me."

"As he should," Severus replied smugly. "Very well. I will talk to Draco." He had been planning to do that in any case; he had seen the Malfoy owl deliver a letter that morning, and Draco had been cool and sarcastic in his morning lesson.

They had arrived at the door. Severus hesitated, unsure whether to speak his password within the werewolf's hearing. He remembered, suddenly, what the password meant.

"Aconitum," he said, with a sly glance at Remus, who -- predictably -- twitched.

"An interesting choice," he said neutrally.

"It was Harry's," Severus answered with satisfaction. "You had displeased him, as I recall, pushing where you were not welcome." As he set a hand on the door, he looked directly at Remus. "I will, of course, change it now."

Remus, his expression more bitter than Severus expected, took a step back. "Of course."

Weapons of vengeance had a habit of twisting in their course, Severus thought. He had given himself no pleasure by piercing Remus with that tidbit, and it was hardly fair to Harry to display his private moment of temper to someone with whom he had not been angry in many weeks. As he was wondering if he might recover the situation, the door gave under his hand, and he heard the sound of running water, and then a voice -- questioning, but too faint to discern words. Remus cocked his head, perhaps able to catch more.

"Harry?" Severus mouthed at him.

Remus leaned close. "And Draco," he whispered back.

Severus nodded. "Come with me," he said softly, and that was his rescue. Remus, trusted, entered, and Severus knew that matter of the password had moved back into memory.

 

 

"-- Not going to be able to avoid it, am I?" Draco was saying gloomily. There was a soft clink of china. "Thanks."

"I suppose not," Harry answered. "Do you want to come back here this evening?"

Severus stepped into the doorway. "Did I say you could bring other students into my rooms, Harry?"

Draco twitched, spilling milk froth onto the kitchen table. It was only on seeing it that Severus recognized the scent of cardamom in the air. Draco set down his mug and came quickly to his feet. "I'm sorry, si--"

"Sit down," Harry snapped at him before turning his glare on Severus. "I don't see why I can't. You never said --"

"I have student papers in the sitting room."

"I know that! That's why we're in the kitchen."

"Not so you could make him milk?"

Harry sat back with a huff. "Afterwards, we were going to go into my room."

Draco, who was still standing, looked at him questioningly. "Sir?"

Severus flicked a hand towards him. "Sit down." He looked back at Remus. "And you -- are you staying or going?"

"I don't mean to intrude, and I'm certain that Draco--"

"It doesn't matter," Draco said harshly.

"Draco wanted to talk to you, Dad," Harry said, with a touch of reproach in his tone.

"Yes?" Severus looked questioningly at Draco. "News from home?"

Draco's face drew in as if he had bit a lime. "Yes. Mother insists that I join the Dark Lord's service. I am not welcome at home if I do not."

Remus drew a breath in, but Severus snorted and sat down. He refused to give this threat more power by treating it with undue dignity. "Absurd," he said, as Draco finally sank back down to his chair. "Narcissa would not disown you for any behavior."

"That's what I had thought, but --"

"Most likely," Severus said, speaking over him until he fell silent, "she, as I, believes it would be inadvisable for you to return. Somewhat less likely, but also possible, she may be bluffing to influence you. In either case, the appropriate response is to stay at school."

Draco straightened to a brittle propriety in his seat. "Of course it is," he said coldly.

"Draco...." Harry laid a hand on Draco's arm, as readily as if they were alone and unwatched. "It's not so bad."

"It's horrible!" Draco retorted, pulling out from under the touch and jumping to his feet again. "I have to stay here, as if I didn't have a family and a home, or as if I were too much trouble to keep there, and it will be loud, and messy, and alienating, and you'll think it's lovely, because you don't know any better!"

He swallowed hard. His cheeks were bright pink when he looked at Severus. "May I go, sir?"

"Please do," Severus said frostily.

"Severus," Remus began in dismay, but as Draco left the room in two steps, Harry caught at the werewolf's sleeve.

"No," he said, obviously recognizing that Remus had been about to pursue the boy. The door to the hallway shut with a clunk, and Harry breathed out in relief. "He needs to be alone," he explained to Remus.

"He's distraught!"

"Right! And he hates to be seen like that. I'll talk to him later."

Severus nodded confirmation. "Yes. I had not realized I was interrupting a counseling session, Harry."

"Well, you didn't bother to ask, did you?"

"Don't expect an apology," Severus sneered. "Your room only, next time, if I am not here." He hesitated. "And none of your female friends."

Harry smirked. "You're a strange one to think it matters," he said pointedly, his gaze flicking, ever so briefly, to Remus.

"I think it matters to you," Severus retorted. "And in any case, I insist upon the appearance of propriety. You may have Draco here, and other male friends that are close to you -- one at a time-- if you walk directly through the public rooms and to your own, and stay there until your friend's departure or my return. You may have female companions here only if I am present, and in that case you will not go to your room."

Harry, apparently satisfied, nodded. "Fair enough."

"And I do not want this to be a daily occurrence."

"Yes, sir."

Feeling the relief of an argument settled, Severus turned to Remus. "Will you join us for lunch?" he asked.

Remus looked satisfyingly startled. "Er, thank you, but--" He glanced past Severus, perhaps to some reaction of Harry's. "Yes, of course," he said. "I'd be delighted to."

 

After Severus had called down to the kitchen for lunch, they settled uncomfortably around the table. At least, Severus was uncomfortable, and he could tell from Harry's fidgeting that he was as well. Remus looked like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, which Severus knew meant nothing.

"So," Harry said finally, incapable, as usual, of maintaining silence. "What are we going to do for Christmas, Dad?"

"Do?" Severus found himself at a loss. What did that mean? Was Harry wondering about presents?

Remus smiled mildly as bowls of soup appeared. "Severus is not inclined towards celebrations, Harry," he said gently. "I expect you should continue to keep Christmas with your Gryffindor friends."

Oh. Severus thought he had preferred being perplexed. The feeling deepened as he saw Harry quickly hide his disappointment.

"Can't," Harry replied with something like cheer. "Ron and Hermione thought they should go home this year, to give me some family time, and I can't tell them no. They've stayed with me most years."

"Ah," Remus said sympathetically. "Well, that's unfortunate, but I'm sure that you--"

"Lupin!" Severus snapped.

"Yes?" Remus said mildly.

"I am present. I believe I can say myself what I would or would not be willing to do for a holiday with my son."

"Yes, of course," Remus murmured, and Severus was uncertain if he had prevailed or been manipulated. Remus was such a Gryffindor that it was easy to forget how well he turned things to his own ends.

"So," he said, seizing control of the conversation, "what did you have in mind?"

"I was just curious," Harry said, speaking too quickly for his casual tone to work. "I mean, do we eat with the others, or down here? Do you do stockings? Do you-- I mean, I expect you don't have your own tree...."

"Certainly not!" Severus exclaimed. "Having the things all over the Great Hall is certainly enou--" He caught himself. Had Harry wanted a tree? With a quick wave, he gestured back to the sitting room. "You may, of course, decorate as you see fit, as long as nothing gets in my way."

Harry nodded hesitantly. "Thank you."

"I --" Severus suspected that he was handling this badly. Remus had retreated into eating his soup with a steady dip, raise, sip motion that looked like he was under the Imperius curse. The appearance of a platter of sandwiches didn't even make him twitch. "We will have breakfast together," Severus continued more firmly. "You may open presents after that." He wondered what sort of a pile that would be.

Harry nodded. "All right." He looked pointedly at the clock and scooped up a sandwich. "I'd better go. I need boots and a cloak before Care of Magical Creatures. Ginny said it was cold."

Severus let his eyes close for a moment as he listened to the door to the hallway shut again. Only when Remus cleared his throat did it occur to him how vulnerable that made him. He opened them into a glare.

"Yes, Lupin?" he demanded.

Remus shrugged. "Nothing. Well, I felt rather in the way, actually. I suspect this will be a difficult adjustment for both of you."

Severus wanted to retort that he and Harry had settled their issues, but in the last few minutes they had encountered two that he had not previously considered.

"I doubt he would have been more comfortable without you here." Severus wondered if he should loosen the restrictions on visitors for times school wasn't in session. Harry had treated the place as his home, and wasn't that what he had wanted? Why had he immediately responded as if it were an intrusion?

Remus lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. "Still. Holidays present problems for even established families--"

"Holidays?" Severus stared at him. "I was more concerned about the matter of visitors."

"Ah." To his dismay, Remus appeared startled. "Well, they are similar conflicts, I expect. You will need to find a way to balance your need for sanctuary against his need to connect to others."

Severus raised a hand to his forehead. "Must you put everything in terms of grand symbolism?"

"Symbolism?" Remus queried incredulously. "Severus. You come here to hide from the world, including Dumbledore's seasonal decorations. Harry wants to be a part of that world -- to help his friends and to participate in its celebrations. That is not symbolism; that is a genuine conflict in what each of you most need from a home."

Severus stiffened. He wanted to assert that he did not need anything, but that would doubtless draw more drivel from the werewolf.

"And you, Lupin?" he asked.

Remus picked up his spoon. "It has been a very long time since I had a home," he said calmly.

Severus hated his blandness. He knew well how to be that non-committal; how dare Remus cast it as inoffensive.

"Did you not live with Black?" he accused. "For more than a year, if I recall."

Remus shrugged. "It was his home," he said. "I was a charity case."

"He loved you." The words burned his throat like acid, but Remus did not rush to help him, just hunched his shoulders.

"I was never sure," he said. "It wasn't--" Eyes closed, Remus turned away. "You don't know what he was like when you weren't his enemy."

This was a new way to hate Black. Severus felt unbalanced by it. After a moment's thought, he cleared his throat. "You were more than a friend, even in school," he said flatly. "I doubt Black would have been so desperate to drive me away from you if you did not mean a great deal to him."

For a long moment, Remus looked at him in silence. The clock in the sitting room chimed a warning for lesson time.

"Then why did you let him win?"

Severus couldn't think what to say. Remus stood. "I have to go," he said shortly. "There are a lot of stairs between here and the Defense classroom."

He was out of the room before Severus could find his voice.

**********

Draco stayed hidden for the next several days. Harry didn't so much as see him in the Great Hall. At their Friday potions lesson, however, each student was allowed to leave as soon as their finished potion was evaluated, and Professor Snape, perhaps deliberately, inspected Harry's before looking at Draco's. Harry waited for Draco to be dismissed, and they left the room together.

"So," Harry said.

"So," Draco replied. He shrugged. "I've written to Mother and told her I'm staying. I keep hoping that she'll relent and say to come home, but I'm trying not to expect it."

"If my father thinks she'll make up with you --"

Draco waved that off with suspicious alacrity. "Of course she will! Still, I don't want to stay here."

"You did our second year."

"But that was exciting! And Father asked me to keep him updated, so I was sacrificing my holiday for a reason. I felt important to him--" Draco looked away.

"It's not bad here," Harry objected. "You know it's not. The Great Hall is beautiful, and there's a wonderful Christmas dinner with turkey and chipolatas and gravy and everything, and we have brilliant crackers. "

Draco didn't meet his eyes.

"At home, we always have bouillabaisse," he said, "followed by port-glazed venison medallions, and potatoes au gratin, with the slices arranged in a golden spiral, and then a salad of curly greens with pheasant confit and figs...." Draco stopped speaking. Harry braced himself to reply.

"There's nothing wrong with--"

"Of course there isn't!" Draco interrupted. "It's a perfectly fine dinner, here. But it's not my Christmas dinner, don't you understand? It's someone else's."

"Ah." Harry nodded. "I don't have anything to compare to. I mean, nothing I cared about."

"Exactly," Draco said, nodding. They had come to the first floor, and he led Harry down a corridor towards a tall arched window. "I expressed it badly, I know, but that's what I meant the other day. It's not that you lack taste; it's that your experience is limited."

"I knew what you meant," Harry said. "Severus--"

"Severus?" Draco repeated incredulously, pulling himself up onto the broad seat in the window embrasure.

Harry felt himself blush. "That's what I was calling him at the time. Early on, he commented on my low expectations." He shrugged. "So tell me about Christmas at Malfoy Manor. Unless there's anything truly disgusting, like House Elf beheadings, or something."

Draco made a face. "We're not barbarians, Potter."

"Sirius's family did it," Harry answered. "So your mother's might have too. They mounted the heads in the stairway."

"That's revolting."

"So tell me about Christmas."

Draco's expression softened as he looked out at the grounds. A light snow was falling, and the sky was flat grey. "On Midwinter Day," he said, "we have a grand ball. That's the start of Yule, really. The big tree goes up that morning, and it's decorated all in white and gold, and some of the guests leave presents under it. Enchanted icicles hang from the balcony, and musicians play in the gallery. The house elves serve champagne and trays of treats, from truffled shavings of beef to petits fours, and everyone wears the most extravagant clothes, and we stay up until dawn.

"After that, everything is a whirl of sweets and lights and secrets. On Christmas Eve, we eat in the conservatory, so we can watch the snow falling past the candles in the trees outside --"

"Oh, come on! How often does it snow on Christmas Eve?"

Draco looked at him as if he were abnormally slow. "Always," he said, "at the manor. If it is not snowing naturally, my father uses a weather spell, at least for that side of the building."

Harry shook his head. "Okay. I suppose that's no worse than enchanted snow in the Great Hall."

"Worse?"

"More extravagant. No offense. Go on."

"My mother plays the harpsichord, and we sing, and we go to bed just after midnight. In the morning, we wear our best robes from last year, and I have a stocking full of exotic candies and little ornaments, and then we open presents. After that and before dinner, we Floo-call some of Father's relatives...." Draco stopped. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."

"All right," Harry acquiesced. In the distance, he could see people on the stairs. "How long do we have until Defense Against the Dark Arts?"

"Fifteen minutes, I think," Draco answered. "The second years probably haven't left yet." He looked outside at the pale sky. "Are you going to Hogsmeade tomorrow?"

"Of course," Harry said. "I'm supposed to have someone with me, though. Want to walk in with me?"

Draco looked curiously at him. "You're not walking in with Olivia?"

"I hadn't planned on it." Harry rolled his eyes. "I don't even know if she would."

"Have you broken off with her, then?" Draco asked. "Already?"

"No, but I probably should." Harry set his shoulders back. "I plan to, except I rather want to get her a Christmas present first."

Draco hrumphed. "That's an odd order of things."

"Well, I like her. I want to show I'd like to be friends, and I thought that might help."

"But she doesn't suit you as a girlfriend?"

"I don't suit her as a boyfriend, more like. She wants me to change my behavior to make her look good."

"Ah. And you have enough trouble controlling your behavior so no one gets killed."

Harry tensed. "More or less," he muttered.

"I didn't mean it as an offense. That is the issue, though. You are impetuous, by nature; the stakes must be quite high for you to consistently amend your conduct or rein in your tongue."

"Yeah, okay." Harry agreed, with a rueful smile. "Even if I want to, and in this case, I don't."

"What does she want?" Draco asked seriously. "I mean, is this 'wear nicer clothes' or 'don't walk with Hermione in Hogsmeade'?"

Laughing slightly, Harry looked down. "Don't be alone with you," he said.

For a moment, Draco was silent. Then he sniffed. "You're quite right. That's entirely unreasonable."

Glancing up, Harry smiled. "I thought you'd understand."

"Do you have a successor in mind?"

Harry shrugged. "Zoë, maybe. But not until next term."

"Wise. Olivia will be offended if she is immediately replaced."

 

Ron and Hermione were willing enough to meet with Harry at The Three Broomsticks and walk back with him from there. Harry couldn't tell if they would be going in together or not, and couldn't bring himself to ask. He knew Hermione had broken up with Lydia a few days earlier, because she had cried on his shoulder afterwards. Ron said that didn't make any sense, but Harry thought it might.

In the morning, he started off down the carriage road with Draco. The day was unseasonably mild, and they chatted as they walked. 

"Do you have much shopping to do, Harry?" Draco asked.

"A little. There's Olivia, as I explained, and I want to get my father a stocking -- I doubt he has one -- and some little things to put in it. I already have his real present, though, and one for Remus, and one for Hermione. I've left Ron till the last minute, though." He didn't mention that he didn't have what he wanted for Draco yet, either. "What about you?"

His shoulders sagging forward, Draco sighed. "I don't know. I'm not sure whom I'm to buy for."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked, confused.

"Well, Mother for example. I already have a present for her ... but she's threatening to cut me off. Do I send it to her anyway? Do I send her something pointed, like a framed photo of us together and a treatise on the importance of family? Do I pretend I don't care?

"And then there's my father. If I send him something, will he actually get it? What could I send that won't be confiscated or stolen? Is there any point in sending gifts to prison?"

Harry thought about that. "Hm. I see what you mean. I don't know what it's like; Sirius never wanted to talk about it."

"I visited once over the summer. They don't have any furniture, except a bed cut into the wall and a shallow trunk with no lid for an extra blanket, which mother already provided."

Harry made a face. "I'd go mad even without Dementors."

"Yes. Exactly."

"But he's written to you, so he must be allowed writing materials--"

"Under supervision, I believe."

"Ah. But Fudge gave Sirius his newspaper, so they must be allowed things to read."

"So, a book, you think?"

Harry nodded. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself to continue. This wasn't about Lucius, he told himself. It was about Draco. "And a photograph. It would be a rude present for your mother, but I expect your father would like to know you still care."

Draco nodded quietly. "But I can't visit if Mother won't take me, and I don't know that he'd ever receive it."

Harry sighed. "Look, give the present to me, okay? I'll send it to Tonks -- no, Kingsley Shacklebolt, because it won't be personal for him -- and ask him to make sure your father gets it."

Draco stopped walking. "You ... You hate my father. Why would you do that for him?"

"I wouldn't do that for him," Harry retorted snappishly. He met Draco's eyes. "But I'll do it for you."

 

On the main street in Hogsmeade, they walked slowly, looking at the window displays while they tried to decide where to go. Draco paused in front of a display of formal robes, looking up wistfully at one in a sedate paisley brocade.

"Want to go in?" Harry asked.

Draco frowned slightly. "I don't know." He sighed. "Mother.... She always bought new dress robes for Christmas -- for me and Father both -- and we would wear them for the first time on New Year's Eve, for whatever party we attended. I'm used to looking in December, not buying."

"Maybe she will anyway?" Harry tried.

"If she does, she'll just be guessing what I'd like. We haven't shopped together since August."

Harry opened his mouth to ask the obvious question, and then shut it again. Clearly, there was some language of hints that Draco and his mother shared. "Well, let's go in anyway," he said decisively. "I want to look at winter cloaks."

"Hm." Turning away from the window display, Draco ran his fingers lightly down the edge of Harry's cloak. "This one is a bit threadbare -- and short on you, as well."

Harry snorted. "Have you noticed that I've grown since last winter?"

"Just a tad," Draco said dryly, tilting his head significantly. Harry's eyes widened. At some point, he had apparently become taller than Draco. He wondered if that had happened during the weeks Draco hadn't been speaking to him, or if he just hadn't noticed it earlier. It wasn't as obvious when Draco wasn't standing so close.

Harry tried on a few cloaks, including a pinstriped one with convenient arm slits that Draco said was far too stodgy for him. His favorite was a burgundy wool cloak with black trim, but he demurred on buying it, claiming he couldn't really make up his mind. In reality, he was far more interested in watching what Draco looked at, and what his hands drifted over. The brocade robes from the window -- largely a rich, dark blue, but woven with black, light blue, and silver -- seemed to remain his favorite. They would, Harry decided, suit him.

Empty-handed, they went on to the shop where Harry had bought Olivia the scarf, and here, Harry asked Draco's advice.

"I want to get her something that's not too much of a girlfriend gift," he explained, "so definitely not a ring, but it shouldn't be cheap, because I want..." He paused, unsure how to explain.

"You want to convey that you value her," Draco said simply.

"Yes, exactly."

"I would say no jewelry at all, then," Draco said promptly. "You should get her some sort of tool -- she might like a drafting set with stabilization charms, since she enjoys Runes, or a knife shows trust, while being a traditional gift of separation. Wrap it sheathed, of course, to emphasize the former."

"Oh, there are some gorgeous knives next door."

Draco nodded. "Or you might consider something used for correspondence."

Harry considered this. "To say that I want to stay in touch?"

"Precisely."

"I'm sure she has plenty of quills, though. Even a nice one--"

"Look." Draco handed Harry a short, thick rod of carved wood. It was very light, and inlaid at both ends with something that shimmered. The design looked vaguely familiar, and after frowning at it for a moment, Harry decided that he had seen ones like it borne in with the morning post. After that, it took him only a few seconds to find where it twisted apart.

"Do you put notes in it?" he asked, holding the open ends of the two halves out to Draco. Draco rolled his eyes.

"The post rod? Perhaps, if it's especially wet or rainy. They're as often used to convey little gifts, or for a phial or two of potion. And, of course, they can be spelled shut, or sealed with wax."

"Couldn't someone just open it with a severing spell, though? Or a saw?"

"Of course, but they provide good protection against little children prying, or against housemates who wouldn't want their intrusion to show. It's not a war device, Harry -- just a specialized sort of envelope."

Blushing, Harry nodded. "Sorry. I take some things more seriously than I ought to, I suppose." He looked over the display of post rods. The designs ranged from simple encircling grooves to intricate inlays. After comparing several, he found one that was wrapped around with a greenish spiral of inlaid abalone that had a snake's head at one end and a mother-of-pearl rose at the other. "This one," he said, and at Draco's agreement, bought it.

After that, there was shopping for Severus, and for other people on his list, followed by light lunch where they had eaten with Minister Fudge. Draco, in a desire to avoid the press of students at the pub, had sent an owl that morning for a noon reservation. Harry was afraid that the place would be huffy about them having less than a full dinner, but they seemed honored to have his business, and he and Draco were not the only shoppers having a quick meal of soup and bread. It was just enough time to relax and rest their feet before braving the crowd at Honeydukes. There they chanced to encounter Ron and Hermione, and Draco said his goodbyes and departed quickly.

"Eager to dump you, isn't he?"

"Ron!" Hermione slapped Ron's arm, and got back an unrepentant grin in return. As they headed out into the cold, Harry shrugged.

"Maybe he hasn't bought my present yet," he said. "Speaking of which, I have a few places I still need to go...."

"Because you haven't bought his either?" Hermione asked pointedly.

"I wanted to see how he reacted to a few things." That sounded far more deliberate than it had been, but made Hermione's smile soften.

"How thoughtful of you," she exclaimed.

"Honestly, mate, will you stop behaving?" Ron scolded. "You're making life hard on the rest of us, you know."

Harry laughed.

"What?"

"I can't say it's something I'm accused of all that much."

"Snape!" came a shout. "Hey, Snape!"

Hermione's brows came together. Harry turned and looked.

"There," Zacharias Smith said loudly. "I told you he'd answer."

"Did you want something?" Harry called back. Zacharias was on the other side of the street, which meant everyone short of the pub could hear them. Unfortunately, most of them seemed to be paying attention.

"Just showing Ernie, here, that you'd answer."

Harry felt a flush of anger. Why did Zacharias always need to stir up trouble? For that matter, why should it be trouble? "Well, you obviously weren't talking to my father," he retorted. "You'd be in detention for the rest of the year."

There was some scattered laughter at that, and Harry turned back to his friends. "Let's go," he said.

 

Despite the incident, they had a pleasant afternoon. In the early dark, they ducked into the Three Broomsticks to warm up before the hike to the castle. There, they met up with Dean and Ginny, who had had the same idea, and the five of them walked back together. Harry listened to Ron and Ginny talk about Christmas at the Burrow and wished he knew what his own would be like.

 

Chapter Text

 

When the Hogwarts Express pulled out of the platform, Harry felt very alone. The four other Gryffindors who were staying were all third-years, and friends with each other, and laughed and jostled one another as they started back to the castle. At the steps, one of them paused.

"You coming, Potter?" he called uncertainly.

Harry shook his head. "I'll be staying with my dad," he said. "The tower's all yours."

The boy's eyes widened. "Oh," he said. "Well, er, thanks."

As they moved towards the road, he heard them laughing nervously and trading low comments. Sighing, Harry started his own walk -- not on the road up to the castle, but on a narrow footpath that curved around closer to the forest and Hagrid's hut. This would be a good time to gather greens.

 

By the time Harry entered the castle, a collection of holly and pine branches floating behind him, he felt quite cheery. He'd stopped to see Hagrid, and in lieu of inedible biscuits had been given a small drink of cream and honey and whisky, the former two making the latter tolerable. Snow speckled his hair and his bounty of greens, and for the first time in his memory, he didn't have glasses to fog when he came inside, so he could see how the melting flakes glittered by candlelight.

"Well, don't you look festive!" called a cheery voice, and Harry looked up to see Remus Lupin standing by the stairs. "Does Hagrid have you assisting?"

Harry gestured back at the greens as he joined him. "I'm bringing these down to the dungeons. Father said I could."

"Ah." Remus's smile twisted. "Good luck with that. I'd offer a hand, but...."

Harry looked back at the holly. "I think it's better if I do it."

"Probably. And I am not welcome there, as I recall."

Harry, surprised by the comment, shrugged. "You seemed welcome enough last week, and we're not hiding life-or-death secrets from you anymore. I still wouldn't leave you alone--" He stopped, and sighed. "Except I promised that I'd bring any guests straight to my room, didn't I?"

"I assumed he meant--" Remus stopped. "Yes," he agreed. "I may not even qualify for that."

Harry sighed. "I should find out."

"It's not urgent." Remus stepped back. "Will you come for tea, tomorrow?"

Harry blinked. "At our usual time? Why wouldn't I? Unless, I mean, you'd rather do something else."

"No, I'd love to see you. Since your schedule has changed, however, I thought I should confirm."

"Well, it's not like I'm more busy without lessons!" The fir branches tilted, and Harry renewed the floating charm. "So, yeah, I'll see you then." He grinned. "And tonight at dinner, I expect!"

"Yes, of course. Enjoy decorating!"

 

For what felt like the hundredth time, Harry stepped back from the mantel and surveyed the greens. This time, at last, there was nothing that he felt needed to be turned, or pulled out an inch, or angled forward. They were perfect. The red holly berries added a balanced, but not too regular, touch of red. He began adding the little straw stars that he had found in Hogsmeade. They seemed like something Severus would like more than glittery ones.

 

He had just finished coaxing more holly into a sturdy ring about the base of the lamp when the door opened behind him. He looked back to see Severus watching, his face tightly neutral.

"What do you think?" Harry asked, trying not to sound anxious. Severus stepped forward, and Harry moved back to let him study the greens that spilled down above the fireplace -- from this angle, he could see that they were a little thicker in the middle on the left than elsewhere -- and the red, green, and white candles that Harry had moved into the place of the usual uncolored beeswax ones on the side table. Harry had carefully avoided any gold.

"Red?"

"It's traditional. And it sets off the green best."

His father's mouth twitched. "Yes, it does." After a deep breath in, he nodded. "It is tolerable -- the ensemble, that is. I have no objection." He looked over at the remaining fir branches. "Will there be more?"

"No, that's mostly for my room."

"I see."

"Because Draco will visit, I hope. I mean, I wouldn't bother with my bedroom otherwise."

 

"Hello, Harry!" Remus said brightly, ushering Harry into his room. A small table was set for tea, with two cups and a plate of biscuits. "How did the decorating go?"

Harry shrugged and took the seat Remus indicated. From both, he noticed, one could see the door and the window. "All right, I suppose. It looks pretty."

"Mm. And yet you don't sound pleased. How is your father reacting?"

"Oh, he's tolerating it," Harry said gloomily.

"Tolerating?"

"Well, he says he doesn't mind, but sometimes I see him staring at the mantel and looking sort of-- I don't know. Put out? I think he considers it an invasion. It's like I rearranged his workroom."

"Oh, surely not that bad!"

With a smile, Harry acknowledged the truth of that. "All right. But not good." He sighed. "And I haven't had Draco over, yet, but I know it won't be half fancy enough for him."

"Ah." Remus poured the tea and frowned slightly as he considered this. "But he has the rest of the school to please him."

Harry shook his head. "It's not like home, though. I think he finds it all slightly vulgar. And I expect Slytherin isn't decorated at all."

"Hm. That's possible."

"And he's talked about Christmas dinner with his family, and all the things he usually has, and I bet I could get Dobby to make them, but--" Harry stopped and had to swallow. He could get Dobby to make them! "Do you think Dumbledore would let me do that?"

"Change the menu for Christmas dinner, or have a private dinner with Draco?"

"Oh! I hadn't thought of a private dinner!"

Remus shook his head. "No. He might, possibly, after appeals from both of you, allow you and your father to have a private dinner, but not you and Draco Malfoy."

"With my father?"

"No. It is not family once you add him to the mix."

Harry sat back with a huff. "And even if we could, then I'm back to the problem of Severus wanting things simple, and Draco wanting them elaborate."

"What about a second dinner late in the evening?" Remus winced. "On second thought, no. You'll all still be waddling from the first one."

Harry, after vainly trying to imagine Severus waddling, burst out laughing. "And you?" he asked.

"Christmas Eve is the full moon," Remus said wryly. "I'll just be waking up to totter into bed."

Harry winced. That was a horrible way to spend Christmas. "Oh!" he exclaimed, straightening in his chair.

"What?"

"Let's have dinner on Boxing Day. You, me, Draco, and Dad. Dumbledore shouldn't mind that, and I can have Dobby make Malfoy things--"

"Your father might have things he would like as well." Remus hesitated. "I would like mushroom soup, to be honest. Peppery mushroom soup with sour cream."

"All right. A menu of our favorites. And I'll tell Dad he can put up with one afternoon of fussy decorations."

Remus cocked his head. "Or perhaps you could take Draco off someplace fancier after the meal. Tell him gifts are delayed until evening."

"You just want to get my dad alone."

Remus rolled his eyes. "No, Harry. Getting him alone is simple -- I do so frequently. I want to get your dad fed and tipsy until his paranoia wanes, and then get him alone."

Harry laughed. "Well, the best of luck on that!"

"Nothing is likely to come of it."

"Still. You have my blessing, you know."

"I do?" Remus looked unaccountably wary.

"Of course."

"I ... I hadn't known." Remus opened his mouth, as if to say something more, but then shut it again.

Harry didn't know what to say. He looked out the window. A light snow was falling.

"I wonder if I could get the Room of Requirement to turn into something fancy for Draco's Christmas? Of course, then there'd be no way to have his presents waiting."

"Mm. A pity."

Remus poured more tea, his eyes focused elsewhere. Harry added sugar and let him think. Finally, he looked up, his eyes glinting with mischief. "The castle has a plethora of unused rooms. Perhaps we could claim two for the holidays -- one for the dinner, to be decorated sedately, and one for Draco, to be slathered in crystal and gilt. If you asked politely, I expect that the headmaster would allow that."

"It would be difficult to decorate the way Draco would like."

"I'll help you with the transfiguration, and I expect Hagrid would be delighted to provide an extra tree." Remus smiled. "I'm sure we can create a model of elegant excess."

"Oh, brilliant! I think this could work!" Harry bounced in his seat. "Would you do some shopping for me? Oh--" His enthusiasm ebbed. "It's probably not safe for you now."

"Not entirely, but I do plan to do more shopping regardless. Professor McGonagall has agreed to accompany me."

"Well, good."

"What would you like?"

"Um, bubble soap? Apparently there's a magical sort with pictures."

Remus laughed. "Yes. Do you want seasonal ones?"

"If you can find some Draco might like."

"Oh -- for Draco?" Remus traced the rim of his teacup. "Very well. I can see that. Comforting?"

"Exactly." Harry hesitated. "My bubbles reminded him...."

"Ah. Yes, I would be happy to get him something that is not mood-altering."

Harry grinned. "Well, if he wanted mine, I'd just make him some." Which, he thought, might not be a bad idea. He could give him a little of both sorts. Maybe Dean would like some too. If he had thought of it earlier, he could have put some in Olivia's post rod -- although, on second thought, he wasn't sure she knew about the bubble soap.

"Decide by tonight if you want anything else," Remus said. "Now, what about timing?"

Harry thought quickly. "We have four days, right?"

"And any help from me will need to be tomorrow."

"Ouch. We should start now, then!"

"Well, finish your tea, and then we'll talk to Professor Dumbledore."

"Maybe I should ask Severus first."

"It wouldn't hurt to secure the rooms beforehand. You can ask your father when you fetch him for dinner, which the headmaster will have you do, no doubt."

"Okay. And then we can talk to Hagrid after dinner."

"Exactly."

"Except I'll need to nab Draco while he's accessible. He's been sulking in Slytherin, and I can't get in there."

"I'll make the request of Hagrid, then, while you catch Draco. A large tree, I expect?"

"If we can, although I'll have to see the room."

Remus waved that off. "I can manage short term wizardspace, if Professor Dumbledore tells the castle to cooperate."

Harry thought about how he might advance this to Draco. Draco might feel slighted by being pushed to Boxing Day, but surely he would understand Dumbledore's insistence on dinner attendance, and that Christmas morning was for his father.

"What if I spent the morning with Draco?" he mused aloud.

"Excuse me?"

"The morning. I think that would work better. And then we could meet the two of you for dinner, and afterwards...." Harry belatedly remembered Lupin's comment about getting his father alone, which perhaps wasn't entirely in jest. "Well, I'll take him off flying, if the weather's good, or something. It will work out."

"I think that sounds fine," Remus assured him. "Yes. More natural, really, than presents after dinner."

"Exactly."

 

"You want to what?" Severus drew himself up indignantly. Harry tried not to tense.

"I want to have dinner on Boxing Day with you and Remus and Draco."

His father's lip curled with scorn. "I no longer object to Remus, but I hardly feel inclined to invite him over for holidays."

"And I didn't ask you to," Harry shot back. "It's my dinner. I am inviting the three of you, is that clear?"

Severus leaned forward intimidatingly. "Your dinner in my rooms?"

"No," Harry said, meeting his glare with one as fierce. "My dinner in a room that the headmaster is graciously allowing me to use for that purpose."

"Ah." Severus sat back, his momentary surprise vanishing into cool politeness. "I would be delighted to attend, of course."

"Thank you." Harry took a long breath. "Is there anything in particular that you would like on the menu?"

Severus scowled. "You have asked enough," he said, and Harry covered how that hurt with a shrug.

"Whatever," he said, and pushed up from the sofa. "I'll see you at dinner -- I'm going to find Draco." He wouldn't, he knew. Draco would emerge from Slytherin as late as possible, as he had every day since lessons ended.

 

After dinner, Harry followed Remus up to the room Dumbledore had found for them, which turned out to be on the first floor. His father had looked sour when he said he would be spending the evening working on a project with Remus, but he had not objected.

"How did it go with Draco?" Remus asked, as he opened the door to their destination. It was a mid-sized classroom, empty except for rows of desks with attached chairs.

Harry shrugged. "He agreed graciously. So graciously that I think he doesn't care, really. It's another thing to endure."

Remus laughed. "I know the sort of response you mean. I knew Mrs. Potter had finally started to like me when her manners stopped being exemplary." He looked around. "We should get rid of the desks first, I think."

"Isn't this too big?"

"The headmaster is going to stop by later and divide it into two rooms. You don't need your own entrance, do you?"

Harry thought about that. "No," he said finally. "Coming in through the dining room would be fine."

"Very good. Call your house elf, then."

Harry snorted. "He's not my house elf, you know."

Remus waved that off. "Your favorite house elf, then. See how the meaning of 'your' changes?"

Harry grinned. "Yeah. Much better." He cleared his throat. "Dobby!"

With a sharp crack, the elf appeared in front of them.

"Harry Potter, sir!" he said delightedly, his ears quivering with joy. "Dobby is glad to be called, after so long. What does Harry Potter wish from Dobby?"

"Hi, Dobby," Harry said cheerfully. "I'd like to have a dinner party here. Could you move the furniture somewhere else? Someplace in the castle where it won't be in the way, but will be okay for a week or two."

"Yes, of course, Harry Potter, sir!" Dobby answered. "Dobby is happy to be helping in any way!" Moving his head from side to side, and then turning, he appraised the room. "Dobby thinks Harry Potter will be wanting the room cleaned as well?"

"Exactly," Harry said, relieved.

With a bow, Dobby reached out to touch two of the desks, and then vanished, taking the desks with him. Harry shook his head.

"It amazes me that they can do that," he said.

"Yes. Amazing creat--" Remus stopped himself. "Beings," he corrected, with an abashed smile.

"Right."

Dobby re-appeared with three other house-elves to help him, and within minutes, the desks and chairs were gone, and the floor and windows gleamed. His helpers vanished, and Dobby stepped forward.

"What is Dobby to be doing next, Harry Potter?"

Harry looked around at the spotless room. "Well, we'll need a carpet and table and chairs," he said, "but that should probably wait until Professor Dumbledore divides the room. There's something else I'll want later, though." Despite feeling awkward, he smiled at the way Dobby's ears pricked up. "Um, the dinner is a special Christmas dinner, but on Boxing Day, because it's private. We'll want some special dishes."

Dobby clasped his hands. "Kitchen elves is being honored to cook special foods!" he exclaimed.

"That's what I'd hoped," Harry said. "But, um, one of the guests will be Draco Malfoy. Do you remember how Christmas dinner for the Malfoys was cooked? I'd like a few dishes from that."

Dobby's huge eyes bulged a little more, and his ears sank. "Harry Potter should not be eating dinner with Malfoys, sir! They is dangerous, bad, bad wizards!"

Harry sighed. "Dobby, you know Draco's father is in prison, right? He got caught when Voldemort sent him to attack me last year."

Dobby's ears flattened back, but he nodded.

"Well, Draco decided that he didn't want to join Voldemort. And he helped me rescue my father from him." Harry watched one ear come up, and decided that Dobby was considering this. "We've become friends, really, and he seems to be trying to be nicer to people. But his mother told him that he can't come home unless he agrees to serve Voldemort."

Dobby frowned. "Mistress Malfoy is never wanting her child away."

"That's sort of what my dad said -- that she was either bluffing or warning him off. But anyway, he has to stay here, and he's unhappy about it, and it seems rough for him to be unhappy because he's started to do the right thing. I'd like to make it more pleasant for him."

Dobby sighed, but nodded. "Dobby will help the kitchen elves with Malfoy dishes," he agreed. "Dobby will not even give them wrong directions."

Harry grinned. "Thanks, Dobby," he said. "I know the Malfoys were awful to you, and I appreciate that."

 

Dumbledore came by a little later and divided the room into two. The inner room looked too small and dark at first, but he raised the walls by at least a meter and then brought the ceiling up to a higher center in a curving vault, and then charmed walls and ceiling -- except for the blond wood ribs of the vault -- to a smooth white. By the time the old wizard left, after adding a grate and setting a cheery fire burning, Harry was beginning to be able to picture the room as a place for Draco.

"What first?" Remus asked. "I think the fireplace should look a little fancier, don't you?" At Harry's nod, he changed the stone and wood to white marble shot with grey and blue.

"Excellent!" Harry said. "Um, could we add a window? I mean, I know this is an interior room, but something that looks like a window?"

Remus cocked his head to the side. "I'm afraid I don't have the skill and power needed to connect it to a real view; for that, you would need Professor Dumbledore back."

"What about a sort of a ... I don't know, look? A vague impression that it's snowing?

Remus smiled and tapped his wand against the wall, then gestured up in a high arch. A beautiful tall window with an arched top appeared beyond the stroke. Behind the glass, the space was blizzard grey, with white dots falling in the front.

Harry tried not to frown. "That's really impressive but--"

"Not impressive enough?"

"Sorry." Harry studied it. "Maybe if you frosted the glass a little?"

That helped. So did adding a diffuse blue light from above, and a gold one from the side. It still didn't look like real snow falling in a real garden if you focused directly on it, but in the background, it gave the feeling of snow, which was as much as Harry had hoped for, and more than he had expected.

"Is it time for a carpet and furniture?" Remus asked.

Harry nodded. "Well, a carpet anyway. It's more Christmassy to sit on the floor, isn't it?"

"For a Malfoy?"

Harry made a face. "Draco will sit on the floor if it's just me. Easier to get to the tree, that way. He likes presents; I can tell."

"And are you indulging him in that?"

Harry could sympathize with the disapproval in Remus's tone, but he still felt slightly insulted.

"Not too much," he said. "I mean, I expect he'd get dozens of presents at home, but I won't do that -- it would remind me too much of Dudley." He pushed a lock of hair back behind one ear. "I did buy him two, though," he admitted, "and except for my father, everyone else gets just one. But one is a present that his mother usually gets him, and it will still be less than he's used to."

"He's told you about family presents?"

"While we were shopping."

"Ah. I suppose that makes sense."

"He said she always gets him formal robes for the next year." To Harry's relief, Remus had relaxed. "The other one is a potions book." He didn't mention that he would be including some bubble soap with that; Remus was still a professor.

 

They met again the next morning, after breakfast. Hagrid had brought in a magnificent tree and few branches of greens, and they had Dobby bring a low table that could be reached from the floor, and two small wingback chairs which they set out of the way in a corner, placing them to provide a view of the tree and the fire. Other than the low cherry wood table, light chair legs, and the gilded wood curls at the front of the arms of the chairs, everything was white.

"This looks really good," Harry said. "Tree next? It should be decorated all in white and gold."

Remus chuckled. "Are you sure he wouldn't rather have black and silver?"

"He said," Harry replied with mock haughtiness, "that for Christmas, the manor is decorated all in white and gold." He grinned at Remus. "Though I don't think I'd have believed him a year ago."

"It does sound inappropriately pure," Remus agreed, plucking a needle from the greens and transfiguring it into a crystal icicle. "How's this?"

"Perfect! Let's do lots. Show me?"

 

 

"I'm glad you're here," Harry said later. The tree glittered almost everywhere, by now. "Thanks for helping."

"I'm rather enjoying it," Remus confessed. He hesitated. "I think you must be as well." He looked away from Harry, as if searching for a place to hang the next icicle. "Unless you're rather closer to Draco than you admit."

Harry bristled. "I'm very close to him," he retorted. "I'm very close to Ron too, and to Hermione -- probably closer than when she was my girlfriend. I don't understand why people undervalue friendship so much."

Remus smiled in an odd sort of way. "You've never done anything like this for Ron or Hermione, though."

"I didn't need to. They could go home if they wanted to."

"But they stayed for you."

"Right. So something here was worth it to them."

"Ah."

"I don't want him to regret it."

"As you told Dobby."

"Did you think I'd lie to him?"

With a sigh, Remus looked away. "Sometimes I don't know what to think of you."

Harry hung the gold ball he had been moving back in its original spot. "What do you mean?"

Remus still didn't look at him. "You always seem happy to see me," he said, his voice tight, "but...."

"But what?" Harry demanded.

"I heard the password for your rooms," Remus confessed. "That day when Severus brought me down to talk, and we had lunch...."

"Oh." Harry heated. He hoped that hadn't made things too awkward between Remus and Severus. "That was mine, actually."

"Yes." Remus met his eyes. "So your father said."

"What?" Harry twitched back. "Is he trying to cause-- Look, that was ages ago!"

"Ages?"

"Before you knew he was my father. And he was in the hospital wing, and I was frantically worried, and you bulled your way into his rooms and tried to stay...."

"That!" Remus let out a quick breath. "Oh. And then you kept it...?"

"Well, you know how passwords are," Harry said. "They stop meaning anything."

"Hm. Yes, I remember Alice Longbottom saying 'higgledy-piggledy' with perfect dignity." Remus smiled slightly. "And I expect it was a matter of some pride to him that you cared enough to be angry."

"He should have told you--"

"We heard you and Draco. The conversation was cut short."

Harry thought about that for a moment, and then nodded. He took a deep breath. "Even then," he said, "you mattered. It was driving me round the twist when he said not to talk to you, and then you said not to be alone with you. You're always welcome in our rooms."

"Always?" Remus challenged, but with a smile.

"Okay. As long as it doesn't upset him."

"Thank you."

"Have you been worrying about that all week?"

"Off and on." Remus picked up a bough from the heap by the door. "Mantel next?"

 

Chapter Text

 

On Christmas Eve, Harry hung a stocking by the fire at home, but he didn't make a fuss over it, and as he had expected, it was the only one. In the privacy of his room, he prepared the one he had bought in Hogsmeade, adding two licorice snakes, a small tin of jasmine tea, an ebony post rod set with birch, and -- on the top -- a safely under-ripe persimmon. During the night, he crept out of his room and hung it from the mantel, while steadfastly ignoring the odd bulges in his own.

Harry lay in bed, afraid that he would never get to sleep between worrying if he had done too much or too little, but he must have, because when next he opened his eyes, the muted light of a winter morning had filled his room.

He got up, dressed, and went outside. Severus wasn't in the kitchen, so he went through to the bathroom. Coming out of there, he saw Severus sitting in his armchair, reading the paper, and had to wonder if he had been there all along.

"Happy Christmas!" he said hopefully.

"Happy Christmas, Harry," Severus answered. He still didn't look quite comfortable with the idea. Harry held out a hand to him.

"Get up! Let's do stockings."

"Before breakfast?"

"Of course!"

Severus raised his eyebrows. "Greedy," he said haughtily.

"I am not!" Harry crossed his arms over his chest. "I just know the proper order of things. Stockings first, then breakfast."

Severus sighed and put down the Daily Prophet. "And I am expected to watch, I suppose?" he asked, rising.

"No. You're expected to look at your stocking."

"Harry, I don't have a--" Severus stopped, staring, as he apparently noticed the second stocking for the first time.

"Of course you do; don't be silly," Harry said, in the most matter-of-fact manner he could manage, turning to the mantel to hide his grin. "Why wouldn't you?" He took his own bright stocking down and, sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, set it on his lap. Severus was still staring at the unexpected stocking as if it might bite. Slowly, he stepped forward, reached out a hand, and touched the green velvet.

"For me?"

Harry grinned and then rolled his eyes. "Well, it's not like I'd get two," he said. "Come on."

With a strange strained expression on his face, Severus joined him on the floor. His knees seemed to come up farther than they should. While Harry overturned his stocking and dumped it onto the floor, Severus reached carefully into his. Harry looked up from a pile of peppermint sticks and chocolate frogs (and one mysterious, green, walnut-sized orb on a silk cord) to find Severus holding the persimmon and eyeing it suspiciously.

"I think fruit is traditional," Harry said. Severus gave him an odd look and reached into the stocking again, this time pulling out the tin of tea. He opened it and sniffed.

"Jasmine."

"It seemed like something you might like." Harry shrugged. "If not, you can give it to someone else."

"No, I do like it, upon occasion." Severus cleared his throat. "Your mother liked it very much."

"Oh."

"It is ... appropriate," Severus said and reached into the stocking again. He pulled out the wrapped post rod, but one of the licorice snakes caught around his wrist. "Licorice?"

"It was the only sweet I could really imagine you liking. Well, that or maybe something spicy, like ginger chews, but licorice at least tastes rather like absinthe smells."

Severus snorted. "An interesting way to choose."

Embarrassed, Harry pointed suspiciously at the green orb. It practically vibrated with magical energy. "Do I need my wand for this?"

"No. That's part of the point. Open it."

Harry examined the orb. It didn't have any visible seams or joints. A number of things opened at a tap of a wand, but his father had said this didn't need one. Experimentally, he held it from two sides and pulled, and it popped open like a locket.

Inside, it looked like a compass, but the glowing needle didn't seem to be tracking anything. It wobbled and spun as Harry twisted the bottom. He peered at the markings. "Home?"

"Take it out in the corridor and try it."

Harry raced outside. The stone floor was cold under his stocking feet, but to his delight, the needle pointed straight at the door to Severus's and his rooms. "It works!" he proclaimed, coming back in. "Thank you."

His father smirked. "I have no doubt, considering your propensity for trouble, that you will have use for it," he said.

 

**********

 

In retrospect, Severus didn't know why he had expected Harry to have mounds of presents. There were enough to last a while, certainly, but only because he opened each with the slow care of someone who treasured a gift. Over half were from Weasleys, and the one from his housemate Thomas was homemade, so the overall value of the lot was low -- not at all what he had expected. Severus found himself wishing he had given into his first impulse and wrapped the books he had given Harry by pairs, rather than all together. Harry would have enjoyed unwrapping them, and he would not have had to explain as much -- these two were my favorite stories when I was an infant, and these two were my favorites when I started school at Hogwarts, and these were my favorites when I was your age.

It was at least not his only present for Harry, although the second hardly counted, as it was something Harry needed. Considering his response to Molly Weasley's jumper, however, that was unlikely to be a problem.

In fact, Harry gave a little wordless exclamation of delight when he opened the box.

"That cloak!" he said, pulling it out and letting the thick wool fold over his hands. "Did you just guess, or did Draco tell you?"

Severus smirked. "I asked Miss Granger if she knew what you would like for a winter cloak, and when she told me you had been clothes-shopping with Draco, I did, indeed, ask him."

"Hm. Well, I know what he's not getting me, then."

Severus stiffened. Harry had left his second present for last, which he had thought intentional. Perhaps he had mistaken some of the wrapping for more? "You do not appear to have anything from young Malfoy," he pointed out.

"Well, not here! We've agreed to exchange gifts tomorrow, remember?"

"Before the dinner? I had known you were meeting, but I don't believe you mentioned presents."

"Oh, maybe not. I did to him." Harry sighed. "At least it will force him to emerge from Slytherin."

"He is unhappy."

"Yes, but staying in his dormitory won't make him any happier! It's not like Greg stayed, even."

**********

The next morning, Draco met Harry two hours after breakfast, as he had promised, and Harry led him upstairs to the rooms he and Remus had decorated. Draco looked politely pleased as they entered the first room.

"Very nice."

Harry looked round at the dark wood paneling and sedate swags of holly and juniper. "It's a bit quiet for my tastes," he admitted, "but I want my father to feel comfortable. Come on."

"There's another room?" Draco asked, as Harry led him across to the inner door.

His hand on the latch, Harry smiled back over his shoulder. "Right. Close your eyes for a moment."

Sighing, Draco complied. "I hope you appreciate the exceptional trust that I am demonstrating," he said.

"Deeply." Grinning, Harry opened the door, and then cast an incantation to activate the window, and another to light the fire. "All set. You can look now."

Draco opened his eyes. An expression of surprise flickered across his face and was gone. "It's lovely, Harry."

"Good," Harry shut the door behind them and put up mild privacy wards. "Because this one's for you, not Dad. Remus helped. Oh, and Dobby."

Draco shot him an incredulous look, but didn't comment on Harry mentioning the assistance of a house elf. Instead, he went over to the tree, and reached out to touch an icicle, letting his fingers run down the crystal length. "Beautiful." His gaze fell down to the two presents under the tree, and with a sigh, he sank to the white carpet, pulled a few small objects from his pocket, and tapped them with his wand. They expanded to three presents wrapped in red and green, which Draco placed under the tree.

"There," he said. He looked at Harry. "This feels odd. There should be more. Not, I mean--" He stopped, his face turning pink, and Harry shrugged and sat down near him.

"Let's not worry about them, then. Cocoa should be arriving soon."

As if on cue, a tray appeared on the low table. Harry went up to his knees to pour hot cocoa into the mugs and top them with whipped cream from a bowl. He handed one to Draco, and sat back again. "Happy Christmas, Draco."

"You said that yesterday," Draco countered, but mildly. He looked again at the tree and the presents, and then set his mug down to lean forward on one hand and reach for something that was poking out of the loose cotton snow under the tree. "What's-- Oh!" Pulling out a chocolate frog, he looked back at Harry. "Sweets?"

"With just the two of us, presents won't take long," Harry explained, "so I hid some little things."

With a predatory grin, Draco dove in to rummage through the soft fluff.

"Hey!" objected Harry, joining him. They scrabbled through it, snagging sweets and trinkets.

"Bubble soap!" Draco exclaimed, sitting back. Harry immediately stopped his search as well. "Is it your potion?"

"No," Harry said. "It has pictures, like you said. Show me? I haven't tried it yet."

"Oh!" Draco exclaimed, obviously charmed, and immediately turned pink. "I haven't seen this in years. I hope it isn't too terribly childish."

Harry watched as Draco, biting his lip from inside, opened the top and drew out the enclosed wand. He wondered if wizards had another name for those. Draco's eyes closed for a moment, like a child making a wish, but he opened them to blow the bubble, getting it to about the size of a snitch. Inside, candles twinkled on a green wreath.

"That's brilliant!" Harry exclaimed, laughing despite himself. Draco had given in to childish delight, and beamed at his second bubble, in which a ribbon-festooned reindeer pranced and leaped. "Let me try!"

Harry's first bubble held a giant snowflake that morphed like a kaleidoscope image through elaborate six-sided shapes, and his second an old-fashioned and solemnly benevolent Father Christmas dressed in blue and green, who raised his hand in saintly blessing. He blew a third one, full of colorful wrapped presents, before Draco demanded the wand back. Harry handed it over and dove back into the snow under the tree.

"There are more," he said. "One's just winter, and one is birds, I think."

"Do you have knights and dragons?" Draco asked eagerly.

Harry thought for a moment. He had given Remus far more money than necessary, and Remus, possibly to make a point, or maybe just to make up for Harry having missed out on a wizarding upbringing, had brought back a large assortment of the soap phials rather than returning with change. He thought he could remember a Saint George sort of figure on one. "Maybe," he said. "Let's look."

They tore through the fluff, ignoring anything that wasn't bubble soap, and eventually had eight of them lined up on the table: Yule I, Yule II, Winter Joys, Beautiful Birds, Wildlife of Great Britain, Orchids, and two Knights and Dragons. The last title, Harry noticed, had "Game Quality!" in bold red letters on the label.

"Game quality?" he asked.

"Right! That's what makes this one exciting. Here." Draco held out one of the phials to Harry. "Take one."

Bemused, Harry took the phial. Slowly, he opened it. With questioning glances at Draco, he blew a bubble. Inside it, a Hungarian Horntail roared and lashed its tail. "Great dragon," he said, "but--"

Draco lifted the other phial, as if that were sufficient answer. "Watch," he said, and, moving back a little, he blew a bubble of his own. It floated out, filled with a swirling red ribbon of Chinese Fireball, and Draco used his breath to direct it towards Harry's bubble. When the two met, rather than popping, they joined, and the two dragons entered instantly into battle. After a few seconds, the Horntail's greater bulk overcame the Fireball's agility, and the Fireball went limp. Red flowed into the Horntail's mouth, and then the Horntail grew to almost twice its original size and roared in triumph.

"Your round!" Draco said cheerfully. "Let's go again."

They played for a long time. Knights versus knights and knights versus dragons were similar to dragons versus dragons, except that when knights won, they got more impressive armor and longer swords rather than growing bigger. When Draco called a halt, their cocoa was cold and they had to warm it with charms. Harry overheated his. He sipped on it cautiously, watching Draco's delight fade as he gazed at the tree.

"That was fun," Harry said cautiously. "You must have loved those as a kid."

With a wry smile, Draco looked away. "Yes," he said. "If you're quick, you can play with them by yourself. Though when I was very little, Mother would play too." He swallowed. Harry set down his hot chocolate.

"Are you going to open your presents or not?" he teased. He selected the box with the robes, which was large and flat, and held it out to Draco. He wasn't still sure it had been a good idea, but if it was going to depress Draco more, he should get it out of the way.

"I've been saving them," Draco admitted, but he was already reaching for the present. He smiled for a moment at the mingled gold and silver ribbon before sliding it over one corner and starting in on the paper.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, when he took the lid off. "Those robes! Thank you, Harry!" Jumping up, he held the robes in front of him. "It doesn't look like they'll even need fitting charms!"

Harry laughed. "Remember the duels last day of Defense, and how I lost one with a dud spell?"

"Yes?" Draco prompted.

"I was actually getting your measurements to send back to the shop. They sent them up to the castle after they were sized."

Draco stared, his mouth open. "But--" he managed.

"What? They said they do it for lots of customers."

"But everyone in the lesson saw you lose!"

Harry shrugged. "I said it was an experiment. Besides, I'm not going to win all the time."

"But that's -- for me?" Draco was clearly more impressed by Harry's sacrifice of status than by the expensive gift. "That's-- Thank you."

His face pink, he turned away, ostensibly to extract a present from under the tree. "Here," he said, handing the shimmering green and gold box to Harry. "This is the real one. Of the other two, one is frivolous, and the other is almost a joke. Would you like this first or last?"

Harry studied the box. It was a cube, less than a foot to the side. "The real one, I think," he said. "I'm not used to getting more than one present from anyone. It was odd enough from my father."

"But you have two for me. Not to mention the...." Draco set down the bow and waved his hand at the bubbles and the space under the tree.

"But I'm sure you usually get more," Harry answered. "I'm making up for more than one person." To his dismay, Draco almost cringed. Nervously, Harry ran a hand through his hair. He should cut it soon, he thought absently. "Draco ... I wish I could give you time with your family and a grand party, but I can't."

Draco looked wistfully at the window with its false snow. "You're managing quite a lot of things. I didn't think I'd ever say it wasn't the same, alone."

"I'm here," Harry said plaintively. "You're not alone."

"You don't understand--" Draco broke off the sentence and looked back. Harry smiled wryly at him. Draco turned pink.

"I think I do," Harry said mildly. "Not all of it, but a lot." He picked up the box that Draco had set down and turned it over in his hands. "What you don't understand is that when you don't have family, you need to make one. Why do you think my dad is so tolerant of Ron and Hermione? He understands that they were my family -- are still family."

"And do you think you're 'family', Harry?" Draco said scornfully.

"I could be," Harry answered, undissuaded. "If you want."

For just a moment, Draco looked utterly flummoxed. His bewilderment vanished quickly behind a light sneer. "Must I consider Hermione's relationship with Weasley to be incestuous, then?"

"Don't be a prat!"

"What? If they are family to you, they must be to each other."

"Chosen family, Draco. You know it's not the same. After all, when people marry, that's a kind of chosen family too, right?"

"Ah." Draco was looking more comfortable now. "That isn't so bad, then."

Belatedly, Harry wondered about his example. Did Draco want not to be considered a brother? Or was he afraid of being considered a brother to a Weasley? Or was it really that he didn't understand? Harry shrugged the thought away. "So," he said, "what's in this?" Calling up his curiosity, he began to hunt for the seam.

"Open it and see," Draco said teasingly.

Opening the present didn't help. What Harry saw looked like a large crystal ball with a pentagonal brass base. He rotated it back and forth, looking at it for some clue as to its function.

"Um, you know I'm pants at Divination, right?" he tried finally. Draco snorted.

"Yes, but this is to help you with another subject. Look at the bottom of the base."

Holding one hand over the ball, Harry started to invert the object. It turned out his caution was unnecessary; the two objects remained stuck together. He saw Draco smirk, and forced himself to hold it more casually, by just the ball. The bottom of the base had a short inscription:

A compact dramatized history of the Wizarding World -- what YOU need to know!

Harry raised an eyebrow at Draco.

"I know you didn't like History of Magic," Draco said quickly. "This is much easier. Give it the name of an event, and it will show a summary -- with moving pictures and some text -- or you can browse an era. Look." Righting the ball, he tapped it with his wand. "The Treaty of Tibbleford!"

In a moment, they were watching a stretch of windy moor. Two groups of four wizards -- or rather, Harry realized, as he adjusted to the clothing of the period, one of three wizards and one witch, all dressed in blue, and one of two wizards and two witches, dressed in green -- walked towards each other across the bending grass. They met with cold nods, and a tiny old witch in white robes stepped into view and cast the binding charms for the speaking of terms. To the side of the figures, a small scroll unfurled, explaining that the treaty had not only established Devon and Cornwall as part of England, but had bound the Chief Warlock -- basically, the government -- to the maintenance of several large-scale unplottable charms to protect land reserves from Muggle encroachment.

"This is great!" Harry exclaimed.

"Sometimes you need to try a few times to get the name that it knows," Draco said. "And the explanations are rather simplistic, of course."

"Yeah, but I think they'll make the events easier to remember," Harry countered, already wondering if the depictions of the people involved were accurate. Somehow, seeing women had made it seem more real, which was kind of odd, now that he thought about it. "I certainly wasn't getting anything out of the class."

"The class doesn't matter," Draco said. "Even the N.E.W.T. doesn't, really. You should know these things primarily to know them -- to know what they affect now. Anyway...." He snagged another present and handed it to Harry. "This one next, because it isn't to improve you in any way."

Harry glanced back at the remaining two presents and decided he could do two in a row. Eagerly, he opened the second box.

It was more crystal balls. Well, the six balls inside looked more like regular Christmas ornaments, but made of clear glass filled with swirling fog. "Um?" he asked.

"You fill them," Draco explained. "It's sort of like taking a picture, but the image is three-dimensional, and inside. I probably should have given them to you before Yule, because you probably had things to remember, but I was too busy sulking to think of that."

"I'll remember anyway," Harry assured him. It would have been nice, but Draco looked uncomfortably contrite already. "I think they sound wonderful. What's the incantation?"

"Exhibeo," Draco said. "With a tap to the hanger."

"Exhibeo," Harry repeated. He grinned. "I love magic." Draco had an odd smile on his face -- not his usual smirk, or his schooled pleasure, but something fragile and warm. Impulsively, Harry tapped the ornament. "Exhibeo!" Under the glass, the fog swirled to capture the two of them, the scattered paper and ribbons, the tree decked in white and gold, and the table of mugs and phials.

"Harry!" Draco laughed. "You can only use them once. I should have warned you."

"But I want this one," Harry said earnestly. "You have a different smile when someone likes something you gave them than when you like something you got."

Draco's brow furrowed. "I don't give things often."

"That may be it," Harry said. "Anyway, open your other one from me, now."

This was a smaller gift, but more personal. It was a phial of Harry's bubble soap, and an edition of A Methodology of Intuition: The Science and Art of Potions Development. Harry had read parts of his father's copy, and thought Draco would enjoy it -- the subject, the prose, and the nod to his talent. Indeed, he seemed genuinely pleased.

"Does this mean you'll assist me?" he said, looking up from the introduction. "It recommends working with someone, for safety and accuracy."

"I might," Harry replied, with a smile that said more.

Draco's last gift to him was actually two gifts. When Harry opened the box, the first thing he saw was a stiff card -- rather like a calling card -- which said Be good. Beneath that was a book -- a stiff leather volume tooled in gold and embossed with the title The Perfect Gentleman. Draco smirked. "A wizard's guide to etiquette and deportment," he said, "since I promised Minister Fudge that I would civilize you."

Harry lifted the book out and opened it. Draco had marked a few pages with thin copper points. One was on personal grooming, one on respectful behavior, and -- just as Harry was starting to get offended -- one on attention to one's partner for a social event, next to which Draco had written in the margin "...unless you urgently need to rescue someone from a demented Dark Lord."

"Does it have anything about writing in other people's books?"

"Oh, probably. But I knew you won't mind." Draco smirked. "Look in the box again. You missed something."

With some trepidation, Harry peered back in the box. In among the tissue paper, he saw another card.

Or don't get caught

With an amused huff of breath, he lifted that out and discovered that it had completely concealed another present.

"A pocket watch?" Harry picked up the chain. The watch spun beneath it.

"It's special," Draco said, with a wicked gleam in his eye. "Open it up."

Harry opened the watch. It looked perfectly normal.

"Now depress the stem three times in a row."

Once Harry did that, the watch face folded, flipped, and came back displaying numbers from one to thirty-six.

"Thirty-six what?" he wondered aloud.

"Yards," Draco said. "That's where you set the alarm. When someone gets that close to you, it will ring an alarm. If you attune the alarm to yourself, no one else can hear it."

"Thank you," Harry said sincerely. He laughed. "That's much more my thing than the book."

"I'd already bought the History orb when I saw this, or it probably would have been your main present. So I decided that I ought to make it funny, somehow. Feel free to tell people it was just an etiquette book."

 

They had just started a new round of Knights and Dragons when a knock sounded at the door.

"Harry?" Remus called. "Your father will be here at any minute. Do you want to summon Dobby, or should I?"

They looked at each other over battling knights.

"Hide the evidence!" Draco stage-whispered. Quickly, they popped the bubble, sending the knights exploding into droplets of color, and then shoved the capped phials back under the snow. In only a few seconds, they were standing at the door, doing their best to look serious.

"Did I ... interrupt something?" Remus asked, eyebrows lifted.

"It was all entirely dignified," Draco returned, tilting his nose in the air, and Harry burst out laughing.

The elves had apparently been waiting for Harry. The moment he entered the dinning room, a platter of canapés and four glasses of wine appeared on the sideboard. Draco's eyes widened. He reached for one with a red olive balanced on an icing-like spiral peak and took an experimental nibble of it.

"This is just like one at home!"

Harry shrugged. "Dobby remembered it, I suppose."

"Dobby," Draco repeated. He frowned at the new treat he had picked up. "Is that the elf you stole from my father?"

"I didn't steal him! I freed him!"

Draco indicated the canapés with a wave of his hand. "He doesn't seem to have gone far."

"Dumbledore gave him a job at Hogwarts," Harry said, exasperated. Remus cleared his throat.

"Harry does not often ask Dobby for favors, Draco." His mouth twitched. "Although he certainly seemed pleased to be called."

"He's really Harry's then," Draco argued, but then let out a breath and relaxed. "Not that it matters. He has remembered quite well, Harry. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Harry said awkwardly, deciding to let the matter go. He examined the wine. Two glasses had half the volume of the others, so he took one of those. The liquid inside was nearly clear, with a slightly greenish tint, and had a light, dry taste that hit the middle of his tongue with a sharp sort of sourness.

"How is it?" Remus asked, with a touch of amusement. He reached for one of the fuller glasses.

Harry grimaced. "I think Dad would classify it as 'perhaps insufficiently accessible' for my tastes."

Draco snorted. Remus clamped his mouth shut, swallowed, and coughed. "Don't do that to me!"

"What? I just answered your question."

A sound at the door interrupted any reply Remus might have made. Harry turned to see his father standing in the entrance. His clothes were fresh, and his hair clean and brushed, but his expression was dour, and he stood uncomfortably straight.

"Come in!" Remus called merrily. "We were just starting on appetizers. There's some tasty sage cheese and sour cherry."

"Oh, is that what that is?" Draco asked, looking at the pale froth-green mound topped with a red hemisphere.

"Yes," Remus answered with satisfaction. "And I must say that the elves managed quite well from a description."

His heels clacking sharply on the wooden floor and then suddenly muffled as he crossed the carpet, Severus came over to join them. He took a glass of wine first, tasted it, and looked in surprise at Harry's glass.

"You like this?"

"Not especially," Harry answered, and his father's expression tightened again.

"Yet you have drunk half of it."

"Nah. There were smaller servings for me and Draco. I've barely touched it."

"Ah." Severus lifted his chin. "Good. I should hate to think I had such a faulty perception of your tastes."

Remus's mouth twitched.

 

When the soups were served, the bouillabaisse wasn't quite what Harry had expected. He'd known it was a fish soup, but it came disassembled, with the tureen holding only broth, and pieces of fish, shellfish, and vegetables arranged on a separate platter. Draco scooped what looked like a spiced mayonnaise onto a slice of bread before ladling broth over it.

"Here," he said to Harry, showing him the bowl. "You start with bread and roille, then add the broth, and then select your seafood."

Harry tried not to grimace. "I was planning on having the mushroom soup," he answered politely. The rich, creamy stew that Remus was ladling out smelled far tastier than fish.

Draco sniffed. "Suit yourself," he replied haughtily, and took up the silver tongs. Delicately, he plucked a mussel from the platter and set it his in his broth.

"What about you, Severus?" Remus prompted, as he passed the ladle for the mushroom soup to Harry and reached for the bread. "Bouillabaisse or ciorba de ciuperci?"

Severus snorted. "You clearly speak neither language, Remus."

"Nor do you."

"True, but I can at least say bouillabaisse without my tongue stumbling, and I would just call the other mushroom soup." For a moment, he studied his options. "As I am not at Malfoy Manor," he declared finally, "and have no need to impress, I believe I will have a little of both. Bippy!" he called.

"Here, Master Professor!"

"Another bowl, please."

With a bow, the house elf vanished with a pop, and an extra bowl appeared on Severus's plate.

"Hungry?" Remus asked blandly.

"As I worked through breakfast studying your samples, yes."

"I hadn't realized," Remus responded. "Is there some urgency?"

"The results will be more attuned to you the sooner it is done." Severus turned sharply to Remus, making his hair swing in an even sheet. Harry liked that. "What differences did you observe?"

Remus hesitated, and Severus sent an exasperated look heavenward. "Allow me to remind you that I require accuracy, not compliments. Like potions themselves, potions analysis is of little use if sprinkled with sugar."

With an embarrassed smile, Remus nodded. "Well, then. I think the level of pain was about the same--"

Severus frowned. "Unexpected."

"However," Remus continued pointedly, "compressed into less time. I was able to help Harry with all this--" he gestured around them -- "a full twelve hours after what I expected to be my limit, but after that point, was too ill even to read. Yesterday, I had cramps and spasms all morning, but now I feel almost back to normal. Personally, I consider this a substantial improvement, as it will lessen the impact that the curse has on the rest of my life, but others might find it worse. If I were not employed, for example...." He let the sentence trail off. Severus nodded thoughtfully. Harry glanced at Draco and found he was looking rather nervously at the man to his side. Remus appeared not to notice, which Harry suspected meant nothing.

 

Discussion turned to potions experimentation in general, and of the types of tests that could be performed with a bodily substance from a subject. Harry got the impression that his father's tests had been performed not only with hair and fur, but with blood, however the specific reagents went discreetly unmentioned. At this level, Draco was able to participate and gradually began to relax, although he still looked at Harry every time a familiar favorite arrived. By the time the dinner dishes vanished and were replaced by dessert plates and half-sized glasses of golden wine, everyone was conversing naturally. Harry suspected they were all slightly drunk, as each course had come with its own wine, with smaller portions for him and Draco. Two of the wines he hadn't liked enough to more than taste, but he still found himself laughing giddily at things that were probably not all that funny. Fortunately, he also felt singularly unembarrassed. Even his father looked mellow, and had actually smiled slightly as Remus told stories of tramping through Eastern Europe. Satisfied, Harry took a sip of the new wine, which was deliciously sweet. As he put it down, a stunning tiered dish of petits fours appeared in the center of the table.

"Gorgeous!" Remus exclaimed spontaneously.

"And tasty," Draco said smugly. "Oh, there are extra almond ones! And he left off those horrible stuffed dates!"

Following Draco's example, Harry selected several of the little cakes for his plate, with Draco occasionally adding others while he chattered brightly about the best features of this or that one. Before Harry could actually try any, however, someone knocked at the door.

They all froze, Draco and Remus with cakes halfway to their mouths. Harry cleared his throat. "Yes?" he called.

The door opened just enough for someone to poke her head in. Harry recognized the girl as one of the younger Ravenclaw prefects.

"Sorry to interrupt," she said. "Professor Dumbledore sent me to fetch Draco Malfoy. He has a visitor in the headmaster's office."

Harry looked at Draco, whose face had gone white except for two pink ovals high on his cheeks. With an anxious glance at his father, Harry stood. The world tipped unaccountably, but he managed to catch his balance, he hoped without anyone noticing. Belatedly, Draco stood also.

"I'll go with you," Harry said, getting a puzzled look in return.

"Both of you," Severus commanded. "Look at me."

Harry did. He had a glimpse of his father's wand, and then silver spell light came flying at him. Trust froze him in its path.

"Ow," Draco complained. Harry blinked. Everything seemed remarkably precise, and he realized the slight insulation of the wine had gone.

"Oh," he said. He hadn't realized he had been that affected.

"A necessary precaution," Severus said. "Depending on who the visitor is, you may well need your wits about you. Harry, I expect you to stay with him. We will await your return."

 

When Harry and Draco stepped into the headmaster's office, Narcissa Malfoy was turning towards the opening door, a warm smile on her face. As she saw Harry, that vanished momentarily, but she quickly had it back in place. She held out her arms.

"Draco, darling!" she exclaimed, taking both his hands and kissing his cheek. Harry saw the tension leave Draco's shoulders as he returned the light kiss.

"Mother," he murmured, so quietly that Harry could hardly hear.

"Happy Christmas, Draco! I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner. The season has been quite mad!"

Draco tensed again. Harry couldn't see his face, but he saw his shoulders twitch up. He appreciated his father's Sobering charm. Without it, he likely would have been berating Draco's mother for being shallow and self-centered, and he was almost certain that wouldn't help anyone. He forced himself to stay quiet.

Narcissa turned to Harry, her expression becoming much colder. "You may leave now," she said imperiously.

Shaking his head, Harry walked over to a chair by the wall and sat down, crossing his arms over his chest. "I don't think so, Mrs. Malfoy," he said politely. "I promised my father that I'd look after Draco." He waved a hand. "Go ahead and talk. Cast a privacy spell if you want. Just know that I'm not leaving until Draco comes with me."

Narcissa turned to her son. "Do they have you under guard all the time, Draco?"

"Of course not, Mother," Draco snapped. "We're friends, as I informed you." He sent Harry an anxious look. "He's just looking after me," he said, a little too fiercely.

"How terrible!"

"Mother, be reasonable."

"Reasonable? That graceless mongrel won't allow you a private visit with your own mother, and you ask me to be reasonable?"

"You did threaten to turn me over to the Dark Lord, if you will recall!"

"Darling!" Narcissa protested. "Only to warn you off."

So Dad was right about that, Harry thought. For Draco's sake, he supposed that was a good thing.

"But you couldn't let me know earlier?" Draco asked sulkily.

"I promise you, Draco, this is absolutely the soonest I could manage." She smiled brightly. "Our lord chose Malfoy Manor to host his festivities this year, can you imagine? It's been terribly exciting!"

"I imagine so," Draco sneered. "Have you had it fumigated?"

"Draco, really!"

"I saw Professor Snape being tortured, mother."

For a moment there was silence. Lines of tension drew across the beauty of Narcissa's face. Looking closer, Harry could detect the shimmer of a glamour under her eyes. He wondered if she was having trouble sleeping.

"So you understand," she whispered, "that I could not displease him by refusing."

Draco sighed. After a moment, he reached out and took her hand. Harry watched, astounded at how Draco seemed defeated by the contact. Shouldn't he want to support her?

"My dear son," she said, squeezing it. "Please believe that I'm doing the best that I can for us."

"And if he loses, Mother?"

Showing she had not forgotten Harry, she looked at him significantly for a moment before giving Draco an almost mischievous little smile. "Then you must see what you can do for us. Does his friendship extend that far?"

Harry straightened up from the chair back. "It could," he said bluntly. "But don't claim that you can do as well. I might be able to get you mercy from our side, if you're not actively involved, but Lord Tom has no mercy."

His audacity knocked the breath out of her. For a moment, she stared at him, one hand splayed under her collarbone. "Tom?" she asked incredulously.

"Why should I use his made-up name? I'm not playing those games."

With a little sniff of amusement, Draco settled in a chair, crossing his legs neatly under his robes. "No, you're playing other games." He waved nonchalantly at Harry. "Mother," he said, "meet Harry the Ruthless. He took me rather by surprise when we first began to bargain."

She nodded approvingly. "So you did bargain."

"To some extent," Draco answered blandly. "Was that what you came to ask me, Mother?"

"Don't be silly!" she returned, with a polite little laugh. Harry thought it sounded as brittle as ice. "I came to wish the joy of my life a joyous Yule, and to bring him presents." With a twitch of her wand she summoned a little tower of wrapped gifts from the corner. "Here, darling."

 

There were six presents in all, starting with a jade dragon that prowled up and down a tower of some red stone, and ending with a perfectly resplendent set of dress robes in black and gold. Harry found it rather dizzying, and although Draco exclaimed delightedly over everything, Harry thought it had the same fake edge as Narcissa's cheer. At the end of it all, Narcissa took Draco's hand.

"Are you sure you won't come home with me?" she coaxed. "If you come to him yourself, perhaps--"

"No, Mother." Draco took a step back. Harry stood, flexing his wrist against his wand. "Say I was under guard, if you wish. You had no chance to talk to me alone."

Sighing, Narcissa nodded. "You're probably right, darling. Oh!" She reached into a pocket of her outer robes. "I nearly forgot! Your father wrote to you, but he expected you to be at the Manor, of course." She held out an envelope to him. No longer caring about appearances, Harry drew his wand and cast two quick detection spells on it -- one for portkeys, and a less effective one for unshielded curses. It responded to neither. Narcissa rolled her eyes.

"Do restrain your guard dog," she said to Draco.

"Actually," Draco answered, taking the letter, "I appreciate his protection. Now, I do believe you should go, Mother. You wouldn't want to be missed."

"Oh, no fear of that, darling. Everyone is out for some event, except for your Aunt Lucretia, who is too sedated to notice a stampede of hippogriffs."

 

After Draco and his mother had said their farewells, Harry and Draco split up the presents for carrying, and they walked back to dinner.

"Are you all right?" Harry asked, as they approached the staircase.

"Perfectly fine," Draco returned, in brittle tones that conveyed he was anything but. "It was already clear to me that she would be unable to help."

Harry didn't know what to say. He doubted Draco really had believed that before. They walked in silence the rest of the way, and Severus and Remus fell silent as they entered.

"Hi," Harry said awkwardly, as he put down the presents by the door. He took his seat.

"A late visit from Father Christmas?" Remus suggested gaily.

Draco waved dismissively at the pile. "My mother, actually."

Remus tensed and shot Severus a look. Severus ignored him.

"I see. She has some reason for her tardiness, I hope?"

With a moue of disgust, Draco flicked his hand at the window. "The Dark Lord is borrowing the manor for the holiday."

"I see. How fortunate you did not return home."

"Yes," Draco snapped. "You told me so. I concede. Is that sufficient?"

"Quite," Severus answered blandly. He drew his wand and reached out to the petits fours tower, which Harry now noticed was wavering as if it was behind a sheet of water, and he tapped the ring at the peak of it. The shimmering vanished. "Shall we resume our dinner?"

They had cakes and more wine, and Severus and Draco had little cups of coffee. When Draco nudged his empty cup away and stood, Harry expected him to say goodnight. Instead, he motioned to the presents from his mother.

"Would you care for a game of Changes, Harry? I've only just learned myself, and it's Transfiguration-based, so we shouldn't be too mismatched."

Harry glanced over at his father. "Do you mind, Dad?"

"Not at all," Severus answered, with a slight smile. "You know your way home, after all."

Harry grinned and touched the hard spot under his shirt collar where his father's gift rested. "Yeah," he said.

Draco picked up the game from among the other presents, and Harry followed him back into the inner room. To his surprise, Draco put the box down on the table unopened, and moved to stand by the tree, with his back to Harry.

"Draco?"

"I need to read the letter," Draco said. "I didn't want to in front of them, but ... will you stay?"

"Of course," Harry said. He Summoned the chairs out, setting them in arm's reach of each other. "Here. Sit down."

Draco sat, his knees tight together and his shoulders in, and drew out the envelope. Harry sat in the other chair, where he could be close, but not intruding.

Draco unfolded the letter. His eyes moved quickly over it and then closed. Harry watched his face and shoulders and general posture all soften with relief. His throat moved in a swallow, and he looked at the letter again.

He read it at least twice, Harry thought, and then parts of it repeatedly. When he was finished, he looked over at Harry.

"About that Fealty spell...."

"What? Draco, I was messed up, I was panicked--"

"No, listen. I was angry about the coercion--"

"I know!"

"Let me finish, will you?"

Harry let out a long breath. "Sorry. Go on."

"However," Draco continued, "at this point, I would be willing to pledge my obedience for the duration of the war."

"What?"

"I'm not going to say I won't argue," Draco continued, his head arrogantly high, "because I will, and if I think you're doing something wrong, I will certainly make that clear, but if it comes down to you giving an order, I will obey."

He fell silent. For a few moments, Harry just stared at him.

"Well?" Draco demanded.

"I don't know what to say."

"Do you accept?" Draco demanded. "Do you want an oath?"

"Merlin no! The oath, I mean."

"Oh, come off it! It's what you wanted, isn't it?"

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, and let out a shaky breath. He could still feel a shadow of the effect, sometimes -- of the dizzying pleasure of having Draco at his feet.

"No," he said plainly, opening them. "I want you as an ally. I want to have changed your mind. If I have, your fealty doesn't matter. I'd rather you were free to think for yourself, because you're actually clever and you see things that I don't."

Draco's relief was quickly followed by a frown. "I still mean it," he said obstinately. "I'm with you."

"With is fine." Harry pushed a hand through his hair and felt it fall back into place. "What on earth did your father say?"

Draco sat back sullenly, which Harry found a relief.

"Nothing of import, really," Draco answered. "He thanked me for the present. He hopes that it indicates a return of respect for the traditions of my lineage -- that's code for 'join the Dark Lord and subjugate Muggles', by the way -- and that your influence over me is waning. He's got it all wrong, of course."

"But why should that make you want to...."

"Because you're right," Draco spat. "Voldemort will never help him, not even to have a valuable servant back, and he will never help my mother, no matter how charming a hostess she is. But you will help me ... even if it involves making my father happy, which isn't something you particularly want to do. I will not be in the place where Professor Snape was, and I do not want to watch my mother accepting her own destruction with perfect grace. I need you to win."

Nodding, Harry let out a relieved breath.

"Well, there! I don't need vows from you, then, do I?" Desperate for a distraction, he looked over at the tree. From this angle, he could just see a triangle shape pointing out from the snow. In a second, he was on the floor and pulling out a cinnamon star.

"Here," he said, handing it back to Draco. Draco took it, touching his fingers for a second in the transfer. Harry wasn't sure this was any less awkward.

Draco sat back, still holding the star. "About my mother...."

"Yes?"

"I think I still need family," Draco confessed.

"I'd still like to be that."

"Good. Happy Christmas, Harry."

Harry smiled. "Happy Christmas, Draco."

 

Harry woke the next morning feeling oddly at peace. The diffuse light of an overcast winter day was coming in the window, but his bed was warm. From the kitchen, he heard the sound of a teakettle whistling, and then the clink of china. His father had still been out when Harry went to sleep, but he was clearly around now. Harry stretched and got out of bed, hopping a little on the chilly floor. By the time he was dressed and out, his father was in the sitting room, drinking his tea.

"Hi," Harry said, joining him. He wanted breakfast soon, but for now, he wanted family. There was another cup and saucer available, so he poured himself a cup of tea and reached for the sugar. "You came in late," he prompted.

"Hmph," Severus said. He looked at the fire, which was crackling merrily. "I suppose I did. You stayed out late yourself, then?"

"I suppose." Harry shrugged. "Changes is fun. I was in bed by midnight, though." He didn't say that Severus hadn't been home by then.

"Ah." Severus studied his teacup. "Harry ... If I were to enter into a relationship...."

"With my second-favorite adult in the world?" Harry suggested.

"Let us say there is someone else."

"Oh." Harry suspected that was just academic, but he still felt a twist of fear. Perhaps there really was someone else -- his father could be very secretive, after all -- and he had only revealed it when Remus grew more direct in his advances. Remus would be crushed. Pushing the thought aside, Harry did his best to answer the question.

"Well, it would depend," he said.

"On whether you liked the person yourself?" Severus said acidly.

"On how I thought they'd treat you. Really, Dad. I want you to be happy."

"And you think I would endure someone who treated me badly?"

Harry almost choked on his tea. He put it down. "Is that a trick question?" he asked pointedly. "I mean, it would hardly be the first time, would it?"

Severus rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Touché, Harry. However, I like to think I have matured enough to learn from my mistakes."

"Well, good, but you can see that I'd keep an eye on it."

Severus snorted. "I suppose you would."

Harry waited, but no further information appeared to be forthcoming. "So" he asked, "is there really someone else, or did you mean Remus after all?"

Severus stared at the pine boughs which were curled around the candles. "I'm not certain what I mean," he said. "That is, I mean Remus, but I'm not yet certain what I intend."

"Oh. Well, did you--"

"Do not pry."

Harry sat frozen by the tone. After a moment, he shook it off. His father was still looking at the pine needles, and had obviously not intended his sharpness as hostility.

"Okay," Harry said. "I ... Just know I'm okay either way."

Still not looking at him, Severus nodded. "This branch is dripping sap."

Harry regrouped and looked at the branch indicated, as if it was just as important as what relationship his father had with his earlier mentor. "Should I take it down?"

"As I recall, my mother left such things up until Twelfth Night."

Harry's heart clenched at the bland tone. He had known his father didn't decorate for Christmas, but he hadn't thought about what sort of memories he might be awakening.

"I didn't mean-- Have you been thinking about her all week?"

Severus sighed. "From time to time. I have not done all of this..." Severus gestured to the pine and to the fireplace. "since."

"Sorry. I'll--"

"Harry." Severus looked at him finally. "The memories have not all been unpleasant."

"But it was difficult for you."

"Not unbearably so. It was past time that I let myself remember." Severus gave him a slight smile. "I admit that I expect I will enjoy it more next year."

"Oh." Harry relaxed into a smile. It was only at the relief flooding through him that he realized that he had been afraid Severus would pack him off to the Weasleys next year. "Well, good." He hesitated. "Have you ever thought of ... well, finding her?"

Severus stiffened. "No," he said. He let out his breath in a short huff that sounded almost amused. "If I saw her, I shudder to think what I might say."

"But before -- you said you weren't angry."

Severus looked away, focusing on the flame of the largest red candle as if he was using it for Far-Seeing. "I understand her decision," he said slowly. "For her, I believe it was the best option. Were she before me, however, I doubt my thoughts would remain so deliberate."

Unsure of what to say, Harry reached over and rested a hand on his father's arm. Severus looked down at it for a moment, bemused, and then cautiously laid his free hand over it for a fleeting second.

"And then there is you," he said, his voice low. "The longer I have you, the more it astounds me that she let him hurt me. I can't imagine allowing--" He turned his head away, looking at the fire. Harry swallowed and schooled his voice to the most casual tone he could manage.

"Well, we're protective, you and I."

Severus looked at him in such surprise that it was almost funny.

"Even if you have strange ways of showing it, sometimes."

Severus huffed. "I have a longer term view than most of what constitutes effective protection."

"Like your traps?"

"Exactly." Severus raised his eyebrows. "And you did improve. I didn't get you with the last one."

Harry laughed. "Only because of something Ron said, probably."

"What was that?"

"Oh, I said I'd been walking down a little-used staircase, and he said, 'Well, there's your mistake!'"

Severus snorted. "So you took this as advice, did you?"

"Yes." Harry shrugged awkwardly. "Seamus said it wasn't sporting, but I was just so tired of it...."

Severus inclined his head. "You should have given up on little-used routes much earlier. There are times when quitting is the best strategy."

Harry laughed. "Took you long enough to try it!"

Severus frowned. "Ambushes? Oh -- quitting as a strategy." For a moment, he looked like he would protest, but his mouth closed as he looked as the mantel. The bead of sap, Harry saw, had extended slightly, like a growing icicle. The hanging drop caught the golden glow of the flames below so that it gleamed like amber. Severus studied the display as if it were an ill-made potion, and Harry wondered if he would change his mind about leaving it up.

"Accio nest!" Severus commanded.

The door to his bedroom opened by a few inches, and a little disk of dried grass flew out. Severus caught it gently, cradling it in the palm of his hand for a moment before turning it over, wordlessly showing Harry the bottom of it, which was of bent twiglike material -- perhaps from heather, or some woody shrub. The grass was much finer and looked almost fluffy. Harry thought the nest must be from a tiny bird. He wondered if it was good for potions ingredients.

Severus stood and was at the mantel in two steps. He studied it for a few seconds longer and then placed the nest to the right, nestled in a dip where two branches met.

"There," he said, rejoining Harry on the sofa. "There should always be a nest, when you bring in greens at home."