Chapter 1: part one
Prompt #1 - a very long scarf
First of December – Some Things Never Change
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,” Harry sings to himself as he crawls into the dusty cupboard in search of the box of decorations. “But the fire is so delightful...”
“Chance would be a fine thing,” Draco says, stepping over him on the way to the shop floor.
Inside the cupboard, Harry grins, then sneezes three times in quick succession and hits his head on the sloping ceiling.
“Bugger.” Gritting his teeth, he wraps his fingers around the handles of the wooden box and withdraws from the cupboard, dragging the box out into the light. “No one said you couldn’t light a fire, Draco.”
Draco appears in the doorway that connects the shop to the staff area. He folds his arms and gazes mutinously down at Harry, who is now kneeling on the floor and rubbing his head.
“That’s not true. You said I couldn’t,” Draco says.
Harry looks up at him, exasperated. “I said I’d rather you didn’t light one yesterday afternoon when the shop was absolutely stuffed full of customers. I didn’t say you couldn’t light one ever again, and besides, the idea of me being able to tell you not to do anything is pretty ridiculous.”
Draco snorts. “I doubt today will be any quieter. There’s already a queue out the front.”
“Good job you’ve got your scarf, then, isn’t it?” Harry says, opting to stop poking at the sore spot on his head and scramble to his feet instead.
He levitates the box and floats it ahead of him into the shop, prodding Draco aside and flicking at his long, stripy scarf as he passes. A recent addition to his friend’s usually rather sombre wardrobe, Harry secretly thinks it makes Draco look like a cross between Doctor Who and Molly Weasley. Not that he’ll tell Draco that. He hasn’t a death wish, and besides, there’s something about watching Draco stalk around the shop with the bizarre, stripy garment whipping behind him that makes Harry smile.
“Leave my scarf out of it,” Draco says, flicking light into the lamps and brightening the early morning gloom. Harry watches for a moment as he walks around the shop floor, straightening stacks of broomstick lacquer and boxes of Bludgers, then turns back to his decorations with a smile.
He knows what’s coming and he waits for it as he withdraws a string of lights and begins to untangle it. It’s always the same at this time of year, ever since they took over the shop together and moved into the flat upstairs, and Harry began to impose his love of the festive season on his beleaguered colleague. The flat has yet to be decorated, but by the end of the evening it will be draped in lights and sparkles and little painted wooden creatures, and Draco will be pretending to sulk, but not trying very hard.
He won’t give in, of course, but Harry knows him too well these days. Their friendship is easy, based on surprisingly well-matched temperaments and a healthy respect for argument-for-the-sake-of-argument. They have had things out—it feels like centuries ago now—argued and accused and forgiven over drinks and broomsticks and the late-night curries that have now become an institution. Draco likes the sort of thing that makes Harry’s tongue burn and his eyes water, while Harry prefers to try whatever is new and different, gamely ordering ‘chef’s specials’ and relishing Draco’s cringes as he picks through the mysterious ingredients. When he’s not experimenting with curries, Harry tends to take over their shared kitchen, cooking up the traditional and the unusual with equal enthusiasm. Draco, while obsessively clean and tidy, doesn’t complain about the mess nearly as much as he used to, and Harry has to admit that it’s nice to have all of his pans and utensils washed and stacked away for him.
The flat, like the shop, is very large with big round windows and high ceilings, and provides plenty of space for two people who are used to one another’s company. Moving in had just made good sense—they are right in the middle of everything they could possibly require in Diagon Alley, and there is no need to set foot outside to reach the shop, something Harry is especially grateful for during the winter.
As Draco pulls up the shutters with a loud clatter, Harry gazes vaguely into the near-darkness of the street. It’s snowing again, and there are indeed people queuing outside. He opens his mouth to tell the miserable bugger to let them in but he is cut off.
“It’s too early for decorations.”
“Every... single... year,” Harry sighs. He picks up a glittery star and speaks into it: “Yes, this is officially Draco Malfoy’s seventh year of complaining about the Christmas decorations going up too early. I’ve been Harry Potter, at Quality Quidditch Supplies, Diagon Alley, London...”
“Yes, alright... must you always remind me of how time is passing?” Draco snaps, peering out into the gloom.
“Must you always complain about my baubles?” Harry says, floating the star into the air so that it hovers above Draco’s head.
“I must,” Draco mumbles without turning around. “She’s still there, you know.”
Harry goes to join him at the window with a string of lights around his neck.“So she is,” he sighs, pressing his nose to the glass in order to get a better look at the dark figure huddled against the cobbles just outside the window.
Her long, black hair is dotted with snow as it falls across her face, and the scruffy little dog that never seems to leave her side is curled tightly on her lap, shielded from the worst of the weather by skinny arms clad in worn black wool. Harry sighs. He has tried talking to her several times now, ever since the first day he found her and her dog curled up in their tatty sleeping bag outside the shop. It’s been almost a week now and not once has she done anything but jump at the sound of his voice and shrink further into herself.
“It must be freezing out there,” he says. “I’d take her a cup of tea but I’m afraid I’d give her a heart attack. She seems to be terrified of me.”
Harry doesn’t need to turn around to know that Draco is giving him a look. He can feel it.
“Truly terrifying, that’s what you are,” he says, letting out a small sound of exasperation as he notices at last that there is a star hovering above his head. “A man to strike dread into the stoutest of hearts. I’ll open up, shall I?”
Despite the early morning rush, Harry manages to quite comprehensively imbue the shop with the festive spirit by the time lunchtime rolls around, taking advantage of the quiet moments—and, to some extent, Draco—to line the shelves with lights, dangle stars from the ceiling and sprinkle fake snow around all of the standing displays. Draco grumbles like he always does, but serves the multitudes knowledgably and with impeccable manners; he manages to sell three Firebolt X2s in the space of an hour whilst simultaneously fielding more compliments about his sodding scarf than Harry can count.
When Draco dashes out into the snow to fetch their lunch, the compliments continue. Now, though, they are aimed at Harry, and accompanied by requests to know just where the wonderful scarf came from.
“I have no idea, sorry,” he says over and over again, staring desperately at the door and wondering how long it really should take to buy two toasted sandwiches and two cups of coffee from the cafe across the street.
By the time Draco returns, covered in snow, Harry is beginning to feel irritable. One look at Draco’s cold-pinked face and trembling fingers, though, and his frustration melts away. He can’t explain it—it’s just something about a wet or hungry or cold Draco that brings out his protective instincts. It is, of course, ridiculous, and he tries to fight it down as hard as he can, but he finds his voice coming out rather softer than he had expected when he tells Draco to shut the door on the wind.
“This lady has a fashion question for you,” he adds, and the woman at the counter clutches her wrapped Quaffles to her chest and turns to Draco expectantly.
Draco blinks. Shivers. Sets the coffee cups and sandwiches down on the counter and turns to the lady, scarf pulled tightly around his neck.
“Fire away, then.”
Amused, Harry turns to the next customer in line. “You know, that’ll go a lot further if you keep it somewhere cold,” he tells the young man as he takes his money and puts his tin of broomstick polish into a little bag for him. He loves the smell of the stuff; one whiff takes him right back to the Hogwarts broomshed, and it’s all he can do to resist unscrewing the metal cap and having a sniff.
The man laughs. “Don’t think I’ll have a problem finding somewhere cold at the moment!”
Harry grins and passes him a handful of Knuts.
“It’s too bloody early for Christmas decorations,” says a broad man with a moustache that immediately puts Harry in mind of his Uncle Vernon.
“Excuse me?” Harry says politely, unable to resist flicking a sidelong glance at Draco, who is sipping his coffee with a rather amused expression on his face.
“I said, it’s too bloody early for all this Christmas rubbish,” the man repeats, gesturing at the stars and lights with a meaty hand. He gives Harry a disapproving look and drops a package of Keeper’s gloves on the counter in front of him.
“It’s the first of December,” Harry says lightly, picking up the gloves.
“Christmas starts earlier and earlier every year,” the man gripes, stuffing his hands into the pockets of a perfectly-pressed beige cloak. “When I was a boy, there wasn’t any of this nonsense...”
“Well, it’s my shop and I like them,” Harry says in what he hopes is a non-confrontational tone. “And that’s two Galleons, twelve, please.”
“It’s whose shop?” Draco inquires at his side.
Harry smiles and ignores him. The man, still shaking his head, is picking up his purchase and stepping back from the counter, allowing an older lady to step forward and flash Harry a sympathetic smile.
“This is my best shop, Gran, ’cause it’s sparkly,” pipes a tiny voice and Harry has to lean right over the counter to see the little girl in her bright purple coat.
“Well, thank you,” he says, grinning down at her.
“You’re welcome. Please can I have a broomstick like Jarvis?”
The silver-haired lady looks helplessly at Harry, at the brand new broom in her hand, and back at Harry.
“Her older brother,” she says under her breath.
Harry nods and turns back to the little girl. “I’m glad you like my decorations, but you’re not quite big enough for a broomstick just yet. I promise you this, though—when you’re a little bit older, you can come back here and I will make sure you get a broom that is every bit as good as that one.”
The girl smiles, but there’s no mistaking her wistful expression as her grandmother pays for the broomstick.
“They do have some great toy broomsticks up at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes,” he suggests as he counts the change back into the old lady’s hand. “Just up the street.”
“Jarvis will laugh,” she says with the most mournful expression Harry has ever seen on such a tiny child.
“How about one of these?” Draco says, opening a box at the other end of the counter. Carefully, he balances a miniature Snitch on the back of his hand. “If you practise with this, you’ll be halfway to being a Seeker before you even get on a broomstick.”
The little girl watches, entranced, as the delicate golden wings begin to beat, and Draco skilfully catches the Snitch in his hand. Open-mouthed, she tugs on her grandmother’s sleeve.
“I can’t see why not,” she says after a moment, and she allows her granddaughter to drag her gently over to Draco’s side of the counter to buy the glittering little thing before she changes her mind.
When they finally leave the shop, grandmother weighed down with packages and little girl bouncing along happily beside her, Harry takes advantage of the momentary lull, taking his coffee and lukewarm sandwich over to the window and gazing out at the snow-covered cobbles as he eats.
“She’s still there,” he says, mostly to himself.
“I know,” Draco says. “I tried to give her your coffee but she wouldn’t even look at me.”
Harry turns and throws Draco the best dirty look he can manage through a mouthful of toast and cheese, but he knows that if the girl had ended up with anyone’s cup of coffee, it wouldn’t have been his. The thing is, Draco likes to maintain at least some semblance of his former sharp, ruthless, sell-you-down-the-river-as-soon-as-look-at-you image, and Harry decided a long time ago to just let him get on with it.
“No one knows who she is—I’ve asked around some of the other shop owners,” Draco says, crossing the shop floor to stand behind Harry and look out over his shoulder. “I suppose all we can do is keep trying.”
Harry nods, unable to fight down a small wave of shame as he finishes his sandwich and gazes down at the girl on the cobbles. She barely seems to have moved since the morning, though her dog now seems to have burrowed under the edge of her sleeping bag along with her.
“It must be freezing out there,” he says quietly.
Behind him, Draco lets out a gentle sigh that feathers softly across his cheek.
When the bell tinkles to announce another group of customers, they both jump.
“I need a full Cannons strip for an eight-year-old with very long arms!” cries a red-faced lady as she bursts into the shop, looking around wildly at the items on display.
“Don’t panic,” Harry soothes, setting down his coffee and sandwich wrapper. “We have all the league strips and lots of different sizes.”
“Oh,” the woman gasps, deflating slightly. “Oh, good.”
“How long are we talking about, exactly?” Draco asks innocently.
Harry rolls his eyes but the woman turns to him, expression earnest. “Oh, very long. He’s a rather odd-shaped child, I’m afraid. That’s a lovely scarf you’ve got on there, dear,” she says, suddenly beaming at Draco.
Caught somewhere between amusement and exasperation, Harry picks up his coffee and heads behind the counter, leaving Draco to deal with the woman and her tentacle child.
The shop is sparkling and festive, and, by the end of the evening, the flat will be, too.
Harry smiles to himself. It has begun.
Chapter 2: part two
Prompt #2 - Stockings on a fireplace
Second of December – Enough is Enough
Harry steps out of Ron and Hermione’s fireplace the following evening and walks straight into something warm, solid and extremely surprised.
“Oh, it’s just you,” Ron sighs, stepping back into the living room and allowing Harry to emerge fully from the fireplace.
“Who did you expect?” he asks, glancing with amusement between Ron’s relieved expression and the enormous red felt stocking in his hand. “Father Christmas?”
“Anything’s possible in this house,” Ron says darkly. He takes Harry’s coat and flings it over the back of a chair, where it settles over a precarious stack of neatly-folded baby clothes. “I’ve sort of lost track of time since Rose started teething,” he explains, covering a yawn with the stocking. “She keeps screaming in the middle of the night, and...”
Ron falls silent as, right on cue, the sound of anguished wailing starts up from the floor above.
“I’ll get it!” Hermione yells, clattering footsteps echoing across the ceiling. “Is that Harry? Tell him sorry about the food!”
Harry looks at Ron enquiringly. For a moment, Ron just blinks wearily, and then he nods and resumes attaching the stocking to the fireplace with his wand.
“She’s ordered Chinese,” he explains, poking the stocking until it hangs at the same angle as the others. “I told her you wouldn’t mind but you know how she gets.”
Harry nods. He admires the stockings, smug in the knowledge that he isn’t the only one who likes to decorate early, whatever Draco and certain moustachioed old men have to say on the subject. Apart from the stockings, which read ‘Mummy’, ‘Daddy’, and ‘Rose’ in sparkling letters, the fireplace has been trimmed with holly from the garden and several slightly raggedy paper snowflakes that Harry is pretty sure have been made for them by Teddy and Victoire.
“Are you coming to the carol service tomorrow?” he asks, memory sparked by the homemade decorations.
“One of us probably will,” Ron says, grimacing slightly as his daughter’s cries increase in volume. “Don’t want to ruin it if she starts crying, you know.”
Harry exchanges a sympathetic look with his friend and wanders off to put the kettle on. He knows that Ron wouldn’t change his situation for the world, but it can’t be easy having the constant responsibility of placating and feeding and protecting a tiny, wailing little bundle like Rose. By the time the food arrives, Hermione is just trailing down the stairs. Harry takes one look at her tired eyes and washed out face and answers the door himself, prodding her into the living room and following her a minute or two later with plates and forks and a big bag of hot, delicious-smelling food.
“Harry, you’re a lifesaver,” Hermione sighs, piling steaming noodles and pork onto her plate and collapsing into a chair with her dinner on her lap and her legs tucked up around herself.
“Mmm,” mumbles Ron, stuffing half a spring roll into his mouth and closing his eyes blissfully. “Actual food!”
“Didn’t you have lunch?” Harry asks through a mouthful of prawn cracker.
“I had a salad,” Ron says gloomily. “Well, half of one. I got stuck on a stake-out with Morrison all day and that’s what he brought. Lettuce and tomatoes and some kind of weird grains. I’m surprised the idiots we were watching didn’t hear my stomach rumbling.”
Harry laughs. “Draco got us those really squishy cheese toasties from across the street...”
Ron groans. “Behave.”
“Where is Draco tonight, anyway?” Hermione asks, helping herself to stir-fried vegetables.
“Gone out for dinner with his mother,” Harry says. “Apparently they’ve been on the waiting list at Claridges for months, he’s not stopped going on about it all day.”
“That’s lovely,” Hermione says enviously, flicking an exasperated glance at Ron, who is now sucking several long noodles into his mouth at once. “Elegant,” she says pointedly. “Classy.”
“Sounds good to me,” Ron says, taking a swig of tea and grinning at Harry. “I’ll have to get him to tell me all about it next time I see him.”
“I imagine he’ll relish the opportunity,” Harry says, grinning back and silently delighting in the easy friendship that now exists between Draco and Ron. It’s been several years now, but he doesn’t think the novelty will ever truly wear off.
Hermione smiles. “No doubt. How’s the shop?”
“Insanely busy, not that I’m complaining,” Harry says, shifting himself closer to the fire as a chilly draught snakes across his back. “All the usual things—people complaining about the decorations, people acting as though they haven’t still got three weeks left to buy their presents, obnoxious semi-pros demanding discounts and making idiots of themselves, endless enquiries about Draco’s fashion choices...” Harry shrugs and conveys a forkful of chop suey to his mouth.
Hermione looks at him, puzzled. “Draco’s what?”
Harry swallows and wipes his mouth with a square of kitchen paper. “Draco’s got this scarf—great long thing with stripes on it—and for the past couple of days, every other customer has wanted to know where he got it.”
“Where did he get it?” Ron asks.
Harry lets out a sound of frustration and throws the balled-up paper at Ron, who catches it easily and throws it back. It lands squarely in Harry’s half-finished cup of tea.
“I don’t know! And that’s the thing that baffles me –when he’s not there to ask, they all keep coming and asking me instead! Why would I have any idea where he gets his stuff from? It’s not like we go shopping together,” Harry points out, looking at his friends for back-up.
Oddly, neither of them says a word. Instead, they both stop eating and glance nervously at one another.
Harry frowns. “What?”
Hermione stares at her plate for a moment before seeming to come to a decision. She looks up at Harry, face set. “Well,” she begins carefully, “It’s probably because...”
She pauses. Harry sees movement in his peripheral vision and looks over at Ron, who is shaking his head vehemently and mouthing ‘No!’ at Hermione. A flutter of nervousness takes up residence in the pit of Harry’s stomach. He doesn’t have a clue what is going on here, but something tells him he’s not going to like it.
“Ron, I have to,” she says firmly.
“It’s just a scarf,” Ron whimpers, before shoving two wontons into his mouth and staring into the fire in mute horror.
“It’s more than that and you know it. Enough is enough. Harry,” she says, voice softening as she turns back to him, expression so kind that Harry freezes in place, every muscle tensed. “The reason people are asking you about Draco’s scarf... is the same reason you get joint presents at Christmas... the same reason nobody asks you out any more... it’s because people think you’re a couple.”
For a second or two, Harry doesn’t breathe. And then he laughs, bringing his hands up to press against his face.
“Hermione, you’re awful,” he sighs, grinning.
It doesn’t take him long to realise that no one else is laughing. Slowly, he drops his hands back into his lap and stares at his friends. Ron is chewing very slowly, eyes screwed up as though bracing for impact. Hermione is still gazing steadily at him, dark eyes soft and anxious.
“I’m not joking, Harry,” she says quietly. Ron groans.
“Hermione...” Harry shakes his head. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you and Draco. You really have to snap out of this denial,” Hermione pleads. “It’s just not good for you—either of you.”
“This is insane,” Harry says, shaking his head. “You can’t seriously be saying that people think Draco and I are... together? As in... together?”
Hermione picks up her fork and plays idly with the noodles on her plate. “I’m really sorry, Harry, but it’s true. I gave up correcting people quite a long time ago.”
“What? Why?” Harry demands, heart speeding unpleasantly.
Hermione stares very hard at her noodles. “Well, partly because they never listened and partly because... one or two of them accused me of being in denial because I had feelings for you myself.”
Harry turns to look anxiously at Ron as he appears to choke on his mouthful of food.
“Swallow, Ron,” she sighs. “It’s not true.”
As Harry leans over to slap Ron on the back, Rose once more sets up an urgent wailing and Hermione leaps to her feet so quickly that she almost drops her plate on the floor. Harry waits until she has reached the top of the stairs and then turns to Ron.
“What she said,” he says roughly, mouth suddenly dry. “You don’t... do you?”
Ron busies himself with his cup of tea for so long that Harry is about to yank it out of his hand when he finally sets it down, sighs, and says: “It’s true.”
Harry feels his face drain of colour. He shifts on the rug, trying to find a position to sit in which this bizarre revelation might make some sense. Eventually, sitting back on his heels with his arms crossed protectively across his chest, he steels himself. Takes a deep breath.
“Everyone thinks Draco and I are involved with each other.”
Ron nods. “Yeah.”
“Everyone as in...?”
“Well... your customers, clearly, a lot of our friends... my mum and dad...”
Harry stares at him, horrified. “Your parents think...? Why didn’t you tell them we’re not?”
Ron gazes at him guiltily. “We tried. Loads of times. It just got to that point where it didn’t matter what we said. And... no offence, mate, but it’s kind of hard to blame them. You do act like a couple.”
“I see,” Harry says faintly. “And at no point did anyone think of telling me this?”
“At first, we thought you knew,” Hermione says, descending the stairs slowly with a grizzling Rose on her hip. “Once we realised that you were completely clueless, it sort of seemed like it might be too late.”
To her credit, she is blushing furiously as she comes back into the room and lowers herself and Rose into the armchair, but all Harry can do is stare in disbelief.
“Why would you think this? Why would anyone?”
Hermione strokes Rose’s copper-coloured hair and sighs. “Harry, I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear, but... it’s just obvious. It’s just the way you are when you’re together. You act like an old married couple.”
“But that’s just... we’re friends! It doesn’t mean—”
“I think what Hermione means is an old married couple who are still very much in love,” Ron interrupts.
Harry flushes violently. “We’re just friends,” he repeats.
“I believe you,” Hermione says, granting Harry a half-smile. “We believe you. But we’re definitely in the minority at the moment.”
Harry drops his head into his hands, attempting to block out the world for a moment or two so that he might attempt to make sense of all this. He breathes slowly, inhaling warm, savoury air and exhaling hot and ragged against his palms. It doesn’t help. He feels as though the floor is tipping beneath him and there’s nothing to hold onto, because every bugger he knows thinks he and Draco are a couple and he has literally no idea what to do with that. It’s not that the idea disgusts him, it’s just that it frightens him to fucking death, because he doesn’t feel that way about Draco and now his head is full of it and there’s a good possibility he will never be able to look his flatmate and colleague in the eye ever again.
Finally, he emerges and looks at his friends. “So, where you ever planning on telling me about this?”
“No,” says Ron, just as Hermione insists, “Of course. We were just waiting for the right time.”
Something about this tickles Harry and he laughs, flopping back onto the fireside rug and closing his eyes.
“I’m still not sure I believe any of this,” he offers.
“I’m afraid it’s still true,” Hermione says. “Isn’t it, Rose?”
“Yes,” Rose says firmly.
Harry opens one eye in alarm.
“Don’t mind her,” Ron says, reaching over to tap on his daughter’s nose. “‘Yes’ is her favourite word at the moment. Hey, Rosie... do you think Mummy’s new jumper makes her look like a Christmas tree?”
“Yes,” Rose declares with a triumphant smile.
In spite of his discomfiture, Harry laughs. He wonders how Draco’s evening is going—what he’s eating, how his mother is doing, what they are talking about—and then he stops wondering, because no doubt it’s those sorts of wonderings that make people think the two of them are in a relationship.
“How long has this been going on?” he asks eventually, unsure he really wants to hear the answer.
Ron and Hermione exchange glances. “Since you’ve had the shop together... definitely no earlier than that,” Ron says, and there’s something in his tone that lets Harry know that this information is supposed to be reassuring in some way.
Harry groans and stares up at the mantelpiece above him, where the three red stockings are hanging neatly in a row. Never mind everything else, the important thing to do now is to decide which one of his best friends to hex first.
Chapter 3: part three
Prompt #3 - a carol service
Third of December – Coats and Carols
“Come on, or there won’t be anywhere to sit,” Draco insists, hurrying up the path to the church.
“And if there isn’t, we’ll stand up,” Harry mutters, swearing under his breath as he skids on a patch of ice and immediately feeling guilty for using bad language in such close proximity to a church.
Draco’s long scarf whips behind him in the wind and Harry flushes at the sight of it, quickly looking down at the ground. It’s been a manic sort of day from start to finish, and he has barely had time to breathe, let alone worry about what he has learned from Ron and Hermione, but it has been there, hanging around in the back of his mind like a niggling, half-formed memory and making him feel perpetually unsettled in Draco’s company.
“What are you doing?” Draco asks, frowning at Harry from the arched doorway.
Harry stares at him, startled, and forgets to move as he takes in the soft pool of yellow light that spills from the church and turns Draco’s pale hair golden. “No idea,” he admits, and picks his way carefully over the last of the path.
The moment he steps inside, the rich, damp smell of wood and stone and prayer books washes over him in a heavy wave that takes him straight back to his early childhood. This isn’t his first carol service since then, but it is the first one in which Teddy is singing a solo, and as such, the cold air inside the church feels especially exciting tonight. As they scan the packed pews for spaces, Harry catches sight of a woman in a cherry red coat and hat, waving to them from the second row, and he smiles and waves back.
“Andromeda’s saved us a seat,” he says, going to touch Draco’s arm and then hastily withdrawing.
Draco doesn’t seem to notice; he merely waves to his aunt and sets off down the aisle. Andromeda receives them both with kisses on the cheek and makes a space for them in between herself and Hermione, who is bundled up against the cold in multiple layers.
“I left them half-asleep together in front of the television,” she says, blowing on her hands and darting a quick glance between Harry and Draco.
Harry stiffens but manages a tight smile for her as he sits down. Draco, oblivious to his discomfort, immerses himself in his brightly-coloured order of service sheet, blithely allowing his thigh to rest full-length against Harry’s.
“Are you well, Harry? You look a little pale,” Andromeda murmurs.
“I’m fine, thanks,” he insists. “Fine, honestly,” he repeats when Draco looks up sharply at his aunt’s words and searches Harry’s face with anxious grey eyes. “Cold,” he tries, shivering partly for effect and partly because the church is, as always, absolutely bloody freezing.
Despite being packed with people—mostly friends and families of the children in Teddy’s primary school choir—every breath is clearly visible in the chilly air, and the flames of countless candles flicker alarmingly in the draught from the open door and the cracks in the ancient windows. Still, the place looks beautiful and the creeping joy of Advent hangs heavily in the air, making Harry forget his ridiculous problem for a moment or two as he allows himself to be caught up in it.
“Please don’t worry about it,” Hermione says under her breath as any potential further enquiries are cut off by the direction to stand for the first hymn.
“I’m not worried,” he lies, letting his voice drop below the swell of the organ.
“You’re a rubbish liar,” Hermione whispers before launching into the first verse of ‘Away in a Manger’ with more enthusiasm than technique.
With a sigh, Harry joins her, pushing all non-festive thoughts to the back of his head and losing himself in the comforting ritual of stand up, sit down, call-and-response, the booming voice of the squat, portly vicar and the songs and stories he knows inside out. When the choir rise for their first performance, Harry, Draco, Andromeda, and Hermione sit glowing with pride as Teddy stands front and centre, dressed with uncharacteristic neatness in his school uniform and smiling as he waits for his solo. Harry smiles back, knowing just how much of a struggle it has been for Ted and Andromeda over the last few years as they’ve fought along without the rest of the family, working together to help Teddy control the Metamorphmagus abilities that have meant he has had to be educated at home for most of his life.
Now, though, in his last year before Hogwarts, he has learned to fix his appearance at will and has finally been able to attend the local primary school. As he stands there, platinum blond hair gleaming in the candlelight, his pure, tremulous voice fills the church and his expression is one of pure delight. When the song draws to a close and the children file back into their pews, Teddy turns and catches Harry’s eye. He grins and gives the little boy a brief thumbs-up.
“My mother used to say I had the voice of an angel when I was his age,” Draco says some minutes later as they stand once more to sing. “Looking back, I think she may have been exaggerating.”
“Your mother has always been tone deaf, I’m afraid, Draco,” Andromeda murmurs, looking rather amused. “Though I am sure she meant it with all the love in the world.”
Harry snorts but says nothing. He likes Draco’s singing, even if it is rather liable to shift keys every couple of lines. As they settle into the song, though, he finds himself increasingly aware of the way Draco’s shoulder presses into his, tightly enough to pass warmth into Harry’s skin through several layers of clothing and closely enough for Draco’s lemony scent to cut through the heavy, musty aroma of wood polish and incense.
Too close, surely.
Taking care to carry on singing, Harry attempts to edge away. Unfortunately, the stuffed pew means that he only succeeds in knocking Hermione into the old man next to her before rebounding and finding himself pressed more intimately against Draco than he had been before. And it’s fine, he tells himself, because this whole thing is in everyone else’s heads. Just because they think there’s something between him and Draco, doesn’t mean that he has to start twitching every time they touch.
Which is a normal amount. They touch each other a perfectly average, usual amount.
“I’m sorry,” Hermione whispers to the squashed old man and then turns to shoot Harry an odd look.
Harry gives her one back. With bells on.
When the service draws to a close, they tack themselves onto the back of the slow stream of people heading for the exit and wait, shivering, in the draughty vestibule for Teddy to meet them. Huddling into his coat for warmth, Harry finds himself feeling genuinely envious of Draco’s ridiculous scarf for the first time. He doesn’t tell him. Instead he wonders about the girl and her dog, glancing out at the glittering frost and hoping pointlessly that she has found somewhere to shelter for the night.
After hugging and congratulating an excited Teddy, they head their separate ways home.
“Try to relax, Harry,” Hermione mumbles against his ear just before she Disapparates.
“Is something the matter?” Draco asks as they begin to walk back through the city, crunching over frost and breathing in the sharp, thrilling scent of winter.
“No,” Harry says simply, and not another word is spoken. Draco is pretty great like that, he thinks. He knows how to just let things be, how to make a silence comfortable. Harry has never experienced such a thing with another person. Even Ron and Hermione, who know him as well as they do, have a shared tendency to find the gaps in a conversation and fill them with words.
As they approach the shop, Draco sighs gently. Harry follows his eyes.
“She’s still there.”
“Are you really surprised?” Draco asks, stepping closer and peering down at the girl, whose long, dark waves are now scattered with frost.
“Not really.” Harry hesitates, looking down at the little dog’s nose poking out of the sleeping bag, the uncomfortable, scrunched-up posture of the girl as she sleeps fitfully, eyebrows knitted and shoulders trembling.
Taking a deep breath, he draws his wand and casts a silent warming charm over her. It won’t be enough to last all night, but might just make her comfortable for long enough to get some decent sleep, and it’s better than doing nothing. As he watches, she sighs gently and her face relaxes, her shoulders droop and her breathing begins to even out. Harry smiles to himself.
“Harry Potter saves again,” Draco says behind him, but there is no malice in his voice.
“Shut up, Draco. I’m going to put the kettle on.”
Harry is halfway up the stairs to the flat when he realises that Draco isn’t behind him, but he resists the urge to go back and see what he’s up to; the blood is coming back to his frozen fingers and he wants to keep it there. When he carries the cups into the living room, Draco is sitting on the sofa, nose in a book.
“Thanks,” he says when Harry hands him his tea, but he doesn’t look up.
Harry taps his fingers against his hot cup, hovering in the middle of the living room and frowning. After a moment, he walks over to the window that overlooks the street and peers down through the fragrant steam. The girl, still sleeping soundly, is now wearing a very long stripy scarf.
Chapter 4: part four
Prompt #4 - a cosy window seat
Fourth of December – Through the Round Window
Harry hums to himself as he waits for his tea to brew. One of the carols from last night has managed to lodge itself firmly in his head and there doesn’t seem to be any way of shifting it. Draco has already threatened to hex his mouth shut after listening to it for a mere half an hour during breakfast, and Harry is quietly grateful that today is his day off and Draco is downstairs manning the shop with Sophie, their part-time assistant. He can hear their voices from up here, anyway; he’s been able to hear them all morning: Draco’s dry, refined tones and Sophie’s warm northern accent and dirty giggle. If he’s honest, he likes hearing them. They make him feel as though all is well with the world.
Not that he wants to go down there. In fact, he doesn’t want to go anywhere. The day is cold and grey and all Harry really wants to do is nothing at all. He’s not doing too badly either—by mid-afternoon, he has flipped through a couple of books, drunk seven cups of tea, had a bath so hot that his skin is still a little bit pink, and spent several hours people-watching from his favourite window seat.
All the circular windows in the flat make for comfortable reclining spots, with their broad, curved sills and their soft, squashy cushions, but this one, Harry thinks happily as he sinks back into it with his cup of tea, is his favourite. It’s the biggest, the closest to the fire, and it has the most spectacular view of Diagon Alley. From this seat, he can see all the way up to Borteg’s at the top and can just about make out the swinging sign of the Leaky at the bottom. It’s a place where he can while away hours, stretching himself into countless odd positions and staring out idly at all the people hurrying around as the steam from a hot cup of tea languidly fogs up the glass.
Resting his cup on his stomach, Harry slides down another few inches inside the vast circle, allowing his socked feet to come to rest well above the level of his head. He listens vaguely as a woman’s voice travels up the stairwell, demanding to know why that horrible girl outside is now wearing Draco’s scarf. He scowls, but it’s only a fraction of a second before Sophie’s loud voice echoes into the flat.
“She’s not horrible, she’s homeless! It could happen to anyone—it could happen to you!”
“How dare you speak to me like that?” snaps the woman. “Get me your manager.”
“Draco!” Sophie hollers, and Harry jumps, spilling hot tea on his jumper.
He hears the sound of familiar sharp footsteps and then: “Yes, can I help you?”
Harry hisses in pain as the tea soaks through his jumper and threatens to scald his skin. For a minute or two, he loses the thread of the argument as he scrambles down from the window, finds a safe place for his tea, and then wrestles with his jumper.
“... mine to give away, and I really cannot see how she can be bothering you,” Draco is saying icily as Harry casts a cool healing charm over the patch of sore skin.
“You should know better than to encourage these people,” the woman says, though some of the fight has left her and she now sounds rather sulky. “I’m on the council, you know.”
“Good for you,” Sophie says loudly. “Maybe someone there can sell you a broomstick, then.”
Harry doesn’t hear the woman’s response but he does hear the shop door slamming and the ripple of laughter that follows from the other customers.
“Does anyone know her name?” someone asks. “I’d like to know who not to vote for next time round!”
The other customers laugh, and Harry grins as he puts his jumper back on and reclaims his seat. He looks down at the street but doesn’t see anyone who looks as angry as that woman had sounded. The girl looks startled and upset, but Harry isn’t surprised. There’s no way she could have missed the furore and he aches for her. She wraps the long scarf guiltily around herself and her dog and Harry aims another warming charm at her through the window.
She whips around, long hair flying, and Harry smiles, sliding his wand back into his sleeve. After a moment, she relaxes and bends her head to talk to the little dog. He has been watching her for much of the afternoon now and, if anything, he is more puzzled than he had been before. She is skinny but doesn’t appear to be desperately unhealthy; her skin and eyes are clear and she doesn’t seem to have the look of someone addicted to drugs or potions or alcohol—not that Harry is any kind of expert. She doesn’t beg, but Harry has seen her walking around the stalls, carrying her dog bundled up in the sleeping bag, picking up bread rolls or bits of fruit that have fallen on the ground and asking if she can take them. Most of the stallholders are kind enough, but one or two have scowled and shouted at her, and Harry has even seen one old witch chase her away with a broomstick.
He drinks his tea and sighs, wondering just how a person goes about losing their sympathy for others. Perhaps some people are just born without it. He can easily remember Vernon and Petunia spouting the same kind of tripe as that horrible woman from the council, about how ‘people like that’ cluttered up the town centre and made it look ‘downmarket’, that they were ‘dreadful’ and ‘shouldn’t be allowed’ and ‘don’t look, Dudley, darling, it’s dirty’.
“Sophie, if it’s within your power at all, I’d really prefer you not to yell at the customers,” Draco says with a touch of weariness. The loud bustle downstairs seems to have dropped away, and Harry can easily hear Sophie’s heavy sigh.
“I’m sorry, Draco, but she was so rude.”
There’s a pause, and then: “Yes, yes she was.”
“Do you want a brew?”
“Of course! I’m from the council you know...” Draco mimics, putting on a high, theatrical voice and following Sophie’s scuffling footsteps into the kitchen.
Harry folds his arms on his knees and smiles against the rough, warm fabric. Draco is brilliant. Draco makes him feel brilliant. They understand each other. They like a lot of the same things. And yes, neither of them are afraid to be a bit tactile with each other. At least, not usually. Right now, Harry feels as though touching Draco might turn him into a pile of ashes, but that’s not his fault. No, he tells himself firmly, none of this is anything but an idiotic, pointless panic started by people who cannot see two single gay men who live and work and socialise together without immediately assuming that they are more than friends.
It’s daft, really. It’s laughable.
“Ha,” Harry says to himself, drawing neat spirals in the condensation on the window. Darkness is falling quickly; he can only just make out the girl and her dog now but the shops up and down the street are glowing invitingly in the gloom. It’s probably almost closing time, and then Draco will come upstairs and...
He frowns. Shakes himself. “You’re allowed to think about him, for fuck’s sake,” he mumbles. “It’s ridiculous. It’s funny.”
And it is, because it’s Draco, and he doesn’t think about Draco like that. He doesn’t really think about many people like that, if he’s honest, but that’s always been his way. He was never like his classmates growing up—jumping from one crush to the next, always mooning over at least one person at any one time—and he’s not like that now. When he falls, he falls hard, and there is no going back. And he doesn’t need that in his life at the moment—he’s got his shop and his family and friends and Draco—he’s absolutely fine.
Comforted, he gets up from the window seat and casts one last look down at the girl. There are far worse things in life than a few people getting the wrong idea. Of course, ten years ago, she wouldn’t have been sitting out there for five minutes before someone came along and rescued her—after the war, homelessness became such a pressing issue that there had been charities and committees and projects, all brimming with volunteers wanting to help people get back on their feet. Now, of course, some other disadvantaged group is flavour of the month and attitudes, at least for some, have changed for the worse.
Whatever needs to be done, he suspects that he is going to have to be the one to do it.
The Christmas carol has crept back into his head and he hums under his breath as he wanders into the kitchen and pokes around in the cupboards, searching for dinner inspiration.
His chicken and tarragon casserole is bubbling away nicely when Draco comes in, letting in a gust of cold air and a familiar scent of broomsticks and lemons.
“I could smell that downstairs,” he says, taking off his coat and coming to stand behind Harry, who lifts the lid off the dish obligingly.
“Not bad. Did you hear Sophie yelling at that woman?” Draco asks, trying to sound shocked.
Harry turns around and leans on the stove, arms folded. “I heard everything, so don’t try to pretend you didn’t think was funny.”
“Well,” Draco says after a moment, expression turning sheepish. “I can’t say she didn’t deserve it.”
“I’m not arguing.”
Draco pulls up a kitchen chair and drops into it, hair flopping over his face and into one eye as he relaxes, stretching out his arms and legs and then curling himself around the chair in a way that only he can.
“Do you know what the crazy thing is? Ten years ago, people would’ve been falling over themselves to help her, and now...”
Harry smiles to himself but he isn’t really listening any more. He lets Draco go on, taking his own rant to higher and more dramatic places. See, he wants to say to Hermione and Ron and all the others, see—this is just how it is. We’re not... that’s just... it’s funny.
“What are you laughing at?” Draco says suddenly, eyes narrowed.
Harry hesitates. Perhaps he should just tell Draco. Share the joke.
“Well, it’s just that the other night, Hermione and Ron told me...”
Harry looks at him, at his puzzled expression and his clever eyes and his strange, twisty posture, and his stomach drops unpleasantly. “Er... they told me... a joke about a chicken,” he improvises, turning back to his casserole and closing his eyes, horrified with himself.
“Well, you’ll have to tell me now, I’m curious,” Draco says.
“I... erm... I can’t remember it,” Harry mumbles. “Are you hungry?”
When he turns around, Draco is looking at him as though he’s gone mad. Perhaps he has.
Chapter 5: part five
Prompt #5 - a peacock feather
Fifth of December – The Power of Suggestion
Harry stretches slowly and rolls into the centre of his bed, fanning out his arms and legs like a contented starfish and sighing softly as he rises through the last few levels to full consciousness. The dream had been beautiful and he isn’t quite ready to let it slip away, so he keeps his eyes closed and revels in the warmth of the morning sunshine on his skin. As he lies there, breathing slowly, he can hear the low rumble of chatter and the scrape of the market carts as Diagon Alley begins to come alive, and the rich scent of coffee that drifts through the cracked window from the cafe across the street is almost enough to coax him out of bed, but not quite.
Not quite yet.
It has been a very long time since he’s had a dream like that and he is determined to wring every last drop of lazy, sensual pleasure out of it. The shop doesn’t need to be open for at least another half an hour, and if he doesn’t make it, Sophie will be there to get things started for them.
He smiles, letting his mind drift. Catching hold of the first image that swims into focus.
Oh, yes. The peacock feather.
Fingers sliding against the sheets, Harry tips back his head and allows the smile to broaden as the dream swirls into life around him, surrounding him with colours and sounds and the memory of a sensation that feels almost real. Someone is touching him, stroking the soft feather over his eyelids, his throat, his chest. Someone is sitting astride his thighs, their jeans rough against his bare skin, holding him down and laughing softly. It’s a familiar laugh, warm and dry, and though Harry’s heart clenches tightly at the sound of it, he can’t place it, even now.
The man in the dream had leaned close to him—almost close enough to touch, but not quite—trailing kisses along his jaw and hiding behind the feather’s vivid fronds. Harry frowns even as the hot pull of arousal spreads in the pit of his stomach. He had seen the man’s face in the dream, he’s sure of it, but now... now’s there’s nothing but warmth and sensation and the feeling of falling fast. He’s holding on too tight, but by the time he forces himself to relax again, the dream has slipped away.
Shaking off his disappointment, he opens his eyes and gets out of bed. He may have lost the details but there is still enough of that stirring-dream-feeling for him to enjoy during a nice long shower. Pulling on a pair of scruffy drawstring trousers, he heads out into the living room and stops dead.
“Ah, there you are... good grief, Harry, what’s the matter?” Draco demands, scrambling up from the sofa and staring at him.
Harry just stares back, feeling all at once as though someone has whacked him in the back of the head with a frying pan and stolen the floor from under his feet. He gapes at Draco, trying to force his mouth to form words—any words—but nothing happens. There’s nothing unusual here: just Draco in his stripy pyjamas, teacup in one hand and Quidditch Quarterly in the other, but Harry can’t breathe because it was Draco in the dream, and oh, god, what is he supposed to do with that?
Draco frowns, forehead creasing slightly, and Harry is all at once flooded with arousal and terror as he is battered from all sides by vivid images from the dream. Draco had frowned at him just like that as he’d skated the peacock feather over Harry’s belly, before the frown had turned into a slow, languid smile as he’d...
Harry swallows hard and stares at the floorboards, heart pounding against his ribcage. It’s no good. He has to look at Draco. There’s no way he can go through the rest of his life not looking at Draco, so he needs to just do it, and do it now.
Flushing violently, Harry lifts his head.
“Harry, you really don’t look...” Draco attempts, but the direct eye contact is too much for Harry and, with an incoherent mumble, he dashes into the bathroom and locks the door.
Breathing hard, he grips the sink tightly and stares at his reflection in the mirror. He looks the same as usual, and for some reason, that doesn’t seem quite right. Same old green eyes, same old messy mop, same old morning stubble, same old burns on his forearms from enthusiastic but careless cooking. His face, neck and chest are rather pink and he does look somewhat startled, but he doesn’t think he looks like someone who has just had an erotic dream about one of their best friends.
Of course, that’s all it was. A dream. Just a collection of images, woven together by his subconscious and twisted into something that he can’t quite understand. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just that he’d prefer not to be confronted with the unwitting subject of the fucking thing, at least for a little while.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” Harry tells his reflection firmly.
“Are you alright? Do you need me to do anything?” Draco calls, knocking lightly on the door.
“No, no, just feeling a little under the weather... I’ll be alright in a minute,” Harry calls back, attempting to inject some brightness into his voice.
There is a long pause and then: “Are you sure? Do you want me to—?”
“No,” Harry cuts in hastily. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be down there in ten minutes, I promise.”
The last thing he needs right now is for Draco to give up his day off and leave Harry with hours upon hours of free time to rake over the dream. He needs distraction, and what could be better than a shop packed with Christmas customers and all of their bizarre demands?
When Draco walks away, still sounding rather unconvinced, Harry lets out a long breath of relief, pushing all of the air out of his lungs until the bathroom mirror fogs over and obscures his anxious face. Taking another deep breath, he turns on the shower, kicks off his trousers and steps under the freezing cold spray before he can change his mind. The water crashes icily into his skin, knocking the breath from him and forcing him to grit his teeth as he turns slowly under the water, letting it rinse the night from his skin and the alarming twist of arousal from his body.
He emerges, shivering, and tracks across the flat to his bedroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. Draco is nowhere to be seen, and for that, at least, Harry is grateful. And he’s fine. Absolutely fine. It’s not as though he would have even had the dream if it hadn’t been for Ron and Hermione and their insistence on feeding him with spurious rumours. And if he hadn’t had the dream, there would be nothing to be uncomfortable about, he tells himself firmly as he dresses, makes a cup of coffee and carries it down the stairs to the shop, where Sophie is already pulling up the shutters.
He can’t remember the last time he had a dream like that featuring someone he might actually have to look in the eye the next day, but even so, it’s faintly ridiculous to feel so embarrassed about it. It hasn’t exactly escaped his notice that Draco is an attractive man, it’s just that he doesn’t... and in the dream, he’d been...
“Oh, god,” Harry groans softly, abandoning his cup on the counter and rubbing his face with both hands.
“That’s not a happy face,” Sophie comments, and Harry drops his hands to the counter in time to see her flicking her wand and flooding the shop with light. Another flick and the Christmas decorations sparkle into life, too.
“Bad night,” he admits. Sophie wrinkles her nose in sympathy.
When the bell above the door clinks, they both turn, and, to Harry’s silent horror, he jumps slightly.
“Light the fire, Sophie, for fuck’s sake,” Draco says, shivering as he stomps into the shop with his long coat buttoned right up under his chin. “Hot chocolate,” he adds, passing a steaming cup to Sophie, who takes it with a long-suffering smile and points her wand at the fireplace.
“Ginger tea, so that you don’t vomit all over the merchandise, you stubborn bugger,” Draco announces, setting down another cup in front of Harry with a glint of challenge in his eyes.
“Er, thanks,” he manages, hoping he only imagines the waver in his voice.
Draco leans closer to him, eyes narrowed, and his clean scent wraps around Harry, making something inside him quietly explode in a shower of silver-grey and peacock feathers.
“What?” Harry manages at last.
Draco shakes his head and steps back. “If you need me, I’ll be upstairs,” he says, and then walks out of the shop, coat flapping behind him. Harry sags with relief. He picks up the ginger tea and sniffs it cautiously. He doubts it will do him any harm even if he doesn’t really feel sick, so he drinks it.
Sophie steps away from the blazing fire and unlocks the door, flipping the Snitch-shaped sign to ‘open’ and then coming to stand next to Harry with her arms folded.
“Did you two have an argument?” she says quietly, which, Harry imagines, must be a bit of a stretch for her.
“You and Draco,” she whispers, tucking a strand of pale hair behind her ear and gazing at him curiously.
Dismayed and yet unsurprised at just how obvious he is being, Harry stares down at the counter. For a moment or two, he searches for the sensible, grown up part of himself who just deals with these sorts of things, but, coming up with nothing, he sighs and looks back at Sophie.
“No. We’re fine. It’s just me,” he admits.
Sophie gazes at him for several seconds, intrigue glinting in her dark eyes. “Well, if you need someone to talk to...” she begins, but then the door flies open and several customers pile in at once, filling the shop with chatter and creaking footsteps.
Harry smiles at her and turns quickly to the first customer who approaches him.
“I need a waterproof hat for my daughter—for when she plays in the rain. She’s got hair just like mine,” says the woman, indicating an unruly mop of bouncy auburn curls that Harry thinks will challenge any waterproof hat he has in stock, but he’ll give it a go.
Harry spends a good half an hour with the hat woman, and when she leaves, satisfied, there are several more customers waiting for his attention. Sophie, too, is swamped, and by the time the rush dies down, it’s almost lunchtime. Draco sweeps through the shop again in search of sustenance, returning ten minutes later with a steaming, delicious-smelling little bag, and Harry startles and flushes both times. Furious with himself, he makes sure to turn his back on Sophie and gazes out of the window at the trembling little ears that poke over the homeless girl’s shoulder as she sits quietly watching the shoppers. Draco’s scarf seems to be keeping out some of the cold wind, but he draws his wand and casts another couple of warming charms, just in case.
He turns, hastily shoving his wand back into his waistband. “Yeah?”
Sophie sighs. “I’ve been trying to get your attention for ages. You look really out of it.”
“Sorry.” Harry walks away from the window and faces Sophie across the counter. Draco is upstairs now; Harry can hear his music and his footsteps as he wanders around the flat. “Soph... have you ever had a dream about someone and then felt really weird about it?”
Sophie’s eyebrows shoot up. “Yeah, of course.” She smiles slowly. “Harry, don’t tell me you’re acting this oddly because you had a... sexy dream,” she says, lowering her voice at the last moment.
“I’m not acting oddly,” he says sulkily.
Sophie snorts. “Right, whatever.”
Harry makes a face at her. “So, what did you do when it happened to you? How did you stop it being weird?”
Sophie grins like a shark. “Well, I...”
She falls silent and they both whip around to see the door opening. Harry smiles at the customer in what he hopes is a perfectly normal way, watches him for a moment until he becomes engrossed in a display of all-weather boots, and then turns back to Sophie expectantly.
“Well,” she continues in a whisper, “I told him about my dream and we had a very pleasant evening recreating it.”
Harry’s mouth drops open slightly. “You did not.”
Sophie laughs. “Some of us aren’t quite as uptight at you.”
“I am not uptight,” Harry whispers, folding his arms. “And anyway, that won’t work. I need another solution.”
“Why won’t it?”
“It just won’t,” Harry says flatly, trying his best to squash the vivid, evocative images that suddenly flood his brain. He really doesn’t need those right now. Or, indeed, ever.
“Why not?” Sophie teases. “Is it a Weasley? Is it me? Is it Draco?”
“No!” Harry says, just a little bit too loud for comfort. The man looking at boots turns around to regard him curiously, and when Harry turns back to Sophie, she is laughing into her hand.
“It’s Draco, isn’t it? Of course,” she says softly, shaking her head.
“If he can hear this upstairs, I’m going to kill you,” Harry mumbles, flushing all over again.
“He can’t hear anything with that racket on,” Sophie says, waving a dismissive hand. “So, you’ve had a dirty dream about Draco... what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” Harry says, leaning on the counter and scrubbing at his hair. “Nothing, probably.”
“My advice still stands,” she says, raising her voice to bellow: “Those come in red or black, sir!” at the customer, who jumps and drops the boot he is holding on the floor.
“Yeah, I won’t be doing that,” Harry says faintly. He watches in silence as Sophie rings up two pairs of boots and packs them up expertly, and then frowns as a thought occurs to him.
“Hang on a minute,” he says as soon as the shop door closes behind the customer. “You don’t already think Draco and I are together?”
Sophie blinks. “Er, no. Should I? Are you?”
Harry groans. “No. No, it’s just that... okay, here’s the thing.”
In between customers, and taking care to keep his voice down, Harry tells Sophie everything that had passed between him and Ron and Hermione that night. She listens, eyebrows drawn together in consternation throughout, and finally, when the shop is empty once again, turns to him with her hands on her hips.
“Bollocks,” she says flatly.
“In what sense?” Harry asks, cautious.
“In the sense that it’s no wonder you’re having funny dreams if you’ve got all that swimming around in your head!”
“You don’t think it means anything?”
Sophie shrugs. “Harry, I don’t know. I’m certainly not any kind of expert in this sort of thing but I don’t think you should worry about it. I mean... you’d know if you were in love with him, wouldn’t you?”
Harry lets out a long, relieved breath. “Of course I would.”
“You’ve got to stop thinking that anyone else knows you better than you do,” Sophie says, adding: “Good afternoon, Madam!” as the door opens once more, bringing an icy breeze into the shop.
“Right,” Harry agrees, though he can’t help thinking that it really wouldn’t be the first time.
Chapter 6: part six
Prompt #6 - a decorated tree
Sixth of December – Paper and String
By the next morning, Harry is a little more settled. With the combination of a successful day in the shop, a good night’s sleep, and Sophie’s no-nonsense advice, he feels restored, and has even managed to re-desensitise himself to Draco via an evening of board games. Harry has always considered himself pretty competitive, but Draco becomes so incredibly cross with himself when he loses that playing against him is extremely entertaining.
He rises early, lighting the lamps and making tea in a contented silence. It’s far too early in the day to be thinking about anything much, and he curls on the sofa, hands wrapped firmly around his hot cup, letting his thoughts drift. He lifts his hand to light the Christmas tree in the corner and smiles as the room is bathed in multicoloured dancing shadows. He remembers—as he does every time he looks at the tree—the first time he and Draco had decorated together.
Until he had moved into the flat with Harry, Draco Malfoy had never decorated a Christmas tree. Harry hadn’t quite believed him at first, but when Draco had explained that trimming for Christmas had always been a job for the house-elves, Harry had just felt sad. Every now and then, Dudley would insist upon ‘helping’ with the tree at Privet Drive, but he’d usually give up after hanging one or two decorations. More often than not the task was left to Harry, and he had loved it.
While reticent at first, Draco had soon discovered the joy of finding the perfect tree, the perfect location for the perfect tree, and the perfect combination of brightly-coloured baubles and lights and tinsels to make a room look perfectly, imperfectly festive. He may carp and complain to this day about Harry’s insistence on trimming up at the earliest possible moment, but there is no disguising the fact that Draco loves a good Christmas tree, and there’s something about that that makes Harry very happy indeed.
Draco is also very diligent about picking up pine needles, something for which Harry is grateful as he walks across the room barefoot to rearrange the presents sitting beneath the tree. There aren’t many yet, but a Christmas tree isn’t quite a Christmas tree without at least a few presents underneath it, so Harry always makes sure to buy some bits and pieces in advance and stow them away under the branches, wrapped not-very-neatly in shiny paper. He has bought a new chess set for Victoire, who is showing strong signs of becoming a little Grand Master, some art supplies for an ever-creative Teddy, and a new hat for Andromeda, who always insists she can never have quite enough.
Carefully, Harry displays each little package to its best advantage, smoothing down the tags and stroking out the creases in his messily-applied tape. He hums softly as he works, and... yes, that blasted carol is back. Harry smiles to himself, sitting back on his heels for a moment and allowing the scent of pine and the warmth of the lights to wash over him. Christmas is coming, and soon, all of these little presents and many more besides will be finding their homes.
Of course, for some people, there won’t be any presents at all, he thinks, frowning. Slowly, he gets to his feet and approaches the window, resting his hands on the curved sill and pressing his nose against the cold glass. She’s there; he can just about see her in the near-darkness. He casts another warming charm and retreats back to the sofa, tucking his icy feet underneath him as he thinks.
The girl and her dog are sleeping as he leaves the shop an hour or so later, and they do not wake when he returns with a large, squashy package under his arm. Draco looks up curiously from his newspaper when Harry enters the flat and dashes to retrieve the wrapping paper, but he says nothing. Harry takes the thick, red jumper out of the package, encloses it in shiny silver paper and wraps it with string. He then takes a large paper tag and writes:
To the girl with the pretty hair
Quality Quidditch Supplies
Carefully, he tucks the tag under the string and smiles, feeling just a little bit like McGonagall.
“You’ve bought that girl a present,” Draco says.
“Not a word from you, unless you want to discuss the scarf,” Harry warns, and Draco closes his mouth.
Harry glances at him, amused, and is relieved to note that he really doesn’t feel strange about it. Not even a little bit. And alright, that little smile gives him the tiniest fraction of a shiver, but that’s probably just because the fire is dying down. Harry frowns and shakes himself. He takes the package down to the shop and waits until the girl picks up her dog and goes wandering around the market stalls before he darts out and sets it down on the cobbles.
The next time he gets a break from serving customers, he hurries to the window. Delighted, he watches as she reads the tag with a frown, pulls open the wrappings and shakes out the jumper on her lap. Her fingers stroke the soft wool as she looks around guiltily and chews on her bottom lip, as though afraid that the gift cannot possibly be for her. Once again she picks up the tag and studies it. Slowly, she turns around and looks at the shop window.
“Bugger,” Harry mumbles and ducks out of sight.
Draco, who is polishing the counter with beeswax, laughs helpfully.
When Harry creeps back to the window, she is wearing the jumper.
“She’s put it on,” he tells Draco triumphantly.
“What did you expect her to do with it?”
Harry shakes his head. “It’s a bit big but I think she likes it!”
The girl sits up a little straighter now, long hair cascading over her stripy scarf and red woollen jumper. She looks as though she is caught between wanting to smile and wanting to continue glancing around suspiciously; after a moment, though, the smile wins out, and, inside the shop, Harry smiles too.
The little dog, who has emerged from the sleeping bag to investigate the new item, scuttles around her, little whiskery mouth open in a rather charming, pointy-toothed smile. His white and brown coat is bristly and something in the stiffness of his gait suggests to Harry that he is not a young dog as he had first thought. As he jumps gamely around his owner, triangular ears flopping into his eyes, Harry notices something else about the little creature for the first time.
“That dog’s got three legs!” he says, turning around from the window to look at Draco.
“I know,” Draco says, continuing to buff at the counter top.
“And you didn’t think to mention it?”
Draco looks up and arches an eyebrow. “What exactly is it with you and animals that have bits missing?”
Harry attempts a scowl and turns back to the window, knowing that Draco has him bang to rights.
“I don’t know,” he admits, but one thing is for certain. That three-legged dog is going to need a present, too.
Chapter 7: part seven
Prompt #7 - a fish in or on a teacup
Seventh of December – There’s No Tea in Fish
Harry’s day starts rather badly. He is rudely awoken just before six o’clock by a shrill, angry voice in the street below his bedroom, the sheer volume of which pulls him roughly out of a very strange dream in which Draco had been alternating between laughing helplessly at him and trying to push him up against the shop window in front of a crowd of cheering onlookers. Sleepy and unsettled, he yawns and pads over to the window, pushing it fully open and leaning out into the frosty air.
He has to squint in the darkness but it doesn’t take long to work out that the screamer—an old woman with a rickety cart full of scarves and shiny trinkets—is yelling at the girl and her dog. What isn’t quite as clear is why, but judging by the anxious barks of the dog and the rather-more-strident-than-usual voice of the girl, Harry suspects that the old woman and the animal have upset one another somehow.
“You ought to drown that ’orrible thing,” the woman shouts, and, caught up in a sudden rush of protectiveness, Harry shouts back:
“That’s enough! Leave her alone! And button it before you wake the whole street!”
To his surprise, the old woman falls immediately silent. The girl murmurs softly for a moment or two and then the dog whimpers and stops barking.
“Yeah, well,” Harry mutters to himself, feeling suddenly self-conscious as he retreats back into his bedroom. As he climbs back into bed, he can hear the rattle and clank of the cart’s wheels as the old woman moves off along the street, and he falls back into a fitful sleep.
Once the shop is open, the constant flow of customers is such that Harry doesn’t have much time to think about anything non-Quidditch-related, and by lunchtime, he and Draco have barely exchanged a word, if Harry doesn’t count the numerous times that Draco has grinned at him and mumbled “button it before you wake the whole street!”, and he doesn’t.
“I can’t be held responsible for what I say when I’m still mostly asleep,” Harry protests as Draco heads out into the drizzle in search of sandwiches, shaking his head and smirking to himself.
The moment Draco is out of sight, the shop seems to flood with customers, and Harry is so caught up in ringing up their purchases, answering their questions and apologising over and over again for temporarily running out of the new Nimbus that he barely notices how long Draco has been gone. It’s only when his stomach rumbles violently and he glances at the clock that he realises he’s been on his own for over an hour.
And, of course, Draco can take as long as he likes for a lunch break, but it’s not like him to wander off when the shop is busy, especially not in the kind of weather that might damage his beloved coat.
“Hello,” says a smiling man in a bobble hat, pulling Harry’s mind back to his work. “I was looking in your window and I couldn’t see the new Nimbus—have you got it?”
Harry sighs inwardly. Just then, Draco strides back into the shop, and Harry is so unexpectedly relieved to see him that he is able to find an apologetic smile for his customer as he explains yet again that the new Nimbus will be back very soon. When the man leaves, he leans on the counter and shakes his head silently, giving himself a mental slap for worrying, even for a second, about absolutely nothing.
“You look like you’re about to be sick,” Draco observes, setting down a toasted sandwich and a cup of tea in front of Harry. “Again. Whatever this is, you had better hope it isn’t contagious.”
Harry smiles weakly even as something like panic flutters in his stomach. “Shut up. Thank you.”
Draco says nothing. He gnaws on the crust of his toastie, looking irritatingly calm. In between customers, Harry picks at his lunch, slowly feeling better with each bite of bread, cheese and ham. After a long and fruitless conversation with an anxious old man about a team strip that Harry is fairly sure does not exist, he returns to the counter and crunches the last corner of his sandwich, then reaches for his teacup.
Draco always makes excellent tea. He seems to have a way of... Harry stops, just as the rim of the cup touches his lips. Something is not quite right. Frowning, he peers into his teacup. It could be the fact that the cup and liquid are cold; it could be the fact that the contents do not smell delicate and fragrant like they usually do, but it’s probably because his cup is now full of water.
And there’s a fish in it.
Harry stares down at the fish and the fish stares right back, bobbly little eyes seemingly full of reproach at the idea of being gulped down without a thought.
“Where the hell did you come from?” he demands.
“Just outside Cardiff, originally,” says the young man who has been examining a display of club keyrings next to the counter. “Do you always talk to your tea?”
Startled, Harry looks up. The man flashes him a bright smile and Draco, from somewhere behind Harry, makes an odd little sound.
“Er, no, not really. Sorry, is there something I can help you with?” he asks pleasantly, lowering his cup and holding it protectively against his body. He can’t explain it, but he doesn’t want to share his fish, even with this admittedly rather handsome customer.
“Maybe,” the man murmurs, turning the smile up a notch, but when Harry just nods and looks at him expectantly, he seems to sag. “Just this,” he says, smile fading back into the ‘polite’ range as he pushes a Puddlemere United keyring across the counter.
Draco snorts quietly.
When the man leaves, Harry turns to him. “What was all that about? And, more to the point, why is there a fish in my cup?”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive me for finding it amusing when you take absolutely no notice of people trying to flirt with you,” Draco says, sipping from his own cup, which Harry hopes is fishless. “I have no idea about the fish. Let’s have a look.”
Harry sets the cup down on the counter and Draco peers over his shoulder, brushing warmth and soft cashmere against his back and making him shiver.
“He wasn’t flirting,” Harry says absently.
The fish flicks his tail and splashes water onto the counter. Harry smiles down at him. He’s an odd little thing, round and black, just about the size of a Gobstone, with protruding eyes and long, trailing fins. As he turns circles in the cup, Harry realises that one of those fins is neither long nor trailing—it’s stubby and crooked. The fish doesn’t seem the slightest bit distressed by the deformity but there’s something oddly charming about the little tilt it adds to his swimming. Harry is in love.
“He certainly was,” Draco says, chin brushing Harry’s shoulder, but Harry isn’t really listening.
“Are you telling me you know nothing about this?” he asks without looking away from the fish.
“Not a thing,” Draco says, and then: “Wasn’t George in here a little while ago? I think he was looking at the Keeper’s gloves when you were talking to that old buffer.”
“Well, that’d explain it,” Harry mumbles, dipping his finger into the water. “Wait ’til I see him.”
“I thought you liked fish,” Draco says, and Harry can almost feel his frown of confusion.
“I do,” Harry says. “But I need a moment to mourn the loss of my cup of tea.”
Draco sighs and walks away, footsteps receding into the back. Harry smiles. When Draco returns a minute or two later, the little fish is nibbling curiously at his finger.
“Here, you daft bugger.” He places a steaming cup of tea in front of Harry and then peers into the cup again. “He likes you.”
“There’s no need to sound so surprised, I’m very likeable,” Harry says through a delighted grin. “Have you seen his funny fin?”
Draco looks. “What is it with you and animals that have bits missing?”
Slowly, Harry turns to look at him.
Draco arches an eyebrow. “What?”
Harry shakes his head. “That’s exactly what you said last night when I was talking about that dog.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Draco says, but something flickers in his eyes and Harry knows immediately that George Weasley did not put a bobbly black fish in his teacup.
“It was you!” he says triumphantly, unable to decide which part he finds funnier—the fact that he now has a fish or the fact that Draco has had something to do with it—either way, he suddenly feels light with happiness and he can’t keep the stupid smile off his face.
“Harry, I really have no idea—”
“Give it up, Draco, I know it was you.”
For a moment, Draco looks as though he might continue to protest, but then he just shrugs and holds up his hands in defeat. Harry withdraws his hand from the teacup and folds his arms, attempting to channel Draco and use his own pin-you-to-the-spot stare against him.
Draco blinks. Sighs. “Alright, I admit it! I put the fish in your teacup.”
At the other side of the shop, a couple of mothers with pushchairs look over at them and giggle.
“Don’t you like him?” Draco asks, eyebrows knitting. “It took me ages to find a disadvantaged one. Everything in the Magical Menagerie is frustratingly healthy.”
Harry laughs. “Of course I like him. I’m just a bit confused.”
Draco comes to stand at the counter and gazes down at the fish, who is now floating quietly in the very centre of the cup. “If you must know, I thought it might cheer you up a little bit. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve been worried about something.”
“Oh,” Harry says quietly, unable to bring himself to actually lie and say he hasn’t been worried about anything at all. “So you put a fish...”
“Oh my goodness,” says one of the women as she approaches the counter and peers into Harry’s cup. “I didn’t think there would really be a fish in there! Margo, come and see! Have you got the new Nimbus?”
Harry and Draco exchange silent glances. That emergency order cannot arrive quickly enough.
“When Teddy got that purple thing you spent the best part of an hour talking to him,” Draco says several minutes later, when the shop is quiet once again.
“That purple thing is a Siamese fighting fish and he was very interesting,” Harry says, letting the fish ob-ob gently at his fingertip and smiling.
“Is this fish interesting?” Draco asks rather sharply.
Harry turns to him. “Of course he is.”
Draco’s mouth flickers at one corner as he retrieves his cloth and beeswax. “What’s his name?”
Harry frowns, gazing down at his lopsided little pet. The truth is, he doesn’t know yet. What he does know is that his fish cannot live in a teacup, so, taking advantage of a brief quiet period, he leaves Draco to fish-sit, wraps up in coat, scarf and gloves, and heads out into Diagon Alley for supplies.
“Good afternoon,” he says brightly as he passes the girl, and, for the first time ever, she lifts her head and looks him in the eye.
Astonished, he stops mid-stride and turns to look at her properly. The lower part of her face is still mostly covered by swathes of stripy scarf, but he can see her eyes now, large and dark, her heavy eyebrows and her straight, prominent nose. She is not delicately beautiful, but it’s obvious that she’d be quite striking were it not for her rain-tracked skin and dirty clothes.
“Did you leave me this jumper?” she asks, voice quiet and scratchy.
“It’s a nice jumper,” he says, avoiding the question, and smiles at her. He turns to go, reluctant to push her now that she has finally decided to communicate with him.
“Please would you thank your boyfriend for the scarf?” she says suddenly. “I wanted to do it myself but he always seems to be in such a hurry.”
Harry stops, heart skipping. “Yeah, he’s like that. And he’s not my boyfriend.”
The girl frowns, drawing back into herself a little. “Oh, sorry. I assumed.”
“Don’t worry,” Harry says, and he means it. “Everyone else does. See you later.”
At the Magical Menagerie he buys a big glass bowl for his fish as well as everything else the shopkeeper suggests, including a selection of leafy green plants, a little device that creates a stream of bubbles, and a rather impressive miniature stone castle. When he leaves, the air is once more full of horrible, cold drizzle, and he hurries back to the shop, making good time despite the bowl under one arm and the heavy bags cutting into both palms.
The girl eyes him curiously. “What are you doing?” she asks, clearly unable to stop herself.
“I suddenly have a goldfish,” he says, hesitates for a moment, and then takes a small leap of faith. The fine drizzle is already snaking into his clothes and making him shiver, and he’s only been out in it for a few minutes. She must be absolutely miserable. “Listen... what’s your name? I’m Harry.”
“I know,” she says, dark eyes amused. The little dog pokes his head out of the sleeping bag and barks.
Harry feels himself flush and does his level best to ignore it. “Would you like to come inside? It’s horrible out here.”
She presses her lips together and shakes her head. “No, thanks,” she says, one hand creeping out of her sleeping bag to stroke the dog’s head.
Harry sighs, fighting back the urge to argue. One step at a time, he tells himself. Don’t rush.
“Okay, well... it was nice to talk to you,” he says, feeling like an idiot as he wrestles the shop door open and hauls his purchases inside.
“It’s Nisha,” she says, and he turns. “My name is Nisha. And this is Sparks.”
“It’s good to meet you at last,” Harry says, no longer caring about the cold water trickling down his back. He smiles at Nisha and lets the shop door bang behind him.
Draco, who is leaning on the counter and talking to the fish, doesn’t even look up when Harry comes in.
“Well, you might think that,” he says seriously as the fish splashes water out onto the counter, “but he’s alright once you get to know him.”
Harry stands by the door and removes his damp gloves, scarf and coat in silence, staring at the man and the cup and wondering just what it is about them that makes him feel so content.
“We’ve been having a talk, Oolong and I,” Draco says, looking up at last.
“Oolong?” Harry repeats, amused.
Draco nods. “Of course, you don’t have to call him that, but he does tell me that’s his name.”
Harry lifts an eyebrow. “Like the tea?”
Harry piles his purchases onto the freshly-polished counter, attracting a weary look from Draco, and gazes down at the little black fish.
“Oolong it is. And what have you been talking about?”
“All sorts,” Draco says casually. “Quidditch, the economy, the fact that you make the best toad-in-the-hole in the known universe...”
Harry folds his arms. “Let me guess... Oolong thinks I should make toad-in-the-hole when Ron and Hermione come for dinner tonight?”
“How wonderful—the two of you have a connection already,” Draco says, beaming.
He heads into the back and Harry watches him, shaking his head. He has the very strong feeling he has just been manipulated by an ex-Slytherin and an unbalanced fish, and not only that... there is very little he can do about it.
By closing time, Harry has finished setting up Oolong’s new home. The little fish is now swimming happily in the clear water of his new bowl, nibbling at his plants and investigating his castle, while Harry sits on the counter and watches him, allowing Draco to close up the shop without a shred of guilt. Carefully, Harry tips a small amount of flaked food into the bowl and gazes avidly through the glass as Oolong rises eagerly to the top and consumes his dinner with healthy enthusiasm.
“He’s eating,” Harry calls.
Draco doesn’t answer but he definitely looks pleased as the two of them climb the stairs to the flat, and Harry doesn’t miss the anxious little glance he darts into the bowl as he passes.
“So... he bought you a fish,” Ron says after dinner that night, bending down to peer into the bowl at Oolong, who immediately swims over to show off for him.
“Yeah,” Harry agrees, darting a glance up at the flat, where Draco and Hermione are curled on the sofa with cups of strong coffee, embroiled in a discussion about a book they have both recently read.
Ron straightens up and shoves his hands into his pockets. “It’s... a bit... you know.”
“Not really,” Harry admits. “It’s a bit what?”
“Well,” Ron says, lowering his voice as though he expects Draco to burst into the shop at any moment. “Don’t you think it’s a bit boyfriendy?”
Harry squirms slightly in place. “No, of course not. He said he wanted to cheer me up because I looked worried. That’s just... what a friend would do. A good friend.”
Ron gives him a dubious look. “I don’t want to keep going on about this, Harry, believe me,” he says, expression shifting into one of reluctance, “but I’ve never once known a bloke buy his mate a pet because he was looking a bit worried. A pint, maybe, but not a fancy fish.”
Harry opens his mouth to say ‘he’s not fancy!’ but then decides against it. He doesn’t want to offend Oolong, especially when he’s just arrived. “What are you saying, exactly?” he asks instead, ignoring the nasty swirl in the pit of his stomach that tells him he knows exactly what Ron is saying.
Ron looks away from him, face turning pink. “Harry, I’m rubbish at this stuff, you know I am.”
“As if I’m any better!” Harry hisses, beginning to feel slightly hysterical. “I’ve only had a week of this ‘everyone thinks you’re with Draco’ stuff and it’s already sending me mad—if you’ve got something to tell me then, for fuck’s sake, spit it out... please.”
“Okay, but not a word to Hermione,” Ron says, darting a pleading glance at Harry. He nods. “For what it’s worth, I was against bringing the whole thing up in the first place, but here we are.”
“Sorry. Hermione thought you should know because she didn’t think it was fair that everyone thought you were a couple when you weren’t, right?”
“Well, what if... Harry, please remember everything nice I might’ve ever done for you when I say this,” Ron mumbles, still looking at the floor. “What if you are a couple and you just don’t know it?”
“What?” Harry demands, heart hammering as he stares at the side of Ron’s head.
“What if you both feel... you know, and everything’s there, but there’s just something missing, like someone forgot to say one last incantation and it never quite...” Ron trails off, lifting his hands illustratively and sketching out a small explosion.
With what looks like a massive effort, he looks up and meets Harry’s eyes.
“Is that what you think is happening?” Harry asks, hot and prickly all over, caught somewhere between terror, indignation and the desire to kick something very hard.
Ron shrugs. “It’s just a theory.”
Harry nods slowly. “It’s... an interesting one.”
“Harry, come back up here—I need you!” Draco calls down the stairs.
Harry closes his eyes.
“A very interesting one indeed,” Ron says, sounding just a little bit pleased with himself.
Chapter 8: part eight
Prompt #8 - a walk in the snow
Eighth of December – Just for a Minute
When Harry wakes after another night of patchy sleep and unsettling dreams, the rain has stopped. By the time Draco and Sophie are letting in the first customers of the day, the winter sun is dazzling in the sky, and it doesn’t take Harry long to give in to the desire to be out in it. He wraps up against the inevitable chill, gives Oolong his breakfast and heads out, exchanging good-mornings with Nisha as he strides down the frosted cobbles to the Leaky Cauldron.
Once out in the early-morning bustle of London, he blends into the flow of pedestrians and allows it to carry him. He knows there is a park not far from the entrance to Diagon Alley and he is, for some reason, desperate to see trees and some snow that hasn’t yet been churned to grey slush. The walk there seems longer than he remembers, possibly because the streets are packed so tightly that despite hurrying along like everyone else, he feels as though he is going absolutely nowhere fast.
For several minutes, he is joggled along, stood on, elbowed and glared at as he is squeezed along what feels like the digestive system of some vast monster that smells like cigarette smoke and fried food and other people’s perfume.
Every now and then he passes a doorway in which a bedraggled human being crouches, some young, some old, some glassy with intoxication, some bright-eyed and terrified; he tries repeatedly to stop and offer a few coins but every time he is swept along with the crowd and onto the next. By the time he spots the park gates and manages to pull himself out of the stream, he has been firmly reminded of how much he dislikes the city at this time of day, and how safe and calm Diagon Alley really is, even with its own little share of unkindness and intolerance. He thinks of Nisha, curled in her sleeping bag with Sparks on her lap, and feels oddly heartened. She will know hardship today, but not like this.
“And next time, I will Apparate to the fucking park,” he mumbles to himself, darting across the road just as the green man begins to flash.
Once inside, he lets out a long, slow breath. The park is just as beautiful as he remembers it, possibly even more so in the snow and frost than in the summer, when the trees and grass had been vividly green and rustling, and the flower beds bursting with vibrant colour. Now, the lawns are covered in a light layer of snow, and frost sparkles blindingly from every surface in the morning sunshine. Many of the trees are stark, hulking skeletons, but myriad ice crystals make them glimmer hopefully, and the hundreds of conifers that line the walls of the park wear their dustings of snow with imposing style.
He walks until he can no longer hear the sounds of the traffic, taking long, crunchy strides along the winding pathway and breathing in the cold scent of earth and frozen grass. The park is by no means empty, but the people here are quieter; in fact, with the possible exception of the groups of students, they are silent, and Harry’s frazzled mind is grateful for it. Most of the people he passes are being pulled along with tail-wagging enthusiasm by their dogs, and his mind drifts back to Sparks, who would probably love this place.
He can no longer feel his face when he reaches the children’s playground, but that doesn’t stop him from nipping in through the creaky gate and pulling up a swing. The place is empty but he still feels a little rebellious as he steps back, hands wrapped tightly around the cold chains, takes a deep breath and pushes off hard. He leans back into the familiar swooping sensation and bends his knees at the top of the arc, soaring higher and higher with each swing until the icy air makes his teeth hurt and his eyes water, and he wonders—as he did so often as a child—if he really might swing right over the top this time.
He doesn’t, of course, but he carries on soaring all the same, relishing the sensation of almost-weightlessness just before he plummets back towards the ground each time and resolving to get out on his broomstick as soon as he can. It’s been far too long.
Finally, he allows the swing to slow until his boots are scraping along the ground and he comes to a stop. Freezing cold, wind-whipped and exhilarated, he sits there, idly scuffing back and forth as he ruffles his messy hair and wipes his steamed-up glasses on his coat. For a moment, he had felt eight years old, and it had been wonderful. Not that he can kid himself that being eight years old had been all that wonderful—he had lived with the Dursleys, after all—but at the same time, there had been something fantastically uncomplicated about it.
Eight-year-old Harry had certainly never had to think about the sort of things that Ron had suggested last night. Which is fortunate, he supposes, because twenty-eight-year-old Harry is finding it challenging enough.
Staring into the distance at the frost-coated fountain, Harry allows himself to consider all of the advice, helpful and otherwise, that he has received so far. Hermione had told him that he was oblivious, but not to worry about it. Sophie had implied that Hermione was bonkers and that he should trust himself. Nisha had jumped effortlessly to the wrong—if popular—conclusion. Ron... Harry grimaces. Ron had talked about missing incantations and suggested that the problem was in Harry’s head, not everyone else’s.
Harry sighs, because, of course, none of it really helps at all. He doesn’t feel that way about Draco; he’s pretty sure he doesn’t. If he doesn’t count the dreams, which he definitely does not. He and Draco are good friends, maybe even best friends, and a man should be able to buy another man a fish without any subtext at all.
Harry begins to swing again, wondering distractedly if Oolong is okay and doesn’t think he has been abandoned already.
Do friends let friends name their pets for them? he wonders, and then shakes his head. Never mind what other people do. This is the way he and Draco are, and it’s worked perfectly well for the last ten years.
Denial, Hermione had said, though. It’s not healthy, she’d said.
This is not healthy, Harry thinks, scowling and kicking off savagely. I’m fine, he’s fine, we are fine.
Leaning back as far as he dares, Harry closes his eyes and allows the chill wind to sweep the whole mess out of his mind. For the next few minutes, he’s going to be eight years old.
Chapter 9: part nine
Prompt #9 - a snowy train station
Ninth of December – Sparks Might Fly
“Gravy,” Harry says to Oolong. “That’s the secret of a really good cottage pie.”
Oolong flaps his uneven fins and swims quickly to the top of his bowl as Harry opens his tub of food and sprinkles colourful flakes onto the surface of the water.
“There’s nothing worse than watery, tasteless gravy. Except for instant mash, of course, but we all know what happens to people who use that,” Harry continues, gazing darkly into the bowl and watching Oolong’s dinner disappear into his mouth. “Some people say it’s all about the meat, but I think—”
“I think the butcher’s closes in five minutes,” Draco says without looking up from the till, where he is methodically counting the day’s takings into a series of small bags.
Harry whips around to look at the clock. Draco, for once, is not exaggerating. It is almost six o’clock and he has apparently been talking to Oolong about tonight’s dinner for almost half an hour. In his defence, Oolong is an excellent listener and hadn’t seemed to mind at all. Still, Harry struggles into his coat quickly and hurries out into the dark street. Draco will cope without the promised cottage pie, but Harry suspects he will never hear the end of it if he misses the butcher because he is too busy talking to his fish.
“Hi,” he calls as he dashes past Nisha and Sparks.
She looks up from the bruised pear she is avidly devouring and waves to him. The little dog wags his tail and then continues to sniff uninterestedly at the stale-looking bread roll that seems to be his dinner. Harry slows for a moment to watch them and then, remembering his mission, pelts off down the street, swearing loudly as he slips around on the frosty cobbles. As he walks into the butcher’s shop, he thinks he can hear Nisha laughing at him.
“Can I have a pound of beef mince, please?” he asks, catching his breath.
“You’re cutting it fine—I was just about to close up,” says the butcher, a tall man with bushy eyebrows and an enormous ginger beard. He reaches for the tray of mince and expertly throws a portion onto the scales. “Alright?”
Harry glances at the balance. “Brilliant, thanks.”
As the man wraps up his mince, Harry lets his gaze wander around the shop, idly examining the vast Christmas turkeys on display, the unplucked pheasants dangling from the ceiling and the mountains of golden, shiny-topped pork pies. His stomach rumbles and the butcher laughs throatily.
“How about a cheese and onion pasty to put you on ’til supper?” he suggests, dropping the package of mince on the glass counter in front of Harry. “Made them myself. I promise you won’t regret it.”
“Go on, then,” Harry says, looking at the stack of neatly-crimped pasties and digging in his pockets for coins. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any bones, have you? You know, for a dog?”
“I’m not sure what kind of butcher I’d be if I couldn’t manage some bones for a dog, young man,” comes the slightly muffled response as the butcher rummages around under the counter. “Here,” he says after a moment, emerging with a grisly collection of objects and slinging them into a paper bag for Harry. “Still got some meat on them and everything. I didn’t know you had a dog.”
“I don’t. It’s... sort of a long story,” Harry says, feeling suddenly silly as he hands over the money and takes his three packages.
The butcher declines to comment, merely thanking Harry and locking the shop door behind him, but Harry can’t help imagining that he has managed to make an idiot of himself somehow. When he notices that the lights are still on in the cafe, he stops and buys a large cup of coffee, which he then gives to a very surprised Nisha.
“Thank you,” she says, staring up at him in astonishment. “I can’t remember the last time I had a hot drink.” She raises the paper cup to her face and inhales the fragrant steam rapturously.
Harry smiles, watching her for a moment before turning his attention to Sparks, who is gnawing idly on his bread roll.
“I brought him something—if you don’t mind.”
“You brought something for my dog?” Nisha asks, dark eyebrows knitted.
“It’s nothing much,” Harry says, crouching on the cobbles and unwrapping the package of bones. He picks one up and shows it to Sparks, who immediately abandons the bread roll and begins sniffing excitedly at Harry’s hand.
“Sit,” Nisha murmurs, and the little dog obeys at once. “Good boy.”
“Should I give it to him?” Harry asks.
She nods. “It’s really nice of you... but I don’t have anything to give you.”
Harry looks at her, astonished. “I don’t need anything.”
He throws the small bone to Sparks and, for a minute or two, he and Nisha watch in silence as he strips the little bits of meat from the bone and chases it around on the slippery cobbles. When he starts to become stiff and uncomfortable, he casts a couple of spells to warm and dry the ground and sits down next to Nisha. She smiles as the air around her warms pleasantly and turns large dark eyes on Harry.
“It is you who casts those spells.”
Harry smiles, too, pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. Now that he’s warm, now that Nisha has a hot drink to hold onto and Sparks has a proper dinner, it doesn’t seem quite so miserable out here. The last few open shops glow invitingly in the darkness and the glittering Christmas lights inside Quality Quidditch Supplies bathe their section of cobbles in a soft, multicoloured haze.
“I don’t suppose you’ll believe me if I try to deny it,” he says.
Nisha drinks deeply from her steaming cup. “Not really. You seem like the type.”
“And what type is that?”
She sighs, resting her head against the shop front. “Kind. Philanthropic. That sort of thing.”
“Oh,” Harry says uncertainly.
“It’s not a bad thing,” she insists, glancing at him. “Just unusual.”
Harry nods, unable to respond for a moment or two as he silently hurts for her. “I’m sorry about the way some of our neighbours have treated you,” he says at last.
“It’s fine,” she says, shifting uncomfortably.
“I can manage, okay? It’s when they mess with him that I think I’m going to lose it,” she says, looking over at Sparks, who is now sprawled out on his side, gnawing contentedly on the bone.
“How long have you had him?” Harry asks after a moment, sensing that, like many pet owners, she might just be more willing to talk about her dog than herself.
“Since the end of the summer... three months, maybe four.”
“You seem as though you’ve been friends for years,” he says, genuinely surprised. There cannot be much of a difference in age between the young girl and the old dog—Nisha can’t be more than twenty and, despite his spry enthusiasm, Sparks isn’t far behind.
Nisha smiles. “It feels that way.”
As though sensing that he is being talked about, Sparks picks up his bone and potters over to Nisha’s side. She pulls one hand away from her cup and presses her warm palm to his cold ears, one at a time.
“Did you find him, or did he find you?” Harry asks, resting his chin on his knees.
Nisha’s face darkens. “I was walking along by Camden Lock and I saw this bag in the water. A woman’s handbag—a big one. I thought maybe someone had lost it so I went to fish it out and he was inside. Another couple of minutes and I think he would’ve drowned,” she says, reaching instinctively for the little dog and pulling him onto her lap.
Harry stares, horrified. “Someone tried to drown him on purpose?”
Nisha nods. “I thought maybe... because he’s old, or because he’s got something wrong with him... I don’t know, but whatever it is, it makes me feel sick whenever I think about it.”
Sparks drops the sticky bone into Nisha’s lap and bares his teeth ingratiatingly at Harry. Heart sore, Harry reaches over and scratches his wiry little head.
“I think he’s lovely,” he says firmly. “And he’s got a lot of personality.”
“That’s for sure,” Nisha says, brightening. “He loves watching the people go in and out of your shop. He likes to sit on my knee inside the sleeping bag and poke his head out just enough so that he can see. He’s a bit too curious for his own good, I think. The other morning—you know, when you shouted out of the window?”
Harry wrinkles his nose in embarrassment. “Yeah.”
“That woman was yelling because he barked at her and made her drop her things. She wouldn’t listen when I told her that the reason he was upset was that she ran over his tail with her cart. He heard her coming and came out to have a look.” Nisha sighs and looks sternly at the little dog. “Nosy parker, aren’t you?”
“Sorry about the yelling,” Harry says, fishing out another bone for Sparks.
“Don’t be,” Nisha says. “It made my day.”
Before Harry can respond, the shop door swings open and Draco steps out into the street.
“There you are,” he sighs. “Are you coming in any time soon?”
“Me?” Harry asks innocently.
“You, the three of you, the whole street... I don’t care at this point. If the dog can cook dinner, he’s welcome to come up on his own,” Draco says, shivering in his thin shirt.
“I got the mince,” Harry tells him, scrambling to his feet. “It might be frozen now, though.”
Draco gives him an exasperated look and then disappears back inside the shop. Harry watches him go, amused, and then turns to Nisha.
“Here, take the rest of these,” he says, handing her the package of bones. “And this,” he adds, remembering the cheese pasty and pushing it into her hands. “And you know, you can come in if you want to.”
Nisha stares up at him with wide eyes. “I really... thanks,” she says quietly, setting down the empty coffee cup and wrapping her hands tightly around the paper packages as though Harry might change his mind at any moment. “We’re fine. Thanks.”
“Okay.” With some effort, Harry looks back at them one last time and then lets himself into the shop.
“Well?” Draco demands, emerging from the back and looking at him expectantly. “Do we have guests?”
“No.” Harry heads for the stairs with his packet of mince. “Not tonight.”
The snow is whirling down over Hogsmeade station, falling silently in thick, soft drifts at the edges of the platform and settling on Harry’s hair and clothes. The nip of winter is sharp and fresh in the air, but he doesn’t feel cold, and the complete lack of sound is somehow just as comforting as it is surreal.
He gazes up at the hazy, white sky, watching the swirl of impossibly large snowflakes, each as different and as intricate as spiders’ webs. Then someone is touching him, easing his glasses from his face and wiping them clear of snow, replacing them on his nose and turning him around, and it’s Draco—of course it’s Draco. Harry smiles at him, revelling in the gentle rush of warmth that filters through his body. Draco smiles back, and it’s that slow, almost reluctant half-smile that always makes Harry feel...
... yes, like there’s something hot and prickly wrapping around his heart. Just like that.
Draco takes off his coat—his favourite coat—and laughs, flinging his arms out to the sides and tipping his head back into the snowfall until his pale hair and eyelashes are sparkling with icy flakes. Fingers fumbling the buttons, Harry takes off his coat, too, dropping into the snow and listening to the only sound he can hear: Draco’s voice.
When the silence resumes, Draco holds out a hand to him and he takes it, allowing himself to be pulled right to the edge of the platform. Slowly, they turn to one another and stare. Draco’s eyes are warm and bright. Harry doesn’t think he has ever seen him so vulnerable.
“Don’t you?” he asks, voice fading with the wind.
“Don’t I what?” Harry asks, or, at least, he tries to, but no sound comes out.
“The train is coming,” Draco says, and he sounds so incredibly sad that Harry aches all over.
He glances into the distance and sees the Hogwarts Express, red and shiny and completely silent as it approaches the station. He turns back to Draco and shakes his head. When the train leaves the platform, it will take Draco with it, and suddenly he can’t hold himself up. Heart pounding and eyes stinging, he sinks into the snow on his knees, feeling the cold now, feeling the icy wetness and the numb, chilled skin on his face.
Please, he thinks, trying to see Draco through the thickening blizzard. Please. I love you.
The train is in the station now, puffing out smoke and waiting silently to take Draco away.
“I need you,” he says, spluttering on the words and hearing them, loud and harsh in his ears.
“It’s just one more spell, isn’t it?” Draco says, and then he’s on his knees, too, cold hands on Harry’s face, and Harry kisses him, soft and warm and slow and melting, closing his eyes to the snow and the train and just pressing tight, fingers clenched in Draco’s shirt fabric, heart hammering so furiously that he thinks it might stop.
Harry’s eyes snap open. Raising himself up on one elbow, he looks around at the dark room in bewilderment. Heart still pounding, he feels around for his wand and casts Tempus. It’s just after two o’clock in the morning, the flat is silent but for the sound of his own anxious breathing, and he thinks he might just be utterly fucked.
Chapter 10: part ten
AN - And so begins the pining... oh, I'm not even sorry. Swallows and Amazons belongs entirely to Arthur Ransome.
Prompt #10 - adventure books
Tenth of December – The Fall
The consignment of new brooms finally arrives just before closing time the next day. Having been irritable and unsettled all day long, Harry opens the door to the delivery man with a harsh remark on his lips. One look at the poor man’s face, though, and his impatience fades away. The man from Nimbus is at least as tired and beleaguered as Harry feels, eyes shadowed and hollow as he passes Harry a form to sign and then attempts a weak smile.
“I’m really sorry it’s so late,” he sighs, taking off his hat and rubbing at his hair. “I’m not sure how they expect us to cram in three times as many deliveries just because it’s Christmas, but it’s not your problem. I’ve knocked ten per cent off your total, is that alright?”
“Yeah, it’s fine, thanks,” Harry says, flashing the delivery man a sympathetic smile and feeling rather pleased that he had been the one to open the door. Draco has spent much of the afternoon ranting about the late delivery and would probably have had a few choice words for whichever unfortunate soul eventually turned up with it.
This man clearly has enough to worry about right now, Harry thinks as he watches him sorting through a sea of tiny boxes, all containing shrunken brooms, which are currently sliding around inside his large leather messenger bag. It’s probably not his fault that the order is late, and it’s definitely not his fault that Harry is in a bad mood, or that he had a terrible night’s sleep and, most likely, another unwelcome dream about Draco.
Finally, he accepts a selection of little boxes and kicks the door closed behind him, relieved to shut out the cold wind and retreat into the warmth of the shop. Draco locks the door with an irritated flick of his wand, and then, between them, they carefully spell the new broomsticks back to full size. The size of the order, while typical for the time of year, is still somewhat overwhelming, and it takes Harry and Draco almost two hours to enlarge, unpack and check each broom. Once they have been declared fit for sale, they are divided between the display racks in the shop and the storage shelves in the back room. Initially brightened by the sight of so many beautiful new broomsticks, Harry hums contentedly to himself as he arranges the Nimbuses to best advantage, but the novelty soon fades when he runs out of space and has to head into the cold store room to help Draco.
“There isn’t enough space,” he grumbles loudly as Harry approaches.
Darkly amused, Harry stops for a moment, gazing over at Oolong, who is chomping on a leaf with some dedication. “Every year. He says that every single year.”
Oolong has no comment to add, so Harry walks into the store room. As he had expected, Draco is surrounded by glossy new broomsticks and wearing a slightly manic expression. He turns to Harry, hair dishevelled and eyes wild.
“I mean it this time. They just won’t fit,” Draco says, waving one of the brooms at him.
Harry gazes back at him evenly. “They will fit. You will make them fit, just like you do every year.”
“This isn’t a question of resolve, Harry! This is a question of the limits of physical space. I’ll have to shrink them all down again,” Draco says, a note of drama entering his voice, and as he gestures at the packed shelves and the pile of brooms yet to be put away, Harry almost finds himself agreeing, but the urge doesn’t last for long.
The truth is that he is a sucker for little traditions, especially at this time of year, and Draco’s annual panic about the Christmas broomstick order is about as festively ritualistic as these things come. So, too, is Harry’s none-too-subtle attempt at reverse psychology and Draco’s stubborn insistence that they will fit after all, and that he definitely doesn’t need any help.
“I don’t know what you were thinking, ordering so many brooms,” he says, staring at Harry with such a look of exasperation that his earlier irritation fades away, leaving behind a feeling of light exhaustion and the very real desire to burst into laughter.
“You’re right,” he says, putting on the most serious face he can muster. “I’m sorry. They’ll never fit. Not in a million years.”
Draco’s tired eyes narrow and he folds his arms awkwardly, grimacing when the broom in his hand clonks him on the side of the head. “Are you saying I can’t do it?”
Harry just shrugs.
“Right,” Draco mutters, flinging the broom back onto the pile and picking his way over to the shelves.
Harry watches him muttering to himself for a moment or two and then completes the ritual.
“Do you want some help with that?”
“No, thank you.” Draco draws his wand slowly along the middle shelf, eyebrows knitted in pure concentration as his measuring charm makes the surface glow green. “Why don’t you go and put the kettle on? I won’t be long.”
“Of course you won’t,” Harry says under his breath as he turns to leave, but Draco doesn’t hear him.
Back in the shop, he feeds Oolong, checks on Nisha and pulls down the shutters for the night before putting out the lights, leaving a single lamp on the counter for Draco. Yawning and stretching, he climbs the stairs to the flat. Once he has kicked off his shoes and set the kettle to boil, he wanders around, making the place feel warm and comfortable and taking his time, because he knows very well that it will be some time before Draco leaves the brooms alone and comes upstairs. He won’t rest until every single one of the new Nimbuses is perfectly arranged and the store room is completely immaculate, and that could take a good couple of hours.
Harry has tried, over the years, to help Draco overcome his somewhat obsessive tendencies, but it had eventually become clear that Draco’s tidiness and tendency to panic are as much a part of him as his dry sense of humour and his enthusiasm for winter clothing. No, Harry would never want to change him. He is absolutely brilliant exactly the way he is. Which is a good thing, he supposes, because he doesn’t think he has ever met anyone quite as obstinate as Draco.
Weary but contented, Harry pulls on a thick jumper and drifts over to the bookshelf by the fireplace. For a minute or two, he stands there, warming his hands in front of the flames as he scans the spines for something easy and familiar. In the end, he extracts a battered copy of Swallows and Amazons and flops onto the sofa with it, head pillowed on a woolly cushion and legs sprawled out messily. He has read this story countless times since he discovered it in a box of long-abandoned books in the attic at Privet Drive, and he falls effortlessly into the tale of intrepid children and Lake District pirates, immersing himself so completely that by the end of chapter one, he can no longer hear the bangs and scrapes from the shop below.
When the door opens, he startles, lowering the book to his chest and staring at Draco, who looks utterly worn out. He shuffles along the sofa to make space, beginning to feel guilty about abandoning Draco to the brooms, even if he had insisted on it.
“Is it done?” he asks.
“It’s done,” Draco says, rubbing his eyes and dropping down onto the sofa. “What are you reading?”
Harry shows him the cover and he smiles.
“Read to me.”
“I’m right in the middle,” Harry says, but even as he does, he knows he won’t be saying no to that weary, beseeching expression.
“I don’t care,” Draco mumbles, stifling a yawn. He takes off his boots and tucks up his feet, resting one arm along the back of the sofa and letting his head rest in his hand.
Harry nods, opening the book and feeling oddly relieved when Draco closes his eyes.
“Captain John galumphed half-heartedly. Ought he to have told the two Billies that they were talking not to friends but to enemies of the houseboat man, who, for the present at least, was not the Blackett lasses’ Uncle Jim, but Captain Flint, against whom Amazons and Swallows had concluded a solemn alliance,” he reads, and Draco smiles slowly.
Harry pauses, temporarily and inexplicably unable to say a word. Draco opens one eye and he continues, feeling unsteady.
“He galumphed half-heartedly. But even though he was not galumphing with heart and soul, when it is easy to get so giddy that you can see nothing at all, and to go so fast downhill that you can hardly stop yourself, he never noticed his own patteran.”
“Galumphing isn’t a real word,” Draco says, stifling another yawn and slumping closer to Harry.
“Of course it is. Do you want me to read or not?” Harry asks, attempting to ignore the fact that Draco’s warm thigh is now pressed against his hip.
“I’ll be good,” Draco promises, and, for several chapters, he actually is.
Harry continues to read out loud, soon gaining enough confidence to try out different voices for the characters, encouraged by Draco’s lazy smiles and occasional soft sounds of amusement. The fact that Draco’s weariness seems to have dissolved his ability to hold himself up is more than a little bit distracting, but Harry forces himself to keep going, even when Draco is all but draped over him like a warm blanket, head resting on Harry’s supporting arm and eyes closed.
“Just as Swallow grounded on the beach in the little harbour, Amazon slid quietly in and grounded close behind her,” Harry reads, and then pauses to glance down at Draco, who is breathing steadily and looks utterly calm. “Are you awake?”
There is no response. Tentatively, Harry touches Draco’s shoulder. He doesn’t stir, and something very much like panic stirs in the pit of Harry’s stomach. He is trapped. Draco has fallen asleep on him—he has let Draco fall asleep on him—and now he is trapped. Heart racing, Harry stares at the pale, angular face, completely relaxed and peaceful, the restful curve of Draco’s mouth, the sharp line of his jaw and the hair that feathers over his forehead and gleams in the soft light from the lamps.
His mouth turns dry as he registers the feeling of cashmere under his fingers and realises that he is still touching Draco’s shoulder, and, worse than that, he is stroking it gently. Horrified, he pulls his hand away as though he has been burned, but he cannot look away from Draco, and as he continues to stare, he is all at once assaulted by images of soft snow, sparkling frost, a wrenching, painful ache and a soundless train station platform. For a split second, none if it makes sense, and then last night’s dream smashes into him with the force of the silent Hogwarts Express, knocking the breath from him and surrounding him with the so-very-real sensation of Draco’s kiss.
The book begins to slip from Harry’s fingers as he stares down at his sleeping friend, struck by the certain knowledge that there is nowhere left to hide. He shivers violently, feeling as though everything that usually keeps him safe has been ripped away in the space of a moment, leaving him naked and exposed and completely terrified. He is in love with Draco, and he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry or shout with rage.
He is in love with Draco.
The book hits the floor with a dull thump and Draco stirs, opening his eyes slowly.
“I’m listening,” he insists, shifting against Harry and making his heart swoop sickeningly.
“You fell asleep,” Harry says, and the voice that comes out sounds nothing like his own.
Draco blinks, resting a casual hand on Harry’s thigh as he levers himself upright. “No, I didn’t.” He looks contented, well-rested and wonderful as he gets to his feet and stretches luxuriously. “Shall we have a cup of tea?”
Chapter 11: part eleven
Prompt #11 - ice of any kind
Eleventh of December – Stubborn and Stubborner
Harry startles awake to the sound of sandwich boards being scraped over cobbles and he groans out loud, covering his face with his hands. He has, yet again, barely slept. His bedroom is still mostly shrouded in darkness, and the prospect of spending the entire day in Draco’s company now that he knows what he does is almost enough to make him hide under his blankets and refuse to come out.
But only almost, because if anyone can give Draco a run for his money in the stubbornness stakes, it’s Harry himself, and, on top of that, the thought of all those shiny new brooms manages to drag a smile from him as he forces himself out of bed and into the shower. As he stands under the hot water and attempts to stir himself properly awake, he decides that the best course of action—at least for now—is to just not think about it. Suppression may not be the healthiest way to deal with a problem and he knows that, but just for now, he’s going to need all the help he can get.
The shop is packed as usual, and Harry soon finds that he barely needs to speak to Draco at all. Unfortunately, he finds it a lot more difficult to avoid looking at him, and the limited space behind the counter means that they come into physical contact—a brush of shoulders, an accidental grab for the same quill or rubber stamp, Draco’s hand on his back as he passes—approximately every five minutes. Each time it happens, Harry goes to pieces a little bit more. In an effort not to jump every time he is touched, he begins to hold himself rather stiffly, which soon makes his shoulders sore and achy. This, in addition to the unhelpful swooping sensation that seems to have taken up residence in his chest and the fragile, rattled sort of exhaustion that comes only from prolonged lack of sleep, means that by mid-morning, Harry is basically a nervous wreck, and it is beginning to show.
“I made her stay at home,” a waterlogged man is saying to Draco as he waits for his purchases to be bagged up. “I bet she’s not resting, though. The house will probably have been completely rearranged by the time I get back.”
Draco nods, somehow managing to stare pointedly at Harry without looking at him at all. “Yes, it’s terrible when a person clearly needs some help and they refuse to acknowledge it, isn’t it?”
“Tell me about it,” the man says, lifting a hand to swipe his dripping hair from his face. “I keep offering to call a Healer...”
“I’m sure a Healer would be a good idea,” Draco says, handing the man his bag.
Sighing, the man accepts it and, further along the counter, Harry rolls his eyes.
“Ah, well. I’d better get back before the weather gets worse. Apparently there’s going to be quite a hailstorm this afternoon,” the man says, and Harry doesn’t hear Draco’s reply because his attention is drawn by the rain that has now begun to hammer fiercely against the window pane.
He darts a quick glance around the shop, decides that Draco can cope on his own for a minute or two, and then heads for the door, yanking it open with some effort against the wind and seeking out Nisha, who is huddling against the wall with only her eyes visible amid the tangle of sleeping bag and sodden scarf.
“No,” she says stubbornly, eyes fixed on the wet cobbles. “Thank you.”
Harry sighs, momentarily empathising with Draco’s customer and wondering if there is something about Quality Quidditch Supplies that attracts some of the most mulish people that life has to offer.
“You’re getting soaked,” he says. “There’s going to be hailstones.”
Nisha shivers. “I’m fine, thank you. We’re fine.”
Harry sighs. He takes a deep breath, steels himself, and steps out into the rain. “Nisha, if you don’t come inside, I’m going to sit out here with you,” he says at last, grimacing as the sharp, cold droplets sting his face and hands.
Nisha stares up at him, clearly horrified. Somewhere in the middle of the sleeping bag, Sparks stirs and lets out a confused yelp. For long seconds, Harry stares back at her, and then he shrugs and lowers himself to the ground by her side, this time without any helpful magic. Within seconds, his hair is saturated, his glasses are blurred with water, and his backside is numb with cold.
“You’re not really doing this, are you?” Nisha asks, dark eyes large and horrified.
“I think I am,” Harry says, smiling up at a customer as she enters the shop. She looks at him as though he is quite mad and then hurries inside. When he turns back to Nisha, she is wearing a strikingly similar expression.
“Why?” she asks quietly.
“This weather is just going to get worse,” Harry says, pulling up his knees in an attempt to keep warm.
“No, I mean... why do you keep being so nice to me?”
Harry hesitates for a moment and then he tells the truth, because he doesn’t know what else to do.
“Because I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t. Because you clearly need a break and I’m fortunate enough to be able to give it to you. Because I don’t like seeing people—or dogs—cold and hungry when they don’t have to be.”
Nisha stares at him. A large raindrop rolls down the length of her nose and she doesn’t seem to notice.
“I just don’t think I can...”
“Do it for him, then, if you can’t do it for yourself,” Draco says from the doorway, and both Harry and Nisha jump a little.
When they turn to look at Draco, it becomes clear that he is talking about Sparks, who has poked his nose out of the sleeping bag to see what is going on, even though the temperature is low enough to make his whiskers tremble. Nisha makes a small sound of distress and stares down at her dog. Sparks whimpers and licks her hand, and when she looks back up at Harry, the fear in her eyes is tinged with determination.
“Are you absolutely certain?” she asks, fingers curling protectively around the little dog.
“Yes,” Harry says firmly.
“Absolutely,” Draco adds, and then, glancing back into the shop. “Excuse me.”
When he disappears back into the shop, bell clanking noisily above the door, Harry and Nisha stare at each other through the rain, as though assessing one another’s motives one last time. Finally, Harry scrambles to his feet, and Nisha crawls out of her wet sleeping bag and stands carefully, cradling a shivering Sparks against her chest. She grabs the sleeping bag in one hand and follows Harry into the shop without a word, trailing the mass of sodden fabric behind her.
Several customers look up as Harry directs her over to a broad windowsill but they all quickly lose interest and return to their browsing as she perches herself on the edge, long legs dangling and arms wrapped tightly around her dog. Harry hovers uncertainly next to the rack of Nimbuses, quite unable to take his eyes off them.
“Excuse me,” says someone with a soft, raspy voice.
Harry shakes himself and turns his attention to a tiny old lady in a pointed purple hat and robes in a gloriously clashing orange. “Yes, madam?”
Sparks lets out a rough little bark and the old woman looks over at him. When she turns back to Harry, her expression is rather sharp and he finds himself cringing in preparation for a critical remark. He is already composing a response in his head when the woman speaks again.
“I used to have a dog like that. Do these brooms come with an extended warranty?”
Harry says nothing for a moment and then smiles. “Absolutely. You’ve actually got a lot of options with a Nimbus broom. If you come over to the counter I can show you some stuff,” he says, glancing back one last time at Nisha and Sparks as he leads the old woman through the crowd.
By the time Harry has dealt with the next wave of customers, the promised hail storm has begun in earnest. The little balls of ice are falling in such volume that the shop is filled with a ghostly white light and the constant ping-ping-ping of hailstones against glass can easily be heard above the rumble of voices. Nisha sits, feet pulled up onto the windowsill and Sparks on her lap, staring out at the storm with quiet interest. She hasn’t said a word since Harry persuaded her to come inside, but she smiles when he takes her a cup of tea.
“I would have been out in that,” she says, wrapping her fingers around the hot cup and gazing out at the bouncing hailstones. After a moment, she looks at Harry and bites her lip. “I’m grateful. You didn’t have to do this.”
“I wanted to,” Harry says, noticing, now that she is inside, the musty, slightly sour smell of her clothes and wondering if he can persuade her to let him wash them without offending her horribly. It’s probably a task better suited to Draco and his inbuilt diplomacy, but Harry doesn’t really want to think about Draco right now. It’s too confusing and it makes him feel quite a lot like he’s going to fall over.
Large, dark eyes search his face for long seconds, and then Nisha seems to relax a little. She sighs as Sparks wriggles around on her lap, attempting repeatedly to fling himself down to the floor.
“Be good,” she mumbles wearily, tightening her hold on the little dog.
“Why don’t you let him run around for a bit?” Harry suggests. “It’s safer for him in here than it is outside, and he’s obviously dying to explore.”
“I don’t want him to get in your way,” Nisha says uncertainly.
“He’ll be fine, I promise,” Harry says, holding out his arms for the little dog. For a long time, Nisha gazes at him steadily and he is just about to step away and leave it be when she takes a deep breath and holds out a wriggling Sparks.
Harry takes him carefully. He is a bristly, sinewy little bundle of constant movement, frighteningly light and impressively strong. When Harry sets him down on the floor, he barks excitedly and immediately scuttles off behind the counter.
“Thank you for the warning,” Draco calls, side-stepping awkwardly and dropping his quill.
Harry laughs, and when he shoots a sidelong glance at Nisha, her expression is caught somewhere between guilt and delight.
And with that, the pattern is set for the rest of the afternoon. As word spreads rapidly about the Nimbus order, the shop experiences a rush of customers, all desperate to purchase the latest broom in time for Christmas, and as they queue and chatter and enthuse amongst themselves, Sparks bounces excitedly around them on his three little legs, banging into things and chewing on customers’ shoelaces like the puppy he most certainly isn’t. Nisha, warm and dry and supplied with as much tea as she can drink, begins at last to relax, and when she realises that the queuing customers are actually enjoying Sparks’s enthusiastic attentions, she watches him from the window with a proud smile that lights her whole face.
Grateful for the distraction, Harry pours his attention into customer service, making sure that everyone who wants a Nimbus gets one, and everyone who has unwittingly wandered into the broomstick and dog-related chaos gets an explanation and a smile and whichever item or answer they have come for. When he is not attending to the shoppers, he is refilling Nisha’s mug, gently booting Sparks out from under the counter, or checking on the progress of the hailstorm. He is so busy, in fact, that he manages to successfully avoid talking to or looking at Draco for most of the afternoon, which is quite an achievement considering that they are, for the most part, standing right next to each other.
Of course, Draco is busy, too, and it’s easy enough for Harry to persuade himself that he hasn’t even noticed, and yes, perhaps he feels a little bit guilty about it, but the last thing he needs right now is a hand on his shoulder or a soft little insult or a flash of warm grey eyes, any of which he suspects will dissolve him into a sticky puddle on the floor. He doesn’t seem to be anywhere nearer working out what to do about the situation, and Draco certainly doesn’t need to know about it while he’s trying to get there.
Because he can fix this. Fine, he’s in love with Draco—and god, even the thought of it is enough to make his stomach flip unhelpfully—but it’s not necessarily permanent. People get over things. He can get over this; it’s just a case of mind over matter. Probably.
When Draco brushes past him to help the last customer of the day with his unwieldy purchase, Harry shivers and catches his breath.
“Shall I lock up?” he asks, looking straight at Harry and setting off a cascade of uncomfortable longing in Harry’s chest.
“What? Oh, yeah, lock up... okay,” he manages at last. “I’ll do the till.”
“I’d better go,” Nisha says, and Harry stares at her, horrified that he has somehow managed to forget about her completely.
She looks out of the window at the hailstones, which have slowed but definitely not stopped falling.
“No,” Harry says quickly. “You can’t.”
Nisha’s dark eyebrows lift in something almost like challenge. “I can’t?”
There’s a small sound of amusement from somewhere near the door. Harry ignores it.
“Well, of course you can, but I’d much prefer it if you came upstairs and had dinner with us,” he says, instinct telling him that the biggest leap has already been made—she is inside, and now he just has to try to keep her there.
Nisha stares at him, sliding down from the windowsill and clutching her wet sleeping bag to her chest. Harry waits, sensing the battle raging inside her—to accept or to fight—and after a minute or two, he opens the till, hoping to give her the space she needs as he counts the cold coins into their little bags.
“Thank you,” she says quietly, just as Harry closes the drawer with a clang and a rattle. “Is he welcome, too?”
Harry follows her gaze to where Sparks is curled in front of the embers of the fire, chewing contentedly on his own tail.
“If you’ll let me give him a bath,” Draco says, looking down at the soot patches on the dog’s ears and paws and wrinkling his nose.
Nisha hesitates. “I think he might be afraid of water.”
Harry scowls, remembering the bag and the canal. Draco hesitates for a moment and then very gently picks up the little dog, holding him clear of his pristine shirt. Sparks, to his credit, just dangles there placidly, smiling up at Draco with his pointy teeth, making Harry wonder how on earth he has suffered such hardship and retained such a trusting, happy disposition.
“Don’t worry,” Draco says, eyeing Sparks thoughtfully. “I won’t fill up the bathtub. I’ll just soap him up and rinse him with a jug.”
“Okay,” Nisha says, and just for a moment, her mouth flickers at one corner as though she finds the image of Draco doing such a thing very amusing.
Harry can’t say he blames her. They head upstairs with Draco and Sparks leading the way, and when the unusual pair disappear into the bathroom, Harry is sorely tempted to follow. There’s something about the idea of Draco washing a dog that trumps his new policy of avoidance, but he hangs on to his self-control all the same. He’s not about to abandon Nisha now that he’s persuaded her into the flat.
Wrenching his eyes away from the bathroom door just as the sound of gushing water begins to issue from within, he watches Nisha as she stands very still and looks around the living room with interest. Her sleeping bag, still clutched tightly in her hands, has begun to drip onto the waxed floorboard, and Harry itches to take it from her, to wash it and dry it and stuff it full of protective magic, but she is clearly protective of it. For all Harry knows, it’s the only thing she owns, and he knows better than to go steaming in and upset her just because of a wet floor. In truth, all her things—including her dog—are dirty and rain-damaged, and perhaps they’ve been that way for weeks or months. A few more hours won’t make a difference.
“I know it’s horrible,” she says, glancing at the sleeping bag with an apologetic smile.
Harry cringes inwardly and resolves to keep his feelings better hidden. “It’s fine,” he assures, heading for the kitchen and gesturing for her to follow him. Once there, he directs her and her soggy sleeping bag into a chair, puts the kettle on, and starts looking through the cupboard.
“I bought this with my first week’s pay,” she says, and Harry glances over his shoulder to see her poking her finger into a large hole in the sleeping bag, where the stuffing has begun to escape. “Turned out it was lucky I did.”
Harry waits, but no further explanation is forthcoming. “Do you like lasagne?”
One step at a time, Harry thinks, smiling at her and beginning to assemble his ingredients. Soon, the kitchen is full of warm steam and savoury smells as Harry browns the mince, setting a little aside for Sparks, and makes a rich tomato sauce. When Draco strides into the room, accompanied by a clean, dry, and slightly fluffy Sparks, Nisha laughs delightedly and drops to her knees on the kitchen floor to stroke his immaculate coat. Draco looks rather pleased with himself and Harry can feel his smile against his shoulder as Draco leans in to examine the cheese sauce in Harry’s saucepan.
“You never make lasagne for me,” he says mock-accusingly.
“Draco, I made lasagne for you last week,” Harry points out.
Nisha, thrilled to be reunited with Sparks, laughs softly, and suddenly, the kitchen takes on a slightly festive atmosphere. Draco retrieves plates and cutlery while Harry finishes putting the lasagne together, and then all four of them sit at the table with mugs of tea, watching as the cheese turns golden and the tomatoey-meaty mixture bubbles up around the sides of the dish.
As they eat, Harry and Draco find themselves telling Nisha all about the shop, about their experiences over the years and about some of the stranger customers they have met. She listens raptly, eating her meal with a sort of careful appreciation that Harry has never seen before, every now and then glancing under the table at Sparks, who is attacking his little plate of meat with gusto. She barely speaks until all four of them are settled in the living room, Harry and Draco on one sofa and her on the other. She startles when Harry turns on the Christmas lights but smiles when Sparks jumps down from her lap, gallops stiffly over to the glittering tree and barks up at it with feeling.
“I suppose you want to know why I ended up like this,” she says, smile fading.
Draco shifts position at Harry’s side. “Not if you don’t want to tell us.”
“No, I owe you that much. You’ve been so nice to me.”
“You owe us nothing,” Harry insists, but she shakes her head.
“I think I need you to know. Partly because I’ve never told anyone... partly because I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, thinking I’m some sort of tragic victim. If anything, I’m a victim of my own stubbornness,” she says, and when she catches Harry’s eye, something like understanding passes between them.
“Okay,” he says easily, flicking his wand to refresh the fire when he catches her shivering.
Dragging in a long, deep breath, she gathers her heavy hair, pulls it over her shoulder and wraps it around her hand as she speaks. “Well... okay. I come from a big family. I’m the oldest, then there’s my sister and four brothers. My parents are very traditional... well, my father is very traditional, and my mother lets him get on with it, which is also very traditional, I suppose.”
Nisha pauses, frowning, and Harry has to stop himself from interrupting. After a few seconds, she continues, eyes fixed on the fireplace. “When I say traditional, I mean that he thinks that women have their place, you know? But not only that. He’s obsessed by blood purity.”
At Harry’s side, Draco stifles a small sound of unease and Harry almost puts out a hand to comfort him, but doesn’t quite. Nisha, caught up in her thoughts, doesn’t seem to notice.
“He always said... well, he probably still does say... that he doesn’t have a problem with intermarriage, ‘if that’s what people want to do’,” she says sketching derisive air quotes. “But it’s not what our family does. ‘No daughter of mine will marry a Muggleborn’... et cetera. As far as he’s concerned, the Singhs are the purest wizarding family in existence, and nothing will change that in his lifetime.”
“I have some experience with that sort of thing,” Draco says quietly.
Nisha nods. “I think my dad might’ve known yours, actually,” she admits. “I recognised your name when I heard it.”
“It certainly sounds as though they would’ve had some things to talk about,” Draco agrees.
Nisha grimaces and pulls her feet up underneath herself. Sparks, apparently satisfied that he has put the Christmas tree in its place, bounds over and settles himself with his head on her lap.
“As the oldest daughter, I’ve always known I have... certain responsibilities,” she continues. “The most important thing was that I married well. It’s not uncommon to have arranged marriages in families like ours, obviously...” She glances at Draco, who nods. Harry bristles at the thought but says nothing. “I knew my father was planning a marriage for me, probably for when I turned twenty. I was going to leave. I had it all planned out, I’d take all my things with me and just go. Then one day, we went out for dinner with another family and my father told me in front of everyone that I was going to marry the oldest son of this family.” Nisha closes her eyes for a moment. “I knew him. He was just like my father. I knew right away what kind of life I was going to have and I said no. I wouldn’t marry him.”
“What did they say?” Harry asks, so caught up in the story now that he barely notices his hand resting alongside Draco’s on the cushions.
“The family were very offended. My father was furious, he said I didn’t know what I was saying and of course I’d marry him, it was all arranged. He said the wedding would be in a week’s time.”
Beside Harry, Draco draws in a sharp breath. “So you ran away.”
Nisha nods. “Literally. I didn’t have my wand with me so I just left the restaurant and kept running until I was ready to drop. I didn’t dare go back to the house for my things so I only had what was in my pockets. I had enough to change at Gringotts and pay for a week’s deposit on a bedsit... Muggle London, of course... I thought they wouldn’t look for me there.”
“Did they?” Harry asks, already knowing the answer.
“No. I sold my dress to a second-hand shop and swapped it for these,” she says, indicating the worn and dirty black trousers and thin sweater, “got a job in a cafe and earned enough to buy some food and my sleeping bag.” She stares down at it, expression unreadable. “There wasn’t any furniture in the flat, not even a bed.
“I thought I could start again, you know? It was all going to plan somehow—I found Sparks and I worked every day...” She laughs bitterly. “I’d never worked a day in my life before that. I was never allowed. But there I was, going to work, walking my dog, locking my own door at night. In some ways it was the most brilliant few weeks of my life. And then it wasn’t.”
“Did they find you?” Harry asks, stomach in knots.
Nisha laces her fingers into Sparks’s fur and shakes her head. “No. I don’t even know if they were looking for me by then. If I went back, my father would probably pretend he didn’t know me.”
“I’m sorry,” Harry says softly.
“Don’t be. I miss my mum and my brothers and my sister, but not him,” she says fiercely, eyes bright. “Anyway, it was nothing to do with them. The job I got, though? Turns out the owner only hired me because he wanted to sleep with me. He told me he had a ‘thing’ for Indian girls.” Nisha stares hard at the fireplace, lip curling in contempt. “When I said I wouldn’t...”
“You lost your job,” Draco finishes.
“Exactly. Without any real experience, I couldn’t find another job, so then I lost my flat. No job without an address, no address without a job,” she recites wearily. “In the end, I came to Diagon Alley because it felt like a safer place to be homeless. That probably sounds crazy.”
“Not at all, actually,” Harry says. “I don’t think any of it sounds crazy.”
“Nothing but incredible bad luck and a few people with very unfortunate ideas,” Draco says. “But here you are.”
Nisha smiles and lets out a small sigh. “I never expected to be here.”
“I did,” Draco says, getting to his feet. “The moment Harry spotted you outside, I knew it was only a matter of time before he dragged you inside. Would you like a shower?”
Nisha blinks. “Er...” She glances down at her clothes in embarrassment. “That’s really nice, but I don’t have any other things. I know they’re horrible but they’re literally all I have.”
“I’ll find you something while you’re in the shower,” Harry offers. “You can borrow it to sleep in and then we’ll wash your clothes for you—and that, if you want,” he adds, indicating the sleeping bag, which has spread a rather impressive damp patch across one sofa cushion.
“To sleep in?” she asks warily.
“I wouldn’t bother arguing with him, Nisha,” Draco says as he goes to turn on the shower. “You’ll be here all night either way, trying to out-stubborn one another.”
“It’s still horrible out there,” Harry says firmly, and he holds his hand out for the sleeping bag. “The sofa is very comfortable. I’ll get you a blanket.”
“I don’t understand all this,” she says, relinquishing the sleeping bag and looking as though she’s going to burst into confused tears. When Draco returns and pushes two large, fluffy towels into her hands, a recalcitrant tear snakes down her cheek and she swipes it away.
“It’s probably best not to try,” Harry says, watching Draco scoop up Sparks and sniff at his freshly-washed coat with satisfaction.
Nisha nods and turns away quickly but Harry doesn’t miss her slightly teary look of astonishment. While she showers, Harry finds some thick socks, a jumper, and a t-shirt and soft pair of trousers that might just fit her. He lays them out in front of the fire to warm and then sits on the hearthrug with Sparks to await her return. Draco stands at the window, looking out at the night with his arms folded.
“It’s raining now,” he says, and Harry can’t be sure if he’s talking to himself.
“Better than hailstones, I suppose,” he answers after a moment, staring at the line of Draco’s shoulders and wondering how he has never before noticed how straight and beautiful it is. Draco has a lot of beautiful lines, actually—his back, his jaw, his nose and his hips and his eyebrows—he is all lines, and Harry suddenly longs to run his fingers over every single one of them.
“...if you ask me, she needs to keep her aubergines to herself,” Draco says darkly.
Harry frowns. “What?!”
“You weren’t listening, were you?” Draco sighs, turning his back on the window.
Fortunately, Harry is saved from answering by Nisha, who emerges from the bathroom, swathed in a huge white towel and a cloud of fragrant steam. She stands uncertainly in the doorway. For a moment, Harry does nothing, and then he remembers the clothes and scrambles to his feet, catching up the warmed garments and carrying them over to her.
“Thanks,” she says, and as she takes them, Harry’s eyes are caught by a flash of something shiny.
Around her neck on a delicate chain hangs a tiny golden charm in the shape of a crescent moon. Quickly, he looks away, realising that he is, in effect, staring at her chest, but her hand quickly comes up to touch the necklace.
“I bet you’re thinking... why didn’t she sell that?” Nisha says with a knowing glint in her eyes.
“Not at all, I promise.”
She fixes him with an uncertain smile. “Well, anyway, I couldn’t. It was the last thing my mother gave me. Nisha means ‘night’, so...” she trails off, shrugging.
“I’m glad you didn’t sell it,” he says firmly. “Put those on before you freeze to death.”
Nisha smiles and disappears back into the bathroom, long wet hair swishing against her back.
Harry retreats back to the fireside, wondering about parents and aubergines and beautiful lines.
“So,” Draco says from the window seat, “you thought you’d invite a pair of strangers to live with us without even asking me, did you?”
Horrified, Harry stares at him. “I thought you... it’s just for the night, Draco...”
“I’m joking,” Draco says, eyes suddenly full of more concern than Harry can take. “Good grief, you look as though you’re about to faint.”
“I’m fine,” Harry says, sounding completely unconvincing even to his own ears.
Draco jumps down from the window and lowers himself to the hearth beside Harry
“Look... I feel like a complete idiot for even saying this but... is there anything I can do?” he asks, and his refined face is so full of anxiety that for just one moment Harry catches himself imagining what might happen if his feelings were reciprocated.
“I really am okay,” he says at last, forcing a smile and attempting to make the lie a little more convincing this time.
And it’s fine, because Draco feels nothing of the sort, and even if he did, Harry can only imagine that acting on those feelings would be a very bad idea.
Just then, Nisha comes out of the bathroom. She is swimming a little in Harry’s clothes—the arms and legs are far too long and flap around as she walks—but she looks so relieved to be clean and dry that it really doesn’t matter.
“I don’t suppose either of you know a spell to dry my...” she begins, but Draco has already drawn his wand and sent a soft, yellow-tinged charm in her direction. Nisha’s long hair fans out around her and then falls around her shoulders and down her back in soft, jet black waves. “Thank you.”
Harry looks at Draco, who is sheathing his wand with a pleased little smile.
He sighs. It really would be a very, very bad idea.
Chapter 12: part twelve
Prompt #12 - Christmas markets
Twelfth of December – The Order of Things
When Harry wanders out of his bedroom the next morning, he is pleased and only a little bit surprised to see Nisha exactly where he had left her the night before. His self-control had been tested to its limits as he had forced himself to stay in bed each time he woke instead of creeping to the door to check on her, and once again he is starting the day feeling exhausted, but today he finds he doesn’t mind quite as much.
Now sitting up on the sofa, wrapped in a heavy knitted blanket, Nisha is looking out at the slowly-lightening sky and rubbing Sparks’s ears. She looks up when the floorboards creak under Harry’s footsteps.
“I hope I didn’t wake you,” she says anxiously. “I tend to talk to him when I can’t sleep.”
Sparks wags his tail at the sight of Harry and receives a scratch on the head as he passes on his way to the kettle.
“Believe me, if I was awake, it wasn’t because of you,” he says, yawning and opening the cupboard where the cups live.
He frowns. The cups are there alright, but they seem oddly arranged, and a couple of large glasses seem to have made their way inside, too. Puzzled, he glances around the kitchen. It has been cleaned, which is nothing unusual in itself, but he knows that Draco had followed them into the living room after they had finished the lasagne, and had been too busy with their guests to return and wash up later. Which can only mean that someone else has cleaned the kitchen.
Oh, Nisha, he thinks, hearing the creak of Draco’s door and trying to decide between thanking her and heading him off at the pass. In the end, he lunges for the kitchen door but Draco gets there first, stopping it with his hand and walking past Harry with a look that clearly says ‘good morning, are you mad?’, a look which quickly turns to consternation and then alarm as he takes in the altered state of the kitchen. To Harry’s eyes, it looks fine; the surfaces are clean and sparkling, everything has been put away somewhere, even the top of the stove has been scrubbed—Nisha has done a sterling job.
“What happened in here?” Draco asks faintly.
“I thought I’d clean up for you,” Nisha says, appearing behind him. She hasn’t yet seen Draco’s expression and she merely smiles at Harry, long sleeves pulled over her hands as she regards her work. “Seemed like the least I could do.”
“Thank you,” Harry says. “That was really nice of you.”
“Yes, yes, of course it was,” Draco says, a note of distress creeping into his voice. “It’s just that... well, no, never mind... the cupboards are... but, absolutely, it was very nice of you.”
Nisha frowns. “Did I do something wrong? I’m really sorry,” she says, shrinking slightly.
Draco whirls around to face her. “No,” he says, voice just a little too loud, and she jumps. “No, of course not. It’s just me. I have a certain system for the cupboards, that’s all. It can all be fixed,” he assures, opening each cupboard in turn and mumbling to himself.
“Leave him,” Harry advises, ushering Nisha out of the kitchen. “It’s not your fault he’s anally retentive about the kitchen cupboards.”
“I’m so sorry,” she repeats, gathering up Sparks and sitting down heavily on the sofa.
Harry laughs. “Don’t worry. I’m always putting things in the wrong place. To be honest, the right place moves around so often that I’m not sure even Draco knows where it is all the time.”
Nisha gives him a wobbly smile. “I don’t want to upset him. I just really wanted to help.”
“And you did,” Harry says. “It looks great in there; I doubt even Draco will be able to find fault with the cleaning. Still, to be on the safe side, it’s probably better if you give the kitchen a miss from now on.”
“What do you mean, ‘from now on’?”
Harry doesn’t answer for several seconds, distracted by an enormous yawn that displays all of Sparks’s teeth and seems in danger of splitting his head in two. Eventually he closes his mouth with a click and Harry looks back up at Nisha.
“You said I should stay out of the kitchen from now on,” she says cautiously.
“Right. If you really want to help, you can come downstairs—there’s always something to do in the shop at this time of year.” Harry stops, catching her startled expression. “Oh, god, that sounds awful, I’m sorry. I’m absolutely, positively not saying that I’m expecting you to work for me in return for staying here. I just thought... if you’re anything like me, you’ll want something to do, so...”
“No, no,” Nisha says, once again looking as though she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I’d love to help, it’s not that. It just never occurred to me that I’d be staying.”
“Well, only if you want to,” Harry says, lifting his voice above the clattering and scraping that has started up in the kitchen. “I can only offer you a sofa and a couple of silly men for company, but I think it might be enough to help you get back on your feet. What do you think?”
Nisha stares at him and then buries her face in Sparks’s fur. When she emerges, her eyes are shining and she is wearing the biggest grin Harry has ever seen.
“I promise to stay out of the kitchen,” she whispers, just as Draco sticks his head into the living room and looks at Harry.
“Tell Sophie I’ll be a little late, will you?” he says, and then, turning to Nisha: “He’s lived here for years and he still managed to arse the cupboards up worse than this just last week. You have nothing to worry about.”
When he retreats back into the kitchen, Harry and Nisha exchange glances.
“Come on,” he says. “We’re not getting in there any time soon. Let’s go out and get some breakfast. Your clothes are over there,” he adds, pointing to the windowsill, where Nisha’s things now sit in a neat, clean pile.
Ten minutes later, they leave the flat. Sophie is already lighting up the decorations as they walk through the shop, and she rolls her eyes as Harry explains that Draco is experiencing a cupboard-related delay. She greets Nisha with a smile and looks her over with interest but says nothing as the two of them, followed by Sparks, make their way out into the rain-slicked street.
The ice and snow have been all but swept away, leaving nothing but miserable little piles of slush at the edges of the street. Still, the rain seems to have stopped and the sun is attempting to poke its way through the cloud cover, lending the grey morning a glimmer of hope. Harry’s attention is momentarily caught by the Christmas market stalls with their tables full of shiny things and beautiful things and spicy-warm-smelling things, but when his stomach rumbles for attention, he reluctantly turns his back on them and pushes open the door of his favourite cafe.
At the counter, he opens his mouth to order two sausage sandwiches and then stops. He has no idea what Nisha wants, or even what she does and doesn’t eat, and if she’s going to be a more permanent sort of guest, he really ought to find out sooner rather than later.
“So, erm... what do you like? Is there anything you can’t eat?” he asks uncertainly.
“No,” she says easily. “I’ll eat anything. He’s fussier than me.”
Harry looks down at Sparks, who smiles up at him from the floor as if to insist that he is anything but.
Resolving to buy some proper dog food, Harry orders, and they eat their breakfast as they wander around the stalls, getting ketchup all over their fingers and releasing savoury-hot breath into the cold air. Thrilled by the mingled smells and early morning crowds, Sparks darts around their feet and generally makes a nuisance of himself, darting behind the stalls and making the traders yelp and swear. When he runs behind a crate of bananas and barks, the stall-holder laughs.
“Hello, little man,” he calls, ruffling the dog’s fur with a big red hand. “Where’s your mum? I’ve got some funny-shaped apples with her name on them.”
“Maybe you can find someone else who needs them,” Nisha says, lowering her sausage sandwich and smiling at the stall-holder.
“Look at you!” the man declares, beaming. He glances between Harry and Nisha, at her proud posture and clean clothes and the ketchup on the end of her nose, and he shakes his head. “I don’t know that I’ll find anyone who’ll appreciate them like you did, love, but I’ll try.”
Nisha flushes and Harry decides to leave them to their conversation. He wanders on to the next stall, which is covered in tiny wooden sculptures and odd little knick-knacks. Catching a sharp look from the lady behind the table, he finishes his messy sandwich and wipes his hands on his jeans before he picks up a small wooden snail.
“He was always really nice to me,” Nisha explains, joining him after a moment and attracting another sharp look from the stall-holder. She ignores it. “Do you think Draco has finished the cupboards yet?”
“Maybe. It wasn’t all that bad, I promise you. I’ve seen much worse over the years,” Harry says, setting down the snail and opting to move to the next stall before the woman vaults over the table and knocks Nisha’s sandwich out of her hands.
“You’ve lived together for a long time,” she says, and it isn’t really a question.
Thoughtful, she finishes her breakfast and clicks her fingers to summon Sparks to her side. “Listen, I really am sorry about assuming the two of you were... you know, together.”
Harry’s stomach roils unpleasantly. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. I know how it looks.”
“Mixed nuts?” asks the santa-hatted man at the next stall. “Acorn brittle? Dried bimbleberries?”
“Just looking,” Harry says, breathing in the festive scent of roasted nuts and candied fruit. “Thanks.”
“I knew it was a sore subject,” Nisha mumbles to herself. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s not a sore subject,” Harry insists. “It’s just... complicated, that’s all.”
For a long time, Nisha says nothing. She wraps her scarf more securely around her neck, tucks her hands into her sleeves and walks quietly at Harry’s side with Sparks at her heels. They pause at each stall, giving equal time to hats and jewellery and biscuits and many more things besides. At a small stall selling hot spiced pumpkin juice, Harry stops and buys two cups, each with a complete star anise floating on top.
“I keep thinking I should go back,” Nisha says, accepting her steaming cup from Harry.
“To your parents?”
She nods. “Every time it was so cold that I thought ‘well, this is it’, or every time some complete stranger tried to kick Sparks, I just thought... it can’t be that bad. It can’t be worse than this. But it would be.”
Harry blows on his pumpkin juice and takes a tentative sip. “It’s not going to be like that any more.”
She lets out a long breath. “I know. And I can’t go back, I know that. Nothing would change. I’m not going back to that. I just wish I’d had more time.”
“What for?” Harry asks, examining a rack of winter cloaks in vivid shades of red and green.
“Saying goodbye, I suppose. Telling people things.” She frowns and stares at Harry, as though weighing him up somehow. “There was someone I loved and I never told him.”
Harry touches her arm instinctively and then quickly drops it back to his side. “Why not?”
“I suppose there was never any point. He didn’t just come from the ‘wrong’ sort of family—he was a Muggle,” she says, and then, before Harry can respond, she picks up the object nearest her hand—a jewel-encrusted cloak pin—and addresses the stall-holder.
“How much is this?”
Harry doesn’t hear the response, nor does he press Nisha to continue the conversation as they walk around the rest of the market stalls. She has already trusted him far more than he has any right to expect, and besides, he thinks he can do without any more uncomfortable parallels for now.
When they return to the shop, cold-pinked and shivering, they find it almost empty. Behind the counter, Draco and Sophie are gazing into Oolong’s bowl, eyes tracking the movement of the little black fish as he swims in and out of his castle and nibbles on the remains of his plant. At the sound of the bell, Draco looks up and smiles at Harry and something in his chest rips itself open at the sight of it.
“Well, what did you bring me?” Draco asks.
Harry doesn’t know. What he does know, however, is that he has fallen hard enough to dash himself to pieces, and he thinks he may just have been waiting to fall for a very long time.
Chapter 13: part thirteen
Prompt #13 - cold hands
Thirteenth of December – Flight
Harry creeps slowly out of his bedroom and across the living room, taking care to avoid the creaky floorboards. He has been awake for what feels like hours, but the sky is still dark and the last thing he wants to do is wake Nisha, who is sleeping quite peacefully on the sofa with Sparks curled up on her feet. It’s not her fault that he can’t sleep, nor is it her fault that his unsettled brain has seized on the idea of an early-morning fly and will not let it go. He can already almost feel the rush of the wind as he puts on his coat, and by the time he gets downstairs, he is humming with anticipation.
Even though he is quite alone in the moonlit shop, he glances around guiltily before reaching out and taking one of the new Nimbuses from the display rack. He has a perfectly decent broom upstairs, of course, but the beautiful new broomsticks have been calling to him for days, and besides, he is becoming rather tired of trying to answer questions about a broom he hasn’t yet ridden.
In fact, it might just be vital that he takes it out for a test run.
“Not a word to Draco,” he whispers in the direction of Oolong, who is watching him silently.
Tightening his grip on the broom handle, he Disapparates, touching down a moment later in front of the Puddlemere United training ground. Thanks to Ginny, now the team’s star Chaser, Harry always has the latest password for the pitch, in return for a generous QQS discount and the promise that he will never breathe a word of it to anyone else. It’s just after five as he walks out onto the pitch, Nimbus under one arm and frozen grass crunching under his feet.
The sky here is clear and velvet dark, stars easily visible, and the lack of cloud means that Harry’s face and fingers are soon numb with cold. Shivering, he climbs onto the broom and kicks off hard, letting out a yelp of surprise as he and the broomstick rocket skywards. He has read about the speed and power of this model but no amount of words can describe the sensation of being shot through the air from a standing start. For several moments he just hangs on, cold hands gripping the handle for dear life, eyes watering and chest tight as the rushing, freezing air tries to steal each breath. As he adjusts, though, he finds his control, begins to learn the broom’s little quirks and secrets, and the speed becomes thrilling. Spiralling higher and higher, his delighted laughter is swallowed by the night and he swoops down, down, in and out of the goal hoops and down again to skim along the grass.
As he speeds after an imaginary Snitch he finds himself thinking of Draco, but he pushes the thought away. His inconvenient feelings don’t matter here. Right now, as his heart pounds with exhilaration rather than terror, he is in control. He is confident. He is Harry Potter, Seeker for Puddlemere United, just about to catch the Snitch and win the game for his team; he is stretching out a hand, frozen fingers reaching out, closing tight, and he’s swooping to the ground, rolling awkwardly but energetically off his broom and onto the grass, fist raised in triumph...
Harry laughs, pressing his hands to his face and then flinging out his arms. He flops on his back, unable to bring himself to care as the frozen grass pokes at his skin and dampens his clothes. He feels alive, and finally confident that the new Nimbus is worth every last Knut on its hefty price tag. Smiling so hard that it hurts, he sits up and Summons the broomstick into his hand. Now all he needs to do is give it a wipe and put it back where he...
Harry stares down at the long scratch that now runs almost all the way along the broom’s handle. He has no idea when or how it happened, but it’s there and it’s very visible and oh, god, Draco is going to be very unimpressed. The thrill of the flight fades into nothing as Harry examines the scratch carefully and grimaces. It’s only cosmetic damage, but he is pretty sure that even a perfectly-fixed damaged broom is still a damaged broom, and all at once he wants nothing more to go back in time an hour or so and tell his past self to go the fuck back to sleep.
He gets to his feet and trudges back across the pitch, heavy and shivering. Once back at the shop, he carries the scratched Nimbus upstairs and places it on top of the trunk at the end of his bed before stripping off his damp clothes and crawling under the sheets and blankets. He’s going to have to tell Draco, but it’s still early. Maybe a good cup of coffee will soften the blow.
Harry isn’t sure if the coffee helps, but he wouldn’t like to imagine Draco’s face without it.
“Are you insane? Look at it!” he says despairingly, holding the broom up to the light and inspecting the scratch with narrowed eyes. “How did you even manage to do this?”
“I don’t know,” Harry says, and while it isn’t a complete lie, he decides that Draco doesn’t need to know about his imaginary game of Quidditch. “I’m sorry. We’ll strike that one off the stock and I’ll pay for it.”
Draco stares at him, expression one of pure exasperation. “I don’t care about the money. I care about running out of that bloody broomstick before Christmas!”
“You know what? I didn’t even think of that,” Harry sighs, flopping back onto the sofa and rubbing his face.
Draco makes a little sound of distress and sets the broom down on the coffee table. “I can’t even... Harry, you idiot, this is what promotional models are for!”
“We didn’t get a promotional model,” Harry says through his fingers. “Don’t you remember? You firecalled their office about fifty times trying to get one.”
“Oh, yes,” Draco says, folding his arms and scowling. Harry rather unhelpfully wants to smile. “Anyway, the point is, we’ve now got a very popular broomstick that we can’t sell.”
From somewhere near the fire comes an odd little snort. When Harry looks over, Nisha is watching them incredulously over the top of her coffee cup.
“Are you kidding?” she says after a moment. “Someone will pay a fortune for a broom that’s actually been used by Harry Potter.”
Harry wrinkles his nose in embarrassment but Draco immediately brightens at the prospect.
“I didn’t even think of that. What a fantastic idea.”
“No,” Harry says dully, knowing it’s pointless. “No, it’s not.”
Draco picks up the broom again and smiles. “Yes. We can put it in the window.”
Harry groans. Secretly, he’s extremely relieved that Draco seems happy again, but he doesn’t need to know that.
“Do we really need to make money out of the whole Harry Potter thing?” he asks wearily.
“You could give it to charity if you don’t want it,” Nisha suggests, moving closer to the fire and tucking her hands into the sleeves of her thick red jumper.
“We could have an auction,” Draco says, eyes gleaming as he uses the broom to poke at a delighted Sparks.
“I really don’t think you’ll have enough people interested for an auction,” Harry says, looking away from Draco and into his coffee cup.
Nisha laughs. “I used to hear some interesting things, sitting outside your shop. I don’t think there’ll be a problem.”
“Oh, really?” Draco says, apparently amused.
“Really,” Nisha says, directing a smile at the floor. “And it wasn’t all about Harry.”
Chapter 14: part fourteen
Prompt #14 - makeshift Christmas stockings
Fourteenth of December – The Spice Exchange
“Do you want some of this jalfrezi?” Draco asks, holding out a tinfoil tray.
“Pass,” Harry says, poking at an unidentifiable stringy vegetable on his plate, but Nisha takes the tray and spoons sauce and chicken onto her rice.
“I’ll swap you,” she says, picking up a steaming carton with seemingly heat-proof fingers and handing it to Draco. “Vindaloo. It’s a bit tame, though.”
Harry glances between them, mouth stinging even at the thought of eating such a viciously hot curry. Nisha, much like Draco, loves anything seriously spicy, and between the two of them they have ordered every dish on the menu with three little chillies beside its name. Harry thinks they are both mad, and they, in turn, have refused point blank to share his ‘chef’s curry of the month’. He has to admit, it is a rather unpleasant colour, somewhere between green and grey, with all manner of strange things floating in it, but his daring has been rewarded because it tastes fantastic, creamy and delicately fragrant with an aftertaste of something like lemongrass or ginger. They are welcome to their vindaloos.
“You’re right,” Draco says, putting his feet up on the coffee table and resting his plate on his lap. “I’ve definitely had hotter. Must try harder, Bhaji Express.”
Nisha laughs and says something, but Harry doesn’t catch it because he is watching Draco lick sauce from the back of his hand, tongue flicking out and eyes bright as he smiles across the table at her.
Harry groans inwardly and closes his eyes. It’s just a bit of spilled sauce and just a smile, and there’s absolutely no need for him to feel like he’s falling apart. And if he does want to reach over, set Draco’s plate on the table and kiss him senseless, all he has to do is remind himself that it would be a very bad idea.
“Hmm?” he says, realising that Draco is staring at him, one eyebrow raised.
“I said, do you want half of this naan bread?”
“Oh! Yeah, thanks,” Harry mumbles, taking the warm bread and using it to mop up some of his sauce.
“My mum loves curry,” Nisha says, mostly to herself.
Harry watches her as she pokes at her rice with her fork, wishing he knew what to say.
“Sorry,” she adds after a moment, shaking herself and tearing savagely at a chapatti.
“Don’t be,” Draco says. “My mother would eat nothing but French food if she could. The fancier the better.”
“She despairs of him,” Harry adds, and Nisha relaxes a little.
Leaning back against the sofa cushions, Harry relaxes, too. He can’t quite get all the way there, but there’s something about a good curry night that always lifts him, and he is delighted at the way Nisha has slotted neatly into their little ritual. She is gaining confidence now, no longer jumping at the smallest noises or apologising nearly as much. She is faultlessly polite and excessively grateful for the smallest of favours, but she is also showing signs of a sparkling sense of humour and seems to revel in Harry and Draco’s constant verbal sparring.
Harry is startled at how easily she has taken to helping around the shop, and though she would be the first to admit that she doesn’t know much about Quidditch, she is a dab hand at gift-wrapping and is happy to fetch and carry anything that is required. In fact, Harry is already trying to remember how they managed the Christmas workload without her.
He frowns and pushes away Sparks, who appears to have taken advantage of his inattention to help himself to a chunk of chicken from his plate. The little dog has been sniffing around the cartons of curry all evening, and while each of them has pushed him away with a sharp word at least twice, Harry secretly suspects that he won’t learn his lesson until he accidentally gobbles down some vindaloo.
With that thought in mind, he slides his plate onto the table and walks into the kitchen, belly pleasantly full. He scrapes some of the recently-obtained dog food into a saucer and presents it to Sparks, who dives in with a great amount of enthusiasm and tail-wagging. Harry watches him for a moment and then returns to the living room, where Draco and Nisha have pushed away the tinfoil trays and paper bags and are now kneeling next to the coffee table and peering at a large piece of parchment.
“Do I even want to know what you’re doing?” he asks.
“Should it be ‘Harry Potter’s Nimbus 3000’ or ‘Nimbus 3000 ridden by Harry Potter’?” Draco muses, and Harry knows they aren’t listening.
Resigned, he flops onto the hearthrug and gazes up at the coloured lights on the mantel. As he listens vaguely to the conversation between Draco and Nisha, he thinks about tomorrow night, when Ron and Hermione will be coming for dinner, what he’s going to cook for them and just what they and Nisha will make of each other. He has explained the situation as best he can via firecall, but their first meeting will be the true test. He’s not sure why he’s so nervous, but he feels protective of Nisha and there’s nothing he can do about it.
She’s here and she’s staying for as long as she needs to, and that’s that. She and Sparks will be here for Christmas. They need to feel welcome. Harry stares up at the lights for some time, rather struck by this image, and then gets to his feet. Draco and Nisha, now scribbling away at the parchment, don’t even look up as he leaves the room and returns a minute or so later with four odd socks. He has been hanging onto them for months now with the vague hope that at some point, their counterparts will return from wherever they disappeared to during the washing process, but now he has a better use for them.
He finds a marker pen and writes a name on the cuff of each sock, assigning the stripy one to Draco, the black-and-white spotted to Sparks and the bright red one to Nisha, leaving the one with the slightly odd, twisty pattern on it for himself. He thinks he knows how it feels.
“What are you doing?” Draco asks.
He sounds amused but Harry doesn’t turn around to look at him. “Hanging Christmas stockings, of course,” he says, taking each sock in turn and attaching it to the fireplace with his wand.
“Christmas socks!” Nisha laughs, long hair swinging around her as she turns to look at the mantelpiece, and suddenly she looks very young indeed. Harry supposes she is. “Look, Sparks, there’s one for you!”
The little dog bobbles back into the living room, plonking himself down at Harry’s feet and licking his lips with great satisfaction.
“There’s one for all of us,” Harry says, stepping back to admire the slightly bizarre display.
They aren’t nearly as fancy as the stockings on Ron and Hermione’s fireplace but he likes them. Somehow, the socks fit their odd little group perfectly.
“When you’ve quite finished being extremely strange, come and have a look at this,” Draco says.
Harry pulls a face at him and goes to join them at the coffee table, peering over Nisha’s shoulder at the large piece of parchment which now reads:
Come one, come all to the first annual Quality Quidditch Supplies Christmas Auction
Make your bid for this top-of-the-range Nimbus 3000, previously ridden by Harry Potter himself— the perfect Christmas present for any fan of Quidditch
Free mulled punch and mince pies for all bidders!
All proceeds to Battersea Dogs Home
20th December – 2pm
Harry sinks down onto the sofa and gazes at Draco and Nisha, torn between exasperation at the idea of ‘Harry Potter himself’ and affection for their enthusiasm.
“Draco let me choose the charity,” Nisha says anxiously. “I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s a great choice,” Harry says, letting affection eclipse exasperation and smiling at them both. “Bizarre as I find the whole idea, I hope you make lots of money from it.”
“You hope we make lots of money from it?” Draco repeats, getting to his feet and heading for the kitchen.
Harry follows him, puzzled. “Yeah, of course.”
“We?” Draco repeats, filling the kettle with water. “As in Nisha and me? I don’t think so. You’ll be helping to run that auction if I have anything to do with it.”
Harry stares at him for a second or two and then sags, realising with growing horror that, right at this moment, he will do absolutely anything Draco asks him to.
Draco seems to let the subject drop, instead gazing pensively into the living room from the door.
“Do you ever wonder if she chose us because of you?”
“In what way?”
“Because of who you are,” Draco clarifies.
Harry scuffs his sock against the tiles and pulls a face. “No. From what I’ve gathered, she chose us because nearly everyone else moved her on as soon as they saw her outside their shop. I don’t think she gives a fuck who I am.”
“Neither do I,” Draco says, still staring through the gap in the door.
“You don’t care who I am or you don’t think she does?” Harry asks irritably.
Draco just smiles at him.
Chapter 15: part fifteen
Prompt #15 - hot chocolate
Fifteenth of December – A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing
As it turns out, Harry needn’t have worried about Nisha at all. She, Ron and Hermione get along brilliantly, and the conversation at the dinner table is so animated that no one seems to notice the limp vegetables that Harry has accidentally overcooked in his preoccupation. In an attempt to combat the fierce nip in the air, Harry makes five large mugs of hot chocolate while the others decamp to the living room. He follows five minutes later, floating the cream and marshmallow-topped creations in front of him, to find Ron, Hermione and Nisha curled on the sofas and Draco crouching on the hearthrug, scowling.
“What is he doing?” Harry asks, sending three cups gently into grateful hands and Draco’s over to the coffee table, ready for when he has finished... well, whatever he is doing.
“He thinks the fire isn’t trying hard enough,” Ron says, lifting his mug and immediately smearing marshmallow on his nose.
Amused, Harry turns to watch, warming his fingers on his mug. Sure enough, Draco is leaning closer to the fire, wand drawn, wearing one of the sternest expressions Harry has ever seen. He smiles, heart performing a little leap, and when the fire roars obediently and Draco’s frown melts into a smile, he has to turn away and busy himself with his hot chocolate to avoid looking more obviously smitten than he already does.
“What I can’t understand is why anyone would think it was alright to take that choice away from another person,” Hermione is saying as he turns back to the sofas, and Harry knows immediately that he has missed the start of something important. “Love is a basic human right and it can’t be forced.”
Alarmed, Harry sits down next to Nisha and waits to see how she will respond. She and Hermione have already skirted around the subject of her home situation during dinner, but now it looks as though Hermione is moving in for the kill. Harry should have seen it coming. He has known her for long enough to know that any kind of injustice, perceived or otherwise, is not something that Hermione can be expected to leave alone. At her side, Ron is drinking his hot chocolate and glancing slowly between Nisha and his wife with a resigned sort of curiosity. Rose, now sitting on Draco’s lap on a large, squashy ottoman, just stares over at her mother with absolute adoration.
Nisha is silent for what seems like a long time. When she finally speaks, her voice is quiet but resolute.
“You’re right. And wrong.”
“But I—” Hermione attempts, bristling slightly, but Nisha continues.
“Not every arranged marriage is like that. Nearly all of my friends have had their husbands or wives chosen by their parents, and most of them are happy. They have grown to love each other.”
“You shouldn’t have to grow to love your husband,” Hermione says, horrified. “They should be your husband because you love them, not the other way around.”
Nisha grants her a half-smile and strokes Sparks’s ears. “In an ideal world, yeah. I’m just saying that it doesn’t always end in disaster and unhappiness. Some people’s parents work really hard to find the person who will be absolutely perfect for them.”
“Doesn’t that...” Ron begins and then falters when four pairs of eyes settle on him at once.
“Please,” Nisha encourages.
“Erm... doesn’t that take a lot of the fun out of it? I mean... isn’t it better to find your perfect person by yourself?” Ron asks, glancing at Hermione, who flushes and stares into her cup.
Nisha nods. “I think so. But some people aren’t as worried about that. They have so many things to deal with at once and they... and their parents... worry that they won’t have time to find a partner on their own. My friend Nathalie—her parents are something big in the Ministry—”
“Wolstenholme?” Draco asks.
Nisha nods. “That’s them. Nathalie was so busy training to be a Healer, and then a specialist, that she would never have had time to find anyone. In the end, her parents introduced her to Derek, who was a therapist, dealing mainly with people who’d had their minds altered during the war. They like a lot of the same things; they have the same views on things like lifestyle and children and Muggle relations. They’ve been together three years now. Sometimes it works.”
Hermione bites her lip, clearly conflicted. “But she still didn’t get to choose.”
“Actually, she did. If she hadn’t liked Derek, her parents wouldn’t have pushed it. Most of them don’t. That’s the thing—usually there is a choice. I just didn’t get one,” Nisha says.
“Oh,” Hermione says after a moment. She frowns. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. My father is very extreme in his views and my mother...” Nisha sighs. “My mother is a wonderful person but sometimes... she’s a coward.”
Beside her, Harry catches his breath and she glances at him.
“I shouldn’t have said that, should I? It’s not like I’m much better for running away from everything.”
“You are extremely brave,” he says firmly.
“He’s right,” Hermione adds, sounding more certain of herself again. “You’re taking control of your life and I think that’s fantastic. And... I’m sorry for going off about arranged marriages. I’m still not sure about the idea but there’s obviously a lot more to it than I realised.”
She stops, pink-cheeked, and clamps her mouth firmly shut. Amused and heartened, Harry watches as she and Nisha exchange little smiles.
“Yes!” says Rose. Draco bounces her slightly on his lap and she bursts into uncontrollable giggles.
Sparks, who has fallen asleep with his head on Nisha’s knee, startles awake at the sound and promptly falls off the sofa, landing on the floor in a confused heap with all three legs waving in the air.
“Do you think he was more coordinated before he lost a leg?” Ron asks.
Harry sucks the last of the melted marshmallows from the surface of his hot chocolate and gulps at the startlingly sweet, hot liquid underneath. “He might’ve been born with three legs,” he points out.
“No idea,” Nisha says. “On either count.”
“Yes!” Rose declares, pointing at Sparks. “Dog!”
Apparently delighted by the attention, Sparks gets to his feet and clatters over to her, nails clicking on the shiny floorboards. Rose beams down at him. Sparks smiles back and very carefully tugs off her sock with his teeth and runs away with it into the kitchen. For a moment they all look at one another in amusement, but when Sparks doesn’t seem to be planning to return, Harry gets to his feet. Rose doesn’t seem too worried about her missing sock, but he imagines that Hermione will, at some point, want it back.
Hermione follows him into the kitchen and they search for the sock, eventually finding it in Sparks’s water bowl. Sparks himself is discovered by Hermione, hiding behind the door, and when it clicks shut at her back she leans on it, fixing Harry with searching dark eyes.
“Oh, god,” he groans, heart sinking. “What did I do? What did Draco do? Are we—?”
“No,” Hermione interrupts in a whisper. “This isn’t about Draco... though I do find it very interesting that he’s the first thing you think of.”
“Hermione,” Harry pleads, folding his arms. “Stop it. What’s the matter?”
She sighs. “Okay. I just wanted to check that everything was okay with Nisha.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well... she’s living in your house now, working in your shop. You haven’t known her for very long. I suppose I just wanted to make sure... do you trust her?” Hermione asks anxiously.
Surprised, Harry hesitates. Hermione is right, of course: he hasn’t known Nisha for long. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem to matter. His instincts have rarely steered him wrong, and there’s something about the way she holds herself, the way she speaks to people and the way she protects Sparks with everything she has, something that makes it easy for him to trust her. Had he needed further evidence, the fact that she has spent night after night in the snow and rain rather than sell her mother’s necklace would be more than enough for Harry.
“It never occurred to me not to,” he says eventually.
Hermione’s face clears. She steps away from the door and hugs him tightly. “Thank you,” she whispers. “And I wish you’d seen the way Draco was looking at you when Nisha was talking.”
Harry gives her a stern look, but there’s no mistaking the flutter in his stomach as they return to the living room, damp sock held triumphantly aloft. Ron and Draco, absorbed in a muttered discussion of the Quidditch magazine on Ron’s lap, do not even look up, and nor does Rose, who is watching with rapt enjoyment as Nisha forms beautiful shadow puppets for her on the nearest wall, hands transforming into a swan, then an owl, then a leaping rabbit. Rose giggles delightedly, trying to reach out and touch the shadows, but Nisha somehow keeps her securely on her lap without a scrap of effort.
“You’re good with her,” Hermione says softly.
Nisha looks up and smiles. “Four little brothers and a little sister. I’ve learned a few ways of keeping them quiet over the years.”
Hermione says nothing for a moment, expression thoughtful. “We’ve got Ron’s department’s Christmas meal tomorrow night... any chance we can bring her over and you can watch her for a few hours?”
“Sorry, Hermione, we’ve got the SODA thing,” Harry says, and Draco groans, looking up at last.
“What’s a soda thing?” Nisha asks.
“Shopkeepers of Diagon Alley,” Draco says, scowling. “We all meet three times a year in the Leaky Cauldron to discuss ‘issues’. It’s incredibly dull.”
“Yeah, but you know we’ll never hear the end of it if we don’t go,” Harry points out.
“That’s right,” Hermione says, “and anyway, I wasn’t asking you. I was asking Nisha.”
Nisha’s eyes widen. “Really? I mean, I’d love to, if you’re sure...”
“Of course,” Hermione says, smiling, and Harry just about resists the urge to catch her up into a hug. Hermione’s request is a show of trust, in him as well as in Nisha, and he loves her for it.
“Are you sure?” Ron asks, glancing at Nisha. “She’s teething, you know.”
Nisha smiles, dark eyes bright with pleasure. “I’ll manage.”
“I don’t want to go to the godforsaken SODA meeting,” Draco grumbles as Harry drops down next to him on the sofa. Ron, Hermione and Nisha are caught up in a serious discussion about emergency contacts and nappy changes and teething rings, and he easily tunes them out.
“Neither do I, but we’re going.”
“You are dangerously persuasive,” Draco says, mouth lifting at one corner as he stretches and regards Harry through a ruffle of blond hair.
“I wasn’t trying very hard,” Harry mumbles, heart racing as the sudden proximity and the heat of Draco’s body makes him feel as though the sofa is a tiny island and the others are already way out to sea.
Draco’s slow smile lights his face. “I know.”
Harry breathes in sharply, lemons and chocolate and Draco—clean, warm, dizzying—and all he can hear is the echo of Hermione’s smug words: I wish you’d seen the way Draco was looking at you.
Realising that he is smiling back—and worse, doing nothing but smiling back—Harry shakes himself and looks away, drawing his knees up protectively and forcing himself to pay attention to the others.
“I normally put her down at about eight o’clock,” Hermione is saying, and Harry hears the words but he can’t make sense of a single one.
“Harry? Are you alright?” Draco asks, and there’s a cautious hand on his arm, and when he allows himself to look into the pale eyes, he knows.
There’s no getting away from it. Everything he feels is right there in Draco’s face, and for a split-second he is filled with a painful, wonderful rush of pure joy. It’s all there, and all he needs to do is close the distance between them. In that moment, it’s all he wants to do and he aches to do it. It makes perfect sense, the only sense, and then he remembers.
He remembers how it would be a very bad idea, and as quickly as that, the joy drains away, leaving him feeling empty and hurt and relieved all at once. He’s not going to lose a friend like Draco because of some ridiculous feelings. It would be very bad.
“Very, very bad,” he mutters under his breath.
Draco frowns. “What?”
“Nothing. I’m just remembering that I nearly fell asleep in the last SODA meeting. Maybe we should take some coffee this time,” he says.
“We could get some fireworks from George,” Draco says, sounding slightly dazed. “Might liven things up a bit.”
“We’d better get going,” Hermione says, appearing behind the sofa and struggling into her coat. “Please don’t set off fireworks in the Leaky; you’ll give poor Tom a heart attack.”
“I promise nothing,” Draco says, and Hermione rolls her eyes.
“Be good,” she instructs, gathering Ron, Rose and her bag and heading for the fireplace.
Harry says nothing. He’s going to try his very best.
Chapter 16: part sixteen
Prompt #16 - butterbeer
Sixteenth of December – Sod(a) This Meeting
“Erm, Mrs Purley? No alcoholic drinks during the meeting, you know that.”
Harry looks across the pub to where Hector, Apothecary and mastermind of the whole SODA nightmare, is holding a clipboard and fixing the lovely woman from the cafe with a very stern look.
“Fine,” she sighs, calling Tom back and changing her order. “But I’ll say what I say every time—why hold it in a pub?”
“It’s the most convenient location with enough seats for everyone,” Hector says. “Just because we’re in a pub doesn’t mean you need a glass of wine.”
Mrs Purley bristles slightly. “We’re all adults here, Hector. Would it kill you to lighten up?”
Hector just stares at her and Mrs Purley walks away, catching Harry’s eye as she passes. They exchange a weary glance and Harry sips his Butterbeer, caught somewhere between frustration and amused acceptance. It’s always the same. Some rebellious person always tries to order a proper drink and Hector always manages to catch them at it. Mrs Purley is a repeat offender, but he and Draco have both tried it over the years—more for the entertainment value than the actual desire for alcohol—and so has Mr Borteg from the whisky shop, whose disdain for Hector’s no-drinking policy is always clear on his face.
Harry doesn’t mind as such; he’s always pretty happy to settle for a Butterbeer. It tastes equally delicious served ice cold in the summer and steaming hot in the winter, and it transports him back to Hogwarts with a single sip. He could do without being treated like a naughty child every four months, but he and Draco have learned from bitter experience that missing a meeting just isn’t worth the hassle that results. Most of the time, they can find a table near the back, sit quietly, and slip out as soon as ‘any other business’ is over. If they’re lucky, they’ll be home before nine.
“I noticed that girl’s gone from your doorstep,” says the old lady who owns Eeylops, pulling up a chair at the table next to theirs and fishing a packet of sweets from her carpet bag. “Did she move on?”
“Good riddance,” Hector says before Harry or Draco can answer. Apparently oblivious to the appalled expressions on all three faces, he passes out agendas and turns away.
“Actually, she’s living with us now,” Draco says loudly.
“Isn’t that lovely?” sighs the old lady, beaming at Harry. “Do you want a humbug?”
Hector turns around to stare at them. “She’s living with you? That homeless girl?”
Harry can feel Draco’s flare of anger and it’s the most natural thing in the world to lay a calming hand on his knee as he looks up at Hector and says, “Yes, that’s right.”
“I think I will have a humbug, actually,” Draco says quietly, and he takes one from the proffered bag, unwrapping it slowly and scowling. “Thank you, Jean,” he mumbles through a mouthful of sweet.
“Have you even thought about the message that sends out, Mr Potter?” Hector demands. “We don’t want people like that cluttering up the streets.”
Harry clutches his drink tightly, furious now. “Well, she isn’t cluttering up the street any more, is she?” he says through gritted teeth.
Hector sighs and scribbles something on his clipboard. When he opens his mouth to speak again, he is cut off by a loud bellow from the other side of the pub:
“Let’s get this bloody thing started, shall we? Some of us have got things to do!”
Hector turns red and walks away quickly. A minute or so later, he’s calling the meeting to order.
Jean puts the bag of humbugs in the middle of the table, looks around furtively, and then pulls out a book of crosswords.
“I’ve been running that shop for sixty-three years without his help,” she says, retrieving a pencil and peering at the clues. “I’m not about to start listening to him now.”
Amused, Draco leans in and offers to help with the crossword. By the time the meeting is halfway through, they have completed seven puzzles and are working through an eighth. Harry keeps one ear on the meeting, just in case a Christmas miracle really does occur and Hector says something worth listening to. The rest of his attention, whether he likes it or not, is focused entirely on Draco. He is dressed casually tonight, in plain jeans and a heavy, cable-knit jumper in a soft shade of green that seems to make his hair and skin glow. He smiles so easily as he and Jean discuss possible solutions and Harry wonders when he started to take that for granted. For the first ten or so years he knew Draco, he hardly ever smiled at all.
Now though... he’s happy, Harry supposes. Draco is happy, and doing something ridiculous like saying ‘hey, I think I’m in love with you’ has the potential to make him unhappy. Maybe not at first, but there are no guarantees when it comes to feelings, and the only thing Harry can really be sure of is that giving in is not worth the risk. Things are fine just the way they are.
“So, let’s all vote on that now, shall we?” Hector says.
Harry looks around hurriedly. Mrs Purley has her hand up, as does Mr Borteg; Draco and Jean are also half-heartedly raising an arm each as they continue to stare at the puzzle book. Shrugging, Harry puts his hand up, too.
“What did we just vote on?” he whispers.
“Whether or not a snow artist should be allowed a permit to work in the Alley,” Draco whispers back.
Harry frowns. “What if it doesn’t snow?”
Draco looks up at him, expression pained. Harry smirks and takes another humbug.
SODA’s official winter meeting finally draws to a close at half past nine (or nine thirty-two, as Hector insists on informing everyone) and there is a stampede for the door as most of the shopkeepers race to get out before they can be asked to write up minutes or lick envelopes.
Harry and Draco stay where they are, deciding to wait until the rush has died down. Their table is comfortably close to the fire, and Harry finds that he rather enjoys the atmosphere of the Leaky now that Hector is no longer speaking. When he gathers his papers and leaves altogether, the occupants of the pub seem to let out a collective sigh of relief.
“Last one,” Jean says, jabbing her pencil at the puzzle book. “Violent change or disruption: something-something-H-E-something-something-A-something.”
“Upheaval,” Harry says, finishing his drink.
“Oh, well done,” Jean murmurs, filling in the letters and beaming up at him. “So clever. I’d better get going, the boys and girls will want their dinner.”
Harry watches her tuck away her book and pencil, shrug into her coat and pull her bright red bobble hat down firmly over her ears before he realises that she is talking about her owls.
“Goodnight,” he says, smiling at her.
“Goodnight, Jean. Please bring more puzzles to the spring meeting,” Draco pleads.
The old woman beams, and there’s a twinkle in her eye as she says, “Goodnight boys. Have a lovely evening,” and trundles off into the night.
“Do you think Nisha’s alright?” Draco asks suddenly.
Harry frowns. “Yeah, why?”
Draco gets to his feet and shoots Harry an oddly determined glance. “Back in a minute.”
Baffled and slightly sleepy, Harry gazes into the fire and lets his mind drift. When Draco returns, he is holding two rather large firewhiskies, each sending its own little plume of smoke into the warm air.
“What’s the occasion?” he asks, taking his drink and inhaling the rich, spicy scent with a happy sigh.
Draco shrugs and sits down on the worn leather banquette next to Harry. “None, really. I thought we’d earned a nice drink after sitting through that load of drivel.”
Something in his voice catches Harry’s attention and he searches Draco’s face.
“Are you sure that’s all?”
Draco nods and sips his drink, and, after a moment, Harry does the same, swallowing the fiery liquid and relishing the hot burn in the back of his throat. Draco has bought the good stuff, and he doesn’t know why that should surprise him. He likes nice things. Once upon a time, Harry would have dismissed such a thing as pretentious and silly, but he sees now that sometimes—not always—holding out for quality really does make a difference, and besides, Draco works for his little pleasures these days. He earns them. He shares them with Harry. He does that because... well, because he wants to, Harry tells himself firmly, gulping at his drink and feeling his head begin to swim already.
Alarmed, he stares into the almost-empty glass and tries to remember when he last ate. He had planned to make dinner after the meeting, and at lunchtime... he remembers buying a sandwich but not eating it.
“I bet Sparks ate it, the little bugger,” he mumbles.
Draco gives him an odd look. “Do you want another?” he asks, and when Harry looks at his glass he is startled to realise that it is now completely empty.
No, he thinks. “Yeah, why not?” he says.
As Draco returns to the bar, Harry watches him, rubbing at his heated face and wondering what the hell he is up to. What the hell either of them are up to. What the fucking universe is up to. In all honesty, what he needs is a glass of water, a good meal and a proper night’s sleep, but he’s not going to get that, because he’s an idiot. He’s going to get another firewhisky and he’s going to drink it, because that’s the only thing that seems to make sense.
Which can’t be good.
By the time he is halfway down his second glass, his eyes are beginning to feel heavy and unfocused, and his stomach seems to be full of eels. Chin propped up on one hand, he looks at Draco. Beautiful, naughty Draco. Sitting there all refined and irresistible in his stupid green jumper.
“Why do you keep looking at me like that?” Harry asks at last.
Draco gazes at him for long seconds over the top of his glass. Finally, he sets it down on the table and laces his fingers together as though he’s about to say something very serious.
“You’re not going to like it.”
Harry blinks. “I like not knowing what it is even less.”
Draco sighs. “Fine. You may think it has escaped my notice, but you have been behaving oddly and I’m really starting to get worried.”
“Nothing escapes your notice, does it?” Harry mumbles mutinously.
“What does that mean?” Draco asks.
“I don’t know, Draco, but there’s something in this firewhisky that’s going to my head,” Harry sighs, peering into his glass for a moment and then slumping back against his seat when Draco laughs at him. “Stop that. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s all under control.”
“What is?” Draco says, sounding a little bit desperate.
His eyes are all big, Harry thinks. Such lovely big eyes. “It’s all fine,” he says, words starting to loop and merge inside his head. “It’s all fine... you know for why? Because if it wasn’t, it’d be a very bad idea. Very, very bad,” he says, pointing a resolute finger at Draco, because that’ll tell him. “Very bad.”
“Harry... absolutely any time now is alright to stop talking in riddles,” Draco says. He leans on the table on his elbows and looks so intensely into Harry’s eyes that he doesn’t know whether to groan or giggle. In the end, the noise that escapes him is a confused sort of honk.
“Oh, god... what was that?” he moans, covering his face with his hands. “Do you hate me now?”
“No, Harry, I don’t hate you,” Draco says very quietly.
Harry peers through his fingers at him. “Oh... you’re sad. I’m sorry.”
Draco takes a long, shuddering breath. “I’m not sad, I promise.”
“I don’t believe you,” Harry says, draining his glass and attempting to blow a smoke ring. After a moment, he frowns. He’s pretty sure he’s only had two drinks, and if that’s true, then he’s either getting old or getting something else. Tired and hungry and absotively, posilutely not in love or anything.
“Please just talk to me,” Draco says, and the look on his face makes Harry’s chest hurt.
He feels that. He knows. Poor Draco. “Listen,” he says, slowly and carefully, “the only way to stop anything very bad from happening is for me to keep my mouth closed.”
Draco groans and drops back against the banquette with his arms folded. “What can possibly be so very bad that you can’t talk to me? You’re my best friend, Harry, I can’t...” Draco stops and stares down at the floor.
“You have to trust me,” Harry mumbles, unable to stop himself from leaning against Draco, just for a second. It hurts to do it but it hurts more to not do it. He rests his head on Draco’s shoulder and breathes him in. “You know the thing, don’t you?” he whispers to himself. “It’s very bad.”
When Tom rings the bell for last orders, Harry bolts upright. “I’m sorry. Shall we go home?”
“Yes, let’s do that,” Draco says, but his voice is heavy and sad.
Harry balls his hands into fists, digging his nails into his palms in an attempt to remind himself that he’s doing the right thing. The rain is still falling when they step out into the dark street but Harry doesn’t trust himself to Apparate, so he walks the short distance back to the shop, feeling curiously lighter on his feet with each step. He doesn’t look at Draco but he knows he is there, trailing behind him as he clatters through the shop and up the stairs to the flat.
He blinks rapidly as he steps into the warm, bright living room and jumps slightly as Draco pulls off his wet coat and hangs it up for him.
“How was your meeting?” Nisha asks, and it takes Harry a moment to locate her. She is sitting on his favourite windowsill with Sparks in her lap and she appears to be very happy.
“Boring,” Harry says firmly. “Dull as fuck. Did you have a nice babysit?”
Nisha’s eyes flick to Draco and then she smiles. “Yes, thank you. They gave me five Galleons, can you believe it?”
Harry squints to see the gleaming coins in her hand. “Indeed,” he says, the word coming out a little louder than he means it to, and then he turns to warm his hands on the fire.
“You don’t think they’d expect you to work for free, do you?” Draco says.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Nisha admits. “I wouldn’t have minded, anyway. She was really good.”
“That doesn’t matter. No one here wants to take advantage of you.”
Nisha doesn’t reply. As Harry stares into the licking flames, a new thought attempts to rise and coalesce in his fuddled brain. Something about Nisha and money and the shop. He supposes he’ll figure it out later.
“I think I’ll go to bed,” he announces to no one in particular, taking off to his bedroom without waiting for a response.
As he closes his door he thinks he hears Draco say: “Just a couple of firewhiskies—he’s fine.”
“Of course I’m fine,” he mumbles, yanking off his clothes and tumbling into bed.
Two minutes later, he’s asleep.
Chapter 17: part seventeen
Prompt #17 - a Hogwarts trunk
Seventeenth of December – A Safe Place
Having woken feeling curiously refreshed and inexplicably healthy, Harry gets out of bed, wraps himself in his old towelling bathrobe and then spends a good ten minutes staring at his bedroom door. He may still be a little hazy on the details, but he remembers last night’s post-meeting conversation well enough to be pretty certain he has made an idiot of himself. He doesn’t think he has said anything that could get him into trouble, but it’s impossible to know for sure, and there’s a foggy little memory of him putting his head on Draco’s shoulder, and...
Harry groans and rubs at his face. However much of a tit he might have turned into after two (admittedly very large) drinks, he can’t stay in his bedroom all day. With a deep breath, he corrals his courage and heads out into the living room. Nisha, who is poking at the fire, turns around to greet him and she is definitely trying to hold back a smile. Quietly horrified, Harry murmurs a ‘good morning’ to her and follows the alluring smell of toast and coffee into the kitchen.
“I suppose you’re hungry, going to bed without any dinner?” Draco asks without turning around from the counter, where he is slowly depressing the plunger on the cafetiere.
“Starving,” Harry admits, fiddling with the belt of his robe and trying not to cringe. “I’m sorry about last night. Was I awful?”
“No, you were charming,” Draco says irritably.
Harry stares at the back of his head. “Don’t be daft.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Draco says sharply, and when he turns around, plate of toast in one hand and coffee pot in the other, his expression doesn’t match his voice at all. He smiles at Harry but his eyes are sad. “You were confusing at times, but mostly charming. Irritatingly so.”
“Oh,” Harry says, bewildered.
“Breakfast,” Draco says, sweeping past him to the table. “Now. Nisha!”
A moment later, Nisha and Sparks join them in the kitchen. Breakfast is calm and quiet but Harry feels unsettled as he crunches his toast, warms his insides with strong coffee and looks out at the lightening sky. The cobbles have dried overnight and the sky now seems to hang heavily, white and portentous, over Diagon Alley. Harry remembers something about a snow artist, whatever that is—perhaps he will need that licence after all.
By mid-morning, the snow has begun to fall, and by lunchtime, the flakes are whirling thickly from the sky, laying down a silent white carpet over everything in sight. The shop is quieter than usual, but when Harry looks out of the window, he sees that the Christmas market traders are battling on, steam and glitter and bright lights just visible amid the dizzying haze of white.
He glances over his shoulder at Draco and Nisha, who are chomping on vast sandwiches and looking at something in the Daily Prophet that has been spread out on the counter in front of them.
“What kind of an idiot would try something like that two weeks before Christmas?” Draco says.
Draco glances at her. “Hm?”
“It’s only eight days,” Nisha says, pulling something out of her sandwich and dangling it under the counter for Sparks.
“Good grief. Well, then, he’s even more of an idiot,” Draco says, and they both turn back to the newspaper.
Harry sighs and continues to stare out of the window. Eight days until Christmas and he has yet to buy Draco a single present. He has usually amassed a small pile of things by now; the markets are impossible to resist, the surrounding shops are always full of interesting little things at this time of year, and he always places several owl orders, just for the fun of reading a mysterious little advert in the back of the Prophet or Quidditch Quarterly and then sitting back and waiting to receive something strange and wonderful. Sometimes the item he receives isn’t at all what he has ordered, but it is still admired and wrapped and stuffed under the tree for Draco anyway.
The simple fact is that Harry loves buying Christmas presents, and he loves buying them for Draco more than anyone else because Draco doesn’t need anything. There’s something about choosing gifts for the man who has everything that sparks a thrill of challenge in Harry. Every year since they have become friends, he has secretly noted down anything that Draco has taken a fancy to, looking for silly little holes in his life that can be filled with silly little things, hoping to make him smile and usually succeeding.
This year, though, everything feels different. Ever since Ron and Hermione’s intervention (and okay, they might’ve been right in the end, but Harry really doesn’t think that’s the point) he hasn’t been able to muster his usual zeal for gift-buying. He has had the odd idea, of course, but everything he thinks of just seems a little too personal, or worse, somehow dripping in unhelpful subtext.
Harry frowns, momentarily distracted as five or six shrieking children skid down the street and tumble-skitter into a pile of brightly-coloured wool and giggles. Slowly, they disentangle themselves and set off towards the market stalls at a run.
Attempting to focus, Harry rubs his face with cold hands and drags in a calming breath.
Okay, so he needs to find a Christmas present for Draco. He still has no clue how to find a gift that says, ‘hey, I love you and I think you might love me, but let’s pretend otherwise, shall we?’
He wrinkles his nose. Maybe it shouldn’t say that.
“I’m going out to get a few bits,” he announces, putting on his coat and scarf. “Does anyone need anything?”
“No, thanks,” Draco says, looking from Harry to the snow and back again as though he thinks he is quite mad.
“Dog food?” Nisha requests guiltily.
“No problem,” Harry says, adding a rather optimistic “won’t be long!” and striding out into the snow.
The air isn’t quite as cold as it looks and the snowflakes are soft and dry as they settle against his skin, but they soon begin to melt, leaving his face and hands raw and the back of his neck unpleasantly damp. By the time he reaches the market he is shivering, and he barely notices the contents of the first two stalls in spite of staring at them until his eyes sting. At the third stall, he stops, draws his wand, and casts a warming charm. The spell ripples protectively around him and flows through his veins, heating him gently from the inside out and allowing him to focus on his task.
“Got one of those for me?” cackles the stall-holder and Harry flashes her a weak smile. He moves on, fairly certain that Draco will not appreciate an elaborately decorated pipe, an engraved cigar box, or a shiny new hookah.
At the next stall, he finds extra gifts for Ron, Hermione and Nisha, and at the one after that, a tiny little jumper with Christmas trees on it that will be perfect for Sparks. He thinks he can probably seal up one of the leg holes to make it fit him perfectly, something which the lady running the pet stall seems to find extremely amusing.
“Does your three-legged dog want a special Christmas dinner?” she asks, indicating a display of luxury dog food.
“Oh, probably,” Harry says, taking several packets along with the jumper, even though he has a sneaking suspicion that what Sparks would really like is a plate of what everyone else will be having.
By the time he gives in and heads back to the shop, the warming charm has completely worn off and he can no longer feel his hands or feet. Feeling somewhat defeated, he stomps up the stairs and throws the bags onto his bed, leaving them there in a rustling pile of paper and fabric and small shiny things. For a moment, he hangs back at the top of the stairs, blowing on his numb fingers and trying to get a handle on his disappointment. So what if he hasn’t managed to find anything spectacular for Draco?
It’s just... he sighs. It’s not really about the presents. Not really, and maybe just a little bit.
Harry gathers himself and walks down to the shop, feeling heavy and unbalanced, as though one quick push could knock him flat to the ground. He hopes no one feels like trying.
After dinner, Harry heads to his room to confront his purchases. There are more bags than he remembers and several of them have managed to slide off the edge of the bed in his absence, spilling shiny packets and ribbons and jars of speciality mustard across the floorboards. Harry drags them all carefully onto the rug, crawling under the bed to retrieve a bottle of Ultimate Moutho-Burno Hot Sauce which has made a bid for escape. He turns the bottle in his hands and grimaces. He can’t quite decide who will like this more—Draco or Nisha—but he supposes both of them will get plenty of use out of it.
Returning the bottle to its bag, Harry settles cross-legged on the rug and reaches for his trunk. It’s a little bit battered these days, but it functions beautifully as a receptacle for presents and secrets, and there’s something about the sight of it that always makes him smile, just a little. Carefully, he rubs his fingers over the faded gold letters of his name—still just about visible—and presses his thumbs to the catches. The lid springs free and he pushes it back with a long, gentle creak, releasing the evocative scent of books and ink and sweets that seems to be woven permanently into its lining and joints and hinges.
Inside, neatly stacked, are his other as-yet-unwrapped presents—books and unusual seeds and bulbs for Hermione, a cure-your-own-bacon kit for Ron, a matching set of hat and gloves for Nisha... Harry carefully examines each one before replacing it in the trunk, then, with a feeling of trepidation, he empties out the bags from the market.
He manages to leave the pile of things for Draco until the very last, hoping uselessly that the longer he waits, the less disappointed with his purchases he will be. When he regards the gifts, though, he just wants to take them all back and start again. Not that he supposes it will help.
Resignedly, he transfers a box of limited edition Coffee Chocolate Frogs into the trunk, followed by a jar of everlasting string and a new shaving brush to replace the one that Sparks has chewed.
It’s not that he thinks Draco won’t like any of the gifts, it’s just that nothing he has bought really seems to say anything. Harry frowns, leaning on the edge of the trunk and fiddling with a book of puzzles that promises to be ‘fiendishly difficult’. It’s fine. He doesn’t want to say anything.
Closing his eyes, he releases a messy breath and lets it hurt.
Just for a minute, he thinks, and then he’ll pull himself together. Just for a minute, but the rush of emotion is too much for him. It courses rapidly through his veins, wrapping around his heart, twisting his stomach and stealing his breath. For long seconds, every part of him hurts, and then, just as quickly, the pain turns hot and searing, flushing his skin and sweeping out to his scalp and feet and fingertips. He groans, pressing his heated face against the cool cover of the puzzle book.
Of course he wants to say things. He wants to say all the things. Everything.
He drops the puzzle book into the trunk and picks up the last item from the rug: a long, multicoloured scarf. It’s not the same as the one Draco gave to Nisha but it’s just as ostentatious and colourful, and just as Draco as the one that started this whole ridiculous situation. He folds it carefully and places it in the trunk, and then, with a deep breath, closes the lid and locks it in place.
Someone knocks softly on his door and he looks up. “Hello?”
“It’s me,” comes a muffled female voice. “I was just wondering—”
“Come in,” Harry calls.
After a second or two, the door opens and Nisha stands there uncertainly, fingers wrapped tightly around the door handle.
“Are you okay?” Harry asks, frowning.
She nods. “I was just wondering if it was okay for me and Sparks to go for a walk.”
“You don’t have to ask me,” he says gently. “Do you know where the key is for the shop door?”
Harry stretches his stiff legs and gets to his feet. He looks out of the window at the whirling snow and then at Nisha. “It doesn’t look very pleasant out there. Are you sure you’ll be alright?”
Nisha looks as though she is trying not to smile and Harry is suddenly aware of how much he must sound like... well, not like her father, hopefully, but definitely like an old man.
“We’re used to the dark,” she says. “Anyway, I think the snow looks nice. You can come with us if you want to.”
“I’ll pass,” Harry says, following her out into the living room. “Where’s Draco?”
Nisha looks at the floor, clearly uncomfortable. “He went out. Didn’t he tell you?”
“No,” Harry says, dropping onto the sofa.
Nisha pulls her thick red jumper on over her thinner black one and frees her long hair from the collar. Sparks is already bounding around her feet excitedly but she hesitates, fiddling with her sleeves and staring at Harry with quiet intensity.
“You said it was complicated,” she says at last. “Is it really?”
Harry meets her eyes, heart hammering. “At this point, Nisha, I have no idea,” he admits.
She lingers for a moment longer, finding a small smile for Harry and then walking to the door, Sparks at her heels. “We won’t be long,” she promises.
Harry goes back to his bedroom and flops on the crumpled sheets. He’s determined not to be sitting there waiting when Draco comes home, but he lies awake until long after Nisha and Sparks return, waiting for the door to slam. He hears Draco’s footsteps just before ten, hears him making tea and talking to Nisha, hears his bedroom door close and then nothing more.
Harry turns over and glares into his pillow. It’s definitely still complicated.
Chapter 18: part eighteen
Prompt #18 - snow animals
Eighteenth of December – The Art of Denial
By morning, Diagon Alley is coated in a thick layer of pristine white snow. The flakes have ceased falling and the sky is now a clear, crisp blue, making the whole street look like an iced Christmas cake.
“Or one of those gingerbread houses,” Nisha says, kneeling on the shop windowsill and peering out at the scene. “A whole street of them.”
“What is he doing?” Draco demands, standing at the other window and frowning.
Harry, who has been restacking the Nimbus display, leans over Nisha’s shoulder to look. In spite of the maelstrom in his head and another horrendous night’s sleep, he smiles.
“I think that’s the snow artist.”
Draco says nothing but they all continue to gaze out of the window at the man in the street, who appears to be setting up some sort of protective charm that encircles a large area of snow-covered ground but leaves plenty of space for Diagon Alley shoppers to pass on both sides.
“What’s he going to make?” Nisha wonders, but then the door flies open and several customers burst in at once, drawing all three of them away from the window for several minutes.
Harry finishes with his customer first and hurries back to the window. “It’s a swan!” he calls to the others. “He’s making a swan!”
“Who’s making a swan?” asks a man with furry eyebrows and a Nimbus in each hand.
“This man,” Harry says, gesturing for the customer to come to the window.
“A swan, as I live and breathe!” the man declares, eyes wide. “A snow swan!”
The man with the eyebrows is not the only customer to be impressed. Throughout the morning, customers dash into the shop with excitable, swan-related comments on their lips. By the time the swan is finished, it must be six feet tall—considerably larger than the little artist, who is tiny and frail-looking, but must, Harry thinks, be made of stern stuff indeed to be working out in the snow without a coat or gloves. His only protection against the cold seems to be a little pork pie hat with a feather sticking out of the top, and Harry can’t imagine that it’s doing all that much.
With the majestic swan complete, he begins a second sculpture, using his hands and his wand to force the snow into quite unnatural forms. This one takes a little while to get going, and every customer who comes into the shop seems to have a different idea about what it’s going to be. Harry is fairly sure that it’s a snake until the legs begin to appear; Nisha thinks it’s a giraffe, and Jean, who comes in to buy some broom polish, is absolutely convinced that what it is, loves, is a frog.
They are all wrong.
“It’s a bloody dragon,” Draco says, and when the others rush to the window, it is immediately clear that he is right. The whole thing seems to have fallen into place while Harry has been helping some children with their first broomstick and now the sculpture is so obviously a dragon that he doesn’t know how he didn’t see it before.
“Hungarian Horntail,” he says, amused. “I think I prefer this one to the real thing.”
Draco turns and meets his eyes, letting out a reluctant smile that is his first of the day. Harry’s stomach swoops in relief and he smiles back.
“My mother says hello,” Draco says, and turns back to the window.
Harry frowns, puzzled by the non-sequitur. “Oh?”
“She’s having house-elf trouble again. I’d say I went over and helped but I rather suspect I made the situation worse,” Draco confesses, and there’s a tiny note of apology in his voice that catches Harry somewhere raw.
“Last night?” Harry asks quietly.
Draco nods and shifts position, accidentally brushing his shoulder against Harry’s. They both jump.
“Is it the wine cellar again?”
“No. Christmas dinner.”
“Oh,” Harry says, mildly surprised. “Well, that’s new.”
“Have you seen that dragon?” says a teenage girl, walking into the shop with her friend. “Oh, you have,” she sighs, looking disappointed as she realises that everyone currently in the shop is looking out of the window to see the finishing touches being added to the dragon.
The other girl looks at Harry, eyes wide. “Did you honestly ride that broom? The one in the window?”
Harry tries not to cringe as he thinks of the Nimbus and the big sign and ‘Harry Potter himself’. Instead, he thinks of Nisha’s charity and holds his nerve.
“Yeah, of course, didn’t you see the big scratch I made on it?”
The first girl nods eagerly and the second one just giggles. “We’ll be back for the auction!” she promises, and then they are gone, dashing across the snow and holding onto each other, looking back every now and then.
Draco, apparently amused, affects a little wave. Both girls wave back.
The snow artist works tirelessly throughout the day. By nightfall he has added a hippogriff, a wolf, a lobster, an owl and a reindeer to his display, and when he steps back from his final sculpture and casts a protective charm around all seven, the shopkeepers and remaining shoppers come out to applaud him. His pork pie hat is soon full of Galleons and Sickles, and Mrs Purley brings out the biggest cup of tea Harry has ever seen and presents it to him with some ceremony.
“Thanks for letting me come,” he says, beaming around at everyone. “They should last until Christmas day at least if you just leave them as they are.”
“Er... have you got a minute to talk about your permit?” Hector says, elbowing his way to the front of the crowd. “I have some things to go through with you...”
Harry rolls his eyes, throws several coins into the hat and returns to the shop. After a minute or two, Nisha and Sparks follow him. Draco is still outside when they close up the shop and head upstairs to the flat but Harry doesn’t think anything of it. He is probably just chatting to one of the other shopkeepers or needling Hector for his own entertainment.
Harry’s sort-of Caribbean chicken experiment is bubbling away in the oven by the time Draco comes upstairs. He sniffs the air with interest, idly removing his leather gloves one finger at a time, and Harry frowns. He doesn’t remember Draco wearing gloves at any point today.
“Nisha,” he says, dropping his gloves on the sofa and beckoning to her.
Puzzled, she follows him over to the window and looks out obediently. Harry is halfway over to see what is going on when she laughs delightedly and turns to him, beaming.
“It’s a Sparks!” she cries, pressing her face to Draco’s shoulder.
For a moment, he looks startled, and then he puts his arm around her. “It is.”
“What’s a Sparks?” Harry asks, peering over her shoulder, and then he sees it.
Right at the end of the line, next to the reindeer, is a small snow sculpture of a three-legged dog.
“Did you do that?” he asks, astonished.
“Who else?” Draco says, sounding amused.
Harry can’t help it. He’s impressed. It’s true that next to the stunning, six-foot tall creations of the snow artist, Draco’s effort looks rather small and messy, but there’s no mistaking that it’s Sparks, and the fact that Draco thought to do it at all makes Harry want to pull him away from Nisha and hug him tightly. As though reading his thoughts, Nisha lets go of Draco and runs away from the window. A moment later she is back, holding Sparks up to the window so that he can see his snow self.
“Look, it’s you!” she says, grinning.
Sparks lets out a loud bark and wags his tail, twisting in her arms to gaze delightedly up at everyone with shiny, round black eyes.
“Yes, I thought you’d make a nice addition,” Draco says quite gravely.
“It’s brilliant, Draco, thank you,” Nisha enthuses, and when she kisses him on the cheek, his astonished expression is enough to make Harry want to laugh out loud.
As he returns to the kitchen to check on the food, an owl flies straight into the window where Draco and Nisha are still standing, making them both jump. Between them, they wrench open the window and allow the owl into the living room, and, when Harry is satisfied that nothing is going to burn in the next few minutes, he joins them.
“A mysterious box,” he says.
“With a mysterious note,” Draco adds, pulling the folded piece of parchment from the top of the box and reading it. “Ah. It’s for you.”
“I haven’t ordered anything,” Harry says, peering at the box. It is quite large and lacks any sort of identifiable logos or markings.
“Not you. Nisha.” Draco hands her the note.
Nisha pales slightly and draws back into herself. She stares at Draco, eyes large, and doesn’t say a word.
“It’s not from your parents,” he says gently.
She frowns but takes the note, holding it on her knee and pushing her heavy hair back out of her eyes.
“Dear Nisha,” she reads, “I’ve been having a clear-out and I thought perhaps you’d like these. Don’t worry if not, but I thought they might fit you. I think you’re a bit taller than me but it shouldn’t make too much of a difference. You did such a wonderful job with Rose the other day – she loved you and she keeps asking after Sparks. Anyway, I hope there’s something you like in there...” Nisha pauses, voice wobbling slightly as she looks at the box.
Slowly, as though she barely dares to touch it, Nisha reaches out and pulls the box closer.
“Hermione?” Harry mouths, catching Draco’s eye. He nods.
Nisha opens the box and draws in a sharp breath. Caught up in her tension, Harry leans closer as she chews her lip and hesitates, hands gripping her knees. Sparks plonks his front paws on the table and sniffs at the box, shattering her indecision, and she reaches inside, pulling out a long, stripy jumper that Harry instantly recognises as Hermione’s.
“She sent me clothes,” Nisha whispers, caught between admiring the jumper and finding out what else the box has to offer. After a moment, she folds it carefully, places it beside her on the sofa and reaches for the next item.
Harry smiles, coming to sit on the sofa beside Draco as Nisha pulls skirts and trousers and sweaters and t-shirts from the box, eyes growing wider with each new discovery. Nearer the bottom, she finds several pairs of jeans, a knitted dress and a pair of slightly scuffed suede boots. Everything is practical and warm rather than flashy or delicate, but every single garment is immaculate, and Harry can easily picture Hermione carefully washing, pressing and folding for hours on end. He doesn’t believe for a moment that she just happened to be having a clear-out, but he’s not going to tell Nisha that. The look on her face is one of joyful astonishment and the sight of it surrounds him with a warm little glow.
“Do you really think she doesn’t need these things?” she asks, fingers tracing the seam of a pair of dark blue jeans.
“Hermione has plenty of clothes,” Draco says. “She’ll probably be grateful for the space in her wardrobe.”
Harry smiles at him, grateful that Draco also has no desire to squash Nisha’s joy by telling her that Hermione isn’t exactly a clothes horse. When Draco smiles back, the sadness is all but gone from his eyes.
“I’ve never had a pair of jeans before,” Nisha confesses. “I always had to wear robes or dresses at home. That’s stupid, isn’t it?”
“No, not at all,” Harry promises.
Nisha smiles, looking as though she is dying to run to the bathroom and try them on immediately.
“You’re sure she wants me to have these?” she presses.
“She wouldn’t have sent them otherwise,” Draco points out. “Hermione isn’t the kind of person who does things she doesn’t really mean.”
Nisha nods and then flops back against the sofa cushions, expression pensive.
“It’s so nice of her... and I still feel like I want to send it all back and say ‘no, thank you’,” she sighs, stroking Sparks as he climbs onto her lap. “I think that would be the easy thing to do, though.”
“Easier how?” Harry asks, though he thinks he knows the answer already.
“I think it’s easier to be stubborn and refuse to let anyone help. It was a hundred times easier to say no to you every time you asked me to come inside than it was the one time I said yes,” Nisha says. “I knew I needed help... I was never going to get off the street on my own. But it was still easier to say no.”
Harry stares at his hands as a creeping tendril of shame winds its way into his heart. She is right and he is nothing more than a coward. A person who says no and no and no because to say yes requires a leap of faith that, apparently, he isn’t strong enough to take. Then again, he thinks, she could just be talking about herself and his feelings for Draco have become so messy that they are just getting all over everything.
“Pride can be very dangerous,” Draco says, and Nisha nods.
“Definitely. In the end, though, I realised that unless I allowed myself to accept your help, I’d never get to a position where I could repay your kindness, and somehow that idea felt worse.”
“You don’t have anything to repay,” Harry says, knowing it’s pointless.
“I’m going to keep trying,” Nisha says, fixing him with a bright, determined smile. “Whatever you might have to say about it.”
“And we will continue to fight back, because, in the end, all we are is a couple of stubborn old buggers with nothing better to do,” Draco says, and he pulls a small money bag from his pocket and throws it to Nisha.
She attempts to catch it, misses by a mile, and spends the next minute or two wresting it from the mouth of Sparks, who clearly smells a wonderful new game. When the bag is finally in her possession, she frowns at Draco.
“Your first week’s pay,” Draco says airily. “It only seemed fair.”
As Nisha stares at the slightly-chewed bag in disbelief, Draco turns to Harry, searching his face for signs of disapproval. Harry just smiles at him, quite unable to stop.
“Great minds,” he murmurs, pulling a snort of warm laughter from Draco.
“Are you sure about this?” Nisha asks.
“We are,” Harry says firmly. “And this is the bit where you remember everything you just said about denial and acceptance.”
“I will if you will,” Nisha mumbles and then looks up hurriedly. “I mean... this is very kind. I can’t imagine I’m all that much help to you right now but I accept it... and I’m going to buy you Christmas presents!” she adds, eyes shining with excitement.
“You don’t have to—” Harry begins, but Nisha wags the money bag in his face.
“Remember, it’s harder to say yes,” she says, laughing as Sparks jumps up and licks her face.
Harry glances at Draco, who is already looking at him, grey eyes steady.
“Tea,” he declares, rising and walking into the kitchen.
Harry watches him all the way and sighs, breathing in the intriguing, spicy aroma of the chicken experiment as it wafts in through the open kitchen door. Everything and everyone seems to be conspiring to break his resolve, and as Draco begins to sing—that dreaded carol again—Harry smiles to himself. He’s not sure how much longer he can hold out.
Chapter 19: part nineteen
Prompt #19 - Hogwarts dressed for Christmas
Nineteenth of December – Don’t Look Back
“What are you doing?” Draco asks.
Harry continues his task without turning around. It is perfectly obvious what he’s doing. He is decorating Oolong’s bowl for Christmas. He has already wrapped a piece of silver tinsel around the top of the bowl, and now, it’s just a matter of...
“Goldfish glitter?” Draco says, picking up the little packet from the counter.
“It’s perfectly safe for him,” Harry says, turning around and reclaiming the packet from Draco with a briefly electrifying brush of fingers. “I got it from the Magical Menagerie. It’s Christmas for him, too, you know.”
Draco arches an eyebrow and says nothing, but Harry can feel his eyes on him as he turns back to Oolong and carefully sprinkles the fine glitter into his bowl. Immediately, the water turns shimmery, the tiny particles catching the light from the lamps and transforming Oolong’s home into an underwater grotto. Harry smiles at the little fish as he swims in rapid circles, flicking his tail and sending glittery water arcing out onto the counter.
Nisha looks up from her gift-wrapping and laughs. “Look at him—he loves it!”
“That’s because he’s a very strange fish, just like his owner,” Draco says.
“Who are you calling a fish?” Harry demands, pretending offence. “Actually, I wouldn’t mind living in there. He’s got a castle and his own little forest—it’s an underwater Hogwarts!”
“Hogwarts is the most wonderful place to be at this time of year,” the lady at the counter says wistfully, and Harry, Draco and Nisha let out almost identical sighs of agreement.
“No one could decorate a tree like Flitwick,” Harry says, reaching for his cup of tea and warming his cold hands on the hot ceramic.
“Oh, the bubbles?” Nisha says. She smiles. “We managed to persuade him to show us how he made those one year. I wish I could remember.”
“I always liked the fairies myself,” offers a man with a deep, booming voice. “Have you got any more of these compasses? I’ll never hear the end of it if one of them misses out.”
“I think there’s another box in the back,” Harry says. “Hang on and I’ll go and look.”
He finds the box of compasses under several heavy rolls of wrapping paper and returns with a handful to find that several other customers have now joined in the conversation, gathering around the counter and offering their own memories of Hogwarts Christmases.
“I remember the year Slughorn drank too much mulled mead and told McGonagall that she was a ‘fine figure of a woman’,” says a lady with bright blue eyes and an armful of Chudley Cannons bobbleheads.
“I remember when one of those huge trees fell over during breakfast and nearly squished Mrs Norris,” offers a tall man who can’t be much older than Harry.
“I remember that, too!” says the first woman. “It missed her, more’s the pity.”
“We tried to recreate it at home one year,” says someone else, and the woman next to him nods wearily. “You know, the floating candles and the singing mistletoe and everything...”
“Floating... mistletoe... fireballs,” the woman says, fixing Harry with a thousand-yard stare.
He nods sympathetically and bites down hard on the laughter that wants to escape.
“That reminds me,” says the blue-eyed woman. “There was also the time that Hagrid got a tree stuck in the doorway to the castle. It was just way too big... we were on the outside with him and we could all hear McGonagall saying, ‘Hagrid, what on earth is going on?’” She pauses, letting out a snort of laughter as the others giggle appreciatively at her impression. “And he just kept saying it was nothing, even though there was clearly an enormous tree wedged in the doorway, and he just kept poking at it with that pink umbrella of his, and by the time she managed to get out of the castle another way and came to see what was going on, the tree was about three feet tall and a little bit on fire.”
Everyone laughs, and someone else launches into a Hagrid-related story but Harry isn’t really listening. He’s thinking about that pink umbrella and the magical shards hidden inside.
“You don’t have a wand,” he says suddenly, looking at Nisha.
All eyes swivel to fix on her and she seems to shrink into herself. “Er... no. Not here, anyway.”
Several of the gathered customers cluck sympathetically, while others just glance between Harry and Nisha as though they have both lost their minds.
“Right, that’s it,” Harry announces, pulling his coat from the rack and putting it on. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” Nisha asks, picking several pieces of Spellotape from the back of her hand and then following him. She doesn’t have a proper coat yet, but in Hermione’s jumper, jeans and boots, Harry thinks she will be safe from the cold for this relatively short journey.
Nisha’s eyes widen. A little rustle of interest breaks out among the customers.
“Yes,” Harry says, sweeping her towards the door. “Back soon,” he calls to Draco.
Draco says nothing, but Harry hears one of the customers ask, “Is he alright?”
“It’s difficult to tell,” Draco says drily, pulling a smile from Harry as he hurries away along the icy street.
“Harry,” Nisha pants, jogging along beside him, “I don’t think I can—”
“It’s a loan,” he says firmly. “You can pay me back. You need a wand.”
They stop at the door and stare at each other for what feels like a long time. Now becoming accustomed to this sort of quiet stand-off, Harry waits, and finally, shivering slightly, Nisha nods.
Harry pushes open the door and they step into the tiny shop. Everything is just as he remembers it, and he isn’t really surprised; Mr Ollivander is clearly a creature of tradition and ritual. As they wait for him to appear, Harry looks around, taking in the dust and the tottering stacks of boxes as his eyes adjust to the poor light, inhaling the distinctive scents of wood and leftover magic.
“He always said that the wand chooses the wizard,” Nisha whispers. “That you have to find the one that matches you.”
“I already have a wand,” she continues, eyes flicking anxiously around the interior of the shop. “If I already found the right one, how can I... I mean, what if that’s it?”
“There is another wand for you, young lady, and I will find it,” says Mr Ollivander, emerging from the gloom and looking them over with piercing, silvery eyes. “Sycamore, ten and a quarter inches, unicorn hair. Springy, wasn’t it?”
Nisha nods, startled.
“Not so long ago, either,” he murmurs, producing a tape measure and allowing it to unfurl from Nisha’s shoulder to her fingertips.
“No, sorry,” she whispers.
Mr Ollivander looks up at her sharply and then scrutinises the tape measure. “It is good to see you again, Mr Potter. I trust your wand is serving you well?”
“Fine, thanks,” Harry says, unsettled but reluctant to show it.
“Are you certain?” he demands, pale eyes meeting Harry’s and narrowing.
“Er... yeah. Why would you ask?”
Mr Ollivander turns and walks away without a word. He mutters under his breath as he selects several long, narrow boxes and then sets them down on a spindly chair.
“Oak and unicorn hair,” he says, handing a sturdy, honey-coloured wand to Nisha. She takes it, gives it an experimental flick, and frowns as a weak puff of smoke emerges from the end. “Apparently not,” he mutters, taking the wand from Nisha and replacing it with another. “Very much like your last one, this—a little more flexible, but still sycamore and unicorn hair...”
Nisha jumps as a spell flies out of the wand and sends a whole section of boxes tumbling to the floor.
“I really didn’t mean to do that,” she insists.
“No harm done,” Mr Ollivander says, but he takes the wand away and passes Nisha another.
As Harry watches, fascinated to observe the process of someone finding their perfect wand, Nisha tries unicorn hair wands of mahogany, willow, birch and lime without success. Mr Ollivander returns to the piles of boxes more than once, thrusting wands into Nisha’s hand and then standing back, rubbing at his chin and frowning as nothing he tries seems to be quite right.
“My first wand was the very first one you gave me,” she says, looking at him guiltily as he puts out a section of floor that has begun to smoke.
His head jerks up. “What did you say?”
“When I came to get my first wand,” Nisha repeats quietly. “You said the first one I tried was perfect.”
Mr Ollivander stares at her for a long time. “You have changed,” he murmurs, plucking the wand from her hand and adding it to the growing stack of rejects. “Close your eyes,” he directs, pointing a gnarled hand at Nisha. “Stand very, very still, Miss Singh.”
Nisha complies, dark eyebrows knitted anxiously.
“Why does she have to do that?” Harry asks, knowing that she won’t.
“Balance, Mr Potter,” Ollivander says, walking in slow circles around Nisha. “Balance, inside and out. It is your aura—your magical energy,” he adds, looking sharply at Harry. “It is altered. It is... unsettled.”
Nisha opens one eye but quickly closes it when Mr Ollivander pulls out his tape measure again.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Harry lies, thinking—not for the first time—that Mr Ollivander is a little too perceptive for comfort. “I’m fine, and so is my wand.”
Mr Ollivander laughs. It’s a rough, dry sound that makes all the hairs stand up on the back of Harry’s neck.
“Of course,” he says easily, walking over to the stacks of boxes and floating several more down from somewhere near the top. “Open your eyes, Miss Singh, and try this.” He takes a wand from its box and hands it to Nisha with some ceremony.
She looks at Harry nervously and then gives the wand a tentative swish. Silver bubbles begin to stream out of the end, filling the shop and then bursting into little points of light. Nisha lets out a joyful sound and turns on the spot, flicking the wand and sending all of the wayward and fallen boxes back to their places.
“How does it feel?” Harry asks, suddenly finding himself lifted several feet from the floor and dangled in mid-air.
“Different,” she laughs. “But brilliant!”
And Harry believes her. He doesn’t need the bubbles and sparks and flying boxes to know that Nisha has found her new wand. The spell that holds him in the air and then gently returns him to the ground is warm and sure, flowing around him like water and reaching out curiously for his own magic.
Which is, apparently, unsettled.
“The same, and yet different,” Mr Ollivander says, standing next to Harry and watching Nisha with satisfaction. “Sycamore, just as the first wand, but a core of dragon heartstring. A steadier wand, I believe. Change is not always a bad thing, Mr Potter.”
Harry catches his breath. When he turns to look at Mr Ollivander, though, he has walked away. Harry watches him talk quietly to Nisha, taking the wand gently and packing it into its box. Suddenly, all he wants to do is leave this place and go back to the shop, where the fire is bright and the fish are glittery and the people do not talk in riddles.
He pays for the wand and leaves Mr Ollivander’s shop, heading quickly back down the snowy alley with Nisha at his side. She thanks him over and over again with characteristic vehemence and makes several very stern promises of repayment.
“Do you and Mr Ollivander know each other well?” she asks as they clatter into the shop.
“Not really,” Harry says, puzzled. “Why?”
“He seemed to know you,” she says, sounding amused. “Draco, look at my new wand!”
Chapter 20: part twenty
Prompt #20 - mince pies and mulled punch/wine
Twentieth of December – On the Up
When Harry wakes with a feeling of dread that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Draco, he is somewhat bewildered. The flat seems to be empty, and the sound of voices from downstairs can only mean that Draco and Nisha have decided to make an early start, so Harry showers, eats breakfast and dresses in peace, idly wondering what they can possibly have to do that is urgent enough to necessitate being in the shop before eight o’clock.
When he reaches the bottom of the stairs and is greeted by three grinning faces and a cry of, “Happy auction day, Harry Potter Himself!” he and his dread remember rather quickly.
“I take it you’re going to be doing this for the next six hours?”
“Oh, we’ll be doing it for the rest of the day,” Sophie says gleefully. “I came in specially and everything.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Harry says, pulling a face at her and yelping as Sparks barrels into his legs and then falls over. Harry gazes down at him and he looks right back, baring his pointy teeth in greeting.
“We made you a cup of tea,” Nisha offers, flicking her wand and sending the steaming cup coasting smoothly over to Harry. He takes it and smiles to himself as she tucks it back into the sleeve of her jumper and beams.
“Thank you.” Harry glances over at the window, where the scratched broom has been displayed for several days now. “Do you actually think anyone’s going to come?”
“Yes,” Draco says crossly, “and we will all be watching you to make sure you don’t go around telling people not to buy it.”
“I’m not going to do that,” Harry protests. “I want to raise money as much as anyone; I just wish the whole thing wasn’t so embarrassing.”
“It’ll be fine,” Sophie says, peering into Oolong’s glittery bowl. “You won’t even notice it.”
Harry doesn’t believe her for a second, and by half-past one that afternoon, his suspicions are confirmed. The shop is absolutely crammed full of people, none of whom seem to be buying anything, and none of whom seem to be in the slightest concerned about movement or breathing space or the fact that the sodding auction doesn’t even start for another thirty minutes. The atmosphere, he has to admit, is rather festive, what with the lights and the decorations and the warm, spicy smell of the mince pies and mulled punch that Mrs Purley has generously provided for the event.
“I hope there’s enough,” she says, ladling steaming punch into cups for an excited group of middle-aged ladies in Gryffindor scarves.
“I’m sure there will be,” he says, but running out of punch is the least of his worries.
Putting aside the bizarre fact that all of these people are desperate to buy his scratched-up broomstick, Harry can’t seem to make it through two minutes without someone struggling over to him and asking some variation on the same few questions. By ten past one he has started up a tally on his notepad, and by five minutes to two, he has been asked, ‘is this really your broom?’, ‘how did you scratch it?’ and ‘can’t you just tell me how much you want for it—my son/daughter/husband/grandma is your biggest fan’ thirty-two, twenty-six, and nine times respectively.
“I’m afraid not, madam, you’ll have to bid in the auction like everyone else,” he says to a disappointed lady with a huge handbag and adds a tenth stroke to his notepad.
Nisha appears at the counter, floating another tray of mince pies over to replace the empty one. She smiles excitedly at Harry and he smiles back. She has been using her wand for every little thing she can think of since the previous afternoon, reminding Harry forcefully of Fred and George Apparating down to breakfast each morning because they had their licences and they could.
“Is he alright?” she asks, bending to look at Oolong, who has hidden in his castle with just his eyes poking out.
“A few too many people for his liking, I imagine,” Harry says. “I empathise.”
“It’ll be over before you know it,” Draco says, rounding the counter from the other side and resting a careful hand against Harry’s back.
Harry glances at him and they exchange a split-second look of understanding that shocks down Harry’s spine and settles in the pit of his stomach. He sighs and looks away, watching the rhythmic slosh of the purple liquid in Mrs Purley’s punch bowl and wondering if he’ll ever know just how long he has really been crazy about Draco.
“Harry! Draco! We’re here!”
Harry turns at the sound of the familiar voice and smiles with genuine pleasure at the sight of Andromeda and Teddy, sandwiched between the handbag woman and a rack of team scarves and waving furiously.
“Isn’t that your auntie?” Sophie says, tilting her head on one side to admire the little blue cat ears on Andromeda’s hat.
“Yes,” Harry and Draco say at once.
Harry flushes. “Not mine, strictly speaking.”
“Is she going to bid?” Sophie asks, amused.
“I doubt it,” Draco says. “I think she’d feel too guilty if she won. Besides, if Teddy wants a broomstick, he can have one.”
The muttering from the crowd suddenly seems to increase in volume and Nisha leans across the counter to catch their attention. “It’s two o’clock—do you think we should start? They look like they might get a bit crazy if we make them wait,” she adds in a whisper and Harry snorts.
When he looks out at the crowd, though, he has the feeling that Nisha might be right.
“Okay! Good afternoon, everyone!” Sophie bellows, and the shop falls silent in an instant.
Draco draws his wand and floats the broom out of the window and slowly over the heads of the murmuring crowd to land safely on the counter in front of them.
“As you all know, we are auctioning off this very special broomstick today in aid of a wonderful cause, so please dig deep, bid hard, and play nicely,” Sophie continues, attracting a rumble of laughter, and the others step back to watch her admiringly. None of them had particularly fancied playing auctioneer, but fortunately, Sophie’s foghorn voice and confident nature make her absolutely perfect for the job.
“Who’s going to start me off at five Galleons?” she cries, and several hands shoot into the air.
As Sophie attempts to sort out the identity of the first bidder, Harry pours himself a cup of the mulled punch and stands back, stepping on Draco’s foot.
“Sorry,” he whispers, turning quickly and splashing punch on Draco’s jumper. Horrified, he watches the dark stain spreading across the cream-coloured fabric for several seconds before recovering himself and grabbing his wand. Swearing under his breath, he spells the liquid away, making sure no trace remains before he looks up at Draco.
For some reason, he is smiling, both corners of his mouth twitching and grey eyes sparkling with amusement. “Anything else?” he asks with mock-weariness. “If you’re planning on poking me in the eye or pulling my hair, now would be a good time.”
“Fifteen Galleons—lady in the blue coat!” Sophie cries.
“I wasn’t planning on it, no, but I could if you wanted me to,” Harry says boldly, realising far too late just how close they are standing.
Draco’s smile broadens. He smells warm and clean and wonderful; his eyes hold Harry helpless, and for no good reason that he can see, he is tempted to throw the rest of his punch down Draco’s front, just to see what happens.
“Twenty, sir... twenty five...”
“Everyone wants a Harry Potter broom,” Draco murmurs, seeming to read Harry’s thoughts and taking his cup out of his hand.
Harry flushes violently. “Shut up,” he says and turns back to the auction. The trouble is, he can still feel Draco’s warmth at his back, hear his slightly accelerated breathing, feel the crackle of something that leaps and twists between them like static electricity.
There’s no way he doesn’t know. He knows about all of it, and Harry is terrified.
Instinctively, he casts around for a distraction. He watches Nisha, all bright eyes and energy, hopping from one foot to the other as the bids rush in; he watches Sophie, pale hair flying around her face as she yells and points around the room at each person who raises their hand; he watches Andromeda and Teddy as they smile and look around, following Sophie’s movements with their eyes and glancing over every now and then at Harry as though to make sure he’s still there, still okay.
The total climbs to fifty Galleons and then sixty, and Harry is transfixed as the bidders drop away, leaving only three in the running. Those who have reached their limits seem to brush away their disappointment in favour of watching the final stages of the auction, and Harry can’t blame them; he has quite forgotten his embarrassment and is just finding the whole thing electrifying.
“Seventy five, the gentleman in the red cloak,” Sophie calls, pointing. “Do I have eighty? Yes, eighty from you, madam, with the hair.”
The woman with the bright pink Mohican grins at Sophie but the third bidder, a young semi-pro who always wants something for nothing, raises his hand. “Ninety,” he shouts.
“Er... okay,” Sophie says, thrown off her rhythm for a moment. “Ninety at the back, do I have ninety-five?”
“Is he the one who thinks we should give him free things because of the publicity he’ll supposedly generate for us?” Draco asks, leaning around Harry to take a mince pie.
“That’s the one,” Harry sighs.
“That’s a bit cheeky,” Nisha says crossly, tucking her hands into her sleeves and folding her arms. “I hope he doesn’t win.”
“Do you think it would be terribly wrong if I hit him with a Confundus charm?” Draco asks.
“Yes,” Harry says, tempering a smile. “But if you did, I’d pretend I hadn’t seen you.”
“Look,” Nisha whispers, nudging Harry with her elbow. “I think he’s run out of money!”
Harry looks, hiding his amusement in a large bite of warm mince pie. There is something wonderfully satisfying about watching the arrogant bugger poking morosely through his money bag and then stuffing it into his robe pocket.
“One hundred, sir?” Sophie calls, and he scowls and shakes his head. “One hundred over here?” she tries, pointing to the man in the red cloak. He nods. “One hundred and five?”
The woman with the pink hair scrabbles around in her pockets for a moment and then nods, looking as though she is about to burst.
“One hundred and five Galleons,” Sophie repeats, turning back to the man in the red cloak. “Do I have one hundred and ten?”
The man sighs, glances at his opponent and shakes his head. “I think I’ll drop out.”
“Sold to the lady with the hair for one hundred and five Galleons!” Sophie cries, picking up a tin of broomstick lacquer and banging it on the counter as the entire shop bursts into noisy chatter and the woman with the pink hair laughs, burying her face in her hands. Nisha and Sparks break into a little dance behind the counter and Harry, just as caught up as the rest of them, grabs Draco’s hand.
For a heart-stopping fraction of a second, nothing happens, and then cool fingers lace through his and grip tightly. Harry swallows hard.
“I can’t believe I won it,” the woman says, coming up to the counter and reaching out tentative fingers to touch the broom. She beams at Harry, who is still holding Draco’s hand under the counter. “Please can you wrap it up for me? I don’t want my daughter to see it until Christmas day.”
“Congratulations,” Nisha says, carefully picking up the broom. “I’ll wrap it for you.”
“One hundred and five Galleons,” the woman says, holding out a velvet bag. “I hope it saves lots of dogs.”
“And cats,” Nisha adds, unfurling several feet of brown paper with her wand. “They have cats as well.”
The woman smiles and Harry takes the heavy bag, finally letting go of Draco’s hand and missing it straight away.
“I’d better go and say hello to Andromeda,” Draco says, and his voice sounds a little raspier than usual.
Harry watches him slip out from behind the counter and weave his way through the crowd towards his relatives, sore and heavy with longing.
“Now what?” he mutters, even though he already knows the answer.
It’s one last spell. He just needs to be brave enough to cast it.
Chapter 21: part twenty-one
Prompt #21 - a hot bath
Twenty-first of December – Let Go
Following the auction, Sophie, Teddy and Andromeda are invited up to the flat for dinner and the evening passes easily in a celebratory haze of food, tea, warm conversation and watching from the sofas as Teddy and Sparks attempt to outdo one another in the energy stakes. The old dog fights hard to keep up but is eventually defeated by the vigour of youth and opts to flop onto Nisha’s lap, tail thumping contentedly, while Teddy turns in circles on the ottoman, changing his appearance to mimic each person in the room in turn.
Despite being almost unable to take his eyes off Draco at any point, Harry makes no progress towards casting that final spell, and by the next morning, he has all but talked himself out of the whole thing. Nothing has really changed. A few cryptic words from an old wandmaker and a bit of over-excited hand-holding do nothing to alter the fact that crossing that line from friendship into something new would be a very, very bad idea.
He wants it. There’s no way of denying that now. He wants it so much that he is becoming tied up in knots by every little thing that Draco does. Watching him smile at a customer, polish the counter with his beloved beeswax, button up his coat at lunchtime... when he taps on Oolong’s bowl and informs him that he is ‘very handsome indeed’, Harry’s whole body aches with loving him.
“Of course he’s handsome,” Harry finds himself saying. “You chose him.”
Draco looks up and shatters him with a light flush and a pleased half-smile. “Are you angling for a cup of tea by any chance?”
Harry just shrugs, trying not to shiver when Draco edges past him and into the back.
“Did you sell that broomstick, then?” asks a customer, glancing at the empty window as she approaches the counter.
Nisha emerges from where she has been crouching behind the counter, playing with Sparks.
“We made a hundred and five Galleons,” she says proudly.
“That’s wonderful,” the woman says, and she pushes a large handful of silver and bronze coins across the counter towards Nisha. “There’s probably a couple of Galleons there, if you want it—it’s only cluttering up my handbag.”
As Nisha gathers up the coins and thanks her effusively, the customer turns to Harry. “Is your friend about? I’m going to a Quidditch retreat in Switzerland over Christmas and I wanted to ask him a pale skin question,” she says, indicating her rather ghostly complexion.
“I’ll get him,” Nisha says, disappearing into the back with her pile of coins.
Harry busies himself with feeding Oolong, half-listening to the conversation about SPFs and shade charms. The woman’s question echoes over and over in his head: is your friend about?
Harry sighs. Draco is his friend. His closest friend these days. His... he’s just everything, really. The thought of losing him completely makes Harry feel sick, and yet there’s a part of him that quietly demands to know exactly why taking this last step means that everything will be ruined.
Ron and Hermione did it, the little voice points out, and Harry squashes it. That was different.
“Hmm?” Harry mumbles, looking up at Nisha.
Gently, she takes the tub of food from Harry’s hand. “I think he’s got enough.”
Harry frowns and looks down at Oolong, who is looking up at the storm of coloured flakes with his bobbly little eyes.
“Sorry,” he says to the fish, removing most of the food with a quick spell. “Apparently, I wasn’t concentrating.”
He turns to thank Nisha but finds himself staring into empty air. He frowns, puzzled, and then locates her, crouching under the counter with Sparks, eyes huge and apologetic. When he turns back to the counter, he groans inwardly.
“Hello, Hector,” he says, forcing a polite smile.
“Good morning, Mr Potter,” Hector says, scribbling something on his clipboard. “I was wondering if you knew anything about the unauthorised ‘addition’ to the snow art display.”
At the other end of the counter, Draco stops counting coins out of the till and regards Hector covertly through a fall of pale hair.
“Do you mean the dog?” Harry asks.
Hector draws down his eyebrows and coughs. “Indeed, Mr Potter. The dog.”
“Well, I don’t know who put it there, if that’s what you mean,” Harry lies. “I can’t see that it’s bothering anyone.”
Bristling, Hector draws his clipboard to his chest. “It isn’t a matter of who it is bothering, Mr Potter. It is unauthorised. The snow artist, as voted for by the members of SODA, was granted a permit for the construction of seven snow sculptures—no more, no less.”
Harry sighs, gazing wearily at the officious little man. “Okay, well, whatever the problem is, we still don’t know anything about it.”
“You should relax a bit, Hector,” Harry says innocently. “It’s Christmas.”
Hector’s face turns an odd shade of purple and, for a moment, he looks as though he might explode.
“If you hear anything, Mr Potter, Mr Malfoy...” he mutters, and walks stiffly out of the shop.
Nisha, who has apparently been stifling giggles throughout the exchange, leans against the counter at Harry’s feet and laughs delightedly.
“I suppose I should thank you for not selling me out,” Draco says, smiling at Harry and turning everything completely upside down once more.
It’s going to be a long day.
By the evening, Harry is something of a nervous wreck. He and Draco seem to be accidentally touching, brushing past and walking into one another with alarming frequency, each little contact taking what feels like another year off Harry’s life as he almost implodes with the effort of not leaping ten feet into the air. The fact that Draco seems to be similarly affected is a small comfort, but it does nothing for Harry’s suspicion that he is sliding into madness, or that his descent is picking up speed with each moment that passes.
When, after dinner, Draco challenges Nisha (and Sparks, who is as usual determined to be involved) to a game of chess, Harry slopes off to his bedroom. In an attempt to feel more festive and less fretful, he hums a familiar carol to himself as he sits on his rug and slowly wraps the last few presents from the trunk. They might well be completely useless but he doesn’t have the time or the inspiration to replace them, so they’re going to have to do.
Heaving himself to his feet with a dissatisfied sigh, he picks up the pile of presents, heads for the door and stops.
“Where did my bishop go?” Draco demands from the living room.
“I don’t know... oh, Sparks!” Nisha cries, and there’s a clatter and a muffled bark.
Suddenly feeling irritable, he drops the wrapped presents onto the bed and pulls his heavy jumper over his head. Bugger it—he’s cold and stiff and tired and he doesn’t want to be dragged into their game. He’s just all at once very much not in the mood. Quietly, he slips out of the bedroom and into the bathroom, closing the door behind him and turning on the taps as far as they will go. As the hot water gushes into the bathtub, he shakes in a few drops of oil from a tiny bottle and breathes in deeply as the room is filled with steam and the cleansing scent of eucalyptus.
He lights the lamps, pauses, and then douses them. He doesn’t think he has ever had a bath in the dark, and now feels like as good a time as any to try it out. When the tub is full, he strips off his jeans and t-shirt, underwear and socks, and lowers himself slowly into the hot water. He has overfilled the bath, as he almost always does, and a small wave of hot water sloshes over the side and onto the floor, but he ignores it, focusing instead on the stinging heat and the feeling of instant relief that spreads right out to his fingertips.
He reclines carefully, stretching out and watching the glimmer of the moonlight on the surface of the water for a moment before he closes his eyes and attempts to clear his mind. It is, of course, an exercise in futility, but he can feel a little of his tension ebbing away as he sinks down to his nostrils in the steaming water, inhaling the soothing aroma and pressing his toes against the smooth ceramic to anchor himself. Draco is still there, of course, but Draco is everywhere. As Harry begins to drift, though, the images of Draco in his mind seem warm and friendly, natural and inevitable.
When the bathroom door swings open, Harry jerks, bangs his head on the rim of the bath and sloshes a large volume of water over the side. Momentarily confused as to why he is in the dark, he sits up hurriedly and turns to the door, where Draco is standing absolutely still and looking quite as startled as Harry feels.
“I thought you were in your bedroom... there was no light, so... sorry,” he mumbles, and turns to leave before Harry can say a word, closing the door firmly behind him.
Harry groans and sinks back into the water, pressing wet hands to his burning face. It isn’t as though Draco can have seen anything in the darkness that he hasn’t seen before, but somehow that is very much not the point. The look on his face... all the looks on his face for far longer than Harry really wants to think about... Draco is hurting just as much as he is and something has to give. Suddenly, all Harry can think about is crossing that line, casting that final spell, and the huge potential for awkwardness that seems to be woven into the whole thing.
“No,” he says firmly and slides down into the water, submerging himself fully for long seconds and emerging, gasping and tingling all over.
He dries himself slowly and leaves the bathroom wrapped in a towel, relieved to hear the sounds of tea-making that tell him Draco is safely in the kitchen. In his bedroom, he dresses in soft drawstring trousers and a t-shirt, scrubs at his hair with a towel, and then heads out into the living room, barefoot, with the pile of presents.
Draco is on the sofa, pouring tea from a stripy pot into two cups.
“Where’s Nisha?” Harry asks, wrapping his arms more securely around the stack of parcels.
“They went for a walk.”
Harry crouches by the tree and begins to arrange his shiny boxes and packets amongst the others. “I’m afraid your presents are a bit uninspired this year,” he sighs.
“I don’t care,” Draco says quietly.
Harry twists around in his crouch, heart thumping. “Don’t you?”
“No,” Draco says, and he doesn’t look away from Harry for a moment. “I don’t need presents.”
Harry takes an unsteady breath and gets to his feet. “What do you need?” he asks boldly, stomach in knots as he flings himself off the edge and hopes to land somewhere forgiving.
Draco gets to his feet and crosses the room to join Harry next to the tree. Harry watches his breathing, sees that it is slightly unsteady, and tries to pull his own into rhythm with it anyway. Draco’s shoulder presses warm and firm against his as he gazes down at the presents beneath the tree and shakes his head. Through the sound of the blood rushing in his ears, Harry hears himself say, “Draco...” and then those clever eyes are on his, anxious and hopeful, and Harry is reaching out to tug him closer, and they are kissing, fingers creeping into hair and hot, shuddering breaths taken together, and Harry is flying.
Draco tastes like tea and sugar and feels like the most unexpected and wonderful relief that Harry has ever experienced. He thinks he still might fall apart but it no longer matters because Draco’s mouth fits his perfectly and Draco’s fingers are stroking his back as though this is the thousandth kiss, not the first, and maybe it should be, but Harry isn’t going to dwell on wasted time. Not now.
As they pull apart, he rests his forehead on Draco’s shoulder and grins until it starts to hurt. His eyes are stinging and the floor feels unsteady beneath his feet but he couldn’t care less.
“Yes, that was definitely a start,” Draco mumbles into his hair.
Harry pulls back to look at him, silently delighting in his flushed skin and darkened eyes. “What?”
“You asked what I needed and that was definitely a start,” Draco says, lacing his fingers through Harry’s and pulling him over to the sofa, where they collapse onto the cushions, pressed together from shoulder to knee.
Something very interesting flares in the pit of Harry’s stomach and he grins, stealing another kiss from Draco, quite unable to believe how natural it feels to do so.
“Well, if you’d like me to make up for some of the crap that I’ve bought you, I’m happy to continue in a similar vein,” he offers.
Draco leans forward for his teacup. “I’m sure that would be...” He pauses, eyes flicking to the door.
A split-second later, Harry catches the sound of footsteps, followed by the click of the door as Nisha and Sparks walk into the flat. She stares at them, frowning and holding onto the ends of her scarf.
“What’s the matter?” Draco asks, blithely Summoning another cup and pouring Nisha some tea as though absolutely nothing out of the ordinary has just occurred.
“Nothing,” she says, glancing between them with puzzlement. After a moment, she seems to notice their proximity and suddenly looks horrified. “Did I not stay out long enough?”
Harry is bewildered but Draco just laughs. “You stayed out just long enough. Stop looking so worried and come and have a cup of tea.”
Nisha seems to sag with relief and Harry decides that he doesn’t need to know the details.
“Good walk?” he asks, leaning down to fuss Sparks’s cold ears.
“Actually, yes,” Nisha says, dropping onto the ottoman and kicking off her boots. “Guess who I saw being kicked out of the Leaky for being a ‘miserable bastard’,” she says, sketching air quotes and looking at them both expectantly.
Harry and Draco exchange glances.
“Please tell me it was Hector,” Harry begs, eager for the cherry on the cake of an unexpectedly wonderful evening.
“I think this calls for something stronger,” Draco says, using Harry’s thigh to lever himself to his feet.
Harry closes his eyes and listens to the clank of bottles as Draco rummages around in the drinks cupboard, feeling suddenly and pleasantly weary. He thinks he may just sleep tonight.
Chapter 22: part twenty-two
Prompt #22 - stew
Twenty-second of December - Simmer
Harry isn’t at all surprised to find the flat empty when he finally emerges from his bedroom the next morning. It’s almost ten, and he can’t remember the last time he slept so peacefully or for so long. He stretches languorously, breathing in the comforting aromas of hours-old coffee and toast, standing quite still in the middle of the living room for long seconds, reliving delicious snatches of dreams involving Draco and crackling fires and steaming baths and a storm of peacock feathers.
Harry smiles, allowing a pleasurable shiver to run right through him as he listens for a moment to the mingled voices of Draco, Sophie, Nisha and Sparks before wandering into the kitchen in search of breakfast.
He eats, showers and dresses unhurriedly. He makes tea and spends several minutes standing at the window, watching the snow fall and noting with pleasure that despite Hector’s best efforts, Draco’s snow Sparks is still present. Finally, he returns to the kitchen with a plan. It is not, unlike most other plans of late, a plan of distraction, but merely a plan to stave off madness.
He is no longer trying to stop himself from thinking about Draco. If he wants to, he can spend the entire fucking day thinking about Draco. Harry smiles at the thought, rummaging in the cupboards and pulling out pans and vegetables and jars of herbs. The problem, if he wants to call it that, is one of time. He has no way of knowing for sure when he and Draco might next be alone together, and now that they have started, Harry is finding it very difficult to think about anything else. His fingers tingle and clench with wanting to touch him, his heart races along with every tiny memory, and the constant weight of arousal in the pit of his stomach is becoming extremely distracting.
It’s fine, of course—it’s better—maybe it’s even a little bit wonderful, but as long as Draco is down there and he is up here, he needs to find a way of getting a grip.
“Stew,” he says forcefully to his assembled ingredients. He’s going to make a stew—a proper, hearty, simmer-for-hours-on-a-low-heat sort of stew—a time-consuming, comforting sort of task that requires enough concentration so that he doesn’t cut off his fingertips or scald himself but not so much that he can’t allow himself to sink into the warm, vivid sense memory of Draco’s kiss.
And, if this particular turkey stew happens to be Draco’s favourite... Harry smiles.
He picks up a large knife and chops carrot, onion and celery into small pieces before throwing them into a large pan. As he fries them slowly, pushing the pieces around with a wooden spoon, the kitchen is filled with a warm, earthy aroma that makes him hungry all over again. The trouble is, he supposes, retrieving last night’s chicken carcass from the cold pantry and adding it to the pan, the trouble is that the flat no longer has any neutral spaces. He doesn’t begrudge Nisha her place on the sofa for a moment, but the reality is that if he really wants to be alone with Draco, he’s going to have to invade Draco’s bedroom or invite Draco into his own.
Harry makes a face at the pan and flicks his wand to add water until the chicken bones are no longer visible. It’s ridiculous, of course. He doesn’t have a problem with going into Draco’s bedroom. He certainly isn’t frightened or nervous about the prospect. Not much, anyway. It’s just a matter of crossing that line, he supposes. A different line, maybe, one from which there is no going back.
Harry rolls his eyes at himself, grinding salt and black pepper into the pan and then flopping back against the counter to wait for the water to come to the boil. He is, of course, being ridiculous, because whatever may or may not happen later on tonight, things are never going to go back to the way they used to be.
Change is not always a bad thing, Mr Potter, he thinks, turning the heat down under his stock and hunting around for his knife. He wonders what his aura looks like this morning.
The morning passes in a pleasant haze of anticipation, badly-sung Christmas carols and delicious cooking smells as Harry drifts around the kitchen, chopping celeriac, parsnips and more carrots for the stew, sealing the meat and then sitting on the counter with a cup of tea as he waits for his stock to simmer to completion. Finally, he strains off the golden-brown liquid and pours it carefully into his favourite red casserole, drowning the meat and vegetables and seasoning everything once again.
By lunchtime, the whole thing is safely in the oven and Harry is frying shallots and covering himself in flour as he attempts to make dumplings. Finally, hands sticky and t-shirt covered in bits of suet and sage, he steps back to regard the tray of little balls with hard-won satisfaction. They aren’t perfect, but they will taste good, and, more importantly, he has plenty of time to clear up the mess he has made before Draco sees it.
He spends the next hour carefully wiping down surfaces, washing pots and utensils, scrubbing the floor and spelling bits of flour and drips of stock away from the cupboard doors. By the time he has finished, he is warm and sticky all over and he only hesitates for a moment before flinging off his clothes and jumping into the shower again. He washes with vigour, scrubbing himself all over and poking irritably at the parts of himself that he finds particularly sub-standard, all at once painfully conscious of the fact that Draco is going to be looking at him... and okay, he’s not terrible to look at or anything, but it’s been a while, and more than that, it’s Draco, and he’s just so...
Harry sighs and slaps himself lightly in the face. “Stop it,” he orders, and gets out of the shower.
Draco and Nisha are in high spirits as they burst into the flat that evening, laughing at some unknown joke and demanding to know what they have been smelling all afternoon. The stew is a hit, with everyone having a second bowlful and a delighted Sparks being allowed a little bit of meat and some gravy with his biscuits.
The evening that follows is one of the longest Harry has ever experienced. From the outside, it appears to be a scene of perfect, quiet contentment—Draco reading on the windowsill, Harry sitting by the fire and idly curling ribbons for the tree, Nisha trying to teach Sparks to play dead with the help of a bag of treats she has bought from the market—but there is a crackle of nervous anticipation in the air, and Harry is pretty certain he isn’t the only one who can feel it.
“No, no... play dead... not sit, yes, we know sit,” Nisha sighs, giving in and offering Sparks a treat anyway, and her voice seems far too loud in the silence.
Sparks lets out a delighted yelp and Harry jumps so violently that he cuts his finger on the ribbon.
“Fuck,” he hisses under his breath, peering at the slash of scarlet that now runs across the pad of his index finger.
“Are you bleeding?” Draco demands from the windowsill.
“Only a tiny bit,” Harry promises, catching his eyes and feeling something inside him pull tight.
“Do you need—?”
“No, thanks,” Harry says a little too quickly.
“I’ll make some tea,” Draco announces, snapping his book shut and jumping down from the windowsill.
When he is out of sight, Harry glances at Nisha. Feeling his eyes on her, she looks up slowly.
“Are you alright?” he asks, dropping his voice.
She nods, dark eyes sparkling. “Are you?”
Harry sighs. “Just out of interest, how entertaining is this whole thing for you?”
Nisha smiles and tucks her fingers into her sleeves, staring intently down at Sparks as she says, “I used to really like those Muggle soap operas, not that I got to watch them very often. This is better than that.”
Harry laughs, rubbing his face as relief and embarrassment and delight twist together inside him.
“Well, that’s something, I suppose.”
“Clearly, I missed something funny,” Draco says, setting the tea tray down on the table.
Attempting nonchalance, Harry picks up another ribbon. “We were just talking about you.”
He waits, curling more ribbons than he could ever possibly use and drinking more tea than could ever possibly be advisable, until Draco closes his book again and announces that he is going to bed. He waits a little longer until Nisha starts to yawn and reach for her blankets, and then makes his own excuses and disappears into his bedroom. He changes into his soft trousers and t-shirt, just for something to do, and then sits on his bed, picking at the sheets and trying not to breathe quite so fast.
For a moment or two, he really wishes he hadn’t lent his Invisibility Cloak to Ron for work, and then he decides that wearing it would only make him feel more like an overexcited teenager than he already does. If he’s going to do this, he’s going to do it properly, and if he gets caught, he’ll just have to deal with it.
He waits until he can no longer hear anyone moving around in the flat, and then he stands up, takes a deep breath, and walks quietly out into the living room. A rustle of paper startles him and he stops dead. Slowly, he turns to see Nisha, sitting up on the sofa with her blankets pulled around her, calmly wrapping up her Christmas presents. She doesn’t look up, but her small smile tells Harry that he has been seen. Feeling his face heat, he starts walking again, noting with interest that Draco is not going to be short on scarves this winter. He’ll like that.
Harry knocks softly and lets himself into the room. Draco is sitting up in bed, book propped open on one knee, cup balanced on the other. He looks up at the sound of the door and smiles.
“Sorry if I’m interrupting you, I just wanted...” Harry stops, unsure how to finish that sentence.
“I know,” Draco says, and the intensity in his voice fortifies Harry.
He lowers himself to sit on the edge of the bed. “I suppose I should start at the beginning.”
Draco puts down his book and his cup and wraps his arms around his knees. “Okay.”
So Harry does. He tells Draco about the scarf, about Ron and Hermione’s revelation and about not believing a word of it. He skims over the dreams and tells Draco, haltingly, about his struggle to understand his own feelings. He tells Draco about his attempts to forget about the whole thing, and Draco listens without interrupting once. By the time he stops talking, he feels slightly shaky, but Draco’s eyes are warm and steady and it doesn’t matter.
“Do you know what really bothers me about all of this?” Draco says suddenly.
“The fact that you really thought I wouldn’t notice. That I wouldn’t realise something was wrong when you were suddenly so nervous all the time. Did you actually think I’d believe that you were ‘fine’ just because you kept saying so?”
Harry lets out a long, messy breath. “I’m not sure I actually believed you wouldn’t notice. I just hoped you wouldn’t,” he admits.
Draco snorts. “Harry, if it’s something to do with you, I notice it, alright?”
“Oh,” Harry manages, taken aback.
Draco rakes a hand through his hair and sighs. “If this is going to work, I think this is the part where we need to be completely honest with each other.”
“I agree,” Harry says, wishing his whole body wasn’t strung impossibly tight at the prospect of what Draco has to say.
Draco takes a careful breath. “I have loved you for a very long time,” he says quietly.
“A long time?” Harry repeats, voice pulled thin as the painful, tangled up thing inside him begins to unfold itself.
Draco rests his chin on his arms and grants Harry a small smile. “Yes. Are you going to make me admit just how long it has been?”
“Not right now,” Harry says easily, mouth tugging upwards at the corners. He can’t say he isn’t curious, but in this moment, Draco loves him, and that is the only thing that matters. Well, almost the only thing: “You knew, didn’t you? You knew what everyone thought,” he presses.
Draco nods. “Yes. I knew.”
“Couldn’t you have just told me?”
“About the rumours or the fact that I—” Draco attempts but Harry shakes his head, shifting on the bed so that he and Draco are face to face.
“About any of it,” he says hotly. “I could have lived without feeling like an idiot for the best part of a month. Then again, I feel like an idiot a lot of the time anyway, so I suppose it doesn’t really make any difference.”
Draco frowns and shuffles closer, unfolding his long legs and wrapping his hands around Harry’s shoulders. “You are not an idiot,” he says firmly, pale eyes gleaming in the near-darkness. “Sometimes you do some very odd things but you are my best friend and the very last thing I wanted was to let my ridiculous feelings or anyone else’s unhelpful ideas ruin that. Don’t think for a moment that I haven’t explored all the same what-ifs as you have, Harry, but I just kept arriving at the same conclusion every time.”
“Your feelings aren’t ridiculous,” Harry says, and then: “What conclusion was that?”
Draco rolls his eyes but his fingers grip Harry’s shoulders tightly. “That I want you with me,” he says simply. “That whatever happens, I will be here. In whatever capacity you require.”
Harry laughs, he can’t help it, but even as he does so, Draco’s words are wrapping around his heart, making it feel swollen and overfull. Scrambling onto his knees, he slides his fingers into Draco’s hair and presses his face against the warm, citrus-scented skin of his neck.
“I require more things than you can even imagine,” he mumbles, brushing his mouth over Draco’s hammering pulse, feeling his laughter, his soft gasp, his fingers slipping under Harry’s waistband and stroking his back. “And I love you. I love you, alright?”
Draco’s nails scrape along Harry’s spine and he pulls back, startled by the sensation, to find himself caught immediately in bright, silvery eyes, and then he is being pushed back onto the bed and kissed with dedication. Draco leans down over him, pinning Harry’s wrists to the sheets and dipping into his mouth over and over, lips brushing Harry’s and encouraging him open so that their tongues slide agonisingly together with every caught breath.
Harry doesn’t protest when Draco tugs his t-shirt over his head—in fact, he surges up eagerly from the bed and yanks Draco’s pyjama top away before all of the buttons are even unfastened, but when he feels a pull at his waistband, he grabs Draco’s wrist and stills his hand.
Draco looks at him, breathless and bewildered. “What’s the matter?”
Harry glances at the door. “Shouldn’t we cast a silencing charm?”
“Did you bring your wand with you?” Draco asks, trailing his fingers over the soft fabric of Harry’s trousers, grazing his obvious erection as though by accident.
Harry gasps. “No... where’s yours?”
“I think I left it in the kitchen,” Draco says, apparently unconcerned. He smiles slowly at Harry as he presses a firm palm against his cock, watching raptly as a small damp patch begins to appear under his fingers. Harry shudders and bites the inside of his mouth. “I could go and get it... or we could just be very, very quiet.”
“Don’t you even think about leaving this room,” Harry whispers, wondering why he even thought for a second that this was going to be straightforward. He’s pretty sure he wouldn’t want it any other way.
Draco smiles slowly and divests Harry of his trousers without another word. For a moment, Harry just lies there and grins. He’s naked, he’s hard, and Draco’s eyes are flitting hungrily all over his body. This surely, is the part that should feel awkward... only, he doesn’t feel awkward at all. He feels desirable and ready and disgustingly in love.
“What?” Draco whispers, leaning down to press kisses along his hipbone.
Harry shakes his head. Grabbing Draco’s wrist, he pulls him onto his side and helps him to kick away his pyjama bottoms, dragging him in until they are pressed tightly together, faces inches apart and legs tangled. Draco shifts his hips so that his cock brushes against Harry’s, hot and hard and perfect.
“Is this a bad idea?” Draco whispers, smiling against Harry’s mouth. “Is it, in fact, very, very bad?”
Harry stifles a snort of laughter. “That wasn’t my finest moment, I’ll admit.”
Draco smiles and kisses him, swallowing his gasps and whimpers as they move together, quickly finding a slow, comfortable rhythm, hands roaming over backs and buttocks and shoulders, fingers clenching and stroking and holding on tight. Draco is good at being quiet, irritatingly so, and Harry begins to plot for future nights, wondering just what he can do to make Draco fall apart. When Draco reaches between them and wraps his hand around both of them, though, he stops thinking completely.
“Yes,” he whispers, threading his fingers into Draco’s hair and pulling him into a long, deep kiss as the familiar heat, denied for so long, climbs around the base of his spine.
When Draco stiffens and gasps into his mouth, splashing his release between them in long, rhythmic pulses, Harry is lost. He kisses Draco desperately, unable to contain a low groan as he comes all over himself and Draco’s hand.
Shaking and exhilarated, he closes his eyes and pulls Draco close, listening with satisfaction as their breathing becomes slow and even once more. He is starting to wonder if he will ever move again when Draco shifts against him and sighs.
“Sorry,” he says, extricating himself from Harry and hunting around for a cloth. “I’m freezing.”
Harry opens one eye, wondering if he should attempt a wandless cleaning spell, and then realising that all the bones have disappeared from his body. He accepts Draco’s gentle flannelling and then closes his eye again.
“Do you want me to stay?” he asks.
“You’d better,” Draco says, tugging the quilt out from under Harry and climbing into bed. “There’s no way I’m going to sneak around in my own home for as long as she lives here. Besides, she knows all about this anyway.”
Harry nods, pulling his section of quilt up to his chest and rolling back onto his side to face Draco. “Okay,” he says, yawning, “but tomorrow night I’m bringing my wand.”
Draco arches an amused eyebrow and turns out the lamp on his bedside table.
Harry laughs softly against his shoulder. “Oh, god, that sounded a whole lot kinkier than I meant it to.”
“I shall look forward to that,” Draco says.
Harry searches for a clever retort but quickly realises that he is far too contented to bother. With his mind finally at rest, he curls himself around Draco and quickly falls asleep.
Chapter 23: part twenty-three
Prompt #23 - a hallway full of coats
Twenty-third of December – No Surprises
Nisha is just walking out of the bathroom and rubbing her wet hair with a towel when Harry emerges from Draco’s bedroom the next morning. She says nothing but smiles when Harry offers a rather sheepish ‘good morning’ and doesn’t bat an eyelid when Draco walks straight past her in search of the kettle.
Everything is very much business as usual, in fact, and while Harry is grateful that he is not being interrogated or gawped at, he can’t help but feel that something should feel very different. He’s not sure exactly how he should feel different, just that there should be some sort of dramatic shift in his perception of the world around him now that he and Draco are actually together. Instead, he showers like he always does, gets dressed like he always does, and eats breakfast just like he always does, giving Sparks bits of toast under the table while Draco reads the Daily Prophet and Nisha cradles her coffee mug and looks out of the window.
Just before they open the shop for the last time before Christmas, Draco presses a kiss to his cheek and grants him a slightly crooked half-smile, and the easy warmth that spreads through Harry’s veins is better than any kind of earth-shattering seismic shift he can imagine.
Humming with contentment, Harry lights up the shop’s decorations for the last time and scatters multicoloured flakes into Oolong’s bowl. The little fish swims eagerly to the surface of the water, nibbles at Harry’s finger and bumps against it repeatedly with his bobbly eyes. Harry wonders if he should bring the bowl upstairs for the Christmas break, just in case Oolong gets lonely, and then wonders just how much Draco will tease him if he does. Just as he is deciding that he doesn’t care, Nisha appears at his side.
“You know this thing we’re going to tonight?” she asks anxiously.
“Molly’s Christmas buffet?”
“What about it?” Harry says, withdrawing his hand from the bowl and wiping it on his jeans.
“Well... it’s just... I have a few questions.”
Harry turns to her, surprised to realise how worried she actually is. “Ask away.”
“Are you sure I’m really invited?” she asks, almost too softly to be audible.
“Yes,” Harry says firmly. “Definitely. Next question?”
Nisha seems to relax a fraction but still appears to hold her breath as she asks, “What about Sparks?”
“Molly and Arthur love animals. They’re going to love Sparks. Everyone loves Sparks.”
“Everyone except Hector,” Draco puts in, joining them behind the counter and pinging open the till with relish.
“Yes, well, he won’t be there,” Harry says, trying to get a smile out of Nisha. “He definitely isn’t invited.”
“Okay,” Nisha says, letting out a long breath. “There’s just one more thing.”
“I’ve heard you talk about Mrs Weasley,” Nisha says, frowning. “Is she... is she very scary?”
Harry tries not to laugh but Nisha’s expression is just so earnest and Draco is snorting into the till behind him and he just can’t help it.
Nisha wrinkles her nose. “Did I say something really stupid? I did, didn’t I?”
“Not stupid,” Harry says, grinning. “Just... when you meet her, I think you’ll understand.”
“Oh,” Nisha says, looking as though Harry’s words have just confused her further. After a moment, though, she shrugs, and when the customers begin to pour into the shop, many of them in search of last-minute Christmas presents, the whole thing is forgotten.
The shop remains packed with people for the rest of the day, and Harry is relieved when Sophie appears at lunchtime with coffee and sandwiches for everyone and then pitches in for the rest of the afternoon. Everyone is noisier than usual, in more of a rush than usual, and, in the case of several customers, much ruder than usual. Sparks gets his tail trodden on several times before he decides to retreat behind the counter, Draco is yelled at by a wild-eyed woman who cannot understand how they can possibly have run out of Holyhead Harpies jumpers, and one rather panicky man buys so much stuff that it takes Harry, Nisha, and Sophie to help him get it to the nearest Floo Point.
There are some bright moments, such as the three tiny girls who press their noses to Oolong’s bowl and ask very nicely to hear all about him, and Harry doesn’t think he will ever forget the sight of Mr Borteg gliding past the window in a glittery santa hat, but still, by the time the last customer has left and the door has been locked, all he wants to do is trudge upstairs and flop on the sofa.
“No, no, no, don’t sit down,” Draco says, catching Harry’s hand and pulling him upright just before he manages to sink into the cushions. “If you sit down now, you won’t get up, and then we’ll be late to the Burrow and you know how that will go.”
Instinctively, Harry glances at Nisha, who stares back, eyes wide with alarm.
“Don’t listen to him,” he advises. “Let’s all just get ready and then maybe we’ll have time to have a cup of tea before we go—standing up,” he adds, noting Draco’s expression.
Fortunately for Harry and Nisha, Draco can never say no to a cup of tea, so by the time they arrive on the Weasleys’ doorstep, scrubbed and dressed in their most festive attire, they are, at last, beginning to relax.
Ron opens the door wearing last year’s Christmas jumper.
“There you are,” he says, sounding relieved as he steps back to let them in. “Mum’s been fretting. Thinks you weren’t going to turn up.”
“Every year,” Draco sighs, unbuttoning his coat. “Have we ever not come?”
Ron grins. “It’s all just part of the ritual for her, you know that. Hi, Nisha.”
“Hello,” Nisha says cautiously, picking up Sparks and giving him a stern look that means ‘be good’ in any language.
Harry steps into the hallway and takes off his coat, already wondering where the hell he’s going to put it. Molly and Arthur’s coat rack stretches all the way along the wall from the door to the stairs, but there is not a spare hook to be seen. Coats and cloaks of every style, colour and fabric are hanging from the wooden rack, three to a hook in some places, and when Harry turns to the balustrade, he finds that it, too, has been pressed into service as a makeshift coat-holder. Shrugging, he flings his coat on top and turns back to Ron.
“Big turnout tonight, is there?”
“Full house,” Ron says, opening the door to the living room.
Harry blinks as his eyes adjust to the sudden brightness. The Weasleys’ decorations put his to shame, just as they always do. The display of lights and fairies and hovering stars is a familiar one, but every year it takes him a moment to acclimatise. The noise, too, is incredible, and it’s not surprising; there are more people packed into Molly and Arthur’s living room than Harry would have thought possible, and every last one of them is laughing, talking, singing, or all three at once.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it in a minute,” Harry says, taking Nisha’s elbow and guiding her through the crowd.
“What?” she shouts as they pass the wireless, which is belting out a song about dragons that Harry finds vaguely familiar.
He turns briefly to mouth ‘never mind’ and then pulls her into the kitchen. Here, the guests are a little less concentrated, and Molly is pulling trays of little snacks out of the oven wearing a sparkly dress and gigantic oven gloves.
“Are you sure you’ve made enough food?” Harry calls, and she turns around.
“Harry!” she cries, dashing across the kitchen and enveloping him in a hug. “Luvleeyoo,” she adds, and then realises that she has clamped the oven gloves over his ears. “Lovely to see you!” she repeats, stepping back and beaming up at him. “Don’t even joke about the food, I have no idea where it’s all going,” she tells him, wagging an oven glove.
“Perhaps you should get out of the kitchen and enjoy the party, then,” Draco says.
“Oh, Draco,” Molly sighs, but she smiles as she folds him into an equally tight hug. “You must be Nisha,” she says at last, eyes crinkling with pleasure as they fall upon the little dog. “Oh, and Sparks... oh, now... Ginny, look at his little face!”
Ginny whirls around from the table, retracting her hand guiltily from a tray of little pork pies.
“Hello,” she says, smiling at Nisha and reaching out to ruffle Sparks’s ears. “Yes, Mum, his little face is lovely.”
Molly takes off her gloves and taps on his nose gently with a wrinkled finger. “Bless him. Does he get around alright on three legs?” she asks, looking at Nisha.
“I don’t think he really notices it’s missing any more,” she says, clearly bewildered by the behaviour of this supposedly frightening woman.
“Molly, are there any more prawn things?” Arthur calls, rushing into the kitchen with an empty tray. “Mildred thinks that Charlie ate them all and she’s getting rather cross.”
“Did Charlie eat them all?” Molly demands, hands on hips.
“Charlie doesn’t like seafood,” Ginny says, but no one seems to be listening to her.
Deciding that this might be a good time to join the party, Harry, Draco, and Nisha slip out of the kitchen and back into the sparkly, noisy festivity of the living room. Slowly, they pick their way through the crowd; Harry leads the way and Draco brings up the rear, keeping Nisha and Sparks protectively between them as they exchange greetings with various Weasley relatives, Arthur’s Ministry colleagues, and countless friends collected by Molly over the years. As they make their way across the room, they find more and more people with little plates and napkins full of snacks, and as the warm smell of fresh bread and mixed spice intensifies, Harry finally spots the food table.
“Aha,” he murmurs, carefully stepping around a still-prawnless Great Aunt Mildred and pulling up right next to a vast platter of cold meats, each slice neatly folded up into a little cone.
“Wow,” Nisha says, holding Sparks more firmly. Wide-eyed, she looks up and down the table at the platters of miniature Yorkshire puddings, pastry parcels, stuffing balls, the piles of fat sausages and warm bread rolls, the bowls of roast potatoes and, in pride of place at the end of the table, the vast, cream-topped trifle. As usual, Molly has outdone herself.
“She made the special breadsticks,” Draco sighs happily, reaching for one and crunching into it.
“Did she make all of this by herself?” Nisha asks.
Harry passes each of them a plate and then takes one for himself, immediately loading it with a little bit of everything he can reach. “Draco, of course she made the special breadsticks; she knows they’re your favourite. Nisha, this table represents just a little bit of the wonder that is Molly Weasley. And yes, she does it mostly by herself. She usually ropes Ron and Ginny into coming round to help, but she never really lets them do anything.”
Nisha stops trying to figure out how to hold onto Sparks and fill her plate and smiles at Harry. “I think I’m beginning to understand.”
“I knew you would. Pass me your plate,” he says, setting his own down precariously in the only bit of space he can find. “What do you want?”
“More prawn things,” comes a loud, insistent female voice and, just for a moment, Harry thinks he is going to turn around and find Great Aunt Mildred looking at him expectantly.
Nisha laughs and he turns to see Hermione, wearing a snowflake patterned jumper and a pair of sequinned antlers.
“Ron said you were here but it’s taken me forever to find you—I can’t believe how many people they invited this year,” Hermione says, producing three steaming mugs of mulled mead from somewhere and handing them out. “That dress looks lovely on you, Nisha. I never felt quite right in it.”
Nisha glances down at the knitted dress and smiles, managing to look delighted and embarrassed all at once. “Thank you. Thank you for everything you sent, it’s all wonderful.”
Hermione beams back at her and Harry decides to leave them to their conversation. He fills Nisha’s plate with a bit of everything and then follows Draco, whose plate is rather heavy on breadsticks, through the maze of guests and over to a pair of sofas tucked behind the Christmas tree, where Ron, Charlie and George are sitting with plates on their knees and steaming mugs at their feet.
“I hear you’ve been eating all the prawn things,” Draco says, squeezing into the space next to Harry.
Charlie groans. “Don’t you dare, she’ll hear you.”
“I thought she was mostly deaf,” Harry says. “Isn’t that why she... you know... bellows?”
George laughs. “If you ask me, she only has that ear trumpet so she can listen in on other people’s conversations.”
“Interesting,” Draco says approvingly and crunches into another breadstick.
Harry glances at him and smiles.
“You two look very... hang on,” Ron wags what looks suspiciously like a prawn thing in their direction. “You did it, didn’t you? Finally!”
Harry shoots a sidelong glance at Draco, feeling himself turn bright red. Draco blinks furiously and tries not to choke on his breadstick.
“Oh, bloody hell, I meant you talked,” Ron says, ears turning pink. “Although you obviously did a bit more than that, considering that reaction.”
“Am I missing something?” Charlie asks, looking extremely puzzled. “Aren’t you two...?”
“It’s a long story,” Draco says wearily.
“We’ve got time,” George says, setting down his empty plate and getting comfortable.
Harry sighs and busies himself with Molly’s delicious food as, between them, Ron and Draco give an edited and thankfully brief rendition of the story. Ron is gleefully recounting his moment of sagacity in the shop after-hours when Nisha flings herself onto the arm of the sofa and drops a squirming Sparks to the floor.
“Are you alright?” he asks, taking in her flushed face and startled expression.
“I think so... unless the mulled mead has gone to my head and I’m imagining the whole thing.”
“How much have you had?”
“Oh, about half a cup,” Nisha says and then laughs. “Hermione’s offered me a job!”
Behind Harry, Ron stops talking, and Harry can feel his grin as Hermione emerges from the crush carrying not only her own mug and plate but Nisha’s, too.
“That’s brilliant,” Harry says. He glances at Hermione. “Poaching my staff, are you?”
Hermione just smiles to herself and perches on the arm of the sofa next to Ron.
Nisha’s eyes dart anxiously between Harry and Draco. “I’m not going to go if you need me,” she promises. “Hermione said the shop will be a lot quieter after Christmas, but...”
“It will be,” Draco says, poking Harry with a breadstick. “Harry is just being... well, Harry.”
“He is, Nisha, don’t listen to him,” Hermione says. “It will all work out perfectly. I’ve been thinking of finding someone to help with all my admin stuff for a while now.”
“I’m going to have my own desk and everything,” Nisha says, beaming. “And Sparks is allowed to come to the office! That means you have to be good,” she informs the little dog, who stares up at her adoringly as he lets Charlie scratch his belly.
“I’m not sure that’s going to happen,” Harry says, “but I’m very proud of you.”
Nisha seems to glow with happiness, and Harry watches her warmly as she accepts congratulations, hugs and Weasley backslaps before finally picking up her plate and trying Molly’s Christmas cooking for the first time. Her rapturous expression tells Harry all he needs to know. When George and Charlie demand to hear the rest of the story, Harry opts to leave them to it for a while, deciding that he doesn’t actually need to know if hearing about his post-SODA drunken ramblings will cause him to implode with embarrassment.
He takes his warm mug and winds his way through the party, stopping every now and then to exchange greetings with other guests, some of which he knows only from Molly’s gatherings. When he finds himself at the kitchen door again, he steps inside, wondering if his hostess has managed to tear herself away from the oven yet. Predictably, Molly is still in the kitchen, frantically arranging freshly-baked prawn things on a shiny platter.
“Aren’t you going to come out and greet your public?” he says, perching on the edge of the vast oak table.
Molly laughs and continues to fling prawn things. “Oh, Harry, you know that a cook’s work is never done. Especially not when Great Aunt Mildred is in attendance,” she adds in a whisper.
“It’s your party, too,” Harry insists. “You should be out there with all those people who love you.”
Molly looks up at last. She wipes her hands on a tea towel and flings it over her shoulder before dropping down onto the edge of the table next to Harry.
“I’m so glad you came, Harry,” she says, reaching out and squeezing his knee hard. “You and Draco look very happy, and that’s wonderful.”
Harry stares at her, at the lines around her eyes, the generous white streaks in her bright hair, the warm, genuine expression on her face. All at once it is painfully obvious to him that she has said these words before. She has been saying them for years. It’s not her fault he has never really heard them.
“We are,” he says, heart full as he leans against Molly and kisses the top of her head.
“Nisha seems like a lovely girl,” Molly murmurs. “So young, though... do you think she’s missing her family?”
Harry sighs. “Some of them, without a doubt. It’s pretty complicated.”
“All families come with complications,” Molly says. “But we find our way.”
Harry nods and gazes vaguely at the tray of prawn things. “Come on,” he says, jumping down from the table and pulling Molly to her feet. “You grab those, I’ll get the door—it’s time for you to join the party.”
Molly stares at him for a moment, apparently startled at being told what to do, but then she smiles and picks up the tray of prawn things. “I’m right behind you.”
Chapter 24: part twenty-four
Prompt #24 - a meal by the fire
Twenty-fourth of December – Chance
“Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening,” Harry sings as he carries the heavy goldfish bowl carefully up the stairs.
Oolong breaks the surface and peers at him, and Harry can almost hear him saying, “Yes, I’m listening—now tell me why you’re sloshing me about everywhere?”
He makes an ob-ob-ob face back at the fish and then continues, slowing his pace a little: “A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland...”
Nisha opens the door at the top of the stairs and watches him with interest. He grins at her, light with the anticipation of Christmas Eve and the memory of just what he and Draco can get up to with the help of a silencing charm. He thinks there’s still a way to go toward making Draco completely lose control, but he has a feeling that finding out exactly how will be an enormous amount of fun.
“In the meadow we can build a snowman,” he sings, finally reaching the top of the stairs, “and pretend that he is Parson Brown...”
“Who?” Nisha asks, stepping back to let him through and then shutting the door again.
“Parson Brown?” Harry says uncertainly.
“What’s a parson?”
Harry sets Oolong’s bowl down on the coffee table and then straightens up, frowning. “Sort of like a vicar, I think.”
“Exactly like a vicar, for all that it matters to the meaning of the song,” Draco says, coming out of the kitchen with a tea tray. “But while we’re singing... it’s nearly time for the Christmas cheeseboard!”
Nisha laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so excited about cheese.”
“It’s not just cheese,” Draco says, and then shakes himself, horrified. “Let’s pretend I didn’t say ‘just cheese’ like that. My point is, this evening we have more than cheese.”
“Oh, the drama,” Harry mumbles.
Draco ignores him, retrieving a large paper bag from the tea tray and holding it aloft. “Molly gave me all the leftover breadsticks!”
“I’m surprised there were any leftover breadsticks,” Harry says, grabbing Draco’s hand and pulling him down onto the sofa.
Nisha drops onto the opposite sofa and folds her legs up underneath herself. Sparks, who has been sleeping peacefully against a cushion, opens his eyes briefly and thumps his tail in greeting. Harry isn’t surprised he’s worn out; once the children at the party had noticed him, he had spent the rest of the night running after balls, leaping for treats, and being vigorously fussed over.
“I’m afraid I have another silly question,” Nisha says, scratching Sparks’s weary head.
“Questions are not silly,” Draco says firmly. “Refusing to ask questions is silly.”
Nisha sighs. “Okay. Well... when Hermione asked me to work in her office last night, she never said what sort of an office it was. I think she just assumed I knew, and I was so excited that I completely forgot to ask, so... what is it that she does, exactly?”
“Ah, well,” Draco says, pouring the tea. “‘The office’ is actually a code name. What Hermione has is a sex shop. I imagine she’ll want you to help her sell vibrating butt plugs to creepy old men.”
Nisha laughs and then stops dead, staring at Draco. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“No, he is not,” Harry says, elbowing Draco in the ribs. “Hermione’s a lawyer. She has a little legal practice not far from Diagon Alley. She specialises in criminal law—works with the MLE quite a bit.”
Nisha sighs, accepting her cup from Draco with a mock-glare. “Wow,” she says, shaking her head. “I mean, I suppose running a sex shop is a pretty exciting thing to do for a living, but I think I’d die of embarrassment if I had to sell someone a... one of those.”
“So would Hermione, probably,” Harry says, and glances at Draco. “I’m going to tell her you said that.”
Draco lifts an unrepentant eyebrow and drinks his tea. After a couple of sips, he relents and begins to tell Nisha all about Hermione’s office, about some of the cases she has worked on over the years and some of the scandals to which she has been a witness. All in all, he makes it sound much more exciting than working in a sex shop and soon, Nisha is hanging on his every word.
Harry just sits back and lets it wash over him, wondering just what sort of plans Hermione has for her newest employee. It might be form-filling and owl-sending to begin with, but Harry knows Hermione well enough to suspect that she will be determined to give Nisha the best new start she possibly can. He imagines that, should Nisha take an interest in the field, Hermione will be there to guide her through the process and to help her to achieve all the necessary qualifications, and then some.
He thinks that, perhaps, Nisha will be good for Hermione, too. She is just beginning to return to work full time after staying at home with Rose for the best part of a year, and is absolutely craving some adult company. Both women are smart and sociable, and both possess just enough of a devious streak to make Harry wonder what madness they might achieve if they put their heads together.
He will miss having her around the shop, there’s no doubt about that, but business will settle into a quieter rhythm in the new year, and Harry is already looking forward to the days when he can ask Sophie to look after the shop by herself, allowing him and Draco to take time off together for the first time ever. Everything is changing, but it looks as though Mr Ollivander was right.
It’s definitely not all bad.
As the clock strikes seven, Harry and Nisha are summoned into the kitchen to assist with the assembly of the Christmas Cheese Board. The cheese board is a Malfoy tradition, one of the only such things Draco has brought with him from his childhood, and is, as such, observed every twenty-fourth of December with some ceremony.
Harry arranges crackers on a huge plate and saws at a large crusty loaf, trying to remember whether this is his eighth or ninth Christmas Cheese Board and watching Nisha as she tries to cram more mustards and pates and relishes onto an already-packed tray as Draco passes them to her. She looks at Harry helplessly and he bites down on a smile.
“Shrink them down a bit,” he says under his breath as soon as Draco’s head is back in the cupboard. “I do it every year—there’s no other way they’ll all fit.”
Nisha nods and hurriedly whips out her wand to adjust the jars. When Draco passes her the next item, he glances at the tray.
“There, I told you they’d all fit; it’s just a matter of patience.”
Harry and Nisha exchange smiles, but say nothing. Once everything is laid out to Draco’s satisfaction, the whole lot is conveyed carefully to the coffee table, which has, as always, been dragged closer to the fire for the occasion.
“It was the only time my parents would even dream of sitting on the floor,” Draco had said when Harry had asked, several years ago, why the cheese board ritual had to be observed in this way, and he had sounded so wistful that Harry had never questioned it again.
Now, though, Draco’s face is relaxed and happy as he sits cross-legged at the head of the table, taking up his ceremonial position as the Christmas Cheese Cutter.
“Nisha, would you like to select a cheese to start with?” he asks, wielding his favourite knife.
Nisha blinks. For a moment, she looks as though she wants to laugh, and then she gathers herself and indicates a slab of creamy Lancashire.
“Good choice,” Draco approves, slicing three pieces and placing one on each of their plates.
Without a word, Harry butters a cracker and balances the cheese on top. He knows from experience that, for the most part, this meal is as relaxed as any other, but he also knows that the sampling of the first piece of cheese is a very serious thing indeed. Nisha clearly has no idea of the honour that has been bestowed upon her. It’s probably better for her that, way, too, Harry thinks, biting into cracker and cheese decisively and catching Draco’s eye just as the Lancashire crumbles in his mouth and the sharp, rich flavour bursts over his tastebuds.
“Verdict?” Draco asks, picking a crumb of Lancashire from his jumper.
“Very nice,” Harry says. “Nicer than last year’s, actually.”
Draco smiles. “Well, that’s because I bought it from a different stall this time. Nisha, do you like it?” he demands, turning on her rapidly enough to make her jump.
“Lovely,” she mumbles, covering her mouth as she attempts to finish chewing.
“Wonderful. Now, I’ve got a goat’s cheese here that I think would go really well with a bit of this plum chutney,” Draco says, and then he’s off, slicing up cheeses and pairing them with the contents of endless jars and bottles and tubs, a bit of this and a bit of that, breadsticks and crackers and ‘rind on or off, Nisha?’ and ‘not convinced? Try it with this’ and ‘Harry, if you mix up those knives again, I shall have to hex you a little bit’.
They try stiltons and camemberts and gorgonzolas, smoked cheeses from Germany and mozzarellas from buffaloes and many other things that Harry completely loses track of, including a tart, salty sort of cheese that he is pretty sure Draco says has been made from Hippogriff milk. Harry crunches and savours and, when asked, offers opinions. The rest of the time, he just sits contentedly on his cushion on the floor, enjoying the warmth of the fire at his back, Nisha’s eagerness to try everything Draco offers her, and the uncomplicated enthusiasm of the man he loves. He has no idea how it can possibly have taken him so long to get to this point, but he’s here now, and that’s all that matters.
“Stop staring at me, you’re putting me off my cheese,” Draco says, poking Harry with his foot.
Harry shakes himself out of his reverie to realise that Draco is smiling at him and Nisha is nowhere to be seen. He frowns.
“I think I must have zoned out.”
“Not for long, she’s only in the bathroom,” Draco assures, and, seconds later, Nisha reappears with Sparks at her heels.
“Did he follow you in there?” Harry asks, holding his half-finished cracker out of the little dog’s reach.
“Yes, he does that sometimes,” Nisha says resignedly, staring down at Sparks and shaking her head.
“Well, I suppose he’s just very loyal,” Draco says, putting down his cheese knife at last.
Nisha snorts. “Either that or he doesn’t think much of my ability to go to the bathroom without him. Have we finished with the cheese? It was all lovely but I don’t think I can eat another thing.”
“Cheese time is over,” Draco confirms. “It is now present time.”
“It’s not Christmas yet,” Nisha says, brow furrowed.
“Ah, but you can have one present tonight,” Harry explains, hauling himself to his feet and wandering over to the tree. “You can pick whatever you want, but we usually go for something small.”
Nisha and Draco join Harry at the tree, and, after a brief discussion about who is going to go first, Draco picks up a shiny, bottle-shaped present. He unwraps it carefully, mouth twitching into a smile as he sees the label.
“Ultimate Moutho-Burno Hot Sauce,” he reads aloud, turning the bottle to show Nisha. “Look—we can put this on the turkey tomorrow if it turns out a bit bland.”
Nisha smiles, and the smile turns into a grin as Harry casually puts a Stinging Hex up Draco’s spine.
“I’m not sorry, but thank you for the lovely sauce,” he says obediently.
Nisha chooses a small packet that makes a soft tinkling sound when she shakes it.
“Ah,” Draco says, “that one is actually for Sparks, not for you. But you can open it.”
Harry watches with interest as Nisha unwraps a brand new collar with a little bell on it. Delighted, she turns it over in her hands, admiring the supple red leather and the metal disk engraved with his name and address.
“Thank you so much!” she cries, clearly torn between hugging Draco and fitting Sparks with his new collar. In the end, she throws herself at Draco for a second or two and then drops to the floor and fastens the collar around Sparks’s neck. “Oh, Sparks, you look like somebody owns you!” she laughs.
Harry is inspecting the pile of presents under the tree when a knock at the door makes them all look up.
“Someone’s downstairs,” Harry says, frowning. He shrugs and heads for the door, grabbing the shop key as he goes. “Back in a minute.”
He runs down the stairs and through the dark, cold shop, wondering who could possibly want to knock on their door at such a time. If it’s Hector, he thinks darkly, turning the key in the lock and pulling open the door, he is going to get such a mouthful...
“Oh. Hello,” Harry says, heart leaping into his throat. All of his irritation has faded away, because he knows, without having to ask, exactly who he is looking at.
The lady on the doorstep is the absolute image of Nisha... or, Harry supposes, Nisha is the image of her, because this woman is at least twenty years older, beautifully dressed in robes of emerald silk and a heavy black travelling cloak, pinned with a glittering brooch in the shape of a spider. Her dark hair falls neatly over one shoulder in a thick plait and is even longer than her daughter’s.
“I’m sorry to bother you at this time,” she says, and her voice is soft and refined.
“Oh... it’s alright,” Harry says. The woman’s eyes are so painfully sad that he can’t seem to find a single useful word; all he can do is stare at her.
“I’m looking for Nisha Singh,” she says, producing a photograph of a serious-looking girl from inside her cloak. “I’m her mother.”
“I know,” Harry says before he can stop himself.
The woman closes her eyes for long seconds, seeming to sag with relief. When she opens them, she takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Is she here? Someone saw her here... a friend of the family. Nobody knows I’m here... I just want to see her... talk to her.”
Harry hesitates, torn. He hurts for this woman, feels her desperation, knows that it must have cost her to come here alone on Christmas Eve, but to tell her what she wants to hear would be a betrayal of Nisha’s trust. In the end, the decision comes easily.
“Could you just wait here for a minute, Mrs Singh?” he says, backing into the shop. “I might be able to help you but I just need a moment.”
She nods. Harry closes the door and runs for the stairs. The night is cold and he feels a little bit guilty about leaving her out there, but his loyalty is to Nisha. He hesitates at the door to the flat, listening to the laughter and conversation that filters out into the stairway. Everything is just beginning to come together for Nisha and he has no idea what this information will do to her, but in the end, it’s not his choice to make. He steels himself and walks into the living room.
“Tell me it wasn’t Hector,” Draco says, turning around from the fire.
“No.” Harry takes a deep breath and looks at Nisha. “It’s your mother.”
Nisha stares at him, hand automatically flying up to clutch at her necklace. “My mother’s here?”
“She’s downstairs... I didn’t let her in. I wanted to... she’s worried. She’s on her own,” Harry adds, just in case Nisha thinks for a moment that her father is imminent.
Nisha leaps up from the sofa and begins pacing up and down in front of the fire, arms folded and head down. “I’m not going with her,” she says, voice scratchy. “She’ll have come to take me home. I’m not going.”
“You don’t have to go anywhere, Nish,” Harry says softly. “This is your home, as long as you want it to be.”
“Really?” she chokes, coming to an abrupt halt and staring at Harry, eyes full of tears.
“Absolutely,” Draco says. “We aren’t about to kick you out. Especially now that there’s a bedroom going spare.”
“Seriously?” she manages, mouth flickering as she glances at Draco.
“Of course,” Harry promises. “But she’s your mum. You should talk to her.”
“You miss her, don’t you?” Draco says.
Nisha nods and turns to stare into the fire, suddenly looking extremely fragile.
“I can’t go back to that,” she whispers.
“You won’t,” Draco says fiercely.
“I don’t think that’s what she wants,” Harry says, picturing the huge, sad eyes and the gentle, desperate enquiries. “I think she misses you as much as you miss her. I think she wants to make sure her daughter is okay. She doesn’t want to lose you.”
Nisha turns around and crosses her arms tightly over her body. “I bet you think I’m insane, don’t you? Your mother...”
“My mother was strong and clever and a little bit stubborn, just like you,” Harry says, “and she would have told you to do whatever felt right.”
Nisha fixes him with steady dark eyes, locking him into the familiar stand-off. Finally, she looks away, and when she turns back to Harry, every bit of steely determination is firmly back in place.
“I’m going to go down there,” she says.
“We’ll be here,” Draco promises.
“If you want to bring here up here, that’s fine,” Harry says. “It’s pretty cold out there.”
“Okay.” Nisha takes a deep breath, pulls herself to her full height, and heads for the door. Sparks immediately leaps down from the sofa and follows her, little bell clinking as he bounces down the stairs.
Harry and Draco look at each other for a split-second and then race for the window, barely breathing as Nisha and Sparks step out onto the glittering cobbles. At first, mother and daughter just stare at each other, and then Nisha takes a cautious step forward, then another and another, and then she is throwing her arms around her mother, burying her face in the heavy cloak and clinging on tight. Mrs Singh holds her daughter in a fierce grip, resting her chin on Nisha’s shoulder and screwing her eyes shut in relief.
At the window, Draco wraps his arms around Harry from behind and releases a long sigh against his neck. Harry leans back against him, covering Draco’s hands with his own and letting most of his tension slide away. As they watch, the snow begins to fall, and Nisha and her mother draw apart, startled by the sensation of the cold flakes against their skin. They both look up and smile—the same smile, Harry realises, mouth tugged into a grin along with them—and when Nisha says something that he doesn’t catch, they both turn back towards the shop.
There is something about the way Nisha holds herself as she walks back into the flat that makes Harry feel very hopeful indeed. That girl is going nowhere. She is going to be occupying that soon-to-be spare bedroom for a while yet, and then, who knows? She and her mother still have a lot to talk about, but Mrs Singh’s eyes are warm and approving as she looks over her daughter’s new home, and Harry thinks she almost looks a little envious.
“Sit down, Mum,” Nisha says, directing her mother towards the sofas and attempting to stop Sparks from tripping her up.
“That dog has three legs,” she says, seeming to notice Sparks for the first time.
Harry grins, catching Draco’s hand briefly in his as he passes, kettle held aloft.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Mrs Singh?”
Chapter 25: part twenty-five
Twenty-fifth of December – Step Inside
“Come out, you little bugger,” Harry mutters, dropping to his hands and knees in pursuit of Sparks, who has disappeared under his bed after leading him a merry chase around the flat with one of Rose’s Christmas boots in his mouth.
Sparks lets out a muffled bark and Rose’s delighted laughter drifts to Harry’s ears from the living room as he flattens himself to the floor and winces when the hard boards press mercilessly against his full stomach. He has, as is tradition, eaten far too much today. There had been the breakfast bacon sandwiches, the spicy nibbles Nisha had made to go with the bucks fizz, the soup and the turkey and the mountains of delicious peripheral items, followed by the Christmas pudding and the mints and more chocolate than anyone should eat in one day... Harry groans and stares hopelessly at Sparks, who chomps happily on Rose’s boot and wags his tail, clearly unaffected by the vast amount of food that he, too, has put away.
Then, of course, Hermione and Ron had turned up in the early evening, flushed and weary and laden with gifts and leftovers, just as they do every year, and, just as he does every year, Harry had looked at the neatly-wrapped plates of Molly’s festive fare, announced that he was far too full, and ended up eating a large amount of it anyway. There is still plenty left; Molly’s Christmas delivery always keeps Harry and Draco going until the new year, and Harry is pretty sure they aren’t the only ones to receive the festive food parcels.
“The turkey she buys is massive,” Harry tells Sparks, giving up and flopping onto his side. “You could probably crawl right inside it. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Sparks blinks in the near-darkness and shuffles out from under the bed. With a small sneeze, he drops the slightly-chewed boot at Harry’s side and sprawls out next to him, tail thumping against the floor and little jumper dotted with dust from under the bed.
“Thank you,” Harry says gravely, taking possession of the boot before the little dog can change his mind and resume the game.
“Dog?” Rose says, voice full of confusion.
Harry gazes at the half-closed door and attempts to motivate himself to get up. It’s been a rather spectacular Christmas so far—a pretty perfect day, in fact—but his energy levels are dipping and all he really wants to do is fall into bed and allow sleep to claim him. Preferably with Draco at his side, though right now, he would happily settle for the floor and a Sparks-pillow. His eyes are heavy, his limbs warm and leaden, and as he glances hazily at the little set of vials on his bedside, he smiles.
Slowly and with some effort, he rolls onto his knees and hauls himself up onto the edge of the bed, setting down the boot and picking up the small wooden rack containing his favourite Christmas present from Draco. Draco has, as always, managed to collect an astonishing array of odd and wonderful gifts for him, but, for some reason, this one is special. It is so special that he has hidden it away in his bedroom, not wanting to share it, even with Ron and Hermione. Perhaps it’s because the gift is just too thoughtful somehow, or perhaps it’s because the very concept of it makes him feel idiotic for failing to notice what Draco has clearly been trying to tell him for years.
Harry smiles, fingertips tracing each vial in turn, smooth, cool glass and neat paper labels, each inscribed with words in Draco’s small, spiky handwriting.
A vial filled with shimmering pale green liquid—for cool, refreshing sleep.
A pearly white potion that clings to the glass in glimmering beads—for a restful mind.
A clear, sea blue tincture—for the energy to continue.
A vial of deep, swirling red—for fortitude.
An opalescent, pale blue liquid—for beautiful dreams.
Harry stares at the vials, fingers tightening around them as though Draco might suddenly appear and announce that he is taking them back. He lets out a long, careful breath. That isn’t going to happen. It isn’t going to happen because Draco loves him and has spent hours researching and creating these potions for him. The label is right there, looped around the wooden rack:
I hope you can find some peace of mind.
“You know, I made those when you seemed to be having a lot of horrible dreams and restless nights... you’ve slept rather well recently,” Draco says, and Harry looks up to see him standing in the doorway.
Harry flushes. “I don’t care. I love them.”
Draco smiles slowly, and, for a moment, the whole world drops away. The voices from the living room fade to nothing, and he is barely even aware of the fact that Sparks has jumped onto the bed and is attempting to reclaim Rose’s boot.
“Don’t even think about it,” Draco says suddenly, crossing the floor in two long strides and snatching the boot away from the little dog. “Come on,” he adds, nudging Harry’s knee. “You don’t want to miss this.”
Intrigued, Harry hauls himself to his feet and follows Draco out into the living room. Sparks’s claws click on the floorboards as he, too, comes out to rejoin the others.
“Hang on... is this the same bloke you were talking about earlier?” Ron is saying, frowning and balancing his mug on the arm of the sofa.
Nisha shakes her head. “No, there were two completely different groups having the same argument. One was a mixed group, this one was all men.”
Hermione laughs and Rose reaches up to grab at her swinging curls. “No, Rose, Mummy needs those. So what did he say then?”
“He was going to go in and flirt with Harry,” Nisha says. “According to him, if Harry flirted back, that meant he was available.”
Ron snorts. “Yeah, because Harry’s so brilliant at knowing when someone’s flirting with him.”
“I am here, you know,” Harry points out, crossing his arms and attempting to look disparaging.
“Ron’s right, though,” Draco says, looking far more amused than Harry thinks he should. “You are useless. At least in that area.”
Nisha laughs, and she and Hermione exchange glances. Ron turns slightly pink.
“Any more, Nisha?” he asks hopefully.
“Plenty,” she says, smiling as Sparks bounds up beside her and buries his nose in her hair as though they have been separated for days rather than minutes. “Lots and lots of teenage girls talking about how gorgeous Harry was or how mysterious and brooding Draco was...” she laughs. “But the middle-aged ladies were the funniest. You know, the mums.”
Harry buries his own embarrassment in the delight of seeing Draco squirm as they take up their seats on the sofa opposite Nisha.
“I’m not sure I want to know,” Draco says, hunting around for his cup of tea. When he fails to find it, he steals Harry’s instead.
“You were the one who didn’t want me to miss this,” Harry points out gleefully. “And she’s right, we always get loads of women old enough to be our mothers wandering around the shop in little groups. Half the time they don’t even buy anything.”
“Ah, but you don’t get to hear what they say on the way out,” Nisha says. “You never heard ‘Did you see his wand, Belinda?’—‘I’d love to see his wand, Mary!’ or ‘what I wouldn’t do to that Draco Malfoy!’ or ‘I bet they’re at it day and night... they’ve probably done it right there on that counter!’” she declares, throwing herself into the role of the lustful older lady with some relish.
Hermione and Ron are helpless with laughter as she continues, and, when he hears the immortal phrase, ‘I’d spank the lovely little bottom right off that young man’, Harry can’t help but join them. It does rather help that the lovely young man in question is Draco rather than himself.
“You are, of course, making all of this up,” Draco says to Nisha, attempting to grimace and laugh at the same time.
“Not even a little bit,” Nisha says. “The best thing was when so many of them turned up at the auction. I don’t think a single one of them remembered me, but I remembered them.” She laughs. “That man in the red cloak who nearly won the broomstick? Oh, Harry, he fancied you rotten.”
“Well, who doesn’t?” Hermione teases.
Ron turns to look at her, horrified, and she grins. Kissing him on the cheek, she stretches out, dangling her hand into Oolong’s bowl and attempting to entice him to nibble at her fingertips.
“Not me,” Nisha says, amused. “Sorry, Harry.”
Harry lets out a dramatic sigh. “I’ll live.”
“I like redheads,” she says, and Ron glances at her, startled. “My friend from back home... he looks a bit like you, actually, but with brown eyes. He’s very handsome.”
Ron smiles, seeming to puff up slightly as he leans forward to pick up a chunk of leftover turkey from one of the plates. “I’m sure he is,” he says, dropping the entire piece into his mouth and seeming to swallow it whole.
Hermione sighs. “Do you think you’ll be able to get in touch with him now that you’ve seen your mother?”
Nisha chews her lip thoughtfully, pulling her feet up underneath her and coiling her long hair around her forearm. Everything about her is just that little bit shinier today, Harry thinks, and he can’t help but compare this healthy, contented young woman with the shivering, terrified girl of four weeks ago. Her hair is glossy, she has put on weight, and every day there is just a little bit more confidence than the day before. She is growing, and he feels inexplicably and helplessly proud of her.
“I don’t know,” Nisha says at last. “I thought it was all a big secret, you know, the way I felt, but it turns out she knew all along. She said Manny came to find her after I ran away... she said he was asking about me.”
“I’m sure he misses you,” Hermione says gently.
Nisha’s dark eyes glow with a fragile sort of hope that makes Harry’s heart twist in his chest. “After tonight, all things are possible,” she says, almost in a whisper. “That’s what Mum said just before she left. I hope that’s true.”
Draco laces his fingers through Harry’s. “It is,” he says firmly.
For long moments, the room is silent. Harry grips Draco’s hand tightly and allows the feeling of quiet warmth to wash over him as he watches his friends exchanging bright, genuine smiles. Ron puts his arm around Hermione and kisses Rose on the top of the head. Nisha hugs her knees and beams at them.
“Dog!” Rose declares, clapping her hands. “Want dog yes!”
Sparks barks lustily and leaps from the sofa, skidding across the floor and coming to a stop at Rose’s feet. As he and Rose are praised extravagantly for their feat of communication, Harry collects the empty teacups and takes the tray into the kitchen. After a moment, Nisha follows him, ducking out of the living room just as a rather heated discussion stirs into life behind her.
“Ron, it must have been you!” Hermione insists.
“When would I have done it?” he demands, apparently wounded.
“Well, it wasn’t me,” Draco says, and Harry doesn’t believe him. He has no idea what crime has been committed in his absence, but he is willing to bet that Draco has had something to do with it.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
Nisha glances at the door with an amused smile. “Someone put Moutho Burno in Hermione’s tea when she wasn’t looking.”
“Draco,” Harry says wearily.
Nisha shakes her head. “No, I’m afraid it was me. But I thought it was Draco’s cup,” she admits.
Harry grins. “Brilliant. They’ll be arguing for hours.”
“Probably. Listen, Harry... I just wanted to say it again... thank you for being so nice to my mother,” Nisha says, fiddling with the edges of her sleeves. “I gave her a present, you know,” she adds before Harry can once again reassure her that being nice to her mother had been no trouble at all. “Do you think that’s really stupid?”
“Of course not.” The kettle whistles and Harry turns away to pour the tea. “What did you get her?”
“Remember the stall with the cloak pins? As soon as Hermione gave me that money for looking after Rose, I went back and...” Nisha laughs guiltily. “Just in case.”
Harry turns around, catching her embarrassed little cringe. “It is never stupid to hope, I promise you.”
Nisha smiles. “She loves cloak pins. She’s got a whole collection of them.”
“Perhaps you did it yourself,” Draco says loudly. “Has anyone considered that?”
“Aha!” Ron cries, and Hermione groans.
“Why would I put horrible hot sauce in my own cup of tea?”
Nisha wrinkles her nose and stares at the door for a moment before turning back to Harry, eyes suddenly bright with secret joy. Slowly, she pushes up her sleeve and shows him a multicoloured bracelet made from strands of what appears to be embroidery floss.
“Me and Mum used to make these for each other when I was really little—before my brothers and my sister were born,” she explains, turning the little bracelet on her wrist. “It’s a friendship bracelet. Whenever we fell out, one of us would make one to show the other that we were sorry. It means... she wants to be friends again,” Nisha says, eyes bright with tears.
Harry’s eyes sting as though in sympathy. He has no idea what to say, so he says nothing, just steps across the kitchen and hugs her tightly. She hugs back, strong hands gripping his jumper fabric and soft hair brushing his face.
“Hermione, put that down,” Ron says warily, and Harry and Nisha pull apart.
“Tea,” Harry says, quickly reassembling the tray.
“Good idea,” Nisha agrees, holding open the door and then following him into the fray.
Two hours later, Ron, Hermione and Rose step into the fireplace and leave for home, having consumed a healthy portion of leftovers, drunk multiple pots of tea, and thoroughly embarrassed Harry and Draco by telling them all the things Molly and Arthur have said about them in their absence. They are still bickering as they disappear into the green flames, both refusing to believe Nisha’s confession regarding the hot sauce and both still convinced that the other had been to blame.
“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of a domestic spat,” Draco says, stretching and getting to his feet. “Now, who fancies a walk?”
Nisha grimaces, shifting position on the sofa just enough to let Sparks roll over in his sleep. “No, thanks. I don’t think I can even move. Why did I eat that turkey sandwich?”
“Because Draco makes the best leftover sandwiches in the world?” Harry suggests.
“You only want me for my sandwiches,” Draco says sulkily, putting on his coat and trying to hide a smile as he selects one of his new scarves to wear.
“Don’t worry, Draco, Sparks and I want you for your brain,” Nisha promises, yawning widely.
Harry scrambles to his feet and shrugs into his coat. “Good luck with that,” he mutters, grinning at Draco’s mumbled ‘bugger off’ and following him out onto the staircase.
They step out of the shop into a cold, silent world of softly falling snowflakes and coloured lights glimmering in the darkness. The whole street smells of cooking and winter and contentment and Harry breathes it in deeply. At his side, Draco rubs his gloved hands together and looks up and down the cobbled street.
“Anywhere you like,” Harry says easily, and when Draco starts walking, he follows, quickly falling into step beside him.
Draco grins. “Anywhere?”
Harry glances at him. “Within reason. I’m still very, very full.”
“We’d better make it your bedroom tonight, then... just in case you come to a complete standstill.” Draco pauses, head tilted on one side. “Our bedroom?” he muses, seemingly to himself.
“If you like,” Harry says, hiding a smile in the collar of his coat. “Why mine?”
“It’s bigger,” Draco says simply.
Harry frowns and wipes a snowflake from his glasses. “Draco... they are exactly the same.”
“No, yours is six inches larger in both directions,” Draco says.
“And you know this how?”
“I measured before we moved in, of course,” Draco says, glancing at Harry as though this should be self-evident.
Harry shakes his head. After a moment, though, he frowns. “Why did you let me have the bigger room?”
Draco says nothing, suddenly becoming very interested in making sure that the ends of his scarf are exactly aligned against his coat. His serious expression—eyebrows drawn down, eyes narrowed, mouth pressed thin—is so earnest that Harry can’t help but smile. Maybe he will never know just how long this man has been everything to him; all he can really do is ensure that he is never again so fucking stupid.
In the interests of avoiding such a fate, he stops, pulls Draco to him and kisses him, sliding his fingers over cold skin and soft hair, gasping when Draco smiles against his mouth and drags him closer. The snow falls around them, landing silently on coats and scarves and eyelashes, Draco’s gloved fingers are rough and warm against his face, and somewhere nearby, someone is trying not to laugh.
Slowly, they step apart, and Harry spots their spectator without too much trouble. Standing outside the Leaky Cauldron, just ten feet or so away from them, is Jean. She beams at them and exhales a long plume of fragrant smoke from an elaborately decorated meerschaum pipe.
“Hello, boys,” she says, sounding amused. “Merry Christmas.”
“Hello, Jean,” Draco says, sweeping his hair from his eyes and attempting to regain his composure. Harry just flushes and offers her a sheepish smile.
“Bit cold out for a walk, isn’t it?” the old lady says, puffing away on her pipe.
“That’s a little bit rich coming from the woman who is standing in the snow without a coat on,” Draco says, indicating her thin blouse and pleated skirt.
“Just getting some fresh air,” she says, and when their eyes stray to her pipe, she laughs. “Well, some peace, maybe. Mr Borteg’s at the piano, you see.”
“I thought he was pretty good,” Harry says, puzzled. He has heard Mr Borteg play several times before and has always regarded him as some kind of virtuoso.
“Oh, he is,” Jean says, “but I can’t say the same for the rest of the rabble.” She pushes the door open with her shoulder, allowing the loud, tuneless singing of the Leaky’s customers to seep out onto the street.
“I’ve heard worse,” Draco says. “You wouldn’t believe the noises this one makes in his sleep.”
“Is that right, love?” Jean says calmly, blowing her smoke straight up into the cold air. “I suppose you’d better come in, then.”
With that, she turns and walks back into the pub, leaving the door flapping behind her. Harry and Draco glance at the warm, lively interior of the Leaky and then at each other.
“What do you think?” Harry asks.
“I think it’s Christmas, and as such, it is time to sing,” Draco says gravely, and, without another word, he threads his fingers through Harry’s and pulls him inside.