“She’s got a customer,” Hermione murmurs, squinting against her Omnioculars and peering at the entrance to the shop across the street, where a tall, distinguished-looking wizard is glancing around and then stepping inside.
Harry strengthens the field of the Notice-Me-Not charm around them. “I’ve seen him before.”
“He’s on the board at St Mungo’s,” Hermione says distractedly as she attempts to follow the movements of the man inside the shop.
Harry snorts and gazes for the hundredth time this week at the tatty old wooden sign that hangs above the shop door.
Muriel’s Oceanic Aquaria, he reads, and smiles to himself as Hermione’s voice filters into his head.
“It doesn’t even make sense,” she’d complained upon first seeing the sign. “From what I can see, all her fish are freshwater. She doesn’t even have anything from the ocean.”
Harry hadn’t really thought it mattered at the time, and he doesn’t now, but some part of him respects Hermione’s need for logic. It’s part of what makes them such a fantastic fit as Auror partners—she brings the logic and the cool-headed reason, and he brings... well, he brings something. The ability to see the big picture, perhaps, like the fact that the accuracy of fish shop signs is somewhat irrelevant when the fish shop in question isn’t really a fish shop at all, but the front for a very successful Chromia-dealing business.
They have been watching Muriel for almost two weeks now, and have finally collected enough first-hand evidence to move in, just as soon as the time is right. They have watched her take deliveries from far-flung companies like Malaysian AquaTech, Underwater World [Jaipur] and the Djakarta River Fish Company; they have watched her customers, numerous and wealthy, come and go; they have followed her on bank-runs and to high-end cauldron emporiums.
What they haven’t seen is a single person coming out of the shop with a fish.
“Here he comes,” Hermione says, touching Harry’s arm.
Together, they watch the tall man emerging from the shop and making his way briskly down the street and out of sight.
“Shop’s empty,” Harry mutters. “I say we go now.”
Hermione stows away her Omnioculars and nods. “You signal Angelina and David, tell them to meet me behind the hedge again,” she calls, and then she is gone in a flap of robes and a whisk of curls.
Harry watches her out of sight and then turns out of the wind to perform the familiar signal that will call his colleagues from their warm offices. As he turns back, the tiniest flash of movement catches his eye. Frowning, he looks up and down the street, shrugging after a moment and jogging to catch up with the others, who have now emerged from behind the hedge and are marching on Muriel’s Oceanic Aquaria, wands held in the standard concealed-and-ready position.
As they burst through the door, two at a time, everything seems to happen at once. Muriel swears loudly at the sight of them and ducks behind the counter, allowing Hermione’s Stunning spell to rebound harmlessly off a large poster depicting various aquatic plants.
“What in the name of fuck is going on here?” someone demands, and Harry spins around on instinct, wand drawn, only to find himself looking into a familiar but completely unexpected face.
“Malfoy?” he demands, as Angelina and Hermione crash past Muriel and into the back room.
“I thought the place was clear!” David yells, slashing his wand violently as Muriel fires a nasty-looking spell at him from behind the counter.
Harry glances at Malfoy for another fraction of a second, taking in smart dark clothes and worried eyes and a hand clutching a box of pond fish pellets, before he leaps to cover David, throwing up a shield and raising his voice above the banging and clattering coming from the back room.
“We thought it was! We were—fuck!” he gasps, ducking and firing back at Muriel, who seems to be a better dueller than she is a shopkeeper.
Something hits him in the knee and he drops, biting down on a howl of pain and flinging an Incarcerous blindly at the counter. In the strange, murky green light, he clutches his knee and looks around wildly, just in time to see a vicious spell flying towards Malfoy and missing him by inches.
“Claro Prospectego!” David yells, and Malfoy disappears completely.
Furious and in agony, Harry grits his teeth and throws out another Incarcerous. This time the spell hits home, but not before a jet of red light flashes across the shop and knocks David to the floor with a sickening crash. Ignoring the pain in his knee as best he can, Harry calls out for the others and drags himself over to David’s prone body.
Angelina sprints out of the back room and drops to her knees next to her partner. She clutches a corked bottle of Chromia to her chest and stares at Harry, wild-eyed.
“He’s breathing,” Harry says, sagging slightly as he presses his fingers to David’s wrist and feels his pulse, strong and steady beneath his skin.
Angelina sits back on her heels and lets her head drop back in relief. Hermione conjures a Patronus and sends it ahead to St Mungo’s while Harry casts a spell to lighten David’s motionless body.
“What happened?” she asks as they wait, brushing a sweet-smelling powder from her robes.
“Malfoy,” Harry says, feeling dazed. The pain in his knee is easing slightly, though whether from adrenaline or weak spellwork, he isn’t sure.
Angelina looks up, dark eyebrows knitted. “What are you talking about, Malfoy?”
“He disappeared,” Harry murmurs, looking around as though expecting to see him standing among the shelves and tanks. “He was here and he just disappeared.”
“You can’t disappear from here, there are anti-Apparation wards,” Hermione says.
“Well, he did,” Harry sighs, shrugging.
“Do you think he was here to buy Chromia?” Angelina asks suddenly. “I mean, we know she sells mainly to the wealthy and influential... he’s probably right in her target market.”
Harry opens his mouth to agree and then closes it again. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “He was buying fish food—I saw it in his hand.”
Angelina looks dubious, but Harry drags himself to his feet and limps over to where he last saw Malfoy. Sure enough, there is the box of pond fish pellets, just lying there on its side as though it has been abandoned in a hurry. He picks it up and throws it to Hermione, who catches it neatly.
“Maybe he didn’t know,” she says, eyebrows drawn down in contemplation. “Maybe he thought it was a real fish shop. Has he got any fish?”
“There’s a pond on the grounds of the Manor,” Angelina says, getting to her feet as the staff from St Mungo’s begin to arrive. “My dad did some landscaping work for them a couple of years ago. Over here,” she calls to the Healer and his team. Pointing over at a still-struggling Muriel, she adds: “She’s the one who cursed him—take her wand for diagnostics. I’ll write out a slip for it.”
After a brief discussion, Harry and Hermione agree to return to the Ministry with Muriel to begin the interrogation and inevitable paperwork, while Angelina accompanies her partner to the hospital. When the shop is quiet once more, Harry hobbles over to the nearest wall of tanks and peers at the colourful fish inside.
“You should get that looked at,” Hermione says, but he ignores her.
If Malfoy really did disappear, and he didn’t Disapparate, logic dictates that he has to still be around here somewhere. And these fish are the only witnesses to what really happened to him.
“Shall we collect up this evidence and get back, then?” Hermione says hopefully.
“Yeah... in a minute.” He turns around to face her, frowning. “Where did he go, ’Mione?”
“I don’t know,” she says, expression darkening with the admission. “Tell me again what happened.”
Harry pulls himself up onto the counter, gazing down at Muriel’s furious face as he thinks. Carefully, he walks Hermione through everything that had taken place while she and Angelina had been investigating the back room.
“So then she shot a curse at Malfoy... it missed him, and David... David cast something right before he disappeared,” Harry says suddenly, casting around for the exact words before Hermione can ask for them. “It was something like... claro prospero?”
Hermione blinks. “Ah.”
“What do you mean, ‘ah’? Do you know what it does?” Harry asks.
“Well, it’s a plain sight spell. Claro Prospectego... it’s a way to protect something by hiding it out in the open,” Hermione explains, beginning to look around at the tanks of fish.
Harry stares at her. He thinks he may be beginning to understand, and he’s not sure that any of this is going to end well... for him or for Malfoy.
“Are you saying that David tried to protect Malfoy by turning him into a fish?” he asks weakly, scrubbing at his hair and hoping as hard as he can that he has this all the wrong way up.
“I think so,” Hermione says, scanning the tanks with the confidence of someone who can pick out a Draco Malfoy fish without any problem at all. “He probably panicked, and no wonder; he wasn’t expecting to find a civilian in the middle of this.”
“Hmm,” Harry says, pushing down a twinge of guilt. Of course, if that little flicker in his peripheral vision had been Malfoy entering the shop, then the whole fish transformation debacle is probably his fault, and fucking hell, Malfoy is going to be furious. “Maybe you should be looking for an angry fish,” he says helpfully.
“Maybe you should be helping me look,” Hermione shoots back.
Harry stares at the back of her head for a few seconds and then capitulates, walking stiffly to the other side of the shop and working his way back towards Hermione, bending and staring into each tank in turn, looking hard at every fish he sees. He only wishes he knew what he was supposed to be looking for.
He is surprised and heartened to realise that Muriel’s fish are in pretty good shape. Their little eyes are bright, their fins flowing and healthy, their water clear and full of tiny air bubbles. He isn’t any kind of expert on the subject but he has always liked fish, and by the time he makes it halfway across the shop floor he has almost managed to forget his weird task and instead has begun to enjoy gazing in on all the little underwater worlds. He visits fat, shiny goldfish, darting, colourful guppies and long, smooth eel-like creatures with funny little bristles on the ends. He taps gently on the glass to flailing suckermouths and raptly watches shoals of tiny, neon-bright fish as they swarm in and out of waving green fronds. He gazes with interest at a tank completely devoted to snails of all shapes and sizes and colours.
When Hermione speaks, her voice seems to come from very far away.
“I think I’ve found him,” she says, and something in her tone suggests that there is little doubt in her mind.
Harry goes to join her with some trepidation, leaning down to the bottom row of tanks and peering inside. It is immediately obvious to him that Hermione’s suspicions are correct. Amid the gliding group of elegant, see-through fish, one specimen is making itself rather noticeable. The little fish lacks the quiet grace of its brothers and sisters and seems to be struggling to maintain an even bearing, flailing fins in all directions and attempting to swim to the top of the tank over and over again with very little success.
“I think that’s him,” Harry says after a moment, watching with something almost like empathy as the fish flings itself against the glass and sinks to the bottom, gasping.
“What are you doing?” Hermione entreats, pressing her fingers to the glass and addressing the little fish directly.
One sharp little eye swivels in her direction before the fish once more attempts to leap from the water.
“I think he’s trying to breathe,” Harry says. “Panicking, probably. Do you think he can hear us?”
The fish pauses in its flailing to fix Harry with a silvery eye. It’s his first withering look from a fish and in truth, it’s quite unsettling.
“Calm down, Draco,” Hermione says soothingly, but as she darts a glance at Harry, the anxiety in her eyes is plain to see.
The fish flicks its small, forked tail and twitches the two long barbels that are attached at its mouth. Clearly it—and he really needs to start referring to it as Malfoy—is not very impressed at all, and Harry isn’t quite sure what he can do about that.
“Can we reverse the spell?” he asks without much hope.
Hermione wrinkles her nose. “I can try, but these sorts of protective spells can usually only be released by the caster.”
“That’s what I thought,” Harry sighs, throwing a half-arsed Silencio at Muriel, who has started swearing and gnashing her teeth once more. “You can wait a minute, unless you want me to add wilful endangerment of civilians to the list. Give it a go, ’Mione.”
Taking a deep breath, Hermione focuses on the Draco fish and casts, surrounding the tank in a mesh of clean, white light. The water slops violently for a moment, sending the little catfishes into disarray, but when the spell clears, leaving behind a soft mist and a slight scent of burning, Draco is still there, hovering unsteadily front and centre, and looking, if possible, even crosser than before.
“I don’t think he liked that,” he says faintly.
“No,” Hermione agrees, tucking her wand away.
For a long time, she, Harry and the Malfoy fish just stare at each other in silence, until they are interrupted by the arrival of Angelina’s Patronus.
“David’s still unconscious but they’re using Muriel’s wand to reverse-engineer the curse she used—apparently it’s one of her own creation, so he might be out of action for a while, but he’s going to be okay,” the ghostly shape informs them, and Harry and Hermione exchange relieved glances.
“I suppose we’d better get back to HQ,” Harry says, starting towards Muriel.
“What about the—what about Malfoy?” Hermione whispers.
Harry turns back to the tank. The other fish have resumed their calm shoaling, but Malfoy is still darting frantically at the front, contorting his long, shiny body and leaping for the inch or two of air at the top of the tank.
“What about him?” he says, affecting indifference. Of course, he knows exactly what about him, and he has a sinking feeling that he knows what is coming—Hermione’s stern expression and the lurch of guilt in the pit of his stomach are telling a fairly compelling story.
“Somebody’s going to have to—” she begins, but he holds up a hand to silence her.
“I’ll get a bag.”
With the Oceanic Aquaria/Chromia dealership secured and Muriel safely at Auror HQ with Hermione, Harry finds himself alone in his kitchen with an emergency cup of tea and a very angry fish. Malfoy the fish sits on the counter top in his bag full of water and stares balefully at Harry as he picks through the assortment of fish food he had grabbed just before Hermione had chivvied him out of the shop and over to the hedge to Disapparate.
“Sinking pellets for algae eaters,” he reads aloud from the tub in his hand. “Are you an algae eater?”
The fish wriggles and jabs his snout against the soft plastic of the bag. Malfoy makes a particularly pointy fish, and Harry wonders idly if that’s a coincidence or if the spell is clever enough to take in to account the subject’s physical characteristics.
“I’ll take that as a no,” he says, putting down the tub and reaching for his cup of tea. “How about a wafer?”
Malfoy swivels his eyes and turns his back on Harry completely, showing an apparent fascination with Harry’s terracotta tiles and his bread bin with the wrappers poking out.
Harry picks up the next container just as a whoosh of green flames materialises in the fireplace.
“Hello, Auror Potter,” Kingsley booms, and Harry sets the tub down carefully. Kingsley might be an old friend, but he is also Harry’s boss and not usually taken to appearing in his kitchen fireplace without warning. Harry moves closer to the fire and hopes pointlessly that his kitchen doesn’t appear as messy through the Floo Network as it does in real life.
“Hi, Kingsley,” he says at last, relieved when the face in the fire splits into a wide grin.
“I have been talking to your partner,” he says, dark eyes gleaming. “Good work in capturing your dealer, and I hear Auror Clyde is going to make a full recovery.”
“Yes, I heard that, too,” Harry says, waiting for what he knows is coming.
“I hear you have a fishy little problem,” Kingsley says gleefully.
Harry sighs, reaching over to grab the bag containing Draco and showing to it Kingsley.
“Yep. Here he is. All two and half inches of him.”
“Hello there, Mr Malfoy,” he says with the utmost seriousness before turning back to Harry and grinning once more. “I have had an extremely tedious week, Harry, but I believe your current predicament may just have rescued it.”
“My predicament?” Harry asks, clutching the bag more tightly as Malfoy begins to repeatedly throw himself against the plastic.
“I wondered if you’d heard,” Kingsley says, and there’s a note of amusement in his voice that Harry doesn’t like one bit. “You have been appointed as Mr Malfoy’s guardian until such time as he is returned to his human form.”
“What? No! I was going to take him to the Manor and let his mother deal with him,” Harry protests.
“Ah, no. I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Narcissa Malfoy is currently recovering from Vanishing Sickness. She is being cared for by relatives in the south of France,” Kingsley says, shooting a quick glance at Malfoy when he stops throwing himself around and seems to start listening to the conversation. “With no living relatives in the country, and in light of the circumstances of his transformation, it has been decided that Mr Malfoy... such that he is... should be placed in the care of the Auror Department for the time being.”
Harry stares at his boss, open-mouthed. “Right,” he says at last, throat dry. “And it’s me because...?”
“Don’t be like that, Harry... I think you’ll enjoy yourself,” Kingsley says, clearly delighted.
Harry regards the odd little catfish with bemusement. “Oh, will I?”
“Your partner seemed to think so when she recommended you for the job,” Kingsley says.
“I’m going to kill her,” Harry mumbles to himself.
“That’s the spirit,” Kingsley declares, making to withdraw from the fire. “Don’t forget—all of your open cases have been suspended or reassigned—your job is to take care of that fish.”
“But I—” Harry attempts, just as Kingsley disappears.
Infuriated, he drops back into his chair at the table and props Malfoy’s bag up against the fruit bowl.
“This is all your fault,” he snaps.
Malfoy’s left eye swivels contemptuously.
“No, it really is! What the hell were you doing in that shop? It wasn’t even a real shop! What kind of Slytherin couldn’t figure that out?”
Unsurprisingly, Malfoy says nothing. Instead, he ruffles the long fin under his belly importantly and then turns away from Harry.
Harry sighs and covers his face with his hands. He’s exhausted. He and Hermione have been on stake-out all week long and he’s still been in the office every spare minute filling in paperwork and running between strategy meetings. If he’s honest, it hasn’t only been this week. He’s been rushed off his feet for as long as he can remember, and while he loves his job, he thinks he might like a moment to catch his breath, or at least long enough to know what fucking day of the week it currently is. It’s the fifth of October, he knows that much, but the natural rhythm of days, weeks and months seems to have been lost somehow.
Leaving Malfoy on the table, he pokes around in his kitchen drawers until he finds the calendar sent by the local Chinese takeaway. He searches out the date and learns that today is a Saturday. Somehow this doesn’t make him feel any better. In fact, he feels a little bit worse for having had no idea that he was working a weekend yet again. The worst part is knowing that he can’t even use the old ‘I’m an Auror—it’s the job’ excuse. Hermione works just as hard as he does but she always knows what day it is and also seems to have achieved that mythical ‘work/life balance’ thing that their trainers always used to harp on about back in the day. She works the missions, fills in her paperwork, goes to meetings, sees a wide circle of friends, goes to evening classes in everything from car maintenance to Zumba, and still manages—with Ron, of course—to maintain a healthy marriage and raise a bright, happy child.
If she weren’t his partner and one of his best friends in the world, it would be sickening, because what does he do? He works, works, and works a bit more... he’s pretty sure there’s some eating and sleeping in there, as well as the occasional Ministry do and regular dinners at the Burrow, but really, the whole thing is pretty pathetic. He can’t even remember the last time he went on a date, not that he’s ever been very good at that sort thing, all best behaviour and too much wine and having to laugh at jokes that aren’t even very funny.
He sighs. It could be worse, he supposes. He could be a fish in a bag.
When he looks over at Malfoy again, the little catfish is looking right back. Harry slumps onto the table on folded arms, lowering his chin to rest there and making himself eye-level with the fish. He hasn’t ever seen a fish quite like this one, and he finally allows himself a moment to take in the detail of the long, curved, transparent body, the delicate lines of the spine and the silvery section behind the head where he supposes the organs must go. When the long barbels twitch, Harry jumps slightly, as though he has been caught doing something he shouldn’t.
“You’re very pretty, Malfoy,” he says, smiling against the rough fabric of his sleeve.
The fish floats silently, giving Harry a look that surely must be the fishy equivalent of raising an eyebrow.
Harry raises one back. It’s funny, he thinks, he and Malfoy have been on perfectly polite speaking terms for years now, but Harry has never found him easy to talk to. Perhaps it’s because Malfoy never lets him finish his sentences, or perhaps it’s because there’s something intimidating about the man these days that makes Harry all tongue-tied, which in turn means that his sentences always take longer to finish than they should. Perhaps it’s the fact that, to everyone’s surprise but Harry’s, Malfoy has turned out handsome and successful, popping up all over the place in his dark, elegant clothes to promote and represent more business interests than Harry can keep in his head.
Or maybe it’s just that it’s hard to know how to talk to someone you used to hate, but now just don’t know. Harry hasn’t even disliked Malfoy for years now, but he still isn’t quite sure what to do with him.
Still, he thinks that had he ever wanted to talk to Malfoy, now would be the time, because there is nothing intimidating or confusing about a fish in a bag. Sort of.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” he says after a moment’s thought.
The fish dips its head slowly.
“Were you really just buying fish food in there?”
The fish dips its head again.
“Wrong place, wrong time,” Harry sighs. “The thing is, I actually saw...”
“Harry! Is it true?” Ron calls from the fireplace.
“What have you heard?” Harry asks, turning in his chair.
“That Draco Malfoy’s been turned into a fish and you’re stuck looking after him?”
“In that case, yes, it’s true,” Harry says, trying not to scowl at his best friend. It’s not Ron’s fault. “Did Hermione tell you?”
“Nope, haven’t seen her all day,” Ron says cheerfully.
“Then how has it already got all the way to Magical Games and Sports?” Harry demands. He knows that the Ministry gossip mill is a force to be reckoned with but this is ridiculous.
“I don’t know. Alesta heard it in the lift from someone from Improper Use.”
“Brilliant,” Harry sighs.
“Sorry, mate.” Ron wrinkles his freckled nose. “Is he behaving himself?”
Harry doesn’t know how to answer that question. How exactly does a small, transparent catfish misbehave? On the other hand, when that small, transparent catfish is a Malfoy, he suspects that it will find a way.
As soon as Ron signs off with a promise to come over as soon as he can, Harry’s fireplace is once again occupied, this time by Millie, who informs him that his new duties are the talk of the Unspeakables’ break room. Harry is only halfway down his next cup of tea when the green flames make a return, this time carrying the message that the Goblin Liaison Office hopes he ‘manages to keep his head above water in his new position’.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he tells Malfoy. “This is all your fault.”
Malfoy whisks his barbels nonchalantly and Jimbo from the Ministry front desk appears in the flames, beaming through his thick beard and reminding Harry that ‘there’s no plaice like home... geddit... plaice?!’
Ginny’s call brings news that the fish incident has spread beyond the Ministry.
“Some of the goblins are actually discussing what they should do if Malfoy comes in... as a fish... and tries to take money out of his vault!”
By mid-afternoon, Harry is thoroughly fed up. “The next person who turns up in that fireplace and tells me a fish pun...” he mumbles, just as the flames turn green again. “What?!” he demands, spinning around to face the grate with arms folded across his chest.
“Oh... is this a bad time?” asks a slightly startled Andromeda.
Harry pulls in a deep breath and shakes his head. “No, I’m sorry. This afternoon’s been a bit of a trial. Is everything okay?”
“Isn’t that what I should be asking you?” she says, and her warm smile calms his frazzled nerves.
“No, I’m fine, I promise. Just work stuff, you know.”
“Well, if you’re sure... I was just wondering if Teddy could come over a little bit earlier tonight. I know we said seven but Alun has tickets for a show and we need to set off at half past six,” Andromeda says, smile widening as she talks about the new man in her life.
“That’s absolutely fine. How is Alun, by the way?” Harry asks in an attempt to hide the fact that he had completely forgotten agreeing to look after Teddy. Malfoy-fish or not, he isn’t about to let Andromeda down when she’s finally found someone who makes her happy.
“Too good to be true,” Andromeda sighs. “It’s only a matter of time before I find out that he’s a troll in disguise or that he reads Rita Skeeter articles.”
Harry laughs, and when he finally walks away from the fireplace, he feels a little better.
“Now,” he mutters, looking at Malfoy, “where are we going to put you?”
“Why on earth is he in your bath?” Hermione asks.
“I couldn’t keep him in that bag forever, could I?” Harry says a little defensively. Malfoy is swimming up and down the tub quite happily now; he seems to have acclimatised to his new shape and is no longer leaping out of the water, much to Harry’s relief.
“Isn’t he cold?” Ron asks, perching on the edge of the bath.
Harry trails a hand through the water and shakes his head. “No. He sort of flung himself about until I hit the right temperature, and I’ve spelled it to stay that way. I put some of this treatment stuff in as well,” he explains, pulling a small blue bottle from his jeans pocket. “He seems happy enough.”
“It’s just... it doesn’t seem quite sanitary, somehow,” Hermione says, frowning.
“He’s a fish,” Ron laughs. “What does that matter?”
Hermione glances at the toilet and rolls her eyes. Harry hides a smile.
“Hermione, I have plenty of other bathrooms. I promise not to use this one for... erm, anything but fish purposes until Malfoy leaves.”
“Hmm,” Hermione huffs. “I just think that if you’re going to look after an animal...”
“Don’t you dare,” Harry jumps in, pulling his hand from the water and drying it on his jeans. “You volunteered me for this, and don’t pretend you didn’t. Kingsley told me.”
Hermione’s face falls. “Oh, dear. I didn’t think he’d do that.”
“Hello, Malfoy,” Ron says loudly, absenting himself from the conversation and kneeling down to watch the little catfish. “How’s life treating you?”
Harry leans against the wall next to his friend. The cool tiles press against his back, sending shivers over his skin.
“Let’s have it then.”
Hermione frowns. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Harry snorts. “Yes, you do. Everything you do is for a reason, and I want to know what you’re up to.”
Hermione glances at him guiltily. “Well, I thought it would do you good. You need a break—you haven’t had a holiday for ages.”
“This is not a holiday, Hermione,” Harry says, incredulous.
“What are you doing with those?” Ron asks, bringing his fingers up to his chin and imitating the flicker of Malfoy’s barbels.
“A change is as good as a rest,” she says uncertainly. “My grandma used to say that.”
“So, this is an intervention,” Harry laughs, amused in spite of himself.
“Of course not, it’s a... oh, I don’t know, Harry,” Hermione says, picking at her cardigan sleeves and frowning. “That being said, you are still a bit funny when it comes to Malfoy.”
“A bit funny?” Harry echoes, eyebrows in his hairline. “I am not a bit funny. What do you mean, a bit funny?”
Hermione gives him a long look. “I mean that you’re oversensitive about him. Just a little bit, Harry, it’s really not a big deal,” she says lightly.
Harry’s heart gives an unpleasant lurch. “It’s not my fault he’s difficult,” he whispers, suddenly very aware of the fact that Malfoy is sitting three feet away in the bath and probably listening to their conversation with interest.
“What are you swimming around in circles for, you daft bastard?” Ron says to the bathtub.
“Alright, I think that’s enough fish visiting time for one day,” Harry says, steering Ron and Hermione out onto the landing and down the stairs to the kitchen. He’ll be buggered if he’s going to let Hermione make him feel weird about something that is at least a little bit her fault, and besides, Malfoy definitely doesn’t need the extra attention. It’ll only go to his tiny little silver head.
“You should call Neville,” Ron says as they sit by the fire and drink coffee a few minutes later. “He knows all about fish.”
“I didn’t think of that,” Harry admits, dunking a biscuit into his coffee and watching the chocolate melt onto his fingers. “Pond fish are a bit different, though, aren’t they?”
Hermione pokes at the fire and the flames burn brightly. “He’s got all sorts of fish now, not just pond fish. Last time I went to see him he had a great big tank in his living room. I bet he’ll know what sort of fish you’ve got... I mean, what sort of fish Draco is.”
“That just sounds stranger every time I hear it,” Harry says, glancing up at the ceiling and wondering if Malfoy is alright up there in the bath, all by himself. Just as quickly as the thought had arrived, he shakes it away, focusing instead on Ron and Hermione’s discussion of Neville’s new fish, and the inevitable debate about which of their friends they should attempt to set him up with next.
They are just stepping into the fireplace when Andromeda, done up to the nines in a beautiful blue dress and matching robes, arrives with Teddy, and Harry takes the opportunity, while the others are catching up, to race up the stairs and check on Draco. Malfoy. The fish. He’s absolutely fine, and Harry feels ridiculous for worrying, but there’s no doubt that he is more relaxed than before as he fetches more tea and biscuits and settles in for a night of board games with his godson.
Teddy is in a particularly effervescent mood and it doesn’t take long for his cheerfulness to rub off on Harry. As Teddy sorts through the games in their battered, well-used boxes, Harry sits cross-legged on the thick hearthrug and watches him, amused by the deeply serious expression of concentration on the young face. Anyone would think that he hadn’t played all of these games with Uncle Harry hundreds of times before, but Harry knows better than to interfere with the selection ritual.
Finally, Teddy chooses Cluedo and settles on the other side of the coffee table to set up the board. Harry always wins at this particular game, even when he’s trying not to, because his opponent’s hair has the habit of changing colours whenever Harry gets a little too close to the solution.
“You’re just so good at this game,” Teddy sighs, hair fading from vivid green to pale blond as he takes the cards from their little envelope and confirms Harry’s easy win.
“It’s just luck, I promise,” Harry says, hiding a smile in his tea mug. “Let’s do chess next, you always thrash me at that.”
“Are you sure?” Teddy asks, eyes turning deep blue with concern. “Grandma said I should be extra nice to you because you’d had a hard time at work this week.”
“Did she now?” Harry murmurs, exasperated but touched by the earnest expression on the face of his favourite ten-and-a-half-year-old. It’s nice to know he’s cared for, even though he is quite capable of looking after himself. He thinks. It’s probably only a matter of time before Molly appears in his fireplace, fussing over him and offering to fish-sit.
Teddy looks up from setting up the chess pieces. “She did, and I think I’m always nice to you,” he says, sounding indignant.
“You are, Ted, you’re lovely to me. Grandmas just need something to worry about, and this week, I suppose it’s me,” Harry says.
Teddy smiles and a scarlet streak snakes through his messy fringe. “I think old people worry more... you don’t, though,” he adds, and Harry isn’t quite sure whether to take the statement as a compliment or an insult.
“I’m not old,” he says eventually, moving his knight across the board.
Teddy wrinkles his nose. “Aren’t you nearly thirty?”
“Not for a couple more years, but thanks,” Harry says. “And just for that, I’m taking your pawn.”
Apparently unconcerned by this move, Teddy chews on a custard cream and scans the board. He has been playing chess with Ron since he was old enough to stand the pieces the right way up, and Harry knows there is no hope. By the time Harry has emptied his mug, Teddy has lined up a veritable graveyard of black pieces alongside the board and is moving in on Harry’s king.
Seconds later, he concedes, and Teddy reaches for the Scrabble box, leaving Harry to clear up the miniature battlefield. He tips the pieces into the green, felt-lined box and folds it neatly, breathing in the comforting scent of wood and varnish that has come, in recent years, to be associated with defeat at the hands of a small child.
Scrabble is definitely more his game, though what he’s really waiting for is Gobstones, which offers the sort of helpless laughter and brazen mess-making that one can only really get away with when there is a child present.
When Teddy plays SHARK on a double word score for twenty-four points, Harry’s thoughts turn immediately towards the second floor bathroom, where a much smaller, much grumpier fish is cruising up and down his antique roll-top bathtub.
“Need a wee,” Teddy announces, turning his letter rack to face Harry as he jumps up and scurries out of the room.
Harry opens his mouth to yell ‘don’t go upstairs!’ but closes it when he hears the slam of the door belonging to the bathroom just down the hall. Just as well, really, he doesn’t want Teddy to think he has gone completely mad in his old age.
Levering himself to his feet, he grabs the cups, catching sight of Teddy’s letters just as he turns to head for the kitchen.
HOT CHOC, the tiles implore, and Harry laughs. In the kitchen, he stirs the milk on the stove and rotates his own letters in his mind, picturing the board and seeking out the most valuable use of his tiles. Teddy may be good at finding weird and wonderful words, but Harry has discovered a useful little talent for strategy, cramming small words into small spaces, making the most of bonus squares and pulling in maximum points for minimum letter usage.
He’s just considering adding ‘ITH’ to ‘ZEN’ and bagging himself a triple word score when Teddy wanders into the kitchen. He sniffs the air and grins.
“You got my message!”
“I did indeed. Do you want whipped cream or marshmallows?” Harry asks, even though he knows the answer will be ‘both’. He doesn’t care; in his book, creative use of Scrabble tiles deserves all that and chocolate sprinkles too. He’ll brush his teeth before bed anyway, so... Harry stops.
“Messages,” he mumbles, struck by a slightly odd idea.
“What?” Teddy asks, climbing up on the counter to retrieve the bag of marshmallows and just about snatching them before the flapping cupboard door flattens his hand.
“Nothing,” Harry says, smiling to himself and pouring the delicious-smelling liquid into two mugs. “Just old person stuff.”
As soon as Teddy is safely tucked up in bed (teeth thoroughly brushed), Harry grabs the bag of Scrabble tiles and bounds up the stairs to the second floor bathroom. Malfoy, who has been swimming around in circles, startles at the sight of him. He rises to the surface and hangs there, fixing Harry with expectant little eyes.
“I have an idea,” Harry announces, kneeling on the cold floor by the bath and holding up the bag of tiles.
Malfoy swivels an eye.
Harry sighs, wondering why he continues to be disconcerted by the one-sidedness of these conversations. In truth, it would probably be more disturbing if Malfoy suddenly started answering back. Still, he’s talking to a fish, and he’s not sure how conducive that can be to his mental health.
“Okay, here we go,” he says, and upends the bag, allowing the tiles to pour into the water.
Malfoy takes one look at the little squares of plastic sinking slowly around him and leaps out of the way, splashing water across Harry’s chest and landing impressively at the far end of the bath. Harry bites down hard on a smile at the sight of the twitching barbels and furious little eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he says, forcing a solemn expression. “I promise I’m not trying to murder you. I just thought maybe we could use these to communicate.”
Malfoy flicks his tail petulantly and stays where he is.
“Alright,” Harry shrugs, reaching into the tepid water and turning the tiles until they are all face-up on the bottom of the bath. “You don’t have to talk to me. I just thought you might have something to say. You usually do.”
Malfoy turns slowly in the water and fixes Harry with a sardonic eye. Harry reflects the expression back to him with bells on, trying to ignore just how ludicrous he feels doing so. Finally, he looks away, fixing his eyes on the multicoloured stained glass in his bathroom window and telling himself firmly that he is not going to have a staring contest with a little shiny catfish.
Assuming that Draco is a catfish. He looks like one, with his whiskery barbels and his mournful expression, but Harry can’t be sure. Perhaps he should get on with asking Neville before he makes an even bigger mess of this situation than he already has.
“Right,” he mutters, heaving himself to his feet and heading for the landing, closing the door on Draco and leaving him to his sulking.
He checks on Teddy, who is sleeping peacefully in the moonlight, and walks quietly to his study—or, at least, to the room he thinks of as his study. In reality, it is merely a repository for paperwork, bits of old furniture, and boxes of stuff labelled ‘to sort’, but there is a desk and a chair in amongst the rubble, and Harry manages to clear enough space to extract parchment, quill, and ink, and to perch on the edge of the chair to write what is definitely not a begging letter to Neville. Having given Agatha an owl treat and an affectionate ruffle and sent her on her way with the message, he reluctantly heads back up to the bathroom to check on Malfoy.
Draco. He really should call him by his first name. It’s the least he can do to be friendly after sort of accidentally and indirectly getting him turned into something resembling a catfish.
When he opens the door, he is relieved to see that the little fish is nosing around the tiles. As he draws closer to the bathtub, he catches sight of the impressively neat row of letters that spells out Draco’s first message to him.
NO NO NO NO ON
“On what?” Harry asks, amused.
Draco looks at him, at the tiles, and flicks his forked tail in irritation before nudging the final two tiles around one another until they, too, spell out an emphatic NO.
“Ah, no,” Harry says, resting his forearms on the curved rim of the bath. “No to being a fish? No to being in my bath? No to me in general?”
Draco glides over to the mixed-up tiles and begins to assemble another message:
REVERS, he spells, struggling with the E tile as it keeps escaping from him and flipping over in the water. After a long few seconds, he swims to the surface and leaps, splashing water into Harry’s face.
“I can make those a bit heavier if you want,” Harry offers, drawing his wand and sending the recalcitrant tile sinking back to the bottom of the bath.
Draco nudges the E into place and regards Harry expectantly.
“I can’t reverse it. Only the person who cast it can reverse it, and we have to wait for him to wake up,” Harry says.
WHEN, Draco spells, moving the tiles rapidly and sending them skittering through the water.
Harry sighs. “I don’t know.”
He rests his chin on his forearms and stares down into the water, wishing there was something he could do. For a minute or two, he closes his eyes, suddenly weary, and listens to the swish and clack of Scrabble tiles being rearranged. When he opens them again, Draco is floating at the far end of the bath with his back to Harry, and the letters simply spell out:
Harry opens his mouth to apologise, to argue, to something, but closes it again and gets to his feet. Without another word, he turns out the light and shuts the door, leaving Draco to it. He hovers in the stairway, considering a nice glass of Ogden’s or at least a strong cup of tea, but in the end, he heads to bed, bone-weary and heavy with self-reproach. Draco is angry, that much is clear, and he doesn’t know how he could have expected anything else. He thinks that, were their positions reversed, he might have quite enjoyed seeing what it was like to be a fish, but then, he has never really understood Draco Malfoy, much less the way his odd little mind works.
That being said, he thinks, yawning and crawling into bed, he supposes it’s his job to be the bigger person... creature... whatever, right now. It’s only a little fish.
It’s only Malfoy.
It’s all going to be fine.
Harry sleeps surprisingly well and wakes feeling refreshed as the autumn sunlight spills into his bedroom and the warm smell of toast begins to filter under his door. Teddy is awake and is, as always, ravenous. Stretching and wrapping a soft cotton bathrobe around himself, Harry is just about to head down to the kitchen to join him when he remembers, with an unpleasant jolt, about his other houseguest.
“Bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger,” he mutters, almost tripping over himself in his rush to get to the second floor bathroom, flooded with the horrible thought that Draco has somehow managed to expire in the night. Head full of pure panic and images of Azkaban and eternal shame, he flings open the door and forces himself to look down into the tub.
“Oh, fuck,” he whispers, letting out a long, messy breath.
Draco is swimming in idle loops under the taps and appears to be completely unharmed. The fact that he ignoring Harry barely registers above the tide of relief that swoops through him.
“You’re alive, then,” he says, trying not to seem too excited by the prospect.
Draco has nothing to say, but he has left Harry a rather long message on the bottom of the tub.
TAKE ME TO ST MUNGOS I WILL TELL THEM
WHERE ARE MY CLOTHES POTTER
Harry perches on the end of the bath and rubs a hand over his face, hiding a smile.
“Well, I’m sorry about all that, but I’m not taking a fish in a bag to hospital. I will go and see how David’s doing this afternoon, alright? As for your clothes, I have no idea, but let’s just agree for now that you don’t need them.”
Draco turns around savagely and nudges the tiles until they roughly spell out: NAKED.
“You aren’t naked, Draco, you’re a fish. Fish don’t wear clothes.”
Draco swivels both eyes in turn and dives at the tiles, sending them skating along the bottom of the bath.
“Do you want some toast, Uncle Harry?” Teddy calls from the kitchen, and Harry gets up.
“Coming!” he shouts back, then turns to address the cross little fish. “I’m going to have my breakfast. Eat your flakes.”
When a glowing Andromeda comes to pick up Teddy later that morning, Harry heads back upstairs with his cup of tea to see if Draco has any more messages for him, but the tiles have been nudged and flicked into a messy pile and the little fish is hanging at an odd angle in the water, motionless with head almost touching the surface and transparent body dangling.
Stomach turning, Harry sets his tea down on the toilet lid with a clank and drops to his knees by the side of the bath.
“No, no, no, fuck, no... Malfoy, don’t you dare,” he whispers, plunging his hand into the water and then freezing at the sound of a voice from downstairs.
“Harry? It’s Nev... I got your owl and it sounded pretty urgent, so I thought I’d just come over...”
Harry stares at the catfish. “You really had better not be dead, or...” Shaking his head, he pulls his arm out of the water and jogs, dripping, to the top of the stairs. “Come straight up, Nev... I think I might have... oh, god.”
“What?” Neville asks, stomping up the stairs in his heavy boots, eyeing Harry’s expression and drenched right arm with anxious dark eyes. “What’s happened?”
“I think I’ve killed him,” Harry rasps, feeling sick.
“The Draco Malfoy fish?!” Neville whispers, and when Harry nods, the colour drains from his face. “Bloody hell,” he mumbles. “Where is he?”
Harry leads him into the bathroom in silence and drops onto the toilet lid while Neville peers into the bath; he remembers his teacup a fraction of a second too late and cringes as it crashes to the hard floor and sends lukewarm tea spilling across the tiles. He grips his knees, barely breathing as he stares a hole into the side of Neville’s head. After what seems like a lifetime, his friend turns to him.
“He’s not dead.”
Harry closes his eyes and drops back against the cistern, groaning. “Are you sure?”
Nev laughs. “I’m sure. I know it looks strange, but that’s how glass cats look when they’re at rest. That’s just what they do.”
“Glass cats?” Harry repeats, opening his eyes and rising unsteadily to join Neville at the side of the bath. The rush of adrenaline has left him jittery and so relieved that he almost wants to laugh out loud. “So he is a catfish?”
“Yep. Kryptopterus vitreolus,” Nev says, sounding rather impressed. “They call them glass or ghost catfish, for obvious reasons. This type’s actually pretty rare—most catfish like this aren’t completely see-through, but he’s a great little specimen. I mean...” Nev frowns and flushes. “I mean, he’s... never mind. Don’t tell him I said any of this, will you?”
“I don’t need to, he can hear you,” Harry says, and Neville groans, covering his face with his hands.
“Great, that’s fine, I suppose I’ll just have to hide in the office the next time he comes to the nursery with his hundreds of questions about aquatic plants,” he mutters, and something about that image makes Harry want to smile. It shouldn’t surprise him that Draco is a conscientious pond owner, but somehow it does, and he can’t quite help being charmed.
“Well, I suppose it’s good that he can hear you,” Neville says philosophically, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Makes it a bit easier to communicate.”
“Yeah,” Harry says, and then frowns. He turns slowly to meet the eyes of the tiny fish and folds his arms. “You can hear me, you absolute menace—you heard me panicking and thinking you were dead, and you just... you just DANGLED there like a little fucking corpse! What the hell is wrong with you?” he demands with such ferocity that Neville takes a step backwards.
For long seconds, Draco continues to hang in the water, and then he dives for the letters, calmly arranging BORED against the porcelain.
Furious, Harry says nothing. He drops back onto the toilet lid and puts his head in his hands. It has been just over twenty-four hours since he stuffed Malfoy into a bag and brought him home, and he is already starting to fall apart. If that idiot thinks that taking care of a snippy fish is any more fun than being one, Harry has news for him, and worst of all, he seems to care about the little bugger’s welfare, whether he likes it or not.
And yes, of course Draco is a different man (or fish) than he had been as a teenager, but Harry’s interactions with him over the last few years have been purely on the surface, little bits of nothing and polite exchanges of information.
“I think this is your coat, not mine.” – that’s the last thing Harry remembers saying to him. They’d been collecting their things from the cloakroom attendant after a Ministry-sponsored conference, and Harry had noticed that the long, black coat he had just been handed was much nicer and much less tatty than his own.
Draco had looked at the coat over his own arm and raised an eyebrow. “Indeed,” he’d said, exchanging coats with Harry and grasping his hand in cool fingers for a shake. “This must be the first time anyone has ever managed to get the two of us mixed up.”
He had said it with an odd little smile, and he had left before Harry had chance to reply, and somehow the entire exchange, such that it was, had managed to burn itself quite fiercely into Harry’s consciousness.
“Should’ve kept your fancy coat, you horrible fucker,” he mutters to himself.
When he looks up, Neville is kneeling by the bath and examining the little fish.
“Well, he seems healthy,” he says, looking around at Harry. “He can’t stay here, though.”
“He’ll have to, I’m afraid,” Harry sighs. “I’m his guardian. Kingsley’s orders.”
“Wow, that sounds serious,” Nev says, quirking a half smile. “What I mean is that he can’t stay in the bath. He’ll be much happier if he has a proper tank to live in, and we don’t know how long it’s going to be, do we?” he points out, dropping his voice significantly.
“No,” Harry admits, “we don’t.” He kneels down beside Neville and looks at Draco, who is once more hanging in the water. “What does he need?”
Neville grins. “Would you judge me if I said that this is the kind of shopping trip I really enjoy?”
“Nev, I’m in no position to be judging anyone. I need all the help I can get.”
Neville gets to his feet and offers a large hand to pull Harry up. “I know just the place to start.”
Harry instructs Draco to behave and follows Neville down to the kitchen fireplace, biting back his usual complaints about Flooing; he really needs Nev’s help right now, and if he wants to Floo, Apparate or ride on the back of a dragon, Harry is going to comply without comment.
True to his word, Neville seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he leads Harry around the fish section of a vast pet emporium, flinging item after item into a rickety wooden trolley.
“This is the best water conditioner for tropicals,” he says, giving Harry a brief glimpse of a tall green bottle before it, too, disappears into the trolley. “It’s more expensive than the Muggle ones but you get what you pay for, if you ask me.”
“Okay,” Harry says faintly, overwhelmed by the barrage of information, the long list of equipment that seems to be held entirely in Neville’s head, and the rows and rows of baffling, brightly-coloured products with names like Clean-o-Fish and Algae-Away. The place is immense, echoey, filled with soft green and blue light and heavy with the scent of underwater life.
Just as Harry thinks they must be almost done, Neville steers him into a section stuffed with every kind of fish tank imaginable. Strongly suspecting that his opinion is just about useless, he nods along as Neville expounds on the virtues of tall, long, and round tanks, the importance of proper filtration and the benefits of live plants. He accepts one of everything Nev suggests, opting not to think about the mounting cost.
“Of course, you’ll need one of these to make sure there’s a bit of a current in the tank,” Neville says, holding up a mysterious object and then adding it to the pile in Harry’s second trolley. “Glass cats like a bit of something to swim against because they’re river fish.”
Harry nods mutely. He stares down at the mountain of things he’s about to purchase and thinks about Draco, dangling silently in his lonely bathtub. All at once he is flooded with remorse for how carelessly he has treated the little fish, even though he couldn’t have known that such a tiny creature would have such complex needs. It doesn’t matter, because now Draco needs all of these things to keep him alive and healthy, and Harry alone is somehow responsible for keeping him that way. He hasn’t been directly accountable for another person’s life for many years now; of course, he watches Hermione’s back in the field, just as she watches his, and he does his best to ensure that Teddy doesn’t come to any harm whilst in his care, but this is different. As he understands it, he is the only thing keeping Draco Malfoy alive, and that thought makes him feel slightly sick.
“Harry, are you listening?” Nev asks, elbowing him in the ribs.
“Yeah, of course. Listen, he says he’s bored—what can I get him to play with?”
“Well, I think you’re going to need some more glass cats. They prefer to be in at least a small shoal,” Neville says, frowning. “Trouble is, they don’t have any here. I’ve checked.”
“Not to worry,” Harry says, shaking away his cold terror and pushing his trolley over the bumpy carpet towards the counter. “I know where we can find some.”
Neville blinks at him, surprised, but he says nothing as Harry pays for all the equipment and arranges to have it delivered via the Floo Network the following morning. He takes Harry’s offered arm and makes the jump with him to Muriel’s place, where Harry takes down Hermione’s wards and beckons him inside.
“I’ve been in here,” Nev says, looking around.
Harry turns to him, surprised. “Really?”
“Yeah, I was just passing and I’d run out of algae wafers.” Neville scrunches up his nose. “Never came in again, though, something felt off about the place and the owner was really rude. Now I know why, I suppose.”
“I suppose,” Harry echoes, remembering with a twinge of guilt how he had berated Draco for making the same mistake.
“These are great,” Nev says, quickly finding the tank of glass cats and crouching down to examine them. “Wait until you’ve got your tank set up and then grab as many as you want—I’ve got a brilliant potion that’ll help you get all the levels sorted really quickly.”
“Thanks,” Harry says, pretending he knows what Neville is talking about. He has, in fact, given Harry a thorough rundown of all the relevant science and magic already, but Harry can’t seem to remember even a shred of it. The main thing, he tells himself, is that he knows what to do, and that he’s got written down for safekeeping on the back of an envelope.
All he needs to do is keep Draco alive until David comes round, and he can do that. He thinks.
Back at the house, he checks on Draco the moment he gets in. He then spends several minutes telling him all about the new home he is planning to set up in the morning, while Draco hangs quietly in the water, flicking his barbels every now and then. He doesn’t seem to be in a talking mood, and Harry isn’t sure whether to be relieved or worried.
In the end, after a reviving cup of tea, he puts on his coat and heads out to St Mungo’s. The sun is setting as he walks along the pavement and into the city, and the cold wind whips at his hair and coat and scarf but he relishes the sensation, grateful for the fresh air after spending far too long indoors. He wonders when he’ll be able to return to work, what Hermione is up to without him, and just how far the news of his fishy little problem has spread by now.
It’s no use feeling sorry for himself, he knows that. He could be David, lying unconscious in a hospital bed, and he could be Draco, reduced to eating pellets and communicating via Scrabble tiles, but he’s neither of those people. He’s... an idiot who should have been more careful, his subconscious puts in, and he scowls. He’s also an idiot who should have spoken to Draco years ago instead of being inexplicably awkward around him, because this whole mess could have been a lot easier, there’s no getting away from that fact.
Harry sighs, tucking his nose into his scarf and stomping along, slowing down only when the entrance to St Mungo’s comes into view. Once inside, he follows the directions of the grumpy witch behind the reception desk and climbs the spiral staircase to the fourth floor. The vivid sunset blazes through the windows, lighting the busy corridor as Harry weaves his way between nurses and Healers, breathing in the mingled aromas of potions and diagnostic charms and allowing himself—just for the next few minutes—to put Draco from his mind.
He knocks softly and enters the room at the end of the corridor. In a bed beside the window, David lies motionless but for the slow, regular rise and fall of his chest. His short, dark hair is neatly brushed and someone has thrown a brightly-coloured patchwork blanket over him, covering the standard hospital white in vivid purples, greens and blues.
“I’m really sorry,” Harry says softly. “It’s my fault the shop wasn’t cleared. It was really clever... what you did... the spell. He’s okay, thanks to you. I mean, he’s a fish, but he’s okay. And they say you’re going to be okay too, which is...” he sighs, pushing his hands into his coat pockets. “Angelina’s worried about you, but don’t tell her I said that.”
“He won’t,” comes an amused female voice, and Harry whips around to see Angelina granting him a weary smile from a chair in the corner.
“I didn’t see you,” Harry says. “Sorry.”
“I know. I think I’m starting to blend into the furniture,” she says, getting up stiffly and coming to join Harry at the end of the bed. “He’s not angry with you, you know. Any one of us could have made that call. He’s probably forgiven you already.”
Harry gazes at her, dubious. “How do you know?”
She shrugs. “I know him. We’re partners.”
“It’s as simple as that?”
“Not always, no... but there are just some people in life that we connect with. When that happens, we don’t need words to communicate.”
Harry smiles at her, even as something inside him aches at her words. He’s not sure he has that kind of connection with anyone, even Ron or Hermione, but it’s the first time he has ever been made to wonder just what he’s missing.
“I’m going to get a coffee if you want one,” Angelina says, but Harry barely hears her.
The delivery from the pet shop arrives early the next morning, and Harry, weary from a restless night, makes himself a stiff pot of coffee and sets to putting everything together. Despite his usual position that instruction manuals are very much for decoration only, he reads every single booklet from cover to cover, referring to Neville’s notes often and piecing together a plan of action.
By mid-morning, he is soaking wet and covered in bruises but he has set up the tank on a sturdy old cabinet next to his favourite sofa, filled it with water, gravel and sand, and haphazardly planted various green things that now wave gently in the current from the current-making device that Neville had insisted upon. Perspiring despite the coldness of the day, he stomps up the stairs and manages to catch Draco by surprise, trapping him in a mug and carrying him down to his new home.
Harry dumps him into the tank without ceremony and collapses, cross-legged, onto the floor to watch. No sooner has he settled than he realises that he has forgotten the Scrabble tiles, and races breathlessly back up to the bathroom to retrieve them. When he returns, Draco is weaving his way through a long, spiny plant and flicking his barbels with clear interest. This time, when the tiles sink through the water, he swims straight for them, edging them across the sand and deftly flipping the inverted tiles the right way up. If Harry didn’t know better, he’d suspect that he has been practising.
Amused, he flops back onto the floor and watches as Draco shunts several tiles, one by one, up against the glass at the front of the tank.
“Good,” Harry says, performing a mental victory dance. He’s done it, and he’s done okay. Granted, he hasn’t made the neatest job of it, and Neville would no doubt be horrified at his terrible planting, but Draco now has a passable, and more importantly, safe environment in which to spend whatever remaining time he has as a small, transparent catfish.
“Neville helped,” he says. “A lot.”
LNGBOOTTOM, Draco says, apparently misjudging the effect of his new current, much to Harry’s amusement.
“Yes. And I’m going to bring you some friends tomorrow.”
Draco whips around to stare at Harry, eyes swivelling at speed. Slowly, he shakes his head.
“You said you were bored. And besides, Nev thinks it’ll be good for you,” Harry says.
The little fish shakes his head again.
“Look, you can do that all you want, but I’m the one who has to look after you, and there’s no way I’m going to let you get ill because you’re too stubborn to behave like a proper fish,” he says, with an expression that dares Draco to challenge him.
AM NOT FISH, Draco insists, clacking the tiles against the glass with feeling.
“I could get you a mirror if you’d like,” Harry offers, and the look on the whiskery little face is so reminiscent of the one so often arranged upon Draco’s human features that he can’t help laughing.
Draco swishes his tail and flings a single F at the glass. Harry decides not to ask for clarification, which is just as well, as the moment he releases the tile, he disappears into the nearest plant with a theatrical flounce. Harry flops back onto a pile of crumpled instruction leaflets and stares at the ceiling. Draco might not be too happy, but at least he’s safe, and after tomorrow, he’ll have no chance of being lonely, either.
Harry isn’t really surprised when Draco doesn’t communicate with him for the rest of the day. He is, however, a little surprised at how hurt he feels about it.
“Ungrateful bloody fish,” he mutters as he passes Draco’s quite frankly palatial new home and sees him dart into a thicket of ferns and turn his tail on Harry.
Somewhere deep down, he suspects he might be being a little oversensitive, but he is trying his best, and beyond that, he is rapidly running out of fucks to give about the stability of his own behaviour. Apart from anything else, he’s missing work like crazy and is already tired of his own company. He isn’t used to rattling around the big old house on his own, much less sharing it with a fish that is studiously ignoring him.
When Hermione’s owl appears at his kitchen window, he is so relieved to see a friendly face that he makes a huge fuss of her.
“Hello, Freya,” he murmurs, gently tweaking her long ears and revelling in her pleased little noises and the way she leans shamelessly against his hand. “Hello, sweetheart, aren’t you beautiful?”
Freya flaps her wings and preens, and, for no other reason he can see but to spite Draco, Harry carries her on his arm into the living room and allows her to perch on his shoulder while he unrolls Hermione’s note. Of course, he doesn’t look to see if Draco is watching from his tank, but he doesn’t need to; he can feel the little swivelly eyes on him just fine.
Hermione’s note is disappointingly brief.
Turn on your wireless. H x
Still, Harry is intrigued, and he does as instructed, activating the wireless with a careless flick of his wand and listening intently. The current programme seems to be concerned with gardening, but Harry listens anyway, knowing that there must be something Hermione wants him to hear. Freya hoots gently and hops onto his knee, and he strokes her, listening with vague interest as a witch with a West-country accent advises him on the best spells to use for growing giant marrows.
When the programme ends, the familiar music of the rolling news service starts up.
“This might be about you, you know,” Harry says without looking at the fish tank, and, sure enough, the third story concerns the raid on Muriel’s place two days earlier.
“Muriel Flagbottom, forty-nine, of Shepherd’s Bush, will be tried in front of a full Wizengamot on the fifteenth of December for multiple offences, including the creation and distribution of a top-level controlled substance,” says the announcer. “She has also been charged with grievous injury to an Auror, who remains in critical condition in St Mungo’s. Muriel’s Oceanic Aquaria was raided by a team of Aurors on Saturday, led by Harry Potter...”
Harry rolls his eyes at Freya. “Hardly,” he mutters, and she nibbles his finger.
“... several hundred gallons of the intoxicant known as Chromia were seized, as well as many restricted ingredients used in its manufacture. Early reports suggest that a civilian—rumoured to be the entrepreneur, Draco Malfoy—was caught in the crossfire, and while unharmed, may be currently...” The announcer pauses, voice wobbling slightly, “... inhabiting the form of a small catfish.” She takes a deep breath, but Harry can hear the smile in her voice even as she continues on to the next news story, and it is somewhat contagious.
“Thank you, Hermione,” he mutters, grinning and dropping his head back to rest on the sofa cushions.
Freya hops lightly on his knee and he glances down at her. Her large eyes convey a very familiar feeling of impatience, and he knows from experience that as far as she is concerned, it is now time for her to return to work.
“They say people are like their pets, don’t they?” he muses, fishing out a quill and writing a reply on the back of Hermione’s note. He glances up at Draco. “I wonder where that leaves me.”
The little catfish, who had been hanging in open water in the middle of the tank, whisks his barbels and shoots into the nearest plant. Harry smiles.
When Freya has set off on her journey back to Hermione, he opens up the tank and pours in a few little red worms from a glass jar. He wrinkles his nose at the smell and watches them fall through the water, still wriggling gently. Draco pokes his head out of a sword plant and swivels his eyes, clearly alarmed.
“Well, I know,” Harry says, shrugging. “But Nev says this is what you’re supposed to eat. I don’t know what to tell you... I can’t exactly throw bits of fillet steak in there, can I?”
Draco twitches a hopeful barbel. Harry laughs, surprising himself.
“Sorry. But you know... you should never be afraid to try new things.”
Draco retreats back into the plant. Harry sighs and puts on his coat, deciding that he has time for a trip to the hospital before bed. It’s not like he has anything else to do at the moment. When he leaves, the worms are still wriggling around, and when he returns, cold and windswept, Draco is hiding and his dinner is untouched.
“If you starve on me, I’m going to be very cross,” he says, scanning the tank for a transparent fish that doesn’t want to be found. Eventually, he gives up and goes to bed, propping himself up on his pillows with a cup of tea and a book about the history of Quodpot, lent to him by Ron. It soon becomes clear, however, that none of the words are going in, because all he can think of are enormous, blood red, wriggling worms and starved, half-dead catfish.
He groans, dropping the book onto his quilt and pressing his hands to his eyes.
“I’ll get a book, alright?” he calls down the stairs. “I’ll get a book about catfish. Tomorrow.”
There’s no response, but the decision seems to calm Harry, and he curls up under his quilt, blocking out the cold night with duck feathers and Molly-stitches, and is asleep in no time.
It’s cold and miserable the next morning when Harry sets out to St Mungo’s but he decides to walk there anyway, tucking his head down against the wind and drizzle and pushing down the suspicion that these daily visits are more for his own benefit than David’s. No, he tells himself firmly; he does want to get out of the house for a while but he wants to check on his colleague just as much, and if he manages to stuff in a few more apologies at the same time, all the better.
When he gets there, David is alone in the room. Angelina is nowhere to be seen but her coat and bag are draped over the chair in the corner, along with what looks like a half-finished incident report.
“I bet she’s here every second she’s not at the Ministry, isn’t she?” Harry says, sitting down carefully on the end of the bed and wrapping a hand around the cold metal frame. “Reminds me of when I got hit with that desiccating curse and Hermione was here every day shoving liquids into me until I thought I was going to explode. You’ve got a good partner there.”
Harry smiles and smoothes an invisible crease from David’s sheets. “So, I’m on my way to buy some catfish to keep Draco company. He’s not very impressed about the idea, but...”
“It’s really true, then?” someone says, and the door clicks shut behind them.
Harry looks around to see an unfamiliar green-robed figure approaching, mouth quirked into a smile.
“What’s that?” he asks, getting up before he is told to.
“Draco Malfoy really is a catfish?” the Healer says.
“Erm... at the moment he is, yes,” Harry admits, trying not to worry about how normal this conversation is beginning to feel.
“And you’re looking after him?”
Harry frowns. “That part wasn’t in the news report,” he says slowly.
The Healer looks away, busying himself with David’s chart. “Miss Johnson and I have been chatting,” he admits, flushing slightly. “And there has been some speculation in the Prophet.”
“Have you now?” Harry murmurs, opting to pretend he hasn’t heard that last part. “So, do we know any more about what’s happening to David?”
The Healer scribbles something on David’s chart and then looks up at Harry, embarrassment forgotten. “It’s a very strange curse. We’ve worked it backwards without too many problems, but every time we test a possible counter-curse, we get more and more bizarre side effects. We’ll get there—we’ve got the best minds in Dark Arts Reversals working on it—but it’s going to be a little while, I’m afraid.”
Harry nods. “I’m sure you’re all doing your best. In the meantime, I suppose I should...”
“Go and attend to your new pet?” the Healer suggests, eyes gleaming.
“It’s a good job he didn’t hear you say that,” Harry says, grinning.
The Healer shrugs. “What’s he going to do? He’s a fish!”
“He’s a Malfoy,” Harry says, suddenly light with amusement. “I don’t think it matters.”
When he leaves the hospital, he hovers in the street for a moment, getting knocked back and forth by the early morning foot traffic as he tries to decide where to go next. His inner Hermione is insisting he should go to the public library (‘Harry, it’s a wonderful free service and it’s really important to the community!’), while Ron, ever thrifty and resourceful, would probably tell him to go home and start pulling books from the shelves of the library of the most ancient house of Black, as there’s every chance there might be a book on fish-keeping in there. Harry doesn’t bother with the old books very often; all of them are dust-coated, some are written in languages he doesn’t recognise and many more are cursed, but he supposes he could...
Harry shakes himself out of his thoughts as a huge man in a dirty denim jacket shoulder-barges him and he realises he’s still standing motionless in the middle of the pavement. Not only that, but there’s a Waterstones at the end of the street, and they will definitely have the book he needs, and it will not bite him or try to poison him, and he won’t have to feel guilty when he forgets to return it.
Half an hour later, shiny new books in one hand and plastic bags full of fish and water in the other, Harry returns to the house. Draco is nowhere to be seen when he checks the tank, and when he adds the nine new glass cats, he merely pokes his head out from behind a piece of driftwood before flicking his tail in disgust and disappearing again.
“Fine,” Harry says loudly, leaving him to it and taking his new books down to the kitchen to leaf through while he drinks tea and eats wholemeal toast with softly-melted butter.
He has the feeling that Draco wants to be cross, and while he doesn’t blame him, it’s nothing less than frustrating when Harry is doing his best. Neville had insisted that it would be good for him to have some tankmates, and while Harry is no expert on fish, he has to agree—after all, how can Draco be Draco without anyone to boss around?
Surprised to find himself smiling at the thought, Harry pushes it away and puts two more slices of bread in the toaster.
When he goes to check on his new acquisitions, he is relieved to find that they are swimming comfortably around the tank in a loose shoal, disappearing behind plants and rocks and then swarming back out into open water, elegant transparent bodies shimmering in the dappled light. They seem to be content in their new home, unlike Draco, who is childishly easy to spot as the only fish sitting on the sand in the corner, quite clearly sulking.
“What’s the matter?” Harry asks.
Draco doesn’t move, but one eye swivels contemptuously.
“You aren’t supposed to be on your own—it says so right here,” Harry attempts, opening the book in his hand to the relevant page and pressing it against the glass for Draco to see.
For a moment, he is hopeful, as the little fish swims closer and appears to take notice of the text, but then the letters N and O are flung against the glass, followed by several small pebbles. The other catfish startle at the harsh clacking sound and disappear into the plants, leaving Harry’s aquarium looking oddly empty.
Harry sighs and drops the book onto the sofa. He had been stupid to think he’d actually been getting somewhere. Draco Malfoy doesn’t want to be a fish, and no amount of unsolicited help from Harry Potter is going to change that. Defeated, he grabs the jar of little worms and tips in a generous amount, watching the other fish chase them delightedly through the water. He should be pleased that they’re eating, he knows that—both Neville and the books have warned him that glass catfish are often very picky eaters—but all he can focus on is Draco, who is attempting to hide behind a leaf, who doesn’t want to swim with the others, and whose expression sours impossibly when a fragment of blood worm drifts down through the water and drapes itself over his head.
Something about the picture tickles Harry, while at the same time making him angrier than he has felt in quite some time. Confused and prickling all over, he slams down the jar and stares at Draco, arms folded and blood rushing in his ears.
“Right!” he snaps. “Fine, then! You know what? I don’t care! I really don’t!”
As he pauses for breath, Draco’s eyes swivel to his and one barbel twitches in surprise.
“Well, you might not believe me,” Harry continues, feeling sanity and control beginning to drift out of reach. “But I’ve had enough! I know you don’t want to be a fish. I know that being stuck here in my house with only stupid old me for company probably isn’t your idea of a good time, and I know that now you know this is all my fault that you’re never going to let me forget it, but you know what, Draco? I’m sorry, and I said I’m sorry, and all I’m trying to do now is make sure you’re safe and comfortable and that you don’t fucking die before they work out how to wake David up and turn you back! Do you know I’m going to the hospital every day to see if there’s any progress? Do you know that I don’t like being stuck here with you any more than you like being stuck here with me? Do you know that I can’t sleep properly because I’m so fucking worried about you? Well?” Harry demands, breathless and shaking as he stares down at the little fish.
Draco stares up at him, not moving an inch as the other fish emerge slowly from their hiding places and swoop past him in a graceful arc.
“Brilliant, just as I thought,” Harry mutters, turning his back on the tank and Disapparating on the spot.
Ron and Hermione are not home.
Harry stomps all the way around the outside of the cottage looking for signs of life but all the lights are out and Rose, who can always be relied upon to be making some sort of noise (usually with a musical instrument or an experiment) is nowhere to be seen or heard, either. Impulsively he Disapparates again, aiming for the back garden of the Burrow. Chances are, he’ll find his friends there, and he knows he can’t go home until he’s calmed down at least a bit. He’s already starting to feel rather ridiculous but he also knows that one sardonic little eye-swivel from Draco will just send him right back into another rant.
As he walks up the garden path, the sound of voices and the warm aroma of chicken pie drift out of the house to greet him. He drags in a deep breath, pausing to gaze at the unbalanced old building, the birds in the rafters and the windows glowing against the dark night. He lets the feeling of comfort and family wrap around him tightly, and by the time he’s knocking on the back door and pushing his way into the kitchen, Draco the grumpy catfish seems a world away.
“Hello, love,” Molly calls, bustling over and wrapping him in a warm hug. “Ron,” she snaps as she lets go, “Why didn’t you tell me Harry was coming for dinner?”
Ron gives his mother a wounded look and continues to set the table. “I didn’t know!”
“Grandma, can I please borrow some baking soda?” Rose asks breathlessly, dashing into the kitchen and pushing a pair of battered goggles up onto her head. They are far too big for her and slip straight back down, over her face and onto her chest.
“What for?” Hermione asks warily, suspicion deepening when Arthur appears behind Rose with a matching pair of goggles and a hopeful expression.
“We’re just trying something,” he says, catching the look on Hermione’s face and attempting to sound sensible.
Harry isn’t convinced but he feels more like himself already. “Something... explosive?” he asks.
“Of course not,” Arthur lies. Coughs. Nudges Rose with his elbow.
“It’s for learning,” she says innocently, and Molly is taken in at once.
“In that case, here you are, Rosie,” she says, handing over the baking soda and shooting a warning look at her husband. “Don’t make a mess, Arthur.”
“Molly, I...” Hermione begins, but Arthur and Rose are already scuttling away, giggling. She sighs and shrugs. “Hi, Harry.”
“Hi,” Harry says, weaving his way across the kitchen towards her, ducking flying dishes and almost tripping over a confused-looking broom.
“You didn’t say you were coming, did you?” Ron asks, frowning. “I mean, I’m not losing my mind am I?”
“No,” Harry says, “but I think I might be losing mine. I just found myself yelling at a catfish.”
“George, put that down!” Molly shouts, somehow knowing that her son is attempting to sample the gravy without having to turn around.
“Is he misbehaving?” Hermione asks, clearly trying not to smile.
“He’s angry, I think,” Harry says. “He didn’t like his new friends.”
“You’ve lost me, mate,” Ron says, heading over to their corner with cups of tea.
Harry takes one gratefully and starts at the beginning, explaining all about Neville’s advice, Draco’s various sulks, and the edited version of his recent explosion. They don’t need to know every stupid thing he had said, after all, and he suspects that repeating the whole thing might just cause him to burst into flames right there in Molly’s kitchen.
“All that and you weren’t tempted to flush him down the toilet even once?” Ron asks, grinning.
“God, can you imagine the headlines?” Harry says with only the tiniest twinge of guilt. The tea and warmth and chatter of his family have all but washed away his horrible mood, and he thinks that Molly’s chicken pie and mashed potatoes might just see it off completely.
“Malfoy reputation down the pan,” Ron suggests.
Ginny, who has been listening from her seat on the edge of the table, giggles. “I’ve been trying to get ‘straight flush’ in there somewhere... he’s quite the shark at cards, isn’t he?”
“That he might be, but straight he is not,” George says as he passes with two vast jugs of gravy. “Move your bum, Gin.”
Ginny laughs and jumps down. “No, that’s a fair point.”
“Isn’t he?” Harry asks faintly.
“Isn’t he what?” Hermione says, pulling out her chair as Molly calls everyone to the table. “Rose!”
“Straight?” Harry whispers out of the corner of his mouth.
Hermione smiles and shakes her head. “Rose, come on!” she bellows again.
“Really?” Harry asks, turning to Ron, who is pouring a vast quantity of gravy over his food.
He glances at Harry, clearly amused. “About as straight as you are, mate.”
Harry blinks, taking the heavy gravy boat and forgetting to pour. Malfoy can’t be... he just can’t be. He’s always in the Prophet with one beautiful woman or another on his arm. Harry has always just assumed that some day soon he was going to marry one of them and turn out pointy blond heirs and heiresses. That, of course, is when he’s assuming anything about Draco Malfoy. It isn’t as though he spends any real amount of time on it.
“Well,” he says at last, passing on the gravy boat absently, “I suppose I’ve learned something new.”
“I thought you knew,” Ginny says, smirking as Arthur and Rose slink into the room with slightly singed eyebrows.
“I never really thought about it,” Harry says evenly.
“How is your love life, Harry?” George puts in, leaning around his sister for the pepper grinder.
“Quiet,” Harry says, cutting into his piece of pie. “Peaceful, even.”
“Abandoned... decayed... devoid of all life,” Ginny intones, waving her fork around.
Harry pulls a face at her and scans the table for the gravy boat. “That’s good coming from you,” he teases.
“Yeah, you and your imaginary boyfriend,” George laughs.
“Just because he is a secret doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist,” Ginny says, just missing Harry’s kneecap as she kicks her brother under the table.
“I’ll tell Mum,” George says solemnly, setting down his knife and fork with great ceremony.
“Don’t you dare!” Ginny hisses.
Hermione coughs and nudges Harry. “So, I had a report from a routine patrol this morning that some fish were missing from that pet shop we raided. I don’t suppose you know anything about that, do you?”
Harry chews his mouthful of pie, pointedly ignoring her and wondering if he can taste just a hint of tarragon in the sauce. He thinks about asking Molly for the recipe, and then remembers that she always brushes him off with some variation on ‘oh, Harry, it’s nothing, just bits and bobs I had lying around’.
“Hermione, I have no idea what you are talking about,” he says at last.
She smiles down at her plate. “I didn’t think you would.”
“You should come over,” he says. “See the catfish that I got from a completely different place.”
“I will,” she whispers, gripping his knee under the table for a moment. “You’re doing fine, you know?”
“Thanks,” he says, smiling at her as she returns to her food. He’s not completely convinced, but if Hermione believes in him, he knows he has to keep trying.
It’s after ten when he returns from the Burrow, replete with food and hugs and all the pointless, good-natured bickering he can carry. Weary, he hangs back in the doorway to the living room, watching the blue light flickering softly over the walls and ceiling. He wants to talk to Draco, to apologise, to show that he has calmed down and rediscovered reason, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to be stared at by a cross little fish. He wants to go to bed and let it all go.
As he turns, though, something catches his eye and he steps closer to the tank, frowning. The nine new catfish are shoaling lazily, reflecting the gentle light like tiny mirrors, but that’s not the only movement in the water. Just below the surface, Draco is floating, sucking a bright red blood worm into his mouth with gusto. Astonished, Harry watches the food disappear and then almost falls over with shock when Draco dives to the bottom and sifts around for another one. It’s then that Harry notices the tiles. They have been arranged with the utmost care, every single one perfectly aligned and pressed against the glass at the bottom of the tank.
S O R R Y
Harry’s heart twists. “I’m sorry, too,” he says, and heads for the stairs.
The next morning, Harry wakes before sunrise and wanders down to the kitchen feeling something close to well-rested. It helps that he can’t remember a single nightmare, and even though the rain is hammering against the glass as he makes his coffee, his mood remains lighter than it has been in days. He doesn’t have to go out in it, after all. There will be no leaky Umbrella Charms or crouching in puddles for him; all he has to do is light the fire, curl up on the sofa and attempt to take care of a hopefully more tractable Draco.
When Harry settles on the sofa, he sees that the tiles have been rearranged to spell out:
WHERE DID YOU GO
“The Weasleys’,” he says through a mouthful of toast. “Molly made the most amazing...” he stops, deciding it might be insensitive to rhapsodise about Molly’s cooking when the best meal he can offer Draco involves small red worms.
As he pauses, he scans the tank for Draco, but he’s not in any of his usual hiding places, nor is he hanging in the stretch of open water in the middle of the tank. Concerned, Harry sets his plate aside and leans closer. It takes him a moment to spot Draco, but when he does, all he can do is laugh. Once again, he is hiding in plain sight. This time, though, he is not just swimming with the other glass cats, he is leading them, holding himself regally, all fins erect, at the head of the little shoal, directing them this way and that with careless little flicks of his tail. The other fish, apparently recognising the natural order of things, follow his every move in a shimmering little wave.
Fascinated, Harry leans on the arm of the sofa and tucks his feet up underneath himself to watch. He doesn’t know why he’s a bit surprised by this behaviour—it’s just Draco all over. Having finally accepted his temporary reality, he hasn’t wasted a moment making the absolute most of it.
“If you’ve got to be a fish, be the fish in charge, eh?” he says, and Draco turns to look at him, causing all nine other fish to suddenly whip around to stare at him, too. It’s a little unnerving, and Harry is quite relieved when the rest of the shoal begins to disperse.
“Impressive,” he says, feeling around for his toast and crunching into it again. “How did you get them to do that?”
Draco swivels an eye in a manner that twenty-four hours ago would have made Harry twitch with irritation, but how he just snorts and attempts to swivel one back. Draco waves a barbel and dives for the tiles. Harry finishes his breakfast and watches him, musing that all of this spelling out of letters must be doing wonders for his patience. He certainly needs all the help he can get in that area.
HOW IS DAVID
Harry blinks, surprised. “Oh... he’s alright. Unconscious, but not in any danger. The Healers say it won’t be long before they bring him back,” he says, hoping that anxiety and scepticism do not translate through glass and water.
ALWAYS TAOST, Draco spells.
“Toast? What about it?”
Draco just stares at him.
“Don’t you start on what I’m eating, I saw you gobbling down that blood worm last night.”
Clearly horrified, Draco darts behind a large fern, but Harry can see one silvery little eye trained on him from between the fronds, and he smiles to himself.
Over the next few days, he finds himself slipping into a routine. It’s nothing like his old one, but he is surprised to find that it’s almost as comfortable. He takes regular fire-calls from Kingsley, ignores the frequent owls from the Daily Prophet, and carefully digests all of Hermione’s updates from the Ministry, taking the more interesting or gossipy ones into the living room to read aloud to Draco. The weather continues to be miserable and Harry just stokes the fire, wraps up in heavy jumpers, old jeans and woolly socks, and obsessively checks the temperature of Draco’s tank. Every morning, he walks to St Mungo’s to visit David and then hurries back to share the latest progress, or lack thereof, with the newly-minted emperor of the aquarium.
One of the unexpected side effects of being practically housebound is that Harry finds himself entertaining guests much more often than usual. Ron and Hermione stop by at least every other evening, Molly likes to pop in every now and then to check that Harry and the fish are eating properly, Neville has taken to stepping through the fireplace in the afternoons on the pretence of catching up with Harry but managing to spend most of his time admiring the glass cats, and Andromeda has just informed him that Teddy is desperate to come round and have a look at Uncle Draco in fish form. Not that she’d put it quite like that.
“Cool,” he breathes, kneeling in front of the tank and pressing his fingertips to the glass. “Which one is he?”
“Guess,” Harry laughs as Teddy’s hair transforms into a shining silver quiff.
Eyes narrowed in concentration, Teddy watches the shoal travel from one end of the tank to the other and then smiles in delight.
“Hello, Uncle Draco,” he murmurs. He turns to Harry. “Can he hear me?”
Draco stares at Teddy for a moment, barbels waving, and then dives to the bottom and begins to flick through the tiles.
“He’s talking to me!” Teddy laughs, and Harry can’t help smiling, warmed by the interaction.
“Of course he is. I’ll go and get some tea,” he says, leaving them to their conversation.
In the kitchen, he puts the kettle on to boil and searches his cupboards for biscuits. When he comes up empty, he tries to remember the last time he went shopping and draws a blank there, too. Since the fish incident, all of his usual patterns of behaviour have been flung from a high window, and while he’s discovering that, in some cases, that isn’t such a bad thing, a biscuitless kitchen will never do.
When Teddy goes home, Harry looks out of the window at the driving rain and sighs. He could go out. He could get to Diagon Alley and back in half an hour, the Sainsbury’s down the road in ten minutes. He could.
YOU OK, Draco says, flipping some of the tiles upside down in his haste to communicate.
“I’m fine,” Harry says, rather touched. “I’m... going to bake some biscuits.”
Draco hovers in the water for a moment and then flicks away most of the tiles, leaving only the Y.
Harry laughs. “I don’t know why. I don’t know why, and I’m going to do it anyway,” he says, rolling up his sleeves and hoping he can remember what to do after all these years.
The first batch of biscuits are a bit dry and a lot burned, but the second batch are so good that Harry makes a third and a fourth, experimenting with ingredients he finds in his cabinets and remonstrating with that one wilful cupboard when it attempts to stop him taking a bag of dried fruit, even when doing so results in sultanas being scattered all over his kitchen floor.
Draco comes to the front of the tank to inspect each new type of biscuit with interest, and Harry is intensely proud when his visitors remark on their quality, even when Ginny’s review of a slightly experimental cardamom cookie is ‘...interesting’, because god, she’s polite, and she eats the whole thing and Harry hugs her and laughs.
By the end of the week, he has finished all the fish-care books from Waterstones and has had to place owl-orders for several more, including a couple of volumes completely dedicated to glass cats. Draco is unsurprisingly interested in the contents of these books, and Harry is content to read aloud to him. As he becomes more and more fascinated with the idea of fish-keeping, his aquarium becomes increasingly elaborate, and he finds himself looking forward to Neville’s visits, not only for the good company but for the opportunity to entreat his friend to pick up a new gadget or plant from the pet shop.
“I thought if you could get me some of this type of lamp, I could try charming them to emit exactly the right sort of light,” he says, pointing to a page in his well-thumbed catalogue and looking at Neville hopefully.
“No problem,” Nev says, crunching into a home-made biscuit. “Where’d you get that idea?”
“From here,” Harry says, pulling a book from his stack. “Well, sort of. They were talking about how glass cats don’t like bright light, and so Draco and I did a bit of experimenting.”
Neville chokes slightly on his biscuit. Harry pats him on the back.
“Right... well, it’s worth a try. I never thought you’d get so into it, but your set-up’s looking great.”
Harry beams with pride. He watches Draco, swimming serenely at the head of the shoal as though he was born to it. “Thanks.”
“I bet it’ll be weird for you to go back to work,” Neville says, helping himself to another biscuit and dunking it in his tea. “Can’t be long now until they get your friend out of his coma.”
“Yeah,” Harry says faintly. “Weird.”
For some reason, he really doesn’t want to think about it. Nor does he want to think about why he doesn’t want to think about it, so he doesn’t. He doesn’t need to, anyway; there’s been no news from St Mungo’s in days. Not that he doesn’t want David back, and... Harry swallows hard.
“Are you alright?” Nev asks, brow furrowed.
“Of course. I just...” Harry seizes the catalogue from his lap. “I just wanted to see what you thought of these moss balls... page forty-two, I think...”
As October draws to a close and winter begins to rustle around the doorsteps of Grimmauld Place, Harry finds himself curiously content. He reads, he bakes, he catches up with friends and family, and he lavishes attention on his fish tank, watching with genuine pleasure as his glass cats begin to grow, both in size and confidence. Watching them swim around the tank with Draco in the lead is wonderfully satisfying, and, with a cup of tea in his hand and a well-worn leather cushion at his back, Harry begins to relax. He lets go of his ever-present tension, allowing it to dissolve in the pale sunlight that streaks in through the window and flashes the transparent bodies of the fish into dazzling, rainbow iridescence.
When he’s not watching, he talks, and Draco listens, hanging in the water as Harry tells him about Auror missions and Quidditch games, stories about Ron and Hermione and Rose and Teddy. Occasionally he swoops down for his letters but mostly he just dangles there, offering twitches and swivels in all the right places. It doesn’t take Harry long to work out when he is actually listening and when he is all but sleeping in the middle of the tank—he has remarkably expressive eyes for a catfish—almost, Harry thinks, as expressive as the eyes of his human self, and every bit as sharp and silvery. He then decides to cease and desist thinking about Draco Malfoy’s eyes, catfish or otherwise. It’s probably time to fire up the oven for biscuit-making, anyway.
He’s not sure how he ever thought he’d be bored during this assignment—apart from anything else, he doesn’t have time. New books are arriving on a regular basis now, and each one contains so many new ideas, bits of knowledge and things to try.
“Listen to this,” he says, kneeling in front of the tank with Your Catfish and You open in one hand. “‘With the help of a magnifying glass, the heart of a glass or ghost catfish can be seen beating’. Isn’t that cool?”
Draco hangs in the water for a moment, little eyes fixed on Harry. Finally, he pokes around in his letters, pushing just two tiles up against the glass for Harry to read.
Harry frowns for a moment and then lets out a small sound of surprise. “Okay? You mean, okay, I can try it out?”
Draco dips his head slowly, just once, and then turns to the side, displaying his slender, transparent body and graceful spine for Harry’s inspection. Harry bites his lip, suddenly very aware of the weight of trust being placed upon him; he’s not sure he fully understands it, but he knows that he has to be careful with this, that he cannot afford to be clumsy or insensitive in any way.
“Okay,” he says softly, and draws his wand, holding his breath as he casts a careful Magnification Charm around the body of the little catfish.
And there it is. With the help of the charm, the rapid beat of the tiny heart is easily visible inside the silvery organ sac just behind Draco’s head. Harry’s breath catches and he grips his wand tightly, unable to take his eyes away from the irrefutable proof that Draco is alive, despite everything life has thrown at him and everything Harry has fucked up in the course of trying to care for him. He’s alive, transparent and vulnerable, and all it once it seems too intimate, shockingly so, to be gazing into him like this.
At the sound of several loud pops and bangs from the street outside, Draco’s heart speeds, and Harry’s along with it. He dispels the charm and sits back, dry-mouthed.
“It’s just the fireworks... you know, bonfire night.”
Draco gazes at him for a moment and then twitches both barbels in clear irritation. As Harry excuses himself to put the kettle on, another set of fireworks starts up, and he smiles to himself as they are followed by the clack and smash of Scrabble tiles and small pebbles being flung against aquarium glass by a small, cross catfish.
“Rose loved the fireworks this year,” Ron says that weekend, hovering over Harry’s coffee table in the process of choosing a biscuit. “I think it helped that Hermione explained how they work... made them less scary, you know.”
“I don’t think it was my explanation that did it,” Hermione says wryly. “I think it was all the homemade ones she and Arthur let off in the garden last week.”
“Maybe a bit of both,” Harry suggests, perching on the arm of the sofa. “Draco wasn’t a fan, were you?”
Draco abandons his shoal and nudges a U tile from the pile, followed by one N and then another.
“Unnecessary?” Harry guesses, and Draco swivels one eye before re-commandeering his troops.
“That’s getting just a bit weird,” Ron says, shaking his head. “It’s like you’ve got...”
“Some kind of mental link?” Hermione finishes, and Harry hides a smile in his mug.
“Nothing like that, I assure you. I suppose I’m just getting to know the things he says... the way he says them. It’s just... time-saving, that’s all,” he says, feeling slightly flustered. “Anyway, never mind that... look at this thing I got for him—it tints the water a different colour depending on what you need to alter in order to make all the levels just right. I thought... what?”
Hermione, who has been staring at him anxiously, exchanges a glance with Ron and then sighs.
“Harry... please don’t take this the wrong way but... when did you last go to visit David?”
Harry frowns. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Please,” Hermione says softly, and the kindness in her eyes makes Harry’s stomach twist.
“Well, I go all the time... I go every... well, every couple of... I don’t know,” Harry admits, horrified with himself. It’s been at least a week and he has no idea how something so important could have slipped his mind.
“I’m not saying it to make you feel guilty, Harry, it’s just that...”
“We were worried about you,” Ron blurts.
“I don’t understand,” Harry says, glancing over at the tank for a moment and then slumping onto the sofa beside Hermione. “Time just got away from me... I’ll go and see him first thing. Definitely.”
“It’s not that,” Hermione says. She rests her mug on her knee and fixes Harry with a determined look. “I think the reason you haven’t been to the hospital is that you’ve been so caught up in looking after these fish... I mean, Draco... and these fish.”
“Which, you know... dunno if I’d’ve had the patience,” Ron puts in helpfully.
Hermione bites her lip, appearing to gather herself. “Harry... here’s the thing. I’m worried that you’re putting all your time into this and you’re going to feel lost when it’s over. And it will be, because Draco isn’t going to be a fish forever, and you’ll have to come back to work, and everything will go back to normal, and I’m not sure how well you’re going to cope with that. There, I’ve said it, and if you want to be cross at me, that’s fine.”
Startled, Harry stares at her flushed cheeks and bright eyes and says nothing for a long time.
“So... is this a second intervention or just the next part of the same one?” he jokes weakly.
“Don’t look at me,” Ron says, reaching for another biscuit. “She’s the one who thinks you’ve forgotten how to function without him.”
He gestures at the tank with an orange and chocolate pinwheel. Draco, who is now following the conversation with interest, flicks his tail with obvious disdain.
Hermione sighs. “Look, you’re my partner as well as my friend and I worry about you. I’m allowed to do that.”
“That’s true,” Harry concedes. “But really, I’m fine.”
Hermione stares into him for what feels like a long time. Harry is pretty sure that she doesn’t believe him, and he can’t blame her—he doesn’t believe him, either. The idea of abandoning his cosy, fish-watching existence to plunge back into Auror fieldwork in the middle of what feels like a freezing monsoon season doesn’t exactly appeal, and while there’s no question of him giving up his ill-gotten glass cats and his aquarium, the idea of losing Draco and his attitude and his Scrabble tile communication hits Harry hard, stealing his equilibrium and his fragile new peace.
“Just be careful, okay?” Hermione whispers as she hugs him goodbye. “No one wants to see you hurt.”
Ron hugs him, too, squeezing him breathless and slapping his back a little too hard. “Don’t worry,” he says, lowering his voice as he glances at his wife. “It’ll be alright. You know how she is.”
Harry knows exactly how she is, and he also knows that she is usually right.
After a night of fractured sleep and anxiety-ridden dreams, Harry dresses in the dark and trails downstairs, checking on the fish with a heavy heart before heading out into the pelting rain. This time he doesn’t enjoy the walk at all; the air is thick with exhaust fumes and the gloom is only broken by the glare of car headlights as he pushes his way through the downpour, shivering with every step. By the time he steps into the bustling foyer of St Mungo’s, he is drenched from head to foot and apparently cuts such a pathetic figure that a passing porter tuts and throws him a towel.
“Thanks,” Harry mumbles, scrubbing at his soaking hair, but the porter is long gone.
He blinks painfully in the bright light and fights hard against the urge to Disapparate; after all, he could be back in his living room with the fire at his back in a fraction of a second. He could be drinking tea and chatting to Draco... who isn’t going to be a fish forever, Harry, Hermione says, leaping into his head quite without permission.
Right. And that’s why he’s here. Sort of. Pulling himself together with some effort, he takes a deep breath, inhaling the warm scents of coffee and potions, spells his glasses clean and heads for the spiral staircase.
“Good to see you,” Angelina says warmly, smiling at him as he enters the room. “How’s Draco?”
Harry shivers. “He’s... yeah, he’s fine. Hi, David—any progress?” he asks, directing his question at the man in the bed, even though he isn’t expecting an answer.
“They’re getting close now,” Angelina says. “They think the new counter-curse is just about perfected—they just have to do some more tests before they try it out. Great news, isn’t it?”
“Brilliant,” Harry says, forcing a smile for her and loathing himself for feeling anything but delight and relief. Both of those emotions are certainly present amid the maelstrom inside his chest, but there are many other things in the mix, too: terror and dread and confusion and a prickly little something that just wants everything to stay the way it is. Except... without David in a coma and Draco in a fish tank, which would be fine if it wasn’t so ridiculous and complicated.
“Come and sit down for a minute, you look shattered,” Angelina says. “You might want to dry yourself off a bit more first, though, Healer Leonard’ll go mad if he sees you in here like that.”
“Like what?” Harry says distractedly.
Angelina laughs and the sound seems far too loud in the quiet little room. She points at his dripping clothes and the growing puddle of rainwater he hadn’t realised he was standing in.
“Ah.” Harry nods and grimaces as he applies a quick, rough drying charm to his clothes. It’s never a particularly pleasant sensation and he has yet to learn how to perform it with anything approaching a delicate touch. Still, he’s mostly dry as he pulls up a chair beside Angelina and it’s surprisingly easy to slump there and listen as she happily explains the mechanics of the latest cure.
He easily passes an hour or so with his friend and colleague and by the time he heads down to the foyer, he feels quite a bit less sorry for himself than before. David is going to be woken from his cursed state, Draco is going to be returned to his human form, and Harry is going to go back to work. It’s not all bad. He’s done a pretty good job with the whole thing, on balance, and it’s not as though he didn’t like his life before all of this. It was just... different, that’s all. Maybe he and Draco will be friends of a sort when he is no longer a fish. Anything is possible.
No longer in the mood to punish himself, Harry Apparates into his kitchen and makes a large cup of tea before heading up to the living room. He is halfway up the stairs, already imagining the crackle and roar of the fire in the grate when he hears a different noise altogether. He pauses, frowning as he tries to identify the out-of-place sound, a harsh, grinding, whirring... and behind that, the rushing and dripping of water.
Harry’s heart drops and a wave of cold, sickening panic washes over him. He sprints to the top of the stairs, taking them two at a time and splashing scalding tea over his thighs as he drops his cup. Wincing in pain, he skids into the living room and stops dead.
“No,” he whispers, eyes flitting around the room, taking in the horrific scene. “No, no, no no...”
He races for the tank, stumbling on the edge of the rug and crashing onto his knees in a pool of water that seems to fill the entire room. He barely notices the moisture soaking through to his skin as he stares at the remains of his aquarium. The floor is littered with stones, plants, piles of sand and scrabble tiles as the water continues to dribble and gush from a hole at least six inches wide near the bottom of the tank and countless horrible cracks radiating out from it. Tasting acrid bile in the back of his throat, Harry presses his palms to the glass, feeling the water surge around his fingers as he looks around feverishly for his fishes... for Draco. For... oh, god.
He finds three in the tank, fighting to stay submerged in just an inch or so of water.
“Where are the rest of you...? Come on, come on,” he mumbles, pulse rapid and thready as he spins around, one hand on the saturated rug for balance, searching the carnage on the floor for survivors.
“Yes,” he whispers, spotting four more fish flipping desperately in the shallow pool of water by the fireplace. “Yes, okay, you’re okay,” he promises, Summoning a bucket and spelling some of the spilled water into it. “Three more, just three more,” he chants to himself, scooping the fish into the bucket and searching desperately for the rest.
Just find them all, he tells himself. Don’t think about which one is Draco. Just find them all.
Barely breathing, he squelches across the hearth rug and searches under chairs and lamps and cushions, trying to tune out the desperate whine of the filter as it screams for water that is no longer there. He finds one, gills heaving erratically, a good six or seven feet from the tank, and another just beyond that. The bucket handle cuts into his palm but he daren’t let it go, not until he has found the last one. He’s ready to give up—his arms and legs and head hurt like hell—but he won’t, even though he’s looked everywhere and even though the quality that makes these fish so beautiful makes them almost impossible to see against his patterned rug and polished floor boards.
This last one could be Draco. Any one of them could be, and oh, god, he’s faced down some terrifying things in his time, but if he doesn’t find that last fish in the next few seconds, he’s pretty sure he’s going to be sick.
It’s then that he sees the owl. It’s a small owl, certainly too small for the huge stack of books attached to its legs, and it flops, unconscious in a chaotic pile of feathers, just behind the broken fish tank. And there, just next to it on the floor, is the last catfish.
“Oh, thank fuck,” Harry whispers, lifting the motionless fish and placing it in the bucket.
As he lowers the bucket to the floor and folds onto his knees beside it, he watches the little fish drift gently to the bottom and settle there on its side. Biting his lip hard, Harry dips a careful hand into the water and strokes a finger along the side of the fish. When he feels the gills lift the tiniest fraction, he lets out a long, messy breath. Several of the fish are laid out on the bottom of the bucket, gasping hard, but all are alive, and he is encouraged by the clumsy but determined attempts to swim displayed by some of the others.
“Just hang on, okay?” he pleads, folding his legs up around the bucket and leaning over it, gently stroking the little fishes one at a time. “All of you... Draco... if you can hear me, I... I’m so sorry. Please be okay.”
There is no response from the bucket.
He isn’t sure how long he sits there, but the sun is punching weakly through the clouds when his stomach growls and he realises that he can no longer feel his backside or the fingers of his right hand. He tucks his numb fingers into his armpit for warmth and lowers his left hand into the water, jumping when something cool and firm brushes against his skin. One of the catfish is swimming around his hand. He smiles, then startles when the fish once again brushes his fingers. There is something very deliberate about the action, but Harry barely dares to hope.
He looks down at the fish and it swivels an eye before swimming purposefully against his palm.
“Draco?” he whispers.
The little fish flicks his tail and begins swimming in and out of Harry’s fingers, almost as though attempting to reassure him. Harry laughs, letting the floodtide of relief crash over him. He drops his other hand to the wet floor and leans back on it, groaning out loud and letting his eyes fall closed.
It’s okay... it’s going to be okay, someone says, over and over, and it takes Harry a minute or two to realise that he is talking to himself, saying the words out loud.
“You’re going to be okay,” he says firmly, looking down into the bucket. Two of the catfish are still lying on their sides at the bottom of the bucket, but their breathing has evened out, and Harry thinks it is just possible that they are going to get through this without losing anyone.
Allowing himself to relax just a fraction, he looks around at the scene of the disaster. The owl is still unconscious but breathing steadily, and it doesn’t take a Hermione Granger to figure out what happened. The streak of blood on the wall directly above the fish tank tells a compelling tale about where the overloaded owl had crashed, and Harry has no problem believing that the stack of heavy books—with a bit of momentum behind them—has caused the catastrophic hole in the glass.
“I shouldn’t have left the window open for the deliveries,” he sighs, and then scowls. “Wait ’til I talk to Flourish and Blotts about their owl welfare practices... or better... I could set Hermione on them.”
Draco nudges his thumb in apparent approval of this idea, and Harry reluctantly pulls his hand out of the water and crawls across the floor to pick up the owl. He cradles it carefully, checking for broken bones, and when he is satisfied that no permanent damage has been done, he places the owl on the sofa and casts a gentle Enervate.
“There we go,” he says, untying the cords that connect the bird to the pile of books. “It’s all going to be fine... just you stay there for a minute.”
The owl hoots mournfully but stays put as Harry reaches for the books, testing the weight of each one in turn and shaking his head. He can’t imagine how such a small owl managed to carry such a heavy load as far as it did, and not only that, several of the books have sharp metal edgings, and not a single one of them has been wrapped up to prevent damage.
“Maybe we should both go,” he muses, heaving himself to his feet and placing the waterlogged books on the coffee table. “Me and Hermione, in our Auror robes—that should put a cat amongst the pixies.”
Draco flicks his tail and pulls Harry’s attention back to the bucket, where the last of the catfish are, at last, attempting to right themselves. Delighted, Harry drops back to the cold, wet floor and watches them, murmuring words of encouragement and carefully warming the water back to its usual temperature.
He’s still there, fingers waving through the water, when the kitchen fireplace roars and Hermione and Ron call up the stairs to him.
“Up here,” he shouts, trying to stand and finding that every muscle between his neck and his ankles has temporarily seized up. “Ah, maybe not,” he mumbles, and flops back into a seated position.
“Harry, what on earth are you...? Oh, no,” Hermione says, confusion turning to distress as she sprints across the room and kneels down next to him. She doesn’t even seem to notice how wet the floor is as she gazes down into the bucket, and Harry can see her counting frantically in her head. “They’re all there? They’re all there,” she whispers, turning huge dark eyes to him. “What happened?”
“Owl accident?” Ron says from the doorway and they both twist around to look at him.
“How did you know?”
“Owl, wet books, blood, big hole in your fish tank,” Ron says, pointing at each item in turn. “I’ve seen it before. Not on this sort of scale or anything, but Lynch went mad when someone’s owl crashed into his office wall and took out some antique teapot or other.”
“Right,” Harry says, impressed and a little bewildered.
Hermione beams at Ron. “You’re so observant when you want to be.”
Ron snorts. He perches on the arm of Harry’s sofa and looks into the bucket. “They’re all alright?”
“Yeah. I think I got home just in time,” Harry says.
Hermione stares at him, stricken. “You went to the hospital, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did,” Harry says carefully, “but before you say anything, this wasn’t your fault...”
Harry is unable to finish his sentence as he suddenly has a mouthful of peppermint-scented curls and a feeling that he may never be allowed to breathe again as Hermione throws herself at him in an uncharacteristically impulsive hug.
“I’m so sorry, Harry,” she mumbles, tightening her grip on him when he lifts half-trapped arms to hug her back. “I’m so sorry. I could’ve killed him. Shit, Harry, I could’ve killed him.”
“It’s not your fault,” he repeats, breathless. “And everyone is fine. Draco is fine.”
Harry meets Ron’s eyes through Hermione’s mass of curls. His friend grants him a sympathetic look and then shrugs. “What do you want me to do, call her off?”
Harry smiles against Hermione’s shoulder and she releases him to turn on Ron.
“As if you ever could,” she says tartly, and then wilts into a seated position, pulling her damp robes up off the floor and leaning against Ron’s knee. “I really am sorry, Harry... is there anything we can do?”
“You can take this owl back to Flourish and Blotts if you like,” Harry suggests. “I was thinking about doing it myself but I should probably stay and mend the tank.”
“Absolutely,” Hermione says, looking relieved.
“Give him here,” Ron says, holding out a large hand. “I’ll put him in my robe pocket. You two are both soaking, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Harry carefully hands over the owl, who is immediately tucked away into Ron’s pocket. “I think I stopped noticing a few hours ago,” he admits, shivering. “Or maybe not.”
“Come on, let’s go,” Hermione says, pulling herself up and fixing Harry with a look that falls somewhere between kindness and exasperation. “Get them back in the tank and then go and get yourself dry. Ooh... you should have a bath. And a cup of tea. In fact, I could—”
“He can manage that all on his own,” Ron interrupts, steering a reluctant Hermione towards the door. “Especially the bath part.”
“Thank you!” Harry calls, fingers slipping back into the bucket as he watches them out into the hallway. “Don’t forget to shout at them, ’Mione, owl overloading and all that!”
Hermione laughs and her voice drifts up the stairs: “I promise you, they will have no idea what hit them. I plan to cause an enormous fuss.”
Harry smiles. He waits until he hears the flames roar before he tries again to get to his feet. This time, with an extra push and a lot of swearing, he forces himself upright, and when Draco swivels his eyes mockingly from the bucket, Harry doesn’t even care. All that’s important is that he’s alive and safe. Attempting to concentrate on his feelings of relief and achievement rather than the aching stiffness in his muscles, Harry begins the task of repairing his aquarium.
Slowly, he draws his wand along the broken glass, starting with the smaller cracks and working his way back to the large, jagged hole. The glass liquefies gently under his spell, allowing it to be smoothed and repaired, blending the new parts with the old until the front pane of the tank is one whole, seamless object again. Harry is sore and cold and sticky by the time he is satisfied with the repair, and he feels so lightheaded that he stumbles as he steps away from the tank.
“Just a little break, I think,” he mumbles, tipping some blood worms into the bucket and fetching himself some toast from the kitchen. “Always toast,” he says idly, and Draco swims in a circle, sucking down a bright red worm with obvious enjoyment and none of his previous shame.
When all of the substrate, plants and ornaments have been returned to the tank and the water has been replaced, Harry is just about ready to drop, but he steadies his hands as he places each catfish back into the aquarium and checks everything one last time. With the lid down, the filter running smoothly and the window—fucking window—firmly closed, he collapses onto the sofa and groans. The floor is still pretty wet but he cannot be bothered to pick up his wand and dry it. Instead, he wriggles out of everything but his underwear and curls up into a ball, resting his head on the arm of the sofa so that he can see his fish and pulling a stripy green blanket around himself like a cocoon.
As he lies there, a mixture of exhaustion and soft, flickering blue light conspires to lull him into sleep, but he fights it, keeping his eyes open even when they become sore and heavy. He needs to watch his fish, needs to see them, needs to know that they are swimming, or at least that they are trying to swim. They will swim again, he knows they will, but he has to keep the image of life at the front of his mind so that he can use it to banish the horrific picture of destruction that seems to be burned on the backs of his eyelids.
They are fine. They’re all fine. Draco is...
Harry jumps at the soft clack of Scrabble tiles against the newly-repaired glass.
GO TO BED
“Hmm,” Harry mumbles, one corner of his mouth lifting in a weary smile. “You’re so bossy, Draco. Gonna miss you, though... yep...”
And then the tiles are blurring, swimming, and Harry is swimming with them, weaving through the water at Draco’s side, and it’s the most wonderful feeling he has ever experienced.
At least, it is, until there’s a dry sort of groan and a thump and the sound of scrabbling, and he’s sitting bolt upright and yelping when his muscles twist and cramp painfully.
“Oh, fuck, no,” he mutters, squinting against the harsh morning light. He’s on the sofa... why is he on the sofa? When everything comes back to him in a horrible rush, he turns to stare at his fish tank, just as someone yanks his blanket away from him and exposes his almost naked body to the cold air.
“Excuse me?!” he demands, whipping around to face the interloper, even as he does so, giving himself a mental slap. Someone is in his house without his permission and all he can say is ‘excuse me’? Attempting to regain his Auror pride, he grabs up his wand and points it straight at... Draco Malfoy.
The person in his living room, the person who just stole his favourite blanket, is a shivering, gasping, soaking wet Draco Malfoy. And he looks terrified.
For long seconds they stare at one another as water drips from Draco’s hair and skin and patters onto Harry’s floorboards, and then Draco appears to lose his balance, his legs, weak from disuse, folding beneath him as he crashes onto the floor in a heap. Harry snaps out of his astonishment, vaults over the back of the sofa and falls onto his knees beside him, hissing in pain as his muscles protest the sudden movement.
“You’re okay,” he mumbles, reaching out to touch Draco’s arm and then drawing back as he recoils. “Wow... alright... it’s fine, Draco... it’s me... it’s Harry... you’re okay,” he attempts, hating the wobble in his voice and wishing he could find the right words to cut through the terror and panic to reach the confident, reasonable man underneath.
Draco says nothing but turns to gaze at the fish tank, watching the peaceful swimming of the glass cats for a moment and then looking back to Harry and staring, mouth slightly open, pulling the blanket more tightly around himself until all Harry can see is a pair of pale grey eyes and a mop of wet blond hair. His heart aches and he itches to reach out and comfort him, but he presses his hands to the damp floor instead, resting his weight on his arms as he tries to decide on his next move.
As far as he can see, Draco is—at least physically—unharmed by his time as a fish, but he is also quite clearly weak and in shock, and Harry can’t remember the last time he saw him remain silent for so long. Not that he blames him for being traumatised, but he wishes he would say something, anything, that would offer a clue regarding the best course of action.
“I think we should get you to St Mungo’s,” he says at last, and the silvery eyes flicker above the blanket.
Harry almost expects to see a little swivel and the flick of a barbel, and he has to turn away so that Draco doesn’t see his smile and interpret it as some sort of threat.
When the dying embers of the fire burst into roaring flames and Hermione’s head appears in the fireplace, Draco jumps and all but disappears under the stripy blanket.
“It’s okay,” he assures, stretching out a hand and then withdrawing it again. He, too, is startled by Hermione’s sudden appearance, and not just because he hardly ever uses the Floo Network in this room.
“There you are,” she says, sounding out of breath. “I’ve been calling from downstairs for ages. I thought you should know that David’s awake and he’s going to... ah.” She stops dead, spotting the tangle of blanket and wet Draco. “Looks as though he was even more eager to release that spell than I thought.”
“So it would seem,” Harry agrees.
“Well, erm... hello, Draco, it’s good to have you back,” Hermione says uncertainly. “Shall I send for someone from St Mungo’s to come and pick him up? Yes, I’ll do that...”
Draco twists around to stare at her but she is already withdrawing from the flames, still muttering to herself, and he makes a small, dry sound before pulling up his knees and resting his chin on top of folded arms in a tight, protective ball. Harry has never felt more useless. He sits there, listening to the hum of the aquarium filter in the near silence, feeling like a stranger in his own living room, watching a frightening, awkward scene from another person’s life.
Fortunately, the staff of St Mungo’s are every bit as efficient as Hermione, and it isn’t long before two nurses and an emergency mediwitch are stepping out of the fireplace and brushing the soot from their robes. They immediately leap into action, one nurse bombarding Harry with questions while the other helps the mediwitch to gently ease Draco to his feet and perform a whispered spell that seems designed to help him support his own weight more easily, judging by the flicker of relief on his face.
“We just need to admit you for a little while and look you over, Mr Malfoy,” the mediwitch says, and though her tone is gentle, Draco’s eyes widen in panic and he looks around frantically for Harry. He still doesn’t say a word, but he doesn’t need to; those eyes are pleading, fearful, and Harry can’t bring himself to look away, even as he answers the nurse’s last question and ducks behind the sofa to retrieve his clothes.
“It’s alright,” he mouths, and then, as stridently as he can manage, “I’m going with him.”
“Of course,” the mediwitch says brightly. “You absolutely should.”
Relieved, Harry struggles into his damp clothes and the five of them Disapparate where they stand, Draco’s cold fingers wrapping tightly around Harry’s wrist and refusing to let go.
In the bright light of the hospital corridor, everything seems to be happening at twice the usual speed and volume. Harry disentangles himself from the nurse next to him and looks around as several people in lime green seem to be barrelling towards him.
“Right, bring him here, there’s a spare bed next to the window,” someone barks, and when Harry shakes himself and looks again, he realises that there is only one, very large, Healer, his head is spinning and he has somehow managed to leave his glasses at home.
Draco is pulled firmly away from him and propelled along the corridor, leaving Harry alone and strangely bereft. He hurries after them and catches the Healer at the door to the ward.
“Sorry, but can I come and sit with him? He’s been... well, he’s been under a transformation spell for a month and I’ve been--”
The man looks over his damp, creased clothes with emotionless dark eyes. “Are you a relative?”
“No, but he...”
“Visiting hours are between one and four,” the man snaps, stalking into the room and letting the door slam in Harry’s face.
“... he’s my fish,” he says to the empty corridor.
When a pair of Healers walk by and stop their conversation to gaze at him with interest, Harry leans back against the wall, closing his eyes and letting the world fade away, just for a moment. His head is full of frantic, dying fish and gushing water and impossibly pale eyes, strong, cold fingers and the feeling of dull panic in his chest as Draco had been pulled away from him. His legs and back and shoulders ache. His stomach is twisting into knots. He’s spiralling into madness and he has no idea how to stop it, or, more worryingly, if he wants to stop it.
He thinks he had always sort of believed that when the spell was broken, the feelings of affection and protectiveness that went with it would just... disappear. It’s all too obvious now that that was a ridiculous thing to believe, and that whatever his feelings are, he’s most likely stuck with them. Even if it turns out that Draco wants nothing to do with him once he recovers his composure and sweeps every speck of vulnerability back under his flawless Malfoy cloak.
Harry sighs and opens his eyes. He can still hear voices in the room—male and female, young and old—but not Draco’s. When the moustached Healer sticks his head out into the corridor, yells for a nurse and then glares at Harry, he pushes off the wall and wanders in the direction of the spiral staircase; visiting David is as good a distraction as any, especially now that he’s awake at last. When he pokes his head into his friend’s room, though, it is empty, bed neatly made and cabinets swept clean of flowers and cards.
“Excuse me,” he calls towards the nurses’ station. “Where can I find David Clyde?”
A nurse with vivid purple streaks in her hair looks up and smiles. “Hello, Auror Potter. Don't worry, he's fine. He was trying to get out of bed so much that that we moved him down to General Ward Two.”
“Thanks,” Harry says, turning to go. He hesitates. “I don’t suppose you... I came in with a patient... a friend of mine... and now I’m not being allowed into his room. Is there any way of getting around that, do you think?”
The nurse leans against the solid wooden structure, tapping her pencil against a chart. “It depends. Was the Healer in charge a tall bloke with a big moustache?”
“Little piggy eyes?” she says, dropping her voice. “Massive superiority complex?”
“Bummer.” She screws up her nose apologetically. “I might have been able to help you with anyone else, but not him. It’s sort of a lost cause, I’m afraid.”
Disappointed, Harry thanks her anyway and heads back down to the ground floor to General Ward Two. David is in excellent spirits, surrounded by a crowd of family and friends who greet Harry with enthusiasm and fold him into their impromptu celebration. A young woman who looks just like David hands him a sparkling pumpkin juice and a small, wizened old man startles him with a hug. It seems as though visiting hours aren’t as strictly adhered to in this ward, and Harry is pleased for his friend, despite the cross little knot in his stomach made by Draco’s unfriendly Healer.
David waves away Harry’s apologies, much to his discomfort, and warns him that if he tries to say sorry one more time, he’s going to regret it.
“What are you going to do from your bed?” the girl who is definitely David’s sister teases him. “Start a pillow fight?”
“Don’t underestimate me, Maria, I’ve had a lot of time to strategise! Seriously, though, Harry, you’ve got to let it go. You aren’t the one who threw that curse, and the main thing is, no one was permanently injured,” David says, and Harry nods, finding a grateful smile for him and pushing away the stab of panic that accompanies the memory of Draco’s fearful eyes. “He's going to be okay, isn't he? Draco Malfoy?”
“Yeah,” Harry says, forcing a note of positivity into his voice. “He's going to be fine.”
As soon as official visiting hours begin, Harry leaves David to the rest of his guests and rushes for the third floor, hurrying into the ward and almost knocking over a nurse in his haste to reach Draco. The moment he gets there, though, he has no idea what do or say. All at once ludicrously self-conscious, he hangs back at the end of the bed, fingers tucked into his sleeves, waiting. Draco regards him calmly, hands folded in his lap. He is sitting up in bed, propped up on several cushions, and has, to Harry’s silent relief, a little more colour in his face than before. Someone has dried his hair with a spell and it falls in pale waves across his forehead, making him look younger and softer around the edges than usual. His pale blue hospital-issued pyjamas are a little too big for him and the cuffs fall over his fingers as he fidgets and looks out of the window.
“Has somebody been feeding my fish?” he says quietly.
His voice is thin and a little scratchy, but Harry’s heart speeds with relief at the sound of it.
“Er, yeah,” he says after a moment. He’s not sure what he expected Draco to say, but he still manages to be surprised by the question. “Hermione had someone go round and check on them every day. They’re fine.”
Draco lets out a long, careful breath. “Please tell her thank you.”
“You can tell her yourself, I’m sure she’ll be coming to visit as soon as she can.”
“Maybe, but I won’t be here,” Draco says, finally meeting Harry’s eyes. “I’m going back to the Manor this afternoon.”
“Already?” Harry blurts, eyebrows shooting up.
Something almost like a smile flickers at one corner of Draco’s mouth. If Harry didn’t know better, he’d swear he was having a barbel twitched at him.
“There’s nothing wrong with me that a few stiff strength potions won’t fix. The nurses have given me an exercise regimen to build up the muscles I haven’t been using.” He shrugs carelessly. “If I stay here, I’m just taking up a perfectly good bed.”
“Did he say that to you? That Healer?” Harry demands, folding his arms.
“The one with the moustache?” Draco says, glancing at the door. “Well, he might have done, I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention to him.”
Harry sighs, feeling heavy as he gazes at the hopelessly stubborn man in the bed. “So you’re just going to go home? On your own?”
“Yes, Potter... Harry,” he says, voice turning oddly brittle. “You don’t have to worry about me any more. I’m grateful to you for looking after me, but I’m no longer your responsibility. I’m not anyone’s responsibility. Now, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m rather tired.”
“Right,” Harry says, unexpectedly stung. “That’s... yeah, I understand.”
He hangs back for a moment as Draco curls on his side and pulls up his sheets, and then turns and walks out of the room. In the corridor, he barely notices the bright lights and the clamour of voices; there’s a low, fuzzy droning sound inside his head and it’s just getting louder and louder; each step he takes feels a little heavier, and when he finds himself in his kitchen, he isn’t even sure whether he flooed or Apparated.
Operating on automatic pilot, he puts the kettle on to boil and retrieves tea, milk and a mug. He makes Earl Grey and stares at it instead of drinking it. Slowly and reluctantly, he climbs the stairs and goes into the living room, where he stands in front of his fish tank and stares at his nine glass cats. They are shoaling quite happily without their illustrious leader. They don’t need him, he supposes. And he doesn’t need them.
“He doesn’t need us,” he says absently, sipping his tea and closing his eyes. After a moment, he opens them again. “And that’s fine. It’s fine,” he repeats, a little louder this time.
It’s fine because everyone is okay, even him. He might feel a little bit lost right now, but soon he’ll be back at work, back in the field with Hermione, back to... whatever it was he used to do with the rest of his time. And he’s got fish to look after now—real fish—fish that are fish, not fish that are actually grumpy Slytherins with fins.
As he makes his way back downstairs to make toast, he wonders how long it will be before he finds Kingsley’s head in the fireplace again, telling him that his assignment is over.
“I hope it’s soon,” he lies to the empty kitchen. “I hope it’s fucking immediately.”
When the fire flares behind him as he’s buttering his toast, his heart crashes unpleasantly against his ribcage.
“It’s just me, Harry,” Andromeda calls from the flames. “I was wondering if you' be willing to share that fantastic biscuit recipe you told me about last week...”
Harry turns around and waves at her. He thinks he might be able to wait a few more minutes.
As it turns out, he has more than just a few minutes to wait. Kingsley’s owl arrives as he is picking at his lunchtime toast and informs him, in his boss’s extravagantly beautiful handwriting, that he won’t be needed until Monday and that he should take the weekend to rest and get ready for the mountain of new cases that are apparently waiting for him on his desk.
For a moment, Harry feels grateful for the reprieve, and then remembers that he has literally no idea what to do with himself to fill the time. In desperation, he cleans his house from top to bottom, puts up, takes down, and repositions a new shelf for his fish care books, bakes more biscuits and cakes than he knows what to do with, scrubs out the aquarium, re-varnishes the damaged floorboards and drinks enough tea to shock Molly’s quilting circle. He wanders around the pet emporium, buying all sorts of things he doesn’t need and chatting about glass cats to a salesgirl that almost certainly has better things to do. He visits Ron and Hermione and Neville and the Burrow, and he locks the door to his study in an attempt to prevent himself writing ill-advised letters to people who used to be fish.
Of course, he doesn’t hear a word from Draco, and while he can admit that he’s a little disappointed, he isn’t surprised. Malfoys are proud and impressive, and spending time as a tiny fish in a tank belonging to an old rival has, no doubt, left him feeling vulnerable. He probably can’t wait to forget about it, and the Prophet’s Saturday morning’s headline of ‘Malfoy Back on Dry Land’ won’t be helping matters.
Still, the house just doesn’t feel quite right without him, and there’s no getting away from the fact that Harry misses him. In fact it’s sort of painful, and it’s all he can do to stop himself marching over to the Manor and... what? Giving him a shake, maybe. Demanding... something. A conversation, at least, and a proper one at that, not another strained, muttered exchange about nothing at all, and certainly not a complete avoidance of the fact that their shared experience has changed things between them in some way.
They are connected now, he’s tired of denying it, and while he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do about it, it certainly feels as though some sort of action is required. Of course, by the time Monday rolls around, he has done nothing, and it once again feels like a relief to be able to put on his Auror robes and go to the Ministry. He is welcomed back with hugs and backslaps and a card from Ron on his desk, featuring a drawing by Rose of a cross-looking fish and the words ‘WELCOME BACK, MATE’ written inside.
“So, have you heard from him yet?” Hermione asks once they are able to close the office door on their noisy colleagues.
“Who?” Harry asks, ignoring the tight feeling in his stomach and picking up a memo. He can hear her folding her arms and feel her staring at him. “No,” he admits after a moment.
“You miss him. I knew you would.”
“Don’t be daft,” Harry says lightly, forcing himself to meet her eyes and immediately wishing he hadn’t. She is wearing her seriously, none of your crap, mister expression and that never bodes well for him.
“It’s great, everything’s back to normal. He was a fish and that was weird, and now he’s not and that’s... great. I already said great, didn’t I?”
“Harry, after what you went through, I think it’s normal to feel—”
“I don’t feel anything,” Harry says hurriedly. “I just have to... you know... readjust.”
Hermione lets out a heavy sigh and folds into her leather chair, tucking up her feet and regarding Harry as though he is a badly-behaved puppy.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
Harry attempts a smile. “Me neither.”
“In all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you so defensive about your feelings... Harry, you’re actually incredibly emotionally literate... and I don’t want to say ‘for a man’, but I’m going to, and it’s a really good thing. Why is it that suddenly you’ll do anything but admit that you might have come to care about Draco?”
“Because I...” Harry pauses, feeling his face flush. “Because I don’t know him. I just know a fish,” he says, feeling stupid but knowing he can’t lie to Hermione. “And that fish doesn’t even exist any more.”
Hermione laughs softly, covering her mouth with one hand. “Harry, don’t be so literal. That fish was a person all along. What’s to stop you being friends now that you can actually communicate with each other?”
“Since when have you been such a fan of his, anyway?” Harry says crossly, knowing that she’s right and wishing he could dive under his desk and pretend she isn’t there.
“I barely know the man, Harry,” she says, shrugging. “But I know he isn’t the person he used to be... none of us are... and he’s done some amazing charity work, and he likes animals. I’m just saying that he’s probably a decent person under all that Malfoy stuff, and if anyone should know that, it’s you.”
“I doubt he wants to be friends with me anyway,” Harry says airily, picking up another memo.
“You saved his life,” Hermione points out. “I imagine he owes you a thank you at least.”
Harry says nothing, pretending intense interest in the memo requesting donations for a canteen worker’s retirement gift and pushing away the vivid memories of rushing cold water and cracked glass and the frantic search for life. When he looks up again, Hermione is stoking the fire and humming to herself, and she doesn’t mention Draco for the rest of the day.
The sky is dark and star-filled from the window of Harry’s office when he finally sets aside his quill and gets up to leave, and he decides to walk home, even though he knows that the light-polluted London night will not be as beautiful as the view from his enchanted window. The air will do him good, and it’s possible, though not likely, that the walk will settle his mind.
His hands and face are bitterly cold by the time he turns into Grimmauld Place, but the wintry air has a nip of sweet smoke and is wonderfully refreshing in his lungs. He draws in a deep breath, swinging into his doorway with one hand wrapped around the iron railings, and walks straight into Draco.
“What are you doing here?” he demands, heart pounding as he steps back.
Draco says nothing for a moment, and Harry just stares at him, wondering how on earth he could have missed seeing him; he is dressed from head to toe in black—long wool coat, trousers, boots—but his hair and skin are almost luminescent against the dark house and sky, and his eyes seem to gleam as they rake curiously over Harry.
“May I see them?” he says at last, voice uncharacteristically hopeful.
Harry frowns. “Who?”
“The others,” Draco says, and he definitely looks nervous now. “I feel... rather odd without them.”
Harry stares at him for a moment, completely nonplussed, and then: “Do you mean the other fish? Well... the fish...?”
Draco nods but remains silent, posture rigid and mouth pressed into a thin line.
“Okay,” Harry says after a moment, unlocking the door and gesturing Draco inside with a shiver and a feeling of overwhelming uncertainty.
Without another word, he directs Draco up to the living room and follows him, idly noting the length of his strides, the clack of his boots on the floor, the way his pale hair just brushes his coat collar at the back. When he sees the aquarium, something inside him seems to light up. He crosses the room quickly and crouches in front of the tank, eyes darting to follow the fishes and fingertips resting lightly at the bottom edge of the glass.
“Do you want...?” Harry starts, but falls silent when one by one, the nine glass cats deviate from their paths and swim to the front, where they collect in an excitable, shimmering group, almost tumbling over one another for Draco’s attention.
Astonished, Harry forgets his nerves and crouches beside Draco to watch the display.
“I’ve never seen them do that... they aren’t supposed to do that,” he mumbles to himself.
“They still know me,” Draco says, mouth curving into a brilliantly unguarded smile. “Yes, it’s me,” he says, running a finger across the glass and watching the little fish follow it eagerly. “Hello.”
“That’s incredible,” Harry says, shaking his head. “They shouldn’t do that.”
“Remember me?” Draco shoots him a sharp look.
“No... I mean, they shouldn’t behave like that. It’s just not what they do.”
“Shoulds are very restrictive,” Draco says, turning back to the fish. “They look content, do they not?”
Harry looks at the fish. He has to admit that they do look content. “Yeah, I suppose.”
“Well, then,” Draco says, lifting one shoulder in a light shrug. “Nothing else matters.”
“Are you content?” Harry says, and god, he has no idea why he would ask such a thing. He swallows hard. “You know, with being back to normal, I mean.”
Draco just looks at him, eyes expressionless, and then turns back to the fish.
“You got a new plant,” he says, pointing.
“Yeah. Crinum Calamistratum,” Harry offers, watching the spindly plant waving in the current. “Not sure how well it’s going to take, but I just liked it.”
“Saturn likes it,” Draco says, and Harry frowns, puzzled, until he follows Draco’s finger to where one of the catfish is now winding in and out of the new plant.
“Saturn? You named them?” he asks, amused.
“Of course. There were nine of them, so I thought... nine fish, nine planets...” He shrugs.
“There are only eight planets now, apparently,” Harry says helpfully.
Draco scowls. “Oh, yes, according to Muggles. What a load of codswallop. This one’s Pluto, here, by the filter.”
Harry watches the smallest fish for a moment. “You can tell them all apart?”
“Of course. I’m surprised you can’t.”
“Okay,” Harry says with a sigh and lowers himself into a more comfortable cross-legged position on the floor. “Draco, I really think we need to talk about—”
“Neptune is the weakest swimmer,” Draco says, copying his position and gazing straight ahead into the tank. “I thought that was rather amusing.”
Harry nods and picks at his robe sleeves, determined to try again. “Because at the hospital, you said—”
“Venus is the other female, of course,” Draco interrupts again, and when Harry chances a glance at him, he is biting his lip so hard that it looks painful. “Mars was a bit territorial, so I...” He sighs.
“Are we really not going to talk about this?” Harry says quietly. “Because I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I can just go back to normal, whatever that is.”
Draco sits up a little straighter and takes a long, controlled breath. “Harry, I... did you know Mercury had a rip in his fin?”
Frustrated, Harry gets up, yanking his robes over his head and walking down to the kitchen in his jeans and t-shirt. If he’s ever going to get Draco to open up, he’s going to need a lot of patience and a lot of tea. The latter, at least, he can provide in spades.
When he walks into the living room, cups in hands, Draco is nowhere to be seen.
“Hello?” he calls, glancing around for any sign that Draco hasn’t just Disapparated the second he left the room.
Finding nothing, he sags, heart heavy, and is just about to collapse onto the sofa with both cups when he hears a soft splashing sound. Puzzled, he tracks it to the second floor, where he finds the bathroom door closed almost all the way. Transferring both cups into one hand, he knocks gently.
There is no reply. Harry pushes open the door and stops dead.
“What are you doing?”
Draco, who is sitting in the bath in his boxers and undershirt, scowls and plunges himself up to his chin in the water, sending the overflow gurgling and a gentle wave slopping over the edge of the bath and onto his discarded clothes.
“I can’t help it,” he says crossly, and Harry raises an eyebrow.
“You can’t help what? Sitting in other people’s baths half-dressed?”
Draco folds his arms under the water, which, Harry now notices is not steaming at all. The night is chilly enough as it is and the idea of sitting in cold water makes him shiver.
“Ever since I... was transformed...” Draco hesitates, flicking his eyes up to Harry and then back to his bare knees. “I have this uncontrollable urge, every now and then, to be in the water.”
“Don’t you have a bath at the Manor?” Harry asks, amused rather than irritated.
“Several, and believe me, they aren’t the same. I remember this one,” Draco says, and then, in almost a whisper: “I didn’t want to just leave. You might think I had no manners.”
“I think you might have sealed your fate on that one when you were a fish,” Harry teases, and when Draco scowls and looks away, the last of his patience dissolves.
“Right, then, if this is what we’re doing,” he says, setting down the cups and climbing into the bath.
He settles himself awkwardly at the tap end, gasping at the shock of the cold water and tucking himself into the tightest space he can to conserve warmth.
“And what is it that we’re doing?” Draco demands, alarmed.
“Talking about this,” Harry says firmly. “About what happened. About the fact that you and me spent over a month together, and even though you were a bloody catfish for most of it, we made friends... or I like to think we did, and I don’t actually want to lose that just because you want to pretend none of it happened,” he finishes in a rush, just about stopping himself from adding ‘so there!’
The silence hangs oppressively in the air between them, and it seems like a very long time before Draco opens his mouth to speak.
“I’m not pretending it didn’t happen, I am merely moving forward, and one cannot move forward if one is looking back.”
Harry frowns, imagining Draco caught up in some kind of twisted sand dance. “Of course you can. You might fall down a bit, but it’s definitely possible.”
“Must you be so literal?” Draco sighs.
“You know, you’re not the first person to say that to me today,” Harry admits, finding himself wanting to smile at Draco until he stops looking so bloody solemn. When he tries it, Draco looks so confused that he decides to carry on.
“What do you want to be my friend for, anyway?”
Harry shrugs, slopping more water out onto the bathroom floor. “Because I like you.”
The moment the words are out, he is gripped by cold panic, and all he can do is stare at Draco and hope that he doesn’t decide to leap out of the bath in horror and run screaming from the house.
As it happens, he does no such thing. Instead, he lowers himself further into the bath, sinking down until the water laps around his nostrils. His eyes never leave Harry’s and his feet slide, seemingly out of his control, along the slippery bottom of the tub until the tips of his toes touch Harry’s socked feet.
For a long time, no words are spoken. The bathroom is almost entirely shrouded in darkness, the only illumination coming from the tiny sliver of lamplight that sneaks under the door from the landing, but Draco’s pale figure is easily visible, as are the quickening shivers that tell Harry all he needs to know about the differing needs for warmth of a small catfish and a very odd man. He, too, is struggling with the cold water and is beginning to regret his impulsive decision to leap into the bath along with Draco. Every time one of them shifts position even the slightest amount, the water comes lapping against his bare skin and sodden clothes, and he longs to climb out and scrub himself with a warm, rough towel, but he’s not moving an inch until Draco says something.
“I don’t like to be known,” he says at last, lifting himself an inch or two out of the water.
“Yeah... I’d kind of worked that out,” Harry says drily.
Draco scowls. “Yes, well, there’s something rather humiliating about being someone’s pet.”
“You weren’t my pet, Draco,” Harry says, suppressing a shudder as Draco moves and sends a wave of cold water rushing around his shoulders. “The spell was for your protection. I was assigned to carry on protecting you until David woke up. There isn’t anything to be ashamed of.”
“That’s okay for you to say,” Draco snaps. “When you started enjoying yourself, it just meant you’d found a new hobby. When I... it’s just not the same, alright?”
“Why isn’t it? Is that what this is about—you enjoyed being a fish?”
“Don’t say it like that, it’s ridiculous,” Draco hisses, pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. “The last thing I need is another one of those newspaper articles. It’s humiliating.”
“None of that Prophet stuff has come from me,” Harry says, offended. “And anyway, no one’s going to remember this in a couple of months. They’ll find some other well-known person to make fun of, that’s what always happens. What I want to know is, what’s so terrible about making the best of a bad situation?”
Draco lifts an eyebrow and Harry doesn’t think he imagines the tiniest flicker of a smile.
“It’s not in my nature.”
Harry snorts. “You don’t need to tell me that. You were a very grumpy fish.”
Draco lets out a long sigh that ripples the surface of the water. “Ah, only sometimes. The truth is, it’s really quite pleasant. No responsibilities, no worrying about how every little thing will affect the sodding Malfoy image...” Draco stops, eyes anxious as he appears to realise that he has said too much, but Harry merely rests his chin on his cold, wet forearms and gestures for him to continue. To his surprise, Draco does. “All I had to do was swim and eat and think. It was a very strange experience.”
“That all sounds pretty positive to me,” Harry says.
“Well, you always were a sickening optimist,” Draco sighs, but he’s almost smiling again.
Harry shrugs, sending a ripple through the water that this time makes Draco shiver. “Guilty.”
“Have you done something to this water?” Draco demands. “It’s freezing.”
“No,” Harry says, heaving himself out of the bath and standing there dripping on the tiled floor. “November has done something to this water. Get out and I’ll make you a fresh cup of tea.”
“Are you telling me what to do?” Draco asks, scandalised, even though he is already halfway out of the tub.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Harry mutters, hiding his smile in a towel and heading out onto the landing. “There’s a robe on the back of the door if you don’t feel like drying your clothes.”
He leaves Draco in the cold bathroom and wanders down to the kitchen where he puts on warm, dry clothes and remakes the tea, all the while unable to fight down an odd little smile.
When he enters the living room, Draco is curled on the sofa, wearing his long, dark green bathrobe and talking intently to one of the catfish. Mercury, he thinks—the one with the damaged fin. He is so struck by how much Draco looks as though he belongs there that he doesn’t even try to argue about the use of his favourite sofa, and instead installs himself in front of the fish tank on a fat, tapestried cushion.
“He’s been swimming too fast without paying much attention to where he’s going, I suspect,” Draco says, turning his attention to Harry at last. “Does that remind you of anyone?”
Harry pulls a face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“That’s funny, because the Prophet reporters seem to think you injure yourself at least once a month doing something disgustingly heroic without a scrap of regard for your own safety,” Draco says, swiping his damp hair out of his face and sipping his tea.
“I don’t read it,” Harry lies.
Draco grins now, revealing straight, white teeth and pointed canines that make him look startlingly playful. Harry’s heart speeds in surprise and he drinks his scalding tea a little too fast.
“You’re the worst liar I have ever met.”
“Thanks... I think,” Harry says, suddenly feeling unsure of himself. Sensing himself flailing, he reaches for a topic almost at random. “So... how’s your mother doing?”
Draco’s face turns serious. “Better,” he says, resting his cup on his knees. “It’s a slow recovery. She writes, you know, but I haven’t seen her since the summer. She’s too worried I’ll get ill, too. It’s very contagious, obviously.”
Harry nods. “They’ve got a brilliant quarantine ward at St Mungo’s, though. I should know,” he adds with a wry smile that Draco briefly returns.
“I know, but my mother and France... well, there’s a special connection there. She seems to think the air in Castelnou is healthier than the air anywhere else. Plus, her favourite Healer lives over there, so... it’s just logical, really,” Draco says.
“I suppose so,” Harry says, drinking his tea a little more carefully now and considering the idea of a favourite Healer with some amusement. He thinks he must have been treated by almost every Healer at St Mungo’s over the years, and it has taken him until this month to meet one he doesn’t like.
“She doesn’t know about this,” Draco says suddenly. “I’ll tell her when she’s fully recovered, but not before. She doesn’t need the stress.”
“And who were you going to talk to about it?” Harry asks, knowing he is pushing the point. “You know what else causes stress? Bottling things up and refusing to deal with them.”
“Good grief, you sound like Granger,” Draco says, and Harry stares at him, knowing that he is right.
“Sorry,” he mumbles through the fingers that come up to cover his heated face. “Still, she’s right. Or I’m right. Someone’s right. It’s not you.”
Draco laughs and Harry looks up, warm with surprise, to see him shifting position on the sofa, curling on his side and propping his head up on one hand, mug tucked close to his chest and hair spilling over one eye.
“Okay,” he says after a moment. “Here’s something ridiculous, then. I don’t feel traumatised or stressed because I spent all that time as a fish. I feel calmer. I feel... happier. You asked me if I was content? Yes. I am content. I have never felt content before in my life, Harry. And yet here I am, talking to you, and I am completely and utterly alright with it.”
Harry doesn’t know quite what to say to that. He rests his head against the glass of the aquarium behind him, feeling the steady vibration of the filter and letting it soothe his racing mind.
“What’s ridiculous about being content?” he asks last. “Or being happy? Any of it.”
Draco wrinkles his nose. “Well, it’s all a horrible cliché, isn’t it? A person goes through a difficult experience and comes out of it all full of serenity and ‘knowing what’s important now’ and such,” he explains, sketching vicious air quotes and looking so disgusted with himself that Harry has to fight to keep the smile off his face.
“Really, that’s what you think? You think it’s just a stupid cliché when a person survives an illness or a terrible accident and it forces them to reassess their priorities?”
“Must you put it like that? You make it sound so reasonable,” Draco says crossly.
This time, Harry does smile. “There’s a first time for everything.”
Draco sips his tea thoughtfully. “Well, perhaps you’re right—but I didn’t survive a terrible accident or anything like that. I spent a few weeks swimming around in a fish tank. It’s hardly enough to turn my entire life upside down.”
“No one said you had to do that,” Harry says carefully.
“I suppose not,” Draco sighs, and just for a moment, he looks at Harry with an aching sort of sadness, and then it is gone, leaving Harry puzzled and uneasy.
“I’ll get some more tea,” he says, caught between the urge to leave the room immediately and the desire to perch on the edge of the sofa next to Draco and pull him into his arms, borrowed green bathrobe and all.
With some effort, he shakes himself and returns to the kitchen, where he paces as he waits for the kettle to boil, feeling as though something new and unsettling is crawling around under his skin. When he returns, Draco is breathing softly, eyes closed and head pillowed awkwardly on the arm of the sofa.
Harry watches him for a moment, only now noticing the dark shadows beneath his eyes and the incongruously bitten nails. Content he might be, but rested he is not, Harry thinks as he puts down the cups and retrieves the stripy blanket that has been returned to him, freshly-washed and clean-smelling, by one of the kind domestics at St Mungo’s. Gently, he drapes the blanket over Draco and steps back, hoping not to wake him. Unfortunately, he treads on one of the many creaky floorboards in the house and Draco stirs.
“That you, Harry?” he murmurs, eyes still closed.
“Yeah, it’s me. It’s okay, you can sleep there,” Harry says.
“Harry,” he mumbles, words soft and stretchy. “Harry... I want to apologise... th’way I spoke to you...”
“No, it’s okay,” Harry whispers, tucking his hands into his pockets so that he doesn’t give in to the urge to reach out and stroke Draco’s hair out of his face.
“No,” Draco says more firmly, and his brow wrinkles. “At the hospital... you know... M’sorry. I didn’t want you to know... I thought...”
Harry waits, barely breathing, at the end of the sofa, but Draco has nothing more to say. He is drifting now, chest rising and falling in a slow, soothing rhythm, sharp features completely relaxed in sleep.
“What didn’t you want me to know?” he whispers to himself, chest tight as he pushes out a long, shaky breath and rakes both hands through his hair.
There is, of course, no answer, and after what feels like far too long, Harry turns away from the sleeping figure on the sofa and attends to the fish tank, switching their daytime lights for the soft, blue night-time ones, shaking their food into the water and watching them scrabble for it, hanging back to make sure that everyone gets enough before he turns off the lamps on the walls and trails off to bed.
Sleep doesn’t come easily, and when he does manage to snatch a couple of hours, his dreams are stressful and confusing, full of silvery images and warm, pointed things that he cannot touch.
He fully expects Draco to be gone when he wakes, leaving behind nothing more than a neatly-folded blanket and an empty teacup, but when he walks into the living room to check on the fish, he finds that he’s been beaten to it; the daytime lights have been switched on, the fish are shoaling happily, and Draco is sitting on the sofa, elegantly attired in the previous day’s clothes with the stripy blanket rolled into a somewhat haphazard ball beside him.
“Er... good morning,” Harry says, trying not to make him jump.
Grey eyes flick to his guiltily. “I didn’t come here with the intention of abusing your hospitality, you know.”
“I know. Do you want some breakfast?”
Draco raises an eyebrow. “Will it be toast?”
Harry smiles, suddenly awash with a feeling of warmth and hope. “It won’t only be toast.”
Draco gives him a look that is all eye-swivel and barbel-twitch, but he rises from the sofa and follows Harry down to the kitchen, where he helpfully retrieves cups and makes tea as though he has always been a part of Harry’s breakfast routine and that Harry simply hadn’t realised it up until this point. Harry finds the whole thing distractingly charming, and he burns the first round of toast so badly that he has to open the back door and flap a towel around to dispel the smoke.
Draco watches him with interest for a moment and then dissolves the smoke with a flick of his wand.
“Bit early in the morning for magic,” Harry says by way of explanation, but he knows he’s flushing horribly as he turns away to retrieve more bread.
Draco says nothing, but he perches on the edge of the table and sniffs interestedly at the air when Harry starts to cook bacon. Harry inhales the wonderful mix of late autumn morning, sizzling pork, brewing tea, and something new-yet-familiar as he assembles their breakfasts and, at last, feels himself beginning to relax.
As they eat, they talk easily, as though this has always been their way, and when Draco finally pushes away his plate and thanks Harry for his breakfast with a small smile, something warm and surprising and fantastic leaps in Harry’s stomach. Every last little thing seems to flip and twine together and drop into place and he almost chokes on his tea with the pure, intense relief of it.
“Of course,” he mumbles, coughing and spluttering and smiling all at once.
“You have well and truly lost it,” Draco declares, pushing out his chair and coming to whack Harry on the back with considerable force.
“Thanks,” he says weakly, and for a moment, they stare at one another in silence.
“Right,” Draco says, seeming to shake himself. He crosses to the fireplace, takes a pinch of Floo powder and nods to Harry before stepping into the flames. “I’ll see you.”
Harry stares at the empty fireplace for quite a bit longer than he should, and then forces himself to get on with... well, whatever he was attempting to get on with before being hit by the equivalent of a galloping Thestral. He supposes he should get ready for work, but the idea seems rather unappealing in the wake of this latest realisation. He thinks that, actually, what he should be doing is flopping on the sofa and staring at the ceiling with an idiotic grin on his face. In fact, he already has the idiotic grin, he can feel it tugging at the corners of his mouth, so it’s probably only right to let the rest of it happen.
Upstairs, he picks up the stripy blanket and collapses onto the sofa, resisting only for a second or two before bringing it up to his face and taking a long, deep breath. The fabric smells just like the new scent in his kitchen, of warm citrus and something else... something green, like moss or lichen. His heart skips and he laughs, feeling stupid and wonderful.
“He was never just a fish,” he says to the room, and then scrambles to address the occupants of the tank. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a fish... being a fish is great... but Draco is Draco and I’m... I’m losing my mind. But it’s fine.”
It’s fine, because he knows, at last, exactly where he is. He’s falling, and he’s falling towards Draco, and it’s dizzying and ridiculous and wonderful. He has always been intrigued by the man, but it seems as though he has had to learn to know the fish to makes sense of it all.
He covers his face with his hands, feeling the broad curve of his smile against his palms, and lets out a long, chaotic breath.
“Are you planning to come to work today at all?” Hermione asks, and he almost falls off the sofa.
“How did you get in?” he demands, struggling to his feet and attempting to untangle himself from the blanket. “What time is it?”
“It’s ten-thirty and the kitchen Floo was open,” she says calmly. “Had a guest, did you?”
Harry finally succeeds in freeing himself from the blanket and he leans on the back of the sofa, hoping he looks more casual than he feels. “Yes, sort of,” he admits.
Hermione’s mouth twists into a knowing smile. “Anyone special?”
“Don’t you start,” Harry says, attempting to sound stern but suspecting he ruins it with an uncontrollable smile. “We were just talking.”
“I didn’t suggest you’d be doing anything else,” she says, already halfway up the stairs to his bedroom. When she emerges, she is carrying a clean set of work robes, which she pushes into his hands.
He sticks out his tongue at her as he takes them but he puts them on anyway and attempts to ruffle his hair into submission. There’s a good chance that she knows exactly what’s going on here, even if Harry himself is only just beginning to put it all together, but it’s better for his sanity if he doesn’t think too hard about that fact.
She turns to leave and he follows her, just pausing at the aquarium to do a quick head-count and temperature check. His smile widens when he notices that Draco has retrieved some of the tiles from the tank and used them to spell out a message on the lid.
“Are you coming, or do I need to start asking awkward questions?” Hermione calls from the hallway.
Harry glances once more at the tiles and runs after her.
To Harry’s surprise, Hermione doesn’t allude to Draco’s visit for the rest of the day. When Draco owls the following morning and suggests meeting for lunch, however, she gives Harry a look of pained intrigue across the office, and when the same thing happens two more days in a row, she looks as though she is torn between wanting to cry with frustration and beat Harry senseless with the Auror Code of Conduct.
On the fourth day, there is no owl, but when Harry gets up at one o’clock and heads out for lunch anyway, she is gripping her teacup almost hard enough to shatter it.
“She’s going to break any day now,” he tells Draco gleefully over soup and toasties at a little cafe just off Diagon Alley.
“I can’t understand why she would be so over-excited about you having lunch with me.”
“She gets bored easily,” Harry says, snapping a bit of crunchy cheese from his toastie and eating it. “She needs to know things. I think it’s how she stops her brain from exploding.”
“And you want her brain to explode?” Draco asks, one eyebrow raised.
“Only figuratively,” Harry says, grinning.
“You’re a terrible, terrible person. How is Mercury’s fin?”
“You really do eat too much toast,” Draco says, examining his sandwich critically and then biting into it.
“It’s with soup,” Harry protests, pulling a slice from its paper bag and dipping it into his cup of steaming minestrone. “That means it doesn’t count.”
Draco turns on the park bench to fix him with a look. “You have a logic all of your own, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Harry says, sucking cold air into his mouth to cool his scalded tongue. “And I know you’re envious, but you said you had something to tell me and the suspense is killing me.”
Draco looks out over the frost-covered park and smiles, just a little. “You have to promise not to laugh.”
“I promise no such thing,” Harry says, licking melted butter from the pad of his thumb. He elbows Draco in the side and catches his breath when sharp grey eyes flick to him suddenly. “I’ll try,” he amends, and Draco rolls his eyes.
“I have a meeting this afternoon,” he says, turning his attention back to the glittering trees. “There’s a man in Scotland who’s eager to obtain some of my business interests—he has been for a while, actually, but I have not been eager to give them up.”
“And now you are?”
“Now I am... reassessing my priorities,” Draco says, sounding oddly sheepish. He glances at Harry significantly and his heart pounds in approval.
“How very sensible and not-at-all-clichéd of you,” Harry says solemnly.
Draco laughs. “I’m glad you approve.”
“I do. What are you selling him?”
“Oh, a little of this, a little of that,” Draco says, shrugging and picking at his sandwich. “Mostly those interests that... well, that I’m no longer interested in. I thought it might do me good to spend more of my time with things that I...” he falls silent, letting out a long breath that spirals visibly into the cold air.
“You know, you can say ‘things that I enjoy’,” Harry points out. “I’m not going to laugh at that.”
Draco glances at him, surprise clear on his face. “You said you couldn’t promise.”
“Well, that was before I knew what you were going to tell me. So, what do you plan to do with all your extra time?”
“I’m not sure. I could do anything I want, I suppose. Take up landscaping or painting or learn to ride a bicycle,” Draco says, clearly amused by the idea.
“You don’t know how to ride a bike?” Harry asks before he can stop himself.
Draco puts down his sandwich and folds his arms. “It wasn’t exactly the done thing when I was growing up.”
Harry nudges Draco’s knee with his own. “I can teach you, if you want.”
Draco’s smile is reluctant but beautiful. “We’ll see.”
“I’ve never known you to back away from a challenge,” Harry says.
Draco looks at him, eyes bright with defiance, and Harry spills soup all down the front of his coat.
Harry looks up from his desk when someone knocks at the door. It’s almost lunchtime and he half expects to see Draco standing there, even though they have never met at the Ministry, and he is both relieved and disappointed to see Ron.
“Are you coming down for lunch, Hermione?” he says, waving at Harry from the doorway. “It’s steak pie and Martha’s put two corner pieces aside for us.”
Hermione glances at him hopefully. “Do you mind?”
“Nope,” Harry says, smiling at her. “I need to finish this letter before I go out, anyway.”
“Are you having lunch with Draco?” she asks, getting up and pulling her cloak around her shoulders.
“Didn’t you have lunch with him yesterday?” Ron asks, puzzled.
Hermione laughs. “And the day before that, and the day before that, and—”
“Bloody hell,” Ron says, and he grins at Harry. “Better be careful, or people’ll say that you’re... oh.” Eyes widening, Ron closes his mouth and looks to Hermione for help.
“We’re not,” Harry says, turning red.
“Not yet,” Hermione says under her breath as she pulls Ron into the corridor.
“What was that?” Harry calls.
“Why did you let me say that?” Ron whispers.
“Nothing,” she says sweetly. “Have a nice lunch!”
He can hear them whispering furiously to one another as they make their way along the corridor, and he waits until there is silence once more to groan out loud and then attempt to apply himself to his letter. It isn’t as though he wants to keep secrets, especially not from Ron and Hermione, but the whole thing just makes him feel so flustered and he thinks...
Harry frowns at the sound of running feet, looking up just in time to see Hermione dashing back into the room. Her eyes are strangely bright as she comes barrelling over to the desk and throws her arms around him at a slightly uncomfortable angle. Puzzled, he hugs her back without a word. When she pulls away, though, he leans back in his chair and studies her, frowning.
“What was that for?”
“I’m just really pleased for you,” she whispers.
“I haven’t—” he tries, but she cuts him off with another hug, this time pulling back before he has chance to reciprocate and perching on the edge of his desk, cloak wrapped tightly around herself.
“I’ve been watching it for years, Harry, just wondering... thinking you’d never manage to be in the same room for long enough to realise it yourselves. I never imagined for a moment that this fish thing would actually be the catalyst, but...” She pauses, beaming.
“I’m really glad you’re happy,” she says, hopping down from the desk and walking back to the door, eyes locked with his the entire time. “And so is Ron. He wants me to apologise for him but I doubt it’s necessary. I have to go now... he promised he wouldn’t eat my pie, but I don’t really believe him.”
Hermione grins at him one last time and then is gone, no doubt pelting down the corridor to save her lunch Harry stares after her, startled, but soon finds her enthusiasm contagious. Humming to himself, he abandons his letter, puts on his coat and goes to meet Draco early.
These daily lunches are becoming a fiercely-guarded part of Harry’s routine, and he frequently finds himself wondering how he ever got through the day without them. He and Draco visit a new cafe, park bench or pub each lunchtime to talk and spar and laugh—so much so that Harry finds himself trying not to think about how serious he must have become. They discuss work and friends and fish and family; Harry tells Draco about the wonderful chaos of the Burrow, Draco tells Harry about his mother’s progress and the house in France, and they argue pointlessly until their food goes cold.
Draco is enthusiastic and guarded by turns, unpredictable and difficult and intriguing, and Harry finds the whole thing irresistible. By the end of the second week, he is so tangled up with longing that he can barely eat, and he’s pretty sure that Draco has noticed, but he hangs on grimly because when he looks at Draco, he can see the aching and the fluttering and the unbearable warmth right there in his eyes. He can feel the jump of electricity in every casual touch, the eye contact that lingers, just a little more each time, and he knows that it’s just one more step into everything. The problem is, he’s not sure either of them knows exactly how to take it.
“How are my boys and girls?” Draco enquires on a rainy Friday afternoon, wrapping his hands around a cup of mudlike Turkish coffee and regarding Harry over a selection of fragrant little snacks.
The noisy, fabric-draped little cafe is his choice, and though Draco has taken an unnecessary amount of delight in scanning the menu for toast, Harry is very content with his current location. The food is delicious, the waiters are friendly, and the low, squashy sofas are so comfortable that he thinks he may never move again.
Harry bites into a stuffed artichoke and nods. “Good. Mercury’s healing really nicely. Neville gave me a tonic to speed everything up and make sure he doesn’t get an infection. They miss you, though.”
Draco smiles down at his crumb-strewn plate. “How do you know?”
“I can just tell. And if I couldn’t, the way they keep nosing around in the Scrabble tiles and looking confused would be a good indicator.”
“You didn’t take them out?”
“No, of course not,” Harry says. They have been there since the very beginning of this strange adventure, and he can’t imagine his aquarium without them.
Draco looks up, eyes searching Harry’s face, and when he seems to find whatever it is that he is looking for, he turns to the window and gazes out at the rain.
“I’d like you to meet my fish,” he says after a moment.
Harry inhales sharply, breathing in the warm aromas of bread and spices and strong coffee. “Okay.”
“They’re ghost koi,” Draco says speculatively. “Ghost koi, ghost catfish... perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something.”
“Whatever it is, I think you’re listening,” Harry says, and the smile he gets in response sparks the warmth inside him into a wildfire.
“Come tomorrow,” Draco says, almost in a whisper, fingertips brushing the back of Harry’s hand.
He nods, unable to do anything but stare. “I will.”
That night, he calms his nerves by pulling down all the relevant books from his fish shelf and reading obsessively about every type of carp he can find, from the common, wild variety to the beautiful, ornamental hybrids kept by Draco.
“‘In Japanese, the word ‘koi’ can also stand for affection, strength or courage’,” he reads from the sofa. “‘Images of these fish are said to represent family, friendship and romantic love.’ What do you think of that?”
He glances up at the aquarium, but the glass cats are not paying attention. Pluto regards him with interest for a fraction of a second before ruffling his abdominal fin and tacking himself back onto the end of the shoal.
“I’m on my own, then, eh?” Harry mutters, smiling as he returns to his book. “I wonder what they like to eat...”
Harry wakes early and heads into London with a mission in mind, picking through market stall after market stall until he finds exactly what he wants, and then forcing himself to wait until almost eleven o’clock before Apparating outside the Manor gates with an unwieldy canvas bag over one shoulder. He walks up the winding drive, breathing in the wintry scent of cold earth and squinting against the glorious brightness of the sky.
Draco is just emerging from the house as he reaches the top of the drive. He sets down a tray containing a teapot, stripy mugs, and a stack of toast, steaming under a shimmering warming charm, and comes to greet Harry, looking just about as nervous as Harry has ever seen him.
He opens his mouth to speak and then closes it again, frowning.
“What on earth do you have in that bag?”
“Oh.” Harry grins and hands it over. “I brought you a watermelon.”
Draco takes the bag and peers into it, eyebrows knitted. “Well... alright. I’ll have you know I cooked and buttered that toast myself, but if you’d rather...”
Harry laughs, awkwardness suddenly melting away and leaving nothing but the very real desire to close the distance between them and kiss the confusion from Draco’s face. Instead, he says:
“No, it’s for your koi. I was reading last night, and... apparently, that’s what they really like. You can cut the middle out and then it floats in the water.” Harry pauses, noticing Draco’s raised eyebrow. “You think I’m mad, don’t you?”
“I think I know you’re mad,” Draco mumbles. “Come with me.”
Without another word, he wraps his fingers around Harry’s wrist and pulls gently, leading him across the crunchy, sparkling lawn to the pond. Harry follows, amused to see the tea-and-toast tray bobbling along behind them.
The pond is vast, curving smoothly through the lawn like a gigantic, stylised puddle, incorporating several different levels and multiple miniature waterfalls that pour into the water below, adding precious oxygen and creating a wonderfully soothing sound. Harry stands on the edge, watching the large, graceful shapes moving below the surface, metallic scales gleaming in the sunshine. When he turns to look at Draco, he has removed his shoes and socks and is neatly rolling his trousers to the knee. He looks up with a ruinous half smile and gestures for Harry to do the same.
“It’s December,” Harry points out, eyeing the rippling water with a shiver.
“Trust me,” Draco says simply.
Heart racing, Harry nods, kicking away his boots and woollen socks and pushing his jeans up around his knees without ever taking his eyes away from Draco. The grass and mud around the edge of the pond are cold and damp under his skin, but when, at Draco’s request, he steps forward and allows the water to lap over his feet, he laughs, astonished.
“It’s charmed,” he says, shaking his head and allowing Draco to tug him down to sit on the ring of smooth, flat stones that encircle the pond. The water is cool as it ripples around his feet and calves, but nowhere near as cold as it looks.
“They don’t like it too cold,” Draco says. “They can stand it, but... well, I’m a bit soft on them, I suppose.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Harry says, sticking out his leg as a particularly large fish swims by, startling when it turns and nibbles gently at his ankle. “I think this one’s hungry.”
“No, just far too curious for its own good.”
Harry smiles and swipes a hand through the water. “Nothing wrong with a healthy curiosity.”
“You would say that,” Draco murmurs, resting his knee against Harry’s. “You have to know about everything, don’t you?”
“There’s plenty I don’t know about you,” Harry says boldly.
Draco’s laughter is soft against his face, so close now, eyes open, searching.
“Harry... you saw my heart,” he whispers, pressing his fingers against Harry’s chest and smiling when it speeds instantly under his touch.
“I did,” Harry agrees, reaching out to stroke Draco’s hair from his face at long last. “With a magnifying charm.” He pulls back, all at once horrified as he realises what he’s said. “Fuck, no... I didn’t mean it like that—it was just that you were so little, and... wow... I really am horribly literal.”
Draco stares at him for a moment, expression unreadable, and then he snorts, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against Harry’s. He smells wonderful, warm and lemony and perfect, and Harry is completely bewildered.
“Just stop thinking for a minute,” he says, mouth flickering at the corners, and then his palm is sliding along Harry’s jaw and Harry is leaning closer, one hand braced against the stones to steady himself as their mouths brush, once, twice, again and again, fingers slipping into hair and warm, short breaths escaping into the cool air as the kiss deepens and turns needy and breathless.
Harry groans, caught up in the heat of the contact and the cool rippling of the water, and Draco’s answering caught breath makes him shiver. He presses a kiss to the corner of Draco’s mouth and then drops his head to his shoulder, taking a moment to revel in the immense tide of relief that is flooding his body.
He has almost forgotten about the fish when one of them brushes boldly past his shin and makes him jump. Pulling back from Draco, he leans over the pond and addresses the silvery carp with as much authority as he can muster, which, right now, is not much at all.
“Bad fish,” he declares. “Very bad fish.”
The carp is unmoved, and opts to swim another circuit around Harry’s ankles.
“I was a bad fish,” Draco says, threading their fingers together and gazing out over the pond.
“You were an excellent fish,” Harry says, squeezing his hand and grinning.
“You’re right, I was,” Draco agrees, and Harry has no choice but to pull him into another kiss.
In the pond below them, a message of celebration spreads through the water, passing from one graceful, silvery fish to the next in an excited ripple.
Their human is no longer alone, and his companion has brought watermelon.