Harry visits Draco on Wednesday, as ever, although he really doesn't feel like it. The major operation has ensured Harry has suffered a considerable amount of sleep deprivation this past week, and if he ever has to spend another night in a muddy field it will be too soon.
Draco wrinkles his nose slightly when he answers Harry's knock at the front door of the manor.
"You look like you've been living in a ditch somewhere."
"Sounds about right. Hurry up and let me in."
Draco gives him a look but nevertheless steps back and allows Harry to wearily make his way to the study. He sits in the armchair closest to the fireplace; although it's only November, winter is beginning to creep into the air.
"Tea," Harry says and Draco gives him another look.
"Charming. Just treat me like a house-elf, then." Nevertheless, he disappears to the kitchen and Harry takes the chance to warm his hands by the crackling fire. He glances over at the desk – it's covered with genealogy work, he sees. Draco is evidently researching the Finnigan family and Harry wonders if they're relatives of Seamus.
"There's your tea." Draco sets a cup of tea rather carelessly upon the side-table near Harry.
"Thanks." Harry does a cursory analysis of Draco's current mood. Putting up a brusque front for the sake of it, he guesses, but he's actually in a good mood. Pleased about something. "Are you researching Seamus Finnigan's family?"
"Who?" Draco takes a seat behind the desk.
"Seamus Finnigan. Come on, he was in our grade at Hogwarts. Gryffindor. Irish. Wasn't allowed near fireworks."
"Oh, him. The pyromaniac."
"Suppose some people might consider him that, yeah."
Draco waves a hand dismissively. "The family tree was commissioned by an elderly Finnigan from Ballymena. It's sprinkled with a dozen Seamuses."
"Could be him, I suppose." Harry shrugs. "Anyway. Wand, thanks."
"Fine. Run your little tests, I've got other things to do." Draco tosses his wand across the desk; Harry catches it neatly and casts the charm, watching the ghosts of spells rise through the air.
"God, you've got enough book magic to put Madam Pince to shame," he complains. "All your genealogy work, I suppose. That's going to take me ages to sort through."
Draco – already picking up his quill – pauses to give Harry a little grin. "Yes. How inconvenient for you. Make sure you check every spell though, you never know if I've slipped a bit of Dark Arts in there."
Definitely too pleased with himself, Harry thinks critically. Nevertheless, they work in surprisingly peaceful silence for a while – Harry carefully cataloguing the spells while Draco's quill scratches across bits of parchment.
"Made much progress with the Evans tree?" Harry asks after a while.
"Hm." Draco finishes writing something, then glances up. "What? Oh. I've been rather busy with other projects."
"More important customers, you mean." Harry rolls his eyes.
"Yes, that too."
"Well, I was hoping it would be finished in time for Christmas. I thought James would like to see his history." If nothing else, he'll appeal to Draco's empathy as a parent.
"No hope of that," Draco says, but he doesn't sound particularly vindictive about it. "The summer holidays would be a better estimate."
"Right." Harry pauses, watching Draco write, and it reminds him of the letters he's received from James recently. The letters are always cheerful, giving the same news: classes are going well, many adventures with friends, enjoying swimming. But somehow, Harry has the feeling that he's missing something when he reads them. "You get letters from Scorpius, don't you?"
Draco lays his quill down, carefully places the lid back on the inkpot, and leans back, giving Harry a look. "Why," he says, "can't you go seek advice from all your nauseatingly perfect friends?"
"You're the only one I know with a son the same age as mine," Harry retorts. "And I'm not seeking advice. I'm just asking a question."
"Right, if that makes you feel better about it." Draco glances down at his desk, apparently thinking for a moment. "Yes," he says eventually. "Scorpius writes to me."
Draco pauses for another moment, then shrugs as if to say why not. "Very excitable letters about his subjects, generally. New things he's learned – little facts about Astronomy, or a news clipping from a science journal, that sort of thing." Draco tilts his head. "The new interest of the week, whatever that is. Learning wizard's chess, or the rules to a flying game. Last week I received a pressed plant specimen from his Herbology project, and the week before that he sent me a diagram of the best moves for a Gobstones game and wanted advice."
Harry thinks about that for a while. "Don't you ever wonder what he's not telling you?"
"Oh, I imagine he's not telling me a lot of things." Draco takes a sip of his tea. "That's what they do, though, isn't it? Especially as they become teenagers."
"But – doesn't that make you worry?" Harry blurts out, unable to help himself.
"What, that Scorpius isn't particularly inclined to tell me all about his silly crush on a girl or a bit of missed homework? Not really." Draco raises his eyebrows. "Unless your son is sending you letters laced with hard drugs or writing about the talking giraffe that lives in his head, I wouldn't worry. That's your problem, you know. You're slowly turning into Mad-Eye."
"I am not."
"You are. Constant vigilance. Soon you'll be putting Tracing Spells on James's clothes and testing his letters for traces of goblin powder or fly-high potion."
"I will not!" Harry says indignantly. "And you're enjoying this, don't think I haven't noticed. You're amused by my concern for my child."
"I'm amused by the fact you appear to be in full Auror mode all the time."
Harry can't really think of a good comeback to that. And besides – much as he'd never admit it to Draco's smug face – perhaps he has a good point. Maybe Harry's searching for problems that aren't there, automatically looking for something suspicious, something hidden. Analysing, examining, somehow looking for clues still.
"Be that as it may," Harry says, taking a sip of his tea.
Draco's not fooled. "I've got a point."
"The only thing you've got is a run-down manor and a son who actually enjoys Gobstones, worst luck," Harry snaps.
The worst part is, he thinks, Draco doesn't even look offended.
He just grins and picks up his quill again.
The first Quidditch match of the year, and the substitute Seeker plays for Gryffindor. The current Seeker has received yet another injury and no longer wants to play; everyone seems to be waiting for James to volunteer.
He's always loved the water and, truth be told – despite all his complaints about the early starts and the mornings spent shivering on the pier as Saltworth outlines all their mistakes – he wouldn't give it up for anything. There's a swim meet in the first week of December – the European Junior Relay Championships – and while Saltworth has selected the team for the third year age bracket, she's yet to announce the second year team.
James has to be picked for it. It makes sense, he thinks. He's got the fastest times on the team.
During a particularly chilly November morning, Saltworth finally makes the announcement as they stand on the pier, ready to start practice.
"Firstly," she says, "swim practice will – Pearson, pay attention! – swim practice will meet for the last time on the seventeenth of December, and will not resume until mid-January. Secondly, I have chosen the four swimmers who will represent Hogwarts in the under-thirteen division at the Junior Relay meet. Pearson, Calthorpe, Tiller, and Rossi. Congratulations. Now! Line up…"
James doesn't move for a moment, momentarily crushed with disappointment and bewilderment. Someone pats him on the shoulder.
"Rough luck," Iwan says sympathetically. James shakes him away, feeling irritated.
"It doesn't make sense. I've got the fastest time out of everyone in our year level. Why do you get a place and I don't?"
Iwan drops his hand, looking hurt. "I've worked really hard to improve – "
"So have I, and I'm still the better swimmer."
"I don't know, your backstroke is pretty weak," Thomas interrupts, and James whips around to give him a scorching look.
"What would you know? You're not the coach."
"Just offering some advice. You should really work on it."
"Great. Next time I need advice from the person who can't even do butterfly, I'll ask."
Thomas reddens. "Butterfly is everyone's weakness," he retorts, but right then Saltworth blows her whistle and they quickly take their places along the pier.
Well, it doesn't matter, James thinks with annoyance. Saltworth has clearly made a mistake.
But no; after swim practice, when the debriefing is over and everyone has left for the warm dormitories, James lingers to speak to Saltworth.
"Yes, Potter?" she says crisply as she waves her wand, taking down the magical barriers dividing the swimming area into lanes.
"I just want to know," James says bravely, "why I didn't get picked for the meet. I've got the best times out of all the second years."
Saltworth purses her lips as she clasps her cloak and begins striding towards the castle, James jogging slightly to keep up.
"The key word is relays, Potter. It's the Junior Relays. I didn't pick the best person, I picked the best team."
"But I'm – "
"You'd better remember you're part of a team now – we haven't got time for individuals around here."
She strides on ahead, leaving James trailing unhappily in her wake.
James's day only gets worse from there. In Herbology – one of two classes shared with Ravenclaws – Professor Sprout announces a six-month-long task.
"I have here," she says, gesturing to a shelf behind her, "a selection of plants. Leftovers from various classes. Now, I would like you to pair up and choose a plant. You and your partner will care for the plant for the remainder of the year." She beams around at them. "A very exciting opportunity for you to independently research your plant! Who knows what you might find – I think there's even a few Thousand-Blossom Roses in there. Now, partner up."
There's a mad rush as everyone jostles each other, frantic to grab a partner and choose the best plant. James turns to Martin and Paul, but they've already paired up, and Rose is with one of her Gryffindor friends. Nate's with Scorpius, of all people, and Iwan's chatting away to Claire.
There is nothing more humiliating, he thinks, then standing there alone as Sprout gives him a sympathetic look. "Does anyone need a partner?" she says loudly, but nobody responds and she nods. "Very well. On your own, I'm afraid, Potter. Go see what's left."
He trails over to the shelf. There's only one plant left: a small and very sad-looking cactus.
"Ugh," he mutters. "Isn't there anything else?"
The cactus wilts a little. James didn't think a cactus could wilt, but it deflates like an old balloon and Sprout calls out with alarm.
"Careful, Potter! That's an Oversensitive Cactus. Best not to criticise it."
James looks at it with disbelief; the other students laugh. But Sprout is waiting, and so with much reluctance James picks up the cactus and carries it back to the greenhouse table.
After class – his cactus left on a shelf beside the plants of the other students, his name scribbled on the small ceramic pot that holds it – he catches up with his friends.
"Worst luck," Martin laughs.
"Nobody wanted that cactus!" Paul adds.
"I don't want it either," James says. He turns and gives Nate an unfriendly look. "Thanks a lot, by the way. Partnering up with Scorpius Malfoy? Now I'll have to do the project alone."
"Sorry," Nate says. "But…well…" He looks embarrassed. "I sort of…sort of…well…I felt bad about last year. You know…all that stupid stuff we did, calling people like him death-descendants and all that. So…well…I told Malfoy I was very sorry about it and we shook hands and he told me that if I was his Herbology partner, it would be really nice." Nate pauses. "Since I'm awfully clever at Herbology and he wants a really high grade."
James's mouth falls open. "Are you serious? You sold me out because you felt bad about Malfoy and he wanted a good grade?"
Nate looks scandalised. "I didn't sell you out! I thought it'd be a nice way to say sorry for my stupid insults last year. I don't see why you're getting so angry about it. You're the one who said we needed to grow up."
James readjusts his book-bag and says nothing.
Inwardly, though, he's fuming.
Draco studies the letter before him. Scorpius has written yet another long missive: his Transfiguration tutelage is going well and he's finding the work challenging, which is nice. He misses his Astronomy Club friends; most of them were older students who graduated last year.
When Scorpius first gave Draco the news of being Sorted into Ravenclaw, Draco…was not pleased. Were you disappointed? Harry had asked once, and Draco had said that as long as Scorpius was happy, he couldn't be disappointed.
But that wasn't quite true. It's how Draco might feel now, of course, but back then – when he read the letter – he had been disappointed. Surprised, confused, perhaps even a little disbelieving. Slytherins possessed exceptional traits: high ambition, determination to succeed, resourcefulness and independence…far superior, Draco had always thought, to the traits of the other houses. Oh, Hufflepuffs were friendly and Gryffindors were brave, and Ravenclaws were intelligent. But surely these nice but common traits faded in comparison to the fierce ambition and assertiveness of Slytherins…
Yes, it's taken Draco a while, but now – reading Scorpius's letter, which is littered with diagrams of spells, absent-minded technical drawings, and contains a casual analysis of magical reactions with wand-cores – Draco can't help but marvel at the curiosity and creativity that his son possesses. Of course, he thinks wryly, he's hardly unbiased.
Nevertheless, there's one part of Scorpius's letter that makes Draco's heart sink a little. The Ravenclaw Seeker says they're going to quit so they can focus on their studies, he writes. Do you think I should try for the position? I haven't played much but I think it would be awfully exciting. Could you help me train for it over Christmas?
Draco sets the letter down. Of course he was a Seeker…many, many years ago. And he was a good Seeker, but now – with the teenage ego slightly deflated – he'll admit that he was hardly spectacular. He's not sure how much he could actually teach Scorpius.
But the real issue is money.
Draco's ancestors would be turning in their graves, and the enemies of the wealthy Malfoy family would be laughing gleefully if they could see him now, balancing accounts in his father's study and doing calculations. The genealogy work brings in a small wage – steady income so far, and an average amount. Hardly a pittance, but certainly not sacks of galleons. Enough to slowly save up for the renovations – with Draco carrying out much of the work himself via hours of learning spells and charms – and, of course, the small amount of savings Draco diligently sets aside for Scorpius. Money to buy new books and robes at the start of each term, and to buy Scorpius's birthday and Christmas presents. Although Draco is far from wealthy, he never wants Scorpius to go without, and he never wants Scorpius to encounter the relentless teasing that poor students such as the Weasleys received. The irony, of course, is not lost on Draco and he thinks, rather dryly, that this is probably karma.
He has already purchased Scorpius's Christmas gifts – he set them aside at the shops months earlier and has been paying them off in weekly deposits. New books, and a pocket planetarium, a self-drawing map – all things he's certain Scorpius will adore. But not once did he consider purchasing a broom. He's got his old Firebolt, of course, but it would be extremely out-dated by now.
Draco sighs and retreats to his father's study to balance the accounts again.
But of course – as ever – Harry Potter comes to the rescue. Draco's rather irritated about it at first.
They're in their usual Wednesday meeting – Harry complaining about having to go through all the domestic spells Draco's been using, Draco trying to work out how he somehow ended up making Harry a cup of tea again – when the subject of gifts is brought up.
"I swear you do this on purpose," Harry says, sifting through the golden words floating through the air. "There must be a hundred different spells! I miss the old days, when you performed six or seven at most per week. Typical…I'll be here all afternoon. I was hoping to find time to do some Christmas shopping."
"Are you mental?" Draco says, putting a cup of tea beside Harry and, once more, mentally berating himself for this daft routine. Stop offering the stupid prat cups of tea. "There's only a few days left until Christmas," he adds, perhaps slightly snidely.
"I know, I know. But I've been so busy with work lately…barely found time to sleep, let alone do shopping. And I've got no clue what James wants…"
"Quidditch stuff," Draco says, thinking of his own son.
"Well, James has never been very keen on it," Harry counters. "Doesn't mind a few casual games with his cousins, but he doesn't seem too inclined to rush off and join a team."
"Scorpius does," Draco says, unable to resist a bit of parental bragging. "Wrote yesterday, said he wants to try out for the Ravenclaw team."
"Oh? I didn't know he played."
Some of Draco's pride evaporates. "Well…he doesn't. Not to my knowledge. I'll need to buy him a broom…"
Harry looks amused. "Brand new Skyblazers for the whole Ravenclaw team, then?"
Draco ignores the gibe. "Hardly. If you'll recall, Potter, my finances are somewhat limited. Scorpius will have to use the school brooms until I've completed a few more genealogy projects."
"Oh." Harry blinks, then looks down at his notes. "You've used a Severing Charm."
"The goblin massacre tapestries were quite determined to stay on the wall. I disagreed."
"Right." Harry pauses. Draco waits until the silence begins to nibble away at his patience.
"No, you were going to say something."
"I swear on Merlin's grave, Potter – "
"Fine," Harry says, sounding almost sullen. "You're just going to go on an ego-fuelled rant about how you don't need charity, though. I was just going to say that I have a Skyblazer in the shed, hardly ever used – bought it for James two years ago and it's been collecting dust since. Scorpius is welcome to have it – it's not the latest model, but it's better than the ancient school brooms."
Draco scowls, automatically opening his mouth to say that he certainly does not need Potter's pity – he's not some sort of charity case, thank you very much, and if Potter wants to do a good deed he can go dump all his unwanted possessions on the undoubtedly-grateful Weasleys –
But there's only one thing Draco hates more than accepting help, and that's being predictable. And besides…well…Scorpius will perform a lot better on a Skyblazer than any of the tattered school brooms. Hogwarts is probably still using Cleansweeps, Draco thinks with horror. Who knows how decayed the magic is on those death-traps. And people would laugh about it too, the same cruel way Draco laughed at the wobbly, decades-old brooms the Weasleys used.
Draco leans back and crosses his arms. "Fine," he says.
Harry just stares at him for a bit. "What?" he says at last.
"Fine. Bring it on your next visit, Scorpius will be home for Christmas."
Harry looks as if he's not quite sure if Draco's joking or not, but after a while he nods and picks up his quill.
"All right," he says.
They sit there in – as much as Draco is loathe to admit it – silence that is almost companionable.
That's it, he tells himself. He's definitely not offering Harry any more cups of tea.
Winter is truly underway at Hogwarts. The distant mountains become steeped in snow, the valleys shining white with deep drifts. Swim practice has stopped and won't resume until after the Christmas break. The older students return breathless from their trips to Hogsmeade, rosy-cheeked and clutching parcels wrapped in Christmas paper. James watches them enviously, remembering Teddy's stories about the Shrieking Shack and — even better — butterbeers at The Three Broomsticks.
In the Great Hall, lush fir trees rise up like mountains, decorated with enormous baubles and topped with stars. Mistletoe appears around the castle in quite crafty places, and though the younger years — James included — avoid it like dragon-pox, the older students begin finding very flimsy reasons for hovering about beneath the leafy arrangements. Holly lines the hallways, enchanted snow falls gently from the ceiling of the Great Hall, and wreaths hang on classroom doors. James, recalling the last Christmas at Hogwarts, remembers Teddy's apparent tradition of hiding candy canes throughout the castle. The Ravenclaw students maintain Teddy's tradition, lead by Victoire; within days, the students are all laughing and nudging each other as they hide the candy canes in different places.
"Teddy hid one in McGonagall's hat last year," Paul says, wide-eyed with awe. "How're you going to beat that, James?"
"I don't know."
"You'd better figure it out soon, we're leaving for the holidays tomorrow."
James has been madly trying to catch up on homework so he can enjoy his break, and he's barely found time to scatter a few candy canes throughout the halls, let alone hatching ingenious plans to sneak them into the offices or possessions of unsuspecting professors. He could never live up to Teddy's brilliant ideas and pranks. Or anything Teddy accomplished at Hogwarts, James thinks. Quidditch captain, admired mentor of the younger students, Head Boy…no, James could never reach the reputation of the always popular, effortlessly cool Teddy Lupin.
The students are all particularly energetic that evening, packing last-minute gifts into their trunks and excitedly chatting about their holiday plans. Nate is going to France to visit family; Martin is thrilled about a ski trip his parents have been planning for two years. Iwan says he misses home and Paul teases him endlessly about it.
"Fancy being homesick in second year!"
"Everyone gets homesick," Iwan says. "What, you never miss home?"
"I wouldn't if I lived in Wales."
Iwan's mouth thins and Paul grins, nudging him.
"Oh come on, learn to take a joke."
"I will — if you learn how to tell one."
Martin laughs loudly and James can't help but smile. For a moment, his mood lifts a little. There's tinsel draped around the canopies, and the little stove is keeping the dorm cosy and warm. While Martin and Paul idly chat, Iwan stands by the stove, heating a saucepan of milk. The others always laughed and mocked him for it, saying it was quite a peculiar idea, but James always privately thought it was a rather innovative use of the dormitory woodstove.
"Hope you're making enough for everyone," Martin says, snapping James from his reverie. Iwan glances up from the stove.
"Make your own," he says. "I'm making just enough for me and Claire." He adds a handful of spices, the sweet smell of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves filling the dormitory, and leaves shortly afterwards, taking two full mugs with him and leaving an empty saucepan behind.
"Shouldn't have made fun of him so much," Martin says regretfully. "That smells really good."
"Oh, wait until you try my aunt's hot chocolate recipe," Paul begins, and as James listens to the two of them chatter he realises they've planned to visit each other over the break.
James sits there and listens as they speak excitedly of their plans. James would love to be invited along, but the thought doesn't seem to occur to either of them and James can't invite them to his house – yet another side-effect of having a famous father. Harry, pestered by ardent fans, harassed by the media, and threatened by Voldemort supporters long after the war had finished, goes to enormous lengths to keep his address secret. Only close family members know the physical location – everyone else relies on the Floo network to get them through, with an auto-directing system in place. When James was younger, he didn't mind so much – his Muggle friends were all a short bicycle-ride away – but now he feels a pang of wistfulness.
He listens to his friends laugh and chatter as they leave the dormitory, making their way downstairs, and he sits in silence for a long moment.
He should really pack a few things or at least organise the homework assigned over the break. Instead, he unlocks his trunk and takes out the photograph of his parents. Ginny and Harry. It's their wedding photograph and both of them look as if all their dreams have come true. Ginny is resplendent in an ivory dress, her eyes bright and almost mischievous, as if she knows a secret the photographer doesn't.
James used to have the photograph resting on his bedside table. Everyone who saw it would excitedly grab at the picture, looking intently for the famous scar on Harry's forehead. James was always amused by that — the way Harry had combed his hair meant the scar was hidden.
He doesn't know why he locked the photograph away, or why he stopped being amused by people constantly studying it.
Perhaps because now he's realising that maybe Harry deliberately hid his scar.
James turns the photograph over, reading the words on the back written in the cursive handwriting of his nan. Ginevra Molly Potter (nee Weasley) and Harry James Potter.
James has read these words many times before, but it's always odd seeing his father's full name written out.
James sets the photograph down. Well, maybe his middle name is more suited anyway. Sirius. Named after a star.
Not a star, he reminds himself. Harry's godfather. Who — as Harry explained once — had been an extraordinary brave man, fiercely loyal and willing to sacrifice his life for his friends.
Maybe 'Sirius' doesn't really suit James either.
He stands up and reaches for his bookbag.
He makes his way through the corridors, lost in thought. He reverts to remembering the circumpolar constellations, something he's started doing lately when he's trying to distract himself from his thoughts. There's Cassopeia, and Lyra, and Ursa Minor…
Voices. James glances up. The hallways are mostly empty this time of year — everyone's preparing for the journey home tomorrow, and besides, it's too cold to be lingering in the draughty hallways. Ahead, he can see a group of students laughing about something. Probably found the last of the candy canes, he thinks as he hurries past.
James pauses and looks over his shoulder. There's about four students — all sixth and seventh year Gryffindors, he realises — laughing and nudging each other. One of the students – who looks as if he could pass for a distant relative of a troll – has Scorpius pinned to the wall.
"Stop!" Scorpius pleads again. "Please don't hurt her!"
James realises one of the Gryffindors has her wand out, her eyes trained on something. A little rat, floating mid-air. Pan.
"Would you stop whining? Honestly, it's just a bit of fun," the girl with the wand says.
"Come on, Malfoy. It's no worse than what your dad did to Muggles," another Gryffindor adds. "Isn't this what you Death Eaters do for fun?"
"Oops," the girl says, pretending to drop her wand, and Pan falls for a second. Scorpius cries out, struggling helplessly in the grip of the student holding him.
"Don't! Please, don't! Just give her back to me, I promise I won't tell McGonagall, I won't tell anyone — "
"Oh, tell them all anyway," one of the other students snaps. "I don't care if...what are you looking at?"
They all turn to look at James. He pauses for a moment.
"Leave him alone," he says at last, wishing his voice sounded a lot less hesitant and small.
The Gryffindors laugh. "Look at this little pipsqueak! What are you, first year?"
"Second," he says defiantly.
"Isn't that Harry Potter's kid?" The girl with the wand frowns at him. "Look, clear off. This doesn't concern you."
James fumbles for his wand and the smiles fade slightly from the Gryffindors' faces.
"Look, you little — " one of the other students begins, but James is already raising his wand.
For James, it's an easy hex — the first he ever learned, courtesy of his Uncle George, who told him it was one of Ginny's favourites. And it works beautifully now, one of the Gryffindors shrieking and clamping a hand over their nose as tiny bats fly from their nostrils. The other two students scatter, fleeing along with their hexed friend, and — the levitation spell broken — Pan falls to the floor and immediately begins scurrying along the corridor. Scorpius cries out, still struggling in the grip of the Gryffindor boy, and James raises his wand again.
"Should've minded your own business," the boy says crossly, dropping his grip on Scorpius in order to send a jinx bounding towards James. The spell narrowly misses James, rebounding off the wall and hitting Pan, sending the rat tumbling along for several feet.
"You idiot!" James shouts at the Gryffindor as Scorpius cries out, racing towards his rat.
"It's just a rat!" the Gryffindor retorts, wand still drawn, but he's looking a little worried now.
"Get lost, or I'll make bats fly out of your nose too!"
"You'll be sorry!" But the boy is backing away quickly now, until he finally turns and races away. James, watching him disappear from sight just in case he still tries another hex, suddenly remembers Scorpius. He turns around.
Scorpius is kneeling on the floor, cradling Pan in one hand. James, feeling a little uncomfortable, steps forward. "Is…is she okay?" he asks hesitantly.
Scorpius looks up, his face streaked with tears, and James realises Pan is dead. Her eyes are open, and a thin line of dark blood trickles from her ear. James stares for a long moment.
"Go away," Scorpius says, his voice choked.
"Should...should I get a professor?"
"But — "
"I told you to never come near me again!" And with that — Pan still cradled in one hand — Scorpius draws his wand and makes a slashing motion.
At first, James doesn't realise what's happened. He stares at Scorpius, bewildered, but then he feels a sudden sting and raises a hand to his face, tracing the lash of pain. A stinging hex, he realises. Scorpius hexed him. The welt starts on the edge of his jaw and curves past his mouth, over his nose, and ends just beneath his eye.
Before he can react, Scorpius turns and flees, disappearing from sight.
The students laugh and jostle along the platform, excited to be going home for the holidays. James, one of the last to board the Hogwarts Express, stands in the narrow aisle and gazes out the window. The students remaining at the castle over the break wave cheerfully, farewelling their friends.
"Hey, James! In here."
He looks around. Martin is waving at him from a compartment.
"Hi." James makes his way to the compartment, sliding the door shut behind him. He saw Rose board the train with her friends, and he remembers how Teddy said he'd wanted to spend the journey home with his cousins. James suddenly misses Teddy so much it nearly hurts. Last year, everything had seemed so exciting and adventurous, especially with Teddy there to smile and make jokes.
"All right, James?" Paul asks. "You look a bit pale."
"Probably thinking about that fight," Martin says, grinning. They'd all fussed over James when he'd returned to the Gryffindor tower, a bright welt raised across his face, but he'd refused to talk about it and gone straight to bed.
"I bet it was a troll," Paul says. "Wasn't it, James?"
"Why would it be a troll? If it had been a troll, my skull would be crushed in."
"Ah, come on. You're James Potter, you're not going to be killed by some daft troll."
James switches topics, getting out a deck of cards, and they play a few games. The sun has set low in the sky and the first evening stars have appeared when Martin gets sick of waiting for the witch with the trolley.
"I'm starved, she should've already been through," he complains.
"I'll go have a look," James offers, standing up. He wants to take a short break from all their chatting and arguments over missing cards, anyway.
He slides the door shut behind himself and walks along the aisle, pausing for a moment as the carriage rocks slightly around a corner. It's dark and quiet, the shadowed light of dusk offering little illumination. The windows frame a view of mountains tipped with snow, gleaming pale blue under the early moon, and James wonders what county the train is currently travelling through.
Light escapes from underneath the compartment doors, every now and again a voice rising in laughter. The aisle is dark and empty apart from James.
He stands there for a long time, listening to the chatter and laughter of other people.
Harry checks his watch.
James arrived home for the Christmas break yesterday, but Harry hasn't seen him yet. Caught up in fieldwork, he had to send Andromeda and Teddy to pick James up from the station. By the time Harry finally dragged himself home — well after midnight — James was asleep. And Harry had left quickly the next morning to attend an urgent surveillance meeting.
He checks his watch again, then clears his throat.
"I've got an appointment at one o'clock."
Williamson glances up. "It'll have to wait, unless it's urgent."
Harry suppresses a sigh and nods.
By the time the surveillance has finally been completed, it's three o'clock. He leaves for Malfoy Manor, fully expecting a wrathful Draco to greet him. He always hates to be kept waiting.
But, of course, he forgot about Scorpius, who seems to improve his father's mood greatly just by presence alone. Draco answers the door, but Scorpius is nearby – as ever – and trails after both Draco and Harry as they make their way to the study.
"You forgot Scorpius's present, didn't you?" Draco says conversationally, unstopping a bottle of brandy as he sits behind the desk.
Harry blinks at Draco, feeling taken aback. He hadn't forgotten it, but he'd assumed it would all be very clandestine – he'd sneak the parcel to Draco, who in turn would give it to Scorpius under the guise of purchasing it especially for him. After all, it would still be a point of pride.
"Yes?" Harry ventures, feeling slightly lost. He retrieves the parcel from his pocket and taps it twice with his wand, allowing the reduction charm to fade.
"Oh," Scorpius says, sounding very surprised. "You really do have a present for me?"
"Didn't I say so?" Draco asks, pouring himself a glass of brandy.
"Yes, but I thought…" Scorpius trails off as Harry smiles at him and holds out James's old Skyblazer.
"Not the latest model, I'm afraid," Harry says, but he thinks it may as well be an autographed broom from the Puddlemere United captain himself, judging by Scorpius's expression.
"That's…for me?" Scorpius asks, eyes wide.
"Of course. You said you need a broom," Draco says briskly.
"But…I'm allowed to take it to Hogwarts?"
"You can take it anywhere," Harry laughs. "It's yours now. Go on."
Scorpius hesitates, glancing at his father, then reaches out and accepts the Skyblazer almost reverently. "Thank you," he says at last, staring down at the broom in his hands.
"Off you go, then, while we finish up some paperwork," Draco says, and Scorpius nods before leaving, his footsteps quickly fading. And Harry thinks he must be getting soft-hearted, but it is Christmas, and Scorpius is so clearly filled with gratitude and joy for his gift…
"Forget the paperwork," Harry says. "Let's go watch your son fly."
They go to the gardens. Scorpius is a little hesitant at first – nervous and uncertain, the broom wobbling about as he tries to direct it about the expanse of manicured lawns – but after Harry shares the story of his first Quidditch match and the subsequent swallowing of the snitch, Draco becomes quite amused and the atmosphere lightens up considerably.
"And it's quite all right to be nervous about it," Harry adds. "My best friend, Ron Weasley, he practically had an anxiety attack before every match but he was one of the best Keepers Gryffindor had."
Scorpius seems a little more confident after that, and both Harry and Draco offer advice. Soon, Draco is calling out encouragement as Scorpius weaves his way around the garden, flying low beneath blooming ice-roses or soaring over the bare branches of the trees, a swift silhouette against the grey winter sky.
And when Scorpius lands for the final time, face rosy with cold, eyes bright, laughing with happiness at his achievement, he races towards Draco and they hug each other. For a moment, Harry's smiling, sharing their happiness, remembering a time when James would turn to Harry whenever he succeeded at something – whether tying his laces, or learning to ride a bicycle, or when he received his Hogwarts letter – and he'd throw his arms around Harry with the same joy.
But it's been a long time since James did that.
Harry's smile fades, just a little, as the slightest wisp of envy curls around his heart.
After so many times, James thinks, he should be used to this. How many times has Harry had to rush away due to unexpected fire-calls, or worked overtime in emergency shifts, or cancelled plans because of last-minute schedule changes? And yet, every time, a little pang of disappointment still rises in James's heart. He mentally tells himself off for it, even as his eyes still automatically flick to the clock above the fireplace.
He sighs and, across the living room, Teddy looks up from his notes. "He'll be back soon," he says.
"Wasn't even thinking about that," James lies. "You know how it is. Bet Dad's gotten called into work for an overnight."
"Maybe." Teddy picks up his quill again, frowning.
"What are you doing, anyway? We should be doing something fun." Whenever Teddy's left alone with James, shenanigans always ensue. "Bet we've still got some fireworks left over from last summer."
Teddy gives him an apologetic look. "Sorry, but this job application is due tomorrow and I've really got to get it done."
"We could just play a quick game of Exploding Snap, then."
James falls silent. Teddy's been looking for jobs all year, ever since graduating Hogwarts last June. Mostly internships at travel magazines, which at first James thought was very cool and exciting until he realised Teddy would be away for months at a time. James hopes Teddy gets his dream job, of course, but deep down – though he feels guilty for it – he hopes Teddy chooses something else a little closer to home.
Six years between them.
When James was younger, it didn't seem like a big difference. When James was four and Teddy was ten, for example, Teddy would carry James on his shoulders absolutely everywhere and tell him stories about the octopus under the house, and when James was seven and Teddy was twelve, they'd set off firecrackers during the long, hazy summer nights, and laugh at the same jokes and sit at the same window and watch the storms roll in while Andromeda made them both cups of milky coffee.
But now…Teddy is choosing his career, and making job applications, and looking at rental listings at the local real estate office and talking about maybe getting a place with Victoire, and James…well, James is still trying to decide whether or not he's too old for pyjamas printed with cartoon owls. And suddenly, six years seems like an impossible gap, a vast sea of time between them.
"What job are you applying for?" James asks, trying to distract himself from the lump of dread in his throat.
"Hmm? Oh, it's an internship at Silver Compass."
"Oh." James leans back a little on the sofa and closes his eyes slightly. When everything is blurred like this, the little lights on the Christmas tree look like stars and moons. Tiny planets spinning around each other. "When you're finished, can we play a game?"
"Sure," Teddy says.
But he continues writing well into the night, and at midnight James stands up.
"I'm going to bed. Goodnight, Teddy."
"Goodnight, cuz," Teddy says distractedly. "Sorry, this application is taking forever."
And it is, James tells himself. It's fine. People grow up. Things change.
He goes to bed.
He was right, anyway; his father got called into an overnight shift. Harry drags himself through the door at seven o'clock in the morning, looking thoroughly exhausted. James – making himself a cup of tea – goes into the hallway to greet him.
"Sorry I didn't make it back yesterday," Harry says, giving James a brief hug. "I'm going to have a nap."
"Don't forget we're going to do the baking today. Aunt Andromeda said she'll be here around two."
"I'll fire-call her and cancel it."
James's heart deflates a little. "You can't do that! We're supposed to do it today. Teddy already promised to go and fetch all the ingredients with me."
"You can still go shopping with Teddy. We'll have to do it tomorrow."
"Dad, you promised – "
Harry groans. "James, I'm tired, I've had a long shift – don't start this now, all right?"
James says nothing. It's useless anyway, he thinks. Harry's always irritable after an overnight shift, particularly if it's an unscheduled one and he's absolutely exhausted.
"Fine," James mutters.
"Oh, for the love of Merlin – don't sulk. I'm in no mood for a tantrum, James."
"I wasn't throwing a tantrum! All I said was 'fine'!" James retorts, stung.
"All right. Well, I'm going to bed. I'm sorry about the baking but we'll just have to do it tomorrow."
Harry gives him a brief pat on the shoulder and departs, leaving James alone in the hallway.
Harry finally keeps his promise: they do their Christmas baking. It's hard to stay miserable when the Wizarding Wireless is playing cheery carols, Andromeda humming along as she sits at the breakfast table, putting together the little gift-boxes. And Harry's going from room to room, carrying armfuls of tinsel and wreaths of holly, sending twinkling lights everywhere with a swish of his wand. James and Teddy, of course, are in the kitchen, sleeves rolled up, already somehow getting flour everywhere.
"All right. James, we'll need half a cup of golden syrup," Teddy says, getting out the cookbook. It's a very battered cookbook, gifted from Mrs Weasley to Ginny, and full of ancient magic. The pages tended to get quite excited and try to add ingredients if left unattended.
"Maybe I'll make something else this year," James says.
"What?" Teddy looks scandalised. "We've made this every year, since you were a little toddler and couldn't even do anything except eat all the icing."
"Yeah, well. I'm too old to be helping now," James says with a shrug. "I can make my own stuff."
"It's not about being too old," Teddy retorts. "You can look like a wizened old walnut and have a beard twice as long as Dumbledore's and it wouldn't matter. We'll still be stooped over the mixing bowls, cackling away and throwing flour at each other."
"Come on, James," Andromeda says, carefully wrapping cellophane around her homemade shortbread. "It's tradition. It'd break my heart not to see you two wreaking havoc in the kitchen, wasting good ingredients and forgetting to add bicarbonate soda."
"That was one year!" Teddy says.
Andromeda shakes her head sorrowfully. "Flat as cardboard, they were, and same texture too."
James can't help it. He smiles reluctantly and Teddy pounces.
"Aha! And you heard my nan, she'd be heartbroken. You wouldn't want that. Would you, James?"
James gives in and fetches the golden syrup. For a while, they work in reasonable peace and quiet, occasionally swapping a casual remark or joke. Andromeda murmurs a lyric every now and again as she curls ribbons, the radio playing beside her. James leaves briefly to put the star atop the tree; it's another tradition and the first time James did this, he sat upon his father's shoulders and reached up with clumsy hands, a golden star clutched in his fingers. Now, if he stands on his tiptoes, he can just reach the top of the tree.
"It'll be great catching up with everyone tomorrow," Teddy says once James has returned to the kitchen. "All the younger cousins will be so excited about Father Christmas…don't you wish you still believed?"
James gives him a look. "I'm twelve. Nearly thirteen."
Teddy studies him for a moment. "I know. It's just…I really miss that sometimes, you know? When you were a little kid and loved hearing all my stories. Spiders turning into cakes, and little goblins that lived in the laundry and ate socks, and the octopus under the house…"
"You wish I was a little kid still?" James asks.
"What? That's not what I meant, cuz. Look, you'll understand one day. It's just this realisation you get — "
"That you wish I'd stay the same? "
"James! Would you stop interrupting? Merlin's beard, you can be so frustrating sometimes — "
"Fine! You can finish the gingerbread by yourself, then!" James turns and storms out the kitchen and down the hallway, stomping all the way up the stairs and not stopping until he's climbed into the attic. He goes straight to his bed and sits down, scowling at the wall opposite. It has a picture on it of a little badger family having a picnic. And another picture next to it, of two wolves playing football. Stupid, whimsical pictures that belong in a children's book, he thinks moodily. They ought to have been taken down years ago.
A knock on his door.
"Come on, cuz. Stop sulking."
"I said leave me alone!"
There's a long silence and he thinks Teddy has gone away. But then he hears a soft sigh and footsteps fading away. A pang of regret rises in his stomach and he leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and feeling utterly defeated somehow.
He tries reading his comics for a while, but he ends up reading the same dialogue over and over and eventually he gives up, crossing the room and going to his window. The sun is setting slowly over the distant fields. The oak tree looks like a hunched giant, the knotted branches bare against the dark winter sky. As the dying sunlight slowly fades, the stars become clear and crisp, each one shining white. Sirius, James thinks. The brightest star in the sky. He absently traces the path of the healed welt across his face.
He goes downstairs, stopping on the second floor where the guest bedroom is. Well, that's what Harry calls it whenever somebody comes to stay, but James always thinks of it as Teddy's room.
He pauses for a long moment outside the door, then knocks hesitantly.
"Come in," Teddy calls out.
"It's me." James opens the door and steps in, feeling a little awkward and sheepish. It's been a long time since he argued with Teddy.
The curtains are still open, framing a thin moon, but the lamp on the bedside table shines brightly across the room, revealing rolls of wrapping paper across the floor. Teddy's sitting amongst it all, surrounded by unravelled ribbons and bits of tape.
"Oh, hello, cuz," he says amiably. "Good timing, I just finished wrapping your present." He nods at a square parcel on the bed, wrapped in blue paper with little dancing snowmen all over it.
"Surprised you didn't throw it out the window," James admits, and Teddy laughs.
"Well, I did choose the most childish wrapping paper I could find."
James crosses the room with difficulty, avoiding the piles of gifts and rolls of paper, and sits on the edge of the bed.
"Do you wish I was still a little kid?"
Teddy sighs and picks up another roll of paper. "James, that wasn't what I meant at all. It's just…I was there when you were born. When you were zero years old. And I used to visit you all the time and sing stupid songs to you when you were a baby, and when you were older I told you silly stories and helped you tie your laces and…and now I look at you and I can't believe you're nearly thirteen." Teddy begins cutting a swathe of paper away. "That's what I meant."
James thinks about that for a while. He picks up the nearest item — a plush toy owl that he guesses is a gift for little Lucy, who adores owls — and pokes its fuzzy belly, thinking about all his young cousins yet to go to Hogwarts, yet to grow up.
"I'm…" He pauses. He's never been very good at articulating his feelings, always wanting to appear brave and strong like his father. "I'm just trying to catch up, really."
Teddy looks up with surprise. "To who? Throw me that owl."
James throws the owl at him; Teddy catches it deftly. "Well…to you. And…well, I know you're six years ahead so I'll never catch up, but…Rose, too, and all my friends at Hogwarts…they all seem to know exactly what they're doing, and where they're going, and…and…"
Teddy frowns, momentarily abandoning wrapping the owl. "Okay, cuz. Let me tell you a secret. Nobody knows what they're doing."
"You do! You're always really confident and happy and — "
"Total rubbish. You know all these job applications? I've been applying for jobs for nearly six months now, and every time I get a rejection letter I wonder what on earth I'm doing with my life. "
"You're lying," James says uncertainly, but Teddy shakes his head solemnly.
James is silent for a long moment. "Well…if I were one of those magazine people, I'd give you a job in a heartbeat."
"Of course you would." Teddy smiles and throws the wrapped owl at him, the gift bouncing off James's head.
"Hey! I'm telling!"
Teddy laughs. "You'll never be too old for that. I swear on Merlin's pointy hat, I'll still be hearing that when I'm a hundred and two." He scrunches up his nose; his hair darkens to black and his features subtly change until he very closely resembles James. "I'm telling!" he mimics. "Teddy, I'm telling on you!"
"Stop it! Dad says you're not allowed to Metamorph family members! Don't imitate me!"
"You're imitating me!"
James launches across the room and — even though he's far too old for baking gingerbread, or putting stars on trees, or hitting Teddy over the head with a plush owl — he does it anyway.
And somehow, he feels better.
Christmas Day is spent in the usual way – everybody gathers at the Burrow to exchange gifts and family news. The adults stand around, drinking eggnog and catching up with each other; the younger cousins race around the house with their new toys while the older children lounge about in front of the fireplace. Harry notices, with faint amusement, that Teddy and Victoire have retreated to a cosy corner to murmur to each other.
"Look at those lovebirds," he tells Ron, grinning.
"Ah, to be young and in love again," Ron says theatrically. "Somebody should go over there and lecture them about safe practices."
Hermione nearly chokes on her butterbeer. "Ron!"
"What? Don't worry, I'm not going to do it. Think my mother's going over there anyway."
They watch with amusement as Mrs Weasley forcibly extracts Victoire and sends Teddy off towards the kitchen.
"Really, you should be helping washing up, Teddy Lupin! And Victoire, there is no reason for you to be lingering about."
"I can help Teddy in the kitchen," Victoire begins hopefully, but Mrs Weasley cuts her off quickly.
"You can go upstairs and help your mother. She's in the attic, looking for a family heirloom I promised her and Bill. Off you go, dear."
Harry has to hide a smile in his cup of tea as an unhappy Victoire is ushered past. Next to him, Hermione stifles a laugh.
"Poor James," Harry says, thinking with amusement of his son's future at the hands of interfering Mrs Weasley. "Ron, I know your mum means well, but…I feel sorry for any girlfriend James has."
Ron grins. "Oh, I look forward to that. James is the apple of Mum's eye – no girlfriend will ever live up to her expectations."
They laugh, but then heat radiates from Harry's pocket and he nearly drops his cup of tea. He can't believe it. The Auror's emergency token is burning fiercely, calling him.
Not once, he thinks in disbelief. Not once during the past fifteen years. A Christmas miracle, his coworkers would always joke. Fortune smiled upon them, Harry supposes. Oh, he's missed James's birthday a couple of times, and there's been a few Easters when James has been sent alone to the traditional egg hunt at Ron and Hermione's house. But he always made up for it and James – usually only too happy to spend time with Andromeda and Teddy – has never seemed too bothered.
But Christmas Day…
"Sorry, just have to make a call," Harry says to his friends. Ron blinks; Hermione's eyebrows rise incredulously.
"Must be urgent." Harry turns and makes his way upstairs; there's a fireplace in Fred and George's old room that will allow him some privacy. He kneels on the dusty floorboards and lights a fire with a wave of his wand. "Auror's Office."
A pause, and then the flames turn jet-black as the connecting fireplace recognises Harry's magical signature and sends the call through. Moments later, he can see Cuthbert's face drifting across the flames like a cloud.
"I received a calling. What's going on?"
"Williamson needs you here at once, sir. I can't give you any more information without verifying this connection."
"Very well." Harry's heart sinks. Part of him had hoped that it was a mistake, that someone had triggered the token by accident. "I'll be along directly."
"Received and understood."
Harry terminates the call and stands up. In the distance, he can still hear relatives talking, their voices rising in laughter occasionally. Somebody runs up the stairs – the light footsteps of a small child – and nearby, he can hear one of James's young cousins singing a Christmas carol, their voice out-of-key but full of cheerful enthusiasm.
He sighs and gets to his feet.
Everyone's surprised and faintly disappointed when Harry says his farewells.
"I'm afraid it's rather urgent," he says and they nod understandingly, exchanging hugs with him before drifting back to their conversations. Harry quickly makes his way to the living room to collect his cloak.
James trails after him. "But…you've never had to leave on Christmas Day…"
"I know, I'm sorry. I'll be back later, all right?"
"When? We haven't opened presents yet, you've got to stay for that…"
"I can't. It's urgent."
"Well…what kind of urgent? Is there trouble?" James looks down at his feet. "It's not…it's not fieldwork, is it?"
"I'll be fine, I promise." Harry ruffles James's hair.
"But…what about Dudley? We always visit him."
"Come on, you always hate those visits."
James looks up, hurt. "But they're a tradition. And Dudley always gives me nice gifts, and I want to see my cousin. She'll be a year old now. I got to hold her last year."
"You don't even know your cousin. You've only seen her once." Harry clasps his cloak. "Where's Teddy?" Teddy always, unfailingly, cheers James up.
And it's no exception today. Teddy appears at James's side, as if Summoned, and loops an arm around James's shoulders. "Hey, cuz," he says amiably. "What's the problem? You've got that angry hedgehog look again."
James shakes off Teddy's arm. "Dad's leaving. Says he's got work."
Teddy look at Harry. "What, today?" he says and Harry feels faintly annoyed. Everyone knows this is the life of an Auror, and while James might not yet appreciate the dedication Harry has to have to the job, Harry had thought Teddy would at least understand.
"It's urgent. I have to leave at once. Believe me, I wish I could stay."
"Then why don't you?" James asks.
"You know I can't! Come on, James, you know about my work. People need me," Harry says, trying to avoid saying the words lives might be at stake. He doesn't want James to worry.
James looks at him for a long moment. "Yeah," he says. "People need you. I know."
"Thanks for understanding," Harry says, relieved, and ruffles James's hair. "I'll be back before you know it."
James says nothing as he leaves.