James checks his watch again.
Ten minutes to eleven.
He's been pacing this cold corridor for nearly an hour now. He'd been running late — caught up chattering away to his friends in the Gryffindor common room — and he'd come hurrying around the corner, out-of-breath from all the stairs and long corridors, a greeting already poised on the tip of his tongue.
But the corridor had been empty.
Scorpius is accustomed to James's tardy arrivals, and James is certain he wouldn't have left. James had only been a few minutes late, anyway.
He checks his watch again. Five to eleven.
"Finally." James straightens up. They can get started on practising that levitation charm again, James is sure he's nearly got it under control.
Round the corner comes a tall figure. Someone who is definitely not Scorpius. James quickly grabs his invisibility cloak, drawing it around himself.
"Ha! Trying to fool me with that old thing?" The cloak is ripped away; James hisses.
"Go away, Teddy! I'm waiting for someone!"
"Oh, that's nice. 'Oh, hello, Teddy, my favourite cousin, how good to see you again'."
"It is good to see you," James protests.
"It's been a while, hasn't it? Shame I'll have to give you a detention." Teddy grins and taps his Head Boy badge; it shines in the moonlight and James's eyes widen.
"You wouldn't! I'm your cousin, you traitor!"
"Ah, but being Head Boy is the highest honour, young James," Teddy says, affecting a mocking, lofty voice. "How dare you suggest that I might sully my good reputation by playing favourites — "
"Don't give me that!" James is outraged. "I don't know how you got that badge — you're the cause of half the mischief in Hogwarts!"
"True. Fancy making me Head Boy — someone's gone soft in the head, I reckon. Well, off you go."
"You can't tell me to go to bed!"
"I can. I'm Head Boy!" Teddy lunges for James; James ducks away but Teddy easily grabs him, putting him in headlock and messing up his hair. James protests loudly, eventually squirming away.
"Stop it," he says crossly, trying to smooth his hair back down. "I told you, I'm waiting for someone."
"Ooh, a girlfriend? I didn't know Hogwarts allowed inter-species dating. Give the giant squid my regards."
"Very funny!" James ducks away, sensing another headlock in his near future. "Anyway, you don't need to worry about me. I'm going to bed."
"You're lucky I'm so nice, or I'd give you a detention. You owe me."
Teddy just laughs and saunters away. James tries to smooth his hair again, then reluctantly gathers his invisibility cloak around himself and walks back to the Gryffindor tower.
He walks a little slower than usual.
Potions is his first lesson that morning, and James promises himself to pay attention. Actually listen to Slughorn, and give the potion a serious attempt.
He hurries straight into the dungeons, running late after losing track of time, and sees Paul and Martin turn to look at him, both inclining their heads in a welcoming gesture. He quickly sits beside them, unpacking his books, and it's only when Slughorn's dismissed them to fetch their ingredients that he remembers Scorpius.
He looks around. Scorpius is sitting by himself in the corner of the room, an empty seat beside him.
"There we go! Five beetle hearts," Martin declares, dumping the hearts into their cauldron, and James turns around.
Well, it's no big deal. Besides, he's acutely aware of the rest of the Gryffindors in the room, and he remembers Martin's words about associating with Scorpius Malfoy. He briskly chops up a bat liver, trying to concentrate on dicing it perfectly evenly. His focus is ruined halfway through by Martin nudging him.
"Look, Malfoy's got a letter."
He looks up. Across the room, Scorpius is reading a creased piece of parchment. As Slughorn nears, Scorpius quickly tucks it away again and resumes stirring his potion.
"Must be interesting. He's gotten it out half a dozen times already, re-reading it."
"So what?" James repeats. "Have you finished with those billywig stings yet? We'll need to add them in three minutes."
"Since when do you care about doing potions properly?" Martin says, but at least he stops watching Scorpius and goes back to his chopping board.
At the end of the lesson, however, things have deteriorated. Martin has made a joke about Scorpius opening the Chamber of Secrets, and Paul — unaware of Hogwarts history — has to have the entire thing explained to him. James, uncharacteristically, doesn't particularly feel like sharing his father's role in the story despite repeated encouragement from his friends.
"The Chamber can't be opened again, anyway, so it doesn't matter," he says at last, as Slughorn tells the class to pack up.
"Good thing too, or Malfoy'd probably be already hunting Muggleborns," Nate adds, turning round to join the conversation. James makes a noise of non-committal and begins quickly packing up.
"Come on, next class is Herbology," he says. "I heard we're going to grow Biting Daisies."
But Nate is already pushing through the crowds, making a beeline for Scorpius, and James feels an unfamiliar pang of anxiety. He looks at Martin.
"Can't he just leave him alone?" he mutters.
"The Malfoys tried to kill your father, loads of times," Martin replies. "Don't know why you're so keen to defend him."
No help there, then. James hurries ahead, catching up to Nate.
"Come on, let's go to Herbology — "
Nate shakes him away and reaches out, grabbing Scorpius by the sleeve. "Hey, Malfoy."
Scorpius tenses and stays still, as if somehow it will render him invisible. No such luck.
"What's in the letter?"
Scorpius stays silent for a long moment. Then he speaks quietly. "What letter?"
"Don't play stupid, I saw it. Was it from your Death Eater dad? Was he sending orders for you to join him?" Nate shoves at Scorpius's shoulder a little, making him stumble. "Have you got a Dark Mark too?"
Scorpius pales. James quickly jumps in.
"Come on, let's — "
"What's a Dark Mark?" Paul interrupts.
"Oh, I'm sure Malfoy can tell you all about it."
"Let me go," Scorpius pleads.
"Not until you hand over that letter!" Nate retorts. "James, tell him."
James looks at his feet. "The letter can't be that important," he mumbles. "Just hand it over, and we can all go."
There's a long silence. Then Scorpius tries to push Nate away and run.
It happens so quickly that James nearly misses it — there's a shout, a brief tussle as Martin and Nate catch up to Scorpius — then somebody shouts it.
Scorpius falls without another word. Nate, his wand drawn, looks wide-eyed. He catches James's expression.
"I — I didn't mean to do that — you saw it — it was an accident — "
"What on earth is going on out here?" Slughorn demands, coming out of the classroom. "Magic in the corridors is strictly forbidden, and — Merlin's beard, what happened?"
Martin, Paul and Nate exchange glances.
James suddenly feels sick to his stomach.
He can't stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. Scorpius was taken to the infirmary; Madam Pomfrey said he'd gotten a concussion from hitting his head on the floor and had to be strictly observed for the rest of the day. Nate was taken to Professor McGonagall's office, later returning with red-rimmed eyes, saying that he had a week's worth of detentions and had to write Scorpius an apology.
"I am sorry," he tells James and Martin later that night in the common room. "I've never hit anyone with a spell before. I really didn't mean to. I just sort of panicked. I thought he was going to start shooting spells at me, so I thought maybe I should get the first one in."
Scorpius wouldn't have done that, James thinks.
But he keeps the thought to himself.
Scorpius isn't in any classes the next day, and James waits until lunchtime to go to the infirmary. But, as Madam Pomfrey curtly tells him, Scorpius left yesterday evening. He was given the all-clear.
At last, caught in a torrent of concern, he approaches Teddy just before the end of lunch.
"Could I have a word?" he says quietly to Teddy, and Teddy raises his eyebrows.
"Is this about your girlfriend, the squid?"
"No. It's a favour."
"Another one? I'm way too nice to you." But Teddy stands up good-naturedly and excuses himself from his friends, making his way from the Great Hall. Once safely outside, in the quiet corridor, James speaks.
"Look, it's...a pretty big favour. You could get in trouble."
"Oh, dear. Oh, no. I could get into trouble?"
"There's no need for sarcasm," James says crossly. Teddy reaches out and ruffles his hair.
"All right, calm down. What's this big favour?"
"I need to get into the Ravenclaw tower."
"Can't help you there, I'm afraid. Do I look like an insufferable know-it-all with no sense of humour?"
It's always been an ongoing joke with Teddy. Everyone had thought he'd be an instant Gryffindor, but he'd surprised them all by being Sorted into Ravenclaw. Perhaps the Sorting Hat knew, deep down, what it was doing, because despite his mischievous nature, Teddy proved to have a quick wit and a sharp curiosity that only served to build his intellect.
"I'm serious. I need to see — I need to see a friend."
"So catch up with them in class or whenever. The professors get mighty cross when they discover students sneaking into other houses."
"You just said you didn't care about trouble."
"Yeah, but this is still a pretty big favour, cuz. We're not talking 'five points from Ravenclaw, Mr Lupin, and don't do it again'. We're talking detentions, serious lectures, letters sent home. We're talking about Howlers from my grandmother."
James gives a shiver. Teddy's grandmother is a very formidable woman whom James simultaneously adores and yet lives in fear of incurring her wrath.
"Please. I wouldn't ask if it's not important."
Teddy frowns, one hand resting on his bookbag. The doors to the Great Hall suddenly open as students begin to emerge, signalling the end of lunch.
"All right," Teddy says at last, "you caught me in a good mood. You got your invisibility cloak?"
"In my bag."
"All right, when we're out of sight, put it on. Follow me and don't make a single noise, got it?"
James nods and dutifully follows the instructions, waiting until they've reached a deserted corridor before putting on the cloak. Teddy passes a few Ravenclaws on their way to class, greeting each one with a cheerful wave and passing joke or comment. At last, they've reached the Ravenclaw tower. Teddy takes ahold of a bronze knocker in the shape of an eagle and raps it once. A question rings out across the corridor.
"If someone offers you a gift and you refuse, to whom does the gift belong?"
"Their willingness belongs to them; my hostility is my own," Teddy answers easily.
"What's that mean?" James whispers as the door swings open, but Teddy shushes him as they enter the room. It's completely empty, however, except for a lone seventh-year studying by the fire.
"Hello, Eric. Got caught in a book again?" Teddy say amicably and the boy looks up, his eyes beginning to widen.
"Oh, no. Am I late again?" He glances around the empty common room, then sweeps his books up quickly and makes for the door.
"Tell Higglesby I'll be there soon, I forgot my book," Teddy shouts after the fleeing student. After a short pause, Teddy speaks again in a low voice. "Right, well, it doesn't look like your friend is here. Or else they're up in the dormitories. No use staying here if they're a girl, you can't access the girl's dormitory and trust me, I can't get you into it. If I could, I'd be causing a lot more mischief than I already do."
"It's okay, maybe they're away. I can wait," James whispers, and Teddy shrugs.
"If you want. I've got to get to class. Just leave the same way you came in. Don't touch anything, and if somebody sees you, my name is not mentioned at all. Got it?"
Teddy leaves then, departing from the same door by which they entered. James looks around the common room. A fire crackles quietly in the hearth and in the middle of the room, across the midnight-blue carpet, there's a statue of a witch. Rowena Ravenclaw, presumably.
He assumes the boys' dormitory is on the left, same as the Gryffindor tower, and cautiously places a foot on the first step. When nothing happens, he continues until he's standing in the entranceway to the first-year dormitory. It's far tidier than the Gryffindor one — the beds are all neatly made, and encompassing an entire wall is an enormous bookshelf lined with texts. At the far end of the dormitory, on the bed closest to the window, is Scorpius. He's sitting cross-legged on the bed, one hand propping up his chin as he turns the page of a large tome. Pan is curled up in the crook of his elbow, sleeping.
Relieved to see him alive and well, James approaches him, removing the invisibility cloak. Scorpius seems so engrossed in the book that he doesn't notice until James is standing at the foot of the bed.
Scorpius jumps, the book falling closed in his lap, and looks up. He stares at James for a long moment, looking startled.
"Oh," he says at last before casting a glance around the dormitory. "What are you — how did you get in?"
"My cloak. I snuck in."
"You knew the answer to the riddle?"
James hesitates. Teddy did say not to tell anyone, but James can trust Scorpius.
"My cousin, Teddy Lupin, he let me in."
"Oh." A short silence, then Scorpius gives Pan a scratch behind the ears as she opens her eyes. "He's nice. He helps me with my homework sometimes."
"Yeah, he's always helping people." James hesitates. "Are you feeling better? I was worried because you weren't in any classes, but they said you weren't in the hospital wing anymore." The words leave him in a rush. Scorpius watches him silently, his grey eyes unreadable.
"I'm all right," he says at last. "They let me miss my classes today. I'm supposed to be resting."
"Oh — do you want to be left alone? — I only visited to see if you were all right. I'm glad you are."
James blinks. There's a certain coolness in Scorpius's voice — a tone that James has never heard before. It's strange to hear that distant chill in his voice.
"Well — yes — of course! We're friends, aren't we? I missed you the other night, when you didn't turn up at our room. I was waiting ages and then I got caught by a Head Boy."
"Did you really?" The coolness is quickly evaporating from Scorpius's voice, and James grins.
"Yes. I didn't mind. Sorry I missed you, though. I suppose you were busy or just forgot."
"I had an essay to finish," Scorpius admits.
"Oh. Shame, that. Well, do you want to meet tomorrow night? Not tonight, you should be resting. Though reading that huge book is hardly resting, in my opinion. What is it?"
Scorpius shows him the cover. Creative Transfiguration: Understanding the Principles and Practice.
"Ugh, that sounds way too heavy."
"It's not. It's where I learned the lunar spell from. I'm reading a chapter right now on how to transfigure things into animals."
"Oh! Do you mean to do that with our room? We could turn all the chairs into Hippogriffs!"
Scorpius stares down at the book. "I can't go to the room tomorrow night, anyway. I've got — I'm busy."
"With what?" James demands.
"I've got advanced transfiguration tutoring with McGonagall," Scorpius mumbles, not lifting his gaze from the book.
"Wow! Scorpius, that's brilliant! Advanced transfiguration, hey? Remember when we were on the train, and you didn't even think you were a wizard? Now look at you!"
A faint smile trembles at the corners of Scorpius's mouth. "My father said — " and then he stops. James waits impatiently.
"Well, what? What did your father say?" he prompts. Scorpius looks away.
"Come on, you can't just start telling me something and then stop. Oh, was it that letter?" James pauses and bites his lip, looking down at his feet a moment before speaking. "Sorry about that, you know. It was stupid of me to say it wasn't important. I wouldn't want people reading my personal letters either. I can't imagine why I said what I did."
Scorpius tugs at a loose thread on the bedcovers. "It's all right."
A long silence eclipses them and James isn't sure whether he should stay or go. He'll be in a lot of trouble for missing class, he knows. At last, however, Scorpius speaks again.
"He said he was very proud, that's all, and that he always knew I'd do well." A flush rises in his face. "You're not — you're not going to tease me about that, are you?"
"Well, if I am, you can tease me about being a Squib," James says. He tries to say it cheerfully, like a joke, but his voice stutters a little half-way through the sentence and he knows Scorpius noticed. James's shoulders slump. "My dad sent me a letter too, you know. Except it's the exact opposite of yours. I'm nearly failing everything and I don't think he's ever been so disappointed."
"Failing everything?" Scorpius looks disbelieving. "Are you really?"
"Yes. It's true. I got a Poor for Charms." He tries to smile. "Oh, well. At least I'm good at making people laugh. That'll come in useful when I become a Squib."
Scorpius doesn't smile. He stares down at the transfiguration book, then looks up at James. "I — I could help, you know." He reddens again. "I mean, you probably don't need it, and I'm not saying I'm better than you — of course I'm not —"
"Don't be stupid, you could teach me a whole bunch of stuff, I reckon!" James is excited. "Like that lunar spell!"
"Well, that's one of your problems. You keep trying all the fancy spells, but it's not much use if you can't turn a match into a needle." Scorpius's face suddenly freezes. "I mean — I didn't mean to say — "
"Yes, McGonagall," James says mockingly.
The faint smile trembles again.
James grins, his heart feeling lighter than it has in weeks.
Draco sits in the breakfast room.
Growing up, the breakfast room had always been his favourite room in the manor. Designed to capture the early morning sunlight, and less formal than the rest of the home, Draco had always considered breakfast his favourite part of the day. If he closes his eyes, he can almost imagine he's nine years old again, walking into the room to see his parents. Lucius would have a cup of tea and two slices of toast with honey; Narcissa preferred a cup of peppermint tea and boysenberry jam. Lucius would open the newspaper, pass the crossword page to Narcissa, and read the rest. Draco would sit beside his mother, trying to help. He can almost hear her quiet, measured voice.
A ten-letter word for a species of Thestral. What do you think, darling?
He opens his eyes.
On this wintry morning, there is no sunlight in the breakfast room. A thin, grey light shrouds the room. The table is empty, bereft of plates and pots of honey and crosswords. The other seats are empty, the upholstery thick with dust.
An owl taps on the window.
Draco flinches, ever so slightly, at the unexpected noise. He rises, then turns to the window and pulls on the sash. It gives way reluctantly, the wooden frame swollen with the rains of autumn and the sleet of winter.
He wonders if it's from Hogwarts. He'd received Scorpius's report card recently and he'd never felt so proud than when he unfurled the parchment and saw the row of Outstanding grades, accompanied by a letter requesting permission for Scorpius to have advanced Transfiguration lessons. He'd always known Scorpius would be an intelligent and dedicated student.
But this isn't a Hogwarts owl. This owl is snow-white; the letter on its foot is enclosed in a white envelope, sealed with lavender wax. Draco slowly removes the letter and the owl hoots once before flying away.
He picks up a butter-knife and runs it along the wax, opening the envelope and pulling out the letter. A large number of rose petals, presumably enchanted to remain ever-fresh, cascade onto the table and Draco frowns, shaking a petal from his sleeve.
Pansy Parkinson and Christopher Clayton request the pleasure of your company as they join hearts and lives in marriage on the 14th of December…
Draco stands for a long moment, reading the invitation over and over.
At last, he places it back into the envelope and leaves it on the table.
"Why are there twenty-five gardening spells?"
Harry waits for a response, but Draco doesn't seem too inclined to answer. He's busy staring out the window at the dull and overcast sky. Rain begins to patter against the glass.
"Malfoy, I asked — "
"I heard you." Draco turns from the window, hands in his pockets.
"Twenty-five gardening spells in one week? What are you doing, practising to become a botanist? And I see there's thirty domestic spells." Harry casts a critical look around the room. If Draco's been undertaking any cleaning, there's little evidence of it. Nevertheless, he refrains from verbalising the observation.
Another silence stretches on. Draco seems particularly distant today. Not necessarily resentful or disagreeable, Harry thinks, observing him. Just...distant. His mind is elsewhere.
"Well, this matter of contributing to the Muggle community," Harry says, trying to draw Draco back to present matters. "A donation should be suitable, I think. A Muggle charity of your choice."
Draco turns back to the window, watching water droplets slowly trickle down the pane.
"A thousand galleons should suffice." The sum sounds large, but Harry knows that to Draco, the amount is nothing more than a mere nuisance.
Harry exhales slowly. Perhaps he misjudged. Perhaps Draco is simply being disagreeable today. Harry had decided to go with the donation as a compromise, but maybe he should've picked something less easy.
"Can't, or won't?" he asks, annoyed.
"Can't, Potter. I have five hundred galleons left in my accounts."
Harry stares at Draco, dumbfounded, but Draco doesn't turn from the window. He just keeps watching the rain slowly creep down the glass.
"What are you — five hundred galleons? What about your assets? Surely there's some shares, a few estates — " Harry cuts himself off, certain that Draco's lying.
"No." The answer is spoken without a trace of emotion, not even resentment or bitterness.
"But — what happened?"
At last, Draco finally turns to face Harry. He studies him for a long moment, then speaks.
"Whatever usually happens after a war. Assets are frozen, accounts are emptied for recompense. Whatever money I had left was spent on legal fees."
Harry looks away, suddenly recalling the lengthy custody battle with Scorpius and the very expensive appeals. The process for one appeal could take up to two years and a few thousand galleons, and Draco had made no less than seven.
Suddenly, it all makes sense. The manor, falling to decay and disrepair, the gardening and cleaning spells Draco is clearly struggling to learn. He cannot employ a gardener or servants and he sent his last house-elf away.
"I'd like to look around the grounds," Harry says at last. Draco gives him a long, cool look.
"I assure you, Potter, there are no secret stashes of galleons in the rose gardens or the hedge maze."
"Regardless." It's a single word and a priceless trick that Harry picked up from Williamson. Nobody can argue with 'regardless' or 'be that as it may'. True to this, Draco lifts one shoulder in an elegant half-shrug.
"I can't stop you."
They make their way outside. Draco leads the way and Harry lets him — who knows what ensnarements may be lurking.
The grounds are just as miserable as the house, Harry thinks. Stone circles indicate where flowers used to bloom, but there's nothing left but dead twigs and barren soil. The few trees that are evergreen are overgrown now and they create a dark, claustrophobic feel along paths. There's a glass conservatory that seems to hold little more than compost now, and finally the rose gardens. A single rose is blooming, white and bold against the tangle of black thorns and dead shrubbery, and Harry frowns at it. When he touches one of the petals, the rose disintegrates and Draco whips around, reaching out and roughly shoving Harry away.
"You complete idiot! That took weeks to do!"
Harry stumbles back a few steps, but doesn't raise his wand. There's a short silence, and he can see Draco's face already paling. Even threatening a Wizards Under Watch officer with violence — let alone actually laying a hand on them — is grounds for an instant breach of conduct.
"What?" Harry says at last, prompting an explanation. Draco stares at him, as if uncertain whether Harry will hex him or not.
"Forget it," Draco says at last.
"What was it, just a summer spell? Calm down then," Harry says. He raises his wand. "Vivo Vixi Victum."
A second later, a rose blooms. A second, a third. A fourth. Soon, the whole rosebush is abloom with a hundred white roses. Draco stares at the roses with a mix of disbelief and despair.
"What was that spell?" he asks at last.
"What, the one I just used? Makes flowers bloom. Should stay that way for the rest of the season."
"But — I tried for weeks — "
Harry tries to remember the spells he'd noted on Draco's wand. "Well, you were using that Aestas one, weren't you? That's a very outdated and difficult spell. Nobody uses it anymore." He's a little pleased about knowing that, to be honest. All those hours of helping Mrs Weasley in the garden are actually paying off.
Draco stares at him for a long moment, then raises his wand. He pauses and looks to Harry, as if expecting him to suddenly write down a warning for merely drawing his wand.
There's a slight pause.
"Vixo — "
"Vivo vix — "
"Vivo vixi vectum!" Perhaps it's annoyance at having to be corrected repeatedly by Harry, or perhaps just Draco's style, but the incantation is forceful and the wandwork a little too sharp. A leaf, dried-up and blackened by the winter frost, twitches once but otherwise nothing else happens. Harry catches sight of the disappointment flashing through Draco's eyes and despite himself, he finds himself walking up to him.
"You've got the wandwork wrong, that's the main problem." Harry holds out his own wand and then goes through the motions. "It's like you're drawing a circle, not a spiral."
He waits for a sharp retort or a defensive remark, but Draco does neither. He tenses a little, but then raises his wand again and, without the incantation, repeats the motion.
"A smaller circle. Too wide, and you're going to have a twenty-foot-high garden."
"Right," Draco says tersely. He takes a step back, repeats the motion once more, and says the incantation. This time, he speaks curtly but without force, and a clear ray of pale blue light radiates outward. A second later and colour washes forth like a tide, bringing a lively green colour to the leaves and sending roses blossoming so fast that Harry can hear the rustling of it.
He turns to look at Draco, and there's an expression he hadn't expected to see.
It's a small, half-hidden smile, but it's genuine.
He looks up and catches Harry's eye, and the smile disappears in a second.
"Finished?" Draco asks curtly, his face returning to its unreadable expression, a flatness in his grey eyes, and Harry's suddenly reminded of the last visit, when he was caught staring at that photograph of Draco and Scorpius. Seeing moments he's not supposed to.
"Just the hedge maze, and then I'll be done."
Draco leads him to the hedge maze. It's an overgrown mess of shambling evergreens, and it reminds Harry uncomfortably of the Triwizard Tournament. He's not sure why he asked to see the gardens. Just to get out of the dilapidated manor, probably. He turns to glance at Draco and catches him with a calculating expression.
"Nothing," Draco says, but it's clear he's considering something. As they make their back to the sweeping porch steps, he clears his throat. "I've received a wedding invitation."
"For Pansy Parkinson. She's not on the Wizards Under Watch program," Draco adds.
He's asking permission to go, Harry suddenly realises. He remembers how Draco's request to attend Goyle's wedding was rejected.
"That's fine." Harry recalls the details of Pansy's mediocre life. "Unless the groom is someone I need to know about."
The Ministry worker for the Department of Magical Games and Sports. Harry remembers now.
"Well, that's fine."
Draco nods once and Harry pauses on the last step.
"Well, I don't think there's anything else to discuss. Next week, Malfoy."
"Next week," Draco echoes, stepping inside and shutting the door.
Harry begins the long walk to the end of the property, where the anti-Apparation wards end and he can travel home in a whirl of space and time.
When Harry arrives home, however, he discovers two visitors waiting on his doorstep, both with identical disapproving expressions.
"Where have you been?" Hermione asks, her hands on her hips.
"Out." Harry has to squeeze past her to unlock the door.
"Out?" Ron repeats suspiciously. "Just...out?"
"Oh, you've been outside. Thanks for that useful information, Harry, I can see why you're a top Auror."
"We dropped by to visit. You weren't here," Hermione says, as if she's caught Harry setting manticores onto small children. She follows Harry inside, taking off her knitted hat and patting her hair back into place.
"Just been doing some work," Harry says, leading the way to the living room. "Just the Wizards Under Watch program."
Hermione frowns; Ron doesn't seem concerned. He heads towards the sofa and drapes himself over it, reaching for a copy of Quidditch Weekly. "Heard about that new Chudley Cannons keeper, Harry?"
"Doesn't matter if they've got a new keeper, they'll have to replace the whole team to get anywhere."
"Take your shoes off," Hermione says to Ron. "You've got snow all over them!"
"It's only water! Harry doesn't mind. Got any butterbeer, Harry?"
Harry shakes his head. He needs to do some grocery shopping. The pantry is starting to look woefully empty. The kitchen is big, too big, he thinks. When they built it, they had visions of entertaining all their friends here, raising a family. Three or four kids. The counters stretch on forever and the walk-in pantry is designed for bulk storage. There's a set of stairs that leads to the wine cellar. Ginny loved a good wine and she collected many a fine vintage. Harry has no taste for it — it's all just pressed grape juice, he'd say, and she'd crinkle her nose at him.
Harry hasn't been to the wine cellar since Ginny's death.
"Mind if we stay for dinner?" Hermione asks, taking off her shoes and nudging Ron until he moves further along the sofa, giving her some room.
Harry never minds. They laugh and chat into the evening, the fire crackling merrily in the hearth as Ron shares news of his latest inventions with George and Hermione shares anecdotes about Hogwarts alumni. Harry updates them on Draco's case and they muse over it for a while; Ron is still of the opinion that Harry should reassign the case to 'some other poor sod'.
Long after the clock has struck ten o'clock and the table has been cleared, they're still idling chatting over their drinks. Hermione stifles a yawn and catches Harry's eye.
"I'm a little tired," she admits. "Should probably be off soon. Hugo's supposed to be staying the night at a friend's place, but he might want to come home early. He misses Rose an awful lot."
"Little toerag," Ron says affectionately. "When his big sister's around, all he does is whinge and complain. Soon as she's gone, he's slumped in the corner looking tragic."
They chat for a while longer, Ron polishing off his final drink, and then they merrily farewell Harry, stepping into his fireplace and disappearing in a flash of Floo powder.
Harry stands alone for a long time.
Though he loves his friends dearly, and loves how their visits fill the spaces in his empty house, he hates it afterwards. He feels the silences more keenly after they've gone, feels the emptiness looming like a void.
Somewhere, a clock ticks.
He slowly puts the goblets in the sink. Three of them.
Just like how it used to be with him, James, and Ginny.
Her eyes. Always twinkling at some secret joke. Hands moving across the sink — let me wash those, you can dry them — because that's how they always did it, one of them washing and the other drying, and they'd talk and laugh, and James would always wanting to help — let me put the dishes away, I can do it! —
And as quickly as the memory appears, it vanishes again. The noise and brightness disappears as if Harry's been plunged underwater.
These days, he always feels like he's underwater, drifting aimlessly, caught in endless tides.
It's midnight, but Draco is standing in the rose gardens. Lately he's had difficulties sleeping, walking around the manor late at night and sleeping only by the time of some half-destroyed internal clock. It makes him feel so disconnected and surreal, as if the world only exists when his eyes are open. Every time he blinks, the world collapses and then rebuilds itself in a second.
"Vivo Vixi Vectum." The words whisper through the air like a promise.
The gardens spring to life. Draco inhales, a half-catch of a laugh in his throat. The rows of tulips straighten as if coming up for air. The leaves unfurl like green umbrellas. He turns around, repeating the spell over and over, until the gardens are a wild storm of life, a crazed haze of young leaves and scarlet geraniums, sun-coloured daffodils and purple violets, azaleas the colour of a pink-streaked sunset, orchids the shade of a summer dusk.
He stands alone in the night as all around him, flowers burst to life, luminous in the thin moonlight.
The next day, he wakes up to an owl tapping on his window. Judging by the high sun, he's overslept again. It's not good, he knows.
He pulls the window open. The owl is rather too small for the parcel attached to it and seems to be struggling a great deal. Taking pity on it, Draco quickly unties the parcel and the owl gives a grateful hoot before flying away.
He returns to his bed, sitting on the corner of it, and frowns at the parcel. It's wrapped in brown paper, with his name and address scrawled in green ink. The handwriting is unfamiliar.
Gingerly, he unwraps it.
It's a book, bright and new, with 'latest edition!' emblazoned on the cover.
The Complete Guide to Herbology: Creating Magical Gardens and Landscapes.
Draco picks up the brown paper and turns it over. There's no return address, nor is there an inscription on the book, but he can guess who sent it.
He smiles wryly.
James takes a deep breath, slowly exhales, raises his wand, and speaks.
It's a long moment before he dares to look. He glances down. The needle is still a needle. It doesn't look like a match at all.
"I am a Squib!" He throws his wand away angrily; Scorpius picks it up.
"It's okay. Just try again. You've got to focus on your wandwork. It's no use just swinging it around, you know."
"I'm not!" James reconsiders. "Well — maybe a little. But I like to make things look dramatic. It makes me feel like it will work more."
"Spells are about precision."
"I know, I know. You've told me a hundred times now. I'm trying, I honestly am." James accepts his wand back. "Thanks, Scorpius."
He tries again. This time, the needle turns to wood and James lets out a shout.
"Look! I nearly did it!" He holds up his hand; Scorpius looks at it with confusion. "High-five. You're supposed to hit it."
Scorpius hesitantly places his hand against James's. James laughs.
"Well, sort of. Haven't you ever given a high-five before? Never mind." He turns back to the half-needle and, feeling jubilant, raises his wand again. "Helixa."
This time, it turns into a complete match. James laughs and turns to Scorpius.
"Try a high-five again? No, you've got to hit my hand, not poke at it like it's a dead cat." James waits; Scorpius takes a breath and then slaps James's hand so hard that James stumbles backwards and doubles over. "Ouch! Not that hard!"
"I'm sorry!" Scorpius is distraught. "I didn't mean to — "
"Calm down, I'm still alive. Wow, you don't play around, do you? I bet you've got a mean left hook."
"You know, a punch?" James gives his hand a little shake, wincing slightly at the bright red skin. "Might have to teach you how to high-five without flaying someone's hand. Anyway, what do you reckon? Maybe I can have a go at that moon transfiguration. I could make a tenth moon for our sky." He points towards the vaulted ceiling.
"No. Not until you've mastered turning a needle into a match."
"Oh, you're mean. Worse than McGonagall." James pulls a face. "Hey, want to practice some other spells? Just take a break for a minute."
"You're not allowed to do moons yet," Scorpius says suspiciously, and James shakes his head.
"No, I was thinking defence spells. I got an 'Acceptable' in Defence Against the Dark Arts, after all. What do you reckon?"
Scorpius considers this, then gives a nod. James stands up straighter, feeling excited.
"Brilliant! All right, how about disarming?" He's pleased. They just finished practicing that spell today, and James has done well in class. "It's only fair that I let you know that I've done some serious disarming practice. Right, count of three? You might want to stand back. One, two, three!"
"Expelliarmus!" Scorpius's voice cuts through the air, clear and precise as a knife, and before James can even utter the incantation, he's flat on his back and his wand is in Scorpius's hand. He slowly raises his head; Scorpius is looking at him, wide-eyed, and shrinking back as if fearing retribution.
"That's — you said you wanted to practice — I'm sorry — "
"Don't apologise, you muppet," James laughs, standing up and walking over to him. "That was terrific! You could disarm anyone, I reckon! Even a professor."
Scorpius stares at his feet, a slight flush rising in his face. "Do you think so?"
"I know so. Come on, you have to show me how you did that."
Scorpius looks up at him. "Fine," he says, "but by midnight, you have to be able to turn needles into matches in a second."
"You drive a hard bargain," James says, grinning and nudging Scorpius to show he's joking. He has to do that sometimes, just to make sure Scorpius knows. Sometimes he takes everything too seriously.
But when Scorpius looks at him, there's a little smile hiding in the corner of his mouth.
The next day, in Transfiguration, he listens attentively. His friends keep looking at him — he can feel them waiting, expecting the endless jokes and smart retorts. But James steadfastly ignores them. This is important.
When McGonagall sets them to work turning a mouse from white to black, James does his hardest to remember all of Scorpius's advice. He'd said that James tended to make his wandwork too 'big', with too many gestures and dramatic swishing, and that he tended to blurt out incantations instead of speaking clearly and deliberately. What else?
Concentrate on what you want to change, not what you want to see.
Next to him, Paul is trying to get his attention, waving his mouse around.
"Look, James! Bet you could have fun with these! Put it down Jennifer's collar," he whispers. "Dare you!"
"Come on! You can do a million pranks with it!"
James blocks him out, trying to concentrate on the small mouse curled up in his palm. With his other hand, he draws his wand and makes a small, careful motion before tapping the mouse twice. It opens its eyes just as the wand touches it and immediately turns a beautiful jet-black.
"Very good, Potter. And now, back to white." McGonagall is looking at him, her eyebrows raised slightly. There's the faintest hint of approval around the corners of her mouth.
James smiles widely, elated with success, and turns to Paul.
"Did you see that?" he asks him excitedly. Paul scowls at him.
"So what? Anyone can do it." He haphazardly taps his mouse; it emits a frightened squeak and immediately turns into a little puddle of fur, legs and ears sticking out in very odd directions.
James turns away as McGonagall swoops upon Paul, full of wrathful remonstrations, and concentrates on his mouse.
A few seconds later it turns snow-white again.
James waits, his invisibility cloak over him. When he sees Scorpius round the corner, a tentative wand-light held out, he grins and creeps towards him, then pounces, throwing his invisibility cloak over them both.
Scorpius stumbles slightly, then turns and looks. "Oh!" He reaches out, touching the material. "I don't think this is Demiguise fur, you know."
"Probably not." James shrugs. "Guess what, Scorpius? I did it!"
"Turned a mouse black, then back to white! McGonagall said it was very good."
Scorpius gives a tentative smile. "Good job, James."
"What are you talking about? It's all thanks to you. Now come on, we're going on an adventure."
"Anywhere you want to go! We'll hide under my cloak. We can go anywhere."
"Anywhere." James laughs and stretches out his arms, as much as the cloak will allow him. "Pick any place, and I'll take you there."
"The lake," Scorpius says, as if expecting James to shake his head.
But James doesn't.
"Let's go," he says, grinning.
They sneak out of the castle together, whispering to each other occasionally. Scorpius even laughs at some of James's jokes.
James feels the happiest he's been since he arrived at Hogwarts.
Draco stands by the window, his back against the cool glass, and stares at the dress robes laid out on the bed. In his hand, the invitation is neatly folded.
Pansy Parkinson and Christopher Clayton request the pleasure of your company…
He'd introduced them to each other. How's that for irony? Astoria had been away and Draco had been invited to a garden party by one of the old Pureblood families — he can't remember which one now, but it would have been rude to decline — and he hadn't wanted to go alone. Pansy had agreed to go with him. They'd been much closer then and Draco had the feeling an affair was imminent.
And it was there she had met Clayton. Draco had made it clear he found the man to be insufferably boring; afterwards, his constant reference to Clayton as 'that ill-bred prat' had caused a rift between him and Pansy.
He dresses slowly. It seems to take an age to button up his shirt, his fingers numb with cold. The heating spells need to be reinstated again. He looks at himself in the mirror and adjusts his plain black robes. He'll be late to the wedding, he thinks, but it won't matter.
Finally, he tucks the invitation into one pocket and leaves the manor, stopping first by the rose garden to pick a single white rose. The Malfoys throughout the ages have always presented a single, prized rose from their gardens no matter whose wedding they're attending.
He Disapparates just as the rain begins again.
It's raining at the wedding, too. Draco stares down at the invitation in his hand, pausing after Apparating so quickly. The rain speckles across the parchment, causing ink to run like tears.
After a moment, he looks up. Across the tree-lined avenue, he can see the open doors of the church. A small wedding. Pansy's family, her three cousins wearing bridesmaid dresses. Pansy is beautiful in an ivory dress. Her husband is shaking hands with his relatives, receiving congratulations.
Clayton looks up first. He sees Draco standing across the avenue, standing in the rain. He touches Pansy's elbow; she looks up and sees him.
Both their smiles fade. Around them, the cheerful relatives continue their well-wishes.
She hadn't expected him to come, Draco realises. Neither of them had. Now they're both staring at him, their radiant smiles giving way to identical frowns.
The invitation had merely been a polite formality. He looks down at it again.
Pansy Parkinson and Christopher Clayton request the pleasure of your company…
Ink runs over his fingers, joined by a thin trickle of blood where a thorn from the rose has pricked his thumb.
He turns and leaves.
He Apparates just outside the manor gates and begins the long walk up the driveway. By the time he's arrived at the front doors, the parchment is a sodden mess. He slowly pushes the doors open and steps inside.
"What happened to you?"
He jumps, then closes his eyes slowly.
"Potter. Right. I forgot."
"You forgot?" Harry sounds disbelieving. "You've only had these meetings for the past million years."
Draco leans against the door, his eyes still closed. It feels reassuring to have something solid behind him. He can hear the soft drip of water running from his hair, his clothes, his skin. He opens his eyes at last and drops the invitation onto the floor. After a moment, the rose lands beside it, the petals crushed and bruised.
"Just let yourself in, then?" Draco asks, but his voice just sounds tired and defeated.
"I wasn't about to stand on the freezing porch waiting for you," Harry says. "So...the wedding."
He looks up. Harry's giving him a calculating look.
"The wedding," Harry repeats. "That's what it was. Pansy Parkinson, right?"
"Right." Draco takes his weight off the door and stands up straight, walking past Harry and into the hallway beyond the stairs, making his way to his father's study. Harry follows him, lingering by the doorway as Draco settles into the leather chair behind his father's desk.
"I don't drink on the job," Harry says. Draco laughs humourlessly.
"Of course you don't." He opens the desk drawer and removes a bottle of Ogden's finest, pouring himself a neat dram.
Harry waves his wand at the fireplace; a fire springs to life. Draco, remembering his wet clothes, thinks of how the damp must be ruining the leather chair. He doesn't particularly care.
There's a long silence. He knocks back the firewhiskey in a single shot and places the empty glass upon the desk. Harry looks at him, then makes his way to an armchair near the fire.
"I suppose you'll be wanting my wand," Draco prompts at last.
"I suppose," Harry echoes. Draco tosses his wand through the air; Harry catches it and looks at it for a long moment.
"What's the matter?" Draco says. "Forgot the incantation, Potter?"
"This isn't your wand."
Draco looks at Harry for a long moment, then pours himself another neat dram. To his surprise, Harry stands and moves over to the desk, sitting in the chair opposite Draco.
"If you're offering, I'll take one."
"Thought you didn't drink on the job."
Harry levels him with a long look. Draco gets out another glass.
"I know it's not my wand." Draco slowly pours a second dram and slides it across the desk to Harry. "But I already asked for it back, Potter, and you'll learn this of me: when I ask, I only do so once."
"Is that true of your seven appeals?"
Draco pauses. Then he downs the firewhiskey in one swift movement.
"You've got access to my legal records. How charming."
"Of course I do, Malfoy. With your past — "
"My past, my past." Draco stands up and hurls the glass at the wall. It shatters immediately on impact.
Silence reigns and he's suddenly aware of himself. He sits down again. He supposes Harry will write him up now. Intimidating behaviour. That's what his previous officers wrote. Every time Draco so much as looked at them funny, they'd look terrified and immediately write him up. Let alone hurling objects around them…
Harry lifts the glass of firewhiskey, as if toasting Draco, and drinks half of it before setting the glass down again.
"I remember you asking," he says, as if nothing had happened. "You said I had something of yours, and you wanted it back."
It takes Draco a moment to catch up to the conversation. He remembers that night well.
"It served me well, you know. Better than many other wands I've had to use." Harry finishes off the rest of the firewhiskey. "Hawthorn, wasn't it? That wand...it was very reliable. Found it much easier to use than I expected. I used it during most of the war."
It angers Draco, to think of Harry using his wand, but he clenches his jaw and remains silent.
"I suppose you're angry about it." Harry smiles sardonically when Draco gives him a suspicious look. "I would be, if someone stole my wand and started using it. Not nice, really."
"If this is your idea of a game, Potter, then I'd rather not play. If you have my wand, give it back."
"I thought you never asked twice."
"It was not a request."
"I don't think you're in a position to be particularly demanding, Malfoy." Nevertheless, Harry reaches into the sleeve of his robe and removes a wand.
His breath catches in his throat. It's been seventeen years, old friend…
Harry holds it out and Draco hesitantly reaches for it, as if expecting the wand to dissipate into smoke the second he touches it. But it doesn't. There's a long pause, when Harry and himself are both holding onto it, and then Draco tightens his grip and Harry relinquishes his.
The last time he held this wand, he was a terrified seventeen-year-old, not knowing which way to go, not knowing anything. To his horror, he can feel the tears prickling in his eyes and he stands abruptly.
"Well, if that's all, you should leave. I'm expecting company," Draco lies, his voice curt. Harry looks startled, then a frown settles over his face.
"Well, fine. See you next week," he snaps, abruptly turning and leaving. Draco listens to his footsteps, then the front doors closing, and then he slowly sits back down again.
He knows it wasn't his imagination. It took effort to take his wand from Harry, as if there was an invisible magnet pulling the wand away from him. There's still an allegiance there, Draco's certain of it. His wand has come home, but it's not the same.
He sits in the study for a long time, listening to the crackling of the fire, wondering what the first spell should be. He's almost too afraid to try, as if his wand will somehow reject him.
A simple Lumos, he thinks, or an Alohomora. Nothing too taxing.
And yet, as he raises the wand, he finds himself saying something entirely different.
The ghostly stag rises from his wand like smoke. It's just a ghost of a spell, Draco reminds himself. Expecto Patronum.
The patronus lowers its head and for a moment Draco thinks it's going to charge him. It walks forward slowly, until it's about a foot away, looking at Draco.
"You're not even a patronus," Draco tells it. "Just a ghost."
The stag pays no attention to that line of reasoning, instead leaning forward to nudge Draco. He jumps away, instinctively avoiding the antlers before remembering it has no corporeal form. Still, there's a slightly unpleasant sensation as the antlers pass through his skin, like a chill from a draught. Draco's certain the patronus should be fading by now, but the stag shows no sign of disappearing.
"Go away," he tells it. The patronus steps back, regarding him with luminescent eyes, and remains standing silently by the desk.
And Merlin, he doesn't know what's wrong with him — maybe he's just sick of this empty manor, his footsteps the only noise, or just sick of the dark shadows that seem to never lift from the corners of every room — but sitting there with that brightly-shining patronus standing beside him like a silent but ever-watchful guard — he feels somehow all right, just for a moment, as if the world has righted itself on its axis.