Disclaimer: I'm not J.K. Rowling; I'm only visiting her universe for nonprofit fun and edification. (No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended).
Christmas Day is grim. There's an interminable dinner with Gran presiding over a table of elderly kin, including her cousin Algernon, whom Neville calls Uncle Algie, and Enid, whose relationship isn't clear, and a number of other dour and elderly witches and wizards—yet more distant cousins, he guesses.
Halfway through the meal he realizes that his own bullying of Neville was amateur at best, compared to what Uncle Algie hands out in the name of friendly encouragement. With a guest—best of all, one of Neville's schoolmates—providing a fresh audience, Algie is delighted to remember that his grand-nephew was a duffer at Potions, to tell innumerable stories about Neville's clumsiness as a child, and to recall the wager about whether he was a Squib. Gran's most dangerous look does nothing to close off this line of conversation.
(Neville tells him later that Algie and Gran have been at odds since childhood, when she Transfigured his hair into a nest of snakes. On the face of it, accidental magic, except that the nest included three different species of famously deadly North American vipers. The passing of ninety-seven years has done nothing to sweeten the bad feeling on Algie's part.)
Then the cousin sitting next to Enid, whose name is Eustace and who resembles a camel more than any other human being Draco has ever met, begins telling a story about some sort of minor scandal at the Ministry, which Gran quells—apparently it's not a story to be told outside the family, or in front of an enemy guest.
After that, they talk for a bit about the ill health of those not attending—in rather more than explicit clinical detail—which does nothing for his appetite. Once the casualty report has been read, this seems to have exhausted topics of conversation, so the rest of the meal proceeds in silence.
After the dishes are cleared, there's some wandering about and smoking of pipes on the terrace, and then the guests betake themselves home, to Draco's immense relief. Neville and his Gran step through the Floo to St. Mungo's to visit his parents for an hour or so. He settles in with his Arithmancy book in one of the chairs in the front room as the afternoon darkens and the house grows chilly. He wraps his cloak about him; the elderly elf flits through to menace him, but seems to be doing nothing about lighting a fire. They keep a hearth fire going in the kitchen for the Floo, but the elf won't let him near that one.
Neville had mentioned in passing that his Gran had lived poor for a long time after the Great War and it had made her frugal. Draco doesn't know what war he means, but he can certainly vouch for the frugality.
Late in the afternoon, Neville and Gran return, and then the elf shows up to alert Gran to a fire-call in the kitchen. She returns to light the fire in the front room; seconds later, it flares green and two pairs of Aurors step through, wands out, to dispose themselves against the opposite wall, covering the fireplace. The next people through are his father and mother, followed by a third pair of Aurors.
They wish him a happy Yule, and his mother embraces him, and then says she has news for him. He's immediately suspicious, because whatever it is, Andromeda felt the need to say something three days before. It's clearly something that's going to unsettle him. Gran shows them to the formal drawing room, where there's an argument about how many of the Aurors are going to accompany them into the room and how close they're going to stand.
One of the Aurors says in so many words that there will be no escape attempt on his watch.
To which Gran replies that there are parts of the house from which one can no more Apparate than from Hogwarts or Azkaban. And there is no Floo in the formal drawing room. Draco shivers, wondering what prompted such a design.
She smiles that bird-of-prey smile and further reminds the Auror that one of his colleagues spent some time in St. Mungo's some months back after an unauthorized visit to Longbottom House, so he might have some respect for the security precautions of the house, and the capabilities of its mistress.
She accompanies him and his parents into the drawing room, and sits at the far end, her wand hand negligently draped across her lap. Smiles an all-too-collegial smile at the two Aurors who accompany them into the room. Well, three against three would be fair, if one of the three weren't the Hogwarts dueling champion of her day. And if Draco weren't all but a squib, and his parents wandless—well, that's the family reputation, he supposes. Get a name as a Dark magician and no one is taking chances that you won't try some wandless nastiness.
The preliminary conversation isn't too different from the content of their letters; what makes it different, and much more reassuring, is their physical presence. His father looks much older; there are lines in his face that weren't there before, and streaks of white in his pale hair. A difference, too, in his bearing—he's a prisoner, not the master of a house. His mother seems preoccupied; she's telling stories about the rose garden, the peacocks, and the weather, as if he were fooled by this when he knows—has seen—that the house has been stripped of most of its furnishings and they're living in it like refugees. The nominal reason, he's been told, is that everything in the house is being treated as a Dark artifact until proven otherwise—hence the Decommissioning Committee's use of Ministry-issue tea things rather than anything belonging to the family. Of course, he wonders how much of the impounded property they'll ever see again.
Then his mother clears her throat with a strange little smile, and says, "Draco, we wanted to tell you—I wanted to tell you—in person." She pats his shoulder, and his father looks pleased and smug. "You're going to have a sister."
He doesn't understand why they're feeling the need to adopt a child, even as his worst suspicions are confirmed: he's being replaced.
"I'm afraid you don't understand," his father says. "Your mother is going to have a daughter. In the usual way."
Oh. In the usual way. There's something in the manner between the two of them that makes his self-possession give way as he gets a flash of how one gets a child the usual way and he feels his face burning. No. Not a picture he wants, but his father is looking at his mother with an expression that reminds him of … well, other couples he's seen. Something has changed between them in the last year or so, or maybe it was always there and he's being let in on the secret because he's come of age.
Now he understands why the Engineering Consultant—Mrs. Longbottom, Gran—spoke of the children of the house, back in October, why Healer Derwent and his mother had that significant exchange of glances at the discussion of celebratory firewhiskey. They've all known since mid-October if not earlier, and haven't seen fit to tell him.
He's torn between two contradictory impulses: to take the news like a real man, the heir of the house, and to howl in outrage at being superseded as his mother's cherished darling.
His mother has taken his hand and is cradling it tenderly in hers as she tells him that the child's godmother has already been chosen, and it's Andromeda Tonks. She clarifies: it's more than a titular honor. Andromeda will be raising the child if anything happens.
He readily translates: when they go to Azkaban, his sister-to-be will be raised in the Weasley enclave.
Draco thinks about the news far into the night, and doesn't rise until past nine on Boxing Day. Gran sends the inimical house-elf into the kitchen to organize him some breakfast, which at least is hot and savory. By the time he finishes, he's glowering into the empty plate trying to puzzle out the politics of Andromeda's disquisition on the Weasley-Malfoy blood feud, her choice as godmother, and the reason he's suddenly being blessed—he pulls a sour face—with a sibling. For that matter, he's suspicious of the reconciliation between his mother and her sister. Maybe his mother was already pregnant, or planning to be, when she made overtures—because he isn't sure he believes Andromeda's story of how she initiated the reconciliation.
It gives him a headache.
He puts on his cloak to see if he can go for a walk on the terrace without interference from the house-elf. In the next room, he sees something that pleases him even less—Neville and Granger, in one of the doorways to the terrace, locked in an embrace, both still wearing their outdoor things as if they've come back from a walk. She has one hand tangled in his hair as the other caresses his chest, and he's standing braced against the doorway, with his legs out to either side of her, presumably to reduce the difference in their heights so that she can kiss him without having to stand on tiptoe. It does look equivocal, though, especially given how close she's standing. His hands are caressing her shoulders and upper back—rather chastely, in fact, by contrast to how her hands are moving. Well, he knows from experience that Neville is the shy one. He has further confirmation that Granger is not shy, when she shifts her attention from Neville's mouth to his neck, and Draco sees that Neville's shirt is open to the waist inside his jacket, and she's pushing it down his shoulder, inside his coat, to bare him for her kisses. The expression on Neville's face is one he's never seen before—raw abandon, complete ecstatic surrender—and he's flushed and breathing hard. Every time Granger's lips (and probably teeth as well) touch his neck or his shoulder, he gasps.
This is nothing that Draco wanted to see right after breakfast, and his first thought is that they really ought to get a room. Surely, the mistletoe dangling on a red ribbon above their heads can't sanction that level of shamelessness.
He turns on his heel and walks back to the front room to see if serious contemplation of Arithmancy or History of Magic will do something to scour that vision from his memory. If someone had told him a year ago—no, even six months ago—that the duffer and the swot, the two most asexual beings he knew, would be steaming the windows with their passion ...
No, he doesn't want to think about it.
The old year has less than three days to live. Draco has been studying, trying to put out of his mind the five unacceptable things that, very much against his will, want him to contemplate them.
First, of course, is the list of war crimes defendants which is to be promulgated after the new year, along with the formal indictments. He knows that his name is on that list, cannot help knowing. Before parting on Christmas Day, his mother reminded him of the life debt owed her by Harry Potter. There will be at least one witness for the defense, he understands, and a very prestigious one. Andromeda Tonks is their go-between, and his mother reminds him that he will want to listen very carefully to what she says, because there are things that Andromeda understands about the post-war world that he ignores at his peril.
Second is the other world, which presses upon him at odd times of the day. Sometimes it's a trick of the light, or a scent. The other day, Granger walked by as he was reading and suddenly he was back in that hallway in Hogwarts that he can't help thinking of as the scene of his death. He gripped the arm of the chair and the hard carved wood against his palm brought him back, but only partially. She was standing next to him, wand covering his assailants. What he hadn't noticed at the time: a light spicy scent, sandalwood or the like. He looks at the clock or the calendar and marks the time that's passed in that world. Have they worked out what happened, or is that shell in St. Mungo's another unsolved piece of extrajudicial retribution in the post-war? Is it in the same ward as Longbottom's parents? No doubt they talk about what a nice piece of poetic justice that was, those who remember his ill-advised jeering at Longbottom in fifth year.
He's living on borrowed time in this world, but he's savoring these days because he wasn't supposed to have them at all. He would never have thought that the dour and brooding moors would be his idea of beautiful landscape, but every time he looks out the window he thinks: sanctuary. Time deals itself out in minutes now, as snow and fog obscure the distance.
Third is his parents' announcement of his new sister, to be born in June. He does the calculations: his mother is three months gone, and she definitely knew about it—everyone but him knew about it—at the time that he was brought to the Manor for the Decommissioning of the perimeter defenses. He puts out of his mind the thought that he may well have arrived within a few days of her conception. It's ironic, actually, because he does remember desperately wanting a brother or sister when he was little, asking his mother about it, and even at five years old recognizing forbidden ground. It doesn't make the least bit of sense—not as dynastic politics, certainly—to create a child who has nothing to inherit but a disgraced name.
Fourth, well, fourth is Granger and Neville. He's not sure where they are living, actually. Neville is still at Hogwarts, but he shows up occasionally at meals with Gran. In spite of the post-war emergency, Granger appears to be on some sort of holiday from the Ministry. He overhears her saying to Neville that her part is done for the time being. The entire elaborate structure has been built, the searchable archive for the trials, though she has some doubts about what they're going to do with the technique after that, given the dubious things the Muggles have done with it.
Occasionally, she's closeted with Gran in some kind of business consultation. She comes and goes freely via the Floo and has spent the night a few times. She and Neville have taken at least one of the extended walks that they fancy, and come back laughing and rosy-faced. He has the definite sense that they're dodging him, and Gran as well, although Gran has a sly expression on her face that implies that she's not only not fooled but that she thoroughly approves of the situation.
The fifth thing is his slowly returning magic. He can manage Incendio now, and he smiles bitterly to think that after Lumos and Nox, it was fire that returned first—now that it terrifies him. At least he's not in danger of setting his robes on fire because he can't manage the Muggle tools with which one lights a fire—cigarette lighter or match or flaming brand—and he reminds himself each time that the flames are safely confined to a hearth, and he is not in fact looking at the Fiendfyre conflagration in the Room of Hidden Things nor the nearly four-hundred-years-ago burning of the Manor. His father told him that story when he was so young that it wove itself into his nightmares as if he'd lived it.
For all the reminders in History of Magic that the major casualties of the Time of the Burning occurred on the Continent, he can't help reminding himself that numbers don't matter when you're the one who drew the lot of doom.
New Year's Eve there's a ball at the Ministry, and he's left once more in the company of Gran's shadowy house-elf—if company it can be called when a creature glowers at you and sidles in between you and any possible exit—and he tries not to feel sorry for himself. He's superstitious about invoking the other world, the one in which he died, because he's afraid of slipping through the barrier if he does. It's the uttermost dark of the year, and he can feel the gate between the worlds wide open at the hour of ghosts. In the Old Ways, this is the time you conjure the dead, or at least speak to them across the barrier.
It's hopeless to study in this darkness. In the interregnum before the return of the Dark Lord, on New Year's Eve his mother would light candles in front of the pictures of her dead. His father did not do it; he understands now that there was considerable bad blood between his father and grandfather.
He walks into the formal drawing room, and realizes that Mrs. Longbottom apparently follows the practice, too. A row of tiny candles glimmers on the deep mantelpiece in front of a row of photographs. Some of them are very old. There are witches and wizards in nineteenth-century Muggle clothes, whose fierce aquiline features share the cast of Gran's. They nod to him in flinty acknowledgment from their photographs, the flickering candlelight casting eerie shadows behind them. Then there are three Muggle photographs—a young round-faced man in military costume, and a baby in a lace gown, and another young man who looks as if he might be related to Gran as well, though when Draco looks closely, he realizes that it's just that they share the same sort of bone structure through the cheekbones and bridge of the nose; this fellow has a more Middle Eastern look to his features. And then there's another wizarding photograph, a strapping fellow in everyday robes open over dark trousers and a heavy woolen jumper, standing on the stone terrace of Longbottom House with Pendle Hill behind him. In his face, Draco recognizes something of Neville—his father? No, Neville's father isn't dead. This must be his grandfather.
Neville's Gran was a deep-dyed blood traitor, he realizes. That row of photographs is living evidence. He wonders who the three Muggles are, the two men and the baby. They have to be Muggles, because otherwise the photographs would be proper wizarding ones.
He remembers that he has a handful of photographs of the dead, too.
There's a whisper behind him, "Little Malfoy."
No one's called him that in a very long time. In fact, there's only one person who ever did. He turns to the portrait on the opposite wall. The silver snakes on her dress robes glimmer in the candlelight. "Emily," he says, and then corrects himself and makes a slight courteous bow. "Miss Chattox."
The portrait is stunning, not least because of the costume. Instead of a rowdy Quidditch player, this Emily is a witch in the full sense of the word. The smile is the same, and the dangerous look of the bird of prey, but there's also the seductive expanse of bare shoulder and bust. Yes, he'd guessed right about what was under the Quidditch gear. It's a good thing that he didn't see this one when he was thirteen, he thinks, or he never would have looked at any living witch. Even Pansy wouldn't have had a chance.
He says, "I know who you are now." She smiles and plays with her vial of Felix. He gestures toward it. "You were quite the Potions prodigy, they told me." She laughs.
"I hear the same of you," she says. "I've been visiting with your old Head of House."
He opens his mouth and closes it again. She gives him an exasperating smirk. "Mostly we talk Quidditch. He regrets that your generation didn't field a better team, but then you had other things on your minds, didn't you?" She adds, "And there was that regrettable practice of discouraging witches from playing. Quite unbalanced, you know. Now that Tom Riddle's out of the way for good, let's hope that changes."
He frowns. "Surely you aren't allowed into the portraits in the Headmaster's Office?"
"No, but we can visit within the House portraits." She smiles. "Haven't you read Hogwarts, A History?"
"Yes, but I don't remember that bit."
"The 1920 edition. They dropped the best parts after that, or you would have known about the duel." She laughs. "Blame your family's influence." She looks at him seriously. "It lacks an hour of midnight, little Malfoy. Don't you have candles to light?"
He takes the photographs out of the pocket of his robes and nods. "But I don't have a picture of Professor Snape."
"I can relay a message," she says. "And the elf will fetch you candles." The shadowy creature is behind him even as she speaks, and on the little table under her portrait, a row of seven candles appears, glowing in shallow glass dishes.
He sets up the pictures and acknowledges each in turn: "Pansy. Greg. Vince. Blaise." Then the ones Andromeda gave him. "Cousin Nymphadora." Then not quite believing it, "Cousin Remus."
And last, "Professor Snape." Immediately he says, "I'm sorry I didn't listen when you tried to find out what I was about sixth year." Adds, "I'm glad they're calling you a hero now." At the bottom of that article in the Prophet, he'd noticed that Granger was lobbying to upgrade Snape's Order of Merlin to First Class. "Granger wants you to get the Order of Merlin, First Class. She was a swotty pain in the arse, but fair-minded. Still is. A pain in the arse, I mean. Gryffindors are bad enough, but the swotty ones are worse." He smiles for the first time.
Emily smiles. "I'll tell him." She turns to leave the picture. "Happy New Year, little Malfoy," she says. And then she's gone, leaving empty the cream-and-rose interior with her shadow lightly sketched upon it.
"Cousin Remus." He can't believe he's acknowledging Remus Lupin as his cousin. The werewolf. But he wasn't Greyback. Not even all werewolves are alike. "You were a good teacher." He can't think of what else to say. It's too much to say that he's sorry about making fun of Lupin's shabby robes and poverty, because if he says that, he'll have to say something similar to the Weasleys. To Ron Weasley, in particular, who isn't dead and mildly looking out at him from a wizarding snapshot.
"Cousin Nymphadora." The pink-haired girl winks at him and waves. "I'm sorry I didn't know you. But Granger did." He blushes at the memory. "You must have been fun. If things had been different…" Through one of the shadow gates to the other world—to the possible worlds—he catches a glimpse of a field in summer, and two cousins, a girl and a boy, chasing each other through an orchard on racing brooms.
"Blaise." Zabini acknowledges him with his sardonic look. "I'm sorry you're dead." Unbidden, the tears start into his eyes. "You were right, I shouldn't have taken it all so seriously. Look where it got me."
"Greg." Now he's crying in earnest, because it was for nothing that he worked so hard to save Greg Goyle from the Fiendfyre, to have him cut down in the Hogsmeade High Street by an assailant still unknown. "I miss you…"
"Pansy. You are still a mean girl, but I miss you."
"Vince. You bloody fool. You almost killed us all." He wipes his eyes. "But I still miss you."
And then there are the dead for whom he has no pictures: Bella. Rodolphus.
Bella. He's got words to say to her anyway. "Aunt Bella, you were wrong." He speaks into the darkness, into the unreachable void beyond the Veil. "I thought you were awesome, the best aunt ever. You told me all those stories. You got me the Mark before I was of age. I wish you hadn't. I wish you hadn't been mixed up with the Dark Lord. I wish none of us had." He adds, "And you were wrong, you know. You're a virgin till you've cast Cruciatus. I know you didn't say that, but you meant it. And you were wrong."
He says, "They'll send me to Azkaban, but I'm not dying a virgin. And—aunt Bella—it was Granger. The Muggle-born. And Neville Longbottom."
The Dark Lord is dead, too, but for him he has no words at all.
It's long after midnight that Neville, his Gran, and Granger return from the Ministry ball. Draco has fallen asleep in front of the hearth in the tall tapestried chair, with his face pillowed on the hard carven arm. His Arithmancy book has fallen closed and then dropped to the floor from his tucked-up knees. After talking to his dead, it had seemed most comforting to turn to the icy loves of numbers.
He sits up, nose still stuffy and eyelids burning.
Gran goes into the formal drawing room to extinguish the candles. Traditionally, they burn through the midnight hour, but must be snuffed before daybreak. She emerges and for a moment stands between the tall doors, looking at him with a curious expression. She saw his makeshift shrine, no doubt. He gets up and walks toward her. "Emily said it was all right," he says.
"So it is, lad," she replies, and hands him the candle-snuffer. "Happy New Year." Muggle tools in a wizarding house. Apparently, Longbottom comes by it honestly.
He goes into the drawing-room, now in nearly complete darkness except for the flames flickering on the table with the photographs of his dead. Emily has returned to her frame. "Professor Snape wishes you a happy new year," she says. He nods, and goes down the row of candles, using the tool as Emily instructs ("Put the little bell over the flame. It cuts off the air.")
Down the row, and each portrait in turn falls into darkness. When he's done, he gathers them up like a hand at cards, folds up the fan, and pockets them.
When he emerges, Neville and Granger are still sitting in the front room waiting for him. A new fire roars merrily in the hearth, an extravagance granted by Gran in honor of the holiday, apparently. Neither Gran nor the elf is in evidence.
They stand to greet him. "Happy New Year, Draco."
There's a cut-glass decanter standing on the tea table with three tumblers. Neville pours a measure into each of the tumblers. "Firewhiskey. Old Ogden's," he says, handing a tumbler to Draco.
Neville hands the other to Granger, who says, "You know, I never thought I'd like the stuff. But it grows on you."
Draco laughs. "Strictly ceremonial for me. I loathe the taste. Give me butterbeer or elf-made wine."
She says, "My dad loves butterbeer. Says it's the wizarding world's great contribution to civilization. That, and Quidditch."
Neville says, "Your dad likes Quidditch?"
"He took the Prophet from second year onward to follow the professional teams. Arthur Weasley got him hooked on it, I gather." She looks at the firelight reflecting in the decanter. "I miss my mum and dad something awful." Unspoken—and he's grateful for her tact—is that she'll have them back after the trials, once he's been buried alive in Azkaban.
Neville puts an arm around her and hugs her close, then lifts his tumbler. "To our absent parents," he says. They clink glasses and drink. Draco is grateful for Neville's parsimony with the liquor, as it burns his mouth and sinuses. It's an odd toast, considering the diverse reasons for absence: madness, house arrest, exile.
Neville refills the tumblers and nods toward Granger. "To the New Year," she says with a mordant smirk, "May we get out of it alive." They clink glasses; this time he notices that both Neville and Granger are watching him over their tumblers as they drink. They put down the tumblers and Granger says, somewhat awkwardly, "And to life debts." She says, "I think they run both ways. We're just as bound to you as you are to us."
To his surprise, she stands, crosses the space between them, and takes his hand, drawing him to his feet. Puts her hands on his shoulders and kisses him. "Happy New Year," she says. It's not at all the kiss he expects, and she repeats it, this time with her arms around him, just in case he missed the intent of the first one. It's a lover's kiss, sensual and appreciative and additionally heated by the lingering taste of firewhiskey on her tongue.
Then she takes his hand again, and holds it out to Neville, who rises to meet him and then sweeps him into an authoritative embrace, tipping his head back into a passionate open-mouthed kiss. Neville has never kissed him like that before, and he wonders if he's learned a thing or two from Granger.
He's overwhelmed, and more than a little aroused, by the time that Neville releases him. "I don't understand," he says.
Granger says, "We're with you, Draco. Until the end, whatever that is." She adds, "Whether that's Azkaban or something else."
"You mean… both of you."
"Yes," Neville says. "Both of us. And each of us separately."
"Though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run." Granger smiles at him. She's quoting something, he can tell. It's not an incantation, at least not one he knows. His heart is racing. "We're alive, up to the very last minute," she says.
Neville glances at the window, and says, "Full-moon curfew, or I'd suggest a stroll on the grounds after."
The heat from the fire on the hearth is delicious on his skin, almost as delicious as the touch of skin on his skin.
The grim post-war is still out there, with the werewolf packs and the rogue Dementors and unspecified other horrors that Granger declines to discuss further. Neville tells him that she's under Fidelius now, through the end of the trials. She nods with tears in her eyes.
He's not going to die a virgin, certainly not after tonight, and he will do all right on the NEWTs, at least those that he can sit. The magic is coming back, just as Andromeda promised, though not quite quickly enough to make Transfiguration or Charms a realistic possibility.
He dozes against Neville's chest with Granger slowly stroking his hair, even as she slides into sleep herself. No, Hermione. Surely he can be on a first name basis with someone who does that so well, even if she does have dual citizenship in the terrifying world on the other side of the Leaky Cauldron.
In the morning, he has letters to write. He will send New Year's greetings to his mother and father, and to the little sister who will be born in June. He will write to Andromeda Tonks, to wish her well for the next year, and to greet his cousins' son Teddy. And he will ask her advice. She will be able to tell him how he might write to Ron Weasley, and possibly to Madam Rosmerta and to Katie Bell.
(the end… of the beginning)