A/N: Thank you for your overwhelming response, dearest readers! I've been most fascinated by your different views on Lily's tale and Harry's reaction in the last chapter – some of you thought she'd blown it, some of you thought he misbehaved. Some of you considered it an awful burden for him that she would willingly die again, while others pointed out that this must be a revelation for Harry – that his mother did not die accidentally, but was willing to do so and would do it in any other dimension. Thank you for giving me those perspectives! You are the cleverest and the bestest! (And keep it coming!)
As to this chapter: When I promised you the ball and the Weasley last time… well, it seems I lied. Inadvertently. Draco and Neville had too much to talk about, and then it wouldn't have fit in the mood of this chapter. So you'll have another chapter of Christmas to look forward to, before it all collapses into the huge bloody mess that is inevitable with these characters… Happy reading!
Once again, Lily couldn't sleep – motherhood was supposed to do that to you, but Lily had always assumed that was because of babies crying and irregular feeding times, not because your child's unhappiness became your own and drove you up the walls – and so she found herself wandering the corridors of the Manor, surrounded by old memories and new worries.
At dawn, she slowly made her way to the breakfast room, hoping that the house elves had at least prepared coffee, only to find that she hadn't been the only one with that idea.
Hermione was sitting at one end of the table, a half-emptied cup of tea and a plate with only crumbs on it by her side, her nose buried in a book. Lily glanced critically at it, but found to her satisfaction that Hermione had followed her advice. She was reading "The Wind in the Willows".
But the true surprise was waiting for her at the other end of the table.
Draco and Neville. Sharing a pot of coffee. Talking.
Neville's eyes had darted towards her before she'd even fully entered the room, but as soon as he had assessed her as a non-threat, his whole attention returned to the conversation. Draco looked up considerably later and sent her a nod and a smile, but he, too, was fixed on their talk, and so Lily chose her morning beverage and a plate of toast and scrambled eggs quietly and joined Hermione at her end of the table, close enough to be able to listen in on the boys, but too far away to intrude.
"…I can't remember a time when we weren't friends, you and I," Draco was saying, his voice earnest and absolute in a way only Draco managed. "We had our difficulties – I was seriously jealous of the whole Boy-Who-Lived thing – I was a jealous little brat in general, I think. But we got over that, thanks to you being long-suffering and too patient for your own good, really, Neville…"
Neville twitched a bit, but unlike yesterday, he didn't seem on edge. Touched, rather, taken in by Draco's tale of their friendship, and his way of listening seemed strangely knowledgeable, as if he'd seen it happen, though he hadn't been part of the story.
"Anyway," Draco continued, more quiet now. "When you… when the other Neville died, I just… Sirius brought his body back, there, in the middle of the tournament's arena, and he was crying so badly… Sirius crying, I mean… I'd never even seen him not laugh, really, and here he was, cradling him, crying his heart out…"
"Yes," Neville said, just as quiet, his voice painfully constricted. "I know."
Somehow, he did, and Lily wondered how that scene had played out in their dimension. Who had been killed, that night. Who had cried his heart out.
"That changed things," Draco said. "It made me see things. I was missing you… him… so badly, but I also began to understand how lucky I'd been, being safe, being loved. Having Neville. Not many people get to have friends like that."
He smiled at Neville, and without asking, refilled his cup with steaming coffee. They seemed almost too close, considering they had only met yesterday and that their relationship had begun rather violently.
"They've been talking for hours," Hermione commented quietly, not even raising her head from the book. Lily wasn't surprised. There wasn't much Hermione missed. "I don't think they slept at all."
"Did you?" Lily asked, and while Hermione wasn't smiling, the look she sent Lily was not entirely negative, either.
"After I dealt with an emotional wreck named Harry, I did, yes."
"How is he?"
As she had done in Hogwarts' library the day before, Hermione met Lily's eyes for a long, tense moment, as if again this was a test that hadn't been announced.
Belatedly, Lily realized that she'd just asked the most private, protective person she'd ever met (and she was married to Remus!) for inside information on her best friend's psyche. A week ago, Hermione would have ignored the question. Three days ago, she'd have spit out a cutting remark.
Today, she answered.
"Overwhelmed. And mournful, angry, and ashamed of the way he treated you. He'll probably try to apologize in a horribly clumsy way."
"I should be the one apologizing," Lily said quietly.
It had taken her a long moment of hurt and rejection and pure anger to understand what Harry had said and why he'd said it. Then the implication of his words had set in, and the guilt she'd seen in his eyes, and she'd been horrified of what he was carrying around with him. It explained so much, really.
"I didn't mean to touch a wound, there."
"With Harry, there aren't many places where you won't find a wound," she said nonchalantly. "But that doesn't matter. He likes the touch more than he minds the pain."
She shrugged again, then added in a tone that made very clear how little she'd forgiven him for the cave-incident:
"Sometimes, I don't think he minds it at all."
Lily decided to let that go for the moment.
"I didn't realize he felt guilty about his parents' death," she said instead.
"Have you met Harry? He feels guilty about everything," she turned serious all of a sudden. "But his mother's death was the first, and, apart from Sirius', the one he never got over, really. That's not something you can do anything about, Lily."
Touched and surprised by the kindness, Lily nodded and then concentrated on her breakfast.
The boys at the other end of the table had been quiet, probably listening in on them as she'd been, in return, but now that Hermione's eyes had dropped back to her book, they took up the thread of their conversation easily enough.
"And how did you get into healing?" Neville asked, honestly interested, the cup in his hand only a secondary thought. "I suppose that's not a normal career choice for a Malfoy."
"I suppose it isn't, yes," he agreed. "But I… needed to do something useful, you know? And I didn't want to fight – I'm a bit of a coward, to be honest – you should have seen me during Order training."
He laughed, amused about himself, including Neville in that amusement easily.
"Father is a major patron to St. Mungo's, and after Neville's death, I began to visit there with him. The things I saw… so many lives that have been ruined by this war, and never enough people to help. So that's why, I guess."
"I know," Neville said again.
He shifted on his chair restlessly, hands rising to his cup, then discarding it for the table cloth. Splaying his hands on the exquisite cambric in indecision for a moment, before he continued to speak in a voice that was strangely hoarse.
"In my dimension," he told Draco. "My parents were attacked, too. But they didn't die."
Lily could feel Hermione tense at her side, but she wouldn't have needed that to signal the moment's importance. Neville's face did that all on its own.
"They were put under Cruciatus until they went mad. They stayed in the permanent ward at St. Mungo's right until Voldemort attacked and killed everyone there. I've never… known them, in a way, and they've never known me. But I miss visiting them. I miss the little presents Mum handed to me, even though she probably had no idea who I was. I just… miss."
His tone was detached, calm and steady, and still the longing shone from every word.
Draco was quiet for a while.
"My Neville," he then said. "He… we had a thing that we did, every Halloween. We'd visit his parents' grave, well, I'd mostly stay in the background, keeping an eye on him, but he'd sit there for hours, telling them everything that had happened that year. Sometimes we drank a butterbeer to their memory. It seemed to do him good."
"I could take you there, if you wanted. I mean, perhaps it's not your cup of tea, but he found closure there, I think, so…"
Neville smiled, and his hands, still splayed on the table, relaxed.
"I don't know if there will be time for it," he answered carefully. "But thank you, Draco."
Draco opened his mouth, but his reply was interrupted by the sound of doors banging and feet stamping across the hall. Knowing what would come, Lily rolled her eyes at Draco, who grinned back. Then the breakfast room's door was wrenched and there was Sirius, staring at them all.
"Presents, everyone!" He shouted, still in his pyjamas. He was grinning madly, and his hair standing every which way gave him the look of a lunatic. "Lily, Draco, Neville, Hermione, presents! Come on! It's Christmas!"
Hermione looked more than a bit sceptical, but Neville met Sirius' eyes freely for the first time, then smiled broadly.
"Coming, Sirius," he answered, and Sirius' eyes widened in surprise. "Draco?"
"Absolutely," Draco agreed, and together the three men barged from the room, leaving Lily and Hermione to follow.
As expected, Lucius and Narcissa were already waiting for them in the main living room. Lily suspected that Narcissa had instructed her elves years ago to inform her the moment Sirius stirred, so that he would find them prepared and presentable when he fairly burst into their rooms in the morning. Severus and Remus were there, too, the former still bleary-eyed, barely taking in his surroundings at all, the latter greeting her with a small, private smile that Lily answered happily.
Luna was dancing around the room in pyjamas printed with flying Christmas trees, whose branches were rotating around their axes in a fairly alarming way.
Only Harry was missing.
Neville's body went from relaxed to tense in less than a second – a fact that had Draco staring at him in surprise and Hermione sighing with irritation.
"He's in the kitchen," she explained. "Stalking a certain house elf. I left him there about an hour ago – he was doing fine, Neville."
But Neville wasn't that easily convinced.
"It's Christmas," he said in his calm, steady voice. "He should be here."
Hermione sighed again.
"None of the things he wishes for are in this room, Neville," she said dully. "There's no reason for him."
"We are in this room," Neville disagreed. "He should be here. I'll go and get him."
He left without another word, Luna skipping after him.
"What was that about?" Draco asked into the sudden silence, not at all perturbed by the glare Hermione sent him.
"Why you think this is your business, Malfoy…" she began a sentence that would most likely be as harsh as Hermione could get, but then her mouth snapped shut, she took a step back and blinked twice.
Confused, Lily met Severus' gaze, who flickered his eyes towards Lucius, Narcissa and Draco, then across the room.
And Lily understood. For the first time since she'd come to this world, Hermione was in a room with the Malfoys, with none of her friends present.
Without conscious thought, she walked over to Lucius until she stood directly between him and Hermione. She saw Severus step to the girl's side, so close that his arm was touching hers, while at the same time Remus' soft, calm voice cut through the sudden tension.
"Why don't you start opening your presents, Draco?" He proposed. "The others will be back in a minute, but I think we can start without them, considering that it's Christmas, yes?"
Draco's eyes darted to where Hermione was standing very, very straight and still. He looked at Remus, then Lily, and nodded. There was sadness in his eyes, an understanding that was incomplete and yet painful. For one short moment, he looked like the man he might become.
Then animation and humour snapped back into his face, and he began demanding his presents in a voice that was just loud enough to cover the hissing sound of Hermione's breathing. Lily looked at Narcissa and saw fierce pride for her son in that beautiful, carefully made up face. Lucius let no emotion show at all, but he had leaned back in his chair, and crossed his legs, and had interlaced his fingers as if to demonstrate very clearly that he would neither stand nor reach for his wand without warning. From Lucius, this was akin to an acknowledgement of guilt.
With Sirius' help, Draco kept the light-spirited mood going until Neville burst back into the room with Luna and a reluctant Harry, not ten minutes later. Neville's first look was aimed at Hermione, and he couldn't quite hide his relief when he found her sitting calmly at Severus' side.
"Sorry," he said to the room in general, but it was meant for her. "I shouldn't have rushed off like that."
"It's alright," Hermione answered quietly, but Harry, pale, dark circles under his eyes and not looking at Lily, brushed past Neville with a grim expression.
"Nothing's alright," he disagreed sulkily and plopped himself down on the floor in one corner of the room. "Dobby's wearing a tea-towel and is in love with the Malfoys, I won't get my sweater, and this place was less creepy after I'd burned it down."
Awkward silence fell over the room. Narcissa raised one eyebrow.
"Charming," she commented.
Despite her continuing anger at Harry, Hermione bristled, obviously getting ready to defend him. But Neville got there, first.
"Draco tells me that I spent most of my Christmas andsSummer holiday here, Harry," he said quietly. "It seems that this Manor was the other Neville's Burrow. So this is like getting a sweater. Only not for us."
This made no sense to Lily, nor, judging by the confused faces around the room, to anybody else. But it certainly did to Harry. His shoulders slumped.
"A rotten Burrow, Neville," he said sullenly, not raising his eyes to the room. "There's not even a ghoul in the attic."
"But there are family portraits," Luna piped in. "And aged retainers, and content house elves. And ghosts in the dungeon, and they aren't recent ghosts, Harry."
Harry slumped further.
"Go ahead then," he instructed them crossly. "Presents and spoonfuls of sugar. Yay to all."
And so they went ahead, while Harry stared at the Christmas tree, the wall and all of them balefully. He refused to open his presents due to the lack of this mysterious sweater, but the other dimension travellers did, carefully, as if they weren't sure the lovingly wrapped packages wouldn't explode in their faces.
They hadn't prepared any presents and did not apologize for it, but they didn't refuse the trinkets and helpful equipment Lily and the others had gotten for them, either, and Lily considered that as a victory.
How my standards have changed, she thought absently while she watched Neville try out a new wand holster Sirius had chosen for him. A week ago, she would have been insulted by the lukewarm reception of their gifts. Today, she saw the fours' presence as something to be thankful for.
But then there had been so much she hadn't known a week ago, so much she hadn't yet understood about these four and their capacity to interact with other people.
One has to consider each patient's limits, a healer had told her once, and from that point of view, the four were trying, reaching out as much as they could, and every moment in this house with all of them had to be an effort.
Again her eyes sought them out, resting on Luna, who was trying on the necklace made from colourful glass beads Remus had found for her, on Hermione, who was clutching the thick, woolly pair of socks Albus Dumbledore had sent for each of them with a strangely devastated expression on her face, to Harry, who was avoiding her gaze with sullen determination, and to Neville, who was watching his friends cautiously while holding a conversation on medicinal herbs with Draco.
She remembered that first meeting in Albus' office, Hermione's dread of the situation and Harry's mad-cap nervous energy, and realized that they had, in fact, come far.
When the presents had been unwrapped and suitably admired, Narcissa rang for hot chocolate and distributed it among all of them (Harry refusing his cup, of course, and Hermione performing a serious of not-so-subtle detection charms over hers).
"As to the matter of the ball tonight," Narcissa then informed the four guests coolly. "I took the liberty to procure a variety of dress robes in your sizes, since I do not assume evening wear is part of a fugitive's equipment. You are aware of the relevant tailoring charms?"
Hermione nodded sharply.
"Thank you, but that wasn't necessary," she said, just as coolly. "We could have transfigured something."
"No!" Luna protested from the other end of the table, surprisingly loud and determined. "No, no, no, Hermione! Tonight I'll be a princess. And we'll dance, won't we, Neville?"
Neville didn't look quite so happy about this revelation, but his eyes and voice were warm when he replied.
"Of course, Luna."
Narcissa's lips twitched.
"Then I'll send you my personal house elf, dear girl," she offered. "She is an excellent coiffeur."
"Can she make my hair look like a Nargle-Nest?" Luna inquired seriously. "With wings and claws and chicken feet?"
Narcissa seemed slightly perturbed by that mental image, judging from the way her nose twitched. But her composure held fast.
"I am quite certain she can," she replied, just as seriously, and was rewarded with one of the slow, sweet smiles Lily had only seen a few times and that transformed Luna into a beauty.
Carefully, the girl untangled herself from wrapping paper, woolly socks and Neville, and walked over to the three Malfoys. With an air of ceremony, a gravitas not in the least reduced by the flying Christmas trees on her pyjamas, she embraced first Draco, then Narcissa, and, after a tiny moment of hesitation, Lucius.
"Thank you," she said solemnly, her blue eyes wide and strangely wise. "I forgive you. You are not at all horrible, and your carpets are really exceedingly nice!"
A/N: Kudos to anyone who spots the Doctor Who-allusion in this one. I also need to apologize for the terrible pun on the British election system that I simply couldn't help. Ahem.
Anyway, the next chapter will probably take at least a week, since I'm insanely busy at the moment. But, as always, motivation in the form of reviews is appreciated and humbly requested!