Author's note: Sequel to Tidings of Comfort. Many thanks to jadzialove for all her beta work and general support. This fic was another gift to raitala, who puts up with both my procrastination and presence with great patience, and to Catsson, for her generous affection towards travellers missing their own felines.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
As December drew towards the Solstice, the congregation of St Paul's Cathedral swelled.
Tourists came in to feel a part of the season in a strange land. Those who had left the church made the first of a series of pilgrimages back to its fold – tentative reconnaissances in the lead-up to Christmas Day. And those who had merely been busy put aside their lives' mundane demands and focussed once more on the holy.
For Draco Malfoy, this meant only that it became impossible to sit alone and uninvolved during Evensong. In fact, things had gone so far that by the time the Solstice arrived, he had learned the names of the two elderly couples who preferred the back pew that he had migrated to, and had even been introduced to Mrs Davis's Pekinese and granddaughter on a wander through Sloane Square.
So he had stopped sidling in and out of the grand doors, instead, he arrived in good time for each service, brought a bookmark or two so he could find hymns in advance, and actually began to return the smiles given to him.
He was still there for the architecture and music, of course. The golden glow of recreated candlelight on marble, the fluting boy sopranos soaring above the stronger tenors, both buoyed by basses … But Mrs Davis had assured him that atheism was not the problem one might assume within the Church of England.
Now, on the 23rd, Draco did not hurry out of church as soon as the organ's last bars began to fade. In fact, after bidding the Davises and Martins a good night, he paused to wish the young usher who always smiled at him a lovely evening while he slipped on his coat.
'Will we see you tomorrow?' she asked.
'I hope so,' he answered.
'And will your young man join us one evening?'
'Sorry, I shouldn't pry. He's just hard to miss, and he does seem to meet you after service every night.'
Draco held in a smile. 'He's not "my young man", just … someone I went to school with.'
'Oh.' She blinked, and gave him a reassessing look. 'Sorry, I just assumed …'
'Not that it would be awful if he were,' Draco said conspiratorially in case her look decided to turn hopeful. 'He's not bad looking these days.'
She nodded, in a way that silently conveyed her deep and permanent lack of interest in him that way. Chastened, Draco glanced about anxiously. The way his luck ran, Potter would be standing behind him. Thankfully, there were two German tourists and a small child.
'Well, see you tomorrow then,' usher-girl said. 'I'm Elizabeth, by the way.'
Draco smiled broadly. 'Draco – my father's a classicist.' The lie came easily now, though it had taken him weeks to invent a plausible one.
'Lovely to meet you properly, Draco. See you tomorrow.'
'See you then.'
He most certainly did not hurry his pace down the steps when he saw Potter waiting for him on the other side of the square. Gravity merely encouraged an appearance of speed. Hardly his fault. It was a universal constant. Like Potter appearing of an evening these days. Draco realised that he was smiling in reply to Potter's facial expression. Good thing his father couldn't see him.
'Hello,' Potter greeted him.
'Hello,' Draco replied. 'You're not wearing your strange running clothes.'
Potter looked down at himself, as though surprised to find himself in trousers and a coat. 'Er, no, I went running earlier. Getting a bit cold now.'
'You look … neat,' Draco said. 'Don't think I've ever seen you in anything except school uniform and running gear that actually fitted you.'
Potter looked embarrassed. 'I've only recently been buying my own clothes. That's why they … fit now. Anyway, I thought that instead of standing around, we could go and sit down somewhere.'
'Ah.' Draco nodded, biting the inside of his lip so he did not grin broadly. 'Probably a good idea in this weather if we want to talk for more than ten minutes at a time.'
'Exactly.' Potter looked relieved, and even ventured a smile.
'Not Diagon Alley, though.'
'No,' Potter answered quickly. 'Absolutely not. We'd never find anywhere quiet to chat there.'
Draco gave him a moment. 'So, where were you thinking we might go?'
Draco allowed another moment to pass before deciding that it was too cold to score the maximum possible points from Potter's lack of planning. 'Actually, I know a good place nearby,' he said.
The smile of relief on Potter's face made the rescue worthwhile. 'That would be great.'
'Come on, then. We're off to the right.'
A few minutes later the two of them stopped outside a well-lit gothic building on Black Friars Lane.
'Here?' Potter asked. 'Really?'
'I thought it would be exactly to your taste,' Draco replied with a grin. He made a gracious half-bow and swept his arm towards the door. 'After you.'
Shaking his head, Potter opened the black door of Harry's Bar Pizzeria and stepped inside.
'I'm told they're actually very good,' Draco said quietly, following him. 'Though even if they weren't, it would have been worth it for your facial expression.'
'Your sense of humour is even worse than I remembered.'
'Please, you're hardly discerning, you own a sleeveless hoodie. Hello, do you have a table for two?'
A moment of polite discussion passed before they were seated comfortably, and then menus and water followed quickly before there was a need to say anything more. Draco was glad, because now they were sitting down, he supposed they would have to talk, and he was becoming aware of just how few safe topics of conversation he and Potter had.
He was saved from coming up with one by Potter. 'When did you start frequenting Muggle restaurants?'
'Ah.' Draco grinned briefly. 'In all honesty, this is my first one. But I spend a lot of time walking around the area and people always seem to enjoy themselves here.'
Potter grinned back at him. 'You were very convincing asking for the table.'
'I find that the Muggle world is fairly easy to adapt to if one listens, learns and mimics.'
Potter shook his head. 'Listen to you. Since when did you care about the Muggle world?'
The waiter was walking back towards them, so Draco answered quickly and quietly. 'Since I thought I might be stuck in it. Ah, hello, this is our first time here and we hear the pizzas are excellent, do you have any recommendations?'
Potter frowned at him, but entered into the debate over toppings.
'Do you like anchovies?' Potter asked.
'I honestly don't know.'
'Do you mind fish breath?'
'Well, you're the one who'll bear the brunt of it.' As soon as Draco said it, he heard the many other ways the sentence could be construed besides the innocent one he had intended. 'Because we're sitting at the same table, having a discussion,' he clarified – more or less.
'I promise not to breathe in,' Potter joked.
'Would you like some garlic bread?' the waiter asked. 'If you're having anchovies anyway, you may as well go all the way. And it will put you on an even footing later.'
'Garlic bread for two, one Margherita, one Napoli,' Potter ordered, ignoring the waiter's subtext. 'And a bottle of the merlot.'
Draco waited until the waiter had left before he smiled. 'You sound right at home.'
'Hermione has been civilising me and Ron. Says that if we're going to work in the city, we'll be coming into contact with Muggles all the time, and so we need to be able to interact without constantly breaking the Statutes of Secrecy.'
'Is she making up for unleashing a dragon in central London?'
Potter laughed. 'Yes. Yes, I think she might be.' He looked at Draco for a quiet minute. 'Why did you think you might be stuck here?'
Draco shrugged. 'I thought I'd be in Azkaban at first. Then you stepped in. But it's hardly all water under the bridge with most of our lot, is it? Aside from my parents, you're the only person I regularly talk to these days.'
Potter blinked with what could have been surprise, though Draco supposed that it could just as easily have been an attempt at focussing through the lenses of his glasses.
'Anyway,' Draco said quickly. 'You didn't ask me to a cafe, bar or restaurant of my choice to hear tales of woe. How goes Auror training? Learned anything interesting?'
'You'd like it,' Potter said. 'We've been studying the uses of Veritaserum, and the ethics of using it.'
'Don't know about that, I only know how to brew the stuff,' Draco replied. 'And even there, you were better at Potions than I was before you left school.'
This time, it was definitely surprise on Potter's face. 'Didn't Snape tell you?'
That pain was still too raw, so Draco took refuge in sarcasm. 'I hate to break it to you. Potter, but we didn't spend a lot of time catching up at Malfoy Manor during the war. That glimpse of panic and terror you three had when you were dragged into the Manor wasn't staged for your benefit. Not much chatting time, lots of cowering.'
For a moment, Draco thought he might have overstepped the boundaries of their … conversational interactions, but Potter's frown was sympathetic.
'I saw you there, sometimes,' Potter said quietly. 'Through Voldemort's eyes. I know what it was like …'
Draco looked down. He didn't want Potter to know what it had been like. He didn't want to know what it had been like himself.
'Change topic?' Potter asked, with what Draco would have called thoughtfulness if it had been offered by anyone else.
'I was just going to say that I was cheating at Potions, I had Snape's old text book, with his notes.'
Draco looked up, his mouth and eyes wide open.
'I knew you couldn't have learned that much over the holidays!' he said after a moment. 'No matter how much Granger tried to beat intelligence into you.'
The waiter reappeared to pour their wine and deliver garlic bread. Draco snaffled three of the five slices onto his side plate.
'You've come over all smiles.' Potter said after the waiter had left.
'Well, it's good news, isn't it?' Draco replied. 'I genuinely found it hard to deal with the idea you were beating me in a subject.'
Potter huffed. 'I beat you all the time in Defence Against the Dark Arts, and quite fairly!'
'Yes, but that's like me beating you in being pale and attractive. Natural gifts don't count.'
'That is the most ridiculous thing you have ever said.'
'Potter, Potter, Potter, it's not even in the top five.'
Potter grinned across the table. 'No, I suppose it's not. Just for Recent Malfoy.'
'The one I talk to.'
'Ah.' Draco suddenly felt a great need to investigate his napkin. 'Recent Malfoy. Yes. He's quite a bit less stupid than the previous version.'
'You weren't stupid,' Potter began, then stopped at Draco's look of disbelief. 'All right, you were. But when I thought about it afterwards, I could see why you were. It's not as though you had a lot of choice.'
Draco snorted. 'Rubbish. I had endless choices. I got almost all of them wrong.'
He looked down at the napkin again, which remained clean and white. Potter did not say anything, but seemed to be waiting.
After a long moment, Draco looked up at him. 'I suppose that you'd say the fact I know they were wrong is some sort of progress.'
Draco lifted his still-full glass. 'To Recent Malfoy, then, and to Less-Objectionable Potter.'
'To them,' Potter replied, lifting his glass in reply.
They both drank, then laughed.
'So,' said Potter. 'How goes the religion?'
Draco flushed. 'I should probably confess …'
Potter interrupted. 'Do people confess in the Church of England?'
'You know, I have no idea.'
'You're not very good at being religious.'
Draco shook his head. 'No, I'm not. That's actually my confession. I'm not at all good at it. Don't believe a word of it. But quite often, I wish I did.'
'So why do you keep going?' Potter asked.
'Because it's beautiful – the architecture, the music, the faith of others … I was raised to believe that nothing Muggle could be worth anything, but it's … it's lovely. Baffling and probably a bit bonkers, really, but the language, Potter, and the ideals – all about sacrifice and love and forgiveness. Your sort of thing, in fact.'
'You go because it's my sort of thing?' Potter's voice held a note of incredulity.
'Well, you're all the rage in the wizarding world, Potter,' Draco said lightly. 'Last time I saw a Prophet was September and they were still crowing about you on the front page as The Boy Who Lived Twice.'
Potter cringed and took refuge in the last of his garlic bread. 'There's not been a lot of newsworthy stuff going on in the last few months,' he said, once he'd swallowed. 'Awful lot of Kingsley cleaning out the Ministry, but that doesn't make good copy, and besides, he's keeping things as quiet as possible. So they pick on me whenever there's a slow day. I'm almost used to it.'
'Must be tedious.'
'Makes it hard to talk to people normally.'
Draco smiled. 'So that's why you've been coming to talk to me.'
'Don't be silly, Malfoy, that would be if I found it hard to talk to normal people.'
The joke took Draco by surprise, and he laughed before he meant to. Shaking his head, he tossed his last piece of garlic bread at Potter's head in revenge, thwarted only by Potter catching it midair and stuffing it straight into his mouth.
Their waiter reappeared, bearing pizzas, which he deposited in the centre of the table. 'Will there be anything else?'
'Not at the moment, thanks,' Draco replied.
'Share both?' Potter asked.
They ate in friendly silence.
Draco was surprised at how friendly it actually felt. Outside of a classroom this was the longest they had spent in each other's company and nothing terrible had happened yet. Apparently, there was a positive sense in which one could be the focus of Harry Potter's attention. Who would have thought it?
'You finished?' Potter asked some time later, noting that Draco had fallen back in the grabbing up of pizza slices.
'Stuffed,' Draco confessed.
'Mind if I …' Potter waved a hand vaguely over the remainder of the pizzas.
'Not at all, feel free.'
Draco watched as Potter made his way through another one, then two slices. When he reached for a third, Draco raised his eyebrows, questioning.
'Auror training is hard work,' Potter said before embarking on the next mouthful. 'Lots of physical exercise from eight till four, and bugger-all time for lunch. I'm starving by the time dinner rocks around.'
'At least you don't seem to be getting fat,' Draco allowed.
Potter pulled a face, but finished eating nonetheless. 'I spent a lot of my childhood starving, Malfoy,' he said after swallowing the last. 'Not sure I'll ever catch up enough to get fat.'
Draco had heard stories, and even read a few of the less-sensational potted biographies in the Prophet and the post-war special edition of The Practical Potioneer. 'Did you really live in a cupboard?' he asked, tentatively.
'Under the stairs,' Potter confirmed. 'With spiders. Quite liked the spiders, actually. My Aunt and Uncle were fairly horrid, but my cousin Dudley ended up being OK.'
'And are they …?' Draco couldn't bring himself to finish the question. Annihilating the Muggle relatives of witches and wizards had been quite the Death Eater sport during the war.
'Perfectly fine,' Potter answered him soberly. 'We hid them for the last year before, well, you know …'
Draco didn't bother to hide the relief on his face.
'Why don't you talk to anyone?' Potter asked, the words spilling out as though he had been holding them in.
'You are crap at this topic changing business,' Draco observed.
'Sorry, ignore that.'
'No, no, it's all right.' Draco held up his hand to stop Potter before he could move on. 'Who's there to talk to?' Draco answered honestly. 'Vince is dead, Greg's parents say he still doesn't want any visitors, Pansy and Blaise have both left the country, and most other people I know who weren't homicidal lunatics have spent the year trying to distance themselves from all things Malfoy.'
Potter nodded. 'It's lonely when people turn on you.'
And Draco was ever so proud of his brain because just in time before his mouth could say something sarcastic about the loneliness of being the Boy Who Lived, his dear old brain supplied memories of a few well-orchestrated campaigns at school, and so instead, he said, 'Yeah, sorry about that.'
'What? Oh, yeah, "Potter Stinks". I'd forgotten all about that.' Potter laughed.
Draco rolled his eyes. 'Marvellous. Years of hard work and it made no impact whatsoever.'
'Cheer up, I thought you were a bastard at the time, it's just in light of subsequent events …'
Draco knew exactly what he meant. 'Actually, I felt quite badly about it all after you saved my life.'
Potter shook his head. 'No, no, no. Stop now. If we get into who did what to or for whom, then this meal will need several more courses, and I'm approaching full.' He smiled, and Draco realised that he was quite serious about ignoring the past.
'I suppose,' Draco said carefully, 'that none of that was done by Recent Malfoy, so it's probably not the sort of thing that Less-Objectionable Potter is interested in?'
Potter's smile broadened.
Draco smiled back, then shook his head. 'But if we wipe all of that out, why are we here?'
'Good pizza?' Potter hazarded a guess.
Draco checked that no one was looking in their direction, stood up, leaned across the table, and smacked Potter lightly on the top of the head.
'All right, all right,' Potter protested. 'No wiping out, but, no holding onto blame, either. In the end, all the crappy things we did to each other didn't count for much, and the few good things were vital.'
And that would be why they followed him, Draco realised. That easy grace, that could forgive so lightly.
Draco realised he was staring.
'Malfoy, are you still with us?'
'You went all vague for a minute there.'
'Just basking in your glory,' Draco teased.
'Pillock. Or you've had far too much wine. One or the other.'
'Two small glasses,' Draco corrected, lifting the bottle and pouring a top-up for each of them.
Potter lifted his. 'Merry Christmas,' he said.
'Merry Christmas,' Draco replied. They drank the toast, then refilled with the last of the wine. 'Where will you be spending it?'
'Breakfast with Teddy and Andromeda, dinner with the Weasleys – Hermione's family are coming, I think she'll need me for backup, aside from the fact Mrs Weasley would murder me if I didn't show.'
'Not a metaphor,' Draco muttered.
'Less of a metaphor than it once was,' Potter conceded. 'What about you?'
'Breakfast with Mother and Father, gifts over lunch, then I was thinking about coming into town for Evensong. It will be a novel experience leaving without seeing you.'
'Ah.' Potter looked at his wine glass.
'I won't be there tomorrow, either. Sorry.'
Draco hoisted the corners of his mouth up into a smile. 'No, don't be silly. It's a busy time of year, and you have a lot of commitments. Christmas Eve is a prime spot. It's not as though we have a standing arrangement, in fact, I've been surprised at how much time you've been able to spare for our chats.'
'I'm not sparing time,' Potter corrected him. 'I'm enjoying this … whatever it is. It's just that there's something important I need to do tomorrow, and I can't miss it. Will you be going to a service on Boxing Day?'
'Yes, there's one at five,' Draco answered.
'Then we can catch up afterwards?'
'Exchange details on our present haul?'
'Yes. And you can quote some church music at me.'
'I'll pay close attention so I get the lyrics right.'
Draco smiled back, genuinely this time. 'So, tomorrow. Nothing ghastly, I hope?'
Potter looked down, and Draco could not read the expression that swept across his face. 'Not ghastly, no. Just …' He looked back up. 'Just something I need to do.'
Draco finished the last of his wine. 'Do you want some coffee?'
Potter shook his head. 'I think I want a walk to settle that last piece of pizza.'
'Just the last one?'
'Shut up.' Potter caught the waiter's eye and signalled for the bill. 'Do you have to be anywhere?'
'Not for a while.'
'Sure.' Draco managed to hold in a smile. 'And I'm really hoping that you have Muggle money, or the next few minutes are going to be embarrassing.'
Potter rolled his eyes and pulled out his wallet. Draco was pleased to see that he had planned ahead for at least some of the evening. A few minutes fussing with the size of the tip and haggling over whether Draco could pay back his half in Galleons saw them head out into the cool of the evening, drawing scarves from pockets and buttoning their coats.
'Which way?' Potter asked.
'We're near the river …' Draco did not know London that well yet, but he was always drawn to a waterway.
'We can head across Blackfriars Bridge and into Southwark,' Potter suggested.
'That sounds nice.'
'It's the bridge they hanged God's Banker from back in the '80s – we had a great lecture on old gangland cases the other week. Or we could stay on this side and go down the Embankment.'
'Embankment, thanks,' Draco said quickly. Apparently Potter had not chosen to wear that nicely fitted pair of trousers and flattering shirt for his benefit, because he was fairly certain there was no such thing as a romantic tour of murder scenes, even in Potter's wholly unsocialised imaginings. Shame.
'Good choice,' Potter replied, and led the way.
Despite the chill in the air, it was a dry night and the light snow of earlier in the week had disappeared. They were not alone; people walked in both directions alongside the river, some carrying skates and striding towards Somerset House, others laden with shopping and staggering home. And yet it felt private to Draco. There was no-one they knew, and no-one who knew them. The only attention they attracted were cursory London glances to make sure they were no threat, and in a few cases a brief chin-up of invitation from groups of girls, which Draco was pleased to see Potter didn't notice.
They didn't talk at first, just walked. The lap of water on one side and honking growl of cars on the other was enough sound, with occasional shrieks of 'Merry Christmas' as they passed stray partygoers. Despite all Potter's running, he walked at the same pace Draco naturally kept, which was pleasing. Scents of car fumes muddled with the oily, salty tang of the river, laced with rotting timbers and the haunting fragrances of roasted chestnuts and street food sold by vendors long dead.
'Do you feel that?' Potter asked.
'Which that?' Draco answered, aware of the winter wind nipping at his nose and cheeks.
'All the ghosts.'
'Ignore them,' Draco advised. 'You'll only find yourself tripping over bollards that were removed a hundred years ago.'
'Did you do that?'
Draco shook his head. 'Was shushed by a dead librarian in the British Museum. She gave me such a fright I walked into a wall. The security guard thought I was drunk and spent the whole time staring at me as though I was about to make off with a national treasure. It was all very embarrassing.'
Potter flung an arm out across Draco's shoulders and patted him twice on the back. 'That's brilliant,' he said, laughing.
'It's funny now,' Draco conceded, wishing Potter had left the arm where it had rested for a moment. Though given this was Potter, that would doubtless have led to strangling before they reached Hungerford Bridge. 'At the time I was half-inclined to Apparate out of there, but I've been trying not to upset the Improper Use of Magic Office. Last thing I want is anyone from the DMLE after me.'
It took a few steps for him to realise Potter had stopped walking. He turned back, to find Potter staring at him, head on one side.
'Is that what you think I'm …' Potter began.
'No,' Draco interrupted quickly. 'No, I don't think that at all. It was so obviously an accident running into you, and, well, you keep being there, which would be the least subtle surveillance ever. In fact, I've worked out what you're really up to.'
Potter began to walk again. 'Oh yes?'
'Yes.' Draco gave a superior nod and walked a little way to add a dramatic pause before he continued. 'You're bored. Everyone treats you as though you can do no wrong. I'm the only person you know who's never been that impressed. Since you lack challenges these days, you've decided to set yourself one and see if you can win me over.'
'You're a teeny, tiny bit mad, aren't you Malfoy?' Potter asked with a smile.
'Too much time on my own this year,' Draco admitted.
'Though you're right,' Potter went on, grinning at Draco's doubletake, which thankfully did not involve actual falling, though it was a close-run thing. 'I am bored. Ron's busy with Wizarding Wheezes when he's not with Hermione. She's up at school most of the time. So's Neville, and Luna. And Dean. Even Seamus and Ginny. Really, it's a choice between you and Tom at the Leaky.'
'You'd get free drinks.'
'I get them anyway.'
'I'm remembering why I hated you.'
'And I will admit that you, Malfoy, have been many things, but never boring.'
'Bugger it, I'm just going to hex you.'
'You wouldn't dare, I'm nearly an Auror. Come on, I'll tell you about the boat that sank bringing Cleopatra's Needle over, we did that at my primary.'
It was actually an interesting story, though Draco pointed out they had installed the sphinx statues the wrong way round for guarding, and the whole thing was a bit ridiculous, really. 'You're becoming quite the Londoner, Potter. It's been, what? Seven months since you moved here?'
'And all that time during the war, and in fifth year.'
'Almost a native, then.'
'I've mastered the Tube.'
'Oh yes? And how did you manage that?'
'I just Apparate instead, most of the lines I'd use are hopeless anyway.'
Draco shook his head. 'Sadly, I don't speak Muggle fluently enough to know whether I should be groaning or laughing at that.'
'Probably groaning,' Potter admitted.
'At least you don't try to fool yourself. That's something.' Draco's smile broadened as Potter laughed. It was a simple, happy laugh.
They resumed walking, occasionally chatting about the buildings, gardens, memorials and sculpture they were passing, but mostly just being in the same place at the same time and enjoying it.
All too soon they reached Westminster Bridge. Draco wanted to suggest a drink to round off the evening, but that could be weird. Maybe for New Year's.
'Thanks for dinner,' he said instead.
'Thanks for joining me,' Potter replied with a smile.
'We should do it again,' Draco ventured. 'My treat next time.'
And Potter smiled, which was the point when you'd normally give one of your mates a quick manly hug, or maybe a punch in the shoulder, or a something, but it was Potter, so Draco looked up at the giant illuminated clock face that glowed above them and said, 'It's getting late.'
'Oh, of course,' said Potter, all understanding. 'Your parents, they'll be worried. You should go. See you in a few days. And Merry Christmas, yeah?'
'Merry Christmas to you, too.'
And as Potter set off across the bridge, Draco wanted to come up with an excuse to trot after him, but instead he let the people walking northwards draw him along in their wake, until he found one of the rare dark corners where a wizard could Disapparate without causing a drunk to swear off the turps or a security-camera monitor to start a minor panic.
There was much written about the magic of Christmas Eve, but as Draco walked through the light snow, he wasn't convinced. Father had declared he was off to bed with a bad head at three. He and Mother had exchanged gifts early so she could read the book he had bought her and he could wear his new coat to church.
And Potter, or possibly the Church of England, was having a terrible effect on him. He'd bought a large quantity of nice steak pies from Waitrose, slapped a heating charm on the lot of them and had handed the bags across to the lads who dispensed food among the rough sleepers down near Mansion House, telling them they were fresh from the oven and that there were two extra for them, plus mince pies somewhere in there.
He told himself that he'd only done it to annoy the Daily Mail, but, like the Galleons he had converted to pounds and passed in a similar direction, he feared he was taking to charity. Mother would be thrilled and there would doubtless be fundraisers. Draco shuddered and hurried his steps towards the Cathedral.
He arrived in good time, with one bag remaining. The Davises and Martins walked into the cathedral just as he did, and Draco joined them in their pew, chatting merrily. He a gift for each couple: tins of shortbread, which the nice girl in the shop had assured him were the perfect gift for someone not expecting a gift – cheap enough to not inspire guilt, expensive enough to not be cheap, tasty, and in a nice tin if they didn't like shortbread. From the pleased smiles and thanks of the four old people, the girl had advised him well.
'I hope you don't mind,' said Mrs Davis, 'but we got you a little something, too.'
They had clearly colluded. The Davises' gift was a hymnal, with Draco's initials embossed on the cover. The Martins handed over a set of discs, with handwritten covers: long lists of songs including Oh God our help in ages past and Sing to him in whom creation.
'They're CDs,' Mr Martin said gruffly. 'Claire pulled out all of ours and we chose the hymns that come up most often. I had our son burn them on his computer, but you can play them in a normal CD player. Or on a computer, if you use one. I know you young people like them these days. We thought it was time you learned the words and music properly. Can't waste a good tenor, what?'
Draco was thoroughly touched. And glad he had let the girl talk him into buying the large tins. 'I'll listen to them and practise,' he promised. 'Thank you. Merry Christmas.'
The service began and Draco let his thoughts wander during the more religious parts. It was a strange Christmas. Until last year he had spent the time leading up to the day with his friends, then there would be a feast at the Manor on Christmas Eve, and parties at Pansy's or Blaise's on the day itself, with Greg and Vince taking it in turns to come up with something for Boxing Day.
Even last year, Pansy had invited everyone over. Draco had managed to secure an hour off to visit her, and exchange hurried gossip with the others about what was happening and how to get through the year at school. This year, there was nothing. And it was a relief, really, with Vince gone and the rest of them having nothing to say to each other.
Well, not quite nothing. There was Potter on Boxing Day. Draco smiled a little to himself. Last Christmas he had been nursing unformed hopes that Potter would do something, and this year, they were catching up for a beverage. Madness. Pleasant and attractive madness.
Draco sternly told his thoughts that they were headed in an inappropriate direction for a religious service and paid attention to the congregation instead.
They were mostly older than him, but there were children dotted about, small heads just visible above the backs of their seats, with neatly parted hair for some, and curly coifs for others. They were attentive and unfractious, clearly understanding that good behaviour equalled presents. It was pleasing to see them here – in a safe place, a genuine community.
It was a pleasant community, too. Draco still felt a little guilt at being there under false pretences, but at the very least he did add another decent tenor to the non-choir hymns. And it was safe, here. They didn't ask many questions, didn't expect much. Almost certainly his clothes and accent helped, but there was enough diversity in the congregation that he felt welcome would have been extended no matter what he had looked and sounded like. Though perhaps from a different set of congregants.
He glanced around at the Davises and Martins, who were listening with quiet conviction to the Nativity story. He understood and respected their belief, even though he did not share it. Which was ironic, because he had his very own case study of a Chosen one whose sacrifice had saved the world.
And the joy and faith they put into the idea of their Saviour: prophesied and delivered, just had Potter had been … Draco marvelled that Potter had not gone quite mad when he found himself in the wizarding world, where everybody knew his name and his story, and every glance held a sneaking peek at his forehead. Though – and Draco admitted he was still shaky on this – he was fairly certain that Christ hadn't spent anywhere near as much time chasing girls and making life difficult for Slytherins.
Still, the story fit quite well, he realised as the service progressed. A mother's love and sacrifice, a father's faith. You could even argue that Potter had given up his life for all, though he had been extensively quoted as saying he hadn't been dead at all, and Mother had said he was certainly alive by the time she got there. And he hadn't once mentioned founding his own church, despite the obvious allure of tax breaks and Mondays as his Sabbath. Which was probably just as well, really, as Draco had some frankly heretical thoughts about Potter's trousers from last night, and he would hate to get into trouble with the devout.
Of course, Potter definitely existed, as opposed to a probable, but not contemporaneously documented figure of possible divinity. Who turned out to be a decent man, even though indecent things were done in his name. And Potter had turned out to be decent, too.
The music began again and Draco was relieved, as it meant he could stop thinking.
All too soon the Benediction was being given, and the normal murmuring rise was replaced with a celebratory chorus of Christmas wishes and hopes for the day to come.
Draco thanked the Davises and Martins again, made his apologies for tomorrow, 'expected in Wiltshire, or I'd be back for the midnight service, of course' and then hunted down Elizabeth before he could lose her in the large crowd.
'I brought you a present,' he said in greeting.
'How sweet! Thank you! Alas …'
'Don't be silly, you've done a sterling job of settling me in here. And it's just little.' He handed over the box, which was indeed small.
She opened it, to reveal a pair of tartan earmuffs, which coordinated with her green woolly hat.
'Draco, thank you! That's exactly what I needed!'
'I saw you covering your ears while you waited for the bus the other night,' he said, pleased.
'Very observant. I'll be sure to steal some of Mum's Christmas cake for you: she always makes enough for an army and there are only four of us, so we end up eating it until February.'
'Will you be here tomorrow?' she asked. And at the shake of his head, she stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. 'Merry Christmas, Draco,' she said. 'Have a wonderful day. And tell that friend of yours I hope he has the same.'
Draco returned the kiss and promised he would. And then he was spilling out the door with everyone else, handshakes and Christmas wishes all about, and then thinning crowds and a few walking in his direction, and then he outstripped them all and was alone again.
He didn't consciously choose to go to Diagon Alley, more found his feet headed there and was halfway down Fleet Street before he realised it. If there was ever a time that he could wander in the wizarding world without worry, surely the bustle of the Christmas Eve festival of commerce would be it, and he did want to pick up a little something for his mother, just to make her smile.
The Leaky Cauldron was full of merry drinkers, and Draco didn't cause so much as a pause in their discussion as he walked through. Out the back, a tap on a brick, and Diagon Alley opened up before him.
He took a breath before stepping through. It was not his first visit since the war, but it was his first without his mother, and even with her there had been narrow looks. But damn it all, he was going to be there for a quarter hour at the most, and if they had been happy to ignore him in the Leaky, it was likely they would ignore him here, too.
Madam Primpernelle's first, where he picked up a tin of finely milled soapwort shampoo and a little bottle of scent, then Scribbulus for that burgundy ink she favoured, which was all he had planned, but then he remembered that Aunt Bella had incinerated Mother's hair ribbon stash, declaring it a childish foolishness, and even though she almost never wore them, and had meekly agreed that Bella was right, Draco remembered her with ribbons in her hair on every New Year's Eve.
He turned and walked quickly towards Twilfitt and Tattings. There was a new witch serving, who made sensible suggestions based on his descriptions of Mother's hair and favourite clothes. He recognised many of the colours and textures she proffered as ones Mother had chosen herself, so gave the girl free rein. She quickly snipped off the lengths and rolled each neatly onto a small wooden reel, so that it would stay nicely flat. The cost was exorbitant, but Draco did not mind. He even paid three Galleons for one of the decorated stockings that could hold everything and allow the pretence of a visit from Father Christmas.
He was thinking about what Mother's reaction would be as he left, which is why he all-but crashed into Ronald Weasley.
'Steady on, mate,' boomed the familiar big voice, quickly followed by, 'Oh, Malfoy.'
'Sorry,' Draco said. 'Entirely my fault, I wasn't looking where I was going.'
'It's all right,' Hermione Granger said carefully, giving Weasley a sideways look. 'No damage done.'
'Excellent.' Draco smiled brightly. 'Well, then. Merry Christmas, Miss Granger, Ronald.'
Granger blinked at him, and Weasley found himself saying 'And a Happy New Year' before his brain could catch up with his mouth from the look of things.
'To you and both your families,' Draco replied, then nodded politely and walked away quickly before things could go horribly wrong.
'What was that?' He heard Granger muttering behind him.
'He called me Ronald. Nobody calls me Ronald …'
Draco smiled to himself. Though in truth, he was surprised to see them here. He had assumed they would be with Potter, because if he was right, then they should know where Potter was. Everyone should know where Potter was: his last Christmas Eve had been written about in all the papers and magazines. And that book.
Though he wouldn't put it past Potter to mislead, or even be less than entirely truthful if he thought it was for the best.
Draco glanced over his shoulder. Granger and Weasley had their arms about each other's waists and were ambling without concern for anyone else. Of course Potter had lied to them.
Which settled things. He tucked his purchases into his pockets, then Apparated to that place in Queen's Park that did the thick hot chocolate that was frankly twice as good as the stuff they sold in Florean's. He was just in time before they turned the machine off for the holiday, and bought two large, which he slapped a Stay Warm charm on as soon as he was able.
And then he Apparated to a small village that he had never visited before but which he knew as well as any wizard of his generation and once there he paused at the War Memorial which he had seen a thousand times in photographs, and watched as it flickered eerily over to show another memorial, in which Potter's father looked disturbingly familiar.
He walked away quickly. The church and graveyard were nearby, and it was a matter of minutes to locate Potter, sitting on his heels, touching a white marble headstone, which was bedecked with flowers.
Draco silently withdrew to the graveyard's kissing gate and sat himself on a low stretch of wall nearby. If Potter walked out into the village after his visit, he couldn't miss seeing him. And if Potter Apparated out directly, then Draco would just have two hot chocolates. He listened to the carols ringing out from the church, and was happy to realise that some of them sounded familiar.
So intently was he listening that he didn't notice Potter standing in front of him until he head his name. Draco looked up, to find Potter looking at him quizically.
'It's cold,' Draco said, proffering a cardboard cup. 'I thought you might need some hot chocolate.'
Potter took the cup with a nod of gratitude and sipped at the contents. 'It's good. Thank you.'
Draco realised he had no idea what to say, so he smiled brightly. 'Good. Well, Merry Christmas, see you.'
Potter smiled back, with only a little exasperation. 'Hold on for a minute,' he said. 'At least for the space of a hot beverage.'
'I don't want to intrude,' Draco admitted.
'But you're here,' Potter pointed out gently.
Draco nodded. 'I didn't like the idea of you being alone,' he confessed. 'After …' his eyes flicked through the gate to the ranks of graves beyond. 'Just in case you were in need of company. I saw Granger and Weasley in town, so I assumed you'd told them terrible fibs about your plans for the evening and took it upon myself to check you were all right.'
Potter took another sip of chocolate. 'That's kind,' he said.
'It's my new thing,' Draco said lightly. 'Kindness, charity, saintliness. They'll probably give me some sort of award for it.'
'Almost certainly,' Potter agreed.
They both drank their chocolate for a little while.
'It's good to see you,' Potter said quietly, not looking at Draco.
Draco didn't pause for long enough to let his brain stop his mouth. 'I had a fantasy about you earlier in the year,' he said.
Potter did look up at that, eyebrows high.
'You were in some terrible trouble,' Draco continued quickly, regretting his word choice, 'and I rescued you, and that cancelled out all the debt I felt towards you.'
Potter started to speak, but Draco didn't pause long enough to let him. 'And I came up with the most elaborate schemes imaginable, but then I realised that if there was ever big enough trouble that you couldn't get yourself out of it, I probably wouldn't be any use, either.
'Hold on, I'm nearly done. And then I had an epiphany that you probably didn't see it that way at all, because if you walked around expecting everyone you'd saved to owe you, then you'd be insufferable, and you're not. So I had to accept that was never going to happen. And I did accept that.
'But I also realised that I could still repay you by being worth all the saving. So I've been working at that. Because that way you don't need to be put in mortal peril, and can instead just be another beneficiary of my beverage largesse.'
Potter nodded slowly and looked thoughtful. 'So you've been buying hot chocolate for others, then?' he asked.
'Soup,' Draco admitted. 'I like you more than them.'
'You're very odd, Malfoy,' Potter said, climbing up on the wall beside him. 'But I like you better than a lot of people, too.'
Draco smiled at that, and wondered if now would be a good moment to define the nature of that like, but why risk disaster when things were going so well?
'You're charmed by my increasing familiarity with Muggle ways,' he said instead.
'I'm impressed by it,' Potter clarified. 'If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have sworn it would be impossible.'
Draco shuddered involuntarily. Potter looked at him.
'Sorry.' Draco forced a smile onto his face. 'I've been trying to forget last year.'
Potter nodded, his eyes trailling back to the graveyard. 'So have I. Most of it, at any rate.'
Draco found his gaze following Potter's. 'Was it hard?' he asked. 'Seeing them … there?'
'No-one's asked me that before,' Potter said.
'Sorry, it's probably a terrible thing to ask …'
'No. No, it's not. It wasn't hard. I've always known they were dead. Ever since I can remember properly. It was sad. When I thought about it later, I realised they were together, and that was nice. They'd have wanted that.'
Potter was silent for a moment.
'I'd seen them before, you know,' he added.
Draco wasn't sure what he meant. 'When you were a baby?'
'No. No, when Voldemort came back. When he tried to kill me, and his wand malfunctioned. They were there then. And then later, in the forest, when I went out to give myself up, they came with me. Gave me strength.' Potter's voice was quiet, almost as if he expected Draco to disbelieve him.
But Draco didn't want to disbelieve him. 'Were they real?' he asked.
'As far as I could tell,' Potter answered.
'So, after we die …'
'I think so. From what I've seen …'
Draco digested this.
'Of course, I could just be insane,' Potter added.
'Worth considering,' Draco agreed. 'You are spending Christmas Eve sitting with me in a graveyard.'
'And if you ever take to religion, you're going to be much better at it than I am.'
Potter grinned at that. 'Thank you,' he said. 'For being here. For the chocolate.'
Draco shrugged. 'It was you or the house-elves.'
'Even I dress better than the house-elves.'
They sat in silence and finished their drinks
'Do you want to …?' Potter said.
And Draco did want to, but he didn't want to be the one to take the lead on any of the verbs that were foremost in his mind, so instead he smiled. 'It's getting late.'
Potter nodded. 'It is. I suppose you'll be expected home soon.'
'What about you?' Draco asked. 'Is anyone expecting you?'
'Ron and Hermione are coming over after eleven. The Burrow's filled with Weasleys, so I offered them a bit of privacy for tonight and we'll head over with her parents tomorrow.'
Draco deliberately did not think about what they might require privacy for. 'That's good. You'll have people there on Christmas morning.'
'Don't forget Kreacher,' Harry reminded him. 'He's grown very fond of me.'
'Your scary house-elf?' Draco asked.
'Yep.' Harry grinned cheerfully. 'Homicidal war leader and dab hand in the kitchen.'
'Sounds excellent.' Draco couldn't help grinning back.
'He is,' Harry confirmed. 'And … And this was excellent, too. I appreciate it, Malfoy.'
Which, of course, would have been the perfect time for Draco to mention that he really appreciated the excellent way Harry looked in those trousers, but he didn't.
'Merry Christmas, Potter,' he said instead.
'And to you,' Potter replied, jumping down from the wall. 'See you on Boxing Day?'
Draco nodded. 'You can tell me all the Weasley drama. Though if you wear one of those jumpers, I might pretend I don't know you.'
'I assumed they would be, or there's no excuse.'
Draco jumped down from the wall and picked up his and Potter's empty cardboard cups. 'I'll bin these,' he said, and then he was enfolded in slightly damp wool and strong arms while surprisingly soft hair fleetingly brushed his cheek and all of it was gone before he had managed to do more than move his free arm a little upwards.
'Merry Christmas,' Potter said, stepping back and smiling as he walked off.
'Merry Chri…' Draco managed before Potter Apparated away.
Draco stood in the crisp night and watched the light shimmering from the church windows. It had happened, he decided. He could feel the warmth where Potter had been, and smell shampoo and damp wool.
And he hadn't even managed a manly back-pat in return.
It was possible that he had just missed the best chance life would afford him to make a move on Harry Potter, but on the other hand, Draco thought, he was convinced this now constituted a friendship.
He wondered if, when he was as old as Dumbledore had been, he'd look back on this night with regret or joy? And at what age life would stop being a constant series of potential embarrassments and mistakes, peppered with brief delights that were mostly missed thanks to the anxiety of the moment, and become something one felt confident enough about to twinkle over and speak of in aphorisms? He decided to ask Mother about it in the morning. And to manfully ignore the fact that she would probably laugh affectionately at him.