Huddled into his cloak, and cursing again the fact that even a Warming Charm couldn’t stop the chill from seeping into his bones, Dean Thomas wondered if he’d ever capture that excitement of childhood again.
The earliest Christmas he could remember fully, was when he’d been five. He knew he’d been five because that was the age Gary had entered their lives, and presented Dean with a brand new football. Then they’d gone out to the park for a kick around, while his mum put the chicken in the oven and started on the potatoes. Gary had promised they’d only be an hour, but it had been nearer two when they’d turned up back at the flat.
She hadn’t been angry, which had surprised Dean at the time. His mum had a temper, even though she never used it on him, and she would shout and rage at the unfairness of everything on their grotty estate. But that day, she’d laughed at Dean’s muddy clothes and accepted Gary’s sloppy kiss of apology.
Looking back, he remembered that Christmas vividly, where others had paled or merged into one. His mum, newly in love, was pathetically grateful that someone was taking an interest in her son. She’d produced a box of crackers, which meant there were enough for two each, but Gary had told Dean he could have his and his mum had followed suit. Dean had worn four cracker hats - two red, one green and one yellow - for the rest of the day.
The next morning Gary had made them all breakfast and they’d sat on his mum’s big bed munching bacon sandwiches. It had been the first time Gary had stayed over, but not the last. The stays became all the more frequent and by the February, he’d moved in permanently, bringing laughter to the cramped flat.
Sometimes Dean fancied he could still taste the bacon; still feel the butter dripping down his chin.
But not tonight. Tonight he had fish and the white bread that he’d ‘foraged’ from a shop, when he’d scouted the area the day before. Ted had looked at him with something approaching disapproval, but they were all so hungry and the smell of the bread had been more potent than guilt.
He finished first as he usually did. In their early days on the run, Dean had felt embarrassed at how he quickly devoured his food, especially when Ted, noticing his empty plate, would offer him some of his ration. Dean had refused, despite Ted’s insistence that ‘a growing lad needs to keep his strength up’ and despite the hole in his gut, gnawing at him to accept. Now, though, after three months on the run, Dean’s appetite had decreased. He finished first out of habit, then sat back and waited for the others.
“I can’t finish,” Ted muttered, and pushed his plate on the grass. “You have it, son.”
“Ted, I’m really not hungry,” Dean replied, although the sight of the food was making his stomach growl again. He stared across at Ted, trying to read the man’s expression, but his face was in shadow.
“I mean it!” Ted snapped. “Someone have it. I’m not hungry.”
At those words, he stood up and walked away, stomping a trail across the stiff grass. As quick as a flash, Griphook grabbed the bread and Gornuk the fish, stuffing the extra food in their mouths before Dean or Dirk could react. The two goblins chuckled and grunted something in gobbledegook that Dean couldn’t understand, but from the look on Dirk’s face, it wasn’t complimentary. His spat a retort, but the goblins just shrugged and carried on eating.
“It’s all right,” Dean muttered. “I’m not that hungry.”
“It wasn’t for you,” Dirk said. “Ted’ll want something when he comes back.”
Shamed, Dean looked away and focused on Ted, now leaning against a tree, his large frame silhouetted against the starlit horizon.
“Is he all right?”
Dirk sucked in his breath. “None of us are ‘all right’. You may have some great belief in the Potter boy, but where does that belief get us?”He stopped speaking, and Dean could see his fists clenching and unclenching in an attempt to control his feelings. When Dirk spoke again, it was in a more measured tone. “It’s Christmas Eve. He misses his wife. Told me last night that since he’d met her, they’d never had a Christmas apart.”
“I ...I ... didn’t know,” Dean stammered.
“Because he doesn’t want you brooding,” Dirk replied. “He worries about you, but at the same time, he likes having you around. Gives him a distraction, especially as he has a grandkid on the way and no hope of seeing the little beggar.”
“Shall I talk to him?” Dean asked, hoping Dirk would shake his head, but instead he nodded.
“Good idea. Try and lighten his mood.”
“Uh ....” Dean swallowed. “Sure, I’ll ... um ...”
“Forget it. I’ll go!”
“No.” Dean stuck out his hand and pulled on Dirk’s ragged cloak sleeve. “I’ll see if he’s okay.”
“Don’t talk about his wife,” ordered Dirk.
As he trod a path towards Ted, Dean raised his hand to Dirk, letting him know he understood. But what the hell do I talk to him about? he wondered as he realised that all their conversations had revolved around family and survival.
“Uh, Ted,” Dean muttered, coughing slightly.
“The goblins ate your food, but there might be some bread if you want it ... later, I mean.”
“I miss my wife,” Ted said abruptly. “I mean, I always miss her, but Christmas is important for us.”
“Uh...” Dean shuffled his feet feeling awkward. This was not the conversation he wanted to be having.
“We eloped at Christmas time,” Ted continued. “She packed a small bag and ran out in the street to find me. I was waiting under the third lamppost in her street. Merlin, it was cold that night. I was waiting for an hour, all the while scared she’d changed her mind.” He took a deep breath. “She hadn’t at all, but was having trouble shaking off her sister.”
“She managed it, though,” Dean ventured.
One side of Ted’s mouth slid into a smile. “Her sister knew something was up, and was keeping a close eye on her. But my ‘Dromeda is a sneaky one. She waited until they were about to eat, and laced the soup with Pepper-Up Potion. Then when they were all gasping for breath, with steam coming out of their ears, she ran to the bathroom and climbed out the window.”
“She must have loved you very much,” Dean said, feeling inadequate.
“’Loved’?” Ted queried. He turned to face Dean, and now he was smiling properly. “She still does, and I love her and somehow we’ll get back together.” Reaching out a hand, he touched Dean lightly on the shoulder, the gesture drawing him in. “Have you got a girl, Dean?”
He pulled a wry face. “Not exactly. I was seeing someone last year, but we broke up and she started seeing Harry. I think she liked him all along. I just didn’t see it at the time.”
“What does ‘not exactly’ mean?” Ted asked. “Do you still think about her?”
Dean wrinkled his nose as he thought about it. “Not her, no. She’s a great girl, but ... well, towards the end we were arguing a lot. Did my head in, to tell the truth.”
“So no one else you miss?”
Dean bit his lip, unsure of his reply, then said lightly, “Same as you. Family. My mum, step-dad, sisters, and ... uh ... well, my mate, Seamus. I spent two Christmases at his place in Cork, and he spent one with me.”
“Good times,” Ted murmured.
“Yeah, except he doesn’t understand football.” Dean started to laugh. “I took him to a match last year, and he couldn’t work it out at all.”
“You like football?” Ted asked. “Who do you support?”
“West Ham,” Dean replied. From the glint in Ted’s eyes, he knew he’d found a fellow enthusiast. “What about you?”
“Spurs,” Ted replied proudly. “Used to go with my mum, until she and dad took over a pub in North London. Then she was too busy, and I got my letter, so ...” He trailed off and stared at the empty field stretching out in front of them. “I used to go on Boxing Day, mind you. And I once took my daughter.”
Ted smiled. “Yeah, but Dora was like your friend. Couldn’t see the point of men running around kicking a ball, when they could be riding brooms.” He sighed again and then stood up straight, no longer using the tree for support. “I’d like to go again - even if Dora won’t go with me.”
“I’ll go,” Dean offered. “Next fixture when we’re not on the run. You and me, Ted, we’ll go and see whatever match we can get tickets for. What do you think?”
“I’d like that, son,” Ted replied, grinning. “Mind you, I’m not paying silly prices.”
“We’ll Confund the gateman,” Dean said, and laughed at the disapproval on Ted’s face.
Ted punched him on the arm, then rammed his hands inside the pockets of his robe. Together they walked back to the campfire where the goblins were busying themselves devising a shelter.
“Shame we didn’t find a stable,” Ted murmured. “That would have kept us warm.”
“Probably all booked,” Dean replied. “They’re busy this time of year.”
They both burst out laughing, much to the bemusement of Dirk, who was sitting by the fire and warming his hands.
That night Dean dreamt a myriad of dreams: Gary kicking the shiny claret and blue football towards him, his mum burning the bread sauce, his sister’s face when he’d told her Santa wasn’t real (he’d received a bollocking for that from his mum), of Seamus’ grin when Dean had turned up, and lastly of a girl, glossy hair escaping from her ornate hair clip as he kissed her one last time.
“Christ!” he muttered as he woke with a start. That last dream was so vividly scorched into his mind, it was if she were here. And yet, when he tried to recall that moment, intensify that kiss, she slipped from him.
“Wassat?” Ted said foggily.
“Nothing,” Dean replied. “Go back to sleep. I’ll start the fire.”
As Ted rolled over and returned to sleep, Dean stared bleakly around their makeshift campsite. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, perhaps a miracle where Santa was real and had filled his stocking, or maybe a sign - from someone, Harry perhaps - that things would get better. That he hadn’t been forgotten. But there was nothing different about the campsite. The embers of the fire glowed but no brighter than usual. With a sigh, Dean stood up, stamped his feet on the ground as he tried to get his circulation going, and then walked towards the tree to gather more firewood.
It was only supposed to be a brief fling, he’d thought at the time. He was still smarting over the break- up with Ginny and the fact that she’d moved on so quickly to Harry. But the girl he’d drunkenly kissed one evening on the way back from Hogsmeade, had kissed him back with such fervour, he’d not had the heart to tell her it was a mistake. So he’d met her again, secretly in the Restricted Section of the library, and after that, he hadn’t wanted to stay away.
He closed his eyes, remembering the way she’d melted in his arms, and the feel of her body pressed against his. She’d been warm, yielding and far more responsive than Ginny. But their time together had been all too brief. Stolen kisses and promises to meet again, but then Dumbledore died, and everything changed.
“Why are you leaving?”
“I don’t have a choice, Dean. Mum and Dad are taking me out of school. They don’t think it’s safe here anymore.”
“Will you stay in touch?” he asked, trying to hide the desperation in his voice.
“I don’t know where we’ll be. Dad wants us to go away for a while, wait for things to calm down.”
“I’ll write,” he promised. “I’ll get to Diagon Alley and send you an owl, or I’ll use the Muggle post.”
She clung to him and he could feel her tears soaking through his shirt. “I don’t know where we’ll be, but I’ll write to you as soon as I know.”
And then he’d kissed her. Perhaps he’d known it would be their last kiss, and maybe she had, too, because it had been a kiss that spoke of loss and deep yearning. He’d twined his fingers through her thick hair, and inhaled the spicy scent of her until she - regretfully, he hoped - had pulled away.
Ted and Dirk were stirring when he got back. Crouching down by the hot ash of the fire, Dean selected the driest twigs he could find and began to build it again. Soon it was flaring into life, and he smiled in satisfaction. Summoning the saucepan, he filled it with water and levitated it above the flames, heating it to boiling, so he could make tea.
“You’re a good boy,” Ted muttered when Dean handed him his tea. He took a quick sip, wrapping both hands around the mug.
“Thanks,” said Dirk, accepting the cup. Then he sighed gloomily. “Not quite the Christmas I’d hoped for, but it’s better than Azkaban.”
“You might have been warmer there,” Ted said.
“Mmm, but not happier,” Dirk replied, shivering.
“Next year we’ll be home with our families,” Ted assured them both. “And this’ll be something I’ll be telling my grandchild about.”
Although he didn’t feel as hopeful, Dean played along. “Next year, I’ll be hiding in bed, ignoring my mum’s calls for help. We’ll open presents together when she’s back from church; then I’ll go to the park with Gary and have a kick around.” He grinned. “We’re always late back, so she’ll shout at us, but the food’s never ready anyway.” He turned to look at Dirk. “What about you? Where will you be?”
“Next year?” Dirk muttered. “Next year, we’ll be lucky to -”
“Dirk,” Ted reproved.
Closing his eyes, Dirk took a gulp of his tea. “Next year, I’m going to hold my wife tight and play how ever many games of Exploding Snap or Gobstones that my sons want. I won’t ever complain about that again.”
There was a silence. Dean stared at his tea, watching the steam rising in front of his face. On the other side of the campfire, he could see one of the goblins stirring; he shuffled forwards to set the pan above the flames for them, knowing both would rather have beef tea in the morning but would settle for whatever was available. “Do goblins celebrate Christmas, Dirk?”
“Not really,” Dirk replied. “They like the fact that we raid our Gringotts accounts to pay for the whole shebang, but they don’t do anything special.”
The goblins shuffled up to the fire, grumbling - Dean thought - in their own language. Dirk joined in the conversation but didn’t sound as if he was reprimanding them, and soon the five fugitives were sitting companionably together, making small talk they could all understand.
Three months ago, these people were strangers to me, Dean mused. Sometimes, they still were. It was hard to fathom what went on behind Dirk’s sarcastic demeanour, and even harder to understand the motivations of the goblins. But despite not being family, a close friend, or the girl he dreamt of, Dean knew he was lucky to have them. He glanced at Ted; the man had been a rock to him, and yesterday’s flash of temper had been a shock. Ted was always encouraging, never bemoaning their fate, always ... there.
It’s Christmas. I should have got him something, instead of moping that I wasn’t where I wanted to be.
But Ted wouldn’t have wanted Dean to spend money on him, and would have been horrified if Dean had stolen anything. There was only one thing left.
“Going somewhere?” Ted asked.
“Stretch my legs,” Dean replied as he hoisted his bag over his shoulder. I’ll keep a look-out, as well.”
Ted smiled at him. “Come back in half an hour and I’ll have breakfast ready.”
“Sure,” Dean replied. He raised his hand and strode off to the copse nearby, knowing it was out of sight. Settling down on the frozen ground, with his back against the stiff trunk of a plane tree, Dean dug deep into his bag. It had been a while, but some skills never left you.
“Oh My God!” Dean said incredulously as he walked back to them. “Is that bacon I can smell?”
Ted nodded. “Eggs as well, and Griphook found some mushrooms. That farm near us has a shop and ... well ... I had some Muggle money.”
“Ted, this is brilliant!” Dean knelt down, unable to stop the huge smile widening across his face. He laughed. “It’s fantastic. Bloody hell, bacon! God I’ve missed this. It’s just like Christmas day. Gary, my step dad, always gives us bacon sarnies in the morning. God, I don’t know what to say.”
Ted looked away, his chinks turning pink, and when he spoke again, telling Dean ‘it was nothing’, his voice sounded gruff.
Feeling as if he’d enthused too much, Dean tucked into the eggs and bacon, and gingerly tried a mushroom. It was good, and soon he’d cleared his plate, using his fork to scrape up the last remnants of egg.
“Glorious,” he said at last, licking his lips. Even the absence of hot butter dribbling down his chin could not make up for this moment of utter culinary bliss.
“It hit the spot,” Dirk agreed. “Now any chance of another cuppa, Dean?”
Biting back the retort that Dirk knew where the saucepan was, because he wanted to sit here a moment longer whilst the flavours stayed in his mouth, Dean nodded tersely as he collected the mugs.
“Not for me,” Ted said, standing. “Think I’ll stretch my legs, too. Don’t worry, I’ve got my wand.”
Dean watched him head off, not towards the copse, but edging around the field, eyes glancing all around as he looked for possible threats.
“Do you think the Snatcher Squads will be working today, or taking the day off?” Dean asked, not of anyone in particular.
Dirk thought for a while, not answering until Dean had handed him the tea. “I reckon they’ll concentrate their efforts on our homes, the temptation to return is running deep in all of us, don’t you think?”
Dean’s eyes widened. “Do you think -” He dropped his cup, the hot liquid spilling on the grass. “Shit, he’s going to go back, isn’t he?”
In alarm, Dirk stood as well. “Which way did he go?”
“Uh...” Dean looked all around, then pointed towards the track along the edge of the field. “I saw him walking down there. Hell, you don’t think he’s gone already, do you?”
“No idea,” Dirk replied. He sounded on edge, now. The sarcasm had gone from his voice as he worried about the man he’d come to consider a friend. “Come on, let’s get after him. You’re a faster runner than me, so go on ahead. Catch up to him and distract him. Grab him if you have to. He won’t Disapparate if it means taking you along.”
Needing no further urging, Dean broke into a run, following the path Ted had taken. He looked from right to left, scanning the field ahead, desperate for some sign that Ted hadn’t upped and left. In desperation, he sped up, now fleeing the field and vaulting over the stile and towards the road. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Dirk stumbling forwards, his wand raised as he, too, searched the area.
Then, suddenly, Dean saw Ted. Across the road, there was a Muggle park and Ted was striding across the grass, between the swings, and over to a small shed. Dean sped up, even thought his lungs felt as if they’d burst though his ribs. If Ted reached the cover of the shed, he’d Apparate.
He called out, but his voice was rasping as he struggled for breath, and Ted didn’t hear. He tried to run faster, but his legs felt like lead.
“Please, Ted, don’t do it!” he gasped.
But Ted had reached the shelter of the shed, and Dean could no longer see him.
“NO!” he yelled, finding a voice from somewhere. “TED, they’ll be looking for you.”
“What’s that, son?” Ted poked his head round from the shed.
“Don’t Apparate,” Dean gasped. He threw himself at Ted and hung onto his arm. “Dirk thinks the Snatchers will be casing our homes in case we risk going back. I know you want to see Andromeda and your daughter, but -” he took a huge breath, “- you can’t risk it, Ted. Please.”
“Apparate?” Ted asked, a small smile on his face. “I’m not that stupid, Dean. I wouldn’t risk Dromeda’s life, and if I were caught there, she’d be carted off to Azkaban for harbouring an Unregistered Muggleborn.”
His relief was indescribable. Dean could hear his heart thumping, and saw his hands still shaking as he took in Ted’s words. Until that moment, when he thought he’d lost him, Dean hadn’t been aware just how much he needed and relied on Ted. But to convey this in words ... It was impossible without causing monumental embarrassment for the pair of them.
“Uh, good,” Dean muttered, shuffling his feet. “You’re the only one that can cook. Don’t want to lose you.” He coughed and willed his breathing back to normal. “Why are you here, by the way? Only, I thought we weren’t going to risk being noticed by Muggles, unless we had to?”
“Ah!” It was Ted’s turn to look embarrassed. He stepped backwards then bent down.“I ... um ... found something the other day, and came back to see if it was still here.”
“Found what?” Dean asked, wondering what on earth could be so important that Ted would risk walking away from the encampment and their protective spells.
Ted grinned sheepishly. “It’s not new, but ...”
Dean burst out laughing, for there in Ted’s hands was a football. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed. “Ted, that’s bloody brilliant.”
“It’s a bit old and battered,” Ted continued. “I reckon it’s been here for a while so the Muggles might not come back for it ...”
As he took the ball from Ted’s hands, Dean could feel a surge of pleasure waving through him. His stomach was alive with the churning excitement he only ever felt on match days. “Fancy a kick about?” he said and chuckled. “You can be Spurs. I’ll be the Hammers. First one to five goals wins.”
“You’re on!” Ted exclaimed and reaching across, he patted Dean on the back. “Don’t you go thinking you’ve got it easy, son, just because I’m older than you. I played for my local under-elevens team and still have some of the old magic in my feet.”
“Now you tell me,” Dean cried, but he was laughing. “But we’re not using magic for this game, Ted. Just our Muggle skills!”
Later that day, when both were collecting more firewood, and Ted was complaining that it was only his bad back that had prevented him from saving the winner, Dean reached out his hand and squeezed him on the shoulder. He cleared his throat.
“Uhm, Ted, today has ... uh ... been-”
“You don’t need to say anything, Dean. I had fun, too.”
“Yeah, but it’s Christmas, and ... uh ... well, I’ve got you something.”He lifted his hands palms outstretched to forestall Ted’s scowl. “Something I made, it’s not stolen.”
Ted said nothing but stood patiently whilst Dean rummaged through his bag. “It’s not much, and I’m not sure it’s a good likeness, but ...” He stopped speaking and handed over a small booklet. “I like drawing. Not sure I’m much good, and I can’t make things move, but Seamus always said I could capture a likeness.”
Ted accepted the gift, slowly opening it up. To Dean, he looked hesitant, his hands trembling as he turned to the first page. His face blanched and for one dreadful moment, Dean thought he was going to cry, or shout, but Ted, after a gulp, traced the pages softly with his fingertip. “Dromeda,” he murmured, a wisp of emotion catching in his throat. “And my Dora ...” He trailed off, and when he finally dragged his eyes away from the parchment and stared at Dean, his eyes were awash with unshed tears. “This is them, Dean. That’s my Dora to the life. How did you know?”
“I’ve seen her. She was at Professor Dumbledore’s funeral, and she used to guard Hogwarts sometimes. And Mrs Tonks - Andromeda? You carry that photo around of her and ... well ... you talk about her so vividly, that sometimes I think I can see her beside you.”
Ted sniffed; a single tear slid down his face, leaving a track through the grime on his cheeks. Carefully he closed the booklet and placed it in his shirt pocket, next to the photograph of Andromeda.
“When this whole mess ends, son, find yourself a girl that will light up your life.”
Dean smiled, saying nothing, but when Ted had turned back to the camp, his arms full of kindling, Dean reached back into his bag and brought out one last picture.
He stared at it, wondering if he’d quite caught the intense warmth of her eyes, and the beauty of her smile, then he traced her lips with his. “Merry Christmas, Parvati.”