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Season of the Spirit

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First of December – jelly babies 



“Not to worry, Mrs Purley, everything’s under control,” Harry says, forcing a smile and squashing his fingers between his knees in an attempt to control the shock of pain caused by the combination of swan beak and raw, bitten nail beds.

Mrs Purley gives him a dubious look. “Are you sure you don’t want some help, love?”

“I’m sure,” Harry says, and he isn’t, but there’s no way he’s going to admit it.

The swan stretches out its long neck and hisses at him. He shuffles backwards on the cold stone surround of the fountain and realises he can no longer feel his backside. He looks at Mrs Purley and wavers. She’s a strong woman, obviously fit from running her little café practically single-handedly, and there’s something in her face that suggests she wouldn’t take any nonsense from a swan.

The swan, meanwhile, takes full advantage of his moment of inattention and delivers a savage bite to his knee, leaving him swearing under his breath and feeling more stubborn than ever.

“I’m good,” he insists. “You get back to your starving customers.”

Mrs Purley looks down at the assorted loaves of bread dangling from her fingers by the wrappers.

“I suppose I’d better,” she sighs. “Be careful, Harry, those things can have your arm off.”

“Thanks,” he says, smiling at her and then turning back to the swan.

He’s pretty sure it’s not true, but there’s something about the bird’s little black eyes that makes him wonder. Still, it can’t stay here. No one knows exactly where it came from or why it appeared in Diagon Alley, but it has been here for almost a week now, gliding around in the fountain and terrorising anyone who comes too close. The news that it has, early this morning, attempted to nip the tail of a Yorkshire terrier has spread through the shopkeepers and market workers, and now the boys from the fruit stall have been heard planning to lob pears at it.

Enough is enough, Harry thinks, steeling himself for another attempt at capture. All he has to do is get it into a cardboard box and take it to a suitable place. A place where swans are free to bite other swans and everyone can keep their fingers. He’s being public spirited, really. And swan spirited. After all, nobody wants to be pelted with pears. The fact that it’s almost three o’clock and he has to go into Muggle London anyway is just a bonus.

The swan steps onto the rim of the fountain, huge webbed feet slapping against the wet stone.

“Come on,” he wheedles, holding out a hand. “Please don’t make me use a spell.”

Five minutes and three bites later, Harry is heading for the Leaky Cauldron, carrying a damp cardboard box containing a lightly stunned swan. Though clearly drowsy and a lot more compliant than before, the swan is still conscious and shifting around inside the box, causing Harry to pitch from side to side with the momentum of its massive bulk. People are looking, and of course they are. At best he looks pissed as a newt and at worst, like he’s completely lost his mind.

“Will you settle down?” he whispers. “I’m trying to help you.”

There is no response from the swan, but a passing family slows to stare at him.

“Oh, good, now I’m talking to a box. That’ll be one for the gossip columns… better or worse than ‘Harry Potter – swan botherer?’ What do you think?”

The swan responds by punching a hole in the cardboard and hissing through it. Alarmed, Harry picks up his pace, determined to reach his destination before the whole thing is torn to shreds. By the time he steps into the Leaky, the swan has managed to poke its head through the top flaps and is eyeing everyone in sight with pure malice.

Tom laughs and reaches for a clean glass. “Does your friend want a drink?”

Harry smiles in spite of himself. “Better not, Tom. I don’t want to give him any ideas.”

“He’s got ideas already,” Tom says, and while Harry doesn’t doubt his wisdom, he suspects that the faster the swan is back where it belongs, the better.

Once out on the street, he takes a moment to adjust to the bustle, hanging back against the façade of the Leaky and breathing in the familiar tang of exhaust fumes and fried everything. When the swan sticks out its neck and almost grabs a passing woman’s ponytail, he forces himself into action. The park is only a couple of hundred yards away and the cold wind in his face is rather bracing as he walks briskly against it, willing the swan to stay put for just a minute or two more. He reaches the tall, wrought iron gates and breaks into a jog, clinging to the box even as its rough edges begin to rub his fingers raw. The pond is in sight, and he can see them.

“Swans,” he murmurs breathlessly to the wriggling creature inside the box. His spell is wearing off, but he’s almost there. “This is where you belong, you see?”

Ignoring the curious glances of the elderly couple throwing food for the ducks, he drops to his knees on the damp grass and sets down the box. Slowly, the swan uses its weight to tip and then clamber free of its cardboard prison, massive wings held in a defensive crown. For a moment, the two of them regard each other in expectant silence, and then the swan strikes a bite at Harry’s trouser fabric and splashes into the water without a backward glance.

“Right, well… best of British, then,” Harry mutters, watching the elegant white shape until it disappears out of sight. He doesn’t think he’s ever said that before, but somehow it feels right.

In spite of his bitten legs and fingers, he only wants good things for the swan, and it is far better off here with its own kind than marauding around Diagon Alley, frightening dogs and avoiding edible projectiles. Satisfied that he’s done the right thing, Harry walks back through the park, shoving cold, sore fingers into his pockets and quickening his pace when the nearby church clock chimes three. He makes just one brief stop before heading to his usual Disapparation point, and the striped paper bag rustles happily in his coat pocket as he makes the jump to Ottery St Catchpole.

Rose is already at the school gates when he gets there and she smiles to greet him.

“Hi, Uncle Harry. Why do you have feathers on your coat?”

“It’s my new look,” he says, attempting what she likes to call his ‘serious face’. “I’m a style icon.”

Rose laughs and unbuttons her lime green coat, refastening it around her neck as a cape. “Me too.”

Harry grins and holds out his hand to her. She takes it and he squeezes tight, knowing that she won’t want to hold his hand forever. She’s already impossibly grown up for an eight-year-old, and he feels as though it won’t be long until she’s reminding him to look both ways before crossing the road. Fortunately, Hugo is just starting to walk, and while he’s currently with Grandma Molly and no doubt being spoiled rotten, it’s only a matter of time before he’s going to school with his sister, and then he, too, will become Harry’s Monday to Thursday afternoon companion, and he’s looking forward to it.

The arrangement seems to suit everyone, allowing Ron to work full office hours in the Auror department and Hermione to take Fridays off from the Ministry’s Legal office for paperwork and countless other activities only she understands, while Harry picks up Rose and takes her back to his job with him. Of course, there are some who would say that a whisky shop is not a suitable place for a child to spend her afternoons… some who do say so, in fact, but Rose has spent half her life so far living out this odd state of affairs and as far as she is concerned, Borteg’s is her second home.

“We had a big spider in our classroom today,” she says, kicking a stone and scuffing the shiny toe of her shoe. Harry pretends not to notice.

“How big?”

“Four point five centimetres,” Rose says proudly. “I measured it.”

“And how did it feel about that?” Harry asks, amused.

“I’m not sure. But if I was a big spider, I’d hope someone measured me.”

Harry nods, considering this pearl of wisdom. “Me too. What happened to the spider?”

“Miss Webb caught it in a cup and put it on a plant outside. Uncle Harry, you’ve missed the pub.”

Harry frowns and then stops, realising that she is right and that they have just sailed past the alleyway behind the little village pub where they always stop to Disapparate.

“Sorry, Rosie,” he sighs, hoisting her up and ducking behind the stone building. “Ready?”

She nods, shifting against him to secure herself. The paper bag in his pocket crackles and her eyes light up.

“What did you get?”

“You’ll have to wait and see, won’t you?” Harry says, and then they are whipping through space and reappearing in a deserted corner of the city and Rose is jumping down onto the pavement.

By the time they step into Diagon Alley, the sky is almost dark and the lamps illuminate the cobbles in warm, creeping pools. They wind in and out of late afternoon shoppers and point out the windows and storefronts that have already been decorated for Christmas.

“Look at all these,” Mr Jennings says, waving back when Rose waves to him. “Only the first of December and lights everywhere.”

“Not everywhere,” Rose points out as they stop in the street. “The big lights aren’t on yet. Are you going to put lights in your window?”

Mr Jennings rubs at his beard and leans on his doorframe. “Quills and inks need no ornament, young Miss Weasley.”

“Lights are nice, though,” Rose says, shrugging.

“Dare I ask what was in that box?” Mr Jennings asks, fixing Harry with curious dark eyes.

Harry hesitates, knowing that Rose will be disappointed by the answer. As a lover of all animals, she has taken somewhat of a shine to the belligerent bird, and it’s possible that she will see his actions as more of an eviction than a rescue mission. Before he can open his mouth, though, someone taps him on the shoulder and the wind rushes down the alley, surrounding him with the sweet scents of chocolate and peanut butter and a tangle of fruit flavoured syrups. Florean Fortescue, the unofficial leader of their little shopkeepers’ community, seems to take his famous ice cream parlour with him wherever he goes, the scents of his trade worn into his person by decades of dedication.

“It’s for the best, Harry,” Florean says, seeming to read his mind. “I assume you found a suitable place for our friend?”

Harry nods. He really hopes that Florean cannot read his mind. He doesn’t particularly want anyone rummaging through his thoughts, but there is something very knowing about the old man that makes the thought that little bit more uncomfortable.

Don’t even think about it, he says inside his head, just in case.

“You mean that dratted swan is actually gone?” Mr Jennings asks, almost cracking a smile.

“Wring its neck, did you?” laughs a passer-by in what Harry thinks is a very stupid hat.

Rose gasps and stares up at Harry, distraught. “Uncle Harry! You didn’t hurt the swan? You didn’t?”

“Of course not,” Harry says loudly, staring into the man with the hat until he slinks away. “I took him to the park where he could be with the other swans. That’s all, I promise.”

Rose’s lip wobbles dangerously and Florean produces a box from the folds of his robes which he proffers without a word. Sniffling, she takes a chocolate-covered wafer tube and mouths ‘thank you’ to the old man, who smiles and manages to look tremendously dignified when the wind whips his mane of silver curls into his face.

“It ruined my best trousers yesterday,” Mr Jennings says, and for a moment, Harry frowns, trying to imagine how one of Florean’s excellent wafers could do such a thing. “Tore a hole in the knee.”

“Ruined, my foot,” scoffs the old lady from Eeylops Owl Emporium, pausing outside the quill shop to cast a stiff warming charm on her waxed jacket. “Don’t you know how to darn?”

“With a spell, you mean?” Rose asks, nibbling the edge of her wafer.

“With a spell, with a needle, doesn’t really matter,” the woman says. “In my day we had to make do and mend. I can show you if you want.”

“I’m fine, thanks, Jean,” Mr Jennings says, turning red and scowling.

“Suit yourself,” she says, shrugging. “Tell you what, though—it’s a funny old wind today. One wrong gust and your face’ll stay that sour forever.”

With that, she stumps off over the cobbles and back to her shop. Rose, Harry and Florean exchange amused glances but Mr Jennings merely sighs.

“I went to school with her, you know,” Florean says. “She always was a charming woman.”

When he, too, heads off on his way, Rose and Harry continue up the alley, fighting the wind at every step. Rose’s makeshift cape flaps behind her but she doesn’t button it back into a coat and Harry doesn’t suggest that she should. Squinting in the lamplight, the little girl waves to every shopkeeper and regular customer that she sees. Each and every one that isn’t too busy to notice her waves right back, and when they reach the market stalls, the bundled-up workers wave back too as they continue to shout and fling produce around and serve customers with amazing speed. As they pass the fountain, Rose’s smile falters, but then she sees the girls in the windows of Flourish and Blotts, dancing in their blue robes as they create a brand new display. Pure white lines spool out of their wands and across the glass, tracing the shapes of steaming mugs and snowflakes and books with fluttering pages.

“That’s so pretty,” she sighs, turning away only when the wind attempts to blow her clean over. “The swan will be alright, won’t he?”

“I’m sure he’s having a lovely time already,” Harry says, tugging her gently along the cobbles and up to the shop. “Biting everything in sight, no doubt.”

Near the very top of the alley, tucked between Cherish Chocolates and the office of a Seer that nobody ever seems to see, is Borteg’s, purveyor of fine spirits since... There must have been a date on the shopfront at some point, but it has been lost to time and weathering and no one, least of all Mr Borteg, has ever bothered to reinstate it. Suffice to say that the shop has been around for quite a long time, and the sight of the gently glowing mullioned windows and the black and gold shopfront makes Harry feel instantly at home.

It seems like a very long time ago that he had, with a lack of anything better to do, answered an advertisement in the Daily Prophet for a temporary shop manager. Mr Borteg had wanted to spend some time in his onsite distillery, creating a brand new whisky for the brand new millennium, and as such had needed a responsible, personable assistant to keep his famous shop afloat. Harry isn’t quite sure when ‘temporary’ became so much more, but more than a decade and several new whiskies later, he and Mr Borteg are rubbing along quite nicely.

“You have a saleman’s touch, Harry,” the old man tells him, watching him chatting to customers and making recommendations based on their needs. “Mine is to create, yours is to connect.”

Harry isn’t as confident in his skill as Mr Borteg seems to be, but he loves his job. Few have imagined him as a shop worker, but as the years have gone by, at least most of them seem to have tired of telling him so. If he’s honest, he doesn’t really care what people think—the ones who don’t know him will never understand the thrill of learning from a person so expert in their trade, and the ones who do know him certainly seem to appreciate the various tasting samples and experimental blends he brings home to share with them. Arthur in particular is such a fan that Harry suspects it’s only his heavy workload at the Ministry that has so far prevented him from turning up and demanding a tour of the distillery from Mr Borteg himself.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Harry mumbles to himself, pushing open the door and sighing with satisfaction when the bell tinkles softly above their heads.

“Are you talking to me?” Rose asks.

“No, just myself,” he admits. He fishes out the bag of sweets and hands it to her. “Remember to chew.”

“Thanks, Uncle Harry.” She frowns. “How would I eat them if I didn’t chew?”

“Ask your dad.”

“I will,” Rose says, taking off her coat-cape and standing on tiptoes to hang it on the lowest arm of the tall, ebony rack.

Everything in the little shop is made of rich, dark wood, from the panelled walls to the shelves, groaning with gleaming bottles, the long, polished counter and the floor, parquet tiles worn uneven by years of browsing feet. Rose’s desk, made for her by Mr Borteg himself, sits in the corner by the biggest window and is made entirely from old barrels and crates. It’s an unusual piece with odd curves and angles and the legend HENDERSON FINEST MALT stamped across the front panel, but Rose loves it and it’s only ever a matter of minutes before she is in place, spreading out her paper and crayons or studying her spelling book.

Today, she hums to herself as she lines up jelly babies on the desk, arranging and rearranging them in an order only she understands. Harry hangs up his coat and stands behind the counter, hoping he might be offered one once the ritual is over. There’s something about the chunky little buggers with their starchy coating that reminds him of being seven years old and Mr Branning, who used to offer those very same treats as a reward for quiet, obedient behaviour, something at which Harry was rather practised.

“Good afternoon, Miss Weasley,” Mr Borteg says, sounding as though it is anything but.

Then again, he always sounds like that. Rose peers up at him from her desk, watching his odd, insect-like gait and the flap of his long, silver-streaked plait. Today his hair is tied at the end with a black velvet ribbon, but just as often it’s a piece of string, a shoelace, and on one memorable occasion, a surprisingly compliant little black snake.

“You’re silly,” Rose says solemnly.

“I suspect I probably am,” Mr Borteg agrees, voice dipping into a particularly sombre range. “And what are these?”

Rose follows his gaze. “Jelly babies.”

“Jelly babies,” he repeats gloomily. “How very macabre.”

Rose giggles and Harry smiles at them both from behind the counter. When Mr Borteg had first agreed to this unusual arrangement, he hadn’t been worried, but he certainly hadn’t expected an instant friendship to spring up between the clever little girl and the bizarre, brilliant man. They make an odd pair, one all bright red hair and giggles and the other a walking Halloween decoration, but they share a pure, burning sort of curiosity that makes them nothing less than kindred spirits.

“They’re for eating, of course,” Rose is saying when Harry starts listening again.

“Indeed? And may I have one?”

Rose nods. “Yes. But you have to bite the head off first.”

“Some sort of mercy, I assume?” Mr Borteg asks, selecting a green jelly baby with spidery fingers.

“Would you want to be eaten while you were still alive?” Harry asks, and Mr Borteg turns to him slowly, pale blue eyes impossibly wide.

“Ah, Harry. I failed to notice you there. My apologies.”

Harry smiles. “Did you think Rose just turned up on her own?”

“In all honesty, I was lost in a dream,” he says, pale face suddenly wistful. “Sitting in my chair in the back room…” He pauses, flinging out a black clad arm to indicate what is less of a ‘back room’ and more of a fully-equipped distillery. “Musing on the intricacies.”

“Of life?” Harry guesses, accustomed by now to reading between the lines.

“Stills, Harry,” Mr Borteg says, almost in a whisper. “The character of the spirit is a mere hostage to the decision of a quarter of an inch this way or that.”

“That’s true,” Harry says, trying for an expression even a fraction of the intensity of his boss’s.

He’s not an expert on the making of fine whisky—he’s never even been much of a drinker beyond a few beers with his friends—but he relishes the constant opportunity to learn from a man who has spent decades travelling and studying and creating beautiful spirits. Mr Borteg is an artist; he mixes and tests and adjusts until he makes magic, like firewhiskies that fill the whole body with warmth, gins that dance on the tongue and vodkas that jolt like a stunning spell and a Pepper-up in one.

He has taught Harry the difference between a ‘Winston’ and a ‘Martha’, terms of his own creation, originally inspired by cats he’d had as a boy, one glossy and solid and handsome, the other delicate and complicated and just a little bit special. The maturing whiskies, safe in their barrels in the back room, are the ‘kits’, bursting with potential and just waiting for the right moment to show themselves. The whole thing fills Harry with a warm, rich sort of joy, and as he listens to Mr Borteg’s sepulchral musings and watches Rose biting the head off an orange jelly baby, he can’t imagine anywhere else he’d rather be.

When Mr Borteg stops talking, a comfortable peace fills the little wooden cocoon of the shop. For several seconds, all Harry can hear is the scratching of Rose’s pencil crayons and the howl of the wind up and down the alley.

“I almost forgot. You just missed Mr Malfoy again.”

Harry’s stomach performs a nervous little flip. “What did he want?” he asks, instinctively looking out into the dark street as though Draco will be standing there, rather than stalking about in his fancy restaurant on the other side of the cobbles.

Mr Borteg’s shoulders lift in a jerky approximation of a shrug. “I believe he was searching for a bottle of whisky that only you could provide,” he says with a long, drawn out sigh. He heads back to his distillery, muttering to himself what sounds very much like, “… he’s a strange man.”

“I think all men are strange,” Rose says without looking up from her drawing. “Except Daddy.”

“Even me?” Harry asks, but he doesn’t listen for the answer.

Mr Borteg is right. Draco Malfoy is a strange man and Harry hates the way he makes him feel strange without his permission. People who are sort-of friends should be able to get along in a nice, easy, sort-of fine way, he thinks. He also thinks that nobody has ever told Draco this, and because of that oversight their interactions are awkward and strained in a way that makes Harry feel confused during them and cross afterwards.

They’d managed just fine for years as fellow business owners who didn’t really need to interact until Draco had sidled up to him at last year’s ice cream social-slash-winter shopkeepers’ meeting and started making inquiries about Borteg’s supplying spirits for his bloody restaurant. Then there had been the consultation, the tasting, discussions about meal pairings that had delighted Mr Borteg and made Harry feel like his head was going to explode.

The thing is, he thinks, grabbing a cloth and beeswax and polishing the counter as hard as he can, the collaboration between Sage and Borteg’s is complete, it’s done, it’s a roaring success. Which would be great, but for some reason, Draco Malfoy is still hanging around. Harry sighs.

“Uncle Harry, do you want a jelly baby?” Rose asks.

Harry shakes himself and smiles at her. “Yes, please.”

She gets up and hands it to him. It’s her last one. “Don’t forget to bite the head off.”

He takes it. Imagines it wearing a long coat and trousers that really shouldn’t fit so well.

“Oh, I won’t.”

Chapter Text

Second of December – baked potato with cheese 



Harry steps back from the fire, poker in hand, and breathes in deeply. The sweet scent of burning wood fills the little shop and the crackling flames light every surface with a cosy glow. The sky outside may be a dazzling winter blue, but the wind cuts like ice, snaking its way into the old shop through countless nooks and crannies and blasting shivers out of Harry every time a customer opens the door. He’s just idly pondering some kind of blocking spell when the bell jingles, followed by the unmistakeable sound of clomping footsteps.

“Morning, Shan,” he says without turning from the fire.

“You haven’t got any change, have you?” comes the response, and he moves reluctantly from the fire to the counter.

“I’ll have a look,” he says, flicking his wand and then pulling the brass lever that sends the till’s cash drawer springing open with a crash. “I can do change for a Galleon and…” He digs in his trouser pockets and dumps a pile of copper and silver out onto the counter. “Maybe two more.”

Shan sighs with relief. “That’ll do, Harry, thanks a million.”

“Don’t fancy Gringotts?” he teases, knowing very well that Shan is terrified of goblins.

As a result, she regularly stomps up and down the alley gleaning change for her till and will probably continue to do so until she is a very old lady indeed. Harry knows she is at least eighty already; she had invited all the shopkeepers to her birthday party at the Leaky, which had been so raucous that poor Tom had had to close early for a whole week afterwards. Shan is a noisy woman without the excuse of a special occasion, strident East-end accent completely at odds with the image of the delicate Chinese octogenarian currently flicking Knuts and Sickles into her little money bag. Next to her partner of some fifty years, Esmee, she seems impossibly short, even with the high-heeled boots that she wears, unsteadily, everywhere she goes.

“Sorted,” she says, smiling at Harry and dropping several Galleons into his hand. He is fairly sure she has short-changed herself but he knows better by now than to challenge her on it. She pulls a patterned purple headscarf from a string-handled bag and shows it to Harry. “Do you think Es’ll like this?”

“Definitely. Very her,” Harry says with confidence.

Esmee, in contrast to her companion, is tall and stately and reminds Harry of nothing so much as a beautiful cappuccino, with her coffee-coloured skin, dusting of chocolate freckles and mass of frothy white curls, which are always held back by one of a vast collection of colourful scarves.

Shan’s face twists anxiously. “It’s hard to be original when you’ve been with someone for so long.”

Harry nods. Shan is his friend and he wants to at least appear empathetic, but what he knows about long term relationships is hardly worth knowing, and he has nothing to offer a couple with half a century behind them.

“She always likes what you get her,” he says at last, relieved when the door opens and a customer steps into the shop. He calls out to her. “Hello, let me know if you need any help.”

The woman smiles and nods, stepping closer to the fire and holding out her hands to warm them. Shan shivers, watching the door swing slowly closed and then speeding it up with a flick of her wand.

“We’re making a new crackleball for Christmas,” she tells Harry, apparently in no hurry to return to work.

Harry doesn’t mind. The shop is quiet, Mr Borteg is working away in his back room, and he has all the time in the world to hear about Shan and Esmee’s latest endeavour. Cherish Chocolates – home of the crackleball, he thinks, picturing the sweeping lettering that adorns next door’s glossy red awning, proudly announcing their most famous and delicious creation.

“What’s in it?” Harry asks eagerly.

“Spiced fruit… cinnamon… brandy,” Shan says, dark eyes gleaming. “The rest is a secret, I’m afraid.”

“That sounds brilliant,” Harry sighs, imagining this flavour combination alongside the crackleballs he has already experienced and knowing it will be incredible.

The crackleball is a thing of pure joy. Its lacy, sometime nutty chocolate shell always seems to be the perfect size for one massive bite and this perfection allows you to choose your own experience – to let it dissolve until the flavours and textures flood your mouth in a slow, rippling wave, or to bite down hard, forcing an explosion that dashes against your palate in a percussive shock that is almost too much, either option leaving behind a haze of satisfaction and an effervescent aftertaste that lasts for hours.

“I’ll bring some round when we’re done,” Shan says, pleased with his enthusiasm. “You can put them in your Christmas hampers.”

“Oh,” the customer says, looking disappointed as she places a basket on the counter. “I was going to get this one, but that sounds so wonderful… maybe I should come back.”

“It’s still in the testing phase, I’m afraid,” Shan says.

“You could get that one and add the crackleballs when they come out,” Harry suggests. “That way you’ll definitely have your hamper. They’re pretty popular and I don’t always manage to keep up with making them if it’s busy.”

The woman’s face clears. “That’s a good idea. By the way, which of these whiskies do you think would be better for Christmas dinner?”

Shan looks bewildered. “I don’t think I’ll be any help with this. Better get back.”

Harry waves to her and turns back to his customer. By the time he has finished with his explanation, the woman has selected three more bottles and seems to be enjoying herself. Feeling rather accomplished, Harry rings up her purchases while she inspects the tree in the window.

“How does this work, then?” she asks, touching one of the decorations with her fingertip.

“Well, it’s part of the charity festival we’re having in the street this year,” Harry explains, coming to stand beside her. “There are going to be special stalls and activities and we’re raising money for the children’s ward at St Mungo’s. The trees are going to help us collect presents for the kids that won’t be able to have Christmas at home this year.”

The woman clutches her necklace and stares at him, horrified. “I never even thought of that. I feel horrible.”

“You shouldn’t,” Harry assures. “I didn’t think of it either until someone brought it up at our shopkeepers’ meeting. It’s just nice to be able to do something about it. The idea is, you pay a Galleon for an ornament that you get to keep, and then you buy a present for a child and bring it back to put under our tree.”

“It’s a lovely tree,” the woman says, fingers still holding onto her intaglio pendant for dear life.

Harry laughs. “Thanks, but if you want to see a really impressive one, you should go to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Theirs is enormous and the decorations sing.”

“I think this is very elegant,” the woman insists, admiring the traditional Victorian baubles Harry has chosen and reaching out to spin one on its thread. The sunlight filters through the glass and onto the walls and she smiles. “I’ll have one. You choose.”

Harry thinks for a moment and then carefully takes down a silver ornament. “To match your necklace,” he explains, carrying it over to the counter and wrapping it in tissue paper.

She takes her money bag from her coat pocket and then hesitates, studying his face.

“You know, I could never understand why you chose this… you know, working here,” she says, and Harry prepares himself for a lecture. “I can see it now… you’re lovely at your job.”

Startled, Harry says nothing for a moment. “Well, thank you,” he manages at last, taking her coins and presenting her with a shiny Borteg’s bag. “I really like it here.”

The woman smiles at him and takes the bag, and just for a moment, Harry feels wonderful. The morning sunlight is warm on his face, he’s just made an excellent sale, and a customer has surprised him in the most delightful way. It’s just possible that today is going to be a very good day.

“He’s back,” Draco announces, striding into the shop and sending the little bell almost jingling off its fastenings.

Like Shan, he is far too impatient to allow the door to close on its own and shuts it sharply with a spell. Unlike Shan, his appearance makes Harry feel like diving under the counter and pretending to be somewhere else.

“Who’s back?” the woman asks, clearly curious.

Draco stares at her as though surprised to see her there. He frowns. “The swan, of course.”

“I didn’t realise he’d gone anywhere,” the woman admits, and in spite of himself, Harry is amused to see Draco’s eyebrows shooting up into his hairline. The customer bites her lip, apparently hiding a smile, and heads for the door. “Well, thank you for your help, Harry,” she says, and then is gone, leaving the door open behind her.

Draco closes it again. “Did you know?”

“Did I know that the swan had come back?” Harry asks tentatively.

“Yes,” Draco says, expression indicating that Harry should be a lot more upset by this turn of events. “You got rid of it, and now it’s back.”

“How did you—?” Harry attempts, but Draco cuts him off.

“Angelina Johnson told me.”

Puzzled, Harry frowns. “She doesn’t work around here.”

“No, but she did come into my restaurant last night with her teammates, and she is married to George Weasley, and he was told by Reuben from the Apothecary, who was told by Florean, who apparently bumped into you right after you’d done the deed,” Draco says with a note of triumph.

“Right,” Harry says, taking a moment to unravel all of this. “And why are you telling me now?”

Draco stares at him for long seconds. Harry stares back.

“You took it upon yourself to relocate the swan. The swan came back. You failed,” Draco says at last.

“I failed?” Harry repeats, irritation spiking in his chest.

“It’s back, Harry. It’s prancing around the fountain and hissing at little old ladies. You haven’t seen its face—it’s pleased with itself,” Draco says, swiping his hair out of his face. “And why is it so fucking hot in here?”

Why are you so fucking in here at all? Harry wants to shout, but instead, he takes a deep breath and attempts to calm himself.

“It is not hot, there is an open fire and you are wearing a coat,” he says evenly. “I haven’t seen the swan’s face because, as you well know, I didn’t realise the swan was back until about two minutes ago. Are you honestly suggesting that I should do something about it?”

“Yes!” Draco says, taking off his coat and draping it over one arm. “You have taken charge of this ridiculous situation and you need to finish what you started.”

“Draco, that makes literally no sense!” Harry argues, not even realising he has raised his voice until Mr Borteg emerges from the distillery and raises one long finger to his lips.

“You’re frightening the kits,” he says mournfully. “Perhaps you should both go and discuss your swan somewhere else.”

“Sorry, Mr Borteg,” Harry says almost in a whisper. He’s not entirely certain whether loud arguments can hurt barrels of maturing whisky, but he’d rather not take the chance.

Mr Borteg disappears out of sight, long plait swishing behind him. Chastened, Harry takes his coat from the rack and ushers Draco out into the street.

For a moment, they stand in silence, blinking in the bright sunlight. Draco puts his coat back on.

“Mr Borteg said you were looking for a new whisky yesterday,” Harry says, because the whole swan situation seems suddenly insane and he doesn’t know what else to say.

“Er… yes,” Draco says, just as thrown off balance by the change of location. “A single malt… a single barrel if possible.”

“Well, we have plenty of those,” Harry says. “Is there something in particular?”

Draco brushes invisible specks from his coat. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried some wonderful things from your shop recently but I thought perhaps I should have a signature whisky.”

“For the restaurant?”

“For me,” Draco says, straightening up and trying, in Harry’s opinion, to look taller.

“You’re looking for a Draco Malfoy whisky?” Harry asks, wishing he didn’t always feel so fucking confused by this man.

“I don’t want to make one, I want to find one that’s… good grief, did you hear that?”

They turn to peer down the alley, just in time to see a man fleeing from the direction of the fountain, face furious and robes torn. Harry sighs, practically tasting the inevitability of it all.

“Fine. I’ll move the swan.”

“Fantastic,” Draco says, and before Harry can reply, he has turned and started walking back to his restaurant.

Harry watches him, irritation momentarily flickering into delight when the long coat catches in Sage’s front door and interrupts Draco’s elegant stride. His smirk dissolves when he remembers the swan but he hesitates only for a second or two, knowing he’s going to do it anyway. With a sigh, he heads back to the shop in search of a particularly sturdy cardboard box.

This time, the process goes much more smoothly. Harry doesn’t attempt to wrangle the swan without the help of a mild stunning spell, and he seems to be moving with rather than against the wind as he hurries down to the pub and out to the park. His ambush seems to catch the swan by surprise and it only manages to get in one decent bite before joining the others on the pond.

It’s a fierce one, though, and despite Harry’s best efforts at healing the grazed skin, he is still rubbing at his bruised hand when he closes up the shop for the day and Apparates into Ron and Hermione’s back garden. With the temperature seemingly dropping by the minute, he hurries for the cottage, hanging back from the door for just a moment and crossing his fingers for an edible dinner. Ron is a solid cook, taught by his mother to make hearty, flavourful dishes that stick to the ribs and warm from the inside. Harry, when it is his turn to feed the family, does what he feels is a creditable job, throwing together quick meals that please everyone like homemade pizzas and his famous chicken curry, which contains an awful lot more vegetables than Rose knows.

Hermione… is a trier, and Harry loves that about her, but her experimental mode often produces dishes that are challenging to say the least. After years of kitchen-based frustration and Ron’s offers-turned-pleas to take over all the cooking himself, she has found her niche. Hermione might be a culinary disaster, but when presented with the humble potato, she becomes, quite simply, magical. She turns out perfect gratins, homemade hash browns that have been known to make Ron weep, and roast potatoes to rival those of her mother-in-law. In secret, Ron, Harry and Rose have agreed that Hermione’s roasties might just outshine Molly’s, but in the interest of their collective sanity, they have elected to keep this information to themselves.

“Please not the soup with the weird things floating in it,” Harry mutters to himself, grabbing the handle of the back door and stepping into the kitchen.

He is rewarded by the glorious earthy scent of baked potatoes and the sight of Hermione grating cheese into a large ceramic bowl. Delighted, he throws his coat over a chair and starts rummaging in a nearby cupboard for mugs.

“How did you know I needed a cup of tea?” Hermione asks, turning to him with a weary smile.

“I suppose I’ve never known you to not need one,” Harry says, and she laughs.

“Mum’s made jackets,” Rose says happily, looking up from her place at the kitchen table where she is adding colour to an elaborate drawing.

“I can smell them,” Harry says, wondering how Rose feels about some of her mother’s attempts at food. She’s a very polite child, but he can’t think of anyone who would enjoy the soup with the weird things floating in it.

As he pours the tea, Ron appears with a flailing Hugo in his grip. He straps the little boy into a wooden highchair and ruffles his curly hair.

“What have you done to your hand?” he asks Harry, who stops rubbing at it immediately.

“Nothing. It’s fine.”

“Was it that dragon again?” Ron asks, glancing at Rose.

She stops colouring and looks up, mouth slightly open. “Uncle Harry… you didn’t get bitten by a dragon, did you?”

“Was it that big one, you know, the one under Gringotts?” Ron says, catching Harry’s eye.

“That’s right,” Harry says casually. “It’s amazing I didn’t lose the whole hand.”

Rose stares at him in awe, and from the other side of the kitchen comes a derisive snort. Amused, Harry makes a show of moving his fingers and wincing until he is handed a stack of plates and directed to set the table. Rose, he thinks, is a very clever child but also a very suggestible one. She has a vast, vivid imagination and no concept that her father would ever tell her a lie. One day, Ron’s stories are going to come back and bite him in the arse, and Harry is going to be there when they do.

“Juice,” Hugo announces, handing his plastic cup to Harry and then grabbing it back with such force that the whole thing slips out of his reach and bounces onto the table, where the lid comes loose and allows purple liquid to spread out over Rose’s artwork.

“Hugo!” she cries, anguished. “You ruined it!”

“He didn’t mean to hurt it,” Hermione says, rushing to hug her daughter. “It was an accident. You know Hugo loves your drawings.”

Rose pouts, clearly caught between the desire to be the best big sister she can be and the loss of her creative work.

Ron picks up the offending cup and spirits it away, while Harry examines the wet piece of paper.

“Here, let’s try this,” he says, drawing his wand and letting the tip hover over the stain. “Purifico,” he murmurs, and the juice lifts from the paper in a fine spiral, leaving Rose’s work damp but undamaged.

“Look at that! Good as new!” Ron says, grinning.

“Where did you learn that?” Hermione asks, kissing the cheek of a delighted Rose and straightening up to look at Harry.

“Mr Borteg. Apparently it’s excellent for lifting whisky stains from the pages of books,” he says. “You’ll need to hang that up to dry, Rosie, it’s too delicate for a drying charm. Give it a couple of hours and you’ll be able to work on it again.”

“Thank you, Uncle Harry,” she says, picking up the paper by its edges and practically skipping out of the room.

“Thank you, Uncle Harry, indeed,” Hermione says, and then she’s fixing Harry with a look that makes him want to roll his eyes before she says another word. “You’re so good with them both. You’re going to be such a lovely father.”

Ron groans, turning away to open the oven with a glove in the shape of a lobster.

“I’d like to be, one day,” Harry says calmly, just as he always does. “I’m not in a rush.”

“I know,” Hermione says, picking up the bowl of cheese and hugging it to her chest. “It’s just that when you do something like that I feel all…” She shrugs wordlessly.

“Clucky,” Ron supplies. “You get all clucky and all your other friends have children so it all gets dumped on Harry.”

“Shut up,” Hermione says, turning slightly pink. “Harry, I promise I’m not trying to rush you,” she adds softly, before bellowing, “ROSE!” loudly enough to make Harry and Ron jump.

Harry smiles, feeling a rush of warm affection for his friend. “I know.”

Over dinner, Harry fills in his friends on the saga of the swan, allowing his potato to cool to an edible temperature and waiting for the cheese to melt into the baked beans. As always, Hermione’s jacket potatoes are magnificent, with crisp salted skins and fluffy, buttery middles, and he quickly discovers that he is ravenous. Only Ron gets through his first potato before him, and Harry has long suspected that burning hot food doesn’t even figure into the speed of his eating.

“The swan came back and now he’s gone again,” Rose says sadly, grinding copious amounts of black pepper onto her potato, just like Dad.

“I’m afraid so,” Harry sighs. “What I’m interested to know is how he got back in.”

“What I’m interested to know is why you let Malfoy talk you into doing it and then walk off without even helping,” Ron says, shaking his head.

“I don’t know,” Harry admits, picking up a stick of baked potato that Hugo has flung onto the table and returning it to him. “I think he just wore me down.”

“You’ve got to stand up for yourself, mate,” Ron says, and then forks an unfeasible amount of beans into his mouth.

“That’s good coming from you,” Hermione scoffs. “Is that what you do whenever Lana or Avi ask you for a favour?”

“That’s different,” Ron mumbles, mouth still full of beans.

“Daddy, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Rose says helpfully.

He swallows. “Quite right, Rosie, sorry about that.” He turns to Hermione. “That’s different. We’re an Auror team. And anyway, I wouldn’t just say yes to any old thing they…”

“Oh, really?” Hermione says, eyebrows raised. “Is that why we had Avi in our spare bedroom for four weeks? Eating his pickles everywhere and trying to give me cleaning tips?”

“He was having his flat cleansed,” Ron says, folding his arms. “There was a spirit trapped in the… you know all of this already. Anyway, I thought you liked Avi.”

Harry glances at Rose, who is eating steadily and paying no attention to her parents’ disagreement. With a clear conscience, he drinks his tea and enjoys the show. Ron and Hermione rarely have proper fights—the kind where insults and or bits of crockery might be thrown—but they can bicker for England. Harry hasn’t got anyone to bicker with, and he’s pretty sure he’s fine with that, but from time to time he does enjoy a pointless argument in a nice warm kitchen, especially when he can watch from a safe distance.

“Ron, I do like Avi,” Hermione says, voice raised in frustration. “The point I was making was not ‘I don’t like Avi’, it was that you shouldn’t criticise Harry for being a doormat when you might as well write ‘welcome’ on your forehead.”

Rose looks up, apparently entertained by this image. Harry smiles at her and she smiles back. Hugo throws a piece of potato into Harry’s lap.

“You’re supposed to be eating this, mate,” Harry whispers, placing the potato back in front of Hugo. “This represents the high point of your mother’s culinary expertise.”

“I heard that,” Hermione says without looking around at him.

“You heard nothing.”

“How can you say all that when you’re so bloody nice to everyone?” Ron demands. He doesn’t look irritated any more, just confused.

“I’m a very… do you really think so?” Hermione asks, voice softening.

“Well, yeah, obviously,” Ron shrugs. “I mean… you put up with me, don’t you?”

Hermione looks down at her plate. A smile picks at the corner of her mouth.

“I do. Shall we stop arguing and leave Harry to do whatever he wants with Draco Malfoy?” she says.

“Thank you for that weird image,” Harry mumbles, pushing it away with some effort.

“I’ll get the ice cream,” Ron says, rising and kissing his wife on the top of the head.

“Uncle Harry, what are you going to do if the swan comes back again?” Rose asks innocently.

Harry pushes his plate away and meets her eyes. “It wouldn’t dare.”

Chapter Text

Third of December – parcels



On Saturday morning, the Diagon Alley Winter Festival opens in style. Florean is at his most ebullient, coat tails flapping in the wind as he bows almost to the ground and then draws his wand in a theatrical arc to reveal three new stalls grouped around the fountain. The crowd of shoppers and workers murmur amongst themselves and gasp when Florean flicks his wand to the sky and sets off a fall of magical snow that settles on the pitched wooden tops of the stalls.

“And so we begin,” Florean announces, twirling like a demented ringmaster and Disapparating.

Harry laughs, exchanging smiles with Mrs Purley, and then jumps when Florean appears behind him.

“Very impressive,” he admits.

“Show off,” adds Mrs Purley, but she is still smiling and she hasn’t yet taken her eyes from the glittering new stalls.

“Well, it’s a start,” Florean says. “Let’s just say I’m building up to something.”

Harry looks over his shoulder. “Something we didn’t discuss in the meeting, I’m guessing?”

Florean smiles slowly. “Harry, you know me too well. Let’s just say it’s something… in my area.”

“Oh, good,” comes a familiar voice, and when Harry turns around, Florean is nowhere to be seen and Draco is standing right behind him wearing a long green scarf and a weary expression. “An enormous snowman made of ice cream, do you think? A lake of strawberry sauce?”

“What’s festive about a lake?” Mrs Purley asks and Draco sighs.

Something about the sound and proximity of Draco’s voice makes Harry shiver, and he can practically taste the sharp sweetness of strawberry syrup on the tip of his tongue.

“I’m going to look at the stalls,” he says a little too loudly, leaving Draco and Mrs Purley behind and joining the others now milling around the newly snow-dotted section of the alley.

“Was it something I said?” Draco asks, just before the rabble of voices closes in around Harry.

He doesn’t hear Mrs Purley’s response and he doesn’t need to. He knows what it is about Draco, and it’s everything. He’s handsome and clever and irritating and Harry doesn’t want anything to do with any of it. He has watched Draco from the safety of Mr Borteg’s window, watched him for years as he’s set up his restaurant and worked tirelessly to build it from a mere idea to the kind of place that requires a booking for afternoon tea and regularly plays host to Quidditch stars, musicians and the Minister for Magic himself.

Draco is a powerhouse, an unstoppable force, and a completely ridiculous man all at once. He stalks up and down Diagon Alley as though he owns the place and bursts into Borteg’s with his bizarre questions and his eyes and his quirky little half smiles and everything Harry knows to be true is shoved from a high cliff and dashed on the rocks underneath. The truth is, Draco Malfoy makes his safe little world feel chaotic, and he doesn’t like that one bit.

Harry gulps at the cold air and reaches for his focus. Never mind Draco and his ways, he has promised his boss a full report of the morning’s festivities and he needs to pay attention. Mr Borteg has never asked him to work weekends, but Harry is happy to lend a hand during busy times or at moments like this one, when the distillation process demands every last bit of its master’s attention. Harry has time, and he has time because his life is in perfect balance.

“Thanks,” he says, accepting a sample of brightly coloured fudge from a smiling girl with glitter in her hair.

He looks around at the stall, taking in the rows of gleaming, spiralled lollipops, the sugar-coated snakes hanging from the roof, the intricately decorated snowflake biscuits and the pile of fruit just waiting to be dipped into a steaming cauldron of caramel. Harry breathes in deeply and tastes ginger and sour sugar, and when he bites into the fudge, the combination of warm orange and clove soothes his rattled senses.

“Fantastic,” he says. “I’ll have a bar of that and two snakes, please.”

Rose will love all of this, he thinks, making a mental note to let her loose on the new stalls as soon as she arrives on Monday afternoon. Hermione might not completely approve of him stuffing her daughter full of sugar on a semi-regular basis, but she knows as well as he does that it is his prerogative as an uncle to do so.

He takes his paper bag and moves on, winding through the crowd to inspect the second stall. Rose, he is pretty sure, would enjoy this one, too. With the help of a dazzling orb of magical light, a pair of artists with gloriously rainbow coloured hair are painting designs onto the faces, arms and hands of adults and children alike. Mr Pike from the Magical Menagerie waves to Harry and the female artist chides him gently, pulling his arm back into position and rendering a startlingly realistic lizard’s face with what seems to be a single flick of the wrist. Beside her, her male counterpart is painting gleaming icicles onto the face of a little girl just about Rose’s age.

Harry smiles, suddenly aware of how much he misses his niece when she’s not around. He loves spending time with her and he hates the way Hermione is always right. He’s wanted a family of his own for as long as he can remember, but the very last thing he needs is another relationship. Everything is great the way it is, and it isn’t as though he hasn’t tried. He has spent most of his twenties trying, and nothing ever worked out the way it was supposed to. It’s fine for people like Ron and Hermione, giving out their advice when they both found the right one when they were still at school.

If he’s honest, he knows he’s lucky to have recovered from that misguided episode with Ginny and come out of it with a sister and a friend. His other attempts have left him nothing more than suffocated and miserable. Single life suits him, and he has no idea why he would give it up again for someone like Geraint, who was so obsessed with Quidditch that Harry actually stopped enjoying it and who would sulk for days every time his team lost. Then there was Phillipe, who was astonishingly handsome but also the most boring man Harry has ever met, revelling in both the idea of being a grown-up and telling anyone who would listen that their endeavours were thoroughly childish and silly.

After several months of that, Ralph (“it’s ‘Rafe’, for goodness’ sake”) had seemed refreshing, with his ready wit and exuberant spirit, but Harry had soon realised that while it was nice to have someone to squash up to on the sofa and to take to parties and pub nights and what had felt like an awful lot of weddings, ‘someone’ was not enough, and actually, he’d rather turn up alone than end up embarrassed because his so-called partner had drunk too much and pissed in someone’s topiary.

When it comes down to it, he chooses badly. He has let his friends try, and despite their best efforts, they have chosen badly, too. And it’s fine, because now that he’s in his thirties, he’s begun to appreciate the simple pleasure of being by himself and doing whatever the hell he wants to do. He sleeps better without the snores of a rhinoceros or the constant groping of drunken hands, and no one is sucking the joy out of his life because they can’t find their own.

He's happy, and that’s all there is to it.

“Oh, don’t think so hard—that’s how you get wrinkles,” someone says, and Harry looks up, realising that he has been staring at the cobbles for rather too long.

The woman at the third stall smiles at him, revealing several gold teeth. Harry smiles back, looking around at the interior of the little wooden stall, which seems to be filled with dancing flames of all colours and sizes. It takes him a moment to realise that each one is encased in glass, some forming spheres or cubes, others twisted into strange and beautiful shapes.

“What are they?” he asks, picking one up at her encouraging gesture.

“Orisha orbs,” she says, indicating the glass spheres with a dark, elegant hand. “Orisha cubes… orisha… things,” she adds with a grin, touching one of the oddly shaped items. “The flame within each one represents a different Orisha. They’re made with genuine African earth magic and are designed to protect you from harm.”

“What’s an Orisha?” Harry asks, turning the sphere in his hands and startling when the green flame licks at his skin and a ripple of warmth and contentment spreads out from his fingertips.

“These are deities of the Yoruba religion,” the woman says. “In Nigeria, we may see them in human form but here, I have worked with many practitioners to capture the Ashe, the life force, and channel it into healing magic.”

“Isn’t the Orisha upset about being trapped inside a piece of glass?” Harry asks, curious.

The woman laughs. “No, my love. No one can trap an Orisha. These are only borrowed pieces of his or her life force.”

“But it’s not… dark?” he asks, and the woman meets his eyes steadily.

“These are not pieces of a soul, sir. The representation of the Orisha is pure energy. They are not hurt and they cannot hurt you.”

“No Orishas were harmed in the making of this sphere,” Draco says, appearing behind Harry and granting the stallholder a surprisingly warm smile.

“That’s right,” she says, and Harry stares at Draco. The flame inside the ball he is holding burns fiercely for a moment, making the woman laugh with delight.

“Where did you spring from?” he demands, hand now uncomfortably warm. “And how do you know about this stuff?”

“I know all sorts of things,” Draco says, and then shrugs. “My mother has one. Did you used to have a shop in Bath?”

“Still do,” the woman says. “I hope she finds it useful?”

“I think she uses it as a paperweight,” Draco says, and to his astonishment, the woman laughs.

“Her papers will be very well protected,” she says, dark eyes sparkling.

“I think I’ll get one for the shop,” Harry says, carefully setting down the warm sphere and rummaging in his pockets. “Have you got an Orisha that will look after a whisky shop?”

“Well, it’s not quite that simple, but let me think…” The woman looks around, clicking her teeth as she thinks. “Elegua for you, I think. He is fate… destiny. He opens and closes all the doors, guards all the paths.” She picks up a small cube containing a small but fierce red flame. “There are doorways for you to open, I think,” she adds, expression shrewd.

“Right,” Harry says uncertainly. “Well, I’ll take your word for it.”

She says nothing but wraps the cube in soft tissue and then a neat layer of brown paper. She takes Harry’s money and turns her attention to Draco.

“Oshun,” she says firmly, picking up another cube, this time containing a flame the colour of honey. “This is your guardian Orisha.”

Draco takes it at her insistence and attempts to suppress a gasp as the little object reaches for his magic and burns brightly.

“I wasn’t actually…” he begins, falling silent when she meets his eyes and nodding obediently.

Amused, Harry takes his paper-wrapped cube and turns to go. As he does, a flash of white catches his peripheral vision and a split second later, a familiar angry voice rings out across the cobbles.

“Get away! Go on! Let go!”

Harry glances at Draco and immediately wishes he hadn’t, because the bugger couldn’t look any more pleased with himself if he tried. Rolling his eyes, he thanks the stallholder, shoves the cube into his pocket and pushes his way through the crowd until he reaches the fountain.

“Jean, are you alright?”

“I’m fine, love, don’t you worry,” the old lady says, brandishing her pipe at the hissing swan and fending it off quite effectively.

Harry supposes he shouldn’t be surprised. Jean has been taking care of the owls at Eeylops for donkey’s years; she isn’t about to tolerate any funny business from a stroppy swan.

“Did it bite you?” asks a lady with two children hiding behind her.

“No, but it’s playing merry hell with my parcels,” Jean says sourly, drawing Harry’s eyes to a pile of boxes tied with stripy string now sitting in a puddle at the swan’s side. “Knocked them out of my hands, it did, the cheeky beggar.”

“Shall I dry them for you, Jean?” George says, struggling out of the crowd behind Harry. “I’ve got just the thing.”

“You can try, love,” Jean says, looking as though she’s not holding out much hope.

“Alright, Harry?” George says with a grin, and then he’s bounding to Jean’s side and pulling a jar out of his pocket. “Out of the way, you,” he says to the swan.

The bird doesn’t move but merely watches as George shakes a gleaming white powder over the parcels and the puddle. At first, nothing seems to happen, but then, with a small explosion that Harry suspects is for theatrical purposes only, the puddle disappears and Jean’s parcels are as good as new. Several people clap and George takes off his woolly hat, clutching it to his chest as a nearby young couple spell the parcels back into Jean’s arms.

“Oh, well done,” Jean says, beaming. “What was that?”

“Multipurpose Dehydration Powder,” George says, holding up the jar. “Only at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes—on the shelves from Monday!”

“That man could sell ears to a house-elf,” Draco says, shaking his head.

Harry thinks that’s a rather strange image, but he doesn’t say so. He knows what’s coming next.

“I suppose it’s time to put the swan back,” he says calmly.

“If you insist,” Draco says, and Harry can hear the smile in his voice.

“What the bloody hell are we going to do about this swan?” someone demands, setting off a ripple of murmuring from the crowd. Harry tunes them out.

“Of course, I’ve failed twice now,” he says, affecting a thoughtful expression.

“That’s true.”

“Maybe it’s time someone else gave it a go. Like you.”

“Yes, exactly, so… what?” Draco snaps, turning to him with horror in his eyes.

“I’m clearly not doing a good job, am I? So why don’t you have a go? Look, I’ll even make a box for you,” Harry says, biting down on a smile and conjuring a large, strong carton.

He hands it to Draco and lets the smile out. Draco stares at him, and then at the swan. For the briefest moment Harry can see the pure panic etched across his face, and then the Malfoy shutters come down and Draco nods.

“Of course. How difficult can it be?”

Harry doesn’t reply. He knows exactly how difficult it can be, and he can’t imagine that Draco’s attempt will be made easier by the presence of an audience. That’s not to say that he isn’t enjoying himself enormously. Without a word, he follows Draco and the box over to the fountain, catching the change in the energy of the crowd as they seem to realise that something is about to happen. He watches with interest as Draco attempts first to corner the swan with the box, then to trick it inside with a couple of swift movements that send his long coat and scarf flying.

By his third attempt, the crowd is warmed up enough to join in with the spectacle, shouting words of encouragement along with the odd heckle.

“Put your back into it, Malfoy!” someone cries when the swan yet again evades Draco and bites him hard on the ankle.

“Is this going to be on the new menu?” someone else asks, to titters from their friends.

“You could help,” Draco snaps, turning to Harry with an air of desperation.

“I could,” Harry agrees, just as the swan climbs up onto the fountain and splashes cold water into Draco’s face with its massive wings. Draco seems to sag slightly and Harry gives in. “Use a spell. A really mild stunning spell. Then just sort of… stuff it into the box.”

With a beleaguered look, Draco draws his wand and hits the swan easily with a gentle pulse of light. The bird gives one furious hiss and then flops down onto the stone, allowing Draco to heave it into the box and close the lid tightly. After another little flutter of applause and one or two sighs of disappointment, people begin to drift away, heading back to the stalls and nearby shops. Draco goes to collapse onto the edge of the fountain and Harry shakes his head.

“Don’t. Those spells don’t last anywhere near as long as you think.”

Draco glares at the box but remains upright, casting a lightening charm and picking the whole thing up with ease. Harry wishes he had thought of that, but he isn’t about to say so. Without discussion, they walk side by side down to the Leaky. Harry darts sideways glances at Draco, intrigued by his dishevelled appearance. His pale hair, always so neatly arranged, is damp and ruffled and falling into his eyes. His coat collar is askew and there are spots of moss and mud on his face. The whole thing is oddly compelling and it’s only when Draco catches him looking that he fixes his eyes on the street ahead.

Draco sighs. “How is it getting back in?”

“It has to be through the pub,” Harry says, pushing his hands into his pockets and feeling a lick of warmth through the paper wrappings of his Orisha cube. “There’s no other way.”

“But that means someone is letting it into the Leaky Cauldron from the Muggle entrance and letting it into Diagon Alley through the wall,” Draco says, frowning.

“Yep,” Harry agrees, as they let themselves into the pub. He stands there for a moment, breathing in the warm, beery air and allowing his eyes to adjust to the sudden dimness. “Which no one would do. Unless they were drunk.”

Draco’s eyes flick to his. “You don’t really think…?”

“I really do. Tom!” Harry calls, approaching the bar. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen our friend in here again, have you? White, about three feet tall, hisses if you get too close?”

“I’ve seen him,” Tom laughs. “Though I’d like to know, if you’re looking for him, what’s in the box?”

“You don’t want to know,” Draco says drily, and Tom looks even more curious.

“He came in with Patrick last night, if I remember rightly,” he says, rubbing his chin and indicating a bearded man at a table by the fire. “He might know something about it.”

At the sound of his name, the man looks up, eyes widening comically when the swan forces its head through the flaps of the box and hisses loudly.

“Oh, not you again,” he says, shaking his head.

Draco carries the box over to his table and sets it down. Harry follows him.

“Did you let him in?”

“Well, he followed me, like,” Patrick says, soft Irish accent so charming that the words seem almost plausible.

“The swan followed you into the pub?” Draco clarifies, bewildered.

“That’s right.”

“And how did he get from the pub into Diagon Alley?” Harry asks.

Patrick looks sheepishly into his pint. “Well, he followed me again. Out the back, you know.”

“And then?” Draco presses.

Patrick looks up, making eye contact with both of them in turn and finally settling on Harry.

“You see… he looked at the wall, and then he looked at me, and… well, there was something in his eyes,” he says, glancing at the swan as though it might be able to contradict his version of events. “I felt like he was saying ‘I need to go through there and you’d better get on with it’, you know?”

“And so you…?”

“He was very persuasive, Mr Potter,” Patrick says, leaning forward in his seat.

“He’s a swan,” Draco says quietly, and when Harry looks at him, his expression is caught somewhere between amusement and despair.

“Exactly that, Mr Malfoy. He could bite my legs off as soon as look at me.”

Something about the man’s earnest expression tickles Harry and he has to turn away for a moment. Behind the bar, Tom is grinning like a loon and not helping one bit.

“If you could resist the temptation to let him into the alley again, that would be most appreciated,” Draco is saying as he turns back. “He’s become something of a nuisance.”

“I will certainly try,” Patrick says grandly, swallowing half of his pint in one gulp and bathing them both in a beatific smile.

“Thank you,” Draco says, and he picks up the box again. “Now what?”

“Are you sure you want tips from a failure?” Harry asks.

“You’re not going to let that go, are you?” Draco sighs, stepping out into the Saturday morning crowds and holding the door open for Harry with his foot.

Harry follows, allowing the Leaky to seal itself and its secrets shut behind them. “No, Draco.”

Chapter Text

Fourth of December – an old-fashioned till



“Get down, Kingsley!” Charlie bellows, leaping across the kitchen and putting himself in front of the tray of sausage-meat stuffing just in time.

The vast red setter drops to the tiles and fixes his master with liquid brown eyes. Amused, Harry turns back to his task of stirring the custard before Molly notices and loses faith in what she calls his ‘lovely steady hand’.

“I really don’t think it’s right to call him after the Minister,” she says, not for the first time.

“He’d be flattered, Mum,” Charlie says firmly. “Handsome man, handsome dog.”

“Do you think Kingsley’s handsome?” Ron asks, tilting his head on one side. “Shacklebolt, I mean?”

“Yes,” say Charlie, Ginny and Hermione, and Ron grins.

“The mob has spoken. What about you, Harry?”

“I’m off men. I’ll take the dog.”

“Now, don’t say that,” Molly murmurs, clasping his non-stirring hand in hers. Her skin is warm and rough and the press of it soothes Harry instantly. “It’s just a case of finding the right one.”

Ron lets out a strangled little cough and Hermione whacks him on the back with a placemat.

“You like… water?” asks Ginny’s new boyfriend, speaking for the first time in several minutes.

His English is about as good as Ginny’s French, but they clearly adore each other. This is his first experience of Weasley Sunday Madness, and he seems quietly terrified, which Harry takes as a rather good sign. Anyone who faces his family with real confidence has to have a screw loose somewhere.

“I’m fine, thanks, Louis,” Ron says, sketching a thumbs-up just in case.

Louis smiles uncertainly and looks at Ginny, who grins and kisses him on the cheek. The back door bursts open, admitting Arthur, Rose, Hugo, and a wave of cold, crisp air.

“Kingsley!” Hugo cries, wriggling to be put down.

“That’s right, it’s a brilliant name, isn’t it?” Charlie says, clearly delighted when the little boy half-crawls and half-stumbles across the floor to throw himself at the dog’s feet.

His little hands sink into the soft, auburn fur and Kingsley inclines his great head to meet Hugo’s, sniffing him with impressive thoroughness and delivering a gentle lick to his curly hair.

“We saw three magpies and a big spider!” Rose says, taking off her coat and hurrying to stroke Kingsley as though he might disappear at any moment.

“Was it as big as the one in your classroom?” Harry asks, still stirring.

“I didn’t have my ruler,” Rose says, clearly disappointed. “Maybe I need a special one to keep in my coat, for measuring spiders. Mum, do you think I can ask Father Christmas for a ruler?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Hermione says, barely stifling her laughter.

“Enjoy it while you can—it won’t be long before she’ll be asking for horses and racing brooms,” Arthur says, eyes flicking to Ginny.

“I never got that horse,” she says wistfully.

When she turns to Louis and questions him in slightly wobbly French, he just laughs. Ron observes him for a moment and then turns to Harry.

“And how is Draco?”

Startled, Harry pauses in his stirring and the custard bubbles ominously.

“I have no idea, Ron,” he says after a moment, turning down the heat while Molly isn’t looking. “Aren’t Sundays wonderful?”

“Yes, they are,” Molly says, cutting off Ron’s next remark and looking around her kitchen with satisfaction. “Now… is everybody here? Angelina’s in Scotland with the team, Percy’s at the in-laws’, Bill’s still in Algeria…” She glances at each of the rest of them in turn and then frowns. “Where on earth is George?”

“He’s late,” Charlie says, seeming to relish the prospect.

“He’s in trouble,” Ron adds.

“He’s not going to get any pudding,” Ginny sings gleefully.

“Perhaps he’s stuck at work,” Arthur suggests, taking off his coat and revealing a glorious jumper with a multicoloured stag knitted into the front.

“He’d better not be,” Molly says darkly. “He told me that wasn’t going to happen any more—he was going to work the morning and Verity was going to do the afternoon. Her family has Sunday brunch, whatever that might be.”

“Brunch is really nice,” Hermione says, too caught up in counting out knives and forks to notice Molly’s expression. “You get all sorts of fruit and bread and meat and sometimes you get a glass of something bubbly at the end.”

“And would you all prefer that?” Molly asks, and there’s a tiny wobble in her voice that catches Harry somewhere painful.

“Absolutely not,” he says, abandoning the custard and hugging her firmly.

“Don’t be daft, Mum,” Ron says.

“No,” Louis says, catching the mood without direction from Ginny.

“Of course not,” Hermione says, stricken. “I was just saying that… we wouldn’t change our Sundays for the world.”

“Brunch is boring,” Rose says from the floor. “I love your roast, Granny.”

Molly smiles at all of them, seeming to puff up with pride. “Good. Well, George had better get here soon or it’ll be ruined.”

“Woe betide the man who ruineth the roast,” Charlie mumbles.

Molly gives him a look and sends him to search for the good carving knife.

Twenty minutes later, the atmosphere in the kitchen is rather strained. Hugo, either through hunger or boredom, has become tearful, and Rose’s best efforts to cheer him have fallen flat. Molly is pacing, looking out of the window every couple of minutes and repeatedly asking Arthur if she should Floo to Diagon Alley and look for her son.

“What if something’s wrong?” she frets, ignoring her husband’s reassuring arm squeezes and reminders that a grown man being late for lunch does not quite constitute an emergency.

Kingsley, having been abandoned by the children, is now making frequent bids for the stuffing. His attempts have become so impressively sneaky that Harry almost thinks he should be let to have it, but he doubts anyone else would agree. The only people who seem unaffected by the situation are Ginny and Louis, who sit in a world of their own, communicating in fragments of language and flurries of brilliantly ridiculous gestures.

“Right, that’s it,” Molly says suddenly, reaching for her oven gloves. “I’m getting the chickens out before they go dry. If George wants cold dinner, that’s his choice.”

Harry doesn’t believe her strident tone one bit, but either way, the chickens are coming out of the oven. In a rush of delicious-scented steam, Molly carries the chickens to the counter one by one and sits them both there in their roasting trays, gleaming and topped with crisp, herby skin. Harry shifts in his chair and gazes at them, stomach grumbling. Beside him, Ron lets out a small groan.

“Look, Louis, poisson,” Molly says proudly, gesturing to the chickens.

Louis frowns. “Les poissons?”

“Oui,” Molly says, sketching a brief chicken dance that make Charlie snort with laughter. “Poisson.”

Features distorted in confusion, Louis turns to Ginny. “Je ne comprends pas.”

“Poisson,” Ginny murmurs to herself, and then she laughs. “Mum, you’re doing fish!”

“No, Ginny, love, I’m doing chicken,” Molly says, reprising her dance and pointing at the birds.

Understanding now, Harry laughs, and both women turn to him.

“I think the problem is that you’re pointing at a chicken and telling him it’s a fish,” he suggests.

“That’s what I was trying to say,” Ginny sighs. She points at the chickens. “Louis, qu’est-ce que c’est?”

“Un poulet,” he says, eyes still fixed on Molly. “I think,” he adds slowly.

“What did I say?” Molly asks.

“You said ‘poisson’,” Hermione says. “That’s a fish.”

“Did you know I was saying it wrong?” Molly asks, hands on her hips.

Hermione shrugs and tries to hide a smile.

“She was enjoying it, Mum, as were all of us… go on, do your chicken dance again,” Charlie says.

Face reddening, Molly looks at Louis. At Charlie. At her chickens, and at all of them.

“I won’t,” she says, clearly trying for sternness and failing.

They all know she’s going to give in, and it’s during the resulting clucking and round of giggling applause that George finally arrives.

“I’d ask what I’ve walked into but this seems about right,” he says, slamming the back door behind him. He grins at his mother. “Sorry I’m late, Mum, has the stress sent you over the edge?”

Molly straightens up and regards her son steadily. “George Weasley, where have you been?”

“I really am sorry, but… ooh, is that roast chicken?” he asks, sniffing the air.

“It might be,” Ginny says. “There’s been some confusion.”

George glances at her, one eyebrow raised, but any questions he might have had are firmly cut off by his mother.

“George. Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick.”

“Alright, alright,” George says, holding up his hands. “There was an incident and I had to hang around a bit and help.”

“What sort of an incident?” Arthur asks.

“Someone had some money stolen from their till… quite a lot of money, actually, and I stayed with her while she waited for someone from MLE to turn up,” George says.

“Who was it?” Harry asks, heart speeding unpleasantly.

“A robbery?” Molly cries before George has time to answer. She tugs off his coat and pushes him into a chair. “Are you alright? Arthur, make George a cup of tea.”

“I’m fine, Mum,” George protests. “It wasn’t our shop. It was the café. I was just walking past on my way home and I heard shouting, but the wanker had already gone by then.”

“Language,” Hermione says automatically and then sighs. “Sorry, George, it just sort of comes out.”

He grins at her, noticing that Rose is now standing right beside him and peering up into his face.

“Is Mrs Purley alright, Uncle George?”

“She’s… pretty angry, but she’s okay. Her till was full—she always goes to Gringotts to deposit on a Monday morning. They took everything, but she’s not hurt. She wasn’t even there when it happened.”

“Where did she go?” Harry asks.

“Just upstairs to her flat for a minute,” George says. “She left the shop open because…” he shrugs.

“We all do,” Harry sighs. “People just don’t… they just don’t.”

“Doesn’t she have protective spells on her till?” Charlie asks, allowing Kingsley to plant both paws on his knees. “The last time I was in Diagon Alley everyone had those big old metal ones that only open with a spell.”

“She has got one of those,” Harry says, frowning.

George nods. “It’s pretty weird. Looks like they also tried to take the presents for the children’s hospital from under her tree but they just knocked everything over. Probably heard her coming back downstairs.”

“And nobody saw anything?” Hermione asks.

George shakes his head, accepting a steaming cup from his father. “Not a thing.”

“That’s just horrible,” Harry says, and a murmur of agreement travels around the table.

“It was very nice of you to stay with her, George,” Molly says, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m sorry I shouted at you.”

“It’s alright, Mum, I know you were just worried for your favourite son,” George says, basking in the groans from his siblings. “I haven’t missed lunch, have I?”

“I don’t know how you aren’t as big as a house,” Ginny says. “Nothing ever upsets your appetite.”

“That’s rich coming from the girl who once ate an entire pound of sausages in one go,” George counters, and then frowns. “Who’s this, then?”

“This is Louis,” Ginny says, as Molly pushes the others out of her way and begins to load the table with platters of roasted vegetables, succulent chicken and the stuffing that has, eventually, evaded poor Kingsley. “He’s French. He doesn’t understand you or any of the lies you tell about me.”

George reaches over and shakes Louis’ hand. “Saucisson,” he says, sketching out a rather obscene shape in the air. “Sacre bleu.”

Harry enjoys Louis’ confused expression for a moment, and then starts to pile roast potatoes onto his plate. He eats slowly, thinking of Mrs Purley and the mysterious thief and feeling thankful that Diagon Alley is so much more than a collection of businesses; it’s a community, a family that will be rallying around her right now and throwing everything they’ve got at getting her back on her feet. Tomorrow, he’ll talk to MLE and give Mrs Purley a hug and do something useful to help, like organising a collection to replace what she’s lost. Right now, his place is here, with people who measure spiders and dance like chickens and eat astounding amounts of sausages.

“Was it really a whole pound?” he asks Ginny. “I’m not criticising, I’m impressed.”

She smiles. “It was a pound and a half. And three eggs.”

Harry shakes his head. “How did I ever let you go?”

Ginny stares at him for a moment and then laughs so hard that she almost chokes on a carrot.

“Behave,” Charlie teases, just as Kingsley emerges from under the table, steals a whole chicken breast from his plate and runs upstairs with it.

Louis passes him the dish of chicken with a smile. “Poisson?”

Chapter Text

Fifth of December – heavy snow



When Harry steps into Diagon Alley on Monday morning, it is immediately clear that someone has beaten him to the idea of setting up a collection for Mrs Purley. Mr Jennings from the quill shop is already darting from shop to shop with a wooden box, and when he sees Harry, he hurries over, breath forming clouds in the cold air.

“I’m taking donations, Harry. I’m sure you’ve heard about the dreadful goings-on yesterday. Perhaps if we all pitch in, we can help a little,” he says, and Harry is already reaching into his pockets.

“I’d had the same thought,” he confides, emptying everything he can find into the box with a satisfying clink. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“You could go and say hello to her,” Mr Jennings says, expression turning exasperated. “She must be shaken, though she’s insisted on opening as usual.”

Harry nods, and he and Mr Jennings head off in different directions. He is not at all surprised that Mrs Purley would choose to open up her café and carry on as normal. He’s known her for a long time now and he doubts it would occur to her to do anything else.

The café is pleasantly warm and full to capacity with people eating breakfast, people queuing for breakfast, and people who seem to have no interest in breakfast but are milling around anyway, chatting to Mrs Purley and attempting to help with the morning rush. Harry is entirely unsurprised to see that Draco is one of those people and even less surprised to find that the sight of him so early in the morning is just a little bit too much. His hair is still slightly damp and the way it doesn’t quite want to behave makes Harry’s stomach feel wriggly. He looks away, attempting to catch Mrs Purley’s eye.

“You’re early,” she says, and her smile is real despite her tired eyes. “Black coffee for Mr Borteg, and what will you have today?”

“I don’t want to…” Harry begins, but stops, realising he doesn’t know how to finish that sentence.

Mrs Purley fixes him with a stern expression. “I’m alright, Harry. I’m open, I’m getting people their breakfasts. That’s what I do, and no thieving bastard is about to stop me.”

“I’m sorry. I’d be pretty furious, too,” he admits.

“Furious?” She laughs bitterly. “I’m raging. MLE’s on the case and I’ll tell you what, Harry, when they find who did this… they’re going to be sorry they ever crossed me. Now… a black coffee and…?”

“And a large tea, please,” Harry says, intimidated and delighted at the same time. When Mrs Purley nods and turns away, he notices the little glowing glass cone on her counter. “I see you have one of these, too. Quite a saleswoman, isn’t she?”

Mrs Purley looks over her shoulder. “She brought it for me first thing this morning. I don’t really know what these ornayshas are but it was nice of her, and it’s very pretty. I’ll be with you in a moment, Mr Pike.”

Harry smiles. At the other end of the counter, Draco takes his drink and wanders over to stand beside him.

“Dreadful business,” he says, unbuttoning his coat and swishing the scent of warm citrus into Harry’s nostrils.

“Yeah,” he says weakly, suddenly loathing the sound of his own voice. “Don’t you have restaurant things to do?”

Draco’s face darkens. “Since you ask, no, I do not.”

“And that’s bad?” Harry asks, managing a smile. “The place looks pretty busy from where I’m standing. Which, you know, is usually in the shop across the road.”

Draco gives him a rather odd look and Harry wants to hex his own mouth shut. Draco knows all of that. He knows. It’s been years. He has no idea why he would he say such a ridiculous thing.

“Yes, I’ve seen you,” Draco says. “You know, Sage has been open for almost seven years now and yet you’ve never even been inside. Why is that?”

Harry shrugs, relieved when Mrs Purley brings his drinks and then horrified when he remembers that he gave all his money to the collection. Feeling his face burning, he turns to Draco.

“Please could you lend me three Sickles?” he asks in a whisper.

Draco lifts a curious eyebrow but passes him the money without comment. As soon as he has paid Mrs Purley and picked up his drinks, he weaves his way through the café and out into the street. He’s an idiot, and what’s worse, Draco knows it, too. They stand side by side on the cobbles in silence, watching the shops preparing to open and the back-and-forth scuttling of Mr Jennings. Finally, Draco smiles, taking a triumphant sip of his coffee.

“You gave all your money to the collection, didn’t you?” he says, and Harry tries very hard not to look at him. “He asked you for a donation and you just emptied your pockets.”

“Shut up,” Harry mutters. “You’ll get your three Sickles back.”

“Well, don’t leave town,” Draco says, and the lightness of his tone makes Harry feel even crosser. “You never did answer my question about the restaurant.”

“You never answered mine, either,” Harry points out.

“Alright. I hired a new manager last month and he is astonishingly good at his job.”

Harry glances at him. He can’t help it. “And that’s why you have nothing to do?”

Draco grants him a rueful smile. “It’s as though the whole team fits together like little jigsaw pieces now he’s there. They don’t need me.”

“Oh,” Harry says, frowning. He wants to say something supportive but all that comes out is, “That’s a really weird problem, Draco.”

“You’re a really weird problem,” he says, and then laughs.

The sound is dry and warm and wonderful and it seems to vibrate through Harry’s whole body, leaving him feeling unbalanced.

“Maybe,” he says helplessly.

“So, come on, why do I never see you at Sage?”

Harry wrinkles his nose. “It’s fancy. I’m not really a fancy person.”

Draco laughs again, and Harry really wishes he wouldn’t. “It’s just food, Harry,” he says, and then pauses, tipping his head back. “It’s snowing.”

Harry looks, too. At first, he sees nothing, and then there’s one giant flake followed by another and another and another. Within seconds, his vision is blurred into brilliant white as snowflakes whirl down from the sky and drape themselves over his glasses. He smiles, reaching for his wand and applying a repelling charm. When the haze clears, he sees that the cobbles are already turning white and Draco’s dark coat is dotted with snow.

“And here they all come to have a look—it’s like being at school,” Draco says, but his weary tone is completely at odds with the smile in his eyes.

As they watch, every shop doorway fills with shopkeepers and customers alike, faces turned up to the sky. The babble of conversation echoes around the alley, forming an excitable counterpoint to the silent drift of the snow. Harry shivers, feeling several icy flakes sliding down the back of his neck.

“I’d better get going,” he says, holding out his hand to catch a snowflake and watching it dissolve into nothing on his skin.

Draco doesn’t reply, but he walks up the alley at Harry’s side. They pause halfway to admire the newest addition to the festival, a fire artist. Apparently unaffected by the snow, she twists and dances and leaps, drawing fire through the air and sending columns of flame screeching from her mouth. The whole thing is made otherworldly and beautiful by the backdrop of the falling snow, and Harry isn’t surprised that everyone nearby has stopped to watch her. As she spins and drops to the ground, a wave of smoke billows around her; Harry braces himself to cough, but nothing happens. He takes a cautious breath and smiles when his senses are flooded with the warm scents of frankincense and amber, and he claps along with the rest even though he can barely feel his hands.

“I take a little break,” she says, shaking out her long red hair. “Please putting your donations in tins by stalls. Thank you.”

“What sort of an accent is that?” Draco wonders aloud.

“Spanish, maybe? French?” Harry guesses, and he is just about to launch into the fish/chicken story when he stops himself.

He’s supposed to be keeping a distance here, and sharing funny stories about his family is probably not the best idea. The trouble is, Draco doesn’t exactly make it easy for him. If he could be cold and hard like he used to be, none of this would be a problem. But he’s not. He’s all… Draco about things and it’s just not fair.

“Why do you look so cross? Do you need me to lend you some money to put in the tin?”

“No,” Harry says, fishing around for a plausible reason for his bad mood. The woman at the Orisha stall waves at him and he waves back, irritated by her amused little smile. His eyes flit around the snowy street until something snags—something that blends almost perfectly with the snow on the fountain. Almost. “The swan’s back.”

“Harry, please tell me you’re joking,” Draco says, squinting at the fountain. “How did you get back in, you sneaky little fucker?”

“If I were to guess, I’d say that Patrick had a few more pints after we left on Saturday and forgot everything we told him,” Harry says. “Either that, or someone’s given the swan a wand, which is very bad news for all of us.”

“Please don’t give him ideas,” Draco mutters. “Anyway, it’s your turn to take him back.”

Harry looks at him, ignoring his pleading expression and the snowflakes on his eyelashes.

“I don’t remember agreeing to turns. Besides, I’ve got customers to serve. You told me less than ten minutes ago that you have absolutely nothing to do. You can take him back.”

“You know, you’re very Slytherin when it comes to that swan,” Draco says, folding his arms.

Harry snorts. “I think I’ll take that as a compliment. Good luck.”

He turns to go and is surprised when Draco follows.

“I’m not doing it now,” he says, as though this should be obvious. “Last time was humiliating enough. I don’t need all those people and a fire breather watching me.”

“Fire breathers are people, too, Draco,” Harry says, kicking up snow and smiling to himself.

Draco gives him such a withering look that he continues smiling all the way to the shop, and when the door clicks shut behind him, he realises that his dark mood has all but dissolved. Humming to himself, he polishes his Orisha cube with his sleeve and arranges it on the counter so that the glass gleams attractively in the light.

“How nice to see you in good spirits,” Mr Borteg says, mournful voice suggesting that it is anything but. “How is our victim of crime?”

“She’s doing okay,” Harry says, handing him his coffee and hoping the warming charm has held out against the snow. “She’s a tough lady.”

“Yes, a most admirable woman,” Mr Borteg agrees, inhaling from his cup until his pale blue eyes flutter closed. “If whisky were to cease to exist, I almost think that coffee might sustain me.”

“Food’s good, too,” Harry says, looking at his boss’s rail thin body and wondering just what is holding it all together. The only thing Mr Borteg ever seems to eat is bits of chocolate from next door, and even those are few and far between. “Do you want me to go and get you a crackleball?”

“Not today, Harry. I have testing to do and I’d rather not confuse my palate,” he explains, lifting a hand in a brief farewell and lurching back into the distillery.

“Probably best, since I don’t have any money left,” Harry mumbles to himself.

When the bell over the door announces a customer, he straightens up and puts on his most professional smile.

“Hello,” he says brightly, but the man in the flashy cloak ignores him.

“What’s wrong with your door?” he demands, watching it close for a moment and then turning to Harry. “I’m looking for a veneficus-aged, single barrel, fifty-year-old Scotch that costs less than thirty Galleons.”

And I’m looking for a pink crumple-horned snorkack, he thinks, but he just nods.

“You might struggle there, I’m afraid. Veneficus ageing is a relatively new idea. Borteg’s Own would probably be your best bet,” he says, rounding the counter and picking up one of the bottles. He turns it to show off the distinctive pen and ink label. “This particular batch is twenty-five years old, though the single barrel variety will cost you ninety-eight Galleons.”

The man stares at him, mouth pressed into a thin line. “Ninety-eight Galleons? That’s not even what I want! Were you even listening?”

Harry takes a deep breath. “I was, sir, but what you’re asking for simply doesn’t exist.”

“I am the customer,” the man says slowly, as though he thinks Harry might be too stupid to understand. “You need to give me what I want.”

“I’d love to do that,” Harry lies, still smiling. “But I can’t make you a fifty-year-old whisky and I can’t sell the whisky we have for less than it’s worth. I’m sorry.”

“I suppose I could take the Borteg’s Own, but I expect a discount,” the man says airily.

“Oh?” Harry asks, silently waiting for the customer to hang himself with his own rope. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s immensely satisfying.

“Yes. I know Mr Borteg, you see,” the man says, and Harry fights down a smile. “I know he’s not here, of course, but you can trust me. I’m friends with his mother. I always get a discount.”

“Mother didn’t mention you the last time we spoke,” Mr Borteg says, looming out of the back room and turning his parchment face to the customer. “Then again, she was… underground.”

Grinning now, Harry turns to see that all colour has drained from the customer’s face and his smug expression has dissolved into one of horror.

“Right, well… perhaps I’ll just… just a misunderstanding,” he babbles, feeling around for the door handle. “I think I’ll come back when I’ve…”

He flees, ridiculous cloak flapping behind him. Mr Borteg lets out a dry bark of laughter and then returns to his back room, leaving Harry alone. Cheered, he gets out his box of cloths and starts polishing the shelves of bottles from top to bottom. It’s warm work, and by lunchtime he’s shed his shirt and jumper to work in trousers and a thin t-shirt despite the cold air brought in by each customer and the snow that continues to fall outside the window.

In the afternoon, he turns his focus to the wooden panelling, buffing each section until it glows and relishing the comforting scent of beeswax all around him, then he sweeps out the grate and builds a new fire, knowing he’ll appreciate it once he stops darting around with his cleaning materials. The customers appreciate it, too, hurrying over to warm themselves the moment they step into the shop. To his delight, every single one of them is kind, polite, and childishly easy to help, so much so that by the time he visits Gringotts and then goes to collect Rose from school, he has almost forgotten about the rude man in the cloak.

As predicted, she is thrilled by both the new stalls and the fire artist, hopping from one foot to the other as she tries to decide what she wants to look at first. Perhaps inevitably, she chooses the sweet stall, peering around at the sugary confections with wide eyes.

“Can I have a lollipop, please?” she asks, glancing at Harry, and then whipping around as the fire artist throws a ring of flame into the air, creating a hissing sound as fire meets snowflakes. “Wow, Uncle Harry, look at that… and the swan’s back!”

She turns to him, jubilant, and he can’t help wondering when Draco is planning to return it to the park.

“We should probably keep it quiet—no one seems to have noticed it yet, and if they don’t, Draco might be able to move it before it bites someone,” he says in a whisper.

Rose frowns and then seems to brighten. “I like Draco. He’s a lot more fun than Phillippe.”

“Well, most people are more fun than Phillippe,” Harry says, wondering why she would make such a comparison.

“Ralph was fun,” she muses, picking up a bag of ice mice and examining it. “He taught me some songs about goblins. Some of them were really rude.”

“Better not tell your mother about those,” Harry says faintly.

“I won’t,” she says, putting down the bag. “Mummy doesn’t like swearing.”

Harry doesn’t know what to say about any of that, least of all about Draco being listed along with his previous boyfriends, so he just hugs Rose and tells her to choose anything she wants.

By the time they return to the shop, they are both damp and shivering, but Rose has thoroughly admired the Orisha stall, collected a huge lollipop and a bag of chocolate snowballs, and had her face painted to look like a glittery spider. She settles at her desk with a book of spellings and Harry returns to his cleaning, glancing out of the window every few minutes to check on the progress of the snowstorm.

It’s almost completely dark by the time he sees Draco leaving the restaurant, face grim and large box dangling from one hand by the flaps.

“There he goes,” he mumbles to himself, and Rose looks up.

“Is he taking the swan?”

“Looks like it.”

Rose sighs and leaves her desk, climbing up onto the windowsill and peering out into the dark street.

“Do you think he’ll come back again?”

“Probably,” Harry sighs, and then there is silence.

Together, they watch the snow whirling past the window and the huddled shapes of people making their way along the cobbles. The shop is warm and safe, filled with the scents of clean wood and sugar and Rose’s peppermint shampoo. She leans back against his chest and he supports her there, relishing the feeling of trust and contentment.

“Uncle Harry?” she says after several minutes of quiet.

“Mm?”

“He’s coming back… and I think the swan is following him.”

Chapter Text

Sixth of December – barrels 



The snow is still falling heavily when Harry leaves for work on Tuesday morning, and by the time he reaches Diagon Alley, his trousers are wet up to his knees and his vision is swimming with the swirling flakes. Disoriented but determined, he struggles on, wavering only when the savoury aroma emanating from the café seems to tighten around him like a lasso. His resolve crumbles in seconds, and when he sets off again he is in possession of two hot cups and a foil-wrapped bacon sandwich.

As he passes the fountain, he realises that the water has frozen completely, leaving the surface solid and the spray caught in mid-spurt, ice arcing gracefully as though captured in a snapshot. There is no sign of the swan, and Harry’s curiosity gnaws at him unhelpfully. Had the little bugger really followed Draco all the way back to his restaurant, and, if so, where the hell is it now?

“I only just got here, but I haven’t seen it,” the Orisha lady says when he wanders over to ask her. “Natalie, have you seen that swan this morning?”

The female painter pops up inside her stall, hands already covered in smears of colour. “No, sorry. Haven’t seen him since yesterday. Hey, you’re the spider guy,” she adds, beaming at Harry. “Your little girl was awesome—it was really cool to paint something different.”

“She’s my niece,” Harry says, feeling the warm rush of pride anyway. “But thank you.”

“She’s a lovely girl,” the woman says, and then turns to her neighbour. “Daraja, do you know a good drying spell? The snow’s getting all over everything.”

“No, but that strange man from the joke shop will sell you a powder to do it!”

Amused, Harry decides to leave them to it and head inside to eat his bacon sandwich while it’s still warm. When he reaches the shop, he is surprised to see a note attached to it. He takes it and opens the door, unfolding the note as he walks.

Emergency meeting – 8am tomorrow – Florean.

“Do you know what this is all about?” he asks.

Mr Borteg looks up from his inspection of the Orisha cube, still holding the little object between spindly finger and thumb.

“Life? Existence? Or something more specific?”

This,” Harry repeats, showing him the little note. “It was on the door.”

Mr Borteg leans in to read Florean’s words. “It seems like a summons to me, Harry. The reason, however, remains a mystery.”

“Okay,” Harry says, mouth twitching. “I’m going to go and ask next door.”

At the mention of the chocolate shop, Mr Borteg’s gloomy expression lifts just a fraction.

“Is there any sign of the new crackleball?” he asks hopefully.

“Not that I know of.”

A gentle sigh travels through Mr Borteg’s skeletal frame. After a moment, he reaches deep into a pocket and produces a coin. “Black cherry will suffice.”

Harry bats away the money and ducks out into the snow, promising to return with a crackleball.

Cherish is already humming with life, several customers queuing at the till and peering into the display cabinet, so Harry hangs back and takes it all in. Borteg’s is quiet first thing in the morning, and he is always happy to linger here, drinking in the bright colours and the dizzying scents of cocoa, sugar and exotic spices. Esmee emerges from the back room where she and Shan have been designing, tempering and creating chocolates for longer than Harry has been alive.

She smiles at him and nudges Shan, who is picking up chocolates with silver tongs at the direction of a lady with an elaborate feathered hat.

“Hi, Harry,” she calls, foghorn voice causing several of the customers to jump. “Everything alright?”

“I’ll wait,” he assures her, stepping back against a shelf full of advent calendars.

Shan nods and turns back to her customer. “Do you want these gift-wrapped?”

Harry watches the two women work, stepping around each other with practised ease and flicking their wands to send objects flying back and forth without the need for words. Separately, both Shan and Esmee are impressive women, but together, they form something bigger, something that glows with love and dexterity and confidence. Some people, he has to admit, really are stronger in a relationship, and even if he isn’t one of those people, he recognises greatness when he sees it.

Realising that he is blocking the shelves, he walks slowly around the shop, inspecting beautifully boxed chocolates, shiny bags of treats for children’s Christmas stockings, and a collection of hand-moulded animals so realistic that he almost expects them to move. On the next shelf over, he finds a range of treats that do move. They are new, and he spends several minutes poking them with his wand as instructed by the neatly-written sign and watching cogs spin and gears click. It seems almost impossible that any of it can be made of chocolate, or that anyone could bear to eat it.

“We all got one,” Shan says, and he turns, puzzled. “The note,” she explains, and Harry realises that he is still holding the little piece of paper.

“Oh,” he says, surprised to find that the little shop has emptied without him noticing.

“There’s been another one,” Esmee says, leaning on the display cabinet and picking at her patterned sleeve. “The Apothecary.”

Harry’s whole body tightens and he stares at Esmee, momentarily speechless. One theft is a horrible thing but two is so much more. Two in a week is quietly terrifying. It’s a pattern, an escalation, the start of something that can stay the fuck out of Diagon Alley.

“Is Reuben alright?” he asks. “Are they all alright? Should we go down there and help?”

“Take a breath, Harry,” Esmee reminds him, and he obeys, dragging in as much air as he can and letting it out slowly.

“I’m not panicking,” he says, fiddling with Florean’s note.

“Of course not,” Shan says with a small smile. “Anyway, we’ve all been told to keep away. That woman from MLE is down there and she doesn’t want us contaminating her scene.”

“Everyone is okay,” Esmee promises. “It’s just like Mrs Purley—none of them were in the shop when it happened. All the staff were out the back…”

“Delivery day,” Harry interrupts, shaking his head. “They were all round the back getting the barrels from the cart.”

“Someone knew that,” Shan says darkly.

Someone knew that, and they also knew that Reuben always leaves the door open when he and his staff go to receive deliveries. He’s a trusting sort of man and Harry doubts it would even occur to him anyone might steal from them. He even puts up a little sign that says, ‘Out the back, feel free to browse – shout if it’s urgent!’ Harry has read that sign more times than he can remember, and the thought of it sitting there in the middle of a crime scene makes him feel rather sick.

“What did they take?” he asks at last.

Esmee and Shan exchange glances. “Reuben says there wasn’t much in the till,” Esmee says carefully. “But they did take a barrel of unicorn horn and all the presents from his charity tree.”

“A whole barrel?” Harry repeats, incredulous. “And they weren’t seen? What the actual fuck is going on here?”

“I’ve been asking myself the very same question,” Shan says, patting him on the arm and then clomping behind the counter. She puts her arm around Esmee’s waist and sighs. “And then I start wondering, who’s next?”

“No one,” Harry says firmly. “We’re all going to go to Florean’s meeting and we’re going to figure this out.”

“That’s the spirit,” Esmee says, treating Harry to a flash of her brilliant smile.

The sight of it fortifies him and he stands up straight. “Right. Can I have a black cherry crackleball, please?”

**~*~**

The day passes quickly in a whirl of customers, snow, and speculation. Everyone he meets seems to have some sort of theory about the thefts and none of them really make sense. Head spinning, Harry forces himself to focus on tomorrow’s meeting, but all he seems to be able to think about is what Draco will have to say on the subject. Perhaps more worryingly, he hasn’t seen Draco or the swan all day, and while he thinks he should be relieved, he can’t seem to stop himself from looking out of the window every few minutes, just in case.

In an effort not to worry Rose, who knows nothing about the second incident, Harry busies himself with assisting her. He sits on the floor in front of the fire and hands her pencil crayons as she asks for them, occasionally selecting the wrong colour on purpose as it seems to amuse her.

“You can’t have a green sky, Uncle Harry,” she giggles, trying to push the crayon back into his hand.

“Why not?”

“Because the sky is blue, silly.”

“Maybe it’s the sky of another planet,” Harry suggests. “Maybe every planet has a different coloured sky.”

“Do you think so?” Rose asks, chewing her lip.

“Anything’s possible,” Harry says, pulling up his knees and wrapping his arms around them.

“I think I’d still like a blue pencil crayon,” Rose says. “But then I’m going to draw another planet.”

“A wise choice,” Mr Borteg says, prodding the till with his wand.

Harry suspects he is altering the protective magic on the cash drawer, and he can’t say he blames him. He’s heard about all sorts of new security measures from the customers this afternoon, and it’s likely that by tomorrow, Diagon Alley will be armed to the teeth.

When the door swings open, they all look up. Harry recognises the lady with the feathered hat from Esmee and Shan’s and smiles at her, but when she catches sight of Rose, her face hardens.

“A child?” she demands, turning on Mr Borteg. “A child in a shop… like this?”

Harry wants to point out that she, too, is in a shop like this, but he merely sits and waits.

“A child can only benefit from learning a healthy respect for alcohol,” Mr Borteg says mildly.

“If you’ve given her one drop, I’ll… I’ll report you to the Ministry,” the woman says, face starting to turn slightly purple. Behind her, the door swings open and the bell tinkles softly.

“Of course no—” Harry starts to say, but Mr Borteg just smiles.

“Only a little glass, Madam, once she’s finished her homework.”

The woman makes an odd gurgling sound and takes a step towards Rose, who shuffles closer to Harry.

“Thank you, I’ll take it from here,” Hermione says, shaking the snow from her coat and placing herself between Rose and the furious woman.

“And who are you, exactly?” she demands, looking as though she’s about to explode.

“Her mother,” Hermione says simply.

The woman steps back, colliding with Ron.

“And her father. Mind how you go!” he adds, attracting himself a glare as she stalks out of the shop.

“Do you have to wind them up like that?” Hermione asks.

Mr Borteg’s face is wonderfully serene. “One must extract the pleasure from life when one can.”

“That one must,” Ron says grandly. He turns to his daughter. “Rosie, are you drunk?”

“Yes,” she says, and pretends to fall off her seat.

Once all of the scattered pencil crayons have been picked up and Rose has been stuffed into her coat, the four of them step out into the snow and head for number twelve. The walk isn’t a long one, but Harry is more aware than usual of the downside of living away from the alley. He thinks he’ll always be the last to know when something unusual happens, and there’s every possibility that the thief could hit Borteg’s and he wouldn’t be on the scene at all.

Still, he loves his house and the sight of it as they turn in to Grimmauld Place lifts his heart. He has left the lights on in the hallway and the entrance glows in the darkness like an invitation. The railings at the front of the house are lined with snow, and soon they will be wrapped in tiny festive lights.

“What did you make, Uncle Harry?” Rose asks as he unlocks the door and ushers them inside.

“I may have made a chicken curry,” he says, and she bounces as she takes off her coat and shoes.

“Yours is the best curry, even better than Tahira’s mum’s.”

“Which one is Tahira?” Ron asks in a loud whisper.

Hermione leads the way down to the kitchen without bothering to light the stairs. “The one whose mother is a chef at an Indian restaurant.”

“Praise indeed,” Harry says, secretly delighted by this review.

And,” Rose says, clattering into the kitchen and twirling around, “it doesn’t have any horrible things in it like broccoli… or mushrooms… or stringy beans…”

Harry lights the lamps with his wand and smiles to himself.

Ron leans in, lowering his voice. “If you tell her what’s in it, I’ll…”

“You’ll what?”

“I’ll tell Hermione what you really think of her soup.”

“You wouldn’t,” Harry whispers, watching Hermione taking plates out of the cupboard and passing them to Rose.

“Try me,” Ron says, pinning Harry with the look he usually reserves for dangerous criminals.

Harry snorts and the look dissolves. “I won’t. I promise.”

“Good.” Ron frowns. “Of course, that does mean more soup.”

“With the weird floating things in it,” Harry sighs.

“What are those?”

“You don’t know, and you think I do?”

Ron shrugs and grins.

“What are you two whispering about?” Hermione asks from the other side of the room.

“Nothing,” Harry lies, opening a cupboard and peering into it. “Rice or naans?”

“Everything,” Rose says, pressing her hands to her stomach. “I will eat everything.”

“That’s my girl,” Ron murmurs, and Harry doesn’t think he has ever looked prouder.

Chapter Text

Seventh of December – a twenty pound note 



Harry shivers as he steps into the ice cream parlour and pulls the door closed behind him. The snow is still falling, forming a silent partnership with the early morning darkness that gives the whole street a rather eerie quality. Harry is early, having given up on his restless sleep just after five o’clock, and he is relieved to see that he is not the first to arrive.

Reuben and his young staff team are already occupying one large table, Mr Pike is chatting to Mr Jennings, who is clutching his collection box, and Draco is at the counter, yawning into his sleeve. Harry’s stomach swoops at the sight of him and he pushes the feeling away, telling himself firmly that it’s fine to be pleased that the idiot is alright, but there’s no need to get carried away.

He takes a steadying breath, gazing around at the forest of little round tables and the familiar gleaming surfaces of copper and marble. He already knows exactly where he’s going to sit, exactly what he’s going to order, and the certainty of it is soothing. When he steps up to the counter, Draco is accepting a banana split with what definitely seems like extra cherries.

“Don’t you dare disparage the banana split,” he says when he catches Harry looking.

A smile tugs at one corner of his mouth in defiance to his grumpy weariness. “I wouldn’t.”

Florean ceases his chaotic whirling behind the counter and presents Harry with a prettily ridged glass dish. “Chocolate ripple, honeycomb crunch and—”

“Hot fudge sauce,” Harry murmurs to himself, watching the steam rising from his dish with satisfaction. “How did you know?”

Florean smiles slowly and adjusts his pure white apron. “Apart from the fact that you always have the same thing, Harry, the ice cream seller must always have a little bit of the psychic about him.”

“Florean, you’re a marvel,” Harry says, picking up his dish of ice cream. “Thank you very much.”

“Thank you for the extra cherries,” Draco whispers when Harry’s back is turned.

“Speaking of psychics, has anyone seen Clara?” Mr Pike asks.

Harry sits at the table next to his and Draco drops into a seat opposite Mrs Purley.

“She won’t come,” says one of the girls from the Apothecary, digging a spoon into a tall glass of strawberry ice cream. “She never comes. She’s a hermit crab.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “A hermit crab?”

“Yeah,” the girl says with an air of wisdom. “It means she likes to stay inside. In her shell.”

For a moment, Harry thinks Draco is going to push the issue, but he merely nods and picks up a cherry with his spoon.

“She seems to have plenty of customers,” Harry says, thinking of the intriguing range of people he sees approaching her shop from his window.

“I’ll send her a letter,” Florean assures, leaping back into action when the door opens and several market workers spill into the shop.

Harry sighs into a mouthful of ice cream and hot fudge sauce, watching the master at work. In no time at all, Florean has produced a whole row of sundaes, sorbets and cones, presenting each to its delighted owner and refusing all offers of payment. Having heard both Ron and Hermione complain bitterly about meetings at the Ministry, he feels sure that their bosses are just doing it wrong. Florean, the vibrant heart of their community, has been conducting Diagon Alley meetings this way for a very long time, and though Harry knows some people would wonder how a group of people could eat at a time like this, it just… feels right. In fact, he can’t imagine any of the shopkeepers facing a crisis or making an important decision without the presence of ice cream.

As he works through his bowl of melting, hot/cold perfection, he watches the place fill up until each table is surrounded by people and the clinking sound of spoons against glass starts to rival the rumble of conversation.

“Do you ever wonder what all of this says about us?” Draco asks, leaning over from the next table.

“What? Eating ice cream first thing in the morning in the middle of winter?” Harry suggests.

“No, that just means that we’re all mad,” Draco says, pausing as both of them watch Florean take off his apron and carry his own ice cream to his seat.

A sensible person might imagine that Florean Fortescue would be tired of ice cream, but the huge knickerbocker glory now sitting beside him tells another story.

“Go big or go home, Florean!” laughs one of the fruit stall boys.

“Quite right, Wayne,” Florean agrees, checking his watch and then delving into his ice cream with an unfeasibly long spoon. “Five minutes, everyone.”

“Take Florean,” Draco says, glancing at Harry. “He’s eaten one of those things at every meeting I’ve ever been to. Where does he put it all? Why is Mr Borteg’s cone so tiny? Does Mr Jennings know that toffee ice cream and tomato sorbet just don’t go together?”

“Shh,” Harry says, grinning through a mouthful of honeycomb crunch. “They’ll hear you.”

“I don’t care,” Draco declares, silvery eyes flicking around the room as he continues to pick all the cherries off his banana split.

“And what does that thing say about you?” Harry wonders.

Draco doesn’t look at him but his little smile is rewarding. And irritating. “It says that I’m a man of excellent taste.”

Harry has nothing to say to that, so he looks around at his friends and colleagues and wonders, too. In a seat next to the counter, Mr Borteg sits with his long limbs folded, delicately consuming what can only be a child’s cone with a single scoop of orange and liquorice swirl. Beside him, Sophie from Quality Quidditch Supplies is eating something so violently blue that it can’t possibly have a flavour that exists in nature, and on his other side, George is working through a rainbow-coloured sundae with clouds of sparkling sherbet and already eyeing the lemon swirl Florean has accidentally made for Madame Malkin, who is far too busy setting up her Hogsmeade branch to attend meetings. Mrs Purley is taking delicate bites of her usual peach melba, and even Reuben, clearly anxious and exhausted, seems to be taking comfort in a dish of Florean’s richest, darkest chocolate. If he’s honest, he has no idea what any of it says about any of them, and perhaps it doesn’t matter.

At eight o’clock, Florean sets down his spoon and calls the meeting to order.

“As I’m sure you all know by now, we have suffered two incidents of theft in the last few days. The security of our community here in Diagon Alley has been threatened, and we cannot allow it to continue.” Florean looks around, severe expression softening as he catches the eyes of Mrs Purley. “We must protect one another. I have called this meeting to hear your ideas, your thoughts, your worries. The floor is yours.”

For several seconds, there is silence, and then Jean speaks up.

“I still can’t understand who would do such a thing. Taking money is bad enough, but why take the presents for the kiddies?”

“Maybe it’s personal,” suggests Mr Pike, rubbing at his beard. “Maybe someone’s trying to punish those two businesses in particular. Not that I’m saying it’s alright, I’m just trying to get into their heads,” he adds quickly.

“It’s possible,” Florean says, raising his voice over a sudden anxious murmuring. “There are any number of possible motivations. Perhaps we should start by looking at preventative methods.”

“I’ll take some notes if you like,” Harry says, digging in his pockets for a pen and notepad.

The conversation carries on without him, and he scrambles harder, finally seizing everything in his pockets and dumping the lot out on the table in front of him. Amid the tangle of items, he spots his notepad and pen and begins to scribble as fast as he can to catch up.

“Look at this,” Shan says, picking up a banknote and turning it over in her hands. “It’d be even easier to rob our tills if all our money was made of paper.”

The girl from the market who had been speaking turns to shush Shan but then stops, transfixed by the note. She holds her hand out for it and Shan lets it go, returning to her tropical sundae.

“What could I buy with this?” the girl asks.

Harry opens his mouth to answer but Mrs Purley beats him to it.

“Didn’t you pay attention in Muggle Studies? That’s a twenty pund note, that is.”

“Yeah, but could I buy an ice cream with it?” she asks, adding, “I won’t, Harry.”

“Several,” Florean says. “Can we focus on the matter at hand?”

As he takes back control of his derailed meeting, Harry continues to write, keeping half an eye on the twenty pound note as it travels around the room. He wonders if he’ll get it back.

“Perhaps surveillance is what we need,” suggests Mr Borteg, still working on his tiny ice cream. “Large cameras… a severe notice or two… may deter a thief.”

“Probably, but if we scare them away, they’ll never be caught,” Reuben says with a sigh.

“Isn’t that enough? That it stops?” Esmee asks, and there’s a soft murmur of agreement.

“Bugger that,” Sophie says loudly, and then, “Sorry… it’s just… you’re right, Es, that’s the important thing, but don’t you want to see some justice? I know I do.”

“I don’t particularly relish the idea of carrying on with a thief among us,” Draco admits.

“Me neither,” Harry says, looking up from his notes. “I don’t see why we can’t have both things—make sure the thefts stop and try to find out who did it.”

“MLE should be all over this,” Mr Pike says crossly. “Diagon Alley is the centre of the wizarding community, and it’s coming up to Christmas.”

“They will be sending someone to patrol the street,” Florean says. “Help is coming.”

“What about that lady who came to us yesterday?” Reuben asks. “She seemed to know what she was doing.”

“That’s right,” Mrs Purley says, gesturing with her spoon. “She asked me so many questions you wouldn’t believe it. Wrote everything down in a little book.”

“I’m afraid she will be returning to the Ministry after today,” Florean says regretfully. “I suspect they think someone like her is a little bit high level for our situation.”

“Ridiculous,” Draco mutters, scowling, and Harry has the strangest urge to lean over and pat him on the shoulder.

“What about secret cameras?” Jean suggests. “I’ve seen them on the television box. My son-in-law’s a Muggle, you know.”

“We know,” Harry and Draco mumble as one, Draco’s eyes catching Harry’s and seeming to glow with amusement.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Florean says, and everyone turns to him expectantly. “The charter clearly forbids any covert surveillance of our customers. I have checked, and the wording is very clear.”

There is a sigh of collective disappointment from the group. The charter, drawn up by the merchants of Diagon Alley in the eighth century, is serious business and absolutely not to be trifled with.

“All hail the charter,” Mr Borteg says with a gloomy sort of respect.

“That’s it, then,” Shan says. “We’ll never catch him.”

“Or her,” Sophie says firmly. “Not that I want it to be a her.”

“I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Mrs Purley says. “I don’t want to think I can’t trust the people that come into the café.”

Mr Jennings fiddles with the catch on his wooden box. “I’ve started another collection but I was wondering… how many times does this have to happen before we’re all just essentially moving our money back and forth?”

“That is a very negative attitude, Marmaduke,” Esmee reproves, and Mr Jennings sighs.

“Sorry, you’re right. It won’t help to think like that.”

Marmaduke?” Draco mouths to Harry, one eyebrow flickering. “No wonder he's cross all the time.”

Harry stifles a smile and continues to write, attempting to get down all the important points even as everyone talks over each other and digressions are frequent. He’s not the most natural note-taker but it feels important to offer something to the process, to take back a little bit of power from a person who doesn’t deserve it, and to stand with his friends in their time of need.

The sky outside is bright and dazzling with snow by the time the meeting starts to wind down.

“Harry? Did you get all that down?” Florean asks.

Harry flips through his notebook with inky fingers. “Yeah, I think so. Everyone’s had some good ideas and I think the best we can do for now is to be watchful. We can pass information around, alert each other if there are any new incidents and write down descriptions of anyone we see acting suspiciously. The patrol officer is arriving on Friday and should be able to help us coordinate our efforts. If we can just pull together,” he says, looking around the shop with what he hopes is an optimistic expression, “I think everything will be fine.”

“Well said, Harry,” Esmee murmurs.

“Good lad,” Jean adds, beaming at him.

He smiles at both of them and tries not to notice that Esmee is absent-mindedly folding his twenty pound note into the shape of a swan.

Something prickles in the back of his head and he turns to Draco. “About that swan.”

Draco glances at him cagily. “Excuse me?”

“Alright, one last thing,” Florean calls, getting to his feet. “This patrol officer—call me a pessimist but I suspect he or she will be an utter greenhorn and will need all the help they can get. Any volunteers for going door-to-door and around the street, collecting statements and such?”

Harry’s hand shoots into the air before he can stop it. “I’ll do it,” he says, and then glances at Mr Borteg, who is finally crunching the very end of his cone.

“Community-minded as always, Harry,” he says. “My loss is justice’s gain.”

“I’ll help if you like,” Draco says suddenly. “I have a… well, a gap in my schedule at the moment.”

“Are you closing Sage?” Sophie asks, horrified.

Draco smiles. “No.”

“Oh, well… in that case, I’m sure you’ll be brilliant at it,” she says, licking a stray bit of blue ice cream from the back of her hand.

“Everyone is happy, then?” Florean asks, and the room ripples with approving nods. “Alright, then. Harry and Draco will be our detectives, Mr or Miss MLE will be with us on Friday, thank you for attending, please bring your dishes and spoons to the counter.”

In the chaos that follows, Esmee taps Harry on the shoulder and hands back his money, still folded into its swan shape.

“Sorry,” she says with a sheepish smile.

“Don’t be, it looks better this way,” Harry says. “Sorry, Esmee, I just have to ask Draco something.”

He turns around to see that Draco’s chair is empty, and he looks out into the street just in time to see a long green scarf whipping out of sight.

Chapter Text

Eighth of December – holly wreath 



Harry opens his brand new notebook and stares at the blank pages. He just about manages to write the date before his pen dries up, and he curses under his breath, wishing he had let Mr Jennings sell him that self-inking quill after all. Frustrated, he leans against the counter and gazes out at the street, where the snow has formed thick drifts and topped everything that stands still for long enough with stacks of white powder. People are beginning to move around the alley, steps guided by the lamps that glow against the early morning gloom, but the windows of Sage remain stubbornly dark.

It is, Harry supposes, glancing at the clock, only half past nine, but Draco has been hidden away since the end of yesterday’s meeting and he doesn’t know whether to feel irritated or concerned. Despite his better judgement, he actually misses the frequent interruptions and the constant flow of bizarre whisky-related questions. It makes no sense that there should be a request to find a signature whisky of all things and then… nothing.

“You make no sense,” he mumbles, dropping behind the counter and rummaging for something to write with. “You make absolutely no sense, Draco Malfoy, and you need to stop it.”

“I expect you will make more progress if you speak to Mr Malfoy directly,” says Mr Borteg, and Harry bangs his head on the underside of the counter.

He emerges, rubbing at the sore spot. “I can’t speak to him if he’s not here, can I?”

Mr Borteg turns his pale eyes to the window, gazing across at Draco’s restaurant in silence.

“Yeah… yeah, okay,” he sighs. “I don’t even know what he’s doing in there, that’s the problem. He’s gone all quiet and it’s just weird. Plus, we’re supposed to be interviewing people together and I suppose I just thought he might have a bit more urgency about him.”

“Relationships between… people… are far from my area of expertise, Harry,” Mr Borteg says, offering him a fountain pen made from gleaming onyx. “In this case, however, I imagine that a conversation or two would benefit both parties.”

Harry takes the pen, wrapping his fingers around the cool, smooth barrel. “Is that so?”

“I am merely a man of whisky,” he demurs. “He is almost certainly looking for a Martha, though, is he not?”

“For his ‘signature’ whisky?” Harry asks, sketching derisive air quotes, but Mr Borteg just wanders back into his distillery without another word. “Fine,” he says loudly, uncapping the heavy pen and returning to his notebook.

By the time his next customer arrives, he has written down the name of every business and owner on Diagon Alley, drawn a little sketch of the street and added notes for each of the crime scenes. Feeling a little more organised, he shakes away his misgivings and attends to his work, deciding to give Draco until lunchtime before he starts talking to people without him. He sells several hampers, numerous bottles in shiny festive bags, and takes an enormous order for a Ministry Christmas party that makes Mr Borteg so excited that he goes next door and comes back with a whole bag of crackleballs.

Harry takes one when offered and sucks it slowly, carrying the crate of Christmas decorations outside and setting it down in the snow. He draws his wand and tacks sprigs of holly and mistletoe along the lintels, bobbing along to the rousing brass band music that drifts up the street from the festival area. The white chocolate, soft mint and liquid caramel of the crackleball melts on his tongue as he works, sending a feeling of such warm delight out to his fingertips that he almost doesn’t mind when he picks up the lights and finds that they have twisted themselves into a tight snarl. Humming along with the music, he starts to unpick the tangled mess with cold-numbed fingers.

He doesn’t pause at the sound of footsteps behind him, but when his wreath starts sliding out of the crate at his feet, he stops his untangling and turns around. For a moment, he can do nothing more than stand there, but then he recovers himself, dumping the lights into the crate and snatching back his wreath from the clutches of the swan, who stretches out its neck and hisses crossly.

“That’s mine,” he says, dropping the wreath back into the crate when the sharp leaves prickle at his fingers. “Go and find your own breakfast.”

“He’s had breakfast,” someone says, sounding amused.

With a feeling of inevitability, Harry looks up and meets Draco’s eyes. “What?”

“This is Needle, and he has had his breakfast,” Draco says. “He is sorry for trying to eat your wreath.”

Harry looks at the swan, who is now standing by Draco’s side and looking up at him adoringly with little black eyes.

“So many questions,” he murmurs, scrubbing at his hair with a sore hand.

“It’s clear enough,” Draco says, shrugging. “I’m here, you’re here, Needle is here—isn’t it about time we all go and ask around like we promised?”

“We? All of us?” Harry asks, trying to ignore the insinuation that Draco has been waiting around for him. “He’s not coming. He’ll bite everyone.”

“He won’t. We have an agreement,” Draco says, reaching down and patting the swan on the head.

To Harry’s astonishment, the enormous bird just ruffles its feathers and continues to stare up at Draco. The absence of hissing, biting and general malevolence is rather unsettling.

“What did you do to it?” he asks, fascinated.

“Well, Needle here followed me home after my last attempt to return him to the park, and he made it clear that he was going to stay,” Draco says, the faintest flush creeping into his skin. “He chose me, so to speak.”

“So, you’re… keeping him?” Harry says.

“I’m not keeping him, Harry, he has chosen to stay.” Draco holds up his hands and Harry realises that there is nothing physical connecting him to the swan, and yet it sticks by his side as though held there by magnets.

“He thinks you’re his mother,” he says, grinning.

Draco frowns. “Needle is an adult swan and I am not his mother.”

“You are,” Harry says, and the swan pokes its head into Draco’s coat pocket.

“Shut up,” Draco mutters, gently dislodging the swan from his coat. “Needle, be good.”

“Are you really going to call him Needle?” Harry asks suddenly.

“My mother named him,” Draco admits. “He took one of her knitting needles and ran off with it the day he first came home with me. It did rather make me realise he needed some training.”

“Right,” Harry says, half relieved and half amused to picture what Draco has actually been doing in his absence. “The thing is, ‘Needle the swan’ sounds like a suggestion that would end in someone losing an eye.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I doubt you’ve had time,” Harry says, imagining the restaurant in uproar as kitchen staff, customers and Malfoys alike are terrorised by a furious swan.

Then again, the swan in front of him doesn’t look furious at all. He looks impressive, with his elegant stature and his beautiful white feathers, but there is no malice in the little eyes now and the sharp orange bill is neatly closed as he fusses around Draco’s trousers with quiet contentment.

“What did you do to him?” Harry asks, gently holding out a hand to the swan. It bites him.

Draco’s mouth flickers at one corner. “He’s quite food-motivated,” he says, pulling something out of his pocket and handing it to Harry. “That’s a bad Needle. Harry is our friend.”

The words take some of the sting out of Harry’s bitten fingers and he tentatively offers Needle a small bunch of wild grasses. The swan snatches the food and then peers up at Harry, clearly attempting to decide whether or not to bite him again. Finally, he draws away and settles in the snow at Draco’s feet.

“So… you have a swan now,” Harry says, unsure if it’s a question or not.

“So it would seem. At least you don’t have to carry him around in a box any more,” Draco says, and when Harry looks at him, his eyes are so warm that his heart skips uncomfortably.

“I suppose not,” he says, mouth suddenly dry. “I’m still not sure he should come with us.”


“Well, as far as I can see, the alternatives are to leave him at the restaurant, where he will pilfer my mother’s craft supplies and raise merry hell in the kitchen, or we can put him in your shop and see what Mr Borteg makes of him.”

Momentarily intrigued by the latter image, Harry hesitates, but then gives in.

“Fine. But if he bites anyone, it’s on you.”

“He won’t bite anyone,” Draco says with impressive confidence. “Would you like some help putting your lights up before we go?”

“Thanks,” Harry says, startled. “They are, for want of a better phrase, tangled to fuck.”

“Take one end,” Draco instructs, turning away with a little smile and pulling out his wand. “I have a rather good spell for this sort of thing.”

Harry grabs an end and watches as Draco casts a wordless charm that travels along the string of lights in a glowing pulse, filling the air with a sharp clicking sound before lifting the tangled ball into the air and releasing it in a loose, neat wave.

“Impressive,” Harry says, pulling at his end and watching the lights snaking through the snow in single file. “I’ve never seen that before.”

“I have tons of these things at Sage, which you’d know if you ever came in,” Draco says, turning away before Harry can see his expression and picking up the other end of the string. He attaches it to the lower edge of a windowsill and starts tacking the lights into place. “What exactly is it that you’re afraid of?”

“I’m not afraid,” Harry says quickly.

He wants to tell Draco to stop it, that he’s doing it all wrong, but he’s attaching the lights exactly the way Harry always does it and a good deal more neatly, too. He wants to hate Draco and he’s not sure why, but he thinks that what he really hates is the fact that he doesn’t hate Draco. He likes him. He likes having him around, even if he now does come with a swan, and perhaps even more because of it.

Needle tucks his head under his wing. Harry wishes he could do the same.

Confused and shivering from the cold, he ducks into the shop and grabs his notebook.

“I’m off to do some detective work—do you want anything bringing back?”

“Time, Harry,” comes the gloomy voice from the distillery. “The gift of the hours, the chance to make adjustments in the tiniest fractions of a heartbeat.” There is a pause, and then, “A cup of coffee would be nice.”

When Harry steps back into the street, the lights are glimmering all around the windows and Draco is talking quietly to Needle.

“Thank you,” he says, and Draco just shrugs.

“Shall we start?” he asks, taking out a notebook from his pocket. “I made a list of all the businesses we should visit and I drew a map of the street.”

Something leaps inside Harry’s chest as he wraps his fingers around his own notebook and nods.

“Just one second,” he says, picking up the slightly bitten holly wreath and sticking it to the door of Borteg’s with a whispered spell. He takes a deep breath, pulling the cold winter air into his lungs and pushing down an unhelpful jangle of nerves. “Okay, let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Ninth of December – a bunch of carrots 



“So… Shan and Esmee are in their shop serving customers, as are Mr Pike, Jean, and, Felicity from the flower shop,” Draco says, staring at his notebook and pacing the floor of Borteg’s.

“Is this Mrs Purley’s robbery or Reuben’s?” Harry asks, looking up from the large piece of parchment they have spread along the counter, weighted at one end by a bottle of rum and at the other by his Orisha cube.

“Mrs Purley’s,” Draco says, and then frowns. “They aren’t robberies, you know.”

Harry adds the relevant dots and names to the parchment. “Aren’t they?”

“No,” Draco says and then stops, closing his notebook as the bell above the door jingles and a customer steps inside.

In a now-practised movement, Harry grabs his wand and touches it to the parchment, watching the map of Diagon Alley melt into a schematic of Mr Borteg’s distillery. It’s only the second day of the investigation, but he is already starting to feel like he knows what he’s doing. If he could only extend that confidence to anything concerning Draco, he’d be set. Unfortunately, with his pacing and his shirtsleeves and his fucking swan, Draco is proving even more of a challenge than usual.

“My mother-in-law sent me,” the customer says. “Good lord, a swan.”

Needle lifts his head and makes to get out of his new malt crate bed but Draco holds out a hand and he settles, contenting himself with watching the customer’s every move.

“He knows how to behave now,” Draco assures, and while the man doesn’t seem completely convinced, he slowly turns his back on Needle and pulls out a scrap of parchment.

“She wouldn’t tell me what it was called,” he says, barely holding back an apology.

“Not to worry,” Harry says. “We like a mystery around here. Tell me what you know and we’ll find it.”

Clearly relieved, the man studies his scribbled notes. Draco perches on the edge of Rose’s desk with an expectant look on his face. Harry pretends he’s not there.

“She says it’s an Islay,” the man says, frowning. “A good one. That’s not very helpful, is it?”

“It narrows it down a bit,” Harry says, walking to the shelves and regarding the rows of bottles. “Anything else?”

“It’s… ‘rather too young to be allowed’ and ‘comes in a very nice bottle’,” the man reads, voice stretched thin with the stress of pleasing a difficult person.

Harry chews his thumbnail and looks at the bottles in front of him. As far as he can see, they are all nice. Each one has a pleasant sheen to it, a smooth shape, an attractive label.

“If she’s looking for something young…” he muses.

“Yes, like her second husband,” the man says, allowing a brief flash of levity to break his panic.

“Perhaps she ought to fetch her own whisky,” Draco says, and the man just laughs.

“Ridiculous as it may sound, this way is probably easier. Plus, I get to have a few minutes away from her. She’s staying until the new year,” he says, and Harry makes a face at the bottles.

Seann Breac,” he says triumphantly, picking up a tall green bottle with an impressive drawing of a trout on the label. “It’s an Islay, it’s definitely younger than it tastes and I think it’s a nice bottle. What do you reckon?”

In an instant, the anxiety drops away from the man’s face and he take the bottle from Harry with a smile.

“This is it. This is the one.” He clutches the bottle as though Harry might change his mind and demand to have it back. “Thank you so much. You have no idea… I can’t… just, thank you.”

“Happy to help,” Harry says, taking the offered money and putting the bottle into a shiny bag. “I hope she likes it and decides to give you a break.”

“You never know.” The man pauses at the door. “I heard about the robberies, you know. Do you think they’ll find out who did it?”

“I hope so,” Harry says, restoring his map the moment the door closes again.

“They aren’t robberies,” Draco says again, now sounding exasperated.

“What are they, then? I know you’re dying to tell me.”

“A robbery involves an act of violence. This is more cowardly—stealing from someone while their back is turned,” Draco says, wrinkling his nose in distaste.

“I see. So, a violent robber is a braver sort of criminal,” Harry says, meeting Draco’s eyes.

“Now you’re being deliberately obtuse.”

Harry laughs. “That’s me. Listen, doesn’t it bother you that no one we spoke to yesterday saw anything on either of these days? Nothing suspicious at all?”

“Perhaps the thief had an Invisibility Cloak,” Draco says, and then sighs. “Yes. It bothers me.”

“You do think they’d tell us the truth, don’t you?” Harry says. “I know we’re not MLE but they did all seem fine with this at the meeting.”

Draco snorts. “If they’re going to lie to anyone, it’s going to be MLE, not us. Besides,” he says airily, “No one would dare to tells untruths in the presence of Needle the Crime Swan.”

At the sound of his name, Needle rises from his crate and shambles across the shop. There is something about his awkward, pitching gait that reminds Harry of Mr Borteg, and he finds himself wondering if he, too, would be more graceful on water than on land.

As if on cue, Mr Borteg emerges from the back room and flails into the shop on his spindly legs. He looks at the swan, at Harry and Draco and their piece of parchment and shakes his head.

“All this talk of robberies is deleterious for business, Harry,” he says, peering at Needle and closing his eyes briefly. “Nobody wants to browse for fine spirits in the middle of a criminal inquiry.”

Harry glances at Draco, silently daring him to pick up Mr Borteg on his use of the word ‘robberies’. When he says nothing, Harry doesn’t know whether to be amused or disappointed.

“Sorry about that,” he says, hiding his map with a prod of his wand. “We can be good.”

Draco lets out a derisive little sound and they both ignore him.

“I thought, perhaps, you might like to relocate your investigation to the back room,” Mr Borteg says.

“Really? Won’t we disturb you? And the kits?”

“The kits wish to see justice being served, Harry, as do I. However, I have taken the liberty of casting a protective charm around the barrels, lest your murmurings sour their delicate flavours.”

“What are kits?” Draco asks, just as a familiar owl lands on the windowsill.

Deciding to leave Mr Borteg to his explanation, Harry steps out into the cold street. With a little bit of wheedling and a lot of gentle strokes, he persuades the owl up onto his arm and carries it back into the shop. Needle hisses in alarm and bites Draco’s fingers, though apparently not hard enough to stop him listening to Mr Borteg’s vivid description of the whisky-making process. The owl stares calmly down at Needle and then holds out its foot to Harry with massive dignity.

“You didn’t like the owls at Eeylops either, did you?” Harry mumbles, taking the note and glancing at Needle, who had thoroughly disturbed their attempt to interview Jean the previous day by stomping around the shop with his neck stretched out and poking his head everywhere it didn’t belong.

Needle ignores him, plonking himself at Draco’s feet and staring up at him beadily. Harry opens the letter and leans against the counter to read it.

Harry,

I’ve burned all the carrots. I’m a complete disaster and shouldn’t be allowed to cook, but I wanted to make Ron’s favourite and I can’t get to the shops because I’m waiting for a firecall and he’s out in the field all day and honestly, I’m so cross with myself. If you’re not too busy, please can you bring some when you come over tonight? I’d really appreciate it.

Thank you!

Hermione.

Perplexed, Harry reads the note again. Hermione doesn’t mention the reason she was cooking carrots at ten in the morning, how she managed to burn them, or what carrot-based dish she thinks is Ron’s favourite meal, but she is his friend and he’s not about to let her disparage herself like that. Grabbing a pen, he flips the piece of paper over and scribbles what he hopes is a reassuring response. By the time he has fed the owl a bit of leftover breakfast pastry and sent it on its way, Mr Borteg is waving his arms around with spiky enthusiasm and waxing lyrical about the properties of magical woods.

“Sorry to interrupt, but I have to run out to the market,” Harry says, and both men look at him as though startled to see him standing there. “Does anybody need anything?”

“No, thank you, Harry,” Mr Borteg says, casting a mournful glance around the shop and disappearing back into the distillery without another word.

Draco lets out a long, steady breath. He rakes a hand through his hair, blinks, and then puts on his coat, almost tripping over Needle in the process.

“I’ll come with you. I think I could do with a bit of fresh air,” he says, fishing in his pocket and pulling out a handful of greenery. “Come on, Needle.”

Harry follows them out into the crisp morning, inhaling the bitter scent of winter and something new, something savoury and spicy and delicious. Now that the snow has melted and the bracing wind is back, the aroma wafts into his nostrils and starts to pull him down the street towards the fountain. When he glances at Draco, though, he stops, caught by the bewildered look on his face.

“What’s the matter with you?”

The grey eyes blink slowly and Draco seems to shake himself. “Nothing, I just… there’s something about the way he speaks. It’s as though I go into a trance and he spirits me away. I almost believe that if you hadn’t interrupted him, I might have been trapped in that forest forever, scraping bark samples from veneficus trees.”

Harry laughs, feeling a rush of empathy steal through him. “I know what you mean. The first time he told me about visiting the Flanagan’s distillery on Skye, I thought he’d put something in my tea. He knows how to paint a picture.”

Draco sighs, directing a small, relieved smile at the cobbles. “Yes, you could say that.”

“A hot drink and something to eat usually helps,” Harry says as they start to walk towards the wonderful smell with Needle at their heels.

When they reach the market, Harry has to force himself to ignore the new stall that is clearly the source of the savoury smells and instead focus on choosing a decent bunch of carrots for Hermione. After passing over several bunches that he deems too small, too long, or not quite orange enough, it occurs to him that he’s wasting his time. Not even the best carrots in London have a chance of tasting nice after Hermione has finished with them. Resigned, he chooses a bunch at random and hands several coins to the stallholder.

“Sorry, carrots,” he sighs, and the young man behind the stall eyes him curiously.

“Making something nice?”

“No,” Harry says, grasping the carrots by their green tops and smiling at him. “Thanks.”

“What on earth was that about?” Draco asks, silently admonishing Needle when he snakes out his head to grab a carrot.

Harry holds the bunch away from him. “Hermione Granger’s only weakness.”

Draco frowns. “Carrots?”

Harry just laughs. “Come on, I’m dying to see what they’re cooking over there.”

With Draco and Needle in tow, he crosses the cobbles to find that a queue has formed at the new stall, and they wait, watching a portly gentleman in a feathered hat moving around and beaming at his customers from beneath a luxurious moustache. Now that his wares are visible, Harry is able to sort out the delicious scents into two categories—the warm and spicy from an enormous pot of mulled wine, and the robust, savoury tang from more German sausages than he has ever seen in one place. They dangle from every square inch of the stall’s roof, swinging in the wind like the gleaming brown leaves of some improbable tree. The front of the stall hosts more sausages, long and thin, short and stout and everything in between, each carefully labelled and handled by the man’s thick fingers as though they are made of delicate china.

Beside the stall, not quite in the queue and not quite out of it, stands a young man in dark blue.

“That’s him, isn’t it?” Harry whispers, nudging Draco.

Following his gaze, Draco sighs. “Florean was right.”

“Florean is always right,” Harry points out, because yes, the wise ice cream seller had predicted a greenhorn, and the man now staring at Needle as though he’s a fully grown crocodile is completely brand new.

Everything about him screams ‘this is my first day!’ and Harry wouldn’t actually be surprised. His robes are immaculate and a little on the stiff side, shiny silver buttons and perfectly polished shoes completing the aura of newness and uncertainty that makes him stand out effortlessly in the Diagon Alley crowds. Customers and stallholders alike are darting little glances at him, and he only seems to be getting more nervous.

“We should introduce ourselves,” Harry says.

“Aren’t you going to buy me a sausage?” Draco asks, face a picture of innocence.

“I’ll owe you one,” Harry promises, leaving the queue with one last glance at the happy German man and a grumble of complaint from his stomach.

“Good morning, sir,” the officer says, straightening up and peering at Harry in a way that brings to mind an over-eager border collie.

Harry holds out his hand, surprised by both the warmth and the strength of the man’s grip.

“I’m Harry, this is Draco…” Harry pauses and looks down at the swan, who looks back, seeming not to notice the piece of grass that is stuck to his beak. “And this is Needle.”

“I’ve heard things about that swan,” he says warily.

“He’s a good swan now,” Draco says, shaking hands too. “Mostly.”

“Officer Kettleworth… Timothy,” the man offers, sounding as though he’s not quite sure. “Good to meet you. I’ve been told you can brief me on what’s happened here so far?”

Harry nods. “We’ve made you a copy of all our notes, and if you want to come back to my shop—that’s Borteg’s, at the top of the alley—I think we can…” Harry pauses as someone comes barrelling across the cobbles and almost knocks them over. “Sophie? Are you okay?”

She catches her breath, pushing long, pale hair from her face. “Someone’s done the quill shop. You should all come.”

Harry and Draco exchange glances. Already feeling the rush of adrenaline in his veins, Harry turns to Officer Kettleworth, unsurprised to see that he looks utterly terrified. Harry touches his shoulder gently.

“Come on,” he urges, and then takes off after Sophie, who leaves them all for dust within seconds.

Harry picks up his pace and holds on tightly to his bunch of carrots, feeling relieved when Draco catches up to him and they run together, bumping elbows and breathing hard. When they reach the quill shop, he turns to see that the officer isn’t far behind and is being followed, or perhaps chased, by an excitable Needle. Oddly exhilarated to have reached the scene so quickly after the crime, Harry pushes the door open and stops.

Everything is quiet. He’s not sure what he expected, but the silence is a surprise. He smells ink and parchment and the musty scent of feathers, just like always, and the shop is empty apart from Sophie, who is crouching beside a shaken Mr Jennings.

“Are you hurt, sir?” Officer Kettleworth asks, taking out a brand new notepad and a pen, which he promptly drops.

Mr Jennings watches it bounce across his tiled floor and come to rest with a clatter.

“No.”

“What happened?” Draco asks, and Sophie looks up.

“One of our customers brought us a big box of cakes and I came to see if Mr J wanted some.”

“And why did you do that?” Officer Kettleworth demands, lurching from diffidence to overconfidence with alarming speed. He retrieves his notebook and stands with pen poised.

“Because he seemed sad lately,” Sophie says, eyebrows knitted. “Everyone’s on edge with all this stealing going on.”

“Of course,” he says, seeming to shrink back into himself. “Sorry.”

“It was just like the other ones, wasn’t it, Mr J?” Sophie says, turning back to him.

“It’s my fault,” he whispers.

“What do you mean?” Harry asks.

“Everything was quiet, so I went into the back to tidy my stockroom. I came out because I heard the door and I saw…” He gestures at the empty till, the tree in the window stripped of its decorations and gifts. On the floor, several bottles of ink have been smashed to pieces. “I’m not sure entirely how long I stood there, but Sophie came in and she went to get you straight away.”

Harry looks at the plate of cakes on the counter. He listens to the scratch of Officer Kettleworth’s pen on his notepad, the ticking of the clock on the wall, Sophie’s fingers tapping on the edge of Mr Jennings’s stool. For several seconds, the little shop almost seems peaceful, and then:

“You went into your stockroom and left your door unlocked?” Draco explodes. “After everything that’s happened already?”

Mr Jennings nods. He stares at the floor. “I know.”

Torn between exasperation and sympathy, Harry rests a hand on Draco’s arm and then pulls it back, seeing the surprise on Draco’s face. Irritated with himself, he focuses on Mr Jennings.

“I get it. Nobody wants to close up and drive customers away. It’s not your fault.”

“I saw the patrol officer arrive and I thought… it was completely stupid of me,” Mr Jennings says, looking up at last. “Please tell the others not to have a collection. I don’t deserve it.”

“Don’t,” Sophie says. “This could happen to any of us. Look, at least we’ve got Diagon Alley’s finest on the job.”

“And me,” the officer says with a self-deprecating smile. “And a swan.”

Mr Jennings gives them a weak smile. “Well, that will do for me. Where do we start?”

**~*~**

It’s almost midday by the time they leave the quill shop and Harry insists on treating Draco and Officer Kettleworth to currywurst and hot winter punch from the German stall. They find a quiet bench and, inside the safety of a privacy charm, discuss the newest crime as they eat. Every inch of Mr Jennings’s shop has been searched and photographed, as well as checked for unusual footprints and anything the officer can send back to the Ministry to be analysed.

“I’m only supposed to be patrolling up and down for security,” he admits, spearing a piece of currywurst on a wooden fork. “I don’t think my boss thinks this is very important, I’m afraid. Or that I’m up to much.”

“Everyone has to be new at some point,” Harry says. “I think people just forget what it feels like.”

Kettleworth smiles. “She’s had a pretty long time to forget.”

“This is glorious,” Draco sighs, licking curry sauce from the tip of his finger. Harry looks away. “Why don’t I serve this in my restaurant?”

“Because,” Harry says, biting into a chunk of sausage with a happy sigh, “this is good, honest German food, and your restaurant only serves tiddly bits of fancy fancy with ‘jus’ and ‘foam’.”

“Foam?” Kettleworth asks, glancing up from the little piece of hessian fabric he has bagged as potential evidence. “For eating?”

“Please ignore Harry,” Draco says loftily. “He hasn’t even been in my restaurant. He’s frightened.”

“Kindly bugger off, Draco,” Harry says. He looks at the fabric. “What do you think that is?”

“I don’t know,” the officer sighs. “Just thought it might be something. Let’s go back to the beginning—I need to get it straight in my head.”

“Needle, stop it,” Draco says, pushing the swan away when he tries to clamber up onto the bench. “He thinks he’s a much smaller bird, that’s the problem. As for the beginning… well, let’s do a summary: the café was first, a Sunday afternoon, cash taken and Christmas tree disturbed while Mrs Purley was upstairs. Then the apothecary, a Tuesday morning, the entire staff team was taking a weekly delivery, cash and presents taken plus some valuable pieces of stock. And now, another weekday morning, cash and gifts taken while Mr Jennings was in his stockroom. What else?”

“None of the people we talked to saw anything unusual,” Harry says. “No one acting suspiciously, no one who looked out of place. It’s like this person is invisible.”

“Okay,” Kettleworth says, scribbling in his notepad. “What about alibis?”

“I wouldn’t use that word if I were you,” Draco advises, sipping his hot punch. “You don’t want the shopkeepers to think you’re accusing them of anything.”

“We do have a map of the street marked with everyone’s whereabouts at the times of the incidents,” Harry says. “You can come and have a look once you’ve finished that.”

“I can eat and walk,” Kettleworth suggests, but Harry shakes his head.

“Mr Borteg will not be happy if you come anywhere near his shop with that thing.”

Draco laughs and puts on a mournful expression. “We mustn’t have aromatic substances near the whisky.”

Officer Kettleworth finishes his currywurst, clearly amused. The second the last morsel has disappeared, Draco flicks his wand and Harry jumps, all at once surrounded by a cool, clean sensation that ripples pleasantly over his skin.

“A bit of a warning would be nice,” he says, brushing off his coat and heading back to the shop with his carrots bumping against his thigh.

“Where would the fun be in that?”

“That was clever,” Kettleworth says. “My mum says I’m useless at cleaning charms.”

“How old are you, exactly?” Draco asks.

Kettleworth sighs, rubbing at his dark curls and letting his shoulders droop. “Nineteen.”

“Good grief,” Draco says, and then he doesn’t speak for several minutes, even when they walk into the shop and find Mr Borteg serving customers and wearing a sparkly santa hat.

The distillery is cool and dark, heavy with the scents of wood and copper and humming with protective magic. In one corner, in the shadow of countless large barrels, is Mr Borteg’s little sanctuary. An old leather chair crouches beside an ebony desk, on which glasses and instruments jostle for space with piles of books. Next to his coffee cup, a single crackleball sits, waiting for its moment.

“Wow,” Kettleworth whispers, looking around in awe. “What are we doing in here?”

Harry opens his mouth to suggest that they retrieve their map when Draco taps him on the shoulder and points into the opposite corner of the distillery. Mr Borteg has been busy, it seems. Their parchment map is now tacked firmly to the wall, and beside it sits a desk, two chairs, and a pewter mug full of pens and quills.

“It’s a little office,” Harry says, grinning.

Needle ambles across the stone flags on his big, flappy feet and inspects his crate, which also seems to have been moved from the main shop floor. Kettleworth watches him uneasily.

“Did you really take that swan with you when you questioned people?”

“Yes, of course,” Draco says.

“And people were… not terrified?”

“Some of them were a bit wary,” Harry admits.

“He didn’t bite anyone,” Draco says brightly. “And Mrs Purley seemed to like him. She tried to feed him a sandwich.”

“Right,” Kettleworth says, flinching when Needle stretches up to his full height and flaps his wings.

Harry doesn’t really blame him. He doesn’t know what Draco has done to the swan but however well behaved he might be these days, he still has the capacity to look pretty fucking terrifying.

“I should get back to my patrol. Thanks for lunch and… you know,” Kettleworth says with a sheepish smile, “… basically doing my job for me this morning. If we can keep sharing information, that would be brilliant.”

“Of course,” Draco says. “We’re a team now. All four of us.”

Kettleworth nods, takes one more look at Needle, and then leaves the distillery.

“Right. Which chair do you want?” Draco asks, sitting in the one nearest the map without waiting for a response.

“This one, obviously,” Harry says, pulling up the other chair and uncapping a pen. He adds a red cross to the section of the map representing Mr Jennings’s shop. “So… a third crime scene.”

“Indeed.” Draco gets out his notes. “Perhaps we should go over it one more time.”

With spells of helping customers interspersed with distillery detective time, the afternoon passes quickly, and when Harry goes behind the counter to retrieve more parchment, he is startled to realise that all the shops around Borteg’s have closed.

“I’d better go,” Draco says, putting on his coat. “Make sure my mother is behaving herself.”

“Is it likely that she isn’t?” Harry asks.

“I shan’t risk it.” Draco scans the shelves for a moment and then picks up a bottle of the Seann Breac. “Perhaps this will be the one.”

Harry notices the way he is noticing the way the soft light makes Draco’s hair and skin glow. He shakes himself.

“That whisky is not very mature and it’s certainly not a single barrel,” he says.

Draco meets his eyes for a moment, then smiles and turns to leave. Harry watches him go, stalking across the cobbles with Needle at his heels.

“Mr Borteg, I’m leaving!” he calls, just a little too loudly.

“Goodnight, Harry,” comes the reply, voice muffled by what sounds like a crackleball.

Harry puts on his coat, picks up his carrots and heads out into the cold evening. When he reaches the cottage, he balls up his uncomfortable feelings and stuffs them into a dark corner. Ron and Hermione’s house is full of light and laughter; he can already hear Rose and her mother chatting away over the hiss of whatever dreadful thing he’s about to have for dinner, and he isn’t going to ruin it by stomping in with his confusion and getting it all over everyone.

He lets himself in at the back door. When Hermione sees the bunch of carrots, she beams and hugs him, treating him to a mouthful of hair and a wet spatula to the side of the face.

“Thank you!” she cries, taking the carrots and immediately setting to chopping.

“You’re welcome. Is Ron not home yet?”

“Daddy’s out looking for bad potions,” Rose says, looking up from her book.

“Well, that’s an excellent thing to do,” Harry says, shrugging off his coat and taking the seat beside her at the table. “What’s your book about?”

“Birds,” Rose says, showing him the cover. “I got it from the library so I could learn about swans. Now he’s going to stay, I want to make sure everything’s alright about him.”

Harry hugs her, oddly touched. “What have you learned so far?”

“Mute swans aren’t mute!” she says, wide-eyed. “They hiss and they make a trumpet sound when they’re defending their terr—territorny.”

“I’ll look out for that,” Harry says. “What else?”

“Well, a boy at school told me they break people’s arms but this book says that’s a moth. It would have to be a big moth, wouldn’t it?”

“I think you mean a myth,” Harry says after a moment of confusion. “You know… swans don’t break people’s arms but sometimes people say they do. It’s not true.”

“Oh,” Rose sighs, seeming to sag. “Mrs Cook says I read too fast. That’s why I make mistakes.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Harry tells her. “I make loads.”

“Mrs Cook had better watch out,” Hermione says, tipping the carrots into a pan that looks a lot like the one she uses to make the horrible soup with the weird things floating in it.

The door swings open and Ron breezes in, clearly in good spirits.

“Sorry I couldn’t get the carrots, Hermione, but since I didn’t, why don’t we all go to the… oh.”

“Harry got them,” Hermione says, indicating the steaming pan.

“Why don’t we all go where, Daddy?” Rose asks hopefully.

“Never mind.” Ron ruffles her hair and leans down to whisper to Harry. “Why, mate? Why would you do that?”

“I didn’t know what she was going to do with them, did I?” he whispers back. “She was really upset that she burned the first lot.”

“Burned?” Ron mouths, ginger eyebrows drawn down in confusion.

Harry shrugs. “Maybe if we help her, it’ll be ready faster, then we can eat it and it will be gone.”

“I haven’t got a better idea than that,” Ron sighs, then beams at his wife. “Hermione! Love of my life! How can we help you?”

“By not acting like a lunatic?” Hermione suggests, but she accepts their offer of assistance and before long, they are all settled around the table with bowls of piping hot soup.

“You see? It wouldn’t have worked without the carrots,” Hermione says, blowing on her spoon.

She looks so happy that Harry can’t do anything but smile and nod, and then, because she is staring at him with such expectation, spoon some of the dreaded soup into his mouth. He’s not sure what happened to the carrots; he definitely saw them go into the pot with his own eyes, but there is nothing recognisably carroty about the thing currently happening on his tongue. As usual, the soup has a thin, watery consistency and tastes simultaneously too sweet and too bitter to be allowed. The strange, amorphous globules of something that float menacingly in the liquid are too large to be swallowed without choking, but when bitten, release a gelatinous, fishy-tasting substance that coats the mouth and refuses to be shifted by even the mintiest freshening charm.

“Is it nice?” Hermione asks, and Harry nods, swallowing with some effort.

“Yeah, lovely. You’re right, without the carrots it would have been awful.”

Ron snorts and Harry catches the exact moment that he accidentally bites down on one of the floating things. He hides a smile and sips obediently at his soup as Hermione watches him. There’s something particularly… sulphurous about today’s effort, and he has the feeling that his digestive system is going to be furious with him for the rest of the night.

“I saw William Boot yesterday,” Hermione says casually.

“Oh, me too.” Harry picks up his mug and gulps his tea. “He was in the shop, looking at botanical gins.”

“I know,” Hermione says, eyeing him carefully. “He said he asked you out.”

“Ooo,” Ron says, looking delighted to have a distraction from his dinner. “Terry’s older brother? He’s a good-looking bloke, Harry.”

“Yes, thank you for that,” Harry sighs. “He asked if I wanted to have dinner. What about it?”

“He said you told him you were just out of a long-term relationship,” Hermione says.

Harry attempts to focus on biting the edge of his nail. “Er, yes, I might’ve said that.”

“But it’s not true,” she says pointedly, and Rose sighs.

“It’s naughty to tell lies, Uncle Harry.”

Harry looks at her guiltily. “It wasn’t a lie, Rosie, it was… an exaggeration,” he attempts, watching Rose and her mother exchange glances. Now that he thinks about it, Draco hadn’t looked too impressed, either. He really shouldn’t lie. It’s not as though he’s very good at it.

“Harry, you kicked Ralph out well over a year ago and you were with him for what… six months?” Hermione challenges.

“It’s pronounced ‘Rafe’,” Ron and Harry say as one and then grin at each other, before Harry hurries to sober his expression. “Yes, well, I was very upset about it.”

“No, you weren’t,” Hermione cries, setting down her spoon in exasperation.

“Didn’t we go to the pub that night to celebrate you finally coming to your senses?” Ron asks.

“I was very sad,” Harry tries.

“You were wearing a party hat,” Hermione reminds him.

“Fine, you win,” Harry sighs, smiling at his friends and forgetting just what is in his bowl as he puts a huge spoonful into his mouth.

“Are you okay?” Hermione asks, frowning.

“Yep,” he lies. Again. “I just don’t want to go out with anyone right now. Is that alright?”

“If you’re sure,” Ron says, and there’s something about his expression that Harry doesn’t like one bit.

“I’m sure,” he says, and it isn’t a lie. He thinks.

Chapter Text

Tenth of December – a bath bomb 



Harry wakes on Saturday morning to the spirited discussion of Grimmauld Place’s magpie population and a sharp, pinching pain in his back. Grumbling under his breath, he rummages underneath himself and pulls out the book he had been trying to read the night before. He directs a severe glance at the cover and then flings it onto the bedclothes, opting to get up before he actually gets comfortable. He puts on his glasses and looks out of the window, cheered to find bright sunshine, clear blue sky and a light coating of sparkling frost.

“Good morning to you, too,” he says, addressing the magpies, who are perching in the bare trees and continuing to yell their little heads off.

He wonders if Needle is awake and bothering Draco, following him around the restaurant or pulling at his blankets and hissing him awake. He wonders if Draco is an early riser or if he struggles out of bed at the last possible moment, hair all ruffled and… Harry stops wondering, because he doesn’t want to know. He also doesn’t want to go to Diagon Alley, because it’s Saturday and Mr Borteg has already assured him that he won’t be needed in the shop.

“It’s Saturday, and I can do whatever I want,” he tells himself firmly, standing in the middle of his bedroom, shivering in nothing but boxer shorts and trying to remember what he usually does at this point.

He closes his eyes and stretches, easing the ache in his back. As he does, Hermione’s voice drifts into his head as though she’s standing right behind him with her hands on her hips.

Harry, stop panicking and do what you always do. Go for a walk, go for a fly…owl someone you haven’t seen in a while and meet them for lunch. Prep some meals for the week—you know Rose loves her Uncle Harry’s cooking. Have a bath, clean your house… come and clean ours if you want…

Harry smiles, realising that, just like always, Hermione is right. He has a whole list of things he can do today, and none of them involve sitting with Draco in a dark room. Which is good. Definitely. It’s good, because his life is balanced and it’s calm and he likes it. He opens his eyes.

Feeling motivated at last, he throws on some old jeans and his favourite red jumper with the hole in it before heading down to the kitchen. Too many days of working late and buying chips on the way home have left the place looking rather neglected, but he throws open the back door, rolls up his sleeves and gets to work, and before long, the crisp breeze has whisked away the staleness and all the cups, plates, and pans are sitting in a clean, glistening pile on the draining board. Harry meanders around the kitchen, chopping and stirring and humming to himself until he has assembled a chicken curry with extra hidden vegetables, an enormous batch of pizza dough, and a plate of bacon, toast and tomatoes, which he eats at his newly-scrubbed table in contented silence.

When he’s done, and has washed up his plate for good measure, he grabs his broom, throws on his coat and heads for his favourite flying spot. Conditions are perfect and he lingers, swooping over snow-topped mountains and shivering evergreen forests until his face and hands and backside are numb, but when he returns home, exhilarated and stiff with cold, he is astonished to find that it is only half past ten. He taps the clock face in disbelief, drawing his wand and casting a diagnostic charm, but the hands refuse to budge and, according to the spell, the sodding thing is working just fine.

Suspecting that he is, at last, losing his marbles, Harry makes a cup of coffee and sits at his kitchen table. He warms his freezing hands on the hot ceramic and wonders about going to visit Neville. They haven’t seen each other in quite a few weeks, and it would be nice to catch up before Christmas. On the other hand, Nev has his own business and is probably hard at work, and more importantly, Harry just isn’t feeling very sociable, despite not-quite-Hermione’s advice.

“Fine,” he says, setting down his empty cup and getting to his feet. “I’ll have a bath.”

As he stomps up the stairs, he wonders just who he’s talking to and what exactly he is really cross about. Deciding that neither answer will make him feel better, he pushes the ridiculous questions from his mind and turns on the bath taps, sending water gushing into the tub. He likes this bath. There are others in the house, but this one is special. It’s one of the few pieces of hardware he chose for number twelve when he moved in, opting to restore most of the original fittings where he could. This particular room was damaged beyond repair, giving Harry a blank canvas which has resulted in a design inspired by his brief experience of the Hogwarts prefect’s bathroom.

The bath is deep, oversized and made of cast iron, enamelled to match the rest of the suite and lifted from the smooth stone floor on little feet in the shape of leaping koi. The water spills from four gleaming taps, creating steam that billows upwards and frosts the stained glass in the window, a recent addition featuring a seascape design based on one of Rose’s drawings, the sight of which never fails to make Harry smile. On a shelf beside the bath, Harry’s bottles and potions sit in a neat line, looming over a little paper package which he now reaches for.

He opens it, recalling Hermione’s words as she had given it to him.

“Whatever Ron might tell you, Harry, these are not just for girls. Boys deserve nice baths, too.”

Harry smiles to himself, lifting the violently blue sphere to his nose and promptly sneezing with the intensity of the scent. He doesn’t care if his bathroom thinks he’s girly. He has, however, been saving the gift for the right moment, and he thinks this may just be it. Stripping off, he tests the water and then sinks down, holding perfectly still until he adjusts to the temperature and then letting go, stretching his legs and tossing the blue thing into the bath.

The moment it hits the water, it begins to fizz and spin violently, sending vivid turquoise waves out in every direction. Harry watches, fascinated when tiny stars and bits of glitter gush from its centre, snaking their way towards him and sticking to his wet skin. Within a matter of seconds, the bathroom is full of the scent of peppermint, and Harry’s bathwater has turned a beautiful opalescent shade of blue.

Quietly impressed, he sinks down until the water laps at his chin, closing his eyes and breathing in the aromatic steam. Soon, all the tension has left his body and he is floating, lost in the stillness of the water and the warm cast iron at his back. This, he tells himself sleepily, is how to spend a Saturday. When he opens his eyes again, the water is lukewarm and his fingers have turned wrinkly.

“Don’t fall asleep in the bath,” he mutters to the blue water, hauling himself out of the tub and reaching for a towel. “Bad idea.”

Sure that by now it must be mid-afternoon, Harry walks into his bedroom and peers at the clock. He groans. It’s not quite midday, and that’s it. He bloody well gives in. He dries himself roughly, struggles into some clean clothes and walks out of the house, slamming the door behind him. There are plenty of things to do in Diagon Alley other than Draco… plenty of things to do that don’t involve Draco, he corrects himself, walking quickly with his hands stuffed into his pockets. It’s all fine.

“Can’t get enough, Harry?” Tom laughs as he hurries through the Leaky.

“I’m a glutton for punishment,” he admits, pretending not to notice Patrick, who is attempting to hide from him behind a coat stand.

He waves to Mr Jennings, who is standing fretfully in the door of his shop, and Sophie, who is heading towards him with a cup of tea, having apparently appointed herself as his temporary carer. When he reaches the festival area, he heads straight for the German sausage stall, following his nose and the growl of his stomach. As he waits for his order to be prepared, he watches the newest festival performer, a man in a glittering circus costume who is walking about the cobbles on stilts that must be ten feet tall. He hops from stilt to stilt as though each is an extension of his body, and the gathered shoppers clap and throw money into the collection tins.

“Gut, ja?” the sausage man says, indicating the stilt walker as he passes Harry his lunch.

Harry agrees that it most definitely is, and he thanks the man, dropping several coins into the charity bucket as he passes. As he is examining a bag of exploding cinder toffee at the sweet stall, Mrs Purley comes to stand beside him with a big tin jug. Harry puts several more coins into it without a word.

“Thanks, love.”

“Is he alright?” Harry asks.

“He’s taking it hard. He’ll get through it, though, we all will. It’s difficult to be sad with all this going on,” Mrs Purley says, and then sniffs the air. “You smell like a sweet shop.”

Harry indicates the stall. “Or this does?”

“No, it’s definitely you. Oh, there’s Draco—I haven’t had anything from him yet,” Mrs Purley says, taking off with her jug.

Harry puts down the cinder toffee with an apologetic smile. He carries his tray of currywurst over to Daraja’s stall and studies the Orisha objects as he eats. He’s not about to let Draco ruin his appetite, whatever that might mean.

“Doesn’t it smell delicious?” she says, eyeing his lunch enviously.

“Do you want some?” he asks, holding out the tray. “It’s lovely.”

“I promised myself I would not,” she sighs. “I have already had too many things from the sweetie stall and I am getting fat.”

Harry frowns. “You’re not fat, Daraja, you’re beautiful,” he says firmly. “And even if you were, you really shouldn’t miss out on currywurst.”

She smiles, gold teeth glinting in the sunlight. “Maybe I will think about it. How is Elegua treating you?”

“He looks very nice on our shop counter,” Harry says. “And he’s better behaved than some of our customers.”

Daraja laughs. “I’m glad. Have you tried asking him to help you with your investigation?”

“Er… no,” Harry admits. “I’ll take all the help I can get, though.”

“You need to pick him up and hold him like this,” Daraja says, selecting a green sphere and cupping it in her hands. “Let your mind be clear. Then focus on a single image, one that is important. He will guide you in the right direction.”

“I’ll give it a go,” Harry says, smiling at her and stuffing a piece of sausage into his mouth.

“Rubbish,” someone scoffs loudly, and both Harry and Daraja turn around.

“Sorry?” Harry says, hoping he’s misheard.

“What a load of rubbish,” the man says again. “All this African mumbo-jumbo, it’s not right. Does nobody else think it’s interesting that all these crimes started happening right after she got here?”

“I’m sorry, who are you exactly?” Harry asks, instinctively stepping in front of Daraja.

“I’m the person who pays your wages,” the man says, squaring up to Harry and peering into him with watery little eyes.

“That’s funny, I don’t remember ever seeing you before,” Natalie says, coming out from behind the painting stall to stand beside Harry.

The man looks her up and down and then turns back to Harry. Something about his expression makes a nasty little shiver travel up and down Harry’s spine, and if he didn’t think Natalie could take care of herself, he would be worried. As it is, he’s just furious. Several people have now turned away from the stilt walker to follow the confrontation and Harry wishes they wouldn’t, but he’s not about to let this go.

“I do all my shopping here and I know what’s been going on,” the man says haughtily. “Everything’s civilised and then she turns up, and…”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘civilised’?” Daraja demands, taking the words right out of Harry’s mouth.

“You know what I mean. You shouldn’t have brought that stuff here.”

“When you’re ready to stop being so disgustingly bigoted, perhaps you might consider that all three of these stalls arrived in the alley on the same day,” Draco says, stepping out of the crowd. “Are you going to accuse the face painters and the sweet seller, too?”

“Go ahead,” Natalie says, folding her paint-spattered arms. “None of us like what you’re insinuating.”

“And none of us want people like her here,” the man sneers, and when Harry glances at Daraja, he sees that despite her calm, stony face, her hand is trembling with the effort of not reaching for her wand.

“Actually, I was feeling very welcome here… until now,” she says quietly.

“You are,” Harry says, hoping someone will leap in and agree.

“You are completely welcome here,” Draco says. “This man does not represent us and he certainly doesn’t pay my wages.”

“Or mine,” Mrs Purley puts in. “You’ve never been in my café.”

“I don’t work here but you’re all welcome as far as I’m concerned,” says a lady in the crowd. “I shop here every week and I’ve loved everything you’ve done this year for the festival.”

“That’s right,” someone else says. “All this wonderful entertainment and it’s all for a good cause.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” says an excitable little man in a red cloak. “Your attitudes belong in the dark ages! I’m going to buy one of that lady’s things right now!”

“I’m going to buy three!” counters one of the shop assistants from Flourish and Blotts, glaring and reaching into her handbag.

Behind her stall, Daraja closes her eyes and smiles.

“Well…” the man sputters, looking around for support. “It could be any of them! It’s not like we know them.”

“I don’t think any of us are interested in your horrible opinions,” Harry says, spearing a particularly saucy bit of currywurst on his fork and chewing it as casually as he can. “Maybe you should go.”

“Oh, look,” Draco says with enviable nonchalance. “Here comes Officer Kettleworth of the MLE. Perhaps you’d like to… ah, he’s gone.”

At the mention of law enforcement, the man Disapparates on the spot, leaving a space that is instantly filled by shoppers as they swarm Daraja’s stall, offering money bags and words of reassurance.

“I can’t see him,” Natalie says, stretching up on tiptoes and squinting down the street.

“That’s because he’s at Cherish, being fed crackleballs by Shan and Esmee,” Draco says.

“You lied,” she says, grinning. “Awesome. Do either of you want a free painting?”

“Perhaps another day,” Draco says, and he looks so alarmed that Harry almost takes Natalie up on her offer.

“I’ll be back,” he promises.

She heads back to her partner and Harry darts one last glance at Daraja, who is now beaming and matching her customers with their Orishas. Something pulls at the pocket of his jeans and he looks down to see Needle, who has been miraculously quiet throughout the whole incident.

“Is he alright?” Harry asks as they walk to Borteg’s without the need for discussion.

“He had a big lunch,” Draco says. “Lots of grasses and some insects he found on the patio.”

“Lovely.” Harry opens the door and nods to Mr Borteg, who doesn’t seem the slightest bit surprised to see them. “Just going to the office. We won’t disturb you.”

“I am already disturbed, Harry,” he says with an enormous sigh. “I suspect it happened many years before you were born.”

Draco grants Harry a ruinous little smile and then follows him into the distillery. He sits in his chair and strokes Needle’s head with an elegant forefinger.

“Do you think that little outburst changes anything?”

Harry sits down and takes off his coat. “Not really. We know that none of the stallholders are involved because so many people saw them working at the times the crimes occurred… I think he was just an angry idiot with some very dodgy ideas about foreigners.”

Draco wrinkles his nose. “I’d rather convinced myself that those kinds of attitudes were dead.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. “It’s really not all that long ago that—”

“Yes, alright,” Draco interrupts sharply. “I haven’t forgotten what I did, you know.”

Harry stares at him, heart lurching uncomfortably. “I didn’t mean you. I meant him. It wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things that he was… well, you know what he was.”

“He was a bigot,” Draco says, rising from his seat and pretending intense interest in a nearby barrel. “And you can call him Voldemort. Call him whatever you want; he’s not around to stop you.”

Harry stares at the back of his head, insides pulled tight with guilt. Horrified with himself, he grips the wooden arms of his chair until his fingers hurt, wishing he could take the words back and replace them with something, anything, that wouldn’t make Draco’s shoulders freeze up with tension like that. In the history of all things, no, it hasn’t been a long time, but in the space of a life, it’s almost a distant memory. Harry hasn’t blamed Draco for his mistakes since the moment he saw through his eyes, but now he wonders if he’s ever said as much.

“I’m sorry,” he says now, getting to his feet. “What I said just now, it came out all wrong, and I want you to know that… well, I know you didn’t want to do those things. I know you were protecting your family. I don’t know why I’ve never said any of this to you before but I feel pretty stupid and you can tell me to stop talking at any time.”

Draco turns slowly, pinning Harry with eyes that seem to glow in the gloom. Harry opens his mouth and then shuts it again, eventually deciding to bite on his thumbnail in an effort to keep any further words in. When Draco crosses the stone floor in three strides and grabs his wrist, he forgets to breathe.

“Stop it,” he says, tugging Harry’s hand away from his mouth.

He doesn’t let go, and he’s so close that Harry can see the flecks of silver in his eyes.

“Sorry,” he whispers.

“It drives me mad,” Draco whispers back, finally letting go of Harry’s wrist. He frowns. “You’re sparkly. And you have little stars on your face.”

“What?” Harry asks, trying and failing to make sense of that statement.

Draco’s mouth flickers at one corner. “You have glitter and tiny little silver stars on your face. I’m not sure how else to put it.”

Instinctively, Harry touches his face with his fingertips, bewildered to see them come away with a light dusting of silver glitter. And then it hits him.

“Oh, god, it was the bath,” he mumbles, backing away and dropping down against the wall in an effort to put some distance between himself and Draco.

When Draco lowers himself to the floor beside him, he just sighs.

“Please explain,” Draco says, drawing up his knees and looking at him expectantly.

“Hermione gave me this thing for the bath,” he says, knowing there’s no way out. “You drop it in and it fizzes and throws out all this stuff. It honestly didn’t occur to me to look in the mirror before I came out.”

“My mother has some of those,” Draco says, amused. “Sometimes she uses my bathroom and it looks like a pixie exploded in there.”

“Does your mum live with you, then?” Harry asks, happy to get away from the topic of his glittery face. “Above the restaurant?”

“Are you going to make fun of me if I say yes?”

“No,” Harry promises. “I have so many other reasons to make fun of you.”

Draco gives him a look that could sour wine. “She does and she doesn’t. She doesn’t really like rattling around the Manor all by herself, so she stays with me quite a lot. She has her own bedroom and she likes to sit around in the restaurant and watch people.”

“Why doesn’t she just sell the Manor?”

Draco rolls his eyes. “Would you like to come over and try telling her that? She says it’s my birthright, but I don’t want it and neither does she. She doesn’t always make sense, but she’s my mother.”

“I understand,” Harry says, stretching his legs out in front of him and attracting the attention of Needle, who comes ambling over and settles himself heavily on his ankles. “Molly gets into a flap over the weirdest things but we all just sort of go with it.”

“Don’t tell her I told you this but my mother has always admired the Weasleys, especially Molly,” Draco confides. “It was always my father who… well, he was a difficult man.”

Harry thinks this is somewhat of an understatement, but he doesn’t say so. “I think my father had his moments, too,” he says, surprising himself. “I’m still struggling with that idea that parents are people, too.”

Draco laughs warmly. “Perhaps that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s why we follow our parents without question.” Face turning serious, he tips his head back against the wall. “And then, of course, it’s very difficult to change the attitudes one was raised with.”

“But not impossible,” Harry says, eyes drawn to the way Draco’s fingers clasp around his knees, the sharp angle of his jaw, the harsh patrician line of his profile. In the darkness of the distillery he looks almost unreal, but when he turns his eyes to meet Harry’s, his questioning gaze is too real to be comfortable.

“What?”

Harry clears his throat. “I was just wondering about that man,” he lies. “Maybe he was brought up by racist, horrible parents, and they were brought up by racist, horrible parents, and it’s just a whole…”

“Racist, horrible cycle?” Draco suggests.

Harry nods, wondering how long it will be until he can no longer feel his legs. “Yeah.” Needle rests his head on Harry’s knee and gazes up at him. “Seriously, what did you do to him?”

“Nothing strange,” Draco shrugs. “Sorry to disappoint you. I think perhaps he was looking for an authority figure, and when he found me, he didn’t have to be so combative any more.”

“I didn’t realise swans were so… hierarchical,” Harry says, grinning.

“I don’t think swans are. Needle is. He’s an individual, aren’t you?” Draco murmurs, gazing down at the swan in a way that Ron would definitely describe as ‘clucky’.

“Do you want children?” Harry asks before he can stop himself. “I mean, one day?”

Draco blinks, startled. “Yes,” he admits. “One day. Not now. Why?”

Harry flushes. “It was just Needle, and… you know what? Please just forget I asked you that question.”

“No promises,” Draco says. “I have an excellent memory.”

Harry rubs at his glittery face and then wipes his hands off on his jeans. Needle tips his head onto one side and then the other, inspecting the sparkles. For a minute or two, there is silence in the distillery, and Harry listens to the soft, muffled sounds of the shop, the footsteps of Mr Borteg and the tinkle of the bell above the door. He breathes slowly, detecting lemons and wood and the slightly damp aroma of swan. This is a strange moment, there’s no getting away from that, but it might also be the first time he and Draco have ever spent time together without making fun of each other.

“What does Sage stand for?” he asks at last, just as pins and needles begin to crackle in his lower legs and feet.

“It doesn’t stand for anything,” Draco says, puzzled. “It’s a herb.”

“Well, I know that, but I thought… it’s fancy, it must stand for something,” Harry says, relieved when Needle stands up and the blood starts to flood back into his extremities. “You know, like… Strictly Affluent Gustatory Experience,” he suggests, realising that he definitely is making fun of Draco now.

Draco stares at him. “There is something very wrong with you.”

Harry smiles. “I know.”

“My mother and I used to pick herbs from the Manor grounds when I was little,” Draco says. “It really is as simple as that. I like good food and I love my mother.”

Harry chews on his nail, feeling his heart swell and ache. “Fancy,” he whispers.

“I’m going to bring you a menu so you can see what we actually serve,” Draco says, reaching out and pulling Harry’s hand away from his mouth. “Stop it.”

Chapter Text

Eleventh of December – a frozen pond 



Harry and Draco emerge from the distillery on Saturday afternoon to find Mr Borteg poring over the Daily Prophet, in which Florean has apparently placed a large advertisement. When they walk out into the street to find that every spare surface has been peppered with colourful posters, Harry just laughs.

“He’s mad,” Draco says, peering at the nearest poster.

Harry agrees, but when they part ways, he hurries home to firecall his friends. The next morning, he meets Ron, Hermione, Rose and Hugo by the sweet stall, just about picking them out in the milling crowd with the help of a couple of heads of bright red hair.

“He’s mad,” Ron says, but there’s admiration in his voice as he watches Florean skating out into the middle of Diagon Alley, grey waves swaying behind him.

“I can’t see,” Rose complains, eyeing her brother’s position, strapped to his father’s chest.

Harry hoists her up with practised ease and she smiles, twisting little fingers into his coat fabric.

“Thank you,” Hermione says quietly. “I can’t lift her any more. She’s just too big.”

“I’m not too big,” Rose protests, and then narrows her eyes. “No, I am big. Like a big, lovely spider.”

At the sound of these words, several people shudder and look around, as though expecting the dread creature to materialise and drop from the sky.

“You are,” Harry says firmly. “What does the spider think of all this ice?”

“It’s very pretty. And slippy.”

“You can’t skate on it if it’s not slippy,” Ron says. “Do you want to skate?”

Rose nods, eyes trained on Florean, who is now gliding in slow circles, wand arm outstretched to leave a trail of shimmering snowflakes behind him. Ever the showman, he seems to pull every eye to him without the slightest scrap of effort. Harry has no idea what sort of magic he has used to create a perfect ice rink in the middle of Diagon Alley, but he has done a wonderful job.

The gleaming ice stretches from the sausage stall at one side to the florist’s at the other, leaving a helpful corridor for stallholders and shoppers but otherwise filling every bit of available space, arcing and curving over the cobbles in a strange, alluring shape that looks like an enormous frozen puddle or back garden pond. The surface of the ice is immaculate despite the bumpy street, glistening in the morning sunshine and giving off a ghostly chill that makes Harry glad he decided to wear his biggest coat. Forming a theatrical backdrop to it all is the fountain, now kicking out cascades of water with such power than Harry suspects Florean has given it a bit of help in aid of the spectacle.

“Welcome,” Florean calls, spinning twice and then coming to a stop. “Thank you for supporting our winter festival—all proceeds from the silver tins will go to the children of St Mungo’s, as will the gifts from our Christmas tree project. The skating rink will remain here in Diagon Alley until the end of the year and all we ask for its use is a donation for our appeal.”

Several people throw coins into the metal tins and Florean smiles.

“You can hire your skates from over here,” he says, gesturing to a new stall piled high with ice skates of all colours and sizes, “and Mrs Purley has refreshments for… how much, Mrs Purley?”

“One Sickle into the tin, love,” she says, indicating the donation pot on her trestle table at the edge of the ice. “I’ve got tea, coffee, hot chocolate and crackleballs.”

A murmur runs through the crowd and Harry turns to look at Shan and Esmee, who are almost unrecognisable in their winter cloaks and hats.

“We’re not keeping the shop open and missing out on ice skating,” Shan says, slyly adding, “The brand new Christmas crackleball will be on sale tomorrow. First come, first served.”

“You know, I’ve never had a crackleball,” Draco says, appearing at Harry’s elbow and filling his nostrils with the familiar scent of warm citrus.

Harry turns to him. “Seriously?”

“Never?” Hermione asks, sounding scandalised.

“I always knew he wasn’t right in the head,” Ron mumbles, and Hugo laughs delightedly.

Draco raises an eyebrow. “Good to see you, too, Granger, Weasley.”

“Those aren’t my Mummy and Daddy’s names,” Rose reproves, twisting in Harry’s arms.

Hermione, Ron and Harry regard Draco expectantly and he sighs.

“I’m sorry. Ronald, Hermione, how are you?”

Hermione laughs, and Harry can’t blame her. Despite Draco’s obvious exasperation, there is something very earnest in his voice and it’s both hilarious and hopelessly appealing.

“We’re good, thank you, Draco,” Hermione manages at last. “Are you going to skate?”

“I don’t skate,” Draco says.

“You don’t skate, you don’t eat crackleballs,” Ron muses. “What do you do?”

Draco flushes and adopts a severe frown. Harry isn’t sure whether to rescue him or make it worse. When Needle steps out from behind Draco’s legs and pecks him hard on the knee, the decision is made for him.

“You don’t skate?” he asks, grinning. “Or you won’t? Or you can’t?”

“All of the above, probably,” Draco says crossly. “I’ve never tried before.”

“You could try now,” Hermione suggests.

“In front of all these people who know me? I don’t think so.”

“No offence, mate,” Ron says, eyeing Needle with distrust, “but why did you come down here if you didn’t want to have a go?”

“Ah, well, I have an answer for that,” Draco says, smiling at last. He reaches into his coat and pulls out a piece of parchment. “I thought you’d be here and I wanted to show you this. The menu for this week—as you can see, not a jus or a foam in sight.”

For some reason, Rose finds this hilarious and she buries her head in Harry’s coat, shaking with laughter. With no free hands to take the menu, Harry cranes his neck and scans the list of dishes.

“Winter stew,” he reads, admiring the plain typeface and the frill-free description. “Chicken and tarragon soup. Spinach and pine nut ravioli. Slow-roasted belly pork with—”

“Stop it, I’m starving,” Ron groans, and Hermione stares at him.

“You had breakfast an hour ago.”

“Yeah, a whole hour,” he sighs.

“Afternoon tea,” Harry continues, puzzled. “Coffee and cake for two… this isn’t fancy at all.”

“I have been trying to tell you,” Draco says, stuffing the menu back into his coat. “Good food, well-cooked, does not have to be pretentious. You’ve been making fun of my restaurant for years. I’m ready for my apology at any time.”

“You can have it when you stop being a fusspot and come skating with us,” Harry says.

For several seconds, Draco just stares at him, and then he stalks off in the direction of the skate hire stall. Amused, Harry and the others follow him, watching as he veers off and leaves Needle with a delighted Mrs Purley.

“He must really want that apology,” Ron says. “Is he open today? I could really go for that belly pork.”

“You must be joking. He has bookings weeks in advance,” Harry says, setting down Rose so that she can run ahead and choose her skates.

“Plus, what would your mother say if you turned up full of someone else’s pork?” Hermione asks and then frowns. “That sounded a lot ruder than I meant it to.”

Harry and Ron exchange amused glances.

“She’d never know,” Ron says with confidence. “It wouldn’t be my first time having two Sunday dinners.”

“No,” Hermione says faintly. “It would not. I’ve changed my mind, Harry. You should stay single for as long as you like. Marriage is not for everyone.”

“She doesn’t mean that,” Ron says, planting a loud kiss on her cheek. “Besides, I don’t see you staying single for much longer, do you?”

Harry looks at him, heart speeding. “Excuse me?”

“Come on, the two of you together… it’s all chemistry,” Ron says, wiggling his fingers in demonstration. “You must see it.”

Harry shakes his head. “Ron, I am going to do some ice skating now.”

He practically jogs to the skate stall, ignoring Hermione’s whispered ‘leave it!’ and finds Rose being helped into a pair of purple skates by Draco.

“We were having some trouble with the laces,” he explains, and Harry’s stomach flips over.

“It was nice of you to help,” he says, voice stretched thin.

Draco shrugs, rising from his crouch and standing unsteadily on his skates. He has chosen black, and looks so perfectly coordinated that Harry feels sure he will be just fine on the ice.

He has, of course, been wrong before, and when Draco steps onto the ice and immediately crashes onto his backside, Harry can only watch. Draco’s skating is oddly compelling, consisting of a mixture of long, unsteady skids and flailing, windmilling falls. Unlike most ice rinks, Florean’s frozen pond has no barriers, which means nothing to hold onto, and before long, Draco is wet, cold and red-faced from his contacts with the ice. The fact that he gets up and tries again each time is impressive, and Harry quietly roots for him, not daring to risk the death glare he had been given the one and only time he’d attempted to help Draco up.

It’s not as though Harry is an experienced skater, but he’s tried once or twice before and his balance is strong from years of flying. After a few false starts, he is able to skate around the rink with barely a wobble, and as his confidence builds, he opts to loop at a moderate speed and watch everyone else’s efforts. Unlike Draco, whose usual elegance of movement does not translate to the ice, Florean skates like he’s been doing it all his life, and perhaps he has. He spins and jumps and snakes between the other skaters, drawing laughter and admiring glances.

Hermione is quietly graceful, moving in a slow glide that allows her to hold Rose’s hand and also steady Ron, who seems to be having some trouble coordinating his long legs. After a couple of near misses, Mrs Purley offers to take Hugo, freeing Ron to slip-slide his way around the ice while she serves drinks with an unconcerned toddler strapped to her chest and a curious swan at her feet.

“Nice hat, Shan!” Harry calls, skating past the two old ladies.

“Thanks!” Shan laughs, shaking her head and setting multiple brass bells jingling.

Esmee is clearly the stronger skater but she doesn’t let go of her partner’s hands for a moment, gliding backwards in order to pull her along the ice. Harry smiles, warmed by the picture they make together. He glances over at Draco, just in time to see him lose his balance and crash onto the ice in a heap. Forcing out his breath in a visible plume, he makes one more circuit, pushing himself faster and savouring the bitter wind against his face. Then he slows, coming to a stop beside Draco, who is now on his feet, shivering and soaking wet.

“I skated,” he says, brushing ice crystals from his coat. “Well, I tried.”

“You did,” Harry says, wanting to hug him but offering his hand instead. Draco shakes it, freezing cold fingers wrapping tightly around Harry’s. “I’m sorry I made fun of your restaurant. The menu actually looks very nice.”

“Thank you. Perhaps I’ll just have one more go,” Draco says, giving the ice a severe look.

“Want me to come with you?” Harry offers, stopping just short of holding out his arm.

“If you’d like,” Draco says, and when he starts to move forward, Harry stays with him, matching his pace and chattering to him about absolutely nothing as they thread through the groups of other skaters.

Draco’s expression is one of pure focus, and it seems to be working. By the time they complete their circuit, he has fallen only once and Harry’s silent offer to pull him to his feet is accepted with good grace.

“Well, that was more violent than I expected,” he says, staggering off the ice and tacking along the cobbles on his skates.

Harry laughs, sitting on a bench to remove his heavy skates. The sensation of lightness is an odd one, and he rotates his ankles, gazing down at his thick woollen socks.

“It gets less violent,” he promises, surprised when Draco hands him his battered old boots. “Thanks.”

Draco sits beside him, wet coat pressing against Harry’s legs and forming a damp patch on his jeans. He says nothing, instead gazing at this complicated man who cannot skate to save his life.

“Who wants hot chocolate?” Ron bellows, wobbling precariously on his blades.

“Me!” Rose cries, having already shed her skates and elected to run around in her socks. “Please.”

“Sounds good,” Harry agrees.

“Draco?” Ron prods. “We have to pick your swan up anyway… which is a weird statement.”

“And our child,” Hermione says, looking up from unfastening her skates. “Please tell me you didn’t forget your child.”

Ron blinks. “Of course not. Harry, tell Hermione I didn’t forget my child.”

“I didn’t forget my child,” Harry says obediently.

“You’re not funny,” Hermione says.

“He’s not,” Draco agrees.

With swans and children retrieved from Mrs Purley and everyone warmed from the inside by mugs of hot chocolate, Draco heads back to Sage while Harry and the others make their way to the Burrow. They tumble into the house, windswept and shivering, and are immediately set upon by Molly, who takes away their damp coats and pushes cups of hot apple juice into their hands. Everyone seems to be in high spirits, including Louis, who has been invited back for a second round of Sunday lunch insanity.

This time, Molly does not attempt to impress him with French. Instead, she points to the roast leg of lamb and bleats into Louis’ startled face. Apparently pleased with herself, she turns away, missing Ginny’s smothered snort of laughter and the stream of whispered French that follows it.

As the comforting smells of roasted meat, herbs, and gravy fill the kitchen, the family mills around happily, sharing news over hot cups, helping where they are permitted, and searching out bits of gossip for trade. Harry doesn’t like the way Ron, Hermione and George keep looking over at him and then whispering, so he does the mature thing and pretends they aren’t there. He sits at the table beside Rose, who is beavering away at some extra work for her maths club, which Hermione proudly tells him is completely her own choice. Like mother, like daughter, Harry supposes. Then again, he has watched Rose work many a time with her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, just like Ron when he’s filling in forms.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Making graphs.”

“And how do you do that?”

Rose looks up. “There are different ways. But this week we had to make a tally chart, like this,” she explains, showing him a piece of paper with rows and rows of little marks. “It could be about anything we wanted, so I made it about the shop.”

“Brilliant,” Harry says. “Can I see the graph?”

“I haven’t finished colouring it yet,” Rose says, hesitating. “But okay.”

Harry takes the piece of squared paper and reads the title: ‘Costumers of Uncle Harry’s shop between 3.30pm and 5.30pm Monday to Thursday’. The whole thing is painfully neat and he can almost ignore the fact that Draco has his own column on the graph.

“Almost perfect,” he pronounces. “Just this word here—I think you mean C-U-S-T-O-M-E-R-S. Costumers are people who make costumes.”

“I’ll change it,” Rose says, rummaging through her pencil case for an eraser.

Harry puts his finger to his lips and traces the word with his wand. Together they watch the ‘o’ and the ‘u’ change positions and share a secret grin.

“I hope you aren’t using magic on my daughter’s homework,” Hermione says, and they both jump.

“I wouldn’t.”

“Magic or no magic, I need the table cleared,” Molly announces. “Ginny, get the knives and forks, please. Percy, I asked you to sort out the plates, why are you lurking about on the stairs?”

“I’m not lurking,” Percy protests. “I’m looking at this funny step like Dad asked me to.”

“Your father asked Angelina to look at the funny step because her mother is a carpenter,” Molly says irritably. “Where is that girl, anyway?”

“Angelina?” Louis says, and then points across the garden.

“Oh, yeah, she’s in the shed with Dad,” George puts in. “He wanted her to look at the hole in the roof.”

Harry helps Rose to put away her things, feeling a bit sorry for Angelina, who is immensely practical and as such seems to be everyone’s first port of call when something needs to be fixed.

“In the shed,” Hugo says, weaving back and forth in his high chair to a beat only he can hear.

“Right,” Molly says firmly, looking around at her family. “Lunch is ready, so, George, you go and get your father and Angelina, Percy, go and wash your hands if you’ve been touching the funny step, Ron, you and Hermione start taking these dishes to the table, Ginny’s got the knives and forks, Charlie… CHARLIE, sort out the plates, wherever you are… Harry, you and Rose fetch some extra chairs, and who have I forgotten?”

Charlie emerges from the living room. “Did someone call me… Kingsley, no!”

“You’re on plates,” Harry says, lunging to grab Kingsley before he reaches the lamb. “Shall we put him back in the other room for now?”

“Louis!” Molly cries, beaming at him. “Would you like a job? Why don’t you fetch the big gravy boat, I think we’re going to need it.”

Louis looks to Ginny for help and she shrugs, pulling a dictionary out of her bag and flicking through the pages.

“Gravy boat… erm… sauciere,” she says triumphantly. “It’s in… dans le placard.”

“Okay!” Louis says, standing and weaving his way through the chaos until he reaches the kitchen cupboards. “Le placard… oh.”

Harry catches his confusion in an instant. He has never realised just how many cupboards there are in the Burrow’s kitchen, and if poor Louis has to start trying them at random, their lunch is going to be cold by the time he finds the gravy boat.

“That’s not going to work, is it?” Ginny sighs, setting down the cutlery and going to Louis’ aid. She opens the right cupboard without hesitation and grabs the gravy boat, handing it to her boyfriend and kissing him on the cheek.

Still looking bewildered, he hands the boat to Molly, who beams at him. Harry frowns, biting his nail and wondering what it is about the little scene that is pulling at the back of his head. There’s a thread there, a thread that’s attached to something important, but he can’t seem to catch it.

The thought is pushed out of his mind as he carries the requested extra chairs to the table and then finally sits down with his family to eat. Molly’s roasts are enough to make any irritating puzzles disappear, and besides, Ron and Hermione seem intent on talking about Draco.

“Will you stop?” he asks, passing the gravy to Louis.

“Gravy boat,” he says proudly. “Gravy boat. This is funny.”

“I’m just saying,” Hermione insists. “I haven’t seen the two of you together in a long time and you seem very close.”

“We are friends,” Harry says. “Friends are good. I don’t need a boyfriend.”

“Nobody needs a boyfriend,” Ginny says with a little smile. “They’re fun, though.”

“I don’t choose fun boyfriends. I choose idiots,” Harry points out.

“Let’s leave Harry alone, shall we?” Arthur suggests. “Let him eat his lunch in peace.”

Harry gives Arthur a grateful smile.

“I’ve heard he’s very nice to his mother,” Molly says, and everyone turns to her. “Don’t look at me like that, it’s important. You can learn a lot about a boy from the way he treats his mother.”

“I thought we were leaving Harry alone?” Harry asks, knowing it’s pointless.

“I think it’s all in the way they conduct themselves,” Percy says.

“Yeah, because you’re an expert,” George teases.

“I actually think he’s very classy these days,” Angelina says, spearing peas with a crafty smile.

“I would like to see you settled down with a nice young man,” Molly says wistfully.

“Niceness is overrated,” Charlie counters. “What you want is an exciting young man. Not that I’m an expert, either.”

Harry laughs. He can’t help it. Around him, his family continue to discuss his need for a young man, nice or otherwise, who is classy and respects his mother. Resignedly, he eats his roast potatoes and pretends he can’t hear them.

Chapter Text

Twelfth of December – a broom 



Harry waits for the shop door to click shut behind his customer and then lets out the yawn he’s been fighting for the last few minutes. He leans on the counter and lets it take him, idly hoping that the action will sweep away his fractured night of sleep and the remnants of some very strange dreams, particularly the one that had featured Draco’s wedding to Mr Pike and their subsequent children.

“Hairy babies,” he mumbles to himself, surprised to hear a tap on the counter in response.

He opens his eyes. The shop is empty. He can hear Mr Borteg muttering away to himself in the back room, and the door is still closed. Puzzled, Harry leans over the counter just as a knobbly orange bill rises up to rest on it. Needle’s little black eyes peer up into his and he ruffles his wings in a way that tells Harry he is very pleased with himself.

“Did you sneak in when that man was leaving?” Harry asks, almost expecting a reply. “You shouldn’t be over here on your own. You’re a naughty swan.”

Needle stretches out his long neck and rises to his full height, giving off an air of challenge. Harry sighs. He looks at the clock. It’s just after eleven. Sage must be open by now, and perhaps the swan has just followed one of the diners out of the restaurant and wandered off in search of adventure. Why he has chosen Borteg’s for that purpose remains a mystery, but Draco must be missing him.

“Just nipping across the street for a minute,” he calls, putting on his coat.

Mr Borteg pokes his head into the shop, heaving a theatrical sigh when he sees Needle.

“Where is the other one?”

“Do you mean Draco?”

“Indeed.”

“I’m not sure. I think he might have escaped, so I’m taking him back,” Harry says.

“It is probably for the best,” Mr Borteg says gloomily. “Swans are rather wilful creatures.”

With this understatement, he lurches behind the counter and Harry ushers Needle out into the street. Ten minutes later, all he has succeeded in doing is making an idiot of himself in his attempts to chivvy the recalcitrant swan across fifteen feet of cobbles. Needle, on the other hand, seems to be enjoying himself enormously, running this way and that and making a game of biting Harry’s shoelaces. Soon, people are stopping to watch, and when someone pulls out a camera and takes a picture of them both, he loses his patience.

“Stay there,” he tells Needle, who looks like he intends to do no such thing.

Keeping half an eye on him, Harry darts into the shop and grabs his favourite sweeping broom. He emerges, gripping the wooden handle and brandishing the bristles at the swan.

“Right,” he says firmly. “Let’s go this way.”

As he steps towards Needle and pushes him in the direction of the restaurant, he feels the eyes of the curious shoppers all over him. All he can do is try to ignore them and hope that the swan finds the bristles intimidating, or at least enough of an irritation that he opts to step away from them. For a moment, Needle stays put, pecking crossly at the advancing broom, but to Harry’s relief, he finally gives a cross little hiss and moves off across the cobbles. Harry follows him, jabbing his way to Draco’s door and yanking it open, broom still poking at Needle’s back. As soon as the way is clear, Needle ambles inside quite happily, and Harry wonders if he’d meant to escape at all. Perhaps he came to Borteg’s because he was shut out and needed somewhere familiar to hide.

Charmed by this idea, Harry lowers the broom but shuts the door quickly behind him, just in case. Needle is now out of sight, but Harry hangs back, taking his first look at the interior of Draco’s restaurant and realising, not for the first time, that he’s been an idiot about all of this. He had pictured ornate, he had pictured fussy… he had pictured chandeliers and pretentious tablecloths. The reality is simple, beautiful and exactly what he would look for in a restaurant.

With a mixture of horror and interest, he looks around the dining room. The first thing that hits him is how light the place is, illuminated against the grey sky by a magical glass ceiling, yards and yards of tiny white lights and a mismatched collection of glowing ceramic lamps. The walls, pale and roughly textured, are lined with shelves that contain a forest of plants, with everything from flowering cacti to dangling vines represented. There are no pretentious tablecloths… in fact, there are no tablecloths at all, and every table is different. Some are chunky and wooden, others spindly with legs propped up on books; one in the window is made of wrought iron and has two matching garden chairs, on which a young couple sit, chattering over coffee and cake.

Several more diners are scattered around the room, eating delicious looking breakfast treats from plain white plates. None of them seem bothered by his presence, or that of Needle, who waddles back into the dining room at regular intervals, apparently unfazed by his adventure. Harry is just admiring the lilies displayed in a set of very familiar bottles when someone speaks.

“Excuse me? Mr Potter?”

Harry turns, almost colliding with a waitress. “Sorry,” he mumbles and she smiles at him, carrying her steaming plates over to one of the spindlier tables. When he realises where the voice has come from, he walks slowly to the far corner of the dining room, feeling suddenly nervous.

“Hello, Mrs Malfoy.”

Narcissa regards him with calm interest. Harry supposes this must be ‘her’ table, tucked under a shelf full of spider plants and with an excellent view of the whole dining room. The surface of the table is barely visible beneath a swathe of knitting patterns, balls of wool and many other crafting items that Harry cannot identify. In the middle of it all sits a cup with a pretty flowery pattern that does not match the rest of the crockery, and she picks it up as she gazes at him.

“Have you come to dine with us at last?” she asks, eyes alight with amusement.

Harry flushes and rubs the back of his neck. “Er… not today. I brought your swan back. He turned up in our shop and I thought you might be missing him.”

“That swan is a menace,” Narcissa says, turning to watch Needle as he settles in the middle of the floor and tucks his head under one wing. There’s something in her tone that means Harry doesn’t really believe her words, but he’s not about to argue with her. “Draco is in the kitchen if you want him.”

Harry’s insides squirm. “Yeah, I should probably…” He pauses, looking around for something else to say and his eyes settle on the lilies. “Good idea, those… you know, re-using the whisky bottles as vases. I think all of those came from Borteg’s, didn’t they? How did Draco enjoy them?”

Narcissa glances at the bottles and then back at Harry, eyebrows drawn together.

“He didn’t, Mr Potter. I tried some of them and the rest were used in the restaurant,” she says, setting down her cup and folding her hands. “Draco doesn’t drink whisky. In fact, he doesn’t drink alcohol at all. I assumed that you knew that.”

Harry stares at her, stomach tipping. “He… but he bought those from me. He was looking for the perfect whisky. I don’t understand.”

“For the restaurant,” Narcissa says. “He wanted them to serve here.”

Harry shakes his head. “No. No, we did all that. This was something different… the last few months, he’s been coming in, and… would you excuse me?”

Before Narcissa can reply, he takes off in the direction of the delicious cooking smells, skidding into the kitchen and stopping dead. In the midst of a hive of pre-lunch activity, Draco is sitting on a section of countertop, chewing slowly on a perfect triangle of cheese toastie and scrutinising a receipt so long that it spills onto the floor in chaotic ripples. In his rolled-up sleeves and unbuttoned collar, Draco looks casual and so perfectly careless that Harry is lost. Pinned to the spot by confusion and desire, all he can do is stare, everything inside him sent into crashing intensity by nothing more than a frown of concentration, a strand of pale hair out of place and a dusting of crumbs on neat black fabric.

He can’t ignore this feeling for another second, and when Draco looks up and smiles at him, it’s all he can do to hold back an ill-advised confession.

“I can’t quite believe you’re here,” Draco says, abandoning his receipt. “Was my mother nice to you?”

“Your mother,” Harry mumbles, and then his conversation with Narcissa comes flooding back and indignation twists itself into the mess swishing around inside him. “Yes. I did speak to her.”

“Good,” Draco says, sliding down from the counter. “Are you alright? You look a bit odd.”

Somewhere in the kitchen, a flame roars and one of the chefs calls out in a language Harry doesn’t recognise. Seconds later, a sizzle and the scent of cooking meat fills the kitchen. It’s a strange place to have a conversation like this, but Harry doesn’t much fancy the dining room, either.

“You don’t drink,” he says before he can lose his nerve.

Draco inhales sharply. He blinks. “Er, no. Who told you that?”

“Your mother,” Harry says, raising his voice above the chatter of the chefs. “I saw your Borteg’s bottles and I asked if you like the whiskies and she said you didn’t drink them. You didn’t drink any of them. Why would you lie to me? Why would you lie about something so weird?”

Draco bites his lip. “Does it matter? I bought them and I used them. My customers said they were very nice.”

“Yes, it matters!” Harry snaps. “We’d already chosen loads of bottles to go with your menu. Why would you keep coming in and looking for really fucking specific things for yourself if you weren’t even going to drink them?”

“Harry, do we have to talk about this right now?” Draco asks, eyes flitting nervously around the kitchen.

“Yes, because I feel like I’m going mad!” Harry says hotly, forcing himself to make eye contact. “I don’t like mind games and I want to know why!”

“Because I like you, alright?” Draco snaps, taking a step forward and then retreating to grab at the counter behind him. “I like you and I wanted to see you and the best thing I could think of was to come up with an excuse to come to your shop. That’s the truth, it’s ridiculous, I feel stupid, are you happy now?”

“You like me?” Harry repeats, all at once forgetting how to breathe. The kitchen is hellishly hot and seems to be getting smaller by the minute, and the shouting and clanking from the chefs now feels unbearable.

Draco looks at the floor. “Yes. I feel… I have… fuck it, Harry, you know what I’m saying.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, bringing his hand to his face and pressing it to his hot skin. “I think I’d better go.”

“Don’t you think it might be a good idea to talk about this?” Draco asks, eyes appealing.

Harry swallows hard and steels himself. “No… I mean, not now. I’ve got to go.”

“Harry,” Draco tries, and he hesitates in the doorway. “I’m not asking for anything from you, but I’d hate it if we couldn’t be friends any more. Can’t we…?”

“No,” Harry says, knowing that if he stays even another minute he’ll do something impulsive and stupid. “I can’t do this, Draco, I just can’t. I’m sorry.”

With a huge effort, he walks away, out of the kitchen, through the dining room and into the street. The cold winter air blasts into his face and he groans, unsure if he wants to throw up or burst into tears. When he tries to take off his coat, he realises that he’s been clinging to his broom the entire time and he just about resists the temptation to throw it across the room. Instead, he flings his coat onto the rack and seizes the broom, sweeping savagely at the parquet floor until he longer feels as though he’s about to collapse.

The whole thing is an exercise in futility, anyway, he tells himself, vanishing the dust and debris he has collected and then starting all over again. He doesn’t need a Draco in his life, and Draco certainly doesn’t need him. He’s beyond useless at all of that stuff, and just because Draco makes him feel… the way he does, doesn’t mean that any of it is a good idea. Breathing hard, he starts a third round of sweeping and doesn’t look up when Mr Borteg pops up from behind the counter.

“How long have you been there?” he demands, hating the way his voice wobbles.

“Some time. I was wondering exactly what the parquet had done to offend you?”

Harry pauses. “What?”

Mr Borteg regards him curiously. “That floor has been there for two hundred years. I wondered why you were attempting to scrub away the pattern.”

Harry leans on his broom and sighs. “I’m sorry.”

“Has the dreaded swan upset you?”

“Not exactly,” Harry says, unable to stop his eyes flitting across the cobbles.

“Would you like to… discuss it?” Mr Borteg asks, pale blue eyes growing large.

Harry snorts. “No, thank you.”

Unfazed, Mr Borteg retrieves a small box and opens it. “Shan was kind enough to bring these last night. The new Christmas crackleball,” he explains in a reverent whisper.

The last Christmas crackleball, Harry notes, and though there is no way he can stomach a Cherish confection right now, he is touched by the gesture.

“Thank you,” he says, taking the crackleball and slipping it into his pocket.

“I also believe it is coffee time,” Mr Borteg says, surprising Harry by winding his scarf around his neck, putting on his Christmas hat and heading for the door. “Why don’t you see if you can sweep through to the stone beneath. I shall return with something hot to lift your spirits.”

When the door closes behind him, Harry almost smiles.

Chapter Text

Thirteenth of December - a comfy armchair 



“Two large coffees, one white, one black,” Harry mumbles, reaching into his pocket for coins and wincing when the kettle starts to scream for attention. His head feels like a battleground and the loss of another night’s sleep isn’t helping at all.

“Please,” Mrs Purley says, reaching for two cups. “I’ve never known you forget your manners.”

He meets her eyes, furious with himself. “I’m so sorry, Mrs Purley. I’m in a world of my own. Two coffees, please.”

Her smile is comforting, reminding him of Molly and making him feel, just for a moment, as though he’s safe and warm and has nothing to worry about.

“Feeling under the weather, love?” she asks kindly.

“Tired,” he says, muffling another yawn. “Hoping the coffee will help.”

She turns back to him with two steaming cups. “I’ve put the strong stuff in yours,” she says. “It’s got a kick but it should wake you up a bit.”

“Thank you,” Harry says, taking the cups with a grateful smile and walking out into a downpour.

He stands there for a little too long, letting the raindrops soak his hair and skin and watching them bounce from the surface of his drink. Eventually coming to his senses, he protects the cups with a hasty charm and heads for Borteg’s, heavy with the suspicion that this day isn’t going to get any better. Of course, it doesn’t help that most of it is his own fault. He’s done this to himself, what with spending time with Draco, sharing the investigation with him, deciding to be his friend. They have always had a certain way with one another and he should have seen it coming. But he didn’t, and now Draco likes him and he, god help him… well, all he knows is that falling in love with Draco Malfoy was never part of the plan.

He doesn’t need to be in love with anyone, he tells himself firmly, tasting raindrops as they drip from the ends of his hair and into his mouth. He has tried, he has failed, he has created disaster after unmitigated disaster. And yes, Draco is surprisingly kind, interesting, and good with children, but that doesn’t mean…

“Harry,” someone calls, and he squints through the rain to see Jean on her doorstep. “Have you got a minute?”

If Harry’s honest, he’s not sure of the time, but Mr Borteg won’t mind if he’s a few minutes late, and whatever Jean wants from him will, at least, be a distraction. Jean looks uncharacteristically anxious, but she smiles when he hurries through the rain to her door and follows her inside. The shop is still mostly in darkness, lit only by a pair of wall sconces, and the owls are sleeping peacefully in their cages in the rafters. It takes Harry a moment to realise that something is wrong, and when he does, he follows the trail of smashed glass decorations to the window, where Jean’s tree has been stripped of both ornaments and presents.

“When did this happen?” he asks, turning to the old lady. “Did they take anything else?”

Jean shakes her head. “Just what you can see. I’ve had a good look around and nothing else seems to be missing. I went to the Leaky for my sherry last night, and when I came back, I found this. The boys and girls were ever so cross,” she says, gazing at her owls with clear affection.

“You mean this happened last night and you’re only telling me about it now?” he asks, quietly horrified.

Jean shrugs. “It was late. Everyone was at home or in bed. I didn’t see any use in raising a fuss. Oh, don’t look at me like that, Harry. I’m a tough old boot.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Harry admits, looking out of the rain-blurred window and spotting Kettleworth on other side of the street. “Look, let’s get the officer in here and help him get some details down.”

Jean joins him at the window, and together they watch Kettleworth striding through the rain in his immaculate blue uniform.

“Do we have to?” she sighs. “Look at him. He’s about as much use as a liquorice wand.”

Harry’s mouth tries to tug into a smile, but he fights it down. “He’s new but he’s pretty bright and he really wants to help us,” he says. “Haven’t you ever felt like a liquorice wand?”

“They play merry hell with my digestion,” Jean says, and then gives in. “Alright then, let’s call him over, though I’d much prefer to have you and Draco on the job.”

“I don’t think Draco is available today,” Harry says, reaching for the door before Jean can question him and yelling, “Officer Kettleworth! Over here!”

Kettleworth jogs through the rain and joins them in the shop, shivering and dripping. “Do you mind calling me Timothy? All this ‘Officer Kettleworth’ stuff is starting to feel a bit weird.”

“You’d better get used to it if this is the job you want to do, young man,” Jean says, handing him a towel that smells slightly of owls. “Haven’t you heard of an umbrella charm?”

“Yes,” he says, rubbing at his hair until it turns surprisingly fluffy. “Sorry. Thank you.”

Jean’s expression softens. “Why don’t you both come and sit in the back? I’ll put the kettle on and you can ask me your questions.”

“That isn’t necessary, Mrs…?”

“It’s Jean,” she interrupts. “And I’m the victim of crime, and I say it’s necessary, so why don’t you go and sit down? Harry will show you where to go.”

Harry glances at Kettleworth, wondering if he will continue to resist Jean, or if he will do the sensible thing, which is ‘as he is told’. Jean is a lovely lady who will do anything for anyone, but she has a core of steel and has faced down many a stronger opponent than him over the years. To his relief, Kettleworth nods meekly and Harry gestures to him.

“Come on, Timothy; let’s go and sit down.”

The officer follows him through the shop, peering around at the sleeping owls as he goes. Harry leads the way into Jean’s back room, setting down his coffee cups on a little round table and choosing a seat around the crackling fire. He avoids the one with the little footstool and the knitted blanket that obviously belongs to Jean, instead choosing a squat wingback in red and cream tartan with a leather cushion that supports his weary bones in the most wonderful way. Following his lead, Timothy settles into its counterpart, upholstered in green but otherwise identical.

“I have a question,” he whispers, pulling out his notebook and leaning forward.

Harry retrieves his own notebook and nods. “Go on.”

“Why does everyone on this street keep making me drink tea?”

His expression is so earnest that Harry laughs, even though it feels alien and uncomfortable.

“Well, tea is very important and I imagine that everyone is just trying to look after you.”

“That’s what I thought,” Timothy sighs, folding Jean’s towel in his lap. “I feel like I’m at my nan’s but like… all the time.”

“There are worse things,” Harry says, just as Jean bustles into the room with a tray and sets it down besides Harry’s coffee cups. “Don’t drink anything Florean gives you, though. He’s great with ice cream but his tea is…”

“Bloody awful,” Jean supplies. She sits in her chair and gathers her blanket. “Have a biscuit, lads, the pot needs a bit longer.”

“I should really go and look at the scene,” Timothy says, taking a pink wafer.

“You can do that when you’ve warmed up. I’ve put a sign up to say I’m opening a bit late today, nobody’s coming in.”

“So, you were at the Leaky last night when this all happened?” Harry says, deciding to take the lead.

“That’s right. I go in every night at about eleven o’clock and have a sherry before bed,” Jean says, lighting her pipe. “Just the one bottle, mind, I’m not much of a drinker.”

“One… whole bottle?” Timothy asks, pausing in his scribbling.

Jean frowns and then bursts into laughter. “One glass! I meant one glass. Don’t you go writing that down, your boss will think I’ve got a problem.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” says Harry, who hasn’t written anything; Jean hasn’t yet told him anything he doesn’t already know.

“Absolutely,” Timothy says, amending his notes. “Were you there on your own?”

“Well, it’s never very busy at that time on a Monday night, love.” Jean looks at the fire, face creased in thought. “There was me, Tom, obviously, Patrick—he’s always there, lovely accent—and the manager from Flourish and Blotts. He’d had an argument with his wife and didn’t want to go home. I think that’s everyone.”

“Do you know how they got in?” Harry asks, all at once missing Draco fiercely. Officer Timothy is eager and perfectly nice but doing this without him feels all wrong.

“The front door, I think,” Jean says, scowling. “I put a better locking spell on it but those things have never been my strong point.” She brightens. “He didn’t get into my till, though, did he?”

“Your till was untouched? No money was taken?” Timothy asks, astonished.

“That’s right, love. I still have all my takings so there’s no need for anyone to pass a box around for me,” Jean says, looking pleased with herself. “I changed the security spell on the drawer after what happened to the others.”

“Good thinking,” Harry says, relieved to know that the old lady has outwitted the thief. “Still, it’s horrible that you had a break-in. I’d be furious if someone did this at Borteg’s, even if they didn’t take anything.”

“I was very upset until I realised that all my owls were alright,” Jean says. “Besides, they did take something—all those lovely presents for the kiddies and all the ornaments I had left, apart from the ones they smashed, the horrible buggers.”

“That’s the part I don’t understand,” Timothy says, scratching his head with his pen. “Money is one thing, but what can they do with a load of children’s toys? They can’t sell them to anyone around here or they’d be found out straight away.”

“Could be someone who just doesn’t like children,” Jean says darkly.

“It is starting to feel personal,” Harry admits. “It’s possible that you weren’t chosen at random. Maybe you and Mr Jennings and Reuben and Mrs Purley are connected somehow.”

“Count the ways, love,” Jean laughs bitterly. “We’re all connected here.”

Harry sighs, sitting back in his chair as Jean pours the tea. He accepts his cup and the three of them drink in silence. It’s a very good cup of tea, strong and fragrant and served at just the right temperature. It deserves Harry’s attention and he is happy to give it, already tired of crime and the constant rehashing of yesterday’s conversation with Draco. He has already played out dozens of ways he could have handled the situation better, and he is left with nothing but self-loathing.

When Timothy goes back to the shop to examine the scene, Harry stays where he is, eating custard creams and half-listening to Jean’s chatter about her beloved owls. He returns eventually with several evidence bags and a grim expression.

“I found more of this,” he says, holding up a bag containing a frayed piece of hessian. “And some brown string.”

“Looks like sack cloth,” Jean says, leaning forward in her chair to get a better look. “I get my owl food in bags like that—they tie at the top. The strings on mine are green, though, not brown.”

“We can look into that,” Harry says.

“Do you think someone’s stealing the presents and carrying them off in a sack?” Timothy says, puzzled. “Like a horrible Father Christmas?”

Harry smiles but Jean shakes her head. “That’s a nasty thought, love. And… why?”

“I don’t know,” Harry sighs. “But we’re going to find out before this happens again.”

**~*~**

Back at Borteg’s, Harry spends approximately two minutes in the distillery office before the sight of Draco’s chair starts to make him ache and he forces himself back into the shop. He has added the details of Jean’s crime scene to the map and that will have to do for now. Besides, he’s not the MLE, the police, or anyone else who should be involved in this madness. He’s a person who works in a whisky shop and he’s good at being that person. He knows how to be that person.

Work is as good a distraction as any, and with only twelve days until Christmas, the shop is soon full of people seeking gifts of all kinds. Harry helps them with his best smile and finds that the time passes mercifully quickly. At three o’clock he heads out to collect Rose, feeling exhausted but accomplished, and together they visit the brand new tree in the centre of Diagon Alley. Florean has chosen a fat, bristly individual that tops out at around twelve feet high and smells so deliciously festive that Rose closes her eyes and sniffs until she sneezes. The fountain, now crouching in the shadow of the vast tree, splashes water against the coloured lights, creating a shimmering halo of reds, greens, blues and purples. At the top of the tree, a glimmering star spins and throws glitter over anyone who steps too close.

Many of the alley’s shopkeepers and customers have gathered to inspect the new addition, and Harry finds himself looking for Draco, even though he knows it’s pointless. His absence hurts, even though he is all too aware that he was the one who made a fuss and then walked away.

“Isn’t it brilliant, Uncle Harry?” Rose sighs, grabbing his hand when he doesn’t respond. “Are you alright? You look sad.”

“No, I’m just thinking,” he lies, squeezing her hand and smiling.

“What about?”

“My Christmas tree,” he improvises. “I’ll need to put it up soon and getting the decorations out of the attic always makes me cross.”

“Why?” Rose asks, grinning when she is showered with silver glitter.

“Because I always hit my head on the loft hatch, and then I drop the box of baubles on my foot. As you well know.”

Rose peers up at him, mouth twisted in contemplation. “Uncle Harry, do you need a hug?”

Something about this offer makes Harry’s eyes sting and he nods, crouching to let Rose throw her arms around him. He hugs her back tightly, burying his face in her coat and holding on until she decides to release him.

“Thank you for that,” he says, feeling better than he has all day. “Would you like to help me choose a Christmas tree?”

“I’m going to choose a big one,” Rose informs him, and she is true to her word.

That night, he climbs the ladder to his attic, hits his head on the loft hatch and carries the decoration box carefully down to his living room, where he promptly drops the whole thing on his foot. After a minute or so of hopping around and swearing, he stands and looks at his tree. Rose has chosen a Norwegian spruce that just about fits in the front window of number twelve, its top curving at an odd angle where it touches the ceiling. It’s a little bit too skinny and the branches are uneven, but it smells wonderful and Rose likes it, so it’s just perfect.

Feeling defiant, Harry puts on some loud carols and gets to work, draping his tree with lights, gleaming baubles and the set of little wooden Scandinavian figures he has had for as long as he can remember. He winds lights around the window and around his fireplace, making the living room glow and sparkle in a way that really doesn’t match his mood. When the box is empty, he stands back, covered in pine needles and sticky with the effort of angrily trimming up for Christmas in front of an open fire.

“There,” he says to no one in particular.

His living room glitters and shimmers back at him. With a sigh, he turns down the carols, douses the main light and crawls onto the sofa. Closing his eyes, he breathes in the comforting scent of pine, drifting away to the soft sound of a children’s choir. He sleeps.

Chapter Text

Fourteenth of December – a cameo 



Wednesday morning finds Borteg’s swamped with customers, as though everyone and his dog has noticed the approach of Christmas at exactly the same moment. Harry and Mr Borteg work side by side in order to keep up, both pulled all over the little shop by requests for specific bottles, last-minute bulk orders and more than one customer in the midst of an anxiety attack over a gift for a boss or relative for whom nothing is ever good enough.

Seizing on the opportunity to dislodge Draco from his head, Harry leaps headlong into the madness and pushes himself hard, finding the impossible for customer after customer and revelling in the resulting relief. Fortified by several hours of dreamless sleep, he is everywhere at once, working seamlessly with Mr Borteg and managing to avoid crashing into a single customer. By eleven o’clock, he is sticky with exertion and overheating under his glittery santa hat, but he doesn’t care. He has sold almost all of the decorations from the charity Christmas tree, and practically every other customer has brought in a wrapped gift to add to the pile.

He takes his opportunity during a brief lull to hang more baubles, enjoying the relative stillness and catching his breath. As Mr Borteg serves the last couple of customers in the shop, Harry takes the almost-empty box back behind the counter and pulls off his hat, rubbing at his damp forehead with the back of his hand. In a flash of inspiration, he hits the hat with a cooling charm and replaces it, smiling when the fabric touches his skin and sends a wave of freshness across his scalp.

When Officer Timothy walks past the window on his patrol route, Harry’s smile fades. In spite of their best intentions, the investigation is going nowhere. Florean has put his faith in them—at least, in Harry and Draco—and they have absolutely nothing to show for it. And yes, he knows that no one is expecting him to solve the whole thing; he was only ever asked to collect information to help out the MLE, but none of that matters. These people are his friends and, one way or another, he’s going to figure it out. With or without Draco’s help.

He leans on the counter and holds in a sigh, smiling to the last customer as she passes. Something catches his eye and he finds himself looking at the Orisha cube, which is sitting innocently on the counter with its red flame flickering. Remembering Daraja’s suggestion, he picks up the cube as he’s been shown, ignoring Mr Borteg’s curious gaze. He closes his eyes and attempts to clear his mind, filling the space he has created with the image of Jean’s shop, the smashed glass and the ransacked Christmas tree. The glass cube warms gently in his hands and he holds on to the image, pushing away the memory of Draco’s hurt confusion and trying hard to focus. All at once, the cube flashes a pulse of heat against his hands and he jumps, eyes flying open.

“Were you successful?” Mr Borteg asks, but Harry barely hears him.

His eyes are drawn, almost without his permission, to the window, where Draco is letting himself and Needle into the restaurant. Draco’s shoulders seem to sag as he turns nearly all the way to look at Borteg’s and then forces himself to turn back. Even Needle seems oddly solemn as he follows his master into the restaurant. The door closes behind them and Harry sighs.

“Very funny,” he tells the cube, setting it down a little bit harder than he needs to.

To his relief, Mr Borteg doesn’t say a word, and when the shop door opens again, a large group of chattering women spills inside, swarming the shelves and immediately striking up a friendly conversation.

“Nice hat,” one says, nudging her friend. “Doesn’t he look handsome, Grace?”

“Oh, yes. You can come to my house for Christmas if you like,” Grace says, coal-dark eyes glowing. “My husband won’t mind eating in the garden.”

Both women laugh uproariously and Harry flushes. There is something about him, he has learned, that is irresistible to women who are old enough to be his mother. As there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do about it, he doesn’t see any harm in using it to his advantage.

“I’m afraid I have plans for Christmas day already, ladies, but maybe I can interest you in a Winter Warmer hamper?” he suggests, indicating a large basket stuffed full of high quality spirits and treats. “Perfect for the holidays and much better company than a man.”

The two women beam at him and within seconds, Grace is poking around in the hamper and murmuring to herself. Confident that he has made at least one good sale, Harry watches the others, who have gathered around Mr Borteg with what looks like a long list of questions. When the bell jingles and Shan stomps into the shop, Grace and her friend immediately attempt to get her on side.

“Isn’t he lovely?” Grace says, pointing at Harry with a box of assorted crackleballs. “Wouldn’t you swap your husband for one like that?”

Harry opts to ignore the casual objectification and just smile at his friend. “Morning, Shan.”

“You’re barking up the wrong tree there, love,” Shan laughs. “I’m eighty-three and very happy with what I’ve got. No offence, Harry.”

“None taken,” he promises. “Do you need some change?”

“How did you know?”

“See, he’s clever as well,” Grace’s friend whispers, and both women nod approvingly.

Harry opens the till, takes Shan’s Galleons and counts out a few more Knuts and Sickles than he owes her. Two can play at that game, he thinks, handing over the coins and watching her sling them into her coat pocket without a second thought.

“Esmee’s got a cold,” she says, and both of the other woman cluck sympathetically.

“Sorry to hear that. How’s she doing? Does she need anything?” Harry asks.

“Some company would do her good,” Shan says, voice tinged with exasperation. “I’ve got her upstairs in the flat, drinking Pepper-up, but I think she’s got cabin fever already. She’s got books and all sorts but you know how she gets when she’s bored.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, full of empathy for both of them. He, too, is easily bored and Hermione has told him more than once that he’s a terrible patient. “Tell you what, I’ll come over this afternoon when it’s a bit quieter.”

“Harry, you are an absolute bloody star,” Shan says, clearly relieved.

The women look up from their examination of the hamper and beam. “We’ll take two.”

**~*~**

As soon as the shop quietens, Harry leaves with Mr Borteg’s blessing and heads down to the flower shop to buy Esmee something bright and cheerful. The afternoon sunshine is warm on his skin and seems to gentle the wind until the touch of it feels merely refreshing. He walks through the busy shop, waving to a grateful Shan, and climbs the stairs to the flat. He opens the door to find Esmee curled up on her patchwork sofa, covered in blankets and scowling at a book while steam pours out from under her hair. It’s strange to see her without one of her colourful scarves, and in her fluffy red dressing gown she seems smaller than usual.

“Hi,” Harry says, and she looks up crossly. When she sees him, though, she smiles.

“Hello, Harry. I’m sorry, I thought you were Shan coming to check up on me again. I know she means well but I don’t need her to come and stare at me every fifteen minutes.”

Harry gives her the flowers and settles himself in a squashy armchair. “I promise, I won’t stare. If you want, I’ll even miss out the bit where I ask you how you are.”

Esmee laughs, and then coughs. “I love sunflowers,” she sighs happily. “Thank you, Harry. Would you put these in a vase for me, please? I wouldn’t normally ask but I feel like such an old lady today.”

“Of course,” Harry says, taking them back and heading into the kitchen, which is, as always, pin-neat and welcoming. Shan and Esmee’s flat is beautiful, full of vibrant colours and countless mementos of their lives together. It also smells tantalisingly of cooking, reminding Harry that he has forgotten to have lunch. “Here you are,” he says, emerging with the sunflowers in a crackle-glazed vase and placing them on the coffee table. “I’m sorry you feel like an old lady, but at least you don’t look like one.”

Once again, Esmee laughs and then coughs painfully. “I get it from my parents,” she says, fishing a handkerchief from her sleeve. “My mother gave me black skin and my father gave me a certain reluctance to grow up.”

Harry grins. “How is he?”

“One hundred and twenty next week, and still bothering the people of Portsmouth with his poetry,” she says. “He gives me hope.”

“Me too,” Harry says, shifting around in his armchair and finally digging out a half-empty bottle of Pepper-up. “I think this is yours.”

“I think I must have exceeded the maximum dosage already,” Esmee sighs. “Never mind. Have you done your Christmas shopping?”

Harry snorts. “I think you’re giving me a bit too much credit, Es. I’m not nearly that organised. Besides, you know half of my presents will come from your shop.”

“You young people, always doing things at the last minute,” Esmee says with an affectionate smile. She fishes something from her pocket, expression turning conspiratorial. “I got this for Shan. Do you like it?”

Harry leans forward and she opens the velvet box. Inside, resting on the prettiest tissue paper Harry has ever seen, is an oval shaped cameo brooch. Against a midnight blue background, a bouquet of exquisitely carved, cream-coloured flowers sits in relief and the whole thing has been edged with delicate silver. Harry is no expert on jewellery, but he has always been able to appreciate something beautiful, and he already knows that Shan will love it.

“That’s lovely,” he says, and Esmee beams.

“She saw one almost exactly like it years ago. We had only been together for a few years and we didn’t have much money. I remember she’d look at it in the shop window whenever we went past. I said I’d buy it for her when we were rich.” Esmee shakes her head and smiles. “One day, it wasn’t there any more and she forgot about it, but when I saw this one… it’s not the same one but it’s so similar. I had to get it for her. Do you think that’s silly?”

“No,” Harry says, and his eyes definitely aren’t stinging. “It’s romantic. She’s going to be really happy.”

Esmee gazes at the cameo for long seconds and then tucks it away, glancing at the door as though Shan might burst in at any moment, and Harry supposes she might.

“Anyway,” she says, becoming almost businesslike. “Do you like the new crackleball?”

“Ah.” Harry hesitates, trying to think of a way to tell his friend that he hasn’t tried it yet without mortally offending her.

“Did Mr Borteg eat them all?” she demands.

For a second or two, Harry considers letting Mr Borteg take the blame, but he can’t do it.

“No, he didn’t. I just… haven’t felt much like eating. I promise, it’s nothing to do with the crackleball. In fact, it looks lovely,” he says, taking the ball from his pocket and examining it.

It is, of course, a work of art. The lacy exterior, designed to melt only in the mouth, is a riot of glossy dark, milk and white chocolate, with dashes of vibrant orange and caramelised nuts. He can smell the spices already, and the desire to shove the whole thing in his mouth is only outweighed by the knowledge that doing so will make him feel extremely sick.

“Something is wrong with you,” she says, eyes narrowed.

“That’s good coming from the woman who’s steaming at the ears,” Harry mumbles.

“I may be under the weather, Harry, but I know when something’s not right,” Esmee says, wrinkling her freckled nose and peering at him until he squirms. “You’re worried about something. Is it your family? Rose? Hugo? No?” She pauses to sneeze violently. “Excuse me. A problem at work? A man?”

“Please stop guessing,” Harry begs, and Esmee smiles.

“A man! My goodness. I’ve never seen you like this. He must be very special.”

Her words go straight to Harry’s chest, twisting his heart and making his next words catch in his throat.

“It’s not like that. I don’t want that. It’s all a big mess.”

Esmee regards him kindly. “Love is quite often that way.”

“It’s not…” Harry stops, horrified by the flush creeping up the back of his neck and his sudden inability to construct a proper sentence. “He likes me, but I’m not… I don’t want to do this, Esmee. You remember what happened the last time, don’t you? And the time before that? And—”

“I remember,” she says lightly. “You learned, though, didn’t you? That’s what those times are for. We love, we get hurt, we make a great big hash of things and then we find out what works for us and what doesn’t. I know you want to be on your own, Harry, and that’s fine, but hear this: sometimes, maybe just once in a lifetime, you find someone who is worth it. Someone who you want to be with more than you want to be by yourself. And when you find that, you don’t let it go.”

Harry stares at her, feeling fragile and raw and ridiculous. “You found it. You found Shan.”

“Yes,” Esmee says, coughing into her handkerchief and granting Harry a watery smile. “I was just about your age, too, and I’d given up on all that romantic nonsense. Then I met that noisy little woman who wouldn’t give up on me. That was fifty years ago, and I have only one regret.”

“What’s that?” Harry asks.

“I regret that I got so old without marrying the person I’ve loved for most of my life,” Esmee says, wistful expression seeming to reach out and tug at Harry’s heart. “Shan says it’s just a piece of paper and we don’t need it. She’s right, but sometimes it’s not just about what you need.”

“Does she know how you feel?”

“I don’t know,” Esmee shrugs, pulling her blankets more tightly around herself. “I stopped asking.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, feeling useless.

“Don’t be,” Esmee tells him firmly. “I’m lucky. Not everyone gets to meet the right person. Now, what are you going to do about Draco?”

Harry freezes. “What?”

“What are you going to do about him? You can’t leave things the way they are. Apart from anything else, you look ill,” Esmee says.

“I… I don’t think I mentioned Draco,” Harry says carefully.

“Not with your words, no,” Esmee admits. “I know you, Harry, and I know him. Why don’t you just tell me what happened?”

Harry wants to resist; he wants, in the politest way possible, to tell Esmee to mind her own business, to stand up and walk out of the flat with his dignity mostly intact. He tries his best, but Esmee’s encouraging smile is too much for him, and the words just come tumbling out. He tells her everything, from their work together on the investigation to their talk in the distillery, finishing with an account of the incident at Sage that makes him want to hex himself in the face. Esmee listens in silence, nodding and only occasionally interrupting him to cough into her handkerchief.

“Harry,” she says at last, “I’m not going to tell you what to do. No one can tell you how to feel… but I do think you’ll regret it if you let him go like this.”

“I know, but—”

“Good friends are hard to find,” she says, cutting him off with such a gentle tone that he immediately feels remorseful. “Enemies who become friends are even harder.”

All at once, Harry can’t look at her. He stares down at his hands and wishes he could disappear into the oriental rug beneath his feet, just sink into the patterns and become invisible.

“I’m an idiot, aren’t I?” he mumbles, and Esmee laughs. And coughs.

“You’re a person,” she says. “It happens to all of us.”

“I need to apologise,” Harry says, leaping up as though something has bitten him. “Right now.”

“I think that’s a good start,” Esmee calls after him, sounding amused.

Harry is already halfway down the stairs, stopping only when he steps into the shop and finds it empty apart from Shan and a lady in a green coat, both of whom are staring at something on the counter. At the sound of his footsteps, they turn as one to look at him.

“What?” he asks, heart hammering so furiously that he feels unsteady on his feet.

“I never forgot about it,” Shan says, catching his confusion and adding. “The cameo. I never forgot. And neither did she.”

“We’ve been listening,” the lady in the green coat says brightly.

Shan picks up a small device from the counter and shows it to Harry, looking rather dazed.

“I set this up so I could hear if Esmee needed me,” she explains.

“I usually listen to the daily play on the wireless, but this is much better,” says the lady in the green coat, smiling at Harry. “We heard all about your situation.”

“Harry, this is Mrs Barton,” Shan says, indicating her customer. “Mrs Barton thinks you should make up with Draco.”

“Does she?” Harry asks faintly, feeling as though he might just be descending into madness.

“Yes, and I agree with her,” Shan says. She exchanges a significant glance with Mrs Barton and then points at the door. “Go on, then. Do it now before you change your mind.”

“I was just about to… you know what? Never mind,” Harry says, walking to the door and pulling it open. “I’m going. You have a nice afternoon.”

Pushing aside his nerves, Harry crosses the cobbles and lets himself into the restaurant. He is immediately mobbed by Needle, who bites his trousers and then hides ineffectually behind a coat stand. The dining room is alive with chatter and nobody seems to notice him as he weaves his way through the tables and back to the kitchen. When he gets there, he hesitates, hearing a familiar female voice above the yells of the chefs.

“I really am sorry, Draco. I didn’t know it was a secret.”

“It’s not your fault—I keep telling you,” Draco says, sounding defeated. “It was a ridiculous thing to lie about. Perhaps it’s for the best. We can all get back to normal now.”

Harry’s heart stutters painfully and he chews on his nail until it hurts. He doesn’t hear Narcissa’s reply but when she walks out of the kitchen and almost straight into him, she doesn’t even look surprised. Her eyes are sharp on his for a moment before she swishes away and he steps into the kitchen before he can lose his nerve.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” he asks, and Draco turns slowly.

It’s painfully clear that he is trying to hide his surprise, and Harry rather irrationally wants to smile.

“I suppose,” he says at last.

“Somewhere else, maybe?” Harry asks hopefully, knowing that if Draco forces him to apologise right here in the middle of the kitchen, there won’t be any getting out of it.

Draco heaves a sigh and gestures for Harry to follow him. Before he has chance to say another word, they are standing in a stone-flagged yard, surrounded by tables, bare trees, and planters filled with winter shrubs.

“I didn’t know you had a garden,” Harry says, looking around.

“Harry, what do you want?” Draco sighs, and Harry turns back to him.

Now that he’s alone with Draco, every useful word seems to have flown out of his head and all he can do is stare as the panic rises in his chest. He pushes his hands into his pockets just for something to do, and his fingers brush against the crackleball.

“I brought you this,” he says impulsively, holding it out to Draco. “Because you’ve never had one, and this is the new one… it’s for Christmas… it’s special, so it’ll be good for your first one, and… god, I’m talking such rubbish.”

To his astonishment, Draco takes the crackleball. He turns it over in his hands and inspects its lacy coating.

“You came over here to bring me chocolate?” he asks, frowning.

“It’s not just chocolate, it’s a crackleball,” Harry corrects, and then he covers his face with his hands and groans. “No, I didn’t. I didn’t come over for that. I came over to say I’m sorry about how I behaved when you… the other day,” he mumbles against his fingers and then forces his arms down to his sides. “I shouldn’t have gone off like that and I apologise.”

“Right,” Draco says, eyebrows knitted. “I see.”

“I also shouldn’t have taken so long to come back and say that, but that’s the thing, Draco, I’m useless with all this and it’s just better if I don’t do it.”

“All this… being…?”

“Love? Relationships?” Harry tries, feeling his skin heating yet again. “I just had a really good talk with Esmee and everything she said made sense, but I just can’t.”

“Can’t make sense?” Draco says, offering a little half smile that makes Harry’s stomach tighten.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “I know I don’t make sense, but I’d really like to be your friend again. If you’ll have me.”

Draco studies him for what feels like far too long. “Alright.”

Harry lets out his breath in a rush. “Okay.”

“Friends do favours for their friends, don’t they?” Draco muses with a sly smile.

“Absolutely,” Harry says, for some reason wondering if he’s going to be asked to give Needle a bath. He’ll do it. He’ll be pecked to pieces, but he’s too happy right now to care.

“Good. Perhaps you could call off my mother,” Draco says. “She hasn’t been back to the Manor since Monday and she won’t stop fussing over me. If she apologises to me again, I think I’m going to stun myself.”

Harry laughs, light with relief. “If I do that, can you guarantee my safety?”

“No,” Draco says, holding up the crackleball and examining it. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Well, you can crunch it or you can suck it,” Harry says. “Either way, it’s going to taste brilliant… fuck, is that the right time?”

Draco turns to look at the enormous iron clock face mounted on the restaurant’s stone exterior.

“Ten past three? I think so.”

“I’m going to be late for Rose,” Harry explains, knowing he has to go but suddenly reluctant to leave Draco behind. “Look… do you want to come with me? It’s a short walk but it’s really nice, and…”

“Yes,” Draco says quickly. He smiles. “I’m going to have to leave my coat, unfortunately. We can Apparate from here.”

“Because…?”

Draco looks at the ground. “Because… I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but… if we get my coat and go out the front way, Needle will know I’m going somewhere without him, and he will be cross.”

Harry smothers a grin and attempts a serious nod. “And we don’t want him to be cross.”

“We don’t. Stop laughing. You’re going to be late.”

Without another word, Harry holds out his arm and Draco takes it for the unfamiliar jump. Seconds later, they are walking through Ottery St Catchpole, breathing in the country air and watching the sun slip below the horizon. The shops and cottages seem to glow in the fading golden light, as does Draco’s crisp white shirt collar. He walks at Harry’s side with long, easy strides, looking around at the village with such unvarnished interest that Harry has to squash the sudden urge to reach out and thread their fingers together.

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” he says suddenly.

Harry shrugs. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, I do, and not just because I’m sure I used to be a lot better at being sneaky,” Draco admits.

Harry laughs. “Sorry to hear that. I’m still a bit surprised that you’re teetotal.”

“I certainly am not,” Draco insists, and then: “Fine. What does that mean?”

“It’s a Muggle word. It means that you don’t drink alcohol,” Harry explains.

“Why on earth do they need a special word for that?”

“I don’t know, Draco,” Harry says, spotting the school in the distance. To his relief, there are still plenty of children hanging around and waiting for their parents. It’s possible that Rose won’t even notice how late they are.

“It’s not some kind of moral stance, you know,” Draco says, glancing at him. “I’m not trying to stop anyone else drinking as much as they like. If you must know, I just don’t like that spinny feeling.”

Harry catches sight of his indignant expression and lets out a snort of laughter.

“So, you don’t want to try any of my fancy whiskies?” he teases.

“Shut up,” Draco mumbles. “Fancy.”

When they reach the school gates, Rose is whispering with her friends, all of whom are wearing their coats backwards. She runs to greet Harry with a hug and seems thrilled to see Draco, who immediately asks her what kind of bird she is pretending to be.

“I’m not a bird, I’m a bat,” she tells him, flapping her fabric wings and dropping her lunchbox on the pavement.

Harry picks it up. It’s a new one, bright orange with a grinning spider on the front. He wonders how Ron feels about it.

“Where’s Needle?” Rose asks, little face turning worried.

“With his grandmother,” Draco says, and she giggles.

“You’re funny,” she says, running ahead of them.

Harry doesn’t even have to tell her to stay on the pavement and watch where she’s going. She’s got it, and he’s proud enough to burst. Smiling to himself, he walks beside Draco, carrying the spider lunchbox and a feeling of peace that has been missing for some time.

“I’m funny,” Draco tells him.

“In the head?”

Draco gives him a withering look and bites into the Christmas crackleball.

Chapter Text

Fifteenth of December – a tartan blanket 



“Mysterious break-ins continue in Diagon Alley,” Draco reads, glancing at Harry over the top of the Daily Prophet and letting out a derisive snort. “There are at least three things wrong with that statement.”

“Where did you get that?” Harry asks, trying to remember the last time he saw Draco even touch a copy of his least favourite newspaper.

“Over there.” Draco indicates Mr Borteg’s desk with a jerk of his chin.

“You stole it,” Harry teases. He coughs, scowls, and soothes his sore throat with a gulp of hot tea.

“He wasn’t using it,” Draco says blithely. “And I will put it back, which is more than I can say about what happened to my coffee yesterday.”

“I’m pretty sure that was an accident.”

“I brought it from Sage,” Draco objects, ruffling the pages of his pilfered newspaper. “It was very good coffee. Why don’t you have a kettle in this godforsaken place?”

Harry laughs and immediately regrets it when the sensation seems to joggle his brain around in his skull. Mr Borteg has already tried to send him home to recover from what can only be Esmee’s disgusting cold, but the thought of sitting alone in his house and waiting for it to pass is far from appealing. Eventually, having convinced Mr Borteg that he probably can’t pass a human virus to the kits, Harry has been banished to his distillery office and provided with a tartan blanket borrowed from one of the fancier Christmas hampers.

“We do have a kettle,” he says, shivering and pulling the blanket up to his neck. “We just like to support the café, as you well know.”

Draco makes an impatient little noise. “Yes, well. Don’t you want to know what the three things are?”

Harry tempers a smile and sips his tea. “Of course I do.”

“Of course you do. First of all, the word ‘continue’ in a brand new article makes it sound as though there has been a new incident, which there has not.”

Feeling as though this statement is somehow tempting fate, Harry cringes. “Okay.”

“Secondly, only one of the incidents so far technically counts as a break-in. The others, while malicious and cowardly, were more… taking things while no one was looking,” Draco says, irritable expression pulling at the corners of Harry’s mouth.

“Also true. Thirdly?”

“Thirdly… this is the Daily Prophet and everything in it is a load of sensationalist codswallop,” Draco says, and Harry laughs again. And coughs.

“Drama, drama,” he manages, and then stops. “Why are people walloping cods? I can’t imagine it’s good for them.”

“You are very strange,” Draco says. “Or delirious. We should check your temperature.”

“I’m fine,” Harry says quickly, shrinking into his blanket.

In truth, he is feeling both shivery and overheated, but the idea of Draco looming over him and touching his forehead is more than his heart and nervous system can currently cope with.

“You don’t have to look like I’m going to hex you,” Draco says, turning back to the newspaper. “Apparently, the Ministry is ‘at a loss’. I didn’t realise they cared.”

“They sent us a Timothy,” Harry points out, gulping his tea when his head starts to spin.

Draco’s eyes flick to his and hold. “They did. And he’s very good at walking around and preventing crimes from taking place in his immediate vicinity. If we had a hundred of him, we’d be fine. Or not, that’s quite a disturbing thought. Can’t Weasley do something?”

“He’s tried,” Harry says, imagining a hundred Timothys all scurrying and apologising at once. At least there would be a lot of shiny buttons. “He’s spoken to the head of MLE but everyone’s just overstretched. The Auror department has a full caseload and everyone else is just flat out. Apparently this is particularly crimey time of year.”

“Crimey?” Draco repeats, eyes bright with amusement. “Are you sure your brain isn’t poaching in there?”

“No,” Harry admits, pushing away his blanket and then grabbing it back when the cool air of the distillery shocks his skin. He brushes his face against the soft fabric and gives it an experimental bite. “I like this blanket.”

“Is that why you’re eating it?”

“I am hungry,” Harry says. “It doesn’t really taste of anything.”

Draco sighs and puts the paper down. “You are very odd. Do you know that?”

“Yes. That’s why you like me,” Harry says, desperately wanting the words back as soon as they are out.

To his surprise, Draco just raises an eyebrow and picks up his cup. “You could talk to them.”

“Why me?”

“Well, it may have escaped your notice but you are Harry Potter and there is a chance someone would listen to you,” Draco points out.

“Ah,” Harry says, nodding. It hurts. “I’d just burst in there, all ‘friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!’ and we’d have a crack team of Aurors down here in five minutes flat?”

“Where did that come from?” Draco asks, caught somewhere between bewilderment and amusement.

Bemusement, Harry decides, and then giggles, because he’s pretty sure that’s already a word.

“Shakespeare, I think,” he says, and then burrows further into his blanket. “If it were Muggles attacking us, I bet they would be down here in five minutes flat. But it’s not. It’s us. We’re attacking ourselves. It’s us against our own, and we… fuck.”

“What?”

Harry shakes his head, words swept away as his sideways mind takes him back to the Burrow’s kitchen and the baffled face of Ginny’s French boyfriend. Something had nagged him about the image at the time, and now it’s so horribly obvious that he wants to slap himself.

“Ginny’s the thief,” he mumbles, staring at Draco. “Ginny’s the thief and Louis is everyone else and the shops are the gravy boat. This is all about the gravy boat.”

“Harry, I know you didn’t want any, but I am going to go and get you some Pepper-up,” Draco says, getting to his feet and gazing down at Harry with such a wonderfully grave expression. “You obviously have a fever and I don’t want your ridiculous head to explode.”

“No, listen,” Harry insists, rising unsteadily and gripping Draco’s forearm. “I’m not going mad. Well, I might be, but not because of this. Draco… the person who’s doing this is one of us. It’s someone who works on Diagon Alley. It’s someone who knows where the gravy boat is.”

Draco catches his breath. “Please explain.”

“Okay. I can do that,” Harry mutters, releasing Draco’s arm and staggering over to the map on the wall. “This person knows us. They know our routines. They know that Mrs Purley goes to the bank on a Monday morning, so her till will be full. They know when Reuben gets his deliveries and that the whole staff team will be out the back, getting the things off the cart. They know that Mr Jennings has used the same spell on his till for… forever, and probably all of them have. Except Jean—she changed her security spell and they didn’t get her money.”

“But they know what time Jean goes to the Leaky Cauldron for her nightcap,” Draco says, joining Harry at the map and touching the parchment with his fingertips. “I don’t know everyone’s security spells but I know a lot of them. We’ve always shared them so we can help each other out.”

“I know,” Harry says softly. “We trust each other.”

Draco meets his eyes, reflecting his own quiet horror back to him. “We have to do something.”

Harry wobbles, instinctively reaching out to steady himself with a hand on Draco’s waist. The combination of warmth and strength he finds there only sends him further off balance and he hurries back to the safety of his chair while he still can. Draco sinks back onto the desk and rakes both hands through his hair.

“It seems so fucking obvious now,” he sighs. “All this time, we’ve been looking for a stranger. We’ve asked people to pass on information about suspicious people. People who stand out. And who did they see? No one. Why? Because there was no one unusual. Just the people they expected to see. The people they see every day.”

“Who hides in plain sight?” Harry mumbles, mostly to himself.

Draco stops scrubbing at his hair and gazes at him. “What?”

Harry grants him a grim smile. “A friend.”

Draco closes his eyes. “This is really not good.”

Something about this understatement draws a startled laugh from Harry, which then sets off a coughing fit that leaves him breathless. Draco watches him calmly and spells water into his empty cup. Harry drinks it without argument, letting the cool liquid soothe his throat and his nerves.

“I’m going to go and get you that Pepper-up now,” Draco says, putting on his coat. “You’re going to drink it, and then, because I know you’re too stubborn to go home and rest, we are going to sit here and figure out what to do next.”

“Okay,” Harry says, tunnelling into his blanket and wondering if the Pepper-up will take away this creeping sense of dread along with his fever and hacking cough. “I’m sorry if you get my cold.”

Draco stops in the doorway with an odd little smile. “Stop fussing.”

“You stop fussing,” Harry says irritably.

“Deal. I’ll be back soon, and when you’re feeling a bit better, you can explain to me all about the gravy boat.”

He walks away, long coat whipping behind him. In the corner, Needle wakes from a long sleep and hisses in protest at being left behind. He stretches his long neck out of his crate and rests his head on the stone floor, peering up at Harry with his clever little eyes.

“Yeah, I like him, too,” he admits. “And we’re going to fix this. I hope.”

When Draco returns, Needle rises from his crate and makes a nuisance of himself, clattering around Draco’s legs like a misshapen cat and mumbling his fingers until Draco bats him away, at which point he settles beside the desk and watches beadily as Harry drinks his Pepper-up. He gasps at the rush of heat and braces himself for the steam, gripping the arms of his chair as it pours out of him and into the cool air of the distillery.

“Sorry for taking so long,” Draco says, settling into his chair with a large paper bag.

“Did you?” Harry mumbles, disoriented.

“I went next door and got these.” Draco retrieves a box from the bag and opens it to reveal row after row of gleaming crackleballs. “After yesterday, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’ve been missing. So, I got one of every flavour. There may be some duplicates… if you’d like one.”

“I don’t think I could,” Harry admits, stomach still roiling at the thought that someone he has worked with for years is a thief and a liar.

“I thought you might say that. However, you do need to eat, so I also brought these.”

Draco produces two paper-wrapped items and passes one to Harry.

“What is it?” he asks, already enjoying the way whatever it is warms his hands.

“Just eat it.”

“You eat it,” Harry mumbles, unwrapping what looks and smells like a cheese toastie but is rather more impressive. It has been toasted until golden and sliced into two equal triangles, just as it should be, but the bread is chunkier than usual, crusts dusted with flour, and when he bites into it, the perfectly melted cheese has a nutty flavour and a flicker of warmth that is out of place in the most wonderful way.

“This isn’t from Mrs Purley’s,” he says, catching a lick of hot salted butter before it finds his blanket.

“No. I got them from Sage,” Draco says, and Harry says nothing, silently drawn to the way Draco holds his triangle with both hands, strong, elegant fingers gripping the toasted bread as though it might escape at any moment. “Mrs Purley certainly knows her way around a bacon sandwich, but no one makes cheese toasties like Phillippe.”

At the sound of the name, Harry’s eyes flit to Draco’s face. “Phillippe?”

“Not that one, I assure you. Phillippe is my restaurant manager and as well as making an excellent toastie, he possesses a full, working sense of humour.”

“I didn’t realise you remembered.”

Draco rolls his eyes. “Yes, it’s shocking that I remember the names and personalities… if one can call them that, of your ex-boyfriends.”

“Hey,” Harry says, pretending offence. “They definitely all had names.”

Draco laughs, and it’s the best sound Harry has heard all day. He eats his toastie.

After food, tea, and Pepper-up have chased away the worst of Harry’s symptoms, he cleans and folds his borrowed blanket and returns it to its hamper. Draco puts the Prophet back where he found it and follows him into the shop, where they inform a dubious Mr Borteg that they need to run a brief, investigation-related errand.

“The only place you should be running to is to your bed,” he says, peering at Harry so closely that the bobble of his Christmas hat falls into his face. “And even then, I would recommend a much slower pace.”

“I’m fine,” Harry insists. “My temperature is down, I’ve stopped coughing… I’m all good.”

“Can you reason with him?” Mr Borteg asks, turning pale, beseeching eyes on Draco.

“I assure you, I have tried.”

“And you?” Mr Borteg tries, inclining his head to address Needle.

Needle wags his tail feathers and reaches out to chomp on the hem of Mr Borteg’s long jacket.

“I see that my efforts are futile, like so many things in this life of ours,” he sighs, creaking behind the counter and folding his long arms behind his back. “I ask only that you take care of yourself, Harry.”

“I promise I will,” he says, warmed by the concern.

“I’ll make sure he does,” Draco says, summoning Needle and propelling them both out into the street.

“This is the right thing to do,” Harry says, and he isn’t sure if it’s a question or not.

“Yes,” Draco agrees, and then frowns. “Why are you walking like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re wondering if every other cobblestone might be made of rubber,” Draco says.

Harry stares at the cobbles as he walks and attempts to step more evenly. In truth, despite Draco’s best efforts, he is still feeling lightheaded and his legs seem to be trying to escape from underneath him.

“Just… trying something out,” he says, ignoring Draco’s unhelpful little snort.

When they reach the bottom of the alley, Draco slows. Harry sails past him for several bouncy steps and then backs up.

“Do you want to grab him or shall I?” Draco says, indicating Officer Timothy, who is patrolling on the other side of the street. “Never mind, I’ll do it. You can barely keep yourself upright.”

“Rude,” Harry mutters, but he waits for Draco to retrieve Timothy and then follows them into the ice cream parlour.

Inside, they find Florean buffing at his marble counter while keeping half an eye on his customers. When he sees Harry, Draco and Timothy, he smiles, turning serious when he notices their grim expressions.

“Alison, please can you take over for a moment?” he calls. “I need to speak to these gentlemen in the kitchen.”

“Of course,” says a pretty, dark-haired woman in a white apron. She comes to stand at the counter and smiles at all of them. “Hello, Needle, you’re looking very handsome today.”

Needle arranges his feathers importantly and follows them into the kitchen, where the chill and the scent of sugar hit Harry in a violent wave.

“Who is it this time?” Florean asks.

“No one. Everyone’s fine,” Draco says, and then sighs. “I’m not sure how to put this, but Harry and I have come to a realisation.”

“It’s one of us, Florean,” Harry says, getting the words out as quickly as he can. “Someone from the street is doing this.”

Florean pales. “That can’t be true.”

“I think they’re right,” Timothy says. “When I think about the evidence I’ve collected as well as what Draco told me a few minutes ago… it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Florean takes a deep breath and fixes each of them in turn with sharp, clever eyes before he leans against the nearest preparation surface and folds his arms.

“Alright. I’m listening.”

Harry and Draco exchange a brief, fortifying glance, and then they tell Florean everything, leaving out nothing except Harry’s gravy boat analogy, which they have agreed might be more confusing than helpful. Florean is silent for a long time after they finish speaking, and beside Harry, Timothy is practically vibrating with the effort of remaining silent.

“I think we should keep this between the four of us for now,” Florean says at last. His eyes drift to Needle and a flicker of a smile almost breaks his grave expression. “The five of us. We don’t want to create panic.”

“Don’t you think people should know what’s going on?” Timothy asks.

“I think that while we know as little as we do, it’s prudent to be discreet,” Florean explains.

“You’re right,” Harry says. “We’ve already had one incident where someone was accused based on nothing at all. Imagine what it’ll be like if people actually know that someone in our community is the one doing all this.”

“I’m not good with all this secret stuff,” Timothy admits, Labrador eyes full of anxiety.

Draco looks at him, puzzled. “Then why did you join the MLE?”

Timothy wrinkles his nose. “My mum thought it would be a good idea.”

“It’s a fine career,” Florean says, patting Timothy on the shoulder. “Granted, this is a bit of a baptism of fire for a brand new patrol officer, but you’re here now and we need your help. You can do it.”

Timothy nods, seeming to grow a couple of inches taller under Florean’s expert reassurance.

“So… we keep going?” Harry asks, blinking as his head starts to spin again.

“Follow the leads where they take you. You have an advantage here in that these people know you. They trust you. The vast majority of them want this to stop.”

“As far as they know, we’re still looking for an outsider,” Draco agrees. “We’ll just stick to that.”

Florean presses his lips together in a grim line. “This is a bad day, chaps. But we’ll find our way out of it.”

“We will,” Timothy says, voice coming out louder than usual and echoing around the kitchen.

Needle hisses at the sound. Florean looks down at him and shakes his head.

“Draco, what have you done to that swan?”

“Why do people keep asking me that?” Draco mutters as they walk back out into the street.

“Because he’s… well, look at him,” Harry says, indicating Needle, who is now stretching out his neck to eat the plants from Mr Jennings’ window box. “He’s a bit odd.”

“Stop it,” Draco instructs, nudging the swan away and offering him some greens from his pocket. “My point is, why does everyone think I made him that way?”

“I don’t think I’m going to answer that.”

“He mustn’t eat my flowers, Draco,” Mr Jennings says, hurrying out of his shop with Sophie in tow.

“I don’t think he managed to damage any of them,” Draco says, with a little more hope than confidence.

Mr Jennings peers at Needle. “What will we do if he gets ill?”

“He’s a swan, they probably eat all sorts of plants in the wild,” Sophie points out. “I’d better get back. Don’t forget to drink your tea, Mr J.”

“Any news, lads?” Jean asks, appearing in the doorway of Eeylops.

Harry looks at her friendly, wrinkled face and wishes he could tell her something good. Feeling heavy, and quite a bit off-balance, he smiles and lies. “Not yet, Jean. Sorry.”

“You look rough,” she says, leaning closer and peering at him. “Are you ill?”

“Have you got Esmee’s cold?” Mr Jennings asks, adding helpfully, “You look awful.”

Harry glances between his friends, determined not to look at Draco, whose smugness is so potent that he can feel it prickling all over his skin. Then again, it could be the fever returning. He gives in.

“Right, fine, I’ll go home.”

“Good idea, love,” Jean says.

“Esmee seems fine now,” Draco adds. “You might be completely healthy by tomorrow if you get some rest.”

“Yeah, okay… oh, god, what am I going to do with Rose?” Harry groans. “She’ll need picking up in an hour.”

“You could ask Mr Borteg to go and get her,” Jean suggests. “You run plenty of errands for him.”

“Jean, can you imagine him turning up at the school gates?” Draco asks. “He’ll frighten the children.”

Jean laughs. “Good point. If he’s going, I’m going too. I’ll take my camera.”

“I could go,” Draco says suddenly. “She knows me and I know where her school is now. I could take her to Borteg’s… you know, if you want.”

“Would you really?” Harry says, all at once caught up in a tide of weariness so fierce that he thinks he could curl up on the spot with a cobblestone for a pillow. “I could call Hermione and just check with her…”

“Come on, use my fireplace,” Jean says, ushering Harry and Draco inside.

Needle, happy to avoid his strigine enemies, waits in the street with Timothy while Harry places a firecall to Hermione’s office.

“That’s fine. Rose really likes Draco,” she says, clearly unaware that he is sitting in Jean’s fireside armchair and listening to their conversation. “Go home and get some rest, okay?”

“I will,” Harry promises. “I’m doing it now.”

They say goodbye to Jean and Draco practically shoves Harry into the Leaky Cauldron with strict instructions not to Apparate. Harry looks at Tom’s fireplace and wavers, knowing that travelling by Floo always makes him feel sick. Finally deciding that nausea is more manageable than a splinching injury, he flings himself through the Floo Network and, seconds later, staggers out into his kitchen. His cough is already threatening by the time he reaches his bedroom, so he downs the last of the Pepper-up and crawls under his quilt, pressing his hot face to the cool side of his pillow and allowing his sore eyes to drift closed as fragrant steam billows around him.

He wakes to hear someone calling his name from what seems like a long way away.

“Draco?” he mumbles, surprised when he lifts his head and it no longer hurts.

“I’m afraid not,” someone says, and the voice is much closer now. “You alright, mate?”

Harry sits up, realising that he is still fully clothed and hopelessly creased. On the plus side, though, he actually feels better. Restored by several hours of sleep, the strange lightness has left his body, his head is clear and his limbs seem to belong to him again. He is also ravenous, stomach protesting noisily as he scrambles to the end of the bed to peer at Ron.

“I tried the kitchen but you didn’t hear me,” Ron explains. “Hermione says you went home ill.”

“Well, it’s very nice of you to worry about me,” Harry grins.

“Not that I wasn’t terribly, terribly concerned,” Ron says, “but I wanted to check you definitely weren’t coming to the quiz tonight. Only, we can have eight people on a team and if you’re not coming, I’m going to invite Percy.”

“I’d forgotten about that,” Harry admits. He frowns. “Why Percy?”

Ron grimaces. “Well, you know how it’s all Muggle stuff…”

“As it’s a Muggle pub, that’s not too surprising,” Harry interrupts.

“Yeah. Well, you and Hermione are our experts on all that stuff, and if you’re not there, we’ll be at a bit of a disadvantage. Percy’s read a lot of books, though, so it makes sense to pick him next,” Ron says.

“Does it maybe… make sense to Hermione to pick him next?”

“You know as well as I do that if something makes sense to Hermione, it’d better make sense to the rest of us,” Ron says, grinning. “He’s going to spend the whole night correcting everyone’s grammar but I’ll do it if we’ve got a chance of winning for once.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m in. I feel loads better,” Harry says, to Ron’s visible relief.

“Brilliant. I’ll see you there.”

He disappears from the fireplace and Harry heads for the shower, scrubbing away the day with a rough sponge and a bar of minty soap. He breathes in the steam and lets the water pound away at his skin, recalling a fragment of a dream involving Draco in the rain that settles in the pit of his stomach and won’t leave until he strokes himself hard and gasps his release against the warm, wet tiles.

Once dry and dressed in jeans and a soft blue t-shirt, he runs down to the kitchen and searches his cupboards until he finds bread and cheese and makes himself a toastie that isn’t quite as good as the one from Sage but satisfies his hunger just as well. He reaches Ron and Hermione’s local in time to grab a pint and sit down before the quizmaster picks up his microphone. After taking a look at their opponents, who are, as usual, mostly middle-aged men with beards, he turns to his team.

“Is this resting?” Hermione asks, and he shrugs.

“I rested. Now I’m better. Besides, Ron made it very clear that you needed me.”

“You called him, didn’t you?” she demands, turning to Ron.

“I wouldn’t do such a thing,” Ron says.

“He wouldn’t,” Ginny agrees, squeezing Louis’ hand and sipping from a gleaming pint of stout.

“Good evening, Harry,” Louis says carefully.

“Good evening to you, too,” he replies, wondering why on earth Louis would subject himself to an evening of pointless trivia in a language he barely understands.

“Fantastic,” Ginny says, beaming at him. Louis beams back, and Harry gets it.

“Such a lovely accent,” Hannah sighs, fiddling with her wine glass.

“Better than Yorkshire?” Neville asks, hamming up his Northern twang as far as it will go.

“Different,” Hannah says after a moment.

Harry grins. “I think that’s probably the right answer.”

“I think the right answer would be, ‘Neville, my love, I adore your Yorkshire accent and I would never swap you for a Frenchman’,” Luna says. She looks at Harry sharply. “Didn’t you bring Draco?”

“Don’t start,” Harry groans, but the others are laughing and he can’t seem to control his smile. “We are not talking about Draco, and besides, it’s eight to a team. There’s no room.”

“We could swap him for Louis,” Ron says quietly.

“I know we’re in a Muggle pub, Ron, but I don’t need my wand to kick you in the crotch,” Ginny says.

“I’m not scared of you,” Ron says.

“You should be,” Hannah tells him. “I’ve seen her take down bigger men than you. One of them looked like a bodybuilder.”

“What did he do?” Harry asks.

“Kicked a pigeon,” Ginny says, face darkening.

“Fair enough.”

Harry sips his beer, throwing in his pound and taking an answer sheet when the quizmaster comes around. When the quiz starts, they all lean in around Hermione, who has the pen and the neatest handwriting. Despite having two supposed Muggle experts on the team, there are so many blank spaces on their answer sheet by the end of the first round that Hermione starts writing down even the most nonsensical suggestions from her teammates.

“Ooh… I know what you should put for number thirteen,” Neville whispers.

“Nineteen ninety-eight cross-country skiing champion?” Hermione asks, looking up.

“Yeah. Put ‘Winston Churchill’.”

“I’ve heard of him,” Ron says, nodding.

“That’s because he was the Muggle Prime Minister during the second world war,” Harry points out.

“He might have skied as well,” Hannah says.

“I think he might have been dead quite a while by then,” Hermione says, but she writes it down anyway.

She loathes leaving a blank space on anything from an exam to a market research survey, and Harry knows that by the end of the evening, there will be an answer to every question, even if not all of them necessarily make sense.

Round two involves listening to and identifying a selection of national anthems, and Louis is so excited to recognise La Marseillaise that he almost drops his gin and tonic.

“You see! You did need him!” Ginny exclaims, and Hermione meets Harry’s eyes.

“I knew that one,” she whispers, and he grins into his beer.

The third round is all about the natural world, and a question on swans pulls all eyes to him.

“I don’t know,” he whispers. “I know he likes eating plants and biting people’s clothes… I also know that mute swans aren’t mute because Rose told me. I don’t know what they weigh.”

“Have you ever picked him up?” Luna asks, stirring her drink with a pink straw. “You can get on a weighing scale with him and find the difference. That’s how I weigh my cats.”

“He was pretty heavy when I put him in that box,” Harry muses. “And when he went to sleep on my legs.”

“How heavy can they be, though?” Hannah asks. “They have to fly without magic.”

“I’ve never seen Needle fly. He just sort of… trundles.”

“Draco would know,” Ron says. “I bet he’d know what a Macedonia was, too.”

Macedoine,” Hermione corrects. “He said it was a cooking term. Macedonia is a country.”

“He’s not a swan expert, is he?” Harry says, unsure why they are talking about Draco yet again. “He’s got one swan, and it’s a weird swan at that. I’m not sure it’s even like other swans.”

“Do you honestly think he didn’t read every book about swans he could find?” Ron says. “Like… the second he decided he was going to keep Needle?”

The others mumble in agreement and Harry lets them get on with it. He doesn’t know the average weight of a mute swan any more than he knows why he is suddenly missing Draco’s presence so fiercely. He can’t imagine he’d be able to help them win the blasted quiz, but his snippy remarks and surprisingly warm eyes would definitely make Harry feel better about losing as badly as they’re about to.

When the quizmaster calls a break and everyone rushes for the bar, Harry stays where he is, staring at his empty glass and wondering just what kind of an idiot makes grand statements about love and then falls headfirst into it without stopping to draw breath.

“This is really happening to me,” he mumbles, feeling as though his heart has swollen impossibly and is lying smashed up against his ribcage.

“Looks like it,” Ron says, and Harry looks up, startled.

“I really didn’t mean for it to happen.”

Ron laughs. “He’s a decent bloke these days. You could do worse.”

“I’m such a twat,” Harry sighs, pressing his hands to his face. “I’m Ralph.”

Ron looks alarmed. “Don’t say that. And not just because it’s pronounced ‘Rafe’.”

Harry laughs, and then falls silent when his mind flicks back to the distillery, silvery eyes in the dark and the realisation that somewhere among his friends on Diagon Alley is a traitor. He watches his teammates at the bar, faces lit by the multicoloured baubles on the pub’s Christmas tree. They’re going to come dead last, and it doesn’t matter at all. Harry breathes.

“I’m going to go and get you another drink,” Ron says, picking up their empty glasses. “Whatever it is you’re thinking about, stop it. Your only job is to guess the weight of the swan… which would be a very interesting stall at the village fete.”

“Thanks,” Harry says, grateful for both the support and the distraction.

When Ron has turned away, he picks up the pen and scribbles something in the blank space.

Hermione returns with a packet of cheese and onion crisps and inspects the answer sheet.

“Harry,” she says, frowning. “Why does this say that the average weight of a mute swan is Genghis Khan?”

Chapter Text

Sixteenth of December – a teacup and saucer 



Friday morning is cold and frosty with a wind that seems to sweep Diagon Alley clean. Harry strides over the cobbles towards Borteg’s and allows it to blow through him, snatching away his anxiety and suffusing him with a new sense of purpose. Yes, he tells himself, all but flinging his arms out like a mad person, bad things have happened, but today is a day for action. He can feel it, and he is ready to come back strong and set to work. There is no use sitting around feeling betrayed, and there is certainly no time to mope about how he has buggered things up with Draco. Again.

As it turns out, Draco has no plans to make this easy for him. At ten o’clock, he stalks into the shop with Needle and by quarter past, he is perching on Rose’s desk and making a nuisance of himself.

“I’ve been thinking. This isn’t about being invisible,” he says, the moment the shop is empty of customers. “It’s about not being noticed.”

“Right. That’s how we know it’s someone from the street.”

“Yes, exactly. Before, we were wondering about invisibility cloaks…”

“I wasn’t,” Harry points out. “And you know as well as I do that those things are insanely rare.”

“You’re missing the point,” Draco says. “If someone can easily fade into the background to start with, a simple Notice-me-Not charm would be enough to conceal them and their sack of loot quite effectively.”

Harry stares at him for a moment, fingers tapping against the polished wood of the counter.

“You know, I think you’re right.”

“Good grief,” Draco says, pretending to lose his balance on the desk.

“Oh, you’re funny. About as funny as a big sack full of stolen Christmas presents, which, when I think about it, is sort of grim. What’s that children’s story about the monster that stole Christmas?”

“No idea,” Draco says. “But it’s true that I am very funny.”

“In a grim sort of way,” Harry reminds him.

Draco shrugs. “I’ll take it. I’ve always wanted to be a man of many talents.”

With what looks like a massive effort, Needle clambers onto Rose’s barrel seat and pokes his head through Draco’s arm until his knobbly beak protrudes.

“We could have done with you at the quiz last night,” Harry says, shaking his head at the daft swan. “I think it was our worst performance yet.”

“I think you should have been in bed,” Draco says, apparently unconcerned by the beak now wedged in his underarm.

“They needed me,” Harry says grandly.

“And where did your team place, in spite of your vital presence?” Draco asks. “Dead last, was it?”

“Shut up,” Harry mutters, but he smiles anyway and only resists a little bit before telling Draco all about his evening, including all the bits that he knows will make him laugh, roll his eyes, or both. By the time he gets to the part about Ron arguing with the quizmaster over the difference between beetles and Beatles, Draco is using one hand to cover his face and the other to protect his coat buttons from Needle.

“He just wouldn’t let it go. I think we lost points for being difficult.”

“I wish I’d seen it,” Draco sighs.


Me too, Harry thinks, and then stops himself. He has no idea what he’s going to do next, but he is pretty sure that blurting, ‘actually, I think I love you’ in the middle of his place of work is not the answer.

“I rather thought you two would be pounding the streets by now,” Mr Borteg says, looming in the doorway to the distillery.

“I haven’t forgotten that I work here,” Harry says. “You know, selling spirits, lighting fires, making things look all clean and shiny.”

“I managed all of those things all by myself for many years, Harry,” Mr Borteg says, fingers twitching at the end of his plait, which today is tied with an elastic band and a sprig of holly. “Many, many years. Your community needs you, and I shall fend for myself.”

“If you’re sure, we do have quite a lot to do,” Harry says, taking one look at Mr Borteg’s expression and heading for the coat rack. “Thank you.”

“Take that swan with you, please. Yesterday it was trying to eat the labels from all the spiced rums,” Mr Borteg sighs and lurches back into the distillery.

“Bad Needle,” Draco says ineffectually. “We could find somewhere quiet and test out those Notice-me-Not charms.”

“We’ll need a sack,” Harry muses. “A whole one if possible.”

Draco brightens. “That reminds me.” He pulls a bag from his coat pocket and passes it to Harry. “Timothy gave me this. It’s one of the samples that came back from the Ministry. They tested them all and apparently… it’s some fabric from a sack.”

“That’s it?”

“It’s a piece of hessian from a standard goods sack. It’s not magical, it’s not special… it’s a sack,” Draco says with a shrug.

Harry sighs. “We’ve got nothing, have we?”

“That’s not true,” Draco says, getting to his feet. “We have string, we have fibres from a standard hessian goods sack… we have a suspect pool. That’s something.”

“Okay,” Harry tells himself, reaching for more of that cold-breeze-can-do feeling. “Why don’t we try to get a sack from every business on the alley? We can compare them, and then we can use some of them to test your Notice-me-Not idea.”

“Alright then,” Draco says, and the three of them walk out into the street.

Harry shivers and gazes down Diagon Alley, suddenly aware of just how long it is.

“This is going to take forever,” he sighs.

“No,” Draco says. “Divide and conquer. You take one side, Needle and I will take the other.”

“Meet in the middle for hot punch?” Harry suggests hopefully.

“Obviously.”

Harry glances at the shop beside Borteg’s and wonders. “What about her? She never answers her door if she’s not expecting someone.”

“She’s a Seer. Shouldn’t she always be expecting someone?” Draco says, smirking.

“That’s terrible,” Harry groans, smiling anyway. “I don’t suppose she’ll have any sacks, anyway. What would a Seer order in bulk?”

“Single-use crystal balls?”

Harry turns to him, drawn so tight by his smile that he doesn’t know if he wants to kiss him or hex him in the face.

“I’m going to go now,” he says firmly. “Needle will have to listen to your horrible jokes.”

“Needle thinks my jokes are brilliant,” Draco calls after him, and he tries so hard not to smile that his face begins to ache.

By lunchtime, Harry has collected an armful of hessian sacks, each of which he has carefully marked with the name of a shop and shrunk down to fit in his coat pocket. The process, while, straightforward, is slowed down by every shopkeeper wanting to talk to him about the investigation, his health, and in some cases, his love life.

“Very busy, Jean, very busy,” he insists, ducking out of Eeylops with her sack before she forces him into a chair by the fire and he loses his momentum completely.

Every now and then, he and Draco emerge from opposite shops at the same time, pausing to exchange weary or accomplished glances before moving on to the next, darting all around Diagon Alley with long scarves and winter coats and a swan, like some kind of Conan Doyle fever dream.

“Just you today?” Harry asks, letting himself into the quill shop.

Mr Jennings nods. “Young Sophie does occasionally remember that she works at Quality Quidditch Supplies.”

“It’s nice of her to help you.”

Mr Jennings grants him a rare smile. “She says I remind her of her father. He passed quite some time ago.”

“I suppose you help each other, then,” Harry says. “How’s business?”

“Slow,” Mr Jennings says simply. “Is that what you came here to ask me?”

“Er, no. I actually… you seem to have collected a few more presents for your tree since…”

“Yes. Those are going rather nicely, but most children do not want a quill in their Christmas stocking. It’s always a quiet time of year.”

Harry nods, thinking that Hermione would probably have loved one, even as a young child. He looks around the shop at the quills and bottles of ink and neat rolls of parchment.

“Maybe you could diversify,” he says, thinking out loud. “You could sell art supplies. Rose loves all that stuff.”

“Harry, I’ve just had a robbery,” Mr Jennings says, voice strained. Harry doesn’t correct him. “I don’t think this is the time to be spending money on new stock.”

Not for the first time, Harry silently deplores his lack of tact. “Right. Sorry. What I actually wanted to ask you is whether you ever get stock in sacks like these,” he says, showing Mr Jennings his half of the sample.

Mr Jennings leans closer and nods. “Yes. All the time.”

“Is there any chance I can have one?”

“Whatever for?”

“Just comparison purposes,” Harry explains. “It’ll really help a lot. We found these fibres at the scenes and the Ministry hasn’t found anything unusual on them. We want to do some tests of our own but we only have these little pieces and we could do with some whole ones to look at.”

“I don’t have any right now,” Mr Jennings says, looking around anxiously as though someone might burst through the door and start smashing up his ink bottles again. “I’ll get a delivery in a day or two if you’d like to come back then.”

Harry thanks him and leaves, knowing he’s said all the wrong things. No doubt Draco is charming everyone on his side of the street without even trying. When he enters the café, Mrs Purley’s bright smile lifts his mood effortlessly.

“All sorts come in these,” she says, when he hands her the sample. “They come from different companies but they’re all basically the same. Here, look.”

Mrs Purley ducks behind the counter and grabs a sack. She spreads it out so he can see ‘Goodman’s Quality Cheeses’ stamped across the fabric in dark blue ink.

“That comes full of cheese?” he asks, eyes wide.

“You’d be surprised by how much cheese we get through here,” Mrs Purley laughs.

Harry grins. “Do you ever re-use them for anything?”

Mrs Purley scoffs. “Not a chance, love. There’s no quality to them, they’re cheap. As soon as you put anything in them, they start to unravel. Look,” she says pulling gently at the top of the sack and easily fraying the fabric. “You get little pieces all over the place—like that.”

Harry looks at the bagged sample. “Okay. Any chance I can take that one?”

“If it’ll help,” she says, just as the door swings open and a small queue forms behind Harry. “Good luck with it, love.”

When Harry steps out of the café, Draco is waiting for him.

“It’s lunchtime. Currywurst on me?”

Harry doesn’t need to be asked twice. Before five minutes have passed, they are sitting on a bench with food and hot punch, comparing notes.

“I have sacks from everyone except Flourish and Blotts, who only use crates, and Florean, who was so busy that I almost offered to put on an apron and help,” Draco says. “How about you?”

“Mr Jennings didn’t have any and I upset him by making unhelpful noises about retail diversification,” Harry says, blowing on a steaming piece of sausage. “Not my finest moment.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I think I made Reuben cross, too,” Draco admits.

“It does a bit,” Harry says, smiling at his lunch. “What did you do?”

“I thought I was being friendly. I asked him about the wedding.” Draco grimaces. “I didn’t realise he and Felicity had split up.”

Harry wrinkles his nose. “That’s… yeah. I didn’t know either, if it helps.”

Draco sighs. “Then I tried to change the subject by telling him that we needed the sacks for our investigation, and he rather lost it. He said she was cruel and maybe she raided his till and took his unicorn horn just to spite him.”

“He actually accused her?” Harry asks, astonished.

“I don’t know if he really meant it, but I certainly think it’s worth talking to her. I haven’t done that section of the street yet anyway.”

“I think I’ll come with you,” Harry says, finishing his currywurst and draining his cup of punch. “Not that it makes any sense. If she was angry at Reuben, why not just steal from Reuben? Why bother messing with Jean and Mrs Purley and Mr Jennings, too?”

“I don’t know,” Draco sighs, struggling with Needle for possession of his empty paper cup and then letting it go. “It wouldn’t be the first time someone committed additional crimes to cover up a personal motive, but Felicity? She’s so…”

“So…?” Harry prompts, watching Needle, who is now flouncing around with the paper cup in his mouth.

“I’m searching for a better word than ‘nice’, but I’m struggling. Did you know, she comes to Sage every Sunday with her grandmother?”

“Ah. People who eat and people with grandmothers… two more things to cross off the suspect list,” Harry says, grinning.

“Behave. All they do is talk about which birds they’ve seen this week. Birds, Harry.”

“Yes,” Harry says, watching as Needle flings his paper cup into the air. “All birds are delightful and all people who like them are incapable of committing crimes.”

Draco snorts, vanishing his food tray and getting to his feet. He pauses. “Do you remember Corban Yaxley?”

“Vaguely,” Harry says, piling on the sarcasm. “What about him?”

“He was obsessed with flying things. He used to have a little book that he kept in his robe pocket. Sometimes, when we were out, he’d scribble in it for no reason. I took it once. It was nothing but the names of birds he’d seen,” Draco says as they walk around the edge of the ice rink and stop outside the florist’s shop.

Harry regards him curiously. “Right, well, I think you’ve sort of disproved your own point there, haven’t you?”

Draco glances at him and then walks into the shop without a word. Harry follows him, keeping a very close eye on Needle, whose fledgling self control is no match for an entire shop full of plants. At first, the place appears to be empty but then a blonde-haired woman emerges from a cloud of ferns and smiles at them. She tucks a pair of secateurs into her green apron and steps behind the counter. Sensing that he should let Draco take the lead on this, Harry looks around. Green things dangle from every rafter, vibrant flowers burst out of countless silver buckets and wash Harry’s vision in every colour of the rainbow. The air, so humid that he feels he might touch it, is drenched with scents that are sweet and spicy and exotic.

This is not Harry’s first visit, but Felicity’s shop is a little different every time, and there is always something new to see. As Draco shows her the fabric sample, Harry boots Needle gently away from a tub of ornamental grasses and jumps when something snakes over his shoulder and taps him on the nose.

“Tentacula?” he asks, stepping away and watching the vine retreat innocently.

“A non-venomous relative,” Felicity says. “I’m breeding them as pets.”

“I have a feeling Mr Borteg would like them. Maybe I’ll get him one for Christmas,” Harry says.

Felicity smiles. “I’ll just get that sack for you.”

“You might want to control your swan,” Harry whispers when she runs into the back. “This place is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for him.”

“Needle, come here,” Draco instructs, and the swan settles in the middle of the shop floor. “Well, I suppose that’s something.”

“Here you are,” Felicity says, returning with yet another hessian sack. “I hope it helps.”

“Thank you,” Draco says, accepting it and seeming to steel himself. “Just one more thing… we spoke to Reuben this morning and he told us that the two of you were no longer together.”

Felicity’s smile fades. “That’s right. He dumped me about a month ago. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“He suggested…” Draco hesitates.

“He told us he thought you might have been the one that stole his cash and his stock,” Harry says.

“He what?!” Felicity demands, eyes growing wide and fingers balling into fists at her sides.

“He thought it might be revenge,” Draco says, looking like he wants to take a step back.

“Because he chucked me?” Felicity cries. “My god. That man is jealous and petty and… you know why he ended things? He thought I was having an affair.”

“And were you?” Draco asks.

Harry kicks him in the ankle but Felicity shrugs, anger fading to a simmer.

“No. I was only being friendly with Wayne from the fruit stall and he couldn’t stand it.” She smiles briefly. “I am going out with him now, though. Reuben can go and stick his head where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Back out in the street, Harry and Draco stare at each other. Needle, apparently cross at not being allowed to eat any of Felicity’s plants, hisses to himself and patters around their feet.

“She was very angry,” Draco says.

“Yeah. I think it was real anger, too. She seemed genuinely surprised that Reuben would say something like that. I don’t think she did it.”

“Neither do I,” Draco admits. “Do you think we should warn Reuben that she’s on the war path?”

“Nah. Being yelled at for a bit might do him good, the miserable bugger.”

Draco laughs, and together they wander through the market, collecting sacks where they can and inspecting the goods for sale.

“I’ve got the strongest compulsion to buy you a deerstalker,” Harry says, delighted when the stallholder rummages in a box and presents him with one.

Ignoring his protests, he puts it on Draco’s head and stands back to admire his profile. Draco arches an eyebrow.

“I suppose that would make you Watson, would it?”

“No,” Harry says quickly and then stops. “You know what? Yeah, I’ll take Watson. He’s clever, he’s brave, he’s a doctor and a veteran… Sherlock Holmes would be nothing without Watson.”

“Oh, really?” Draco smiles slowly and Harry’s knees turn to water.

“Hang on, how is it you know about Sherlock Holmes but you haven’t heard of Shakespeare?”

“I never said I hadn’t heard of Shakespeare,” Draco says, passing the deerstalker back to the man behind the stall. “I was merely expressing confusion as to why you were quoting Mark Anthony for no good reason. Here, how about a hat for you?”

Harry allows the hat to be placed on his head and then looks in the mirror held up by the stallholder.

“I’m not sure Watson ever wore a fez,” he says, pretending he doesn’t notice how pink his face looks.

“Sherlock Holmes never wore a deerstalker, either, but you didn’t hear me complaining.”

“That’s not true, Draco. I heard you complaining a lot,” Harry says, smiling apologetically at the disappointed stallholder and starting back up the alley.

Draco says nothing but ruffles his hair back into place and hurries to catch up. Darkness is falling by the time they have asked for sacks from every shopkeeper and stallholder, and Needle has begun to express his displeasure at the whole enterprise by hissing loudly and sitting down in protest every few yards.

“He’s probably tired,” Harry says, with half a mind to pick him up and guess his weight.

“He didn’t have to come,” Draco points out, but he scoops Needle into his arms and deposits him in Sage’s lobby. “Shall we go and try out this charm?”

Harry yawns and stretches. “Now?”

“Aha,” Draco mutters, drawing close to the window of Cherish and peering inside. “That might just be the one.”

Nonplussed, Harry gazes into the window, too. “What are we looking at?”

“That,” Draco says, pointing to a delicate cup with a gold handle, decorated with stars and filigree designs and resting on a matching saucer. The cup has been stuffed with all sorts of delicious things, including marshmallows, crackleballs, and one of Shan’s speciality hot-chocolate-on-a-stick treats.

“It’s nice,” Harry says, wriggling his frozen fingers and thinking that a cup of hot chocolate would be pretty fantastic right about now. “Who’s it for?”

“My mother.”

Harry laughs. “She must have a thousand cups to go at over there.”

“My cups are of no consequence to her,” Draco says with an affectionate smile. “They’re plain and white and boring. My mother has an affinity for cups. She has cupboards full of them at home and insists that she uses them all. They make her happy, and I think she will like this one.”

“In that case, you should get it,” Harry says, fingers pressed to the cold glass as something warm and aching takes up residence in his stomach.

“Back for more crackleballs already?” Shan laughs, and it takes Harry a moment to realise that Draco has wandered into the shop without him.

**~*~**

That night, when Rose has been packed off to bed, he sits cross-legged on Ron and Hermione’s hearth rug and fills them in on the investigation. Florean might have said not to tell anyone else, but as far as Harry is concerned, ‘tell no one’ has always meant ‘just tell Ron and Hermione’. They are both incredibly trustworthy people, and besides, he doesn’t think he could keep a secret from them if he tried.

“So, it worked then?” Ron says, topping up Harry’s glass of wine.

“Yeah. We got a load of stuff from the shop to simulate the cash and presents, and then we tried each sack with the Notice-Me-Not,” Harry says. “Thanks. It was really effective, but I’m not sure how much it helps us. It could still be anyone on the street, except for Mrs Purley, Jean, Mr Jennings or Reuben.”

“And why not them?” Hermione asks.

“They’re the victims,” Ron says. He doesn’t add ‘obviously’ but he doesn’t need to.

“You shouldn’t make assumptions,” Hermione says, and then sighs. “It’s fair, though. What are you going to do next?”

“I don’t know,” Harry admits. He picks at the fluffy fibres of the rug and groans. “I don’t know what I’m doing about anything.”

“I think you do,” Hermione says with a small smile. “You’re just scared to do it.”

“I’m not scared,” Harry protests. “Except I am. And I don’t want to look like a complete tit, especially if ‘I like you’ just means ‘I want to go to bed with you and then forget it’. Let’s face it, I’m not going to come out of this well and I can’t do casual, I’ve tried. I’m just a bit…”

“All or nothing?” Ron suggests.

Hermione laughs. “A hopeless romantic?”

“Oh, god,” Harry groans, folding himself into a ball and pressing his hands to his face. “Is it really that bad?”

“I don’t think Draco is a casual sort of bloke,” Ron says thoughtfully. “He’s… you know… intense and a bit weird, but I think if you check the label on that coat of his, it’ll say… ‘commitment’.”

Harry watches through his fingers as Ron sketches the word in the air with a sweeping gesture. Hermione looks as though she’s about to choke on her wine. After a moment, she puts her glass down and howls with laughter.

Ron blinks. “What’s so funny?”

“You,” she says breathlessly. “You see, Harry, this is one of the benefits of marriage. Free entertainment for the rest of your life.”

“Charming,” Ron mutters. He frowns and peers at Harry. “What I want to know is, how is that you were able to take down someone like Voldemort but telling Draco Malfoy how you feel is such a bloody drama?”

“Oddly enough, Ron, those things rely on two very different skill sets,” Harry says, emerging from behind his fingers and reaching for his wine glass.

“Let’s change the subject, shall we?” Hermione says, much to Harry’s relief. “Rose said she enjoyed walking back from school with Draco yesterday.”

“How is that changing the subject?” Harry asks, and she shrugs.

“We’re talking about Rose now.”

“Fine,” Harry says. “I’m glad Rose enjoyed herself. How’s Rose doing at school? Is Rose excited for Christmas?”

“Apparently, they talked about spiders,” Hermione says.

“Do we have to talk about spiders while we’re eating?” Ron complains.

“We’re not eating.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ron says, reaching for the biscuit tin and stuffing two ginger nuts into his mouth in one bite. “No spider talk.”

“I could go for a spider talk,” Harry says. Talking about spiders has to be better than talking about Draco.

Ron groans through a mouthful of biscuit and Hermione smiles.

“Rose tells me that Draco likes spiders.”

Chapter Text

Seventeenth of December – a chocolate dispensing money box machine 



Harry walks slowly through the crowds of weekend shoppers, sipping his mulled punch and stopping whenever he feels like it to look at anything that catches his eye. With a vague intention of proving to Esmee that he isn’t one of those young people who leaves everything to the last minute, he has made a list of potential Christmas presents and stuffed it into his coat pocket. In reality, however, he has been wandering around for over an hour already and has failed to buy anything but a cup of hot punch and a bacon sandwich.

Despite his inefficiency, he feels oddly serene as the snow falls softly around him and dusts the shoulders of the skaters on the ice. He stops to watch them, hands wrapped tightly around his hot cup, and smiles to himself at the memory of Draco’s attempts to stay upright. Harry sighs, and his breath sends spicy steam spiralling into the cold air. It’s all so clear now, and though the weight of it makes every step that little bit harder, Harry doesn’t care. He loves this inexplicable man, with his terrible jokes and his stalking walk and his pure, unashamed reverence for his mother. He loves Draco, and it feels comfortable and brand new at the same time, like hearing your favourite song after years of self-imposed silence. Idly, Harry wonders what sort of song Draco would be and then stops when there’s a rustle and a brief count and then the sound of perfectly harmonised voices.

Harry looks around to see a group of men and women in rich red robes gathered next to the ice. All movement in the area stops for a moment as their, warm, soulful rendition of ‘Silent Night’ seems to swell and fill every available bit of space. He remembers discussing and voting on the choir as part of Diagon Alley’s winter festival, but their sudden appearance and pure festive brilliance is a surprise.

“Florean, you’re a clever man,” he mumbles to himself, fishing out some coins to throw into the nearest donation tin.

Deciding that Draco definitely isn’t ‘Silent Night’, he continues to browse the market stalls, humming along with the choir and making Daraja laugh with delight.

“Are you going to join them?” she asks, and Harry is pleased to see that she is holding a tray of currywurst.

“You don’t want to hear me sing, I promise. It’s good, isn’t it?”

“The singing or this?” she asks, pointing to her steaming tray.

“Both!” Harry laughs.

“Both,” she agrees. “How is Elegua?”

“Elegua is…” Harry hesitates, thinking of the flash of heat and Draco looking sad and Esmee’s stern face. “Actually, he’s pretty good. He’s leading me in a different direction than I expected, but I think I might be alright with that.”

Daraja laughs. “Elegua is wise, but he is also strong willed. I wonder if your friend has also asked the Orisha for guidance.”

“I don’t know,” Harry admits, trying to imagine Draco in his kitchen, asking a piece of glass for advice.

“But you are happy,” she says, biting into a piece of currywurst.

Harry smiles at her. “I think I’m getting there.”

“So, what do these do?” asks a teenage girl, pointing at the Orisha objects with silver-painted fingernails.

Harry says goodbye to Daraja and wanders on, past two little boys having their faces painted like gargoyles, past the smiley lady at the sweet stall, and back towards Borteg’s. The shop is packed, and Mr Borteg has no time to comment when Harry breezes in and spends a good half an hour selecting the perfect whisky for Molly and Arthur’s Christmas present. He does, however, apply a heavy discount at the till and treat Harry to a smile that is festive and brilliantly macabre all at once.

Next, Harry heads to Cherish, where he knows he can pick up delicious presents for almost everybody. He has learned, through years of trial and error, that simple edible gifts always go down well with his family, and come free of the awkwardness that flashier efforts often bring. He is all too happy with this arrangement, especially where Molly’s fudge and Ron’s chocolate biscuits are concerned. There is always the possibility that Hermione will try to make macarons again, but it’s probably best not to worry about it. Or think about it at all.

Instinctively, Harry checks that his teeth aren’t stuck together and then continues his circuit of the shop. He picks up glossy chocolate buttons for Hugo, a box of delicate chocolate teabags with assorted aromatic flavours for Hermione, and a set of dipping sauces for Ron that includes salted caramel, fiery chilli chocolate and the intriguingly named ‘explosive surprise’. With some effort and a lot of ‘excuse me’-s, he fights his way through the swarms and collects chocolate animals, moving chocolate machines and bags full of whizzing, glittering treats for the rest of his family. Halfway to the till, he checks his list and remembers that he still needs a gift for Rose.

“You look like you need a basket,” Shan says, closing her cash drawer with a clang.

“Have you got one?”

“No,” she laughs, “but if you stick all that lot here next to the till, you can go and get whatever it is you’ve just remembered you’ve forgotten.”

Harry flashes her a grateful smile and dumps his purchases on the counter. He begins another loop of the shop, picking up boxes and putting them back down. On the last shelf by the door, he spots a shiny red object and picks it up. There’s a slot for coins and an empty glass-fronted section.

“What is this?” he asks, carrying it to the counter.

“It’s a money box,” Esmee says. “You fill it with chocolate or sweets, and whenever you put money in it to save, you get a treat.”

“I wonder if that would work on me,” Harry muses, and Esmee laughs.

“We did design it for children, but I’d be very happy to sell you one.”

“It’s for Rose,” Harry says, grinning.

“And that’s what we’ll tell everyone,” Shan says as she walks into the back room.

Harry looks at the money box thoughtfully. Of course, what he had really wanted to buy Rose was a ruler with spiders on it, but he has been reliably informed that she will be getting one in her Christmas stocking, shatter-proof and foldable, courtesy of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. The money box gleams in the lamplight, gold highlights glittering with brand new perfection.

“Okay. I’ll have this, and whatever chocolate goes in it, please.”

Five minutes later, Harry leaves Cherish with several bags, the heaviest containing a chocolate-dispensing money box stuffed to the brim with crackleballs. Realising that he is absolutely ravenous, he starts to walk back down to the market and then stops, remembering Phillippe’s cheese toasties. He hesitates, letting the snowflakes settle on his skin and coat. There’s every chance that Narcissa will be there and he doesn’t think he is her favourite person right now… but then again…

“Cheese toasties,” he tells himself, turning around and heaving his bags back up to Sage. “I’m not scared of Narcissa Malfoy.” He grabs the door handle. “Maybe a bit. But cheese toasties.”

Harry opens the door, ruffles the snow from his hair and navigates his way through the crowded dining room. When a waiter starts to move towards him, he smiles and points into the corner, where Narcissa and Draco are sitting. Where Narcissa, Draco, and Needle are sitting, he realises, amused to see that the swan has climbed onto a third chair and is now chomping on a linen napkin. Harry approaches this bizarre party to a smile from Draco and a look of deep suspicion from Narcissa. Today’s cup is fluted and sea green, decorated with tiny fishes that shoal constantly around the handle. Narcissa grips it with pale, elegant fingers and continues to stare at Harry.

“You can stop,” Draco says gently, and her expression softens the barest fraction. “Do you want a menu, Harry?”

“No, thanks,” he says, still hanging onto his bags. “I was thinking something with jus… or foam… or maybe a cheese toastie?”

Draco laughs. “You know, ordering off-menu is pretty fancy, but I’ll see what I can do.”

He gets up from the table and Harry watches him leave, startled when Narcissa speaks to him.

“Don’t play with him, Mr Potter.”

Harry’s heart lurches. “Excuse me?”

She grips her cup with both hands and stares right into him with pale blue eyes. “Draco was raised a certain way. He was taught to hide himself, to hide pain, at any cost. That was the Malfoy way,” she says, pressing her lips together as though to prevent herself from saying what she really wants to. “I cannot change it now, but I will do whatever I need to in order to help him find happiness. Do you understand?”

“If I hurt him, you’re going to hurt me?” Harry says before he thinks better of it.

Narcissa’s mouth flickers at the corners in a smile so like Draco’s that Harry has to look away.

“I’m not in the business of hurting people, Harry. I’m just asking that you take care. Draco cares deeply for you, and there is nothing in the world I care more about than Draco.”

“Okay,” Harry says, knowing he should stay and brazen it out but wanting nothing more than to run away before he explodes from the intensity of her attention.

“Good.” She sips her tea and pets Needle gently on the head. “Would you like to sit down?”

Harry would not, but he sits anyway, releasing his bags and rubbing at his sore hands. To his dismay, Draco returns with his toastie on a plate rather than in a bag, and he is forced to eat it while Draco and Narcissa talk idly about the snow and the impact it might have on the evening’s bookings. It is still the best toastie he has ever had, but he is too tense to enjoy it, and his mouth is so dry that he coughs every few mouthfuls, but daren’t ask for a glass of water in case Draco leaves him alone with his mother again.

Finally, when his plate is clear and the topic of the weather has been exhausted, Draco kisses his mother on the cheek and retrieves his coat.

“We have detective work to do. I’ll see you later.”

Narcissa smiles at him and Harry says a polite goodbye before picking up his bags and walking as fast as he can out into the street.

“I thought I ought to rescue you,” Draco says, ushering Needle out of the restaurant and closing the door behind them. “There seemed to be an atmosphere.”

“Took you long enough,” Harry groans.

He hurries through Borteg’s and into the distillery, where he finds an empty cup and spells water into it. He drinks the whole thing without stopping to breathe and then collapses into his chair.

“I didn’t want to rush you while you were eating,” Draco says. “And we do serve drinks, you know.”

Harry sits up straight. “I didn’t pay for that toastie.”

“I know. I should tell the papers—imagine the headline: ‘Harry Potter in cheese toastie scandal’. I could make a fortune,” Draco says, throwing his coat over the back of his chair and sitting in it with a sly smile.

“How much?” Harry asks. It’s been a long time since he made the front pages, and that suits him just fine.

Draco laughs. “My treat. You didn’t look like you were having a particularly pleasant time.”

“The toastie was nice… I think,” Harry says, frowning. “Your mother, she’s… she looked at me like she could see my insides. It was a bit unsettling.”

“Ah. Well, that’s a Black thing,” Draco says helpfully. “She used to look at me like that when I was little, if she thought I was lying.”

“I don’t think I’d dare,” Harry admits. “Did you really want to do detective stuff or were you, in fact, lying to your mother?”

“I didn’t lie to her as a child and I don’t lie to her now,” Draco says with a grin. “She would know.”

“She’s not a Legilimens, is she?” Harry asks. Hopes.

Draco shakes his head. “No… she’s more like one of those Muggle devices with the wires and the scribbly bits. I’ve seen them on the television but I can’t remember their name.”

“You watch television?” Harry asks, staring at him.

“I do all sorts of things,” Draco says, folding his arms. “Now tell me what the thing is called.”

“A polygraph, I think?” Harry suggests.

“That’s the one. My mother is a walking polygraph. Bless her.”

“I’m not sure what to say to that,” Harry admits. Setting down his empty cup, he stares at the map on the wall and then at his notes, repelling Needle when he tries to scrabble up to share his chair. “You know, I really feel like we’re missing something here.”

“Perhaps we should take my mother with us to question everyone,” Draco says with a wry smile. “That might give us a bit of direction.”

“Direction?” Harry repeats, looking up. “Right. Let’s give it another go.”

“I was joking,” Draco calls after him as he jumps up and runs into the shop.

He returns with the Orisha cube and sits on the edge of the desk. “Alright, Elegua, let’s try again.”

“I don’t think mine works,” Draco says, wrinkling his nose. “I tried to ask it for help a couple of times and it just showed me…”

“What?” Harry asks, hiding a smile when Draco flushes and shrugs.

“Unhelpful things.”

Harry fixes his attention on the cube, feeling his heart race and his breath catch at the thought of what those unhelpful things could be. With a deep, cleansing breath, he attempts to clear his mind, this time edging Draco out to the edges of his consciousness with ease and concentrating on the image of Diagon Alley, and of the crime scenes, one after another, over and over until the warmth from the cube travels right into his chest and the glass burns against his palms.

His eyes fly open.

“Did you see something?” Draco asks, getting to his feet.

“No… it was more of an idea,” Harry says, setting the cube down carefully. “What if we looked at all the victims of the crimes instead of the perpetrator? See if there’s something that connects them all?”

Draco stares at him and then at the cube, which is now flickering gently on the desk.

“That is… a very good idea. How come yours works and mine doesn’t?”

“Did you clear your mind?”

“Of course. My mind is completely under my control,” Draco says, striding over to Mr Borteg’s desk and rearranging his quills.

Harry says nothing. Instead, he unrolls a new piece of parchment and tacks it down to the desk. He writes ‘Mrs Purley’ in one corner and then adds the other three victims, giving each a corner and plenty of space to write notes.

“Okay. Let’s start with the obvious—they all own businesses on Diagon Alley,” he says, writing his observation in the middle of the parchment.

“They’re all single,” Draco says, now pacing the floor and fiddling with the ends of his hair. “Reuben just ended his engagement, Jean’s a widow, Mrs Purley has been divorced for years, and Mr Jennings never married.”

Harry nods and scribbles furiously. Needle’s head rises slowly above the desk and he rips a piece of parchment from the chart, running away with it before Harry can do a thing to stop him.

He sighs. “They’re all over… forty?” he offers. “I’m not really sure about Reuben.”

“He’s definitely forty. I remember him moaning about it,” Draco says. “He didn’t want to get old, but then Felicity threw a party for him and he cheered up a bit.”

Harry writes ‘over forty’ at the bottom of the list. “What about political views?”

Draco stops pacing and frowns. “Well, during the last Ministry elections, Jean put up signs in her shop banning political discussion.”

“I remember that,” Harry laughs, and then points with his pen. “Mr Jennings is in one of those ‘keep power at the grass roots’ groups, so…”

“Probably not, then.”

“No.” Harry chews on his nail.

“Stop it,” Draco says, and Harry looks up guiltily to see that he is leaning against the wall of the distillery, shirt sleeves rolled up to expose pale forearms and the faded Mark, brown leather braces letting his trousers hang just right on his hips.

Harry is weak. Draco’s hair, dishevelled into soft waves, hangs over one eye, while the other fixes on Harry with gut-wrenching intensity.

“About what I said the other day,” he begins, voice scratchy and dry.

Draco rakes his hair from his eyes and shrugs. “I told you, Harry, it’s fine. I’m not going to fall apart.”

No, but I might, Harry thinks, every muscle in his body stretched tight with the effort of keeping himself in place.

“Please stop worrying about it,” Draco says, and his voice is so kind that Harry’s words of protest disappear into the cool air. “There must be more things that link these people.”

“I don’t know… they all use the same fucking sacks?” Harry sighs, wishing for just an ounce of the bravery it would take to walk across that floor and kiss Draco senseless.

“It’s worth writing down,” Draco says.

Harry writes it down.

Chapter Text

Eighteenth of December – Christmas socks 



“Here’s where we’re going to be in case you need us,” Hermione says, shoving a leaflet into Harry’s hands and rummaging through her handbag. “Rose, are you ready?”

“No,” Rose says, appearing in the kitchen doorway. “I can’t find my socks.”

“You have plenty of socks in your drawer. I put them there last night.”

“I need the green ones to go with my jumper,” Rose protests, but Hermione, lost in a whirl of organisation, doesn’t seem to hear her.

“You could wear some of these,” Ron says, lifting his foot to show off a woolly pair of red and white argyles. With a grin, he presses the topmost stripe and the socks begin to emit an off-kilter rendition of ‘White Christmas’.

“They won’t fit me, Daddy,” she sighs. “And they’re red.”

“Rose, my main concern is that you don’t end up with frostbite,” Hermione says without looking up from her rummaging. “Castles are cold and we won’t be able to use any magic.”

“You could spell some of your other socks green,” Harry suggests, shifting Hugo on his lap.

“Why didn’t I think of that?” Ron sighs. “Go and grab some socks, Rosie, and we’ll see what we can do. What you do you think of these, then?”

Harry looks at the socks, which are still singing away to themselves. “They’re… the best pair of musical socks I’ve ever seen,” he says at last.

Ron grins. “I thought you might say that. That’s why I bought you a pair as well.”  He reaches into his pocket and presents Harry with an identical pair of woollen socks. “Let’s just check they work.”

He presses the stripe on the new pair, and soon the kitchen is filled with the sound of ‘White Christmas’, both pairs of socks blasting out a different part of the song and neither managing to stay in key.

“Brilliant,” Harry says, covering Hugo’s ears when his lip begins to wobble.

“Bing Crosby is spinning in his grave,” Hermione mutters when the song comes to an end.

“Bing isn’t a name, it’s a funny noise,” Ron says, grinning. “Bing!”

Harry laughs, barely protesting when Ron forces him to remove his ordinary grey socks and put on the new ones. They are warm, he’ll give him that, and the floor of the cottage is chilly despite the crackling fire in the grate. Then again, he supposes it is only seven o’clock in the morning and the sky outside is still completely dark. Rose’s Christmas treat this year is a visit to a real castle in the countryside that promises stalls and activities and, according to Hermione’s research, the best Santa’s grotto in the country. As per tradition, the three of them are also planning to go out for a proper breakfast before they set off, and Harry has been drafted in to take care of Hugo.

“You’ll be big enough to go with them soon,” he tells the little boy, who yawns and winds little fingers into his own curls.

“He’ll have to behave himself,” Rose says seriously, returning with a pair of white socks and presenting them to her father.

“Obviously,” Harry agrees. He catches Hugo’s yawn and covers it with the back of his hand.

“Are you going to be alright?” Hermione asks anxiously.

“No. The second you leave, I’m going to turn into a pumpkin and Hugo’s going to eat me.”

“Good for him, eating his vegetables,” Ron says, grinning. With a significant look at Rose, he points his wand at her socks and turns them a vivid lime green.

“They don’t match my jumper but I like them,” Rose says, and she puts them on. “Thank you.”

Hermione glances at the clock and then at Harry. “Sorry it’s so early. It’s just that the queues…”

“Go,” Harry says firmly. “Have a brilliant time and bring me back something ugly with glitter on it.”

Hermione smiles and leans down to hug him. “Thank you. Rose, put your shoes on.”

She kisses Hugo and buttons herself into a red wool coat that clashes brilliantly with Ron and Rose’s hair. With one last look around the kitchen, she slings her bag onto her shoulder and nods to her family.

“Let’s go.”

“Bye, Uncle Harry, Bye Hugo,” Rose calls as Ron picks her up, and then they are gone.

“What shall we do first?” Harry asks Hugo. “Wreck the house or shave your head?”

Hugo giggles. “Kingsley!”

“You know, a lesser man might be offended by that. I’m your Uncle Harry.”

“Kingsley!” Hugo repeats, beaming up into Harry’s face.

“I suppose he is a very handsome dog,” Harry concedes.

“See Kingsley?” Hugo tries, pressing his little hands to Harry’s chest. “Kingsley?”

“We can see Kingsley later, I promise,” Harry says. “We’ll go to Grandma and Grandad’s and we’ll eat loads of food and we’ll see Kingsley. If you like, we can probably see him trying to eat whatever Grandma has made for lunch. I think it’s roast beef this week. Would you like to see Kingsley eat a whole joint of roast beef?”

“Yes,” Hugo says solemnly.

“Then it’s settled. This afternoon, we’ll watch Granny getting very angry, and this morning, I’m going to finish my coffee and then we’re going to go and look in your toy box for something brightly coloured and noisy.”

Hugo laughs and squirms and Harry reaches for his cup, taking care to keep it well out of the little boy’s reach. He has barely taken a sip when the flames in the fireplace turn green and Draco’s face appears.

“This is unexpected,” Harry says with a smile.

“Why are you so difficult to find?” Draco demands, frantic tone of voice sending Harry’s pulse racing.

“What’s the matter?”

“I tried every fireplace in your house, and then I tried the Weasleys’—”

“This is the Weasleys’,” Harry points out.

“No, the Weasley-Weasleys,” Draco snaps. “Molly and Arthur. They said you’d be here.”

“And I am,” Harry says, unable to stop himself imagining Molly’s reaction to finding a furious Draco in her fire at seven o’clock in the morning. “Will you just tell me what’s wrong?”

Draco sighs, closing his eyes for a moment and taking a long breath. “Borteg’s has been broken into. So has Sage. We think it happened in the early hours of this morning.”

Harry inhales sharply, clutching Hugo to him as something cold prickles through his veins.

“I thought it had stopped. God, that was stupid. Is Mr Borteg okay? Is your mother?”

“Everyone is fine, but it’s all a bit of a mess,” Draco says. He hesitates. “I thought we’d seen the last of it, too.”

“I’ll come now,” Harry says, ignoring Draco’s next words as he gets to his feet and Disapparates in one hurried movement.

The icy wind hits him the moment he arrives in Diagon Alley and he gasps, sheltering Hugo against his body and hurrying to meet Draco, who is standing in the street between Borteg’s and Sage with a lantern in his hand.

“You brought him with you?” he asks, gazing at Hugo and then down at Harry’s feet. “Do you know you’re not wearing any shoes?”

Harry follows his eyes and groans, suddenly aware of the frost underfoot and the freezing water soaking through his woollen socks.

“I just wanted to get here,” he mumbles, feeling of utter stupidity only heightened when the sound of ‘White Christmas’ echoes around the empty street. “Oh, good.”

“Are your socks… singing?” Draco asks, eyebrows disappearing under a fall of pale hair.

“They aren’t supposed to do it at random,” Harry says, because he has to say something.

“I can lend you some shoes,” Draco offers, sounding about as bewildered as Harry feels. “One moment.”

Left alone in the dark street, Harry stands perfectly still as his mind races ahead of him. He looks between the two shopfronts, noting the bare trees with a grimace. The door of Borteg’s swings open and out steps an unmistakeable figure.

“Harry?” Mr Borteg calls, lighting his wand.

“I’m here. Draco called me. He’ll be back in a minute,” Harry says, trying not to draw attention to the fact that he isn’t wearing shoes.

Mr Borteg steps closer. In the ghostly wandlight, his face looks paler than ever, and his usual neat plait is missing, leaving his long hair to flutter in the wind.

“They took the presents,” he says softly. “The new magic on our till seems to have outsmarted them.”

“That’s something, I suppose,” Harry says. “Were you upstairs when it happened?”

“Indeed. I’m afraid I sleep rather heavily. I had no idea that anything was wrong until Draco started pounding at my door and telling me that… how did he put it? Ah, yes. My window ‘didn’t look right.’”

“Your window?” Harry repeats, frowning.

“I think that’s how they got in this time,” Draco says, returning with a pair of shoes and handing them to Harry.

Mr Borteg glances at his feet with interest but says nothing as Harry dries his socks with a spell and laces up the shoes, all the while balancing Hugo against his hip.

“To whom does that child belong?” he asks at last.

“Ron and Hermione. He’s Rose’s brother,” Harry says.

“Ah, yes, I see the resemblance now,” Mr Borteg nods, apparently untroubled by Hugo’s presence at a double crime scene.

“What’s happening with the windows?” Harry asks.

Draco puts his hands in his coat pockets as a savage gust of wind rips through the street.

“We’ve both put extra security measures on our doors and tills,” he explains. “I think they got in by breaking the windows under a silencing charm. Look at this.”

Harry, Hugo, and Mr Borteg follow Draco to Sage’s biggest window, where the light from the lantern illuminates an unusual ripple in the glass.

“That’s where you think it was broken?” Harry asks.

“That’s where I think it was fixed,” Draco says. “Anyone can break a window but not everyone can repair one properly.”

“Our window looks much the same,” Mr Borteg says. “I cannot be sure I would have noticed it, though, at least not immediately.”

Harry sighs. “I suppose that’s what he or she was hoping for—that they’d be long gone by the time anyone wondered why their window looked a bit funny.”

“I think Needle knew something was going on,” Draco says suddenly. “There was no sound, but he started up the most dreadful hissing and crackling. That’s what woke me up.”

“Where is he?” Harry asks, looking around for the swan.

“He’s with my mother, in her bedroom. They both seemed unnerved by the situation, so they’ve holed up in there with tea and her quilting project.”

The thought of Needle ‘helping’ Narcissa with her quilt almost makes Harry smile.

“Kingsley?” Hugo tries, reaching out to Mr Borteg with grasping little hands.

“I think he’s confused,” Draco says, frowning.

“Is he more confused if Kingsley is a red setter or the Minister for Magic?” Harry wonders.

“Not one of those words made sense,” Draco says.

“Would you like me to take the little one?” Mr Borteg asks.

Harry stares at him in astonishment but Mr Borteg merely holds out his spindly arms and waits. Of course, it now seems obvious that he should have taken Hugo to the Burrow, but, as usual, he just jumped into action without thinking and now there’s work to be done, as well as a baffled toddler and a very strange man who genuinely wants to help. Still, he’s a strange man that Harry trusts completely, and perhaps holding a wriggling child will take his mind off things, too.

“Thank you,” Harry says, allowing Mr Borteg to take the little boy.

Hugo seems unconcerned by this move and sets about tangling his fingers in Mr Borteg’s loose hair.

“Children are much the same as they have ever been, I see,” he says, jigging Hugo gently and treating him to a ghoulish smile.

Hugo giggles. “Again?”

When Harry turns to Draco, his tight expression has relaxed and he’s almost smiling as he watches them together.

“They took all the presents from under the tree,” he says, eyes still trained on Mr Borteg and Hugo. “A couple of very nice sets of knives, too. The chefs are going to be furious.”

“What about your till?”

Draco gives him a grim smile. “No. It was far too well-protected.”

“He’s getting sloppy,” Harry says, rolling his eyes when ‘White Christmas’ starts to drift out of his socks again. “He’s panicking. He can’t get the cash any more so he’s taking whatever he can sell.”

“Five bottles of Borteg’s own and some very fine elf-made tumblers,” Mr Borteg adds. “Several more bottles smashed. Are you biting my finger, young sir?”

Harry leans against the cold stone of Sage’s shopfront. “This is making less and less sense. Why two in one night?”

“Perhaps it’s all about the excitement,” Draco suggests. “Perhaps everything we’ve thought of so far is irrelevant and this is just someone who wants to create as much havoc as possible.”

“Okay, but why these two businesses? There are others on the street that have less security than us. Places where they wouldn’t have had to break a window and seal it up again.” Harry rubs at his cold face and gazes down the dark alley. “I think we were targets. All of us.”

Draco looks, too, and when he turns back to Harry, his face is set. “In which case, it’s even more important that we concentrate on what connects us all.”

“Should we look at the scene?” Harry asks, reluctant to see what the thief has done to either business.

“I’m waiting for Timothy. I called him just before I called you, but I’m assuming he decided to get dressed first,” Draco says with a flicker of a smile.

Harry flushes and looks down at his borrowed shoes.

I’m dreaming of a…” the socks begin, and he silences them with a violent slash of his wand.

“I’m going to kill Ron,” he mutters. “Okay, I’ll take Hugo to the Burrow and then I’ll come back.”

“We’ll try not to start without you,” Draco says, smothering a yawn. “Good grief, it’s not even daytime yet. This whole thing is completely uncivilised.”

“Yes, because what we really need is a criminal who keeps more sociable hours,” Harry says, taking Hugo from Mr Borteg and noticing how the little boy fusses and reaches out for the spindly man. “Thank you. You’re really good with him.”

“I shall look forward to our next meeting,” Mr Borteg says, granting Hugo a little jerky nod.

Harry wraps his jumper around Hugo as best he can and Disapparates, touching down in the garden of the Burrow and letting himself into the house without ceremony. Molly is sitting at the kitchen table in her dressing gown and she clutches her cup of tea in horror as Harry explains the morning’s events. She takes Hugo and spells a glowing warming charm around him, letting him sit in her lap and fiddle with the fluffy tie of her robe.

“You won’t tell Ron and Hermione, will you? I mean, not until they come home? I really want them to have a good day and we both know they’ll come running back if they know something’s happened.”

“I won’t say a word,” Molly promises.

“The other thing is… I don’t think I’ll be able to make lunch today,” he says, and Molly fixes him with a stern eye.

“This is much more important than lunch, Harry. Diagon Alley is a place where people should feel safe, and what you and Draco are doing is going to help a lot of people,” she tells him, and then her expression softens. “Maybe he’s the right one for you after all.”

“Maybe he is,” Harry agrees, and his heart swells in approval.

He is still smiling to himself when he reaches Borteg’s and finds Timothy and Draco peering at the poorly-repaired glass.

“It’s definitely a reconstruction spell and not a very good one,” Timothy says, drawing his wand over the area and producing an odd crackle of orange light. “The same on the other side.”

Harry glances over at Draco’s window. “What about inside?”

“It’s a mess, but there isn’t much to see,” Draco says, opening the door and holding it open for Harry and Timothy.

Mr Borteg hurries out of the distillery. “All of the kits are safe,” he announces, seeming to sag with relief. “I have tested every single still and barrel now, and they are all undisturbed.”

“Which makes me think that this person knows very little about whisky,” Draco says. “If he really wanted to upset Mr Borteg, he would have destroyed the maturing barrels.”

Harry nods, but as he looks around the shop, he can’t help thinking that the thief has done a pretty good job of trying to upset Mr Borteg. The whole place is in disarray, hampers thrown around and so many bottles smashed that the air is thick with the smell of alcohol. The abandoned Christmas tree lies on its side and all of the presents and baubles are gone.

Over at Sage, it’s a similar story; this time, the kitchen has been the main focus, with ruined food smeared across every surface and several expensive items missing. The dining room floor reveals a set of shoe prints that seem to point to a hurried departure. Draco crouches to examine one of the prints while Timothy takes photographs.

“It looks like a boot print. Quite a heavy one.”

Harry unsnags several hessian fibres from a wrought iron chair. “Boots and a sack… why can’t I shake off the feeling that we’re being terrorised by Santa Claus?”

Timothy laughs. “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t usually take presents.”

“There is nothing usual about any of this,” Draco says, and then: “I thought you’d turned those off.”

“What? Oh,” Harry sighs, realising that his socks are, once again, singing, and Timothy is looking at him with unashamed glee.

“Where the treetops glisten, and children listen…” he sings along, grinning and attempting to avoid Harry’s eyes.

“You know what? Fuck it. Let the socks do their thing,” he says, giving up.

By the time the three of them have finished cataloguing and photographing both scenes, the socks have gone off five more times, and Harry has thrown in the towel completely, singing along with Timothy at the top of his lungs. Draco, who insists he doesn’t know the words, regards them with a soft sort of amusement that seems to wash away almost all of Harry’s sadness.

Diagon Alley is soon bustling with the usual Sunday shoppers, as well as all of those who are still searching for last-minute Christmas presents. The closed doors of Borteg’s and Sage cause some consternation, but they plough on regardless, using buckets of hot soapy water, sponges and spells to cleanse away the mindless destruction. Harry and Draco work first with Mr Borteg to vanish anything beyond repair and fix up the rest, before heading to Sage and making the kitchen ready for the chefs, who are furious at the loss of their work but pitch in fiercely to replace the ruined food in time for the afternoon rush.

“I’m not staying closed for the whole day,” Draco insists, even when his mother emerges from her room and implores him to calm down. “They’ve had my knives and my brand new mixer; they’ve made a mess of my kitchen and buggered up my window, they’re not having anything else.”

“I respect that, Draco,” Narcissa says at last. “However, Needle is missing you and he has pulled four squares off my quilt.”

“That’s a bad Needle,” Draco says, peering down at the swan, who is poking his head out from behind Narcissa’s robes. “He can come with me now. I’m going to open up in a minute and he’ll be sad if he can’t wander around and nibble at people while they eat.”

Narcissa drifts back to her room, leaving Needle at Draco’s feet. He scowls.

“She’s afraid, Harry. I won’t have that.”

Harry touches his arm gently and Draco turns to him, surprised. “Me neither. And I’ve never seen Mr Borteg look worried before. It was…”

“Unsettling,” Draco says. “I suppose we should add our names to the list of victims.”

Harry grimaces. “I suppose so. I keep wondering if any of us have any enemies… like something’s just going to leap out and announce itself.”

“Harry, neither of us has enemies on this street,” Draco says, dropping into a crouch against the wall and stroking Needle’s feathers. “I hope I don’t have any at all… not any more.”

Harry leans against the opposite wall, inhaling the alluring scent of baking now drifting out of the kitchen. Draco’s eyes are tired but stubbornly bright and they hold his, almost daring him to break the moment, one way or another.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas… just like the ones I used to know,” the socks sing merrily.

Draco blinks. “I’d better unlock the door.”

“Mr Borteg probably needs me,” Harry says vaguely.

They part ways in a gentle silence that seems underlined by a new fall of drifting snowflakes. Harry stands on the cobbles until people start to bump into him, then wanders to the shop and lets himself in.

Chapter Text

Nineteenth of December – a string of pearls 



Monday is the first day of Rose’s Christmas holiday, and she is dropped off at number twelve by Ron and Hermione, both of whom look tired and rather guilty.

“I’m so sorry about yesterday, Harry,” Hermione says, smile flickering as Rose hugs her tightly and then moves onto her father. “I know you wanted us to have a good time—and we did,” she adds loudly, before moving closer to Harry and lowering her voice. “But I’m sorry we weren’t there for you. We could have helped you clean up… or run the bastard down,” she whispers crossly.

Harry looks over to where Rose is chattering away to her dad and paying no attention to them.

“And I’m sure you’d have made him sorry he was ever born, but it’s all okay. Everything’s back to normal and I promise she won’t be able to tell the difference today,” Harry assures. “Unless she talks to one of Draco’s chefs and mentions their knives. Those guys are still pretty mad.”

“As would I be,” Hermione says, raising her voice back to a normal level. “Good knives are very important for good cooking.”

“Yes,” Harry says quickly, “Like your lovely potato gratin. We should have that soon.”

Hermione smiles. “I’ll make it the next time you come over.”

Harry performs a mental victory dance. Not only will he get to enjoy Hermione’s delicious gratin, the next incidence of the soup with the weird floating things in it is now at least another week away.

They turn to go, all smart robes and neatly-combed hair. Ron stops in the doorway.

“I almost forgot… you asked for something ugly and covered in glitter. We had a really good look around and found you this.”

Rose giggles as Ron produces a small ornament and passes it to Harry. He’s not quite sure what to say, but has to admit that the brief has been fulfilled. The ornament, carved from wood and sitting on a lacquered slice of log, seems to be an elf, at least the Muggle version of one, wearing a felt santa hat and crouching on a tiny toilet. His expression is caught between grimace and smirk, and the whole thing would be disturbing enough without a generous coating of glitter.

“He’s on the toilet,” Rose snorts, covering her mouth with her hands.

“I’d like to say that I had nothing to do with this,” Hermione says, but she is clearly trying not to smile.

“I’d like to take full credit for it but Rosie saw it first,” Ron admits. “The brilliant thing about it is that it has a little string so you can hang it on your Christmas tree.”

“Ah, yes, so it has,” Harry says, picking it up by the string and letting it twirl around. “Thanks very much, all of you.”

“Shall we put it on the tree, Uncle Harry?” Rose asks, the moment her parents have left for work.

“Do you think your dad will check?” he asks, and then answers himself. “Of course he will. Let’s find a space for it.”

With the glittering monstrosity hanging from his tree, Harry makes coffee for himself and hot fruit juice for Rose before they brave the snow. She seems excited at the prospect of a whole day at Borteg’s and skips along at his side with enviable energy. They stop at the usual newsagent and Rose chooses a bag of fizzy strawberry laces. Impulsively, Harry adds a bag of stripy humbugs to their order and sucks one slowly as they make their way to the Leaky Cauldron.

“Haven’t seen your swan in here for a while,” Tom says, pausing in his sweeping to greet them.

“He’s living with Draco now,” Harry tells him. “They sort of made friends.”

Tom laughs. “There’s nothing as strange as people, Harry. And how’s young Rose?”

“Fibe… fine thank you,” she manages, one long strawberry lace still hanging out of her mouth.

“We’d better be off,” Harry says, ushering Rose out of the pub before Tom can ask him about the most recent crimes.

As far as Rose is concerned, the first incident is the only incident, and Harry is determined to shield her from the rest. He wants her to feel safe at Borteg’s, and while it’s highly unlikely that the thief will be back, he wants her where he can see her. Fortunately, Rose is happy to make a dash for the shop through the snow, and when they get inside and shake off their coats, she heads straight for her desk and begins unpacking her notepads and sketchbooks and pencils.

Mr Borteg wanders in from the distillery to greet them, exchanging a significant glance with Harry before he approaches the desk and asks Rose what she’s planning to create today. He has been briefed along with Draco, and if everything goes to plan today, she won’t learn about anything that she doesn’t need to. Of course, that does mean that progress on the investigation itself is almost non-existent, and despite Harry’s attempts to run into the back room and stare at the charts for a little while every time Rose is particularly absorbed in something, by mid-morning he has achieved nothing but a slightly twisted ankle from tripping over an uneven flagstone.

Just before midday, Draco arrives and Rose is so delighted to see Needle that she becomes temporarily incoherent.

“Such a lovely Needle swan,” she mumbles, stroking his feathers and laughing when he reaches out and unfastens the strap of her dungarees.

“You are lovely, aren’t you?” murmurs a nicely-dressed lady, turning from her crouch in front of the Russian firewhiskies to admire Needle. “What a very well-behaved swan.”

She turns back to the rows of bottles, letting one arm dangle as she draws the fingers of the other over the colourful labels. Harry notices her pearl bracelet a moment too late, lurching forward just as Needle tugs at the string and then pulls hard, reeling backwards as the whole thing snaps and sends pearls bouncing around the shop.

“What the… oh, no,” the woman cries, leaping to her feet and gripping her bare wrist.

Needle,” Draco says, and his tone is so harsh that the swan retreats to a corner and folds himself into a contrite position.

“That was really naughty,” Rose breathes. “He’s going to get sent to bed early.”

“I’m so sorry, Miss…?” Draco hesitates.

“Lister,” she supplies, eyes flicking around the shop and settling on Needle, who peers at her for a moment and then tucks his head under his wing. Not for the first time, Harry feels rather envious of this ability.

“I apologise for my swan’s terrible behaviour,” Draco says. “I’d be happy to replace your bracelet at my own cost.”

When the shop door swings open, Harry draws his wand and hurriedly collects all the pearls before they create a tripping hazard.

“It belonged to my great-grandmother,” Miss Lister sighs. “I’m afraid it’s irreplaceable.”

“What’s that swan done now?” Shan asks, peering at Needle’s defensive position and Harry’s handful of pearls.

“He bit that lady’s bracelet and it exploded,” Rose says, helpfully illustrating the point with her hands.

“It’s just pearls and a string, right?” Shan says, and Miss Lister opens her mouth to protest. “I don’t mean it like that. I mean that it’s a simple construction. If you don’t mind letting me have a go, I think I can put it back together for you.”

“Really?” Miss Lister clasps her hands together and stares at Shan. “Aren’t you the lady from the chocolate shop?”

“Home of the crackleball,” she says, nodding. “And home of a lady who owns a lot of beaded jewellery with much fiddlier little bits than those.”

She holds her hands out for the pearls and Harry passes them over. Miss Lister watches, barely breathing, as she looks over them and then holds her hand out for the string.

“It fell down over here,” Rose says, jumping up and retrieving the broken string for Shan.

“Thank you, Rose,” Shan mumbles, and everyone gathers to watch as she lays out the pearls on the counter, stretches out the string alongside them and draws her wand.

Harry doesn’t catch her mumbled spell, but it’s a practised movement that draws the string up from the desk until it rears there like a drunken cobra, then shoots forward without warning and threads itself through each pearl in turn. Finally, the bracelet glows with the purest white light and then clatters back onto the counter, fully intact.

Miss Lister hurries to pick it up. She shakes her head. “It’s perfect, and I actually think the pearls are shinier than they were before. Thank you so much.”

“That was impressive,” Draco says to Shan. “I’ve never dared to repair my mother’s jewellery. It’s all so delicate and I feel as though I’d just make it worse.”

“It’s just practise,” Shan shrugs, turning to Needle with her hands on her hips. “You won’t do that again, will you? Biting things willy-nilly won’t get you anywhere in life.”

“Oh, don’t tell him off,” Miss Lister says, slipping her bracelet back on and bending to stroke Needle. “He didn’t mean any harm, did you?”

“I’d like to say he’s a good swan having a bad moment, but this is pretty standard for him,” Harry says, much to Draco’s chagrin.

“He is my swan and we are both doing our best,” he says, expression daring any of them to disagree.

Miss Lister smiles and straightens up. “All mute swans belong to the Queen, you know.”

“She can come and fight me for him. He’s my Needle and that’s that,” Draco says.

“Does that make you the Queen, then, Draco?” Rose asks innocently.

Harry grins. “Yeah, does it?”

“I don’t know what you’re implying,” Draco says loftily. “I could certainly be a queen if I wanted to be. It’s all about self-belief.”

Behind the counter, Mr Borteg makes an odd rattly sort of sound and becomes very absorbed in polishing the till.

“Do you need change, Shan?” Harry asks, still smiling to himself as he heads for the till.

“Not today. I brought you this,” she says, pulling a glossy card from her pocket and handing it over with a proud smile.

Harry studies the offering for a moment and then grins at his friend. “You’re getting married? Congratulations!”

Shan grins back, dark eyes sparkling. “Thanks, Harry. I’m sorry if it’s a bit short notice but we’ve decided there’s no point in waiting, certainly not at our age. Here’s one for you, Draco, and your mum. Mr Borteg, we’d love to see you there… you, too, Rose… anyone who wants to come, really,” she enthuses, passing a card to a startled Miss Lister.

“How lovely,” she says, scanning the details on the card. “Goodness, it’s in two days’ time! Right here in Diagon Alley! Aren’t you worried it’s going to snow?”

“I’m not worried about anything,” Shan says easily. “It can snow, it can rain, it can hail… we’ll be doing it anyway.”

“When I get married, it had better be a nice sunny day,” Miss Lister says to Draco, and he nods as though to say ‘I agree, and it’s all I think about’.

“Does she know you heard everything?” Harry asks Shan, and she laughs.

“I couldn’t have kept it from her if I tried. We had a long talk and it ended with me on one knee,” Shan says. “Well, it ended with me resting up on the sofa with a salve on my knee because I’d gone down on the dodgy one, but that’s just the old woman bit of the story.”

“I’m so pleased for you. Both of you,” Harry says, and then frowns. “Where is Esmee, anyway?”

“Well, we thought we’d share the news in person and we decided to take one side of the street each. She’s got the other side.”

“Divide and conquer,” Draco approves.

“That’s right. We flipped a Sickle for it. She was disappointed not to get you lot, but her side has the pet shop and the florist, so she’s happy enough.” Shan glances wearily out of the window. “If she doesn’t come home with an iguana and half a forest, I’ll be surprised.”

“Well, I’ll definitely be there,” Harry says.

“Me too,” Rose pipes up. “I’ll be here with you anyway, won’t I, Uncle Harry?”

“You will.”

“I would be delighted to attend,” Mr Borteg says, looming over the counter to shake Shan’s hand. “We will close the shop temporarily. A wedding is a special occasion indeed.”

“We’re hoping some of the other shop owners will close up for long enough to see the ceremony,” Shan says, and her smile is brighter than Harry has ever seen it. “It’ll only be short and it doesn’t seem right to do it without our friends.”

“I must buy you a gift,” Miss Lister blurts, making everyone jump as she dashes for the shelves, scanning for something with such focus that Harry daren’t interrupt to offer help.

Finally, she grabs a bottle of Forest Floor firewhisky and pushes it into Shan’s hands.

“This is my mother’s favourite drink. We don’t have a celebration in our house without it. Perhaps you and your wife-to-be can celebrate with it, too,” she says, flushing gently and hurrying to present Mr Borteg with her money bag.

“That’s very generous of you,” Shan says, looking anxiously for a price tag and then flicking a worried glance at Harry when she can’t find one.

“There, all paid for,” Miss Lister says. She looks at Needle, who is still sitting nicely in the corner, touching her repaired pearl bracelet with a small smile. “I’d better go. I hope you have the most wonderful wedding.”

“Thank you,” Shan calls after her, and then looks back at Harry with a frown. “Was she real?”

“I assume so,” Draco says. “Needle definitely tried to eat her bracelet.”

“This is turning into quite a day,” Shan sighs, still smiling. “I wonder if Esmee’s had any gifts from strangers yet.”

Harry shrugs. “You’re both very charming. You’ll probably end up with bags of stuff.”

“Flattery will get you… well, it’ll certainly get you a free crackleball or two,” Shan says, and then turns to Draco. “We’re hoping to drag a few people back to yours afterwards… tea, cakes, that sort of thing. Do you think you’ll have a space?”

Draco smiles at her, caught between pride and astonishment. “For you and Esmee, I will make space.”

Shan rubs her hands together with delight. “Alright. I’d better keep going, just… Mr Borteg, have you got a minute? I’ve got something I need to discuss with you.”

When Shan and Mr Borteg disappear into the distillery, Harry and Draco exchange curious glances.

“I did not expect that to happen today,” Draco admits.

“I wondered if it might,” Harry says. “It’s a story for another day.”

Rose, who has been extremely quiet for the last few hours, working on a new illustrated story, suddenly gasps.

“What’s the matter?”

“Do swans eat spiders?” she asks, little face creased with worry.

“They do sometimes,” Draco says, turning quickly to look at Needle, who is reaching up the panelled wall towards an unsuspecting large brown spider. “Needle, leave it!”

Needle ignores him, leaving Harry to summon an empty glass jar and scoop the spider into it before it becomes a snack for a very naughty swan.

“There. He’s fine,” he says, screwing on the lid and presenting the jar to Rose.

“Isn’t he pretty?” she says, beaming. “Thanks, Uncle Harry.”

“What will you do now?” Draco asks, peering down at the spider with interest.

“I’m going to take him home and measure him and then set him free in the back garden,” Rose says. “But I probably won’t tell Daddy until I’ve already done it.”

“I think that’s for the best,” Harry says, hoping that Ron has no idea about the number of spiders his daughter has brought home over the years.

“But don’t you live in… Ottery St Catchpole?” Draco asks, perching on the edge of her desk.

“Yes!” Rose frowns. “Why?”

“Because that there is a London spider.” Draco taps the lid of the jar. “If you take him back to your village and let him go, he’ll be confused.”

Stricken, Rose stares at the spider and then at Draco. Harry, too, stares at Draco, wondering why he would introduce the possibility of spidery confusion into their lives. All he knows is that this is Draco’s problem now, and he’d better be the one to fix it.

“I don’t want to confuse him,” Rose says, pressing her fingertips to the glass as the spider attempts to climb the inside of the jar. “But I don’t want to let him go and let Needle eat him.”

“Fortunately, I have an idea.” Draco gives Needle a stern ‘stay right there’ look and then gestures for Rose and Harry to follow him. “Come on. Bring the spider with you.”

They stop outside the restaurant and Draco pulls gently at the ivy that spills around both windows and climbs all the way up to the gutters in a glossy green blanket.

“I happen to know that spiders love ivy. They can make their webs in it and they can burrow into the leaves when the rain or the wind comes,” he explains. “And on top of all that, they have a great view of everything going on here in Diagon Alley. What do you think?”

Harry thinks that everything inside him aches, and that when he looks at Draco’s hopeful expression as he looks down at a little girl with a spider in a jar, he feels full and complete and as though everything Esmee said to him is right here, wrapping around him and stealing his breath.

“I think he’ll like it,” Rose says. “I’d still like to measure him first.”

“I’ll do it,” Harry offers, pulling his breathing under control and grabbing his wand. “Hold him up, Rose.”

“Please can you measure him in centimetres as well as inches?” she asks, fishing a tiny notebook and pencil from the front pocket of her dungarees.

“How do you know it’s a him?” Draco asks, as Harry carefully surrounds the spider with a charm that will give an accurate measurement of his leg-span.

Rose watches the flickering spell for a moment and then looks up at Draco. “I don’t know properly, but the ones with the big bobbles on the antennas at the front are usually boys. His bobbles are pretty big.”

Harry and Draco agree that they are very fine bobbles indeed, and when the spell ends, Harry provides the all-important measurements.

“Five point three centimetres, two point one inches.”

Rose hands Draco the jar so that she can write in her little book. When she’s finished, she waits quietly for Draco to remove the lid and encourage the spider into the ivy. Together, they watch until it disappears into the leaves and then return, spiderless, to the shop.

Mr Borteg looks up with a creaky smile. “I am to be part of the wedding,” he says, mournful voice making the happy news sound vaguely ominous.

“Are you going to walk with Shan?” Harry asks. “I know her parents aren’t with us any more.”

“Better, Harry. Even better,” Mr Borteg says, pale eyes alight with excitement. “I will be performing the ceremony.”

Beside Harry, Draco stifles a snort of laughter. “Shh,” he whispers, mouth tugging into a grin. “That’s going to be… well, it’s going to be great.”

“I think you’ll be brilliant,” Rose says, returning her empty jar to the counter.

“And why do you say that, young lady?”

“Because you’re so tall,” she says, with a shrug that adds ‘obviously’ without the need for words. She scuttles back to her desk and absorbs herself in her story.

“He is very tall,” Harry says, when Mr Borteg wanders back into the distillery, humming to himself.

“I think… this is either going to be the best wedding I’ve ever been to… or the weirdest,” Draco says, expression pensive as he leans against the counter.

“Or both,” Harry suggests, and their eyes meet and hold for a little too long.

Suddenly, Wednesday cannot come soon enough.

Chapter Text

Twentieth of December – Christmas lights



Harry and Rose arrive at the shop just before nine o’clock to find Shan, Esmee and Mr Borteg deep in conversation. When she is handed her cup of hot pumpkin juice, she thanks Harry and carries it carefully over to her desk, where she unpacks her pencils and half-finished story without bothering to take her coat off. Harry watches her with a smile, drinking his steaming tea and promising himself that he will do all he can to shield her from the events of the past fortnight. The world can be a cruel place but Rose sees only the good in everyone and everything, and he’d like to keep her that way for at least a little bit longer.

So far, he has managed to keep the subject of the break-ins at bay; his Diagon Alley colleagues are, thankfully, astute enough to avoid the topic when they notice Rose at her desk, and curious customers have, so far, been easily distracted by talk of new arrivals and special deals. The Christmas tree in the window doesn’t look quite as impressive as it once had, but Harry has hung the last few decorations and wrapped up anything he can find in shiny paper to simulate the pile of presents. In spite of everything, he is pretty confident that the unaffected shops will have enough gifts to delight the children of St Mungo’s, and grateful that the donation tins in the street are both spelled shut and fixed in place.

“A fine selection of Winstons,” Mr Borteg says, using his wand to float a collection of bottles over to the counter. “I believe your marriage will be off to a glorious start.”

Harry looks at Esmee and she beams at him, seeming to radiate happiness. Shan squeezes her hand and then clomps over to the counter, leaving her wife-to-be by the rows of bottles. Harry thinks of their conversation, Shan’s astonishment at what she overheard and the joyful picture of the two of them on their wedding announcement. He grins back at Esmee, all at once feeling tremendously privileged to be a part of their story and to count them both as friends.

Esmee wraps her cardigan around herself more tightly and gives Harry a significant look.

Sometimes, her voice echoes in his head, maybe just once in a lifetime, you find someone who is worth it. Someone who you want to be with more than you want to be by yourself. And when you find that, you don’t let it go.

Harry busies himself in hanging up his coat, feeling her words all over him. He can sense her eyes following him around the shop and he daren’t look at her until she and Shan are just about to leave. As he does, she smiles slowly, holding the door open for Shan and maintaining eye contact until the very last. Harry knows what she’s up to; he can practically taste it, and when Draco arrives an hour or so later, he can feel her as though she’s looking over his shoulder, noting every glance and casual touch.

“I thought perhaps we could go over…” Draco looks at Rose and lowers his voice, “the investigation this evening, after she’s gone home. I assume she’s going to be here for the rest of the week now that she’s on holiday from school, and I don’t want to alarm her with talk of… unpleasantness.”

“Today, tomorrow and Thursday, yeah,” Harry says, also looking over at Rose and wondering if she has noticed that Needle is rummaging through her pencil case. “Do you want to go to Sage?”

Draco’s lips tug into a half-smile, half-grimace. “Much as I’m enjoying your new enthusiasm for my restaurant, my mother is still with me and I’d rather not involve her, either. She’s still rather anxious after what happened at the weekend.”

“Okay. We could go for a walk,” Harry suggests. “All the lights are on in London and it looks really nice.”

Something like amusement flickers in Draco’s eyes and Harry suddenly feels self-conscious.

“Or not,” he adds, just as Draco says, “Alright.”

I’m not asking you out, he wants to add, but he just nods and says nothing. Not that I don’t want to ask you out. Not that I don’t want to ask you to go out with me and no one else for as long as we both can stand.

“Are you alright?” Draco asks, one eyebrow twitching.

“Absolutely,” Harry promises, equal parts relieved and disappointed when the door swings open and a shivering customer hurries inside. “Hi, can I help you?”

“I’m looking for a good strong firewhisky,” he says with a friendly smile, and then glances around. “I heard this place had a nasty—”

“—case of woodworm?” Draco interrupts. Rose glances up from her work and then continues, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth. “It did, but it’s all been dealt with now. It’s as strong as ever,” he says, knocking on the counter for good measure.

“You needn’t worry about it,” Mr Borteg says, fixing the customer with a sombre expression. “All is well now, no cause for alarm.”

His eyes flick to Rose and the customer startles, seeming to notice her for the first time.

“Ah… well… I’m glad to hear that. Terrible thing, woodworm.” He wrinkles his nose apologetically and then frowns. “Does she know that a swan is biting her dress?”

“If he’s biting my dress, he’s not biting my best pencil crayons,” Rose says, continuing to draw what looks a lot like a picture of Mr Borteg.

“Needle… just be good, Needle,” Draco sighs.

“Let me help you find that whisky,” Harry offers, and the customer follows him over to the shelves.

When he leaves with two bottles of Flanagan’s Flame and two Christmas tree decorations, the shop is comfortably quiet for a minute or two before several people burst through the door in quick succession and Borteg’s seems to become the centre of the shopping universe. The little shop is swarming with people and so noisy that Rose stops drawing and Needle draws under her desk in alarm. Harry and Mr Borteg throw themselves into the rush, and before long, even Draco is pitching in, bagging up purchases and hunting down bottles he recognises by name.

By the time the madness is over and the shop empties once more, it is lunchtime, and Draco disappears off to Sage, returning with three cheese toasties and a cup of coffee for Mr Borteg.

“Mummy makes these sometimes, but they’re a different colour,” Rose says, holding her toastie away from Needle.

“What colour?” Draco asks, frowning.

“Black,” Harry says with a grin.

“Which way do you prefer them?” Draco asks.

Rose shrugs. “I don’t mind.”

“I do have a preference for the golden brown kind,” Harry admits, biting into his toastie and rushing to inhale cool air when the molten cheese burns his tongue. “Ow.”

“That’s gratifying to know,” Draco says. “I would like you to try something that’s actually on our menu. In fact, I’ve been wondering if you’d like to bring some of your Weasleys to eat with us.”

Surprised, Harry stops eating. “When?”

“I thought Saturday evening,” Draco says, picking uncertainly at the crust on his toastie. “If you like.”

“Christmas Eve?” Harry smiles slowly, meeting Draco’s eyes and feeling his heart give a resounding thump. “That’s… that actually sounds really nice. So, me, Ron and Hermione?”

“Yes, though my mother is keen to meet Mrs Weasley, so perhaps you could bring her and Mr Weasley, too? It’s horribly short notice, I know, but we’ve got a lovely menu for the run-up to Christmas and I thought…” Draco pauses. “I’m not sure what I thought.”

“I’ll be there,” Harry promises. “And I’ll ask the others tonight. I’m sure they’d love to come.”

“Are you?”

“Yes. Stop fussing,” Harry says, grinning.

Draco gives him a filthy look and bites into his toastie. Harry does the same, looking over at Rose to see that she has finished hers and resumed work on her project. She doesn’t make another peep until almost four o’clock, when she shuffles her papers and announces that she has finished. The shop is quiet, its only customer being Mr Jennings, who has come in search of a good Christmas rum, and he, Draco, Mr Borteg and Harry gather around solemnly to listen. Needle tacks an unsteady course across the floor, hissing to himself for no good reason, and Rose sighs.

“Shh,” she says, looking like a very tiny but very stern librarian. “Listen nicely. You might even be in it.”

“Needle, come here,” Draco mutters, waving a bunch of his favourite grass until he grabs it and settles down at their feet.

“It was winter time and the lake had frozen over,” she reads. “The swans were sliding on the ice and having a nice time. But one swan was lonely. He wasn’t the same as the others. On a cold, black night, he saw a sparkly star and he made a Christmas wish.”

Harry looks at Needle and then at Draco, who is listening with an odd little smile. As they lean against the counter, their fingers brush together and neither one of them moves away. Rose turns her paper around to show a picture of a sad-faced swan and a star covered in glitter.

“The lonely swan wished for a family. He ’specially wanted two daddies and a big sister. The next day he went out looking for his wish, because when you wish for something, you have to work hard for it as well. The world was big and he didn’t feel brave but he pretended and he got into some fights,” Rose says, little face serious as she shows them a picture of a fountain and a box and what can only be Harry, with his glasses and his messy hair and his red jumper.

“I’m famous,” he whispers.

“Forever immortalised in literature,” Draco whispers back.

“Shh,” Rose says. “The lonely swan thought he would never find a home, but one day he met a person who was just like him, only not a swan.”

Harry casts a sidelong glance at Draco, who is looking between Rose’s drawing of him and Needle with obvious bewilderment.

“Shh,” Harry whispers, and then lets out a snort of laughter that draws a very severe look from Rose.

“Uncle Harry, you have to be quiet.”

“I’m so sorry, Rose. Please continue.”

Rose nods and turns back to her paper, and they all listen as she tells the story of the lonely swan who found his home in the city and got his wish for a family, even though he was sometimes naughty and often tried to eat things that he shouldn’t. The last picture is a glorious depiction of Diagon Alley in the snow, featuring Harry, Draco, Mr Borteg and many of the other shopkeepers gathered around a gleeful swan wearing a glittery hat and little red boots.

“The end,” Rose says grandly. “And a Merry Christmas to all, especially swans.”

Mr Borteg leads a small round of applause and Needle, roused by the sound, gets up and rushes straight for Rose’s shoelaces. Beaming, she strokes his feathers and his naughty little head.

“Did you like it?” she asks, straightening her papers and looking around at all of them.

“It was brilliant,” Harry says. “In fact, I’m feeling very Christmassy now.”

“A triumph, young lady,” Mr Jennings says. He picks up his bottle of rum and heads for the door. “I have to get back to my shop, I’m afraid, but a very Merry Christmas to you, too.”

“It’s almost as if it was based on true events,” Draco says, and Rose giggles. “Needle is very excited to have inspired you.”

“I would like a copy,” Mr Borteg announces. “After hearing of his perilous journey, I find myself rather impressed by him.”

“It’ll take me a long time to make another one,” Rose says seriously. “But that’s alright. I don’t have school for another two weeks.”

Harry hides a smile. “I think we can make a copy with magic. Might be a bit quicker.”

“Okay,” Rose says. “But I’ll do another picture of Needle that will be just yours.”

She pulls out a fresh piece of paper and sets to work. When Ron and Hermione arrive, she is still colouring and has to be persuaded to pack up for home. Finally, she stores the drawing away for another day and collects her finished story, tucking it into her coat ready to show to her parents the second she gets home.

“That was all very festive,” Draco says as they part ways with the Weasleys and head out into London. Needle, despite his new fame, has been left behind with Narcissa, and Harry is already missing his exasperating presence.

“It was. I found out I’m a father to a swan and I also learned that Christmas wishes aren’t as simple as they seem,” Harry laughs, suspecting that there’s a lot of Hermione in Rose’s ‘nothing good comes without hard work’ philosophy.

Draco laughs too, releasing clouds of white breath into the night. The black sky is already lit by streetlamps and shop windows, but when they turn the corner and into a narrow lane, Harry is pleasantly startled by a riot of decorations. In the distance, a vast Christmas tree towers above them, draped in soft blue lights and topped with a flashing star, while strung over their heads is a network of tiny white bulbs, interspersed with the twinkling shapes of presents and snowflakes and reindeer. The whole street is aglow, filling Harry with festive spirit and a warmth that almost makes up for the fact that he can barely feel his fingers.

“What do Malfoys do on Christmas day?” he asks, shoving his hands right down into his pockets.

Draco turns to him, pale skin bathed in soft blue light. “What do Malfoys do, or what do my mother and I do?”

Harry wrinkles his nose guiltily. “What do you and your mother do?”

“Well, we never open the restaurant on Christmas Day, but we’re always busy the week before, so there are lots of wonderful leftovers in the kitchen,” Draco says. “We each make up a plate and then we go up to my flat and watch a murder mystery on television. Mother likes Agatha Christie.”

“Do you?” Harry asks, amused.

“I don’t mind them. Anything’s better than a Malfoy Christmas.” Draco gazes into a brightly lit shop window as they pass and sighs. “Christmas day at the Manor was always very formal, as you can imagine. My father used to have the house decorated to perfection and then invite around anyone he wanted to impress. I can’t remember a year when it was just family for dinner.”

“That’s awful,” Harry says, grimacing. “I’ve been going to the Burrow for years now and family is sort of the whole point. Then again, Christmas at the Dursleys’ was family only, too… I just wasn’t considered part of it.”

Draco huffs and kicks at a stone. “Let’s be grateful that we have developed better traditions.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Harry mumbles. “Something warm, preferably.”

Draco snorts. “Going for a walk was your idea.”

“I know. I thought it might be bracing… you know, for the mind.”

“Is it working?” Draco asks.

Harry gazes up at the lights and shrugs. “I don’t know. I keep focusing on the fact that it’s Shan and Esmee’s wedding tomorrow and… god, if they try to ruin it…”

“I know. I suppose that all we can do is be on our guard. If we could just find what connects everyone, we might be able to get somewhere,” Draco says, pausing when he spots a building covered in a curtain of icicle-like dangling lights.

“Mrs Purley, Reuben, Mr Jennings, Jean, you, Mr Borteg,” Harry recites. “Six people. Is there anything significant about the number six?”

“Or seven,” Draco says. “Perhaps it’s Mr Borteg and you.”

“In which case, perhaps it’s Reuben and his entire staff team,” Harry says, dragging the cold air deep into his lungs and then expelling it with a groan.

“That’s not helpful,” Draco says, and Harry laughs.

“No, it isn’t. What about… children? Stealing presents meant for children? If we all like children and the thief doesn’t… I don’t know where I’m going with this,” Harry admits. “Maybe we should think back to the last meeting and remember who seemed… the least outraged?”

“That’s it,” Draco says, stopping suddenly in the middle of the pavement.

Harry regards him dubiously. “Really? I’m pretty sure I was just talking rubbish.”

“No, not that.” Draco stares at him, eyes bright. “The meetings. We’ve been trying to work out what connects us all—what if the answer is in those meetings? Someone always takes notes, and it’s usually you or me or Sophie. We could get the notes and see if anything has happened when all of our names come up.”

Adrenaline spiking, Harry starts walking again. “They’re not official notes, but…”

“They should cover anything important,” Draco finishes, catching up to him in three long strides. “Florean keeps all the notes at his shop. He’ll be closed now but we can get them from him first thing in the morning.”

“Let’s do that,” Harry says, shivering with a mixture of cold and anticipation. “Let’s fucking do that.”

They walk side by side for several minutes in silence, until Harry realises that they have almost reached Grimmauld Place. He stops, wondering if he should invite Draco in for a cup of tea.

“You have firecalls to make,” Draco says, and Harry just stares at him, tangled with longing and sharp, prickly anxiety.

“Yeah,” he says after a moment, attempting nonchalance and almost falling through someone’s hedge. “I meant to do that.”

“I know,” Draco says, looking around the dark street and then Disapparating without warning.

Harry brushes leaves from his coat and walks back to the house, unsure whether to kick himself for being a coward or celebrate their breakthrough. In the end, he just lets himself in to number twelve and makes himself a cup of tea before settling in front of the fireplace with his pot of Floo powder. Hermione is delighted by the invitation and relays the message that Ron is already thinking about trying everything on Sage’s menu.

“I know George and Angelina are staying in on Christmas Eve,” she muses. “Maybe they wouldn’t mind looking after the children. Have you called Molly yet?”

Startled at how easily this is all coming together, Harry pokes his head into the Burrow’s kitchen, where he finds Molly making pastry and Arthur poking at something rusty and mechanical with a screwdriver.

“Aren’t you coming through, Harry?” Molly asks, and her tone makes Harry scramble through the fireplace without a second thought.

“Arthur, make Harry a cup of tea,” she says, holding up her sticky hands.

“He’s already got one,” Arthur points out.

“So I have,” Harry says, looking down at his cup and wondering how he has managed to avoid spilling it all over himself in the process. “I was wondering how you were fixed for Christmas Eve.”

“There’s a lot of preparation to be done during the day,” Molly says, turning back to her pastry. “But if you need something, dear, I’m sure I can fit it in.”

Harry smiles, deciding that his urge to hug her will only end in pastry dough everywhere.

“Actually, you’ve been invited for dinner at Sage. That’s Draco’s restaurant,” he says, and Arthur makes an excitable little sound.

“Really, Harry? I’ve heard it’s marvellous. Count me in…. that’s if, er, what do you think, Molly, love?”

Molly turns, darting anxious glances at each of them in turn. “I don’t know, Harry.”

“It really is lovely,” he says, already fighting disappointment. “Mrs Malfoy really wants to meet you properly, and Draco says—”

“Does she?” Molly asks, so surprised that she accidentally flings bits of pastry in Harry’s direction. She sighs. “It’s not that, love, it’s just… I haven’t got anything fancy enough to wear to a place like that. I’ll only show you up.”

This time, Harry does hug her, and he pretends not to notice when she hugs him back and squidges pastry dough into his jumper.

“First of all, you would never show me up,” he says, holding her at arm’s length and looking fiercely into her eyes. “Second of all… it’s not that fancy. I promise. I’ve been saying that for years and I’d never even been in. Now I have, and I was really wrong. Just wear something that you’re comfortable in and it’ll be fine.”

“Really?”

“Molly, I was in there the other day in my jeans and no one batted an eyelid. Please come. Ron and Hermione will be there, too. I think it’ll be really nice.”

Molly says nothing for several seconds and then nods. “Alright.”

“You’ll come?”

“Yes. We’ll come, and they must come to us for Christmas Day,” Molly says, as though this idea is already settled in her mind, and it probably is.

“I can ask,” Harry says, sharing a glance with Arthur, who then quickly busies himself with his screwdriver.

“Good. Ask Mr Borteg, too,” Molly says briskly. “He always looks as though he needs a good meal.”

“Right,” Harry says, startled. “I’ll do that.”

Molly smiles. “Would you like to stay for dinner? I’m making chicken pie.”

Harry looks back at the fireplace, at his cup of tea, at the pan on the stove from which delicious savoury smells are emanating.

“Well…” he begins, and Molly returns to her pastry.

“Good. Now sit down and tell me all about this restaurant.”

Chapter Text

Twenty-first of December – a poinsettia                    



Draco’s voice catches Harry’s attention the moment he and Rose emerge from the Leaky’s brick archway and he looks around, eventually spotting him outside the Apothecary, where Reuben is stacking crates into his arms.

“That’s the lot,” he says, stepping back and dusting off his hands. “I appreciate it, Draco. Just drop them off at Cherish, the ladies will know what to do with them.”

With that, Reuben hurries back into his shop, where a queue is already forming.

“What are those?” Harry asks, enjoying Draco’s pointless exasperation.

“Some sort of tinctures that Shan and Esmee want to give to their wedding guests,” Draco says, peering into the topmost crate. “I only came down to wait for you but apparently my services are required as a packhorse.”

Rose laughs, still hanging onto Harry’s hand. “You’d look funny if you were a horse.”

“Thank you,” Draco says gravely. He glances at Harry. “Perhaps you could retrieve that… package from Florean by yourself.”

At the sound of Florean’s name, Rose’s ears seem to prick up. Harry squeezes her hand.

“Not a problem. See you later?”

“If I don’t slip on all this ice and knock myself unconscious, yes,” Draco sighs, shifting the crates in his arms and setting off over the frosty cobbles.

The air is cold and sweet, settling over Diagon Alley with a clear sort of stillness that makes everything seem just that little bit prettier than usual. Above the jagged rooftops, the sky is melting from orange and pink to a very promising blue, and Harry feels sure that the worst of the ice will be gone by the time Esmee and Shan are ready to recite their vows. It’s the perfect backdrop for the winter solstice, and an even better one for a long-awaited wedding, he thinks, humming to himself as he and Rose walk to the ice cream parlour.

“What are you singing?” she asks with a giggle.

“I wasn’t singing,” Harry says. Frowns. “Was I?”

It’s a nice day for a white wedding,” Rose sings, and then giggles again. “What’s that?”

“Oh,” Harry laughs, fighting down embarrassment. “Billy Idol.”

“Who’s that?”

“A Muggle singer who is much cooler than your Uncle Harry,” he sighs, pushing open the door of Florean’s shop. “Do you want an ice cream? I know you’ve only just had your breakfast, but…” Harry trails into silence as Rose makes a dash for the counter. “Don’t tell your mother.”

Alison smiles at Rose over the vast array of flavours and Harry turns to Florean.

“I think you’d like a change today,” he says, regarding Harry shrewdly. “How about a cherry and almond cone with a drizzle of chocolate sauce?”

“Actually, I was hoping Draco and I might be able to borrow the notes from this year’s meetings,” Harry says, voice barely above a whisper. “We think they might be very helpful.”

Florean nods, looking rather disappointed. “I’ll fetch them for you now. Are you sure you don’t want an ice cream?”

“It’s a bit early for me,” Harry says, and Florean retreats into the back of the shop.

Harry listens to his footsteps on the stairs and then above his head as he pays for Rose’s strawberry ice cream. It really is too early, but she doesn’t seem to care. Florean returns with a large box file and presents it to Harry. He then reaches behind the counter and produces two balls of turquoise bubble gum.

“Something blue,” he explains. “You’ll pass them along to the brides, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Harry says with a grin. He puts them in his coat pocket and tucks the file under his arm. “Thanks for this.”

Florean smiles. “Are you sure you won’t have the ice cream?”

Two minutes later, Harry and Rose set off up the street, pointing out various bits of wedding preparation as they pass.

“Look, Mrs Purley’s put a sign in her window,” Harry says, licking a drip of cherry ice cream just before it drips onto his coat. The combination of flavours is exactly what he didn’t know he wanted, and of course it is, because Florean is a bloody genius.

Congratulations Shan and Esmee!” Rose reads. “She has pretty handwriting.”

“Excuse me!” shouts a man in a red robe, running up to Harry with an identically-dressed woman at his side. “I need your help.”

“What’s going on?” Harry asks, stomach tightening.

“We’re from the choir and we’re supposed to be performing at the wedding today, but we’re a member short and… how’s your singing?”

“Erm… it’s… pretty terrible,” Harry admits, and then the man bursts into laughter.

“Sorry, he’s been doing this all morning,” the woman says. “Emmanuel thinks he’s funny, don’t you?”

Harry exhales heavily with relief. “You don’t need me to sing?”

“No,” Emmanuel admits. “But it would be pretty cool to say I’d sung with Harry Potter.”

“You’re saying that because you haven’t heard me sing,” Harry says.

“What are you going to sing for them?” Rose asks, crunching into her cone.

“All sorts,” the woman says. “Mainly gospel stuff and a few Christmas songs. That’s what they’ve asked for. Oh! You know them, don’t you? Are you going up there now?”

“Yes,” Harry says, wondering what else he’s going to be asked to deliver.

She draws a leather box from her pocket and hands it to Harry. “They’re earrings,” she explains. “Amber studs. Esmee admired them the other day and I said she could wear them.” She smiles. “Something borrowed.”

“I’ll make sure they get there,” Harry promises, adding the box to his pocket along with the balls of bubblegum.

“Thank you! Emmanuel, will you stop…?” she calls, and then dashes off after her colleague, who seems to have moved on to his next victim.

Harry and Rose keep walking until they reach the festival area, where they stop to admire the extra decorations and take in the flurry of activity around the edges of the ice rink. Sophie is balancing on the rim of the fountain and floating white paper lanterns into the air with her wand, while at her feet, Mr Pike is crouching over a box of something that flutters and jingles softly. The German sausage man is working briskly, slicing and portioning his meats in preparation for hungry wedding guests, and Florean, who has inexplicably slipped past them, is working on a warming charm that looks as though it will loop around the entire middle section of the street.

“Harry,” George calls, popping up from behind the sweet stall counter with a grin.

“Should I even ask?”

“Definitely. I fixed the draught in this lady’s stall and she gave me this,” he grins, holding up an enormous bag of liquorice. “Gotta love the way this place works.”

The sweet stall lady laughs. “It was a good deal. I can feel my feet again now.”

“Listen, I don’t suppose you’re heading up to Cherish now, are you?” George asks.

“Got something for me to take up there, have you?” Harry asks, amused.

“Oddly enough, I have. Shan asked me for something old… I told her she was barking up the wrong tree, being that I’m eternally youthful, but she insisted,” George says. “And then I remembered I found these Knuts in the cellar. They don’t make them like this any more, look—they’ve got little dragons on them.”

Harry takes the coins and squints at the date. “1900,” he says, impressed. “These are even older than…”

“Yeah,” George nods. “Angelina said I shouldn’t use the word ‘even’. Said it might cause offence.”

Harry laughs. “I doubt it, but it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.”

“Very wise, Harry. Very wise,” George says, and when they turn away, Rose sighs.

“I love Uncle George but he’s strange, isn’t he?”

Harry has to agree that he is. They make it almost all the way to Cherish before they are accosted by Felicity, who is loaded with colourful flowers that make both their noses twitch with delight.

“Harry, I don’t suppose you can—”

“Not that I don’t want to help,” he interrupts, “but that shop is about ten yards away from both of us. It might be easier to take whatever it is over there yourself.”

Felicity gives him a harassed half smile. “I can’t,” she sighs. “I’ve been in there twice already and they just keep chatting to me. I mean, it’s lovely, but I’ve got so much to do and all I need is for you to take the bouquets… please?”

“I don’t suppose they’re also ‘something new’ are they?” Harry asks, wondering if he can collect the whole set.

“That’s right,” Felicity says, smiling properly now. “There’s nothing newer than a flower that’s just opened, and these are a brand new variety of winter rose. I bred them myself.”

Harry shoves the Knuts into his pocket and takes possession of the bouquets. Both are simple, consisting of ice white blooms with dark stems and a selection of pretty grasses, all tied with rough green twine. Their scent is fresh and light, drifting into Harry’s nostrils on a momentary breeze.

“They’re beautiful,” he says, and Felicity glows with pride. “I’ll take them now.”

She thanks him and hurries off to arrange her remaining flowers in the square. Harry looks at the chocolate shop and then at Rose.

“Think we can make it this time?”

“We could run,” she suggests, and Harry hesitates only for a moment before grabbing her hand and dashing across the cobbles.

He holds the flowers carefully, pushing open the door with his hip and stepping inside, surprised to find the shop completely empty.

“Shan?” he calls, walking behind the counter and peering into the back room. “Esmee?”

“Is that you, Harry?” Shan calls, and he finally locates her at the top of the stairs, poking her head around the door.

“It’s me and Rose. We brought you… well, all sorts,” he says, holding up the flowers and retrieving the bubblegum, earrings and coins from his pocket. “Something old, something new…”

“Aha, the good luck has arrived,” Shan laughs. “Thanks, Harry. Now, leave everything on the counter and go away.”

“That’s right,” Jean says, poking her head around the door, too. “No men allowed. Rose can come up if she wants to, but you can bugger off.”

Harry laughs. “Fair enough. Rose?”

“No, thank you,” Rose says, looking alarmed.

Just then, a peal of raucous laughter issues from the flat and Jean withdraws her head. Shan looks over her shoulder into the room and then turns severe dark eyes on Harry.

“Okay, okay, I’m going,” he promises, placing the collected items on the counter and then protecting them with a good stiff charm.

When they finally reach Borteg’s, Draco is waiting. Dressed in a dark, tailored suit and an open-collared white shirt, he looks effortlessly stylish and instantly makes Harry feel clumsy and artless in his formal clothes, but when he smiles, it doesn’t matter one little bit.

“Hi,” Harry says, smiling back and wondering if he’ll be able to stop.

“Hello,” Draco murmurs, shifting position on Rose’s desk and then seeming to notice her presence for the first time. “Sorry,” he adds, getting up and making room for her without ever looking away from Harry.

“I got the thing,” Harry says vaguely, showing Draco the box file. “We can look at it.”

“Tomorrow,” Draco suggests, and Harry nods.

Tearing his eyes away from Draco, he stows the file under the counter and then straightens up, catching his breath when he realises that the grey eyes are still burning into him.

“It’s a nice day,” he says, because he has to say something, and Draco’s smile flickers at the corners.

“… for a white wedding,” Rose sings quietly, getting out her drawing of Needle and sharpening her pencil crayons.

Harry laughs and rubs at his face. When he opens his eyes, Draco is regarding him with a calm warmth that is just too much and he is utterly lost. This beautiful, exasperating man is standing in front of him, saying nothing and saying everything, and he knows what he has to do. Draco has made himself vulnerable once, only for Harry to panic and retreat. This time, it’s on him, and it’s only a matter of time. They are both waiting, and Harry doesn’t think he can wait any more.

Of course, there’s a wedding to attend, and he’s not about to let anything take the focus away from Esmee and Shan. Investigations and confessions will have to wait, and that’s fine. Harry can do that, just as long as Draco stops looking at him like that.

“Stop it,” he murmurs, and Draco pretends interest in a nearby hamper.

“You stop it.”

Harry suppresses a groan and forces himself to look at something else. Rose. He can look at Rose. She is colouring away with one red plait dangling onto her paper, while the other lies neatly along her back, vivid hair standing out nicely against her dark green dress. He knows it’s one of her best, as are the shiny patent shoes and the glittery tights. She looks festive and pretty and Harry once again considers his ensemble and wishes he knew how to dress himself. His smart trousers, dark shirt and jacket are clean and they fit him, but he clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing, and when he sees Mr Borteg for the first time, he has no idea what to think any more.

“Now, look at all of us in our Wednesday best,” he says, lurching into the shop and gazing around at everyone with an odd, sombre sort of pride.

“Wow,” Rose whispers, eyes wide.

“Brilliant suit, Mr Borteg,” Harry agrees, taking in the ruffled shirt and the jacket and trousers in blue crushed velvet, the matching ribbon at the end of the long plait and the narrow, pointed shoes.

“I haven’t worn it in quite some time,” he says, scrutinising one voluminous sleeve. “However, some things never fade out of fashion.”

Draco says nothing, which Harry thinks is wise, because he is clearly trying not to laugh. The next customer through the door stares openly at the velvet suit and becomes so distracted that he struggles to remember what he came in for. When Jean bustles in to see if they are nearly ready, she turns quite red with the effort of keeping her thoughts to herself, but Mr Borteg doesn’t seem to notice. He shuffles through his prompt cards and mutters to himself until it’s time to go, and when he leaves the shop, Harry, Draco and Rose laugh until they are breathless.

Finally, they walk out into the street to find Narcissa and Needle waiting for them. The swan rushes Draco’s legs and Harry peers down at him, grinning.

“He’s got a little tweed cape! And shoes!”

“They’re not shoes, they’re spats,” Draco says. “He wanted to look his best. He’s never been a ring bearer before.”

Harry watches as Draco retrieves a little silk bag from his pocket and ties it loosely around Needle’s neck with a ribbon. The bag bounces against Needle’s breast as he reaches up to be stroked.

“Did you make those?” Harry asks Narcissa.

She smooths down her heavy cloak and almost smiles. “I made the little spats. Draco made the cape.”

Harry turns to Draco. “You can sew?”

“I can sew, I can knit, I can embroider,” he says with a little shrug. “I can wrangle wild swans. I’m multitalented.”

Harry smiles, allowing himself to enjoy the flicker of warmth in his belly. “I’m sure.”

They find the festival area bustling with shopkeepers and curious customers alike, all crowding around the beautiful arch Felicity has created using nothing but vibrant red poinsettias. Mr Borteg stands at the meeting of two curved paths of shimmering white powder supplied by Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and behind him, the choir has assembled. Emmanuel spots Harry and gives him a cheeky wink.

When they start to sing, everyone falls silent. Esmee emerges first, radiant in sunshine yellow. She clutches her bouquet and holds her father’s arm as she walks, looking ageless and beautiful. Like Esmee, her father is tall, but the similarities end there. He is broad and almost as pale-skinned as Mr Borteg, with fine silvery hair that falls to his shoulders and a proud grin that seems to spread to everyone who sees it. Harry notices that she is wearing one of the amber earrings, and he wonders what happened to the other one until he sees Shan, approaching from the other direction on the arm of a delighted-looking Florean.

She has pinned the second earring to the collar of her traditional Chinese dress, the short sleeves of which reveal intricate painted designs on both forearms. Harry looks back at Esmee, who is sporting similar designs on her hands, and then at Natalie and her partner, who are watching raptly from their stall. Harry has never seen Shan in a dress before. She looks tinier than usual, and it takes him a moment to realise that she has abandoned her usual heeled boots in favour of delicate scarlet slippers.

“Love,” Mr Borteg says, magically amplified voice echoing in the stillness. “Love is a lot like making whisky.”

Shan and Esmee look at each other and grin. Harry grins, too, well aware that there are a whole lot of things that Mr Borteg regards as being just like making whisky.

“Rose, learning the capitals of the world is a lot like making whisky,” Draco intones, so close that Harry can feel his warm breath on his skin.

“Shh,” he whispers with a snort, keeping his eyes on the arch.

“Why?” Mr Borteg continues. “Because both of these things require a lot of patience… a lot of care… the right ingredients… and perhaps most importantly, everything must happen at exactly the right time.”

Beside Harry, Draco lets out a shaky breath.

“Shan and Esmee are a testament to all of these qualities and more,” Mr Borteg continues. “We are privileged to gather here and to witness their commitment to one another. Now, who has the rings?”

For a moment, there is nothing but expectant silence, and then Draco seems to shake himself.

“Needle,” he murmurs, clearing a path for the swan, “If you do this right, there are some very tasty grasses in your future.”

Needle stretches out his neck and taps at the sparkly cobbles, then looks around at the crowd. Harry holds his breath, relaxing when Needle spots the treat in Mr Borteg’s hand and makes a dash for the arch. A ripple of laughter passes around the attendees and Mr Borteg is able to untie the ribbon without incident. As he leads Shan and Esmee through their vows, Needle settles himself between them and watches the process with beady interest.

Harry listens to their heartfelt words and lets his eyes drift, picking out friends and colleagues in the crowd. Everyone seems to have turned out for the ceremony, and almost every shop door wears a ‘back soon’ sign and a glow of security magic. Timothy watches over the proceedings from a distance, standing straight-backed and proud with even shinier buttons than usual. Jean and Mrs Purley stand side by side, sniffling, and just behind them, flanked by the staff of Quality Quidditch Supplies, Mr Jennings hovers, looking anxiously back at his shop every couple of minutes. At Draco’s side, Narcissa watches the exchange of vows with a tiny inscrutable smile and Rose’s eyes are everywhere as she tries to take in the entire spectacle at once.

Reuben and his team are present, as are a proud Felicity and her new fruit-selling boyfriend, and a whole group of pink-robed people from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. In fact, the only person Harry can’t spot is Mr Pike from the Magical Menagerie, and he is so distracted by that fact that Rose has to tug at his arm and whisper that he’s going to miss the kissing.

“I now pronounce you Esmee and Shan,” Mr Borteg declares, to the sound of warm laughter. “Stronger, better, and more wonderful than ever.”

Without the help of heels, Shan has to reach up on her tiptoes to kiss her new wife, but Esmee reaches down to her and they meet in the middle, pressing their lips together and then dissolving into giggles. Behind them, there’s a rustle and a whoosh and a cloud of frost-bright butterflies swarm into the air, fluttering with jingling wings and then settling gently on the arch of poinsettias.

“We’re married,” Esmee says, shaking her head. “I can’t believe it.”

Harry smiles, turning to Draco as the choir bursts into song and the stillness of the street evaporates into noisy chatter and congratulations and flurries of magical confetti. Draco meets his eyes, shivering when Harry’s fingers brush boldly against his. He opens his mouth to speak and then stops when someone weaves through the crowd and almost knocks them both over.

“Did I miss it?” Mr Pike calls, heavy boots crashing onto the cobbles as he struggles to reach the front.

“Where have you been?” Shan demands, and then hugs him.

“Carmella had her kittens,” he says, breathing hard. “I couldn’t leave her until I made sure they were all out alright. I’m so sorry. You both look beautiful.”

“Is everyone well?” Esmee asks, hugging her bouquet to her chest.

“Yes. Five healthy kittens,” Mr Pike says, grinning, and everyone seems ready to celebrate with him.

As the congregation begins to loosen around them, Harry heads for the happy couple, taking advantage of the fact that most people are now queuing for food and glasses of firewhisky.

“Congratulations,” he says, throwing his arms around Shan. “It was beautiful. I think all the good luck charms worked, didn’t they?”

“Not a hitch,” Shan agrees, and then grins, looking at her new ring. “Well, maybe one.”

Harry hugs Esmee, smiling when her curls brush against his face. “I’m so happy for you,” he whispers.

“I’m very happy for me, too,” she says, and kisses his cheek. “Now, go and get that young man. Don’t waste another moment.”

Harry draws back, heart already racing with the knowledge of what he is about to do.

“I’m going.”

“I don’t want to see you again until you’ve told him everything that’s in your heart,” Esmee says, taking out the amber earring and pinning it to his jacket. “For luck,” she whispers, and returns to Shan’s side.

Harry takes a deep breath and weaves back over to where Rose is standing with Mr Borteg.

“Could you stay with her for a few minutes?” he asks, curling his trembling hands into fists at his side. “There’s something I have to do.”

Mr Borteg nods, watching with curiosity as Harry dashes across the cobbles in pursuit of Draco, who is walking briskly back to Sage.

“Have you got a minute?” he asks as casually as he knows how.

“Maybe half of one,” Draco says, letting himself in to the empty restaurant and holding the door open for Harry. “I have no idea how long it will take everyone to make their way up here and I thought a locked door might send the wrong message.”

“Draco,” Harry says, and he turns.

“What?” he asks softly, eyes catching Harry’s and holding him in place.

Harry reaches out and takes his hand. “Let’s go outside.”

They walk through the dining room in silence, past the kitchen, through the corridor and out into the icy courtyard. Releasing Draco’s hand, Harry turns away from him, turns back, sighs, and decides to just leap. It’s not as though he hasn’t already stood in this exact spot and made a fool of himself; he can do it again.

“Draco, I need to apologise. Again. The thing is, I told you I didn’t want to be with anyone, and when I said it, I really meant it. At least… I thought I did… and now… it’s you, that’s the thing,” he says, feeling more stupid and more certain with every word. “You’re the thing that makes it all different, because I can’t think about anything else, and when I’m not with you, nothing feels right. I want to be your friend and your Watson and your… I just… I love you,” he finishes, hot and unsteady and ready to burst.

Draco blinks. “Harry,” he begins, and then grabs him by the shoulders and kisses him hard.

Harry lets out a sound of surprise and then loses his balance, gripping Draco’s waist and closing his eyes as the kiss softens and disables his higher brain functions. He presses close, feeling the heat pouring through Draco’s thin shirt as he slips his fingers inside his jacket and then under soft cotton in search of bare skin.

Draco groans softly and pulls away, hands slipping to Harry’s hips. His eyes are dark and hazy and Harry isn’t sure he will ever be able to look away from them again.

“I told myself not to hope for this,” he says.

“Did it work?” Harry asks.

“No,” Draco says, laughing and resting his head on Harry’s shoulder. “I couldn’t help it.”

Harry presses a kiss to his neck and inhales the warm citrusy scent that makes him dizzy with desire.

“I’m glad you didn’t give up.” He smiles. “I think maybe you’re as stubborn as I am.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Draco says, sliding cold fingers into his hair and kissing him again. “I love you.”

Harry kisses him back, all traces of anxiety slipping away as their lips brush together and Draco’s fingers twist into his hair. When Draco pulls back, frowning, every fibre of his body prickles in protest.

“What?”

“I think they’re here,” Draco says. “Listen.”

Harry waits, and this time he hears it. The front door of the restaurant, opening and closing, and then the sound of footsteps and excited chatter.

“It’s just cakes and tea and stuff, isn’t it?” Harry says. “Can’t the waiters get it?”

“Draco?” Shan yells, and they share a resigned look.

“Apparently not.”

Reluctantly, Harry releases Draco and attempts to ruffle his hair back into place.

“It’s their day,” he reminds himself. “I can wait. I can wait.”

“Are you sure?” Draco asks, lifting an eyebrow and making Harry want to reach for him all over again.

“Let’s just go,” Harry says, and, with a deep, steadying breath, he follows Draco back into the restaurant.

Chapter Text

Twenty-second of December – a range



Shan and Esmee’s wedding celebrations carry on late into the night, with everyone who has had to return to their shops after the ceremony invited to continue the party at the Leaky Cauldron. Rose is most disappointed when her parents show up to take her home but perks up a little at the promise of fish and chips for tea. Draco joins Harry at the pub after closing Sage for the night and they both quickly find themselves caught up in the tales of Esmee’s father, who spins a yarn like he was born to do it and has a seemingly endless supply of hilarious stories about Esmee’s childhood.

Harry, who has managed three glasses of champagne over the course of the evening, finds all of this hilarious, and Draco, who somehow manages to get Tom to bring him a cup of tea, seems entertained by his amusement. Harry doesn’t care. His friends are married and everyone is happy and he gets to sit next to Draco as much as he likes. It’s wonderful fun, and it’s with weary reluctance that they part just after two o’clock in the morning and Harry wanders back to Grimmauld Place, singing about white weddings and grinning like a loon.

He is in good spirits as he arrives in Diagon Alley the next morning and he strides up to Borteg’s with Rose at his side. Most of the street has been returned to normal, but the sparkling paths remain, and several of Sophie’s lanterns are still hovering over the tops of the stalls.

“Do you think they’ve gone away?” Rose asks when they reach Cherish, peering through the glass and into the dark shop.

“They’re having a night in a nice hotel and then coming back,” Harry says. “They don’t want to go off on holiday when it’s so near to Christmas—where would people get their crackleballs?”

“You have some,” Rose says, pushing open the door to Borteg’s. “But not all the flavours.”

“Flavours are very important,” Harry says.

He can still taste his cherry-chocolate-almond ice cream from the day before, and as he takes off his coat, stokes the fire and heads behind the counter, he wonders if he will ever go back to honeycomb and fudge sauce. It’s still delicious, but he feels different somehow. Clever old Florean.

Barely an hour has passed before clever old Florean himself walks into the shop.

“Good morning,” he says, smiling at Rose and then drawing close to the counter. “I don’t suppose,” he continues, dropping his voice to the barest mumble, “you’ve had a chance to look at those notes yet?”

“Sorry,” Harry mumbles back. “Yesterday was… well, you know what it was like. You were there.”

“Indeed. I thought you might say that,” Florean says, and then winks at Harry and raises his voice. “You see, I’m looking to create a very special Christmas ice cream today, and what I really need is a helper… someone who really likes ice cream and isn’t afraid of getting a little bit messy with the chocolate sauces and the honey and the fudge…”

Harry glances at Rose, who is vibrating in her seat with the effort of not leaping to her feet and shouting, “Pick me, pick me!”

“Thank you,” Harry mouths to Florean, who just smiles and turns to look at Rose.

She gazes up at him with such a hopeful expression that Harry wants to run over and hug her.

“Please can I be your helper, Mr Fortescue?” she asks, holding on tightly to her unopened pencil case. “I love ice cream and if I get messy, my grandma knows all the cleaning spells.”

Florean pretends to consider her, folding his arms and tapping his fingers against his coat fabric. Finally, he relents.

“We need to start immediately. Harry, can you spare her?”

“I think so. It does sound very important,” Harry says, and Rose gets to her feet with a grin.

She runs behind the counter and hugs him tightly before hurrying after Florean, already telling him about her favourite flavours as the shop door swings slowly shut behind them.

“Such a clever man,” Mr Borteg sighs, looming in the distillery doorway in his usual black garb.

Yesterday’s velvet suit has been packed away and Harry finds himself wondering just what occasion might call it back into use.

“He is,” Harry agrees. “So are you.”

Mr Borteg regards him gloomily. “Harry, are you certain that your family wants me at their table on Christmas day?”

“Molly invited you,” Harry says. “She wants you there, and so do I.”

“I feel… uncertain,” Mr Borteg admits, huge pale eyes meeting Harry’s. “Many things in this life lack certainty, but when it comes to social… occasions…”

Mr Borteg lifts one pointy shoulder in a shrug. Harry shrugs back.

“You have to come. Rose has already made your place setting.”

The thin mouth twitches into a reluctant smile. “In that case, it is decided.”

“That’s what I thought.” Harry grabs his coat. “I need to run over to Sage and get Draco. We’ve got a lot of notes to go through.”

Mr Borteg retrieves his santa hat and makes his way behind the counter. “Very well.”

Harry dashes across the cobbles and into the restaurant, only slipping once on the icy ground. The dining room is impressively tidy considering the previous day’s celebrations, and several tables are already occupied by people with newspapers and steaming cups of coffee. The waiting staff smile at Harry as he walks through to the kitchen and the chefs look up from their chopping and stirring to acknowledge him with friendly nods.

Draco is leaning against his favourite bit of counter, holding bits of greenery out for Needle, who stretches to grab them. When he sees Harry, he smiles easily and turns to address a harassed-looking man with a clipboard.

“Can you make two cheese toasties, please?”

The man sighs. “Mr Malfoy, I’ve really got to do the stock check…”

“Just this one thing, please, Phillippe,” Draco wheedles. “And stop calling me Mr Malfoy.”

Phillippe’s mouth tugs into a reluctant smile and he puts down his clipboard. Knowing that Mr Borteg won’t mind a few extra minutes, Harry leans against the counter beside Draco and watches carefully as the famous cheese toasties are prepared. Phillippe pokes the flames in the gleaming black range and then saws at a crusty loaf with practised ease, cutting four thick slices and spelling them to hover in front of the fire. As the toast turns golden brown, he retrieves butter, grated cheese and wholegrain mustard.

“That’s the secret ingredient,” Draco murmurs. “Shh.”

Harry pretends to zip his lips. Phillippe floats the half-done toast to the counter, where he arranges the ingredients in such a way that the most wonderful smell begins to spiral into the air and Harry’s stomach grumbles loudly. With the toasties assembled, Phillippe returns them to the range, where he sends them turning slowly over the flames with a swish of his wand.

“We’d better take them back with us, I told Mr Borteg I wouldn’t be long,” Harry says.

Without another word, Phillippe pulls the toasties from the fire and expertly throws them into paper bags, which he hands to Draco before picking up his clipboard and disappearing into the pantry.

“Thank you, Phillippe,” Draco calls. “Time to look at the notes, is it?”

“I thought it was a good time. Rose is probably in a sugar coma by now,” Harry says, leading the way back through the restaurant and pausing at the door for Draco to put on his coat.

“Dare I ask where she is?”

“Making ice cream with Florean,” Harry says, gently booting Needle out from under his feet.

When they reach the shop, Mr Borteg is waxing lyrical to a customer with his customary theatrical panache and they walk past him into the office without exchanging a word. Once safely out of sight, Harry pulls Draco to him and kisses him, cold lips and caught breath and a wave of pure relief.

“Hello,” he murmurs, and Draco smiles.

“I hope you haven’t crushed those toasties,” he sighs against Harry’s ear and then kisses him again.

“I’m pretty sure they’d still taste nice,” Harry says, taking the offered bag and dropping into his chair.

“That’s really not the point,” Draco says, but he is smiling as he sits and bites into his undamaged toastie.

“I forgot the notes,” Harry mutters, darting into the shop and grabbing the box file. “He’s still talking to that poor lady about underground water sources.”

“I remember that one,” Draco says. “I’d only come in to see you and I ended up staying for the entire lecture.”

Harry takes his seat, face heating. “You only came to see me?”

“Let’s not pull on that thread,” Draco says, attempting to cover his embarrassment by becoming businesslike, reaching for the file and fussing with the contents. “I think we should work backwards from the last meeting. I’ll take the first three months and you take the next.”

“Okay,” Harry shrugs, accepting his sheaf of notes and trying not to smile.

Silence falls over the distillery as they each scan their pages. Harry waits for Draco to complain about his handwriting, which, compared to Sophie’s and Draco’s own, is chaotic and scribbly. To his surprise, Draco says nothing; he just frowns and taps his fingers on his chair arms, occasionally ruffling a thoughtful hand through his hair. When Harry realises that he is doing more staring than reading, he forces his eyes back to the page in front of him.

Twenty-fourth of August, he reads, relishing Sophie’s neat printing. Mr Pike would like volunteers to help with his summer reptile display, ideally people who are good with children and know some charms to keep the flies from landing on the big snake.

Harry stares at the words and then at Draco as a cold, skittering feeling settles in his stomach.

“Mr Pike,” he says, and Draco looks up.

“What about him?”

Harry looks over his shoulder at the map. “He couldn’t prove where he was for any of the thefts. He always just said he was in his shop.”

“Him and plenty of other people,” Draco says, frowning. “What have you found?”

“Nothing in the notes, but yesterday, I’m pretty sure he was the only person who missed the wedding. He wears boots that could easily have made those prints…” Harry gnaws on his nail as he thinks. “And he does sometimes get cross with kids in his shop.”

“Only when they’re frightening the animals,” Draco points out. “Do you really think a man who hand-raises Kneazle kittens could cause so much destruction?”

“Maybe he likes animals more than people,” Harry says, but he doesn’t want to believe it. Then again, he doesn’t want to believe that anyone he knows would do such a thing.

“Alright. But I’m going to keep reading,” Draco says, collecting another sheaf of notes.

Harry nods gloomily and returns to his stack. By the time he runs out of notes, Draco is already halfway through his second set and frowning so hard that Harry wants to smooth out the little lines between his eyebrows. Instead, he picks at the crumbs of his toastie and then reaches into the box file. He smiles to himself as he reads about Florean’s original proposal for the winter festival and everyone’s suggestions for special activities. He had completely forgotten about Shan’s idea to build Britain’s biggest snowman and he finds himself thinking of her, hoping that she and Esmee are enjoying their stay in their hotel by the sea.

“Harry?”

“Mm?”

“It’s not Mr Pike.”

Harry looks up sharply. “What have you found?”

Draco’s eyes hold his for long seconds and then he reads from the notes on his lap.

“Motion put forward to add a supplementary storey to Jennings’ Quills,” he reads, and Harry freezes. “Mr Jennings feels that a larger retail area and a new shop front will improve his business. General concern expressed about major structural work, e.g. wards in all the surrounding area would need to be taken down and redesigned. Florean suggests such major concealment work may require a grant from the Ministry. Mr Borteg is concerned that shopkeepers’ pooled funds have already been committed to the winter festival.”

“I remember that,” Harry says, shaking his head. “It would have stuck up above the other buildings on that side of the street. It just wasn’t practical… but…”

“There’s more,” Draco says. “Felicity suggests a vote. Florean institutes major planning protocol, i.e. six votes needed to defeat the motion. Motion defeated.”

Harry grips his notes tightly as something slimy rakes over his skin. “By six votes?”

“Dissenting voters: Reuben, Mr Borteg, Jean, Mrs Purley, Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter.”

“Who took those notes?” Harry asks quietly.

Draco sighs. “Me.”

“Fuck,” Harry whispers, leaning forward in his chair and dropping his head into his hands.

“It didn’t seem important at the time,” Draco says. “He was upset but he never mentioned it again, which is odd, because it says right here that he was advised to reapply in a few months’ time. It’s not as though we told him to bugger off… we’d just made other plans. I thought he understood that.”

“You want him to make sense,” Harry sighs. “People don’t make sense when they’re angry. I suppose from his perspective, we told him to shove his business and used all our time and money to organise something for sick children instead.”

“What kind of person is jealous of sick children?” Draco demands, getting out of his chair and pacing the flags.

“I don’t know,” Harry says, reaching for Draco’s abandoned notes.

As he reads, he hears the voices of his friends inside his head, recalling their concern and their best attempts to make a fair decision, just like always. Hot on the heels of that memory is an image of Mr Jennings and his collection box, followed by Mr Jennings and Sophie and Mr Jennings shivering at his obviously fake crime scene. Furious, Harry leaps to his feet and throws down the notes, sending paper flying everywhere and waking Needle with a start.

“All that stuff he did… it was all bullshit,” he explodes, kicking the desk and then swearing loudly when pain floods his foot.

Now livid with himself and Mr Jennings, he stomps across the floor to join Draco at the map.

“He played all of us very well,” Draco says darkly. “All that ‘oh, I’m so vulnerable and shaken up’ routine. Sophie’s going to be steaming.”

“Yeah. And she’s not going to be the only one.” Harry frowns. “I wonder what he’s done with all those Christmas presents.”

“I don’t know, Harry. I really don’t.”

“I mean…” Harry gazes at the scattered notes. “You definitely think it’s him?”

Draco’s eyes slide to his. “He could never prove his whereabouts, which is nothing on its own, but when you add the fact that he never provided us with a sack, even though we went back twice, he wears boots, just like Mr Pike, and everything we’ve just found in the notes… yes, I do.”

“He smashed up his own shop just to avoid suspicion,” Harry says. “That’s…”

“Calculated,” Draco supplies. “Some people’s minds work like that, and they are usually the sort of people who have no idea why anyone would choose to help a sick child over their own interest. Believe me, I lived with someone like that for many years.”

Harry threads their fingers together and grips tightly. “They get what they deserve in the end.”

“In the end, yes.” Draco strokes Harry’s thumb with his own and gazes down at Needle with an unexpected smile. “You never liked him, did you?”

Needle continues to trundle around the distillery in search of adventure, tapping at the stone floor with his beak.

“He was here the other day,” Harry says suddenly. “Jennings, I mean. Remember, when Rose was reading her story? Needle was being really fussy and you had to settle him down.”

“Clever Needle,” Draco murmurs. “I knew he sensed something that night. He’s probably known about this for weeks.”

“Maybe he’s Sherlock after all,” Harry says, leaning against Draco and feeling his anger bubbling down into something strong and purposeful.

“He did look rather dashing in the tweed cape,” Draco admits. “I think we need to talk to Florean.”

Harry releases his hand and rubs at his face. The idea of interrupting Rose’s festive ice cream-making session to share such horrible news is an unpleasant one, but Harry knows there is no holding on to this information. He tucks the notes into his pocket and they walk slowly down to the ice cream parlour, neither keen to reach their destination.

Florean and Rose are in the kitchen, wearing chocolate-smeared aprons and peering into a vast stone bowl. Rose is so excited to see them that she almost tumbles from the box she has been standing on in order to see over the counter.

“This is going to be the best ice cream ever,” she enthuses, and Harry can’t help smiling.

“Obviously. Do you mind if we have a quick word with Florean?”

“Everything alright?” he asks, and Harry takes the notes from his pocket. “I see. Won’t be long, Rose.”

Without needing to be asked, Alison steps into the kitchen and grabs a spoon.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” Rose asks as Harry, Draco and Florean walk out into the corridor.

“Those look like bills to me,” Alison says. “Money stuff, maybe.”

“Boring,” Rose sighs, just before Florean casts a silencing charm and turns to them expectantly.

“It’s Mr Jennings,” Harry blurts, needing to get it out as quickly as possible.

Florean’s mouth drops open. “You can’t be serious.”

“We have several pieces of evidence,” Draco says, and his voice is enviably calm as he explains everything they have found, including the notes, which Harry gives to Florean to read.

“This is… well, it’s certainly not what I expected,” Florean says, clever eyes bright with sadness.

Feeling suddenly heavy, Harry has to look away. “I didn’t want it to be any of us.”

“No, Harry,” Florean says, patting his arm. “Neither did I. This does mean, however, that the situation can be resolved at last. If you brief our young officer, I will hold a meeting first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Why not now?” Harry asks, puzzled.

“If I call an emergency meeting, he might suspect and disappear,” Florean explains. “We’ll take things calmly… let him think he’s still getting away with it.”

“That’s sensible,” Draco approves. “I wouldn’t mind going over there and giving him a kick, though.”

“After tomorrow, I think you might have to queue for that privilege,” Florean says. “Thank you for this, gentlemen. I know it’s been hard work but you’ve done Diagon Alley proud.”

Harry darts a glance at Draco, who looks as though he doesn’t know whether to smile or apologise.

“You’re very welcome,” Harry says at last, and Florean drops the silencing charm. “You’ll bring her back before all her teeth fall out, will you?”

“I brush my teeth properly,” Rose tells Alison indignantly.

“She does,” Harry says, following Draco back out into the street. “I’m glad she’s not going to be here tomorrow. I think it might get a bit nasty.”

“You think he’ll deny it?”

“Maybe,” Harry shrugs, keeping his eyes on the cobbles as they pass the quill shop. “I suppose he could surprise me. He’s done a pretty good job so far.”

Draco sighs. “I’m not sure what to do with myself now. I feel as though I put so much into being a detective that I can’t remember what I used to do with my time.”

“I think you used to bother me at work,” he suggests, and Draco brightens.

“I can do that. Besides, we should sit down and get everything in order tomorrow. Nobody likes a disorganised confrontation.”

Harry is ready for that confrontation now, but he knows he will have to wait and he might as well direct his frustration at something. He’d rather that something involved a nice warm room and Draco’s mouth all over his body but he does still have a job to go to, and an organised confrontation to plan.

“What are you thinking about?” Draco asks, one eyebrow arched.

“Planning,” Harry says firmly. “Details. That sort of thing.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Good,” Harry says, waving to Mr Borteg and walking straight through to the distillery office.

“Come for dinner tonight?” Draco offers, walking him against the wall and trailing hot kisses behind his ear. “I’ll show you my flat and you can tell me how fancy you think it is.”

Harry groans and closes his eyes. A split second later, they fly open again. “Dinner!”

“Yes, it’s when you eat in the evening,” Draco says, slipping his hands inside Harry’s coat.

“No… well, yes… but I’ve just remembered I’m having Ron and Hermione over to my house tonight,” Harry sighs, feeling very regretful indeed when Draco catches his mouth in a kiss and he is helpless to do anything but kiss back.

“Do you have to talk about them while I’m bothering you at work?” Draco asks, pulling back to fix Harry with a long-suffering expression.

Harry strokes his hair out of his face and kisses him again. “I’m very sorry. But I did promise them I’d cook. Not that Rose will be hungry after all that ice cream.”

“I suppose it can wait a little bit longer,” Draco says with a theatrical sigh. “What will you tell them?”

“About us or about Mr Jennings?”

“The latter,” Draco says. “I had the impression they knew about us before you did.”

Harry laughs. “You’re probably right. I don’t think I’ll tell them anything tonight. They’ll only worry.”

“They’re good friends,” Draco says softly.

“I know. Shall we start organising?”

“I think I need to bother you for a little bit longer,” Draco says, and his tone is so serious that Harry has to smother a snort of laughter against his shoulder.

“Alright,” he says, attempting a grave expression. “Where would you like to begin?”

Chapter Text

Twenty-third of December – ribbons



Despite Draco’s best efforts at distraction and a comfortable evening with his friends, Harry finds sleep almost impossible and arrives at the ice cream parlour almost half an hour early. To his relief, Timothy arrives just minutes later with a plan to gather one last piece of evidence, and Harry is happy to do as he is instructed. He takes one end of a roll of what looks like white fabric and helps the officer to lay it over the floor, stretching from the entrance to the counter.

“Now we’ll get his boot print and see if we can match it to the one from the restaurant scene,” Timothy explains. “I’ve fixed it to his magical signature so we don’t have any confusion.”

“Won’t he wonder what he’s walking on?” Harry asks.

“Yeah, but I’m rubbish at concealment charms,” Timothy admits. “I was hoping that one of you might…”

Florean draws his wand and before Timothy can finish his sentence, the fabric is shimmering, flickering, and then it disappears, leaving behind a completely innocent tiled floor.

“And that’s how it’s done,” Timothy says admiringly.

When Draco arrives with Needle, Florean retreats to the counter and starts to assemble dishes and cones and towers of ice cream. Harry accepts his cone and sits in his usual seat, surprised when Draco leans over and places one of his banana split cherries on top of Harry’s cherry-almond scoop.

“Thank you,” he says, yawning. “How did you sleep?”

“Barely,” Draco says, looking up as the door clicks open. “Good morning, Jean.”

“Hello, lads,” she says, shutting the door on the cold. “What’s this all about, then? That’s the second time this month I’ve been summoned by a little note on my door.”

“I thought you enjoyed my little notes,” Florean sighs, and Jean laughs.

She accepts her dish of ice cream and settles in her seat. “I take it we have some news?”

“Yes, but we’d better wait until everyone gets here,” Draco says, and then he glances at Harry. “I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not go through this more than once.”

“We’ll wait,” Harry agrees, licking chocolate sauce from his cone and standing firm, even as the others begin to arrive and almost all of them demand to know why they have been dragged in early without an explanation.

When Mr Jennings walks in, followed by Sophie, Needle hisses loudly and Draco feeds him a grassy treat under the table. He sits down with his horrible toffee-tomato sundae and looks around with such calm curiosity that Harry wants to get up and tip the cold slimy mess over his head. Fortunately, Florean takes that moment to tap his long spoon against his knickerbocker glory and call the meeting to order.

“Thank you for joining us. I’ll try to keep this to the point: Harry, Draco, and Officer Kettleworth have made a major breakthrough in their investigation of our recent crime spree,” he says, pausing as everyone seems to murmur to the person next to them. “I’d like to pass this meeting over to them. Gentlemen, whenever you are ready.”

Harry looks at his half-finished ice cream cone, wondering whether to abandon it or carry on. In the end, deciding that any other course would be mortally offensive to Florean, he licks away the worst of the drips and addresses his audience.

“As you know, we’ve been asking a lot of questions recently. We’ve also been looking at the scenes and the evidence and trying to fit it all together.” Harry looks at Shan and Esmee, back from their break and glowing with happiness, and he hesitates, heavy with the impact of what he is about to say.

“The most important thing to remember is that that we, just like everyone else here, want to keep our community safe,” Draco says, meeting Harry’s eyes and strengthening his resolve.

“Of course you do, love,” Jean pipes up. “Everyone knows that.”

Harry smiles at her. “Thank you. So… we looked at a lot of different angles and eventually realised that the person responsible had to be someone from the street. Someone in this room,” he adds, and the ice cream parlour erupts into a cacophony of angry protests.

Mr Jennings shakes his head and Sophie swears loudly, dropping her spoon and diving under the table to retrieve it. Harry waits for the racket to die down, heart racing and fingers wrapped tightly around the incriminating sheaf of notes.

“No one here would do that,” Felicity says, words met with a murmur of agreement.

“This would be a really good time to tell us this whole thing’s been an elaborate prank,” George says, and though he is smiling, there is a fear in his eyes that Harry hasn’t seen for a long time.

“I’m afraid not,” Florean says, and a hush falls over the group.

Harry allows himself one last fortifying glance at Draco and then turns to Mr Jennings.

“It was you, wasn’t it?”

Mr Jennings pales, quickly forcing out a bark of laughter. “Me? Don’t be ridiculous.”

In the shocked silence that follows, Draco nudges Needle over to Mr Jennings’ table and the swan hisses crossly, stretching out his neck and folding his wings into a defensive crown.

“He’s a very good judge of character,” Draco says, and Mr Jennings scoffs.

“That’s meaningless! Ridiculous!” he insists, leaning away from Needle. “That bloody thing hisses all the time!”

“Not any more, he doesn’t,” Mr Purley says, and several others agree.

“He can sense your guilt,” Draco says. “You left it at all those scenes and then you broke into my restaurant and he knew something was wrong.”

“Call him off,” Mr Jennings snaps, and Draco draws Needle easily back to his side. “You can’t accuse me on the basis of what a swan might or might not think of me.”

“Of course not,” Harry says, crunching the last of his cone and holding up the notes. “Fortunately, we’ve also got these.”

“What are those?” Mr Jennings asks, and the panic that flickers in his eyes only urges Harry on.

“Notes from a meeting,” he says. “But we have more.”

“When we determined that a hessian sack was being used to transport the stolen items, we asked everyone to provide us with a sample,” Draco says, rising and holding up a sack. “You were the only person who refused to do so.”

“I didn’t refuse,” Mr Jennings protests. “I didn’t have one to give you, that’s hardly a crime.”

“No, but breaking and entering is,” Draco says, and Florean points his wand at the concealed fabric on the floor. “As, in my opinion, is frightening my mother half to death.”

Timothy lifts the fabric to display a series of boot prints. Draco holds the photograph of Sage’s floor alongside it, showing that the treads are a perfect match.

“No,” Mrs Purley whispers, shaking her head. “This can’t be right.”

“It isn’t,” Mr Jennings insists, bristling with anger. “Those shoe prints could be anyone’s!”

“Let’s have a look at the bottoms of your boots, then,” Reuben suggests, and Mr Jennings feet suddenly seem to be stuck to the floor.

“I’m not the only person who has these boots, you know. And I hardly think it’s ethical behaviour for an officer of the Ministry to… entrap people with things hidden on the floor,” he says, glaring at Timothy.

“This fabric was invented by the Ministry,” he says. “And it’s linked to your magical signature. Your magic, your boots, your boot prints. Sorry.”

Mr Jennings turns red with fury. “Never mind sorry, young man—do something to put an end to this farce!”

“The evidence does seem rather compelling,” Mr Borteg says, but Harry barely hears him.

He can’t take his eyes away from Sophie. She has yet to say a word, but she doesn’t really need to. She stares at Mr Jennings, eyes bright with tears as she carelessly stirs her bright blue ice cream into soup.

“I am a victim in this,” Mr Jennings insists. “My shop was trashed, my till was ransacked. Have you forgotten that already?”

“That is true,” Mr Pike says, and there is just enough doubt in his voice to turn Mr Jennings’ beleaguered expression smug.

Draco pulls out a notebook. “Yes, and you told us that you heard a noise while you were in your stockroom, so you came out immediately. Given the proximity of your stockroom to your shop floor, I find it very odd that you didn’t catch a glimpse of the thief. It wouldn’t have been difficult to hide the cash from your till and fling a few ink bottles around, leaving you in the perfect position for Sophie to discover your fresh crime scene.”

All eyes drift to Sophie, and she throws down her spoon, seeming to boil over.

“Sorry about this, but… what the fuck, Mr J?” she explodes, dashing away tears with the back of her hand. “I was so worried about you! I brought you tea every day! I told you things… I trusted you.”

George grabs her hand in solidarity and then winces as she grips it hard.

“I’m sorry,” Harry whispers, touching her shoulder as he goes to join Draco next to the counter.

“How could you?” Jean demands. “We’ve been friends for forty years.”

“I don’t want to believe this, but it’s right here in black and white,” Shan sighs. “I thought you were decent, I really did.”

“I didn’t take anything from your shop,” Mr Jennings snaps and then scrambles to his feet. “I didn’t take anything,” he insists, looking at the door and finding Timothy guarding it with a hard expression.

“You steal from one of us, you steal from all of us,” Mr Pike says, and he draws his wand.

Mr Jennings does the same, attempting to Disapparate but managing nothing more than a wisp of smoke and a flash of light.

“You can’t Disapparate in here,” Florean says calmly. “Not today.”

“Sit down,” Harry says, and Mr Jennings sags into his seat. “You’re going to sit there while I explain to these people why you did what you did, and then you’re going to make sense of it, because all I’m getting at the moment is a greedy, selfish man who decided to punish his friends for his own mistakes.”

“I didn’t—” Mr Jennings starts, and Draco silences him with a cold look.

Harry reads the notes aloud to a stunned silence, making sure to look Mr Jennings right in the eye as he speaks the names of his victims.

“‘Dissenting voters: Reuben, Mr Borteg, Jean, Mrs Purley, Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter.’”

“Well, that’s pretty damning,” George says.

“All of this was because you couldn’t expand your shop?” Esmee asks, horrified. “That’s all?”

Mr Jennings shrugs. “Did you really not see this coming?” he says with a bark of bitter laughter. “My business was failing and you let it. All of you. That’s not what friends do.”

“You really thought that making your shop bigger would fix everything?” Reuben says. “If a business is struggling, the last thing you need do is expand.”

“I’m sure you’re an expert,” Mr Jennings snaps, now avoiding everyone’s eyes.

“Yes,” one of the Apothecary workers speaks up. “Profits are up thirty per cent since Reuben took over the business from his father. Some people do know how to make money without stealing from others.”

“We all tried to tell you that you needed to branch out,” Draco says.

“That’s right,” Mrs Purley says. “I told you loads of times that you needed to look at alternatives to quills. Fashions change, and if you don’t change with them, you might as well give up.”

“That’s good from a woman who hasn’t changed her menu in two decades,” Mr Jennings says, causing a rumble of outrage to break out around him.

“I’m not going to argue with a man who stole from me,” Mrs Purley sniffs.

“Bacon sandwiches never go out of fashion,” George says stoutly.

“Maybe no one wanted to buy your quills because you’re so grumpy all the time,” Felicity suggests. “And while we’re on the subject, what’s your problem with children?”

Mr Jennings looks up at last, face a mask of contempt. “This isn’t about children. You’re the ones obsessed with helping children. I just wanted you to feel like I did. Like no one cares.”

“You’ve let yourself down, Marmaduke,” Esmee says softly, and just for a moment, Harry sees the blow hit home.

Just as quickly, Mr Jennings’ face hardens and he looks over at Timothy.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Not really, sir, no,” Timothy says, but he casts a beautiful charm that flies through the air and shackles Mr Jennings’ hands behind his back. “Time to go.”

Everyone watches in silence as Timothy takes his arm and nods to Florean, who dispels his anti-Apparation wards without a word. As Timothy prepares for the Side-along, Mr Jennings turns his head and smiles at Harry. He grabs his wand and lunges towards them but it’s too late; in the split second before he and Timothy disappear, Mr Jennings clicks his fingers and all the lights go out.

In the chaos that follows, Harry stays perfectly still. Cool fingers wrap around his wrist and he breathes, finding a calm in the storm and hanging onto it.

“Why is it so bloody dark?” he whispers.

It must be nine o’clock by now and yet the ice cream parlour is so pitch black that he can’t see his own hand in front of his face.

Lumos maxima,” he murmurs, filling the place with bright light and finding himself staring straight at Florean, who has chosen the same moment to cast.

Now that the interior of the shop is visible, he can see that every person and every surface is covered in thick black soot. Whirling particles seem to fill the air, creating the effect of a noxious smoke that all of them seem to be inhaling with every breath.

“We need to get outside,” Harry shouts, raising his voice and ushering everyone out into the street, where they gulp at the clean air and attempt to brush off their clothes.

“It’s not dangerous,” Reuben calls, pointing his wand at his soot-covered sleeve. “I’ve broken it down and it’s… well, without getting technical, it’s a very sticky kind of dirt.”

“So, his last act as one of us was… to annoy us?” Sophie asks, scowling.

“I think it might be a little bit bigger than that,” Draco says, and when he points across the cobbles, everyone groans.

Mrs Purley lets out a long breath. “You don’t think it’s every single shop?”

Harry peers up the street, squinting against the morning sunlight. Every window in sight is covered in thick black dust, and he can’t imagine that the shops at the top of the street have escaped Mr Jennings’ attention.

“The Christmas lights are out,” Jean sighs, and then stares at Harry. “My owls!”

She dashes for her shop, leaving a trail of soot behind her. Mr Pike darts after her, slamming into the Magical Menagerie before Harry can say a word. Slowly, all the shopkeepers drift away to assess the damage to their stock, and before long, only Harry and Draco are left in the street. Feeling oddly numb, Harry looks at his filthy hands and sighs.

“I suppose that’s another day’s food ruined,” Draco says, cleaning his face with a mint-scented spell.

“What the actual fuck are we going to do?” Harry mumbles.

“The first thing I would do is make sure the entrance to the alley is closed,” Florean says, stepping out of the ice cream parlour. “This is going to be a big clean-up operation and there won’t be any shopping today.”

“No, and it’s only one of the biggest shopping days of the year,” George says crossly.

“I think my flowers are beyond hope,” Felicity sighs, jogging up to join them.

“Everything’s ruined,” Shan says, and Esmee looks close to tears.

One by one, the shopkeepers return to the street, seeming to gather around Harry and Draco with their updates and expectant looks. Instinctively, they look to Florean, and he laughs gently.

“No, boys, this is your show.”

“But you—” Harry tries and is cut off.

“I’m an old man, Harry. A job like this needs a quick mind, or, even better, two,” he says, smiling.

“Right,” Harry says, wiping soot out of his eyes and standing up straight. He takes a deep breath. “Someone needs to check for shoppers and then ask Tom to close the entrance.”

“I’ll go. I’ll come up with something for Tom to tell everyone,” Sophie says, taking off at a run.

“The boys and girls are alright,” Jean says, to a sigh of relief from everyone, and when Mr Pike returns with Carmella and her kittens, the general mood starts to shift from despair to determination.

“There’s a lot to do here,” Draco says. “We need to be organised.”

Harry looks around at his friends, every one of them covered in sticky black dust and every one of them ready and looking to him for instruction.

“Okay,” he says, and when he looks at Draco, he knows he can do this. In fact, he feels like he can do just about anything. “Let’s start with any business that serves food. We need to clean those up first so that they can start remaking anything they’ve lost. Anyone who’s good with organic cleaning spells needs to go with Felicity to see what they can rescue. Does anyone else have a special skill that might be useful?”

“I have some talent with cleaning up machinery,” Florean says. “I’m at your service.”

“I’m good at cleaning windows!” shouts Wayne from the fruit stall.

“I’ve got an air purifying spell that should clear out that stuff in no time,” Mr Pike offers. “Someone will have to take care of Carmella, though.”

“Give her to me,” Mrs Purley says, taking the box and smiling down at the mother Kneazle and her kittens. “If we can get the café cleaned up, I can start making hot drinks. All the tea and coffee’s in tins so it might still be alright.”

“That would be very helpful,” Harry says, already looking forward to his first cup of tea. The soot has made his mouth dry and his throat sore, and the promise of a fragrant cuppa wraps around him as he organises people into groups and sends them on their way.

“You’re very commanding when you want to be, aren’t you?” Draco says, touching Harry’s face with cold fingers and making him blush.

“I’m going to check on Mr Borteg,” he announces, setting off across the cobbles. “Go and do something useful.”

“Yes, sir,” Draco murmurs, and Harry very deliberately doesn’t turn around to look at him.

He finds Borteg’s empty, but is cheered to realise that there is very little damage. The shop is filthy, but with everything being made of wood, glass or metal, a good stiff clean will have the whole place as good as new. When he heads next door to Cherish, he finds Mr Borteg among the cleaning crew. He looks up from his angular crouch but continues to scrub at the floor.

“How’s it going?” Harry asks.

“There is no doubt that they are strong, but this is a great loss,” Mr Borteg sighs.

Harry’s heart sinks. “Has everything been ruined?”

“Everything, Harry.”

With a twist of sadness, Harry looks over at Shan and Esmee, who are lifting ruined crackleballs out of their smudged display case.

“I’m so sorry,” he says, caught between empathy and cold fury.

“Harry, the main thing is that no one’s hurt,” Shan says stiffly. “We can remake all of this as soon as we get back into our kitchen.”

“We’ve got a whole team in there,” Esmee says, smiling when the sharp scent of a cleaning charm wafts out into the shop. “Everyone’s pulling together, it’s wonderful.”

Lifted by Esmee’s optimism, Harry steps around the people cleaning the shop and makes his way out into the street. Draco and Florean are standing outside Sage, conducting a rapid-fire discussion about commercial ovens while Wayne spells the sticky soot from the restaurant’s windows. Harry continues down the alley, stopping at the florist’s to help Felicity and George carry a dozen irritable tentaculas out into the sunlight, then heading for the pet shop, where Mr Pike and a group of helpers are checking each animal in turn and then blasting their tanks and cages clean. When the shop’s resident boa constrictor dangles down to greet him, Harry finds himself picking up a clean, damp cloth and gently wiping the worst of the soot from his scales.

“This is horrible, but at least there will be no more stealing,” Daraja says, allowing the snake to flick his tongue over her hand and then returning to her task of cleaning beetles, dunking each one in water and then drying them with her wand.

“I didn’t see you there,” he admits, spelling his hands clean when he realises that he is just making the snake dirtier than before. “Where are the others?”

“They went to help with the café,” Daraja says. “I think everyone has earned a cup of tea.”

Harry couldn’t agree more. He finishes cleaning the snake and then heads back out into the alley, coordinating the work of all the little groups and helping wherever he can. By lunchtime, Mrs Purley has managed to set up a table by the ice rink with a hot water urn and a supply of only slightly dusty paper cups. While minding Carmella and her kittens and an uncharacteristically subdued Needle, she makes endless cups of tea and coffee while everyone dashes back and forth, carrying boxes and cages and buckets of water.

“Is it me, or does it look worse now than it did this morning?” Harry asks Draco, who has just appeared behind him with two steaming cups.

“Stop panicking and drink your tea,” Draco says, passing him a hot cup and leaning against him for the briefest of moments.

Harry sips his tea, relishing the way the hot liquid seems to warm him from the inside. The street is an absolute shambles, cobbles strewn with damaged stock and grime-smudged people darting from shop to shop. More than anything, it looks like the moment in the middle of every big clear-out Harry has ever attempted, when everything he owns seems to surround him in a sea of chaos and there’s nothing to do but keep going.

He opens his mouth to speak but falls silent when the lights on the Christmas tree flicker into life. Seconds later, every festive bulb in Diagon Alley begins to glow brightly, and Harry finds himself caught up in a wave of excitement.

“There we go,” Sophie shouts, jumping down from the top of Daraja’s stall and tucking her wand into her waistband. “Lights are on and Mr Jennings can go and screw himself.”

Jean pokes her head out of her shop and gives Sophie a firm thumbs-up. “Well done, love.”

When Draco heads back to check on Sage, Harry helps Jean to cage up the last few loose owls and carry them over to Mrs Purley, who accepts her new charges without comment and immediately sets to cleaning their dusty feathers. Minutes later, Harry is delighted to see Shan and Esmee hurrying back into their kitchen. Soon, they are melting, tempering and decorating like demons in an attempt to refill their empty display cases, and Harry watches them with quiet pride.

Sage, too, is coming back to life, and while Mrs Purley minds the animals, Reuben and his team have cleaned the café until it sparkles and have started to replace the lost food. Natalie and her partner have been sent into Muggle London to buy milk, bread, and bacon, while the man from the German sausage stall is using Mrs Purley’s equipment to fry up his wares in bulk, providing much-needed hot food for all the workers.

Draco sits beside Harry on the edge of the fountain and bites into a piece of sausage with a soft groan of approval. Harry looks at him, noting that while he looks as weary and dishevelled as everyone else, he somehow contrives to be clean, or at least cleaner than he should be.

“Did you have a wash?” he asks picking up his sausage and then dropping it when the hot grease stings his owl-bitten fingers.

“I’d hardly call it that,” Draco says, grimacing at his fingernails. “Thank goodness my mother isn’t here. I don’t want to imagine what she’d say about the mess.”

Harry snorts. “Maybe it’ll be clean before she comes back. You never know.”

“Have some faith,” Draco says. “Everyone here is working as hard as they can.”

Harry glances at him, frowning. “I know.”

Draco sighs. “No, you don’t. They are working because they all care deeply for their community, of that I have no doubt. But they’re pulling together like this because you told them to. Harry, they gathered around you and waited for you to tell them what to do next. You have no idea, do you?”

Harry stares at the setting sun, uncertain how to reply. “About what?” he mutters, shrugging.

“You’re a leader,” Draco says, pressing his thigh against Harry’s. “When Florean retires, everyone is going to start squashing themselves into Borteg’s once a month.”

Harry laughs. “There’s a thought. Anyway, Florean will never retire.”

“Probably not.”

“I’m not sure I want to be a leader on my own,” Harry says, meeting Draco’s eyes.

“You won’t have to be,” he whispers, leaning in and kissing Harry so softly that he gasps.

“Well, that was inevitable,” George says, and they both turn to see him grinning at them over his paper cup. “Does Mum know? Can I tell her?”

“That would be ‘I don’t know’ and ‘absolutely not’,” Harry says, ignoring the prickle of heat climbing up his neck. “How are those plants doing?”

“All the cut flowers are a write-off,” George says, wrinkling his freckled nose. “Most of the stuff in pots will be alright with a bit of care.”

“What about your shop?” Draco asks, and George grimaces.

“A lot of damage, but everyone’s in there cleaning it up. I’d better get back and help them.” George turns to leave. “You know, I keep wondering what he did with all those presents.”

Harry watches him walk away, mind racing. “What if he’s still got them?”

Draco frowns. “What?”

“We knew he couldn’t sell the stuff around here without raising suspicion… what if he was just hanging on to everything until he could figure out what to do with it?”

Draco’s eyes slide down the street to Jennings’ Quills, where the windows are still thick with soot.

“We could go and look,” he suggests, and they both get to their feet.

Carefully, they pick their way through the debris and weave around the people who are now attempting to clear up the cobbles. Harry unlocks the door with a spell and blasts the worst of the dust out into the street. He steps into the shop and looks around by wandlight, searching behind the counter while Draco checks the stockroom. Finding nothing, Harry pushes on into the back room, shivering and inhaling the damp stench of neglect that seems woven into the furniture. The room is so cold and miserable that Harry almost feels sorry for Mr Jennings, but the memory of Shan and Esmee and their empty display case is more than enough to drive the feeling away.

“Anything?” Draco asks, walking into the room and wrinkling his nose.

“Not yet,” Harry says, opening drawers and cupboards and dirty old boxes. He is just considering an experimental Acciowhen Draco yanks at something that opens with a rattle and a clunk.

“Stolen Christmas presents underneath a trapdoor,” he says. “Very festive.”

“Really?” Harry murmurs, scrambling over to his side and dropping to his knees to light the dark recess with his wand. “Do you think they’re all here?”

Draco shrugs and levitates the packages up through the trapdoor. “Maybe.”

Bracing himself against the edge of the hole, Harry leans down and sweeps his wand around the interior. When he finds nothing, he casts a series of detection charms and then pulls himself upright.

“No money,” he says. “No doubt that’s long gone.”

“But we have these,” Draco says, examining the pile of presents. “They’re rather scuffed up, but then that’s what happens when you throw things into a sack and then shove them under your floor.”

Harry gazes at the presents. The paper wrappings have been torn in places, exposing brightly-coloured toys and soft things made of glittering wool. Most of the ribbons are frayed and many have slipped off completely, lying strewn and tangled at the bottom of the pile. Gathering his focus, he points his wand at the nearest package and casts, creating a soft yellow light that repairs the wrapping paper and sends a new scarlet ribbon snaking around it and tying itself in a bow.

“They can do without us for a few more minutes, can’t they?” Draco says, and he smiles as he lifts his wand and selects a particularly battered parcel, rewrapping it in a flurry of silver paper and finishing it with a delicate, rainbow striped ribbon.

“Very nice,” Harry approves, reaching for another parcel and setting about transforming it, all the while stealing glances at the man beside him, a sharp, clever man with black dust in his hair who can conjure the most impressive multicoloured ribbons out of nowhere.

When all of the presents are immaculate and sparkling with festivity, Harry loads them into a couple of old crates so that he and Draco can carry them outside. He gulps at the cold, sweet air, relieved to be out of Mr Jennings’ dismal property and determined to put some distance between himself and that place.

“You didn’t find them?” Mrs Purley cries, temporarily abandoning her post to dash over and stare at the presents. “Bless you, I thought they’d gone for good. Jean!” She bellows, running back to her table and soothing Needle when he gets to his feet and bangs his head on the bottom of the table.

Jean hurries over, soot-smeared face crinkled with delight when she sees Harry and Draco and their boxes.

“Look, everyone, Harry and Draco have got our presents for the kiddies!” she shouts, and all along the alley, people pop their heads out of shops and pause in their cobble-washing to look at the shiny parcels and chatter to each other in delight.

“You found them,” Daraja says, emerging from the Magical Menagerie with three large lizards in her arms and a small one in her hair. She smiles. “The children will have their Christmas.”

“You don’t sound surprised,” Harry says, and her smile widens until all her gold teeth are visible.

“My Orisha told me that there would be difficult times ahead, but he also told me that if sufficient spirits joined together to fight, the darkness would be overcome.” Daraja regards Harry calmly. “There are more than sufficient spirits in this street.”

Harry looks around at the many figures still working away in the dying light. All are dirty and exhausted but not a single person has even mentioned giving up.

“I can’t believe you found them,” Felicity says, pitching up next to Daraja and stretching out a badly scratched hand to touch the wrappings.

“I don’t think any of these are mine,” Reuben says, frowning. “I definitely didn’t have any fancy ribbons like those.”

“We may have rewrapped a few of them,” Draco admits. “They were a little bit worse for wear when we found them.”

“Oh, that’s what the two of you were doing in there,” George laughs, and everyone within earshot laughs, too, grinning at Harry and Draco until Harry thinks he might implode with embarrassment.

“In there?” Draco says with an elegant shrug. “I think not.”

“Your man’s got standards,” George says with a smirk, and Harry is saved from having to respond by the sudden arrival of Florean, who sprints up to join their group with a roll of parchment in his hand.

“Timothy just owled me,” he explains, holding up the parchment with its Ministry insignia. “Mr Jennings has been charged, processed, and sent to the holding cells for the night. If I write back and tell them about the mess he left behind, they might leave him in there until Boxing Day.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” Sophie says, and when she raises her cup of tea, everyone follows suit.

Timothy’s owl seems to provide a new source of energy for all of them, and there is not a single complaint as they work into the night, cleaning, repairing, organising and restocking. Even as the Christmas displays become the only light source out in the street, people scurry back and forth across the cobbles and each of Harry’s teams work together as though they’ve done so all their lives.

With the rescued presents stored safely in Sage’s pantry, Harry and Draco go to help Mr Borteg but find the shop empty.

“He’s with us,” a pink-robed girl tells Harry when he pokes his head back out into the street. “We’ve finished cleaning but there’s a lot of stock from the back that needs to go onto the displays. Honestly, I think he’s enjoying himself.”

Harry allows himself a moment to picture Mr Borteg’s spindly figure lurching around in the multicoloured madness of George’s shop. He smiles.

“Thanks for that,” he tells the girl, and then rejoins Draco, who is already lifting the dust from the rows of bottles with a charm so delicate that Harry hardly dares to breathe in case he disturbs it.

The distillery is mostly untouched, but Harry takes his time cleaning away the soot from the copper stills, the tops of the barrels, the stone floor and Mr Borteg’s desk. He looks at his temporary office with its map and list of victims and then walks away, returning to the shop and hitting everything in sight with the best cleaning spells he can muster. By the time the little shop is mostly back to normal, Harry is sticky with sweat and grime and his wand arm aches from shoulder to wrist.

Without the need for words, they leave the shop and follow a weary trickle of people down to the festival area, where Mrs Purley is handing out a fresh round of tea and attempting to keep Needle from poking his head into every last paper cup. Shan and Esmee are still working away in their kitchen, but almost everyone else seems to have gathered here, leaning in groups against the stalls, sitting on the rim of the fountain or sprawling on the cobbles beside the ice rink, clutching cups that release steam into the cold night.

Harry looks up and down the alley, impressed to see that all the shop windows are clean and sparkling and all of their insides seem to be back in order. The cobbles are clear of detritus, all the rescued stock is back in place and there isn’t a speck of soot on any of the shopfronts. Carmella and her family have been returned to their warm shop, as have all of Jean’s owls. In fact, the only evidence that anything has happened here at all is in the filthy, exhausted shapes of several dozen Diagon Alley shopkeepers, and he is proud of every single one of them.

“You’ve done an incredible job,” he says, reaching for Draco’s hand and threading their fingers together. “All of you.”

“No one would know that horrible man was ever here,” Draco says. “I don’t know about any of you, but I will be opening tomorrow morning as usual.”

“Me too,” Mrs Purley echoes, finally losing control of Needle as he rushes to Draco and promptly sits down on his feet.

“We will be open,” Reuben says, and his staff murmur their agreement.

“So will we,” adds George, coming to join them with a bedraggled but smiling Mr Borteg.

“We will definitely be open,” Felicity says fiercely.

“Open,” Jean says with a firm nod.

“Open for business as usual,” Mr Pike promises.

“I will be here,” says the German sausage man, and all the other stallholders jump in to back him up.

Harry listens as everyone hurries to assure everyone else that they, too, will open their shops and cafes and restaurants for Christmas Eve, and no kind of thieves or explosions of soot are going to stop them. Heart full of warm pride, he smiles and drinks the tea that Draco has acquired without seeming to move from his side.

“I think it’s time for everyone to clean themselves up and get some rest,” Florean says. “That means you, too, Harry.”

“What about me?” Draco asks as everyone around them starts to struggle to their feet.

“I’m rather relying on you to make sure he leaves,” Florean says.

“I see.”

“I am here, you know,” Harry says, but every part of him feels heavy and he doesn’t resist when Draco pulls him in the direction of Sage. “Wait, what about Shan and Esmee?”

“Shan and Esmee are doing what Shan and Esmee do best,” Florean says. “Making delicious chocolates. Perhaps I’ll go over there and help them.”

“That’s hardly fair,” Harry protests, but Draco seizes him by the shoulders and propels him up the street with surprising strength.

Needle ambles after them, only biting Harry’s fingers once as Draco lets them into the restaurant and locks the door. He releases Harry with a look that says ‘Be good. Both of you’ and then leads the way upstairs. The flat is in complete darkness with only the faintest sparkles from the street flickering like fireflies against the windows. The air is warm on Harry’s cold skin and smells comfortingly of firewood. He breathes it in and pushes the day away, already feeling as though he could curl up on any available surface and sleep for a week.

“Are you coming?” Draco whispers, voice seemingly muffled by the thick darkness.

He catches Harry’s hand and tugs gently, leading him into an equally dark bedroom and then perching on the edge of the bed.

“I’m really dirty,” Harry says, already knowing that Draco’s sheets will be immaculate. “Do you mind if I go and at least try to scrub some of this off?”

Draco smiles slowly, eyes bright in the darkness. “Just across the hallway.”

Harry leaves him with a great sense of reluctance and goes to find the bathroom. Here, the lamps light automatically and pour soft light over a small, neat room with a waxed wooden floor and a shower cubicle that is definitely big enough for two. Grinning, he turns to the sink and scrubs at his face and hands with lemon-scented soap until he almost looks like himself again. A shower in the morning should fix the rest, and could very well be a lot of fun.

He returns to the bedroom to find Draco stretched out in shirt and boxers, sleeping peacefully with Needle by his side.

“No,” he says, quietly but firmly. “Go to your bed.”

Needle shifts over a fraction of an inch and Harry gives in. He’s exhausted and he can’t think of anything better than climbing into this bed with Draco and sleeping until the morning. Yawning, he strips off his dirty clothes and crawls under the soft quilt, wrapping an arm around Draco’s waist as he lets his head sink onto the pillow. Needle settles himself at their feet. Draco doesn’t stir.

Harry lets his eyes close, and within seconds, the world is fading away.

Chapter Text

Twenty-fourth of December – earmuffs 



Harry stirs awake to the sound of cackling magpies and smiles lazily into his pillow.

“No, we got the lot finished by two,” one of the magpies says and Harry opens one eye.

It’s fuzzy at close range and without his glasses, but this pillow is all wrong. The fabric is crisper and lighter than his trusty brushed cotton winter set, and more to the point, magpies don’t usually talk about chocolate as much as this one is doing now. Disoriented, Harry tries to roll over but something heavy is occupying the small of his back. He shivers, suddenly aware that he is barely covered by the bedclothes, and the thing on his back lets out a small, irritated hiss.

“Of course we’ve got the full range of crackleballs,” the magpie says with another cackle. “Can’t risk running out on Christmas Eve. You’d better go and give those owls their breakfast before it’s time to open up.”

“That’s not a magpie,” Harry mumbles, squinting around at the dark bedroom.

“It’s Shan,” Draco says with a snort of laughter. “She wakes me up every morning. I tried spelling my window soundproof at one point but then I realised I missed her.”

Harry turns his head on his pillow, meeting Draco’s eyes and allowing the madness of the previous day to flood back around him. It now makes perfect sense that he is in Draco’s bedroom, in Draco’s bed, and while something old and almost forgotten tries to tie him up in panic, all he feels is contentment. Yes, Draco has stolen almost all the bedclothes and one of Harry’s pillows, and yes, he has a swan that is now wide awake and briskly preening Harry’s hair for him, but he feels as though he might like to wake up just like this for the rest of his life.

“How did I sleep?” he wonders, but he can’t keep the stupid smile off his face.

“How did I?” Draco counters. “You wouldn’t stop talking.”

With some effort, Harry dislodges Needle and shifts closer to Draco. “What did I say?”

“Sadly, I can’t remember,” Draco says, pulling him in for a kiss and a moment of delicious closeness before drawing back and staring between them with a look of quiet horror. “Good grief, it’s everywhere.”

Harry follows his eyes to see that the sheets are smeared with black soot, and that despite his best attempts at washing his face, his pillow is smudged with grubby streaks. His body is sticky with grime and Draco’s pale skin is decorated with dusty fingerprints, as well as the outline of a hand against his hip that makes Harry warm with arousal.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Draco says weakly, even as he trails a hand up Harry’s thigh and over the stretched cotton of his underwear, missing his morning hardness by a fraction of an inch.

“Then don’t touch me like that,” Harry says with a caught breath. “Or do, if you want.”

Draco smiles slowly. “It’s not that I don’t want to.”

“I don’t not want to, either,” Harry mumbles, pressing into the touch and reaching for Draco’s mouth. “I want to. I want you.”

Draco groans into the kiss, hot tongue slipping against Harry’s. “I can’t.”

“Why not?” Harry whispers, pulling them tight together and gasping at the contact.

Draco buries his face in Harry’s shoulder and shudders. “Because we are both covered in—”

“That shower is definitely big enough for both of us,” Harry points out.

“It is,” Draco says breathlessly as Harry kisses his neck. “But Needle needs a bath, you need to go and check on Mr Borteg, and my mother will be here any minute.”

Harry pauses. “A minute might be long enough,” he admits, and Draco laughs.

“I like to take my time,” he says, and there is something in his voice that makes Harry harder than he has ever been.

“Right,” he manages, heart hammering a fierce, uneven rhythm as Draco disentangles himself and stalks off into the bathroom.

He pauses in the doorway. “Go on, then. I’ll see you later.”

“I love you,” Harry says, just as the door swings shut between them.

He picks up his dirty clothes, humming with anticipation as he does his best to spell them presentable. Still feeling gritty and uncomfortable, he strokes a grubby Needle and heads for the stairs, smiling when Draco’s voice drifts over the sound of running water.

“I love you, idiot.”

Harry steps out into Diagon Alley just as the shops are beginning to open and his smile widens as he looks around at the gleaming windows and immaculate shopfronts. Everything looks perfect and a light fall of snow overnight has left the street looking like a Christmas card. Shan and Esmee are in high spirits when he goes to check on them, both rushing to hug him and push freshly-made chocolate treats into his hands.

He finds Mr Borteg behind the counter, polishing invisible smears from his till with a soft cloth. Harry hangs back in the doorway to watch him, intrigued to notice a new addition to his usual dark outfit in the shape of an orange woven bracelet.

“I like it,” Harry says, tapping his wrist when Mr Borteg looks up.

“Ah, yes. Mr Weasley gave it to me,” he says, inspecting the bracelet. “He insisted that everyone who assisted him with tidying his shop must have one. Every now and then, it lights up and tells me to ‘take a giggle break’.”

“And do you?” Harry asks, delighted by the combination of those words and Mr Borteg’s funereal voice.

“Of course, Harry,” he says gravely.

“Glad to hear it. Is there anything you want me to do?”

Mr Borteg’s ghostly eyes fix upon Harry with such sternness that he almost takes a step backwards.

“You have done enough. Go home, Harry. Make your festive preparations. Rest,” he says, raising his arm and pointing over Harry’s shoulder at the door. “We will all continue to rub along without you.”

Harry smiles. “Alright, alright… I promise. I just have a quick and possibly weird favour to ask you.”

**~*~**

Back at number twelve, Harry turns the shower up as hot as he can stand and scrubs every inch of himself, sluicing his skin over and over until the water that runs into the drain is clear rather than grey. It takes three washes to cleanse the last of the sticky soot from his hair and he has to admit defeat on his fingernails but when he steps out of the shower, he finally feels clean. In the kitchen, he makes tea and crumpets and then settles in front of the fire to wrap his presents. With the charity parcels clear in his mind, he abandons his usual haphazard process and takes his time, using a combination of magic and careful folding to encase each gift in a neat layer of shiny paper. He conjures ribbons to suit each recipient, choosing raw silk for Hermione, red glitter for Rose, a floral print for Molly and a pattern of tiny swans for Draco.

Just as he is arranging the parcels under his tree, a Ministry owl flutters onto his windowsill and taps at the glass. Harry takes the proffered envelope and grins to see a card with a picture of woodland creatures and a message from Timothy.

Dear Harry, he reads.

I hope you are well. I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and to tell you that I will miss you all now that our work together is finished. My boss was very pleased (and surprised) with the outcome and I’m looking forward to my next assignment. I heard about what happened after we left and I want to assure you that several charges have been added to Mr Jennings’ case.

You and Draco made brilliant detectives! I had a wonderful time working with you. Thank you for your kindness.

Best wishes,

Timothy C Kettleworth.

Harry puts the card on his mantelpiece and smiles to himself.

“I’m not sure about brilliant, but we got the job done,” he says to his living room, and then frowns at his reflection in the mirror.

He looks dreadful, exhausted and pale with half-closed eyes and a rough mask of stubble. He yawns and looks at his sofa with its soft cushions and piles of warm blankets, resisting for only a moment before flopping down and closing his eyes.

“I don’t talk in my sleep,” he mumbles, pulling the blankets in tight and relishing the warmth of the fire on his face. “Shush.”

He wakes to a dark sky and a room softly illuminated by the lights on his Christmas tree. Feeling restored, he checks the time and then runs himself a bath, stretching out in the hot, fragrant water and scrubbing at his nails with a brush until even Draco couldn’t find fault with them. Conscious of Molly’s worries about formal dress, he avoids his sparse collection of smart clothes and chooses plain dark trousers and a fine-knit red sweater without any holes. He puts on his coat and gazes at his reflection with vague dissatisfaction. His hair is waving and spiking all over the place and he’s never going to look stylish, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Draco can take care of that end of things and he can… well, he can do something, he tells himself, forcing himself out into the cold night before he can think himself into a corner.

Molly and Arthur are waiting for him outside the restaurant, peering nervously into the window at the other diners. They are visibly relieved to see him and he doesn’t resist the urge to hug them both.

“Come on, you must be freezing,” he says, opening the door and allowing a wave of warm, delicious-smelling air to escape into the street.

Molly and Arthur follow him inside and he weaves through the tables in search of Draco. He finds Needle attempting to tug an unsuspecting woman’s napkin off her lap, several smiling waiters and waitresses, but no Draco, and he is just about to check the kitchen when Narcissa calls to him from her table.

“Hello, Mrs Malfoy,” Harry says, startled to realise that her small corner table has been enlarged and transformed, with all craft materials swept away and places set for seven.

There is ample room for everyone, and Harry wonders which one of them is handy with a space-bending charm. He doesn’t have much time to wonder as Ron and Hermione join them, taking off their coats and pulling up their chairs as their eyes flit around the dining room in an attempt to take everything in at once. Molly removes her cloak, startling when a waitress appears and spirits it away.

“Do I look alright?” she whispers to Harry, and he smiles, taking in her dark red dress and festive cardigan, her hair caught up with a velvet clasp and her uncertain little frown.

“You look lovely,” he promises, and she seems to glow with pride as she looks around at her dining companions.

Draco strides into the dining room in his shirt, grey trousers and braces, taking a stack of menus from a baffled waiter and dropping into his seat. Harry stares at him openly until Hermione coughs and he pretends intense interest in his napkin. As Draco makes a series of introductions and passes out the menus, Harry’s eyes drift back to him, sliding over his ruffled hair and his strong hands and his slightly anxious smile.

As predicted, Molly and Narcissa have much to talk about, and are quickly lost in a conversation that veers from raising children to knitting projects with detours around the best place to buy good quality butter and the state of popular music. Ron eats his starter without taking his eyes off his mother, and Arthur seems equally entranced by his wife’s easy sociability.

“This is wonderful,” Hermione says to Draco. “I love soup.”

Harry snorts, quickly turning it into a cough when Hermione glances at him.

“It’s just a winter vegetable,” Draco says, but Harry knows he is pleased.

“I like it,” he says, and Draco stops, spoon halfway to his mouth.

That’s what you said,” he mumbles, setting his spoon down in apparent triumph. “You said ‘I like this snake, let’s put it through the car wash.’”

Molly and Narcissa pause in their conversation.

“Draco, what on earth are you talking about?”

“That’s what Harry said in his sleep. He said that he liked the snake and we should put it through the car wash. Isn’t that one of those machines with the spinning brushes?”

“Yes,” Hermione says, smirking. “When was this, Harry?”

“Last night,” he sighs, trying not to blush. He’s a grown man and if he wants to sleep next to another grown man, he shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. But he is, because six people are looking at him and he doesn’t think he can hide in his soup bowl, however much he might want to. “Draco and I… we’re together, all your suspicions are true and you were right all along, I’m an idiot, and… a Merry Christmas,” he finishes, lifting his wine glass and frowning when everyone, including Narcissa, starts to laugh.

Draco’s eyes catch his over the table and he shrugs, mouth flickering and pulling Harry’s along with it. He has no idea what is wrong with his family but he loves them, and that’s all that matters.

“Merry Christmas, mate,” Ron says, clinking his glass against Harry’s and setting off a chain reaction of clinks and festive wishes. “You know, Hermione talks in her sleep, too.”

“Do I?” she asks, scandalised.

“Well, once,” Ron admits. “You said ‘goodness, look at all those candelabras’ and then you laughed and started snoring again.”

“I don’t snore,” Hermione assures.

“Arthur snores,” Molly offers.

“Perhaps I should be grateful to sleep alone,” Narcissa says, just as the soup bowls are taken away and replaced with large white plates containing their main courses.

Harry looks around enviously at the other plates, admiring Ron’s perfectly cooked roast beef, Narcissa’s seared salmon and Hermione’s game pie with its golden pastry and tiny ceramic bird that channels herb-scented steam into the warm air. As always, he wants what everyone else is having, but he reminds himself that he can come back to Sage any time he likes and sample the menu until he has tried absolutely everything. Besides, his belly pork looks wonderful, and when he tries it, along with a spot of apple sauce and a smear of buttery mashed potatoes, he wants to groan out loud.

He looks at Draco, who is looking right back, slicing into a carrot baton and slowly lifting an eyebrow in a way that makes Harry’s stomach pull tight.

“Do you like it?” he asks.

Harry licks a crumb of salty crackling from his lips and nods. “Yeah. I do.”

“This is incredible,” Hermione says, flaking her pastry with her knife. “You should come and have dinner with us, too. I could make soup!”

This time Ron smothers his laughter but Hermione doesn’t seem to notice.

“It really is impressive,” Arthur says. “These are the best roast potatoes I’ve…” he stops as both Hermione and Molly turn to stare at him. “These are the best roast potatoes I’ve ever had in a restaurant,” he finishes hurriedly.

Molly beams and Hermione regards her father-in-law with suspicion. For a moment, their table is silent, and Harry idly listens to the buzz of conversations all around him, then Needle arrives to bite Hermione’s sleeve, and the roast potato controversy is quickly forgotten.

After desserts of rich, dark chocolate, caramel and frosted fruits, Draco fetches cups of coffee for everyone and the conversation drifts pleasantly, with everyone too full and contented to talk about anything more taxing than festive memories and plans for the following day. As the restaurant starts to wind down for the night, coats and cloaks are collected and Sage’s guests rise reluctantly from their seats.

“Seven to dine, friendships align,” Molly says, looking around the table with a smile. “That’s an old Prewett family proverb. I suppose they didn’t realise I was going to have so many children.”

“They are a credit to you,” Narcissa says, rising to shake Molly’s hand. “I shall look forward to meeting more of them tomorrow.”

Molly is beaming as Harry walks her and Arthur to the door. She clasps his hands in hers and squeezes tightly. “Thank you for a wonderful evening, Harry. I’m so happy for you.”

“I’m so not surprised for you,” Hermione says, flinging herself at him in a wine-unsteady hug. “Merry Christmas, Harry.”

He hugs her back and grins when Ron slaps him on his sore shoulder, even though it hurts like hell.

“See you all tomorrow,” he calls, watching them disappear into the night.

Draco joins him at the door, slipping an arm around his waist. “My mother has gone to bed. She asked me to wish you goodnight.”

“It’s just you and me, then,” Harry says.

“Indeed. What do you want to do?”

Harry takes a long breath of cold air, weighing up the thrill in his chest, the fullness of his stomach, and the spark of an idea that wriggles inside him as he gazes at the frosted cobbles.

“I want to skate.”

“That is really not what I expected you to say,” Draco admits. “Why?”

Harry turns to him and reaches for his hands. “Because it’s Christmas Eve. Because I want to. Because I’ll hold your hand the entire time and if we fall over, nobody will even see it.”

“We will fall over,” Draco says, but he grabs his coat anyway, along with a pair of woollen earmuffs, and locks the door with his wand.

He puts the earmuffs on and links his fingers through Harry’s as they walk through the quiet street, huffing out cold breath and kicking up frost. Harry darts covert glances at the earmuffs, feeling sure that he wants to make some comment but unable to string the words together. As earmuffs go, they are unremarkable, plain and black without a fluffy pink fibre in sight, but the sight of Draco wearing them is just…

“Are you laughing at my earmuffs?” Draco demands as they reach the skate stall. “It’s bloody freezing out here. Literally.”

“I’m not laughing,” Harry says, biting down on a grin.

“You are. Stop it.”

“You know what, Draco? The thing that’s really funny is that they suit you,” Harry says, finally finding the words. “Anyone else would look like an idiot in those things, but not you. What is wrong with you?”

“That’s for you to find out, you’re stuck with me now,” Draco says, picking out a pair of skates and sitting down on the bench to put them on.

Harry stares at him for a moment and then shrugs. “Okay.”

Five minutes later, they step out onto the ice, Draco gripping Harry’s hand for dear life as they make their first faltering glides. There is a lot of wobbling and not a lot of grace, but Harry doesn’t care; it’s ten o’clock on Christmas Eve and the street is deserted. It’s just him and Draco, the shimmer of colourful lights and a sheet of ice that wants nothing more than to send them crashing into a heap. It’s glorious, and he is exhilarated, pulling Draco along beside him and laughing when he swears and promises vengeance.

Soon, Harry adjusts to the sensation and begins to skate with long, smooth glides. He steadies Draco each time he loses balance and before too long, they are moving together, swooping in circuits around the ice. Draco’s coat flaps behind him and his hair flickers around his earmuffs as he cuts through the air, mouth pressed thin in concentration.

“I knew you could do it,” Harry says, gripping his hand in numb fingers.

“Don’t make me think about it,” Draco protests, skidding on the turn and almost knocking Harry over.

“Don’t think about it. Don’t think about anything!” Harry instructs, flying over the ice now.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Draco teases, picking up his pace to match.

As the lights fade in and out, dappling the ice with beautiful blurred colours, they glide together in a dance that fills Harry with fresh, cold life and sweeps him clean of everything but this. When Draco finally stumbles and drags them both onto the ice with a crash, he just lies there, ignoring the pain in his knees and hauling Draco into a kiss with both hands fisted into his coat. Draco laughs against his lips and touches his face with ice cold fingertips.

“Have you lost your mind?” he mumbles, blinking in surprise when his earmuffs slide off his head and land on Harry’s chest.

“You’re the one that fell down,” Harry points out.

“And you’re the one that seems to want to stay down,” Draco says, mouth startlingly hot against Harry’s as he leans down to kiss him.

Harry gazes at the tree and the lights and the gleaming, opalescent surface of the ice. A strange little part of him wants to stay here forever, and he scrambles upright, deciding to head for somewhere warm before hypothermia takes him.

“Does your bed have clean sheets on it now?” he asks hopefully.

“It does,” Draco says, struggling to his feet and helping Harry up. “Are you inviting yourself?”

Harry skates over to the edge of the ice. “Yep.”

“Scandalous,” Draco murmurs, and then falls silent as they remove their skates and lace up their shoes.

There is no need for words, not now, and as they walk back up the street, through the restaurant and up to Draco’s flat, everything that needs to be said is spoken in heated glances and the brushing of fingertips against palms. At the bedroom door, Harry stops and attempts to locate Needle in the dark living room, finding him at last under the windowsill, peacefully dead to the world in a large, blanket-lined basket. Harry follows Draco into the bedroom, this time making sure to close the door behind him.

“No swans tonight,” he mumbles to himself.

Draco doesn’t seem to hear him; he is absorbed in a spell that pours gentle blue flames into the three copper bowls that sit opposite the bed in place of a traditional hearth and mantel. The room is soon filled with soft, flickering light, allowing Harry to see the iron bed frame, the fresh white sheets, and Draco’s collection of salvaged furniture. A swathe of voile hangs over the open window, fluttering in the cold breeze and forming a hazy film over the night sky.

“Are you cold?” Draco asks, unbuttoning his coat.

“Yes,” Harry says, adding, “No,” when Draco goes to close the window. “I’m fine.”

Draco lifts a curious eyebrow but says nothing as they discard coats and socks and shoes, and when they crawl onto the soft sheets, Harry realises that he can no longer feel the chill from the window. His extremities are still numb, hands and face raw from the ice and the night air, but the heat from the copper bowls is soothing against his skin and Draco’s mouth is warm on his and nothing else really matters.

For what could be a long time or no time at all, they lie tangled, caught up in slow, maddening kisses, each brush of lips settling in the pit of Harry’s stomach and leaving him breathless with need. When he can’t take another second, he pushes Draco onto his back, slipping his leather braces from his shoulder and unbuttoning his shirt with numb, clumsy fingers. Draco’s skin is pale and beautiful in the soft blue light, and he stares up into Harry, helping him to shrug the shirt onto the floor. He reaches up to draw Harry back into the kiss, closing his eyes when Harry traces the shape of the faded mark with his fingertips.

“I have scars, too,” he whispers, and Draco’s eyes fly open.

With a shaky smile, Harry pulls his jumper over his head, sitting back on Draco’s thighs and displaying the reminders of the past that scatter his chest and abdomen.

“Spell damage, cuts that didn’t heal properly,” he explains, touching the pale pink lines and then pressing Draco’s palm against them.

“You could have healed these with magic,” Draco says, fingers trailing over Harry’s skin so gently that his breath hitches in his chest.

“I’m alive,” he says, catching Draco’s wrists and pinning them to the sheets. “And so are you. I love you.”

“I love you,” Draco whispers, gasping when Harry leans down and brings them back into contact, burying his face in Draco’s neck as their hips slide together and draw a groan from both of them.

The flames are warm at Harry’s back as they writhe slowly, sharing ragged breaths and creating a rough wave of friction that leaves him hard and aching. Nothing has ever felt quite like this, so wonderfully easy and thrilling and right all at once, and he almost wants to laugh with the newness of it all. When he scrambles to his knees to take off the rest of Draco’s clothes, he is startled to find himself dragged off balance and pushed onto his back. He grins as Draco strips away all the remaining fabric that lies between them and takes Harry in his mouth without warning.

“Oh, god,” Harry whispers, already feeling the heat of arousal wrapping around the base of his spine. “Fuck, Draco… I can’t…”

“Of course you can,” Draco says, pulling away with a smile that makes Harry’s cock jump in his hand. “I’m not going anywhere, are you?”

“No,” Harry gasps, hips jerking as Draco flicks his tongue over the sensitised flesh and begins to stroke him slowly.

His eyes meets Harry’s through a fall of pale hair and hold steady with such intention that Harry flushes all over, breath coming quickly now, heart racing out of control as Draco stares and strokes and envelops him in soft heat, rhythm and caress, and he comes with a whimper, hands flying up to cover his face as he tightens and twitches and empties himself into Draco’s mouth.

Slowly, Draco releases him and rearranges himself with his head on the pillow next to Harry’s.

“Are you alright?” he whispers.

Harry laughs and uncovers his eyes, reaching out to thread his fingers through Draco’s hair.

“Do I not look alright?”

“You looked wonderful,” Draco says, kissing him and allowing his hard cock to brush against Harry’s hip.

“I’m not going to get embarrassed,” Harry lies, pressing his mouth to Draco’s warm, lemon-scented skin and wrapping his fingers around his cock, already feeling himself starting to stir when it leaks against his palm and Draco shudders beside him.

“I can wait,” he says, and Harry just smiles.

“Don’t.”

Draco’s eyes seem to darken as he looks down at Harry’s slowly stroking hand, at Harry’s half-hard cock and the sticky release that paints his belly.

“I want you to fuck me,” Harry says, skin heating all over again as Draco’s eyes snap to his.

“I see,” he murmurs, and then he is kissing Harry breathless, reaching into a bedside drawer and withdrawing with a glass bottle that is shockingly cold against Harry’s skin.

Draco flicks the cork away with his thumb and pours the oil into his hand, sitting back to stroke a shiny trail over Harry’s chest, his belly and his cock. Harry watches him, drawing up one knee and inhaling the fragrant scent of the oil. It smells fantastic, like wood and spices and leather, and seems to settle and spread inside him until he feels relaxed enough to sink right through the bedclothes and onto the floor.

“That smells brilliant,” he sighs, moaning softly when Draco presses a slippery palm to his cock and begins to stroke him open.

“It should,” he says, fingers sliding slowly in and out until Harry is hard and flushed against his belly. “It’s you.”

Harry frowns, then gasps and twists his hands into the sheets. “What’s me?”

“This,” Draco says, and then he’s sliding into Harry into one, long stroke. He pauses, taking a shuddering breath, and when he speaks again, his voice is rough and halting. “The oil is made with scents that… fuck… remind me of you.”

“Like what?” Harry pants, wrapping his legs around Draco’s hips and encouraging a slow, easy rocking motion.

“Mint,” Draco says, crawling onto his elbows and easing himself into Harry, finding an angle that makes both of them gasp. “Leather. Wood warmed by the sun. Whisky.”

Harry laughs, tipping his head back on the pillow. Now starting to feel hot and sticky, he swipes his hair out of his eyes and drags Draco down for an awkward but very necessary kiss.

“That bottle was half empty,” he says. He slides his hand down between them and grips his cock as Draco fucks him deeply, both of them now moaning softly with each stroke. “Have you been up here, thinking of me and…”

“Yes,” Draco admits, sweat-damp and breathless, mouth flickering in a smile. “All the time.”

“All the time?” Harry repeats, words muffled against Draco’s shoulder.

“Shut up,” Draco whispers, pulling back and driving into Harry, quickening his pace until all they can do is stare at each other and hold on.

Harry lifts into each stroke, wanting more and, at the same time, feeling as though he can’t take another moment of the painful need spiralling through his body. When his release comes, he cries out and clings to Draco, urging him to keep going with fingernails gripping at his back. Draco shudders and comes inside him with a low, rough groan that makes Harry wonder if he has the energy to start all over again.

“Later,” Draco mumbles, flopping onto Harry’s chest in a hot, damp heap.

“Did I say that out loud?” Harry asks, stroking his fingers through strands of pale hair.

“I’m not sure if you said it or you just thought it so loudly that I could hear it,” Draco says, and then sighs. “I think that made sense. Never mind.”

Harry smiles sleepily, letting his eyes drift around the room. They settle on the door to the living room and he freezes.

“Tell me there’s a silencing charm on this room.”

Draco yawns, crawling to the edge of the bed and retrieving his wand. “There’s one on the whole flat,” he says, hitting Harry with a shivery little cleaning charm.

“So… your mother won’t have heard us, but Needle probably did.”

“Is that something you really want to worry about?” Draco asks, pulling the quilt over both of them and curling up on his side with one hand splayed possessively across Harry’s chest.

“Probably not,” Harry admits.

“Good. Try not to talk in your sleep too much; I’m going to need all the rest I can get if I’m going to spend the entire day surrounded by Weasleys.”

“It’s a nice kind of madness,” Harry says.

Draco smiles and closes his eyes. Harry watches him for a moment, heart full and light.

As he lets his eyes fall closed, he wonders just what Draco means by ‘later’.

Chapter Text

Twenty-fifth of December – paper snowflakes



Harry opens his eyes and stretches, smiling as Draco’s bedroom swims into semi-focus around him. He feels around for his glasses, finally locating them in a tangled heap of clothing on the floor beside the bed and pushing them onto his nose. He is alone in the bedroom but he can smell coffee and hear a rumble of voices from the television beyond the wall. Reluctant to leave the warmth of the bed and the gentle morning sunlight, he burrows under the quilt until he hears the distinctive flap of Needle’s webbed feet against the floor, at which point he decides that he might get up after all.

Pulling on his discarded boxers, he heads for the door and then stops, spotting something familiar on Draco’s bedside table. Intrigued, he scrambles across the bed to pick up the little glass object, cupping it in his hands and smiling when the honey coloured flame swells and rushes to press itself against the confines of the cube. Draco’s Orisha guardian seems to like him, and that can only be a good sign.

Harry replaces the cube and walks past Needle into the living room, where Draco is standing with a cup in each hand, completely absorbed in the morning weather report.

“They say it won’t snow today,” he mumbles, holding out a cup for Harry.

“From what I remember, they’re wrong a lot,” Harry says, taking the cup and perching on the edge of a vast sofa that is upholstered in soft green-grey and draped in alpine blankets and fat cushions.

The room is surprisingly cosy, full of neutral fabrics and splashes of rich colour. The décor seems to match Draco’s personal style perfectly, and Harry is both surprised and not surprised to note a whole range of quirky items including an old typewriter painted blood red, a lit tree drenched in little wooden apples, and a grandfather clock stripped right back to its mechanism and pendulum, seeming to defy gravity as it sits in one corner and keeps perfect time. On top of a wooden chest of drawers, a wire basket containing balls of wool sits beside an enamel tin labelled ‘swan treats’.

Amused, Harry drinks his coffee, relishing the rich taste and the creeping warmth. When Draco sits and leans against him to sip his own drink, Harry smiles into his cup, caught in a rush of love that spreads right out to his fingertips.

“Merry Christmas,” he says, and Draco rests a slightly prickly chin on his shoulder.

“Merry Christmas indeed. What time did we say we were going to meet Florean?”

“Nine-ish?” Harry says uncertainly, looking at the clock. “We’ve got about an hour.”

Draco drains his cup without a word. He gets to his feet, fiddling with the tie of his cotton robe and meeting Harry’s eyes slowly. “I’m going for a shower. Are you coming?”

Harry abandons his coffee on a side table and hastens to follow Draco to the bathroom, where they step under the gushing hot water and fall together, trading lazy kisses as the glass enclosure warms and fills with steam. Harry’s fingers trail over Draco’s wet skin, grazing his hipbones and making him gasp, wrapping his hand around their aching cocks and stroking them together. Draco groans in protest when he lets go but laughs and shudders when Harry turns him against the tiles and kisses the back of his neck as he presses inside him with careful fingers.

He closes his eyes, losing himself in the gentle, lazy ease of their position and feeling certain that every last day of this feeling will not be enough. He wants this and only this, and the fact that he’s been allowed to have it in spite of all his stubbornness makes him light with relief and heavy with desire. With a shudder, he steadies himself in his fist and pushes slowly into Draco.

Draco’s fingers slide on the slick ceramic as Harry enters him and Harry encloses him in his arms, threading their hands together and dropping his mouth to Draco’s shoulder. The water pounds down around them, pummelling Harry’s aching muscles and collecting hot and sweet on his tongue as he moves in a frenzy of brand new energy, pulling his hand away from Draco’s to stroke him into incoherence.

“Oh, god…” he whispers, tipping his head back and letting the water saturate his pale hair. “Oh, fucking god… yes-yes-yes-yes-yes…”

Draco jerks and comes over Harry’s fist, tightening around him and dragging his orgasm through him with such surprising intensity that his knees turn weak and he has to grip Draco’s hips to keep himself upright. For long, breathless seconds, they lean against the tiles, and then slowly fold to the shower floor, facing one another in a tangle of limbs as the hot water continues to hammer down around them.

When Draco tips a clear liquid into one hand and begins to idly wash Harry’s shoulders and chest, he smiles, recognising the scent immediately.

“This one is you,” he says, taking the bottle and soaping up Draco’s bent leg.

“Do you have a bottle in your bedroom?” he asks with a ruinous little smile.

Harry smiles back, breathing in the clean scent of lemons. “Not yet.”

**~*~**

It’s ten past nine by the time they make it down to the ice cream parlour, and Shan and Esmee are already waiting for them, wrapped up in thick coats and festive hats.

“You look happy,” Shan says, eyeing their damp hair with a grin.

“Don’t embarrass them,” Esme chides, and then laughs. “I want to do it.”

“Merry Christmas to all!” Florean calls, emerging from his shop and waving a red-gloved hand. “Did you bring the presents?”

“All the ones from Sage are here,” Draco says, holding up a bag in which all the rescued gifts have been packed in shrunken form.

Florean beams. “Good thinking.”

He shows them the leather holdall containing all other presents from the charity tree project, and Shan lifts the lid of a shiny tin to reveal several layers of assorted crackleballs.

“I don’t know what the kids are allowed to eat but I bet the staff won’t mind a bit of chocolate,” she says, tucking the tin under her arm as they pass through the Leaky Cauldron and into Muggle London.

The morning is cold and crisp with a wind that blows all of Harry’s attempts to speak right back down his throat. In the end, he opts to look at the lights and decorations as they pass, and makes a silent game of guessing just what kind of Christmas Day each passer-by is having. The studenty types with their excitable chatter and huge backpacks are going home to their families, he decides, to a chaotic but love-filled celebration with Grandma at the head of the table and charades after lunch. The older couple look as though they’re on their way to church, with plans for a brandy-soaked Christmas pudding and a nice cup of tea in front of the Queen’s speech. The woman who stalks past them, snapping about deadlines into her mobile phone, doesn’t seem Christmassy at all, and Harry feels sorry for her, but then they are arriving at the hospital and the whole place is so full of festivity that it’s difficult to feel sorry at all.

Illness and injury do not take a holiday, but the bustling foyer of St Mungo’s is resisting that fact as hard as it can. Tinsel decks the walls and the ceiling, while every Floo point has been draped in flashing multicoloured lights, and nurses with glitter in their hair scurry back and forth to the sound of rousing Christmas carols.

“I didn’t expect it to look like this,” Esmee says, looking around in wonder.

“It’s Christmas here, too,” Florean points out, hauling his holdall over his shoulder and setting out into the swarm. “Come on, we need to find the stairs.”

Harry glances at Draco, heart skipping to realise he is being watched.

“What?” he whispers.

“Your hair is ridiculous. I like it.”

Harry grins and hurries to catch up with the others, racing up the spiral staircase with a spring in his step that makes him feel ten years younger and prompts Shan to comment that something good has gotten into him. He ignores her cackle and Esmee’s suggestion that what’s gotten into him is almost certainly a who.

A smiling nurse meets them at the entrance to the children’s ward and introduces them to every patient, including the ones lying motionless beneath floating bags of sleeping potions. The sight of them and their gathered families makes Harry’s festivity waver, but the excitement of the rest soon brings it back to full brightness, and he finds that even the parents and siblings of the sicker children seem lifted to see the gifts and cards and chocolates from the residents of Diagon Alley.

“What a wonderful thing to do,” says a tired-looking lady, rising from her seat beside her daughter’s bed. “Linnie has to stay asleep until the antidote is ready,” she explains. “She was bitten by a Polynesian Nailserpent in October. She’ll be so sad that’s she missed Christmas.”

“Brian’s supposed to wake up any day now,” says the man at the next bed. “We hoped he’d be awake for Christmas but… we’ll just make it even better next year.”

“I’m not allowed to go home until I stop going on fire,” says a little boy in Chudley Cannons pyjamas.

“On fire?” Harry asks, looking around for a parent to confirm this statement.

“It’s not real fire,” says a girl who has to be the little boy’s sister. “It’s a hex. It doesn’t hurt him but he can still burn other stuff.”

“Look at all those presents,” says a tiny boy who appears to be immobilised by a shimmering field of magic. He lifts his head and beams around at everyone, bright spirit seemingly unaffected by his condition.

“And who put up all of these magnificent decorations?” Florean asks, making sure that all of the presents have been restored to their proper sizes and arranged on a trolley provided by the nurse.

“I did the baubles on the tree,” says the boy who is sometimes on fire. “Charlotte helped,” he adds reluctantly, and his sister rolls her eyes.

“We all made snowflakes,” offers an older girl who is shivering, even with layers of blankets pulled up to her chin and a warming charm looped around her bed. “We folded paper and cut patterns out of them, and then Nurse Kate hung them up and charmed them to spin around.”

Harry looks up to see at least a hundred paper snowflakes dangling from the ceiling, each glittering with magic and spinning slowly, and every last one completely unique.

“They look brilliant,” he says, and the shivering girl smiles.

“Good job, everyone,” Florean declares. “You, too, Nurse Kate.”

The nurse smiles, regarding her charges with clear affection. Harry wonders who is missing her today, and hopes that she finds a little piece of Christmas cheer for herself, even though he doubts that she would miss this for the world.

“There’s at least one present for everyone,” Shan says. “We don’t know what any of them are, so you can swap if you want to.”

“Go on, then,” the nurse says, and everyone who is able makes their way to the trolley to poke and prod at the packages.

Esmee distributes gifts to the others, making sure not to leave out the unconscious patients. Charlotte, too, gets a present, despite her brother’s insistence that she isn’t even ill.

“Paints!” she cries, showing the little watercolour set to her parents with delight. “Thank you very much.”

“I’ve got a pink hat,” her brother says, frowning.

“Would you like to swap it?” Draco asks, but the little boy shakes his head.

“Nope,” he says firmly and puts it on.

The magenta wool clashes violently with his orange pyjamas, and he couldn’t look happier.

“Chocolate frogs!” yells the little boy in the corner, beaming as the nurse unwraps his package for him. “Am I allowed to eat them?”

“Not before lunch,” she says, but she smiles as she places them on his bedside cabinet.

“I don’t know what this is,” admits the girl with the warming charm, lifting something silver and shiny from its wrappings.

Harry frowns and goes to peer at the object. “Oh,” he says, rubbing at his hair in embarrassment. “After the… er… well, I wrapped a load of stuff from the shop so it looked like we had presents under the tree. Did you just… collect everything?”

“Everything,” Florean confirms.

“There might be a few weird things in there, then,” Harry admits. “Sorry.”

“What is it?” Shan asks, squinting at the thing now cradled in the girl’s arms.

“It’s… erm… well, it’s a stapler,” Harry says. “Shall I get you something else?”

“No,” the girl says, wrapping shivering arms around the stapler. “No, thank you. I like it.”

“Well then, it’s yours,” Harry says, elbowing Draco when he starts to laugh unhelpfully.

“What does it do?” asks Charlotte, climbing onto her friend’s bed and peering at her prize.

“I’ll let you explain that,” Draco says, turning back to the trolley. “Who wants another present?”

**~*~**

Harry and Draco appear in the back garden of the Burrow to find snow falling softly and a collection of red-headed people in coats gathered around what looks like an enormous table.

“I told you those weather forecasters always get it wrong,” Harry says, tipping his head back and catching a snowflake on his tongue.

After two hours in the children’s ward and a pot of tea with Florean, Shan and Esmee, he is warm all over and the only thing stopping him from throwing his coat and gloves into the snow is the knowledge that his family will think he has lost his marbles.

“Hi,” Ginny calls, breaking from the group and crunching over the snowy ground to meet them. “How did it go? Did you cry?”

“No,” Harry says, deciding that she doesn’t need to know about the way his eyes had stung when all the children hugged him.

“It was rather wonderful,” Draco says. “Should I ask why you’re setting up a table in the snow?”

Ginny grins. “Mum sort of lost it when she realised she’d invited twenty people over for Christmas lunch, and then when Hermione tried to extend the dining room further than usual, all the baubles started pelting off the Christmas tree and Kingsley wouldn’t stop barking.”

“I’d forgotten about Kingsley,” Harry mutters, glancing at Needle, who is stomping around in the snow, clearly unimpressed at being gathered into Draco’s arms for Apparation. “Do you think they’ll get on?”

“Just to clarify, we are talking about Kingsley the dog and not Kingsley the Minister?” Draco asks.

“Well, they are pretty difficult to tell apart,” Ginny says, looking over her shoulder just in time to see Louis drop his end of the table on his foot and swear loudly in French.

“So… Hermione thinks we should eat outside?” Harry asks, puzzled. “In the snow?”

Ginny laughs. “As you can see, it’s rather been taken out of Hermione’s hands. I think she’s in the kitchen, trying to interfere with the gravy.”

“That’s my job,” Harry protests, and Draco hides a snort in his scarf. “Aren’t we all going to get cold and wet? Isn’t thefood going to get cold and wet?” he wonders, struggling to imagine Molly abandoning her festive roast to the elements.

“That’s where your mother comes in,” Ginny says, smiling at Draco.

“My mother…?”

“Yeah. She said she could cast a protective bubble over the table so that it’d be like eating outside, inside. It’s really clever.”

“Well, she is rather… has she been here long? We’d better go and say hello,” Draco says, catching Harry’s wrist and urging him towards the house before Ginny has time to reply.

The kitchen is packed with Weasleys, some lounging with cups of mulled wine, others attempting to help Molly with lunch, while various children dart between them, chasing after an excitable Kingsley. Harry finds Rose at the kitchen table, carefully cutting out paper snowflakes just like the ones that hang from the ceiling of the children’s ward. Beside her, Mr Borteg is sipping from a steaming cup and just watching the madness go by. He looks almost festive in his sparkly santa hat and red cravat and Harry smiles when he offers him a mince pie from a glass dish.

“I’d better not,” he says, thinking of Molly’s vast portions even as his stomach grumbles. “I got you a present but it’s at the shop. I tried moving it but… let’s just say it wasn’t cooperative.”

“How very intriguing,” Mr Borteg says, turning to Rose as they move on in search of Narcissa.

“What is it?” Draco asks, barely stopping Needle from tripping Hugo.

“I’ve got you,” Ron laughs, scooping up his son and grinning at both of them. “Have you heard? We’re dining al fresco.”

“Nice jumper,” Harry says, grinning. “We’ve heard. We’re looking for Narcissa.”

Ron looks down at his candy cane-patterned jumper and shrugs. “You haven’t seen yours yet, mate.” He glances at Draco, taking in his sober outfit of plain trousers and a forest green shirt. “I think your mum went to the shed with Dad and Angelina.”

“My mother went into a shed?” Draco asks, arching an eyebrow. “Voluntarily?”

“I don’t know what to tell you—anything can happen around here,” Ron says, sidestepping Kingsley and ducking when someone starts throwing satsumas across the room. “Especially at Christmas.”

“It’s one of those tentacula hybrids,” Harry says vaguely as Ron hurries away and leaves them in the middle of the chaos. “That’s what I got Mr Borteg. Felicity said they needed good homes after what happened… some of them had gone a bit weird. I thought I’d hang it up over his desk.”

“He’ll like that. I always thought he needed a pet,” Draco says, pausing when Kingsley approaches Needle for the first time.

Harry watches, certain that the swan will frighten the dog, and he draws his wand, just in case a swift charm is needed to push them apart. To his astonishment, Kingsley drops down on his front legs with his tail wagging, ready to play, and Needle stretches out his neck to touch his nose with the tip of his bill. Kingsley sneezes and Needle wags his tail feathers before taking off across the tiles at an unsteady trot with Kingsley loping after him. Harry and Draco exchange glances, wands lowered, as the pair reach the limits of the kitchen and then come streaking back, this time with Needle at the rear.

“He’s found a friend,” Harry says, enjoying Draco’s startled expression.

“Do people know there’s an enormous swan in here?” Percy asks.

“Perhaps we should go and find my mother,” Draco says, hurrying to the door before Molly can take him to task for failing to take off his coat.

They find Narcissa out in the garden, long pale hair fluttering in the breeze as she sweeps her wand slowly around the table, creating a shimmering bubble that shatters each snowflake into fine glitter on contact. She smiles to see them but holds onto her cast, drawing the spell carefully along the table until it seals itself and settles with a shiver.

“Merry Christmas,” she says, kissing Draco on the cheek and surprising Harry by kissing him too.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs Malfoy,” he says, set off balance by her soft floral perfume and the new flicker of kindness in her eyes.

He wonders if perhaps he’s been accepted, if she has forgiven him his uncertainty and found him good enough to love her son. She touches his arm for the briefest moment and he hopes. When the back door opens and Molly leads a procession of floating platters to the table, Harry hurries to find his seat. Ginny and her helpers have laid a linen tablecloth with silverware, sparkling glasses and crackers at each place setting, along with place cards designed and created by Rose. Harry finds himself opposite Draco, flanked by Ron and Mr Borteg, and he pulls crackers with each of them, winning himself a cruet set in the shape of a snail and slug, a handful of miniature chocolate frogs and a tricorn hat, which he puts on immediately.

Arthur has managed to seat himself on Mr Borteg’s other side, and has already engaged him in a series of eager questions by the time everyone is ready to eat.

“Take a giggle break,” Mr Borteg’s bracelet says loudly, and a ripple of laughter passes around the table.

“Aren’t you going to?” Victoire asks, pouring gravy over her potatoes.

Mr Borteg blinks slowly, then breaks into the most malevolent cackle Harry has ever heard.

Victoire glances at her cousins and all of them dissolve into helpless laughter. Louis, who seems delighted to have been seated between two French speakers, stares at Mr Borteg and mumbles to them in confusion.

“Il est un homme etrange,” Fleur shrugs.

Narcissa smiles to herself and slices delicately into a piece of turkey.

“So, what’s the difference between distilling a regular whisky and a firewhisky?” Arthur asks, sipping his sparkling wine and staring at Mr Borteg in the way that old ladies stare at Celestina Warbeck.

“A very good question,” Mr Borteg says. “It requires a rather complicated answer…”

“Has everyone got enough gravy?” Molly asks, regarding her husband with a mixture of exasperation and affection.

Harry grins at Draco across the table, pleased to see that he has put on his floral bonnet and is eating steadily. He’s fitting in just perfectly, and Harry can’t wait to tell him that he is now expected to attend lunch with most of these oddballs every Sunday afternoon. Draco smiles at him, eyes warm and full of promises of the yet-to-come. The snowflakes fall around them, building into soft drifts against the hedges and across the roof of the shed. Harry watches them, toasty warm inside Narcissa’s magical bubble. He looks at Mr Borteg, who is waving his hands all over the place as he expounds on the finer points of malting and distillation. Perhaps he’ll teach Harry to make whisky; he suspects he only needs to ask.

When no one can eat another thing, everyone returns to the house, where they stuff themselves into the living room and play ridiculous games by the fire. To everyone’s surprise, Mr Borteg is particularly adept at ‘Name That Quidditch Foul’ and wins himself a whole pile of Molly’s home-made toffee. Rose climbs up beside Narcissa and watches her sew neat stitches into a little embroidery hoop, and Harry watches from his sprawl at Draco’s side as Narcissa patiently shows her how it’s done. Hermione hold Hugo’s hands as he walks around the room, insisting on touching each person as he passes. She smiles at Harry and he smiles back, full of good food and pleasantly weary. When Needle and Kingsley curl up together at his feet to sleep off their Christmas treats, he watches their slow, contented breathing with quiet envy.

As night falls, the guests say their goodbyes and leave with cartons full of leftover turkey and vegetables. Harry’s eyes are beginning to close of their own accord when he hugs Molly and accepts an extra large helping that he knows will contain all the crispiest roast potatoes. Draco thanks her and gently boots Needle out into the snow, having already promised Charlie that Kingsley will be reunited with his new friend as soon as possible.

“Come back to mine?” Harry asks, sticking his tongue out for another snowflake.

“What am I going to do with Needle?”

“He can come too, if he behaves himself,” Harry says.

Draco looks down at the swan. “What am I going to do with Needle?”

Harry laughs. Throwing caution to the wind, he leans down and picks up Needle, holding him to his chest, reaching for Draco’s hand and Disapparating.

“Tea,” he says decisively, freeing the swan the moment they arrive in his kitchen.

Draco perches on the end of the table. “Do you want your present now?”

Harry flicks the kettle on to boil and turns to him. “Yes, please.”

“It’s a bit daft,” Draco says, pulling something from his coat and holding onto it, clearly uncertain. “And the tassels are a bit… bitten.”

“Well, now I’m intrigued,” Harry laughs, and when Draco holds out the squashy package, he takes it and tears away the wrapping paper.

The soft woollen thing within unravels itself almost all the way to the floor, revealing itself to be a scarf knitted with a complicated snowflake pattern in blue, red and white. Harry puts it on immediately, startled to find that it hangs perfectly in place without his interference and loops a gentle silky warmth around his neck.

“I put a few spells in it, just to… I knitted it,” Draco says with a sheepish shrug. “Do you like it?”

“I love it,” Harry enthuses, kissing him and folding him into a hug. “Wait there a minute.”

He dashes off into the living room and returns with a bottle-shaped present that draws a questioning look from Draco.

“I wanted you to be able to try our whisky,” he says as Draco peels away the wrappings, smiling at the swan patterned ribbon and then frowning at the bottle.

“Borteg’s Own? I don’t understand.”

“You bought all that whisky and couldn’t try any of it, so I gave this bottle to Mr Borteg and asked him to take the alcohol out of it,” Harry explains, suddenly feeling nervous. “It should still taste the same, but there won’t be any of that spinny feeling that you don’t like.”

Draco stares at him and then at the bottle in his hands. “Harry… that is incredibly thoughtful. I wish I’d made you a bigger scarf.”

Harry laughs, light with relief. “My scarf is brilliant,” he says, allowing himself to be tugged into Draco’s arms. “Maybe you can drink it on New Year’s Eve.”

“Your scarf?”

“Shut up,” Harry mumbles, dropping his head to Draco’s shoulder and inhaling his warm scent.

We could drink it at New Year’s Eve,” Draco says.

Harry sighs, replete and already full of festive cheer. “Deal.”

He closes his eyes and allows his mind to drift, settling on the image of snowflakes whirling around the table where he sat hours ago, surrounded by kind, open-hearted people who have folded Mr Borteg and the Malfoys into their midst without a second thought, and he silently wishes each of them a peaceful night. He smiles against Draco’s coat fabric and casts his thoughts out to Diagon Alley, thinking of Florean, who has always believed in him, Shan and Esmee, the best friends and neighbours anyone could hope for, of Jean and her owls and no-nonsense Mrs Purley and everyone else who helps to knit their little community together. They are safe now, and that knowledge seems to take Harry by the scruff of the neck and fill him with warm pride. He inhales Draco’s familiar clean scent and sighs, hoping that everyone he loves gets everything they didn’t know they wanted this Christmas.

Perhaps there’s no such thing as a life in perfect balance, he thinks, and perhaps that’s absolutely fine. Even Elegua cannot tell him what his future holds, but he’s walking towards it with Draco at his side, and he can’t imagine a better way to travel. Needle stops wandering around the kitchen and sits on Harry’s feet, pulling gently at his trouser fabric as if to remind him that he, too, is a vital part of the picture.

“Yes, I’m glad you’re here, Needle,” he says.

Draco leans back and regards him with curiosity. “Are you?”

“Absolutely,” Harry says, listening to the whistling of the kettle with quiet satisfaction. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a swan trying to eat my clothes.”

He pours and brews the tea, feeling Draco’s eyes all over him, then leads the way up to the living room. Under the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights, he spells a fire into the grate and they shed their coats and shoes to curl on the sofa, each taking a squashy arm and letting their legs rest together in the middle.

“You don’t have a television,” Draco observes, resting his hot cup on his knee.

“I don’t. Do you think your mother is watching murder mysteries without you?”

Draco laughs. “Probably. I think she prefers watching them without me,” he says, gazing around the room with idle interest. “I ask too many questions.”

“I didn’t know there was such a thing,” Harry says, grinning. He draws his wand and Summons a worn paperback into his hand. “I borrowed this from Hermione… just in case you felt like something was missing from your day.”

‘And Then There Were None’,” Draco murmurs, taking the book and regarding the cover with a flicker of amusement. “Have you read it?”

“Not yet,” Harry says, shifting into a comfortable position against the arm of the sofa and gripping his hot cup with both hands.

Draco’s eyes are warm on his as he opens the book and balances it against his drawn-up knee.

“Are you going to listen nicely?”

“Yes,” Harry promises, closing his eyes and carefully sipping his tea.

“Not you,” Draco sighs, just as Harry finds himself with a lapful of swan and a curious beak tapping at his hot cup.

He opens an eye and two beady black ones peer up at him with an odd sort of affection. Amused, Harry rests a hand on Needle’s back.

“We’re sitting nicely now.”

“Alright then.” Draco clears his throat. “In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in the Times. He laid the paper down and… what on earth is that?”

Harry frowns and opens his eyes, following Draco’s distracted gaze to a spot near the top of his Christmas tree.

“It’s an elf. On the toilet. Covered in glitter,” he shrugs. “Haven’t you got one?”

“No,” Draco says, forcing his eyes back to the book with some effort.

“There’s always next year,” Harry says, closing his eyes again.

“Do you want to hear this story or not?”

Harry wraps his hand around Draco’s bare ankle and strokes his skin, deciding not to point out the fact that he had been the one to stop reading mid-sentence.

“Yes, I really do,” he promises.

Draco rustles the pages, and when he begins to read again, there’s a smile in his voice that Harry can feel, even with his eyes closed. Feeling utterly at peace, he drinks his tea, strokes Needle’s soft feathers, and listens.

**~*~**

It is the season of the heart
A special time of caring
The ways of love made clear
It is the season of the spirit
The message, if we hear it
Is make it last all year.