Actions

Work Header

May Contain Nuts

Work Text:

"Mr Potter! If I could have your attention, please!"

Vaguely sensing that someone was trying to talk to him, Harry unstuck his palm from his cheek and dragged his gaze off the window.

"Hey, Polly." He gave his shovel-chinned secretary his best smile. Polly sniffed, managing to convey very adequately that his best was many bog-filled miles from being good enough. "Did you want something?"

"Your attention, Mr Potter!"

"Oh. Right. You have it."

"Thank you!" Polly began straightening parchments with the manic energy of a caged tiger. The ropes of rhinestones, which encircled her neck like a horse's halter, chattered angrily.

Harry glanced around the boardroom table. It was a vast expanse of marble, polished to a blinding sheen, and currently almost empty. He wondered, although not very hard, where the rest of the team was.

"What are we up to, Polly?"

"The minutes of the last Meeting, Mr Potter!"

"Oh. Lovely. Well, carry on."

"I was intending to, Mr Potter!" Polly extracted an arm-length roll of parchment from a stack of many similarly limb-sized scrolls and flourished it as a crazed psychopath would a Glock nine inch semi-automatic.

By degrees, Harry let his chin sink back into his hand. The only warning his predecessor had given him as regards Polly was, 'Whatever you do, don't ask her to call you Harry.' Harry had never been fond of following rules, and he thought advice was just rules with the backbone taken out, but one look at Polly's face and he'd followed this advice to the letter. Working on some half-defined idea, he'd never tried to call Polly 'Miss Carbonate,' either.

So it was 'Mr Potter,' exclamation marks, and Meetings that only Harry and Magnus Thistledown, who thought he was a fish most of the time, attended. Certainly Polly's Departmental Meetings did little to increase or diminish the efficiency of the Department, unless they did it a favour by keeping her out of the way. Office gossip claimed that Polly's Meetings were the main reason that Harry's predecessor had resigned, but office gossip also said that Magnus was pregnant with Polly's half-mermaid baby. It's reliability as a source was somewhat in doubt.

Harry was twenty-five years old. Sometimes he felt like he was a thousand, and that he'd been frozen inside a prehistoric cave for most of them. The Department of Magical Disturbance was a relic of an ancient and turbulent past, inherited from a period in history when gangs of marauding goblins terrorised the slums of London and centaurs roamed free in the Cotswolds. It had been hastily resurrected in the months following Voldemort's demise, ostensibly to deal with the remnants of his followers but in reality to give the Boy Who Lived something to do.

At first, Harry had been an accessory Auror, charged with overseeing operations and reporting back to the head of the Department. However, as his efficiency increased, the proportion of dangerous Death Eaters at large diminished, a phenomenon that astonished no one but Harry. When the Head resigned, Harry took his job.

Then, all of a sudden, it had come to this: a backwater Department employing people who had to be put somewhere because their parents were important, or because they had done something small in the war, or because they were being put out to pasture, or, in Magnus' case, because they were harmlessly but undeniably stark raving bonkers.

As far as Harry could tell, his staff spent most of their time exchanging tittle-tattle over the coffee percolator, rumours above the water fountain and weak tea across their desks, none of which matched or had four legs the same length. There was a lot of paperwork floating around -- floating being the operative word, as the youngest members were developing a penchant for aerodynamic origami. The only writing that ever seemed to take place was updating the book of bets, which centred on how long it would take for the money-plant to die, for Polly to pop out an aquatically-inclined sprog, for Magnus to start wearing a fish-bowl on his head and, most disturbingly, for Harry to sleep with one of the female employees.

Harry had plenty of time to reflect on the huge black hole that was his life. Polly's voice had a soporific effect that he'd heretofore only associated with pharmaceutical compounds of highly questionable legality. If Harry didn't think of something to distract himself he'd fall asleep, and that would never do. He struggled to maintain standards in the Department, an undertaking that was made doubly hard by the fact that he was the only one who did.

The fact was, in all the stories and films and cartoons he'd ever encountered, no one ever said what happened to the hero afterwards. Gotham City, Metropolis and Smallville yielded up enough formidable enemies to keep the heroes occupied well past pensionable age. For the past six years, however, Diagon Alley had been regaining that lazy smugness Harry just remembered from the end of his childhood. It was sorely lacking in anything dark, dangerous or slimy enough to keep a former hero occupied -- apart from the rather exciting sewerage explosion of June 2000.

The rub was that Harry had never even wanted to be a hero. Saving the world was an honourable notion, of course, but not one he'd seriously considered in relation to himself. Unfortunately, when you were told that you were the only person capable of dispensing of sundry Dark Lords and evil followers, you really could not say, 'Sorry, but I'm busy that week.'

Hero-ing got you a reputation for life, but once you'd got the heroic part done and dusted, people didn't want to know.

Harry had thought about running away to a place where people had never heard of Harry Potter or Voldemort or magic or even, at a pinch, treacle pudding. However, aside from Hogwarts, London was the only true home he had ever known. He was reluctant to give it up for an uncertain future in the mountains of Spain or something similar. After all, he didn't tan, and had yet to accrue even one freckle.

"Mr Potter!"

Harry jumped guiltily. So much for keeping up standards. It was all he could do to keep up his eyelids. "Yes, Polly?"

"I feel that I do not have your full and complete attention, Mr Potter!"

Harry scrubbed a hand through his hair, a treatment that he was well aware it did not deserve in the slightest. It had become wilder than ever recently, possibly because he neglected to brush it for days a time.

"I'm sorry. But it's such a lovely day outside." He gestured at the window, through which late summer sun was streaming with every evidence of carefree enjoyment. "It's a bit hard to concentrate."

Polly regarded him over her pince-nez, eyes narrowed. "What, precisely, is it about the weather that makes it so hard for you to concentrate? I am sure that you are just imagining things, Mr Potter!"

The way she said it, 'performing sexual acts upon the sacrosanct persons of the Minister and the Under-Secretary in a Jacuzzi' would have been preferable to 'imagining things.' Then again, given the over-free people she'd worked with for so long, Harry wasn't surprised at her dislike for colourful imaginations.

"You're right." Harry endeavoured to sit up straighter. His spine was going through delayed teenage rebellion and wanted to stay slumped for the rest of his life and maybe paint its vertebrae black. To himself, he repeated the mantra that often helped him through his dealings with Polly, and patched up his mental wounds afterwards:

Could be worse. You could be dead.

Even though it was rather macabre -- especially given the number of people he'd helplessly watched leave their lives -- detailing the terrible and painful ways he could be dying almost made spending time with Polly bearable.

Harry dug his knuckles into his cheekbone, hoping it would prevent him from drifting off. He'd stayed up later than usual the night before watching television. He rarely got to bed before two am, but last night had been particularly sleepless, even after he and his pillow finally kissed and made up.

This meeting can't possibly last forever, he told himself.

After a while, it became a prayer.

::

"You got another bird, Harry!" Mim Greengrass, the youngest and most excitable of the staff, was waiting by Harry's office. She gestured needlessly, exposing a shocking amount of pillowy white bosom. Embarrassed for her, Harry averted his eyes.

"Thank you, Mim. And, er, there's no need to tell me every time a bird comes, you know." Or whenever an inter-office memo arrives. Or what colour Palatine's changed her hair to this week. Or how much you had to drink last night. Or …

"Oh, it's no problem!" said Mim cheerfully. "Ooh, must dash -- Palatine says she's spotted mould on the money-plant's leaves, but she's also bet three Galleons on it dying this month. Wouldn't put it past her to have attacked it with Wicked Witch Super-Duper Extra-Long-Lasting eyeliner --"

She darted away, her glittery hair ornaments making her stand out like a bright bug in a shadowy spider's web. Harry sighed and leaned his head against the doorframe for a second.

Harry had been careful not to show any interest in his colleagues after his attempt at rekindling romance with Ginny in the Auror Special Spells Unit had exploded so spectacularly. Unfortunately, Mim seemed to think that Harry was just shy, which was annoying on top of everything else.

Harry was not shy. He was uninterested. Mim needed to learn the difference, but she showed little interest in words that were longer than two syllables.

Yet he couldn't help but smile as he recalled spotting Palatine earlier, doing something furtive in the vicinity of the money-plant with what looked like a pencil. That would obviously be the eyeliner.

If Palatine McDougal ever used her wits for something more intensive than learning new ways of applying make-up, she would be a force to be reckoned with -- or so Harry believed. She was wasted in this dusty little back office but, at the same time, she stubbornly resisted being given any extra responsibility. Her parents were both top Unspeakables, so Harry guessed that she was acting out.

This rebellion hadn't extended to cutting herself off from their purse-strings, which explained why she was able to afford Wicked Witch cosmetics on Ministry baseline pay. The Wicked Witch company had been started by Lavender and Parvati. They were now millionaires, as their products didn't come cheap. Or, indeed, in units smaller than ten Galleons a gram. Hermione had decried her former dorm-mates' crass capitalism often enough for Harry to know that.

He pushed open the door by shoving it with his shoulder. It had a tendency to stick, which Harry put it down to damp. Removing said damp, which was creeping across his ceiling with the dogged persistency of the tides around Kanute's royal feet, required three authorisations from other parts of the Ministry. Magic within the establishment was very tightly controlled. For his part, Harry didn't think it was worth it. After all, if he got rid of the damp, what would he look at during his daily 'Hour Of Staring At The Ceiling'?

A large raven was perched on top of Harry's In Tray, where he stashed his sweet wrappers. It was pecking at them in a desultory manner. Harry took pity on it and gave it a caramel crème from the stock he kept in his filing cabinet.

"Are you the same bird as last time?" Harry sat in his chair and began swivelling thoughtfully. "Ravens are trendy in America, aren't they? I suppose it makes sense. At least they fly during the day. If you send an owl from this place in the morning it won't be released until the evening. The next evening, if you're lucky. Talk about efficient. But ravens, now, that's efficient. Try mentioning anything like that here, though! Don't fix what isn't broken. That motto should be tattooed on everyone who works here." He pushed off with his foot to make the chair spin faster. "Not that I care anyway. Not really. This is only a job. Stops me getting addicted to daytime soaps. Or talking to birds."

"For my part, I don't mind," croaked the raven. "Most people are too busy to talk to me. It makes a refreshing change."

Harry postponed his heart attack to say, "I didn't know ravens could speak."

"Shocked, are ya?"

"Yeah." Harry smiled. "Thought you'd have more of an accent. Like in the films."

"Ah, well, I'm from Canada originally, see." The raven held out its claw. "Care to take this? Only it's a long flight back."

"Sure." Harry concealed a sigh and opened the window to let the bird fly away. He had an office full of people to talk to; why was he sorry to see a bird leave?

Perhaps because it was the only contact he had with his two best friends.

Clutching the satisfyingly thick envelope, Harry flopped back into the chair and broke off a wheel.

::
::

It had become something of a routine.

Harry wasn't sure when it had started, only that one day he pushed open the door of the shop, heard the familiar sound of the bell squeaking, "Oi, who're you lookin' at, mister?" and realised that doing this had become as much of a habit as cleaning his teeth, not brushing his hair, or falling asleep on the sofa with the television blaring and a bottle of Firewhiskey for a pillow.

Today, the interior was pleasantly cool after a blast of hot evening sunshine. Harry always wore thick robes to work, as his Department's rooms were low on the priority list for heating. After all, they weren't even on the main complex, but in an annex located in an abandoned fire station two streets away. They still had to go through main reception to get there, but as this only unconvinced insignificant people and Harry Potter who never complained, what was the harm?

After treading through the warren that was the Ministry -- a cardiovascular workout in itself -- and then along Diagon Alley, Harry was feeling exceedingly warm. His glasses kept sliding down his nose, as the grips could find no purchase on his sweaty skin. His fingers left damp imprints on the metal door handle until the heat of the sun evaporated them.

Taking off his glasses and trying to dry the side of his nose with his sleeve, Harry wandered towards the back of the shop. He ignored the few lingering customers. Some of them nudged each other and pointed, an effect Harry was so used to creating that it was like being stalked by a Greek chorus. Others -- the regulars -- nodded formally to him, as one connoisseur to another.

George was standing in the backroom, his back to the door. From the way his arms moved, Harry could tell he was measuring something. Indeed, as Harry stepped inside, he saw what looked like blue sand pouring from one beaker to another, containing pink sand. As they fused, the mixture turned green and then dissociated into tiny, sparkling lights.

"More fireworks?" asked Harry. He shoved his glasses back on to his face, and made a small noise of frustration as they slid down again.

"I've told you before that you need to get an Ocular Correction Charm." George still hadn't turned to face Harry. His face was swathed in his usual protective goggles and mouth-mask.

Harry shivered. The sensing-without-seeing thing that George did, which came of being a twin, was sometimes cool but mostly just creepy. Then again, George was also naturally perceptive. Harry preferred to blame that for his frequent, almost occult insights.

"I could whip you up a quick batch of VisiCorrect, if you like," added George. "I bribed the recipe out of Wurt a few years ago. He likes to call it a trade secret, but that's because he doesn't want people to know it's made out of duck livers."

"I don't think I wanted to know that, actually. How on earth do duck livers improve sight?"

"Oh, they're just to cover the taste of the camel gonads."

"Sounds scrummy." Harry tucked his hands into his pockets. Unlike with Fred, it was hard to tell if George was joking. He had the ultimate dead-pan face, particularly when it was almost entirely obscured by protective devices.

"I'll be finished with this in a mo. Go beg some Slippery Nipples off Megan. It'll make her day."

"She doesn't have a crush on me. What are Slippery Nipples?"

"New range of toffees. I'm trying to get people to taste-test them, but I think they look off-putting. I know you'll eat anything, though. Yes, she does."

Harry wandered out again. It was well past closing time, but George spent most of his day in his makeshift backroom laboratory and never noticed the clock. Megan, his shop-girl, was too soft-hearted to heckle over-long browsers. She also liked to slip free sweets to small children, a practice that negated any profit the shop might have made by remaining open up to half-an-hour longer than its sign claimed.

Megan was in her early thirties, if Harry was any judge -- and he wasn't, so she could be anything up to forty-five. She had short brown hair in a solid bob, which tended to stay put if she moved her head too quickly. There was no denying that she blushed when Harry talked to her, but she also blushed when serving customers, sweeping the floor and counting the takings. Megan was one of life's natural blushers. It had nothing to do with Harry specifically, and certainly did not mean that she had a crush on him.

She had told Harry what she'd like to name her children and asked if she could call him Hazza, but he hadn't told George that so it didn't count.

Pushing his sleeves past his elbows to allow more cool air to reach his skin, Harry cleared his throat. Megan was perched on the high stool by the till, twirling her hair around a quill -- it kept swinging off, like a see-saw -- and staring dreamily into space.

"George sent me out for a Slippery Nipple," began Harry.

Megan squawked and fell off the stool. Harry pounced into action, grabbing her arm to prevent her crashing into the floor. He didn't think it would do the floor any favours; the tiles were delicate and Megan was quite a hefty girl.

"Oh, Hazza, thank you!" breathed Megan. She began blinking rapidly, sending gusts of air Harry's way. Her eyelashes, thick with mascara, functioned as very effective windmills.

"No worries. Er, have you got something in your eye?"

"Um, no. I mean, yes!"

Harry peered closer. "Is that Wicked Witch mascara?"

"How did you know that?" Megan was nearly expiring from ecstasy. "You're so clever!"

"Not really." Harry backed off. "One of the girls in my office caught a nasty rash from it. You'd want to watch out, if your eyes are sensitive."

"I will!" Megan grabbed her wand and Vanished the mascara, which was a bit of an extreme reaction in Harry's opinion. Palatine tended towards allergies and rare diseases, partially to get out of doing even a pretence of work but mainly, Harry thought, to feel special. It was quite unlikely that Megan would contract something similar. He'd only said that to stop her breathing on him.

"Well, have you got any Slippery Nipples? George wanted me to taste-test one."

"Those? Sure." Megan grabbed one of the sample dishes on the counter and brandished it at him. At once, Harry could see why they were getting a negative reaction.

They were all perfectly sculpted toffees, and they were all in the shape of breasts. Last year, George had done extensive work in suffusing food with different colours and could now achieve a breathtaking range. The toffees were the exact shade of dusky skin, but the nipples had a rosy tint. They looked real. They looked too real. Harry imagined that most people were far too embarrassed by the authenticity to pick one up and examine it as one would an ordinary new sweet, much less eat it and then buy a batch.

Harry had long ago slipped into the role of unofficial main taste-tester, however. All those years with nothing to eat but Dudley's greens had stood him in good stead.

He ran a finger over the surface of a toffee, wondering at the name. It felt hard and smooth, like all toffee. Operating on a basic assumption of the way George's mind worked, Harry gave the sweet an experimental squeeze. A second later, his fingers were covered in something soft and white. He gave a laugh of surprise, and licked his finger.

"Muah," said Megan.

Harry looked at her in concern. "Are you all right? Is your eye acting up again?"

Megan shook her head firmly. Her gaze was on the toffee, and her ruby face could have lit up the Western Seaboard.

"You should try one," urged Harry. "Tastes nice. Mmmph." He stuck his finger in his mouth again, to analyse the taste. Yes -- his hunch had been right. It was sweet whipped cream, which had leaked out from the centre of the toffee. Making the toffee, he had to admit it, slippery.

"Well?"

George had appeared behind Megan, who looked thunderstruck, and was tugging off his goggles. His mouth was twitching, but otherwise his face appeared solemn as ever.

Harry sucked the last of the cream off the peak of the toffee and popped it into his mouth. He chewed for a moment. It was George's usual recipe, which was to say it was Mrs Weasley's recipe, and utterly delectable. The burst of cream that hit his tongue as he bit through the centre was a nice touch.

Harry made a noise of approval, originally intended to be a lengthy monologue on the merits of what he was eating but which came out in cow cud-chewing language.

"Megan, isn't it time for you to head off home?" said George. "Leave the change, I can do that."

"But --"

"No, I insist. You work too hard as it is. And here, have some Slippery Nipples." George raised his eyebrows at Harry. "Perhaps they're going to be a hit after all."

::
::

Harry perched on George's worktop, swinging his ankles, while George magicked up some tea.

"All I'm saying is that it will make people uncomfortable. You know. Seeing them all out on a plate like that."

"Forgive me if I'm wrong, here, but I thought that at least half the population was obsessed with them?"

"It's not polite. They taste nice, but perhaps you could try a different … shape?"

George Summoned two cups, looking thoughtful. "What, you mean like cocks, say?"

Harry spluttered. "No! Like normal toffee shape. Sort of round and blobby."

"That would make the name redundant, though."

"Yes, well, you're hardly going to get many people coming in asking for half a pound of Slippery Nipples, are you? Like I say. Embarrassing."

"Not for everyone, though. Look at you."

"Why're we looking at me?"

"That little show you put on for Megan." George pressed a cup into Harry's hands and ambled into the sitting room. He looked on the verge of smiling, although of course he wasn't, and never had since Fred died.

Harry was too disturbed by the words coming out of George's mouth to dwell on what shape he was making with it. Harry jumped off the counter, nearly spilling tea all over the floor and only succeeding in avoiding such an occurrence by slopping it down his robes. With a growl, he Vanished the stain and strode after George.

George was propped up in the window seat, staring out at the lurid orange sunset.

"I did not put on a show for Megan! I was just eating your damn sweet!"

George made a moue of surprise. "Then the whole wanton finger-licking thing was unintentional? God, Harry, you'd want to watch that. You'll end up pulling a load of birds you don't want."

Harry ruffled his hair in agitation. "Well, that does seem to happen rather a lot, but -- listen, everyone licks their fingers when they get food on them!" He sent George a pleading look. "Megan doesn't fancy me, honest she doesn't. She probably fancies you."

George snorted. "She knows better than that."

George was probably on the money on that one, Harry had to confess. Harry, of course, had known George when he was a laughing prankster, a little in his twin's shadow but standing in the sunlight for all that. Nowadays his shuttered lips made his naturally long face look like a tombstone. He'd cut his hair almost to the skull, allegedly because it got in the way when he was experimenting.

Harry knew better. People in mourning did not wear colour, and the flaming red hair George had shared, shade for shade, with Fred, was the one colour he could not stand.

In conclusion, George came off as a bit aloof. It had never factored with Harry, mostly because his grief for Sirius and Dumbledore made him so muddled that he didn't try to comfort George in his. Harry came to realise that George must appreciate that, because George certainly didn't like talking about his feelings, or in fact anything much except his work and what Harry was doing.

Harry plopped on to the floor, leaning against the window-seat with a sigh. George ruffled his hair, something he never did when Fred was alive to do it.

"I'm not trying to annoy you," said George. "I'm trying to get it through your thick skull that my employee fancies the arse off you, and you stand in a good way to break her heart unless you start making it clear that you don't feel the same way." There was a sucking noise as George attacked his tea. "Unless you do, in which case, have at it. I don't think she's object to anything, which is a bonus in a relationship, Hazza."

Harry winced. "I thought you didn't know that."

"I know most of what happens in my shop. Benefit of appearing to be tucked away out of sight and out of mind. You have no idea of the secrets people let slip beside an open door with an ear-muffed man inside."

"Wow. Anything interesting?"

"The Minister for Magic comes in every week, regular, to buy those spun sugar roses that explode into sherbet petals when you eat them -- what did I call them?"

"Rosemary Remembrances." Harry had no idea where George came up with this stuff. He did say that it was bad luck to name something before it was made, which meant that the flat upstairs of the shop, where George lived, was littered with bits of parchment covered in randomised scribble. Often one idea could be spread over dozens of different pages, making it vital to tread with care. They still got mixed up, but some of George's best ideas came from just that.

"Mmm. Those. Every week, mind, a deluxe box with the red ribbon and everything. Yet I saw his wife in there this week -- recognised her from that awful talking fox-fur she wears around her fat neck. She was pointing out the Rosemary things and sighing, as if she never gets fed. If that's true all those spare tyres must be an optical illusion. Anyway, she said to her friend that her husband would never think to buy something that nice for her. 'Lucky if I get a cheap box of choccies at Christmas,' and I quote."

"Far out." Harry cradled his tea, which he liked to drink on the verge of cold. "So he's buying them for a mistress or something?"

"Harry Potter!" Harry looked up, startled, then realised that George was putting on one of his eerily accurate voices again. He'd thought Mrs Weasley had just arrived. "You shouldn't know about such things! I think I shall have to ban you from dessert for a week!"

"Come on," protested Harry. "Your mum would never say something like that. She has seven kids, after all!"

"Six."

Harry stiffened. "She has seven. She'll always have seven."

George uncurled behind him and dropped his long legs to the floor beside Harry. "You sure about that?" He let the pause wind out too long before adding, "We always thought Percy was adopted, see."

Harry tested his tea with his little finger, remembered what George said about his wanton finger-sucking, and decided he didn't want tea after all.

An uncomfortable silence descended. Or perhaps that was just Harry, because George was sifting through a pile of scrap parchment near the skirting-board, looking completely preoccupied. All of a sudden, he jumped to his feet and hared off into the kitchen. That sort of thing happened a lot. Once alone, Harry fed his tea to the dying pot-plant on the windowsill and decided that George's actions had been Harry's cue to leave.

As he passed through the kitchen, he saw George hunched over at the table, feverishly scribbling.

"See you tomorrow," said Harry.

George made a grunt that could have been of agreement, dissent, indecision or indigestion. Once his muse had arrived, it possessed him like an ectoplasm-spewing spirit. There was no getting through to him, and no talking to him either, unless you actually liked having teapots thrown at your head.

All the same, Harry liked to think that some part of George said, "I'll be looking forward to it." Or even "it's good to have you around." Or maybe Harry was just desperate for company now that his best friends had bunked off to the colonies, seemingly on a permanent basis.

He let himself out.

::
::

Harry wandered disconsolately around his flat, strewing pages of the Daily Prophet on to the floor. In their latest letter, Hermione and Ron said that they were intent on remaining in Salem to celebrate some barbaric ritual called Thanksgiving. They seemed keen to stay and taste the delight of the festive season there also, which meant that by Christmas Harry wouldn't have seen them for a year and eight months.

Well, except for Christmas Day last year, when they'd Long-Distance Apparated from California to show off their deep-fried skin and sun-lightened hair. However, the travel left them exhausted and Harry'd had to share their attention with all the Weasleys and Grangers at the Burrow. He'd ended up getting drunk on George's experimental egg-nogg, which George was going to market this year with the ethanol content reduced by about two-thirds. Harry had managed to stop him from naming it 'in your honour;' it was to be called Smashing Eggshells instead.

Harry sighed and flicked his wand at the television. It was a large one that had come complete with a remote control claiming to change channels on the television, radio, any other electrical device Harry owned and, most likely, on the Mir Space-Station. Personally, Harry had always found that a simple 'On' did just fine.

He fished some Pringles out from under the sofa cushion and settled back to watch Sky News for a few hours. He did this on most weekends, ending up on Monday morning very well-informed about the state of the Muggle world and bursting with processed carbohydrates. He'd write to Hermione and Ron soon, but he wanted a few days to mull over what to say. Such ruminations saw him through many a Meeting with Polly.

Hermione and Ron probably knew as much about the Department for Magical Disturbance as Harry did at this stage. In lieu of actually having anything to write about, Harry told them about his employees in excruciating detail, alternating such nuggets of information with inventorying George's new stock on a regular basis.

Hermione had been most amused by Palatine's name, and wanted him to ask if she'd opened a dental magazine at random and picked it out, or if she was going to choose Maxilla or Mucosa the next time. Harry had felt a little offended on Palatine's behalf. Palatine did have a history of frequent name-changes, according to Mim, but Harry had felt like altering his own name too often to belittle Palatine's habit. He'd wrote back to say that Palatine was ethically opposed to the letter 'm' and, as such, told people that she worked in the Pipinstry of Fagic.

In her next letter, Hermione said that Palatine sounded very sweet, and had they been going out long, and did Harry think that she was a long-term prospect?

Harry considered telling his severely annoying best friend that Palatine had died of an obscure disease, but settled for reducing anecdotes about her to almost nil. After all, Hermione'd probably know what the disease was.

The sounds of gunshots and artful explosions sounded from the television. Harry stared at it blearily, realising that he'd dozed off with the Pringle tube wedged between his legs. An exquisite news anchor was gravely informing the world that one lot of Muggles was making a spirited attempt to blast another group of Muggles into orbit. Business as usual, Harry considered, and switched to MTV.

::
::

Harry was sitting in his office, seriously considering going out and getting hammered at a nightclub later, when Mim burst through the door. Harry hastily put his plans on the back-burner. They had involved some fuzzy designs for being seduced followed by, hopefully, getting laid. This probably deserved an emergency statute at this stage, because Harry hadn't had sex in a year. Or over a year, if you discounted the pity blow-job from Ginny two months before she'd announced her engagement to Oliver Wood on New Year's Day 2004.

However, the sight of Mim's ample bosom, which was exposed to the nth degree and swinging forward as she leaned through the doorway, made Harry feel seasick and deadly certain that his hand would do for another few months. Or years.

"Oh, Harry, come see, do!"

"Has the money-plant died?" asked Harry in trepidation. If it had, his employees would have to find a new source of entertainment, and he was quite afraid that it would be him. Magnus had taken to introducing himself as Mr Cod lately, but he slept too much to be an effective diversion.

"No!" Mim covered her mouth with both hands as she giggled. "Anthony and I staged a stand-off against Palatine two days ago. We confiscated her make-up bags to prove that she was faking the mould."

"That's good." Harry breathed out a sigh of relief.

"Well, when she started doing fleur-de-lis patterns it was a dead giveaway, if you ask me. Anyway, Harry, Anthony was cleaning out the stationary cupboard and he found something you just have to see!"

"What, the peacock-feather quills that Polly reported missing last year?"

Mim rolled her eyes. "It's the stationary cupboard, Harry. No one in their right mind would keep quills in there. Are you coming or not?"

Harry supposed he didn't have much choice, although it did put a crimp in his plans to try and make little animals out of his mounting sweet wrappers.

As he followed Mim's swaying figure down the corridor, carefully skirting the places where the carpet had worn away to expose rotten wood and lethal-looking nails, Harry turned over her last statement in his mind.

"Mim, if you don't keep quills in the stationary cupboard, what do you keep there?"

"That's what we were trying to find out! We were playing a game of Truth or Dare, and Anthony wouldn't tell us how many boys he's kissed, so we dared him to clean out the stationary cupboard instead and see if there really was a wormhole to another dimension in there."

Harry nearly tripped. "A wormhole to -- what, sorry?"

"Another dimension." Mim wrinkled her nose. "That's Palatine for you. Must be her parents' influence. When she explained what wormholes were and all about the dark matter and the vacuums and auntie-gravity, well, I thought Anthony would just die on the spot!"

"Gosh. Why didn't he just tell you how many girls he's kissed, then? Seems far more sensible, in my opinion."

"Boys, Harry." Mim's merry dark eyes twinkled. "I reckon he wants to stay in the closet so much he'd even go into the cupboard for it. Lucky for him there were no wormholes after all."

She pushed open the red double-doors to what was called the Hose Room, because that was what the plaque said. It had been inexpertly converted to an office using rows and rows of wobbly partitions, which were so flimsy that they could be punctured with the end of a quill, and often were.

Palatine's partitions were covered in hole-marks, from the floor to head-height, forming intricate patterns that reminded Harry of Mrs Weasley's good china. Squinting closely, he could make out a girl standing on a bridge, a screaming face, a waltzing couple and a group of people sitting at a long supper table -- and that was just in one square foot.

Palatine herself was standing by Anthony Goldstein's desk, which had once been a Death Eater's wine cabinet. The Ministry weren't so tight as to provide desks that weren't even desks, but the Aurors had confiscated a lot of furniture for Dark Arts frisking. Most of it had nowhere to go back to by the time they were done.

Anthony had taken quite a shine to the wine cabinet -- it was, admittedly, quite capacious -- and had fought tooth and nail to keep it. Or rather, he'd declared his intention of doing just that. Harry had seen no reason to gainsay him and besides, Anthony kept his nails filed to a sharp point.

Harry had always wondered a bit about that, up to now.

Mim grabbed Harry's hand and tugged him closer. This was unnecessary, in Harry's opinion. In his keenness to avoid getting another eyeful of breasts, Harry missed the significant look that passed between Mim and Palatine.

Instead, he listened quite hard to the incongruous mewling noise that was coming from behind Anthony. Anthony himself was beaming hugely, evidently in an effort to disarm Harry and put him at his ease. All it did was make Harry look around for the metal file -- Anthony's eye-teeth were also quite pointy.

"What is it? If it's another Crying Demon it's going straight to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, I don't care if you think they're sweet, Mim --"

"Oh, show him, Anthony, for Christ's sake," said Palatine. Her hair was dyed a blonde so extreme that it was almost white. The streaks of indigo did nothing to allay the impression she gave of being an anaemic badger.

"No need to go invoking deities," said Harry mildly. "You remember that time you accidentally did a spirit summoning on Buddha, he wasn't best pleased --"

"I've still got that bit of Karma Rock somewhere." Mim sounded thoughtful. "Looked a bit like candy cane, only three times as big."

"We all know how big you like it, Mim." Palatine's eyes rested on Harry's crotch for one alarming moment, before she elbowed Anthony aside.

"They're just precious, aren't they?" sighed Mim.

It was a cat. Or, to be precise, it was several cats; Harry's mind scrabbled for an accurate description, and came up with 'many small cats stuck to a big cat.'

"Let me see if I got this right. You found these in a stationary cupboard?"

"Yes. No wormholes, unfortunately. Not even a hint of extra-dimensional activity."

"That is a shame, Palatine. I'll make sure our next cupboard has extra slug-holes added specially for you. Right now I'm a little more worried by the fact that we've got an infestation of cats!"

"You can't call cats an infestation," objected Mim. "That's for rats, or cockroaches."

"What do you call this, then?" Harry waved his hand at what his brain persisted in calling 'the head cat.' It purred at him in a benign manner.

"Just lovely." Mim reached out to stroke the cat's head. The cat considered this for a moment, then presented a postage-stamp tongue for inspection and began licking her. Mim giggled.

"They probably came in off the street," drawled Palatine. "This is a Muggle area, and they tend to have a lot of strays."

"Really? I thought it might have been Steamer from Magical Sports. He's been threatening to 'get' us ever since we whipped him in spit-ball last summer." Anthony nudged a kitten with one finger. His nail was longer than all of Harry's put together, and sported a little hanging jewel. The kitten thought this was the best thing ever, and proceeded to kick up its fluffy legs in attempt to subdue and capture the trinket.

"I'd believe a lot of things about Steamer, but getting cats up the duff is not really his style." Palatine crossed her arms. "Those kittens are huge. I bet they're nearly weaned."

"I can't believe you didn't hear them before." Harry shook his head. "They're making enough noise now, that's for sure."

"That's because you're scaring them, Harry," said Mim severely.

"Yeah, those glasses would cow anyone into quivering submission," snorted Palatine, but she quietened at a glare from Mim. Harry adjusted his glasses self-consciously.

"To be honest --" Anthony sidled up to Harry and smiled at him again; Harry sidled away a little and grimaced " -- we tend to avoid the stationary cupboard. We think Polly's cursed it. Something silly to do with peacock-feather quills."

Harry gave him a hard stare, which took in the fact that Anthony was wearing a black beret adorned with three nodding peacock feathers atop his crusted-stiff quiff.

"So we probably wouldn't have heard them if I hadn't looked inside," ended Anthony.

"Please say we can keep them, Harry!" Mim clasped her hands together in a penitent fashion, which happened to boost up her cleavage another three inches. "We'll look after them, I promise, and it'll be such fun --"

"You're not supposed to have fun at work, Mim, remember?" Palatine had drifted back to her desk and was making a parchment frog out of what looked like the Ministry-wide memo on Health and Safety in the Workplace.

"I don't see that it'll cause much harm." On a whim, Harry reached out to pet a kitten. It shoved its head into his palm, making a whirring noise that sounded like a faulty kettle. Harry was, despite himself, enchanted. "Probably there's a regulation against it, but no one checks this place anyway."

Mim began a squeal of joy. "Only until we can find them proper homes," warned Harry, but she finished her squeal regardless.

Palatine arched an eyebrow. "I take it you're going to do the heroic thing and adopt one yourself, Harry?"

"Certainly not, I --"

Harry saw Mim's face. It was a dying butterfly of faith in the goodness of humankind.

Which was how Harry Potter came to own a cat.

::
::

Harry wiped his glasses on his robes, succeeding in smearing the rain droplets over a greater surface area, and recalled something.

"Are my glasses really hideous?" he asked George, hoping he would say no.

"Mmm." George was propped up against the cash register, scrolling through a bank of receipts. "I wouldn't say they're the most flattering thing about you, mate."

"Oh." Harry squinted at the object in his hand. The lenses were rather thick, as Harry was rather blind; the frames were large and round and black and had serviced Harry well for the last fifteen years. Now, all of a sudden, they had morphed into something awful, albeit also very blurry.

Harry shoved them back on to his face, feeling mutinous. "Hermione and Ron aren't coming back for Christmas."

"Unsurprising. Haven't you heard about all the flavours of ice-cream they have over there? Ron's probably tripled in size by now."

"I miss them," muttered Harry.

"Yeah, well." George actually paused in doing sums on his fingers. "You get better at it, the more you practice."

Harry began to rifle through the dishes of samples on the till desk. They magically refilled themselves, so he was presented with a startling array. He opted for a long piece of liquorice that had the added side effect of making you breathe heatless pink flame for a few seconds. The liquorice whip was coiled up in the dish like a telephone wire. Harry knew better than to try to untangle it, and munched on it as it was.

"Where's Megan?" he remembered to ask, as his horizon remained blissfully crush-free.

"She pushed off. Hot date tonight, or something." George shoved the receipts into a drawer. "Lost your chance there, I reckon."

"Oh, I'm crying on the inside," said Harry cheerfully. He began to suck on the liquorice with more vigour.

George sent him a measured look. "Oi, you!" he yelled at a gaggle of small boys. "Skedaddle! It's well past closing time. What's this look like, a crèche?"

"That for you, mister!" one replied, with a two-fingered salute. George lazily sent a lit firework zooming after them, and they scrambled for the door trailing sparks. Their shouts could be heard as they ran off down the street, followed by a distant explosion.

Harry realised that his liquorice was in danger of falling out of his open mouth. "You really … have a way with kids, there."

"Yes, I know." After telling this brutal fib, George seemed to come awake. He plucked his own piece of liquorice from the dish and started to chew. "They'll tell their friends and all try to claim they got a burn scar and I'll have ten more devoted customers by this time next week." He blew a puff of cerise smoke in Harry's direction. "You don't know many kids, do you?"

Harry thought briefly of the rake of rotund second cousins that Dudley had produced with his wife, who at least appeared to be a semi-willing partner in this crime. Then there were Bill and Fleur's innumerable daughters, all of whom, to Fleur's horror, were strawberry blonde and freckled.

"No," he admitted. "This liquorice is really quite good, by the way."

"The flames or the taste?"

"Oh, the taste." Harry applied energetic suction to the end of his whip. "I mean, the smoke is cool and all, but it's a bit … juvenile."

This appeared to please George. In the absence of smiling, or indeed much facial expression at all, Harry had learned to read the minute signs. There was the slight upward tilt of the left eyebrow, the dilated nostrils, the overall relaxation of George's body.

"Yeah, well, Fred was the one who liked to make things go off bang." George bared his teeth, worrying at the liquorice with faraway eyes. "I prefer the cooking side of it. Speaking of which, I was thinking about those Slippery Nipples, because you said they were tasty."

"They are, once you forgot the part about eating breasts."

"You mean you've never had chicken?"

"The other kind of breast." Harry felt himself redden. "You know -- tits, and that."

"I know." George's blue eyes were suddenly over-bright. "But you're funny when you blush. Anyway, something you said struck a chord -- that people would never come in and ask for Slippery Nipples. Because I thought, 'Of course they would. People buy whips and dildos and porn and fluffy handcuffs, why wouldn't they buy euphemistically-named sweets?' Then, eureka, I had it! Sex Sweets! Like sex toys, only you eat them, not play with them -- hey, are you all right, Harry?"

Harry coughed, managing to dislodge the piece of liquorice that had fallen down his trachea whilst he was otherwise engaged in gaping at George in horror. At last he regained enough control of his vocal chords to croak, "You have got to be kidding me."

"Why? Is it the name? I agree, that could use some work, but I think the basic idea is sound." And George was away laughing on a fast camel. "I'm going to fix up an alcove in the back, probably with scarlet silk curtains or something, and one of those shiny Muggle signs -- they're called halogen, right? I remember that from Muggle Studies. Old Flintlock conveniently forgot to mention that it was used mainly for laundrettes and porn shops, mind you. And I'll rig some kind of Ageing Charm to prevent the kids getting in, and voilà!"

"George!" shouted Harry. "You can't make Sex Sweets! It's -- it's preposterous!"

George swallowed some liquorice, looking ridiculously calm. "Why not? I think it'll be a right old cash cow. People like a good giggle. I've done some research, went to that Ann Summers place that I overheard one of the Muggleborn Weird Sisters talking about --"

Harry reeled. "You went to a sex shop?"

"Well, as far as I could see it didn't actually sell sex per se, but yes. You look a bit pale about the gills, Harry. Are you sure you're all right?"

"I -- I am shocked and appalled, that's what I am!"

"Oh, is that it?" Then, to crown the indignity, George gave a huff of laughter. "Crikey, I never thought you were uptight about sex, Harry! You must have had more of it than anyone I know."

"I most certainly have not!" declared Harry, realised what he'd said, and choked again.

"But -- all these women throwing themselves at you." George sounded genuinely baffled. "You mean you haven't taken advantage?" Harry shook his head. "Not even once?"

There was an awkward silence, which Harry filled with more liquorice. He was surely near to the other end of it by now.

Eventually, George said, "You're not a virgin, are you?"

"No! God, no. I mean, Ginny --"

"That's enough, thanks." George seemed discomfited for once. "What about after Ginny?"

"Well, there was this girl called Martina."

"And?"

"And we had sex, all right! Satisfied now?"

George raised his hands. "Peace, peace. I'd just … I mean, if I was you I'd be having my end away every night, you know?"

Harry gave a small, cold shrug. "They're not really interested in me. I'm not … charming. Or interesting and ambitious, like Hermione and Ron, or stunningly good-looking. People are just ensnared by the fame."

"Don't forget the money."

Harry scowled. George chucked him on the arm.

"I don't really like talking about it," added Harry, pointlessly.

"Fair enough. I suppose I'm used to it. Fred used to recount all his affairs, slap for tickle. As did I, although they were far less numerous." George tugged on his liquorice. "Hey, this is stuck."

Harry felt a jerk. "That's because it's mine, you git!"

"No way!"

"I had it first!"

"Finders keepers, Potter." George began to eat with the velocity of a fifth child in a family of huge appetites. In dismay, Harry saw half his whip zooming into George's mouth, and immediately began chomping at double speed.

When there was an inch left, Harry was sure that George would call it quits. He had underestimated the tenacity of the Weasley appetite, however. The light of manic righteousness lit George's eyes, and he only gnawed harder.

Then Harry realised that George's mouth, glistening with black-tinged spit, was awfully close, and the rest of him was too. He hesitated. George seized the minute advantage, yanking the last piece of liquorice from between Harry's teeth with a grunt of triumph.

"You snooze, you lose," said George indistinctly, his breath puffing on Harry's upper lip. Harry felt his heart beating hard. He put it down to the thrill of competition.

"I can't believe you. You have a whole shop full of sweets, yet you had to steal mine!"

"Sibling killer instinct." George shrugged. "So I take it I'll have to cross you off my list as taste-tester, then?"

"What do you mean?"

"For the Sex Sweets. Or whatever I end up calling them. You're right, the name isn't great."

"I never said th -- wait, what do you mean, off your list?"

George's face was as innocent as a Botticelli angel's. "You seemed to take against the whole idea so strongly, I assumed you wouldn't want to have anything to do with it. I'll have to use Megan instead. She'll like that. I've been working on a way of combining marshmallow and treacle, with maybe sherbet --"

"George, shut up now."

"So you will?"

"Of course I will, you daft plonker."

"Even the Banana Surprises?"

"What are the Banana Surprises?"

"Put it this way: the surprise isn't that it's not a banana …"

::
::

After seven years in his flat, Harry had a certain way of doing things. He liked it, and he rarely had friends to stay and certainly no girlfriend to object, so his routine had become as set as a pan of fudge.

All of that changed when Cat arrived. Later, Harry blamed it on Palatine, but he knew he shouldn't have let her pick a kitten for him. She sometimes got an expression on her face that could have moved mountains if she'd directed her attention that way, and she'd been wearing it on the day Harry said irritably, "Oh, they're all the same. You choose."

Cat was approximately half-feline, half-insane, and wrapped up in a dusty-coloured coat as if in an outsize blanket. She had a white ruff around her neck, which looked exactly like a bib.

Harry couldn't think what to call her for days. He'd lost all his old schoolbooks and so the option of picking a grand-sounding name out of his History of Magic text was rendered null and void. Names like Scrap and Tofty sounded daft to him, and he just said 'Here cat' to call her to dinner. This was rarely necessary, in fact. She rapidly evolved a penchant for perching by Harry's plate, her haunches crooked in an impossibly graceful way, and waiting patiently for him to eat his fill. Then, she'd eat the rest.

Harry had never realised that cats ate curry before.

After a while, he realised that she was, irrevocably, Cat. Cat herself didn't seem to have any objections to her wildly original moniker. Harry grew to love listening to her, purring away like distant thunder and warming his lap at the same time.

She had her favourite television programmes. Whenever Harry tried to change station when she was watching, she'd pad over to the remote and sit on it until the channel changed back. Harry didn't have the heart to hide the remote, or even to use magic to do so. Cat looked so contented, with her tail wrapped practically the whole way around her body and watching Will and Grace, that it was worth suffering through her terrible taste in sitcoms.

Harry did his best not to talk to her like she was a person, for that way lay madness. He knew that he was already something of a recluse, interacting only with his staff and George and rarely going out and never shagging, although the jury was out as to whether he found this such a bad thing as was popularly claimed. Still, the fact remained that he was having the most fulfilling relationship of his life thus far with a cat. Harry even got used to her sitting on the toilet seat while he showered.

He wondered if George got bored of Harry's talking so much about his pet. It was hard to tell. For all Harry knew, George still felt the same passions and still laughed at the same ridiculous things as ever, but Fred's death had effectively frozen his face.

It would have been handy, though, thought Harry irritably, if he didn't have to parse George's every sentence with the fanaticism of a grammar nazi to glean any inflection from it whatsoever. Ron was always blunt when it came to his boredom threshold and would simply say, "All right, Harry, but who cares, really?" Hermione was more polite, using a vital book as an excuse to end the conversation. Point was, Harry knew they were doing it, and did the same in his turn.

"Just tell me," he blurted one day, over an almost-cold cup of tea.

"Tell you what?" George's kitchen table was laden with a contraption that looked like glassblower's nightmare. George was staring at it. Every so often he would jump up and prod something, or straighten another thing, or sprinkle a little more of what looked like coconut flakes into a funnel on the top.

"If -- if you want me to stop coming round all the time." This wasn't what Harry had meant to say, but somehow wanting reassurance that his cat-centric chronicles were as fascinating to George as they were to Harry seemed impossibly trivial.

"Harry, mate, if you don't want to come round no one's making you." George sprung from his seat to twiddle with a glass screw.

"I didn't say that!" Harry's mug almost exploded as his frustration sought an outlet in wild magic. "I said -- oh, never mind. I'm going home."

He was at the door when George's quiet voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Your cat is about five months old. She prefers chicken curry to beef. Her favourite 'programme' is Will and Grace, closely followed by Scrubs, which means she was probably American in her past life because, from what you've said, these plays are set in America. She's grey and white at the front, one of her ears turns outwards, and you had her de-wormed two weeks ago, which I understand was a relief for all concerned. At the moment she's the greatest love in your life and you're using her as a substitute for a family or a relationship or both. Perfectly normal and at least she's alive, which is more than I can say for some affection surrogates I've heard of." At last, George met Harry's stunned gaze. "Bear in mind that I've never watched one of your telly-visions things. I could be getting some technical details wrong, here."

Mutely, Harry shook his head and stared at the ground.

George picked up Harry's mug and took it over to him. With one finger, he tilted Harry's face up so that they were looking each other in the eye.

"What you don't understand about me, I think, is that Fred was the one who did the talking. He was the salesman, the showman, the bird-puller." George made a wry mouth, which was the closest he'd come to expression for a long time. "I listened. I'm good at listening. I'm better at listening than talking. D'you understand?"

"Yeah, I think so." Carefully, Harry took his mug from George. "It's just -- you never have problems talking about your experiments and stuff."

"Of course I can talk about my experiments. They're my breath. They're the last link I have to Fred. Twins are closer than brothers, you realise -- they're more like lovers. When they told me that Fred -- that he'd gone. No, that he'd died, damn it. When they told me, I already knew, because a part of my mind was Fred and it disappeared that minute."

"Well, I've never been all that close to any of my lovers, but I get what you mean." Harry didn't want to see George's eyes at that moment, but he had no choice because George's finger was digging into his the flesh under his chin. "I'm sorry --"

"Don't be sorry," said George fiercely. "You barely understand what I'm talking about, much less feel it. Just -- keep telling me about your bloody cat, all right? Sometimes, when you're here, I can forget that Fred -- that Fred isn't."

"I think that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me." Harry took George's hand, drawing it away from his face and squeezing it briefly. "I'm also kind of freaked out right now, though, so do you mind if I just sit here and drink my tea?"

"Ah, if only your American sitcoms could see you now. 'I'm English and I've just suffered a major emotional trauma -- I'll have some tea, please.'" George shook his head and smiled.

Automatically, Harry grinned back -- and then clutched at his mug for support. George had smiled! He had curved his lips upwards and smiled, at something that was not rip-roaringly funny but at least worthy of that small badge of amusement, only this was George and he hadn't smiled in years, at least where Harry could see him --

On impulse, Harry threw his arms around George and hugged him tightly. After a stiff moment, George's hands came up around him and patted his back.

"What's this in aid of, Harry?"

"Nothing." Harry's voice was muffled by George's collar. He suddenly didn't want George to know that Harry had noticed him smiling. It might make him so self-conscious that he'd never do it again, ever, and Harry didn't want that to happen.

Instead, he was left looking like a weepy clingy girl. He supposed it was the lesser of two evils.

He drew back, knowing he was blushing like mad and that one of George's hands was still resting lightly in the small of his back. Harry smiled nervously up into George's face. The back of his scalp prickled, and he was aware of the breath surging in and out of his lungs. It was a familiar feeling, which in the past had always meant that he wanted to … wanted to …

"All right? Moment of existential angst over?" George didn't wait for a reply before continuing, "Good. Only, you've gone and spilt tea all over me …"

"Shit!" Harry leapt back and aimed a Vanishing Charm at George's stomach. George laughed, with a big wide open mouth that Harry remembered from Hogwarts. Harry tried not to stare.

"So, what are you working on?" asked Harry. He was quite desperate to turn the conversation away from himself, tea, or smiling.

"All in good time, my dear guinea pig." George gave a squawk of alarm and dumped half a packet of coconut into the funnel. "Should have been watching that."

"Is this going to scar me for life? Be honest, George."

"Only mentally. Don't worry."

"Oh, but I do."

"Good."

::
::

"Well, what do you think?"

Cat meowed. Harry took this as endorsement and smiled at her in the mirror.

He certainly looked different. Whether this was a good or a bad thing remained to be seen. Cat's approval was a relief, of course, but Harry generally aimed towards being attractive to other humans.

He spent another five minutes brushing his hair forward over his scar and a further ten ruffling it back up again. No matter what he did, it looked wrong, but this was no different from normal. Somehow Harry had imagined that the Lasering Charm -- which had set him back two thousand Galleons and gained him twenty-twenty vision -- would have had some kind of effect on his hair too, possibly by osmosis. Sadly this was not the case. Instead of looking like a scruffy bloke with specs and woeful hair, Harry now just looked like a scruffy bloke with woeful hair.

By the time he'd got his hair back the way it always was, Harry was late for work. He doubted that anyone would notice. Polly always arrived at about six and locked herself in her tiny office until elevenses. Magnus would be asleep anyway. Among the many things Palatine was opposed to was early mornings, so she wouldn't roll up until nearly lunchtime. As it was a Monday, Mim would be exhausted from two and half days of hardcore partying. Even if she did arrive, it would be in a body operating free of all higher brain functions. Anthony would be there, but only to snaffle the pick of the free scones that the Ministry kitchens provided every morning.

So the last thing Harry expected, on his first morning sporting what the surgery brochure claimed to be 'the whole new you!' look, was a delegation in his office.

All of his staff were gathered around his desk. Not just Palatine and Mim and Anthony, who often popped in for a chat or, in Mim's case, scary and poorly disguised innuendo -- Polly was also standing by the window and radiating an air of disapproval that could better be described as a nuclear mushroom. What Harry had taken to be an incongruous potplant turned out to be Magnus, wearing a hat made out of palm fronds. Or, at least, Harry hoped it was a hat.

"Finally!" Mim flicked her hair back and raised her eyes to Harry. She let out a squawk and hit herself in the ear.

Polly's rhinestones began to shake, rattle and roll; Anthony gave a low whistle and buffed his silver-painted nails on his frock coat; Palatine raised an eyebrow.

"What?" asked Harry nervously. "Why are you all looking at me like that?"

"Henry, old chap!" Magnus waddled forward, his palm fronds flapping. "Got rid of the spectacles, I smell. See, I should say. Jolly good stuff. Remember old Frogmorton did that once. Rum do. Used to wear petticoats, you know. Tremendously squiffy lad, Frogmorton."

"Um." Harry patted the air above Magnus' shoulder, unwilling to come into contact with him in case whatever he had was catching. "Thank you?"

"Wow," croaked Mim.

Anthony slalomed towards Harry, with a gait that suggested that he practised it at home, and brushed back Harry's hair. Harry was too wrong-footed to implement his preferred reaction to Anthony, that of being several miles away when he approached. Anthony pursed his lips, turning Harry's face this way and that while Harry tried to think of ways to kill him without causing undue comment.

"Ooh, it really brings out your eyes!" purred Anthony. "Mim, come see. No, on second thoughts don't. Public orgasms are so terribly blasé."

"Wouldn't it have been more sagacious to fix your eyes when you were actually, oh, fighting assailants on a daily basis?"

"Shut up, Pal. You're just jealous that someone else had a makeover for a change."

"Yeah, well, if you get any closer you'll be kissing him. And you're probably making his pretty hair all greasy, fondling it like that."

With an expression of direst horror, Anthony released Harry so quickly that he stumbled back.

"Gotcha." Palatine grinned.

"Bitch," muttered Anthony.

Harry felt that it was high time he gained control of the situation. It was his office, after all, and his sweet-wrapper menagerie that everyone had been admiring before he came in.

"Was there something you wanted to see me about? And before you ask, Anthony, the Ministry turned down your request for a redecorating stipend without petition. Something about having better things to spend the budget on than flock wallpaper and duck-egg enamel paint."

"Knew I shouldn't have included the design plan." Anthony released a long-suffering sigh.

"Actually, it's to do with the Christmas party," Palatine interjected. Polly drew in a huge sniff, incorporating a sonata of mucus and several snorting trills, rounded off by a coda of air lamenting its nostrilled imprisonment.

"Christmas? It's November!" Harry went to push his glasses up his nose, remembered they weren't there, and settled for batting at his fringe like an idiot.

"Nearly the end of November. I hear Steamer has already booked out Cha Cha's for the Sports and Games dickheads."

"Anthony, we're not going to a strip club." Palatine rolled her eyes. "Please, at least pretend to have standards."

"You're right. We need to go one better." Anthony smirked. His eye-teeth truly were alarming. "Let's book out all the brothels in Knockturn Alley!"

"There are brothels in Knockturn Alley?" Surprisingly, five pairs of condescending eyes swivelled in Harry's direction. "I mean, you have got to be joking, Anthony! We're not holding our Christmas party in any place where women get paid to take their clothes off!"

"Better than doing it for free." Palatine shrugged.

"The wages are quite good, my friend told me," agreed Mim.

"So you're saying we should go to a place where men get paid to take their clothes off?"

"No that is not what I'm saying Anthony!"

"What are you saying, then? I mean, I'd take my clothes off if you lot paid me enough."

"No offence, Pal, but I'd pay you to keep them on."

"Fair enough. Starting now?"

"I'm saying we need to hold our party somewhere classy, like the Prince and the Peddlar!" shouted Harry. "Oh shit did I really say that?"

"Yep." Palatine looked smug. "Well done on the reverse psychology, Anthony."

"What?"

"The Prince and the Peddlar is owned by --"

"Seamus Finnegan," sighed Harry, admitting defeat. "I went to school with him. Maybe he'll drop the rate for us or something."

Anthony's eyes were like two lighting tops. "I heard that pub is the most debauched in the whole of Europe! I heard they have Veelas dancing in cages and very odd girls dancing on the bar wearing trousers and kicking tequila around --"

"Doesn't sound half bad, actually. I know I'd pay to see a bar wearing trousers."

"No, I meant --"

"Kicking tequila? What do they do that for? That's a waste of good alcohol. Don't they realise how much that stuff costs?"

"I rather think that's the point, Mim. The price of decadence, and all that."

"I think it sounds awful!" Polly's words were so starched they could have stood up and walked about on their own.

"Well, you don't have to come." Palatine looked altogether too hopeful. Harry got the sudden feeling he'd found the culprit behind the making of Anthony's notorious beret.

Polly sent Palatine a gaze that could have melted steel. "Of course I am going to come! I should feel it my duty to protect you young innocent gels from the dangers of the modern world!"

Mim's jaw dropped. "Sorry? Run that by me again? You're going to protect us from the dangers of the modern world?"

"Palatine, are you quite all right? Only you seem to be choking! Mr Potter, do you know the Heimlich Charm?"

"I'm fine!" gasped Palatine. "Just -- a bit of air went down wrong -- don't mind me, this often happens when I'm around you, Polly --"

"I think that's a fine idea, Polly," said Harry loudly. "Eh, I don't suppose you lot have decided when you want to have it? I'll send an owl to Seamus straight away."

"December eighth," said Anthony promptly, at the same time as Mim said, "December eighteenth" and Palatine said, "Screw it, tomorrow night."

"It is most inappropriate to hold a Yuletide celebration before St Clytemnestra's Day!"

"Yeah? Who the hell's she?"

"The patron saint of virginity, of course!"

"Christ on a cracker," breathed Mim. Palatine had started to wheeze asthmatically again, which was somewhat at odds with her expression of beatific bliss.

Magnus sidled up to Harry. "Frogmorton was a devil for the brandy," he confided.

"Really?" Harry smiled at him. "I think you're the sanest one of the lot, personally."

::

So then Seamus said, 'Sure mate, anything for the Boy Who Lived! It's good to see you aren't becoming a dickless wonder after all,'" complained Harry. "So now I have to go through with it! Damn bloody Irish. Should never have invaded the stupid soggy country."

"I don't think you'll find many Irish people disagreeing with you there," said George mildly. He was crushing something with a pestle and mortar, his wand stuck behind one ear. Harry drew in another breath to launch a thousand tirades, and found himself laughing instead.

"It's such a farce. All of them have found a reason to come up to me and say it's great that I'm getting out and having a bit of fun for once, as if my life was in fact one huge mire of tedium -- as if they knew anything about me! -- except for Magnus. And one could argue that 'I owned a hat once. His name was Laura' could be taken for more of the same in Magnus-land." Harry drained off his tea, which was almost stone-cold. "Even Hermione and Ron seem to think this is some kind of huge event, and it's not like I've even talked to them face to face in months."

"It is a big event." George swirled something navy in a conical flask and returned to his mortar. He was dressed in a Muggle jumper and jeans, although he'd pushed up his sleeves while he worked. There were two tensed cords of muscle in each of his forearms, and Harry found his eyes travelling up and down their lines as he rambled on.

"It's a Christmas party. I think the more appropriate term would be 'Purgatory On Earth.'"

"Now do you see why they're worried about you?" George grinned. Harry's hand jerked around his mug. It was still somewhat alarming to see George move his mouth so much. "Go out. Get drunk. Get laid. Score a pretty bird. Then come back and dare to tell me it wasn't fun."

Harry threw his eyes to heaven. "I may look stupid --"

"Indeed."

"-- but I know better than to take you up on a dare, George Weasley."

"Aha!" George reached under the contraption that now encapsulated the kitchen table, five kitchen chairs and half the sink and produced a beaker of translucent, slightly viscous liquid.

"What's that?" Harry squinted, even though he didn't need to any more. It had become a habit, what with his glasses getting grubby or wet or out-of-focus. The fact that there wasn't a blurry border to his vision was also somewhat disconcerting.

The liquid didn't look harmful. It didn't even bubble, which by George's standards meant that it was practically dead. However, Harry knew better than to judge from appearances when it came to George's inventions.

"It's something new. Care to try?" George cocked his head. "Actually, I didn't mean for that to be a question. I need to test it on skin in case it causes an allergic reaction or something. Customers tend to take so strongly against those."

"Can't imagine why," muttered Harry. "Why don't you test it on yourself, then?"

"I did. No change at all. But I've always been disgustingly robust. I tried for months and months to get a cold once, and nothing doing."

"Fine, then. Where?"

"It needs to be in a really sensitive place." George scratched his nose, staring at the ceiling. Harry followed his gaze. There was cobweb there. "The crook of your arm will do."

"Fine." Harry pushed up his sleeves. "Wait -- 'it'll do?' Where's the best place?"

"I don't want to --" began George. Harry huffed.

"It's my stomach or something, isn't it? I'm not shy, you idiot. Don't you remember that time you and Fred stripped me naked and tossed me headfirst into the pond at the Burrow?"

There was a short, tight silence. Harry mentally cursed his head off.

"Yeah, I remember," said George at last. "Inner thigh."

Harry felt that he was being punished in some obscure way. With an inaudible sigh, he hopped off the counter and pulled his robes up around his waist.

He was slightly ashamed of his socks. One of them was a present from Dobby and so ancient that the elastic had gone, making it droop around his ankle like a faded purple slug. The other was a normal black in colour, but charmed with glittery letters reading 'Wanna Ride My Broomstick, Big Boy?' That was Ron's idea of a subtle and cultured joke.

To his credit, George didn't say a thing, although his mouth twitched suspiciously. He snapped some goggles over his eyes and knelt in front of Harry, brandishing a paintbrush.

"You must tell me if it tickles or anything worse. If you don't, straight away, you might lose something."

"My sanity's already gone, thanks."

"I meant a limb."

"Ah." Harry bit his lip as George scooped up some liquid on the end of the paintbrush. Some of it slid off the end, almost half-heartedly. George gripped the skin above Harry's left knee, pulling it tight, and daubed the paintbrush against it. Harry hissed.

"Hurts?" George's eyes were wide and almost wall-to-wall blue. Harry felt his heart begin to pound. He put it down to intense chagrin at his boxers, which were peeking out from under his bunched robes. Another hilarious 'joke' from Ron, this time featuring love hearts.

"No. It's cold."

"Don't worry, it'll warm up. Designed to absorb heat from your skin." George had become more confident now, brushing long cool strokes along Harry's inner thigh.

"Why?" The brush swirled at the edge of Harry's robes and glided down again, almost to the crook of Harry's knee. Harry swallowed a gasp, making a noise like a dying fish in the process.

"You'll see." George was using his fingers now, spreading the liquid around the side of Harry's leg. Harry was hard-pressed not to squirm. George was being very methodical and, yes, scientific, patting out the liquid so that it covered every patch of flesh with a smooth coating. All the same, Harry's brain had become stuck on the fact that someone's hand was running all over his thigh. It didn't matter why. It just was.

Then the liquid began to heat up.

This time the gasp bubbled up before Harry could put a plug in it.

"What's wrong now?"

"It's getting warmer," whispered Harry.

"Excellent." George shifted on his knees. "Mind if I do the other leg, for comparison purposes?"

Mutely, Harry nodded. His hands started to ache from clenching around the cloth of his robes.

"It'd probably have been easier if I took my robes off," he managed.

"Oh, don't worry, it doesn't stain." George was licking his lips in concentration. He tipped some liquid into his palm, squished his hands together, and then clamped them around Harry's thigh. George massaged the liquid in, his fingers pushing and squeezing Harry's skin in a way that would have been painful if it weren't for the confident firmness of George's fingertips.

George caught Harry's eye; Harry supposed he must have been staring. George seemed to take Harry's blank gaze for apprehension instead of something that was very nearly approval and said, "Quicker this way. Won't take a min."

Harry shook his head and nodded, forgetting entirely what he was replying to as George kneaded his knuckles into the soft skin at the bottom of the curve of Harry's arse. He pretended to himself that he hadn't started shuddering at that. Just as quickly, George retreated, shaking his hands off into the beaker.

"Okay, can you stand still for about two minutes while it dries in? It shouldn't take long." George got to his feet and returned to his table, lining up the beaker with a row of others, all of which were full.

"Sure," croaked Harry, three or four seconds later. He was suddenly extremely glad that neither of them had thought of taking off Harry's robes until it was too late. However unwittingly, George's gentle, so very there touch had awakened something that would have been far better off staying asleep.

While George's back was turned, Harry loosened his grip on his robes, letting them sag out so they covered the prominent bulge of his erection. With vicious concentration, he started to count down from a million and resolutely ignored the tingling of the air against his bare, wet legs.

George was mixing things together with his usual absorption. By dint of thinking about Aunt Marge naked, with Filch, and mentally singing Ninety-Nine Green Bottles On The Wall, Harry managed to will down his erection. All the same, he had to keep his eyes off George's arse, or his knees, or his elbows, or his neck, or his nose. If he didn't, his cock would give a phantom throb, which was verging on the poltergeist side if Harry was honest.

At last, George turned around, holding out a slim vial with the light of doting fatherhood in his eyes. For anything to distract him from the perplexing wonder that was George's cuticles, Harry peered at it. It was pale blue and sparkled slightly. It put Harry in mind of fairy dust or opals.

"Feeling any pain, tingling, odd reactions of any kind?" asked George.

"Well, it does tingle a bit. But not in a bad way. Um."

"That's all right." George squatted down, holding the vial like a precious jewel. "I can't seen any discolouration. Your skin is a bit flushed, but that's normal."

"It is?"

"Yup." George continued looking for a moment. "Are you willing to do one last thing, for the greater good and the holy cause of experimentation?"

"Will it put holes in me?"

"Ideally, no."

"Fine, then. Hand it over."

As George passed him the vial, Harry could have sworn that he felt a slight jolt deep in his chest. It could have been some random electricity earthing itself from the vial, though.

"So." Harry held it up to the light, his other hand clutched tight over his crotch in case his cock should get any more ideas about independent governance. "What d'you want me to do with it?"

"It's a lubricant," stated George. "I can safely say, now, that the base material is sound and free of allergens or noxious chemicals. As for the rest, well, you know the drill."

Harry frowned. "Lubricant? Like, for car engines?"

George frowned back. "What's a car? No, wait, I should know this. It's a flying carpet for Muggles, right?"

"Stop messing about, George. What am I supposed to do with this?" Harry waved the vial in George's face. George gave him a look reserved for wife-beaters and eaters of babies.

"Careful, will you? That's my only prototype so far." At Harry's continuing scowl, George added, "Harry. You wank. With it."

Harry stared at the vial in a rising sunburst of horror.

"It's also intended to be a vaginal or anal lubricant, too, so you can do whatever you like, really. I've even made it orally compatible. Don't think it'll taste that nice, but then again neither does --"

"Do not finish that sentence, George!" Harry had been going for low and dangerous, but had to settle for a squeak. It was a very outraged squeak, though, and it had ambitions. One of these was to slaughter George while he slept.

George cocked an eyebrow. "I'm designing sex sweets, remember? Granted, this isn't so much a sweet as a modified joke. But don't go all squeamish on me now. Not after surviving the Banana Splits!"

Harry winced at the memory. "Fine," he said, through gritted teeth. "So I just --"

"Slap it on, rub it in, bob's your uncle. Like you do with spit, only better. You have used spit, right?"

"I -- no. That is --"

The truth was, Harry only touched himself when the only other alternative was to explode and die. He had never set out to wank as such, never teased himself until nature kicked in and got him all slippery. He knew that other people did, a lot. He … didn't.

George appeared not to notice Harry's hesitation, probably working under the assumption that the use of spit was so widespread as to be unremarkable. Harry tuned in to what he was saying.

"-- designed to make it a little bit special. I used that old idea we had with the Fantasy Charms, before they got pulled off the market and made illegal and had a constitutional amendment passed against them and everything. What you do is, once you're all ready, is to think of your favourite fantasy -- get it really clear in your mind -- and off you go."

"My favourite fantasy?" repeated Harry. He didn't have one fantasy, much less a favourite one. What was there to fantasise about? There was your hand, and your cock; you used one to yank the other. QED. The whole process was, on the whole, a minor irritation.

"Yup." By all accounts, George looked pleased by imparting this information, if his hum was anything to go by. "No need to go into details, Harry old chap. I know you have the Quidditch Girls Calendar."

"That was from Ron!" snapped Harry. He was seriously considering banning Ron from giving him any more presents for the rest of their natural lives. George tapped the side of his long nose, looking smug.

"I take it you've tried it out, too?" Harry glowered down at the little vial, which did its solemn best to do nothing but look like a small glass tube full of blue stuff.

"Nope." George's tone was just a little too casual. Harry's head snapped up. "Haven't been capable for, oh, years now."

"What?"

George rapped the table with his thermometer. "I can't get it up, Harry. Impotency? Surely you've heard of that in your travels?"

The harsh edge to his voice cut Harry like a knife. "I -- why? Did you try and do something about it?"

George rested his elbows on the counter. "About five thousand potions, spells and wise woman's mutterings, at last count. Plus a round of 'therapy' that Mum pushed me into when she found out. Apparently it's all because of Fred dying. If I stub my toe I can blame it on Fred being dead, too. The therapist took two months' profit and told me I needed to relax."

"I'm sorry." Harry was, mostly by choice, living the life of a hermit with halitosis and severe purpura, but he still understood something of George's pain.

"Just do me a favour and give me some feedback on the lube, would you? I was working blind with it. And don't tell Ron." George sounded afraid, all of a sudden.

"Of course I wouldn't." Harry's words tripped and stumbled in their haste. "And I -- I'll do it tonight."

"Thanks, Harry." George leaned forward and ruffled Harry's hair. Harry startled at the unexpected contact, and saw an inscrutable expression flicker briefly over George's face. "I ought to find some way to repay you for this."

"I hardly need a wage," said Harry dryly. "It's hard enough trying to find things to spend my salary on as it is."

"Being filthy rich is such a curse," agreed George. "Well, if there ever is anything I can do for you in return, you'll tell me, won't you?"

"Promise." Harry pocketed the vial and flashed him a brief smile.

"By the way, your face looks different without glasses."

"Oh." Harry's heart leapt. He'd though George hadn't noticed. "Good different or bad different?"

"Your eyes seem bigger." George frowned. "It'll take some getting used to."

Harry's heart sunk. It felt even worse because it had been starting from a higher point than normal and, as such, hit ground zero with a resounding thunk. "I'm sure you'll manage it. See you tomorrow, okay?"

Harry's hand was on the door when he heard George say, "But definitely good different."

And it was worth it, just for that.

::
::

Harry had locked Cat in the living room. It just didn't feel right, having a cat watch him wank.

He'd notched up the heating charm, and laid a towel on the bed to save the duvet from mess, and had a shower, and removed every scrap of clothing and folded it up and put it away. It wasn't exactly spontaneous, but neither was he feeling exactly horny. In this situation, it might have helped.

Harry climbed up on to the bed, shaking his head at the vial. In the last few hours, it had taken on almost human-like qualities. Certainly Harry felt a most disproportionate rage towards it, given that it was an inanimate object. He knew George appreciated how much Harry was doing for the sake of their friendship. He also knew George would never understand why it was such a trial for Harry. Harry still couldn't make up his mind as to which fact was the most bloody maddening.

He lay back. The towel itched. Determined to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible, Harry uncorked the vial and poured some of the lubricant into his palm. It glittered in the light and gave off a faint impression of sparks. He spread his legs and took his soft cock into the same hand, twitching as the cold gel hit his skin. Awkwardly, he slicked his cock from head to base, hoping it would show some interest in the proceedings.

George had told him to focus on his favourite fantasy. In lieu of having one, Harry let his mind clear and tried to summon up the gushing feeling in the pit of his stomach, the one that he'd got earlier that day when George was rubbing the stuff on his legs.

Ah. That caught its attention.

Harry gasped as a feather-like tingling enveloped his cock, almost as if invisible fingers were trailing silk around it. The lubricant was glowing faintly pink. When it began changing colours, Harry didn't need his eyes to know. With every change alternating rushes of heat and icy cold drenched his skin, throbbing in time to his heartbeat.

All at once he felt a sensation of falling backwards into blackness. When he opened his eyes, he knew he must have found a fantasy.

It was blurry about the edges, but Harry would have recognised George's shop anywhere. The shelves and windows were little more than smudges on the air, but the till was clearly delineated, the sample dishes bathed in light.

There came the sound of feet. Harry turned to see George emerging from the shadows, smiling as only he could smile, fit to burst and break your heart. Harry smiled in response and, for once, didn't blush at all.

For a long time, Harry indulged himself in just looking at George in the way he didn't dare to in reality. Imagining touching him, with the added knowledge that in this fantasy, he could.

Without preamble their fingers both reached for the dish of liquorice at the same time. George seemed far more interested in Harry's fingers than the sweets, for his thumb found the web of skin between Harry's thumb and forefinger and began stroking it in a way that sent shivers up his arm.

"Is this your liquorice whip?" breathed George, holding one up. Harry nodded, his breath hitching. George pinched it at the tip and traced Harry's parted lips with it, round the borders and into the centre of his bottom lip, dragging it down. Harry began to tremble uncontrollably. George's knuckles trailed down the side of Harry's face, stroking the sensitive skin under his jaw with infinite tenderness.

"Better come get it then, before I eat it all." George sucked the whip into his mouth. This time, Harry wasn't going to let him get away with that sort of thing. Without a thought he crushed his mouth against George's, shoving his tongue through lips and spit and liquorice to find George's. As George's tongue brushed his, a tiny cascade opened the pit of Harry's stomach. It made him tremble all over, and open his mouth as wide as he could under George's. Harry could feel saliva pooling at the sides of his lips. It did nothing but cause Harry to press against George ever more fiercely, relishing all that was wet and sloppy and jaw-achingly good about kissing George.

George didn't seem to mind all that much when the liquorice fell away. He threaded his arms around Harry's neck, holding Harry closer than he'd ever been held, and began to kiss him in earnest.

Harry had no idea of how time passed in fantasies, but the kiss seemed to last forever and go far too fast. He stood there, his hands exploring George's back, daringly slipping under the hem of George's shirt, as George sucked on his tongue and licked his teeth and drew his lips lightly between his teeth. Harry could have kissed George forever.

Then George's hands, which had been harmlessly entangled in Harry's hopeless hair, slid firmly down his back to rest of the swell of his bottom.

In real life, Harry would have bolted. In fantasy, he arched into the touch.

George drew back and smiled. "You made me drop my whip, Harry."

"So?" Harry reached for George, but he nimbly evaded Harry's touch.

"Tsk, tsk." George dropped to the floor, scooping up the liquorice. "I think you deserve punishment for this heinous, heinous crime."

Some part of Harry laughed at that, but his fantasy self nodded gravely and said, "You're right. What do I deserve?"

George looked down at the sweet in his hand. "Well, this is a whip …"

A thousand fleas started doing the samba in Harry's stomach. "Do you think --"

"Yes." George's smile was distinctly predatory this time. "Take off your jeans and turn around. Quickly, now. Oh, someone's happy to see me. But you have to take your punishment first. Turn around, Harry. Hands on the counter. That's it. And spread your legs a bit wider. Oh, yes, beautiful. Just like that."

"Come on," Harry ground out. Before he'd even finished, George flicked the whip lightly against Harry's arse.

It wasn't a real whip, so it didn't hurt. It felt like someone was pinching his arse, again and again, only no one had ever pinched Harry's arse, so he wouldn't know …

"Wider, Harry."

"I'll fall over!"

"You won't. I'll catch you, anyway."

Grumbling under his breath, Harry shuffled his feet further apart.

"Bend forward a bit more, too."

Making a face, Harry pressed his chest to the counter, knowing that he was sticking out his arse it was like some kind of exhibition.

Judging from the thick sound of George's breathing, it was getting rave reviews.

Harry gasped when George's warm hand squeezed his bottom. Fingertips ventured north, coming to rest in the hollow of Harry's back. Harry laid his burning cheek on the cool wood of the counter, trying to make his breathing come steadily. Or at all.

He had a vague idea of what was next on the itinerary, but the sensation was incredible and blasted most subsequent thought out of Harry's head and into deep space.

George was trailing the liquorice whip down the cleft of Harry's arse. It tickled wickedly and made Harry's entire being seize up from sheer pleasure. Again and again George stroked his inner skin with the whip, until Harry's cock was driving against his stomach and soaking his t-shirt, and the air was filled with an odd keening noise. With a rare bolt of cogitation, Harry realised that it was coming from him.

"There, now." George's hand slipped down again, fingers digging into flesh. "Spare the whip and spoil the child, that's what I say." His thumbnail scraped a trail around Harry's anus, making him cry out. His cock pulsed wildly.

"Now, now, your punishment isn't done yet." George dropped a kiss on to the sweaty skin of Harry's neck. "After all, it was heinous, what you did. Despicable. Oh, so very hot."

Harry wondered what it was he'd done; he couldn't for the life of him recall. However, when George positioned the tip of the whip at his hole and pushed in, Harry thought he'd make a point of doing it every single day for the rest of his life. No. Every single hour.

George slipped the whip in, little by little, making Harry squirm from the utter dirty thrill of it all. It was surprising, that such a small thing could arouse such intense ecstasy, but Harry was too busy driving his arse back against it to consider the point. George began to lightly wiggle his end of the whip. The gasp the trickling pleasure elicted from Harry was more like a scream. When George slipped his hand between Harry's thighs and started squeezing his balls as well, Harry gave up and moaned without pause, panting George's name over and over.

With a tiny grunt, George pulled the liquorice out. The tiny sliding feeling almost did for Harry, but the pause when George removed both his hands allowed him to calm down somewhat. And miss George so much it burned.

"Ready?"

"Fuck, George!"

"Hang on, Mr Impatient." There was a sound of chewing, and George's knees clicking as he knelt on them. "Hmm. I can see you're a very dirty boy, Harry Potter. I'll do my best to clean you up."

With that, he breathed out, right into Harry's arse. He'd just eaten some of the liquorice; the heatless flames felt like a thousand darts sprinting all down every nerve in Harry's arse.

"George!" he screamed, as he felt the tip of George's tongue dab between his cheeks.

Harry's eyes snapped open. Both of his hands were wrapped around his cock. His stomach was covered in spunk. It was dribbling down his wrists and drenching the coarse hair around his balls.

"Phew," he said weakly.

He'd never known that there was something back there that was worth investigating. Working mainly on autopilot, Harry felt a deep indignation that he'd passed twenty-five years on the planet without someone informing him of this fact.

Something cold nudged his elbow. Harry's fingers closed around the vial, which was a quarter-full.

Harry looked himself between the legs, and speculated.

He could deal with the terrible fact that he'd dreamt of George fondling his arse later. But for now …

::
::

Harry stared at his shoes. In his current state of mind, even plain, black, square-topped, lace-ups managed to be a covert phallic symbol. They weren't particularly good as phallic symbols went and probably only did it part-time to make up the rent, but Harry's stomach still wouldn't stop clamping with nerves.

"It's open!" he heard George roaring to his knock. Harry found him in the kitchen, tinkering with what Harry now knew to be a wonderful instrument to turn Harry Potter into a walking hard-on, which should be exorcised and then burned.

"I tried it last night," gabbled Harry, eager to get past the worst part of what he imagined would be among the most terrible conversations of his life.

"Huh? You say something, Harry?" George turned around, a quill sticking out of his mouth. Harry felt something rising from the soles of his feet. It turned out to be a full-body blush, which made Harry's skin heat so strongly he was sure George would notice, and ask why he was carrying around a radiator under his robes.

"I said, I tried it." Harry thrust the empty vial back at George, keeping his eyes trained on the pulled thread in George's jumper.

"Oh, excellent. All gone, I see. I take it you found it accommodating, then?"

"Yep." Harry swallowed with some difficulty. His breath persisted in boycotting his lungs and making a bid for freedom back through his larynx.

"No side effects?"

Harry debated telling George that his cock was raw from wanking, that he'd possibly sprained his wrist from all the energetic pulling, and that as a result of fitting two fingers up his arse he could barely walk.

The nays had it.

"No, not really." Harry coughed. "It was … good."

George looked disappointed. "Only good? Do you think it needs something else -- a bit more spice?"

"No!" blazed Harry. "It's fine, it was -- it was -- fuck --"

"Oh." George's worried gaze suddenly cooled. "Thank you, Harry. Hey, I'm going to develop it so that it doesn't always pick the same fantasy. I could even specialise in pre-made fantasies -- ones that take, say, a female acquaintance and make you fantasise about her with another girl. Anything!"

"Um." Harry managed to get some air down his throat. "So that wasn't one of those -- was it?"

"Nah, it was terribly basic. You've probably seen that in your head a thousand times, right?" George gave him a small, distracted smile. Harry's eyes latched on to the small upward curve and his brain gave up entirely, leaving Harry gibbering with speechless infatuation.

Harry beat a quick retreat soon after that. He couldn't help flushing every time George spoke to him or smiled at him or bloody well scratched his nose.

He secreted another vial into his pocket as he left.

::
::

Harry was wearing black. He hadn't had much choice in the matter. 'What I'm wearing to the Christmas party' had been the main topic of office conversation for weeks, trumping even the imminent arrival of Polly's mermaid foetus.

Mim changed her mind every second day, and had already put at least seventeen potential outfits on lay-by. Palatine just said, "Clothes," which was almost but not quite as enigmatic as Magnus' "Rum makes the birds crack." Anthony seemed to be leaning towards full Renaissance regalia with a gothic twist. Palatine insisted on believing that this meant he was going to wear bondage trousers and a frilly shirt, a misunderstanding that nearly escalated into full-scale war. Even Polly had made a shy contribution, hinting at such dark wonders as a knee-length A-line skirt in a nice pastel.

This made Harry a bit guilty. He'd never thought about laying on a Christmas party in the past and now, watching his employees' vested interest in the event, he felt a little ashamed for not thinking of them more.

His burst of philanthropy lasted exactly as long as it took for Mim to ask, eyelashes going at twenty miles an hour, "And what are you wearing, Harry?"

It quickly became clear that, "Oh, probably something like what I'm wearing now," was not the right answer.

Anthony had looked on the point of bursting with inexpressible horror, and Palatine explained that people wearing robes were always turned away from the door of the Prince and the Peddlar.

"But we're -- I'm paying for a catered function. We're on the guest list," Harry explained patiently. It was no use. Palatine swore blue that the bouncers were kept on a completely different line of command than the inside management, who turned a blind eye when the bouncers turned unacceptable potential patrons on their heads and bounced them up and down.

Harry conceded that he might as well put a little effort into it, although nothing could top Mim's inexhaustible interest in his attire. It came close to besting her concern for her own, but dropped back at the last minute when it became quite clear that no earthly inducement would make Harry wear a 'bit of eyeliner, and maybe some lip-gloss?'

In truth, Harry wasn't all that surprised that Seamus had introduced a Muggle trend for his club. He'd always had an unhealthy attachment to leather trousers. Not only that, but he complained long and often that robes on girls were only slightly more attractive than wimples. Being a self-professed 'leg-man,' Seamus' desires were constantly thwarted by the floor-length skirts. As such, his fetish had almost become Victorian in its intensity.

It had been years since Harry had ventured outside of the confines of wizarding London. The last time had seen him levitating a television home. However, he still recalled the general layout of Bond Street. He had had plans of picking up some new jeans, as his old ones were so worn and frayed they were only held up by the seams and luck, and perhaps a blue shirt.

What he ended up walking out with was black trousers so tight around the crotch that he risked castration with every step he took in them, an even tighter black shirt and a lurid red tie.

Harry rued the day when he'd asked shop-girl if she could tell him what size she thought he was. She seemed to take it as permission to dress him from head-to-toe in a dozen different outfits, each more terrifying than the last. Some featured writing and very little else; others, chains. Harry believed that parchment had been invented for the very reason of leaving your clothes poetry-free. As for chains, well, he might as well have let Mim at his eyes with Wicked Witch Smooth'n'Slick Eyeliner and have done with it.

It took Harry five minutes to get dressed and twenty-eight minutes to manage to comb all of his hair. It had exceeded its personal best by managing to go both flat and stick up on end at the same time. He sank on to the sofa in defeat, felting through his hair to make sure there were no stray comb teeth stuck in it. As he did so, Cat took a liking to his tie and pounced. By the time he finally managed to convince her that his tie was not, in fact, an awesomely exciting new toy just for her, it was pulled askew and sported additional decoration in the form of rows of tiny teeth marks.

"Bugger this," Harry snapped at his reflection, who rolled its eyes in sympathy. He shoved his wallet in his back pocket, putting eye-watering strain on the front of his trousers, and Apparated to the Leaky Cauldron.

He'd thought he'd be early, but the entire Department of Magical Disasters were seated in a booth when he entered. Mim looked stunning and seemed to exude glitter. Palatine was almost unrecognisable in an optimistic lick of a gown and elbow-length evening gloves. Polly had a ruffle on the collar of her high neck blouse. Anthony looked like a dapper vampire, as he was wearing a purple satin waistcoat and more make-up than Mim. His left ear sported a bulbous pearl drop.

However, Magnus beat all of them into a cocked hat. He was wearing a fishbowl.

"You're here! At last! Good. Now we can leave." Anthony sprung to his feet.

"Don't I even get a drink?" protested Harry. Mim was eyeing him up and down, and probably sideways and diagonally from the way her pupils were revolving, and Harry felt uncomfortable. It was a jolly good thing that George wasn't around to spark off any latent fantasises. Getting an erection in these trousers could quite possibly be the last thing he'd ever do.

"We can drink at the Prince and the Peddlar. Come along, mush!"

"Although all they sell is over-priced, coyly named cocktails in at least three different colours," murmured Palatine. Harry opened his mouth to object again, as he wouldn't dream of touching anything that wasn't beer or whiskey, but Anthony shook himself like a wet dog and clamped a hand over Harry's mouth.

"I don't want to know! I'm in the mood for dancing and I want to dance now."

"God, talk about impatient." Harry strong-armed Anthony away and scrubbed his mouth with his sleeve. Maybe he'd need one of those toxic cocktails to cleanse his mouth of Anthony's moist touch.

"Yes, he's had a small tot of sherry. Rendered him quite unstoppable." Palatine sniffed. Harry noticed that she had stuck tiny stars along the bottom of her eyes, whereas he had cat drool on his tie. He wasn't fit to go sweeping the streets, much less taking an exclusive and very expensive club by storm.

"We'll have to walk." Mim giggled. "If Anthony tries to Apparate he'll probably leave his nail varnish smeared across the floor here and his earring in the fireplace."

Anthony tapped his pearl, making it swing. "Don't covet my earring, woman. Don't you know what it means to me?"

"Only if there's someone else wearing another in their left ear," snapped Palatine. "If we're going, let's go!"

Harry smiled at Polly. "You look, um, nice," he said to her, aiming for gallantry and barely hitting civil.

"Thank you! I don't mind telling you, Mr Potter, that I have got a new corset for the occasion!"

Harry blanched. "Um, that is … extremely good to know, Polly."

"I think we shall have to walk to the jolly little party place!" observed Polly. "Young Anthony there is a wee bit squiffy!"

Harry glanced in Anthony's direction. He was draped over Mim's shoulder, biting on one of his roc-egg rings to stem his glee at something Mim had said. They both had very disturbing looks on their faces.

"I think you're right," said Harry. He resolved not to walk anywhere near Mim or Anthony on the way, and found himself offering his arm to Polly almost by default.

"I wanted to be a bugler when I was a little lad." Magnus smiled around at the group and adjusted his fishbowl to a more dashing angle.

All in all, Harry was glad when they fell in behind a very rowdy party of people in fancy dress on the way there. The group even included another person in a fishbowl, who cleaved to Magnus' bosom as to a fellow intrepid explorer of the unknown in a world where everything had already been discovered and declared boring.

The Prince and the Peddlar reared out of the night like the product of a union between an elephant, ten tonnes of gilt and concrete and an explosion in a fairy-lights factory. Harry shielded his eyes from the glare and extricated the signed declaration from Seamus allowing their party in from his pocket.

There were two queues. One was extremely short, containing people with similar parchments to Harry's and enough square clothing among them to cover a cobblestone. The other extended around the side of the building and disappeared beyond the burning glow of the Prince and the Peddlar's frontage. They all wore disgruntled and covetous expressions. Unlike those people in the first queue, they had chosen their clothes for functional purposes and appeared to severely regret it.

"Ooh, I hope they let us in!" Mim materialised at Harry's other side and clutched his arm. The fact that one of her hands rounded the vicinity of his arse before finding his elbow was one that Harry put down to having drink taken.

"Of course they will," said Harry, with the confidence of being able to shut the place down if Seamus impeded the will of the Great Harry Potter.

Whoever the Great Harry Potter was, Harry wasn't sure. He imagined that he lived somewhere in a mansion with the Boy Who Lived and the Chosen One and the Greatest Hero of Our Times and Witch Weekly's Most Eligible Bachelor. Harry seemed to be able to use the influence of these people to get what he wanted, on the rare occasion that he needed something more extravagant than kitty litter, groceries and George's company.

"Stick close to Harry," he heard Anthony say, and thought he even sounded nervous. "Make sure they know we're with him."

"Invitation?" A face like bog oak still in the bog loomed over Harry. It incorporated a mouth that resembled the Crack of Doom before the liberation of Middle-Earth, in addition to eyebrows so large and bushy they deserved their own vote.

"Here." Harry proffered the parchment, noticing at the last minute that Cat seemed to have treaded inky paw prints all over it.

"Oi, that looks like a fake to me," objected the other bouncer. He was skinnier even than Harry and he sported two large throbbing boils, one on either side of his neck. "What's all that dirt over it, too?"

Harry gave a tiny sigh at having to resort to this tactic, and brushed back his hair with a casual gesture. The scraggy bouncer opened his mouth, clocked the scar, and promptly shut it again.

"Harry Potter, as I live and breathe!" gasped the hefty bouncer. "I am so very sorry to have stopped you, sir! It's an honour, I tell you, an honour! If you'd just step this way --"

"Would you sign this for me?" asked Scraggy breathlessly. He held out a tube of lipstick -- not Wicked Witch, Harry saw -- and what looked like toilet paper.

"Sure." Harry hitched a smile on to his face and scrawled 'H. Potter' quickly on the toilet paper. Still bowing and scraping, Hefty opened the door for him and held it.

"Come on, then," Harry called to his staff. They were standing huddled by the barricade, watching him with eyes like Petrified goldfish.

"Are they with you?" Scraggy's eyes travelled economy class over Harry's companions, relegating Magnus and his fishbowl to the cargo hold but instantly upgrading Mim to Club on beholding her canyon-like cleavage.

"Yes. They're my friends." Harry let a touch of defiance spice the air. He also realised, somewhat to his surprise, that it was true.

They trooped in behind him, Scraggy giving Mim a leer. Mim whispered something to him that made all the colour drop from his face. He sketched a curtsey at her and closed the door again. And then they were inside.

"Does that happen often?" Palatine was at Harry's side. She kept a beautiful three inches between their personal spaces, however, which made Harry very grateful that at least one person had their libido in check.

"What?"

"People asking for your autographs. Fawning over you like that."

"Not as much as they used to." Harry shrugged. "The first year after Voldemort was defeated, I used to get mobbed in the street. Couldn't move in my flat from Owled proposals of marriage. It's calmed down now, thankfully."

Palatine's gaze was as flat as her chest. "No wonder you used to hide out in your office. No wonder you still do."

"Yes, well." Harry cleared his throat. Palatine was skimming just a little to near to accusing him of hermit-hood, and he'd had too many such allegations directed his way lately.

Instead, Palatine smiled. "I'm glad you don't like it. It makes me like you better."

"Gee. Thanks."

Palatine tapped her lip thoughtfully. "Um, Harry? Don't do that too often, if you value your safety."

"Do what?" Harry's eyes widened in alarm.

"Smile at me like you did just then. For one thing, you recently expressed a dislike of being mobbed by screaming hordes of horny females, unless I'm just reading too much into that. For another, if you do it at Mim she will probably pounce and you'll never be seen again by mortal men."

"Oh." Harry sucked in a breath. "Thanks for the warning."

"I take it you don't fancy her, then?"

"No!" Harry belatedly realised that he had perhaps come across as a little too vehement. "I mean, she's lovely and everything, and a very nice girl --"

"But you don't fancy her." Palatine smirked. "It's quite simple. Although she's never going to give up, not unless someone else takes her fancy or you declare yourself gay."

"Gay?" Harry felt his heart clench. Is that what the fantasies meant? Did wanting to kiss George every time he smiled make him gay?

Palatine mistook his shock for disbelief. "Yeah, everyone else is fair game. She'd never dream of hitting on someone she thinks is gay, which means Anthony is pretty much safe. Even if he thinks he isn't gay."

"Well … is he?"

"Put it this way. The bouncer on the door, with the lipstick?"

"I was wondering about that, actually."

"He works part-time as a drag-queen, which means that he spends a lot of time in the shadier sorts of clubs and bars. The ones that have glory-holes and more leather than a shoe-factory. Well, he's seen Anthony frequenting those quite a lot. And not alone, either."

"You're friends with that man?"

Palatine gave a thin little smile. "I think that would be to stretch the term 'friends' rather far. We have things to offer each other, that's all."

Harry was at a loss. "What, like hair-care tips, that sort of thing?"

"No, like illicit Muggle drug tip-offs, that sort of thing."

"Palatine!"

"Don't even start with me, Harry. You're not my father."

"I happen to be your boss!"

"Bosses are ten-a-Knut. You want me to leave, my darling Daddy will find me a job elsewhere. It's not like he hasn't done it before."

"But Palatine --"

Palatine sighed. "My real name is Morag. You might as well know that if you're going to read me the riot act."

"Of course I'm not going to sack you," snapped Harry. "What do I look like, a hypocrite? It's not like I haven't done drugs. Well, whatever the Weasley twins wanted to share, anyway. But you shouldn't do it all the time."

"I'm not doing it all the time," said Palatine, with the glittering hard smile of a practised liar.

Harry let her go, wending her way through the wall-to-wall writhing bodies with ease. So far tonight, he'd discovered that Palatine was a drug-addict, Anthony gay and Mim a man-eater, and it was only ten o'clock. By midnight, Polly would probably turn out to be a secret CIA agent and Magnus, Albert Einstein under the influence of a time-turner.

Harry caught a glimpse of himself in a fragmented mirror. His hair was harbouring ambitions towards total verticality, his trousers were cutting weals into his skin and his tie was somewhere around his left ear. He looked a right state and in dire need of a drink.

After ten minutes of confused haggling with the bar-tender, Harry managed to purchase a glass of beer that was not pink or mixed with champagne and maple syrup, and which bore some vague relation to hops. He leaned back against the bar, watching his troops in action.

Magnus had to be the most conspicuous, if only because he was the sole person to carry off a fishbowl with the required flair. By stray chance, the party that Harry had followed through Diagon Alley was not a late-night children's party after all, but a premonition of things to come. Harry counted at least forty people wearing fishbowls, and that was a conservative estimate. Magnus, however, had stocked his full of peppermint cigars, which he was proceeding to smoke with great éclat.

Mim was performing wild gyrations on the dance floor. Harry feared for the safety of her limbs and those of the people around her. None of them seemed to be complaining, least of all the man with his face down her dress. Harry thought disapprovingly that probably he was old enough to be her father, and certainly to know better.

Polly and Palatine had snagged two of the very few stools. These comprised contraptions that would have put Harry off sitting down for life, so rife were they with extraneous spindly bits and completely lacking, or so it appeared, a place on which to sit. However, Polly and Palatine both were nothing if not pig-headedly tenacious. They even appeared to be talking amicably. Harry was just grateful that he wasn't close enough to hear what they were actually saying.

Harry drained his beer, already feeling better about his shambles of an outfit. He started to smile companionably at a nearby girl, but remembered what Palatine had said and stopped himself just in time. He settled for a general half-scowl, which relaxed in direct proportion to the production line of pints that came his way.

He was just blearily wondering where Anthony had got to when Anthony unfurled from the crowd, like something that a Venus Flytrap had spit out. If Harry looked skew-whiff, Anthony was completely cock-eyed. Harry didn't know if Anthony's eyeliner was Mim's doing or not, but the fact that it tracked half-way down his cheeks was one on which Harry would happily have put money.

"Lo, Anthony." At his current level of inebriation, Harry was open to anything, even the possibility of not permanently wanting to be well away from Anthony and accelerating.

"Harry!" cried Anthony. "Come dance!" He grabbed Harry's hand and pulled. Harry's proprioception had long since gone the same way as the dodo, so he let himself be dragged. It was that or just topple slowly forwards until something got in his way, like the floor.

Anthony was a good dancer -- at least from what Harry could tell, under the flashing strobe lights and the poor clarity that was alcohol's gift to the human brain. He didn't merely throw his hands up in the air and shuffle his feet, as Harry was inclined to do. Instead, Anthony used his whole body as a complement to the music, displaying a looseness of hip and fastness of foot that actually made Harry feel rather jealous.

The song changed from a cheesy bouncy beat to a slower, more insidious thud. Anthony yelled, "I love this song!" and threw his arm around Harry's neck. He began to grind into him with exaggerated movements, leaning backwards and prancing, spinning Harry around like a human top. Despite being highly embarrassed by Anthony's explicit suggestiveness, Harry couldn't help the giddiness that gurgled inside of him. He laughed and let Anthony do what he wanted, even when that turned out to be hooking his thumbs in Harry's belt buckles from behind and sliding up and down his back.

In fact, he reached around to grab Anthony's waist and pull him closer, so that they were swivelling and rocking as one entity.

At this point, Harry was too high to even care what it looked like. It reminded him of the time when he, Ron, Fred and George had decided to smoke some of the sensimilla Mrs Weasley had growing wild in her garden. Harry's memories of that night were brightly-coloured and disjointed, featuring Ron standing on the dresser claiming to be the 'High Queen of the Butterflies,' Fred licking his twin's ear while George lay on the floor giggling at the comic masterpiece that was the kitchen ceiling, and general nakedness all around.

They'd made a pact the next day to never speak of it again. The whooshing feeling in Harry's stomach right now was exactly the same, though. He wondered if coke had been slipped into his drink or something, but he honestly didn't mind if it had been. Dancing with Anthony, the man who'd always disturbed Harry with his makeup and jewellery and sartorial androgyny, was turning out to be addictively fun.

Anthony mumbled something into his ear.

"Speak up!" shouted Harry, resting his head on Anthony's shoulder so that he could hear better.

"I said, I think 'm a bit pissed." Anthony hiccupped. "And there's this chap I fancy and he's right over there."

"I thought you weren't gay!"

"'m not!" Anthony sounded highly affronted. "Just 'cause I fuck boys every now anna gain doesn't make me gay! Ha, for laughing!"

"Really?" Harry felt a deep sense of relief. If Anthony could fuck boys -- and how did one do that, precisely? -- and not be gay, then Harry could most certainly dream about licking George's freckles and also not be gay.

"Wanna help me make him jealous?" Without waiting for an answer, Anthony nuzzled Harry's neck, making tiny hairs along his nape stand up. Harry felt a jolt of uncomfortable sobriety.

"Anthony, I don't think --" he began, but Anthony slipped his hands into Harry's pockets, elevating the pressure on his cock to almost unbearable levels.

"He's comin' over!" whispered Anthony ecstatically. "'tend to look turned on, Harry, 'kay?"

"Meep," Harry managed. He let his knees sag, hoping Anthony's hands would be left behind, but they were firmly wedged in place. All that Harry achieved was a spot of vertical spooning in the middle of the dance floor, while his crown jewels were in danger of becoming diamond dust.

Anthony was shivering in anticipation as a burly man approached them. He was the sort of person Harry would cross three roads to avoid. His thickly muscled arms were encircled with copper bracelets, his ears dripped with rings, a bolt pierced his eyebrow and, most astonishingly of all, his torso was swathed in merely a few straps of leather. As he came closer, shoving his way through dancing couples with as much finesse as a battering ram, Harry was in a position to observe that he had both nipples pierced.

"Playing hard to get, are we?" he growled in Harry's ear. Harry shuddered in shock, but remembered that he was pretty much stuck to Anthony. The man wasn't talking to Harry at all, for which Harry thanked any deity that happened to be perving in on them.

"Hey, Mike," said Anthony coquettishly. He pulled one hand free, making Harry gasp at the unwarranted friction, and cupped Mike's sandpaper cheek with it.

"Who's your little friend?" Mike didn't dance. He strode, much like a Colossus or a gladiator. Within seconds Harry was trapped in a Anthony-Mike sandwich. The scent of raw vodka, raw sweat and an aftershave that could also be called raw stung his nostrils.

"This? Oh, someone I know from work." Anthony's other hand freed itself, eliciting a whimper from Harry this time. It snuck up under Harry's armpit; all of a sudden, his mouth was full of Anthony's thumb. "Want to taste him?"

Harry tried to signal that he had no desire to be tasted, and would much prefer to go and sit somewhere quiet with perhaps a cup of tea. Mike growled, which presumably meant 'Yeah' in wild animal, and mashed himself against Harry. Harry nearly fainted when what was unquestionably Mike's raging erection prodded Harry in the stomach.

Mike's face was approaching with snake-like speed. At the last minute, Harry spit out Anthony's thumb and jerked his head sideways, so that Mike found Anthony's mouth instead of his own. Neither man seemed to mind this new state of affairs and, in seconds, enthusiastic snogging was taking place right next to Harry's ear. Four hands were groping on and around Harry's waist, trying to find the right shirt to slip under. Two cocks were thrusting against Harry, and two rampantly gay men seemed disinclined to ever let Harry go.

He gave up, and essayed one or two tentative thrusts of his own.

"Now that is hot," came an awed voice from behind him.

Mim and Palatine were watching them, along with half the dance floor. Mim looked like all her Christmases had come at once and provided an abundance of Christmas cakes with naked dancing men concealed inside. Palatine's eyebrows were trying to make friends with her hairline and doing pretty well at it, despite her efforts to rebuff their assays.

"I'm trapped," mouthed Harry in desperation. Despite the awkwardness of their relative positions, Anthony had managed to get Mike's zipper partway down and was stroking whatever he could get his fingertips on. Harry's shirt had long since ridden up to his armpits, and from the feeling of what was pressing directly against his bellybutton, Mike went commando.

Palatine nodded and tapped Anthony hard on the shoulder. Anthony slipped his tongue out of Mike's ear and said, "What?"

"Please to be letting Harry go now?" Palatine narrowed her eyes. "Unless you'd like to admit that you're gay to the whole Ministry."

"They're all here? Even Steamer?" Looking horrified, Anthony stepped back and shoved Harry away. Harry pulled down his shirt with some relief, and turned around to find Anthony already welded to Mike's face. Their mutual moans were audible even above the white noise masquerading as dance music, Mike had Anthony's arse in a death grip and, despite his self-professed naiveté in such matters, Harry could tell that the hand Anthony had down Mike's trousers wasn't looking for the spare change he'd inadvertently dropped.

"Harry!" Mim descended upon him like a herd of killer monkeys, pulling him down to her level by the ears and planting two squishy kisses on both his cheeks. "That was fabulous! Will you do it again?"

"Er, no?"

"Damn!" Mim pouted, then her eyes lit on the man who'd earlier been magnetically attracted to her breasts. "I don't s'pose you fancy a shag, Harry?"

"Um, not right now, thank --"

"Fine. Hey, Dan!" Mim went haring off in the direction of her unprofessed father figure, leaving Palatine alone with Harry and her palpable aura of smugness.

"Harry," said Palatine, taking Harry companionably by the arm, "I think you should come and have a drink with Polly and I. She's had three G and Ts and is quite tolerable, I assure you."

"Okay." That sounded nice and normal, Harry thought.

"And then, once we've wiped all the lipstick and spit off your face and the pre-come off your stomach --"

"What? Oh … god."

"-- we can have a little chat about your sexual orientation, because a man of twenty-five who's killed evil wizard despots and stood up to the wrath of the interdepartmental edict on dress code and won should be brave enough to face up to the fact that he's gay, or at least bisexual, hey? "

Harry nodded along. Palatine's grip, which was one step away from cutting off the circulation to his forearm, was quite an inducement to agreement. "Wait, gay? I'm not --"

"Bothered about having men rub up against you in a night club? Indeed. I could see that for a fact. I imagine that you don't have an erection because of it, either."

"I don't --" Harry looked down. "Oh." He'd assumed that only happened when he thought about George, and was rather disappointed at his body's poor taste and slack morals. Which were the only thing slack about him at the moment.

"Here, I'll order you a beer. You go to the bathroom and sort yourself out." Palatine patted him on the back. "Then you can come back and tell me all about the man you wanked off to."

"But he's not --" Harry began, intending to say 'gay,' 'available' or 'interested in me.'

Then he saw Palatine's smirk, which took up the whole world. Or, at the very least, the rainbow-coloured part of it.

"Fine, you win." Harry paused. "While you're at it, get me a cocktail."

::
Harry cast a worried eye over his stack of presents. "Okay, Cat, one last time."

Cat lifted her leg and started licking her bum, by which gesture Harry took it that she'd lost interest in the proceedings sometime around Harry's tenth mince pie. Fortunately, the language barriers between cats and humans sometimes came in handy and Harry continued speaking regardless.

"There's Bill's and Fleur's crockery set that looks like the one Fleur's mum had before the Death Eaters destroyed her house. There's five sets of those dolly things the lady in the toy shop insisted that all little girls adore, for the Weasley-Delacour kids. There's a new set of dragon-proof all-weather gear for Charlie, because he said the randy Norwegian Ridgeback nearly destroyed the last set in a fit of misplaced lust. There's a new magical encyclopaedia for Percy. A five-day spa treatment voucher thingy for Mrs Weasley, which I have no idea of the contents of because Parvati said to trust her and she was holding a really dangerous-looking eyelash curler at the time. A bunch of electric kettles for Mr Weasley. A luxury bubble-bath set for Tonks, because she and Remus seem to take a lot of baths from what she was saying. More books for Remus and that portrait miniature of Sirius I got the artist to do from that picture of my parents' wedding day. A season ticket for the Montrose Magpies for Ginny and Oliver so they can scope out the competition. Antique necklace for Hermione and a hilarious set of boxers and socks and ties for Ron, which will probably get to them sometime in April, because those American delivery geese are just the pits."

Harry took a deep breath and looked around. He'd found a complicated gift-wrapping charm in a book in Flourish and Blott's. The proprietor had very much looked as if he'd like to ask Harry if he was going to read the book or buy it, but couldn't because he thought he was hovering over the Great Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived and possibly the Chosen One. Meanwhile, Harry quietly browsed to his heart's content and eventually found what he was looking for.

Now a pile of presents, wrapped in embossed silver paper and tied with blue satin bows, sat gleaming beneath the small Christmas tree Harry had erected on a chair in the kitchen. He didn't feel like going to great lengths to decorate his flat, not when there was only him and Cat to see it.

As far as Harry could tell, Cat was pretty much agnostic, although she was a huge fan of George's Smashing Eggs eggnog. The last time Harry had been stupid enough to leave an open bottle out, Cat had spent an entire evening bashing into walls and trying to chase her own tail. While the latter was a regular occurrence, she didn't usually perform somersaults and handstands whilst doing it. And speaking of great inventors ...

George had been unusually hard to buy for this year. Always before, Harry had been able to find a selection of things that George would think full of potential, either for a laugh or a new invention. However, during his Christmas shopping, every potential present Harry considered for George seemed to scream, "Pervert! If you give him this he'll know you daydream about him touching your cock!" In those circumstances, everything from the usual joke objects to boring three sets of Italian silk socks was rendered out of the question.

Harry was still visiting George's shop every day. In fact, a world in which he didn't do this filled him with an unnameable sense of dread. However, he had started
flinching whenever George came within three feet of him, blushing at the drop of a hat or George's hand to his pockets, and having fits of gabbling inanity.

Oddly enough, George didn't seem to notice a thing.

Harry supposed that George was completely absorbed in designing his new sex sweets. The prototypes, for which George had held closed testing sessions after Harry had tried them out, were going down a storm. They looked set to make George even richer than he already was.

Harry rubbed his thumb over the small package with George's name on it. What did you give the man who had everything and didn't even need your company? It had been a quandary that had perplexed Harry during long hours of learning origami under Palatine's tutelage, staring at the damp crossing his ceiling like Moses through the Red Sea, and avoiding Anthony's eye.

Sometimes he thought his gift was as good as it was going to get; at other times he wanted to burn it. When things got really bad -- usually meaning the level on Harry's lubricant vial dropped to precariously low levels -- Harry considered Apparating to George's flat, tied up with a ribbon and not much else, and saying, "Merry Christmas, Georgie boy. Now, are you going to unwrap your present?"

"Right, we're ready to rock and roll." Harry touched his wand to the presents, shrinking them so that they would fit into his old school satchel. He added a couple of bottles of pure malt whiskey, which was all Hagrid ever required in the way of presents, and some Jacob's Creek for Christmas dinner.

A sad little meow came from behind him. Cat was lying on her back, tucking her back paws behind her ears in her 'Pleading Supplicant at the Altar of Human Benevolence' attitude.

"Oh, all right," said Harry. He scooped her up and put her on his shoulder. She curled her tail around his neck, rumbling out a purr. "You can come. But don't blame me if you fall off while we Apparate."

She didn't fall off as they Apparated; she did, however, fall off when they arrived. With quick-thinking acrobatics, she flipped over and landed on three feet. The fourth was cocked, in much the same way as a woman would pop up her ankle during a dance number with Fred Astaire. Harry dropped the bag of presents and bent down to scratch her head.

"Harry!" Mrs Weasley appeared at the doorway, flour in her hair and a wooden spoon clutched in one plump hand. "Oh, you've arrived at last. Looking skinnier than ever, I see. Am I the only one that feeds you?" She pinched his cheeks and enfolded him into a motherly hug.

"Well, you and One Flick Away Pizzas," mumbled Harry into her neck.

"Who's this, then?" Mrs Weasley's lips twitched. "When I said you could bring a date, Harry, I was rather hoping for a nice young witch."

"This is Cat," explained Harry. "She didn't want to be left behind. I hope you don't mind?"

"Of course not. The girls will simply adore her. Fleur won't let pets in her house." Mrs Weasley sniffed. "I suppose, if I had genuine Louis XIV antique furniture, I wouldn't want cat hair on it either." Her tone suggested otherwise.

"Good. Cat's well up for a bit of extra attention." Harry proffered his bag. "Presents."

"Harry, you shouldn't have," scolded Mrs Weasley. "Well, I know the girls love them, but you needn't bother with rest of us."

"I have no one else to buy for," said Harry simply.

Mrs Weasley's eyes softened. "Well, in that case … I hope you brought a good big appetite, too?"

"Of course."

"That's what I like to hear!" She pushed the wooden spoon into his hand. "Here, start with that. The others are all in the sitting room. Must check the turkey!"

Harry's quick scan of the room revealed that George hadn't arrived yet. Harry relaxed and began to distribute his presents. Mrs Weasley's cries of 'You shouldn't have!' were repeated over and over, although the gifts got a good reception for all that.

Bill's daughters, the hardest crowd to please, proclaimed that the dolls were 'well cool,' causing their mother to turn her eyes up in horror at their common parlance -- in between sobbing over how close Harry's crockery resembled her mother's. Tonks got a fit of the giggles when Harry explained the reason behind buying her a bubble-bath set. Harry thought Remus disliked his present, especially when he realised that Remus looked on the verge of crying. However, Remus made an excuse to draw him aside and say, in a choked voice, that few presents had been more welcome to him. Even Percy said a stiff little thank you for his encyclopaedia, so all around Harry was pleased with the results of his gross materialism.

Cat, however, was an instant hit. She submitted to be petted, tugged and stroked, as well as being used as a vehicle for the transport of dolls from one end of the room to another.

After a while, Harry excused himself to give Mrs Weasley her present. Licking on the spoon thoughtfully, he decided he quite liked the taste of raw dough. He considered suggesting it to George as a marketable sweet.

When the doorbell rang, Mrs Weasley yelled for someone to get it, as she was up to her elbows in a turkey. The noise level from the sitting room obscured anything from outside, so Harry stuck the spoon in his mouth to free his hands and unlatched the door.

"Herreh Histmas," he said, as soon it was open.

"Merry Christmas to you, too, Harry." George smiled, dazzling Harry for a moment. "May I say, you sound unusually eloquent this morning."

Harry scowled at him and pulled the spoon out of his mouth. "You're late."

"A wizard is never late," George informed him loftily. "There'll always just some annoying bugger who gets there before him and nicks all the good food." He plucked the spoon from Harry's limp grasp and dabbed his tongue into the hollow. "Mmm, raw dough."

"I was going to say you should market it," said Harry weakly.

"Why? Don't tell me you find it as utterly delectable as I do?"

"If you mean it tastes nice, then yeah."

"Harry, you and I are a dying breed of utter proles," George informed him comfortably. He slung one arm around Harry's shoulders. "Well, Potter, what have you got me for Chrimbo? I've been on tenterhooks wanting to know."

"Who's to say I bought you anything, you greedy git?"

"Why, Harry, I am hurt. Hurt to my very core. I thought you loved me?"

Harry knew George was joking. He often said things like this, to everyone, and Harry hardly expected that George loved, desired or wanted to shag every person he professed such sentiments towards. All the same, Harry felt a flush building somewhere in the region of his belly, jetting out to capture his entire body in its thrall. He tried his best to say something light and insulting in return, but his larynx refused to co-operate.

He was saved by the timely entrance of one of Bill's daughters, Amelie. "Uncle George!" she squealed, throwing herself at his legs. "Have you brought me lots of wonderful presents?"

"Indeed I have, you delightfully avaricious urchin, you." George ruffled her hair. Harry felt an odd dart in his chest.

He was jealous. Of a six-year-old.

"Run along, now, Amelie, Harry and I have to finish our important conversation." George's arm was still against Harry's neck. Harry had to make himself forget the warm weight and the coarse fibres against his neck in order to allow his brain to be used for anything else at all. George eyeballed him. "You see, Harry has been a very naughty boy."

It was very wrong to feel a thrill at those words, however innocently meant.

Then again, this was George. Even if it wasn't sexual, nothing he said could ever be innocent. Oh, it might have ambitions towards innocence, but the signposts towards temptation were just too big and shiny for it to ignore.

"He says that he hasn't got a present for me," George continued inexorably. "Which is utterly depraved and wicked and unforgivable and bold of him, as I'm sure you'll agree, Amelie, certainly if you want your big fancy present."

"Oh, that's very mean, Harry," said Amelie, who was a quick learner. She poked out her tongue out Harry.

"I think he deserves punishment, don't you?" George's arm tightened around Harry's neck. "A week in the stocks. Being pelted with rotten vegetable produce. Listening to Percy for a whole hour. That sort of thing."

"Mummy always spanks us when we're bad." Amelie's face was bright with her eagerness to contribute.

Harry was suddenly and monumentally glad that he'd gone for the more traditional dress robes that morning, instead of a jumper and trousers that would clearly show the world the moment he developed the erection that ate Christmas.

"A worthy proposal," George conceded. "Off with you, then, scamp."

"See you, Harry!" Amelie waved at Harry, despite the fact that she was only going into the next room. Harry didn't know whether he wanted to hit her or kiss her.

"You know," said Harry, rejoicing in the fact that his mouth and his larynx were on speaking terms again, "I was only joking. I got you a present."

"Oh, good!" George's face lit up with glee. His expressions had been growing more mobile in the last few months. It made Harry warm to think that he could make George pull faces once more. "Let's have it, then. Enough dilly-dallying."

Harry Banished the spoon and Mrs Weasley's present to the hall table and, nervously, drew the small package from his pocket. "I'm not sure if you'll like it --" he began.

"Hand it over, Potter!" George's tone was severe. Reluctantly, Harry held out the present. George tore at the paper with reckless abandon. He raised an eyebrow at what was inside.

"Gee, Harry. Some old parchment. Honestly, you're too kind."

Harry shook his head. "Don't you remember it?" He touched his wand to the parchment. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."

Slowly, like ink falling into water, the map of Hogwarts unrolled across the parchment.

At George's continuing and distressing silence, Harry babbled. "I didn't know what to get you, you see, and everything seemed wrong. Then I remembered this and it was such a help to me in school. You know it was the reason why we ever discovered that Peter Pettigrew was still alive and Sirius was innocent? And I can't use it anymore, and I suppose you can't either, but I thought it should go to the only person alive who still has the talent that could make something like it in the first place. Remus said that he did mostly mechanical spells, like binding the ink to the parchment and making it indestructible and stuff. He said he wanted you to have it, too, and that your kids were the ones who'd probably uncover most potential in it once they got to Hogwarts --"

"Harry."

"Yes?"

"Shh." George opened out the parchment, with a look of almost divine wonder on his face. Harry bit his lip, a tightening in his chest suggesting that, against all odds, he'd got it spot on.

George ran his fingers across the dirty parchment, lingering over the figures in the Great Hall. His touch was light, almost tender, and his fingers were trembling. The longing to grab them and press them to his cheek was so strong in Harry that he almost wanted to run away. It was not so much courage that kept him rooted to the spot as the desire to see more of that look on George's face, even if Harry himself couldn't inspire it.

Love.

"Thank you." With reverence, George folded up the parchment and whispered, "Mischief managed." He slid it into his pocket. "You have no idea what this means to me."

"Oh, you might be surprised," said Harry, in a strangled voice.

"Speaking of presents, I have yours --" George suddenly had a huge grin plastered to his face, but he was interrupted by a squeaky voice from somewhere above their heads.

"Oi, you two! Are you gonna kiss sometime this century, or are both of you really keen for a Testiculus Iciclus Curse?"

"What the --" Both Harry and George craned their necks.

There was a large bunch of mistletoe tied to the candelabra. The berries glowed pearl-like among a lush sprig of leaves. And, in the midst of this sonnet to the beauty of nature, a small squashed face was peering out. It was of the same shape and attractiveness level of a pulverized turnip. As they watched, it bared a set of bright orange fangs.

"What is that?" asked Harry.

"What is that, he asks?" repeated the creature. "I'm a bloody Nargle, of course!"

"Oh my good God," George spluttered.

"Nah, I got nuffin to do wiv the man upstairs. Now, youse two gotta kiss, or you'll be walkin' around all day with balls like ice cubes. Which, I can tell you, is not the most pleasurable of hexperiences." The Nargle cleared its throat. "Shall I do a countdown?"

"Piss off," said Harry irritably. "I can blast you five ways from Sunday with one word."

The Nargle cackled. "That is where you are most interestingly mistaken, mister. See, it's a most ancient magic what's in this mistletoe. Sure, you can attack me afterwards all you like -- if you can catch me --" it broke off to moon them "-- but your wand just won't work until you've satisfied the bargain."

"Is he lying?" said Harry out of the corner of his mouth.

"I don't know, but I'm not sure if I want to risk it, do you?"

"I guess not." His heart thumping, Harry shifted so that he was facing George. George's arm was, handily, still about his neck. "A peck will do, won't it?"

"Nah, mate! You're the first I got today. I want some tongue, and make it snappy!"

George poked his tongue out at the Nargle. "There you go. Satisfied?"

"Yeah! Now stick it in that plonker's mouth!"

George made an understanding face at Harry. "The price we pay for Christmas cheer and ice-free testicles, eh?"

"Yeah," replied Harry, trying hard not to let his breathlessness show. "Okay, um, best to get it over with --"

"Mmm." George tilted his head to the left at the same time as Harry did, and they banged noses. "Ouch!"

"You geezers are crap! D'you want me to come down there and show you how it's done?"

"No thanks!" shouted George. "Look, Harry, give me your hand … right. Put your other one on my waist too. Now, maybe you should just close your eyes and I'll kiss you. Make it less painful for both of us."

Harry could have said it was already painful; his heart was pounding so hard that he thought it would burst out of his chest, and his cheeks were blazing. Instead, he nodded and closed his eyes, hoping George wouldn't notice anything amiss.

Apart from the fact that they were standing in the vestibule of the Burrow, with their arms around each other, about to make out because a crazy goblin in the mistletoe had told them to.

Harry felt George's breath warm on his face, and jerked unconsciously when George's lips brushed his own. Harry could no more define the sensation he felt at that moment than he could calculate the radius of a cone, but it made him shudder uncontrollably. As soon as he clamped the muscles in one place, another lot would set about twitching. George probably thought he had epilepsy. Or did wizards get epilepsy? Harry didn't know that much about magical diseases --

"Harry, just relax," murmured George, his lips wet against Harry's cheek. "It's not going to hurt."

"Sorry," breathed Harry. He gripped George's shirt to stop his hands shaking.

"Get a move on!"

"Cheeky git," whispered George. Harry stifled a laugh. "That's better. Open your mouth a bit."

Harry obliged, parting his lips. He drew in a sharp breath when George ran his tongue over the lower one, triggering a million synaptic reactions in nerves that Harry hadn't even known he possessed.

Then George angled his head sideways and wrapped his fingers in Harry's hair, drawing him closer. Harry surrendered any pretence that he was in control of his body and melted against George. He opened his mouth wider and, with something like a sigh and something like a moan, George dipped his tongue inside. Harry's own tongue curled to meet it, laying a trail of warm saliva against George's palate. For an instant, Harry forgot to breathe.

Then it was over. George drew back, leaving Harry panting and more turned on than he could ever remember being, sans magical lubrication stimulus.

"Hey, hey! What you think you're doin'? That was barely five seconds! Or do you really want freezing nadgers?"

Harry could have kissed the imp, only he was too busy arching up into George for another kiss from him. Harry fancied he saw George smile before Harry's eyes fluttered closed, and George nudged Harry's mouth open again and began to suck his tongue in earnest. The hand in his hair tightened its grip, stimulating the tender skin of Harry's scalp without quite reaching the level of pain. Harry wouldn't have noticed even if George had started to pull out his hair strand by strand. It felt far too wonderful to be held like this, as if he was wanted, with George's mouth soft on his and his hot tongue stroking his own.

Harry's hands tip-toed from George's waist to the small of his back, which felt as warm as a fire. He dared himself to squeeze George's arse, to make this real and not something they were doing to escape walking around all day with sub-zero genitals. He had just worked up the courage when George made a desperate "Hnh" noise and thrust his tongue deep into Harry's mouth --

"MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL WHO LIVE HERE!"

Harry and George leaped apart, Harry frantically shaking out his robes. Feeling a cold breeze on his wet mouth, Harry wiped his mouth self-consciously with his sleeve.

"Hey, Ron," he said. Ron was staring at him as if he'd painted himself purple, put on a hula skirt and was carrying a sign saying: 'Will Hum For Money.' "Merry Christmas to you, too."

"This is a surprise, I must say. I thought you were staying in Salem for Christmas?" George raised his eyebrows. Harry chanced a look at him. His chin was all red and blotchy.

I've given him stubble rash. Oh, God.

Do
I have stubble rash too?

"Ron?" said Harry, uncertainly. "Please say something."

Hermione bustled in, beaming. She looked rather more rotund than Harry remembered. It must have been all that amazing American food they were always rhapsodising about.

"Merry Christmas Harry, Merry Christmas George!" She beamed cheerfully at them. "Are you surprised?"

"Oh, very!" Harry beamed back.

"There's a huge motorcycle in the front garden," added Hermione conversationally. "Is it one of yours?"

George cleared his throat. "Um. That would be Harry's."

"Huh?"

Mrs Weasley appeared from the kitchen. "Are you boys going to close the doo -- oh, hello, George love." She gave a shriek of surprise. "Ron! Hermione! You're back! And Hermione -- you're --"

"Five months." Hermione nodded. "We thought we should come back to tell you in person."

"Five months what?" mouthed Harry to George. George shrugged, looking baffled.

Ron gave a full-body shake. Harry froze.

"Well, I suppose congratulations are in order for you two as well!" His tone sounded jovial. "Not that I haven't had my suspicions about you, Harry. But you are a right dark horse, George!"

"What's this?" Mrs Weasley looked from a George, who avoided her gaze, to a darkly blushing Harry. "Have you gone into partnership?"

"Not … as such," mumbled Harry.

"What are you on about, Ron?" Hermione smoothed her robes down over her stomach, which was definitely rounder than Harry remembered it being.

The door to the sitting room opened and several generations of Weasleys tumbled out, loudly declaiming that they were all, to a wizard, 'starving,' and wanted to know 'if dinner is going to be served before I die of hunger.'

"Funny, though." Ron was lost in his own little world. "I always thought Percy would be the one who'd turn out that way, not George."

"What way, Ron?" Hermione sounded exasperated.

"Oh." Ron caught a shuttle back to earth and smiled at his girlfriend. Who actually looked quite like someone who was pregnant, if Harry thought about it. "You know -- gay."

And then all hell broke loose.

::
::

"Well. That went well, all things considered," said George, some hours later. It was nearly midnight, and he and Harry were slumped on the sofa. Cat was curled up asleep in George's lap. He was petting her with absent-minded affection.

"What, you mean your mother fainting and coming a cropper on the kitchen floor?"

"Yeah, that."

"Or Percy turning Ron's hair blue for calling him gay, then getting drunk on your eggnog five hours later and admitting to an unrequited crush on Barty Crouch?"

"That too, only it was funny."

"Or your mother spending half the day muttering about the perils of children born out of wedlock and the other half crying over Hermione's stomach and thanking her for providing her with a fully English grandchild?"

"Yup."

"Or your dad managing to blow the electricity of Ottery St Catchpole using just one battery and the twirly bit from the middle of a kettle?"

"An unexpected bonus. Particularly when all those drunken Muggles started dancing about the fields with torches."

"Or us going to the Nargle and beating him with the wooden spoon?"

"Had to be done."

"Or you being completely insane enough to buy me a flying motorcycle?"

"No, I just bought the bike. The charms I did myself. I expect you to get up to severe hijinks with it, by the way."

Harry smiled. For a while, they sat and watched the fire crackle. Finally, Harry worked up enough courage to ask the last question.

"What about --" Harry took a deep breath "-- your entire family finding out about us kissing in the hall?"

There was a long silence. At last, Harry looked at George. His heart was going at sixty miles an hour, which was surely over the speed limit.

George's face was as stony as ever it used to be, back when he never smiled. Harry's heart sunk, and slowed to a dawdling walk.

"Yes, well." George cleared his throat. "We managed to clear up that little misunderstanding pretty well, don't you think?"

"Yeah," Harry agreed glumly. That was the thing that bothered him.

It was quite obvious that George didn't fancy him. Oh, he wasn't disgusted by kissing Harry. George and Fred had always taken things like that in their stride, being by nature blatant exhibitionists. But it didn't mean anything to him, and he was clearly desperate for Harry not to read anything more into it than a Yuletide lark.

Harry sat beside George for a while longer, reluctant to leave, reliving the details of their kiss over and over in his mind. He pretended he was staying only because George was holding his cat captive, but he was fooling no one except -- no, he was fooling no one at all. Not even the youngest grandchild, who was playing with her doll by the fire and struggling to keep her eyes open.

After a while, Harry muttered an excuse to George and went into the bathroom. He locked the door and thumped his head against it a few times, which relieved his feelings somewhat. And then he dealt with his troublesome erection, which relieved his feelings even more.

But when he was done he still fancied George like mad.

::
::

All in all, it had been a good day. Mim hadn't once tried to come on to him, Anthony had finally stopped dropping veiled hints about threesomes and double dates, and Magnus had even woken up enough to go home. Harry found it distressing when Magnus ended up sleeping in the office. He'd appear the next day crumpled, hungry and forlorn, which was hardly good for office morale. Not to mention that the Ministry inspection hadn't thought much of it, or of Harry's feeble excuse that Magnus had been pulling an all-nighter on a vital report that Harry had temporarily forgot the name of.

Harry twisted the final sweet wrapper from his In Tray into a giraffe, an animal he'd finally got the hang of doing, and pulled his cloak from the back of his chair. The sun was painting the sky orange through his window. It was time to visit George, and then go home for a nice long bath and the Will and Grace omnibus. Despite himself, Cat's baneful influence had made Harry hopelessly addicted to the programme, although nothing could shift his desire to kill the actress playing Grace with sticks.

For a wonder, the shop was actually in the process of being closed when Harry came in. Megan turned an attractive shade of scarlet on spotting Harry. She shoved a handful of Galleons into the till and hurried over to him.

"George in the workshop?" asked Harry.

"No, he's in the flat. I've been hearing bangs all day."

"Weren't you worried?"

"Oh, no. George always says that explosions are a vital part of the inspirational process."

"That I remember."

"Although some of the customers were worried."

"Did you tell them the same thing?"

"No, 'cause he's working on a top-secret project. I just said there was a herd of wild elephants upstairs."

"I'm sure that quelled their fears admirably," said Harry dryly. Megan beamed.

"I've got some exciting news, Hazza," she said, fairly bouncing with exhilaration. "Look!" She thrust a finger in Harry's face. It was distinguishable from a blatwurst sausage in colour and texture only by the presence of a knuckle.

"Um, am I supposed to be see --"

"I got engaged! To Morbiditus!"

"And Mor -- Mor -- he is?"

"Oh, you are such a joker, Hazza!" giggled Megan. "My boyfriend! We've been going out for months!"

"Well, congratulations." Undiluted relief seeped into Harry's voice, giving it a semblance of sincerity. "I, er, hope you'll be very happy together. Something together, anyway."

Megan beamed so widely that Harry could count her fillings. "I'm sure we will! Morbiditus said he was perfectly happy to call our first child Harry or Harrietta!"

A few minutes later, Harry closed the door to George's flat behind him and leaned against it. His skin felt as clammy as an oyster with an identity crisis. However, he felt he'd just had a damn lucky escape and he wanted to share it with George.

He wanted to share most things with George. With the possible exception of his tendency towards getting ingrown toenails, as it was hardly attractive or need-to-know information.

"George!" yelled Harry. "Where are you?"

A muffled shout came from the direction of George's bedroom. Harry followed it to its source, which was arse-up in an overturned wardrobe.

"George, there you are." Harry wasn't fazed by the fact that a clothing receptacle was currently engaged in eating his friend. This was the sort of thing that George got up to all the time. "Did you know Megan got engaged?"

"She might have mentioned something about it." George pulled his head from the wardrobe. His hair was tousled and adorned with a fetching sock headpiece. Pretending not to feel the thrill of pleasure at an excuse to touch George, Harry leaned forward and tugged the sock out.

"Gosh, I've been looking for that for ages." George shook his head. "I thought I would have a gander at the Marauder's Map today, see what I could do with it."

"Twist it for purposes dire and monstrous and only dreamed of by madmen in the deep, dark, sweaty armpit of the night, you mean."

"Well, it's all in the interpretation, isn't it? So I opened the door to this wardrobe with it in my hand and found something amazing!"

"More socks?"

"No, that was later. Seem to have just now opened a wormhole to a dimension filled solely with lost socks, you understand."

"A wormhole, eh?" Harry smiled mordantly. "Palatine would love you."

"Well, we'll never know, will we? After all, you've never introduced me to any of these people you always talk about."

Harry felt his stomach drop away. Before he could even assemble his thoughts into some kind of firing range, George was ploughing on. "Well, first, all my clothes spontaneously turned into fur coats. Which struck me as odd, because I know I never bought a fur coat in my life. Fred had bright green one once, but I think someone burned it for the good of humankind."

"You did, you mean.'

"Obviously. So I went inside and do you know what, there was a huge snowy waste beyond with a bloody lamppost stuck in it."

"Really? Did you explore it?"

"Nah. Looked dead boring. Besides, I don't much like the cold. Give me a tropical island hiding in the back of my wardrobe any day." George got to his feet. "Funny old thing, that map. I reckon it's far more than the sum of its parts."

"Ink and parchment?"

George gave Harry a look that could only be described, in the name of honesty, as Snape-like. "Are you purposely trying to wind me up, or do you really have an innocent thirst for irrelevant knowledge?"

"Well, both. Except I think the 'winding up' thing comes naturally." Harry made a sardonic face. It was surely a better answer than saying that five minutes in George's company was more effective in turning Harry into an illogical idiot than a cauldron full of Babbling Beverage and a sharp blow to the head with a blunt object.

"Right, I'm going back in. Wouldn't mind holding my leg, would you?"

"Is it safe?"

"I highly doubt it."

Harry was just in time to wrap his hand around George's bony ankle before George dived back into the wardrobe. Given that it was only about a foot off the ground, it did back up his theories somewhat that soon all that was visible of him was one leg below the knee.

Harry sat on the floor with George's foot in his lap. It wriggled every so often, as George gave stifled shouts at whatever he was seeing. Harry only hoped that George thought that the thing pressing against his instep was Harry's hipbone.

He studied the foot in detail as George explored the wardrobe. It was pale, except for the toes, which were a rosy pink. The dorsum was adorned with the sweetest freckles Harry had ever seen. He had never considered himself someone with a foot fetish, but when it came down to it what Harry had was a George fetish. Unable to resist -- or rather, knowing full well that he should resist and relishing the now rare chance to think 'The hell with it!' -- Harry fit his fingers into the curve of George's sole, and tickled.

Several things happened in quick succession. The most, as it were, visceral, of these, was that George turned out to be very ticklish.

He kicked Harry in the groin, but unfortunately not hard enough to do anything but encourage Harry's burgeoning erection to grow onwards and upwards. Harry lost his balance and fell backwards, dragging George with him and out of the cupboard.

As it happened, George had found a back entrance to the mythical Kingdom of Sweets. He'd got his hands on a very large chocolate blancmange when Harry decided to indulge in the fetish that dared not speak its name. The blancmange came with him, but didn't stay for long. It took one look at Harry, and jumped. All over his head.

"Holy shit," said Harry. His vision was swimming through a sea of congealed cocoa beans. He dragged his fingers over his eyes, blinking chocolate off his lashes, and saw George hovering over him. He looked both concerned and miraculously chocolate-free.

"I'm sorry! I didn't expect --"

"No, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have tickled you."

George raised an eyebrow. "In your position, I would have done a lot more." He yanked Harry up. Harry was wondering what George meant -- would he have aimed for the far more sensitive tummy region, or gone for gold in the armpits?

"That was a very large blancmange." Harry held out a hand; his sleeve plopped.

"You need a bath," stated George. "Give me those robes, I'll do the Mega-Intensive Scouring Charm on 'em to get the chocolate off."

"Will that take long?" asked Harry in alarm.

"A few hours." George took in Harry's expression. "What? You usually stay that long anyway."

"Not without any robes on!" hissed Harry.

"Oh, that. I've got more bloody clothes than I know what to do with. Take your pick. I keep the overflow in Fred's old room. You know where the bathroom is."

"Okay. Thanks." Harry headed for the door.

"Harry?" George sounded amused. "I can't do that Charm on the clothes with you still wearing them. It'd -- take your skin off, or something."

"Oh. Right." A troupe of all-singing, all-dancing mice in spangled waistcoats started a Riverdance routine in the pit of Harry's stomach. "Um, turn around."

George snorted. "I thought you weren't shy?"

"I'm not. Now turn around!"

"Fine." George crouched down and started to pick up the pieces of the platter on which the blancmange had, until recently, rested.

Harry tore at the fastenings of his robe. He pulled them over his head, drenching his hair with yet more chocolate, and cast frantic eyes around the room for an alternative guardian of modesty. There was a fluffy dressing gown behind the door. Harry snatched it off the hook and held it in front of him.

"I'll just leave these robes on the floor!" he said quickly and beat a path to the bathroom.

Once there, he leaned against the sink and remembered to breathe. His heart was pounding and every blood vessel in his body seemed on the point of messy implosion. The marble of the sink was cold against his thin boxers, reminding him rather sharply of the range of fantasies in which George took Harry in every conceivable way in a variety of lavatorial fittings.

Of course, Harry was a bit fuzzy on certain details. For one thing, Harry could only fit three fingers there and he'd seen George naked once or twice -- even though he certainly hadn't been looking back then -- and George was a good deal longer and thicker than that. Even recalling those brief glimpses made Harry whimper.

Harry kicked off his shoes and socks, releasing a small flood of odorous hot chocolate. He checked the dressing gown. It sported only a few small drops of chocolate, which Harry was able to remove with a simple Vanishing Charm.

There was a curiously organic feel to the shower. This only increased when Harry opened the door to find it full of stack upon stack of pot plants, all of which swivelled large, fleshy pink blooms in his direction.

"Perhaps not," Harry muttered to himself. He shoved the door shut, wondering if there was anything he could put in front of it to keep it closed. A firebomb would have been favourite.

So the shower was out. The sink, despite the amazing properties it contained in Harry's dreams (especially as regards the potential of faucets), was far too small to accommodate him. That left the hip-bath.

George said it was an antique. Harry thought its name most unfortunately accurate. It sat on four clawed feet and had only enough room for the sort of things that came with clawed feet, too -- chickens, eagles, baby crocodiles.

With a sigh, Harry flicked his wand at it, filling it with boiling water. He banged open the cupboard, looking for heavy-duty shampoo. He eventually found a bottle, along with enough dust to start an army of bunnies and a ring inscribed with glowing red runes. It must have been Fred's. Harry remembered that he'd got all his jewellery from some shop called Mordor. George, on the other hand, had never been one much inclined towards ornamentation. Much like Harry himself.

Harry climbed into the little bath, hissing as the water stung his skin. By sliding down until his legs were hanging over the end, he managed to wet his hair. Lathering it with shampoo was something of a mammoth, sabre-toothed leopard and triceratopian task. After completing it, Harry had to sit up for a while and let his aching arms rest.

"Harry?" George wandered into the bathroom, looking down at something in his hands. "There's some stuff in your pockets. Thought I should give them to you before I clean the gold right off the Galleons or something."

Harry nodded, his face flaming. He ducked down again to douse his soapy hair and said, somewhat indistinctly, "Thanks."

"No worries." George raised his Savlon-blue eyes and smiled. It was like seeing it for the first time in years all over again. Harry had a quiet moment of complete brain death.

For a second, George didn't react at all to the sight of Harry, his too-long legs splayed over the sides of the bath, his face a volcano in human form and his cock already stirring and swelling in an effort to be colour co-ordinated.

Not even to crack a rude joke, which was rather worrying.

In fact, his mouth dropped open, his Adam's apple started jumping like a suicidal yoyo and he appeared to have contracted a sudden and all-consuming fever.

"George, you okay?" asked Harry cautiously.

"Nyg," replied George. He turned tail and fled from the room, clutching his stomach.

That was still more worrying. Harry wrung the rest of the shampoo from his hair and leapt from the bath. He swept the dressing gown around his shoulders as he ran. If George needed to throw up, he should do it in his toilet as nature intended. Having Harry in his bath should not be a deterrent. Especially as George himself had said that he couldn't get sick if he stood outside in a thunderstorm near a malarial swamp with leeches stuck to his nipples -- making his current predicament all the more mysterious.

"George, seriously, do you need a Heal --" began Harry, striding into George's bedroom. He stopped dead at what he saw.

Admittedly, the breathtaking array of sweets and desserts that littered the floor like saccharine vomit could have been a distraction. Even the sight of Harry's robes, pristine and lying over a dresser, would have in other circumstances held some little of Harry's attention.

However, a certain fact rendered all the others as irrelevant as backing singers in the song of Creation. And that fact was George. George, lying on his bed with his jeans shoved around his ankles. George, with one wrist gripped between his teeth, running wet with saliva and not doing a particularly brilliant job of stifling his moans. George, one hand squeezing the life out of the most beautifully ugly thing Harry had ever seen. George, with a erection the size of France. George, his hips lifting with every stoke, legs trembling from the effort. George. George. George.

"George?" said Harry, and didn't realise he had until George's eyes snapped opened above his gorgeously flushed cheeks. There was no mistaking the horror in his eyes for anything else, unless it happened to be more horror -- or shame.

"Harry." George's voice was thick and wretched. "I'm sorry --"

"But you're -- you are --" Harry gestured at George's cock. It was most definitely 'up,' but Harry was so enthralled by the view that forming words of congratulations and delight on George's behalf were a technical and logistical impossibility.

George was scrambling off the bed now, bunching his rumpled jeans over his leaking cock. He stumbled to the dresser and snatched up Harry's robes.

"Here." He held them out at arm's length, his eyes skittering everywhere but where Harry longed for them to be, on Harry's face. Or at the very least in his general vicinity.

"What's wrong?" said Harry, taking his robes. The tip of George's cock, shiny with secretions, was peeking out between his wrongly buttoned jeans. This sort of thing was not disposed to make Harry particularly attuned to the nuances of fine emotion, but even in his usual state of mind he'd still be baffled by George's reaction. Why wasn't he jumping for joy that his cock had come out of hibernation?

"What's wrong?" George's nostrils flared. "What's wrong? I'm only wanking to the thought of you! I've only got the first hard-on in six years because of you!"

"Oh." Harry felt an approving twitch from his own cock, and a deep burning ache of pleasure deep in his chest. "So?"

"So?" George approached and planted his hand on Harry's chest, pushing him back. "So it doesn't bother you that I've wanted you for months now? Longer? That if I'd had a fully functioning cock all along, nothing -- nothing -- not even you -- could have stopped me from bending you over and burying my cock that sweet tight arse of yours until you came all over my fingers like some squashed fucking fruit?"

"Hnh?" Harry's eyes rolled back in his head as the effects of the stupendously graphic images George had described massed in his groin, liquefying his internal organs and wiping his mind blissfully free of anything but George's cock as they went.

Three weeks later, Harry still couldn't figure out what it was about his face that suggested that George's proposition appalled him, instead of what he really felt about it. That couldn't be too clearly defined, but it involved Harry's tongue, George's mouth, cocks, arses, and something about Harry being George's willing slave for life.

Whatever it was, the strength of Harry's feeling, which could have been harnessed as a fossil fuel, must have come across. George wrenched open the door and practically threw Harry across the threshold.

"I think you'd better stop coming round so often," said George, through very obviously gritted teeth. "I can't be held responsible -- I mean -- I don't want you here. Any more."

And he slammed the door in Harry's face.

The horrible little sound of the lock snicking released Harry's voice from its prison of moans.

"But I want you," he whispered. The door didn't reply, just did a very good impression of being firmly closed.

Eventually, he Apparated home to deal with his cock. It responded to despondency by being persistently voracious. Harry ran out of lubrication long before it was satisfied.

He curled up on the bed with George's robe clutched to his nose, and feel asleep with unshed tears in his eyes.

::
::

"You could --"

"No."

"But what about --"

"No."

"How about trying --"

"No."

"If you clap your hands with a bottle cap a little beetle will say 'Mwee!'"

"No."

"God, Harry." Palatine studied her fingernails. "You really have got it bad. I mean, reduced to one single solitary syllable! That's love for you."

Harry narrowed his eyes at her. "No, it's not."

"Of course." Palatine patted his hand, her voice a soothing silk except for the big rips of gall.

"You're being a stupid-head, Harry," said Mim, sounding disgusted. "It's all just one big misunderstanding, can't you see that?"

"I agree. And if even Mim can see it, it must be pretty bloody obvious and written in huge great letters in a picture-book."

"Thanks, Palatine."

"Any time."

"I just don't get it," proclaimed Anthony. He put his chin in his hands, flipping back his lacy cuffs. "You didn't even fuck the boy?"

Harry growled. Anthony beat a hasty retreat. "But, gosh, Harry, you could always just get him drunk. It works for me."

"That, and a huge helping of wishful thinking on the part of your partner," said Palatine.

"Do you always have to be such a bitch, Palatine?"

"No, but what's the alternative?"

"A vow of silence?"

"Top hole!" agreed Magnus. There was a pause.

"What is, Magnus?" asked Palatine.

"The one that isn't on the bottom!" said Magnus brightly.

"Oh, god." Harry dropped his head into his arms, ignoring the rustle of the morning memos winging their way to the Hose Room from the main HQ.

"Well." Palatine's voice sounded strange. It sounded as if she'd finally stopped laughing at everything in the world, for once. "I hate to distract you from wallowing in your self-induced misery, but you'd better take a look at this."

"What is it?" grumbled Harry. "Another ban on eating at departmental desks? A stern reprimand for those using the wrong-coloured memo paper?"

"Nothing quite so ghastly," murmured Palatine. "They're just sacking Polly, Magnus and Anthony, reshuffling Mim and I to the Department of Accounting, Finance and Jolly Boring Paperwork, and closing the Department of Magical Disasters."

"What?" Harry snatched the parchment out of Palatine's unresisting hands and scanned it. Anthony looked as if he was going to be sick.

Mim burst out, "But I don't want to work in Accounts! I didn't even take Arithmancy for NEWTs."

"You took NEWTs? I thought you just shagged the examiners." Palatine made a surprised face, but her voice was hollow.

"I did." Mim was biting her nails, for once oblivious to the insult.

"That is just it." Harry was fuming. His past three weeks had been like walking through No Man's Land wearing only a paper helmet and singing, 'Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?'; in other words, dangerous, uncomfortable and jam-packed with unexpected and brutal pain.

Nearly every day had seen him on George's doorstep, willing himself to go in, but unable to backspace George's parting words from the word processor of his mind. Lingering for too long on any thoughts pertaining to George was to subject himself to pernicious self-torture. Nothing was clear any more, except for the fact that George 'didn't want him.' And, now, the Ministry upped and decided to screw him and his employees over.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Harry had reached the end of his tether, his fuse and his weak hold on sanity, all in the same five minutes.

"Stay here!" he thundered at Mim, Palatine and Anthony. A part of him wondered where they'd go, at two o'clock in the afternoon when they'd already taken a three-and-a-half hour lunch break. All the same, it felt good to say anything, so long as it was sufficiently loud and portentous. "Oh, and don't breathe a word of this to Polly. Not even you, Palatine."

"Cross my heart, Harry, I wouldn't dream of it." Palatine looked rather waxy. Harry felt his heart turn over with fierce protection for his collection of misfits, losers and oddballs, who had spent nearly all their time, since Mim had winkled out the story of Harry's romantic disaster, scheming ways to win George for Harry's own.

It took Harry an hour to negotiate the red-carpeted hallways to the Minister for Magic's office, which did nothing to improve his temper. Not least when he compared the lush surroundings and jungle of exotic plants to the old fire station, with its death-trap floorboards and single money-plant, which really was at death's door this week if the book on its survival chances was to be believed.

Harry pounded on the door. "Let me in!" he howled. He could feel the Great Harry Potter, the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived and the Greatest Hero of Our Times forming rank behind his eyes. Even Witch Weekly's Most Eligible Bachelor had been drafted in for extra support.

"Coming, coming, my good man!" Rufus Scrimgeour opened the door, blinking red-rimmed eyes at Harry. Time had not been kind on him; in fact, it had formed a personal grudge against the man and had taken it out on his pot-belly, swollen ankles, drooping jowls and receding hairline. "Harry Potter! What are you doing here?"

Harry pushed past him into an office the size of a small African republic. He was shaking with poorly suppressed rage, which made a change from poorly suppressed longing for George Weasley. "You're closing down my Department!"

"Well, you know how it is." Rufus spread puffy fingers over his considerable gut, looking like a smug hippopotamus. "Times change … the budget, you know … but there will always be a place for you here at the Ministry, Harry. You know that. I thought perhaps the Head of Magical Games and Sports? Lee Jordan could do with a change of scenery, I feel. With a nice little raise and an office with controllable weather? Think about it, why don't you."

Harry took a deep breath. In the time it took to inspire, he thought of the prestige, the excitement, the colour that being Head of Magical Games and Sports would entail -- not to mention the free Quidditch tickets.

He breathed out.

"I've thought about it," he said. "And here's what I know. Rita Skeeter bugs me for an exclusive interview on average about once a month. I'm sure you wouldn't like her to know a choice few things. Like, that you stole the Great Harry Potter's beloved job, threw three of his employees out on the street and ruthlessly deposed the best Head of Magical Games and Sports since its foundation in 1253. Or, even, that you buy your mistress Rosemary Remembrances, currently the most expensive sweet available from Weasley's Wizard Wheezes' confectionary section, every week. I'm sure Rita could infer half a dozen incriminating and potentially career-destroying things from that one little tidbit. Don't you?"

Rufus jumped as Harry's voice, which had been low and sweeter than treacle-flavoured poison, suddenly rose high enough to blast off the roof.

"Why, Harry," he blustered. "If that's how you feel about it --"

"That's how I feel about it." Harry Summoned some parchment and a quill from Rufus' desk. "How's about you write this down, nice and proper."

"Write down what?"

Harry smiled, evilly. "What I'm going to tell you, of course."

::
::

Harry Potter's Quotes of the Year, for the Witch Weekly Bumper Christmas Edition 2006

[unanimously scrapped for being far too explicit and libidinous and a whole host of other things that I don't even have a name for, Rita. What the hell were you thinking? -- Editor]

From Rufus Scrimgeour, the Minister for Magic, on the twentieth of January, 2006: "So that's a two hundred thousand Galleon retirement fund for Polly Carbonate and Magnus Thistledown, in the event of their retiring -- yes, yes, I'm writing that they don't have to actually do it ever if they don't want to. A twenty percent pay rise for Anthony Entwhistle, Mim Greengrass and Palatine Morag MacDougal. Oh, is she anything to the pureblood MacDougals -- the geniuses that work in the Department of Mysteries? No? Are you sure? Really? [pause] Yes, I'm still writing! Wait, there's more? You -- no, no, I haven't forgot what you said. Please, continue. [pause] Hmm, hmm. Half a dozen money plants, a small to moderately-sized library of translated Japanese Muggle books on origami, whatever that is, permission to use any colour memo paper you like -- Harry, really! Oh, fine. [pause] NO DEPARTMENTAL INSPECTIONS EVER AGAIN? ARE YOU INSANE? JUST WHO THE BUGGERING HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?"

From Rufus Scrimgeour, the Minister for Magic, also on the twentieth of January, 2006: "Harry Potter, yes, of course. It shall be done. I'll see to it myself."

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, on the twentieth of January, 2006: "What are you doing here? Didn't I tell you -- yes, my hair's grown out a bit. Well, a lot. It's basically long now, yes. What does it matter to y -- excuse me, did you just stick your tongue down my -- mmmph -- mmmph -- [pause] Harry, that's my cock! What do you mean 'Yes, I know, it's fucking gorgeous and I want to suck it?' Since when do you suck cock? [pause] Oh … I didn't realise you actually meant you wanted to suck … OOOHHH FUCK. Harry, who the fuck taught you that? No way. No way. No one can be that good first off the bat. [pause] You practiced with what? Oh Christ. Don't stop. Don't fucking stop."

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, also on the twentieth of January, 2006: "Ha, well, you're clearly out of your mind. And … all your clothes. What are you doing now? I mean, I need to check you for curses. Or mind-altering drugs of some sort. [pause] Hey, no one made you smoke that sensimilla! Wh -- why are you -- I mean, you shouldn't bend over like that, anyone would think you wanted me to -- YOU DO WANT ME TO? Since when? Hang on, hang on, I'd kill you! You have no idea what you're asking for! [pause] Oh, ha ha, very funny. Just so you know, saying things like, 'I have a pretty clear idea and it involves you burying yourself in my arse and fucking me until I come like steam train' could, in some circles, be taken as encouragement for -- THREE FINGERS, YOU SAY?"

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, also on the twentieth of January, 2006: "I thought you were straight, you daft plonker! Most straight men would be outraged at the thought of someone jerking off to thought of them all lewd and naked and wanton in a steamy bathroom -- mmmph --"

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, also on the twentieth of January, 2006: "Yes, or at least they thought they were. 'I'm not gay if I come in your mouth' was a popular one. [pause] Bastards? Maybe. You know most of them. Used to blow Lee Jordan in the Quidditch showers every so often, until he got a fit of the morals and decided he didn't want to any more. And Oliver Wood lives up to his name. Took me to the Prefect's bathroom once. [pause] Why, Harry, what's with the face? You're not -- jealous, are you? Aww. Widdle Hawwy's all green wiv -- [pause] That. Hurt. You bastard. Look, I was a teenager and randy as hell. It wasn't like there was a plethora of willing gay boys at Hogwarts willing to service me with hands and mouth, was it? It's not like it was in Gilderoy Lockhart's time. [pause] Good grief, no, I didn't shag him. What do you take me for? If I'd known you were available I would have had your virgin arse in my bed before you could say 'Voldemort,' whether or not my sister was your girlfriend. [pause] There, that's better, isn't it? Ahaha, you're so gullible, Harry. I MEAN SEXY. Oh, yes, especially when you do that …"

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, on the twenty second, twenty third, twenty-fourth, twenty-fifth, twenty-sixth, twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, twenty-ninth, thirtieth, and thirty-first of January, as well as all of February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December, 2006: [a general synopsis] "I want to kiss you, right here in the middle of Diagon Alley. And the Leaky Cauldron. And my mother's sitting room. And your flat. And Muggle London. And on the beaches of Tenerife. And in the rain. I want to rip all your clothes off and have you right now. I want to lick you all over. I want to cover your cock in chocolate syrup and suck it off. I want you to come screaming my name. I want to send you dirty owls to the Ministry so you'll go all blushy in public. I want to play with your nipples. I want to sit on the sofa with you and watch that odd Muggle contraption with the oddly addictive 'sitcoms' on it all night. I want to fuck you. I want to touch you. I want to wake up in the morning to find your cat has gone to sleep on my face, again. I want you, Harry Potter. I especially want you to try this one out. I got it out of a special catalogue and I'm thinking of designing a bigger and better one for the Kama Sweetra section. What's that? Oh, you were just moaning, okay. Well, what do you think I keep you around for, you idiot, except to be my guinea pig? It's certainly not your lovely arse or that tempting cock of yours or your stunning skill at being fucked into the mattress and the wall and the floor or the way you make me laugh just by doing that thing with your mouth or your incredible wealth or your bravery or your utter unbridled insanity or mmmph --"

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, on the twelfth of February, 2006: "Yes, it seems to be making up for lost time. Lie back and think of England, Harry, I need to roger you senseless again."

From Ron Weasley, researcher at Salem Institute of Magic (currently on sabbatical), on the ninth of March 2006: "So … back at Christmas, when I caught the two of you vertically fucking -- sorry, Hermione, snogging -- I was bloody right? Excellent. Seamus owes me a crate of Firewhiskey. He said Harry'd never have the balls to come out and land a fine thing like George -- sorry, George. I said he jolly well would. [pause] What?"

From Molly Weasley, housewife, on the twentieth of March, 2006: "Oh, I see. You're gay. That's nice. So, what does that entail, exactly? [pause] What do you mean, 'ask Remus?'"

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, on the twenty-fifth of March, 2006: "You make me talk."

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, also on the twenty-fifth of March, 2006: "I hope you don't live to regret it."

From Ron Weasley, researcher at Salem Institute of Magic (currently on sabbatical), on the fourteenth of April, 2006: "IT'S A GIRL!"

From Mimosa Greengrass, Department of Magical Disasters, on the thirtieth of April, 2006: "Gosh, it was great meeting your boyfriend at last. And his entire family. And your sweet little god-daughter. Lily, wasn't it? She made me feel quite shockingly broody. Now listen, I want to ask a favour -- no, nothing like that! [pause] I already have a huge stash of gay porn threesomes. But thanks for thinking of me anyway, Harry. You are a dear. No, I wondered if you could give me one of George's brother's addresses? Only I'd like Owl him and ask him out. [pause] No, not the one with the sexy scars, I saw the wedding ring. And the beautiful wife. [pause] No, the dragon tamer isn't my type. The other one. Percy, that's his name. He's one burning hunk of spunk, let me tell you. Total stud-muffin. You could tell that from the way he -- Harry? Harry? Are you all right? Breathe, Harry, breathe!"

From Palatine (Morag) MacDougal, Department of Magical Disasters, on the second of May, 2006: "Yeah, old Polls said she'd let me stay at hers after my landlord chucked me out. For good, this time. Said he was sick of being raided by the Auror's illegal substances division and the Muggle police. [pause] Polly isn't a bad old stick. I think she's a bit lonely. Hey, shut up. 'No kidding,' indeed. Wait, me or her? No, don't answer that. [pause] She said she wouldn't be having with any 'sex or drugs or rocks or rolling.' I reckon she means it, too. [pause] Who knows? Could be the start of a beautiful friendship. If I don't brutally bludgeon her to death for being so totally anal first, that is."

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, on the seventeenth of July, 2006: "You know the way Fred was my twin and, well, sort of a part of me? And you know that you can't really … replace that? [pause] Good. Because I don't want you to. Ooh-ho, better than him, is it? We are a cheeky little bugger, aren't we? Oh, you mean you want to --"

From a random dog-walking stranger, on the beach in Tenerife, on the fourth of August, 2006: "'Putting on sunscreen,' eh? Is that what they're calling it these days? [pause] Sorry about Wuffles. He has a bit of a sausage fixation, poor love. NO, WUFFLES, NO! BAD DOG! PUT IT DOWN! THAT'S NOT A SAUSAGE!"

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, also on the fourth of August, 2006: "It is so good to know that there is intelligent life on this planet. And it all belongs to dogs."

From Anthony Entwhistle, Department of Magical Disasters, on the twenty-eighth of September 2006: "FUCK IT, I'M GAY."

From Mimosa Greengrass, Department of Magical Disasters, on the tenth of November 2006: "RIP, poor, sweet little money plant. You will be sadly missed."

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, on the sixteenth of November, 2006: "I can't believe she actually called the child Harrietta."

From Magnus Thistledown, Department of Magical Disasters, on the nineteenth of December, 2006: "Now, I fear, it is time for me to leave. I have been honoured to know you, Harry Potter, and I am glad that the task of watching over you was handed to me. However, I firmly believe that now you have found someone to 'get your back,' as the young people say, for the rest of your life. Mim, Kevin, Palatine, Polly, you were all a delight to work with. Or not work with, as the case may be. Especially you, Polly, my delightful young filly. But all things must come to an end, or at least the semblance of one. I fear my dear goat has been missing me terribly these past few years. Farewell. And, Harry? [pause] My brother would have been proud of you. He always was."

From George Weasley, proprietor of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, on the twenty-fifth of December, 2006: "I love you."