It was a fact undisputed that his gran was impossible to shop for, but on the eve of his eighteenth Christmas, Neville Longbottom had not yet declared defeat and was braving the London crowds in search of the perfect gift.
The wind blustered down the alleyways, blowing cold rain with it and setting fairy lights and holly askew. Neville pulled up the hood of his cloak as he left the milliner’s. What was wrong with her old hat, Gran would ask. And didn’t he know that hats were for Easter? He stepped back into the weather, looking up and down the dark street. The shop windows were hazy amidst the rain and the twinkling lights, and the walkways were crowded with people queuing up for their geese and trimmings. He hesitated a moment too long before choosing a direction, and when he turned, he made it all of half a step before colliding with someone.
He leapt back, an apology on his lips, but then grinned when he saw who it was. “Shacklebolt! I mean, Minister Shacklebolt...”
“It’s ‘Kingsley,’ please.” The Minister for Magic smiled warmly, unruffled as always. “Doing some Christmas shopping?”
“Trying to, at least. You?”
“Working. I have about five minutes to grab a curry before they notice I’m gone—oh, speak of the devil.”
Neville followed his gaze down the street and spotted a familiar head of perfectly styled blonde curls cutting through the crowd. Rita Skeeter waved a gloved hand imperiously, and the man toting the camera behind her set off a flash.
He looked back at Shacklebolt with a sympathetic grimace. “Hide,” he said. “I’ll draw the fire.”
Shacklebolt was the picture of rueful relief. “You’re a good man, Longbottom,” he said, and with a clap to Neville’s shoulder, he ducked into the nearest shop.
Neville stepped out into the middle of the street and waved down Ms. Skeeter.
She lit up when she saw him and gestured impatiently for her photographer to catch up. “Neville Longbottom? Oh, I'm certain my female readers are dying to know which special someone you’re shopping for tonight...”
The smell of the flower shop hit Kingsley like a humid, perfumed punch on the nose as he hurried inside. The jangle of bells above the door brought a man out from the back. He looked Kingsley over once and then twice with what seemed to be a pleasantly surprised smile.
“Well, hello,” the man said. “You’re in luck. I have time for just one more customer before we close up.”
The fellow looked familiar—a rather good-looking man in his forties with sandy-coloured curls and blue-grey eyes and a very nice smile—but Kingsley couldn’t place him. After half a lifetime of surreptitiousness as a profession, he was still getting used to being recognised by strangers.
“Hello,” he said and then realised he was stuck. He could see Neville Longbottom out in the street, backing up as he spoke to Rita Skeeter and very slowly luring her away. “I suppose I need a Christmas arrangement.”
The man stepped lightly around the counter and proceeded to a wall awash in red, green, and gold. He was still stealing small glances at Kingsley and fiddling with a lock of his hair. “Something for your...wife?”
Kingsley chuckled. “My mother. I have a premonition that I’m going to be late for Christmas lunch tomorrow.”
“Oh?” A pretty vase of white roses with snow-dusted pine cones and greenery was taken down from the shelf. “Are you a professional augur?”
Very little took Kingsley aback, but he found himself blinking in surprise. “You really don’t know who I am?”
The smile faded from the man’s face. He bit his lip, a surprisingly charming gesture. “Have we met before? I’m terribly sorry, I have an—an atrocious memory, really...”
Kingsley suddenly realised that the man hadn’t been looking at the Minister for Magic. He’d been looking at him. That double-take took on new meaning, and Kingsley held out his hand, gently cutting off the apology. “No, no, we haven’t been introduced yet. I’m Kingsley.”
“Gil.” One smooth hand clasped his own, and the other was back twirling at a lock of hair.
The arrangement was rung up at the till, and Kingsley hesitated a moment before paying, looking out at the wet street. He wondered how long it would take Rita Skeeter to make it back down to this end of Diagon, and he supposed that he would be staying late on Christmas whether he took a five-minute supper break or his due half hour.
“Gil?” he asked, flashing his best smile. “I don’t suppose you feel like a curry?”
Neville sighed as he reached the corner where Diagon Alley met Muggle London. It had taken half an hour, five photographs, and thirty-six moderately inappropriate questions about his personal life before Ms. Skeeter had let him go. Afterwards, he had looked into the stationer's (Who am I going to write to—everyone I know is either dead or lives in this house), the candlemaker’s (I have candles enough to last until the sun goes out), and the crockery shop (Dust-collectors!) to no avail.
He squared his shoulders. Hogsmeade it was, then.
The town would be too busy to apparate into, and the queue for the public floo was spilling out the door at the Leaky Cauldron, so he took a chance and drew his wand to hail the Knight Bus. Within a minute, he heard it barrelling down the busy Muggle street. It dodged between automobiles and swerved onto the sidewalk, barely slowing down as the doors opened, leaving Neville to run alongside it for half a block before throwing himself on board.
The doors snapped shut behind him, and he got to his feet just in time to brace himself as a stunned-looking Muggle froze in front of the bus. Neville opened his mouth, but before he could give a shout (and mercifully, before the collision), a hand shot out from the sidewalk, grabbed the Muggle by his collar, and yanked him out of the way.
“Bloody London pedestrians,” the driver muttered to himself as they sped off.
“Bloody London drivers!” Dudley shouted after the rogue double-decker. His heart was still trying to pound its way out of his chest as he turned to thank the bloke who had pulled him out of the way—only to realise that it hadn’t been a bloke at all.
“You should watch where you’re going,” the girl said. She was around his own age and dressed smartly in an old-fashioned coat with a fur collar. She was a big girl, solidly built and of a height with him in her high-heeled boots, and she had the prettiest brown eyes he had ever seen. And she had just saved his life.
“Er. Yeah. Thanks,” he said. Then he hurriedly held out his hand when she turned to leave. “I’m Dudley. Dudley Dursley.”
She paused, raising an eyebrow and looking him over in appraisal. Then she took his hand. She was wearing soft leather gloves, and she had a very firm grip. “Millicent Bulstrode.”
Millicent Bulstrode. It was a good name. “Milly,” he said with a grin. He liked it.
“Millicent,” she corrected, in a tone that suggested she had broken lesser men for the same mistake.
“Millicent,” he repeated dutifully. “You, er, wouldn’t happen to be headed to King’s Cross, would you, Millicent?”
“Why?” she asked, her pretty eyes narrowing in suspicion, and Dudley realised he might have just sounded like a weirdo.
“It’s just, I’m heading there. I’m going home for Christmas—I had to work up until today. I’m a student, though. At TVU.” His mother had expressly forbidden him from saying where he studied, but he didn’t care that it used to be a polytechnic. “Are you...a student?”
He was definitely babbling and hoped that “idiot” was a step up from “weirdo.”
Millicent seemed amused, at least. “I’m taking a year off. And yes, I’m heading home. And I suppose I could take the train.”
With that, she set off briskly down the street, and Dudley stared after her in helpless admiration for a long moment before hurriedly falling into step beside her.
There was snow in Hogsmeade. The dusting had not survived the foot traffic, but it glinted on the roofs and on the boughs of trees, and the sight of it fortified Neville for a tour of High Street. He quickly browsed the bookshop (I’ve already read this one!), and sorted through the racks at Gladrags (The ladies who work there are gossipy old busybodies), and peered at the new stock behind the glass at Dervish and Banges (And what do I need a dark detector for—I have eyes, don’t I?)
He was standing outside the butcher’s, wondering desperately if a string of sausages or a haggis might count as a Christmas present, when the lights of the Hog’s Head beckoned to him from the corner of his eye. Neville hesitated and then checked his watch. Maybe he had time for one quick drink. If nothing else, he certainly had to give his regards to Aberforth Dumbledore.
The pub was full, and Aberforth was presiding behind the bar. Neville gave him a smile as he made his way through the crowd, and he thought he caught something of an answering quirk somewhere in that beard.
“There’s the lad himself,” Aberforth announced once they were in shouting distance.
“How’s business?” Neville asked, as though the roar of the place didn’t answer his question.
“Always fine on Christmas Eve,” Aberforth said. “My stock and trade’s in orphans and bastards.”
From where he was standing, Neville could just glimpse two cups sitting on the ledge behind the bar: a small mug of steaming milk and a glass of brandy. He remembered watching Aberforth put them out last year, during that terrible winter, the man first preparing the milk with honey in a careful, practised way and then selecting a glass and a bottle after what seemed like a great deal of solemn thought.
Neville offered his hand. “Happy Christmas,” he said softly.
Aberforth took his hand and shook it, and Neville gave a squeeze. They both paused for several moments, and then Aberforth cleared his throat, looked around, and announced, “One round, on the house!”
There was a small stampede, and Neville tried to get out of the way but found himself dragged behind the bar instead.
“Give us a hand pulling pints?” Aberforth asked.
Neville took off his cloak and rolled up his sleeves. “My pleasure.”
Horace politely shouldered his way back up to the head of the queue not a minute after receiving his order and flagged down young Mr. Longbottom. “Terribly sorry, m’boy, but this is not the house lager.”
To his surprise, Argus Filch appeared beside him at that very moment and set down his own glass roughly on the bar top. “What is this piss?”
Horace blinked. “Ah. Argus. I didn’t see you come in.”
Argus did not reply, still looking personally insulted that he had been served anything paler than a porter. He was dressed for the occasion, for what it was worth, and he still knew how to fill out the shoulders of a coat. But good lord, the man needed a new suit.
Mr. Longbottom looked from one of them to the other, then put Horace’s glass in front of Argus and Argus’s glass in front of Horace. He then flashed one of those cheery village smiles and got back to the taps.
Horace took a sip of his lager and hummed in satisfaction. He tried to turn around but was pinned by the queue. He exchanged a very slightly embarrassed look with Argus. “This, ah, takes you back, doesn’t it?”
Argus snorted and shrugged.
Horace looked away uncomfortably. Funny, but on a night like this, it didn’t seem a lifetime ago that the two of them had chummed about. He had not always had the social graces he currently possessed, and in that fleeting but awkward adolescent phase, the caretaker’s boy had been a rather uncomplicated companion and attractive in a mature, exotic, working class sort of way. Horace remembered with new vividness the winter holiday in his seventh year when they had sneaked off the grounds together and got staggeringly drunk before taking a room upstairs in this very pub.
Of course, he had soon after gone off to have a life of his own, and Argus was no correspondent at all, and by the time he had come back to teach, there were protocols to observe.
Except, he found himself thinking with a certain pang, here they were: two men rather past their prime, alone and drinking on Christmas Eve.
“I’ll buy your next,” he said abruptly.
Argus narrowed his eyes. He looked Horace up and down and then, touching his forelock, said, “Begging your pardon, sir, but being as I’m on holiday, you can stick that pint you know where.”
Horace merely stared for several seconds, and then a laugh bubbled out of him. Another followed, and then another, and soon he was pounding his hand on the bar. “Oh, gracious. I have missed you, you know. You can buy my next one.”
To his surprise, Argus did.
All hope of making it home in time for dinner was lost. Neville had ended up leaving the Hog’s Head with just enough time to nip into Honeydukes before closing, and now he was trudging up the wet path to the house, brightening when he reached the front gate to see a familiar Cleansweep with mounted basket propped up against the fence. Professor Sprout had been coming to call quite often lately to work out the details of his upcoming apprenticeship, and he hadn’t liked the thought of her spending the holiday alone.
He let himself in quietly by the back door, aiming to avoid a sharp word about the hour. The smell of a roast dinner lingered in the kitchen, and there was a plate still sitting out in his place at the table. He snagged a piece of cold beef and popped it into his mouth before taking off his cloak. Then he paused, chewing very slowly. His gran was in the sitting room. So was Professor Sprout.
They were kissing. Under a sprig of mistletoe.
His mind reversed with a faint screech at that last, unsure of whether the addition of the decoration explained something or only raised more questions.
A gust of wind blew in behind him, and the two drew apart suddenly to look in his direction. Neville stared back at them. Professor Sprout seemed to have the good grace to blush—at least he hoped that was why her face was so florid—and gave him a very small wave and apologetic smile.
Gran, however, narrowed her eyes sharply. “Close the door—you’re letting out all the heat!”
Numbly, he obliged. Then he swallowed the mouthful of beef and stood there staring for several more seconds. “Right. So...”
If he did not know for a fact that his gran had never been flustered in her life, he might have found something awkward in the way she suddenly turned to straighten the decorations on the mantel. “Honestly, Neville, don’t be ridiculous. Did you think Pomona was coming over for dinner every week so we could talk about you?”
He had, actually, but now he would feel very stupid admitting it. “Ah, no. Of course not, Gran.”
His gaze then fell on the box that Gran was carefully squaring up on the coffee table.
She saw him looking and immediately thawed. She smiled softly, the sort of expression that he did not see nearly often enough. “They’re from Pomona. Wasn’t that thoughtful of her? Violet candies are my favourite, you know.”
“I know, Gran,” he said. Then, baffled but sincere, he added. “I’m happy for you. About the sweets, I mean. They’re very nice.”
Professor Sprout gave him a grin behind Gran’s back. He returned it and then, shaking his head ruefully, tossed the identical box of sweets in its Honeydukes bag back towards his boots. With luck, he thought, one of the shops in town would be open in the morning.