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I could be wrong, I could be ready

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Harry shoulders open the door to his apartment, shuffling his bags of groceries and trying not to let the one with the wine in it slip from his grasp. He drops his keys on the little table by the door, eases the paper bags carefully onto the kitchen counter, and unwraps his scarf with one hand while tugging the glove off the other with his teeth.

Every year, New York in December manages to trick him into thinking winter is magical, with fairy lights wrapped in the trees, cinnamon-spiced lattes, and carols drifting out from churches and department stores alike. By February he always realises he’s been scammed: it’s colder than balls, he’s sick to death of shuffling behind slow-moving tourists on the only shoveled part of the sidewalk, and there are still dead Christmas trees lying around on the curb. Harry’s fourth-floor walkup has radiators that are cranky and overheated, and even though the short dash from the store left his cheeks flushed and freezing, he’s already sweating as he shrugs his coat off and shoves his knitted hat in the pocket.

His glasses are fogged up, his nose is cold, and the owled letter from Gringotts is burning a hole in his pocket hotter than the rattling steam pipe under the window.

He pulls the bottle of Syrah from its bag and uncorks it, pouring himself a generous glass before sinking onto his well-worn sofa. Above the television is one of those balsa wood stag’s heads, a ridiculous, stylised thing that his colleague Elsa gave him for Secret Santa two years ago because she’d seen his tattoo when they were swimming. Harry finds himself staring at it as he fingers the roll of parchment. He’s overthinking it. It’s from Gringotts so it will be something stupidly dull—some statement of his vaults or tedious audit requirement, probably. But he hasn’t received an owl from Britain in so long it feels strange. The wax seal looks formal, archaic.

He takes a swig of the wine and opens the letter.

It’s written in the sort of institutional doublespeak that drives Harry up the wall. He’s used to it from MACUSA’s Department of Education, which always takes seventeen pages to say something that could be expressed in a sentence. This letter seems to be about renovations and repairs to Gringotts’ lower vault levels and every care being taken, and at first Harry wonders if they’ve managed to destroy his vaults and are trying to tell him in the most oblique way possible. But when he turns the page he realises they’ve found a vault. A vault in the name of Lily and James Potter.

The parchment trembles a little in Harry’s hand. He takes another gulp of wine.

The rest of the letter isn’t really any easier to follow. A full page of requirements for account identity verification and evidence of magical lineage, as if the entirety of wizarding Britain doesn’t know who Harry’s parents are. The account claimant must present these requirements to Gringotts Wizarding Bank in person on or before 31 March 2008 or the contents of the unclaimed vault will be forfeit.

His first instinct is to crumple the parchment, lob it into the bin, and forget about it. He doesn’t need any more money—he barely touches the Galleons he has now. And there’s no way he wants to present himself in person. Not because of some goblin administrative balls-up. His cat, Cassie, wanders out of the bedroom and winds her way through Harry’s legs, looking for attention. Harry scratches her head distractedly, turning the page over again.

Vault contents: Personal effects of James and Lily Potter deposited by Professor Albus Dumbledore – 1 November 1981.

Harry’s stomach turns and the wine tastes sour in his mouth. Not his parents’ vault, then. Their personal effects, stored for them—for Harry—after they died. He’s never had anything of his parents other than his father’s cloak and the album of photos Hagrid lovingly assembled for him when he was a child. Just the idea that their things are sitting in some vault gathering dust, that Dumbledore never told him, is overwhelming.

His neighbours could feed Cassie, he reasons. It’s only going to take him a day or two at most to Portkey back to London and sort this out. And Elsa won’t miss him. They’re doing lesson planning at the moment, mostly, and the next intake doesn’t start until March. He could go.

In theory.

In reality, it feels almost impossible.

He’d been so broken when he left Britain. Eighteen years old and the worst kind of gathering storm of messed-up kid and traumatised war vet. He held it together through the funerals. Through that long ugly summer at the Burrow as Molly wept, Ginny drifted away from him, and Ron and Hermione wrapped themselves up in each other. He stomached the cloying adulation every time he went out in public and the invasive stories about his life all over the press. He thought that if he just kept putting one foot in front of the other, it would be fine. He would start Auror training, move out of the house that had once felt like a sanctuary and now felt like a mausoleum, and get on with his life. He kept repeating it to himself like a mantra.

But then the letters came from Hogwarts, and while Hermione started to enthuse about eighth year and new textbooks and cauldrons, Harry felt his tenuous grip on reality start to slip. I don’t need to go back, though, do I? he’d asked Kingsley, tense and wide-eyed. Kingsley had always said the Aurors would be glad to have him. But Kingsley had just given him one of those indulgent smiles he’d been getting a lot of back then. One that showed Harry he’d somehow transformed from war hero back to a teenager again. No training without your N.E.W.T.s, young man.

But Harry couldn’t go back, that much he knew. Couldn’t walk the halls of the castle as if nothing had happened. As if a single summer of cleaning and repairs and strengthened wards was enough to make Hogwarts anything other than a graveyard.

December 1998 was the last time he visited. He hasn’t been back since.

Personal effects, he reads again.

Cassie rubs against his knee. She’s hungry, he thinks. He’ll buy extra food to leave with the neighbours in the morning.

~

The International Portkey Station in London is crowded, and for a moment Harry feels uneasy, as if someone is going to recognise him and start pointing and shouting and tugging at his clothes the way they did in the very early days after the final battle. Or worse, spread the news that he’s here. Like that new television show Elsa makes him watch.

“Spotted at the IPS, bags in hand: Harry Potter. Was it only ten years ago our Chosen One mysteriously disappeared for “boarding school”? And just as suddenly, he’s back. Don’t believe me? See for yourselves. Lucky for us, PansyP81 sent proof. Thanks for the photo, Pans. xoxo, ProphetGirl”

Then he laughs. As if anyone here watches television. Wizards on this side of the pond were perpetually stuck somewhere in the 1940s. He weaves through the crowds, his beanie tugged low over his brow, but no one pays him any attention. It’s a relief as he reaches the front of the queue for the local Apparition point and thinks clearly about the Leaky Cauldron for the first time in a decade.

When he arrives, Harry’s almost surprised his Apparition worked, given the vast difference between the destination he’d held in his mind and where he’s landed. He expected it to feel the same as it did in third year, when he’d tumbled off the Knight Bus and right into Cornelius Fudge. The physical space is the same but the Leaky looks almost unrecognisable, the formerly dingy interior lit with modern lamps. The wooden floors have been stripped back and polished, the booths upholstered with a rich, creamy leather. The whole place has transformed from a grimy wayfarer’s tavern to something approximating a gastropub. He’s pretty sure that’s Sufjan Stevens playing in the background.

Harry checks in with the bartender and goes upstairs to dump his duffle at the foot of a pillowy-looking bed in a clean, brightly-lit room. The old-fashioned oak furniture is gone. It’s unsettling. He’d assumed the Leaky was a constant. Part of him wants to take a nap, but he knows the time difference will wipe him out if he sleeps now, so he decides to go and see Andromeda.

Andromeda is the only one he keeps in anything like regular contact with, and even that’s every couple of months at best. Teddy, at age nine, is utterly disinterested in a fire-call with a godfather he doesn’t remember, and while Andromeda will occasionally make him kneel down and say hello, it’s always stilted and Harry can never think of anything much to say in response.

He’d probably have lost touch with her, too, if she hadn’t been the one to send him to America in the first place.

The afternoon the Hogwarts letters had arrived, he’d left the Burrow with the excuse that he was overdue to visit Teddy. Which wasn’t untrue, exactly, but what he really needed was a chance to breathe. To get a lungful of air in his chest for the first time since May. Maybe even since before then.

Andromeda made him dinner as he bounced the baby on his knee, talking nonsense and letting Teddy grab at his spectacles. She gave him a glass of wine with dinner, and then he helped himself to another, and then somehow it all came pouring out of him in a rush. It didn’t make any sense. He didn’t even know her that well, but somehow her grief was easier to be around, as she poured all her love and affection into taking care of this improbably tiny human. Harry’s godson.

“I can’t be who they want me to be. They don’t even know who they want me to be. Ministry figurehead one minute, schoolboy sent back to sit for exams the next. Everyone wants something from me.”

She listened, patted his hand encouragingly when he faltered, and when he’d tired himself out completely, led him upstairs to Sirius’s old bedroom and spelled clean sheets onto the bed.

In the morning he felt sheepish, slinking down to the kitchen with a headache and an apology, but she just fed him breakfast and then showed him photos of her third cousin Nigel, who wore a bowtie and had very neat hair and lived in the East Village. In New York.

“Nymphadora needed some time, too,” she said quietly, her finger tracing her daughter’s waving hand in a photo where Nigel was giving her a fond look as they sat side by side in Central Park. “When she finished Hogwarts. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a job and she was always such a… free spirit.”

Harry gently clasped Andromeda’s hand as a tear slid down her cheek, and she swept it away with the sleeve of her robe.

“I spoke to Nigel this morning,” she said, when she’d composed herself again. “He’s expecting you this weekend.”

And so Harry didn’t give himself a chance to think about it. He went back to the Burrow and packed what few things he had into his school trunk. He assured Hermione that he’d be back in a couple of weeks. And he deftly avoided any and all questions about why he was going or whether he’d be finishing school at all.

Now, his arrival at Grimmauld Place has him even more confounded than he was at the all-new Leaky. The house is freshly painted, with a shiny red front door and an ornate brass knocker. Harry’s suddenly unsure. Should he knock? Should he have called first? He last spoke to Andromeda a month ago, but it didn’t seem important to trouble her about this trip once he made plans. He’s only going to be here a day or two, at most. He lifts his hand, but almost immediately he feels the wards flex in welcome as the door swings open.

The menacing hallway of his childhood has completely disappeared, and for a second Harry’s confused enough to wonder if he’s in the wrong house. A lush pale carpet covers the floors and the walls are adorned with colourful art and photos moving happily in their frames.

“Hello?” he calls out, hearing a distant sound of music but not much else.

“Oh, Harry!” Andromeda’s voice comes up from the kitchen below, and he bounds down the stairs to meet her, sweeping her up in a hug. When he pulls back, hands on her shoulders, her eyes are bright with joy, showing the tiny crow’s feet that are the only real sign ten years have passed. Fire-calls don’t give so much detail away. “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you say you were coming?”

It’s a lot, to be here in this house. To see Andromeda up close. He reaches past her to snag an apple out of a bowl on the table, needing a distraction. She raps his wrist fondly. “Let me get you something more substantial than that to eat. Are you staying?”

“Just a day or two, at most. I’m at the Leaky,” he manages, around a mouthful of crisp apple. “Something with Gringotts.”

Andromeda pauses at the counter, where she’s wanding various sandwich ingredients together as they dance out of the pantry. She frowns slightly. “Is everything alright? You know, if you want me to sign the Black vault back over to you, you only need say the word. I mean, this house is more than generous enough…”

Harry waves a hand impatiently with a smile. “No, no. Of course not. The vault is yours, the house is yours. And, I mean, look at it!” The kitchen positively gleams in the late winter sun coming through the high windows to the garden. All of the bad memories of Harry’s past have been banished. “How did you get it like this? It’s a miracle.”

Andromeda toys with her necklace as she flushes with pride. “I’m glad you’re getting to see it. I’ve certainly asked you to visit often enough.”

It doesn’t sound like she’s criticising, exactly, but it makes Harry feel guilty all the same. He takes the proffered sandwich and sits with her at the kitchen table, wolfing it down once he realises just how hungry he is. Andromeda is happy to natter away, talking about the house’s magical alterations, and her work volunteering at St Mungo’s and the war orphanage. It’s nice to sit and listen, Harry thinks, and not have to remember the darker, bleaker moments that took place in this very room.

“Is Teddy here?” he asks, finally, as she clears away his plate. “I should say hi before I—”

“Glued to the TV, I expect,” Andromeda says, rolling her eyes. “I know, I know. It will rot his brain,” she goes on, mistaking Harry’s surprise that modern conveniences have made their way to Grimmauld Place for some sort of criticism. “But as soon as the Post-War Integration Committee signed off on the magical conversion of electrical appliances, you could not have shut him up about it. Once the house magic here was restored, I really didn’t have an excuse.” She gives Harry a rueful smile and leads the way back up to the front room.

Sure enough, Teddy is sprawled on a thick rug in front of a large flat-screen, watching a cartoon.

“Say hello to your godfather, Teddy.”

He rolls onto his back long enough to mumble a welcome in Harry’s general direction before turning immediately back to the screen. Harry can feel Andromeda tense for a scolding beside him, but he catches her arm and shakes his head. “It’s okay,” he says softly, as they step back into the entrance hall. “I have to be going anyway. I’ll visit for longer next time, I promise.”

She gives him a small smile that reveals exactly how little she believes him, but pairs it with a warm hug before he heads back out into the cold.

When he collapses into his bed at the Leaky, he feels exhausted, tightly wound, and suddenly very glad that this trip will be so short. It will be good to get back home where he belongs.

~

Monday dawns bright and clear. Harry eats a giant pile of scrambled eggs at the Leaky and decides to get to the bank as soon as it opens. He feels a bit like he’s on borrowed time, before he sees someone he knows. Best to just get on with it as quickly as he can.

Diagon has changed such a lot. He knew, on some level, that it would have needed to be completely rebuilt after the war, but seeing it is something else. Everywhere he looks there are little touches of the Muggle world. Wizards talking on cell phones (or mobiles, he supposes, staring at the awning for a shop called Alohomobile). A teenager wearing a Metallica t-shirt. There’s even a neon sign outside Fortescue’s. None of it is what Harry expected. He’ll have to ask Andromeda more about it next time he calls.

Gringotts looks just the same, though, and Harry can’t quite shake a childish sort of guilt. The goblins treated him like he was something on the bottom of their shoe after the war, and while he understands that “sorry I destroyed a lot of your bank and made off with your dragon” is not really an apology you can include in a greeting card, he’s made a point of only dealing with them by owl until now.

The first teller he speaks to sends him to a cramped, untidy little office, where a goblin called Gasnard peers over his spectacles at Harry with a blank expression that morphs into something like disgust as he looks down at the slightly crumpled letter Harry passes over. The parchment spent a couple of days in Harry’s pocket, sure, but he doesn’t think it warrants that level of disdain.

“Very well, Mister Potter, and have you brought with you—”

“Yes,” Harry cuts him off. He wants to be in and out of here swiftly. He tugs the clutch of paperwork the bank has asked for out of his bag and slides it across the desk. Gasnard turns each individual page between pinched fingers as if it might infect him with something, and scrawls long unreadable notes on a yellowing pad of parchment beside him.

Harry fidgets, waiting impatiently in the endless silence broken only by the ticking of the huge antique clock on the wall and the scratching of Gasnard’s quill.

It goes on for so long that Harry’s finally about to say something when the goblin nudges his glasses up his nose, shuffles the papers into a neat pile, and clasps his hands together as he looks at Harry. “Thank you, Mister Potter. That will be all.”

Harry feels himself scowling in confusion. “All? What do you mean all? Will someone take me to the vault now?”

Gasnard gives him a supercilious smile, revealing an ugly and misshapen row of sharp teeth. “Oh, no, Mister Potter. Now that we have received your account opening identity and magical lineage verification requirements, we will need to process your application. You can return tomorrow at this time.”

“Tomorrow?! What are you talking about? You know who I am. I just want access to the vault.”

Gasnard doesn’t even look at him as he tucks the paperwork into a vellum folder and ties it closed with a green string. “Tomorrow, Mister Potter.” He tugs another file off a teetering stack in front of him and opens it, lifting his quill again and completely ignoring Harry, who fumes in silence for a few moments before storming out of the room.

He considers trying to find one of Gasnard’s superiors to demand more prompt attention, but when he looks at the queue of witches and wizards waiting for the tellers, he feels a fresh wave of discomfort about drawing attention to himself. He decides that waiting one more day can’t hurt that much. He’s probably tempted fate long enough, being out here in the open like this. He’ll get some lunch sent up to his room at the Leaky and finish the lesson plan he promised Elsa.

As he bounds down the bank steps, back into the sunshine of Diagon, something catches his eye. He swings around to see none other than Draco Malfoy standing outside Madame Malkin’s, chatting with a witch he doesn’t recognise. Malfoy is tall, dressed in Muggle clothes with sunglasses pushed up in his bright blond hair. He says something that makes the witch laugh, gesturing animatedly while he tells his story with pale hands. He looks relaxed and happy, two things Harry can’t ever remember associating with his childhood rival.

Harry is struck by a weird realisation that this grown version of Malfoy looks a little like the fitness instructor he was sleeping with on and off last year. Who looked a little like the lawyer he was sleeping with on and off the year before that. Harry shakes off the coincidence and heads in the other direction, back to the inn. He has a plan: keep his head down, sort out the bank, get home. He just needs to stick to it.

~

On Tuesday, Harry feels optimistic. Yesterday, the goblins flexed their administrative muscles and pushed him around, but they’ve made their point. They got to exert a little power over him, which is presumably what they wanted. All he has to do now is pack up the contents of the vault and go.

“Absolutely not, Mister Potter.”

Harry stares at Gasnard in disbelief.

“Now that we have the account records in order,” Gasnard gives an imperious little cough, “a Gringotts Curse-Breaker will need to enter the vault, examine every item for unregistered Dark Magic, and provide the required certification that every item is safe to be removed by the account holder.”

“You can’t be serious.” Harry slumps in his seat, the uncomfortable wooden back of the chair digging into his spine.

“Mister Potter, the Dark Magic Registration and Eradication Act of 1999 is extremely clear. Any vault opened prior to the establishment of that Act cannot have its contents removed or transferred, or indeed any further contents deposited in it, until such certification occurs. We here at Gringotts Wizarding Bank take our legal compliance obligations extremely seriously.”

Harry glances around the tiny office, wondering for a wild moment if someone is watching him and he’s being pranked in some unspecified way. He thinks about just leaving: the office, the bank, the entire country. But then he thinks about the words Personal Effects again. Somewhere in the vaults below him are things that belonged to his parents. Gasnard gives another dry little cough, which reminds Harry bizarrely of Umbridge. A sudden flare of rage makes him clench his fists. He’s not going to let this autocratic, high-handed little bureaucrat win.

“A Curse-Breaker, then,” he manages, his jaw tight.

“Yes. Mister William Weasley has an appointment available tomorrow at ten. We will see you then.”

Bill. A strange flood of emotions passes through Harry. He can’t decide if seeing Ron’s older brother is great news or the worst possible outcome.

“And he’s the only…”

“Mister William Weasley is the Curse-Breaker assigned to this file. Tomorrow, Mister Potter.”

Harry finds himself once again summarily dismissed.

He stalks out onto the street and into Quality Quidditch Supplies as he tries to get his thoughts in order. If he has to see Bill tomorrow, he should really call Ron. And probably Molly.

He never meant for things to end up like this when he left all those years ago.

New York that first summer was overwhelming in the best way possible. Loud and crowded, filled to bursting with people who had no idea who he was and didn’t care. In those pre-recession years it was a city focussed entirely on making things bigger and better and shinier and new, even in the wizarding sections, where he spent as little time as possible.

Nigel and his partner, Thomas, had an apartment in a gorgeous brownstone on a street lined with trees, and their friends were magical and Muggle alike. The British obsession with the Statute of Secrecy had melted away in Manhattan. Wizards were careful, but they hadn’t taken themselves completely out of the world like some sort of misplaced aristocratic elite. It was exactly what Harry needed.

Those first weeks, he tried to explain all this to Ron and Hermione. Endless fire-calls in which he gushed about how great it was, how they should come, too. How tall the buildings were, how amazing Central Park was—if you didn’t go at night—and how much food everyone ate.

But then the calls started to become repetitive. Ron and Hermione were so focussed on going back to school, and Hermione kept needling him about booking his return Portkey, and Ron kept reading to him from an Auror trainee handbook that he’d managed to get somewhere. And as the days shifted into weeks and the leaves started to turn, Harry’s anxiety grew and the calls became less frequent.

In the final week of August, Hermione caught him just as Nigel and Thomas were about to take him to his first Broadway show. He steeled himself for her regular lecture about when he’d be returning, but she was bright-eyed and smiling as she showed off her ring. Harry’s heart sank through the floor.

It was all so rushed, was all he could think. Why didn’t any of them want to take some time? Why this insistence on ticking off life’s accomplishments as quickly as they could? School, career, marriage. Wasn’t the whole point of ending the war that they were no longer on a clock? Harry sat back on his heels and congratulated them both as effusively as he could manage, before begging off with the show’s curtain as an excuse. To this day, he couldn’t say what Phantom of the Opera was about. When he got home that night, he wrote them both a long owl, telling them he loved them very much and he was very happy for them. And that he’d be back for the wedding but not before.

Hermione was hurt and furious. Ron was mostly confused. Harry couldn’t make them understand. There wasn’t a way to explain that the job Nigel helped him find waiting tables made him happier than he’d been since his earliest days at Hogwarts. That sometimes he went days without using his wand at all. That even when he did venture into wizarding stores, for sweets and parchment and broom polish, no one batted an eye at wizards wearing Muggle clothes. No one stared at his scar, or whispered behind their hands, or pressed babies into his arms. He ate like it was going out of fashion. Thomas helped him buy proper running shoes and they took to jogging along the river each morning. By the time Christmas rolled around, Harry felt healthy and happy. Almost whole. He was looking forward to seeing everyone, delighted by the idea of a Weasley winter wedding.

But nothing about that trip went right. The brittle way Molly still held herself, fragile with suppressed grief. The slightly puffed-up tone Ron would use when he said things like “as a married man.” The involuntary disapproving twitch of Hermione’s nose whenever someone asked Harry what he did in New York and he told them he waited tables. It had only been a few months, but the distance between them felt impossibly wide. Worst of all, everyone seemed to assume that Harry’s absence was only temporary. He lost count of the patronising claps on the shoulder, the knowing smiles about “gap years,” the insistence on talking about his inevitable return and his future as an Auror and defeater of Dark Wizards “once he’d gotten all this out of his system.” And then there was the nightmare of the family dinner.

He made it through the wedding, and when Ron and Hermione left for their honeymoon in Majorca, Harry packed his bag, Portkeyed to New York, and never returned.

The smell of broom polish at Quality Quidditch, which still looks exactly like it did the day Harry saw the Nimbus 2000 for the first time, is sort of soothing. Calling the Weasleys now is pointless, he decides finally. It’s not like he can give the explanations and apologies they deserve in a fire-call from a pub. Besides, he’s seeing Bill in his professional capacity, not as some long lost quasi-brother figure. And Bill won’t mess him around the way that stupid goblin has been. He’ll be back at the Portkey Station in no time. No sense in scratching open old wounds for no reason.

Harry buys a box of training Snitches to take home. His students will love them.

~

Bill’s office is much more spacious than Gasnard’s, filled with a lot less paper and a lot more personality. Harry’s heart clenches when he sees the big black-and-white photo of the entire Weasley clan waving at him from the wall.

Bill looks so much more grown up than Harry remembers. His hair is thinning and his scars have faded substantially. There’s a lot more of Arthur in his features. And he has a warm smile for Harry, who is suddenly able to relax a little for the first time that morning.

“Sit, sit,” he insists, waving at a pair of mismatched chairs on the other side of his desk. “Gasnard, you don’t need to stick around for this.”

Harry’s goblin nemesis gives a little sniff, but says nothing and leaves immediately, which is a relief.

“So this is a surprise, isn’t it?” Bill says, as he unwraps the string around Harry’s file and spreads some of the papers out across the desk. “There was so much confusion when these vaults were uncovered. You can imagine how annoyed the Powers That Be here were to discover that their records were incomplete. They think that whole section was blocked off when the Muggles started on their Jubilee Line extension.”

Harry nods, chewing at a hangnail. He feels as if he should say something personal but he has no idea what, and Bill seems content to proceed as if they meet all the time.

“So I’ve been through the file, and I’ve taken a cursory glance at the vault itself. There’s not a lot there, Harry. A few boxes of things I imagine Dumbledore just packed up to keep safe for you. It should be a very straightforward job.”

Harry smiles with relief. Just as he’d hoped.

“I can get started tomorrow morning. I should be done within a week.”

A week?!” Harry blurts out, exasperated and unable to stop himself. “What the fuck am I supposed to do here for a week?”

Bill levels a stare at him, and it’s the first time his shiny, professional veneer slips, just for a moment.

“Right, of course,” Harry mumbles awkwardly, feeling about a foot tall. “I mean, it’s unexpected, is all. I thought this would be a quick trip so I didn’t want to impose on anyone.”

Bill’s expression remains unreadable. “I’m not sure if you know, but Hermione has just had a baby. Their second, Hugo. She’s at home on maternity leave, and Ron’s away at the moment. She might be grateful for some company.”

Bill probably thinks this is an olive branch. A way for Harry to ease himself back in by catching up with one of his oldest friends one-on-one. It only goes to show that he doesn’t really know Hermione at all. Although, to be fair, Harry supposes he’s the one who doesn’t know her anymore.

“Thanks,” Harry says, although he’s not sure whether he means for the work Bill’s about to do or the suggestion. “You’ll be in touch about the vault?”

Bill nods and shakes his hand.

Harry walks back to the Leaky and extends his booking for a week. He knows that if he mentioned it, Andromeda would insist on him staying at Grimmauld Place, but the thought of it has Harry feeling trapped. Claustrophobic. His in-and-out flying visit is slipping out of his control. What would he even say to Hermione if he saw her now?

Running is the only sure way Harry’s ever found to clear his head. He puts on his shoes and heads out into Muggle London, dropping down past Charing Cross to jog alongside the Thames. It’s nearing lunchtime and the Embankment is a mix of tourists and government types in suits. Harry ducks and weaves through them, his breath fogging in the crisp air. He runs until his legs and his lungs burn in equal measure, and then he Apparates back to the Leaky for a hot shower and a steak sandwich. As he showers, he accepts that he's already been here too long to not do anything at all. He might as well make it count.

When Hermione opens the door to the cottage in Ottery St Catchpole, the first thing that Harry notices is the look of blind panic on her face. Clearly, Bill didn’t warn her about his meddling. “What’s happened, is Ron okay?”

He takes a startled step back. “I don’t know? I—”

“Oh gods. He’s away on assignment, and for one awful moment I thought some Ministry cretin had decided to send you to break some bad news.” She looks him up and down, and her panic is replaced with confusion. “What’s going on? Why are you here?”

She looks the same. Softer around the edges, her hair shorter than he’s seen it before. Dark shadows under her eyes, the same as any new mother. Still beautiful. He shouldn’t have come.

“I shouldn’t have—”

“Come inside—”

They speak at the same time.

There’s an awkward pause before Harry gives up and nods, shoving his hands deep in his pockets and stepping past her into the house.

“I wish you’d called,” she says, and from anyone else it would sound like an apology for the state of the cosy little house, with buckets of baby clothes washing themselves on the kitchen bench and piles of tedious-looking books stacked all over the dining table.

But from her, it feels heavier. Deserved. It’s been a long time.

“Ron’s on assignment, he’ll be away for another week or so. Rose is staying at the Burrow for a bit so I don’t have my hands too full looking after Hugo.”

She clears a pile of clean laundry off a chair so that Harry can sit. So many little onesies and towels and impossibly tiny socks. Harry didn’t even know they made socks that small.

“So are you still—” he gestures at the pile of legal-looking books and parchment.

“I’ve taken six months’ leave from the Wizengamot. But policy waits for no one, so I try to keep on top of things even when I’m not technically working. Do you want tea?”

He doesn’t, really, but if the alternative is the two of them sitting here in awkward silence, he’ll take it. He nods.

Hermione seems equally grateful for the distraction, busying herself in the kitchen.

“And Ron’s still enjoying it?”

“He needs to take on less fieldwork,” she shrugs. ”Particularly now, with Hugo. But he’s on track for promotion to Deputy Head this year, so it’s all a balancing act.”

“That’s impressive,” Harry says, and finds he means it.

“And you? Last time I spoke to Dromeda she said you were coaching something…” she trails off and waves her hand dismissively. It rankles.

“That was a while ago. I spent some time coaching kids’ Quodpot. I’m working with an educational programme now for… Muggle-born kids. Getting them ready for school at much younger ages.” Unlike here, he doesn’t say. So that people like me don’t grow up feeling like freaks and outcasts.

She passes him a mug. “That sounds a bit like—” She’s cut off by a sudden wail from upstairs. She pauses for a second, listening to see if Hugo will settle himself, and he does. “What brings you back?”

“Some nonsense at Gringotts,” Harry huffs, freshly irritated by Gasnard and the endless delays. “They found some things of my parents that Dumbledore stashed after they died. Books and letters, sounds like.”

“Oh, Harry.” Hermione’s expression softens. She’s one of the few people who would understand how important this is to him, but he still feels uncomfortable talking about it.

“It might be nothing, I don’t know. There’s a whole bunch of hoops to jump through before I can get it sorted and go home. Bill needs to sign the whole thing off.”

“So you’re still loving New York?”

“Yeah, it’s amazing!” He feels his face break into a wide grin. “You should come visit. I’d love to show you around. It’s a lot less stifling than here.”

Hermione’s lips purse, but she takes a sip of her tea and says nothing. He didn’t mean here here, like, specifically her house. He just meant wizarding Britain in general. Either way, he seems to have broken their truce. He casts about for a more neutral topic of conversation.

“You’ll never guess who I saw in Diagon yesterday. Draco Malfoy.” If there’s one thing he and Hermione will always agree on, it will be their general disdain for the Prince of Slytherin.

But then the most unexpected thing happens. Hermione’s whole face lights up, with a smile that reaches her eyes for the first time. “How is he? Is he over his cold? He hasn’t been able to visit Hugo for a week.”

Harry’s mouth falls open in shock, but before he can work out how to wrap his mind around Hermione’s words, they’re interrupted again by a much more insistent cry from upstairs that doesn’t die down. Hermione looks at the clock. “I need to feed him, I’m sorry.”

Harry shakes his head at once. “No, of course. I shouldn’t have just shown up like this.” He gets to his feet and puts his mug in the sink. “It was nice to see you.” He realises that it’s almost the truth.

Hermione gives him a small smile as she walks him to the front door, Hugo’s cries increasing in volume. “Go,” he insists, “I’ll see myself out.”

He’s almost closed the front door when he hears her call from the foot of the stairs.

“He goes down for a decent stretch at lunch time, if you want to come back tomorrow.”

~

Harry figures he’ll grab a couple of sandwiches and take them with him. It seems rude to turn up empty-handed a second time. If Hermione doesn’t want one now, she can keep it for a snack.

There’s a new café on the corner that has long family-style tables with piles of magazines on them and big vases stuffed full of flowers. He pushes the glass door to enter, and it swings away from him softly under a wave of magic. He’s reminded again of how little time he spends in the wizarding quarter in New York, unused to being surrounded by the pulse and energy of magic all the time.

While he waits near the till for the people in front of him to order, he glances around, startling when he sees Malfoy is sitting at a small table near the back having lunch with a woman who looks suspiciously like Pansy Parkinson.

Malfoy has his back to him, long legs extended out under the table. He’s wearing slim dark denim jeans, and it’s not a look Harry would ever have imagined on him, but it definitely works.

“Want another?” Maybe-Parkinson asks, waving a wine bottle over Malfoy’s empty glass.

“Can’t,” he says, glancing at his watch. “School pickup.”

She smiles widely. “You’re so very dedicated.” She tops up her own glass.

Harry rolls his eyes. At least Malfoy hasn’t married her. He supposes that’s something to be grateful for. Though the idea of Malfoy having school-aged children of his own is a lot for Harry to process.

“What’ll it be?” The witch behind the counter interrupts his train of thought, and he orders quickly so he can leave before Malfoy sees him. Not for any particular reason. Just that then they’d probably have to make awkward small talk and Harry can’t think of a single thing he’d want to say to Draco Malfoy that isn’t, “I guess I’m glad you were too young to face trial.”

It doesn’t really seem like café conversation.

Hermione’s grateful for the sandwiches. “Molly keeps sending meals over, but they’re always so heavy,” she says ruefully. “I have more lasagne under stasis charms in the pantry than anyone can eat in a lifetime. This is perfect.”

Harry helps Hermione make tea this time, and they take their plates into the sitting room, where Hugo is sleeping in a Moses basket. Harry makes all the right noises about how cute he is, but in reality he looks a bit like any other newborn he’s ever seen: scrunchy and red and slightly undercooked.

They talk more about Hermione’s job, and Ron’s. About Rose’s schooling, and how successful George’s shops have been. It’s not exactly comfortable, but it doesn’t feel as strained as yesterday. And it’s nice to start to fill in the blanks about what everyone has been doing in his absence.

“So how is it you’re friends with Malfoy?” he asks eventually. He intends the question to be curious, but it turns out he still can’t say Malfoy’s name without it turning into a bit of a sneer. Hermione looks puzzled for a moment, as if Harry’s asked her something bizarre.

“Oh, right. I suppose all that happened after the wedding,” she says after a beat, as if it’s taken her a moment to piece the timeline together. “Draco helped Ron and me with a patrician bonding ceremony. It’s an ancient kind of marriage bond.”

“Like a pureblood thing?” Harry asks, his brow furrowing automatically.

“Traditionally, yes. But—”

“Why on earth would you want something like that? And from Malfoy.” He knows he sounds incredulous. Scathing, almost. But this is Hermione Granger. Just the idea of her letting a Malfoy of all people cast some sort of pureblood nonsense over her is laughable.

Hermione’s jaw tightens. “You’ve been gone a long time, Harry. Draco has done more than enough to not only make amends, but also to establish himself as one of my dearest friends.”

And that certainly wasn’t the response Harry was expecting. He turns his mug around in his hands, staring at his lap.

“You’re right, I’m out of line,” he apologises immediately. It drives him batshit when anyone assumes he’s the same person he was at school. There’s no reason for him to do it to other people. Even—though it pains him to think about it—Draco Malfoy.

Hermione gives a startled nod of acknowledgement, as if she wasn’t expecting him to acquiesce so quickly, and the tension seems to leave her. He supposes none of them are the same people they once were.

“His work is so interesting, Harry. Honestly. The magic he deals with is tied to ancestry and wizarding houses. I have a book on it somewhere you should read.” She gets up, setting her plate on a side table and studying her overstuffed bookcases.

“Really, that’s fine,” Harry mumbles, though he’s pretty sure he’s not getting out of this conversation without homework. He refrains from pointing out that ancestral magic makes it sound like Malfoy hasn’t changed that much.

“Draco helped Neville,” Hermione carries on, pulling a couple of books off of a shelf in such a way that the whole precarious stack starts to quiver, but she just sighs at the covers and stuffs them back in again. “Because of what happened with Nev’s parents. Their family magic was… undirected, I suppose, is the simplest way to explain it.” She tugs out a couple of rolls of parchment and the resulting cloud of dust makes her sneeze.

“And it turned out he was able to do that because he’d worked out how to help several of the families…” she trails off, stepping back from the bookcase with a scowl. “It’s not here. I must have left it at the office. I’ll get it for you.”

“Really, that’s okay,” Harry assures her. He’s not one hundred percent convinced she doesn’t intend to Floo to her office immediately to locate a book on pureblood magic Harry will never read. And in any event, they’re off topic. This isn’t what he came here to talk to her about. “Hermione, I want to say I’m sorry.”

She sinks back to the sofa heavily, giving him a guarded look. He didn’t really have a plan for doing this, and he wishes he’d thought it through a little more, but it feels imperative, like it’s the first truly useful thing he’s done since getting back.

“I know it’s long overdue. Maybe it’s too late, I don’t know.” He runs a hand through his hair and leans forward on his knees, looking down at the carpet. “All I can say is that back then, I was young, stupid, and not in a good place. I’d had six months in New York and it was such a welcome relief to feel anonymous and free of expectations. And Nigel and Thomas had been so supportive, and I finally felt like I was starting to understand who I was.” He glances up. Hermione is frowning, but she’s listening.

“And I came back here for the wedding, and it was like going back in time. Everyone wanted to talk to me about the same stuff, and they seemed to presume all the same things about who I was, and who I would be in the future.”

Hermione opens her mouth to protest, and Harry raises a hand in acknowledgement. “I know, I know. It’s probably not what was going on. It’s just what it felt like to me. I wanted to show everyone that they didn’t know who I was anymore. That I wasn’t their Chosen One. I wasn’t going to become an Auror and marry a nice witch and pop out 2.5 children. And suddenly it felt like the perfect time to let everyone know who I really was, just, all at once, you know? I… I didn't expect some people to react the way they did.”

Hermione exhales heavily. “Harry, you’re allowed to come out however you like, to whomever you like, whenever you like. You know I believe that.”

Harry’s grateful for the sentiment, but he shakes his head. “No, I know. I’m not apologising for that, exactly. But that was your weekend, and all it did was cause drama and upset some people.”

Hermione’s expression softens, and she gives him a small, sad smile. “Harry, you know that—” but before she can finish her thought, Hugo takes the opportunity to announce loudly that he is both awake and presumably starving.

“That’s my cue,” Harry says with a smile, a gentle hand on Hermione’s arm as she starts to protest. “We can talk more later, I promise.”

It’s such a small step, but he feels much lighter on his feet as he heads back to the Leaky.

~

On Saturday, Harry wakes to the sound of two owls tapping on the window of his rented room. One holds the Leaky’s complimentary copy of the Daily Prophet, tied with a shiny red ribbon instead of its customary twine. When he takes the paper back to bed and unrolls it, the entire front page is covered in dancing cherubs and bouncing hearts. Valentine’s Day, he realises with a start.

Harry’s never been one for manufactured ideas about romance. His love life has consisted of a string of failed relationships with wizards who wanted too much from him, and the eventual conclusion that he’s really more cut out for keeping things casual. It’s not that he’s given up on love. Not exactly. But it’s just easier not to have attachments.

The second owl brings a note from Hermione.

Neville and Luna are coming over to meet Hugo this afternoon. Why don’t you join us?

His instinct, even a day ago, would have been to say no. He’s still planning to be back in New York by the end of the week, and making awkward small talk with people he hasn’t seen in so long is perhaps the very last way he wants to spend an afternoon. But speaking with Hermione the day before loosened something inside him. He knows Neville is a professor at Hogwarts but that’s about it, and he has no idea what Luna is up to. And suddenly the idea of finding out is far more appealing than trying to fill in the rest of the day surrounded by mooning couples in Diagon Alley clutching flowers and balloon arrangements.

Luna greets him at the door to Hermione’s cottage with a box of Sugarplum’s chocolate hearts. “Harry,” she says, kissing him on the cheek as if she had only seen him yesterday. “Ginny gave me these and they’re meant to make you feel warmly towards your true love all day long. But then she left to play Quidditch, so I think you should eat them.”

She’s wearing a daffodil yellow dress and a necklace made of seashells threaded on red twine, and her hair is fastened up with what looks like matching coloured pencils. It’s a lot for Harry to take in all at once.

“Ginny is your true love?” he asks, feeling like that’s probably the most relevant thing to lead with, though really, he has a lot of questions.

“Of course she is,” Luna laughs, drawing him into the house and closing the door, pushing the chocolate box into his hands. “But there’s no point in me feeling warm about it if she’s not here, is there?”

Harry can’t really argue with that, and it’s not as if he has a true love to worry about, so he stuffs a couple of the raspberry-flavoured chocolate hearts into his mouth as he follows Luna into the front room. Neville is sitting on the couch cradling Hugo, slightly awkwardly for someone who has grown into an absolute tree-trunk of a man. The baby practically fits in one of his palms. “Good to see you, Harry,” he says, shrugging a little as if to indicate that he’d get up or offer a hand to shake if it wasn’t currently full of tiny Granger-Weasley.

Neville has written him letters over the years. Always a little formal. Not cold, exactly, but as if Neville is expecting a poor reaction from Harry. In the intervening decade, as far as Harry’s been able to tell from scattered conversations with Andromeda, Neville’s been the one who stepped into the void Harry had unwittingly created. Giving humble speeches at war memorial ceremonies and attending the opening of public buildings. He looks the part, Harry thinks, seeing him now. Tall and strapping, like a celebrated war hero should be. More than Harry ever did, anyway. Neville’s letters were always carefully-worded invitations for Harry to come back, each May, for the Victory Day celebrations. As if Neville felt he was somehow intruding on a space that was more rightfully Harry’s. He declined every one. Sometimes more politely than others, depending on how much he’d had to drink at the time, a thought that makes him wince a little now when he’s confronted with the man himself.

Hermione comes in with a tea tray and a plate of homemade biscuits, and it should be awkward but somehow it’s not. Luna chats happily about writing for the Quibbler, and her magizoologist friend Rolf, and how they plan their trips overseas together to coincide with Ginny’s Quidditch team’s touring schedule. “They’re playing an invitational against the Reykjavik Riptide next month and I cannot wait. Arctic foxes,” she says knowingly to Harry, and he nods as if he understands her meaning. He wants to ask her what it was like, in the beginning. For her and Ginny. How Molly reacted. If Percy was okay with it. But they’re all questions that fizz and dance under the surface of his skin and he’s not really ready to let them out yet.

The room feels warm and cosy, in contrast to the grey skies outside, and Harry feels transported back to the Gryffindor common room. As if no time at all has passed and the four of them sitting around chatting in front of the fire is something they do all the time.

Hermione tells Harry all about Neville’s achievements, which just causes Nev to flush a bright red, as if being appointed full professor at Hogwarts at his age is something undeserved or that happened by accident. “I was just in the right place at the right time, when Pomona and Wilhelmina wanted to retire to somewhere warm,” he says. But teaching is something Harry feels increasingly passionate about, and they soon get lost in a discussion about Neville’s hands-on methods in the school greenhouses while Luna plays with the baby, and before Harry realises, several hours have passed.

“Take the chocolates with you,” Hermione insists, as she retrieves a giggling Hugo from Luna. “I don’t need to be feeling warmly about Ron while he’s away either.” Harry opens his mouth to crack a dirty joke in response but stops himself. There’s something delicate about this relaxed afternoon with his old friends that he doesn’t want to spoil.

“Thank you,” he says, sincerely, as he hugs each of them in turn.

~

On Monday, Bill owls Harry to say he’s making good progress and that it will be another day or two at most before he’s finished with the vault.

An icy drizzle is falling from bleak grey skies, and the florist barrow on Diagon is trying to get rid of its Valentines overstock at cut-rate prices. Harry impulsively decides to buy up several large bunches and take them to Hermione.

She looks a little overwhelmed by the floral riot in his arms, and he mumbles out an explanation about them being cheap and probably half-dead, which provokes a genuine laugh. “Come in, I found the book.”

“Which book?” Harry asks, wiping his shoes on the mat and following her into the kitchen.

“The one on patrician bonds!” she says, as if that should have been obvious, and with what Harry considers a really unnecessary amount of excitement. She produces a thin, ancient-looking leatherbound volume from the top of a teetering pile.

“Uh, thank you,” Harry says, and tries not to make it sound like a sigh. He puts the book on the chair beside him and wonders if he can just “forget” it and leave it there when he goes home.

Hermione fusses with the flowers, transfiguring a small glass vase into several matching larger ones and filling them with water. “Ron fire-called last night. He’d love to see you when he’s back.”

Harry tugs at his lower lip with his teeth. He wants to, of course, but his relationship with Ron feels mangled in a way that doesn’t feel as straightforward to fix. “Yeah, of course.” He’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

Today, as they talk, it starts to feel natural again. Like there’s space to tease one another a little. Room to be a little more honest with each other.

When he leaves a couple of hours later, the weather has improved. Hermione presses one of Molly’s lasagnes and the book he’d conveniently overlooked into his hands as he goes. He leaves them both on the little end-table in his room at the inn and heads out for a run. The pavements are slick and the wind whipping up off the river is just on the wrong side of unpleasant. He runs a giant loop, crossing over the Millennium Bridge and back along the south side of the river to the Eye. The queue of Muggles waiting for the attraction look miserable and hunched in their brightly coloured rain jackets.

Whitehall is more or less empty, so Harry puts on a final burst of speed as he heads towards Charing Cross and the Muggle side of the Leaky. He’s really pushing himself in the final stretch, his heart pounding and his breath ragged, and in retrospect it’s hardly surprising that he isn’t concentrating enough on his surroundings and manages to slam bodily into someone emerging from the disillusioned storefront, knocking them both to the ground.

Harry picks himself up, apologising repeatedly. “Christ, sorry. I’m so sorry. I wasn’t paying any attention at all. Entirely my fault.”

“Salazar,” the answering voice is uncomfortably familiar. “Might be the first time I’ve ever heard those words cross your lips.” A twist in the smile makes it seem like it might be a joke.

Draco Malfoy is a compelling sight up close, even making an exaggerated show of dusting off his expensive-looking coat as he stands, straightening his hair. Harry is suddenly acutely aware of the sweat plastering his own hair to his forehead, and he takes an abrupt step backwards, hoping wildly that it’s too cold out for him to reek too badly.

Harry’s startled silence goes on for too long, and Malfoy’s mouth thins, the little glint of amusement disappearing from his face. Harry can’t decide if he wants to chase it down and bring it back, or lean into this much more familiar expression.

“Well, step aside, Potter,” Malfoy sighs. “Not all of us have nowhere to be in the middle of the afternoon.”

Harry can’t really help the overwhelmingly nostalgic surge of irritation. “Oh really? Well, some of us have actual jobs and aren’t just pissing the family money away mucking about with jewellery and outdated spells.”

He expects righteous indignation, a hex, or possibly a punch to the face. He doesn’t expect Malfoy to laugh and say, “I’ll see you ’round, Potter,” as he walks away.

Harry has no idea what to do with the odd reaction. Or rather lack of a reaction. He keeps turning it over in his mind as he showers and heats Molly’s lasagne for his dinner. Like a sore tooth he can’t stop prodding with his tongue. For the first time in years, he thinks about the Marauders’ Map, tucked away in a box in his closet at home.

The tiny animated dot marked Draco Malfoy, and the way he used to follow it around the castle.

~

The next day, a weak late-winter sun appears for what feels like the first time since Harry arrived in London.

Hermione decides that they need to take full advantage of it before it disappears again, and so she sits on a colourful quilt under a tree in their back garden with Hugo beside her, kicking his fat little legs in the air and making gurgling noises. Harry asked for a chore to help with and is now wanding clean laundry out of endless baskets to dance and flap on the line in the light breeze.

“I ran into Malfoy again, yesterday. Like, physically. Ran into him full-tilt coming back from a jog outside the Leaky. Bowled him right over.”

Hermione giggles, as Harry kneels beside her on the quilt. “On purpose?”

Harry laughs. “No, of course not.”

She pushes a plate of muffins towards him, and he breaks off a chunk of one.

“Who did he marry?” Harry asks, thinking about Parkinson. The way Draco’s hands, brushing himself off yesterday, were unadorned by rings.

“He’s not married,” Hermione answers, letting Hugo clutch at her finger, dragging it towards his mouth.

“Really? He always seemed the type to be married to some prim little witch who knows how to entertain properly. You know, the sort who’s really good at parties and small talk and never forgets anyone’s name.” Harry can just picture them both at society functions, glasses of champagne in hand. Malfoy looking down his aristocratic nose at everyone.

“That’s funny,” Hermione snorts, clearly delighted by something he’s said.

“What is?”

She gives him a strange look. “Harry, Draco is as gay as a maypole.”

Harry manages to inhale a crumb the wrong way and immediately sets to choking. It causes Hermione to laugh even harder. “You really didn’t know?” she asks, patting his back ineffectually. ”He dated Dean Thomas for over a year!”

And that is really not an image Harry needs in his head, all of Malfoy’s long limbs wrapped around… He shakes his head vigorously.

“No. How would I have known? I heard him talking about picking a kid up from school and I just assumed—”

Hermione’s laughter dies suddenly and the happiness slides from her face. “Teddy, Harry. He would have been talking about Teddy.”

“Why would Malfoy be picking Teddy up from school?” He tries not to make it sound scathing, but it doesn’t really make any sense. The two of them are related, sure, but in the “burnt off the family tree” kind of way. He can’t imagine even a post-war Malfoy being that interested in a Metamorphmagus from the wrong side of the Blacks.

Hermione sighs and gently tugs her finger back from Hugo, picking the baby up as he starts to fuss. She frowns at Harry, a sign he’s coming to recognise means he’s freshly disappointed her in some way.

“Draco looks after Teddy two days a week. He has done for years. Draco’s basically the father figure in Teddy’s life.”

If she doesn’t mean for it to sound like an accusation, Harry thinks, she’s fallen pretty short of the mark. Hugo starts to cry, and Harry decides to take the excuse.

“Time for Hugo’s nap—I’ll leave you to it.”

“You should go catch up with him, Harry. You’ve changed a lot and so has he. It’s Wednesday, he’ll be at the Bent Wand tonight.”

Harry waves absently at her as he leaves. He doesn’t have any intention of catching up with Malfoy.

Except that her suggestion keeps gnawing at him as he heads back to the Leaky, and it won’t leave him alone as he eats a bowl of bland soup at the bar. He asks Kim, the waitress, about the Bent Wand and she gives him directions to a new street opened up after the war. He has no interest at all in seeing what Malfoy’s up to, but the idea that British wizards have caught up with the modern world enough to have gay bars out in the open is sort of intriguing. He could just go have a drink there. It doesn’t mean he has to talk to Malfoy. In fact the thought of not talking to Malfoy and finding an attractive wizard to work out the week’s frustrations with is sort of appealing. And so before he can reconsider he’s wandering past a new Wheezes branch and round the corner into a charming little street he’s never seen before called Equal Alley.

The Bent Wand looks like more of a pub than a bar, and there’s a foreboding-looking bouncer standing at the door. “Tap your wand,” he says, indicating a brick in the wall. Harry does so, and a blue plastic wristband appears on his arm.

“All Ages night tonight,” the bouncer says, by way of explanation, and steps to one side to let Harry in.

The pub is warm and busy, with groups of people clustered around tables and around the bar. The crowd is younger than Harry was expecting. Two boys who look like they’re still Hogwarts-age walk past him holding hands. The taller one is wearing a t-shirt that reads I Like Wizards / It’s None of Your Business. Harry waits behind them at the bar.

“Where’s the sign up sheet?” one of them asks.

The bartender points over their shoulders. “Draco has it over by the stage.”

Harry turns to catch a glimpse of Malfoy’s blond hair, surrounded by young people over by a large amp sitting on a low stage.

Harry orders a pint, and while the bartender is pulling it, he asks, “Sign up sheet?”

“Shout Out. It’s an open mic night for youth. Happens here every Wednesday.”

Harry is reluctantly impressed. It’s more or less the last thing he expected when Hermione mentioned it. He assumed the Wand would be some snooty wine bar with an overpriced cocktail menu and Malfoy holding court in a booth being rude to people who weren’t as attractive or wealthy as him.

“Some of these kids look like they’re still in school,” Harry says, anxious to derail that train of thought as quickly as possible.

The bartender nods. “Hogwarts lets them Floo down for the evening. It’s an approved extracurricular. Draco over there takes responsibility for getting them back afterwards.”

Harry tries to imagine anything like this being possible during his school days and can’t. It took him leaving the country to even understand that the confused knot of feelings he had about his own attraction to wizards was fine and normal and nothing he needed to hide. It certainly wasn’t something they ever discussed in school. Though to be fair to Hogwarts, he supposes, they had quite a lot else on their minds at the time.

He takes his drink and perches on a stool at the corner of the bar with a view of the stage. When Malfoy stands up, clipboard in hand, Harry’s forced to admit to himself that he looks really good. Which is a preposterous sort of thought, because Malfoy’s only wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. But there’s something about the way the dark skinnies hug his legs, the form-fitting tee, even the faded grey lines of his Dark Mark. Harry finds that he can’t look away.

Malfoy greets everyone there like old friends and invites a blue-haired witch in her twenties up on stage as the evening’s emcee, before taking a seat at one of the front tables. The talent on display is mixed at best, but the enthusiasm is contagious. Passable cover songs delivered on guitar, overwrought poetry, a slightly ill-considered rap. Harry finds himself clapping wildly, beaming at the thought of these young people having the space to express themselves. He’s ordering another pint when Malfoy pulls up the stool next to him as if they’re old friends. He hadn’t even seen him come over.

“Didn’t expect to see you here.” Draco sounds curious, rather than mean. Harry realises his hair is cut much shorter than it had been in school. It suits him.

“What, you thought you were the only queer wizard in our year?”

Malfoy laughs, reaching for a drink the bartender has made for him without asking. It looks like a gin and tonic. “Please. That cat’s long out of the bag. Ever since the Weasley wedding guests flapped their traps and the Prophet dedicated a full week of issues to The Boy Who Lived a Lie.”

Harry folds in on himself a little at that. It’s not that he hadn’t known it made the press here at the time, of course; he just hadn’t seen any of it. He’s pretty sure it was ugly. Andromeda always made a face when the subject came up.

As if he can read the dark turn Harry’s thoughts have taken, Malfoy leans in conspiratorially and says, “I may or may not have kept a few newspaper clippings for my personal collection. Some of the photos were very inspirational.”

It startles a laugh out of Harry, and Malfoy gives him a pleased smile. His ears pink up a little and Harry finds himself fixated on the smooth skin over his clavicle. Harry straightens up. Clearly, the pints are going to his head and he should leave. Flirting with Draco Malfoy is an objectively terrible idea. Draco’s tall and lithe and gives the impression of being all coiled power. Like a snake, but probably twice as dangerous. Harry can easily find far less menacing opportunities to pull, with a lot less emotional baggage.

“What brings you to London? Other than knocking people over in the street and lurking around queer youth nights in bars?”

Harry snaps his gaze back up to meet Malfoy’s. He doesn’t seem to have noticed Harry’s inner turmoil, or if he has, he isn’t letting on. “Gringotts found some things belonging to my parents so I needed to sort that out. I’m only here for another day or two.” He doesn’t say any more. Harry knows Malfoy’s father was sentenced to be Kissed. Talking about their parents or the past in general seems like a no-go. In fact, just the two of them sitting side by side in a bar having a conversation seems like something that should bend the universe in on itself and cause it to implode.

“This is impressive,” he manages, taking a deep breath and reaching for a change of subject, gesturing around at the pub night. “Creating an environment like this.”

“Thank you,” Malfoy nods. “Times have changed a lot since we were their age, but not so much that it’s not important to give them all the support we can.” He knocks his drink back in several swallows that leave Harry staring at the long, pale column of his throat. Harry desperately wants to mark it up.

“Go easy,” he manages, aiming for teasing. “You’ll be on the floor at that rate.”

“It’s soda, Potter,” Malfoy smirks. “Someone has to get the children back to Hogwarts in one piece.”

Harry is just wrestling with why that idea seems disappointing when Malfoy gives him a long, considering look. It’s as if he’s weighing every aspect of Harry, and it’s ridiculous, but Harry suddenly doesn’t want to be found wanting. Draco seems to reach some sort of decision as he stands and leans right into Harry’s personal space, his lips warm against Harry’s ear. “Though if you want me on the floor, I don’t have to get the students back to school for an hour or so.”

Just the words alone have Harry letting out a small groan and adjusting himself in his jeans. Malfoy pulls back, grinning wickedly at him. This whole moment is absurd. Unthinkable. Harry can’t possibly go through with it. But Draco is the brightest spot in the room and he can’t look away.

“Where?” he breathes, thinking about just tugging Malfoy to him and Apparating them right back to his room at the Leaky, although that seems a bit obvious. And really who can wait that long, there’s got to be a perfectly good toilet somewhere in this pub. But Malfoy just smirks and walks away, toward a door at the back of the bar marked Emergency Exit. Harry hastens after him.

He finds himself in a service lane behind the building, immediately pressed against a brick wall. If Malfoy’s jeans looked tight from across the bar, now he’s close enough for Harry to feel it. “Someone will see,” Harry bites out, as Malfoy makes quick work of his belt buckle.

Malfoy laughs. “You think gay wizards built Equal Alley and didn’t disillusion the hell out of every dark corner?” And then Malfoy sinks to his knees and Harry can’t find himself able to care anymore.

~

Harry wakes up feeling boneless and well-rested, and it takes a moment for the night before to come back to him. The unexpected and extremely welcome revelation that Draco Malfoy gives head like a pro left him with a smile on his face and a pang of disappointment they hadn’t had time to take things further.

Draco Malfoy. He certainly hadn’t seen that one coming. It ought to make him feel uncomfortable, he’s sure. But it’s not like Harry has to see him again. Ever. It was just a very good orgasm. A chance to let out all the frustration he’s been carrying around all week. And, if he’s honest, a chance to live out a fantasy he’s been carrying around for most of a decade. One that turned out to be even better in real life than he’d frequently imagined.

He’s still thinking about it when the Gringotts owl arrives, requesting Harry attend a meeting at his earliest convenience. He showers and dresses and heads to the bank, hopeful that if he can sign the paperwork off with Bill that morning, he can get a Portkey home later in the day.

That hope starts to fade as he takes a seat in Bill’s office. Bill looks tired and not at all like someone who is about to give him good news. Harry wonders absently if the lunar cycle is affecting him.

“Look, I’m really sorry, Harry. I’ve been at it all week, but I can’t clear it.”

Harry straightens up in his seat. “There’s something cursed in there? I thought it was just… my parents’ stuff?” His mind races at the possibilities. Awful things Voldemort could have done in their final moments. Dark Magic he could have left behind.

“No, it is. It looks like Dumbledore sent along anything that might have had personal value to you. There’s some photo albums, a box of old letters. Some of your toys, looks like.” He gives Harry a small, sad smile, before consulting the list on the parchment in front of him again. “A jewellery box of your mother’s. A portrait, but the frame is empty. I expect the occupant would prefer not to spend any time they don’t have to in an abandoned vault.”

Harry nods. There’s a tight knot of emotion in his belly that he’s not sure he wants to try and untangle, even hearing Bill describe these things.

“The problem isn’t with any of that. It’s with your parents’ wedding rings. They were in a small velvet pouch, and I managed to get them out of that to examine them, but that’s all that I could do, unfortunately. You need an expert in affinal magic.”

Harry doesn’t even know what that is.

“And they’re… cursed?” It’s an ugly thought. How would that have happened? What had Voldemort done?

“No, they’re not cursed. That’s why I’m not able to safely handle them. Their magic is badly damaged, likely because of the way your parents died. Over time, the rings have become horribly unstable. I’ve spent the last three days working under shield charms so heavy I feel like my back may never recover.”

Harry starts to apologise, but Bill waves it away with a smile. “It’s my job.”

“Can’t you just, I don’t know, take the other things out of the vault and then destroy the rings? I mean, I don’t need them. I didn’t even know they existed until just now. If it’s a choice between them and being able to take the other things away?”

Bill’s horrified expression suggests that maybe Harry hasn’t quite understood what he’s been told.

“They’re just wedding rings, right? I mean, they have sentimental value, of course, but…” Harry trails off. Bill looks like he’s in pain.

“They’re Confarreatio rings, Harry. They have incredible power. They’re tied to your ancestral magic, and to your family home.”

Harry shrugs. “If you mean that ruin in Godric’s Hollow, then it’s sort of academic, isn’t it? Not like I’m going to be living there again.”

Bill makes a strangled sort of sound. “That’s not the… Look, Harry, regardless of whether you want the rings or not, they’re immensely powerful magical artefacts and they’re currently desperately volatile. They pose an actual risk, and not an insignificant one. So, I can’t clear the vault, the goblins are unhappy, and you need to hire an expert in affinal magic.”

Harry slumps back in his chair, thinking ruefully that two weeks ago he’d envisaged this whole thing as a straightforward day trip.

“Look, between you and me,” Bill says, leaning in as if someone might overhear them, though they’re alone in his office, “the goblins are the ones who’ve made a mistake here. These items should all have been added to the Potter vault and catalogued decades ago. If you spoke to Hermione, I’m sure she could help you get a solicitor, threaten Gringotts about it, and make it their problem. But the truth is, it will take you forever and cost you a fortune. If you want this wrapped up quickly, then your best bet is just to pay someone to fix the rings for you.”

“One of these… finial people?” Harry asks with a sigh. “Who do you suggest?”

“Affinal,” Bill corrects. “And there’s only one person I’d recommend.”

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Harry somehow knows what Bill’s going to say before he even opens his mouth.

“Draco Malfoy.”