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All I Want For Christmas (Is For You To Stop Talking)

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The first of December blows into Islington on an awful, blustery Tuesday morning, heralding the coming of winter with a cold gust of rain that taps icy fingers at the windowpanes and rattles the eaves of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place. It's barely seven, and Harry's already managed to cut himself shaving. He's still trying to staunch the trickle of blood from his jaw with a bit of tissue as he flips on the lights in the boys' bedroom, the warm glow of the lamp floating overhead reflecting in the tall, paned windows.

"Up you go, lads," Harry says to the small lumps beneath the Cannons orange coverlets wadded across the two twin beds. The only answer he gets is the faint wriggle of a little bottom from Al's corner of the room. Jamie's still snoring soundly, one bare foot stuck out from the rumpled sheet. Harry crumples the blood-spotted tissue between his fingers, then tosses it into the small bin beside the door, half-filled with brightly coloured scraps of torn paper, bits of glitter and glue still caught along their edges. Kreacher hasn't yet managed to empty the remnants of Sunday night's craft project, it seems. Harry doesn't blame him. Kreacher's old and tired, and his magic's beginning to glitch a bit. And that's the last thing Harry wants to think about, really. He's no idea how they'll go on when Kreacher's gone. The crotchety elf's part of his family now.

Something hard, plastic, and pointed pierces through the thin wool of Harry's sock on his next step, and Harry swears. Toys are scattered across the bedroom floor: Lego blocks Hermione'd given them for birthdays this past year, cushions that have been pulled from the small sofa beside the window to make a decrepit fort, silver-painted wooden swords that Harry'd charmed not to inflict harm, tiny Quidditch figures that have fallen off the minuscule brooms still hovering inches above the braided rag rug that's been knocked askew. With a sigh, Harry straightens the rug with one stockinged foot, then bends down to pick up the cushions, plumping them back up again before he tosses them back on the sofa. A flick of his wand sends the Quidditch players back to their brooms and the swords and Legos into the toy boxes beneath the two windows. The room hadn't been in this much disarray last night when he'd tucked Al and Jamie into bed, which can only mean the both of them had faked sleeping long enough for Harry to close his own bedroom door in relief.

"Bastards," Harry murmurs under his breath, but a faint smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. It's not easy raising a five-year-old and a three-year-old by one's self, but Harry's managed to do it for the most part. It'd been a hard decision for both him and Ginny to end their marriage. Harder still for Ginny to give Harry primary custody of Albus and James. But in the end, it'd been good for them all. Gin had been able to keep her Quidditch career--and look at her now, coaching the English national team and her barely twenty-eight. Harry's proud of his ex-wife, and when the season slows down in the new year, she'll have the boys at her flat until spring training starts up again, then on the weekends she hasn't a match on the books. It's an odd schedule, but it works for them, at least for now. It'll be different once the boys head off to Hogwarts, but that's ages away, isn't it?

Harry pulls the coverlet off Al. "I know you're awake."

Al's face is pressed into his pillow, and his pyjamed bum is stuck up in the air, printed Crups in pyjamas of their own stretched across his night nappy. Harry's learnt the hard way that Al still struggles with not drenching the bed at night, so, despite Al's protests, it's nappies until he makes it through a whole week without wetting them. Jamie'd managed that at two, but Al's not on the same schedule as his brother, and that's perfectly fine. Harry and Ginny had been so much more anxious about Jamie's developmental progress. Now on their thrice-weekly firecalls they laugh about how terrified they'd been that they'd get him sick, drop him on his head, or just fuck him up in general. It's easier with the second kid, they both agree. There's no need to Floo to St Mungo's for a fever or a bit of colic. They know what potions to dose the boys with, and the usual bumps and scrapes of raising toddlers don't panic either of them any longer.

The pyjamed bum shifts again. There's a muffled giggle into the pillow, and Harry shakes his head ruefully. It's like this every morning. Al likes to think that if he can't see Harry, then Harry can't see him. Harry sits on the edge of the bed, his back to Al. He waits for a beat, giving Al just enough time to relax, and then he turns, reaching to scoop up his youngest son in one smooth sweep, pulling Al across the bed and into Harry's lap.

Al shrieks in laughter, his legs and arms flailing. "Let me go. Daddy! Let me go!"

"I think not." Harry tickles his son, and Al kicks out harder, his heels hitting the edge of the mattress as he squeals and wriggles. His head falls backwards over Harry's thighs; he arches his spine as only a bendy toddler or a world-class gymnast can manage.

"No!" Al tries to twist away from his father. "Jamie, help!"

Jamie just rolls over in his bed, pulling his coverlet up over his head. No assistance from that quarter is forthcoming, but then there never is. Jamie could sleep through a Hippogriff stampede if he wanted to. He's a grand ability to ignore anything that doesn't interest him, which is more of his little brother's antics than Al would like.

When Harry stops the tickling, Al beams up at him, his face flushed, his dark hair rumpled and tangled. That'll be a nightmare to brush through, won't it? Harry sighs as he smoothes Al's fringe back from his forehead. He'll leave that for Kreacher, if the elf's magic is up to it today.

"Good morning," Harry says. Al's draped across his thighs, loose and melted and toddler-limp. His pyjama top's pulled up, and he's scratching idly at his puffy belly button. Harry wants to laugh, but instead he asks, as solemnly as he can, "Did you pee yourself?"

Al looks up at Harry, his brow wrinkling. "Don't know." He pulls at the waistband of his pyjama bottoms, peering down into their depths. It doesn't seem to help, so Al shoves his fingers down into his nappy, his frown deepening, his tiny baby teeth biting into his bottom lip. Harry just watches him, amused, as Al rolls his hips from side to side. "No," Al says after a moment, and he pulls his hand out of his pyjamas. He holds it up for Harry to see. "No wet!"

"Brilliant." Harry tries to right Al, but instead of standing up properly, Al just sinks to the floor, rolling onto his back, his legs cocked and spread. Harry eyes him. "You have to go pee now." There'll be a problem if he doesn't, and Harry doesn't want to scrub down the shower again after Al decides to spray the door once the warm water hits him.

"Don't want to." Al lifts his heels, pushes them against the side of his bed. He's not looking at Harry, and he has that stubborn tilt to his chin that lets Harry know it's going to be one of those mornings. He runs his hand through his hair, reminding himself that he can't actually smother his son, as much as he might want to.

"Toilet," Harry says, as firmly as he can. He points towards the hallway. "Now."

Al scowls. "Don't want--"

"Not negotiable." Harry pulls Al to his feet. "Go pee." He meets Al's glare evenly, refusing to break his gaze. Five years of fatherhood have taught him never to blink first. The moment you do, you lose the battle and the war. It takes a moment, and then Al's shoulders drop and his bottom lip pushes out in an all too familiar sulk. Harry raises an eyebrow as Al's fists clench at his sides. "Don't even start."

For a moment he thinks Al's going to throw the tantrum anyway. Harry steels himself for the tears, but all he gets is a deeper sulk. "Mean," Al says, but he shuffles towards the door, stopping only to pull at his pyjama bottoms, his thumb hooking into one side, pushing them down just enough to reveal one pink-splotched arsecheek.

Harry snorts as his son disappears through the door. A moment later he hears the clatter of the stepstool being dragged across the bathroom tile to the toilet, and he prays that Al actually manages to hit the bowl this time. Kreacher'd been beside himself when he'd had to wash down the whole wall yesterday.

Outside, the rain comes down harder, the soft clink of sleet against the window glass growing stronger. It's going to be a proper stormy winter day, it seems, which means wrangling the boys not only into their school uniforms but also into puffy coats, scarfs, galoshes and pom beanies. Harry pushes himself up off the low bed; he winces as his hip twinges. He's getting older, and his body's starting to feel it. By next summer he'll be a proper thirty-year-old dad, and Kingsley's been making noises about moving Harry up from Deputy Head once John Dawlish retires. Not that John'll do that any time soon--or at least Harry hopes he doesn't. He's not ready for that sort of responsibility, no matter what Kingsley says.

Harry catches sight of a cushion, shoved beneath the end of Al's bed, one he'd missed earlier. He pulls it out, dusts it off. It's a new one, big and soft and creamy white with Cuddle Weather scrawled across the front in thick black script. Molly'd brought it over when she'd been by this weekend to see the boys. She'd meant for it to go on the worn leather sofa in the library, but Al had fallen in love with its soft squishiness and had absconded upstairs with it before Harry could stop him, and nothing Harry could say later could counter his insistence that Nan had brought it for him.

Al's always had that streak of his mother's stubbornness in him. Harry smiles a bit as he plumps the cushion back up, sets it on the sofa with the others. His fingers skim the blue-striped cotton of the sofa arm. He and Gin had bought it back when they'd found out she was pregnant with Al. Back when they were trying to make a go of it all. A twinge of an old grief goes through Harry. He's used to being on his own now. He likes it even. But there are times he misses waking up next to someone, misses having someone waiting for him after he's put the boys to bed, misses sharing his life with another person. It's not that he wants Ginny back. They're better off friends and co-parents. Harry knows that. But on mornings like this, when it's cold outside and he's not slept well, Harry'll admit he wishes he could find someone who'll fit against his imperfections, who'd understand those hidden parts of him again.

But Harry doesn't believe in soulmates, and between his job and looking after the boys, he hasn't the energy to go out to the bars and the clubs and the single-parent meetings where he might find someone who might be interested in taking on not only him but also a ramshackle old house and two rambunctious boys. Not to mention dealing with the constant scrutiny of the press.

And then there's the other issue, the one Harry doesn't like to think about all that much. The secret no one else knows, except Ginny, who'd guessed just before they'd split, when Harry hadn't been interested in sex. At least not sex with her.

He'd thought he just didn't care about shagging, really. Thought he was the kind of bloke who could have a good fuck every few months and be fine with it. He'd thought even, perhaps, that's what Gin wanted, a husband who didn't press her for sex, the way other husbands did.

Merlin, but he'd been wrong.

About everything, really. What Ginny wanted. What he wanted. And it'd been in the middle of yet another fight about it all, when Ginny'd shouted at him that maybe it was just he didn't want her, that maybe he'd like to fuck someone else. Luna, perhaps, or Hermione, or that perky blonde Auror who'd just come out of training and whose name Harry can never remember. And all Harry'd been able to do was look at Gin and say no.

It'd come out brokenly, ripped raw from his throat because he'd known then, in that moment. Known without a shadow of a doubt that it wasn't another woman he wanted. That as much as he loved Ginny--and he still does, even two years later--Harry needed something different. Something that wasn't smooth curves and rose-scented skin. He'd seen it then, looking at Gin, at the boyishness of her figure, at her muscled shoulders and strong thighs. When he'd slept with her, it hadn't been the swell of her breasts that had excited him. It'd been the smooth expanse of her back, the narrow plane of her hips--the same narrowness that had made birthing Jamie and Al so hard for her.

I like men, Harry'd said, and it'd been the first time he'd said those words out loud. To himself. To anyone else. He can still remember the heart-pounding horror of it, the sudden thrill of relief that'd spread through him at the rightness of the admission, the realisation that as much as he loved his wife, he could never love her the way she wanted him to.

They'd cried, the both of them, but Harry thinks that it'd been a relief for Ginny too, knowing that it wasn't her, that she'd done nothing wrong. They'd lain together in their bed that night, wrapped around each other, worn out, emotionally drained, and when Ginny had asked Harry quietly if he'd married her to be part of her family, Harry'd been able to draw a slow, deep breath and nod. He'd wanted that so badly, wanted to be a Weasley, wanted to have a mum and a dad and brothers galore. And when Ron and Hermione had married, it'd seemed the right thing to buy a ring for Ginny. To get everything he'd wanted. Everything he'd dreamed of all those years ago in the Mirror of Erised. To belong to someone else. To be part of real family. To be loved.

Harry doesn't regret his marriage. It'd given him Jamie and Al, and Ginny will always be his best friend in a way that Ron and Hermione can never be. They shared their lives, their bodies, their love. Being divorced hasn't erased any of that. They're stronger now, the two of them, and they're better parents. Even Molly's admitted that in the end.

The toilet flushes.

"Wash your hands," Harry calls out, and he hears the stepstool being dragged back across the bathroom tiles. He walks over to Jamie's bed, tugs the coverlet down from Jamie's head. Sleepy brown eyes blink up at him, and Harry ruffles Jamie's chestnut curls. "Time to get dressed for school," Harry says, his voice soft. Jamie's never at his best in the mornings, unlike his brother.

Jamie yawns, then tries to pull the coverlet back over his head. "Not going," he mumbles.

Harry pulls the coverlet back down again. "You are." He sits on the edge of Jamie's bed. "Mr Zhang’ll miss you terribly."

"Unh-unh." Jamie tries to burrow back under the coverlet again, but Harry tosses it down to the end of the bed. Jamie frowns. "I'm staying in bed."

"Not on my watch, I'm afraid." Harry reaches for his eldest, hefting Jamie up and standing. Jamie's a dead weight against his hip, and he tries to flop backwards, out of Harry's grasp. Harry's ready for that manoeuvre, though. Jamie tries it every weekday morning. Harry catches Jamie, sets him onto the floor, holding him up beneath his armpits so he doesn't sink onto the rug. "Walk."

Jamie lets his leg kick out. Harry holds him upright.

"Properly," Harry says, pushing Jamie forward a bit.

With great reluctance, Jamie lets Harry walk him out of the bedroom and into the bath. It's like herding a cranky Kneazle; Harry expects Jamie to hiss at him any moment. Still, he manages to wrangle his son into the bath just in time to find a half-naked Al trying to climb up on the sink; Harry rescues the bottle of Penhaligion's 33 Hermione'd given him for his last birthday before it crashes to the floor. He wonders sometimes if he ought to make use of his own en-suite instead of sharing this bath with the boys, but it's just easier in the end. Given Kreacher's advancing age, there are only so many rooms in this house he can keep up with. Despite Kreacher's grumblings, Harry's already had him shut off the top floor, as well as the other two bedrooms down the hall. They don't need that much space, anyway. Harry's fine with his bedroom, and the boys do better when they're together.

"No," Harry says firmly, setting the glass bottle back on the counter as he hooks one arm around Al's waist and deposits him back on the floor beside his wadded up pyjama bottoms and crumpled nappy. "You know better."

"Want--" Al starts to say, and Harry gives him an even look. Al frowns and scratches his bare arse. "Mean," he mumbles again, and Jamie snorts.

"You're going to get a time out." Jamie pokes at his little brother, and Al swats his hand away.

Before Jamie can retaliate, Harry pushes him towards the toilet. "Pee." He turns back to Al, pulling Al's half-buttoned pyjama top off and setting him in the tub just long enough to rinse off the sweat and any potentially unnoticed pee from the night. Harry's sceptical about Al's testing techniques. Behind him Jamie flushes the toilet, then a moment later joins Al in the tub, turning to let Harry rinse off his bum as well. Al shrieks and splashes water at his brother; Harry pulls him out before Jamie can hit him back and dries Al off in one of the fluffy blue towels folded neatly on a shelf.

A Summoning spell whips two school uniforms from their place in the boys' closets, sending them tumbling into the bath; they land in a rumpled heap on the tiled floor.

Harry helps Al into his Martin Miggs pants. He eyes Al sceptically. "Sure you don't need a nappy cover?" There'd been an incident last week during naptime at school, but Iona McKinsey, Al's teacher, had assured Harry it'd been a random accident due to drinking a bit too much squash at lunch.

The look Al gives him is scathing. "I'm not a baby." He rests his hand on Harry's arm as Harry helps him into his dark blue school trousers.

"Says you." Jamie hops out of the tub, water dripping everywhere. Harry hands him a towel; he scrubs it across his face, completely missing the truly wet bits of him. "You're still little."

Al's face screws up. "Am not."

Before the row can go mental, Harry tugs Al's white polo shirt over his head, followed by the dark blue jumper with the tiny Niffler's Garden insignia embroidered in white and silver. Al's head pops through, his cheeks flushed and hair rumpled as he wriggles his arms into the jumper sleeves.

Harry tries to smooth Al's hair down. It's a lost cause; the cowlick on the back of his head springs back up again. Al might have inherited Gin's obstinacy, but his messy hair and utter unconcern about it comes straight from Harry. "Go on downstairs," Harry says with a sigh. "Kreacher'll have breakfast waiting." Al's halfway out the door when Harry leans back and shouts after him, "See if he can find your trainers."

"They're under the library sofa," Jamie says. He's half-bent over, trying to keep his balance on one foot whilst he shoves the other through his pants. Harry steadies him, helps Jamie pull the pants up over his narrow hips. He rubs his palm over the knobs of Jamie's spine, and he remembers how small Jamie'd been when he and Gin brought him home.

Jamie'd been born early, a month too soon, and he'd been tiny and pale in St Mungo's nursery. He'd had to stay in hospital for over a fortnight, and it'd been awful for Ginny to be separated from him. She'd spent her days sat in a rocker, watching the monitoring charms pulse faintly over Jamie's crib, and Harry'd felt so lost, so useless, so incapable of doing anything to help his son, his wife. Sometimes he wonders if that'd been the start of their falling apart, his inability to do anything in those first days of Jamie's life, but he knows that's ridiculous. The problems in their marriage had been there long before Jamie came around. Before they'd even said their vows, really.

Before Harry'd been willing to admit to himself what some of his more unsettling dreams might mean.

"Ow," Jamie says, his voice muffled by the white cotton polo. His hands flail from the sleeves; his hair's caught on one of the buttons. "Dad!"

Harry untangles him, pulling the polo down, smoothing it out. "Better?"

Jamie's trying to scramble into his trousers. "If I don't get downstairs, Al'll eat all the toast."

And really, that's not half-wrong. For a three-year-old, Al has a voracious appetite for the buttered toast soldiers Kreacher makes for him each morning.

"You know, there's plenty of bread in the pantry," Harry says, but Jamie's already tearing down the hallway, his jumper wadded up in his fist. Harry shakes his head, sits down on the closed toilet seat. He can hear Jamie's bare feet thumping down the staircase, and he closes his eyes. Breathes out. He needs a moment to gather himself, to revel in the silence of a moment alone before he goes downstairs to wrangle the boys into their shoes and coats, before he has to try to find backpacks and lunches and his own work satchel.

The house settles around him, warm and comfortable and safe. Harry's always felt as if the house could be another member of the family; there's something almost alive about it, as if it's listening, watching, protecting them all.

Harry presses a palm against the wall. The white tiles are cool against his skin, and he can almost imagine he feels a ripple of sympathy coming from them.

"They'll be all right today, yeah?" Harry asks, and he knows any of his friends who found out he was talking to his house, asking it for comfort, would think him half-mad. But he doesn't care, not when a calmness settles over him, a certainty that whatever amorphous fears he might have about his sons are ridiculous, something he doesn't even need to worry about. They'll be fine. Happy. That's all that matters to Harry these days.

With a heavy exhale, Harry stands. He's a long day of meetings ahead of him, and he's at least two investigations to close out and another three to check in on, not to mention having to tear strips off one of his Auror's arse for improper investigatory techniques that the Wizengamot Prosecution Service has complained about. That's really not something he's looking forward to. Denholm's a prick at the best of times; he'll only be more cantankerous after Harry goes after him. It's always the older Aurors who are the worst. Set in their ways and resentful of having an upstart half their age supervising them, Chosen One or not.

Harry rinses his hands off in the sink, then runs them through his hair, trying to smooth it down. Like his attempt with Al's locks, it doesn't work. He eyes his reflection in the mirror, frowning at the dark circles beneath his eyes, the bits of silver-grey already starting to show at his temples. Hermione tells him it's not there, but when Harry turns his head in the harsh light above the mirror, he can see the grey hairs glinting amongst his messy black curls. Maybe he ought to use a charm to hide them, but Harry's hesitant to admit he might be that vain. So instead he smoothes down his wine-red tie, straightens his pristine sleeve cuffs. His charcoal wool Auror jacket's downstairs on the armchair where he'd thrown it the night before; Harry hopes to hell he'd left his satchel along with it.

A turn of his head, a lift of his jaw, and his reflection mimics him.

"Could be worse," Harry murmurs, and his reflection yawns, stretches, then shrugs in agreement. Harry frowns at it. "Don't get cheeky."

The reflection winks at him, then disappears as Harry steps away.

He's a day to get started, after all.

***

The Niffler's Garden is the most prestigious wizarding nursery school in England and has been for the last century or more. Rumour has it that the one of the Queen's cousins attended, although Harry's sceptical of that. Most of the royals who turn out to have magical abilities are taught at home by tutors vetted through the DMLE. Harry's seen the files on William's education; the Deputy Head Auror at the time had been in charge of the process, and Harry'd found the reports tucked in the back of one of the cabinets in his office one lazy summer afternoon when work had been slow and half the Ministry had been gone on holiday.

Al's already trying to squirm away when they land in the school Floo. Harry grabs him by the back of his coat before he can tear off down the hall towards his classroom. Jamie's a bit more subdued. This is his last year at nursery school; he'll be switching over to one of the wizarding primary schools next year, and Harry's not certain any of them are ready for that.

He ruffles Jamie's hair. "All right there?" he asks.

Jamie nods. His expression brightens when he sees his cousin Fred hovering down the hall, his hands shoved in his pockets, his wiry hair a dark halo around his chubby brown face. "Dad, can I--"

"Go on." Harry smiles down at his son. "Just don't get into any trouble before Mr Zhang starts class."

But Jamie's not listening to him. He's halfway down the hall, shouting for Fred to wait up, as if Fred wasn't already looking for Jamie's arrival.

Al twists against Harry's grip. "Lemme go," he whines, and Harry raises an eyebrow at him.

"Not until I hand you over to Mrs McKinsey." The last time Harry'd set Al free at school he'd hidden in the boys' toilets for the first hour. Poor Iona McKinsey had rung Harry up in a panic, asking if Al had stayed home ill without Harry calling him in.

Harry marches Al over to the large and airy corner room that Mrs McKinsey has enchanted to look like a country meadow today. Only the cubicles lining one wall and the desks shoved up against the rain-streaked windows ruin the illusion.

"I thought we could use a bit of nature this morning," Mrs McKinsey's saying to a group of mothers as Harry and Al come in. "With all the sleet that's coming down, I'm certain we won't actually make it outside to play."

"Merlin, help us all," Pansy Parkinson-Goldstein drawls from the back of the group. "The very thought of Ava and Uri coming home this afternoon without wearing themselves out today terrifies me." She looks over at McKinsey, and Harry recognises the weariness on her face, as much as she's tried to hide her dark circles with makeup and a bright red lipstick. It's the exhaustion brought on by parenting toddlers--not to mention twins. To be honest, Harry doesn't know how she does it. Al and Jamie are enough for him and he's grateful they're two years apart in age. Pansy might have elves at home to help, but Harry knows she's a hands-on mum as well, which had surprised him at first. It's not what he would have expected from the girl he'd known in Hogwarts, but perhaps they've all grown into their better selves after the war. Pansy reaches over and squeezes McKinsey's shoulder. "Bless you for all you do."

A muffled laugh ripples around the room. Harry smiles a bit ruefully himself. He wouldn't wish twenty rambunctious three-year-olds on his worst enemy, but Mrs McKinsey seems to thrive on their energy.

"Wellies, please," Harry says, and Al sticks out a foot, wobbling only slightly. Harry pulls off one rubber boot, then the other; he holds Al steady, his fingers cupped beneath Al's armpit.

Harry unwinds Al's scarf and peels his coat off before plucking off Al's purple and gold beanie, knit by Molly to resemble dragon's scales. His hair's still an ungodly mess; even Kreacher hadn't been able to tame it this morning. Al's bouncing from stockinged foot to stockinged foot, his eyes wide and shining as he studies the expanse of green grass McKinsey's conjured across the previously tiled floor. He's practically vibrating with the need to go throw himself onto it, Harry can tell.

"Trainers first." Harry digs Al's shoes out of his satchel and hands them over.

"Dad--"

Harry quells Al's protest with a look, and Al heaves an irritated sigh, dropping down on his arse and sticking his socked feet up in the air. Harry bends over and slides the trainers on, tying them tightly with a knotting charm before Al scrambles to his feet, his jumper ruching up at his back to reveal a stretch of pale golden skin. Harry pulls it back down; his hand lingers on Al's jumper, in a vain attempt to hold him still.

"You're going to behave, yes?" Harry asks, and Al just nods, barely paying attention. Really, Harry could probably extract an Unbreakable Vow from Al right now without much trouble, but that seems a bit inappropriate to do to a three-year-old. "Go on then." Harry releases his grip on Al's jumper, and Al darts off with a shout of glee.

Harry just shakes his head as he folds Al's outerwear and tucks it and the galoshes into the cubicle labelled Potter, along with with Al's lunch bag. The school serves a hot meal in the cafeteria every day, but both Al and Jamie are notoriously picky about what they eat, so Harry's found himself in the habit of making sure the boys have a sandwich and a bit of fruit with them just in case. For some reason Al's been demanding liverwurst on his for the past week; given his former father-in-law's obsession with the stuff, Harry suspects Arthur's had something to do with this new insistence. He wouldn't mind it if Al would actually eat the damned stuff instead of just taking a bite or two, then peeling the bread away and noshing on just that.

The door opens and a small blond boy barrels in, throwing his puffy grey goose-down coat towards the cubicles. The hood lands on Harry's boot, and he watches in amusement as the boy tackles Al, sending them both sprawling across the grass in laughter.

"Oh, my God, Scorpius." Astoria Malfoy's there, her pale blond hair twisted into a tight knot at the nape of her neck, her pink mouth pursed in annoyance. She looks over at Harry with a sigh. "I apologise for my son's reckless disregard for Albus's personal space."

Harry just laughs and picks up Scorpius's coat, tucking it into the cubicle above the Parkinson-Goldsteins'. "It's been over twelve hours since they've seen each other," he says, his voice a bit dry. "I wouldn't expect anything less."

Astoria wrinkles her nose. "Thanks for taking him to yours last night. Sorry I was a bit late picking him up. My surgery was a bit more complicated than I expected." She leans over Harry, tucks Scorpius's satchel and scarf next to his coat. Her own swings open just a bit, and Harry catches a glimpse of her Healer's scrubs beneath.

"Not a problem," he says. "Do you have another scheduled today?"

"At half-eight," Astoria says, and she glances down at her pale green scrub trousers, then up at the clock on the wall. It's ten to eight now. She grimaces. "Or whenever I make it over, I suppose."

Harry buttons his coat back up. "Should I plan on retrieving Scorp today too?" It's a routine he and Astoria have fallen into over the past few months; he'll take Scorpius for an hour or so after school or she'll take Al and Jamie, depending on which one of them might have to work late. Single parents helping each other out, they've dubbed it, and Harry's never wanted to ask why Scorpius's dad doesn't come get him. Or drop him off at school for that matter. Astoria doesn't really talk about Malfoy; the closest she's come to it was one of the rare days when they'd both had time to grab a coffee from Pret before going to work. Even then all she'd said was that her divorce had been complicated, but that they were doing their best to raise Scorpius togetehr, and it'd been ace of Malfoy to let her have primary custody, given the fact that his family might have made a claim due to Scorpius being the sole Malfoy heir. It sounded like a load of bollocks to Harry, and he doesn't understand their whole arrangement. Still, Scorpius seems well-adjusted enough, and, with Ron and Hermione's Rose at their side, Scorpius is Al's best mate at school.

Speaking of Rose, Harry lets his gaze slide over the kids already gathering on Mrs McKinsey's charmed grass. Rose isn't among them, and that worries Harry a bit. She hadn't been feeling well yesterday, and he makes a note to check in with Hermione when he gets to the Ministry, see if they'd kept her home. Ron'll be the one to stay with her if they had; it's easier for him to leave the shop in George's hands than for Hermione to rearrange her meeting schedule.

"I ought to be fine with retrieving my terror of a son by afternoon." Astoria looks over at Harry. "Off to the Ministry then?"

Harry shrugs. "I'd ask if you had a moment for coffee, but if you've a surgery to get to…"

"I'd rather have a latte and a good chat with you." Astoria gives him a regretful smile. "But Mr Nibley's foot is Splinched into his shoulder, and he's rather cross that we haven't managed to make it right yet." She rolls her eyes. "Mind, it's his fault that it's there to begin with, and he didn't particularly care for me telling him that at a hundred and three, he might want to deactivate his Apparition license."

"Edgar Nibley?" Harry asks, and at Astoria's nod, he snorts. "Might be out of his control, anyway. If I'm right, he's Splinched himself four times in the past two years, so once your end files paperwork with our lot, a representative from the Apparition office will be by to see him."

Astoria shakes her head, starts to button the grey wool buttons on her coat. "He won't be best pleased."

They never are. It doesn't matter; removing Apparition abilities is for the individual's own good. No one wants a liver Splinched with a heart, after all. There's no coming back from something like that.

"Maybe we could get a coffee later this week." Harry doesn't know why he asks. He hopes he's not leading Astoria on, making her think that he might be interested in her. At least romantically. He's not, but he's fallen into that trap before with one or two of the other single mums when all he'd wanted was a play date for Al or Jamie. Ginny thinks it's hysterically funny, but Harry's grown a lot more careful about that sort of thing in the past year or so. He doesn't have the time or interest to date anyone. Male or female. The most he can manage is the occasional shag in one of the toilets of the Muggle gay bar he goes to every six months or so; even on the weekends Gin has the boys Harry's too tired to do more than collapse on the sofa with a beer and a Tottenham match on the telly. He clears his throat and adds, just to be clear, "I'd like to pick your parenting brain."

What he doesn't want to admit is that he's lonely, even with the support of a large family like the Weasleys and a swathe of friends who are starting to pop out kids of their own. It's just none of them really know what it's like to be doing this alone sometimes, or what it feels like to go back to an empty house once you hand your kids off to your ex for the weekend or hols. Maybe it's good prep for when the boys go off to Hogwarts, but it doesn't mean Harry likes it. As much as Jamie and Al drive him mental some days, when they're gone nothing at Grimmauld feels quite right.

For him, for Kreacher, or for the whole bloody house.

Astoria touches Harry's arm. It's nothing much, the barest squeeze, and there's nothing terribly intimate about it. Harry's left feeling oddly comforted, and that's what he likes about Astoria, the way she seems to know what her friends need. And Harry is her friend, he realises. Maybe just through their sons, but perhaps that's enough, knowing that she understands how hard this can be, knows that sometimes you need someone besides your ex to talk to about the kids, that another perspective, from someone who isn't dragging along all that familial or martial baggage.

"Perhaps Thursday." Astoria's smile is warm. "Does that work for you?"

"I'll schedule it in my diary," Harry promises, and then Astoria's gone in a rush of grey wool and fluttering hands.

A familiar, musky perfume makes Harry's nostrils flare. He looks around; Pansy's come up behind him with Uri and Ava's satchels. He steps back as she leans in to slip them in the cubicle. Her gaze flicks his way.

"Looking for the next Mrs Potter?" Pansy asks, her voice low. "Because I'll warn you, Stori's far more stubborn than she seems."

"No." Harry frowns at her, his annoyance rising. He's tired of everyone assuming if he talks to a woman he must be interested in dating her. Christ, if they only knew. Harry supposes Astoria's pretty enough, but it's her ex-husband who'd be more likely to stiffen his prick. Not that Harry would admit he's had thoughts like that about Malfoy to anyone. Especially not Pansy Parkinson-Goldstein, for fuck's sake. "It's nothing like that."

Pansy raises an eyebrow. "Really."

Harry gives her an even look. "Don't start with me, Parkinson."

That makes Pansy's red lips curve up. "And there's the Potter I remember." She steps back from the cubicles. Her dark hair's no longer bobbed the way it'd been in their school days. It falls in loose curls around her face, perfectly tousled around her shoulders. Four-inch heels put her on eye-level with Harry, even though they're sinking a bit into the charmed grass of the classroom, and he's no idea how she walks in them, particularly in the weather outside. Her sharp brown eyes sweep over him, almost as if she's considering something, and then she crosses her arms across her chest, the oversize folds of her coat pleating around her small frame.

She lifts her pointed chin. "Has McKinsey wrangled you into helping with the holiday pageant yet?"

Harry eyes her suspiciously. "No. I brought cupcakes for Hallowe'en."

Pansy's smile grows more fierce. "Oh, Potter, you idiot. Don't you know that's nothing when it comes to parental involvement?" She glances over at the other mums, still crowded around McKinsey. "I read twice a week at story time, Millicent and Rabia bring snacks every Friday, then stay to clean them up, and even Astoria manages to swing by at lunches to give poor Iona and Claudia a break, hopefully for a fag and a tipple, which is what I'd need after wrangling this lot for half the day."

"Claudia?" Harry asks blankly.

"McKinsey's aide." Pansy tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. "You didn't think Iona could handle all our children on her own, did you?"

Well, actually, Harry had. "Oh."

"Claudia comes in from ten to two, but you wouldn't know that, since like all the fathers, you never seem to make it to anything but dropoff and pickup." Pansy's tone is pointed, and Harry feels his face heat.

"I have to work," he points out. "I'm Deputy Head--"

Pansy snorts and flicks her fingers dismissively. "We all know what you are, Potter. But most of the mothers work too. Millicent and Rabia are solicitors; Astoria's a Healer; I've my Prophet column to write. We still make time to support Iona."

And that puts Harry's back up. "I'm quite involved in my sons' education, thank you very much."

"But are you?" Pansy looks amused. "I'd never know."

Harry scowls at her; Pansy doesn't look away. "I'm always willing to help whenever I'm needed."

"Well, then." Pansy's eyes narrow at Harry for a brief moment, and then she calls out, "Iona, darling, the loveliest thing just happened. Harry here has volunteered to assist with the pageant this year. Isn't that kind of him?"

McKinsey looks over at them, her face lighting up. "Really? That's wonderful news. Thank you so much, Mr Potter. The children will be thrilled to have you here."

Harry glances between McKinsey and Pansy, half-horrified. But everyone else is watching him, and he can't bear to embarrass Al's teacher, so he just nods and says, "Happy to be on board." He turns back to Pansy and murmurs, "You utter bitch."

Pansy just laughs. "Well, there's no way I'm going to be involved in this particular pageantry clusterfuck. Besides, both my mother and Tony's would have a complete wobbly if I had to arrange a manger scene, even one with Father Christmas and a crustacean or two in it." She plays with her wedding ring, spinning it around beneath the enormous diamond on her left hand, her nails blood red against her pale skin. "I claim exemption on religious grounds."

"You're awful," Harry says, his shoulders sagging. "I ought to run your family's financials through the Auror system."

"That's illegal." Pansy laughs again. "Besides, the Goldsteins are as clean as pink, and the Parkinsons are smart enough to have hidden anything we'd rather not have your department aware of." She winks at Harry, looking rather pleased with herself.

All Harry can do is glower at her.

"Oh, do cheer up." Pansy's horribly cheerful now. "Isn't it Christmas? Consider me your angel. Maybe in the course of wrangling two dozen toddlers you'll find your heart's desire or whatever it is that happens in those awful heartwarming films your sort watches this time of year."

Harry glares at her. "I've heard you discussing Love Actually yourself, Parkinson."

Pansy shrugs. "But is that really a Christmas film? I'd say it's more about the human condition than a mere holiday celebration."

That does it. Harry flips two fingers her way. Discreetly, though, and in no way visible by the children. "I have to go to work." He turns on his heel, fully aware of Pansy's husky laugh following him as he slips through the last minute Floo-rush of parents dropping children off.

"Better schedule rehearsal times in your diary," Pansy calls out after him. "Iona's a perfectionist, you know." When Harry looks back over his shoulder, she waves at him, more cheekily than he likes.

Harry hates her. He really, truly does.

And yet, it's nearing Christmas, and it's for Al, and maybe Parkinson has a point. Maybe he's been coasting a bit when it comes to his involvement in the school. Maybe he ought to take the time to help out.

Besides, it's only a Yule pageant for three-year-olds, not a West End production. How difficult can it be?

On that thought, Harry pushes his way to the Floo, feeling rather smug with himself. Perhaps he might not be Father of the Year, but he's miles ahead of the other dads in Al's class.

That's for bloody certain.