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Season of the Spirit

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First of December – jelly babies 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How big?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you get?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you talking to me?” Rose asks.

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

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

“Ask your dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re silly,” Rose says solemnly.

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

Rose follows his gaze. “Jelly babies.”

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

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

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

“Indeed? And may I have one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I won’t.”