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19th December 2017

Harry glares up through the windscreen of his borrowed SUV and makes eye contact with a shrivelled, disapproving old woman half a second before the heel of his hand slams into the steering wheel and the horn blares loudly at the bus full of senior citizens that has just cut him up. It’s the third time something like this has happened since he pulled away from King’s Cross and he’s had enough.

“Learn to drive!” he complains pointlessly. The offending driver can’t hear him, he knows that, but the sour-faced old lady shakes her head and elbows her friends, tutting.

“Dad, calm down,” comes a voice from the magically-enlarged back seat.

Still fuming, Harry meets his daughter’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “I’m perfectly calm, Lily. I’m just a little bit fed up of buses thinking they can do whatever they feel like because they’re big. That’s all.”

Lily scrunches her nose up. “You need to untwist. Seriously.”

“Untwist,” he repeats under his breath. He looks away from her know-it-all expression and focuses instead on the reflection of his own eyes, just for a moment. He really doesn’t remember when he got those dark circles and crow’s feet. Where they came from, or what they want. Tearing his eyes back to the road, he catches one last glimpse of the bus’ elderly occupants—he doesn’t suppose they remember either.

Fuck, he’s tired. He’s never been very good at driving, either, but here he is, trundling along at sixty miles an hour with a pounding headache, a short temper, four children and Lily’s cat, who doesn’t seem capable of being parted from her. It doesn’t matter that he only borrowed the new (and heavily modified, much to Molly’s chagrin) car from Arthur because it’s his turn to get the kids from the station and that Lily could have quite easily stayed at home. No, because she’s horrified at the idea that she might miss something, especially something to do with Hogwarts.

So there she sits, cross-legged next to the window, holding a purring cat-ball on her lap and telling Harry to ‘untwist’ himself. He supposes he should feel fortunate that she’s not adding her voice to the nonsensical argument that’s currently raging between Al, Rose Weasley, and James. Harry pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs as the road in front of him swims momentarily. It’s a shame that ‘not wanting to know’ doesn’t lessen the pain in his skull.

“Err, that’s disgusting!” Rose cries, to scattered laughter from the back seat.

It’s not as though he isn’t pleased to see them; the winter term always feels like the longest, and he has missed James’ little acts of rebellion, Al’s strange questions, and the Siamese twin act with Rose that often leaves him puzzled over how many children he actually has. But... he wishes they could be pleased to see him in a quiet way. Just for a little while. Just until he can get the last of this day off his skin. And see what sort of mood Ginny is in.

Untwist, he intones gamely inside his head. Untwist.

“Anyway,” Al is saying to Rose, “Scorp says that now his mum and dad are getting divorced, he’s going to—”

“What?” Harry interrupts, turning around in his seat to look at his son so sharply that the car veers to the right and Lily jumps and grabs onto the arm rest. The cat, it seems, has secured itself by hooking sharp claws into her thigh. “Sorry, Lil.” He straightens up the car with some effort and instead regards Al in the mirror. “What was that about Mal... about Scorpius’ mum and dad?”

Al looks back, all green eyes and ink-smudged nose. “They’re getting divorced.”

“Scorpius told you that?” Harry presses, feeling unexpectedly jarred by the news.

“Yeah. But it’s in the paper, too... Oi, James. James! Let me borrow that a minute.” Al leans across Rose and tries to take the Daily Prophet behind which James has been hiding since the journey began.

James glowers. “No.”

“Just for two seconds!”

“No, Al, bugger off. I’m reading.”

“Language,” Harry murmurs absently. He hasn’t read the Prophet in forever, but he still finds himself craning his neck pointlessly, trying to see the printed pages James is hanging onto.

“You’re not reading, you’re perving on Reeda Rathbone!” Al crows.

James glares in the way only a teenage boy can as Lily and Rose set up a chorus of “James loves Reeda, James loves Reeda...” which makes Harry smile to himself despite the pounding in his head.

“You’re dead,” he mutters darkly, clutching more tightly onto the paper.

“James, stop being an arsekettle,” Al whines. Rose snickers approvingly.

“Language,” Harry sighs again, secretly amused at the creativity of the insult.

Lily sighs and then there’s a flurry of rustling paper and discontented protests from which emerges a smug looking Lily, a mildly ruffled James, clutching the pages with the pictures of the windswept captain of Puddlemere United, and a delighted Al, who is now rifling through the remaining pages, eyes narrowed.

“Here it is,” Al says, folding over the newspaper and balancing it on his drawn-up knees.

Don’t sit like that in the car, Harry thinks idly, but says nothing. Takes a deep breath.

“It is with regret that Draco and Astoria Malfoy (nee Greengrass) announce their separation after a marriage of fifteen years. The separation will be made formal in the New Year, and the couple’s only child, Scorpius, will remain at Malfoy Manor with his father,” Al reads, finishing with a flourish and an ‘I told you so’ smile.

“Poor Scorpius,” says Rose, holding out her hand and allowing Lily’s cat to lick it.

Al shrugs. “He’s always saying he never sees his mum anyway.”

“Isn’t he embarrassed?” Lily puts in. “You know, having it all over the paper?”

“He doesn’t really...” Al starts.

“... get embarrassed,” he and Rose advise as one. Lily lifts her eyebrows.

Divorced, Harry thinks, switching off from the noise in the back seat once more. Malfoys don’t get divorced, surely. It has been less than four months since he saw Malfoy again in the flesh after all those years, and now Harry can’t help wondering what he missed. It had been so startling to see him again, just standing on the platform with his lookalike son and his pointy wife, that he hadn’t paid attention to much else. Now he thinks about it, he doesn’t suppose Malfoy did look all that happy. But then, he never has, has he?

Harry doesn’t care what some of the more sensible voices in his head have to say, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of natural curiosity about the strange people in one’s life. Or the strange people who used to be in one’s life...

Harry jumps, startled by a series of frantic horn blasts from behind him, and realises that he’s slowed practically to a standstill in the middle of a dual carriageway. Horrified, he puts his foot down and makes apologetic hand gestures at the other cars as he scrubs at his heated face and wonders if this headache can possibly get any worse. It’s a good few seconds later that he realises he has let go of the steering wheel completely.

“Fucking Malfoy,” he mutters to himself as he corrects the swerve and holds on tight to the wheel.

**~*~**

As they drive into Ottery St Catchpole, everyone falls silent, just for a second or two, to look out of the windows and admire the glistening frosty coating on the road and the grass and the trees. He drives past Ron and Hermione’s cottage on the outskirts, past the cluster of village shops, the post office and the pub, the duck pond, Lily’s school—closed for Christmas—and finally pulls into his own driveway.

When he gets out of the car and stretches, he can see the Burrow in the distance. He inhales deeply and savours the smell of winter, the cool air, and the faintest hint of the smoke curling from Arthur and Molly’s crooked chimney. A faint ripple of a child’s laughter on the wind could be Hugo playing in the cold air with his grandma, but it’s soon buried in the bangs of car doors and the scraping and thumping of trunks. Somewhere to his left, Lily’s cat chirrups in protest at the sudden change of temperature.

“Right,” Harry calls, dragging the freezing air into his lungs and shaking himself into action. “Hang on for two seconds while I lighten your trunks.” He draws his wand and casts the spell on each in turn, as he does so, darting anxious glances at the paintwork of Arthur’s car—he knows better than to return it scratched twice in a row.

“Coats and shoes off, trunks upstairs,” Harry attempts, sighing. “Quietly? Quietish?”

“Cheers, Dad... race you upstairs... give me that back, James... ergh, what’s that? ... GIANT HIPPOGRIFF!” assaults his ears from several different angles and then he’s alone in the driveway.

The house smells cold and musty, as though it’s been empty all day, but he can hear Ginny in the kitchen. Kicking the door closed behind him, he heads toward the sound of clacking plates, pulling off his winter coat as he goes. He’s only barely aware of the pre-emptive intake of breath as he enters the kitchen and attempts to shake off his horrible day and tune out the clatters and raised voices of his children upstairs. With a soft sigh, he realises that he has forgotten to take Rose home.

It’s not the first time, either.

“Everyone in one piece?” she asks without turning around from the counter. Her work robes are flung over a kitchen chair as though she hasn’t been home for long.

“All four of them,” he admits, and it takes a moment for Ginny to catch his meaning.

“Again?”

“Afraid so.”

She swipes her long hair out of her face and then lets it go. “Head Auror and you’re incapable of bringing home the right number of children. What’s that about?”

“At work I have other people to do the counting for me,” Harry says, knowing she’s half-joking. But only half. “Old age?” he suggests instead when there’s no response.

Ginny laughs shortly and flicks her wand, sending a flurry of plates flying across the room and into a cupboard. Harry steps back as he always does, each time thinking they are certain to collide and shatter in mid air, but as usual, they stack themselves neatly and the cupboard door clicks shut. She starts on last night’s pans; Harry frowns.

“I said I’d do that,” he says softly.

Ginny looks up briefly, expressive eyes harassed. She shrugs awkwardly and Harry, who has been leaning against the worktop, stiffens slightly and presses his hands to the marble.

“It was a mess. It was annoying me. I thought you were supposed to have the afternoon off,” she says accusingly.

Harry winces. He was, but as usual, it hadn’t quite worked that way. It had taken him until almost three to fight his way out from under a mountain of paperwork and he had taken it right down to the wire with the drive into central London to meet the Hogwarts Express. The trouble with his job is that even though he’s ostensibly in charge of the department, everyone wants his help and he finds it almost impossible to say no.

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. Still, I don’t think they’ll be able to tell if the house is clean or not,” he says, quirking a small smile and hoping for the best.

“Don’t you?” she snaps, turning to look at him with hands on her hips, and just for a moment, she looks a lot like her mother. It’s not a bad thing, not really, but it makes his stomach ache to see it.

“I was joking,” he says, keeping his tone light and fishing around for a distraction. “Hey, did you hear about Malfoy?”

“Of course I did.” She fills the kettle and looks up at him, apparently placated. “It’s been flying around the office all day. Even the goblins are talking about it.”

Harry snorts. “I forget that you work together sometimes.”

Ginny’s eyebrows lift into her hairline and her mouth twists. “No you don’t. And we do not work together. I work for Gringotts; he is an independent financial advisor. There’s some overlap, that’s all.”

Harry pauses, stung. He actually had forgotten this time. He might have mentioned Malfoy a few times since the first of September, but he hadn’t realised she was so tired of hearing it. That being said, he can understand tired. And perhaps her day has been as bad as his. There’s no use arguing in front of the children, even the ones that don’t belong to them.

“Al said that Scorpius didn’t seem too upset,” he says at last, closing his eyes and trying to work the kinks out of his neck.

“No?” Ginny hums thoughtfully as she pours hot water into six mugs and releases fragrant steam into the air. “Well, children are pretty resilient. Maybe it’s been coming for a while.”

Harry’s eyes snap open but the scene in front of him remains unchanged. “Hmm.”

Just then there’s a rumble and a clatter and the kitchen is full of children. They throw themselves on Ginny, making her smile in a way that lifts years off her face. In spite of her digs at Harry, she’s equally delighted to see Rose, who gets a hug and a “Wow, don’t you look tall!” along with everyone but Lily, who hoists her cat up over her shoulder and carries it to the kitchen table.

“What’s the matter, Dad?” she asks.

Harry’s heart twists. He swallows dryly as he looks away from the joyful pileup and down at his daughter. “Nothing, Lil. I’ve just got a bit of a headache.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Boys are noisy. I understand.”

Harry smiles, genuinely now. “Yeah. Except Frank,” he adds, ruffling the cat’s stripy head where it dangles over Lily’s shoulder.

“Frank is noisy sometimes,” Lily says darkly. “But at least he doesn’t argue with me or borrow my books and put them back in the wrong order.”

“Those are important things,” he agrees, thinking that just in this moment, he would settle for a relationship without arguing or egregious disordering of his possessions.

“Frank’s a good cuddler, too,” Lily adds.

Across the room, Ginny is still squashing James tightly against her and asking him what on earth he has done with his hair.

Harry gives himself an internal shake, leans down and, with some effort, sweeps both girl and cat into his arms. Lily giggles and Frank licks his earlobe with a raspy tongue. “So am I.”

**~*~**

After returning Rose to her ‘other’ family and squeezing in a catch-up session with an equally frazzled Ron and Hermione, Harry returns the car to Arthur—scratch-free—and savours the walk home through the cold, crisp evening. The fresh air shifts his headache so effectively that he’s able to enjoy the squabbling and giggling and general camaraderie of dinner time. Granted, most of it is aimed further down the table where Ginny, Albus and Lily sit, but Harry sits back, crunches his roast potatoes and lets it flow over him like a balm.

Incredibly, everyone is in their bedroom before ten. Harry trails up the stairs, covering a yawn and turning out each light with a lazy flick of the wrist. He lets out all of his breath in a soft sigh as his bare feet sink into the thick carpet of the landing and he at last feels the stress start to leave his body.

He pauses at Lily’s bedroom. Her door is open, as always, and Harry smiles as he watches her sleeping, cuddling the stuffed fish he won for her at a fair when she was tiny, while Frank curls protectively at her feet.

James’ light is on but he’s snoring loudly. Harry contemplates casting a silent ‘nox’ for him, but remembers that, with teenagers, it’s best not to interfere.

He moves on to see that Al has left him a note, Spellotaped to the door, as he often does when he’s at home. It says:

Dad – the wise man does not play leapfrog with the unicorn.

Harry snorts, carefully unpeeling the note and slipping it into his pocket. He smiles and pushes open the door at the end of the landing. It closes softly behind him and he gravitates toward the bed, sitting down and sleepily undoing his buttons.

“Did you tell James he could put blue streaks in his hair?” Ginny demands around her toothbrush.

Frowning, Harry turns to look at his wife. She steps into the bedroom and wraps one arm around her flannel-clad torso. “Did you?”

“What? No!” Harry rubs his face, confused. Then, trying to keep his voice down, “What are you talking about?”

“The fact that my son looks like... like a... I don’t know, but he must have asked you!”

“Er, why?” Harry asks, fumbling at his cuffs and shaking his head at Ginny, who is still brushing her teeth furiously and starting to look as though she’s foaming at the mouth. Immediately, he pushes that thought out of his head before it starts to amuse him. In all seriousness, he hadn’t even noticed James’ hair until Ginny pointed it out.

“Because he likes you better than he likes me,” she says softly, ceasing her brushing.

“Are you serious?”

She pauses and wipes her mouth. Sighs. “Sometimes I think so.”

“Ginny, don’t be daft. He loves his mum.” Harry shrugs off his shirt and takes a step toward her. “And I didn’t know anything about it. To be honest, I didn’t even notice it in the car.” He reaches out, stomach in knots, and slips a hand around her waist. Tries to pull her to him, but she holds herself stiffly, resistant.

“Didn’t even notice,” she sighs, almost too softly for him to hear. “Too busy noticing everything else.”

Her eyes are tired and disappointed, and she allows herself to lean against Harry for a second or two. Her breath is hot against his bare skin and he slides his fingers through her hair... he’s always loved her hair. It feels like silk and smells like coconut, like twenty years, like a familiar embrace that doesn’t quite feel right any more.

“I’m just worn out,” he says against the top of her head. “Let’s get some sleep.”

It’s a plea, not a request. Not a suggestion. She sags. Nods. Acquiesces.

When they climb into bed, Ginny immediately turns her back on him and curls into a tight ‘C’ shape to sleep. It’s nothing personal, he knows that. She always sleeps that way. He faintly remembers a time when they used to sleep in a sated tangle, arms and legs threaded together and faces close, but it hasn’t been like that for many, many years.

Exhausted, Harry flicks out the lights and punches his lumpy pillow into submission. In the darkness, he can see the Christmas lights from the village sparkling on the frost, and he smiles wearily before letting his eyes close.

**~*~**

Someone’s crying.

Confused, Harry looks around for the sound and then pulls in his breath sharply. He knows this place. He’s been here many, many times before. It’s always the same.

“... I can’t do it... I can’t... it won’t work.”

Harry looks, even though he knows what he’ll see. It’s always the same. The fretting ghost and the anguished pale figure leaning on the sink. The boy. And he’s crying.

“... he says he’ll kill me.”

The words echo over and over until they become meaningless. He waits, frozen to the floor, knowing what’s coming next and yet being powerless to change a thing.

He turns, sees Harry, and the room tilts and blurs.

There’s crashing and yelling and water everywhere. There’s “Stop it! No! Stop!” but the curse that flies from his wand anyway—he feels it—can’t breathe—and then just blood. So much blood. Seeping through white cotton and making terrifying swirling patterns in the water.

“No,” he whispers over and over as though it’s the only word he can remember how to say.

Short, shallow breaths. Scrabbling fingers. A shattering moment of eye contact. Snape.

The room swirls sickeningly and Harry is creeping through a darkened corridor, barely breathing, fingers curled into the cloak in front of his face. Fingers that are stained with dried blood, nails bitten down to the quick. A flight of stairs and a light.

Something is wrong this time. Something is different. He steps toward the light and the world dissolves.

“Oh,” he gasps, jolting into consciousness. Heart pounding, he blinks in the darkness and focuses on Ginny’s concerned eyes as she leans over him, propped up on one elbow.

“You alright?”

Harry nods and rubs at his eyes. It’s not the first time he’s been back to that bathroom and he knows that he long ago wore out his wife’s patience for discussing it. He supposes he should have seen it coming tonight, not that it would have helped.

“Yeah,” he says eventually, eyes flicking to the bedside clock. It’s just after ten thirty—he can’t have been asleep all that long. He sighs, bracing himself for the cold as he rises. “I think I’ll just go for a quick walk... get some air,” he mumbles.

As he dresses, pulling on his abandoned clothes from the floor and wincing at the temperature of the fabric against his skin, he glances over at Ginny, who is watching him silently in the dark. Her face is caught somewhere between concern and exasperation. He thinks she wants to say something but after a moment she just curls back into herself and looks at the wall.

“Won’t be long,” Harry offers into the silence.

His night-time wandering years are well behind him, but the instincts come back in an instant, and he finds a quiet thrill in making it through the house without a sound. Grabbing a heavy coat and tucking a warm woollen scarf around his neck, he steps out into the night and lets the door close quietly behind him. The air bites at him as he starts to walk, but it smells and tastes delicious-cold-fragrant in the back of his throat and the clear, star-bright sky draws him down his driveway and into the village, head tipped back and hands stuffed in pockets.

The earlier frost has now settled in earnest and sparkles impossibly from every surface. The village glows jewel-like in the darkness and as Harry heads toward it, he can hardly stop himself from recalling that one Christmas he and Hermione had spent at Godric’s Hollow. He exhales slowly, breath curling in front of him, unsettled by a tangling of sadness, relief and nostalgia in the pit of his stomach.

He doesn’t suppose it will help to think about that too much. He doesn’t suppose that having nightmares about Draco bloody Malfoy does him much good, either, but knowing that is about as useful as a Cheering Charm against an Unforgivable.

As he approaches the village pub, the soft light and warm chatter spilling from within makes him painfully aware of just how fucking early he goes to bed these days. He doesn’t remember when that happened, either, but suspects it had something to do with having children. He has one hand on the stained glass of the door when he catches sight of movement out of the corner of his eye.

He turns.

Just on the other side of the road, a crooked old man is stepping off the pavement, lowering one unsteady foot and then the other onto the icy tarmac. He glances periodically between the road and the pub, as though willing his destination closer, and Harry hesitates, uncertain whether an offer of assistance will offend.

“Blast,” the man mutters, losing his balance; he teeters for a moment and then his legs shoot out from underneath him. Harry acts without thinking, casting a spell from inside his coat to slow the fall and dashing into the road to grab the man’s shoulders before he hits the unforgiving ground.

The old man grunts in surprise. Harry knows he is probably a Muggle and he knows that he probably shouldn’t have interfered, but it’s difficult to break the habit of a lifetime.

“Are you alright?” Harry asks, linking his arms under the man’s shoulders to hoist him to his feet. He’s astonishingly light, and it appears as though his scruffy oilskin coat makes up a good proportion of his weight. He smells like rotten leaves and smoke, and his beard grazes Harry’s chin as he looks up with eyes that are nearly opaque in the moonlight.

“Appears I am, young man,” he murmurs, a soft local accent colouring his words. “Thank you. Now ’elp me over the road so I can buy you a drink.”

Harry pauses, surprised, and from somewhere inside the tangle of beard, a mouth opens in a grin and reveals several glinting gold teeth.

This is all very strange, he thinks, but then... it has been one of those sorts of days.

Embrace the madness.

“Right you are, then,” he says gamely, taking careful steps toward the pavement and letting the old man lean heavily against his side. “I’ll have a pint with you.”

The man laughs. As he reaches the tiled vestibule of the pub, he turns and shakes his head at Harry.

“Oh no, young man. It’s a gin night tonight!”

Harry blinks. Says nothing. The man pulls open the door with a creak, letting out a blast of warm, beery air that washes over Harry’s face. He inhales the comforting mixture of aromas and shrugs, following the man’s shuffling progress toward the bar.

The pub is bustling, alive with the chatter of Muggle villagers and one or two local faces he recognises from his own world—there’s Camille Roth, a sweet old lady who sells excellent home-made remedies and potions from her cottage on the riverbank, drinking sweet sherry and flirting outrageously with Eddie, the middle-aged barman. Over in the corner, apparently holding a conversation with his black Labrador, is Grady, the village curiosity. To Harry, he’s always been quite ordinary, if a little eccentric, with his purple frock coat and ever-present watercolours, but he supposes his definition of what’s ordinary has been skewed for a long time now.

Grady looks up from his conversation and waves so hard that his coat sleeve trails in his brandy. Harry returns his greeting across the room, pointedly looking away when he sees the tip of a wand emerge to separate cognac from velvet. He’s not on duty tonight, after all, and he doesn’t even want to think about just how horrified Jeremiah from Improper Use would be if he were here.

Because he’s not.

No one’s here that knows him apart from Grady and Mrs Roth... and half of those other softly-lit faces, now that he looks around. And the old man in the oilskin coat, wherever he is. Harry turns slowly on the spot, realising he’s been swimming around in his own world for some time now, and there’s no sign of his new friend. He’s just beginning to think that perhaps this is for the best—he’s not sure how well his cosseted digestive system will deal with unexpected gin on a weeknight—when there’s a tap, or rather a prod—at his shoulder.

“Have you not found a table yet?” demands a softly chiding voice, and the man scrutinises him with unfocused pale eyes. “Come on, lad, come on.”

Harry reflects that no one has called him ‘lad’ in a very long time, and even though he knows it’s a relative term and nothing more, it makes him feel a little younger than his thirty-seven years. It makes him forget, momentarily, that he’s a man with three noisy children, a boring desk job and a dissatisfied wife.

He looks around quickly. Points. “There’s one over here,” he says, weaving through the laughing, clinking crowd at the bar and sliding into the empty settle by the fire. The wood is old and hard, fissured and weathered under his fingers, but the long cushion on the seat is soft enough for his tired bones. Leaning back, he unzips his coat and puts his feet up on the low table in front of him.

“Hmm,” the old man grunts approvingly, before slumping down next to Harry. The heavy glasses in his hands are so full that the simple action sends clear liquid sloshing over his coat. Harry cringes, but the old man doesn’t even seem to notice. “Your good ’ealth,” he says, pushing one glass into Harry’s hand and raising the other in his own.

“Erm... good health,” Harry echoes, lifting his glass. It’s not even halfway to his mouth before the stench of neat alcohol floods his nostrils and makes his eyes sting. He pauses, swallowing nervously, but the oddly intense eyes are trained on his glass, watching Harry expectantly as he gulps at his own drink. Harry rests his head against the hard back of the settle and inhales, thoughtful.

The man can barely see or walk, and yet there’s a small part of Harry that is always suspicious of strangers, even these days when he hasn’t fought a war or caught a criminal in years. His head fills with questions. Who is he? What does he want? What good can come of drinking straight gin at this time of night?

And then another: what kind of a paranoid, boring, old... arsekettle am I turning into?

Amused in spite of himself, Harry allows himself a smile, takes a deep breath and an adventurous swallow.

“It’ll do you good, that,” advises the old man, and when Harry splutters, coughs and somehow manages to inhale gin through his nose, he cackles and pats Harry on the thigh with a gnarled hand.

“Really?” Harry says faintly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “What makes you say that?”

There’s another hearty gulp, and then: “It’s good for the misery, is gin.”

“What?”

“Misery, young man, I can tell from the way you was walkin’.” The grey hair and beard nod earnestly. “Full of it. And as me mother always said, rest her soul, ‘when you’re miserable as sin, crack out the gin’.”

Harry grins. “Never heard that one before.”

“Well, no matter. It’s still good advice. Drink up, son,” he says, tipping back his head and draining his glass.

Harry thinks he must be imagining the beginning of a warm, creeping languor in his veins and a rising sense of wellbeing, because even as he forces the rest of the alcohol down in an effort to keep up, he hasn’t really had all that... much...

... he examines the empty glass calmly. It’s a very large glass. He sighs. He’s not really used to this sort of thing any more—if he ever has been at all—but as the man takes his glass and hobbles to the bar, refusing Harry’s money or offers of help, he finds he’s not too worried about it any more.

**~*~**

“How ’zactly does a miserable person walk, anyway?” Harry asks, cradling his third or possibly fourth gin on his knees and frowning.

“Like this,” says the man, screwing up his face and wobbling stiffly from side to side in his seat, sloshing yet more gin over his coat and Harry’s trousers.

Harry rubs vaguely at the wet spot and laughs. “Am not miserable... m’just... having a difficult day,” he says stoutly.

“Life is difficult,” opines his companion, and Harry nods.

“’Tis. ’Tis difficult. And things are surprising... you know... flash! Bang!” Harry says, waving his free hand around illustratively and marvelling at the lights that seem to follow his fingers through the air.

“S’ a lot like fishin’, really,” comes the mumble from beside him, and Harry sighs, shaking his head so vigorously that it hurts.

“There’s nothing surprising about fishing.”

“That’s what you think,” the old man says mysteriously.

Harry wants to ask, he really does, but for some reason he finds himself saying: “I don’t mean... the fish sort of surprise. I mean... I don’t know what I mean.”

“I’m sure you do. Young men usually do.” The beard quivers and the old man coughs into his hand as he once again collects the empty glasses and leaves Harry alone.

He stretches out his legs, trying to warm his feet on the dying embers of the open fire that he has, very courteously, he thinks, allowed his companion to sit by. Exhaling slowly, he looks around the still-busy pub until the lights and the swirly carpet start to make him feel seasick. He’s not sure what time it is but for the life of him he can’t remember why that would matter anyway. His head is full of soft, gently waving pictures of fish, Lily and her cat, Ginny—a younger Ginny—laughing, sparkling frost and buses full of old biddies and Malfoy, Malfoy, Malfoy.

Harry startles, blinking. His mouth tastes sticky and dry but he still accepts the refreshed glass and raises it to his mouth.

For the misery. Apparently.

“Do you ever wonder if things would have been different... if you’d done something else?”

The old man shifts thoughtfully beside him, ancient coat and ancient bones creaking. “Depends on the things... ‘n’ the somethin’, I suppose.”

Harry fiddles with his cuffs and sighs. “There’s someone I could’ve helped... a long time ago. I’m always wondering if... if I’d helped... things’d been... you know,” Harry trails off, worn out by the effort of searching for the right words.

“Forgive m’rudeness,” mumbles the old man, squinting up at Harry. His eyes are positively milky now—like Aragog’s, Harry finds himself thinking. “But why didn’t you help when you ’ad the chance?”

Harry’s heart twists and he lets his shoulders lift and fall without a word.

“You do know,” the man grunts. “Drink your gin.”

“Scared,” Harry murmurs, more to himself than to anyone else. “I was scared.” He throws the rest of his drink down his throat just as the bell is rung for last orders.

“One more for the road?”

Harry laughs uneasily. “I really don’t think I should. Not unless I want to... um... fall down.”

“Suit yourself,” rasps the old man. “Maybe you’d ’elp me to my gate... it’s only one of them cottages across the road.”

“Alboslutely,” Harry mumbles through thick, rubbery lips. “No problem.”

Very carefully, wary of the reliability of his own legs, he stands and manoeuvres through the pub, old man wobbling along behind him. When he opens the door, the cold air shocks him into immobility for a good few seconds, and when he starts to walk again, the world somehow feels as though it has tilted even further on its axis than before.

“Just over there, lad.” The old man points, grabbing Harry’s arm, and together they make a weaving, treacherous progress over the icy ground, huffing out hot streams of air and making soft, nonsensical conversation.

At the gate, the old man creaks open the catch and pauses, looking up at Harry with knitted eyebrows, as though coming to a momentous decision.

“You’re a good boy,” he says, still frowning.

“Thank you,” Harry mumbles, oddly touched.

“Don’t thank me yet. I’m going to do you a favour... but there are rules, y’understand?”

Harry tilts his head on one side, just to see if the statement makes more sense that way. “Hm?”

“Rules!” The tangled beard bristles in a sudden chilled breeze. “Rule number one—tell no one. Rule number two—tell no one. Rule number three—send up red sparks if you need me.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Harry protests.

“Don’t worry about it for now, eh?” The old man pats his arm and trundles away up his garden path, feeling his way along the door to find his keyhole. Harry watches in slightly blurry silence. “Go to bed, Harry.”

“Good idea,” Harry says to the night as the cottage door slams shut, leaving him alone.

He pulls up his collar, slides his hands into his pockets and starts back up the lane. When he lets himself back into the bedroom, undresses and creeps under the sheets, Ginny doesn’t even stir.

**~*~**

There’s that light again. The one at the top of the stairs. He takes a step, and another and another.

Frightened pale eyes in the darkness.

No cloak now. “What the fuck are you doing here?” Fright turning swiftly to anger and then curiosity.

Sitting on a hard floor, and words that he’s straining so hard to hear.

A sound he’s never heard before—a brilliant sound—and then someone is calling him, and everything is dissolving.


**~*~**

Harry lies as flat as he can, not daring to open his eyes. He feels more disgusting than he remembers feeling in nearly twenty years. So much fucking gin. He can taste it in his throat, his mouth, coating his arid, stinging tongue.

“No,” he states firmly to what is definitely an empty bedroom, judging by his lazy groping of the sheets. “Just... no.”

Did he really spend the night drinking with a strange old man? Harry sighs and lifts his hands with some effort to rub at his eyes. All signs point to yes.

“Are you going to spend all day in bed feeling sorry for yourself, you lazy sod?”

Harry jumps. His eyes are still squeezed tightly closed but if he knows nothing else, he knows that is certainly not Ginny’s voice. Heart pounding, he bites the inside of his mouth and thinks fast—he definitely managed to get home last night, so why is there a strange man in his bedroom?

A man who is sighing and sitting down on the edge of the bed. “I can tell when you’re pretending to be asleep, you know,” he says, and he sounds as though he’s smiling. “I’ve had seventeen years of practise.”

Harry’s stomach flips over. Seizing the few strands of fortitude the hangover has left him, he scrambles into a sitting position and forces his eyes open. And blinks. And rubs at his face, wondering if it’s possible that he’s still asleep.

“Well, don’t you look healthy?” Draco Malfoy remarks from inches away.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Harry demands, bringing his knees up under his chin, feeling exposed but relieved that he’s wearing boxers. Horrified that he isn’t wearing anything else.

Malfoy raises an eyebrow but doesn’t seem at all ruffled. “There’s no need for that. I came back for my notes, that’s all. Whoever scheduled a meeting for nine o’clock in the morning this close to Christmas genuinely deserves to be thrown into an active fucking volcano.”

As he speaks, Harry takes a second to glance around the room and it is immediately obvious that this isn’t the bedroom he shares with Ginny. This bedroom is bigger and lighter and looks both familiar and all wrong at once. And it has Draco Malfoy in it.

A different Draco Malfoy, he’ll admit—he looks younger and happier than the man in the Prophet or the man at the train station—but Draco Malfoy nonetheless. Insides in knots, trying not to panic, Harry inhales deeply and decides to try again. The last response didn’t seem to make sense at all, and some part of him, a small part he calls reason, tells him that getting angry isn’t going to help here. If Draco Malfoy hasn’t, in fact, invaded his bedroom, then there’s something potentially very odd going on.

“I mean, where’s Ginny?” he attempts.

Malfoy frowns. “What?”

“Where’s Ginny?” he repeats, shifting position so that he can slide his feet to the ground, needing the solidity. “What the hell’s going on here, Malfoy?”

“Malfoy?” He smirks—at last an expression Harry recognises on his face. “Oh, I see...”

Suddenly there’s a hand on Harry’s bare thigh. A warm hand. Malfoy’s hand. And Malfoy himself is close enough to smell (clean, toothpaste-minty, citrusy) which is all kinds of wrong and the light in his eyes hammers the meaning through Harry’s brain hard enough to hurt. Swiftly, he scrambles out of reach and gets to his feet.

“Ah... seriously, er, Draco, where’s Ginny?”

Malfoy throws him a very strange look. “Ginevra is at her house, with her husband and child, I would hope.” He pauses, rising from the bed and running a thoughtful hand through his hair, which immediately flops back into his eyes.

“With her...?” Harry whispers, but is interrupted.

“You’re always so strange when you’ve had a drink... I’ll have to ask Blaise what he put in those cocktails.” Malfoy sighs and grabs Harry by the wrist, dragging him close and brushing a soft kiss across his mouth before he can react. “I’ll see you tonight.”

With that, he turns and stalks out of the room, long coat and striped scarf whipping behind him. Harry watches, motionless, hand rising slowly to graze his lips. He has no idea what is going on here, wherever here is, but it probably has something to do with gin.

Chapter Text

Harry doesn’t know how long he stands there, frozen to the spot, but a blast of cold air from the open—dear god, why open?—window behind him brings him to his senses. Shivering, he turns and slams the window shut with unnecessary force. He gazes through the glass, sore eyes blinking slowly as the familiar scene outside slides into almost-focus. Hurriedly he grabs a pair of glasses that don’t feel quite right but seem to do the job, and stares out at a frost-covered Grimmauld Place.

Of course it is. The hedges and flowerbeds are neater than he remembers, the outfits of the scuttling residents brighter and more modern, but then it has been... Harry frowns and fishes about in his tangled mind for the memory... a good eighteen years since he sold this house and bought the cottage with Ginny. At least, he thought he did. Whatever he has or has not done fully appears to be up for grabs right now.

Taking a deep breath, he turns back to regard the rumpled bed. The bed which belongs to him and Draco Malfoy. Harry’s heart hammers and he looks away quickly, deciding that thinking about that right now might just make his head implode. Instead, he picks up his wand and stalks out into the hallway. He makes slow, cautious progress, wand held out before him; even though he knows that he’s unlikely to be assaulted by anything disturbing in what appears to be his own house, this morning is just proving beyond all doubt that anything can happen.

Somewhere outside, a gate creaks on its hinges and the faint sound in Harry’s ears stirs his sleeping memory until his head feels as though it’s full of swirling, sparkling feathers and he has to close his eyes against it and lean back on the cold wall.

“You’re a good boy.”

“I’m going to do you a favour... but there are rules... rules... tell no one!”

“Send up red sparks if you need me.”

Harry groans and slides to the floor, perching precariously in a crouch against the wall.

“That rotten old bugger,” he mutters to the empty hallway.

Sighing deeply, he opens one eye and focuses on the small brown spider which is making a valiant effort to scale a nearby banister. Distracted temporarily from his current problem, he keeps very still and watches the apparent battle between determined arachnid and polished wood.

“You can do it,” he murmurs, both eyes open now, willing on the little spider as it conquers another few inches of the slippery surface. He leans closer, weight on his hands on the cold floor, startled by a chunk of too-long hair that falls into his eyes and shaking it away. “Come on, then,” he urges.

As though spurred on by his encouragement, the spider attacks the final third of his vertical climb with erratic vigour, legs flailing with impressive speed.

“That’s it... oh, no,” Harry sighs, watching the spider lose its footing and slide untidily down the banister and onto the landing. It crouches there, defeated, and Harry can’t help but feel that the spider is blaming him. Habit of a lifetime, he supposes. He’s always been an easy person to blame because he doesn’t seem to mind as much as anyone else.

Finally, the spider scuttles closer and appears to inspect the next banister along. Harry smiles, and then startles at the characteristic whooshing sound issuing from downstairs.

Someone’s here. Someone has just walked out of the fireplace and into the kitchen, if his ears and his memory can be trusted. Pulse racing, Harry takes a firmer grip of his wand and levers himself to his feet. On impulse, he carefully scoops up the spider and sets it atop the balustrade. As he sets off down the stairs to (well, quite possibly, anyway) meet his doom, the spider flings itself into empty air on a long string of silk. Harry’s eyes follow its dizzying progress and his stomach drops in empathy.

“Draco?” comes a loud, refined male voice from the kitchen, and Harry misses a step, just about avoiding a headlong trip down the stairs.

“Fuck it,” he mutters, certain that he used to have some balance. Then again, he supposes he used to have a lot of things and there’s just no telling what fresh hell is waiting around the next corner—or, more specifically, what fresh hell is waiting for him in the kitchen.

Finally, he finds himself outside the kitchen, listening as two voices—one male and one female—engage in a somewhat barbed exchange. He holds his breath.

“I told you it was a bad idea to turn up unannounced,” murmurs the woman. “I imagine he is at work.”

“You think everything is a bad idea,” the man snaps. “I have no idea why I married you.”

The woman laughs. “Be quiet, Lucius. No one wants to hear what you think.”

Harry’s eyes widen. Lucius Malfoy? Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Instinctively, he flattens himself against the wall, gasping at the temperature and suddenly very aware that he’s wearing boxers and nothing else. If there’s going to be a fight here, he’s going into it extremely underdressed.

As his fingers close around his wand, the words of that bearded old trickster swim once more in front of his eyes:

Send up red sparks if you need me.

Harry focuses as much as possible, tries to pretend there aren’t any Malfoys in his kitchen, and sends up a shower of red sparks.

Nothing happens.

Frowning, Harry tries again. And again. And again, until both stubbornness and patience are utterly worn out, and he realises he’s been had. It’s a dirty trick.

“Red sparks my arse,” he mutters.

“I don’t think you should touch that,” Narcissa Malfoy says darkly to her husband.

Harry sighs and rubs his face. This isn’t going away, that much is abundantly clear. He could try to Apparate out, but if the place is warded, it will be messy, and even if it isn’t, he’s practically naked. Best to face these things head on.

“Right then,” he tells the hallway, taking a breath and walking through the door.

And there he is. Lucius Malfoy, cane and all, is standing in the middle of a kitchen Harry hasn’t seen for almost twenty years. His eyes meet Harry’s and suddenly it’s as though the room is full of haughty, imposing aristocrat. Bastard, Death Eater, and Draco Malfoy’s father. And he’s singing.

“You’re the dragon, you’re to blame, you singed my heart with your wicked flame,” he rumbles, gesturing with arm and cane like some kind of demented torch singer.

“Fuck me,” Harry whispers, unable to hold the words in.

“I think Draco has that covered, don’t you?” Lucius says, reverting to his previous stiff posture and raising an eyebrow. “And I suspect ‘hello’ is the word you’re scrabbling for.”

“Is it?” Harry says faintly, feeling the heat of embarrassment prickling his skin.

Lucius says nothing and his refined face remains inscrutable, but Narcissa’s mouth flickers at one corner and she folds her hands neatly in front of her before she speaks. “I think you may have forgotten your clothes.”

Harry groans inwardly and his toes curl against the tiles with the effort of staying still, brazening it out, and trying not to think about the fact that Lucius Malfoy can see his nipples. His hard nipples, at that. It’s fucking freezing in this kitchen.

“Erm, yes, sorry about that,” he says, mind racing. “I... er... do get a bit forgetful sometimes. Is there something I can help you with?”

“You don’t look well, Mr Potter,” Narcissa says. Her delicate brow wrinkles and Harry bites the inside of his mouth, exercising a self control he never knew he possessed. He’s only been here five minutes and he’s already sick of being told how awful he looks. It’s not that he’s a vain person, but really, he does have limits.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he lies, just as Lucius affects a bored sigh and chips in:

“Have you been drinking?”

A well-timed wave of nausea makes itself known in the pit of Harry’s stomach and he swallows repeatedly, beginning a silent mantra of I will not vomit on Lucius Malfoy... I will not vomit... I will not... that cloak looks expensive... I will not vomit...

“Not this morning,” Harry says weakly, and even in this delicate condition, some mischievous part of him wants to add ‘yet’.

“Terribly common thing, drinking to excess,” Lucius drawls, not quite meeting Harry’s eyes.

Beside him, Narcissa makes a soft sound of amusement. “Only the pot would know quite how to call out the kettle on his...” She pauses. “Unfortunate hue.”

Lucius scowls. Harry, delighted in spite of himself, seizes upon the opportunity to change the subject.

“So!” he says loudly, and both Malfoys turn back to him. “Would anyone like a cup of tea?”

Two blue eyes and two grey blink back at him and Harry’s own words reverberate mockingly inside his head.

Would anyone like a cup of tea?

A cup of tea?!

He’s standing here, practically naked, in the middle of godknowswhatthefuckisgoingon and when faced with two disturbingly blond interlopers, he offers them tea. Tea.

And, he muses, absently scratching at his hair, are these disturbing blond interlopers his in-laws? Of some description? Harry’s stomach flops over again and he makes the executive decision to stop thinking about that.

“He can’t hear you, Narcissa, he’s intoxicated,” Lucius is saying, and Harry snaps back to the situation at hand.

“I’m really not,” Harry promises, and on impulse coughs into his hand. “But perhaps I’d better get back to bed.”

“Hm.” Narcissa purses her lips, apparently assessing Harry’s performance. “Well, we only thought we would talk with Draco about the plans for next week.”

“Next week?”

“Christmas Day,” Lucius supplies drily. “The twenty-fifth of December. Yuletide. The festive season,” he continues, and Harry thinks—hopes—that he doesn’t imagine the jab of Narcissa’s elbow into her husband’s ribs.

“Ah. That,” Harry says, comforted to know—if nothing else—when he is. “I’m afraid Draco’s not here right now.”

“Is he still asleep?” Lucius demands. “It’s after nine, you know.”

Narcissa looks at the floor and makes an odd little noise.

“No,” Harry says triumphantly, feeling bizarrely pleased with himself. “He’s in a meeting!”

“A meeting,” Narcissa repeats, as though it’s an exotic new word. Lucius merely sighs.

“Yes, that’s right, and I shall ask him to call when he gets home,” Harry says hurriedly, feeling another cold wave of sickness rolling over him and deciding to shove them back into the fire from whence they came before something regrettable and messy happens. It’s definitely best not to focus on the fact that he’s essentially taking messages for Malfoy. “Good to see you both—Mr Malfoy, Mrs Malfoy.”

Harry steps back as the flames turn green.

“He smells like gin,” Lucius tells his wife a split-second before they disappear.

Rolling his eyes, Harry lifts his hand and attempts to check the smell of his breath. Five seconds later, he’s throwing up into the sink.

**~*~**

A very hot, very satisfying shower works like magic at separating Harry from his hangover, leaving behind only a mild headache and a raging thirst. He wanders, dripping, into the bedroom in search of clothing—he certainly doesn’t plan on exposing himself to anyone else today.

Making a conscious effort to suppress the sense of panic twisting in his chest, he throws himself into his task and throws open every one of the numerous wardrobe doors.

“Who the hell needs this many clothes?” he asks of the room. Reassuringly, there’s no response.

He sighs and starts rifling through shirts, sweaters, robes and trousers in a bewildering array of colours. The fabrics feel expensive and luxurious under his fingers, but there doesn’t seem to be anything here that’s obviously his. Everything is neatly arranged by colour, and one closet seems to contain nothing but stripy garments. One thing’s for sure, his wardrobe at home looks nothing like this. In fact, he’s more of a ‘sling it over the back of a chair and hope for the best’ kind of man.

Overwhelmed, Harry takes a deep breath and launches himself—head and shoulders—into the nearest closet and rummages for his life. Heavy fabric closes in around him, and though the clean, spicy scent is comforting, there’s a very real part of him that is afraid of suffocating. Fortunately, his fingers close around soft, warm denim and, with a cry of triumph, he withdraws, hair ruffled and breathing hard.

“Normal person jeans,” he sighs happily, eyeing the neat rows of scary fitted trousers and fashionable... things with deep suspicion. These jeans are worn thin, frayed, with holes in the knees and they look as though they’ll be...

... oh, god, yes, so comfortable.

Very aware of the temperature outside, Harry plunges back into the wardrobe until he finds a soft red sweater and a long wool coat. It takes him a moment or two to close everything back up again, especially as two or three recalcitrant jackets keep making a determined effort to push their way into the act.

“Be good!” he remonstrates, eventually pulling his wand and locking the doors by magic.

As he walks past the full length mirror on the way of out the bedroom he stops and, for the first time, takes a moment to regard his reflection. The person staring back at him makes him catch his breath. It’s still him, there’s no doubt about that, but he looks better than he ever remembers looking in his life. This Harry has no dark circles or bags under his eyes and the crow’s feet he remembers are barely there—just enough to add a warm crinkle when he tries an experimental smile.

He was right, these glasses are different; they’re lighter and more stylish, and his hair is far longer than he remembers it, falling into his eyes at the front and messily grazing his collar at the back. Narcissa Malfoy was right, too—he does look a bit pale—and his chin is prickly with stubble, but he looks good.

Fascinated now, he turns to the side and inspects his profile. It seems that everything is where it should be, which is a relief, but he hadn’t imagined it in the shower—his comfortable little desk-job-belly is nowhere to be seen. Harry chews on his lip and admires the flat stomach he hasn’t seen for a good ten years. It’s not as though he’s ever been truly out of shape, but this is impressive.

“Like what you see?” says the mirror teasingly, and Harry makes a face.

“You shush,” he mumbles, letting his coat and sweater fall back into place.

Taking a deep, calming breath, he looks his mirror image in the eye. Time to figure out exactly where he is, why he is, and whether or not it’s permanent. Slowly, like a man walking to his own horrible death, he walks down the stairs, carefully avoiding the huge spider’s web in progress. Opting for caution, he walks a good few yards out into Grimmauld Place before attempting to Disapparate.

First of all, he has to get home. Hopefully, the rest will follow.

**~*~**

Seconds later, Harry creeps out from the small, empty courtyard behind the village pub and attempts to blend inconspicuously into the early morning shoppers; he threads his way through knots of gossiping old ladies, pink-cheeked children with their mothers in tow, and several others wearing a slightly manic expression that Harry knows well—that of the last-minute Christmas shopper.

He recognises a number of them by sight, but something stops him, keeps his hands in his coat pockets and his eyes focused only on his target, just over the hill. Number forty-two, Willoughby Drive. Home, he thinks, quickening his pace and gulping down the wonderfully familiar-tasting cold air. It’s somehow softer here than in London, and he wishes he knew whether or not that was a good thing.

The driveway is iridescent with frost that makes Harry stumble more than once before he reaches the cottage. Scowling, he raises his hand to knock at the door and pauses, fingers inches from the wood. Wood that has been painted red, and not recently, either, Harry realises with a double-thump of his heart as he skates his fingers down the door and dislodges flakes of weathered red paint.

Swallowing hard, he steps back and tries to look into the window, searching in vain for something, anything, familiar, but the curtains are drawn. Something is very wrong, and though his wand hand twitches in its pocket, he fights to keep it still.

Well, you’re not going to achieve anything standing on the doorstep all morning, are you? his subconscious prods.

Harry sighs, trying to tuck his nose into his collar against the cold and shifting on the spot. He’s almost certain that he used to be more decisive than this. In fact, he suspects that Voldemort would have seized control of half the universe by now had the only person standing in his way been this Harry Potter. This ‘I’ll do it in a minute’, ‘no arguments in my office, please’, ‘I think I’m getting old’ Harry Potter.

“Voldemort can bite me,” he mutters darkly, and raps at the door. Hard.

There’s a scuffle and what sounds like the protesting cry of a small child, and then the door flies open.

“Can I help you?” asks a tired-looking woman with long dark hair and a struggling toddler on her hip.

“Erm... who are you?” Harry blurts before he can stop himself.

The woman frowns and when she speaks again, her tone is cool. “I live here. Are you selling something?”

“No, of course not, but this house—”

“Are you from the council again?” the woman interrupts, holding her child more tightly. “Have you got any ID?”

“No,” Harry says, and the woman sighs and goes to close the door in his face. “No!” he shouts, shooting out a hand to stop her and immediately regretting it when her dark eyes grow wide with fear. “I mean, no, I’m not from the council. This is going to sound crazy, but this is my house.”

Startled, she lets go of the door and stares at him. “I don’t think so. We’ve lived here for ten years... I mean, we haven’t paid off the mortgage yet but it’s definitely our house. I don’t even know who you are.”

Harry blinks. Even through the madness swirling in his head, the surprise of someone not knowing who he is still strikes him—and it would be pleasant if it weren’t so terrifying.

“Believe me, this is just as confusing for me,” Harry sighs, craning his neck to see past the woman and into the hallway, which is full of unfamiliar coats and boots and photographs of a dark-haired couple with their baby. Where are Lily’s drawings and Frank’s muddy pawprints? James’ hats and Al’s messages and Ginny’s weird little sets of tables? “Could I come in for a moment?”

The woman shakes her head fiercely. “No. I’d like you to leave now.”

Her voice is shaky but vehement and desperation twists in Harry’s gut. “Please,” he croaks. “Can you... can you tell me who lived here before you?”

The baby fusses and seems to stare accusingly at Harry. “An old lady,” the woman says at last. “We bought the house when she had to go into a home.”

“Oh,” Harry whispers. He believes her. He believes that this is her house and that she has no idea who he is, and he feels sick. “Oh,” he repeats.

“Listen... is there someone I can call for you?” the woman says after a moment, and her voice has changed again. Soft, careful, light, she continues: “Let me get you some help.”

Harry’s eyes snap to hers and there’s no mistaking the twist of pity there. He bristles.

“No thank you,” he says, hands clenching into fists in his pockets. “I’m not going mad, you know.”

And even though he’s not entirely convinced of that himself, he turns and stomps down the drive without waiting for a response. He’s so focused on not looking back at the house that he doesn’t notice the person in the lane until he’s almost tripped over him.

“Bugger, sorry!” Harry yelps, instinctively grabbing at the unfortunate soul’s velvet sleeves to shorten his slide on the icy ground. Purple velvet? Harry looks up. “Grady!”

“Good heavens!” the man cries, pale blue eyes wide with astonishment. “Harry Potter!”

“Er, yeah,” Harry admits, frowning and absently patting the dog that is nosing at his coat. “Listen, do you know where—?”

“Harry Potter himself, I can barely believe it!” Grady interrupts, beaming. “What an honour, sir, what a bloody honour it is!”

“Grady, what’re you on about?” Harry asks wearily, already wondering why he’s bothering.

“And he knows my name! Jumping jingleberries, Watson, what do you think of that?” he cries, looking away from Harry momentarily to address the Labrador, who barks lustily and then continues trying to push his wet nose into Harry’s pocket.

“You really don’t know me, do you?” Harry sighs.

Grady frowns as a particularly vicious blast of wind blows his greying hair out around his face like a silver mane. “Of course I know you, Mr Potter. Everybody knows you. You’re a hero! But I’ve never been lucky enough to see you in the village before—I suppose you’ve come to visit your good friends over at Hollybrush?” Grady pauses and leans in conspiratorially. “Forgive me for prying, but I do sometimes happen across Mrs Granger-Weasley and she’s always ever so kind to me.”

“Hermione,” Harry says softly and mostly to himself. Hermione and Ron. Hope sparks at the thought of his friends and he manages a smile for Grady. “Yes, that’s right, in fact I’m on my way over there now... probably late, too, so... better get going!”

“Leave Mr Potter alone now, Watson,” Grady advises and waves at Harry, beaming. “An absolute delight to meet you!”

Harry looks at the eager, oddly-dressed man and his dog and waves back, mind already at Ron and Hermione’s front door. “You too,” he manages. “Both of you.”

Grady is still waving furiously and, by the looks of it, talking to his dog, when Harry turns the corner, leaving the house that is not his behind and heading for a place where, he hopes, there will be answers.

**~*~**

This time the door flies open straight away and Harry finds himself face to face with Ginny, looking beautiful in a long, emerald green cardigan and jeans. One hand rests on the doorknob and the other holds an apple, over which she regards Harry and takes a huge, crunchy bite.

“Hlo,” she mumbles, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

Confused, Harry scrubs at his hair. “Ginny... you don’t live here.”

“Yeah, I know,” she says slowly, swallowing her bite of apple. “Neither do you.”

“I live in London,” Harry mumbles, trying to figure out what is so different about his wife but struggling to put his finger on it. “Apparently.”

“Yeah, I know,” she repeats, lifting an eyebrow and flashing a puzzled smile. “So do I. What are we playing exactly?”

Taking another bite, she tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, and that’s it. The hair through which her aubergine-coloured nails are flicking is drastically shorter than usual. Ginny’s hair is, for want of a better word, trendy, somehow, and falls in choppy layers around her face. It’s startling, and the question escapes Harry’s mouth entirely without his permission.

“What happened to your hair?”

She pulls a face. “Charming. You said you liked it last week.”

“No, well, I mean—”

“Gin?” comes a familiar bellow from inside the house just before Hermione—a wonderfully normal-looking Hermione—appears in the hallway. “Are you flirting with the postman again? Oh... hello, Harry.”

Before he has time to respond, she is hustling him into the warm cottage, leaving Ginny to kick the door shut behind them. The kitchen smells, as it always does, like the cinnamon toast that Ron loves and the fresh coffee that keeps Hermione awake through long meetings at the Ministry and various duties for the ten thousand different PTA groups she belongs to. There’s a half-made glittery tomato costume draped over the nearest chair and Harry sighs gently, allowing himself to relax just a fraction.

“Harry’s being weird,” Ginny advises.

Hermione pokes him into a chair with frightening ease and rakes her eyes over him for several seconds. “You do look a bit odd. Have you been using that funny glue again?”

Harry blinks, unsure whether or not he should be offended. “What? No! Well... I don’t think so...”

“Maybe he’s having a mid-life crisis,” Ginny suggests helpfully. She sits down, carefully avoiding the tomato costume, and Hermione leans against the counter.

“He’s not that old, Gin,” Hermione says, flicking her wand in the general direction of the kettle.

“Yes, thank you, I’m only thirty-seven... aren’t I?” Harry quells the rising panic when both women shoot him an odd look. “And you’re older than me, Hermione, so if I’m going senile, there’s not much hope for you.”

Hermione snorts and hands him a steaming cup; he accepts it gratefully and wraps his cold-numbed hands around it.

“Alright,” she says delicately, “I’m putting an embargo on all age-related discussions in the kitchen. This is one area of life where I’d really prefer just not to think about it.”

“Can we talk about it in the living room, then?” Ginny begins, poking Harry with her foot, and then: “Oh, wow... did Draco let you out of the house in those jeans?”

Harry frowns, glancing down at the offending garment. “What’s wrong with them?”

Ginny shrugs. “Nothing, but as far as I’m aware you’re only allowed to wear them in your workshop. Feeling rebellious?”

Harry sighs and sits back in his chair. There isn’t one part of that sentence that he understands.

“Not especially,” he mumbles. His head is starting to hurt again.

“Sometimes I’m not sure how you put up with that man,” Hermione says, and Ginny gives her a look. “You know what I mean. I know you love him, but if Ron started making rules about my clothes, I’d hex him in the, erm, dangling parts.”

Ginny makes an odd sound that’s half giggle and half choking on a piece of apple. “I’d like to say good for you, ’Mione, but can we possibly not talk about my brother’s bits?”

“Seconded,” Harry says quickly, gulping down coffee.

“So,” Ginny says, still gasping a little, “not only are you wearing the forbidden jeans—” She wiggles her fingers dramatically, “—but you’re also here instead of in the ’shop. What’s going on?”

“Did you have an argument?” Hermione asks, eyebrows knitted in concern.

“Not as far as I know,” Harry mutters, scuffing his shoes on the floor and squirming inwardly as the memory of that unexpected goodbye kiss creeps, unbidden, into his mind. He’s painfully aware, too, that this Ginny isn’t his Ginny. Isn’t his wife. She’s more relaxed and more playful, and even though that should be a good thing, it hurts like a corkscrew to the chest. Harry breathes.

And then, from nowhere at all, several pieces that he’s deliberately been keeping in the air fall neatly into place and his mouth drops open a little.

“Oh, fuck, I’m gay!” he blurts out, cutting off Ginny midsentence.

She laughs. “Please tell me this hasn’t just occurred to you. Wait, of course it hasn’t... I vividly remember an extremely awkward conversation with you about it... let’s see, eighteen years ago?”

“Yes, we had one of those, too!” Hermione offers, eyes bright with amusement, and it becomes painfully apparent that they’re teasing him. Ganging up on him, in fact, for some past awkwardness that he doesn’t even remember. “Hermione, I think I like Draco... you know, in a liking sort of way,” she says, affecting a deeper voice and a puzzled expression.

Harry flushes horribly and scrubs at his face with one hand. His stomach is doing cartwheels and his mouth is so dry that he thinks he may never unstick his tongue from the roof of it. He’s gay. Surely he shouldn’t only be finding this out now, at his apparently advanced age. He’s gay, and he’s gay with Draco Malfoy. Draco Malfoy, who apparently has some bizarre leverage over his fashion choices.

And Ginny’s... well, she’s here, but he has no idea beyond that. And as that thought reaches its natural conclusion, Harry stops breathing temporarily.

“What about Lily and James and Albus?” he manages at last.

Hermione slides into the chair next to him, and her dark eyes seem to flood his vision. “Your parents and Dumbledore are dead, Harry, you know that,” she says, voice rough with concern.

“No... I mean... the children. My children,” he whispers, as Ginny turns away and exchanges a glance with Hermione.

Instinctively, he slips a hand into his pocket for Al’s note and of course it’s not there... not just because these aren’t the right jeans, but because here there is no Al. There never was. Draco Malfoy has had seventeen years practise of watching him sleep. He’s never been married to Ginny at all. Feeling as though he’s been hit with something heavy, he closes his eyes. His insides turn to ice and he grips the edge of his chair hard.

“Harry?” someone is saying. “Do you want me to call Draco? What do you think will help, Gin?”

Tell no one, the man said. Tell no one. What the fuck am I going to do?

“Sleep and some industrial strength hangover potion, probably. I’m going to have Blaise killed,” Ginny is saying beside him, and he forces his eyes open. “No, you know what? I’m going to do it myself.”

“Has he been making his own wine again?” Hermione asks with a light shudder.

“No. He’s been making gin. In the bath.” Ginny rolls her eyes.

Hermione snorts. “Well, for all I say about Ron, he’s never done that... it’d be too close to cleaning it, I imagine.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Harry offers truthfully. With some effort, he pulls on a face that he hopes looks more reassuring.

“Poor Harry,” Ginny says, resting her head on his shoulder. Her hair tickles his nose and she smells nice, sweet, like some kind of flower, but not right. Not right at all.

**~*~**

By the time he leaves the cottage his head is in a spin. Hermione and Ginny, in a confusing blend of clucking and teasing, have sent him home, but he has no intention of returning to Grimmauld Place. Barely thinking, he ducks behind a hedge and Apparates, almost at random, into an alley in Muggle London.

Here, the streets are rain-slicked and the frost is almost nowhere to be seen, though determined patches can be seen here and there, clinging to kerbs and window ledges. Harry wanders through the crowds, allowing himself to be buffeted by people with far more purpose. At last, feeling as though he’s starting to bruise, he ducks into the nearest cafe. It’s warm, steam-filled and smells like fried food and wet coats. The chairs are made of bright orange plastic and are bolted to the floor, and Harry knows that nothing good is going to come out of that serving hatch, but it doesn’t matter.

“Hot chocolate, please,” he says at the counter without looking up. Perhaps the sugar will help.

“D’ya want whipped cream on that, young man?”

Harry’s head jerks up painfully. Blinks just to make sure.

“You!”

The bearded old man grins, revealing his glinting gold teeth. “Me. ’Ow about chocolate sprinkles?”

“What are you doing here?” Harry demands, eyeing his tabard and the nametag that reads ‘Boris’.

“Playin’ ’opscotch with a dragon, what does it look like?” Boris wriggles bushy eyebrows.

“No, I mean... never mind that, anyway, what the hell have you done to me?” Harry hisses. He leans across the counter, both hands pressed to the sticky metal surface, and stares the meddlesome old bugger in the eyes.

“Don’t be like that, lad.” The milky eyes blink slowly. “Just givin’ you a little glimpse.”

“What?”

“A glimpse. Now, do you want this hot chocolate or not?”

Startled, Harry allows his fingers to slide back across the counter and stands upright. “I do, actually. I don’t think the whipped cream would be a very good idea, though,” he says, feeling his stomach turn at the thought.

“Right you are.” Boris taps haphazardly at the buttons on the till. “Five Sickles twenty.”

“Isn’t this a Muggle cafe?” Harry whispers, looking around.

“It is. That’s for me,” he says, holding out a wrinkled hand. “You don’t really think I work here, do you?”

Harry makes a small sound of disbelief. “I’m not paying you if you don’t work here! And anyway, I want an explanation.”

Boris smiles slowly. “For five Sickles twenty you can ’ave hot chocolate and one of those. At least, up to a point.”

For a moment, he and Harry stare at one another. The only sounds are the clinking of cutlery and the muffled shouts of the cooks behind the hatch, but the pressure inside Harry’s head soon ratchets up to breaking point.

“Fine.” He hands over the coins and stalks over to a corner table, feeling almost certain that he’s just been outmanoeuvred, but feeling equally certain that his only real option is to go with it.

Harry sits in an uncomfortable chair and silently accepts the huge mug of hot chocolate that Boris places in front of him. He has discarded his tabard and now sits opposite Harry in his oilskin coat, a vast cup of tea clasped under his chin.

“It’s nice to see you again, young man,” he says, and there’s something like genuine affection in his tone that utterly confuses Harry.

“Well... good... I think. I need to know what you did.”

“I told you—it’s just a glimpse. You said you wanted to know what would ’appen if you did somethin’ different.” Boris sips his drink calmly, allowing rivulets of tea to flow down his beard unchecked. “An’ this is it.”

Harry’s heart hammers. “But... what did I do differently?”

Boris shrugs. “Only you know that, lad. Don’t tell me you didn’t see it?”

“See it?” Harry whispers, and then he remembers the dream. The bathroom, and then the light at the top of the staircase. Eyes and sheets and words... so many words that he couldn’t make out. Still can’t. “What happened in my dream really happened?”

Boris nods. “How’d you like it?”

“Like it?” Harry demands, stiffening in his seat. “How do I like it? My wife isn’t my wife, my children...” He swallows hard. “My children don’t exist and I’m gay with Draco Malfoy!”

It’s only when two old ladies turn around from their table at the other side of the cafe and tut at Harry that he realises how loud and indignant he has become. He smiles weakly at them.

“Well, you were right, then,” Boris says mildly. “Things are completely different.”

Harry drops his head into his hands and groans his exasperation into them. “I liked you a lot better when I was drunk,” he mumbles.

Boris’ laughter is loud and rumbly in the hush and Harry opens one eye and regards him through his fingers. “Shh. My head hurts.”

“So, what did you do, lad? Kill someone? Confess undyin’ love? See the world?”

Harry emerges from behind his hands and stares at the scratched formica table. “I saved him,” he whispers, and the realisation squeezes his heart in a raw, new place.

“So it would seem,” Boris agrees, creaking around in his chair.

“Is that all you’re going to say? Aren’t you going to help me... you know, fill in the blanks?” Harry appeals, feeling helpless.

“It’s all there if you only look, you know.” Boris inclines his head sagely.

“Great, that’s really enlightening.”

“I’m glad.”

“How long is this going to last?” Harry asks, gulping at his overly-sweet hot chocolate and trying not to feel defeated.

“Oh, as long as it takes,” Boris says matter-of-factly, inspecting the inside of his teacup as though Harry isn’t even there.

Leaning back in his chair and allowing his arms to dangle, Harry sighs heavily. Frowns as a thought occurs to him. “Anyway, what the hell are you doing in...” He glances at the writing on the windows, “Fontayne’s Diner if you’re so good at messing with people’s lives?”

The milky eyes are impassive. “Just checkin’ up on you, that’s all.”

Harry doesn’t have an answer to that.

**~*~**

By the time he forces himself to head back, it’s completely dark outside.

The walk back to Grimmauld Place is long, cold and just what Harry needs. Somehow, the icy wind that swipes through his hair, numbs his nostrils and sets his teeth on edge also manages to smooth down his panic until it no longer feels as though it might burst out of his ribcage and tear him apart. In fact, by the time number twelve looms into view, a detached sort of calm has settled over him. There’s no telling how long it will last this time, but just for now, the knowledge that his children are safe somewhere—that they are at all—will do.

This other part, though... this Malfoy part... well. Harry swallows hard, holds onto his courage and lets himself into the house. He can deal with that, he’s a... alright, he doesn’t know exactly what he’s supposed to be yet, but he’s a man and he’s a Gryffindor and he’s perfectly capable of coping with anything.

“I think I’ve got Fitzwilliam,” comes a shout from the kitchen—a shout that definitely belongs to a Malfoy, and Harry can only hope it’s not Lucius again.

Only one way to find out, he supposes, pleased at least that he’s properly covered up this time.

He steps into the kitchen. It’s just Malfoy. His Malfoy, or at least, Draco Malfoy. Harry frowns. “What?”

Malfoy looks up from where he’s writing furiously at the table, which is scattered with bits of parchment, quills, an empty stripy coffee mug and a strange little carved box.

“Fitzwilliam. I caught sight of him after my meeting and by some stroke of luck had a spare flask on me, so I did red-haired legitimate businessman,” Malfoy says, drawing down his eyebrows and affecting a strange accent, “and managed to get him to insinuate that he was definitely in the business of turning a blind eye or two for the right amount of Galleons.”

Harry stares for a moment, silenced by the odd little half-smile on Malfoy’s lips. He looks genuinely pleased, and Harry doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything so strange. Suddenly, though, recognition yanks at him, and not pleasantly.

“Fitzwilliam? Head of Magical Law Enforcement Fitzwilliam?” he demands. It can’t be.

Malfoy nods slowly, smile fading into exasperation. “How many other Fitzwilliams have I been chasing for the last six months?”

I have no idea, Harry wants to say, but he searches frantically for more helpful words. “Yeah, sorry... it’s just sometimes hard to believe that someone like Franz... erm, someone like Fitzwilliam could be corrupt,” he says, voice rough with very real disbelief.

As Head of the Auror Office, he’s had many meetings with the Head of MLE, and even though the rational part of him knows that this him has probably never done any such thing, it still comes as a blow.

Unexpectedly, Malfoy smiles again. “Thanks.”

Harry blinks. “Er... you’re welcome?”

“Aren’t you in a strange little mood this evening?” Malfoy says, setting down his quill and folding his arms across his chest. He sighs. “I do take a special pride in exposing the unlikeliest of villains, you know that... oh, good grief. What on earth are you wearing?”

Redundantly, Harry glances down at his outfit. He remembers Ginny’s astonishment all too well, but opts to ignore it. “Clothes?” he attempts.

Malfoy snorts. “If you say so. I thought I threw those horrendous jeans out weeks ago,” he says, refined face a picture of disdain.

Something about that expression releases Harry from his stupor and he’s filled with maddening, prickly warmth as his brain helpfully reminds him that fucking hell, he really doesn’t like Malfoy very much. The fact that this Harry, this one here, seems to be existing in some kind of domestic bliss with the stuck-up twat is more than a little bit confusing.

“Well, you didn’t,” he offers, feeling petulant. “They were at the back of the wardrobe. And I wore them out. I went all the way to visit Hermione in them.”

Malfoy’s eyebrows shoot up. “Visiting Hermione? Did you even go to work today?”

“No.” Harry folds his arms too and meets flashing grey eyes in a surprisingly intense stare-off. He has the strangest feeling he’s about to be told off, and it’s been so long since anyone told him off that there’s an odd little part of him that’s looking forward to it.

“Lazy bastard Gryffindor,” Malfoy sighs. “If only we could all take a day off whenever we felt the slightest bit delicate.”

Harry resents the use of the word ‘slightest’, but doesn’t think there’s any use arguing the point. “Well, if your friends force-feed me cocktails...” he begins.

“Blaise is your friend, too,” Malfoy cuts in, looking almost wounded.

“When he makes gin in the bathtub, he’s all yours,” Harry mutters, momentarily terrified at how easy this is.

“Did he really?” Malfoy’s face is a curious mixture of horror and delight.

Harry nods. In the amused silence that follows, he shrugs off his coat and slumps into a chair at the table, idly trying to read Malfoy’s notes upside down. This Malfoy definitely isn’t a financial advisor, and whatever sort of investigator-type-character he is, it obviously agrees with him.

“That man is a horror,” Malfoy is mumbling, but Harry isn’t really listening. He’s noticing the way Malfoy’s hair falls into his eyes as he leans forward across the table on his elbows and laughs softly. He’s noticing the way that the fall of blond hair and the genuine smile soften his features to the point where he’s almost unrecognisable as the man on the platform in September. That Malfoy had looked stiff and stretched beyond his years, closed-faced and black-clad with hair slicked back so severely it had looked almost invisible.

That man had been, Harry supposes, a natural extension of the Malfoy he’d always known, but this man is a completely unknown quantity. His eyes are warm as he looks up and runs his bare foot up Harry’s calf under the table. Harry inhales sharply.

“It’s your turn to make dinner,” he says in such a low, rough tone that Harry feels as though he’s just been propositioned.

“Well, that’ll be interesting,” Harry mumbles, glancing around at the vaguely familiar kitchen and wondering how long it’s going to take him to find something edible amongst all those cupboards. “And what are you going to do, exactly?”

“Watch,” Malfoy says, gathering his parchments together in an odd order that Harry hasn’t a hope of understanding. He smirks. “Now take off those ghastly jeans. They’re upsetting me.”

**~*~**

Harry makes it to the end of the evening with his sanity intact, which is more than he had hoped for. After dinner, he barely sees anything of Malfoy but the top of his head as he scribbles page after page of notes and chews on his bottom lip. From time to time, he looks up from his spot, curled in the armchair nearest the fire, and his eyes dart around the room as though he’s searching for something that isn’t there.

Conscious of trying to act as ‘normal’ as possible, Harry sprawls on the wonderfully comfortable worn leather sofa (the kind Ginny hates, he notes with interest) and pretends to read the newspaper. At least, he does until Malfoy’s eyes linger on him for a second longer than usual and he says:

“You do know that’s yesterday’s, don’t you? And you’ve already read it?”

Harry glances down at the paper, dismayed. “Are you sure?” he manages, trying to sound convincing.

Malfoy sighs and smiles at him indulgently as he resumes his writing. “Yes,” he says mildly. “Mostly because you spent a good ten minutes ranting about the restaurant reviews.”

“Oh.” Harry stares into the fire and attempts to recall a time when he has even bothered to read a restaurant review, never mind rant about one. “Yeah, that’s right, bloody restaurant reviewers,” he says, hoping his frown looks more contemptuous than confused. “Just thought I’d... er... read it again. Just to make sure.”

Malfoy makes an odd little sound but doesn’t bother to look up. “Sometimes I can’t help wondering if your leg wasn’t the only thing you injured during the war,” he murmurs drily.

Harry freezes. His fingers clench around the newspaper and his heart slams against his ribcage as he stares down at his legs. Legs that are now encased in expensive black fabric and that look absolutely fine to him. Something cold rakes over him and he has to fight hard against the desire to fuck Boris’ rules, grab Malfoy and demand to know what he’s talking about.

He wriggles his toes experimentally and rotates each knee and ankle in turn. Everything seems to be in working order, but the race of his pulse and the dryness of his throat tell him that Malfoy isn’t messing around and not only that, his careless words suggest that this is something they’ve been dealing with for a long time.

What’s wrong with me? he wonders silently, knowing, even in his horror, not to voice the question. Malfoy will certainly have an answer for him, and he doubts it will be one he’ll like.

“I think I’ll head to bed,” Malfoy says after what feels like a long time, startling Harry out of his reverie.

He looks up. “Hm?”

“I’m going to bed,” Malfoy repeats, unfolding himself from his chair and nudging Harry with his foot. “Are you coming? You really should if you’re to have any chance of making it into work tomorrow.”

Harry stares up at the raised eyebrow, the rumpled shirt, the quill balanced behind Malfoy’s ear. He opens his mouth to protest but the only thing that comes out is a huge, stretchy yawn, and Malfoy smirks. “I thought so.”

He turns and heads for the stairs, leaving Harry to slump back into the sofa and listen to his creaky footsteps tracking across the ceiling.

“Shut up, Malfoy,” he whispers to the empty room, suddenly very aware that he’s alone. He’s unaccustomed to such a quiet, civilised bedtime and it makes him ache. Summoning the last of his energy, he douses the flames in the grate with a flick of his wand and drags himself to his feet. There doesn’t seem to be any getting away from this sharing-a-bed thing, so he supposes he might as well get it over with.

He just wishes he felt as philosophical as he’s telling himself to be.

Malfoy is already sitting on the edge of the bed and undoing his cuffs when Harry braves the bedroom. With some effort, Harry does his best impression of ‘this is perfectly ordinary’ and lowers himself onto what seems to be his side of the bed. Unsure what to do now, as though the mundane routine of bedtime has been stolen from him by unseen hands, he listens to Malfoy’s soft, tuneless humming and examines the clock on his bedside. It’s strange—copper coloured with so many visible cogs and springs that he has to admit he’s confused. Still, the hands informing him that it’s twenty to midnight are shiny and wave gently back and forth as though to grab his attention.

“Your parents were here,” Harry says suddenly, and the humming stops. “This morning,” he adds.

“Oh, really? Did they have anything interesting to say for themselves?”

“They wanted to talk about Christmas,” Harry says, poking the clock and watching a puff of smoke emerge from the top. Surprised, he smiles.

Malfoy sighs heavily and shifts on the bed. “I have no idea why they bother, do you? Everyone knows we will be doing exactly the same buggering thing we do every fucking year, Merlin give me strength.”

“Should I expect more singing? Harry asks, turning around to regard Malfoy. He doesn’t really expect a response and he’s startled to hear Malfoy laugh and shake his head.

“More than likely. I never could figure out why the pair of you did that,” he admits.

Harry frowns. “Hm?”

“The Celestina Warbeck thing.” Malfoy stretches and starts to unbutton his shirt. Alarmed, Harry bites his tongue, but he doesn’t turn away. “Still, I certainly know better than to interfere with anything that suggests a civil relationship between the two of you. Don’t you remember what he did the first time I took you home to the Manor?”

Harry really doesn't. “Mm,” he says absently, watching the crisp, white fabric slide from Malfoy's shoulders and then dropping his eyes, suddenly uncomfortable. Even more so, which is saying something, he supposes.

There is silence for several minutes as Harry stares at his socks and listens to the swish and rustle of fabric as Malfoy undresses, wondering about injured legs and Christmas and Celestina Warbeck—the latter especially, for reasons passing understanding. He’s never really been a fan, and he can’t imagine Lucius Malfoy owns her greatest hits either.

“Something wrong?” Malfoy asks carefully, and there’s a hand brushing Harry’s shoulder.

You could say that, Harry thinks. “No, just tired,” he mumbles, and tries not to think about just how many times he has told that particular lie in the last few years.

With a sense of inevitability, he pulls his sweater over his head and kicks off his trousers and socks. He slides under the duvet and stares straight up at the ceiling, tightening his muscles against the shock of cold sheets against bare skin.

And there it is. He’s in bed with Draco Malfoy. Life certainly has a twisted sense of humour.

“Why is it so cold in here?” Malfoy grumbles very close to Harry’s ear, making all the hairs on his neck stand up and wave around in protest. Within seconds there is also a cold hand spread out on his belly, an icy foot pressed to his calf and the smell of clean man everywhere.

“The window is open,” Harry manages. “It’s December. It’s night time.” He pauses. “Those are enough reasons.”

“Reasons won’t make me warm.”

“Shut up,” Harry mumbles, forcing himself to relax, which is somewhat of a challenge with a sudden mouthful of blond hair.

“I’ll shut you up in a minute,” Malfoy says threateningly into Harry’s neck.

Oh, good.

Inhaling deeply, Harry turns out the lights. He wonders if the pounding in his chest is as loud as it feels. Malfoy’s breathing is warm and regular against his skin, and, against all odds, is not entirely unpleasant. Harry turns his head carefully, gazing at the glowing hands of his clock and then out of the window at a clear sky full of stars, just like the one at home. Everything he’s always known himself to be is telling him to fight this, but something new—something interesting and vulnerable—is whispering to him, telling him that the sooner he does whatever it is Boris wants him to do, or learns whatever it is he wants him to learn, the sooner he will be able to go home.

“Clothes on the floor,” Malfoy murmurs.

“What?”

There’s no response.

**~*~**

That light at the top of the stairs is becoming very familiar.

Harry moves toward it with purpose now, wanting, needing to find out more. Knowing he is there.

Pushing the door, heavy, carved wood, and then a wave of potion-spicy air.

Rustling sheets and caught breath. He knows, even though Harry is invisible.

“Malfoy?” Harry whispers, drawing close. “Draco?”

“Who’s there?” Grey eyes bright in the darkness. “Potter, is that you? Get away from me right this second!”

Look around. Heart tight with fear. Look around. His wand is on the bedside. Out of reach.

Creeping closer, tight, short breaths, and: “I just want to talk to you.”

“I don’t want to talk to you.” Pale in the moonlight, fingers clenched in the sheets, sitting upright in ill-fitting striped pyjamas. Small, pretending to be big.

“I gathered that much.” Drawing closer and allowing the cloak to slide down to his shoulders. “When you started throwing Unforgiveables at me.”

“I’ll start again if you don’t leave.” Almost a hiss. Lips twisted into a snarl.

“No, you won’t.” Summoning the wand from the bedside and hanging onto it tight. Cool, hard wood and shaking fingers. Bravery blown away into the darkness. “I’m sorry for what I did. But now you’re going to listen to me.”

“Fuck you, Potter.”

Burning eyes. Desperation. A step closer. “Listen.”

**~*~**

“I’ve got to go,” murmurs a low voice next to Harry’s ear. His eyes snap open.

“Hm... Malfoy?”

“Malfoy again, eh?” The grey eyes are now inches from Harry’s as he leans over him, one hand either side of Harry’s head on the pillow. “I really wish I could stay and find out exactly what’s going on in your kinky little mind... believe me.” He sighs and runs a hand down Harry’s bare chest, skating fingertips over his abdomen and pressing a firm hand to Harry’s half-hard cock, which reacts with morning enthusiasm and quite without his permission, twitching into the caress and flooding his belly with inappropriate warmth.

“Oh,” he gasps, startled, and Malfoy presses harder, eyes intense.

“Now that’s just cruel... Potter,” he adds, quirking an eyebrow. “I’ve recently discovered that Mr Fitzwilliam likes to run in the park at some ridiculous hour of the morning, so...” he sighs regretfully and slides his fingers once more over Harry’s now-straining erection, making him grit his teeth. “I realise one must make sacrifices in the pursuit of truth, but really.”

Harry suppresses a whimper, torn evenly between the desire to pull away, leap off the bed and insist that Malfoy keeps his hands to himself, and the more primitive part of him that just wants, that demands attention and doesn’t really give a fuck about anything else.

“Yeah,” Harry manages, somewhat breathlessly. “So, will it be red-haired legitimate businessman again?”

Malfoy snorts. “Don’t you think he’d be a touch conspicuous in the park?”

“I’m not thinking much of anything with you doing that,” Harry says, feeling brave, distracted, and then suddenly horrified at his own words, at Malfoy’s smirk, and at the flush creeping over his chest and neck.

“Good to know I haven’t completely lost my touch.” Malfoy sighs and reclaims his hand. “I really do have to go now.”

Frustrated and confused, Harry squirms in place and nods. Malfoy leans down, slides his fingers into Harry’s hair and kisses him deeply, flicking his toothpaste-and-tea flavoured tongue into Harry’s mouth and making him gasp involuntarily. Somewhere in the midst of the madness and bewilderment swirling in his head, he’s conscious of the fact that he’s lying here, still and submissive, and allowing himself to be kissed.

That just won’t do. Screwing up his courage, he kisses back, grabbing a handful of Malfoy’s sweater and hoping for the best. He’s never kissed a man before in his life and it’s simultaneously terrifying and terrifyingly normal. Either way, his heart is hammering in his chest almost hard enough to distract him from the slash of hot guilt that lays him open as, from nowhere, Ginny leaps into his head. Both Ginnys, in fact: his wife—oh, god, his wife—and the brighter, happier one he met yesterday.

Sobered, he pulls away and avoids Malfoy’s eyes.

Breathing hard, Malfoy throws Harry an interesting half-smile and sits up reluctantly. “I really have to go. Don’t forget to go to work today.”

When the door closes behind him, Harry flops messily on the bed, arms and legs splayed. He stares at the ceiling.

“I just kissed Malfoy,” he whispers, licking his bottom lip and tasting mint.

“You certainly did,” the mirror offers, sounding amused.

Harry coves his eyes and groans. “I’m not afraid of damaging you. I’ve had plenty of bad luck already... I’m desensitised.”

He listens, but there’s nothing but an unimpressed ‘hmph!’ from the mirror, leaving Harry feeling alone once more, sprawled out across the wrinkled sheets with an aching erection that he’s half-scared to touch. As his eyes drift around the room, idly searching for a distraction, they fall upon a framed photograph on Malfoy’s chest of drawers.

Draco’s chest of drawers, he corrects himself resolutely. He really is going to have to get used to that before he inadvertently gets himself into some kinky sex game that he can’t get out of. As that thought slowly crystallises in his mind, he shivers and his neglected cock twitches. Horrified, Harry presses a quelling palm against it and reaches for the photograph.

He hates Malfoy, after all. Perhaps all of this is just a hallucination—his body’s way of telling him that it has been far too long since he last had sex.

Anyway.

Stretching onto his side, he looks at the silver-framed photograph, mouth turning dry.

It’s a photograph of him, a much younger him, standing almost silhouetted against a backdrop of mountains and a vivid multi-coloured sunset. He’s wearing a fine green cardigan-type-garment, fitted jeans and a beaming, slightly sheepish, smile. It seems to be a windy day, and every now and then photo-Harry lifts a hand to swipe his hair out of his face. He looks happy, healthy, carefree, and Harry doesn’t remember anything about it.

He glances at a neat annotation in the corner of the photograph: Edinburgh, August 2002.

Harry chews his lip. He can’t recall exactly what he was doing in August 2002, but he knows he has never been to Edinburgh. Well, not in the life he remembers.

It’s all there if you only look, you know. That’s what Boris had said.

Suddenly suffused with a sense of purpose, Harry drops the photograph to the bed and jumps to his feet. Somewhere in this house, there has to be something that will help him to make sense of all this. Harry pulls open every drawer in the room in turn, rifling through the contents of each and moving onto the next. By the time he’s finished, breathless and disappointed, the room looks as though it has been ransacked by an enthusiastic burglar or a team of wayward pixies. And he’s found nothing.

He throws on some clothes and turns to leave the room. Hesitates. There’s a strange nagging sensation in his gut, one that doesn’t seem content to let him blithely abandon the mess he has made. Frowning, he hangs back in the doorway, drumming his fingers on the frame. The room really was very neat before he started... Harry sighs deeply, shakes his head and draws his wand, returning all of the spilled items to their proper places.

Then, pulling his sleeves down over his fingers against the cold, he jogs down the stairs. The spider’s web is looking quite imposing now, and Harry barely ducks in time as he hurries into the hallway and tries each room in turn, desperation turning to adrenaline in his veins.

In the living room he finds more photographs—several of himself and Malfoy... Draco... at various formal occasions, and Harry is relieved to see that his photo-self looks almost as uncomfortable in dress robes as he’s always been. Draco, however, is poised and elegant enough for both of them. There are also several snapshots of himself, Draco, Ginny, and... that handsome, dark-skinned man must be Blaise. Harry’s stomach flips over. He finds pictures of the four of them at the beach, at a party, and what looks like the kitchen in this very house.

Blaise Zabini, he thinks, attempting to dredge up some information—anything at all, really—on Ginny’s husband.

Fuck, that sounds weird.

Harry swallows hard, lowering himself into an armchair and rubbing at his face. Okay, so that line of thinking isn’t going to help this situation one little bit. Instead, he casts his mind back.

He’s... a Slytherin. He might have been one of Draco’s friends at school. He and his family left the country some time during the war, perhaps moved to France? Harry isn’t sure, but then he supposes it doesn’t matter either way. Nothing he knows seems to be applicable in this place, anyway.

Harry pulls himself out of the chair and tries to catch hold of his motivation once more. It’s maddeningly elusive still, but he manages to make it to the study, and it’s here that he strikes gold. Lined up on the bottom shelf nearest the fireplace are a series of leather-bound albums with dates stamped on them in gold.

With a shiver, Harry lights the fire in the grate and takes the first volume, dated 1998-1999. He settles himself on the hearthrug and breathes in the scent of wood polish and musty pages; it’s comforting, and after a few seconds he opens the album in his lap.

It’s a scrapbook, not a photograph album. Harry smiles, surprised, and skates his fingers over the newspaper article pasted onto the first page—finally, something he remembers. It’s that terrible picture of himself, Hermione and Ron, taken some time in the aftermath of the Battle of Hogwarts and plastered across the papers for weeks afterwards. Dirty, bleeding and exhausted, they lean against one another and stare off into the distance under the unimaginative headline: ‘Trio of Heroes—a well-earned rest for Potter, Granger and Weasley’.

Harry sighs gently, staring down at the relieved, distressed faces of his friends. Unexpectedly, his eyes sting with hot tears and he blinks them away, even though there’s no one here to chastise him for his display of weakness. As he does, he notices a comment written in spiky black script at the bottom of the page:

Your first day of freedom, Harry Potter. How does it feel?

And, next to the admittedly awful article:

The first, and definitely not the last, time I realised with some certainty that I could be a superior reporter with my eyes shut and one hand tied to a Blast-ended Skrewt.

Harry lifts an eyebrow. So, he’s a journalist. It isn’t quite the career one would imagine for a Malfoy, but perhaps it makes sense. Harry supposes that the disguises and persuasion and wheedling of information appeal tremendously to the Slytherin in Draco... and he strongly suspects that there is more than the average amount of Slytherin in Draco.

Turning the page, Harry finds an article about Draco, and another and another. Shifting position on the rug, Harry allows the flames to warm his back and devours every word.

... at great personal risk, this teenage Death Eater turned his back on He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and found forgiveness in the form of the late Albus Dumbledore and redemption in his unexpected friendship with Harry Potter himself...

... in exchange for protection for his family, Malfoy supplied invaluable information about the activities of his former master to the group of skilled fighters known as the Order of the Phoenix...

... tremendous acts of bravery and atonement from one so young, proving, perhaps, that what once was, is not irreparable...

... Lucius Malfoy was today sentenced to five years in Azkaban for his role in the rise of You-Know-Who. Sources close to the Wizengamot suggest that Harry Potter’s testimony was instrumental in negotiating such a light sentence for the former Death Eater. Draco Malfoy, Potter’s former enemy and current close friend, was also in attendance but was unavailable for comment...

Harry turns the pages faster and faster, barely breathing. He finds serious articles about each of them as well as silly, pointless snapshots and items consisting of nothing but speculation about what they are doing or where they are going. Next to each and every one, he finds Draco’s running commentary.

Halfway through the book, he finds newspaper pictures of himself, Ron, Hermione and Draco accepting their honours after the war, and close-up shots of Harry’s Order of Merlin, first class, and Draco’s second.

And: So, you best me once again, Potter. It’s a good job you’re great in bed or else I mightn’t keep you around.

Harry flushes and chews at his nail awkwardly. He quickly turns the page, but the next one is even worse:

‘It’s official—Potter and Malfoy are an item! Exclusive pictures inside!’

Harry’s stomach flips as though this is the first time he is being confronted with this information; perhaps it’s seeing it in black and white in a national newspaper that makes it that little bit more shocking. Perhaps it’s finding out that he’s been outed by the Daily sodding Prophet nearly two decades ago and he’s only finding out about it now.

Oddly indignant, Harry snorts and flips faux-casually to the ‘exclusive photographs’—there’s no way they can be as bad as he’s imagining.

Somehow, they’re worse. Head full of salacious, caught-in-the-act style images, he’s braced even for partial nudity, but instead finds himself staring at an array of sweet, almost innocent photographs of a young couple spending a sunny afternoon together in the tiny square of garden at the back of number twelve. Someone has obviously poked a camera through the bushes and captured playful arguments, languid kisses and one particularly good shot of Harry, flat on his back on the grass, t-shirt riding up as he stretches out in the sun while Draco rests his head on his stomach and appears to be reading aloud from a tattered old book. They look happy together, there’s no escaping that.

The Dark Mark is starkly visible against his pale forearm, and so are several other small shapes that Harry cannot make out, just near the inside of the elbow. Draco makes no attempt to hide his scars with long sleeves and, in spite of himself, Harry’s respect for him rises a couple of notches. Everyone has scars, he supposes, and they often make good reminders. Reminders of what not to do.

A strange noise from down the hall makes Harry turn and lean over on one hand, trying pointlessly to see around corners, and ten seconds later his fire whooshes and Ginny’s head pops into view. Startled, Harry drops the heavy scrapbook on his foot and hisses in pain.

“Hi... Gin,” he manages, groaning and rubbing his injured toes.

She sighs. “You’ve forgotten about Maura, haven’t you?”

“Hmm... yes?” Harry replies honestly, hoping he can figure out who or what Maura is before Ginny decides to cart him off to St Mungo’s.

“Come on, Harry, you promised you’d take her this morning, I’ve got a full team meeting in ten minutes—we’ve got to discuss that horrible performance against Chudley last week and the head coach isn’t going to be there, so it’s all on me and I’m just a tiny bit stressed.” She stares beseechingly from the flames, making Harry feel rather remorseful, even though he can’t possibly be held responsible for something his other self has agreed to do.

“Where’s Blaise?” he ventures, pretty certain by now that Maura is either a child or an animal, and being all too aware that sometimes there is little difference between the two.

“At work.” Ginny gives him an odd look.

“Of course he is,” Harry says faintly. “I have to work, too, you know. Draco is insisting on it.”

Ginny snorts. “After yesterday, I’ll bet. Take her with you; you know she loves going to work with her Uncle Harry.”

Uncle Harry. The words swim around inside Harry’s head. Ginny and Blaise Zabini have a daughter, and she calls him Uncle Harry. He coughs, trying to loosen the tightness in his chest.

“Alright, well, send her through, then,” he says, trying to smile, and the relief on Ginny’s face is immense.

“Great. I’ll see you later, then. Maura, give Mummy a kiss.”

Harry watches anxiously as Ginny’s face disappears, the flames whoosh green, and then there is a small child hopping out of the fire and onto the hearthrug. Hurriedly, he closes the scrapbook and returns it to its shelf, out of the way of the small cloud of ash that the little girl seems to have brought in with her.

“What’re you doing in here, Uncle Harry?” she asks, and Harry just stares at her.

Maura Weasley—or perhaps Zabini—looks to be six or seven years old and strikingly resembles both of her parents. Her coffee-coloured skin and tightly curly dark hair obviously come from her father, but the bright brown eyes and dusting of freckles across her nose are all Ginny.

Harry blinks and tries with everything he has to focus. Answer the question.

“Where were you expecting to find me?” he wonders aloud, which isn’t really answering the question, but at least he’s saying something instead of doing a fish impression at the poor child.

“You’re always in the kitchen,” she says, tilting her head on side as if to add, “silly.”

“Of course I am. Well, I was just doing some reading and trying to get warm,” he offers, frowning as he takes in her short red pinafore, long-sleeved t-shirt and spotted tights. He’s flooded with a confusing mixture of natural protectiveness toward the child and dull pain that she exists at all, and it’s a good few seconds before his paternal instinct kicks in and he continues: “We’re going out soon, don’t you have a coat?”

She nods, making her curly pigtails bob up and down. “I’ll get it.”

Harry watches, baffled, as Maura scuttles out of the room, footsteps ringing on the polished wood. A door opens and closes—he thinks the hallway closet—and then she’s back, clutching a red coat and struggling her way into it as she walks. Harry wonders what else of hers lives in his house.

“Is everything you own red?” he asks, amused.

She wrinkles her freckled nose and buttons up her coat. “It’s my favourite colour.”

“Mine too. What does your dad think of that?”

“Daddy doesn’t like colours,” she says with a weariness beyond her years.

Harry lifts an eyebrow but chooses not to comment.

“Are we going to work now?” she asks excitedly, and her smile is all Ginny’s, too.

Harry chews the inside of his mouth and considers his options. Or perhaps just his option, singular. He has to get to this mythical place of work one way or another, and right now, he doesn’t have a better idea than this:

“Maura, where does Uncle Harry work?”

**~*~**

Ten minutes later, Harry is being led—or quite possibly dragged—through a bustling Diagon Alley by a surprisingly strong Maura. It has been several years since a child has demanded to hold his hand and while it’s rather nice to feel needed, he only wishes he was the one leading.

“Hello, Mr Potter,” says a middle-aged woman as she passes, smiling indulgently at Maura and struggling with a dog, an owl in a cage, and a bulging string bag full of groceries.

Harry has no idea who she is but manages to return her greeting before Maura’s warm little hand tightens around his and he has to turn away and fight down his urge to flag down the lady and ask her if she’d like some help.

“Come on, Uncle Harry! If we stop to talk to everyone, we’ll never get there,” Maura complains, barely making herself audible above the chatter and rumble of the crowds.

Puzzled, Harry quickens his step, but he has barely crossed another three feet of cobbles before a little boy in a bobble hat points at him and cries, “Look!” to his father, who is wearing a matching bobble hat.

“Don’t point, Isaac,” the man says, but he smiles broadly at Harry. “Good to see you, Mr Potter. And young Maura.”

At that point, young Maura halts in her relentless stride and turns, still hanging onto Harry’s hand. “Hello,” she says brightly.

“My wife loved it,” the man offers, beaming and rubbing his hands together against the cold. “It was exactly what she wanted... I don’t know how you do it!”

Thrown, Harry takes a deep breath of cold, fresh-tasting air and attempts to sound as gracious as possible. “That’s great, I’m really pleased to hear that.”

The man sighs regretfully. “I wish I could come to you for her Christmas present, too. Maybe next year!”

“Maybe next year,” Harry echoes, throwing the man a sympathetic—he hopes—smile.

When the man and his son say goodbye and set off on their way, so do Harry and Maura, threading through the shoppers and setting their feet down firmly against the slippery cobbles. By the time she slows and turns into a small courtyard, no less than ten people have called out to him, smiled and waved, or wanted to stop for a chat, and Harry is astonished.

It’s rare these days that anyone approaches him in public, and though he can’t remember the last time he shopped in Diagon Alley, he knows deep down that his tried and tested ‘leave me and my family the fuck alone’ face is the real reason that no one comes near. It hasn’t always been that way, but after a few too many intrusive articles and impolite interruptions, the defence mechanism has become second nature.

Or at least it had. Just five minutes in public has already demonstrated that, yet again, things are very different here. Sure, everyone knows him and everyone wants to say hello, but their questions and greetings are invariably polite—“Good morning, Mr Potter” and “Nice to see you, Mr Potter” and “Are you heading for the workshop, Mr Potter? I’d like to drop in later on and talk to you about an order”—and not only that, Harry finds that he doesn’t mind them at all. He doesn’t know what a lot of them are talking about, but he doesn’t mind.

Sadness falls over him like a veil, and he sighs into the frozen air, trudging along behind Maura but barely noticing where she’s taking him until they come to a stop in front of a wooden door set into an attractive, low-slung stone building.

So this is it.

“Please open the door, Uncle Harry,” Maura pleads, shivering dramatically. “I’m going to freeze to death!”

Her expression pulls a soft snort of laughter from Harry. Surprised at the sound, he looks up at the grey sky and forces a hand through his windblown hair, shaking away his unhelpful regret until it falls away around him.

“Right,” he mutters, examining the door with its heavy iron rivets and knocker. When he reaches out and skims the rough wood with his fingertips, a flare of protective magic shoots out and wraps tightly around his hand, weaving shimmering green tendrils through his fingers; a slightly uncomfortable tingle flies down his arm and then retreats before, seemingly-satisfied, the door clicks and swings open on creaky hinges.

Maura races past him into the building. Harry follows at a slower pace, turning in circles and taking in this large, open, sawdust-scented space that is apparently his place of work. The walls are rough, whitewashed and cool under Harry’s fingers, and the flagged floor is littered with wood shavings and intriguing-looking tools. In the middle of the room stand two huge workbenches and immediately above are a series of skylights which on a good day, Harry imagines, would flood the space with light; today, though, they reveal only the heavy clouds through a delicate sheen of frost.

Around the edges of the room, he finds wardrobes, bureaus, chests and dressers. Several unusual chairs sit haphazardly in a corner, and a half-finished glass-fronted bookcase sits next to the door. As he examines each piece, he’s consumed by a creeping fascination.

He made these?

He can’t have... they’re beautiful. They’re unusual and skilfully made and quirky. Harry looks down at his ordinary, bony, artless hands. It makes no sense; his brain is completely unable to reconcile his inept, graceless self with the craftsman to whom this workshop belongs. Boris must be having him on.

“I know you’re not my Uncle Harry,” Maura says suddenly. Harry spins around, heart pounding. She is sitting on the nearest workbench, legs dangling, and fixing him with an odd little smile.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re not my Uncle Harry,” she repeats calmly. “You look like him, but you’re not. It’s okay, though. I won’t tell anyone.”

Rooted to the spot, Harry searches in vain for an appropriate response. He doesn’t understand. Ginny hasn’t noticed, Hermione hasn’t noticed... even Draco, who is apparently his... well, who knows him very well, hasn’t noticed. And yet this child, this bright, dark-skinned miniature Ginny, has seen right through him.

“Of course I’m your Uncle Harry,” he says, barely in a whisper.

Maura draws her feet up onto the work surface and crosses her legs so she can pick at her spotted tights. “It’s alright. I don’t know where you’ve come from but I know you’re only visiting.”

“Visiting,” he repeats. “Something like that.”

Maura nods sagely, and Harry takes a cautious step toward her, and then another, and then, for no reason that he can see, he finds himself in a heap on the cold stone, hands grazed and blood racing with adrenaline.

“That happens sometimes,” Maura advises, and there’s a clatter as she jumps back down to the floor and comes to crouch beside Harry. “You have a bad leg. I bet you didn’t know that.”

Harry laughs bitterly and pulls himself into a sitting position, examining the scratches on his palms. Bizarrely, his leg feels absolutely fine, as though it hasn’t done any such thing as completely give way underneath him and cause him to crash his full weight into the floor.

“I’ve heard about it, but that was my first time... experiencing it,” he admits, giving up on the idea of trying to lie to Maura.

“You’ll be alright in a minute.” Kicking away some sawdust, Maura lowers herself to the floor next to him and wrinkles her nose. “It just makes you fall over sometimes. You usually swear more than that.”

Harry manages a smile. “I’ll remember that,” he says, and then swallows his next question. Even if she does know exactly what happened to him, he doesn’t really want to start interrogating a seven-year-old about a war she doesn’t ever remember. He doesn’t suppose it really matters anyway. Knowing why isn’t going to make it go away.

“Did I really make all these things?” he asks instead, glancing once more around the room.

“Yes.” Maura nods. “You make lots of lovely things.”

“I don’t know how to make things,” Harry says, slightly panicked. “The last bit of furniture I had anything to do with was a flat-pack dressing table when I was eight. And if I remember, I ars—erm, I didn’t do a very good job.”

“You say arse all the time,” Maura tells him with a small giggle. “I don’t know what flat-pack is but you always say you like wood ’cause it doesn’t answer back.”

Harry lifts an eyebrow. “I said that?”

Maura nods, pigtails swinging. Harry flexes his knee carefully. It’s fine. He sighs and pulls up his knees to his chest.

“Do I make them with magic?” he asks hopefully.

The freckled nose scrunches up as Maura thinks, and, as Harry watches, a weak ray of sunlight penetrates the cloud and picks out dark red strands in her hair.

“Mostly you hit the wood with those things,” she says, pointing at a wall rack full of tools, “and make this face.” She pauses and screws up her features, pressing her lips together in a hard line. “And you put them together, and then you use your wand for the fancy bits.”

Harry allows his lips to be tugged into a smile. “Do you mean things like that?” he asks, pointing to an oak dresser with gently moving fish carved into it.

“Mmhm. I like the fish,” Maura says, immediately and painfully reminding Harry of Lily. “Sometimes people come in and ask you for things and sometimes you just make what you want.” She points at something over his shoulder. “That one is for Uncle Draco, for Christmas. I think it’s nearly finished.”

Harry looks, trying to ignore his sudden bellyful of spiky anxiety, but it only intensifies when his eyes fall upon a striking standard lamp made of mahogany and stained glass. The stalk has been carved, seemingly from a single piece of wood, into a smooth, curved shape that appears both strange and natural all at once, like something from the Forbidden Forest. He has to touch it.

He hauls himself to his feet and after a moment, Maura follows him and stands at the opposite side of the lamp, watching him with interest. Feeling as though he’s doing something he shouldn’t and doing it anyway, Harry slides his hand lightly over the curves that feel like silk and fit perfectly to his touch; then, growing bolder, he allows his palm to press tightly to the wood, sensing the grain now, until he reaches the glass shade.

“Should I?” he wonders, fingers closing around his wand.

Maura shrugs. “It’s your lamp.” She pauses. “I think you should.”

Something makes Harry glance down at her and she’s grinning up at him, eyes alight with eagerness. He’s unsure of whether or not he should be taking encouragement from a child who’s at least half Slytherin, but... fuck it, he’s going to do it anyway. He returns her smile and mumbles a spell to light the flame inside the lamp.

“Wow,” Maura whispers, and Harry can’t help but agree with her. Wow indeed.

The workshop is all at once filled with gently undulating light in every shade of green imaginable as the flames dance and illuminate the thin, stained-glass panels. At first glance, he had thought they were simply stripes, but now he sees that the myriad shards of coloured glass are more than that; they shift and fade and merge into one another over and over again.

A green-tinged Maura smiles delightedly up at the strange, nebulous shapes chasing one another across the ceiling. “You’re clever, see? Well, Uncle Harry is, but you know what I mean.” She drags her eyes away from the ceiling and looks around the lamp at Harry. “Do you want to know anything else?”

Harry sighs. Wonders how long she’s got. “What does Ginny... what do your parents do?”

“Daddy has a company that sells plants,” she says, “and Mummy’s a coach. You know, in Quilditch.”

“Quidditch?”

Maura scowls and nods. “Quidditch. I always say it wrong. And Uncle Draco writes stories about bad people to tell everyone that they’re bad.”

“Yeah,” Harry mumbles, gazing at the lamp that his other self made and scrubbing distractedly at his hair. “And I’m a gay carpenter. Cheers, Boris.”

“Who’s Boris?” Maura demands.

“Never mind.”

Chapter Text

Harry lets himself back into the house and flops back against the door, utterly drained. Although there’s no denying that Maura is easily the most useful and straightforward person he has met in this bizarre place, she’s also seven years old and therefore exhausting.

Now that she’s back with her very grateful mother, Harry has, he hopes, a little bit of time and space to process what feels like a deluge of information. And, perhaps, when he’s done with that, figure out how to become a skilled carpenter in time to fulfil all of the ‘millions of orders’ Maura informs him he has waiting for him.

“Because, you know, that’ll be no problem,” Harry mutters darkly, rubbing at his cold face.

As he inhales, the scent of something warm and savoury and delicious catches his nostrils, and the grumble of his stomach reminds him that all he’s had to eat today is the leftover half of Maura’s ham and peanut butter sandwich at lunchtime. Which had been... interesting, to say the least. Perhaps Draco has made dinner, he muses, peeling himself off the door and taking a hopeful step into the hallway.

“Harry? Is that you?” comes a jagged voice from somewhere upstairs.

Sensing danger, he stops dead. “Yes?”

“What did you do up here?” The voice is louder now with an edge of something that is either fury or hysteria, and whichever it is sends Harry’s heart into an erratic, fearful rhythm.

“Nothing,” Harry calls back, mind racing. He already knows he’s in some sort of trouble and it is with trepidation that he crosses the creaking floor and starts to—very slowly—climb the staircase.

“The drawers,” Draco insists in an anguished whimper. “What in the name of buggery fuck did you do, Potter?” he demands, and every fibre of Harry’s being tells him that there is no promise of scary fun in his tone this time.

The drawers? “No, no, no,” Harry mutters to himself, grabbing the balustrade, ducking the spider’s web and dashing up the stairs to the bedroom. “I put everything back!”

Even though he knows it’s unlikely to help, Harry holds his breath as he pushes open the door.

“There you are,” Draco mutters, but he doesn’t look up from his task, which seems to involve kneeling in front of his chest of drawers, searching through the contents at an alarming rate and mumbling distractedly. There’s a strange agitation about him, some tension that pulls his body tight, and even though he cannot profess to know this man, not really, Harry knows that something is very wrong.

“Yeah, I’m here,” he offers, hand closing tightly around the cold doorknob. Biting his lip. “What’s the matter?”

“What’s the matter?” Draco repeats, and his voice shakes with a sharp almost-laughter. “What’s the matter? I just wanted an envelope... that’s all... and this.” He breaks off, fingers wrapping around the edge of the large middle drawer, gripping hard. “Why would you? Just... why?”

“I... er...” Harry stares, unable to look away. Draco’s tension is contagious, and it ripples through him, wrapping around his chest and constricting his breathing. He can’t say he understands what has happened here, but he suspects he’s in the wrong. “I was looking for something.”

Draco’s fingers grip impossibly tighter and he turns to look at Harry, and his stomach clenches horribly as he is confronted with an expression he has seen only once before on this face—complete and utter anguish. The grey eyes are wide and bright with torment, eyebrows drawn down, hair sticking to his pale forehead, and he’s breathing hard. “You know... you know how wrong this is,” he rasps, releasing the drawer at last and dropping back to sit on his heels. He stares at the floor.

Harry hesitates, knowing he has to say something. Anything. “Yes... I know it’s wrong,” he attempts, “and whatever I broke, I’m really sorry—can I see?”

Draco glances up for just long enough to shoot him a scathing look and then resumes his sifting through the contents of the drawers. Sifting, touching, turning objects over again and again, lips moving soundlessly and eyes screwed tightly shut.

“Draco?”

“Everything is in the wrong place,” he whispers. “Everything. There are round things with square things. There are socks in my paper drawers.” He pauses and presses his fingertips against the topmost drawer. “There are six things in here,” he whispers with an alarming wobble in his voice.

“Oh,” Harry says at last, unable to find another single word. In silence, he gazes down at Draco, who seems to be once again checking and counting the contents of the drawers, tapping his fingers over socks and quills and parchments and candles, again and again, seemingly dissatisfied by what he finds but disinclined—perhaps unable—to stop.

The knowledge that nothing is hurt or broken somehow allows Harry to relax his death grip on the doorknob and step a little further into the room. Even as he does so, though, he’s tingling with alarm and something he could never have expected: concern. For Malfoy. For Draco, who is quite obviously distressed. Because there are six things, and square ones with circle ones.

Tentatively, Harry crouches down beside him. Bites his lip. “Come on, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter.”

Draco freezes, elbow deep in a drawer. “It doesn’t matter?” he whispers.

“Erm, well, you know what I mean,” Harry fumbles, already knowing that he’s said the wrong thing. “I mean that—”

“You mean that it doesn’t matter to you. You mean that you think I’m ridiculous. I know what you really think about me, Harry Potter,” Draco snaps, flopping onto the floor with his knees pulled up and his head in his hands. He’s shaking.

Something rusty and seldom-used creaks and twists inside Harry’s chest, making him reach out and wrap a hand around Draco’s wrist, trying to pull his fingers away from his face. Despite all he’s ever thought about this man, it’s not right that he should be so... small.

“I didn’t mean anything like that, Draco. I’ll put everything back, I promise.”

“No, no, no,” Draco hisses, yanking himself out of Harry’s grasp and out of his reach.

Stung, Harry sits back and wraps his arms around himself. Deep down, he knows with a heavy clarity that he has well and truly fucked this up—whatever this is—but he can’t resist the urge to just give it one more go.

“Draco?”

“I will do it myself. I made chilli for you; it’s probably ready by now,” Draco informs him without looking up.

Harry sighs and forces himself to rise, heavy with guilt and confusion.

“I’m really sorry,” he offers as he closes the door, but there is no response other than the creaking of drawers.

**~*~**

Draco doesn’t come downstairs for a long time. Harry goes into the kitchen and pokes at the chilli on the stove. It smells and looks absolutely wonderful but, riddled with guilt, he simply turns out the heat underneath it and heads into the living room, where he flops onto the leather sofa and stares up at the ceiling. He contemplates returning to the study and catching up with a few more years of Draco’s scrapbooks, but the thought that Draco might catch him at it is an effective deterrent.

Instead, he tries to wrap his mind around the last ten minutes. And it’s a challenge.

He has no idea why six things in one drawer is a disaster, and the troubling cohabitation of round things and square things doesn’t make much more sense.

Turning, counting, ordering.

Order. Harry squishes around on the sofa, trying to get comfortable, but it’s no good. A situation like this requires fuel, one way or another.

Mind still racing, he retrieves a bowl of chilli and a fork from the kitchen and collapses back onto the sofa with it. It’s excellent—sweet, spicy and rich—but he barely tastes it as he shovels forkful after forkful into his mouth and stares into the fire and puzzles.

This Draco is all about order, it seems. Harry imagines his closets and his stripes and his neatly-labelled collection of scrapbooks documenting every year of their lives together. Harry wonders, chewing slowly, if his other self is a neat, orderly person, too. Probably not, he thinks after a moment, if the state of his workshop is anything to go by. And yet, from the look of the house, it seems that Harry’s ’shop is the only place that isn’t subject to Draco’s crazy rules.

Harry sighs, scraping the bottom of his bowl with his fork for the last of the sauce and wincing at the grating sound of metal on ceramic. And then it occurs to him.

Maybe his other self doesn’t mind.

Maybe it’s like the way that Hermione couldn’t care less about antique brooms, but she accommodates Ron’s vast and growing collection in their cottage with—mostly—good humour. Or, at least, she does where he comes from. And okay, it’s not exactly the same, but the point, he supposes, is that a relationship is made of acceptance.

A good relationship.

Harry drops his fork into his bowl and rubs his face, groaning.

It is not possible that he has a healthier relationship with an insane, envelope-counting Malfoy than he has with his actual wife. Surely it isn’t—and yet he still finds himself wondering just what either of them would accept for him.

“Perhaps it’s not Malfoy who’s insane,” he muses, shifting onto his back and folding his arms behind his head, allowing the supple leather to mould to his body. “Could be me.”

Comfortable at last, at least in the most basic sense, his eyes quickly grow heavy and he allows himself to drift, soothed by the crackling of the fire in the grate.

When he blinks awake, the fire has burned down almost all the way down and his neck is stiff and uncomfortable, which he supposes will teach him to sleep on the sofa at his age. Well, it might. Mouth dry, he slopes into the kitchen and stops.

Draco looks up, pan in one hand and loaded fork, halfway to his mouth, in the other. Harry hesitates, allowing this incongruous image to settle into place—Draco Malfoy is eating leftover chilli, straight out of the pan.

Harry tries a smile, and for a moment there’s a flash of vulnerability in the pale eyes, then it’s gone, and Draco lifts an eyebrow in challenge and conveys his forkful to his mouth.

“Is everything... in order now?” Harry asks carefully.

Draco swallows. “Yes.”

“I don’t think you’re ridiculous.”

“Is that so?” Draco murmurs, looking away from Harry to poke around in the pan with his fork. He’s still sharp around the edges and even though reason is suggesting that he shouldn’t care, Harry still wishes he were better at this.

“Yeah. I’ve just... I’m tired. I just fell asleep on the sofa,” Harry offers sheepishly.

“Tell me something new,” Draco snipes, but he meets Harry’s eyes at last.

“Er... your chilli was really good?”

“My chilli is extraordinary,” Draco says, spearing a kidney bean on his fork and scrutinising it.

Harry suppresses a smile. “Yeah. I really am sorry.”

Draco sighs heavily. “What were you looking for, anyway?”

Heart speeding, Harry thinks quickly, but fails to come up with anything plausible. “Nothing important.”

For long seconds, Draco says nothing. He chews on another mouthful of food and stares at an empty patch of air somewhere to Harry’s left.

“Do you really think it doesn’t matter?” he says at last.

“What I was looking for?” Harry says, frowning.

“No, you fucking twerp,” Draco snaps, clearly exasperated. “My stuff. The way... I am.”

“Oh.” Harry scrubs at his hair, feeling awkward. He barely even registers the insult, nor does he think that Draco really means it, but the question is a significant one. “Of course it matters. Shithead,” he adds impulsively.

Draco snorts and sets the pan down, turning slightly to hide a small smile that Harry sees anyway. Flooded with relief that he can’t explain, he hardly notices Draco crossing the room toward him until there are strong hands on his hips and soft lips on his neck, a mouth huffing warm breath across his skin and making him shiver.

“You’re one to talk,” he murmurs. “I’ll see you upstairs.”

As soon as he is out of sight, Harry drops back against the counter, feeling as though his whole weight is being supported by his hands.

He has no idea how he’s holding himself up.

**~*~**

This bed is so much more comfortable than the one he’s used to and the feather quilt and pillows create such a snug trap for body heat that it’s almost possible to forget the permanently open window. As he settles on his stomach and drifts slowly into sleep, he finds he doesn’t even mind the heat-seeking weight pressed against him and tucked into the small of his back.

“I’ve got to run,” something warm and lemon-scented murmurs against Harry’s ear.

He startles, but this time it only takes him a split second to reassemble his short-term memory and halt the impending panic in its tracks. Instead, he exhales heavily into his pillow and opens one eye to regard his copper clock. It’s obscenely early and the sky outside is still stubbornly dark.

“It’s night time,” he mumbles.

“It’s almost seven,” Draco corrects, sounding amused.

“It’s night time,” Harry repeats stubbornly. The last time he remembers leaving the house at such a ridiculous hour was years ago, when he was still working in the field. He sighs, fighting down a twinge of sadness—he doesn’t remember minding too much then.

“Yes, alright, no need to rub it in,” Draco says at last. “I have another date in the park with Mr Fitzwilliam.”

Gripped by a strange sensation, Harry opens both eyes now and stares at him. “A date?”

Draco’s eyes, silvery in the near-darkness, lift to the ceiling briefly. “Good grief, you should see your face. I am going to attempt to run around the park in circles in these horribly undignified clothes...” He leans back slightly in his seated position on the bed so that Harry can see his stylish, if completely incongruous, black jogging outfit. Harry bites down on a smile. “Don’t you dare laugh, you... vile prune,” Draco reproves, and the hidden smile bursts into a gurgle of laughter.

Harry does his best to smother it in his pillow, but he knows his shoulders are shaking. He also knows Draco is glaring at him, and it’s some kind of wonderful.

“Vile prune?” he manages at last, breathless and grinning.

“You are a horror,” Draco pronounces, and the bed shifts as he gets to his feet. “I’m going now. Don’t even think about going without me tonight—I want to approve your outfit.”

“Approve my... what for?” Harry demands, attempting to turn onto his side and finding, with some alarm, that the heavy thing in the small of his back is still there. And more than that, it’s moving. “What the fuck?” he gasps, reaching for his wand.

“For the annual Weasel bash, of course.” Draco reaches out and catches his wrist. “You’re awfully jumpy—it’s only Frank.”

Harry frowns and holds as still as he can when Draco releases his arm and gently pulls back the quilt. He only knows one Frank, and whatever this is does not feel at all like Lily’s cat.

“Well, don’t you look better?” Draco is saying. “He’s all shiny again. I told you he must be shedding his skin, didn’t I? No wonder he’s been hiding.”

Harry holds his breath, barely listening, as the heavy, smooth coils slip over his skin. There is a snake in his bed.

“What kind of a name for a snake is Frank?” he mutters, mostly to himself, as he braces himself against the mattress on his elbows and, with some effort, dislodges the snake so that he can sit up.

“You named him,” Draco points out. “He’s your snake. He never listens to me, and I doubt it’s only because he doesn’t understand a word I’m saying.” Throwing Harry a wry smile, he winds his stripy scarf more tightly around his neck and pets the displaced snake on the head. “Be good, Frankfurto. Be good, Harry.”

“I might,” Harry informs the door that Draco slams shut behind him. He sighs. Swipes his hair out of his eyes and scrambles into a cross-legged position, leaning forward so that he can get a proper look at his unexpected bedmate. Because, you know... he thinks, Malfoy wasn’t enough of an adjustment.

The snake slides effortlessly across the quilt cover and drapes itself over Harry’s legs. It must be six feet long at the very least, and seems to weigh an absolute ton; not only that but Harry fancies it still looks disgruntled, and though he’s definitely not afraid of snakes, he thinks he would prefer to stay on the right side of something that could crush him to death if it felt like it.

“So... you’re Frank,” he offers, feeling supremely awkward.

The snake rests a blunt, wedge-shaped head atop its attractively patterned brown and khaki-coloured coils, flicks out a black forked tongue, and stares at Harry.

“Right, well...” Harry chews on his lip, just about controlling the urge to slap himself in the forehead. “That’s not going to work, is it?”

He drags in a deep breath and leans closer, elbows on his knees, gazing fixedly at Frank’s shiny black eyes and attempting to summon, from somewhere deep inside him, the instinctive command of a language that he hasn’t spoken for two decades.

“How’s that?” he asks, concentrating hard, but he knows immediately that he hasn’t been successful.

Frank merely tilts his head on one side as if to say ‘What on earth are you doing, making these strange noises?’

He tries again, focusing on the patterns, the sinuous movements, remembering the first time.

Can you understand me now?”

Frank lifts his head and rises slowly upward until he’s almost eye-level with Harry. “Perhaps.”

Where have you been?”

Sleeping in the warm cupboard for many hours. Taking off my coat.”

Harry frowns, unsure whether or not he’s understanding everything correctly, but then again, it has been a long time since he has spoken to a snake.

How long have you been here?”

Many seasons. Will you not admire me?” The snake twists this way and that, allowing the morning sunlight to glance off his shiny, vibrant new scales.

Harry snorts. “Aren’t you vain?”

Beautiful,” the snake demurs. “There is no denying it.”

Harry watches the flickering tongue, amused in spite of himself. “You are handsome, I’ll give you that,” he admits, and the snake almost seems to preen, basking in the flattery like a cat in a patch of sunlight. “But how long is many seasons?”

Many,” Frank repeats. “Many seasons indeed. Was small, but food and warm floors made me big. Not small now, eh? Not small.”

Er, no,” Harry manages, wondering how long it will be before he loses all feeling in his legs. Experimentally, he wriggles his toes—there seems to be some blood flow left, which is nice.

Many seasons, he muses. Apparently, snakes aren’t much bothered with accuracy. “You know hours but not years?” he asks.

Have been through this. An hour is a natural rhythm. Year is... not important here.” The snake draws close to Harry, close enough for the flickery black tongue to tickle his nose. “Have everything. Have everything and then... time is unimportant.”

Harry says nothing, allowing the words to seep into his veins and prickle over his skin. Were it so easy to have everything. To be so satisfied that time becomes irrelevant.

Just then, Frank’s tongue flickers against his nostril and he sneezes violently, all over the hand that doesn’t quite get there in time, and all over the handsome patterned head.

That was unpleasant.”

Harry regards him, dignified face spotted with high-velocity phlegm. “Sorry.”

He reaches for his wand but the snake looks so alarmed that he changes tack abruptly and Accios a box of tissues from the dresser. Attempting, at least on the surface, to think about something other than how surreal this is, he dabs gently at Frank’s shiny, surprisingly warm head until it’s clean.

Forgive me for asking so many questions, but my memory really is very bad,” Harry begins, laying it on as thickly as he knows how. He banishes the tissue and gazes at the snake earnestly.

Know this,” Frank says, drawing back and resting on his coils once more, head pointed up toward Harry. “Not your fault, having such a little brain.”

You’re one to talk,” Harry snaps back, wounded. He can’t help but think that starting the day by being insulted by a snake does not bode well for the rest of it. Still, he supposes that he should take any kind of Q and A where he can get it. “Look... no offence, but why would Draco want a snake? He didn’t exactly seem thrilled by that one in second year,” he adds, mostly to himself, remembering their farce of a duel and the discovery of his unusual ability.

Second year is not my area,” Frank says, “but believe there was a demonstration... a show of fearlessness. Does not fear me... proves bravery, you see? Wants to appear courageous for you.”

Harry smiles and bites his lip.

Wants also for you to have something to talk with. Not only the furniture. Do not know why you would converse with the furniture instead of me,” Frank adds, coiling himself tightly and relieving the pressure on Harry’s ankles.

Maybe the furniture doesn’t talk back,” Harry offers, and then: “except the mirror. And I wish it wouldn’t.”

Like the double-glass. Looking at myself is very satisfying,” Frank confides, and somehow, Harry isn’t all that surprised.

**~*~**

Apparently, looking at himself in the mirror isn’t Frank’s only pastime. He coils on the end of the bed and watches Harry—who has grudgingly opted to drag himself out of bed and venture into the workshop on his own this time—get dressed.

It’s quite an unsettling feeling, and Frank’s occasionally barbed comments about his coordination and hair and clothing choices aren’t exactly enriching the experience, but Harry doesn’t have the heart to tell the snake to bugger off. When he heads for the stairs, still squirming slightly in strange, skinny-fitting trousers, Frank drop-slides onto the floor and follows him, and when Harry buttons up his coat in the hallway, the blunt triangular head pokes around the living room door and regards him enquiringly.

Where are you going?”

“To work.”

“When will you be home?”

“I don’t know,
” Harry says truthfully, shoving his hands into his coat pockets. “What are you, my secretary?”

“Merely asking. Do not like surprises
,” Frank confides, sliding an extra few inches into the hallway.

Harry laughs, a little bitterly. “You and me both. And yet here we are.” He rubs his face and reaches for the door handle. Relents. “I’ll be back before dark.”

Will keep the house safe until then,” Frank says, drawing himself up importantly. “Fearsome.”

Harry smiles and lets himself out into the street, finds a place to Disapparate, and makes the jump to Diagon Alley. He supposes that it’s always good to have someone looking out for one’s interests, even if that someone is a narcissistic python.

This time, having a vague idea of his target location, he touches down mere paces from the low stone building, but his accuracy doesn’t stop him returning three enthusiastic waves and a bellowed, “How’s tha doin’ Mr Potter?” from across the street.

It’s strange, but by the time he crosses the cobbles and lets himself into the ’shop, he’s smiling.

As he wanders around, picking up discarded tools and returning them to their proper slots, he wonders if it’s possible that Draco is responsible for this respectful, friendly relationship with the public. He has media contacts, after all, and for all the years that Harry has hated him, there is no denying his skill for manipulation, for creating an image, for using any means available to turn a situation to his advantage.

He leans against one of his workbenches and tips his head back into the bright winter sunlight that streams in through the skylights. It isn’t as though he’s given it much thought until now, but he thinks that actually, he could get used to being ‘Mr Potter’. He could get used to being this relaxed, approachable person who appears to tolerate just about everyone and who comes to this light-filled, sawdust-scented little sanctuary and makes things with wood whenever he feels like it.

Mere days have passed since he last sat behind his big desk in his big office, but he already knows beyond all doubt that he doesn’t miss it. Though once his burning childhood ambition, he hasn’t enjoyed being an Auror in a long, long time—not since excitement turned to stress and the thrill of a successful operation was replaced by meetings and appraisals and a permanent headache.

Although... Harry frowns mid-thought and shakes his head tentatively. Nothing happens. Struck by the lack of pain, he lets out a deep breath and tries again, bobbing his head back and forth until his hair flops into his eyes and his glasses slide down his nose. Deciding to stop before he manages to give himself a headache, Harry drags in another deep breath and revels in the absence of the tight little knot in his chest that he’s had for far longer than he cares to remember.

Unexpectedly affected, Harry bites down on a smile, closing his eyes against the harsh light and wrapping his fingers tightly around the edge of the workbench.

Just then, there’s a knock at the door and a softly-voiced enquiry.

“Excuse me, Mr Potter?”

Harry stirs himself. Glances around for something with which to look busy. “Come in,” he calls, grabbing a large hammer and then discarding it, not wanting to alarm his potential customer by waving it about inexpertly.

After a moment, a silver-haired gentleman of around sixty makes his way into the workshop, smiling at Harry and dotting down a walking stick every now and then.

“Oh, I’m so pleased to catch you!” he says, drawing level with Harry’s workbench and hooking his cane over the edge. “How are you keeping?”

“Ah... fine, thank you,” Harry manages. He stands up a little straighter and pastes on his ‘I am a professional and I can handle this’ expression. “How can I help you?”

“Oh, you are polite,” the old man sighs, eyes crinkling with pleasure. “Not like the young people these days.”

Harry cringes inwardly. The remark hits him in a sensitive spot he suspects is reserved for those hovering dangerously close to forty, but he tries to convince himself that the man—probably his customer—is trying to pay him a compliment.

“Thanks,” he murmurs, turning his smile up a notch.

“You’re welcome,” says the man, beaming up at Harry. “Now, about this little table we talked about last week...”

“Ah, yes, the little table,” Harry says, wishing for just the smallest clue about the little table, but at the same time full of the knowledge that the information he requires is locked away in the memory of his other self.

“Yes. For my daughter. Now, I’m sure you’re very busy in the run-up to Christmas—goodness knows I am, and I’m only an old buffer with nothing better to do than campaign for grandchildren—but, well, I’d like to ask a favour of you.” He leans forward, eyes crinkling hopefully.

“Yes,” Harry lies, “very busy, but... er, what kind of favour were you thinking of?”

The old man sighs. “I need it two weeks early. Genevieve has just thought to inform me that she is going to Australia for a month and will be away for her birthday. I’d like her to have it before she goes, if it’s possible—I’d be ever so grateful, Mr Potter.”

Anxious, Harry chews his lip and averts his eyes from the old man, whose earnest expression is prodding at his insides. Instead, he stares at the sawdust-strewn worktable and wonders. He supposes that when it comes down to it, he only really has two options. One—he can continue to lie, tell the old bugger he’s sick and hope to be safely back in his old life before the original little-table-completion-date rolls around, or two—he can take the initiative and have a go at it.

A bloody good go, at that. How hard can it be to make a little table?

“Right... Sir, I’ll certainly see what I can do,” he says before he can stop himself. Feeling a strange fizz of excitement, he reaches for a pencil and a scrap of parchment. “When will you want to pick it up?”

The old man beams, grabs his cane and clasps it tightly to his chest. “Cyril, please. Cyril Pepper. I’ll come about noon on the fourth, then? Oh, you are a wonderful man, Mr Potter. I don’t know how to thank you.” He pauses, thoughtful, and then triumphant. “I’ll bring you some more of my wife’s spinach cake, you really enjoyed that last time!”

Suppressing a gag at the thought, Harry nods. “Great,” he says weakly. “I’ll look forward to that.”

The old man leans to pat him on the arm before he takes his leave, shuffling and clacking over the stone floor.

“The fourth of what?” Harry calls suddenly, a spike of panic rising in his gut.

“January, of course!” the man replies without turning around. “Wonderful month, January... looking back and looking forward,” he continues, apparently to himself, waving his walking stick to one side and then the other as he disappears out of sight.

Harry stares after him and shoves his hands into his pockets. “Oh dear.”

**~*~**

A chaotic and somewhat panic-stricken search turns up a dog-eared notebook in which Harry finds Mr Pepper’s name, address, and specifications for the little table. Unfortunately, he can barely understand them, even though the words are clearly scrawled in his own handwriting.

Beech gd. 1, 28” grad. spindle x 4, 12 x 12 flt w/ cr glass ‘tumbling vines’? inset 9 x 9.

Vis. Dt joints? Heat res. Will p/u 18th Jan, gift for daughter. 150 Gal.


Harry leans against the workbench, reading his own cryptic instructions over and over again and sighing pointlessly into the empty room.

“How hard can it be to make a little table?” he mutters, mocking himself. He deserves to be mocked.

He squints at the book again, bringing the pages closer to his face just in case it will help. It doesn’t, but he supposes all is not lost. He knows it is to be made from beech with some long spindles—does he have to make those, too?—and a square foot of something with some kind of glass, tumbling vines, and then god knows what.

And a hundred and fifty Galleons? For a table? Harry swallows hard. It’s ludicrous, he knows, but he has to admit that he is a little bit intimidated. By a table. By a tiny little table that hasn’t even been made yet. He is frightened by the idea of a table.

“Fuck this,” Harry snaps, forcing himself into action. Trying not to think about what his Ministry colleagues would say if they could see him, he ties on a rough, half-shredded green apron, dusts off his work surface and stalks over to the stash of wood in the corner.

Hands on hips, mouth set into a grim line, he surveys the shelves.

“Beech grade one,” he reads at last, triumphant. “That’ll be it.”

So far, so good. With some effort, Harry wraps his arms around what appears to be half a beech tree. It certainly feels like it, anyway, and after a moment he heaves it back into its place and draws his wand, opting instead to levitate the wood over to the workbench, where it lands with a soft thump and sends fine dust into Harry’s face.

The overriding question in his head is ‘Now what?!’ but Harry ignores it, choosing instead to cling to the hope—no, the knowledge—that he can do this.

Sucking in a long, fortifying breath, Harry reaches for a saw.

He. Can. Do. This.

**~*~**

He can’t do this.

Harry doesn’t know how long it takes for him to give up and lob his chisel into the wall, but it certainly feels like a long time. He watches it collide with a satisfying spang and then slumps to the cold stone floor, panting and resting his back against the worktable. Perspiring and aching all over, he examines his hands with horrified curiosity; his fingers are scratched and sore, his palms red-raw and full of splinters.

That’s not the worst thing, though. Nor is it the fact that the beautiful chunk of beech has not been transformed into anything even vaguely resembling a table. No, the worst thing is that it now looks like... Harry sighs and twists around to view the carnage. Like it’s been dropped from a great height and then chewed by hyperactive rodents. He suspects that his other self would kick his untalented arse if he were here, and he would be right to do so.

More worryingly, he has no idea what he’s going to say to poor old Mr Pepper, who seems to have boundless faith in his abilities. He supposes there’s always tomorrow... or perhaps the day after that. Worn out and damaged though he is, there’s an irritating grain of stubbornness inside him that will not let him give up just yet. Carefully, he straightens out his leg and drags up the fabric of his tight-fitting trousers so he can see the bruise that is starting to bloom on his knee.

Stupid thing seems to give out on him at the worst moments. He skates his hand over the bruise and winces, eyes flicking up to the particularly impressive gouge in the wood he had made as he fell.

“Definitely beyond repair,” he sighs, retrieving his wand and casting Evanesco. The mangled block of wood disappears and he turns his attention to his knee, holding his breath and clearing up the bruise. As an Auror in the field, an ability to heal simple injuries is essential, and even though it has been a while, he thinks he does a pretty good job. No doubt a man who is accustomed to this infuriating affliction could do it better, but no matter.

Harry yanks down his trouser leg, tucks himself more securely against the workbench, and, making sure he is hidden from the door, sets about his afternoon task—removing twelve hundred beech splinters from his hands.

**~*~**

He Apparates into Grimmauld Place just as the sun is sinking below the horizon and, remembering his promise to Frank, he feels rather pleased with himself despite the relative failure that has been his workday.

Draco is nowhere to be seen on the ground floor or in the kitchen. Harry climbs the stairs slowly, taking a moment to nod to the brown spider when he dangles from his web and into Harry’s face on a long string of silk.

There’s no cooking smell today, he notices, stomach growling in protest as though to remind him that yet again, he’s forgotten to feed it. He ignores its whining, instead focusing on the delicious-smelling steam that is drifting along the landing from the bathroom. Harry follows it, hot citrus and spice, unthinking, fingers skimming along the relief of embossed wallpaper, around the doorframe, and is halfway into the haze of the bathroom before he even thinks to hesitate.

“Is that you, Harry?”

Breath catching, Harry’s eyes widen and he flattens himself to the cool tiles, suddenly very aware of what he’s doing. Which is mostly watching Draco in the shower. Naked. Well, the back of him is, at least, very much naked, and he can only imagine that the front of him is too.

Not that he is imagining it.

“Yeah, it’s me,” he croaks, watching the rivulets of water sluicing down Draco’s spine and over his... Harry coughs. “Who else is it going to be? Fitzwilliam?”

Harry watches the shudder travel down from Draco’s shoulders. Watches him lift his hands and push his fingers through hair that is soaked golden blond. Watches.

“Good grief, what a thought. No, I thought you might be a friendly axe murderer or something.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Harry whispers, mouth suddenly dry. He shouldn’t be watching this.

“I expect I’ll forgive you. Are you coming in?”

Harry’s stomach performs a little flip. “In... to... the shower? In there? With you?”

Draco’s laughter echoes in the small, tiled space. He turns to look over his shoulder, bracing one hand against the glass, and throws Harry an odd little half smile. It’s crazy, he knows it is, but Harry has never been so desperate to touch someone, just to see what they feel like under his fingers.

“Well, you can always get in the bath with Frank if you prefer. Either way, you need a wash before we go out,” Draco says, looking Harry up and down and taking in his dirty clothes with distaste.

“Yeah, I... what?” Harry turns, puzzled, to see the roll-top bath, which contains a lot of water and a happily coiled Frank. Relieved to be able to tear his eyes away from Malfoy’s wet naked body, Harry steps closer and notices the tiny bubbles that flow to the surface of the water from the snake’s submerged nostrils. Intrigued, he dips his fingers into the water—it’s barely warm.

You’re a strange one,” he offers, unsure whether or not Parseltongue travels well through water.

Frank merely flicks his tongue in response and continues to blow tiny bubbles. Harry watches them break the surface for a moment or two and then turns, heart racing, back to Draco, who has now turned all the way around to regard him with a curious expression. And that is what Harry focuses on. His expression. His face. The way his hair is dripping into his eyes. Perhaps the way the water from the shower is streaming down over his flat, pale stomach. But definitely not anything else.

“Well?” Draco prompts, and something in his voice lights in Harry the disturbingly strong urge to struggle out of his clothes and dive under the water. He shakes it away.

“Er, I think I’ll have a shower later,” he manages. “You look... you look like you’re pretty much finished. Done. Clean.”

“That will be the day,” Draco declares, sticking his head back under the water. “I’ll have a cup of tea, then. Blue stripes.”

Harry sighs. He supposes that even a wet, naked Malfoy is still a Malfoy.

Feeling uncooperative, he ignores the demand and heads into the bedroom to begin the search for an acceptable outfit for the evening.

**~*~**

“Okay... what about this green one? What the fuck can possibly be wrong with this green one?” Harry beseeches, holding up what feels like the millionth shirt for Draco’s approval.

He has showered—feeling distinctly uncomfortable the entire time, and not just because Frank decided to stick his head out of the bath and talk to him—and managed to find and put on a pair of trousers that Draco likes. They are dark grey and, of course, tight, sitting low on his hips and held up with such a frighteningly complicated fastener that Harry is a little worried about what will happen when he needs to use the bathroom later.

Still, he’s wearing them, and that is the main thing. Draco, looking completely polished and—Harry suspects, not that he knows about these things—extremely stylish in his dark fitted suit and silver-grey pinstripe shirt, is sitting on the edge of the bed and being exasperated. He’s very good at it. So good, in fact, that Harry is beginning to wonder why he’s putting up with it. With him. And then:

“Why are you so useless when it comes to colours? You’re supposed to be an artist.”

Harry frowns, turning to look at himself and the shirt in the mirror. Fortunately, it manages to keep its opinions to itself for once. “How does grey not go with green?”

Draco snorts. “Grey isn’t really a colour. Why do we have to go through this so often?”

“Because you enjoy it?” Harry suggests, discarding the green shirt.

“No. Well, maybe a little bit, but mostly because you are hopeless.” Draco pauses, and when he speaks again, there’s something curiously vulnerable in his tone that almost makes Harry stop his rummaging through the neat rows of shirts, but he thinks better of it. “And because there are rules about colours... just like there are rules about numbers.”

“Okay,” Harry says softly, drawing out a soft, dark blue shirt with strange three-quarter-length sleeves and metallic buttons. He’s often found that the best way to get a person to talk is to say very little—granted, his experience stems from interviewing criminals, but it’s worth a try.

“It’s not the same as numbers, really,” Draco says after a moment, and Harry smiles into the wardrobe. “There are good and bad numbers, and it’s as simple as that.”

“Like six,” Harry half-whispers, beginning to understand.

“Exactly. But with colours... it’s about the combinations. If you go out tonight in Slytherin colours...” Draco pauses and Harry can no longer control the desire to turn and look at him. His hands grip the bedclothes hard and the eyes that look up into Harry’s are anxious, so much so that he wants to reach out and touch him. He holds onto the shirt tightly, caught between concern for Draco—for this Draco, and apprehension for himself, for whatever the hell is happening to him.

“Something terrible will happen,” Draco finishes dully.

Harry chews on his lip. “I don’t think it will.”

Draco shakes his head, displacing his perfectly arranged hair. “Don’t. You don’t know. Just... don’t.”

“Sorry,” Harry mumbles, knowing that once again he has tripped over some unseen hazard and landed flat on his arse. He wonders with some trepidation just how many incomprehensible rules govern Draco’s life, and just how he is going to navigate them without either of them having a nervous breakdown. “I just... I don’t want you to have to worry,” he attempts.

He receives a weak half-smile from Draco in response. “You always say that. It’s never worked out very well when I’ve tried not to worry, has it?”

Harry sighs. “No. Okay. What about this one?” He holds up the dark blue shirt, hoping for the best.

“That’s mine,” Draco points out, relaxing and shaking his hair back into place. “But you can wear it. With the leather boots... don’t tuck it in, for fuck’s sake,” he admonishes as Harry attempts to put on the shirt.

He makes a face at the closet and goes to examine himself in the mirror. He looks fine, but then he would have looked fine in the green one and the white one and the patterned one and the paisley one, too. He had no idea that colours could be so complicated.

“Maura says that Blaise doesn’t like colours,” he says, thinking out loud.

Draco laughs shortly. “Well, she’s not wrong.” He pauses. “Or perhaps she is. I’ve always had the impression that he’d rather like to wear colours, but it’s difficult to forget something your mother has drilled into you like that.”

Harry stares at Draco’s reflection in the mirror, watching him flicking his wand lazily in a figure of eight over his shoelaces, watching them tie themselves obediently. “I suppose not,” he mumbles, none the wiser.

“Gentleman wear black, and only black,” Draco recites sourly, making a face. “We all had it, growing up. The problem Blaise has is that his mother went and died, and now it’s a lot more difficult to argue with her.”

“What do you think changed it for you?” Harry asks, inappropriately amused.

Draco smirks. “It was all part of my rebellion, wasn’t it?”

“That so?”

“You should know. You were part of it, too.” Draco meets Harry’s eyes in the mirror and, just for a moment, Harry can’t breathe. “Much to my father’s delight. Ready to go?”

Harry nods. He doesn’t think he’s ready at all, but it’s certainly going to be interesting.

**~*~**

“Welcome to the Weasley’s nineteenth annual Christmas party,” recites a disgruntled-looking gnome wearing a sparkly festive hat as Harry and Draco step into the back yard of the Burrow.

Harry stares down at the grumpy little creature who perches atop a tree-stump with his arms folded, looking anything but welcoming.

Draco laughs warmly. “Nineteen years and I don’t think I will ever get tired of that,” he says. “It takes gnome-control to a whole new level.”

Despite having participated in a fair few garden de-gnomings over the years, Harry can’t help but feel a sliver of sympathy for this put-upon specimen. “Isn’t it a bit... cruel?” he wonders.

“You sound like Hermione,” Draco advises, sliding an arm around Harry’s waist. “One night of work won’t kill him, will it? Anyway, if I remember rightly, you thought it was rather funny when I first came up with it.”

“Mm,” Harry mumbles, allowing himself to be pulled away from the gnome and toward the house. As they approach the familiar off-balance building, Harry forgets all about the not-very-welcome committee; the Burrow is sparkling in the darkness, every rafter and lintel and fence post draped with strings of tiny coloured lights that seem to wink and shimmer like fireflies.

Several rickety wooden tables at the back of the house are groaning with laughing, chattering people, faces lit by hovering balls of silver light. The huge wreath nailed to the back door flaps back and forth as the door opens and closes at regular intervals, revealing a kitchen full of people and wafting out a delicious spicy scent that makes Harry’s mouth water. The subtle glow of a skilled Warming Charm loops around the whole thing, making it so incredibly inviting that Harry barely notices when Draco laces their fingers together and pulls him toward the house.

Everything looks so beautifully messy and homely and he finds that his soul lifts a little just to be a part of it. This world seems designed to make him feel lost and inept, to make him miss his family so much that he’s raw with it, and to claw confusion into his very understanding of himself, but for some reason, he feels safe here. This is, after all, his first real family home, and no amount of Draco Malfoy-saving seems to have changed that.

“Hey!” Ginny calls, fighting her way out into the garden with several drinks bobbing precariously behind her. “You’re here!”

“Thank you, Ginevra, I hadn’t realised,” Draco says drily, but he finds a smile for her when she rolls her eyes and pokes out her tongue.

“Hi, Gin,” Harry greets her. She’s wearing a thin sparkly band in her hair, and several small flecks of silver seem to have migrated to her face, making her look almost ethereal in the moonlight.

She grins at him, leaning close for a peck on the check, and then bellows: “Maura! Come and get this, please!”

Harry resists the urge to rub at his ear. Draco does not. “Don’t you have an inside voice?”

Ginny snorts and ignores him, instead leaning down to hand a mug of what smells like hot apple juice to Maura, who has bounded up from nowhere, full of energy and dressed, again, almost entirely in red. She grins at Draco and gives Harry a knowing look. As she reaches up with both hands to take the mug from her mother, Harry attempts to impress upon her the importance of not blowing his cover—at least, he does as much as he possibly can without moving his lips or making a sound.

“Do you want one for Hugo?” Ginny asks, proffering another identical mug. “Carefully, okay?”

“Carefully,” Maura sings to herself, sauntering across the garden and disappearing into the crowd with two steaming mugs in her hands

“Is Blaise around?” Draco asks. “I have a few follow-up questions about this bathtub full of gin.”

He grins, flashing impossibly white teeth in the darkness. Ginny makes a face. “He’s over there somewhere, talking shop with Nev. I can’t decide which is a worse topic of conversation for a party—homebrew or sodding plants.” She points wearily at one of the tables and Draco releases Harry’s hand with a quick squeeze and disappears.

“Neville’s here?” Harry asks, surprised and pleased. He has always regretted losing touch with Neville. It has never been a conscious decision, but when Nev moved into the city to be closer to his parents, and when Harry’s hours were suddenly filled with paperwork and childcare and, let’s face it, a dysfunctional marriage, there had just never seemed to be any time left.

“Of course.” Ginny’s eyes glow and her expression turns conspiratorial. “And as we’ve managed to pry him away from his experimental greenhouse, or whatever he calls it, for the evening, Blaise and I thought we’d have another go at setting him up.”

Harry blinks. “With who?” he asks, somehow feeling the need to whisper.

“Well,” she begins, leaning closer until the ends of her hair brush his face. “Don’t look now, but—”

“Auntie Ginny?” interrupts a familiar voice, making them both turn.

“Yeah?”

Rose gazes up at them, discomfort clear on her face. The first thing that strikes Harry is that she’s alone—he can’t remember the last time he saw her without Al, and she looks lost. He aches in sympathy, knowing that she feels the absence of her best friend even if she doesn’t know it. She’s clutching a large book, hugging it to her chest like a shield as she stands there amidst the chattering, laughing crowds.

“I can’t find my mum or my dad to ask,” she begins, large eyes serious. “But I have a lot of homework to do, so is it alright if I go upstairs and read my book now?”

Ginny and Harry exchange a look. “Don’t you want to stay at the party?” she attempts. “I know your mum said it was okay for you to stay up late tonight.”

“No thanks,” Rose says quietly.

“What are you reading?” Harry tries, wondering at this subdued new Rose. It’s as though without Al, she has become a carbon copy of her mother—her mother before she had some of her seriousness poked out of her by Harry and Ron, at that.

She brightens a little at the question. “It’s a compendium of magical creatures. It’s very interesting.”

“I bet it is. Did you know I once rode on the back of a dragon? And so did your mum and dad?”

Rose nods earnestly. “Yes. Uncle Draco likes that story,” she offers softly. “So... is it alright if I go now?”

Ginny sighs, nods, and ruffles her niece’s hair before watching her scramble into the house, holding tightly onto her book, and take off upstairs with impressive speed.

“Doesn’t she have any friends?” Harry asks impulsively.

Ginny sips her drink, thoughtful. “Not any living ones, no.”

“Poor kid.” Harry looks up at the house just in time to see a third floor window light up.

“I don’t think she’s unhappy as such, just... quiet.” Ginny frowns, distracted by the two remaining floating glasses which are clinking for attention next to her head. “Mum’s mulled mead—do you want one?”

Holding back a shudder, Harry shakes his head. Apart from feeling somewhat off alcohol at the moment, if he’s going to survive this night he’s going to need all his wits about him. “No thanks... I feel like I’m still recovering from the other night.”

Ginny grants him a sympathetic smile just before a wave of laughter and clinking glasses makes them both turn. At the far table, Draco, Blaise, Neville and several others Harry doesn’t recognise, are wasting no time in entering into the spirit of the party. Next to him, Ginny heaves a sigh that is half amused and half long-suffering and Harry wonders if he might be able to exploit this situation to his advantage after all—as long as he keeps a clearer head than Draco, there’s no telling how much information he’ll be able to extract. In theory.

Feeling brighter, Harry excuses himself and strides confidently into the house. Delighted to see that everything is much the same as he remembers it, he drifts around the kitchen, nodding and smiling to people as they greet him. He recognises various Ministry employees and friends of the family amid the sea of red hair and freckles; he hasn’t seen so many Weasleys in one place, he realises, since Bill and Fleur’s wedding. Their family gatherings have always been smaller since the war, even for Ron and Hermione’s marriage, and his own and Ginny’s. Not that he blames them; it’s always felt too much like someone is missing.

He exhales slowly, pushing his sadness away and breathing in the festive atmosphere, allowing it to lift him.

“Harry!” cries a familiar woman’s voice and he turns.

“Hello, Molly,” he mumbles, voice muffled as he’s immediately enfolded into her warm, squashy embrace. Thrilled by the familiarity, he hugs her back, slouching to press his face into the soft shoulder that smells like baking and rose water. “It’s so good to see you,” he murmurs, then instantly flushes and hopes she doesn’t hear him.

No such luck. “Oh, it’s wonderful to see you, too, Harry dear. It’s been far too long,” she says, pulling back and peering up at Harry, bright-eyed and beaming.

Fighting to keep the confusion from his face, he forces out: “Yeah, it’s been... how long has it been?”

“Goodness, probably a month,” Molly says, releasing one of Harry’s arms to scratch at her head. Suddenly, her expression turns stern. “It’s no good, you know, having my children all scattered about like this... why don’t you and Draco get away from the city and have a look at one of these cottages? I know I’m always nagging you about it, Harry, but there’s three up for sale at the moment with lovely gardens and plenty of space for you to build yourself a little workshop...” She sighs, and her face softens, beseeching eyes turned up to Harry’s.

“Er,” Harry says, frantically trying to process her words. Hearing the words ‘you and Draco’ falling so easily from her mouth is astonishing enough, but learning that he’s apparently the subject of an ongoing campaign to move himself and his ex-Death Eater boyfriend nearer to the Burrow is just about enough to liquefy his brain. “Yeah,” he manages at last. “I’ll definitely have a chat with him about that.”

Molly smiles and pats his arm with surprising strength. “You’re a good boy, Harry. You should go and find Ron—he has some wonderful news,” she advises with a twinkle in her eye that makes Harry wonder for the first time if she’s been at the mulled mead, too. “Now, where is that awful man hiding himself?” she adds.

Uncertain, Harry frowns. Draco? Blaise? Her husband? “Outside,” he guesses, hoping for the best.

He watches her bustle through the crush in the kitchen and out through the back door, shaking his head slowly. He never thought he’d see the day that he’d be comforted to hear Molly’s incessant nagging, but in this place, it’s just one more constant in a sea of disconcerting unpredictability.

A particularly rousing chorus of Christmas carols from the wireless brings Harry back to his senses and, spotting a gap at the loaded kitchen table, he darts through and retrieves a glass of what he hopes is the nice, safe, spiced apple juice that the kids are drinking. Either way, it warms his hands deliciously and smells of Christmas, and that will do.

He finds Ron in the living room, perching on the arm of a battered chair and gesticulating enthusiastically with a Butterbeer-clutching hand. Next to him, actually sitting in the chair, is Hermione, feet tucked underneath her and cradling a glass of the dreaded mulled mead, and lounging in various positions among the chaos of furniture and glittery decorations, are Charlie, Bill, and Percy. In the split-second that he has to observe the scene before he is dragged into it, Harry is relieved to see that the older Weasley children appear much the same, too.

“Harry, get your arse in here,” calls Charlie, springing to his feet and hustling Harry into the room with a good-natured slap to the back that makes Harry splutter. Apparently, this Charlie has no idea of his own strength, either.

“Nice to see you all,” he coughs, angling away from an attempted second slap and holding up a hand. “I’m good.”

He turns to address Ron and immediately falls silent. Now he’s able to get a proper look at his friend, the difference in him is startling; he can’t pin it down right away, but it’s enough to force his friendly greeting back down his throat and freeze him to the spot.

Like his sister, he’s very much the same as before—red hair, puzzled blue eyes, long, lean frame—but his posture is straighter, more upright, and there’s something about this Ron in the smart blue robes and slightly neater haircut... a subtle air of authority that Harry doesn’t recognise. It looks good on him, and Hermione’s glow of pride as she looks as her husband tells him that he’s not the only one to think so.

“You look... well,” Harry manages at last, cringing inside as soon as the words leave his mouth.

Ron frowns, puzzled, and then his face clears and he grins at Harry, looking much more like his old self. “The robes, you mean? Can’t believe I actually let Draco help me choose them, but I think I owe him a drink.” He pauses, eyeing Harry meaningfully.

Doing his best to play along, Harry lifts his eyebrows and allows a cautious smile to pull at his lips. He sincerely hopes he isn’t expected to say anything, because if this is anything to do with the good news Molly mentioned, he is clueless. Perhaps Hermione is pregnant again, he muses, and then wonders, if that is the case, what Draco has been doing helping Ron to pick out robes. Quickly, he decides that he doesn’t really want to go down that road, and fortunately is saved by Ron’s announcement.

“I got the promotion!” he says, grinning at Harry. “You are now looking at the brand new head of the Auror Department.”

Harry inhales sharply. “Wow, that’s... great,” he replies, forcing out the words of congratulation against the instinctive twist of his gut that is insisting ‘that’s mine!’ Knowing full well that in his other life—his real life, he supposes—Ron has been a Senior Auror with his own team for years and years now; knowing that for those same years and years, Harry has envied him his hours in the field and his variety and his paperwork-free evenings.

Knowing, realising, that the job makes him unhappy and frustrated, and yet it’s perfect for a strategist like Ron. As he continues to stare at Ron, barely hearing his excited words, he allows himself to accept the fact, finally, that his best friend has always been intimidated by his career progression, always felt overshadowed, ever since the first day of Auror training.

But if I never became an Auror at all, whispers a little voice inside his head, if I never... if Draco Malfoy persuaded me to make furniture...

“I never held you back,” he mutters under his breath, looking up to meet Ron’s eyes.

“Hmm?”

“Nothing,” Harry says, rising above the tangled feelings and finding a genuine smile for his friend. “That’s fantastic. Fucking fantastic. A toast to the new head of the Auror Department!”

He lifts his drink as Charlie, Bill, Percy, and Hermione echo his words, and he touches his glass to Ron’s bottle.

“Thanks, mate. Are you sure you’re alright?” Ron asks, voice low and concerned.

“Yeah, of course.”

“It’s just... I was going to owl you about it this morning, but I thought it’d be better if I told you myself, you know.” Ron stops, suddenly looking awkward. “You’ve always been dead supportive of me, but it’s not like I’ve forgotten that you always wanted...” he trails off and glances down at Harry’s knee.

A strange cold feeling settles in the pit of Harry’s stomach. That’s why. That’s why, isn’t it?

“You don’t need to worry about me... you daft bugger,” he adds, hating that he feels choked up and hot-eyed—this is Ron, for fuck’s sake. “I don’t envy you, I really don’t. It’s going to be fucking hard work,” he adds with a smile that he really means.

Ron’s grin lights up his whole face and he punches Harry lightly in the arm. “Yeah, but it also comes with its own office and secretary,” he points out, and he gets an approving nod from Percy.

“I think we’ve heard quite enough about your new secretary,” Hermione puts in, and for some reason, it’s Bill who gets the brunt of her exasperation.

Beside Harry, Ron swigs from his bottle and exudes good humour and pride. As one of the few people to truly know how much it means to Ron to measure up to his brothers, Harry catches hold of that pride and wraps it warmly around himself.

“I’m wondering whether to pick the young one with the shiny hair or the old one who makes her own biscuits,” Ron muses, leaning back against the wall next to Harry.

Harry laughs. “I’d go with the old one if you don’t want Hermione to do you some serious damage,” he advises. “I could really go for some biscuits right now, actually.”

“You’re probably right,” Ron sighs gloomily. “Have you not had anything to eat yet? Mum’ll go spare—she’s been cooking for about a week.”

An almost deafening rumble issues from Harry’s stomach and startles them both. “I’ll do that now, then, shall I?”

“Come and see my new office after Christmas,” Ron calls out as he steps out into the hallway. “It’s ages since I’ve seen you twice in one week!”

Will do, Harry thinks, closing the door behind him. If I’m still here. Seeing Ron or Hermione once a week is unthinkable. It just doesn’t make sense. Still, Harry supposes he’s getting used to that.

“Harry, I heard you were lurking around here somewhere,” says a smooth male voice from somewhere behind him.

He turns, finding himself looking into vaguely familiar brown eyes. His mind races, sorting rapidly through names and faces in the hope that he makes a connection before this man has a chance to get offended.

“Anthony!” he blurts at last, delighted with himself. “Anthony Goldstein. How are you?”

The man smiles slowly. “Oh, not all that bad. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I think the last time I saw you was at that big Ministry do in August,” he says, never taking his eyes away from Harry’s.

It’s a little intense, but Harry stands firm, determined to get through this exchange without making an idiot of himself. He does remember a big Ministry do in August but he also remembers not going to it.

“Yes, that’s right.” He smiles politely.

Anthony smiles back and takes a step closer, forcing Harry to look up a little to maintain eye contact. “And how is Draco?” he asks, disdain written all over his delicate features.

Harry bristles at his tone, and even though he has no idea why he should care, he does. Perhaps Goldstein’s contempt is just pushing his indiscriminate loyalty button, and if so, there’s not a whole lot he can do about it.

“He’s fine, thank you. Why do you ask?”

Goldstein’s next smile melts away the disdain from his face and he rakes a hand through dark blond waves, affecting sheepishness. “Well, I only wondered if you hadn’t grown tired of him yet,” he admits, leaning so close now that Harry can feel the heat emanating from his body.

“Excuse me?” Harry demands, leaning back but finding nothing but solid wall behind him. He’s suddenly very aware that they are alone in this hallway, and though the sounds of the party travel easily through the walls, all at once they feel very far away.

“I’m sorry, I know I’m being a little bold, but... well... I’ve had a few glasses of Firewhisky and I saw you come into the house, and I thought... I wanted to tell you that you look extraordinary tonight,” he finishes, reaching out to touch Harry’s fingers lightly.

He’s warm and he smells like mints and alcohol. Harry cringes, pulls his hand away and steps sideways, out of reach.

“Yeah, well. These are Draco’s clothes, actually,” he says, backing away and putting plenty of space between himself and Goldstein. “And no, I’m not tired of him, thank you,” he adds with feeling—feeling he didn’t know he had—and walks away without looking back.

Fucking hell. His memories of Goldstein from school are admittedly sparse and foggy with time, but he still doubts he could have been better prepared for that. He’s never been... well, leaned on, by another man before. Well, except Draco, and it’s quite possible that he’s getting used to that.

Sort of.

Rattled, he makes his way into the kitchen and is immediately waylaid by Hermione and a huge plate of food.

“Quick—start eating before Molly sees you!” she hisses, pushing the plate into his hands. “I’ve just heard her asking Arthur if he thinks you’ve lost weight.”

Seized by panic at the prospect of one of Molly’s food interventions, Harry scrambles to obey, almost forgetting all about Goldstein. Almost.

“Where’s Draco?” he mumbles, taking a large bite out of a chicken leg.

Hermione wrinkles her nose. “I said eat it, not spit it everywhere. He’s still in the garden.”

“Sorry.” He swallows and wipes his mouth. “It’s just that... you know that bloke, Anthony Goldstein?”

Something flickers in Hermione’s dark eyes, but she nods.

“I think he just tried to... erm... try it on with me,” he whispers, feeling silly.

Hermione doesn’t say anything for a long time, and Harry is just about to poke her with a breadstick when she sighs:

“You’ve finally noticed, then?”

Startled, Harry drops his breadstick weapon and stares at her. “What the hell do you mean by that?”

“I mean that Anthony flirts with you any chance he gets. Look, I work with him, I know what a creep he is... it’s just that you’ve always seemed sort of... oblivious to it before,” Hermione says, crinkling up her nose guiltily.

“Am I usually brain damaged? Half asleep? Falling-down drunk?” Harry demands, staggered.

“No, not really.”

“Hermione! We need a referee!” comes a sudden yell, cutting through the music and chatter with ease.

“In a minute!” she yells back without looking away from Harry, and a couple of cherry tomatoes fling themselves off his plate at the sound.

“He told me I looked extraordinary,” Harry mumbles, glancing down at his strange shirt and tight trousers.

Hermione’s lip curls in distaste. “He’s obviously feeling bold. And slimy.”

Harry stuffs a roast potato into his mouth and follows her out into the garden. “Are you saying I don’t look nice?” he asks, pretending offence.

“You look fabulous, darling!” declares someone with a deep, refined voice.

Amused, Harry attempts to swallow the half-chewed potato and looks around for the source of the voice. Finally, his eyes fall on Draco, who is gazing intently at something on the table, and next to him, Blaise Zabini. Grinning and displaying both rows of perfect teeth.

“Er, thanks,” Harry says, caution holding him back from finding a space at the busy table. Instead, he stands next to Hermione, poking silver light balls away from his head and attempting to work out exactly what the occupants of the table are doing that might require mediation.

“What do you want, gentlemen?” Hermione demands, hands on hips. “I’m almost certain that I have better things to do.”

“Oooo,” says Neville, as he looks through his empty glass at Hermione.

“We’re having a little gnome race,” Draco adds, looking up at last and smiling up at him, looking so vibrant and alive with excitement that something fluttery shifts inside Harry and he inhales sharply.

“Haven’t they suffered enough?” Harry asks vaguely, still staring at Draco and resuming his gnawing on the chicken leg.

“That’s right,” Hermione attempts, but her words are lost under the barrage of laughter from the table. And then: “You’re like children. Where’s Ginny? Get her to do it.”

“Here,” Ginny calls, waving a hand to reveal her position, sandwiched between two burly men and clutching a struggling gnome on her lap.

Hermione groans and folds her arms. “Ginny.”

“I’ll do it,” Harry offers, waving his chicken drumstick. For some reason, refereeing a gnome race seems to him more normal than anything else right now.

“Harry, the man who can!” Blaise cries, rising from the table and stuffing his gnome under his arm so that he can hug Harry firmly and clap him on the shoulder. He’s at least a head taller than Harry and is dressed with incredible elegance in a three-piece black suit and black shirt; together with his height, his smooth, dark skin and his handsome features, the adult Blaise Zabini is an imposing individual.

Harry is determined not to be intimidated, so he throws himself into what is at least his third hug of the evening, secretly impressed by Blaise’s solid stature and suit fabric.

“Well, a man who can referee a gnome race,” he says as they draw apart and Harry sees that the other competitors have also vacated the table and are standing in a little knot, pointing at the ground and arguing amongst themselves. He discards his plate and breathes in the cool night air, turning his eyes up to the stars as a smile creeps over his face. “Gin,” he says simply.

Blaise cringes, and in his peripheral vision, Harry notes with pleasure that the expression undermines his effortless presence quite considerably.

“Do your worst,” he advises wearily. “I’ve already heard all about it from M’lady.”

“I’m sure she’s done just fine on her own,” Harry says, too aware of Ginny’s ranting ability not to empathise. “I just wanted to make you feel guilty.”

“Guiltier,” Blaise corrects with a deep, rich, rumble of laughter that seems to echo around the garden. The gnome under his arm begins to kick violently and he encloses it in a large hand and holds it out at arms’ length, exchanging a smile with Harry.

“Come on!” someone shouts from the makeshift start line. “Let’s get going!”

“Hey, ref,” yells someone else, “Draco’s standing on my gnome!”

“Ginevra, move along. I do not wish to see your arse in my face—it’s off-putting.”

“Blaise!”

At his wife’s call, Blaise crosses the lawn in several long strides and swings her into his arms with what looks like the minimal effort. She squeals, surprised, and there’s a miniature struggle as she fights to hold onto both her gnome and Blaise’s, and then both are laughing into each other’s faces.

Harry watches, entranced, as he leans down to kiss her and she kisses back, soft, smile-edged, open-mouthed kisses, shameless and warm. Ginny’s dress flaps gently in the night breeze and she doesn’t even seem to notice when one of her silver pumps falls to the grass.

He thinks that he should be full of jealous rage, watching his wife kissing another man, and while there is a small prickle of righteous indignation twisting inside him, it is barely noticeable above the tide of sadness that washes through his chest, stinging his heart and rippling out to his fingertips.

He doesn’t think he’s ever kissed Ginny like that, and he wonders if it would have made a difference.

“Put her down, Blaise, you don’t know where she’s been!” shouts one of the big, burly men.

Grinning, they separate and Blaise sets her down on the grass. For a moment, she looks at her feet, baffled, and then shrugs and kicks off the other shoe, too.

“Shut up, Septimus, or I’ll tell everyone where you’ve been,” she threatens, smirking.

Harry lets out a long, controlled breath, scrubs at his face and steps up to the starting line.

“You okay?” Draco mouths, pale eyes concerned.

Another deep breath. And another. He nods. Draws his wand. “Gnomes at the ready!”

**~*~**

As the racing stretches into an odd sort of tournament, Harry finds a bench far enough away from the action that he’s not being pelted with small stones, lumps of mud, and stray gnomes, and close enough that he can still intervene on the most blatant acts of sabotage.

Soon, Draco and Ginny are the last ones standing, and everyone else has taken a side, throwing themselves into defending their champions, in most cases with no regard for their fancy clothes. Ginny is still shoeless, Neville has a streak of mud across one cheek, and Blaise seems to be wearing a clump of moss like a hat.

“Take your places,” Harry calls, stamping his feet and rubbing his hands against the chill. There is no Warming Charm at work in this part of the garden, and so far he hasn’t felt inclined to cast his own. He hesitates for a moment, caught up in watching Draco and Ginny crouching at the start line with their gnomes, sleeves rolled up and faces set. He grins. “And... go!”

“It’s been ages since we had a good gnome race—can’t believe I missed it,” sighs the person who is lowering himself onto the bench beside Harry. “Couldn’t you persuade them to wait for us?”

“George!” Harry cries, turning to face the person he has so disappointed.

The perpetually cheeky face splits into a grin. “Nope. How many drinks have you had, exactly?” He reaches up and waggles his ears. “Do I look like I’m missing a lug to you?”

Harry looks, bewildered, head full of the yells and crashes of the gnome-racers behind him. He’s right... there are definitely two ears. The realisation slams him so hard that he thinks he might be sick, and hurriedly he claps a hand over his mouth, wrapping the other around the splintered wood of the bench.

“Fred?” he whispers through his fingers, heart thrashing in his chest.

“Who else?” Fred grins, and then one ginger eyebrow flattens in concern. “You really don’t look well.” He twists his mouth, deep in thought, and then brightens, slapping Harry on the thigh and getting to his feet. “I’m going to fetch you some of our new Hangover Potion—it’s called ‘Easy-No-Queasy’—good, eh? George says it’s a bit fierce yet, but I’m sure it’s fine. Stay right there,” he instructs, pointing a finger at Harry and Disapparating before he has a chance to respond.

Instead, he sits there with his mouth open, staring at the spot recently vacated by a man he thought had been dead for nearly twenty years. He grips the bench tightly, struggling to push away this cold, creeping grey haze so that he can think straight.

Fred Weasley is alive.

And that’s... great, it’s... wonderful, but Harry feels as though he has been turned inside out.

“Fuck,” he mutters, rubbing his eyes. Somewhere across the garden, Ginny is celebrating, spinning around with her victorious gnome hugged to her chest, and Harry has to get out of here.

He jumps up and makes his way around the edge of the garden, forcing his way through bushes and stumbling over objects on the ground. Halfway around to the front of the house, his stupid, ridiculous knee gives out underneath him and he goes flying, landing heavily on hands and knees in a particularly swampy section of the garden, breath knocked out of him in a harsh burst.

“This really isn’t funny,” he snaps, picking himself up and not even bothering to clean the mud from his hands and no-doubt-expensive trousers. Scowling, he picks his way around to the front doorstep, which is bathed in soft yellow light and occupied only by an old man wearing a bobble hat and...

... an oilskin coat. For fuck’s sake.

Harry throws himself down onto the step and wipes his hands on his trousers. “What do you want, Boris? I’m not in the best of moods right now.”

“I can see that, young man,” Boris says mildly, twisting so that Harry can see one milky eye and one huge, bristly eyebrow. He nods approvingly. “Now, don’t you look sharp?”

Harry snorts, looking at the mud clinging to the lines of his hands and then awkwardly pushing his hair out of his eyes with the back of his wrist. “I don’t think I trust your eyesight right now.”

Boris laughs and creaks on the step. “I see what I need to see, lad. Now what’s got you all wound up?”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Harry whispers, voice tight with disbelief. He rests his elbows on his knees and threads both hands into his hair, half-believing that if he makes himself small enough, this whole mess will cease to be. “I’d like to see you cope with this and not have any questions.”

For a moment, Boris says nothing, and then: “What sort o’ questions?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Harry mutters, feeling all at once as though he’s treading a whisper-thin line between rage and hysteria, wavering and not quite coming down on either side. “Maybe questions like what the hell is wrong with my leg? How did it happen? Is that why I didn’t become an Auror, and is Ron successful because I’m not? Why does Ginny look happier with Blaise than she ever looked with me? Why is Fred... why is Fred here—alive?” he demands, stumbling over the words and forcing out, rough-voiced, a final question: “And what the fuck am I doing with Malfoy... with Draco?”

When he runs out of steam, he turns, breathing hard, and stares at Boris. The old man regards him impassively, apparently unstirred by Harry’s outpouring of emotion. Finally, he sighs and scratches at his beard. “I gave you a guide, what more d’ya want?”

Frowning, Harry drops his hands to his knees. In his clouded brain, it takes several seconds for realisation to swim to the surface. “A guide? You gave me a seven year old girl!”

Boris shrugs. “S’usually the way. We just take the person with the clearest sight... the cleanest soul, if you like. It’s nearly always a kid. Sometimes it’s someone a bit... y’know.” Boris looks at Harry meaningfully and waggles a finger in a circle next to his head.

“Why?”

“Easier that way, I suppose. Think about it,” Boris says, jabbing Harry in the ribs with an oilskin-clad elbow. Harry scowls. He doesn’t really feel much like thinking about it, and perhaps Boris can tell, because he continues: “Grown-ups tend to see things different, like... if you don’t act like you, they’ll just think there’s summat wrong with you, or think you’re unhappy.” He leans in closer, dropping his voice. “They won’t put it together that p’raps... you’re just not the you they know. Simple, really.”

“Right,” Harry whispers, unconvinced that he’s much the wiser, and very aware that the scheming old codger has managed not to answer a single one of his questions. “I can’t ask Maura about those things,” he points out.

“Why not?”

Harry groans, stretching out his legs and resting his head against the front door with a little too much force. “Because she’s seven.”

Boris nods. “Right you are. Trouble is, I can only do so much.” He knits his immense eyebrows, leans back stiffly on the step and fumbles around inside his coat, finally withdrawing a very long, very tattered roll of parchment, which he holds up to his face, squinting. “As for your leg... looks like you were cursed in the war.” Boris glances up from his parchment. “Sorry to ’ear that, lad.”

“Er, thanks,” Harry manages, frowning and craning his neck to read over Boris’ shoulder, but all he can make out is a sea of strange symbols. “Why do you have all this written down?”

“I doubt your memory’ll be so ’ot when you’re my age, either,” the old man grumbles, scowling but not looking up.

Chastened, Harry falls silent. He waits, chewing his lip and rubbing his exposed forearms against the biting winter air.

“You wanted to save ’im,” Boris continues. “What you ’ave to remember is that everythin’ and everyone ’ere was affected when you saved ’im. Some places ’e were meant to be, ’e wasn’t, and some places ’e weren’t mean to be, ’e was. Everythin’ around you is the result of how you changed ’is life, and how ’e changed everythin’ around ’im.”

“Yeah,” Harry murmurs, looking not at Boris but out at the sparkling velvet sky. Exhaling slowly.

It’s strange, because it’s not really as though he’s hearing anything new, and yet Boris’ matter-of-fact explanation seems to still the swirling in Harry’s mind and clear the mist, at last allowing logic and reason to wake and begin piecing themselves together.

“So,” he says at last, “you’re saying that Fred is alive because of what I did? Because of Draco?”

Boris smiles. “Maybe.”

“And my leg...” Harry frowns, hand drifting automatically to his knee.

Boris rolls up his parchment and stuffs it carelessly back into his coat pocket. “As for what you’re doin’ with ’im...” Boris laughs breathlessly and hauls himself to his feet. “I’ll leave that to you to figure out, young man.”

Harry opens his mouth to argue, but Boris merely waves and Disapparates without waiting for a response. Drained, he sags back against the door, just in time for Maura to appear around the corner of the house and scuttle toward him, curly pigtails swinging.

“What are you still doing up?” Harry asks, full of sympathy for this poor child who has to guide his clueless, fumbling arse.

“Nothing much,” she says, looking down at him. “I think Mummy and Daddy have forgotten to tell me to go to bed. Are you alright? Uncle Draco is looking for you.”

“Yeah, I’m—Draco is looking for me?” Harry scrambles into an upright position and reaches for his wand, desperate to clean his hands and trousers before Draco sees him and kills him slowly and painfully.

“Yes, but I haven’t told him where you are,” Maura advises, apparently mesmerised by Harry’s frantic Cleaning Spells. “The old man was here, wasn’t he?”

Harry looks up, surprised. “Boris?”

Maura shrugs, pulling her red coat more tightly around herself. “He didn’t tell me his name. I met him on Wednesday. He said I should look after you.”

Strangely warmed, Harry smiles at her and gets to his feet. He’s as clean as he’s going to get; hopefully, Draco will be too many sheets to the wind to notice.

“I appreciate that,” he says, allowing her to take his hand and setting off in search of Draco. “I’ll try not to be too much trouble.”

**~*~**

Taking all factors into consideration, Harry thinks his Apparation into the kitchen at number twelve is more than satisfactory. Draco does not seem to agree.

“Are you trying to make me vomit?” he demands, clinging to Harry and exhibiting none of his usual grace and balance as they skid as one across the kitchen tiles and into the wall. “Ow. Mind my head. I need that.”

“Can’t think what for,” Harry mutters, grabbing Draco around the waist and trying to pull them both upright. It’s a long moment before he realises that he’s pressing Draco into the wall and staring into his face from inches away.

He swallows hard as strong fingers curl into his shirt and grey eyes, opalescent in the moonlight, lock with his. While he’s far from completely leathered, Draco has consumed enough to flush his pale skin, set him slightly off-kilter and, apparently, make him prone to little outbreaks of what Harry can only describe as the giggles. And, from Harry’s more or less sober perspective, a drapey, giggly Draco Malfoy is a very disconcerting thing indeed.

One drink, that’s all he’s had, and he bloody well needed it after being confronted with Fred Weasley, back from the apparently-never-been-dead. He suspects that having the new formula hangover potion poured down his neck—this time with an equally eager George in attendance, too—has affected him more than that one mug of mulled mead.

“Powerful,” he had managed to cough when pressed for a verdict. In truth, he had felt, and to some extent still feels, as though he has been scoured and steamed from the inside.

And still, it had taken him several attempts to persuade Molly that he was fit to Apparate.

“Why does everyone always think I’m drunk?” he asks, hoping for a response this time. “Do you think I drink too much?”

Draco continues to stare at him for a moment, and then his lip twitches and he’s gone, laughing helplessly against Harry’s shoulder. “I don’t think you could if you tried,” he manages at last, tipping his head back against the wall and threading his fingers into Harry’s belt-loops.

“What do you mean?” Harry demands, feeling strangely wounded. As he attempts to fold his arms, he accidentally whacks Draco in the shoulder with a stray elbow. “Sorry,” he mumbles.

“Balance me,” Draco requests, turning very still.

“What?”

“Balance me,” Draco insists, eyes flicking down to his shoulder and then back up to meet Harry’s, and the expression is so imploring and out of place that it stirs something inside Harry.

Something. He chews his lip thoughtfully for several seconds and then, on impulse, twists around and pokes his elbow into Draco’s other shoulder.

He smiles. It’s a tiny smile, but it’s so real and full of relief that Harry feels fantastically accomplished in a way he can’t explain.

“You’re useless at drinking, you know that,” Draco says suddenly, and it takes Harry a moment to realise that Draco is answering his question. “You don’t usually mind...” Draco frowns. “You don’t usually mind when people make fun of you for being such a terrible lightweight.”

“I don’t mind,” Harry says at last. He supposes he’s never been very good at taking in vast quantities of alcohol, but he’s never had anyone point it out to him before; the assessment stings a little, and he shakes it off with some effort. “I just don’t think it’s very nice.”

This time, Draco’s giggles are completely infectious. Caught up in his amusement, Harry allows the little bubbles of tension to pop inside him, closing his eyes and grinning, dropping his head to Draco’s shoulder and inhaling his warm, clean scent. Everything about this is ridiculous, but for some reason he doesn’t care; there’s a spreading warmth in his belly and a crackle in his chest and he feels—

“Fuck,” he gasps, breath sucked out of him by the unexpected Apparation.

He glances down at himself, relieved to see that his parts remain in their proper configuration after the ill-advised jump. Letting out a slow breath, he watches Draco’s unsteady progress around the bedroom as he drops soft light into the lamps with theatrical flicks of his wand.

“Thanks for that,” he mutters, dropping onto the edge of the bed.

“You’re all in one piece, aren’t you?” Draco says lightly, and Harry grumbles under his breath, even though he can’t really dispute that.

“Let’s hope so,” Harry says, just about resisting the urge to pull at his waistband and check. He sighs, pulls off his boots and socks, and then his restraint dissolves and he yanks at the stupidly intricate fastener on his stupidly tight trousers. Nothing happens.

His patience, never awe-inspiring at the best of times, snaps, and he draws his wand. Suspecting that even a very carefully-cast Diffindo would be... hazardous this close to his crotch, he’s just wondering whether he can just Vanish the fastener altogether when there’s a hand on his shoulder.

“Whatever it is you’re thinking about...” Draco pauses, apparently confused, and slides down onto the bed next to him. “Whatever it is, stop it. These were very expensive and I’ve no idea... none at all... why I always have to help you.”

“I...” Harry begins, and before he can summon another word, Draco is reaching over, head resting on his shoulder, and unfastening Harry’s trousers. Frozen, Harry holds his breath and bites the inside of his mouth when those fingers—Draco Malfoy’s fingers, for fuck’s sake, again—graze his cock through two layers of fabric and electricity shoots up his spine.

“Want help with the rest?” he enquires, fingers slipping under the waistband of Harry’s boxers.

He stares. Draco’s hair is once more falling into his eyes, but Harry can see enough to know that they are warm with promise and so much genuine, familiar desire that he is almost overwhelmed. The question, does he want Draco Malfoy to undress him, isn’t helping much, either.

Because... what if he does?

“Ginevra is a terrible cheat,” Draco says, startling him. Having apparently forgotten all about Harry, he is now leaning forward and examining his hands, which are, Harry notices for the first time, covered in scratches and little stripes of mud.

“Everybody was cheating,” Harry points out, jumping onto the change of topic with enthusiasm.

“I know that. She isn’t usually so good at it, though.”

Harry doesn’t really know what to say to that, so he wriggles out of his trousers and idly watches Draco in the soft light as he unbuttons his shirt and allows it to fall from his shoulders. The movement draws Harry’s eyes straight to the pale inner forearm and the faded Dark Mark. He has, until now, managed to avoid seeing Draco any more than he has to, and it’s almost a shock to finally see it, even though he has been under no illusions about what lay beneath all of those perfectly-pressed shirts and sweaters.

And yet. Surprise curls Harry’s hands around the quilt cover, fingers slipping over the ridges of embroidery and clenching textured softness into his fists. Something is different. He does not know everything about this Draco, and he doesn’t know why he continues to think he should.

There, directly above the Mark, barely an inch from the crease of the elbow, are four neatly-inked black letters:

T U R N

So caught up in this unexpected discovery, Harry is barely aware of releasing the quilt and reaching out to touch Draco; it isn’t until his fingers are sliding over the letters that he comes back to himself and catches his breath. Unable to look up and meet the eyes he knows are fixed upon him, he slides his hand down and threads his fingers through Draco’s on the bed.

He knows somehow, beyond all doubt, that this is significant. The trouble is, he has absolutely no idea what to do with it, or even where to start.

“I wondered if you might have been thinking about that night, too,” Draco says, and his voice is soft, cautious. “I always seem to end up thinking about it when we spend time with the Weasels.” He hesitates and tightens his fingers around Harry’s. “The forgiveness of some people... after everything... sometimes it still makes me feel small. That night changed everything... everything,” Draco sighs, and then, quite without warning, flops back onto the bed, pulling Harry down with him.

“Yeah.” Harry stares at the ceiling, feeling as though someone has stolen his words. “It was quite a night,” he attempts at last, hoping to anyone who is listening that Draco takes it as a cue to continue reminiscing.

A soft snort issues from beside him. “Was it really? From what I recall, once you finally shut up, you snored like an asthmatic troll the entire night under your bloody cloak, and then Pomfrey accidentally kicked you in the morning. I had to distract her by pretending to be in horrible pain. You wouldn’t believe how tempting it was to let her get on with finding you.”

“I don’t think that would’ve been very nice, all things considered,” Harry says, knocked off balance by the abrupt change of tone but knowing it’s likely to be in his best interests to go with it. Besides, this man is proving near-impossible to predict at the best of times; he doesn’t suppose he should expect intoxication to alter that.

“I wasn’t feeling nice. I was feeling exhausted,” Draco says petulantly, turning his head to look at Harry and poking him in the ribs until he drags his eyes away from the ceiling. “You talked at me for hours.”

“I wanted to save you,” Harry rasps, mouth dry. He shifts onto his side and reclaims his hand with an unexpected twinge of regret, pulling it up to support his head.

Draco closes his eyes and Harry watches, hardly daring to breathe, as his expression shifts, soft light from the lamps casting shadows across his sharp cheekbones and under long, white-blond eyelashes. He is striking, there is no denying that. Now that Harry has forced himself to look, to see, he fears it will be nigh on impossible to stop.

“You did save me,” Draco says at last. His eyes remain closed and he stretches both arms out over his head, drawing Harry’s eyes down over his pale chest, lean torso, and the faint pink slashes of old scars that taint the otherwise flawless skin.

“I did this, though,” Harry whispers, throat tight, unable to take his eyes from the scars, the infliction of which he has relived for so many horrifying nights that he has lost count. He closes his eyes and he’s there—so much blood, so much fear, so much darkness.

When he forces his eyes open, Draco is mirroring his position, regarding him with confused grey eyes. “Good grief, Harry, what is this? ‘Insecurity about the past’ day?”

“No,” Harry says, blinking the hot sting from his eyes and forcing a scowl. “That’s next Thursday.”

Draco snorts and slips a thoughtless hand under his shirt. “I haven’t been angry about those for a long time, you know that. I know you didn’t know what that spell did—”

“I told you that...?” Harry murmurs before he can stop himself. The hand under his shirt is stroking absent patterns into his back and it’s not his fault that he’s distracted.

“Yes.” Draco looks at him askance. “I’d forgotten how terribly your memory reacts with alcohol. Anyway, and I don’t know why I’m bothering, you won’t remember any of this in the morning—”

“Bloody well better do,” Harry mumbles under his breath.

“Shh, I’m saying something very important,” Draco instructs, eyes intense, and just for a moment, it’s obvious how much he has had to drink tonight. And then it’s gone, and he is regarding Harry with clear exasperation. “The point is, who could blame you for trying it when some wanker was trying to Crucio you?”

Harry blinks. “You’re calling yourself a wanker?”

“No... well, yes, but not me now... the little me. The stupid child.”

“You weren’t stupid,” Harry says, surprising himself.

Draco laughs ruefully. “I’d rather believe I was stupid than believe I was evil. I don’t think evil is something you can grow out of.”

“No, I suppose not,” Harry says, surprisingly affected by the plain truth of this statement, and simultaneously astonished that he is, quite voluntarily, telling Malfoy that he’s right.

“You know,” Draco says, shifting closer and sliding one bare thigh between Harry’s, “I still find it extremely amusing that your nonsensical sleep mumbling was what really did it for me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harry says, affecting sarcasm. Or at least he thinks that’s what he’s doing; there’s a mouth on his neck again and it’s extremely distracting.

Which it shouldn’t be, surely. Because he’s not attracted to Draco. Because he’s not attracted to men, his subconscious adds hastily. Well, not really. Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“I don’t understand you at all sometimes,” Draco mumbles into the crook of Harry’s neck, drawing up all the tiny hairs and making his skin tingle. “If I was so profound in my sleep, I dare say I’d be rather impressed with myself.”

“You’re always rather impressed with yourself,” Harry whispers, reaching out blindly and gripping Draco’s hip hard, digging fingernails into the warm flesh and letting his eyes close.

“Shut up,” Draco retorts, smiling against his skin. “I suppose you did also say ‘bring me the purple fish’, but I chose to believe that that message was meant for someone else.”

“I’ll bring you the purple fish in a minute,” Harry replies, even as he does so, knowing that he’s making no sense at all, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because someone, perhaps him, is pulling their bodies close, snapping their hips together, and oh, god, he’s hard, and so is Draco, and when did that happen?

“Mmph,” Draco mumbles, wrapping an enthusiastic mouth around Harry’s earlobe and starting to yank his shirt up over his head at the same time. “Be quiet and come here.”

Snared in a hot, prickly rush of desire, Harry complies, gasping and pulling Draco tightly against him. He keeps his eyes closed, holding on to Draco, too conflicted and terrified to do anything but feel, breathe in, warm-strong-lemon-alcohol-friction all around him.

And then everything is still.

“Draco?” Harry opens one eye.

Draco pulls away from his neck and into a seated position. “I think I may be sick,” he announces.

With some effort, Harry scrambles up to sit on the end of the bed. He doesn’t look good. The attractive flush—the flush—has drained from his face and his hair is sticking to his forehead in damp strands.

“I think you could be right,” is all Harry can think of to say.

Draco groans, hauls himself up from the bed and staggers into the bathroom. When he is left alone in the bedroom, Harry drops his head into his hands and expels a long, low sound of frustration into the silence.

This is just... beyond insane. He’s sitting here, wearing nothing but underwear and a shirt dangling from one shoulder, with a pounding, undeniable hard-on for a man who has just disappeared into the bathroom to throw up. And the horrible thing is, he can’t decide if he’s relieved or disappointed by the interruption. He had definitely been enjoying it this time, there’s no pretending otherwise.

“So, what does that mean?” he asks of the ceiling, shaking the blue shirt carelessly onto the floor and crawling into bed.

Perhaps admitting to enjoying it is all he needs to do. That would be nice.

Fuck, he’s wound up. With a heavy sigh, he thumps the pillow and curls into a protective ball, ignoring the sounds of running water from the bathroom and trying to concentrate on anything but the heavy, pulsing sensation in his groin.

Surely... surely, if he were gay, he would know about it by now. It’s only logical.

Then again... it’s not as though it has even occurred to him to be attracted to anyone but Ginny for more than twenty years—for his entire adult life, in fact. And he can’t say the idea horrifies him; it’s just... a little startling. He doesn’t care whether people are gay or straight or neither. He’s just a person, and so is Draco Malfoy and so is Ginny.

And, oh... Gin. She’s so happy here with Blaise, and why wouldn’t she be? He’s a big, handsome man with a huge personality and the ability to pick her up and swing her around as though she’s weightless. Harry doesn’t really know how to be that person, or even if he wants to.

He sighs. The bathroom door clicks open, and seconds later there is a rustle of covers and a cold, slightly shaky Draco presses himself against Harry’s back without a word.

“Are you alright?” Harry whispers, flicking out the lamps.

“I’m getting too old for this,” Draco murmurs into the back of his neck, and without thinking, Harry reaches for the hand on his waist and pulls Draco’s arm around him. “I shall not be sad when Christmas is over.”

“Oh. I’d almost forgotten about Christmas,” Harry says truthfully, and somehow he hears Draco’s smile in the darkness.

**~*~**

“Listen.”

“Make me.” A scowl that is becoming unfamiliar.

“You aren’t your father, Draco. You don’t need to try to be.”

“You know nothing about it.” Sitting up straight now, arms folded, pyjamas slipping over pale hands. “You know nothing about what I have to do.”

Sadness, frustration, hopeful disbelief. “Do you really believe in all that?”

“I don’t believe in much of anything, Potter.”

Bitter laughter. “That’s crap. Everyone should believe in something.”

“Oh, really. And what do you believe in, hmm? Let me guess, all that clichéd old Gryffindor stuff about bravery and loyalty and doing the right thing?”

“What about truth?” A challenge, thrown into the darkness.

“What about it?”

Harry’s vision clouds over and for long moments he sees nothing and hears nothing, and then suddenly he is standing next to the bed, an observer only, listening to his own unconscious mumblings and watching a tense, pale hand scratching words onto a scrap of parchment with a tiny stub of pencil.


Take the unknown road now.

Chapter Text

Harry's nose itches.

Sleepily, he wrinkles it and frowns without opening his eyes, but when it soon becomes clear that the irritant is reluctant to be dislodged, he forces his eyes open.

"What do you want?" he asks wearily, blinking myopically at the small black eyes and the flickering tongue that continues to swipe across his nose, even though he's clearly awake now.

"You have so many smells," Frank replies. "Many people."

"Yeah... but couldn't you have maybe waited until I was awake to start licking me?" Harry complains, batting Frank's head away from his face until he retreats, disgruntled, onto Draco's empty pillow.

"Not licking," the snake says disdainfully. "Was merely keeping you company. Think you should be grateful for such a decorative companion."

Harry laughs, irritation dissolving into the cold air. "Of course. Do you happen to know the location of my other, er, decorative companion?"

Frank rests on his coils with such exasperation that Harry can't help thinking that he'd sigh and raise an eyebrow if it were possible. And if he had eyebrows.

"Downstairs, making more smells... " The black tongue flickers in demonstration. "Obviously."

Harry frowns, both at the statement itself and the barely-veiled insult, but when he sniffs at the air and detects fresh coffee, bacon, and toast amongst other mouth-watering scents, he understands.

Still, he thinks, dragging himself out of bed and searching for a pair of non-scary jeans, someone ought to teach that snake some manners.

Later.

For now, he needs food, caffeine and time to process, probably in that order, because despite definitely not being hungover, his head is full of whirling images, colours, snatches of sound and faint new memories that stir his heart and send him off balance at the same time.

"Take the unknown road now," he murmurs to his reflection as he pulls a long-sleeved t-shirt over his head, shoves on his glasses and ruffles at his messy hair. "Turn. And he did. He fucking did."

"What on earth are you wittering on about?" the mirror demands crossly. "And don't swear."

Harry stares at his own eyes, bright and confused, barely hearing the question. "I suppose the real question is—where's my purple fish?"

"Going without you," Frank advises from the bottom of the bed, and before Harry has time to respond, he's disappearing around the doorframe and heading for the stairs.

Harry sighs and follows him before the mirror offers any further opinions.

"I haven't got anything for you," Draco is saying, looking down at Frank's curiously-waving head and brandishing a spatula. "This bacon is very expensive and the toast would get stuck in your silly digestive system."

Harry leans against the counter and watches them both in silence. Frank is clearly on the scrounge, tilting his head this way and that and coiling himself attractively at Draco's feet, and Draco looks... Harry swallows dryly. Dressed simply but at no doubt terrifying expense in dark, fitted jeans and a soft green sweater, he radiates warmth and contentment, and his angular features are arranged into a genuine, clear-eyed smile that yanks at Harry quite without his permission.

"No dice, Frankfurto," he continues, poking playfully at the snake with his spatula. "Go and catch yourself something disgusting."

"You know he can't understand you, don't you?" Harry manages at last, voice scratchy.

Draco looks up, eyes warming further even as he lifts an eyebrow and says: "Oh, good. I was beginning to wonder if you'd expired in the night."

"Charming," Harry retorts, crossing his arms over his grumbling stomach. Despite his best efforts, he soon has to look away from Draco—the embarrassed, squirmy, 'what did we do?' feeling that had started building from the moment he entered the kitchen is now too much to bear, and he has to look at the floor, count the kitchen tiles, anything rather than burst into flames.

He has no idea why it's quite such a big deal... except that he does. And the most terrifying part of it—alternative universes and horrible embarrassment aside—is how normal it is beginning to feel.

"... and you know that very well," Draco is saying, now with his back to Harry as he assembles two breakfasts. "Anyway, I think he understands a lot more than he lets on."

"Hmm," Harry mumbles, pretending not to notice that Frank has coiled on an empty kitchen chair, concealing himself beneath the table as Draco hands Harry a delicious-smelling plate and pulls out the final empty chair for himself.

"Thanks," he adds, eagerly slicing into the perfectly-crisped bacon and arranging it on a piece of buttered toast. Ginny really hates it when he does that, and he's never been able to understand why. He looks up cautiously, but Draco, who has no doubt been brought up with perfect table manners and fine dining, says nothing. He merely crunches neatly on a toast triangle and watches Harry thoughtfully.

"So," he says, swallowing a mouthful and running his foot along Harry's calf under the table, "since you'll be at the 'shop all day, tending to the furniture-purchasing masses, I thought I'd go and deal with my mother."

Harry pauses, reaching for his coffee. "Er... what do you mean?"

"I mean that I'm being incredibly selfless and taking the flak for both of us." Draco frowns lightly and softens his voice: 'Why aren't you staying the night? Is that a grey hair? All I want for Christmas is a little grandchild, Draco...'" he says, giving his fork a fierce glance. And then in a passable imitation of his father, "how is the... wood trade, Mr Potter?"

Harry snorts. "Yeah. On second thoughts, I think I can do without that this morning."

"That's what I thought," Draco says, looking ever-so-slightly smug, and the expression is so reminiscent of his schoolboy self that Harry is immediately caught up in a tide of suspicion.

"Are you trying to butter me up for something?" he demands.

Draco sighs and wraps his hands around his coffee cup, eyes fixed on the table. "Not entirely."

"Meaning?"

Hunted grey eyes lift to meet his at last, and a sudden dread speeds Harry's heart.

What the fuck now? is all he can think. What the fuck have you done?

"Draco?"

Another sigh. Fingers clinging onto that cup for dear life. And then: "Well, last night wasn't exactly my finest moment, was it?"

Puzzled, Harry sets down his bacon and toast and rubs his eyes under his glasses. "What?"

"You can stop pretending that you aren't disgusted with me," Draco snaps. "I can handle it."

"I'm not... do you mean because you, er... were ill?" Relieved, Harry manages a grim smile. "I've seen a lot worse, you know."

Draco's eyes, genuinely anxious, search out his across the table. "Oh, really? And where was that?"

"At wo—er, when I was at the Dursleys'," he amends quickly, doubting that his little workshop has seen a huge amount of vomit over the years. "Dudley was always throwing up everywhere, the greedy little bastard."

Draco shudders. "I thought perhaps you were angry."

"No," Harry says, voice softening. Wondering at this man's need for reassurance, wondering if, perhaps, reassurance is what he has needed all along, wondering if he is always the one to reassure.

Imagining that his other self doesn't mind. Suspecting that this one doesn't, either.

"Yes, well," Draco says briskly, picking up another toast triangle and seeming to shake his anxiety from his shoulders and onto the floor. "I always think it's rather bad form to start things without finishing them," he adds, and a new light flickers in his eyes, one that simultaneously terrifies and excites Harry.

"Mm," he manages, chewing on his lip and trying to catch his breath. Stupid Malfoy, sitting there and looking so... "How do you look so healthy, anyway?" he blurts.

Draco grins. "Easy-No-Queasy, of course. Fantastic stuff. Anyway," he says, ignoring Harry's groan and getting to his feet, "I need to go. You know how my mother is about punctuality. Merlin help us if we're late on Christmas Day. Part of me thinks she might actually have us disembowelled, just to make a point."

"Thanks for that," Harry mumbles, accepting his kiss in silence and watching Draco disappear into the flames of the kitchen fireplace.

Apparently aware that the coast is clear, Frank emerges from his hiding place and flicks his tongue over Draco's half-empty plate with interest. Harry watches him, amused, until Draco's last words drop into place with alarming clarity.

Christmas Day. With the Malfoys. And if today's Saturday...

... he has less than two days to find out... well, enough to keep his organs on the inside, by the sounds of it. He desperately hopes that Draco's words were figurative, but one never knows, especially when Malfoys are involved.

Reluctantly, he pushes his chair away from the table and sighs.

"I'm going to do some research," he announces. "Don't eat too many leftovers, I'm sure they're not good for you."

Frank says nothing, but as Harry folds the last of his bacon and toast into his mouth, grabs his coffee cup and makes for the study, he suspects he's being followed.

**~*~**

Almost an hour later, Harry is ready to give up. Apart from the fact that he's drawn a massive blank on the fact-finding front, he's starting to think he's late for work. It doesn't seem to matter that he's self-employed, or that he has no idea what kind of hours a Diagon Alley carpenter should work on a Saturday. Whichever way he decides to slice it, it's nearly half past ten and that has got to be pushing it.

He sits back on his heels once more and surveys the messy pile of scrapbooks on the rug. They've been interesting, there's no doubt about that. He's managed to find out that Ginny and Blaise have been married for seven years and together for more than ten, judging by some of the newspaper pictures of the two of them with Harry and Draco at various glittering functions.

He's learned that this Ron does indeed collect antique broomsticks and has featured in an extremely amusing series of Quibbler articles about them, and that here, with a successful playing career behind her, Ginny is a well-respected Quidditch coach. Harry finds several pictures of her from the Prophet sports pages, windswept and celebrating with her team-mates, complete with Draco's snippy little annotations, through which it is now possible to see the warmth and pride he feels for his friends.

He also finds a nice photograph of himself, Hermione and a tiny Rose, sitting on a wall at the seaside. All three of them have huge ice creams with flakes and Harry has a protective arm each around the little girl and the heavily-pregnant Hermione. She is radiant, beautiful, and Harry aches with missing her. Though, of course, they are still friends in this place, things are inevitably different when one couple has children and one does not. He sighs, looking at their relaxed, happy faces, and wonders about the whereabouts of Ron and Draco, until he catches sight of the note:

So... Weasley and I are finally working together for once, and you decide to abandon us on the hottest day of the year to swan around in Newquay. You deserved all the reporters you got, I assure you.

He also learns that a six-foot python, dangling from bookshelves and fireplaces and tables, is extremely distracting.

Unfortunately, he fails to learn anything useful about Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, and it's with an exasperated sigh that he returns the leather scrapbooks to their places—carefully and by hand this time—no one can say that he's not learning.

"What do you think, Frankfurto?" Harry asks of the snake, who is hanging upside down from the mantelpiece, exposing his shiny, iridescent belly.

"Many things."

"Great. I'm so glad we talked," Harry mutters, getting to his feet and stretching. As he turns to leave, his eyes are caught by the record player sitting neatly on a pretty little carved table that seems to be mocking him somehow—the table, not the record player; that might actually be a tiny bit useful. Or at least, the one he's certain he saw in the corner of his workshop might be.

"Like the dragon, you're to blame," he mumbles to himself, crossing the room quickly and rifling through the stack of records. Quite a selection, he thinks, some wizarding and some Muggle, but—he's all at once relieved and disappointed to note—absolutely no Celestina Warbeck.

And, for better or for worse, she is going to be the thing.

Wonderful.

**~*~**

Suffused with a new, strange sense of purpose, Harry makes his way to Diagon Alley, relying on his memory and the theory that some things just never change, in order to find what he's looking for. Surely it's still there; he's bought a thing or two for Ginny over the years, but mail order quickly became less of a hassle than dealing with Diagon Alley. But still, he hopes. Turns the corner, waves to yet another sweet little old lady, and—yes!

The place is much as he remembers it: a tiny, slightly shabby shop front with leaded windows and a swinging sign reading 'Richenda's Records' in scarlet and gold. The door opens with a bit of a push and a small, soft tinkling sound announces his arrival, causing one or two customers to look up momentarily from their browsing.

The bare boards still creak under Harry's feet and the place even smells exactly the same, of cardboard and wood and vinyl, and of the bundles of dried aromatic plants that decorate the walls. Church-silent, the shop is much bigger than it appears on the outside, and lit only by the glow of myriad tiny white lights on strings, and it takes Harry quite some time to locate the relevant section.

Bewildered, he stares with hands in coat pockets at 'Celestina Warbeck: Greatest Hits—including "A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love" and "Dragon's Lair"', which seems fairly comprehensive, but then there's also 'Celestina's Forty Years of Love' and 'Veelas, Nymphs and Squibs: the ultimate collection'. Each sleeve carries a frighteningly lurid photograph of the ageing singer, wearing far too much makeup and posing with cats and harps and broomsticks.

In the end, he grabs a copy of each one he can see and creaks over to the counter.

"How are you this morning, Mr Potter?" asks a statuesque middle-aged lady behind the counter, who, if memory serves (and it might not) is Richenda herself. Her glossy black curls are piled on top of her head as though in readiness for an impromptu dinner dance, and she radiates personality and bonhomie from every velvet-clad part of her. Harry has the impression that this version of himself is a regular customer and he smiles at her.

"Very well, thanks," he says, trying to hide his embarrassment as he places the three records on the counter.

Richenda smiles, wine-coloured lips curving in amusement. "I didn't know you were a fan."

"Er... I'm not. They're not for me," Harry lies pointlessly.

She holds his gaze for a split second before rich, warm laughter seems to reverberate around the room. No one looks up this time. "Do not be ashamed of your musical choices, Mr Potter, embrace them!" she declares, wrapping bejewelled fingers around the records and beaming at him.

Harry chews on his lip, thoughtful. "Well, you know, I'm sure there are plenty of people who love... Ms Warbeck," he says, glancing down at the beaming woman in the pictures and deciding impulsively to confide in Richenda, "but in my case, it's a matter of bonding with the in-laws, you know?"

Richenda's mouth twists into a grimace. "Terrible things, in-laws. I've been married to Alfonso for thirty-two years now, and his mother likes to remind him that there's still time for him to find the right girl," she says, expression turning sour for just a moment, but it is soon replaced by a rueful smile.

"She clearly doesn't know what she's talking about," Harry says, flashing her a smile and wondering why it's just always so easy with older ladies, however glamorous they are. That being said, he doubts Richenda has fifteen years on him, and it's a terrifying thought.

"You're rotten, Mr Potter. I hope you don't think you've a chance of a discount, flattery or none," she teases, raising a dark eyebrow.

Harry laughs. "I'd rather not have to pay for these, believe me. Or listen to them, for that matter, but I wasn't thinking of ripping you off."

"That's two Galleons, fifteen, for your sins," Richenda says, visibly amused as she takes Harry's money and reaches for a sheet of brown paper in which to wrap his purchases—just in case.

"Wish me luck," Harry says grimly as he pulls the door open.

"Oodles of it, Mr Potter," she calls, leaning on the counter. "And I hope your efforts are appreciated. Merry Christmas!"

Harry smiles, looking back into the shop one more time. "Merry Christmas."

When he turns to face the sparkling, snow-covered street, his eyes need a moment to adjust from the atmospheric gloom of Richenda's shop. Taking a deep, cold breath, he heads into the crowd and allows it to carry him toward his destination, carefully-wrapped paper package clutched tightly to his chest, hoping silently that no one will guess his shameful secret.

Once he's made it to the 'shop with his shame intact, he dusts off the record player and drops the needle onto 'Celestina Warbeck: Greatest Hits'.

He slips off his coat, hangs it up and ties on his apron as he listens with some trepidation to the opening strings of the first song. He's determined, if nothing else, to have another go at the blasted little table today.

"A bad, bad man accursed my soul, but you walked in and made me whole," croons Celestina, and Harry groans. It's painful, but there doesn't seem to be any other way. He has just hours to learn enough to keep up with Lucius Malfoy, and just maybe, retain his dignity and his bollocks. Perhaps if he just thinks of it as an assignment. A task. A project.

A crash course, maybe.

"He fettered my heart with his spells and charms, but you swept me up into your heavenly arms," warbles Celestina.

"Oh, god," Harry mutters.

"Oh, yes, you did," she continues.

"Something about arms," Harry attempts, levitating another chunk of beech onto his table. "Oh, yes, you did."

"You're the curse-breaker, you broke me apart," Celestina bellows, making Harry jump. "You had me wanting, right from the start. And you claimed me, like only you can, take me gently, my curse-breakin' man."

Resting his hand on the rough surface of the wood, Harry turns to look at the record player in horror. Suddenly, the only thing he can think about is that Molly Weasley is a Celestina fan. Molly Weasley, the mother of a curse-breaker. He can only hope that Bill has never had to listen to his mother singing along to this particular song.

Still, disturbing images or no, he needs to learn the bloody thing.

"You're the curse-breaker, you broke me apart," he sings through gritted teeth, picking up his chisel and joining in with the second chorus.

**~*~**

By the time he has received his third surprise visitor (and not a knock in sight), Harry has a quick-draw Silencing Charm down to a fine art. Unfortunately, the first couple of attempts at shutting up Celestina have scratched the record so badly that he will, to his horror, have to return to Richenda's and purchase another unwanted copy of 'Celestina Warbeck: Greatest Hits'.

Fortunately, the next set of intruders is far more welcome. There's still no knocking, but the sound of approaching children is enough of a heads-up for Harry to silence the music, and when Hermione struggles through the door, laden with bags, he understands.

"Hi, Rose, Hugo," he says, smiling at the children as they follow their mother into the 'shop, bundled in coats and scarves and gloves. Rose, who is wearing a very fetching pair of fluffy earmuffs, returns his smile and darts curious glances at Little Table Mark Two. He doesn't blame her; it's not going well.

"Hi, Uncle Harry," Hugo pipes, running to give him a hug. Surprised and delighted, Harry hugs him back and tweaks the bobble on his hat.

"It's crazy out there," Hermione sighs, dropping her bags and shaking the snow out of her hair. "Anyone would think it was the weekend before Christmas," she adds with a quirked eyebrow, a fraction of a second before her face melts into an expression of horror. "That was a Dad joke, wasn't it?" she asks wearily.

"Definitely. Sorry."

Hermione smiles resignedly. "I think I've been spending too much time with Arthur this week. You should probably expect a visit from him, by the way," she advises, leaning down to rummage in one of her bags, dark curls falling into her face. "He's very excited about the new purchase."

"The new purchase? Ah, the new purchase. Yes," Harry mumbles, glancing hopelessly around at the shelves and boxes and stacks of wood.

"He said he was going to come over and see if you'd let him play with it," Rose says innocently, and when Hermione straightens up and swipes her hair out of her face, she's smirking.

"Well, as long as you're both careful," she says and her eyes glow as she hands Harry a steaming paper cup. "We thought you might be cold."

"Thank you." Harry accepts the cup, warming his hands and inhaling the rich scent. Impulsively, he adds: "Hermione, do you remember when we went to Newquay?"

Surprised, she stares at him for a moment. "When I was pregnant with Hugo? Yes, of course. Why?"

"No reason. I was looking at some photos this morning, that's all," he says, feeling silly.

"I remember that," Rose puts in, and Harry turns to look at her. "When we went to the seaside? You, me and Mum?"

"That's right. What do you remember?"

Rose frowns, deep in thought. "Really big ice creams." She smiles and her serious face is transformed. "We made a sandcastle... and some people took our picture and put it in the newspaper."

"Oh, no, I look huge in that photograph," Hermione grouses, folding her arms with some effort in her bulky coat.

"You look beautiful in that picture, 'Mione," Harry says stoutly, and she flushes. And sticks out her tongue.

"I don't remember," Hugo says, sounding utterly put out. Rose giggles.

"It was before you were born, that's why," Hermione explains, to her son's apparent disappointment. "Maybe we'll all go again one day," she placates.

Harry catches her questioning look and his heart thuds in approval, sadness, resolve. "Definitely."

"If I wasn't there," Hugo begins, gazing up at Harry, forehead creased, "where was I?"

"You were in Mum's tummy, silly," Rose supplies, apparently amused by the whole thing.

Hugo's frown deepens. "How did I get in there?" he demands of Harry.

"Erm..." Harry attempts, suddenly very aware that he has inadvertently pried open a can of worms, and if someone doesn't move quickly, there will be no getting it shut again.

Rose and her mother exchange a meaningful look, and Harry watches the little girl's face turn serious once more as she seems to realise just what she's started.

"I think we'd better be going, Harry," Hermione says, retrieving her bags with a resigned expression.

Even though he can't help but feel partly responsible for whatever uncomfortable conversation his friend is now about to have with her son, Harry gives in to the urge that makes him stride across the floor and envelop Hermione in a tight hug before she braves the streets.

"Good to see you," he whispers.

"You too," she says, eyebrows drawn down in concern. "You'd tell me if there was something wrong, wouldn't you?"

"Of course," Harry assures, and as the door slams shut behind her, he's not sure whether he's lying or not.

**~*~**

"Don't need no Stunning Spells, don't need no potions of love," Harry sings, chipping away at what he hopes is starting to look like a table-top, "don't need no cupid's arrows and the... fucking rest of the fucking line," he improvises, as, from behind him, Celestina warbles on.

Dissatisfied with his work, Harry steps back, wiping his hands on his apron. It's terrible. If possible, it might even be worse than his first attempt.

"It's your fault this isn't working, you horrible old bat," he mumbles into the instrumental section.

"Woah, oh-oh-ohhh," Celestina interrupts breathily.

"Shut up." Harry sighs. He's all too aware that his lack of skill isn't really anyone's fault, and he also knows that, in all likelihood, all his current efforts are futile. But he's not quite ready to be beaten by Lucius sodding Malfoy and a chunk of wood.

A knock at the door startles him, but he silences the music efficiently and even has time to draw a Disillusionment Charm over the mangled wood, just in case this is another customer hoping to collect their purchase. If so, he only hopes, nearly prays, that the purchase in question is both in plain sight and completed. So far, his other self has proved himself astonishingly organised on both fronts, but Harry is all too aware that he is flying by the seat of his bizarre designer jeans, and it could all fall apart at any moment.

The door creaks open and he holds his breath.

"Harry, I'm having a crisis," Ginny announces, pushing her way into the 'shop with a snow-dotted Maura at her side.

Relieved, Harry sags against the worktable and finds a smile for her. He'll happily take what looks very much like a childcare crisis over another customer with an incomprehensible request. The last shopping day before Christmas seems to have brought them all out. Perhaps, he thinks, brightening, Maura will be able to help.

"Join the club," he offers, flashing her a wry smile. "How can I help?"

Without a word, Maura hugs her mother around the waist and then runs to Harry to be lifted onto an empty worktable. Amused, he complies, admiring her corduroy trousers and new shiny shoes at her silent request.

"You're getting as vain as your father, young lady," Ginny sighs. "Anyway, sorry to spring this on you, Harry, but it's an emergency—please can you watch her for the afternoon?"

"Absolutely," he says, watching her face relax and taking in her smart black zip-up jersey, her navy and yellow Puddlemere team scarf and her bulging shoulder bag. "Work crisis, by any chance?"

"Oh, you're a lifesaver. McGann has gone down with Kneazle Pox, the match is at four, and we have to completely rehash all the plays with the reserve Seeker," Ginny says, looking harassed.

"Sounds like fun, Gin," Harry says, suppressing a smile. "I take it Blaise is working, too?"

Ginny rolls her eyes. "No, but she didn't want Daddy. Daddy is not feeling his best right now. Apparently, he's 'stinky and won't open both his eyes at once'," she explains, flicking a glance at Maura, who wrinkles her nose at the memory.

Harry snorts. "Apparently Easy-No-Queasy is the way forward, though I can't help feeling that Fred and George are just looking for easy victims to test it out on," he says, voice catching slightly at the feeling of Fred's name in his mouth. The 'Fred and George are'—it's been a long time.

"I'm not really feeling inclined to help him right now," Ginny says darkly. "He managed to kick me out of bed four times last night. Right, I'll have to go. Thanks again, Harry. Maura, behave yourself... if possible."

"Bye, Mummy," Maura calls, leaning precariously from the worktable to watch Ginny leave. "I hope you win!"

"Do you think she will?" Harry asks, wandering over to slam the door shut.

"Probably," Maura says, swinging her legs back and forth. "Seven out of the last ten matches won, six Snitches caught. The Magpies are on a losing streak. Mummy's team is stronger in inc... incolment? Um, bad weather than the Magpies. But her Seeker is sick. So I don't know, really."

"Right," Harry says softly, impressed. He hadn't expected such a detailed answer to his question, but then he supposes that Maura has grown up with Quidditch; she's a little expert. "Well, let's hope so, shall we?"

Maura nods. She turns to look around the room, shiny red button-shaped hair-bands glinting in the bright sunlight. "The big chest has gone! And the snake lamp! And the round wardrobe! All sorts of things," she exclaims, turning to face Harry, eyes sparkling.

"Yeah. People came to get them." He smiles conspiratorially at her. "I think I kept it together."

"That's good," she says seriously. "You're lucky that you already finished most of the Christmas things. You work really hard, except on Saturdays when we play games."

"What sort of—hang on, what do you mean most of? What haven't I finished?" Harry asks, panicked.

"That," she replies, pointing at the standard lamp, the one he has made for Draco.

"What else was I going to do with it?"

"I don't know," she admits, biting her lip guiltily. "I think you told me, but... I think that was the day the man came in with the big dog, and I can't remember."

"Ah, the big dog," Harry murmurs, even though he has no idea about the big dog, and even though Maura knows he has no idea about the big dog, too.

"Sorry," Maura says, picking at her coat buttons.

"It's not your fault. We'll figure something out," he says, hoping but not quite believing.

"Alright, Mr Potter," booms a large, bearded man, bursting through the door with a cursory knock and startling Harry and Maura. "How's it going? I've come for me sideboard."

"Er, great, thanks," Harry says, tipping his head back to make eye contact with this immense man who seems to fill all the available space in the workshop, barrel-shaped, beaming, and almost as tall as Hagrid, who would be banging his head on the skylights if he were here.

"Hello," Maura says, hopping down to the floor and smiling up at him. She clatters around the room, coat flapping behind her, while Harry and the huge man watch her. "Is it this one?" She points. "Or this one?"

"That's it, young lady," the man rumbles, creaking across the floor toward her and lifting the large mahogany and glass sideboard into his arms as though it were made of paper. "Lovely job, Mr Potter, now all I have to do is hide it from the wife until Monday!" He grins. "Here's what I owe you."

Harry accepts the weighty money bag, still feeling slightly bewildered. "Thank you."

"Have a lovely Christmas, the both of you!" he bellows as he manoeuvres carefully through the door that Maura holds open for him.

Harry shakes his head and gulps at his now-tepid coffee.

"Come on, Uncle Harry," Maura chides, staring up at him from the doorway. "Start acting normal, there are more people coming!"

**~*~**

As the afternoon wears on, Harry does his best impression of 'normal' and Maura, as predicted, makes herself very useful indeed, helping to locate each customer's order as they flock in to collect their custom-made Christmas gifts.

When Harry gives in and reluctantly reinstates Celestina, Maura is horrified.

"Grandma Molly likes this," she says, pulling a face. "It hurts my ears."

"Mine too," Harry admits. "But I have to learn it to impress Draco's dad."

"That doesn't make any sense," Maura complains, but she endures it with only a modicum of drama, and helpfully falls about laughing every time Harry sings along. By one o'clock, she's studying the sleeve notes and telling him where he's going wrong.

"It's 'fly me away on your broomstick, my love' not 'fly me away on your broomstick of love'," she insists, puzzled at Harry's laughter.

Extraordinarily relieved that no actual carpentry is required in spite of the rush, Harry's mind quickly turns to the one project from which there seems to be no escape.

"There's this other thing," he confesses to Maura during a brief lull, and her concerned expression makes him feel curiously as though he's the child in this situation. "I have to make a little table."

"What sort?"

Harry digs out the notebook and shows her the specifications. She shrugs.

"Spindles," she says with interest.

"Spindles," Harry agrees, perching next to her on the worktable. "So, you don't know what it's supposed to look like either?"

She shakes her head, lashing him with a bouncy pigtail. "Nope. Did you try making it?"

Harry nods.

"Can I see?"

"Not really. I already vanished the first one."

"It must have been very bad," she says, dark eyes wide.

Harry snorts. "You could say that. I tried again today, though." He flicks his wand and the Disillusionment Charm fades, revealing a pile of wood shavings and an uneven slab of beech. It's worse than he remembers.

"Oh," Maura manages, frowning. She tilts her head this way and that, as though trying to figure out exactly what she's looking at.

"I think we'll just get rid of this one, too," Harry mutters, flicking his wand and sighing.

"It wasn't that bad," Maura says, and Harry laughs softly, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and hugging her briefly for trying.

"It was. Maybe I just need to try a different approach."

He pulls his feet up onto the table and crosses his legs, copying Maura. Lifting both hands to scrub thoughtfully at his hair, he stares, unseeing, at the far wall and wonders. Breathes in the now-comforting scent of wood and varnish and pictures Mr Pepper's table as clearly as he can in his mind. He knows it's not all about this particular table, knows that there will be more, but somehow it feels as though, if he can just get this one right, everything else will be okay.

And perhaps... perhaps there is still hope. After all, he's turned matchsticks into needles and teapots into tortoises and plant pots into cats. Granted, that was years ago, and he doesn't have much call for regular Transfiguration these days, but he's certain it can't be all that difficult. In fact, as the idea becomes stronger and more compelling in his head, he wonders why on earth his other self chooses to do all his work by hand.

"Right," he says decisively, gripping his wand tightly and sliding back onto his feet. He collects another chunk of beech, trying hard not to think about the expensive materials he has already wasted.

Maura leans forward. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm not exactly sure yet," Harry admits. "Just... think of a table."

Harry narrows his eyes, points his wand at the wood, and attempts to focus all his magical strength into forcing one thing to turn into something else. Table, table, table. Spindles and twelve by twelve. It flows out of him, tingling down his arm, crackling through his fingers, his wand, through the air; he tastes static on his tongue as the wood shifts before his eyes—yes—heart speeding, he holds onto the cast as something decidedly table-like starts to take shape.

"Cool," Maura whispers from behind him, the sound drifting to his ears and spurring him on.

He's done it, he's... fucking hell, it definitely looks like a table.

Triumphant, Harry turns and grins at Maura. He hadn't really expected it to work, and from the astonished smile on her face, neither had she. Harry suspects he owes Minerva McGonagall a very large drink.

"Uncle Harry doesn't do it like that," Maura advises, "but I don't think it matters."

"Hopefully not," Harry agrees, eagerly stepping closer to the workbench to admire his creation. He reaches out a hand to touch one of the elegant spindles, and the moment his fingers connect with the wood, it all falls apart.

Quite literally, in fact. Harry watches the entire table, spindles, etched glass and all, crumble into dust in front of him. Horrified, he swipes his fingers through the fine brown powder, hoping pointlessly to find something solid among the dry remains scattered in mounds across his worktable, but there's nothing.

"Maybe that's why he doesn't do it like that," Maura says quietly, and Harry balls his dirty hands into fists and closes his eyes for a moment to avoid snapping at her.

"Maybe," he manages at last, through gritted teeth.

At that moment, the door creaks open. The ever-watchful part of Harry's subconscious rises above his frustration and disappointment and forces the spell that silences Celestina, who has been screeching helpfully throughout this whole debacle.

"Hello, Grandad."

"Hello, Maura. I like your shoes," says a very familiar voice.

Harry takes a deep breath, wipes his hands on his sides, smearing apron and jeans and not caring, before turning to face Arthur.

"Hi. I was told to expect you," he says, smiling. It's not Arthur's fault that not only is he useless at making tables, he can't Transfigure them either.

"Yes, yes. Has it arrived yet?" Arthur asks, almost rubbing his hands together in excitement.

Harry hesitates. He has no idea.

"I think it's over there, Grandad," Maura says, pointing to a large wooden crate in the far corner of the workshop.

"What is it?" Harry hisses out of the corner of his mouth.

Maura leans up on tiptoes to watch Arthur. "Um... you and Grandad... well, Uncle Harry and Grandad, wanted to learn how to blow glass out of a stick. I don't really know why."

"Me neither," Harry says, raising his eyebrows as Arthur cries out delightedly and starts to carefully float the crate over to Harry's workbench. Hurriedly, he grabs a rough cloth and wipes away the worst of the failed-table dust.

"Wonderful that it arrived before Christmas, isn't it?" he enthuses, eyes crinkling. He faces Harry over the crate. "You've still got time to have a go, haven't you?"

"Sure," Harry says, silently adding 'Why the fuck not? Might as well embrace the madness.'

"Great." Arthur exchanges a gleeful glance with Maura, who seems to have jumped on board with impressive alacrity. "Right, I've got the spells here," he says, pulling a bit of parchment out of the pocket of his duffle coat.

"Hmm?" Harry says vaguely.

"The spells for the different temperatures of the flames," Arthur explains. "It's a shame we can't do it with the three furnaces, you know, the proper Muggle way, but I suppose you're right that there's not enough space here, he says, looking around ruefully at the small workshop. "Still, maybe one day, eh?"

"Maybe." Harry takes a deep breath and, with Arthur's help, prises the lid from the crate and begins to unload carefully packed boxes containing rods and fragments of coloured and plain glass, several metal stands and unfamiliar tools, and a selection of slender clay pipes of various lengths. From the bottom of the crate, Harry lifts out a large iron object, rather like a very heavy saucepan, and drops it onto the worktop with some relief.

"Wonderful, isn't it?" Arthur beams.

"It's certainly something," Harry murmurs, poking around in the bottom of the box for instructions but finding nothing but packing beads and shredded paper. "Maybe we should try—"

"Come on then, my boy, let's melt some glass!" Arthur interrupts, clearing the workbench, and from his wand erupts a cascade of fire so intense that Harry has to leap backwards to keep his eyebrows intact. In doing so, he almost falls over Maura, who appears to have had the presence of mind to stand well back.

For a moment, Harry gazes through the flames at his surrogate father, taking in his lined face, messy red hair and excitable expression as he waits for Harry to make his move, and it's with a rush of delight that he realises that this relationship—his and Arthur's—is just the same as the one he knows. It's playful and warm, comforting and just a little bit bonkers.

He grins. "Right you are," he agrees, grabbing the iron pan and floating it into the flames.

"Maura, hand me the box of glass," Arthur mumbles, eyes fixed on the flames. "Good girl, thank you."

"Are you alright?" Harry asks, as Maura creeps back to his side and takes his hand.

"Yep," she says brightly, and when Harry glances at her, she's transfixed, mouth slightly open as the dancing flames reflect in wide, dark eyes.

When Arthur dumps the glass pieces into the pot, Maura squeezes Harry's hand and he squeezes back, breathing through the pang in his chest as he is reminded of Lily, who loves her Grandpa Weasley's experiments, too.

Lily, wherever she is, would love this. The colours and the scrape-sizzle-whoosh and the smell of hot metal and glass, the heat driving into them in waves. Soon, Maura and Arthur have shed their coats and Harry is swiping sweaty hair out of his face and blinking against the flames and the brilliant glow of the molten glass.

By the time Harry chooses a clay pipe and attempts, with Arthur's encouragement, to gather a blob of the lava-like glass on one end, he's hot, sticky, and utterly determined.

"Oh, good job!" Arthur declares, clearly dying to have a go. "Are you going to give it a blow?"

Harry bites his lip and draws down his eyebrows with the effort of suppressing the juvenile laughter bubbling up in his chest. He's thirty-seven, for crying out loud. And as such, he should definitely be capable of... er, giving it a blow. Unfortunately, his head is all at once full of images that make the bubble of laughter drop and sharpen into a twinge that yanks at the pit of his stomach.

He scowls, lifts the slender pipe to his mouth and steadily pushes his breath down the tube and into the glass; it swells, just a little, and he tries again.

"It's working!" Maura cries, shoes scuffling on the stone floor in her excitement.

"It's marvellous, isn't it?" Arthur mumbles from behind him. "One or two more and I think you'll be able to start turning it!"

Heartened, and not just by the fact that Arthur at least seems to have done some reading-up on the subject, Harry drags in a deep breath, holds the pipe steady, and then crashes to the floor.

The first sensation is one of shock, as his legs jerk out from underneath him, followed swiftly by pain, as his backside connects with the cold stone. The pipe, grasped grimly in his fingers, crashes down with him and the bulb of half-blown glass skitters across the table in slow motion.

"Careful, Maura," Arthur calls, and Harry is halfway to his feet in panic before he sees that there is no danger. "Are you alright, Harry?" he inquires, holding out a hand to help Harry rise fully to his feet.

Arthur shoves his wand back into his waistband and gazes at the immobilised piece of glass. Their first promising attempt now lies twisted, misshapen and somehow slightly blackened at the base of the iron pan, and he sighs gently.

"Sorry, Arthur," Harry says, feeling his disappointment and hating this ridiculous disability with fresh new bitterness.

"Don't apologise," he insists, patting Harry on the back. "I think we made a cracking start. Tell you what, Maura and I will go out and get some lunch, and when we come back..." Arthur grins, "it's my turn."

**~*~**

When Maura returns clutching a half-eaten courgette and chocolate spread sandwich, Harry finally thinks he knows what happened to that last spinach cake. He installs her and her disgusting sandwich on the spare workbench, keeping her well out of harm's way while ensuring her a good view of proceedings, as he and Arthur clean up and prepare for another attempt.

Between them, they start up the flames again and the heat quickly fills the small space. Arthur gleefully takes the pipe and follows Harry's example, save for the ill-timed meeting with the floor, and after a few wobbles, produces an uneven, lopsided, but fully-formed bulb of glass. Astonished by this moderate success, and determined to secure it before it disappears, they cast the third spell, Lehro, together, and place the glass into the soft, green flames.

"Brilliant," Harry enthuses, wiping his damp forehead with the back of his hand, equal parts impressed and envious. "Well done."

Arthur grins. "It's good fun, isn't it? Molly thinks you're bonkers, by the way," he adds.

Harry lifts an eyebrow. "Just me?"

"She's known about me for a long time. What do you think, Maura?"

They both turn to look at the little girl, who has crept down from the worktable and is now looking up at them with wide eyes and a smudge of chocolate on her nose.

"It's pretty," she says, smiling at the licking green flames.

"It'll be prettier once we learn to do it properly," he says, ruffling her dark curls. "Come on, let's leave Uncle Harry alone to get his work done."

"Oh... really, there's no need," Harry attempts, dismayed at the thought of coping with the rest of the afternoon without his useful little friend.

Arthur puts on his coat, pulls a knitted hat out of the pocket and puts it on. "It's no problem. In fact..." He leans in conspiratorially, "I could do with a bit of help with some last minute shopping." He pauses, eyes suddenly hopeful. "You don't happen to know what Ginny would like for Christmas, do you?"

"I'm afraid not," Harry says, hoping that Draco has taken care of their responsibilities in that area.

"Ah, well." Arthur claps him on the shoulder again and holds his hand out for Maura's. "Come on, young lady, let's go and buy your mother something shiny and overpriced from that shop that hurts my head. She'll like that. Stick your head in over Christmas, Harry... maybe we can arrange to have another go?"

Harry nods, eyes flicking between their contrasting smiles, Arthur's expectant and Maura's apologetic.

"Okay, good luck," he calls, just before Arthur tugs the door closed behind them.

Finally alone, he sighs and allows himself a quiet moment before he forces himself to reinstate Celestina.

**~*~**

"And you can throw me down into the dungeon, I'm not afraid, you see," Harry sings along as he saws away doggedly and yet another section of beech. "For the love that grows in my wounded heart is more potent than any key."

Thomp, goes the long section of wood as it tumbles onto the worktable. "Oh, yes it is," Harry adds.

"Ooh-ooh, whoa," Celestina warbles.

"And that as well," he mutters to himself, hating how quickly he's picking up the lyrics to these appalling songs, however useful they're going to be. He has a horrible feeling that once the words are lodged into his brain, it's going to take something drastic to shift them.

Still. It's not all bad. It's almost five o'clock and the stream of customers into the workshop has slowed almost to a standstill. He's lit the lamps, tidied away the glassblowing equipment for the day and has decided to have one more go at the sodding table before he has to give in and decide what to do with Draco's lamp. And then, of course, all he has to worry about is Christmas Day with the Malfoys.

Harry sighs, closing his eyes briefly and hanging onto his saw as though it's a lifeline.

"Free me from my chaaaaaains!" demands Celestina.

Harry forces his eyes open. "One ridiculous problem at a time, I think."

"We'll be together agaaaaaain!"

"You and me, betwixt and between," Harry joins in reluctantly, drawing his wand and staring at the stick of beech, hoping for a miracle, or at least something resembling a spindle. "We'll cross the seas, and the forests of green, searching for a... Hippogriff in a waistcoast," he improvises, losing the end of the chorus.

"I didn't know you could sing," comes an amused voice from the doorway and Harry spins around, still with wand in hand. "Goodness, you're jumpy," Goldstein adds, amused, holding up his hands in mock surrender.

"I didn't hear you come in," Harry says coolly, lowering his wand to his side.

"Evidently." Goldstein smiles slowly and his eyes travel over Harry's body, taking in his dirty apron, his messy hair, his burned and scratched hands, all of it with an obvious pleasure that makes Harry want to throw his not-quite-spindle across the workshop at him.

"You could have knocked," Harry points out, not unpleasantly.

"Oh, Harry, must friends be so formal?"

Harry hesitates for a moment, all too aware that he could be in the wrong here—after all, this life has been his for less than a week, if it is his at all. In all likelihood, he's just looking after it. Keeping it warm. Trying to figure some things out.

But then Goldstein's smile turns into a smirk and it dissolves Harry's restraint. "Friends?" he repeats, lifting an eyebrow. "I wouldn't go that far."

"Through a sky of diamond dewdrops, my love," offers Celestina, and for the first time, Harry doesn't jump to silence her. He has the strangest feeling that right now, overwrought and clichéd though she may be, she's on his side.

Goldstein's dark eyes flash with anger, just for a split-second, but Harry catches it before he moulds his expression into one of ingratiation, and the interrogator, the observer in him, fires up with warm satisfaction. He can deal with this man.

"Harry, why so cruel? Surely I haven't done anything to offend you," Goldstein murmurs, sounding hurt. He steps away from the doorway and comes to lean casually against Harry's worktable, not-so-subtly displaying his lean, black-clad figure and pressing his height advantage over Harry. He hates that. He's always hated that.

"Look," Harry sighs, folding his arms across his apron and comforting himself with the thought that, yes, Goldstein might have three or four inches on his five feet ten and a bit, but Harry could probably knock him over without trying too hard. "What do you want? I'm closing up soon."

Goldstein licks nervously at his bottom lip. Harry scowls. Draco, he's noticed, does the same thing when he's anxious, and for some reason that he can't explain—some reason other than that he truly dislikes this adult Goldstein—it fills him with uncomfortable rage to see it on this slimy bastard.

"Well, I just thought we could finish our conversation," he says softly, and the smile is back, slightly sheepish this time. "I realise I was a little... ah, intoxicated, and perhaps wasn't making much sense."

Harry snorts softly. "No, I think I got the message."

Goldstein brightens. "So..." he begins, fixing Harry with intense eyes.

Resisting the urge to groan and rake his fingers through his hair, Harry stands firm, arms folded, posture solid, hoping fervently that his legs stay beneath him for the moment; the last thing he needs is for Goldstein to think he's some kind of damsel in distress.

"So, what? I wasn't tired of Draco yesterday but you thought I might be by now? The answer is no, and if you've any sense, you'll stop asking," he says quietly.

"People change, Harry," Goldstein murmurs, shifting position so that his expensive shoes crunch on the wood shavings; he jumps, causing Harry a ripple of silent amusement. "Do you know what everyone at the Ministry thinks of Malfoy? Him and his toxic, seditious little articles?"

Harry frowns, almost thrown by the change of tone. "Seditious?" he repeats, incredulous.

Goldstein's smile flickers back into life briefly. "Yes, it means—"

"I know what it means," Harry interrupts, forcing the words through gritted teeth. "I'm not stupid."

"Well, of course not," Goldstein stumbles, flushing. "But we do... ah, inhabit rather different worlds these days, and I... I want you to know that there's nothing wrong with that. There's certainly no need for you to settle with someone like Malfoy."

Harry exhales messily, losing his composure for the time it takes for him to scrub both hands through his hair, tip his head back to stare at the stars through the skylight and wonder just how he—or, indeed, his other self—has managed not to hex this prick in the balls.

"I'm not settling, Goldstein," he says at last, dropping his hands to his sides and forcing himself to make eye contact. "I certainly don't need your approval on my lifestyle choices, and I expect that the only people who are worried about Draco's... erm, seditious articles are the ones with something to hide."

"I don't think that's quite..." he begins, flustered and bright-eyed with indignation.

"Well, I do think, and I'm not daft enough to let you change my mind, whatever you might think about me. I don't know what world you've been living in for the last thirty years, Anthony, but when no one keeps an eye on the Ministry, bad things tend to happen. Who will guard the guards, and all that," Harry finishes, slightly breathless but certain that Hermione would be proud.

"Who will what?" Goldstein frowns.

Harry can't help himself; he smiles. "Nothing to worry about. A tip for you, though... if you're trying to impress someone, it's probably best not to imply they're thick."

"There's no need to be like that," Goldstein manages after a long silence, and the smirk has quite disappeared from his face. "I just thought you could... do better, that's all."

Harry snorts. "Have I ever given you the impression that I might be interested?" he demands, suddenly afraid that his other self has somehow encouraged this.

There is a long silence between them, into which Celestina chants and wails about her lost love.

"Well... I... you've never been quite so hostile before," Anthony mutters at last.

"So, no, then," Harry surmises, heart leaping with relief so intense that it's startling. "You really are clueless, aren't you?" he adds under his breath, knowing that the part of himself he is addressing is not present, but needing to do so regardless.

"Excuse me?"

Harry shakes his head. "Nothing. I really do have to close up in a minute, so do you think you could see yourself out?"

Goldstein takes a step back, posture rigid and long fingers curled into fists at his side. His eyes are quietly furious as he gives Harry a stiff nod and walks slowly to the door, as though he expects for Harry to change his mind and call him back at any moment.

"Have a wonderful Christmas, Harry," he says quietly, and then the door slams.

"Thank fuck for that," Harry mumbles, giving up on any further notion of working on the little table today and hoisting himself up onto the spare workbench. Much as he'd like to hope, he has a nagging feeling that he hasn't seen the last of Anthony Goldstein for the moment, but under the circumstances, a temporary respite will do. And, if nothing else, he has—in the words of Molly Weasley—sent him away with a flea in his ear.

Harry pulls a face and scratches at his ears at the thought. He leans back on his hands and gazes around at the chaos of his workshop, at the half-arsed fourth attempt at Mr Pepper's table, at the piles of wood shavings and scattered tools, at the box of glassblowing equipment and the soft, green glow of the slowly-cooling flames around Arthur's twisted bulb.

And, alright, he's not very good at this. He's doing the best he can with the talent and training—or lack thereof—that he has available, but he's not a natural. Whatever his shortcomings in the craftsman department, though, it's becoming increasingly obvious that he is vastly better at reading people than his other self. He has an understanding of expressions and tells, an awareness of motivations, an above-average level of suspicion, but most of that comes from almost twenty years as an Auror.

This Harry, he supposes, the one who lives here, the one who learned how to make furniture instead of learning how to chase down criminals, this Harry is the person he would have been without any of that training or experience. Harry chews his lip thoughtfully and plays with his shoelaces, wrapping them around his fingers. This Harry trusts people, takes them almost at face value. This Harry has been allowed to let his childhood and the war dissolve behind him. This Harry doesn't carry his past on his shoulders everywhere he goes.

This Harry is so contentedly oblivious that he hasn't noticed Anthony fucking Goldstein trying to slime all over him for god knows how long.

This Harry just is.

A wave of something hot and prickly rushes through Harry's sinuses and he gulps at the cold air, rubbing the knees of his jeans with the heels of his hands and throwing everything he has in front of the tide of sadness.

Good health.

Close friends.

Three beautiful, happy children—four, he supposes, picturing a mischievous, Al-flanked Rose.

Harry breathes. Wraps his fingers around the edge of the worktable, cold, hard, rough, and listens to the needle lifting from 'Veelas, Nymphs, and Squibs', then silence.

Finally, he lowers himself to the floor and makes his way over to the beautiful lamp that Maura has reliably informed him is 'nearly finished'. Pensive, he lights the flame and stands back, allowing the soft green shapes to fall across the walls, the floor, and his skin. Once again, he's astonished that any version of himself could create something so magnificent, and as he watches the glass stripes shifting and melting into one another, and reaches out a hand to smooth over the curved wooden stalk, he can't imagine that there's anything he could add to it that wouldn't ruin it, and not only because his skills leave a lot to be desired.

He hesitates only for a moment before making a decision.

"Sorry, mate," he says, addressing his absent other self as he extinguishes the flame and casts a Disillusionment Charm over the lamp. "This is just going to have to do."

Humming under his breath, he walks around and turns out all the lights. Then, seeing no other reasonable way—it will surely be crushed or snapped in the madness that is still Diagon Alley—he wraps his arms around the lamp, hopes for the best, and Apparates onto the pavement outside number twelve.

He has the front door wedged open with his foot and the lamp halfway into the hallway when Draco emerges from the kitchen, notepad in hand and quill tucked behind his ear, and demands:

"What the fuck are you doing?"

It's a fair question, Harry supposes. Even though it's dark in the hallway and he does do rather a good Disillusionment Charm, if he may say so himself, it's still fairly obvious that Harry is attempting to sneak something rather large into the house. And not all that smoothly, he has to admit. He's stubbed his toe on the base three times now, and Draco's interruption startles him and causes the glass shade to clonk him quite severely on the head.

"Nothing?" he tries, dragging the lamp another few feet. If he can just get it to the end of the hallway rug, he can kick the front door shut, and he's quite confident that every aspect of this operation will be greatly improved by not having an icy wind blowing up his bottom. "Argh, bastard!" he adds, managing a simultaneous clonk-stub and a thomp to the backside as the heavy oak door escapes from behind his foot and catapults himself, the lamp, and half of the rug into the hallway.

"Nothing, eh?" Draco repeats, lifting an eyebrow. "Well, I'll let you finish your nothing, and then you can come and not tell me all about it. It's your turn to make dinner, you know."

As he turns away, the corners of his mouth are twitching, and Harry doesn't think he imagines the sound of muffled laughter emanating from the kitchen just seconds later.

"Come on, you heavy sod," Harry grunts, dragging the lamp across the hallway. It is becoming apparent that the thing previously thought delicate is, in fact, more durable than its creator. When he finally gets it into a rarely-used parlour and removes the charm to examine it, he quickly sees that in contrast to himself, there isn't a scratch on it.

He supposes that's a good thing, even as he rubs at the lump on his head and prods at the rapidly-forming bruise on his left buttock.

Reinstating the charm, he locks up the room and wanders into the kitchen, already wondering how well his cooking is going to go down. He's certainly capable, and he enjoys it when he's in the right mood, but cooking for a Malfoy might well be a whole new kettle of fish.

Still, he thinks, ignoring the occasional giggle from the man at the table and rummaging in the cupboards, Draco does make a mean chilli, so he can't be all about quail's eggs and filet mignon. It might actually be nice to cook for someone different. The children, with the occasional exception of James, who goes through phases of adventurousness, would always rather have chips, and Ginny is always too tired to really appreciate her food.

Just as he's pulling onions out of the cupboard, Harry notices the state of his hands and hurries to scrub them with hot water and soap before Draco notices. Something tells him that 'it's only a bit of wood dust' will not fly in this house.

"Spaghetti Bolognese?" Harry offers, drying his hands on a soft white tea-towel and surveying his ingredients.

"I don't think we have any spaghetti," Draco says without looking up from the photograph in his hands.

Harry goes rummaging again. "Hmm. Okay, well, twisty-round pasta Bolognese?"

Draco snorts. "It must be gourmet night." He throws down his photograph and picks up another one, and when Harry looks over his shoulder, he's smiling to himself. "Throw in some garlic bread and you're on."

"I think I can manage that," Harry mutters, selecting a sharp knife and beginning to work, allowing the regular rhythm of chopping and stirring to soothe away the last of the tension from his muscles, and to ease away the more bizarre elements of his day.

Behind him, Draco rustles and scribbles and mumbles to himself, and Harry is less surprised than he perhaps should be to find these noises comforting, too. As the room begins to fill with steam and the fragrant, savoury aroma of his pasta sauce, Harry stops thinking altogether and begins to absently hum, and then sing, under his breath.

"Through a sky of diamond dewdrops, my love; through the dark and forbidden forest, my love; through the ocean deep and... something, my love, until I find you again," he sings, poking at the pan of pasta with a wooden spoon.

"My father has a lot to answer for," Draco sighs, but Harry ignores him. He's actually enjoying having someone in the kitchen with him, even if it is a grumpy someone he never really asked for.

By the time he turns to set the two steaming plates on the table, Draco has managed to cover the entire surface with his scribbled notes and shiny photographs and assorted items. There are five empty coffee cups strewn around and a very long stripy scarf drapes, snakelike, over two of the empty chairs. Frank himself is nowhere to be seen, but then the table is quite crowded enough without him.

"You're going to have to move something," Harry says, and Draco finally looks up, blinking, as though he's just broken out of a trance.

"I feel like setting fire to the lot of it, to be honest," Draco says, scowling and neatly Summoning all his photographs and bits of parchment into his hands, allowing Harry to set down the plates and scrape up a chair. "Everyone at MLE is clamming up. I wouldn't be surprised if fucking Fitzwilliam has put the frighteners on the lot of them."

"Delightful man," Harry offers, spearing several pasta twists on his fork at once and conveying them to his mouth. "No help from the Auror department, then?" he asks, mildly curious.

Draco shakes his head, chewing slowly. "No," he says at last, "they were the worst of the lot. Who'd be a bloody Auror?" He sighs. Examines his fork. "This is nice," he says absently.

"I... er... thought about it, once," Harry ventures, feeling slightly stung even though he's fairly sure he doesn't want to be one any more, either. "You know, being an Auror."

Draco sets down his fork. "I know," he says quietly.

"I was just saying," Harry says, tasting the change in atmosphere and sensing he may have said the wrong thing. "I... it doesn't matter."

"Don't be ridiculous, of course it matters," Draco says sharply, looking up and meeting Harry's eyes with sudden fierceness. "I just didn't know you were thinking about it again. It's been a while."

Harry hesitates, caught in anxious grey eyes and a years-old connection that seems to reach out and wrap around him as though he's never been away, never let it go. He coughs dryly.

"Yeah... I suppose it was just hearing Ron's news... " Harry shrugs. "It's not a big deal."

"You're impossible," Draco sighs, pushing back his chair. "I'll make some tea, shall I?"

"Because that'll solve everything," Harry murmurs to himself, leaning back and folding his arms.

"You know it to be true, Potter," Draco says, assembling the tea paraphernalia and then turning and leaning against the marble counter. "Now come on, spit it out."

"I don't want to," Harry says petulantly.

Draco releases a light sigh. "I know you don't, but it's far better to say it than carry it around with you for days on end, isn't it?" He turns around to pour the hot water. "Not to mention turning into a complete nightmare to live with, all angst-ridden and such," he adds.

Intrigued and a little indignant, Harry gives in. At least it won't be the first time he and Draco have had this conversation, and it sounds as though it won't be the last.

"I was just wondering if I made the right decision—not becoming an Auror."

Draco passes him a hot cup and reclaims his seat, balancing his elbows on the table and holding his tea close to his face. "You did, Harry."

"But how can you say that for sure?" Harry presses.

"I can't say anything for sure," Draco admits, grey eyes serious, "but I do remember how long you agonised over it, and that has to count for something. I also remember how torn you were when that Ministry letter came—we're willing to overlook your injury, Mr Potter, we'd be delighted to accept you into our training programme," Draco recites scornfully, fingers gripping tightly around his stripy teacup. "Who exactly did they think they were, putting you in that position?"

"I don't know," Harry whispers, horrified at the idea that the Ministry, presumably because of his name alone, were prepared to risk lives by employing a person with an unpredictable injury in such a dangerous position; Draco's hatred of the Ministry is becoming ever more understandable. "They should have just said no."

"Harry, it wasn't a case of saying no, was it?" Draco argues. "They just sent their sneaky little offer, apropos of nothing, and expected you to carry it on your conscience. They are bad people, Harry, and you know I don't mean people like Weasley and Granger, I mean the ones in charge—every single one of them is either clueless or corrupt and you're better off out of it."

"Do you really blame me for wondering 'what if'?" Harry asks, gulping at his tea.

Draco sighs. "No, of course not. Do you think I don't wonder what would have happened if you hadn't come up to the hospital wing that night?"

Harry's stomach flips. For a long moment, he stares into his cup, unable to make eye contact with Draco, with a Draco who is here in this moment with him because of that decision. A decision that, save for Boris, was never made. Fuck, his head is a mess.

"Mm," Harry murmurs. "I suppose that some days I just find it strange to be doing what I do. It's not quite what I planned."

Draco looses a hollow laugh. "You love your job, Harry, I know you do. I don't ever remember having a plan beyond impressing my father... although I did want to be a chocolate frog when I was little," he adds, nose wrinkling briefly as he remembers.

Harry grins. "I'm sure you would have been excellent at that."

"Shut up," Draco says, and then, quite unexpectedly, sets down his cup and reaches across the table for Harry's hand. He threads their fingers together and stares down at the table, tongue-tip flicking out over his bottom lip. "You don't really think you made a mistake, do you?"

Harry isn't entirely sure the question is a real one, but he answers it anyway. "No."

"Listen, because I don't care how this sounds, or how many times I have to say it—barely a day goes by when I don't think about what happened to you at the Manor that night, when I don't wish I was there with you instead of being 'kept safe' somewhere..." Draco pauses. "When I don't wish I could help, or make it disappear. But I can't."

Harry is silent, because the words are laced, soaked through, with meaning, and he is laid open by the rough edge to them that tells him Draco doesn't really want to mean them. Heartsore, he slides his thumb over the back of Draco's hand, soft skin and sharp knuckles. Just a pale, strong hand, tangled with his and trying to keep him afloat.

"I know," he says at last, forcing himself to look up.

Draco's eyes are bright. "Knowing is always a start." Without releasing Harry's hand, he picks up his fork and resumes eating. "You know, I think this actually tastes better cold."

Harry snorts. "I'm not sure how I should take that."

"Like a man," Draco advises.

**~*~**

Harry wakes the next morning with an odd sensation of compression. It only takes a moment's bleary-eyed investigation to ascertain the cause: in a quest for warmth, Frank has slithered under the sheets and blankets and coiled heavily on Harry's bare chest. Looking at the wide-open window, Harry can barely blame him, but it really is a miracle he hasn't suffocated.

"Move, you," he directs, prodding the snake.

"Sleeping," Frank says.

"You know, Draco won't remember to feed you if you crush me to death," Harry points out, starting to wheeze a little, only partly for effect.

"Such drama," the snake says, unwinding himself and turning his head to show Harry the small scrap of parchment that has been Spellotaped to his triangular head. "Do not approve of this. Do not."

Immediately reminded of Al and his notes, Harry chews on a sad smile and reaches out to carefully unpeel the tape from Frank's head. "Sorry about that," he says, dragging in a deep, grateful breath as the snake slides fully onto the mattress.

"Not a message service. Not a display board. Not for receiving the sticky notes!"

Amused, Harry strokes the shiny head as he reads his note.

Merry Christmas Eve, you lazy old bugger.

I have gone over to Zabology to speak to a man about a dog (well, to Blaise about your Christmas present, but Hermione assures me that it's a genuine euphemism) and I shall see you later on.

Please tell Frankfurto I'm sorry, but I really didn't know where else to stick it.

Be good.

D.


"I'll not be good if I feel like it," Harry announces to the room.

"Ooh, you're a young wag," says the mirror saucily.

"Thanks," he replies, flattered.

He grins, reflecting that the scale and variety of communication in this place really is incredible. Not only does Draco Malfoy talk to him, but so do strangers in the street and snakes and mirrors.

"Draco says he's sorry about making you feel like a notice board," he says, and Frank flicks his tongue, unimpressed.

"Careless striped human," he complains, disappearing under the sheets.

Harry watches him, half-amused and half-bewildered, and something in that curious mix of feelings reminds him sharply of his children, of James' blue hair and Al's insistence on keeping all of his food separate on his plate, and Lily's penchant for giving Frank the cat a bath. Aching, Harry punches his pillow and curls on his side, closing his eyes against this world and allowing himself to miss them.

Christmas Eve, he thinks, feeling the sharp edges of Draco's note against his palm. He and Ginny have always made it special for the children—she wanting to give them the family Christmases she grew up with, and Harry needing to give them the security and warmth he never had. And it had worked; by the time Al was born, those cosy, sparkly celebrations had replaced in Harry's mind the years of cold Dursley Christmases and that one bleak year spent on the run with Hermione.

By the time Lily was born, the family traditions had been firmly in place. The cup of tea left out for Santa (because, James said, grown-ups are always drinking tea) and the parsnips left out for the reindeer (because, Al later pointed out, they might be sick of carrots) and the insistence on staying up until midnight, even though no one but James, armed with caffeine and sugar, ever managed it.

He smiles at the memory, pressing his stinging eyes into his pillow because he feels stupid, even though there's no one here to judge him for his display of emotion. His children aren't here, but they're fine, they're okay, Boris has assured him of that, and while he's fully aware that Boris is a tricksy old boot, Harry trusts him on this one. But even though that's true...

... they're not here. Or he's not there. Whatever.

He should be wrapping last minute presents with Ginny and taking the children to the Burrow for dinner, tripping over animals and furniture and assorted Weasleys. Instead he's... well, he's still in bed at ten fifteen, according to his copper clock, and has no agenda besides being good.

Tomorrow is going to be a shiny, fancy, extravaganza of awkwardness at Malfoy Manor. Oh, joy.

Harry gives himself a mental slap and gets out of bed, stretching and gazing out of the window at the falling snow. Sighs. It will be fine. It will.

Seeking solace, he shuffles into the bathroom and turns on the shower as hot as he can stand it, allowing the almost-scalding water to pound his body and willing it to sluice away his sadness. He soaks his hair and withdraws, gasping and blinking through his dripping fringe at his luxurious marble bathroom. The one he shares with Draco Malfoy, who is creeping into his veins and confusing everything he is from the inside out.

He stares, allowing droplets of hot, clean water to slide down his throat. It's beautiful. Clean and shiny and, perhaps, just a little bit shallow.

**~*~**

Harry isn't sure what time it is when he hears Draco Floo into the kitchen. It's dark outside and he has been lying motionless, starfish-like, across the bed for so long that he has almost forgotten about the hours passing. He has wandered around the house, flipped through scrapbooks, poked through drawers and flitted around the pantry, eating things out of packets, but he's been unable to shake the heavy, empty malaise that has settled around him.

He flops here now, gazing sightlessly at the darkened ceiling and absently stroking whichever part of Frank is sliding through his outstretched fingers at any particular moment as the snake idly explores the ruffled bed sheets.

The temperature of the bedroom, judging by his bare feet and his fingertips, feels barely above freezing, but he can't quite find it in himself to do anything about it. He sighs.

"He is imminent," Frank offers from somewhere very close to Harry's ear.

"I know," he replies, listening to the hiss of the kettle and the sound of Draco's boots on the kitchen tiles.

"As is my deadly revenge," the snake continues, and his meaningless threat tugs a weary smile from Harry's lips.

Draco footsteps are light and rapid on the steps, and then: "Bloody spider, keep to your own side of the stairs!" Seconds later, he's throwing open the door and flooding the bedroom with enough light from the landing to make Harry cringe.

"Was that entirely necessary?" he demands irritably, throwing an arm up over his eyes and dislodging Frank, who treats him to a couple of Parseltongue expletives before disappearing back under the sheets.

"What's the matter with you? Are you ill?" Draco frowns.

"No," Harry admits, and then falls silent, finding no more words to describe his mood.

Draco strides into the room, flicking light into the lamps, and bringing with him the unmistakeable scent of winter and the outdoors. He stands at the foot of the bed, looking down at Harry with narrowed eyes. His long, tan-coloured leather coat hangs open over his tight, faded-on-purpose jeans and his complicated sweater, and the long scarf with its multicoloured stripes loops twice around his neck and falls almost to his knees. His hair is wind-ruffled and hangs into his eyes, half-obscuring the exasperated stare that is pinning Harry into place.

"Then why aren't you ready?" Draco demands, eyeing Harry's outfit with distaste. "It's almost eight!"

"Ready for what?" Harry grumbles, pushing himself up onto his elbows. His head spins as he readjusts to being upright, and with one eye closed he twists to watch Draco as he stalks over to the wall of wardrobes and flings open each door as he passes.

"You're funny," Draco mutters, leaning into a closet and rummaging around. "You're very, very funny, Harry Potter. But if you make us late, I will have to hex you a little bit."

"I don't think I'd like that," Harry says absently, stretching luxuriously and then flopping back into his starfish shape, wondering whose party or function he'll be attending tonight. Whatever it is, there's a very high probability of uncomfortable clothing and strangers who aren't really.

"Behave, then," Draco instructs, throwing several heavy items of clothing onto the bed and walking back along the bank of wardrobes, tapping his fingers over each in rhythm, lips moving softly and eyes closed. The average observer might think he was doing magic, but Harry knows better. Knows that some things that seem strange are just as important as magic.

"I'm behaving," he murmurs, reluctant to break the hush.

Draco pauses, facing the window, and taps his fingers at his sides: once, twice, three, four, five times.

He turns, eyes clear. "Hurry up and get dressed, then, or all the good ones will be taken!"

"What?"

Draco's expression is one of pure exasperation. "The ones with the crazy stories!" He crosses the room, leans down to give Harry a cold, minty kiss, and stalks out of the room. "Come on!"

Harry watches him, bewildered, and then turns to look at the pile of clothing next to him. He frowns and sits up, lifting a hand to rub across lips that still tingle a little.

"Well, that's a surprise," he says softly, reaching out to pick up a long, black woollen coat with tiny green flecks, a thick, heavy sweater, two pairs of socks and a pair of solid leather boots that look as though they'll take several hours to lace up.

"What do you think, Frankfurto?" he asks, and then: "About this, in case you were wondering."

"This is a nice thing for sleeping on," he says, emerging from under the sheets and sliding over the dark blue jumper.

"Somehow, I think that will get me in more trouble," Harry sighs, shaking the snake from his sweater and pulling it over his head. He puts on the socks, slides his feet into the boots and stares at them for a moment or two before drawing his wand and lacing them up tightly, if not neatly. As he puts on the coat, which fits like a dream, he discovers a fringed cobalt-coloured scarf at the bottom of the pile and throws that on, too.

As he regards himself in the mirror, the fact that he looks, for want of a better word, co-ordinated, almost cancels out the frightening knowledge that he has just been dressed by Draco Malfoy. Again. And he has no idea why but he definitely looks ready for adversity.

"Harry! Good grief, are you knitting up there? Milking a cow? Birthing a child?"

"All of the above," Harry calls back, ducking the spider on the stairs and clattering into the hallway.

"Finally," Draco sighs, gazing at Harry from the front door, and although his foot is tapping with impatience, there's a slow smile pulling at his lips that makes Harry want to kiss him. Really, really want to. Breath caught in his chest, he closes the distance between them in three long steps, wraps his hands around Draco's leather-clad shoulders and leans in, closing his eyes and reaching for that soft, sharp, mocking mouth—not knowing why and just doing it anyway.

At the first achingly gentle brush of lips, Draco's hands slip inside Harry's coat and wrap around his hips. Terrified, Harry presses on, and Draco pushes him away with a soft huff of laughter.

"I don't think so. We have things to do," he reproves, grabbing Harry's hand and pulling him into the night.

**~*~**

The streets are brilliant, sparkling, crunchy underfoot as they make their way deeper into London and the air that swirls into Harry's lungs is almost painfully cold, but he savours it, holding onto it and blowing out twists of white breath into the darkness. As they cross into a Muggle area, the infrequent cars make slushy patterns in the roads and Draco points out the worst of the gaudy outdoor decorations with delight.

He wants to ask where they're going, but with some effort, he keeps his curiosity bubbling just under the surface and instead revels in the journey, relishing the opportunity and the time to just walk somewhere, anywhere. And thinking about kissing Draco. Or not quite kissing Draco, he supposes. He's not really sure exactly what happened, but whatever it was has taken up residence in his stomach and begun wriggling like some kind of wriggling thing.

"This snow isn't very cold, you know," he says vaguely, running his fingers along a powdery white shop windowsill as he passes.

"Snow isn't cold?" Draco laughs, poking Harry with his elbow. "It's a revelation."

"No, really," Harry insists, turning to display a palmful of the fine snow. "Look, it's—"

"Lovely and warm? Absolutely," Draco agrees, snatching the snow and stuffing it down the back of Harry's coat.

"I fucking hate you," Harry grumbles, shivering and attempting to shake the admittedly-still-quite-cold lump out onto the ground as they cross a quiet side road into a square containing a huge, brightly-lit Christmas tree.

"I know," Draco says with a small smile, "but stop swearing—that girl has ears like a bat."

"What girl?"

Draco points across the square to where Ginny, Blaise and Maura are standing, bundled up in coats, hats and scarves.

Harry grins, genuinely delighted to see all three of them, even if he is still mystified about what is happening here.

"You're late!" Ginny calls, catching sight of them. Draco gives Harry a look.

"Sorry," Harry says as they draw close. "It's my fault, I think."

"He was being difficult."

"I was being difficult," Harry admits.

Ginny smiles. "You're not the only one. Someone was supposed to be staying at her grandma's tonight," she says darkly, glancing at her husband, "but she has her daddy wrapped around her little finger."

"Oh, Maura-fedora," Harry says, mock shocked.

Maura gazes up at him, large dark eyes puzzled. "What's a fedora?"

"It's a hat," Draco says, taking her red and white bobble hat and spinning it around on his hand. "Like this, see?" He draws his wand, narrows his eyes in concentration, and the hat shifts to form a handsome miniature fedora. Impressed, Harry wishes he could just ask Draco to make the little table for him; he's obviously the Transfiguration expert in the household.

Draco holds the hat out to Maura and she takes it delightedly and pulls it on over her unruly curls.

"Like Indy!" she says, beaming.

"Who?" Draco inquires, frowning gently. Blaise laughs, and once again the sound seems a little too loud and too joyful for the setting.

"From Uncle Ron's moving pictures," she explains, humming a vaguely familiar tune and looking exasperated at the stupidity of adults.

Harry grins. "Never mind, Draco," he murmurs, and exchanges a knowing glance with Ginny that warms his chest and pokes at the wriggling thing in his stomach.

"Fine. Are they here yet?" he asks, trying to look around the vast Christmas tree.

"Yes, hence you being late," Ginny says, rolling her eyes good-naturedly.

"Fabulous chicken soup this year," Blaise puts in, rubbing his huge gloved hands together. "Sandwiches too, but it's all about the soup." He grins, white teeth blinding in the darkness.

"You're a horror," Ginny sighs. "The soup is not for you. Are you needy?"

"I might be," Blaise argues, looking appealingly at Harry. Unfortunately, Harry is unable to back him up, still having no clue what any of them are talking about.

"You're certainly not starving," Ginny laughs, prodding her husband's stomach, and Harry would have to agree with that; he's certainly not a fat man, but neither has he missed any meals lately.

"I don't know why you're bothering," Draco sighs. "Blaise talking his way into tasting the soup is as much a tradition as the old man that flirts with Ginevra, and Harry falling over on the ice, and everyone running out of socks."

"Well said, my friend." Blaise straightens his daughter's hat and beams at Draco. "A man with a healthy respect for tradition is a man after my own heart. Shall we investigate?"

As the pieces start to fall into place, Harry's heart lifts and his astonishment stops him from holding back his smile, so it's a full-on grin that greets Blaise's invitation. "Let's do that."

**~*~**

"Hello, Draco! Harry—good to see you again! And who's this?" asks a short, middle-aged woman with reddish-brown hair and a two-pointed knitted hat that makes her look a little like a slug. She is clutching a clipboard and standing next to the open back doors of a large transit van.

"Hello, Julia," Draco says, and indicating Maura, who has escaped from her parents and attached herself to Harry: "This is our niece, Maura... who had better behave because it is way past her bedtime."

"Lovely to meet you, Maura," says the woman called Julia, holding out her hand for a very serious shake. "I like your hat."

Maura smiles but says nothing as she shakes Julia's hand, suddenly shy.

"Where do you want us, Jules?" demands Blaise, appearing behind them with Ginny.

She glances at her clipboard, mouth pursed. "If you can start on King Street, and then Lambert, and then..."

Her voice fades away as Harry catches another conversation. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a tall man with a fleece and clipboard and a young woman with curly blonde hair and a worried expression.

"Don't worry, Seela, you're not going to be on your own. We'll pair you up with someone more experienced," the man explains. "The first thing is to let them know that the nearest shelter is open, tell them where it is, et cetera. But some of them don't want to move, so that's why we have the care packages. Food, socks, underwear, toiletries, that sort of thing."

"They don't want to move?" asks Seela, chewing her nails.

Harry gnaws on his lips in empathy, having been wondering the very same thing.

"People grow accustomed to all sorts of things, given long enough," the man says softly. "I'm sure you can imagine wanting to hang onto what you know... even if it is a shop doorway in December."

Harry thinks he can, actually, but he doesn't get to hear Seela's reaction because Maura is tugging at his hand and Julia-with-the-slug-hat is handing him a large canvas bag, which he takes. When he looks, Draco is holding one, too, and Maura, apparently over her shyness, is reaching out for her own and insisting that she's strong enough to carry it.

And then Blaise is ushering them out of the square, making a rude gesture to the man with the clipboard who yells after them, reminding him that, "the soup is for the clients, Zabini!" and Harry looks back as they turn the corner, looks back for Seela, his fellow feeding-the-homeless virgin, and hopes that they'll both be okay.

He hopes she has someone to look out for her like he and Maura have. Someone intimidating like Blaise, someone smart like Draco, and someone fierce like Ginny. It's a comforting feeling, not needing to be looked after, but being surrounded by those who can, and who would.

"Come on, Maura," Ginny calls. "It won't kill you to spend a bit of time with your actual parents."

Harry releases her, returns her wave, and quickens his pace to keep up with Draco, who is crunching away through the muddied snow, canvas bag swinging at his side and leather coat flying out behind him.

"Left or right?" he calls over his shoulder.

"Ah... left," Harry calls back, and Draco crosses onto the right side of the road, leaving him not quite alone.

Dragging in a deep breath, Harry looks slowly around the street. The orange streetlights don't do much to soften the darkness, only serving to make the snow and the cars and the shop-fronts appear dirtier and sadder than they are.

He walks slowly, kicking up the slush as he passes more boarded-up windows than he's ever seen in one place before, and it isn't long before he stops short and gazes down at a skinny young woman, wrapped in a sleeping bag and curled up in the doorway with a ragged cat on her knee and a hat pulled down over her stringy dark hair. She's not sleeping, but she doesn't seem to notice Harry until he speaks.

"Excuse me?" he whispers. Coughs.

Her head jerks up and she fixes him with narrowed dark eyes. "What?" she snaps, clutching at her cat with thin, dirty fingers. "I'm not moving! I keep telling you lot, I'm not moving!"

"No, I..." Harry holds out a hand. "What lot?"

"Pigs," she whispers, eyes flitting from side to side, searching. "Fuckin' pigs. Trying to take my baby." She cuddles the cat against her chest and it chirrups softly.

"I'm not a... police officer," Harry says, dropping down to her level and kneeling in the snow, ignoring the icy water that soaks through his jeans and reaching into his bag for one of the packages. "I just... I brought you something... some food and things. It's Christmas Eve."

"Is it?" she rasps, eyes darting to his for a moment, and then to the brown paper-wrapped package.

"Yeah." Harry swallows hard. "I promise there's nothing bad in this."

Still holding tightly onto the cat with one hand, she tentatively reaches out and takes it, drawing it onto her lap. "Is there something in here for Charlie?"

Harry drops his hands into his lap. "There's some chicken in the soup and I think some ham in the sandwiches... he might like that. My... my daughter has a cat, and ham's his favourite," he says, chest tightening.

The girl nods, and slowly, the cat turns its head and stares at him, ears twitching—one black and one white. "He likes you," she mumbles. "You have pretty eyes."

"Thanks." Harry smiles.

"Harry?" Draco's voice cuts through the crisp night air and he turns.

"I have to go. There's an address in the box if you change your mind." He bites back the automatic 'Merry Christmas' on his lips and gets to his feet, brushing ice crystals away from his clothing. "Take care."

As he makes his way up the street and away from her, feeling as though something significant has just happened to him, he doesn't think he imagines the faint, rusty miaow and the mumbled "Thanks."

**~*~**

By the time he has found Draco, helped to sort out a minor balancing crisis and distributed food packages to the homeless of (the very long) King Street, Harry is feeling a little more grounded. Each interaction is different—some want to talk, some seem angry and affronted to see him but grab the food anyway, and some are so small and vulnerable that Harry wants to forget this ultimately futile exercise and vanish their suffering with a wave of his wand.

And it doesn't matter how much he tells himself that it just doesn't work that way, the feeling remains.

He sighs and watches Draco approach an old lady with a collection of dirty old plastic bags. Turning away, he starts at the top of Lambert Lane and walks along the edge of the pavement, avoiding the slush which is now creeping up the legs of his jeans and trying to connect with the freezing cold wet patches on his knees.

He spots an old man huddled in the doorway of a greengrocer's shop and picks his way through the snow towards him, holding his bag tightly and trying to pick out a face between the oversized flat cap and the mass of beard.

"Hi," he says softly, tucking his coat around himself and crouching next to the step.

"Hello, young man," says the man with the beard, and Harry lets go of his bag so he can cover his face and groan out loud.

"Is there any place you aren't?" he mumbles.

The old man laughs. "Oh, yes. And plenty I'd rather be than this, believe me," he says, creaking around in his oilskin coat. "Glamorous job, this."

"And what job is that, exactly?"

"That's beside the point," Boris says. "Where's my soup?"

Harry lifts an eyebrow. "You can't have any. You're not a proper homeless person."

"I'm an old man. I'm willin' to swap it for information," he offers, grinning a hole in his beard.

Harry hesitates, but only for a second or two. "Fine." He rummages in the bag and hands Boris a carton of hot soup. Information, he muses. Information. The trouble is, there's so much he wants to ask and no real clue which answers are important and which aren't. "Why are we here?" he blurts eventually.

"It'll take someone a fair bit more important than me to answer that," Boris advises, slurping his soup.

Harry rolls his eyes. "Here," he emphasises, indicating the downward sweep of Lambert Lane, Draco's silhouette further down the road and the tiny shapes of Ginny and Blaise, carrying Maura on his shoulders, at the bottom of the hill. "Doing this. On Christmas Eve... Draco..." he dries up.

"You do ask some strange questions, lad, I'll give you that," Boris says, reaching into his pocket for his long piece of parchment. "Been doin' it for years, 'cordin' to what I 'ave down 'ere. Your idea, I think... why'd you think that was?" He looks up, milky eyes fixed on Harry with genuine curiosity.

"Because..." Harry frowns and rests one hand on the wall for balance, fingers slipping on the icy bricks. "Because I didn't want my life to be shallow," he says, shaking his head and biting on a smile. Gazing down at the floor and listening to the unexpected but wonderful sound of Draco's laughter in the distance.

"Why are you here?"

"Because I knew you'd be here," Boris says. "And I see you've given up on the red sparks."

"Very funny," Harry mutters, not failing to notice the twitch of his bristly eyebrows. "Everyone's a comedian." He pauses, frowning as strange little connections race across his mind. "My leg is spell-damaged because Draco wasn't at Malfoy Manor that night... right?" Boris doesn't answer, but Harry continues, leaning forward with the chill wind whipping through his hair. "Is Fred Weasley alive because he was somewhere? He was at the battle?"

Boris gazes wistfully into his empty soup carton. "That's a lot of information for a little bit of soup."

"You're not having any more," Harry says. "You can have a sandwich. Or a nice pair of socks."

"Never mind," Boris sighs, leaning forward creakily and meeting Harry's eyes. "The answer to your question is yes, young man, but it'll be the last you'll 'ave from me. I'll get myself in trouble. And besides, I think you'll find out more about your mister Malfoy by bein' with him than by pokin' around in the past, lookin' for answers to questions that don't matter any more."

Harry lets out his breath in a noisy rush. "Okay... okay." He nods. "But... just one more thing—please," he appeals, catching the old man's expression. "You can't surprise me like that again. Did everyone else—is everyone else who died... still dead?" he manages, finding himself uncertain what to hope for.

"Yes, lad," Boris says simply, and Harry closes his eyes.

"Who are you talking to?" Draco calls.

Harry stumbles to his feet and turns. Draco's scarf is almost trailing on the ground at one end and his hair is everywhere. "Just..." he twists to look at Boris, but the doorstep is empty. "No one."

"Uncle Harry!" comes a surprisingly loud voice. "Have you got any boxes left?"

"I think your services are required elsewhere," Draco says, smiling. The streetlights cast peculiar shadows over his pale skin and hair and over the snowflakes clinging to his coat; the effect is so striking that Harry has to drag his eyes away.

"Right." He stares at the slush in the road, feeling like a complete fucking idiot, a feeling that is becoming all too familiar.

"I'm going to find the parents," Draco says, smirking as he sets off down the hill.

"I've given all my boxes away," Maura declares skittering into sight with her fedora tilted at a rakish angle. "And Mummy says to ask you if you've fallen over yet. Have you?"

"No, not yet," Harry says, making a mental note to give Ginny a good Stinging Hex at the next available opportunity, and immediately feeling squirmy at the ease of his feelings toward her. The wriggling thing wriggles violently and he forces himself to ignore it. "You can share my boxes if you like," he offers.

"Daddy says there's always time," Maura says helpfully, taking his hand and starting to drag him along the street.

"That's reassuring," Harry sighs, taking in the gradient of Lambert Lane before him and deciding that right now would be a very good time to remain upright. If possible.

And he's well aware that staying on his feet is far from his biggest current problem. The thing is, had this kind of crisis occurred in his usual environment, in the world he's accustomed to, he would have people to talk to, to bounce ideas off, people to tell him whether or not he was going mad. He'd have a Hermione and a Ron who didn't think it was perfectly normal for him to be practically married to Draco Malfoy. Here, he has a cryptic old man who turns up whenever he bloody well feels like, and a little girl in an Indiana Jones hat.

Harry glances at her. She's skipping along at his side, looking around for people to help with bright eyes and showing no signs of tiredness, even though it's coming up for eleven o'clock.

"Maura?"

"Mm?"

Harry hesitates. Fuck it. "You know how I... well, Uncle Harry, loves Uncle Draco... like your mum loves your dad?"

She frowns, thoughtful. "Yes."

"You see, where I come from... I've only been in love with a lady. And, well, it isn't that I don't like him, but it's all a bit strange," he mumbles, suddenly feeling very silly again.

Maura sighs. "I can't help you."

"Sorry," Harry says, squeezing her hand. "It's not your problem. I just don't really have anyone to talk to."

"It's not that," she says, looking up at him and wrinkling her freckled nose. "It's just... I think boys are yucky." She shrugs. "No offence."

Harry laughs. "None taken. I suppose I'm on my own, then."

He can't say that he finds much encouragement in those words, but for now he supposes he'll just have to get on with it—there's soup to distribute.

**~*~**

The next hour whips by in a frenzy of activity and Harry barely notices how cold he is, even after the inevitable fall, a nicely-timed confluence of temperamental leg and black ice which causes Ginny to laugh herself hoarse for as long as it takes Harry to draw his wand and drop her onto the ice beside him.

Maura, determinedly alert at her father's side, gasps dramatically, but Blaise hoots with laughter for a good minute before he pulls Ginny to her feet with an effortless jerk of his arms and hugs her roughly.

"I love you, I really do, but you thoroughly deserved that," he says, and she pretends to pout, shaking snow from her coat.

"Come on then, hop-along," Draco sighs, holding out his hand to Harry, who is still sitting on the cold ground, watching his not-wife and her family. He allows Draco to grip his hand tightly and haul him back to his feet and is instantly rewarded with a small, secret smile that cuts right through all of that weary exasperation. Harry smiles back, and the wriggling thing flails in approval.

Finally, they make their way back to the square to receive, each in turn, fierce hugs from the slug-hatted Julia, and to make promises for next year, and maybe sooner, before dispersing into the night—Ginny, Blaise and Maura heading in one direction, he and Draco heading in another. As they cross the square he sees Seela, standing at a bus stop and blowing on her fingers for warmth; she looks just how Harry feels, sad and humbled and lifted all at once. He waves at her and she smiles, waves back.

The snow is falling thickly now, and despite his fatigue and the iciness now creeping into his bones, Harry savours it, tipping back his head and catching snowflakes on his tongue. Beside him, Draco walks slowly along the kerb, nose pushed into the folds of his scarf and arms held out to the sides like an overdressed tightrope walker. Harry captures the image in his head, keeps it there, afraid that if he speaks to Draco, he will become aware of himself again.

In the end, Draco breaks the silence. "You know, the first time you made me do this, I thought you were insane. But there's something to be said for all this do-gooding, warm glow stuff," he says without looking at Harry. "It means I can do all the evil I want for the rest of the year."

Harry says nothing, glancing sidelong at him but the refined face is inscrutable. Or, at least, it is until one corner of the mouth quirks upward, and Harry snorts, stuffing his hands into his coat pockets to stop himself from reaching out and pushing Draco into the empty, slushy road.

"I'm not really sure what to do with you sometimes," Harry admits, shivering and picking up the pace as they at last turn into Grimmauld Place.

Draco laughs. "Impressive after all these years, isn't it?"

Harry supposes it is. He lets another snowflake dissolve on his tongue and inhales the tangy winter air, allowing it to chill his nose and throat, and catching on it the ring of distant church bells.

"Listen," he murmurs, slowing to a standstill. "Midnight."

Draco stops, too, turning in the middle of the deserted, sparkling street to face Harry. "So it is. We must have been very efficient tonight."

"We had extra help," Harry says, the words slipping out of his mouth without much thought because all he can think about is the warmth in Draco's eyes, the snowflakes clinging to the ends of his pale hair, the cold flush to his skin, and just how close they are standing. The last of the chimes linger in the air and then fade, and Harry is flooded with memories that ache and spread and wrap around him, pinning him into the moment and making him breathless for this man who is so much more than he ever expected.

"I know what you're thinking," Draco murmurs, somehow now close enough to warm Harry's lips with his breath, and close enough that Harry can pick out each thread of the perfect snowflake balanced on his left eyebrow.

"I highly doubt that," Harry says, tempted to laugh in spite of everything.

"I know you far too well, I'm afraid. You have that festive, sentimental, nostalgic look on your face," Draco sighs. "Come on," he says, stepping back, "let's go and get warm."

Harry swallows, feeling caught. Whatever this is and whatever it means, it has him, and he has to... do something. He has to take the unknown road now.

"Draco," he whispers, and then abandons the rest of the sentence as he reaches out, threads both hands into Draco's hair and kisses him, hard, before he can think of a reason why he shouldn't. As their cold-numbed lips slide together, Draco's surprise melts into amusement, and his smile curves warmly against Harry's mouth, muffling a soft sigh and grasping Harry's hips, pulling them tightly together as the snow continues to ruffle against their skin.

Harry is in freefall, just hanging on and slipping his tongue against Draco's, impossibly hot and somehow taking him apart from the inside in a terrifyingly new way. The only word he can remember is yes, and it echoes around and around in his head as he kisses Draco until the biting cold is a distant memory.

"Well, I'll admit that I didn't know you were going to do that," Draco murmurs, pulling back at last and reinstating the cold with a nudge of his chilled nose against Harry's neck. "Was it the new coat? Does the snow suit me? Or does all that altruism make you hot?"

Harry grins, regaining a little of his equilibrium. Not much, but enough to keep him upright for a few more minutes.

"Shut up, Draco. And Merry Christmas."

Chapter Text

I don’t think sulking is going to help,” Harry says, perching on the edge of the kitchen table with his feet on a chair and his elbows resting on his knees.

Frank stares up at him from the hearth and then looks away pointedly.

Harry sighs. “If you’ll recall, it wasn’t me who said you couldn’t come.”

You would not fight for me. You would so easily leave me all alone and celebrate in some other place,” Frank says wretchedly, resting his head on his coils. “Do not care for such abandonment.”

I know,” Harry says wearily, at the same time fighting to control a smile. It’s a fair possibility that Frank the snake is the most dramatic entity he has ever had the pleasure of dealing with. “Believe me, I’d love to take you, if only for the look on Lucius Malfoy’s face, but you know how Draco is.”

Unfeeling. Callous. Never shares his bacon,” Frank offers, tongue flicking viciously.

Bacon’s bad for you,” Harry says, adjusting the sleeves of his coat and wondering just what, exactly, Draco is still doing upstairs. Perhaps it’s best not to know, but, still, they’re going to be late.

Does not stop you,” Frank points out.

That’s true. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re not allowed to come with us to the Manor.”

Frank slithers across the tiles and insinuates himself between the spindles of Harry’s chair, muscles rippling. “So cruel. So, so cruel. All alone, left to wither away, such a tragic and beautiful waste of life, such a—”

Alright, alright, that’s enough,” Harry cuts in, getting down from the table and ducking into the pantry. When he emerges, bacon in hand, Frank’s tongue darts out, tasting the air with enthusiasm. Harry rolls several rashers into an easily-swallowable, snake-friendly lump and holds it out. “You can have this if you promise to stop being so melodramatic. I’ve got enough to worry about today without your help.”

Delicious,” Frank says, head waving almost drunkenly from side to side.

Promise,” Harry demands, holding the bacon out of reach and hoping that Draco doesn’t choose this exact moment to finally enter the kitchen. Because this moment, in which he’s using raw bacon to bribe a highly-strung python, he’d rather like to keep to himself.

Frank’s head nods vigorously and Harry allows him to snap the bacon into his wide-open mouth and then disappear under the table with it. He sighs, looking down at his slightly sticky fingers and heading to the sink to run them under the hot tap. Anxieties are already running high this morning, what with the impending Malfoy Day and the wearying prospect of heaving that fucking lamp through the Floo network with them, and even now that Frank has been neutralised, the possibility of being unpunctual looms large and ominous.

“Come on, Draco,” he mutters, perching once more on the kitchen table and all the while wondering whether or not it might be better for everyone—well, for him—if Draco just stays up there, tapping walls or playing with his hair or whatever he’s doing. The memory of midnight is still glowing inside him with noisy intensity, and the wriggling thing, rather than being sated by the kiss, has been sent into overdrive. Fortunately... unfortunately, he thinks now, there hasn’t yet been a chance for things to become awkward.

Draco, of course, having no idea that anything so momentous had just occurred, much less that he had just kissed a confusedly turned-on, falling fast, supposedly-straight Harry Potter, had clattered into the house, carefully put away his clothes and dived under the sheets without a word. By the time Harry had managed to find the approved homes for all the different parts of his outfit, Draco had been curled on his side and breathing softly, stirring only to reach out for Harry and press their cold skin together.

And now... now, it’s two minutes to ten in the morning and the only words they have exchanged have been: “Good grief, must we?’, “Do you want some toast?” and “Please see to that snake before I have him stuffed and mounted.”

“Right, come on, let’s have done with it,” Draco sighs, striding into the kitchen with a large bag slung across his shoulders and a fancy-looking basket in his arms.

“Anybody would think you didn’t like your parents,” Harry says quietly, still unsure of the nature of Draco’s relationship with Lucius and Narcissa, and wishing someone would give him a clue.

Draco snorts. “You know very well that they’re better in small doses,” he says. “Very small doses. Don’t forget your... that,” he adds, indicating the shimmering patch of air by the fireplace where Harry’s lamp is hidden by a heavy duty Disillusionment Charm, ready for transport.

“Unlikely,” Harry says grimly.

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “Okay. So... clothes are matching, hair is... passable, anti-insult armour is on—I hope.”

Harry’s heart sinks a little more, and the possibility that today might be anything more enjoyable than an endurance exercise starts to fade away.

“Yeah.” He attempts a smile. “And if nothing else, I’ve always got Celestina.”

Draco’s mouth twitches and his eyes warm, just for a moment. The basket in his arms crackles as he adjusts his grip, drawing Harry’s eyes. He frowns.

“That’s what we’re giving them?” he asks, staring down at the selection of gifts in disbelief. There are several boxes of biscuits, some of which Harry has never heard of before, some beautifully wrapped cheeses and two bottles of oak-aged mead. It’s an extremely attractive gift, that much is evident, but he can’t quite believe he and Draco aren’t giving the Malfoys something more... extraordinary.

Draco closes his eyes briefly and manages to encapsulate pure exasperation in one soft sigh. “Please don’t tell me you want to swap it for the other one now. Because in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s Christmas day and the shops are closed.”

“No, I mean.... isn’t it kind of small?”

Draco laughs shortly. “So, you’ve managed to forget how much easier this whole debacle is since we stopped trying to impress them with our presents?”

“No, it’s just, erm, I thought you got the one with three bottles of mead,” he lies lamely, instantly regretting his careless words when Draco’s eyes sharpen.

“I wouldn’t buy three of anything,” he says irritably. “You know that.”

“Sorry, wasn’t thinking,” Harry mumbles. Bad numbers, he reminds himself.

“You’d better start or my father will eat you alive. Come on, we’re going to be late,” Draco says suddenly, and there’s a note of accusation in his voice that makes Harry scowl.

“I’ve been ready for ages,” he mutters under his breath, grabbing the lamp and following Draco into the flames.

He’s always hated Flooing.

**~*~**

When Harry steps out of the Malfoys’ fireplace, he is suddenly grateful for his coat; the reception room is practically arctic. He just has time to look around, to take in the polished marble floor and the four vast oil paintings, one on each wall, before the door flies open, admitting a small female house-elf wearing a surprisingly clean, red linen pillowcase.

“Oh dear,” she cries, raising both long-fingered hands to her face. “Oh dear, oh dear. Master Malfoy, Mister Potter, Senka is being so very sorry. Senka had to be putting out a small fire in the kitchens, sirs,” she explains, batting at a slightly blackened patch of pillowcase and blinking huge blue eyes. “Please forgive, sirs.”

“It’s alright,” Harry says hurriedly, though tempering his instinct to leap to the elf’s defence. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years pass, or how Ron continues to tease Hermione about SPEW, one look at a house-elf and Harry’s mind is full of his friend, Dobby.

She stares at him and begins to hyperventilate.

“Take a breath, Senka, for goodness’ sake,” Draco says. Smiling, he adds: “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a little inferno, would it?”

Senka’s ears droop and she exhales loudly. “So kind,” she sighs. “Mister Malfoy will be cross.”

“Well, he might be,” Draco admits, unwinding his scarf and giving Senka an absent pat on the shoulder as he heads for the door, “but you know how he is. He gets terribly bored when he has nothing to carp about.”

Harry and Senka exchange glances before she scurries to the door, almost knocking Draco over in her haste to reach the handle first and yank it open for them.

“Thanks,” he mumbles, and her ears twitch in response. Her large eyes flick to the near-invisible lamp in Harry’s grasp, just for a moment.

“Mister Malfoy and Mistress Narcissa are being in the parlour, if sirs will follow Senka,” she says, startling Harry as she lets the door bang behind them and takes off down the corridor. “If Senka hurries, perhaps they won’t smell the burning.” She looks briefly over her shoulder without slowing down. “It was a turkey fire,” she confides. “Too many combustibles in the stuffing. Senka told Bilby, but Bilby has problems with the listening.”

Harry snorts, feeling for the unfortunate Bilby, who is probably slaving away somewhere in the bowels of the house, and noting for the first time the slight Eastern European inflection to Senka’s rapid-fire words.

Beside Harry, Draco says nothing, but he seems amused. His eyes are bright and the gritty, ‘let’s just get this over with’ expression has softened considerably.

“Fortunately, we’s also having the goose,” Senka says. “Maybe no one will notice.”

Draco snorts. “I think you are more optimistic every time I see you.”

Senka laughs. It’s a strange sound—a sort of soft, bouncing lilt—and Harry is struck by the idea of a house-elf, any house-elf, being allowed to laugh inside Malfoy Manor. He smiles.

“Senka knows this is no flattery, Master Malfoy,” she says, and, continuing before Draco has a chance to reply: “All is set up, Senka hopes it is as nice as last year, but had so much trouble with the tinsels... they’s not always wanting to cooperate,” she says darkly, and then brightens. “Mister Potter’s gift is very beautiful, Senka is seeing it, of course.”

Harry glances at the heavy bugger and then at the back of Senka’s head, surprised. “Oh. Thank you.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow. “You didn’t even wrap it?” he murmurs, mock-offended.

Harry pokes out his tongue and continues to follow Senka through the maze of corridors. Having taken note of each turn and each memorable object—a suit of armour here, a painting of a spectacularly ugly woman there—he thinks that he could just about find his way back to the reception room if pressed, but it would be a challenge; the place is vast. The air is cold here, too, and the lack of festivity is striking, but if he strains he can just about smell roasting meat and spices coming from the lower floors where, no doubt, poor Bilby is hard at work.

Still, he has to admit that it is a beautiful house, and so much brighter and cleaner and generally well-kept than the last time he was here, not that that’s surprising, under the circumstances. Idly, he wonders if this Malfoy Manor was still the setting for the horrors hosted by its counterpart during the war. Some new horrors, of course, he already knows a little about, he thinks, glancing down at his leg and pushing away his prickling curiosity. Now is not the time.

“No, Master Malfoy, Bilby has not yet burned the roasted potatoes,” Senka is saying, causing Harry to smile at the carpet and remind himself that he really ought to be paying attention. “There is still time, but Senka has a back-up. A reserve of roasted potatoes. Senka is not going to be shown up this year. Oh dear, no. Reserve turkey next year, too, would be helpful,” she sighs, finally pausing to take a breath.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Draco assures, just as they come to a sudden stop in front of a heavy oak door, which, while just like all the others they have passed, appears to be their destination. Harry takes a breath.

Senka flings open the door and curtseys briefly. “Mister Malfoy, Mistress, your guests are here.”

“Thank you, Senka,” Narcissa says softly, rising from an ornate chaise and joining her husband, who is standing importantly, straight-backed, in front of the fireplace, hands behind his back.

Harry finds himself noticing this time that every part of Lucius’ complicated, stiff formal outfit is black. Only a quarter-inch of pure white collar dares to disturb this gloomy accord, and the long, white-blond hair seems to gleam in the sharp morning light that floods the room. He cuts an intimidating figure, whether Harry wants to admit it or not, and as he stands there, one hand barely grazing Draco’s and the other hanging grimly onto his lamp, he has no idea what to expect.

At his side, Draco quietly removes his coat, eliciting a split-second eyebrow lift from his father as he reveals the smart but vivid aquamarine-coloured shirt and thin silver tie he has chosen to wear. The rebel, Harry thinks, continuing to stare at Lucius.

“Merry Christmas, Mother,” Draco says, and Narcissa smiles but says nothing, as though she, too, is waiting for something to happen.

And then it does. Lucius narrows his eyes, tilts his chin and bellows: “The magic in your eyes, my dear, bewitches me still!”

The combination of intense eye contact and amorous words is startling, and just for a moment, Harry is thrown utterly off balance, but he recovers himself quickly and flicks through the jumble of lyrics he has managed to commit to memory.

The magic in your eyes... drama... strings... bewitches me still... and...

“And the sparkle in your smile of which I never get my fill,” Harry returns triumphantly, and a little louder than he intends to.

One pale eyebrow twitches and Harry can barely restrain his victorious grin, but he manages it, hanging onto the stem of his lamp and determinedly not looking at Draco. Swelled by success, he throws out the first line that pops into his head:

“And you claimed me, like only you can.”

Lucius frowns. It’s just a split-second wrinkle of the brow, but Harry sees it, and, judging by her puzzled expression, Narcissa sees it, too. Beside him, Draco emits a small, soft sound of amusement and it suddenly occurs to Harry that perhaps he doesn’t usually return the challenge.

Well. He’s done it now, hasn’t he?

For long seconds there is silence, and Harry can just about hear the strident voice of Senka from the floor below, and the answering crashes and bangs from her clumsy colleague. And then Lucius clears his throat. Clasps and unclasps his hands behind his back.

“Take me gently, my curse-breakin’ man,” he sings, looking right into Harry’s eyes, and despite the alarming inference, Harry really does smile this time. And then Lucius’ eyebrows are crooked with defiance, and he’s breaking into song once more. “Whisper the words, no clash and no skirmish?”

“Bubbles of love in the poetry of Mermish,” Harry shoots back, accomplishment wild in his veins. It’s ridiculous and wonderful, and the tiny flickers of chagrin on Lucius Malfoy’s face are so rewarding that Harry almost forgets there is anyone else in the room. “Under the planets, aligned in the sky?”

Lucius hesitates, closing his eyes briefly, as though steeling himself. “Making sweet, fierce love, you and I.”

“There’s a disturbing thought,” Draco murmurs, reminding Harry of his presence.

“He said, ‘I am your ruin, my heart painted black’,” Lucius rumbles, finally breaking out of his rigid stance and sweeping one arm out to the side.

Harry stares. Chews his lip. Rifles, again and again, through his bank of appalling lyrics, to no avail. Finally, suffused with a mixture of disappointment for running aground and horror for making it this far, he sighs and concedes.

“I’m afraid I don’t know that one.”

Lucius smiles expansively, displaying straight, white teeth. “You do not have her newest record, Mr Potter.”

“Erm... no, Richenda didn’t have it,” he mutters, mostly to himself.

“Of course not,” Lucius says. “It’s not available until the new year. Unless one knows the right people, of course.”

“Isn’t it fascinating how your definition of ‘the right people’ has altered over the years?” Narcissa offers from her chaise, and though her face remains impassive, Harry detects the delicate, wry humour in her voice, and he warms to her, just a little.

“As fascinating as the lines on your face, my dear,” Lucius snaps, looking stung. “They have seen some alteration over the years, too.”

“None of us are as young as we used to be, Lucius,” Narcissa says, gazing at him appraisingly. “Waistlines can be ever so telling, can’t they?”

Lucius bristles and holds himself very erect while Harry glances between them, intrigued, and feeling as though he’s accidentally privy to something he was never supposed to see—the human side of the Malfoys.

“Don’t start,” Draco sighs, and Harry turns to look at him. He runs an exasperated hand through his hair and gazes wearily at his parents. Lucius and Narcissa glance at one another and remain silent and almost—but surely not—apologetic.

“Who would like a drink?” Narcissa offers, glancing around for a house-elf.

“At ten in the morning?” Lucius grouses, and then: “Mead, if you insist.”

“I’m not insisting anything,” Narcissa insists and snaps her fingers. “Senka!”

When she appears, still looking slightly singed, Harry is careful to ask for an apple juice, and even more careful to make sure he asks for it within Lucius’ earshot. Whatever it takes, he’s determined to prove to Mr Malfoy that he is not a drunk.

Lucius does not deign to comment on Harry’s choice of beverage, distracted as he appears to be by the scent of slightly... well-done food that Senka has brought in with her. He sniffs at the air and frowns.

“Why can I smell burning?”

Senka curtseys hurriedly and disappears without a word.

“Strange creature,” Lucius sighs, gazing first at the empty spot of rug from which Senka has just disappeared and then at Harry. “Still, I have never regretted investing in some foreign help. Very hard workers, the Russians,” he confides.

“Mm,” Harry manages, uncertain just what response is expected of him.

“He’s not interested in your sweeping generalisations, Father,” Draco says, steering Harry over to a surprisingly comfortable-looking sofa with a gentle hand on the small of his back. Harry allows himself to be guided, focusing his energies on dragging the sodding lamp with him and settling it into position at the edge of the sofa. Harry sinks down onto the cushions and wonders if he can persuade Draco to carry it back home; it is his lamp, after all.

“I am merely trying to educate him, Draco,” Lucius says coolly. “You needn’t worry about his head exploding; I doubt it is currently overburdened with information.”

Insulted, Harry bites down on the inside of his mouth with the effort of keeping his expression neutral. So, Lucius Malfoy thinks he’s stupid. He can’t say he’s surprised, but it stings all the same, and he wonders just how his other self puts up with what he suspects is a regular procession of insults and pointed insinuations from his might-as-well-be father-in-law.

“Stop it,” Draco says, just as Narcissa responds:

“Take heart, Mr Potter. At least you have youth on your side... to an extent.”

This time, Harry can’t help it. He laughs. Beside him, Draco shakes his head and snorts gently. Lucius sighs and examines his hands critically. Narcissa stares into the fireplace with an odd little smile on her lips. Already, this is easily the strangest Christmas Harry has ever experienced, and it’s not even lunchtime.

Senka reappears with the drinks and Harry sips gratefully at the apple juice which she has seen fit to warm and spice with delicious results.

“This is fantastic, thank you,” he says, ignoring Lucius’ disparaging noise. He imagines he isn’t supposed to thank the help, however efficient and Russian it is. Senka smiles brilliantly.

“Mister Malfoy, Mistress, Senka will bring the gifts now?”

Lucius nods in the affirmative and Draco stands, levering himself up with a hand on Harry’s thigh, and excuses himself.

“Oh, no, Master Malfoy,” she cries, hurrying after him. “Senka will fetch it, Senka will bring it!”

“It’s heavy, Senka,” Draco says calmly, distressing her further by reaching for the handle and opening the parlour door himself. “And besides, you don’t know where it is. I hid it.”

“Master Malfoy! Allow Senka to assist!” she cries, disappearing after him, and Harry can hear her anguished protests and Draco’s footsteps all the way down the corridor.

When the room is once more plunged into silence, Harry is seized by awkwardness, and in order not to make eye contact with either of the Malfoys, he glances around at his surroundings. The parlour is spacious, tastefully decorated in rich creams and golds, and dotted with luxurious sofas, chaises, armchairs, and beautiful tables and shelves in what he now recognises, with some pride, as cherry. It’s full of antiques and rugs that were probably made by Guatemalan goblins and cost more than he makes in a year as an Auror, but still—he can’t believe they’re going to open Christmas gifts in a room so painfully lacking in festivity.

He hadn’t expected a tinsel-decked tree or gaudy garlands, but there isn’t so much as a wreath or a sprig of holly in the entire room. It’s silly, he knows, but he aches for the mismatched baubles at the Burrow or the glittery, gluey stockings that Lily, Albus, and even James hang up at home. Even the fairly ascetic number twelve has a string of white lights and a shelf full of brightly-coloured Christmas cards.

“May I see it, Mr Potter?”

“Excuse me?” Harry looks up quickly and meets Narcissa’s eyes.

She gestures toward the lamp, and Harry realises he has once again wrapped his fingers around the smooth wooden stem without noticing it.

“Er, yeah,” he mumbles, caught off guard, dissolving the Disillusionment Charm with a flick of his wrist.

“How unusual,” Narcissa says. Harry looks at her sharply, but, for once, there seems to be no undertone to her words. She’s smiling.

“Thanks,” Harry says, allowing his other self a pat on the back.

Lucius clears his throat and hesitates, as though he knows his next words will cause him some discomfort. “That’s exquisite, Mr Potter—a rare show of taste. Where did you get it?”

As the words sink in, Harry becomes aware, via the delicious thrill in his chest, the enviable position in which he now finds himself. Lucius Malfoy has just accidentally given him a compliment. And yes, there’s a small part of him that’s insisting he has the situation all the wrong way up, and that the last person he should want to impress is an ex-Death Eater with a terrible attitude and a cruel streak a mile wide, but right here, in this strange place, it seems to be spouting nothing but irrelevancies.

“I made it, Mr Malfoy,” he says, catching slate grey eyes at exactly the right moment.

“Really?” he manages, genuinely startled. The pale eyebrows flicker, communicating an inner anguish to which this man would never admit. “I thought you made tables and such things.”

Harry smiles wryly, deciding not to share with Lucius the fact that tables are a bit of a sore point at the moment. “I make all sorts of things. Actually, we’ve been experimenting quite a lot with glass recently,” he offers, suddenly brightening at the memory. “We just bought some blowing pipes and we’re learning how to blow our own glass—it’s fascinating, actually.”

“We?” Narcissa enquires, tucking her curtain of pale hair behind her ear.

“Oh, Arthur Weasley and I. And little Maura, you know, Ginny and Blaise’s daughter,” Harry says. “She’s been helping me out during the school holidays when they have to work.”

At the mention of the Weasleys, Lucius wrinkles his nose and looks out of the window, but Narcissa smiles and leans closer, threading her fingers together. As she does so, Harry notices that, although her face has barely aged over the last twenty years, her hands betray her, a tangle of paper-wrinkled skin, bony fingers and opal-studded silver jewellery.

“Maura is a lovely girl,” she says, eyes wistful. “I haven’t seen her for such a long time, though. I really ought to owl Blaise. Is he well?”

“He’s fine,” he assures. “Just about the same as usual.”

To his astonishment, Narcissa laughs softly. “That is good to hear. I always felt he was a positive influence on Draco when they were both at school.”

Lucius snorts and Narcissa glances at him sharply. “Do you have something to add, Lucius?”

“No,” he says, almost sulkily.

“Don’t get married, Mr Potter,” Narcissa advises. “All men turn into their fathers eventually, and I needn’t expand on how that might end messily for you.”

Harry smiles. Against all his instincts, he’s starting to enjoy himself.

“Let us not begin to discuss your mother, then,” Lucius murmurs, still gazing out over the grounds, and then: “What on earth is Draco doing? And where did that blasted elf get to?”

“Senka is sorry, Mister Malfoy!” the elf cries, barrelling into the room, laden with gifts.

Draco, close behind her and carrying something large and unwieldy in his arms, stops short as his eyes are drawn to a spot somewhere to Harry’s left. Far too late, he remembers that he has forgotten to recast the charm to hide the lamp.

“Ah,” he attempts, and then sighs. Scrubs a hand through his hair. Shrugs. “I made you a lamp!” he says redundantly.

The split-second expression of surprise has melted from Draco’s face and he’s irritatingly composed as he rejoins the group and unloads his burden onto the vacant sofa. “Are you sure?” he asks.

Panic-stricken, Harry stops breathing as he scrambles for the right lie. “I really did,” he insists, face heating. “I made it in my workshop.”

Draco lifts an eyebrow, visibly amused. “I’m sure you did. I meant... are you sure it isn’t a lobster? Or a teacup? Or a set of carving knives?”

Harry sags and closes his eyes briefly. “You are a horrible person,” he mutters. “Merry Christmas.”

“He takes after his mother,” Lucius puts in.

Draco raises his eyes to the ceiling and ignores his father, stepping closer to the lamp and reaching out a curious hand to slide over the curves of the wood, just as Harry had done when he had first seen it. Silently, Harry draws his wand and flicks fire into the glass shade, lighting the lamp and standing back to admire the scale and intricacy of the patterns cast on to the walls of such a large space.

“That is extraordinary,” Draco murmurs, eyes flicking between the shifting patterns on the walls, the moving shards of green glass, and, finally, Harry. His sharp cheekbones are slightly flushed, his eyes bright, and his smile is unrestrained now—not weary or sardonic, but genuine, delighted, and utterly ruinous for Harry’s insides.

He swallows hard. “So, you like it.”

“You actually remembered that I said I needed a lamp for reading,” Draco says, opting not to answer the question. “Can you have it still as well?”

“Er...” Harry begins, but Draco already has his wand out and is tapping gently at the glass.

“Oh, lovely,” he enthuses, as the soft green shapes fall motionless and the room is filled with gentle, glowing light.

“Of course you can,” Harry says, feeling illogically impressed with himself. Quickly, though, as he basks in the pleasure on Draco’s face, misplaced pride melts into inadequacy. His other self clearly knows exactly what Draco wants; he can’t even remember to wrap a lamp, or keep it hidden until the proper time.

“Mm,” Draco hums softly, fingers tracing the smooth green glass. Harry holds his breath without knowing why. “Thank you,” he says at last, turning glowing eyes to Harry and then, before he has time for the surprise to register, draws Harry close, hands on his hips and lips against his cheek, the smell of warm citrus everywhere and the words repeated, “Thank you,” and “I love you,” against his skin.

Harry’s heart clenches almost painfully, his pulse jumps, and the wriggling thing attempts to turn his stomach inside out. Say something, hisses the lonely logical voice inside his head, but he’s frozen.

“We will still be here when you choose to remember us,” Lucius says acidly.

Startled and not a little embarrassed, but grateful for the distraction, Harry turns to face Mr Malfoy, who has moved to sit by his wife’s side on the chaise. Flushed, he forces an apologetic smile.

“And I trust you’ll be just as melodramatic, too,” Draco returns.

Narcissa blinks innocently, hands in her lap, but Lucius narrows his eyes at his son.

“A little respect wouldn’t go amiss, Draco,” he sighs. “Aren’t you going to give Mr Potter his...” He pauses, wrinkling his nose and indicating the silver-wrapped mass that takes up most of the sofa. “Well, that. It’s not a block of wood, is it, Draco?” he asks, attempting humour but still managing to sound disparaging.

Draco exhales heavily, flicks a long-suffering glance at Harry, and then lowers himself onto the arm of the sofa and gestures in silence toward the gift.

Puzzled, Harry squeezes himself into the last few inches of sofa and pulls gently at the wrappings, which he now realises are made of a soft, thin silver fabric that feels strong and slippery under his fingers and sparkles in the green light. When he reveals a huge pile of neatly-stacked branches, Draco’s exasperation becomes clear.

“Will you look at that, Narcissa?” Lucius mumbles.

“It isn’t a block,” she observes.

And she’s right, of course. What Harry is now confronted with is, in fact, a collection of smooth, honey-coloured branches, each around the width of his forearm and each with a slight curve starting halfway along the length. Instinctively, he lifts the topmost branch to his face and examines the grain, turns it over and over in his hands, inhales the unusually sweet smell of the wood.

He has no idea what it is, but he knows it’s special. He looks up. “They’re beautiful,” he says truthfully.

Draco smiles, tapping his fingers on the arm of the sofa in an anxious rhythm.

“They’re tree branches,” Lucius says, sounding scandalised.

“They’re Veneficus branches,” Draco corrects, eyes fixed on Harry. “Canadian Veneficus at that. I was told their magical properties are stronger than the European... I’m sorry it’s such a measly amount, but they’re damned difficult to get hold of in any quantity.”

The name rings a faint bell somewhere in the depths of Harry’s memory and he’s suddenly aware that these odd little sticks are very special indeed. And that Draco must have gone to some trouble to get them for him. Strangely overwhelmed, he takes a deep breath.

“Don’t apologise, they’re fantastic,” he says looking up to meet Draco’s eyes.

Draco shrugs lightly and swipes his hair out of his face, pretending nonchalance, but Harry knows better.

“Well, I know you’ve wanted to have a play with some for a long time. You would have had it last year, but there was a problem with the crop in Ontario. Something about Hoodoo beetles, apparently.”

Narcissa shudders lightly and glances down at her hands and clothes as though the mention of creepy-crawlies has sent them clambering all over her. “Goodness, Draco,” she says at last, suppressing her horror and setting her features, “how on earth did you lay your hands on Veneficus?”

He finds a smile for his mother. “A friend with his business in the field is always helpful,” he says. “And when things weren’t moving as they should, I plagued Blaise day and night until they did.”

“He’s a terribly successful boy, isn’t he?” Narcissa says approvingly.

“Do I not always say that it’s whom one knows that is important?” Lucius puts in, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it.

Amused, Harry continues to admire the branches. Even without a true understanding of wood, he can see that they are exquisite, and the mysterious magical properties almost seem to hum around them like an invisible, gently-pulsing energy field. He wouldn’t dare to sacrifice this gift at the altar of the Little Table, but he can’t help thinking that if he did, things would somehow, miraculously, work out beautifully.

“Thank you,” Harry manages at last, unsure whether he’s relieved or disappointed that Draco can’t reach him, separated as he is from Harry by the stack of Veneficus branches. He’d said ‘I love you’. Of course he had. Because he does love Harry. The other Harry, the one who makes him lamps and drags him out to feed the homeless. Harry sighs softly, squirmy with confusion. Draco, who has bent over to retrieve something from the floor, doesn’t notice.

“Here’s the traditional basket,” he says, rising briefly to pass their gift to Narcissa.

Surprisingly, her pale eyes light with enthusiasm as she examines the contents. “Cheese! Oh...” She frowns lightly, raising one package to her eyes to scrutinise it more closely. “Drunken Goat cheese. Draco, you find such strange things.”

“Harry chose that one, actually,” he says, dropping his voice to add—only for Harry to hear—“I believe you said it made you think of my father.”

The resulting visual that floods Harry’s mind is far too much for him, and he looses a loud squeak/snort that easily draws the attention of everyone in the room; even Lucius is distracted from his avid inspection of the label of a mead bottle.

“Is there something wrong, Mr Potter?” he demands.

“Excuse Senka,” interrupts a small voice. Harry’s insides flop with relief. “Would Sirs and Mistress like to come to the dining room now? Christmas lunch is being served very soon.”

Draco stretches and gets to his feet. He smiles at Harry. “Come on. Time for the main event.”

Something about those words is disconcerting, but Harry brushes it away as he gently covers his Veneficus and goes to follow Draco and Senka, who appear to be once again racing each other to the door.

It’s just a meal, after all.

**~*~**

In contrast to the rest of the house, the Malfoys’ dining room is lavishly decorated; the table is draped in rich, dark red fabric and laid with glittering silverware; a huge tree, decorated with what looks like real, non-melting snow and groaning with sparkling baubles sits regally in one corner, and Bilby, under the watchful eye of Senka, seems to have produced enough festive food to feed a small country.

Harry, however, is struggling to pay much attention to his surroundings, entranced as he is by the Malfoys’ Christmas gift. Even the food on his plate is being neglected in favour of... that thing.

“What’s the matter?” Draco hisses, leaning along their side of the vast table and just about managing to graze Harry’s thigh with his fork.

Harry hesitates, assures himself that Lucius and Narcissa are still embroiled in their argument about the proper serving temperature of a roast suckling pig, and replies without averting his eyes:

“I can’t not look at it.”

“The swan?”

“The swan,” Harry confirms, poking at the delicious food on his plate, shaking his head slowly.

“What about it?” Draco whispers.

Harry blinks repeatedly in the direction of the swan, but it stays put. He’s never seen anything like it in his life, this... object that sits on the edge of the table. Looking at him. When Senka and Bilby had produced it, at the click of Lucius’ fingers, in between the third course of melon and the current course of roast meats and vegetables, he had been completely baffled.

And though Draco seems unperturbed, even amused, Harry’s so far out of the picture that he doesn’t know if it’s a surrealist landscape or a naked lady.

Or a huge, slightly disturbing glass swan.

“What about it?” Draco repeats, leaning even closer.

“Sometimes I think about having your mouth sewn up in your sleep,” Narcissa says darkly.

“What the hell are we going to do with it?” Harry hisses.

“You’d better have a house-elf do it,” Lucius snaps. “You cannot sew a single stitch.”

Draco’s mouth twitches. “What do you mean? We’re going to put it in the Horrible Parlour with all the other Horrible Things, of course.”

Harry frowns, finding his eyes dragged inexorably back to the swan. “It’s so ugly.”

“Of course it’s ugly. They’re always ugly. Is there any reason why you expected it to be different this year?” Draco asks.

“This has to be the ugliest,” Harry mutters, eyeing the swan’s sinister glass face and trying to reconcile himself with the idea of an endless parade of grotesque Christmas gifts from the seemingly self-appointed King and Queen of good taste.

“You must be joking,” Draco says, disbelief strengthening his voice. “You think it’s uglier than the moose? The moose, the yard stick by which all ugliness is measured?”

Harry laughs into his linen napkin, trying not to look at Draco’s expression of genuine inquiry, but ultimately helpless to resist. Still grinning, he looks once again at the swan and resolves to find this collection of Horrible Things for himself as soon as possible.

“I concede. It’s not as bad as the moose.”

“Good. I was worried for a moment that there was something terribly amiss in the natural order of things,” Draco says, sliding a forkful of perfectly-roasted goose into his mouth and chewing it thoughtfully. “Maura will like it, I think. She likes that godawful duck we got two years ago. Strange child.”

Maura, Harry thinks suddenly, staring down at his plate. He’s almost certain that Draco and her real Uncle Harry wouldn’t have forgotten her at Christmas, but he’s also suddenly aware of how many times she’s rescued him, and is seized by an uncharacteristic desire to take her to Diagon Alley and buy her anything she wants.

“Aren’t you enjoying your goose, Mr Potter?” Narcissa inquires.

Harry looks up to find four Malfoy eyes staring at him from the other side of the table. It’s unnerving.

“No, I mean, yes, of course,” he stumbles, just about resisting the urge to saw manically at his meat and begin shovelling it into his mouth. Instead he fixes Narcissa with his calmest smile. “It’s all lovely.”

“Leave it, Narcissa,” Lucius advises, staring over his goblet at Harry with an odd mixture of pity and disdain to which Harry is becoming accustomed. “I think it’s a little late to address issues of taste, especially those with their roots in... unfortunate parenting.”

Furious, Harry sets down his knife and fork and opens his mouth to respond, but then there’s a hand on his knee, a murmured, “He doesn’t mean your actual parents, you know that,” and a sharp, quelling look from Narcissa Malfoy to her husband, and the room seems to fade to static.

“Those Muggles were abhorrent creatures,” Lucius mumbles, somewhat chastened.

“As far as I know, they still are,” Harry says a little too loudly, fighting the anger prickling under his skin. It’s not as though this is the first time Lucius has managed to insult him, but each one, along with the rich food and the swans and the constant sniping, adds to the pressure inside his head. He wants to take his Veneficus, the lamp, and Draco, who has somehow become his most steadfast ally in all this, and make a dash for it down the drive.

But he won’t.

Some air would be nice, though. Any air at all will do. Something seems to have sucked the dining room clear of it.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” he says, laying his napkin beside his plate and rising from the table.

“Senka, bring the thread,” Narcissa snaps as he heads for the door.

“It isn’t my fault he’s so oversensitive,” Lucius mutters, and then Harry is out into the corridor, walking quickly and taking turns at random, hoping for the best even though he has no idea where he is heading.

Just when he thinks he’s completely lost, he walks out into an immense, marble-floored entrance hall dominated by an ornate curved staircase and a decorated tree even larger than the one in the dining room. Best of all, though, a pair of doors that, though closed and bolted, definitely lead to the fresh air he’s seeking.

He doesn’t stop to think before he’s blasting open the bolts with a swish of his wand and a series of heavy clicks, flinging the doors open, and missing his step as his leg gives way beneath him. For an alarming few seconds he skids on the marble before he manages to grab an ornate doorknob and scramble to a stop, heart racing and palms slippery on the cold brass. Possibly the last thing he needs at this moment is to come to a sticky end at the front door of Malfoy sodding Manor. He supposes, like Blaise says, there’s always time.

Shaking out his leg, he steps out onto the portico and gulps at the freezing cold, winter-scented air. Leans against the nearest stone pillar and closes his eyes. They’re sore, a sure sign that he’s exhausted, and he feels old. Tired and old and overstuffed, even though he’s barely halfway through course four of a promised seven.

“Oh, no,” he groans, recalling Senka’s somewhat boastful description of the huge, brandy-soaked Christmas puddings that are her speciality.

He opens his eyes. The sun is dipping below the horizon now, flooding the grounds with liquid orange light, and Harry wonders just how long he has been sitting at that table. It’s beautiful here. Confusing and beautiful. He sighs.

“I thought you might need a drink.”

Harry turns to see Draco, eyebrow lifted in what appears to be concern, holding out a heavy glass tumbler half-filled with some brown liquid or other. Fuck it, he thinks, and takes it, swallowing down most of the fiery contents in one gulp.

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t planning to stay out here all night... afternoon... whatever it is.” Harry frowns. “I really don’t have a clue any more. And this is the first drink.”

Draco smiles softly. He shrugs and takes the glass back from Harry, draining the contents and inspecting the bottom of the glass. “Sorry about my father. I know he can be...”

“Difficult?” Harry offers.

“Well, I was going to say ‘a bit of a shit’ but we can use your word.”

Harry laughs. “Thanks.”

“The crazy thing is, I don’t think he’s actually meant to offend you for years, but, well, the words just have a habit of coming out.” Draco leans against the wide pillar beside Harry, so that their shoulders touch. He sighs. “My mother is still trying to train him, of course, but I think we all know she’s fighting a losing battle.”

Harry raises his eyebrows at the sunset, feeling a little of the pressure inside his head drain away.

“She’s almost as bad. Why does she still call me Mr Potter?”

“She’s always called you Mr Potter,” Draco says. “She’s not going to change now. It isn’t done.”

“Change?”

“Not for Malfoys,” Draco says, linking their fingers together where they touch against the cold stone.

“I beg to differ,” Harry almost whispers, shivering as a sudden gust of wind rips at his face and hair. “Take the unknown road now.”

“A one-time event,” Draco mutters, an odd little smile flickering at the corner of his mouth. “I am an immoveable object.”

This time, when Harry kisses him, he doesn’t even think about it.

**~*~**

Several minutes later, partially restored by Draco and a mouthful of excellent firewhisky, Harry returns to the table and resumes his fourth course with a little more enthusiasm. The Malfoys are still arguing, but no one has yet had their mouth sewn shut, which Harry takes as a good sign.

“Good grief,” Lucius says, apparently noticing their return at last. “What have you done to your hair?”

Harry instinctively reaches up to subdue his wind-ruffled mop and manages to streak it with gravy from the fork he has forgotten to put down. Lucius’ eyebrows flicker in mute distress.

“It’s a little... er, blustery outside,” he manages, immediately wanting to hex himself in the face.

Blustery?” Draco mocks, voice low and face half hidden in his goblet.

“Shut up,” Harry whispers, kicking him under the table and delighting in the spark of mischief that lights in his belly.

Draco snorts and mumbles something that sounds a lot like ‘set the swan on you’.

“Senka, the tartlets, please,” calls Narcissa, and Harry’s roast goose disappears mid-slice.

Three more courses to go, he tells himself. And then... well, he’s not entirely sure what then.

“Are you sure you won’t stay the night, Draco?”

Harry keeps his eyes on the intricate little tartlet that has just appeared on his plate. He doesn’t need to look at Draco to imagine the expression on his face, and he can practically feel Draco gritting his teeth.

“No, thank you, Mother.”

“I really think you should.”

“I know. And I’d really like to go home.”

“I had Senka prepare your bedroom.”

“Thank you. I have a bedroom at home.” Draco pauses. “We have a bedroom at home.”

“Mr Potter is welcome to stay also.”

“That’s very generous of you,” Draco says drily, leaning back in his chair.

Narcissa sighs. “Don’t be like that, Draco.”

Harry listens in silence half wondering just what those round purple things in his tartlet could be, and half reflecting that—in his limited experience—it seems like all mothers are the same, really. Some are warmer or rougher or easier to understand, but they all want to protect their children, however old they grow, to fuss over them unnecessarily, to wish for more time.

“Sorry,” Draco says softly. “I don’t sleep well here, though, you know that. And neither does Harry.”

Harry inhales sharply, chews on his lip. Because things did happen here. They did.

“You would sleep perfectly well if you deigned to take the Sleeping Draughts I always offer,” Lucius puts in, eyes narrowed. “You would sleep here. You would sleep on a bloody broomstick.”

Something in his voice makes Harry look up; Senka is hurrying to fill Lucius’ goblet with mead, and Draco’s fingers are gripping the napkin in his lap tightly. Narcissa chews delicately on a mouthful of tartlet and gazes wearily out of the window as though she knows what is coming next and has absolutely no interest in it.

Draco’s voice is tight. “I’d rather not sleep at all.”

“When you have spent five years in Azkaban, Draco, talk to me again.”

“I think I’ll take your word for it,” Draco snaps, leaning forward and cutting savagely into his tartlet.

Caught up in the sudden tension, Harry’s eyes flit anxiously around the room and happen to meet Narcissa’s across the table. Her mouth twists ruefully as she shoots Harry a disenchanted but conspiratorial glance which he returns after a moment’s astonishment.

“You are—”

“That’s enough, Lucius,” Narcissa cuts in sweetly. “And please save some mead for the rest of us.”

Lucius scowls but falls silent, opting to push away his plate and stare into the bottom of his goblet.

“Are you okay?” Harry whispers, glancing sidelong at Draco, who is chewing slowly, knife and fork gripped in whitened hands.

Draco meets his eyes through an errant fall of hair, just as the remains of the tartlets disappear. Harry’s, too, fades into nothing, untouched and taking with it the mystery of the round purple things.

“Two more courses to go.”

**~*~**

Finally, the plates disappear for the final time, leaving only the delicate cups full of rich, dark coffee that blazes a welcome, energising trail down Harry’s throat and out to his fingertips. Revived, he sips it slowly, leaning back to silently observe the conversation between Draco and his mother. Perhaps ‘conversation’ isn’t the right word for Narcissa’s not-so-subtle discourse on Oriana-from-her-lunch-circle’s new baby granddaughter.

“Mm,” says Draco.

“She’s a beautiful little girl,” Narcissa says wistfully.

“Mm,” says Draco.

“A child is a gift,” Narcissa adds.

“Mm,” says Draco, glancing wearily at his mother over the top of his coffee cup.

“Tick-tock, Mr Potter,” Lucius murmurs, grey eyes flashing humour in Harry’s direction.

He sighs inwardly, draining his cup. It’s just possible that they’re all completely insane.

When Lucius and Narcissa leave the table to follow a relieved-looking Senka into the parlour for drinks, Harry hangs back, walking slowly, and Draco falls easily into step at his side.

“You know, I was almost afraid she wasn’t going to mention my childless state this time,” he says, sounding amused.

“I’m sure you’d have dealt with the disappointment,” Harry offers, and there’s a light brush of fingers against his that makes him smile.

They turn into a wide, portrait-lined corridor with Lucius, Narcissa, and Senka way out in front, their conversation barely audible now, and Harry slows, eyes drawn to the nearest carved door. It’s just like all the others, heavy, ornate, and closed, but something makes him stop.

“Something the matter?”

“This room,” Harry mutters to himself, reaching out for the knob before he has time to think about it. His memory tugs at him painfully, replaying scenes he’d rather forget—that he has tried to forget, almost successfully, but as the door swings open with a slight creak, they rush in around him in a cold cascade, chilling him until he feels as though he might throw up.

The drawing room is much as he remembers it and nothing like he remembers it all at once. Gone are the scorch marks and broken furniture and echoes of boots on bare tile; the space is clean, opulent, and beautifully appointed just like all the others, but the imposing fireplace is present, the tall, thin windows, and the air of disuse that stagnates in Harry’s lungs.

“There really are far too many rooms in this house,” Draco sighs, looking over Harry’s shoulder. His warm breath lifts the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck and he shudders. “For two people, anyway.”

“Are you suggesting we move in?” Harry asks absently, grateful for the warmth at his back as he stands there, fighting the confusion tangling in his stomach. Even if it is the warmth of a person who was part of the horror that took place in this room, at least where he comes from. A person who couldn’t quite bring himself to identify Harry and his friends. Here. At least... where he comes from. Harry frowns and rubs at his face.

“Sorry, what?” he asks, realising he’s completely missed Draco’s answer.

“I said, we will move in with my parents over my dead body.”

Exhaling messily, Harry takes one more look around the room, forces a reassuring smile for Draco, and stalks back out into the corridor. Lucius, Narcissa, and Senka are nowhere to be seen, but the strange compulsion that has seized him flattens any remaining concern for propriety.

As Draco follows him out of the drawing room and pulls the heavy door closed, Harry heads for the next door along, heart racing, and finds himself in a magnificent ballroom. This door is slightly stiff and he has to shove it hard to open it all the way. He releases the cold knob and walks slowly into the centre of the huge space, tipping back his head to admire the complicated moulded ceiling with its swirling patterns of gold and sparkling chandeliers.

“I’m surprised you want to be in here. You’ve never wanted to before.”

Harry drops his eyes and, in the mirrors that line the ballroom, sees Draco, hanging back by the door and staring at him.

“Why would you think that?” he asks without turning around, even though he thinks he knows why. Even though the confusion in his stomach twists and solidifies into a heavy ball at the words.

Draco makes an odd sound of surprise that echoes in the cavernous room, and he clicks across the floor to stand beside Harry with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Why would I think that?” he repeats, incredulous. “Possibly because it always struck me as perfectly rational that you would want to avoid a place in which my delightful aunt tortured you nearly to death and left you with a lifelong injury,” he snaps, eyes narrowed fiercely as he glares into the mirror immediately before him. “And yet here you are, staring at it like you’ve never seen it before. Forgive me my confusion.”

Harry swallows hard, hands clenching into fists against the hot prickle starting up behind his eyelids. Bellatrix Lestrange tortured him, not Hermione. In this very room. In a ballroom full of mirrors. He supposes she’d have enjoyed that.

He glances at Draco, wondering if his fury is aimed at Harry or his now deceased aunt. He hopes the latter, but if Harry knows anything it’s that it’s dangerous to assume anything.

“It just... felt different today,” he says at last.

Draco stares at him but says nothing, and for a gut-wrenching few seconds Harry fears the worst, that he has carelessly blown his cover. That Draco knows. And then he nods, slowly, as though he’s turning Harry’s strange behaviour over and over in his head, allowing it to settle in around him.

“Why?” he asks, voice soft.

“I don’t know,” Harry admits, jittery with relief. He looks around the room, avoiding his own reflection, and scrubs at his hair. “I don’t want to be afraid of a room. It’s just a room.”

“It’s a ballroom,” Draco says eventually, eyes downcast and lips twitching at the corners.

Harry frowns. “Yeah.”

“You have to dance in a ballroom,” Draco elaborates, lifting gleaming eyes to meet Harry’s in something a lot like challenge.

“I can’t dance,” Harry says, alarmed.

Draco grins, smoothing down his immaculate shirt and taking several steps closer to Harry.

“I know you can’t. That’s why I always dance with Ginevra at the Ministry balls.”

“Right,” Harry agrees, distracted by that surreal image. “It’s probably too late for me, then.”

“Nice try,” Draco murmurs, deftly catching Harry’s hand and placing it on his shoulder. “The hole in your argument, however—” Cool, slender fingers wrap around his other hand, “—is that the quality of the dancing isn’t what’s important here.”

“Oh, really?” Harry manages, inhaling sharply as his body is pulled flush against Draco’s and his nose, pressed suddenly into the angle of Draco’s jaw, is flooded with the scent of warm citrus and alcohol.

“Really. It’s about intention.”

“Intention?” Harry echoes, startling slightly at the hand wrapping around his hip.

“Yes,” says Draco, smiling against his cheek. “The intention to at least attempt to fucking dance.”

Harry’s heart swoops, and he’s doomed, he knows it.

“I see,” he manages in slightly rough voice, “because otherwise the room would be offended?”

Draco laughs softly, hot breath and flickering eyelashes against Harry’s skin. “If it helps you to think of it that way. I just happen to think that one should inject at least some semblance of propriety into a situation...”

He breaks off midsentence as Harry snorts, dropping his head, grin first, onto Draco’s shoulder for a moment as he allows the irony of that statement to sink in. He wonders just how many propriety points he’s due for this situation—a ballroom in Voldemort’s old headquarters, an illicit-not-illicit embrace with an old enemy, an old, confused married man—married with children—coursing with desire and bewilderment, alive with it.

“You know what I mean, you absolute horror,” Draco murmurs, sliding his hand absently under Harry’s shirt, making him shiver. “It’s like that time I decided we absolutely had to have a morning room, even though you said that there was no point, because we’re always working or in bed in the mornings. You said that, but you helped me decorate it and bought all those sodding plants that would have expired long ago if you didn’t open the curtains every morning and remember to water them... even though you were right, and we never do spend any time in there. You know?”

“Not really,” Harry admits, tightening his grip on Draco’s shoulder and mentally making a note to seek out the morning room and the neglected plants as soon as he has a chance.

Draco sighs heavily. “Never mind. Just dance.”

Before Harry can respond, he is being pulled out into the middle of the floor, shoulders-to-hips pressed against Draco, the hand at his waist driving him gently as he awkwardly follows Draco’s graceful steps, realising he is being led and realising he doesn’t mind one bit, only wishing he could make his slides and turns look as effortless.

“This feels really strange without music,” he mumbles into Draco’s neck, lips brushing the stiff fabric of his collar. Forcing his eyes open to regard, over Draco’s shoulder, the strange spectacle they make pressed together, his dark hair against Draco’s light, his own anxious eyes and the peaceful little smile on the lips of his dancing partner, reflected a hundred times over in the sparkling mirror-lined walls. And then:

“Sing, then,” Draco instructs, straightening his posture and whisking Harry around in a circle with alarming ease. Now inches apart, Harry finds himself staring right into expectant grey eyes. Draco smiles. It’s a tiny smile, insignificant, even, but it shatters Harry, and the little voice that whispers, ‘Anything’ inside his head makes his heart race out of control.

“Okay, but...” Harry hesitates, searching his mind for a song that won’t make him look like a complete idiot; he’s no singer, anyway, he’s well aware of that, and the fact that his head is full of nothing but Celestina Warbeck lyrics cannot bode well. Draco lifts an eyebrow in inquiry and Harry throws reason and caution to the wind—once a Gryffindor, always a Gryffindor, he supposes.

“Take me away from this godforsaken place,” he begins, trying to hold his eye contact with Draco. It’s easier than he expects, perhaps because, in a way, it’s always been easy with Draco. He’s never had to try to impress him, or to keep his attention. Terrified and not, all at the same time, Harry continues, even when Draco grimaces and resumes leading him around the floor.

“You really couldn’t think of anything better than that?”

“I dream each night of your saving embrace,” Harry offers, shrugging and stepping on Draco’s foot.

“Oh, good grief.”

“The Dementors are calling from the sky above,” Harry sings, adding a touch of drama just to see Draco’s eyes flick to the ceiling. Seconds later, he’s being spun repeatedly along with Draco, placing his feet down frantically and without rhythm, just hoping to stay upright.

“Fly me away on your broomstick of love!” he manages breathlessly, spotting his error too late.

Draco snorts, catching Harry against his chest and burying a smile in his hair. “Oh, please tell me that’s the real lyric.”

Harry grins. “Sadly not. I thought it was an improvement, though.”

“And there I was, thinking those songs were beyond hope,” Draco says, pulling back from Harry’s shoulder to regard him with a wry smile; at the sight of it, the wriggling thing is back with a vengeance. “Alright, continue.”

“You want me to keep going? With the awful song?”

Draco sighs and draws him wonderfully, warmly close again. “Obviously. How else am I going to teach you a half-decent Veelan Waltz?”

“Obviously,” Harry mumbles, as though it is. He takes a deep breath, preparing for the next spin. “We’ll take to the sky in a cascade of stars, my love!”

Draco groans. “If you step into the turn with your left foot, you might stop crushing mine,” he advises.

If I just focus on how ridiculous this is, I might be alright, Harry thinks, before he nods and is lost in the whirl of mirrors, tiny lights and the heat of Draco’s body against his.

**~*~**

“Shoulders down,” Draco says for what feels like the thousandth time, tapping his fingers admonishingly at Harry’s hip and leading him in a series of delicate little steps that he just can’t seem to master.

He can’t be sure how long they’ve been dancing—the combination of the vast, glittering space and Draco’s gentle commands is heady, alcoholic—but he’s hot and, to his surprise, on the edge of breathlessness. Ties have been loosened, shirts untucked, and sleeves rolled up; Draco’s hair falls into his eyes with every spin and Harry’s upper lip is salty with exertion. By now it is all too clear why Draco apparently opts to dance with Ginny whenever the need arises. Harry, sadly, is not a natural.

What he is, however, is stubborn, so he counterbalances his inability to produce a decent Veelan Waltz by treating Draco to every Celestina Warbeck song he can remember, by way of musical accompaniment.

“If you sing one more song about your tortured soul or your lost love,” Draco threatens as Harry finishes ‘Curse-breakin’ Man’ with a deliberate flourish, lifting Harry’s chin with his finger. “Stop looking at your feet, you’re supposed to be at least pretending to be graceful.”

“I thought it didn’t matter if I was any good,” Harry protests, and then: “If I sing one more of those songs you’ll do what?”

Draco’s eyes narrow in thought. “I’ll remind my father that we’re here.”

“Do you really think he’s forgotten?”

Draco corrects Harry’s posture, lips twitching ruefully. “I don’t know. With luck he’ll have forgotten what day it is by now.”

Harry glances down at his feet again, knowing better than to ask questions that don’t really need to be asked. And anyway, for all he knows, the two of them might disappear after dinner every Christmas, though there’s something in the intensity of Draco’s stare when he glances back up that suggests otherwise. Perhaps he’s not the only one who feels brand new.

“Let’s try again,” he says softly. “I promise not to look at my feet. Or sing.”

Draco smiles and exhales slowly, feathering cool breath across Harry’s damp skin. “Alright.”

This time, when they spin out into the middle of the floor, Harry concentrates as hard as he can on the movements, partly to prove that he can, and partly to drag at least a little of his focus away from the man he’s dancing with. Falling for, most probably. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Where are you going, exactly?” Draco murmurs, amused, pulling Harry’s hips tightly against his. The hint of arousal brushing against him makes his pulse jump, and he scrambles for words. Any words.

“I thought I was supposed to be... er, maintaining a space in hold, or something.”

Draco laughs. “Trust you to start listening now,” he says, slipping cool fingers over the sticky skin at the small of Harry’s back. “I’m giving up.”

“Oh,” says Harry, caught somewhere between relief and disappointment as they slow, not quite to a standstill, but to a languid circling at the edge of the floor. Then, as he lifts his hand from Draco’s shoulder to brush the pale strands of hair from his face, and Draco’s eyes meet his, warm and pewter-bright, a thrill of heat crashes through him, and he knows at once that it’s different this time. That there’s no escape.

“You’re a fucking terrible dancer, Harry Potter,” Draco sighs, and kisses him.

Harry isn’t sure exactly what he had planned to say, but the soft sigh of surprise that falls out of his mouth definitely isn’t it. For a moment, he fails to react, allowing Draco to take advantage of his parted lips and flick his tongue into his mouth, sending his stomach into freefall and sharpening the sigh into a quiet moan. Startled at the sound, Harry pulls himself together and kisses back, pulling his hand away from Draco’s and threading both into his hair, needing just a tiny bit of control, even if they are still circling slowly, and even if Draco’s tongue is stroking his and Draco’s hands are sliding inside the back of his trousers and Draco’s hips are pushing hot-firm-desperate against Harry’s growing erection.

Breath catching hard in his chest, he weaves his fingers more tightly into Draco’s hair and deepens the kiss, pulling gently at his lower lip with his teeth and revelling in the groan that means he isn’t the only one spiralling out of control. Still, with the fierce, messy mesh of their tongues, the fingernails scratching heat into his buttocks, the blood pooling and aching in his groin, he has no idea how he’s still standing up.

And then, of course, he’s not. He feels the support of his knee dissolving beneath him and the swoop in his chest that always precedes a fall, but this time, he doesn’t connect with the floor. Blinking and somewhat disoriented, he looks up at Draco, who has managed to catch him against his chest with hands under his arms and a knee wedged between Harry’s. The position is precarious and slightly uncomfortable, dangling from his armpits with his cock throbbing painfully against his tightened trouser fabric, but there’s something about the calm expression on Draco’s flushed face that makes Harry think he is well-practised at this.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you did that on purpose,” he sighs, performing a complicated little twist that allows Harry to grab his hands and haul himself to his feet.

Harry glances down at his leg, which appears to be taking his weight once more, and exhales in a messy rush. “No, I’d rather not do it at all, to be honest.”

Draco taps his fingers against his thighs in an anxious rhythm only he understands. “I shouldn’t have said that. Not when...” He pauses, glancing at their surroundings. “I wasn’t thinking.”

Surprised by the ease of this almost-apology, Harry looks up. “It’s alright. Let’s just...”

“... find a nice flat surface?” Draco suggests, lips quirking into a dangerous smile.

Harry’s cock jerks inside his restrictive trousers and he swallows. “Like what?”

There’s a light shrug; Draco’s eyes flick to each corner of the room in turn, and then before Harry realises what’s happening, he’s being backed into the mirrored wall and pinned there by the wrists. He has a second or two to register the freezing cold glass through his thin shirt, and to realise with some horror that all of his lightning Auror reflexes seem to have gone the way of his self control, before he’s being kissed with a slow, aching intensity that liquefies any thoughts more complex than ‘oh, god’ and ‘why have I never done this before?’

He barely hears Draco’s amused, “Indeed, all these years you’ve been missing out on ballroom sex,” because there are fingers stroking his neck, sliding over his hammering pulse point, easing his shirt buttons out of their holes and pressing cool palms to his chest.

“Mm,” he manages, pulling at the bottom of Draco’s shirt, and trying to decide where to look—at the stunning contrast of aquamarine fabric against pale abdomen, at Draco’s fingers spread out across his chest, at bright grey eyes and flushed skin, at the pull of Draco’s erection against his trouser fabric... fabric that is warm and silky to the touch, firm under fingers that Harry seems to have no control over, reactive and delicious against the palm that pulls a low, stifled groan from Draco.

Spurred on, prickling with heat all over his skin, Harry leans in to fasten his mouth to Draco’s neck, submitting mindlessly when there’s a tug at his shirtsleeves and gasping when he’s pushed back against the mirror, bare skin against glass.

“What’s the matter?” Draco mumbles, dropping Harry’s shirt to the floor without even an attempt at folding it.

“Cold,” Harry manages. He yanks at Draco’s shirt until it slides from his shoulders, leaving the thin silver tie hanging loosely around his neck; Draco shifts obligingly, allowing him to slide the sleeves away, revealing pale, marked skin. Harry scrapes his fingers over the faded snake and skull, and traces the four neat letters that symbolise Draco’s redemption.

Take the unknown road now. Harry closes his eyes, feeling the tug of multiple tiny buttons at his fly. He wraps his hands around slender hips, fingers slipping on soft leather and warm skin, rests his forehead against Draco’s bare shoulder, inhaling citrus and fresh sweat. His heart is pounding, his blood racing in his veins, and he knows that no one is going to ask him if he really wants this, if he’s sure. As far as Draco is concerned, there’s nothing new here, except maybe a risky location, and the risk is nothing to the hardness pressing into Harry’s hands and the quickening breath against his neck.

The rapidly-fading rational section of his brain, though, remembers Lucius and Narcissa, and without opening his eyes he lifts his hand and aims a wandless spell at the doors, listening to the satisfying sound of heavy bolts dropping into place.

“What was that?”

“Locked it,” Harry manages, and just in time, too, he thinks, as his trousers and boxers are pulled down in a swish of fabric.

“Silencing Charm?”

“That’s probably a good idea, too,” Harry concedes. Distrustful of his wandless skills for this, he tugs Draco’s wand from his waistband without thinking, and casts what he hopes is an industrial-strength Silencio at the doors.

“Lovely,” Draco says, flashing Harry a smile. “Now, put that down.”

Harry is puzzled for a moment only, until Draco kisses him hard, leaving him breathless, naked, exposed, and drops to his knees, pinning Harry to the glass with one hand and wrapping the fingers of the other around his cock, making him shudder and groan. There’s a low hum of approval and then Harry is caught in a riptide of pleasure as he is taken into a hot, wet mouth and stroked by a flickering tongue. It’s been so long, so long, and already he is almost overwhelmed.

“Draco,” he rasps, screwing his eyes shut and splaying his damp hands against the glass.

Draco responds by taking him deeper, sliding his lips over the sensitised skin, following the path of his fist in a smooth, practised motion that sets Harry’s mind into overdrive, imagining the hundreds, maybe thousands of times he’s lost himself in Draco’s mouth. Flooded with images, a patchwork of sounds and smells and textures, he can’t stop himself from jerking his hips, wanting more, forcing his eyes open and staring down at the filthy, beautiful vision of that clever, smirking mouth sliding onto his cock, and when Draco slips a hand between Harry’s thighs, skating over his entrance and looking up at him with lust-darkened eyes, there’s no suppressing the harsh moan that rips out of him.

“The Silencing Charm was a wonderful invention,” Draco offers, pulling away abruptly and sitting back on his heels.

“I’m not usually noisy,” Harry says, embarrassed.

Rising up on his knees in order to kick off his shoes and wriggle fluidly out of his trousers, Draco snorts. “That’s a good one. You know very well you’re the noisiest I’ve ever heard, and I slept in the Slytherin dorms for six years.”

Harry stares, barely able to make sense of these words because Draco is sitting at his feet, every inch of pale skin on display as he leans back on one hand, slender legs spread, and hard, flushed cock against his belly. Mouth dry, Harry watches elegant fingers skate over the shaft and linger, gathering shiny fluid on their tips and making Harry’s cock ache and leak in sympathy.

He drops to the floor, kicking away the remnants of his clothing, and reaches for Draco. Ignoring the creaking of his knees on the hard wood, Harry pulls his hand away by the wrist and pins it to the floor with more force than he thinks he should, but he no longer cares. He just wants this; his mouth is tingling for it, the smell of another man’s arousal is wild in his nostrils, and he wants...

Harry licks his lips, closes his hand around the warm flesh and drops his head, allowing Draco’s cock to glide and leak against his tongue. The sound of Draco’s shaky inhalation shocks down Harry’s spine, and without thinking he reaches between his thighs and squeezes his own arousal, as though steadying himself. Yes.

This is crazy, he knows it is, and when the thought of Ginny flashes, unbidden, into his mind, even the guilt it spikes in his gut isn’t enough to stop him. To stop this.

Suddenly there’s a hand in his hair, pulling gently, and Harry lifts his head with some effort, breathing hard and trying to focus through off-kilter glasses.

“Mm?”

Draco stares at him, eyes unfocused. “What do you want?”

“You,” Harry pants, hoping it’s the right answer.

Draco lifts an eyebrow but says nothing until he’s sitting upright with Harry sprawled between his thighs, hair sticking to his face and chest flushed a beautiful, incongruously vulnerable pink. Stretching, he retrieves his wand.

Accio,” he whispers, and his abandoned trousers fly towards him.

Harry chews his lip, still absently stroking his cock and watching Draco as he retrieves a small glass jar with an ornate silver lid. The implication, when it finally penetrates his lust-hazy brain, strikes hard. It isn’t as though it hasn’t occurred to him how this whole gay thing works; it’s not as though he’s never thought about it—in fact, he’s probably been thinking about it for years before he ended up here, at least on some level—but still. He’s going to be fucked. He’s never been harder.

Draco nudges him onto his back with a series of achingly gentle kisses that never quite satisfy, slipping between Harry’s thighs. He unscrews the jar, releasing the warm scent of cloves into the air, meets Harry’s eyes for a lingering few seconds, and then it’s all happening so fast that all Harry can do is hold on.

Slick, warm fingers, stroking his cock and circling his entrance, massaging and sliding inside, one moment burning a stretch that steals Harry’s breath, the next, massaging and caressing places, secret nerve endings that blaze pleasure all the way from his spine to his fingertips. On fire and vulnerable, he keeps his eyes closed and scrabbles for purchase at the shiny floor, arching helplessly into Draco’s touch.

“Fuck,” he groans, feeling his orgasm rising, “fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Hold on,” Draco admonishes, stilling his movements. Harry opens his eyes, and the chandelier-strewn ceiling seems to spin above him like some insane carnival ride.

“Hm?”

“Wait for me, you fucker,” he says, pulling his hands away and leaning over Harry until his hair brushes Harry’s forehead. “It’s hardly ballroom sex without... well, sex, is it?”

Something nudges Harry’s slicked opening, making him jump, but he laughs, startled and delighted by the genuine humour in Draco’s voice. It has never occurred to him that sex could be anything but serious, and it’s a revelation, the thrill of the discovery easily making up for the distressing amount of wasted time.

“Better hurry up then,” he says at last, gripping Draco’s arse and dragging him in tight. “You know, before I seize up. I’m old... I’m not used to a hard floor,” he teases.

Draco’s lips twitch. And then: “You know... now that you mention it, I think I have a better idea.”

Bewildered, Harry watches him scramble to his feet, cock hard and slick and strange silver tie flapping across his chest. He accepts the hand that’s held out to him, and within seconds finds himself face first against the mirrored wall, hands spread stickily over the glass as he attempts to support himself.

“This is your better idea?” he demands, trying to inject a note of scathing disdain into his voice but failing miserably. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, he supposes, not when he’s panting and exposing himself shamelessly for Draco, staring at his own clouded eyes in the mirror and noticing for the first time that he, too, is still wearing his dark grey silk tie; it brushes a peaked nipple as he shifts position and he inhales sharply, gazing at Draco in the reflection and fighting the useless thoughts of ‘if they could see me now...’

Draco shrugs, slipping an arm around his waist and pressing his hardness into Harry’s back.

“It would be a terrible shame to waste all these mirrors, don’t you think?” He kisses Harry’s neck and meets his eyes in the glass. “I know you don’t believe me, but you’re still extremely hot, and you should see... what?”

Horrified, Harry drops his eyes. He’s never been good with compliments and he’s suddenly very, very aware of his naked body, reflected as it is a hundred times over. It’s not as though he’s ever felt particularly unattractive, but Ginny’s always been a lights-out, under-the-covers kind of lover, and he’s always been very comfortable with that.

“You’re insane,” he says at last.

“I know,” Draco murmurs, and then he’s pushing inside Harry, holding him open with slippery fingers; he eases his way deeper and Harry, startled into silence by the sensation, stares at him in the mirror, watching his eyes flicker and close and his mouth fall open against Harry’s shoulder in a soundless groan.

Finally, Draco is able to press himself all the way along Harry’s back again and uses both hands to draw him firmly, all the way back onto his cock, urging a hot, deep penetration that makes Harry cry out.

Oh,” he manages, watching Draco’s eyes open, darkened and desperate over his shoulder.

“I know,” Draco whispers, breath catching.

Harry swallows dryly and looks at himself in the mirror, at the toned, wiry lines of his body, the scattered dark hairs with the odd grey, the flushed skin of his cock, which slides against the glass, trailing sticky fluid, aching and heavy. Draco shifts slightly inside him and he holds his breath, suddenly half-terrified that he might break apart with this powerful fullness, even though he knows that this body can take it; this body wants it, almost as much as he does.

“We really should have more mirrors,” Draco sighs, leaning to cover Harry’s hand with his own against the glass; Harry threads their fingers together and holds on tightly as a slow, deep stroke starts up inside him, stealing his breath, with each slide out leaving him empty and each slide back dragging a low, primitive groan from his chest.

His hair plasters messily to his forehead and his glasses slip from his nose, clattering to the floor, but he barely notices; pushing back into each stroke, he gazes blurrily at his own eyes in the mirror, heart leaping over and over at the reality of what’s happening to him—Draco Malfoy is fucking him, and he likes it. Draco Malfoy is fucking him and he’s watching it happen, watching his cock jump in rhythm, watching the blood pooling in the nail-marks at his hip, watching the glass steam under his hot, panting breath. Watching them make something exhilarating and confusing and brilliant.

He knows it won’t last long, though; he won’t last, so close to the edge to begin with, and the searing newness of this feeling is pushing him quickly and relentlessly toward the edge. Clenching his toes against the smooth grain of the floor, he stretches, strains against the glass, wanting Draco deeper, harder, gripping around the cock inside him and wrapping his fingers tightly around his own, not knowing whether he wants to delay the end or reach for it.

“Don’t stop,” Draco pleads in a harsh whisper. “I want to see you come.”

Harry whimpers and then hisses at the unexpected pain of Draco’s teeth sinking into his shoulder, but he complies. Keeping his eyes fixed on Draco’s, he picks up speed, pushing his cock into his fist and gritting his teeth as Draco responds by fucking him harder, faster, filling the cavernous room with the hot-dirty sounds of skin slapping against skin, harsh breath and mumbled, fractured demands: yes, there, please, fuck—harder, Draco, I...

“Draco, I...” Harry closes his eyes as he starts to lose it, but the burn at his shoulder compels them open, forcing him to watch himself cry out as a flood of sensation whips at his insides and he comes in powerful, shaky spurts over himself and the glass.

Before he has time to control his breathing, Draco is leaning close, tightening his fingers around Harry’s, pushing one, two, three... four long strokes and shuddering, emptying himself inside Harry with a low, cracked cry that makes Harry wonder if he has the energy to start all over again. His eyes seek out Harry’s in the mirror as he rests his chin on his shoulder and exhales untidily.

“I really need to sit down,” he says after a moment, and Harry is just relieved he didn’t say it first.

Disentangled and slightly less sticky due to a couple of half-arsed Cleaning Charms, they slump to the floor, backs against the mirror, and sprawl, sweat-damp and breathing hard.

Harry pulls his knees up to his chest and scrubs at his hair, not quite able to believe what he’s just done. He sighs and—moving with care—retrieves his glasses. And there it is: a small jar, lying innocently on its side next to one of Draco’s shoes.

“Draco?”

“Mm?”

“Any particular reason why you brought... well, that, to your parents’ house for Christmas?”

Draco smiles, fiddling with his silver tie. “Well, you never know, do you?”

Harry snorts. “I have absolutely no response to that.”

“You may well mock, but you have just been fucked in a ballroom.”

Harry chews his lip. “Hm.”

“And you have come on your tie,” Draco adds.

Harry looks. “So I have.”

“I bought you that tie,” Draco says darkly. “It’s French. Or rather, it was.”

“It’ll come out,” Harry says, examining the stain and resolutely ignoring just how surreal this conversation is. “I reckon it was worth it, anyway,” he muses, mostly to himself.

Draco stretches, brushing his bare shoulder against Harry’s. “Absolutely. It may even have been better than that time in your workshop last year.”

“Ah, yeah. That.” Harry keeps his face impassive, trying not to think about the splinters.

“The splinters were horrendous,” Draco says. “That’ll teach me to let you bend me over a workbench, I suppose.”

Harry, who had been reaching for his trousers, almost chokes on his own tongue. “I suppose so,” he murmurs, pulling them on quickly before Draco notices that he’s getting hard again.

Draco watches him languidly for a moment, and then levers himself to his feet, stoops to collect his clothes, and begins to redress. He pauses for a moment to shoot a look of utter disdain at his dishevelled reflection, picking desultorily at his hair and smoothing creases from his shirt.

“Shall we?”

Harry looks up, horrified, from his attempt to clean his tie with his wand. “I’m not sure I can look your parents in the eye after that.”

Draco frowns. “You must think I’m some kind of sadist. I meant shall we go home?”

Relief courses through Harry, quickly followed by guilt. “We can’t just leave.”

“Every year,” Draco mutters, rubbing his face. He sighs. “You know how my father gets by the evening. We survived dinner—all seven courses—and nobody killed, maimed, or even threatened anyone. Now it’s time to escape with the remains of our sanity.”

The eyes that pin Harry to the spot are pleading and alight with something conspiratorial that he can’t resist.

“Let’s go home.”

Draco’s small, relieved smile is the last thing he sees before he’s caught in the spin of Apparation.

**~*~**

Harry fidgets, twisted uncomfortably in his sheets. Draco sprawls out peacefully next to him, breathing lightly, beautiful under the grey light of the early morning. Nothing to keep him awake. Harry closes his sore eyes, punches his pillow again and tries to settle. He’s exhausted, body aching in all kinds of new places, mind weary, fractious, afraid. He can still hear Lucius Malfoy’s darkly exasperated response to his sleeping troubles, and there’s a little part of him that would, right now, sell his soul for a bottle of Dreamless Sleep.

He sighs and kicks at the sheets.

Must you?” Frank demands, uncoiling himself from around Harry’s feet.

No one rattled your cage,” Harry snaps.

There will be no cage,” Frank says acidly.

Harry listens to the thump as he drops to the floor and slithers out into the hallway in a sulk. He listens to Draco’s gentle breathing, in and out, in and out, and finally, finally, falls into a fitful sleep.

**~*~**

There’s a light at the top of the stairs.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

Darkness and the smell of healing potions.

“Listen. Listen.”

Desperation. And yet he’s been here so many times.

“I don’t believe in much of anything, Potter.”

Sitting on the floor, cloak folded softly on his knees. The sky outside the window fading to grey-blue, and the bed empty. Sheets thrown back. Pillows cold. He’s on the floor, too, opposite Harry and tucked between his own bed and the next.

“Why me, Potter?” Striped sleeves pulled down over fingers, eyes sharp, knees tucked up in defence and eyebrows everywhere.

“Maybe I believe you’re more than this.”

“Maybe you’re full of crap.”

Harry knows he’s smiling. “Maybe. But what have you got to lose?”

“Fuck you.” But the venom, at least, much of it, is gone.

“I have a question.”

A long-suffering sigh.

“Why the hell are you wearing those pyjamas?”

Flared nostrils. A glance downwards.

Haughty. “They’re Goyle’s, if you must know.”

Harry is amused, mouth twitching, laughing at him with genuine warmth for the first time ever.

“Do you often wear Goyle’s... um... nightclothes?” A pause. Exhaustion does terrible things to the self-control. “Does he wear yours? Is he wearing yours right now?”

“You are completely classless, Potter, as I have always suspected.” A cold expression, and then a grimace. A face that is every inch human: “I wish you hadn’t put that image in my head.” He stares down at his oversized cuffs. “I do like stripes, though.”

Laughter, first from Harry and then from both, inappropriate and gasp-hushed in the tomb silence of the hospital wing. Unreal. Just the two of them, sitting in a patch of moonlight and pretending for a moment that the war doesn’t exist, talking about pyjamas in order to cement a connection so new and fragile that it feels dangerous to even think about it.

“I asked him to bring me some pyjamas. It didn’t seem to occur to him that I might want my own.”

Harry smiles. Carefully. Hopefully. “Stripes are good.”


**~*~**

Harry wakes to an empty bed and a cloudy sky. Still weary after his fretful sleep and vivid dreams, he considers pulling the quilt back over his head and trying for a couple more hours, but an exploratory prod at his copper clock provokes a troubling puff of red smoke and the news that it’s almost eleven.

He hauls himself out of bed, dresses for comfort in jeans and a warm, if slightly bizarre, green sweater and creaks down the stairs, noting the elaborate new web slung between the upper and lower banisters.

“Impressive,” he says, ducking as the spider swings low on a long thread of silk.

“Maybe, but how long before the stairs are impassable?”

Draco lifts a sardonic eyebrow from the bottom of the stairs and winds his long, stripy scarf around his neck.

Stripes are good, Harry’s own voice echoes inside his head.

“Where are you going?”

“I thought I’d better nip back to the Manor and retrieve our gifts, apologise to my mother and hope that my father hasn’t used your Veneficus to stoke the fire in his study.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Harry asks, scrubbing at his messy hair and praying silently that Draco says no. “You know, to help with the lamp...”

Draco stares at him for a moment and then laughs. “I’ll see you later.” He shakes his head and turns away, stalking into the kitchen and disappearing, seconds later, into the fireplace.

As he rises slowly through the fog to full consciousness, Harry stares after him, heart thumping with approval and lips twisting into a lopsided smile. He holds onto the polished wooden bobble at the end of the balustrade and sighs.

Terribly lonely, all alone, left to fend for myself,” Frank says, descending slowly from the landing and dangling in front of Harry’s face.

Don’t be dramatic,” Harry scolds, weaving backwards out of the way of the flickering tongue and eventually opting to plonk himself down on the bottom step. “And anyway, you wouldn’t have liked it. Lots of tension and twiddly little food.”

Abandoned, forlorn, solitary, lost without a soul...”

Harry rolls his eyes and then groans as Frank drops from the staircase and he suddenly finds himself with a lapful of python.

You missed me, then?” he teases, automatically reaching out both hands to catch the slippery coils before Frank slides to the floor in a heap.

Merely your presence,” Frank says airily, head waving from side to side.

He laughs, stroking the shining scales absently. “We missed you, too, you histrionic sod.” He sighs, heart twisting. “I’ll miss you.”

Going somewhere else?” Frank demands, fixing him with beady black eyes.

Harry swallows hard. Suddenly awash with fear, he has no words for Frank, because if he’s going to miss a self-obsessed snake when he leaves this place, how can he leave Draco behind? All reason is screaming that he can’t fall in love here; this world is ephemeral, temporary, and so is his part in it. He knows that Boris could reappear at any moment and steal it all away from him... return him to his children, and oh, god, he aches with missing them, but it’s just not that simple any more.

No,” he lies, taking a deep breath. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

Harry forces himself up from the step and rubs his face wearily. He drops his hands to his sides and closes his eyes, absently noticing the slide of Frank's coils around his ankles as he takes his leave of Harry's miniature crisis without a word. It takes a moment or two, but eventually, Harry is able to invoke his tried-and-tested 'stop thinking about this ridiculous situation and just get on with it' mantra; it has served him well for as long as he can remember, and now, when he opens his eyes to see the empty hallway, he is resolute.

He's here, there's nothing he can do about it right now, and as for Draco... Harry swallows hard. Never mind about Draco.

"Just get on with it," he mutters to himself, sloping into the kitchen and mechanically running through the process of coffee-making, then leaning back against the counter to wait as the kitchen fills with the bitter, comforting aroma. "Don't think about it—just get on with it."

Unfortunately, as much as Harry trusts in the advice that has seen him through countless surreal experiences at school, at home and at work, sometimes these things are easier said than done. Easier relived than forgotten. On a constant loop. A hot, close, thrilling, constant loop.

Like sex with Draco. With Malfoy.

Harry frowns, gripping his coffee cup hard. Okay, that doesn't help.

He gulps at the hot liquid, scalding his tongue and relishing the sting in his throat as he swallows; it seems to rouse the last sleeping section of his brain and send it into immediate overdrive as the caffeine hits his system in a rush. His darting eyes catch the blue flash of the bread wrapper poking out of the bread bin, no doubt from where he left it the day before. Knowing instinctively that the sight of it will drive Draco crazy, he shuffles across the tiles, cup in hand, to shove it out of view before he returns, and that is all it takes.

This bread is different—Draco usually... they usually have a seedy loaf that Harry's kids would never eat, wholemeal in a green wrapper. This one is plain, wrapped in blue paper, and Al's favourite for making messy jam sandwiches for himself and Rose, usually all of half an hour after they have scarfed down their dinner. Harry chews his lip.

It's the same bread he and Ginny have had delivered from Tansy Talbot's bakery—three loaves, twice a week when the kids are at home—for the last two decades. Harry doesn't know what's more pathetic: how boring he's allowed himself to become, or the fact that he's standing here, breadbin lid balanced on an outstretched finger, mooning over a loaf of sliced white.

Groaning softly, he lets the lid fall with a creak and a bang of wood on wood. It doesn't matter. Either way, he has just slept with another man—and it certainly doesn't help that he enjoyed it—and the crashing realisation that finally slams into his bewildered mind is that he has actually betrayed Ginny; there is no doubt about it now. Or is there? Harry drains his coffee and slumps into a chair at the table, distressed.

He wonders whether having extra-marital sex in an alternate reality counts as cheating? He wonders if it's even extra-marital if the person one is married to in one place is married to someone else in another, and is, in all likelihood, having plenty of—no doubt guilt free—extra-marital marital sex themselves.

Harry's head hurts. He swears and lowers it to the table, pressing his forehead against the cool wood and staring at the grain at close range, trying to concentrate on anything but the feeling of guilt and confusion swirling sickeningly in his gut.

He has never wanted to be one of those people. Loyalty is just what he does; it is as much a part of him as his famous courage, his leap-before-you-look spontaneity, and his hatred of injustice. The rules were always so simple before, but now they've been stolen away and replaced by a tangle of codes and silent complications that he may never understand.

Some things are obvious, though, like the fact that the Ginny he has met here is happier and more alive than he has ever made her, and that their friendship feels natural and easy, almost as though it's the way things were supposed to be. Harry rests his head on his folded arms. He isn't sure if he truly believes in destiny, even after everything, but someone or something that's bigger than him seems to be making an interesting case. The image of his Ginny swims into his head, tired and disillusioned, and his heart contracts painfully.

He loves her.

He loves her, but.

Eyes stinging, Harry drags in a deep breath and allows the feeling to wash over him in agonising waves, fingernails digging into the tabletop and every muscle tensed as he tries, pointlessly, to protect himself.

"Sorry," he whispers finally, scrubbing at his eyes as salty tears collect at the corner of his mouth. "Sorry, Gin."

He wonders how many years she has thrown after loyalty, too. And then stops wondering, because it hurts, and it won't do any good.

Dragging in a shaky breath, he scrapes back his chair and stands, allowing his sore eyes to fix upon the first object they catch. The swan.

Harry smiles tightly and rounds the table, heaving the glass monstrosity into his arms. At least a search for the room of Horrible Things will keep him occupied for a while. In a somewhat ungainly fashion, Harry and the swan make it out into the hallway. He knows he has tried most of the ground floor doors before, but he checks them all anyway, just in case.

When he reaches the last door before the stairs, he sighs, looking sternly at the swan and contemplating the idea of carrying it to the first floor. The swan merely stares back glassily and unmoved. Harry turns the knob and pushes the heavy door open with his hip.

The room is dark, but Harry can see the light attempting to filter through the gaps in the heavy curtains, and he deposits the swan on a little round table and yanks them open, flooding the room with bright morning sunlight. For a second or two he stands, motionless, allowing the warmth to soothe his weary face, watching the thousands of suddenly visible dust motes floating through the air.

When he looks around, he sees that the room is beautifully appointed, decorated in pale green and cream, and filled with elegant mahogany furniture. There are plants on every available surface, giving the impression that the chairs and tables and bookshelves have been set down in the middle of a slightly unruly botanical garden. It's wonderful. He loves it.

On the table nearest the window, Harry finds an empty coffee cup, a biscuit wrapper, and a small sketchbook containing several drawings of an intricately carved chest and a scribbled note reading: 'See about new Celestina record tomorrow, god help me'.

Harry snorts.

"So, this is your morning room," he murmurs, setting down the sketchbook and running his fingers gently through the trailing leaves of a gargantuan potted fern. The soil, when he touches it, is worryingly dry, and he suddenly remembers that the care of these plants is his responsibility.

Hurriedly, he looks around until he finds a metal watering can, fills it with a whispered 'Aguamenti' and sets to work rehydrating each plant in turn. He's never been much of a plant person, really, but there's a tremendous satisfaction to be found in watching the soil greedily absorbing the water and inhaling the fresh scent of damp earth. Soon, he is humming quietly under his breath, reaching up to water the plants in delicate silver baskets suspended from the ceiling, and his previous anguish begins to slip away. The sun warms the back of his neck and he smiles to himself.

It's not about Draco, anyway. Of course it's not.

"Where do you want this?"

Startled, Harry turns from his surreptitious polishing of a large fleshy leaf to see Draco in the doorway, eyes amused and arms full of Veneficus branches.

"Oh, er... I don't know." He shrugs and scratches at his forehead with his watering can-wielding arm. "Just stick them on the kitchen table and I'll take them to work with me tomorrow."

Draco's eyebrows shoot up. "I am not having a pile of dirty great sticks on my kitchen table."

"They're not dirty," Harry protests. "Anyway, you bought them."

"I know," Draco says darkly, and then his expression turns suddenly serene. "It's nice in here, isn't it?"

Harry stares, unable to prevent his stomach tightening at the sight of Draco's half smile.

It's definitely about Draco. At least a little bit.

"Mm," he manages, wiping his dirty hands on his jeans while Draco isn't looking.

"You were going to do the swan without me?" Draco demands, aghast, approaching the table and resting a proprietary hand on the swan's back.

"Of course not," Harry lies, setting down his watering can. "I just moved him in here so he wasn't in the way in the kitchen."

Draco smirks and dumps his armful of branches onto the table beside the swan. He lifts it carefully into his arms and gestures for Harry to follow. "Come on, then."

Grateful that he's been saved the trouble of both locating the Horrible Parlour and heaving the swan up the stairs, Harry traipses obediently out of the morning room and follows Draco up the stairs and along a seldom-used corridor.

Once inside the room, Harry flicks his wand to fling open the curtains and when the darkness is lifted, it is all he can do to suppress a gasp; from every shelf and sill and cabinet stare the sightless, beady eyes of myriad glass and porcelain and wooden creatures. Birds and rabbits and lions jostle for position with nymphs and sprites and, most bizarrely, a two-headed centaur. There's no denying that they are grotesque, but even as an unsettled shiver shoots down his spine, Harry is unaccountably amused by the idea of an entire room devoted to ugliness.

Harry quickly spots the moose, a vast, mottled green and blue thing, with terrifying, slightly crossed eyes and bulbous yellow antlers.

"You were right about the moose," he admits, glancing briefly at Draco. "It's definitely still the worst. I think I forgot how ugly it was."

"You must have," Draco says, and shudders.

Harry doesn't blame him. There's something in the moose's expression that suggests it wishes him ill. It's unnerving.

"Right, well, he needs a name," Draco says, wrestling the swan into a tiny space on an already crowded table. He stands back beside Harry and frowns, pensive.

Harry looks, too. "I don't know."

"It's your turn."

"Erm... Steve?" Harry stabs, attempting to avoid a duplicate name.

"Steve the swan?"

"Yes."

"That's awful," Draco says, mouth twitching. "I love it."

Harry smiles, catching his breath as Draco leans against him for a moment, warm and solid. When he pulls himself upright and heads back down the stairs, muttering about tea, Harry watches from the doorway of the room of Horrible Things, arms folded against his stupid feelings.

Out of the corner of his eye, something brightly coloured glints in the morning sun. He turns. The revolting moose is watching him, maybe even mocking him. He glares back and slams the door shut.

**~*~**

Over the next day or so, Harry wanders around the house, tentatively trying to feel out the post-Christmas routine of Draco and his other self, if any exists. He knows what he'd be doing at home, of course.

Every Boxing Day, Harry and his family have a standing invitation to Ron and Hermione's cottage for an evening of highly competitive Exploding Snap, their annual Gobstones tournament, and several rounds of team-based 'Find that Auror' around the nook-and-cranny-filled cottage and huge garden, with James, Hugo, and Lily playing against Al and Rose, while Ginny stands in the porch and says she's cold, and Hermione keeps score and refuses to help even her own children because 'it's cheating!' Ron always makes his famous Christmas Stew, the only dish he claims he's capable of cooking, full of mysterious secret ingredients, tradition, and dumplings the size of Bludgers.

There's always at least one argument and someone always ends up in tears or in a sulk, but it's always forgotten by the end of the evening, when Ron puts on a Muggle film and they all crowd around Hermione's huge, old, cleverly adapted television set to watch Indiana Jones or James Bond. It has always amused Harry to know that Ron shares his taste in Christmas entertainment with Harry's Uncle Vernon, even though he has never shared this with Ron for fear of mortally offending him.

With all of this in mind, Harry doesn't know quite what to make of the situation in which he now finds himself. Draco, after an extended, languid tea-drinking session, during which he had sprawled on the sofa, feet in Harry's lap and head on the worn leather arm, complaining about nothing much in particular, has now retreated to his armchair near the fire and disappeared under his usual avalanche of notes and documents. His new lamp has been eagerly pressed into service, and Harry feels both pleased and envious of his skilled other self to see it in use.

The soft green light flickers around the living room as darkness falls, and the silence, but for the rustle of parchment, is becoming oppressive. Draco scowls, hair in his eyes and quill behind his ear, and barely seems to notice Harry's restlessness as he buries himself in his work.

So, it's back to business as usual, then, Harry thinks, abandoning the Prophet crossword and getting to his feet for another aimless wander around the house. He's thinking with eagerness of his workshop, of creating something—of trying to create something—and of the challenge of learning something new. Perhaps he can have another go with the glassblowing, he thinks with a surprising little thrill in the pit of his stomach. He can't remember the last time he felt anything approaching excitement about returning to work after a holiday.

He's halfway out into the hallway when Draco calls out to him.

"Are you going into work tomorrow?"

Harry turns, afraid for a split second that Draco can read his mind. "Yeah, why?"

Draco glances up, face and eyes tinted green in the lamplight. "Can you nip into Borteg's and pick up the stuff I ordered for Sunday night? I don't know when I'm going to have time to get out of the house," he sighs, indicating the stacks and rolls of parchment that seem to have multiplied during their absence. "Please remind me of this the next time I say I want to investigate anything to do with the sodding Ministry."

"Yeah," Harry says, stalling for time. The only Borteg's he can think of is a very high-end whisky merchants right at the top of Diagon Alley. He frowns. "What's Sunday night?" he asks eventually.

Draco stares at him for a moment, eyes narrowed. He taps his fingers slowly, one, two, three, four, five times on each of his chair arms. "You know, I'm beginning to think that homemade gin of Blaise's did something to your memory," he muses.

Harry's stomach drops and he curls his fingers painfully around the doorframe. "What?"

"I actually think it has been worse than usual this week," Draco goes on, sweeping his hair out of his eyes and scrutinising Harry carefully. "I could put it down to age, of course..."

"I'm younger than you," Harry points out roughly. He has no idea if Draco is teasing him, criticising him, or genuinely suspicious of his behaviour, and he stares back, fearful and defiant.

"Oh, yes, all those weeks," Draco murmurs, sounding amused for a moment before something like concern flickers in his eyes and he sets down the piece of parchment he has been examining. "Are you sure you're alright? We can always have Blaise killed if need be."

Harry smiles weakly, relief sending adrenaline coursing through his veins. "I don't think that'll be necessary. I'm just a bit tired at the moment... not sleeping well, you know."

"I know that Christmas with my parents is... somewhat of a challenge for you," Draco says quietly, withdrawing the quill from behind his ear and fiddling with it on his lap.

"I've had worse," Harry admits, and means it. "I just..."

"I know you must miss them, Harry."

Harry's chest aches, and it takes a moment for him to realise that Draco is talking about his parents. Somehow, that realisation hurts even more.

"I don't really remember."

"I know. I also know that's not really how it works," Draco says, eyes bright; the tip of his tongue flicks out over his bottom lip in an anxious gesture. "I know you're under pressure, too. You don't complain nearly enough," he adds with a flicker of a smile.

Harry's soft laughter pulls at his chest. Heavy, he itches to cross the floor and throw himself at Draco's feet. He wants to feel careful fingers in his hair, strong hands on his shoulders, a warm mouth easing his restlessness away, but he grips the doorframe hard and sways slightly in place.

"What, so you can call me a drama queen? I don't think so. I think I'll just get an early night."

"You'd better," Draco says darkly, returning to his work. "I don't want you falling asleep on Sunday. On New Year's Eve. At the party we're having. Here in this house, where we live," he adds, sarcasm deepening with each word.

"Good night, Draco," Harry sighs, waiting until he turns away to roll his eyes.

It's good. It's all good. Just another social event at which he can embarrass himself.

"Don't forget to go to Borteg's!"

**~*~**

Harry doesn't forget to go to Borteg's. It would have been difficult, considering that when he wakes up alone in bed on Wednesday morning, he finds that Draco has left him no less than seven sticky notes reminding him to pick up the fucking whisky. There's one on the bedroom mirror, one on his toothbrush, one on the waistband of his favourite 'disgusting' work jeans, one on the kettle, one on his watering can in the morning room, and two on Frank, who slithers off into the airing cupboard in a sulk as soon as Harry has read them. He thinks he has found them all—seven is a good number, from what he remembers—but anything is possible.

If he didn't know better, he'd be insulted at the blatant dig at his memory. Getting old, indeed.

The trip to the whisky merchants is greatly enriched by the presence of Maura, who climbs through the kitchen fireplace at nine-thirty, just as he's putting on his coat and scarf and preparing to leave.

"Sorry about this," she says, nose wrinkled apologetically. "I forgot that you didn't know I was coming today. And probably some other days as well," she adds, blinking up at Harry.

"It's alright," Harry says, fishing her coat out of the hallway cupboard and handing it to her. "Sometimes it's nice to have someone to talk to."

As soon as the words are out, he feels ridiculous, but Maura merely nods seriously and pulls her red hood up over her hair. "It's raining," she explains. "Mummy's team aren't going to be very happy with her. She has all kinds of new tictacs for them to try."

"Tictacs?" Harry repeats, amused.

"Mm." She peers out of the front door reluctantly as Harry opens it. "They're going to get very, very wet."

Harry stands behind her and gazes out at the sheeting grey rain, too. It's not really a day to be outside. "Come on—if we run to those trees really fast, we can Apparate before we get soaked," he says, holding out his hand to Maura and praying to anyone who may be listening to keep him on his feet, at least for the next few minutes. "One, two, three..."

**~*~**

"Well, hello, Mr Potter."

Harry throws his entire weight against the heavy oak door, trying to close it on the ferocious slash of rain and wind that threatens to suck him and Maura back out into the street. The strange, sepulchral voice rings out in the cramped, wood-panelled space of the shop, and as soon as the door clicks shut, he looks around for the source of it.

"Hello," he says uncertainly, gazing at the figure emerging from behind the counter, a man so tall and skeletal that he seems to move jerkily, unfolding himself with each step like a black-clad crane fly. His dark hair is streaked with silver, and hangs in a long, thin plait down his back.

"And how are you, young lady?" the man asks solicitously of Maura, turning large blue eyes down to her. She looks as though she wants to take a step back, maybe hide behind Harry's coat, but to her credit, she stays exactly where she is and slowly draws her hood down from her curly hair.

"I'm alright, thank you, mister," she whispers, and then man's thin mouth creases into a wide smile, making his pale face look somehow even more terrifying.

"Good, that's good," he intones gloomily, still smiling. "Have you come for your order, Mr Potter?" he asks, turning back to Harry and drawing out the word with funereal relish.

"Yes, please." Harry watches the man as he nods quickly and picks his way back behind the counter. He folds down out of view and does not reappear for some time. Harry exchanges a sidelong glance with Maura, who shrugs, wide-eyed, and turns to examine the elaborate labels on some of the nearby bottles. "A lot of the other shops are closed today," Harry says, more to break the silence than anything else.

A soft rattle of laughter issues from behind the counter and then there's the flash of a pointed, crouching knee as the man shifts position. "Good whisky is a three hundred and sixty-five day a year business, Mr Potter. Or three hundred and sixty-six, as the vagaries of our calendar dictate," he booms.

"That's... certainly true," Harry manages, distracted as Maura tugs on his sleeve and indicates a row of unusual, bulbous bottles, each bearing a label with the words:

Borteg's Own

Veneficus-aged Single Malt Firewhisky


And an old-fashioned sepia-tinted picture of that peculiar man, the one who is now emerging, clinking, with a box in his arms, from behind the counter.

"He must be Mr Borteg himself," Harry mumbles, touching the label gently.

Maura nods. "What's a ven... veneffcus?"

"Veneficus," Mr Borteg booms gloomily, clinking and jerking his way over to them with the box. "A very rare plant, young lady. Very rare indeed. Magical properties in the wood," he says, wrapping long, pale fingers around the nearest bottle and gazing rapturously into its depths, "give magical properties to the whisky. This, Mr Potter, is the best whisky money can buy."

If that's true, Harry thinks, he sounds very sad about it. "Sounds good to me. I don't suppose there's any of that in the box there?"

Mr Borteg laughs until his rail-thin body sways alarmingly and his long plait flips over his shoulder and into Harry's box. "Good lord, no. Mr Malfoy asked me for a selection for his New Year's Eve celebration. My selections are high quality, of course, but... appropriate."

"Right, of course," Harry says, hoping he's not making his ignorance too obvious. He knows as much about whisky as he knows about restaurants and carpentry—all subjects in which his other self is apparently expert.

"What sort of magical things does the wood do?" Maura asks Harry as the shop doorbell tinkles and Mr Borteg sets down Harry's box to attend to the new customer.

"I've got some at home," he says quietly. "I'll bring it to the 'shop one day and we can find out."

"You could make your own whisky in it," Maura suggests, peering into the box at the glinting rows of bottles.

"One thing at a time," Harry advises, ruffling her hair and going to pay Mr Borteg.

Pockets stripped of gold, Harry leaves the shop minutes later with the heavy box in his arms and Maura in tow. They walk quickly against the heavy rain until they reach the 'shop, where Harry hurries to activate the protective charms that will allow them to open the door and pile inside. Once they are out of the downpour, the drumming of the rain against the skylights is a comforting sound, which, combined with a couple of Warming Charms and the light from the lamps creates a bright little haven for Harry and Maura.

They sit cross-legged, facing one another, atop the spare workbench, picking through the contents of the box with interest.

"This is the one Daddy likes," Maura says, lifting out a green-tinged bottle with a pen and ink drawing of a goose on the label. "Mummy says it's too expensive."

Harry snorts. "She's right. I don't think I've ever spent so much all in one go."

"Can I come to your party?" Maura doesn't look at him; she concentrates very hard on buckling and unbuckling her shoe.

"I don't know," Harry says. "I didn't even know I was having a party until last night. I don't want to get into trouble with your mum and dad... or Draco, for that matter. Do we have a lot of parties?"

"Quite a lot. You always have one for New Year."

"Do you come to them?"

Maura glances up at him, brown eyes large. "Sometimes. Not the New Year ones. Mummy says I wouldn't like it, anyway. I bet I would."

"Sorry, Maura, but I don't think I can argue with your mum," Harry says apologetically, feeling as though it's far from the first time he has said those words—it's not as though he's ever been a disciplinarian, even in his own family.

Maura pouts and sighs. "Boring. I'll have to go to Grandma's."

"Don't you like it there? I used to love going to the Burrow when I was little."

"Mm," she shrugs. "Maybe Grandma and Grandad will have a party with me. And Hugo," she adds, brightening.

"And Rose," Harry reminds her.

"Rose only likes reading a book," Maura says. "She's boring."

"That's not nice," Harry says, heartsore for poor Rose. "Maybe she's just a bit lonely. I know she's a bit older than you, but she might want to join in if you ask her nicely. She's very clever, you know, why don't you ask her to help you with something? I bet she'd help you plan a party, too."

"She won't want to help us," Maura says, screwing up her nose uncertainly.

Harry exhales slowly, staring at the little girl and feeling a 'parent' moment coming on.

"She might," he says, gently poking Maura's corduroy-clad knee. "It feels really nice to help someone. You like helping me, don't you? Looking after me so I don't make an idiot out of myself? Or... as much of an idiot out of myself as I could make on my own?" he tries, poking her again until she smiles and looks up.

"Yeah," she says quietly.

"There you go, then. Okay. I'm going to give you some advice now, and I hope you'll be better at following it than I am," Harry says, leaning forward.

Maura leans forward, too, eyes wide, and for a moment he forgets that he's talking to a seven-year-old girl. Above them, the rain hammers against the glass and the sawdust-scented air is suddenly heavy with concentration.

"Never forget that there's generosity in receiving," he says gravely.

Maura frowns. "What does that mean?" she whispers.

Harry blinks. Chews his lip gently, shuffling the words around in his head. "It means that... you know how we agreed that it feels good to help someone?" Maura nods. "Well, when you let someone help you, you're letting them have that nice feeling. People always think they have to be the one doing the helping to be kind, but that's not true."

Maura purses her lips and draws her knees up under her chin. "That's clever."

"Thank you." Harry smiles. "Someone very smart told me that a long time ago."

"Who?"

"Your mother," Harry says, enjoying Maura's look of surprise and letting it smooth a balm over the sore memory of Ginny's stern words to him when, weeks after the end of the war, he had been struggling to hold everything together on his own. He had listened then, but not too many times since.

"Do you let people help you, then?" Maura asks, echoing his thoughts.

Harry hesitates, pulling his sleeves down over his fingers. This isn't the first time he's wished he were a better role model, but it is probably the most wistful he's ever been about following his own advice.

"Not really. I should, though," he admits at last.

Maura's smile is bright in the lamplight. "I won't tell anyone." She tips her head back and gazes at the skylight above her head. "It's stopped raining."

Harry looks with her, stretching. "So it has."

"Please can I have an ice cream?"

"In December?"

"Fortescue's is open, I looked on the way here," Maura advises, somewhat missing the point.

Harry smiles and shrugs, sliding off the table and holding out his arms to help Maura down. "Okay, but then I really have to do some work."

He supposes it's the least he can do.

**~*~**

Maura quickly becomes a fixture in the workshop over the next few days, as Ginny's and Blaise's post-Christmas work schedules appear to spiral out of control. It's usually Ginny who appears in the late afternoon to collect her daughter, bringing with her the sharp smell of winter and the familiar earthy scent of muddy grass and wet fabric that yanks Harry back to his schooldays with one whiff.

If the little girl is distressed by her parents' absence during the holidays, she doesn't show it. In fact, she seems more than happy to spend her days in the workshop, in the company of her not-quite Uncle Harry, observing from the relative comfort of the spare workbench, taking money from customers with a bewilderingly accomplished charm that is all her father, or assisting Harry with his increasingly confident glassblowing experiments.

"Do you miss your mum and dad when they're at work?" he asks her one afternoon, taking a piece of red glass from the box she's holding out.

"You've never asked me that before," she says plainly.

"Oh," he says, surprised. "Sorry." Puzzled, he turns his attention back to the sizzling iron dish in front of him, where the red glass is slowly melting into a shimmering blob. "Can you find me another red one, please? Just a small one," he adds, adjusting the flames with his wand.

"Little red one," Maura sings to herself, poking around in the clinking box with her finger. "Here—ow!"

Her sudden hiss of pain prickles at the back of Harry's neck and he turns quickly, just in time to see her set the box down and pull her hand up to her face to examine it, eyebrows drawn down in pain and irritation. She's bleeding.

"Come here," Harry insists, enclosing her slender wrist and inspecting the angry cut that slices right across the tip of her index finger. It's not too deep, but Harry reacts without thinking at the sight of the dark beads of blood welling into the wound, reaching for his wand and whispering an oft-used healing spell until the edges of the cut begin to knit back together, leaving a faint white scar.

"Oh," Maura manages, sounding startled. When Harry releases her hand, she stares at it for such a long time that he wonders if he's done something wrong.

"Are you alright?"

She looks up. "Yep. I cut myself all the time in here," she says casually. "So do you."

Trying to ignore that statement, Harry presses: "What's wrong, then? Does your Uncle Harry use a different healing spell? I know that one's a bit cold, but it's a good one."

Maura gives him an odd little smile. "Normally he just tells me to stick it in my mouth and suck it."

Harry blinks. "Really?"

"Mmhm. Saliva is a natural antiseptic," she says earnestly, and it only takes a split-second for Harry to realise that she is quoting, well, him.

And then his head is full of images, snapshots, of Lily falling out of a tree in the park, of Al's first broomstick crash, of the time a young Teddy tried to 'check' if baby James was magic. How he's always tried to let them make their own mistakes, but is still lurking in the background with a battery of healing spells up his sleeve for when they do. And protecting Maura, now, is as natural to him as breathing—apparently, being a parent really does change everything.

"What's the matter?" she asks suddenly, and Harry realises he's been staring at thin air.

"Nothing, I'm fine," he says, deciding that there are some things in this surreal situation that a seven-year-old, even a very smart one, shouldn't have to deal with. "So, I know about your mum's new tictacs, what's Dad doing that's keeping him so busy?"

"Re-struc-tring," she says carefully, opening her uninjured hand and offering Harry the piece of red glass he had almost forgotten asking for.

"Thanks. And what exactly does that mean?" he asks, genuinely quite clueless, having learned to switch off to business talk many, many years ago. It's a good thing he did, he thinks now, or he could've ended up somewhere really terrifying, like middle management in a drill company.

"It means that Daddy stays late at work a lot," she advises. "And then Uncle Nev comes over for dinner and they write big lists and then rip them up."

Harry laughs. "Sounds like fun. Is that what you want to do when you're older?"

Maura pulls a face and picks up the box again. "No. I'm going to play Quilditch, and make things out of glass—only red things—and... be Minister for Magic."

Biting down on a smile, Harry nods seriously. "You'll have to work hard at school to do all that."

"That's what Auntie 'Mione always says," Maura sighs, sifting, more carefully now, through the box of glass for red pieces.

Harry supposes it's reassuring to know that some things are always the same, wherever he is.

And even in a strange place like this, it seems that comfortable routines are capable of springing up with relative ease, given the right people and the right confluence of events. Maura, in need of a babysitter-slash-partner-in-crime, is the perfect foil for Harry, who is on an avoidance mission of dramatic proportions. The workshop provides a place where he can hide from Draco, and Maura seems more than happy to assist him in any activity he comes up with that distracts from further attempts at the little table.

The pick-up date may be looming closer and closer, but Harry is determinedly not thinking about it. The same way he is not thinking about the feeling of Draco's skin against his at night, every night, or the warm intensity of his kisses, or the way that, nine times out of ten, he'll have a quill tucked behind his ear before he puts his shirt on in the morning. The same way he squashes the little thrill he feels when he makes tea in the right stripy cup and Draco smiles at him so easily.

They are developing a routine, too. It's inevitable, as much as Harry tries to resist, and as the last days of the year slip away, there's a small, unsettling part of him that feels like he's always been here. He finds himself wandering Diagon Alley when it's his turn to cook dinner, nipping into interesting little delicatessens and grocers and looking for unusual ingredients to play with, secretly hoping to please his receptive dining companion. Draco, for all his faults, will eat pretty much anything as long as it is properly cooked, and this is one quality of his that Harry is content to like.

Maura, on the other hand, who follows him from odd little shop to odder little shop like a talkative shadow, has some of the strangest eating habits Harry has ever experienced.

At lunchtime on Friday, they take advantage of the crisp, sunny weather and decamp to a low stone bench near the workshop, eating and watching the Diagon Alley shoppers, competing to point out the person with the silliest hat.

"There—it's got bells on it," Harry says, nudging Maura and folding the last piece of chicken sandwich into his mouth.

Maura grins, absent-mindedly dipping her sausage roll into her cup of fresh orange juice.

Harry cringes and swallows his mouthful of chicken and bread with some effort. "Are you going to eat that, or are you just playing with it?" he asks, sounding—to his horror—just like Molly Weasley.

"Eat it," Maura says, looking up with surprise. "Do you want some?"

"No, thanks."

"Uncle Harry usually tries things with me," she says, sounding disappointed.

"Really?" Harry chews his lip and gazes into huge, innocent brown eyes. He sighs. It might be okay... after all, he eats pork and apple, why not pork and orange...? Really, he should be encouraging such open-mindedness. "Okay."

Maura holds out the soggy, dripping sausage roll and he takes a large, decisive bite. The acidic taste of the orange hits his tongue first, quickly followed by the salty pork and the squash-slap of soaked puff pastry that slimes over the roof of his mouth and sticks to his teeth. It's disgusting. Truly, absolutely... he looks at Maura, aghast, and her face is expectant. Dragging in a deep breath through his nose, he tries to swallow it, but the sticky mess just does not want to go down. Horrified, he holds out his hand for the juice and gulps at it until he can force a swallow.

Nose wrinkling, he pokes his tongue at the pastry caught in his teeth. "Sorry, Maura, but that's horrible."

"Uncle Harry always says that, too," she says, grinning and reclaiming her juice. "Crocodile hat!" she adds, pointing.

"You're a horror," he mumbles, wondering what it will take to shift the feeling that something has died in his mouth.

When, later that afternoon, a pair of snowy owls swoop into the 'shop with the promised spinach cake from Mr Pepper, Maura is delighted.

"Oh, I love this!" she cries, sniffing at the cake and stroking the head of each owl in turn before they take off and disappear from view.

Harry, however, suddenly has a lead weight in his stomach that has nothing to do with spinach cake. Mr Pepper, who has sent him a disgusting cake with the best of intentions, is expecting a beautifully crafted, one-of-a-kind table in less than a week, and Harry has... nothing. As he stands there, leaning against his workbench with his eyes closed, the guilt of those wasted days slams into him, and he wraps his fingers around the hard, cold edge of the bench, feeling terrible.

Since when did he become such an irresponsible prick? The sort of person who breaks his promises?

You're not, whispers a soft, cultured voice inside his head. Because you're not going to do that.

Trying not to think about that voice or, indeed, how it got there, Harry shakes his head and turns to Maura, who is peeling the brown paper away from the cake.

"Don't eat it all at once, you'll be sick. I'm going to make this table. Right now."

She says nothing, but watches him with wide eyes as he stomps over to the stores and levitates the second to last—second to last? Where does a person get a lump of beech over New Year?—piece of beech over to his workbench.

"D'you want any help?" Maura says softly, creeping around to the opposite side of his bench and leaning around the wood to make contact, large chunk of squashy green cake in her hands.

Harry sighs and gazes at the beech, half-hoping to stare it into submission.

"As dramatic as this sounds, Maura, I don't think anyone can help me," he admits.

She nods and retreats, climbing up onto the other worktable out of the way. "Uncle Harry could," she whispers.

Harry doesn't have a reply for that.

He ties on his apron, Summons as many tools as he can fit into his workspace, and takes a deep breath. He has to do this systematically. Logically. He has now learned plenty of ways not to make a table, so, in theory, he must be closer to the way of doing it properly.

He can deal with the glass... he thinks. It's just, well... everything else.

Feeling slightly sick, Harry grabs his tape measure and his saw, steadying his hands and his nerves as best he can and sets to work.

Sawing carefully, gripping the handle tightly, struggling to keep it straight, wood dust in his nostrils and every splinter and waver mocking him, measuring and re-measuring, rubbing at his damp forehead with the backs of gritty hands, ducking over and over to keep his pieces at eye-level as he fits them together, snatches of the carpentry books from the morning room running through his head like a constant mantra. He sands until his hands are raw and sore, not caring because these things in his hands finally, finally look like spindles, and it's a triumph.

In the background, he can hear the sporadic kicking of Maura's legs as she lounges on the spare bench, and the soft sound of her singing to herself, something that sounds suspiciously like 'A Mermish Melody'. Fucking Celestina.

He barely hears her, though; he's in a blur, caught up in the repetitive movements and delicate adjustments, knowing he's learned something and flying with the knowledge that he's getting it right this time. Just maybe...

The sun has gone down by the time he steps back, sore and cramped, and he looks around, finally realising that he has been working in the dark.

"Sorry, Maura," he says, flicking light into the lamps with his wand. "You should have said something."

"You were concentrating," she says, pulling herself into a seated position and adjusting her pigtails.

Harry smiles wearily. "Well, I think I'm getting somewhere. What do you think?" he asks, turning expectantly to properly view the afternoon's work.

Maura makes an odd little sound but says nothing.

In the lamplight, Harry stares at his table, aghast.

It's as though he's looking at it for the first time. As though he's spent the last few hours working on something completely different... as though his table has been stealthily swapped by unseen hands. With this.

"What?" he manages, voice rough. Stomach dropping, he steps closer, and it's now obvious that what he has produced could scarcely be called a table at all. The spindles are bulky and uneven, the top is lopsided, the joints don't align properly, and the whole thing is covered in splinters which glint mockingly in the light. "I thought I was doing okay," he mumbles, lifting a hot, sore, hand to scrub at his hair.

"It's better than the last one," Maura says quietly, but Harry barely hears her.

The heavy disappointment in his veins is shifting, seething, into liquid fury at his own failure, at this ridiculous situation in which all of his skills are pointless, at Boris and at Draco and at Mr Pepper, who wants a fancy-arse table that Harry cannot give him. He has no idea why he ever even expected to be successful—he knows that everyone else expects him to excel in any situation he is dropped into, but he has always been well aware of his own shortcomings; his survival has often depended on it.

And yet this talent belongs, not to someone else, but to another version of himself. How can it be so fucking hard? Prickling all over, Harry stands motionless for a second or two before he viciously vanishes the mauled chunk of wood and, without really thinking, Summons the last piece of beech with such power that it almost misses the workbench; it skids along the edge and whips a nasty graze across Harry's upper arm as he steadies it, wincing.

"What are you going to do?" Maura asks, voice high-pitched with anxiety.

"I have no idea," Harry admits, feeling around for a large hammer and testing the weight of it in his hands. Through the static blaring in his ears, he hears himself say: "Don't worry," and then he gives in, raising the hammer high and swinging it at the beech with all the frustration he can muster. The blow tingles all the way up his arms and splinters off a satisfyingly large section of wood.

Blood racing, he hacks harder, swapping tools at random and pouring his inadequacy, rage and fear into this huge, pointless act of destruction. Teeth gritted, he carves and hacks and sears, gripping the rough, splintered wood with his bare hands, turning it this way and that and following the path of his fingers with the edge of a chisel, grabbing up his wand and casting blindly, instinctively, creating small explosions and sparks that elicit delighted applause from a no-longer-frightened Maura.

"Put some glass in it," she suggests, bright-eyed and hugging a battered old gimlet to her chest in her excitement.

"Glass?" Harry manages, breathing hard and sweat-sticky as he glances at Maura, and then at the glassblowing tools behind her. "Hm."

Still in a haze, he fires up the makeshift furnaces and sets to work, taking the pieces from Maura as she passes them, trusting her selections. The smell of the glass, now familiar, is comforting, intoxicating, and Harry breathes it in, narrowing his eyes against the heat and the glare as he controls his breath and turns the pipe slowly, blowing a series of odd, nebulous shapes.

As they harden in the green flames, Harry and Maura watch the flickering colours in near silence, sitting side by side on the cold stone floor. When she rests her head against his shoulder, he puts his arm around her and hugs her lightly. She says nothing, but smiles at the flames.

The stars are well and truly out by the time they get to their feet and retrieve the glass bulbs; Harry knows that Ginny will be here before long, but he hopes silently for her to stay away, just for a little longer, just so that the two of them can finish their odd little project.

When Harry's leg gives way without warning, he drops two of the bulbs and they smash on the flags. Still slightly dazed, he sighs, picks himself up, and scoops the pieces into his hands. Maura, now that the flailing and hacking has ceased, climbs onto his workbench and watches him seal, mould, and charm the bulbs and shattered pieces into place.

"That's pretty," she pronounces, watching Harry trail little lights everywhere with his wand, and an odd sort of calm starts to drain through his body. Impulsively, he draws soft blue flames through each of the shimmering glass bulbs, sending gentle shadows flickering over the smooth grain of the wood and Maura's face.

"There," he says eventually, dropping his wand and leaning on the workbench, weight on his hands. His eyes are sore and dry, and he blinks with some effort to regard his creation. He's made a... something. A one of those.

"I like it," Maura says, sitting back on her heels and admiring the smooth curves of the wood, the odd, otherworldly carved lines and the sparkling points of light. It's sort of attractive if he turns his head on one side and squints, which can't be a good thing. And besides, it's completely pointless, and it definitely isn't a little table with tumbling vines and spindles.

"Sorry I'm late!" Ginny calls, seconds before the door flies open.

Harry takes one last look at the thing and throws a Disillusionment Charm over it. When Ginny and Maura have left, he removes the charm, sighs at the waste of perfectly good beech, and heaves it onto a dusty shelf, out of the way.

He'll think of something. He hopes.

**~*~**

"When were you planning on telling me that you're going to distil your own whisky?" Draco asks, apropos of nothing, as he pokes curiously at his dinner the following night.

Harry coughs, spluttering slightly on his tea, and tries to decipher the odd little half-smile that's pulling at Draco's lips. "Why would you think that?" he asks.

"Just a firecall from a little madam," Draco says, glancing up at Harry. "About ten minutes before you got home. It seems she wanted to just check that you hadn't changed your mind about inviting her to your party."

"Ah, that," Harry says, shaking his head. "Sorry."

"What I'd like to know," Draco continues, stabbing at a butterbean on his plate, "is how she got the impression that you are having a party. Tell me, have we ever hosted a gathering during which you have done anything more useful than lounging around looking decorative and making fun of me?"

Secretly rather relieved, Harry shrugs. He can certainly do that. "I didn't tell her anything like that. You know how children are; they come to their own conclusions." He pauses, feeling a spark of wickedness. "Maybe she thinks I'm more fun than you."

Draco arches an eyebrow and says nothing for a moment. "What's this?" he asks eventually, indicating his half-empty plate.

"Cassoulet. Do you like it?"

"No," Draco says, sliding another loaded forkful into his mouth. Harry watches with interest as his licks his bottom lip and decides, with some pleasure, that he's lying.

"Good. And the whisky thing?"

Draco smirks. "Search me. She seems to be under the impression that you're planning to turn your workshop into a distillery."

Amused, Harry attempts to explain about Mr Borteg and the very expensive firewhisky. Draco listens with his strange half-smile in place and carefully mops up the last of his sauce with a piece of crusty bread. When he's finished, he looks up at Harry with such bright, easy warmth that Harry falters mid-sentence, heart kicked into a rapid rhythm.

"... so, yeah, that's... that's it, really," he manages, dropping his eyes to his plate. This is ridiculous. He's a grown man. An old man, sometimes. And Draco, well... what's the use in hiding from him, in avoiding supposedly 'risky' situations, when he can bring Harry to a standstill by looking at him across the fucking dinner table?

Harry sighs. "Did you tell her she could come?"

Draco shakes his head. "While I suspect she would be better behaved than most of our adult guests, I really don't need another person to look after."

Harry, who can't remember the last adults-only party he attended, just nods thoughtfully. "Maybe I'll take the Veneficus in on Monday," he muses. "Try to make up for leaving her out of your boring grown-up party."

"Charming," Draco says, pushing away his empty plate and sighing with satisfaction. "Of course, you're insane to give up your recovery time. Anybody would think you were that child's father," he adds carelessly.

Harry swallows hard, whispers, "Yeah."

**~*~**

As the last sixty minutes before the party tick away, Harry is in the study, surrounded by books on Herbology, carpentry, and everything in between, in an attempt to learn something about Veneficus and enjoy the silence while he can. Irrational though it may be, he's apprehensive about the coming evening, and the last thing he needs is for Draco to notice. Not that there's much chance of that at the moment, as he's been in the bathroom for—Harry glances at the clock—forty minutes now, and the shower is still hissing away.

He's toying with the idea of running upstairs and checking that Draco hasn't drowned or dissolved when he hears the voice. Frowning, he strains his ears, shifting position pointlessly on the hearthrug and leaning toward the door. It's a familiar voice, high-pitched and slightly frazzled, and the increasing volume clearly demands his attention. Curious, he marks his place in 'Working with Weird Woods' and clatters down to the kitchen, following the voice to its source.

"Oh, there you are, Mister Potter!"

"Hello, Senka," Harry says, gazing in puzzlement at the elf's disembodied head in the flames. "What's wrong?"

The huge eyes blink anxiously. "Nothing is wrong, sir, but something will be if Senka doesn't bring the food through right away. Mister Malfoy will be returning from his walk in a very short time, and we's not needing to discuss the unpleasantness that would follow," she says darkly.

None the wiser, Harry nods vaguely and indicates for Senka to come through. Visibly relieved, she withdraws her face from the fireplace and, seconds later, steps into the kitchen, laden with so many great silver platters that Harry is all at once terrified she's going to drop them all and unable to look away.

"Do you need some help?" he asks faintly, still not quite able to believe that Draco borrows—more like poaches, he supposes—his parents' house-elf to cater his New Year's Eve party.

"So kind, sir, but not necessary," Senka says, and then there's a sharp crack and all the platters disappear, reappearing instantly in an orderly circle on the kitchen table.

"Impressive," Harry says, gazing over at the mounds of intricate canapés, cheeses and crackers, tiny pies and cakes. He's suddenly ravenous, salivating at the thought of sampling one of everything before Draco comes downstairs.

Senka laughs. "Sir says that every time. Bilby is sending his regards, Mister Potter, and he says that the lemon tart is even better this year. He says."

"Haven't you tried it?"

"Senka does not mess about with fruit," she says flatly. Harry hides a smile.

"Of course." And of course Draco filches Senka and Bilby's catering services for his own ends—he is a Malfoy, after all. Somehow, Harry had almost forgotten.

She nods solemnly, smoothing her long fingers over her pristine cream pillowcase. "Bilby will return tomorrow for the trays, very quiet, of course." She turns to leave.

"Do I... look alright?" Harry asks impulsively. He feels ridiculous as soon as the words are out of his mouth, but even more so when Senka turns back to him, eyes wide, and obediently looks him up and down.

And, momentary attack of insecurity aside, Harry is feeling pretty pleased with himself. He has dressed without instruction or approval from Draco, and he thinks he's done a fairly good job. He also thinks he may be getting used to all of this strange, fashionable stuff, too, and he's not sure whether or not he should be worried about that. He's never paid attention to his clothes before, but he's finding a new satisfaction in putting things together, experimenting, adding and taking away—it's like a puzzle, and he thinks he likes it. And not only that, putting on something other than old jeans or Auror robes makes him feel, dare he say it, younger.

Senka regards him, head on one side.

"Very smart, but sir's shirt is..." She pauses, holding up her hands illustratively off-balance, "... is not correct."

Frowning, Harry glances down at his finely striped black and grey shirt. She's right. In his eagerness to get dressed and get out of the way, he has managed to completely fuck up the buttons. So much for all that fashion confidence; apparently he can't even dress himself.

As he carelessly unbuttons his shirt to the chest so that he can correct his mistake, Senka turns away and bobs deferentially as she steps back into the fireplace. "Wonderful New Year to sir and Master Malfoy," she says, and disappears in a burst of green flames.

"You too," Harry says to the empty kitchen, fastening the last button and examining himself critically for further idiotic errors.

"Talking to yourself?" Draco inquires, breezing into the kitchen and bringing with him a delicious, warm, freshly-showered scent that makes Harry's skin tingle.

"No. Your ill-gotten food has arrived," Harry says, indicating the table.

Draco snorts. "For fuck's sake. What did she say to you this time?" he asks, stepping closer to the table and leaning over to examine the food with interest, giving Harry an equally interesting view of tight-fitting denim pulling across his arse and a sliver of pale back as his shirt rides up.

"What?"

Draco turns around with a miniature cauldron cake in his hand. "I said, what did she say to you? Senka? She's great but she does have an overdeveloped sense of the dramatic. Do you want one of these? I think they're new."

Startled, Harry accepts the offering. "She said she'd better get back before there was any unpleasantness," he says, deciding that Draco doesn't need to know about anything else the house-elf might have said.

"Fantastic," Draco says, grinning and helping himself to another little cauldron cake. "I can only assume she's still thinking about that time my father caught her making stuff for us and ate the lot by himself out of spite."

Harry laughs, delighted by the image. "I suppose so."

"I didn't bring you up to steal other people's servants, Draco!" he mocks, lowered voice and flashing eyes at complete odds with his lazy, elegant slouch against the kitchen counter. "Think of all that cleaning time lost! That silver doesn't polish itself, you know!"

Harry can't help it; he laughs himself breathless. Draco drops the cool expression and laughs with him, shifting to lean against him, smile pressed into his neck and an arm around his waist. Automatically, Harry rests a hand against his back, steadying him.

"You know," he mumbles into Draco's hair, "I think Arthur once confiscated some self-polishing silver. Candlesticks, if I remember correctly."

For some reason, Draco seems to find this hilarious, and he's still leaning against Harry, incapacitated, when the first guests arrive.

"What's the matter with him?" Ginny asks curiously, following Harry into the kitchen and hanging her coat over a spare chair.

Draco snorts gently and ignores the comment, instead splashing Gargantuan Goose whisky into two heavy glass tumblers and offering them to Ginny and Blaise.

"Something about your dad's self-polishing candlesticks," Harry says absently, and then that's it.

"I think we're going to need more Goose," Blaise declares, grinning broadly and filling the room with a rumble of warm laughter. Suddenly, it feels like a party.

**~*~**

Over the next half an hour, Harry finds himself on door duty. Having had no real idea of the guest list beforehand, he's relieved to open the door to Ron and Hermione, George, and Fred, who has his arm around a pretty blonde woman named Jenny, who, from the look of the sparkling ring on her finger, is his fiancée. Harry's stomach takes some time to stop twisting and flopping at the idea, but Jenny is sweet and kind, Fred is happy, and George, who has turned up alone, seems to be relishing the bachelor life. He can deal with that, he thinks.

The surprise comes a little later, when the nine of them have decamped to the living room and are sitting, in various combinations, on the chairs, sofas, and the floor, cradling heavy glasses of Mr Borteg's fancy whisky, talking and laughing and eating Senka's illicit canapés.

Everyone is dressed up, and Harry finds himself sitting back and enjoying another opportunity to see his friends, especially Ginny and Hermione, sparkling and bright in their smart clothes, clearly revelling in the adult company and the chance to be someone other than a parent for the night.

"Look at us, being all civilised," he says to Ginny.

She leans back next to him on the sofa and sighs contentedly. "Yeah." She tilts her head and looks at him, shiny lips tugged into a smile. "Shame it won't last, eh?"

Harry shrugs, glancing lazily around the room. "I can't see it getting too wild, somehow."

A knock at the door makes everyone look up for a moment, but no one moves, least of all Draco, who is in the middle of a well-worn tirade about the evils of the Ministry. Jenny, who is sitting on an ottoman next to him, is nodding carefully and appears to be listening.

Harry sighs and gets up, taking his glass with him.

"It's probably just Nev," Ginny says, and he brightens, picking up the pace and clicking along the tiles to the front door. He wrenches it open.

"Hi," he says, smiling genuinely at Neville, who attempts a smile back but still looks about as worried as he used to when confronted with Snape.

"Sorry I'm... we're late," he mumbles, and then Harry sees it. It stands up from tying its shoelace and smiles greasily into Harry's face. Immediately, all the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

"Goldstein," he says stiffly. Surely Draco didn't invite him. Surely he didn't.

"Good to see you, Harry," Goldstein says, eyes gleaming. Beside him, Neville's face flushes and he stares down at his shoes. Harry is baffled and all his instincts are telling him not to let that prick into his house, but this isn't really his party and he can't just leave them on the doorstep all night. Especially Neville, who looks all kinds of guilty, just further deepening Harry's intrigue.

"Yeah," he manages, keeping his face neutral. "Come in." He steps back, allowing them to pass, and then slams the door behind him and leans on it. Why the hell would anyone invite him to a party? he thinks mutinously, and then he remembers something. Something about Neville.

'...and as we've managed to pry him away from his experimental greenhouse, or whatever he calls it, for the evening, Blaise and I thought we'd have another go at setting him up...'

Ginny, the interfering bugger, was trying to set him up with someone who was in attendance at the Weasleys' Christmas party. Oh, no. Harry closes his eyes and groans. Neville and Goldstein. No wonder he doesn't look happy.

Harry stalks back along the corridor and into the living room, just in time to see the murderous expression on Draco's face as Neville and Goldstein join the party. Unfortunately, he doesn't think he can do much about that right now. Instead, he catches Ginny's eye and beckons to her. Frowning, she sets down her glass, picks her way across the room, and follows him out into the hallway.

"What?"

"That's who you set Neville up with? Him? Are you mad?"

Ginny's eyes widen as she understands; she twists to look back into the living room and then turns back to Harry with her arms folded. "No!" she hisses. "I was trying to set him up with Derek from the team, and then Derek's mum died, and he didn't feel much like dating, and... well, this happened. Apparently." She sighs. "I had nothing to do with it, I promise."

"Oh," Harry says, the wind somewhat taken from his sails. "Then... what is he doing here?"

"I don't know," Ginny whispers, and then, narrowing her eyes: "Why would I do that to you, you idiot?"

"Sorry," Harry says, realising his mistake. "So..."

"Harry, I'm so sorry," interrupts Neville, scuttling into the hallway. He still has his coat on and looks mortified. "It's my fault. He's with me."

For a second or two, there is silence but for the soft chatter from the living room, and Harry and Ginny exchange startled glances. Then they turn, as one, to Neville, demanding:

"Excuse me?"

"Nev, tell me you're joking."

"Unfortunately not," Neville sighs, meeting Harry's eyes apologetically. "I tried to get rid of him, but... well, it's sort of a long story."

"Good heavens, look at all these Weasleys!" Goldstein declares loudly from the living room, and there's something in his tone that makes Ginny bristle.

Seconds later, Draco appears in the hallway, pulling the door closed behind him and rounding on Ginny. "What is he doing here?" he demands, apparently jumping to the same erroneous conclusion as Harry.

"Nothing to do with me," Ginny says, holding her hands up and doing well, Harry thinks, not to step back from the irate expression on Draco's face.

"I brought him," Neville says miserably, shoving his hands into his trouser pockets. "I tried not to, but he's very persistent."

"That's certainly true," Harry agrees with feeling.

"I'm not following," Draco says, ire fading to exasperation. "All I know is that there is a man nobody likes in my living room, insulting my guests and showing me up by bringing his own whisky. Somebody please explain to me why this is happening before I go back in there and start pelting him with canapés."

"Drama, drama," Ginny murmurs, tucking her hair behind her ear and sharing a look of secret amusement with Harry.

Neville shifts uncomfortably on the spot and sighs. "Okay. About a week ago, just before Christmas, I was leaving work for the night and we literally bumped into each other... I nearly fell over him, actually, it was really embarrassing. But he wasn't annoyed... he asked me for a drink." Neville pauses, leaning against the wall and rubbing at his face, as though he'd rather not say another word.

Harry, however, is intrigued. And surprised, although, having never seen Neville with a partner, or even discussed matters romantic, he doesn't suppose he has any right to be. Still, he's absolutely certain that Nev can do better than Anthony Goldstein.

"And?" Ginny presses, poking Neville lightly with her foot.

"And I feel like a complete idiot about it now," he groans. "But at the time... I don't know, it was Christmas, I was lonely. He said he'd always had a bit of a thing about me at school, and I didn't believe him at first, but then I thought... well, why not? He's a good-looking bloke; he was being really nice to me..." Neville flushes further and looks desperately at Harry, hair ruffled and eyes repentant.

"So you invited him along tonight," Harry says, catching his misery and feeling compelled to lessen it.

Neville nods. "The thing is... after that first day he wouldn't stop talking about you, and I realised that, well, he's just using me. Obviously," he finishes in a hoarse whisper, and Ginny rubs his arm briskly.

"Not 'obviously', Nev. Don't say that. Anthony's a slimy bastard, but there are plenty of non-slimy... er, un-bastards out there who would be lucky to have you," she says stoutly, and Harry nods.

"She's right," Draco says, "but seeing as you have clearly had that moment of realisation, why is he here?"

"He wouldn't take the hint," Nev sighs. He still looks defeated but he manages to find a smile for Ginny.

"Hints don't work with people like that," Harry advises, full of empathy. He can't say he's all that surprised, but he's horrified that anyone would take advantage of Neville's good nature so callously. The Neville he knows is confident and accomplished in his work or within his circle of friends, but when it comes to personal matters, he's shy to the point of fragility, and it seems that this man is very much the same.

Draco sighs. "So, am I right in assuming that a well-placed 'fuck off, Goldstein' wasn't an option?"

Neville shoots him a hunted look. "No, Draco, we're not all you."

Ginny snorts. "That's you told."

"I really am sorry, Harry," Neville says.

"It's not your fault. I know what he's like." Harry smiles at his friend and Nev, looking hugely relieved, if still a little guilty, smiles back.

"Well," Draco says, folding his arms. "This is all very heart-warming, but what are we going to do with him now we've got him? Poison him? Feed him to Frank? Tell Hermione this little story and let her at him?"

Ginny rolls her eyes and loops her arm through Neville's. "Come on. Let's go back in."

Just then, the living room door flies open and Blaise strides through it, glass clutched in his massive hand.

"Why is everyone out in the hallway?" he asks, looking with interest between the four of them. "If this is the VIP area, I demand to be allowed in!"

The mock-haughtiness on his handsome face is so convincing that, had Harry not known better, he would have assumed that Blaise really was some kind of horrendous diva. As it is, he just laughs, and the knot of tension created by Goldstein's unwanted arrival loosens almost all the way.

"Urgh, Fred! Put that away!" comes the bellow from the living room, and Harry and Draco exchange glances.

"Don't look at me," Harry mutters, as they return to the party. "My job is to look decorative, remember?"

**~*~**

An hour or so later, Harry isn't feeling particularly decorative. He has eaten far too many of Senka's canapés, including two slices of the lemon tart, and although he has nothing to compare it to, he has to admit that Bilby has outdone himself. Overfull, slightly on edge, and cradling his third drink (a firewhisky called 'Flanagan's Flame', which is delicious, but so hot that the glass is smoking copiously and a sweat has broken out on his forehead), he doesn't feel like doing much except lounging on the sofa between Hermione, who is spluttering gamely on her own glass of Flanagan's, and Ron, who is holding up a miniscule pork pie between his thumb and forefinger and admiring it.

"It's just so small," he says, for at least the fourth time.

The room is full of the sound of warm laughter, clinking glasses, and the semi-frequent calls of:

"Fred, people don't want to hear about that," from an exasperated Jenny,

And:

"Curious minds must know!" from Blaise, as Fred launches into story after story from his long-legged sprawl at his fiancée's feet.

"Can't silence a Weasley, Jennifer," George advises with faux-solemnity.

"Don't I know it," she says wryly, leaning over to ruffle Fred's hair.

"If you don't stop humming that tune, Ginevra, I shall have you removed," Draco says, lowering himself to the floor beside Ginny and Neville, who are picking from a plate of assorted snacks between them, and trying to politely ignore Goldstein, who is perching on the edge of an armchair and gazing at Harry with an intensity that makes his skin crawl.

"I can't help it, it was on the wireless at mum and dad's when we went to drop off Maura," she protests, stealing the last piece of smoked salmon and smirking at Neville. Harry watches her covertly, one ear on Ron's rhapsodizing, which has now moved on to the goldenness of the little pork pie—that's our new head of the Auror Department, he thinks affectionately—and he can't help smiling. She washes the salmon down with a healthy swig of Flanagan's and exhales a plume of aromatic smoke.

"I don't care," Draco says, waving the smoke away from his eyes with a careless hand. "I hear enough of that silly old cow from Harry and my father."

"You are hard done by, Draco," Neville says, looking much brighter now that he's several feet away from Goldstein.

Draco glares, but Harry can see that his heart isn't really in it. "Where Celestina Warbeck is concerned, yes, I am tortured more than most."

"It's not that bad, Draco," Ginny insists. "Take me away from this godforsaken place," she sings, leaning close to Draco and directing the words into his horrified face.

"Stop it."

"Take me away from this godforsaken place!" she bellows, kicking up the volume several notches. Ginny isn't what Harry would call a terrible singer, but enthusiasm and alcohol are playing merry hell with her tuning. Draco grimaces. Harry, however, is transported back to the ballroom at Malfoy Manor with the kick of something hot and wriggly in the pit of his stomach.

"Ginevra."

"I dream each night..." She pauses, thinking. "Of... mm-hmm-mm-hmm-hmm..."

"Of your saving embrace," Harry supplies before he can stop himself.

Ginny laughs delightedly and turns to look at him, flicky hair swishing around her face. "That's it!"

Draco groans and leans back against the sofa, elbows resting on his knees, face a picture of dismal acceptance as Blaise, Fred and George pause in their conversations to watch.

"The Dementors are calling from the sky above," sings Ginny, gesturing for Harry to join her.

Something reckless prods at him; he drains his glass, wipes his heated face with the back of his hand, and nods to her.

"Fly me away on your broomstick of love!"

They finish the chorus together to enthusiastic applause from all corners of the room; even Goldstein, who has managed to turn up his nose at almost everything so far, manages several slow, quiet claps and a glance of smouldering approval in Harry's direction. Harry looks away in disgust, fixing his eyes instead on Draco, whose face is caught intriguingly between dismay and amusement. Unthinking, Harry leans over and slides his fingers into his hair, watching his smile flicker into reluctant life.

There's an odd little sound from Goldstein's chair; out of the corner of his eye, Harry sees him lean back and fold his arms. He's amazed that the unpleasant bastard is still here, really. Draco's duties as a host apparently take precedence over his personal feelings, something that both surprises and impresses Harry. He's been perfectly polite, if somewhat icy, to Goldstein, and everyone else is quietly ignoring him. A small part of Harry thinks that he should feel sorry for him, but it's just not happening. Not after the way he treated Neville.

Even Blaise, whose usual bonhomie allows him to get along with pretty much anyone, starts to give him a wide berth after only a few minutes of conversation, and he has no idea that Goldstein has treated his colleague with such disrespect. Yet.

"Well, thank goodness for that," Harry sighs, feeling the mood in the room lighten as Goldstein excuses himself to use the bathroom. He refills his glass and Hermione's from the nearest bottle and relaxes into the sofa cushions.

"I know. He's like a Dementor, isn't he?" she sighs.

"Yeah." Harry gazes gloomily into his glass. "The crazy thing is, if someone had spoken to me like I spoke to him the other day, I'd want to stay as far away from them as possible."

"And yet he's everywhere. It's as though telling him off has made him try harder. It's creepy."

"Want to know what I think?" Ron offers from his other side.

"All opinions are welcome," Harry sighs.

"You paid attention to him. People like him thrive on attention. Before last week, you hardly noticed him, but now..." Ron shrugs. "He's getting a reaction out of you, mate. That's where you always went wrong with Malfoy, wasn't it?" He pauses, freckled nose wrinkling. "But, er, that obviously had very different results. You know what I'm saying," he mumbles.

"Yeah," Harry says softly. "That actually makes sense."

"It does happen occasionally," Hermione says with a small smile. "Although, from what I remember, Ron, you were the one who usually overreacted to Draco in the past."

Ron scowls. "Don't ruin it. I was being sagelike."

Harry snorts. "Of course you were."

"Anyway," Hermione says, sipping her drink, "I have a bone to pick with you. I had to have a 'talk' with Hugo the other day and it's all your fault."

"My fault? If I recall, it was Rose who really opened the can of worms," Harry protests.

Hermione sighs and plays with her glass. "I know, but you're easier to blame."

"Charming. How was it?"

"Awful," she admits, shuddering lightly. "So many questions. How does the baby get in there, Mummy? Does it hurt? What if the baby doesn't want to come out? Is that how you and Daddy made me?" she mimics with a pained expression, and Harry laughs.

"You got off lightly," Ron says, grimacing. "He came to me afterwards and said, 'Daddy, I don't think my willy wants to do that!'"

Hermione giggles into her hand and Harry now laughs so hard that smoking firewhisky shoots painfully out of his nose.

"That's brilliant," he manages, spluttering slightly. He wants to sympathise, to say that he's heard all of those awkward questions before and then some, but he can't, and the realisation stings.

"Why is it always worst with the youngest?" Hermione muses. "I didn't mind so much with Rose, she's so... scientific, but Hugo... I told myself he'd just stay little forever and I'd never have to do it."

"I don't know," Harry says, and he doesn't. Perhaps it's just the way. He remembers Lily's horror at the realities of pregnancy and the fact that even to this day, she is insisting that there's no way she's doing that.

"Yet another good reason why we only have a part-time child," Draco says, turning around and flashing Harry an electric smile.

"Don't you want children, Harry?" Goldstein puts in.

Harry, who has almost managed to put Goldstein out of his mind, swivels around to look at him, and Ron, Hermione and Draco all follow suit.

"I, erm..." Harry hesitates, having no clue as to the party line on this subject. Fortunately, Hermione leaps in and rescues him, as is her way.

"With all due respect, Anthony, I don't think that's any of your business," she says, and while her tone is pleasant, there's a warning in her eyes.

For a split second, Goldstein's face contorts into a scowl, and then it's gone, and he smiles ingratiatingly at Hermione.

"I didn't mean any harm." He affects a sheepish expression and angles his body toward Harry. "I just find it interesting that you have been in your... ah... relationship for so many years and you remain childless. You always struck me as the paternal type, Harry. I understand. I, too, am enthusiastic about fatherhood. Some people just aren't cut out for family life," he says innocently, and though he doesn't look at Draco, the implication is clear.

With Ron's advice ringing in his ears, Harry bites his tongue as he stares back at Goldstein, waiting for the tide of defensive fury to abate. Don't give him anything.

"I'm very happy as I am, thanks," he says at last, fingers gripping his glass tightly. "We're all different. Let's talk about something else."

"Did you bring those strange cards, Hermione?" Ron says suddenly.

"Ooh." She brightens and shoves her glass at Ron so that she can rifle through her huge leather bag with both hands. "Who wants to play a game?"

**~*~**

"Decisions, decisions," Blaise sighs, examining the sheaf of bright red cards in his hand. All eyes are on him, as the occupants of the room wait for him to make up his mind. The expectant silence is only broken by the occasional slurp of whisky or stifled giggle, and nearly everyone is now sitting on the rug, cross-legged or sprawled out, cards held protectively to their chests. Only Jenny, who is curled on the ottoman with her cards laid out in front of her, and Goldstein, who hasn't moved from his chair, remain off the floor.

Predictably, Goldstein is playing with the utmost reluctance, as though he's far too important to enjoy anything daft, and, equally predictably, he seems to lack a sense of humour of any kind.

"Any time this year, Blaise, which leaves you all of about... thirty-five minutes," Draco says, leaning up from his elegant slouch against Harry's side to cast a demonstrative Tempus.

Blaise makes a face at Draco through the shimmering numbers. "Don't get your knickers in a twist," he rumbles, shuffling the cards in his hands again and draining his smoking glass with a flourish. "Right then. Erotic strawberries... I see what you did there." He sets down a card with some ceremony. "Erotic owl pellets. I worry." And another. "Erotic saucepan, well, whatever does it for you. I have nothing to say about erotic Quidditch...

"I do like erotic Sorting Hat, I have to admit, and erotic Cornelius Fudge, although I can't say I ever personally found him very erotic when he was alive..."

"Right, but six feet under he's total wank material?" George suggests, grinning.

"It's the green bowler hat," Jenny puts in innocently, blinking large blue eyes.

"You see," Fred declares, waving a dramatic hand, "this is why I love you."

Harry joins in with the general cackling that breaks out around the room, simultaneously delighted that Fred, at least somewhere, has found his perfect match, and disappointed that he hasn't won the round. He thought Fudge would be an easy winner, on the disturbing factor alone.

"Now, I liked all of these," Blaise continues, placing them down one at a time on the rug in front of him. "Erotic Azkaban." He shoots a look at Ginny, who shrugs and smiles. "Erotic kittens... really?" Beside Harry, Ron snorts into his glass. "And, considering this evening's entertainment, erotic Celestina Warbeck comes a close second..."

"Oh, Blaise," Draco mutters, scowling lightly. "I really thought you'd go for that."

"I would have, had it not been for the delicious erotic spattergroit," Blaise says with relish, laying down the final card to a whoop of triumph from Neville, who scrambles across the rug to grab the green card and add it to his stack.

"Nev, that's horrible," Hermione says, wrinkling her nose and trying not to join in as everyone else giggles. "Now I keep picturing Filch."

"Is that actually how he died?" Jenny asks, looking up. "I thought it was just a rumour."

"No, it's true," Goldstein says, speaking for the first time in several minutes. "My cousin Serena was a Healer at St Mungo's when he came in. She said it was horrible."

"Can't say I feel too sorry for him," George admits, sharing a nostalgic glance with Fred. "I know we gave him some trouble over the years, but he really was a rotten old bugger."

"Hear, hear," Fred says, clinking glasses clumsily with his brother.

"I always felt a bit sorry for him, you know, being a Squib," Harry says, taking ten red cards and distributing them.

"You're right, Harry," Goldstein says quickly. "It's bad form to make fun of the afflicted, after all."

Draco makes an odd little sound, and from the position of his eyebrows, lost somewhere beneath his hair, Harry surmises that this is somewhat of a departure for Goldstein. He can't say he's surprised.

"Why do you never invite me to your functions?" inquires a soft voice, and Harry follows everyone's startled glances until he sees Frank gliding sinuously around the door. "So many intriguing smells in this room."

"What's he saying?" Hermione asks, tucking her feet up out of the way so that Frank can slide by.

"He's put out because we're having a party without him," Harry says. "I never said you couldn't come. It's not my fault you were grumpy with me this morning."

"That sound is wicked creepy," George sighs enviously. "Wish I could do it."

"I don't really know what it sounds like," Harry says, shrugging. "In my head, it just sounds like me talking."

"My friend Tracy thinks it's sexy," Jenny offers.

Harry, who had chosen that moment to take a drink, splutters on his whisky and stares at her, while Draco pats his back lazily and smirks.

"If it's the same Tracy I'm thinking of, a Parseltongue fetish is the least of your worries," George says mysteriously, and the giggling in the room only increases.

"Is he laughing at me? Cruel, bright-headed human," Frank says, waving back and forth at George's feet. George, who is apparently used to this kind of treatment, just stares back at him with a calculating look on his face.

"He's not laughing at you," Harry says wearily. "Behave yourself and I'll find you something to eat."

Frank falls silent, flicking his tongue in the direction of the leftover canapés on Ginny's plate.

"Fifteen minutes to go!" Draco announces, returning from the kitchen with what looks like the fanciest whisky so far, other than Goldstein's bottle of Borteg's Own, which has been ignored on principle. "Time to start thinking of all those promises you're not going to keep."

"Aha, nearly celebration time," Fred declares with a glint in his eye. "Give me your napkin, Jen."

She obliges, and with a wave of his wand, there is a tiny, snake-sized party hat sitting on the palm of his hand. It has multicoloured spots and is covered in glitter. Fred picks it up carefully and attempts to demonstrate it in the direction of Frank; the snake rests on its coils and gazes up at him impassively.

"Fred, you can't do that!" Ginny protests, but there's an obvious note of curiosity in her voice and she doesn't bother to stop her brother as he reaches down and straps Frank into the little hat.

Astonishingly, and perhaps remembering the possible reward of behaving himself, Frank does not resist. When Fred withdraws, he glides across the rug and drapes himself across Draco's lap, eyes firmly fixed upon Harry.

"Bloody snake," Harry mutters, leaning over and grabbing a couple of meat-based treats from Ginny's plate.

"Will he really eat that?" Neville asks.

"Oh, yes," Draco says. "He'll eat anything with bacon in it, the greedy bugger." He pats Frank absently and Harry throws him a bacon-wrapped sausage, which he catches with sharp precision and swallows neatly.

"Have been good. Have been ever so good," he insists, flicking out his tongue.

This, apparently, is too much for Goldstein, and he cringes away, shifting to the very edge of his seat and screwing up his blandly handsome face in disgust.

"What's the matter?" Harry asks him, immediately irritated. Maybe he's afraid, but something tells Harry that's not the case.

Goldstein says nothing, but his lip curls in Draco's direction.

"He won't bite you," Ron says, mumbling, "More's the pity" under his breath.

Goldstein coughs. "I am not afraid, Ron, I just think snakes are revolting. In fact," he continues, glaring daggers at Frank, "I can't believe you'd have one in the house, Draco. I certainly couldn't live with one."

Draco lifts an eyebrow. "Well, it's a good thing you don't live here, isn't it?"

Harry looks at Frank, who has coiled neatly in Draco's lap. He's perfectly still and silent, but his beady black eyes are bright with intelligence and Harry wonders if he can sense the atmosphere that he has inadvertently created. He turns to Goldstein, ready to defend his pet, but once again, Hermione beats him to it.

"They're actually very clean," she ventures. "And they're not at all slimy like you might think they are." She leans forward and strokes Frank's shining scales, to his obvious pleasure.

Goldstein laughs, the sound startling in the near-hush."You haven't changed a bit since school, have you? Little Miss Know-it-All."

Hermione's face crumples slightly and she sits back as though she's been slapped.

"Hey," Ron says with a surprising, calm authority, leaning forward to address Goldstein. "Don't speak to her like that, please."

"I was only teasing," he insists, but no one's laughing.

"Well, I'd rather you didn't," Hermione says quietly, having recovered herself.

"Sorry," Goldstein says without feeling. "Anyway," he continues airily, grimacing at Frank, "they always make me think of You-Know-Who. He had a snake."

"You don't say," Neville says drily, flicking his eyes to Harry in mute apology, and for the first time in several minutes, Harry finds himself wanting to laugh.

"Well," he says, turning to Goldstein. "Frank is my snake, so you should probably direct your complaints at me."

Goldstein goes very quiet and delicately crosses one leg over the other.

"Two minutes, everyone!" Blaise bellows, effectively shattering the tension as everyone turns to look. He stands, drawn up to his imposing full height, glass held aloft and clever dark eyes expectant. "Move your collective arses, before I do it for you!"

Eager to leave the awkwardness behind, Harry grins at Blaise and grabs his glass, using Draco's shoulder to lever himself unsteadily to his feet. Draco sighs, grabs his hand and the bottle of fancy whisky, and joins him. Slowly, the others unwind themselves from their pleasantly hazy sprawls and form a rough circle on the rug for the final moments of the year. Goldstein stands quietly between a resigned Neville and a bristling Ron and says nothing when Draco refills his glass.

"I will come home from work earlier and play with my daughter," Blaise declares.

Ginny smiles at him. "I will start reading again. Books that aren't about Quidditch. While you're home earlier and playing with our daughter," she adds.

"I will finally stop biting my nails," says Jenny, ruefully examining her chewed fingers.

"I will de-gnome Mum and Dad's garden at least once a month," Fred promises solemnly.

"I will organise my broomsticks and keep them like that," Ron says. "Promise, 'Mione."

Hermione rolls her eyes to the ceiling but she smiles, and adds: "I will make time to see my friends more often. Not just on special occasions."

"Sounds good to me, Hermione," says Harry, who has been listening with increasing interest to what appears to be a well-worn end of year ritual. He's never really bothered with resolutions before, but everything is different here, and he might as well go with it. "I will..." I will what? I will make a little table? I will stop being afraid of my feelings? I will... "I will replace my horrible work jeans," he says impulsively.

Hermione laughs and Draco sighs, "I've heard that one before."

"I will find myself a nice woman, who is not mad," George declares, and there are emphatic nods all around the circle. Harry is intrigued.

"I will..." Neville hesitates, and then lifts his chin. "I will believe I'm... worth more," he says with some difficulty, face flushed.

Draco, who is next to him, grips his shoulder solemnly. "Too fucking right. I will swear less. Honestly."

Blaise catches Harry's eye across the circle and flashes him an infectious smirk as Ginny mumbles, "I'll believe that when I see it."

For a long moment there is silence, and then Goldstein coughs lightly and says something that sounds a lot like: "I will not give up on what I want", but nobody really hears him, because Draco flicks his wand and a huge, glimmering clock face appears in the centre of the circle.

"Ten seconds," calls Hermione, who has picked up Frank and looped him around her neck. He is still wearing his party hat. It rather suits him.

"... eight, seven, six..."

Harry startles as Draco links their fingers together at their sides and squeezes. Flicking him a sidelong glance, he struggles to control his daft smile as Draco licks his bottom lip and silently mouths, "Love you."

"... four, three, two..."

"Love you," Harry mouths back, heart pounding. Draco smiles and looks away, just as the clanging of bells fills the room and its occupants erupt into cheering and mingling choruses of "Happy New Year!"

Within seconds, Harry finds himself squashed between Ginny, who is grinning and kissing him on the cheek, and Blaise, who is squashing the air out of him and bellowing whisky-flavoured words of eternal friendship into his ear. They are soon joined by Fred, George, Jenny, and the others, as everyone attempts to meld into a tipsy, enthusiastic hug-ball while Frank, still be-hatted, winds around their feet and efficiently cleans up the remaining canapés.

**~*~**

It's coming up for two in the morning when Harry extracts himself from a spirited and somewhat nonsensical discussion about Hogwarts Quidditch, to which even Neville and Hermione have managed to add their reminiscences, despite never having played for their House team.

"What you're forgetting, Draco Malfoy," Jenny is saying as Harry steps out into the hallway, "is that without decent Chasers, you can still lose the match even if the Seeker does catch the Snitch. Always forgetting that, Seekers," she says severely.

"Let's not get started on Chasers," George groans, to a mixture of giggles and sympathetic noises.

"Hmm," Harry mumbles to himself, leaving them behind and making his way to the kitchen, one hand trailing along the embossed wallpaper of the hallway as he walks. Feeling a little fuzzy around the edges but otherwise okay, he sloshes water into a glass and unlocks the back door with a slash of his wand, then flings it open and leans against it, relishing the cool, damp air on his face.

He gulps at the water and smiles contentedly as the delicious coldness flows through his body and soothes his anxieties, leaving behind only the pleasant buzz of whisky and friendship and the space to be and laugh and mock without worrying about the quality of example he is setting.

"Take that back, Weasel!" cries Draco from the living room.

Harry shakes his head slowly and closes his eyes. Not even Goldstein can ruin his mood now.

"Your good 'ealth, lad."

At the sound of the familiar voice, Harry's eyes fly open and quickly fasten upon Boris, who is standing at the kitchen counter in his oilskin coat and helping himself to a generous measure of whisky. A second glance shows that it is Goldstein's own bottle; Harry deliberately pretends not to notice.

"What do you want?"

Boris creaks closer, beaming at Harry through his tangled beard. "Just wishin' you an 'appy New Year," he says. "You seem to be enjoyin' yourself."

Harry blinks, startled. "Yeah... I suppose I am. Have you been here long?"

"Long enough," Boris says enigmatically. He takes a healthy swig of his drink and then regards his glass with approval. "Good stuff, this. When your woman is frisky, it's because of the whisky," he advises, as though imparting some great wisdom.

Harry frowns, shifting against the door so that it creaks under his weight. "First of all, I don't have a woman any more... I think. And second of all, that's a pretty pessimistic view of ladies'... you know. You know," he repeats, waving his hand vaguely.

"Can't say I do, young man," Boris says, looking completely unconcerned. "My mother did say a lot o' things, though. Strange things. Still, shouldn't speak ill o' the dead, bless her soul."

Harry nods, bemused. "How are my children?" he asks quietly. "My... Ginny?"

"You'll find 'em exactly as you left, 'em, don't worry," Boris says, wiping his heavy sleeve across his mouth. "The point here is learnin'. New experiences..."

"Yeah, you could say that," Harry mutters, feeling himself flush and turning his face into the cool night air.

"Are you talking to yourself?" someone asks, someone with a crisp voice and none of Boris' broad, rolling tones.

Harry snaps into alertness, turning in place and taking in, all at once, the vacant spot where Boris had stood, his empty whisky glass on the counter, and the dark, lean figure of Goldstein in the doorway.

"What do you want?" he says for the second time in minutes, though his tone is sharp rather than exasperated now.

"I was concerned," Goldstein says smoothly. "You just got up and left, and no-one else seemed to even notice. Are you drinking my whisky?"

"Er, no," Harry says, glancing from his empty water glass to the freshly-open bottle of Borteg's Own on the counter. "I just—"

"It's alright, Harry. I brought it for you as well as myself. Like I'm always trying to tell you, I want you to experience the finest things. You deserve them, just as much as I do." He flashes a smile that makes Harry's stomach lurch in disgust, and sidles over to the door, picking up the bottle as he passes. "Allow me."

Harry pulls his glass away from the attempted refill. "I've had enough, thanks."

"Suit yourself," Goldstein murmurs. He leans against the doorframe and fixes Harry with sharp dark eyes; there is no sign of intoxication in his gaze and for some reason this makes Harry slightly nervous.

He wants to continue with his new policy of bland, polite disregard, to set down his glass and walk out of the room with a simple, "Excuse me", but something pins him to the spot.

There's a loud thomp from the room above and then a cascade of raucous laughter. For a moment, both Harry and Goldstein raise their eyes to the ceiling.

"Everyone seems to be having a good time," Goldstein remarks. "Except you."

Harry snorts derisively, unable to help himself. "And you've come to remedy that, have you?"

"Is that what you want, Harry?" Goldstein's eyes glow. He licks his bottom lip and leans closer.

Harry scowls. "What exactly is it that you're trying to do here?" he demands, abandoning his politeness policy. "I'm not a cheat. I've never been one, and I'm not about to start now. I'm with Draco because I want to be with Draco."

Goldstein's lip curls at the mention of Draco's name but Harry presses on, gaining momentum now. He stands firm, every muscle tensed, fingers grasping his glass almost to shattering point.

"And yeah, it hasn't escaped my notice that you've got some kind of problem with him, but you know what? He is ten times the man you are, Goldstein. Ten times," he says roughly, staring into Goldstein's startled face, dragging harsh, cold air into his lungs. "He's clever and interesting and honest and funny and... he actually gives a flying fuck about me and what I want," Harry says, heart shrivelling in embarrassment as he realises he's talking more to himself than to Goldstein. He swallows hard. "Which is more than I can say for you. I don't want to be rude to you, believe it or not, but I'm losing my patience, so for the last time, back off."

Goldstein stares at him for a moment, face inches away, breathless.

"Harry," he whispers, leaning in close and kissing Harry hard.

Appalled, Harry freezes for a moment; Goldstein's lips are rough and sickly-sweet against his, his fingers are hard and grasping at Harry's sides, and every nerve ending in Harry's body is shrieking "Wrong! Wrong!" The water glass slips out of his loosened fingers and smashes on the floor; the sound yanks Harry out of his horrified stupor and he pushes Goldstein away with such force that he bangs his head on the doorframe.

Dazed, he rubs at the sore spot and blinks slowly. Then, recovering his smile, he reaches out once more, trying to grasp Harry's arms. "Look, Harry, I think you should..."

"I think you should leave," says a cold voice from the kitchen doorway.

Harry turns, sickened, to see Draco, illuminated in the light from the kitchen lamps, staring down Goldstein with his arms folded firmly across his chest.

"Draco," Harry rasps, struggling to find his voice. "Draco, it's not... I'm not..."

"I'm sorry it has to be like this, Draco," Goldstein says sadly, and Harry pulls away from him, disgusted, putting as much space between them as possible.

"There is no 'it'!" he shouts, losing the last thread of his temper. "Get it into your head!"

"Harry..."

"Everyone has been more than polite to you," Draco interrupts, and his voice is as cold as Harry has ever heard it. "But I think we've all had a bit too much of your company now. I will show you out."

For a moment, Goldstein looks as though he is going to argue, but finally he nods and follows Draco out of the room without a word. Left alone in the silent kitchen, Harry collapses into a kitchen chair and drops his head into his hands. A wave of cold nausea sweeps through him, his head pounds and his mouth tastes foreign and feels as though it doesn't belong to him. He shudders.

"Oi, who ate the last piece of cake?" someone, either Fred or George, demands from upstairs.

Finally, at the sound of Draco's footsteps on the tile, Harry looks up. His mouth is a thin line, his skin a sickly pallor with flushed streaks across his cheekbones, and his eyes are dangerously bright. He says nothing, but draws his wand and spells away the broken glass.

"Draco, listen..."

He shakes his head stiffly. "We still have guests."

"What do you want to do?" Harry manages, stomach turning over. All he wants is a chance to explain himself, and he's not even getting that.

Draco sighs. "Return to the party." He turns on his heel and stalks out into the hallway. Harry stares into the darkness for a second or two, and then follows.

**~*~**

The party seems to be slowly winding down when they return, but it still feels like an age to Harry until their guests begin to stretch and yawn and make noises about leaving. He sits quietly in Goldstein's vacated armchair, smiling and making conversation when required, but having no real idea what he's talking about or to whom. All of his anger has evaporated, leaving behind only a cold numbness with a clawing undercurrent of desperation.

He needs Draco to know that nothing happened—it means something to him for Draco to know that, and the thing that really slaps Harry in the face is that it's not because he would never do such a thing, and it's not because of his sense of honour. It's because Draco Malfoy's smile hurts his heart perfectly, and because the new coldness in the grey eyes breaks him apart.

Draco's 'everything is fine' front is terrifyingly impressive. He reclines casually on the sofa beside Blaise, joins in with a belated chorus of 'Auld Lang Syne', and allows Frank to take up residence on his lap. As their guests begin to leave in twos and threes, Draco finds discarded coats, scarves and shoes and submits graciously to Ron's shoulder-slap, Blaise's bear hug and Hermione's slightly emotional kisses. He handwaves Neville's repeated apologies and instructs Jenny to make sure that Fred doesn't 'explode' anything when he gets home.

Harry rises from his chair as though lifted by unseen hands and fumbles his way through goodbye hugs and promises to catch up soon, all the while flicking glances at Draco. As he's talking quietly to Ginny, who is being pulled toward the fireplace by an eager Blaise, his eyes meet Harry's for the first time in over an hour, and the heat that Harry finds there shocks his heart. He inhales sharply and Draco looks away.

"Behave yourself, Ginevra," he says faintly.

"Doubtful," she calls back just before she follows her husband into the flames. "Start the year as you mean to go on, and all that!"

At last, the house is quiet. Harry casts his eyes around the disarrayed living room, idly wondering if tidying up some of the detritus would improve Draco's mood. Probably not.

"I'm going to bed. Are you coming?"

Harry nods, chewing his lip and trying to bury his apprehension as he drags himself, heavy-limbed, up to the bedroom. Draco sits on the edge of the bed, and, though he hasn't bothered to light the lamps, his pale hair and sharp profile are easily visible in the moonlight. Behind him, the glowing hands of Harry's clock wave mockingly. It's twenty past three in the morning. Harry sighs and rubs his eyes behind his glasses.

"Fuck," Draco explodes suddenly. His calm exterior falls away in an instant and the air around Harry seems to crackle with static. "Fucking bastard!"

"I know how it looked, Draco, but nothing... well, he just jumped on me," Harry says, staring defiantly at Draco, somehow hoping to physically project his honesty out into the room. "He just doesn't seem to get the fucking message. I don't want... that," he stumbles, throat tight.

Draco laughs shortly. "You are such an idiot sometimes."

"Thanks," Harry mutters, hurt.

"Do you really think I don't know that?" Draco turns, pinning Harry with narrowed silvery eyes. "Do you actually think I believe that you'd let that prick anywhere near you voluntarily? I trust you with my life, you fucking... wanker," he snaps, pale fingers picking fitfully at the sheets.

"Oh," Harry whispers, feeling his knees starting to give way beneath him. He drops heavily onto the bed beside Draco. "Yeah... of course. I just..."

"You're nice to him and he slimes all over you. You're rude to him and he slimes all over you. What the fuck is wrong with him?" Draco demands.

"Maybe you should start the no-swearing thing tomorrow," Harry suggests, wanting the words back when Draco shoots him a sharp look. "What makes you think I was rude to him?"

"I heard you as I was coming down the stairs," Draco snaps. "And I heard what you said about me."

"Oh, well," Harry says, rubbing at the heated skin at the back of his neck and wishing his stomach would stop leaping and rolling, spurred on by a mixture of guilt and anticipation. "You weren't supposed to hear that."

"I know that," Draco says softly, dropping his hands into his lap. "It's not the sort of thing you usually say to my face."

Aching, Harry twists on the bed and reaches out without thinking, tracing his fingertips along Draco's jawline and threading them into his hair, tugging gently and forcing eye contact.

"I should," he says recklessly. "I meant every word."

Draco's eyes widen. The nervous tip of a tongue flicks out. Hot breath soft against Harry's lips.

His mind unhelpfully supplies a repulsive sense-memory of Goldstein's kiss and he shakes it away, closing his eyes and pressing his mouth against Draco's. For a split-second, there's no response, and Harry thinks he has made a horrible mistake, but then there's a warm hand gripping his knee, a caught breath, and Draco is kissing back. His lips are soft, warm, firm; his tongue finds Harry's, and it's right.

Harry is on fire. Blazing with all of it: the heat of Draco's body as they arch closer together on the edge of the bed, the raw taste of whisky and the brackish tang of damp skin, the startling way that Draco's tiny shirt buttons seem to spring undone at his touch, revealing pale, marked skin that appears luminous in the moonlight. Barely breathing, Harry yanks his own shirt over his head, shivering as the delicate fabric skates over his skin. Draco leans close, brushing hot, damp kisses against every sensitive spot on Harry's neck, prickling intensity into forgotten nerve endings until he almost cries out; resisting, he lets his head fall back and holds on to Draco, biting his bottom lip until he tastes blood, coppery-salty on his tongue.

"So easy," Draco whispers, amused, but there's no disguising the rasp of arousal in his voice.

He pulls back just far enough to meet Harry's eyes and the glance they exchange is heavy with meaning. Without another word, they help each other to undress, shedding their remaining clothes into a tangle on the floor and crawling onto the bed, creasing and dragging the sheets beneath them in their impatience to press skin against skin, dig fingernails into flesh and slide their mouths together with such messy, heated neediness that Harry's cock fills and aches against Draco's belly.

Draco, equally hard, moans softly as Harry wraps a hand lazily around his erection, flinging himself on the will of his instincts. No hesitation this time. He knows what to do. He wants to do it. He wants Draco, Draco wants him, and it's as easy as flying.

It seems like no time at all before he's pushing Draco back against the pillows, where he falls without resistance, lounging gracefully and gazing up at Harry, eyes burning. Stretching indolently, he lets his hand drop to his abdomen and pushes his stiff, flushed cock into his fist slowly, allowing his other arm to rest amongst the sheets, exposing the faded Mark and the four inked letters. Harry doesn't know where to look. Gulping against his dry throat, he whispers a hoarse Summoning Charm and holds out his hand, hoping for the best.

His bedside drawer rattles but refuses to open. Frustrated, Harry tries again. Draco leans over with a sigh and pulls the drawer open.

"If you didn't stuff your drawers full of crap, that wouldn't happen," he advises, pitching a small bottle of oil in Harry's direction.

"Fuck off," Harry mutters, but he's smiling breathlessly and so is Draco, who arches his hips and stares right up into Harry's eyes as he strokes himself. Harry doesn't think he has ever seen anything so compelling.

"Harry," Draco says softly, and it's enough; he bends, flicking his tongue over the head of Draco's cock as he slicks his skin with sweet-scented oil and presses inside, first with slippery fingers—unable to suppress a groan at the heat that grasps around him, twisting, searching, stroking, until he makes Draco's eyes close and his cock jump—and then, finally, kneeling and leaning down to connect their mouths, thrilling at the strong legs around his waist, pushing, sinking, gasping inside, not stopping until he's surrounded, all the way, and Draco cries out; it's raw, primal, and the sound of it makes Harry shudder, dangerously close to the edge.

"This is yours," he whispers.

Draco's eyes fly open. He says nothing, but his eyes never leave Harry's as he grips his hips and encourages movement, demands it, lips curved into a faint smile. Harry's heart swells; he smiles back—no fear. He begins to move, finding a rhythm in slow, deep strokes, leaning down to brush his mouth against Draco's, breathing hard against his skin and dragging in the scent of citrus, sweat, alcohol, arousal with each push. Fingers grip his hips, his arse, almost painful, pulling him hot, dirty, close, ruining him; he supports himself on one hand, smearing oil across the sheets, the other stroking frantically over Draco's slippery cock.

"Yes," Draco murmurs, over and over, leaning up to meet Harry, over and over until it's a gasp, a moan, a litany, "Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes..."

And then he's losing it in a barrage of expletives and a low groan, spilling all over Harry's hand and tightening around him so powerfully that he's only a stroke or two behind; he stares down helplessly at the flushed skin in the half-light, at the darkened, pleasure-hazed grey eyes as his release washes over him, taking him in a sharp rush and pulling a raw, uninhibited sound from his throat.

Fuck, I am noisy, he thinks fuzzily, dropping his head to Draco's shoulder and allowing his breathing to fall back under control.

"Alright," Draco sighs, stroking Harry's back absently. "I'll start my resolution tomorrow."

Harry smiles against his skin. "That's probably a good idea." He heaves himself onto his elbows and flops onto his back beside Draco. The cold air from the open window makes his sticky skin tingle, but it's not unpleasant, and besides, he doesn't have the energy to do much about it.

When something brushes against his bare calf, though, he jumps reflexively and squints around in the dark; after a moment, a familiar blunt head comes to rest on his thigh.

"How long has he been in here?" he demands.

Draco smirks. "Who knows? He's such a little pervert."

Harry isn't sure what's more horrifying—the fact that a snake has probably been listening in on him having sex, or the fact that Draco seems more amused than disturbed.

"What are you doing in here?" he asks Frank.

The snake flicks his tongue with relish. "Absorbing the pleasant atmosphere. Enjoying the interesting scents. Nothing unusual."

"Nothing unusual," he mutters to himself, shivering when Draco sends a Cleaning Spell his way.

"I think it went rather well, don't you?" Draco says suddenly.

Harry stares. "What? Oh, you the mean the party?"

"Obviously."

"Yeah, I think it did. Apart from Goldstein, who doesn't seem capable of it, I think everyone had a good time."

"Yes, well," Draco says, scowling. "I'm not really too worried about his feelings, believe it or not."

Harry turns onto his side and brushes Draco's hair out of his eyes. "I know. I think it's pretty amazing how polite you were all evening," he admits.

"Years of training will out," Draco says with a touch of bitterness. "And anyway, I have my ways of coping."

Harry waits, intrigued.

"Every time he really wound me up, I went into the kitchen and reorganised one of the drawers."

Harry snorts; he can't help it. "And how many did you get through?"

"All of them," Draco admits. "By midnight I'd started on a second round. Of course, they were already organised, so I just took everything out, counted it, and put it all back in."

"I'm really sorry about him," Harry says, flooded with guilt as he imagines Draco frantically sorting through kitchen cupboards every time he had disappeared into the kitchen for 'supplies'. "I think telling him to bugger off has made him ten times worse."

Draco yawns. "It's not your fault. It's him. The way he looks at you is disgusting."

Harry grimaces, turning over and relishing the sensation of Draco's warmth pressed immediately along his back. "I wish he'd stopped at looking."

"I know. But I think we got him off you, didn't we?" Draco murmurs sleepily into Harry's neck.

Harry closes his eyes.

**~*~**

There's a light at the top of the stairs.

The sky outside is turning pink, orange, grey.

He rubs his eyes with a too-big stripy sleeve. Yawns.

Harry shifts on the floor opposite him. Sore and stiff-jointed. Resolute. "We need to talk to Dumbledore," he says. It feels as though he's said it many times already.

"Later. I want to sleep, and—can you stop that?"

"What?"

"That." Sharp grey eyes fixed on Harry's fingers, which he's brushing up and down the bedside table. "Stop it. Or at least balance yourself."

"What are you talking about, Malfoy?" Tired, confused, irritable. Curious.

"Balance." Pale fingers reaching to brush the table, hot breath against Harry's cheek as he leans. Face full of concentration—brushing, one, two with the left hand and one, two with the right. "Otherwise, you're all uneven. Obviously."

Harry shivers. "That doesn't make sense. Since when did that make sense?"

"Since I was little. Don't you need to feel balanced?" Eyes huge... he's almost just eyes in the poor light. Shocking vulnerability. Harry thinks.

An admission. "I never really feel very balanced."

"Maybe that's why you're such a pain in the arse."

Harry scowls. "Shut up. Anyway, that's really rich coming from you."

"Yeah, well." Fingers picking at the hem of Harry's cloak. Fingers visible, and then not. Over and again. Five times in and five times out. "You'd be surprised how stuff that doesn't make sense can keep you going."

A long moment and a realisation of similarities, when everything is stripped away. A deep breath, and humility.

"No, I wouldn't."

A twitch of the lips that's almost a smile. A yawn. "Go to sleep, Potter."


**~*~**

Harry blinks stickily awake and looks at the copper clock on his bedside. The face is blurred beyond hope, so he sighs and pats clumsily around for his glasses, jams them onto his nose and sighs at the waving green hands.

"No," he says decisively, and the clock emits a puff of smoke, apparently of its own accord.

His head is surprisingly clear, but he feels as though he's barely slept, and his mouth seems to be full of sand. Unfortunately, he did promise Maura he would take the blasted Veneficus to the workshop today, and there's no way he's going to break a promise to a child because of a mild hangover. Not in this lifetime. Pulling a face at the calmly sleeping Draco, he drags himself out of bed and dashes for the shower, shielding his naked body ineffectually against the biting cold air.

He emerges from the house a short while later, clean, dressed, and with a bellyful of hot tea and toast. Wrapped up in his long wool coat with the Veneficus stuffed into a bag slung across his shoulders, he Apparates into Ottery St Catchpole and walks the rest of the way to the Burrow to collect Maura. The winding lane is once again sparkling with frost and the chill breeze is bracing enough to blow away the remnants of the night before.

Maura hugs Molly at the door and happily accepts an intriguing paper bag, which she clutches in her scarlet gloved hand as she skips along beside Harry.

"What've you got?" he asks.

"Lunch," Maura replies, swinging the bag at her side. "Grandma made me a marmalade sandwich."

"That sounds... alright, actually," Harry says, surprised.

Maura grins. "It has cucumber on it, too."

"You'll be eating that on your own, then."

"Grandma made one for you as well. I think it's roast pork." She wrinkles her nose. "Boring."

Harry smiles. He thinks he can cope with being boring in this case.

"Did you have a nice party?"

"Yeah," Harry says after a moment, tangling with a confusing mixture of emotions. "We did, thank you. How about you?"

Maura skips ahead, turning around to face Harry and bouncing along in front of him, practically bubbling over with excitement. "Brilliant. Rose taught me to play chess, and then me and Hugo and Rose made up a dance routine to Grandma's silly music, and then Grandad told us stories about when you and Uncle Ron and Uncle Fred and Uncle George and Aunt Hermione—" She pauses for breath and then rushes on, "were at Hogwarts, and then we roasted marshmallows on sticks and I stayed up until ten past eleven!"

"Wow," Harry says, catching her enthusiasm and reflecting her smile back to her. "That sounds great. I told you it'd be alright, didn't I?"

Maura rolls her eyes and spins around in the lane. "Grown-ups always say that."

**~*~**

The morning slips away quite without permission. Harry and Maura spend a pleasurable few hours examining the Veneficus, reading sections from 'Working with Weird Woods', and experimenting with small pieces which Harry has carefully sliced from the end of one of the branches. He's very aware that this stuff is valuable and that he shouldn't waste it, but really, someone as unskilled as himself probably shouldn't be touching it in the first place, and a little bit can't hurt. Besides, he's always felt that the best way to learn is to throw caution to the wind and have a go.

"Here," Harry says, sitting on the workbench and propping open 'Working with Weird Woods' on his lap. He passes Maura another tiny slice. "Try putting one in water."

Maura kneels up and carefully, precisely drops the wood into the large glass of water Harry has placed in the middle of the workbench. Nearby are the results of their earlier experiments: the charred piece that Harry has burned with his wand to produce extraordinary multicoloured smoke and the piece that Maura has applied to her marmalade and cucumber sandwich, which, to her delight (and Harry's chagrin—"Surely the world only needs one of those?) has provided her with two identical marmalade and cucumber sandwiches.

"Ooh, it's doing something," she exclaims.

Harry looks. It is indeed doing something. The bark is dissolving rapidly, sending up a slender stream of bubbles, and the water, now a clear, pale blue, is giving off white smoke that smells like cinnamon.

"What is it?" she asks, freckled nose twitching.

Harry consults the book. "Okay. Veneficus, when added to plain water, has the potential to create one of two useful solutions. If the liquid turns opaque, dark purple and intensely cold, you have Confortego, a Soothing Solution which can be used for treating allergies, skin problems, and the symptoms of diseases such as Kneazlepox and Newt Rash." He and Maura gaze at each other through the aromatic smoke. "I don't think it's that one."

"Me neither," Maura says. "What's Newt Rash?"

"No idea," Harry admits. "Right... if the liquid turns a transparent light blue with a pungent, spicy aroma and white smoke... that sounds more like it... then you have created Artifex, the artist's potion. Depending on the strength and quality of your Veneficus, this potion will enhance the creative skills of the drinker to a varying degree for approximately one hour at a time, assuming that the usual rules of volume/drinker are followed. Quality is dependent on crop, variety, and growing conditions... blah, blah, blah," Harry finishes, an odd little spark of hope igniting inside him.

There is a silence, and then Maura whispers, "Are you going to drink it?"

"I don't know. Do you think it'll help me make the table?"

Maura shrugs. "I thought you didn't have any wood left," she points out.

Harry sighs. "I don't. And anyway," he says, gazing morosely at the potion, "it says enhance the drinker's creative skills. I doubt that'll help me."

"What's enhance?"

"It means to improve. To make something better. So, if I don't have any skill to start with, drinking this isn't going to make me an artist," Harry says.

"Oh, well. It smells nice," Maura says brightly. Her smile is deeply sympathetic for a seven-year-old.

"There is that," Harry agrees, closing the book and picking up the sandwich Molly has made him. Unsurprisingly, it's delicious, which is more than he can say for the last piece of spinach cake that Maura is now devouring with enthusiasm. Mrs Pepper's spinach cake.

He finishes his sandwich in a thoughtful silence, and then turns to Maura, wiping his fingers on the tatty jeans he has yet to throw away, whatever he might have said last night.

"I can't make this table. I just can't do it."

Maura sucks green icing from her little finger. "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know. What do you think?"

"I think you should tell him," Maura says plainly, dark eyes serious.

Harry's stomach twists. "I think you're right," he sighs.

Reluctantly, he jumps down from the workbench and goes in search of a quill and parchment. When he locates his writing equipment amid the chaos, he returns to the bench and quickly decants the blue potion into a bottle, corks it, and stacks it on a nearby shelf. Maura leans over and watches him as he takes a deep breath and starts to write.

Dear Mr Pepper,

I regret to inform you that...


Harry stops. Frowns. He's not the sort of person who delivers bad news in a letter.

He scrunches up the piece of parchment and smoothes out a fresh one.

Dear Mr Pepper,

I would be grateful if you would come to my workshop at your earliest convenience; I would like to discuss your order. I will be here during my usual working hours.

Please also thank your wife for the spinach cake. My niece, in particular, - "That's me!" Maura cries in surprise – enjoyed it very much.

Yours Sincerely,

Harry Potter.


"What will you say to him?" Maura asks, as she and Harry walk up to the Post Office and choose a suitable owl to deliver the letter.

"I don't know. I'll think of something."

"I have to go back to school tomorrow," Maura says, scowling deeply, though she brightens a little when Harry buys her a sparkling red hair-band from a witch with a cart on the side of the street.

"I think I'd rather go to school than sort this out," Harry admits. "Don't tell anyone I said that."

"Said what?" Maura asks vaguely, admiring her sparkly reflection in the window of Quality Quidditch Supplies.

Harry nudges her away from the window and back toward the workshop. "Nothing."

**~*~**

On Tuesday morning, Harry walks into his workshop alone. It's a strange feeling; he's grown accustomed to Maura's presence and the place feels far too quiet without her. Not only does he miss her company and her interesting suggestions, but she has warned him that he's in for a flood of customers now that all the Christmas and New Year celebrations are out of the way. Fortunately, Harry has a plan. It's very much a temporary, makeshift sort of plan, but it will do for now.

Grimly, he locks the door behind him and casts a strong Silencing Charm so that even those customers determined enough to press their ears to the door will not hear a thing. All going to plan, Harry thinks, they will assume he is taking some time off, and bugger off again. Fighting down the swipe of guilt that accompanies these actions, knowing he could be damaging the business of his other self, he sighs and spells the door transparent from the inside. In theory, if Mr Pepper comes, Harry will see him in time.

He will come; all of Harry's instincts are telling him so. And even if he's incandescent with rage, it will surely be better than this gnawing anxiety and self-reproach.

As he waits, he flits around the workshop, picking things up and putting them down, pacing and playing all of his records, even the Celestina ones, in turn. Eventually, he takes a leaf out of Draco's book and slips into organisation mode. Starting at one end of the 'shop, he works methodically, sorting through the contents of his drawers and shelves, stacking everything neatly and wiping down the dusty surfaces with a nearly-clean rag.

By the time he's sweeping the floor clean of sawdust, he's filthy; despite his apron, his shirt sleeves are tinged grey with grime, and his fingernails are rough and blackened. He pauses to rub at his hot forehead with his wrist, glances at the door, and there he is—Mr Cyril Pepper is approaching the workshop at impressive speed for a little old man with a walking stick.

Hurriedly, Harry discards his broom, draws his wand and removes the enchantments just in time for Mr Pepper to knock smartly on the door and let himself in. Beaming at Harry, he closes the door behind himself and removes a plum-coloured bowler hat.

"Good afternoon, Mr Potter," he says, making speedy if unsteady progress toward Harry's workbench.

"Hello, Mr Pepper," Harry says weakly, suddenly feeling sick. "How are you?"

"Ah," Mr Pepper sighs, eyes crinkling warmly. "Not bad, Mr Potter, not bad at all. A little slow, of course, after the compulsory over-indulgence of the holidays, but I can't complain. Still alive, still in possession of all my own limbs!"

Harry smiles and grips the workbench with sore fingers. If he doesn't do it now, he isn't going to do it at all. He exhales slowly. "I'm really sorry about this, sir, but there's been a problem and... I'm afraid I haven't been able to complete your order."

The old man's face falls. "Oh... oh dear. Oh. What a shame," he murmurs, sounding so disappointed that Harry wants to take the words back, for all the good it would do.

"I'm so sorry," he repeats desperately. "I'm not going to make excuses, and can only apologise for letting you down at such short notice. I want to compensate you, of course... for your wasted time, apart from anything else." Harry reaches for the moneybag he has stashed on one of the lower shelves and pushes it across the rough surface. "Here's twice what you paid. I realise that's not going to get you a replacement for your daughter at such short notice, but if you like, I can get you a table from another supplier..." he trails off at Mr Pepper's raised hand.

"Please. There's no need. I will accept a refund, of course, but no more than I originally paid." He looks up at Harry, lined face radiating kindness. "Goodness, young man, you look as though you're going to cry. It isn't a matter of life and death, I assure you."

"But..." Harry swallows hard, still feeling terrible.

"I shan't pry, Mr Potter, but I know very well that you aren't the type of man to back out of an agreement without good reason," the old man says softly. "I hope that everything is alright with you and yours, and that, if there is anything I can do, you will not hesitate to ask."

Speechless, Harry rubs at his face, temporarily forgetting how filthy he is. "We're... thank you. We're going to be okay," he says at last, briefly wishing he could just confess everything to Mr Pepper and have done with it.

"I'm relieved to hear it." Mr Pepper hooks his cane over the edge of the workbench and looks around with interest. "It's a shame, though... she's such a fan of your work, Genevieve. It was going to be a surprise, you know. I suspect she'd love anything you had made."

"I really am sorry," Harry repeats, unable to think of anything else to say.

"Is that for sale?" Mr Pepper says suddenly, eyes fixed on something behind Harry.

He turns, puzzled. His record player? His teapot and spare mugs? Or...

"The thing? Er, the... er... sculpture?" Harry asks, glancing at Mr Pepper in disbelief.

"This, here, with all the lights," he says, nodding and gesturing at the thing with a wrinkled hand.

Moving as though on invisible castors, Harry goes to the shelf, picks up the thing and takes it over to the far workbench. Mind racing, he grabs the cleanest rag he can find and polishes up the glass bulbs and fragments until they glow and sparkle around the tiny, dancing flames. He runs his fingers over the curves of the beech, checking for rough patches, and, when he's satisfied, he upends the whole thing and impulsively scratches his initials into the base. He is still more than half convinced that Mr Pepper is playing a cruel joke on him as he places the thing in front of him and holds his breath. If he is, Harry supposes, there's every chance that he deserves it.

"Wonderful. How much?"

"Er..." Harry hesitates, attempting to work out the rough cost of the materials and finally forcing himself to say, uncertainly, "Fifty Galleons?"

Mr Pepper looks horrified. "Mr Potter, that's daylight robbery!" he cries.

"Sorry," Harry says quickly. "Thirty-five?"

"No, no..." Mr Pepper laughs now. "I meant that I'd be robbing you! I insist on eighty for your time alone, but I'm quite prepared to pay more. Who can put a price on art, after all?"

"Art?" Harry repeats faintly, staring at the thing with new eyes.

"Well, of course. Genevieve will be thrilled, I'm sure." Mr Pepper tears his eyes away from the solid, glimmering manifestation of Harry's frustration and peers up at him expectantly. "Does it have a name?"

**~*~**

Five minutes after Mr Pepper's departure, Harry is hurrying through the streets of Ottery St Catchpole, adrenaline and astonishment only fuelling his impulsiveness as he sprints through the park and emerges on the other side to the sound of children yelling and laughing in the schoolyard opposite. He slows, catching his breath, and approaches the playground at a more civilised pace. He doesn't care if looks daft (although he has, at least, remembered to remove his apron) because he has to tell someone, and no one but Maura will understand.

"Maura!" he calls, hanging onto the cold railings. "Maura Fedora!"

At the sound of his voice, five or six little knots of children turn to stare at him. He smiles nervously, trying to look like a person who is not mad, and eventually, they return to their games of hopscotch, pretending to be ponies, and zooming around the playground wearing their coats as capes. Maura breaks away from what looks to be a very serious discussion with Hugo Weasley and a little girl in a bright green hat. She dashes over to the railings and gazes up at Harry, wide-eyed.

"Hello," she says, breath wisping in the cold air.

"I just sold a piece of art! My first piece of art!" he tells her, grinning.

She frowns, puzzled. "Which art?"

"I sold the thing! The weird thing we made with the glass in it! For a hundred Galleons!"

Maura's mouth drops open and she blinks repeatedly, as though unable to comprehend such a huge amount of money. "Wow!"

"I know!" Harry agrees, practically effervescing with delight at having a success to share, and having someone to share it with.

"How did you—"

"Who is this, Maura?" demands a dinner lady, bustling over in a blue apron and a heavy coat.

"Just my Uncle Harry," she says, beaming up at Harry and the dinner lady in turn. "He's an artist."

Chapter Text

When the bell rings for the end of the school day, Harry is waiting impatiently at the gates, hopping up and down and shoving his hands as far into the pockets of his jeans as they will go; the afternoon is grey and bitter cold, but he knows better than to attempt any magic near a Muggle school. He's fairly certain that the dinner lady in the big coat already suspects he's some kind of deviant, even after Maura's introduction and a flash of his most disarming smile.

"Uncle Harry!" Maura cries, pelting out of the building with her hair bouncing behind her and a shiny red lunchbox flapping in her hand as she runs to join him. "You're still here!"

"Well, yeah," Harry admits, slightly embarrassed. "I mean, I haven't just been standing here the whole time. I had a walk around the park... fed the ducks... important stuff like that."

"You're funny," Maura observes, dark eyes sparkling. She weaves her free arm through the railings and dangles toward Harry at an odd angle.

"Thanks." Harry pauses, momentarily distracted by the cacophony all around him as dozens of children stream out of the school and flood the playground, pushing and yelling and squealing as far too many bodies try to squash through the gates at once. It doesn't seem as though much has changed since his own schooldays, though the brief whiff of nostalgia is quickly wiped away by the memory of Dudley's little gang and all of the 'lesser' mortals who suffered at their hands. He knows he wasn't the only one. He sighs.

"What's the matter?" Maura asks, pitching wildly to one side and having to twist practically upside down to meet Harry's eyes.

"Nothing," he says firmly. Something about Maura tells him that she wouldn't stand for any of that kind of nonsense, not for one moment, and it's comforting. "Do you want to come over to the 'shop?"

"Okay," she says, untangling herself from the railings and wiping her hands on her grey pleated skirt. "But you have to tell Grandma first. Oh, look—there she is." She points at something behind Harry.

He turns to see Molly battling her way through the crowds with Hugo in tow. She is wrapped up against the chill in a vast, multicoloured knitted cardigan, a pair of sheepskin boots, and a sparkling beret with a peacock feather sticking out of it. Her face is pinked with cold and it lights up as she approaches Harry and hugs him roughly.

"What are you doing here?" she asks, smiling as she releases him.

Harry coughs. Injury-by-enthusiasm seems to be a common Weasley trait, whichever universe he might be in. "I was wondering if I could borrow Maura," he says.

"I'm helping," Maura supplies.

"Maura," Hugo whines, eyeing her with reproach. "We're s'posed to be looking for Wrackspurts."

"We will," she promises, leaning over to whisper in his ear. "I've got a fomfmble rbntle."

Hugo brightens. Harry and Molly exchange curious glances.

"Secretive children," she sighs, looking down at Maura and Hugo, who are exchanging significant glances of their own. "This is how it starts, Harry. One minute they're all sweetness and light, the next, they're letting off Dungbombs in their bedrooms. And then they're opening a joke shop." She sighs, shooting Harry a long-suffering smile and wrapping her cardigan more tightly around herself. "Still, it is a very successful joke shop."

"That it is," Harry agrees. He ruffles Maura's hair absently. "Anyway, this one's going to be Minister for Magic."

Molly laughs gently. "I can believe it, too. Come on, Hugo, I've been baking cakes this afternoon. You can help me ice them."

"Thanks, Molly. I'll let Gin know where she is," Harry calls as the little boy and his grandmother turn to leave.

"I'm going to ice a crocodile fighting a unicorn!" Hugo says, hanging onto Molly's hand.

Harry laughs but Maura sighs and shakes her head. "Boys are so silly sometimes. Unicorns don't fight."

"You're right," he says seriously. "Boys are very silly. That's why we need your help." He holds out his hand.

She sighs, taking it. "I know."

**~*~**

Five minutes later, Harry lets them into the workshop and lights the lamps; the sun is already beginning to set and the room is soon warmed by a soft, orange glow. Maura discards her coat and lunchbox and, with complete disregard for her school uniform, climbs onto her usual bench to watch Harry work. He thinks it may be the first time he's ever seen her not wearing red—the neat grey skirt, white shirt, and blue tie look very strange on her indeed.

"It's horrible, isn't it?" Maura says, glancing down at her uniform with disdain, and Harry realises he must have accidentally voiced his thoughts.

"No, it's not horrible. You look very grown up."

Maura blinks. "Oh."

Harry smiles to himself and assembles a collection of tools, several different flavours of wood, and his glass-blowing equipment. He lights the furnace flames with practised ease now, and sets everything out around him exactly the way he wants it. Virtually effervescing with excitement, he stands back from his workspace and takes a deep breath.

"So... I was really angry when I made the thing," he muses, tapping his fingers on the worktop.

"You were," Maura agrees, with feeling.

"Do you think I can only make art when I'm angry?" he asks, chewing his lip. He is, if he's honest, rather afraid that unless he can recreate the previous circumstances exactly, he is doomed to fail. And yet... he doesn't have any desire to relive that feeling of complete and utter fury, frustration, and self-loathing. Once was enough, really.

"I don't know." Maura shrugs apologetically. "Sorry."

Harry sighs. "Well, I suppose there's only one way to find out." He stares down at his shiny tools, his stacks of beautiful wood and the many coloured pieces of glass shimmering in the flickering light from the green furnace fires. Suddenly, he feels awkward, as though he's a Muggle conjurer who has whipped his audience into a frenzy of anticipation and then cannot remember how to get the rabbit out of the hat. Bewildered, he rubs his face.

"I think you've got to just... do it," Maura advises. "You know, like when you've got to do a handstand in P.E. If you think about it too much, you go all stiff and you can't do it."

Harry glances up at her, guiltily amused by the poorly-concealed anguish on her face. It's a very long time since he's had to do P.E., and he's not sure he's ever been able to do a handstand, but he thinks he knows what she means.

He nods. "Okay then." Taking a deep breath, he closes his eyes for a moment, thinking about 'he's an artist', and Mr Pepper's admiration of the thing, and Draco's eyes, just because, and when he opens his eyes again, he is filled with an oddly charged sort of calm. Without thinking, he picks up the nearest tool and the nearest piece of wood and sets to work.

**~*~**

As the sky darkens to an inky black with scattered stars, Harry works on, barely feeling his aching back or his raw, scratched hands as he creates a series of sculptures under the watchful eyes of Maura. He can't be sure exactly what he's making, but they are unusual things, and they are coming together more easily each time; his newly-discovered spellwork is becoming just as assured as his hands as he manipulates countless mysterious tools and smoothes sandpaper, friction-hot, over rough edges.

"Lusleevs," Maura mumbles as Harry finishes his third piece, a shimmering pile of oak and green glass.

Startled, Harry looks up. "What?"

"Looks like leaves," she repeats, pointing at the sculpture.

Harry steps back and looks, too. She's right. "Yeah," he says, grinning. "You don't have to be so quiet, you know. I want your opinion. I don't know what I'm doing, remember?"

"I like it. It looks like Autumn."

Harry's stomach performs a small flip of delight. He wipes his sore fingers on his apron and winces at the drag of rough fabric against raw, scraped skin. As he stretches, he gazes lazily around the room and pauses, thoughtful, when his eyes catch on the almost forgotten bottle of blue potion.

"I wonder..." he murmurs, walking slowly to the shelf, feeling every cramped muscle now. Carefully, he picks up the bottle, savouring the welcome feeling of cool glass against his skin.

"Are you going to drink it now?" Maura asks, practically vibrating with enthusiasm.

Harry uncorks the bottle, sniffing with interest at the cinnamon-scented smoke that immediately begins to escape. "You know, I think I will," he says, setting aside the leafy sculpture and wiping down his work surface. Just for... scientific purposes, of course."

"I don't really know what that means," Maura says, screwing up her freckled nose. "But you should do it anyway."

"Sounds reasonable to me," Harry says, and, in one long gulp, he swallows the potion. It tastes chalky and slightly sweet, coating his mouth and throat and sending a warm, tingling sensation all the way out to his fingertips.

"Is it nice?" Maura whispers, kneeling up on the workbench and craning her neck so far toward Harry in her excitement that she almost loses her balance.

"Mm," Harry mumbles, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "You probably wouldn't like it."

Maura pokes out her tongue. Harry does, too.

Seconds later, he's lifted into a haze of colours—bleeding, blending colours and beautiful curving shapes; he can see ghostly images of his own hands before him, smoothing and cutting and shaping and casting; his fingers are light, extraordinarily deft, sketching out shapes that he doesn't even understand, but he hastens to follow, compelled, grasping at the grain of the wood and drawing his wand, over and over, hanging on to the scent of cinnamon in his nostrils and the sound of Maura's voice as she chats away to him, anchoring him, albeit weakly, to his own consciousness. This isn't like the time he let his anger run away with him—the emotion was his, it came from him; the control, ultimately, belonged to him. This, though, this has him, and there's nothing he can do.

When he finally steps away, he's shaking and his forehead is soaked with cold sweat.

"You've finished," Maura says, and he looks up at her.

"I think so," he manages, licking the taste of dried cinnamon from his lips. "That was very odd. I think I prefer being in control." He sighs and turns the sculpture around so that Maura can see it. "What do you think?"

Her eyebrows shoot up. "It looks funny."

Harry smiles wearily, leaning against the bench. Apparently, working under a creativity potion for an hour takes it out of a person. "Funny haha, or funny peculiar?"

"Funny like it's going to eat me," Maura says.

"That can't be good," Harry sighs, and flicks his wand to vanish it. "I think we'll do without the potion from now on."

"You don't need it," Maura says stoutly.

Harry grins; he can't help it. "I don't know about that. But I suppose we'll have to find something else to do with these," he says, indicating the remaining Veneficus branches, which are stacked on the bottom shelf, carefully covered over with their silvery wrappings.

"You'd better, or I shall have to embarrass you horribly and tell you how much they cost," says a dry voice from the doorway. Harry turns to see Draco, all flickering half-smile and long, stripy scarf, leaning against the doorframe with his arms folded. Harry idly wonders if he makes a habit of listening in on the ends of people's conversations; there's certainly something about the dramatic entrance that he seems to relish.

"I didn't hear you come in," Harry says faintly.

"You never do," Draco says, shooting an exasperated look at Maura, who beams conspiratorially as though she had known that Draco was there all along. "I had a feeling you'd go straight for that potion."

"We made smoke and a sandwich first," Maura points out, and Harry wonders just whose side she is on.

Draco laughs softly. "All the important things," he agrees, stepping into the shop and bending to examine each of Harry's completed sculptures in turn. "I see you're in one of those creative phases."

Heart racing, Harry glances at Maura, who shrugs and watches Draco, too.

"Er... so it would seem," Harry manages at last.

"I like this," Draco says, trailing his fingertips carefully over the leaf-like sculpture and looking up at Harry, eyes bright and smile genuine.

"See," Maura whispers, somewhat smugly.

"Thanks," Harry says, and then, realising that he has never seen Draco in the workshop before, adds: "Is everything okay?"

Straightening up, Draco turns to him and frowns. "Yes. Or is that question code for 'what the f—er, Fever Fudge are you doing in here, Draco?'"

Harry snorts. "Careful," he murmurs, amused. "And no, I was just curious."

"That's one way of putting it. Anyway, it may have escaped your notice that it is nearly eight o'clock, but it has not escaped mine, especially as it's your turn to cook dinner," Draco says, attempting to look wounded and neglected, but the only result is a giggle from Maura. "Neither has it escaped Ginevra, who fire-called a few minutes ago, wondering if and when you're planning to return her child."

"I owled her ages ago!" Harry protests, determined not to seem like the sort of person who spirits away other people's children. As Draco's words fall properly into place, his eyes widen. "Is it really eight o'clock?"

"On Frankfurto's life, it is," Draco says, crossing his heart in a theatrical gesture.

"I bet Daddy's eaten my dinner," Maura sighs.

Harry gazes at her guiltily and helps her down from the workbench, lip caught between his teeth as he thinks. "I'm sorry, Maura Fedora," he says at last. "Tell you what, I'll get you a chip sandwich from the Leaky on the way home."

Maura brightens. "Can I get mint sauce on it? And beetle bits?"

Harry wrinkles his nose but nods, turning away from Maura to hunt for a bit of parchment—he's just had an idea.

"Extra crunchy beetle bits," Draco says gravely. Maura giggles.

After a brief search, Harry finds a square of parchment that isn't too creased and smoothes his palms over it on the empty workbench until it is perfectly flat. Something about Draco's words... 'I see you're in one of those creative phases', something in the unsurprised amusement in his tone and the familiar interest in his eyes suggests that this making of... things, whilst brand new to Harry, isn't entirely without precedent. Which is interesting. And, he thinks, picking up a self-inking quill, potentially very, very good news indeed for someone who clearly cannot make furniture to save his life.

As Maura and Draco conduct an odd, giggle-punctuated conversation behind him, Harry writes a short note in green ink and his neatest script. When they all step out into the cobbled street, shivering and arguing about the proper choice of condiment for a chip sandwich, Harry rain-proofs the note with his wand and sticks it to the door of the workshop.

Until further notice, I will not be taking on commissions for items of furniture as I will be working on abstract pieces and hand-blown (Muggle method) glassware. Please come in and enquire/look around. Apologies for any inconvenience.

HP


**~*~**

Midway through Wednesday morning, Harry is humming absently to himself and shaping a long, shimmering bulb of turquoise glass with slow, careful turns of the copper pipe when a large, official-looking owl collides softly with his skylight and starts up a rhythmic pecking against the glass. Harry quickly casts a series of Freezing Charms to keep everything in place, wipes his hands on his apron, and opens the door, gesturing for the owl to come around.

Seconds later, the owl swoops into the 'shop and settles itself importantly on the spare workbench, extending its message-bearing leg toward Harry.

"Thanks," he says, taking it and offering the owl a leftover crust from his breakfast bacon sandwich.

He unrolls the message and smiles to himself. It's rather comforting to see that while the note has been written on luxurious, Ministry-seal-encrusted parchment, there are no airs and graces in the words of the new Head of the Auror Department, and his handwriting is still appalling.

Harry,

Fancy coming down to the Ministry and having a look at my new office? Got no meetings til one. Send Horatio back with your reply so that Marsha won't hold you up with a hundred security questions.

Ron
.

Harry reads and re-reads the short note several times, a strange tightness wrapping around his chest. The idea of going to the Ministry, to Auror HQ, no less, is oddly daunting, and it doesn't seem to matter how little sense it makes to feel that way. In reality—whatever that is—it has been less than a month since he last walked through those corridors as an overworked, exhausted person of some significance. It's no time at all, and yet he feels, already, as though he's a completely different person.

Exhaling slowly, Harry gathers himself and scribbles an affirmative reply to Ron before he can lose his nerve. He reattaches it to the owl and returns to his glassblowing, allowing Horatio enough of a head-start to put the apparently safety-conscious Marsha at her ease. When he's done, he places the finished piece into the green flames, pulls on his blue-flecked wool coat, and heads out into the crisp morning.

**~*~**

It takes Harry quite some time to make his way through the main Ministry building, up to Auror HQ and along the familiar panelled corridor to his old office—to Ron's office—to the office of the Head of the Auror Department, he settles at last. Like in Diagon Alley, everyone seems to want to greet him in the hallways, stop to chat in the busy Atrium, or hold up packed lifts to tell him how marvellous it is to see him at the Ministry again. By the time he steps into the small, beeswax-scented anteroom, Ron is waiting for him, hovering in the doorway of his private office and muttering under his breath to a severe-looking middle-aged lady who is seated behind a vast mahogany desk, nodding at regular intervals and tapping her quill against her chin.

"Mr Potter is here, sir," she says suddenly, sharp dark eyes fastening onto Harry.

"Thanks, Marsha, I can see that," Ron mumbles, grinning at Harry; he looks as though he can't decide whether to be amused, embarrassed, or proud, and ends up just looking as though he's about to throw up.

"You'll need a visitor's pass, Mr Potter," Marsha says briskly, rising from her desk and preparing a shiny silver badge with a flurry of wand-flicks and muttered incantations; within a matter of seconds it is attached firmly to the lapel of Harry's coat and winking in the lamplight with the engraved message:

Harry Potter

Visitor to R.B. Weasley, Head of the Auror Department.

11.38am, 3rd January, 2018.

Security Clearance: basic/personal visit


Harry releases the badge after absorbing the words and thanks Marsha. She's certainly efficient, and she has no idea that such low-level security clearance makes him want to laugh inside.

"Er, right, we'll be in my office, then," Ron says, gesturing to Harry, who follows him past the desk and through the door.

"Very good, Mr Weasley," she says, already looking through a sheaf of parchments.

"I see you went for biscuits over youthful good looks," Harry teases as he closes the door behind him.

Ron snorts. "As if I had a choice. They are good biscuits, though... d'you want one?"

Harry takes a bumpy oatmeal biscuit from the proffered plate and bites into it as he looks around the office he knows so well. It's like looking into his old life... except that it isn't quite. The desk is the same, as are the horrible velvet curtains that Harry has always hated; the filing cabinets—slightly dented—are still there, and the spell damage to the skirting boards near the door, which was there when Harry moved into the office, remains a comforting reminder that everyone loses their temper sometimes.

But Harry definitely never bought an orange rug with Chudley Cannons 1698 emblazoned across it, and to his memory, his office never smelled so biscuity. Chewing thoughtfully on Marsha's admittedly delicious creation, Harry examines with interest the collection of photographs Spellotaped to the wall opposite the desk, and the blackboard with its multi-coloured, squiggling chalk lines.

"What do you think?" Ron asks, a note of nervousness in his voice. "It's a lot bigger than my last office... and I don't have to share any more. Obviously. It's a bit strange, really."

Harry dusts the crumbs off his fingers and absently watches them fall to the floor before he turns around to face Ron, who is now sitting on the edge of his desk and fixing Harry with anxious blue eyes. It's evident now, painfully so, that he is looking for Harry's approval, for the confirmation from his best friend that he's done well for himself. Harry gives himself a shake and fights through the tide of his confusion to find a smile for Ron.

"It's brilliant. You've got a nice big fireplace, too," he says, stepping over to the fire and warming his hands behind his back. "It gets really cold in here sometimes... I imagine," he adds quickly, but Ron doesn't seem to notice, and Harry directs his silent sigh of relief at the floor.

"Yeah, I've had the fire lit since I got here. Marsha's brilliant with it; I think she gets here about six in the morning to get everything sorted." He shoots Harry a conspiratorial look. "I'm not sure she ever goes to sleep."

Harry snorts. "Lucky you." He has had the same secretary for nearly ten years now, and he has always been nagged by the belief that she sees him as nothing more than a noisy, messy entity that creates unnecessary work for her.

Ron wrinkles his nose. "I don't know about that, mate. I get enough of that at home—it's like being surrounded by superwomen. Disturbing."

Harry laughs, discomfort dissolving at last. "Well, don't let her frighten you. Remember, you're the big boss now."

Ron shifts on the edge of the desk, gripping the smooth mahogany with large hands and looking, just for a moment, like the uncertain boy Harry met at the train station all those years ago. Just for a moment, and then the accomplished, successful father of two is back, lifting his head to grin at Harry and scrub his vivid hair out of his face with a brown sleeve. He deserves this. He's ready.

"You're going to be brilliant, you daft bugger," he says roughly, shoving his hands into his coat pockets.

"Yeah... yeah, of course," Ron says, nodding. "Thanks."

"I'm not flattering you. I mean it," Harry insists. "You will be."

"You'd have been better," Ron says, so quietly that Harry almost doesn't hear it, but there's no self-pity in his voice, no trace of bitterness. It's as though he's just stating a fact, albeit one with which Harry doesn't agree.

"I don't think I would," Harry sighs, and even as he does, his knee twinges and wobbles beneath him, but he manages to hold himself firm, needing to make Ron believe him.

"I know we don't really talk about this, Harry, but everyone knows that you would've—"

"Everybody knows bollocks, Ron. I chose a different path and I'm far happier with it than I would've been doing this job... this job was made for you. You're going to do it far better than I ever could have done, and I'm going to trundle around in my little workshop making weird things..."

"You're making weird arty stuff again?" Ron interrupts.

"Yeah, and that's... well, it's exactly how things should be," Harry says, the back of his throat prickling. "I know I'm not really the person to be giving advice, but... don't waste your time feeling insecure."

"Thanks, mate," Ron says at last, looking slightly startled. "You're... you know..." he mumbles, apparently unable to find the words, shrugging his shoulders in Harry's direction and going slightly pink. Harry can feel a Weasley shoulder-slap coming on. He braces himself and perches on the desk beside Ron. When the extra-strength, slightly violent approximation of 'You're my best friend, you are' hits him, he holds in his wince and just elbows Ron in the ribs.

"Watch it," Ron murmurs, reaching for another biscuit. "If Marsha finds out you're assaulting the Head of the Auror Department in his own office, she'll have your balls."

"I'm really scared," Harry deadpans, taking off his coat and re-attaching his silver visitor's pin to his shirt.

"You should be. Apparently she was some kind of duelling champion when she was younger," Ron says. "And she's scary when she's mad. You should have heard her yelling at that giant prick Goldstein when he tried to come in here without an appointment."

"When?" Harry asks, already on his guard at the mention of that giant prick Goldstein.

"Last week some time. He wanted my signature for some report or other. To be honest," Ron admits, leaning back on his hands and looking guiltily at the ceiling, "I did wait a bit longer than necessary to go and rescue him from her. I've never seen anybody look so white... I almost felt sorry for him. 'Course, that was before I found out about what he did to Neville."

"Yeah." Harry scowls. "Have you seen him since? Neville, I mean? Is he alright?"

"I haven't seen him, but Ginny and Blaise were round the other night and they said he was okay. Think his pride's a bit hurt... don't blame him, really. And he does feel a bit daft about falling for all the rubbish Goldstein spouted about fancying him at school."

Harry shakes his head. "It's not his fault. It's not as though any of the rest of us have never been taken in by someone."

"That's exactly what Ginny said to him," Ron sighs. "Trouble is, he's already convinced no one finds him... you know... attractive," he confides, lowering his voice as though he's uttering some kind of profanity. Glancing at Harry briefly, he adds: "If you ask me, his only problem is that he takes his job so seriously, he doesn't have time for... other stuff."

Harry blinks. He's astonished that Ron has a perspective on other people's relationships—or lack thereof—at all. "You're one to talk, bloody Head of the Auror Department!" he says at last.

Ron frowns and scuffs one untied shoe on his Chudley Cannons rug. "Hmm. Never mind that. I'm just saying... there's no need for him to be on his own. He's very... eligible."

"That's a Hermione word if I ever heard one," Harry laughs.

"I know plenty of words," Ron says, affecting a wounded tone. "I'm very important."

"How come you sound like a fishwife, then?" Harry asks.

Ron lifts a ginger eyebrow. "What's a fishwife?"

Harry frowns. "I don't know."

Ron snorts, meeting Harry's eyes, and there's a split-second of silence before both of them burst into confused, breathless laughter. Which is how Marsha finds them when she raps on the door some minutes later.

"Forgive me for interrupting, sir, but... oh. Is everything alright?" She stops short in the doorway, sharp dark eyes flicking between Harry and Ron, who are still sitting on the edge of the fancy desk and snickering like schoolboys.

"Fine, Marsha," Ron manages, wheezing slightly and getting to his feet. "We're good. Do you need something?"

Marsha's gaze lingers for a moment on Harry and he has the unpleasant sensation that, for reasons passing his understanding, he is being regarded with the utmost suspicion. Something about the expression on her face tickles him, and he looses a snort before he can control himself and look at the floor, mouth firmly closed.

"Hmm," she says, pursing her lips in obvious disapproval. "If you are sure. Mr Fitzwilliam would like to see you in his office, if you have a moment." She pauses. "Mr Fitzwilliam is the Head of Magical Law Enforcement," she adds, apparently for Harry's benefit.

"I know," Harry says faintly, resisting the temptation to ask if she knows how his early morning jogging is going.

"Thanks, Marsha," Ron says, rounding the desk and leafing through folders and bits of parchment. She makes a small sound of acknowledgment and then takes her leave. "Sorry about this, Harry. He's..." He lowers his voice, "he's seriously hard work at the moment. Thinks someone's following him." Ron rolls his eyes and Harry merely nods, knowing that Ron's new boss isn't as paranoid as he appears.

"I'd better get back to the 'shop, anyway," he says, sliding down onto his feet. "Weird things to make."

Ron grins. "It's good to see you. I've been dying to show off."

Harry pauses, wrapping his fingers around the doorframe and listening to the scratching of Marsha's quill in the next room. "You've every reason to. I'm pleased for you. I'll see you soon," he says, flashing a smile and pulling the door closed behind him. He sets the silver badge down on Marsha's desk as he passes, nodding politely to her and getting out into the hallway as quickly as possible.

The lift is empty, and Harry leans against the wall as he travels down toward the Atrium, exhaling slowly and closing his eyes. Ron clearly expects him to be envious, to resent the lost opportunity, but, try as he might to search for it, the feeling just... isn't. The flicker of emotion experienced at the sight of his office of over ten years belonging to someone else isn't enough. It isn't nearly enough.

Harry sighs. The lift jerks to a stop and the grille slides back. A calm female voice is announcing the level and nearby offices, but Harry isn't listening.

"Are you actually following me?" he demands, pushing off the wall to stand up straight.

"Of course not," Goldstein demurs, wrapping a pure white scarf around his neck and tucking it neatly into his coat. "I'm meeting a friend for lunch."

"You have friends?" Harry mutters, unable to stop himself.

"Of course." Goldstein's brow wrinkles in brief concern. "I take it that Draco is still unhappy with me regarding the other night."

Harry's eyebrows shoot up at the casual phrasing and weary tone. "He's more than unhappy, believe me, and so am I. What you did was... so fucking wrong that I don't even have a word for it. I'm not sure why I'm even talking to you right now... why am I doing that?" he mutters, trailing off into silence and slumping back against the wall, scrubbing restlessly at his hair.

"Perhaps you can't resist," Goldstein says softly. "I understand. You don't have to fight this, Harry."

Harry's eyes snap to him immediately. Chest tight with fury, he clenches his fingers into painful fists at his sides, itching to reach for his wand and barely hanging on to his control.

"I... oh, for fuck's sake. Are we speaking a completely different language here?"

Anthony laughs softly. "I don't know, are we?"

"All I want to say is leave me alone," Harry says, feeling like he's spelling out each word, fingers grazing his wand through the soft fabric of his coat.

"Atrium," announces the cheery voice as the lift shudders to a stop and Harry glances away from Goldstein to see five or six smartly-dressed Ministry employees waiting to board. He pulls the grille open and holds it open for them. In the inevitable rush of 'Hello, Mr Potter'-s and 'How do you do, Mr Potter'-s that follows, Goldstein slips away.

Harry stalks across the crowded Atrium, footsteps ringing out on the marble, heading for the nearest safe Apparation Point with one thought circling his mind:

I should have hexed him while I had the chance.

**~*~**

"You definitely should not," Draco says later that night, when he has finally torn himself away from his work, completed his usual cycle of disgruntled mumbling and stretching and idle threats to give up investigative journalism and start an eel farm or a dance troupe or his own Quidditch team, and stomped up the stairs to the bedroom.

As Harry sprawls on the bed in his thin t-shirt and boxers and fills him in on the day's events, Draco flits around the room and performs his 'getting ready for bed' routine, the rhythm of which is now soothingly familiar to Harry. Shirt, folded neatly, dropped into the washing basket. Sweater, stroked into a smooth square under careful palms, dropped into the washing basket. A much appreciated shirtless interlude, in which Draco makes imperceptible adjustments to the closet doors and taps at the handles with his fingertips, up, then down the row of wardrobes, careful to balance each side.

It is at this point that he turns to look at Harry, one eyebrow raised, waiting for a response. Harry, who has been utterly caught up in watching the shift of light muscles under pale skin and the slide of blond hair across sharp cheekbones, has no idea what sort of response might be expected of him.

"Sorry, what?"

Draco sighs, meeting Harry's eyes for a moment's exasperation before he begins to unfasten the many complicated buttons on his trousers.

"I said, you definitely shouldn't have hexed that idiot Goldstein," he repeats. "I think your admittedly capricious self-control chose a rather useful moment to show itself."

Unsure quite whether or not he is being insulted, Harry tips his head back to glance at Draco, but his face, caught in concentration as he fiddles with the last of the buttons, gives nothing away.

"You never know," Harry sighs, pillowing his head on his arms and staring once more at the flickering patterns of lamplight on the ceiling, "it might've actually got through to him."

"Doubtful," Draco says. "And anyway, if I'd hexed him every time I wanted to over the last few months, I doubt he'd still be standing now."

Harry bites down on a smile as something warm leaps in his chest. "Which would be a great loss, I'm sure."

Draco laughs, lowering himself to sit on the end of the bed as he removes his trousers, socks, and boxers and folds them neatly. Placing them next to himself in a neat pile of black fabric, he runs a hand down Harry's side, lingering over the patch of bare skin just above his waistband.

"That depends on how you look at it, really. I doubt many people would miss him, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say you'd miss me if I had to spend the next twenty years in Azkaban... although, on the plus side, I'd finally be able to shut my father up on the 'you don't know what it's like' front, wouldn't I?" he adds thoughtfully, fingers tapping at Harry's hip in contemplation.

Harry twists to look up at his impressive profile. His brow is furrowed as though in genuine consideration, and Harry pokes him in the side.

"Your optimism is terrifying, Malfoy," he murmurs.

There's a sharp intake of breath as Draco turns to meet his eyes, and the heat that flares there leaves Harry in no doubt that he—or at least some part of him—spoke deliberately. And he has no idea where it came from, but the warmth flooding his groin and the intent flush to Draco's pale skin are more than enough to persuade him to go with it.

"Strong words, Potter. Are you sure you know what they all mean?" he shoots back, voice low and dangerous. It's not exactly as he remembers it; the coldness of Draco's younger self is noticeably absent, but it still sends a thrill through Harry. Explanations are unnecessary; he knows what is expected of him here and his baser instincts crackle with it.

"I'm not afraid of you," he snaps, holding the eye contact and raising himself up on his elbows. Draco's fingers are no longer stroking his skin but splayed across his hip, pinning him with the minimum of effort. Harry knows he could move if he wanted to, but he can't bring himself to focus on anything beside the smirk, once familiar and now incongruous on Draco's lips and the blood rushing to his cock in heated, pounding anticipation.

Draco's laughter is cool, mocking, as he shakes his head and crawls sinuously across the bed, settling himself across Harry's thighs and leaning down close now, close enough for his hair to graze Harry's forehead. He shivers involuntarily, barely noticing that his wrists are being enclosed and held down firmly against the bed, barely caring, because Draco is hot and firm against his skin, he's already half hard and the fact that he's naked and Harry is sort-of dressed doesn't seem to matter at all—he's radiating power from every harsh angle, from the formidable slant of his eyebrows, from the elegant strength of the thighs gripping Harry, holding him, and from the heat-darkened grey eyes that bore down into his with pure challenge.

"You should be, Potter," he hisses, pressing Harry's wrists more firmly against the sheets. "You have no idea what I'm capable of."

"Don't talk shit, Malfoy," Harry says, narrowing his eyes and throwing himself into this... role, he supposes. He's playing himself—yet another version of himself that he's never been. It's wonderfully, thrillingly easy to slip into, as though he's done it a thousand times before.

"What did you say to me?" Draco demands, tightening his grip.

"I said... fuck," Harry spits, as sharp fingernails cut into the soft skin of his forearms. "I said don't talk shit. Everyone knows that you can't back up the things you say. It's all bollocks."

"So, you think you know all about me, do you?" Draco demands, eyes aflame.

Harry smiles breathlessly, glancing at Draco's hard, flushed cock, pressed between them, just inches from his own. "Yeah. I think you want me."

"Fuck you, Potter," Draco rasps, shifting his hips and allowing their erections to slide roughly against each other, separated only by a layer of thin, damp fabric. Harry groans. Laughs.

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Just for a split-second, the corner of Draco's smirk wavers and the man Harry has come to know is back, but just as quickly the cool, mocking mask is reinstated.

"This doesn't mean I like you," he mutters, eyes intense with pure schoolboy disdain as he releases one of Harry's wrists, and, without warning or ceremony, slides his hand into Harry's boxers and wraps strong, cool fingers around his cock.

"I think you like me a little bit," Harry counters, gasping at the touch, hips jerking away from the sheets. Draco's strokes are firm, erratic, expertly inexpert, and he's burning up, staring up at those eyes and sinking into a haze of what if—what if their teenage selves had chosen a different outlet for their animosity? Would it have led to yet another future? And more to the point, would it have felt as fucking good as this?

"Whatever, Potter. You're mine," Draco says roughly, his smirk sharpening into a snarl as his fist flies over Harry's cock, dragging dry whimpers from deep in his throat, eyes flashing. Harry lifts his free hand with a half-formed intention of pulling Draco closer, overpowering him like the fierce Gryffindor he's supposed to be, but something in Draco's voice as he mutters, "Fuck, you're hot," yanks him open inside and before he has time to do anything, he's crying out and spilling, hot and fierce, into Draco's hand.

"Draco," he groans, forgetting himself. Not caring. He closes his eyes.

As he comes back to himself and blinks slowly up at Draco, he immediately registers the odd expression on the flushed, angular face. The Slytherin smirk has disappeared, and Draco's eyes are now narrowed in curious puzzlement.

"Well, you've never done that before," he says at last.

"Mm?" Harry says vaguely, partly because he's still feeling deliciously floaty, and partly because the less he says, the harder it is for him to get himself into trouble.

"Look at you," Draco sighs, releasing Harry's pinned wrist and lacing their fingers together. "I was just saying that this has to be a first... you just lying there being all... well-behaved. It's very strange."

Harry freezes. Chews his lip. Fuck. "Well, I just felt like letting you take control," he says, squeezing Draco's fingers and attempting to look seductive. Or at least convincing.

Quite possibly he fails, because Draco just raises an eyebrow and reaches for his wand on the bedside. He casts a couple of absent-minded, tingling Cleaning Charms and then slides from Harry's thighs to curl on his side, head propped up on one hand.

"You don't usually do that when you're trying to be kinky, though," he muses.

"Trying to be kinky?" Harry demands, scandalised.

Draco smiles serenely. "You know what I mean." He pauses, features drawing into a frown as he looks at Harry. "You are you, aren't you?"

Harry's heart pounds, but he feigns confusion. "Excuse me?"

"How do I know you're not just someone Polyjuiced as Harry?" Draco continues, and although Harry knows that he can't be too worried—he's lying there naked and vulnerable, after all—he can't shake the feeling that Draco isn't completely joking.

Harry swallows hard. "You don't."

Draco stares. When he speaks, the words tumble out in a quite un-Draco-like rush. "What was I wearing that night?"

Jerked back to the war, the Order, his early days as an Auror, Harry's hesitation lasts for only a fraction of a second.

"Striped pyjamas," he says quickly. "Goyle's pyjamas."

Draco visibly relaxes. The anxiety that disappears from his eyes confirms Harry's suspicions, and he struggles to control his racing pulse, knowing how close he has been to blowing his cover.

Draco, meanwhile, smiles at the memory. "He always was an idiot."

"Yeah," Harry says, already searching for a way to fix his mistake. He's an Auror—or at least he was—he can think on his feet. Of course he can. He just has to make it look realistic. "Anyway," he adds, gazing evenly at Draco, "what about you? How do I know that you're you? If we're going to start throwing security questions around, then... when exactly was our first kiss?" he throws out, hoping his genuine curiosity isn't as obvious as it feels.

Draco snorts derisively. "What kind of security question is that? I could be Hermione or Ginevra or Weasley himself, for that matter—he certainly had an eyeful that night." He grimaces and curls further into himself, earlier arousal apparently forgotten.

Intrigued, Harry bites back a flurry of inquiries. "Just answer the bloody question."

"Fine," Draco sighs. "When exactly? I think it was about half past eleven at night... let's say eleven thirty-two, shall we? It was the Weasleys' third annual Christmas party, and I believe it was a Friday, but if you check your calendar and find that I'm wrong, feel free to kick me out onto the street," he finishes, directing a long-suffering glance at Harry and scrambling under the sheets, pulling them up under his chin and shivering.

"Just checking, no need for the attitude," Harry says drily, removing his remaining clothing with some effort and slumping into bed beside Draco; immediately, he finds himself draped and tangled with frozen, heat-seeking limbs. He sighs and says nothing.

"There's always a need when you're reminding me about getting caught kissing my supposed best friend behind a half-dead hydrangea bush in the Weasleys' back garden," Draco says huffily. "Not exactly an auspicious start to a relationship."

Harry grins, delighted by the reluctant warmth flickering in Draco's eyes and the fact that he is now able to click another piece of his past into place.

"I don't know, you're still here, aren't you?"

"So it would seem," Draco says, reflecting Harry's smile wearily back to him. He rests his head on Harry's shoulder and sighs. "I've been spending too much time with Fitzwilliam, I think. I'm apparently losing my mind... what's left of it."

"Age," Harry coughs, fully expecting the flick to the ribs that follows. "I almost forgot to tell you—he seems to have worked out that someone's following him."

Draco scowls. "I'm not following him. I'm carefully infiltrating his inner circle."

Harry just buries his face in the pillow and laughs.

**~*~**

The next few days pass without incident, and by mid-January, Harry is becoming comfortable in his new routine; he is wearing himself a smooth, contented little groove in which he can rattle along quite happily without feeling trapped, even for a moment. It's astonishingly liberating.

Crawling into bed satisfied and content rather than tense and exhausted allows him to sleep deeply and rise with relatively few complaints when his copper clock rings and smokes for attention in the mornings. Harry notices the restorative power of sleep in his vigorous appearance in the mirror, in his smooth skin and bright eyes, and in the wonderful absence of pounding head pain; he also wonders, in quieter moments, just how he has managed to push himself along for so many years without collapsing from exhaustion. He doesn't have to think too hard to come up with three good reasons, and fuck, he misses them.

But he's here now, and, hanging hard onto Boris' promise, he throws himself into his work, experimenting wildly and pouring his jumble of emotions into odd sculpture after odd sculpture: he finds a weird little spell for the Veneficus in one of the books in the morning room and makes a series of small pieces that give off massive amounts of heat with a simple wand-flick; he makes a delicate combination of thin, curly oak pieces and vivid orange glass that reminds him of Lily, and a huge, multi-coloured glass bowl that is misshapen, feels like confusion, and sells for an obscene amount of Galleons just hours after completion. Puzzled but pleased, he sets to work making a whole series of them, each larger than the last.

He still doesn't think of himself as any kind of artist, and he discards as many pieces as he displays for sale, but as long as he switches off and doesn't worry about trying to impress anyone, he finds it comes naturally. So naturally, in fact, that he feels slightly sore that nobody from his old life has ever encouraged him to try something creative. Still, he can't help but feel he's finding his place.

On a quiet Friday afternoon, he sticks up a 'Back Soon!' sign and heads for Richenda's, where he spends an enjoyable half hour browsing the various sections and picking out an armful of new records for the workshop.

"You look well, Mr Potter!" she booms, jewelled earrings dangling as she leans over to take Harry's purchases. "Something of a departure from your last selection," she adds, arching one dark eyebrow.

Harry grins sheepishly. "Well, these ones are for me. Pleasure rather than business, if you like."

"Yes, of course, I remember now." She leans still closer, wrapping her fingers around his stack of records, crimson nails tapping on the shiny cardboard. "How did it go, Mr Potter? I must know!"

"I think it worked," Harry says thoughtfully, breathing in the heavy scent of dried flowers and vinyl and recalling his extraordinary duet with Lucius. "I could've done better, but you know how in-laws are."

"Oh, yes," Richenda agrees gloomily. "Well, I hope you enjoy these better. Perhaps they will be inspirational... I've heard you're branching out again, Mr Potter—glass, is it?"

Harry takes his heavy string-handled bag and blinks, mildly surprised. "Er, yeah... I didn't realise you knew about that."

Richenda laughs, shaking her glossy black hair. "Anyone who is anyone knows about it, I assure you."

Embarrassed, Harry scrubs at his hair and gestures toward the door. "Well, that's... hmm... I'd better get back to it, then. Thanks for these," he says hurriedly, holding up the bag and waving as he pulls open the door and steps out into the wintry sunshine of Diagon Alley.

"Goodbye, Mr Potter!" she calls after him.

He shakes his head and clatters over the cobbles to the 'shop. When he gets there, he finds an unfamiliar owl waiting, perching on the low wall and hopping territorially back and forth as a large ginger and white cat tries to curl up on the wall in a patch of sunlight. Harry watches for a moment, amused, as the cat flattens its ears and attempts to defend its position but, with a forceful hoot, the owl goes to nip it on the nose and it leaps down from the wall, hissing, and disappears behind the flapping sandwich board for the Dragondale Deli.

"Well, that was impressive," Harry says, sitting carefully beside the owl.

It hoots and puffs up its feathers before holding out its leg for Harry to take the message.

"Thank you," he says, unrolling the parchment. "I haven't got anything for you, I'm afraid, but..."

Before Harry can finish his sentence, though, the owl has spread its wings and taken off. Bemused, Harry watches until it is no more than a brown dot in the distance, and then turns to the letter.

Dear Mr Potter,

My name is Larson Clearwater and I am the primary feature writer for the Arts and Culture section of the Daily Prophet. I would like to put together an article about you and your work, particularly your new abstract pieces and glassware. As such, would it be possible to come to your workshop some time this week to conduct an interview and take some photographs?

Please let me know when you have an opening; I understand that your schedule must be very busy indeed.

Yours in gratitude,

L. Clearwater
.

"Arts and Culture?" Harry mutters incredulously. "Me? That's ridiculous."

"Oww," says the ginger cat, sticking its head out from the middle of the sandwich board and glancing twitchily around, possibly for the belligerent owl.

"Well, you tell them that," he sighs, looking at the letter again, just in case it might have changed somehow.

The cat flicks its tail and blinks large green eyes at Harry. Apparently, it has no more to say on the subject. Harry shoves Mr Clearwater's letter into the bag with his records and gets to his feet. He heads for the 'shop, stretching out his sore arm muscles and preparing for an afternoon of hard work.

Draco will have an opinion, no doubt.

As it turns out, when Draco reluctantly releases the death grip on his teacup to squint at the letter, he merely laughs, passes it back to Harry and says, "I was beginning to worry—you haven't been in the Prophet for almost two months."

Harry accepts the letter back and slumps onto the worn leather sofa, pulling his feet up onto the cushions and wrapping the crisp parchment around his fingers as he thinks. Finally, unable to think of a reason why not, Harry writes his acceptance, advising Mr Clearwater that a Saturday would be best. After all, if he's going to do this weird, weird thing, he's going to need help.

Help arrives just before nine o'clock on the following Saturday morning, in the form of a vividly-dressed Maura, who practically bounces out of the fireplace to meet him.

"Come on, Uncle Harry, we're going to be late!"

Ginny, stepping out onto the hearthrug behind her daughter, rolls her eyes. "Calm down, madam, before you make yourself sick. Or explode." She turns to Harry, hitching her huge bag up on her shoulder. "I've heard nothing but 'we're going to be in the paper' since last week. And it's all your fault," she says, flashing Harry a wry smile.

"Sorry. It's all part of my strategy—the more time they spend taking pictures of her, the less time they have to ask me stupid questions."

Ginny laughs. "If only all strategies were so foolproof. Maybe then I'd have some confidence about beating the Harpies today. Or even just not getting trashed by them, to be honest," she admits, sighing.

"You have a home-ground advantage, Mummy," Maura pipes up. "And your Seeker is better than their Seeker."

Ginny grins at Harry and drops to her knees to hug her daughter tightly. "Thank you. Keep thinking good thoughts. And don't get in Uncle Harry's way, okay?" She straightens up, ruffling Maura's hair. "I'll pick her up after the match."

"We're going for ice cream," Maura informs Harry. "Me and Mummy and Daddy."

"Chocolate and candlewax? Fudge and carrot? Lamb and strawberry?" Harry teases.

Maura pulls a face. "You are very silly sometimes," she says gravely, and behind her, her mother barely manages to conceal her amusement. Harry sets his hands on his hips and lifts an eyebrow.

"I'm going to go," Ginny says loudly, pointing at the fireplace and patting her bag. "Players to go, places to yell at... erm, motivate... or something," she stumbles, almost dropping her Floo powder and giggling her way into the green flames.

Harry and Maura exchange glances.

"Do you really think I'm silly?" he asks after a moment.

Maura blinks large dark eyes up at him. "A bit."

"Is that a bad thing?" he asks, aware that this is the real question, the one he's been wondering about.

She frowns and her freckled nose wrinkles in confusion. "No," she says slowly, as though it's obvious.

Harry smiles. "Good. Shall we go and get our pictures taken?"

**~*~**

"Do you like my dress?" Maura asks some time later as she and Harry sit side by side on a workbench in the much-cleaner-than-usual workshop, waiting for Mr Clearwater to arrive.

Harry looks, taking in the inevitably scarlet garment with its pretty buttoned collar and embroidered ring of snails around the bottom of the skirt. "Very fancy," he pronounces. "Do you like mine?"

Maura laughs. "You're not wearing a dress! But I like your jumper," she admits, reaching out to stroke the soft, jade green wool of Harry's sleeve.

"Thank you. It's Uncle Draco's. He seemed to think it was the best colour to wear for having my photograph taken," he confides, mouth twitching at the memory of Draco's last words before he had dashed out for some kind of meeting: 'Not that I care, of course, but you should wear this one or this one', followed by a tiny smirk and a careless clatter of hangers and heavy fabric on top of Harry's sleepy form before he had stalked out of the room in a whisk of leather and stripes.

"Oh," Maura says, puzzled. She glances down at her dress again, kicking out the skirt so that it swishes around her knees. "Daddy got this for me. Mummy was not very happy at all," she says darkly.

Harry chews his lip. "Why not?"

"It came from Twilfitt's," Maura says, a meaningful look in her dark eyes.

"You've lost me," Harry says. "Sorry."

"That means it was very expensive," she informs him.

"Ah, of course," Harry says. And then: "I thought your dad didn't like colours."

Maura looks up from where she has been brushing an invisible speck from her dress. "He doesn't like them for him. He likes them for me." She shrugs.

"That's because he loves you," he says, gripping the cold edge of the bench hard. Maura frowns lightly. "Just trust me."

"Okay," Maura says, almost in a whisper, and then there's a knock at the door.

"Ready?" Harry slides to his feet and flattens his hair pointlessly.

"Yep."

"I suppose I should let them in, then," Harry says, barely resisting the urge to spell the door transparent and get a good look at the interlopers in advance. Difficult though it is to break his years-old distrustful habit, especially when it comes to reporters, Harry finds a smile and reaches for the door handle. Things are different here. This man isn't going bite him, especially with a child present.

Maura leans forward eagerly on the bench, completely unaware that she's functioning as a safety device for a grown man. "Go on," she whispers.

"Alright," he mutters, pulling a face at the door for a satisfying fraction of a second before reinstating the smile and pulling the handle. "Hello, Mr Clearwater."

The man on the doorstep grins at him, showing bright white teeth in a tanned, slightly lined face. "How does it go, Mr Potter, how does it go?" he inquires, almost bellowing into Harry's face, the delivery somewhat at odds with his frightfully refined accent.

"It, er... certainly goes," Harry manages, stepping back and allowing Mr Clearwater into the workshop, followed by a vast, pink-skinned mountain of a man whom Harry had somehow failed to notice until he had moved.

Now, he trundles slowly around the 'shop without a word, cradling his camera against his chest and sweeping the space with curious blue eyes that are just visible underneath a messy blond thatch of hair. Maura watches him, apparently fascinated, from her perch atop the workbench.

"Don't mind Karlo, Mr Potter, he's just getting a feel for the place. The light, and such," Mr Clearwater calls, removing his heavy winter cloak to reveal a natty three-piece suit in tweed. He throws the cloak over one arm and removes a copper pocket watch from his waistcoat. Squints at it through square, wire-rimmed glasses that are not dissimilar to Harry's, and sighs. "Time marches on! Karlo, must you?"

Wondering just when he's expected to get a word in, Harry turns to see the gargantuan photographer standing precariously on a workbench and poking at the skylight above with a sausage-like finger. He's not worried; those benches seem to be pretty solid, after all, but Mr Clearwater's face is a picture of exasperation.

"Leave Mr Potter's windows alone!" he cries.

"Good light in here," Karlo opines in a soft voice. He glances at Harry before he climbs down. "Sorry."

"No problem," Harry shrugs. "If you're going to take my picture, it might as well be in good light."

"Indeed, indeed!" Mr Clearwater agrees, striding into the pool of morning sunshine and tipping his head back into it until his salt-and-pepper hair sparkles. "Wonderful. Oh, hello!" he says suddenly, grinning at Maura. "What a fantastically spiffy dress."

"Thanks," Maura says, beaming.

"Sorry," Harry jumps in hastily, "Mr Clearwater, Mr Karlo, this is my niece, Maura. My little muse."

Karlo makes an indistinct noise and nods his huge head in recognition.

"Hello, Maura," Mr Clearwater says gravely, shaking her hand. "Just Karlo, though, and you really needn't call me Mr Clearwater; Lars is fine."

"As is Harry," Harry adds quickly.

"So we all know each other!" Mr Clearwater declares, grinning again. "Lovely. I've been looking forward to meeting you, Harry, I must admit. Ever since Penny told me that she ran into you at one of those Ministry functions not long ago."

Harry hesitates, chewing his lip as he thinks. Penny. Of course. Penelope Clearwater, Percy's Hogwarts girlfriend, is this springy individual's daughter. Better say something. "It's lovely to meet you, too," he says, crossing his fingers behind his back and hoping that flattery really will get him anywhere. "Penelope said some wonderful things about you. She's very proud."

Mr Clearwater laughs. "Ah, if only children could say such things to our faces."

Harry smiles, feeling a dull twinge in his chest as he thinks immediately of James, who would probably rather set fire to himself than give Harry a direct compliment.

"True. But children always mean their compliments, which is nice on the odd occasion that we get them," Harry says at last, startled by his own candour. Astonished, in fact, but there's something very genuine about Mr Clearwater—Lars—that's twisting all his views on the press out of shape.

"Oh, well put," he enthuses, beaming and touching Harry lightly on the elbow. "Mind if I take that down? No? Ah, now, where is it?" he mumbles, dipping into each of his many pockets in turn, extracting a handkerchief, his wand, his pocket watch, which he stares at for a moment, before stuffing it back into his waistcoat and re-emerging, triumphant, with a sleek silver notebook and matching pencil.

Harry's surprise must be clear on his face, because Lars laughs raucously as he flips open the notebook and begins to scribble, hand moving across the page at a terrific rate.

"None of that Quick Quotes nonsense here, Harry. Karlo and I like to do things the old fashioned way, you see. We've been working together for many a year, haven't we, Karlo?"

"Yes," says Karlo, without looking up from where he is setting up his camera, watched with rapt curiosity by Maura.

"He doesn't say much," Lars advises, gently chewing on the end of his pencil.

"I hadn't noticed," Harry says drily, suppressing a smile. He thinks he may be starting to enjoy himself.

"I suspect I've enough words for the both of us," Lars confesses. "It's rather exciting to be investigating the art world at last—I've spent twenty-seven years with the Prophet, almost all of them in Food and Drink." He sighs and shrugs tweedy shoulders. "Time for someone else to review those restaurants."

"I'm afraid I'm not very exciting," Harry says. "But a change is always good."

"Oh, it is, Harry. Although the reviewing game isn't without its charms," Lars muses, fixing Harry with a conspiratorial eye. "Have you tried the Flailing Lizard on Carnaby Street? Muggle place, of a fashion—owned by a witch and her husband... Muggle, very nice, though, lovely chap. It's all very wizard-friendly and they've a glorious oriental menu..." He stops, shaking his head and grinning at Harry. "Sorry about that—occupational hazard! Shall we get on?"

Over the next two hours, Harry answers—or, at least, attempts to answer—a mountain of questions from the seemingly tireless Lars, who, despite being at least twenty years Harry's senior, bubbles over with an infectious energy that sweeps Harry along well past the usual point of 'fuck this, I need a coffee break'. The questions range from the undemanding ("What's your favourite sort of wood to work with these days, Harry?") to the intricate ("What does your work mean to you? Is this change of style indicative of some shift in another area of your life?") and everything in between.

Karlo, meanwhile, lumbers around in the background, barely making a sound as he repositions his equipment and clicks away, mumbling short but gently-voiced replies to Maura's incessant inquiries. Taken though she is with this quiet giant of a man, she does remember her pledge to protect Harry from the scary reporter at regular intervals, and slips away from Karlo's side to insinuate herself between Harry and Mr Clearwater, throwing in her opinion as often as she can.

"So, you must be Harry's very valuable assistant," Lars says at last, looking down warmly at her from his seat on top of one of the workbenches. Harry has tried to persuade him to sit in the perfectly decent wooden chair he has dragged out and cleaned for this very occasion, but Lars won't hear of it. So they sit, opposite one another but some eight feet apart, legs dangling and faces bathed in sunlight as Harry mumbles and gesticulates and slowly begins to talk about his work with confidence—it is, at last, his work, and not that belonging to his other self, and it makes all the difference in the world.

"I am," Maura says, flashing her most charming smile. "When I'm not at school."

"I see," Lars nods, scribbling. "And which school is that? I don't want to leave anything out."

"Ottery St Catchpole Primary. But I'm going to go to Hogwarts," she adds hurriedly, blinking big eyes up at Lars as though daring him to contradict her. Harry turns away to hide his smile, just in time to hear the click-flash of Karlo's camera.

"Good one, that," he mumbles.

"I think what a lot of people would like to know, especially with all these marvellous abstract pieces, is what inspires your work?" Lars says, and when Harry turns back to look at him, he's scrutinising his pocket watch again. Perhaps it's a nervous tic. Harry wonders what Draco would have to say about it.

"What inspires me?" Harry repeats, playing for time and picking at the hem of his—Draco's—jumper. He doesn't know how to answer that. He just makes things; there isn't all that much thinking involved. But perhaps that's the point. He screws up his anxiety and grips the edge of the bench, cold fingers pressing against pitted wood. "Anything. Everything. The weather... the seasons... my—a child, a friend, a feeling; frustration's a good one," he admits, urged on by the warm crinkling around Lars' eyes. "Anything that gets the blood going, really. I don't set out with a particular plan in mind; I just set everything up and let go."

"I imagine that's a real thrill compared to the absolute precision that's required to create one of your usual pieces," Lars says effusively, volume increasing with enthusiasm and silver pencil almost flying out of his hand as he waves it around.

"Yeah," Harry laughs. "It's definitely a very different feeling. And it's important to take chances, I think. In work... and life. It's so easy to get stuck, let things pass you by..." Harry coughs. "By which I mean that it's important to try new stuff."

"Risk!" cries Lars, grinning. "Risk is the juice of life!"

"Well, exactly," Harry stumbles, face heating.

"How about some shots of you and your glorious risky pieces?" Lars suggests, hopping down from the workbench and tucking away his notebook and pencil. "And Miss Maura, of course."

"Mm?" Maura looks up from where she's crouching beside Karlo, who is showing her a whole rainbow of different coloured lenses. "I like that one," she whispers, pointing.

"Come on, Maura Fedora," Harry says, beckoning to her. "Let's pose next to the weird stuff."

"Splendid!" Lars chivvies them into position, referring to his watch along the way. "Why don't we have the artist and his assistant behind this beautiful glass bowl? What do you think, Karlo?"

"Yes," says Karlo, drawing down his big blond eyebrows in concentration. And then, in the longest sentence Harry has so far heard him utter, he adds: "Fine piece of glass, that, Mr Potter."

"Thanks," Harry says, unexpectedly touched.

"Wonderful," Lars murmurs, standing out of the way and clutching his pocket watch in both hands.

Maura giggles and holds on to Harry's arm. He drags in a deep breath, inhaling the scent of sawdust and wax and the cooling glass from his earlier demonstration, the citrus freshness of Draco that somehow clings to his jumper, and the roasting onions and baking bread from the deli across the cobbles. It's a tiny perfect moment, and he wants to hold onto it, smoke between his fingers; his smile stretches wide and genuine as he puts his arm around Maura and squeezes.

"Keep still," grunts Karlo.

**~*~**

Lars leaves Harry with a firm handshake, clasping Harry's hand between both of his warm, dry palms and grinning earnestly into Harry's face, while Karlo nods politely and gives Maura a pat on the shoulder that, despite clearly being executed with care, sends Maura stumbling across the stone flags with the sheer force of it. This does nothing to dampen Maura's admiration of the man, however, and she just glows with delight as the two of them stand in the doorway and wave goodbye to the men from the Daily Prophet.

Harry is informed that the article should appear in the paper the following weekend. As it turns out, he is beaten to the press by Draco, whose Fitzwilliam exposé is finally submitted on the last Thursday in January, ready to scorch Friday's front pages and shake the foundations of the wizarding political community.

"I'm not happy with it," Draco sighs, folding the morning edition savagely and dropping it onto the kitchen table. He leans back precariously in his chair and taps his fingers against his green and white striped tea cup. "There was so much more I could've had on him, I know I could, but he was starting to suspect, and... well, people like Fitzwilliam have very few scruples when it comes to eliminating evidence." He shoots Harry a significant look, which Harry does his best to return without seeming as though he's experiencing some kind of facial spasm. "I didn't have much of a choice. It's not as strong as I'd have liked, though."

"You did right," Harry says, reaching for the newspaper and opening it out on his lap. "You had to run with what you had."

"Publish or perish," Draco shrugs, draining his cup and setting it down.

Harry nods. He reaches for a buttered toast triangle and crunches it thoughtfully as he reads.

On the same day that he spoke in front of the Wizengamot, the Minister for Magic, and a watching crowd of hundreds, announcing strict new policies on the operation of the Auror Department for his 'Clear, Safe, Strong' scheme, Franz Fitzwilliam had clandestine face-to-face meetings with two underground groups, including the Slovenian 'Požar Riba', one of the organisations featured prominently on Fitzwilliam's infamous 2015 'Danger List'.

Harry examines several grainy but unmistakeable photographs of Fitzwilliam, his one-time, somewhere-boss, deep in conversation with several different groups of men, some of whom, Harry is horrified to note, he recognises from his field days as very dangerous individuals indeed. He stares, suffused with hot pride for Draco, who he knows has risked far more than his safety to take these pictures. To collect this information and write these words.

"He's fucked," he says, tearing his eyes away from the paper and looking up at Draco. "There'll be an official investigation now, and he'll lose his job... at the very least."

"Good grief, let's hope so. I like to think that I can still cause a bit of a stir."

"I don't think you'll ever lose that ability. You were probably born with it."

"I'm not denying that it's the Malfoy way, but I think you're responsible for my obsession with truth these days," Draco says, returning his chair legs to the floor and biting decisively into a toast triangle stolen from Harry's plate.

Harry says nothing but smiles, recalling those heated words and bright eyes in the dark that are almost real memories now.

"You know," Draco confides, pushing back his black knitted sleeve and examining the harsh letters and lines against his pale skin. "Even after all these years, I like to think that every bastard I investigate is another couple of dance steps on Voldemort's grave," he says, eyes narrowing contemptuously as the name leaves his lips.

Harry's heart slams against his ribcage, swelling with approval, and he allows himself a fraction of a second to enjoy the startled widening of Draco's eyes as he abandons the paper, wipes his buttery fingers on his jeans, hauls Draco to his feet and kisses him hard.

**~*~**

By the time the Saturday Prophet arrives, all anyone can talk about is Draco's article. Fitzwilliam himself seems to have evaporated completely, only helping to lend further weight to the veracity of Draco's words, and the Ministry Spokeswizard is falling over himself in his efforts to assure the public that a thorough investigation has already begun.

Lars' article, tucked away in the Arts and Culture section, is somewhat overshadowed, but Harry doesn't mind in the least. He's bursting with pride for Draco and has absolutely no interest in being the centre of attention. Draco, however, is far happier to see Harry in print, and seems to forget about all of his dissatisfaction with his own work when he flips to the relevant section and sees Karlo's big colour photographs. Harry looks with him, chin on his shoulder, and he's impressed. The man of few words is, as he should have known, an artist in his own right.

Harry has never particularly enjoyed having his photograph taken, and neither has he ever relished the results, but these pictures are something else; full of warmth, genuine smiles and beautiful, vivid colours, they light up the double-page spread and breathe further life into Lars' effervescent, praise-filled words.

"Why is there always one of you trying to look sultry?" Draco murmurs, mouth twitching at one corner.

Harry snorts. "Which one?"

Draco taps a pale finger against a shot of Harry during his glass-blowing demonstration. Granted, there's a lot of smoke and fire, and his eyes are narrowed against the heat as he turns the pipe slowly—it is quite a dramatic picture, but there's no way on this earth that he was, or is, or would ever try to look sultry, for crying out loud.

"I'm concentrating!" he protests.

"Concentrating on arousing your middle-aged fanbase," Draco mutters, smirking widely now.

"Fuck off," Harry says, stretching out on the creaky sofa and nudging Draco with his knee.

"Language," Draco says airily, examining a picture of Maura, grinning and kneeling beside the Lily sculpture, which is almost as big as her.

"I didn't promise not to swear," Harry points out. "She looks great, doesn't she?"

Draco nods. "I think this one's rather good of both of you, actually." He indicates the largest photograph, right under the banner "Harry Potter Takes a Turn'.

Harry watches his photo-self wrap an arm around photo-Maura as they both stand behind the huge, multi-coloured glass bowl. For a moment, they stand neatly, smiling, the image of good behaviour, before they both grin up at each other and dissolve into laughter.

"That's brilliant," he says, wanting to reach out and take the photograph. Keep it with him. He makes a mental note to buy his own copy as soon as he gets to Diagon Alley. This one, after all, is Draco's, and Harry suspects that it is only a matter of time before it makes its way into the album marked '2018'.

"When I heard that this talented and unusual artist was making one of his periodical returns to his roots, eschewing his usual elaborately carved furniture and delving into the abstract, I had to get involved. Potter responded to my owl with impressive swiftness and invited me to his Diagon Alley workshop for a morning, so, last Saturday, that is exactly what the ever faithful Karlo and I did. Truly, Mr Potter, 37, and his wonderful assistant, Maura Zabini-Weasley, 7, are enchanting individuals," Draco reads, one eyebrow arched in amusement. "You've got this Clearwater character wrapped around your little finger, haven't you?" He pauses. Frowns. "Clearwater... Clearwater... isn't he the Food and Drink bloke?"

"He was," Harry agrees, glancing at Lars' beaming by-line picture. "He's very excited to be trying something new, what can I say? Nice man, actually."

"I urge Potter-fans and art-lovers alike to get in on this phase while it lasts—take yourself down to Diagon Alley and get your hands on something strange and beautiful for your home. And while you're there, why not drop into the Dragondale Deli next door, where you can sample the best pumpkin sourdough this side of the Thames," Draco says, reading a section from the end of the article. "He's not forgotten he's a food writer, then."

"No. He gave me a tip, actually," Harry says, stretching and following Draco as he tucks the newspaper under his arm and heads for the study.

"Excellent," Draco calls, stalking along the ground floor hallway and out of sight around a corner. "We're celebrating with Ginevra and Blaise tonight, and it's your turn to pick a restaurant."

Thank goodness for Lars, Harry thinks, picking up his pace to catch up with Draco. As he crosses the tiled entrance hall, though, his knee, well-behaved for several days now, flicks out from beneath him and pitches him, hands and good knee first, into the hard floor.

"Fuck's sake," he mutters, catching his breath and wincing slightly. Feeling his bones creak.

Slowly, he picks himself up, balancing with one hand on the cool wall and flexing his knee with care.

"Are you alright?" Draco says, emerging from the study with the '2018' album dangling at his side.

"Stupid knee," Harry grumbles, and Draco's nose wrinkles sympathetically. He fiddles with the quill in his hand and then stows it away behind his ear.

"Cup of tea, then? And then I have to add my thoughts." He indicates the album. "Very important thoughts. Grave, serious thoughts of great consequence..." he mutters, taking off down the corridor toward the kitchen without waiting for a response.

Harry hangs back for a moment, hypnotised by the movements of the stairwell spider as it scuttles between several of the upper banisters, stringing a new outpost for its already imposing web.

"Good for you," Harry murmurs, taking a few backward steps before he heads down to the kitchen to rescue his cup of tea from Draco. He likes spiders, and this one—like himself, he supposes—has come a long way.

When he reaches the kitchen he finds Arthur's head in the fire.

"Wonderful article, Harry," he enthuses. "Any chance of coming round to have another go with the glass?"

"Absolutely," Harry says, turning neatly and swiping his cup out of Draco's hand just as it touches his lips. "Make yourself another one, you cheeky... er, Slytherin," he finishes, remembering Arthur. "Anyway, yes, please do come over but I think we'd better leave it 'til next weekend—I have a feeling that today might be a bit busier than usual."

By mid-morning, Harry knows he had been right to be cautious. Lars' article has attracted the customers in their droves, filling the 'shop with an interesting mixture of potential buyers, curious Prophet readers, and groups of ladies, some old enough to be Harry's grandmother, who seem content just to watch him work and chatter delightedly over his sculptures in little knots. He leaves the workshop, exhausted, at six-thirty, and hurries back to number twelve to wash away the day and find something Draco-suitable to wear for dinner.

Mindful of the colour combination rules, at least as far as he understands them, Harry lingers in front of the open wardrobes for several minutes, pretending he doesn't hear Draco's impatient muttering from the bathroom, or the hissing of spray bottles and squeak of cloths that lets him know that Draco is cleaning something as he waits.

"If you get bleach on your new trousers, I won't be accepting the blame," Harry calls, pushing Frank out of the way so that he can unhook a dark red shirt from the rail and examine it.

"Not all of us feel the need to fling fluids everywhere when we clean," Draco says, stepping into the bathroom doorway, cloth held well clear of his immaculate outfit.

Harry pulls a face at Draco in the mirror and shrugs into the red shirt. "Not all of us are terminally smug."

"How you wound me. Try my brown jacket with that shirt," Draco suggests, pointing. "No, not that one. The one with Frankfurto's head in the breast pocket."

"Obviously."

**~*~**

The night is crisp and beautiful as Harry, Draco, Ginny and Blaise make their unhurried way through London to the Flailing Lizard, talking and laughing under a velvety deep blue sky. Ginny's spindly high heels clack along the pavement as she keeps impressive pace with her taller companions and Blaise's rumbling laughter carries on cool air that's heavy with woodsmoke and the mingled savoury aromas of the restaurants they pass. Relaxed and warm-tired, Harry scuffs along beside Ginny and makes no effort to defend himself as Blaise now takes on the mantle of teasing him about his 'sultry' photograph in the Prophet.

"He's just jealous that he couldn't look sultry if he tried," Ginny opines, tucking her arm through Harry's as they walk.

"Of course. I'm a man of a thousand expressions."

"Perhaps I should've married you instead," Ginny muses mock-thoughtfully, just as a light gust of wind whips her floral-scented hair against his face. His heart clenches.

"Yeah," he mumbles, throat dry. "I wonder what that would've been like."

Ginny laughs. It's a great laugh. "Terrible, I imagine... oh, no."

"What?" Harry frowns, following her eyes, and then there it is. Of course it is. It's everywhere.

Goldstein, dressed in black from head to toe, is heading up the pavement toward them. He is still at least a hundred yards away, but Ginny's sharp eyes have allowed Harry to observe him in secret for a moment or two, and that is quite long enough for him to notice the slender, dark-haired man at Goldstein's side, one arm slung around his waist as they walk.

Blaise and Draco, heavily embroiled as they are in a discussion that involves a lot of head shaking and hand waving, have not yet noticed, but Harry and Ginny slow almost to a standstill as Goldstein and his companion approach.

"I hate to say this, Harry, but he looks—"

"Quite a lot like me?" Harry mutters, squinting at the man's worn jeans and scruffy hair.

"Oh, that's weird," Ginny breathes.

"What's the hold up?" Draco demands, finally detecting the break in proceedings; he and Blaise have finished their conversation and ground to a halt behind Harry and Ginny.

"It's that ridiculous man, look," Blaise cries, jabbing Draco in the ribs with a vast elbow. "And he appears to have a Harry-a-like. How very odd."

Draco sighs and covers his eyes for a fraction of a second in exasperation. "As usual, Blaise, your summarising talents are second to none."

"We're not just going to stand here, are we?" Ginny asks, wrapping her coat more tightly around herself and shifting her feet on the pavement. "I'm starving, and to be honest, it's going to take something much more interesting than him to keep me away from my dinner."

"I'm with Ginevra," Draco says, flicking a glance at Goldstein and his friend as they cross a quiet side road, apparently unaware of the discussion taking place further down the street. "Ever the classy lady."

Ginny snorts. "Cheers, Draco. Shall we move on, then? Satay chicken?" she says, wiggling her fingers. "Pad Thai? Crispy noodles with—"

"Never mind, I think he's seen you," Blaise interrupts.

"Bugger it," Ginny mutters.

"He might not have seen us if we hadn't been standing here having a mothers' meeting," Draco says, not unreasonably.

"What's a mother's meeting?" Blaise wants to know.

Draco shrugs, tucking his face into his scarf. "No idea."

Attempting to block them all out, Harry turns away, just in time to see Goldstein's eyes lock with his. He immediately disentangles himself from the dark-haired man (who, on closer inspection, Harry thinks is younger and much better looking than himself) and shoves him neatly onto his own side of the pavement in one swift movement. Without breaking eye contact, he flattens an invisible crease out of his jacket and turns up his smile several notches.

Harry watches, mouth slightly open, and it's several seconds before he is able to drag his eyes away from Goldstein and focus on the rejected young man, who is standing on the edge of the kerb, flicking large, distressed eyes between Harry and Goldstein and running a hand fitfully through his hair. Heart hammering, Harry wants to hex Goldstein's arse into the gutter, shake this man's hand and tell him to get out while he can, that he can do so much better. He doesn't need to know the man to know that.

As it is, he just stands there as though he's caught in Devil's Snare, unable to look away from the startled young man, vaguely hearing the shuffling of feet and creaking of coats behind him as Draco, Ginny and Blaise look on in anxious silence.

"Harry," Goldstein says at last, breaking the hush, "I wasn't expecting to see you here."

Still feeling somewhat dazed, Harry looks at him. "Here? Here on the pavement, right next to this streetlight?" he demands, flinging out an arm in demonstration, already feeling his nerves starting to fray. "Are you sure? Because you definitely seem to have a talent for turning up wherever I happen to be! Why is that?"

"Harry, really, there's no need to get yourself tied in knots," Goldstein says smoothly.

"Can't say I have any interest in your advice," Harry retorts. "Especially not now I've seen how you treat your dates."

When he glances pointedly at the dark-haired young man, Goldstein's eyes follow for a moment and then narrow dismissively. "It's nothing like that, Harry. It's nothing."

The man makes an indistinct sound and shakes his head slowly, as though trying to work out just why he is still standing there.

"You're incredible," Harry mutters, glaring at Goldstein. "And not in the good way."

"Come on, Harry, let's go," Ginny says softly, laying a gentle hand on his back.

"I didn't see you there," Goldstein says. "Good evening, Ginny. Blaise." He pauses, lip curling ever-so-slightly. "Draco. Still hanging on, eh?"

The words alone would have been enough, but there's something in his tone, something so fucking contemptuous, that sets Harry's insides alight with rage. Within seconds, he has drawn his wand and taken several steps closer to Goldstein.

"Enough! What do I have to fucking do?" he yells, breath ripped out in rags, wand held inches from Goldstein's face in a steady hand.

The dark-haired man takes an instinctive step back into the road, but Harry barely notices.

Goldstein stares back, eyes blank and breath coming quickly now.

Harry drops his voice. "Leave him alone. Leave us alone. Do you understand?"

"Harry," Goldstein whispers, and Harry closes his eyes, gripping his wand tightly. He's not sure exactly what he's going to do now, but his self-control is dissolving fast.

He jumps at the firm hand on his shoulder.

"He's not worth a second more of your time, Harry," comes Blaise's deep voice from behind him. "Or yours, young man," he adds, and Harry opens his eyes just in time to see the reluctant agreement on the face of the man in the road; he sighs roughly and casts a brief but promising scowl in Goldstein's direction, and then Blaise is steering Harry away, around the two men and along the pavement, one powerful arm wrapped around his shoulder.

He doesn't look back, and even as they round the next corner with Draco and Ginny clattering along behind them, whispering furiously, his ire is starting to fade away. It is replaced by a hot, humming irritation that skitters through his veins and makes him stomp rather than walk, hands stuffed into pockets and head buzzing.

"I wouldn't have done him any serious damage, you know," he tells Blaise when he finally releases him. "Just a little hex. Just a tiny little one."

Blaise snorts. "I'm sure it would have been very satisfying to witness, too, but you'd only have felt horribly guilt-ridden about it in the morning—I know what you're like."

"I don't care. It would've been worth it," Harry sighs. "I feel like it's all my own fault anyway—you know, the way he is."

"You really do take responsibility for some ridiculous things," Blaise says, staring down at him from his great height and looking utterly baffled.

"No, really," Harry insists. "If I hadn't finally noticed what he was doing and called him out on it, would he have started behaving like... well... that?"

Blaise purses his lips thoughtfully. "I don't know. I do know, however, that you are in no way responsible for someone else's mental disturbance." He pauses, glancing behind himself. "Look at Draco—total frog-box material. Not your fault."

Harry laughs. He doesn't want to spend the whole night thinking about Anthony Goldstein. Ideally, he doesn't want to spend any further time thinking about Anthony Goldstein. Taking a deep breath, he twists around and catches Draco's eye.

"Stop that, Ginevra," he says, shaking his head and smiling at Harry. He's beautiful.

**~*~**

"These noodles are amazing," Ginny mumbles, holding her chopsticks at an angle and sucking several of the spicy strands into her mouth.

"I wouldn't know," Blaise says, lifting a dark eyebrow. "You didn't leave me any."

"You exaggerate. Anyway, you knew I was hungry," she points out, grinning and licking a spot of sauce from her bottom lip.

"I'm sure you won't starve, Blaise," Draco says, reaching for the last fishcake and casting a mock-disapproving glance at his friend's abdomen.

Blaise laughs. "I'm equally sure you won't ever stop holding your chopsticks like a quill," he shoots back, whipping out a surprisingly swift hand and stealing the fishcake from Draco; it's in his mouth before Draco even has time to protest, and, inevitably, when he does, it's because of the slight to his table manners and not the pilfered food.

He stares at his chopstick grip and then scowls at Blaise; his eyes are narrowed and his eyebrows drawn down, but there is no malevolence there at all, just the kind of good-humoured, pointless umbrage that results from a combination of good friends, rice wine, laughter, and far too much food. The Flailing Lizard, full of dangling paper lanterns, tanks of exotic fish, and secret magical touches, like the tables that subtly adjust themselves to perfectly fit each party of diners, has so far been a roaring success.

"There is nothing wrong with the way I hold my chopsticks. If you're determined to pick on someone, why not pick on Harry—he's useless."

"Oh, thanks," Harry says, poking Draco's arm with the fork he picked up in defeat somewhere in the middle of the meal. He's never been great with chopsticks, and sees no need whatsoever to suffer for the sake of appearances.

"Poor Harry," Ginny mutters, picking up a dropped something from the tablecloth and holding it out to him like a consolation prize. "Noodle?"

"Mine," Blaise declares, sweeping the noodle into his mouth and then turning to Draco. "And no, because Harry knows his limitations. Harry doesn't have delusions of grandeur."

Harry laughs, partly at Blaise's accusation and partly at the horrified expression on Draco's face. Without thinking, he drapes his arm around Draco and presses a rough kiss to his cheek, savouring the familiar sharp scent of his skin and the faint drag of stubble against his lips, feeling the pull of Draco's smile and closing his eyes for a second, allowing himself to love being in love. It's easy.

"Don't mind him, Draco," Ginny puts in as the waitress comes over and begins to collect their empty plates and dishes. "When we're at home, he eats Cockroach Cluster in the bath."

"Gin!" Blaise exclaims, mouth dropping open theatrically.

The waitress makes a heroic attempt to hide her giggles but her shoulders are shaking as she walks away from the table, arms stacked with dishes.

"What is it with you and the bathtub?" Harry asks, already questioning the wisdom of the inquiry. He folds his arms on the table and leans on them, fixing Blaise with a curious eye.

"The bathtub is a wonderful place, Harry," Blaise rumbles, picking up the bottle of rice wine and refreshing each of the others' glasses, then sets it down.

"Oh, good grief, not this again," Draco sighs, reaching for the bottle and sloshing clear liquid into Blaise's glass.

"This indeed," Blaise confirms gravely, but Harry doesn't get to discover the nature of this because the waitress appears once more at the edge of the table. She sets down a small plate and then hesitates, eyes flitting anxiously between the four of them and slender, black-nail-polished fingers repeatedly clicking a pen at her side.

"Was everything alright for you?" she asks, trying not to look at Blaise. Harry doesn't blame her.

"It was lovely, especially the noodles," Ginny says, tucking her hair behind her ear and beaming up at the waitress. "I don't suppose I can leave my husband here?"

The waitress blinks. "No, madam. We don't have a bath here. I'm sorry," she says, and disappears out of sight behind a fish tank before anyone has a chance to respond.

At the table, it is only a matter of seconds before Draco, Harry and Ginny burst into snickers and giggles. Blaise, who is still pretending to be offended and doing a rather poor job, reaches for the plate and distributes the fortune cookies.

Harry takes his, snaps the crunchy shell and extracts his slip of paper. "When walking the road less travelled, watch out for unexpected bears."

"It is very difficult to find a cat in a darkened room, especially if it's not there," Ginny reads. "Well, that's good to know."

Draco coughs. "Inflated heads gather cobwebs from humble ceilings."

Blaise hoots with laughter. "That is a personal message for you, my friend." He ignores Draco's rude hand gesture and peers at his own slip of paper. "Your wife is dying to give you a foot-rub... really?" he murmurs, turning to Ginny.

"Keep dreaming," Ginny says, smirking. "I have better things to rub than your feet."

"I'm going to have nightmares," Draco complains, draining his small glass and peering into it. "What does it really say?"

"It says: 'your patience will be rewarded.' Perhaps with a foot-rub," he adds hopefully.

"You're a horrible man, but I love you," Ginny declares, crunching into her fortune cookie.

Harry snorts. He chews off one corner of his cookie and washes it down with rice wine. Across the table, Blaise dispatches his own in two large bites. Draco, however, is poking at the halves of his cookie with suspicion.

Ginny sighs. "Draco, if you don't eat it, it won't come true."

"Well then, it's not very good magic, is it?" Draco frowns. "And anyway, I don't want my head to gather cobwebs."

"Never mind that," Harry puts in. "It's fortune cookie magic. It's confusing and mystical."

Draco's lips twist into something that looks very much like a pout. "It doesn't taste very nice."

"Eat it," Blaise intones, widening his eyes until the bright whites are visible all around his dark irises.

"I don't want to."

"It tastes fine. In fact, it doesn't really taste of anything," Ginny says.

"Yes, because that's a real selling point. Anyway, it does; it tastes like hard toast with sugar on it."

Ginny gasps. "Ooh, toast! We haven't toasted yet!"

"Does this mean I don't have to eat the vile thing?" Draco asks hopefully.

"Draco, just eat it. I'm sure you've had worse things in your mouth," Harry sighs, reaching for the bill as the glasses are refilled once more.

Ginny leans across the table to slap Harry's palm, grinning; Draco rolls his eyes and stuffs one half of the fortune cookie into his mouth.

"Good boy," Blaise announces.

Draco grimaces as he swallows. "Why am I your friend again?"

"Because we love you!" Blaise sings, flashing a huge white smile and holding up his tiny glass. "To Draco: investigator supreme, defender of truth, scourge of the corrupt!"

Draco snorts, but lifts his glass to clink with the others'. Harry secretly thinks he looks rather pleased.

"To Draco!"

"And to Harry, for appearing in the paper and turning on thousands of grandmothers with his smouldering good looks," Ginny adds, laughing into her glass and exchanging grins with Draco.

"To Harry's smouldering good looks!" Blaise bellows.

Harry drains his glass and decides not to turn around and find out how many people are looking. After a minute or two, he rises somewhat unsteadily from the table and heads for the bar to pay, gazing at the darting fish all around him as he moves through the restaurant.

"Hi," he says, smiling at the young waitress and then glancing downwards to rummage through the contents of his pockets. "I'd like to pay for our table..." He looks up and the waitress has disappeared. "Enjoying yourself?" he sighs, examining Boris' neat white shirt and his black apron emblazoned with a sparkling bronze lizard.

"Don't mind a bit of variety, young man, you know that." Boris rests his large, age-thickened hands on the dark marble and fixes Harry with his milky eyes. "We've all got to try things."

"Yeah," Harry agrees, smiling. He slips his hands into his pockets and fidgets with the fold of paper money in his left and the Galleons and Sickles in his right.

"An' we've got to know when we've seen all we can," Boris continues. "When it's time to go."

Harry stares at him, insides turning cold. "What are you saying?"

"You know what I'm sayin', lad," Boris says, voice a little softer than usual.

Harry glances back across the restaurant to the table where Draco, Ginny and Blaise are laughing and finishing off the bottle of rice wine. He feels sick. Lightheaded, heart racing, he forces himself to look back at Boris.

He swallows dryly. "I have to leave?"

"This was only a glimpse, son. A glimpse is temporary by definition."

Harry grips the edge of the bar. "Yeah, I... I know. I know that, it's just..." He takes a deep breath, attempting, with limited success, to pull himself under control. "When?" he manages.

"You'll be home by the mornin'."

Feeling himself drop, Harry leans on the bar and scrubs at his hair. "Tomorrow? You can't!"

"You thought you'd never settle 'ere, didn't you?" Boris says softly. "Couldn' figure out what you were doin' with 'im. Come a long way, I'd say."

Harry looks up. "Is that all you've got to say? That I've come a long way? You put me here, you left me here, and now I'm in love with him," he says fiercely, eyes stinging as he glares at the old man. "Did you hear that? I love him! And now that's it? Now?"

For a moment, Boris says nothing. Frozen, Harry listens to the harsh sound of his own breathing and the clinking and murmuring of the restaurant behind him.

Boris rubs an unhurried hand across his vast beard. "I've no desire to see you upset, young man. This was about seein' what could've been... an' the rules state that when you've seen that—which you quite clearly 'ave—then the glimpse has run its course, you understand?"

"No," Harry snaps. "I'm not ready! I'm not... I'm just not..." His voice fades away to a rasp and he rubs his eyes before pushing himself upright with both hands flat against the marble. "My kids—are my kids okay?"

Boris nods, and the tears prickling in Harry's eyes spill over unchecked for a moment before he swipes them away with the back of his hand.

"They'll never know you were gone," Boris says, and Harry is astonished to be handed a clean linen napkin from a stack on the bar.

"Thanks." He wipes roughly at his eyes and takes a shaky breath. James, Al, and Lily. And his Ginny—the other Ginny. Harry looks back at the table again, heart aching with confusion. This Gin, the fun, happy, satisfied version, is making a napkin hat and arranging it on her husband's head.

"What am I going to do?"

Boris shakes his head, sending his whiskers swaying. "Only you know that."

"You're incredibly unhelpful sometimes, you know?"

"It's not my job to tell you what you want, young man," Boris says.

"What is your job, exactly?"

"You ought to get back to your table," the old man says, neatly ignoring the question, as Harry had half-expected he would. "This one's on me."

Harry laughs, a little hysterically. "So, you're completely messing with my mind and my emotions and my fucking everything, but you're going to buy me dinner? Brilliant. Yeah... brilliant," he mumbles, turning his back on Boris and forcing himself to walk back to the table. Incredibly tempted though he is to dash for the bathroom and Apparate to somewhere safe, somewhere silent, he doesn't want to waste a single second of his time with these people.

"Everything alright?" Draco asks, passing Harry his jacket as they all start to gather their things and leave the table.

"Yeah, of course," Harry lies. He looks at the floor as he pulls on his jacket, collecting himself, and when he meets Draco's eyes again, he's smiling.

"It's the fortune cookie," Ginny deadpans. "It's poisoning him."

"You'll be sorry if that's true," Draco says, resting a gentle hand on Harry's lower back as they weave their way out of the restaurant and out onto the street.

The air is bitter now and the four of them wrap their coats and scarves securely around themselves, making slow, meandering progress through the city. Full of food and pleasantly intoxicated, Ginny, Draco, and Blaise strike up an effortless conversation within seconds, but Harry barely hears them. It's all he can do to remember to breathe, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Because he's leaving. In a few hours, all of this will be over, and not one of these people—not Ginny, not Blaise, and not even Draco—will even remember he was here. They'll have their own Harry back, his talented other self. The man who can make beautiful lamps and ornate wardrobes and little tables. The man who deals adeptly with the press and is respected and loved by the public. The man who really saved Draco Malfoy.

Draco deserves that man.

The trouble is, as much as Harry believes that to be true, it doesn't soften the twist of pain inside him that tightens every time he thinks about letting this go. The thought of having his children back, of hugging them and laughing with them and listening to them argue—that thought yanks him back hard in the other direction, creating a bubble of anticipation in his chest almost too sweet to handle. He has never been so confused in his life.

Draco's cold fingers thread through his and grip tightly; Harry's heart swells, hot and sore.

"I bet Maura's still awake," Ginny says. "Mum always lets her stay up late. She was never so bloody liberal when I was little."

"If I thought my mother would be a better babysitter, I would suggest her," Blaise offers. "Unfortunately, she's dead."

Maura, Harry thinks. Something cold drops through him. His bright, quirky little guide belongs in this world. She doesn't exist where he's going, and it seems senseless somehow.

"Harry? Hellooo?"

"Leave him alone, he's contemplating the meaning of life," Blaise says, grabbing Ginny and lifting her off her feet. She squeals. "The complexities of our very existence!"

"I highly doubt that, Blaise. Look at the way his eyes are glazed over—he's thinking about his bed," Draco laughs.

Harry says nothing.

**~*~**

As soon as they enter the house, Draco heads for the stairs. Harry hangs back, watching him out of sight; after a minute or so, he hears the sound of running water that indicates the start of Draco's nightly bathroom routine. Knowing he has at least five minutes before Draco might come looking for him, wondering about a cup of tea, he dashes into the living room and kneels at the coffee table with parchment and quill, heart racing. He sits there, quill poised, lip caught between his teeth, feeling stupid and inarticulate; he has no idea what to write. But he has to write something. The truth of the matter is that Maura Zabini-Weasley, aged seven, is the only person who knows the truth about his visit—the only person who knows that anything has been different over the past few weeks.

He wants to see her and thank her and supply her with more spinach cake than she could ever eat, but that's not going to happen. It's nearly eleven o'clock at night, and this will have to do.

Dear Maura, he writes. Takes a deep breath. Keep it simple. He doesn't really remember how well he could read when he was seven, but Maura is terrifyingly smart, and she never once tripped over Celestina's sleeve notes, so he hopes she'll be okay.

I'm writing to you because I have to go home very soon. I'm afraid I won't see you again, but tomorrow you'll have your proper Uncle Harry back and you probably won't remember any of this, but I wanted to say goodbye. Thank you for everything you've done for me—you've been wonderful. I'm sure you'll grow up to be a beautiful, amazing woman.

I really loved being your Uncle Harry.

Xx


Feeling heavy, Harry folds up the letter and seeks out Draco's owl. He leans out of the window as it takes flight into the night sky, allowing the cold wind to ruffle his hair and cool his skin.

"Tea-blue-stripy?" Draco calls hopefully down the stairs.

Harry sighs and smiles. In the kitchen, he flips through the Prophet he bought in Diagon Alley, eyes lingering on the photograph of himself and Maura behind the big glass bowl. He stares at it, fingers tapping against the countertop, and by the time the kettle starts to whistle, he is holding down the page and carefully tearing out the picture. Flooded with illogical guilt, he folds it up and stuffs it into his pocket, makes the tea and carries it upstairs.

Draco, propped up lazily on his elbow in bed, lights up at the sight of the steaming cup.

"Sometimes you really are wonderful," he sighs, taking his tea and inhaling the steam with a rapturous expression.

"No one can wiggle a teabag like me," Harry agrees, sinking down onto the bed and kicking off his shoes. "It's a highly underrated skill."

From behind him comes a soft snort, and then the gentle sighs and slurps of the happy, near-horizontal tea drinker. Harry rests his elbows on his knees and stares at the rug, wishing, just for a moment, that he could sink into the colourful fibres and disappear out of sight. Not that disappearing is really going to help anyone. According to Boris, it's not quite time for disappearing yet.

"Must you sit there with all your clothes on?" Draco demands sleepily. "You're making the room look untidy."

Harry covers his mouth as he catches the yawn in Draco's voice. He doesn't feel much like sleeping, but it has been a long day, and there is a naked Draco in his bed. For the last time. Harry closes his eyes.

"I was just thinking, but don't worry, I've stopped now," he says.

"That's a relief," Draco mumbles, and there's a rustle of fabric as he cocoons himself in the sheets; when Harry turns around, only his face, ruffled hair, and one hand are visible in the sea of white cotton. Harry's chest aches.

"I love you," he whispers, barely aware of the words until Draco smiles drowsily, grey eyes warm, and returns them.

"Love you, too, you daft bugger. Come to bed."

Harry obeys without another word, fingers slipping on his buttons and fasteners but hands sure as they distribute the components of his outfit to their proper places around the room. Finally, he slides beneath the sheets and doesn't even flinch when Draco wraps around him, all icy-limbed and lemon-spice-rice-wine-scented and hot-mouthed against Harry's skin. Harry breathes him in, holds him protectively, desperately, and tries not to panic.

Tries.

The nagging guilt he has suffered since the first twinge of feeling for Draco now seems as irrelevant as the past—this is his man, and he loves him, quirks, oddities and complications included. He loves the expressive eyes and the dry wit, the obsessive nature and the love for stripes. The drive to make up for the mistakes he made as a young man and those four neatly-inked letters—T.U.R.N.—that remind him... remind them that change is always possible.

And maybe it is, Harry thinks vaguely, a flicker of an idea igniting in the back of his mind.

"I'm not really tired," Draco murmurs, lifting his head and resting his chin on Harry's chest. Sighing gently, he inspects Harry at close range from under a swathe of dishevelled blond hair before frowning and pulling Harry's glasses from his nose. "'M'young and vigorous. And dynamic." He yawns widely into Harry's chest and then blinks up at him, looking slightly startled.

"I know," Harry says gravely, sliding a hand around the back of Draco's neck and pulling their mouths together in a slow, lazy kiss that seems to go on for a very long time without really going anywhere at all. Draco's fingers curl around his shoulder as Harry urges his mouth open and pushes the kiss languidly deeper, tracing, caressing, exploring; Harry is all at once saturated with warmth and stabbed by the knowledge of just what he is losing.

Draco pulls away, eyes closed and mouth kiss-grazed, and settles back into Harry's neck.

"Goodnight," he whispers, yawning again.

"'Night," Harry says, listening as his breathing grows soft and even. He's gone, and Harry has nothing to do but watch him sleep.

He watches Draco's pale hair glimmering in the flickering lamp-light. Squints at the photographs on the dresser. Stares at the shadows that chase across the ceiling. The restlessness writhing in his stomach intensifies with every minute that passes, and when Draco shifts in his sleep and rolls away onto his side, Harry only hesitates for a moment before slipping quietly out of bed. Wrapping himself in a long, green robe, he tiptoes down the stairs; something pulls him into the study and over to the shelf where the leather-bound albums are kept. He stacks a selection of the heavy volumes in his arms and heaves them upstairs, ducking the nocturnally industrious spider as he goes.

He's not really sure what he's doing; all he knows is that he has to focus on something before he loses his mind completely. Settling in a chair near the window, he puts out the lamps and flicks through the albums by the light of his wand, allowing the soft sound of Draco's breathing to soothe his splintered nerves. He looks at picture after picture and reads article after article, determined to keep his eyes open at all costs; illogical though he knows it is, he can't help feeling that maybe, if he doesn't go to sleep, Boris will be unable to spirit him away; he'll have more time to find a solution to this mess... just maybe.

By the early hours of the morning, though, Harry is starting to flag. He is halfway through his third stack of albums and sipping feverishly at his second mug of strong coffee as he reads. The caffeine, while doing nothing for his heavy limbs and sore eyes, is causing him to fidget and jump in his chair every time Draco shifts or mumbles in his sleep. When Frank slides out of the darkness and onto his lap, Harry startles so violently that he almost dumps his steaming hot coffee all over the snake's head.

"What are you doing?" Frank inquires, twisting away from Harry's mug and flicking his tongue out over a photograph of Harry and Draco buying sandwiches in Diagon Alley.

"Reading. What are you doing, trying to frighten me to death?" Harry demands, setting the mug down at his feet and out of harm's way.

"Heard you. Heard you up and down the stairs, making all the creaking noises. It's very late, you know," Frank advises, coiling neatly on Harry's lap and completely obscuring the album.

"Yes, thank you." Harry rubs his eyes. "I thought you weren't interested in hours."

"No. But can see the darkness, and can see that the other is sleeping. Not stupid, you know. Not unobservant."

Frank's small black eyes glitter and he twists his head away from Harry, apparently wounded. Harry scrambles to correct his mistake, resting a careful hand on the smooth coils.

"Of course you're not, I know that. I was just curious. It's probably best to ignore me."

"You are tired."

"No, I'm fine," Harry insists pointlessly; he doubts the yawn that follows will translate into Parseltongue, but there is no concealing the telltale facial expression from Frank.

"You are tired. What is it that you wait for? Have you quarrelled with the other?" Frank asks, rising slowly to bring himself eye-level with Harry.

"No," Harry says. "No. I'm just not ready to go to sleep."

"Beg to differ," Frank replies, settling himself across the folds of Harry's robe, resting his warm, smooth head against the bare skin of Harry's chest. Soon, he, too, is snoozing. Harry traces his decorative patterns with his finger, glancing between the snake and the man in the bed with weary eyes. Carefully, he closes the album in his lap and reaches for the one marked '2018', reading Draco's handwritten comments over and over.

Smoke, fire, and long pipes—the seduction tools of an ageing Gryffindor artist.

Let the record show that this is your first interview with Mr Clearwater, who seems extremely taken with you. Flattery is a wonderful thing, Harry, but I'm prepared to wager that I'm far more useful in the bedroom.

It would be ruinous for my image if this got out, but this is a picture of my two favourite people in the world.


Harry smiles. He can stay awake. He only needs to close his eyes for a second.

**~*~**

There's a light at the top of the stairs.

Chapter Text

There's that strange sound again.

He had heard it some minutes before and had decided it must have been a part of his dream, but now it's back. Unwilling to open his eyes at what feels like a very unsociable hour, he merely groans and clamps his pillow down over his head as the unwelcome squelching sound continues to issue from somewhere close to his left ear.

"Draco," he mumbles through a yawn, "what the fuck are you doing?"

When there's no response after a second or two, Harry lets go of his pillow and stretches out an arm, patting the cold sheets with sleepy fingers. He's alone.

Squelch, squelch, squelch, thrrrrp, goes the noise. Irritated and confused, Harry's eyes snap open and he props himself up on one elbow to see a vibrating, shiny red tomato staring back at him. Quite literally, in fact; this tomato has a single beady eye which is regarding him with reproach.

It always does that when he doesn't want to get out of bed in the morning, he thinks, and then his stomach drops through his body, leaving him empty and yet quite sure that he's going to vomit. Barely breathing, he reaches over and whacks the tomato with his palm, cutting it off mid-squelch, then flops onto his back and covers his face with his hands. He doesn't care that he's behaving like a child who doesn't want to be found; he feels like one.

That obnoxious tomato alarm clock was a gift from Al for his last birthday. It goes off at six o'clock every weekday morning so that Harry can drag himself to the office, slog through his paperwork, and have a hope of leaving at a semi-reasonable hour. Heart hammering, Harry looks through the gaps in his fingers at the pitch black sky outside the window. At the clothes thrown on the chair at his bedside, and at the quilt that Molly Weasley made for his and Ginny's twelfth wedding anniversary.

He's back. He thinks. At least, he thinks he knows where he is, but when is fully up for grabs.

"Fucking Boris," he mutters to the ceiling, rubbing his eyes and wondering just what exactly he's supposed to do now. He's been trying so hard not to think about leaving his new life behind that he hasn't allowed himself to consider what he's going to do once the meddling old bugger has quite finished fucking about with him.

And now he's here, in this bedroom that doesn't really feel like his any more, waking up in the middle of the night to spend more time doing a job he hates. And Draco is... oh, god, Draco. Harry closes his eyes again and bites his lip as something tears inside him. His stomach, now apparently back with him, rolls over and over until his eyes are stinging and his mouth is filled with saliva.

This can't be right, he tells himself over and over again. This can't be right.

Overwhelmed, he takes a deep breath, clamps a hand over his mouth and rolls off the edge of the bed and onto his feet in a messy, painful heap. He reaches the bathroom just in time.

**~*~**

Some minutes later, he drags himself to his feet, flushes away the evidence of his loss of control, and shuffles across the cold tiles to the sink, where he splashes his face with water and stares in mute horror at his tired, haggard appearance. His hair is messy, but not in the deliberate, careful way to which he has become accustomed, the way that takes years from his face. It's just everywhere, like he doesn't give a fuck; he needs a shave badly and his eyes are heavy and shadowed.

He wonders if this is what he's always looked like, and how he never noticed. Looks are far from everything, he knows that, but the man staring back at him, as he sighs and grips the edge of the sink, looks sad.

Finding that he can't keep the thought of 'What would Draco say?' out of his head, he turns away from the mirror; the cold, sharp avalanche of emotions and what-nows threatening to race down and bury him is more than he can take right now. He swallows hard, forcing the persistent nausea down, bringing his breathing under control. He's here now, he's... home, he supposes, even though something discordant jars in his chest at the thought, and right now, if he has to stuff all of this crazy into a box and lock it up until he's ready, then that's what he'll have to do.

He's probably dealt with worse, he concedes, stumbling back into the bedroom and searching for clean clothes. Worse, but this may well be the strangest idiotic situation that's ever been flung in his direction. Finally he pulls on the trousers he finds on the bedside chair. They're confusingly easy to fasten—just one button and one zip—and he smiles for a second at the memory of his old-new wardrobe, and then stops, because it hurts. He finds a shirt and a jumper, throws them on and then gazes down at himself, sighing.

Everything is old and boring. All the clothes are serviceable, of course, but the knees of his trousers are baggy and slightly worn, his shirt is an inoffensive shade of sludge, and his jumper makes him look like an old man. Frowning, he flicks through his wardrobe, heart sinking heavy and sore as he finds nothing but tatty, boring, drab, shapeless, brown—where did all of this brown come from? His work robes are brown, of course—he pulls a set from the nearest hanger and throws it over his shoulder—but he can't help but wonder when he started dressing to match them.

He leans against the closet door and listens to the sound of the silent house. Wonders if he dares to hope that the children are home from school, that he hasn't missed their Christmas, that Ginny hasn't descended into madness, thinking her husband disappeared in the night. That, just perhaps, no one ever knew he was gone.

Of course, there's only one way to find out, but just in that moment, he's terrified.

"No, I was on the moon with Frank!" comes a strident, if sleepy, cry from down the hall, and Harry's chest aches at the sound of his little girl's voice.

"Lily," he whispers, peeling himself away from the wardrobe and hurrying to her as quickly as he can, mouth tugged into an uncontrollable smile.

As soon as he steps into her bedroom he knows, somehow, that Boris had not lied when he said that Harry would find his family as he left them. Lily, curled on her side, arms wrapped around her stuffed fish, is frowning lightly as she sleeps, apparently engaged in some kind of dream disagreement.

Frank the cat, curled in the space behind her knees, blinks sleepily at Harry before tucking his head back into his side. They are both bathed in the soft light from the landing and look so peaceful that Harry can barely breathe for the relief of having them back.

"They weren't upside down when I got here," Lily declares, freckled nose wrinkling and looking, just for a second, so very like Maura.

Harry crouches beside her bed and gently strokes her vivid hair from her face. "I missed you, beautiful girl," he whispers, and presses a soft kiss to her forehead.

"Don't be daft, Dad," she mumbles. "I was only on the moon for a minute."

Harry grins and levers himself to his feet. As he turns away, he catches sight of the calendar on Lily's desk. It is covered with moving pictures of cats and kittens and big black crosses, as Lily has apparently been counting down the days until Christmas. The last day to be marked off is the nineteenth of December.

Harry closes his eyes as confusion, grief, and relief fight for dominance inside him.

He hasn't missed anything. He'll take that.

Al is sleeping flat on his back, snoring lustily, when Harry slips into his bedroom. He has kicked away all of his covers, and, though he seems to be sleeping peacefully, Harry can't quite resist picking up the sheets and blankets and depositing them carefully over his son. Al doesn't stir.

"Missed you, too," Harry says softly, tugging a book out from under Al's head and setting it on his bedside table. "Dragon-Breeding for Pleasure and Profit. Oh, good."

Amused, Harry lets himself into James' room. Though James (somehow) appears to be sleeping deeply, the room is so violently ablaze with magical light that Harry has to shield his eyes. It really is far too early in the morning for all this, he sighs inwardly, dimming the light with a flick of his wand and gazing down at his eldest child with a mixture of exasperation and affection.

"Yes, I even missed you," he laughs softly. Not daring to risk the wrath of a sleep-deprived teenager, he instead perches on the edge of James' cluttered desk and watches him for a moment. Without his perpetual scowl, he looks younger and almost innocent... apart from the bright blue streaks that are shot right through his dark hair. Harry has no idea how he could have missed them before. He thinks perhaps he had given up noticing things.

James twitches and snarls in his sleep, and Harry decides to take his leave. No doubt Ginny has left for work already, so perhaps he has time for a cup of coffee in relative peace before he heads for the office. Because there has never been any question in his mind of not going to work. Work is what he does, even when he doesn't like it, and when in doubt... well, then work is an even better idea. Plus, he has his own office and he knows rakes of good locking spells. Better to sit in there and let his head explode than do it here with the children watching.

As he walks into the kitchen, he stops short. Ginny is sitting at the table, reading a magazine and crunching a piece of toast.

"You're here," he says pointlessly.

She looks up. "Yeah. I decided to have breakfast at home today. All the decent canteen staff at work are off for Christmas, and I'd rather not risk food poisoning."

"Right." Harry stares at her, unable to put together a complete sentence, because she, too, looks even wearier than he remembered, and a shadow of the spirited woman she once was, and could have been.

"You look like you've seen a Dementor," she says, abandoning her piece of toast and frowning up at him.

"No, I just..." Harry's throat turns dry as she stands up and approaches him, features creased in concern. Before he can think about what he's doing, he's grabbing her and hugging her tightly, all at once flooded with feeling for her, twenty years' worth of affection and support and friendship, the guilt of the past six weeks, and the confusion and fear and pure relief of holding her again, dragging in the coconut scent of her hair and closing his eyes.

He can feel her puzzlement even as she wraps her arms around him and returns the hug, but it takes him a long time to let go. In the midst of all of this, she is an anchor, and he doesn't remember the last time he was so pleased to see her.

"Harry," she says, soft-voiced, pulling back and looking up at him, eyebrows knitted. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing. I just... bad dreams," he improvises.

Ginny sighs, and Harry watches some of the concern fade from her eyes. "Well, I can't say I'm surprised—we were only talking about Malfoy yesterday."

Something in her tone makes Harry bristle, but he fights it down and shrugs. "Yeah. It doesn't matter, anyway. I'm fine, just a bit... tired," he mutters, extricating himself from Ginny and scrubbing at his face, feeling suddenly awkward. "I'd better get going. See you tonight."

He turns and heads for the door, barely able to resist the urge to run out of the house as fast as he can.

"Bye, then," Ginny calls uncertainly after him, just before he slams the door.

**~*~**

"You are earlier than usual, Mr Potter," remarks Harry's secretary as he lets himself into the anteroom that leads to his office. Her tone is flatly neutral, but there's something in her expression that makes Harry certain he is being judged for some reason. She frowns, continuing before he has a chance to reply: "Surely you didn't walk all the way here with your robes slung over your shoulder like a brace of pheasant?"

Harry blinks. Smiles. He hadn't thought it possible, but he has missed this abrasive woman. Her grey-streaked black hair and lips pressed together in perpetual disapproval have always put him in mind of a particularly severe Minerva McGonagall, but now he finds himself reminded of Draco.

"I did, Helga. You should pray for my soul." He shakes out his robes and pulls them over his head.

Her black eyes sharpen and Harry hears the clack of the ever-present rosary. It feels as though it's been a long time, but not for Helga, he supposes. As far as she knows, she spent most of yesterday telling him off, just like always.

"Lost causes aren't really my area," she advises, regarding him with a prickling air of impatience. "Come and get your messages before they crumble into dust from sitting here unanswered for so long."

"Is the drama necessary?" Harry asks mildly, crossing the room and taking the sheaf of parchment from Helga's outstretched hand.

She says nothing, but her sharp look sends Harry into his office without another word. He emerges again just minutes later, having spelled and dispelled a battery of locking and privacy charms, realising that he has forgotten the most important instruction of all.

"Can you try and keep the interruptions to a minimum? I'm working on something important and I really need to think."

Helga does not turn around but Harry sees her posture stiffen; he waits for a response, trying to remember why he puts up with her at all.

"I'll see what I can do—no promises, mind. I'm not a gatekeeper, you know," she says at last.

Harry sighs. "Thanks."

He flops into his desk chair and swivels slowly from side to side, allowing his eyes to travel over the familiar worn landscape of his office. Everything is where it should be (though the room seems a little dull without the orange splash of Ron's Chudley Cannons rug) but it couldn't feel more wrong. The chair is creaky and comfortable, moulded to his shape over the years, but his Auror robes feel stiff and heavy after working in nothing but tatty jeans and thin t-shirts. As he scowls at the mountain of paperwork on his desk, his fingers itch for his glassblowing pipes; if nothing else, he could use them to sweep the unwanted parchments to the floor and out of sight.

But he doesn't have them. He has a tedious, responsible job and a cantankerous secretary, and he's not sure if that's any better than having nothing at all. Groaning softly, he rolls his chair up to the desk and drops his forehead to the cool wood. He could have gone on for years, decades, for the rest of his life, never truly comprehending his dissatisfaction with his life; he could have taken the headaches and the arguments and the disturbed sleep, knowing—believing—he had drawn his lot and that was all there was to it. He was alright. Ish.

Harry folds his arms on the desk and rests his head on top. Not now, though. Not now that he has seen, experienced, felt, tasted everything he never thought to imagine that Draco Malfoy could offer him. And even though he spent the majority of the glimpse trying not to rationalise the chemistry and warmth of their relationship, it has begun to make sense regardless. No one else has ever or could ever capture his attention like Draco. It's always been Draco.

"I never stopped thinking about you," he mumbles, keeping his sore eyes closed against the flood of terrifying, idiotic realisation sweeping through him and tying up all those recurring dreams, 'healthy' Malfoy-curiosity and nagging thoughts of 'what if?' into a neat little parcel of wow, you're stupid, Harry Potter.

And now he's painfully in love with a man who might not even exist. Harry has no idea if the Draco who cooked for him and reassured him and fucked him in his parents' ballroom is even real. Perhaps he was just a figment of Harry's subconscious, brought to life by Boris in order to provide Harry with some kind of nervous breakdown. Then again, Maura often talked of the 'other' Uncle Harry, the one she knew before he turned up, so it makes sense that the 'other' Draco exists, too. Somewhere.

Head banging, Harry exhales slowly and attempts to gather himself. The ache inside him isn't going anywhere, and he has no idea what he's going to do about it, so he supposes he might as well try to do something useful. He peels off a sticky note reading, 'To approve' from the top report in a stack, leans back in his chair and stares at the words, lip caught in his teeth.

"Auror Department Annual Training Budget," he mumbles, starting to swivel once more. "That sounds exciting." He discards the report and looks at the next one. "Two person teams versus larger units – an investigation of strategic efficiency in the Auror Department." He frowns, flipping through the report with increasing bewilderment until the columns of numbers and diagrams begin to blur across the page. He's not sure he knows how to do this any more.

Disoriented, he abandons the reports and picks up his messages.

MLE meeting time changed to 4pm Friday, FF's office.

- Calendula
.

Calendula is Fitzwilliam's secretary; he remembers that much. Oh, good. Harry frowns, wondering for the first time if this Franz Fitzwilliam really is as virtuous as he seems. Still, he supposes that his boss' integrity is far from the top of his list of priorities.

Can you call me back when you've a minute? This goblin situation is getting out of hand and I think we need to get together and thrash it out.

- Max Evertree
.

Harry reads the message three times before he has to admit that he can't remember who Max Evertree is and he hasn't a bloody clue about the goblin situation.

One more, he thinks. One more and he will find one that makes sense.

Harry – I could really do with a few minutes of your time this afternoon; we're having a bit of a drama with some of the union contracts. If you can make it down to the third after lunch, I promise to buy you a proper cup of coffee (as opposed to that swill you're served at Auror HQ).

- HJG
.

Hermione, he thinks, mouth tugged into a smile. He's halfway out of his chair before he remembers—or, at least, he thinks he remembers—that Goldstein works alongside Hermione, and he is quite possibly the last person Harry wants to see right now. That is, of course, if the glimpse is to be believed. He's not about to risk it. Instead, he slumps back into his chair and allows his mind to drift.

Unsurprisingly, it settles on Draco, and he lets it stay there. He wonders what the other Draco—the one he remembers from school—is doing. How he's doing. Who he's doing, his brain supplies helpfully, and he scowls. Try as he might to fully separate the man he loves from the man he saw on the railway platform, it seems to be a near impossible task, and as he sits there, leaning back until he's at heavy risk of toppling over backwards and hitting his head on the fireplace, curiosity about that dignified, severe man grows inside him, twisting new shoots around his confusion and grief and setting his mind racing.

Eventually, he jumps to his feet, not quite losing his balance, and takes down the spells from the door.

"Helga?" he attempts, poking out his head.

She turns in her chair, fixing him with cold black eyes. "Yes, Mr Potter?"

"Erm... do you think you could get me a copy of yesterday's Prophet?"

"Yesterday's Prophet?" she repeats, one dark eyebrow lifting a fraction.

"Yes, please. If you can," Harry amends, hanging onto the doorframe and attempting a smile.

Helga merely stares at him until he retreats back into his office, and returns, defeated, to his messages. The stack is quite sizeable, and he's barely halfway through it when there's a knock at the door.

He looks up. "Yes?"

Astonished, he watches as Helga stalks into the office bearing a folded newspaper and a steaming mug. She places both on his desk and then steps back to regard him, arms folded.

"Is that for me?" he asks, indicating the tea, because if it is, it is the first unrequested drink she has brought him in almost ten years.

"You are not well, Mr Potter," she says, somehow still managing to sound as though she is scolding him. "I took the liberty of strengthening your tea with a drop or two of Vitalitus. I didn't make it, don't worry—" She holds up the tiny bottle, "—I keep it in my handbag for emergencies."

"Er... right. Thanks." Harry really doesn't know what to do with this sharp-edged kindness and it's doing nothing good for the unsettling feeling that none of this is real.

"Is there anything else I can get for you?" she demands, and something in her expression dares Harry to say no.

He sighs. "A Stunning Spell would be nice. Put me out of my misery."

The thin mouth twists and something dangerously like amusement flickers in the black eyes.

"I'd love to, Mr Potter, but I suspect I would lose my job, and then my cat would starve. I shall... discourage anyone who doesn't seem to be in desperate need of your attention."

"Anyone who isn't dying, then?" he wonders, and her perpetual frown is back. Harry cringes inwardly. How quickly he has forgotten that no one here has a sense of humour, least of all him... or, at least, the him that he once was.

"That's a little harsh, Mr Potter," she says, pausing at the door. "If they're on fire or have lost a limb, I shall let them pass."

Harry smiles and unfolds his Prophet. When she closes the door behind her, he doesn't bother with the locking spells. He flips through the newspaper until he finds the small article Al had read to him on the drive home not-yesterday. Now he re-reads the words to himself, leaning on his desk on folded arms, eyes flicking to the small black and white photograph of the family.

It is with regret that Draco and Astoria Malfoy (nee Greengrass) announce their separation after a marriage of fifteen years. The separation will be made formal in the New Year, and the couple's only child, Scorpius, will remain at Malfoy Manor with his father.

Harry sighs. Scorpius, looking out of the photograph from between his mother and father, resembles an eleven-year-old Draco so much that Harry is momentarily yanked back in time, head full of the confident little boy and his clumsy attempt to be the famous Harry Potter's friend. The only thing that prevents Scorpius from being the exact image of his father is the cautious, full-lipped smile that he seems to have inherited from his mother.

Astoria Malfoy is elegant, poised, and handsome rather than beautiful; her features are not delicate but striking, all sweeping brows and dark, cascading waves and steady, careful eyes gazing, unblinking, into the camera. If Harry is honest, he feels a little intimidated by her.

Draco, though, stares fixedly ahead, posture rigid and upright, and his expression is heavy with sadness. Harry wonders when the picture was taken, whether the stiffness is indicative of a family at splintering point or whether it's always been this way for this Draco. Harry wonders, though he tries to stop himself, if this Draco has ever been happy. Harry studies the photo-Draco until his eyes begin to hurt and his insides are leaden, painful, as though they belong to someone else.

While recognisable as the Draco he has come to know, to need, to want, this man is solemn beyond his years, wearing his severe hairstyle and sharp black suit with a refined, weary gravity that makes Harry want to reach into the photograph and shake him, to ruffle his hair and make him smile. Scrabbling to rein in his spiralling panic, he forces himself to consider just how different two versions of the same man can possibly be.

As different as an exhausted Auror with three children and a reluctantly stylish gay carpenter, his subconscious provides helpfully. Harry sighs, chewing on his bottom lip and trying to catch the eye of the staid photo-Draco, persevering even when it becomes clear that it is an exercise in futility; the man in the photograph seems to want nothing to do with him.

"Stop trying to look at me!" Draco's irritated voice echoes in his head. He closes his eyes and he's there.

"What on earth is your problem?" Leaning up on his elbow in bed, Harry cranes his neck and tries to catch a glimpse of Draco, who is cocooned in the blankets with only a wisp of hair and a pale nose protruding.

"You," Draco snaps, attempting to elbow Harry through the bed-clothes. "Desist!"

Harry snorts. "I will not. What is it—have you grown an extra head?"

The sound that escapes Draco sounds suspiciously like a whimper. "How did you know?"

Baffled, Harry drops back against the bed and frowns at the ceiling. "Please come out," he says eventually, trying to hide his anxiety that—however unlikely it might be—Draco has suffered some terrible disfigurement during the night. Stranger things have happened. He turns onto his side, gazing at the mound of linen that contains Draco. "I'm sure it's... not that bad."

"Easy for you to say," Draco whispers, emerging slowly and turning to Harry, all big eyes and plaintive scowl. "Look at it!"

"At wha—" Harry begins, before thinking better of it and scrutinising Draco's face in silence. And, finally, there it is: an angry red spot, staring angrily back at him from the otherwise flawless skin of Draco's chin. It's relatively small, but something in Draco's expression tells Harry that saying so would not end well for him. "Ah, yes. Well... it's... certainly... there, isn't it?"

"I feel better already," Draco snaps. "Have you considered going into counselling?"

"Yes," Harry says gravely, leaning forward and—ignoring his protests—kissing Draco softly. "I am a model of sensitivity."

"You're no fucking help, that's what you are," Draco grumbles, lifting a hand to press cautiously at the spot. "I have a meeting today, you know. An important one. And will anyone be listening to my presentation of interesting and important observations? No. They'll be staring at this... this supplementary skull that's sprouting out of my face without permission!"

In hindsight, Harry considers it an achievement that he manages to contain his laughter for as long as he does. The expression of pure outrage on the refined face is just too much for him. Seconds later, he buries his face in his pillow and shakes with laughter until his stomach and face hurt, ignoring the indignant huffs and pokes-in-the-ribs from the man next to him.

"Have you quite finished?" Draco demands at last.

Still cackling breathlessly, Harry shakes his head and rolls over to look the fearsome carbuncle in the eye. He presses his lips together, struggling hard for control. "Absolutely. All good. Fine."

"I'm far too old for this," Draco says, narrowing his eyes sulkily. "I'm nearly forty, for crying out loud. How is anyone going to take me seriously with this... pustule..."

"Okay, okay," Harry interrupts, jumping in before Draco can start his not-at-all-hilarious catastrophising again. He grabs his wand. "Shall I hex it off for you?"

Draco's eyebrow flickers in mild alarm, and then he shrugs. "Go on, then. It can't exactly look any worse."

A sudden clatter followed by a muffled oath from Helga's office startles Harry and he blinks, looking down once more at the newspaper photograph, a smile tugging at his lips. Draco had been very late for that meeting. He hadn't seemed to mind too much.

Just as quickly as the easy warmth of that memory washes over Harry, the cold reality swipes back through him, turning his mouth dry and his skin icy; his fingers don't seem his own as they slide, sweat-damp, over the edge of the photograph, smudging the black and white face of Astoria Malfoy until it becomes unrecognisable, and suddenly all he can see is Ginny. Her clever, tired dark eyes, her beautiful bright hair, and her lips twisted in the familiar moue of frustration.

She's his wife. The mother of his children. The person who has been by his side for the entirety of his adult life, and the person who deserves better than this. She deserves better than disappointment and exhaustion and sniping for no reason other than that two people who were once in love have found themselves in one of those 'for the kids' marriages. Even worse, now he has at last allowed him to think about it, is that they have never discussed it. Not one word has passed between them about their relationship, or lack thereof, and as Harry's grief pours out of him, hot and bitter, he presses his hands to his face and hates himself for letting it happen. For saying nothing, and for keeping her trapped in unfulfilled, numb, not-quite-misery with him for years.

And now, instead of sitting down and talking to her like a grown-up, he has managed to step into an alternate dimension and fall for her probably least favourite colleague. Harry sighs heavily for what feels like the hundredth time this morning.

"Why not?" he demands of his office. "Who do I think I am, expecting any of this to make sense?"

A paperweight throws itself off the desk at the sound of his voice, and Harry watches, resigned, as a flurry of memos fling themselves after it.

Surely, he has to tell her something. He doesn't know exactly what is the right thing to do, and he doubts that there exists a set of rules for a situation quite as bizarre as this, but he knows that things cannot go on as they are. As they have been. He has trundled along all this time, telling himself that putting up and shutting up was the best thing for Ginny and the children, and that was good enough for him. But it's not. It's not good enough for Lily, Al, and James to have two miserable parents, and after a taste of what could have been, it's not good enough for Harry, either.

Fuck.

"Oh, fuck," Harry says out loud, feeling the weight of the decision that has come together almost without his knowledge. He thinks he should feel shocked, horrified, but actually, the realisation that he is going to end his marriage fills him with a new sort of calm. He exhales slowly and leans back in his creaky chair, pushing his hands into his pockets.

Immediately, he registers the sharp edges of parchment against his fingertips. Frowning, he withdraws a folded piece from each pocket and opens them out in his lap. The smaller of the two, scrawled in Al's somewhat haphazard handwriting, reads:

Dad – the wise man does not play leapfrog with the unicorn.

Al's note is exactly where Harry left it, just as he had been promised. The other thing is more mysterious, and Harry hardly dares look at it. When he does, though, his stomach flips sharply. It's a clipping from the Daily Prophet—the carefully torn-out photograph of Harry and Maura standing behind the multicoloured glass bowl and grinning at each other.

"Maura," he whispers, already missing his little shadow.

Knowing that he shouldn't have this photograph at all—perhaps Boris has made a mistake, which isn't all that reassuring when he thinks about it—just makes the discovery all the more bittersweet. Harry stares at their beaming faces for as long as he can stand, and then he fishes out a huge, leather-bound copy of The Auror Code of Conduct: Eleventh Edition, hides the photograph carefully inside, and stows both away in his desk drawer.

Helga manages to keep the bureaucrats from the door until mid-afternoon, when she lets herself into Harry's office with a brief knock and a roast beef sandwich. Harry's stomach growls in approval as he looks up from the Strategic Efficiency report (which still doesn't make much sense, and he's not sure it ever did). He hasn't eaten in a long time, whichever universe's last meal he is counting from.

"There is a man here to see you, Mr Potter," Helga says, passing him the sandwich and watching him beadily until he takes a bite.

"Oh, that's lovely, thanks," he enthuses, wiping mustard from his chin. And then: "What sort of a man? Is he on fire?"

Helga smirks. "No. But he has a very large beard and a wooden leg, and he seems very anxious to see you."

"Boris?" Harry splutters, almost dropping his sandwich.

"I believe that is what he called himself," Helga sniffs. "It was rather difficult to interpret his accent."

Harry isn't sure how he feels about seeing Boris again, but there's something brilliantly amusing about his secretary's curled lip and folded arms, and he smiles. "Go on, then, send him in. And thanks for the sandwich."

Helga nods and turns to leave. "Remember to chew, Mr Potter. And don't get used to it."

Harry wouldn't dare. Resignedly, he watches the door, ignoring Helga's advice and stuffing as much of the sandwich into his mouth as he can without choking; who knows when he will remember to feed himself again.

"Hello, young man," Boris calls, letting himself into the office and making unsteady progress across the floor toward the desk. Harry wipes his mouth and flicks his wand to conjure a chair for the old man, spitefully making it a hard wooden one without a cushion—let him sit on his creaky old bones, he thinks mutinously as Boris lowers himself onto the chair, arranging the folds of his vast oilskin coat around himself.

"I didn't know you had a wooden leg," Harry mumbles, having no idea what else to say.

"Well, it's not exactly the most excitin' topic of conversation, now, is it?" Boris says, wiggling his huge eyebrows. When Harry says nothing, he sighs and pulls up his trouser leg, revealing a pitted spindle that disappears into his worn old boot; he takes a pencil from Harry's desk and taps on it several times, as though to prove its genuineness.

"Very nice," Harry says weakly, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. Boris lets his trouser leg fall and mirrors Harry's posture, regarding him impassively. "So, what do you want with me today?"

"I thought you might 'ave some follow-up questions."

Harry stares, distracted for a moment by the incongruity of the phrase 'follow-up questions' emerging from that scruffy, bristle-matted mouth, and then he snaps.

"You thought I might have questions? Really? Like... what the hell did you think you were doing to me? What exactly was I supposed to learn, except for how it feels to completely lose my mind? Or that, actually, I want to leave my wife, and now there's nothing in this world that's going to allow me to forget that?" Harry pauses, fingernails digging into the leather arms of his chair, knowing he's being rude—or worse, unreasonable—but driven on by Boris' calm expression. "Or... you know... because I've been thinking—if I was there, where was the other Harry? Was he with my children? Will he remember it? Will they? Is Draco... is he..." Harry falls silent, throat prickling. He shakes his head and stares at the floor.

"Calm down, lad," Boris says softly.

Harry snorts. "Right. I don't know why I didn't think of that."

"I know this must be confusin' for you," Boris continues, shifting about in his chair so violently that it groans under his slight weight. "But I suggest you trust me when I say that too many answers won't do you any good, lad. Some things I know, and a lot more I don't, but the less shared with you, the more power for the mysteries of the universe, you see."

"I really don't," Harry sighs, rubbing a hand across his pounding forehead. "And the mysteries of the universe can bugger off, as far as I'm concerned. I've had enough of them."

Boris laughs, and Harry looks up, startled, to see his delighted grin. "You know, young man, sometimes I feel the same way. But what I can say is this: this was a learnin' experience for you, not for anyone else. What happened... happened for you, and you only. But I promise..." Boris leans forward and fixes Harry with his milky eyes, "...no family members, friends, or former enemies were 'armed during the makin' of this glimpse."

The old man's grin widens, and Harry is irritated to feel a smile tugging at his own lips.

"So, you've come to explain nothing at all," he sighs, fighting the smile away.

"I've come to explain why explainin' is unnecessary," Boris offers. "An' to check that you're in one piece, so to speak." He scrutinises Harry's weary appearance and emits a thoughtful sound. "You looked 'ealthier in the other place, I 'ave to admit."

"Thanks," Harry says drily, picking at his heavy brown sleeves.

"Can't be 'elped," Boris sighs, scratching at his beard with stubby fingers. "I seem to recall I looked young once, too... not an 'andsome devil like you, of course, but still... and sometimes I think I were born a whiskery old bugger. Tricksy old besom, is time."

"Yeah," Harry agrees, suddenly vehement. "Apparently so."

Boris nods vaguely, apparently caught up in his moment of nostalgia. At last, he blinks.

"Right," he asserts, reaching inside his coat and dragging out a creased sheaf of parchment, which he drops with an unceremonious thomp onto Harry's desk. "Mind if I borrow your pencil?" he asks, picking it up without waiting for a response and starting to scribble away, face very close to the desk and beard spreading out everywhere.

"What now?"

"Nothin' to worry about, lad, just a few routine questions," Boris mumbles without looking up.

Harry's eyebrows disappear under his fringe. "You've got to be kidding me."

"It's important to have a record of the quality of the experience," Boris says vaguely, scratching at his beard and frowning at the topmost piece of parchment. "So, question one: would you rate your enjoyment of the glimpse as (a) very enjoyable (b) somewhat enjoyable (c) unpleasant (d) horrific or (e) Dementor?"

"I had no idea the glimpse business was so rife with bureaucracy," Harry mutters, resisting the urge to leap out of his chair and into the fireplace, leaving Boris to fudge the questionnaire by himself. "And anyway," he adds, "Dementor isn't an adjective."

"You'd be surprised, young man," Boris says grimly. "And I'm just asking the questions, I didn't write 'em."

"Well, that's reassuring," Harry says under his breath; feeling Boris' eyes on him, he adds: "A."

Boris grunts his approval and Harry watches him scratch at the parchment, head spinning. He's still angry, but he doesn't suppose that his anger—justified or otherwise—is going to improve his situation. And more than that, he suspects that even Boris' survey will be a more diverting use of his time than any of the reports on his desk.

"Question two: would you rate your Glimpse Management Operative as (a) very helpful (b) occasionally useful (c) pointless (d) chocolate teapot or (e) dangerously incompetent?"

Harry laughs. "I'm afraid that'll have to be an 'occasionally useful'," he admits, amused to note Boris' wounded expression as he notes down the answer. "No offence meant, Boris, but you spent most of your time telling me why you couldn't tell me things and then disappearing. It was fairly disconcerting, actually."

"I've 'eard worse, young man," Boris advises, chewing on the end of Harry's pencil. "Question three..."

Harry lounges in his chair, swinging slowly from side to side and answering a long series of increasingly bizarre questions with even more bizarre answers. As they enter the second hour of interrogation, Harry finds himself choosing the response '(c) squidlike' to a question about sleeping patterns, merely because the thought amuses him and the idea that any answer could make his life stranger at this point is just ludicrous.

As Boris scribbles away, tongue poking out from between the bristles in concentration, Harry wonders if he should confess that he still has the photograph from the newspaper. It doesn't take too long for him to dismiss the prickling of his conscience and decide to keep his mouth firmly shut and his one piece of proof that Maura existed safely in his desk drawer.

Finally, the old man stops, stretches, and stuffs the parchment back into his coat.

"I'll be off, then, lad. Certain you'll 'ave things to do... things to think over... it's usually the way." He sighs and heaves himself to his feet, nodding at Harry with an odd sort of finality that makes him want to leap up from behind his desk and shake the frail old man until answers fall out.

"Er—that's it?" he manages, standing awkwardly.

"That's it. And, er..." Boris frowns, one hand on the door handle, and Harry thinks he catches a sheepish expression behind the beard. "If you could keep it to yourself about the picture, I'd appreciate it. I... er... wasn't really s'posed to do that."

Harry smiles. "Thank you," he says, and this time he really means it.

Boris nods and grasps the handle stiffly, opening the door with some effort. "About your wife, lad," he rasps, just audibly enough for Helga to pause in her quill-scratching.

Panicked, Harry throws out a silent privacy charm. "Yes?"

"You said you realised you wanted to leave her, didn't you?" he goes on, bestowing a grave, almost fatherly expression upon Harry. "Forgive my boldness, young man, but... I think you already knew that."

Harry sits down heavily, chest aching, and doesn't say a word as the old man nods once more, shuffles out of the office and closes the door behind him. Boris is right, and he hates it. He hates it because it leaves him with no one to blame, because it means that he's even more of an idiot than he first thought, and because his remaining excuses for doing nothing are dissolving before his eyes. Pulling off his glasses, he rubs at his weary face and tries to think.

What would Hermione do? Apart from not getting into this situation in the first place, of course.

Harry pushes away the unhelpful thought and rolls his eyes.

Make a list. She would make a list, and that's exactly what she'd tell him to do if she were here. And, Harry thinks grimly, shoving his glasses back onto his nose and locating pencil and parchment, there's no way she's going to be dragged into this, too, so the voice inside his head that sounds a lot like her will have to suffice.

He taps the pencil against his chin as he thinks, registers the damp, chewed-by-Boris texture, and flicks it away across the room. Grimacing, he finds a self-inking quill that looks a lot like the one Draco—his Draco, at least—likes to keep behind his ear. Harry sighs.

Strengthens his resolve.

Writes.

What do I tell Ginny?

He chews his lip.

HOW do I tell Ginny?

This isn't working any more.

I'm not in love with you.

I want you to be happy.

I can't make you happy.

I'm in love with someone else.

I've spent six weeks in an alternative universe with Draco Malfoy.

I had sex with Draco Malfoy. Lots of it.

I'm in love with Draco Malfoy.

I'm leaving you and...
Harry stops and exhales slowly. No 'and'. He's not leaving Ginny for Draco; he's... leaving Ginny. Draco is another kettle of fish entirely, especially the severe, mysterious Draco with the family and the black clothes.

Tell the truth, he writes, pressing down so hard with the quill that the tip almost gives way. Tell the truth, Harry Potter.

And he can picture himself, standing in the kitchen of the house where they made a family together, telling Ginny everything he has done, letting it all spill out until there are no more secrets left, and he feels sick.

Will it help her to know?

The truth is always best, isn't it?

Or perhaps it isn't. Telling her everything would assuage his guilt, that's for certain; it would also devastate her. That's if she believes any of it, of course. Gin's an open-minded woman, but she's also admirably down to earth, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that she'd hear Harry's heartfelt confession, frown at him for a moment, and then ask him if he was having some kind of funny turn.

Harry rotates slowly on his chair, list clutched on his lap, and stares into the fireplace at the licking flames. Much as he wants it all out, to purge himself of guilt and confusion, he has the creeping feeling that to do so would amount to nothing more than further selfishness.

You deserve more, he writes, pulling his feet up beneath him and resting the parchment on his thigh.

I've been thinking.

We need to talk
.

He stops, re-reading the clichéd old words and wanting to hex himself in the face. With a sigh, he drops the list onto his desk and incinerates it with a violent flick of his wand. For a moment, he sits motionless, watching the soft grey smoke curling into the air, and then he pushes his chair back and stalks out of his office. It's barely after four, but he doesn't care.

"I take it I'm to cancel your five-thirty meeting, then?" Helga calls.

Harry halts, halfway across her office, and turns to see her sitting primly in her chair, nursing a delicate china cup in one hand as the other fiddles absent-mindedly with her rosary.

"Er... yes, please. You were right; I'm not very well after all. I think I'm going to go straight home and get some rest," Harry says, feeling as though a detention must surely be imminent.

"Hmm," Helga sniffs. "I'm hardly surprised you're sickening for something considering the company you keep. That man was terribly unsavoury, you know. I doubt that coat had been washed in the last five years. Perhaps you ought to... take an inventory of your associates. Especially if you want to become Minister for Magic one day."

Harry frowns, more bewildered than ever. "Thanks, Helga; I'll... er, keep that in mind."

Seeing the arched eyebrow and deciding to run with it, Harry excuses himself and hurries to the lift, looking at the floor and affecting deep concentration all the way down and across the Atrium, just in case anyone decides to attempt conversation. As he steps into the nearest available fireplace, relief courses through him, and he knows just one thing for certain:

He does not want to be Minister for Magic one day.

**~*~**

Harry steps out of his fireplace and is immediately the focus of four curious eyes. Oddly startled by the sight of his children, he brushes the flecks of ash from his robes and attempts to cover his discomfort with a smile. The living room is bathed in the glow of countless strings of coloured lights, rich with the scent of pine needles and deliciously warm, but Harry feels awkward, as though he doesn't belong.

"Hi," he forces out, knowing that avoidance isn't going to make the task of resettling here any easier.

"Hi, Dad," Lily says, peering over the top of a large book; from behind its pages, a striped grey tail flicks in lazy greeting. "You're home early."

"My meeting was cancelled," he says, and it's not really a lie. "What are you doing?"

"What she's always doing," James mutters, and Harry glances at his studiedly sullen expression as he lowers himself onto the arm of Lily's chair.

"Hello, James," he says, affecting a little wave and secretly delighting in his son's eye-roll. He's missed it. "What're you up to, Lil?"

"Frank and I are reading about the Black Death," she advises, showing the book to Harry and scratching Frank's ears. Harry can't help wondering what the other Frank would have to say about that. Something, no doubt. He has yet to find a subject on which the snake does not have an opinion. Frank the cat, meanwhile, just yawns and stretches out a paw to touch a gruesome-looking diagram.

"Very festive," Harry says, all at once baffled and suffused with affection for his daughter.

Lily wrinkles her nose. "We've got to do a project on it over the holidays."

"Both of you?" Harry asks, unable to help himself. Frank flicks his ears importantly.

"Dad."

"Alright, I'm just saying... you might be missing an opportunity. I think Frankfurto would be an excellent project partner."

"Frankfurto?" Lily giggles.

Harry shrugs, warmed by his daughter's laughter. He points. "Look, rats and pestilence and horrible sores – all his favourite things."

Lily pulls a face and, from somewhere behind Harry, comes the sound of James muttering to himself.

"They're not sores, they're buboes," Lily says gravely, looking up at him from under her fringe.

"Well, that makes all the difference," Harry agrees, and for no reason that he can see, he suddenly misses Draco so much that it's painful. He exhales carefully and pulls himself together with some effort. "Where's Al?"

"Where do you think?" James sighs from his perch on the window-seat, and Harry twists around on the chair arm to shoot him a quelling look, but something in James' out-of-uniform appearance strikes him somewhere amusing and he immediately forgets all about being stern. Dressed in faded jeans and a white t-shirt, James is sitting on a cushion embroidered by his grandmother, long legs drawn up and arms folded lazily on top; his blue-streaked hair is teased into an almost-quiff, and his lip curls as he stares moodily at Harry.

"Who do you think you are, James Dean?" he demands, suppressing a smile.

James' brow creases in confusion. "Who?"

"Rebel without a clue," Harry mutters, thinking of the old films Uncle Vernon used to watch on Sunday afternoons whenever there was a hosepipe ban in force.

"Rebel Without a Cause," Lily corrects, giggling, and now both James and Harry look confused. "Mrs Harbottle says he's a legend. Or he was. He's dead now. Didn't you have Mrs Harbottle in year six, James? She's brought in a picture of him for our inspiration wall."

Harry says nothing. He hasn't the faintest idea what an inspiration wall might be.

James snorts. "No. I had that woman with the blue hair."

"She's Headmistress now," Lily informs her brother, and, in an impressive display of sibling civility, James nods seriously before he turns to stare out into the darkness once more.

"It's nice to have you home so early," Lily says, turning back to her book and flipping idly through the pages. "Are you going to have dinner with us, or do you have to go back out?"

Harry stares down at her, heart tight. Boris is right; he does have a lot of things to think about.

"No, Lil. I'm here now."

She smiles, radiating contentment that is momentarily potent enough to wrap around Harry. When she finds her page and begins to read, lips pursed in concentration, Harry twists, arms resting on the squashy back of her chair, and gazes wearily at his son's brooding profile. He wishes he could say that he was never such a sullen, melodramatic pain in the arse, but he has an uncomfortable suspicion that his teenage self was all that and more.

James sighs heavily and draws his finger through the condensation on the glass, making a squeaky, squiggly path through which the stars blink brightly.

"Everything alright?" Harry tries, without much hope of contact.

"Fine," James grunts, wiping out the squiggle with the flat of his hand.

Harry hates that word. 'Fine' can mean a whole variety of things; almost anything, in fact, except for 'okay', 'satisfactory', or 'yes, thank you, I'm actually feeling quite alright'. Frustrated, he stares through the clear patch of glass until the darkness starts to swim and the room fades behind him.

He's gazing at a blackboard, at the artfully-chalked words:

Soup of the Day – sweet potato and chive

Speciality Breads – black pepper twist, spicy cardamom flatbread, multi-grain bagels

Swap your ordinary (but delicious!) chips for parsnip chips at no extra cost!

Ask your waitress about our selection of Artisan Roast coffees


"Why would anyone want to eat parsnips instead of chips?" Ginny is asking at his side, voice lowered.

Harry turns to answer her and notices the waitress, who is standing just feet away in an uninterested slouch as she writes down Draco's order. "No idea," he says, meeting her eyes and noting with a jolt to his stomach that her eyes and skin are just as luminous in his memory as they were some time in January, when the four of them had met for lunch in that delicious-smelling cafe.

"We're out of parsnips," the waitress says flatly. Harry and Ginny exchange glances.

"Portents of doom!" booms Blaise, taking no care to keep his voice down. The waitress, who can be no more than sixteen, looks at him askance for a moment and then raises her eyes to the ceiling.

"You're out of parsnips," Draco repeats, drawing out each word and staring up at the girl from his seat, arms folded and eyes narrowed. Harry knows that look; he knows it very well. He thinks the little madam would do well to apologise and disappear back into the kitchen post haste, but part of him is curious to see what will happen next.

"Er... yeah," says the waitress, and her expression clearly conveys her belief that Draco is a special kind of stupid. "As in... there aren't any left. The kitchen is totally parsnipless."

Harry snorts, and it's almost worth the sharp look and kick under the table that he receives from Draco.

Catching the sound, the girl turns heavily made-up eyes on Harry. Taps her pencil against her notepad. "I don't think he gets it. Am I not saying it right?"

This time Blaise laughs—first, a low rumble-snort semi-concealed in his napkin, broad shoulders shaking, and then he loses his composure and cackles delightedly, throwing back his head and filling the small, steamy cafe with the sound of his amusement. He pokes Ginny in the ribs and that's all it takes; she turns away from Harry and giggles helplessly. Across the table, Draco sighs and gazes crossly at Harry, who knows better than to join in with the frivolity.

Instead, he taps thoughtful fingers on the shiny tabletop and looks up at the waitress. "Erm... I don't think it's that he doesn't understand you. I think he's taking exception to your attitude."

"Excuse me?" the girl demands, thin-pencilled eyebrows disappearing into her long fringe.

Harry sighs, unable to decide whether he's amused or exasperated. "He wants you to be a little bit more polite," he rephrases gently. "Maybe you could say 'we're out of parsnips, I'm sorry' or something like that."

"It's not my fault," she says defensively, crossing her arms and straightening up.

"I know," Harry sighs. Next to him, Ginny and Blaise are leaning against one another, trying—with limited success—to control their giggles. "You could try smiling," he suggests, attempting a weak grin in her direction, already certain that he's fighting a pointless battle.

The girl blinks. Whips around to stare reproachfully at Draco. "Well, forgive me, but you didn't smile either!" she says, apparently wounded.

"I don't work here!" Draco retorts. "And, to be perfectly honest, neither should you."

For what feels like a long time, there is silence at the table; even Ginny and Blaise manage to stifle their laughter. The chatter of the other diners, the rattles and hisses from the kitchen, and the raspy singing of the busker in the street outside fill Harry's ears as he looks from the waitress to Draco and back again. She holds his steely eye contact for what Harry feels is an impressively long time, but when she looks away, her eyes are shimmering with tears.

A glance around the table tells Harry that none of his dining companions are going to be of any use here. He supposes that this Ginny has a few years left before she has to deal with any truly stroppy behaviour from Maura.

"Listen," he says, leaning forward to catch the girl's attention. "He didn't mean to upset you. But he's right that you need to behave like a professional when you're working—I mean... I'm no kind of expert on this, believe me, but wouldn't you enjoy your job more if you didn't have to argue with people?"

"I don't normally have to," she mutters, writing—or, Harry suspects, pretending to write—on her notepad so that she doesn't have to look at him. "Yeah, I suppose," she concedes after a moment, and it looks as though it costs her to do so.

"There are plenty more where he came from, I assure you," Blaise puts in helpfully, grinning, and she flicks a glance at him, flushes, and resumes her scribbling.

"Right. Okay. Sorry," she mumbles, determinedly not looking at Draco. "I'll put a note on the board."

"Good idea," Ginny says faintly.

The waitress bites her lip, frowns, and then scurries away, pushing her hair out of her face as she winds her way through the tables and launches into a frenzied conversation with the older woman behind the counter.

"You're far too soft," Draco sighs, folding his arms on the table and regarding Harry with resigned tolerance. "But... I suppose it's best not to make girls cry. Especially when they're preparing one's food."

"I'm really glad this has been a learning experience for you, Draco," Harry says, shaking his head and fighting a smile.

Ginny's face is a picture of confusion. "How the hell did you do that?"

Practise, Harry thinks grimly. He shrugs. "Some people expect you to be confrontational and being nice really throws them. It's always worth a try."

"Wise words," Blaise declares. He flashes a sparkling grin across the crowded cafe, which is immediately followed by a metallic crash. Harry looks around just in time to see the surly waitress crouching and scrambling to retrieve her tray.

"Blaise," Ginny reproves, mouth twitching at the corners. "Don't be a dirty old man."

"Take that back! I am in the prime of life!"

"You're too old to be flirting with teenagers," Ginny says, resting her head on his shoulder, eyes bright with amusement. "Sorry."

Blaise heaves a sigh so dramatic that Draco's napkin skitters off the edge of the table. He bends to retrieve it and emerges, nose wrinkled in distaste.

"I hate teenagers," he says with feeling. "They're all horrible. No exceptions."

"You'd know," Ginny prods, grinning.

"We were all impressively obnoxious in our own little ways," Draco says, before conceding gracefully with a small smile that squeezes Harry's heart: "I may have been more obnoxious than most. Which makes me an expert."

"If you say so. I think you have to sort of... speak their language," Ginny muses.

Blaise's eyes grow wide. "Oh, good grief, no. Don't do that."

Intrigued, Harry leans forward in his chair. "Why not?"

"Because if you're anything like me, you'll make a complete tit of yourself. I was looking after Melina—you know, Aurelia's daughter—the other week..."

"Oh, yeah. I remember now," Ginny says, smirking. She pats her husband on the arm consolingly.

"First I asked her how it was dangling for her..." Blaise groans and covers his face momentarily with a huge hand. "And then when she was getting aerated about something or other, I suggest she 'unravel herself', which she found hilarious."

"Why would you do that?" Draco asks, puzzled.

"It's something they say... something like that, anyway. I was attempting to be cool," Blaise sighs. "Of course, she wasted no time in telling everyone in sight how horribly out of touch her uncle is."

"Untwist," Harry says, head full of Lily's voice. "You're supposed to untwist. I have no idea about the dangling thing."

"Where do you learn these bizarre things?" Draco demands.

Harry jumps, gritting his teeth as he registers the sudden sharp pain of pointed claws digging into his thigh. He blinks, coming back to himself, and looks down. The bustling cafe has dissolved, and Frank the cat is curling on his lap, using his claws to anchor himself. He stares up at Harry, sensing his tension, and lets out a plaintive miaow.

"Claws in," Harry reproves, sliding his fingers between Frank's paws and the rough fabric of his robes and prising the two apart with care.

"Hmm?" James says, turning his head a fraction and quirking an eyebrow. "Did you say something?"

Harry looks at his son and smiles softly, all at once bristling with warmth for the daft bugger.

"Yeah. What have you done to your hair?"

James' scowl deepens and at Harry's side, Lily stifles a splutter of amusement. Reaching into his depleted reserves of self control, Harry resists glancing at her and instead attempts to fix James with his most patient expression.

"I dyed it," James says slowly, not needing to add the 'obviously' that glints in his eyes.

Harry pushes out a long breath. "Alright. That was a silly question," he concedes, and James' flicker of astonishment lights a thrill of triumph inside him. "What I mean is... maybe you shouldn't have done it without asking your mum first. She's quite upset about it, you know."

James lowers his eyes and pulls his knees more tightly to his chest, tucking in his chin and curling into the smallest space possible. "She doesn't get it," he mutters.

"Get what?"

"Being different. We don't all want to conform, you know," James says, voice sharp with accusation.

Harry suspects the comment is designed to wound, but instead he is flooded with warm nostalgia for his own moments of pointless rebellion and the fierce, Bat Bogey Hex-flinging Ginny that existed well before James was born.

"I think you'd be surprised," he says at last, smiling at James until his scowl softens into confusion. "Your mother had her moments."

James snorts, but the hardness has left his eyes as he regards Harry over the top of his folded arms.

"It's not like I got my tongue pierced or anything," he grouses.

Harry blinks. "Were you planning to?"

"No, Dad," James says, rolling his eyes. "But Teddy's got his done, and his hair's magenta."

"Teddy changes his hair colour ever five minutes," Harry points out, trying to keep the surprise from his voice. He wonders if Andromeda knows about the hole in her grandson's tongue. He doubts it. "And anyway, he's of age and he lives in Paris."

"I know," James says moodily. "He sent me a picture of his new girlfriend. She's called Renée."

"She's French," Lily puts in, sounding amused.

"I think he could've figured that out, Lil," James sighs.

Harry looks wearily between them and scrubs a hand through his hair. "So... are you saying that you've dyed your hair blue because Teddy's got a French girlfriend?"

For a second or two, James continues to glower exasperatedly from the window seat, and then something astonishing happens. He laughs. He might be trying to hide it in the crook of his elbow, and he might be trying to stop, but it's no use because Harry has seen it and Lily has seen it, and so has whoever has just stepped out of the fireplace behind them. James groans, but a smile lingers around the corners of his mouth, and Harry decides to accept the small victory.

"Hi, Mum," Lily says. Harry's heart speeds and he hesitates before turning to see Ginny emerging from the fireplace with Al in tow. "James is being weird," she adds cheerfully, and returns to her book.

"Ah. Everything's in order, then?" Ginny says, finding a weary smile for her son. She shrugs off her outer robe, scrapes her curtain of heavy hair over one shoulder and startles as, to Harry's almost-amusement, she appears to notice him for the first time. "You're home early."

Her tone is neither accusing nor overjoyed; it's just flat. She nods briefly to acknowledge his cancelled-meeting explanation, and then excuses herself to the kitchen. Harry gazes after her for several seconds, attempting to extricate some kind of sense from the oddly numb mass of emotion that has taken up residence in his chest.

It's no good.

"Who ate all the bread?" Ginny calls over the crashing of cupboards and the whistling of the kettle.

The living room is pin-drop silent but for the soft sound of Frank's rhythmic purring as he kneads Lily's thighs with his paws. James frowns lightly and begins a very thorough examination of his nails.

"No idea," Harry calls back, enjoying James' poorly-concealed surprise. He pulls himself upright and heads into the kitchen, where Ginny is leaning against the counter and eating pickles out of the jar. With her fingers. Harry lifts an eyebrow.

"Don't tell on me to the kids," she whispers, shooting Harry a conspiratorial glance and offering him the pickle jar. "James ate all the bread, didn't he?" she adds, looking mutinous.

Harry smiles, struck by a painful rush of affection for this woman and the knowledge that he can't pretend, not now that he knows what he does.

"If I tell on him, I'll have to tell on you," he says roughly. Swallows hard.

Ginny sighs, seeming to consider this for a moment. At last she finishes her pickle with a decisive crunch, screws the top back onto the jar and abandons it on the counter. She licks her fingers.

"Alright. I can deal with that." Narrowing her eyes, she stares at him across ten feet of space that feels like more. "You look like you've had a bad day. I'm pretty tired, but if you want to rant while you're making me a cup of tea, I'm all ears."

Harry exhales carefully, forcing himself to break the eye contact. He crosses the kitchen, lifts the kettle and turns his back on Ginny, allowing the last of the steam to curl around his face.

"Gin, if I knew where to start, I would."

There's a sharp intake of breath behind him, followed by a creak as she settles herself on the kitchen table. "Wherever you like," she says, and there's something in her soft tone that makes Harry's fingers curl tightly around the handle of the kettle. "Or I could guess. Did Helga try to poison you?"

"Not today." Harry pours the tea and chews his lip thoughtfully, recalling Helga's pinched kindness.

"MLE meeting go badly?"

"What?" Frowning, Harry pokes at the teabags, watching the infusion darken. "Oh. No. It's been moved to Friday."

"Hasn't it already been moved once?"

"I can't remember," Harry says honestly. Stomach in knots, he turns around, passes one cup to Ginny and clutches onto his own as though it's a lifeline. He takes a deep breath.

"Mum!" Al sings, skidding into the room at speed and using the edge of the table to bring himself to a halt. "Mother!"

"Yes, son?" Ginny deadpans. Harry watches her sip her tea, apparently unperturbed by the interruption. Why would she be? he scolds himself silently. As far as she is concerned, everything is fine. At least, as fine as it usually is.

"What's for dinner? I'm starving."

Ginny looks at her son. Reaches out and ruffles his hair. Accios the pickle jar from the counter.

"Ask your dad."

**~*~**

Frazzled though he may be, Harry has no issue with making dinner for the family. It does, however, take him a moment to remember that he is no longer cooking for Draco and therefore cannot throw anything he feels like into the pot, or experiment wildly with unusual herbs and spices, and still expect appreciative noises and clean plates. At last, after a search of the cupboards with Al, Lily and Frank under his feet, making suggestions, asking for snacks and demanding meaty chunks in jelly—in various combinations—Harry settles on a nice, safe spaghetti Bolognese.

The first meal he made for Draco, he thinks, pushing away an odd little pang and slicing viciously at a large onion. Draco isn't here any more. Not his Draco.

After a relatively civilised meal, the children decamp to the living room and Harry, without a better idea, follows them, struggling as he does to remember what he used to do in the evenings before all of this.

"Haven't you got any work to do tonight?" Al enquires, throwing him a curious glance when he settles himself on the floor at the foot of the Christmas tree and obligingly holds onto the loose end of the shiny red ribbon that Lily is curling with scissors.

"Thanks, Dad," she murmurs, lips pursed in concentration.

"No," Harry tells Al. "I left it all at the office."

Al's green eyes widen. He sighs. "I wish I had somewhere to leave my homework."

Harry smiles. He leans back on his free hand, enjoying the fresh smell of the tree and the soft hum of carols from the wireless, and, astonishingly, just above that, the tentative sound of James and Ginny having a conversation. A conversation that their expressions suggest is about something other than James' hair or James' clothes or James' grades.

"I wonder what they're talking about," he murmurs, mostly to himself.

"Quidditch," Lily says, taking the red ribbon back from him and standing on tiptoe to dangle it from one of the upper branches before dropping back to the floor and handing him a second ribbon, this time green. "James asked if he could have a new broom. I stopped listening for a bit, but now she's telling him about winning a match against Slytherin."

"You've got ears like a bat, Lil," Al says, impressed. He picks up a ribbon of his own and copies Lily, only to slip halfway along and stab himself in the hand. "I bet this is easier with magic," he huffs.

"I'd rather you didn't blow yourself up... or worse, set the tree on fire," Harry advises. His wand hand makes an instinctive twitch toward Al, but he resists, instead scrutinising the small scratch. He'll live. "Suck it," he says instead. "Saliva is a natural antiseptic."

Al raises his eyebrows but complies, raising the heel of his hand to his mouth.

"Erghh!" Lily says, wrinkling her nose. Al laughs against his hand and sucks harder on purpose.

"Nice one, Mum!" James cries, and then he coughs lightly and amends: "I mean, yeah, that was pretty impressive, I suppose."

In an attempt to hide her astonishment, Ginny turns away and meets Harry's eyes over the back of the sofa. She shoots him a 'well, that's interesting' look that is familiar enough to draw a small smile from him. It really is no good.

He has to tell her.

**~*~**

As he sits on the edge of the bed, poking his tomato clock until it says, "ten thirty-four, ten thirty-four, ten thirty-four" over and over again, Harry thinks it can wait. The telling her part.

"Ten thirty-four," says the clock, and Harry slaps it into silence. He just wants to go to sleep.

He just wants a lot of things, he supposes, and not all of them are possible. But that's fine, he tells himself. That's fine—do you know why? Because you're a grown up. You're a man who's old enough to realise that you can't have everything. So, in short, get a fucking grip.

Powered by pure stubbornness, he stomps into the bathroom and brushes his teeth so hard that he spits blood-tinted foam back into the sink. He stares at it for a moment, running his tongue around the sore inside of his mouth, tasting mint and copper, before lowering his head and swilling out his mouth with icy water straight from the tap. Then, shuddering, he splashes his face and allows himself a second or two to regard his dripping, fuzzy reflection in the mirror.

At the sound of Ginny's approaching footsteps, Harry wipes his face with the back of his hand and retrieves his glasses from their perch on the collar of his t-shirt, shoving them back onto his nose so that he doesn't fall over her on the way back to the bedroom. When he gets there, having passed her in mutual silence in the doorway, he falls back onto the bed and props himself up on his elbows. Bare feet dangling almost to the floor and head tilted back, he closes his eyes.

"I sincerely hope you aren't planning on coming to bed wearing those."

Harry glances down at his thin drawstring trousers and then up at Draco, who is standing at the foot of the bed with his arms folded, wearing a quill behind his ear and nothing else.

"What's wrong with them?"

"What's right with them?" Draco snipes, grey eyes narrowed in disdain. "I'm willing to overlook the boxer shorts from time to time, but really... those things just catch the cracker."

Harry frowns, baffled—first at the offending trousers, and then at Draco. And finally it makes sense. He laughs. "I think the phrase you're looking for is 'takes the biscuit'. My trousers take the biscuit. And... I'm taking them off now."

"Harry, have you gone deaf?"

Harry's head snaps up and he opens his eyes to see Ginny, not Draco, standing at the end of the bed. She is knotting the belt of her turquoise robe and gazing down at him with her head on one side; oddly, she doesn't seem irritated, and even more oddly, that fact makes Harry want to cry.

"Sorry, Gin," he manages at last. "I was in my own little world."

Ginny nods vaguely and sits down on the edge of the bed next to Harry's feet. She lifts her hand to tuck several long strands of hair behind her ear, opens her mouth to speak and then hesitates, brow creased and mouth twisted into a sad little smile.

"That's the second time tonight," she says at last.

"What?" Harry asks. Anxious, he scrambles up into a sitting position beside her and glances sideways at her solemn profile.

"The second time you've called me 'Gin'. You haven't called me that in a long time."

Harry's heart speeds unpleasantly. He hadn't even noticed. "I'm sorry."

She laughs, light and sad. Looks out of the window. "No, I just... Harry, you've been so far away from me."

The raw truth of those words hits Harry like a slap to the face and, inexplicably, he wants to laugh. He resists, suddenly terrified by the realisation that he has no idea what to feel any more. Or what to say.

"I'm sorry," he tries again, partly because he needs to say it, and partly in the hope that it will be the right answer this time.

Ginny sighs and turns to him, eyes large and bright with tears. "What are you apologising for?"

"Like I said, I don't even know where to start," he says. It hurts to see her in pain. He had somehow forgotten how much.

"Try," she whispers, dragging in a ragged breath and twisting her fingers in her lap. "Try, Harry, because you're not the only one... you're not the only one who knows something's ... not right any more," she says. "I'm not stupid." Her eyes hold Harry's: fearful, defiant, beautiful. Something inside him curls up into a tight ball and screams in pain.

"I know you're not, Gin," he mumbles, reaching out to her. Pulling back his hand and clenching it into the sheets. "I know you're not. I know." Aching all over, he stares at her, breath short and eyes hot; he lets them fall closed and leans slowly, closing the small distance between them and resting his forehead against hers. The skin pressing against his is cool, as are the strong, slender fingers that slide-rustle across the sheets and wrap around his.

Hot with guilt, he barely knows what he's doing as he dips his head, faintly startled by the softness of the skin that brushes over his, falling blindly against her lips and kissing her with a dark, glittering hope that doing so will take all of the jagged, messy shards inside him and somehow put them back together.

Ginny twists her free hand into his t-shirt, clinging to him even as she huffs a soft sound of confusion into his mouth, kissing back, matching his desperation and tasting like tea and toothpaste and everything he knows. He slides his fingers through her silky hair and kisses her harder, stinging with loving her but not like this, hating that her mouth doesn't seem to fit perfectly against his like it once did, thinking about the mouth he wants and forcing himself not to think about it until those broken shards threaten to rip him apart.

Mouths sliding together, they share hot, unsteady breaths; Ginny's fingers slide under the hem of his t-shirt, nails dragging lightly, and he freezes.

No, he says, turning cold as his senses return to him in a rush. No.

Nothing happens, and it takes him a moment to realise that he hasn't spoken aloud. He opens his eyes, pulling back and wrapping both hands around her shoulders, holding her gently at arm's length.

"I can't. I'm sorry... I just can't."

She gapes at him, face flushed and eyes wide, all at once looking so young in the soft light that for a fleeting moment Harry wants to hug her and tell her to forget it all; everything is fine; he's just had a long day. Then her expression shifts, becomes resolute. She folds her arms.

"You need to tell me what's going on in your head, Harry. Right now. This isn't fair."

Harry nods. "I know." I know, I know, I know, he repeats silently. But he doesn't know anything at all. He doesn't know how to say these words. Whatever these words might be. Whatever they are, he hadn't expected to say them yet, but they are tumbling out of his mouth and he is letting them.

"I keep having this dream," he says suddenly.

Ginny looks an awful lot less surprised than he thinks she should. "The one about Malfoy?"

"Er... no," he improvises, "a different one. And... everything is really different. For everyone. You and I never got married. We're both with different people. And I... the person I... in the dream I'm gay, Gin," he says all in a rush, wanting the words out, even though the admission is half-arsed and faintly ridiculous.

"Okay." Her face is pale now, but her voice is even and she has dropped her hands into her lap and tucked one foot up underneath herself on the bed; she looks almost relaxed. "But you can't tell me that our marriage isn't working because you have a recurring gay dream... which, by the way, isn't all that surprising."

"What?" Harry demands. Derailed, he stares at her, prickling heat all over.

"I've always wondered," Ginny says, shrugging and treating him to an odd half-smile. "I've had a long time to wonder. But that's not what this is about, is it?" she presses, smile turning sad.

"I... is it not?" Harry asks. He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. Scrubs at his hair with both hands. "Since I've... been having the dreams," he attempts when there's no response from Ginny, "I've been thinking, and... I don't know, I'm finding it harder to ignore how unhappy we're making each other... because we are, aren't we?" he says, throat aching as he forces himself to turn his head and look at her.

Ginny's face is obscured by her hair as she looks down at her hands, but there's no disguising the tremor in her voice as she says, "I didn't think it would be like this."

"Neither did I," he admits. "But he we are. You know, this conversation wasn't supposed to go quite like this, either," he sighs, looking back down at the rug.

Ginny laughs shortly. "I didn't really think we'd be having it at all."

"Tonight?"

"Ever."

Resting his head in his hands, Harry lets out a long sigh that leaves him sore. "I'm sorry."

"You don't need to be sorry that you don't love me any more," she says matter-of-factly.

Harry's heart twists violently; he squeezes his eyes shut, but several fat tears slide out and splash against his glasses. "Gin, I do love you."

"Not like this," she whispers, pain evident. "Not like you used to."

"No," he says at last, and the sound seems to echo in the near-silent room, mocking him. Frozen in place, he feels the mattress dip beneath Ginny's weight as she shifts and draws in a long, uneven breath.

"Wow," she whispers, trying to hide a sob behind an awkward laugh. "It really fucking hurts to hear that."

Harry lifts his head from his hands, stung into action by the out-of-character harsh language and the confusing sentiment. "Didn't you expect it to?" he wonders. The "I'm sorry" falls from his mouth before he can stop it; Ginny sniffles and rolls her eyes.

"Yeah, I expected it to. I think I'd convinced myself that expecting it would soften the blow, somehow. Stupid, really," she sighs, affecting nonchalance that has no chance of fooling Harry.

"It's not stupid," Harry says forcefully, grabbing her shoulder and compelling eye contact. He needs her to believe this—to believe him—because suddenly, in the midst of this raw fucking snarl of hurt that has opened up around them both, he can see what's important, what's vital, and he holds on to it hard, swallowing around his pain and blinking his sore eyes until she slides back into focus in front of him.

"I don't want to hurt you, Gin. I know I already have, and I want it to stop. I don't think it matters what I do now, or what you do, because I don't think we can make this right." He pauses, voice catching, chest sore.

Ginny's dark eyes swim with tears but she doesn't look away. "I used to think you could fix anything." She lets out a rueful laugh, forcing a smile that doesn't stop a sob from escaping.

"Gin..."

"Don't worry, I've managed to disabuse myself of that notion over the years," she says.

Harry almost smiles. "That's a relief." He exhales slowly, trying to push all of the anguish from his body in one long breath. "I wish I could fix it."

Ginny shakes her head and flops back onto the bed; for a moment, her hands cover her face, and then she pushes her fingers back through her hair and gazes up at Harry, face tear-streaked but determined. "I don't."

Harry stares down at her, feeling all at once relieved and as though he has been hexed viciously in the stomach. "You don't love me either," he says, unsure whether or not he means it as a question.

"Don't be an idiot," she sighs. "I love you more than anything, except for my children. You're their father, Harry—we made them together." Ginny takes a deep breath, wipes away her tears with the back of her hand, and pulls herself upright again. "I love you so much that I can let you go," she whispers, and Harry falls apart a little because it's right, and it hurts so much.

Words seem out of reach. Instead, he wraps his arms around her and buries his face in her hair, shaking as they cling to one another, gulping at sweet, coconut-scented air and allowing her hot tears to trickle down his neck and inside his collar. He closes his eyes and thinks of Lily, Al, and James, peacefully unaware that anything of significance has occurred. Of Draco, both the one who briefly belonged to him, and the one who is probably sitting in his manor, wearing black and, perhaps, wondering just where his own marriage veered off course.

"Do you want a cup of tea?" Ginny says, breaking the silence. At least, that's what Harry thinks she says; her voice is muffled by his shoulder.

"What?"

"Do you want a cup of tea?" she repeats, pulling away and scrubbing at her blotchy face.

He frowns. "Er... I don't know."

"Well, I'm having one," Ginny announces. She stands, stretches and gathers her heavy hair in one hand, shifting the weight of it as she works the kinks out of her neck. When she looks at Harry again, her expression is oddly calm. "It's a serious decision, of course."

"Not like ending a marriage," Harry says, because she doesn't.

She quirks a rueful little smile, but wraps her arms around herself as though the words might shatter her fragile new armour and bring the tears rushing back.

"Exactly," she says softly, and then turns and walks out into the hallway. She doesn't bother to light the lamps and quickly disappears into the darkness. After a moment, Harry scrambles from the bed and follows her down the stairs, carpet prickling against his bare feet, cautious breaths loud in his ears.

He hesitates at the kitchen door, listening to the sounds of kettle and cups and spoons and wondering just what he's supposed to do now. There's no going back, that much is obvious, and the speed at which his life is turning itself inside out is making his head spin. Craving fresh air, he turns his back on the soft yellow light that spills from the kitchen and instead makes his way to the front door and out into the night. The air is sharp and bitterly cold against his skin; it ruffles his thin t-shirt, slices through his hair and stings his sore, damp cheeks. He tips his head back, welcoming it, until a violent shiver grips him and reminds him that it's December and he's hardly dressed for the elements.

Lowering himself onto the cool step, he pulls his bare feet up onto the edge, tucking his knees into his chest, and sweeps his hand in a large arc, palm out, until the entire doorway is encircled by an invisible ring of warmth. In theory. In reality, it's a little patchy, but it'll have to do; his wand is upstairs and he's exhausted.

When a steaming cup is handed to him, he accepts it in silence, and Ginny sits on the step beside him, pulling the front door closed behind her. For a moment, Harry watches her in his peripheral vision as she blows gently on her tea and stretches out her bare legs, examining the chipped silver polish on her toenails, before he leans back against the solid support of the door and gazes down the driveway at the glittering, frost-coated village that has been his world for the best part of two decades.

His stomach flips; whether in apprehension or in relief, he doesn't know, but either way, this part of his life is over. All over bar the shouting, of which there has been none.

Harry sighs. "What should we do now?"

"I don't know," Ginny admits, resting her cup on her knee. "I don't think anyone ever does, really."

Harry gulps at his tea, registering the extra sugar with an inward wince but saying nothing, instead allowing the hot liquid to soothe his twisting insides. She's right, he thinks, exhaling a warm, white plume of breath that highlights the inconsistencies of his Warming Charm. There are no strategies or tictacs for this. Nobody is going to tell him how best to handle the situation, and, while that may well be a good thing, because he doubts he's in the mood to listen to advice, he suddenly feels very alone.

Ginny's thigh brushes against his as she shifts position next to him and he looks up. Her skin glows softly in the silvery moonlight, and he is struck by how beautiful she is. Though not as youthful and vibrant as her other self, this Ginny—his Ginny—has aged with grace. There are lines, but they are faint, indicative of struggles and hard work and three separate sets of sleepless nights. There are grey hairs, but many, many more are a rich, flaming red that makes her stand out wherever she goes. She is clever, quick-witted and fiercely loyal, just like the girl he fell in love with, and, probably, just like the girl that Blaise Zabini fell in love with.

"You're brilliant," he says impulsively.

Ginny glances at him. "Don't tell me you're changing your mind."

"No." Harry hesitates. The minute flicker in her eyes suggests she's teasing, but he doesn't trust himself to interpret her any more. "Would it matter if I did?"

She shakes her head, staring down into her cup and gripping it in both hands. "No. If you think this is all you deciding to walk out on me, you're kidding yourself. And so would I be if I decided to play the wounded victim. This..." She gestures between them, avoiding his eyes, "... this hasn't been working for a long time."

"I know," Harry mumbles, letting go of his denial and hoping the night breeze will carry it away. "Although, to be fair, I'm the one saying that I think I want... something different," he adds, shifting uncomfortably on the hard stone. Not just because of the hard stone.

Ginny sighs. "Something different is sort of comforting, actually. I think it would've hurt more if you'd wanted another woman instead of me... even if I knew we shouldn't be married to each other any more. Don't worry, I don't expect it to make sense," she adds, draining her cup and setting it down on the step with a soft clank-scrape.

"It does make sense," Harry says, surprising himself. "I just wish it hadn't taken me so long to... figure things out."

"Don't," she says firmly, wrapping her arms around her knees and looking up at him. "It hasn't all been bad, has it?"

"No," Harry says quickly. "No, of course not. It hasn't been bad, Gin, it's just..."

"Yeah, I know." The sharp challenge in her eyes fades and she leans against him for a moment.

"I want you to find someone better. Someone who makes you happy," he whispers. Closing his eyes, he pictures Blaise lifting Ginny and swinging her around in the Weasleys' garden, laughing together over their fortune cookies at the Flailing Lizard, and teasing each other mercilessly as they distribute soup on Christmas Eve, bundled up in coats and scarves, Maura in tow—he concentrates on their energy, their chemistry, their smiles, until it doesn't hurt quite as much.

"I think I need to be on my own for a while," she says at last. "See how that feels."

"Yeah," Harry rasps, gripping his cup so tightly with the effort of not thinking about Draco that it cracks. He watches the fissure travel along the shiny red ceramic until it reaches the rim of the cup and stops abruptly. "That sounds sensible," he says, in a voice that sounds nothing like his own.

Ginny reaches over, takes the damaged cup from him and examines it, eyebrows drawn down in contemplation. "Who is it, then?" she asks calmly.

Harry freezes. "You're asking me to recommend someone for you?" he says, trying to inject a note of incredulity into his voice.

"No, you daft bugger," she scolds, voice catching again. "Who makes you happy? Who do you keep dreaming about?" With a searching stare that pins Harry to the cold step, she insists: "There is someone, isn't there?"

"I'm not cheating on you," he says, and the words stick in his throat; technically, he knows he is telling the truth but technicalities are for the weak, the slippery, the deceitful. He also knows that the discomfort is his to carry, not Ginny's.

"That's not what I said." Ginny extends a cautious hand beyond the cover of the Warming Charm and skates it along the ground, gathering powdery snow on her fingertips. "I want to know what's in your head."

Harry copies her, leaning to one side and scooping snow into his cupped hands. Pensive, he lets it fall from one hand into the other; it's astonishingly light and soothing against his fingers, turning them damp and numb. Beside him, Ginny sighs, and he knows he has to say something. Unfortunately, he suspects that what's in his head can only make things worse.

"How will that help?" he says in the end, and compresses the snow into a hard plaque between his palms.

"It won't." She shrugs and flashes him a tight smile. "I'm curious."

"Curiosity can be dangerous," he says weakly.

Ginny snorts. "You're one to talk. Is it someone I know?" she says suddenly, eyes bright as she wipes her dripping fingers on her robe. "It's someone I know, isn't it?"

Harry drops his head back against the door and turns his eyes to her in mute appeal. "Gin."

"Harry."

"It's the middle of the night. We're sitting outside in the snow, having this insanely calm conversation about ending our marriage. Do you really want to make this any weirder?"

"Why not? I've got nothing to lose," she says, voice brittle. She tucks her arm through Harry's, making him jump; seconds later, she turns to him, eyes wide. "It really is Malfoy, isn't it?"

Harry's heart slams against his ribs and then drops through his body and all he can do is stare back at her. "Nothing's happened," he mumbles.

"You're in love with Malfoy?" she says, and it's not really a question. Harry just tries to breathe. "Draco fucking Malfoy. Oh, Harry..." she murmurs, and then seems to lose it altogether, pressing her face into his shoulder and shaking against him.

Alarmed, Harry stares at her, listening to the odd, heart-rending sound of her anguish.

It takes him a good few seconds to realise that she's not crying. She's laughing, and he's confused. It's a hot, shuddering laugh/sob that wracks her whole body, and when she finally lifts her head, her face is caught midway between real, hard amusement and soft, muted sadness.

"What's so funny about that?" he asks before he can stop himself.

Ginny snorts, covers her face with her hands, and laughs breathlessly. Harry lobs his snow plaque at her and it shatters in her hair; she laughs even harder and shakes her head vigorously, sending lumps of ice flying everywhere.

"Oh... what's not so funny about it?" she gasps, still giggling as she drops back against the door and closes her eyes.

"Charming," Harry grumbles. He doesn't suppose he has much right to be hurt, and he's not—not really. He's baffled, but he's used to that.

Ginny grins wearily and then opens her eyes. "I keep thinking, any minute now I'm going to wake up and wonder what the hell all this was about," she confides.

"I know exactly what you mean," Harry agrees, stifling a yawn.

"When did we get so old?" Ginny mumbles, catching it and lifting a hand to her mouth.

Harry shrugs, an automatic "I don't know" on his lips, but he catches it before it can escape. "We're not. At least, we don't have to be."

"Hmm," Ginny muses, picking fragments of ice out of her hair. "Maybe we make each other old."

"Don't say that," Harry whispers, heart-sore. Even though she's probably right.

"Well, we'll see," she says. "I have to say, though, from what I've seen of Malfoy recently, he's not doing any better. He looked terrible the last time he was at Gringotts."

Harry aches. "He didn't look too happy at King's Cross in September, either," he offers. "That was the last time I saw him."

Ginny lifts an eyebrow. "You know... if I didn't know better, I'd say you were having a mid-life crisis."

"Maybe I am." Harry shivers; the Warming Charm is fading, but he can't be bothered to do anything more than glare at it. He tucks himself into a smaller space and rubs his arms.

"You could be, but I doubt you've forgotten about Malfoy for more than five minutes at a time since you met, so..." She shrugs.

Harry scowls at the ground, prickling with indignation. "Aren't you upset?" Ginny catches her breath, and he immediately regrets biting. "Sorry," he mumbles.

"Of course I'm bloody upset," she snaps, picking up another handful of snow and savagely squashing it into a ball. "I just don't think being bitter will make me feel any better... or help you... or be good for the kids. And... and despite all of this mess, I just want us all to be okay."

Sobered, Harry nods. "So do I."

"Do you think that's possible?"

Harry draws in a deep breath, sensing the significance of the question. "Yes," he says after a moment, the word coming out a little too loud in an attempt to sound decisive. "I think we will. I have no idea what I'm going to say to them, but I'll think of something."

"I'd start with Al, he already thinks the Malfoys are the best thing since glow-in-the-dark cereal." Ginny draws back her arm and flings her snowball into the street, where it splatters against a stop sign with impressive accuracy. "Did you read his last letter from school? Scorpius Malfoy this, and Scorpius Malfoy that..."

"No, I didn't," Harry admits. Frowns. "But that's not what I meant. I meant that I don't know what I'm going to tell them about you and me."

"I wasn't planning on making you do it on your own," Ginny says, looking at her hands and frowning.

"I know," Harry lies, hiding his relief with some effort. He pretends intense interest in a nearby patch of ice, and when he turns back to Ginny, she is holding out her wedding ring on the palm of her hand and staring at him, face set. Harry winces, and she blinks, pained, biting her lower lip but holding firm.

It's been coming, and for far longer than he wants to admit—Draco or no Draco—but fuck, it still hurts like nothing he's ever experienced. Nothing.

He takes the ring and wraps his shaking fingers around it. With a shuddering breath, he twists his own silver band until it loosens, slips it off and hands it to Ginny. She takes it without a word and leans against him, pushing his ring onto her thumb and lacing her hand through his. Uncertain, he squeezes her fingers and kisses the top of her head. She squeezes back, hard enough to hurt, and he rests his chin there, following her eyes to stare out at the stars.

Finally, the spinning inside his head begins to slow, allowing his thoughts to clear and separate. Which isn't necessarily a good thing.

"Oh, god," he mutters against Ginny's hair. "Ron's going to kill me."

"You should give him some credit."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He feels Ginny's shoulders lift in a deep sigh. "Everyone always expects him to fly off the handle about everything and it's not fair. I know he's done some stupid things in his time, but so have you, and no one ever says 'I don't want to tell Harry, he'll be completely unreasonable'," she complains. "He wants what's best for you as well as me, you know."

"I know," Harry says, chastened. "But you're his sister. His little sister at that," he adds, knowing that she hates that, and, sure enough, there is a small sound of discontent from below.

"You're his best friend," Ginny points out.

"I know. And I didn't really want to be the person who broke his sister's heart," Harry says heavily.

Ginny sniffs. "Well, I'm afraid that was the risk you took when you married me."

"Gin, I'm s—"

"Harry."

"Yeah?"

"Be quiet for a minute."

Harry is quiet. He stays quiet until they both pull their breathing under control, and he is quiet as they rise, by mutual tacit consent, and step back into the house. He is quiet as he follows Ginny up the stairs, relishing the heat and the soft carpet, and he is quiet as he creeps along the landing past the children's bedrooms.

He is not quiet enough. Lily's door creaks open and a sleep-tousled head sticks out.

"What's happening?" she mumbles, blinking slowly up at her mother.

"Nothing, Lil—why don't you go back to bed? Me and your dad are going to bed now," Ginny says.

"I heard the front door," Lily protests, yawning.

"Ah... we were just sorting out some... secret stuff, you know," Harry improvises, shooting Lily a meaningful look and kicking Ginny lightly in the ankle until she, too, puts on a conspiratorial expression.

A sleepy smile spreads across Lily's face. "Christmas presents?" she whispers.

"If you go back to bed," Harry shrugs. "Perhaps."

Lily rubs her eyes. "Okay, Dad. 'Night, Mum," she mumbles, giving each of them a haphazard but warm hug and stumbling back into her bedroom.

Harry watches her door for a moment, just to make sure, and then traipses into the bedroom that, for the moment, he still shares with Ginny. Cold and exhausted, he flops straight onto the bed and pulls the sheets around himself. Part of him wonders if he should be doing the decent thing and offering to sleep on the sofa, but he can't bring himself to move, and Ginny doesn't seem to mind. She crawls into bed, still wrapped in her robe, and tucks her icy feet underneath him. He suspects that at one time, before all of this, the idea of sharing a bed with his soon-to-be ex-wife would have been a strange one, but right now it somehow feels like the most natural thing in the world, and he holds onto it.

"You're a brilliant dad, you know," she says suddenly.

Harry doubts he deserves a compliment at this point but it warms him all the same. "Thank you. So are you." He frowns. "Or something."

Ginny snorts. "Thanks, I think."

Harry stares pointlessly into the darkness, trying to imagine just how strange this Christmas is going to be. Until this morning he thought he'd missed it completely, and now the whole thing has been whisked away from him again. Closing his sore eyes, he exhales heavily and twists Ginny's ring in his fingers. He doesn't want to miss it. Not again.

"Gin?" he tries, heart in his throat.

"Mm?"

Harry hesitates for a moment too long; her exasperation is almost palpable.

"I really need to sleep, Harry. My brain is shutting down. We can talk in the morning, I promise."

"Yeah... it's just... what do you think about hanging on until after Christmas?" he says, hating the weakness in his voice. "Just a little bit more... time."

"This isn't going to go away," Ginny whispers.

"No, it isn't," Harry agrees, strength suddenly pouring into him. He turns onto his side, seeking out her eyes, just visible in the gloom. "It'll still be here in the New Year."

Ginny sighs. "I could live without the guilt of ruining my children's Christmas, I have to admit."

"I think we both could."

"This is all a very weird dream," Ginny yawns, turning her back on him. "But just in case it's not, you'd better have this back."

Harry closes his fingers around the cold metal, uncertain how he feels about unexpectedly having it back in his possession. He puts it on anyway, safe in the knowledge that, if nothing else, doing so buys him almost two more weeks with his children before everything is blown wide open.

"Just for now," he says, reaching for Ginny's hand and sliding her ring back onto her finger.

She lets him. "You always were a terrible procrastinator," she mumbles, and just for a second, she sounds a lot like Draco. The memory of him fills Harry's senses as he punches his pillow, settles down, and wraps an arm around his wife's waist. All he can do is hope that his other self is back where he belongs, and that, eventually, the rest will follow.

Chapter Text

Harry wakes before the tomato.

Feeling somewhat triumphant, he stretches out a hand and prods it into the 'off' position, ignoring the eye that swivels to follow him as he rolls over and gazes silently at Ginny, who is sleeping lightly beside him. Or so he thinks.

"What's the matter?" she mumbles, shifting and almost disappearing behind a curtain of hair.

Harry squints at her in the near-darkness. "Nothing," he whispers, staring at her, and it takes him a moment to realise that, actually, it isn't too far from the truth. Which is weird. His whole world has essentially been pulled apart, and yet he feels rested, and yesterday's headache has dissolved.

Ginny stretches and shuffles into a seated position. "You look relieved," she says softly.

Harry bites his lip and casts guilty eyes down to the bed clothes. "It's not the only thing I'm feeling, believe me."

"It makes quite a nice change to hear anything about how you're feeling," Ginny says drily.

"Isn't it a bit early in the morning for sly digs?" Harry complains, turning away to hide his awkwardness in making a show of putting on his glasses and lowering his feet to the icy floor.

"Probably," she sighs after a moment. "I'm sorry, Harry. I feel like I woke up and suddenly didn't know how to talk to you any more. I know that sounds stupid."

Harry takes a deep breath, trying to loosen the knots in his throat. "No, it doesn't."

There's a rustle of sheets behind him as Ginny crawls out of bed. "What do you suggest?"

"What do I suggest? To be honest, Gin, I'm still astonished that you haven't torn a strip off me, but if you're sure... I think we should talk to each other like good friends."

Ginny makes a rough little sound. "You've been my best friend for a long time."

"I suppose you can manage that, then," Harry says, twisting around to meet her eyes.

Her smile is a little wobbly, but genuine. "I suppose I can."

"Good. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you," Harry says, all in a rush, not caring how it sounds.

"It isn't as easy as that to get rid of me," Ginny advises. "However," she says, pressing a soft kiss to his cheek and then getting to her feet, "I do have to go to work. Thursday morning meetings wait for no man... or goblin."

Harry watches her disappear into the bathroom, wondering if he also has a meeting this morning. One for which he is, in all likelihood, completely unprepared. It's surprisingly difficult to care. Idly, he picks up his tomato clock and is floating it in lazy circles around his head when Ginny stalks back into the bedroom, robe flapping, bringing a wave of fresh, floral-scented steam with her. Draco's shower steam always smells like lemons, his mind supplies, along with the shockingly vivid memory of Draco's water-slicked bare skin and his invitations for Harry to join him.

Concentration slipping, he loses his grip on the spell and the tomato clock falls, bounces off his forehead with a painful clonk and rolls away across the bed with a single cry of 'six twenty-eight' that startles Ginny, causing her to stop buttoning up her shirt and turn to fix Harry with an inquiring look.

"What are you doing?"

Harry scowls and rubs at the sore spot on his head. "I have no idea. Carry on."

When Ginny finally leaves for work, hair shiny and robes pressed, with a brief hug that both pains and fortifies Harry, he prises himself from the bed and gazes gloomily at the sea of brown that is his wardrobe. Irritably, he chooses a sweater and trousers that look a little newer than the rest and stands in front of the mirror, gazing at his reflection with growing dissatisfaction. As he stuffs his wand into his waistband, though, he has an idea. Possibly not a very good one, but an idea nonetheless.

Eyes narrowed in concentration, he draws his wand along the soft wool of his sweater, concentrating on both the unfamiliar Transfiguration and the image of one of the nicest garments belonging to his other self, a sea-green cashmere thing with a strange folded over neck and little zips at the bottom. Encouraged by the tightening of the sweater around his torso and the lightening of the sludgy brown fibres, Harry flicks his wand, closes his eyes, and decides to trust his instincts.

Next, he goes for the trousers, attempting simply to make them black (because black goes with everything—he's certain he has heard Draco say that at least five times) and a little more fitted. Quietly confident—because how difficult can it be, after all?—Harry holds onto the spell until the trouser fabric pulls at his hips, and then lowers his wand and opens his eyes.

"Oh, no."

The man staring back at him from the glass looks ridiculous. Harry can't be sure where exactly he has gone wrong, but somewhere during the process, he has managed to create a style disaster. His sweater, far from being bluish-green and trendy, is the colour of a particularly obnoxious lime and so tight that when he lifts despairing hands to rake through his hair, the fabric rides up to expose his abdomen and then rips under both arms.

Harry lets out a sound that is part whimper and part snort of self-deprecating laughter.

If Draco could see him now, he'd... well, it's probably a good thing Draco cannot see him now, that's all Harry knows. Because the trousers... oh, fucking hell, the trousers. Far from being fashionably fitted, they stretch so tightly around his buttocks and crotch that absolutely nothing is left to the imagination. Harry suspects that right now, each individual bollock could be spied from space, and that's more than anyone needs to see of him. Conversely, from the knee down, the once uniformly baggy trousers have widened into some of the most obscene flares Harry has ever seen, and he has seen pictures of his dad in the seventies. He gives each leg in turn an experimental shake, and the excess of not-quite-brown, not-quite-black fabric flaps around his ankles.

He sighs, and then freezes at the sound of a stifled giggle. Very slowly, he turns, and realises with a thrill of horror that he has forgotten to close the bedroom door. Green eyes bore into his from beneath a mop of sleep-ruffled hair as Harry's pyjama-clad son looks him up and down and laughs and laughs and laughs.

"What are you doing up?" Harry grumbles, crossing his arms self-consciously over his chest.

"Bathroom," Al pants, cackling in earnest now. It's only a matter of time before James and Lily are roused to come and laugh at his outfit, too. "What've you got on, Dad?"

"I'll have you know," Harry says, drawing himself to his full height and attempting to channel a Draco-like level of icy nonchalance, "that this is an extremely... you know what, never mind what I've got on. Go back to bed."

Al snorts. "Right, Dad," he mumbles, shaking his head slowly as he slopes off to his bedroom.

Harry sighs. Alright, so he hasn't done the most elegant job with his outfit, but he doesn't think there's any need to laugh quite so hard. Slightly wounded, he strips off, banishes the offending garments and returns to his wardrobe. After a few moments' rummaging, he finds an un-butchered sweater and pair of trousers and resolves to go shopping after Christmas, even if he does hate the experience with every fibre of his being. If he's going to stop acting and feeling like an old man, he needs to stop dressing like one, too.

**~*~**

Opting not to fuel Helga's disparagement this morning, he throws on his robes before he leaves the house, and when he strides into the office a few minutes later, she barely raises an eyebrow.

"Your messages, Mr Potter," she says, holding out the sheaf of parchment without looking up from her Daily Prophet crossword.

He takes them, heads for his office door, and hesitates.

In that room lies sanctuary of a sort, but also reports and memos and other things, the very thought of which threatens to reinstate his headache. Suddenly he can't face it. He feels anxious and tender-raw and he doesn't need strategy and paperwork. He needs to see a friend.

Decisively, he stuffs the messages into his robe pocket and turns to Helga.

"I'm going out."

"Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but didn't you just arrive?" she says acidly.

Harry resists the temptation to pull a childish face at her. "I have a meeting with someone from the Goblin Liaison Office," he says, not quite resisting the temptation to fold his arms.

Helga blinks. "That's not in the diary."

"I know. I don't tell you everything, you know."

There's a familiar clacking sound as Helga leans forward and lifts an eyebrow. "Oh?"

The sound chills Harry and he takes a step back, but maintains eye contact. "Yes. Indeed. Hm." Harry pauses, frowning. "Never mind that. I'm going now."

Feeling like even more of an idiot than usual, Harry turns his back on her and stalks out into the corridor. In the lift, he presses his forehead against the wall, relishing the coolness of the metal, the fact that he's alone and the proximity of his office to Hermione Granger-Weasley's. At some point, he hopes, his brain will start working again. Unfortunately, he has no idea when that will be.

By the time he reaches the Goblin Liaison Office, he is light with the prospect of seeing the real Hermione for the first time in weeks. He is right outside her personal office before he remembers about Anthony Goldstein, but then the door is flying open and it's too late.

"Oh, hello, Auror Potter," says a vaguely familiar young woman with curly hair and an armful of scrolls. She smiles up at him and attempts to hold open the door with an elbow and a foot. "Have you come to see Ms Granger-Weasley? She's not in a very good mood at the moment," the woman adds in an undertone, shooting Harry a conspiratorial look.

"Union contracts?" Harry guesses.

The woman nods. She gathers her scrolls more securely and moves out so that Harry can take the weight of the door. "Good luck."

"Thanks," Harry murmurs, listening as her footsteps recede. He'd almost forgotten that some people at work are nice to him; Helga makes it too easy.

"Harry? Is that you?"

He pushes the door open and has to suppress a grin at what he sees. Hermione is sitting behind her desk but is almost completely hidden from view by a stack of multicoloured files, at least seven coffee cups, and a glittery tomato costume. Goldstein is nowhere to be seen.

"Nice tomato," he offers, clicking the door closed behind him.

"Oh, don't get me started on that," Hermione groans, wheeling her chair over the carpet so that Harry can see her harassed face. "Since when did the Nativity include sparkly tomatoes? And, more to the point, why did my son only show me the letter on Tuesday, giving me approximately five minutes to make his costume? I'm... I'm not even very good at sewing!" she wails, and Harry does smile at her now; he can't help it.

"I don't know, 'Mione," he says, finding a few square inches of desk and perching on it. He pokes at the costume cautiously, sending glitter showering to the floor. Alarmed, he withdraws his hand and stuffs it into his pocket. "It's... well, it's the best one of those I've ever seen," he says truthfully.

She laughs and the tension dissolves from her face. "Thanks. Where were you yesterday, anyway? Didn't you get my memo?"

"I'm sorry. I was buried in messages and I completely forgot. Is the offer of coffee still good?"

Hermione eyes the stack of files wearily. "If you can help me with these negotiations, I will buy you as many cups of coffee as you can drink."

Harry smiles, just full of warmth to see his friend again, even if he knows there's no way he can talk to her about the mess inside his head. Not yet, anyway. He leans across the desk to accept the quill she is holding out, getting gold glitter all over his robes and not caring.

"Deal."

After two hours of brainstorming and drafting and redrafting that feels like much longer, Harry has almost managed to forget about Ginny and Draco and everything that goes with them. In addition, his wrist hurts from scribbling down Hermione's rapid-fire thoughts, and the words 'goblin', 'representation' and 'therefore' have lost all meaning. When Hermione finishes re-reading their work and rolls up the parchment for safekeeping, he can barely contain his relief.

"I don't know how you do this all day, Hermione, I really don't."

She gazes at him across the desk, brow creased. "Drafting negotiations or dealing with goblins?"

"Paperwork," he clarifies, eyeing the desk piled high in the otherwise pin-neat office.

Hermione laughs. "I quite like it usually," she confesses, getting to her feet and shrugging into a smart plum coloured coat. "It appeals to my need for order. And anyway, you do at least as much as me; you never stop complaining about it." Harry opens his mouth to protest but she shakes her head, smiling, and heads for the door. "Come on. I've found this great little place."

"Same old Hermione," he mumbles under his breath, following her and hiding a smile.

"I heard that," she advises.

Harry says nothing, just follows her down to the Atrium and out into the crisp, cool morning. As they saunter through streets packed with last-minute Christmas shoppers, side by side in a comfortable silence, Harry wonders whether or not he should be in a meeting, or if he should have at least told Helga where he was going, but he flattens the flicker of conscience almost as quickly as it appears. He is the bloody Head of the bloody Auror Department, and he can go wherever he likes. It's been the longest time since he abused his position even a little bit.

Hermione glances at him, apparently amused, and Harry wonders if the childish little 'So there!' in his head is written all over his face. She directs an odd little half-smile at the ground and tucks her arm through his.

Probably, then.

"Mum!" comes the stage whisper of a small child from the other side of the street. Harry looks, trying not to make it obvious, and sees a little boy of six or seven, bundled up in stripy knitwear, hanging onto his mother's arm and gazing at Harry with wide dark eyes. "Is that Harry Potter, Mum? Is it? Is it?"

The woman bites her lip. Shoots anxious glances at Harry and then Hermione, who has now slowed almost to a standstill and is watching the scene with interest.

"Don't stare, Leon," she says, grabbing his hand and attempting to pull him along the pavement.

Harry heart clenches. He smiles at the little boy and adds an awkward-but-friendly wave without thinking about it. It only takes a moment for the child to grin and wave back so furiously that his arm is in danger of becoming detached. The pure, open delight on his face slams into Harry, and he is lifted higher still as the woman seems to shake herself, throws him a grateful smile and mouths a 'thank you' as she steers her son back into the crowds.

As they resume normal walking speed, Harry holds onto the smile.

"Are you feeling alright?" Hermione asks, elbowing him lightly, and shame steals back into his veins. He's forgotten his defences. His strategies for keeping people away. He's left them in that other place along with his exhaustion, his sanity, and the dull, unhappy person he had accidentally become before all of this.

"Yep," he manages, throat dry.

Hermione lifts an eyebrow but says nothing. Instead, she steers him around a corner and into a cobbled backstreet where the crowd is sparser and the cold air is rich with the aromas of coffee and fresh bread. Harry breathes in deeply, already feeling some of his dissatisfaction slipping away.

"Gah," Hermione yelps, grabbing his arm painfully hard as she loses her footing on the icy cobbles.

Without thinking, Harry twists around and catches her around the waist, steadying her before she crashes to the ground. She rests her head against his chest and sighs, mouth twitching at the corners, windblown curls everywhere.

"Well, that was graceful." She lifts her eyes to meet his and pulls herself carefully upright.

Harry grins, releasing her. "I've seen worse. I'm always falling over."

Hermione throws him an odd look and then turns away, holding her arms out at her sides and setting her feet down carefully on the sparkling cobbles. "You're being oddly self-deprecating today. Are you sure you're feeling alright?"

"Yeah, it's my..." Harry stops, staring down at his legs and turning cold. This knee was never damaged by Bellatrix Lestrange in the Malfoy's ballroom. Because Hermione... Harry drags in a deep breath, letting the cold air crash into his lungs. Here he doesn't need to worry about crashing to the floor at all the most inopportune moments, does he? In fact, since he returned, there has been a complete absence of falling down at inopportune moments. He can't help feel that he should be more relieved about that.

"Come on," Hermione calls from the door of a cafe some way up the street, and when Harry looks, there's an immediate thrill of recognition. He's been here before. Shaking himself, he catches up to her and follows her into the steam-filled cafe.

"The coffee here is fantastic," she says.

I know, he thinks. And the waitresses here are sulky.

"Better had be," he says instead, pulling up a chair at a corner table. "I think I've earned it."

Within seconds, the sullen-faced waitress has sloped over from the counter and is standing beside their table, tapping her pen against her notepad and regarding them with such an expression of world-weary ennui on her young face that Harry is almost impressed.

"What can I get you?" she asks, barely keeping the sigh out of her voice.

"Large black coffee, please," Harry says brightly, baring his teeth at her in a friendly smile that makes her eyes widen in astonishment. She just about manages to catch her pen before it tumbles out of her loosened grip and escapes.

"Er," says the waitress, eyes large and puzzled. "We've got three featured coffees this week... erm... a Sumatran Mandheling, a Monsoon Malabar, and a Brazilian Bruzzi. I think," she adds in a small voice, suddenly looking very much like the vulnerable teenager Draco had reduced to tears.

"I don't know," he says, folding his arms on the shiny tabletop. "Why don't you choose for me?"

"Right," she says after a moment, blinking repeatedly and knitting her thin eyebrows together as though she has no idea what to do with Harry.

He has to admit, he's enjoying himself.

"I'll have a medium cappuccino, please," Hermione says faintly, and both Harry and the waitress turn to look at her. "Do you two know each other?"

"No," Harry says, a little too quickly.

"Er, no," the waitress confirms, every shred of her attitude back in place as she regards Hermione.

"Well... alright then," Hermione murmurs, tucking an errant curl behind her ear and turning back to Harry, eyes narrowed in contemplation.

The waitress rolls her eyes and turns away, and Harry watches her until she disappears out of view.

"Fangirls," Hermione sighs.

Harry kicks her lightly under the table. "Hardly."

"Well, I don't know. Don't think it's escaped me that you're behaving oddly."

Harry's heart speeds unpleasantly. "What do you mean by that?"

Hermione sighs, dropping her hands into her lap and picking at her coat sleeves. "You're jumpy. And you're being... sociable with members of the public. If I'm honest, Harry, it's a little bit strange."

"Is this because I waved at that little boy?" Harry asks, attempting to sound as incredulous as he can.

"It's because I've known you for twenty-six years, and I know when you're trying to avoid talking about something," she says sharply, dark eyes boring into Harry's with such intensity, such intuition, that he's tempted to tell her everything, to hug her tightly and beg for her advice, but knows that as far as she is aware, they saw each other less than two days ago, and the only rational thing he can do right now is to pretend that everything is fine.

The waitress chooses that moment to bring over their coffee, and Harry busies himself with adding brown sugar from a paper packet and stirring noisily for as long as he can get away with.

"Harry. Communication is good. It won't hurt you," Hermione says stridently; when he meets her eyes, though, something in her seems to soften. "It's just me. You know you can tell me if something's wrong... is it James?"

Already forming his defence, Harry frowns, puzzled by the non-sequitur. "What? No—why would you say that?"

Hermione shrugs. She sips her cappuccino and wipes foam from her top lip with a paper napkin. "He's a teenager. And Al told me that he's dyed his hair blue. Just a hunch."

"Ah, that," Harry sighs, wrapping his fingers around his cup and allowing the heat to flow into his body. "It isn't all of his hair, if that makes a difference."

"Oh, all the difference in the world," Hermione says, lips twitching into a half smile. "Alright, then, it's not James, who, by the way reminds me an awful lot of you as a teenager—" Hermione pauses for long enough to mirror Harry's grimace mockingly back at him. "So, what's bothering you?"

Harry rubs his face and rests his chin on his hand. He hates lying to Hermione, but to tell the whole truth wouldn't be fair to Ginny, and the words that he needs stick in his throat. "I'm just run down, 'Mione. I'm tired," he says, and at least that part is true. As he speaks, a yawn rises obligingly and he covers it with a negligent hand.

Hermione catches it and shakes herself, setting down her coffee cup and turning stern eyes on Harry.

"Don't," she pleads. "I can't sleep until that bloody tomato is finished."

"Why don't you just use magic to make it?" he asks as the thought occurs to him.

Hermione bites her lip and ducks her head, suddenly sheepish. "Don't ask me that."

Harry is intrigued, and, more than that, he's happy to pursue any topic that takes the focus away from himself. "Hermione, why don't you just use magic to make it?"

She picks up her spoon and twiddles it distractedly in her fingers. "Because Hugo sedalthothrmumsrmakinthersproply."

"Excuse me?" Harry prods.

Hermione lifts her head and makes defiant eye contact, cheeks ever-so-slightly flushed. "Because," she says quietly, "Hugo said that all the other mums were making their costumes properly. And I can do that. I can," she insists, trying not to smile as Harry snorts with laughter at the wonderfully well-meaning, slightly illogical, so very Hermione admission.

Being with her is a miniature escape, a well-timed little reminder that even the most level-headed of his friends are capable of the faintly ridiculous. He's not alone.

"You're mad," he says, smile stretching wide.

"Probably," Hermione sighs. "Oh, well. It happens to the best of us. I'm not going to push you to talk to me, you know," she says, turning serious. "As long as you know I'm always here for you."

"I know," he says softly. At a loss for what else to say, he gulps at his rapidly-cooling coffee. It's delicious, smooth and bittersweet—the miserable waitress has chosen well.

For a minute or two, neither of them says a word. The cafe is midweek morning quiet and Harry can hear the two waitresses gossiping about a celebrity break-up as they wipe the counter and stack teacups and arrange exotic-looking bread rolls in a basket.

"They were like... a perfect couple," says the young waitress. "I can't believe it."

"Perfect couple my arse," her older colleague snorts. "There's no such thing, mark my words."

Harry sighs and drains his cup.

"Have you finished your Christmas shopping?" Hermione says suddenly.

"What do you think?" Harry says, lifting an eyebrow.

"If you were organised, you might be dangerous," she sighs. "I was thinking of getting Ron a bigger shed in the garden for his brooms," she says with a weary edge to her voice. "What do you think?"

"Doesn't he keep his brooms in the house these days?"

"The shed is for his overflow brooms," Hermione says faintly. She closes her eyes, rests her chin on her hand and laughs.

"Good grief," Harry murmurs, wondering—only for a split second—where on earth he has picked up that expression. His heart twinges and he forces himself to ignore it. "Yes, I think he'd like that... although I also happen to know that he's been angling for some Chudley-Cannon-orange seat-covers for his car."

Hermione wrinkles her nose. "Noted."

Pensive, Harry reaches for a sugar packet, slowly rips the paper and tips the granules into a tiny pile on the tabletop. "Did you..." Harry hesitates, pushing the sugar crystals around with the tip of his finger. "Did you always imagine that our lives would turn out like this?"

"I don't know," Hermione says carefully after a moment. "I hoped."

Harry looks up to meet hopelessly sincere brown eyes. "So, you're happy."

"Most of the time," Hermione says, and it's so obvious that she means it that Harry aches. "I've got Ron and my children and you... and my job. They're all a little bit frustrating at times, but therein lies the challenge, I suppose. I think I'd probably be bored if everything was perfect."

"That's very true," Harry manages. His mouth is disgustingly dry but his cup is empty.

"What did you imagine?" she asks, concern striking a little line between her eyebrows.

"Everything I have," he says, trying to swallow down the guilt that lashes from his chest into his throat when he thinks about Ginny and her sad, calm resignation. "I imagined that Gin and I would have a family and that I'd become an Auror." He forces a smile. "I was just wondering."

"Are you happy?" Hermione asks.

Harry feels sick. Gathering all the fortitude he possesses in order to maintain the eye contact, he draws in a deep breath and presses his fingertips against the scattered sugar granules, allowing the sharp crystals to prick his skin.

"Yeah, of course. I think I just need to make a few changes," he says after a moment.

Hermione's eyebrows shoot up. "What kind of changes?"

Harry quirks a small smile, still fighting down a persistent wave of nausea. "You'll see."

Glancing at the clock, Hermione sighs, rummages in her coat pocket and drops several coins into her empty saucer. "I have to go back to work, I'm afraid. It's a bit early but... do you think you're having a mid-life crisis?"

"Shut up," Harry says. Both witty and articulate, his subconscious observes.

"Well, that's me told," Hermione laughs, getting to her feet.

Harry seals his mouth shut before he can say anything else idiotic or incriminating and follows her out into the winter sunshine. It's almost midday. He wonders if Helga has sent out a search party yet.

**~*~**

As it turns out, Helga greets Harry with a "Good afternoon, Mr Potter" that is positively dripping with sarcasm and then spends the next few minutes watching him beadily as he fetches himself a glass of water and makes coffee for her with a lingering feeling of guilt. She takes it, swapping the cup for another seven messages and informs Harry pointedly that he has a very important meeting in half an hour.

"Right," Harry says, gulping at the cold water and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Helga shudders. "And is that all I have on this afternoon?"

"Is that all?" she repeats, apparently horrified. "You are being asked to sit in on a strategy meeting between the Minister for Magic and the Muggle Prime Minister and you are asking if that's all? Mr Potter, have you had a blow to the head?"

Helga is all but frothing at the mouth now, but Harry finds himself unmoved. He gazes at her over the top of his glass for a moment and then speaks in what he hopes is an even but still professional tone.

"I'm fine, Helga. I'm a little bit tired, and your concern for my health recently is much appreciated. I certainly didn't mean to be... dismissive about the meeting," he says, while frantically trying to remember the agenda and whether or not he's going to be expected to say anything. "What I meant to ask was how much time has been scheduled for the meeting, because I have some errands to run this afternoon."

Helga's dark eyes glitter and she looks more McGonagall-esque than ever. "Further errands?"

Harry nods, flashing her an expectant smile. Her startled expression only leads him to wonder just how long she has been in charge and how long he has failed to stand up to her. After a moment of blinking and muffled clicking, she pulls the heavy diary toward her and runs her finger down the page marked 'Thursday 21st'.

"Twelve thirty until three thirty," she says. "Provisionally speaking."

Harry groans inwardly. "Fantastic. How does my hair look?"

"Like it always does. Like you've been rolling around in a field," Helga sniffs, clawing back a shred of power.

"Well, then, I'm ready for anything," Harry declares, pushing his performance up to eleven just for the sheer enjoyment of Helga's bemused expression. "I think I'll go down there now, make sure I'm nice and early—what do you think? Have you got anything to eat?"

Helga opens her mouth and closes it again, reaches behind herself without looking away from Harry and, after a moment, retrieves a shiny green apple from a desk drawer.

"Brilliant," he declares, accepting the apple and taking a huge bite. "S'yoolater," he mumbles through his mouthful, and takes his leave of Helga before she can get a word in.

Despite his best intentions, he is alone in the vast conference room for barely as long as it takes him to polish off Helga's apple; he has just drawn his wand to get rid of the core when the door creaks open. Hurriedly, he sends it flying through the air and thwapping neatly into the waste paper basket in the corner and stands up just in time to see Kingsley Shacklebolt stride into the room. Huge and intimidating in robes of blood red, he exudes authority and gravitas but still finds a sly smile for Harry as he sweeps past and takes his seat at the head of the table.

Harry smiles back and holds out his hand to greet the Muggle Prime Minister. She is followed by Franz Fitzwilliam, who appears to be barely suppressing his boredom, and a nervous-looking young man carrying a quill and a stack of folders.

"You must be the Head of the Auror Department," says the dark-haired woman, clasping his hand in a firm grip. She doesn't smile, but her green eyes are warm.

No, I'm just Harry Potter, he insists silently. I'm just confused. I'm just a man who doesn't love his wife any more. The address just doesn't seem to fit. He's never felt more disconnected from his job.

"Yes, I'm Harry Potter," he says at last, hoping his hesitation has gone unnoticed. "A pleasure to meet you, Ms Harman."

She nods, releasing his hand, and Harry smiles at her, secretly rather impressed with himself that—all things considered—he has managed to remember her name.

It's a good start.

Unfortunately, by the time the water has been poured and the usual niceties observed, Harry finds his attention drifting. He is seated next to the Under-Secretary, who is so conscientious in his efforts to record every word spoken that he doesn't spare Harry a single glance, and, given that simply being present seems to be the extent of Harry's role in this meeting, there is very little to hold his interest. As the words of his colleagues fade to a low, meaningless hum, Harry observes the open posture and slightly anxious mannerisms of the Prime Minister and the dark expression of his boss as Kingsley speaks, and wonders if he's ever found the content of these sessions diverting. He can't remember.

Surely he must have enjoyed all of this at one time. He wants to believe that's true, but the uncomfortable wriggle in his gut forces him to admit that he hasn't really felt like an Auror since he came out of the field. And he knows, despite his frequent protests to the contrary, that he's not fit for that any more; age and fatherhood have softened him beyond repair.

He exhales slowly, lacing his hands together on the glossy mahogany table and gazing down at his blurry, distorted reflection.

"If we could turn to page thirteen, paragraph four, I'd like to draw your attention to the statement regarding the conduct of magical persons in non-magical situations which have been exempted from the most recent amendment of the Statute of Secrecy," Kingsley says.

His deep, rumbling voice shatters Harry's malaise and he flips to the relevant page before his inattention is detected. All of a sudden he misses his bright, sawdust-scented workshop so violently that he has to close his eyes. When he opens them again, the glaring white page with its tiny, cramped black letters is still there, Kingsley is still talking, and Harry has to focus.

**~*~**

It's after four by the time chairs are scraped back and goodbye handshakes are exchanged, and as soon as Harry is out of sight of the others, he bolts for the Atrium, practically leaps into the nearest fireplace and emerges into the dark, smoky interior of the Leaky Cauldron. It's not his usual style; in fact, he can't remember the last time he went shopping in Diagon Alley, but Hermione's words have stuck with him, and, actually, he doesn't want Gin to have to choose all the Christmas gifts on her own.

He nods to Tom the barman and makes his way out into the street. None of this is making much sense, but he doesn't know what he can do other than allowing it to take him where it will. The air is biting cold and night has fallen already, plunging the world into darkness as thick as a winter cloak. When he steps through the brick archway into the street, he catches his breath.

Diagon Alley is alive with chatter, laughter, ringing footsteps on cobbles; stallholders are trying to make themselves heard above the merry, piping music that fills the street. The scene is glittering with strings of multicoloured lights, gently-swinging lanterns and the real fairies that flutter and glow around the branches of Christmas trees for sale. As Harry walks slowly into the river of shoppers, the festival atmosphere wraps around him and lifts the weight of his afternoon away.

Draco would like this, he thinks, breathing in the warm scent of spices and cider, not even flinching as a group of teenage girls brush past him, looking back and giggling amongst themselves. Instead, he plunges his hands into his robe pockets in search of gold to fritter away, but turns up nothing more than two Sickles, a handful of Knuts, and a purple, flower-shaped button that can only belong to Lily.

Pasting on his 'let me through, I'm on serious Auror business' face, Harry fights his way through the crowds and reaches the top of the Gringotts staircase, breathing hard and slightly warm despite the nip in the air. As he clicks across the marble floor, secures himself a goblin and rattles along the underground track to his vault, his mind is so occupied with hoping that he doesn't run into Ginny and get quizzed about why he's not at work that he's completely thrown when he steps back into the lobby, pockets heavy with gold, and the first thing he sees is a retreating blond figure, black robes whipping behind him as he stalks, in a terribly familiar fashion, out of sight around a corner.

Harry's heart stutters painfully, and just for a second he thinks it might stop.

"Is there anything else you need, Mr Potter?" enquires his goblin guide.

"No, thanks," Harry says faintly. He stuffs his hands into his laden pockets and walks as quickly as he can back out into the night. The real Draco Malfoy suddenly seems like a rather intimidating prospect.

Shaking his head, Harry hurries down the steps and drifts back into the seething crowd. He allows it to carry him, extricating himself whenever he sees something of interest. Although the usual shops are still open, many of them festooned with lights themselves, the stalls draw him in, catching his eyes with trays of shiny things, tables full of bizarre foods he has never seen before, and stallholders in festive, brightly-coloured robes and hats, all vying for his attention and shouting over one another in their efforts to make a sale.

Harry ends up sampling two different types of mulled cider, four unusual cheeses and something crunchy that he can't quite identify (and doesn't, in truth, really want to) just to be polite. He buys a large slice of Drunken Goat cheese in honour of Lucius bloody Malfoy, and spends the next half hour humming Celestina Warbeck songs under his breath. He buys sparkly things for Lily, disgusting things for Al—including, but not limited to, a small eyeball that the vendor assures him will roll around the floor, spinning around and inspecting things, if left to its own devices—and an elf-made leather jacket for James that smells wonderful enough to tempt Harry to keep it, until he reminds himself that he has resolved not to dress like an idiot any more.

As the wind picks up, sending the lanterns swinging and the stallholders scrambling for their protective charms, Harry pulls out of the crowd and almost falls over a toothless old woman with a rack of long woollen scarves and bobble hats. Impulsively, he hands over five Sickles for a green and blue scarf and winds it around his neck.

"Warm, that, innit, love?" mumbles the old woman, treating him to a gummy grin.

Harry agrees that the scarf is indeed very warm and drifts on, picking up animated catnip mice for Frank, a case of limited edition whiskies for Ron (Borteg's 'curious flavours' range) and a handmade necklace of dull silver and colourful beads that he knows will look beautiful on Ginny, because her other self wears one almost exactly like it.

For Hermione, of course, it has to be a book, so Harry reluctantly abandons the midwinter carnival of the market and heads into Flourish and Blotts. He finds the perfect book for her in no time, and allows himself to be drawn toward the arts and crafts section, excitement bubbling inside him as he runs his finger along the spines of familiar titles: Working With Weird Woods, Your Muse and You: an Artist's View, Craftsmen: artistic or afflicted?, The Glassblower's Guide... Harry chews on his lip for a moment and then sweeps all four into his arms and stomps off to pay for them before he can stop himself.

He emerges, weighed down with paper bags, and is just contemplating another hot cinnamon swirl when he sees her. She is buying a sandwich from a man with a delicious-smelling but slightly grotesque pig on a spit some fifty feet away from Harry, and he calls out to her.

"Jenny!"

She turns, looking around for who is calling her name, face puzzled. It's dark and Harry is obscured by a constant stream of people; no wonder she can't see him. Gathering his bags more securely, he dashes across the cobbles and pitches up next to her. The expected flicker of recognition does not come, and Harry's insides turn cold. She doesn't know him. Of course she fucking doesn't.

"Er... yes, Auror?" she says uncertainly, glancing at his robes and putting a protective arm around the child at her side. Harry hadn't even noticed her. "It's alright, Allie, we aren't in trouble. Are we?"

"No! Of course not," he says hurriedly, glancing down at the little girl and assuming his most trustworthy expression. She blinks and moves closer to her mother. "I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else."

"Someone else named Jenny?" she asks in a soft voice, as though she doesn't believe Harry and is a little worried about him all at once.

"Yeah." He swallows hard, fighting to breathe against the numb horror that is spreading inside his ribcage. "Bit of a coincidence, I suppose. Sorry to bother you," he manages, nodding politely to her and walking as quickly in the opposite direction as he can.

Ridiculous. That's what he is. He has managed to retreat so far into a pleasant little bubble of unreality that he has almost managed to forget that the glimpse wasn't real. Jenny doesn't know him at all. She's never met him. She's not Fred Weasley's fiancée. Because Fred Weasley is dead.

Harry just keeps walking and is mildly surprised when he finds himself back outside the wall entrance to the Leaky. He turns and looks back at the twinkling lights for a moment, and then spells his way back into the pub, walks into the fireplace and straight back out into the Ministry Atrium, legs unsteady and hair full of ash. He fucking hates Flooing.

The corridors are quiet, Harry suspects because anyone with any sense has buggered off home already. Helga, of course, never leaves the office for the day until she's certain Harry no longer needs her, and as he shifts his shopping bags awkwardly and pushes open the door, a little spike of guilt makes itself known in the pit of his stomach.

She doesn't look up when he stomps and rustles into the room, or even when he drops a bag of jingling decorations and has to spend a minute or two chasing them around the floor. He stuffs the last one back into the bag and heads for his office, pausing at the edge of her desk.

"You can go home if you want, Helga."

"I have letters to write, Mr Potter," she says, continuing to scratch away with her quill.
"Right," Harry says softly, watching her for a moment and trying to imagine how it must feel to have one's usually compliant, downtrodden boss suddenly begin answering back and otherwise behaving like a madman. Impulsively, he reaches into one of his bags, withdraws a red and green striped candy cane and places it on the edge of her desk, next to her teacup, then disappears into his office before she can loudly mock his peace offering.

He sinks into his creaky chair, bags all around him, and carefully withdraws the illicit books. They're hardback and beautiful and full of vivid coloured photographs and intriguing diagrams, so different from his dry, black and white MLE-issued texts that he can't quite stop himself opening them all out on his desk at once, flicking through the pages and, for the very first time, understanding Hermione's enthusiastic assertion that "a new book is the best smell in the world".

Feeling oddly furtive, as though looking at glassblowing books in a Ministry office is in some way depraved, Harry flips through his new purchases. He loses himself in the glossy photographs and examines pictures of myriad tools he has owned and used, learning the proper names of many of them for the first time. He sighs, fingers splayed over a double-page spread of a silver-haired man carving an intricate relief into the legs of a large, ornate mahogany chair; as he watches, the man in the photograph narrows his eyes in concentration and examines his work, blowing the dust away and running calloused fingers over the smooth curves of the wood.

He wants to be that person again. The trouble is... he never really was that person. He was just filling in for a little while. He's a bureaucrat, not a craftsman. He can't even make a little table.

Suddenly irritable, Harry drops his face into his hands and exhales in a messy rush. It's all just a bit fucking much. He's had enough.

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," he mumbles to himself. "Go home and see your children."

Black as his mood is, the pull of home is strong and, after taking a few seconds to regulate his breathing, Harry gathers up the books, hides them in his desk drawer beside the photograph of Maura, and collects his bags in preparation to leave the office for the night. For Christmas, in fact. Barring some major disaster, Harry doesn't have to return for almost a week. He's unsure how he feels about that, but he's not about to volunteer to work the holidays.

He locks his door behind him and turns to Helga, who is sitting behind her desk with her coat on, sucking primly on the candy cane. Harry smiles; he can't help it.

"Well, Merry Christmas, Helga."

"Merry Christmas, Mr Potter," she says. Her tongue flicks out to swipe minty sugar from her bottom lip and she drops her eyes for a moment as though considering something. When she lifts her black eyes to Harry again, her face is set. "I don't suppose I can persuade to attend Midnight Mass this year?"

Harry smiles with indulgence borne of many, many similar requests over the years. "You never know, Helga. This year might be the year."

She sighs. "I have definitely heard that one before." She stands up and puts on a black hat with knitted flowers on the brim. "I will, however, put in a good word for you."

"I appreciate that," Harry says, and he means it. Lifted, he holds open the door for Helga and they travel down in the lift in an almost companionable silence. He decides to Apparate home, holding tightly onto his shopping bags as he makes the jump to a quiet part of Willoughby Drive. As he approaches the house, he can see Ginny moving around in the brightly-lit bedroom and Lily in the window seat, apparently attempting to teach Frank to play cards. He draws in a deep breath, tasting the sharp frosty air, and goes to join them.

**~*~**

Determined to wring every last drop out of the next few days, Harry does his utmost to push his sadness, his anxiety over the future, and his fear of the unknown quantity that is this universe's Draco to the back of his mind.

He plays with Lily and Frank in the frozen back garden, helps (watches) Al and Rose make biscuits containing every ingredient they can lay their hands on, whilst answering their questions about dragons, Basilisks and other dangerous creatures as honestly as he can. He suspects that Al has inherited his leap-before-you-look brand of curiosity, and realises now that perhaps it's best to take a leaf out of Dumbledore's book and arm him with as much information as he can. When he's not required, he leans back precariously in his chair and revels in their energy and chatter about Hogwarts. He finds himself watching Rose as she flicks dough at Al with bright eyes and obvious confidence, and the little tear in his heart inflicted by her lonely counterpart heals almost all the way.

Predictably, James makes himself scarce, eschewing his parents' and siblings' company in favour of visiting friends, holing up in his bedroom, and stalking around the village, looking moody. Quietly amused, Harry opts to leave him to it, and barely resists the urge to perform a victory dance when James accepts Friday night babysitting duty with relatively good grace, allowing Harry and Ginny to spend the evening at Ron and Hermione's dinner table, putting away herby chicken casserole, fresh bread, and good red wine.

It's surprisingly easy to pretend that everything is normal, partly because it sort of feels like it is. This Ron may lack a little of the confidence of his more successful other self, but he's warm and full of humour and it's fantastic to have him back. Ginny, clearly drawing comfort from her brother and best friend, looks more relaxed in the flickering candlelight than Harry has seen her in years. Even Hermione, who keep shooting him concerned glances when no one else is looking, seems to be enjoying herself. The affection that he feels for all of them swells inside him and chases away his uncertainty, at least for the time being, and that's good enough for him. These people may have slipped back to once-a-week friends in the glimpse, but he's not going to let that happen here.

Saturday morning is bright, crisp and dry. Harry dresses in his scruffiest jeans, wraps his new scarf around his neck and heads out to a rarely-used meadow behind the Burrow, broomsticks under his arm, Al at his side. Lily and Ginny, some way behind them, are conducting a whispered conversation, and Frank leaps and scuttles along the path on the end of a long, silvery lead, keeping pace with James, who is stomping through the long grasses with his hands jammed in his pockets.

"Why've you got all this time to spend with us, anyway? Have you been fired?"

"James!" Al gasps, scandalised. And then: "Have you?"

"No, I have not," Harry says firmly. "I'm just taking a bit of extra time off while you lot are on holiday from school. Is that alright?"

Al nods, tossing their makeshift Quaffle into the air and catching it. "I think it's good. Rose says you can go insane if you work too hard."

Harry glances at James, who is now stepping awkwardly so as not to trip over Frank.

"Yeah, it's okay, I suppose."

Harry smiles to himself. It's always nice to feel wanted. He scrambles over the fence into the meadow and sets about putting up an elaborate series of charms to keep their activities hidden. He doesn't think the Muggle residents of Ottery St Catchpole are quite ready for the spectacle of children on flying broomsticks.

Ginny and Lily elect to stay on the ground, arranging themselves under a tree with a flask of hot chocolate, but James and Al mount their brooms and kick off into the air with no hesitation. After a moment or two, Harry follows them.

It's been far too long since he last flew. The wind slices through his hair as he takes off; his heart races as he swoops into the air, a split-second of anxiety before instinct takes over and he's spiralling into the clear sky, angling the handle of his broom upwards, circling higher and higher. Within seconds the cold air numbs his face and he can barely feel the daft, exhilarated grin that stretches his mouth wide. The scent of frozen earth wild in his nostrils, he pushes himself higher and faster, allowing the rushing wind to cleanse him, to lift him, and to fill him with the fragile new belief that all things are possible.

Levelling out, he hovers and gazes down at the tiny figures on the ground below, just about able to pick out the vivid splashes of red hair and the glitter of Frank's harness in the sun as he chases wind-whipped leaf skeletons across the frosty grass and attacks them with his hind legs, making sure they are good and dead.

"Heads up, Dad!" bellows Al, and Harry turns just in time to see the ball hurtling toward him.

He catches it against his chest, tries to hide the fact that the force of Al's throw has knocked the breath out of him, and looks around for James.

"Call yourself a Quidditch champion?" James yells, reclining casually on his broom some fifty feet below Harry.

Harry sighs. This means war.

When the three of them return to the ground twenty minutes later, frozen, flushed, and breathing hard, Harry can barely feel his feet, fingers or backside, and he has to admit that while he has hung onto more of his flying skills than he expected, he is no match for the raw energy and enthusiasm of youth.

Actually, he thinks he's okay with that. Al seems delighted to have played a game with his usually workaholic dad, and even James is grinning and teasing him and generally forgetting to be disdainful. Harry accepts a deliciously hot mug of chocolate from Ginny, allowing a curious Frank to climb onto his lap and sniff his jumper and scarf all over as he gulps at the warming liquid.

He realises with a pang of sadness that this—a Saturday morning in a frozen meadow—is the best, most natural time he has spent with his family in years. In a few days' time it will all be over. Catching Ginny's eyes over the top of his cup, he wonders if it's the end of their marriage that has made this possible. If it's only the end of something that no longer works that has made them relaxed enough to enjoy the time they have left. To appreciate their children and hang on to the friendship that is still there, even after everything.

"You were really good, Dad," Lily says.

Harry snaps back to attention. "Er, thanks," he manages. "I hope I was better than that when I played at school, though."

"Were you better than Mum?" James asks, clearly trying to set a cat amongst the pixies.

"I've got more sense than to answer that," Harry says.

Ginny snorts.

"Mum?" Lily presses.

Ginny hesitates, rolling her empty cup between her palms. "I'm going to be diplomatic and say that we were both useful players, but... I think your dad was probably the star."

"I don't know about that," Harry says. "You were versatile. I only ever played one position."

"There's only one way to find out," James says, reaching for two brooms and looking between Harry and Ginny, an unholy smirk on his face, stray hairs escaping his quiff and waving around in the breeze.

Harry flicks an enquiring glance in Ginny's direction, intrigued by the challenge.

"Come on, Mum!" Al implores. "Please?"

For long seconds, Ginny says nothing. Then she sets down her cup, gets to her feet and holds out a hand to James for a broom. Al and Lily cheer.

"Right then, Potter," she mutters, turning away from him to mount her broom.

Harry inhales sharply, watching her long hair whipping in the wind and wondering if she had deliberately sought to remind him of Draco. When she looks over her shoulder and flashes him an odd little smile, he's almost certain she had.

"I'm so out of practice," she sighs.

Harry clears his mind of flapping green robes and blond hair as he jumps onto his broom.

"You're not old yet, remember?" he calls, taking off into the air with the ball under his arm.

Seconds later, Ginny streaks past Harry, lifting a hand to wave mockingly at him. From the ground comes the laughter of his children, and it spurs Harry on. Flattening himself to his broom, he shoots off after his soon-to-be ex-wife and secures his grip on the makeshift Quaffle; all of a sudden, none of it feels weird at all—he just wants to take her down.

"Go on, Dad!" Lily cries as Harry swings around to Ginny's right and pelts the ball at her with as much force as he can muster. She wobbles slightly as it smacks her in the side, but quickly recovers, plunging into an impressive dive to catch the ball and effectively destroying the last vestiges of Harry's guilt, along with his sense of fair play.

He swoops underneath her and she laughs, taking off at speed in the opposite direction. By the time he manages to grab the Quaffle back from her, he's slightly dizzy and his glasses have begun to steam up. Not only that, but he's now certain—had he ever wondered—that he would never have made a Chaser. The sound of his children's shouts and cries of encouragement from below (Lily seems to be cheering for him, Al for his mum, and James appears to be loudly critiquing everything he sees) spurs Harry on to engage Ginny in contests of speed, diving and feinting which buoy his confidence enough for him to snatch the ball from her and make off with it into the nearby wood.

The argument over who actually won the flying competition rages on between James, Lily, and Al as the five of them walk home. Harry walks a little way behind them, relishing the sun on his face, with Frank pulling on his harness at one side of him, and Ginny at the other.

"Do you think they're wondering why we aren't getting at each other?" she asks softly.

Harry chews his lip and watches Al and Lily giggling and trying to trip one another up. "Maybe. But they seem happy, don't they?"

Ginny nods but doesn't reply. She tucks her hands into her pockets and kicks up stones.

"We've been sleepwalking, haven't we?" she says eventually.

A sidelong glance reveals the brightness of her eyes. Harry swallows painfully. "Yeah. I really am sorry, Gin."

"I told you to stop apologising to me," she says, voice catching. "I'm not a victim. We're both adults and we both chose to ignore what has happening."

"Doom!" cries Al, throwing a theatrical hand to his forehead and staggering around on the path. When Harry looks at Ginny again, her eyes are still misty, but she's smiling.

"Yeah, well, I've come to realise that ignoring things isn't the best policy," he admits. "It's only taken me thirty-seven years."

"Here's another lesson for you," Ginny offers. "Regretting the past gets you nowhere in the future. That one's for free."

"You're a wise woman," Harry says.

"Not really. I got it out of that self-help book Hermione bought me last Christmas," Ginny admits. "I'll probably get another one this year. Maybe it'll be useful."

Harry laughs. It doesn't hurt as much as he expects it to. He hugs her.

**~*~**

By the time Sunday evening comes around, Harry has managed to almost completely immerse himself in the ritual of a family Christmas. He and Ginny spend the latter part of the afternoon barricaded in their bedroom, wrapping presents and trying not to succumb to the tangle of paper, ribbons, and Spellotape which has taken over the floor. The door is firmly closed and charmed to keep away curious eyes, but the muffled sound of James' incomprehensible music still manages to filter under the door, and Harry catches Ginny bobbing her head along with the beat more than once as she encloses gifts in shiny paper.

The sky outside is dark when Harry drops his last present onto the pile, peels a stray bit of tape from the back of his hand and stretches.

"We're going to be late," Ginny says, mending a small rip in some wrapping paper with her wand.

"You say that every year," Harry points out, yawning.

"And every year, we are late."

Harry scoops up a ball of crumpled paper and lobs it in the direction of his tomato clock. He does rather miss its smoke-belching copper counterpart, but there's something oddly charming about the eye that swivels to peer at him as it announces: "Five twenty."

"We've got ages," he insists, leaning against the foot of the bed and scrubbing at his hair.

"Five twenty," says the tomato.

"We've got ten minutes," Ginny sighs, surveying the chaos that surrounds them. "We're going to have to Floo."

Knowing that she's right and there is no point arguing, Harry nods wearily and picks his way across the carpet to the wardrobe to look for something suitable to wear for Molly's traditional Christmas Eve dinner.

Draco wouldn't make me Floo, he thinks mutinously, pulling a somewhat scratchy red jumper over his head. He ruffles his hair and inspects his reflection in the mirror, suppressing a grin as he realises how wrong he is. Of course Draco would. Especially if they were late. And, no doubt, he'd make a complete drama out of it, too.

"Your jumper's on backwards," Ginny says as she passes him on her way to the wardrobe.

"Five twenty," says the tomato.

**~*~**

They are five minutes late to the Burrow, and Ginny is a little smug.

Fortunately for Harry, who knows he would be taking the blame, Molly is stuck in the kitchen, caught up in what Arthur informs them is a 'gravy catastrophe', and therefore distracted. When she finally emerges, flustered and wearing a magenta apron that clashes violently with her hair (these days dyed an even more vibrant red than ever), she descends upon the family with open arms.

"Wonderful to see you, Harry," she murmurs, squeezing him tightly. "How are you?"

"Fine... good, thanks," he manages, flooded with guilt. He forces a smile as he looks down at her warm, open face, knowing she will be hurt terribly when everything comes to light.

"It's no good, you know, having my children all scattered about like this..." someone whispers in the back of his memory. The other Molly. "Why don't you and Draco get away from the city and have a look at one of these cottages?"

"You look tired, Harry. Are you getting enough sleep?"

He knows it will do no good to hope just yet.

"Probably not. I'm hoping to catch it up over the holidays, though," he assures her.

"Leave Harry alone, Mum," Ginny says. "What's for dinner?"

"I'm starving," Al puts in.

Harry follows Arthur into the living room, where nearly every Weasley relative and in-law has gathered. All the available seats are occupied, some by more than one person at once, and the room is thick with red-haired men, women, and children, milling around under the gaudy lights and brilliantly mismatched decorations.

"Have I showed you my CD player, Harry?" Arthur asks, pale eyes glowing.

Amused by his enthusiasm, Harry gravely examines the new addition to Arthur's collection, accepts a drink and a slap on the shoulder from Bill and waves across the room at Ron, who is receiving some sort of spirited lecture from Charlie's partner, Serghei. As Harry perches on the arm of a sofa, a small, fluffy dog emerges from the fray and jumps onto his lap. He strokes its head absently, picking up the strains of a familiar song, just audible above the rumble of voices.

"You're the curse-breaker, you broke me apart; you had me wanting, right from the start..."

Eyes widening in horror, Harry looks around the room for Bill; finally, he spots him, leaning against the windowsill and laughing with Hermione, apparently oblivious. Which is a relief of sorts. Still, it's rather disturbing to realise that Celestina Warbeck really is everywhere.

Dinner is a loud, unruly, delicious experience, and is everything Harry has come to expect. Molly presides over the meal with her usual bustling delight and instructions for everyone to eat more. Harry, suddenly finding himself ravenous, helps himself to some of everything, adding fragrant pools of the rescued gravy to his plate at regular intervals. He knows that there is a good possibility that this is his last Christmas Eve Weasley Dinner, and he wants to soak up every last drop of it. Looking around at the faces of his adopted family, he just hopes that, in time, they will forgive him.

That's what families do, after all.

His eyes linger on George. He is not sitting alone—Rose is on one side of him, and Fleur on the other—but the absence of Fred is almost as striking as it had been during those first few dark months. Catching him looking, George shoots Harry a curious glance across the table. Harry pushes away the memory of his encounter with Jenny and finds a smile and a shrug for George, who grins and stuffs a whole baby carrot into his mouth in one go.

As always, it takes a good half an hour to actually leave, and by the time they make it out onto the path, Lily is so weary that Harry lets her ride piggyback, arms looped around his neck. She's a comforting warm weight against his back as they crunch along in the dark.

"Did you see how long Serghei's hair is now?" Ginny says, crossing her arms for warmth. "I thought Mum was going to attack him with a pair of scissors."

Harry yawns. "I think she's learned her lesson about hair interventions by now," he says.

"I think his hair's cool," Al offers.

"Unfortunately, Al, I think you've inherited my mop, so it'll probably always look exactly like it does now," Harry says.

"Bah," Al declares, and takes off down the path toward the house.

Once inside, the kettle goes on, and the most important part of the festive ritual gets underway. Harry watches, initially, from the periphery, marvelling at how smoothly everyone takes up their roles, and that the whole thing is conducted in near-silence. Ginny and Al disappear into the kitchen and return with a cup of tea—to which James solemnly adds two sugar cubes—and a handful of parsnips, which are laid carefully on a tin tray near the fire. Harry is so caught up in observing that he almost forgets his part—applying the Warming Charm to the teacup—and has to be prodded into it by Lily, who then scuttles over to the tree and fetches the stockings for hanging on the fireplace.

All three are extremely threadbare, having been made by each of the children in Mrs Cardle's reception class at the village school. James', the oldest and tattiest of all, has a hole in the toe, and the much-loved teacher's glittery letters now spell out 'JAM' thanks to ten Christmases-worth of filling to bursting point with Fizzing Whizzbees and chocolate Galleons and the tiny model broomsticks that he still (secretly) collects.

Al's is a little grubby; there are chocolate stains on most of the felt stars, but Mrs Cardle's carefully applied letters remain, and both of his unusual forenames take up most of the front of the stocking. Harry vividly recalls a young Al pointing out that Miss could have saved a lot of glitter if she'd just gone with the two-letter version of his name.

Lily's is, somehow, almost as pristine as the day she brought it home, though it now features the words 'and Frank' in silver ink and Ginny's neat handwriting. Just in case Lily's furry shadow might somehow be forgotten on Christmas Eve.

With everything in its place, everyone settles on the largest sofa in a comfortable, drowsy silence; even Al is too tired to make a noise. By half past eleven, all three children are drifting, despite their best efforts, and Ginny's eyelids are beginning to droop.

"Time for bed," Harry mumbles, poking James with his foot and receiving a glare in return.

Yawning, Ginny stumbles to her feet and chivvies Lily, Al, and James up the stairs. She peers into the darkness after them, making sure they are out of earshot, and then turns to Harry. "I'm going up, too. It's your turn to do the stockings."

Light with weariness, Harry waits in his comfortable sprawl until she has turned away, and then sticks his tongue out at her retreating back. With some effort, he unpeels himself from the sofa and retrieves the box of stocking gifts from their hiding place at the back of the hallway cupboard, tucked up in the folds of his invisibility cloak. Once he has distributed the little presents (making sure that Lily and Frank get the silver-wrapped things, Al the green and James the red) he filches a candy cane from the tree and gnaws on it thoughtfully, thinking of Helga and smiling to himself.

Tired though he is, Harry doesn't feel quite ready to get into bed with Ginny and attempt sleep. Contemplative, he wanders around the room and crunches the peppermint candy until it splinters in his mouth and sticks his teeth together. When, at last, he comes to a decision, he doesn't allow himself time to question it—he suspects it's a little too late in life for him to try dialling down his spontaneity, and he likes to think that sometimes it serves him rather well.

He scribbles a note for Ginny—just in case—throws on his coat and scarf, and leaves the house. It hasn't escaped his notice that he seems to be making a habit of wandering off at odd hours, and he can't be sure what that means. All he knows is that the glittering, frostbitten night is calling out to him, and he has neither the energy nor the inclination to resist. He also knows that what he's doing doesn't make an awful lot of sense, but right now, that doesn't seem to matter.

Take the unknown road now. He can do that.

Taking a deep breath, he concentrates on his destination—or at least, what he hopes is his destination; he's relying on second hand memory, after all—he closes his eyes and Disapparates. When he opens his eyes, he can see the large stone building, lit up in the darkness, just a couple of hundred yards down Cadogan Street, which isn't at all bad, he thinks. He is just rearranging his scarf and missing terribly the blue-flecked wool coat that kept him far warmer than the ancient, slightly moth-eaten thing he's currently wearing when his attention is caught by a flicker of movement along a nearby street, and he turns.

What he sees sends a jolt of warmth through him so unexpected that his fingers slip on his coat buttons. Two figures in bobble hats are making careful progress down the icy street, both carrying familiar-looking canvas bags. After a moment or two, both stop at an occupied doorway; one drops into a crouch and rummages for hot soup and a paper-wrapped package while the other strikes up a conversation, nodding seriously every now and then, handing over a leaflet from a coat pocket.

He watches them for a moment, fighting the ridiculous urge to dash up the street, separate one of the do-gooders from their bag and hand out the packages himself. He's ashamed of that fact that he has never even thought of helping the less fortunate at Christmas when his other self has been out there doing it for years. Alright, so he donates to various charities (any good cause that asks, according to Ginny) but it's only money. It's not as though he really needs it.

He sighs. Closes his eyes briefly.

"What are you angsting about?" Draco demands, hoisting his canvas bag over his shoulder and turning sharp grey eyes on Harry.

"I'm not angsting," Harry lies. "I'm thinking."

Draco snorts. "I can tell the difference, you know. I've known you for long enough."

"You keep telling yourself that," Harry mutters, crunching along past empty shop doorways and following Draco to their next assigned street. In truth, he probably has been angsting; he keeps thinking about how much Lily would enjoy this. He's not sure about the others, but his youngest child has Little Miss Philanthropist written all the way through her like seaside rock. When she's not taking part in sponsored silences and swims and stand-on-one-leg-athons, she's organising her own charity drives and pressing her classmates into action, raising money for anything fluffy, sick, injured or disadvantaged.

"Harry Potter, if you don't stop looking so sorry for yourself, I'm going to leave you at home next year," Draco declares, face utterly deadpan.

Harry's eyebrows shoot up. "Are you serious?" he demands.

Draco laughs until the cold air is filled with the sound. "No, you idiot," he says, slinging his arm around Harry's waist. "That's what you said to me the very first time we did this, remember? Such cruelty."

"'Scuse me, mate?"

Harry blinks. The two people with canvas bags—both men, he realises, now he can actually see them—are standing in front of him. Both have young, friendly, cold-pinked faces and are looking at him expectantly.

"Sorry, yes?" he forces out, trying to look ordinary and not at all like a man who has stopped in the middle of a London street to daydream.

"Got the time, please? My watch's stopped," explains the shorter of the two men with an apologetic smile.

Harry checks his watch. "It's ten to midnight." Anxious, he glances over his shoulder at the church. He thinks he can already hear the carols. "Sorry, lads, I'm going to be late," he calls, taking off across the road and heading for St Mary's.

Having no idea of the etiquette of church services, Harry tiptoes inside, smiles at anyone who makes eye contact with him, takes an order of service sheet from a beaming old lady and hopes for the best. All the pews are stuffed full, but he's quite relieved to find a place to stand at the back, well out of the way. The air is colder here than it is outside, and Harry is glad of his coat and scarf as he and the rest of the congregation let out their breath in white clouds. Still, the air smells wonderful: a mixture of the rich, damp aroma that comes only with old stone buildings and reminds him of Hogwarts, and the soft burn of the candles that flicker from the altar and fill the vast space with gently-moving shadows.

After a quick scan of the pews, he easily picks out Helga; he'd recognise that rigid posture anywhere. She's sitting three rows from the front, wrapped in coat, scarf and gloves, gripping her service sheet tightly but gazing straight ahead as she sings along with the carols, apparently word perfect.

Harry smiles and busies himself with his own paper leaflet. He attempts to join in with the singing, having no excuse not to participate with the words right in front of him. When the priests and altar boys and girls file in and the service begins for real, though, he falls silent and soaks up the atmosphere, breathing in the heavy scent of the incense and listening to the soft chanting in Latin, the calls from the altar and the murmured responses of the congregation.

He knows that Helga invites him here for the good of his soul, and he's never been much convinced about the existence of an all-powerful god, but here in this place tonight, there is hope in the air, and he can only trust that a little piece of it will stick with him when he leaves. He finds the ritual of the service so soothing that he leans against a stone pillar and just breathes it all in; when the elderly man next to him suddenly sticks out his hand and booms, "Peace be with you!" Harry startles, hesitates for a moment, and then returns the greeting and the handshake, bewildered.

"Peace be with you, sir," someone offers from behind him; he turns and shakes hands with a smiling teenage girl. Seconds later, he is prodded lightly in the back and twists around to realise that everyone standing behind him also wants to shake hands. Harry takes a deep breath and jumps in.

By the time all the handshaking has been completed, the service is almost over. Harry watches the Communion with interest, leaning back against his pillar and wondering just what Draco would make of this. And how hard Ginny would laugh if she knew where he was.

"So, is finding Jesus part of your mid-life crisis?" says the Hermione in his head.

"I'm not finding anyone," he mumbles to himself. "I just wanted to see what it was like." The old man on Harry's right looks at him askance. He closes his mouth.

As the pews begin to empty, Harry makes his way carefully through the crowds and hangs around in the vestibule, waiting for Helga. She spots him immediately. Astonished, she fights her way over to his side and then stands there looking up at him with her mouth slightly open.

"Cat got your tongue?" he says gently.

"Mr Potter! What on earth are you doing here?" she splutters.

Harry laughs. "Well, you've only been haranguing me to come for the last ten years. I thought it was a beautiful service, actually."

"You were in there?" she cries, glancing back into the church. "The whole time?"

Harry scrubs at his hair, a little sheepish. "Well, I was a few minutes late, but you wouldn't expect anything less from me, I suppose."

Helga's mouth curves into a small smile and her black eyes sparkle. "I'd love to know what's got into you, Mr Potter. Whatever it is, I dare say it's doing you some good," she pronounces.

Harry flushes and chews his lip. "I don't know what you're talking about," he says evenly.

"I highly doubt that," Helga says, arching a disdainful eyebrow. She holds out a gloved hand and the smile is back. "Peace be with you, Mr Potter."

As Harry clasps her hand and returns the greeting, he's suddenly very aware of all the years he has spent thinking she doesn't like him. For once, he's quite happy to be wrong.

**~*~**

Ginny is either sleeping or pretending to be when Harry slips back into the bedroom, eyes heavy and shivering all over. He crawls into bed, squashes the lumps out of his pillow and drifts quickly into sleep.

There's a light at the top of the stairs.

"Listen."

"Make me."

Scowls. Narrowed grey eyes. Bitter laughter. All ineffectual.

"I don't believe in much of anything, Potter."

"What about truth?"

Words lost in the darkness. A moment of clarity, shared, finally
.

"Time to wake up, you lazy bugger." Draco's voice. Harry forces his eyes open.

"Hm?"

"We're going to be late for my parents if you sleep any later, and we all know that cannot end well."

"Oh... fucking hell," Harry mumbles blearily. "Is it Christmas day?"

Draco smirks. "It's a shame for you. Isn't it, Frankfurto? Isn't it?" He stares down at the snake with the most earnest expression Harry has ever seen on his face, but Frank merely flicks out his tongue and slithers up to rest his head on Harry's drawn-up knees.

"This one makes no sense," he advises Harry. "Never has done."

Draco scowls. Pokes Frank, who ignores him.

"It's not his fault. He has other talents... probably."

"What are you saying about me to that snake?" Draco demands, arms folded.

Harry smiles and pets Frank's shiny head. "Nothing that isn't true."

"Often wonder what it is for," the snake muses, little black eyes glinting.

"That's not very nice, Frank," Harry says. The words feel spongy and muffled in his mouth.

Someone laughs, and it's not Draco. Disoriented, Harry opens one eye.

"Gin?"

"Obviously," she says, perching on the edge of the bed and peering down at him in the muted light of the sunrise. "Does the cat talk in your dreams?"

"Er, yeah. Sometimes," he mutters, rubbing his eyes and attempting to ground himself. He's here, at home. At Willoughby Drive with Ginny and the children. Of course he is.

"Merry Christmas," Ginny says softly, mouth twisting into a tight little smile. She fiddles with the belt of her robe and stares down at the bed clothes. "This is going to be strange."

Harry scrambles across the bed until he is sitting beside her and laces his fingers through hers.

"It's going to be okay," he says, and the belief in those words, wherever it comes from, is so powerful that when she looks up and meets his eyes, he's almost certain that she believes them, too.

A cautious knock at the door is followed by Al's hopeful voice. "Are you up yet? Can we go downstairs? It's eight o'clock!"

"Just about," Ginny mutters under her breath. "Go and stick the kettle on, Al. We'll be down in a minute."

There's a small celebratory sound from the landing and then the clatter of Al's footsteps as he makes his way down the stairs with more enthusiasm than grace.

Harry and Ginny exchange glances, dress in a contemplative silence and head downstairs to the kitchen, where they find Al, Lily, and Frank gathered around the kettle, ludicrously bright-eyed for the hour, and James, lounging in a kitchen chair, bed-headed and feigning indifference.

Harry takes a second or two to absorb the odd little scene, to fold it up and lock it away for later, then he coughs lightly. All four turn to him. "So, has he been?" he teases.

"Dad," James groans, making a face.

"James," Harry mimics, mirroring the disdainful expression back to his son and throwing himself, as best he can, into his last family Christmas.

**~*~**

By the time the presents have been opened and the turkey has been eaten, Harry is beginning to feel overwhelmed. He knows it's completely unhelpful but his mind keeps insisting on throwing up comparisons of everything from the gift-opening process (loud and unrestrainedly joyful) to the food preparation (everyone pitching in to produce something imperfect but delicious), weighing them against his experience of Christmas at the Malfoys'. He can say with some certainty that he doesn't miss one little part of that stiff, formal ordeal, but he does miss Draco. He really fucking misses Draco.

Still, knowing he has no option but to force himself to relax, Harry pulls himself together. He steers well clear of the firewhisky that he would usually enjoy on Christmas day, because the last thing he needs is another prod in the direction of maudlin, but he joins in with the after dinner games, eats too many chocolates, and listens to his children's arguments with irrational affection.

Watching them is bittersweet, because they have no idea what is about to happen to their family. Harry tells himself that it's best to let them believe that nothing has changed, just for a little longer, but he's not sure any more. Perhaps all they are doing is making things harder.

When he glances at Ginny, which is frequently, she somehow manages to look both on the edge of tears and hugely relieved all at once. Harry thinks he knows how she feels. It's as though a weight has been lifted, and whilst he's glad to no longer have to carry it, he aches with missing the familiar burden. Dragging in a deep breath, he picks up his glass and heads to the kitchen for a refill, making it only two or three steps before tripping over something on the floor and just about rescuing himself from a concussion on the corner of the fireplace.

"Al, come and pick up this eye before someone breaks their neck!"

"Sorry," Al mumbles, mouth full of Cockroach Cluster. He scrambles across the rug on hands and knees and stuffs the eye, still whirring and spinning, into his pocket.

Curled in an armchair, Ginny shakes her head slowly. She doesn't look at Harry or open her mouth but she doesn't need to; her expression clearly conveys 'you bought the blasted thing, you idiot' and Harry doesn't have a leg to stand on. He doesn't mind too much, though; his last minute gifts are a hit.

He has already observed James—through a not-quite-closed-enough bedroom door—posing in front of the mirror in his new leather jacket, pulling such theatrically moody faces at himself that Harry had to stifle his laughter behind his hand for fear of giving away his position. Lily has spent much of the afternoon draped in colourful, glittery accessories, and Ginny is wearing her new necklace. As he had predicted, it suits her perfectly, and, every now and then, she glances down to where the polished beads lie against her chest, a strange little smile tugging at her lips as though she can't quite believe Harry's thoughtfulness. Several years'-worth of panic-bought silk scarves and pot plants will do that to a person, he supposes, finally meeting Ginny's eyes with belated remorse.

"I've been a terrible husband," he mouths, looking down at her, glass gripped tightly in his fingers.

"Not all the time," she says softly, eyes warm and shimmering. Smiling properly now.

"Mum, I can't find a towel," Lily announces, appearing in the doorway with a dripping Frank over her shoulder.

The cat miaows plaintively and digs sharp claws into Lily's skin, as though daring her to forget about his plight. Harry can't help thinking of the other Frank, who so enjoyed the water that he'd have gladly taken the disgruntled cat's place. That said, Harry isn't sure how Lily would feel about bathing a six-foot python. Al, on the other hand...

"Cats don't like water, Lil," James offers, ruffling both cat and owner on the head as he heads for the stairs, perhaps for another posing session. Lily scowls and Frank swipes at James as he passes, but even Harry can tell that his heart isn't really in it.

"Cats who don't like water shouldn't roll around in other people's chalk pastel dust," Lily retorts. "He looked like a whiskery Puffskein."

"Oww," says Frank, blinking big green eyes pitifully.

"Did you look in the airing cupboard?" Ginny offers, yawning.

Lily wrinkles her nose. "There's a big spider in there. Frank is frightened."

"I'm sure Frank is," Ginny murmurs, making no move to leave her chair.

"I suppose it's up to me, then," Harry says. As he stashes his glass on the mantelpiece and edges past the sodden cat to reach the stairs, he's tempted to just draw his wand and hit Frank with a Drying Charm—or, at least, he is until he remembers what happened the last time he tried that. Those panic-driven scratches took weeks to heal properly. He'll just go and get a towel.

After finding a cat-sized towel in the airing cupboard and offering festive greetings to the large black house spider within, Harry emerges onto the landing, only to walk straight into James.

"Sorry, Dad," he mumbles, stepping back and examining the half-eaten mince pie in his hand with unusual intensity.

"Wasn't looking where I was going," Harry admits, holding up the towel by way of explanation. He hesitates. James doesn't look up, and a taut, uncomfortable silence stretches out between them. "Is everything alright?" Harry manages after several long seconds.

James bites his lip. Rests one hand on the balustrade. "Dad?"

Harry's fingers tighten around the old towel with such force that the worn fabric squeaks unpleasantly against his fingernails. "Yeah?"

James looks up, and it all at once hits Harry how grown-up he looks. Clear-eyed, strong-jawed, at least an inch taller than his father now, he's almost a man. Some sentimentality that he thinks he can blame on Christmas makes Harry want to bound across the landing and hug James tightly, but he doubts James will like that, so he stays put.

"James?"

He opens his mouth and then closes it again. "Thanks for the jacket, Dad," he mumbles, stuffing the rest of the mince pie into his mouth. What happens next leaves Harry speechless. James lets go of the balustrade and catches Harry up in an awkward mixture of hug and manly backslap. Before he has chance to react, James has disappeared back into his bedroom.

"Dad, did you find a towel?" Lily calls anxiously up the stairs.

"Oww," says Frank, clearly unimpressed.

Harry stares down at the towel as though it is some sort of foreign object. Ah, yes. "Coming!"

**~*~**

Ron and Hermione's Boxing Day soiree is wonderfully distracting and Harry manages to get through almost the entire evening without giving headspace to Boris, Draco, or his marriage. In truth, the cottage is so full of children and food and the spirit of serious competition that it's difficult to think of anything much besides whether or not his disguise (Transfiguring his clothes into a rhododendron bush) is better than Ron's (shrinking himself down and hiding among the gnomes), or where his next bowl of Christmas stew is coming from.

The fact that everything is much the same as usual insulates Harry against the confusion that exists outside of this little group and these little traditions. Rose, still her sparky old self, he's delighted to note, greets them at the door, breathless and grinning, with tinsel in her hair.

As they pile into the cottage, Al is already showing off his eye.

"Cool," she breathes, taking it from him and watching it spinning around. After a second or two, she leans in and whispers something to Al, of which Harry only catches, "... want to see?"

Al grins and throws a "See you later, Dad!" over his shoulder as they thunder up the stairs and out of sight, giggling.

When Lily falls in the garden and scrapes her knee so badly that, despite Harry's best efforts at healing and Ginny's best efforts at distraction, she is on the edge of tears, Ron allows her to choose the film for the evening.

Which is how Harry finds himself watching 'Rebel Without a Cause' while squashed into an armchair with new-James-Dean-devotee Lily at his side and Hugo draped across his feet, accidentally kicking Harry in the shins every time things get exciting. Al and Rose are watching avidly from a large ottoman, all but taking notes on new-old ways to create havoc; James somehow finds himself sharing a sofa with Hermione, who glances between him and the actors on the screen with far more amusement than Harry suspects is advisable. Ginny and Ron, taking turns in an armchair on the edge of the crush, are immediately nominated as snack-fetchers and drink-refillers, and disappear into the kitchen every now and then, returning with pumpkin juice and hot buttered popcorn.

Everyone eats and drinks until there's a good chance they will burst, as is customary at any Weasley-run event, and by the time the film is over, Harry is seriously considering Apparating right out of his chair and into bed, bugger the rest of them. He doesn't, of course, but the walk home seems long and uncomfortable. He thinks he will be rather relieved to get back to work, if only to ensure he doesn't eat himself to death.

He still isn't hungry when the tomato wakes him for work the following morning. Ginny has the morning off and has been relishing the prospect of an extra lie-in, so he leaves her sleeping and creeps out of the house without breakfast. The Ministry Atrium is quiet and the hallways even quieter, but he doesn't realise just how ridiculously early he is until he walks into the office and Helga isn't there yet. Despairing of himself, Harry locks himself in his private office and throws himself into answering his mountain of memos, determined to draw something useful, however small, from his restless disorientation.

When he looks up some time later, wrist cramped and fingers sporting several paper cuts, the calendar on his desk catches his eye. Wednesday the twenty-seventh. He's been back here just a week. It feels like longer.

He is so absorbed in his paperwork that he jumps when Helga raps on his office door.

"Come in," he calls, rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses and absently sticking his quill behind his ear.

Helga hurries in and closes the door behind her. "Auror Weasley is here to see you," she says, and then, lowering her voice, adds: "He doesn't look very well."

Harry folds his arms atop his stack of parchment and leans forward to address Helga. "Just when did you become so fascinated with everyone's health?"

Helga merely snorts, but there's a glitter of humour in her eyes. "I'll send him in, then?"

"If you don't mind."

She retreats into the main office, and, moments later Ron appears. Harry draws in a sharp breath. He looks terrible. Ron has always been pale, but right now his skin is almost grey, freckles standing out in shocking relief against the pallor. He leans against Harry's door until it clicks shut and then allows the solid wood to take his weight as he stares, hollow-eyed, into the room. Even slouched, Ron is still strikingly tall, but at the same time, he looks smaller than Harry has ever seen him.

He leaps to his feet and rounds the desk, alarmed. "What's the matter?"

Ron blinks. "You and Ginny are splitting up," he rasps.

Harry's heart stutters, and just for a moment, the floor seems to tip beneath him. "What?" is all he can manage, even though clarification is the last thing he needs.

"I know," he says, scrubbing at his fringe with his robe sleeve. "I know about you and Ginny."

Feeling unsteady, Harry lowers himself onto his desk, sending quills and memos flying everywhere and barely noticing. "How?"

"I brought biscuits," Ron says suddenly, staring at the crumpled paper bag in his hand as though seeing it for the first time. "I think I'd better sit down."

"Yeah," Harry murmurs, nodding vaguely and conjuring a chair for Ron next to the desk. He watches his friend cross the floor and sink into the seat, then takes the proffered bag of biscuits, heart pounding. "Thanks."

Ron takes a deep breath, appears to compose himself, and meets Harry's eyes. "Gin told me last night... while everyone was watching the film."

Harry stares, hurt and confused. He lifts a hand with the vague intention of raking it through his hair. Lets it drop. Shakes his head. She agreed. She agreed to wait until after Christmas. He realises that their discussion was about keeping things together for the children, but he'd thought... he feels oddly like he's been punched in the gut. Not only that, but he has no idea how to interpret Ron's fretful disposition. He doesn't seem angry, but Harry knows better than to assume anything these days.

"I can't believe this," he says at last. "I was just sitting there watching James Dean having a scrap while she was in the kitchen, just..."

"It wasn't like that," Ron interrupts, sounding stronger now, more like himself. "It's not her fault, mate, I promise."

The blue eyes that burn into his are miserably sincere. Harry relents. "What happened?"

"I caught her crying in the kitchen. I asked her what was wrong... at first she wouldn't tell me, and then..." Ron lifts his shoulders in an awkward shrug. "She said she couldn't lie to her big brother."

Harry winces, pretending not to notice the catch in Ron's voice. His fresh feelings of betrayal begin to fade, leaving only a dull weight in the pit of his stomach. "We weren't trying to keep it from you. I just thought it'd be better if we dealt with things after Christmas and everything was out of the way. I'm not sure it was the best idea I've ever had, but..." Harry sighs. "I just wanted to make things easier for them."

"I just can't fucking believe it," Ron says, exhaling heavily and sprawling in his chair as though he's forgotten how to use his spine. "I mean... how long have you been pretending to be happy? Ginny wouldn't tell me much."

On hearing this, a little of the heaviness inside him disappears. For a moment, he considers glossing over the truth, telling Ron that this was a quick, clean decision and omitting the fact that the split was a long time coming. He quickly abandons the idea. Ron is his best friend, and he deserves to know more than half a story.

"Officially, for about a week. Really? I don't know. Years, I think. We're good friends, but that's not enough." Harry wraps his hands around the edge of his desk and looks at the floor. "Not any more."

"Don't you love her?" Ron says abruptly.

Harry looks up sharply. Fiercely. "Of course I love her."

"But you're not happy."

"No."

Ron leans across the desk and pulls a huge biscuit from the bag. "Double chocolate," he says absently, taking a huge bite and chewing thoughtfully. In the midst of everything, Harry finds himself impressed by Ron's faith in the ability of food to solve almost any problem. "I knew things weren't perfect, you know," he admits after a moment's chewing.

"Really?"

Catching Harry's surprise, Ron nods, a small smile flickering around the corners of his lips. "Yeah. Even me, eh? Wasn't hard to notice that you were both fed up, but... this is just... to be honest, I always thought you'd work it out, whatever it was. I never imagined you not being together."

Ron falls silent and looks away from Harry, instead opting to make another dent in his biscuit.

Caught midway between grief and exasperation, Harry takes the quill from behind his ear and fiddles with it, immediately thinking of Draco and really wishing he wouldn't. It isn't exactly a helpful direction for his mind to take at this minute. If he's really, really honest—just inside his head—he's cautiously relieved that Ron doesn't seem to want to knock him out, whatever Ginny might have to say on the subject. He probably deserves it, one way or another.

"If I thought there was a way to work things out, Ron, I would," he says. "I know this sounds like a crappy old cliché, but... I think we've just grown apart. I want her to be happy."

"What about you?" Ron asks, cutting right to the troublesome part of the whole equation. "Do you want you to be happy?"

"Yeah, of course. Eventually," Harry says.

"What is it that you want? To make you happy?" Ron presses, and a tiny part of Harry that feels a lot like Draco wants to stuff his mouth with biscuits until he stops asking questions.

The whole truth, he reminds himself. Well, at least most of it.

"Well..."

"Because, you know—I know this sounds ridiculous, but this whole thing is kind of ridiculous when you think about it, isn't it?" Ron shifts in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees and gazing up at Harry, horror struck. "All I've been able to think about since last night, apart from when I've been trying to figure out what the bloody hell went wrong with you and Ginny, is... what happens if Hermione suddenly decides that some other thing makes her happier than I do?"

Harry allows himself a moment to extract the question from the tangle of words. The idea of Ron or Hermione ever finding another person more content to put up with their quirks is a faintly ridiculous one, Harry thinks, but it wouldn't be such a bad thing for them to appreciate each other a little more. Not that he's one to talk, but it's always easier to rationally analyse someone else's relationship.

"I don't think that's going to happen, Ron. You and Hermione were made for each other."

Ron smiles, and Harry knows that smile. It's the smile that makes it obvious to anyone who cares to notice that Auror Ronald Weasley loves his wife at least as much as he did... well, not quite the day he met her, but not long afterwards.

"That's what I thought about you and Gin," he admits, as the corners of the smile turn sad.

Harry shakes his head. "No. We're different. We love each other but Hermione would do anything for you."

"What if it's me?" Ron says suddenly, eyes widening. He slumps back into his chair with a groan. "What if whatever happened to you happens to me? Hermione reckons you're going through a midlife crisis, you know."

"I've heard," Harry sighs. "What happened to me is not going to happen to you, Ron," he promises.

"How do you know that?" Ron taps anxiously at his chair arms with long, freckled fingers, and it occurs to Harry that he hasn't seen his best friend so agitated for a very long time. Nor has he ever imagined the two of them having such an emotionally candid conversation; perhaps Ginny was right after all.

Harry frowns and tightens sweat-slippery fingers around the edge of his desk for support, wondering just how to answer that question in a way that will reassure Ron without giving him a heart attack.

He lets out a long, careful breath. "How do I know that? Because I'm fairly sure that you aren't about to realise you're gay any time soon. That's why."

Ron gapes. "You're not serious."

Harry shrugs and lifts one corner of his mouth in a self-conscious half smile. "It's not the only reason things went wrong for us, but I think it's a pretty important one."

"But... I mean... are you sure?"

It takes all of Harry's self control not to squirm and fidget on the desk as his subconscious helpfully bombards him with images of ballrooms and showers and fragrant oil in softly-lit bedrooms. He coughs.

"Yes."

"But you've been with Ginny for..." Ron frowns. "I mean, I'm not... it's just... are you sure?"

Harry almost laughs this time. "I'm sure. You're right... maybe labels aren't all that helpful. I just... just trust me, okay?"

Ron flushes slightly. After a moment, he nods. "Could still be a midlife crisis," he adds in a quiet voice.

"You never know. I know that would make Hermione happy."

Ron snorts. "So... Ginny knows about this, then?"

"Yes."

"Was she upset?"

"She wasn't surprised," Harry admits.

"I've always been a bit rubbish at picking stuff like this up," Ron sighs, reaching for another biscuit. "Everyone knew about Charlie before me. I think I had to actually see him kissing Serghei when he thought no one was looking to believe it. Fucking hell," Ron mumbles, biting into his biscuit and shaking his head slowly. "You're like Charlie!"

Harry raises an eyebrow. "I think Charlie is a lot cooler than me."

"Meh, Charlie's cooler than everyone," Ron says through a mouthful of crumbs. "What are you going to tell Mum and Dad?"

Harry suppresses a shiver. "Nothing yet. I'll deal with that when the time comes. I'm concentrating on what I'm going to tell the kids right now."

"Kids are resilient," Ron offers, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "The only reason I mention Mum and Dad is... well, I don't think there's ever been a divorce in our family. It's sort of a matter of pride with them."

Harry sighs. Preoccupied, he takes a biscuit from the bag and bites into it, savouring the sweetness of the chocolate and the heavy, sticky texture that gives way to his teeth and sticks to the roof of his mouth. "Great. I'll look forward to that, then." He pulls a face at the rug. "Thanks for the warning, though. What did Hermione say?"

"She doesn't know yet," Ron says, and Harry is flooded with warm gratitude. He knows how much it must have cost Ron to keep such a huge secret from his wife, even for a few hours.

"Thanks," he whispers, and Ron shrugs, suddenly awkward. "You can tell her, if you want. I don't really want you to have to keep it yourself for another week. Just... it stays with you two, okay? The last thing we need is for one of the kids to hear some sordid rumour before we get chance to sit down with them."

Ron nods, and for a minute or two the office is silent, save for the crunching of biscuits and the relieved, slightly quickened breathing of two men who have talked about their feelings and survived.

Finally, Ron wipes his chocolatey hands on his robes and looks at Harry.

"Do you need somewhere to stay?"

**~*~**

After Ron has departed (reluctantly, following a memo that flies right out of Harry's fireplace to remind him that his presence is required at a team meeting down the hall), Harry swivels around in his chair in slow circles, wondering if he has, in fact, shot himself in the arse by insisting that he'll be fine and refusing, as gratefully as possible, Ron's offer of his spare room as a temporary bolthole. Now that the office is quiet once more and he has the space and the last biscuit to help him think, he concedes that sometimes he is obstinate in declining help just because it comes naturally, not because it makes sense, and it quickly becomes obvious that this is one of those occasions.

The fact that Ron hadn't pushed the point suggests that he knows Harry just about as well as anyone, and this realisation makes Harry smile wryly at the ceiling as he continues to rotate.

It's the best option he has, at least for the moment. Harry knows that he will be the one to leave the family home, both from the brief discussions he and Ginny have managed in the privacy of their bedroom over the last few evenings, and the simple fact that he is the one who spends less time with the children, works longer hours and, in truth, feels responsible for the whole thing, despite Ginny's frequent assertions to the contrary. The chance to start again is equal parts exciting and terrifying, but he knows it's not quite time for that yet.

Ginny will probably be astonished to hear that he wants to make an announcement to the press, but he's ready to take control. Better that than give some opportunistic photographer the chance to snap him viewing houses in London and splash it all over the gossip pages. The press aren't going away, after all; they're probably always going to be interested in him, and perhaps, if he starts playing the game a little instead of being so combative, they stop being quite so rabid. He isn't naive enough to believe that he'll ever be treated with the friendly respect that he received in the glimpse, but a shift in that direction would certainly be appreciated.

Harry sighs and lowers his feet to the floor, using his rubber-soled boots against the rug to slow his spin. He leans on the desk, feeling dizzy, and lowers his face to the surface, inhaling the mingled aromas of wood polish and ink and parchment. He'll owl Ron later. It'll be fine.

When Harry gets home, the ground floor is completely devoid of children. Puzzled, he peers into each room in turn, but finds no sign of life other than a weary-looking Ginny, leaning against the kitchen counter and cradling a cup of aromatic tea close to her face.

"Where are they all?" he says at last, stripping off his robes and seating himself on the edge of the kitchen table in jeans and bobbly jumper.

"Upstairs," she says, blowing the steam away from her cup. "Doing the homework that they've all suddenly remembered they have to have finished in a few days."

Harry nods, understanding at once. "I remember it well." He is just wondering how to tell her about Ron's visit to the office when she says:

"You'll never guess who my new business client is."

Thrown off course, Harry frowns. Blinks. "Celestina Warbeck?"

Ginny's freckled nose wrinkles in distaste. "No, thank goodness. It's a company called Zabology, and it's run by—"

"Blaise Zabini," Harry finishes faintly.

"How did you know that?"

With an odd squiggly feeling in his stomach, Harry scrambles for a lie. "Er, I saw something about him in the paper. Have you met him yet?"

Ginny shakes her head, looking mutinous. "No, but from what I can remember, he was a pretentious tosspot," she grouses. "One of Malfoy's cronies, wasn't he?"

Harry stares at her as a wave of calm sweeps over him. He smiles. "You should give him a chance."

Ginny snorts into her mug. "Do you know something I don't?"

"I just think we're all old enough for second attempts at treating each other like human beings," Harry says, already wondering about the non-glimpse Blaise Zabini, how he is and what he's like, and deciding instantly that, one way or another, he must find out.

"Well, we shall see about that," Ginny says. "How was your day?"

"Ron came to see me," Harry blurts before he can stop himself.

Ginny blanches. Stiffly, she sets her cup down on the counter and presses both hands against her face. "Oh... shit, I'm sorry, Harry."

"I know."

"He knew I was upset and he just kept asking... and he hugged me, and I just couldn't..." Ginny trails into silence. After a moment, she takes a deep, ragged breath and drops her hands from her face, wrapping her arms around herself for protection.

"I'm not angry, Gin. It was probably unrealistic to think we could keep it all in when everyone's so close."

She sighs, scuffing her socked feet against the kitchen tiles. "Maybe you should be."

"What, angry?"

"Yeah. I keep having this crazy thought that maybe all this would be easier if we just started yelling like we're supposed to," she admits.

Harry leans back, grasping the edge of the table to anchor his weight, and looks up at the ceiling, hoping to somehow pluck reason out of the air. "I don't think that's true, somehow," he offers.

They both startle as James' music begins to pound obnoxiously from the floor above. "Turn it down!" Ginny yells, drawing her wand and aiming a transparency spell at the ceiling. There is some muffled cursing followed by a marked reduction in the volume of the music. Ginny's wand clatters on the marble worktop as she drops it and sighs. "Neither do I, but it's difficult to know one way or another at the moment, isn't it?"

Harry has to agree that it is. He has faith that things will get easier, if only because the thought that they might not makes him want to crawl into his closet and hide among his old man jumpers until all of this has been forgotten about. And that's not really an option for a thirty-seven-year old Gryffindor father of three, so... faith it is.

He thinks Helga would be proud.

**~*~**

Over the next few days, Hermione makes herself such a fixture in his office that Harry wonders quite how she's managing to get any work done at all. When he finds out that she's been turning up at Gringotts for lunches and post-work coffees with Ginny, he almost begins to genuinely fear for the future of goblin-human relations. Almost—it's still Hermione, after all. He finds himself amused and touched by her insistence on dividing her time equally between himself and Ginny, just in case either of them might think for a moment that she was taking sides. As if she would. Hermione has—quite literally—made a career out of diplomacy.

"Ms Granger-Weasley is here again," Helga announces, sounding somewhat bored by the sixth or seventh similar announcement in the space of two days. "Is there something the matter with her?"

"I knew there was something going on," she says, so frequently that by Friday afternoon, Harry has taken to keeping a tally on a scrap of parchment hidden beneath his perpetual memo mountain. She has also developed a fondness for not-really questions like: "How many times do I have to remind you that you can't do everything on your own, Harry?" and "Did you really think we wouldn't want to help you after everything we've been through together?"

Harry knows that she has a point, and he also knows that Hermione is hiding behind scolding him because she's worried and she cares and because scolding comes naturally to her. He pretends exasperation because that's just his role in the way things are and have always been, but beneath it all, he's grateful for her—for both of them. Knowing that there are at least two people willing to take some of the weight for a while makes everything just a little bit easier.

On Friday afternoon, Hermione brings information that improves Harry's mood even further.

"Hello, Helga," she calls brightly, moments before the door to Harry's office swings open and Hermione admits herself without asking permission from the gatekeeper. The fact that Helga doesn't say a word speaks volumes; apparently, where Hermione is concerned, she has given up.

Hermione flops into the spare chair, which has been so heavily used over the last few days that Harry has decided to just leave it there. She passes him a paper cup full of coffee so rich-smelling that Harry groans softly, holding the cup under his nose and allowing the aroma to awaken his weary senses.

"Thank you," he sighs, reluctantly setting down the cup and waiting for the coffee to cool.

"You're welcome," Hermione says, helping herself to a jam tart from the box left by Ron at the end of his morning visit. "I have good news. Well, not for Great Aunt Mildred, but it is for you."

Harry frowns, puzzled. "Nope," he says after a moment. "You're going to have to explain it to me. Small words, please; I'm tired."

Hermione nods, pulling her feet up onto the chair. "Well." She licks strawberry jam from the back of her hand. "I just finished a firecall with Molly—I wanted to check that she could still look after the kids tomorrow night so we can go to that dinner party Ron's godawful partner is having." She pauses, rolling her eyes. Harry is still confused. "Anyway, she was running around like a headless chicken trying to pack and make arrangements for the next couple of weeks. Apparently, Great Aunt Mildred has come down with a terrible case of Kneazle Pox and is insisting that Molly and Arthur go down to Cornwall and look after her," she finishes triumphantly, fixing expectant eyes on Harry.

Hardly daring to believe his good fortune, Harry stares back at her. "So... they're going to be away for a while?"

"Yes."

"Both of them?"

Hermione nods. "That's what she said. Apparently, she's very demanding."

Harry smiles slowly, revelling in the spread of cautious relief through his veins. He feels guilty for delighting in an old woman's misfortune, but he has met Great Aunt Mildred and he doubts a Hippogriff could take her down, much less a case of Kneazle Pox, and she may have just bought him a couple of weeks' grace.

"That is absolutely great news, 'Mione, thank you," he sighs, leaning back in his chair. "Maybe by the time they get home, I'll have figured out what to say to them."

"I don't think it'll be as bad as you're imagining," Hermione says gently, tucking her hair behind her ear.

Harry finds a smile for his bearer-of-good-news. "Let's hope not."

**~*~**

New Year's Eve is a quiet affair, for which Harry is grateful after a somewhat chaotic Saturday night full of children and a bewildering array of noises. He had, to Ron's delight and Hermione's dismay, invited Rose and Hugo over for the evening, allowing their parents to attend the godawful dinner party as planned. Now, as Harry stands in the kitchen with bits of paper stuck to his hands and clothing, the house is calm and near-silent. James is staying with a school friend whose name Harry can't recall, but whose nose ring had made him appreciate his son's restraint for the first time; Al is at Ron and Hermione's cottage, probably running riot with Rose for the second night in a row, and Lily... Lily has been working hard. She and Harry have spent most of the evening at the kitchen table, adding the important artistic touches to her Black Death project. Having been allowed to stay up, she had pronounced the work completed just after eleven o'clock, joined Harry in a celebratory mug of hot chocolate, and trundled off to bed, sleepy but satisfied.

Ginny comes and leans on the kitchen door frame as Harry is walking around the table, gathering up the debris of their artwork. He can't say he has helped all that much, mostly just the colouring-in of various lurid illustrations and the gluing of bits of paper to other bits of paper according to her careful instructions, but she had seemed to appreciate the help, and the time with her dad. The smell of glue and paper and pencil-sharpenings is wonderfully evocative, and with it comes the comforting memory of primary school art lessons and the realisation that perhaps he has always enjoyed being creative.

He smiles easily at Ginny as he slots pencil crayons back into the tin in their proper places, resisting the urge to shove them anywhere they will fit and clicking them back in colour order to form a shiny wooden rainbow.

"You've got glitter on your nose," Ginny says at last.

Harry frowns. He doesn't remember using any glitter, but he lifts a hand to his nose, rubs lightly, and it comes away sparkling. "I have no idea."

"I tucked Lily in."

Harry smiles gratefully. "Did you manage to convince her to go to sleep?"

Ginny nods, pulling her sleeves down over her fingers and wrapping her arms around herself. "Eventually. She was worried about you having to tidy up by yourself."

"Well, as you can see, I've coped admirably." Harry indicates the neat stacks of paper and the hovering sheets that are still drying several inches above the table.

"I'm impressed," she says. Her eyes glow softly in the dim light and she lets out a gentle sigh. "You know what they say about what you're doing at the New Year, don't you?"

Harry stops what he's doing, holding his breath as though knowing something unpleasant is coming. When he exhales, the sound seems deafening in his own head. "Yeah... but it's not like you to be superstitious."

Ginny slants an odd smile in his direction. "I know. I suppose it just seems a little bit too close to home this year."

Harry catches his breath and looks down at the table for a moment. "I suppose so."

"My mum is, you know. Superstitious. She always used to say that whatever you're doing at the stroke of midnight is what you'll be doing for the rest of the year."

Harry raises an eyebrow. "What if you're sleeping? Or on the toilet?"

Ginny rolls her eyes. "I don't think you're supposed to take it quite so literally."

"Sorry," Harry mumbles, mouth twisting in a rueful smile. "I'll stop attempting to lighten the situation with humour; I'm clearly not very good at it."

Ginny smiles, too, looking very much like she's trying to stop herself. "That sounds like a good idea," she whispers, and something in her tone wrenches his heart. This is real, adds his subconscious, as though he needs to be reminded.

"Tea?" he offers, for want of a better idea.

"Thanks," Ginny says, and then there is silence.

Harry absorbs himself in the familiar ritual, pouring and brewing and stirring, wondering vaguely what Draco would think about his mismatched old cups, none of them stripy. Ginny takes her tea and disappears into the garden with it. He watches her for a moment through the kitchen window, happy to respect her unspoken desire to spend the last of the old year apart, even though it feels strange and unsettling. When she settles herself on the rickety bench and casts a shimmering Tempus charm, Harry turns away and heads up the stairs.

He checks on Lily as he passes, finding her sleeping peacefully with Frank stretched out at her side. On Al's door he finds a note, placed so far above his eye-line that he hasn't noticed it before now.

Dad – don't forget to make a New Year's resolution. Mine is to eat less brocolly broccoli broccoli.

Harry laughs and slips the note into his pocket. In the bedroom, he sits on the end of the bed, picking at the dried glue on his hands and remembering the ritual of the resolution circle, the promises spoken out loud. There might not be anyone here to witness his words, but, as Harry stares at his hazy reflection in the mirror, he thinks perhaps that doesn't matter.

"Accio," he murmurs, holding out his hand for the tomato clock.

"Eleven forty-six," it informs him.

"I will..." He hesitates. Chews his lip. "I will be a better father."

Bright green eyes stare out of the mirror at him. Mocking him. This is fucking hard. It's easy to promise something that doesn't really matter, but he supposes that's the point.

"I will appreciate my friends, because they put up with a lot."

He sighs and closes his eyes, dropping his hastily-constructed barriers until the ache inside him overflows, making his eyes sting and his heart hurt.

"I will take the unknown road. I will find Draco Malfoy."

**~*~**

"How are we supposed to do this?" Ginny asks, flopping onto the bed beside Harry, who is lying flat on his back, sprawling sideways across the sheets, fully dressed. With James and Al now home, Harry and Ginny are hiding in their bedroom, procrastinating.

"I don't know. But someone once told me that his parents took him out for his favourite dinner to tell him they were getting a divorce, and he could never eat it again. So... we should probably try to avoid that."

Ginny shoots him a sidelong glance. "Was that Dean Thomas, by any chance?"

"Ah. You heard the same story."

"Yeah. And I remember thinking at the time that people were crazy to get divorced. I mean, no one in our family seems to ever split up..." She lapses into silence, looking as though she wants to cover her face with her hands and disappear completely.

"I know," Harry says faintly.

"Sorry," she mumbles, resting her head against his shoulder. "You've probably heard it over and over, haven't you?"

"It's come up once or twice this week," Harry admits.

"I thought so. I also kind of thought I would've come up with some sort of strategy by now."

Harry takes a deep, fortifying breath, pulls himself upright and holds out a hand to Ginny.

"Come on."

She blinks up at him anxiously. "What?"

He grabs her hand and pulls her up. "Strategies are very much overrated. The more you think about it, the more you'll worry about it. Let's just do it, okay?"

Ginny rests her hands on her thighs and lets out a long, controlled breath. "Okay."

Five minutes later, Harry has assembled the family around the kitchen table, where they sit, clutching hot drinks and wondering what exactly they should do next. Lily looks apprehensively between Harry and Ginny, a stripy ball of fur vibrating gently on her lap, while James and Al exchange glances.

"What's going on?" James says at last, the impatience in his voice not quite masking the unease.

"Er..." Ginny begins, and then dries up.

Harry jumps in. "Your mum and I need to talk to you about something."

Al's eyes go wide. "Has someone died?" he asks in hushed tones.

Harry tries very hard not to smile. "No, Al. No one's died."

"Oh," Al says, and it's difficult to tell if he's relieved or disappointed. Strange child.

"Anyway..." Harry hesitates, knowing there is no going back after this and hovering on the edge, gathering his nerve. "Your mum and I... we've been talking, and... we both love you all very much, but..." Harry falters, catching the light of understanding in his oldest son's eyes and forcing himself to continue, to finish it. "We're splitting up."

Lily catches her breath and clutches Frank tightly to her. While Al's eyes flick to Ginny, searching for confirmation, James never looks away from Harry.

"I'm sorry," Ginny says, barely above a whisper. "But it's going to be okay—we're not angry with each other; we're still going to be friends. Just because we're not together doesn't mean we're not a family," she insists, voice growing stronger now. "It's not you, it's just us—our marriage—it's just not working any more."

Briefly, Harry squeezes her hand under the table. He says nothing, wanting to give them space to absorb the information and to react. When the silence stretches out into minutes, though, it takes all of his restraint not to break it. He concentrates on his breathing, on the drip of the tap into the sink, and, eventually, James speaks.

"I know."

"You know what?" Ginny asks, sounding puzzled.

James glances at Al, who bites his bottom lip and shrugs. "That you haven't been happy."

Harry doesn't have time to be startled before Al jumps in. "We've known for months," he says helpfully, and James kicks him none-too-subtly under the table.

Ginny turns to Harry, face a mask of helpless astonishment. "Now what?" she mouths.

"I have no idea," he murmurs, eyes flitting between his children. "What makes you say that, James?"

"I'm not stupid, Dad. I can tell when you're unhappy. You hardly talk to each other any more, except for the last few days, which is... weird," he says, frowning.

"I know you're not stupid... I didn't realise," Harry says, raking both hands through his hair and attempting to ground himself.

"I tried to talk to you the other night, but..." James shrugs, apparently taking refuge in awkwardness.

Heavy with guilt, Harry nods. He knows James is telling the truth, and now it seems ridiculous that he hadn't pushed him to talk at the time.

"So... you two have been talking about this?" Ginny asks.

"Yeah. We were worried about you," Al says stoutly.

Harry shoots him a small smile. "You too, Lil?"

She nods, just as James is saying, "Of course not!" and then, "Al!"

Al blinks. "What?"

"You told her!" James hisses, appalled.

"Why shouldn't he tell me?" Lily demands hotly, fixing James with a fierce stare.

"You're too young," James mumbles, folding his arms and looking away from his sister. Harry, watching the argument unfold with morbid fascination, doesn't really blame him; she has learned that glare from her mother, and many a stronger man than either of them has quailed at the sight of it over the years.

Lily bristles. "I am ten years old, James. I'm not a baby!"

"She's not, you know. She already knew something was up," Al points out.

"Whose side are you on, exactly?" James snaps, and Al shrugs, falling silent.

"I don't think anyone should be taking sides," Harry says, and all eyes are on him. "Er, right, so... I have to admit, this isn't really going the way I expected it to, but never mind. Does anyone... want to ask anything?" he tries.

"Are we going to move house?" Lily inquires, eyes large and appealing.

"No," Ginny says. "You, Al, and James are going to stay here with me... if that's what you want," she adds, growing uncertain.

Al chews on his thumbnail. "Where are you going to go, Dad?"

"I don't know, yet," he admits. "Not far, don't worry. I'm going to stay with Ron and Hermione for a little while."

"Can we come and stay with you sometimes?" Lily asks tearfully, clutching Frank as though he's keeping her afloat. He doesn't seem to notice; in fact, he doesn't even seem to stir in his sleep.

Harry swallows hard, heartbroken to think that Lily even imagines he might leave her behind and not look back. "Of course you can, Lil. And Frank. All of you can. I'll make sure I find a house with plenty of bedrooms."

"I think it'll be okay to stay with Mum, then," Lily pronounces seriously. Ginny smiles.

"Me too," Al says, unexpectedly putting his arm around his sister in a show of solidarity.

"Why don't you want to be together any more?" James says suddenly, shattering the fragile calm.

"We aren't happy any more," Ginny says, picking at her teacup. "We care about each other and we've realised we'd be happier if we weren't together."

James regards his mother evenly. "I don't believe you. Did one of you have an affair?"

"Hey," Harry warns. "Don't speak to your mother like that."

James snorts. "Why not?"

"Because she loves you and this is hard for her and we didn't bring you up to throw accusations around like that," he snaps, meeting his son's eyes. Seeing them widen at his harsh tone, he makes an effort to slow his breathing and unclench his fingers; he doesn't know where the flash of anger has sprung from, but it's not going to do any good here.

"I know," James mutters, eyes downcast. "I just want to know the truth."

"It is the truth," Ginny says. She's protecting him, and he doesn't know whether he wants to hug her or shake her.

"It is the truth," Harry agrees, heart pounding. "But there is more to it."

Ginny inhales sharply. She turns. "You don't have to," she whispers.

"I think I'd like the start the New Year being honest," he says, and he is so fortified by these words that he manages the difficult ones almost without hesitation. "I've learned a lot about myself recently, and one of the things that I've learned is that I'm... erm, I'm more interested in men than women."

"You like boys?" Lily asks, nose wrinkled in contemplation.

Harry nods. "I suppose that's about the size of it, yeah."

"They smell, do you know?" she adds.

Harry smiles, even as a small part of him aches violently for Maura. "I'll keep that in mind."

"That's not true," Al says, all eyebrows and indignation. "I smell brilliant."

"Not when you've been out playing Quidditch, you don't," Ginny mumbles into her cup.

"Uncle Charlie's gay, isn't he?" Al muses, ignoring his mother. "He's done alright for himself."

Ginny snorts, and the only thing keeping Harry's face straight is the fact that James—the unknown quantity, the one whose reaction worries him most—has not said a word.

Ever inquisitive, Al keeps him occupied with questions like: "Didn't you know you were gay before?", "Does this mean you're going to grow your hair long?" and "Aren't you a bit old for all that anyway?"

Ginny scrapes back her chair to allow an emotional Lily to perch on her lap, squashing Frank between them as she loops her arms around her mother's neck and holds on tight, no longer caring about whether or not she looks grown up.

Eventually, James folds his arms on the table and gazes at Harry. He opens his mouth to speak and Harry holds his breath.

"Doesn't make any difference to me, Dad, but—what's Grandma going to say?"

Bewildered, Harry stares at James. He doesn't know quite what to say to that, but there's a small bubble of relief growing rapidly in his chest and he almost smiles as he says:

"Thanks for your support, James—we'll worry about Grandma when she comes back from Cornwall, shall we?"

"That reminds me," Ginny says, resting her chin on the top of Lily's head. "I know it's not very nice, but we need you to keep this to yourselves for a week or two, just until we sort everything out with the newspaper."

"Why?" asks Al.

"Because otherwise they'll write things that aren't true and everyone will be upset," Ginny says darkly. "Especially Grandma."

"I can't even tell Rose?" Al gasps, clutching theatrically at the edge of the table.

"You can tell Rose, of course you can," Harry says, as though it's obvious.

Al wriggles in his chair, relieved. Harry drags in a long, deep breath and glances around at his family, taking inventory. Ginny, wiped out but relieved, is cradling a sad but resilient Lily and an ever stoic Frank. Al is possibly more curious than ever, and James, now apparently satisfied, is leaning back in his chair, watching over the whole scene with a calm acceptance that is way beyond his years.

Harry is still in one piece, and that is quite enough to be going on with.

James stretches, tips his chair too far and only just recovers his balance in time. Like a cat that has just fallen from a piece of furniture, he adjusts his position and glances around to check that no one has seen anything. Harry hides a smile.

"Dad?" he says after a moment.

"Yeah?"

"Put the kettle on."

**~*~**

On the evening of the first of January, Harry throws his work robes, a selection of his old man clothes, and his tomato clock into a bag, hugs his children, assuring them that he'll see them very soon, and moves into Ron and Hermione's spare bedroom. He only takes what he needs for now, reluctant to drag out the process or to let Ginny know that he has noticed her tears. That night, he lies awake, unable to sleep in the unfamiliar-smelling bedroom with no one by his side for the first time in years, thinking about James' question and trying to imagine what his parents would have to say about the situation. There's no way of knowing, of course, but the hazy memory of his mother's warm eyes and his father's small, encouraging smile is soothing, wrapping around him until he drifts gratefully into unconsciousness.

On the third of January, he and Ginny see James and Al back onto the Hogwarts Express. When the train has pulled out of sight, he scans the platform, seeking out blond hair and black clothes, but draws a blank.

"He's in Edinburgh," Ginny sighs, heading back toward the main station. "Probably took Scorpius straight to school himself this year."

"I wasn't—" Harry insists, more out of habit than anything else.

"Harry."

"Sorry."

"I'm going back to work." She touches his arm, eyes appealing. "Look after yourself."

Harry does his best. He gets as much sleep as he can, he goes to work, he attends meetings, and he remembers to eat, even though he feels less than comfortable invading someone else's breakfast table every morning; Hermione watches him, hawklike, pushing extra toast and bacon under his nose and monitoring his mood carefully, while Ron chats to no one in particular about the day ahead. It doesn't seem to matter how welcome they try to make him feel, he's still an intruder and he's still floating in limbo—married but not married, effectively homeless, and still thinking about Draco Malfoy far more than is helpful.

On the first Saturday of the year, Harry leaves the village behind and travels to Hogwarts, where, from what he has gathered from James' complaints, the last planned Quidditch game of the Autumn term is taking place, somewhat later than scheduled due to adverse weather conditions. The new rules, also according to James, state that matches are now to be called off at the slightest coating of frost on the broomstick handles; remembering the heavy snowfall throughout December and his son's penchant for exaggeration, Harry doubts that it's quite as simple as that, but there's a little part of him that feels slightly aggrieved—he's fairly sure that Dumbledore would have sent them up there in a fucking blizzard during his own Hogwarts days. Still, he does rather prefer to have James in one piece.

Even if James himself is extremely hacked off by the whole thing.

"Oh, brilliant," he'd groaned on hearing that Harry was planning to attend the game. "The first time you come and watch me play in ages and we'll get flattened because we haven't had enough time to train."

Harry had tried pointing out that the Slytherin team would have exactly the same disadvantage, but had quickly realised that there's little point trying to reason with a wound up Gryffindor Beater, even one with blue streaks in his hair.

When he gets to the pitch, almost all of the stands are full of students and teachers, all chanting and clapping as the two teams make their way out onto the grass. Hurriedly, Harry wraps his old house scarf around his neck and races up the creaky steps of the nearest empty stand. Slightly out of breath, he emerges into the morning sunshine at the top and realises that the stand isn't quite as empty as he'd first thought.

The man turns around at the sound of Harry's footsteps, sending his heart crashing against his ribs and his fingernails cutting into his palms. He has absolutely no idea what to say.

Draco lifts an eyebrow. "What do you want, Potter? I'm trying to watch the match."

"I... er..." Harry clears his throat, both relieved and offended when Draco turns back to the pitch. Harry hears the whistle and the whoosh of the wind around the players as they rise into the air. With those eyes focused elsewhere, he finds some words at last. "I just want to watch, too. James is playing."

"I know," Draco says drily. "He's hard to miss."

Bristling, Harry takes a few steps into the rickety wooden box and forces himself to remember that this Draco has had a very different life from the one in the glimpse, all because of something Harry himself did or did not do. He takes a deep breath—wood, earth, lemons—and pushes his irritation away. It would be so easy to start an argument, and he supposes that's the point—it's always been easy to argue with this man, and that's not what he wants any more.

Instead, he shoves his hands into his pockets and watches Draco. His absorption in the game is fascinating to observe; so much so that Harry almost forgets to speak.

"Is Scorpius playing?" he asks at last.

"He's a first year," Draco says quietly. And then, with a touch of bitterness: "I think those kinds of exceptions were only made for you."

"That was a long time ago."

"It certainly feels like it," Draco says without looking around.

Harry says nothing, just watches the hem of the long black coat whipping around Draco's calves in the breeze that slants in from the pitch and the determined flicker of the charcoal grey scarf tucked in around his neck. He rests his hands on the barrier of the stand and allows himself to lean just a fraction, though his posture is still straighter than Harry's best efforts, and Harry doesn't know why he's surprised to notice that Draco isn't wearing a wedding ring. He looks at his own bare ring finger and swallows hard. He's been wearing it, just until everything is out in the open, but something had made him leave it on his bedside this morning.

"I'm sorry about your marriage," he says softly.

Draco snorts. "Are you?"

"Yes."

"I didn't come here for a fight, Potter," he says, sounding weary.

Harry joins him at the barrier, just in time for James to swoop past on the tail of a speeding Bludger. "Neither did I. I came to watch my son play Quidditch."

Suspicious grey eyes flick to his for a fraction of a second, and then back to the game, just in time to see the Slytherin Keeper dive left instead of right and allow Gryffindor the first goal of the game. He winces, looking at Harry again as though holding him personally responsible for the slip-up. Harry ignores the implication, instead taking the opportunity to study the pale face. He looks tired, and even up close, his severe hairstyle makes him look as though he's going bald, but he's still beautiful. Still striking, even without his colours and stripes, and even if that frown is permanent. Harry doubts it is, but he's not about to test that theory just yet.

Uncertain, he ignores the presence of the man next to him and focuses on the game. From what he can see, James' fears were unfounded; the Gryffindor team are skilful, tight, and disciplined, streaking about the pitch in blurs of scarlet and gold. Unfortunately for James, though, the Slytherins are just as capable, and the two well-matched teams make for an exciting game. Several minutes in, James coasts past their stand, bat held loosely as he takes a moment to catch his breath, and almost falls off his broom at the sight of his father and Mr Malfoy standing quietly side by side.

"Alright, Dad," he calls, recovering himself, waving his bat in greeting and taking off into a sudden spiralling dive, black and blue hair flapping behind him.

"I think that was for your benefit," Draco observes.

Harry smiles. "I expect so."

"He didn't expect to see me, did he?"

"Do you blame him?"

"I don't know what you're trying to suggest, Potter, but I am always here. I haven't missed a game in years," Draco says, tapping his fingers on the wooden barrier. One, two, three, four, five with the left, and one, two, three, four, five with the right, Harry counts automatically.

"I didn't know that," he admits.

Draco's mouth twitches into an almost-smile as Slytherin score a goal. "You don't know everything."

Harry sighs, exasperated. "I know that," he mumbles, rubbing at the uneven surface of the wood with his thumb. "I just imagined you'd go and watch a professional team play these days."

"You imagined?" Draco repeats, shooting him a sharp look. Harry shrugs, feeling a flush creeping up the back of his neck. "I like it here, if you must know. I'm a school governor."

"Oh," Harry says. He has no idea how to respond to that.

"Good grief, have I managed to shut you up?" Draco murmurs, eyes still on the pitch. Though heavy with sarcasm, there is no edge to his tone, and Harry catches his first glimpse of his Draco underneath the stiff, frosty exterior.

"I think you'll have to try harder than that," Harry says.

"Are you planning to be here often?" Draco demands, tapping his fingers again. "I usually have this stand all to myself."

"How do you manage that?"

"The students don't like it. They think it smells funny."

Puzzled, Harry sniffs at the air. He can't detect anything untoward. "I can't smell anything."

Draco smirks. "Of course you can't. It only ever takes a couple of Dungbombs before the first game of the year. They soon learn to stay away."

"You are extremely unsociable," Harry observes. Oddly, it's not a criticism; he's just struck by how solitary this man is, how many barriers he must have constructed to conceal the warmth that Harry knows, he knows, is beneath.

"That's a new one," Draco says, unruffled. "Have you been talking to my ex-wife?"

"No. I really am sorry about that," Harry tries.

"That's interesting. Why do you care all of a sudden?"

Harry hesitates. "I just do, alright? I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone... however much of a cock they might have been to me in the past."

"I think you'll find that—"

"Alright, we were both cocks. Better?"

Draco laughs but still doesn't look at Harry. "Much."

"Am I allowed to be sorry now?" Harry asks, knowing he's pushing it. Needing to.

"Don't bother. Astoria and I have been separated for a long time—nearly two years. We wanted to wait until Scorpius went away to school to start all of that messy legal business, but these things rarely go to plan. I'm still waiting for it to be finalised."

Astonished, Harry watches the Slytherin Chasers and attempts to pull together a coherent response. They streak past the stand in formation, the two on the outside carefully guarding the one in the centre as she swoops toward the Gryffindor goal hoops, Quaffle under her arm, and as Harry watches her put it neatly past the Keeper in red, he can't help feeling that things are starting to go his way.

Deciding it will be politic to hide his glee from Draco, he says, "It must've been difficult to live together for all that time."

"Not really. You could probably walk around for days in the Manor without seeing anyone," Draco says carelessly.

Harry heaves a sigh and scrubs at his hair. He's infuriating. Of course he is. It's not as though he ever expected any of this to be simple, but it's easy to remember why this haughty, scornful idiot has always driven him to near-madness.

"Why are you so difficult to talk to?" he asks without expecting a response, just letting the question hang in the air.

Draco snorts, leaning precariously over the barrier to watch the two Seekers diving for the Snitch and almost colliding. Shaking his head, he straightens up, to the immense relief of Harry, who had been seconds away from reaching out and grabbing the back of his coat.

"Maybe I'm confused about why you suddenly seem to want to be my friend," he offers.

"I'm just being polite," Harry says weakly, just about resisting the temptation to hex himself in the face.

"I think fucking not."

"We're sort of in the same boat," he says before he can think better of it. "Ginny and I are splitting up."

Draco's eyes snap to his, sharp and searching. "You're lying."

"Why would I do that?" Harry demands, wounded.

"It would have been in the paper, Potter; I'm not that naive." Draco turns his attention back to the game.

"We haven't announced it yet," Harry admits. "It'll be common knowledge in a week or so."

Draco blinks. His fingers tighten around the barrier and as he turns to Harry once more, the wind whips a strand of his hair free of its severe, slicked down style; he stands there, quite unaware, and Harry rather inappropriately wants to smile.

"Maybe I'm missing something, but are you mad? Why on earth would you tell me that?"

"Maybe I don't have anything to lose," he admits. "Everything is changing."

Draco turns away from the barrier at last and folds his arms across his chest. "And now you trust me? I don't know why I'm surprised that you're not making sense. You never have."

"You don't mean that," Harry murmurs. He turns, heart racing, and rests his arms on the barrier, looking out just in time to see James whacking a Bludger into the Slytherin Seeker, which knocks him off course and allows the Gryffindor Seeker to capture the Snitch. The stands erupt into cheers and applause, and even Draco is clapping politely beside him.

Harry joins in, wondering if what he's just done is brilliant or idiotic. It's usually impossible to tell until long after it's too late. Perhaps, though, it will be a test. A dangerous test, he supposes, but there's nothing much he can do about that now. If Draco goes public with the information, it will hurt, but he will know that this man isn't the Draco he is hoping for; he is too embittered and too far removed from the man in the glimpse to ever bring himself to love Harry Potter. If he doesn't, then just maybe, despite the austere appearance and the maze of protective walls, his Draco is in there somewhere.

"I'm sorry about your marriage, Potter," he says, pausing at the top of the stairs.

Harry nods, granting him a small, grateful smile. "Thanks."

Draco turns and heads down the spiral staircase, long coat flapping behind him. Harry watches him go until his knees turn to water and he scrambles to lower himself onto a hard wooden bench before he ends up on the floor. He leans against the wall, heart hammering unpleasantly, wondering if he's really planning to put himself through this all over again.

"Dad!" James yells, swooping into view and hovering just outside the box.

Harry takes a deep breath and goes to congratulate his son.

The next part is up to Draco.

Chapter Text

Harry thinks this may just be the quietest the kitchen at the Burrow has ever been. Granted, he has been witness to many painful, hushed scenes here during the war years, but this silence is something different; it stretches between the four people sitting around the table, so heavy that Harry barely dares to breathe.

Beside him, Ginny bites her lip and flicks anxious eyes between her parents. He can't quite extinguish his guilt at letting her do most of the talking, but judging by the matching expressions of shock on Molly's and Arthur's faces, he knows they made the right decision. Ginny is diplomatic, perceptive and careful when it comes to the emotional stuff, and he is... well... not.

That said, he has developed a talent for reading expressions over the years, and is all too aware that the Weasleys are surprised and distressed by the news, even if he has no idea which—if any—words will help. Both faces are pale and lined, appearing older than usual, and though he knows that some of that tension has been caused by Great Aunt Mildred and her outlandish demands, that knowledge fails to mitigate his remorse. They have only been home for a couple of days. Harry had wanted to give them longer to recover from getting the old bat, as Molly calls her, back on her feet, but Ginny has somehow managed to talk him into 'getting it over with'; she has sent Lily off to Ron and Hermione's and squeezed his hand at regular intervals all the way up the winding path to the Burrow, as though trying to convince him that everything will be fine.

Which is how he has found himself sitting at Molly's kitchen table on a cold evening in mid-January, waiting for someone to bloody say something. There's a lot to be said for 'getting it over with', he thinks mutinously, staring into his empty coffee cup, but he is beginning to feel like he could still be sitting here this time next month, waiting for Molly to stop gaping at them with watery eyes and actually find some words. Any words will do at this point; he'd rather be yelled at and chased out of the house with a broom than endure another minute of this...

"Oh, Ginny," she whispers at last, tears finally overflowing as she gazes at her daughter. "Oh, Ginny, you can't be splitting up. You can't..." her voice trails off and she looks at her husband in desperation.

Arthur coughs and attempts to gather himself. "Have you thought this through?" he manages, putting a comforting arm around Molly's shoulders. He looks appealingly at Harry.

"We've done a lot of thinking," Harry assures, voice scratchy from underuse. "And a lot of talking. This is what's best for both of us. And the children."

"Oh!" Molly wails, bringing a wrinkled hand to her mouth. "They're just babies. Do they know about this?"

"They're pretty grown up, Mum," Ginny says, reaching for her mother's hand and finding a small smile for her that hurts Harry's heart. "They understand that it's better for Harry and I to be apart."

"How can it be?" Molly demands, gripping Ginny's hand so tightly that Harry catches a flicker of pain in her eyes. "I don't understand... either of you... this has come from nowhere. You just need some time, that's all."

Her eyes flash such anguish into Harry as she turns to look at him that all he wants to do is round the table and hug her to him, breathe in the familiar scent that has made him feel safe for almost as long as he can remember, and tell her that none of this is really happening. She's Ginny's mother; these are Ginny's parents, Ginny's family, but in all the ways that are important, they are his, too. Molly is his, and Arthur and Ron and George and all of them. If this goes wrong, he's not just losing his in-laws; he's losing the only proper family he has ever known.

Terrified, he pastes on what he hopes is a comforting smile and slides his arm briefly around Ginny's shoulders.

"It's been coming for a long time, Molly. I wish I could say that wasn't the case, but neither of us want to lie to you. We aren't angry at each other—it isn't anyone's fault. We still want to be friends."

Molly sniffs, draws a flowery handkerchief from her pocket, and starts mopping at her face with it.

"Oh, but... I just can't imagine you not together," she says, words muffled by the fabric. "There hasn't been a divorce in our family since—"

"I know, Mum," Ginny jumps in, presumably before Harry has chance to roll his eyes. "I'm really sorry to disappoint you," she adds, lowering her gaze, and the guilt that has been rolling around in Harry's stomach sharpens and stabs him between the ribs.

"I'm sorry, too," he says quietly.

Molly says nothing, instead disappearing behind her handkerchief and a cascade of soft, hiccupy sobs. Ginny lets out a small sound of distress and abandons her seat to comfort her; she kneels on the floor and wraps her arms around her mother, whispering to her and making a valiant but futile effort to contain her own tears.

Harry doesn't know where to look.

"Why don't we have a chat?" Arthur says suddenly. Harry's eyes snap to his. "You know, man to man."

Oh, god, yes, Harry thinks, nodding gratefully and scraping back his chair. He follows Arthur out of the back door, through the overgrown garden and into his shed. He can't remember when he was last here, but it's much the same as it has always been, and something about that, in the midst of the upheaval, is rather reassuring.

Inhaling the dry, musty air, Harry walks past a rack of tangled computer cables, lamp flexes and electric Christmas lights, ducks just in time to avoid an unravelling length of bright orange hosepipe as it slithers and crashes to the floor, and finally finds Arthur, perching on the edge of a dusty table and running his fingers over the glass plate of a beaten-up photocopier. The expression of affection on the old man's face is so earnest that Harry almost smiles.

Instead, he sits carefully on top of an ancient television set and waits. Arthur obviously has something to say to him, and he is more than willing to hear it.

At last, he sighs, abandons the photocopier and turns to Harry, brow creased and hands in his lap. Knowing how much he hates confrontation, Harry has to bite the inside of his mouth to prevent himself from leaping in and starting the conversation for Arthur.

"Harry," he says at last. Hesitates. "Harry... you're an adult now with a family of your own, and believe me, the last thing I want to do is talk down to you."

"I know that," Harry says, dragging his gaze up from where he's been watching a shiny beetle scuttling across the floor, and meeting Arthur's pale eyes.

"Good. Because I want to ask you... I want you to think about whether you've really tried to work things out, or if you're giving up because you're going through a rough patch."

Startled, Harry says nothing for a moment. "Erm, it's not really as simple as that," he says, recovering himself. He sighs. "Things have been bad for quite a long time, and we've both realised that we aren't getting what we need from being together." And we never will, he adds silently, drawing a veil over the ever-present image of Draco in his head.

Arthur laces his fingers together and regards Harry with a pained expression; he's uncomfortable, but determined, and in any other situation, Harry would be impressed with his fortitude.

"You know, if Molly and I had thrown in the towel the first time things got difficult, Ron and Ginny would never have been born," he says, pausing to allow Harry to absorb his words. "You have to work at a marriage, Harry. It's a commitment for life, you know?"

"I know," Harry says, struggling to keep a lid on his frustration but needing to, because this man means so ridiculously well; he always does. "And I love Ginny, but—"

"Isn't that enough?" Arthur cuts in, voice so soft that Harry feels sick. There's nothing but bewilderment and concern on his face, even as he regards the man who is walking away from his youngest child. His only daughter. His little girl.

"No," Harry says at last, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. It's no good. He's going to have to say it. Again. Harry takes a deep breath and reminds himself that although he is becoming weary of explaining his recent personal revelation to people, this is still Arthur's first time hearing it, and he deserves to hear it properly.

"Whatever it is, can't it be fixed?" Arthur asks, and Harry forces himself to meet his eyes. "Anything you need, Harry, anything at all—we can help. We're your family."

Breath catching in his chest, Harry forces the air out in a painful exhalation and shakes his head. "I really appreciate that. But we're just not the same people any more. And... I'm in love with someone else."

"What?" Arthur says faintly, and Harry just stares back at him, horrified with himself. He isn't exactly sure where that came from, but he wishes he could put it back in there.

"Er, yeah... I didn't really mean for it to come out like that," he admits, heart racing in a horrible, messy rhythm. He has no idea what he was thinking, coming out here. Right now he would trade this dark, cramped, expectant silence for ten sobbing Molly Weasleys, but that doesn't seem to be an option.

"You're... you're involved with someone else?" Arthur demands, brow furrowed in confusion.

Harry shakes his head, wrapping his fingers around the edge of his perch, clinging to the sharp edges of wood and the curve of glass as he holds eye contact with the man who has always treated him as a son.

"No," he says, feeling the line between truth and lies blurring into non-existence. "Nothing's happened."

"Then... Harry... does it really have to come between you and Ginny?" Arthur tries, but the strength is fading from his voice and now he just sounds sad.

"Yes. Because it's a man. I'm in love with another man, and I think that maybe I have been for a long time."

"Oh," Arthur croaks. "Oh." He lifts a hand and rubs vaguely at his face. His eyes, wide with shock, never leave Harry.

Half afraid that Arthur might be about to have a heart attack, Harry gets to his feet and crosses the cluttered floor, resting his hand on a wool-clad shoulder.

"I'm sorry. Are you okay?"

Arthur looks up, blinks, and seems to shake himself.

"Yes, yes, I'm fine, Harry... you needn't look at me like I'm going to explode," he says, shuffling along the table so that Harry can sink down next to him.

Harry shrugs and scrapes his shoe through the dust on the floor. "You looked like you might for a moment."

Arthur says nothing for a long time, just resting his hands on his thighs and staring intently at the fallen hosepipe as though utterly puzzled to see it on the floor.

"It's not the first time I've heard something like that," he says at last. "Though I can't say I ever expected to hear it from you."

"Charlie," Harry murmurs, lips twitching into a small smile without his permission.

"We were the only ones to be surprised, Molly and I," he says wistfully.

"Actually, that's not true," Harry says, recalling a recent conversation with another of the Weasley men. "Ron was surprised, too. Very surprised."

Hearing Arthur's smile, Harry lets out a long, careful breath, but he still doesn't dare to look at him as they sit, squashed together, side by side on the rickety old table that creaks under their combined weight with every tiny movement. He wonders how Ginny is getting on in the kitchen.

"You know... forgive me, Harry, but I have to ask you this—you're sure it's not just a passing... fancy? That you're reaching a certain point in your life? Because it's natural to, er, question things," Arthur says, voice fading to a mumble, and, when Harry sneaks a sidelong glance at him, his face is flushed crimson.

"Don't worry, everyone else seems to think I'm having a midlife crisis, too," he sighs. "But no, that's definitely not what this is." Harry frowns, suddenly unable to cleanse his mind of the idea of a forty-something Arthur questioning his sexuality, even if he's fairly certain that was not what he meant.

"Ginny knows about this, doesn't she?"

Harry nods. "Of course."

"It was... difficult for Charlie. You know, at first," Arthur says, thoughtful. "He struggled with it. Are you... struggling?"

Touched, Harry swallows hard. Lets his eyes fall closed for a moment. This man is still the steady, accepting father figure he has always been—despite everything. He's incredible.

"No, I think I've already done my struggling," he admits, allowing himself to catch Arthur's eye at last. Contrary to all his fears, there is nothing but concern and love etched across the pale, lined face.

"That's good, because I doubt these next few weeks are going to be easy."

"I know. But Gin's a strong woman. She's going to be okay," Harry insists.

Arthur smiles slowly. "I know that. I'm not worried about her. I'm worried about you."

Startled, and slightly stung, Harry sits up a little straighter. "I'll be fine," he says, just about resisting the urge to add: 'I'm strong, too!'

"I think you will," Arthur concedes after a moment's consideration. "Just be careful. It's one thing running around after Death Eaters and quite another throwing your heart after some daft lad who probably doesn't deserve it." He shrugs awkwardly and closes his mouth, as though ashamed of the odd little moment of candour.

"Thanks," Harry says in an almost-whisper, and falls silent. He has no idea what else to say; the conversation has taken a rather unexpected turn, and he hasn't had to defend himself nearly as much as he had been prepared to.

"I'm just saying," Arthur continues, scratching his head and fixing Harry with a significant look. "I don't want you to give up on your marriage—that's the truth. But if there's really no way you can make things work, all I want is to see you happy and safe, Harry. Ginny is my daughter, and she means the world to me, but so do you. We haven't been here for you all these years just to turn our backs when you need us. Your parents... they were good people, son, and I hate to think what they'd say if we only treated you as one of our own when it suited us."

Harry chest tightens, stealing all of the words he thought he might say, and all he can do is throw his arm around Arthur and embrace him roughly, stung with relief when surprisingly strong hands come up to clutch at his back, grazing rough wool against the skin of his neck and filling his nostrils with the scent of woodsy aftershave and baking. He holds on for long seconds, allowing his fear and tension to pour out of him and evaporate into the stuffy atmosphere of the shed.

"Thank you," Harry mumbles as they pull apart, both pretending not to notice the telltale shimmer in the other's eyes.

"I can talk to Molly if you like," Arthur offers. "She'll probably take it easier from me, won't have to keep stopping to cry, and such."

Harry chews his lip. The offer is tempting, but something stubborn and irritating inside him is insisting that he be a grown-up and deal with this himself.

"I don't know..."

"Let me help you," Arthur says, seeming to sense his reluctance. "Please."

"Are you sure?"

Arthur smiles grimly. "I've known Molly for nearly sixty years; believe me, I'm the one to handle this. It's the idea of a divorce that's upsetting her, apart from the idea that you're both heartbroken and never to be happy again. Hers is the dramatic side of the family," he confides with a weary little sigh. "As for the rest, well, she's been through it once before. Look at her now, she's practically adopted Serghei."

Harry takes a deep breath and gets to his feet. "Okay. If you're sure."

Arthur nods, and Harry takes his leave, picking his way through the shed, back across the garden and into the house, where he finds Ginny and Molly, sitting side by side at the table, nursing cups of tea in silence. Impulsively, he swoops down on Molly and hugs her, whispering a final "I'm sorry" and a hopeful "See you soon" against her tear-stained cheek before exchanging glances with Ginny and Disapparating on the spot. As he touches down in Ron and Hermione's back garden, he realises that Arthur never once asked him for the name of the man with whom he had fallen in love.

**~*~**

Ten minutes later, Ginny appears on the frozen grass and makes her way over to Harry, hands in pockets. With a soft sigh, she lowers herself onto the back step beside him.

"How's she doing?" Harry asks.

"Well, she's not crying any more. I decided to absent myself when Dad came in and started muttering about Charlie."

"About that..." Harry drops his head onto his arms for a moment and then looks up at her, mouth twisting into a rueful smile. "It all just sort of came out."

Ginny snorts. "Yeah, there's been a lot of that lately, hasn't there?"

Harry groans softly, feeling the back of his neck heat despite the bitterly cold air.

Ginny nudges his knee with her own. "She'll be alright, I think. Just give her some time to get over the shock of the first divorce in the family for twelve billion years. Looks like Dad's going to help her with that, anyway."

"I hope so." Harry sighs. "Though I don't feel as though I deserve for them to be so understanding."

"It isn't about what you deserve," Ginny says, eyes gleaming in the moonlight. "It's about them wanting to look after both of us—they're your family, too." She frowns and looks away over Hermione's neat flower beds. "Which is a bit weird now that I think about it."

Harry shakes his head and envelops her in a warm, coconut-scented, one-armed hug, pressing his smile against her soft hair. "Don't," he advises.

She leans against him for a moment. "Have you—" She breaks off and they both turn at the sound of Lily's shrieks and giggles of protest from somewhere inside the cottage: "Uncle Ron, put me down!"

Ginny shakes her head. "Have you done the announcement?"

Harry reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of parchment, which she takes from him, holding it close to her face in the poor light and scanning the words with narrowed eyes.

"Sounds good," she says at last, folding it carefully and handing it back to him. "It's strange, you know... once upon a time you'd have rather turned up to work naked than volunteered information to the Prophet. Everything really is changing."

"Well, hiding hasn't been working all that well for me, to be honest. I doubt it's going to get any better when they get wind of all this—which they will, whether I tell them or not," Harry says.

"I know," Ginny says. "It's not a criticism. It hasn't always been easy to watch every word that comes out of my mouth in public, you know."

"I'm sorry," Harry mumbles, dragging in a cool, deep breath and expelling his guilt into the air.

"Don't," she whispers, and then there's silence, but for the rustling of the trees in the wind.

Harry listens, still wrestling with the stark and thrilling fact that Draco Malfoy has kept the potentially explosive news of Harry's divorce to himself. He's had well over a week to do it, plenty of time, but Harry has combed through the newspapers every morning since their meeting at the Quidditch game, and come up with nothing. As he turns the folded parchment over and over in his hands, the tangle of anticipation and terror inside him crackles and burns brighter with cautious hope for this universe's Draco.

"I'd better go and get Lily before Ron gets her too riled up to sleep," Ginny says at last, resting hands on her knees and levering herself upright.

"Okay." Harry offers her a weary smile as she goes for the door. "I'll owl this in the morning. And... Gin?"

She pauses and looks down at him. "Yeah?"

"They'll want to talk to you—you should do as many interviews as you want," he says firmly.

Ginny shoots him a small, amused smile. "If I think of anything to say to them, which I doubt. Still, I suppose it's a novelty to have the option. Goodnight, Harry."

She pushes the door open, releasing a brief pool of light from the kitchen, the sounds of a giggly argument and the warm, herby aroma of sausages, and then she's gone, and Harry is left in darkness, clutching his bit of parchment and waiting.

**~*~**

Two days later, the morning Prophet runs with 'Harry and Ginny Potter in Shock Split' on the front page, and everyone in the wizarding world—at least, everyone who can read, and everyone who knows someone who can read—knows about the split.

Harry can't say he's surprised that the news has made the headlines, but he still feels a little irritated when he thinks of the Malfoys' discreet little notice in the back of the paper, compared to this article which somehow manages to take up half of the front page. Their official statement is in there somewhere, but Harry has to search to find it amongst the speculation and not-quite-accurate details about their family life. None of it is particularly offensive, but Harry rolls his eyes at the suggestion that Ginny has left Harry because he has been holding back her 'illustrious Gringotts career', and the idea that the split is nothing but a publicity stunt, designed to 'boost the Harry Potter brand'.

Buried mid-column are the words that Harry had agonised over, had sat up all night writing, screwing up sheet after sheet of parchment and resisting the urge to throw things only because Hugo was sleeping in the next room.

It is with regret that Harry and Ginevra Potter (nee Weasley) announce that they are beginning divorce proceedings. The decision to separate was mutual and amicable and the couple remain on friendly terms. James, Albus Severus, and Lily Potter will remain at the family home at Willoughby Drive, Ottery St Catchpole, with their mother, but will also spend time with their father, who is looking for a property in London.

Reading the words now, at an oddly silent breakfast table, Harry sighs. He'd been fairly satisfied at the time, but now the words seem stilted and awkward. Still, he supposes no one will be concentrating on his dry little statement when they have the rest of the article to absorb. The picture the editors have chosen isn't a bad one; it's a shot of the whole family at Luna's wedding a couple of years ago. Everyone is dressed in bright colours, as requested, and even Harry is smiling, but now his anxiety, his restlessness, is so obvious, and Ginny just looks pale and weary.

"Well," Hermione says at last, setting down her copy of the Prophet and looking at Harry. "I think it could have been a lot worse."

"I agree," Ron says vehemently. He picks up his so-far-untouched bacon sandwich and takes a large, relieved bite. "To be honest, I thought they were going to write a load of lies, say Ginny'd been having an affair or something."

Harry glances between them, seeing the flicker of worry in Ron's eyes and Hermione's barely concealed fretting as she waits for his verdict.

"You're right," he says. "It could be a lot worse."

Hermione almost seems to deflate with relief at his words, and reaches for the teapot, avoiding Harry's eyes, as though attempting to convince him that she'd never been concerned at all.

"Uncle Harry?" pipes up Hugo, who has been picking through his cereal with silent absorption since the Prophet owls arrived.

"Mm?"

The little boy looks up at Harry with curious round eyes. "Are you going to live with us forever?"

"Er, no," he says, heart twisting as Hugo's face drops in disappointment. "But I'll still visit. You know, like I used to."

Hugo scowls and resumes his poking around in his cereal bowl.

Ron gazes at Harry over the top of his sandwich, obviously amused. Harry pulls a face at him.

"I think it's time to start looking for my own place."

**~*~**

Harry spends the rest of the week sifting through the details of properties for sale in London, weighing up the advantages and drawbacks of Muggle and wizarding areas and making list upon list as he sits at Ron and Hermione's kitchen table, sprawls across the Weasley-made quilt that covers his temporary bed, and hides in his office behind his memo mountain, trying to avoid the openly curious stares of his Ministry colleagues and taking refuge in Helga's wonderfully consistent disinterest in his personal life and sharp-tongued observations about the state of his health.

In between list-making and the usual tide of meetings, Harry finds time to meet with Ginny, drink more coffee than he should, and complete their side of the paperwork which will make their separation official and permanent. At lunchtime on Friday, they walk out of the imposing legal building into bright, crisp sunshine, not quite divorced but knowing it's only a document away now. It's a strange, disconnected feeling, squinting at Ginny in the sunlight and realising that in a week or two, when the last of the paperwork comes through, it will all be over. Still, he thinks of Draco and his pained expression when he'd explained that he was still waiting for things to be finalised, and knows it's better this way.

On Saturday morning, Harry gathers up his lists, dresses warmly, and collects Lily. He's been looking forward to spending some time with her, especially now that the boys are back at school, and he knows that she's anxious about the idea of her dad moving too far away; he also knows that it's time for him to move out of Ron and Hermione's spare room, and the idea of killing several figurative birds with one stone is appealing.

She's uncertain at first but slowly gains enthusiasm as she and Harry follow the estate agents around a variety of houses, inspecting the small, neat gardens of those on the outskirts of London, and hanging curiously over the railings of the balconies of those in the centre, watching the traffic with interest. For a girl who has never lived anywhere but sleepy Ottery St Catchpole, the city is new and thrilling, and Harry relishes Lily's excitement, allowing her to tug the list from his hands and pull him along the street to the next property, even if she doesn't really know where she's going, and even though she is definitely going the wrong way.

It doesn't matter. Suddenly, all he's concerned about is making sure that she knows she has a place in his life, wherever he lives and whoever he lives with.

"This one has a swing!" she enthuses, dashing in from the garden of a large suburban semi and almost barrelling straight into the very nice but painfully young man who has been explaining to Harry exactly why it's so important to have a modern fitted kitchen.

"Great," Harry says, amused. He extracts a bitten pen from his coat pocket and adds: 'pros: has swing' to his list.

"Got a nice big garden, this one," the man agrees, apparently pleased. "Lots of room for patio furniture, barbecues, having a kickabout, you know."

"A kick-about of what?" Lily asks, puzzled.

"I mean a game of football," the man explains, sketching a little mime for Lily's benefit.

Lily glances up at Harry, and then at the estate agent. "Well, we don't play football, we play—"

"Shall we have a look upstairs, then?" Harry interrupts, dropping a hand to Lily's shoulder and delivering a light squeeze. She blinks and then flashes her most charming smile at the young estate agent.

"I'm going to go and look for my room!" she announces, taking off at speed.

They follow her at a more sedate pace, and Harry is barely listening as the patter starts up again. Lily has chosen 'her' bedroom in every house they have viewed so far, and he is happy to let her. There will be room for all of his children, of course, but it's only Lily who is still willing to admit that she needs her dad, and he's bloody well going to be there for her.

"Ooh, skylights!"

"All double-glazed," the young man offers. "Weather-proofed frames."

Pros: skylights, Harry writes. He ignores the rest. It doesn't seem important.

By mid-afternoon, they have visited almost all of the houses on Harry's list; Lily is starting to flag, and she's not alone. Harry buys them each a cone of chips from a cafe full of blue-haired old women and they find a place to sit. Lily pulls her feet up onto the bench, tucks her cone into her lap and squeezes a sachet of ketchup over her chips with great concentration.

"So, what did you think?" Harry asks, biting into a chip and relishing the explosion of too-hot potato, salt, vinegar and grease on his tongue.

"About the houses?"

Harry nods. "Yeah. And you've got tomato sauce on your nose."

Lily pokes out her tongue and swipes away the ketchup with ease. "The tall house. The one with all the bathrooms."

"The townhouse?" Harry asks, surprised. There had barely been any garden there at all. "Why?"

"You liked that one best," Lily says simply.

Harry smiles, elbowing her in the side. "I want to know which one you liked best."

Lily shrugs. "I liked them all, apart from the one that smelled funny. Can I have the attic room?"

"You can have whatever room you want, Lil."

Harry ruffles her hair and dabs a chip into her ketchup. His daughter is perceptive, he'll give her that—he had liked the townhouse best. Tall and narrow, it had wound upwards on rickety staircases over four floors, from a basement kitchen to a tiny, neglected roof garden; the decor was plain and slightly shabby, and according to the brutally honest lady who had shown them around, it hadn't been lived in for a long time. She had seemed fairly startled that anyone wanted to view it at all, but Harry had loved it.

He knows why, too, even though he doesn't want to admit it. He likes it because it reminds him of number twelve, Grimmauld Place, and he's not sure how he feels about that, or even what he should be feeling. Even though the sensible voice in his head is insisting that this move should be a step forward, not a step back, the pull toward the characterful old house is intense.

"I did like it," he admits at last.

Lily licks her fingers. "I know. You had this daft smile on your face for nearly the whole time we were in there."

Harry grins, embarrassed. "Great, thanks for saying nothing and letting me make an idiot of myself."

"It's not my job to stop you making an idiot of yourself," Lily advises him.

"Isn't it? Whose job is it, then?"

Lily wrinkles her nose. "I don't know. I think maybe it was Mum's, so... I suppose you have to do it for yourself now."

Anxious, Harry shoots her a sidelong glance, but there's no trace of distress on her face; she's peering into the depths of her cone and fishing for chip fragments, apparently unconcerned. Harry breathes.

"I liked it because it reminded me of a house I lived in for a while when I was younger," he says, deciding that she's old enough and smart enough to have at least part of the truth.

Lily gazes up at him, surprised. "Before you met Mum?"

"No. I met your mum was I was eleven; this was later. It was during the war—it wasn't the nicest place back then and it was a pretty difficult time for everyone." Harry pauses, frowning as he folds his empty polystyrene chip cone with a crack. "I suppose it seems silly to be attached to it. It used to belong to Sirius Black, remember I told you about him?"

Lily nods gravely. "Well, then, it's not silly."

You don't know the half of it, Harry thinks, finding a smile for his daughter.

"Okay," he says. "The townhouse it is."

"Can we paint it purple?"

Harry lifts an eyebrow. "All of it? Don't you think that'll be a bit much?"

"Dad. I meant my room," Lily says, just for a moment managing to look deeply disparaging.

"Ah, okay. I don't see why not. When the sale goes through, which I think it will, because it doesn't look like anyone else wants to buy it, you can come over and help me decorate."

Lily smiles and stretches out, letting her arms and legs flop groundwards like a starfish.

"Mum says it's good that you're getting your own place," she says.

"I think it's good, too." Harry hesitates, but in the end has to ask. "How is your mum?"

Lily closes her eyes and doesn't say a word for several seconds. "She's okay."

"Really?" Harry prods.

Lily opens one eye. "Yeah. She's sad sometimes, but when I asked her... she said she was sad before a lot of the time, and that was worse. I don't really know why."

Harry knows why. He nods, swallowing down the curious mixture of relief and shame that rises up in his throat. "I want her to be happy, you know."

"I know," Lily says, still regarding him carefully with one brown eye. "She is sometimes. It's just weird that everyone went away at once, and now it's just me and Mum in the house. Sometimes it's good, though—last night we made fairy cakes and put cucumbers on our eyes."

Harry smiles. "At the same time?"

"Dad, you're not funny."

"Sorry."

"I miss you, though," she says, and now both eyes are open and pinning Harry to the spot, making him ache.

"I miss you, too, Lil," he rasps, taking a chance and holding out his arm for her.

After a moment, she shuffles closer on the bench and tucks herself against his side, pressing her face into his coat and hugging him tightly.

"Have you fallen out with Grandma and Grandad?" she asks eventually, voice muffled by the heavy wool of Harry's ancient overcoat.

"No, why would you say that?"

"I went to their house after school the other night, and I must've walked quicker than usual because they didn't realise I was there at first. I heard them talking, and Grandma said she wanted to call you and Grandad said she should leave it until the dust had come down, whatever that means."

"Settled," Harry murmurs distractedly.

"What?"

"Until the dust has settled, it's an expression. It means... when something big has happened, like if there's been an explosion, and you wait for everything to settle down so that you can see where you are, and figure out what to do," Harry explains, knowing he's making a hash of it.

Lily nods her understanding, eyes narrowed. "So... who exploded?"

Harry bites down a smile. "Your grandma, I suppose, but don't tell her I said that."

"James said she'd be upset," Lily muses. "I suppose he must be right about some things."

"I suppose so," Harry agrees. "She was upset, but don't worry. It'll be okay. If she wants to talk to me, then that must be a good sign."

Lily gazes at the ground, apparently unconvinced.

"Look," he says, wrapping his hands around her shoulders and holding her at arm's length, forcing eye contact. "I'm not going to let this break us up. You and me, and James and Al, and Grandma and Grandad, even me and your mum—we're a family, and families stick together, no matter what."

Lily stares at him, eyes large, and bites on her bottom lip. "Do you promise?"

Harry promises, and all the uncertainty in the world doesn't stop him from meaning it.

**~*~**

Feeling cautiously optimistic, both about the prospect of his new home and a conciliatory meeting with his surrogate mother, Harry presses on with his work, hangs fast onto the strings of his responsibilities, tries to avoid making a nuisance of himself in his friends' home, and even manages to find a civil word or two for the reporters who have now taken to leaping out at him from behind bushes and accosting him outside the Ministry. He suspects that word of the recent drop in his hostility levels has spread amongst them like scrofungulus, and now they're everywhere.

The odd thing, though, is that, while the frequent questions are a mild irritant, Harry can't seem to muster the all-consuming rage for the opportunistic buggers that used to come so easily. He's just not as angry these days, he supposes, and that must be a good thing.

When he returns from work on a cold, dark Wednesday night, rain-splattered and head full of bewildering columns of numbers, he walks into a silent, empty cottage. Puzzled but too tired to give it much thought, he picks up the post from the mat and trudges toward the kitchen, opening the letter addressed to him as he goes, the thought of hot tea encouraging him to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

"I got the house," he mumbles to himself, lips twitching into a weary smile as he scans the words, fingers grasping the thick, heavy paper in delight, terror, and triumph in equal measure.

Sagging slightly, he leans against the half-open kitchen door, trails across the tiles, dumps all the letters on the worktop and reaches for the kettle. Idly, he wonders who left the lights on; Hermione will do her nut if she finds out.

"That's wonderful news, Harry," someone says, and he nearly drops the kettle.

He whips around, water sloshing heavily inside the copper pot, and meets the nervous eyes of Molly Weasley, who is sitting at the table with her hands folded in her lap, as though she's been waiting for him.

He lets out his breath in a rush and immediately feels like an idiot. "You scared me to death," he admits. "I don't know what kind of an Auror that makes me."

"A tired one, by the looks of you," Molly says. "Why don't you come and sit down?"

Harry hesitates for a second or two before reluctantly relinquishing the kettle and depositing his weary body in the chair opposite Molly's. "Where is everyone?"

"Back at the Burrow. I told Arthur he could buy supper for everyone from that new chips and fish shop in the village," Molly says, an indulgent glimmer in her eyes.

Harry smiles. Takes a deep breath. "So... how are you doing?"

"Actually, that's what I came to ask you," Molly says softly. "I hope you can forgive me for leaving it so long."

Her hands, freckled and crepey, twist in her lap as she regards him, making him uncomfortably aware of her frailty, however hard she tries to hide it with her no-nonsense maternal stare and the stoic set of her shoulders that the passing of time has done nothing to diminish. Even as she smiles at him, he can see the shame pulling at the corners of her mouth and something inside him tugs painfully in response.

"I don't need to forgive you," he says roughly. "You're allowed to be upset."

"You're a good boy, Harry," she says, reaching across the table and squeezing his wrist. "You know... it's difficult for a mother to realise that she has missed something so important. I couldn't... I still can't believe that I didn't realise you were both so unhappy."

Harry sighs. "I know. But... if it's any comfort, I don't think we knew, either. We were just... sleepwalking," he says, remembering Ginny's description and realising that it's the most accurate one he has. Molly's face creases with sadness and Harry grabs her hand. "It's going to be okay," he insists.

"Arthur and I talked about what you said," she says. "You know, in the shed."

Harry swallows hard. "Yes, I thought you might've."

"And I just want to say that it makes no difference to me. None at all," she says fiercely, leaning across the table toward him, eyes blazing.

Taken aback by the sudden vehemence, Harry just nods, unable to form a coherent response.

"I love you, Harry," she continues, barely blinking, and if Harry weren't so entrenched in the gravity of it all, he would probably find it amusing to witness this little old woman staring holes into him and offering words of love from between clenched teeth.

"I know," Harry manages at last. "I love you, too."

"Good. So you know that I won't abandon you, disown you, or... what was it?" She drops her eyes for a second or two and, to Harry's growing bemusement, rummages in the pockets of her multicoloured cardigan and extracts a battered piece of parchment. She retrieves her reading glasses from the top of her head and puts them on to scan the words. "Ah, yes. ‘Promise that you will not abandon, disown, or psychologically torture my father. He loves you and he can't help it if he's queer. Which is an okay word to use, don't worry, I asked a friend of mine who knows about these things.'"

Unable to decide whether to laugh, cringe, or hide his face in his hands, Harry manages a decent approximation of all three.

"Oh, god," he mumbles, snorting inelegantly and looking at Molly from between his fingers. "What is that?"

Molly folds the parchment and gives him an odd little smile. "That is a letter from James, which I received this morning. Well, some of it, anyway. There's plenty more, but that was the part that jumped out at me."

"Oh..." Harry bites his tongue just in time to stop himself from swearing. "I'm sorry. I'm sure he meant well, he was probably—"

"Trying to look after his dad?" Molly supplies, tilting her head to regard Harry.

"Yeah. Look, I'll write back to him and tell him that he shouldn't speak to you like that," he says, dropping his hands back to the table. Secretly, he rather wants to hug James and raise his pocket money, but he suspects this is one of those 'act like a responsible dad' moments.

"No need," Molly says, tucking the letter back into her pocket. "I've already written to him and told him that, seeing as I have no intention of doing any of those things, he could stop worrying and start studying." She smiles then, and Harry can do nothing but smile with her.

Relieved and drained, Harry rests his chin on one hand and lets his gaze drift indolently around the kitchen. The soft light makes the scrubbed pine table glow, and the sound of the rain slapping against the windows wraps Harry in such a sensation of warmth and safety that he can almost forget that his boots are waterlogged, his robes are damp, and his brain seems to be pounding against the inside of his skull.

"Why do these conversations always seem to take place at kitchen tables?" he muses, covering a yawn.

"Because the kitchen is the heart of the house," Molly says. "Why do you think we always had Order meetings in the kitchen in the old days?"

"I hadn't really thought about it," Harry admits, and Molly's expression is suddenly one of good-natured reproach. Harry has never been happier to see it.

"I know Ginny knows more about this than she's telling me," she says, putting Harry on the spot once more. "About this man."

Harry looks down at the table, stomach roiling. "There's nothing to worry about, Molly. Nothing's happened. I think it's best to... deal with one thing at a time right now."

Molly makes a small sound of dissatisfaction. "Charlie was afraid to talk to me at first," she says, almost in a whisper, and Harry looks up. "I don't want you to be afraid to talk to me."

For a brief moment, she looks terrified, and then, just as quickly, it's gone, concealed behind the usual cheerful, expectant smile.

"I'm not," he reassures. "I promise."

Molly stares at him for several seconds before heaving herself out of her chair, apparently satisfied. "Shall we have a cup of tea?"

Harry nods gratefully. "Brilliant. Can I have a look at that letter?"

**~*~**

Lightened by Molly's visit and fortified by a huge, warming supper at the Burrow with Lily and her grandparents the next night, Harry finds that the rest of the week trundles by quite nicely; he flies through his memos, signs off on everything that takes his fancy, and alarms Helga by dragging a chair up to her desk and chatting to her as he eats his lunch. The certain knowledge that he's not about to lose his family and that he will be able to move into his house in a week or so cuts a sharp, glittering stripe through his guilt and apprehension, and he's beginning to feel as though he can deal with anything.

Anything, it seems, except shopping for clothes.

Having put it off for as long as possible, Harry finally caves on Saturday morning after catching sight of himself in the spare room's full-length mirror and realising that he can no longer in good conscience allow himself to walk around dressed like a sixty-something librarian. He heads into London, without a scrap of a plan this time, and spends an enjoyable hour or two procrastinating wildly, wandering in and out of little furniture shops and putting aside tables and sofas and beautiful tapestry rugs for his new house. With Molly's advice in mind, he spends an obscene amount on a big, old solid oak kitchen table and matching chairs, and then, oddly excited to be choosing his own furniture for the first time ever, he gathers lamps and little cupboards and a whole new set of shiny red cookware.

He solicits the help of an enthusiastic young salesgirl at Bedknobs and Blankets who seems delighted to help Harry choose new linen, quilts, and a fantastic wrought iron bed frame with a permanent Charm-Chilled mattress, which, she tells him, is, "awesome, honestly, sir, I've got one at home."

Reluctantly, and many, many Galleons lighter, Harry steps back out into Diagon Alley and starts on the far less agreeable task of buying himself a decent wardrobe. He could have done with Lily's honesty and eye for colour, but she is ice skating with her friends from school, so he's on his own. He supposes she can come over to the cottage tomorrow and laugh at his efforts, but it's not really the same.

Bewildered, he walks from one brightly-lit shop to the next, hoping for something to jump out at him, but it doesn't seem quite as simple as that; the fancier the shop, the less stuff there is in it, and the more the smartly-dressed salespeople gaze at him with curious, doubtful eyes, as though they know he doesn't belong. He has spent a good ten minutes flicking through a rack of patterned shirts and frowning when one of them approaches him, coughs lightly and waits.

Harry looks up. This one is older than the others, older than him, even, and he relaxes a fraction.

"Can I help you?" he says, voice soft and careful.

Harry sighs. "Honestly, I've no idea."

The man's lips barely move, but his pale blue eyes sparkle. "If you tell me what you're looking for, I may be able to find it for you," he offers.

Harry chews his lip and thinks. Stares down at the rack of loud printed garments and knows they're not him. Not either of the hims, in fact. What he's looking for, he realises, is some sort of compromise between the high fashion wardrobe of his other self and the part of him that likes comfortable, worn jeans with holes in them. He imagines Draco leaning over his shoulder and heaving a dramatic sigh.

"And this is why you don't buy your own clothes. You have no idea what you're doing."

Caught between longing and the desire to stand on the imaginary Draco's foot, Harry looks up at the man who is offering to rescue him and smiles.

"I don't like these shirts," he declares, wrapping his hand around the cool metal rail. "If that helps."

"It's a start, sir," the man says delicately.

"Good." Harry looks at him hard, trying to assess his reaction to the honesty that is about to emerge. "I just don't want to look old any more."

The man's eyes gleam. "Come with me."

**~*~**

Over the next hour or so, Harry tries on what feels like everything single item in his size on the shop floor, quickly surrendering to the superior knowledge of the man with the sparkling eyes, who appears at regular intervals to pass him another stack of shirts, trousers and sweaters and then waits patiently for him to emerge from his velvet-curtained cubicle. After the first few outfits, Harry's self-conscious awkwardness starts to fade, and he presents himself openly for approval, staring thoughtfully at his reflection in the many gleaming mirrors as the salesman flits around him, straightening a lapel here and smoothing down a shirt front there, flicking ties and scarves around Harry's neck and then frowning and whisking them away for reasons which are a mystery to Harry.

"Turn around, Mr Potter, just so that we can see how that coat moves with you," he instructs.

Nonplussed, Harry obeys, thinking that this coat—a calf-length woollen overcoat, which is at least the fourth in a succession of similar garments that he has tried—moves with him just fine. Even so, he knows all too well that he knows less than nothing about this stuff. His attempts to dress himself over the years have, he now sees, been woefully inadequate, and in the absence of Draco, his best option is to trust this man. He's quite possibly the politest individual Harry has ever met, and though he has never once asked for Harry's measurements, every item, without exception, that he has offered has fit him perfectly. Harry is reluctantly impressed.

"Very good," the man murmurs, tapping long fingers against his face in contemplation. "Try the jade cashmere with those trousers, perhaps?"

Harry ducks into his cubicle and rummages through his pile of sweaters, attempting to decide between two fine-knit jumpers in almost identical shades of blue-green.

"Why are you so useless when it comes to colours?" Draco's voice echoes in his head, making him close his eyes and drag in a deep, steadying breath. "You're supposed to be an artist."

Harry shakes himself, turns around and waves both sweaters at the man. "Which one of these is jade green? They both look the same to me."

The pale eyes gleam and the smallest twitch of a smile graces the man's lips as he indicates the garment in Harry's left hand. "That is why I am here," he says evenly.

Harry grins, ducks back behind the curtain and exchanges the heavy coat and fitted shirt for the gloriously soft sweater, resolutely tucking in the price tag before he can catch sight of it.

"Right then, what d'you think of this?" he asks, striding out into the room with the mirrors and presenting himself, straight-backed, arms held out for inspection. At this point, it really doesn't matter if he looks like a tit. There's no one here but the two of them, and he's bloody well determined to do this properly... if he does, perhaps he won't have to do it again for a long time.

"Mr Potter, I do believe that is your colour," the man says, eyes darting from Harry to his reflection as he smoothes an invisible crease from a sleeve and nods slowly.

"Really?" Harry scrubs at his hair, uncertain.

"Yes. Look at your face—it looks alive," the man says.

Harry follows his gaze, pleasant surprise flickering inside him as he realises that the man is right. The deep, vivid colour makes his skin look healthy, his teeth whiter and his eyes bright green and sparkling behind his glasses; it's incredible. All those years he has wasted wearing sludgy colours seem to fall away, and the man who stares back at him from the mirror looks so much like his other self, the man from the glimpse, that it's all Harry can do to tear his attention back to the salesman, who is hovering behind him, expectant, with eyebrows raised.

"Yeah," he manages at last. "You're right."

The man inclines his head gracefully. "I'm glad you agree."

"I suppose I'd better have it, then," Harry says.

"Very good. Though... I think we still have some way to go."

"I know, I know," Harry assures, grinning and heading back into the cubicle. "I'm quite aware that you haven't finished with me. What's next?"

**~*~**

By the time Harry finally lets himself into the cottage, laden with bags, and having spent more money than his conscience wants to acknowledge, darkness has fallen thickly and there is a savage nip in the air. Grateful for the fire that he can feel even before he fights his way into the living room, he sniffs at the soft aroma of tea and wonders if there is someone around from whom he should hide his purchases. In the end, though, he just flops into an armchair next to the fireplace and dumps his bags at his feet. Through half-closed eyes, he regards his tatty old jeans and scuffed boots. He wonders if he'll miss them.

"Harry, is that you?" Hermione calls from the kitchen. "Do you want a cup of tea?"

"Hermione, I would sell one of my kidneys for a cup of tea," he sighs, closing his eyes.

"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that," she laughs, the creaking of the ancient floorboards announcing her arrival in the living room. "I'm just boiling the kettle again, so—oh, my... have you been shopping?"

Harry opens his eyes and tilts back his head, regarding her over the back of his chair at a twisty, almost-upside-down angle. "Absolutely not."

"Really. What's in all these bags, then?" Hermione asks, folding her arms and fixing Harry with a knowing grin.

"Er... toys for poor children," Harry improvises.

Hermione snorts and steps around the chair, crosses the rug, and settles herself in front of the fire, within easy reach of Harry's bags. Sighing, he twists back around and attempts a stern glare, but it doesn't stick for even a second; the amusement on her face tells him that much.

Suddenly, her eyebrows shoot up and she leans forward on her hands to get a better look at him.

"Have you had your hair cut, too?"

Harry rakes his fingers through his hair uncertainly. "Not much," he mumbles, all at once very aware of himself. Hermione's intense, calculating gaze isn't helping, either. "I was in there for ages for the amount of hair she actually cut off," he complains. "She said it's on-purpose messy instead of haven't-got-a-clue messy, whatever that means."

"I can't believe it," Hermione says, sitting back on her heels and shaking her head.

"Me neither. I have to put stuff on it," Harry divulges, fishing a small, shiny red tin from his pocket and throwing it to Hermione, who catches it neatly and examines it.

"Smells nice," she says, screwing the lid back into place. "And it looks good, really—I'm just a bit startled."

"No, really?" Harry grins.

Hermione sticks out her tongue and lobs the tin at Harry's chest with more force than necessary, scowling when he catches it in one hand.

"I think it's good... you've never really made the most of yourself," she says.

Unsure whether or not to be offended, Harry lifts an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"

Hermione flushes, but when she looks at the floor, her eyes fall upon the bags. "So, what did you buy?" she demands, looking up, all traces of embarrassment gone.

"Just a few things."

"Show me," she wheedles, swaying slightly from side to side like a python scrounging for bacon.

Harry hesitates.

"Ron and Hugo are upstairs, you know," she says casually.

"Doing what?"

"Pretending to be submarines, the last I heard, but I'm sure I could persuade them to come downstairs if Uncle Harry was putting on a fashion show..."

"Okay, okay," Harry interrupts hastily. He has no desire to model his new wardrobe for Ron, who always does an appalling job of covering up his amusement, or Hugo, who is at that painfully honest stage, and is unlikely to hold back if he thinks his Uncle Harry looks like a troll in drag, though probably not in so many words. If he's honest, he's quite worried about wearing some of them in front of anyone, despite what the smiley-eyed salesman might have said.

"Fantastic," Hermione says, sitting back on the rug, face lit up in a triumphant smile.

Harry sighs and reaches for the first bag, extracting a pair of tailored charcoal-coloured trousers with a pointlessly fiendish fastener. "I'm not putting them on," he says.

"I don't need you to. I have an imagination," she advises him, reaching out and running the heavy fabric between her fingers approvingly. "Very smart."

Relieved, Harry puts them aside and shows her several more pairs of trousers and three pairs of fitted, terrifyingly expensive jeans: one dark, one light, and one with ripped patches and bleach splashes that the man in the shop had informed him were 'the thing to be wearing right now'.

"Now, these I would like to see you in," Hermione says, holding up the fashionable jeans and gazing at them with something like envy. "You're a brave man."

Harry snorts. "Well, we'll see about that if I ever actually put them on."

He rifles through the remaining bags and finds the jade green sweater, holds it up to his face and raises an expectant eyebrow.

"Ooh, that's lovely. I'm beginning to think you had help with this."

Harry drops the sweater into his lap and shoots her a withering glance. "Of course I did. If I was on my own, I would have come home with even more brown crap." He fishes out another knitted thing, this one in a rich dark red. "What about this one?"

"I like it."

"And this?" A black shirt with dull silver buttons.

"Very classy."

"This?" A dark blue t-shirt with unusual white stitching and a ragged, frayed hem.

"Harry, I have a feeling that is incredibly trendy," Hermione says, smiling.

"Behave. And this one?"

"Er... interesting?" Hermione hedges, nose wrinkling at the sight of the garment Harry is holding up.

He gazes at it, feeling now more than ever that the otherwise astute salesman has made a strange mistake with this one. It's just very... orange. And no one needs that many zips, especially when none of them seem to do anything except get in the way.

"Bit much?"

Hermione laughs. "Just a smidge."

Harry grins and tosses the bizarre orange creation (that the salesman had assured him would make him look 'right on trend') into the nearest bag. "Ah, well. One out of what feels like several hundred isn't too bad for a failure rate."

"I think that's your midlife crisis shirt," she says, ducking out of the way as Harry tries to swipe at her with a bag full of t-shirts.

"I think you promised me a cup of tea," he points out, flopping back into the chair.

She gets to her feet, still giggling, and pats his knee as she makes her way back into the kitchen.

"Periscope up!" yells Hugo, followed seconds later by an almighty clatter, a splash, and the sound of Ron making what seems to be whale noises.

Remembering Hermione's warning, Harry gathers his bags and stuffs them into the cupboard in the spare bedroom. Then, with a strange, jittery feeling of relief, he piles anything brown, old, or shapeless into a heap on the floor, hanging onto just one scruffy pair of jeans—the ones he's wearing, just because—he draws his wand and banishes the lot.

**~*~**

After dinner, which he cooks, in an attempt to give Hermione a night off, Harry retreats into the spare bedroom and tries on all of his new clothes again, turning this way and that in front of the mirror and trying to remember the salesman's advice about what goes with what. When he's reassured himself that he doesn't look like the male equivalent of mutton-dressed-as-lamb, he flops back onto the bed and listens to the soft rumble of his friends' conversation as it filters underneath his door.

"I've put Hugo to bed," Ron says, clomping heavily across the living room floorboards. "Do you want to—"

"Ron, keep your voice down," Hermione hisses. "You'll wake Harry."

"He won't be asleep," Ron insists, dropping his volume a fraction. "It's only half past eight!"

"He said he was going to his room and he looked really tired," Hermione insists, and Harry can just picture her crossing her arms and fixing Ron with her most formidable stare.

Somewhat affronted, Harry raises himself up on his elbows and stares once more at his reflection—he doesn't look all that bad. In fact, he thinks he looks healthier and more alert than he has in months. He drops back onto the bed and rolls his eyes at the ceiling. He's probably spent more time looking in the mirror today than he has in his entire adult life up until this point, which is a little bit worrying.

"... doesn't need mothering, 'Mione," Ron is saying, a little more loudly now.

"Oh, and you'd know, would you?" Hermione snaps hotly.

Hands on her hips now, Harry thinks. Eyes narrowed, nostrils flared, cheeks flushed.

He groans and throws a Silencing Charm at the door, then folds his arms over his face. The last thing he wants to do is stir up pointless arguments between his best friends; his move-in day for the new house cannot come quickly enough. They've been wonderful—accepting him into their home without question, folding him into their family life as though he's always been there, and never once asking when he's planning to leave—but he suspects that they're reaching the point when they're just being polite. They need some space, and he needs to be around some people who won't feel the need to tread on eggshells around him.

Suddenly heavy with an exhaustion borne of frustration and too much shopping, Harry kicks his piles of clothes onto the floor, wriggles out of his shirt and trousers and slides under the covers. He doesn't care that it's half past eight on a Saturday night. He's going to fucking sleep, and tomorrow he's going out.

**~*~**

He wakes just as the sun is coming up, feeling refreshed and energised, and opts to exploit the fact that Lily is an early riser, and Ginny, by nature—therefore at weekends—is not. He owls her a quick message, in which he reminds her to write a note for her mother, grabs juice and the cheese muffins left over from last night's dinner, and sets out to meet her.

As he climbs the small hill at the end of Willoughby Drive, shoes slipping on the dewy grass, Lily peers down at him from the top and laughs. Her hair flaps in the wind like a pennant, seeming to glitter in the muted pinks and golds of the sunrise, and, just for a moment, she looks frighteningly grown up.

"Come on, Dad!" she calls, holding out a hand to yank him over the last few feet of the climb. He stands at the summit, breathing in the exhilarating smells of winter, wet earth and frosty grass.

"Did you leave your mum a note?" he asks, poking the tip of his wand out of his sleeve so that he can apply a surreptitious drying charm to the grass. "I don't want her waking up and panicking."

"Of course," Lily says, dropping to the ground and crossing her legs. She looks up at him, eyes anxious. "Is everything okay?"

Harry smiles and lowers himself to sit beside her, wondering what Draco would have to say about people who sit on the grass in their new, expensive trousers. He has a good idea.

"Yes. I just wanted to have breakfast with my best girl," he says, producing the muffins and apple juice with a flourish. "Is that a crime?"

Lily giggles, and there's a small part of Harry that strongly suspects that she thinks her dad is a bit of an idiot. Oddly, he doesn't mind all that much.

"No," she says, rolling her eyes and accepting her share of the food. Taking a huge bite of cheese muffin, she sighs happily and gazes out over the sleeping valley. Harry watches her, swallowing a mouthful of icy cold juice and relishing the waves of contentment that come up to roll over him.

"Did you have fun yesterday?" he asks after a moment.

Lily grins. "Yeah, it was brilliant. Jeanette taught me how to do a jump. I fell over quite a lot, but I'm getting it!"

"Very impressive," Harry says, returning her grin.

"Thanks. Maybe you and me can go one day," she says, flicking him a hopeful glance.

"Ice skating?" he clarifies, secretly unnerved by the idea.

"Yeah. If you want to, I mean." Lily pauses, chewing on her lip for a moment. "It's been really nice doing stuff with you," she says in an almost-whisper. "Before you and Mum split up... you never had time."

She flushes and falls silent, tearing a huge chunk out of her muffin and stuffing it into her mouth as though trying to prevent herself from saying anything else. Harry's heart swells and aches and he twists his fingers into the cold grass with the effort of keeping in the apologies that he knows are useless.

"Absolutely, I'll give it a go," he says at last. "I'll probably fall on my arse after ten seconds," he adds, hoping to make her smile, and it works. "It's been nice doing stuff with you, too. Eat your breakfast."

**~*~**

Harry can't help smiling to himself as he slip-slides down the hill and heads back to the cottage, mentally replaying Lily's flattering review of his outfit. Apparently, he looks "pretty cool, Dad", which is a first, and more than good enough for him. Still dead set on clearing off for the day and giving Ron and Hermione the chance to do... well, whatever it is they do when he's not around, he creeps back through the hushed house, grabs his work robes, and heads back out before Hermione can hear him and ask him if he wants a bowl of porridge.

The Ministry is relatively quiet, but there are still enough people scurrying around to make the place feel alive, and to remind Harry that, although he doesn't work weekends any more, there are plenty who do. He collects a couple of sympathetic nods and four somewhat staggered variations on "Good morning, Mr Potter, is everything alright?" as he makes his way to his office, and is amused enough to smile and assure his colleagues that yes, he has come to work on a Sunday, and no, they needn't worry that the world is crumbling into dust.

His office is oddly barren without Helga, and he finds himself wondering what she does with herself at the weekends. Even she has something better to do than sit at her desk on a bright Sunday morning, he thinks, and immediately buries the realisation under a pile of anything he can find before it can ruin his good mood.

Leaving the office door wide open—more because he can than anything else—he drops into his chair and eyes his memo mountain without enthusiasm. It seems to have increased in size since Friday afternoon, so much so that Harry wonders idly if the little purple buggers are breeding. Resignedly he reaches for his quill and makes a start.

Five minutes later, he has abandoned his task in favour of turning slowly in his chair, arms dangling at his sides, staring at the ceiling and feeling inconveniently turned on. It's all very well trying to be productive and a good friend and all of that admittedly important stuff, but it's no good if he can't shift the memory of Draco unhelpfully-hot-right-now Malfoy from his mind.

"Harry," he rasps, breathing harsh, eyes burning desperation as strong, sweat-damp fingers scrape and grasp at Harry's back, urging him, demanding him. "Hurry up, Blaise'll be here in a minute, and... oh, fuck yes... I don't know about you, but I wasn't planning to include him."

Suddenly, the eyes flashing fire into his aren't those of the Draco sprawling in wanton disarray across the sofa at number twelve, but the ones belonging to the frosty, black-clad man at the Quidditch match, the man who says, "What do you want, Potter?" and makes Harry's insides tie themselves in knots.

Harry groans, wrapping his hands around the arms of his chair. For some reason he can't stop himself from smiling, but he's doing his best to ignore the growing hardness beneath his robes, because even if he hasn't been doing the most sterling job over the last few weeks, he does draw the line at wanking in the office. Apart from anything else, it just seems sad.

One thing is becoming abundantly clear in the midst of all this madness. That man has taken up permanent residence in his head, both versions of him and a confusing amalgamation of the two, one with harsh words and a warm smile, and he has neither of them, but he wants so much that it's painful, and now that he's alone, he seems incapable of thinking of anything else. It's all very well having Lily or Ron or Hermione or a stylish clothing salesman to distract him, but he knows that even the most resilient of his defences are unlikely to hold up for much longer.

He suspects that he shouldn't be leaping straight into... well, anything, but especially this, after the end of his marriage, but the need to know, to find out about this Draco, is infinitely stronger than any of the rational voices in his head. Despite his words to Molly about taking things one step at a time, the idea of waiting is becoming more intolerable with each minute that passes.

Harry throws his feet up onto the desk and leans back in his chair, drawing in and releasing a slow, calming breath. He needs a plan, or if not, at least some semblance of an idea of how he's going to go about this.

"The most