Draco under glass
Two years is long enough for the memory of a person to become blurred, details forgotten one by one until all that's left are impressions: a dominant feature such as a generous mouth or expressive hair, an impression of hardness or laughter or derision. Harry has not seen Draco Malfoy for well over three years when he walks into the Leaky Cauldron and finds him sitting alone at a corner table, bent slightly over a newspaper.
What catches Harry's eye is a pleasing harmony of shape: jagged white hair, angular jaw, both heightened and softened by the elegant curve of his fine silver-rimmed glasses. His heart responds to the beauty of form first, and kicks, and he has stopped in the doorway before he recognises the face. Then he stares. Time slows. The sounds of the room recede to a great distance. It is Malfoy, unmistakably, but he is remade by the oval frames. They smooth out the sharpness of his cheekbones. They leave on him an incongruous air of vulnerability. He looks older, and stiller. By some miracle of geometry, the glasses draw attention to his mouth, which Harry watches helplessly as it stirs into a wry smile at some quirk in his reading. Above all, they are a Muggle affectation that hint at a complexity of character Malfoy certainly never possessed in his youth.
Harry sits, weak kneed. There are other clues to Malfoy's circumstances which he will not notice until very much later - the long fingers scratching distractedly at the tabletop and the tiny cup of coffee he must have got a taste for in his years in Turin. For now, though, all he sees is the glasses. His fingers itch as he imagines running them down the side of Malfoy's face, over smooth hair and smoother skin and the hard, delicate, surprising strand of silver. He imagines them in his own hand, warm with the heat of Malfoy's skin. He imagines Malfoy blinking dazedly without them and turning his unveiled eyes to Harry's.
The glasses sweep aside his old impression of Malfoy. That night, in a hastily taken room in the Cauldron's attic, he learns a new one.
Harry behind glass
After the war - although even "after the war" is someone else's phrase because in his own mind and looking back from safety, it had all ended far too quickly to be more than a series of cruel and pointless skirmishes. After the war-that-never-was, Harry makes a point of pleasing himself.
He is not hard to please. He is satisfied with the perverse pleasure he gets from quietly but consistently defying expectations. The Order of Merlin he insisted on accepting in private is buried with Dumbledore. He turned down the offers from Hogwarts, but not in anger, and once or twice every year the students see him in the staff box at Quidditch matches, standing behind the Headmistress, his distinctive head very slightly stooped. He doesn't marry Ginny or move in with Ron. He shares a small house with a middle-aged wizard from Zurich who has come to be apprenticed to Ollivander, though according to rumour both occupants are so seldom in residence that even the ghouls in the attic complain of loneliness.
What Harry does is mend things. Small things and simple things mostly, except for his first project, Grimmauld Place, which he spent five unbroken months on before Remus and Tonks took possession. He is not officially an odd-jobs-man; he has no business card and no box of tools apart from his rarely used wand. It's simply that there is a great deal that needs to be done. Every time he finishes a task - like a fortnight ago, when he accompanied Neville to the last meeting with the Gringotts managers to finalise the terms of the loan that would see Longbottom's Idiot-proof Potions translated and published across Europe - another one seeks him out. The ink was scarcely dry on the security deed when Hermione happened to mention the family of Nogtails that had colonised Muggle farms on Anglesea and started drawing unwanted attention to its tiny wizarding community. Harry never sends bills and during busy weeks his long, unhurried steps make his pockets jingle with the forgotten coins of those who insist on paying him unprompted.
On the day that Draco Malfoy comes back into his life, he has been painting. Truth be told, he has mostly been listening to Slughorn describe haphazard highlights from his teaching career and relive his one moment of glory facing off Fenrir Greyback. While Harry listened and laughed, reflecting Slughorn's own fond pleasure, he kept his breathing in time with the wet swish of the bristles. The skirting boards in short, brisk four/four strokes; the open flat surfaces a swirling waltz. There had been as much tea and pineapple lumps as genuine work, and during both Harry answered an inquisition which, he knew, was designed to elicit the sort of quotable details that would make for impressive repetition to other guests, on another far-off day. Slughorn lives in Exmoor now, too remote for casual visitors. His conversation may be becoming increasingly circular but he is not so old that touching up the living room walls would test his skill.
The return journey takes Harry close to Diagon, so he stops in at the Leaky for a pint. He is in no hurry to get home, where he knows he will find a note from Ron reminding him about the charity dinner in the evening. The note is necessary because, while Harry accepts invitations to official events with unfailing diplomacy, he has a shaky record of actually attending them. When pressed, he tends to appear with a wide smile and a set of dress robes chosen by Hermione, only to make one quick circuit of the gathered luminaries before disappearing into the kitchens to introduce himself to the house-elves or challenge the maitre d' to a game of chess. Tonight's charity dinner he thinks might be worth a visit. The most he could understand when Ron repeated Percy's grandiose invitation was that it involved children and awards and Muggle Studies. Harry laid out his dress robes this morning without having to be reminded. Children often say something worth listening to.
Harry ducks his head as he passes the end of Knockturn Alley. The cadets from the Prophet like to hang out in the seedy bars bored like wasp nests into the catacombs at its far end, and he'd just as soon avoid them tonight. The day's work has left him wearing a cloak of contentment, spun from Slughorn's gruff pleasure and the reassuring sweep of the brushwork. He wants to wear it longer.
As he slips through the crowd, he returns the occasional clinging glance with a curt smile, compensating with long strides so that no-one can expect him to stop. The boldest of them stare openly, as if he were a zoo exhibit which they never suspected of having the capacity to return their gaze. Harry lives his life behind glass like that. Necessity, however, has taught him how to bear it. He has learned to cultivate dimensions in his life that are hidden from his audience. He has learned always to hold something back, and so while he lets them see a slightly eccentric young man with a phoenix tattooed across the back of his wrist and ragged-cuffed jeans under the designer robe he always meant to send back to the shop that gave it to him, while he lets them tell his story until he no longer recognises himself beneath the blazing-eyed hero, he practises quiet acts of subversion. Though he cut a ribbon at the re-opening of the Wizengamot, he refuses to read anything about current affairs and every morning he carefully excises the Quidditch pages from his flatmate's copy of the Prophet. Ignoring dozens of invitations, the only club he has joined is Dobby's society for masterless house-elves. Through the Weasley twins, he is the principal stakeholder in a wholly illegal scheme to breed dwarf dragons for racing.
And to get him through the weary predictability of enduring curious gazes in public places, he has taken to fancying men. Not any one man in particular, or even a type, but more the idea of men: hard-bodied and straightforward and forbidden. Beatifically, he returns the smiles of a mother and daughter strolling past, and imagines the long-haired man at the front counter of Fortescue's pressed so hard against him he can feel his heartbeat.
The Leaky is mostly empty, which is better than he'd hoped for on a Friday night. The barman with the greying ponytail gives his spare nod of welcome. The familiar scents of old wood and yeast come home to him; a good day becomes perfect.
And then he looks over and sees Malfoy.
It is a falling into place. Like the last ingredient in a potion that makes it simmer with completion. But then it's as wholly unexpected as being introduced to the matchstick after a lifetime of muddling about in dissatisfaction imaging that the tinderbox was the height of technology. Desire is not the name for it, though there's a measure of that and it doesn't escape him that it is Malfoy's lips upon which his gaze finishes. What moves him is a sudden illumination, as if for the first time he could see the road stretching out beneath his feet, and for once it didn't bend towards darkness and loss.
He suspects that a sensation so quickly and rashly formed is not to be trusted. But Harry has always preferred embracing the consequences to living with regret. Leaning on a stool by the bar, he watches as Malfoy obliviously turns his gaze to the opposite page, shifting about all the angles of his face and giving Harry a whole new vista. His face is actually more angular than in their schooldays, not less. It's only the effect of the frames that gives the impression of softness. He sits forward in his seat with his right forearm resting on the table - and this strikes Harry as different from the boy who draped his long arms over the backs of chairs as if to signify sovereignty over everything he touched.
Harry is serenely confident as he crosses the room. There is no doubt in his mind about what will occur. The sudden strength of feeling in him is such that Malfoy can't fail to feel some shadow of it. As he reaches the table, Malfoy looks up with his mouth forming a smile. The sudden movement throws dancing light around the circumference of his lenses and his eyes look like they are shining.
A handful of sand at two thousand degrees
"Malfoy," Harry says in a warmer tone than he has ever used on that name before.
The smile vanishes. Malfoy stares, long and blank. Then his eyes flick over Harry's hair and clothes, as if picking out the paint flecks, and over the battered rucksack on his shoulder. He glances at the door and then, since Harry appears disinclined to move off, he draws his paper closed and says in a slightly more polished version of the old drawl: "What can I do for you?"
And Harry has his first moment of doubt. The voice brings him to his senses. Reminds him that all the history between them probably looks just as unfriendly through a pair of silver glasses. As Malfoy looks up at him coldly with his lips small as a Knut, the old schoolboy urges creep over Harry like a fog: the anger, the humiliation and the urge to punch Malfoy in the mouth.
"Nothing," Harry manages to cough out as he fights down the stale emotion and swings his rucksack under the free chair.
"And somehow you're still here," Malfoy observes distastefully, looking past Harry to the door.
Harry finds himself shifting his weight from foot to foot and makes himself stop. Truth be told, if he'd hesitated to make any sort of plan, or even to ask himself exactly what he wanted with Malfoy, he might have lost his nerve. "Wait a minute."
He comes back with two glasses of Bohemian firewhiskey, the most expensive drink in the house. He has never done this before and he doesn't want to mess it up. Besides, if the rumours at school about Malfoy and Blaise Zabini turn out to have been false, Malfoy might react badly to this tentative proposition. It would take an extreme level of homophobia, he thinks, to throw a five Galleon glass of firewhiskey in his face.
"Still the same then," Malfoy observes sourly, as Harry sits opposite him. "The great Harry Potter stumbles in uninvited and assumes that everybody else will accommodate him."
Harry, who had deduced from the newspaper that Malfoy was alone, tenses right up to his top ribs and finds himself rising slightly from his seat. "Is someone sitting here?"
As Malfoy watches him, evaluating, the possibilities tangle in Harry's brain. My boyfriend. My girlfriend. My wife. He holds Malfoy's gaze, noting absently how his eyes, habitually narrowed out of scorn or spite or the pressure of light on his pale irises, look much clearer and brighter behind the lenses.
"No," Malfoy finally snaps. "But that doesn't-"
"Good," Harry says very quickly. "Do you mind if I do?"
He pushes one of the glasses across the table. Malfoy glares at it.
"Why me?" he asks wearily, as if Harry had asked him to submit to a random dark objects audit instead of a drink. But he still hooks a finger over the rim of the glass and drags it towards himself.
"Do you see anyone more interesting in the room?"
Malfoy accepts the oblique compliment with rigid suspicion and lifts the firewhisky to his lips. A frown runs over his brow as he seems to recognises its quality. He savours the taste of it, breathing out slowly through his mouth and nose as if he has some special skill in testing fine things, exposing their weaknesses and drawing out their virtues.
Harry leans back in his chair, entrenching himself. "I'll stay as long as the drink lasts. Then you can send me on my way."
If Malfoy's last glance over the room is searching for a diversion, he finds none.
"Please yourself," he shrugs and takes a longer, deeper sip.
The pressure of driving a conversation is strange. Harry has become too used to letting them wash over him, or simply avoiding them. Unlike almost everybody else Harry knows, Malfoy appears reluctant to talk about himself. He parries every question with a blunt "yes" or "no", occasionally putting a toe just over the borders of politeness. He exhibits no interest in Harry and gives nothing back.
Harry casts about for a topic of conversation that might draw Malfoy out of himself. Talking about school would give the impression - false, as it happens - that he hasn't moved on. But he's forgotten everything about Malfoy's life outside Hogwarts. He remembers the newspaper folded on the table between them.
"You speak Italian then?" he ventures.
"Almost perfectly," Malfoy tells him and indicates a small leather-bound book at his elbow. Harry seizes it and reads the spine. It's a dictionary and, grateful for the distraction, he flips it open. On the inside front cover is an inscription in neat capital letters: "Don't forget. Ilya."
The obvious question is out of Harry's mouth unthinkingly.
Malfoy smiles and takes a leisurely sip of his drink. "You'd like him," he says in a rare display of loquaciousness.
"How do you know?" Harry asks, much less coolly than he meant to because the revelation that Ilya is not a girl's name leaves him torn between jealousy and a creeping sort of hope. For a while, he thinks that Malfoy will not deign to answer.
"He plays weekend Quidditch like it's a mortal duel. There's barely a bone in his body any more that isn't held together by magic." Malfoy plucks the book from Harry's grasp. "I haven't seen many players put as much on the line as he does."
Harry's next question rises awkwardly as he looks for veiled meaning in that last comment. "Do you still play?"
Does he play? There's a certain balance in the way Malfoy holds himself that would fit with hours spent on the broom. His face, however, is too pale to reflect much time out in the Italian sun, and his fingers drumming very slightly on the tabletop bear no calluses. "Hardly at all," Malfoy tells him and then, though he looks as if it pains him, can't avoid the natural response. "You?"
"Sometimes." He wishes Ron were here to mention that Puddlemere have asked him to try out twice, and Ballycastle and the Falcons once each. Though he usually resents the quiet nagging from his friends with its implicit criticism of his current slight ambitions, for once in his life it would be useful. "Not so much. The occasional friendly match, you know. They had an old school tournament in summer. Four matches over four weekends."
Behind the boredom, Malfoy's voice takes on an ugly edge. "Oh, spare me the details. You caught the Snitch four times and added the cup to the heap in your trophy room. Very good, Potter. Aren't you still the little hero."
Through the rose-coloured glasses of this comfortable evening, Harry had been remembering their history as competitive, nothing more. If there were moments where their rivalry spilled over into something darker, these were aberrations sprung from the weight of larger events. Watching Malfoy's fingers strain on his glass, for the first time he wonders how he looks through Malfoy's eyes.
"I didn't get to touch the Snitch," he says, which is only a small lie. Since this information causes Malfoy to study him curiously, he basks in it and lets the silence draw out. "Charlie Weasley played Seeker. I was just a reserve. My only match was in the third round when Wood had to play in Japan."
Malfoy's lips tighten as if he is biting back a derisive remark. This new restraint frustrates Harry. It's as if Malfoy always considered himself too good to mix his words with Harry's, and now has mastered the self-control to put that theory into practice. His resistance only multiplies Harry's determination.
"The Slytherin Seeker was a woman called Pugh. Played a bit for the Harpies in the eighties. She plays a solo game - ran circles of the pitch and kept clear of me. I was so bored by the second hour that the Snitch was almost in her hand before I saw it." He adds candidly: "I missed your sort of game."
Malfoy's mouth gives an almost imperceptible twitch. "The dirty sort?" he asks acidly and throws back the last of his drink. The gesture has enough world-weary ease in it to tie Harry's stomach in a knot. He pulls his gaze away from where it follows the movement of Malfoy's throat as he swallows. He must have seen Malfoy's throat every day for six years. It's never before made him want to hold his palm over it and feel the muscles flex. He turns quickly to signal the barman for another round, if only to distract himself from the disorientating spike of desire, which is a distinctly less innocent sensation than the one that brought him over here.
Malfoy's sense of humour is elusive and so dry that Harry can't be entirely sure it's there. It sits oddly on his last memories of Malfoy, desperate and cornered but still all too serious about all the wrong ideas, and he wonders how far back it goes. Malfoy's hard-won smile is a wholly private gesture, an exclusive high wall behind which he wordlessly derides the rest of the world. Even Crabbe and Goyle had laughed a little nervously around him, as if their permission to do so might be withdrawn at any moment. Harry wants to know what that same smile would look like turned to him, including him in the joke. If he could think of how to do it, he'd like to make Malfoy laugh.
"These last two years have been good to you, you know," he says out of the blue.
That at least earns him a quizzical smile, and the way Malfoy turns his face slightly away from the torchlight is enough to let Harry believe he might be concealing the beginnings of a blush.
"Another then?" he offers brightly, leaping up from the table before Malfoy can consider turning him down.
The wall behind the bar is lined with bottles - bright colours muted with dust, containers shaped like stars or moons or dragons' heads, several oozing smoke over their rims. It stumps him. Trying to predict Malfoy's tastes reminds him how little in the way of cold, hard facts he has won in the last hour. Malfoy works for a goblin co-operative tracking down rare magical artefacts, and his evasiveness on this question suggests that he never completed his final year of school. He lives mostly in Turin, where he appears to have no enduring friends, except perhaps for Ilya of the suggestive inscription, and from his terse deflection of discussion on the topic Harry deduces that his presence in England is not permanent. Harry orders a bitter ashphodel liqueur in a tall, thin shooter and, after hurried consultation with the barman, a round-bellied glass of Armagnac.
He places both before Malfoy.
"Take what you want," Harry tells him, much less smoothly than he'd rehearsed it. He has never learned how to flirt. It is a discipline which contradicts everything in his nature, with its subterfuge and adherence to invisible rules. His only experience has been watching other people attempt it as he tried awkwardly to escape their attentions.
Malfoy gives him a long, hard look and then, smirking slightly, winds his fingers around the stem of the Armagnac glass. Another Muggle affectation. Harry wonders if everything Malfoy does tonight will strike him as exotic or mysterious.
After the first sip, Malfoy sets the glass down and clasps his hands on the table as if preparing himself to receive a criminal sentence. "Well then," he says. "I suppose you'd better tell me about yourself. Take it as read that I've heard the basic details of the demise of the Dark Lord and start from what happened afterwards."
He says this as if Harry's life unwound like a good story, packed with climaxes and noteworthy events, but Harry has fought a gruelling battle to break that pattern. For the first time, he has wrested a degree of control over his destiny. Contentment, however, is not something you can spin tales about. Malfoy will think his life too easy and unambitious.
The asphodel liqueur makes his tongue curl when he takes in too much. He swallows a bigger mouthful straight down, pushes it away and stalls. "What do you want to know?"
Malfoy's disappointed sigh implies he's questioning his decision to ask anything at all.
Harry forces down another mouthful and presses on: "After the ... after it was all over, I went to Cornwall for a week. When I got back everything had been sorted out. The rest is politics. They re-opened the Wizengamot -"
If anything, Malfoy looks more disappointed. He says a little sneeringly, "I don't need a history lesson, Potter. I talk to people. I read the papers."
The way his little finger is tapping the tabletop, he might choose any moment to walk off. Harry scours his brain for some insider information he can offer, something beyond the official published version, something that might make an impression. Anything to keep Malfoy attached to that seat, an impossible arm's reach away.
"Shacklebolt wasn't the first choice for Minister, you know. They offered it to Arthur Weasley first, only he-"
"If you insist on avoiding the point," Malfoy interrupts him as he snatches Harry's hand and drags it to his side of the table. Harry blames liquor, absence from Quidditch and sheer improbability for catching him unprepared. Malfoy turns Harry's hand palm-up and presses his knuckles into the wood, spreading his fingers out. By the time that, just as suddenly, Malfoy withdraws his grip, Harry's arm is tingling right up to his neck. The pressure of Malfoy's gaze makes his palm itch, but it's no substitute for the surprising quick strength of his hands.
"Uneven lifeline. I see a lacklustre academic record and a longstanding inability to play by the rules." There is a definite sneer in the corner of his mouth as he reels off his diagnosis. "Your lifeline ends like a badly chewed quill. Thwarted love, is it? Thwarted love or stymied ambition. Possibly both."
"Neither," Harry says firmly. "Not thwarted or ... just not."
"No, I'm definitely reading stymied ambition. What happened to your zeal for authority? Why aren't you an Auror?"
With his free hand, Harry reaches for his glass and abandons it. He has no intention of trying to sum up the complexity of that decision. Whatever it is he wants from Malfoy, unburdening his soul is unlikely to advance him towards getting it. He says, "I never wanted to be one. Not really."
"You? You who formed your own private militia while you were still at school - you didn't want to be an Auror? What was it really? Did you fail a few subjects after all?"
"I had the marks, Malfoy." This reminds Harry heavily of the days when he was cutting himself free of it all - free of the Aurors, of everything else that smacked of history or authority, and of anyone that tied him to the person he had been.
"So, not the marks. What was it then?" There is something off about the tone of his inquiry, something too light, too warm. But Harry leaves his hand lying palm-up, in case Malfoy might want to touch it again. "You're sure you didn't muddy your record by torturing a man to death?"
Harry is opening his mouth to laugh when he is sobered by the recollection of some of the rumours that have filtered back to him. "Is someone saying I did?"
"Not just one person."
His practice at shrugging off slanderous gossip suddenly deserts him. Since he can't even guess which incident might have been twisted out of all recognition to ignite this story, he has no defence. Impotence makes him spit out: "Do you think I did?"
"I'm waiting for you to tell me."
Something in the quiet way Malfoy says this suggests that the wait has lasted more than just these last few moments. He looks up from Harry's palm and holds his eye. It unsettles Harry's powers of thought intensely. The more Malfoy looks at him, the more it isn't enough.
"I've never killed anyone. Not even Voldemort. Pettigrew cast the curse that finished him." Malfoy's slight catch of breath betrays the fact that he hadn't heard that bit before. Not many people have: he'd rather allow the world its misconceptions than discuss that night at all. Then, because he can't stand the cowardice of sanitising it, Harry adds: "Not that I wouldn't have done it. Only I never had to."
"Naturally. And the torture?"
The question, so casually asked, is infuriating. "What about it, Malfoy? This isn't a fucking chess game we were playing. They were out to kill us. They did kill some of us - and did worse whenever they had half a chance. You would have done the same. If you didn't, you'd be dead."
Malfoy only continues to watch him and wait. It occurs to Harry that uncomfortable questions come easier from the mouths of men in glasses. The lenses shelter Malfoy's eyes, taking the hardness out of them, and the fine silver frames with stands of white hair brushing over them by his temples put a scholarly cast on his face. With his stillness and the visual harmony of his white skin and simple black robes, Malfoy has put himself out of reach of Harry's anger. He wonders if Malfoy himself understands how effective a shield it is.
"What do you think?" Harry sighs. "When I was defending myself, I'd use any curse I could think of, I didn't care what it would do. But I've never attacked someone who didn't have their wand drawn on me first." He doesn't miss the very subtle tilting of Malfoy's head at that. "Never."
There are no further questions. When he returns to Harry's palm, Malfoy splays it with the pads of his fingers spread gently over Harry's. Judging by the softness of them, he hasn't held anything rougher than a polished length of rowan wood for the last two years.
Belatedly, Harry tries to turn the inquisition around. "Since when do you believe in the power of palmistry?"
Malfoy runs his thumb over the crease at the base of Harry's fingers, very slowly.
"They say a real Diviner knows the answer before he walks into the room." Bent slightly over his study, he looks up over the top of his glasses, eyes alight. "All the manhandling is just to make sure the customer knows he got what he paid for." With a flash of smile that hits right between Harry's ribs, he goes back to his analysis.
There are other moments like this, as the conversation progresses incrementally under Harry's determined guidance. Moments in which curiosity becomes fascination, and fascination becomes something more. Like when, explaining the hallmarks of the pre-Enlightenment cauldron, Malfoy sketches the shape of it on the tabletop with his clean, nimble fingertips, his middle finger bare where his father used to wear the enormous family seal. Like when Harry mentions Snape out of the blue, and Malfoy looks, for an instant, as if the whole floor had lurched underneath him.
After that, Harry tries harder to avoid all mention of politics, of the war. Apart from Zabini, whose mother sent him to relatives in Alexandria at the end of sixth year, few of Malfoy's classmates would have survived the Death Eaters' strategy of throwing their youngest and greenest recruits into the frontline of confrontations. He tries to lift the conversation out of the sombre stiffness that overtakes it as this omission draws attention to itself.
"Hogwarts hasn't changed," Harry tries, imagining that his last visit, over a month ago, will provide a neutral topic. "They tried to start a football team, to give them a taste of Muggle life. It closed down within a month, and a good thing too." He notes Malfoy's expression. "Football is a Muggle-"
"Yes, I'm familiar with the concept," Malfoy drawls. "What puzzles me is why you weren't in the vanguard of the Muggle offensive."
Harry shrugs. He can't explain why his political beliefs have got so complex and convoluted that he hardly thinks of them as beliefs anymore. "It's ... They don't ... Muggle kids grow up fast, Malfoy. When a kid from a Muggle family gets their Hogwarts letter, even at eleven or twelve they've started to turn into adults already. Maybe they smoke. They might've tried harder stuff. Hell, they could almost have a kid of their own. If you're going to make them start all over and learn to be wizards, then they have to make a clean break. Everything at Hogwarts has to be new. The pumpkin juice, the pictures, the furniture, the sport."
"Is that what Hogwarts is to you? A eccentric menu and a few contrary staircases?"
"No! Of course not." The alcohol is making his face warm, and what he is trying to articulate is a deeply felt childhood affection, for the first place he had every really been happy. "These little changes are important. Everything has to be new and exciting. If you let them hold on to their Muggle games, it will be Hogwarts that changes, not them."
Malfoy's face darkens. "It will always be Hogwarts that changes. How could it be any other way, you bloody simpleton! There are sixty million of them and barely ten thousand of us - and that's even if you include all the tainted bloodlines. If you let them into our world at all, you can't expect to hold onto it. It isn't just the recreational activities at Hogwarts. You'll see, Potter. In the end, when it's all too late."
Very deliberately, Harry picks a few traces of paint from the skin over his knuckles and bites back all the true but pointless slogans he wants to spit in retort. And funnily, the longer the silence goes on, the better he feels about it. Contrary to his old instinct, he doesn't have to answer Malfoy's provocations. Letting them pass doesn't make them more true. In fact, remaining unchallenged only allows the hyperbole in them to stand out.
Whether or not he hears the silence in the same way, Malfoy watches Harry's fidgeting with his scowl receding. Eventually he pushes his glass across the table. "The Armagnac was good," he says, that slender strain of amusement returning. "If you're still buying."
The lull as he waits for the next round to be poured is a blessed relief. Leaning on the bartop, Harry has a clear view of the street outside, full of people walking past, completely oblivious to Draco Malfoy's existence and certainly not turning themselves inside-out over the faint possibility that Malfoy's lightning-quick flashes of encouragement might reflect his intentions better than the derision with which he coats every sentence.
One foot in front of the other is all it would take to put Malfoy behind him and postpone all the difficult questions. What does he want? Watching the barman pour the Armagnac with slow reverence, he knows he wants Malfoy to want him. But it's a much larger step to take his carefully guarded homoerotic fantasies and put them in the most treacherous pair of hands he can think of. Malfoy has no mercy and no sense of fair play. The flutter that thought sets off in his stomach could equally be foreboding or excitement.
"Did you mistake me for the patient type?" says Malfoy's voice just behind him, a burst of warm breath running over his neck. He reaches past Harry to pick up his drink, leaning in so close that their jaws would brush if Harry turned.
Harry has to grip his own glass hard to steady his hand. What he wants is beyond doubt. The only real question is whether he can have it.
By the time they are another two drinks on, it has reached the hour where the few remaining patrons are winding up their evening, or in the case of the group by the door, stepping up their pace as the clock behind the bar twitches toward closing time.
"There's not much to get nostalgic about," Malfoy says out of nowhere.
Harry, to whom this unpretentious little pub has come to mean a lot over the last four years, replies: "Depends, doesn't it."
"Same customers, week in week out." Malfoy gestures with his gillywater. "All the same people at all the same pubs. Fortescue's even has the same seven flavours. Nothing changes. When they stumble out of here, they'll make straight for one of the all-night dens in Knockturn, just like they did last week, and they'll probably stop to piss on exactly the same flagstones on the way."
This doesn't sound to Harry like the perspective of someone who means to stay in London any longer than his undisclosed errand requires.
"It's not so bad. There's more going on that you think, if you can be bothered looking. That American bloke with the all-magical swing band is at the Alchemist's Arms tonight. Or there's the dinner at the Ministry Dining Rooms - all sorts of guests. I was going to drop in later."
"The Bones Foundation? You won't get tickets now, not even you. They sold out in the first day, the secretary told-"
Written across Harry's face must be the memory of the swatch of tickets Percy parcelled out to family members just last week, and after it, the reluctant conclusion he draws. Malfoy's expression changes.
"Ah," he says quietly. "The more things stay the same, then. The war's over and the dead are buried, but a reformed Death Eater's money never loses the smell of blood, I suppose."
He grimaces, perhaps at the lie or perhaps at himself for having missed it. Behind the glasses, it's a vulnerable gesture, the sort that has always triggered a reflexive response in Harry. "Have my ticket," he hears himself say, in the same moment he realises he only has one ticket and contemplates with dismay the prospect of losing Malfoy to a drab formal dinner.
Malfoy glares at him. "I'm not dressed," he says very pointedly.
Harry suspects there's a degree of pride at work there. He holds back from noting that, judging by everything he's been able to observe in moments where Malfoy's attention lay elsewhere, Malfoy wears his robes the way Harry has never been able to: simple enough to be equally appropriate in the company of Friday night drinkers or visiting royalty.
"Why do you want to go? You know the guests of honour are Muggles, don't you?"
Malfoy takes a sudden interest in the shelves behind the bar. "You've never understood my principles. I'm not afraid of your Muggles. I don't even hate them. They have their place - in their world, not ours."
There's nothing to be gained, Harry concludes, in challenging the bald-faced lies in that statement. Malfoy continues.
"I'm quite comfortable with them, you know. I go to their auction houses all the time. Half-blood wizards can be utterly inept when it comes to their legacies. It's a disgrace how often I find valuable magical artefacts tangled up in the estates of Muggle relatives who haven't got the slightest idea how important they are."
"Is that why you wanted to go tonight? Establish your Muggle-friendly credentials?"
"Hardly." Malfoy frowns for a moment. "There's someone there I wanted to meet."
The intimately cryptic way he puts it makes a cold fist around Harry's heart. A small part of him is glad, because the evening is lengthening and they're fast approaching the point where Harry will have to do more than just buy drinks if he wants to keep Malfoy's attention. But there's a deeper, stronger instinct that wants him to put himself on the line - make an open pass at Malfoy and risk a rejection that's as cruel as Malfoy cares to make it. The flex of his toes inside his boots is familiar: it's the adrenalin of fighting against the odds.
"Who?" he asks with perfect steadiness.
Malfoy says crossly: "He should have stopped in for a drink before the dinner. He's supposed to be a connoisseur of the Dragonsbreath they brew here."
The table Malfoy had chosen has a clear view of the doorway, and this torchlit corner would naturally draw the eye of anyone entering the room. As it drew Harry's. He remembers how Malfoy looked when he first saw him: clean and gently lit, posed studiously over his foreign language newspaper. The fist around his heart tightens.
"Who?" Harry repeats.
"Henrik Maier," Malfoy says absent-mindedly.
Harry has to think for a moment: the outgoing head of the International Wizarding Federation, a man well into his sixties. He can't stop the smile that takes over his face.
"What?" Malfoy snaps, then seems to turn his mind back to Harry. "Why aren't you there? If you've got a ticket, why aren't you at the dinner?"
"I can't be in two places at once," Harry says simply.
This does not seem to please Malfoy entirely. "Why Maier?" Harry asks, to head off that line of questioning.
"Why Maier? Oh, only because he has the leading collection of antique wands in Europe." Malfoy's not as aloof as he likes to think. When he finds something worth a bit of passion, it shows in the brightness of his eyes and the way his hands start to map out concepts unconsciously on the tabletop, a habit Harry has started to get fond of. "The first maplewood wand imported from New Amsterdam? He has it. His collection of Pacific Rim wands is legendary: banya and kauri pine with Antipodean Opal-eye. And that's not even starting on the experimental models he's acquired - new cores, new alignments. There was a Swedish group trying Muggle-made fibres as the base - a complete disaster, of course; only living materials have the flexibility to bear intense magical energy -"
Malfoy breaks off suddenly. His hands retreat to his lap. His voice flattens: "I don't suppose you know where he's staying, do you? He's got to have breakfast somewhere. I've got the whole morning to bump into him before I go."
The tightening behind Harry's navel confirms that some part of him had held out hope that Malfoy meant to stay in London, had pictured walking in off the street on other evenings, not knowing for sure whether he'd see a blond head bent over a newspaper at the corner table. He glances over the empty tables and the last four drinkers lingering in the doorway; the last of the glasses towelling themselves dry behind the counter. It's a sly kind of magic the way Malfoy has changed this place. Next time Harry walks in, it won't be the same easy haven.
Malfoy folds his newspaper around the little dictionary and slides his chair back with a painful grating. When he stands, the torchlight, which has been gently favouring the left side of his face, falls differently down the front of him. The embroidery around the cuffs and borders of his robe reveals itself as a faded grey, the sheen of silver long gone, and there's a patch over his right elbow where the light mists oddly as if catching in a glamour charm. Harry remembers what Molly Weasley said once, blushing on her son's behalf, about the sort of salaries goblins were notorious for paying. As Malfoy bends to collect the satchel resting against the table leg, his face turns side-on, revealing for an instant his naked eye with the tiny, weary lines around it. Glass has a tendency to distort appearances, after all.
"So you think Maier might sell you some of his wands?"
"Of course not," Malfoy answers impatiently and rests his satchel back on the chair: Harry congratulates himself on having picked the right question. "He's not in it for the money. This is his - well, his hobby. I've got a contact with a few pieces from the Caucasus - eighteen hundred years old and undamaged, which is almost unheard of in that region. I've been saving this one for Maier. He's a useful man to have on your side."
"Is he?" Harry wonders what Malfoy could need badly enough to make this depth of strategy worthwhile.
"Is he, Potter? He owns four newspapers and a stable of Quidditch teams. He's on first-name terms with every significant head-of-state in Europe, and most of the Muggle ones as well. Don't tell me England's so cut off from the rest of the world that this is news to you."
Harry shrugs. "I only met him twice."
There is a very long silence.
"Oh?" Malfoy asks, not especially nicely, and sits back down.
"He cut the ribbon at the opening of the new Ministry buildings last year. I was kind of obliged to be there."
"That's once. And?"
"And I fixed his trunk at the conference afterwards." Harry settles in to the story. "I was having a drink in Percy's room - you wouldn't remember Percy - Head Boy in third year, tight as they come-"
"I remember but I don't care. The trunk?" The detached, slightly sneering demeanour Malfoy wore at the start of the evening has vanished. He sits straight in his seat, leaning forward with his robes and his lips a little loosened by alcohol, and his eyes nowhere but on Harry.
Harry finds himself unable to muster the concentration for complex sentences. "Maier's room was a few doors down. We could hear him kicking something. Making threats. I went to have a look."
"You would, of course."
"It was a bad-tempered old bastard, the trunk. There was a gargoyle on the handle, some sort of magical guardian, but it must have been five hundred years old and getting doddery. Every time Maier tried to open it, it just wheezed and said the password had changed. All his conference papers were in there, too. He was about to use exploding charms when I asked if I could have a try."
Malfoy's voice drops. "There's only a handful of spells that would force a guardian to open. You shouldn't know any of them."
Harry hopes that Malfoy never finds a cause to look at him with genuine adoration. Right now, under the wary sort of respect in his eyes, Harry's heart forgets itself and gives a few sluggish twists before it musters the will to beat again. Mouth dry, he turns around to signal another drink for himself.
Then he can't put off the moment where he has to admit it. "I don't know any of those spells. I just coaxed a bit. Flattered it. Showed it what a chisel looks like. People underestimate how smart gargoyles are, you know. Maier thought it was pretty funny. He said I should visit him in Utrecht and see what I could do with his jammed cellar door."
"And admire his wand collection."
"He didn't mention that. You should ask him about it yourself."
"What do you mean?" He frowns as Harry's drink settles on the table. "Armagnac, thank you," he calls reproachfully across the room. Harry takes a hard gulp of his firewhisky. Malfoy, apparently, is not leaving just yet.
"On Mr Potter's tab, then?" asks the barman.
"Yes," Harry says at the same time Malfoy snaps "No."
From somewhere in the depths of his satchel, Malfoy manages to find a few Sickles. He reaches for his pocket, then checks himself and instead walks his payment over to the bar.
"Is that enough?"
"A bit over."
"Well, I suppose you should keep the change then," Malfoy says, and only then lets go of the coins.
While Malfoy is waiting for his drink, Harry turns the newspaper around. Apart from the few words of French they scarcely bothered to teach him at school, he doesn't speak any foreign languages. So far, everyone has been able to meet him in English. He imagines stepping out from the Floo into an alien world, where the street signs are incomprehensible and the speech around him is so strange he might as well be deaf and dumb. In place of apprehension, what he feels a deep and painful longing.
Some time later, Malfoy settles back into his chair, looking for all the world as if he meant to stay. He watches Harry over the top of his Armagnac. Behind all that glass, with the torchlight and the warm gold of the drink shooting up into it, Malfoy's intentions are obscure.
"What's it going to be, Potter?"
It's clear that Malfoy is turning the topic onto something else entirely, but Harry can't find the subtlety of language to give an appropriately playful response. He throws back the second half of his drink instead.
"Well, Maier did invite me to Utrecht. I'll write you a letter of introduction. Go and visit him." If he had a decent sense of strategy, Harry thinks, he would have suggested they both go together. He fumbles for paper, but Malfoy takes one look at his weatherbeaten rucksack and from his own satchel draws out a leather wallet stocked with crisp parchment. Harry adds, "You write it. You know what you want from him."
Malfoy eyes him distrustfully. Now that he spends most of his life doing favours of a sort, Harry has learned to offer his gifts in a gruff and understated way to ease the embarrassment of acceptance. "If this wand's as good as you say it is, you get your deal, Maier's happy, and I get a little bit of the credit." Malfoy's quill turns non-committally between two fingers. "It's just a letter."
Finally, Malfoy bends over the table and writes.
"Don't put 'colleague'," Harry says, his heart beating oddly fast. "It's sounds false. Put 'friend'. Unless you're planning to cheat him - if you are, then put 'acquaintance from Hogwarts'."
Malfoy seems to find that amusing. He adds another few lines and hands it over. He has, after all, written 'colleague'. Harry adds a few more words and taps it with his wand to rearrange it in the shape of his own handwriting. Signed, he pushes it back across the table.
Malfoy leaves it lying there, its edges curling up perilously close to a small puddle of condensation from a previous glass.
"That's all right, what I said about the cellar door, isn't it?" Harry asks. "You'll be able to fix it. You'll have your wand back in Turin, right?"
With a flourish of hand deft enough to make Harry wonder whether they really have matched each other drink for drink, Malfoy rolls the letter up and sweeps it to the edge of the table.
"Oh, I have my wand here in my fatherland," Malfoy tells him in a terribly pleasant voice. "Safely locked away in the Ministry's most secure repository, from which I am graciously permitted to retrieve it the instant before I and my notorious treasonable tendencies retreat across the Channel and become someone else's problem once again."
"Oh," is all Harry can think of to say. "But you were released without trial. That's not fair."
"No, Potter. It isn't. Well done."
Harry struggles to remember more about the Ministry's decrees on former Death Eaters but, having deliberately avoided all the trials except Bellatrix Lestrange's, he is absolutely ignorant.
"Is that all you've got to say?" Malfoy goes on with faint malice. "It's unfair, gentlemen. Unfair! Where's the sense of righteousness you're famous for? It's no surprise that our fate isn't enough to excite you. Your causes were always so predictable. You like them weak, don't you? Muggles and Mudbloods and house-elves - helpless sycophants who've got nothing better to do than shower you in admiration."
That last glass is hitting Harry hard now. "What do you want, Malfoy?" He tries to think through the haze. "You want me to fix this for you? You want me to be some sort of champion for the oppressed former Death Eaters, do you? Would that be all of them? Or just the ones who were released? Or just you?"
Malfoy gives him a slow, glinting smile across the top of his glass. His wet lips catch the light.
"All I want is my wand."
Harry has to shift his foot against the side of his rucksack, to touch the pocket where he keeps his own wand, remembering the feeling of having it out of reach. He says sullenly, "I suppose you know the Ministry building will be well and truly closed by now."
Malfoy tips his glass back and exposes the stretch of throat that Harry knows will make regular appearances in his fantasies from now on. "I've heard," he says, turning playful, and sucks the liqueur from his lower lip, "that you've a knack for getting into this sort of facility after hours. Care to do it tonight?"
Harry knows he's a little drunk, and he knows he's still prone to going overboard on issues that whip up his moral indignation, and above all he knows he's losing his sense of proportion on everything concerning Malfoy, but nonetheless the idea of slipping off with Malfoy on an illegal nocturnal escapade is too enticing to refuse.
"If you like. You'll be coming with me, though. I hope your shoes don't squeak."
Malfoy leans back quickly, throwing the shadow like a veil over his forehead. His mouth makes an indecisive open shape, ready to spit out the retort that doesn't seem to land. "Thank you, Potter," he says eventually, brittle and just a little bit breathy. "We can fight our own battles. I won't be calling on your criminal aptitudes tonight." And he stands up. It works exactly a set of scales. As Malfoy rises, Harry's heart plummets into his shoes.
Harry leaps up beside him, but the change in altitude is too sudden. White spots dance in front of his eyes and he reaches out for the nearest solid thing: Malfoy.
"Not here," Malfoy hisses, startled, and draws away.
Not here. Harry swaggers against the tabletop, his knees turning treacherous beneath him. The limited refusal contains a whole world of implicit acquiescence. Malfoy is not, after all, turning him down. The liquor in his belly burns, and he realises with a start that though he is quite a bit drunk, he is not nearly drunk enough to explain away the recklessness of what he imagines doing with Malfoy the moment he can get them somewhere private. There is a pleasant edge of fear to his anticipation, too. He will be flying blind, whatever he does from here on in, and he has no idea how much patience he can expect from Malfoy.
"Okay. Fine," he says quickly, with a smile he doesn't try to suppress. He holds onto the back of his chair to steady himself, then makes it to the bar, which he grips just as tightly. The barman is wearing his blankest face, schooling himself to look oblivious as Harry negotiates to take a room. He normally enjoys the meandering walk through the park from the Floo to his front door - and he especially fancies the idea of making the long, quiet journey with Malfoy - but he can't take the risk that either the distance or the presence of his flatmate might change Malfoy's mind. It's a busy night, because of the dinner, and it takes some flicking through the stained booking register to find something free: the tiny attic with the steep sloping roof. Harry takes it without hesitation.
Only when he turns back, Malfoy has disappeared. His newspaper is gone, along with every trace of him except the empty Armagnac glass and Harry's letter. The blood drains from Harry's face. For a long time, he watches the corridor that leads to the bathroom, certain that he can't have read Malfoy so very wrong, waiting for the moment he will saunter back into the room and make his lack of faith seem stupid. Two minutes he waits, three, and with every passing second his chest grows tighter. After five minutes, he is slumped over the bar, the anaesthesia of drunkenness quickly wearing off and leaving him feeling his bruises. After six minutes, he is planning to try all the nearby lodgings with some urgent message until he finds the place Malfoy is staying at. He thinks he'll try The Enchantress first-
"Thought I'd find you here."
Ron's wry voice at his elbow has never been less welcome. His loosened cravat reminds Harry that the charity dinner will have finished by now without him.
"They've closed up around you," Ron grins, and it's true. The barman is cleaning up the last table in the corner. The Armagnac glass dangling between his thick fingers looks as fragile as a violet stalk. "Coming along then?"
Ron's presence is grounding. Some things are impossible and shouldn't be dreamt of. Tomorrow he'll be six storeys up, helping fix the gutters at St Mungo's, and he won't even have time to think about Malfoy. When he stands, Ron grabs his arm to steady him. The barman's sweeping charm has sent the day's debris skittering towards the corner of the room, and the floor looks like it's running away from him.
"I'm not drunk."
"You'll sober up quick enough in the cold outside."
As they cross the threshold, the last of the torches fizzes out. Ron shoves his hands in his pockets and leans forward into the wind.
"Dean will be there," he hurls over his shoulder without preamble. "He just got back yesterday. He caught up with Ginny in Vancouver, said she was doing pretty well. She's still mad that you were too busy to have a drink with her in January."
"Is she?" Harry answers mechanically. When did Malfoy get cold feet? Though Malfoy certainly had a measure of cowardice as a child, Harry remembers him as a risk-taker, and he doesn't want to believe that the last two years have knocked that out of him. On the other hand, if the evening's conversation has been some sort of joke at Harry's expense, then Malfoy seems to have departed before the punchline.
"The speeches weren't too bad then?" Harry asks, to stop himself wondering what Malfoy might be doing right now. He misses the answer because he's too busy noticing how the sting of thinking about Malfoy is still better than not thinking about him at all.
They approach the left hand turn to cut through Knockturn. Harry should know better than to hope. He ventures one reckless glance back.
And there's a light on at the top of the Leaky. In the attic room.
"I'm not coming." Harry grabs the brickwork on the corner and catches himself.
Ron, who can't see his grin, just scoffs, "Got a better offer, have you?"
"Yeah. Make an excuse for me. Tell them when you found me I was too pissed to come out. Tell them you couldn't find me at all."
"What?" says Ron, finally catching on. "Harry!"
Jogging back along the street, he doesn't take his eyes off the four illuminated rectangles of glass far above, until he hits the doorway and they disappear.