Harry wandered away from the warm lights and the clinking glasses, leaving the laughter of the party behind him in favour of the silence of solitude. Everyone had moved through to the living room after dinner, and that was fine by him. He crept through the dining room, where discarded dishes and appetisers still cluttered the table, and slipped silently through the transparent doors that led out to the balcony, making sure to twitch shut the heavy curtains covering the glass as he went. A few quiet lights sprang to life along the railing at his presence, and he couldn't suppress a smile at the sheer magical beauty of the house. It was incredibly obliging, with lights that lit to suit the mood and doors that opened before you'd even reached for the handle and, once, he'd been lost in one of the hallways upstairs and the rugs had changed pattern to point him in the right direction. The warm colors fit the lady of the house perfectly, while the Victorian styles and simple comfort suited the master. Hermione had let slip that the Snapes owned several similar properties, both in and out of the country, but after all of the double-checking and second-guessing that she was apt to put into any decision she'd settled on this one, and Severus had obliged her by having it cleaned out and decorated to their specifications. Now, every corridor had the subtle stamp of Severus and Hermione's home on it, and Harry, while mockingly amazed that Severus didn't sleep in a coffin and set students' pickled remains on every shelf, let out a sigh of appreciation for the tasteful splendour of it all.
The cool night air washed over him as he walked out, and there was a hint of a breeze in the whisperings of a few far-off trees dotting the dark horizon. It was a clear, perfect night, with stars winking at him and a full moon looking down on the whole scene with quiet majesty and dignity, sombreness in the set of its mouth and the crease above its eyes.
Harry leaned heavily against the stone railing at the edge of the balcony, sending a few ants scurrying away, and shoved his glasses back up his nose, running a hand through his unkempt hair out of habit. A tumbler of fire whiskey sat in his hand, and he eyed it warily before throwing a mouthful back, closing his eyes to focus on the burning race down his throat, blossom across his torso, and then settle in a smolder near his stomach. He choked back a cough, unused to the heat of the liquor, but with grim resolution in the set of his mouth took another draught before setting the glass down. He didn't drink much, as a general rule, but it was a party, after all. A drink or two wouldn't hurt.
Not that the fire seemed to be helping the empty ache in his chest.
He knew he must look pathetic, moping about outside on the night of his best friend's engagement party. He was happy for Hermione, truly he was, and for Severus as well, but the mere thought of going back and rejoining the smiles and the stories and the inquiries after his health was enough to send him back to the comfort of his drink. 'Mione and Severus were supposed to be the center of attention, anyway; he didn't want to spoil the night for them.
It was strange, even now, seeing them together, but there was no doubt in his mind that they were made for each other like two puzzle pieces, two cogs meshed together in a clock. After everything Hermione had endured for him during the war, after all the scars that lined her once perfectly smooth skin, how could he possibly begrudge her her Light? What about Severus, who had been to hell and back for the sake of so many people that couldn't even bother to say thank you? He'd walked the line between Light and Dark for more years than Harry cared to count (or would be capable of counting, if his glass kept refilling itself), and by some miracle the Potions Master and the Insufferable Know-It-All had found solace together, in each other. They finally had the life they'd always deserved.
But what about him, Harry? Hadn't he suffered, too? He'd dueled the Death Eaters and fought the dirtiest fights and carried the weight of the world on his shoulders before finally defeating Voldemort. It was over two years later, he'd turned twenty just last month, and to all the world it probably looked like Harry Potter, the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived, was enjoying his life. He had a beautiful home in Godric's Hollow, a high-paying Auror job, parties and honors to attend every other weekend. What more could he ask for?
If he was honest with himself, he would admit that Fate had already done a more than decent job making up for the burdens it had handed to him over the years. His job, his home, his family of friends. They were the generation of the second war, the lost generation, with the bonds between them as unbreakable as an Unbreakable Vow. He had Hermione and Severus, Ron, Ginny, Neville and Luna, Remus and Tonks. The Weasleys hosted a family dinner every Sunday that packed the house, with the tables groaning under the weight of Mrs. Weasley's unparalleled cooking and elbows bumping against shoulders when everyone crammed together, catching up and laughing at old jokes and stuffing their faces. Every once in a while he dropped by Hogwarts to see Minerva and visit with Albus's portrait, and more often than not he was coerced into eating a rock cake or two fresh out of Hagrid's oven.
During the day, it was enough. The hours he spent in the sun were all beautiful and gold, spent laughing with friends or invested in work, and everything fell into place. The day was a good time to be Harry Potter.
The other side of the coin showed the night, though, and more often than not they were nights like this one where the shadows crept into his mind and unpacked the carefully hidden nightmares and desires that he strove so hard to forget about. Nothing could distract him from the one thing he wanted more than anything else, but couldn't have. Nothing except another tumbler of fire whiskey, perhaps, and even that seemed to be failing him in its supposed mind-numbing qualities.
The faint whisper of the glass doors opening behind him stirred Harry from his thoughts, and he whipped around quickly with guilt etched all over his face. A moment later he recognized his once bushy-haired best friend, though, and he turned back around, not bothering to hide the slump of his shoulders or the frown that clung to the corners of his mouth. She knew him far too well, well enough to know that he would be out here instead of inside, celebrating like he should have been.
A soft hand dropped hesitantly onto his shoulder and he turned to find her standing right next to him, eyes alive and brilliant and cheeks beautifully flushed with the happiness of the night, but with underlying tones of worry and concern that only made him feel guiltier. He didn't want her to worry. He hadn't meant to stay out for as long as he had, but he'd lost track of time and she'd noticed, and now she was here, comforting him when she should have been standing on Severus's arm, surrounded by their friends and family. She came to him even in the knowledge of its futility, knowing that nothing she could say would make a difference, because in the end she wasn't the one he wanted to come out and comfort him. That didn't stop her from trying, though.
"Harry…" she began, but quickly fell silent at the expression on his face. They'd talked this through a million times already. Couldn't she just let it go?
It wasn't in Hermione's nature to let things go, though, and he knew it, so he was unsurprised when she tried again. "Harry, you can't keep doing this to yourself. It isn't healthy."
He let out an exasperated sigh and tried to tamp down on his irritation, knowing that if he snapped at her he'd only regret it later. "Hermione, you know it isn't that easy. It's not as though I can just wave my wand and make all my problems disappear." He laughed quietly, humorlessly, even though there wasn't anything remotely funny about the situation he'd knotted himself into.
"I know, it's just…I can't stand seeing you like this." She hesitated, and then forced her next words out in a rush. "Maybe you should talk to him."
A pained expression flicked across Harry's faced before he could manage to control it, and he shifted uneasily from foot to foot, his grip so tight on the balcony rail that his knuckles were turning white. The anger bled from his face, replaced with a far worse bleakness. Hermione had never heard him sound so defeated. "I can't. I want to, but I just can't. He'd never listen, 'Mione, and the last thing I need is Malfoy laughing in my face before sending off an owl to the Prophet."
"How can you know that he'll laugh," Hermione argued, determined against reason that whatever made Harry happy should be possible. "Don't you think for one minute that you can fool me, Harry Potter," she said, teasing him lightly before turning serious again. "You're dying to tell him, but you're terrified of opening up. It's written all over your face. You've always been brave when it came to action, Harry, always been the first to charge in and come to the rescue, but this doesn't work like that. Risking your heart isn't the same as risking your life. It's twice as dangerous and about twenty times as scary." She put a warm hand on his cold cheek. "Don't be afraid. It'll work out, I know it will. Just give it a chance."
He had to turn away for a moment, unable to face the trust and love in her eyes. She had Severus. He was all she had ever wanted, and Fate had given him to her willingly. She was so sure the same would work for Harry, and although he would bet the fate of the wizarding world on her ability to memorize a textbook, he couldn't bring himself to trust her in this. Hope, the one thing that had always kept him going, suddenly seemed like a dangerous thing to tread on, a poisonous snake to be avoided. If he hoped, and then his hopes broke, he wasn't sure he'd ever recover. It was far safer to not hope in the first place.
"Go back inside, Hermione," he said, trying to infuse some warmth back into his voice. "It's your night, and you shouldn't be missing it. I'll be fine."
She let out an exasperated sigh but didn't try to persuade him further. One final hug, and then he listened for the whisper of the glass doors closing behind her.
It had been a boiling August day, the kind where ice pops are considered an acceptable meal and wearing anything heavier than a pair of shorts is suicidal, but the night had cooled off pleasantly, and Harry could feel the heat collected by the stone leaking out beneath his fingertips. The breeze picked up and made a dash at his hair, and a nightingale started singing somewhere under the eaves of the house. Harry had just begun to relax into its lulling voice (although the amount of liquor in his system could have had something to do with it) when he noticed the shadow of the doors opening and closing again behind him.
"Hermione, you can't keep abandoning your party like this," he began, turning to face her, but then he pulled up short when he realized someone drastically different from his well-meaning best friend had joined him on the balcony.
"Draco," he choked out before composing his face, stifling the flaming blush that was evident on his cheeks even in the dim light. His own embarrassment distracted him enough that he didn't notice the shocked expression the blonde quickly controlled before stepping forward.
"Harry," he responded with a measured nod. He hesitated a moment, the question of whether or not he dared evident on his face, before coming over and leaning on the rail beside his former worst enemy. "I hadn't expected anyone else to be out here."
"I came out for some air," Harry mumbled, scouring his brain desperately for something intelligent to say. Or anything at all to say, for that matter.
"I didn't know you were going to be here tonight," he added more clearly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other uneasily.
"Severus invited me," Draco replied disinterestedly, the bored drawl in his voice reminiscent of their school days. "I'm staying for the week."
Harry's head jerked up in surprised. "Oh," he said blandly. "I suppose we'll be seeing a lot of each other then. Hermione's insisted I stay, as well."
Draco echoed Harry's 'oh' of a moment before, and they lapsed into an awkward, tension-filled silence.
Harry's hands were cold with sweat and his heart was beating so furiously he was sure that Draco could hear it. Hermione hadn't said anything about Draco coming, but she must have known, and he glowered darkly into the night at the matchmaking efforts of both the lioness and her mate, realizing that Severus would have been in on the plan as well. He'd rather leave the country than have to watch his step around Draco for a week, but he couldn't think of a single blasted excuse to get him out of staying. He was too well publicized to do anything unexpected and hope it would go unremarked on. He'd already taken the week off of work, anyway… but just the thought of being trapped for the next seven days made him sick to his stomach. There was no way he wouldn't give himself away, especially if Hermione had decided to take action. It was far too risky.
Still neither of them spoke, and Harry found himself fervently wishing his glass didn't take quite so long to refill itself.
"I had thought Weasley would be here," Draco said, abruptly breaking the silence, and Harry felt his stomach drop. Of the many things he would have liked to talk to Draco about, the absent redheaded third of the Golden Trio wasn't among them. The enmity between Draco and Ron hadn't lessened with the end of the war, and given Ron's latest idiocies, Harry was sorely tempted to throw his former friend under the bus.
Ron and Hermione had broken up almost as soon as they'd gotten together, and most likely (Hermione had never confirmed his theories, but he was reasonably sure) because Ron couldn't keep his hands off any girl to bat her eyelashes at him. It spoke volumes that he was now back with Lavender, who had never liked Hermione, anyway.
He couldn't tell Draco any of that, though, not without crossing some serious lines and risking emasculation at Hermione's hands if she ever found out, so he shrugged it off. "He couldn't make it," he replied, hoping Draco would let the matter drop. He pushed his slipping glasses back up his nose nervously and drummed his fingers along the stone. The nightingale fell suddenly silent, and not even the crickets could be bothered to ease the quiet.
"I suppose he'll be at the wedding, though," Draco pressed on, almost aggressively. The unmistakable tone of a challenge slept in his voice, and out of habit Harry was inches away from snapping out a rude reply and storming off, but his own better judgment held him back. Times had changed, he and Draco weren't in school anymore, and Ron shouldn't have needed Harry to defend him in the first place. He kept his gaze staring resolutely into the distance, even though he could feel Draco's eyes boring a curious hole into the side of his head.
"Probably not, actually," he stated clearly, with as little inflection in his voice as if he was commenting about the weather, and he felt Draco bristle beside him at this apparently unexpected bit of information.
"Oh," he said perfunctorily, temporarily losing the sneer in his voice. Harry exhaled his relief, glad that potential catastrophe had been averted, and began to relax for the first time since the Slytherin had joined him on the balcony. All of that went out the window, though, with Draco's next comment.
"Weasley never could appreciate the better things in life," he muttered off-handedly, almost as if he didn't intend for Harry to hear, but loud enough that his words couldn't go unnoticed.
Harry didn't know what did it, the casual cruelty of the tone, the insinuation that Draco knew exactly why Ron wouldn't be welcome, or the possible double entendre of yet another comment on the Weasley family's poverty contrasted with the Malfoys' mountain of wealth. A remark that he normally would have shrugged off, though, now had him seeing red, and he snarked out a retort before he had time to reconsider.
"It's not as if we could all grow up protected from the reality of a homicidal madman, Malfoy. It's rather hard to appreciate the better things in life when you're busy hightailing it through the woods for months on end and watching for Death Eaters around every damn corner."
Draco grew still beside him, and a small voice in the back of his hand was reprimanding him angrily for the words he honestly didn't mean, but they'd already burst from his lips and now the damage was done. The two men turned to face each other, both meeting the other's eye the way they'd done on the dueling platform eight years earlier.
"Care to continue your tale of woe, Potter? No one would have ever guessed that the world wasn't handed to you on a silver platter, the way you acted. Need someone to polish your shoes, Golden Boy? Do you miss having Longbottom and the Weasel following you around like dogs? Even now, you don't really understand the cruelty and the malice and the beauty of it all. You never fucking learned respect."
Harry didn't know what to say. The unease he'd felt initially had quickly morphed into the rivalry they'd carried as children, but that petty rivalry had blossomed into the pain and rage of two adults, two boys who'd seen far too much and were even now haunted by the horror. It was so easy to make the same old slights and see the world the same way, except that he knew better now. Ron had never learned to move on, and now he was someone Harry found he couldn't respect. Draco, though… Draco had looked past his upbringing, the years of brainwashing and every twisted ideal that had ever been hammered into him. Yet here he was, accusing Draco as if the war still raged around them, defending a friend that didn't really deserve to be defended.
Before he could open his mouth to apologize, though, Draco had stormed back into speech. "Do you have any idea what the Dark Lord was truly like, Potter? How could you, when you only ever met him in the battlefield, wrapped up in the love and protection of your friends like a goddamn cloak. You think you're the only one he hurt, when that's only the tip of the iceberg." He met Harry squarely in the eye, and Harry saw him for the first time as the Prince of Slytherin, his face a mask of ice and his eyes dead to the world. "My father is dead, my mother is delusional, and this is branded on my arm for the rest of my life." He yanked up the sleeve of his left arm and thrust it out toward Harry, the Dark Mark still vivid against the pale white of his skin.
"Draco, I-," Harry began, without a clue as to what he was going to say, but Draco cut him off again.
"No, Harry," he said, the quiet defeat in his voice more heart shattering than his anger from only seconds earlier. "No. I don't want to hear about fighting the good fight, or the people we all lost, or the scars we all still suffer from. Just don't." He turned back to stare listlessly into the night, more broken and lost than Harry ever could have imagined him. So vulnerable.
And that's when it struck him. Here was Draco Malfoy, with all his Slytherin pride and pureblood manners, baring his soul to someone without any reason to trust him. He was angry, of course, and sad, but the desperation in his eyes spoke of a far greater need than the desire to blow off some steam, to smack Harry around for old times' sake. This, he realized, was Draco asking for help, in the most subtle, snake-like way possible.
When had he, Harry, stopped being vulnerable like that? When had he stopped trusting people? When had he stopped taking risks for what he loved?
That, he finally understood, was what Hermione had meant. Here he was, standing alone on a balcony under a beautiful star struck sky with the man he loved, and he was too afraid to say anything. He was going to miss this, his one opportunity to make it right, because he was too consumed by fear. Where was that Gryffindor courage?
"Draco," he said again, and quietly leaned over to drop a hand over the blonde's. Draco's skin was smooth, surprisingly warm given the coolness of the night. He tensed slightly at Harry's touch, but didn't move away. "Draco, I'm sorry."
"Whatever for, Potter?" Draco mumbled bitterly. "You only ever did what you had to do. Even I know that. Boneheaded Gryffindors, always working for the great good."
Harry chuckled low in his throat, although a few tears stood in his eyes. "And what does that make you?" he teased. "A boneheaded Gryffindor with the rest of us, I suppose. Why else would you have fought with us in the end?"
Draco surprised him with a laugh. "You've got me. I'm secretly a roaring lion at heart. Shall I declare my undying love for you now?"
The comment Harry off-guard and Draco's head jerked up at the sharp intake of breath. Harry blushed furiously, knowing the comment had been off the cuff, meaningless, but unable to suppress the way his heart had leapt at hearing the notion spill from none other than its most desired's lips.
The silence dragged on, Harry not trusting himself to speak while he was captured by Draco's eyes, grey and light and childlike. It was the blonde who broke the silence again. "I could do it you know," he said conversationally. "I could admit that I love you right now. But what kind of Slytherin would I be if I admitted it without knowing what you'd say, Potter?"
"My name is Harry," Harry stammered, and blushed again at the eyebrow Draco had raised to his hairline. "I'd say that if you love me, you should really call me Harry."
He didn't know when Draco had moved to rest his hand on his cheek, or when he'd put his hands on the other man's waist, for that matter, but all in a moment he was looking right into those velvety eyes and their lips were only inches apart.
"Harry," Draco whispered, and then their lips met slowly, hesitatingly, and Harry melted.
"I love you, too," he whispered back, shocked by his own daring. Nothing was scary anymore, though, nothing more frightening than the idea of letting go or holding back. Draco was his, and he would fight to keep him forever.
His last coherent thought before giving his full attention to the kiss was how maddening Hermione was going to be when she found out she was right all along.
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