Harry had left the letter lying on the table like a poisonous snake long enough.
He could hear Draco’s voice in his head correcting him as he picked it up and tore off the heavy gold seal that hung by a glittering thread. Venomous. Venomous snake. You say that, not poisonous.
Harry sighed. They had always wanted each other to be something they weren’t. He scanned the letter carefully.
Dear Potter Enterprises,
I’m sorry, Harry. I can’t write to you as if you were a stranger or some kind of business owner, when I know exactly how much effort you put into your creations, and don’t. And although you were never kind to me, I hope you can find the strength in you to forget about your mistakes and move on to the future.
Astoria and I will be getting married in three months. It’s a tradition in the Malfoy family to gift our brides with something beautiful and long-lasting, a magical object or plant or animal or spell. Father made Mother a present of the white peacocks in our gardens. When they gather in the moonlight, their feathers shine and a whisper of her name arises. I want to do something even better for Astoria, as our love will outshine my parents’.
I want to make a maze for her. Each turning will show my heart to her, some aspect of my love for her, with the greatest proof at the heart. She’s a soft and retiring woman, so bloody or violent displays won’t be appropriate, or noisy ones. I want this to be a marvel of beauty and delicacy. Your finest magic will be required for this creation, and no hostility towards Astoria.
I chose you for this for your skill, and because I know that you’re too noble to hurt Astoria on purpose, and because you would truly want to make me happy.
Looking forward to hearing from you soon, Potter.
Harry closed his eyes and did his best to feel nothing while his heart slowly healed from the scores the letter had inflicted on it. He had mostly got over his obsession, his infatuation, with Draco. And infatuation had been all it was, despite how intensely Harry had felt it at the time. Draco had proved that to him when he fell in love with Astoria and showed Harry what the real emotion was like.
Harry had come to believe, in the years since, that some people could feel that and some people couldn’t, and he was one of the unlucky ones. Maybe it had something to do with growing up without his parents.
Harry sighed and studied the letter again. Draco didn’t realize how hurtful he was being. He only wanted the best gift for his bride, and he trusted Harry to make it.
It was a trust Harry had no choice but to answer. At least he would get a lot of Galleons out of Draco.
He wrote a letter back with his price, and watched it wing into the sunset. He half-hoped the number would make Draco back away, or at least look for something less expensive for his marriage.
It didn’t, and now Harry was standing beside the massive gates that closed off the front of Malfoy Manor, staring through them at the gleaming building.
He’d been in there. He’d made love with Draco on green sheets in one of the bedrooms that Draco said no one but his distant ancestors had ever used, but that the house-elves kept spotlessly dusted. Their faces had flushed and Draco had laughed at his excitement and Harry had said—Harry had said—
He couldn’t remember.
The point was, that was over now.
Harry raised his wand and cast a spell that would make the gates reverberate with the sound of a knock and alert the elves. He knew better than to touch the metal, after what had happened the last time he and Draco spoke in the Manor.
A second later, an elf that Harry didn’t recognize popped up in front of him and regarded him doubtfully. “Master Harry Potter is waiting until Filly has authorization,” she said, and popped away again.
Harry waited. It was a cloudy day, and he hoped it didn’t rain. His hair would draggle and drip over his face if it did.
And what do you care? It’s not like you’re ever going to try and impress Draco with your handsomeness again.
He put his thoughts away in a hurry, and was rewarded when the gates opened and the figure who walked down the gleaming white pathway towards him was Astoria, not Draco. Harry bowed because he knew she would expect it, and to give him a chance to get his face straight before he lifted his head.
Astoria was giving him much the same doubtful look as Filly by the time he looked her in the eye. “Well, Draco did say that he wanted you here,” she murmured. She had a delicate shrug, just like her delicate facial features and delicate green eyes and delicate golden hair bound up on her head in an elaborate style. “Come with me. Draco is in the gardens.” She turned and walked away, her impossibly high-heeled, silver shoes tapping away on the path.
Harry followed her, watching the white gravel of the path and the way her silver heels twinkled and flashed. His stomach was dancing. He watched the light so that he wouldn’t throw up.
In a few minutes, he would be seeing Draco again.
The gravel path led through another set of gates that Harry didn’t remember into the enormous back garden. There were two white peacocks strutting around in sight, but Harry didn’t look for others. His gaze was on the chair, shaded by a parasol, where Draco sat with his arms folded behind his head.
His chest was so defined under his robes. His hair shone like the peacocks’ feathers, brighter than Astoria’s shoes. He tilted his head back lazily, and Harry traced the perfect shape of his cheekbones with longing eyes.
The voice was as he remembered, all the harmonics of his fantasies, except that Draco was always calling him Harry in his fantasies. Harry inclined his head. “Hello, Malfoy. I hope that you’ve been well.”
Draco tilted his head to the side and gave him a look of unmistakable pity. “You can’t wish me that well, Potter. Don’t try.”
Harry did. He loved Draco as much as he was capable of. He still hadn’t managed to move on from him to the point of taking another lover. But he just straightened up and said, “Of course,” as Astoria went to stand behind Draco’s chair. Draco reached up and captured her hand, smiling into her face with a brilliance that made Harry’s arms ache as if someone had hit him with a Muggle car.
“Still as rude as ever, I see, Potter.”
Harry blinked and turned away from Draco and Astoria. It was strange, but that voice seemed to reach into the ether where he was floating and drag him back to the ground. “Hello, Professor.”
“It’s been years since I’ve been a professor at Hogwarts.” Snape’s eyes were narrowed, and despite the fact that he wore a set of tailored, pale blue robes that matched Draco’s except for the color, he looked familiar. “‘Sir’ will do. I understand that you’re here to create a gift for Draco and Astoria’s wedding.”
Snape sighed and put down his glass of something white and bubbly on a table, getting to his feet. “And I’m here to make sure that you don’t kill yourself while you do it.”
Harry felt a surge of hope for a second, but then he understood. It wasn’t that Draco wanted him to be well. It was that he wanted to make sure Harry bloody Potter didn’t die on his property and get the papers interested in him. Harry bit his lip until he was sure it would bleed. The pain surged through him and calmed him down. He nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Snape stared at him, as if he didn’t know what to do with a Harry who wasn’t protesting about the way people treated him, but Harry only turned back to Draco. “Where is the ground that you want me to make into the maze?”
Draco waved a hand. “Severus will show you.”
Of course. Draco didn’t want to spend even that much time with him. Then again, Harry had made him hurt. Harry nodded and turned to Snape, who sneered and led him away rapidly in the direction of a large, green piece of the gardens that didn’t appear to have many flowerbeds.
Harry swallowed and focused his attention on the work. When he waved his hand, a piece of parchment appeared next to him. It was the contract he and Draco had signed, with some numbers already filled in and other spaces left blank for the parameters Harry couldn’t measure until he got there.
Now that he was here, he began to cast the spells that would tell him everything from the composition of the soil to the usual weather here, and he fell into the work. He would have to, to keep himself from cringing and sniveling when he saw Astoria.
Severus stared at Potter’s hunched back, and felt as if someone had punched him in the ear.
Draco had described the way Potter had acted when they broke up. He had said the man had “somehow” been devastated, as if he hadn’t ignored obvious signs that Draco was sleeping with Astoria for years before he officially broke it off with Potter. He’d said that Potter was a begging mess, and Draco had been afraid of him. Potter had powerful magic, after all, and no idea what love was really like. That had been one reason he’d wanted Severus here, to make sure that Potter didn’t harm Draco or Astoria with that magic.
But this man…
Was nothing like the boy Severus had known, was nothing like the man Draco had described, was nothing like the man the papers still sometimes talked about when they got bored enough.
He was contained. Once he concentrated on the work in front of him, and began to weave the spells that apparently told him vital information about the place that Severus couldn’t even guess at, Severus couldn’t feel a trace of his magical signature. Most wizards projected it beyond their bodies in a constant, obvious hum. Learning to listen for it was one reason Severus had been able to catch students out of their beds so often.
But there was nothing here. If it wasn’t for the visible trails of light in the air around him, Potter would have looked like a Muggle.
He also had a blank face that ill-suited the brash Gryffindor Severus remembered, or the passionate, draining lover that Draco did. He nodded when Severus asked him a question and said, “Yes, sir,” a few times to answer one, without hearing his own answers, that was obvious. It was as if he had set up a door against the world and sealed it.
The spells, of increasing complexity, formed spirals in the air that looked like dense honeycombs, and built on each other until Severus prepared to stop Potter by force if necessary. He was expending too much magic. But the boy abruptly stood up, tilted his head as if to examine the ground from one eye only, and waved his arm.
The honeycombs collapsed, and the magic was sucked back into Potter. Severus straightened. That speed was likewise unnatural.
“This ground will do for the maze,” Potter said, in a soft, singsong tone that made it seem as if he was talking to himself. “I’ll need a few wards to keep out the magical influences that might distort what I want to do. I’ll also need to ask Malfoy what he wants it made of, and some ideas for the gifts at the turnings…”
“What are you talking about, Potter?”
That seemed to win Severus the man’s attention for the first time in nearly an hour. Potter started, turned around, and said, “The maze I’m going to build for the future Mrs. Malfoy, sir.”
“Why a maze?”
“Malfoy said in his letter that he wanted something of beauty and delicacy for his bride. That each turning of the maze would show a display of his love for her.”
And that must cut your heart to shreds, but you don’t look it, Severus thought, uneasy. Draco had told him the story of the day that he finally broke with Potter and Potter desperately begged him to stay over and over. That man, who wore his heart on his sleeve, was not the one standing here now.
The one who stood here now might make Severus’s task impossible.
“But why a maze in particular?”
“I don’t know, sir. You’ll need to ask Malfoy himself that.”
Severus followed Potter back towards the house. Draco and Astoria had gone inside. Potter stood for a moment as if he had expected other instructions, then shrugged and turned towards the gates.
Severus took a long stride to stand in front of him. Potter gazed at him with calm eyes that said nothing.
“Why are you here?” Severus demanded.
“To make the gift.”
“You could have refused.”
Potter smiled for the first time. Severus didn’t like the look of it. “But that would have showed that I was still grieving, still obsessing, and that I wished the future Mrs. Malfoy harm. I don’t. I can’t be that small and petty.”
“It would hardly be small and petty to refuse to participate in the wedding of your former lover and the woman he cheated on you with.”
“But it would, sir.” Only a swift flutter of Potter’s eyelashes showed Severus’s phrasing had gone home. “It was years ago. If I can’t get over it in that time, how small-hearted am I?”
The words made sense. They were the words Draco had spoken last night at the dinner table, when Astoria had asked if it was really necessary to have Potter make her wedding gift. But somehow they still sounded a sour chord with Severus.
“Then I will also have to make sure that you do not wind that grief and bitterness into your magic.”
Potter was turning away, walking towards the gates where a house-elf awaited him, probably to make sure he left. Severus watched him until he went beyond the gates and Apparated, then returned to the house.
Soft harp music drifting through rooms full of cool pearly light and the scent of roses told him where Draco and Astoria were. Severus stood in the doorway, watching as Draco lay on a gray sofa with his eyes closed and his arms crossed on his chest, while Astoria stroked her harp, head bowed beneath a hanging arch of shining lilies.
“Is he gone?” Draco asked lazily, not opening his eyes.
“Yes, he Apparated. Why have you chosen a maze for Astoria’s wedding gift, Draco?”
The harp music rose a little, Astoria ducking her head further as a blush mantled her cheeks. Severus glanced at her. He thought the maidenly air a pretense, something put on for the sake of a judging audience rather than her reality.
Since he was the only audience, it made him wonder what she was hiding.
“It will represent the wandering path that led to our love,” Draco said in a slow, hypnotic voice, without opening his eyes. “The slow, winding road we had to take. Some lovers are direct and dramatic. But we smoldered underground.”
That is enough juvenile metaphors for the day. “And why choose Potter to make it, Draco?”
Draco opened his eyes with a snort. The music faltered for a second, but then Astoria went on playing, turning her back so that it was fully to both of them and she no longer had to look at their faces.
“I know that he’s still in love with me.” Draco was languorous of manner, careless of face and voice. It made Severus wonder what he, in turn, was hiding. “It makes this a bit of a risk, perhaps, that he might choose to ruin something in the gift just to hurt Astoria. But he won’t want to hurt me. I’m getting a great deal of cheap labor out of him. He charged me a lot, but nearly as much as he would have if he didn’t still carry a flame for me.”
“I see.” Severus’s stomach twisted a little. “You don’t think he’ll use this to take revenge?”
Draco laughed. “Potter? No. I understand him too well.”
“It has been two years. You might not know him as well as you did.”
“Why, Severus.” Draco turned around to stare at him. “It almost sounds as though you’re sympathizing with him. Do tell me that’s not the case.”
Severus curled his lip. He could not imagine the point when he would sympathize with Potter. “I am telling you that the man I watched today has great power, greater control than is common with that kind of power, and the means to take revenge on you if he wishes. Be careful, Draco. Find someone else to create this wedding gift.”
“It has to be him. He’s the only one in the business of actually using his magic to create objects like this the way the client wants.” Draco shrugged and lay back down on the sofa in the pose with his hands folded over his chest. Severus contemplated telling him that he looked ready for a coffin, but refrained.
“And he’s a tame dog on a leash,” Draco murmured, closing his eyes. “You don’t understand, Severus. He’s incapable of love, but he thought he was in love with me. He’ll do anything for the chance to wriggle back into my life again. He won’t dare sabotage the gift or make my beloved Astoria upset.”
Absently, he held out a hand. Astoria took one of her hands from the harpstrings to glance her fingers across his palm.
Severus ended up shrugging. “I hope you are right.”
“Trust me. In my reading of Potter’s psyche? Always.”