Draco had one hand on the stem of a champagne flute and both eyes on Gawain Robards.
Robards sat at the next table over, front row, with a direct line to the podium. He was clenching his jaw so tightly Draco thought it might pop. To his right, the Minister and Mrs Shacklebolt listened with polite attention. Next to them Millie and Blaise were, entirely by design, in Draco’s sightline, and when he looked from Robards’ flushing neck to Millie she gave him a quick wink. “Well done,” it said.
The elves had built the stage at one long end of the Manor’s ballroom. Even Galder had seemed a bit nervous at first, about reopening the room and holding a public event at the Manor for the first time in well over a decade. Happily, his nervousness had fuelled productive overcompensation, and he’d had the rest of the elves working tirelessly in the days leading up to the gala. The room was cleaned top to bottom and then some. Floor pointed and polished, mouldings repainted, each pane on the French doors and windows re-glazed, new heating charms around the entrances, and a dancefloor laid down behind the twenty perfectly appointed tables arranged in front of the stage. They’d decorated beautifully, too. The Christmas fairies had been reassigned for the night and sent to line the ceilings and sit in the floral arrangements. The stage was edged with garlands, and a few low spotlights that illuminated the podium.
In the glow of those lights, Harry was finishing his speech. “In our first full year of operation, we’ve provided counselling to dozens of survivors of the Voldemort War, demand is only growing. Our pre-trial intervention programmes have helped reduce the recurrence of spousal and child abuse, as well as decreasing instances of substance abuse and related infractions. If nothing else, we might ask you to give tonight because we’re all enjoying a drunk-and-disorderly-free Diagon Alley.” He laughed lightly, and the audience followed.
“But there is something else, of course. We at the Trauma Resource Centre strive to change the way members of the British wizarding community see one another, the ways we’re able to care for one another.” He smiled humbly at the crowd. “It may be easy to see one person or a group of people as the symbols of the war, to pretend it only happened to witches and wizards who were on the front lines. That’s not entirely true, though, is it? All of us, on both sides of the war, whether in the middle of the fight or sitting at home hoping desperately for words of missing friends and family… we all fought a battle of some sort, and we all bear the scars for it. When we acknowledge that, when we share that weight with one another instead of carrying it alone, we can begin a type of healing that isn’t otherwise possible.
“That’s why, in the next year, we hope to expand our community support initiatives. We want to go beyond the services we can provide at our centres in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. We hope to open a service centre in Manchester by the end of the summer; to supply counsellors at Hogwarts for children who have been affected by growing up with survivors or who have survived other types of trauma; to be able to provide in-home support for individuals and families who are struggling; and to expand our policy initiative, working hand-in-hand with the Ministry to create laws that account for the widespread incidence of post-traumatic stress in wizarding Britain, and to provide opportunities for recreation and community-building. And if you happen, as I am—” he grinned at the rapt crowd “—to be a fan of Kneazles and Crups, you may be interested to know that we’re also working with Hogsmeade Animal Rescue to start a companion animal programme.”
“But none of that is possible without your support, and that’s what brings us here tonight. There are envelopes on your tables, which I or Hermione Granger, our Director of Operations, will be more than happy to take—” the crowd tittered, and Harry grinned at them sheepishly “—and we’ll be opening the silent auction after dessert. Please, enjoy drinks and dessert and stick around for music from Donaghan Tremlett and the Night Owls. And thank you very much for joining us this evening!”
He stepped back and bowed slightly, and the room erupted into applause. Even Robards was forced to clap, albeit feebly, and Draco saw more than a few hands at the neighbouring tables reach for the golden envelopes that sat under their place cards. A string quartet picked up from beside the stage. Harry waved again and made for the stairs.
Draco’s champagne sloshed in its glass when Pansy nudged his shoulder. “That was well done.”
Draco smiled. “He’s stupidly good at that, isn’t he?”
“Remarkably,” Pansy agreed. “And well done you, too.”
“Don’t tease, Pans. He writes his own speeches.”
“I know that,” she slapped his arm playfully. “I meant the choice of partner. And the event, while we’re at it.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Though it was really the elves. You were right about the thread counts. I’m thinking of introducing them to flannel, too.”
She laughed. “A small army of elves with multiple high-quality fabrics to choose from? You’d be a force to reckon with. More than you already are.”
He laughed and then said, “Thank you, too.”
She raised an eyebrow. “The silent auction? It’s just a few autographed books.”
“Ah.” Her smile faltered, though she sat up straighter and jutted her chin proudly. “Yes, well. Bit harder to resist arguments for coming out of hiding when it only involves walking downstairs. And no one’s hexed me yet.”
“If they try it there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Might be worth it to see you wreak vengeance.”
“I will only point out that it would be extraordinarily easy for the elves to sneak a Puking Pastille into someone’s dessert.” He thought of Robards again.
“Force to be reckoned with, I’m telling you.”
He smiled and squeezed her hand, but his eyes had started to stray to Harry, who moved through the makeshift receiving line that had gathered at the foot of stage.
Harry handled the crowd gracefully, accepting envelopes with broad smiles and earnest thanks. He shook hands and smiled and laughed at jokes, though Draco didn’t miss the hint of relief when Granger came to join him.
Pansy leaned over to whisper into Draco’s ear. “You can go join him, you know.”
“I know,” he said. “He’ll let me know when he’s ready.” He turned back to her and, over her shoulder, saw Blaise and Millie rise from their table. “Meanwhile, more champagne before they bring out desert?”
“It is rather good,” she conceded, standing by way of answer.
Blaise clapped him on the shoulder before they reached the bar. “Good show.”
“Thank you,” Draco said. “Though I’ve really just provided the venue.”
“No small thing,” Blaise insisted. “It continues to be exceptionally lovely. And with an exceptionally well-stocked bar. Shall we?” He held out an arm to Pansy, who took it with an exaggerated bow, leaving Draco and Millie to follow them into the line.
Draco stepped closer to Millie, bowing his head conspiratorially. “How was tonight’s Robards-watch?”
She almost giggled. “I thought his jugular was going to explode at the bit about Ministry policies.”
“Damn.” Draco snorted. “I was watching his jaw and missed it entirely.”
“Did you miss the flush, too?”
“How could I? Looked like early stages of Scrofungulus.”
Millie mock-shuddered, then tilted her head as though reconsidering. “Actually… I suppose a woman can hope, can’t she?”
“Still giving you trouble, then?”
“He is fond of a tantrum. Nothing compared to the coup in the Department of Mysteries after Granger left, I’ll grant. But I thought we were going to have to call the Aurors when the Minister told him we want to cut back MLE’s Research and Development budget to create a charity fund. On top of losing his would-be Super-Auror? Got to be a bit much for him.”
“What happens, exactly, if you call the Aurors on the Head Auror?”
“Good question. He didn’t seem keen on finding out when I offered.”
He whistled, low under his breath. “Nicely done.”
She grinned. “You as well. This is a raving success.”
“We’ll see how it tallies up at the end of the night.”
“Darling, I don’t know how they do it in Paris, but when that many people reach for their envelopes that quickly?” She raised her eyebrows.
He nodded his concession. “Fair enough, but it’s not the only measure of success, especially when it comes to political cooperation.” He paused. “I don’t suppose the Minister reached for his envelope?”
“He can’t, at a public event. But word on the street is that Mrs Shacklebolt is a huge Daisy Green fan and will be bidding competitively. Plus—” Draco felt her hand dip in and out of his robe pocket “—he may have given me leave to take care of it out of the public view.”
“I could hug you.”
“Only if you want to risk losing our place in line.”
Pansy and Blaise stepped aside in front of them, clearing a space at the bar. Draco ordered a glass of champagne. Beside him, Millie ordered three.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Is the evening that trying already?”
She laughed. “Neither that trying nor about to become that much more interesting. Only one is for me. One is for the elves to take to Greg, even if he’s not the gala type, and one is for you to take to Harry.” She held a flute out to him. “He’s starting to get a little peaky from all the attention.”
As they turned away from the bar Draco glanced over the crowd, with its smattering of familiar faces and the unmissable sea of ginger at the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes table. But Draco’s eyes were drawn to Harry almost immediately, and he suspected he wasn’t the only one for whom that was true. Harry managed to radiate a calm, charismatic confidence in these situations that drew people toward him in droves. But to someone who knew him, his smile looked a bit worn. He saw Harry’s eyes flit towards him for a split second and then, as Draco watched, Harry itched the side of his neck and pulled on his earlobe.
He smiled at Millie and accepted the glass. “Excellent thought, thank you. If you’ll excuse me?”
At her nod, he began to cross the room. Some people still cut him openly, and he felt the weight of their sneers, stirring the urge to react or leave. But he was resolved not to give in to it, or them. His priorities were elsewhere.
He slipped in beside Harry, who was gushing over an elderly witch whose granddaughter was apparently well on the way to single-handedly revolutionising the role of the Beater.
Draco thrust the champagne flute between the two of them. “I’m so sorry to interrupt,” he said, with a smile for the witch. “Especially when Harry looks so intrigued, but I’m afraid there’s a bit of a hiccup with dessert and we need him in the kitchens.”
“Oh, goodness.” The witch gasped in an exaggerated show of concern. “Is everything quite all right?”
“Oh, yes, yes,” Draco reassured. He leaned in as if sharing an important secret. “You see, the tortes were meant to have Chocolate Frog toppers, and several of them have made a run for it. The elves are beside themselves.”
She barked a laugh and then promptly clapped her hand over her mouth. “Don’t mean to make light! Of course, Harry, you must.”
Harry nodded graciously and took the flute from Draco. “Thank you, Adaire. I hope we’ll see you again at the summer do!”
“Of course,” she grinned, grasping his hand. “Wouldn’t miss it. You know, the work you’re doing—”
Draco cleared his throat and put his hand at the small of Harry’s back.
She dropped Harry’s hand and stepped back sheepishly. “—is very commendable,” she finished. “Best of luck with it. And the frogs.”
Harry grinned and thanked her, and let Draco guide him away.
Draco felt Harry relax as Draco steered him past the tables and around the dance floor. With a quick look behind them, Draco unlocked one of the French doors at the back of the room and slipped out, with Harry close on his heels.
Draco heard, before he even had time to turn and see, Harry’s sigh of relief as they stepped out onto the Terrace Gardens. The chill in the air and the utter silence of a winter night were an instant relief to Draco, and Harry looked as though the same was true for him.
Harry reached for his hand. “Thank you. I was beginning to get a bit shaky in there.”
“I saw the signal.” Draco twined their fingers together and started walking down a garden path. “How are you feeling?”
Harry leaned over to set his champagne flute on the arm of a bench as they walked past. “Tired. Not awful, but Merlin there’s a lot of lying at these things.”
“Adaire’s granddaughter isn’t the next Gwenog Jones?”
“No idea. Her granddaughter’s a third year Ravenclaw.”
Draco laughed. “Right. And her grandson’s a first year who’s updated Wolfsbane?”
“That’s about the long and short of it.” Harry sighed. “It begins to wear. I can feel it starting to build. Even if the individual stories don’t matter, so many of them at once, and having to be the person who listens and pretends to believe and love it all… It’s a lot.”
“It’s remarkable that you can do it for so long, magical outbursts or not.”
“Maybe,” Harry said, “but I’ll still be glad to get back.”
“Same.” The moon was just beginning to wane, and there was enough light to reflect off Draco’s champagne as he took a sip. “And you’re sure you want to make the trip tomorrow when we’ll be back for Christmas in a fortnight?”
“Yes. I’ll have to sign some thank you notes before we go, but if you’ll Side-Along me to St. Pancras we can catch the train at 4:43 and be back in time for dinner.”
“Of course I’ll Apparate us, but I meant to ask if you’d rather stay here. Spend time with the Weasleys before Christmas.”
Harry hummed deliberatively. “No, I think not. I want to visit them at Christmas, of course. But I’d like to be with you for the end of term. Make sure you sleep, see the kittens. And we’ve got dinner with Chloé and Amina next week, don’t we?”
“We do, yes, and I can’t say the rest sounds unappealing, but I can manage if you’d rather have the time in England.”
“No, I want to. And really,” Harry went on, “I’ll need a break after this.”
“It has been… a bit hectic.”
“Tell me about it.” Harry laughed. “It’s possible that I’m excited for a break, in addition to needing one.”
“After three weeks, it’s possible that I’m looking forward to the Eurostar just to have two hours to spend alone together.”
“Alone with a carriage full of other people.”
“We are still wizards,” Draco argued. “A quick Muffliato and we can talk all we like.”
“After we cross to the French side, maybe.”
“Fine, but as soon as.”
“Fine,” Harry laughed. “But only because I’ve missed your company so much.”
Draco grinned and squeezed his hand.
They walked further into the garden, over the slate paths, through the hedgerows, past the Japanese maple, which had come back strong and still held a few of its leaves. Draco pulled Harry towards the stairs looking out into the field and set his half-empty flute on the balustrade.
Harry stopped him before they could descend onto the grass below. “I can’t be gone too long,”
“Another minute, though. You do need the rest.”
“I know,” Harry sighed.
Draco wrapped his arms around Harry and turned them towards the house. The ballroom was a beacon against the night, seeming to light the whole side of the house.
“Quite something, what you’ve managed to put together,” Draco murmured.
“Yeah,” Harry replied. “I’m proud of it.”
“As you should be.”
“It’s good, to have done something I’m proud of on my own terms.”
“Makes all the difference in the world,” Draco agreed.
“Thank you for letting us use the ballroom. And for being here.”
“Happy to, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Draco answered honestly. He pressed a kiss to Harry’s cheek. “Is that your way of saying we’ve got to go back in?”
Harry sighed, his breath rising in a white column that disappeared into the night. He relaxed into Draco’s arms. “Another minute.”