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Stop and Stare

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First of December – Frost on a window pane



Harry’s coffee has gone cold. It also seems to have turned, in what can have only been a moment of inattention, into red wine.

“Oh,” he mumbles vaguely, stifling a yawn and taking another sip. “Never mind.”

He leans back in his chair and continues to gaze straight ahead. In his direct eye line, a tall, beautiful window stretches up to the high ceiling and down to the polished floor. Framed in glossy mahogany, the glass is covered in a dizzying sprawl of icy patterns that glitter and glow as though lit from within. Some spiral across the smooth surface in perfect fractals, others carve and swoop in majestic arcs, and the ones in the centre of the glass form delicate silver feathers that immediately put him in mind of David, the African Grey parrot belonging to his most recent customer, Mrs Cobb.

Harry stares at the icy feathers and smiles to himself, hoping that both the old lady and the bird are happy with their newly-completed project, a top-of-the-range bespoke tent that now sits at the bottom of their garden and allows them to look up through the transparent roof and gaze in complete comfort at the stars in the clear Cornish sky. Harry had managed to finish the project on time just hours ago, despite the lack of help from his staff—all three of whom had been called away to a big salvage and repair operation—and the well-intentioned but distracting attentions of Mrs Cobb herself, who has spent most of the week following him around with a list of questions.

After running his own business for the best part of a decade, Harry is used to all kinds of efforts to derail his concentration, but Mrs Cobb has somehow still managed to prove a challenge. He’s a little bit tired now, of course, but that’s just the way things are. He’s a busy man with a successful company that does not run itself, and feeling a touch weary and sore at the end of the day only means he’s doing things properly. He thinks.

Besides, he enjoys his work. It may have come as a surprise to his friends, his family and the Ministry that a post-war Harry Potter was no longer interested in running around after dark wizards, but as far as Harry himself was concerned, the change could not have come soon enough. He hadn’t had a plan when he’d borrowed Hermione’s extendable tent on the first day of his first free summer, but after dragging it all over the country for a month, curious seeds had begun to take root. He and the tent had travelled to isolated cliff tops, valleys and caves, where he had allowed himself to rest and breathe slowly after the horrors of the war and the chaotic emotion of the Burrow.

Each location had, of course, presented its own unique set of requirements, and Harry had rolled up his sleeves and set to work on his little canvas home, finding not only that was he enjoying himself but that he had a knack for the job. By the time he came back to civilisation, ready to return to Hogwarts and complete his NEWTs, he had built up an impressive arsenal of extension charms and had improved his skills in Transfiguration dramatically enough to stun McGonagall into temporary silence.

Ron had remarked that he had never seen anything so spectacular, at least until Harry had finally been persuaded to pitch up the tent on the lawn and Hermione had almost burst into tears on seeing his work for the first time. After that, of course, McGonagall’s shocked silence had never stood a chance.

Two weeks after the end of his last term at Hogwarts, Harry had rented himself a little office in London and gone into business. Ten years later, Evans Amazing Living Spaces offers a wide range of small custom builds, everything from log cabins to wishing wells and barbecue pits, but Harry’s customised all-weather tents are still the biggest draw. He spends most days either in the office or out at sites all over the country, and when he’s not working, his time is distributed between various functions and balls, which he tolerates, and being the best uncle he can be to Rose, which he loves. With Teddy now in his first year at Hogwarts, Harry thinks he should have at least a little extra time for things like sleeping or just sitting around, but if he does have it, he has no idea where it is hiding itself.

The trouble is, he has no idea how to say no to any commission, even the ridiculous ones, and there are plenty of those. He has the feeling that Ron and Hermione would be horribly disappointed if he were to dry up the stream of tales about some of his more nonsensical builds, and even Andromeda wheedles again and again to hear the story about the man who had employed Harry to build a garden shed in the shape of a giant turnip.

“It was a pretty damn good turnip, too,” he murmurs to himself, taking another sip of wine and watching a flurry of coloured lights playing over the icy window.

He sighs. Life is short. It’s too short not to have a turnip shed in your garden if you want one, and it’s too short to waste. As far as he can see it, he’s cheated death at least twice already, and who the fuck knows when his time is going to be up for real? No one knows, least of all him, and the only solution he can think of is to pack as much as he can into the time he has, because the alternative is horrifying, and though he fights as hard as he always does not to let his mind drift, it doesn’t matter, because all he can see is his parents. Fred Weasley. Mr and Mrs Granger, who are, at least, alive, but whose memories are damaged forever, leaving them terrifying moments when they do not know who they are or cannot recognise their own daughter.

Harry pushes the unhelpful thoughts away and focuses on the delicate icy patterns once more. He yawns and scowls as a shiver runs all the way down from the nape of his neck to the base of his spine. His head feels fuzzy and his arms and legs ache. Perhaps he should see a Healer... but then again, perhaps not. Hermione’s one and all she ever does is tell him that he needs to slow down.

“Are you even listening to me, Potter?”

Harry blinks at the sound of Draco’s voice and then grimaces. Draco only calls him ‘Potter’ when he’s particularly irritated with him these days, and he wonders just how long he has been staring at the window. As if on cue, a mass of sound surges in around him like water crashing through a fragile dam, and he has to close his eyes for a moment. There’s a small orchestra of some sort, over the top of which streams the clinking of glasses, the chatter and laughter of several hundred people, and the clack-stomp of formal shoes on polished wood.

For several horrible seconds, he can’t remember what function this even is. What he does know is that he doesn’t want Draco to get up and find someone more interesting to talk to, so he shakes himself, squashing his anxiety and casting around the vast room for a clue. Finally, he spots the big, glowing banner, reading:

‘The War Orphans Trust Presents... Swing Into Advent! Please Give Generously.’

Of course. It’s not an orchestra, it’s a swing band, and there’s Kingsley Shacklebolt on the dance floor, twirling that terrifying old lady from the Trust while his wife looks on with barely concealed amusement. He thinks he’s known about this one for a while, and he also thinks he has already given generously, but no doubt he can empty his pockets into one of the shiny silver collection buckets that are dotted about the place.

“Back in the land of the living, are you?” Draco says, raising an eyebrow. “Perhaps it’s your age. Only one more Christmas before you turn thirty.”

Harry pulls a face. “You’re older than me, you idiot.”

“Yes, but the difference is, I don’t care. One day you will learn that with age comes wisdom, refinement, sophistication...”

“Says the man who has wine all down his shirt,” Harry says, feeling delightfully childish and grinning when Draco glances down to check for the stain. “Made you look.”

“I take it all back,” Draco says drily. “You actually seem to be regressing.”

Harry shrugs, leaning back in his chair and watching the dancers. He fiddles with his half-empty glass. “What is this, anyway?”

“It’s wine, Potter. And I need some more,” Draco says, and he rises from the table.

“Stop it,” Harry says, looking up at him wearily. “Anyway, you should know this stuff.”

“Oh, yes. Forgive my terrible lack of oenological education,” Draco says, folding his arms over his dress robes and a white shirt that is, in truth, absolutely pristine, just like always.

“That’s not a real word.”

Draco frowns, managing to look disdainful and baffled at the same time. “Yes, it is.”

“How do you even know a word like that if you know fuck all about wine?” Harry asks, abandoning all concern for his fuzzy head and throwing back the rest of his drink in one go.

“I know a lot of words. Don’t think for a moment that that means I do a lot of things,” Draco says.

Taking Harry’s empty glass, he heads for the bar, and Harry watches him until he disappears into the crowds. He scans for people he knows or people he might actually like to talk to and comes up with very little. Kingsley is always interesting, of course, but he has far more important people to talk to than Harry at a night like this, and all the people he loves stopped coming to these bloody things years ago. If he’s honest, he has no idea where he’d be without Draco.

When the Undersecretary to the Minister ambles over to his table, Harry suppresses a groan and wonders if Draco, now safely at the bar, had seen him coming. The man now pulling up a chair next to Harry’s is without doubt the dullest and most talkative individual Harry has ever met, and before Harry can even open his mouth to issue a greeting, he is launching into a story about the redecoration of his office.

As he sits there with a fixed smile on his face and patiently waits for a gap in the conversation, he decides that Draco has most definitely jumped ship and left him to fend for himself. And that’s fine, he supposes, because he’ll just take his revenge at the next one of these things. He thinks there’s another one in a few days’ time, and Draco will definitely be in attendance.

And maybe that should be strange, but it’s not. It’s been several years in the making, but Harry and Draco now have a relationship that is based entirely on sitting next to one another at functions. For reasons Harry has never been able to explain, they get on rather well in this setting and seem to gravitate towards one another without justification or need to understand.

They don’t talk about their personal lives, they don’t talk about their work—in fact, Harry’s not sure if Draco has, or has ever had, a job—and they certainly don’t talk about Things from the Past. Enough has been said on the subject by everyone including Harry, and he’d rather not think about it at all. He doesn’t, save for the yearly spate of galas and benefits to honour the fallen, and most of the time he’d rather not think about it even at those times, but needs must, and while he doesn’t really believe the charities’ insistence that the whole thing would fall apart without him, he can’t quite bring himself to refuse when they reach out to him for an appearance or a speech or another horrifying calendar shoot. Witch Weekly and the like can go and whistle, but anyone raising funds for a good cause has Harry quite firmly by the balls whether he likes it or not.

What he does like is seeking out Draco and passing the time, in between the necessary chats with various important guests, by carping about what everyone else is wearing or doing, making stupid bets and pretending they know about wine. Draco, despite his fancy upbringing, is as clueless as Harry, but that doesn’t stop him from swishing a dry white around in his glass and insisting that it has ‘notes of Quidditch robes and fresh Shrivelfig.’

Usually, at least. Harry frowns, glancing over the shoulder of the Undersecretary, who is still talking about paint colours and the perils of matching skirtings and door jambs. Draco is still lingering at the bar, and Harry doesn’t think he imagines the slight slump in his usually upright posture. He wonders if Draco has had a bad day. Wonders if he should ask about it.

He won’t, of course, because that’s not what they do. They don’t talk about things like that. Real things. They don’t even see each other in any other context but this. As far as Harry is concerned, seeing Draco in daylight and out of dress robes would be like seeing McGonagall in her underwear—unnecessary and downright disturbing.

“Yes, I know what you mean,” Harry says when the Undersecretary pauses to gulp his drink. “Once when I was—”

When he is quickly cut off again, Harry shrugs and goes back to not-really listening. Draco is looking over at their table now, glasses in hands, and Harry looks back at him, pushing out a third chair from the table with his foot. Draco scowls and then begins to make his way across the floor, and it doesn’t escape Harry’s notice that the glasses he is carrying are very large and very full of wine.

Maybe it’s been a very bad day, he thinks, but he doesn’t have time for that. He doesn’t have time for another person in his life, and he can’t help but suspect that if he were to relax the boundaries just a little bit, their contained little friendship would explode and get all over everything. Not that he needs to worry. Draco just needs to stay in his box, and all will be fine. If he wants to get drunk tonight then that’s his business.

It isn’t as though Harry has to get drunk, too. He has an early start tomorrow, and self control. Lots of it.

**~*~**

Draco never smiles. Harry wonders why that is. He closes one eye in order to merge the two Dracos that he is seeing into one, and the one Draco gives him a strange, strange look.

“What’s the matter with you?” Harry demands.

“Nothing,” Draco says carefully. “You are drunk.”

“No, I’m not,” Harry says. He turns his one focused eye to the table, where four enormous empty wine glasses sit dangerously close to his elbow. “Oh... where’s... thingummy gone?”

Draco frowns. “The Undersecretary?”

“Mm.”

“His wife came and took him away... possibly nine, ten hours ago,” Draco says, copying Harry’s expression and screwing up one grey eye. “It was wonderful. He has a wife. That’s funny.”

“It wasn’t that long,” Harry insists. “People are still dancing. People with wives.”

“Indeed,” Draco says, and he drains his glass in such an elegant way that Harry feels sort of cross inside.

Draco is so strange. He’s not... bumpy... like a real person. A real person like Ron or Hermione or Mrs Cobb. He’s sharp and shiny and sort of crunchy. And what the fuck does he do when he’s not here with Harry? Perhaps he doesn’t even exist when there are no functions to attend. Maybe he really does have a box. Maybe he gets stored away in it to keep him in mint condition, Harry thinks vaguely. Vacuum packed Malfoy, like new, all snippy comments intact.

“You’re doing that thing again,” Draco says irritably.

“Hm?

“Yes, that,” Draco says, peering into his empty glass. “I’ve got animals with longer attention spans than you.”

“Animals?” Harry laughs. His elbow slips from under him and he takes a moment to regain his balance. “Don’t tell me you’ve got a pet.”

“Why is that so difficult to believe?” Draco demands. “You are very, very rude.”

“I’m... yeah,” Harry mumbles, lips feeling suddenly sticky. “I am. But you don’t like animals.”

Draco regards him with a rather hurt expression. “I might.”

“But the Hiffogripp...” Harry says with a little snort that startles him.

“That was a very long time ago,” Draco says, scowling and leaning forward heavily on his elbows, pushing his fingers into his hair with a dramatic sigh. “And I know about that Hippogriff. It got away. It was a naughty Hippogriff. Good for that Hippogriff. And I do like animals. Lots of them.”

Harry frowns, confused. “You like them a lot or you have a lot of them?”

“Both. Why are you so curious?”

Harry blinks slowly. “I don’t know. Maybe I am drunk.”

“Yes. And you don’t need to know anything about my animal sanctuary. It’s a secret. E un segreto. det er en hemmelighet. Es ist verboten.”

“I might be tight as an owl, Draco, but I’m pretty sure ‘verboten’ means ‘forbidden’, not ‘secret’,” Harry says slowly. “Also, what was that middle one?”

“Norwegian, I think,” Draco says, swaying slightly in time to the slow music from the band.

Several couples are still rotating around the dance floor, but as Harry’s eyes focus in and out, he realises that the evening is definitely winding to a close. He can’t remember whether or not he put any money in the silver tins, and that can only be Draco’s fault. Draco and his wine. And his animals. Something prickles in the back of Harry’s mind and he pulls his attention back to the man opposite him.

“You said an animal sanctuary.”

“Yes.”

“What, in the grounds of the Manor, is it?” Harry laughs, imagining, for some reason, the ark crashing into the lake or duck pond or whatever they have there, and Draco presiding over it like some kind of platinum blond Noah.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, and who in the name of buggery fuck is Noah?” Draco says, puzzled.

Harry doesn’t remember saying that part out loud. Perhaps he didn’t and Draco is just lying. And telepathic. He shudders.

“Never mind that,” he says, gesturing with a sweeping hand and knocking two wine glasses to the floor with a crash. Draco stares at him as though he’s going to tell. “I don’t believe you.”

Draco folds his arms. “Fine. Come to the Manor and see for yourself.”

“Fine. I will,” Harry says, folding his arms too and hoping he’s imagining the fact that the chandelier seems to be spinning around above his head. He also hopes he’s imagining the fact that Draco’s eyes look all silvery in the light, like feathers on glass made of ice.

“Good. You do that,” Draco says, standing up with only the smallest of wobbles.

Harry stands too, because he can. Sort of. “Right. And if you’re lying about any of it, you have to... erm... you have to talk to thingummy on your own next time. And every time until Christmas.”

Draco lifts one eyebrow. After a moment, the other one comes up as well and he looks rather confused.

“And if I’m not,” he says at last, “you have to build me one of your fancy little sheds. For free.”

“Done,” Harry says, hardly hearing Draco’s terms as they shake hands with much solemnity and then wander off in separate directions.

Moments later, Harry tumbles out of his kitchen fireplace and stumbles off to bed, wondering about cold, strong fingers and purebloods in boxed sets. He crawls under his quilt before he is fully undressed and curls into a messy, aching ball. Within seconds, he is asleep.