"Oh," Hermione said next to him. "Oh, Harry, isn't it beautiful?"
It was. And after spending so long in such dark places, Harry had developed a deep and abiding love of beauty wherever he could find it.
"I thought we weren't supposed to use each other's names."
He looked sideways at her and smiled. She was beautiful, too, all done up in white feathers and silks – she'd decided to go as a swan, because she already had a white dress to alter for the occasion. He couldn't make out any distinguishing features behind her mask, of course, but he could still see her returning smile.
"You're right," she said. "At least, not until midnight."
That, apparently, was when the masks came off. Harry'd never been to a ball in his life (unless he was going to count the Yule Ball when he was fourteen, and given that it had been a school function, Harry decided that it didn't), let alone a masque ball, so he had to trust Hermione's knowledge.
He did like the idea of it, he supposed. The mystery, the romance. The fact that no one would recognize him and start clawing at him for photographs and signatures.
"I want some wine," Hermione decided, and she set off into the crowd.
The streamers, the candles, the costumes, the moonlight through the tall windows – beautiful. Harry drank it all in, let it calm him, let it remind him that life was not all death and loss. If there was any good use of his celebrity status, it would be the right to attend events like this.
He set off through the crowd as the thrumming murmur of conversation was drowned out by music. The orchestra had begun to play.
It was a good midway point, Draco decided. His agent was right; he couldn't keep locking himself away like he'd been doing, and this was a safe compromise. People, pageantry, socialization, and most importantly, blessed, sacred, holy anonymity.
Until midnight, anyway. But Draco doubted he would be staying that long. He was willing to open himself up, but not that much.
He drank, but not to excess. He ate, but lightly. He spoke, but briefly. The outside world was a skill, one that he had to relearn, but it came back to him easily enough.
It was a party that, at times, felt a little too familiar. All the richness and finery made him think back, hearkened to home, to the time before the War. It ached. At times, it chilled him down to his bones – but it was fine.
It was all fine, he reminded himself.
He had a mask, after all. What better time to relax?
Harry loved the colors. Bright red foxes, golden lions, poison green dragons, peacocks with feathers as blue as sky, all of them glinting with jewelry, twirling, dancing, laughing. It was so colorful that he felt a sudden pang of regret as deciding to dress as—
When he turned around, he was face-to-face with a prince. He was tall, though a few inches shorter than Harry, with a long black frock coat hemmed in gold, a white shirt and cravat, and handsome black boots. Elegant but unpretentious.
At once, Harry fell in love.
"Interesting choice," the prince said. "Daring, too. A speck of black in a sea of color. A dramatic way to stand out."
Oh, yes, Harry thought, very much in love.
His black-and-gold mask covered most of his face, but Harry could still see him smiling.
"It wasn't intentional," Harry said. "My nicest robe is black. I thought it might be an easy alteration."
The prince moved forward, inspecting the feathers sewn into Harry's sleeves. Now that he was closer, Harry could smell him – tea and cigarettes. Despite himself, he inhaled deeply.
"Ravens are terribly misunderstood birds," the prince remarked. "Poe eternally smeared their reputation when he wrote his poem. They're actually very playful."
"Oh, yes. They chase each other, slide down snowbanks – they even make toys for themselves."
Harry smiled. "Are you an ornithologist?"
The prince laughed. "No," he said, "I just do quite a lot of reading."
He reached past Harry and picked up a flute of champagne from the nearby table. Tea and cigarettes flooded his senses again.
"Your voice sounds familiar," Harry said. "Have we met?"
"That's a rather strange question, don't you think?"
Harry opened his mouth, shut it without speaking, and then said, "Sorry?"
"We're at a masque ball," the prince said. "The entire point of the evening is mystery and anonymity. I'm merely remarking on the paradox of one masked man asking another masked man if they've ever met."
For a moment Harry considered the possibility that his playful decision that he'd fallen in love hadn't actually been that far off the mark. He'd never met anyone so eloquent in his life; the man spoke like it was poetry, like he'd stepped out of the splendor and pageantry of the Regency Era, and despite himself, Harry could not get enough of it.
He took another moment to study his prince. The mask couldn't hide everything, after all: Harry could tell that he was slender, that he was very clean, that his hair was the color of cornsilk, and that the lines of his neck rolled exquisitely when he drank champagne. He was beautiful, and Harry's soft spot for beauty had never been softer.
"Do you dance?" Harry asked.
The prince swallowed his mouthful of champagne. "Are you asking?"
He'd been doing so well, flitting from person to person, engaging in meaningless pleasantries. It had been a series of gentle stretches, a warm-up for his disused social skills.
And then he'd talked to the raven, and he'd smelled like holly, and before he knew what was happening, they were dancing, and all Draco could think about was how very strong his arms were around him, drowning out the parts of his mind that were reminding him he wasn't supposed to do this much this soon.
"If I can't know your name," the raven said, "then you can at least tell me what it is you do for a living."
"I'm a writer," Draco said. "A novelist."
"That explains your way with words."
"In the past, people have found my vocabulary pretentious."
"They must have been quite jealous. Have you written anything I might have read?"
"God, I hope not."
The raven laughed, and it might have been Draco's imagination, but he thought he felt the arm around his waist tighten.
"What? Are they bad?"
"It's possible, though I've been told they're good. It's not the quality that concerns me, it's how damned personal they are."
"Writing Tragedy of the Narcissist was like ripping out my own heart with a dulled butter knife; publishing it was like putting the organ on display for all the word to scrutinize."
The raven was smiling. Draco only had less than half his face to study, but the expression seemed to be one of delight.
"I've never met anyone who talks like you do," the raven said. "It's incredible to listen to."
That surprised Draco, though perhaps it shouldn't have. After all, he'd spent eight years locked up in his flat, writing and reading and drinking to excess and speaking to no one. Maybe in those long years of self-imposed exile, his speech patterns had changed. It had changed nearly everything else about him.
Perhaps it wasn't so much the raven's admission as it was the fact that the raven had admitted it at all. It seemed like such a strangely vulnerable thing to say – his tone hadn't been flattering or obsequious, but rather sort of joyful and open.
Draco realized that he hadn't answered for several long, drawn-out seconds and said, "You're very forthright."
The raven shrugged. "I don't like hiding myself or my thoughts. Better to be resented for who you are than loved for who you're not."
"I suppose the fear of scorn must be lessened when you're wearing a mask," Draco said.
The raven leaned forward. Draco smelled holly and felt warm breath on his jaw. "I have a feeling that I'd still be complimenting you even if neither of us were wearing masks," he said.
Draco shuddered and fell in love, despite the fact that he knew that couldn't possibly be true. If his mask was off, if he only knew—
His forearm burned, shaming him. Remember who you are, it reminded him. Remember what you did.
The song ended and everyone applauded, but Harry was perhaps a little overeager to be free of the closeness and claustrophobia of the dance floor. He took the prince by the hand and guided him away, through open French doors that let out onto a garden, lit by strings of fairy lights.
"You're very quiet all of a sudden," Harry said once the rumble of the ballroom had quieted to a pleasant, distant thrum.
"Apologies," the prince said. "I assure you that it's very out-of-character for me. If it eases your mind, you may consider me so taken by your charm that you've rendered me dumbstruck."
"Merlin, I hope that's not the case. I've already decided that I love to hear you talk."
The moon came out from behind a veil of clouds, illuminating the garden with an ethereal silver light. When they came to a stop, they were standing beside a fountain, far enough away from the ballroom that all they could hear was the water and the crickets.
"You have such a breathtaking openness," the prince said.
"I've always been an ardent admirer of authenticity. I spent so many years locked away from the world, hiding from everything including—" He hesitated a moment. "—including myself."
Harry wasn't sure what to say, so he didn't say anything.
"I suppose it's just – the word is 'refreshing', I think. It's refreshing, seeing such genuineness. Like opening a window into a stuffy room and breathing in the wind."
"Merlin," Harry said again, laughing. How could someone that talks like that even exist outside of books? "I have no problem being as open as you like if it will keep you interested."
"You should have little fear of losing my interest," the prince said, and at some point he'd gotten so close that he had to lift his chin to meet Harry's eyes and Harry couldn't stop staring at the tendons as they arced and rolled beneath the skin. "Are you an auror?"
Harry forced his eyes to refocus, tearing them away from the neck that filled his head with thoughts of swans and gossamer. "How did you know?"
"There aren't very many sorts of people who are invited to functions like these," the prince said. "You don't have the air of an old money socialite or the sliminess of a politician. With those eliminations there are few enough choices."
"Good deduction," Harry said, smiling.
"An auror," the prince said ruminatively. "A vanquisher of evil."
He could detect a subtle tensing in the prince's frame.
"You seem nervous," Harry said, and he reached out to put a hand on the crux of the prince's neck. The prince took in a sharp, shuddering breath and arced almost reflexively against his touch, like an animal starved for affection. The sight of it filled Harry with an overwhelming desire to touch him absolutely everywhere if only to see that reaction again and again.
"I'm not nervous," the prince said.
"These things aren't supposed to happen," Harry informed him. "People aren't supposed to just meet like this and be so… so—"
"—drawn," the prince supplied.
"Drawn," Harry repeated. "Will you stay till midnight?"
Every now and then Draco's mind would take one piece of information and run with it, faster than the rest of his body could keep up.
Midnight, the raven said, and his mind took over the rest. Midnight, masks off, identities. Evil past, evil memories, vanquisher of evil, it's a disaster, it was always going to be a disaster, out, get out, get out now.
For a moment all Draco could do was stand paralyzed. A look of concern seemed to ghost across the raven's face, twisting his mouth into a worried frown.
"Are you all right?"
"I can't," Draco said. "I can't stay till midnight."
"What? Why not?"
Draco didn't have a good answer. All the anxieties he'd worked to hard to shake off for this one evening were creeping back at the edges of his mind, clawing at him like so many shadows. He pulled away and turned, moving back towards the ballroom. Get out get out get out get out.
Merlin, had there always been so many people? Draco felt suffocated, terrified; he'd been an idiot to think he was ready for so much so soon. The part of him that was fit to talk to other people had died in the War with the rest of him.
The words were distant, inconsequential. The floor undulated beneath his feet, and Draco stumbled for the hall leading out, leading anywhere, he had to get out.
Someone dressed as a prince ran down the hallway and out the door. Before she had a chance to decide whether or not she should follow, someone else burst out from the ballroom after him.
She couldn't pin who it was, but this was a very posh party and it couldn't be a bad answer, not for her at any rate.
Outside, there was the familiar crack of Disapparation and the man done up in black feathers pulled off his mask and raked his hands through his hair.
Harry Potter. The perpetual bachelor since the end of the War, the lonely hero, the dark and dangerous auror, lovestruck and lost right in front of her. Oh, yes.
He didn't look at her, of course. No one ever noticed the fly – or as the case may be, the beetle – on the wall. And at once her mind began filling with possibilities of prose. Harry Potter, 32, was seen at a governor's ball this past Saturday, chasing after an unknown partygoer…
No, no. Not enough information, not enough story. Not yet.
As he sank down on a bench against the wall, Rita crawled carefully down towards him and latched on under his collar.