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The Owl Who Came for Christmas

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Honestly, he hadn’t intended for it to go this far. In fact, this time Draco had actually tried to do something nice for Potter.

Not that the git made it easy, mind you.

For the past three months, Draco had tried to work up the courage to talk to Potter— maybe even apologise for being a monumental git— but every time he so much as looked at him, the man would disappear. Potter was actively avoiding him— and doing a damned fine job at it, considering that all the ‘Eighth Years’ had been sequestered in a make shift Common Room after their return to Hogwarts.

But it wasn’t just that. Potter was avoiding everyone. Ever since his return, the conquering hero had done little to encourage his admiring public. He was sullen and taciturn and showed little enthusiasm for celebration or socialising. Bit by bit, the entourage faded away and left him alone.

The point was, Draco had been watching closely and he’d noticed a few...things. Like how Potter’s jaw would tighten and his eyes would glisten when he thought nobody was looking. How disinterested he was in the things that had once given him pleasure. He didn’t even go flying anymore, and he just picked at his food.

Draco admitted to a touch of worry...if only because Potter was a fixture in his life and he was a creature of habit. Watching that bright light and vivacious presence fade to a dull flicker right before his eyes...it was irritating. Like a constant pricking at the back of his head. Still, Potter had made it amply clear that he didn’t want Draco around— didn’t want anyone around— and like the rest of his classmates, Draco had eventually left him to his devices.

Things would probably have continued as they were, had it not been for the fight.

****

Draco was walking down the corridor, making his way to Transfiguration when he heard the row. Shouts echoed down the hallway and he spotted a small crowd gathering, not too far away.

His first thought was that some Slytherin student had run afoul of an angry mob. It happened more often than anyone liked to admit. Draco, thankfully, had a handy repertoire of spells at his disposal. After a few stray attempts, the bullies grudgingly left him alone. But the younger Slytherins were not so quick, nor as lucky. Since Draco had taken it upon himself to look out for his former Housemates, he couldn’t exactly walk away now.

So, he approached the ruckus with quick, purposeful steps and shouldered past the gathered crowd. 

But it wasn’t a Slytherin fighting off a bunch of avenging attackers. In fact, if Draco wasn’t seeing it, he probably wouldn’t have believed it.

“How could you do this to her?!” Weasley yelled, shoving Potter back. “She loves you! She’s loved you since she was twelve and this is what you do? She’s my sister, Harry!”

“Ron, let go!” Potter snarled. “I can’t help how I feel, alright? I’m sorry about Ginny but it just isn’t going to work!”

“Yeah, and now I know why!” Weasley snapped. “Couldn’t you figure out you liked blokes before you started dating her? What, were you just using her to figure yourself out?” 

He gave Potter another rough shove. This time, Potter retaliated with a punch. Before long, they were rolling down the corridor and pummelling each other. Weasley got a cut on the upper lip and Potter’s scarf tore in half. Still, they went at each other with no signs of stopping.

Draco cursed as excitement rippled through the crowd. Shouts rang out, echoing down the hallway. Draco took a discreet look around. Granger, curse her, was nowhere in sight. Where was that wretched woman when he actually needed her? If someone didn’t break up this fight, Potter would get expelled for sure.

Draco bit back a groan. Sometimes, he really hated his life.

But someone had to do the dirty work, and he did owe Potter.

“Well, you can’t blame Potter for getting mixed up,” he drawled, loud and clear. “With a flat chest like that, does the Weaslette even qualify as a bird?”

It was a low blow and it worked like a Charm. Weasley abandoned Potter and flew at him with a yell of rage. Draco’s head knocked against the wall and the Weasel sucker punched him right against the gut.

“Fuck you, Ferret!” he snarled.

Draco went down with a groan of pain. Still, it was worth it. He’d got what he wanted. Potter was already picking himself up, looking put out and mutinous. Weasley favoured both of them with one last sneer. Then he retreated, shoving past Potter on his way out.

“Don’t bother coming home for Christmas!” he yelled, over his shoulder. “You’re officially not welcome at the Burrow!”

“Fine!” Potter bellowed back.

Weasley stormed off, leaving an awkward silence in his wake. The rest of the students drifted away, now that the excitement was over. Eventually, it was just him and Potter.

Potter turned to him with an annoyed expression. “Even you should be smarter than that,” he commented.

Draco sneered, but opted to nurse his bruised ribs instead of making conversation.

“You just had to throw your two Sickles in, didn’t you?” Potter demanded, looking rather pissed off. “Thanks a lot, Malfoy. As if things weren’t bad enough already...”

And then he stormed off, leaving Draco alone.

The prat didn’t even realise that Draco had just saved him from a trip to McGonagall’s office.

Ruddy git.

Draco huffed in irritation and began the long, lonely trip to the Infirmary, silently vowing to forget about stupid, ungrateful Potter.

Honestly, there was just no pleasing some people.

****

The news of the showdown spread like wildfire. Before long, the whole school knew that Potter was bent. The rumour mills were abuzz and even Draco, who rarely spoke to anyone save the odd Slytherin, couldn’t escape it.

Potter, of course, had gone into full hermit mode and refused to leave the Eighth Year quarters for anything short of class. The castle elves had started taking his meals straight to the dorm. It did nothing to stop the rumours and speculations. If at all, they got worse.

Of course, Ginevra Weasley didn’t exactly help matters by hexing her brother in the Great Hall, and screaming at him to mind his own damn business. She was dating Thomas now, so at least someone was getting a happily-ever-after. But the rift between Weasley and Potter was only growing wider, leading to some rather awkward nights in the Common Room.

“Ron will get over it,” Granger said, trying to reassure Potter discreetly while keeping an eye on her scowling boyfriend at the other end of the room.

Draco remained seated, a few chairs away, trying and failing to concentrate on Mother’s letter. Potter’s sulking was none of his business anyway. He’d done his bit for the prat and got punched and yelled at for his trouble. So no, Draco was just going to stay away from the crazy, thankyouverymuch.

“Like I care,” Potter retorted sullenly.

“Harry, be reasonable.” Granger was using her scolding voice now and the effort made Draco snort in derision. Like that ever worked on Potter. Honestly, she’d been his friend for years and she still didn’t know that talking down to him only made him belligerent? Draco rolled his eyes and went back to his letter.

“I’m just saying you could try talking to him,” she went on. “Maybe then we could put this behind us and all have a nice Christmas at the Burrow. Together, like we used to.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Potter replied with a grimace. “I just...it’s not just Ron. Honestly, Mione? I just want to be alone for a while. Please...just go.”

Draco didn’t have to look up to visualise the look of hurt on Granger’s face. But to her credit, she took the hint and got up. “I know you’re still dealing with the war,” she murmured quietly, “but shutting us out isn’t going to help. I just hope you know we’re here for you, when you’re ready.”

With that, she sighed and joined Weasley at the other end of the room.

Potter turned his back on them and scowled at the fire for another ten minutes before finally giving up and heading for the dorm. The sound of a door slamming echoed down the stairs and Draco rolled his eyes.

Finally!

Maybe now he could concentrate on his letter. Draco ripped the envelope open and commenced reading.

My darling son,

Words can’t describe how much I miss you. Before you ask, yes, I’m doing quite well in Annecy. There’s something about the French, I’ve always said. Even the Muggle towns are charming.

As for your Father...well, he’ll never quite reconcile with the exile, but he’s doing as well as can be hoped. Do not fret for us, my love. We’re happy, I promise you.

It gladdens my heart to know you’re well. I confess that I worry sometimes. But your courage and perseverance is commendable, as is your commitment to rebuilding the family name.

I’m so proud of you, Draco.

Even though it breaks my heart that we won’t be with you this Christmas, know that I’m always thinking of you. My brave boy, you have your whole life ahead of you. Your path is harder than most, and that is our fault, but you have done so well. I know it is difficult, but you are the most resilient person I know. Remember, a Malfoy always pays his debts and we owe a great deal. I’m certain that you will do your duty, like you always have.

This too shall pass, my Draco. Stay strong and know that I miss you.

Love always,

Mother.

Draco folded the letter up and put it away, but his mind still meandered around Mother’s words.

A Malfoy always pays his debts. We owe a great deal.

Damn it.

Draco groaned and swiped a hand across his face. He would have to think of a way to repay his debt to Potter. It was his duty as a Malfoy.

Oh, this was going to suck.

****

It took him three days to work out his mission. But by the time the plan had been etched in his mind, Draco was ready.

He slid out of bed at the crack of dawn and stole a glance at the rest of the dorm. Finnigan turned over in his sleep and Thomas was snoring like a hippogriff. Weasley’s bed was bare—he’d gone home for the holidays just yesterday. Potter, true to his word, hadn’t joined him. He was fast asleep— completely still and totally silent— but Draco could see the faint frown on his face.

Brilliant.

Even in his sleep, Potter was an angsty git.

The coast was clear so Draco got out of bed and tip toed to the loo, shutting the door behind him and casting a Locking Charm. He heaved a sigh of relief, and turned to the mirror.

Nobody knew about his Animagus Form. He’d started practicing when he came of age— during those awful months at the Manor under the eye of the Dark Lord. It was something he’d done in secret, a distraction from the horror that was his life. His Form gave him strength. It was something he had control over, something to look forward to. By the time the war was over, Draco was an accomplished Animagus...

...and he hadn’t told a soul.

Now though, his debt had been called in, and he finally had a use for this Form.

Draco closed his eyes and concentrated. He visualised flying through the night sky like a swift shadow, tracking prey with a sharp eye, swooping to the ground with speed and agility. The shift took over his body and Draco gasped. He was shrinking, turning in on himself, the world growing so large and imposing around him. His eyes sharpened and he could feel the brush of feathers against his chest.

And then, it was done.

Draco opened one eye. He was sat on the sink now, staring back at a round, brown face with keen grey eyes, a short sharp beak and an arched crest that gave the impression that he was frowning. His feathers were speckled with brown and white, not unlike snow dusting the earth. He was imposing for his size and his tail was long and tapered.

He was every bit the proud, male Northern Hawk Owl.

Draco emitted a slightly displeased hoot. He wasn’t very fond of his Form. It made him feel...poufy. And honestly, for a Malfoy to be something as common as an owl...

Draco shook his small, feathered head. Apparently, he lived to break the mould.

Anyway, it was time to put this plan to the test. Draco spread his wings, and took a moment to enjoy the wide arc they made. Then he lifted himself up and flew.

A quick trip around the bathroom made for good practice, and he was glad to note that his flying skills were still stellar. During the war, he’d used the Form to escape from the Manor for short spells of time. Despite his lack of practice, his body still remembered the rousing sensation of flight.

Oh, he couldn’t wait to fly outdoors!

With great effort, Draco alighted on the sink and hastened to transform back. He couldn’t afford anyone discovering him, after all. The shift caught him off guard again, but he grabbed hold of the sink and lifted himself up. One look in the mirror confirmed his status as very human.

Now that that was done, Draco could proceed with the rest of his plan. Christmas Break started today and the Great Hall would be emptier than usual.

Potter would most likely welcome the lack of students and come out of hiding. There was a good chance he would be in the Great Hall for breakfast, and alone— what with Weasley and Granger gone.

This was the perfect opportunity.

Draco would use his own experience with this Form, and give Potter exactly what he needed: something to look forward to.

And it would work.

Draco was going to cheer the bastard up if it was the last thing he did.

****

Later that day:

Harry picked glumly at his scrambled eggs and tried to ignore the churning in his gut. He wasn’t hungry and he half wished he’d stayed in the dorm after all. Yet again, he scolded himself for letting Seamus cajole him into coming downstairs. To be fair, Seamus had been correct in his assumption that the hall would be emptier than usual, what with everyone having left for the hols.

But now that he was here, at the Eighth Year table, Harry couldn’t help but notice how many of his friends had opted to stay back.

Dean, Seamus, Neville...

Harry knew for a fact that Dean’s parents were still in hiding— despite all his assurances that they were safe now— and hadn’t been in touch with him for a while now. Seamus had stayed back to give him company. Neville was staying back for Hannah Abbott, who had lost her mother in the War. The two were dating now and Neville had explained his decision with a shrug and a ‘she needs me more than Gran.’

Justin Finch-Fletchley, Ernie Macmillan...even that arse Cormac McLaggen had nowhere to go this Christmas. And of course, there was Malfoy. Harry’s mouth twisted and his fists clenched around a fork. He tried to remind himself that Malfoy’s situation at least, was not his fault— not directly anyway. Exile was the least Lucius deserved.

Still, it served as a constant reminder and try as he might, Harry couldn’t just forget the War. He couldn’t just forget that people had lost their lives, their loved ones and their families on his account. Maybe if he had tried harder, he could have saved more. If he had been smarter or stronger or braver or...

The list went on.

And now, of course, he had this ridiculous ‘coming out’ to worry about. Thanks to Ron and his big mouth, the whole school was gawking at him. And fine, perhaps he should have been honest with his best friends and told them but...it just hadn’t seemed important when they were busy looking for Horcruxes in the forest. And then Ginny had happened and...

Harry groaned and held his head in his hands. He never should have come downstairs. He should have just...

“Hoo.”

Harry jumped at the sudden interruption. He lifted his head up, only to spot a rather large and puffy owl staring back at him. Harry blinked in surprise. The owl blinked back, evidently less surprised.

“Hoo,” it stated again, cocking its head to stare at Harry curiously.

“What have you got there, Harry?” Seamus asked, leaning over to look at the owl.

“I’m not sure,” Harry replied truthfully. He hadn’t been expecting a delivery, and he’d never seen this owl before either.

“Hoo!” the owl exclaimed, sounding slightly impatient now. One sharply talloned foot stuck out, with a small, brown package attached to it. The owl gave him a judgemental look, its grey eyes stern and slightly disdainful. Harry could almost imagine it thinking ‘and you’ve been a wizard for how long exactly?’

“Sorry,” he muttered, hastening to relieve the owl of its burden. He felt rather ridiculous for apologising to an owl but it settled down again, apparently mollified. Harry pulled the package free gently and set it down on the table. He palmed his wand and cast a Searching Charm. Fine, maybe the War had made him a touch paranoid, but Harry blamed Romilda Vane far more for his habit of searching every package he got. At any rate, the thing passed muster. There wasn’t anything explosive or poisonous in it at any rate. Harry cast a distracted glance at the owl, only to find it staring rather coldly at him. Harry averted his gaze and put the wand away at once. He couldn’t be entirely sure but it almost seemed like the bird was...offended by his distrust.

What the hell?

“Well, go on,” Dean urged. “Open it already.”

Harry obliged and pulled the wrapping paper off. No card. Not even a short note. Instead, the only thing that fell out of the package was a maroon and gold, soft wool scarf.

“Huh,” Dean commented. “It’s a Gryffindor scarf.”

“Didn’t you ruin your last one when you were brawling with Ron?” Neville asked curiously.

Harry scowled at the reminder of the fight, but nodded anyway. Neville was right. He had torn his scarf that day. And now, he had a brand new one.

“Did you put an owl order in at Twilfitt and Tattings?” Seamus asked.

“Not that I remember,” Harry replied distractedly. He frowned and picked the scarf up, turning the soft wool over in his hands. “Maybe it’s a mistake?”

The owl bristled indignantly, puffing up like a furry Bludger. Neville chuckled. “I think you offended him,” he said, reaching out to stroke it. The bird gave him a steely look and hopped back a few paces.

“Right,” Harry commented thoughtfully. It was a rather...expressive bird. “Sorry,” he offered again, before turning back to his friends. “I guess it must be for me, then. Although it’s a bit weird that someone knew I was missing a scarf and decided to send me one— anonymously, at that.”

“Maybe it’s a secret admirer,” Seamus commented with a wink.

“Yeah,” Dean added with a snort. “Probably some bloke trying to get on the good side of the Boy Who Lived, eh?”

The careless comment made Harry bristle. He shot Dean a dark glare and stood up abruptly. “I think I’ll head back to the dorm,” he announced. “I’ll see you lot later, yeah?”

“Harry,” Dean began, looking contrite, “I didn’t mean...”

“Later,” Harry cut in tersely, as he walked past him. Dean slumped back with a sigh and Neville shook his head. Harry turned away from them without another word.

As an afterthought, he grabbed the scarf on his way out.

****

Draco tracked a course back to the Owlery, flying as swiftly as the winds would allow him. He caught a current and drifted lazily for a bit, enjoying the brisk chill in the air. Merlin, he’d forgotten how much fun flying could be.

Finally, he reached his destination and alighted in the Owlery with a soft hoot. There was no one here but the owls.

Draco closed his eyes and prepared to transform. He landed on the floor clumsily and amidst owl droppings, wrinkling his nose at the horrid smell. His change caused a minor uproar amongst the owls, and he ignored the hoots and screeches that followed him on his way out.

Well. That went well.

Potter was understandably suspicious but he’d accepted the present without a fuss. Draco had procured the scarf anonymously, so it couldn’t be traced back to him. If Potter rejected his gifts out of sheer stubbornness, that would defeat the whole purpose of the mission.

And then he would never be able to repay his debt.

Draco shook his head and headed back to the Eighth Year Common Room. He had until the end of Christmas Break to turn Potter’s foul mood around, and that would require some careful planning.

Now, what else did Potter like?

****

A few days later, and Harry had put the odd incident of the scarf at the back of his mind. Maybe it was just a fluke. Somebody had seen him rowing with Ron and deduced that he would need a new scarf after Ron tried to strangle him with the last one.

Still...that implied that his ‘secret admirer’ was a student— specifically someone who was present when the fight had broken out. That certainly narrowed the pool but in the end, Harry decided that he just didn’t care enough to find out. The person hadn’t signed a note or anything and the owl wasn’t familiar to him either. Maybe it was just what it seemed to be— an anonymous gesture of goodwill.

So, Harry let it go.

Christmas preparations were in full swing around the castle, and the Eighth Years had been drafted in to help. McGonagall had firmly announced that they were practically adults now and more than capable of being trusted with a few Decorative Spells. That being said, she also refused to let Seamus cast so much as a Lumos near anything flammable. Even Malfoy was participating, fixing wreaths of holly around the dungeons with some of the younger Slytherins.

It was...nice that people were looking forward to the season. Unfortunately, Harry just couldn’t find it in himself to follow their example.

He left his classmates to their decorating and stole out for a walk. His thoughts were a muddle and he felt wary and discontent.

He also missed his friends.

Mione made it a point to write him every day. She took great care to mention how much everyone at the Burrow missed him, especially Ron. Then again, Ron hadn’t sent him so much as a note so Harry wasn’t too sure about that.

“Arry!”

Harry yelped and stumbled, only for a large hand to haul him back to his feet.

“Careful there, lad,” Hagrid chuckled, setting him down and patting his back. Of course, that nearly sent Harry reeling again, so he held on to a tree for support.

“Hey, Hagrid,” he managed, between coughs. “How are you?”

“Just helpin’ out with the Christmas decorations,” Hagrid explained cheerfully. “Got some holly right here ta spruce things up.”

Harry looked around him, his eyes landing on the behemoth holly tree Hagrid was dragging after him. “That...should be enough,” he offered lamely.

“Aye, but enough about me, lad! Where’ve yeh been? Haven’t seen yeh ‘round in ages! Haven’t forgotten yer old friend Hagrid, have yeh?”

Harry winced. It was hard not to hear the note of hurt underneath Hagrid’s customary cheer. He had been putting their visits off for a while now. In fact, he didn’t think he’d visited Hagrid at all since his return to Hogwarts.

“I know,” he replied quietly, “I’ve...I’ve just been busy, that’s all.”

Hagrid nodded thoughtfully. “Fang misses yeh. Poor puppy just can’t understand why yeh stopped comin’ ‘round.”

Great. More guilt. Just what he needed.

“I have to go back inside,” Harry blurted, cutting Hagrid off before he could make him feel even worse. “They need me to...um, put up the mistletoe. I’ll see you around, Hagrid.”

“Now, ‘old on a minute,” Hagrid protested, hauling him back easily. “We can take care o’ all that stuff later, after a nice cup o’ tea. What d’yeh say?”

Harry cursed under his breath. As much as he liked Hagrid, he just didn’t need this right now. Hagrid would only bring up stuff— stuff like the War, the fact that Harry wasn’t at the Burrow for Christmas, that he was moping his life away while everyone else moved on...

No. No, he didn’t need this right now.

“Hagrid, I’ll come see you later,” he tried, trying to squirm away. “But right now, I really have to go.”

“Arry, it’s just tea! Come on, now! You used ta come over all the time!”

“I know, and I’m sorry I haven’t been around. I just...I can’t right now. So please...”

“Now, yeh know I can’ let you off like that! Why can’t we just talk this out over...”

“Hagrid, let go!”

His voice rose to a near shout, and Hagrid let go abruptly. Harry stumbled back at once, trying and failing to ignore the hurt look on his friend’s face. He cursed under his breath. Why did he have to screw everything up?

“I’m...sorry, lad,” Hagrid broke the silence. He stepped back, looking utterly dejected. “Didn’t mean ta push. I jus’...I miss yeh, is all.”

Harry wasn’t sure he could handle this anymore.

“I have to go,” he said, turning away and walking back to the castle with hurried strides.

He didn’t notice the owl, sitting in a tree not too far away, watching his every move.

****

Harry spent the rest of the day in the dorm, feeling depressed and ashamed of himself. He had hurt Hagrid’s feelings and the guilt was gnawing at his insides. A part of him was still angry, because Hagrid should have known well enough to leave him alone. But a more reasonable side of him was just as aware that he had only been trying to help.

Harry wished people would stop trying to help him. He was sick of everyone walking on eggshells around him, trying to get him to ‘talk’ about his ‘feelings’, giving him...well, giving him everything except what he needed.

He wished he wasn’t so messed up. And he really wished he hadn’t hurt Hagrid’s feelings, but he just didn’t know how to fix it.

Maybe he should go down to the hut and talk to him, after all. Some tea with an old friend would do him good...

...but Hagrid probably didn’t want to see him now, not after the way Harry had snapped at him.

Harry groaned and threw himself on his bed, intent on wallowing in his misery for another two hours. It was just pure chance that he happened to look at the window...

...and noticed a pair of grey eyes glaring daggers at him.

“Whoa!” Harry yelped, running for the window and throwing it open. A blast of icy wind blew into the room, making him shiver. The owl tumbled in soon after, its feathers damp and ruffled. It shook itself dry and gave Harry a poisonous look.

“How long were you out there in the cold?” Harry demanded, a little angrily. “What kind of sick person sends their owl on an errand in this weather? You alright there, mate?”

The owl gave him a haughty look and shook itself dry again. Unfortunately, it only succeeded in looking like a large and grumpy Puffskein. Harry’s lips twitched and he immediately schooled his expression. This owl didn’t appreciate being made fun of, he recalled. Harry was in no mood for a nip to the finger.

“Okay, hold still,” he said, when the owl started dripping on his half finished Potions Essay. “I’m going to dry you off with a spell and...and you’re an owl and don’t understand a word I’m saying.”

Surprisingly enough, the bird didn’t even blink when he cast a Drying Spell at it. It actually looked rather pleased when its feathers puffed up, soft and dry once again. Harry couldn’t help a grin. It looked rather cute, all round and poufy— like a very large Pygmy Puff.

“There’s a boy,” he crooned, reaching out to pet it.

The reaction was instantaneous. The owl’s eyes narrowed and it squawked shrilly at him before delivering a sharp peck to the offending hand.

“Ow!” Harry yelped, withdrawing immediately. “Okay, I get it! No petting.”

The owl gave him a stern look before holding its clawed foot out. A nondescript brown package was attached to its leg.

“Oh, another one.” Harry blinked in surprise. He hadn’t expected another gift, after he’d ignored the first one. Most of his ‘fans’ usually gave up after the first try. Whoever this person was, they were persistent. It was a little weird.

“I don’t suppose I could send it back?” Harry wondered, half to himself.

The owl hooted indignantly and flapped at him, apparently wounded by the suggestion. Harry relented with a sigh and a placating wave. The poor thing had come all this way, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to open the package.

He did, and withdrew a small carton of Darjeeling tea. Harry’s eyes widened as his mind flew back to Hagrid’s invitation. For tea. He dropped the package like it burned.

“Okay, that’s creepy!”

The owl hooted in affront as he got up to pace. Harry ignored it. His mind was racing, trying to put together a picture he didn’t quite understand.

“First the scarf, then the tea...is someone watching me? How did they know about Hagrid? There was nobody out there today! I know because that’s exactly why I was there! So, what kind of deranged stalker...”

“Hoo!”

Harry blinked and stilled his tirade, turning back to the angry owl. “Not you,” he reassured. “You’re just doing your job. And you’re an owl.”

It should really concern him that he talked more to this owl than most people. There was something about the bird though. Those grey eyes sparked with an almost...human intelligence. And that was another thing. What kind of owl had grey eyes? Harry had owned Hedwig for years. He couldn’t be wrong about this. Owls had amber eyes.

“Why can’t my life be normal?” he moaned.

“Hoo,” replied the owl. It sounded rather derisive, in Harry’s opinion.

“What? You think I’m overreacting?”

The owl said nothing, but something about that stare reminded Harry of a raised eyebrow. He groaned and swiped a hand over his face. Maybe he was just going mad.

“Okay, fine,” he relented, sitting back down and facing the owl. “So maybe...whoever owns you isn’t a deranged stalker. If anything, they’ve been kind of nice. But why won’t they tell me who they are?”

The owl offered a slow blink and cocked its head. Harry smiled faintly. There was something almost human about the gesture. “You’re a weird little bird,” he commented. The owl blinked again. Right then. If his ‘secret admirer’ wasn’t going to come forward, maybe he needed to take action.

Harry Summoned a quill and penned down a quick note.

“Here,” he said, tying the parchment up deftly with a string. “You take this back to whoever owns you, yeah? And tell them not to send you out in anymore snow storms. Bite them if you have to.”

The owl remained still while he attached the parchment to its leg. Harry saw an opportunity. Quick as a snake, he reached out and ran a gentle hand down its back, caressing the round head and soft, speckled feathers.

“Hoo!”

Harry laughed despite suffering an indignant nip to his finger. “Poncy git,” he teased with a grin. “Relax, I didn’t ruffle your feathers.”

The owl glowered at him and turned its head all the way back, searching for damage to its precious plumage. Harry chuckled and brushed his knuckles against the soft, feathery chest while it was distracted. That earned him another nip.

“Ow, okay! Message received. No more petting, I promise.”

The look he got could only be described as distrustful. At any rate, the owl had had enough of his company. It spread its wings and flew back to the window.

Harry rose and followed it at once. “Whoa there, tough guy,” he chided, shutting the window with a soft click. “It’s snowing outside and you’re staying put. You can take the note back when the weather clears up.”

The owl ignored him and pecked at the lock. Stubborn little bugger. Well, he couldn’t possibly get out by himself. Was it a ‘he’? It looked like a ‘he’, Harry decided. He flopped back on his bed and picked up the tea carton, turning it around in his hands.

It was still...odd that someone had sent him this. But evidently, they were trying to tell him something.

Harry had a feeling he knew what it was too.

“So,” he stated casually, turning back to his feathered guest, “I guess whoever sent you thinks I should go see Hagrid?”

The owl cocked its head and blinked.

“Right,” Harry mused thoughtfully. He glanced at the tea. It was a pretty clear message. And he really did need to apologise to Hagrid. The tea would make a nice peace offering. Maybe it was time to set this right. Clearly, at least one more person seemed to think so.

“I guess I’m going then,” Harry sighed, pocketing the tea. He Summoned his coat and put it on quickly. “Stay here until I get back, yeah?” he told his feathered guest. “Maybe Hagrid will have a nice rat for you.”

He was quite sure he imagined the look of disgust on the owl’s face. Harry shook his head and shut the door behind him.

He made his way downstairs and he was almost out of the Common Room, when he realised he had forgotten his scarf. With a groan, Harry turned around and hurried up the stairs again.

He headed for the dorms, opened the door, and stopped in his tracks.

“Potter,” Malfoy greeted, with a nod. He was lounging on his bed, reading a Charms textbook.

Harry gaped at him. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

Malfoy raised an eyebrow. “I do live here,” he drawled.

“No, I mean...I just left,” Harry explained. “When did you get here?”

Malfoy shrugged. “We must have passed each other on the stairs. I don’t remember seeing you either.”

Huh. Weird.

Harry looked around and immediately noticed that the window was open. “Did you let the owl out?”

Malfoy glanced back at him, looking somewhat surprised. “Yeah, he seemed to be in a hurry so I opened the window for him. Was I not supposed to?”

“Um...no. I mean, no, that’s...fine.”

He didn’t plan on explaining to Malfoy of all people, that he was worried about sending the owl out in the storm. He didn’t need the mockery.

“Relax, Potter,” Malfoy drawled, going back to his book. “The storm’s letting up. And I gave him some treats.”

Harry started in surprise. “You...oh. Thank you.”

Malfoy shrugged and turned a page. Harry recognised a dismissal when he saw one. He grabbed his scarf and edged out the door again.

Still, as he made his way to Hagrid’s, he couldn’t help but wonder about how Draco Malfoy— git extraordinaire and all round Prat of the Year— had been halfway decent to a small, brown owl.

****

The door shut with a click and Draco heaved a sigh of relief.

That was close. Thank Merlin he’d heard Potter coming back. The prat would have had a fit if he’d caught Draco mid transformation.

He would have to be more careful if he planned to keep this up.

Draco stole a quick look at the door, just to make sure he was alone. Then he turned to Page 35 of his Charms text and Potter’s parchment slipped out. Draco unfurled it carefully and started reading.

Hi,

I don’t know you, but apparently you know me. Thanks for the scarf, and the tea. I really liked them.

I’m...still not sure if this is a good idea but if you’d like to write back— tell me who you are, maybe— that would be nice. This is slightly weird for me and I guess...I just want to talk, maybe.

Maybe you do too.

Thanks, again.

Harry.

PS: I like your owl. He’s cute.

Cute?

Cute?!

Draco huffed and stuffed the parchment back in the book. His Form was not cute. Impressive, perhaps. He was a rather good looking owl if he did say so himself. But he was not cute!

Stupid Potter.

Well, at least the git was following his lead. Soon enough, Potter would go back to being his happy, social, nauseating self and Draco could put this whole thing behind him.

The sooner, the better.

Still, as he tried and failed to concentrate on an extract about Cheering Charms, his mind drifted back to Potter’s strong hands gently stroking his feathers.

Draco tossed the book away and buried his head in a pillow.

He desperately needed sleep.

****

He decided to wait a day or two before approaching Potter again. The man was suspicious and it made sense to keep a low profile. Besides, his next gift would take a while to prepare.

So, Draco waited it out and just watched Potter. He seemed better. Not in any obvious way, no. He was still avoiding human contact and he refused to go flying no matter what Finnigan bribed him with. But at least he was smiling after visiting that oaf, Hagrid. Draco didn’t pretend to understand it, but Potter actually liked his friends— even the ones that hoarded bloodthirsty monsters for fun. Perhaps it was because he didn’t have a family. What? Draco had heard stories; it didn’t take much to draw inferences. Potter was obviously a social person, and his friends were his support structure.

It was a bit pathetic, but Draco generously reminded himself that not everyone could be as worldly and independent as he. If Potter needed these silly things to cheer up, then that’s what he would get.

For now though, he was targeting another favourite of Potter’s.

Disgusting junk food.

Draco grasped his parcel in sharp claws and took a swoop around the castle, searching for his target. This was decidedly difficult considering the parcel was a bit bigger than he was used to. Still, Draco persevered.

Potter, as always, was tough to find but by now, Draco had a rundown of his favourite haunts. Sure enough, he found Potter by the Great Lake.

Potter was sitting alone, skipping rocks across the ice and watching them skid across the lake’s frozen surface. Draco swooped down and alighted on a branch, announcing his presence with a soft hoot. Potter turned around and his eyes lit up as he caught sight of Draco.

“Hello again,” he grinned, holding his arm out in a welcoming gesture. “Do you have something for me?”

Draco hesitated for a second, but everything other surface he could see was covered in ice. There was nothing for it. After a moment or so, he flew to Potter and settled on the crook of his arm. Potter smiled at him and drew his legs up, easily transferring Draco to perch on his knee. Draco wobbled slightly but managed to get a grip with his talons. If he scratched Potter, it was the git’s own fault for sitting next to an icy lake.

“And what did you bring me today?” Potter asked. His voice was warm and affectionate, and Draco rolled his metaphorical eyes. Trust Potter to get taken in by small, fluffy animals— even though Draco was technically a large, majestic owl. Still, Potter obviously thought him harmless and...Merlin help him, ‘cute’.

Ugh.

Potter had discovered his gift by now and was untying it. He was almost ridiculously gentle in his handling. His hands were calloused and rough, but they treated Draco’s small form with such great care. Draco thought he could appreciate that, at the very least.

“No note again, huh?” Potter noted with a grimace. “For someone this obsessed with sending me gifts, they sure don’t want me to find them.”

Draco tried to look as unassuming and owl-like as possible. Potter was getting a little too close to the truth for his liking. Why did the git even care about who was sending him presents? All he needed to do was enjoy the presents and become a halfway functional human being again.

Stupid Potter, complicating all his best schemes...

“Bertie Bott’s Beans!” Potter exclaimed suddenly, grinning with delight as he withdrew the colourful box. “I used to love these when I was a kid.”

At the risk of blowing his cover, Draco puffed up with pride. Those weren’t just any old beans. He had taken great care with this gift. Potter hadn’t noticed it yet, but when he did...

“Lemon, strawberry, mint, sea breeze...” Potter trailed off and stared at the beans again, cataloguing the flavours. “These...these are all my favourites.”

That’s right.

Draco had personally gone through every bean in that box and rejected the unsavoury ones. Earwax, mold, mushroom, algae, phlegm...Merlin, those beans were really disgusting. Still, if Potter wished to inflict them on himself, there was little he could do. At least, his gift was appreciated. Potter was smiling at the box, cradling it almost reverently in his hands.

“This was really thoughtful,” he murmured softly. “I can’t believe they went through all this trouble.”

Oh. Well, Draco wouldn’t exactly call it ‘trouble’. Yes, it had taken hours to sift out the good beans but he’d had fun. Besides, Potter’s reaction more than made up for it. It was nice to see Potter smiling again.

It was a...strange train of thought and Draco wasn’t sure he wanted to pursue it.

“Hoo,” he told Potter instead, earning a chuckle. Draco ignored him and started preening his feathers.

Potter popped a bean in his mouth. “You know, if you’re going to keep showing up like this I should probably name you.”

 If owls could scoff, Draco would have. He wouldn’t let Potter name a Flobberworm.

“I wonder what to call you,” Potter mused. “Something masculine, I imagine. You’re obviously a bloke.”

Well, duh. Ten points to Gryffindor.

“How about...Bob?”

Bob?

Draco ceased preening and gave Potter a look of pure death. Potter gave him a teasing grin and shook his head.

“Clearly not. Maybe something more formal. How does ‘Sir Fluffington the Second’ sound?”

Oh, he better be joking.

“Or,” Potter paused and cocked his head. His smile faded and his brow furrowed. He looked thoughtful now, like he was actually considering a name that wasn’t ridiculous.

“Draco.”

Draco’s heart stopped mid-beat. He stared, frozen in shock, as Potter nodded. How long had he known? What had given him away? Merlin, how the hell was he supposed to explain this? Potter was going to kill him. Potter was going to straight up murder...

“Yeah,” Potter said, “I think ‘Draco’ works just fine.”

Wait, what?

“Hoo?” Draco offered tentatively.

“I heard you met Malfoy,” Potter commented, “and he gave you a treat. And ‘Draco’ is a nice enough name. Maybe a little pretentious, but you could do worse.”

Oh.

Oh, good.

His cover was safe.

Potter didn’t know. He just wanted to name the owl after Draco.

Wait.

Why did he want to name an owl after Draco?

“You do remind me of him,” Potter went on. “Look, you even have the same condescending scowl.”

“Hoo!” Draco protested indignantly. That was not his fault! That was just the way owls looked. Potter was so rude.

Potter grinned and poked his chest gently. “But you’re a lot nicer to me than he is,” he added with a gentle stroke.

Just for that, Draco bit his finger.

****

Harry was starting to enjoy his little owl’s visits.

Draco would seek him out every two or three days and drop off a gift. Sometimes, it was sweets or biscuits. Inexplicably the sender had managed to nail down all his favourites— including the gingerbread snaps which Harry was sure he’d only eaten twice or thrice. Another time, he got a mince pie. He also received a vintage pack of Exploding Snap Cards, a small bottle of broom polish and weirdly enough, a King piece to replace the one he’d lost on his chess board.

It should be scary that someone knew this much about him. Odds were, they were following him around. Was it another Eighth Year? Harry had given it some thought but it was unlikely that Seamus or Dean would go through this much trouble for him. Besides, he knew his friends rather well and they didn’t exactly do ‘subtle’.

Yes, it should be scary but somehow, Harry didn’t mind. Those little gifts— as weird as it may sound— made him feel like he was being seen. For once, someone out there was looking at him, and not seeing the Saviour or the Boy Who Lived. This person, whoever he or she was, saw Harry. They still wouldn’t write back to him though, no matter how many times he asked.

And then there was Draco.

The owl had become a near permanent fixture in his life, during these past few days. Harry didn’t know what it was, but the little bloke had so much personality. Sometimes, he could swear the bird understood him. Harry had taken to talking to him about stuff: his classes and plans for the future (which he’d started taking an active interest in again), his visits to Hagrid which had become a weekly thing ever since the Tea Incident, Mione and her letters, Ron who was still stubbornly holding out and refusing to speak to him...Draco listened with an almost stoic patience, offering a hoot of encouragement every now and then.

“So what do you think?” Harry asked him, one day. “Should I write to Ron?”

“Hoo?” Draco asked, cocking his head curiously.

Harry grinned and ran a thumb over his downy chest. Draco had softened up a bit to the whole ‘petting’ concept, and Harry took due advantage of his pleasant disposition. “Yeah, he’s a stubborn git sometimes, but he’s still my best mate. Maybe I should make the first move this time.”

Draco responded by snagging the last gingerbread snap.

Harry grinned fondly and ran a finger over his soft, round head. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“Oi, Dean! You in here?”

The door opened with a loud slam and Seamus barged into the dorm, startling Harry and far more significantly, Draco. The owl scrabbled back in alarm and flapped his wings fretfully, prompting Harry to reach for him at once. He folded Draco’s wings under his hands and held him carefully, murmuring soothing words. His efforts gained a sulky hoo but at least Draco calmed down. Harry turned to glare at Seamus.

“Can’t you knock?”

“Sorry, didn’t know you had company,” Seamus offered with an unapologetic grin. “Have you seen Dean?”

Harry shrugged and Seamus threw his arms up in dramatic exasperation.

“Brilliant! So I have to set up the party all by myself?”

“Party?” Harry echoed.

Seamus started, as if he’d just realised what he’d said. “Uh, yeah,” he offered hesitantly. “Everyone’s getting a little antsy just sitting around, so we thought we’d throw a little Eighth Year Christmas bash. You know, just to lighten the mood.” He shot Harry a guilty look and scuffed his shoe against the floor. “I...would have mentioned it, but I didn’t think you’d want to come.”

Harry offered a sheepish smile. “I get that. I’ve not exactly been a ray of sunshine, have I?”

“Hoo,” Draco agreed, pecking his thumb. Harry took the hint and set him back down on his bed.

Seamus’s lips quirked but then his expression turned sober again. “We get it, Harry. You’re dealing with a lot right now and I know you don’t want to talk about it, but...if you’d like to come hang out with us...”

Harry remained silent as Seamus trailed off uncertainly. Had he really been so consumed by his own problems? Even his best friends were wary of him and his moods now. Merlin, had he really been that bad? It was a sad thought, and he was more than a little ashamed that everyone was so worried about him. The War would always haunt him and he would never forget what it had cost him...but his friends, the people who cared about him deserved more. He needed to find a way to make peace with the past, to start living again.

A Christmas party was as good a place as any to start.

“Of course,” Seamus spoke up hastily, “we totally understand if you don’t want to...”

“No,” Harry broke in at once. “I mean...no, I’d like to come. If...if that’s okay.”

Seamus’s expression changed at once. He brightened up and grinned. “Okay? Mate, that’s great! We’ll see you downstairs in a bit, yeah? And hey, bring your little friend too.”

He gestured at Draco who gave him a particularly bland look before turning his head. Harry grinned. “Yeah, I don’t think he likes that idea much. But I’ll be there. And...uh, Seamus? Thanks for inviting me.”

Seamus smiled. “Any time, mate.”

And with that, he left.

“I guess I’m going to a party then,” Harry informed Draco. He chuckled and poked the owl’s fluffy chest teasingly. “This is all your fault, I’ll have you know. I was doing perfectly well as a recluse until you showed up.”

Draco hooted haughtily and flew to the window, pecking the lock impatiently. Harry sighed and got up to let him out. “Okay, okay. I guess you do have to leave.”

It was always hard to let Draco go. Sometimes, he had to remind himself that the owl belonged to someone else. Draco spent so much time with him these days that Harry could almost let himself believe that the owl was his. Then, Draco would insist on taking off, leaving Harry behind as he flew home, wherever home was for him.

It was depressing.

“Well, go on,” Harry sighed, opening the window. “Don’t stay away too long. I miss you when you’re gone, you know.”

Draco turned back and peered curiously at him. And then he did something he’d never done before. He flew off his perch, landed on Harry’s arm and nipped his ear affectionately. Harry smiled at the affectionate gesture. It was something Hedwig used to do when he was feeling down. On instinct, he bent his head and pressed a kiss to the soft, round head. Draco cooed and gave him another nip, before heading back for the window and taking off.

Harry watched him go with a heavy heart. Finally, he shut the window and went downstairs to join the party.

****

Draco flew back to the Owlery as fast as his wings could carry him. His mind was a blur and he was completely out of sorts. He barely registered his arrival and nearly collided with a rather grumpy eagle owl. Avoiding the irritated creature’s scolding pecks, he banked a left and headed for the floor.

His transformation was almost effortless— he’d been getting tons of practice, after all— and within moments, Draco was human again. The owls hooted in welcome— they were quite used to him now— but Draco paid them no mind.

The only thing he could think about was the warmth of Potter’s lips. Draco groaned and held his head in his hands.

Why did Potter have to kiss him?

At first, Draco had been perfectly content to play delivery owl. It was a decent enough disguise and Potter never suspected that his well-wisher (Draco refused to use the term ‘secret admirer’) and newfound owl friend were the same person. The plan was to cheer Potter up with small but thoughtful presents and pay off his debt without anyone being the wiser.

Then, Potter had to ruin everything.

First, there was the petting. Had Draco asked to be petted? No. No, he had not. He had done everything possible to discourage that particular course of action, but Potter— stubborn git that he was— persisted until he got what he wanted. And he had such strong, warm hands too. Draco had succumbed to his secret weakness and allowed the stroking and petting and pampering. When Finnigan had barged in on them and scared at least ten years off Draco’s life...Potter had wrapped those hands around his small form, holding him carefully and murmuring soft words of comfort. Draco had felt safe in that moment, warm and protected.

Then, there was the teasing. Potter was always poking him or fluffing his feathers or comparing him to Pygmy Puffs. Draco would work himself up into a bout of self righteous indignation, but then Potter would look at him with those kind, smiling eyes and stroke his head affectionately, and he would forget all about his strop.

And Potter talked to him. Draco had learned so much about his ex-rival in these past few days. He knew that Potter was doing a lot better now. He visited Hagrid once a week and seemed to be enjoying his friend’s company. He was hoping to join the DMLE once he graduated. He’d had a shite childhood but he still spoke well of the cousin who’d bullied him through most of it.

When he’d started with this ridiculous scheme, Draco actually thought he knew Potter quite well. After all, they’d been watching each other for six years. Now though, he wasn’t so sure. Potter was so much more complicated than he’d thought. He was generous, thoughtful, fiercely loyal and just as brave. He was also bitterly cynical, possessed a wry sense of humour and a ridiculously annoying habit of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Draco was starting to suspect that he hadn’t known much about Potter at all, and— more significantly— he was starting to realise that he wanted to.

As Draco left the Owlery and headed back to his Common Room, he wondered if his little ploy had gone too far. Potter had shared so much with him— things he would never have said out loud if he knew the truth. And Draco wasn’t conceited enough to think that he could ever inspire Potter’s trust and loyalty, not the way his close friends did. They would always be rivals at best, strained acquaintances at worst.

Maybe...maybe he should just quit while he was ahead. Of course, that would cause Potter to relapse into his doom-and-gloom state but the alternative was deceiving him. Draco didn’t think he could go through with this. Even he had to draw the line somewhere.

He mumbled the password to a disinterested portrait and entered the Common Room...only to be greeted by raucous cheers and hoots.

“Malfoy!” Finnigan bellowed, holding up a glass of Firewhisky.

Loud cheers and laughter rang out and Draco was so startled, he nearly went for his wand.

“Oi!” Thomas yelped, ducking for cover. “Hex free zone! This party is a hex-free zone!”

Party? Oh, of course. Finnigan had mentioned it before. Draco heaved a tired sigh and pocketed his wand.

“See?” Longbottom spoke up. “He’s alright. Malfoy, come join us.”

Draco blinked, caught off-guard by the frank invitation. The crowd was staring expectantly at him now, waiting for him to make a move. From the corner of his eye, he spotted Potter— also watching intently. Draco swallowed. He couldn’t deal with Potter right now.

“Thank you, but no,” he said in as steady a voice as he could manage. “I’ll just head upstairs. Enjoy your evening.”

“Yeah, no,” Finnigan retorted, standing up on wobbly legs and approaching him. Draco gaped as the man snagged his arm and proceeded to drag him into the fray. “It wasn’t a request. Mandatory attendance for Eighth Year students. Are you an Eighth Year student? Yes, you are— I copied your Charms Essay just yesterday. By the way, thanks! Now sit down and have a Butterbeer.”

Draco dug his heels in instinctively, trying to pull away from Finnigan’s surprisingly strong grip. “Finnigan, I appreciate it,” he managed through grit teeth, “but I really can’t...”

“Malfoy,” a familiar voice spoke up.

Draco halted. So did Finnigan. When Draco turned around, Potter smiled hesitantly at him. “Can’t you a stay for a bit?” he asked. “I know I’d like it if you did.”

Draco stared at him in helpless silence and that was all the opportunity Finnigan needed. “See?” he crowed, dragging Draco forward. “Even Harry’s finally come out of hiding, so you have no excuse whatsoever! Sit down and grab a drink.”

Draco scowled and opened his mouth to ask why they were so eager to spend time with him anyway, but he didn’t get that far. Finnigan manoeuvred him efficiently, sat him down on the sofa and thrust a tumbler in his hands. Potter gave him another smile, before turning to speak to one of the Patil twins. Draco suppressed a groan and swiped a hand over his eyes.

This was so not what he needed right now.

“Right!” Finnigan declared, taking centre position in the makeshift circle of students. “Fellow Eighth Years, welcome to the first inter-house unity party of the season!”

Draco exchanged looks with a couple of perplexed Ravenclaws. 

Finnigan was not deterred. “As you know, this year has been...well, it’s sucked so far. It’s been a rough adjustment having four houses in one Common Room, and I think it would be safe to say that we don’t really know each other all that well— even if we have studied side by side for seven years, give or take a War.”

There were some murmurs of agreement. The Patil girl nodded thoughtfully, and her twin whispered something to a fellow Ravenclaw.

“So,” Finnigan went on, “we’re doing what the Muggles call an ‘ice-breaker’. We have drinks and we have all four Houses. You have your Gryffindors...”

Thomas and McLaggen whooped and applauded loudly. Potter raised a glass in acknowledgement.

“Your Ravenclaws,” Finnigan continued.

The Patil girl and her friends offered strained smiles.

“Your Hufflepuffs...”

Hannah Abbot, Susan Bones and Ernie Macmillian waved awkwardly.

“And your Slytherins!” Finnigan finished. “Well,” he amended, after a moment’s thought. “A Slytherin.”

Every eye in the room turned to him. Draco hunched his shoulders, but Potter gave him a disarming grin and he had to concede defeat. With a sigh, he raised his glass to acknowledge his status as the sole Slytherin. Oddly enough, there was some scattered applause.

Interesting...

Finnigan gamely waited for order to be restored before continuing with his game plan. “So tonight, we’re going to get to know each other. Everyone here will get the opportunity to ask someone of a different House some questions. Of course, I probably don’t need to tell you that we expect all questions to be answered honestly. You can ‘pass on’ your question to a member of your House if you like, but only once.”

Draco gaped in horror. He was the only Slytherin present! He was going to be fielded questions on anything and everything— including the War— and he wouldn’t even get the option of saying no.

Oh Salazar, this was bad.

“Now here’s the fun part,” Finnigan spoke up again, and there was an unmistakably evil twinkle in his eye now. He held up his glass of Firewhisky. “If you get a question that you absolutely don’t want to answer, you don’t have to! You can just call ‘drink’ and we’ll all take a shot instead. Are we clear?”

Oh. Okay, that was good news. Draco could drink. He’d much rather drink his own weight in alcohol than talk, at the very least.

“So, let’s begin!” Finnigan finished cheerfully. “Who wants to go first?”

Draco swallowed around a lump in his throat and waited for all sorts of accusing enquiries on how many Muggles he had killed and how many people he had tortured under reign of the Dark Lord. Of course, the answer was a resounding zero but they were hardly going to believe...

“I’ve got one,” McLaggen spoke up, “for the Hufflepuffs.”

Wait, what?

“Okay...” Abbott mumbled uncomfortably.

McLaggen leaned forward, looking inexplicably eager. “Is it true that the Hufflepuffs host a massive orgy every Winter Solstice?”

Draco choked on a sip of his Firewhisky. Finnigan and Thomas burst into laughter. Potter’s lips twitched and he ducked his head.

The Hufflepuffs weren’t laughing though. Macmillan was red as a tomato. Bones and Abbott exchanged a series of complicated looks. Bones blushed and Abbott bit her lip. They exchanged a discreet nod and then...

“Drink!” Bones announced, lifting her chin defiantly.

Draco downed his shot in one go. He needed it.

“Next!” Thomas yelled gleefully.

“Same question,” McLaggen piped up again, “for the Ravenclaws.”

****

Oddly enough, the ridiculous game worked.

Draco was feeling pleasantly buzzed after his third shot in a row, and the rest of the students were giggling and talking pleasantly among themselves. The Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws had banded together, united in their quest to bring McLaggen down. Draco, ever the opportunist, had thrown his lot in with the Gryffindors.

“So you had to solve a riddle to get into your own Common Room every single time?” he asked the Ravenclaws.

Padma Patil raised a challenging eyebrow. “It was an exercise in intellectual thinking,” she informed him loftily.

Draco smirked. “It seems a little pretentious.”

“Tell me about it,” Thomas snorted. “Imagine this, yeah? Potions Class starts in ten minutes, but you forgot your notes in the Ravenclaw Common Room. So, you run all the way up the stairs to get them and you have seconds to spare before Snape gives you a month of detention. You just make it to the Entrance aaaannd...thirty white horses on a red hill. First they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still.”

The Gryffindors guffawed at that, and even Parvati grinned and shrugged at her twin. Padma scowled at them. “You lot are hopeless,” she informed them with a sniff. “And, by the way, the answer is...”

“Teeth,” Draco contributed.

Padma turned to him, looking rather impressed. “Not bad, Malfoy,” she said, “for a Slytherin.”

Draco raised his glass in a mock toast.

“I have a question for Malfoy,” a sandy blonde boy from Ravenclaw said. Draco vaguely recalled that his name was Anthony Goldstein. Draco offered a nod and Goldstein leaned forward, looking nervous but determined.

“What was it like,” he asked carefully, “living with...You Know Who in your house?”

Draco froze, but he had no time to respond. The uproar was instantaneous.

“Whoa!” Macmillan barked, sitting up abruptly.

“Not cool,” Thomas agreed, pointing a stern finger at the Ravenclaws.

“Seriously?” Padma added, with a glare in Goldstein’s direction. “That’s inappropriate, Anthony.”

“Sorry,” Goldstein mumbled. To his credit, he looked ashamed of himself. “I was just curious.”

Draco swallowed down a scathing retort. Goldstein hadn’t really meant any harm. He was just a curious, admittedly tactless Ravenclaw. To be honest, he had certainly expected worse questions.

“That’s no excuse,” someone else spoke up.

Draco looked up, surprised by the familiar voice. Potter was glaring at Goldstein. His body was tense and his eyes were flashing. He looked outraged— and on Draco’s behalf, no less.

“I don’t think you realise what you’re asking him to do here,” Potter continued. “Draco doesn’t need to relive that. Nobody does.”

 

Draco started at the mention of his first name. Had Potter ever called him ‘Draco’ before? Since when were they on a first name basis? And why was Potter defending him at all?

Anthony looked quite chagrined by now. “I didn’t mean it that way,” he offered, sounding apologetic. He turned to Draco. “You don’t have to answer. Forget I said anything.”

“Okay,” Finnigan declared, breaking the awkward tension. “I call drink!”

“Hold on,” Draco cut in.  There was silence now and he was extremely aware that everyone was looking at him. He could feel their eyes boring into him— especially Potter’s intense gaze. Draco swallowed around a lump in his throat and turned back to Anthony. “You really want to know?”

Anthony offered an uncertain nod and Draco’s mouth twisted. How could he put it into words? How could he describe what it was like— living under the shadow of death, knowing that every moment might be your last? Draco’s mind flew back, reliving the bleakest, darkest days of his life. When he spoke up again, his voice was hollow.

“They came one night, and claimed the Manor for their headquarters. Back then, they were called the Inner Circle. My father was one of them and he had displeased The Dark Lord. That sealed our fate. They took my home. Sealed the fireplaces, changed the wards. People came in but nobody went out. Rooms and hallways I knew like the back of my hand...they shifted, closed off and disappeared. Back then, I imagined the Manor itself was changing, turning into something I didn’t recognise. I knew it wasn’t my home anymore. Nothing in that house would ever...ever be home again.”

They were all listening now, the room was quiet as a crypt. Draco closed his eyes and tried to steady his rapid breathing.

“Then one day, he came. We learned to live with the fear. We learned not to be seen, to hide away in our own home. We learned to ignore the screams from the dungeons. Every day, I lived in terror. I was scared for my mother. I was terrified they’d hurt her. I convinced myself that if it meant keeping her safe, I would do whatever he wanted. And then one day, he called for me. If I had known what he was going to...what I would have to do, I would have run.”

It would have been so easy too— to just...change and fly off into the night, never to be found again. Only the fear for his mother had kept him grounded.

Draco opened his eyes. Not one face in that room reflected derision or contempt. It was the least he deserved and he knew it. And yet, they were only looking at him with sympathy. It made his stomach twist with shame.

“I nearly destroyed this school,” he whispered. “I put all of you in danger. I almost killed...all because I was too afraid to do what was right. I’m so sorry. I regret it every day.”

He couldn’t sit here anymore. He needed to be alone.

“Malfoy,” Padma murmured, grabbing his sleeve as he got up.

Draco shrugged her off. “I should go. Enjoy the rest of the party.”

And with that, he left the room as quickly as he could and headed up the stairs.

“Well, that was depressing.” Finningan’s voice drifted over to him. He sounded subdued. “So much for a no-stress party.”

“We should’ve brought more Firewhisky,” Thomas lamented.

“Should someone go after him?” Parvati spoke up, sounding worried.

Draco didn’t wait to hear more. He practically fled to the dorm, locked the door and opened a window. The Transformation took over his body and then without a moment’s thought, he flew out the window and into the night.

****

The flight didn’t do much to clear his head. No matter how fast he flew or how low he swooped, his mind was still caught on a loop, running through the thousands of things he could have done differently and didn’t.

Finally, Draco admitted defeat and headed for the Owlery. He greeted the owls with a hoot and headed for the floor. Seconds later, he was brushing feathers and Salazar only knew what else, off his shirt. Draco leaned against a wall, taking a moment to catch his breath.

An eagle owl hopped over and greeted him with a curious hoo. Draco’s lips quirked as the bird observed him curiously. On an impulse, he reached out and ran a thumb down its back. From personal experience, he knew that owls tended to enjoy that. The eagle owl fluffed approvingly and nipped his thumb.

For a moment, things were actually quite peaceful in Draco’s life.

Of course, that’s precisely when Potter burst in, looking around wildly until his eyes centred on Draco.

“Oh, thank Godric!” he exclaimed, sagging with relief.

Draco blinked. “Hi?” he offered.

Potter scowled at him. “Where were you?” he demanded, approaching Draco with quick, purposeful strides and displacing quite a few owls while he was at it. “Do you...pardon me...have any idea...excuse me, sorry... how worried we’ve all been?!”

The disturbed owls flew to the rafters, glaring down at them. One of them hooted angrily and pecked Potter’s shoe before flying off to join its comrades. Despite his dour mood, Draco fought to hide a grin at the sight.

“Sorry. I just went for a walk in the grounds.”

“And you didn’t see Seamus or Dean looking for you down there?” Potter demanded. Then he paused and cocked his head. “I checked the Owlery five minutes ago. How come I didn’t run into you on the stairs?”

“Unfortunate timing?”

“Yeah,” Potter mused, eyeing him thoughtfully. “That happens a lot these days.”

“So, why’s everyone looking for me?” Draco asked, gamely changing the subject.

Potter gaped at him. “Why’s everyone...are you serious? You ran off and disappeared for hours! Merlin, Draco! Of course, we were worried. You...”

“Do you realise that this is the second time you’ve called me Draco and not Malfoy?”

Potter trailed off and stared at him. “Oh,” he blurted. “I didn’t even...sorry, I wasn’t...”

“It’s fine,” Draco offered. It wasn’t a complaint so much as an observation. Plus, at least Potter wasn’t yelling at him anymore.

They lapsed into silence. Draco went back to petting the owls and Potter watched him.

“They like you,” he commented.

“Well, I do spend a lot of time here,” Draco replied without thinking. Almost instantly, he bit his tongue. He was already on shaky ground. He hardly needed more reasons to make Potter suspicious.

But Potter didn’t seem to have made the connection. “Me too,” he said pensively. “Funnily enough, I can never find the owl I’m looking for.”

Draco hid his consternation with a cough. “Well, they number in the thousands,” he offered, affecting a nonchalant shrug. “Maybe you just missed hi...uh, her.”

“Him,” Potter corrected distractedly. He was scanning the owls now, watching them carefully and trying to pick one out. Eventually, he shook his head and turned back to Draco. “Listen, I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”

Draco held his breath, but offered a terse nod.

“Remember that time Ron and I had that fight in the hallway?”

Draco smirked and traced the phantom bruise against his cheek. “Vividly,” he offered dryly.

Potter smiled but his expression turned speculative. “Did you...it looked like you were trying to distract him. Were you?”

Great. He figured it out. Draco sighed and ran a tired hand through his hair. “You were risking expulsion,” he elaborated. His shoulders went back and crossed his arms defensively. “It wasn’t even a very good distraction. Honestly, a Slytherin first year would have seen through it.”

“Oh,” Potter murmured softly. “Why...why did you do it?”

The same reason I sometimes disguise myself as an owl and bring you presents.

“Because,” Draco explained hesitantly, “I owe you.”

Potter’s eyes clouded over. Clearly, that wasn’t the answer he’d wanted. Draco frowned, wondering what he’d said wrong.

“I thought that was it,” Potter muttered, half to himself. He sighed and swiped a hand over his face. When he turned to Draco, he looked faintly exasperated. “Look, if I’ve somehow...implied that I expect you to pay me back or whatever, I just want to say it’s not necessary. You don’t owe me anything.”

What?

“What?” Draco blurted incredulously. “Of course I do! Potter, you saved my life. You can’t just write off a life debt. That’s powerful magic.”

Potter just shrugged, the ignorant twat. “You saved my life at the Manor,” he countered evenly. “You could have given us away and you didn’t. See? All squared.”

Draco resisted the urge to bang his head against a wall. How could anyone be this misinformed? “You can’t square off a life debt,” he bit out. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Well, it should,” Potter replied firmly. “Look, we were all in a bad situation. We did the best we could. You didn’t choose to be Marked anymore than I chose to be the Saviour. Don’t you get it? It’s over. We get to move on now. We get to be the people we’re supposed to be. It’s...it’s okay to be happy again.”

Draco just stared at him uncomprehendingly. Who, in their right mind, gave up a life debt? Did Potter even know what he was saying?

“So I don’t...owe you anything?” Draco asked haltingly, because he really couldn’t believe this.

Potter sighed and shook his head. “Of course not. I’m just glad you have the chance to make something of your life now. You deserve that. We all do.”

Oh.

Draco mulled over Potter’s statement in his mind. So, he didn’t owe a debt after all? Potter had rescinded— and yes, maybe he didn’t know the whole story but it still counted! Draco was officially free. He didn’t need to pay Potter back and he certainly didn’t need to take the guise of an owl and bring him presents.

Salazar, that was lucky.

So very lucky.

Why didn’t he feel lucky?

“Draco?”

Draco started out of his musings, only to see Potter looking at him uncertainly. “Is there...any way we could start over? As friends?”

“Friends?” Draco echoed incredulously. “Potter, we’re rivals. Arch nemeses. I don’t know about you but I’m kind of set in my ways.”

Potter chuckled and shook his head. “Well, you were a great arch nemesis,” he conceded fairly. “But I’ve had a lot of time to think recently and I think we could...I don’t know, try to be halfway decent to each other?”

Draco raised an eyebrow. “And what brought about this change of heart? A few weeks ago, you didn’t even want to talk to your old friend Hagrid.”

“Yeah well, let’s just say I’ve been in therapy and it’s done me good.”

“What’s that?” Draco asked. He frowned as he tried to place the unfamiliar word.

Potter waved off his question. “It’s a Muggle concept. I’ve been talking to...someone about stuff. It helps if someone’s there to listen without judgement, you know?”

Oh.

Draco nodded along, keeping his expression still and neutral. But inside, his heart was pounding. Potter was talking about him. Well, not Draco, per se. He clearly meant Draco the Owl, even if he hadn’t said as much. But still. Potter had gotten better and it was all thanks to him.

Was this what it felt like to do the right thing? Draco thought he could get used to the warm, contented feeling in his chest. It felt...right.

“I’m just saying,” Potter broke in, “if you need someone to talk to, I’d be happy to listen.”

That was actually nice. Nobody had worried about him for so long.

“Thank you, Potter,” Draco murmured. “I appreciate it and...I’d like to be friends too.”

Potter smiled and held out his hand. “Call me Harry.”

Draco accepted it, trying to ignore the sensation of Harry’s strong grip and those calloused fingers gliding over his palm. He failed.

“Well, friend,” he murmured, “what do we do now?”

Pot-Harry grinned, his green eyes sparkling with anticipation. “I don’t know, but I reckon a trip to Hogsmeade is a good start.”

Draco felt a reluctant smile tug at his lips, and with a nod of assent he followed Harry downstairs.

“Hey, wait a minute.” Harry stopped in his tracks and turned back around to face him. “How did you know about me not talking to Hagrid?”

Damn it.

“Because...you told me,” Draco blurted in panic.

Harry cocked his head. “I did?” he asked doubtfully.

“Of course,” Draco doggedly persevered. “You told everyone! At the...uh, at the party! It came up when Goldstein was asking all those questions.”

“Oh.” Harry frowned. “I don’t remember...”

“Shall we go?” Draco cut in. “It’s getting cold out here.”

He turned and all but fled from the Owlery, intently aware of Harry’s gaze boring holes in his back. Salazar, damn it all.

He really needed to do something about his big mouth.

****

They visited Hogsmeade the next day. And the day after that. In fact, by the time Christmas Break was almost over, both Honeydukes and Zonko’s knew them by name.

By this time, Draco had almost— but not quite— come to terms with the fact that he did find Harry immensely attractive. However, he had decided to keep his feelings to himself and concentrate on being Harry’s friend. It was the sensible thing to do. Harry could have anyone he wanted, after all, and he’d given no indication of returning Draco’s feelings. The man was always cheerful and easy going around him but it was glaringly obvious that he only thought of Draco as a friend. No, it wasn’t meant to be. Draco would do best to keep his secrets and carry on like every day.

Then, one day he found himself strolling down a familiar path with Harry.

“Break’s almost over,” Harry remarked, sucking on a Sugar Quill. “Ron and Mione will be back soon.”

“Did you make nice with the Weasel?” Draco asked.

Harry gave him a reprimanding nudge but answered the question. “Well, he did apologise. I have a feeling Molly and Mione had something to do with that. But it’s fine. All said and done, he is my best friend so...”

“Of course,” Draco cut in stiffly. He wasn’t prepared for the frisson of jealousy that travelled up his spine. Once the Weasel returned, Harry would certainly not bother with him anymore. This friendship or whatever it was would end, just as abruptly as it had begun.

Harry gave him an odd look, but went back to his Sugar Quill. “So, what do you want for Christmas?”

Draco stopped short and blinked at him. “Come again?”

“Christmas,” Harry repeated patiently, as if that cleared things up. “What’s on your list? I want to beat the mad rush this year.”

“You...you want to give me a present?” Draco clarified, a touch helplessly. He couldn’t help it, it was so strange. What on earth made Harry think that he owed Draco anything? “You don’t have to do that,” he said softly.

Harry frowned and cocked his head. “I know, but I still want to,” he replied. He took a step forward, watching Draco intently. A small, somewhat sad smile tugged at his lips. “You’re not used to it, are you?”

“Used to what?” Draco snapped defensively.

Harry was undeterred. He held Draco’s gaze steadily as he spoke. “Getting a present with no strings attached,” he explained breezily, as if he was commenting on the weather. “People who like you for who you are. Having friends. That sort of thing.”

Draco resisted the urge to scowl at him. “There’s no such thing as no strings attached,” he informed Harry tersely. “Giving implies an obligation from the receiver. If you give, I owe. Gifts carry debt. That’s just how it is and no amount of noble Gryffindor sentiment is going to change that.”

Harry’s frown deepened. “Are we back to this again?” he demanded irritably. “Because I believe I’ve already informed you that you don’t owe me a debt. Do we really need to go over this again?”

Draco chose silence. It was better than outright disagreement. Harry could be as dogged as Granger when it came to the lecturing, even if he refused to admit it. He wasn’t having this discussion— especially when Harry refused to see sense and admit he was wrong. It was just easier to change the subject.

“So, what do you want for Christmas?”

The mention of presents distracted Harry easily. His eyes shone and he promptly snagged Draco’s arm, dragging him over to the shop windows.

“That,” he said, gesturing at a handsome display case in one of the windows.

Draco raised an impressed eyebrow, taking in the details of the Broom Care Set. It came equipped with broom polish, a silver twig trimmer, a do-it-yourself manual, four cleaning brushes of various sizes and an extra pair of patent leather gloves.

Draco whistled appreciatively. “Good choice,” he commented, leaning forward to get a better look.

“Yeah,” Harry agreed wistfully. “I figured I should pull the Firebolt out of retirement. I miss flying, even if we’re not officially playing Quidditch anymore.”

That got Draco’s attention. “You’re going to start flying again?” He knew for a fact that Harry hadn’t touched a broom since the War ended. That he was even talking about it was a huge deal.

“I think so,” Harry murmured. “You know, the last time I flew, I lost Hedwig.”

“Your owl?”

Harry’s jaw clenched and he nodded jerkily. “The curse was meant for me. She...didn’t make it.”

“Oh.”

Draco averted his gaze, but his thoughts flew back to the snowy white owl that had seldom left Harry’s side when they were younger. He’d always thought she was a beauty— much too good for scrawny, scruffy Potter. The thought shamed him now and knowing that Harry had lost his pet— among so many others— was a sobering thought.

“I’m sorry,” he offered gently. “She was beautiful. And it was obvious she loved you a lot.”

Harry’s smile was faint but genuine. “Owls are good creatures,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s odd but somehow, they’ve always come through for me.”

Draco said nothing. He didn’t dare. He just stood there as Harry gathered his thoughts.

“We should head back,” he announced firmly. “It’s getting dark.”

Almost automatically, he reached into his coat and pulled out a tattered piece of parchment. He always had that thing with him. Draco figured it was a map of some sort but Harry hadn’t volunteered any information, so he didn’t ask. Harry tapped the map with his wand and mumbled something— too soft for Draco to hear.

“This way,” he said, heading for Honeydukes. “We can take the tunnel back to the school and nobody will know we stayed out past curfew.”

It was a sound plan. Draco nodded and started following Harry back to the sweet shop. But his eyes drifted back to the display case in the window.

Harry did say he wanted the Broom Care Set. And if it would encourage him to go flying again...

He hadn’t taken his Form since the party. Not after Harry had made it clear that Draco didn’t owe him a debt.

But, it would make him happy, and for some reason— that he would explore at a much, much later stage— that was important to Draco.

Fine, then.

Just one more time.

What was the worst that could happen?

****

In the end, Draco picked the night before Christmas to deliver his final gift to Harry. It seemed fitting, ending his little Secret Santa mission a day before Christmas. Plus, it gave him a little time to plan ahead. Harry hadn’t mentioned the Broom Kit after their visit to Hogsmeade and it was likely that he’d forgotten all about it. Just to be safe though, Draco waited a day or two after acquiring it himself.

Then, on Christmas Eve, he flew down from the rafters and to the Eighth Year dorms with the shrunken Kit. The rest of the students were in the Common Room— evidently, Finnigan had organised another party. Even from out here, Draco could hear the raucous laughter and sounds of merriment.

But Harry was here. He was sprawled on his bed, absently flicking through a book. When Draco scrabbled at the window panes with one sharp talon, he looked up.

His eyes brightened at once. Draco waited patiently as Harry approached and carefully pried the window open to let him in.

“Hey, you,” he crooned as soon as Draco was within petting range. “I had a feeling you’d show up tonight.”

Draco settled on his arm, taking a moment to shake out his snow damped feathers. Harry smiled and stroked his feathers with gentle fingers. “I missed you,” he said softly. “I was starting to think you’d forgotten about me.”

Draco responded with an indignant hoo and stuck his foot out.

Harry chuckled and shook his head. “Another one,” he sighed. “You know, as nice as this is, I’d really like a note instead. All this secrecy is killing me.”

Draco suppressed an eye roll because evidently, owls were not supposed to do that. Harry couldn’t be expected to know his reasons, of course, but this insistence on knowing who was sending the gifts was becoming problematic.

They may be passing decent to each other now but that hardly changed anything. Once Christmas was over and done with, Harry would be returning to his old life— minus the brooding and angsting, thank you very much— and he wouldn’t spare a moment for Draco.

Not that Draco cared at all. What mattered was that Harry like his present enough to go flying again.

Therefore, he perched on Harry’s knee and remained perfectly still as the package was untied. Harry unwrapped his gift, frowning in confusion at the miniature items in the box. Then comprehension dawned on his face and he cast an Engorgio.

“The Broom Care Set,” he commented blankly.

What? Why wasn’t he happy?

Harry pursed his lips and put the package on one side, then turned back to Draco. He looked anxious, all of a sudden and no, that wasn’t good at all.

“No,” he said slowly. “He wouldn’t.”

What was he going on about? Didn’t he like the present?

“Hoo,” Draco answered, for lack of anything else to say.

Harry was staring at him again, a vaguely pensive look on his face. “It did cross my mind,” he said finally, “but you don’t look like his owl, do you? Besides, it’s not like he’d care enough to...it has to be someone else. Maybe they overheard us talking...”

Draco had no idea what Harry was yammering about, and he didn’t care. What he did care about was Harry’s reaction to his present. He hopped a few paces and sat on the box, directing Harry’s attention back to it. Harry smiled faintly and stroked his feathers again.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s just what I wanted.”

There. Now, was that so hard?

Harry emitted a tired sigh and flopped back on the bed. Draco watched him curiously, before taking a cautious hop forward. “Hoo?” he asked, settling on Harry’s chest.

Harry raised his head and gave him a smile, then ran a thumb over his head. “Who,” he repeated, with a slight chuckle. “That is the question, isn’t it?”

Draco nipped his thumb in reproach, but didn’t protest the petting. He was quite used to it by now and Harry seemed to be in a pensive mood. It was odd and he didn’t know what to make of it. So, he stayed perfectly still as Harry stared at the ceiling. In a few minutes, his eyes began to droop.

“Hoo,” Draco uttered again, but Harry lay still and silent.

Apparently, he’d drifted off. Draco took a moment to observe him. Harry looked so peaceful like this. His features were relaxed and his breathing was deep and even. His spectacles were crooked— he’d forgotten to take them off— but even that was endearing. Draco was utterly dismayed at the warm, almost tender feeling unfurl in his chest.

This was not supposed to happen. He had no business feeling this way about Harry.

They were friends, and not even very good friends at that. By the time Christmas Break was over— exactly a day from now, in fact— things would go back to normal.

He should leave, before he did something he would regret.

With another soft hoo, he hopped off Harry’s chest and landed on the mattress. The movement didn’t disturb Harry in the slightest. He just hummed in his sleep and turned on one side. Draco watched him for a few more seconds, trying to memorise just how content Harry looked in this moment.

This was what he’d wanted, wasn’t it? His debt was finally paid. He was done here.

It didn’t feel as satisfying as he’d imagined, but then, when had things ever gone Draco’s way?

He indulged himself one last time and gave Harry’s fingers an affectionate nip, for old time’s sake. Then he flared his wings and flew for the window, exiting the castle and taking off into the night like a swift shadow.

****

A half second later, Harry’s eye cracked open. He took a quick look around to affirm that the owl was gone, and leapt out of bed.

Enough was enough. The Broom Kit was the last piece of the puzzle he’d been trying to put together. The strange owl and his equally mysterious owner had been on his mind for two whole weeks, and Harry intended to solve this mystery. With his track record, he was entitled to a bit of paranoia.

As quick as he could, he adjusted his glasses and grabbed at the tattered parchment lying on his bedside table. There was very little time. If he could just identify the owl and figure out where it disappeared every time he went looking for it...

“I solemnly swear I’m up to no good,” he mumbled distractedly, eyes already roving the map for anything that had recently exited that Eighth Year Quarters.

There in one corner of the map, a small speck flew across the sky, heading straight for the Owlery. That was him! Harry squinted, trying to read the label by the small, black speck.

His eyes widened and he nearly dropped the map out of shock.

“Oh,” was all he could manage.

He certainly hadn’t seen that coming.

****

On Christmas Day, Draco woke to the sounds of chaos.

“I’m telling you I don’t know!” Finnigan was yelling. “I only saw him for a bit when I came up to bed! He said he was going out...”

“In the middle of the night?” Thomas was yelling. “Why didn’t you ask him where he was going?”

“Because it’s Harry!” Finnigan bellowed back. “Bloke’s been sneaking around the castle since he was eleven and you expect me to stop him?!”

Harry.

Draco sat up, still half addled from sleep. Finnigan and Thomas whipped around to face him, agitated and angry.

“What’s going on here?” Draco demanded.

“Harry’s gone,” Finnigan reported tersely. “He went out last night and never came back.”

What?!

“What do you mean he’s gone?” Draco snapped, kicking his covers off and leaping to his feet. “Did you check the Quidditch Pitch? The Gamekeeper’s cottage? The library?”

“Of course,” Thomas snapped. “He bloody disappeared. And no, I didn’t check the bleeding library. Harry’s the one who disappeared, not Hermione!”

That was a fair point.

Draco pursed his lips and thought back to the night before. He had flown back to the Owlery, transformed and then taken his usual roundabout route back to the dorms. He’d collapsed in his bed almost at once and promptly fallen asleep.

Had Harry still been in bed when he arrived?

He couldn’t remember.

Draco’s eyes drifted to Harry’s bed. The Broom Kit was still there, evidently untouched. So was the Firebolt. Harry hadn’t gone flying then. Something must have happened. Something must have set him off once Draco had left.

“He could have gone to Hogsmeade,” he found himself arguing weakly.

Finnigan shook his head. “Not likely. Now that I think about it, he looked a bit off last night. Do you think he’s having those mood swings again?”

No. No, he’d been doing so well...

“You checked everywhere?” Draco reconfirmed. He was starting to panic, and that wasn’t good at all. To be fair, Harry had a habit of running off by himself but...on Christmas? Where would he go where nobody could find him? And, more importantly, why?

Wait.

The map.

Draco looked around frantically, and found the tattered parchment sprawled on Potter’s bed. He shoved past Finnigan and practically pounced on it, tapping it frantically with his wand.

“Potter,” he yelled at it. “Show me Harry Potter!”

Mr Prongs presents his compliments to Mr Malfoy and requests that he make use of Sylvia Hawthorne’s Sun Tan Potion post haste.

Draco cursed and threw the stupid thing away. “Well, that didn’t work,” he grumbled.

“What are we going to do?” Finnigan demanded. “McGonagall is going to throw a fit, and I don’t even want to think about what Hermione will do when she finds out we lost Harry.”

Draco made the decision for all of them. “We continue searching,” he announced. “You,” he barked at Finnigan, “search the grounds again. You,” he went on, rounding up on Thomas, “check Hagrid’s cottage and the boundaries of the Forest. Get Longbottom to search the greenhouses and ask the Ravenclaws to check the classrooms. And someone check the library too. With our luck, he’s probably in there and nobody thought to look.”

“And what are you going to do?” Finnigan demanded tetchily.

Draco glared at him. “Supervise,” he bit out. “Now get moving!”

They shot him a parting scowl, but left without any further protests. The moment they were gone, Draco transformed.

As an owl, he could do so much more than humans. He had the advantages of flight, speed and razor sharp vision. He could fly across the grounds and carry out a search twice as fast. Wherever Harry was hiding, it was highly unlikely that Draco’s owl form couldn’t reach him.

With a renewed sense of determination, Draco spread his wings and took to the sky.

****

This was futile. Draco screeched in frustration and circled back, keeping a sharp gaze trained on the ground below. From his vantage point, he could see the Eighth Years spreading around the grounds. Draco hooted in disgust. The idiots were going around in circles! Meanwhile, Harry could be anywhere and Merlin only knew what mental state he was in.

He had been pensive last night, and then Finnigan’s comment about him looking ‘slightly off’...Draco was seriously worried.

When even a quick flight over the Forbidden Forest proved futile, he resigned himself to temporary defeat. He tracked a course back to the Owlery. Maybe he just needed to gather his thoughts and try again.

He slipped neatly through one of the wide windows and settled on a perch for a quick preen. He was filthy and wet and...

“I was wondering when you’d show up.”

Draco froze. His head jerked up abruptly. On instinct, he turned it all the way around (handy trick, that) and promptly spotted Harry, sitting on a stool.

“Hoo!” Draco emitted, fluttering triumphantly.

Harry gave him an odd look— something between annoyance and exasperation. Draco ceased hooting and took a moment to actually look at him.

He looked fine— if slightly rumpled. There was a jar in his hands, encasing a bright, blue flame. At least he was warm, Draco reasoned absently. But that still didn’t explain why he was sitting in the Owlery by himself, while half the castle searched frantically for him. Nor did it explain his expression, which was certainly less than pleased.

“Draco.”

Harry’s voice was stern. He stood up and approached Draco. Draco did his best to look innocent and unassuming as Harry towered over him, expression reproachful and arms crossed. Harry was upset, that much was certain. But why would he be cross with an innocent little owl?

“Hoo?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Draco, I know it’s you.”

Draco cocked his head. He wasn’t following this conversation as well as he’d hoped.

Harry pursed his lips and rubbed his forehead with two fingers. “Perhaps I should have been more specific,” he grumbled. “I know it’s you, Draco Abraxas Malfoy. And you better have a very good explanation for this.”

Oh. No.

Draco’s first, panicked instinct was to deny everything. “Hoo?” he questioned innocently.

“Oh, knock it off,” Harry scolded. “You know exactly ‘who’ so stop playing around and explain yourself.”

He was reaching for Draco as he spoke. Draco squawked in alarm at the first brush of fingers against his wings, but it was too late to fly off. Harry wrapped his hands around his small body, folding his wings and trapping him in place. Draco’s heart hammered and he waited for a harsh squeeze, but Harry did nothing. He just lifted him up to eye level and gave him a very stern look.

“What exactly is wrong with you?” Harry demanded. “How long were you planning to keep this up? And why?”

“Hoo,” Draco offered sullenly.

He wasn’t feeling particularly forthcoming after being scolded. Harry was cross with him and everything was ruined. They would never speak again and all because he’d been careless. How had Harry even found out? Those green eyes were still boring into him, intent and accusing. Feeling suitably ashamed of himself, Draco attempted to tuck his head into his wing.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Harry informed him. “I’ve been waiting for you all night and I want answers. Now change back.”

Draco puffed up belligerently.

Harry held his ground. “I’m going to put you down now,” he warned Draco. “And you will change back and we will talk about this. If you fly away, I’ll get my Firebolt and chase you down, just see if I don’t.”

Draco believed him. There was no way out. He offered a slow blink, signalling his compliance. Harry huffed and set him down gently.

Draco flew to the floor, stoically ignoring Harry’s suspicious gaze following him. He closed his eyes and willed the transformation.

In seconds, he was back to normal, brushing feathers off his shirt and still avoiding Harry’s very disapproving expression.

Harry slumped back against the wall and rubbed his temples again. “I have so many questions,” he muttered, half to himself. “Let’s start with one of my favourites. What the bloody hell, Malfoy?”

Great. They were back to ‘Malfoy’. Draco scowled sulkily, half wishing he could just fly up to the rafters and hide there. But he had some questions of his own.

“How did you find out?”

Harry raised an eyebrow. “The map never lies,” he replied cryptically.

“That bleeding piece of parchment?” Draco demanded irritably. “It insulted me.”

“Good,” Harry countered. “Serves you right for having me on, you git. Now answer my question. What in blazes made you think this was a good idea?”

“It was my only idea,” Draco argued. “You wouldn’t let me pay off my debt! So, I...improvised.”

Harry groaned in dismay and thunked his head against the wall. “This again?! Why can’t you just say ‘thank you’ like a normal person?”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Draco snapped. How was a ‘thank you’ equivalent to a life debt? Harry could be so obtuse sometimes, it was bloody infuriating.

Harry gave him a flat look. “I give up,” he declared. “You’re absolutely hopeless. I’m not talking to you anymore. Goodbye.”

“What the...hey!” Draco sputtered indignantly as Harry started walking away from him. “Harry James Potter! Get back here this instant!”

Harry, quite obviously, didn’t so Draco did the sensible thing and started dogging his footsteps. “I was only trying to pay off my debt! And I wouldn’t have had to trick you if you hadn’t been so damn unreasonable! Why are you so angry anyway?”

“Because you deceived me for two whole weeks,” Harry snapped. “I told you...things! I thought I was talking to an owl and I said...I talked about Sirius and my parents and... you were not supposed to hear any of that! How do you think that makes me feel?”

Draco stopped in his tracks. “I would never betray your confidence,” he said quietly. It hurt that Harry thought so little of him.

Harry halted and turned around. He still looked angry, but it was tinged with uncertainty. “You wouldn’t?”

“Of course not,” Draco sighed. “Anything you said to me, stays with me. I...I know you have no reason to believe anything I say, but I’d like it if you believe that at least.”

Harry mulled over it for a while. Finally, he shook his head and sat back down again. “I can’t believe you did all this for a stupid debt,” he groused. “A debt that I already said you don’t owe me in the first place!”

“Why do you care why I was doing it?” Draco demanded in frustration. “It worked, didn’t it? You were going out and talking to your friends again and actually smiling! You were even talking about going flying again! So, don’t tell me...”

“Wait, wait.” Harry held up a hand to silence him. “So, you did all of this to make me happy? Is that what you’re saying?”

Draco made a face. It sounded so nauseatingly sentimental when he put it like that. “I suppose,” he mumbled reluctantly. “It was...I was trying to...”

“...pay back your debt, I know,” Harry finished. He sounded vaguely displeased by the notion. “The scarf, the tea, the Broom Care Kit...”

“No,” Draco protested instinctively.

Harry trailed off and gave him an enquiring look. Draco bit his lip, then took a deep breath and sallied forth. “Not that last one,” he corrected lamely. “The Kit. That was...just because.”

“Just because?” Harry echoed softly.

Draco nodded. “It made you happy. And I thought...what was it you said that day? ‘No strings attached’?”

“I see.” Harry’s eyes softened and a smile pulled at his lips.

Draco scowled, feeling defensive all of a sudden. “I was trying something new,” he defended.

“Mm hm,” Harry agreed noncommittally. He reached out and ran a gentle hand down Draco’s arm, just like he used to stroke Draco’s feathers.

Draco swallowed around a lump in his throat. “I believe I made it clear that I don’t like being petted.”

“Tough,” Harry retorted. His grip tightened and he herded Draco over firmly.

Draco opened his mouth to protest the brutish treatment and then Harry leaned in and kissed him soundly on the mouth. Draco’s eyes widened and he squeaked in surprise. Harry took due advantage of his shock and wrapped a firm arm around him, deepening the kiss. His lips slid across Draco’s with gentle determination and his hands stroked Draco’s back lazily. Draco blinked in utter shock, unable to comprehend what was happening. But when Harry surged forward again, he returned the kiss, trying and failing to keep up.

Harry let him go, after what might have been years. Draco inhaled sharply and sagged against him. “Whawassat?” he managed, blinking dazedly.

Harry chuckled and bussed an entirely unnecessary kiss to his forehead. “That was a thank you,” he told Draco. “And...maybe something more.”

“Something more?” Draco echoed softly. He hadn’t dared...he’d never let himself believe that...

Harry smiled and ran a hand through his hair, his fingers snagging the blond strands. “Well, you do make a cute owl,” he teased.

Draco glared and shoved at him. “And?” he pressed.

Harry nuzzled him affectionately. “And nobody has done something like this for me before,” he conceded. “Granted, it’s probably because they’re not barking mad but I’m told it’s the thought that counts. The point is,” he added hastily, when Draco scowled at him, “you gave me something to look forward to and that was something I thought I’d lost forever. Thank you for that.”

Draco wasn’t really sure what to say, but hiding his face in Harry’s chest and mumbling a bashful ‘you’re welcome’ was probably not one of his finest moments. Then again, when Harry tipped his chin up and pecked his lips affectionately, he couldn’t bring himself to complain.

“So, now can we call it even?” Harry pleaded. “No more debts, no more payback? Believe it or not, I’d really rather you spent time with me because you want to, not because you have to.”

Draco wasn’t sure he could put in words just how much he liked the sound of that. So, he just followed Harry’s example and answered with a kiss instead.

“So, what do you say? All squared?” Harry insisted, when they broke away.

Draco rolled his eyes and nodded. “All squared,” he agreed.

Harry’s eyes lit up and his hold tightened and Draco reflected on how happy he looked. Happier than he’d ever looked with the owl.

To think, he could have just resolved this ridiculous situation by snogging Potter silly. Draco would have lamented his luck, if it wasn’t for the warmth spreading through his body and the giddy flutter in his stomach.

Besides, he could hardly complain. His debt was finally paid, he had his whole life in front of him and now...now he had Harry too.

There was still one more question, though.

“So, what do we do now?” he murmured.

Harry smiled against his lips. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I want to go flying.”

 

END