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The slap of paper smacking onto his desk startles Draco, and he looks up to see his editor glaring down at him.

“What is this, Malfoy?” Cuffe demands, stabbing a finger at the paper.

Draco sighs and glances down, though he already knows without looking that it’s a copy of his recent draft.

“An article,” he answers dryly, knowing that sarcasm won’t win him any points, but he’s lost all patience with how many drafts his editor has sent back lately.

“No, it’s shit, and you know it,” Cuffe says. “I can’t publish this. You didn’t get a single new piece of information about the case. And your opinion about how the Aurors are handling it isn’t going to sit well with readers.”

“Well, what do you expect? Bennett keeps stonewalling me!” Draco argues, throwing up his hands in frustration. “How can I report new information if they won’t give me any new information?”

“Any way you can. And if you were a real reporter, you’d know that,” Cuffe says, punctuating it by jabbing a finger in Draco’s face. “Gods, I miss Skeeter,” he adds with a quiet sigh.

Draco folds his arms and taps his foot in irritation. “It wouldn’t be an issue if Potter hadn’t run off…” he mutters under his breath.

Cuffe shakes his head. “The Potter column was the hardest assignment I could have given you, and you did fine with that, but now you can’t get a story out of some green Auror?”

“Potter had the courtesy of acknowledging my presence,” Draco bites back waspishly.

He already feels like enough of a failure at not being able to get a story out of some baby-faced upstart who thought he was better than Draco that he doesn’t need Cuffe rubbing salt in the wound.

It would be fine if he could cover another story, but a rash of recent murders involving Unforgivables is the only case anyone wants to hear about at the moment and incidentally the only story his editor is letting him work on.

At least Longbottom was willing to work with him after Potter ran off three years ago. He knew of the mutually beneficial working relationship they’d shared and he maintained it, though it was never quite the same.

Since Longbottom left the Aurors last month, Draco has been hard-pressed to get any Auror to speak to him, let alone Bennett, who sticks his nose up at Draco for his dark history. Bennett wasn’t even in the goddamn War, wasn’t old enough to buy his first wand when it was happening, and yet he thinks he’s too good to speak to Draco. Draco hates him.

Cuffe sighs and sets his jaw like he’s steeling himself to tell Draco bad news, most likely that he’s fired, and part of Draco wishes he would just do it already. But Cuffe’s eyes light up with an idea, and his mouth tips up in a crooked smile. It only makes Draco feel more uneasy.

“Fine. You want off crime reporting?” Cuffe asks, but he doesn’t give Draco enough time to respond before he continues. “Then you can go back to the Potter column.”

Draco’s stomach drops. Not only is that an assignment he really doesn’t want after how things ended between them, but it’s an impossible one. Since leaving the Aurors three years ago, Potter has only been spotted around England twice. Nobody knows where he lives, or where he goes, or what he’s up to.

“How am I supposed to do that?” Draco asks incredulously. “Potter hasn’t been seen for over a year! No one knows where he is, and if they do, they aren’t telling.”

“I don’t know, Malfoy, figure it out. Everyone wants to know what Potter is up to—now it’s your job to find out. That would be an article actually worth printing. Do it, or you’re fired.” Cuffe pauses long enough for Draco to attempt another protest, but he doesn’t. He bites his tongue instead, and Cuffe stalks back to his office.

Draco’s heart is thumping hard in his chest, driven by fear of losing his job and anger at the thought of being forced to seek out Potter. He knows as well as Cuffe does that this is a fool’s errand, and Cuffe is going to use it as an excuse to fire him.

It’s been a long time coming. He was never truly welcome here, after his father wheedled a position at The Daily Prophet for him with what little influence he’s managed to cling to since the War. Draco never wanted to work at the Prophet in the first place; he wanted to be a freelance journalist and travel the world, but his father convinced him that he could never be successful doing that.

According to Lucius, if Draco had to go into journalism, then he should work for the biggest paper out there and have a ten year plan in place to become editor-in-chief. Then Draco will have real influence, and that’s all that matters after all, isn’t it? He’s managed to hang onto this job for seven years already, though he’s not entirely sure how.

Draco is half tempted to walk out right now, but the stubborn part of him refuses to give up, and the petty part doesn’t want to give Cuffe what he wants so easily. He sees the challenge in seeking out Potter, and he knows it’ll be a hot story. Everybody wants to know what happened to Potter after his mysterious departure. That, and his father will be furious if he quits.

Draco pinches the bridge of his nose and exhales a long, drawn out sigh. He needs a cup of tea.

Draco pushes back from his desk and stands, moving around the bustling reporter’s office and making his way into the break room. He checks if the kettle is hot and has water before fixing himself a cup of builder’s brew.

As he takes his first, careful sip, Draco closes his eyes and tries to let the strong tea soothe his nerves. He tries to tell himself that everything will be fine. He’ll find Potter, or he’ll find a way out of this situation, and then he’ll be back on track with his father’s ten year plan for Draco to secure his position of power as the editor-in-chief. His plan, he tries to correct himself, but even in his mind it rings false.

It’s what’s best for him. Draco can’t—shouldn’t get distracted with wanting things that won’t help him succeed in life. He shouldn’t want to be fired. He shouldn’t want to see Potter again—not for any reason other than keeping his job.

Unbidden, images of Harry rise to the front of his mind. Smile-softened eyes, the rich depth of greens in them uncovered for once, not hidden behind glasses. Strong shoulders and the smooth planes of his back. Miles of dark skin exposed without any concern for modesty.

“Fuck,” Draco mutters, putting his mug down with a harsh clack. He grips the edge of the counter and pushes the imagery away, along with all the accompanying feelings of shame and remorse and loathing.

He thought he was done with Potter. He’d told him so the last time they spoke.

Draco exhales a sharp breath, grabbing his cup and dumping out half the tea. He pulls a flask from his robes and pours a generous amount into the mug.

“I didn’t realise happy hour started this early.” The familiar female voice comes from the door to the breakroom, and Draco forces himself not to startle at it. How Ginny manages to get around so silently always baffles him, and she enjoys spooking him at every opportunity.

“Something’s started,” Draco mutters, turning to watch her limp into the room, “but I wouldn’t call it happy.”

“When did you become such a lush?” she asks, elbowing him out of the way of the kettle to fix herself a cup of tea.

Draco grunts and rubs at the spot on his ribs, which will surely be a bruise by the end of the night, and he resists the temptation to elbow her back. For her small stature she’s annoyingly strong, and her professional Quidditch career only makes her a more intimidating partner to tussle with, even if she’s been retired for five years.

Draco glances down to the leg she’s favouring, recalling how the office had exploded with activity after her attack. She was touted for being instrumental in winning the Harpies three consecutive titles and was well on the way to a fourth when an angry fan cursed her so badly that she’ll never be able to play again. She’s made a decent career since as the Quidditch Correspondent at The Daily Prophet.

Perhaps being a celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Though that sentiment leads too easily to a more dangerous train of thought about a certain dark-haired celebrity with a characteristic scar, and Draco quickly changes course.

“You’d be drinking if you’d had the day I’ve had,” Draco snaps and takes a long swig of his tea, which is more whiskey than tea at this point.

“It’s barely eleven,” she says in an incredulous tone and turns to face him, leaning her hip against the counter and taking the weight off her bad leg. “What kind of day could you possibly have had already?”

“Cuffe is going to fire me,” Draco says.

Ginny rolls her eyes. “You’ve been saying that since day one.”

“It’s been true since day one,” Draco argues.

“So what’s different this time?” she asks with a bland tone.

“He took me off crime and gave me an assignment he knows I can’t complete,” Draco explains shortly. “So when I don’t do it, he’ll have cause to get rid of me for real.”

Ginny furrows her brow sceptically. “What assignment could that be?”

“To get the scoop on where—” Draco cuts off as he’s struck with the sudden thought that Ginny might know where Potter is. She’s become such a regular feature in Draco’s life that sometimes he forgets that she was also one in Potter’s.

“You’re friends with Potter,” he says abruptly.

“Yeah,” she says slowly, drawing out the vowels like she thinks Draco is being particularly dense today. “Last I checked, so are you.”

He prickles at the implication and snaps, “We’re not friends. We’re—we had an understanding. About work.”

Ginny rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “Fine, an understanding. Whatever. Why are you asking about Harry?”

“Because he’s my assignment.”

“What?” Ginny’s brow scrunches in confusion.

“He’s my assignment,” Draco repeats. “I’m supposed to figure out where he’s hiding and give the world an update on what Potter’s been doing the last three years, because that’s important. Apparently the magical world isn’t over its obsession with their boy saviour.”

Ginny raises an eyebrow and her lips tip up in a smirk. “You’re one to talk.”

Draco glares at her. “Shut up and tell me where he is.”

“I don’t know where he is,” she says with a shrug and takes a sip of her tea.

Draco’s eyes narrow at her in suspicion, and she scoffs.

“I really don’t,” she says and throws an open hand in front of her. “And it’s not like it’s a secret, I just don’t know where he is at the moment. He travels a lot, and I’m not as good as I should be at keeping up with him. He was somewhere in Siberia last I checked, but I’m pretty sure he’s moved on.”

Draco hums thoughtfully. At worst that could be a starting point to search from, if necessary, but there’s still the first, and really the only, avenue Draco meant to try. “What about Granger and the Other Weasley? Would they know?”

Ginny ‘Don’t Call Me Ginevra’ Weasley, still finds it amusing that she’s taken over the title of ‘Weasley’ and Ron has been relegated to ‘the Other Weasley’ in how Draco addresses them now.

“Maybe,” she says and squints in thought. “But they’ve been fairly preoccupied with the baby, so probably not.”

“Great,” Draco mutters. If Potter’s best friends don’t know where he is, then this is going to be harder than he thought.

“You know,” Ginny says, picking up her tea and taking a sip, “you could just owl him and ask. He’d probably tell you.”

Draco’s stomach twists at the thought. No, that’s the last thing he could do. He can’t bear the thought of begging Potter for help, no matter if it saves his job or not. He never had to beg him before, and he’s not going to now—not when he’s not sure if Potter would agree.

Something in his expression must give away his feelings on the matter, because Ginny lets out a long suffering sigh. “You’re ridiculous. How do you expect to write an article on him if you can’t even talk to him?” she asks. “What are you planning on doing? Hunting him down and stalking him for a week?”

Draco hesitates in answering for a moment too long, embarrassed that he is thinking of doing exactly that, and Ginny shakes her head and groans, “Merlin…”

She rubs a hand down her face, then glances around the break room surreptitiously. It’s empty, save for them. “Look, you didn’t hear this from me, alright?” she begins, and Draco perks up. “There is one person who is most likely to know where Harry is.”

“Well?” Draco presses when she pauses for too long.

“If I tell you, you’re going to owe me one,” she says, jabbing a finger toward him.

“Fine, fine,” Draco hastily agrees. “I’ll owe you big. Now tell me.”

She hesitates, eyeing Draco before sighing and saying, “Hagrid.”

“Hagrid?” Draco echoes, face scrunched in disbelief. That is not the answer he expected.

“Ron and Hermione aren’t his only friends, you know,” she says impatiently. “He and Hagrid are close, have been since Hogwarts. So if you have any interest in staying on Harry’s good side, and my good side for that matter, you’ll not be a prick to him, you hear?”

Draco fixes his expression into something more proper and nods. “Of course. Do you, er, have any idea where he’s living these days?”

“Hogwarts. He’s still teaching,” she says as if it should be obvious.

Draco balks and opens his mouth to express his surprise, but Ginny shoots him a sharp look and Draco swallows the words down.

“I guess I’m going to Hogwarts then,” he says carefully, trying not to grimace at the thought. “Thank you, Weasley.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” she says with a smug smile, and Draco wonders what horrific thing she’ll choose to use her favour on.

– o –

The rebuilt hut seems larger than Draco remembers the previous one being, but he can’t be sure. It’s still smaller than a house containing a half-giant has any right to be.

Across the grounds Draco can see a few groups of older students studying or relaxing in the warm, late spring weather during their free period, which brings a rush of old memories of the spring of Draco’s life. He quickens his steps to cross the long stretch of grass.

Draco hasn’t been back to Hogwarts since the Battle and he never planned on returning. Ten years on and the scars of the War are as fresh in his mind as they are on the walls of the castle. The faster he can get the information he needs and get out the better.

As he moves to approach the hut, a deep bark startles him and Draco halts as a huge black dog comes around it. Draco puts up his hands defensively as the dog lumbers up to him. Its muzzle is covered in grey hair and its eyes look fogged over with age, but that doesn’t make it any less intimidating. Draco’s never been much of an animal person.

“Easy there,” Draco says and jumps as it sticks its muzzle into his robes, sniffing at him with interest.

“Eurgh,” Draco groans as it leaves globs of drool all down his front. “Just—sit. Sit, sit, sit. Good, good dog, stay. Stay right there.”

The old dog puts its haunches down, and Draco backs away slowly toward the door of the hut. “Stay there,” he mutters, one hand held out as the other knocks on the door.

Draco knocks again and again, but long minutes tick by with no response, and eventually he has to admit that no one is home. If Hagrid were here, surely he would have heard the knocking from anywhere inside the small structure.

Draco rubs at his eyes and sighs, wondering if he’s going to have to camp out here all day to speak to a person he doesn’t want to speak to, so that he can find a person he really doesn’t want to find. He idly draws his wand and cleans the drool from his robes, and he considers going to the pub in Hogsmeade to get a drink and kill time.

There’s a reason Draco stays away from Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. Mostly these days no one bothers him anymore, but that could be because Draco tends to avoid those places most affected by the War. Although the Hog’s Head Inn always attracted dodgy clientele even before the War, so maybe no one would notice or care if Draco Malfoy sat down and ordered a drink.

The temptation to drown his sorrows for a few hours wins out, and Draco hastily retreats from the hut and the drooling old dog.

The sun is out, but the air is cool enough that the walk to Hogsmeade is a pleasant one, and Draco doesn’t run into anyone else along the path. There are a few people walking around the town itself, but none of them pay him any attention.

Draco slips into the Hog’s Head Inn and takes a moment for his eyes to adjust from the bright sun outside to the dingy interior. He glances first across the many empty tables as he moves inside, thinking about choosing one in the far corner, before looking to the bar and stopping in his tracks.

To Draco’s surprise, sat at the bar is exactly who he’s looking for. After a brief pause, Draco carefully approaches him. Once he’s close enough, Hagrid turns and looks at him. He looks startled at first, and then the last thing Draco expected to happen, happens—he smiles at Draco, a wide, full-toothed grin.

“Malfoy!” Hagrid greets in a booming voice that fills the entire pub. What few patrons are present all turn and look at him, and Draco’s stomach drops. After a long, tense second, they each turn away and go back to their own business.

“Professor,” Draco greets much more sedately, and takes a seat on the stool next to him. Draco has been made aware of how much of an arse he was in school, and he knows he was not kind to Hagrid, so he’s thrown by the friendly reception.

“I’m no’ yer professor no more, Malfoy. Jus’ Hagrid’s fine,” he tells him and claps Draco on the back, harder than he means to Draco suspects, and all the breath goes rushing out of his lungs. “What’re yeh doing ‘round these parts?”

Draco gasps in a breath and answers in a strained voice, “Looking for you, as it happens.”

“Fer me?” Hagrid asks, surprised.

Draco nods, clearing his throat and flagging the bartender down to order a pint before answering. “Yes. I, er,” Draco begins to say and lowers his voice, “I heard you might know where Po—Harry is, and I need to find him.”

“Ah,” Hagrid says as if this answer makes perfect sense. “Harry told me yeh were friends now. Spoke quite highly of yeh.”

“Did he?” Draco asks in mild surprise. He picks up the pint put in front of him and takes a long drink from it. “Yes, well, we were close—worked closely together. You know, Auror, crime reporter.”

“Said yeh always gave ‘im a fair shake,” Hagrid says, nodding along as if none of this is a surprise to him, and Draco tries to quell the desperate need to know everything Harry told Hagrid about him and in great detail. “Didn’ try ter write rubbish abou’ him like them others at the Prophet.”

Hagrid picks up his large, wooden stein and drinks deeply from it. Draco waits, watching as he puts it down and wipes his mouth on his sleeve, and he tries not to cringe.

“Well?” Draco prompts, when he doesn’t seem about to offer the information Draco needs. “Do you know where he is?”

“Oh, yeah,” Hagrid says. “He’s in Italy righ’ now. The Val di Funes.” He emphasises the words, trying to say them with the right accent. “Sen’ him there meself. I used ter go, few years back ‘fore Harry took over, beau’iful place. They got the most fantastic—”

Reminded of how easily the man can ramble, Draco cuts him off. “So the Val di Funes, you said?”

– o –

In the end it’s much easier to find Potter than Draco expects. But maybe he wasn’t expecting to find him because he never looked before. The ease with which it all happens has Draco’s nerves on edge. It should be harder. Draco would appreciate it being harder, but it seems fate has other ideas for him.

Almost twenty-four hours later, Draco finds himself in Italy. He Portkeys outside of Santa Maddalena, and when he gets his bearings, turns and sees where he is, it takes his breath away. The first thought to go through his mind is, Oh, this is why Harry is here.

Draco wavers on his landing spot, takes in a deep breath of sweet, clean air, and tears his eyes away from the pale, jagged peaks of the mountains standing over the valley, still tipped and streaked white from winter, and the lush green hills rolling up to the base of them.

The small town isn’t difficult to navigate, the hardest part is trying to figure out his hotel room. Between the language barrier and the fact that it’s Muggle, it takes a bit of doing. Eventually he lugs his suitcase into his room and drops it at the foot of his bed.

Draco pulls out the poorly sketched map Hagrid drew for him and squints at it. Potter is supposed to be staying in a cabin somewhere in the hills East of him, but the only directions Hagrid seems to have given him beyond the town are the landmarks of a tall rock, a bent tree, and the cabin itself.

After studying the map and trying to orient himself, Draco checks that his door is locked and has the Do Not Disturb sign on the knob, then he opens the window in his room.

The smooth transition into his Animagus form happens with an ease that comes from years of practise. In the blink of an eye his body shifts itself down into the small form of a blue jay.

At first, he was disappointed that he wasn’t something more impressive like an eagle, or something quick like a cheetah, or something intimidating like a bear. In the end he accepted how lucky he was to get the form he has, as it’s often come in handy with his job, not to mention the sensation and freedom of being able to fly with his own wings. A small bird is much more discreet than a forty stone bear navigating the streets of London.

Draco takes off, flying out the window and heading East. He wastes half an hour looking at many large rocks and cursing out Hagrid before he finds what he thinks is the right one, and from there he orients himself and finds the bent tree soon after. A little further on he comes across a small cabin tucked away in the pine forest, far removed from the hiking trails and tourist spots around the base of the Dolomites.

Draco lands in a tree next to the cabin and surveys the area. He doesn’t see anyone about so he circles the cabin. It has a porch with a rocking chair, a full water trough pushed against one side of the porch, fishing rods hung on the inside of the roof over the porch, a fire pit out front, and a privy set a few feet back. One of the windows is cracked open, and no one seems to be about, so Draco lands on the sill and cautiously looks around.

The cabin is tiny, smaller even than Hagrid’s hut. It’s a single room with a counter and a wood burning stove to the right of the front door, a bed pushed against the far wall with a nightstand next to it, and a small circular table on the left with a couple chairs. A loft takes up half the space overhead with a ladder leading up to it and birch logs lining it from the ledge up to the ceiling. Shelves are scattered around the walls, filled with cookware, dishes, cans of food, books, and other miscellany. Almost everything is made of a warm coloured wood.

There are signs of life within the cabin as well, such as the jacket slung over the back of one of the chairs, an open trunk at the foot of the bed with a pile of clothes next to it, and dirty dishes sitting on the counter. But no one is inside, so Draco ventures in.

He lands on the unmade bed and looks at the items resting on the nightstand. There’s an English to Italian dictionary, a leather-bound journal, a worn, well-loved copy of a book titled Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a gas lantern, a pencil, and several opened letters.

Draco hops over to the letters and unrolls one with his beak enough that he can get a look at the first line.

Harry, I’m glad to hear you found the—

Draco forces himself to stop reading. He only needs to know that he’s at the right cabin and now he does. As tempting as it is, he always drew a firm line at not intentionally digging into Potter’s personal life. It’s part of what gained him Potter’s trust in the first place, and a big reason why Potter refused to interact with other reporters who had no such boundaries.

When Draco trained to become a journalist, the last thing he expected to do with it was write vacuous updates on Harry Potter’s life to feed the curious masses, but after his father made him take the job at the Prophet, his boss assigned him the hardest reporting job—the Potter column.

Potter was notorious for dodging reporters, and Draco is certain that Cuffe never expected Draco to ever be able to get Potter to speak to him, considering the history they shared. It would have made for a quick and easy excuse to fire him.

Only, despite Draco’s disinclination to interact with Potter again, he was probably the best person for the job. Something Cuffe clearly didn’t know or think about is the fact that Draco knows Potter. He spent years watching him, teasing him, finding every which way he could to get under his skin. Draco knows how he thinks, he knows his motivations, and he knows how to get his attention.

Draco flies back out of the cabin and settles onto a tree nearby to wait for Potter’s return. While he does, he thinks about one of their first interactions after he was put on the Potter column seven years ago.

He remembers how a report had come in that the Aurors were on the move, that Potter had caught up to a Dark wizard they’d been hunting and was stuck in a duel with him. Draco and several other reporters rushed out to the scene.

Draco stayed well away from the actual fight; he was close enough to see the flashes of spells but far enough that he could suffer no collateral damage. When it was all over, one of the Aurors moved in to check on Potter and heal any wounds while other Aurors secured the Dark wizard.

Draco and the rest of the crowd moved a bit closer, but one cocky reporter from a different paper got right in Potter’s face to take his photo and start bombarding him with questions. Potter shoved the camera away and told him to fuck off.

Closer up, Draco could see that Potter was still sweating and shaking from the duel. He was clearly injured, as a good portion of his robes were soaked with blood, and all Draco could think was how tasteless it was to harass him right after such a harrowing situation.

The reporter wasn’t deterred, he kept taking photos of Potter and asking questions of him until Potter turned and decked the guy in the face. Draco’s mouth dropped open and his hand stilled over his notepad as he watched the reporter hit the ground, his camera breaking on the cobblestone next to him.

“Anyone else?” Potter shouted at the gathered crowd, raising his arms in invitation. Cameras were flashing, but no one stepped forward.

Potter’s dark gaze scanned over them, searching for anyone else fool enough to try to harass him. When his eyes landed on Draco they stopped. He looked to the notepad and quill in Draco’s hands and his expression turned thunderous. He glared at Draco with a familiar, searing hatred.

The Auror stood next to him tried to get Potter’s attention back by touching his arm so he could finish healing him, but Potter jerked away from his touch and Disapparated with a loud crack.

Despite the fact that this was far from the sort of journalism Draco wanted to do, he thought at first that maybe he’d enjoy taking petty pleasure in the gossip—in seeing someone like Harry Potter brought to the point of knocking out a paparazzo—but strangely it didn’t bring him joy. He felt pity.

Potter was just in a life or death situation, and he hadn’t even had a chance to get his heart rate back to resting before having a camera shoved in his face. It was then that Draco started to think he understood why Potter hated reporters so much, if that sort of behaviour from them was typical.

A few hours later, after some searching, Draco found Potter at a small pub, sitting alone at the bar and nursing a whiskey.

“What? You want a picture too?” Potter snarled when Draco approached him.

“Not after seeing what you did to the last guy,” Draco said with a smirk and took a seat on the stool beside him.

Potter scowled and looked down at his nearly empty glass. “Just leave me alone, Malfoy,” he said with a sigh, shoulders slumped.

“Not interested in giving me a statement about what happened earlier?” Draco asked, turning toward Potter, setting his elbow on the bar and resting his chin in his hand.

Potter grunted in response and picked up his cup with his bruised right hand, downing the last of his drink. When it was clear Potter had no intention of answering, Draco turned and flagged down the bartender to order a whiskey and a cup of ice.

“So you’re the new scumbag the Prophet sent to stalk me?” Potter asked and glanced over at Draco, his eyes narrowed and angry.

“I suppose so,” Draco said with a shrug. “But not by choice.”

“What does that mean?” Potter asked, his brow scrunched in suspicion.

“It means that if I had my way, the last thing I’d be doing is writing gutter press about your boring life, but fate is a cruel bitch when it comes to me.”

Potter laughed at that, an unhappy, derisive sound, and shook his head.

When Draco’s order was put on the bar in front of him, he pushed the glass of whiskey over to Potter, who looked surprised before his gaze jumped to Draco, searching him warily.

Draco ignored the look Potter gave him and pulled his wand out to conjure a bag around the ice he ordered. He pulled the bag from the cup and reached for Potter’s wrist.

Potter flinched back and looked at Draco sharply, eyes wide with surprise and distrust.

Draco calmly reached for him again, circling his wrist and pulling it closer so he could press the makeshift ice pack over Potter’s bruised knuckles.

“Best ice that hand, Potter. Wouldn’t want that renowned duelling arm injured before the next Dark wizard tries to get a piece of you.”

Draco smirked and let go of Potter’s wrist then sauntered out of the bar. He felt Potter’s stunned gaze following him the whole way out.

The next morning, Draco’s article in The Daily Prophet stood out from every other paper simply by telling a nearly opposite story. Instead of “Hothead Harry Potter Hits Another Reporter”, his story is “Pesky Paparazzo Properly Punched by Potter”.

Draco is brought out of his memory by the sound of wings flapping, and he turns on his branch, twisting his head to look up and watch as a large, winged horse descends smoothly into the clearing in front of the cabin. The creature is almost entirely black except each leg is white from the hoof to below the knee and most of its face is white, standing out starkly against the rest of its body, looking almost like a mask.

Draco’s not sure exactly which breed of winged horse it is, only that it’s not an Abraxan like the ones that pulled the Beauxbatons carriage in fourth year because its size is about that of a regular horse.

On its back sits Potter, smiling, his cheeks tinted red from the wind and his hair blowing behind him. Draco diligently tries to ignore the way his already fast heartbeat speeds up at the sight of him.

Potter looks different than he did three years ago. His rich brown skin is a darker, warmer tone from time spent in the sun, his jet black hair is longer, reaching just above his shoulders, he has a full beard from what must be a few months without shaving, and he looks physically healthier—more filled out and less like the scrawny physique he had at school and in his years as an Auror. One of the few things that seems to have remained the same is that he’s still wearing the same old glasses.

But it’s not just the physical differences, there’s an obvious change in his presence. Potter looks happy. He looks like he’s no longer carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it shows in everything from how he carries himself, to the easy smile on his face.

Upon landing, the horse trots a few steps before Potter pulls the reins back and stops it fully. He reaches down and pats its neck and murmurs some affection to it before swinging a leg over the saddle and dismounting in a smooth, practised motion.

Potter begins working to remove the horse’s tack, taking off the bridle first and hanging it from a hook on the porch. He unbuckles the many parts of the saddle keeping it in place before he slides the saddle off, carries it to the cabin and throws it onto the porch railing. He removes the saddle blanket and does the same.

Once all the tack is off, the horse shakes itself out, sending raven black feathers flying from its large set of wings. Potter laughs and rubs a hand up and down its face, kisses its nose and waves it over to a patch of grass. The horse moves readily and tears into the grass while Potter turns and heads inside the cabin.

Draco waits until he thinks Potter won’t be coming back outside, then he swoops down and lands on one of the window sills, peering inside curiously. He watches as Potter lights a fire in the stove, cooks himself lunch and boils water for tea. Draco ignores the way his stomach rolls hungrily at the scent of cooking garlic and onions. His Animagus form burns calories faster and has a much higher appetite than his human form, and he always finds himself ravenous after shifting for long periods.

When Potter is done cooking his dish, he takes the food and tea outside and sits in the rocking chair. Draco flies from the window back into a tree for a better vantage, but when he looks back down at Potter, Potter is staring up at him, his mouth tipped open, and Draco’s heart stops. He wasn’t planning on letting himself be known, if he doesn’t have to. He’d rather not have a confrontation with Potter.

After a moment, Potter blinks and returns his attention to his food, and Draco reminds himself that Potter doesn’t know about his Animagus form—he never found out, and Draco never told him. He can continue observing Potter in secret, figure out enough of what he’s doing here to write an article then put all this mess behind him. Most likely Potter’s admiring him because his beautiful blue feathers are quite striking.

Potter rocks gently back and forth, pushing himself with the toes of one foot, as he eats his lunch. After it’s gone, he spends a long moment drinking his tea and watching the woods. Draco can practically feel the waves of contentment rolling off of his relaxed form with every slow back and forth of the rocking chair.

He has to admit that the longer he sits here, the more relaxed Draco begins to feel as well. It’s been a long time since Draco left the city, not including visits to his parents at the Manor, and the atmosphere of these woods is much more serene. He can hear other birds singing nearby and the sound of the breeze blowing through the trees, and he appreciates the feel of it gently ruffling his feathers.

Sun warms the clearing around the house and dappled light filters through the pines surrounding the small glade. The temperature is perfect for late spring, not too cold and not too hot, and he wouldn’t be surprised if Potter nodded off, as Draco finds himself being lulled by the tranquil environment.

After a while, Draco stirs from his reverie when he hears Potter getting up. He blinks and refocuses his attention as Potter moves inside the cabin and comes out with a linen bag over his shoulder. He walks into the forest and Draco follows behind him, moving from tree to tree and watching Potter’s casual stroll through the forest.

As he goes, occasionally Potter will stop and pick berries or nuts that he finds. Draco follows him for a solid two hours as Potter meanders through the woods, foraging but not eating anything he picks, and Draco finds it strange.

Eventually Potter returns to his cabin and goes about doing several menial tasks. At one point Draco leaves to eat a dinner he packed for himself, scarfing down three sandwiches and an apple.

When he gets back it’s nearly sunset, and he finds Potter as he’s mounting the winged horse and preparing to leave. Draco follows him as he flies his horse up the hills to a large, open field of grass and wildflowers.

Draco hopes he might finally see Potter do something of interest, but after Potter lands he merely sits at the top of the hill and watches the sun set with his horse grazing nearby. Draco watches with dumbfounded bemusement as a family of deer amble into the field and slowly approach Potter, who smiles and holds out a handful of the berries and nuts he gathered earlier in offering to them.

To Draco’s astonishment, the deer seem to have no fear of him or his horse. They eat out of his palm and accept some gentle petting without fuss.

After the deer are gone and the sun has fully set, Potter gets back on his horse. Instead of heading toward the cabin, he turns toward the mountains and kicks his horse into action with a, “Let’s go, boy!”

The horse stretches out its massive wingspan and rapidly propels them high up into the night sky, but the action seems less for a purpose and more for fun as Draco watches them dive and come back up for a loop, all while putting more distance between them and him.

Draco couldn’t keep up if he tried, and he watches Potter and his mount get farther and farther away, the sound of Potter’s delighted whooping trailing behind, until eventually Potter and his ebony horse disappear into the darkening sky.

Draco returns to his hotel room bewildered by the situation. With the way Potter quit his job and vanished three years ago, Draco expected to find him up to something much more interesting than a simple holiday in the Italian countryside.

Perhaps he’s having a midlife crisis, but instead of going out and buying the newest Firebolt, he got a flying horse, and instead of being middle aged, he’s on the cusp of twenty-seven.

Draco finds it odd, but he doesn’t have enough to write an article, and he needs to stay and find out more. As he’s going to sleep, he tells himself that he’s only planning to stay for the purpose of his job, not to sate his own curiosity.

– o –

The next morning Draco leaves earlier to try to catch Potter doing something interesting, but all he ends up seeing is Potter flying out to a small pond tucked away in the hills where he proceeds to fish and hum an unfamiliar song. Much to Draco’s increasing puzzlement, Potter catches fish only to throw them back in the pond.

Draco watches him spend twenty minutes chasing a frog before finally catching it, only to call it adorable and hold it in his hands for a moment before returning it, as well, to the pond.

The rest of the day passes in similar fashion, with Potter doing whatever odd thing he fancies, like talking to squirrels as he feeds them nuts and whittling a piece of wood into something Draco thinks is supposed to be a horse but looks more like a deformed hippo. He spends time grooming his winged horse, writing in his journal, and reading a letter that an owl delivers around midday before writing a response and sending the owl back.

Draco sees him do absolutely nothing of interest to write about. He considers what his editor’s reaction might be if he tried to turn in an article about Harry Potter quitting his job so he could become a hermit that talks to squirrels. It might spark the interest of some readers, but Draco would likely be fired on the spot. He’s half tempted to do it anyway.

As Draco watches Potter pass his evening the same way as before—flying to the top of the hill to sit in the wildflowers and watch the sun set before flying off into the night—he thinks that, while this doesn’t make for the most interesting story, he understands.

He remembers how stretched thin and stressed Potter always looked as an Auror and it greatly contrasts with how free and content he looks here. He understands why Potter left, and more than anything he understands the desire to be free, to soar through the air shouting out his joy to the stars.

Draco took up his Animagus training nine years ago because he wanted this kind of freedom. He wanted to be able to shed his skin and feel the wind in his hair and the sun on his face. He wanted to travel the world, writing compelling articles about important and relevant events and bring awareness to the many places and people still affected by Dark Arts today, Dark Lord or no Dark Lord.

When Draco returns to his hotel for the second night, he tries to shake the sense of calm that’s fallen over him from being here. Draco can’t live whatever life Potter is living now. He has obligations that other people don’t. He has a family depending on him, a name and a legacy to uphold, and the fate of his career resting on whether he can find something interesting enough to write about their bygone saviour.

– o –

Draco gets up in the morning with a new determination to find what he needs and leave this place and Potter well behind him. Only, his determination goes flying out the window when he gets to Potter’s cabin and finds him shirtless, chopping wood.

The thin joggers he’s wearing hug his arse and show a clear bulge in the crotch, leaving little to the imagination. It’s all Draco can do to not fall off his branch while he watches the muscles shifting and working in Potter’s arms, shoulders, and back with the repeated motion of drawing the axe up and swinging it down with a practised ease.

He has his hair tied back in a small ponytail to keep it out of his face as he works, and even in the cool morning air, his body glistens with sweat from physical labour.

All rational thought is gone, and Draco keeps watching Potter mindlessly until he’s finished his task and has stacked the wood neatly against the side of the cabin. Potter spends the rest of the morning doing chores and only stops for lunch after giving his horse a thorough grooming.

After lunch, Potter sits on the porch steps and scatters nuts and berries around, inviting the birds and squirrels in. Draco is still shocked at how readily the forest animals trust him. A few birds even land on his hand to eat out of his palm, and Draco would laugh at the absurd sight if he was physically capable of it.

Potter merely smiles as another pair of finches land on his arm, and he whistles along with them as they chirp up a storm.

This goes on for several minutes before Potter clears his throat and says, “Are you going to join us, Draco?”

Draco startles so hard he nearly falls off the branch. When he looks down, Potter is staring right at him. Draco hesitates, his heart beating an erratic rhythm in his small chest. He’s half tempted to fly away rather than face the fact that Potter knows Draco was watching him.

“Or are you going to stay up there and pout, now that you know you’re not fooling anyone?” Potter asks, a small smirk curling one side of his mouth.

Draco puffs up the crest of feathers on his head in indignation and flies to the ground, shifting back to human as soon as his feet touch down, and all the forest creatures scatter at the sight of him. Potter stands up to meet him.

“You knew?” Draco asks incredulously.

“I always knew,” Potter says, giving him a meaningful look.

“Always?” he asks, the word coming out on a surprised breath, and Potter nods.

“Blue jays are native to North America. There aren’t any in Italy,” he explains, watching Draco calmly. “There aren’t any in England either, for that matter.”

“So you looked me up,” Draco guesses, but Potter shakes his head.

“After the whole Rita ordeal in school, I made friends with the clerk who processes the Animagus registrations. She keeps me updated on the list,” he explains. “There was really only one conclusion for why a blue jay was following me around London.”

Draco glances away guiltily. He can’t believe Potter knew the whole time that Draco was watching him. And not just now, but years ago when he was doing the Potter column.

From the beginning he knew that Potter’s trust wouldn’t be easy to get, but he had to write something about him, and following him in secret was an easy way to get material without sending Potter running. By the time he’d earned Potter’s trust, Draco was too scared to admit the extent of his stalking and possibly lose that trust.

“You never said anything,” he says, scrunching his brow in irritation.

“You didn’t either,” Potter deflects, and Draco tuts.

He purses his lips and doesn’t respond, diligently trying to ignore old feelings of guilt at how frequently he used to tail Potter without his knowledge, or so he thought, until Potter breaks the silence.

“It’s part of why I came to trust you. I knew how much you really knew about me,” he says, and a memory of Potter kneeling in front of a Muggle outside a club, head bobbing, flashes through Draco’s mind. “You could have written some nasty things, but you never did.”

“That wasn’t ever my intention,” Draco informs him primly, threading his fingers together behind his back and banishing old memories from his mind.

“I know,” Potter answers simply.

He looks so unbothered by the whole affair and it’s starting to drive Draco mad. Potter should be furious. He probably was, years back whenever it was that he discovered how Draco was shadowing him. But this Potter, with his beard and his horse and his easy smile, is oddly calm about it.

“Why are you here?” Potter cuts into his thoughts.

“Work,” Draco answers, and Potter sets his jaw, his relaxed expression turning tense. “Cuffe’s making me write an article on you. An update, on where you are and what you’re doing now. Apparently it’s what the people want.”

Potter folds his arms over his chest, which highlights the form of his muscles there and in his arms, and Draco’s eyes drop to them. “There’s no other reason you came?” he asks.

Draco tears his eyes away from Potter’s biceps and meets his gaze. “No, why would there be?”

“I don’t know, Draco. Maybe because once upon a time we spent a night together that was pretty fucking fantastic, until you ran away the next morning and told me to leave you alone.”

Draco clenches his jaw and glares at a tree past Potter’s shoulder. He can feel his face heating in anger, shame and guilt from the memory, and he knows it’s going to turn an ugly, splotchy red from it. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he says.

“That was the issue though, wasn’t it? That you didn’t want to talk about it. You wanted to pretend it never happened. You wanted it to go away. And it did go away,” Potter says, gesturing widely to himself and the Italian countryside around them.

“So why are you bringing it up now?” Draco snaps, meeting Potter’s stubborn gaze.

“Why are you hunting me down now?” Potter returns.

Draco purses his lips in annoyance, but answers honestly. “I need a story.”

Potter sighs and shakes his head. “I’m done feeding you stories, look somewhere else.”

Draco clenches and unclenches his fists at this side. “I’ll lose my job if I don’t do this article about you.”

“So quit,” Potter says with a careless shrug. “You hate your job anyway.”

“That’s not an option,” Draco spits.

“It’s always been an option,” Potter argues in an exasperated tone.

“Don’t start with that again,” Draco says, raising his voice. “I didn’t—I don’t want to—it’s none of your business. Just tell me what the hell you’re doing here so I can leave.”

“No,” Potter says flatly. Draco opens his mouth to argue, but Potter talks over him. “The last time I tried to talk to you, you told me to fuck off. You told me you didn’t want to see me again. You don’t get to show up here now, three years later and demand anything from me.”

“Fine,” Draco sneers. He shifts back into his Animagus form and flies off within the span of a breath, wanting to get as far away from Potter as he can.

Draco packs his trunk quickly, angrily shoving his things into it, not caring whether they’ll become damaged or wrinkled. His skin flashes hot and cold as Potter’s words run through his mind. Even after all this time, Potter still gets under his skin like nobody else can.

– o –

“What have you been up to this week, darling?” his mother asks from across the table.

Draco stops pushing his peas around his plate to find her watching him with a hint of concern in the tight lines around her mouth. He glances to the end of the table to see his father look up and watch Draco expectantly.

“Work, mainly,” he answers. While his mother gives him a gentle nod and continues to watch him with interest, wanting to know more about his life, his father gives a single sharp nod of approval for his answer and returns his attention to his meal.

“Did you do anything fun?” Narcissa asks.

“Er, well, I—I did visit Italy for a few days,” Draco offers hesitantly, not wanting his mother to worry that he has no life outside of his desk at the office.

Lucius tuts with disapproval. “Italians,” he sneers and looks to Draco. “What were you doing there?”

“Work, actually,” Draco answers, feeling his chest tighten with anxiety because he knows the direction this conversation is headed, and it was a mistake to bring it up.

“You’re a crime reporter, why would you need to go to Italy?” Lucius presses, furrowing his brow.

“I was on a new assignment,” Draco answers. From his father’s expectantly look, Draco knows he won’t get away without explaining further, so he takes a deep breath and continues, “Cuffe wants an article on Harry Potter. An, er, an update, I suppose. On what he’s been doing since he left the Aurors. It seems the world isn’t finished wondering what happened to their Boy Who Lived.”

Lucius’ expression turns dark as soon as Potter’s name is mentioned. “And why is that your job?”

“Because I,” Draco starts hesitantly. His heart hammers in his chest and his hands turn clammy with nerves. He considers telling his father the truth about how close he is to getting fired, but he can’t get the words out. “I—I volunteered. I knew it would be a difficult assignment, and that if I could do it, it would impress my editor. I might even get a promotion out of it.”

His father watches him carefully with narrowed eyes. After a moment, he hums a neutral note and says, “Finish it quickly, you don’t want to associate with people like him. Him and that family. I don’t understand why you spend any time with the Weasley girl.”

“She’s just a co-worker,” Draco says weakly, and Lucius regards him suspiciously.

“I’ve spoken to the Greengrasses and negotiated a bride price. They want to begin the courtship process next week,” Lucius tells him, and Draco freezes.

“Next week?” Narcissa asks, surprise painting her features. “I thought we agreed to put off any talk of arranged marriages until after Draco’s next promotion.”

“His career is fine. And if Draco gets a promotion from his...Potter article, then we’ll be on schedule regardless. It’s far past time Draco took a wife, and it’s more important that we focus on building the family now, on keeping it pure. We can’t let our legacy be tarnished by deviants or Muggle-loving filth,” Lucius says, his tone ringing with a dangerous finality.

Draco feels a cold numbness creep across his skin.

– o –

The draft of his article gets thrown back at him after he tries to hand it in.

“What is this shit, Malfoy?” Cuffe demands. “Did you even talk to him?”

“Yes!” Draco lies defensively. “He just—he wasn’t feeling especially chatty.”

“You don’t even have a photo,” Cuffe says, rubbing his eyes. “This is shoddy work, even for you.”

Draco bristles at that. “Potter was being uncooperative.”

“I thought you were supposed to be the Potter Whisperer,” Cuffe says sarcastically. “Get back out there, and get a real fucking story from him this time or don’t bother coming back.”

Draco grinds his teeth, wanting to bite back, wanting to tell Cuffe to shove the article up his arse, but he doesn’t. He slams the door behind him and nearly bowls over Ginny on his way to the lift.

“Watch it, Malfoy,” says, giving him an irritated look after having to catch herself on the wall.

Draco grabs onto her elbow to help steady her. “Sorry,” he mutters.

“What’s got your knickers in a twist?”

“My whole bloody life,” Draco mutters, and Ginny raises an eyebrow at him.

“Cuffe still giving you a hard time?” she asks as the lift opens and they both walk in.

“Of course,” Draco says, rolling his eyes. “First floor.”

Ginny pushes the button for him and watches Draco a moment before asking, “And how’d things go with Harry?”

Draco swallows and looks away nervously. “Not good. He said he wouldn’t help me.”

“What did you do?” Ginny asks in an exasperated tone.

“Nothing!” Draco snaps, but Ginny looks like she doesn’t believe that for a second. “We got into an argument. He’s—we didn’t exactly leave things in the best place when he left London. I—he—we got into a fight, and I guess Ha—Potter is still angry about it,” Draco haltingly tries to explain without having to actually explain why Potter is angry with him.

Ginny eyes him curiously, but she doesn’t press the issue. Instead, she says, “It sounds like you need to get drunk and work some stress out. Let’s go out tonight.”

“I don’t know,” Draco says hesitantly. He was planning on drinking away his sorrows alone at home, sleeping for twelve hours, and then deciding if he’s going to go crawling back to Potter or quit his job and spend the rest of his life in hiding.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” she insists.

– o –

It’s not fun.

Ginny managed to wrangle several of her friends together last minute to go to the club with them, but Ginny and all of her friends are paired up with each other. Draco got Pansy to come because she’s always up for a trip to the club, and since she’s as single as he is, he hoped she’d keep him company, but Pansy has since abandoned him to dance with a group of fit men on the dance floor.

Normally Draco would dance, but tonight he’s not feeling it. The music is too loud, thumping harshly in his eardrums and giving him a headache. Draco spends most of the night alone at the bar, but he doesn’t have enough Muggle money to pay for as many drinks as he would need to make this fun.

Draco watches Dean and Seamus dancing lewdly together, smiling and laughing and looking carefree, and a snake of jealousy curls around his stomach. Their open, blasé attitude toward their sexuality irks Draco. And they’re not the only ones—Ginny and Luna are all over each other. Ginny’s range of motion is restricted by her leg, so Luna goes between dancing around her and holding her close to rock back and forth together.

Beyond them, the entire club is littered with gays indiscriminately expressing themselves. A gay couple is sat at the bar not three seats away from Draco making out heavily, and he bites down hard at the wash of anger he feels seeing them together.

Draco feels cornered and defensive. Part of him wants what he sees and he hates that part of himself. He especially hates the part that can’t stop looking through the crowd for a head of wild black hair—the part that will always look for him, even when Draco knows there’s no chance of him being here.

Ginny drops into the stool next to him with a sharp exhale and rubs at her leg with one hand while she flags down the bartender with the other.

“It’s so hot out there,” she exclaims after ordering a glass of ice water. Draco hums an indifferent note and Ginny turns to look at him more closely. “You alright?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t I be,” Draco drawls sardonically. “I’m just so glad I came out here to watch you and your friends dry humping each other.”

“You could always join in, you know,” Ginny says with a smirk and tips her head to gesture down the bar. “That bloke’s eyeing you, why don’t you ask him to dance?”

Draco’s stomach twists, and he looks to where Ginny indicated to find a handsome man watching him. “Why the fuck would I do that?” Draco snarls, turning a cold look on Ginny. “I’m not like you and your poofter friends.”

“Fuck you,” Ginny says and punches Draco in the arm. “I know that the whole snobbish, arrogant, and general dickish behaviour comes as part of the package of being your friend, but you don’t ever fucking call me or Luna, or anyone else that ever again, understand?”

Draco rubs his sore shoulder and glares at her mulishly. “If you’ve got a problem—”

“The only person here with a problem is you,” Ginny cuts him off and jabs a finger into his chest. “Get the fuck over yourself.”

He purses his lips but doesn’t argue. She leans closer to him, maybe so he can hear her better over the loud music, or maybe to intimidate him.

“I get that you’re still in the closet and you’re not ready to deal with your feelings for Harry, but that doesn’t give you the right to take your self hatred out on us,” she says, and Draco feels as if his heart stops.

His blood turns cold, then just as quickly a rush of heat washes over him and his heart starts working at triple speed. His stomach rolls with nausea, and Draco has no idea what his face is doing, but his shock must show on it because Ginny’s hard expression softens.

“You think I didn’t know?” she asks, raising her eyebrows and tipping her lips up slightly. “With the way you two used to flirt? Come on.”

“I’m not gay,” Draco forces the words out, and Ginny gives him a pitying look and reaches out to grip his arm.

“Draco, it’s okay—”

“No! It’s not,” Draco snaps and jerks away from her touch. All he can think is that if Ginny knows, then who else does? Did Potter tell anyone? How long until his father hears about it?

“I haven’t told anyone and I’m not going to,” Ginny says as if reading his mind. “It’s your choice to deal with this when and how you need to, but I won’t tolerate you being a homophobic prat, alright?”

Draco nods numbly, unable to do much else. Part of him is frozen in fear from the conversation, another small part feels relieved of the burden of carrying such a secret alone.

“And for the record, you’re not the only one who grew up in a homophobic household and had to work through some shit,” Ginny tells him with a pointed look.

Malfoy looks at her and scoffs. He highly doubts the Weasleys, of all people, weren’t accepting of her sexual preference, considering how progressive they are.

“Not me, idiot. Harry. Coming out wasn’t easy for him either.”

“If he came out that would be national news,” Draco says automatically. He knows this well enough since he himself could have written that exposé years ago.

“I mean when he came out to us, to his friends and family,” she explains in an exasperated tone. “You’re not the only one struggling with their sexuality, and you jerking him about and fucking with his head while you figure it out isn’t doing him any good.”

“I didn’t—I’m not—that was never my intention,” Draco stutters out. On top of everything else making Draco feel like shit rests the heavy weight of guilt for hurting Harry, and Ginny’s words only serve to make that weight heavier.

“I know,” Ginny says gently. “Look, you may be a prick, but you’re my friend too, and I want you both to be happy.”

Draco laughs hollowly. He doesn’t know what it would mean to be happy anymore.

Ginny is quiet, watching Draco trying to process the conflicting storm of emotion inside him. Eventually she asks, “Are you going back to Harry?”

“I don’t know.” Draco isn’t sure if Ginny means to go back to Harry for the article, or to go back to him. Either way he doesn’t have the answer.

He thinks about the lecture his father gave him last night on carrying on their lineage and maintaining the proper Malfoy image by avoiding bad influences and ‘abnormal’ people like Ginny and Luna. He wonders what his father would think if he knew how often Draco frequented Muggle clubs with Ginny and her friends.

“I have to marry Greengrass,” he tells her, and her eyebrows jump up in surprise. “I’m the last Malfoy—it’s my duty. I have to marry her and keep the Malfoy house pure.”

Ginny watches him thoughtfully and asks, “Do you?”

– o –

Draco doesn’t remember how much he drank. His first stop after getting home was his liquor cabinet, and now he’s somehow ended up half-naked, sprawled across the couch in his living room cradling a bottle of whiskey.

He downs another shot to chase away the thoughts swimming around his head, but no matter what he does, it seems everything always leads him back to Potter.

Draco can’t stop hearing Ginny’s voice in his head, asking him, ‘Do you?’

“Yes, I bloody do!” Draco yells at his empty living room.

They all keep saying how easy it is. First Potter, now Ginny. But they don’t know. They don’t understand what it means to be Draco Lucius Malfoy, sole heir of the Malfoy house and the only one capable of carrying its legacy into the future.

Draco can’t do whatever he wants with his life. He can’t quit his job just because he doesn’t like it, and he can’t dance with a man at a club as if it were normal—as if it were acceptable for him to behave in such a way.

Draco can’t let himself feel or experience such a thing again because it’s not in the cards for him. Draco must produce an heir for the Malfoy name to continue, so he must marry a woman, and his father is getting everything arranged for that to happen. Soon Draco will have to marry one of the Greengrass girls, and he must be able to do his duty to his family.

Draco tries to imagine what it would be like, being with a woman. He hasn’t entertained such thoughts since his experimental phase after hitting puberty, but if he wants to be able to perform he’s going to have to try. So he does.

Draco slips his hand into his pants and starts touching himself, slow at first, trying to build up his interest. He tries to imagine Daphne Greengass naked and posed provocatively, but that feels strange to him since she was in his grade and friends with Pansy. Sometimes she’s there when Pansy invites friends over, and Draco might have a hard time looking her in the eye if he masturbated to her.

He switches gears and tries instead to think of her sister, Astoria. Draco doesn’t know her nearly as well and the distance makes him feel a bit less uncomfortable with it.

So he tries. He tries to imagine her naked, what it might feel like to touch her. Draco wraps a hand around himself and tries to get himself fully hard, but minutes tick by without any feelings of desire.

Eventually Draco tries to locate his wand and curses several times before managing to dig it out of the robes he’d discarded on the floor. He conjures some lubricant and tries again, tries harder, pumping himself faster and closing his eyes tightly, really trying to get himself going by imagining having sex with her.

He tries and he tries, but he can’t get enough pleasure built up to get off. He gets frustrated after a while, wanting to come. He wishes he could just come, and he tries to keep thinking about Astoria, but he starts to slip up.

Brown hair turns black, and Draco feels a frisson of heat roll through him. He tries to course-correct and change the hair back to brown, but a memory slides into his mind of green eyes watching him and his fingers twisted a messy head of black hair bobbing over his crotch. Astoria’s pale skin takes on a darker tone, her shoulders turn broad, and Draco’s hand speeds to chase the pleasure finally curling through him.

Another image of Harry flashes behind his eyes, his body stretched across his bed, flushed and sweaty, eyes warm and half-lidded, lips tilted in a crooked, satisfied smile.

Draco comes. He tips his head back as he moans. His toes curl, and he pumps himself through it.

The high of orgasm is far too brief, and it’s swiftly blown away by a cold gust of shame and guilt that sweeps through him. Draco cleans himself up and drags himself into bed, dutifully trying to ignore the emotions constricting his chest.

– o –

Draco spends much of the next day in bed, pretending like none of his troubles exist. He barely manages to drag himself to the Portkey Office before it closes and get himself transport back to Italy. The wrenching sensation of the Portkey makes him lose the contents of his still touchy stomach upon landing.

He’s not particularly excited to speak with Potter again after how their last conversation went, but he’s stuck between a rock and Harry Potter. If Draco doesn’t go back, then he’ll certainly lose his job, which his father will not be pleased with because it will ruin his plans. If he goes back to Potter, then he’s going to have to apologise and try to get on his good side in order to keep a job he doesn’t even like.

Draco checks into the same hotel as before, and he spends a good half hour working up the courage to leave it. By the time he forces himself to shift to his Animagus form and fly out to Potter’s cabin, it’s near sunset and Potter is already gone, but he has a good guess of where he’ll be.

When he gets to the meadow at the top of the hill, sure enough there is Potter, sitting amongst the wildflowers feeding a family of rabbits out of his hands. Draco wastes no time, landing several feet away and shifting back to human.

The rabbits jump at the sight of him and scamper away, but Potter doesn’t seem startled by Draco’s appearance. He brushes his hands off and looks to Draco expectantly.

When he hesitates too long in saying anything, Potter speaks first. “I didn’t think I’d see you again.”

“Is that what you were hoping for?” Draco asks before he can stop himself.

Potter appears to think about it before he answers honestly, “I don’t know.”

Draco purses his lips and looks away, watching the sun sink to the horizon. The way Potter is looking at him makes him feel naked and vulnerable, which makes him want to lash out to make Potter stop doing it.

Potter sighs and looks away of his own accord. “Why bother coming back if you don’t even want to be here?”

“Because I need to,” he says.

“For your story,” Potter says, voice flat.

“Yes.”

Potter’s expression hardens, and Draco’s stomach twists. He never wanted to become the kind of person that used Potter for their own gain. There were plenty of those about and Draco assumed he’d have to become one of them when he first started on the Potter column, but after befriending him, Draco knew he didn’t need to be like that. But now here he is.

Draco thinks about Ginny’s words, telling him how he messed with Potter’s head and jerked him about. He knows he won’t get anywhere with Potter if he can’t swallow his pride now, so he does.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly, and Potter turns a surprised look on him. “For last time. And for everything. I never meant to hurt you.”

Potter watches him in stunned silence.

Draco licks his lips nervously and looks away from him. “What—what happened back then. I just—I can’t,” he says, twisting his hands in his robes and fighting the sensation twisting at his stomach.

After a long pause, Potter blinks, takes in a slow breath and says, “Okay.”

“Okay?” Draco parrots, his brows furrowing in frustration. He was expecting more than an ‘okay.’ He was at least expecting Potter to apologise for their last argument as well.

“Yeah, I accept your apology,” Potter says. “Even if you were grinding your teeth the whole time.”

Draco frowns. “I wasn’t—” He cuts off with a screech and jumps a foot in the air when he feels a hot puff of breath on his ear and something soft and warm bump against his neck.

Whipping around, Draco sees Potter’s flying horse stood behind him, head high and ears raised in alert, looking surprised by Draco’s response.

Draco’s heart is hammering in his chest, and he puts a hand over it as he pants and takes a couple steps back from the creature.

A peal of laughter breaks the tense moment, and Draco looks over to find Potter clutching his stomach and guffawing.

“You knew that was going to happen!” Draco accuses, pointing a finger at him.

Potter shakes his head and tries to deny it, but he can barely get the words out. He wipes a tear from his eye and says between laughs, “How—how did you not—how did you not hear a sixteen hand Aethonan walking up on you?”

“I was a little distracted!” Draco says defensively, and Potter laughs more.

“Oh my gods,” he gasps and tries to get the laughter under control with deep breaths.

Draco glares at him, but he gets distracted from being irritated with Potter when the horse takes another step toward him. The creature reminds him far too much of the Hippogriff from third year, and Draco takes a step back.

“Relax, he’s not going to hurt you,” Potter says, winding down to a chuckle and appearing unconcerned with his large, intimidating pet trying to get close to Draco.

“Are you certain? I think it was aiming to bite my ear off.” The horse certainly looks capable of violence. Its white coloured face looks like a skull and its pale blue eyes are unsettling.

“He did not,” Potter scoffs and rolls his eyes. “He just wants to greet you. Let him smell your hand.”

Draco looks to Potter, who gives him an encouraging nod, before he swallows and gingerly puts a hand out towards the winged horse.

It takes a step forward and puts its nose above Draco’s hand, and its large nostrils expand and contract as it smells him. Its soft lips begin to wiggle over his fingers, pulling at them, and Draco tenses in preparation for a bite. Instead, what he gets is a large tongue running over his palm.

“Urgh,” Draco groans and pulls his hand back. He makes a face as he wipes the saliva off on his robes and mutters, “What is it with animals slobbering on me.”

He looks to Potter and finds him with an amused smile, giving Draco a curious look, clearly wanting to know more about his comment.

“Nothing,” Draco dismisses. “Your pet is disgusting.”

“His name is Clarence.”

“Clarence? Who names a horse Clarence?” Draco asks incredulously.

“The breeder who named him,” Potter says with a small, cheeky smile, and Draco rolls his eyes.

Seemingly impatient with not getting more attention, the creature—Clarence—takes another step forward, twitches his wings and bumps his nose into Draco’s shoulder. Its large head is heavier than Draco expects it to be, and he stumbles back a step, not prepared for the force of it.

“Merlin,” Draco mutters, putting up his hands defensively.

“He just wants attention, pet his nose,” Potter tells him.

Draco hesitates, then he reaches up and delicately brushes his fingertips against its muzzle. Clarence pushes his nose up into Draco’s hand fully, and Draco rubs down its nose. It’s softer than he expects.

“I’m surprised you didn’t get a Hippogriff, since you had such an affinity with them,” Draco comments as he pets down the horse’s face.

Potter shakes his head and says, “Hippogriffs have the mind of a bird, not a horse, so they have no cow sense.”

“Cow sense?” Draco looks to him and raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” Potter says with a nod. “Some horses have a natural ability and desire to work livestock. Not all do though, and it’s hard to find working Aethonans in the UK. I got Clarence from a ranch in the States. They mix Quarter horses and Paints in with their Aethonans to make better work horses. It gives them cow sense and a calmer temperament than the Aethonans in Europe, which are just used for racing.”

Draco hums an interested note and looks back to Clarence. He does seem different from the lean, hot blooded Aethonans Draco remembers seeing the few times his father took him to the racing arena.

“Why would you need a flying horse with ‘cow sense’?” Draco asks. “Are you here to herd flying cattle?”

Potter snorts out a laugh. “No.”

Draco pauses a beat, giving him a moment longer to expand on that, before saying, “Still not going to tell me why you’re here then, Potter?”

“Back to last names, are we?” Potter deflects with his own question.

Draco glances away and lifts one shoulder carelessly.

Potter’s mouth tips up into a crooked smile. “You want a good story?” he asks.

“Obviously.”

“Then you should stay,” he says. “Why I’m here is less interesting than what I’m here for.”

“Which is?” Draco asks, intrigued.

“Stay a few days and see for yourself,” Potter says.

Draco sighs impatiently. Of course Potter isn’t going to make this easy for him. All the while, he’s barely noticed that he’s kept stroking the soft bridge of Clarence’s nose, who is standing in a relaxed posture, soaking up the attention.

“Good...horse,” Draco says awkwardly, giving it a last pat and stepping well away.

By now the sun has set and what remaining light left in the sky is quickly receding. Potter stands and brushes the grass off his arse.

“Come on, boy,” he says, and Clarence perks up and trots over to him. Potter mounts the winged horse, and Draco watches as they take flight, soaring up into the sky.

– o –

As Draco gets ready for bed back in his hotel, he reviews his conversation with Potter and considers the pros and cons of staying here. Maybe he can squeeze an answer out of Potter sooner and be on his way.

Deep down Draco wants to stay here and spend more time with him, but that would be a bad idea because he misses Harry, and seeing him again feeds that ache.

Draco misses getting lunch with Harry and bickering over unimportant things. He misses yelling at the horrid portrait of his great aunt in his house. He misses watching the dramatic reality shows about Muggles on his telly with Harry loudly judging him for it but watching with him anyway.

Most of all he just misses having Harry in his life. It made Draco feel like there was at least one part of his life that he had control of, one part where he was allowed to just be without worrying what he looked like or how his actions impacted the Malfoy name.

Draco remembers how easy it became, after they’d been friends for a while, and he falls asleep revisiting old memories.

Draco showed up to the crime scene as soon as he heard. He stood among the group of other reporters and looky-loos until Harry spotted him.

Harry’s face broke into a wide smile and he waved him over while calling out, “Draco!”

Draco had to remind himself that he was mad at him. “I told you I didn’t want any special hand outs from you,” he snapped upon approach.

Harry rolled his eyes. “It’s not a special hand out. I just happened to be in the same lift as Cuffe and put in a good word,” he said. “Why are you cross? You said you hated writing the gossip.”

“I do! But at least I’m capable of doing it with some level of integrity. You know Cuffe is going to send some twit to spy on you now and write trashy articles about your life,” Draco argued.

“They can try,” Harry said with a cocky smile.

Draco shook his head, but he couldn’t help the small chuckle he made at Harry’s response. “You’re an idiot,” he told him.

“And you’re a bad Slytherin,” Harry shot back, and Draco gasped in feigned offence. “What Slytherin wouldn’t want Harry Potter to put in a good word to get them a promotion?”

“The kind who thinks you’re an idiot. Besides, it’s not a promotion, it’s a department change.”

“Close enough. And is that really the best way to start your first day in crime reporting? Insulting the lead investigator?” Harry asked.

“Not normally,” Draco allowed, “but I have inside information that he enjoys it.”

Harry smacked Draco’s shoulder playfully. “Prat.”

Draco grins. “Go on then, what can you tell me about what happened? And make it a good one, it is my first day on the job.”

Draco waited until Harry was done processing the scene, then they went to lunch, bickering the whole time about where to go.

– o –

Draco returns early the next morning to find Potter eating breakfast in his rocking chair. He’s dressed casually in a purple flannel shirt and scuffed blue jeans, and he’s wearing socks but no shoes. Draco approaches hesitantly, feeling suddenly uncertain at the sight of him. Potter may have told him to stay, but he didn’t say anything about when or if Draco should visit him. But Potter looks unconcerned and waves him forward.

“Relax, have a seat,” he says and gestures to the porch steps. “I’m just finishing breakfast.”

“Alright,” Draco says and walks up to the cabin. Before sitting, he looks at the porch steps and brushes some dirt off them.

“I’m surprised you stayed. I wasn’t sure you would,” Potter says in a light, conversational tone.

“I wasn’t sure either,” Draco says with a shrug. “But supposedly something interesting is going to happen here, which will make for a good story to send to my editor.”

“Yeah, but we both know patience isn’t one of your virtues.”

“So you’ll tell me what I’m here for and put me out of my misery?” Draco says with a smirk.

“And there it is,” Potter says and shakes his head, lips tilted in a small smile that he tries to hide behind a forkful of eggs.

Draco looks away from him, his eyes scanning the area and watching the pine trees gently waving in the morning breeze.

“Where’s your horse?” he asks.

“Aethonan,” Potter corrects him absently before answering, “He’s around here somewhere.”

“Somewhere looking to sneak up on me again?” Draco asks, giving the clearing around the cabin a suspicious sweep.

He hears Potter snort out a laugh and glances back to find him trying not to giggle. Draco makes an annoyed sound and looks away.

“Aren’t you worried about letting it roam freely?”

“Him,” Potter corrects him, a bit of irritation in his tone. “He’s not a thing, he’s a highly intelligent, living creature.”

Draco rolls his eyes but says, “Aren’t you worried about letting him roam freely?”

“No, we’re bonded. He’s not going to just fly away without coming back.”

“And you’re not at all concerned with Muggles spotting a winged horse flying about?” he asks.

“He wears a Notice-Me-Not charm,” Potter says blithely. “On the ground Muggles don’t notice his wings, and in the air they don’t notice him at all.”

Draco hums a mildly interested note.

Potter gets up from his rocking chair and takes his empty plate into the cabin. He comes back outside with his linen bag over his shoulder, and he slips on a pair of tennis shoes left out on the porch.

“Want to join me for a walk?” he asks as he leans over to pull up the backs of his shoes.

“Okay…” Draco agrees warily and stands. Perhaps now Potter will show him something interesting, something about whatever story he claims is happening here.

Potter trots down the porch steps and heads into the woods, and Draco follows after, keeping pace with him. It’s not difficult because Potter picks his way through the trees at a leisurely pace.

The first few minutes of walking are done in silence. Draco follows Potter’s path, careful not to trip over roots or rocks. The woods smell of pine and loam, and a cool morning breeze rustles through the branches, sending the dappled light on the forest floor skittering this way and that.

Potter stops every now and again to inspect and either toss or pick up nuts he finds along the way, stowing them in his bag.

Eventually Potter breaks the silence between them to ask, “Why are you doing this story, anyway? Are you not working crime anymore?”

“No, Cuffe took me off crime and put me on this because your replacement is an arrogant, pietistic little prick who won’t work with me,” Draco answers irritably.

Potter chuckles quietly and says, “And what about after this?”

“I don’t know, but Cuffe made it very clear that if I don’t come back with a story about you, I’m fired,” Draco tells him. “So are you going to help me?”

“I guess,” Potter says blandly, “if you’re really so keen on keeping your job.”

“I am.”

“For now,” Potter tacks on, and Draco frowns.

“What does that mean?” he snaps.

Potter sighs. “You think doing this article now will stop him from pulling more tricks like this to get you fired? You write this story and then what? Complete job security?”

“Perhaps it’ll remind him that I still have friends in high places,” Draco says waspishly. He knows how much Potter hates people using his name or an association with him to get better treatment, and he normally wouldn’t, but he’s feeling prickly because of Potter’s demeanour and the whole situation.

“Are we friends?” Potter asks, stopping and turning to look Draco in the eye. “Because this is the first time I’ve heard from you in three years, and I never even got a, ‘Hello, Harry. How are you?’ ”

“I don’t know,” Draco snaps and hunches his shoulders defensively. “We’re whatever you want us to be.”

Potter raises an eyebrow and has the gall to rake his eyes slowly down and back up Draco’s form in a suggestive manner that puts him even more on edge.

When Potter’s gaze meets Draco’s again, he holds it for a moment, reading Draco’s defensive expression, then he hums a neutral note and turns away, continuing on his path through the trees.

It goes quiet between them after that, and for a while all Draco listens to is the sound of birds singing, pine needles crunching under his feet, and his own breathing—focusing on them to calm himself down.

As Potter wanders on and on through the woods, Draco begins to wonder if there is any point to this. He assumed if Potter invited him along, that it would have some relevance to his purpose here, but now he’s not so sure.

Before Draco can ask the purpose of what they’re doing, Potter stops and inspects a fallen tree. It’s not especially large, and Potter easily lifts up one end as he looks at it. He takes out his wand and waves it at the tree, trimming off what dry branches are left on it and leaving only the trunk. He drops it and waves his wand several more times to chop the trunk up into several long logs, each about three feet in length.

When he’s done, he picks up two of the thinnest logs and hands them to Draco while saying, “Do you mind taking these?”

Draco automatically reaches for them, but then his brain catches up with what he’s doing and he retracts his hands as soon as Potter releases them. They fall to the ground at his feet.

Potter looks down at the logs, blinking a few times before looking up to Draco and saying, “Really?”

“They’re filthy,” Draco complains. “They’re covered in dirt and likely have insects crawling all over them.”

Potter gives him an incredulous look. “You’re outside. We are literally surrounded by dirt and insects.”

“That doesn’t mean I want to touch it. Or get it on my robes,” Draco says, crossing his arms.

Potter puts a hand over his face, but Draco can see how he’s fighting a smile and his chest shakes with suppressed laughter. He schools his expression and pushes his glasses up, shaking his head at Draco. “You’re such a ponce.”

Draco glares at him and purses his lips.

“Just levitate them if you don’t want to touch them,” Potter says, a small smile painting his features as he leans down and picks up the last three logs, putting the biggest one over one shoulder and the last two on the other. He turns and heads back toward the cabin.

Draco draws his wand and casts at the logs, levitating them and charming them to trail behind him, before he turns and follows after Potter.

Once they get back to the cabin, Draco directs his logs to land next to where Potter throws his.

“What is all this for, anyway?” he asks.

“Firewood,” Potter answers as he draws his wand and sections the logs off into smaller pieces.

“That’s it? All that and you’re just going to burn it?”

“That is normally the purpose of firewood,” Potter says. “Why? What do you do with it?”

“Do you have to be a sarcastic arse all the time?” Draco says, and Potter smirks. “I thought there was a purpose to all that, I thought we were doing something actually interesting!”

“Sorry, I didn’t realise you weren’t enjoying yourself. Would it be better if I sang a song while I did it?” Potter asks as he moves to the stump he used before as a chopping block, pulls his hatchet out of it and stands one of the logs on it.

“You told me there was some interesting story to be had here.”

“And you thought collecting firewood was it?” Potter asks, raising an eyebrow at him.

Draco plants his hands on his hips and fixes Potter with a glare. He can’t believe he’d almost forgot what a sarcastic little shit Potter can be. He can’t believe he’d missed what a sarcastic little shit he can be.

“You know what I mean.”

Potter drops his cheeky smile and says, “Yes, I told you to stay because there’s a more interesting story here than just an update on my life.”

“Why can’t you just tell me?” Draco demands.

Potter looks away and lifts one shoulder in a casual shrug. “It’ll be better if you see it for yourself.”

Draco releases a long suffering groan.

“Cheer up,” Potter tells him. “A few days away from the city, breathing fresh air and taking in that view won’t hurt you.” He gestures to the jagged mountains behind him.

“No, it’s certainly not the view making me feel homicidal,” Draco grumbles.

He watches as Potter, wearing a smirk, pulls up the hatchet and swings it down onto the log, splitting it in half. He splits those halves in half before putting a new log on the stump and doing the same with it. Draco crosses his arms over his chest as he watches him, annoyed with himself that he finds the action attractive.

“Why are you doing it like that?” Draco asks to distract himself.

“I enjoy it,” Potter says between swings.

“It’d be much easier with a Diffindo,” he tells him.

“I don’t want easy.”

“Why ever not?” Draco asks sceptically.

Potter pauses in his task long enough to look at Draco as he says, “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”

Draco blinks and knits his brow in confusion. “What’s that nonsense?”

Potter sighs and sets the head of the axe on the stump, leaning on it and explaining, “It’s a quote from Jerzy Gregorek. He’s a weightlifter. A Muggle athlete who battled alcoholism to become a world champion in his sport. It means if you make the hard decision now, it’ll make your life easier later.”

“And chopping wood like a Muggle will somehow make your life easier?”

“Yes, it gives me strength, helps keep me fit and healthy. I also just enjoy it,” Potter says, impatience working its way into his tone. “You could try it, you know—help out.”

Draco looks at the hatchet and raises an eyebrow. “You want me to help?”

“Sure,” Potter says with a nod.

“Alright,” Draco says, drawing his wand and slicing it at the pile of uncut wood. “Diffindo.”

The logs far apart into perfectly sliced pieces, and Draco smirks at Potter, who purses his lips and exhales an annoyed sigh through his nose.

“There, I helped,” Draco says, putting his wand away with a flourish. “Quite easily. And I really don’t see how that will make my life more difficult.”

Potter shakes his head and grabs his hatchet, swinging it up and bringing it down to bury it back in the stump. “Make fun if you want,” he says, “but maybe if you stopped being a prick for two seconds you could learn something from it.”

“What does that mean?” Draco snaps.

“You know what it means,” Potter says, irritably brushing a loose lock of black hair from his eyes and giving Draco far too intense of a look.

“I am not making ‘easy’ decisions,” Draco snarls. “You think there’s anything easy about my fucking life?”

“Blindly following your father’s orders instead of finding your own path is making the easy choice,” Potter says flatly. “Standing up to him is the difficult choice, but it will make you a lot happier in the long run to be who you are and not who he wants you to be.”

“Shut up! You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Draco yells, feeling sick and tired of everyone questioning his decisions.

“Yes I do! I know just as well as you what it means to hate yourself for being who you are, and I also happen to know you a hell of a lot better than you think I do,” Potter argues fiercely. “So stop acting like you’re the only person in the world with problems!”

– o –

Draco paces his hotel room in a fury.

“Fucking Potter,” he spits. “He has no idea what it means to be me. He was raised by fucking Muggles, what does he know?”

Draco diligently tries to ignore memories of hours spent with Potter, talking to him, describing his life, pouring his heart out about how trapped he feels by it.

“Shouldn’t one of the photographers be doing this?” Harry asked, leaning over Draco’s station in the darkroom and looking at the photograph developing in his shallow cauldron.

Draco laughed wryly. “Should be, except Cuffe never assigns me a photographer, so I have to do all of it myself. You never wonder why I’m the one taking your photos?”

“He really doesn’t like you, does he? What’s his issue?” Harry asked, looking up and watching Draco as he swirled the blue developing potion around its vial.

“Oh I don’t know,” Draco said sarcastically, “why does anyone hate me?”

“Because you’re a snobby, pretentious prat?” Harry said, lips turned up in a cheeky smile.

“Git.” Draco smacked his shoulder. “You’re in my way,” he added and hip checked him.

Harry stumbled a step to the side and laughed. Draco fought down a smile as he poured the potion into the cauldron and stirred the mixture with his wand. He felt Harry move into his space, leaning close as he watched the process over Draco’s shoulder. He ignored the way it gave him goosebumps.

Draco waited until the photograph developed and went through a full loop before he levitated it out of the cauldron and waved his wand over it to siphon off excess potion from its surface.

Harry moved out of the way when Draco took a step back to look between the five photographs floating side-by-side.

Draco hummed thoughtfully, gaze shifting between them all before he pointed to the second, a photo of Harry grinning as he carried a little girl on his shoulders across the finish line of the team race. “I like this one,” he said and turned to Harry. “What do you think?”

Harry looked between the photographs of himself, each playing out a small moment of his day spent hosting the fundraiser for his orphanage. Slowly he nodded and agreed, “Yeah, that one.”

Draco always let Harry choose which photograph he put in his articles. It was another small part of how he won Harry’s trust, by letting him have some control over what about him went into the papers.

This was the first time Harry ever joined him in the darkroom to see the photos get developed, and Draco took a moment to study his profile, lit by the red flames floating above them. They turned his eyes darker, put red highlights in his stark black hair and reflected in the lens of his glasses.

As if feeling his gaze, Harry looked over at him. Draco turned away and busied himself, vanishing the contents of his cauldron and collecting the photos.

“Very well,” he said, “I’ll send it along with my draft to Cuffe and it’ll be in tomorrow’s paper.”

“Why do you always give it to Cuffe? Doesn’t your department have an editor you should give it to instead of the editor-in-chief?”

“We do, but Cuffe’s orders are that all my drafts go straight to him,” Draco said sourly. “I suppose he wants to personally check my work, make sure I’m not sneaking in any Dark Arts propaganda.”

“You’ve been there for almost three years and he still doesn’t trust you?” Harry asked incredulously.

Draco smiled bitterly. “It’s not about trust. He’s never wanted me there, so I’m sure he’s still looking for any excuse to make my life harder. If my father hadn’t talked his way into getting me this job, I never would have done any of this. I wouldn’t be here.”

Harry gave a small nod of understanding—it’s not the first time Draco told him so.

Draco leaned back against the table, gripping the edge with both hands and staring into the dark corners of the room. “Sometimes I daydream about just walking out.”

“You should, if this isn’t what you want to do,” Harry said.

Draco huffed out a derisive laugh. “You make it sound so easy.”

“It’s not, but I’d support you.”

Draco raised a sceptical eyebrow. “What? You’d feed me? Let me live with you when I have no income and my father cuts me off from the family vault?”

“Yes,” Harry said without a second thought. It shouldn’t surprise Draco, he knew Harry’s devotion to his friends was indisputable, and yet his automatic willingness to do that for Draco still took him by surprise.

Draco watched him, painted strikingly in tones of red and black. Something about the quiet, dark surreality of the moment made him keep talking—made him feel safe to say things he wouldn’t otherwise.

Draco pushed himself up to sit on the edge of the table, dragging his feet on the floor as he swung his legs. “If it were simply a matter of money I would, but it’s not. It’s about doing what’s right for the family. Repairing our image after the War, bringing back our power and influence.”

When Draco was a child he idolised his father. He never thought that one day he’d resent him as much as he did then.

“I wish I’d never been born a Malfoy,” Draco said quietly, and Harry’s surprised expression kept him going. “As a child everyone told me how lucky I was to be a Malfoy—how privileged—and I believed it. And I am privileged in many ways, I know, but in the end it feels like it’s turned out to be more a curse than anything else. With Vol—” Draco couldn’t even speak his name.

He dropped his head, closed his eyes, and swallowed it down. “I was raised to become his tool in the War, raised to join his cause without question. Just like you were raised to be Dumbledore’s sacrifice. Now everything I am, everything I was taught feels wrong, and it feels like I’m stuck, like I’ve been stuck since the War—trapped by what I think I want versus what’s expected of me, like I’m surrounded by thorns and no matter which way I go I’ll end up bloody.”

He felt Harry’s shoulder press against him as he took a seat next to Draco. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I know it’s not easy, questioning your loyalties, questioning the people you thought cared about you,” he said gently and paused. “But don’t you think you’d be happier in the long run if you made your own choices about your life now?”

On some level he knew Harry was right, but he was scared to face his father’s wrath, to leave everything he’d ever known, and to give up everything he’d been promised as a child—money, power, influence, security, a legacy.

“I’m not trying to pressure you,” Harry continued. “I just want you to know that if you do ever decide to tell your father to shove it, then you’ve got me. You’ve got a support system to help you.”

Harry put a hand on Draco’s knee and squeezed gently. Draco looked up at him, holding his gaze a moment before settling his own hand over Harry’s. As Harry’s fingers spread, Draco’s filled the space between them and threaded them together.

For a moment, Draco felt the pressures of his life ease. Being next to Harry softened the briar thicket pressing in on him, pricking at his skin.

Draco sits on the edge of his bed and hunches forward, covering his face with his hands. His briar patch has turned to barbed wire, digging deeper into him the more he struggles, and he wishes he could have that feeling back of Harry’s steady presence easing the pain of its sting.

He knows Harry is right. Harry knows him better than anyone else because Draco allowed him to. He let him in, moment by moment, and allowed him to see the disaster that is his life—mistakes piled upon mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes involving Harry himself.

Draco laughs. It sounds strangled and manic, but it feels like the only thing he can do. Of course it’s his luck that right as his shitty life is reaching its pinnacle of shit and is balanced on the edge of no return, of course that’s when he would be forced to confront his worst regret—Harry Potter.

– o –

It takes hours, but eventually Draco gets up the nerve to return. No matter how much he tries to put it off, all roads lead to Potter.

By now the sun is setting, and Draco doesn’t bother to check the cabin, he knows where Potter will be.

He’s sat on the same hill as usual, watching the sunset with his knees pulled to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. His horse is lying in the grass next to him, and it raises his head to watch Draco’s approach. Potter, however, doesn’t move as Draco lands nearby and shifts back to human.

“Wasn’t sure I’d see you again.” His opening statement feels as if it’s become a regular greeting. Or maybe a bad habit.

“You know how stubborn I am,” Draco says. “I would think you’d stop being surprised by now.”

Potter shrugs. “I can’t be disappointed if I don’t expect anything.”

“Disappointed that I’d leave, or disappointed that I’d come back?” Draco asks before he can stop himself.

When Potter takes a second too long to respond, Draco forges on ahead, unable to let his anxiety over the answer build further.

“I’m sorry,” he begins, but Potter interrupts him before he can say anything else.

“No. I’m sorry. Your life is your own, and I realise that I shouldn’t be trying to tell you what to do with it. You already get enough of that from your father,” Potter says, his fingers clenching and pulling at the material of his jeans. “It’s just that I still… I can see you’re not happy and it bothers me.”

Draco’s throat constricts, and he tries to swallow down the emotions causing it. He forces a smirk onto his face and a casual tone into his words as he says, “You always were a meddler. Had to get yourself involved in any perceived injustice.”

Potter’s lips twist up in a half-second smile, there and gone again in the blink of an eye, and he drops his hands to the ground to rip up some grass. This is something else Draco remembers about Potter—he never could keep his hands still for long.

Draco takes a few steps closer. He looks at the ground, covered in grass and wildflowers. It’ll probably stain his robes, but after a brief hesitation, Draco sits down next to him. They watch the sun slowly sink to the horizon.

Eventually Draco breaks the silence. “I’ve been a prick about this,” he says. “Perhaps we can start over?”

“Yeah, you have been,” Potter says, glancing to him. “What do you suggest?”

“Well, perhaps I could say something like, ‘Hello, Harry. How are you?’ ”

Harry gives a short laugh. “I’m doing well, Draco. How are you?”

“I’m alright,” Draco says, returning Harry’s smile hesitantly. “I see you decided to grow a beard since I last saw you.”

“Yeah,” Harry says with a nod and a grin, rubbing one hand over his facial hair.

“I don’t think I’d ever have said this before, but it suits you. Really plays into the mountain man mystique you’ve got going on now.”

Harry laughs and says, “Thanks, I think.”

“And what have you been up to in the last three years?”

“Travelling, mostly. You?” Harry says, playing along almost as if they’re acting out a rehearsed scene.

“Work, mostly,” Draco says.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve come to see me,” Harry says, and the sentiment doesn’t sound fake, despite the conversation being contrived. “Are you planning on staying long?”

Draco fights down a smile at the words and says, “It looks like I’ll be here for a few days.”

“Good, maybe we’ll get a chance to catch up,” Harry says, and Draco nods.

Harry’s gaze moves away from him to watch the sun set fully over the horizon. It takes Draco a moment longer to tear his eyes away from the lines of Harry’s face, softened by a sense of contentment that Draco has seen more of in the last few days than he ever saw in the four years they were friends. The mountain man mystique really is a good look on him.

After the sun is gone, and the light in the sky is almost faded, Harry stands and brushes the grass from the seat of his jeans, and Draco does the same.

“I need to check the wards on the mountain, do you want to ride out with me?” Harry asks as he takes off his glasses and cleans them on his shirt.

“Wards?” Draco echoes curiously.

“Yeah,” Harry says, without offering any further explanation.

“Ride?” Draco repeats more hesitantly, looking to the black Aethonan as it stands and shakes itself out. “On him?”

Harry nods and slides his glasses on, but after seeing Draco’s hesitation he offers, “Or you could fly yourself.”

“Okay,” he agrees, desperately curious to find out what Harry is up to.

Harry straightens his saddle and tightens the front and back cinches before he mounts. He glances to Draco and clicks his tongue to get his horse moving. It runs a few paces, spreads its wings and glides up into the air. Draco shifts and takes flight quickly to catch up.

Thankfully, Harry leaves off with the tricks and speed flying tonight, leading them at a moderate pace up to the nearest jagged mountain range of the Dolomites. The air becomes colder and thinner the higher they get, but it’s not a terribly long trip.

Harry flies around several of the pale peaks, not dismounting when he pulls out his wand and casts at them. Each time a blue rune appears on the stone face and glows so bright they’re nearly white before fading and becoming invisible once more. Nothing particularly interesting happens, but Draco watches intently, filing away another piece of the puzzle.

When they get back to the cabin, Harry’s hair is windblown and his cheeks are red. Draco tries not to find it endearing.

“You hungry?” Harry asks, rubbing his hands together to bring some warmth back to them. “Was thinking about making a fire tonight and roasting some bratwurst. You’re welcome to stay and join me.”

Draco hesitates. He didn’t come here expecting to hang out with Harry, but he could see how easy it would be for them to fall back into their old routines. A large part of him misses Harry, regardless of how things ended up between them, and he wants that old, familiar comfort of his company.

He also tells himself that if he stays perhaps he could get some information out of Harry about the wards on the mountains, so he nods and agrees to stay.

Harry tells him to get comfortable and waves vaguely to the fire pit, which has no seating around it, unless Harry is counting a large log sat upright. The thing is weathered grey with age and the top where it was cut is smooth from years of use. Draco doesn’t count it, and he conjures a comfortable chair beside it for himself.

Draco watches Harry curiously as he removes the tack from Clarence piece by piece. Once it’s all off, Harry gives his shoulder a pat and strokes down his back as Clarence moves off to a patch of grass.

That done, Harry works on getting a fire started. He brings over some logs to toss in the pit, and Draco feels a small stab of guilt at seeing his perfectly cut logs, knowing he was intentionally being a prick when he cut them earlier, but Harry makes no comment about it.

He lights them with his wand and leaves, going into the cabin, soon after bringing out a package of bratwurst, rolls, and two long metal skewers. He plunks himself down on the fat log, sets it all down next to himself, and offers one of the skewers to Draco.

Draco accepts it, inspecting the end for cleanliness. It has some bits of charcoal on it that he gets rid of with a quick, nonverbal Scourgify. He can see Harry shake his head and fight down a smile, but he makes no comment.

The sky is pitch black at this point, and Harry is lit only by the light of the fire in front of them, casting his features in warm tones and setting the rest in deep shadows.

“So, these wards on the mountains,” Draco begins as Harry hands him the package of bratwurst. Draco takes one out and sticks it on the end of his skewer, like Harry did with his own, and holds it near the fire.

“Yeah?” Harry says when Draco doesn’t immediately follow up his thought.

“They’re here to...protect this area?” Harry nods. “And you maintain them?” Harry nods again. “Year-round?”

Harry shakes his head this time. “No, Spring is most crucial, that’s when I spend the most time here. But I check on them a few times throughout the year as well.”

“What’s the point of them?” Draco asks more directly, turning his bratwurst over so it doesn’t burn.

There’s a pause before Harry answers, as if he’s thinking about how much he wants to give away, which irks Draco.

“There’s a lot of magic in this area, the wards are to keep out thieves and Dark Arts practitioners who would steal it,” Harry says.

Draco hums a curious note. “So you’re acting as some sort of guardian?” he asks, and Harry nods. “And it has something to do with the beasts here.”

Harry looks surprised by Draco’s assumption and says, “Yeah. How did you know?”

“Well, I assume you’re not taking the role of the fairy tale princess, feeding and frolicking with the wildlife for no reason.”

Harry laughs and nods. “Yeah, it’s sort of part of the job. Historically these mountains always had a magical guardian to keep the Muggles and poachers away. A lot of the wildlife recognise me as holding that position and are drawn to me. I offer them food to establish my role as guardian here.”

“Why are you doing it? Sounds like a job someone else should have,” Draco says, resisting the temptation to pull out his notepad and quill.

“The Strega maintained this area for centuries, but now there’s very few left and they’re spread too thin to cover every area in need of their services,” Harry explains. “And the local authority didn’t want to take up the mantle, since they have other work to do. Hagrid did it for years, but I offered to take over because it was hard to balance with his teaching schedule.”

While Harry’s talking and not paying attention, his bratwurst lights on fire. He makes a distressed noise when he notices and quickly swishes it back and forth to put it out. He pouts as he examines his charred bratwurst, and Draco laughs.

Harry pulls his bratwurst off the skewer and puts it in a bun, and Draco does the same soon after, once his is perfectly cooked all around. They go quiet as they eat, listening to the crackle of the fire and the crickets chirping in the night around them. Harry hands him another bratwurst and they both cook and eat a second. Conversation doesn’t immediately resume once the food is gone, and Draco looks up into the night.

The sky is perfectly clear, and the stars are shining brighter than Draco’s ever seen them. He can even make out the Milky Way. He spends long minutes staring at it, finding it difficult to look away, and he realises that he’s never before seen it so close and so clear.

When he finally manages to tear his eyes away from the mesmerising heavens, he finds that Harry is watching him. He holds his gaze for a moment and then looks away, staring into the fire instead because it makes for a far less dangerous target to focus on. His heart rate picks up speed as he builds up the courage to speak.

“Why are you doing this?” he asks, not brave enough to look Harry in the eye as he does. “Why are you...talking to me? Feeding me? I would’ve thought the last thing you’d want is to drag this out. I thought you would be more angry.”

Harry is quiet before asking in return, “Is that why you tried to spy on me instead of just saying what you needed upfront?”

Draco’s cheeks burn in shame, but he answers honestly, “Yes.”

Harry draws in a long breath and lets it out slowly. When Draco chances a glance at him, he finds that Harry’s looking into the fire now instead of at him.

“It’s not that I’m not mad at you with how things went down back then, because I am,” he begins slowly, “but I also haven’t seen you in three years, and I don’t know when I’ll see you again, so I’m willing to put it aside for a few days. Plus you apologised, even if it doesn’t make up for everything.”

The answer takes him by surprise, and Draco can’t figure out a proper response other than staring at Harry with his brows knitted in confusion.

Harry glances at him, catching his expression, and he hurries to say, “I promise I won’t—I’m not going to try anything. I’d just like to be able to put that all behind us and be able to spend some time with you again. As friends.”

Draco isn’t sure how he feels about Harry being so willing to put aside his grievances to spend a little time with him, so he handles it like he usually does, which is to deflect with snarky humour. “Don’t lie Potter, you’re just lonely out here, aren’t you? Desperate for any company that you can have an actual conversation with since you fell off the map.”

Harry gives a half-hearted laugh and says, “It’s not as if I disappeared. I visit home frequently.” While he says it, he picks up a long, smooth stick, thick enough to be sturdy, that’s sat outside the fire pit and uses it to shift the logs about.

“How frequently?” Draco asks, surprised by the information. His understanding was that Harry left the country and almost never visits.

“Usually between each job, if I have time,” Harry says with a shrug. “Which means every few months or so. I spent three weeks with Ron and Hermione after Rose was born. Before that I was in town for the winter holidays.”

“But you’re never in the papers,” Draco says, confused.

“I keep a low profile while I’m in England. You know how much I hate the attention.”

“Weasley never mentioned it,” Draco says, and Harry looks away, his mouth twisted into a sheepish smile. “You told her not to, didn’t you?”

Harry shrugs with feigned nonchalance and runs a hand through his long hair. “I figured that’s how you’d want it.”

Draco chews on his lip and ignores the way his stomach twists itself into knots. He pauses for a long moment.

“I’m—I’m supposed to marry one of the Greengrass girls.” The words come tumbling out of him. “Father has it all arranged, apparently.”

Perhaps it’s the orange light of the fire highlighting Harry’s features and casting the rest in black with the both of them sat in a dark space by themselves, bringing back that safe sensation of being alone in the darkroom with him where Draco could say anything, which makes him say it.

Harry’s hand freezes, stopping his prodding at the fire. After a second it resumes, and he asks in a flat tone, “Which one?”

“I’m not sure,” he says, shaking his head and turning his gaze to the embers glowing at the bottom of the fire. “I’m supposed to begin the courtship process next week, so I guess I’ll find out then which one my father negotiated for.”

Draco’s not sure why he tells him. Part of him just wants Harry to know.

Harry hums an unhappy note, but he doesn’t say anything. He keeps his eyes fixed on the campfire as he stabs it with his stick, brows drawn and mouth pinched.

They fall into silence. Both of them watch the fire as it eats through the logs, slowly turning them into a pile of embers.

The wind feels colder as it cuts through the trees and blows over his robes. The heat of the fire isn’t enough to keep all of Draco warm, and he tries to rub the chill from his arms.

The shadows of the surrounding trees nearly blend into the dark sky, becoming harder to distinguish as the fire goes down, and they slowly start to feel less welcoming the deeper into the night they get.

When Draco feels able to break himself from staring into the entrancing glow of the coals, he stands and says, “It’s late, I should get back to my hotel. Thank you for the food.”

“Anytime,” Harry says easily. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Draco echoes.

– o –

The next morning Draco finds Potter grooming his horse.

“G’morning,” Potter says, and Draco returns the greeting. “Want to join in?”

“Join in on brushing your horse?” Draco asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Aethonan,” Potter corrects him and holds a stiff brush out to him. “Yeah, brush him. Create some positive association.”

“I don’t know,” Draco hesitates, looking to Clarence, who is staring at him with his creepy blue eyes. “I’m not good with animals.”

“Maybe you would be if you actually spent some time with them,” Potter says, waving the brush at him until he takes it. “And if you’re going to be hanging around, you may as well make yourself useful.”

Draco frowns, but he takes the brush. He takes a step closer to Clarence and brushes it lightly over his shoulder a couple times.

“Don’t think I don’t see your plan here, Potter. You only want me to stay so I’ll do your chores for you,” he tells him.

“You caught me,” Potter says, raising his hands in mock surrender. “I lured you here so I could have probably the worst maid in history doing my chores.”

“I’m not that bad at chores,” Draco argues, more because it’s automatic to do so than anything else. He’s not sure that he actually cares what Potter thinks of his cleaning skills.

Potter laughs. “You’re brushing him wrong. Give a short, firm brush and flick at the end to get the dirt out.”

Potter steps close to Draco’s side and puts his hand over Draco’s on the brush. He demonstrates the proper technique, directing Draco’s movements through a few brushes before letting him go and stepping back.

Draco ignores the fluttering in his stomach and continues brushing down the horse’s back. Clarence himself appears to be enjoying the process. His head and ears are low, his eyes are closed and his stance is relaxed, standing with one back hoof cocked and his weight shifted to the other hoof. He lifts his wing to allow Draco to brush under it.

Potter pulls out another brush works the other side of him as Draco brushes his way down Clarence’s back and returns to his neck and shoulder. He watches each puff of dirt drawn out by the brush, and it seems never ending. He’s surprised by how much there is and that the creature doesn’t appear dirty, as his coat is a stark, glossy black, despite all the dirt he keeps pulling out from it.

“Why don’t I just use a Scourgify? Otherwise, cleaning such a large beast will take hours,” he comments.

“Because if you so much as think about it, I will cast one on you first,” Potter threatens. “And I don’t think you’d enjoy that any more than he would.”

“I wasn’t going to,” he mutters and frowns. Draco is familiar with the feel of a Scourgify, and he would prefer not to experience the discomfort of its harsh scouring sensation and the way it leaves his skin pink and dried out. He supposes it mustn’t feel good to animals either.

Clarence turns his large head toward Draco, and Draco stops brushing him, tensing in preparation for...something, he’s not sure what. Clarence lifts his muzzle and merely sniffs at Draco’s cheek curiously, big nostrils flaring and contracting. He lifts his nose further to smell Draco’s hair, then lowers his head a little, bumping his lips against Draco’s nose.

He’s about to move away when Clarence puts his ears back and sneezes directly into Draco’s face.

Draco freezes. His eyes are squeezed shut, shoulders up and arms held stiffly at his sides. He can feel globs of snot spattered across his face, and he can hear Potter laughing nearby.

A small sound of distress squeaks out of him. He doesn’t know what to do, maybe it’ll all go away if he doesn’t move.

After a moment, he feels a cloth being wiped over his eyes, and Potter’s giggling sounds much closer. He blinks his eyes open to see Potter stood in front of him, biting hard on his bottom lip to fight a grin and trying not to laugh while his chest shakes with stifled laughter.

Potter has his sleeve pulled over his hand, and that’s what he’s using to wipe at Draco’s face. He runs it over Draco’s forehead and down each cheek before Draco pushes his hand away and vigorously wipes his face himself.

Potter has his lips pressed together, still trying not to laugh, and Draco shoves his shoulder. “I can’t believe you let him sneeze on me!”

“Right,” Potter says between laughs, unable to contain it. “Because I can control when he sneezes.”

Draco glares at him and Clarence both, not appreciating the sarcasm considering his traumatic experience.

“Relax, Draco,” Potter says, “you probably put too much product in your hair.” As if on cue, Clarence lifts his muzzle and lips at Potter’s hair, and Potter reaches back to rub its forehead.

“Your beast is disgusting,” Draco tells him.

Clarence stops nuzzling Potter’s head and looks at Draco right before he lifts his tail and defecates, further proving his point. Draco blanches and takes a step back.

“Maybe if you stopped insulting him, he would stop insulting you,” Potter suggests mildly, pulling out his wand and vanishing the pile of droppings.

The creature is watching Draco too intelligently, with its pale eyes and skull-like face, and it creeps him out. This is why Draco hates magical beasts—they’re far too clever for their own good.

“I told you I’m not good with animals,” he says.

“Well, at least this one didn’t send you to Madam Pomfrey,” Potter quips, and Draco shoots him a sharp look, but it only makes Potter grin. “A little snot won’t hurt you.”

Draco begs to differ, and he tells Potter as much.

Potter rolls his eyes. “You could always apologise to him before he decides that he really doesn’t like you.”

The thought makes him grimace, but Potter raises his eyebrows at him expectantly. Draco supposes that if he’s going to spend more time around the horse, then perhaps Potter’s right, and he should try to stop the situation before it gets worse.

“I apologise, Clarence,” Draco says stiffly, “for any insult I made to your...character.”

Potter huffs out an exasperated sound, but he looks at Clarence and says, “What do you think, boy? Maybe he isn’t such a git?”

Clarence pricks his ears forward toward Draco and nickers, and Potter gives a satisfied nod at that.

“Okay, if we’re all done here, then I’m going to go take a shower,” Draco says impatiently.

“Sure,” Potter says dismissively and turns away to continue the grooming session.

Draco shifts to his Animagus form and flies back to his hotel room at top speed, itching to wash himself off.

– o –

When Draco returns that night, he arrives in time to fly up to the meadow beside Potter, his horse flying circles and doing tricks around Draco playfully, and despite earlier events, Draco finds himself drawn into the fun and pulls a few stunts in the air himself. Although Draco has the capability to fly, he realises that he only ever uses it for practical purposes, and he never simply flies for the fun of it.

As they watch the sun set across the valley, a family of rabbits approaches and Potter gets Draco to join in feeding them. He talks him through the process, keeping him calm and quiet. In the end, Draco does feel a sense of satisfaction at getting the timid creatures to trust him enough to eat from his hand.

After the rabbits and the sun are gone, Potter stands and prepares to do his nightly rounds of the wards. Before mounting Clarence, he looks to Draco and asks if he’d like to fly with them again. Draco shrugs and agrees.

“How about riding with us this time?” Potter suggests, and Draco furrows his brow uncertainly.

“You mean ride on him?” he asks, tipping his head toward Clarence.

“Yeah,” Potter says with a nod. “Come on, give it a try, I promise it’ll be fun.”

Draco hesitates, eyeing the large creature and the saddle on its back, which is clearly only made to fit one person. “Is it safe?”

“Yeah,” Potter says, though he sounds anything but convincing. “What’s the worst that can happen? You fall off and shift into a bird.”

“I suppose…” he says warily.

“Great,” Potter says brightly and turns to Clarence. He puts a foot in the stirrup and swings himself up into the saddle. Once he’s situated, he looks back to Draco and holds a hand down to him.

Draco approaches cautiously, watching the Aethonan for any sign that he’ll take off and dump Draco on his arse, but Clarence stands quietly. Draco takes Potter’s hand, puts his other behind the saddle, and with Potter’s help, he hoists himself up.

Draco’s heart speeds with nerves when he thinks about what he’s doing. He’s never ridden any magical beasts, only a broom, which he had control over. Being on a creature with a mind of its own makes this experience feel much more dangerous. Even if he can shift into his Animagus form at any time, the idea of falling off isn’t pleasant. They aren’t even in the air yet and already Draco feels too far from the ground.

Potter casts a Warming Charm over them before asking over his shoulder, “Ready?”

Draco doesn’t feel ready. He scoots closer to Potter and grabs onto the cantle of the saddle like it’s a handlebar and nods. Potter kicks Clarence into action and they speed forward before the Aethonan spreads its large wingspan and sends them up into the air.

As the ground drops out beneath them, taking his stomach with it, Draco’s hold on the back of the saddle feels far too inadequate, and he throws his arms around Potter and clings onto his t-shirt frantically. Most of Potter’s laughter gets lost to the wind rushing past them, but Draco can feel it shaking his chest now that he’s plastered to Potter’s back.

Potter doesn’t do any trick flying with Draco on board, they fly up to the mountains on an easy incline and at a moderate pace, but even so the experience is more exhilarating than Draco expects. Flying is something that’s been a part of him for most of his life, from when he got his first toy broom as a young boy to when he first achieved his Animagus at eighteen, but riding an Aethonan is different.

Draco has so little control of his own life that he’s not a fan of giving up control of the things he does have command of, like his own two feet—or his own two wings—but there is something thrilling about feeling the strength of the creature beneath him and letting it, and Harry, take the reins for a little while. It’s both terrifying and liberating to let go.

For a moment, Draco closes his eyes and lets himself have this—the wind rushing past him, the rhythmic up and down of Clarence’s wings, the warm tingling of Harry’s charm over him, and the familiar smell of Harry under his nose, warm and sweet and tinged with the new, foreign additions of pine and wood smoke.

By the time they get back to Harry’s cabin, Draco is surprised by how much he enjoyed the experience, and he’s almost sorry to dismount and have it end. He thinks he has a better understanding now of why Harry has an Aethonan, and maybe why he liked that Hippogriff back at school.

Based on the satisfied look on Harry’s face, he knows exactly what Draco is feeling. As he begins to untack Clarence, starting with his bridle, Draco moves to the horse’s front.

“Thank you, Clarence,” Draco says, the words coming out clunky. “I appreciate you not dropping me.” He feels awkward saying it, but it seems like the right thing to do. He gives Clarence a couple quick pats on his nose.

Before he can fully take his hand away, Harry grabs his wrist and pulls his hand to Clarence’s neck, directing it over the soft fur there.

“Give him a real pet,” Harry says with a smile in his voice. “He loves a good scratch on his chest too.” After a couple of up and down motions, he drops Draco’s wrist.

The Aethonan’s chest currently has a breast collar over it, but Harry is already working on taking it off. Once it’s gone, Draco reaches down tentatively and scratches at his chest. The effect is immediate; Clarence’s head droops a little more, his eyelids lower, and his lips start wiggling in contentment.

Everything about his expression and posture looks relaxed, and seeing it now Draco starts to think that maybe the Aethonan doesn’t look so creepy after all. He also realises that this is the only positive interaction he’s ever had with a magical beast. When Draco drops his hand, Clarence lifts his nose and bumps his lips against Draco’s cheek.

“Okay, no sneezing, no sneezing, good boy,” Draco mutters, reaching up and giving its nose a pet while pushing it away from him. He strokes down his face a couple more times before stepping away.

Once Harry is done removing his tack, Clarence walks off to a patch of grass. Harry prepares to start another fire in the fire pit.

“You want to stay again?” he asks casually as he arranges the logs to his liking.

Draco bites his lip. He should probably say no, but he’s weak. He’s drawn in by the desire to share another meal with Harry, to look at the stars and watch the campfire slowly burn itself out.

“Sure,” he hears himself say.

Draco conjures a new chair and settles in to watch Harry light the fire and prepare a meal in a heavy, cast iron pot he levitates over the fire, some sort of bean and meat mixture.

Draco closes his eyes, feeling the goosebumps raising over his arms from the tingle that races across his skin at the juxtaposition of the warmth of the fire and the chill of the cool night breeze. He breathes in the thick smell of smoke and the contrasting clean pine scent of the trees around them. The fire hisses and pops, and the flickering flames create a warm orange light behind his eyelids.

When Draco opens his eyes he finds that Harry has settled in next to him on the large log seat, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees with a reflection of the fire dancing across the surface of his glasses.

“Do you know the legend of the Pale Mountains?” Harry asks him, and Draco shakes his head. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Sure,” Draco says and leans back to lessen the heat on his face as it becomes almost too much.

“The legend is about these mountains, the Dolomites are often called the Pale Mountains for their colour,” Harry explains.

Draco nods his understanding, and settles in to hear the tale, relaxing further into the soft cushions of his chair and looking to the outline of the mountains cutting into the night sky.

“It’s said that they weren’t always that way,” Harry begins. “Many years ago there was a prince who lived in these lands. The prince had everything, but he was unhappy. He desperately dreamed to journey to the moon but despaired that he never would.

“He wandered these hills and forests in search of a way to travel there. One night he got lost in the woods and happened across a pair of old men. They claimed to be from the moon, and the Prince pleaded with them to take him there. Eventually they agreed, and the Prince finally got his lifelong wish.

“He brought with him a gift of red rhododendrons, which he presented to the moon princess. Everything on the moon was stark white, including their flowers, and the princess adored her colourful present. They soon fell in love, and while the prince was thrilled with his life there, it couldn’t last.

“Everything on the moon was such a bright white that it was turning him blind. He couldn’t stay there if he wished to keep his eyesight, and so he left. Because the moon princess loved him she came with him down to Earth, bringing her own gifts for the land. One of which was the edelweiss flower, which she planted all along the mountains.

“At first the moon princess was happy on Earth with the prince, but eventually she became ill. She feared it was the dark mountains that affected her mood and health. The prince had to take her back to the moon, but he couldn’t stay with her lest he blind himself.”

Draco lets Harry’s softly spoken tale wash over him as he watches the pine needles ripple in the breeze and the shadows dancing around the flickering campfire. He has goosebumps on his arms, but he’s not sure they’re from the breeze anymore.

“More miserable than before, the prince left his kingdom in search of an answer that could keep him and his love together. In the woods he found a clan of dwarves who’d been kicked out of their kingdom. The king of the dwarves told the prince of their sad tale, and the prince told them of his.

“The Dwarf King became excited upon hearing the prince’s story and said that they could solve the prince’s problem, if in return they’d be allowed to make a new home in the prince’s kingdom. The prince agreed, and the dwarves got to work. They plucked the rays of the moon from the sky and wrapped them around the mountains like many strands of thread, imbuing the dark rock with the glowing light of the moon and changing the mountain into the bright colour we see today.

“The dwarves got a new home, and the prince was able to bring the moon princess back to Earth, where they lived happily thereafter beneath the Pale Mountains.”

They’re silent for a long moment after Harry finishes his tale, watching the fire and listening to the crickets chirping and the wind in the trees.

Eventually Draco asks him quietly, “Do you believe that?”

“I do,” Harry says with a small nod.

Draco looks over and catches his eye, curious to know his expression. His face looks warm from the fire and his expression is content.

“Maybe not that exact version. That’s the tale the Muggles here tell. The Strega have a slightly different version, that the moon princess was actually powerful witch who got her magic from the moon. They believe that she brought magic to the mountains and was its first guardian. She took a Muggle lover, a prince who ruled the valley, but she couldn’t stay with him forever. Eventually she had to leave the valley and return to the mountains. Supposedly the Prince gave up his crown to be with her.”

Draco hums a curious note and looks up to the sky, his eyes seeking out the waxing moon.

“Either way, I think it’s a nice tale of two people who, despite their differences and the obstacles in their path, found a way to be together,” Harry says and looks away from him, standing up to check on the food.

Draco bites his lips and twists his fingers in his robes, trying not to read too deeply into the tale or Harry’s comment.

They eat in silence and Draco stays for a while afterward. Their conversations are light, but Draco finds himself enjoying Harry’s company regardless, and he stays until the fire burns itself out.

– o –

The following day goes similarly.

At times Draco feels anxious when he stops and thinks about the days passing him by. The longer he waits, the closer he gets to his arranged courtship and the more likely Cuffe is to fire him regardless of what article he turns in. But the longer he’s out here, the further away those fears become. Sometimes London and his job and his family seem almost like a distant memory while he’s out here in the Italian countryside, taking in the smell of the pine trees, the wide blue sky above him, and the rocky peaks of the Pale Mountains standing tall above them like watchful sentries.

He has small moments of panic when these thoughts hit him, but then Harry will distract him with a funny anecdote about navigating a foreign country when he doesn’t speak the language, or Clarence will bump his shoulder or lip at his hair until Draco gives in and pets him.

Sometimes Draco will watch Harry as he goes about his routine, and he marvels at how different he is—how much more relaxed and happy. He’s envious of the peace Harry seems to have found for himself.

They while away the afternoon in a meadow, talking about anything and nothing in particular with Clarence grazing nearby and the calming sound of a spring babbling in the background. He watches the carefree way Harry makes a flower crown for himself out of the many colourful wildflowers around them.

Harry makes a sound of triumph once he finishes and settles it over his black locks with such pomp you’d think it was St Edward's Crown. Clarence notices this and comes over to investigate, lipping at Harry’s hair and crown.

“Not for you,” Harry tells him and pushes his nose away.

This only deters Clarence for a second, before he swings his nose back and plucks Harry’s flower crown off his head.

“Hey!” Harry yells and jumps to his feet. Clarence dashes away with the flower crown hanging out of his mouth and Harry chases after him.

They run circles around the meadow, before Clarence takes to the air and hovers out of Harry’s reach, looking pleased with himself. Harry stands under him, panting from the exertion, and plants his hands on his hips.

“Don’t make me come up there,” Harry warns him.

Clarence flicks his tail and bobs his head up and down, the crown swinging back and forth with the motion. Harry points a finger up at him and starts to say something right before Clarence releases the flower crown and it hits Harry square in the face, knocking his glasses askew.

Draco falls over in a fit of laughter, and he laughs so hard his stomach aches and tears collect in the corners of his eyes. When he’s able to look up he finds Harry staring dejectedly at his battered crown, glasses already righted, and it sends Draco into a fresh bout of raucous laughter.

“Oh my gods,” he gasps between laughter. “What a good boy, Clarence!”

Clarence neighs and lands next to Draco, plopping himself down into the grass next to him, and Draco doesn’t hesitate to sit up and reward his antics with petting and praise.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” Harry says and tosses the flower crown at Draco. It hits his cheek, but it only makes him laugh more.

“It’s alright, Potter,” Draco says around a grin, “I’m sure we can find other ways to make you pretty.”

He pats the spot of grass in front of himself. Harry hesitates, but he gives in and sits cross-legged where Draco indicates.

Draco picks up Harry’s sad looking flower crown and pulls a flower from it, then he reaches forward and sticks it into Harry’s beard.

Harry lifts his lips in a small smile, but it shows most clearly in his eyes. He sits patiently as Draco pulls more flowers from the crown and the flowers around them to decorate his beard.

“There,” he says when he’s done and Harry’s dark beard is adorned with an array of little white, yellow, and purple flowers. “Now you’re the most beautiful mountain man on the mountain.”

Harry laughs softly and reaches into the pocket on his flannel shirt, pulling out a small white flower. “You too,” he says and sticks it behind Draco’s ear.

Draco feels ridiculously pleased at the gesture and the brush of Harry’s fingers against his ear. He tries not to let it show in his expression, and he hopes Harry can’t hear the way his heart is thundering in his chest. It sounds so loud in his ears, he wonders that it can’t be heard rolling down the hills all the way into the valley.

– o –

Draco wakes the next morning to an owl at his window. He recognises his mother’s great grey owl and his heart sinks. He only then realises that it’s Saturday and he’s expected at dinner tomorrow night. Part of him wants to keep pretending that he doesn’t have a life and responsibilities outside this. He was just getting good at forgetting why he’s out here in the first place. But it has to end eventually.

He half expects the letter to be from his father—it wouldn’t be the first time he used his mother’s owl to make Draco more likely to read his letters in a timely fashion. To his surprise it is his mother. Her letter asks how he is and expresses an interest in having tea, just the two of them today.

He sighs and looks to the white flower sat on his bedside table, picking it up and twirling it in his fingers. It’s shaped like a multi-pointed star with a pale yellow centre. After a long moment of debate, Draco writes out a response to his mother. He tells her he’s well and apologises that he won’t be able to visit for tea before he sees her for Sunday dinner, as he’s out of the country working on his assignment. He wishes her well, signs the letter, and sends it back with her owl.

– o –

That night when he’s sat next to Harry at the fire after another day spent blissfully ignoring his responsibilities, he can’t help thinking about how eventually he has to return to London, and he wonders how Harry managed to escape it himself. He isn’t a Malfoy, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but a lot was expected of their saviour.

“Why did you leave?” Draco forces himself to ask once there’s a lull in their conversation.

At first Harry looks startled by the question, then his expression relaxes into something contemplative. “You really want to know?”

Draco swallows and nods, preparing himself for what he knows he’s going to hear. Harry left because of him. It’s one of the riddles he has to answer for his article, but he’s avoided asking him up until now because he didn’t want to hear the answer.

“The reason I left—the catalyst for it?” Harry says. “It was my owl getting doped with love potion.”

Draco blinks. “Your—what?”

Harry fights down a smile, shaking his head as he says, “Someone, some fan, sent me a box of sweets that were spiked with love potions. It wasn’t the first time, normally I just vanish the boxes as soon as I get them, but that morning I was late and in a rush. I threw the mail on the table and jumped in the shower. By the time I got out, my owl had already got into them, and as soon as she saw me she was gone. She wouldn’t get off me, wouldn’t stop preening my hair and demanding that I pet her.”

Draco bursts into a loud peal of laughter. He knows he shouldn’t laugh, using a love potion on someone is no laughing matter, but the imagery of Harry’s besotted owl sets him off.

“Don’t laugh, it wasn’t funny,” Harry says, yet Draco can hear the amusement in his tone. “You want to hear the rest of the story or not?”

“Yes, yes, I do, I promise I won’t laugh,” Draco says while laughing. And he continues to laugh through the rest of Harry’s story about how he took her to Hagrid and spent a two-week holiday getting aggressively cuddled by his owl. But it’s alright, because by the end of it Harry is laughing too.

After they’ve had a minute to breath and calm down, Harry looks into the fire and his expression turns sober.

“Once my holiday leave was over, I just… I didn’t want to go back. I was so fed up living like that, dealing with the constant attention, having to worry that every parcel was sent with malicious purpose. I was just sick of it all. I was done.”

Draco schools his expression into something more serious and nods his understanding.

“So I quit. I hid out at Hogwarts for a while. Hagrid kept my owl, she’s one of the Hogwarts owls now. She was never really the same afterward, I think she was embarrassed, or angry maybe,” Harry says, running a hand through his dark hair. “I spent a lot of my time learning Magizoology from Hagrid, and eventually, after hearing me constantly ranting about wanting to get out of Britain, he sent me to some of his friends in the US to continue my studies—it was the Aethonan ranch I got Clarence from.”

Draco hums an interested note. “So you’re a Magizoologist now? That’s what you do?”

Harry shrugs. “Sort of. I did some training in it, but mostly my focus is in the protection and conservation of magical beasts being hunted to extinction. I create and maintain a lot of wards, deal with poachers, and liaise with local law enforcement when necessary.”

“And that’s what you’re doing here now? Protecting the creatures here from poaching?” Draco asks not only for his article, but because a large part of him simply wants to know. He wants to know where Harry’s been and what he’s doing with his life now.

“That’s right,” Harry answers.

Draco can easily see Harry occupying this sort of job. It makes sense that he would be out here fighting for the rights and lives of others and putting to use skills he honed as an Auror. He did like their Care of Magical Creatures class, though at times it seemed he only pretended to for Hagrid’s sake.

Draco watches the fire as they fall into silence. He needs the time to build up the courage to ask the question he really wants to ask.

“I thought maybe,” Draco begins hesitantly, twisting the edging of his robes around his fingers, “maybe you’d left because of me.”

Harry draws in a deep breath through his nose and rubs a hand up and down his beard. “Yeah,” he says, and Draco’s stomach twists. “You were a large part of it, but you weren’t the only thing.”

Draco nods and swallows, too afraid to make eye contact with Harry.

– o –

Draco is half tempted the next morning to write his parents and tell them he won’t be joining them for dinner tonight. The thought of sitting at that long, bleak table, either in chilly silence or getting a lecture about his future, gives Draco the irrational urge to fly out the window and never stop.

It’s worrying how tempted he is to do it. Being out here with Harry, so far away from his life in England, put too much distance between him and his obligations. The longer he stays the easier it feels to do so.

This is the last day he can spend here. If he’s going to keep his job, he can’t keep waiting for some unspecified thing to happen and pretend that life isn’t moving forward outside of this valley.

He needs to tell Harry that this is his last day, and he has to get the rest of the story for his article or he’ll lose his job. He reminds himself of this as he flies over, and when he gets to Harry’s cabin he sees that he’s outside scrubbing the water trough.

It seems as good a time as any to tell him, but upon his landing, Harry looks up from his work and greets Draco with such a bright smile that Draco can’t bring himself to say something which might diminish it.

“Join me?” Harry asks. Draco does so without hesitation.

He rolls up his sleeves and kneels next to Harry, taking the sponge offered to him and jumping into the menial chore. He doesn’t worry about germs or broken nails or getting his robes dirty, he just wants to get lost in a mindless task and maybe have a blister to show for it when he gets home. For a while anyway, until his sheltered, cosy life in England turns his hands soft and undamaged once more.

Harry gives him a sideways look, but he doesn’t comment on Draco’s uncharacteristic desire to participate in his chores. Draco’s thankful for it. He’s thankful to Harry for a lot of things, though he’s never thought that he deserved any of it.

Harry has always been too kind of a person, too willing to forgive Draco for his mistakes. Even now, his being here is a mistake, not just for himself, but for Harry too. He knows how Harry feels about him—or felt about him—and as Ginny said, it’s not fair to Harry that he should come out here and dredge up all those old feelings again, not when Draco can’t reciprocate them.

Draco doesn’t deserve Harry’s forgiveness or his kindness. He didn’t deserve it the first time and he doesn’t now.

Draco was nervous walking into the Muggle deli, but not because it was Muggle. He had plenty of practise being amongst Muggles and learning their money system when he’d spent his summer after the War in Berlin with his Muggle-born Animagus tutor. She almost treated it like it was part of his training—immersing him in Muggle culture.

What had him unsettled now was the who of the situation—Potter himself. They’d had a few run ins since Draco started his job at The Daily Prophet, but most of those were engineered by Draco, and Potter seemed to dislike them all.

Draco knew getting into this that Potter would be a hard nut to crack, and he never expected Potter to arrange a meeting with him of his own free will, at least not this soon into Draco’s plan to win his trust, not with Potter’s reputation for dodging reporters—and punching them when dodging wasn’t an option.

Potter was already sat at a table in the corner and Draco put on an air of confidence as he strolled up to Potter’s table and took the seat across from him without waiting for an invitation.

“Potter,” he said in greeting.

“Malfoy,” Potter said in turn and scrutinised Draco’s appearance—his blue Muggle jeans and white jumper.

Potter took too long to get to whatever he invited Draco there for, and Draco could only take the silence for a matter of seconds before he looked for a distraction.

“Have you ordered anything yet? I’m starved,” he said, untwisting his fingers from the hem of his jumper so he could flag down a waiter. “Pastrami on rye, no pickle. Water to drink.”

“Just the usual, Matt,” Potter said when the waiter looked to him. “Thanks.”

Draco glanced at Potter, curious at the familiarity, and watched their attractive waiter walk away. He could feel Potter’s assessing gaze on him, but he could only avoid it for so long. Eventually he met that gaze and arched an eyebrow at him.

“Well?” he said impatiently. “I’m assuming you didn’t invite me here just because the cured meats are good.”

“I want to know what your angle is,” Potter said. “What do you want?”

“My angle?” Draco echoed, brows furrowed in confusion.

“Yes, your angle. Don’t play dumb, you know what I mean. Following me, talking to me like we’re friends, writing these articles about me that are—that aren’t complete rubbish,” Potter said, throwing out his hands in a wide, irritated gesture.

Draco exhaled an exasperated sigh. “Potter, I’m not here to fuck you over. I’m sure my editor would be happier if I wrote more inflammatory things on you, but then you would never talk to me again and I’d have a much harder time doing my job. Writing that sort of rot doesn’t interest me anyway.”

“I find that surprising, what with the crap you pulled with Skeeter back at school,” Potter said, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“I was an idiot back then. I can’t say I don’t still love the drama,” Draco said with a wicked smile, “but I know better now how it feels to be on the receiving end of that, and it’s not something I’m interested in perpetuating.”

“But you’ve always hated me. I thought you would have loved the opportunity to talk shit on me, and to have it printed in a national newspaper no less.”

Draco pressed his lips together and folded his arms over his chest. “I don’t hate you, Potter, not since the War. Now it’s just too much effort to hate you,” he drawled. “I have to keep my job, which means I have to write this idiotic column about you, but it doesn’t mean I have to be like that pillock you punched, or that I have to write sensationalist lies just to help the Prophet sell more papers.”

Potter looked more confused than suspicious at that point. “You really don’t want this job, do you?” he asked, head tilted and eyes analysing Draco less critically than before.

“No, I don’t,” Draco answered flatly. “I didn’t want to work for the Prophet at all, but since my fath—since this was the only way I could make a career with journalism, I took the job. Though I wanted to cover crime, not celebrity gossip.”

Potter looked at him like he was a puzzle, a puzzle that he was slowly starting to work out. Thankfully, the waiter arrived with their food and broke the weird energy between them.

Draco eagerly bit into his sandwich, not bothering to wait. He really was starving because he flew here. He preferred it over Apparating, and he wasn’t going to be on time or, gods forbid, early to his appointment with Potter.

When Draco next looked up and caught Potter’s gaze, he saw that Potter hadn’t started eating yet and was still watching Draco curiously.

“I don’t hate you anymore either,” Potter said casually, as if it weren’t a major revelation, and Draco nearly choked on his pastrami. As Draco coughed and chugged water to clear his airway, Potter tilted his head and said, “You’re surprised.”

Merlin, he wasn’t prepared for any sort of heart-to-heart with Potter. Draco swallowed hard and cleared his throat, shifting his gaze away from Potter and out the window beside them.

“Of course I’m surprised, after—after everything I did,” Draco said, his right hand unconsciously moving to grip his left forearm. He glanced at Potter and caught the way Potter watched the involuntary gesture. He let go of his arm and dropped his hands into his lap, hiding them under the table.

“You were a child,” Potter said simply, as if that excused everything.

“So were you,” Draco shot back. “But you still knew what the right choices were and you made them.”

“You did too, when it came down to it,” Potter argued too easily, as if he didn’t have to think about it because he’d already come to this conclusion. “I know you weren’t going to kill Dumbledore. You lowered your wand. You were going to accept his help, weren’t you?”

Draco frowned and looked away from him. He didn’t know how Potter could have possibly known that, but it was true.

“You didn’t turn me in either,” Potter continued, unbothered by Draco’s obvious discomfort. “Even with you and your parents’ lives on the line you made the right decision—the hard decision.”

“Does that mean you’ll give me that interview I’ve been asking for?” Draco asked with a cheeky smile, deflecting the course of the conversation away from such heavy topics. He preferred not to think about that time in his life whenever possible.

Potter smiled briefly and allowed Draco to steer the conversation away from the War.

Draco is pulled out of the memory by Harry bumping his nose with a sudsy hand, leaving a glob of bubbles on it.

“Hey,” he objects and wipes his nose off on his arm.

“You looked far away,” Harry says with a smile. “Where’d you go?”

Draco hesitates before answering, “I was thinking about that first lunch we had. The one where you were trying to figure out what my game was.”

“The one where you acted confident but actually looked like you thought I was going to hex you at any moment?” Harry asks with a cheeky smile.

“I did not,” Draco protests and shoves Harry’s shoulder, leaving a wet, soapy handprint on his t-shirt.

Harry laughs and shoves him back, putting a matching mark on Draco’s robes. “You looked like I invited you to your own beheading.”

“Well, you did have a reputation as a hothead that despised reporters,” Draco says, leaning back over the trough to keep scrubbing. “On top of which, I’d just spent a decade being your number one enemy.”

“Number one enemy?” Harry says, pausing in his own cleaning to look at Draco and cock an eyebrow at him. “I dunno, I think you were more around number five. Four at most.”

Draco gasps, “Four? Not hardly! Our entire childhood was spent thinking of ways to one up the other, ergo we were archenemies.”

Harry laughs and shakes his head. “I’m flattered that you spent so much time thinking about me, but I’d say Snape had you beat on that one.”

Draco smacks Harry’s shoulder, but the sting of Snape’s death has faded over the years, and it doesn’t hurt as much to think about him anymore. “Maybe so, but I’m the one people are always shocked about when they find out how well we get on now.”

“True,” Harry says as he stands, wringing out his sponge and tossing it onto the porch. “You remember that time we faked a fight so we could get out of that painfully long Ministry function?”

“You mean the time we saved a whole ballroom full of people from the most dull speech in Wizarding history?” Draco drawls, following Harry’s lead and helping him carry the trough to the edge of the clearing.

“Oh gods, that’s right,” Harry says with a laugh. “That guy would not shut up.” He tips the trough on its side and pulls his wand out to spray the soap out with an Aguamenti.

“I think he kept droning on for another hour, even after our fight had cleared the place out.” Harry bursts into laughter, and a warm sensation curls in Draco’s chest at seeing it and knowing that he was the one to cause it.

“Merlin, I bet he did. He could have given Professor Binns a run for his money,” Harry says, holding his stomach from all his laughing and having to pause in his chore.

“Remember how you hexed the punchbowl to fly right into Cuffe?” Draco is already laughing just thinking about it.

It was probably the highlight of his career, seeing his boss drenched in bright red punch, his face a nearly matching shade of red as he fumed over the indignity of it. What’s better is Draco knows that Harry did it on purpose. He always was overly protective of his friends.

“Only after you ‘accidentally’ blew up the tea cake stand right by Madam Edgecomb,” Harry shoots back with a sharp grin.

“That nasty old hag had it coming,” Draco says loftily. “And I was doing her a favour. Her robes were atrocious.”

Harry throws his head back in another round of laughter, and he looks so beautiful doing it. It strikes Draco that he may never get to see this again; he may never feel the pure sensation of delight he feels at making Harry happy.

Harry’s laughter slows and he wipes a tear from the corner of one eye before he looks at Draco again. He sees Draco’s expression and his own turns quizzical, head tilted in question.

Draco’s lips are on Harry’s before he fully registers what he’s doing.

It’s not the cleanest kiss, Harry clearly wasn’t expecting it and Draco’s probably being too aggressive, but Draco is so desperate to be able to touch Harry again that it doesn’t matter. And it becomes infinitely better when Harry reciprocates, but only for a few seconds before Harry pulls away.

“I—Draco—” Harry tries to say, flustered and wide-eyed with surprise. His glasses are slightly askew from the kiss.

“Shut up, just let me,” Draco says, mashing their lips together again. He grabs onto his t-shirt and pulls Harry flush against him.

“Okay, but,” Harry says between kisses, “are you sure?” He holds Draco’s face between his hands and pulls back to get a good look at him.

“Yes, Harry. Please,” Draco says, twisting his fingers in the fabric Harry’s shirt. “Please.”

Harry’s eyes jump between his uncertainly, and Draco sees the same fear and desire and hope there that’s likely reflected on his own face. But it’s only there for a second before Harry is pulling Draco back into another desperate kiss.

It shouldn’t be like this. It should be slow and sweet and everything Harry deserves. It should be discussed first, not done on impulse, especially with their history, but Draco is selfish. He needs to have this with Harry one more time before he gives his life away to the Malfoy legacy. He needs to release the feelings he’s kept buried under lock and key for years, and he needs Harry to know they’re still there.

Harry’s hands sink into Draco’s hair and he opens his mouth with Draco’s, inviting him in, and Draco melts into him. He grabs onto Harry’s hips and pushes him against the trunk of a nearby tree, fitting himself against Harry like a lost puzzle piece returning to its partner.

Draco kisses him for everything he’s worth. In this moment nothing exists outside them—not his job that he hates, not his controlling father, not his bloody legacy—and Draco finally gives in to what he’s wanted to do since he first laid eyes on Harry out here.

Draco loves and hates how perfectly they fit together. He can’t ignore that this is anything other than what it is. He feels Harry’s soft beard tickling his face and the flat plane of his chest pressed to Draco’s. Most importantly, he can’t ignore how right it feels.

When they break apart to take a breath, Harry closes his eyes and presses his forehead to Draco’s.

“I’ve missed you,” Harry tells him softly, wrapping his arms around him, and Draco’s heart breaks.

Draco grabs fistfuls of Harry’s shirt and buries his face in Harry’s neck, fighting back tears. He tries to swallow down the lump in his throat but it only gets bigger. He shouldn’t have done this, because now he has to leave Harry and not only has he made that infinitely harder, he knows how hurt Harry will be by it.

Draco knew this would happen. From the moment Cuffe gave him this assignment, he knew he couldn’t do it without somehow fucking everything up and hurting the only man who ever dared to love him.

“Draco?” Harry says, concern colouring his tone. He leans back to try to get a look at Draco, but Draco drops his head, not wanting Harry to see how close to tears he is.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” he chokes out. “Fuck. I’m so sorry.”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay, you’re okay,” Harry tries to reassure him and rubs his back, but his touch becomes too much.

Draco feels like every place they’re connected is on fire and he tries to move away from Harry, but he won’t let Draco go.

“Draco, it’s alright,” Harry tries to tell him.

Trapped in Harry’s hold, Draco feels claustrophobic and like he can’t get enough air. He shoves Harry away and yells at him, “It’s not alright! I shouldn’t have done this. I never should have come here.”

Harry holds his hands out in entreaty. “Draco—”

“Don’t!” Draco cuts him off and takes a step back, the self hatred bubbling up inside of him only worsened by the crushed look on Harry’s face. “This isn’t what I am, this isn’t what I’m supposed to be!” Draco insists, unsure whether he’s trying to convince Harry or himself.

“It is who you are and there’s nothing wrong with it!” Harry argues, expression turning fierce. “You don’t have to go. Please stay.”

Draco’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “You knew this would happen!” he accuses and jabs a finger toward him. It’s too easy to turn the blame of his actions onto Harry, and Draco grabs at the opportunity like a drowning man gasping for breath. “You kept me here to—to tempt me into this!”

At hearing Draco’s insinuation, Harry’s brows drop down into a scowl and his voice turns hard. “The only one forcing you to do anything is you,” he says. “You’re forcing yourself to live a life you hate because you’re still so desperate for your father’s approval, that you can’t see that a narcissist like him will never be able to love you.”

“Fuck you,” Draco snarls, clenching his fists at his sides to stop himself from throwing a punch. “You have no idea what it means to be a Malfoy!”

“I don’t give a flying fuck about whatever nonsense you’ve been brainwashed to think being a Malfoy means, your name isn’t more important than you!” Harry argues, throwing his hands out wide in frustration. He takes a deep breath and makes an effort to soften his tone when he adds, “You don’t deserve to be unhappy, and I just want to help you.”

“I don’t need your help,” Draco insists, uncertain whether his voice comes out strained from the anger or the anguish.

Harry looks away from Draco, shaking his head, pressing his lips together, and exhaling a short breath out his nose like an angry bull. He plants his hands on his hips and drops his head, glaring at the ground.

Eventually he looks up and says, “Then I don’t know what you want. You come here, and you complain about your job, you tell me you’re getting into this arranged marriage, which I know you don’t want, and you tell me these things as if you want me to save you from them somehow, but whenever I try you rail against me.”

Draco closes his eyes briefly and fights the way his throat constricts and his chest feels too tight. Harry is right. There’s always a part of him that will look for Harry’s hand when his world is on fire, but things are not so simple anymore, and Harry can’t save him from this.

“I need to go,” Draco says, folding his arms over his chest and digging his fingers into his arms. “I can’t stay here any longer. I need—I need to get back to my life.”

Harry doesn’t say anything—he doesn’t need to. He looks at Draco imploringly, giving a small shake of his head, and Draco knows everything he’s trying to say in that single, sorrowful expression.

“Bye, Harry,” Draco says, barely able to get the strained words out above a whisper, knowing they’re likely the last thing he’ll ever say to him.

– o –

Draco lets himself break down in the privacy of his flat, and it’s probably the last time he’ll be able to do that too. He has a feeling that as soon as he’s married, his father will expect him to move back into Malfoy Manor and end his ‘moment of independence.’

When Draco first moved out, his mother understood why he couldn’t stay at the Manor anymore, but his father made clear that it would only be temporary.

An hour after diving into his liquor cabinet, Draco’s private pity party is interrupted by a knock at the door. Draco’s heart jumps into his throat, and he frantically tries to smooth his robes and get his hair presentable, worried that it’s his parents come to check on him.

With a deep breath and a firm reminder to act sober, Draco straightens his posture and opens the door. It’s only Ginny and Luna on the other side, and Draco exhales the breath he’s holding.

“What are you doing here?” he asks them, brows knitting in confusion.

“We heard you might be drowning and thought it was worth checking on you,” Ginny says and walks into his flat like she owns the place.

“Drowning?” Draco parrots, but she doesn’t answer.

Luna follows Ginny inside and gives Draco a bright smile. “Hullo, Draco.”

Draco has to blink a couple times to make sure he’s seeing her fringed tie dye shirt and lime green leggings correctly. “Hi, Luna,” he says belatedly and closes the door behind her.

“Looks like you got a head start,” Ginny comments, looking to the half empty bottle of whiskey on the coffee table.

“Head start?” Draco doesn’t feel like he has a head start; he feels like he’s ten paces behind everything Ginny is saying. “Did we have plans?”

“No, but we do now. Come on, I’m not going to let you drink yourself into a stupor all alone,” Ginny insists, sounding a lot like her mother. “We’re going to do it in public so it doesn’t feel as pathetic.”

Draco’s already shaking his head. “Not that club again.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll go to the pub,” she assures him. “And it’ll just be you, me and Luna. Or I guess if you want you can invite her Ladyship, the Princess of Darkness.”

Normally the joke would at least get a chuckle out of Draco, but he merely shakes his head. The fewer people he has to explain his maudlin state to the better, even Pansy. “No dancing?”

“No dancing, promise. Now go put on some Muggle clothes,” she says.

Draco nods and wanders off to his room. He’s not sure why he agrees so readily. Maybe because he’s drunk, or maybe because his will is already broken.

Ginny and Luna seem to understand his current emotional state and they don’t bother him with questions or force him to talk about it, and he’s grateful for that. It occurs to him that Harry probably sent them the message to check on him, and the thought wrenches at his insides and forces all the air from his lungs. No matter how many times Draco hurts him, Harry keeps hitting back twice as hard with his kindness.

Draco goes to the pub prepared with plenty of Muggle money this time, and he downs the first few drinks quickly, forgetting his plan to cut himself off early enough to sober up before dinner with his parents.

Despite her promise that there would be no dancing, Ginny and Luna end up in an impromptu dance with each other by the jukebox to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody.’ At least it’s only them making fools of themselves and not a writhing mass of sweaty, shirtless men to haunt Draco’s dreams.

As they return to the table, Ginny’s limping is more pronounced than usual, and she has an arm thrown over Luna’s shoulders. Despite this, they’re giggling and grinning at their own antics, and Ginny seems wholly unbothered.

Ginny drops into her chair next to Draco, and Luna begins to massage her bad leg. Ginny watches Luna with such adoration that Draco has to look away. It’s so sickeningly sweet it might even have the power to reanimate his dead heart.

Draco shoots what’s left in his glass and goes to the bar for another round. He starts drinking heavily from that point and doesn’t remember much else of the night, though there is one moment of clarity inside an otherwise complete blackout phase.

“My parents!” he gasps and sits up, his back going ramrod straight.

Ginny is so startled by his exclamation that she looks around the pub, as if Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy themselves had strolled into the Muggle establishment and caused Draco’s outburst.

He would laugh, if he weren’t so overcome with full-body terror. “I missed dinner,” he breathes, adrenaline coursing through his veins like a shot of ice. “He’ll have my head. I’ve never missed dinner.”

“Can you not make it up later? It’s just dinner,” Luna says, head tilted in confusion.

“No, it’s not! It’s dinner with my parents,” Draco attempts to emphasise its importance, but his slurring probably ruins it. He tries to get to his feet but nearly ends up on the floor, and the only thing preventing it is Ginny’s strong grip.

Things quickly devolve from there. Draco vaguely remembers puking his guts out in the street, but the rest of the night is a blur. Somehow, he ends up passed out on Ginny and Luna’s couch, and he dreams of Harry.

It’s the memory that he dreams of too often in both his waking and unconscious lives—the time he finally slipped after four years of friendship, and the only time he’d ever shared Harry’s bed.

It was a night like any other. They went to the pub after work and got maybe a little too far past tipsy. There wasn’t any one thing that made Draco want to kiss Harry, he just did. It was everything, it was them, it was Harry, it was the situation. Seeing Harry laughing, softly lit in the dim lights of the pub, exchanging the usual casual touches—it just felt right to do so.

Harry gave as good as he got, seeming to know exactly what Draco was feeling and needing it just as desperately. Somehow, they stumbled their way into Harry’s home and up the many flights of stairs into his bedroom, and for the first time, Draco let himself go.

He didn’t let his fear or self loathing get in the way, he needed Harry like he needed air, and nothing else mattered as they pulled off their clothes and tumbled into his bed.

Draco wished the memory would end there at that perfect moment wrapped up in Harry, in his arms and in his bed and in his home, feeling for the first time that he was where he belonged.

But inevitably, morning comes and that perfect moment is tainted by Draco’s realisation of what he’d done, followed by the feelings of horror and disgust at himself. The ensuing shouting match was surely the worst one they’d ever had.

Draco wakes up unsettled, memories of Harry lingering in the air like a fragile trail of smoke. They scatter and dissipate as he sits up and is hit with too many sensations at once—the bright sunlight pouring in through the living room windows, a sharp pounding in his head, the roil of his stomach and the dull, full-body ache of malaise.

Draco groans, throws a hand over his eyes and grabs the arm of the couch to steady himself. He barely makes it to the bathroom in time to lift the toilet lid and chunder. His eyes water as the vile contents of his stomach make its way back up multiple times, burning his throat and forcing his body into painful heaving motions, even after there’s nothing left to expel.

When it’s finally over, Draco collapses to the side of the toilet, leaning his back against the bathtub and pulling his knees up. He hangs his head and buries his fingers in his hair, trying to pull himself back together into something that feels vaguely human.

“Here.” Luna’s soft voice draws his attention, and he lifts his head to see her holding out a glass of water for him.

“Thanks,” he croaks, accepting the glass and taking a drink from it, nearly choking from his eagerness. Luna takes the glass back when it’s empty and sits on the edge of the tub next to him to rub his back.

The bathroom has as much character as the rest of the house, with its bright, hand painted walls of coral reef and ocean animals, flower shaped bath mats, and several plants hanging in elaborately woven macramé. Draco can’t look at any of it too closely.

Ginny shows up in the doorway a moment later, looking wholly unsurprised by Draco’s pitiful appearance. “There are waffles and fruit in the kitchen,” she says. “Though I bet you’re not feeling too hungry.”

Draco shakes his head and immediately regrets the action as his headache sharpens and it sends another spike of nausea to his stomach. He definitely couldn’t eat right now, not for the next few hours at least, and then he’ll probably only manage some crackers or maybe a piece of toast. This is by far the worst hangover he’s ever experienced.

However, even his hangover can’t stop him remembering an important question he has for her. “Why didn’t you ever tell me when Harry was in town?” he asks, his voice rough from puking.

“He asked me not to,” Ginny answers plainly, as if that’s all she needs to know and the situation isn’t more complicated than that.

Draco’s stomach turns and he grimaces. Luna rubs at his back sympathetically.

“Alright, well, you’re welcome to stay and sleep this off. I think there’s some pain relief potions in the cupboard if you want one,” she says and nods toward the mirrored cabinet over the sink. “I would stay, but unfortunately some of us still have to show up for work.”

“Oh, fuck,” Draco groans and buries his head in his hands. He forgot that it’s Monday. Not only did he miss dinner with his parents last night—and honestly he’s surprised he wasn’t woken by a howler for that—he was supposed to write up his article on Harry to turn in today. Yesterday’s mistakes keep piling up.

“Draco? Are you alright?” Luna asks, concern evident in her tone.

He keeps his face covered as he shakes his head.

“What’s going on?”

Draco swallows hard. It takes him a moment before he can force out the words, “I fucked up. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.” He fucked up with his job, with his parents, but most especially with Harry—and that’s the one that hurts the most.

Luna slips down onto the floor next to him, puts her arm around his shoulders and leans her head against his. “That’s alright,” she says easily. “I think we often fuck up things in our lives in order to find their solutions.”

Draco’s not sure how that makes sense, but she says it so confidently that he believes her. Sometimes it still strikes him how strange Luna’s kindness is. After what happened in the War, he never expected to make amends with anybody. Not Harry, and definitely not Ginny, but Luna he especially has trouble wrapping his head around. She never fails to surprise him with her kindness, but maybe it’s because he never expects any kindness paid to him.

“Well, I fucked up and I have no idea how to solve my problems or even what I should do next,” he says sullenly.

“I can help you with that. Right now all we need to do is get you cleaned up. After that, we’ll see,” Luna says brightly and stands.

She offers Draco a hand up, and he takes it half-heartedly. He downs the pain relief potion she hands him, brushes his teeth with a spare toothbrush she opens, and brushes his hair while she straightens his clothes.

To his surprise Luna was right, they did just need to clean him up. He still feels like a train wreck, but at least now he knows what he needs to do. He needs to try to start cleaning up his mess and get back on track.

“Thank you, Luna,” he says sincerely. “I need to get home now.”

She smiles, nods, and walks him to the fireplace. Before he can throw in the Floo powder, she stops him by saying, “Oh, hold on.”

Draco watches as she leaves the room and returns with something small in one hand.

“Don’t forget this,” she says, holding out the little white flower Harry gave him.

“How—why do you have this?” he asks, brows knitting together as he takes it from her.

“You had it last night. You were looking at it a lot, and I was worried it might get lost.” Her bright, silvery eyes stay trained thoughtfully onto the flower held between his fingers as she says, “I often find that things in life are easily lost and found, but it would be a shame to lose that sort of love token—they come around so rarely.”

Draco blinks owlishly at her and then looks down at the flower. “Love token?” he echoes blankly.

“Mhm,” she hums and looks to Draco, smiling at him in her characteristic, dreamy fashion. “Harry must really love you if he gave you an edelweiss flower.”

Seeing Draco’s confusion, Luna tilts her head and explains, “Edelweiss is a symbol of deep love and devotion. It’s said to be a very difficult flower to collect, and giving it as a gift shows a courage and willingness to sacrifice for the one you love most.”

“Oh,” is all Draco manages to say. He’s not sure what else to do after such a revelation. He turns stiffly and steps into the Floo.

At home, Draco sits at his desk and forces himself to write something that he can turn in to Cuffe. As he’s writing, his eyes repeatedly find their way to the white flower sat on his desk, and he can’t get himself to write the usual rubbish about Harry. For the first time in a long time his quill flows over the parchment effortlessly as a story he actually cares about pours out as if a dam has broken inside him.

– o –

“What even is this, Malfoy? Flying horses, flowers, a mountain ‘wrapped in moonlight’? You’re supposed to write a gossip article on Potter, not a fairy tale.” Cuffe exhales a deep sigh. “Do you even want this job anymore?” he asks, and oddly his tone sounds less combative and more sincere.

Draco stares at numbly at long pheasant feather quill on Cuffe’s desk, his eyes losing focus. He knows this is real, but he doesn’t entirely feel like a part of the conversation.

“Not really,” he says distantly. It sends a chill down his arms, but the world doesn’t implode when he finally admits it.

“Alright,” Cuffe says, his voice strangely resigned, and waves a dismissive hand. “Pack up your desk.”

– o –

The rest of the day is spent waiting for the hurricane to hit. He expects his father to hear that Draco left The Daily Prophet without having to break the news himself. With each passing hour he feels both more surprised and more wary that Lucius hasn’t burst in to chastise him, or at least send him a howler.

A letter arrives in the early afternoon, but to Draco’s surprise it’s from his mother. Outside the usual correspondence of asking after him and updating him on how her vegetable garden is doing, she says she’s sorry he wasn’t able to make it last night and asks if he could join them for dinner tomorrow instead.

Draco stares at it for a long while, rereading the letter a few times, and wonders if he sent a drunken message to his parents to excuse his absence. It doesn’t feel like something he did or would do, but he remembers so little of last night that he supposes it’s possible.

Eventually he bites the bullet and sends a response, agreeing to dinner tomorrow night. He can’t avoid them forever, and he’s glad at least to have the rest of the day to recuperate from his hangover.

– o –

“Your mother explained your absence on Sunday, though I wish you’d given us more notice,” Lucius says sharply across the table.

Draco is still amazed he got through the door in one piece. Clearly his father hasn’t heard about his recent unemployment, and Draco has been on edge since stepping into the Manor, knowing that he’s going to have to tell him himself.

“My apologies, it was...unavoidable,” Draco says uncertainly, sending his mother a curious look.

She gives him a small nod and a half-second smile. He doesn’t know how to respond. He feels both touched and confused that she would cover for him, and he’s not sure how she knew he would need it.

“Let’s hope there aren’t many more like it. I had to push your first courtship meeting with Astoria back,” Lucius continues, oblivious to their exchange.

Draco takes a deep breath. “There shouldn’t be,” he says. His heart is jackrabbiting in his chest, and as he stares at his hands in his lap, he can see that they’re shaking. “Because I quit my job.”

Narcissa gasps quietly and looks up at him in surprise.

“Good. I’ve already selected the first token you’ll give—” It takes Lucius a moment longer to process Draco’s words. When he does, he barks out a sharp, “What?”

“Or maybe I was fired, I’m not really sure,” Draco continues, fighting down the rising nausea and fear at his confession.

“This is Potter’s doing, isn’t it?” his father snarls. “I told you not to associate with him and his ilk. They’ll destroy us at the first opportunity!”

Draco clenches his fists in his robes and bites his tongue.

“This is unacceptable. First thing tomorrow we’re going to Cuffe and—”

“No,” Draco cuts him off, forcing himself to meet his father’s furious gaze.

“Excuse me?” Lucius hisses.

“I don’t want it back,” Draco says, holding his gaze despite the fear and adrenaline coursing through his body, turning his skin clammy.

“This isn’t about what you want,” Lucius says through gritted teeth.

“I hate the Prophet. I don’t want to work there. I never did, and I’m not going back,” Draco argues stubbornly.

“I don’t care whether you hate it or not. Your duty to this family comes first,” his father says and slams his hand on the table.

Draco jumps, but he holds his ground. “And what about my happiness?” he asks, feeling for the edelweiss flower in his breast pocket.

“What about it?” Lucius asks, his tone flat and cold.

The words plunge into his chest like a knife, and Draco finally gets it. His father doesn’t love him, not like a parent should, and no matter how desperately he seeks his affection and acceptance, he’ll never get it. His friends have tried to tell him for ages, but he wasn’t ready to accept it—he needed to feel it for himself, and now he does.

Draco breaks eye contact with his father to pull the flower from his pocket and look at it instead, twirling it between his fingers and taking courage from it. He wishes he could have listened to Harry years ago.

“Your happiness,” Lucius spits it out like it’s a dirty word, “is irrelevant to your work, to your marriage, and to the family name.”

“Lucius,” Narcissa intervenes sharply, but Draco is already speaking before she can say anything more.

“The only duty I have is to myself and my life and my happiness. Your legacy is what’s irrelevant.”

“How dare you!” Lucius roars and rises from his seat.

Draco watches him warily, but he juts out a stubborn chin and says, “I’m not going back to The Daily Prophet. And I won’t be marrying either of the Greengrasses, for that matter.”

“You will if I have anything to say about it.”

“You don’t have a say,” Draco says and pushes his chair back, standing and meeting his father’s gaze at the same level. “I’m going to travel the world and write about whatever I feel like. And the first place I’m going is back to Harry. I’m going to kiss him. And make love to him. Maybe I’ll even marry him.”

Lucius looks shocked before his expression turns furious and he yells, “You will do no such thing!”

“I will!” Draco yells back. “Maybe I’ll take his name and leave Malfoy to the history books!”

“You’ll ruin this family!” Lucius bellows, his face bright red in fury.

Draco pauses, taking in his father’s appearance—a picture of madness with his gaunt face and flyaway hairs, he never quite returned to his poised self after the War—and says, “You already ruined it.”

Draco’s whole body is trembling with fear and adrenaline at standing up to his father, but he’s never felt braver. He seems to have finally shocked Lucius into silence, and Draco has nothing left to say on the matter, so he turns to leave.

He only makes it three steps before his mind turns blank, and his entire being feels abnormally calm, like it’s gently floating atop ocean waves. All his anger and anxieties are wiped away, and he’s left feeling faintly happy, content to stand in place in the dining room.

Distantly he hears the wooden clatter of a chair hitting the ground, and his mother’s voice shouting, “Expelliarmus!” The fog over his mind clears immediately after.

All his thoughts and feelings come back in a shocking flood, and it takes him a second before he can turn and stare wide-eyed at his parents. His mother is on her feet, her chair upset behind her, holding both her own and Lucius’ wands.

“You do not raise your wand to him,” she says, voice low and dangerous.

Draco feels as stunned as his father looks. Lucius’ mouth is gaping open like a fish, but for a long moment no words escape.

“I—I didn’t mean—” he stutters out, barely above a whisper.

Narcissa arches a sharp eyebrow at him and turns away. She pockets their wands as she walks up to Draco and takes his face in her hands, a comforting gesture she’s done ever since he was a small child.

“Go on, darling, find your happiness,” she tells him with a weary smile. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”

Draco hesitates, his brow knitting in confusion. “I thought you wanted the marriage?” he asks, glancing to his father, who’s still standing in stunned silence. “What about grandchildren? Staying in the Sacred Twenty-Eight?”

She shakes her head. “Why do you think I asked you over for tea? I wasn’t going to let you trap yourself in a loveless marriage. I’d never wish that on you. Haven’t you wondered why it’s taken him this long to arrange it?” she says and Draco gives her a quizzical look. “I’ve been putting him off for years. I thought eventually, with time, you would...come out.”

“Oh,” he says, blinking and struggling to process everything that’s happened in the past few minutes. He feels a familiar, cold fissure of fear race across his skin.

He practically shouted to the whole neighbourhood his feelings for Harry, but his sexuality has been such a closely guarded secret for so many years that it’s going to be a long time before he doesn’t feel scared to talk about it.

“I...I can’t say that I understand it. But I know how happy you are with Harry, and that’s all that matters.” She leans in and kisses his forehead, having to stretch up on her toes. “I love you,” she tells him, and when she pulls back her eyes are watery.

He’s briefly awash in the familiar, comforting scent of her perfume. “I love you too,” he says, his throat tight and his own eyes pricking with tears in response to hers.

She gives him a gentle smile and says, “When you’re back in England next, we’d love to have you and Harry for dinner.”

That seems to finally break Lucius from his stupor, and he slams a hand against the dining table. “No, we will not!” he says staunchly.

“Yes, we will,” she returns with a sharp look his way, her stern tone brooking no argument. “Now sit down before you give yourself a hernia.” To Draco’s surprise, and maybe Lucius’ as well, he does sit down.

Draco swallows, glancing to Lucius before looking back at Narcissa. “Mother,” he begins, his voice filled with concern.

“I’ll be fine, my love. Your father and I are just going to have a few words,” she says, giving his shoulders an encouraging squeeze and stepping away. “Go on.”

– o –

Draco’s luck is such that he makes it to the Portkey Office three minutes after it closes, but the ministry worker is still there locking up the office. He explains the situation to the tired, middle aged wizard, that by letting Draco in and making one last Portkey for the day he would be reuniting two desperate, long-lost lovers separated through time, distance, and a disapproving family, that he—what’s your name? Roger?—that he, Roger, would play an important role in a once in a lifetime moment and a scene worthy of a romantic cinema.

Roger’s response is, of course, “We’re closed. Your epic romance will have to wait until seven tomorrow morning.”

When Draco tries to argue, the wizard threatens to call security, so he leaves but not before telling the old codger that he should go to St Mungo’s to have his cold, dead heart checked out.

Draco spends the night tossing and turning. His head is a volatile concoction of anxiety, frustration, and hope. Between recreating better arguments with Roger, the Portkey Office Manager, and trying to imagine what he’ll say to Harry when he gets back to him, Draco also worries about his mother and oscillates between disbelief and anger at his father.

Draco can’t believe he stood up to him and that his father tried to Imperius him when he did. He can’t believe he told his father that he was going to make love to Harry Potter. Everything about Draco’s day feels surreal, like it’s a day from someone else’s life.

Eventually, after many sleepless hours, Draco gets tired of lying in bed and gets up. He packs a trunk with everything he might need for a long stay and then some. He paces his living room and shoots a nightcap to try to ease his nerves. Around sunrise, he gets back into bed and passes out.

– o –

Draco is a ball of nerves as he approaches Harry’s cabin. He didn’t bother stopping in town first to reserve a hotel room, as he’s not sure how this is going to pan out and he thinks it best to talk to Harry first.

Neither Harry nor Clarence are at the cabin when he arrives, and for one heart-stopping moment, Draco thinks they’ve already moved on and he curses Roger’s name. Then he looks in the cabin and sees that Harry’s things are still there, and he exhales a relieved sigh.

He sets his trunk down and sits on the porch steps, wringing his hands and worrying the hem of his robes as he waits. After a while, he takes out his edelweiss flower and twirls it between his fingers, hoping that the choice of flower was as intentional as Luna made it seem and not a coincidence on Harry’s part.

The hour it takes for Harry to return feels like a lifetime. When Draco finally hears the steady beat of Clarence’s wings and he looks up to see him descending into the clearing with Harry on his back, Draco jumps to his feet and tries to stop himself from fidgeting.

Harry spots him well before he lands, and the wary look he gives Draco after dismounting does nothing to allay his fears.

Harry’s keen eyes take in Draco’s trunk and sweep over his appearance, pausing at the edelweiss held in his left hand. He studies Draco’s expression as he slips his hands into his jeans pockets and says, “What are you doing here?”

It’s not the elated welcome Draco fantasised about, but he knows how unlikely that reception would be after how he left.

“I…” Draco begins and trails off, struggling to find the right words. Of course everything he prepared for himself to say flies out of his head the moment he sees Harry. “I came back because you were right.”

Harry frowns, and Draco immediately knows that that isn’t the right thing to say. His stomach clenches and he tries to course-correct. “I mean that—I came back because—well, it’s a little complicated. A lot’s happened, but—”

Harry’s frown only deepens. Draco puts a trembling hand through his hair and mutters, “Fuck. This isn’t coming out right.”

Draco wishes Harry would say something to help, to make this easier, but he doesn’t. He waits to hear what Draco has to say, looking guarded all the while.

Draco takes a deep breath and tries again. He tries with the simplest, most honest thing. “I came back because I want to be here with you,” he says. “Here or—or wherever. Anywhere you want to go.”

Harry is quiet, his brow knitted in thought. Draco can tell he’s schooling his expression to not give more away—he recognises it from years of watching how Harry handled the spotlight.

“And the next time you get scared about how you feel? You going to go running off again?” he asks, crossing his arms over his chest.

Draco shakes his head. “I won’t. I promise,” he says.

“Even if I ‘tempt’ you into sin?” Harry asks bitterly.

“I...probably deserve that,” Draco says with a sigh. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry. You didn’t coerce me into anything. I kissed you because I wanted to. Because I want this, and I have for a long time.”

Harry licks his lips and after a long pause, he concedes, “I’m sorry too. I said some things that were maybe a bit harsh.”

Draco nods his agreement, but lets it drop. He watches Harry for a few seconds that drag on like hours, looking at him imploringly.

Eventually Harry gives a small, disbelieving shake of his head and says, “I didn’t think you were coming back this time.”

Draco bites his lip and glances away. “I didn’t think I was either,” he admits.

“What changed?” Harry asks, brows knitting.

“I don’t know,” Draco says, even though he does. “Everything just fell apart—I fell apart. And when I needed an answer, it was you. It’s always been you.” He hesitates before giving in and pleading, “Please Harry, I want this. Just—just tell me I’m not too late.”

He shakes his head and Draco’s stomach drops, but Harry makes a small, amused noise and says, “You’re not. I always thought eventually you might come around. If you think I’m not still carrying a torch for you, you’re crazy.”

“Yeah?” Draco says hopefully, and Harry nods. “Well of course you are, I’m a catch,” he jokes to alleviate how incredibly nervous he feels. Harry laughs, finally breaking his stoic facade.

“I...I probably won’t be easy to be with. It’s going to take me some time, and I’m not going to be perfect at this right away,” Draco says anxiously. After how long he’s fought these feelings, it’s going to be an uphill battle for him to feel completely comfortable with his sexuality.

Harry shakes his head. “I don’t want easy.”

Draco smiles hesitantly. “Because easy choices make for a hard life?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, mouth tipping into a crooked smile. “And if I wanted easy I definitely wouldn’t have fallen for you.”

Draco makes an offended noise and smacks Harry’s shoulder, but it only serves to widen Harry’s cheeky smile. Draco fights back a smile of his own.

After a second, Harry’s smile wilts and he asks, “What about your father?”

Draco twirls a string from his robes around his finger nervously as he says, “I told him the truth.”

“Which is?”

“That he no longer has any say in my life. That I’m going to go where I want and be with who I want.”

Harry’s eyebrows raise in surprise, but then a smile spreads across his face. “You really told him that?”

“I did,” Draco says with a nod. He fidgets with his robes and adds, “I er, I might have also told him that I’m going to marry you and take your name.”

Harry’s eyes go wide right before he breaks into a peal of laughter. “You did not,” he says.

Draco can’t fully smother the grin splitting his face. “I did.”

“You’re mad,” Harry tells him.

Draco lifts his shoulder in a flippant shrug.

“What did he do?” Harry asks, his expression turning serious.

Draco’s grin falters, but he answers in a casual tone, “What could he do?” Draco is still trying to process the event himself, and he’s not ready to see what Harry will do once he finds out Lucius cast an Unforgivable on him.

Harry watches him carefully, but he doesn’t press the issue. Instead, he gives Draco a cautious smile and asks, “Can I kiss you?”

“Please,” Draco says immediately.

Harry’s movements are slow and calculated. He steps closer to Draco, his eyes asking for permission with each movement like he thinks Draco is a skittish deer that might dart away at any second.

Draco doesn’t. He stays put as Harry reaches up and rests his hands on either side of his face. Their lips meet in a chaste kiss, careful and sweet, contrasting the intensity of their last one. And Draco is scared—he’s scared of how Harry makes him feel and what it means about himself—but he feels safe in Harry’s hands.

Feeling left out, Clarence barges into the moment by lipping at Draco’s hair. Draco pulls out of the kiss with a laugh and pushes his nose away.

“Is he going to interrupt every private moment from now on?” Draco asks and gives in to petting down his face when Clarence tries to nuzzle his hair again.

“Probably, but we’re a package deal,” Harry says with a grin and shrug.

“Well, I suppose he could make for a cute ring bearer,” Draco offers, and Harry laughs.

As Harry gets Clarence untacked, Draco pets him idly and asks, “So is there actually a story here, or was that just an excuse to make me take a holiday with you?”

“You’re such a Slytherin,” Harry says with an amused smile. “Yes, something interesting is going to happen. I didn’t just make it up to keep you here.”

“You just kept it secret to keep me here,” Draco clarifies.

Harry as good as admits his guilt with a shrug and a sheepish smile.

“Are you still going to write your article?” Harry asks.

Draco hadn’t thought about it until now, so he takes a moment to do so before answering, “Not if you don’t want me to.”

“What about your job?”

“I quit,” Draco tells him.

Harry doesn’t look surprised at the news. He smiles and says, “You should write about this, if you want to. I think it would be good to bring some public attention to the situation.”

“Bring attention to what, exactly?” Draco asks, raising an expectant eyebrow.

“They’re Skvader.”

“Skvader?” Draco echoes curiously.

“Yeah, one of the few clutches left in the world. They’re where lucky rabbit’s feet come from. Highly prized in the black market, so they’ve almost been poached to extinction. Maybe if more people knew how bad it is, then they’d do something about it,” Harry explains.

“Oh,” Draco says, searching his memory. He vaguely remembers reading something about them being rabbit-looking creatures of the moon and hard to catch as they’re fast and only visible by moonlight.

“You’re lucky, actually. You came back just in time for the full moon—they should hatch tonight under it. Want to see?” Harry asks. Draco agrees easily. “We’ll go in a few hours, before they hatch.”

They spend the rest of the afternoon in each other’s company, chatting normally as if nothing happened between them. Harry brushes against him with a few cursory touches, but it barely feels different from the casually affectionate way they used to touch each other three years ago. Draco finds that he’s much more comfortable with these easy shows of affection than he expects.

When it’s near dusk, Draco doesn’t hesitate to get on Clarence behind Harry and hold onto him as they fly up to the Pale Mountains. Harry checks his wards first, then guides them down to a ravine cut between the jagged mountain ranges, dismounting and leading Draco to a thin, well hidden mouth of a cave, which would be near impossible to find if one didn’t already know where to look.

Harry takes his hand and tells him to watch his step as they descend into darkness. As Harry leads them through a slim corridor, Draco wonders why he doesn’t use a Lumos to light their way. He isn’t left wondering for long.

They turn a corner and enter a wide cavern lit with a silvery glow that takes Draco’s breath away. At first Draco thinks the light is coming from large crystals scattered about the cave, but then he realises that they’re eggs, pale and glowing like many little moons tossed across the night sky. Draco estimates there to be around thirty of them. A pool nearby reflects the light, sending it rippling across the walls and high ceiling of the cavern.

“You can tell they’re about to hatch,” Harry says, his soft voice echoing in the large space, and crouches by the nearest egg.

Draco joins him, taking a closer look at the thing and seeing faint cracks in the shell where Harry points them out. At first glance Draco assumed the eggs were an opaque white, but upon closer inspection he can see that they’re actually translucent, and the light is coming from the creature inside rather than the shell.

“Once the moon is in the right position, it’ll shine in here and speed up the hatching process,” Harry explains in a whisper, gesturing to an opening in the cave’s ceiling high above them where Draco can just make out the shape of it from the stars twinkling beyond.

Something about the situation strikes Draco as odd, and it takes him a moment to put his finger on it. “Where are the parents?” he whispers.

Harry shakes his head, and at first it makes Draco’s stomach drop, but then Harry explains, “They have a very short life cycle. They only live about nine or ten months. They’re born in late Spring, mate in the Autumn, lay one, maybe two eggs in the Winter, and die a couple of months later. It’s part of why they’re so close to extinction. It’s easy to lower their population and much harder to increase it when their lives are so short.”

Draco hums a curious note. Harry settles in to wait for the eggs to hatch, renewing a Warming Charm over them, and Draco sits next to him, links their fingers and eagerly gazes around at each egg. It’s over an hour before Harry squeezes his hand and nods up to the moon overhead, but the time passes easily as Draco is enthralled by the scene.

Not long after, the cavern fills with delicate cracking sounds, and one by one, tiny rabbit-like heads push out of their eggs. Unlike pink newborn rabbits or birds, the Skvader’s tiny bodies are a pale, silvery blue, and they continue to glow like little, living lamps. Their wings are featherless, but their bodies are covered in a short fuzz of baby hair.

Draco studies them curiously, noting their featherless wings and rump, but the rest of their body is long and slim, like a jackrabbit, with tall ears already adorning their heads. They each take a moment to orient themselves to life outside the safety of their eggs before they venture out.

Harry counts them as they leave the cave with his pointer finger held out toward them, bouncing up and down with each count. When they’ve all gone, Harry gives a satisfied nod. He takes Draco’s hand and carefully leads them out the way they came in.

Draco feels a pleased shock when he notices that in the wake of the Skvader, edelweiss plants are sprouting from the ground and growing rapidly, leaving a trail of pale white blooms after them.

Clarence is standing several feet away, watching the disorderly group of little creatures as they make their way down the rocky slope. The Aethonan watches until the last Skvader passes him, then he turns and follows after. When one of the babies wanders too far from the group, he trots over and dips his head down, nudging the delinquent back in the right direction, almost as if he thinks himself a sheepdog.

Draco raises an eyebrow and looks to Harry. “Cow sense?” he asks.

Harry huffs out a laugh and nods. “Cow sense, but better.”

“He’s ridiculous,” Draco says and shakes his head.

“He’s adorable,” Harry counters, and Draco doesn’t disagree. “Just wait. It gets even better once they grow out their flight feathers and start trying to fly.” Draco laughs just thinking about it, and he can’t wait to see it for himself.

They walk calmly hand-in-hand down the mild slope of the ravine, following the trail of edelweiss blooming around them. The Skvader appear to know where they’re going, though they’ve only just hatched, and they lead them all, with a little help from Clarence, down to a wider section of the ravine with a nice patch of grass to eat and a copse of trees to hide under.

Harry drops Draco’s hand as he joins Clarence and rustles around in his saddlebags.

“Keep an eye out for poachers,” Harry tells him absently, and Draco shoots him a concerned look. “The wards should go off first, but still. If you see any, tell me and let me handle it.”

Draco arches an eyebrow at that.

“Not because I think you can’t handle yourself,” Harry corrects himself when he sees Draco’s expression. “But this is my job, it’s what I’m here for, and I spent years as an Auror dealing with their sort.”

“Hm,” Draco hums, unimpressed, but he relents. “Very well.”

Harry finally finds what he’s looking for in the charmed saddle bags and pulls out a rolled up tent. Draco tilts his head in question.

“I have to stay up here with them and keep watch until they’re old enough to fly,” Harry explains. “They’re at their most vulnerable now, and at the most danger of being killed.”

“How long do you have to stay up here?” Draco asks.

“About ten days, give or take. They develop fairly quickly,” Harry says. He hesitates before he adds, “You could go back to the cabin, if you want, and stay there. It’ll be much warmer, and the tent only has one bed.”

Draco understands Harry’s hesitation at offering to share the bed with him since it went so poorly last time. But things never should have happened as they did three years ago, and he wants to do it right this time. He wants to be able to wake up next to the man he loves with no feelings of regret or disgust at himself, and he wants to correct that experience for Harry.

“No, I’d rather stay with you, if that’s alright,” Draco says. Harry seems surprised, but he nods. “Besides, you’ll keep me warm, won’t you?”

“I will,” he agrees with a soft smile. He leans forward to kiss Draco’s cheek, but Draco turns and meets the kiss. He tilts his head and presses deeper into it, trying to convey his feelings to Harry through it.

When Harry breaks the kiss, he leans back to look at Draco curiously and read his expression. Draco keeps a grip on Harry’s waist and bites his lip anxiously. “Thank you, for taking me back,” he says quietly.

Harry leans into Draco and murmurs, “Always.”

It sends a shiver down Draco’s spine. He doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve the love of such a devoted man as Harry, but from now on he’ll do everything he can to keep it and nurture it.

Draco helps Harry get the tent set up and get a fire going in front of it. Harry lays out a blanket for them to sit on and cooks a late dinner. Between the fire, a Warming Charm, a hot meal in his belly, and Harry at his side, Draco barely feels the cold wind blowing over the mountain as they watch over their flock.

“What do you normally do to pass the time?” Draco asks around a yawn, wondering if Harry plans to stay awake the entire night until the sun rises and the Skvader become invisible under its light.

“Hmm, walk a lot. Fly, cook, read,” Harry answers with a shrug that bumps Draco’s cheek on his shoulder.

“What do you read?” He readjusts his cheek’s position.

“Whatever I have,” Harry answers. “Do you want me to read something to you?”

“What about poachers?” Draco asks sleepily.

“We’ll be alerted long before they get anywhere near us,” Harry assures him.

Draco nods and begrudgingly releases his hold on Harry’s arm so that he can retrieve a book. He notes that the one Harry comes back with is his worn copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

They arrange themselves back into a comfortable position, with Draco’s head on Harry’s shoulder and Harry’s arm around him. Harry opens the book and takes a deep breath before he begins, “It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea…”

The stars are even brighter on top of the mountain, and Draco watches them wearily, his eyes drooping and a content smile on his face. He’s still scared for the future, but listening to the soft rise and fall of Harry’s voice with the bright stars overhead, encircled by the tall peaks of the Pale Mountains and surrounded by edelweiss flowers, Draco feels a sense of peace and freedom—a sense that he’s finally released himself from the thorny cage which held him captive for far too long.

“...Seagulls, as you know, never falter, never stall. To stall in the air is for them disgrace and it is dishonor. But Jonathan Livingston Seagull, unashamed, stretching his wings again in that trembling hard curve—slowing, slowing, and stalling once more—was no ordinary bird.”