He lived at the top of the tree, where the boughs were stiff and sturdy, but the limbs moved with the wind. So his house swayed, hypnotically, like a mother rocks her child's cradle.
His own mother had never comforted him in such a way. Caring for a baby was boring, tedious, and exhausting, and thus the antithesis of everything Malfoy. "I can love you, darling," she had said, "and wish you the best, and even give my life for you. The fact that I refused to spell the mess from your nappy or allow you to spit milk upon my robes doesn't mean I was an unloving mother. Have some empathy, Draco."
Empathy could be an elusive animal, but solitude was easy enough to come by. Few knew where to find him, and even fewer visited. He'd been told his open-air home was unnerving, with its lack of walls and subtle sway. One hundred feet above the earth, above his troubles, it was like flying all the time, and he couldn't get enough of it.
Plus the hand of guilt didn't rest so heavily upon him.
So when he found Potter on the ground at the base of a giant Whomping Willow, wing bent unnaturally, and bleeding from a half a dozen deep gashes, he left him there, content to let the forest have him. Potter would be easy prey for the nocturnal beasts, broken and lying in a bed of decomposing leaves, barely breathing. A peregrine falcon was little more than an appetizer for most predators, and although Draco had known Potter immediately, both by the telltale magical signature of an Animagus and the lightning-shaped bolt etched into his plumage above his eye, no other would recognize the greatest wizard of their time – except perhaps by taste, and by then the damage would be done.
Poetic, even if not entirely justified.
He Transfigured into his own form and flew away.
He landed on one of the highest terraces of his home, then descended the steps he'd built into the trunk of the great tree, round and round, down three levels to the kitchen. A chill breeze, damp with the promise of rain blew through the room, ruffling his hair. He shivered and thought more about Potter.
Dinner was small and simple, and while that usually satisfied him, this evening a gnawing emptiness clawed at his gut even after he'd eaten. Full dark came to the forest, and the wind picked up, blowing needles of rain through his living room. A simple charm would have broken the wind and water at the terrace, preventing his discomfort, but tonight he let it come. He read to distract himself, but was soon shivering. His hair began to drip from the spitting rain. The tip of his nose grew numb. When his candles were doused by a particularly hard gust, despite the charms to keep them lit, he threw down his book with a curse, and strode out onto the main terrace.
In the open, the wind's ferocity was ten times worse, and suddenly, Draco's need to get back to Potter overwhelmed him. He Transfigured and flew. Taking off from the lower levels of his home could be dangerous, but Draco navigated the many branches of the canopy with ease, focussed solely on Potter. Only on Potter.
The bastard was exactly where Draco had left him, only at some point, he'd regained consciousness, at least enough to Transfigure. Still, he hadn't moved. His arm lay at an odd angle to his torso and blood streaked from several tears in his cloak. Draco grimaced when a flash of lightning illuminated the bright white of bone sticking through the material at Potter's elbow. The rain had scoured a few of the wounds clean, but had triggered renewed bleeding in others. Cursing under his breath, Draco gathered Potter into his arms and Apparated.
As soon as they appeared in his bedroom, regret rolled through him. He never Apparated to or from his home. To do so left the location open to plotting magic, but there was nothing for it now. More damage done in an already unstable situation. He tended to Potter as best he could – banished his filthy clothing and healed him with potions – then swept through the tree house, charming it warm and dry, taking his frustrations and fear out on sopping pillows and scattered papers. Soon, there was little to do but wait.
When Potter came around, the first slurred words out of his mouth made Draco groan. "You've addled yourself," Draco told him.
"No," Potter said. "It's true. I've been looking for you. Though—" he grimaced at the bandage and splint on his arm. "This isn't exactly how I imagined our reunion. You?" Potter had the audacity to smile.
"I never imagined it at all."
"Ever?" Potter tried to lift himself onto his good elbow. "I meant what I said. I've been looking for you."
Draco tapped his wand on his knee. He made no move to help Potter. "Why?"
"Your mother sent me."
Draco froze, his wand mid-tap. Potter gulped and turned paler. "I'm so sorry for your loss."
"I see," Draco said.
Potter stared at him. Rain blew against his Shielding Charm, and the candles flickered in sympathy. Still, Potter stared. "I see," Draco said again, then fled the room.
He paced the house, easing around the perimeter of the structure, shoulder brushing the Shielding Charm every now and again. When it did, rain transferred through to his robes, then dripped to the polished cherry-plank floor. Draco ignored it. He ducked under the branches that grew naturally through the structure, then climbed the spiral staircase to the next level and repeated the journey. He didn't bother lighting his wand; the air was phosphorescent, casting everything in a lime-green glow. Around him, the tree breathed and swayed.
"Malfoy!" he heard some time later, drifting up through the branches. "Malfoy!"
With a sigh, he returned to Potter. "What?"
Potter relaxed back onto the bed as soon as Draco appeared. "Just wanted to make sure you were still here."
"Scared, Potter? Do you need a night light?"
Potter grinned. "No. The glow from outside is sufficient, and also quite beautiful. Otherworldly."
"But I was hoping you'd have something else on hand… for the pain," Potter continued. "It's still bad."
"And will remain so, I imagine." He entered the room and loomed over Potter. "You've had quite a bit of trauma, and since the damage occurred while you were in your Animagus form, the healing will take twice as long and will be doubly painful to boot."
Potter looked to be fighting a grin. "Do you have to look so gleeful when you say that?"
"Did the idiot who oversaw your training not warn you about Whomping Willows? Novice mistake, Potter, and it almost cost you your life."
Potter sank back to the bed with a sigh. Pale and trembling from the pain, he nonetheless managed to look enticing, like a fallen angel. The sheet slipped and gathered around his hips, but Draco kept his eyes resolutely on Potter's face.
"I thought I could outrun it," Potter said.
Draco blinked, sure he'd lost the thread of the conversation while he was ignoring Potter's nudity. "Outrun it, did you say?"
"You're mad." He scowled at the underlying humour in Potter's voice.
"My Animagus form is a peregrine falcon—"
"Yes, I saw if firsthand."
"—the fastest creature in the air."
Draco's laugh was brittle. "I should have known. Your hubris knows no bounds."
"Malfoy… Draco." Potter gulped and wiped at the sweat beading up on his forehead. "Do you have a pain potion?"
Draco spun and left without a word, though the space was open enough that Potter would see he was close by, rummaging in a cabinet. "Just a moment," Draco said, more because it was expected rather than because he wanted Potter to hear it.
But Potter did hear it. "Thank you," he replied, voice drifting from beyond the large branch that partitioned the bedroom from the main area. It was as thick around as Draco was, full with smaller limbs and leaves.
"You're welcome," Draco said, but this time he whispered.
The pain had returned to full strength, Draco saw when he stepped back around the branch. Potter's attempts to bear it in silence had Draco's fingers curling around the vial. "Take it, you fool." He thrust the potion forward.
Potter lifted his one good arm. "Thank you." He cursed when his fingers fumbled over Draco's. The potion sloshed onto their joined hands.
Draco considered letting it spill, just to see the shock and anguish on Potter's face.
I've been looking for you. Your mother sent me.
He sank onto the bed, knees suddenly weak. Without a word, he peeled the vial out of Potter's grip and tipped it against his lips. When Potter's one good elbow threatened to give out, Draco slipped a supporting arm around his back.
"Why you?" Draco asked.
Potter swiped the back of his hand over his mouth. "Because she knew I wouldn't give up trying to find you, and she had some things she wanted you to know."
"You mean you couldn't give up, am I correct?"
Potter's eyes bored into him. "Yes. You are. I owed her a debt. This – finding you – was the least I could do to fulfil it."
"To what end?" Draco set the empty vial down before he crushed it in his fist. "I'm to understand from your sympathies that she's dead. Gone."
"Yes. She's dead."
He knew, and yet to hear it said destroyed him unequivocally. He stood and backed away. More misplaced sympathy poured from Potter's eyes, and it was unbearable. Unbearable. "I have to go," Draco said, choking on the lie.
Potter nodded. "I know. I'll be here when you get back."
His vision blurred as he climbed the stairs, and he bumped his hip against a table in the room above because of it, but then he was out, passing through the wards and into the rain and wind, and he was flying. Flying away from Potter.
"You're very beautiful."
Draco spun round to find Potter, wrapped toga-like in the sheet, hovering and smiling. "I—what?"
"I meant your Animagus form. Your eagle is beautiful."
Draco replaced the teapot onto the table with more force than he intended, upending the sugar bowl in the process. "What are you doing out of bed?"
"I feel much better."
Potter nodded. "I know. That's why I wanted to talk to you now. Before the pain comes back."
Draco took a large sip from his cup, let the tea burn his tongue. "You shouldn't be up."
"I know that too." Potter's gaze fell to the cup in Draco's hands. "Think I could have a spot of that? If there's enough?"
Food and drink. Mortified, Draco nodded, and shooed Potter out of the room. The git had been in his home for almost twelve hours, and Draco hadn't so much as offered him a glass of water. His mother was probably turning in her grave.
The image sliced through him, taking his breath away. He stood hunched over the table for several minutes, fists curled into the bevelled edge, before he could gather the makings for a meal.
He ducked around the tree limb to find Potter back in bed as ordered, sheet tangled around his waist and legs. When Draco caught himself searching for the outline of Potter's cock beneath the material, he almost dropped the tray. Clearly self-imposed exile had its downside, if he was hoping for a glimpse of Potter's bits.
He set the tray down on the table beside the bed, then poured the hero his tea. "Very well. I'm here. Talk." He sat back and focussed on the trees beyond Potter's head.
Potter sipped and followed his gaze. "This is an amazing place. I've never seen anything like it."
"I meant talk about my mother."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
Draco doubted that. The prat was lying through his teeth. Draco clenched his and waited.
"She gave me some memories. Things she wanted you to see."
He'd been expecting this. From the moment Potter had opened his mouth about her. "Where are they?" He hadn't noticed anything on Potter's person but his wand.
Potter didn't speak, just tapped his head.
Draco's jaw ached. His head began to pound. "So you've seen them." His humiliation was complete. Potter was privy to his biggest failure, and worse, seemed quite pleased with himself for the knowledge.
Yet there wasn't a hint of mockery in Potter's next words. "We didn't have a chance to— she went quickly—" His voice tapered off when Draco choked on his tea. He fumbled his cup onto the tray and grabbed Draco's hand. "It was painless, I promise you that. Do you want to know—?"
"No." No, he certainly did not.
Potter's thumb stroked along the back of his hand, and Draco allowed it. Revelled in it, if honesty counted for anything. And while he pulled himself together, and Potter waited and soothed with his addicting touch, the storm died as suddenly as it had started. Draco pulled his wand from his pocket, dropped the Shielding Charms, and fresh air filled the room. No longer silenced by the rain, birds and insects of the forest canopy took up their songs.
Draco closed his eyes, comforted.
"Do you have a Pensieve?" Potter asked.
"Then we'll do it the old-fashioned way. Come here." Potter scooted sideways on the bed. Sharp-eyed, Draco didn't miss his wince of pain or the exertion-induced flush that spread across his cheeks. Potter patted the mattress, but Draco didn't budge from his chair.
"It's okay, Draco. It's okay. Don't be afraid."
Knowledge is power, Draco. Fear is not tolerated.
He drew back in his chair, away from Potter. Away from the memories.
Potter tried to shift forward, perhaps to take up Draco's hand again, but winced and groaned. Giddy with relief, thankful for the reprieve, Draco stood and gathered up the tea and sandwiches. "We'll do it later, after you've rested," he said.
This time, he left water by the bedside, and took his time changing Potter's dressings. He considered another dose of Skele-Gro, but decided against it. "The bone is knitting well," he told Potter. Let's let the potion work for another day or so."
"Hurts like hell," Potter admitted.
"It's your own fault for getting hurt in your Animagus form. Your first Transfiguration after you've healed will be very painful."
The mention of more pain made Potter blanch. Feeling charitable, though not understanding why, Draco increased the potion dosage, and Potter drifted into sleep with a relieved sigh.
Draco watched him sleep, taking note of how Potter's stomach muscles relaxed, then rippled as he shifted on the bed. "I want to touch you," Draco said under his breath. "How bloody inappropriate is that?"
Potter mumbled something in his sleep.
Draco leaned forward. "And why, if you don't mind my asking, are you being so nice to me?"
No answer this time, and Draco dropped his head into his hands. He'd been content here, but now it was over, shot to pieces in one moment of weakness. He should've let Potter rot under the Whomping Willow.
He rose, prepared to leave, when someone spoke. "You left me."
Nausea rose up, and he swallowed it down, determined not to humiliate himself. He shivered and the hair on his arms stood on end. "What?" he gasped, though he'd heard the accusation perfectly.
"You left me," Potter said from the bed, voice slurred with sleep.
Just Potter. Not his mother, just Potter. Draco remembered to breathe.
"In the woods. I remember you standing over me. Then you left."
"But you came back," Potter ended on a whisper.
Yes. For once, he had.
While Potter slept, Draco flew.
The forest was waking from the storm, and animals of all sorts were out and about, investigating downed limbs and overflowing streams. Birds pecked at the saturated earth for worms and other treats. Draco cried out in greeting as he passed overhead, and they answered. When he'd exhausted himself, he returned home and circled his house, landing occasionally on the surrounding trees to check for damage.
There was none. His wards had held. Fattened with rain, the leaves dripped water onto his roof with a soothing pitter-pat. The sky brightened with the first light of dawn, the sun streaming through the canopy in an irregular patchwork pattern.
He'd lost track of time. While he'd been attending to Potter, a new day had arrived, fresh with the promise of heartache.
He landed and walked the house, as if for the last time, which he realized it very well might be. His stomach cramped at the thought, and he stopped and laid his forehead against the rough bark of a tree limb. This was his home, his first ever and the last he'd wanted. But now Potter was here, and all of that was about to change.
He examined Potter, gave him more potions. "The bone is nearly fused. There should only be a few more hours of pain."
He expected Potter to be more relieved, but instead he seemed distracted.
"Thanks for helping me," Potter said, real warmth in his voice. Then, while Draco was still turning his answer over in his head, he beckoned. "Are you ready?"
Robbed of his ability to speak, Draco stared at the empty potions vials in his hands.
"It's okay. Remember what I said?"
"Why are you doing this?" Draco blurted.
"I told you."
"No. I mean why are you being so nice?" He hated Potter for that, for pretending kindness, for purposefully softening the blow. But then he'd always known how to push Draco's buttons.
"I have my reasons."
"She hated me." It was important to let Potter know he wasn’t going into this blind.
Potter had the gall to look confused. "Is that what you think?" He shook his head and sighed. "Come here. Lie down."
Unable to stall any longer, Draco did. He stretched out alongside Potter, and though he demanded his body to relax, it recoiled, awash in remembered hatred and rivalry.
"It's okay," Potter whispered, happy to whisper platitudes all day, it seemed. "Close your eyes and relax.
With Potter and his wand a few inches away. No one, god or hero, had ever been asked to give so much. "I'm trying."
Trying is what weak people do, Draco. Succeeding is what Malfoys do.
"Or not," he said with short bark of laughter.
Potter's brow furrowed. "All right?"
And it began. Potter drew him in, showed him his mother's memories. Her legacy, Draco thought. This is her legacy to me. Flashes of thought, blurry with age, seduced him from all sides. He chose one, and jumped.
He was five years old, and his mother was pushing him on a swing. It was an old, battered thing, no more than a plank and two ropes tied to the branch of a tree, but he loved it. Narcissa echoed his laughter and pushed him higher. "Fly, Draco!" she called. "Fly to the sun and back, my beautiful boy!"
"I will, mummy!" But when he tried, the ground rushed up to meet him, and soon tears mixed with the dirt on his face. "I’m sorry," he said. "I tried."
His mother gathered him up into her arms. "Trying, my love, is all that I can ever ask of you. And you must always remember, we are all of us, at heart, human."
"So we make mistakes. We fly and fall. And it's not the end of the world."
Draco let the first memory fade. He jumped into another, then another, each different, yet the same, until there was only one left. He saw his mother in front of her vanity, perched on the tufted stool and staring into the mirror. In the reflection behind her he could see his parents' bed. It was mussed on one side, pristine on the other. Narcissa looked haggard; her hair was dull, her complexion grey, her lips tinged blue. Draco still thought her beautiful. With a wan smile, she touched a hand to her mouth, blew a kiss, then spoke.
"These are my wishes for you, my son. I can only pray that Harry finds you with them. I hope you are content, and that you have found peace. That somewhere you are flying, the wind in your hair and the earth far beneath you. Sometimes I dream of you, darling, and you're soaring. Soar, Draco. That's all I ever wanted for you."
She rose, turned back to the bed, and when she passed Draco saw her eyes were dry and her lips were turned up in a small smile.
When this last image faded, he found Potter waiting for him in the darkness left behind. "I thought she hated me," Draco said.
"I abandoned her. After the war." It hurt more now, knowing she had been alone in the end. That he could have gone to her. "I couldn't handle things, how everyone hated us. I couldn't live with the things I'd done." And now the most horrible part of all. "I couldn't stand to look at her."
Potter laid a hand on his shoulder. "Nobody can blame you for feeling those things."
"I don't blame you. Do you know, the day she gave these memories to me was the first time in my life I've truly felt a mother's love, one that wasn't imagined. It's in my head, filling up my heart. I can't thank her enough for that. Or you." Potter reached to stroke his face. "She loved you, Draco. Would you like to know what else she told me to tell you?"
Draco leant into Potter's touch. "Yes. I want to know everything."
Draco opened his eyes; Potter's were still closed. His lips moved, the words nothing but the barest whisper, but Draco heard them. "I was never disappointed in you," his mother said in Potter's voice. "I'm sorry for my mistakes, sorry you suffered. I'm sorry that you're alone."
"It's okay," Draco said. "I'm okay now."
And when Potter wrapped his arms around him, Draco accepted the comfort. Like the breath of the forest, Potter soothed him. His hands stroked Draco's back, fingers tiptoeing down his spine, first soft, then more firmly. His lips found Draco's cheek, then his throat. A breeze gusted over them, and the tree rocked.
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