Draco Malfoy was sneering.
The only notable thing worth mentioning about this otherwise common occurrence was that it was the most subdued sneer in the history of unpleasant Slytherin expressions, and Draco happened to be wearing it while in the middle of a detention. Since the chore Filch had chosen for him involved a great deal of owl droppings and one ordinary broomstick, one would be hard-pressed to blame him.
Malfoy swept both feathers and mouse remains into yet another pile, scooped it up in a dustpan and dumped it into a floating bin. He glowered at the bin, magically enchanted to follow him around the room as he swept. It was the only bit of magic there to help his detention along. Once there was nothing left to sweep, it would empty itself out in the Forest.
He looked away from it and his eyes traveled over the piles of feathers and droppings that were almost knee-deep in places. Many things had been neglected at Hogwarts since the Carrows' reign, but Draco had never thought the Owlery would be one of them. Although, he reflected, Filch had more on his mind than dirt here and there with his life being threatened every day. Someone had found out that he was a squib. When the Carrows found out, they'd wanted to sack him and worse - but oddly enough, Snape had spoken up for the man.
"Who would you hire in his place?" Snape had asked the outraged siblings. "Will you volunteer, Amycus, to walk all the stairs in the castle and wash the muck from the walls and bathrooms as well as teach? Cleaning up filth . . . I can personally think of no better job position for a squib."
Filch had stayed, utterly humiliated and yet begrudgingly grateful for his life. He had refused to leave his post, even when being threatened and insulted, even when Mrs. Norris was almost killed by Crabbe and Goyle's 'practicing'. Draco had been nowhere near the two when that had occurred, but he knew Filch blamed him nonetheless. And since he'd been the only one of the three who'd accepted McGonagall's offer of forgiveness and returned to Hogwarts - Crabbe being dead and Goyle having dropped out - it made Filch that much more determined to make his life hell. Draco swept another pile and dumped it into the bin, using more force than necessary. He'd been having trouble sleeping thanks to nightmares. Had he not been foolish enough to try and take a midnight walk outside of the dormitories, Filch never would have caught him out of bed.
He slammed another pile into the bin and looked up at the sound of reproachful hooting. "Oh, hush up," Draco snapped at the birds. "I'm making a lot less of a racket than you are."
An eagle owl looked down at him sternly before turning on his perch and flying out of the window. Draco watched, feeling a sudden pang. He'd seen his own eagle owl, Balfour, killed slowly, given to Nagini as punishment for failing to kill Dumbledore. He had refused to cry out in front of the other Death Eaters, but as the snake had devoured the majestic bird, he had been unable to stop shaking. They had all laughed at him . . .
A familiar flurry of white and dark gray overhead startled him. He glanced up at the higher beams of the Owlery.
Draco watched the owl fly back to her wooden perch and saw the heavily feathered feet curl around it. His lit wand caught the reflection of yellow in her round gleaming eyes. Potter's bird? Impossible. He remembered what Aunt Bellatrix had boasted; that she herself had killed the git's beloved pet. Nevertheless, save for her size, the owl was the spitting image.
Curious, he held out his arm and whistled softly. The owl flew down at once and landed on his arm, as birds belonging to the school were trained to do for any student. Draco winced. She might have been smaller than Potter's owl, but she was still of a large species and she had yet to be trained to soften her landing. Her black spots and heavy barring indicated that she was a youngling, probably little more than a year old.
No store at Diagon Alley sold owls this young. Judging by how eager she was to please, she'd probably never been out on a post job. She had to have been hatched here and left unclaimed, and it was possible the school owls had raised her as their own. But how? It was rare that wizards' owls mated with without supervision. There were spells preventing that sort of thing after all. Otherwise the Owlery would be positively overrun with half-wild owlets and their frantic parents nesting, feeding, fighting. No post of any kind would get in or out. Who could have been so bloody brainless as to . . . ?
A light suddenly clicked on in Malfoy's head. He stared at the expectant owl on his arm, who clicked her beak impatiently. Absently he stroked her feathers, his mind racing.
Potter had barely known anything about the wizarding world when he'd come to Hogwarts. Potter's parents were dead, he'd had no contact whatsoever with any of his kind, and he'd had somebody trying to kill him almost every bloody year. With a schedule like that, not even know-it-all Granger could remember to pipe up about such a silly little thing as abstinence charms. Draco's mouth curled into a smirk
Oh, Potter, he thought derisively. While you were off saving the world and winning at Quidditch, your little bird was getting busy.
The bespectacled sod would be so embarrassed.
Malfoy couldn't wait to tell him.
With the owl still perched on his arm, he left the broom against the wall and slipped out, shutting the door behind him. The floating rubbish bin bumped against the door fruitlessly, unable to follow.
Harry Potter, Malfoy noted with some dismay, was every bit as sexually retarded as he looked.
Draco was standing in the hall outside the Gryffindor common room, arms folded and looking absolutely mortified. None of the clever jokes he'd made on the way down from the Owlery (and most of them had been brilliant) had seemed to register with the Boy-Who-Lived-To-Be-A-Pain-In-The-Arse.
Harry's own arms were crossed, but his eyebrow was raised and he was looking at Malfoy as though the Slytherin had utterly lost his mind.
Honestly, Draco couldn't blame him. When the subtle digs had failed to clue Harry in to what the hell he was smirking about, Draco had then attempted to explain them. And when that failed, Draco had found himself inadvertently giving Harry Sodding Potter a lecture about owl sex.
Malfoy had cut himself off as soon as he noticed he was making hand gestures to go with it. He stared back at Potter and silently wished one of them could die.
"What," Harry asked finally, "Are you on about, Malfoy?"
He sounded far too calm for someone who'd been woken at eleven o'clock to deal with a crazy Slytherin with feathers stuck in his hair.
Draco felt just as tired as Potter looked. He decided to blame the babbling on that. "Ugh. Apparently, you're so thick I actually need a visual aid."
Harry blanched and held up his hands to protest. But Draco held up his own hand and again winced as something white and gray landed on his arm from the rafters where she'd been waiting. She looked amused and half-awake, blinking at Harry.
Potter's jaw dropped and Draco felt a small thrill of triumph. That was the look he'd wanted on Potter's face. Merlin, he wished he'd thought of this earlier.
"You are the only one with a female Snowy Owl at this school who's stupid enough not to know about heat cycles. Undoubtedly between answering all your many admirers, your owl found time to take care of her own. Smart girl, if you ask me."
Draco's snide remarks seemed again to fall flat. He frowned and then noticed Harry's expression. His green eyes were wide and he had an almost wistful smile on his face as he regarded the owl on Draco's arm. He reached out and stroked the feathers on her chest. She hooted softly and nibbled his fingers, almost fondly.
"So . . ." Draco continued, at a loss. "So . . . I . . ."
He trailed off completely when he saw Harry take off his glasses and swipe a hand across his eyes. Dumbfounded, Draco watched the boy's face screw up with unshed tears, even as Potter's grin - strained as it was - widened. The owl clicked her beak softly and shifted from foot to foot, as if yearning to comfort him.
It hit him then. Harry had seen his owl die, just as Draco had been forced to watch Balfour struggle in the jaws of that damned snake. Obviously, she'd meant as much to Harry.
Draco remembered how the Death Eaters had all jeered, mocking him as he choked back sobs and stared ahead at his owl's frantic attempts to escape death. Their taunts had reverberated against the stone walls, nearly drowning out Balfour's helpless screeches - and Draco had struggled to accept his punishment stoically, all the while screaming inside that it wasn't fair, his owl had done nothing to deserve a painful death, it wasn't fair . . .
"I'm sorry," Draco blurted out, before he could stop himself. Harry looked up and swallowed. His eyes were rimmed red from rubbing at them and he put his glasses back on. "I'm . . . I'm really sorry. Here, just . . . take her."
He held his arm out and the owl wasted no time going to Harry's. She crawled up halfway to his shoulder, unfurling her wings for balance. Harry smiled at her before looking back at Malfoy.
There was a moment of awkwardness until Draco couldn't look Harry in the face.
"I'll just go now. I have to finish cleaning," Draco muttered. He took off down the hall before Harry could say a word.
Breakfast in the Great Hall was noisy as it ever was. Were it not for the vacant seats around him Draco might not feel as lonely because of it. A few from his year were scattered here and there, and the first years were clumped together at one end of the table as though they could separate themselves from the ill repute of their House by sheer stubbornness.
Draco stabbed at his eggs and bacon without much of an appetite. He'd finished cleaning the Owlery by quarter to one but by the time he could go to bed, he was too upset to be tired. He was surprised to find he felt guilty. Malfoy forced himself to eat, not looking up lest he see baleful glares from the Gryffindor table aimed his direction. Surely by now Potter would have told them what happened - they'd all want to know why Malfoy had boldly called him out into the hall after curfew.
A shadow fell over him and Draco looked up at the resulting clatter as an owl landed on the table before him. It turned around and stuck its leg out. The note was on regular parchment, surprisingly not a Howler. Draco took it off the bird and unrolled it.
I've named the owl Rhoswen. It means 'white rose'. Hermione's going to help me train her.
Thanks for telling me about Hedwig's daughter, even though you were trying to be a git about it.
You've lost your touch for that, by the way. It's a good change in you.
Want to talk this afternoon? I'll be by the Great Lake.
He glanced at the Gryffindor table and found Harry in conversation with Finnegan over something Quidditch-related, judging by the way the latter was getting red in the face. He smirked and turned the note over to pen a quick reply, then caught something written across the top.
P.S. Please don't bring more visual aides. I don't think I could handle them.
Draco actually laughed out loud in surprise and covered his mouth, flushing as several Slytherins stared at him in shock. This time, Harry looked up and grinned at him cheekily. The bastard. Draco wrote his reply and sent it back to him. Harry reached out and caught the fluttering missile, turning to read it.
You are a git. I will be there, without visual aides since even those are probably beyond your understanding.
"Prat," Harry muttered to himself, and smiled.