The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
It had begun snowing several hours earlier. The snow fell in sparkling swirls in the waning afternoon light, collecting on the bare ground in sparse patches. It continued unabated, until the wide expanse of the Manor’s grounds was blanketed in gleaming white, flushed rosy by the setting sun. This was the shortest day of the year. The Winter Solstice had arrived, bringing with it the ancient celebration of Yule.
Draco Malfoy gazed morosely out the tall casement window that overlooked his writing desk and watched the snow. It was falling quite heavily now, blowing sheets of white sideways, some of it slapping against the casement and sticking there in large, cottony clots. Downstairs, he could hear the sounds of bustling activity: house-elves were scurrying about, setting everything in place for the formal dinner party his parents gave every Yule.
In his mind’s eye, he could picture the entire thing: the long mahogany table in the dining room covered in his mother’s best lace tablecloth, the one belonging to his great-grandmother eons ago; the fine, gold-rimmed china and cutlery, twenty-five place settings in all; twenty-five crystal water goblets and twenty-five crystal wine glasses, everything gleaming and twinkling in the light of tall, gold candelabrum strategically placed along the length of the table, their slender, white tapers flickering.
It was all very elegant and certainly most impressive. Year after year, everyone agreed that Narcissa Malfoy set a perfect table, everything in the most exquisite taste. Year after year, the Malfoy heir sat in his designated place at the head of the table next to his parents, dutiful and submissive to a fault.
Year after bloody year.
Suddenly, that scenario didn’t seem even remotely palatable anymore. Draco brought his fist down on the desk, drawing in and then expelling a deep breath as he considered. There was really only one option if he didn’t want to play his usual role in what amounted to a charade for him now. That traditional role was now an ill-fitting one, seven years post-war. At twenty-five, he’d long since outgrown it, leaving behind the automatic presumptions and precepts that had informed his life for the first eighteen years. The world still saw him as the obedient, well-schooled son being meticulously groomed to take his eventual place at the helm of both the Malfoy family and all its business dealings. But he knew that this individual was long gone.
It was as if the pieces of a puzzle had abruptly clicked into place in his head. He was resolved. Option B was beckoning, and damn it all, he would grab it with both hands.
In a matter of moments, he’d donned his warm, woollen travelling cloak and gloves, a muffler, a hat with a wide brim useful for shielding his face when anonymity might be desirable, and his dragonhide boots. The only thing that remained was what he looked forward to least.
He found his mother in the dining room, supervising the placement of tall vases of luxuriant flowers. He cleared his throat and she straightened, turning to face him. Her surprise was evident.
“Where on earth are you going, darling? Our guests will be arriving shortly!”
“Out. I – I have plans. Of my own. With…” He thought quickly. “With friends. And anyway, you really don’t need me here. Happy Yule, Mother,” he added hurriedly, edging his way to the door. “Give my best to Father, will you?”
“Just a moment, Draco. Not so fast.”
The steely voice of his father cut like a knife.
“Whilst I do appreciate your Yule sentiments, I can’t help wondering why you are choosing to leave when you know how important it is for our family to present a unified front before our friends and society at large. People talk, Draco. You know that. It would not do for tongues to start wagging and rumours to be spread regarding Malfoy family business, personal or otherwise. Your absence would result in all sorts of nasty gossip, which we can ill afford. It has taken quite some time and effort to return our family’s status and influence to that which we enjoyed before the war. You know this, too. Finally, traditions are important. They are the glue that binds our society together and propels it forward. We have hosted this Yule dinner for many years. I will take it as a personal affront if you walk out that door now.”
Lucius Malfoy’s expression was stony, his grey eyes cold and impenetrable despite his words. Over the years, that expression had always been quite enough to make Draco quail inside, instantly losing whatever resolve he might have been able to muster over the issue at hand. Now he could feel that same sick feeling twisting his stomach into knots, his resolve beginning to crumble.
No. Not this time. Clenching his jaw, Draco stood his ground, ramming his hands into the pockets of his cloak and lifting his chin defiantly.
“I’m sorry, Father. The fact is, you don’t need me here. I serve no real function. You just want me here to complete the family picture and avoid gossip. You said so yourself. Well, I’m tired of being a prop.” He took a deep breath and pushed on. “Especially in the service of ideas I don’t believe in anymore. You and Mother will do brilliantly without me, I’ve no doubt. I’m twenty-five years old, Father. I’m a grown man now. It’s time I began making some traditions of my own.”
Turning on his heel, he strode out of the dining room and headed for the entry hall. Behind him, the silence was palpable. He knew without even turning around that his parents were standing frozen, like statues, staring after him, just as he knew that yet again, he’d disappointed his father’s impossibly high expectations. Unyielding pride forbade them running after him, and just now, he was grateful for that.
Well, fuck those expectations, he thought, preparing to Apparate. Finally, he would do what he wanted. It had taken him long enough – embarrassing, really, that he’d waited until the age of twenty-five before standing on his own two feet over anything – but he’d done it at last. Small potatoes, Yule, but it was a start. Or perhaps not so small after all.
A moment later, he found himself in the bitter cold just outside the back door of the White Hart, a 600-year-old pub in the nearby village of Castle Combe. The White Hart had an unusual history, to say the least. On the ground floor, it was an ordinary village tavern, servicing the locals when they stopped in for a pint and a game of darts. However, upstairs it was a different story. Tucked away in the back was a warren of hidden rooms only accessible if one knew the proper doors and passageways, and most importantly, the proper entry spells. Here, the wizarding community in this part of Wiltshire were feted when they came for a drink and some congenial, after-hours company. Draco had been coming here since the age of seventeen, often to drown his anger for whatever indignity he’d been forced to suffer at his father’s hands, whatever disappointment he’d caused the family.
Taking the back stairs, he located the requisite passageway, which was dim and very narrow. Murmuring the entry spell, he pushed at the ancient wooden door and it swung open, revealing a large, smoky room with an enormous stone hearth at one end, where a cheerful fire crackled and burned brightly.
Draco made his way to the bar and sank down on one of the stools, shrugging off his cloak and hat and laying them on a nearby chair.
The barkeep, a man who looked as old as the pub itself, nodded cordially, one eyebrow raised.
“Surprised to see you here tonight, Master Malfoy.”
Draco ignored the pointed observation and the insinuation behind it. He wasn’t in a talking mood, and it was none of the barkeep’s business anyway. “Firewhiskey, Charles. Make it a double,” he muttered.
The publican frowned but said nothing more. He knew when a line had been drawn. The Malfoys were a law unto themselves in these parts and it did not do to forget that. Young Master Malfoy seemed different tonight, though; there had been something in his eyes beyond the usual expression of spoiled entitlement. Charles hadn’t seen much of young Malfoy in the last several years. The publican wondered briefly what might have changed, then shrugged and resumed polishing the many rows of glasses with waves of his wand. It wasn’t his business. Best to leave the problems of the gentry to those concerned and keep well out of it.
Two doubles later, a woozy Draco stood, slapped some money down on the polished wood of the bar, and made his way to the darkened stairway. Navigating its twists and turns in his current condition sobered him a bit when he nearly fell and genuine nerves set in. Finally, he reached the bottom and stumbled out into the cold night air, taking in deep gulps that seared his lungs as he fell back against the facade of the ancient pub.
Recovering himself, he raised his head and looked around. The village was shrouded in December darkness, a warm, yellow glow streaming from windows and turning the snow to gold. Smoke rose from chimneys, lacing the frigid air with a homey, woodsy scent. It was tempting to look into windows while walking along. Families were at home together, having supper and enjoying the festive season. Cooking smells made their way into the street along with the wood smoke, and his mouth began to water. He could see the occasional hearth, bright with cheery flames, and people sitting in comfortable chairs drawn up to the fire’s warmth.
They would be celebrating together, he thought glumly, and it would be by choice, not by obligation. He had no idea if any of them were wizarding families, but it didn’t matter. Whatever and however they celebrated, the traditions would be genuine and meaningful.
Suddenly, all of it became just a bit too much and he grew angry at himself. What was the point of indulging maudlin regrets and bitterness? He was a Malfoy, and Malfoys did not give in to such weakness. What did he need commonplace, pedestrian celebrations for, anyway? Get a grip, he told himself. He might not like the hidebound traditions his parents chose to honour every year, but that didn’t mean he should be yearning for overly sentimental rubbish, either.
Time to get the hell out of Castle Combe and do some serious drinking.
A moment later, having nearly splinched himself and definitely the worse for wear, he found himself standing outside the Leaky Cauldron. Snatches of music made their way outside, along with laughter and conversation. Something savoury and smelling delicious hit his nose and he breathed it in appreciatively, along with the comforting scent of wood smoke. Inside, there would surely be a roaring fire to banish the cold. This was more like it.
All things considered, the pub was surprisingly busy on this Yule night. It was a comfort, oddly, to observe this, and Draco seated himself at the bar, fully ready to drink himself into oblivion and enjoy the hell out of the ride as he did so. He could be as anti-social as he chose and nobody would bother him.
And so it went for the first half hour. Cider, hard and with a powerful kick, was the drink of choice now. Two pints down, and a third was on its way. Draco was fairly drunk by now, just past euphoric and verging on belligerent. Nobody had said a word to him with the exception of the barkeep, but he was wishing somebody would. He was ready, even eager, to let one fly, and it wouldn’t take much.
That’s when it happened.
He’d just raised his glass to his lips, ready to down the remains of his drink, when something or someone bumped into him from behind. The blow landed squarely in the centre of his back with considerable force.
“What the fuck…” he spluttered, the last gulp of cider now soaking into his shirtfront instead of in his mouth, where it belonged. Turning, he saw a very drunk half-giant about the size of Hagrid.
“Watch what you’re doing, you bloody cretin!” Draco yelled and immediately regretted it. The half-giant had already begun lurching towards the exit, but at the sound of Draco’s words, he turned back. The expression on his face was enough to turn one’s balls to ice water. Clearly, he was in no mood to be challenged, much less by a skinny blond twig just begging to be snapped.
“Eh? What was that?” he roared, lumbering back two steps and raising his arm menacingly, fist clenched, in Draco’s direction.
There were just a few seconds to decide where to take this situation. Drunken male pride narrowed the choices down to one. Gathering his courage, Draco stood his ground, his chin jutting out obstinately.
“I said watch what you’re doing, you great, stupid –”
Any remaining expletives died in Draco's throat as, with a deafening roar, the half-giant advanced on him, swaying unsteadily, taking one step, then another, and then a wobbly third. With the fourth step, he would be quite literally breathing down his quarry’s neck, which he intended to break.
Draco could see the lust for mayhem in the rheumy, bloodshot eyes. Ordinarily pretty quick on the draw, he reached for his wand, fumbling in his cloak and coming up empty.
Things were turning serious now. Draco made one last, desperate attempt to locate his wand. Meanwhile, the half-giant was towering over him and exhaling foul, firewhiskey-soaked fumes in Draco’s face.
“Cretin, eh? I’ll show you!” the huge man growled, reaching to grab Draco by the scruff of the neck and lifting him well off his feet. He held the smaller man there, feet dangling a fair distance off the ground, and laughed.
“I believe I’ll just squash you like a nasty, little bug. Reckon that’ll sort you,” he said, leering at Draco.
Draco drew back, wrinkling his nose and trying very hard not to breathe. He squeezed his eyes shut, knowing that something very unpleasant was about to happen and knowing, too, that for once, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
A moment passed, and then another.
Cautiously, Draco cracked his eyes open a slit. He was back on terra firma, and the huge man was standing two feet away now, shaking his head and looking plainly fuddled.
“’Bout to do something, wasn’t I?” he muttered, his voice a gravelly rumble. “Bugger it. Can’t remember.” He shook his head once again, as if to clear it of cobwebs, and backed off another step, bemused. Then he looked fuzzily in Draco’s direction, squinted hard for a moment, shook his head one final time, and moved slowly off in the direction of the door.
‘Good riddance!’ Draco thought with relief, but he remained mystified. What in Merlin’s name had just happened? It certainly hadn’t been anything he’d done. Another few seconds and he’d have been mincemeat. So what the hell had just happened? Who or what had saved him?
“It was me, actually,” a clear, very distinctive female voice said just behind his right ear.
Turning his head rather more suddenly than was comfortable, considering how drunk he was, Draco stared at the owner of the voice. It was someone he hadn’t seen in seven years, not since the end of the war.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded thickly, for lack of a better response. Not terribly original, but his wit had utterly deserted him.
Hermione Granger shrugged lightly. “Same as you, I expect. Having a drink. Or, well… coffee, actually. Though I wouldn’t mind something a bit stronger now. Care to buy me a drink? As a thank you?”
Drunk though he might be, he was not too pissed to remember to whom he was talking. The very idea of the two of them sitting down like chums over a drink or two was ludicrous in the extreme.
“Now why in Merlin’s name should I do that?” he slurred, attempting and failing to recover his natural panache.
Hermione grinned smugly. “Oh, I don’t know… maybe because I just saved your neck. Confundus charm,” she added. “Wandless. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.”
“And I suppose, as I heard nothing, you cast the charm telepathically.” Draco gave an incredulous snort.
“As a matter of fact,” she began, nodding, and then her grin widened. “You were wondering who or what had saved you, isn’t that right?”
And she’d answered his silent question, hadn’t she. A talented Legilimens as well. Holy fuck.
“Now then,” she said, seating herself beside him. “About that drink.”
A moment later, two brimming glasses were set down before them.
“Didn’t take you for the firewhiskey type,” Draco muttered, eyeing her curiously despite himself. “Would've pegged you for a girly sort of drink. Something sweet.”
Hermione reached for one of the glasses. “With an umbrella. Yes, well… not tonight. I need something a bit stronger tonight.”
Curious. Certainly not the Granger he remembered from school. She didn’t seem ready or willing to elaborate just at the moment, though.
He snagged his own glass and raised it. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” she replied, touching her glass to his and then downing its incendiary contents in a single swallow. Gasping, she coughed and swallowed hard, a flush flaming her cheeks pink.
“Clearly,” he drawled, amused, “you haven’t much experience with the hard stuff, Granger. First off, you savour something as fine as this, you don’t chug it. That’s criminal. Second, you want to burn a hole in your throat? Just keep tossing them back like that. And third, women shouldn’t drink that way in any case. It’s…” He thought of what his mother had always said about women and alcohol and the proper way for someone of the female persuasion to consume it. “It’s not ladylike.”
Now Hermione let out a peal of derisive laughter. “Oh! I see! ‘Ladylike,’ is it? Well, I’ll have you know, Malfoy, that I can drink with the best of them if I want to. Another, please,” she told the barkeep airily. "‘Ladylike’! Honestly!”
The snort that followed was most unladylike, Draco decided, swallowing a snicker, and then he considered the situation. True, he’d wanted and expected to be on his own tonight, but now he found he had company. Hermione Granger, of all people. Chances were excellent that she would annoy the hell out of him in fairly short order. Then he’d have to find a way to ditch her. Knowing her, though, once she’d had a few, she’d be a leech and he’d never get rid of her. On the other hand, did he really want to be alone? Maybe some company, even Granger’s, was better than none. He’d been on his own for a couple of hours at this point and hadn’t derived much genuine pleasure from it. Apart from that, she had rescued him; that did count for something. And she wasn’t bad to look at, now that he really looked. The last seven years had treated her surprisingly well. All things considered, maybe her company wouldn’t be completely intolerable after all.
A quick nod to the barkeep bought them another round. There was one other factor he hadn’t admitted to yet, but he considered it now. There was a reason she was here, just as he was, instead of with family or friends. Suddenly, he wanted very much to know what it was. Maybe a couple of stiff drinks would loosen her tongue and she’d spill.
Half an hour later, Draco knew more than he’d ever wanted to about the minutiae of Hermione Granger’s life: her nasty landlord, the periodic leaks in the en-suite just above the toilet, her obnoxious neighbours, and the endless frustrations of working in the Ministry. There was more, too, though Draco had tried very hard to block it out. None of it had satisfied his curiosity about why she was here tonight. Finally, he’d had enough. Setting down his glass, he waited till she’d finished her latest rant.
“Right, yeah, got it. So…” Straight to the point. “What’s the real reason you came here tonight?”
Hermione glanced at him briefly and then dropped her gaze, focusing instead on the remains of the whiskey at the bottom of her glass.
“Is it that obvious?” she asked in a small voice. “But why? I’m no different to anyone else. You’re here. How come? Haven’t you got all sorts of family obligations, tonight of all nights?”
Draco shrugged. “Told them to stuff it.”
At this, Hermione actually looked momentarily horrified. Then she began to giggle. “You did not!”
Despite himself, he chuckled. “Well, not in those words. But essentially, yeah. I did. As to why,” he added, feeling the sudden urge to rant himself, “I just got bloody sick of going through the same, old, pointless motions, you know? Couldn’t face looking at all the same smug faces at yet another of my parents’ Yule dinners. They’re all living in the past. As if the war never happened. As if… well… That’s just not on. Not anymore.”
All mirth had died away, and now she regarded him with wide, thoughtful eyes. There was a long moment of silence. “I should go,” she said finally, slipping off the bar stool. “Thank you for the drinks. Do you…” She hesitated and then plunged ahead. “Do you want to come back to my place for a bit? I could make us some coffee. You need to sober up.”
The idea had merit. No way could he possibly get himself home safely in his current condition. Strong coffee sounded like the only option at this point, and the idea of drinking it at Granger’s place was much more attractive than here at the pub. For one thing, the coffee would be better. The Leaky’s coffee was really foul. Besides, she wasn’t anywhere near as drunk as he was. She’d get them both back there in one piece.
They donned their cloaks and linked arms. Moments later, they were standing in the modest sitting room of her flat. The sofa looked well worn, the rug fairly nondescript, its colours faded from sun exposure. The walls were lined with bookcases spilling over with books of all sorts. There were knick knacks and photos, too, of people who must be Granger’s family. Those photos were oddly stationary. The ones of school friends smiled and waved as he peered at them. Altogether, it was a comfortable, lived-in room, and it suited her.
She’d lined the mantel on the small fireplace with fresh evergreen, holly, and mistletoe. Evergreen was there to remind us of the promise of spring and earth’s reawakening, he remembered his mother telling him when he was small. Mistletoe and holly were sacred, used for healing and protection. He could still hear her voice in his head, all these years later.
“Get the fire going, would you?” Hermione called from the small galley kitchen, where she was busy making the coffee.
He felt fairly certain he could manage that much, even in his present state. With a shaky wave of his wand, which he’d finally located deep in the recesses of his cloak pocket, he muttered, “Incendio!” Instantly, a flame leapt up from the partially burnt logs already in the hearth and the dry wood began to spit and crackle. Carefully, he added in some kindling from a tin box next to the fireplace. Before long, a cheerful fire was blazing.
Hermione reappeared soon after, carrying a tray laden with steaming mugs, a porcelain cream pitcher and sugar bowl, and a plate of sliced cake. He noticed that she’d changed into a pair of leggings and an oversized, henley-style shirt. A man’s shirt. Plopping down on a large pillow by the fire, she sat cross-legged, watching the flames pensively. A moment later, she realised that Draco was still standing.
“Too grand to sit on the floor, are we?” she teased, patting at another large pillow close to hers. “Have a seat, Malfoy. Coffee’s just there.” She indicated the tray sitting on the low coffee table nearby. “Cake too. Sorry, it’s a bit stale, I think.”
Not that Draco cared. Suddenly, he realised that he was absolutely famished. His dinner had been of the liquid variety, and now his stomach growled with hunger pangs. Stale or not, the cake looked awfully good.
A few minutes passed quietly as they ate and sipped their coffee, the only sound that of white-hot embers popping as they burst and crumbled to ash. Eventually, Hermione slanted a thoughtful look at Draco.
“I didn’t really answer your question before, did I.”
Draco raised an eyebrow in surprise. He hadn’t really expected that she would. He shook his head and waited.
The answer began with a deep sigh. “Well,” she started, “tonight’s an anniversary of a sort, for me. Not a happy one. A year ago tonight, Ron and I broke up.”
“Not for the first time, from what I remember hearing,” Draco observed pointedly. “Sorry. Gossip,” he hastened to add, after a sharp glance from her.
She sighed again. “Yes, I know. People talk. And you’re right; it wasn’t the first time. But it was definitely the last. We haven’t seen each other or spoken since. Which means that not only did I lose the relationship, I also lost contact with his whole family. Well, except for Ginny, and that’s only because she’s married to Harry.”
Draco considered. “But if you two broke up, that was a good thing in the end, surely.”
At this, Hermione nodded emphatically. “Oh yes. A very good thing. Ron and I were totally wrong for each other. I don’t know why I didn’t see it years sooner.”
“Everyone else did. The entire school did.”
“Did they?” she asked faintly, colouring. “Oh well, you know what they say about love being blind. It just makes me sad now, remembering the good bits and missing all that.” Her small laugh was wistful. “To be truthful, I think I miss his family and all the good times at the Burrow a lot more than I really miss him. Anyway, I started thinking about all that tonight, and I just… I don’t know… I just wanted to blot it all out, everything. Sitting around at home made me feel worse. I had to get out of here.” She glanced around the room and then down at the shirt she wore. “Too many reminders, still.”
Draco shrugged. The solution was obvious. “Chuck the lot.”
“Just like that?” Hermione frowned, pushing the remains of her cake around the plate. “Up to now, I haven’t had the heart to.” Unconsciously, she fingered the soft cotton of the shirt, her hand falling to her lap. “But maybe you’re right. It would be a good New Year’s resolution, a promise to myself. What about you, then?”
“Me?” He thought for a moment. “Yeah. Tonight was… well, it was a start. The stuff I grew up believing... it’s all bollocks, really. I know that now. But they still believe it. It’s still their world. Not mine. Not anymore.”
“So… what now? What will you do?” she asked softly, gazing at him.
He shrugged again and shook his head. “No clue. Move out, I reckon, soon as I can. Figure out what to do with my life.” He laughed ruefully. “Get a job. I doubt my father will want to support me when I no longer live under his roof and follow his rules. Not that I want him to.”
“A new start,” Hermione murmured to herself and then looked over at him. He nodded. It would be a promise worth keeping for both of them.
Eventually, the fire died down, the cake and coffee were gone, and sleep was threatening to overtake them. Fighting yawns, they struggled to their feet, and Draco pulled on his cloak, hat, and boots. Time for some serious sleep on this longest night of the year.
As he wound his muffler round his neck, a sudden impulse struck. He turned back to face her again, his heart beating just a little faster.
“Look,” he said abruptly. “I was thinking… I don’t suppose… well… do you have plans? For New Year’s, I mean.”
Hermione slowly shook her head, a tiny smile beginning to nudge the corners of her mouth. “No. I’ve been invited to a couple of parties, but I haven’t accepted. Didn’t really feel much like a party. Why?”
“Want to do something? Dinner, maybe?”
She cocked her head to one side, eyes narrowing. “Are you asking me out on a date? Or is this just a friendly dinner?” She considered for a moment. “Are we even really friends?”
Point taken. By rights, considering the wretched way he’d treated her for years, she shouldn’t even be talking to him, much less considering going to dinner with him.
“Not yet, but who knows?” Draco countered. Had that reply been the right one? Anxiously, he studied her face. Then she smiled shyly.
“Okay, then. Dinner. Between almost-friends.” Moving closer, Hermione held out a hand to him. “’Night, Malfoy. Solstice blessings. Happy Yule. ”
He caught a whiff of her perfume and inhaled it appreciatively, suddenly even more hopeful. Because that crooked little smile had grown, and now it reached clear up to her eyes.
Suddenly, New Year’s Eve was looking rather rosy.
Sod “friends” – “almost” or any other sort.
This would definitely be a date.