From: Your Secret Santa
Title: Five Ways To Say I Love You
Pairing: Ron/Luna, Draco/Hermione, Zach/Susan, George/Lavender, Harry/Simone (Treats waitress)
Summary: The lives and stories of five couples intertwine as they navigate the holiday season and prepare for the Ministry's Christmas gala.
Warnings: None? No major kinks or triggers.
Author's notes: nightfalltwen , I hope you enjoy this Christmas gift! You've worked so hard to make a wonderful fest; I really wanted to do something extra-special for you. Thank you for everything you do! Thanks also go to R and S for cheerleading, con crit, and beta-ing, and for slogging through this monster of a fic. Happy holidays to you and all the fabulous mystery authors and artists that make this fest so amazing every year!
Ron swallowed his bite of sandwich- perfect afternoon snack, he thought, a nice big sandwich- and set aside his paper, reaching his hands out without question. He found his hands full of some sort of squirmy, furry creature, which upon inspection turned out to be a kitten. He looked quizzically up at Luna, but accepted the small cat without protest, instead rubbing a knuckle over the kitten's head, which elicited a tiny mew followed by faint purring.
"Thank you," Luna said breathlessly, pressing a kiss to Ron's cheek. "I wanted to get all this put away."
A trail of packages and odds and ends hovered in the air behind Luna. She made a quick work of putting everything away, her wand sending things this way and that, before she sat at the table next to Ron, taking the kitten from him.
"A rescue," she explained, and Ron nodded, reaching out to rub the tiny head again. It was so soft. Luna had made a practice of rescuing animals in dire straits, getting them ready for new forever homes, on top of her work at the Quibbler and her various charity works; Ron was never quite certain how she had the time, and managed to give him plenty of attention as well, but her tireless energy was probably a large part of it, and one of the many things that made him fall in love with her. "We shall have to come up with a clever name for him."
"I'll put my thinking cap on," Ron said, amiably. "But what's all this? I thought you were just having lunch with Hermione?"
"Oh, I did have lunch with Hermione. But I supposed that since I was in Hogsmeade, I might as well get a bit of holiday shopping done, and go by the shelter and pick the little one up."
"Very efficient of you." Ron grinned, then took a bite of his enormous sandwich. Around a mouthful of roast beef, he asked carefully, "How is Hermione, then?"
It was always a little bit awkward, to Ron's mind, that Luna was so close to his former girlfriend. Still, he wasn't about to dictate who she could be friends with, and the one time he'd raised an argument about it, Luna had merely shot him a look that was so quelling, and so serious, and so very un-Luna, that it had quite terrified him. He hadn't made a peep since.
"Not well, I'm afraid."
Ron tried not to look too curious. "Oh?"
"No. She and Harry have split up. She said he moved out a week ago."
Ron couldn't help it; his eyebrows shot upward. Given all the upheaval it had caused in their friendships, upheaval that, for him, had only been soothed by the discovery of one Luna Lovegood, he'd have thought that Harry and Hermione had some sort of true love, together forever, til death do us part relationship. That, and the fact that he was hearing this from Luna rather than from Harry or Hermione (though really, telling Luna was as good as telling him, but Ron found that rather sneaky and indirect), made Luna's announcement shocking. Really shocking.
"Did she… did she say why?"
Luna tucked her long, blonde hair behind her ear, giving Ron a knowing, yet understanding look. She saw right through him, most times, in a way that was scary and thrilling all at once.
"No one reason, I don't think. Just, you know, different schedules, both of them so very busy with their work." Luna frowned. "I don't think they talked enough. Or laughed enough, maybe."
Ron set aside his sandwich, reaching instead for Luna, pulling her from her seat to his lap. "We're both very busy, too, but you told me once I had to focus on overcoming the routine."
As his arms circled her waist, Ron was pleased with himself for remembering that turn of phrase. And it was a good one; he and Harry had the same job, after all, and Luna was incredibly busy. But with Luna, Ron never felt stuck in a rut or bogged down in schedules.
"And I'm ever so glad you did, Ronald," Luna said, smiling before pressing her lips to his.
There was this, too- that she could kiss him, and everything melted away until it was just the two of them. He hugged her tight, returning the kiss, only breaking it when he heard a mewling protest and felt the dig of tiny claws into his upper arm.
He'd thought it the better part of valor to let Hermione keep their flat. It was mostly hers, anyway. Her books strewn about, the blanket she'd knitted draped over the squashy sofa she'd found in a second-hand store, her candles- scented with pure Hermione scents like spiced pumpkin and caramel latte- that gave the flat its own unique smell. After breaking her heart, it had seemed unnecessarily cruel to take her home, too, so he'd resigned his claim on the lease, and had quickly found a small one-bedroom miles and miles away.
His only real requirement was that it had been near a Tube station.
Now, instead of poring over the Prophet, he was looking over case files, but otherwise it was mostly the same. The constancy was reassuring. Not much in Harry's life had ever been constant, even if this latest upheaval was mostly his own doing. And, if he couldn't sort out his own thoughts while riding the trains, he could at least sort out his paperwork; Susan Bones would have his arse if he misfiled some critical bit of information and it cost her a case. Which, to be fair, he'd only done once, but that once had been enough to ensure he never, ever wanted it to happen again. Ever.
He looked up as the train slowed, approaching the next stop. It was a familiar one from long ago, and on impulse, he quickly packed his things into his bag and stood.
Harry was almost surprised the small cafe was still there. Treats. He grinned slightly. It had always been a treat to go to Treats, to be just another Londoner stopping for a coffee between trains. So many places came and went at the Tube stations, but Treats must have been as enjoyable for others as it had been for him, because it still stood there.
Following the same impulse that had gotten him off the train, he marched himself in, a silly smile settling on his face when he heard the jingle of the bell on the door as he pushed it open. Harry went straight to the counter, where a slender girl stood with her back to him, cleaning off the espresso machine. She had a wild halo of dark curls, and Harry almost thought- but no, it couldn't be, could it? She wouldn't still be here so many years later, would she?
She turned, and her eyes went wide in surprise in recognition. Harry was sure his face matched hers.
"Oh, my god! It's been an age, hasn't it?" she said, leaning over the counter with a smile that had engraved itself on his brain years ago. "Didn't think I'd see you again!"
"Me?" Harry laughed. "No, let's talk about you."
The barista looked at him appraisingly, her smile warming a bit more. "Me?" she echoed. "I bought the place. Simone, by the way."
She stuck her hand out, and Harry took it. Then he finally did hesitate, remembering their last conversation.
Who's Harry Potter?
Oh, a bit of a tosser, really.
"Neville," he said, after a beat. "I'm Neville."
"Nice to properly meet you, Neville. Do you still fancy hazelnut lattes?"
"Yeah," Harry said, "yeah, I do."
He took a seat at his usual table, if it could still be called that, and Simone brought him the latte, and a biscuit besides. "Little welcome back present, from me to you."
Harry took a bite. "It's wonderful."
"But they're so goooood," Freddie protested, as dramatically as only a five year old could manage.
Sometimes Lavender wondered what madness had struck her to make her agree to watch George Weasley's daughter, especially now when she was trying to sort out recipes for the big Ministry holiday gala, which she was catering and which she also regarded as her big chance to make herself the go-to baker for wizarding Britain. It was mostly the pleading in George's brown eyes, which had carried such an aura of sadness since he'd lost Angelina. Lavender had been powerless to say no to him. Besides, Freddie was awfully cute, at least when she wasn't sticking her fingers in cake batter or, as she had just been, attempting to abscond with a plate of freshly baked biscuits.
"Miss Freddie," Lavender said, crouching down so she was on the girl's level, "your father is going to be here in a few minutes, and he would be very cross with me if I were to ruin your dinner."
"Uh uh," Freddie said, twisting from side to side. "Daddy is never cross."
Lavender sighed. It was true, George was almost never cross. She couldn't recall ever seeing him so, in any case. He might not be as lively as he had been, before losing his brother, before losing his wife. But George Weasley and cross didn't fit well together.
"Well, he wouldn't be pleased." Lavender reached out and tugged playfully on one of Freddie's curls. "But I'll tell you what- I'll send some home with you two for after dinner, is that a deal?"
She stuck out her hand, and Freddie clasped it with her smaller one. "Deal."
It was what Lavender would have done, anyway. George might be good at cooking up wheezes, but dinner was not his forte. Which was why they'd become friendly, rather than just neighboring shops in Diagon Alley. She'd brought him some meals, simple things he could freeze and heat back up, in the days after Angelina's unexpected death. Later, he'd asked her to teach him how to cook these simple meals, not wanting to rely on the kindness of others, or on the well-meaning but overly attentive Molly Weasley. Lavender had become rather fond of this quieter version of the brash boy she'd admired in school, and he'd become her friend, rather than just Ron's older brother that she waved to as she unlocked the cafe every morning. And there was Freddie, of course. George, she was fond of, but Freddie, she'd fallen in love with. There'd been no question of saying no when George asked if she'd mind Freddie a few afternoons a week, to give his mum a break, even if she did question her own sanity from time to time.
Besides, her patrons seemed to find Freddie adorable as well, especially since Lavender had taught her how to greet the customers as they arrived in the shop. Mostly, however, Lavender let Freddie help her out in the kitchen, pouring out pre-measured cups of flour or bits of butter, and it was never any trouble until freshly baked sweets were involved.
Jenny, the girl who helped man the counter up front, poked her head back into the kitchen, alerting Lavender that George had turned up. Lavender dusted her hands on her apron, scooped up Freddie, and went out to say hi.
"What's this, then?" George said, making a big show of accepting the box of biscuits, much to his daughter's delight. He shook them gently, held them up to his good ear, sniffed the box, and carried on until Lavender was laughing, as well.
"Daddy!" cried Freddie. "They're biscuits! With chocolate chips in!"
"Ohhh," George said, smacking his forehead as if gobsmacked. "Well. Thank you, then, ladies!"
"I only just rescued them from that one's clutches," Lavender said with a chuckle, handing Freddie over to her father. "But she did have a grand hand in baking them, so be sure to give her your compliments."
"I most definitely will." George grinned. Lavender liked seeing that, rather than the sadness that remained in his eyes most of the time. "You know, you keep it up and I'm going to be compelled to return the favour."
"Oh, whenever I spawn, you'll certainly be first on the list," Lavender said, dryly. Merlin knew that was some distance off.
"What, no likely lads lining the streets outside the cafe?" George asked, giving her a wink.
Lavender flushed, and swatted him, shooing the pair of them out. "Off with the both of you; I've got cakes to serve people that are actually paying."
They left laughing, Freddie's high pitched giggles warming Lavender's heart as the door shut behind them.
Of course, with Susan, the very last bit was likely to still happen. The wine, anyway. They didn't have a habit of bathing together, though a bloke could always hope. Enough wine and it might not be entirely out of the question. In any case, Susan was his best mate, and when she owled, Zach answered. Even if he was grumpy about it.
Instead of Cornwall, he'd dropped his things at the family townhouse in London and had used the Floo from there to the Ministry, where Susan worked in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Now he stood outside her office, where the secretary that served the group of junior barristers that Susan belonged to was currently turning red and knocking quills off her desk in her hurry to go alert Susan.
Apparently Louisa was a Falcons fan. She certainly recognized him, at least. Under ordinary circumstances, Zach would have been amused, maybe flirted with her. Bird in the hand, one in her office, there was some such saying, wasn't there? But he was tired, and eager to see Susan, so he waited impatiently until Louisa told him to go on in.
Susan's office was in a row with the other junior barristers; the door next to hers was open, and Zach could see a shock of white-blond hair bent over a stack of parchment. Malfoy lifted his head at the sound of Zach's footsteps, his eyes boring into Zach for a moment before he jerked his sharp chin in acknowledgement. Zach lifted his brows, then returned the gesture, before heading into Susan's office.
"What's all that about?" Zach said, tilting his head in the direction of Malfoy's office.
"There's a promotion coming soon, or that's the rumour," Susan said, shuffling her own stack of parchment into an orderly pile. "Malfoy and I are probably the top candidates." She snorted, flicking a stray strand of auburn hair out of her eyes. "But he's just trying to be intimidating, I reckon. He'll be off as soon as he thinks we've gone, too."
Zach chuckled, then scooped Susan into a bear hug as she came around her desk. Merlin, he'd missed her. No one else's head fit right into the crook of his shoulder the way Susan's did.
Susan said goodbye to Louisa on the way out; Zach winked at the secretary, out of habit. They both ignored Malfoy, and Zach chattered to Susan about his time in India as they walked to the lift.
"But enough about me," he said, as the doors slid shut and Susan hit the button for the main entrance. "You must have news, or you wouldn't have demanded my presence."
"Not so," Susan said, nudging him with her shoulder. "Maybe I just missed your big goofy arse." She paused. "But there is something I want to ask you."
Zach's mind raced. He couldn't think of anything Susan would have to ask him face to face like this, unless… Well. There was the way they'd left things. He'd tried not to dwell on it too much, not wanting to upset the applecart of their long-standing friendship, thinking he could chalk it up to two attractive and healthy people with strong libidos and too much drink. He'd let her leave his flat, pretending to be asleep whilst she'd pulled her clothes back on and tiptoed from his front door. But the truth was he'd thought about it every day that he'd been out of the country. Quidditch had taken up the better part of his days, but at night he'd recalled the taste of her mouth and the feel of her body under his hands. But she was Susan, and he'd not wanted to muck everything up- Zach didn't think he'd ever had a relationship that had lasted more than a few nights, and he couldn't bear the thought of a life without Susan in it.
Susan had always been the brave one, though.
"Go ahead, then," he said, striving for nonchalance.
"Nah," Susan said. "Not in the lift. I'll wait til we're at the pub."
Zach's adrenaline was running like he was about to attempt a particularly spectacular dive on the pitch, but he somehow managed to keep up inconsequential chatter- gossip about their friends, and about his teammates, mostly- until they reached a small but well-appointed pub adjacent to the Ministry. Zach could see a few familiar faces, Ministry workers all- that know-it-all Granger, quiet Stephen Cornfoot, one of the Weasleys- and he surmised this was something of a company hang.
While Susan summoned a cocktail server and ordered their first round, Zach let his mind wander, imagining how he was going to respond to what he was certain would be a declaration of feelings from her. He fancied he'd say he was mad about her too, that he always had been, that he wanted to make a real go of it. Then he'd whisk her back to his flat, shag her silly all night long, and this time he'd not let her leave without making certain of things between them. Yes, that sounded perfect.
"All right," Susan said, once they had their drinks, a neat whiskey for her, a pint of ale for him. Zach leaned forward, his heart thumping, ready for everything to change. "This might be awkward."
Scooting closer, Zach covered her hand with his. "It's alright, Suz. It's me."
"You're right." Susan seemed to summon her courage. Zach straightened, nodding his head in anticipation. "I wanted to ask you to be my maid of honour."
"Of course, I-" A punch to the gut, that's what it was. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him, as what Susan had said penetrated. "Wait, what?"
"Well, man of honour. But yes!" Susan's tone was bright, really happy, and Zach realized she wasn't looking at him, not truly. She was smiling, her fingers playing with the rock on her hand that he'd utterly failed to notice until now. "I want you to stand up for me. You're my best mate."
"Yeah," Zach said, barely hearing his own voice. He took a large gulp of his ale. Somehow, somewhere, he had made a very wrong turn. "So who's the lucky bloke?"
"Do you remember Terry Boot?"
Oh yes, he remembered Terry Boot. Boot who always had the right answer, Boot who had an easy charm that even Zach hadn't been immune to. Boot was a decent and genuinely good fellow, which made all this even worse, because Zach couldn't even summon a proper hatred for him. Zach nodded.
"He came back from China, just after you left for India, and we bumped into one another, and one thing led to another."
Susan shrugged, but her face was beaming. Zach's spirits sank even lower. To counteract that, he swilled the remaining ale in his pint glass, and lifted his hand to call for another, which he then lifted in a toast.
"To Terry Boot, then," he declared, earning a broad grin from Susan as she lifted her tumbler. "And your future man of honour!"
For instance, Mandy Brocklehurst was flirting with Blaise Zabini, but Stephen Cornfoot was also at their table, looking at Mandy forlornly. A shame. Zabini was ridiculously attractive, but Stephen was the better lad, in Hermione's opinion.
And Susan Bones was talking animatedly to an increasingly intoxicated Zacharias Smith, whose eyes were boring into something just over Susan's shoulder. Smith had a false smile on that Hermione found rather disturbing, but then that friendship was one she had never particularly understood, so Smith behaving bizarrely seemed like something not out of the realm of possibility.
And Draco Malfoy… well, he was getting very drunk, it seemed. He was gesticulating, and his hair had gone sort of floppy over his forehead, and he was loudly arguing about something with the barkeep. Hermione knew she should stay out of it, but it was incredibly abnormal behaviour for Malfoy, who she'd come to know, somewhat, since she'd begun working in the Archives. Malfoy- well, normally, anyway- was very meticulous, thorough in his research before presenting a case. She'd helped him look up many a case file, and he'd always been polite, controlled, occasionally witty, always unflappable. Right now, however, he looked pretty flapped.
Before Hermione quite knew what she was doing, she was behind him, tapping him cautiously on the shoulder. Malfoy's head swung round, and Hermione prepared herself to be shouted at, but he drew up short, blinking at her in surprise.
"I, ah," she fumbled, not sure at all what had been her point in coming over now that she had his attention. "Um. I wanted to ask you about something."
Malfoy looked at her incredulously, then looked back at the barkeep, who also looked like he'd been arrested mid-thought. He turned to Hermione again, and she could see in his eyes that he wasn't as intoxicated as she'd assumed- just, apparently, excited about whatever subject he'd been discussing with the bartender. His cheeks were flushed, so he wasn't entirely sober, she thought, but not as likely to make a spectacle as she'd thought. But in for a penny in for a pound, so she took a deep breath, and continued on firmly.
"Outside, perhaps? It's noisy in here."
Although it wasn't so noisy that she couldn't be heard right now, which Hermione fully expected Malfoy to point out, but instead he just shrugged and tossed his coins down on the bar to pay for his drink before standing and gesturing that he would follow her.
Outside, the air was crisp. Winter had settled over London, though it hadn't yet snowed. Hermione was hoping for a white Christmas- a sign of something good, she thought, after a mostly miserable year- but now it was just cold and clear. She pulled her puffy coat more tightly around her, hugging herself. Malfoy's long, slim-fitting wool trench coat was open; he seemed unbothered, and despite his dishevelment he managed to look carelessly elegant, which made Hermione grumpily self conscious and left her feeling frumpy. She let out a breath, watching the air cloud with her exhale.
"Well, Granger?" Malfoy asked, looking amused.
Hermione meant to concoct some story, something to justify dragging him out of there like she had any right to, but she found herself blurting out the truth. "You seemed like you were getting upset, and I thought people might gossip about you having too much to drink and acting out. I know you're up for a promotion."
"All that?" he said, his expression arch. "Careful, Granger. I might think you care. Or worse, that we were friends."
Hermione couldn't help the flush that hit her cheeks. No, not friends, not exactly. But he visited the archives very often, and they'd somehow gotten… pleasant with one another. Slightly beyond civil. And she'd come to appreciate, when he wasn't being a supercilious prat, that he was intelligent and dedicated.
"I just didn't want to see you make an arse of yourself," she fired back. "I don't do well with second-hand embarrassment."
"Do you like me, Granger?" Malfoy said, tipping his head so that a shock of white-blonde hair fell across his head. It made him look boyish and charming, though the intensity in his eyes was pure Draco Malfoy. It made Hermione want to squirm. She imagined this was how his witnesses must feel when he questioned them in front of the Wizengamot.
"I don't not like you," she said, which was surprisingly true. Adulthood and distance from Hogwarts had made a difference. She'd become used to him, and it had allowed her to see that he was clever and sharp and occasionally, capable of feelings. Although she'd never quite dealt with him as he was now, right up in her face and firing questions. It made her heartbeat pick up.
"I was talking about Pansy," he said, unexpectedly. Hermione had to follow the jump back to the earlier part of their conversation.
"Oh," she said, feeling silly.
"It's complicated, with her." He leaned in closer to Hermione, which for no apparent reason made her heart really start pounding. His eyes seemed very intent indeed. They matched his coat, she noticed absurdly. She backed up, her shoulders hitting the outer wall of the Wand and Crown.
"I'd explain, but…" He shrugged, but he didn't move. He was so awfully close. "It might get embarrassing."
"We could go somewhere else." Hermione didn't know what had prompted her to make such a suggestion. And she certainly didn't like the breathless sound of her voice as she made it. It was probably because she was so chilly.
Malfoy took her at her word, it seemed. She felt his hand grip her arm, and then she felt the familiar tug of a side-along apparation. They landed in a house she'd never seen before, which she assumed meant it was Malfoy's. It was larger than the typical London flat among those she knew, and it was immaculate. From the corners of her eyes, she could see shelves full of books, which would have been thrilling indeed, except for the fact that Malfoy hadn't let go of her and had somehow gotten even closer.
"I meant," she said, proud of how exasperated she sounded, "a coffee shop or something like that."
"I don't like coffee," Malfoy said.
Hermione thought later that she should have expected what came next, what with all the close-standing and intense eye-making and the whole apparating them to his townhouse thing. But it surprised her, in the moment, when he suddenly began kissing her. It was even more surprising that it was nice, better than nice, really. His kiss made her cling to his upper arms, made her legs wobbly, made her skin feel like it was on fire. That could be the puffy coat she still wore, but Hermione didn't think so. It was all him. At least that was her excuse for kissing him back so hungrily, when she knew it was so wrong to do so. It was as though the touch of his lips had awakened some beast inside of her, one that didn't care about what was proper, or that he was the person that would make her ex the most furious, or that he had a girlfriend of his own. The whole situation was so strange and yet it was just what she wanted, then.
She felt her coat being unzipped, felt it sliding from her, and she let go of Malfoy's arms so he could get his own off. Breaking contact, even in that small way, seemed to bring some of her senses back.
"Malfoy… Pansy," she managed. "What was it about Pansy?"
She hoped he'd say they'd broken up, so she wouldn't feel the guilt that had already started to niggle at her, now that her brain was firing back up.
His mouth was hovering somewhere near her neck, and Hermione felt a wave of inexplicable disappointment when he lifted his head abruptly at her question. Malfoy's hands remained on her waist, however, as he looked down at her, his features more serious, less mischievous than they had been moments before.
"Pansy. Well. She's not coming home for the holidays." He quirked his lips, though Hermione couldn't see what was smirk-worthy about it. "She's rather involved with someone in France, which is where she's been working."
"Oh, Malfoy, I'm sorry." It was all Hermione could think to say, even given the present situation. It had to be painful, which would explain why he was behaving this way. With her. Realizing that, she made to step back, but Malfoy tightened his hold on her and shook his head. "What?"
"Don't be sorry. That's our arrangement."
Hermione said nothing, just looked at him, bemused.
"I play her partner publicly," he clarified. "Because she prefers relationships that her family would consider quite unsuitable. And since I wasn't involved with anyone, nor did I wish to be, I agreed to cover for her."
Hermione was silent for a long moment, processing what he'd just said. "But, then why were you upset? And why did you… why this?"
She gestured between them, not sure how to name what had passed between them, not sure she wanted to quantify it.
Malfoy stared at her, then shrugged. "Oh, because you looked so ravishing in that ridiculous coat."
Which answered nothing, but Hermione had no chance to protest, because he was kissing her again, and with her guilt allayed, she let him. She let him snog her senseless, and she let him take off her jumper, and she let him lead her to his bedroom. And he let her return the favour, let her unbutton his stiff shirt, let her touch his pale, moonlit hair, let her climb atop him on the bed.
It was all a haze after that, a haze of lips and skin and more than she'd ever thought she'd see and feel and taste of Draco Malfoy. She remembered pausing, once she'd got his shirt and his vest off, and she saw the latticework of scars that decorated his chest; she remembered thinking that Harry had done that, and she'd leant down and kissed each one. But then Malfoy had rolled her under him, and done such incredible things with his lips to her flesh that she'd forgotten that fleeting thought.
Hermione also remembered yelling when she found her release, with shameful abandon. She'd simply never felt this way, ever, and it was astounding to her that the person making her feel this way was someone she'd have claimed indifference to just a few hours before. It was equally astounding to her that she seemed to be doing the same to him, if the sounds he made and the expression on his face were anything to go by.
When it was over, she stayed until she was certain he was asleep. Then she extricated herself from the arm he'd wrapped around her, not wanting to examine what that meant. Instead she gathered her clothes as silently as she could manage, and apparated back to her flat.
Work would be interesting, come Monday morning,
"Yeah. Yeah, I am." Ron nodded firmly. He'd always imagined he'd be scared shitless at this moment in time, but it felt really right. Exciting, even. "Thanks for coming on such short notice to help. I felt awkward asking Harry, since he's just broken up with Hermione and all."
"Not a problem. Didn't mind escaping the cottage, to tell you the truth. Louis is teething, Dominique is firmly in the grip of her terrible twos, and Fleur has spent the last several days arguing with her sister because she wants her to come stay with us for Christmas, and apparently Gabrielle is in the midst of some torrid affair and can't be arsed to travel. Shopping amid holiday crowds is a calming break, I promise."
Bill was still grinning, and Ron figured things at Shell Cottage weren't likely as dire as all that. He happened to know Bill enjoyed his marriage and his family very much, which had been soothing to Ron as he'd made his decision, and had been a large factor in why he'd asked Bill rather than any of his other brothers to come with him today.
"Here goes nothing, then," Ron said gamely, and then pulled open the door to the bustling jewelry store.
The benefit to being one of the heroes of the wizarding world, even after several years had passed, was that one got excellent customer service. Despite the crowd, a saleswoman came hurrying over. Her eyes lit up when Ron said what he was after.
"An engagement ring! Oh, how exciting!" She gave Ron a knowing wink. "Don't you worry, I shall keep mum about this. Don't want to spoil the surprise for the lucky lady!"
Well, that was a relief. Ron had worried about this purchase winding up fodder for some gossipy article in the Prophet. He didn't mind people knowing he'd purchased jewelry. But he did want to surprise Luna when he popped the question.
The lady hustled Ron and Bill into a private room, explaining that she'd bring cases of rings in for him to look at. That sounded good to Ron, but his stomach flipped when she returned, no less than ten cases trailing behind her.
"Bloody hell, how am I ever going to pick?" he muttered.
Bill laughed again. "I reckon you'll know the right one when you see it. You'll know the one that suits Luna best."
Ron didn't say that Luna was the sort that would say she loved anything he'd picked. He just stuffed it away as something else to worry about, and focused his concentration on the case in front of him. Bill was right, though- it was easy to dismiss one as too gaudy, one as too overworked, one as simply not her style. He picked a few to look at more closely, then moved on to the next case, repeating the process. And again, and again. Soon he had a small pile of rings set aside. None of that mattered, however, when the saleswoman opened the final case, because in that case was Luna's ring. Once Ron saw it, he knew she could wear no other.
It looked like something that had been crafted by fairies. Wrought of delicate, twisting rose gold, the shape of it reminded Ron of the long, wavy tendrils of Luna's hair. The stone in the center was not a diamond, but rather an elegant opal, the colours in it calling to mind the rosy color of Luna's lips, the pale blue of her eyes, the warm peach of her skin. Small diamond stones were interspersed among the twining metal, in a seemingly random fashion, but the overall effect was glorious. It was Luna in a piece of jewelry.
"That one," he said, his mouth dry as he reached for it.
"Are you certain?" the saleswitch asked fretfully. "It's not very traditional. Not very flashy."
Ron could hear her fear for her commission in her tone but he shook his head firmly.
"It's very Luna," he said. He held it up, showing it to Bill.
"I think you've got the right of it, Ronnie," his older brother agreed.
Ron could already picture the ring on Luna's long and clever finger. Assuming she said yes, of course. "Ring me up, please."
Thirty minutes later, Ron left the shop with Bill, now the owner of a small red velvet box, the precious ring nestled inside. Despite his certainty, Ron felt a bit like he'd just played a particularly vigorous match of Quidditch. When Bill suggested a stop at the Three Broomsticks for a pint before they parted ways, Ron agreed.
Pints of frothing ale before them, Bill made a small toast to Ron. "To my baby brother, who shall still manage to get married before Charlie."
Ron laughed heartily, and clinked his glass against Bill's. "I suppose now Mum will really give him the business."
"Once she's not distracted by the excitement of your wedding," Bill agreed, taking a sip.
"Well, if Luna says yes. No wedding if there's no bride." Ron sipped carefully, but still ended up having to wipe the foam from his upper lip. It never failed.
"She'll say yes," Bill said, leaning back in his chair comfortably. "You two are so in love. Second only to Fleur and m'self, of course."
Ron made a good-natured face. "She makes me happy. And I want to make her happy, til we both cock up our toes of old age."
"I'll drink to that." Bill did just that, taking another swig from his pint. "So when are you popping the fateful question?"
Ron tilted his head. "Christmas morning, I think. She won't be expecting it."
Bill chuckled. "Ought to be a very merry Christmas for you, then, brother."
Ron nodded his head fervently. "I sure hope so."
"Oi, didn't think you were going to make it this evening."
Simone's smile was teasing. She set down the cloth she'd been using to polish the glass case and went around, beginning to make Harry's usual drink before he could even ask.
"Got stuck at work a bit," he said, not thinking, too caught up in her bright smile.
"Don't you set your own hours?" Simone looked at him quizzically as she poured the steamed milk into Harry's latte, spooning the foam on top.
Damn it. Harry had forgotten that with Simone, he wasn't Harry Potter, the auror. He was Neville Longbottom, aspiring writer. That was the problem with lying- it snowballed, and if he wasn't careful, he'd find himself buried beneath it. But his frequent visits to Treats, since his rediscovery of the little coffee shop, had meant he'd had to explain certain things to Simone, without betraying the Statute of Secrecy. So Harry Potter, that tosser, had become a character in a novel he was writing, and all his adventures and tribulations simply stories. It had been a way to tell Simone about him, without telling her anything he shouldn't.
He still felt rotten.
"I meant, I got on a good writing jag, lost track of time," he said sheepishly.
"Oh? And what is Mr. Harry up to?" Simone came around to sit across from him, passing him the steaming mug.
Harry took the mug, inhaling the delicious aroma of it first, before taking a careful sip. "He's got to steal an egg from a mother dragon. She's none too pleased about it, either."
He shook his head, remembering the fear clawing at his heart as he'd swooped round the grounds of Hogwarts, fleeing that Norwegian Ridgeback. Telling these tales to Simone really drove home just how outlandish his life had been. If it hadn't happened to him, he'd never have believed it.
"Sounds dangerous," she observed.
"It was. It is, I mean." Harry frowned, and took another sip of his latte.
"Sooo… don't go all quiet on me. I've been dying to know how you're going to get your young wizard through this tournament." Simone waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
Harry chewed his lip, then cocked his head to look at her. He didn't like being dishonest. And he'd never liked talking much about his achievements. It felt like bragging. He'd dug himself into this hole with Simone, however, and he didn't see any good way out of it.
He'd only wanted to keep seeing her. He'd only wanted to get to know her better. It shouldn't be so impossible, just because he was a wizard, and she was a Muggle. Other people had broken down that barrier, hadn't they? He still remembered Seamus Finnegan saying, Me dad's a Muggle, mum's a witch. Bit of a nasty shock for him when he found out!
It was the finding out that Harry was worried about.
"That's all I've got, so far," he hedged. "Tell me about you."
"Me? We've been over it. I'm boring- worked here while I went to Uni, ended up taking over the place once I'd finished."
"Tell me something you haven't, then. Tell me a secret."
Simone was silent for a moment, her fingers wandering up to idly play with one of her bouncy curls. Harry followed the movement, fascinated, and realized that he was envying those fingers. Finally, she spoke.
"I always wanted to dance. Like, really dance, not in a club, but with a beautiful gown and formal steps and that rot." She laughed, shaking her head. "Silly."
"No, it's not silly." Before he could think it over or lose his nerve, he stood, holding his hand out to Simone. "I can't help with the gown, and you're already beautiful, but I know a dance."
She looked up at him, surprised, and then grinned widely as she took his hand. "You do? I took you more for the footie and pints type, not the sort to go swanning about a dance floor."
"There's a lot about me you don't know," Harry said as Simone got to her feet, her hand resting on his waist, "but I actually had to learn this dance at school. And I still remember the steps."
He'd only thought of it because he'd just been talking about fourth year. How could he forget Professor McGonagall, thumping a transfigured cane against the floor, emphasizing how the Hogwarts champions and their dates had to make a good showing against Beauxbatons and Durmstrang? No, though it had been positively years since his arms and feet had moved this way, Harry remembered every single movement. He found himself laughing as he demonstrated for Simone, knowing how awkward and ridiculous he looked. He didn't care, as long as he was doing something special for her.
"Alright, I've got it," Simone said, her hand over her mouth to cover her giggles. "Go pick out a song."
Harry stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes at her before going over to the digital jukebox. When he'd done this dance in fourth year, the music had been of the classical variety. He didn't want that now. He scanned the selections, his lips quirking upward as he settled on a selection. He put his coin in and tapped the screen, walking the few steps back to Simone and making the sweeping bow the dance called for as the opening notes of the Beatles' "Something" filled the shop.
They went through the routine, Simone keeping up very well- not that it was difficult, Harry thought wryly, given his own level of talent, but he was impressed, and he couldn't help feeling a little enthralled by her. He tried not to be too distracted, not wanting to spoil things by tripping over his own feet. As the song came to an end, however, he found himself not wanting to let go of her yet, and he stood there in the fading chords, Simone still in his arms.
"Thank you," she said softly.
"No. Thank you, Simone. You were brilliant."
Her face was so close; Harry wasn't much taller than she was. It seemed very natural to just tip his head downward, and fit his mouth to hers. He'd been thinking about it for ages, and he couldn't think why he hadn't kissed her before now.
The kiss started soft; he was really just trying to drink her in, to explore what it was like to have her lips under his. But then Harry went to lift his head, and Simone caught his lower lip in her teeth- just a gentle nip, really, but it ignited something in him. He lifted one hand, tangling it in her hair, and this second kiss was crushing. His hands, they were everywhere; hers were, too, and oh god, it was so brilliant and so perfect and everything he'd been fantasizing that snogging Simone would be like.
Their lips parted, ever so slightly, for the space of an intake of air. Simone sighed.
Harry froze. That was it. That was why he'd held off kissing her. Because she had no idea, really, who he was. Because it was wrong, even though he wanted her more than anything. And now that he'd crossed the line, he had to make a decision- carry on the deception, or tell her everything.
He took a deeper breath, and a step back.
"Neville?" Simone looked confused. Harry didn't blame her.
"My name," he said, hesitating. It was difficult. It was extraordinarily difficult, when all he wanted to do was silence himself by pressing his mouth to hers. He swallowed, hard. "My name isn't Neville, Simone. It's, ah, damn it. It's Harry. Harry Potter."
Simone took a step back of her own, her arms crossing her body like protective armor. Her eyes narrowed, and her lips thinned to a line. "That's not funny."
"No, it's not." Harry sighed now, feeling ineffably saddened by the expression on her face. "But it's true."
She looked utterly betrayed, and Harry didn't blame her a bit. She was staring at him, but she wasn't shocked. She wasn't astounded. She was furious.
"If you don't fancy me, Neville, if you regret what just happened- I'm a grown woman. I might not like it, but I can handle it. But telling a story like this?" She pressed her lips tighter and shook her head. Then she snapped her arm toward the door. "Get out. Just go."
Harry hung his head, and grabbed his coat. "Simone, I-"
"No. Leave. Now."
Shaken, Harry left.
"I give up," she muttered, pushing away from the counter, intending to start closing the bakery for the day.
"Give up on what?" a tiny voice piped up, somewhere behind her.
Lavender whirled around. "Freddie!" Putting a smile on, she tucked her stray hair behind her ears. "And George. I didn't hear you two come in. I was just about to lock the door."
George set Freddie down and reached out, snagging a broken bit of snickerdoodle from a display tray and popping it into his mouth. "Just doing a bit of holiday shopping while Verity minds the shop," he explained. "But you seem out of sorts. Everything all right?"
Lavender sighed, and nodded before leaning down to start clearing out the display case. "Yeah. Just a long day."
"So you're giving up on the pastry racket, then?" George quirked an eyebrow, his disbelief evident.
Straightening as she pulled the last of the trays, Lavender activated her usual cleaning spells and leaned back.
"No," she said, pulling a face. "I'm giving up on dating. I think. Parvati set me up with a bloke last night, and, well…"
George laughed, and Lavender made another face at him before taking a plate and tossing some muffins and other odds and ends on it, bringing it out to one of the small tables in the front of the shop and gesturing to George to join her. She handed Freddie a muffin, and the girl scampered off with it; Lavender watched her for a moment, and seeing she was headed for the corner where Lavender kept paper and crayons and picture books and the like for her younger patrons, she turned back to Freddie's father.
Recounting the awful evening to George, Lavender managed to find the humor in it, especially with George's added commentary. The plate of goodies was almost bare by the time she was saying, "So I've ordered this massive plate of rare roast beef, you know, to deal with the cravings- and he announces he's vegetarian!"
"It would never work," George declared chuckling.
George generally just got it, since Bill suffered the same consequences from his own werewolf bites. It was nice, Lavender thought, that there was someone she could casually toss out lycanthropy references with, and not get any judgment in return. George didn't even seem particularly revolted by the scarring on her neck, something she'd caught last night's date staring at more than once, despite Parvati's assurances that she'd warned him about it all.
Now he was saying, "You need a bloke who is happy eating anything you whip up."
He snagged the last of the mini-muffins, and shoveled the entire thing into his mouth at once.
"Like you?" Lavender asked pointedly, rolling her eyes.
But George just shrugged slowly, likely because his mouth was filled with pastry, and he held her eyes with his. Lavender's snarky expression faded, and the silence grew a little awkward. To cover her sudden fluster, she stood, sweeping any stray crumbs on the table onto the plate.
"Freddie!" she called, needing a buffer between herself and George Weasley just then. "C'mon, I've managed to save just one single biscuit from your daddy's greedy fingers, and it's yours for the taking."
Looking around, Lavender frowned. Where had Freddie gotten to? There was a sheet of parchment and a few abandoned crayons left on the corner table, but no little girl to be seen.
"Um, George?" She looked back over her shoulder. George had jumped to his feet, and was wiping his fingers on the front of his denims.
"Probably hiding," he said, apologetically. "She's been doing this lately."
Nodding her understanding, Lavender began looking around the bakery, checking cupboards and the like, but not turning anything up. She beckoned to George to follow her into the kitchen.
"I hope she didn't get into the walk-in refrigerator," Lavender said, trying to keep her tone light. "Freddie would survive, but I don't know if I could say the same for my butter cream."
George gave her a lopsided smile over his shoulder, and pulled open the walk-in's door. He called his daughter's name, but there was no response. "Well, your butter cream is safe," he said wryly. "Do you think she would have gone up to your flat?"
Lavender frowned. It was possible Freddie had gone up to the flat above the bakery, since she'd had her up there before. Lavender wasn't exactly wild about the notion of having George up there. The place was a bit of a mess, and it fairly screamed 'spinster'. He was up the stairs, however, before she could voice any protest.
While George went through, calling for Freddie, Lavender went discreetly behind him, picking up a stray pair of socks, rearranging a cardigan on the arm of the sofa, and closing her copy of Witch Weekly, which was open to an especially shameful article on the most eligible Quidditch players (she didn't agree with their list, anyhow- Viktor Krum was way down the list, while Zacharias Smith was number three, and Lavender had always thought Krum was a sweetheart while Smith was something of a twunt). At the door to Lavender's bedroom, George took a merciful pause, looking back over his shoulder at her with a quizzical expression on his face.
"I'll go in and have a look, shall I?" Lavender offered hastily.
She slipped past George, giving him what she hoped was a reassuring pat on his shoulder, before firmly shutting the door behind her. Lavender wasn't the best of housekeepers, and in her own bedroom, she was the furthest thing from one. There were knickers on the floor, for Merlin's sake. So, naturally, she heard a tell-tale giggle from the direction of her armoire.
She couldn't help but smile a little, as she crept over to the armoire and flung the doors wide. Freddie might have blended in with the haphazard pile of jumpers at the bottom, except that she yelped and jumped in a way that sent her wild reddish-brown curls bouncing.
"Ahah!" cried Lavender, crouching down to tickle the little mischief-maker, eliciting more yelps and giggles. "And just what did you think you were up to?"
"Hiding," Freddie said, clearly concerned that Lavender didn't understand this most basic of concepts.
"Well, obviously," Lavender said, sitting on the floor and giving Freddie another gentle poke. "But why?"
"I thought you might want to be alone with my daddy," Freddie answered promptly, coming out of the armoire to settle in Lavender's lap. The girl began playing with Lavender's hair, her statement seemingly forgettable to her.
Lavender frowned. "Why would you think that?"
With all the wisdom her five years afforded her, Freddie explained, "You said you had a bad date, and my daddy likes you. I know cause I heard him say so. And I think it would be nice if you liked my daddy, too, because I have so much fun when you mind me and you make Daddy smile. And then you two could go on a date!"
Lavender tried to imagine a George Weasley that didn't smile. It was a struggle. Certainly, she'd seen him sad, when he spoke of Fred, and when Angelina had passed. But it seemed that every time she spoke to him, he was grinning and laughing so easily. Lavender assumed he was like that with most people, though, because it was George and he had always been that way. Freddie must be misinterpreting things.
"I do like your dad, sweetie, but that's because we've become very good friends. I'm sure that's what he means."
Freddie paused in twining Lavender's hair around her small fingers, and looked up at her with wide brown eyes. "You don't want to give him kisses? He gives kisses that are ever so nice."
Oh, dear. Lavender's face was bright red, and she was extremely grateful that George was on the other side of the closed door.
"I, ah, I'm sure he does. But I don't think that's the sort of friendship we have."
"That's too bad," Freddie said, quite seriously. "Have you got any more biscuits?"
Relieved at the change in subject, Lavender shifted Freddie from her lap, standing the little girl on her own feet before rising from her spot on the floor. "I believe I have! C'mon, let's go have a look."
She took Freddie by the hand, and marched her out of the bedroom. Opening the door, she saw George tuck something stringy and flesh-toned in his pocket in a hurry.
"Oi! Extendable Ears, George? Really?"
Giving him a thump on his shoulder, she handed his daughter over to him.
"It's hard work eavesdropping when I've only got the one ear," he said, unapologetically.
Mortified, Lavender hustled father and daughter out of her flat and down the stairs, intending to send them packing with whatever leftover biscuits remained. As she prepared to shut the bakery door behind them, looking forward to running upstairs and drowning herself in her bath, George stopped and leaned close.
"She's not wrong, you know." At his words, Lavender went very still. "And my kisses are ever so nice."
Sucking in a breath, Lavender shoved him out of the door.
"Good night, you two!"
As she turned the lock, she could hear George's laughter ringing out against the closed shops of Diagon Alley.
Zach stood, only swaying slightly, which he was rather pleased with. Given the empty bottle of Ogden's, he hadn't been entirely certain he'd manage that much. Natural athlete, that's what he was. Made him graceful.
"Oh, Zach, I don't think that's a good idea."
Justin stood as well, and Zach noted that the bastard wasn't swaying at all. Unfair- he could have sworn Justin had drunk just as much of the firewhiskey as he had.
"No, not a good idea," Michael Corner echoed.
Zach shot him a glare. "'Course you agree with him. You're not getting laid tonight if you don't."
Justin rolled his eyes, used to Zach's temperament, and clapped Zach on the shoulder. "Oh, he's getting laid, either way. And I'm right." He gave a shake of his head. "It's a terrible thing to do, Zach. Nothing good can come of it."
Zach didn't much care. He'd been thinking very long and hard about the matter, and with the aid of the now-empty bottle of Ogden's and quite a lot of ranting in Justin and his boyfriend's direction, he'd come to the conclusion that Susan had chosen Boot only because she didn't know how he felt. If Susan knew he was in love with her, Zach was sure that would change everything. It stood to reason that he ought to go to her now, while he had the nerve, and declare himself. Just lay his cards on the table and let the chips fall where they might. Something like that.
Justin and Michael were all frowny, though. Easy enough for them, Zach thought grumpily. They'd been together for three years now, with no drama to speak of, except when the Prophet's gossip column had gotten hold of the story. And even that hadn't had much fallout, since both blokes were Muggle-born and they got to break it to their parents on their own terms. Zach didn't know how it had gone for Michael, but Justin had told him that his own parents had been alright once they'd gotten used to the notion that their son wouldn't be adding the third hyphen they might have expected to the family name. Anyway. Point was, Justin just didn't understand what it felt like to love someone and have them snatched away by some ridiculous Ravenclaw.
It was a feeling Zach liked not at all. Every time he looked at old pictures of himself and Susan, he wanted to punch his way through a wall. He blamed himself, really. He should have said something sooner. And he refused to accept it was too late.
"I'm going," he announced, and before either of the lads could stop him, Zach had stormed out of the Leaky Cauldron into Diagon Alley.
Once he had, he was grateful again to the firewhiskey. It was damned cold out, and he'd left his coat in the pub. He rubbed at his arms, thankful that the drink warmed him from the inside.
He stood there a moment, fumbling in his pocket for his wand. Up ahead, some Weasley came banging out of a shop with a little kid, laughing like a loon.
"What the hell is your problem?" Zach shouted at him, which only caused more laughter. It didn't matter, because he got his wand by the right end, and apparated himself out of there before Justin and Michael could stop him.
Evidently, it was snowing in Yorkshire. Zach landed in the wet stuff, which immediately soaked through the cuffs of his trousers. Damn it. With a growl, he trudged over to the cottage he knew to be Susan's; she'd inherited what was left of the family farm when her aunt Amelia was killed, and while she'd sold off the land, the cottage had been kept. It was a warm and cozy place, as far as Zach remembered, and he was looking forward to getting inside.
The lights were on in the front rooms of the house, and as he drew close, Zach could see Susan through the window. She looked beautiful, and sexy, her thick hair loose over her shoulders, and wearing slouchy lounging clothes. He imagined burying his hands in her hair and tugging the drawstring on those loose pyjamas. Oh, this was the best idea. Justin and Michael were idiots.
Zach quickened his steps- and stopped abruptly at the sight of a second person, framed in the window. Boot.
Immobilized, Zach watched as Boot wrapped his arms around Susan. Watched as they kissed. Watched as Boots hands did what he had imagined his own doing, sliding through the long auburn strands of Susan's hair. Watched as Boot's hands moved down her back, lower-
Zach suddenly found himself with the wind knocked out of him and his back getting very, very damp.
Justin stood over him, holding a hand out. Zach ignored it, pushing himself to his feet, scrabbling in the snow. Dusting himself off with numbed hands, he glared at his friend. Justin simply snorted and tossed Zach's coat at him. Zach caught it, still disgruntled, but he put it on.
"Michael sends his regrets, by the way," Justin said dryly. "He stayed behind to settle the tab you walked out on." Justin paused. "You owe him a galleon and fourteen sickles."
"Sorry," Zach grumbled.
Justin, the prat, was standing there with his hands fisted on his hips, looking at Zach like he was a wayward child. There was a little pity in his stupid expression, too. Zach scowled and looked away.
"Zach," Justin said, his voice surprisingly gentle. Zach looked away even harder. Justin sighed. "Fine, don't look at me. Look at her. Look in that window."
In the window, Susan and Boot embraced. Completely wrapped up in one another. Oblivious to the men standing just a few feet away. They looked like two souls that had found their other half.
Zach let out a muffled, strangled sound, and fell back onto his arse into the snow. He pressed his forehead to his knees, breathing raggedly. Only when he had himself under control did he look back up at Justin.
Justin pulled his wand from inside his jacket, casting some sort of barrier spell before he sat down on the ground with Zach. He clapped a hand on Zach's shoulder, a calming gesture that had worked since the first time Justin had done it, the second day of first year when Ernie MacMillan had said something particularly snotty to him and Zach had offered him a hard punch in the nose. It worked now; Zach released a deep, heavy breath and relaxed his posture.
"She's happy, mate," Justin said. "If you really do love her, don't try to take that from her."
"I know she is." Zach sighed. It sounded simple, put like that, but it was all a turmoil inside him. "You don't think I could make her happy? That she could love me?"
"Sure, she could." Zach snapped his head to look at Justin, surprised by the simplicity of the reply. "But- could have, would have, should have, yeah? And now there's Boot. He's a nice bloke, you know."
"I know." Zach let out another breath. "I missed my chance, didn't I?"
"You missed this chance. I doubt it will be your only one. You don't get Susan. Not the way you want her. But I'd wager eventually you'll find the right person, at the right time, and you'll know not to fuck it up."
Justin thumped Zach's shoulder again. Zach gave him a half-hearted sort of smile, one still muddled with the misery painted on his face.
"If you say so."
"I do." Justin stood, and held his hand out to Zach to help him up off the snowy ground. "Now, come back to my place. You can warm up and dry off."
Zach snorted, though as sobriety crept up on him, he was becoming more and more aware of just how wet his arse was. "Michael won't be annoyed?"
"He might be, but he's a good egg, and he knows you mean a lot to me."
"You're lucky," Zach muttered. He'd never once envisioned himself in this position, and embarrassment was beginning to settle in. He supposed he ought to be glad that it was Justin, who had seen him through so many ups and downs in his life, that he'd done this in front of. That, and that Justin had stopped him before he'd made a complete fool of himself with Susan.
"You will be, too. Now come on; it's ruddy cold out here."
She bit her lip a moment, looking this way and that. Coming to a decision, she took Draco by the hand, and pulled him further into the archive stack, deep into the winding rows of shelves, til the space became darker and narrower. Draco pressed her back against the shelving, the spines of books pressing against Hermione's back, but she didn't much care because his mouth was doing something exceedingly clever to her neck.
"Hello?" called a voice.
Draco's head turned to the side, most disappointingly. "Bones," he hissed.
"Just be quiet," Hermione suggested, her hands sliding under the buttoned shirt she's already freed from the waistband of his pants. "Maybe she'll go away."
Her fingertips skimmed his slender abdomen, tracing the now-familiar faint muscle lines on his torso. It had the desired effect, his mouth returning to her neck, and she arched her head back, her teeth digging into her lip to prevent any sound from escaping.
"Helloooo?" Susan Bones called again. Hermione could hear her sigh, then tear off a bit of parchment to leave a written request. She could also hear Susan mutter, "You'd think she'd put up an 'Away from my desk' sign or something."
But she also heard Susan leave, which was a relief. She didn't want Draco to go, or to stop what he was doing. He was very good at what he was doing, after all, and he had only improved as he'd gotten to know her body more and more intimately.
Draco's mouth caught hers, and Hermione forgot completely about Susan Bones for a good long while. Afterward, they sat on the floor in the narrow aisle between the stacks, disheveled and flushed and satisfied. Draco reached up to brush a stray curl behind her ear, and she kissed him once more before leaning back against him, not caring at all that her shirt was unbuttoned and her trousers were several feet away. Draco's arms looped loosely around her, and Hermione sighed contentedly.
This had been going on for a couple of weeks now, since that night. Hermione had supposed he'd think about what had happened in the cold light of morning and regret taking her to bed. Hell, she'd expected to feel that way herself, but she hadn't. And Draco hadn't either, as she'd discovered when he'd come to visit her in the archive the next time she'd worked. That day had ended up much like today, and since then they'd been shagging with surprising regularity. Hermione found it hard to turn him down, and more importantly, she hadn't wanted to.
She'd asked him, once, if it had all just been totally out of the blue, just whim that turned out well.
He'd leveled his gaze at her, and said, "Do you really think I'm incapable of looking up basic case law without assistance? Why do you think I visit your desk so often?"
She'd shagged him especially rotten, that day.
Now, however, she said, "I'm not interfering with the race to promotion, am I? Keeping you preoccupied while Susan actually works?"
Hermione was mostly teasing, but she was still relieved when Draco chuckled, and said, "No. My current cases are all squared away. And I'm not entirely certain that this alleged promotion isn't just a carrot being dangled before two very eager asses."
"Mmm, spoken like a true barrister." She twisted around, brushing her lips softly against his jaw. "But even so. I don't want to get you in trouble. It could be quite the scandal, if you were caught with your pants off in the archive stacks."
"Now that's quite a visual." He sounded amused. "But perhaps we'd better find a more inconspicuous meeting place, eh?"
"We could meet at my place, maybe. Or a hotel. But you'll have to stop visiting me here. I've proven a definite lack of willpower where you're concerned," Hermione admitted, looking up at his sharp jaw line. She remembered how cruel she used to find his mouth. Now that she'd seen it smiling, felt it move on hers, she found it rather lovely.
"Oh, we could meet at different places around town. Secret assignations, a romantic cloak and dagger, perhaps?" Draco's fingers felt so nice as they stroked over her belly, moving in idle circles around her navel.
"Sneak off at the Christmas gala, maybe? I could book a room for the night," Hermione suggested.
Draco's fingers stilled, and his posture shifted in a way Hermione didn't exactly care for. "About the Ministry party…"
Hermione sat up straight, turning fully to face him. She asked, though she doubted she'd like the answer. "What?"
Draco ran a hand back through his hair, making the fine strands stand on end. "Pansy's owled. It seems her lover has been persuaded to come to England for the holiday, and she's expecting me to escort her to the gala."
Hermione frowned, dismayed. Yes, she'd been aware of the arrangement, but with Pansy on the continent, it had seemed distant and unimportant; the secrecy of her relationship with Draco had seemed romantic, not a necessity. Being told to hide in this fashion didn't sit well with her.
"But if it's all for show, surely she won't mind?"
Draco shook his head, a tight little motion. "Pansy is all about appearances. No doubt she'll be expecting me to arrive with her, and leave with her. And if I were caught sneaking back to meet with you, it wouldn't go over well."
He was inches away, but Hermione felt like a chasm had opened between them. "I see."
She began pulling her clothes back together, tugging on her trousers and buttoning her blouse.
"Hermione, don't." Draco reached out and laid a hand on her arm, stilling her motions. "I'm going to tell her I can't do it any longer. I can't be her pretend boyfriend when I would very much like to be your real one. I simply don't want to shame her at such a public event. She's still one of my dearest friends; we've been close since we were in nappies. Can't you understand?"
In spite of herself, Hermione could. Wouldn't she do anything for Harry and Ron, even with all their complicated failed romantic entanglements? She'd done plenty of hard things for them- she'd even lost her own parents to invented memories, so she could help them. As much as she didn't like being asked to keep things secret a while longer, as much as she would loathe seeing Draco squire Pansy about at the party, she could understand why Draco felt he had to do it. Silently, she nodded.
Then she tipped her head, looking up at him. "You want to be my boyfriend?"
Draco looked startled, then gestured at his own state of dishabille. "I thought that much was obvious. Is it so surprising?"
Hermione laughed. "Draco, with you nothing is ever obvious. But it is quite a turnaround, don't you think?"
"From our younger days?" Draco grinned. "I should say so. I'm glad of it."
"Shockingly, so am I," Hermione answered, pulling him in for another kiss.
Instead, he'd tied it to the kitten's collar. Catching hold of the newest member of their household, Ron held him out to Luna.
"Tybalt has a wee gift for you."
"Does he now?" Luna's face lit up as she took the young cat from him.
As she untangled the ribbon affixing the ring to Tybalt's collar, Ron was awfully nervous. Like, more nervous than he could ever remember being, and he'd been nervous plenty of times when he'd been adventuring with Harry and Hermione. This was a different sort of nervous, though. His whole life could be changing in a few moments.
Finally Luna freed the ring, setting the cat aside with a pat on his head before having a good look at the jewelry she'd acquired.
Ron held his breath.
"Ronald, it's so lovely!" Luna ran a gentle fingertip over the ring. "And so unusual. Tybalt has wonderful taste." Her smile was impish.
"Hang on a tick," Ron said, carefully taking the ring from her palm. Then he slipped from the sofa, kneeling in front of her. "I want to do this properly."
He held the ring between his fingertips, and took Luna's hand in his.
"Luna Lovegood, you make me happier than I've any right to be. I can't imagine my life without you in it." Ron looked up into Luna's big blue eyes, completely certain that he was doing the right thing. "Look, I'm no good at big speeches; we both know the more I talk, the more trouble I get m'self into. So I'll just ask you- will you marry me?"
She didn't say anything for a while, and Ron began to worry. Then he really looked at her, and he could see her face, see how she was smiling, and see when she nodded. Grinning like a loon, he slipped the ring onto Luna's finger, before surging upward to claim her mouth with his own.
"That's yes, right?" he asked between kisses.
"Yes!" Luna answered, laughing now. "I was just surprised!"
Ron laughed, too, then swept her up in his arms, hauling her against him. They were still in their pyjamas, and Ron was grateful for the airy nightgowns Luna favoured. Her transformation from girlfriend to fiancé was having an invigorating effect on him, and he was happy the gown was easily removed, because having a naked Luna in his arms was even better than having a clothed Luna in his arms. He was wearing only a thin t-shirt and drawstring pyjama bottoms himself, and those were gone in a tick, as well.
Ron guessed Luna was in the mood to celebrate, too.
It was funny, he thought, that her breasts never failed to be a revelation to him, just enough to fill his palm perfectly when he cupped one. Nor did the way she fit just so with him, their hips molding together as he pressed her back to the couch. Sliding inside of Luna was like coming home, and her soft moans filled his ears and earned her similar sounds from his own lips.
"I love you," he said, a sigh into her mouth as he moved inside of her.
"I love you, too, Ronald," she whispered, and then robbed him of the ability to speak.
After, he rained small kisses against her neck and shoulder, while she laughed and attempted to smooth down his unruly hair.
"I could stay like this all day," he murmured, pulling her against him spoon-style, her nice round arse snugging against his pelvis.
"So could I," said Luna, "but we can't. We have the party."
"Sod the party," Ron said, kissing her behind her ear.
"You know we can't." Luna turned in his arms, touching his lips with her fingertips. "But we can do this again after."
"Promise?" Ron's hands found her bum.
"Oh, alright, we'll go to the stupid Ministry party."
He kissed her again, full on the mouth, though in a more leisurely fashion now that his immediate desires were sated.
"Besides, I got new dress robes," Luna said. "I don't want them to go to waste."
"Yeah. And I guess we should go by the Burrow, tell Mum and Dad the news before they read it in the Prophet."
Ron settled back against the sofa cushions, his hands roaming over Luna's long, slender body.
"They'd never read it in the Prophet first," Luna scolded, smiling down at him. "I'd never allow the Prophet to scoop the Quibbler on my own engagement."
Ron laughed again, then gave his fiancé a playful swat on her bum. "Better get dressed, then."
How had Seamus' mum ever managed it?
Harry timed his arrival at Treats just as Simone would be taking over for the remainder of the day. Hoping there wouldn't be any customers because of the holiday, he tipped his hat at the girl who worked the counter in the mornings as she hurried out the door, and slipped inside. The cafe was empty, but for Simone, who had her back to him. Harry shuffled a little, to draw her attention.
She wore a smile as she turned, but it faded to sternness as she recognized him. Her arms folded across her chest, and she looked at him levelly.
"Didn't think I'd see you again. I thought I'd made myself pretty clear."
"You did." Harry felt that eerie calm settle over him, the one he always felt when he put aside his wibbling and settled on a course of action. "But I had something I wanted to show you."
"Oh? What's that, then? Your ID?" Simone's look was skeptical, and Harry couldn't blame her. But he did hope to change it.
"No," he answered.
He took off his hat and coat, and reached inside his attaché. When he shook out the cloak tucked inside, the colors that comprised the fabric rippled and shimmered. It had been a long time since he'd worn this cloak, and he was surprised to realize he'd missed it. Harry draped the invisibility cloak over his shoulders, feeling it settle around him like a familiar friend. He left the hood down, wanting Simone to get the full effect.
Harry was rewarded with a sharp gasp, and then he did put the hood up, obscuring himself completely. After a beat or two, he dropped it again, and looked right at Simone.
"It's a trick," she said, shaking her head.
"It's not." Harry unfastened the cloak from his shoulders and stepped closer to Simone, sweeping it around her before she could protest. "Look down."
She did, slipping her hand out of the folds to marvel at it, then tucking it away again. She almost smiled, but then she shook her head again, and unfastened the cloak, removing it and holding it out to Harry.
"It's a trick," she repeated.
"I was afraid you might say that." Harry took the cloak back, then cast a furtive glance at the door. God help him if any other Muggles walked in. He really loathed performing memory charms.
Assured that they were still alone for the moment, Harry reached into his case again, and took out his wand. He gave it a small flick, sending up the shower of red and gold sparks. Simone's doubt seemed to fade a little, but Harry was beginning to sense she'd be a tough nut to crack. Resigned, he aimed his wand at a nearby coffee cup, transfiguring it into a bird. The newly-made bird look startled, flapped its wings, and then flew off to perch on a high shelf. Simone's hands came up to cover her mouth, and her eyes were wide now as she looked at Harry.
He set his wand down, relieved. "D'you want to see more proof?" He reached into his jacket, pulling out his Ministry identification. "Name and picture on that. I've also got a copy of the Daily Prophet if you need further convincing, though it's a terrible rag and I don't recommend actually reading it."
Simone slowly dropped her hands, staring at him with a mix of wonder and fear. Harry had seen that look before, on his cousin Dudley's face, though Simone wore it much more prettily.
"You… you owe me coffee cup. Harry. It is really Harry, isn't it?"
"It really is Harry," he agreed.
"Oh, my god," she said, sagging slightly. "I think I need to sit down."
Harry hurried to pull out a chair for her to sink into, perching against the table in front of her.
"I'm still me," he said. "I'm no different."
Simone looked up at him sharply. "Yes, you are." Then she cocked her head, looking at him. "But no, not so much, either." She took a steadying breath. "So you're not an author, then?"
Harry shook his head. "No, I'm not. I'm an auror. It's something like a police officer, only with magic."
"I remember," Simone said. "From your story. So you did get what you always wanted."
"In some ways," Harry agreed, shifting closer. "But there's a lot more to be told. I just wonder if you'll want to hear it."
She nodded slowly. "I do. How could I not want to know how that story ends?"
"Well, I hope it's not ended quite yet." Harry chuckled, then sobered. "Can you forgive me, Simone?"
She tilted her head, looking at him. "That depends."
"On this." She reached up for him, standing as she cupped the back of his neck, tugging him down just enough to fit her mouth against his.
It was as delightful as Harry remembered. He hoped it was for Simone, as well. He wanted to be convincing.
"Am I forgiven?" he asked, when he lifted his head for a breath.
"Almost," she answered, and pulled him back in.
He felt the heat flash through him in an instant, and he pulled her close, deepening the kiss. Feeling her fingernails dig into his back through the material of his shirt made his next decision easy. Picking up his wand, he said, "Simone, do you mind closing shop early?"
"Not a bit. It is Christmas, after all."
"Brilliant. I've got a couple more tricks up my sleeve."
Harry quickly cast colloportus to lock the shop, and then he apparated the pair of them to his flat.
Simone was clinging to him tightly as they materialized. "Did you just…?"
Her eyes scanned the room, and Harry could almost see her making the mental adjustment from having been in a coffee shop moments before to being in his slightly messy, still being settled into flat. Finally she eased her grip on him slightly, her hands coming to rest on Harry's chest.
"Alright, then?" Harry asked quietly. He knew apparating felt a bit like being pulled sideways through the eye of a needle, and that was when someone was expecting it.
"Yeah." Simone's fingers curled in his shirt. "So this is your flat?"
"Then hurry up and show me the bedroom."
Harry didn't need to be asked twice. He scooped her up, and carried her back to his room, grateful that some impulse had compelled him to make up his bed that morning. Laying Simone on the bed, he looked appreciatively down at her before joining her. She was lovely, but it was more than that. Something about her ready smiles and easy-going attitude set Harry at ease, made him want to be around her as much as possible. The fact that she was sexy as hell, waiting on his bed with an inviting look in her eyes, was just the icing on the cake. Harry pounced, claiming her mouth in a searching kiss, and he was unsurprised when she met him with equal aggression.
They peeled off one another's kit in a hurry; this was something that had been building since he'd first returned to Treats, and Harry found he was impatient now that the moment had finally arrived. He'd held back before, because of his secret, and now that everything was in the open, he wanted her to know him in every way possible. And he wanted to know her equally well, which he demonstrated with his lips pressed to every available inch of skin. How had he gone so long without knowing the sounds she would make when he did that? They were seared into his mind now.
Simone was not a passive partner, her hands tangling in his hair, tugging and guiding him. She pushed at his shoulders, reversing their positions, sitting astride him in all her shameless glory. Harry reveled in her blatant desire, his hands firm on her hips as she wrung her pleasure from him, his hips snapping up to meet her until her cries filled his entire world. He took his release the same way, with abandon, wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight to his chest as he rode out the waves of pleasure that wracked his body.
His mouth found hers again, once his breathing had slowed and his heart had gone back to its normal rhythms. His kisses were gentler now that he was satiated and his body was heavy with that satisfaction. Simone's hands traced wide circles across his shoulders, and Harry sighed happily into her mouth.
"I'm glad you told me the truth," Simone finally said, nestling her head against his shoulder.
"Oh, jesus, me too," Harry said, resting his palm against her bum. He kissed her temple.
"Mmmm." Simone snuggled closer, her body pressing flush to his again, and Harry dropped his head, his lips finding her neck.
He could feel his desire for her building again, his fingers wandering down her thigh, urging it over his own.
"Harry, what's that?" Simone asked, her voice odd.
"I think you know what that is." He rolled his hips against her, further demonstrating.
"No, not that!" She swatted his arse, laughing. Then she reached up, her fingers under his chin, turning his head. "That!"
On his bedside table, the tip of his wand blinked purple.
"Oh, bloody sodding hell." It was a reminder. Which he'd set because he'd suspected he'd forget, although he hadn't had any idea what exactly would be distracting him.
With a groan, he extricated himself from Simone's arms, and reached for the wand, muttering the incantation to end the alert. Then he turned to the woman in his bed, offering her a lopsided, sheepish smile.
"Fancy going to a party?"
George stood blinking at her, holding small, brightly wrapped gift in his hand.
"Um. Happy Christmas?" he said, peering at her concernedly. "Is everything alright?"
Lavender felt immediately chagrined. "Oh, George. I'm sorry. But no, everything is not alright, though it's not your fault and I shouldn't have barked at you. Only Jenny's come down with the flu, and I'm meant to be at the Ministry gala in a hour, and I don't know how I'm going to manage it on my own."
She gestured helplessly at the mountains of sweets and pastries and cakes, which she needed to transport to the party, arrange, and serve. It would have been a lot of work for her and her employee, and now that she was facing doing it all herself, the task seemed rather overwhelming.
"Well, don't, then," he said, and before she could protest, he set down his parcel, and tossed off his coat, grabbing Jenny's apron- which was purple and frilly- and tying it around his waist. "I'm at your service."
"Oh, George," Lavender said again, this time tinged with disappointment. "But I can't do that. Don't you have to visit with your family? What about Freddie?"
"I've already spent the better part of the day with my family, and Freddie is currently being quite happily spoilt rotten by her grandparents and aunts and uncles and playing with her cousins. I don't think she'd even notice I've gone."
Lavender bit her lip. She hated to take advantage of him, especially on Christmas, but he was offering, and she did somewhat desperately need the help.
"If you're certain?"
"I am," he said firmly, unbuttoning his shirt at the wrists and rolling his sleeves up.
"Truly?" Lavender asked, relief sweeping through her at his nod. Impulsively, she threw her arms round his neck, hugging him tightly. "Thank you, so much. I could really just kiss you."
"Oh, yeah?" George's teasing grin made her cheeks heat; Lavender hadn't even been thinking at all about her word choice just then. But then his voice lowered, and he said, "Go ahead then."
Still filled with happy impulse, Lavender hesitated just a second, just long enough for George to pull her closer. Her eyes flew to his, and she saw that he was waiting. Not impatiently, but not teasing, either. His eyes were gentle. She knew then, that she had been fighting herself a long time, when it came to George, and her resistance to her own wants finally broke, and she stretched up to meet his mouth, her lips firm against his.
She intended to pull away when she broke the kiss, but George tugged her back, and his lips were slightly parted as he fit them to her mouth. He kissed her upper lip, then her lower, and then he kissed her full on, with a confidence that took her breath away.
"About damn time," he said, when he lifted his mouth from hers.
Lavender laughed, she couldn't help it. She never could with George.
"Well. Freddie was right, indeed. You do give very nice kisses."
He winked at her, making her laugh again. "There's more where that came from," he said, waggling his eyebrows at her, "should you so desire."
"I do," Lavender admitted. "Truly, I do." Then she saw the clock over George's shoulder. "But not now! We need to get to the Ministry."
She began to pull away, but George caught her hand. "Later then?"
Surprised by her own self-assuredness, Lavender held his eyes for a moment, letting him see her desire for him. "Definitely later." She paused. "If we haven't killed ourselves transporting cakes and the like to London."
"In that case… let's get started."
Lavender had to admire the way George pitched in. If she didn't know better she'd have thought he'd been transporting and plating baked goods his entire life. By the time the witch in charge of the gala came by to inspect the dessert table, everything looked gorgeous, and if George had copped a few feels along the way, Lavender couldn't complain. She had a feeling later he'd be helping her celebrate, rather than consoling her.
Glancing over at him as the party-goers began to trickle into the ballroom, Lavender smiled mischievously at George. "I never thought I'd find someone in purple ruffles so attractive."
"Oi, I had to wear the uniform, didn't I?" He grinned, then leaned his head close. "And I'm glad to hear you still fancy me in it- you can defend my masculine honour. Because here comes trouble."
"Hey, who are you calling trouble?" Ron Weasley said with a grin, reaching for a slice of marble cake. "Nice apron! Suits your eyes, it does." He forked a large bite into his mouth, then talked around it. "Did you tell Lavender my news?"
George rolled his eyes. "No, Ronnie, we were a bit busy." To Lavender, he said, "Ron went and got himself engaged. Mum had paroxysms of joy."
There was a time when Lavender might have felt a tinge of jealousy at the news, but with George's hip brushing hers behind the table, she couldn't find any. Instead she just smiled and offered her congratulations.
"Tell Luna to come show me the ring when she's got a chance." Looking around, she asked, "Where's Harry? Thought you two would turn up around the same time."
"Late, as usual," Ron scoffed.
George lobbed a cream puff at him. "You're only on time because of Luna."
"Which only goes to show how clever I am for getting her to fall madly in love with me." Ron's grin couldn't be budged, and Lavender supposed she couldn't blame him. He had to be chuffed at the engagement. "He'll turn up. The PR bloke will be sending him howlers if he doesn't."
Ron popped the cream puff into his mouth, and gave them an insouciant grin as he turned and headed off. Lavender was left shaking her head, but quickly enough she had no time to reflect on the mystery that was Ronald Weasley, because it turned out that her sweets were rather popular. She only paused to catch her breath once people seemed to have moved on from noshing to dancing, though they still had people approaching at regular intervals. Once they had a brief quiet moment, she turned to face George, a brilliant smile creasing her face.
"You know, I can't thank you enough. Not only is tonight a success, but this is going to help the bakery so much," she said, giving his hand a squeeze.
"You did all the hard stuff, Lavender." George looked at her, a rare serious expression on his face. "You made all this fantastic stuff. And after everything you've done for me? With Freddie? I'd be a huge prat if I didn't return the favour."
Lavender blinked at him. "But I love Freddie."
"I know. She loves you. And as her dad, don't you think it means a ton to me that you care so much for my daughter?" George moved closer, lowering his voice. "And that's just the icing on the cake- no pun intended, by the way- to the fact that you're funny and kind and clever and beautiful."
Unbidden, Lavender's hand went up to the scars near her neck, rubbing them self-consciously. "I almost believed all that."
"Believe it, Lavender. We all have our scars." George pushed the unkempt ginger hair away from the left side of his face, revealing the spot where his ear should have been. "It's Christmas, and Christmas is a time for honesty, yeah? Well, let me be completely honest. To me? You are beautiful."
Lavender's cheeks flamed. "Go on with you, George Weasley." But she leaned in, after darting her eyes about to make sure they weren't ignoring any ball-goers with a sweet tooth, and kissed him quickly. "Thank you."
A sudden swell in the noise of the crowd pulled her attention. Everyone's head had turned in the same direction, and Lavender and George's heads followed suit, swiveling to see that a staff member had moved a curtain- revealing one Harry Potter, who was quite enthusiastically snogging a pretty woman that Lavender didn't recognize.
"Oh, my," she said, her hand coming up to cover her giggle.
"Smile and wave, Harry!" George yelled. "Smile and wave!"
Justin only snorted. "I think we've established that I am the expert on terrible ideas, and you have no idea which end is up."
"I was pissed," Zach protested, but he knew it was to no avail. They were already here, at the Ministry gala, and Justin and Michael had insisted on bringing Zach as their plus one, and in a fit of insanity, Zach had allowed it. But now it seemed stupid, standing here in his dress robes, the press blinding him with flashbulbs, and knowing Susan and her fiancé were on the other side of the entrance.
Gritting his teeth, he planted a cocky grin on his face and forced himself to swagger as they entered the party. Justin and Michael would pay for this. Zach didn't know how, but pay they would.
Inside, once the obligatory pictures were taken and hellos were made, Zach ditched the happy couple and made a beeline for the food. The Ministry could always be counted on to provide a good spread, at least; Zach piled his plate high, filling it with finger foods and looking longingly at the desserts table, trying to decide if indulging his sweet tooth was worth braving a table swarming with Gryffindors. Thankfully, Potter decided to be an attention hog like always, and while Brown and Weasley were distracted, Zach swooped in and plucked several treats from the table. Satisfied that he'd found a method of occupying himself for the next half hour or so, Zach ensconced himself at a small table, off in a corner.
He thought it would be fun watching everyone and thinking awful things about them to himself while he stuffed himself, but looking around, all Zach saw were happy couples: Ron Weasley and Luna Lovegood, who he'd thought would have better taste. Potter and his mystery bird. Justin and Michael. Even Brown and the other Weasley looked awfully canoodle-y behind their pastry table. And then there was Susan, dancing with Boot and smiling. Zach didn't think it could get much worse, but then it did.
Susan and Boot came over.
Zach so did not want to make small talk with them. He didn't want to congratulate Boot, who was grinning from ear to ear and gripping Susan's hand like doing so might solve all the problems in the world. Zach didn't even have the energy to hate him, really, because he just knew that if he was with Susan and it was his ring on her finger, he'd have the same dopey look on his face.
"Cupcake?" he offered, holding one out before either of them could say anything.
Susan made an exasperated noise. "No, Zach. Terry and I were just coming over to make sure you weren't hiding out over here. Are you really going to spend the entire gala filling your stomach?"
"What else should I do, then?" Zach asked, Boot's presence making him feel particularly recalcitrant.
"Oh, I dunno, Zach- socialize? Dance, maybe?"
Zach stared up at her, a stubborn look settling on his face. "Fine. Dance with me?" He spared a glance at Boot, who wore an irritatingly mild expression. "If it's alright with your fiancé."
"Susan doesn't need my permission," Boot said blandly. "But you're her best mate. Why should I mind?"
Zach's eyes narrowed, but he tipped his head back in Susan's direction, waiting for her answer.
"Oh, fine, git."
Zach dusted cupcake crumbs from his hands, and stood, offering his arm out to Susan. She took it, letting him walk her to the outskirts of the dance floor. She didn't say anything until they started dancing.
"Why are you being a beast to Terry?"
"I am not." Zach wasn't much of a dancer, but he knew how to stand and sway, which was what he did now. Susan merely lifted a brow, not accepting his answer. "I don't mean to be," he amended.
It was on the tip of his tongue to pour everything out to her. To say he was behaving horridly because he was wretched with jealousy; to admit he was grumpy because he was angry at himself, because he knew that the situation was of his own making. He even went so far as to open his mouth, to say her name, but then he paused. He remembered seeing her through the window the other night. She had looked so content. And Justin was right. Who was he to try to take that from her? Who was he to sully her happiness with his own misery? He couldn't, as much as he wanted to.
He did love her, after all.
"Susan," he said again, his lips twisting in a wry smile. "As your bloke said, I'm your best mate. And if you're happy, I'm happy. I'm sorry if I've been rotten. It was just a surprise, that's all. I'll try to be nicer to Terry. I haven't anything against him, really."
Susan eyed Zach skeptically a moment, then seemed to decide he was being truthful. She wrapped her arms more tightly around him, the sort of hug they'd shared so many times since they were eleven years old that he'd lost count. He rubbed his chin against the top of her head, and released a small sigh. At least she was still his friend. At least that. He pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead, and loosened his hold on her.
"And," he said, as if they hadn't missed a beat, "since I haven't yet gotten you a Christmas present, I'll tell you this, instead: I will be your 'man of honour.' As long as I still get to wear trousers."
Susan's face broke out into a real, sincere smile- before she swatted him. "Of course you can still wear trousers! I swear, Zacharias Tristan Smith, you are completely impossible."
Zach chuckled. "Oh, no, please don't break out the middle name. I thought I'd managed to escape that this Christmas, by coming here instead of going to the family shindig."
The song came to an end, and Zach gave Susan a little bow accompanied by a smirk, then offered her his elbow. He led her back to Boot, who was waiting on the side of the dance floor with a woman Zach felt he vaguely recognized- on the tall side, with a nice build, and long dark hair waving around her face. The woman's dress was daring, too; Zach couldn't help admiring the way the low-cut v-front highlighted her assets, and the light in the woman's blue eyes and the sardonic grin playing on her lips told him he'd been caught looking.
"Zach, do you remember my flat-mate from school? This is Tracey Davis."
Suddenly, Zach remembered her exactly. She'd been quieter in school, usually tucked safely amid a group of much more noticeable Slytherins. That had clearly changed. "I do. We had Defense Against the Dark Arts together."
Tracey inclined her head, acknowledging, he hoped, that he wasn't as much of a buffoon as she might've thought. Feeling bold, he asked, "Would you want to go grab a cocktail with me? Justin assured me there was an open bar."
After giving him an assessing look, Tracey shrugged one shoulder elegantly. "Why not? I need to occupy my time until Pansy arrives, and, no offense to you, Terry, but you and Susan are making my teeth rot with all that saccharine love nonsense."
Zach made an immediate decision that he was going to quite like Tracey Davis.
"Let's leave them to it, then," he suggested, and after kissing Susan's cheek and clapping Boot on the shoulder, he squired Tracey over to the bar.
Maybe tonight wouldn't be a total waste, after all.
Perhaps she'd just go. No one would mind it if she did. She'd already said hello to everyone, congratulated Ron and Luna, complimented Lavender, and even survived the embarrassment of her ex-boyfriend having a very public go at his date. Hell, she'd even been graceful about it, going to over to introduce herself to Simone, and been kind upon discovering she was a Muggle. She had, Hermione felt, done enough.
Resolved, she swallowed the last of her champagne, and made to return her empty glass to the bar. She was stopped in her tracks, however, by a posh voice behind her.
"Are you leaving already?"
Draco looked handsome, Hermione had to admit. She'd seen him only yesterday, but still felt a traitorous thrill go through her at the sight of him now, with his hair carefully arranged and his formal wear crisp and custom-fit. She'd had every intention of avoiding him tonight, knowing he'd be here with Pansy on his arm, and she had done very well, until now. This was the first she'd seen him at all, actually.
"There didn't seem much point in staying." She tapped her fingernails against the empty champagne flute. She didn't want Draco pitying her. "Where's Pansy?"
Damned if he didn't look pleased with himself. Hermione lifted her eyebrows, letting him say whatever he had planned to say. She knew him well enough by now to know he had more up his perfectly creased sleeve.
"Pansy is in love," he declared. "And as such, she's decided she no longer cares a whit what her parents think, and she cannot continue to impose on me to play the part of her boyfriend."
"And as for tonight, that means…?" Hermione kept her tone merely quizzical, though she could feel her heart rate speed up.
"She'll be attending with her lover. And I, if you'll have me at this late juncture, should like to be with you."
Hermione looked up at him. Was this settling? She didn't think so. Draco was making a step, and in a way, making a statement just as bold as Pansy's. Hermione reached for his hand, lacing her fingers with his, feeling very much as though something important had fallen into place.
In a few seconds, however, she was amending her earlier thought. Perhaps Draco wasn't being quite so bold as Pansy, after all.
Pansy arrived, timing it with a panache that Hermione had to admire, fashionably late, between songs, so that all eyes were on the entry as she walked in with her date. It took Hermione a moment to place the pretty blond girl, until she saw Ron, across the room, his jaw dropped nearly to the floor. Pansy's date- the person she was in love with, and willing to throw away convention for- was Gabrielle Delacour. They made a striking pair- Pansy slight and angular, her short black hair highlighting her razor-sharp cheekbones, her barely-there dress making the most of her small proportions; Gabrielle lush and blonde, her hair piled high and tumbling over her shoulders, her gown the latest in Parisian fashion, Hermione was sure. Their hands were firmly linked, and when they had the crowd's attention, Pansy rose to her toes to brush her lips across Gabrielle's, so there could be no mistake about exactly what was going on. Then they swanned into the fray, absolutely indifferent to everyone but one another.
Striving to remain composed, Hermione turned to face Draco. "Did you know?"
"Yes," he said simply, in such a serious fashion that Hermione felt immediately bad for her scandalized reaction. "Why else would I have agreed to help her keep things secret? But I'm glad she's decided otherwise."
Hermione understood then exactly what had been at stake for Pansy, mired in a society obsessed with lineage and tradition, despite her nonchalant display just now. And she understood why Draco had chosen to protect one of his oldest and dearest friends. She gave his hand a squeeze, and budged a bit closer to him.
"So," Draco drawled, snapping Hermione's attention to his face once more. "Since you were about to leave, can I convince you to leave with me? I do believe you previously mentioned something about getting a hotel room."
"I did," Hermione answered. "But I never did get one. It would have been rather lonely on my own."
Draco reached inside his jacket, withdrawing an old-fashioned brass key. "Good thing I procured one, then." He looked around. People were whispering, looking at Pansy, looking at Harry, even looking at Zach Smith, although he wasn't doing anything particularly interesting other than being a Quidditch player talking to a sultry woman. "I don't suppose anyone would even notice if I kissed you right now, do you think?"
Hermione laughed, and slid her arms around Draco's waist, the empty flute dangling from her fingers. "Probably not. But somehow I suspect you don't care if they do."
"I don't," he agreed, and then he bent his head, fitting his lips to hers.
Hermione sighed into his mouth and tightened her arms around him. She pulled away after a moment, her constant desire to snog this man at war with her life-long aversion to public displays. "Draco?"
"Hmmm?" His thumb traced the small of her back in a most distracting fashion.
'I'm glad you got that room. Because we have been noticed."
Across the room, Ron was slack-jawed again, though Hermione saw Luna give him a poke. Hermione offered a small wave at the other couple, then shrugged and tucked her head against Draco's shoulder.
"I still don't care," Draco reiterated, and kissed her again, quick and firm. "Happy Christmas, Hermione."
Before she could protest, Draco pointed upward. Hermione's gaze followed the direction of his finger. Mistletoe hovered above them. She lowered her eyes back to Draco's; he shrugged. "Tradition, and all."
Hermione looked around sharply, landing on Luna again. Luna waved her wand slightly where she held it down near her hip. Hermione shook her head, amused, and mouthed, Thank you. She'd worried how people would respond to her and Draco, whenever they were discovered. Luna's unspoken but immediate support set her at ease to some degree. She returned her head to Draco's shoulder, watching as Luna discreetly flicked her wand again.
Multiple bundles of mistletoe whisked out over the ballroom. Immediately, Hermione could see Luna had aimed them appropriately. The little bunches of leaves and berries stopped above the heads of various pairings, and Hermione and Draco watched with amusement as the couples noticed the plant that demanded a traditional kiss above them. Harry and Simone. Susan Bones and Terry Boot. George and Lavender. Pansy and Gabrielle. Zach Smith and Tracey Davis. And Hermione saw there was one above Ron and Luna, as well. She wondered if Luna had bespelled the mistletoe to seek certain qualities out, and decided that seemed very much like Luna, indeed.
Good on her.
She stretched up to kiss Draco again. "Happy Christmas, Draco. I do believe this is the best Ministry gala I've ever attended."