19 November 2006
Sunday, late afternoon
“Fuck’s sake, Granger. Are you on about that again?”
Draco Malfoy let out a snort, amusement laced with a hint of barely concealed impatience, and folded his arms behind his head.
Hermione turned from the rather extravagant bouquet she was arranging in a tall, ceramic vase. The flowers were courtesy of her boyfriend of three years, currently sprawled on her sitting-room sofa. He'd kept her waiting (once again), hence the apology bouquet, delivered with his usual careless charm and panache.
She paused, lips pursed with mild annoyance, and then opened her mouth to reply.
“I mean, seriously,” he continued, warming to his subject and heading her off. “It was only just Samhain, what? Three weeks ago? Not even. And now you’re ready to start messing about with sodding gingerbread houses? What’s the rush? Solstice is a whole month away. More to the point, why bother? Every year, you put all this effort into making the damned thing and then you wind up eating the lot practically in one go, or else binning most of it ‘cos it’s gone all green and furry. One can only eat so much gingerbread, y’know. The stuff gets revolting after a while.”
“Besides,” he added after a moment’s additional consideration, “it’s not even one of our traditions. Wizarding folk who do it nicked the idea from the Muggles.”
“What’s wrong with that?” They’d had this larger discussion before, and it was becoming tiresome. Hermione heaved a sigh. “Loads of traditions get borrowed, modified, passed down, and shared amongst different people. Doesn’t matter what the origin is, if it’s something you like to do. Take the Christmas tree, for instance. Its origins are thoroughly pagan. It’s been part of wizarding tradition at the Solstice for ages, way before Christians adopted it and made it theirs. And yet, everybody is very happy with it as a festive symbol. Anyway, I like gingerbread houses!” she added stoutly, her chin lifting in defiance. “They remind me of home and my mum and dad. We made one every year when I was little. It’s Granger tradition.”
Draco shrugged. “Suit yourself, love. Just don’t expect me to eat any of it.” He smiled then, beckoning to her lazily and patting the sofa cushion next to him. “Plenty of room for two here. You must be knackered after all the work you’ve just done.”
She smiled archly, raising an eyebrow. “Oh yes. Flower arranging is terribly taxing. I really should have a lie-down and get my strength back.”
Wandering over to the sofa, she lay down, snuggling into Draco’s embrace.
“Mmm,” she sighed happily. “This is nice.” A few moments of contented silence passed and then she began a light, teasing exploration of his forearm with the tip of one finger. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to do this whenever we wanted to?”
Draco raised himself up on one elbow and looked down at her, bemused. “Might I remind you, sweetness, that we already can?”
Hermione shook her head. “No, I mean in a place of our own. Someplace that’s really ours together. This is my flat.”
“I object. My toothbrush is here. You’re the first and only woman whose flat I’ve ever even considered leaving something so intimate as a toothbrush in.” Grinning infectiously, he gave her a little wink.
Hermione rolled her eyes and sighed. This charming glibness of his when she was being dead serious was getting rather old. “Come on, Malfoy. You’re joking, right? Your toothbrush? When I’m at your flat, I feel like a guest. A very welcome guest, but still... Your place is very much yours, just as this flat is mine. Not ours. At the end of the day, we still live very separately.”
“So?” he protested. Things were already perfect between them; why fix what wasn't broken, just for the sake of convention? He'd bet anything her friends had been at her again. “I reckon a bit of space is good for a relationship. Keeps it healthy, yeah? Nobody breathing down your neck all the time, watching what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You hate the way I leave the bathroom after a shower, right? I can’t abide the way you let hair collect in your hairbrush till it looks like you've trapped a dead animal. Plus, you squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle, which is completely illogical. It’s all bollocks, of course, the lot of it. But it's just the sort of stupid, trivial shite that winds people up. All because there’s a bit too much togetherness and not enough separate space. You know I’m right.”
Hermione sat all the way up now, twisting around to glare at him. “So you mean to tell me that you’d be happy to leave things as they are between us indefinitely? What about...” She paused, holding back, the dreaded “M” word on the tip of her tongue. And then she plunged ahead, throwing caution, common sense, and possibly their relationship to the four winds. “What about marriage? Or don’t you believe in that?”
There. She’d said it. The word hung between them now, a rather large elephant that had just barged into the room and was now trumpeting its presence.
Marriage. She’d never brought it up before, always assuming that eventually, their relationship would follow the traditional course. And ultimately, she’d told herself, if it didn’t, that would mean that it wasn’t meant to be anyway. However, that possibility had never seriously entered her mind. Until now, that is. Small, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) hints, dropped over the last six months, about taking things to the next level had consistently gone nowhere, though she hadn’t wanted to face that. She loved Draco, so she’d let it slide, hoping for the best. But the plain truth was, if the prospect of moving in together was so off-putting to him, the idea of marriage would be inconceivable.
Draco lay back, one arm propped behind his head. His teasing smile remained, but there was a hint of strain behind his eyes now. “Marriage? Admirable institution. It has its place, I suppose, and definite advantages. One doesn’t wish one’s children to be bastards. There are the financial considerations as well. And of course, there’s the stability of the social order to consider.”
“Screw the social order!” Hermione was incredulous. Could he not take anything seriously? “What the hell are you on about? This is me you’re talking to, remember? Our relationship! Our future! If you want one with me, that is,” she added darkly, tears beginning to pool behind her eyes. “I’m beginning to think you don’t. Not really.”
Things had taken a sudden, precipitous turn, one that Draco hadn’t expected. Evidently, his attempt to bring a bit of levity to the conversation had backfired; Granger was in a really foul mood now. And in truth, his wasn't much better. Suddenly, he felt very much like a bug under a magnifying glass: scrutinised and wanting to get away. Angry, too. How the hell could she say such a thing? Didn’t she know how he felt about her by now?
“’Course I want a future with you, you silly cow! Don’t be daft!” he retorted irritably.
“Daft?” Hermione jumped off the sofa and stood there, looking daggers at him, her voice beginning to shake. “I’m being daft, am I? I suppose the fact that we’ve been together for three whole years means nothing when push comes to shove. All our friends are moving forward in their relationships, whereas we seem to be stuck in a rut. One that you're quite happy in, apparently. Well, I won’t be just a comfortable convenience for you, Malfoy. We’re not friends with benefits. If you’re not willing to commit after all this time, then we’re...”
She stopped, the word she really, really didn’t want to utter stuck in her throat and choking her.
“We’re what?” he asked quietly. “Go on. Say it.”
She looked at him, tears beginning to spill over now. “We’re done.”
“Are you breaking it off? Is that what this is?”
Hermione turned away, wiping roughly at her tear-streaked face and fighting for composure, her voice muffled behind the soft, knitted sleeve of her jumper. His jumper, she remembered with a pang. “Look,” she said at last, swallowing hard. “I just… I just think maybe we should take a break. See other people. It might help us ('you,' she thought bitterly) to get things sorted.”
Raising her arms, she peeled the oversized jumper over her head, and then she turned to face him, holding it out. “Here. This is yours, after all. You’ll be wanting it back.”
Something inside Draco broke a little at the sight, and he shook his head roughly. “Keep it.”
An awkward silence hung over the room for a moment or two, neither of them knowing quite what to say. Moving stiffly to the armchair where he’d flung his jacket earlier, he scooped it up. A minute later, it was buttoned, a cashmere muffler flung carelessly round his neck.
They stood gazing at each other in silence for what felt like eons. The clock on her mantel ticked away in plodding, inexorable strokes, filling the dead air.
“Right, well... See you,” he began awkwardly.
He looked as miserable as she felt, and a part of her was screaming to take it all back, stop him leaving, erase the misery in his eyes, throw her arms around him and never let go. But she couldn’t. Not now. She’d made a stand, finally, something she should have done a long time ago, and if she relented now, she’d never have any credibility again. Whatever advantage she might have gained would be lost forever in a moment of weakness. ‘Think of the long run, Hermione,’ the voice in her head whispered. ‘You have standards. Don’t forget that. You deserve a man who can commit. Don’t settle.’
She put out her hand, then, and took his. It was limp and felt like ice.
“See you,” she whispered, letting it go. Letting him go. And then he was gone, the door closing behind him with painful finality.
Saturday, five pm
I know I should be getting ready now, but I just can’t seem to work up much enthusiasm for my date tonight. Ugh, dating. It’s beginning to feel far more like a chore than a good time. Why am I putting myself through this, anyway? I hate being single again. This will be my third date in the last two weeks if I count having coffee with a cute but rather grabby bloke from the office four days ago. I must be sinking to a new level of desperation, though. Cormac McLaggen. Did I really say yes to him as well? Whatever was I thinking?
It’s been nearly two weeks since Draco and I... well... what? I don’t really know what to call what’s happened between us. We haven’t broken up, exactly – not officially – but we haven’t seen each other or even spoken since that day, either.
I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to decide whether I did the right thing. Ginny says yes, absolutely. Luna too. Even Pansy, who is always on Draco’s side, says that at this point, he needs to “shit or get off the pot.” Hearing that made me feel better, but not much. Because I’m afraid that he’s decided to get off the pot for good. And it’s all my fault.
Oh gods. What an arse I am. Me and my huge, runaway mouth!
Wait. No. To hell with that! I did the right thing. It was cowardly, letting things slide for so long. Bravery is pretty cold comfort, though. I never thought he would actually take me at my word. But he did.
Funny. I truly believed he would say something like, “Hermione, you’re right, it’s high time we took the next step together. I don’t want to see anybody else. You are the love of my life. I only want you.”
Or, knowing Malfoy, something more along the lines of, “Granger, you silly bint, as much as you drive me round the bend sometimes, there isn’t anybody else for me. Reckon I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Let’s do this.”
As unromantic as that would’ve been, I’d have taken it. Gladly.
Damn. I miss him so much.
Spectacularly hung over and all out of hangover potion
Last night was exactly what I could have predicted, had I been in my right mind when Cormac asked me out.
He hasn’t changed. His technique is a bit more refined nine years on, but underneath, he’s still the same arrogant, conceited, slimy pig he always was.
We had dinner reservations at that posh new place in Diagon Alley. It’s French and so pricey that the menu doesn’t even deign to include piddling details such as how much everything costs. Cormac wasn’t concerned. He just tossed off an order (in badly mangled French) and then spent the rest of the evening leering at me. I swear, he was staring at my cleavage all night. He was practically drooling. The worst part was, I was wearing a new frock I’d bought with Draco in mind, something I know he’d have loved. I suppose I decided to wear it last night in a moment of lunatic defiance. But three hours of Cormac’s eyeballs gluing themselves to my chest was enough to ruin any pleasure I’d have had in the frock. He made me feel cheap and dirty in it, instead of beautiful and sexy and special. I’ll probably never wear it again.
Remembering what happened when he brought me home makes me ill. Or more ill, considering I’ve a hangover the size of Australia. Let's just say that his kissing technique leaves even more to be desired than his manners, rather a scary thought. Some brave woman with a cast-iron stomach needs to teach him what to do with that big, wet tongue of his. But it won’t be me.
early Wednesday morning
How strange! I’ve just had an owl at my kitchen window. It came to deliver an invitation to the Malfoys’ annual Winter Solstice ball. I never expected to be invited this year. Draco's mother is the one who plans the whole thing, though. He must not have told her what happened.
What should I do? Just politely decline, I suppose. It would be horribly awkward to arrive there on my own and have to face him. No doubt, he’ll be there with a date. A very glamorous one.
Right, then. I’ll simply send my sincerest regrets. Might as well get it over with now and then try to put the whole thing out of my mind.
Apparently, I’m going to the Solstice ball whether I want to or not. I’ve just been expressly invited by Narcissa Malfoy, and she absolutely refuses to take no for an answer. This makes me wonder if maybe she does know what’s happened between me and Draco after all, and now she wants to try and fix things. Her intentions are good, but of course, there’s really nothing she or anyone else can do at this point. If he really is prepared to walk away, nothing she does or says will make any difference. And I won’t try to persuade him. I love him more than anything, but I refuse to beg.
Everybody knows us as a couple. Surely, they’ll see what’s going on right away. Oh gods, I’m going to be humiliated! We’ll be the evening’s entertainment and the after-party gossip!
Hmm. Well, if that’s the case, maybe this would be a good occasion to wear that gorgeous new frock again after all. A sort of swan song. At least I’ll go out in style!
The Winter Solstice
At precisely half past seven, Hermione stood before the hall mirror and gave herself a final glance. The girl who looked back at her had eyes that were a tad too bright and a flush of high colour in her cheeks. The burgundy velvet cocktail dress, strapless and slinky, suited her perfectly, and in other circumstances, she’d have been very pleased with her reflection. Instead, she just felt exposed and jumpy, the flutters in the pit of her stomach refusing to be quelled by attempts at deep, calming breaths.
Nervously, she checked her watch. Time to go. Guests would be Apparating directly to the Manor, and as much as she was dreading what was ahead, she didn’t want to be late and draw further attention to herself. Drawing her warm travelling cloak around her shoulders, Hermione closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and vanished.
A moment later, she found herself standing before the heavy oaken door of the Malfoys’ ancestral home in Wiltshire. The night was crisp and clear, stars glittering in the blackened night sky like fragments of diamonds. Taking a deep breath, she raised the heavy, iron knocker and let it fall. A few seconds passed, and then the door swung open and she stepped inside.
“May Tibby take your cloak, Miss Hermione?”
It was one of the Malfoy house-elves, a tiny, wizened man with kind eyes, someone of whom she’d always been rather fond. Now he held out his arm and she slipped out of her cloak, handing it to him gratefully.
Both the Great Hall and the Grand Ballroom beyond it were filled with a warm, golden glow from hundreds of floating candles. Musicians played, house-elves traversed the huge rooms with trays of delectable hot and cold hors d’oeuvres and tall flutes of champagne, and the atmosphere was one of general merriment, comfort, and pleasure. The vast majority of the guests had arrived by this time, the cream of wizarding society at their most elegant, their laughter and conversation emanating in refined ripples across the room.
Following Tibby, Hermione eventually found herself standing by the large marble hearth, surrounded by a veritable sea of people. She glanced around apprehensively, looking for just one familiar face she could latch onto. Anybody but Draco, she found herself wishing, and then knew herself to be a liar. It was his face she most wanted to see. Needed to see, really, and yet she dreaded it too. Because there was no telling what seeing him would do to her. Already, she could feel her defences slipping. It wouldn’t take much to dismantle them altogether.
“Master Draco is just over there,” the little house-elf remarked with a smile, inclining his head, and then he vanished into the crowd.
Hermione looked in the direction he’d indicated. Draco was there all right. And oh gods, he looked wonderful.
Standing straight and tall, his rakishly long, pale hair in striking contrast to the elegant, dark suit and stylish dress robes, he cut a dashing figure. It was no more than she’d expected, and yet, the sight of him really hurt, even as it left her breathless.
The urge to run to him and throw herself into his arms was overwhelming. Instead, Hermione willed herself to remain where she was, accepting a flute of champagne from a passing house-elf and sipping it with admirable calm. She hoped that several glasses of something alcoholic would take the edge off, enough that she wouldn’t make a total fool of herself. To that end, she glanced about rather desperately, looking for somebody to talk to so she could forget that her ex was staring at her from across the room. His expression was composed and carefully neutral, but something flared in his eyes when they met hers, and then he looked away.
The fact that he stood there with a stunning if rather fashionably emaciated redhead on his arm was precisely the bitter pill Hermione had hoped she wouldn’t have to swallow this evening. Who the hell was that, anyway? Hadn’t taken him long, had it. Just over a month and already, he’d got disgustingly cosy with some gorgeous socialite or model or whatever she was.
A familiar voice rang out over the chitchat and peals of laughter. Hermione turned to find Pansy Parkinson hurrying towards her.
“I didn’t think you’d come! But I’m so glad you did,” she told Hermione, her voice dropping to a confidential hush. “Draco’s been simply impossible the last month. He’s been driving everybody completely round the twist with his moods and sulking. Whatever did you do to him?”
Hermione smiled grimly. “I did what you and everyone else said I ought to have done ages ago. I pushed the issue of where our relationship was going, and... well... he walked away. S’pose I got exactly what I asked for, didn’t I. I said we should take a break for a bit, see other people. But I never expected... I never thought...”
“You never thought he’d actually agree to it. Well, he may have done, but he hasn’t exactly been enjoying his newfound freedom, the miserable little wanker. I told him straight out: stop taking it out on all of us and put things right with Hermione! I assume, given the looks on both of your faces, that he didn’t exactly take my advice.”
Hermione shook her head morosely. “Nope. Not that I expect him to either, at this point. Not with that... that woman hanging all over him.”
Pansy glanced over in Draco’s direction and then gave a quick snort of laughter. “Her? Oh, you’ve nothing to worry about there. That’s his cousin Portia. She’s visiting for the holidays from France. I’ve known her practically since we were all in nappies, and I’d be willing to bet she’s made a right pest of herself whilst she’s been here. Draco can’t stand her. Trust me, he’s only putting up with her to please his parents.” Pansy leaned in conspiratorially and grinned. “It’s a dye job, you know, that red hair,” she whispered.
Hermione giggled, and just a little of the tension weighing on her dissolved.
Pansy stuck close to her all evening, and Hermione could have wept with gratitude. Both Theo and Blaise asked her to dance several times, and even Greg Goyle managed not to step on her feet as he swung her about the ballroom.
At last, the midnight hour was upon the revellers, heralding the Solstice. As it struck, all the floating candles dimmed and finally flickered out. And then the ceiling transformed itself into the night sky, every constellation in the Northern Hemisphere glittering overhead. There was a collective, awed intake of breath; then the music began again, and the guests fell into the arms of their partners and began to dance under the stars. The festivities would go on until dawn, celebrating the longest night of the year and the return of the light that came with newly lengthening days.
Gazing up at the marvels of Solstice magic and completely enchanted, Hermione suddenly felt a hand on her bare shoulder. It was warm, its touch very right, somehow.
“Draco,” she whispered, his name catching painfully in her throat.
“Come with me, Hermione,” he said softly. “Please. There’s something I want to show you.”
In the semi-darkness, she could feel him settling her cloak about her shoulders, wrapping her warmly, and then he took her hand, leading her out through the French doors into the gardens.
Snow was falling softly now, the flakes dancing in eddying whorls of sparkling white and clinging to their hair and eyelashes. The garden was pitch dark, and she looked at him in some confusion.
“What –?” she began.
His hand tightened in hers. “Wait,” he told her quietly, and then his wand inscribed an arc in the darkness. “Limino!”
Suddenly, the entire garden was suffused with light. A thousand glowing snow faeries dipped and soared, leaving sparkling trails of colourful faerie dust melting on the chill night air. And what their light revealed left Hermione speechless.
There, before her, was an entire village in miniature, mounted on stands, each structure an exact replica of a place they both knew well. There was her childhood house; nearby, she spotted Hogwarts castle, down to the smallest detail. And there was Diagon Alley, complete and remarkably accurate. Hogsmeade was there, too. In each, she could see figures meant to represent herself and Draco. This was their history together. When she got close enough, the figures moved in a pantomime, reminding her of the gaily decorated shop window tableaux in London at the holidays. The ones at Harrod’s had always been her favourites, growing up. But this was ever so much better.
“Oh!...” she breathed, amazed. And then she got closer still, and a familiar, spicy aroma hit her nose.
The structures were made of gingerbread. Every last one of them.
“Come on,” Draco urged, and now he was smiling irrepressibly. “There’s more.” Grasping her hand, he tugged her along eagerly.
Just ahead, there was a traditional gingerbread house, complete with marzipan shingles and windowpanes and squares of cake and toffee and all manner of sweets making up the bricks. Hermione drew closer and peered inside. It was the story of Hansel and Gretel with miniatures of themselves as the story’s protagonists, and… Merlin! The wicked witch was none other than a tiny Bellatrix Lestrange, smirking in mad, triumphant glee. But this time, both Gretel and Hansel were poised to push her into the oven, Hansel grinning as he prepared to dispatch the evil witch.
Hermione couldn’t help laughing. “A bit of revisionist storytelling?”
“Yeah, I reckon. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t at least try to stop her hurting you. You know that. This was my chance to get it right, vicariously anyway.” He looked embarrassed suddenly. “Stupid, I know. They’re just dolls.”
“Not at all! It means so much!” She gave his hand a squeeze and then gazed around her in awe. “How ever did you do all this? It’s brilliant!”
“Ah ah.” He waggled a finger at her playfully. “Can’t reveal all my secrets, now can I? Let’s just say that I had a lot of time on my hands the past month. And excellent motivation.”
“What motivation was that?” she asked quietly, her eyes never leaving his face.
He moved closer now, threading his arms snugly about her. “Simple. I want you back, Hermione. I want us back. Nothing is any good without you. In fact, it’s been bloody awful. I’ve been a right tosser to just about everyone.”
Eyes suspiciously bright, Hermione gave a shaky little laugh. “I heard.”
His eyebrows rose in momentary surprise and then he grinned. “Pans? Yeah, well, I reckon whatever she said was spot on. In fact, she was probably being kind. Even I couldn’t stand me the last few weeks. Getting back to your earlier question, I didn’t exactly do it all on my own. There were some house-elves pressed into service to taste-test the gingerbread.”
“You made all this gingerbread?”
Now Draco looked faintly sheepish. “Well, technically, no. They made it and then tasted every batch to be sure they’d got it right, and then they handed the lot over to me. Bloody great vats of the stuff.”
“You’re the artist, then. I’m impressed!”
He flashed her a cocky little grin. “I’ve an excellent eye for detail, it seems. And a damn good wand.”
Those happy tears were threatening to fall now. Pressing her cheek to his chest, she hugged him very tightly. “Oh, Draco, you did all this for me,” she murmured, breathing in the comforting, familiar scent that was his alone, mixed with the damp-wool smell of his cloak. “I love it! Thank you so much! But... um... I’m feeling a bit cold. Can we go inside now, please?”
To her surprise, Draco shook his head. “Sorry, sweetheart. Not quite yet. Best for last. Come on.”
Taking her hand, he led her further into the rose garden, bare now but with the promise of fragrant blooms, come early summer.
There the final gingerbread house stood – tall, imposing, and quite intricate in the detailing. It was a precise replica of Malfoy Manor, complete with the rose garden in which they now stood. Inside the lighted interior, tiny figures in fancy dress spun and twirled to strains of lilting music.
One small figure, cloaked and with longish, pale hair, knelt in the artificial snow before a second figure, also cloaked, a pretty girl with lush chestnut hair sweeping her tiny shoulders.
Hermione stared, her brain numbly refusing to process what was right in front of her. Until Draco dropped to one knee and held out his hand, a small black box in his palm.
“Open it,” he urged.
With trembling hands, Hermione took the box, lifting the lid. Inside, there was an emerald ring: pear-shaped and brilliant, it was surrounded by a border of tiny, flawless diamonds.
Draco was still on one knee in the gathering snow. “Marry me?” he asked plaintively, nervous excitement, eagerness, and even a tiny frisson of worry in his eyes.
Swiftly, Hermione bent over their tiny doll selves, pressing them together in an embrace, and then she looked down at him with a dazzling smile. At that, the tension in Draco’s face evaporated. Elated, he got to his feet, slipping the ring on her finger and then pulling her very close for a fervent and long overdue kiss.
From a nearby window, Narcissa Malfoy looked on, smiling. A moment later, her husband joined her, threading an arm about her waist.
“Well, it’s about time!” she murmured. “A June wedding in the garden, perhaps? What do you think, darling?”
“As long as the cake isn’t made of gingerbread,” he replied with his usual sang-froid. “I’ve got the infernal stuff coming out of my ears!”