The Magical Law Enforcement Office was awash with twinkling lights, jingling bells, and the sound of canned laughter, which was only slightly muffled by the Gently-Falling, Fast-Melting, Indoor-Only Snow Substance, now available for purchase in aquamarine and puce at Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes. Draco Malfoy grimaced as he swept a pitiful puce puddle away from his latest field report; he hoped the MLE had been given a good price for the damnable stuff. He re-inked his quill, intent on finishing his paperwork, when the eleven a.m. klaxon call announced the countdown to Christmas, causing him to blot the “Description of Crimes” category into horrid illegibility.
“Bugger it all!” he shouted, throwing his quill across the desk and into yet another pile of Snow Substance. The feathered end wilted and stained as it soaked up the melt. Draco snarled at it and crossed his arms over his chest in undisguised aggravation.
“Still working through those anger issues, are you?”
Ron Weasley’s passing comment drew Draco’s snarl, and he spun to follow the ginger’s progress to the seat behind him.
“Won’t cause you anything but trouble,” Ron continued.
“These bloody decorations are causing me trouble,” Draco groused. “Pandemonium at the Pole… Who comes up with these themes, anyway? And why does our department take them so literally? I’ve been down to Transportation, and do you know what I saw? A model train. Just one. No fake snow, no forced frivolity –”
Ron shrugged and unwrapped a candy cane, popping it into his mouth. “A little holiday spirit never hurt anyone.”
“I think you ought to redefine a little.” Draco shot a derisive look at Ron’s headgear – a green and red striped hat that hung at least twelve inches down his back, ended with a gold bauble, and was made even more ridiculous by the disproportionate set of flesh-colored cloth ears positioned at either temple.
Ron shrugged again. “Robards will have your hide if he comes ‘round and sees you not wearing yours.”
Draco’s look of disgust deepened. “I’ve lost it.”
“I’ve burned it.”
“Now that I can believe. Still…” Ron withdrew his wand and pointed it at his own chapeau. A replicate hat appeared, which Draco snagged out of the air and jammed onto his head. Ron grinned around his candy cane, turned to his own desk, and began to tidy the parchment atop it.
“Who’s put coal in your stocking this time?”
“Granger,” Draco admitted.
His be-hatted, Yuletide misery abated somewhat on hearing Ron’s disgruntled, “Mmph.” They may have been going on for a year now, but his and Granger’s relationship still managed to prick old rivalries between him and Ron.
“I told you to lay off about that cat of hers,” Ron muttered. “She wouldn’t get rid of it for me, so she certainly won’t get rid of it for you.”
“Crookshanks and I have reached an understanding,” Draco said.
“Yes. It was necessary to save us from mutually assured destruction.”
“Who would do the destroying?”
Draco raised a pale eyebrow, as if the answer were obvious. Which, of course, it was. Ron cottoned on not a moment later.
“Hermione,” he said with a quick, sharp nod. “Right. So what is it, then?
Draco shot Ron a sideways glance. Hesitant as he was to explain, Draco had spent the last two weeks being startled by Hermione’s random appearances and short, staccato lectures on what constituted acceptable and unacceptable behavior around her parents. This was fine at first, but then she began repeating herself, and the bags beneath her eyes deepened, and her indefatigable hair seemed to lose its effervescent bushiness. She was stressed, and was making him stressed in turn. And Ron – though he was a Weasley – was also one of Hermione’s oldest and truest friends. Surely he could set aside an old rivalry for a friend?
“She wants me to spend Christmas with her parents.”
“Ah,” Ron said, spinning around to face him and nodding sagely before observing: “They hate you.”
Draco frowned. “You don’t sound surprised.”
“Should I be?”
He did not bother supplying an answer. “I’ve never even met them.”
Ron spun away from him. “I’ve met you loads of times and still don’t like you.”
Draco bit the inside of his cheek to keep from firing back a response that might get both of them in trouble. Instead, he withdrew his wand and pointed it at the back of Ron’s hat. Tufts of hair the exact shade of Ron’s began to sprout from the over-sized elf ears. He grinned, feeling vindicated, and stowed his wand.
“You need to clean your ears, Weasley. This is actually important to me. Hermione’s excited to spend the holiday with her family, and I –”
“Want to continue picking up the pieces of your broken reputation,” Ron supplied. And while that wasn’t quite it – Draco was honestly more concerned about Hermione’s happiness than his own – Ron’s explanation had the benefit of sounding much less sentimental. Draco nodded, not bothering with the correction.
“Well, mate,” Ron said in a chipper tone, “just so happens that today is your lucky day.”
“I know exactly what Yuletide traditions the Grangers probably keep, and I’m willing to share the wealth.”
Draco’s eyes narrowed; while procuring Ron’s help was Draco’s ultimate goal, the man rarely offered aide without exacting a lofty price. “What’s the catch?”
“Catch?” Ron pressed his hand to his chest and winced, as if wounded. “Christmas is the season of giving, Malfoy. Consider this your present come early.”
Draco hesitated. Ron’s knowledge of Muggle behavior might be enough to help Draco impress the Grangers and allay Hermione’s fears, giving her the holiday she deserved. It was a risk, but one Draco felt he had to take.
“Very well,” Draco said. He leaned back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair in a fit of post-decision nerves and dislodging his hat. It fell to the ground with a jingle and a whump. “When do we begin?”
Draco followed Hermione up the walk to her parents’ home. It was a modest dwelling with well-kept shrubbery, which looked nice and not too expensive. The path was dusted with a fine layer of snow, the unblemished sort one could only find in the country, far away from city pollutants. There was an evergreen wreath on the door, set off by a sprig of holly berries at the five o’clock position, and a string of small, white lights trellised up one side of the porch rails, crossed overhead, and snaked down the other side.
A glance to the left and right revealed more of the same décor, though a dwelling two down on the left boasted a snowman in the front yard, complete with scarf, pipe, and bowler.
Draco smiled at the auspicious start.
He went for his wand, then ran into Hermione’s back, unaware that she had stopped. Even through their coats and temperature-appropriate winter wear, he was all too aware of her body, small and so perfectly suited to his that he sometimes wondered if they hadn’t been fashioned together, one for the other.
She turned to face him, an annoyed expression making a delectable moue of her lips. It faded almost immediately into what he considered her standard expression for the week: a slightly worried frown.
Draco smiled apologetically, but she did not notice.
“Remember,” she said. “Best behavior today. Don’t bring up Dad’s summer fishing trip. Or any kind of fishing, for that matter. In fact, it might be best to avoid the subject of water sports altogether, just to be safe. And don’t bring up teeth whitening unless you want to get Mum ranting. Oh, and about –”
“Neighbor’s dog is still somewhat of a sore subject, and I wouldn’t want –”
Draco put his hands on her shoulders, ending her soliloquy. He smiled at her again, straightened her scarf, and caressed her cheeks, the apples of which were bright pink with cold. Unable to resist, he dipped his head and kissed her, tender and chaste.
She sighed when he pulled away, her breath shuddering over his lips. “I want so badly for them to like you,” she admitted. “I need them to see the man you are, not the boy you were.”
Draco felt warmth completely unrelated to his bulky garb radiate out from his chest and, for a moment, he second-guessed the evening’s strategy. Getting her parents to see him as anything but the tormentor of their daughter’s youth was going to be quite a feat, but Draco thought he might be able to manage it. He had made his mistakes and paid for them, dearly, in many ways. A stint in Azkaban, house arrest, parole, job placement, counseling… Earning his place in the Wizarding world was not easy. He’d worked hard for it, and that meant something. Proved something, or so he thought. It was enough for Hermione, so it should be enough for her parents, too.
She did not seem confident in his ability to impress them, however. Hermione had schooled him almost as much as Weasley, whom he had listened to for days in an attempt to understand the Muggles’ strange Christmas behaviors. The idea of writing off the time spent with the ginger as wasted was not an appealing one.
His brow furrowed as Hermione’s expression returned to worry. That settled the matter. The moment of thinking he alone was good enough drifted away like a snowflake and melted as if it had met a roaring fire. He was going to carry on with his plan.
Merlin, he hoped it worked.
Draco dropped his hands from her face, gesturing to the door with his right and placing the left into his coat pocket, resting it upon his wand.
“Let’s not keep them waiting,” he said in his most gentlemanly tone.
“Right.” Hermione gave him a weak smile, turned, and knocked on the door. Her back to him, with footsteps rapidly approaching, Draco had only a moment to draw his wand, take aim, and charm the snowman. He stowed his wand and plastered a not-wholly-insincere, a-little-too-large, but not–small-enough-to-show-his-nerves smile onto his face as the door opened and Hermione’s parents filled the frame. A small puff of white powder from his peripheral vision put some relief into his smile as the Grangers welcomed him inside.
“Hermione, darling!” Mrs. Granger swept her daughter into a tight embrace, which Hermione returned.
“So good to see you, Mum, Dad,” she said, embracing her father next. Pleasantries exchanged, Draco stood by awkwardly for a moment, lingering in silence while happy, borderline-tearful looks passed amongst the family Granger. Hermione broke the mood by stepped backwards and joining him, placing her hands on his arm.
“Mum, Dad, this is Draco Malfoy.”
Her tone was hopeful, clearly desiring them to recall the positive aspects of his personality. Judging by the sour aspects of their expressions, it was an exercise in folly. He smiled nonetheless, undeterred. He knew it would be an uphill battle, and he had prepared for it. He offered his hand to Mr. and Mrs. Granger in turn.
“Very nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Granger,” he said, kindness lacing every word. “You have a charming home.”
Mr. Granger smiled weakly, and Draco immediately saw the family resemblance between him and his daughter. Mrs. Granger remained stony; Draco saw the resemblance there, too. He reached into his jacket pocket – his right one this time, the one he had Undetectably Extended – and withdrew a very large, very fine bottle of Wizarding whisky. The eyes of all present widened: Mrs. Granger’s in shock, Hermione’s in apprehension, and Mr. Granger’s in something very much akin to delight.
Mr. Granger reached out for the bottle before Draco could offer it. “Call me Hugh,” he said distractedly, cradling the bottle as if it were his newborn grandson, or a much-beloved puppy.
Draco felt Hermione release a relieved breath. Tension still radiated from Mrs. Granger.
“Wizarding whisky,” Hugh said excitedly, turning to his wife and showing her the label. “Blishen’s Best. See this year? 1702! It can’t possibly –”
“A very fine year,” Draco interrupted. “Aged thirty-nine years in oak barrels, but it has mellowed well in the bottle. Somehow taken on a vanilla hint.”
Hugh goggled at the bottle. “Can I tempt you?” he asked, his brown eyes pleading for a yes.
Draco nodded, causing Hugh to hurry to the kitchen, pursued closely by the eyes of his disapproving wife. Taking advantage of the distraction, Draco shot a triumphant, borderline-smug look at Hermione, who fought a losing battle with a smile and shook her head in mock exasperation. But Draco knew he had done well. He had an ally in Mr. Granger – Hugh – and was proud of the accomplishment, despite Weasley’s warning that he would be easy to sway. That did not matter: he would be on a first-name basis with Mrs. Granger soon enough.
She turned to them with a sigh reminiscent of Hermione’s best, and held out her hands. “Well, let’s get you out of these coats. We’ve a fire and appetizers in the sitting room.”
“Oh, Mum, you didn’t need to,” Hermione said, shrugging out of her woolen pea coat.
“I wanted to,” she said, hanging Hermione’s coat and turning for Draco’s. “We get to see you so rarely.” Her eyes skipped casually from Hermione to Draco to the closet, then flashed back to Draco, where they widened with surprise.
Draco straightened his shoulders and let her look. His house elves had spent hours finding a sweater as heinous as what Weasley insisted was necessary. There were several likely candidates. One of his favorites had been a bright blue knit with penguins tooled in their customary black and white, but also adorned with red and green hats and scarves, gallivanting across an ice floe with sleds and skates. The runner-up had been bright red – also knit – with a neon-green tree decorated with yellow, orange, and purple ornaments and topped by a crinkly gold, star-like object that had been poorly adhered onto the fabric.
The winner was white cotton. It was frayed – or perhaps fringed, it was hard to tell – at the collar and cuffs. On its front, lovingly and painstakingly hand-painted in pastel colors of pink, blue, ivory, and green, were a kitten and a child, each dressed in their winter best, gamboling together in the snow.
Draco could not resist the pun: it was purr-fect.
When Hermione saw him, she gasped and clasped her hands over her mouth. He was sure he imagined her muttered “Sweet Merlin,” but he did wonder if she were well: her eyes shone and her cheeks had turned bright red. She looked close to hysterics. Whether that was due to her joy or her horror was yet unclear.
A small niggle of doubt took root inside Draco’s mind, prompting him to break the heavy silence.
“It’s an ugly sweater,” he said, obviously.
Hermione let out a weird, wailing laugh-cry and left the room.
“It’s tradition,” he continued, speaking now to Mrs. Granger. She looked strained and uncomfortable, and perhaps somewhat amused, but it was hard to tell.
He glanced down at her own raiment and wondered if he hadn’t been overzealous in his sweater choice. Her sweater – a dark red knit patterned with upraised sparkly-white snowflakes – was certainly ugly, but not hideous. Hermione’s sweater was a conservative and lovely grey, but he chalked that up to her nerves and general lack of holiday whimsy. And Hugh…
“Helen,” Hugh sputtered, veritably stumbling into the foyer, his eyes red and streaming tears behind his glasses. “I poured you a glass, my dear, but I don’t think you’ll care for it. Firewhisky – they weren’t kidding! Draco, here you – HA! What a sweater!”
Draco grinned, confidence half restored, and took the proffered glass with a grateful nod.
The trio stood in silence for a moment, then Hugh cleared his throat good-naturedly. “Hermione’s waiting for us in the sitting room. I believe she’s found the fruitcake.”
Fruitcake…It was almost too easy.
“Lead the way,” Draco said, lifting his glass in an unofficial toast.
They found Hermione perched on the edge of the sitting room loveseat, a glass of white wine at her elbow and a small plate of brie and crackers on her knee. The appetizers were spread on the table before her, artfully arranged around the piece de resistance: the dark, lumpy circle of candied fruit, chopped nuts, half a dozen eggs, and an ungodly amount of lard, which towered above the cheese and grapes like a brandy-soaked overlord.
“I know just what to do with this!” Draco announced. He took the fruitcake in both hands and, with neither pomp nor circumstance, tossed it into the fire.
“What the –”
He turned around, stunned at the barrage of angry voices assaulting him.
“Fruitcakes are only good as doorstops and kindling?” he half-explained, half-asked them, less sure now than he had been earlier regarding the sweaters.
“That took two weeks to make,” seethed Mrs. Granger. “I only do it once a year.” Draco’s cheeks pinked and he swallowed thickly.
“I didn’t –”
The room stilled, all eyes turning to the source of the noise: the curtained window at the back of the room. Dread sat heavy in Draco’s stomach.
“What was –”
The noise interrupted Hermione’s question. Hugh knocked back the rest of his Firewhisky and set down his glass, striding purposefully across the room. Draco caught Hermione’s eye, and his expression must have given her the warning his mouth could not seem to.
But it was too late: Hugh wrenched aside the curtain.
The snowman Draco had charmed had made its way to the back of the house. But instead of the jolly, happy soul he’d been told to expect, this creature’s coal eyes were downturned in hatred. Its stick mouth was set in a severe frown, and its carrot nose was gnarled and deformed, as if it had been broken in a round of snowman fisticuffs.
Hugh shouted, backing away so quickly he stumbled over the rug and fell backwards, landing hard on the floor. Mrs. Granger screamed, and Draco only realized Hermione had drawn her wand because of the breaking glass and the disappearance of the great puff of snow that had, just seconds before, been glowering at them all.
Snow drifted in through the broken window, melting upon the leather sofa. Mrs. Granger trembled from head to foot. Hugh pulled himself onto the recliner to his left and looked between his wife, his daughter, and Draco in stunned silence. Draco, for his part, could not look away from Hermione. He had never before seen her so cross, and he had a feeling – no, bugger that, he knew – that this was one of his most impressive cock-ups.
“Reparo,” Hermione growled. The window shards flew back into place, sealing the warmth back into the room. Hugh gasped in amazement; Mrs. Granger whimpered. Neither moved.
“Teenage boys live down the street,” Hermione said quietly, addressing Draco but unwilling – or unable – to look at him. “To call them troubled would be like calling George Weasley enthusiastic.”
“Hermione, I didn’t –”
She held up her hand, cutting off his excuses. “Come with me. Right now.”
She navigated the house swiftly and silently, and Draco felt as ungainly as a blind bear behind her, knocking his hips into tables and his shoulders against walls. He was more focused on her, and how to extract himself from the mess he had created, than the Grangers’ property, which, when he considered it, was on par with the evening's most recent events.
Hermione swept out of the back door, and it banged closed automatically behind her. Draco waited a moment, taking a deep breath – indeed, what may have been his final breath – before joining her in three-inch deep snow on the Grangers’ back patio.
Her arms were crossed before her chest, more from annoyance than cold, and her lips were pursed in anger.
“Would you like the opportunity to explain yourself?” she asked, her voice as icy as the wind. “Or shall I begin?”
Draco released that deep breath, all of his tension visualized as a puff of misty air.
“I wanted to make a good impression,” he said quietly. “I thought –”
“You acted like a complete lunatic!” she snapped at him. “Utterly mad! That sweater? The fruitcake? That snow-demon? Merlin, Draco, what the hell were you thinking? Ever since Australia, my parents have been skittish about magic, and today – of all days, today! – you set a charmed snowman on the house?”
“I didn’t think he’d be so… unpleasant,” Draco said, lamely. “The song –”
“The song? What song?”
Draco looked up at her from beneath his eyebrows, confused yet again. Didn’t she know it?
“The Muggle holiday classic,” he said. “Frosty the Snowman.”
Hermione slapped her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes, breathing deeply in an effort to control herself. “How do you even know about Frosty?” she said slowly.
Draco’s answer was immediate. “Weasley.”
Hermione’s eyes snapped open, and Draco saw the ladder leading out of his mile-deep hole.
“I asked Weasley for advice, and he told me everything. This thrice-damned sweater… Do you think I wanted to wear this? I wouldn’t give this piece of garbage to a house-elf,” he said with a haughty sniff. “And he swore up and down that fruitcake was a holiday joke, only ever made to see who could dispose of it in the most creative fashion.”
“You listened… To Ron? A man who learned about Muggles from his father, who, despite being a wonderful and intelligent man, collects plugs?”
Well, when she said it like that, it sounded absolutely barmy. Reflecting back on it, the decision to follow any of the ginger’s advice was decidedly unsound. Still, there was nothing to about it now but repent.
He lowered his gaze and began his confession.
“I feel like I’ve been standing on uneven ground since Eighth Year, but that feeling of uncertainty, of being off-balance, goes away when I’m with you. You’ve always lived in two worlds, so when I saw how nervous you were for tonight, I… I panicked, I suppose. I thought preparing on my own would help us both and prove that I could live in two worlds, too. In as many worlds as you need me to.”
His eyes darted up to hers, hopeful, but she was unmoved.
“I’m going to murder him,” he amended conversationally. He thought he saw her lips twitch. “Absolutely murder. He won’t be able to remember what color hair he has by the time I’m through with him.”
“He’d deserve it.”
Both Hermione and Draco whirled around to see Hugh standing in the doorframe, holding another glass of whisky and smiling at them both.
“Are you really going to stay angry at him after a speech like that, Hermione?”
She looked plaintively at her father. “Dad, this isn’t –”
“Any of my business,” he finished, raising his hands. “I know, I know. I just wanted to tell you that the roast just came out of the oven. Draco, you’re more than welcome to toss it into the fire as well, or serenade it, or whatever it is you lot do to your roasts.”
Draco tried to look embarrassed, but ended up cracking a grin. “Eat them, usually.”
Hugh stared at him expressionlessly and said in a deadpan: “How utterly dull.”
Draco barked a laugh and stepped toward the door, pausing to look back at Hermione. She furrowed her brow at him, and he looked back to Hugh, who raised his eyebrows and muttered, “Don’t take too long,” as he sidled back inside.
“I’m sorry, Hermione,” Draco said, stepping closer to her. He took her freezing hands in his. “I’m so sorry about tonight. I know I made a mess of things, but do you at least believe my intentions were good?”
Hermione frowned, but admitted, begrudgingly, “I do.”
“And your father is willing to give me another chance. Could you?”
She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, her breath a cloud that broke up around him. Then, she slowly rose up onto her tiptoes and kissed him, leaning into his body for warmth and support.
“I will always give you a second chance,” she whispered, opening her eyes. They seemed to sparkle in the gentle illumination of her childhood home. “It’s our tradition.”
“Maybe we can start some new ones,” she said, “like charming the garland to sing carols.”
“Or getting your mother so pissed on whisky she forgets she hates me.”
Hermione took his arm and lead him into the house. “I said we could start new traditions,” she said with a grin, “not perform miracles.”
Draco laughed, but wondered if they hadn’t done just that.