Disclaimer: I do not own anything associated with Harry Potter; I do not earn money by writing this story.
Not just for Christmas...
The fridge door closed with a quiet thud. Hermione sniffed and poured milk from the blue capped bottle. Semi skimmed would not do tonight. The pretty tin with the print of ‘The Chocolate Girl’ felt much lighter than she liked. She would have to be careful if she still wanted to drink hot chocolate at Christmas.
But not tonight. Tonight she would add an extra spoonful to her mug.
Tonight, Ron and Hannah had told her that they would not be able to make it to their Advent Sunday get together. Family obligations, Ron had grinned at her, not sounding the slightest bit apologetic.
Everybody seemed to have those.
Harry and Ginny were busy with little James and juggling his first Christmas with many other firsts of which the entire Weasley clan wanted to be part of.
Luna had already left for France to spend Advent, Christmas and New Year with her fiancée’s family.
Neville had never returned from his trip to the South Pacific, having searched out a rare midnight-blooming magical plant and finding the love of his life, a gorgeous witch with nearly ankle-length black hair so sleek that Hermione could weep for days.
Their traditional Advent Sunday meetings had become smaller over the last few years but to be the only one left without family was alarming. The most shocking part was that she had never seen it coming.
True, during her training at the Ministry and her first year at work she had not known how to pace herself; she had studied compulsively and taken old files home to work on that nobody was interested in anymore.
During that time she had neglected her friends, had gotten lost in the unstructured day she had all to herself to do with as she pleased. Hogwarts had given her a framework to balance work and friends and she had struggled to not run herself into the ground without it.
Now she was actually pleased to drop her quill at five or five thirty and enjoy her evening after a day of concentrated working.
Obviously she had been too late. Her friends had managed to have both a career and find time to socialise. They had lived on without her.
She continued to sniffle as she drank the first few sips of the thick and creamy chocolate. Her parents had invited her to come with them to the Great Barrier Reef. Right. She could just see herself, white as a fish, sitting at the beach among disgustingly cheery people she had never seen in her life, barbecuing on Christmas Eve. Maybe there would be silly hats! No.
She would just have to make do and look forward to Christmas Day at the Weasleys. One lonely Christmas was not the end of the world. Or a precedent for Christmases to come. Oh, she definitely hoped not.
Chin up, Hermione, she told herself. Tomorrow is Saturday and you will go shopping and spend an inordinate amount of money for once.
Stomping her foot sounded better by the minute. The world was conspiring against Hermione Granger.
It was sleeting. People were shouldering past each other in an effort to complete their shopping and get warm and dry, preferably at home, since the pubs and cafés were overcrowded with damp witches and wizards and their shopping bags.
The robes Hermione had wanted to buy, soft and warm and a wonderful shade of red, had been sold out.
Cold, wet, half-frozen slush hit her in the face as it was repelled by the shield charm of an elderly wizard with long white hair and purple robes that hung heavy with sleet around his knees and ankles.
Breathing deeply for composure, Hermione closed her eyes. It would not do to dissolve into tears in the middle of Diagon Alley.
A group of young witches just out of Hogwarts came running up the cobbled street, heads together. Giggling and whispering, they jostled anybody who was not fast enough to jump out of their way. Taken by surprise, Hermione was washed along a few steps and finally shoved into the door of the next shop. With a melodious tinkle of a bell fixed above it, the door gave way and opened to a warm and inviting room.
Without thinking, Hermione pushed the door fully open, slipped inside and leaned against the inside for a few moments.
The shop was toasty, somewhat humid and musty with the fragrance of hay and grains thrown in.
Rounded cages of all sizes were hanging from the ceiling, housing owls as tiny as Pigwidgeon and as impressive as the eagle owls she had sometimes seen deliver post at Hogwarts. Most of them had their heads under their wings, dozing during daytime until the next juicy mouse would be delivered by the shopkeeper.
Toads were croaking in a corner being eyed by purposefully lazy-looking cats.
Hermione’s heart constricted at the sight of an orange tabby. Ever since Crookshanks had passed away of old age one night, she had felt the emptiness and loneliness of her flat more and more acutely.
Maybe she should get a new familiar. A little playful kitten to take care of, that would be glad she was coming home after work.
Hermione smiled as the orange tabby lay on its back, holding a ball of wool firmly in its paws, while its hind legs scratched and clawed at it.
The little black one next to it looked also absolutely adorable and they seemed to get along so well. Maybe she should get two cats so they would not be lonely during the day.
In her mind she saw the joy of having these little ones with her unfold. They would be there in the evenings, the weekends, day after day, week after week, year... after year? The idyllic fantasy changed subtly, the cats bigger and more numerous, herself older, fully absorbed in the fate of her kitties, food and water bowls everywhere.
Hermione’s eyes grew wide.
She was about to become a cat lady!
A faint sound like the door bell but much, much finer drew her attention away from the cats toward the other side of the room.
Along the wall, cages appearing to accommodate rats were stacked high.
Rats? Ugh, no. Too many Pettigrew associations came to mind.
The fine tinkling continued and Hermione slowly walked in its direction, curious.
Among the gray and black rats, a pristine white animal stood out. The ermine? Or was it a weasel? Was stood raised on its hind legs, nudging the bell with its tiny soft pink snout, running in an excited circle as if chasing its own tail only to rise up again and ring the little silver bell. When Hermione came to stand in front of the cage, the white animal bounced excitedly and let out a welcoming sound.
Hermione looked into the unusually light eyes. Shouldn’t albinos have red eyes?
The little guy made another soft whistling sound and looked up into her face with what she could only describe as puppy dog eyes.
“He’s never done that before.”
“I’m sorry?” Hermione turned around to the short wizard with a green apron covering his brown robes.
“The white ferret. I thought him to be unsellable. Hisses and snaps at all the customers. He seems quite taken with you, though.”
Amused, Hermione thought that there was probably a heart warming story to every single one of the animals that might feel a bit friendly toward her. Ready to dismiss the little ferret, Hermione looked around for another suitable familiar. Should she get an owl this time?
The bell tinkled again and she saw that the ferret was now sitting, rubbing its paws over his face and ears, grooming and peeking up at her.
Gods, he was adorable.
“Okay, you win. I’ll take you home.”
Hermione hung her cloak on a hanger in the small niche that served as her cloakroom. The tiny silver bell tinkled again and the ferret looked up at her, all hope and shiny eyes. It nudged the door and whistled imploringly.
Undecided, Hermione stood for a few moments before bending down and unlatching the cage.
“I do hope you are house trained. I think I better refill Crooks’ old litter box.”
The ferret watched with something akin to indignation as she prepared the box and explained the house rules. His spirits seemed to lift though, when she gave him an egg to crack and lightly petted him on the back of his head.
Before she knew it, she was lying on her sofa under her favourite blanket, telling the ferret all about the woes of life in general and Christmas in particular.
The ferret wriggled itself under the soft blanket to settle on her stomach only to shift again slightly. Hermione smiled down at the animal. Its eyes closed, snuggled against her breast. She could have sworn it was purring.
“My, aren’t you comfortable?”
The ferret cracked open an eye and... smirked?
Her grandmother’s old shelf clock chimed eight o’clock and at the same time, Hermione felt a heavy weight on top of her.
The ferret was gone and Draco Malfoy was looking down at her.
She did not wait for him to complete his sentence but threw her body sideways, tipping him off the sofa and making him land hard on the ground.
In seconds Hermione was standing over him, brandishing her wand.
“What are you doing here, Malfoy?”
He stared at her wand and asked very still and cautious.
“May I move to cover myself before explaining?”
“Huh?” Hermione hadn’t even realised that he was stark naked at her feet and blushed furiously. “Er, sure, go ahead.”
Holding her wand into his face suddenly seemed a little awkward and she let her arm fall to her side.
He arranged the blanket around his middle and looked up at her.
“Would it be alright for me to get up from the floor?”
“Right. Yes. Go ahead.”
Malfoy struggled to his feet, clutching the blanket, and sat down on her worn leather armchair next to the fireplace.
“I am so glad that you bought the ferret today, Granger.”
“Yes! I’ve been scaring customers with children away for ages until I saw you coming in. Was my attempt at being adoringly cute successful?”
She really did not need a reminder that even he, who hardly knew her at all, either knew or rightly assumed that there was no family for her.
“Pitiful more like. How did you end up being a ferret? And as your predicament appears to be over, can you please leave?”
“The last thing I remember is that some hag accosted me in Knockturn Alley. She had me in a big cage at her home for a day, relishing in explaining the curse she would perform on me and then sold me to the magical menagerie. I think I have been there for about a month or so. The food they give the ferrets there! I think I will have a hairball for the rest of my life!”
“So why the sudden transformation?”
“Eight o’clock,” he said pointing to her clock. “I will be myself until six in the morning. The magical menagerie has standard magic suppressing cages. That’s why I could not tell anyone even if there had been somebody at the shop at night. Or escape, in fact, as I presume that my increasing in size would have led to the destruction of my cage.”
Hermione looked at him. It was getting late.
“Great. Now you are no longer in a cage and told me all about it, you can floo off to Malfoy Manor or wherever it is you live nowadays.”
Malfoy fiddled with the edge of the blanket.
“Granger, I was so relieved when I saw you because you were the one person I thought would be able to help me without running to the press and milking the story for all it’s worth.” He fiddled some more. “Please let me stay?”
“Stay?” Hermione’s eyes bugged out.
“Please Granger? Ferrets sleep most of the day, so I won’t be a bother.”
“You are always a bother,” she mumbled. “Did you just say please?”
“Pretty please? Help me, Granger, you know you want to.”
Maybe it had been the absence of company lately or maybe she was just tired, but she caved.
“Alright then. You can stay the night. On the sofa.”
“I am not really tired... Yes. One night. Sofa. Got it,” he hastened to comply.
“I’ll go into the Ministry library tomorrow; I have access after hours, and will see what I can find about that curse of yours.”
Shortly before eight o’clock the next day, the ferret eagerly crawled under the house robe Hermione had laid out for him and waited for the transformation to occur.
Minutes later, Draco Malfoy belted the robe and leaned over her books, showing off his smooth chest where the robe did not cover him.
“Did you find something?”
“Good evening to you, too. Not really, no. The only references are somewhat wishy-washy. One is talking about your wife having to live with you for a year without seeing your human form and then, at the end of that year, she would have to burn the skin that you shed at the transformation. Only, you don’t shed any skin.”
“The rest is romantic drivel about true love’s kiss.”
A tingle of magic washed over Draco. The curse prevented him from telling her how close she had come to the solution of his problem.
“Might be worth a try, though.” Draco’s ears perked up. “Are you madly in love with someone? Can you just call them over and kiss them and all is well?”
“I don’t think it will be quite as easy as inviting just anyone for a snog.”
“Of course not.”
“You really are quite obsessive compulsive, aren’t you Granger?”
Hermione continued to systematically cut the same Christmas tree shaped biscuit from the rolled-out dough.
“It’s just easier to do one kind per baking sheet. It uses the dough efficiently, makes decorating easier and saves time.”
Several rows of perfect little Christmas trees were already lining the baking sheet that sat to her right on the dark granite work top.
Before she could cut out just another little Christmas tree, Draco had wormed his hand into her space and planted a cutter in the shape of a heart firmly in the middle of the unused dough. Having seen her move the cutter ever so slightly before moving on to the next biscuit, Draco shifted the cutter in place. With some difficulty, he peeled the lopsided heart from the polished stone surface, giving the biscuit some fingernail dents.
He placed it next to the Christmas trees and held out a star biscuit cutter out to her.
“Waste some time with me, Granger. I dare you,” he grinned at her.
She couldn’t help but laugh and tried to find a piece of dough big enough for the star. In the end, one of the points was a bit shorter than the rest.
“You know, this is going to take ages!”
“Do you have to be somewhere tomorrow early in the morning?”
Indeed, she had not. Her weekends were woefully commitment free.
Malfoy made it a point to roll out the dough unevenly and use as many different biscuit cutters as he could possibly place on it. He took great lengths to consider the right placement of hazelnuts and raisins on the egg yolk-glazed biscuits.
When the last sheet was in the oven, Hermione slumped against the counter.
Not for the first time she wondered how Malfoy had managed to talk her into letting him stay for the last two weeks.
“I need chocolate.”
Hermione opened the tin of hot chocolate mix and spooned generous portions into two mugs. With a disappointed sigh she shook the tin to assess the remaining contents.
“This is never going to last until next year.”
“So?” Draco peered over her shoulder. “Just get a new tin.”
“I can’t. It’s only sold in Salzburg.”
She scoffed. “On short notice? Before Yule? I don’t have the Malfoy name to throw around, you know.”
She turned to add cinnamon sugar to the mugs and heat the milk with her wand, unaware that Draco was studying the tin intensely.
“Why are you still here, Malfoy?”
He stilled the movement of his hand that had been turning pages of ‘Olde Curses and their Forgotten Counter Curses’ steadily.
She thought that she saw alarm and something akin to fear flicker over his face.
“Because I am a good conversationalist?” He suggested lightly.
She raised her eyebrows.
“Because I actually understand when you talk about your work?”
She had been telling herself that she let him stay another and another and another night because he was a charity case. Quietly, she had to admit, that she was looking forward to coming home nowadays. The amount of overtime she worked had dropped considerably over the last weeks. He was... pleasant. A good listener. Interesting.
She was the charity case, here!
Her chest constricted and she felt suddenly very cold.
“Maybe it’s time for you to go home and see a specialist about your curse.”
He looked at her with wide eyes.
“Are you throwing me out?"
“Maybe... I mean, yes. Yes. Please go.”
She did not want pity.
He hung his head in silence. With a sigh he squared his shoulders.
“Alright,” he said very slowly and stood. “I’ll just gather my things, it won’t take long.”
It only took him a few minutes to collect the few changes of clothes, his wand and the Malfoy Enterprises letterhead parchment, invaluable long distance management tool, that he had sent over by the Malfoy Manor house elves.
She stood in the door to her kitchen when he returned to the living room. He cleared his throat and shifted awkwardly from foot to foot.
“Thank you, Granger, for your hospitality and your help with the research. Happy Christmas.”
His smile was a bit sad.
He already had his hand in the floo powder when she rushed to his side, pushing a brightly coloured biscuit tin at him.
“Would you like to take some biscuits?”
He looked at her in surprise.
“Well, you did help make them, after all...”
“Yes, thank you Granger. I’d like that.”
“Happy Christmas, Malfoy.”
With a whoosh of the floo, he was gone.
For the rest of the evening she found her gaze return to the single biscuit on the coffee table before her. It had taken her a while to find it.
A little lopsided, fingernail dents still visible through the shiny glaze, the little heart biscuit seemed to twinkle at her.
She would not cry.
Meanwhile in Wiltshire, Draco Malfoy was writing a frenzied letter.
I need you to do something for me by tomorrow evening, no questions asked...
Decorating the Christmas tree had been a strangely heavy chore.
Now the living room smelled of fresh pine and the candles cast a golden light over the dark branches and made the ornaments glow.
Of course, there would be presents tomorrow under her tree, from her friends and her parents, just as she had sent her presents a few days ago. She would spend Boxing Day with the Weasleys, but still...
The heart-shaped biscuit still lay on the coffee table.
Why did it hurt so much to look at it?
Turning it this way and that, she wondered whether it would be better to just eat it. After all, it was just a biscuit, and not a particularly pretty one at that.
She nearly dropped it when there was a loud knock at her door.
Her heart beating in fright at the unexpected noise, she caught the biscuit and laid it back on the low table, making sure it was safe.
Still a bit shaky, she made her way to the door.
“Granger, it’s me. May I please come in?”
“Malfoy? What are you doing here?”
She opened her door to a rather large, brightly wrapped package, white blond hair peeking from behind the red bow.
“I had to bring you your Christmas present, didn’t I?”
“There are charms for Christmas present delivery.”
“Please? I’d like to see you open it.”
This was just a thank you for her help. He would be gone in a few minutes. What could it hurt?
You, a voice in her head supplied.
“Come in then.”
She stepped aside to let him and his huge box inside.
He placed it on the coffee table, next to the biscuit. If he noticed it he did not comment on the fact that she had obviously singled out his biscuit.
“Come on, open it! It’s Christmas Eve; you are allowed.”
With trepidation, Hermione tugged at the enormous bow. She did not have a present for him.
Malfoy was positively bouncing on his feet, barely enduring her meticulous way to unwrap the paper without damaging it.
She folded back the cardboard flaps marked ‘Chocolaterie Lebzeltner und Sӧhne’ in an old fashioned Art Nouveau script and the profile of a girl dressed in a pretty blue and umbra dress under a starched white apron greeted her. At least tenfold. If the depth of the box was anything to go by, she was looking at more hot chocolate than she would ever be able to drink in the foreseeable future.
“How did you... ? When... ?”
“I have ways,” he grinned broadly.
She let her fingers trail over the smoothly rolled edge of the tin’s lid.
“That was a very nice thing to do.” She looked up, feeling out of her place. “Thank you.”
Hermione started fidgeting with the paper, trying to pull off a piece of spellotape then folding it over to the other side of the sheet.
“I feel awful. I haven’t anything for you and you have been so nice to me in the last weeks and now you somehow get my favourite hot chocolate all the way from Salzburg and...”
His lips on hers stopped her babbling and she was too astonished and distracted by his hands in her hair to do anything but melt into him.
“I think I got my present early this year, the day you decided to walk into the Magical Menagerie.”
She could feel his warm breath on her neck as he whispered to her.
She woke in the milky gray twilight of Christmas, tightly wrapped in the plaid blanket and a strong arm.
Snuggling deeper into the warmth, she almost drifted back to sleep. The arm around her waist shifted and held her closer.
With a scream she sat up.
Dishevelled and wand in hand, Draco bolted upright.
“Draco!... It’s light outside! And you are... you!”
He leant down to kiss her and spoke against her lips.
“A ferret is not just for Christmas, Hermione,” he smiled into their kiss. “It’s for life.”