An owl swept through the fifth floor of the Ministry building, dropping off a golden envelope on top of Hermione Granger's overflowing inbox. Hermione plucked it from her pile and shoved it into her 'Read Later/Not Urgent' drawer. She knew by its obnoxiously festive envelope that it was just another holiday party invite. So far she'd received six.
Hermione began sorting through the files and letters in her inbox, categorizing them in stacks based on importance and urgency. She came across a reminder about the upcoming Ministry Christmas party - one of those dreaded holiday parties she found herself obligated to attend. She frowned at the note, realizing where it was going to be held this year. Malfoy Manor. As she stared at the words, there was what felt oddly like a violent hiccup inside her chest.
A shadow suddenly fell over her.
"So? Who is Hermione Granger hoping to kiss under the mistletoe at this year's Ministry Christmas party?"
Parvati Patil’s impish smile hovered just above the top of the note.
"I don't know," she mused dryly. "Have any Dementors RSVP'd?"
Parvati scoffed. "Accio holiday spirit, please.” She took a seat on the corner of her desk. Hermione hated it when she did this. Ignoring the purposeful function of furniture was just plain disrespectful.
"I hear there's a competition this year," she said, lowering her voice with barely-veiled delight.
"Oh God. They're not breaking out the karaoke machine from the Muggle Artifacts department again, are they?" They'd done this two Christmas parties ago and it had set a dangerous precedent. Apparently wizards and witches were also not immune to the lure of singing in public once you pumped enough alcohol in them - much to the chagrin of partygoers not inebriated enough to enjoy off-key singing from people they barely tolerated on a day-to-day basis.
Parvati waved her hand dismissively. "Of course they are. It's tradition now. They wait the entire year to have a chance to serenade the Muggle singing machine. No, I'm talking about something a bit more... festive."
"Ah, but what could be more festive than wanting to stab forks into my eardrums?"
"Mistletoe," her former Housemate emphasized, leaning in. "As in, getting kissed under some."
"Best of luck to all of you," she muttered, continuing to sort through her inbox. "Just remember - just because you kiss a frog doesn't mean they’ll turn into a Prince." Hermione had been at the Ministry three years now. This was enough time to know it was currently suffering from a frog infestation.
"With enough champagne, I'm sure they'll get close," Parvati grinned. "Oh come on, Hermione. Most of the girls have already set their sights on Malfoy. It'll only be his second day back from Wizarding Asia, you know. No one's seen him for ten months. Haven't you missed having someone to actively despise?"
Hermione tensed, sensing the sudden increase in blood pumping through her system. Soon, her face would begin to noticeably flush, and Parvati would suspect something. The last thing in the world she wanted was Parvati Patil thinking there was anything about her interesting enough to warrant snooping around in.
"You're quite mistaken. I can despise him just as actively - regardless of geography."
There was a pause of silence, triggering a bout of dread at the pit of her stomach. Hermione avoided her friend’s eyes.
"Odd," Parvati said, curiously. "You're looking a bit--"
Hermione glanced up to see Parvati being waved over by two of their other colleagues, who were clutching a Witch Weekly in their hands. Parvati, conveniently distracted by their enthusiasm, left Hermione without another word. Just as soon as Parvati’s back was turned, Hermione got up and sped off to the bathroom.
She hunched over the sink, splashing cold water on her face to cool down. She could still feel her heart behaving erratically. For the past ten months she had dreaded the moment she would see Malfoy again. She felt all of the normal feelings about it - annoyance, general disdain. But there was also something else - something else that made the emotional cocktail particularly unsettling. Nervousness. Anticipation.
She'd thought about it every single day since it happened, proving her brain's capacity for cruel insubordination in regards to her emotional sanity. The flashbacks were always hazy but easily triggered. The spicy scent of pine and cinnamon, Christmas carols, shimmery cocktail dresses. A flash of impossibly blond hair. The thick texture of eggnog. The taste of whiskey that had lingered in her mouth, with the strange aftertaste of coconut.
Hermione closed her eyes and shivered.
Hermione Granger was not a big fan of mistletoe. It was a festive weed, as far as she was concerned. She also didn't care for the desperate culture surrounding it that disguised itself as holiday frivolity and merriment.
The Minister's manor had a bundle of mistletoe hanging from every doorway. She noticed this immediately with dread. Parvati, having given her coat to coat check, appeared next to her.
"Do you think there's any mistletoe left in Wizarding London?" Parvati mused aloud.
"Unlikely," Hermione said, frowning. "Is HR here? I assume they're going to be quite busy with all of the sexual harassment claims being birthed tonight."
Parvati laughed. "Oh Hermione. You know very well HR's the first department that gets drunk off their arses."
She and Parvati entered the main area together. The ballroom was already bustling with people dressed in their best holiday garb. Part of the reason people looked forward to the annual Christmas Ministry party was because they saw people they worked with every day in a different light (both literally and figuratively. Dim party lighting always worked to anyone's advantage). Some of their colleagues were barely recognizable out of their dark, shapeless Ministry robes. The women were showing skin, the men were groomed, and for some reason, everybody's faces looked dewy and poreless.
"Tessa wore that same dress two years ago," Parvati whispered to her, as they moved through the crowd. There were cheery hellos peppered around, and she could see a few heads craning to look around at who had just arrived. A few of the men smiled at Parvati, who waved her fingers back flirtatiously, muttering under her breath to Hermione. "Bradley Winford from Accounting. Recently engaged and still seeing if he can bag some. Scum of the earth, that one."
They grabbed some champagne from a waiter.
"You know what I think? I think you ought to save a dance for Malfoy tonight. You know, the bane of your existence? Since he spoke quite highly of you at the project evaluation."
A few months ago, Hermione and Malfoy had sent in formal reviews of each other's work and teamwork skills after the two month-long project they had collaborated on at the behest of the Minister of Magic. She'd helped him track down and map certain dangerous magical artifacts that had been stolen from one of their satellite vaults in Scotland, many of which had ended up in a black market that reached the whole of Wizarding Asia.
Parvati had somehow gotten her hands on their project evaluations, read them, and sent her a copy of Malfoy's. She’d tried not to read it, she really did. She’d had it locked away in her drawer for an entire week before she’d finally given in.
Not one for flowery language, Malfoy had succinctly listed their own individual tasks and stated they worked well together. He had called her competent and a very capable partner, but then later, in describing a particularly difficult problem they'd had to solve, said that she was brilliant. This had surprised her. A slip of the pen, she thought.
I look forward to possibly collaborating with Miss Granger on future projects as necessary, he'd ended.
The review only added to the bizarreness that had been their experience, working together. Malfoy hadn't mentioned the icy insults or arguments that had (inevitably) transpired, but he hadn't exactly lied, either. They'd been perfectly civil at some points. Sometimes she'd almost even forgotten she was supposed to be annoyed he existed. In fact, on some of the very late nights they'd had to work, there'd been, perhaps... a look, or two. Or three. She repeatedly told herself they were tricks of the eye, or the lighting, but she'd felt something, then. A shift. Like when you walk into a room that you'd been in a million times before, except this time - someone's rearranged the furniture. It was still the same, and yet, everything had changed.
Hermione cleared her throat. "I think I'll pass."
Parvati sighed dramatically. "Hermione, it's two days 'til Christmas. It's a party. Alcohol's flowing. The men are looking relatively decent - a few of which have already sent you a few suggestive glances that you, obviously, have not noticed because you're still living in your head. You look stunning in a beautiful dress. You deserve to be admired. Mind and body," she emphasized.
Strangely enough, Hermione found that she couldn't ignore the look of sincerity on her friend's face. Maybe it was the holiday spirit, or the champagne, or just wanting to humor Parvati’s efforts at getting her to socialize, but she relented.
"Fine. But not to the dance," Hermione quickly said.
"Just keep drinking," Parvati encouraged.
"You know I can't stomach too much alcohol--"
She wrinkled her nose. "Try the eggnog. Very low alcohol content. It's what they serve at the kiddie table. Now work the room. Show them how wonderful you can be when you're not covered by a mountain of case files."
Parvati gave her one last wink before she was whisked off by a colleague who had asked her to dance. Hermione finished her champagne, had another flute, and then had a glass of the eggnog. She was suspicious at first, knowing her coworkers' predilection to spiked beverages, and even though the eggnog had a bit of an odd aftertaste – it tasted a bit like coconut – it didn't taste like any sort of alcohol at all. Thus, she deemed it safe.
After her first glass, conversations seemed to run smoother. She felt more at ease in her body - in this dress, in these shoes. She laughed heartily at jokes. She had friendly banter. A few men had asked her to dance, even, but she kept hard and fast to her 'no dancing' rule. Still, she felt alive, and the room felt alive, and everybody looked flawless. She helped herself to more eggnog. People began waving her over to join their conversations. Strangers looked at her in awe and admiration. Was this how it felt? To be admired? Mind and body?
At one point she looked up from the crowd of people she was conversing with and saw a flash of pale blond out of the corner of her eye, but the conversation drew her back and when she looked back up, he was gone.
When the room began to feel dizzy and hot, she decided to walk out to the gardens. She sighed at the cool, fresh air hitting her skin. There was a soft dusting of snow. Even the air was pleasant - a little cooler than usual, but nothing akin to the biting draft that often came this time of year.
She passed a couple making out against one of the hedges and found a bench to sit down on, overlooking a pond. The water was enchanted to remain unfrozen, and there were large lotus flowers, charmed to glow like stars floating against the dark, still water.
What was it with manors and impressive gardens? She loved the thought of going to a party at a manor that wasn't equipped with lush, neatly manicured hedges, a flower garden, a small body of water, and several naked Greek statues. What would it be like, she wondered, if she walked out here just to find a sandlot? Or maybe a tree house?
"The whole ballroom's abuzz with your transformation."
Hermione looked towards the opening in the hedges. Malfoy, looking sleek and proper in his suit, had appeared, like a ghost. She felt the warmth rush back into her body.
He walked closer to her, his hands in his pockets. She watched him, feeling her heart start to pick up its pace with every step he neared her. The perfect horizon of his broad shoulders, and how they tapered down to long, strong legs. Hermione Granger had to be honest with herself, at least. Just looking at Draco Malfoy was like being visually seduced. The Malfoys probably did this purposefully, like racehorse breeding.
"The dress. The shoes. The carefree attitude." He sat down next to her, and she could smell him. It was a bad idea, smelling someone. Specifically smelling someone who smelled like him. It did strange things to her mind, like throw her into this wormhole in time where she was suddenly back in his office, on one of those late nights. That was the first time she had really smelled him, and it haunted her afterwards. As if it had leeched into the pores of her skin and bloodstream through mere inhalation.
He smelled like so many things and not any one particular thing at the same time. It was spicy, like soil after rainfall, but also like pine and firewood and new books. It was sheer sensory overload. A person's scent should never have such a maddening effect on anybody, ever.
"Perhaps I've been possessed by the ghost of Christmas merriment," she suggested dryly.
"Perhaps," he said. "You can fool the lot of them, but not me." He took a sip of his drink. "I think you ought to know your friend Patil sent me a copy of your project evaluation."
Hermione groaned. She hadn't known about that part, but she was angry with herself for not having expected it. "She has zero comprehension of our ethics code," she said. "Or loyalty."
He went on, amused. "You missed a few key elements in the description of our map-making process," he said, "but I admire the restraint you showed in your write-up."
"Surprisingly enough, it's called a filter, Malfoy." She was about to mention that he had done the same, except she didn't want him to know she had read his write-up of her, too. "Something dutifully honed in adulthood. And following instructions. Writing a thorough analysis of your very flawed character wasn't what was asked. Although, if asked, I would gladly do so."
He smirked at her. Or smiled. She didn't know. It seemed like a hybrid of the two, and she was convinced it was the ambiguity of the expression that made her blush.
"Wolfram talked to me, you know," he said to her, looking away. There was a determined look in his eyes. "It's been decided. They're shipping me off to Asia in two months to reclaim those artifacts."
Hermione was shocked. "I thought they already had a special team for that." Something strange began to rise up in her throat, thick and acidic. Was it urgency? Was it... what was it?
"They do," he said, moving his gaze back to her. "They've chosen me to lead it. Your name came up, too... but they've decided you're more valuable here just in case something... happens."
She snorted. "And what do they think could happen?"
"It's not exactly your friendly neighborhood scavenger hunt, Granger," he said. "So, taking a guess: maiming, injury, possible capture and held for ransom. Death. Always nice to remember that's lurking around the corner."
She stared a bit harder at the lotus flowers in the pond. She could feel the weight of his gaze, studying her. "Do they know how long you'll be gone?"
"As long as it takes to reclaim all of the objects." He paused, as if thinking. His voice sunk lower, into a murmur that felt fuzzy in her ears. "Could be a few months. Could be a year."
Hermione felt a sudden dip in her chest. She wasn't sure why - it wasn't like she worked with him every day, or even saw him every day. But the thought of him being gone, and so far away, made her oddly... Oddly what? She shook it off. What the hell was in that eggnog?
"Right." She stood up, abruptly. The lovely haze of the evening had fallen away. Here she was, in the garden with Malfoy, feeling remarkably conflicted at the news that he would be going away to the other side of the world for an undecided amount of time. The emotions running through her just felt so... so sloppy and yet profound, and she was unprepared for any of it. Hermione Granger was never unprepared.
"Well, I wish you the best of luck, then. I should get back to the party."
She quickly walked out, following the trail back down to the manor, feeling dizzy as she rushed by the star lights flashing in the thick hedges. She really had no intention of going back to the party. She hated the thought of being surrounded by people and pretending to enjoy the night while having this revelation sitting rottenly at the pit of her stomach.
He briskly came around from behind her, blocking her path.
"Malfoy," she said, shocked.
"Do you want me to go?" he said. He was so close she could feel the heat radiating from his body. Oh, and dear God, she could smell him. It surrounded her like a cloud, jumbling her thoughts, making her body hum. If she had any real sense, she'd plug her nose and make a run for it.
She halfheartedly snorted. "I don't think that's up to me, actually."
"But it is up to me," he said.
"Then," she said, stepping back, lowering her eyes, "you should do what you want. It's an impressive responsibility to be given. The Minister chose you, which means he has immense faith that you'll get the job done."
It took him one step to erase the distance she had tried to lay between them.
"Don't do that," he snapped. "Don't act like you don't care. I saw your face when I told you. After years at Hogwarts and two months working with each other every day, all of those late nights - you don't think I can't read your face? You may be wearing a nice dress and fooling everybody with your social butterfly pretense tonight, Granger, but I know you. You hide behind your books and work and cleverness, but I know you.” He sucked in a breath through his teeth. “I'd know you with your wand in my face, threatening to hex me into next week. I'd know you dressed in a gown or a sodding garbage bag."
Hermione stared at him. Her whole body quivered. With shock, with panic, with... desire. His eyes burned through her. She was almost convinced she was going to disintegrate into a pile of ashes any moment now.
So, persuaded she was possessed by the questionable (and yet most certainly very alcoholic) eggnog, and this night, and this pretty dress, she kissed him.
Her landing was clumsy, but he rectified it quickly by wrapping one arm around her waist and pulling her closer. He responded with twice as much enthusiasm, which was made all the more evident by the way he growled against her mouth.
But just as it had started, the moment was over. They were close to the entrance to the garden, and footsteps echoed down the stairs, bursts of laughter and chatter traveling down to where they were. Any second now, they would be caught, and the whole Ministry would know by midnight.
Hermione pulled away and untangled herself, flushed and convinced she had gone half-mad. She barely registered the look of shock on his face before she heard someone from the group shout his name, and as soon as his back was turned, covering her from their view, she slipped down the other path and out the garden, disappearing into the night.
They didn't talk to each other after that night - had barely seen each other, now that their project had ended. Oddly enough, the Ministry could be large enough when you needed it to be - when it came to avoiding people you didn't want to see.
There’d been once, though. The day the announcement had been made about his team leaving for Asia, she had been sitting at her desk when she'd looked up and seen him, from a distance, walking down the hall, about to enter her department's office area. But just as he had been about to enter, someone else had grabbed his attention, pulling him into conversation.
Hermione took this as a sign. She grabbed her things and left, using the back door.
The next day he was gone.
Hermione arrived at Malfoy Manor nervous and uneasy. She immediately grabbed a drink. For the first ten minutes of the night she had stood behind a holiday-themed ice sculpture (one of many), trying to decide whether she should just go home.
"What silliness are you up to, standing behind that ice sculpture?"
Parvati was on the other side of the sculpture, laughing at her. Hermione sighed and came around.
Parvati raised her eyebrows. "Blimey, Hermione. That's a hell of a dress."
She blushed. She wished she'd worn her footie pajamas instead. Parvati grabbed her arm. "Come and mingle with me. Let's savor our first visit to the famous Malfoy Manor. I tried to count the windows from outside, you know. Turns out I can't count that high. This place is immense. Can you believe the extravagance?"
Every single person they talked to was in awe of Malfoy's place of residence, but Hermione found her mind dwelling on other matters and frequently scanned the happy crowd for one person in particular. No one had seen the host of the evening just yet.
Suddenly, something caught her ear in their group conversation.
"Sorry - eggnog?" she interrupted.
"The eggnog from last year," Neville explained. "We were just talking about what a big hit it was. It was hilarious. Mildred from Accounting got so drunk after one glass, she started snogging one of the waiters."
Hermione let that sink in. "But it barely tasted like alcohol. What was in it?"
"Some new concoction from Weasley - thought it'd be a good place for a trial run. Eggnog with a dash of a new inhibition-suppression potion."
Hearing this, she turned to look at Parvati, who also feigned surprise. "Listen, they told everyone it was virgin. Besides, it's not like you did anything, aside from dazzle your colleagues." Her friend blinked and then narrowed her eyes at her. "Did you?"
"Like it matters now, anyway," Hermione muttered. She left the group to find another drink, staying away from the innocuous-seeming eggnog.
Finally, the music stopped and the Minister of Magic appeared onstage, in front of the band. Five other people followed after him, making a short line. Her breath hitched as the last one that joined was no one other than Malfoy.
The Minister introduced Malfoy's team and briefly explained that their mission to reclaim all of the stolen, dark artifacts had been successful. Applause rang throughout the ballroom as the Minister of Magic commended his team. "Now that's over with," he said. "Time for the merriment to continue!"
The band started up again with a flourish, and the cacophony of conversation returned. Hermione watched as Malfoy descended the stage and a few women swarmed him. Hermione should have felt amused at this. Or perhaps pity for these women, if she were feeling up to her usual self-righteousness. But as she watched him from a distance, she felt this lurch in her middle, her eyes drinking in every detail of him. He looked tanner, but just slightly, which seemed to only further emphasize the intense grayness of his eyes. His pale blond hair was still as neatly coiffed as ever. She'd missed him while he'd been gone. But how? Perhaps she'd started missing him long before he'd even left for Asia. Perhaps she'd started missing him the moment their project had ended.
Just then, his gaze shifted. He looked up, past the head of the woman talking to him, all the way across the room. Straight at her.
Hermione swallowed hard, holding her breath. She kept his gaze for as long as she could until someone crossed in their line of vision, breaking the connection.
Later on, during the dancing, she stepped out to the terrace, overlooking the enormous garden. It was breathtaking in its enormity. He didn't even have a pond, generally considered "cute" in its modest size. He had his own sodding lake.
She took the stairs down, entering the labyrinth. She heard the distant voices from the other side of the garden, but the respite from the noisiness of the ballroom calmed her.
When she came out to the other side, she found someone else there.
"Tired of your own party already?" she called out.
He looked up, a glass of whiskey in his hand. Her heart leapt at the sight of him. She wondered if he remembered their kiss. She wondered if it had kept him up at night, like it did her. How it had tortured her and had been ample fodder for numerous wanton fantasies - all of which she would never, ever divulge to another soul.
He faintly bristled. "You have quite a knack for snooping around in people's gardens."
"If your lot didn't want people like me sneaking off to the garden to escape the anxiety of social gatherings, then maybe you should stop having these parties." He didn't say anything, but kept his eyes on her, even as he took a generous sip of his whiskey. "How was Asia?"
"It was fine," he answered, coldly. "Weiland's got a few stories. I'm sure he won't need much convincing to regal a girl in a pretty dress with his anecdotes of danger and intrigue."
"I see," she said, quietly. She couldn't figure out if he was icing her out. It was the ambiguity that was confusing her. The old Malfoy made it quite clear when he didn't want to deal with you, but here.... His tone was distant, but the way he was looking at her, at all of her, said that he was, in fact, very much in the present.
"Are you glad you went?" she asked.
"Depends," he answered. "It would have helped if I'd known I'd had something to stay for." He paused to finish off his drink. "Tell me, is that a Christmas tradition of yours? Kissing blokes in gardens at holiday parties and then running away?"
"No!" Hermione said defensively. "Of course not."
He walked over to her, leaving his empty glass on the bench. "Then explain something to me, because for the past ten bloody months, I haven't been able to figure it out. Was I excited to be paired with you on that sodding map project? No. I was sure one of us would end up hexed by the end of it. But to my surprise, we worked quite well. We were more than civil to each other at some parts, which I suppose is a testament to humanity's ability to transcend petty childhood grudges for a common good. And then it ended, and we reverted back to our old ways - natural, I suppose. But then the holiday party came. You, showing up in that dress, laughing, telling charming stories to people I know you can't stand, going 'round the room like it was something you enjoyed. Something had changed. You were... you weren't inside your head anymore. Not constantly thinking, analyzing, assessing. And then you kissed me." He took a breath, his pale brows furrowed. "Why did you kiss me?"
"Because!" Hermione blurted. "I thought the eggnog wasn't spiked. It turns out - it was. So I kissed you because - not because I was drunk. But because you were right. I was out of my own head for once. I wasn't paralyzed thinking about the consequences or what or why or how. I kissed you because I wanted to - I'd wanted to, since we made that bloody map. And also because I couldn't let you go to sodding Asia for God-knows-how-long without doing this one thing. But then I got scared and I ran away. And I let you go. Keeping my distance was so easy to rationalize. That's what I do. That's who I am. The rational girl. Not the girl who... shows up at a party wearing a stupid dress so that maybe I could catch your eye."
Malfoy was silent for a full minute. Digesting her onslaught of words, she supposed. But then something bloomed in his expression. He smiled. Or smirked. A hybrid of the two, the remarkable expression only he was capable of mastering. He was laughing. Was he laughing at her? Or - with her? But she wasn't laughing. Was she?
"For the record," he murmured, slipping a finger underneath the flimsy strap of her silk dress. Goosebumps peaked on her shoulders. "You never needed a dress for me to notice you. I think your old tactic of brandishing your wand at me and threatening to hex me into next week was effective enough."
And so, after ten months of anticipation, Hermione Granger kissed Draco Malfoy again. A lot.
When they finally pulled back, he softly stroked his thumb against her cheek, his warm breath grazing her eyelashes. "Granger, I've had ten months to think about exactly what I plan to do to you tonight."
Hermione grabbed his hand, leading him out of the garden, the lights twinkling all around them. His fingers laced themselves between hers. They were running. Laughing and running.
"Funny you say that," she grinned. "So have I."