“Thank you for calling Luna’s Help for the Helpless, Balm for the Battered, Succour for the Soulless, Comfort for the Crazed—”
“—Support for the Stricken, and Warmth for the Wounded.”
There was a period of silence.
“Hello?” Luna called into the mouthpiece. She then tapped the cradle several times. “Do you need a kind word?”
A dial tone was her answer.
“Blasted Nargles, they’re always infesting the circuitry.” Dropping the phone onto its base, she sighed. “How am I supposed to help anyone if they don’t stay on the phone?”
Hermione Granger strolled past her dejected friend, writing something on a piece of parchment. “It might help if you shorten the name.”
“I firmly believe in a service that states its purpose straight off,” Luna said. “I mean, we provide more than just a willing ear to listen to a wizard’s or witch’s problems, and I think it’s important to build trust with our customers.”
Hermione sat across from Luna and gave her a sympathetic smile. “Not to sound jaded, but most of the people that call your hotline are beyond help within the first five seconds of you rattling off the name of your company.” She looked distinctly perplexed. “Not to mention that most of the wizarding world doesn’t have a phone, and I’m truly surprised anyone calls at all.”
Luna sighed. “I know you’re just trying to cheer me up with your pessimistic view on life, Hermione, but I provide a valuable service to those suffering from STD.”
Hermione nearly choked on her tea. “STD? I think you mean PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“Oh, really? Hmm. That would explain the odd looks I got when I passed out our business cards in Diagon Alley.” Luna withdrew a stack of multi-coloured cards from the pocket of her purple corduroy dress and waved her wand over the lot of them. “There. Now I’m sure we’ll receive at least three more calls today.”
Hermione snagged one of the altered cards, then frowned. “Luna, you have our address listed on this card. I thought I told you it would be unwise to reveal our location, as we want to remain anonymous.”
Luna waved off Hermione’s irritation. “Everyone knows you’re a bleeding-heart, Hermione, so this is the perfect job for you. And I haven’t exactly disguised my voice when I answer the phone the four times it rang in the week we’ve been here. Someone was bound to figure out what the space above Madam Puddifoot’s was being used for, so I just avoided all that silly subversion and added our address in case someone wanted to show up instead of call.”
Hermione stared at her, nonplussed. “But it’s only been seven months since the end of the war. Don’t you think there might still be some disgruntled Death Eater that would love to find us?”
Luna’s dreamy eyes lit up. “You think so? That would be lovely. They could be our first true clients, seeing as they probably have the most damaged psyche and are in need of help this holiday season.”
“They aren’t the only ones,” Hermione muttered under her breath. “Tell me again why I agreed to help you with this?”
Luna began ticking things off on her fingers. “Because we’re both on winter holiday from Hogwarts. We both participated in the war and watched people get blown up. We both have nowhere to go at the moment, as your parents are still ‘not your parents’ in Australia and my father is trying to rebuild our house. And we both enjoy telling a person the answers in life, except my way of explaining things is much nicer.”
Hermione could not honestly argue with any of Luna’s reasoning. Well, except for that last bit. She happened to think the way she presented solutions was optimal, just not popular. Further introspection was halted when there was a ring from the extremely old-model phone.
Luna grabbed the handset quickly and began her spiel. “Thank you for calling Luna’s Help for the Helpless, Balm for the Battered, Succour for the Soulless, Comfort for the Crazed—”
The phone was snatched out of her hand by Hermione. “Sorry, hello?”
Silence on the other end. Then, a hesitant, “I can’t believe I’m doing this…”
The voice sounded somewhat familiar, but it was muffled. “If you’re worried about anonymity, then I can assure you—”
“Granger? Is that you?”
Hermione stared at the receiver, panicked. “I think you have the wrong number!” She quickly hung up.
Luna raised her eyebrows. “Who was it?”
“Nobody! Erm, at least… well, it was nobody I want to speak with.”
“Because!” Hermione snapped. She glanced at her nails. “Besides, it probably wasn’t him, anyway.”
Luna sat up and leaned forward, her curiosity obviously piqued. “Oh? Was it someone you had a clandestine affair with during the time you were on the run?”
“What? No! I never cheated on…”
Well, there wasn’t exactly anyone to cheat on, was there? Ron had truly never quite returned to his old self after carrying Salazar Slytherin’s locket, and the residual darkness that lingered about him made her uncomfortable in intimate situations. Add to that the fact that she had gone back to Hogwarts to finish her education while he and Harry had chosen not to, and her few thoughts of starting a relationship dissipated like the smoke that rose from the rubble that fateful day last May.
“Did you just have a flashback of memories about you and Ron pining for each other? I thought it would’ve been shorter,” Luna mused. “Odd partnership, that. And I should know, I write for the Quibbler on occasion.” She studied Hermione. “So, if it wasn’t your forbidden war lover, then who was it?”
Hermione began to pace. “I don’t know, honestly. I hung up before he could identify himself. But I know only one person that says ‘Granger’ like that: Draco Malfoy.”
Luna tapped her chin with her wand. “It would make sense.”
Hermione stopped wearing a path in the carpet. “Why? He would never deign to contact an organisation like ours. And it’s not like he was damaged during the war. Much.”
Before Luna could reply, a sharp knock rapped on the door to their office. Both witches looked at each other for a few moments, stunned. When it happened again, Hermione edged towards the door.
“I told you not to give out our address, Luna!” she hissed before opening the door.
A shivering Draco Malfoy stood there with a perturbed look on his face. “I should sue your company for fraudulent advertising. ‘Help for the helpless’ my arse.”
“There isn’t any scenario that would peg you as ‘helpless’, Malfoy,” Hermione huffed and tried to slam the door in his face.
His hand caught the frame and shoved it back. “I thought you were a know-it-all, Granger. Your education seems to be lacking.” He walked in, bold as you please. “Now, are you lot going to help me, or shall I call my solicitor?”
“Do you need to unburden your soul from all the darkness you experienced at the hands of Voldemort?” Luna asked she rounded the desk.
Both Draco and Hermione stared at Luna. “No!” they said in unison, then turned to look at each other with varying degrees of suspicion.
“Maybe a joint therapy session, to cleanse the air between you two?” Luna offered.
Draco and Hermione wore similar horrified expressions.
“I don’t need any help,” Hermione said primly with a sniff.
“Delusional,” Malfoy snorted.
Luna cleared her throat and gave them both a stern look. “Why don’t you tell us what you need help with, Draco?”
Hermione watched as the impossible happened before her eyes: Draco Malfoy looking contrite and awkward. He shifted his feet, took off his fur hat and twisted the edge of it with his fingers.
“I need your help,” he mumbled.
“Obviously,” Hermione snipped.
“Quit being confrontational, Hermione,” Luna admonished, taking her friend aback by the reprimand. “Now, how can we help you?”
Draco hesitated, but forged on. “I need help retrieving a Yule log from our forest.”
The silence was deafening.
“Excuse me?” Hermione asked, not quite believing what she’d heard.
“I need help obtaining a tree large enough for the Yule log ritual,” Draco repeated in irritation.
“I was thinking of something a little more metaphorical, Draco,” Luna replied finally. “You know, like talking about the gaping, bleeding wound in your soul that will eventually suck the life right out of you.”
“Cheery thought, that,” Hermione said happily. She immediately regretted her words at the despondent look on Malfoy’s face. “Sorry.”
Draco thinned his lips and shrugged, acting as if he were not troubled. “It’s not something I haven’t heard before, Granger. I just thought… well, it doesn’t matter what I thought.” He donned his hat and headed for the door. “Thanks for at least letting me in the door.”
Luna glared at Hermione, who gave her a ‘what?’ gesture. Luna pointed at a departing Malfoy. Hermione rolled her eyes and sighed.
Draco paused on the threshold. “What?”
Hermione bit her lip. “We’ll… help you.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“It’s what we do, apparently,” Hermione gritted out as she sent Luna a heated look.
Draco studied Hermione, making her somewhat uncomfortable, though not in the same way Ron had. She tensed briefly as Malfoy withdrew his wand, then relaxed when he cast a spell on a piece of card-stock before handing it over to her.
“This is a portkey. It will take you straight to the edge of the woods. Be there in two hours.” He pocketed his wand and stared at Hermione. “I appreciate your willingness to help me.”
“That must have taken a lot for you to say,” Hermione muttered.
Draco straightened his hat and winked at her. “You have no idea.” He quickly departed, leaving Hermione flustered.
“Oh, you’re in trouble,” Luna sing-songed.
“I have no earthly clue what you’re talking about.”
“Smartest witch, my arse.”
“Your false outrage makes this even more amusing, you know.”
“Quite a suitable atmosphere for a romantic tryst—an ancient wood, a dashing anti-hero with a troubled past, a Yule log.”
Hermione gave her a confused look. “What does a Yule log have to do with anything?”
“Long, winter’s night, a hot roaring fire that burns for at least a fortnight, lots of opportunities to cuddle by said fire,” Luna said, slyly. “Yule magic is powerful, anything could happen.”
“I won’t know, will I? I won’t be there for the end result,” Hermione said forcefully. She grabbed her cloak and scarf. “Come on, I want a hot chocolate before I have to trudge through the freezing cold.”
Luna placed her multi-coloured beanie on her head. “Can I sing Christmas carols as we—”
“Not even if a herd of yetis were advancing on us and the only way to stop them was to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ at the top of your lungs.”
“Actually, I heard they consider ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ a lullaby. How about that one?”
Hermione locked the door behind them. “Only as a last resort.”
Hermione was freezing her backside off.
She was knee-deep in a snowdrift, staring into a thick forest that seemed to go on forever, her teeth chattering despite the powerful Warming Charm encompassing her body. She glared at the witch hopping ahead of her, even though said witch couldn’t see her.
“Dashing through the snow, on a pair of broken skis,” Luna warbled off-key. “O'er the fields we go, crashing into trees!”
“Does she realise she sounds like she’s murdering a husk of hares?” Draco murmured in Hermione’s ear.
She shivered, the feeling having nothing to do with the cold. “That would distress her greatly, since that’s her Patronus. But no, though I’ve tried to subtly ask her not to sing.”
Malfoy grimaced. “Sorry.”
Hermione stopped and waited for the wizard to turn and face her. “Tell me why you really need our help, Malfoy.”
He glanced over his shoulder at Luna, who was making her way further into the woods, leaving them by themselves, then turned back to her. “Father isn’t well,” he whispered.
“He’s never been well, Malfoy,” she said with some venom.
“A little below the belt on that one, don’t you think, Granger?” he spat. He gathered his cloak tighter around him and started trudging the path Luna had already made.
“Malfoy,” she called. When he didn’t stop, she yelled, “Draco!” He paused and she slogged through the snow to catch up to him. “Look, I’m sorry. I tend to be a bit defensive when it comes to you or your father. You must understand why.”
“Understandable,” Draco clipped, continuing on his journey. “But I thought you could put aside personal differences to help someone in need.” He glanced at her. “If you don’t think you can do it, you can leave.”
Hermione bristled at the insinuation. “I can cope just fine, Malfoy. I… I’m just curious as to why you need help.”
Draco sighed heavily. “As I said, Father is… ill. Mother has her hands full taking care of him. She thought it might bring him a small amount of peace if we had a Yule log this winter, as there wasn’t one last year.”
Hermione nodded hesitantly. “All right. So why not ask your friends to help you gather the wood?”
He snorted mirthlessly. “What friends, Granger? Crabbe? Died in the fire your boyfriend set in the Room of Requirements. Goyle? If he so much as looks at me on the street, his family will disown him. Parkinson? Married Zabini – between the two of them, if one doesn’t have me killed, the other will.”
“Damn,” she muttered. “I didn’t realise.”
Draco shrugged. “Why would you? You don’t want to associate with our family any more than the other Pureblood families do. We’re traitors, you see. Loyalty is worth more than friendship, and I don’t have the currency to pay for their time. So, no. I don’t have anyone that can help me select and haul the bloody Yule log so that my father might have a modicum of peace before he dies.”
“Dies?” Hermione inhaled sharply, acutely aware of the strained situation Malfoy was in. “I think it’s brave of you to ask for help on behalf of your father.”
He stopped suddenly and she almost ran into the back of him. “I’m not brave. I’m just trying to stay alive, maybe make something of my life while doing it. That’s not bravery.”
She studied him for several moments. “Considering all you’ve gone through, all that others have gone through because of your family, the bravest thing you could have done was to continue living your life, when it would’ve been so easy to let go.”
A red flush filled Malfoy’s cheeks and he looked away. “Truth is, I’m scared beyond my wits.”
Hermione felt compelled to grab his trembling hand. “No, scared is what you’re feeling; brave is what you’re doing.” She squeezed and then let go. “Come on, we need to find you a Yule log.”
“Haven’t you two created enough sexual tension to kiss, yet?”
Hermione and Draco stopped dead at Luna’s innocent question.
“Inappropriate, Luna!” Hermione hissed.
“Impossible. She wouldn’t shut up,” Draco offered with a smirk.
Luna shook her head. “I know, she just yammers on, doesn’t she?” She winked at Hermione. “Maybe I should have left you alone longer.”
“How about that wood?” Draco said forcefully. “Any speculation as to what I should choose?”
Luna studied the trees around her, some covered in snow, others swaying in the icy breeze that whistled through the woods. “There’s a song that describes which tree would be best. I could sing—”
“No!” Hermione and Draco shouted.
“—or I could just recite it,” Luna continued without a pause. She cleared her throat.
“Oak-logs will warm you well, that are old and dry;
Logs of pine will sweetly smell, but the sparks will fly.
Birch-logs will burn too fast, Chestnut scarce at all;
Hawthorn-logs are good to last—catch them in the fall.
Holly-logs will burn like wax; you may burn them green.
Elm-logs like to smouldering flax, no flame to be seen.
Beech-logs for winter time, Yew-logs as well;
Green elder-logs it is a crime, for any man to sell.
Pear-logs and apple-logs, they will scent your room.
Cherry-logs across the bogs, smell like flower of the broom.
Ash-logs, smooth and grey, burn them green or old,
Buy up all that come your way—worth their weight in gold.”
“Hawthorn wood has always served me well,” Draco murmured, searching the densely packed forest for the aforementioned tree.
Hermione nodded. “And technically, it’s still autumn, so…”
“So that should be the wood we harvest,” Luna agreed. She glanced at the other two. “Should I leave you alone again?”
Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose and groaned, while Malfoy turned a shade of red that had nothing to do with the chill in the air.
“Not even a hug or cuddle?” Luna persisted, looking quite put out.
“Fine,” Hermione snapped and turned to embrace Malfoy. It was quick, dispassionate and over too soon from Luna’s perspective.
Luna looked unimpressed. “Hmm. No wonder Ron is with Lav-Lav.” She turned and walked off amongst the trees.
“I’m sorry,” Hermione whispered to Draco, trying to dispel the hurt from Luna’s words. She noticed he was still frozen. “What?”
“You touched me.”
She narrowed her gaze. “Sorry if my muddy blood rubbed off on you, Malfoy.”
She made to stomp off in a snit but he grabbed her arm. “No, you misunderstand. No one other than my mother has touched me voluntarily in years. I… I’m not used to it, is all.”
Draco sneered. “Not unless you count witches and wizards shoving you out of the way when they pass you in the streets, which can get quite tiresome.”
“It’s better than having ‘Mudblood’ carved into your skin,” Hermione retorted, unable to help the anger that surged.
Draco paled at that. “Of course, no comparison at all.” He nodded and moved away quickly, practically running after Luna.
Hermione blew out a harsh breath and kicked at the snow. She thought she had dealt with all the issues that had plagued her throughout her school years and into their time on the run.
Apparently she hadn’t.
Hermione came upon Draco and Luna studying a rather large hawthorn tree. She observed them from behind, how similar they were in colouring and stance, how graceful they both were. For a brief moment, she entertained the idea that they would make a lovely Pureblood couple, but Hermione knew Luna had eyes only for Neville Longbottom. And that was a perfect match, seeing as they both had the same temperament.
As for Malfoy? He didn’t have too many prospects, if what he said about the other Pureblood families was to be believed. So, would he be forced to accept an arranged, loveless marriage? Maybe there would be Pureblood families that lived in a different country that would consider Malfoy a catch. He’d be hard-pressed, however, to find a corner of the wizarding world that hadn’t heard of Voldemort… or his regime and demise. She ignored the pang in her chest at the thought of Draco marrying an entitled heiress who was colder than the snow she stood in.
Shaking off these thoughts, Hermione studied the hawthorn before them. “It’s a Glastonbury Thorn.”
“The Holy Thorn,” Luna added.
Hermione nodded. “Yes, this hawthorn is unusual in that it flowers twice in a year, once on old wood in spring and once on new wood in winter, with the current season's matured new growth. The flowering of the Glastonbury thorn in mild weather just past midwinter was accounted miraculous.” She looked at Draco. “It’s also said to heal a broken heart.”
Draco gave her a small smile. “Then this is the one.”
She couldn’t agree more.
It took three hours of intricate spell-work from all of them, between cutting the appropriate length (nearly the whole of the tree), preservation and finally transportation. By the time they arrived at Malfoy Manor, it was evening and a curl of smoke could be seen from one of the many chimneys littering the roof of the mansion.
“I want to ask you to come inside, but I know that may be too much right now,” Draco said as he opened the wrought-iron gate, his gaze on Hermione.
Luna smiled serenely. “I appreciate the offer, Draco, but I’m going to see Neville and hopefully we can progress beyond a thorough snog.”
Draco and Hermione stared.
“What? He’s a terrific snog once he got his teeth fixed. More tongue and less drool.”
Hermione swallowed and shook her head. “Luna, too much information.”
“Agreed,” Draco echoed. He gave Hermione a hopeful look. “And you?”
Hermione bit her bottom lip so hard she was afraid she’d drawn blood. “Just for a few minutes, then.”
His smile lit up the darkness. “Wait here, I need to remove the hexes on the grounds and manor house.” He departed, leaving Luna and Hermione with the hefty log floating in mid-air.
The moment he left, Hermione panicked. “This is your fault!”
“I know! Isn’t it great?”
“No! You’re leaving me alone with Draco Malfoy, who has to disarm the spells covering this property just so I can go into his house. What part of that sounds in any way safe?”
Luna rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say it was safe. I said it was great. You’re a brave Gryffindor, so… go exalt your House’s virtues.” And without a warning, she Disapparated with a loud crack.
“Oh, I’ll exalt something all right...”
“Talking to yourself, Granger?”
Hermione whirled around. “I’m not that far gone yet.” She flicked her wand. “Ready?”
Draco hesitated. “I just wanted to warn you, my father… well, he’s not like you remember him.”
This gave her pause. Dealing with an incapacitated Lucius Malfoy was quite different from dealing with his son. “Is there anything I should or shouldn’t do?”
“Quiet,” Draco said. “He likes it when it’s quiet.”
Hermione nodded as they started moving the tree across the grounds. “And your mother?”
“Mother? Other than taking care of father, she manages our financial affairs, so she’s busy one way or another.” He nudged the tree to the right. “We’ll take it in the groundkeeper’s entrance.”
After navigating it carefully through the double-wide doors and up the grand staircase, they came to a room that had a hearth that was the size of the whole of Hermione’s flat in London. Twelve people could easily stand within it, without touching, and still have room for more. There would definitely be enough room for the Yule log to take its place.
Once it was situated, they stood back and admired their handiwork.
“It’s quite beautiful, Draco,” said a quiet voice from behind them.
Hermione slowly turned to see Narcissa Malfoy, pushing Lucius in a wicker wheelchair. Draco had not been exaggerating when he’d said that his father was greatly altered. The Malfoy patriarch’s hair, once so luminous and pale, hung in limp strands that barely reached his shoulders. A thick wool blanket covered his lap and legs, while an old cloak swathed his frame in dark cloth. But it was his face that told the true story of his decline.
It was gaunt, hollow, his eyes rheumy and unseeing. He was unshaven and the always-pale skin looked like linen that had been left out in the sun too long. His breathing was uneven, and he had to pause every now and then to take a deeper breath. When Narcissa stroked Lucius’ hair lovingly, Hermione had to swallow against the sorrow rising in her chest.
“He’s having a good day, today. Aren’t you, dearest?” Narcissa placed a kiss on her husband’s head.
Hermione didn’t dare move, not wanting to spoil the moment. But it didn’t matter; Narcissa straightened up and her eyes zeroed in on Hermione.
“Thank you for assisting my son, Miss Granger. You shall be well paid for your efforts.”
Hermione glanced at Draco in confusion, then back to Narcissa. “There’s no charge. Draco asked for our help and we gave it. Willingly.”
“Nonsense,” Narcissa snorted. “There’s no need to pretend, girl. Name your fee and we will pay it.”
“Mother,” Draco intoned sternly. “Don’t be crass. It’s true. I asked, they volunteered. Let it be.”
Narcissa studied her son and Hermione closely. She then sniffed and returned her attention to Lucius. “As you wish. You have our gratitude, Miss Granger.”
“You’re welcome.” Hermione knew when she’d overstayed her welcome, so she nodded, sent one more glance at Draco, and left the room.
“Granger, wait!” Draco pulled her back into the room she had just exited. “We haven’t lit the log yet.”
Hermione’s eyes widened in surprise. “That’s a family tradition, Malfoy. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to include someone like me.”
“What do you mean, someone like you?” He tugged on her winter cloak, drawing her closer to the hearth. “Are you saying we’re not good enough for you?”
She shook herself free. “You know that’s not true. I was thinking of the other way around.” She gave a furtive look in the direction of his father and mother. “I’m sure they don’t want me here when you light it.”
Draco was about to speak, but his mother’s voice interrupted him. “That’s not true, Miss Granger. In times such as these, one must be thankful for small mercies. Your generous contribution is appreciated, so in the spirit of the season, we invite you to participate in the Yule ritual.”
Hermione locked her knees to keep from fainting. Not one year ago, in this very house, she’d been tortured nearly to death, and now they wanted to act like nothing had happened. She glanced at Draco and saw the hope in them dim slightly when she didn’t answer. She turned her attention to Narcissa and saw how tired she looked, how worn.
These people were no longer a threat to her. Truth be told, they weren’t a threat to anyone in the wizarding world. They just wanted to get on with their lives, and the Yule ritual must seem like a slice of their past normality.
Draco huffed a laugh and Narcissa gave her a small smile. “Gather around the hearth everyone.” She pushed Lucius until he was positioned next to her. “Draco, begin.”
As he started weaving his wand, the tip began to glow. “The Wheel has turned once more, and the earth has gone to sleep. The leaves are gone, the crops have returned to the ground. On this darkest of nights, we celebrate the light. Tomorrow, the sun will return, to continue its journey as it always does.”
Hermione and Narcissa both murmured the response. “Welcome back, warmth. Welcome back, light. Welcome back, life.”
A thunderous crack sounded and the Yule log was suddenly ablaze. They basked silently in the warmth for a time, each lost in their own thoughts. A few moments later, Narcissa looked to Hermione.
“Please finish for us, Miss Granger.”
Startled, but slightly pleased, Hermione raised her wand and duplicated the weaving motion Draco had made.
“Shadows depart; darkness is no more, as the light of the sun comes back to us. Warm the earth. Warm the ground. Warm the sky. Warm our hearts. Welcome back, sun.”
The fire increased in intensity, prompting the first response Hermione had seen so far from Lucius. He turned his head towards the light, closed his eyes and sighed heavily.
Narcissa squeezed her husband’s shoulder. “I am thankful that Lucius is still with us.”
Draco smiled at his mother. “Hear! Hear!” He looked to Hermione. “I am thankful for newfound friends.”
Hermione thought long and hard, grasping the hem of her jumper to keep her hands from shaking. “I am thankful for the broken,” she said quietly, “for the broken will always be able to love harder than most. I don’t think I’d want to know anyone that was all put together properly.”
There was a decided sheen to the eyes of both Narcissa and Draco, which they quickly wiped away.
Narcissa placed a gentle hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Thank you, Miss Granger. For your help, and for your well-chosen words.”
Draco nodded, his eyes never leaving Hermione’s. “Once you’ve been in the dark,” he said softly, “you learn to appreciate everything that shines.”