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Noël

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Switzerland was something else, Hermione had to admit. Standing on the shore of Lake Geneva in the middle of a picturesque village with the tinkling of a Christmas market in the air, and looming, snow-covered mountains at her back washing everything in gold and white, she found it wholesome. Taking a deep breath to savour the crisp air, she tried to take in some of this wholesomeness, to relax all the cramped muscles in her neck, to look forward to her alone time in the serenity of the Alps - and failed.

She felt as if her last vacation had been aeons ago. It had been with Ron, of course, that was all she remembered, but that was enough to spoil her mood considerably.

It wasn't just that he'd broken up with her by having another woman on his arm at a public event. Well, in fact, she had broken up with him after that show, but that was just a technicality because the public saw it differently. The Daily Prophet had splashed it all over the front page the next day - Hermione Granger dropped for a tramp! - and not single person passing her had failed to give her that look. Disgusting, but avoidable. By having a lengthy vacation, for example.

No, what really got her was what happened before – and most likely caused - the break-up.

Her blood boiled just thinking about it. Wasn’t it enough that the purebloods had raged against the rest of wizardkind, dividing what should be a close-knit magical society? Did the victors have to do the same thing against the perpetrators?

She would have been able to ignore it longer if Ron hadn't tried to degrade someone she considered a valued colleague. Pansy Parkinson, after a rough, uncooperative beginning, had turned out to be quite talented with healing spells and potions. So good, that Hermione considered herself vastly inferior to Pansy's craft. They’d spent many an after-shift evening together while Pansy explained the intricacies of her spells over tea. Gradually, what had been animosity developed into a hesitant collegial relationship, an almost friendship.

Until Ron annihilated the fragile relations built in the post-war years with a barrage of thoughtless insults.
Calling Pansy a ‘Death Eater whore’ because she had distanced herself from his groping hands was something Hermione couldn't ignore. She had folded him lengthwise, verbally, right there in the pub. Ron had looked like a shame-faced little boy when she was done. That would have been the end of it if not for the other patrons who had agreed with him. In the end, Hermione had left, Pansy in tow, so furious over the other customers' half-drunken attacks she'd been close to hexing them to kingdom come.

To make matters worse, the wizarding world being a small one, the gossip had reached her boss by the next day. In her position as a Ministry Representative for International Trade, she couldn't afford such a stain on her reputation. Or so he’d told her, before recommending she take a long overdue vacation, far away from London.

When had Ron become such an arse? It had totally escaped her before their public fallout what a narrow-minded, greedy, bigoted git he had become. The sad scenario in the pub should have been Hermione's final hint that her fiancé wasn't quite who she thought he was, but she had been very busy with the trade agreement that brought her to Switzerland now. When he showed up to the Ministry Xmas Ball with Lavender Brown on his arm, it became very clear where his priorities lay.

With another deep breath of fresh mountain air, she decided to let bygones be bygones for the moment and focus on her last job before enjoying her well-deserved, boss-enforced holiday.

She’d rented an isolated chalet in the mountains with a fireplace, fur rugs, food delivery, a mini-bar, breathtaking snowy scenery, an oversized bathtub and a large bed, all to call her own. She was going to make intimate acquaintance with the local liquor and warm bathwater and her flannel pyjamas and, perhaps, even the deliveryman, who knows? Otherwise, she’d not leave the bed, her books, or the chalet until she had to return to civilisation. A couple of months at least, just to make sure her twitchy wand-fingers had come to rest.

Ron and his womanizing ways – in the past.

Her job and its nerve-wracking expectations – in another country.

Her break-up and the strain it put on their mutual friends - well on its way to resolution. Harry had reassured her that he’d still be there for her when she came back - after her vacation. After her last job-duty. When she'd unloaded her brain and started thinking in full sentences again.

She walked the few metres to her destination through festively decorated streets to clear her head. There were stands offering Christmas fare, pottery, or flaxen-headed angels. The air was all golden dust and white light - the world so doused in celebratory colours that it should have lifted her spirits. It didn't.

At least the wizard she was about to see was a real gentleman. She'd conversed with him for several months to prepare the trade agreement they were about to sign, and it had been such a joy to work with him. He was polite and competent, forthcoming and considerate, practical and with sound ideas. In short, a gem of a man, and she was looking forward to meeting him in person and, if all went well, to going for drinks afterwards – maybe more. Ginny had been very adamant for her to not hold back on her vacation. Ron certainly wouldn't.

This branch of the Swiss Ministry was in the city centre, hidden behind a non-descript door on a quiet side road. The receptionist's eyes were round as Christmas balls when she recognized Hermione. Pushing a quickly conjured espresso into her hands, the young woman led her to the office of Hermione's counterpart and left with a curtsy. Hermione couldn't help being pleased with the young woman's efficiency and respect. Hermione didn't like to employ her war fame. Still, after being openly scolded for stating her opinion, reminding others of their history and their risk of repeating it, it was satisfying to know that she still commanded respect in some places.
She would fix the people at home when she returned and wasn’t likely to hex them on sight for their stupidity.

Her knock was answered with “Entrez.”

The man behind the desk smiled at her when she poked her head around the door. He shot up and strode quickly across the room, exclaiming, "M..Miss Granger. Welcome! So good of you to have come. Did Natalie offer you refreshments? Come in, come in, sit."

Hermione was very pleased to be so heartily welcomed and gestured with her espresso cup. "Yes, she did, thank you! So good to finally meet you in person, Mr. Noël. I'm very pleased that we can finalize this agreement today. It will feel good to have the contract signed before the New Year. My vacation will feel so much better with this accomplishment."

Mr. Noël agreed and, taking her hand, led her to the armchair across from his desk. Her hand tingled a bit from his warm touch, and Hermione was reminded that her holiday was supposed to be fun, too. This man would be a nice addition to the bed in her chalet.

While Mr. Noël drew up the appropriate paperwork, Hermione had time to examine him discretely. He was about her age, tall and fit, with non-descript brown hair, blue eyes, and a small goatee. His black-frame glasses were modest and somehow not meant to enhance the features of the face behind them. Though slim, he was clearly a man and not an overgrown boy, the way she'd come to view her peers. Clearly, the wizards she knew still had a long way to go.

Hermione was pleasantly surprised, when Mr. Noël suggested they call each other by first name, after their long collaboration. She hadn’t initially planned to lure this particular man into her bed; however, if she had to find a distraction from the recent anger at home during her holidays this specimen would do nicely, she thought. If she could conjure his interest without losing her focus on the agreement, she'd be pleased with herself. This would be her Christmas gift to herself.

Smiling at each other, they sat to address some final questions and a vivid discussion about the properties, origins, and breeding of purple and spotted Gentian ensued. A tour of the plantation deep in the Alps followed, during which Hermione clung to Darnell Noël's arm – purely for warmth, of course. Satisfied with the arrangements, they returned to his office for the final step, the signatures. A celebratory drink later, Hermione raised herself to leave the office, disenthralled that he hadn't invited her to stay.

"Well, I wish you a Happy Christmas, Darnell. I'll be here for another night before taking off. Perhaps I'll see you at the Christmas market? It looks very tempting, so festive." Hermione tried to entice the young wizard to join her one last time.

She was disappointed. "My deepest apologies, Hermione, but I already have plans." His face showed his sincerity, and Hermione couldn't do anything but shrug.

Too bad, but such was life. She was sure there were other men in Switzerland.

After a last handshake, she took her farewell. "A pity, I would have loved to have a local showing me around. Well, the best of holidays to you, and it was a real pleasure working with you, Darnell."

"Same here, Hermione. Best wishes for your vacation," he responded warmly.

With that, everything was said and done. Hermione was already at the door when he spoke again, so she almost didn’t hear his last wish. "And Merry Christmas, Granger."

Her hand over the handle, she froze. There was only one person ever who called her "Granger".

She turned, slowly, to look at the brown-haired man sitting at his desk, who spoke English like it was his birth-right, she now realized. He only looked up when he noticed that she hadn't left, and the smile froze on his face when he saw the recognition on hers.

Then, she was out like the wind.

***

Hermione went straight back to her hotel, collapsing with her back against the door, as if Death Eaters were behind her and only this door could hold them off. Or, just one Death Eater.

It couldn't be. Nobody had seen Draco Malfoy in years. After Voldemort's defeat, he had stayed just long enough for his trial before the Wizengamot. However, before the ink was dry on his verdict – not guilty, his youth, what could she say - he had disappeared without a backward glance. There was gossip that Draco Malfoy had retreated to some family property in France spending his days in isolation to stay hidden and protected from revenge. Life went on and nobody cared. And so, slowly, the former Death Eaters were almost forgotten. Unless somebody like Ron pulled out their memory and milked it, pathetically, as a memento of their own victory.

Malfoy wouldn't dare hide away in plain sight. He’d better not. She'd been conversing with the gentleman from the Swiss Ministry for the months leading up to the trade agreement, and he'd been nothing but polite and respectful. It couldn't be Malfoy.

Still braced against the door, she decided she needed a bath. She pushed herself off and moved towards the bathroom, her thoughts racing. It simply couldn't be. She'd just imagined things. She chuckled over the frazzled state of her nerves playing a trick on her, shredded as they were from the events at home. Perhaps she would also take a bottle of champagne with her bath. She certainly deserved it.

She ordered one and, shedding her clothes, began running a bath, then went to look for something comfortable in her suitcase.

Hermione was just about to get in the tub when a knock on her door halted her. She briefly considered ignoring it, but then realized it could be her champagne.

Shrugging on a bathrobe, she opened her door barefooted and wasn’t quite surprised by who it was. However, she was very unsure if it was Draco Malfoy in disguise who’d now come calling or if sex with a Swiss Ministry representative was still on the menu for the night.

"Darnell?" she ventured cautiously.

The man grinned sheepishly. "I figured we should finish this." He held up the open bottle of champagne from his office.

Hermione deliberated briefly on whether it was a good idea if he really was Draco Malfoy, but she reassured herself with the fact that he’d been the perfect gentleman earlier and over the past few months. Besides, she had her wand.

She let him in. "Well, why not? You have to excuse me for a moment, however, I was just about to take a bath."

He slinked in, hesitantly, and closed the door with his back by falling against it. Quicker than she could react, he pulled his wand, locked the door, and cast Muffliato with a swish.

"You can drop the act, now, Granger. We both know full well who I am," snarled a voice she remembered very well.

Infuriated by his now obvious betrayal, she shouted back, "Malfoy! What do you think you're doing?"

"What I'm doing?" he growled. "What do you think you're doing, barging into my life, discovering me? I had it all figured out, then you traipsed in here and ruined it.”

"I ruined …what?" She almost yelled. "I had no idea you were here. I was conducting international relations with a Swiss colleague, and that was it. How could I have known it was you?"

He yelled back at her. "Oh, right, you're trying to tell me that you, Potter, and Weasel-King weren’t out to find me? Exact some vengeance, punish an old school bully, find a way to humiliate me for fun?"

Hermione saw red. The nerve! Was he implying she'd done the same thing he would have done? She had been on the good side, for crying out loud. "What are you on about? We did nothing of that sort. You were gone and good riddance. Nobody cared. You were pardoned. You are free to go wherever you please."

He snorted; his answer was bitter and cold. “Yeah, right. I may have been pardoned, but the public has a long memory. You think anybody would offer me so much as a warming charm on a cold day?”

Hermione took a deep breath to calm herself. It wouldn't do to lose her head, alas, emotional memory ran deep. Malfoy got that right. "You’re right. Not many agree with your verdict. Listening to them, they'd rather hex you to the moon than shake your hand." She huffed a laugh, thinking of her public show of misplaced righteousness in response to that same nonsense.

Hermione turned to get some glasses. She wanted that champagne and figured Malfoy could use a drink, too.

Entering the room behind her, he stumbled to a chair and dropped on it. "What about you?"

Through her bathroom door she asked back, "What about me?"

He eyed her for a moment as she stood in the doorframe, two glasses in hand. "Do you agree with my verdict?"

She paused, taking him in from the other side of her hotel room. There sat the young man who'd contributed to her non-acceptance in a world completely new to her when she arrived -though it wasn’t only him. If not, eventually, for Harry and Ron, she'd have left, due to loneliness.

Considering whether a political or an honest answer was the best, she decided to play with open cards. It felt best. She was not a Slytherin, after all.

She crossed her room again and held the glasses out to him. "No. I thought you should be held responsible and do some community work, at least. Learning only happens when you see the consequences of your behaviour. I do respect a proper verdict, however, and I agree that you shouldn't go to Azkaban for being a bully."

He shook his head while filling the two glasses to the brim. "I did quite a bit more than just bully you. For one, I stood by when my aunt tortured you."

Hermione shook her head. "That wasn't your fault, and I don't blame you for not sacrificing yourself to help me. We were not friends."

Looking at his glass, he said quietly, "Do you only help friends? However, I guess it's enough if one of us blames me. Cheers, Granger." He clinked his glass to hers.

His reply, however, made Hermione pause again, the champagne halfway to her mouth. His succinct question dropped as a side-remark made her blood run cold. He was right. She didn't blame him for not helping, but others certainly did. It was a rudimentary question: they insisted that he should have prevented her torture but would they have done the same for him? Certainly not. So, what right did they have to demand it from him? There was no good answer for it that didn't involve "yeah, but …" evasion and digging deep into religious philosophy.

However, it seemed Malfoy did have a fundamental understanding of humanity, one of its rules being that you don't let other beings suffer. Just to clarify that he changed his way of thinking, that his mistreating house elves was in the past, she asked, "Why are you blaming yourself for that?"

"Because I didn't do anything. You're not drinking, Granger."

She lowered her glass. "Neither are you. They would have punished you most severely, perhaps even killed you, and you blame yourself for having been a helpless youth?"

"Too aloof to drink with me? I should have known: all Gryffindor boisterousness and no backbone" he spit out. Now that would have spurred the Harry and Ron of old into action immediately. She, however, never switched her brain off. This kind of insistence becoming very suspicious, Hermione suddenly understood.

"What did you put in this champagne?"

His face closed like a shutter. "What are you on about?"

"Malfoy, I'm not stupid, despite your firm belief. You come here with champagne, already opened, wait until I drink first … what were you trying to do, make me disinhibited, then blackmail me with your memories of me dancing around naked?"

His poker face confirmed to Hermione she'd hit the nail on the head. "You've got to be kidding me! And you wonder why people don't trust you?" she exclaimed.

"What was I to do? My cover here is blown. It's either blackmail or Obliviate you and start over again, elsewhere."

Hermione had it. "I don't believe you! You come here with the intention of blackmailing me, just because I was the poor sod who recognised you because of your own mistake? Why is any of this my fault? All I did was enjoy a very professional collaboration with a colleague."

"You thought me very professional?" Malfoy looked a little smug.

"Yes, I did, can you imagine? And can you please fix your hair! It's annoying talking to you without your Malfoy colours to hate. I'm so used to associating it with git-ness."

Just then, a knock on the door signalled the arrival of her champagne. She quickly vanished the spoilt drink, switched the water glasses with the real glasses and gave one to Malfoy. He was a bit surprised but used her distraction to answer.

"No, I don’t think so. I'm sure this conversation will end in awful curses if I look like my old self."

"You call this a conversation?" she hissed and drank.

He finally drank, too. "What would you call it, Miss Know-it-all?"

"Auugh, you just had to bring that up, didn't you?" Her free hand clenched to a fist. To call her by that unfortunate name was below the belt. Snape had called her that, and it had become an easy insult. All because she'd been trying to be accepted.

He smiled grimly. "Oh, I'm sure you had some similar names for me. Come on, spit them out. It's the hour of reckoning, isn't it?"

"Other than git, you mean?" she exclaimed. "No, actually. Because you were not the centre of our universe. Voldemort was. You were just an accomplice, an unpleasant pebble in our shoes. Not blameless for your demeaning attitude and for the blisters we received because of your doings but certainly not responsible for all evil that happened in his name."

There was a moment where his face showed some hurt by her words. However, that moment passed quickly, replaced by a look of deliberation. Hermione could see his Slytherin brain calculating the risks and advantages of his next move. She sighed, for one to ease her tension, and in anticipation of his next lousiness. Trying to evade the worst he could throw at her, she added, "I didn't care where you were and what you did for a living. However, if I were you I would liquefy all my possessions and settle somewhere in the Pacific, to get away from it all and start over. The value of that Manor alone would last you several lifetimes."

 

He drank his glass down and responded more vehemently than Hermione would have expected. "I don't want to sit in the Pacific on some god-forsaken island. Do you know how hard it is to give up everything you've ever known? Your culture, your surroundings, everything that makes you who you are?"

Hermione saluted him with her glass, and her grim smile told him that she knew that exact feeling very well. "Muggle-born, remember? It was a completely new world to me, and I wasn't exactly welcome."

That stopped him in his self-indulgence. Apparently, Malfoy could have epiphanies, too. Facing each other, sipping champagne slowly, it seemed he gave her some credit for the first time ever and realized that they actually had something in common.

When the silence in the room became overbearing, he shouted, "Alright, do you want me to apologize? Okay, I apologize. I apologize for insulting you. For calling you a Mudblood. For being completely insensitive."

Well, that was more than Ron had ever done. He'd never apologized for being a git, but then, he'd never considered himself one. Never had to. Hermione felt slightly appeased at receiving an apology, but she knew she couldn't stop there. Words were not enough to appease being tortured for a misguided ideology. Just because he, personally, was not responsible for her torture, he had been part of the ideology, and very enthusiastically. She needed to see proof that he'd changed.

Picking up the bottle she refilled his glass. “Cheers, Malfoy. That’s a start. But if we’re going there, it’s not enough. I want to see some real regret, not some empty apology.”

He drank before exclaiming, "Regret. What do you want me to regret? My name? Belonging to my family? Being part of Voldemort's game? Yeah, I regret that."

Hermione was taken aback. "You regret belonging to your family?"

He sank back in his chair. "No, not my family. I don't regret being a Malfoy. The Blacks, I'm not so sure about."

Hermione huffed. "That's your mother's family."

He grinned smugly. "Are you defending them?"

His words halted her again. They were family, his family. Family was sacred and their influence came natural, was her immediate impulse. And yet she needed to see that he denied them. It was an enormous demand. She couldn't reply. He bent forward and used her silence to drive a point home.

"Not so black and white, is it, Granger?" he hissed. "How do you think I felt when I realized what Voldemort's game was putting me through? Torn is putting it mildly. And that is what I regret. That I didn't see through it!"

"You were a child," she protested meekly.

"So? That doesn't keep you all from blaming us, does it?"

"We blame your parents."

His legendary sneer appeared. "Don't be pathetic. Pansy was a child just like I."

Hermione snapped. "I defended her!"

"I know," he snapped back. "That's the only reason I am still here, talking to you."

"Oh, you think I'm the meek one, don't you?" Hermione huffed.

"No." He shook his head. "I think you're the reasonable one. You're the only one worth talking to. You don't stop thinking."

Hermione became suspicious again. It was an automatism when talking to Malfoy, always suspecting some ulterior motive. "Did you lure me here under false pretences just to talk to me?"

Malfoy huffed a laugh. "You think I'm that good? I wish."

"What about me being a Muggleborn?"

He sighed. "Granger, do you really think I still care about that? Would I have collaborated with you for months if I still thought Muggleborns were the dirt under my shoes? Will you ever stop questioning my motives? I just gave you a compliment."

"Well." Hermione hesitated. "I have good reason to believe that you don't do anything without calculating your advantage."

"I know." He rubbed his face in exasperation. "It's human, and it comes with the Slytherin territory."

"It's not quite that simple." She exclaimed.

"But it is that simple," he responded tiredly. "Either you forgive us, that is, me to start with, and we can start over, or you keep the grudge and somebody will start another war out of anger when he feels mistreated long enough."

That was the problem, wasn't it? Hermione realized suddenly. As long as there was one group, pointing at another group, saying what you did was wrong--what you are is wrong-- there would never be peace. And it didn't matter which group pointed and which group rebelled against the finger pointing.

“You have to allow other people to share your world. The air is not all yours to breathe. It won’t become dirty because other people breathe it, too," Hermione deliberated out loud, without really knowing who she was addressing: Malfoy, Ron, or herself.

Malfoy nodded emphatically. “I realized that some time ago. When the Swiss people gave me a chance without my name, just for my skills alone."

It felt crazy. Malfoy had shown all signs of a truly civilised human being in the previous months. Even on that day, during their meeting, he'd been a better gentleman than she could claim of any of her friends. Only now, when she knew who he truly was, when she knew their shared history did she doubt his intentions. Was it possible that he had changed? Only time would tell, and she would give that time to everybody else. Was she reasonable?

"Why Noël?" she asked, just to keep the conversation going while still nursing her uncertainty.

Malfoy shrugged. "It's a common enough French name. I liked the association with Christmas."

Sensing her doubt, he held her gaze and explained further. "Christmas is a time to celebrate a birth, a renewal. This time is meant to start anew, Granger. Will you give me that courtesy?"

When she didn't reply, couldn't reply immediately, he added, "I'm only human, and I made mistakes. How is not forgiving me any different from the bigotry we spouted? To deny another human being the right to live his life?”
He was right, it was wrong not to forgive and let him start over. Why was it so difficult to give him a clean slate? Because he was a git and he'd been on the wrong side.

"Did you really never think that your mistakes had consequences? Denying the rights of a part of the population, did it occur to you that it might not work out and you'd be held responsible along with your parents and family?" she whispered, as if lowering her tone would encourage him to confide his doubts.

"No," he stated, looking her straight in the eyes. "That's the problem with fanatics, they are very convincing."

Yes, she could attest to that. People who thought they were right were very convincing, even when they were wrong. How right or wrong was it to give or deny wrong people the right to start over? Draco? Pansy? Ron?

Hermione made a decision.

***

She awoke to the pecking of a bird on glass. Turning over, she saw the dawn creeping over the mountain, painting the owl in shades of soft pink. With a flick of her wand she opened the window, letting it in.

The bed in her chalet was comfy as promised. She had no intentions of leaving it anytime soon. The warm body behind her was an extra bonus.

"Who's it from?" it mumbled sleepily.

"Harry." She chuckled. "Pansy has filed an official complaint. Ron has to make amends. 500 hours of community work."

"Hallelujah," the man replied.

"Yeah," she chuckled. "Harry had a heart-to-heart with the rowdy crowd in the pub, saviour that he is. They are ready to write an apology to all victims of the war so discredited. The Daily Prophet will publish it."

"I bet it will."

Hermione turned over to him. His blond hair tousled from sleep, she was glad he had returned to his old looks; it felt more real.

"Does that mean that things are finally changing, what do you think?"

Malfoy blinked at her. "If they were, do you mean I should go home? You mean, with you?"

She grinned. Their conversation had continued for two more days in her rented chalet and ended with them having wild sex.

"Well, let's finish the vacation first, okay? There's a corner in the living room we haven't tried yet."

“Fair enough.” He chuckled and slipped deeper under the cover. "Merry Christmas, Granger."

Hermione beamed. "Merry Christmas, Malfoy."

Maybe it was just coincidence that the sun coming up over the horizon cast everything in a golden hue.

 

THE END