Around Michaelmas, Draco had come to Hermione with a story. A tale of a rather ancient bit of tricky magic, one that required four bells made of ice to ring in the turning of the year. The water for these bells was to be pulled from the four seas surrounding Great Britain, in order to lay a spell of protection across the land. If the ritual was followed, a year's worth of blessing of peace and plenty was promised to all.
The tale set Hermione's imagination alight, even as told by her killjoy of an Unspeakable partner. Yes, it was probably drivel. Yes, there was absolutely no proof it would work. Still, in the following weeks, there was a copious amount of research and a non-trivial amount of travel across most of the UK. Not to mention putting up with the whinging of one rather put-out partner.
At first, she'd thought Draco considered it no more than drivel, too, and was simply indulging her whims by listening and coming with her. However, one day in early November, he'd turned up with a box of books pulled from his family's library and maps so old they threatened to crumble at her touch.
The first bell was formed from the English Channel and rang out from the White Cliffs of Dover. The small, pale bell's peals were as soft as winter's first snowfall, and as clear as the sky after a storm. Hermione's breath had caught with delight, and Draco had seemed transfixed by the moment as well.
The second bell was formed from the waters of the North Sea. The dark and heavy bell was rung in a sheltered cove in the Orkney Islands. The rocky walls had echoed the gentle peals until it seemed like a column of song rose from the bones of the earth into the sky. The song had stayed with her, even after she and Draco had wrapped themselves around a few glasses of mulled cider.
The third bell was rung amidst puffs of snow blown off the tops of Ainsdale sand dunes. The Irish Sea's bell had a voice as sweet as water and clear as ice. Snowflakes seemed to dance in the air around them, landing on Hermione's upturned face. Draco had snickered as he brushed them from her hair, telling her that she looked like a Puffskein, and he'd scowled when she tartly informed him that the snowflakes on his eyelashes made him look like a snow fairy.
By the Monday before Christmas, all that remained was the Atlantic Ocean. They'd had to leave work a bit early to have enough time, but the ritual's deadline was upon them. Hermione was bound and determined to finish the task. She was waiting for her partner, who dawdled by the Glasgow cafe's register as if it would save him from the bitter temperature outside. The sun had set over an hour ago, and the city streets were full of Christmas shoppers bundled up against the cold.
"All set, your highness?" Hermione said without turning around, as he finally joined her outside. Only Draco could manage to make footsteps crunching through snow sound sullen.
She checked that her hat was firmly in place, and turned to cast a dubious look at Draco's old-fashioned leather boots. Hermione's boots were Muggle hiking boots, waterproof and rated to twelve degrees below zero, and purchased shortly after she'd deciphered some of the probable places their journey would lead them. Draco's boots were firmly in the Wizarding style, but hopefully there were more than a few judicious spells cast on the leather, if he wanted to keep his feet from frostbite.
"Ready to face the bitter cold?"
"Should I be more concerned than usual?" he asked suspiciously. "Why are you – "
Hermione was already wrapping her arm around the crook of his elbow. The rest of his words were lost to Apparition.
They landed with a stumble, as Draco's boots slipped out from under him. He ended up half-crouched on ice-slick rock, swearing under his breath as Hermione anxiously knelt beside him.
"Side-Along? Really, Hermione?" He scowled and stood up, brushing snow off his coat. "I'm not a child."
"That's not what your mother said after you polished off my entire tin of Christmas biscuits, which were supposed to be shared with her."
"I'm very, very sure that we agreed never to talk about that again, in exchange for my never bringing up the Hippocampus migration incident from last summer."
He had a point.
"Come along," she said. Hermione started to step away, but Draco pulled her back against his side.
"You're not abandoning me out here."
"I—I suppose not." Hermione's cheeks were too wind-burned to blush, but she nonetheless turned away to look out at the ocean. "The cave's ahead. We should hurry."
The tall and jagged rocks of Fingal's Cave towered over them as they walked toward the cavern's mouth. The last location had been particularly hard to discover, as the island's name had shifted over the centuries. As they stepped inside the cave's mouth, they separated; the path was too narrow and treacherous for them to walk abreast. Draco followed behind her, and she heard him mutter under his breath. Glowing balls of light sped ahead of her, and she turned to give him a quick smile of gratitude.
They walked toward the rear of the cave as sea spray whispered against the rocks below Hermione's feet. Small stalagmites of ice had formed near the water's edge, and tendrils of ice crunched beneath her boots. Hermione kept one hand on the wall to balance herself as her wand helped light the way. Eventually, the dull pounding of the ocean receded, lost beneath the murmur of waves lapping against the cave's walls.
They came to a place where the colors of the ocean flickered overhead. Hermione knelt down and siphoned a globe of water from the foamy sea, watching as it shimmered with silvery reflections above her head.
"Ready?" she asked. Draco nodded in reply, his wand at the ready.
With a dual chanting of the incantation, light from their wands enveloped the globe of water. For a few seconds, the cave shown with brilliance, and then dimmed. A small, silvery bell made of ice drifted slowly downward, as if buffeted by a gentle wind.
Draco quickly plucked it from the air and placed it into a waiting box, which was then slipped into Hermione's bag.
"Shall I do the honors?" He crooked his elbow and offered it to her.
"As you wish." Hermione wrapped her arm around his, and in turn felt his magic wrap itself around her.
They landed with deep snow beneath their feet. Hermione and Draco stood on The Saddle, one of Scotland's greatest mountains, as the stars began shining overhead. The dark, velvety purple of the evening sky stretched above them, cloaking the surrounding mountains' slopes in darkness. They were a little ways away from the twin summits, as landing on the summits themselves was too uncertain.
Draco's brow furrowed in concentration, and his wand spun to point the way to the higher peak. As they climbed, the rocks of The Saddle felt as though they were biting through Hermione's modern hiking boots. She didn't know how Draco was coping with his old-fashioned leather ones.
Hermione could feel the cold down to her bones, and could imagine how she looked. Bleached out and unearthly pale in the moonlight, her puffs of frosty breath the only thing warm drifting about. Ahead of her, Draco's breath misted in the moonlight, ghostly against the light of their wands.
"We're almost there," he panted faintly. "It's just ahead."
At last, they stood upon the summit. Hermione looked out at the mountains that surrounded them, jagged peaks of rock painted in shades of grey and violet, wickedly sharp against the sky. The sky seemed endlessly vast, and she tilted her head back to look at the stars.
"It's beautiful." She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. "Thank you for – for everything. I truly mean it."
He smiled and looked down at her. "I'm where I wanted to be." The smile slowly slipped from his face. He brushed a lock of hair away from her cheek, and leaned in. Hermione raised her chin and met his lips.
The kiss was as sweet as water from a mountain stream, and it – as well as Draco's arms wrapped around her waist – warmed Hermione down to her toes. When he began to move away, Hermione raised her hand to his chin and pulled him back. When it felt right for them to part, she broke away and simply rested her head against his chest.
He began speaking softly. "I've wanted to do that – "
"– For a rather long time," she finished.
"Last Easter. You?"
"Assyria..." She drifted off in puzzled recollection. "Assyria? That's – "
"– A rather embarrassingly long time ago. I know." He dropped a kiss onto her head. "You really don't have to tell me."
They stood wrapped up in each other until Hermione eventually sighed.
"This is lovely, but there is that other thing which we were doing..." she said. She stepped back; he let her go reluctantly.
Hermione drew her wand and fished out the box with a flourish. She popped it open, revealing the gleaming sea ice bell, and looked at Draco expectantly.
"Shall we begin?" he asked.
With an answering nod, she raised her wand, and together they cast the spell.
The bell, last and smallest of them all, rose through the air, swung by threads of magic thin as starlight. It spun slowly through the air, and then back and forth, as though rocked by an invisible hand.
Forged of ice and silver light, the bell rang out over the bones of the Scottish mountains, pealing out the season’s passing with the grace of winter frost's first melt. Its song ran down the mountain side, the bell's notes chasing each other over craggy peaks and cliffs. The notes flew down the snowy slopes and echoed from the valleys, until it seemed as though the skies were singing.
At the very last, the little bell pealed once more, and then burst into a shower of snow, quickly whipped away by the mountain wind and carried out of sight. Silence slowly fell across the mountains, and the land seemed to drift to a gentle rest.
Long after the last echoes faded away, Hermione and Draco stood together under the stars.