It was snowing, and Draco Malfoy walked alone.
Trudging through the freshly-fallen snow, he glanced around the small buildings, awnings covered cheerfully with snow, warm light pouring out of windows and the doorways that were opening and shutting. He had been a pariah in the magical community for a while now. Hogsmeade had once been a fun escape from school, and later, from what his life was becoming; it had always put a grin on his face, winding through the sweet shop, slipping into the pub, the center of attention with his friends. Draco Malfoy, the platinum-haired heir to one of the oldest of wizarding families . . . nothing had been out of reach, and he had reveled in the secretive glances, at the gazes always upon him, covetous, jealous of his family, his money, his status.
Recently, however, the eyes upon him in wizarding circles had been almost always hostile, openly mistrusting. There had been some of that before, of course, but always very quiet; Lucius’s story after the last Wizarding War had provided some sympathy, people’s open arms and willingness to forgive, and very few were willing to challenge the Malfoys then . . . things, of course, had changed. It was impossible to keep something like Draco’s involvement in Dumbledore’s death a secret, even if the Death Eaters had had any reason to try—and they hadn’t, of course, had touted his part in their great achievement openly. He sighed softly, breath puffing out in a great icy cloud in front of him, hunching his shoulders against the chill, eyes downcast. Even though he’d known it wouldn’t quite be the same, he’d found himself unable to cope with the great emptiness of Malfoy Manor. Where it would usually have been filled with people, with life, now it was silent, even decorated for Christmas as it was. The people who would usually have been bustling around, tucked into cozy clothes, laughing and grasping firewhiskey and hot cider in their hands as they enjoyed being warm and comfortable while the snow fell outside, were either distancing themselves from the much-hated Malfoys, or they were dead. Some of them, he missed.
Others . . . he found himself conflicted.
Draco’s eyes, downcast, lifted at the sounds of a door opening right in front of him, laughter and light spilling out as people tumbled into the snow, and he stepped aside automatically to make room for the bodies on the sidewalk, but he was not quite fast enough to avoid being knocked off his feet by the door as it was flung open a second time. Stunned slightly, he landed in the snow butt-first, struggling to sit back up, mouth and nose wet and stinging. His free hand disentangled from his pocket and pressed to the injury, and he hissed softly, looking up, eyes watering at the gibbering person above him just as her voice cut off into a soft gasp.
His other hand, still in his pocket, tightened around his pocketed wand as he locked his own watering eyes with those of Hermione Granger, the beat of his heart beginning to come closer and closer together.
She’d been laughing, that was clear, and drinking perhaps; her cheeks were rosy and, even though she was now looking at him, a slight sparkle remained in her eyes. She’d recognized him first, and her chin was thrust up and forward as she looked at him, her classic battle pose, fists clenched at her sides. Her companions—who Draco did not recognize—had stopped, at first clearly worried, and then sneering down at him, ranging in their facial expressions from indifferent, to disgusted, to purely hateful. Some of them were clearly clenching wands in their own pockets; others had openly drawn them, despite Wizarding law and custom and the spells that usually kept those things in place, and by their reactions, they did not intend to help him.
Faced by this, Draco refused to let his eyes dip down; he willed his pain-made tears away, blinking just slightly, and the one tear which was caught on his eyelashes fell onto his glove and was gone; he tried to pretend that it had not happened, to disbelieve the fact of the incident away and so reign in the apparently massive amounts of tears which had suddenly sprung up inside him, clamoring to escape—only a pair of brown eyes flickered at the motion, and her mouth thinned even more than it had been already, and Draco knew he had been found out.
“Hermione?” one of the men said, a built, heavy-set man about their age, dark brown hair and dark brown eyes, flicking his wand almost casually at his side. Draco refused to spare him more than a glance, refused to flinch at the motion, refused to wonder what silent spell he might be composing.
She turned then, just her head, just enough for her eyes to flicker toward him and to force herself to relax a little.
“Go on ahead, Travers.” Her eyes ghosted over the rest of the group and she smiled slightly, obviously still tense, even as most of them opened their mouths to object. “Honestly, go on. I’ll be fine.”
The man—Travers—frowned deeply as others opened their mouths, obviously ready to object, all leaping to tell her how she absolutely had to come with them, sparing each other and then Draco foreboding looks. It was Travers’s mouth though, opening, his gaze resting on Hermione in a patronizing way, that had Draco opening his own mouth, a sudden, angry flash of heat rising in his gut.
“She can handle herself better than any of you lot in a fight, guaranteed.” His voice was muffled and somewhat thick behind his glove, yet sharp enough to cut through their babbling, and most of the group started, staring at him. He tried to hide a wince behind his glove and licked his lips, tasting the tang of his blood, stiffening further at the sting the movement caused. His whole body was so tense, with each hurried beat of his heart, he felt like he was vibrating. He couldn’t stop his eyes from flickering back and forth between the surrounding onlookers, but they kept returning to Hermione, standing there, rigid as an oak wand, defiant and strong as ever.
Her eyes were once again on his.
He thought he saw the hint of a smirk on her face, just for a second, before she jerked her chin again. “Go on, you lot.” Her gaze burned Draco’s face; he felt himself flushing beyond the flush of pain or of the cold, and he sincerely hoped none of them noticed. She seemed to pause, and then, of all things, she extended a hand down to him, slowly and carefully and not curled into a fist. “I’ll take care of him.”
Draco stared. Merlin, they all stared. But he rallied, and found himself—against his better judgement—slowly releasing the death-grip he had on his wand, and just as slowly reaching up to take her hand, suddenly aware of how wet his trousers had become from sitting in the snowbank. Her hand was strong in his, and it tightened, and he was surprised at her strength as she pulled him to his feet.
Not that he should have been, all things considered.
“Go on,” she said again, her tone sharpening as she glanced around, and Draco almost shuddered at the chill in her words. The wands around them were slowly slipped into pockets, followed by hands, and with mutters and half-glares aimed at Draco the wizards and witches around them began to slowly peel off.
Travers’s hateful gaze on Draco brought a smirk to his face, behind the glove, as Hermione tugged on his hand, leading him back the way she’d come out and into The Three Broomsticks.
He had to squint, eyes adjusting to the light as the sound of dozens of chattering and laughing people assaulted him. Hermione looked around, the curls of her hair bouncing as her head turned, and Draco was hit with the realization that she was still holding his hand, though they were stood still as she looked around for a place.
Also, her hair was . . . pretty. Curly and bouncy with a life of its own, strewn with melting snowflakes. It had always been a rich brown color, but tonight, Draco was having a hard time looking away.
He’d always been able to look away, before.
Having apparently spotted something satisfactory, Hermione shot him a glance over her shoulder and tugged him forward again, this time letting go when she knew he was following. He grimaced at her back, but follow he did, eyes on her and doing his level best to ignore the way the other patrons looked at them, how they’d smile or nod or open their mouth as if to talk to Hermione and suddenly catch sight of him, clamming up immediately, smiles dropping from their faces and frowns and sneers replacing the prior good humors dashed entirely. Their hostile eyes followed him as he wound through the crowded pub after Hermione, until they’d come to a small table near to the fireplace, slightly off to the side and therefore granted some shadowy solitude.
Draco, still unused to obeying—let alone to obeying her—hesitated a moment, but Hermione was already sitting down at the small round table, facing the fireplace in what struck Draco as an incredibly gracious gesture. Sitting across from her put him closer to the fireplace, and with his back to the flames his wet clothes began to heat instantly. Draco muffled his groan as best he could as the warmth licked its way into his frozen body.
Hermione looked over him, her gaze hard. The back of his hand was still pressed to his nose, and he was sure that in addition to his reddened cheeks and wet clothing, his hair was likely disheveled as well.
“You look a sight,” she murmured, as if she’d heard his thoughts. He flinched when she pulled out her wand and raised it to point at his face, but he didn’t bother to reach for his own. He hadn’t been blowing smoke outside; if Hermione really wanted to, she could singlehandedly curse him into jelly with almost laughable little effort . . . and, he confirmed with a quick glance around the room, she would hardly be without help. So he looked into her eyes and sneered slightly, straightening up as best he could, as if he didn’t care what she might do to him—
Draco blinked in surprise at the twin twinging in his nose and his mouth, familiar and warm and followed by the nearly-instant bliss as what had probably been a broken nose and one certainly split lip knit together again, pain gone in the wake of the wave of healing. His gaze dropped for a moment to study the wood grain of the table as he ran his tongue over his lips and then his gums, satisfied to meet no flare of pain. He shifted his hand at last, fingertips touching his nose to find it perfectly straight and likewise painless.
Hermione made a small noise—disgust?—at the sight of Draco’s blood, and he looked back up at her to see her wand flourish again, and just behind it, to see her lips murmuring another spell; as tergeo took effect, the stains on his glove vanished like it had never been, and Draco’s face was once again free of the tacky feeling of drying blood.
“I could have done that myself, you know,” he said, his voice attempting valiantly to be snide and condescending as he settled both arms on the table, hands lacing together. He was, perhaps, in shock, he thought; he couldn’t quite muster up the energy to really mean it.
“Some gratitude,” Hermione said with a small snort as she turned and carefully placed her wand back into her pocket. She glanced up and gestured to someone, holding up two fingers, and Draco glanced over his shoulder to see Madam Rosmerta turning away and heading to the bar.
“I do believe you’re the one who slammed the door into me in the first place,” Draco said cooly. “And I’d have fixed it in a moment if it weren’t for your mate Toadstool—”
“Travers,” she interrupted easily, glancing at him. “His name is Travers.”
“Whatever.” Draco sneered properly then, the memory of the man irritating to him. “Where did he even come from?”
“He was in our year, in Gryffindor,” Hermione said. “Though to be honest I’d never have pegged him for a Ministry job. But then,” she continued, glancing at him again with eyes that reminded him slightly of another time, only two years prior, “there’s lots of people in the Ministry these days who never took an interest before.”
A quietness settled over the two of them.
“Some apology,” Draco said after a moment, raising an eyebrow, a smirk coming back to his face; to his surprise, he found himself feeling more confidential than degrading, and wondered when that had happened. When had he let himself line up so well with Hermione that they had inside jokes, even just this one? It was suddenly jarring to be sitting here, his senses returning as slowly as the feeling in his fingertips.
“Apology! For what?” Hermione stared at him, eyes widening to almost perfect roundness.
“I seem to recall that you were the one who injured me in the first place!”
“Well…!” She appeared to deflate slightly then, a sheepish smile coming to her lips as she blew out a breath that sounded half-sigh, half-laugh. “Well, yes, I did. I’m sorry.” She sounded not-quite genuine, if only because her tone sounded vaguely…reminiscent. “I had to put you on your arse at least once in my life, I suppose, didn’t I?”
“You’d already done that,” he objected, his cheeks tinting slightly pink. Embarassment washed over him, immediately overpowered by the roiling in his gut as he thought back to their third year. What a prat he’d been.
“I punched you,” she corrected, continuing her years-long trend of being the smartest witch that Draco knew while also missing what was right under her nose. “And you didn’t fall then.” But she was smiling properly now, and he thought that even if part of that was a smile saved for the memory of that moment, part of it—maybe most of it—was meant for him, to share with him in this moment.
“Draco,” she sighed, cutting him off with a wave of her hand—only to be interrupted herself by Madam Rosmerta’s arrival. Hermione forced a cheerier smile for her and reached into her robes, only for the barkeep to wave her off as she settled two foaming mugs on the table between them. Her eyes were on Draco—he could feel them, burning two holes into him—and he stilled, his own eyes locked on the mugs and the wood of the table as if they were the most interesting things in the world. After a long, drawn-out minute, she retreated as silently as she’d come, her presence moving away and toward the bar.
Hermione’s eyes were on him again, and soft—no longer merely reminiscent, but exactly as they’d looked during the trial.
“What.” The word was meant to be petulant, but it came out angrier than he’d intended, his voice rough and raw. He flinched slightly when Hermione’s only reaction was, somehow, to soften her eyes even further.
“Butterbeer,” she said in answer, reaching for her own tankard and dragging it closer. Draco did the same, cupping it in his hands, the tension in his shoulders leaving just a little as he held the warm drink, comforted a little.
“Swear it’s not poisoned?” he croaked slightly, trying his best to smirk again, intending a joking air, but only managing a lopsided smile. Hermione paused then, tankard already up to her lips, and slowly set it down, a hardness sparking in her eyes.
“Is that something you worry about a lot?” she asked softly, eyes sharpening like flint as he watched. “Someone . . . coming after you like that?” His heart dropped into his gut as he watched her fury rise and inflate her; suddenly, she’d seen too much, he’d given too much away. Her wand was back in her hand again, and this time for some reason he did not feel afraid. She reached forward and tapped it against his tankard, muttering furiously, so fast he could not quite catch the words; he definitely heard finite incantatem, but whatever other counter-spells and detection charms she was reciting were lost to him.
After a solid minute of spell-casting, Hermione put her wand down, not in her pocket but onto the table, and Draco found himself speechlessly wondering if it was to show the rest of the bar that she was ready for him, or if it was, suddenly, to be ready for him, or if there was another reason entirely.
“Drink,” she muttered, still fierce. “I haven’t missed anything, but if I did, the only person who will regret that more than me will be regretting it very, very much.” Her grin was fierce too, and Draco was torn between laughing and gratitude, so he hefted the tankard and drank deeply, sighing as he did, the last of his tensions melting away. Butterbeer was popular and easy to get, but he hadn’t been welcome here in years, and the Broomsticks served, by far, the best mug of the stuff in the world.
“I know it’s been . . . difficult,” she said then, making an effort to soften her tone. “I’m sorry.”
Draco almost choked on his drink.
He stared at her, feeling lost. She was sorry? She’d been there, at the Battle of Hogwarts; she’d seen him then, trying to escape like the coward he was, trying to find his family, he’d looked up and seen her watching him carefully, and he’d raised his hands just a little and she had nodded and looked away, brandishing her wand and charging toward a masked Death Eater. She’d seen him after, at the trial, pitiful and degraded, and how she’d been allowed in he didn’t know, but she’d stood up there and then and, of all things, testified on his behalf; he dimly remembered Potter’s jaw dropping slightly as he looked at her, then clicking closed, and he’d considered her words as he looked at Draco, the whole court had, and he had somehow walked out of there on parole, wand intact, sentenced to working with Muggle-borns and Muggles alike to keep the peace and start to rebuild the world for them all once again. And then . . . nothing. He hadn’t seen her in over two years. He’d worked with those he’d once called “Mudblood”, first grudgingly, then less so, at first wishing to be let off with every fiber of his being and then, slowly . . . not.
He felt something trace down his cheek and touched it with his fingertips; it was hot, liquid fire on his once-numb skin. He brushed the tear away and looked down at the table again.
“Draco…?” There was a worried V between her eyebrows and she leaned forward, toward him.
His voice was rough with emotion as her name crossed his lips, and it surprised them both, that he would call her by her first name, let alone sounding like this.
“What is it?” Her voice was near a whisper, and it sounded sad, and maybe, just maybe . . . worried? About him?
“I never . . .” Draco cleared his throat. “I never said thank you. Or apologized.”
“No, I never did either of those and I should have.” He looked up at her, something inside him crumbling when he met her sad, beautiful eyes. It felt like his heart.
“I’m sorry, for . . . all of it. For calling you Mudblood. For the hippogriff.” His hands slowly spread off his tankard, palms turning up like he was accepting a blow, and he couldn’t look away from her. “For first year, and second year, and—”
She shifted forward. Pressure on his hand. Soft, warm. It surprised him, and the words stopped, and he looked down to see her hand there. He looked back up, speechless.
“Thank you.” Her eyes suspiciously wet, but she was smiling, and she squeezed his hand.
“I didn’t finish,” he said softly. “I’m sorry that I made you feel . . . less. Like I didn’t . . .” His eyebrows drew together and he considered his words, what he wanted to say—what he wanted her to hear. “I think you’re brilliant, and clever, and I don’t deserve anything you’ve given me, but you still . . . It’s down to you that I still have my wand, and my life, and my family. The things you said at the trial—”
“Needed to be said,” she said softly. “I hated you, Draco, sometimes I really did. A lot of the time.” A wry smile twisted across her face. “But when I was there in the chamber, I looked at you, and I thought you’d changed for the better. I still think that,” she added.
“I’ve tried,” he murmured, eyes flicking down to her lips and back up again. “Not that anyone can see it, but Merlin’s beard, I’ve tried.”
“That means a lot to me.” Her smile widened. “And it will to everyone else, too. Eventually.”
He huffed out a laugh. “Thanks for that.”
She smirked, and it looked good on her. Her eyes were sparkling. “You thought you’d be let off the hook in two years for being such an idiot? And an ass?”
She cut him off with a wider smile then. “I’ve been watching you, you know.”
He made a face. “That’s very weird. And . . .” He struggled to find a word. “Creepy.”
She laughed properly, mouth opening wide even though she was obviously trying to stay quiet. “Suspicious?”
“Very,” he confirmed, but he was too busy hurting to keep up the pretense; the way his heart swelled at the sight of her made his chest ache. He’d been able to hide it, before, before the war and the battle and before she stood up for him in front of the whole Wizmount, he’d even lied to himself as he bent his energy toward hating her, insisting to himself and to all his “friends” that it was because she was too clever, a threat, but he couldn’t keep it up. She was here and bright and lovely and brilliant and caring and kind and nobody even wanted to walk on the same street as him these days but she’d held his hand and her eyes had promised pain to anyone who tried to hurt him while she was here; Hermione, who he’d tortured and tormented as best he could all through school. Hermione, with the scars on her arm--his eyes flickered down and he caught sight of a ghostly d etched there, almost-hidden under her sleeve.
She was staring at him, and he felt his face heat beyond typical human warmth and into discomfort. He opened his mouth and she cut him off again.
“Come over for Christmas.”
She looked slightly embarrassed. “If you like. Come over for Christmas.”
He was staring at her, now. “I’m expected at home.”
“Oh.” She shifted in her seat and peered down, very interested, into her butterbeer. “Of course.” She paused and seemed to force her gaze back up to him, dogged and determined as he remembered her being, ever since first year. “What day?”
“The twenty-third,” he said slowly, searching her face with his eyes. “Why?”
“Why the twenty-third?” She wrinkled her nose. “We’re celebrating Christmas Day on the twenty-fifth. You could come over then if you like?”
“Wait.” He frowned at her. “Twenty-fifth? That’s not right, it’s the twenty-third . . .”
Hermione, staring at him, began to grin. “You’ve been celebrating the wrong day all this time, haven’t you.”
Draco was shaking his head, but something in his gut was telling him that she was right . . . and his heart was beating faster, because that grin was for him. “No, we haven’t, we . . .”
“Oh Merlin, you have.” The laughter was washing over her, slowly, but this time it was shaking her shoulders and pinking her cheeks and causing glitter to come into her eyes. “Oh, God, since when? When did you start celebrating the twenty-third?”
“For years,” he muttered, face heating more as he looked on, somewhat dazed. “Since . . . I don’t know when. We’ve always done it then.”
Hermione was laughing, almost wheezing.
“It really is the twenty-fifth?” He looked on as she nodded, laughing and breathless. He had to join in, to chuckle. “Well I guess my shopping is done a whole three days early, and not just the one.” That sent her into more peals of laughter, and Draco shook his head, smiling, as she tried to calm down.
“Come to Christmas!” she gasped out, giggling and wiping her eyes. She looked him in the eye, almost pleading. “If you like.” Draco regarded her carefully as he reached for his tankard again.
“Perhaps,” he murmured, his lips on the rim and the scent of butterbeer in his nose. “What terms would you propose?”
She grinned at him so widely, and with such mischief, that for a flat second he thought that if she asked him to come as a ferret, he would say yes in a heartbeat.