Chapter 18: The Christmas Quarrel
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear, with the early morning sun glistening on the fresh-fallen snow across the expansive grounds of Hogwarts. The world seemed to almost hold its breath, reveling in the beauty of the sparkle and shimmer of the delicate crystals of ice in the eaves, and the almost ethereal melody of the light breeze as it whistled through the treetops. A lone sound shattered the glorying silence, that of a cheerful tune being whistled slightly off-key, followed by the sound of large feet crunching in the snow as Hagrid made his way up to the castle with a very large sack over one shoulder.
Hermione rolled over in bed, blinking sleepily, and marveling that it could be Christmas already. Tonight the entire school would dine as one in the Great Hall, but for now, there was little more to do than to simply lie here under the heavy warmth of her red and gold comforter and wake up slowly.
Eventually, that little voice that egged at her for being so lazy got the better of her, and Hermione stretched her arms above her head languidly and sat up. There was a pile of gifts at her feet, as there was every year, and she smiled happily to herself. Slipping into her robe and gathering up the gifts, she slipped from the otherwise empty bedroom and padded down the hallway to Ginny’s room.
Gryffindor Tower was all but deserted this year, as the scare that the rest of the Wizarding World felt at the havoc of Lord Voldemort’s return had caused most of the students to rush home to their families. Hermione had discussed the possibility with her parents, but it had been far easier to convince them to allow her to stay than it would have to have her home. Much as she loved her parents, she wished that they would stay as far removed as possible from the hazardous situation.
Ginny was just rolling herself out of bed when Hermione tapped on the door, and together with their unwrapped gifts went down into the Common Room. A few minutes later, a tousled-looking Ron came down, saw them sitting patiently in the armchairs with their gifts, then dashed back upstairs to get Harry, looking much more awake then he had a moment before.
It had been mutually decided that they would all open their presents together, and Ron was never one to want to delay in said activity whenever possible.
Once Harry and Ron had joined them, the gift-opening happened in quick succession. Regardless of the fear and anxiety of the coming year, mindless of the rapidly approaching battle between Good and Evil, the four of them sat in a happy circle in front of the Common Room fire, tearing at wrapping paper with a childish delight. Hermione was glowing over a large tome of tales about some ancient hero, written in a rather obscure language, that Harry had given her when a tiny rapping noise at the window caught her attention. Ginny jumped up and opened the window, admitting a beautiful tawny owl with large brown eyes. The owl fluttered gracefully in and settled itself next to Hermione’s knee, extending the leg which had a scroll of parchment attached to it by a slim green ribbon. Carefully extracting the note, Hermione gently brushed a finger along the owl’s head.
“Aren’t you a lovely creature?” she murmured, before turning her attention to the letter. The owl watched her speculatively as Hermione’s eyes scanned across the page.
Happy Christmas, Hermione.
Lilith is a beautiful bird, don’t you think? I know she’ll do well for you, and since you don’t have one of your own… I know you’ll take excellent care of her, as you do with everything you do.
See you at breakfast, love.
“Lilith,” the name was befitting of the gorgeous bird, and the owl responded to the sound of her name by settling her feathers with a rather regal countenance. Hermione glanced up to see her friends staring at her with a mix of emotions playing across their faces.
Ginny was at first confused, but then her eyes lit up, and there seemed to be a hint of laughter bubbling in their warm brown depths. She looked very much as if she was attempting to suppress giggles.
Ron was flicking his gaze between the owl, the letter still in Hermione’s hand, and then Hermione’s face, as if he was putting all the pieces together in his head. Carefully, his fingers extended to stroke along the glossy feathers of one of Lilith’s wings, earning him an adoring look from the bird. Hermione smothered a smile and turned to look at Harry.
His expression was guarded, then he caught Hermione’s eye and tersely nodded as if he wasn’t really sure how to respond. She bit her lip and looked back down at the owl, as she scooted decidedly closer to the admiring petting of Ron and Ginny.
“Well, I have to hand it to him, at least, Hermione,” Harry commented quietly as they watched Ron cooing at the bird softly.
“I know that he’s got good taste in his choice of brunettes,” Harry conceded grudgingly, but a small smile played at his lips. Hermione flushed, and beamed at him, hugging him rather suddenly and with a great amount of rib-crushing force that Harry usually attributed to Hagrid. He hugged her back for a moment, patting her awkwardly on the back, then carefully disengaged himself.
“Well, I’m going to go get dressed,” Harry said as he pushed himself to his feet. He paused to kiss Ginny rather soundly, before presenting her with a small package and a leafy twig bearing white berries.
“Somehow I get the impression that Hermione is suddenly very ready to get to breakfast.”
Hermione blushed again but didn’t disagree.
As Hermione and Ginny made their way back up to the girl’s dormitory, Hermione poked at Ginny about the gift from Harry. Ginny blushed furiously, but carefully peeled open the wrapping as soon as they were safely in her room. Lilith glided gracefully to perch on the footboard of one of the beds.
Ginny gasped as a delicate necklace was revealed inside the box. A soft purple stone hung suspended from a thin gold chain. It was, by both their accounts, quite a beautiful necklace, and Hermione quickly helped her friend to fasten it around her neck.
“He has grown up some, hasn’t he?” Hermione commented quietly as Ginny admired her new jewelry in the mirror. Ginny’s soft brown eyes caught hers in the reflection.
“Harry isn’t as bad as he was. He still has a ways to go, but yes, he’s certainly matured.” Suddenly Ginny’s face tightened, and a worried note in her voice struck a chord of empathy in Hermione. “Do you think he’s ready, ‘Mione?”
“I don’t think that’s something we can judge, Gin… that’s something that’s going to have to come from Harry’s heart. But do I think he has a good chance? I hope most sincerely that he does.” Ginny nodded, hearing the wisdom in Hermione’s words, but the slightly haunted look in her eyes didn’t disappear until they had rejoined the boys and headed down to the Great Hall for breakfast.
Draco was waiting rather impatiently for them at the bottom of the stairs, and when they arrived, he let out a gruff sort of good morning to the others, before sweeping Hermione close for a warm hug and a kiss. It startled her a little to have him be so openly affectionate, and in the full view of every student who walked past them. Normally they kept their love out of the public eye, and that had been by both of their mutual understanding. When he pulled back, she was startled by the grim set of his lips and the dark shadows under his eyes. Something was wrong, terribly wrong, but before she could ask what it was, they were swept into the Great Hall.
As per Hogwarts tradition, twelve huge trees glittered with fairy lights and large shining balls, there were garlands and wreaths scattered everywhere, and it seemed you couldn’t go much more than ten feet without seeing another bunch of mistletoe floating not far above their heads. Hannah from Hufflepuff caught up with them as they were making their way to one of the three large tables remaining in the Great Hall. The high table where the teachers usually sat was gone, and the houses appeared to be mingling on this most joyous of holidays.
“Happy Christmas everyone,” Hannah greeted them with her customary cheerful smile, before going slightly pink and glancing at Ron. “Happy Christmas, Ron.”
He seemed to be taken slightly aback by her singling him out, but quickly smiled and returned her greeting. Then Harry grinned suddenly, and nudged him in the side, pointing at something directly above Hannah’s head. They all looked up curiously to see a bunch of mistletoe hovering there. Hannah’s pink cheeks glowed brighter as Ron blinked once, then leaned in with a small smile and kissed her gently. Hannah dipped her head as he pulled back and bit her lip.
“Would you like to sit with me for breakfast?” she asked him quietly, and Ron took her hand carefully before walking off with her.
“Well, that was easier than I thought it would be,” Hermione commented dryly as they moved to find four seats together at one of the long, crowded tables. Draco was holding her hand tightly in his, and she could almost sense a strange tension rolling off him, but she didn’t know how to get him apart from the group to talk to him properly.
“What do you mean?” Ginny asked as they pushed past the Weasley twins holding court over a group of astonished looking first and second years as they regaled them with some tale of heroic roguery. They waved and called a warm greeting, which was returned.
“Hannah and Ron,” Hermione responded as if they hadn’t just been separated by a couple of minutes and several students. “I thought it would have taken a lot more than a dance and an enchanted bush of greenery.”
“Oh?” Harry wondered, “Did you have something to do with the mistletoe?”
Hermione merely rolled her eyes at him, and Ginny giggled behind her hand.
As they ate, it was a jovial time, and even though he said little in his seat next to her, even Draco seemed to feel the holiday spirit. His subdued demeanor was enough to dampen Hermione’s good humor with worry, but there was little chance for them to excuse themselves until after they were all done eating.
As soon as they were through, Hermione tugged gently on Draco’s hand and smiled briefly at Harry and Ginny, pulling her boyfriend along through the dispersing chaos of breakfasting students. She led him out into the brisk morning sunlight, and toward the tree beside the lake.
It was cold, but the sun came down on them and reflected off the partially frozen lake and the powdery snow that covered the ground in a soft, white blanket. She stopped them right beneath the boughs of the tree and turned to face Draco.
“Now, then, what’s wrong?” She demanded. Draco looked pained, and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close.
“Do we have to talk about this right now, ‘Mione?” his whisper sounded harsh, and Hermione was suddenly very worried.
“What? Yes, of course, we do, Draco. Something is clearly bothering you, and I want to know what it is, right now.”
“Please, ‘Mione, don’t make me say it,” he pleaded and she started to shake. Something was beyond wrong here, and she didn’t like the terrified tone in his voice. She leaned back to see his face. There was a deep-seated fear written in his eyes and the same sad, tension to his face.
“Draco, please, you’re starting to truly frighten me,” she whispered, tears standing in her eyes for some reason she couldn’t understand. He gripped her tighter to him, all but crushing her against him.
“I… I’m probably being ridiculous, but I can’t lose you, Hermione.” He finally said.
“Lose me? How would you-?” Her question was cut off by a fierce kiss, but this was a desperate sort of kiss, filled with an agony of loss and longing, and Hermione gripped Draco tightly, his emotions taking over her for a moment. After a few frantic moments, he pulled back and, wild-eyed, gulped in a deep breath.
“It was terrible, ‘Mione. I was running along a long, dark corridor, and I could hear you screaming, but I couldn’t get to you. Every time I would go through a door, another long hallway was there, and every door I tried was locked. I couldn’t find you anywhere, and you just kept screaming my name, screaming for help. Something was hurting you and…” he trailed off to swallow convulsively as he struggled for composure.
Eyes wide, and heedless of cold, wet ground, Hermione drew him down to sit beside her and held him in her arms as he struggled with his terror. She smoothed a hand across his forehead and pressed a light kiss to his cheek.
“Draco, it was a nightmare. It’s not real, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m safe, and you’re here with me.” She murmured soothing little things to him for nearly five minutes before he started to hear her, and calmed himself down. There was a vaguely haunted look in his eyes as he regarded her though.
“You could be in serious danger, Hermione. The Dark Lord is not impartial to being selective in his victims, and you’re too peculiar to him to miss his notice. I just don’t want you to get hurt. You’re not going to fight this battle. You can leave it to the others, and stay where you won’t get injured or killed.”
Hermione drew in a sharp breath. Now he was just being silly, because, while she knew the dangers, she was not going to spend the rest of her life in fear of what could happen. She said as much to him in a rather scathing tone, causing him to bristle in instinctive indignation.
“I’m not being silly, I’m worried about your well-being, Hermione! You are too close to Potter, you’re going to be an easy target. I don’t think you should be so frivolous with your own life!”
“You don’t think for one instant that I’d actually be pleased with the idea of dying, do you?” She retorted, her temper starting to get the better of her. “I happen to enjoy living, thank you very much. But I’m also not going to sit cowering in a corner while the people I love are out there, defending our world and fighting for what’s right!”
“So you’d put your own safety at risk to get involved in some stupid fight?”
“You didn’t always seem to think it was so stupid, Malfoy! You seemed to think it was a brilliant idea to cast out the Muggle-borns and let the Purebloods rule the roost, from what I recall.” She struck at him with barbed words, knowing that she was working herself up into a frothy head, but she had to make him understand. She couldn’t sit at home and worry all the time, and the only way she could do anything worthy of doing would be to pursue it.
“That was before I knew you,” he retorted firmly, seething just as much as she was. “I don’t think that way anymore. I was young and foolish, and I didn’t see things too clearly.” To hear him admitting to his faults so easily prodded at Hermione’s conscience. She knew that he had grown out of that behavior, but it was one thing that she could fire at him.
“Oh, so your love for me changed a thought-process that you’ve had for the past 16 years? My, that was awfully quick of you.” She got to her feet and pushed away from him. She couldn’t bear to look at him right this second, knowing the pain she had just caused.
“You would doubt my love for you?” he asked in a small voice; calm and rational, as though there was nothing wrong, and they were discussing the coming of Spring. It hit her fully the force of her words, and the hairs on the back of Hermione’s neck began to tingle. There was something oddly dangerous about that amiable tone.
“I wouldn’t have to, except that what you’re suggesting is that I stay away from people I care about, and far from the battle that we’re all involved in. You can’t swaddle me in cotton and lock me away, Draco.” She turned to face him adamantly. He was staring at her through narrowed eyes as he stood up in front of her.
“And who’s going to stop me from doing just that?” he challenged. She drew her wand, and pointed it directly at his chest; he stood so close that the tip of her wand was buried in his shirt, right above his heart. He was very still, and she glared up at him.
“I don’t want to have to hurt you, Draco. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to stand by and watch my friends die, knowing I could do something to save them. And I’m sorrier still that you seem to have some aversion to that, but I’m not going to allow you to stand in my way.” Her voice was quiet; the time for yelling had passed, but her tone was deadly serious. He looked down at her, understanding her conviction, but not liking it one bit.
“You’re putting yourself at risk, for a bunch of people you don’t even know,” he warned. She shook her head, her long brown hair swishy angrily out behind her.
“No, I’m putting myself at risk for what I believe is right. That’s all I have to go on, but it’s all that really matters. The time will come when I will fight alongside my friends and my family, and the others who believe in the same things I do. Nothing you say or do will stop me, short of killing me yourself. Would you do that, Draco? Would you kill me now to stop me from potentially being destroyed later?”
“Of course not!” he gasped, as the idea of Hermione’s death ripped through him like a poison dart. “I couldn’t do it, even if I would.”
She waved that away with a quick gesture of her free hand. “Let’s set aside what you think you can and cannot do. Would you kill me now to stop someone else from doing it later on?”
“No,” he was trembling with fear and rage at the thought of someone actually hurting his Hermione. “No, I would not. I love you too much.”
“Very well,” she withdrew her wand and slipped it away, “Then that’s all settled. When the time comes, I will fight if I have to, and I will help Harry with whatever he needs until and after that. You’re not going to stop me, and I will try my best not to be murdered on the battlefield.” She smiled up at him as if she had just won an argument. With a narrowed gaze, Draco realized that she had, indeed, just won. Moreover, their argument had distracted him from the terrifying melancholy his nightmare had provoked. Suddenly, he laughed. She raised an eyebrow at him in question.
“Is this something I’m going to have to look forward to a lot in the future?” he asked her, taking her hand, and giving it a gentle squeeze. Hermione laced her fingers through his as they made their way back towards the castle.
“You, winning arguments. Are you going to do this for the rest of our lives?” He was still laughing and missed the surprised look on Hermione’s face before she covered it with a quick smile.
“Most probably, yes.” Then she leaned in to give him a quick kiss and they went back inside.
Several Hours Later
As they all poured out of the Great Hall, Hermione felt a warm hand wrap around her waist. Draco kissed her cheek and smiled goofily down at her. His earlier dour disposition was gone, and they had all just enjoyed a very happy Christmas feast together. Ron and Hannah were moving towards a darkened corner of the Entrance Hall, speaking quietly with one another.
Hermione thought that they made a very cute couple, both of them a bit shy, but Hannah was quickly learning to cope with Ron’s bashfulness, and vice versa. It didn’t hurt matters that Hannah quickly ingratiated herself with the rest of their little motley crew. She was easily liked and had an honest disposition about her that made it easy to have her around without it being a strain on everyone involved when she and Ron would end up blushing at one another from across the table.
“Dinner was very good,” Draco murmured in her ear, his breath fanning out to tickled at her hair and neck. “What’s say we find ourselves a dark corner as well, and think about dessert?”
Hermione giggled, feeling a little giddy after the cheerful effects of the holiday, and poked him playfully in the side.
“People will notice if we just disappear together, Draco.”
“No we won’t, ’Mione,” Ginny grinned, holding Harry’s hand. “I promise to close my eyes and distinctly not notice you two slipping away.” Then she winked and closed her eyes, an angelic look of innocence on her face. Harry snorted back laughter and shook his head at the other two.
“You guys go on, I have a feeling that my little ginger cat needs to get some rest. The holidays are making her silly.” Ginny’s eyes flew open with a blaze of embarrassment.
“Harry! I told you not to call me that where other people could hear!” She was blushing to her roots, but a pleased little smile played across her lips. He was goading her with other ridiculous nicknames, such as “love muffin” and “sweet pea” as they made their way up the stairs towards Gryffindor Tower. Hermione stared after them, marveling at the drastic change that love could render in people. The thought made her turn to contemplate the man at her side.
“I think dessert sounds like a lovely idea,” she smiled shyly up at him. His eyebrows raised in a half-surprised glance. Hermione looked seriously up at him, and he asked her a question with his eyes, which she answered with a light kiss.
“Shall I meet you in the usual spot? Say, in about fifteen minutes? There’s something I want to do beforehand.” He offered, and she nodded, suddenly feeling very shy about her acceptance of ‘dessert’ with Draco. She knew he wouldn’t push her, and that he would never hurt her, but she didn’t think she wanted to stop him when things got too heatedly progressing tonight. The thought made her blush almost as much as Ginny, and with a puzzled expression as to its cause, Draco leaned in to kiss her properly.
Unlike this morning, this kiss held a promise of warmer things to come, and when they finally parted, Hermione was pleased to see that she was not the only one going pink and breathing hard.
Humming to herself, she watched Draco descend the stairs toward the Slytherin Dungeons, and went up towards the Prefect’s bathroom. She failed to see the three shadows who slipped into the passageway behind her, and so lost in her little daydream was she that she didn’t take immediate notice of them until one cut around her and blocked off her path.
“What do you want?”