Chapter 1 : Chill and Cheer
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Hermione breathed out the word quietly and conclusively, with a hint of sadness in her voice. Snow it was indeed, and she had been staring at it for quite a while through one of the living room windows in the Burrow. Everyone else was out this morning, delivering Christmas gifts and greetings or doing some last minute Christmas shopping and she, who was the one who least belonged in this house, was the one who was left here to welcome everyone else when they returned. It seemed wrong somehow. She should perhaps be with her own family now at Christmastime, but she could not let go of the time here, with what she had come to think of as her second family. Her parents were anyhow also kindly invited for Christmas dinner at the Burrow.
Maybe she should go and make a pot of tea to be enjoyed with the first who arrived. For her own amusement she tried to guess who would be the first to be back today. She would put her money on Mrs Weasley if she would bet on it. The woman never seemed to be away from her home and there were not many instances Hermione could ever remember of being in the house when Mrs Weasley was not there.
In a moment she would go and make the tea, she decided, focusing her attention again on the snowflakes. Slowly they made their way to the ground and the trees, twisting and turning on the way as if they were carefully choosing their place to land. It was not often when snow fell so beautifully. This was one of the few days in the year which was a perfect postcard day. The Weasleys’ garden looked particularly enchanting in the snow, though she reminded herself, as she watched, that this garden always looked beautiful in her eyes. It always had a careless magic around it, the kind of which she could not remember having seen anywhere else. Everything in this home had something special about it, and sometimes Hermione wondered if she had only been with Ron to become a part of this. Now she would never become a part of the Weasley world as completely as she wanted to.
A whoosh and a thump behind her announced that someone had arrived through the floo. Sparing a last glance at the outside world, Hermione realised that it had stopped snowing and that a while had probably passed since she had decided to make tea. When she turned, she saw a smiling George Weasley walking towards her.
“How is my almost sister?” he greeted her. “Standing here all by yourself so close to Christmas. You must be the only one who is done with all the Christmas preparations.”
She could see that he noticed the shadow that passed on her face before she could hide it. His statement reminded her too much of her previous thoughts of only almost being a part of the family.
“I guess I probably am the only one,” she replied with a soft smile. “I like to be prepared in time before Christmas.”
“Sorry, Hermione. I didn’t mean to upset you,” George said quickly, barely letting her finish the sentence. “I didn’t mean anything about Ron. I mean, of course you came as his friend to us first, but you know...” He trailed of awkwardly.
“It’s all right,” Hermione replied, wanting to wipe off the worried expression from George’s face. “I was just thinking about it before, so what you said surprised me. Everything is really fine between us. We’re friends like we should always have been. And you know it’s almost a year since...” She shrugged her shoulders as she trailed off.
“What I really meant was that you seem to belong to the family even though you aren’t a blood relative,” George told her more sincerely than she was used to hearing him.
“I feel like I belong too,” she beamed back at him.
He broke the short silence that followed with a cheerful, “It’s the season to be jolly! So dearest sister, let’s be jolly! Is there anyone else around by the way?”
She laughed. “No, nobody else has returned. I actually thought of making some tea just before you arrived. Would you like to join me?”
“Why not. We can be merry over a cup of tea. Let me just put away these things first,” he said, indicating a couple of bags he had dropped close to the fireplace. “I’ll be back in half a minute, when I have hidden my Christmas secrets,” he continued, winking.
“I’ll put the kettle on while you do that.”
Not many minutes later, Hermione found herself in the Weasley kitchen sipping tea opposite George Weasley. True to his promise, George was making the tea drinking jolly by telling amusing stories. He recounted some resent episodes that had happened with customers in his shop and made her laugh with stories about previous Christmases in the Weasley family, some of which she knew already. George was however a good story teller and made her laugh all over again at stories she had heard a dozen times before, and even at incidents she had witnessed herself.
“Hermione, you need to loosen up more often,” he told her, while she was still laughing about the time when Fred and George had tried to switch everyone’s Christmas presents around. They had woken up before the crack of dawn to do this and had moved everybody’s gifts to someone else’s stack, but due to the piece of magic Mrs Weasley had performed, expecting something just like this, there had been a chaos of flying presents in the early hours of the morning as the gifts zoomed back to their rightful places.
“Why?” she asked when she caught her breath again. “I’m not that uptight all the time, am I?”
“No, not as uptight as Percy for sure.”
“But you should relax a little more,” he continued. “You really don’t need to take care of Ron and Harry anymore. They should be adults now. So there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t just focus on yourself and let loose. Have some fun, Hermione.”
Hermione snorted again. “What do you want me to do? Party all night long?” George seemed sincere despite his playful smile, but she didn’t really appreciate being thought uptight, so scepticism seemed like the best approach.
“No. Just don’t worry,” he replied. “How about we dedicate this day for your loosening up. Just playing and having fun.” George smiled at her with playful puppy dog eyes begging her to say yes.
She shrugged and laughed. “What else can I do when you insist?”
“Okay, let’s go before anyone else is back, so we don’t get caught?” George said in an easy business-like manner as he rose from the table.
“What!?! Wait! George what are you going to do?”
“You mean we, of course. Well, what’s my trade? That’s what we are going to do. Someone as smart as you, Hermione, should have figured that out by now.” He threw her a challenging look, before turning to the kitchen cupboards and opened a door. “Let’s see.”
A few minutes later Hermione found herself in the middle of organising a prank, feeling slightly flustered. She was a little nervous even though she knew shouldn’t be. This was not school. This was her friends’ house. She could however not ignore the thought about Mrs Weasley’s reaction. The thrill she got from planning and coming up with the perfect scheme was not to be ignored though, and soon she was completely wrapped up in arguing different ideas with George. This was his area of expertise, but she had some practice from coming up with more serious schemes at Hogwarts with Ron and Harry.
George’s suggestion was to do something to some food or drink and they decided on the tea, which was likely to be consumed fairly soon. They could either skip it with the excuse that they had already had tea or otherwise they had to decide where to put it so the others would get it but not they. A question was also what it would be. George first suggested putting pepper or chilli in the tea, while Hermione thought of replacing the sugar with salt. That was before George realised that he had laughing powder back in his room and went to fetch it, while Hermione examined the teapot and cups wondering if the others would notice some white powder there before the tea was added or whether to add it to the sugar. However, not everyone was using sugar.
“Let’s set the table and pretend I did it to have something to do while everyone was away,” Hermione giggled.
“Pretend that you did the prank to have something to do?”
“No, put the cups on the table of course,” she replied. “As I was saying, if we do that, then we can put the powder in the cups without anyone noticing as the cups are white like the powder and we can still have tea too.” She moved towards the table with a couple of cups.
George agreed with her and moved to help her with the tea service. When they were ready, George picked up the little box with the white powder from the kitchen counter where he had left it. He held it in one hand towards Hermione and picked up a wooden spoon with the other to hit a pot, hanging on the wall, with it like a gong.
“It’s time,” he announced, making Hermione laugh nervously.
“It’s safe, isn’t it?” she asked, growing serious again.
“It is. You don’t think I would give something unsafe to my whole family.”
She shook her head. “Does it taste at all?”
“No, but you can try it yourself if you want to be sure,” George replied, with a mischievous grin.
“Right. I will.” She reached her hand towards the box and smiled at George’s dumbstruck expression. “You didn’t think I would take you up on that offer, did you? Well, give me that powder.”
Slowly he handed it to her at last. “You want to take just a little, Hermione,” he warned her.
She wet her finger and dipped it in the powder. The moment after the powder touched her tongue she started to laugh, first a little in small bursts and then she couldn’t stop at all. It lasted for about five minutes. Through her laughter she somehow managed to tell George that she agreed with him and it didn’t taste, and so far there was no harm done.
As Hermione dried the tears of laughter from her eyes, still giggling a little of her own accord, George offered her the box once again with a little bow. He had taken it back from her when she started to laugh in earnest.
“Miss Granger, you should be the one to do this,” he said.
“What do you two think you are doing?” another voice, deep and solemn, asked from behind them, making Hermione jump, her heart beating faster for a moment.
Charlie Weasley chuckled at her expression. “Looks like you two are up to some mischief,” he said in his own voice, winking at Hermione. “Go on, but tell me what it is. I don’t want to be on the receiving end of one of George’s pranks.”
“This is Hermione’s prank, big brother. Not mine,” George assured him with a straight face.
Hermione felt her face go hot in front of Charlie’s laughing eyes. “And George’s,” she added quickly.
Charlie laughed. “Whomever’s it is, I don’t want to be on the receiving end. Now tell me all about it.”
He was given a brief explanation by George while Hermione started to pour half teaspoons of powder into all cups but three. George had told her that it was enough so anyone wouldn’t laugh for too long for it to be funny, but still get a dose for some minutes of laughter even with it being blended into the tea. Hermione interrupted George’s tale a couple of times to tell Charlie that it was not indeed her who had come up with one thing or the other.
An hour later all of the Weasley family, with Harry and Hermione and little five year old Teddy Lupin, who was with Harry for the day, were gathered around the kitchen table for tea. Hermione felt a little tingle of anticipation and nervousness as she saw some of them lift their cups towards their lips.
The first giggle erupted suddenly from Ginny’s direction. As Hermione turned towards her, she realised that she had been holding her breath and was no releasing it, while Ginny laughed again.
“What’s so funny Ginny?” Mr Weasley asked with a bemused expression, lowering his own cup back to the table. Everyone else’s faces were also now turned to Ginny, wondering what she could possibly be laughing at.
She shrugged helplessly and continued to laugh, her laughing growing in intensity. The next moment Mr Weasley and Bill chuckled at the same time and then started to laugh as if Ginny had finally shared the joke with them. Soon everyone except, Hermione, George, Charlie and Teddy, who didn’t drink tea, was laughing hysterically from the powder. The four of them were however laughing with the rest because of the whole situation and the fact that no one was figuring out what was going on. Teddy was tugging at Harry’s sleeve, trying to get his godfather to tell him what the joke was, but laughing all the same at the silly adults who had completely randomly burst into laughter.
After a while the powder induced laughter started to subside and Mrs Weasley, who was one of the first to be able to speak again, turned her face towards George, and asked him whether he was testing something new on them or if this was an old joke.
“It’s old mum. It’s the laughing powder we’ve had for years,” he explained. “And it’s not my joke today. I didn’t put it in the cups.” He started to laugh again at his mother’s bewildered and at the same time suspicious expression. “Honestly, it wasn’t me!”
Mrs Weasley’s eyes travelled through a familiar pattern, known from other situations like these, while some others, who were gaining their composure too, looked suspiciously at each other trying to find the guilty party if it indeed wasn’t George. The eyes rested first on Ron, who had drowned a lot of his tea in one swallow and was still laughing more than anyone else, barely finding time to breathe. They moved to Ginny who was still giggling feebly and Harry, who was explaining to Teddy that they had apparently been pranked and that there was no secret joke that Teddy had not been told, as the boy trailed him to the sink where Harry threw away the remains of his tea and rinsed the cup. Next Mrs Weasley’s eyes moved to Charlie who was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes as he lifted his cup to his mouth for another sip, and then turned towards Bill, only to switch back to Charlie to narrow at him as he sipped his tea without any side effects.
He jumped at the sound of his mother yelling his name and looked so much like a young Hogwarts student with professor McGonagall breathing down his neck for an answer that Hermione had to stifle a giggle.
“What mum?” he asked after throwing a quick, displeased glance towards Hermione. “If you’re accusing me, you’re wrong.”
“Don’t try that on me Charlie Weasley,” Mrs Weasley replied, frowning at her son.
“But why me? You believed even George.” Charlie was looking bewildered by now.
“Your tea, dear,” Mrs Weasley replied, lifting her right eyebrow.
“Oh!” Realisation finally dawned on Charlie’s face. He hadn’t even noticed that he was still steadily sipping his tea, while everyone else had stopped because of the side effects. A crooked, slightly embarrassed smile appeared on his face. “You’re right mum, who else could it be?” he said with a wink, and continued after a pause, “I feel like I’ve been framed.”
“But -” Mrs Weasley, started with surprise in her voice.
“Mrs Weasley, it was me,” Hermione piped up at last. She could still feel the last of the butterflies in her stomach as she spoke. While everybody had started looking around for the mischief-maker, she had felt unreasonably nervous about being found out. This was not school and she was not eleven, and no one was even sounding angry, so why was she feeling so nervous. Maybe it was simply the new situation. Even though she had broken the rules at school, she had never done it intentionally unless she had a really good reason. This was something different. But when Charlie was cornered in the end, she decided to take pity on him and speak up. Wasn’t that part of this? To sometimes claim the honour of a good scheme.
When she spoke everyone fell silent; undoubtedly in surprise, except for George who was clutching his stomach in laughter. Hermione narrowed her eyes at him.
“It was me and George,” she started again with a smile. Throwing a glance towards the now smug looking Charlie, she continued, “and Charlie knew about it. That’s why his tea is fine,” she finished, making him splutter out tea over the table in a surprised laugh.
“Ew! Charlie!” Ginny exclaimed and routinely handed him a napkin as if she had expected something like this to happen.
Hermione glanced around at everyone. Mostly they looked surprised at her confession, especially Mrs Weasley, who looked like she was still frozen in the aftermath of that one little “but”, and Ron whose mouth was hanging open. Hermione’s gaze met Harry’s who was smiling serenely and sipping his new fresh tea as if nothing had happened, while his eyes twinkled merrily. For a moment the thought, that Harry seemed to be channelling Dumbledore a bit too much lately, flitted through Hermione’s mind. Then Harry’s smile widened into a grin and Hermione started to giggle uncontrollably. Soon everyone was laughing again, poor Teddy still unable to understand the joke.
The rest of the day was spent in general merriment and Christmas secrets. Some, like Bill and Harry left with promises to be back later with more people accompanying them. Others disappeared to their rooms or some secret corner to be quietly there for a while with rustling paper and some quiet swearing, when everything wasn’t going exactly as planned, being the only noises from that direction. A mumbled swearword behind Mr Weasley’s door earned him the cheerful remark from his wife that he wouldn’t be getting anything for Christmas with that kind of language.
Hermione had wrapped all her gifts in time, which was good because she was not left alone. George was there constantly, making her participate in a game, trying to make her tell jokes or funny stories from her childhood and even engaging her in a game of tag around the ground floor of the Burrow. He wouldn’t even let her sit down for a few minutes with a book.
When it started to darken, George suggested that they should go out in the garden to have some fresh air and maybe build a snowman or castle or something. Hermione agreed to go, as did Harry, Ginny, Charlie and Ron. Everyone was in Christmas and winter spirits and eager to have some childish fun in the snow.
Hermione gasped when she stepped out through the door. It had long since stopped snowing altogether and it was a lot colder by now than earlier in the day. When the cold air hit her face, she skipped a few breaths before she could adjust to the temperature. Even though it wasn’t snowing anymore the garden looked like something from a fairy tale, with everything glistening in the fading light. It felt almost wrong to disturb the smooth surface of the untouched snow by walking through it.
“We’d better hurry if we want to make a snowman before it’s completely dark?” George said as they all hurried towards the masses of snow.
“Are you afraid you will forget an ear or something if you can’t see it properly?” Ron asked cheekily.
“But it’s too cold,” Ginny said almost at the same time, bending down to grab a handful of snow. “The snow is too dry to make anything of it.” She threw the handful of snow into the air to demonstrate how powdery it was. It wasn’t quite dust, but not that sticky either.
“We can make it stickier,” Hermione said thoughtfully.
“With or without magic,” George added. “Ever thought of that little sister?” For good measure he threw a handful of snow towards Ginny, who giggled and scooped some snow to throw towards him in return.
George skilfully ducked the flying snow cloud and bent down for some more snow, but turned instead towards Hermione who was standing next to him now. She hadn’t been expecting the attack and was soon the first who spluttered with a wet snow covered face. Hermione wasn’t one to back down from a challenge, especially not today, and at once she was in pursuit for revenge. It didn’t require many accidental or intentional hits at those who weren’t yet a part of the snow fight before everyone was in it. The planned snowman lay forgotten.
Wanting to surprise Harry from the back, Hermione moved along the shade of some bushes. She stopped for a couple of calming breaths before she moved closer, to stop her from bursting out in laughter and ruining the surprise attack.
Before she moved any further, she was however caught from behind. A pair of big cold gloves covered her eyes in a swift movement and she let out a little squeal of surprise.
“Guess who,” an amused voice asked her.
“You really think I can’t tell all the Weasley voices apart from each other? They’re just not that similar, you know.”
“You better guess right anyway,” he said with laughter in his voice. “You’re at my mercy now. A lot of snow everywhere and my arms are around you already... You can’t escape the snow torture if you guess wrong.”
“How do I know you won’t do it anyway?”
“You don’t,” he chuckled. “Well, tell me.”
“Charlie,” she nearly whispered. Why she would whisper she didn’t know.
He removed his hands from her eyes and she turned around to face him, noticing that his arms still lingered around her.
“That’s right,” he whispered back to her, smiling softly.
The smile was contagious and she found herself smiling back at him, her breath hitching for no reason. Then she couldn’t breathe at all when his hands pressed at her back moving her closer to him. His face was an inch from hers when he stopped for a questioning second. When she didn’t resist, he moved to gently kiss her.
Hermione didn’t know what to feel except her heartbeat and the way her eyelashes threatened to freeze together with the combination of their warm breathing and the cold air. She knew the hair closest to her face was covered in frost and she knew that Charlie was standing so very, very close to her, waiting for a reaction. From some impulse, she glanced quickly behind her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have.”
“It’s fine. I didn’t mean – “ she began. “I mean, I wanted – “
One corner of his mouth twisted a little. “I don’t think anyone saw.”
“I don’t mind,” she said, feeling the corners of her own mouth beginning to turn upwards. “It’s just... They’ll be surprised.”
“Let them.” He laughed but became soon solemn again. “Ron?” he asked her.
“George? The way you were together today.”
“No. More like a brother. That’s what he said too.”
“Well, whatever Ron or George says or thinks about your position in our family, I can’t think of you as a sister.”
When he paused, Hermione wondered what she should say. Whatever did she even feel?
“Me?” he asked at last.
“Yes,” she breathed. “I think so anyway.”
He still had his arms around her and they were as close to each other as they could get with their winter clothes. How could it feel so intimate with so many layers of clothing between them? How could she feel so safe in his arms and so close to danger at the same time? Feeling a bit daring she reacted to her impulse, lifting her hands to pull his face closer and rose up to her toes to reach his lips. He didn’t protest either but leaned towards her at her silent beckoning and as they kissed they could feel how the heat of both of their lips contrasted with the winter. When they parted, he held her close for a few moments more as he looked deep into her eyes.
“Would you like to go out with me sometime?” Charlie asked at last.
“Yes.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Should we...?” he started, trailing off as he indicated the others in the snow with a tilt of his head.
She nodded and felt his arms leave her. She didn’t mind anyone knowing and maybe they did know by now, as a while had to have passed as they stood there together. But if not, it was their own little secret for now. They wouldn’t share it yet, especially as this was still something they couldn’t quite define themselves.
The few seconds Hermione had spent in thought, Charlie had put to good use and once again she felt the wet coldness of a face-full of snow, some of it even trickling down under her scarf, making a chilly path down her back. She shuddered, brushed off the worst of it and run in pursuit of Charlie as fast as she could in the snow.
When Mrs Weasley called them in for mulled wine later, she laughed at how little the activities had changed from ten years back. They still got quite as snow-covered as back then.
To her surprise, Hermione felt tipsy from only just a couple of small sips from her cup. Maybe it was the steam that made her feel that way. When her eyes met Charlie’s over the room and he smiled, she knew that she had been tipsy even before she was given her drink.