Chapter 3 : cet
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"It's on the kitchen table, sweetheart." Hermione handed Hugo the bag containing the rest of the gifts, and the two shared a knowing look. "Exactly where you left it."
Rose rushed through the living room, a whirlwind of red and green and gold, as she made her way to the kitchen. She let out a triumphant whoop when she found it, sending Hugo into a fit of laughter at his sister's expense. Rose, unbothered by his mirth, added the present to his bag with all the flourish of a queen bestowing favour upon a lowly knight.
"All right, you two. Bundle up tight." Hermione handed each of them their outerwear. "I know the Apparition point isn't far, but the winds are strong tonight."
"Won't you come with us, Mum?" Rose asked as she wrapped the thick scarf around her neck. "Everyone at the Burrow still cares about you, you know. They all want to see you. And Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny will be there. Even Dad said–"
"I'll be fine. Don't worry about me." Hermione ran her thumbs over the concerned wrinkles on her daughter's forehead. "Go have fun with your father. He's been looking forward to spending the holiday with you."
"Stop fussing, Rose. Mum's a big girl. She can take care of herself, yeah?" Hugo pushed his sister towards the door, winking at Hermione over his shoulder. "Besides, Dad's already waiting for us. Wouldn't want him to catch a cold out in that weather, would you?"
"Fine." Rose shot her brother a reproving glare as she stepped outside. "But promise you'll do something more festive than lying about in your pyjamas with a book and that crotchety old cat. Please, Mum?"
Hermione waved the teens out the door with a shooing motion. "Yes, yes. I promise. Now get going."
Hugo bent down and pulled Hermione into tight, warm hug. When he let go, he wagged his finger at her, a roguish grin tugging at his lips. "Remember, Mum, you promised."
After the kids left, she plugged in the multitude of lights Rose had strung around the house and turned on the radio, filling the small flat with melodies of reindeer and elves and snow. A particularly bouncy tune came on and, feeling inspired, Hermione danced her way to her bedroom to change into something more suiting to the holiday. Rose had been right about one thing at least: lounging in one's oldest, rattiest pyjamas was no way to spend Christmas Eve. A half hour later, Hermione stood in front of her ornament-laden tree in a red sweater dress, hair and makeup done, thoroughly pleased with herself.
The feeling only lasted about two minutes before realisation came and smacked her in the face.
Everyone she knew was either at the Burrow or had plans with their own families. She couldn't even visit her parents as they were out of country, volunteering their services to a children's charity programme.
She was, it seemed, destined to be alone.
And if she had to be alone, Hermione preferred to be alone in the comfort of her own home. She had no inclination or desire to go out and be amidst all the holiday cheer she knew she'd find in the city, not without someone by her side. Her heart wasn't ready for it.
So she called a nearby restaurant for take-out, rummaged through her bookshelves for her worn copy of A Christmas Carol, and settled in on the sofa with a fleece throw, thankful that her outfit was comfortable enough that she didn't need to change back into pyjamas. Soon Crookshanks the Third came out of his hiding place to curl up at her feet, and with that the scenario which Rose feared became complete. The kids would be so disappointed when they came home, she knew.
Truly, though, she did try.
When the doorbell rang a few minutes later, it was a relief. Besides being hungry, Hermione was restless and fidgety. Unsettled. She'd only read a paragraph of the story before her mind began wander, chasing down images of snowstorms and rare books, of bridges and wedding bands. Of a handsome man whom she wasn't sure she wanted to think about. Moving around, even just to answer the door, would clear her head of those distractions. She was sure of it.
Striding to the door, she opened it with aplomb, trying to affect the air of one who was eating alone on Christmas Eve by choice rather than default. The sight that greeted her had her dropping all pretense.
"M-Malfoy?" Hermione sputtered, completely taken aback by the unexpected visitor. The shock only lasted a moment, though; his pleased smirk snapped her back to reality. With a wary look, she asked, "What are you doing here?"
Draco frowned. "You've asked me that a lot lately."
Lifting her chin, she put her hands on her hips. "And you've avoided answering my questions a lot lately."
"Touché," he said, raising his hands in surrender. "I'm not here to bother you. I just thought…" Draco carded his gloved hands roughly through his hair and paced out a shallow half circle on her front stoop. "This is harder than I thought with you looking so–"
Hermione prickled immediately and shifted her stance, wedging her open door partially between them. "Looking so what, exactly?"
"Damn, bloody beautiful, that's what."
"Oh." Her breath stilled at the intensity of his quickly given answer. Paired with the sincerity of his expression, it went a long way towards softening her guarded attitude. "Why are you here, really?"
"I didn't plan to be." Draco released a breathy, self-deprecating chuckle, and ran a hand over his face. "Scorpius always goes to Greengrass Manor for Christmas Eve, so I normally spend the evening in my study, going over the company's quarterly reports. But I received an owl this morning that made me rethink my routine. Damn crazy bird almost killed itself flying into the window pane."
Hermione shook her head as she let out a huff of wry disbelief. "That little sneak."
"So I was correct in assuming it was one of your owls?"
"It was Hugo's owl, Cringle. I'm sure of it. I've never met a bird as dumb as that one." Hermione smiled ruefully. "Well, go on. I have to hear the rest of the story now. What did my sweet, yet meddling son have to say?"
"Oh, nothing much." At her incredulous look, Draco placed his hands over his heart. "Honestly! The message simply said that if I could bring it upon myself to ask you nicely, you might be persuaded to have dinner with me tonight."
She threw her hands in the air, walking inside. "This is a conspiracy."
"Yes," he said as he followed her through the open door, closing it behind him. "But is it working?"
Hermione stopped in front of the Christmas tree and turned on her heel to face him. Her sudden about-face startled him, causing him to take a step back, but then he straightened his posture and held his ground, waiting. Looking at him now – his expression filled with hope and hesitation and vulnerability – she realised exactly how much she wanted this, the possibility of sharing a future with someone again. Without even noticing, she'd moved past the pain and baggage of the past.
Only one thing was holding her back now.
"Let me see your hands."
If Draco was surprised at all by her request, he didn't show it. He pulled off his right glove, dropping it on the arm of the sofa. Then he slowly removed the left, raising his hand so she could clearly see it.
"This past week, I thought about what you asked, and I think I have answer." Draco took a step towards her. "I wore it because I was afraid to be alone. Because when I wore it, her memory was as present as if Astoria were still with me."
He took another step.
"I loved my wife, Hermione. With all my heart. But she's gone, and I'm still here. And I'm so tired of holding on to ghosts and simply going through the motions of living. It took you walking away from me on that bridge to realise that. But I'm hoping that you can see past all that. Or that you can give me a chance in spite of it. That maybe... well, I guess I'm hoping today might be my better day."
With his next step forward, he held out his hand. "Come to dinner with me."
Hermione looked at his outstretched hand, covered in ink stains and callouses and thin, pale scars. The place where his ring used to be still bore its shape, and it would be a long time before it faded completely. But it didn't matter anymore; it was the same as her own.
So she crossed what was left of the distance between them, her gaze never leaving his, counted aloud – one, two, three – and took his hand.
(And we’re still hoping for better days.)
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