A/N: This was a false start for LightofEvolution's holiday fest but I couldn't work in my prompt. Two Candles was my actual offering for the fest, this is just a Holiday Surprise... see what I did there? :P

Fair warning, this is me indulging in some headcannons and totally flufftastic. Fluffy Mcflufferton. Totally H.R. Fluffinstuf.

Disclaimer: I own more stuff than I did on December 24th, but not Harry Potter.

Taking the steps two at a time, Draco Malfoy is rushing to greet the guest on the other side of the door. He is fiddling with his cufflinks and brushing at the shoulders of his shirt as if lint would dare to adhere to his attire.

More than nine years after the war finds the Malfoy family reaching the top of the world once again, especially its wealthy only son.

It was touch and go, early on. Lucius was brought up on numerous criminal charges after the war and paid high reparations to avoid a punishment stronger than house arrest. That alone has been trying enough for a gentleman of means. Confined to one space, no matter the level of luxury it exudes, and forbidden from using a wand for nearly ten long years, he spent at least two years tooling around the manor, barking orders at anyone who would listen (which was basically no one), and just generally pouting, for lack of a better word.

By the third year, his wife had quite enough of that. She had instructed their one house elf, the only remaining after their loss of Dobby years before, to find her husband a suitable hobby. "Something tedious and time consuming and just altogether too distracting for him to remain in my hair!"

The elf had returned within three hours with a large box balanced in his spindly arms. "Is all the rage in Diagon, Mistress Cissy. Clever muggle hobby. Master will make a boat!" He had offered the box with extended arms and beamed, proud as always to be of service.

She wrinkled her nose and raised an eyebrow, a most unladylike expression. "A boat," she had deadpanned, unimpressed. "And what, pray tell, will my husband do with a boat? We've no water features on the property and, as we have all been made quite aware by his grumbling, he can't leave."

"No, no! Is not a real boat, Mistress. Only pretend. Building for fun then display for guests!"

"So... it's a bit of brick-a-brack to clutter my parlour?" She had sighed then and conceded. "Fine, fine. I assume it takes some time to complete one of these... boats."

"Many many hours. Months even. The wizard at the shop says all must be built and attached and painted. Is most complicated."

Her smile had grown then, and she nodded. "Well done, Pipsy. Package it in green and silver and place it under the Christmas tree in our wing."

Days later, during a chilly Yule season, Lucius had seemed abjectly unimpressed when he opened the gift but, with a quelling look from his wife, smiled genially and expressed his long-time interest in such things. "I do love the joy of completing a project. Like potion making. You know me so well, Cissy."

She'd smiled smugly into her tea then sent a covert wink at Draco.

Lucius, in spite of himself, became quite taken with the project and demanded more and more complex ships in the future.

By now, many years into his new passion, one entire receiving parlor is nearly lined with everything from schooners to Viking ships to luxurious vessels from the modern muggle world. Draco's dragon hide shoes clack on the marble floor as he passes that parlour and reaches the grand front doors of Malfoy manor. Normally Pipsy would handle the greeting of guests, but the younger Malfoy has been trying to take some of the elf's responsibilities since it's Christmas.

No one can accuse this mature Draco Malfoy of having no heart, thanks ever so.

Slowing his steps and trying to appear completely casual and unaffected, he swings the door open and drawls a simple, "Potter," by way of greeting. He is, however, unable to school the surprise when he sees a wild eruption of hair behind the head of his former nemesis, and knows immediately to whom that mane is attached.

"Happy Christmas, Malfoy." Potter favours him that annoying boyish grin that makes the witches swoon and holds out his hand for Draco to shake.

"You're a bit late. I'm afraid my parents have already retreated to the cottage on the west grounds for their private celebration."

"Sacrificing muggles and kittens so early in the evening? How gauche."

Draco looks up and glares at the nerve of the infamous Hermione Granger. She flips her bounty of curls over her shoulder and resolutely will not meet his eye in what appears to be a continuous effort to be as judgmental and flippant as possible.

"My mother," he grits out, refusing to rise to her bait, "likes to take her traditional nog facing the setting sun. The cottage affords the best view as it sits beyond the tree line."

"Hermione," Potter murmurs at her, chastising her behavior as subtly as possible.

She huffs in reply and folds her arms.

Draco takes in the two of them and then levels Potter with a look. "I suppose you found it necessary to bring Granger with you for this auspicious occasion?"

Grimacing, the wizard looks almost apologetic. "Two aurors are required for the unbinding and-"

"And Granger was your first choice?"

"I was the only one fool enough to agree to Harry's guilt trip and work on Christmas. You're lucky he found anyone at all, or your father could just wait until after Boxing Day like the average criminal."

She still has her arms folded and is staring Draco down defiantly. He simply sneers at her and then gestures for the two Aurors to enter his home. "This way, then."

He leads them through the main entry way, all grand ceilings and opulent trim, and through the north wing of his home. Glass doors and windows cover nearly the entire wall in front of them, showing a picturesque view of the veranda and snow-covered gardens beyond. They follow him right through the doors and across the stone tiles to an open sleigh, rigged up to, rather than sleek muscular horses, the skeletal forms of four thestrals.

Hermione stops short and stares at them. Draco notices but chooses not to react until she does. She is as likely to be offended on behalf of the creatures being put to work as she is to have a panic attack over memories from the war. Merlin knows, Draco has had some issues with reminders over the years.

Finally, she breathes deep and steps forward, tracing one hand delicately down one long, corpse-like face and notes, "This is an interesting choice." There is only the smallest tremor in her voice.

Draco shrugs, handing a lantern to Potter and gesturing for the wizard to climb into the sleigh. "I find there are few things that don't remind me of the war, Granger. At some point, I decided I'd rather remember every minute of every fucking day instead of hiding from it. It makes me feel like I might've learned something."

She studies him and then nods once before sliding past to climb in after her friend. Draco taps her shoulder and hands her a lantern as well.

Following after the pair, Draco takes a seat on the bench facing the other two. Harry is sitting back comfortably, grinning like a little boy on a ride at a fair. Granger is sitting primly beside him and very much not looking at Draco once again.

With a snap of his fingers, the candles inside the two lanterns ignite, adding a soft glow around them as the sky is turning to inky black, only a corona of orange left on the horizon. Draco leans behind him over the bench, barely able to caress the flank of the right rear thestral, and whispers gently, "To the cottage, if you don't mind." Without hesitation, the rear thestral picks up a foot and stomps the ground once, the other three taking the hint and starting their trek across the grounds.

"That's incredible," he hears and looks to find Granger with wide eyes, staring after the creatures pulling the sleigh. "They respond to you so well…" Her natural expression is one of barely concealed awe at the world around her; a look she never has turned on Draco, but he has seen from a distance over the years. It is an expression of hunger for knowledge in all forms and a subtle joy at the details of life. Indicative of the Hermione Granger known to the rest of the world, it is a rare glimpse for Draco of a witch he has regretted for years.

"Yes well, the daily beatings broke no argument," he quips.

Her amber eyes are on him immediately, fire blazing in her irises and indignation burning her tongue. Her fire is nearly as appealing as her wonderment, and he is suddenly not so unhappy that she came today, having seen her so little over the years. "You're too easy," he smirks with humour and no cruelty, and settles back against the cushioned rest of the sleigh. Draco continues, making his point very clear, lest she not be convinced of his innocence. "I treat them very well, I assure you. The truth is, you can win a lot of loyalty with a few cubes of sugar. Who doesn't have a bit of a sweet tooth after all?"

The witch eventually gives him a half smile and looks away, seeming almost bemused. She's rather fetching when she smiles, even as she's fighting the instinct to grin fully.

"I suppose your father is ready to be done with all this business, eh, Malfoy?"

Draco quirks a brow at Potter. "Didn't anyone ever tell you small talk should be relegated to innocuous topics? The incarceration of my family is not something I care to comment on like Quidditch scores or the weather."

"Right," Potter comments, slightly sheepish. "Sorry."

It's quiet, after that, for the short ride to the guest cottage on the manor grounds. A soft glow of candle flames lights each window, but the approach is ominously dark. Draco privately thinks this might be one of Narcissa Malfoy's subtle rebellions. As much as they need Potter on this particular day, she doesn't have to welcome him like a guest when he is part of the establishment that has oppressed them for a decade.

Not that Lucius didn't deserve it, of course. But that's an opinion Draco does not voice aloud. Mostly because it would make his father pout like a child which, in turn, makes for a very cross Lady Malfoy.

When the sleigh comes to a stop, Draco hops out and offers a hand up to Granger. She looks surprised, but he pushes his hand closer to her, indicating she should take it. Finally, she takes a hold of his hand and uses his leverage to ease herself down, lantern still in her grip.

"What, not going to help me then?" Potter grins his stupid little grin, and Draco rolls his eyes.

"I'm a gentleman, Potter, but it extends exclusively to the fairer sex." He barely catches it as she turns away, but he would swear Granger blushes lightly.

Approaching the stone path to the cottage entrance, Draco gestures to two sconces, fitted with brass hooks to either side of a low gated entry. "Hang the lanterns here, at the threshold."

They comply, more lights seeming to ignite and flood the path in a soft glow. Potter asks, "Is this some sort of guest ritual? Ward entry magic? One enchanted light for each guest in order to pass the gate and light the way?"

Their host laughs and shakes his head as he continues forward. "Of course not. Malfoy's just don't carry things about like some sort of pack animal. I thought I'd put you to work." He throws a grin over his shoulder and even a wink at Granger for good measure.

He watches her stifle a giggle and then school her countenance back into a glare. "I thought you were a gentleman."

"A very entitled one, love. Come on then," he prompts. "Let's not dally."

Draco reaches the door, opens it, and steps through. He stands just inside and holds the door open for the two aurors, offering once they are both inside, "Can I fetch Pipsy to take your robes?"

On cue, the family's elf appears and bows low. "How can Pipsy help, Master Draco?"

Draco looks at his guests for confirmation either way. Potter begins to remove his outer robe just as Granger is saying, "I'm quite capable of hanging my own robes, thank you very much."

Pipsy takes Potter's robe happily and then looks at Draco, ears drooping a little. "Is the Miss uncomfortable with Pipsy? Maybe Miss thinks Pipsy will not hang robes properly?"

Leveling Hermione with a significant look, Draco addresses the elf; all stooped posture and watery eyes. "I'm sure Miss did not mean to imply any lack of confidence in your domestic skills, Pipsy. Isn't that right, Granger?"

She is surprised at first but then takes the cue. "What? Oh! Oh, of course not." She looks down at Pipsy and speaks to him directly. "I'm sure you would do a marvelous job, Pipsy."

He smiles and gushes, "Thank you, Miss! I'll just take your robe then…?"

With obvious reluctance, Draco watches her remove her robe and hand it to the elf. Pipsy pops away without further conversation and they continue through the entryway to a cozy sitting room that faces the west and the setting sun.

The room is nearly all glass on the west side, much like the exit they just used at the manor house leading onto the grounds. Narcissa Malfoy is seated on a white sofa with dainty carved legs and a softly curved back. She is nestled into the corner of the piece and sipping from an ivory cup. Lucius is, as Draco would have guessed if asked, seated at a round table in front of the fireplace. He has reading glasses perched on this nose and his tongue is protruding from the left side of his mouth. Scattered over the table top, Draco sees muggle artifacts he has come to know as 'needle-nose plyers', 'tweezers', and 'exacto knives'. It all seems rather barbaric to him, but his father enjoys this distraction. In his hand, is a tiny paintbrush as he seems to be putting the finishing touches on the base of aa ship with complicated sails that have yet to be attached.

"Father. Mother." His parents look up, and Narcissa beams at him.

"Hello, my dove." She rises and sets her cup on the table beside her, gliding over to take her sons hands. His mother places soft kisses to the sides of his cheeks, smiling at him sincerely. She turns her gaze then to the Aurors and suddenly she's all business. It's completely unknown to anyone outside of the Malfoy family, but Narcissa had hoped her assistance to Potter at the final battle would have a more dramatic effect on her husband's sentence. It did keep him out of Azkaban, of course, but the heir to the house of Black tends to be dissatisfied with anything less than her heart's desire.

"Mister Potter. It's lovely for you to come on a holiday. I do hope you weren't too inconvenienced."

Seeming to be completely unaware of her disingenuous tone, Potter smiles stupidly and assures her, "Not at all, Missus Malfoy. It's my job."

Granger seems less ignorant to Narcissa's attitude and is looking slightly unimpressed by the entire exchange. In the meantime, Lucius removes his spectacles and walks stiffly toward the cluster standing together. "Mister Potter," he greets. Then, looking a little taken a back, "Miss Granger. Surprising choice. It is a…pleasure… to see you again."

Draco can tell that his father is actually putting forth quite a lot of effort for the usually taciturn wizard.

Granger inclines her head and answers back with all the grace and poise of a pureblood heiress. "Mister Malfoy. The years have been kind. I trust you are well?"

He nods and says that he is, indeed, quite well. Pleasantries aside, the business at hand can resume. Potter will cast the spell to unbind the magic inside the Malfoy patriarch. Granger's role is more the paper-pushing aspect of the job. She seems suited for it, magically enlarging a folder from her pocket that seems to be marked with color-coded tabs.

Potter and Lucius take a seat at the table where Lucius' abandoned ship awaits his return, while Draco and his mother take the sofa. Granger casts a levitation charm on the parchments she has unpacked and begins to sift through them, filling in various empty places and presumably finalizing the legal documents that will set his father free.

Narcissa places a hand over Draco's, never meeting his gaze and watching the scene. If one didn't know her well, it would not be obvious, but Draco can see she is vibrating with anticipation. Her fingers tremble before gripping his tighter to stave off the shake of her nerves. He lays his other hand over hers, trapping her delicate hand between his larger ones, and gives her a reassuring smile. She sniffs, obviously affected by the magnitude of the event, but then straightens and clears her throat.

"Well, that's it for my part then." Oblivious to the emotional upheavel taking place around her, Granger slips her parchments back into their appropriated tabbed slots and shrinks the parcel away once more. "Harry just finishes the enchantment and we can be on our way."

"Off to Christmas with the Weasleys, then?" Draco tries to keep the sneer out of his tone, and mostly succeeds. In the years after the war, he's tried to make nice to some degree with the rivals of his youth. He can be civil with Potter, for instance. Hermione has been a bit tougher for him, her capacity for grudge holding nearly as developed as his own. He's not even attempted conversation with her in at least five years. Of the trio, one might have thought Ron Weasley would be the difficult one, but in reality they have greeted each other politely over the years on the few occasions they have crossed paths. Truthfully, the ones that gives him the most grief to this day are Molly and George Weasley. The two most affected by the loss of Fred Weasley during the war, they have never been able to look at him without running their eyes down his forearm, making sure he's aware they haven't forgotten his part in their family losing the notorious twin.

"No," is all she says. He's surprised to hear it. Romantically, she hasn't been attached to any Weasley in some time. Her relationship with Ron ended a few years before. Then there had been that brief stint with the older brother, Percy. Draco remembers Ron complaining that the two of them together were like a great swotting nightmare, judging and berating the intelligence of others to anyone else who would listen. But that has also been over for some time, and yet she had spent last Christmas with them.

It occurs to Draco he is very knowledgeable about the goings-on in the life of the witch in question. Perhaps that's why it bothers him to be surprised. He does hate when he doesn't know the dynamics of people around him.

He guesses, "Some new beau finally taking you away from the redheads? Jealous wizard that didn't want you around your exes for the holidays?"

Hermione raises a thin eyebrow at him. "You seem awfully interested in my romantic circumstances."

Draco merely shrugs. "Just making conversation, Granger."

"Well, that does it."

The room looks over to Potter, wiping his hands together in that way that signals completion of a task. Sitting at the table once more, Lucius is staring at the wand in his hand, awed nearly to tears. Truly, Draco has never seen the man look so affected.

"It's like remembering to breathe," he murmurs.

Granger drifts over to the man and lays a hand on his shoulder. It's the oddest thing Draco has ever seen: Hermione Granger offering comfort to his Death Eater father, and Lucius looking quite grateful for it.

Narcissa has her hand over her mouth and tears formed at the corners of her eyes. "My love?"

With a very careful flick and swish, delicate pieces begin to move about on the table and, slowly, the rigging of the model ship before him starts to pull together at Lucius' will. Once the sails start to place themselves, however, he breaks the spell and everything falls back to where it began.

The inhabitants of the room all watch him as he shakes his head, seeming bemused more than anything. Lucius looks up at all of them and says, "It's just not the same as doing it myself." The weight of the statement, from a man who was so entrenched in his superiority beliefs toward muggles as to join a madman and start a war, is not lost on any one of them. A silence blankets the room, heavier and colder than any snow.

Draco has never seen his father look so thoughtful. Conflicted. He wants to break the silence but doesn't know how, and he settles for sliding an arm around his mother in comfort. From the corner of his eye, he sees Granger move around the table and gently usher Harry out of the way. He imagines she will guide him to the door, leaving the Malfoy family to deal with their broken Patriarch.

"Is that the Sovereign of the Seas?"

Everyone looks at her, unsure and questioning. Everyone except Lucius, whose eyes are suddenly alive in delight. "It is," he nods. "Are you very familiar with muggle maritime history, Miss Granger?"

Draco holds back a snort, thinking she is familiar with most everything. He knows it might break the fragile truce in the room and holds back on the quip. However, Hermione seems to do it for him.

With a small laugh, she says, "You might have heard the rumours, but I'm relatively knowledgeable about a lot of things. But, no actually, it's not been a strong area of study for me. My father, on the other hand, he's been building this for some months. Struggling, with the rigging ironically."

"That's my favorite part," Lucius admits. "I must confess, I struggle sometimes with the paint. You see here?" He points to a place on the stern where he obviously ran aground, brush strokes not as smooth as in other places and a smudge of gold, tiny but noticeable, bleeding into the white. "I thought I would touch up once I was finished."

"May I?" She asks politely, pointing to the white paint and tiny brush.

He only pauses a moment before Draco sees his father nod and pass the paint to the witch. "Please. Thank you, Miss Granger."

"Umm, Hermione?" Potter looks as perplexed as Draco feels, just not having the social grace to hide it.

Looking up, Granger waves him off. "Go on then. Molly will have kittens if you're not back soon. I'll see you Monday at the office."

Her attention is immediately on the ship, Lucius watching over her shoulder as she carefully brushes the white paint over the smudge.

Narcissa is suddenly wrapped around Harry Potter, holding him tight to her, all annoyance forgotten. "Thank you for coming today."

"Welcome," he mutters, awkwardly holding her in turn.

"Alright, Mother, let me take him back." Draco watches as she discreetly wipes her eyes and releases the young auror. Draco calls for Pipsy to bring the Potter's robe and then leads the other wizard from the cottage.

They travel together, a few minutes by carriage, then the walk through the manor to the front, and, finally, the trek toward the gate. Draco thanks his old nemesis, now acquaintance, as he gestures toward the apparition point just beyond the gates.

"Will you make sure Hermione makes it home by a reasonable hour?"

Draco rolls his eyes but agrees. "She's a big girl, Potter, but I'll be sure she doesn't miss curfew."

Hermione wasn't sure what she expected to find at Malfoy Manor on this cold Christmas evening. Though, she's pretty certain she didn't expect to be sitting at a table with Lucius, brushing delicately at the stern of the Sovereign. Her father never lets her touch the paint. Sometimes, if she's very patient and waits quietly while he works, he will ask her to hand him a tool. On slightly more frequent occasions, he asks her for help with the rigging. But never, ever, the paint.

"You have a steady hand," he comments, watching her deftly repair his mistake.

She tells him that she has been watching her father build ships her whole life, it being his great love outside his family. "I've given him the USS Constellation this morning for his Christmas. Once the Sovereign is finished, he will begin on that I'm sure."

"Such an intricate business, these ships. Is it a common hobby amongst muggles?"

She takes note at the open curiosity in his expression as well as the complete lack of vitriol at the idea of her non-magical parents. When Harry asked her to come today, she had been quite nervous, hiding her apprehension behind snippy comments the moment the manor came into view.

She wasn't necessarily concerned to see Draco's mother. Narcissa has been a staple around the ministry in the last few years, heading up various fundraisers and charities, and has been nothing but polite, if sometimes a little cold.

However, Lucius was the Death Eater. Lucius was the man who attacked her friends in fifth year. Lucius was the follower of Tom Riddle with the mark on his arm.

It also seems, however, that Lucius loves model ships just like her own father. He sips eggnog from a blue mug and crosses his feet at the ankle while he works. The world has been surprising Hermione since she was eleven years old, and it has not stopped yet. She smiles to herself. She quite likes surprises, and Lucius Malfoy being nothing more than a man is her favorite in a long time. They speak a little more of ships and muggle hobbies and Frank Granger's collection of vessels that fill his home office.

It is then that Narcissa announces she is ready to retire to one of the bedrooms. She had been sitting quietly, sipping and listening, but says the day has been quite emotional and she needs a bit of a lie down. Her husband watches her walk out and then glances back at Hermione.

"You are a woman, Miss Granger."

She blinks at him. "I am."

"And, as a woman, do you suppose my wife is truly interested in a bit of rest at half six, or do you imagine she was hinting that I should follow?"

He raises a brow at her, and Hermione would swear his lips are curling at the edges with the faintest ghost of a grin.

A slow smile forming on her face, she tilts her head, pretending to consider. "Well, Mister Malfoy, I would imagine that, if it was a hint, she wouldn't want to be kept waiting. Perhaps it would be best to follow. You know, just in case."

Lucius rises and bows slightly from the waist.

"Thank you for sacrificing your holiday, be it briefly, to aide in my release. And for your exquisite painting skills. I would apologize for the years past, but I fear that would be far too little to erase what's between us."

Hermione considers him. "I think I'll just forgive you anyway, if it's all the same. And you're welcome, sir. Happy Christmas."

Lucius hesitates then nods. "Draco should return shortly to escort you back. Please help yourself to a drink. And should the mood strike you, you're welcome to touch up the paint on the bow."

Hermione nearly falls out of her chair when the man winks at her.

It's a short time before Draco returns. Hermione has waited patiently, studying the partially completed ship. "Did you drive my parents away, Granger?"

She looks up to find him grinning at her, no malice seeming intended. "Your mother said she needed rest and your father seemed to think he was meant to follow."

Hermione watches Draco screw up his face. "You realize that was all code for sex, right?"

Laughing at his candor, she nods. "That's the impression I received, yes."

She pauses then, before admitting what is on her mind. "He's not at all the man I remember," she comments, slightly awed, somewhat bemused, and staring down the hall where the wizard had disappeared after his wife.

She's still focused on Lucius' path of departure when Draco comes into her field of vision and drops gracefully into the chair between her and the corridor. "I said that once, to my mother."

Hermione looks at Draco, noting his relaxed posture and pleasant grin. It seems Lucius might not be the only one that isn't the same as a decade before. She raises her brow at him, signally that he continue the bit of reverie he has introduced.

"It was four, maybe five, years ago. Lucius had been sequestered here for a few years and building these little boats," he gestures to the massive ship before her, "for at least two. The change was slow, so I hadn't really noticed, except that he wasn't growling at Pipsy so much. I had just failed to close a massive deal at Malfoy Enterprises, and I was dreading having to tell him. Not that it mattered, really. The company is mine, and it's not as though we really needed the merger. It meant potential gains, but we were solid enough without it."

He leans back in his chair and props his feet up on the table, making Hermione scowl.

"Don't give me that look like you're my mother, Granger. It's not as if we eat at this table and the boat doesn't mind." His handsome grin is disarming to say the least. "Anyway, I suppose I just didn't want him to be disappointed. Old habits and all that. But when I told him about the failed merger, he just said that some deals aren't meant to go through, and sometimes we can't control the decisions of everyone around us. I think I stared at the place he'd been standing for at least ten minutes after he left."

Hermione allows herself a polite chuckle at the image. "And then?" She prompts.

"I sought out my mother in the gardens, and I was nearly inconsolable with frustration by that point. I raved about how different he was and asked when he had decided not to be such a bastard anymore and where had that man been when I was growing up and just wanted a father to teach me to sit a broom and, instead, had a raving Death Eater."

The smile falls from her lips as she can envision the scene. More than just a story of a man confronting his mother, she imagines a little boy with blonde hair, his father scowling down at him when he had just wanted to play and run. Everyone knows Draco Malfoy was a reluctant Death Eater at best; a failure as a follower of Riddle is probably a more honest assessment.

He leans forward again, resting his forearms on his knees. "Mother just smiled at me and listened to me rant. When I paused to take a breath, she said 'Draco, this is your father. The wizard I married. He hasn't changed at all. He's just come back.'"

The room grows quiet until, finally, Hermione dares to ask, "And the rest? The man I met as a child? Who was that then?"

Draco shrugs. "A stranger, according to my mother. She has told me over the years that he was swept up by the charisma of a strong leader. That Lucius lost sight of anything but the promise of more power. She says by the time the war had trapped me too, he was simply afraid."

"Are you angry at him?" She's surprised Draco has been even this candid with her. She doesn't recognize any of the people in this house anymore and plunges forward as if he's an old friend. Or even a new one who is particularly emotionally open.

"I was. For a long time, I thought Mother's explanation was nothing but an excuse as to why he was a piss poor father."

"And now?"

Draco looks down the hall where Hermione had been staring. "Now, I think I'm in the same place you are, Granger. Sometimes, I simply don't recognize the man. His little boats and oddities have made him as much a stranger to me as his domineering side was to my mother. I'm trying to get to know him again." He levels her with a look so intense it makes her heart pick up in pace. "I'm trying to get to know the whole world again. And maybe let the world know me."

"Where have you been then? No one sees you anymore, outside your office."

"Watching me, are you?" He teases her lightly and she smiles in return.

"I'm simply in tuned to the Prophet, as often as I show up in it. Harry, Ron... even Theo highlights the gossip column because of his father. You're one of the wealthiest purebloods in the world and a reformed Death Eater. You'd be front page if you ever got out."

"I see Potter."

"Because you have to," she clarifies. "If you didn't need Auror contacts for business licenses and permits, I doubt you would see him either."

"Guilty," he grins.

They speak, then, of inconsequential things, neither pointing out there is nothing more to keep her here. She is curious about the life of this man that she realizes she hardly knows. He occasionally goes out socially, he reveals, but never in England. He does a lot of business in Italy, where he sees Blaise Zabini. He dated a witch in France for a time who was, shockingly, a half-blood. He no longer plays Quidditch, but holds season seats for Puddlemere where he watches alone from his anonymous private box. He lives a nearly reclusive life except for his business. Even there, he has a private office and rarely allows himself to be disturbed.

Hermione is surprised by him. Not only by the somewhat lonely life he leads, but the pleasant way he speaks to her. He had seemed put off when she arrived with Harry. Three cups of eggnog later, she mentions that fact.

Draco screws up his face and says slowly, "I was just...not expecting you. And... I'm not sure if you know this about me... but I can be a bit defensive."

She laughs, knowing it's true and also admitting to herself it's one thing they have in common. "A bit, perhaps. Were you afraid I'd attack you?"

"Not as such. I was more concerned how you would react to being in the manor. Or, if you would mention my Mark. Or... I don't know, say something to upset my mother. I'm fully aware of who we are and who we were. I don't often put myself in a position to be reminded of it."

It's a heavy sentiment, and Hermione is at a loss as to how she might respond. Part of her wants to assure him she would not have done such a thing, but a memory of calling his father 'criminal' and quipping about muggle human sacrifice before they arrived at the cottage makes her pull up short. "I suppose we all have our defense mechanisms," is all she says by way of a weak apology.

They have moved, at some point, to the sofa by the window where his mother had lounged. It's large enough that they have space between them, yet somehow seems more intimate, friendlier, than the hard wooden chairs at his father's work desk. "And what about you, Granger? You say the Prophet doesn't leave you alone, but it seems to have moved on to Weasley and that Harpy beater he's dating. I rarely see you mentioned anymore."

"I live a boring life, Malfoy. You can only make so much news out of my day to day. The truth is, there just isn't much of anything there to tell."

"You dated at least two Weasleys. That could have had 'scandal' written all over it," he argues with humor.

Hermione laughs. "Now who's watching who? Anyway, Percy doesn't resonate well with the public. No one wanted to hear about that relationship. Maybe if Rita knew about Charley..."

"Wait, wait. Are you saying you dated the dragon tamer too? Three Weasleys?"

She blushes, torn between being proud of that particular passionate fling and also sorry she brought it up. "We didn't really... date, necessarily."

He takes in the pink of her cheeks and grins. "Just shagged him then?"

Smiling, slightly mischievously, back, she answers, "That's absolutely none of your business."

She watches as he leans back and notes, "You know, my father isn't the only one that is like a totally new person."

Hermione rolls her eyes and concedes, "Yes, yes. You're a bit different too."

"No, not me. Well, yes, me, I suppose, but I meant you. You're nothing like I remember."

"I hesitate to ask what you remember," she grumbles, not entirely decided if she hopes he hears her or not.

Regardless of intent, he hears and he responds. "I remember a tightly wound witch with a temper who didn't laugh enough and always seemed angry."

"Well, I can't imagine why that would be your perspective," she says, sarcasm dripping.

"Fair enough. But I don't just mean with me. Even when I wasn't around... or, at least, when you didn't realize I was."

There seems to be something he's not saying. She raises a brow at him, prompting him to continue. With a breath, he says, "You know, I didn't actually hate you. Surely, you've figured that out by now?" There is something in his tone that is close to pleading.

"I'm not sure how I could have known that, no. I was pretty convinced."

Draco sits up straighter, leaning toward her slightly. "I think I hated you first year. As much as an eleven year old can really hate anything. Maybe second year. Maybe even third. I'm not sure when..." He trails off, thinking, and finally settles on, "I guess I stopped hating you when I was old enough to understand what that meant. When I really learned what hate was about to lead to. It was like a child's game to me, in the beginning. I was a spoiled little boy playing at war. After Dolohov-" His eyes pan down her torso. She'd been in the hospital for a few days, healing from that particular curse to ensure the scarring wouldn't remain. "It became a lot more real then, I suppose."

"Not fourth year? Not... not Cedric?" It's a name grown dusty with disuse, feeling strange on her tongue.

Draco shakes his head. "I didn't know him. And I didn't... I hadn't ever..." Draco collects his thoughts. "He wasn't someone I was supposed to hate. His death felt disconnected. It was just something that happened. With you... I was supposed to hate you. I was supposed to think you were worthless. Expendable. It became really clear to me that, if I continued down my path, I would be expected to turn my hatred toward you into something more tangible."

"You'd be expected to hurt me?"

He nods, and now Hermione is sitting up as well, their mugs of nog forgotten on the low table by their knees. "I didn't want to hurt anyone, least of all you." Hermione files that away to consider more deeply. "Diggory... it was easy to think it had nothing to do with me. It was just... like an accident. But then, when they brought you here. They brought you bound and struggling into my house... " He swallows. "I didn't want you there. I was... I was almost angry at you for being caught. How could I keep myself separated... innocent? How could I go on pretending I hated you if I had to hurt you? I knew… I knew I'd never be able to do it."

Hermione's hand moves on its own, cupping his cheek, and she breathes a despondent, "Draco," full of sympathy for him. Hermione Granger is a logical and pragmatic woman. She has known for a long time, that people are not any one thing, and that true villains are a creature more rare than anything Luna Lovegood ever dreamed up. "You're nothing like I thought," she says, bringing their conversation in a strange circle.

He lifts his hand to cover her own and holds her warm skin to his face. "No one is exactly who we think," he says wisely. "We're all just images. Perspectives."

"I like this image," she says softly.

Draco laughs a little but doesn't release her hand. "Slightly broken and possibly suffering from mild depression?"

Using her other hand to frame his face, she shakes her head in denial. "Complex. Multi-faceted. Surprising."

"You like surprises, Granger?"

She nods, her hands sliding from his cheeks down his jaw and to his neck, feeling the cords of muscle tight under her hands.

"I think you're beautiful."

She jumps a little, breath catching, and moves to take her hands away. But he's fast and suddenly she is trapped against him, her elbows bent at his chest and her hands locked in place, lightly laying up the planes of his neck.

"Surprise," he whispers, and then he kisses her.

It's brief, but powerful. Charged and heavy as stone.

When he pulls back, she keeps her eyes closed, feeling his breath puff against her cheek. "Can I tell you something, Granger?" She nods, willing him to continue. "I've wanted to do that for a long time."

"You're full of surprises," she says softly and he breathes out a laugh.

"Do you have anywhere to be tonight?"

Hermione looks up at his face and shakes her head. "I've already seen my parents. I was just going to have a quiet evening."

"Can I invite you back to the main house for dinner? It will be light fare. Whatever I can manage on my own."

Yet another surprise from the wizard still wrapped around her. "Pipsy won't be serving you dinner?"

He shrugs and extracts himself from her. Hermione misses the feel of him almost immediately. "I'm trying not to rely on him too much today. The holidays and all."

She grins and moves to stand. "That's very decent of you, Malfoy. Come on." She offers a hand and pulls him up. "I'll help you."

"Can you cook?" He shakes his head and corrects, "I mean, I'm sure you can. You were a muggle."

Hermione immediately stiffens. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"I just mean, you know, you had to do everything by hand."

Hermione sighs. Does she pretend to be an excellent cook because she hates to admit her own failings? Or does she come clean that she can basically only make food proficiently if it comes from a tin in order to prove him wrong? She ultimately decides that honesty is the only way forward if she's going to pursue a relationship on any level, friendship included. "Not all muggles can cook. I'm certainly not the most talented in the kitchen. But I think, if we use a little magic, we might manage something together." She smiles at him.

Grinning, he calls for her robes from Pipsy and leads her back to the waiting sleigh. The sky is a deep black and Hermione is aware she has been here probably longer than she realized, talking and laughing and skimming the surface of getting to know Draco Malfoy for what is possibly the first time.

"So, just to be clear, no man in your life then, Granger? No wizard that should concern me?"

Offering a shy grin and biting her lip, she confirms, "No, none you should be concerned with. At least, not as of this morning. Ask me again tomorrow," she quips, hinting at the possibilities.

Hopping up behind her, Draco settles in next to her on the bench and doesn't even try to be discreet when he slips his arms around her shoulders. He nuzzles his nose lightly against her cheek and says, "I'll ask you in the morning, love. I very much hope to change your answer by then."

"I thought they'd never leave."

Lucius is standing with his arms wrapped around his wife, both watching as the thestrals pull their son away, seated inappropriately close to the witch beside him. He has been eager for the cottage to be theirs to do with as they will. There is a particular trick they haven't enjoyed since they were young, involving the banister railing and a levitation charm that always was sure to send his wife into unabashed ecstasy. Now that he has his magic back, he can't think of a better way to celebrate.

"How long were they out there talking?" His wife asks, looking up at him over her shoulder.

He tilts his head back, considering. Reminiscing the acts they've performed in the meantime. "At least two hours."

Humming in reply, she's quiet for a moment before Narcissa says, "You do realize he's been enamored with her since Hogwarts, don't you, Dear?"

Lucius grunts in agreement. Of course he knows that. He has often regretted how his choices have affected the happiness of his only son, watching him in his lonely existence, living to work and little else.

"Maybe we could invite her family for the New Year. Nudge this along."

Smiling sweetly at her husband, Narcissa leans against him and sighs happily. "I love you, you know."

"I love you, my 'Cissa."

"But I know you just want help from this Frank person with the paint."

He grins, resting his chin on her shoulder. "Guilty."

"So, levitation charm?"

He chuckles, pulling her against him and turning her head with fingertips on her delicate chin to kiss her. Mumbling against her lips, he lets her know, not for the first time, and likely not the last, "You know me so well, Cissy."


Thank you to trinkisme for the beautiful pic collage!

And thank you to all of you for reading! I appreciate your reviews, faves, and follows as always!