Disclaimer: None of the characters belong to me. I'd like to claim that the ideas contained herein don't belong to me either but I'm afraid you've got me there.

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This is all so beautiful, Hermione thought savagely, that it makes me want to *scream*.

She looked at the scene around her with narrowed eyes, hating every lovely inch of it. Hating the Christmas gifts piled up on the tables, hating the candles hanging thick as stars in the air, and hating the smiles turning to her everywhere she looked.

And then she looked at the Christmas tree, five stories high and glorious, heaped with presents and ornaments and magic snow and without a bare patch on it anywhere, and she felt the sudden violent urge to set it on fire.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Really, she thought, with all of the magic they were using to power those ridiculous illusions, it was amazing that they hadn't bothered to cast a simple mood-lifting spell. Where were their priorities?

Of course, everybody else was pretty damned happy already. And everybody else seemed to be enjoying the illusionary murals of Santa Claus that now graced almost every wall in the castle. And wasn't that *just lovely*?

Well, no.

Because Christmas was her favourite time of year, and being here at Hogwarts was ruining it for her. That is to say, ruining it for her in the sense of being so perfect that she wanted to kick it all to pieces and stomp on the remains because everyone was happy, all of the decorations were shining, all of the presents were wonderful... and there wasn't a scraggly or undersized tree to be found anywhere.

Hermione sniffed miserably. Blast it, but she missed real trees. Trees with missing branches that had been artfully trimmed to appear thick and luxuriant. Trees so ugly that no amount of tinsel could make them look like anything but what they were: the spotty teenagers of the arboreal world.

*Real* trees, from the real world.

Because this wasn't the real world, was it? This was a roller coaster, a breathless screaming laughing thrill ride that happened to last for nine months out of the year, but still only a diversion, and real life was something that happened in a small house with water stains on the dining room ceiling and five bookcases for every four walls.

And an incredibly ugly Christmas tree in the front room.

Hermione made a small frustrated noise in her throat and got up from the table, leaving her untouched dinner behind as she walked away from the dining hall.

She walked very quickly and avoided eye contact, several times having to feign deafness in order to avoid people who were showing a dangerous inclination to offer her - she shuddered - their *best*.

Finally she reached an empty section of corridor that seemed to have escaped the relentless decorating that had bedecked the rest of the school. She eyed it warily, expecting at least to find some mistletoe lurking in the rafters, but it seemed to be genuinely empty.

Not just empty, she thought. Depressing.

The walls were stone, the light was low, and the one small window showed glimpses of a night that was undeniably both dark and stormy. Hermione leaned back against the wall and felt the sharp stone edges poke into her back with some satisfaction.

Hermione smiled. I could be very happy here, she thought. Or rather, not.

Of course, it was right about then that the first Santa Claus mural showed up, sliding along the wall in a parody of walking.

It headed straight for Hermione like a two-dimensional homing pigeon.

Hermione glared at it.

It responded by smiling at her with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and the requisite belly shaking like a bowlful of jelly. She could almost feel her bad mood melting -

Hermione looked quickly away, pulling the edges of her irritation around her like a protective shield. She had a right to be in a bad mood, she thought, and she refused to give it up.

The Santa Claus shook his head. Looking smug, he put his fingers to his mouth and let out a silent whistle.

Five minutes later, there were ten Santa Claus's jostling for space on the small patch of wall and Hermione was really starting to get irritated. They were acting like puppy dogs begging for Hermione's attention.

Punching the wall is a *very bad idea*, Hermione told herself firmly, because you like your hand the way it is. Ignore them and focus on how miserable you are.

"Oh no," Hermione grumbled under her breath, determinedly not looking at the wall in front of her, "I don't want to come home for Christmas, dad. No, nor go to the Burrow, Ron. I really need to study. There's always something to study for - why, if I brush up on my scrying, I can study for classes that don't even exist yet! Doesn't that sound marvellous?"

She shook her head in disgust.

"Idiot," she said out loud, glaring at a particularly boisterous mural.

Movement from a little farther down the hall and -

"Taking my part tonight, Granger?" Malfoy said.

Hermione turned quickly, relaxing when she saw that he was alone and, apparently, armed only with his wit. So, pretty much harmless. And also, she thought when he came a little closer and stepped into the light, a walking example of truth in advertising:

He had the hair of an upper class prat, the fashion sense of a status-hungry weasel, and the mouth of - she blinked - actually, he had the mouth of a movie ingénue, all soft curves and full bottom lip.

No wonder he smirked all the time; a mouth like that would *ruin* his reputation. Her own lips twitched at the thought.

Malfoy was leaning against the wall smirking at her in a way that he probably liked to think of as menacing but which actually made her think about how easy it would be to tip him over with his ankles crossed like that.

She looked behind him and her eyes widened. The murals were making rude gestures at him behind his back.

It was almost as good as an emaciated Christmas tree.

"Granger?" Malfoy said in an annoyed tone. "I don't know if you're aware of this, but you're *smiling* at me."

"Am I?" Hermione said, still watching the murals.

"*Yes*," Malfoy said emphatically. "It's unnerving."

"I'm sorry, is this better?" Hermione said, trying to rearrange her features into an impassive mask. One of the Santas held out his gloved hands as if he would reach off the wall and strangle Draco from behind.

"No, now it just looks like you're trying not to laugh," Malfoy said with some irritation.

"Really?" Hermione said absently. "I can't imagine why." The Santas were clustering around his feet now, ten fat men in red suits trying to yank on Malfoy's elegantly crossed ankles.

*Not* elegant, of course, she thought, because she didn't notice that kind of thing about Malfoy. Right.

But it was fine to notice that Malfoy looked *furious*, so she did.

"You do know," he drawled in an incredibly cold voice, "that no matter what you accomplish here, you'll never be anything but a... mudblood." He looked at her expectantly.

And Hermione thought of her mother and her father and their horrible Christmas tree, and said calmly, "Yes, that's right."

It was almost startlingly pleasurable to watch his face fall.

"And you are extremely ugly, of course," he added quickly, "And an unbearable teacher's pet."

"All true, I'm afraid," Hermione said, knowing that her eyes must be dancing. "But I'm afraid that you don't even know the worst of it."

"I don't?" Malfoy said.

Hermione shook her head solemnly. "No. You don't know me well enough to know this..." she leaned towards him confidingly, "but I'm also terribly bossy."

"I knew that," Malfoy said at once, sounding altogether too sure of himself. Like he really did know.

Hermione looked at him, feeling slightly discomfited. She wanted to say something about how she hadn't known that he'd *noticed* her, but... there were too many things he could say back to that

"I, um," she said, no longer quite as happy with her game, but determined to continue, "I also take things out of the library and renew them endlessly so that other students don't get a chance to use them."

Something struck her and she perked up and, carefully watching his reaction, cheerfully said, "I'm more evil than you are, really."

"You are not!" Malfoy said, pulling away from the wall, his furious denial going nicely with the little devil horns a Santa was drawing above his head.

Hermione hid a smile. This was more like it. "Oh, I am," she said merrily. "I break the rules all the time, haven't you noticed?"

Draco was... closer. And she wasn't noticing that kind of thing, she reminded herself. Right then.

"I break the rules," he said in a dangerous voice.

But Hermione was still, very determinedly, not noticing that kind of thing, so she smiled wider than she'd meant to and said, "No, you don't, because if you did I would have heard about it."

And he didn't say anything, so she added, "You don't keep quiet about things. You're always pointing and laughing, and you want to make sure that people know that you're the one behind things. That's not good."

"It's *evil*," Draco said, and she could swear that he was almost smiling.

"No, it's *stupid,*" Hermione corrected him, "It's not evil to jump out from behind a curtain and shout 'Gotcha!', it's just irritating. Evil is... oh, I don't know... breaking the rules and being rewarded for it."

"Ah, but *you* always do it for a good cause," Malfoy said triumphantly, obviously feeling that he'd taken the point.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Everyone always thinks it's for a good cause, Malfoy. Another way I'm more evil than you are: *I* understand moral relativism."

Malfoy's expression was priceless - he looked like a wolf that had just discovered an unexpected zipper on the sheep it was about to have for dinner.

"Are you - seriously, you - attempting to tutor me on how to be evil?" Malfoy said disbelievingly, and he was nearer and, um, tall, but again nothing that should be noticed. Or thought about. Ever.

Hermione cocked her head to one side and said, "Well, no."

Malfoy seemed to relax, although he didn't step away. "All right," he said, "in that case-"

Hermione cut him off. "Think of this as the course description," she said, "For the actual tutoring, you'd have to pay me."

And there goes the zipper on the sheep costume, she thought. And inside, ah ha, a smaller, *meaner* sheep.

With a zipper on it.

Hermione smiled sweetly at him.

Malfoy *sagged*, there was no other word for it. In five seconds, he went from a tall dark figure to... well, all right, to a tall dark figure who looked like he needed a pat on the head.

A pat on the head? Hermione thought. What?

"Where's your Christmas spirit, Granger?" Malfoy said almost appealingly, still looking disturbingly... pattable. "Is this the time for this sort of thing?"

Hermione sneaked a look at the wall behind him. The Santas had somehow acquired popcorn and folding chairs and were watching avidly. Hermione resisted the urge to take a bow.

"You know," she said thoughtfully, "I think this is the *perfect* time for it."

Malfoy was still *looking* at her.

Hermione sighed. "Oh, all right," she said. "Call me a name."

"What?" Malfoy said.

"A name, call me a name," Hermione said impatiently.

Malfoy looked vaguely uncomfortable, but after a long moment he ventured a tentative, "...tramp?"

Hermione gasped, her eyes going wide and shocked. One quick step took her over to him, and -

CRACK went her palm against his cheek.

"You're a beast, Malfoy," she hissed, "an absolute *beast*."

Spinning on her heel, she walked away, leaving Malfoy alone in the corridor with the murals laughing noiselessly in the background.

And there was a long silent while the sound of her footsteps died away and the murals slipped quietly away to find other prey and...

"And I didn't get *her* anything," Malfoy said to himself, bemusedly cradling his cheek in his hand.

And then he smiled.

"Yet."

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The End

Yes, I don't know why either. Why not? *grins*

As always, comments are appreciated, to say the least.