Who's Asking? A Christmas Fic
J.T. of Gryffindor
A/N: Here is my traditional Christmas one-shot. I like it and I hope you will, too. Primarily Ron/Hermione with definite Draco/Ginny tendencies and my first attempt at slash (male!Blaise and Neville, although it's more a passing thought than anything). And yes, Harry has married a Zabini Hope you all enjoy! Last chapter of War's End will go down a bit later this evening. Yes, still making the before-Christmas deadline, thank you very much!
Disclaimer: The happiest of holidays to the Harry Potter universe's unparalleled creator, J.K. Rowling. I would never, ever dream of infringing on her work for ANY reason and I loff her! Thanks, Ms. Rowling for the wonderful Christmas present – we all await 16 July 2005 with baited breath!
P.S. My apologies – this is definitely not one of my better-edited fics, as most of my concentration has been on War's End. At some future time, I will get this properly fixed up.
Hermione Granger wrung her hands nervously.
"You think it'll work?" she asked.
Ginevra Weasley smirked in a thoroughly unladylike and decidedly Slytherin way.
"Of course it'll work," she assured her friend. "This is you and I – the brightest witches Hogwarts has seen in years! Anyway, we're being aided by Slytherins – surely that counts for something."
"How did Blaise Zabini get his paws into any of this?" Hermione murmured rhetorically, biting her lip.
"As Draco's best friend and Harry's brother-in-law, he rates inside information," Ginny informed her. "Just don't let Ron find out either of them had anything to do with this. Great goddess above!"
"Seriously, Ginny – you don't think he'll mind me doing this instead of him, do you?" Hermione asked. "I mean, it's not exactly traditional."
"Put it this way," Ginny said. "He's made no plans of the kind yet. Harry would have said something. It's your responsibility now or it'll never get done!"
"Of course you're right," Hermione murmured.
"Anyway," Ginny went on earnestly. "It'll be brilliant, you'll see! So romantic. Anyway," she added, seeing Hermione's brow furrow in continued worry, "you've got to admit it's fairly humorous."
"Yeah, for you lot who'll be watching me and laughing," Hermione muttered, settling her chin in her hand.
""We will not," Ginny said in an entirely unconvincing voice. "Go on, Mione – it's two days to Christmas. Lighten up. Ron's been out of the country – he'll never suspect! Far as I know, everything's gone according to plan. We'll check with the lads when they come. Anyway, it's the best Christmas present you could give him."
"But – Gin . . . you know he's been working for months to get Christmas Day off so that he could be with his family – and me." Hermione felt a guilty twitter in her stomach and a horrible thought occurred to her for the umpteenth time. "I mean, suppose he's planning to do it then. What a disaster!"
"He's not," Ginny said with a scoff. "Trust me – he would have told Harry."
"Still," Hermione said. "It'll probably upset him at first."
"What's this? A Gryffindor losing her nerve?"
A pair of long, denim-clad legs straddled the chair between the girls and a long, pale hand reached over to grasp Ginny's on the tabletop.
"Malfoy," Hermione said tartly. Not that they hadn't settled their school-hood differences during the war, but Hermione was at present particularly tense. The blonde's baiting was not well received.
"That's Mr. Malfoy to you, Granger," he said, bringing Ginny's fingers to his lips.
"Bite me," Hermione advised him coolly.
"Oooh, someone's got her pretty little knickers in a bunch," another voice said. Another pair of long legs, these clad in black Italian cuts, lowered their owner into a seat to Hermione's left.
"Haven't," Hermione retorted. Feeling childish, she hid her face behind her coffee mug.
"She's in a state about Weasley," Draco told him, snagging Ginny's mug and taking a swig. He winced. "Merlin's beard, love, what is this rubbish?"
"Something extremely elegant and properly befitting to a Malfoy, I expect," the dark-haired man across from him ventured with a slow smirk at Ginny. "Hot chocolate, I'd wager."
"Christ, Gin," Draco said, shaking his head and apparently trying to wipe the taste from his mouth on a nearby napkin. "At least get something with coffee in it." He adopted a gently coaxing tone. "Try a mocha – or a gingerbread latte, even."
"I don't like coffee, Draco," Ginny said primly, taking back her mug and taking a long, exaggerated gulp. "It's disgustingly bitter, would be bad for me right now anyway, and might stunt my growth."
"Hasn't stunted mine," Draco assured her with a thoroughly insinuating wink.
"Explain to me again why I let these two have anything to do with this," Hermione demanded of Ginny.
The dark-haired man snatched her mug from her loose fingers and took a pull.
"Zabini!" Hermione snapped.
Blaise set her cup down with a relieved look.
"Macchiato," he said with evident relief, nodding to Draco. "Girl's got okay taste after all."
"Although she does want Weasley babies," Draco reminded him.
Ginny slugged his arm.
"So do you, you twit, so mind your language."
"She's got you there, prat. Oy – " he caught the sleeve of a passing barista. "Mind fetching me an eight-ounce quad latte?"
"But – sir, that's only got an ounce of milk in it," the young man protested, his eyebrows raised.
"I like 'em strong," Blaise informed him with a slow, evocative smile.
The waiter went a bit pink. Insinuation from Blaise Zabini was about as hard to miss as a stampede of hippogriffs.
"Right away, sir," the waiter squeaked, before fleeing behind the counter.
"Is it possible for you to go anywhere without propositioning someone?" Hermione demanded when the waiter was out of earshot.
"Only if it's a room full of ugly women," Blaise said casually. He reached for her mug again, but she snatched it out of his reach.
"Your latest victim is bringing yours," she snapped, before taking a long pull. As with Draco, Hermione no longer had any particular qualms with Zabini. But right now his hormonally charged self was more than Hermione wanted to deal with.
"Speaking of victims," Draco said, his eyes trained on Hermione's coffee as well. Honestly! "Gin, I won't be able to stop in Madam Maulkin's for that shirt you want made for Potter's gift."
"And why not?" Ginny demanded. "I can't go for it – she'll need someone with his build to fit it for."
"Because this depraved lunatic –" indicating Zabini – "has every employee there thinking that I'm – oh, how did you put it, Blaise?" Draco glanced meaningfully at his friend.
"Hey," Zabini said, raising his hands as though to lay any sort of blame on him at all was scandalous. "I can't help it that I'm a lustful person. My quotient is two successful seductions a week. Anyway, that blonde tailor was gorgeous. I had to find some way of making him jealous. And you were just . . . right there."
"You didn't kiss Draco?" Ginny demanded, looking horrified and unwillingly amused.
"He tried rubbing up against me a couple of times," Draco said, watching his best friend severely.
"Now everyone in Madame M's thinks he's gay as a garden in summer," the dark man said gleefully. "They were all going on about 'Poor, unsuspecting Mrs. Malfoy.'"
"We can't take you anywhere, can we?" Hermione sighed.
"Not like you'll ever get the chance, Granger," Blaise said with a sneer.
Hermione shook her head as a female waitress returned with Blaise's drink. Ginny rolled her eyes, although Hermione knew that her friend was used to Blaise's antics by now. Draco, to Hermione's annoyance, looked amused, rather than sheepish, about the incident.
"As I was saying to Hermione before you two pillocks crashed the party," Ginny cut in, giving her husband and his 'depraved' companion stern looks. "The plan is going to work out just fine, isn't it? Draco, you've spoken to the team captain?"
The blonde smirked.
"My talents are wasted on menial tasks," he said dramatically. "Don't worry – it didn't take much talking. Evans has his doubts about Weasley's reserve anyway. All it took was some coaxing. He wants Puddlemere to win and we both know that Weasley's the only thing that'll stop the Harpies from winning in goals alone. He'll ask Weasley to play as soon as he checks in tomorrow morning."
"Good – so long as he's somewhere in the stadium on Christmas Day," Ginny said briskly. "And you, Blaise?"
Blaise gave another in his arsenal of smiles. This one was distinctly predatory. Ginny frowned.
"Blaise, you did stick to the simple plan of bribery?" she said with narrowed eyes, leaning across the table.
"Why waste money when there are so much more . . . satisfying methods?" Zabini answered.
"You're disgusting," Ginny informed him. She glanced around The Copper Kettle. "I wonder where – ah."
The door of the café swung open and the fifth member of their plotting quintet entered, shaking snow from his shaggy black hair.
"Sorry I'm late," he said, dropping five enormous bags to the floor and pulling out the remaining chair. "It's mad out there. Remind me to go to Hogsmeade the next time I Christmas shop."
"It might also help if you didn't always leave your shopping to the last minute," Hermione said severely.
"That's half the fun, you know." He grinned playfully and kissed her cheek. "How are you, Hermione?"
"In full neurotic tambour," Draco jumped in.
"Probably because she's having to deal with you."
"Quite the reverse, I'm sure."
"You don't look anxious. You look like a splotchy albino."
"And you look like someone who came out badly in a fight with a blizzard."
"For god's sake!" Ginny cried, glaring at them. "Draco, are you aware that your already unbearable self because ten thousand times more unbearable every time you're within twenty feet of Harry Potter?"
"He knows, and he lives for it," Blaise said. He cocked his head to the side, as though thinking seriously about something. "Actually, Gin, I'm be concerned if I were you. No matter what you two are doing, the second Harry enters the scene, Draco forgets you're there. Bit suspicious, if you ask me."
"Blaise, that is sick for so many reasons," Harry said, throwing a disgusted look at his brother-in-law and one at Draco for good measure. "Not all of us are as sexually obsessed as you."
"He's right. Jesus, Blaise!" Draco returned Harry's disgusted expression with one of his own. "That's really not something I want to think about while I'm enjoying Granger's coffee." He winked at her over the rim of the mug he had probably stolen while she was turning to greet Harry. Hermione glowered at him and slumped backward in her chair, sulking.
"Poor Hermione!" Ginny said, smiling sympathetically at her. She rounded on the three men. "You lot, shape it up! Hermione's really worried and the last thing she needs is the be scarred for life and to have her coffee taken away."
"Sorry, Mione," Harry said, instantly contrite.
The other two men had the grace to subside, although Draco did not offer her coffee back.
"Now, then," Ginny said, confident that she had restored marginal order. "Harry, how's your end shaping up?"
"Fine," he said with a shrug. "Talked with Ron yesterday and he seemed perfectly relaxed. He's not planning anything, Mione, don't worry. He's already got your Christmas present and he's all excited about coming home tonight." He paused with a rueful smile. "Seems a pity to ruin it all for him tomorrow."
"Yeah – such a pity," Draco agreed absently, leaning over to try and catch a glimpse inside one of the shopping bags Harry had set down between their chairs. Harry saw this and dragged the bags under the table.
"Ooh, got something for me in there, Potter?" Draco simpered, batting his eyelashes.
"See?" Blaise said. "Best watch them, Gin."
"Only because Gwen forced me to pick something up for you," Harry retorted, shaking his head. "You know if it had been up to me I'd have nicked some stocking-stuffers for you from Fred and George's lab."
"Why didn't you?" Hermione asked, unable to suppress a smile.
"Because Gwen suspects me to try it and she's going to check whatever I get the git before she allows me to wrap it," Harry said with a woe-begotten expression.
"Pity," Ginny said with a straight face. "George has just developed something really spectacular that's to be presented right after the New Year. He says they're still ironing out some side effects."
Harry looked deeply disappointed. Draco looked affronted.
"It's sad, really, Harry," Blaise said, taking a sip of his drink. He sighed with a look of sheer ecstasy. "Caffeine – nectar of the gods."
"You're the only person I've ever met who can get off with a cup of coffee," Harry jibed. "What's sad, Blaise?"
"My little sister has you buying expensive presents for Slytherins," Blaise said, not looking in the least perturbed by Harry's remark.
"You lived with her for eighteen years," Harry defended himself. "Gwen's terrifying when she wants her own way."
"Don't knock it, Malfoy, she's the reason you won't spend your holiday as a slug."
"So – was there a reason you wanted us to meet here, Gin?" Harry asked after a short pause.
"We were all going to be in Diagon Alley anyway – I just wanted to see that you were all carrying out your ends of the plan," Ginny told him. "Hermione was worried, but I told her you would each do your bit without fouling up terribly and everything will be ready in time. It's only two days till Christmas, you know."
Harry gave Hermione an affectionate smile.
"Everything'll be fine, Mione," he assured her. "Ron's thick as a board and won't suspect a thing. Anyway, he's only home two days before Christmas, so it's not like he'll have time to suspect anything anyway."
"And like you said earlier, it's not traditional, so I doubt he would guess even if he did suspect that something was up," Ginny assured her friend.
"Anyway, Granger, Blaise and I are ace at conniving and trickery – we're Slytherins to the core, remember," Draco put in smugly, his fingers toying with Ginny's on the tabletop.
"Harry's no idiot, either – recall how he and Ron snuck into your common room when they were only in second year," Hermione said with a smile at her friend.
"I still plan to sue for trespass," Draco informed her placidly. "I've got my lawyer on it now, Potter. You just wait."
"Hey now – no bringing disgrace on my family, Draco," Blaise said, sipping at his latte. "Harry's a Zabini now and we'll not have the good name sullied by childhood failings."
"I am not a Zabini," Harry mumbled petulantly.
"Sure you are – we all know who wears the pants in your flat," Blaise said.
"Rub it in, will you?" But Harry smiled his funny little crooked smile that meant he was thinking of Gwendolyn Zabini.
"Oh, hell, he's gone mushy now, Blaise," Draco groused. "Come on, Gin – I'm sure we've got loads of Christmas shopping left to do. Lots to buy for the kids and all that."
"Draco, we're the proud parents of one unborn child," Ginny pointed out, patting her flat belly pointedly. Her voice was resigned and Hermione knew that this discussion had occurred several times already. "As I'm sure you'll agree, a two-month-old fetus is going to have little use for a Firebolt, a set of Quidditch balls, or a wand."
"But if you spend a half an hour with each of those things against your stomach every day you're pregnant, the kid'll become a Quidditch genius with unsurpassed dueling abilities before he's even out of the womb!" Draco insisted confidently, swirling the remaining dregs of Hermione's drink around with a spoon.
Ginny sighed, shaking her head and probably realizing how pointless it was to continue the conversation.
"We should probably go, though," the redhead agreed, pushing back her chair. She looked mischievously at her husband. "Since Draco can't even get a present for Harry without me there to supervise."
Blaise snorted loudly. Hermione saw the waiter who'd taken his order earlier cast their table an extremely nervous look.
"Who knows what to get a boy wonder hero, anyway?" he muttered.
"How about a tee shirt that says 'I mock Draco Malfoy – ask me how' in big red letters?"
"Oh, sod off, Potter!"
"So, Mione," Ginny said loudly, getting to her feet and collecting her own shopping from amidst the bags on the floor. "Are you coming to Mum's for dinner tonight before Ron's homecoming party, right?"
"Oh, no," Draco cut in with a groan. "I'd forgotten." His eyes brightened. "Can you take Granger instead of me?"
Ginny slugged him in the arm and he yelped.
"Sure, I'll be there," Hermione laughed.
"See you," Ginny said, bending down to kiss her cheek.
"Later," Hermione smiled as she watched the Malfoys leave the café.
"I should probably be off as well," Blaise said. He snorted. "I'm gay and the stereotypes all say that I'm supposed to have superb taste in everything. But I don't have a fucking clue what to get anyone."
"Least you don't have a mastermind slave driver who tells you to go pick out everyone's gifts since she doesn't feel like doing it and then makes you a list of exactly what to get everyone because she doesn't trust you to do it properly on your own," Harry said with another of his crooked smiles.
"Watch it, Potter – that 'mastermind slave driver' is my kid sister," Zabini warned, shaking a warning finger at him.
"You threatening me, Zabini?"
"You'd better watch it, you know. Your kid sister's quite attached me and if she finds out you had anything to do with my sudden demise . . . "
"She'd get over it and find someone more worthy," Blaise declared.
"No she wouldn't, because you'd scare them all away," Hermione pointed out, grinning in spite of herself.
"True . . . how did you manage to get near enough to her, Harry?" Zabini looked perplexed.
"Sheer, noble stupidity, I imagine," Harry quipped.
"Must be," Blaise said, shaking his head as he stood up. "Well, wish me luck."
"Don't worry – most of us won't care what you get us. It's the thought that counts," Hermione assured him.
"Oh, no, I wasn't thinking about presents," Blaise told her, looking surprised. "No, there's this new store manager over at Flourish and Blots who's an absolute dream. I'm hoping to convince him to have dinner with me tonight."
"At the Weasleys?" Harry pointed out.
"Damn fuck bitching . . . " Blaise glared. "I still don't understand why I have to go."
"Because Gwen is making you, naturally."
"I'm not her husband – I'm her older brother, for Christ's sake!" Blaise muttered. "I command complete devotion and respect."
"You might if Gwendolyn Zabini wasn't your sister," Harry told him.
Blaise looked deeply disappointed.
"Invite the manager guy for a nightcap or something," Hermione suggested, unable to believe she was encouraging Blaise in his sexual exploits.
"Good thinking, Granger," Blaise said distractedly. He wandered out of the coffee house looking rather preoccupied.
"We need to find him a boyfriend," Hermione said, shaking her head. She laughed. "I can't believe I just said that."
"It's true," Harry assured her. "Gwen and I have been trying to ages to fix him up – friends from work, friends from school, friends from the Order. The problem is he's enjoying the fast and furious world of one night stands at the moment and doesn't stick to one bloke for more than a few days."
"He'll find someone and settle as comfortably as Draco," Hermione said, smiling as she thought of the blonde. Perhaps the word 'settle' didn't quite fit. Draco was still Draco – loud, obnoxious, rude, self-assured, and occasionally still a biased toward Muggleborns. However, five years under Ginny's hand had tamed away most of the malice and all of the ill-intent. Draco wasn't soft by a long shot, but he was hopelessly far gone on Ginny. And now that they were expecting their first child . . . well, the softening some men might have undergone in the same situation was replaced in Draco's case by manic assurance that his heir would be the most profoundly spectacular child in all the world.
"If you say so," Harry said doubtfully, in response to her last sentence.
"He seemed rather sweet on Neville the last time we all went dancing at Xanidu," Hermione said thoughtfully. She reached absently across the table for Blaise's abandoned latte, took a sip, and winced. How could he drink it? It was pure espresso!
Harry, meanwhile, had choked.
"Neville?" he said incredulously. "You can't be serious!"
"Why not?" Hermione said with a shrug. "Neville's a great guy! He's fit and he's companionable. And he's a Pureblood – blood's a big thing with Blaise, you know."
Harry nodded and rolled his eyes. Hermione was sure he was remembering Blaise's reaction when he had discovered that a Halfblood had proposed marriage to his sister. It had not been pretty.
"But – well, I mean, Hermione . . . they're total opposites," Harry pressed.
"Opposites attract," she insisted. "Neville doesn't go in for the bad boy stuff that Blaise uses to seduce other men and that's probably why he's caught Blaise's interest." She grinned. "You know Zabinis are suckers for attention and when they don't get it . . . "
"They're enthralled," he finished. He gave her an impish wink. "Weasleys are quite the reverse, aren't they?"
Hermione nodded, knowing exactly what he meant.
"Oblivious beyond belief," she agreed. She sighed.
"What?" Harry asked, his smile fading.
"Oh – well," Hermione said, faltering. Taking a breath she said, "Harry, I know it sounds silly, but I really had imagined this differently."
"I know," he said, sympathetically.
"I really thought Ron would . . . you know, have popped the question by now," she went on slowly, her eyes on Zabini's mug, which was still clutched in her hands.
"But it's better this way," Harry assured her. "It's Christmas, it'll be romantic, and you'll get to do everything yourself, just the way you want it." He tweaked her nose playfully. "You're always happier doing things your own way, aren't you? You know better than to trust Ron to get things right."
Hermione's smile returned slowly.
"You're right," she said with a smile. "Anyway, sod tradition. It's silly."
"That's the spirit," Harry said, getting to his feet. "Well, I have some more shopping to do before I go home to get ready for Ron's coming home thing tonight. You?"
"Tons," Hermione agreed, getting up as well and pulling a long ream of parchment from her robe pocket. On it was a complex list (color-coated, as always) of gifts, contingency gifts, and additional gift ideas, all categorized in order of recipient with the recipients listed in alphabetical order.
"What?" Hermione demanded, as Harry glanced at it and began to laugh.
Hermione finished her shopping that afternoon, bid Harry goodbye, and Apparated to her and Ron's flat in nearby wizarding London. Because of her job as wizard/Muggle liaison between the British Ministry and the Ministry of Magic, it was important that she have easy access to both worlds.
It took her longer than expected to wrap her numerous presents and still longer to find nice robes to wear to the Weasleys. Informal as the family gatherings always were, Hermione hadn't seen Ron in two weeks and wanted to look especially good for him.
Which is ridiculous, she scolded herself. He loves you – he couldn't care less what you wear or if your hair looks nice.
Still, she thought as she gazed at herself in the full-length mirror in her bedroom, it would be nice to remind him just how much he had missed her.
She smiled to herself as she tugged at her long hair. Ron had been away for two weeks helping scout for Puddlemere United, on which team he had been made Keeper several years ago (along with Draco, who was now one of their star Chasers). He had been all over Europe and thus his communications with her had been brief and to the point. He would ask how she was, what she was doing with herself, and then tell her he loved her.
Not that she had ever doubted it.
She sighed as she stared down at her pretty robes. With a sudden, self-deprecating sigh, she shed them and pulled on khakis, a pretty red button-down blouse, and her lined parka. This was Ron – her best friend and lover – and he didn't need impressing. In point of fact, he never seemed quite at ease around her on the few occasions either of them had had to dress up for anything.
Satisfied that he would see his Hermione when he stepped out of the fire later that night, she pulled on her warm winter boots, tucked her pant-legs inside, bundled her gifts for everyone into her arms, and left her flat. She couldn't Floo to the Weasleys because, due to the delicate nature of her job, she wasn't connected to the Floo network, so instead she made for the Apperation area in the alleyway beside the apartment building.
She appeared on the Weasleys front porch and took a moment to smile out over the beautiful snow-covered landscape that surrounded the Burrow. She hadn't been in several weeks, thanks to many last-minute assignments for work that she had to clear up before Christmas and her mind-numbingly long Christmas "To Do" list. Now the grounds were carpeted in white, with evidence of the snowy adventures of children signified by tiny footprints, snow beings of all varieties, and trails where the toboggan had be put to use.
It was good to be home, Hermione thought with a smile, pulling the bell by the door and then letting herself in.
Mrs. Weasley bustled into the hallway, all smiles and exclamations after her.
"Goodness, dear, your cheeks are so red! And your hands are so cold – have you been outdoors too long? Where are your gloves? You hand me these packages – they go under the tree, don't they? There, now, you come into the sitting room and get warm. Supper will be ready soon."
She kissed Hermione's cheek and hurried away into the sitting room where the Weasley's massive tree was always placed. Hermione shook her head and followed, realizing that she hadn't even been given a chance to greet Ron's mother.
"Mione! About time," came Ginny's voices as Hermione followed Mrs. Weasley into the living room.
"Get lost, Granger?" Draco asked. He was seated on the love seat before the fire, his arm around Ginny.
"How's it going, Hermione?" Bill and George grinned up at her from the hearthrug where they were playing chess.
"Finish all your Christmas shopping?" Harry, who was sitting near the Christmas tree with his wife and three of the Weasley grandchildren around him, asked. She knew he was still laughing about her color-coated shopping list.
"He's just upset that I didn't color coat his shopping list," Gwendolyn assured her, nudging her chuckling husband.
"Aunt Mione!" several voices chirped. Charlie laughed at her from the long couch before the fire as his twins launched themselves at her.
"Sorry about that, Hermione," Charlie's wife Clara apologized as Hermione was assaulted by the three-year-olds. "They've been looking forward to seeing you all evening."
"Daniel, Alice," Hermione greeted her favorite 'nephew' and 'niece', ruffling their hair. One of the fantastic things about being so close to the Weasleys was that, even had she and Ron never fallen in love, she would still have been considered a daughter of the family.
Scooping up the twins, she looked around for a place to sit.
"I saved you a spot, Hermione." Neville, another Weasley adoptee, beamed at her from his place leaning up against the base of the long couch. Hermione wasn't in the least surprised to see Blaise close beside him.
She settled in beside them, greeting the rest of the occupants of the room in turn, and allowing the twins ("goodness, you're both getting so big!") to remain in her lap, from which place they regaled her with as many three-year-old tales of adventure as they could think of.
"You're so good with them, Mione," Neville said admiringly as they at last became distracted by their Uncle Fred's insinuating that he had candy for them.
"They're dears, aren't they?" she said with an unconscious smile.
"Not so unhappy about making Weasley babies after all, Granger?" Blaise teased from Neville's other side.
"That's a bit premature, Blaise," she reminded him, blushing faintly.
"Somehow, I doubt it," the dark man said meaningfully.
"How is 'the plan' coming?" Neville wanted to know.
Hermione grimaced. She had been so eager to see Ron that she'd managed to forget about it for a time.
"Everything's set, I think," she told him, gazing unseeingly into the blazing fire. "I'm just nervous."
"Course you are," Neville said, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders. "But it'll work out, you'll see." He smiled his gentle, guileless smile at her. "It will be passed down through Weasley legend for generations to come."
Hermione laughed and leaned her head briefly against his shoulder, staring now at the beautiful, ornament-covered Christmas tree under which an ever-increasing number of presents lay.
If Hermione was very lucky, she would be getting be best present of all.
Ron was actually early in Flooing home. He had finished his last try-out an hour ahead of schedule, handed the finalist list to the head trainer, and hurried away to his inn to pack. The nearest Floo station was in the lobby of the inn, the line wasn't long, and sooner than he believed possible he was tumbling out of the fireplace at the Burrow, where he had promised to stop before returning home.
He was surprised and delighted to discover a room full to bursting with his family. He was even more delighted to see a certain someone lingering near the back of the room as he was mobbed by his brothers and sister and their families. He waded through them as quickly as possible, making sure to greet everyone, but desperate to reach . . .
"Hermione," he said, feeling a familiar flutter in his chest, accompanied by a wide, goofy grin that nearly split his face. God, had he missed her! Their two weeks apart had been akin to torture, despite their frequent, if brief, chats.
"Ron." She smiled her lovely, bright smile at him and allowed him to pull her tightly into his arms. "I'm so glad you're home," she whispered in his ear.
"Me, too." He pulled back and gave her a long kiss.
There were several cat-calls and a few stifled groans from behind him, but he ignored them, his mind focused on one thing – Hermione.
"Get me a good present for Christmas?" Ron asked, grinning down at her.
She stiffened, her face suddenly frozen.
"What?" Ron said, taken aback. He had been joking, after all.
"Dinner, everyone!" his mum's voice rang suddenly through the room. There was a general stampede as Ron's siblings and their significant others made for the dining room, which certainly smelled a treat.
Mrs. Weasley paused beside Ron and Hermione on her way through.
"I'm so glad you're home, Ron!" she said, patting his cheek with such a look of affection that Ron felt no one in the world had as amazing a mother as he did.
"Me, too," he said with a smile, his arm tightening around Hermione. She had relaxed after a moment and now melted in her usual, comfortable way against his side.
His mum stood staring back and forth between them for a moment, an odd expression on her face. Ron tried to put his finger on it – where had he seen that look before?
A moment later, as she gave a swipe at her eyes, he knew.
"Mum, what's wrong?" he demanded.
"Oh," she said, with a watery smile. "I was just remembering when your father and I first got engaged. He used to smile at me, Ron, just the way you were smiling at Hermione a moment ago. My dears!" she said suddenly, wrapping them both in a brief, tight hug before hurrying away to the kitchen.
Ron stared after her, a half-smile on his lips.
"We're not engaged," he said, throwing a glance at Hermione.
"Dinner," she said quietly, tugging his hand and pulling him after her into the kitchen.
Dinner at the Weasleys was always a noisy and joyous occasion and with the addition of small children, an utterly chaotic one. Charlie's twins, in particular, were dreadful – it didn't help matters that Fred and George were sitting with them, whispering to them and occasionally handing them things to catapult across the table.
Ron enjoyed the meal thoroughly – there was no Quidditch match in the world that he would enjoy more than a Weasley dinner – but he was also a bit distracted. He watched Hermione closely across the table. Something was clearly on her mind – she was talking and laughing with Ginny, Gwendolyn, and Bill, but occasionally she would lapse into silence if there was any sort of lull in the conversation. This happened several times, though Ginny always managed to say something that made her laugh and reenter the conversation.
Ron smiled as this series of events occurred a third time and Hermione actually threw her head back as she giggled helplessly. Blaise and Malfoy (Ron would never, on principle, call him Draco) were watching the proceedings with looks of intense amusement.
"That nice shade of puce goes with your cranberry sauce, Granger," Malfoy said.
He was hit soundly about the head by Ron's mum, whom Ron privately decided was his new favorite relative.
"You be polite at my table, Draco Malfoy, particularly when speaking to a lady," she reprimanded.
Malfoy muttered," Yes, mother," and started sulking into his plate. Blaise openly sniggered at him.
"Cut the poor lad some slack, Mum," Charlie said. "He's married to Ginny – and we all know how much of a lady she is!"
He was also rewarded with a resounding slap about the head, his yelps of protest going unnoticed by his indignant attacker.
"Daddy's getting beat by Aunty Gin!" Alice chanted, bouncing about gleefully in her chair.
By the end of dinner, things had begun to quiet down a bit as everyone was stuffed and feeling lazy.
"Do you need any help with the dishes, Mrs. Weasley?" Hermione asked. Ron would never understand why she insisted on calling his mum "Mrs." when she was practically family – had been for years!
"That's quite all right, dear," Mrs. Weasley said. "I think I'll leave this lot for later, anyway. Why don't we all go back into the sitting room and relax?"
Everyone agreed and another mad stampede ensued, this one for claim of the various chairs and sofas.
Ron watched them all go, Hermione trailing last of all.
"Fancy a walk, Mione?" he called after her.
She turned back with an incredulous smile.
"It's freezing out there!" she said.
"Well, are you a witch or aren't you?" he teased, coming around the table and sliding his arms around her waist. "Ever heard of a warming charm before?"
"Oh, all right then, Mr. Smarty Pants," she said grudgingly, standing up on tiptoe to kiss his nose (an endearing habit she had developed early on in their relationship).
They got their cloaks and jackets and Hermione's wand (her warming charms outstripped his by a long shot), put on their heavy winter boots, and slipped out the back door.
Night had really fallen by now, but a spectacular blanket of stars, complete with full-moon light against the white ground, offered them a beautiful, eerie light.
"It's so lovely!" Hermione murmured, staring around the snow-covered yard and out into the lane.
"Let's walk toward Ottery St. Catchpole," Ron suggested, gathering her gloved hand into his and starting off.
Their boots crunched gently in the glistening new snow, the only sound that broke the stillness of the night. They moved in companionable silence for a time, enjoying the utter serenity of the starry night and the breathtaking beauty of the rolling hills that lay beyond the stretches of farmland surrounding the village.
"Hermione," Ron said, when they had gone for some time without speaking.
"Have you ever thought about us?"
Oh, smooth ,Weasley. Ron was relieved that it was part enough that she probably couldn't see his face.
"Of course," she said with a quiet laugh. "All the time."
"Right," Ron said, sheepishly. "That's not quite what I meant."
"Are you talking about our relationship?" she asked.
"Kind of," Ron hedged. He wasn't sure why he was bringing this up out of the blue. He supposed there must be something wrong with his brain. He had, after all, been enjoying the quiet perfectly well.
"Do you mean, where it's going?" By Merlin's left nostril, the girl was shrewd!
"Yeah," Ron said, clearing his throat.
She went quiet.
Oh, bugger, he though. I've blown it now.
"Well," Hermione said at length. "I mean, I'm very happy, aren't I? We get along loads better than in school."
"I should hope so," Ron murmured, chuckling at the memory or a bushy-haired girl and a gangling boy throwing petty insults at each other every hour of the day.
Hermione giggled as well.
"I meant," she said, nudging his side, "that we seem to do much better in – in this sort of relationship than as just friends."
Ron's heart leapt. She had never said anything like that before.
"You think so?" he said eagerly.
"Of course," she said, surprised. "Why would I be seeing you this way if I felt otherwise?"
Ron's heart sunk. She was right, of course.
"Well, do you – do you see what we have now . . . the relationship, I mean – developing at all?"
Again, that silence that made him squirm. He glanced at her face and saw the oddly closed expression. What was going on in that giant brain of hers, he wondered (not for the first time).
"Why are you bringing this up?" she asked at last. She kicked the snowy path with her feet, sending clouds of white billowing around their boots.
Ron would gladly have told her if he had known himself.
"No reason," he said with a shrug.
To his disquiet, she seemed to relax.
"Okay," she said slowly. "Then let's talk about something else. I don't feel like deep discussions tonight." She paused, as though trying to think of a new subject. Then she brightened. "What did you get me for Christmas?"
They walked a bit further down the lane. Ron was careful to avoid anything that might lead to any more relationship talk. He didn't want to argue with her or – heaven forbid – get in a fight right before Christmas. They had been separated for too long to waste their precious time bickering (as they still did on frequent occasions). Anyway, Ron didn't want to ruin what was sure to be a particularly special Christmas.
He and Hermione had decided that, rather than staying at their flat Christmas Eve, they would spend the night at the Burrow so that they could get up early and open their stockings with Ron's siblings, nieces, and nephews. In fact, all of them were going to try to stay that night. It would be a tight fit, particularly because Mrs. Weasley insisted that no one sleep in the living room ("What if Santa trips over you in the dark?"). Still, with the exception of Percy, they would all be there that year, under the same roof Christmas Eve and Day for the first time since – well, since the early days of the Order.
"What're you thinking about?" Hermione asked him, squeezing his hand.
"Just wondering if Mum's going to make me another maroon sweater," he joked. "I think most of the elves Hogwarts have at least one by now. They're like a maroon army."
"I think it's wonderful that so many of them are taking to freedom," Hermione said, sounding mildly indignant, as she always did when discussion elf rights.
"So long as Dumbledore allows them to stay on as Hogwarts elves," Ron reminded her.
"Still," she insisted, "it's a step in the right direct –"
She was cut off as a sizable snowball his Ron in the backside. He jumped about a foot in the air. They were nearly at the Weasleys', with the lane lined with trees at their backs. Ron whirled and stared into the darkness.
Hermione suddenly shrieked as a smaller snowball hit her leg.
Ron stared wildly around. It was a truly pathetic irony that, although he had once been an Auror, he still came off worst in every snowball fight he was ever in.
"Cheaters," he called. "At least give us thirty seconds to find cover. Bet this is Malfoy and Zabini's doing," he added in an undertone to Hermione.
"Which Zabini, do you expect?" Hermione countered, jumping out of the way to avoid another snowball. "They're both dead gone on mischief."
It was a giggle from behind an upturned wheelbarrow nearby that turned the tables. Hermione heard it to. Grinning, she withdrew her wand.
"Accio Ginny!" she called.
With a shriek, Ginevra came flying over the top of the wheelbarrow and landed on her bum between them.
"Right!" Ron called to the area at large, a manic grin on his face – god, he loved his family! "We've got a hostage!" He pulled Ginny up and pinned her flailing arms to her sides. "Do what we say, or I'll throw her into a snow bank!"
Ginny shrieked again and Ron almost got a kick in the shin.
"You wouldn't dare, Ron!" she cried, struggling desperately.
"Don't be so sure," he said wickedly. He raised his voice. "Malfoy, I suspect this whole mess is the work of your Slytherin mind. Surrender, or your wife gets it."
Another snowball came hurtling toward them out of the darkness. It hit Hermione in the left breast.
"Ow!" she howled, glowering into the woods from which the snowball had come. "Ooh, you're in for it now, Malfoy!"
"Too right you are!" Ginny cried indignantly. "You cowardly git – leaving me to fend for myself. Come out this instant or it's the couch for you!"
"For a month!" Ginny added.
"All right, all right!" Malfoy stepped out from behind a tree at the edge of the woods, Blaise by his side. "No need to resort to drastic measures – oomph!" He doubled over suddenly as a giant snowball hit him in the stomach.
They all turned to gape at Hermione, who was looking quite pleased with herself.
"Ooh, that's done it, Granger," he said in what he probably meant to be a low, menacing voice. It was, however, slightly higher pitched than usual and Hermione had the audacity to giggle at him.
"Is it a free-for-all now?" came a voice from behind them.
Ron turned to see Harry, Bill, Charlie, Gwendolyn, and Fred step out from behind the shed while George appeared with Neville seconds later behind Malfoy and Blaise.
Hermione and Ron glanced at each other. Then Hermione shoved a large handful of snow she had picked up shortly after walloping Malfoy down Ron's shirt.
"Let's have a peace treaty, Gin!" she called as she darted away from Ron.
Hours later, Ron and Hermione stepped out of the Apperation alleyway and into their flat. Hermione was still smiling. A fast and furious snowball fight had been put to an end when it became girls (all four of them) against boys and the tables had turned rather nasty.
They had all sat up into the wee hours of the morning talking and drinking hot buttered rum in front of the fire until Bill had pointed out that some magical folk had to work the next day.
Grumbling, but agreeing, they had all got up and left, one by one, until only Hermione, Harry, Gwen, and Ron were left.
"See you tomorrow night, then?" Harry asked, kissing Hermione's cheek and grinning at Ron in that special way they had which meant that they were communicating something secretive and probably "manly". It was a system they had spent many school years perfecting.
"I have a bit of training to do, but I should be home round four," Ron told him, returning the smile and giving Gwen a hug.
"Tomorrow, then," Gwen said, strolling into the fire in front of Harry.
Harry stepped in after her, but Hermione caught his sleeve.
"Did Blaise leave with Neville?" she asked curiously.
"They burned out of here faster than a cat on fire," he told her.
"I thought so," she said. "Blaise isn't what you would call 'subtle'."
"That he is not," Harry smiled. "Night, you two."
"Night, Harry," they chorused as he Flooed away.
"Well," said Ron, kicking off his boots as they stepped through the front door of their own flat and yawning absurdly wide. "I'm dead gone – shall we turn in?"
It wasn't until she lay wrapped around Ron later that night that she realized how badly his good temper would be hampered the following day. The nervous bout of what ifs that this thought occasioned kept her up rather longer than usual.
The next morning, she said goodbye to Ron with her nerves jangling. He was in high spirits, looking forward to his day off after a long, two-week grind. He kissed her cheerfully before strolling off down the stairs to the Apperation point.
"Be back by four," he told her, smiling blindingly.
Hermione returned his expression weakly, feeling slightly ill.
"Don't be so tense, Mione!" Ginny said, when Hermione called her that afternoon from her office in a blind panic.
"That's like telling a Manticore not to savage things," Draco's voice came from somewhere behind Ginny.
"Shut up, pillock! Anyway, Hermione, everything's in hand. Just be very kind and comforting when he gets in – of course it's horrid, of course you'll still stay the night at the Burrow, of course all of us will turn up at the game tomorrow."
"All of us?" Draco's voice repeated, sounding alarmed.
The conversation had gone downhill from there.
Hermione went back to her paperwork and listened to Celestina Warbuck's new Christmas song on WWN, feeling a bit better.
Ron was spitting mad – spitting. How was it possible that the one day off for him this year – apart from his birthday – had just been revoked? How? Weren't there labor laws preventing such violations?
Oh, sure there are, Ron thought sourly to himself as he stomped up the steps to his and Hermione's flat. You're just giving in to Evans because you know he's right – Rivington doesn't have enough training to last five minutes as Keeper against the Harpies. He scowled. What was the point of a reserve if you couldn't trust them to do your job for you the one day of the year you couldn't make it?
Ron slouched into the flat, thankful that Hermione got home after he did most days. How was he ever going to explain this mess to her? His one day off! They had been planning it for months now – what would she say?
He groaned. She was quite a formidable woman when her dander was up.
And gods, did he ever love her for it!
He nearly jumped out of his skin. She was standing behind him, looking concerned.
"Are you okay?" she asked, coming further into the room and standing up on tiptoe to give him a kiss.
"Fine," he squeaked when she pulled away.
"I'm not," he agreed heavily. He paused, looking down into her beloved face, and gave a sigh that was almost a groan.
"There's – there's been a hitch with tomorrow," he said slowly, watching closely for any signs of anger that he might escape as quickly as possible. Possibly, he could lock himself in the bathroom.
"What kind of hitch?" she asked, sounding more curious than upset.
"I – something came up and my reserve can't play in our Christmas Day match against the Harpies," he said in a rush. He waited for the implications of that to sink in.
"So," Hermione said, after a moment. "That means they need you to play."
"Yes," Ron said tensely, waiting for the angry outburst, the annoyed nagging (which had begun during the first few months they had dated every time Ron's work interfered with their relationship).
"Will that stop us spending tonight with your parents?" she asked, not looking terribly upset.
"N-no," Ron said, confused.
"Well, then," Hermione said with a smile.
"You – you aren't mad?" he asked, realizing too late that he sounded downright skeptical.
"Why would I be?" she asked confusedly.
"Well," Ron said, taken about by her casual question. "We've been planning this for ages – I mean, we were going to see my parents and your parents and have the feast at Mum's and spend time here together."
"Sure – we can still do some of that," Hermione said reasonably, giving him a reassuring hug. "We can still stay Christmas Eve with your family. We'll get up early to open stockings, maybe do gifts and Christmas brunch and then – ooh, Ron!" she added excitedly. "Suppose everyone comes to see you play?"
"What – why?" Ron stared at her, utterly baffled. "I mean, it's not a big deal to any of them and besides, Malfoy's been badgering Evans for longer than I have to have tomorrow off."
"It can be another family thing," Hermione insisted brightly. "My dad really enjoyed the first match we came to and I'm sure the others would love to be there to cheer you on." She gave him a sympathetic look. "And who wants to work on Christmas?"
Hermione awoke in Ron's bed at the Burrow on Christmas morning with a terrible case of nerves. She slid carefully out of Ron's arms and padded downstairs in her dressing gown, careful not to step on the rickety bottom stair. She got herself a glass of milk and snagged a cookie from the jar ever-full by the kitchen sink. Then she wandered into the living room.
She smiled at the ridiculous sight on the mantle. There were so many stockings that only the seven Weasley children's and Mr. And Mrs. Weasley's were actually hanging. The rest were laid out on the hearth, kept well-clear of the dirty grate, and were so stuffed that little packages were sticking out the tops of most of them.
Hermione took a seat in the rocker and turned her attention to the tree. Overnight, it had been transformed into a bit of green with many bundles burgeoning out from all sides. It made her laugh – anyone coming into the Burrow would have been shocked, considering how poor the Weasleys were believed to be. But with so many people now, in addition to Ginny and Gwen going a touch overboard when it came to Christmas shopping, it was no wonder there were so many.
Hermione had always felt that gift-giving was overemphasized on Christmas, but in her secret soul she knew that it would always give her a slight thrill to see her stocking stuffed with goodies (particularly of the magical variety) and the tree loaded with gifts.
Hermione smiled at the pleasant sight, enjoying the view out of the window behind the tree. It had, apparently, snowed quite hard the night before. There was no evidence of their vicious snowball fight, as there had still been when Hermione and Ron had arrived the night before.
Hermione's heart skipped a bit. Today was the fateful day. Now, if only everything would go according to plan . . .
Slowly, other members of the family began to wake up and soon Hermione was joined by several nieces and nephews, George, Ginny, and Bill. They sat around complaining about everyone else being lazy until the others began to drift in.
Draco was in a fowl mood at having to get up so early. Most unfortunately for him, Charlie's twins and Fred were quick to pick up on this and spent the rest of the morning making his life hell.
"He needs the stirring up," Ginny told Hermione and Gwen unsympathetically as Blaise and Neville wandered in. They were the last in the house to come down, Hermione and Harry were quick to notice with no little amusement.
The stocking and present-opening were noisy affairs, as was the early brunch that followed, and although Hermione was having a wonderful time, she couldn't ignore her nervousness, which was quickly reaching its peak.
Ginny stayed with her all morning, murmuring to her not to loose her head and that it would all go off smoothly. Blaise also offered her encouragement, pointing out that he didn't know of another time when it had been done this way and they all knew Ron wanted to marry her, so what was she worried about? Draco smirked at her and dared her not to do it.
Hermione glared at him and Ginny threatened him in several graphic ways over a large plate of brunch.
At around ten-thirty Ron had to leave for the match.
"We'll be there," she promised him with an unintentionally intense kiss before he stepped into the fire.
"You all right, Mione?" he asked, not moving toward the flames. "You've been on edge all morning."
"I'm fine," she assured him, trying to smile.
"Sure," he said, looking unconvinced.
Oh, good, she thought sourly as he Flooed away. Now he probably thinks I'm angry with him. Bother!
The family, including Hermione's parents, arrived at the stadium early and were shown to seats in the top box (undoubtedly procured by Draco, Blaise, or both).
"All set?" Harry murmured in Hermione's ear, leaning on the back of her chair.
"Of course she's ready!" Ginny said, patting her shoulder. "Blaise?"
"All set," the dark man said, rising and exiting the box.
"Menial tasks," he murmured, pulling a small object from his pocket and handing it to Hermione.
"Thank you, you've done a fine job," Ginny assured him with a kiss. "Think of it as your reward for asking me first."
Hermione swallowed hard.
She watched the game, which seemed to go by a lot more quickly than usual.
"What if I fall?" she hissed to Harry as the Harpies took a penalty (easily blocked by Ron).
"You won't," he shouted over the noise of the crowd cheering for Ron.
"It was so much more fun when he was insecure," Draco was saying mournfully. "Now Weasley actually stays on his broom. It's not the same."
"I'd think you'd be happy he stays on seeing as you're on his team," Harry pointed out.
"Some delights die hard, Potter," Draco sighed melodramatically.
Hermione listened with all her might to the banter, but it did not stop her mind playing out horrible scenarios – her falling off her broom, Ron getting knocked out by a Bludger during the game –
Ron saying no . . .
A sudden, deafening roar filled the stands.
"Nice catch!" Draco was shouting enthusiastically. "Good on you, Avery!"
"What's happened?" Hermione demanded of Ginny.
The little redhead's look made Hermione feel feint.
"It's time," she called over the noise. She pointed to the scoreboard. Hermione saw Blaise standing at the bottom right-hand corner. She could have sworn Blaise winked at her before turning and waving his arm at the operator, who was standing at the bottom left-hand corner with his wand out.
The operator nodded and tapped the scoreboard with his wand.
A sudden hush fell over the stadium as the scores were replaced by two words.
Ron, who was in a gaggle on the ground with his team mates, didn't see it at first. Then one of the Beaters glanced up, saw the message, and nudged Ron. Ron turned, still smiling. Hermione couldn't help a nervous giggle as he jumped.
More words appeared on the screen.
COME ON UP HERE, RON.
"Now, Granger!" Draco hissed, nodding to the object in her hand.
"Right – engorgio!" she said, and the shrunken broomstick extended into its usual size.
"Good luck!" everyone said (by now 'the plan' was only a secret to Ron) as Hermione mounted the broom. Her mum gave her an encouraging peck on the cheek and, with only a slight hesitation, Hermione kicked off from the ground.
The scoreboard had a new message for Ron, who was currently floating in front of it, looking confused.
TURN AROUND, RON.
Ron did and Hermione almost fell off her broom as her nerves jangled again.
Oh, no, she thought stubbornly. I'm not going to fall and die after all this trouble.
Ron was staring at her as though she had antlers.
"What're you doing?" he called in amazement, laughing slightly.
Silently, Hermione drew level with him and nodded back to the scoreboard where new words had appeared.
THREE GUESSES WHAT I'M ABOUT TO ASK YOU, RONALD WEASLEY, AND THE FIRST TWO DON'T COUNT.
The stadium, which had been attentively silent until this point, laughed appreciatively. Ron, meanwhile, was staring at Hermione with a mixture of wonder and shock.
This was it. Hermione took a deep, steadying breath before digging into her robes' pocket. She withdrew a small box and offered it to Ron.
He opened it silently, and then gasped.
"Bit unorthodox, I know," Hermione said, breaking the stunned silence. "But I was getting tired of waiting." She nodded toward the plain, white gold promise ring and looked straight into his eyes.
"Ron Weasley, will you marry me?"
Ron didn't even hesitate. Catching her free hand in his, he pulled her broom alongside his and kissed her. His arms went protectively around her and suddenly he had effortlessly pulled her onto his broom. Hermione giggled giddily into his mouth, thinking of how furious Draco probably was that she was letting his beloved broom fall to the muddy pitch below.
The stands exploded in wild cheers and then a burst of laughter. With some difficulty Hermione pulled away from Ron and glanced at the scoreboard. She laughed, too, and threw a smile at Blaise, who was pointing and laughing with guiltless abandon.
I THINK THAT MEANS YES.
"Does it?" Hermione called over the noise from the stands, beaming at him.
He nodded, grinning impishly.
"Bout time you asked."
HAPPY CHRISTMAS to everyone!