SPECIAL AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story has just been nominated for no less than 3 awards at the "He Had It Coming" Dramione Awards site. It was nominated in the following categories:

"Thin Line Between Love and Hate" Award (Angst)

"Must Not Cry" Award (Heartwrenching)

"A Quickey but A Goody" Award (One-shot)

Voting for this round of awards starts on January 26th and ends on February 11th. It would mean a lot to me if you guys would head over there and vote when the time comes. The link can be found in my profile. Oh, and let me know if you're the one who nominated me so that I can thank you!

Title: For Every Action

Rating: T

Pairing: D/Hr

Summary: Post-HBP. On a joyless Christmas Eve, Hermione goes to visit the graves of the fallen. There she meets the man who destroyed her hope, and perhaps the only one who can give it back to her.

Disclaimer: I have asked Santa to bring me Draco for Christmas. On the off chance that request doesn't come through, you can just consider him, Hermione, and all other characters, events, and ideas borrowed from the Harry Potter universe to be the property of the oh-so-magnificent J.K. Rowling.

A/N: Hello, my darlings! To all my returning readers, thank you all so much for the wonderful response to the last chappie of Linked. To all new readers, welcome! Oh, and Happy (belated) Christmas to you all!

This is the fic I wrote for the livejournal Celebrate the Season with Draco and Hermione Ficexchange. The voting ended (I didn't win anything, but the people who did deserved it much more than I do, so I'm not beating myself up about it) and I am now free to post it with my name attached. I can't wait to hear what you think, because I liked it so much I want to write a sequel.

Be forewarned: This is not a fluffy x-mas fic, which is what I was planning to write. If you thought Linked was angsty, buckle your seatbelts, my dears. This thing is in a whole other ballpark. I love it, though, and it got a good response over at live journal.

I shower thanks upon Lorett, my wonderful, inspiring beta, who swears this is one of the best things I've written.

I wrote this fic to the requests of derryere/Heleen, and I would like to dedicate it to her. Merry Christmas, my dear!

Well, without further ado, here is Charon's Gift! I hope you enjoy it.

Charon's Gift

"Woe to you, corrupted souls!

Forget your hope of ever seeing Heaven.

I come to lead you to the other shore,

to the eternal dark, to fire and frost."

-- Charon, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto III

It was so cold that winter. So cold, and yet it hadn't snowed. Not once. Nor had the sun shown it's face through the suffocating blanket of clouds since late October. A pervasive grayness had enveloped the unnaturally subdued streets of London. As December began to wane, the obligatory holiday decorations appeared, but they lacked luster and sparkle and joy. If anything, they seemed oddly vulgar and inappropriate, like laugher in a house of mourning. The world seemed to be grieving, or maybe dying. Perhaps it was both.

Hermione Granger would have thought it was a fitting sort of winter, had she been in any state of mind to think of such things. As it was, she was too exhausted, too tense, too focused on the overwhelming task of surviving another day and seeing those she loved survive with her to give much thought to anything else. She supposed war had that affect on people.

Funny, that word -- "war." So short, yet so monstrous and terrible. So much meaning crammed in to so few letters.

It was not what she'd thought it would be. She'd thought war would come upon them in the form of a single epic battle, with the Order of the Phoenix and the warriors for the Light in a proud and magnificent line across the field from the dark army of Voldemort. A shouted cry from their beloved leader, the sparkle in his warm blue eyes now a glint of righteous vengeance and unspeakable power. Harry's scar like a beacon on the battlefield. The cries of Death Eaters as they fell and fled. The Dark Lord's final, chilling screech as he was engulfed in green light from the wand of the Boy Who Lived. Herself and Ron there to catch Harry as he finally collapsed from relief and exhaustion, never having left his side.

But that was not war, she knew now, now that it had been raging around her for nearly six months. She had been a silly, naïve girl to think so. War was seeing their leader sealed into a tomb of white marble when they needed him most. War was living in constant fear, never letting her guard down, never for a moment feeling safe or at peace. War was watching people she loved, respected, believed in, being carried back to headquarters as the noble dead.

It was seeing Hogwarts, the one place she had ever felt accepted and special, being closed down and boarded up. It was joining the Order of the Phoenix at the tender age of seventeen, spending her summer in a crash course of advanced defensive and offensive battle magicks. It was crying over the bodies of the fallen. It was sending her parents into hiding for their own safety and not having contact with them for more than four months.

Most of all, war was waiting, and that was by far the worst of it. The walls of Number 12 Grimmauld Place -- her temporary home and the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix -- were dark and laden with sorrow. Her friends and former teachers moved through its halls with hollow, haunted eyes and drawn faces, and all the time they seemed to be waiting. It was as if all the world were standing on the brink of a looming precipice, and Hermione lived in constant fear that the next death, the next failed mission, the next loss to the ever-growing armies of the Dark would be the final stone that would plunge their cause over the edge.

They were losing. They did not speak of it, but everyone knew they were. Hermione thought she'd been among the last to figure it out. She could recall the precise moment when all faith in their victory had left her.

It had been on a dark night in late November, while the whole house held its breath and waited for the return of Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks, Charlie Weasley, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Ginny Weasley. It had been Ginny's first assignment as a member of the Order (her mother had refused to allow the girl to participate, but after Molly had been murdered in the street on the way back from the market, no one had been able to stand in Ginny's way). It was supposed to be a simple mission, pure reconnaissance, but still they worried. Hermione always worried, now.

They had been gone a long time, too long, and even as 2 o'clock came and went, no one back at headquarters made a move to go to bed. Strong coffee and tense silence flowed in abundance that night.

They returned near 3 o'clock, four on their feet and the fifth in Lupin's thin, scarred arms. As he'd lain Ginny's lovely, russet head upon the table with the utmost care and her sightless eyes fixed upon Hermione's, Hermione waited for the tears to come. They never did.

And that was when she knew. She'd given up then, or had at least finally recognized that she'd given up long ago. After whispering condolences to a stoic Ron and giving Harry, whose stricken expression was physically painful to Hermione's eyes, a bracing hug, she returned to the room she'd shared with Ginny and gone to sleep, not even trying to avoid looking at the rumpled, unmade, forever-empty bed beside hers. She had not cried again, but neither had she laughed. She barely remembered how.

Ginny's bed was still empty, still unmade. Hermione couldn't bear to erase that last tiny reminder of her. She'd been alive when she'd done that -- they had all been alive.

Following Molly Weasley's death, Hermione had taken it upon herself to take her place as the driving motherly force behind the rag-tag family that lived at headquarters. Most of the Order members did not live at Grimmauld Place, or if they did, they were seldom there for long enough periods of time for Hermione to count them among the people she needed to look after. Those she did consider members of her brood were handling the War in various ways, and she quickly began to wonder how Mrs. Weasley hadn't gone stark raving mad with the burden of worrying about her children, both actual and honorary.

The Weasley twins did not joke anymore. In fact, since Ginny's death, Hermione was relatively sure she hadn't even seen them smile.

Arthur Weasley was, as always, a kind, quiet soul, polite to everyone. Hermione often heard him sobbing in his empty room at night.

Lupin's once-gaunt figure was practically skeletal now, and no amount of coaxing or pleading on Hermione's part could make him eat. He spoke little, except to Tonks, whose eyes were huge and hollow in her head. She had grown terribly skittish and nervous of late, and was seldom seen out of her room unless she was clinging desperately to Lupin's arm as though he alone could save her from her horrors, both real and imaginary.

Ron had remained the stalwart companion and second-in-command throughout all his loss and hardship. His pain and stress manifested itself as a series of legal addictions that left Hermione at her wit's end. During the day, he was never seen without a cigarette dangling from his lips or a cup of coffee in his hand brewed so strong that Hermione was surprised it didn't burn through the mug like battery acid. At night, he seemed to making a valiant effort to drink himself to death.

Worse, though, than all of them put together, was Harry. He had tried so hard to be the leader they needed, and he'd done an admirable job, considering he'd not yet seen his seventeenth year when he'd taken up the responsibility. He spent hours in tactical meetings, planned every mission and battle, fought on the front lines, spent every free instant in his search for the Horcruxes. Hermione knew, though, even if no one else seemed to. Harry no longer believed either. It was, she'd decided, his eyes that gave him away. His eyes--oh, Harry's beautiful eyes, which had always sparkled with life and hope. They reminded her now of the green sea glass she had so often found on the beach as a child; flat and fragile and hopelessly shattered. She wanted to cry for Harry, but she had no more tears to give.

Despite the grimness of their lives at the moment, Hermione had refused to give up on certain things. She took a long, hot bath once a week, the way she'd done as a prefect when the stress had become too much. She insisted that everyone who was not gone on assignment sit down for dinner every single night. She refused to let Harry remain locked up in his room when he wasn't in Order meetings or devouring his meals as though each one were his last (she staunchly ignored the hateful whisper in her head that each one really might be). And finally, she had not allowed them to forget about Christmas, no matter how much they'd wanted to.

At the beginning of December, she'd insisted upon pulling out the Christmas decorations Molly Weasley had brought over from the Burrow when the family had moved into Grimmauld Place on a semi-permanent basis. Arthur Weasley had consented and then retreated to his room. She supposed he wanted to be alone with the memories of his wife and children, of whom he had already given two to the war even before Ginny's death. She couldn't say she blamed him, not even when he staunchly refused to enter the living room where the brunt of her decoration efforts were focused.

Everyone had tolerated her attempts to bring Christmas spirit to the house, but other than this universal indulgence, her efforts had been met with apathy at best and sullen, resentful glances at worst. The wreath on the front door seemed to be perpetually wilting, though an Ever-Green Charm had been placed upon it with utmost care. The stockings that had hung along the mantle piece had eventually been taken down altogether, after Hermione decided she couldn't bear to keep removing them one by one as their owners fell. Tinsel and lights seemed garish and unpleasant, almost cruel. Even the Christmas tree (which she'd had to decorate all alone while a string of sad holiday tunes played on the Wizard Wireless) seemed frail and forlorn, as if it were dying, which it was, she supposed. Everything was dying.

She sat before that tree now, watching it twinkle sorrowfully in the flickering firelight. It was Christmas Eve, a time when families were supposed to be together, sharing joy and laughter. This was a time when miracles were supposed to happen, and everyone was supposed to be together to share it.

Instead of the merriment, celebration, and excitement she associated with Christmas Eve, Hermione found herself alone, staring at her pathetic tree, doing her best to get well and thoroughly snockered and doing a piss-poor job of it. The rest of her rag-tag brood had begged off for the occasion, and were secluded in their rooms, alone with whatever thoughts that plagued them on this desolate evening. She waited patiently for the alcohol in her drink to bring blessed numbness, hoping to smother the ache that had built up inside her of late.

She knew it was silly to do this. She knew, even if Ron and the others did not (for the youngest Weasley son was certainly not the only one to seek solace in the bottom of a glass of fire whiskey), that there was no numbing this pain. The numbness was the pain. It was this horrible emptiness that was killing them, this hollowed out gone-ness that was depleting their ranks much more quickly and efficiently than the Death Eaters could ever dream.

And suddenly, it was too much. She couldn't bear it another instant -- the aloneness, the fear, the horrible, empty place in her heart where her hope had once been. She jumped from her curled, defensive posture on the couch and fled the room, paying no heed to a time-worn Nutcracker with a somber, sorrowful face that she knocked over in her haste.

She grabbed her cloak from the stand by the door and was outside too quickly for the portrait of Mrs. Black, who was dosing lightly in her frame, to even realize that anything had happened. Hermione ran down the cracked, crumbling sidewalk, not stopping until the towering, mournful walls of Number 12 Grimmauld Place were long out of sight. She allowed herself a few moments to catch her breath, and while she stood there, she took in her surroundings. It took only a few seconds to realize where her subconscious had been leading her. She sighed heavily, wondering if her heart could take going there, or if instead it couldn't take spending another night so utterly alone. She looked around the abandoned street, threw caution to the wind, and Apparated with a small pop that echoed like a gunshot in the night.

She opened her eyes and gazed with a heavy heart at the iron gate in front of her. She hated cemeteries so. Funny and horrible and tragic that she couldn't imagine being anywhere else on this night. She gathered her courage and began the long trek to her destination.

The snow began to fall just as she reached the cluster of fresh graves that lay beneath the limbs of a barren oak tree. Snowflakes clung to her eyelashes and melted on her cheeks. Near the corner of her eye, the water of several wayward flakes pooled together and slipped down her face, a mockery of the tears she could not shed.

Gravestones etched with painfully familiar names marched across the ground before her, a united army in death as they had been in life. The Order had begun burying its fallen here after the graves of some early casualties were desecrated by Death Eaters. This small corner of the cemetery was heavily warded against hexes and Dark magic of any kind, and alarms and protective barriers assured that the noble dead were allowed to rest in peace.

Dead grass blanketed some of the older graves, while others, the resting places of the more recently lost, were covered by nothing more than earth, and seemed appallingly exposed beneath the grasping limbs of the oak. Hermione turned to the last grave, where the dirt was so recently overturned that she could have sifted her hands through it if she'd liked, and then knelt before it.

War and loss had made her strong, but not strong enough to pass a Christmas without the company of those people whom she loved with the longing reserved solely for the lost. Sitting on the hard, frozen ground, Hermione waited for midnight, watching the snow fall slowly and cover the graves until grass and dirt disappeared and they were all exactly the same, and the length of their occupants' absences could be known only by one who had had to let them go.

When late night passed into early morning, Hermione came closer to smiling than she remembered doing for a very long time. The muscles in her face that controlled such motion felt stiff with disuse, and the thought suddenly made her want to cry again.

"Merry Christmas," she whispered to the silent graves. Despite the desolate surroundings, Hermione felt oddly at peace. She was not willing to give up on the beauty of this day quite yet. She had given up so much for her cause, and she refused to be sorry, but the war had not yet taken this away from her. Christmas meant miracles and redemption. Surely, surely, it still meant that, even after all she had seen and done and lost?

Sudden movement in her peripheral vision spurred Hermione into action bourn of months of training and paranoia. She was on her feet, crouched behind a towering stone marker, wand at the ready, in the time it would have once taken her to register that anything had happened at all. Warily, she peered over the edge of the gravestone, her eyes quickly scanning the snow-strewn cemetery for her unexpected companion.

She spotted him quickly, and for the first time in weeks, she felt something other than despair. The fury that seethed in her veins felt like it was searing away months of accumulated grief and fear, turning the weight of sorrow she carried into ash and smoke. She felt lighter than she had in weeks, more alive than she had in months. The fire of her hatred was liberating her, and she was surprised the snow around her didn't melt away with the heat.

Standing not more than thirty meters away, his face turned down to stare at a small, unobtrusive brass grave marker near his feet, was Draco Malfoy. His hair was long (like his father's, Hermione seethed viciously) and hung loose around his shoulders. His robes and cloak were as black as a moonless midnight and billowed around his lithe, willowy frame. His face was as beautiful and pale as the snowy hillside to his back. If she hadn't known him since childhood and had possessed only a slightly more superstitious nature, she might have honestly believed he was an angel sent to take the souls of the lost back to the skies with him.

But he was not an angel. In fact, he was quite the opposite. She did not think it would be an exaggeration to say that the Order wanted his head almost as much as they wanted Voldemort's. There was a simple reason. If Grimmauld Place was their hell, then he was their Charon, the boatman who ferried lost souls across the river Acheron and into a hell of hopelessness. She blamed him, they all blamed him (with the possible exception of Harry) for the suffering they currently endured.

Draco Malfoy had stolen their hope. He had not killed Dumbledore, perhaps, but somehow that didn't really seem to matter. The blood of their leader was on his hands, and every time another of them fell, every time the war seemed more hopeless and the world grew a little bit bleaker, that blood seemed spilled anew. Without Dumbledore, they had no direction, and without direction, they were failing. And it was Draco Malfoy's fault.

Hermione did not use lethal curses, she would not. She hoped she would never have to, because she doubted she could carry on knowing that she had taken another's life into her hands and crushed it out of existence. However, if the time ever came that she had nothing left and no longer cared what happened afterward, here was the man she would choose to kill.

She raised her wand and was halfway through muttering an incapacitation spell when Malfoy did something that stayed her hand. With apparent disregard for his pristine and expensive clothing, he knelt in the snow and pulled from the depths of his cloak a single blood-red rose, astounding in its perfection. He placed it on the grave with a gentleness she wouldn't have believed him capable of possessing and then leaned back on one knee, bowing his head respectfully and closing his eyes.

Hermione suddenly found herself at a loss. She wanted to lash out, to make him suffer for her suffering, for the suffering of people she cared about, but she couldn't do it when he was kneeling in grief before the grave of someone he seemed to genuinely mourn. So she did the only thing she could. She crept up behind him with the stealth that six months of war had made second nature.

"Don't move," she hissed into the chilled night. Oddly, he did not respond except to cast a rather uninterested glance at her over his shoulder before returning his focus to the grave in front of him.

"How melodramatic of you, Granger," he said after a few moments of silence. "Was that really the best thing you could come up with? I have to admit, I'm somewhat disappointed."

"What the hell are you doing here, Malfoy?" she spat, wondering if the ungrateful, arrogant bastard had any idea how lucky he was that he was staring down the wand point of this particular member of the Order, for if it had been anyone else, he would have been maimed and dead a hundred times over by now.

"I should have thought that was obvious," he replied in a rather tried voice. "What else does one do in a graveyard?"

Hermione couldn't help it. She took a step forward and rested her wand tip against his pale neck, shaking with cleansing rage.

"We've seen what you people do in graveyards, and this isn't it," she hissed. She was rather surprised to see him frown.

"Yes, I suppose you have. I told our Lord that no good could come from giving the Order even more reasons for revenge, but he likes to indulge the whims of his faithful when it amuses him to do so. And they did so enjoy themselves. It rained crimson with the blood of the dead that night," Hermione felt physically ill as she listened to the unmoved but oddly fascinated tones with which he described the mutilation of the bodies of people she had loved and respected.

"Stand up and face me, you filthy bastard," she demanded in a voice that trembled with rage. Malfoy did as he was asked without any protest, which unnerved her more than any other response he might have given her. When he stood to his full height, her first thought was that he was so much shorter than she remembered. He couldn't be more than a scant inch taller than herself. Funny that, in her memories, his body had towered over hers as surely as had his looming hatred.

The second thing she noticed nearly took her breath away. Dead. That was the first word that came to mind. A pale, lovely, living face with eyes as dead as those of every victim the Avada Kedavra she had ever seen. Eyes that were dead the way Harry's were dead, the way Arthur Weasley's were dead, the way (if she were honest with herself) her own were dead. Eyes robbed of all those things which make life a desirable thing. If she had not hated him so intensely, she would have wept for the flat, cold emptiness in those silvery orbs.

She had been expecting to see hatred, vindictive glee, cold calculation, passionate rage in Draco Malfoy when next she met him. She had been expecting him to flee or fight or attack or do something. She was not ready to see the same heavy defeat in his face that she saw in her own when she gathered the courage to look in the mirror. Wasn't he winning? Hadn't he already won?

For a long moment, they stared at each other, neither moving, barely even breathing. She saw vague surprise drift over his features when he focused his gaze on her own eyes. Before she could comment on it, before she could stun him senseless as she had been planning to do, he tilted that majestic head to one side, paralyzing her with his dead, icy eyes as surely as he might have with a well-executed Petrificus Totalus.

"Even you, Granger?" he asked quietly. She had to be imagining the disappointment and despair in his voice.

"Even me, what?" she asked, trying to sound impatient and uninterested and failing miserably.

"It's killed you, too." She didn't bother to point out that she was obviously very much alive, because some part of her agreed with him that she wasn't.

"What has?" she whispered.

"The War." His voice was as chilling as the December wind. Hermione could think of nothing to say as she stood there, still paralyzed by the emptiness in his eyes. She had the oddest feeling that even though she was the one with a wand in her hand, it was Malfoy who had the power. It disturbed her to realize that she did not fear him or what he could do to her.

Finally, he broke their stalemate by raising a single, perfectly sculpted eyebrow in something that looked like sardonic amusement.

"What do you think you're going to do with that, Granger?" he asked, nodding his head at the wand she was still pointing at his throat. "Kill me?"

She briefly considered saying yes, or telling him that she was going to stun him the way she'd meant to the whole time, but she suddenly realized that neither would be the truth. She felt her wand arm drop to her side slowly.

"What good would it do to kill you?" she asked finally, exhaustion of both the physical and mental varieties washing over her. "We're both already dead." She knew she was all but committing suicide by letting her defenses down in the company of a known Death Eater, but she was just so tired, and she wondered if she really felt safe in his presence or if she was just too worn down to care anymore.

Malfoy seemed to take her odd behavior in stride, and studied her with a disconcerting intensity for a moment.

"Do you ever wish you were one of the lucky ones whose bodies died with the rest of them?" He asked quietly.

"No," she replied in a tremulous voice as she shook under the honesty in his eyes. "When I wish for things, I wish for life rather than death."

"You want your life back, then?" he asked.

"No," she whispered. "I want theirs back." She motioned to the gravestones marching solemnly across the top of the hill. "I want to hear their voices, see them smile. I want them to be safe and happy."

Malfoy looked at her with the most odd expression, as though the idea of wishing for life for others rather than death for oneself had never occurred to him.

"She was never safe, never happy," he said suddenly. "I wanted to give those things to her. I ran out of time." The ambiguity of the statement threw Hermione for a moment.


In response, Malfoy took a step to one side and turned to face the grave he had been visiting. Hermione squinted in the dim light until she could read the named printed in the brass.

Narcissa Malfoy


Beloved Mother

"When?" Hermione whispered. Malfoy turned to her, actual pain, actual surprise on his face.

"You don't know?" he asked. She shook her head mutely, turning her face back to the unobtrusive marker. "She died in St. Mungo's last month. She'd been there since the Ministry raided the Manor looking for me in the summer." Hermione wracked her brain for her memory of that hectic time. It seemed so long ago.

"Oh, she was wounded, wasn't she?" she exclaimed suddenly as the article in the Prophet came back to her. Malfoy laughed cruelly.

"She was tortured, Granger," he spat with a brittle sort of fury. Hermione felt her blood freeze in her veins and her stomach churn dangerously.

"What? Who . . . ?"

"Who do you think?" His face was a mask of hate and vengefulness.

"They wouldn't have . . ." Hermione protested weakly, although the idea felt too horribly correct to be wrong. Malfoy's eyes were dark with pain as he turned back to the grave marker.

"They were looking for me," he whispered softly, and Hermione had the oddest feeling that he'd forgotten she was there. "Twenty years in the shadow of my father's enemies and she never came any closer to death than a near-miss with a Stupefy curse. Two weeks into my life as a fugitive and she's tortured to insanity by the good guys."

"I didn't know," Hermione whispered, feeling the ghosts of the lost hovering near the back of her neck as the winter wind swirled around her.

"No, I don't suppose you did," Malfoy said quietly at her side. "You've had your own losses to mourn."

She most certainly had, but she realized suddenly that she wasn't the only one who'd lost.

"That's a lovely rose. I'm sure she appreciates it," Hermione offered for no reason at all. The very slightest hint of smile played at the corner of his mouth.

"I'm sure she does. It's from her garden. She did so love her roses. Sometimes, I thought she loved them more than me, or even my father. They've always reminded me of her. They've been dying off since she was taken away, no matter what I do to keep them alive. This was the last one." His voice was suddenly matter of fact, and it nearly broke her heart for a reason she couldn't fathom in the slightest.

"Do you miss her?" she asked, feeling her words being carried away into the icy night.

"I barely knew her," Malfoy whispered. It wasn't an answer per se, but in a way it was. Hermione stood in the odd, companionable silence with him for another long moment.

"It's the first Christmas we've passed without them. Do you think they miss us as much as we miss them?" she asked quietly, wondering if she'd finally gone round the bend as she listened her herself pour her heart out to her sworn enemy. She looked up at him when he didn't answer, and found him staring at the grave marker with the oddest expression on his face.

"I would hope that, wherever they are, they've gone beyond feeling things like loss and loneliness," he said after a moment. He shifted those moon-beam eyes to look at her. "Is it really Christmas?"

Hermione blinked up at him, shocked out her reverie.

"Well, of course it is," she said, wondering what game he was playing with her now. "Didn't you know?" He shrugged elegantly.

"It matters little to me. I'm certainly not going to waste my time celebrating some ridiculous holiday, the sole purpose of which is to stimulate the Muggle economy and receive pointless material possessions of little quality and less value." Hermione blinked, more than mildly affronted at his scathing description of a time of year that was both sacred and miraculous to her.

"That's a horrible thing to say, Malfoy," she whispered, closer to tears now than she had been in a very long time.

"Well, I'm a horrible man," he said in a detached but vaguely despairing way that somehow made her think he might be wrong.

"Christmas is so much more than that," she whispered, choosing to ignore his previous remark. He laughed in a way that sounded oddly like the hollow echo of the wind in the barren trees.

"It's just a day, Granger. Just a pointless day, like every other pointless day in the year. Bad things happen, wars are fought, people die. It's just a day." He laughed derisively, and his eyes glittered flatly. "So much magic in the world, all around you, and you idiot Muggles seek it in the one place it can't be found."

"There is magic in this day, Malfoy. So much. It's a day of saviors and miracles and redemption. If that isn't magic, what is?" She wanted so badly for him to understand, though she couldn't for the life of her have said why. He shook his head at her reasoning.

"That isn't magic. That's deluding yourself into believing in something ridiculous because we have nothing tangible left to believe in."

"You don't mean that," Hermione whispered.

"I do. 'Merry Christmas!'" he said mockingly. He eyes suddenly flashed with anger. "What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? What reason have any of us?" This last was spoken with that heart-breaking despair he seemed so good at summoning into his voice.

Hermione was angry now. Christmas meant something to her, meant something special and beautiful, and he was trying to take that away from her as he'd taken everything else.

"I won't listen to this for another moment. Just because you can't see the power in this day doesn't mean it isn't there! I came here to start Christmas with the people I love, and I'm not going to waste another second of it --" Suddenly she stopped speaking as something fundamental occurred to her. "Wait a minute. If you didn't know it was Christmas, what were you doing visiting your mother's grave in the middle of the night?"

She thought it might be the first time in their long acquaintance that she'd seen Draco Malfoy look guilty. His eyes slid away from hers and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

"Well, I was . . . I was just . . ." He rolled his eyes and ran an agitated hand through his silken hair. "Oh, bloody hell. I'm running away, alright?" he snapped. "Is that what you wanted to hear? I'm leaving, and I wanted to say goodbye."

"What do you mean, 'running away?'" Hermione asked in a breathless voice. "You aren't going to be a Death Eater anymore?"

"Have you learned nothing in this war, Granger?" he snapped angrily. "You don't just stop being a Death Eater. Only death can release you from that bond. No, I'm running away."

"Then you've turned? You've stopped believing?" She felt dizzy at the very prospect.

"In order to do either of those things, I would have had to believe in the first place, wouldn't I?" he replied scathingly. The fire went out of his expression, and he seemed to sink into himself. He fell back against a nearby gravestone that towered over them, leaning against it as though he no longer possessed the strength to stand alone. His eyes closed and he turned his face up as though to bathe it in the frozen tears that wept from the sky.

"It got away from me so fast," he whispered, and Hermione wondered once again if he was aware of her presence or if he was speaking to someone else entirely. "I thought I knew what I was doing, I really did. I was only trying to do what was expected of me, what I'd been trained and taught to do my whole life. I thought that if I could just do what they asked, they would leave me be, and she and I would be safe." Hermione tried to summon that rage back as she listened to his reasoning for the actions that had led to Dumbledore's death, but all that anger seemed to have burned itself out. She didn't interrupt, and he continued.

"One minute I was a spoiled kid following my father's footsteps, and the next I was a soldier, fighting in someone else's war. Before I knew it, I had more blood on my hands than I can ever wash away." His eyes opened and locked on hers, pleading with her for something she didn't understand.

"I just want it to stop. I haven't felt anything but the emptiness in so long, and I can't take it anymore. I'm going away, where I won't have to kill or fight or do my duty." He spat the last word like it tasted of deadly poison on his tongue. "And when my Lord finds me, I'll welcome my death. I deserve worse for what I've done."

"If you feel that way, why don't you try to make it right?" Hermione asked quietly. His laugh was a harsh, hollow sound in the night.

"'Make it right?'" he repeated mockingly. "Have you forgotten what I've done, Granger? Your precious Dumbledore is dead because of me! I have killed and tortured and destroyed without mercy or remorse. I have been a slave in the service of the most evil wizard alive." He stepped forward, invading her personal space as though to make her cower under his steely gaze. "I have done things that would curdle your blood if you knew of them. How do you suggest I make that right?"

"Join us," she whispered urgently. Malfoy blinked at her, utter shock on his face. "Tell us what you know. If you hate Voldemort as much as all that, go back to him and help us destroy him. Redeem yourself with your loyalty."

"You're as mad as the old man was," Malfoy sneered. "There is nothing left to redeem in me, Granger."

"I don't believe that," she whispered. "I saw you with your mother. You're not lost to the darkness yet." His eyes flashed with . . . something for the briefest of moments, but then it was gone and the deadness was back, making her feel as if she were staring into twin sheets of steel.

"It would take a miracle to bring me back," he whispered with a hint of despair.

"Good thing it's a day for miracles then, isn't it?" she replied. She thought she saw the ghost of a smile flash across his lips, but it was gone too quickly for her to be sure. He shook his head and began to back away from her.

"I already told you, Granger. I don't believe in that rubbish," he said roughly, in a tone that suggested he was trying to convince himself as much as he was her. Hermione felt inexplicably angered by his rejection of her offer.

"Fine, then," she snapped, not caring that her voice was raising to a loud enough volume that it might attract notice should anyone pass by the cemetery. "Go on and be a coward if you like. Live the rest of your life as a fugitive, branded as a traitor to both sides. Die knowing that you've done nothing of worth with the precious time that was given to you, even though you had an opportunity to change the fate of your world. I suppose you were right. You deserve nothing less."

Malfoy's face flushed and his features set into a mask of anger. He opened his mouth as if to reply. Before he could let loose with whatever furious tirade he had building up inside him, he blinked in shock and stared at her speechlessly for a moment.

"That made me angry," he said slowly, as if he couldn't quite believe it.

"Well, good," Hermione snapped. She wanted him to be angry. She certainly was.

"I haven't been angry in a long time. I haven't felt anything in a long time," he explained slowly. "Nothing but the fear and the exhaustion."

"Neither have I," Hermione admitted softly.

"The whole world has seemed muffled," he commented, and she shivered at the accuracy of his description. "It's like the War has put this wall of glass between me and everything else. I don't hurt anymore, but sometimes I wish I did. It would be better."

"If we hurt, it means we're still alive," Hermione supplied. "If we hurt, it means we remember what it's like not to hurt, and that means there's still hope." She closed her eyes, wishing she had tears to shed.

"It's been so long since we've had any, I'm starting to forget what it is," she whispered. When she opened her eyes, he was staring at her, and she thought that here stood the only person who had really heard her in far too long.

He tilted his head in that odd way of his, then began walking toward her with a measured, deliberate stride. Eventually, she was forced to take a step back and found herself pressed against the trunk of a snow-dusted oak tree.

"What are you doing?" she asked, feeling as though all the air in her chest had been disintegrated by the heat in his dark, silvery gaze.

"I'm so tired of being numb," he whispered. "I want to feel one more time, once more before I die . . ."

His breath ghosted over her lips, hotter than a thousand bonfires in the chilled December night. She shivered in his grasp but could not find the strength or the will to pull away.

"I don't think . . ." she began, but he shook his head, resting his forehead against her own and making her forget what she'd been about to say.

"Exactly. Don't think." She couldn't have argued even if she'd wanted to . . . and Merlin help her, she didn't want to. She was tired too, tired of surviving without living, tired of existing without feeling. When Malfoy lowered his lips to hers, she didn't resist.

It wasn't what she might have expected from a kiss with Draco Malfoy. It was not seductive or elegant or any of the other words she'd always heard associated with him. Their chapped lips scraped together almost painfully, and the kiss was less about finesse than about desperation and blind, needy contact. It was not the best kiss she'd ever had; far from it, in fact. But she felt it, felt it in the tips of her toes and in the painful grip of his fingers where they were laced with hers (when had that happened?). She hadn't felt anything like it in so long, perhaps forever.

It was like waking up after sleeping for days and days on end. The breeze seemed sharper, the bark against her back seemed rougher, the pain and grief and exhaustion that lay heavily in her chest seemed to have sharper edges and cut deeper, but even that was okay. She wanted Draco Malfoy to keep kissing her until the world crumbled to dust around them, as long as he kept the numbness away.

When he began to pull away, it seemed much, much too soon. She held her breath as he took a step away from her, waiting for the horrible emptiness to return . . . but it did not. Her face was still too cold, her heart still taut with sorrow and vague fear. It had been so long since she'd experienced it that she couldn't quite remember what it felt like, but she was reasonably sure the emotion rising in her chest was joy.

Malfoy was staring at her as though he wasn't entirely certain his eyes weren't deceiving him. There was color in his cheeks that she didn't think had anything to do with the cold, and his breath was escaping him in rapid puffs that burst into the night and then disappeared. As she stared at him, at his angular, too-thin face, at his smoky eyes (was she imagining it, or was there a spark of life in them that hadn't been there a moment ago?), she suddenly wanted him to kiss her again. She wanted him to kiss her, and it had nothing to do with chasing away the loneliness or the empty ache in her chest, and that scared her more than anything else.

"I have to go," he said suddenly, a slight note of panic in his voice. He made as if to turn away, and then narrowed his eyes at her. "Are you going to try to stop me?"

"No," she whispered before she could think about it too much.

"Why not?"

"I don't know," she replied. He nodded slightly, and turned to leave.

"Malfoy?" she burst out suddenly. He stopped and looked back at her. For a moment, as she stared into those dark, silvery eyes (how could she have thought them icy when they swirled with so much depth, so much heat?), she forgot what she'd wanted to say. "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know," he echoed softly. The expression he wore in that instant should have been too soft for the angular planes of his face, but somehow he managed it. He lowered his head in the most subtle of bows. Then, with a swirl of black cape and snowflakes, he was gone.

Hermione blinked at the spot he had just occupied for a long moment. She turned to gaze up the hill at the solemn line of grave markers that marched across the top of it, but somehow realized she didn't need to go back up there. For the first time in a long time, she didn't feel alone. She sent a small smile into the softly falling snow.

"Merry Christmas, Malfoy," she whispered into the night. Then, with a small pop, she, too, had disappeared into the night.

The next morning, Hermione woke with winter sunlight on her face. She lay in her bed for a moment, trying to decide if the strange events of the night before had actually occurred or if her dreams had blessed her with a single night's respite from the horrors that usually plagued her sleeping hours. It wasn't until she realized that the hollowness in her chest was lightened, that this was the first morning in too many months that she wasn't dreading getting out of bed, that she was willing to accept the reality of her memories.

A few minutes later, Hermione was padding down the stairs in her robe and slippers, and was greeted by perhaps the most solemn Christmas morning in the history of the world. Arthur Weasley was sitting on the couch with Fred and George, both of whom were staring at the bedraggled tree as though they were looking at something miles and miles beyond it. Tonks and Lupin were nearby in two adjacent overstuffed chairs, Tonks holding Lupin's hand in a white-knuckled grip. Ron was leaning against the wall, staring out the window with a coffee cup in his hand and a cloud of smoke around him. A few other Order members were scattered about the room, sipping tea and coffee and staring off into space. No one was speaking.

"Good morning," she said quietly. A few uninterested eyes turned her way, and Arthur Weasley offered her a weak smile.

"Merry Christmas," she offered tentatively.

"Merry Christmas, Hermione," Harry said from behind her. She turned to see him walking in the front door, his nose a rosy red from the cold and snowflakes in his dark hair. In his arms, he was balancing a small stack of packages, most gift wrapped but the largest plain and unadorned. She took a few of the boxes off his hands and together they carried them to the tree, where a modest amount of presents were already piled.

"A few last minute deliveries," Harry said with false cheerfulness. "It's quite a walk out to the owl-delivery point in the snow, but I thought it would be worth it."

"I'm sure everyone appreciates it, Harry," Hermione said warmly, trying to avoid looking at the flatness of her friend's eyes. She arranged the presents to her liking, then turned to the room with a smile on her face that she knew probably looked as brittle as it felt.

"Who wants to open the first present?" she asked brightly. No one answered, so Hermione turned and picked up the first present she touched. "Ron, it's for you," she announced. Dutifully, Ron stepped forward and opened the gift, which turned out to be a pair of dragon-hide boots from his father. Perfunctory thanks were given, and a similar cycle continued through the next few presents opened.

Just as Hermione was thinking that it might be more merciful to just allow everyone to go back to their rooms with their meager presents so that none of them would suffer through another moment of this dreadfully uncomfortable situation, her hand fell on a package with a strange, unfamiliar texture. She turned to look at it and found herself staring at the large, plain box that had arrived by that morning's post. She pulled it closer to read the tag, only to discover there was no tag. The box was wrapped in brown paper and had an unaddressed envelope secured to the top of it.

"Harry, do you know you sent this?" she asked, feeling fear coil in her chest like a serpent. Hearing the odd note in her voice, Harry frowned as he turned to look at her.

"No, it was just sitting at the delivery point. I assumed the owl got tired of waiting and flew home. Why? What's wrong?"

"There's no name, no tag," Hermione whispered. The occupants of the room grew suddenly apprehensive, and the small gathering was immediately ripe with the taut sort of wariness that characterized far too many of the moments they spent together. Harry moved to her side and gently shooed her away from the box, and Lupin came forward. He cast a few tentative charms on the box before reaching out and taking the envelope from the top of it.

"It doesn't pose any physical danger" he said in a tense voice as he ripped open the letter and pulled the parchment out. "But be careful, Harry." Harry nodded tersely before removing the paper and opening the box with the utmost care. While the room held its breath, he reached into the box and pulled out . . . a stack of parchment.

"What is all this?" he asked, sounding more angry and frightened than Hermione expected he'd meant to. His emerald eyes raced over the surface of the uppermost parchment. His face froze in an expression of stunned disbelief, and he read whatever he was holding again. Abruptly, he began flipping through the stack in his hands, his eyes growing wider with each parchment he skimmed.

"Tactical diagrams, battle plans, statistical reports, confidential owls . . ." He looked up at the tense faces of his companions, numb surprise glittering in his eyes. "From the other side. Who could have done this?"

"A Death Eater," Lupin whispered, staring at the letter he'd torn off the top of the package before they'd opened it.

"Someone's turned?" a voice asked from the back of the room. Hermione barely heard them. She barely heard anything at all over the rapid beating of her heart. It couldn't be, surely, it couldn't be . . .

"Draco Malfoy," Lupin said, his voice barely audible with shock. Everyone looked at each other, disbelief dawning on their faces. Hermione felt faint for perhaps the first time in all her life, and she sank to her knees on the carpet next to Harry.

The tense silence of the room was broken by Ron, whose cigarette-raw voice cracked like a whip in unnatural quiet.

"I don't believe it," he hissed. "It's a trick."

"'Potter,'" Lupin began reading in his quiet, unassuming voice. "'I have turned from the path that was set for me. Do not ask me why; I will not tell you, and you wouldn't believe me if I did. Rather than die a fugitive with a wasted life, I choose to do something of worth before I am killed for my treachery. In this package, I have enclosed all I know of the Dark Lord's plans. The location of our strongholds and an incomplete but relatively accurate roster of my fellow Death Eaters are also enclosed. Your Aurors, I know, have ways of verifying the validity of these documents. Perhaps you will believe me then. I shall send more information to you as I receive it and as often as possible without endangering my status within the Dark Lord's circle. May you succeed where I could not and do what you were meant to do. Signed, Draco Lucius Malfoy.'"

No one spoke for a long moment. Finally, Tonks strode forward and lifted the rest of the documents out of the box, setting them down on a nearby table and taking the letter on the top of the stack into her hands. She muttered a few spells, made the parchment glow pink, caused the words that scrawled across its surface to shimmer with an iridescent blue, and finally conjured a strange, scrolling set of green symbols that hung above the parchment in midair.

"He's telling the truth," she said, no small amount of awe in her voice.

"I knew it," Hermione heard Harry whisper at her side as he rose to add the stack of parchment he was still holding to the pile on the table. He dropped his burden on the worn oak surface with a satisfying thump.

As if this were some sort of signal, the room erupted into fevered chatter, shouted orders, crazed bustling, and, oddly enough, bursts of disbelieving, beautiful, impossible laughter, but Hermione did not move. She reached into the now-emptied box and pulled out a very small, unobtrusive package that had gone unnoticed by the others. It was unmarked, but Hermione knew who it was for.

With trembling hands, she pulled the wrapping paper away with agonizing slowness. Inside, she found a torn scrap of parchment and a thin silver chain with a pendant dangling from it; a single, perfect rose, the rubies sparkling in the early morning sunlight.

She grasped the chain in one hand so hard that her knuckles were white with the effort, but she didn't care. She unfolded the parchment and read it while the room rejoiced around her.

A wise woman once reminded me that Christmas is a day of saviors and miracles and redemption. I want to believe she was right, and since that's more than anyone else has made me feel in a very long time, I propose to give her three things. First, I offer her my knowledge of her enemy, that it may aid her cause. Second, I offer her my continued loyalty, that she may triumph and that I may yet find my way back from the darkness. Lastly, I offer her a rose . . . another of my mother's roses, actually, and also for remembrance, that she may always remember the night she was my savior, my miracle, my redemption. Merry Christmas.

A droplet of water splashed to the surface of the parchment, and it took Hermione a moment to realize that it was a tear, her tear, that she was crying and laughing and feeling and that she was not alone in doing so. She looked up at the rest of the room, listened to the excited jabbering, watched Ron pull Tonks into a tight embrace, saw Lupin smile gently as he watched Fred and George dance exuberantly in the center of the room. She met Harry's eyes, and he smiled at her, really smiled for the first time in months. If she had not been crying already, she would have begun then.

She looked back down at the tear-stained parchment in her hands and mouthed a silent thank-you to its writer, though he could not hear her and would have scoffed at the gratitude if he had. It was not for the beautiful necklace that she offered thanks, or even for the information that had just changed their lives and course of their war. She thanked him for the sparkling in the eyes of her companions, for the sudden exuberance that permeated the room, and most of all for the small, shy, miraculous smile on Harry's lips.

His gift, she knew, had not been one of jewels or secrets. Instead, her Charon had snatched them away from the shores of Limbo and ferried them back across the river Acheron, and in doing so had given them the most precious gift of all: hope.

She looked from the tear-stained parchment in her hands to the hoard of chattering people in front of her, who shone with a light that she'd thought was lost forever. She folded the parchment, fastened the rose pendant around her neck, and then went to join them.

Outside, the breeze whistled through the glittering tree branches, sounding for all the world like distant laughter. Far away, in the shadow of a fire-gutted mansion, among a garden of dead bushes and neglected flower beds, a single rosebud bloomed where some might have thought nothing could ever grow again. The morning sunlight dazzled on the newly-fallen snow around it, and there amidst appalling evidence of war and destruction, it thrived.

Quotes and ideas, stolen shamelessly:

""You don't mean that." /"I do. 'Merry Christmas!' What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry?""

Quoted (with some liberties taken) from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol

""What good would it do to kill you? We're both already dead.""

Quoted (from memory, so perhaps not accurately) from Lost on ABC

The idea of leaving the beds of the dead unmade

Inspired by a fic I read on called Room Serviced. Can't remember the author, but it's an awesome fic. Go read it.

All info regarding the mythology of Charon and the circles of hell (as referenced in this fic) can be found in Dante's Inferno.

Derryere/Heleen's Request:

Three things you want your fic to include: A Nutcracker, a red nose
and some mayon-- Scroogey!Draco :)

Three things you do not want your fic to include: Nothing freakishly
OOC, Draco the uberheerscher and teachers.

A/N: Let's see some reviews, people!