Chapter 1: The Snow was Falling Christmas Eve
Ron Weasley shook snow from his coat and pulled his hat off as he came into the kitchen of the Burrow. "It's snowing like mad out there," he said to Harry and Ginny who were sitting at the kitchen table drinking hot chocolate.
"About time you got in," Harry said, standing to shake Ron's hand. "What kept you?"
"Well, you know how Christmas season is at the shop," Ron said, hanging his coat and hat on a peg by the door. "People go mental with the last minute shopping."
"What he's really saying is that he waited and did the whole tally tonight," Ginny said. "Isn't that right, Ron?"
"Well, I have to mind the store, don't I?" Ron replied defensively.
Ginny shrugged. "And all your employees, what do they do?"
"It's not the same. I like to be on the floor during business hours," Ron said.
"Then have one of the others run the tally, and get here before midnight," Ginny groused. "Everyone else gave up on you and went to bed."
"Well, not everyone," Harry said.
"Oh, no, Mum didn't wait up, did she?" Ron asked. "She needn't have."
"Not, Mum, we're still waiting on one more guest." Ginny turned her cup of cocoa in her hands.
"I thought Charlie wasn't coming in until Christmas Day," Ron said, pouring some cocoa and heating it with his wand.
"He's not," Ginny replied. "Did you happen to read Witch Weekly yesterday, Ron?"
Ron gave her a withering look. "I'm not in the habit of reading women's magazines."
Ginny sorted through some newspapers and magazines on the table until she came up with this week's copy and pushed it toward Ron.
Ron flipped it over so he could see the cover and let out a low whistle. "Hermione broke it off with Krum?"
Ginny nodded. "I ran into her the other day at Madam Malkin's."
"I reckon she's pretty broke up about it," Ron said. His jaw clenched.
"I don't know about broke up so much as a bit…lost," Ginny said softly.
"Lost?" Ron said, "How do you mean?"
"Well," Harry said, "she moved out of Krum's flat and into her parents' old place in London."
"You've talked to her?" Ron asked.
"She sent me an owl last night."
"I can't see her rattling around in that big old house alone. It must be creepy without her parents," Ron dug his thumbnail into the worn wood of the table.
"That's what I thought," Ginny said, "so I invited her here for Christmas."
Ron's head snapped up. "You what?"
"Well," Ginny said, "it's been ages since you two broke things off, and like I said, Ron, she just seemed so…well…lost."
"It's not a problem, is it mate?" Harry asked.
Ron shook his head. "No, 'course not. Can't have Hermione spending Christmas alone. That wouldn't be very British of us."
"Exactly," Ginny said.
"So," Ron said, "when's she arriving?"
"We're expecting her any time now, actually. She said it would be around midnight." Harry said.
"Oh," Ron said, trying to keep his voice casual. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I've got to have a slash."
Once in the loo, Ron looked in the mirror. He wished he'd had time for a haircut, but he was afraid to do the spell himself. The last time he'd ended up looking like he'd been hacked at by a blind man wielding a machete. He did tap his face with his wand and do a trimming charm on his beard. That's better, he thought, I look less like a Viking now. He pushed his fingers through his hair in an attempt to make it look more presentable. Hermione. It had been three years since they'd broken up and almost that long since he'd seen her. She always sent owls for holidays and his birthday, but he hadn't seen her face to face for a long time. She'd looked good on Krum's arm on the cover of that magazine though, very good. Suddenly he flashed on an image of her beneath him, her body slick with sweat and her hair wild. Desire welled fiercely within him. He bit the side of his mouth and mentally kicked himself. It's over, he reminded himself. Then he heard the kitchen door open and the sounds of Harry and Ginny greeting her. He took a deep breath and slowly opened the bathroom door. He could hear them talking. He rounded the corner as quietly as he could. He wanted a moment to watch her before she saw him. She looked different. Her hair was straightened and swept into a French twist. She seemed to wear it that way all the time now, if the pictures in the papers were any indication. Her face seemed thinner than he remembered, and a little drawn.
When she did look up and see him there, the smile she gave him made him feel warm all over. Hermione.
"Well, hullo stranger."
Ron crossed the room and wrapped her in a hug. "How are you? You look great."
Hermione winked. "I wouldn't go so far as great, but I'm good."
They all laughed.
She noticed the copy of Witch Weekly on the table and picked it up. "A fairly flattering picture, if I do say so myself. Did you lot read the article?"
Ginny nodded. "That bitch."
Hermione shrugged. "Rita never has much cared for me."
"Well," Harry said, "you did keep her in a jar for several weeks."
Hermione laughed. "That I did. Mind if I have some cocoa? It's bitter outside. Just the walk through the garden left me freezing."
"I'll get it," Ron said, getting a mug from the cupboard.
"I don't suppose you have anything to put in it?" Hermione asked.
"No," Ginny answered. "And more's the pity. I'll have to be stone sober around Fleur all holiday. The healers have said no more alcohol for Dad, and Mum's scoured the house clean. If you even try to cross the threshold with a bottle the door screams at you."
"Good to know," Hermione said, taking the mug of warm cocoa from Ron.
Harry let out a huge yawn and stretched. "I'm knackered. I have to be off to bed. I'll see you two in the morning. Hermione - we don't see you often enough."
Hermione nodded. "I know. I'll work on that, I promise."
"I'll go up with you, Harry," Ginny said, standing. "Good night you two."
Ron watched Hermione watch Harry and Ginny leaving and couldn't help but notice the expression of longing on her face.
"That's a relationship that worked out nicely," she said wistfully.
"They're good together," Ron said. "Always have been."
"I could really use a drink," Hermione said into her mug of cocoa.
Ron had a sudden impulse. He fought with himself for a moment then said, "I have the strong stuff at my flat. If you fancy a drink, we could pop out there for a bit and come back before morning."
Hermione looked at him, studying his face for a moment.
Ron tried to keep his expression neutral.
"That'll do," she said.
"You want to side along, or take the floo?" Ron asked.
Hermione shook her head. "Neither. You Apparate, I'll follow."
Ron looked at her. "How? You've never been there before."
"It's a new thing I've developed. It's a string trail. I touch you with my wand as you Apparate and then I follow the string."
Hermione smiled. "We're still testing it, but all the trials are going really well. We should be able to release it soon. It promises to revolutionize how people learn to Apparate."
Ron grinned at her. "You never cease to amaze me. Come on, let's have that drink."
She touched her wand to him and he disappeared with a pop.
A moment later Ron appeared in his flat with a thin gold string going from his arm and disappearing into mid-air. Seconds later, Hermione appeared and the string faded.
"That's very clever," Ron said, still amazed by this new twist on Apparition.
"Well, that's me, isn't it?" Hermione pocked her wand. "All cleverness and books." She laughed as she said it, but her tone was a tad bitter.
Ron looked at her carefully. "As I recall there was a bit more to you than that."
Hermione rolled her eyes, and moved to his bookcase.
Ron lit a couple of candles and tapped the wireless with his wand. Soft music filled the room. "Glass of wine?"
"Do you have anything stronger?" Hermione asked.
Ron was taken aback. "I have fire whiskey."
"That'll do," she answered casually. "Two fingers, neat, please."
He poured her drink and one on the rocks for himself. He handed hit to her, and she put the book she'd been looking at back on the shelf.
"This is a nice place," she observed.
"Yeah," Ron said, "I like it. It's all I need right now."
Hermione took a sip of her drink. "I've got way more than I need now."
"Harry told me you moved into your parents' place." Ron sat down on the sofa.
"Yes, two weeks ago. It's really too big."
"You could sell it," Ron suggested. "Get something smaller, more manageable."
"I don't want to sell it." Hermione said, "I want to fill it. Viktor, unfortunately, has other ideas." She closed her eyes and returned to her drink.
"Oh," Ron said. "Not a family man, Viktor?"
Hermione sighed. "He says he is, but he isn't really. He's enjoying his celebrity status right now and why shouldn't he? He travels all the time with the team and he's so good and still young. I know he's got at least another ten years of Quidditch in him, and I just don't want to wait that long."
Ron nodded and sipped his drink. "Hence the breakup?"
"Yeah," Hermione said and drained her glass. "Mind if I have another?"
Ron shook his head, "Have all you like."
Hermione came back to the sofa with a glass rather more full than the one Ron had poured for her. She sat down facing him with one arm along the back of the sofa and her feet tucked under her. She looked around her. "You're a great deal tidier than you used to be."
"Dobby cleans it for me."
Hermione arched an eyebrow.
Ron held up his hands. "I pay him, twice what he was making at Hogwarts, I'll have you know. He lives with Harry and Ginny now."
"That's no surprise."
They sat quietly sipping their drinks for a moment.
Ron moved his arm along the back of the sofa and gently stroked his thumb along hers. "It's good to see you."
She looked up at him. "You too." Then she returned to her drink, but didn't move her hand.
Ron wanted desperately to say something, anything. The woman sitting before him was at once painfully familiar and yet frighteningly different.
"What's wrong with me, Ron?" She asked it so softly, just barely a whisper, that he hardly heard her.
"I don't know what you mean."
"I seem to have this terrible knack of being with the right guy, in the right place, at the wrong time." She finished her drink and stood to get another.
Ron caught her hand. "Don't." He took the glass from her and repeated, "don't." He stood. "Let's go back, we've had enough to drink."
Hermione looked at him - it was a familiar look, one he hadn't seen in a long time. Somewhere deep inside him an ember he thought long dead began to glow.
"Let's not pretend," she said, her voice husky from the whiskey "that you invited me here just for a drink."
Ron closed his eyes for a moment and let her meaning wash over him. He stood to face her. "Hermione, maybe this isn't – "
"You don't have to be sweet about it," Hermione interrupted. "I'd rather you weren't actually."
Something in the back of Ron's mind told him he should say no. That she was recently broken up, that she'd had quite a lot to drink in a very short period of time, that this couldn't possibly be what she really wanted, but then her hand slid under his jumper and for a moment he was back at school. He ducked his head and pressed his lips to hers in a gesture that was at once new and achingly familiar.