I will admit that Draco is a bit OOC in this fic, but it was an idea that came to me. Let's just pretend he grew up a lot over the summer, yeah?

It's been a month since the war ended, but he still hasn't left his house. The Manor is quiet these days. Lucius was sentenced to imprisonment in Azkaban just days after Voldemort was defeated. Narcissa locked herself away in her wing of the mansion; Draco hadn't seen her in at least a week, maybe more. The Manor is large and drafty and it no longer feels like home; how can it, after the atrocities committed here? He can still see Granger laying on the floor of his ballroom, screaming in agony. The look of pleasure on his aunt's face. The faint smell of blood, and fear.

He walks the halls of this large house, unwilling to go outside of its walls. The world has changed, and he is no longer welcome. He and his family are treated like garbage by the rest of the wizarding community.

Draco doesn't blame them.

Every day it's the same thing on the front page of the Daily Prophet. Photo after photo of Potter and his friends. Occasionally other members of the Order of the Phoenix are plastered there as well, but it's almost always the Golden Trio. Draco scoffs at the many pictures of the Weasel, the various interviews, the obvious love of celebrity in the ginger's eye. He sees Potter eating dinner at the Leaky Cauldron, Potter grabbing a coffee at a local cafe, Potter walking from the Ministry. Potter in every single stage of his day, always captured on camera, always looking a bit insolent over the the whole thing. Is it a ruse? It is really possible that Potter's been honest all along? Does he really not like the attention?

And then there's Granger. Hermione Granger, who looks unfortunately rather attractive these days. Last time he saw her, she was covered in dirt and grim. Of course, it was in the middle of a battle, and now Draco knows that she had been living in a tent for months beforehand. Well she certainly looks different now. That bushy brown hair has been tamed into soft waves, and the cut of it... well, it's certainly different from the hairdo she wore at Hogwarts. Shorter, with layers that encourage movement. After pouring over the many pictures he sees of her, he begins to notice the discomfort in her eyes. It's there for anyone to see, but he assumes that many simply choose not to identify it. Every interview seems to have a forced air about it, as though she really doesn't want the tremendous amount of credit she's been given. Even Potter and the Weasel sing her praises time and again. It was Hermione who kept them safe, Hermione that got them through. "We wouldn't have lasted a day without her."

But all she seems to want to talk about is elf rights and even rights for werewolves... the whole thing is curious, to be sure. Draco doesn't understand her, realizes that he must never have really known the girl. He always just thought of her as the bushy-haired, insufferable know-it-all Mudblood. But the girl in these photos is very different from that. She seems brilliant, and wise, and so serious. He doesn't understand how he could have been so wrong about her. She's certainly not a Mudblood. The word doesn't even make sense to him now. She's something else entirely. So he cuts each and every article out carefully, along with her photos. He places them in a book, telling himself that it's just because he's curious. That's all.

September 1st comes and he's back at King's Cross station, waiting for the Hogwart's Express. It's the last place on earth that he wants to be. Okay, well, Azkaban would be the last, but this is close. Nevertheless, the Ministry insisted he complete his last year of school. It was one of the conditions of his freedom, along with the three years of service he owes the Ministry after his education is completed. He doesn't expect to work anywhere interesting, of course. He expects to be placed in the worst of departments. Sanitation, or something of the like.

Without being consciously aware of it, he's been looking about the platform, trying to find her. No one will meet his gaze. Every single person turns away and sneers. He ignores the whispers. There! He recognizes her walnut-brown hair streaked with honey highlights. She's getting on the train, followed closely by Potter and the Weasel. He feels a pang of something that he won't admit is jealousy. He boards the train himself and finds a seat in an empty cabin.

No one else enters the cabin, not even other Slytherins. He waits out the long ride to Hogwarts alone, in silence, contemplating the young woman just a few compartments down.

He is given a private room in the Slytherin dormitories. Before the war, he would have assumed it was because he deserves the best. Malfoys always do. But he knows that it's because no one else wants to room with him, and because Headmaster McGonagall is concerned about his safety.

No other seventh (eighth? Technically eighth...) year Slytherins have returned. Blaise and his mom moved to the Continent when the war started heating up, and Pansy has already married some older rich bloke. Crabbe is dead, of course, and Goyle probably wouldn't have learned anything anyway. He had sort of hoped that Theo Nott would return. They were never good friends (then again, Draco didn't really have good friends, besides Pansy), but he was a decent guy. He resigns himself to a lonely seventh year. It's all he can do.

Try as he might, he can't escape Granger. When he's not thinking about her, he's looking for her, no matter how very hard he tries not to do so. He still receives the Daily Prophet each morning, and he's still adding to her book. There are dozens of pages now, filled with her likeness and her interviews. If anyone were to find out, he'd be ended. But he can't help himself. Every snippet he finds on her, he devours. He is floored by what he reads. He never knew how brave she was, how much she was willing to sacrifice for a cause she believed in. When he finds out she Obliviated her parents to keep them safe, he is shocked to find tears slowly weaving down his face. She's absolutely amazing, that's all there is to it.

She's quieter this year, far more serious. He studies her closely. She seems to be getting on fine with her friends, but it appears that the romance between her and the Weasel has fizzled out. The realization gives Draco a funny feel in his gut, but he ignores it. Gods, she's pretty. He's admitted his attraction to her, if only to himself. She doesn't smile as much as she used to, but when she does, damn. It's like the sun coming through clouds. It's warm and inviting and he wishes that she would smile at him, just once.

They are forced to be partners in Potions. Well, she's forced to be his partner, and he's just happy to occupy her space for a moment's time. It's almost unfair to the other students to have them paired up. They're both brilliant at potions, and unbelievably fast. What's better, they work together so well. She doesn't talk to him unless it's necessary, which it rarely is. They seem to anticipate each others needs in a way he didn't realize was possible. Professor Slughorn dotes on them, even if directs his approval more towards Hermione and less towards Draco. They're the star pupils, and the rest of the class groans in envy at every drop of praise Slughorn hands out.

Even though they do not speak, she is still kind to him. She is always patient, and when he does above and beyond his part of the project, she makes quiet noises of approval. He lives for those noises.

One day Draco is feeling particularly brave, and so he hesitates when Hermione reaches towards the cauldron to add in newt eyes. Her hand brushes against his fingers, just slightly, but it's enough to cause his face to burn. His stomach flips and he feels bits of fire spread from the spot her skin touched his. Merlin, this is bad. For weeks now he had imagined touching that soft skin, and now that he has, he wants more. He craves that feeling. He dreams about her almost every night. Nothing overtly sexual, just glimpses of her shoulders, her neck. He dreams of touching his lips to her collarbone, and awakes sweaty and breathless.

It's the beginning of Thanksgiving when he decides to do something about his obsession. He knows he'll be shot down, but he can't live like this any longer. Every time he sees her in class, he wants to kiss her. He is so, so careful around her. Careful not to touch her again, not to stare too long. He is courteous and polite and so, so cautious.

He reads up on Muggle holiday traditions, hoping to find something that will give him a clue as to how to approach her. If he can show her that he tried, that he really tried to understand where she came from... maybe. Maybe if she realizes that he doesn't believe in that racist dogma anymore, she might actually see him as a man, and not a monster. Maybe.

It's the morning of December 1st when he makes his first move. He watches the magnificent tawny owl make its way to the Gryffindor table. He watches Hermione's puzzled face as she makes room for the bird to land on the table. It doesn't leave. He studies her carefully as she reads the note. He knows it by heart. He rewrote it five times.

"Dearest Hermione,

This may not be the bravest way to get your attention, but the thought of simply approaching you and telling you of my affection leaves me cold. You see, I care about you, very very much, but I know you don't feel the same way. Still, I feel as though I must try. This owl is a gift to you. I have named her Athena, after the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, justice, and skill. I gave her a name worthy of you, Hermione. I am dazzled by your brilliance, your braveness, and your unquenchable spirit. Please accept Athena as a token of my affection. She will be delivering other various tokens to you until Christmas Eve. It is my hope that by then that you would be willing to meet me face to face. I'm just asking for a chance, that's all.

With fondness,

Your Admirer"

Judging from the way her face lights up, he knows she didn't hate the gift. He watches as she looks around the Gryffindor table. No one else looks her way or seems to have noticed her present, so she moves her gaze to the Ravenclaw and then Hufflepuff tables. She doesn't even glance at the Slytherin table. If she had, she would have seen the hesitation and hope in Draco Malfoy's eyes.

Athena visits her every single day in the weeks that follow. Her classmates have noticed by now, of course. It would be hard not to notice. Hermione never received much mail besides the Daily Prophet. She doesn't even get that now, she's so disgusted by the tremendous amount of attention she and her friends have been receiving. There are much more important things in life, doesn't everyone else realize that?

The whole table watches as she opens present after present. Most of the time it's something small. A chocolate, a new quill, a pretty shell. One morning Athena is flying very low over the table, weighed down by a very large, very old book. She squeals as she reads the title; it's embarrassing, but she can't help it. "The Life and Times of Godric Gryffindor." Everyone around her quickly loses interest, but she's absolutely elated. The book has been out of print for decades, and it's very expensive. Once again she finds herself searching the Great Hall for a familiar face watching her. She finds none.

It's with the utmost of care that she holds the book close to her as she exits the Great Hall.

From the far corner of the Slytherin table, Draco watches her. He can't keep the grin off his face.

December 20th brings another letter, the first long one since this whole admirer thing started. Hermione reads it no less than ten times, trying to glean clues from the perfectly formed words. She traces her name on the letter. The handwriting is impeccable. Still, she had no idea. She's asked everyone in her house, and no one will admit to sending her the gifts. She believes them, too. The small clues written on parchment paper point to someone outside of her house, but who? All she knows is that her admirer is well-read, incredibly sweet, and alluringly mysterious.

Today's gift is completely unexpected. It's a book of Muggle poetry. More than that, it's a book of Muggle love poems. If she had originally wondered if Ron was behind all of this, the answer is quite obviously no. Ron couldn't be this romantic if he tried; it's just not who he is. She opens the volume slowly. There is writing in the book, which surprises her. Her cheeks warm as she glances at the notes written next to sonnets. She seems a poem that has been highlighted, and she reads.

"From the beginning of my life

I have been looking for your face

but today I have seen it.

Today I have seen

the charm, the beauty,

the unfathomable grace

of the face

that I was looking for.

Today I have you

and those who laughed

and scorned me yesterday

are sorry that they were not looking

as I did.

- Rumi"

Next to the poem, in that same perfect script, she reads a note. "If you were mine, I wouldn't need money, or prestige, or even acceptance. You'd be more than enough for this lifetime."

Hermione's cheek turn a darker red, if it were even possible. She is amazed to read these words written to her. Who is this man?

The morning of December 23rd, she receives no note, no presents. She can't shake the disappointment.

From a safe distance, Draco notes her displeasure. It makes him sad and happy at the same time. He's sad because she is too, and happy that she has obviously missed his affection this morning.

That afternoon in Potions, he is brave enough to have a full conversation with her. He's been speaking more and more these past few weeks, just a few sentences here and there. He calls her by her first name now. The word feels magnificent on his lips. Even better, she responds to his questions. It shouldn't affect him so, but it's everything.

He asks her about her Christmas plans. Everyone will be leaving the castle the next day to make it home for the holiday. She tells him that she'll be with her parents for Christmas Eve and Christmas day, and then she may go to the Burrow for a week.

He is jealous of course, but the emotion passes.

She asks him about his plans, out of politeness, he's sure. He'll be staying at the castle this year. The Ministry is allowing him to go home, but no one will be there. His mother has been staying with a friend in Switzerland for the past few weeks, and will remain there through the beginning of the New Year.

Hermione seems almost sympathetic. It's a good sign.

When her back is turned, he slips the final gift and note into her book bag. As she leaves the room at the end of class, she stops and turns to him. Her hand rests on his arm, and he can't stop looking at it. The feeling is incredible.

"Happy Christmas, Draco."

He is silent for a long moment. She's turning to leave when he finds the ability to speak once more. "Happy Christmas, Hermione."

She is in her dormitory hours later when she finds the final present. Nestled between her school books is a copy of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." She opens the book and finds a note in that now-familiar handwriting. It's short and to the point.

"Dearest Hermione,

Scrooge was able to change. I can too. Please let me prove it to you. Happy Christmas.

All my love,

Your Admirer."

Next to the place where the book lay, she finds another note.

"Dearest Hermione,

This is the very last of my tokens. If you can find it in your heart to give me a chance, please meet me in the Astronomy tower at midnight tonight. If you never speak to me again after that, I will understand. It won't change my feelings for you.

All my love,

Your Admirer."

It's five minutes to midnight, and Draco can't stop shaking. He tries to relax, tries to calm down, but it won't work. He's been waiting for this for a month now. Longer, really, if he admits it to himself. He's been infatuated with Granger since the summer, maybe longer. He remembers watching her writhe with pain that day at the Manor and the shame is overwhelming. Did he harbor feelings for her even then? He's not sure. It's all a blur now. Hermione has colored every bit of his life. He sees his past through her eyes; he was so foolish, so wrong. Will she ever be able to forgive him? He doubts it, but he must try.

He is facing away from the door, unwilling to watch it and wait. He still has some pride, however little it may be.

He hears her walking up the ancient steps and he holds his breath. He hears the door open slowly, but he doesn't turn around. As soon as he sees her, she'll know.

He hears a small gasp, and then nothing. His head falls to his chest and he tries valiantly to keep the sudden tears at bay. He can't watch her walk away. He's just not that strong.

Minutes pass by and he is frozen in place. He doesn't want to risk overtaking her on the stairs, but all he wants now is to run to his room and never come out. Most of the other students will be gone for the next few weeks. He can live out his sorrow and shame almost completely alone. It's how things were meant to be.

He is so lost in thought and grief that he doesn't hear her slowly walk up to him. He senses her before he hears or feels her. He's not sure how that's possible, but he has become more and more attuned to her presence.

He feels her arm on his back and he stiffens, unwilling to look into her eyes. He licks his lips. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done it. I just... I had to."

She says nothing.

He feels the need to explain, to say anything to break the silence. "I know I'm the last person you wanted to see here tonight. I can't explain it. It started off as a curiosity, just reading about you, noticing you. But it's grown to so much more. I know it can never happen, but you have to know how special you are, how beautiful. And I'm so, so sorry for everything. I don't deserve you, never will, but I love you. I just do."

When she speaks, her voice is quiet, but firm. "Draco, look at me."

He turns without realizing he is doing so.

Her eyes are difficult to read. She looks lost and angry, but there's something else. Again, he tells her. "I'm sorry, Hermione."

She hisses out a frustrated breath. "Stop saying that."

He can't meet her gaze any longer. "Fine, I'll just..." He makes for the door.

A firm grip on his wrist stops him, and she pulls him back towards her. "Draco, just stop." She's much, much too close now. He tries to step back but she follows him. It feels like eons as she carefully searches his face for something. A reason? The truth? He's not sure.

When she speaks, her voice is softer. "I didn't expect it to be you, I'll admit it. I should have guessed, though, especially after that last present. It was pretty gutsy of you to sneak it in my book bag like that. I could have caught you, you know." The corners of her mouth turn up slightly. "Did you really mean all of it? The presents, the notes," it's dark but he can see her cheeks rosy, "the words?"

He licks his lip and tries to look away but her hand on his chin forces his gaze back to her. "Yes." It's just one word, but it carries all of his affection, his doubt, his regrets.

Her eyes have that same undefinable hard edge to them, and he realizes that it's determination. "Okay then."

He's unsure of what that means. "Um, I'm sorry?"

She laughs suddenly, and it's confusing and beautiful and arousing all at the same time. "I thought I told you to stop saying that."

A small smile makes its way to his lips. "Yes, well... Okay?"

"Yes, okay."

Again he catches himself almost saying the word. "S... um, what do you mean by that?"

She moves even closer and she looks up at him. He never realized just how small she truly was, but she looks so delicate like this, even if he knows the word hardly describes the girl.

"I mean, okay. I'll give you a chance, Draco."

The smile is officially plastered to his face. "You will? Why?" He inwardly smacks himself; that was not the question to ask. Don't let her second-guess herself now.

She laughs once more, and it's the loveliest thing he's ever heard. "It's obvious that you've changed. I knew that before I knew you were my... my admirer. You're so different. Draco, if you meant even half of what you've said and done and written, then I'd be a fool not to at least attempt something with you."

He looks at her seriously now and he can't stop his fingertips from lightly tracing a path up her arm. "I can say for sure that you are certainly no fool, Hermione."

The air is thick with tension, and all he can concentrate on is the feel of her skin below his hand. Although he can barely believe it, he feels her move closer. Without conscious effort, he leans his head down towards her.

When they kiss, it's like magic. Not the magic they do at Hogwarts, but real magic. Magic that's pure and unhinged and wild. It's like nothing he's ever felt before, and he can't help thinking that if this is the last kiss he ever receives, that would be okay. It's perfect. There's no topping this.

When he pulls away he can't stop himself from whispering to her. "I love you, Hermione."

She can't say it yet, of course she can't, but he see promises and hope in her smile. "Happy Christmas, Draco."

A/N - Happy Christmas everyone! Lots of love to you and yours this holiday season. Want to leave me a present? A review would be lovely. ;-)