"You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?"

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"

Scrooge trembled more and more.

"Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it since. It is a ponderous chain!"

The punch, Hermione Granger decided, was the best part of the evening. Or, rather, the only good part. Make that the only tolerable part of the evening. She scowled into the dark liquid, wondering if she should say anything about George spiking the punch.

Not her responsibility, she reminded herself.

Plus, the punch was good.

"Miss Granger!"

The familiar voice of Minerva McGonagall interrupted her train of thought, and she smiled up at her former Head of House.

"The Great Hall looks beautiful," Hermione offered. It was true. Whoever had transfigured the room, and she was almost certain that Headmistress McGonagall would have kept that honour for herself, had done a marvelous job. The Great Hall had been transformed to a snow palace with a thin layer of ice covering each table and chair. Icicles of varying lengths and thicknesses hung from the ceiling and every other available surface. Best of all, however, was the fact that the ice seemed to be lit from within. A cool, blue glow bathed the room in a translucent shimmer.

"I am rather proud of it," Minerva admitted, her voice low and a trifle more conspiratorial than Hermione might have expected. "Though I admit that perhaps a stronger warming charm might not have been amiss. The ice does seem to have lowered the temperature of the room considerably."

"I'm sure that once the dancing starts, everyone will be grateful for the cooler temperatures," Hermione assured her, although she was now tempted to rub her arms to alleviate the goose bumps she could feel forming. At least her gown had long sleeves. Ginny had tried to talk her into a clingy strapless dress, but she'd fallen in love with the cranberry red, full-skirted, floor length gown. And perhaps the square neck line and bell sleeves made her look like more a medieval princess than a young, available witch, but... Well. Perhaps another cup of punch wouldn't be such a poor idea, she thought. When Headmistress McGonagall's attention was diverted by the arrival of several dignitaries from the Ministry, she drifted toward the refreshment table.

With a look of wry amusement, Hermione realized that the punch bowl had been seriously depleted since she'd had her first cup only twenty minutes earlier. As she reached for the ladle, she felt someone step close beside her.

"Allow me," he said, taking the ladle from her and deftly filling a cup. "It would be a shame for you to splash such a lovely gown."

"Mr Malfoy!" she exclaimed, staring wide-eyed at his chiseled profile.

He handed her the cup, even going so far as to incline his head in a slight bow.

"Thank you," she said, her surprise turning to suspicion. Since when was Lucius Malfoy in the habit of politely serving Muggleborns?

"My pleasure," he replied, and filled his own cup before bowing a second time and turning away from her. She stared after him for a moment as he walked away, and then shook her head to clear it. She had no intention of wasting even a moment of thought on the reformed Death Eater.

"What's he up to, I wonder?" a quiet voice beside her questioned.

"Harry!" Hermione exclaimed, throwing her arms around her best friend and nearly sending the contents of her punch cup flying.

"Whoa!" he laughed, holding her carefully as he gave her a light kiss on the cheek. "One would think that you missed me."

Stepping back, she swatted at his arm. "Of course I missed you! You've been gone nearly four months, you know."

"Yes, I'm aware," he teased. "But I'm back now, and I have no intention to go travelling again anytime soon."

Hermione bit her lip, wondering if Harry's impromptu trip around the world had been the good experience for him that she'd intended.

"It was fine," he said softly, taking her elbow and leading her to one of the small, ice covered tables. "I particularly enjoyed South America. Lots of snakes to talk to."

Her eyes widened, not at Harry's story, but at the figure at the back of the room. Surely no one would have the temerity to dress up as— He was dead!

"Kidding!" he assured her, apparently mistaking her shock for concern at his story. "Well, mostly. I did encounter a particularly friendly boa con—" He stopped as Hermione jabbed at his ribs.

"Did you see that?" she asked, squinting into the crowd.

"See what? I was trying to amuse you with mostly true stories from my trip, and trying even harder not to catch anybody's eye. Bloody fame-mongering voyeurs," he muttered. "What did you..."

"Nothing," she said, blinking and turning back to him. "I mean, I couldn't have. He's dead."

"Hermione?" Harry asked, and she felt a stab of guilt for the obvious concern she was causing him.

"It was nothing," she assured him. "A trick of the light. Or maybe the punch was spiked with something rather more creative than usual."

"Spiked?" Both Harry's attitude and eyebrows soared. Before she could stop him, he snagged her cup and took a healthy swallow. "That's good stuff, that is," he said in approval. "I think I may get my own."

"How generous," she said wryly, looking at her almost empty cup. Before she could ask him to bring her more of the liquid comfort, he had been swept up in the rapidly growing, always Potter-obsessed crowd.

"Not much of a gentleman, that," a familiar voice said, and she turned to find Draco Malfoy settling himself in Harry's deserted chair.

Hermione shrugged and gratefully accepted the punch he offered her. "Maybe not in the little things," she agreed. "But he does just fine when it really matters."

"Still defending him," Draco said, his blond hair falling perfectly into place even as he shook his head. "I thought I'd cured you of that."

She hid a smile behind her cup. "Not hardly. I'm afraid working with you for the past year has not yet completely corrupted me."

"Well, partial corruption is an adequate start, I suppose. Seriously, though." Draco sat back in his chair. "He's doing well?"

"I think so," she replied cautiously. While Harry Potter was wont to wear his emotions on his sleeve, he did still have the annoying habit of keeping his feelings to himself if he thought that they would upset her. "He was about to tell me a ridiculous story about conversing with a boa constrictor, I believe."

"Ah. The Gryffindor penchant for wildly exaggerated tales rears its ugly head." He nodded knowingly.

"Shall I remind you of the time you attempted to convince me that you stabilized the Room of Requirement without any help? While fighting off Peeves?"

"Oh. That. Well, I had to level the playing field somehow, didn't I? You did restore the entire Ravenclaw tower on your own, you know."

"You were competing with me?" Hermione asked. "Whatever for? The only reason I was able to restore the tower was that the lady in the portrait was still intact, and was so happy to have someone answer a riddle correctly that she invoked some sort of charm that aided my efforts." She frowned. "I still haven't been able to figure out how a portrait cast a spell. I think that we don't know even half of what goes on in this place."

Draco snorted and took a long pull from his drink. "Half is generous. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that we really don't understand magic at all." He looked away from her and ran his finger along the rim of his glass as he studied their surroundings. "The Great Hall looks good," he finally admitted.

"Minerva outdid herself," Hermione agreed. "Though it is rather chilly." She scraped a line in the icy surface of the table.

"For an intelligent witch," a familiar voice intoned, "you are exhibiting remarkably dunderheaded tendencies." Severus Snape cast a muttered warming charm and joined them.

"I hadn't forgotten," Hermione grumbled. "I just felt silly casting another when the first hadn't even worn off."

"Lowered body temperature?" Severus questioned. "You've been working too hard again."

"The castle doesn't repair itself, you know," she said with a shrug. "And with the banquet tonight, and the fact that the school will be re-opening next month..."

"More punch?" Severus murmured, handing her a fresh cup. "I think you'll find it as effective as another warming charm," he said slyly.

"Yes, and you only had to nick one of my oldest bottles of Ogden's to accomplish it." Lucius Malfoy filled the remaining seat at the table.

Hermione gritted her teeth. She was comfortable with Draco. While they weren't exactly friends, they had been working together to repair Hogwarts for the last year, and had managed to set aside their differences. Snape had spent several months recovering from Nagini's attack, but had made it a point to assist them with his vast knowledge of the castle as soon as he was able. She'd come to appreciate his acerbic wit, now that it was no longer quite so biting, and she'd always respected his intelligence. She'd become more or less comfortable in his presence. Lucius Malfoy, however, had seemed to drop right back into his life of political and financial intrigue after the death of the Dark Lord, somehow escaping the clutches of Ministry. She wasn't quite sure how he had managed it, and she was quite sure that she didn't trust him.

"Wait," she said, finally registering what the elder Malfoy had said. "You spiked the punch, Severus?"

"Oh, nicely done," Severus chided, glaring at Lucius. "Any other secrets you'd care to divulge?"

"Hush," Lucius said, tapping his cane imperiously. "The triumph is even sweeter when recognized by others."

"Touché." Severus raised his glass and drank deeply. "And let's not forget that you gave me both the idea and the Ogden's."

Lucius waved aside what Hermione supposed was Severus' Slytherin attempt at thanking him. "After all those years of listening to you complain about being required to supervise balls in this room, I thought you should have the chance to be utterly irresponsible for one night."

"Speaking of irresponsible…"

Hermione followed Draco's gaze to the cleared floor where couples were dancing. "Oh, Merlin," she muttered. Ron and Lavender were pressed up against each other so closely that she feared for the state of Lavender's ridiculously ruffled dress. Surely it would be crinkled beyond repair by the time Ron released her. Lavender, however, most likely couldn't care less since she and Ron appeared to be inspecting each other's tonsils.

Severus' satisfied smirk was enough to draw her attention away from the canoodling couple. "What are you so happy about?" she questioned. "Aren't you supposed to make some sort of deprecating remark and storm away in a huff? Blast a few rose bushes?"

"Why would I?" he countered. "I'm rather looking forward to seeing someone other than myself have to deal with amorous young people." He raised his glass in a salute to the oblivious couple.

Draco pulled a face and shifted his chair away so that Ron and Lavender weren't in his direct line of sight. "Revolting," he muttered.

"I think it's sweet!" Hermione protested, but belied her comment by frowning when Ron's hand dipped low enough to palm Lavender's arse.

"Charming," Lucius agreed drily. "Tell me, does the young Mr Weasley intend to return to Hogwarts and sit his N.E.W.T.s?"

Hermione gladly transferred her focus from the groping couple to the elder Malfoy. "I think not," she said, grimacing. "He's been training with the Cannons for the last few months and I think he expects a contract to be offered him soon."

"And Mr Potter?" he inquired. "Now that he has returned from his tour abroad, does he plan to join you at school?"

Hermione's expression softened as she sought to catch a glimpse of her friend. She finally spotted him in a darkened corner of the room conversing with Kingsley Shacklebolt, the Minister of Magic. "He hasn't said," she admitted slowly, "but I rather think not." No, from the serious expressions of both Harry and Kingsley, she rather imagined that Harry's future was being determined, and that it would not involve keeping her company at the newly restored school. Her chest tightened momentarily and she wondered if she was making a mistake in returning to school to finish her final year and sit her N.E.W.T.s. Everyone else, it seemed, was moving on with their lives.

"More room for us," Draco said, nudging her foot under the table and grinning at her. "Perhaps we'll have rooms to ourselves," he speculated, looking quite cheerful at the prospect.

Well. There was that. After months of living in a tent with two boys, and then over a year of living in makeshift accommodations in whatever livable space she could find in the seriously damaged school, she had to admit that a room to herself was very tempting. The privacy to read as late as she wished without worrying that she was annoying anyone else was definitely a drawing card.

Never mind the fact that she couldn't think of a single person with whom she actually wanted to share a room. Ginny Weasley would be acceptable, she thought somewhat belatedly and guiltily. If she had to share. Her train of thought was interrupted by Draco nudging her with his leg.

"Incoming," he warned.

Hermione jerked her attention in the direction Draco was pointedly not looking and bit back a curse that would have had Ron gaping like a fish if he ever heard it. Cormac McLaggen was approaching, his self-important swagger confirming her suspicion that he was once again going to try his luck with her. Even though she'd rejected him every other time. And hexed him, for good measure. She scanned the room frantically, desperate to escape the inevitable invitation to dance. Not that she didn't like dancing. She just wasn't so keen on the truly awful pick-up lines he insisted on employing, and, even worse, his wandering hands. She really hadn't wanted to embarrass Minerva by hexing anyone at this inaugural event…

She blew out a huff of relief when she saw Harry cut short his conversation with the Minister and stride toward her. He wouldn't arrive quite in time to save her from McLaggen's attentions, but surely McLaggen would be forced to step aside gracefully if Harry asked her to dance.

Her hopes were crushed when a headful of long, red hair inserted itself between her and her erstwhile saviour. Harry was capable of putting off almost anyone, but Ginny Weasley had proven to be the exception to the rule. Harry wouldn't be coming to her rescue anytime soon, not if Ginny had anything to say about it. Mentally crossing the youngest Weasley's name off the short list of potential roommates, Hermione clenched her teeth and wondered just what level of hexing she could get away with without attracting too much attention. And tried to decide who she would hex first, McLaggen or Ginny.

And Draco was laughing at her!

Oh, not in such a way that it would be obvious to anyone else, but she knew perfectly well that the miniscule upward twitch of the left side of his upper lip was a hearty guffaw when translated from Slytherin to Gryffindor. Prat!

Worse, her momentary hesitation at seeing Harry heading in her direction had robbed her of the opportunity to make a strategic retreat to the ladies' room.

She would hex Ginny first. Perhaps something that would give the perpetually perfectly coifed sleek hair an overabundance of curl and frizz. Or maybe a lip-locking charm that would prevent her from speaking unnecessarily. Oh! Or a hex that would make others see through her glamour charms without her knowledge! That last one had definite possibilities, she thought, momentarily distracted from her imminent problem.

"Oh, for Merlin's sake," Severus muttered. "Draco. Were you raised in a stable?"

When Draco's only response was an arched brow, Severus rose smoothly to his feet and extended his hand to Hermione. "Would you care to dance, Miss Granger?"

Hermione boggled for only a moment. A rescue was a rescue, after all, and she felt fairly certain that if she were to dance with her former Potions professor, she would most certainly not be required to fight off unwelcome advances. Of course, she would probably have to deal with acerbic comments and scathing commentary, but, well, those were actually appealing. As long as he didn't insult her, of course.

Smiling brightly, she allowed him to lead her onto the floor and join the throng of dancing couples. And if there was the slightest of smirks on Severus' face as he looked over her shoulder at the disgruntled McLaggen, she chose not to comment on it.

He was a surprisingly smooth dancer, she learned in short order. It stood to reason, of course. He'd always carried himself with a certain… awareness. Whether it was sweeping into a classroom to deliver his traditional speech to first years or slicing and dicing potions ingredients accurately to a sixty-fourth of an inch, he seemed to move instinctually.

A most pleasant change from dancing with either McLaggen or her friends, she thought wryly.

"I had thought Draco more of a gentleman," Severus observed eventually, still moving effortlessly around the dance floor.

"Then you don't know him very well," Hermione retorted tartly, though she tempered the statement with a quick grin. "I'm afraid Draco's enjoyment of seeing me in uncomfortable situations trumps his gentlemanly instincts. And watching me fending off Handsy McHands is apparently quite high on his list of pleasurable pursuits."

"I suppose I can see the allure," Severus allowed after attempting and failing not to smirk at the nickname Hermione had coined. "Handsy McHands?" he finally questioned. "Really, Miss Granger? That was the best you could come up with?"

"I thought it incorporated the Scottish lilt quite nicely!" she protested.

"Hmm…" Severus allowed. "Perhaps. Or we could call him Wretched Robbie, whose love is like a red, red, rash."

"Oh. You heard about that," she said, blushing.

"I heard he deserved that hex, and worse," Severus said. "Much worse. The man-handling of women is not a trait practiced in Slytherin House, I assure you," he finished grimly. "Which is why I do not understand Draco's—" He broke off abruptly, his gaze fixed on a point somewhere above Hermione's left ear.

"What is it?" she asked, unnerved at the sight of her normally unflappable former teacher distinctly distracted. "The charms repairing the Great Hall haven't failed, have they?" she questioned anxiously. It had been a tricky room to restore, but she was quite certain they had done it correctly. She had worked tirelessly with Minerva to get every nuance just right, and she was sure they'd succeeded, but had they somehow compromised the structural integrity of the room?

"Severus," she hissed as sharply as she dared. "What is it?"

One look, however, at his ashen face had her tugging him from the dance floor and back to their table. His expression was not that of a man who feared for the safety of others, but rather that of a man who had received a nasty shock. The fact that he allowed her to lead him anywhere only sharpened the stab of worry.

"Gracious, Severus," Lucius said, standing as they neared the table. "You look as if you've seen a ghost," he said mildly in what Hermione recognized as a subtle Slytherin attempt to put them at ease. Severus, however, blanched and reached for his cup of doctored punch even as he sat down. Instead of answering Lucius, he kept his eyes trained on the crowd of people, as if he were looking for one person in particular. Finally, he shook his head and returned his focus to the other people at the table.

"I rather think this entire evening is an airing of ghosts," he said drily, and Hermione couldn't help but shiver. She and Minerva had made certain to restore the Great Hall to its previous appearance, not wanting the war to leave its mark on the most social room of the castle. The Ministry, however, had insisted on large plaques honouring the fallen to be placed in the entry and house-specific ones at the entrance to each common room. She still wasn't sure how she felt about that—the reminder seemed too morbid to encounter daily, and she strongly suspected that after a week or two, most students wouldn’t even really see the plaques any more. And those who were inclined to remember the fallen certainly didn't need a plaque to accomplish it.

"If you'll excuse me," she said abruptly, and, feeling her throat close up, she pushed her chair away from the table with an audible scrape. She had promised herself that she would keep her focus where it should be, and celebrate the fact that they were moving on from the war, but it was harder than she had anticipated. For even as they moved on, she couldn't stop the niggling remorse for what was being left behind.

With a tight smile, she threaded her way through the crowd until she reached the dubious privacy of the ladies' loo, where she tucked herself into a stall, sat on the closed toilet lid and attempted to control her breathing. The stinging at the back of her eyes had receded, but her throat was tight, and her breathing sounded more like panting than anything else. Five minutes and a cooling charm on her cheeks later, she ventured out of the stall to splash cold water on her face. Concentrating intensely enough to block out the list of names that she knew were on those bloody plaques, she repaired her make-up with an attention to detail that would rival Lavender Brown's. With a firm nod to her reflection in the mirror, she was ready to brave the Great Hall once again.

The firm nod quickly changed to a frown as she stared at a fuzzy reflection in the corner of the mirror. She thought she'd been alone… The room was silent, save for the occasional drip of a leaky faucet. A ghost, perhaps? She squinted, trying to get a better look at the reflection. Definitely not Moaning Myrtle, unless she'd somehow managed to go gray in the last year. Which wasn't out of the question, given the stress the ghost had undoubtedly endured during the destruction and rebuilding of the castle.

But no. Not Moaning Myrtle.

She shivered as she realized who the reflection most resembled. If she had to choose a ghost, he would have been at the very bottom of the list, she thought savagely. Smoothing down her wayward curls, she turned her back to the mirror and shoved open the heavy door without a second glance.

When she stepped into the hallway, however, she was stopped short by the sight of Lucius Malfoy lounging against the opposite wall, a drink in his hand. "I thought you could do with this," he said, offering her both the drink and his arm.

She took both, though she couldn't decide if she felt more misgiving from the acceptance of the arm or the alcohol.

"I've a bottle at the table," he informed her.

From the corner of her eye, she caught the flash of nebulous face, a swirl of ethereal cloak, and suddenly neither the arm nor the drink seemed like such a terrible idea.


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Author's Notes

Characters from the Harry Potter series are the property of J.K. Rowling. They are used without permission and not for profit.

Thank you to Miss M and Miss B, otherwise known as The Above and Beyond Team. I don't know what I'd do without you!

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