If she had known that both of the Malfoys were snugglers, Hermione mused drowsily, she might not have been quite so terrified of them during her Hogwarts days. As it was, it was difficult to summon even a token frisson of horror for the two men currently flanking her. In fact, the bed was remarkably comfortable, and she couldn't see any reason to rouse herself sooner than was strictly necessary. If Dumbledore was in a hurry to shuttle them off to another nightmare, he could bloody well wait on them for once, she thought petulantly and burrowed deeper under the covers, not even flinching when one of the Malfoys stirred and shifted a little closer to her.

"Oh, very good," a silky voice drawled sardonically. "We can now add dragon tamer to your already considerable list of accomplishments."

She'd known that the relative peace and quiet had been too good to last. Reluctantly blinking one eye open, she huffed a sigh in the general direction from which the voice had come. While it might be true that Draco (or so she surmised it was he to whom Severus was referring) had begun to display certain human attributes throughout the course of the night, she hardly thought it fair (or wise) to credit her for it.

"You can't play possum forever," Severus continued, rising from the lone chair in the corner of the room and still sounding amused. "You are not, after all, as gifted in subterfuge as the Malfoys."

It took a half second for the meaning of the words to sink in, but when they did, Hermione bolted upright, throwing off both of the men who were, apparently, wide awake and not above using her as a pillow. And blanket. And—

"Good lord, Draco! Did you drool on me?" Hermione demanded, rubbing furiously at a suspiciously damp spot on her arm.

"Don't be ridiculous," Lucius cut in, straightening his robes and attempting to shield his son while Draco surreptitiously wiped his chin to remove any evidence of drool. "Malfoys do not drool."

"Right," Hermione said, looking pointedly from her arm to Draco's mouth.

Lucius' attention, however, had shifted. "We are alone?" he inquired of Severus, giving up the pretense of straightening his robes and crossing the small room to loom over his friend.

"Quite," Severus replied, unruffled by Lucius' demeanor. "As you would know already had you not spent the last quarter hour taking advantage of Miss Granger as she slept."

Draco blinked sleepily.

Lucius widened his eyes in a rare display of surprise.

Hermione spluttered in outrage.

And Severus waited a full ten seconds before adopting his customary smirk and reassuring Hermione that he had not somehow developed an odd protective streak concerning her.

"Don't be ridiculous," Draco mumbled, still struggling to wake. "If anyone is going to—"

"Stop," Hermione commanded, holding up her hand. "Severus is having you on," she said, even though she strongly suspected that he had the right of it. Not that Lucius had taken advantage of her. For just a second, though, she'd caught an expression of utter longing on Lucius' face, and she knew that he was thinking of Narcissa, and that he wasn't nearly over her death.

And if she had to guess, she'd think that Severus was quite as observant as she, probably more so, and that his comment had been designed to distract Lucius from his pain.

"We are quite alone," Severus said, as though he had not caused the tangent which had derailed the conversation.

"Really?" Draco questioned, sounding much more alert as he untangled himself from the bedclothes and stood. His robes rippled into neat folds automatically, drawing a wistful sigh from Hermione. She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she must look a fright. She always did when she woke, and the fact that they'd been in and out of the blasted bed all night would certainly not have helped matters.

"We're free!" Draco exclaimed, reaching back to tug Hermione out of the bed. "Quick! Before Dumbledore gets back!" He bolted for the door, only to be stopped by an idle flick from Severus' wand.

"The exits are still barred," he informed them.

Hermione's shoulders drooped. She'd barely had a chance to get her hopes up, yet the disappointment was crushing.

"But he's not here," Draco said desperately "He's not here! We can't be expected to wait forever, can we? We have to be finished!"

Yes, Hermione agreed silently. They had to be finished. If for no other reason than that she didn't think she could take any more. They'd endured Lucius idyllic-turned-dutiful childhood, Severus' nightmare of a father, Draco's near death, and the loss of her parents. What could possibly be left of their pasts for Dumbledore to drag them through?

And then her stomach dropped and she collapsed to the bed. "Oh, bugger," she moaned, burying her face in a pillow. It smelled faintly of expensive cologne, and she idly noted the fact that she was now familiar with Draco's scent. Draco Malfoy, of all people! It was hardly the strangest revelation she'd experienced since their journey had begun, but it was the one that pushed her over the edge. She began laughing uncontrollably, the pillow doing little to muffle her hysteria.

"Granger?" Draco questioned cautiously, sounding rather as if he were approaching a wild animal.

"Hadn't you better call me Hermione?" she asked, reasoning that if they were familiar enough for her to have recognized his cologne, they certainly ought to be on a first name basis

"Granger?" he repeated, sounding even more alarmed. Why, she had no idea. It had been a perfectly reasonable request, hadn't it?

"No need to fret, Mr Malfoy," Severus said drily. "I suspect that Miss Granger has merely come to the same conclusion that I reached upon waking an hour ago."

He paused, and though Hermione couldn't see him as she still had her face buried in the pillow a la ostrich, she suspected that it was not for effect. No, she was certain Severus was just as loathe as she to share their realization. Well, she wasn't a Gryffindor for nothing.

"In the classic Dickens tale," she said, making her words as distinct as possible through the feathers of the pillow, "Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future."

When she reluctantly raised her head from the pillow it was to find both Malfoys staring at her with identical expressions of horror. She hadn't thought that it was possible for Draco to turn paler than he already was, but he managed it handily, the colour draining from his face in slow increments. After Lucius' earlier displays of temper, she half-expected to hear a destructive curse aimed at the door, but instead, he merely ran his hand over his face.

"Bugger, indeed," he said, echoing Hermione and sounding older than his years. He pressed his lips together in a thin line, and Hermione suspected that he was steeling himself against the knowledge that their journey was only one-third complete.

"No," Draco said. His lips were also pressed in a thin line, but they spoke of determination rather than resignation. "No," he repeated. "We came here tonight to celebrate the re-opening of Hogwarts. Not to reprise our roles of pawns. We're supposed to be dancing, not—" He stopped abruptly when a knock on the door caused all of them to look up sharply. Lucius and Severus sprang away, striding to the door so quickly that it almost made her dizzy.

"I is Berry," a high voice squeaked. "And I is being sent to open the door for you."

The heavy wooden door swung open, revealing a worried house-elf. He wrung his hands and looked at the floor. "Please don't be beings upsets with Berry."

"Of course we're not upset with you," Hermione said, giving the wizards in the room a pointed look. Berry's ears drooped with relief, but folded back in terror when Lucius addressed it sternly.

"Did you have anything to do with this, elf?" he demanded. His tone wasn't unkind but demanded an immediate answer.

"No! Oh, no, Mr Blondie Malfoy. We elves is only knowing that the door won't open except when it is ready to, and it wasn't ready to until now." His eyes were huge, pleading with Lucius to believe him. "Well," he corrected himself, cringing, "it might have been being ready to opens a little earlier, but the Cat Lady was needing us!" Berry frowned. "There was former students drinking too much of the bubbly juice and doing nasty, nasty things with their tongueses. And their hands!" He shuddered, and Hermione couldn't help grimacing along with him. Ron and Lavender had been hard enough to watch hours earlier. She could only imagine what some of the less inhibited party-goers had gotten up to in the meantime.

"Very well," Lucius said, exchanging an amused glance with Severus at the results of his doctored punch. "I suppose that we are—"

"Wait just a moment," Hermione interrupted, staring at the diminutive house elf. "Are you telling me that the party is still going on? It can't be! We've been gone for hours!"

Berry took a nervous step backward and twisted his hands. "Berry doesn't be knowing exactly how long—"

"Merlin's pants! Does no one besides myself remember how to cast a Tempus charm?" Severus flicked his wand and the occupants of the room stared at the glowing numbers.

"Midnight?" Hermione questioned. "Midnight? I would have thought it was midnight when this charade began! Although…" She frowned, trying to remember the particulars from the book. Didn't a ghost visit Scrooge on the hour, every hour? If so, they were not nearly finished.

"Berry is not knowings about times," the house elf squeaked. "Berry is only knowing that the door is opening and that it is being time for the wizards and witch to go." He looked at them, his pleading expression making Hermione wonder if he feared punishment if they didn't leave the room at their appointed time.

"Are we really… do you think…" Hermione stared at the open door, wondering if this weren't some sort of cruel trick. They had only travelled to the past. Could it be possible that they were being spared the torture of Dumbledore accompanying them into the present and the future? Or were they, perhaps, in the present right now? What if they had merely been transported to their first destination on the "present" leg of their journey? But the elf had spoken to them. Surely that meant that they were in the actual present, and not the magical present?

"Miss Granger, you will no doubt have ample opportunity to analyze this entire experience at a later date. I suggest, however, that we take advantage of our offered freedom as expeditiously as possible," Lucius advised, and Hermione immediately saw the wisdom. If they were truly on the next leg of their journey, the present, then the worst that would happen was that they would be prevented from leaving the room. And if they were truly free…

She took an involuntary step toward the door. Severus, Lucius, and Draco followed in her wake, and for a moment she wondered just how ridiculous they must look—a rumpled, exhausted caravan. She passed through the door, feeling a tingle of magic as she stepped into the corridor. To her relief, the nightgown she'd worn for the duration of their adventure was once again the Medieval gown she'd donned for the ball. Looking back over her shoulder, she was just in time to see the room disappear behind Draco, the wall an unbroken canvass of rough-hewn stone.

"The Room of Requirement," she groaned. "Of course!"

Draco looked behind him in surprise. "It makes sense," he agreed thoughtfully. "I never would have guessed, though…" He shook his head. "Silly, really. You'd think either you or I would have put it together."

"And just why would you suppose that?" Lucius inquired, one eyebrow quirked.

"Oh, it's just that Draco and I both spent a considerable amount of time here sixth year," Hermione rushed to explain. "Not together," she amended hastily.

"Of course not," Draco said. "You were busy with Dumbledore's Army, and I was occupied with…" He paused. "Other endeavours."

"I'm well aware of that," Lucius retorted, rolling his eyes at his son. "I merely wondered why you would assume that Severus and I are not just as familiar with the room as you."

Draco opened his mouth to reply, and then snapped it closed as if realizing that no response would help him.

"Quite," Severus said, seemingly applauding Draco's choice to remain mum. "After all, you couldn't have thought that Potter was the first to discover the room, could you?"

"Of course not," Hermione snapped, and then collected herself. She could see what Severus was doing, and she wasn't going to allow it. "Nice try," she told him, pinning him with a glare. "But you're not going to scare me away with your surly attitude." Poking his chest with her index finger, she moved into his personal space. "You can't get rid of me that easily." He narrowed his eyes at her, but she merely smirked in return, confident that she would carry her point.

"If you're quite finished," Lucius interrupted, "would it not be prudent to continue to make good our escape?" He glanced meaningfully down the hall, as if he expected Dumbledore's spectre to appear and attempt to herd them back into the Room of Requirement.

"That's odd," Hermione said, staring down the dark and deserted corridor. "I don't remember entering the Room of Requirement. Do any of you?"

Lucius drummed his fingers on his leg as he contemplated the question. "No. I assumed that I had over-indulged at the festivities and…" He shrugged, as if this were not an uncommon occurrence.

"I do not recall the particulars, either," Severus said, his tone contemplative.

"All I remember is waking up in bed with Hermione," Draco said.

"There were four of us in the bed," Hermione informed him tartly, her face colouring at Draco's accurate, if potentially flirtatious, answer.

"Well, that's certainly not how I'm going to tell the story," Draco decided. "I like it much better my way."

Rolling her eyes, Hermione gave him a push down the corridor. "I'm sure you do. That doesn't make it true."

As they descended the many moving staircases, the sounds of the festivities in the Great Hall rose to meet them, music and happy voices mingling to form an intoxicating brew. Hermione stepped in time to the music, humming along with the familiar wizarding tune.

"I see that Draco was not the only one who was looking forward to dancing," Lucius said, tapping his cane on the marble floor at the top of the staircase that led to the Great Hall.

"Well, it is a ball," Hermione pointed out. "And as far as I can remember, I really only danced with Severus."

"Which is reason enough to seek out additional partners," Lucius said, smirking at his friend. "I quite understand."

"I didn't mean it like that!" Hermione said, giving him an exasperated nudge. "Severus is a magnificent dancer, and a true gentleman."

Severus smirked and stood just a little taller.

"Oh, please," Draco snorted. "Rescuing you from Handsy McHands hardly makes him a knight in shining armour."

"Says you!" Hermione retorted, sniffing and taking Severus' arm. "And it makes him a hero because he prevented me hexing Cormac and starting an incident. Not because I needed rescuing."

"Now that I believe," Draco said, falling into step beside her. Rubbing his nose surreptitiously, he whispered, "I can still feel my nose on rainy days, you know." He paused. "And there are a lot of rainy days in this part of the world."

"You had it coming," Hermione replied briskly, but she couldn't help glancing at his nose as they descended the many steps of the main staircase. There was just the slightest of bumps in the otherwise perfect slope of his nose, and she surprised herself by feeling a small twinge of guilt. Even more surprising was the desire to study the rest of his features. He was remarkable, Hermione realized in a flash so clear she wondered how she'd missed it before. He wasn't perfect. His features were angular rather than chiseled, his complexion too light to speak of robust health. And yet his imperfections made him all the more compelling. Once she began studying him, she found she couldn't stop. His lips were thin. Too thin, perhaps. And yet they were the perfect shade of pink. And his eyes. Not a blazing blue like Charlie Weasley's, or a flinty grey like Lucius', but a mixture of blue and grey, reminding her of stormy seas. And some might consider his hairline too high, but—

"Don't be misled, Miss Granger," Lucius advised, interrupting her perusal of Draco's features and causing her to blink in surprise. "If Draco has to resort to pity in order to secure you as a dance partner, he deserves no consideration."

"Pity!" Draco spluttered. "I'll have you know—"

"That I've already danced with Severus once this evening and in the interest of keeping his friendship, I have no desire to goad him into a second dance. I am therefore quite open to your invitation, should you care to make it," Hermione informed him, her hold on Severus' arm still resolute.

Lucius' lips twitched. "If you don't marry this one, Draco, I will," he warned.

Hermione grinned, thinking that Severus' satisfied smirk and Draco's unhinged jaw were more than worth the potential embarrassment of admitting that she wanted to dance with the younger Malfoy. Perhaps wanted was a strong word. Felt compelled to was more like, she realized, because she wasn't quite ready to let go of the evening. If hard pressed, she would even say that the idea of prolonging the evening by dancing with her former enemy felt right.

And wasn't that just something she'd never seen coming?

Before she could dwell on the unexpected realization, they were swept into the Great Hall, and she found herself on the periphery of the dancing, mingling crowd. The volume had grown steadily as they'd descended the stairs, but it was still somewhat of a shock to be thrust into the overly loud room. Hermione felt Severus' arm beneath her hand tense, and she knew that he was fighting the instinct to turn on his heel and leave.

"You can't leave now," she whispered, just loudly enough for the Malfoys to also hear. "Don't you want to see the effects of your punch?"

He paused. "There is that," he admitted, scanning the occupants of the room with cool disinterest rather than outright disdain. It was, Hermione decided, the best she could hope for.

"And you practically begged me to dance with you," Draco said, drawing her away from Severus so smoothly that she couldn't object before they were firmly planted in the middle of the dance floor and swaying to a crooned Christmas carol.

"I hardly begged you," Hermione pointed out, mustering up token outrage even though she was finding herself in far too good a mood to be particularly offended.

Shrugging, Draco did a complicated little move that left Hermione out of breath and swept them out of the centre of the dance floor. "A mere technicality," he decided. "And one that works in my favour."

Hermione looked up at him and found his attention firmly fixed on her. A queer sensation that she could not entirely attribute to spiked punch or smooth dance moves settled in her stomach, and for the first time, she experienced the heady sensation of Draco Malfoy's undivided attention. His undivided appreciative attention. Because there was no mistaking his evident admiration. Oh, she wouldn't have been able to identify it a month ago, or even a day ago, but somehow, the lighter shade of blue with faint gray specks… paired with the faintest of smirks…

"Granger?" he questioned, sounding amused, and Hermione belatedly realized that she'd been staring.

But Draco, too, seemed to come to a realization. "Hermione?" he repeated, and this time his voice held less teasing and more meaning.

And then her heart was suddenly, inexplicably, full to bursting. Full from witnessing the lives of three men she had thought she'd known. Full from seeing her parents and learning to understand them better. And especially full from the unexpected comfort she'd received from all three of her companions.

Her face grew warm as she recalled Draco holding her in Moaning Myrtle's lavatory. It wasn't warm with embarrassment, however. No, it was something… more. Something that told her it mightn't be so bad to be held by him again. And not necessarily only for comfort.

"Hermione," Draco repeated, only this time it wasn't a question so much as an agreement. An acknowledgement that his thoughts were following a path similar to her own.

And that was enough, she decided, shucking her inhibitions by moving farther into his embrace and placing her head against his chest. It would be foolhardy to rush into declarations on the heels of an emotionally and magically charged night. But that didn't mean that she couldn't give him something to think about…

Draco's startled intake of breath and wide-eyed expression was even more satisfying than she had hoped.

"What?" she questioned impishly, giving his backside another good squeeze and trying to hide her admiration for the perfectly formed globe of flesh under her fingers. "You did say that I was welcome to grope your arse at my convenience, didn't you?" she asked, reminding him of the promise he'd made her earlier that night after she'd woken to find his hand on her bum.

His delighted laughter was a pleasant surprise, and Hermione felt her already full heart burst with happiness as she slid her hands to a more respectable position on his chest. She was in over her head, she realized, and she wouldn't change a thing.

"Granger," he said, and though he was still laughing, she could tell that he meant every word, "it's a standing invitation."

It shouldn't be possible, she thought, once again placing her cheek against his chest, to be so inordinately happy after such a tumultuous night. And yet, against all odds, she most certainly was.

"Good gracious," a smooth voice interrupted. "I do hope you’ve managed to ask her?"

"Ask me what?" Hermione questioned, reluctantly lifting her head to address Lucius. Draco however, nudged her back into their former intimate position.

"A marriage proposal, Father? And at Hogwarts?" Draco inquired. "Really?"

"Hmm. Yes. I rather see your point. Still, I imagine a poor choice of venue would be no detriment to a properly crafted proposal. But, no. Though I commend you for your foresight, I was actually inquiring whether you had invited Miss Granger to spend her Christmas vacation with us." Addressing Hermione directly, he said, "I understand that you've accepted an invitation to spend Christmas Day at the Burrow, but I cannot imagine that the accommodations are so much to your liking that you would decline an earnest invitation to spend at least a portion of the Christmas holidays at the Manor."

Hermione blinked at the smoothly delivered, though convoluted, invitation.

"That is," he continued, looking as if the words pained him, "as long as you are not uncomfortable returning to Malfoy Manor."

"Oh!" Hermione exclaimed. "No! No, that's not it." Though it would have been, had the invitation been issued even one day earlier. "You surprised me, is all." Thinking of the bursting at the seams Burrow, and Ginny's irrational jealousy, and Charlie's relentless flirting, and Lavender's promise of an extended visit to her boyfriend beginning on Boxing Day…

"I'd be delighted," she said, and found that it was true. The Weasleys had been her surrogate family since she'd discovered the Wizarding world, and she'd always be grateful for the way they'd taken her in last Christmas, the first Christmas after the Battle of Hogwarts, but she suddenly knew that she did not want to spend another Christmas with them. Last year they had all been hurting, the Weasley family barely functioning as they went through the motions of the festivities their first Christmas without Fred. Her own grief had been easily overlooked. And she'd been grateful for that. But this year… This year she thought that she would much prefer being in the company of people who understood her. In a place where she wouldn't be lost in the shuffle.

"Thank Merlin," Severus said, making his presence beside Lucius known and giving Hermione a start. "Another Christmas alone with these two," he said, raising an eyebrow at Lucius and Draco in turn, "and I'd be forced to give serious consideration to Minerva's standing invitation to her cottage. Ten months of the year dedicated to Scotland's wretched weather is quite enough, thank you very much."

"Did you see him arrive?" Hermione whispered to Draco, moving just far enough away to look up at him.

"No," Draco said, pulling her back to his chest. "Never. The man is pure smoke," he said, sounding both irritated and grudgingly impressed.

"There are some advantages," Severus said, exchanging an amused look with Hermione, "to having hair that is not imbued with sufficient brilliance to serve as a homing beacon."

Hermione stifled a laugh at Draco's resulting grumble. "You really don't mind if I visit?" she inquired, realizing that the invitation had been extended by his father, not him. She didn't think that he would mind, but it would be an awful holiday if he did.

"Don't be silly, Granger. Of course I don't mind. But how are you going to explain your change of plans to Potter?"

Hermione stopped short. "Oh, bother," she sighed, and scanned the room for her closest friend. He was going to kill her, she reflected ruefully. Not because he would object to her spending time with the Malfoys. He'd managed to forge a mostly civil acquaintance with Draco since the end of the war. No, Harry would kill her for leaving him to the tender mercies of the Weasleys, namely jealous Ginny and lovesick Ron.


It wasn't her fault she'd been singled out for an evening of emotionally draining otherworldly experiences and managed to make new friends along the way.

Still, it wouldn't go amiss to have a few words with him in private before packing her bags for Wiltshire…

"Do you see Harry anywhere?" she asked Draco, craning her neck to get a better view of the dancing couples.

Draco's sigh was barely noticeable, but it made Hermione smile anyway. What had once been a relationship built on antagonism was now mostly an excuse to pretend to be annoyed by the other, and she found it tremendously amusing.

"No," Draco finally said, sounding surprised. "I don't see him. Maybe he cut out early?"

Hermione snorted. "Not likely. He's no good at saying 'no' to all the people who want to talk to him."

She continued to scan the crowd, frowning when she failed to find him. "That's odd," she said mostly to herself. "I know that he wouldn't leave without talking to me."

"Much as I shudder to even think it," Severus said, "it is entirely possible that he was presented with an offer to leave which did not involve copious amounts of 'talking'."

Hermione blanched at the thought. "I'm going to pretend for both our sakes that you didn't say that," she decided.

Severus inclined his head in silent agreement.

"Mr Potter?" Lucius questioned. "I believe I saw him shortly after our return." He frowned. "He appeared pale and somewhat flustered. He kept glancing over his shoulder, almost as if—"

"As if he'd seen a ghost?" Hermione questioned. "No," she decided, remembering the face that she'd seen in the lavatory, and the person Severus had seen while they'd been dancing earlier in the evening. "It couldn't be," she said. But what if Harry really had seen—

"An undigested bit of potato," Draco speculated. When the rest of the party turned to him in astonishment, he clarified. "I thought the potatoes at supper were undercooked. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Potter were feeling the effects. In fact," he added, "if we all hadn't experienced it together, I would be inclined to assume that the whole bloody night was merely a bad dream, brought on by substandard food."

"Language, Draco," Lucius chided. "What?" he said when Draco huffed in his direction. "I didn't say it wasn't an apt description. I only ask that you refrain from using coarse language in polite society."

"Yes, Father," Draco dutifully agreed, but asserted his independence by nodding to both Severus and Lucius and drawing Hermione back on to the dance floor.

"Now, where were we?" he asked, his mouth close to her ear. Goose flesh broke out along her skin, even though the majority of it was covered by her Medieval gown. All thought of Harry, the impending Christmas hols, and her fantastic journey through the past flew out of her mind.

"I know exactly where we were," she said, her smile brilliant. "And it's exactly where I want to be."

Draco's answering smile might not have been as brilliant as Hermione's, but she rather thought it was just as earnest. "Funny thing, that," he said, holding her even closer. "I feel exactly the same way."

Before Hermione could return to her favoured position of her cheek against his chest, she was distracted by the faint sound of clanking chains. Her heart leapt into her throat and she scanned the room wildly, hoping against hope that Dumbledore had not returned to spirit them away again. The chains clanked again, and this time, out of the corner of her eye, Hermione caught the ethereal swirl of a grey cloak. The warm candle light of the room glinted, reflecting off a link in the chain. A link which appeared to depict… a couple dancing? Kissing? She blinked, and the cloak and chain were gone.

"Did you see that?" Draco whispered, looking as unsettled as she felt.

"Yes," she said, and placed her arms around his neck. Throwing caution to the wind, she tugged until their lips met. "That last link of the chain might not be so bad," she whispered, and this time, Draco's smile was as brilliant as hers.




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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.

Thanks, as always, to The Above and Beyond Team of Miss M and Miss B.

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