It was six o'clock in the evening, and the train would be leaving in fifteen minutes to take the Hogwarts students back home during the Christmas holidays. Some of them would be probably be celebrating Solstice or Hanukkah, or maybe even Kwanzaa. But that is beside the point. The dormitories were filled with frantic students rushing hither and thither packing the last of their bags.
Hermione Granger had decided to stay at Hogwarts during the break. She sat in the Gryffindor Common Room calmly reading a book, vaguely aware of the commotion surrounding her. An exclamation erupted from Neville Longbottom, who was just about to rush out the passage door when he noticed his Remembrall was glowing bright red. He had forgotten something. And he had a feeling it was something important.
"What's the matter, Neville?" asked Hermione.
"Oh, I just forgot something," said Neville. After a pause, "I remember what it is now! I forgot my present for Grandmother. I bought it in Hogsmeade. It's too late now..."
Hermione glanced at the time. "No, it's not. You still have ten minutes before the train leaves."
"Yes, it is," moaned Neville. "I left it in the Potions dungeon."
"Oh..." Hermione frowned. "I'll go get it for you. You go downstairs; I'll meet you in the front hall."
"Would you? Oh, thanks, Hermione. I'm so glad you're here-" Neville broke off as she raced out the door. "Wow, she can really run, can't she?" he wondered out loud as she bolted down the hallway.
Hermione reached the dark dungeons of the castle in no time at all. Now, would the door to Snape's classroom be unlocked? Hermione gave the knob a twist and sighed with relief. She was so happy to be of aid to someone.
She entered the pitch-black room and raised her wand, uttering "Lumos." Immediately the light obeyed her command, and she strode forward confidently. Her eyes darted toward a large package tied with string lying upon the floor near Neville's usual seat.
With the present safely in hand, Hermione quickly retraced her steps and, rounding a corner, gave a sudden cry as she almost ran headlong into her nemesis Draco Malfoy.
"Watch where you're going, Granger," he muttered.
"Shouldn't you be getting on a train?" she spat, brushing past him. As their arms met, she felt a shock of electricity.
"I plan on it," he said, glancing back at her with those steely gray eyes of his.
Hermione continued on her way to the front hall, choosing to ignore his sour attitude.
In the front hall, Professor McGonagall was urging Neville to hurry up and take a seat in one of the carriages.
"But I'm waiting for Hermione," said Neville. "She's gone to fetch something for me. She won't be long, I swear."
McGonagall looked around the hall for signs of her star pupil. "And here she comes now. That's some luck you have there, Neville." Hermione delivered his grandmother's present and lingered at the threshold for a moment, looking out upon the procession of horseless carriages lit up against the dark night sky. There was a new moon overhead that evening, and the constellations of Orion and Canis Major were clearly visible.
"Looking forward to the holiday, Hermione?" asked McGonagall.
"Oh, yes. Very," replied the girl. No Potions classes with Snape, and no Draco Malfoy, either. What could be better?
Hermione suddenly thought of Draco downstairs and panicked. She asked McGonagall, "Has Malfoy already left?"
"No, I haven't seen him," answered the teacher. "I don't think he's gone yet."
Hermione was very worried that she'd have to spend the whole holiday with that creep, so she went back down to the Slytherin Common Room to make sure he didn't miss the train.
She met Draco halfway down the corridor. He was pulling his luggage behind him at a leisurely pace.
"What are you doing here again?" he asked suspiciously.
"Making sure you leave," said Hermione haughtily. "There are precisely six minutes left before the train departs."
"Don't get your knickers in a knot. They're not going to leave without the son of Lucius Malfoy," said Draco.
Hermione cringed at hearing him refer to his family so arrogantly. "It's just an accident that you were born into aristocracy," she remarked. "You needn't parade your name around as if it were something to be proud of."
"What are you so envious of, Granger? I thought you were glad to be a Mudblood," said Draco casually. "Look on the bright side-at least you know what it's like on the other side of the wall. And when I say 'other side of the wall,' I mean poor people."
"Oh!" scoffed Hermione. "I envy you nothing, you pompous windbag! At least I've learned how to work hard to get where I am. Not like you, who has everything handed down to him on a silver platter!"
"Actually, it's a gold platter," said Draco.
Hermione scoffed again. "I bet you're not even a real blonde."
"Oh, yes I am." Draco turned on her. This last remark had evidently succeeded where the others had failed to move him. "It runs in the family. I am a natural blonde, Miss Granger."
Her eyes narrowed. "You better hurry up; I don't want to be stuck with you for two whole weeks."
"Don't worry, I wouldn't wish your company upon my worst enemy."
"I return the compliment."
Draco sighed wistfully. "Two whole weeks without Granger. How refreshing. But don't fret, my dear. You may not have me, but at least you won't be completely alone. Ron and Harry are staying, aren't they? I've heard they're quite smooth with the ladies," Draco confided.
Hermione laughed. "Nothing could be farther from the truth, Draco. Just get to the punch line."
Draco paused. He would have told her that his informant was Moaning Myrtle, that pathetic ghost of an adolescent girl, but now his joke was ruined.
"What punch line?" he said. "I was being serious."
"Oh, sure. Like those two could ever pick up a girl, much less recognize flirting when they see it."
"I do believe you're making fun of your two best friends," said Draco. "You do have a dark side! Commendable! Come to think of it, I do see an evil glint in your eyes, after all." He smirked at her.
Hermione remained on her guard. One could never let it down around Draco Malfoy. "I don't know what you're talking about," she denied, secretly fancying that she had a dark side.
"I think you do," insisted the Slytherin. Together, they walked up the stairwell and into the front hall.
The front doors were fastened shut, and through the windows, they caught a glimpse of the last carriage as it sailed across the lake. "What the hell!" Draco swore. His unruffled exterior rapidly melted away. "Where is Professor Dumbledore!" he demanded.
"Maybe they've gone...to the Teachers' Lounge?" suggested Hermione. Her desperate plan had failed, but it was not entirely her fault. She had warned him. It wasn't her fault if people didn't heed her advice.
Draco glared at her. "I don't know how this happened, Granger, but somehow, you're responsible for it!"
She rolled her eyes. "I don't know why I even bother helping people." She threw her hands in the air and began to walk away.
"And don't even pretend that you wanted to help me," declared Draco. "All you want is to be at the top of the class! And you don't care who you step on to get there."
Hermione ignored him.
"That's right; ignore me. You know it's true," Draco called after her. "Just as long as you're the smartest one in our grade, you can be nice to everyone else. But the minute you think someone is better than you, you have to hate them for it."
"What? That's not at all how I am," yelled Hermione, turning around to face him. "Why must you argue like this?" Whether she knew it or not, Hermione herself was glued to this impassioned feeling of combat just as much as Draco was.
"Because I'm sick of you acting like a hypocrite!" yelled Draco. "Let's get the facts straight: I'm the richest one here, and you're the smartest. You think your god-given brains make you superior to everyone else, but I have news for you. Being naturally intelligent is no different than being born into money."
"Excuse me?" Hermione retorted, advancing toward him. "Are you telling me I act superior? As if you don't? You're the hypocrite, not me."
"Oh, fine. We're both hypocrites. Everyone's a hypocrite! Are you happy now?" said Draco.
Hermione said, "No. Actually, I don't know why we're having this conversation."
"Well, neither do I. Maybe if I hadn't missed that stupid train, I wouldn't be standing here-" 'Two feet away from your face...'
Suddenly, he didn't care about going home anymore.
"Hermione, you're so..." began Draco.
"Like a Mudblood?" she offered.
"No, you're just so predictable," said the boy.
Then he did something that not even Professor Trelawney could predict.
Draco took Hermione's face firmly in his hands and kissed her lips. She would have pulled away had the kiss not been extremely pleasant and even surreal. Hermione was so surprised that Draco Malfoy was a good kisser, she didn't even wonder why the hell he was doing it in the first place. And it had been such a long time since a boy had even danced with her... Females are apt to do strange things after being deprived of physical contact for too long.
Hermione broke away from him after a minute, breaking into rapid speech. "What are you, crazy? We're in the middle of the front foyer, for crying out loud! Anybody could see us! They could walk in here at any moment!"
Draco was looking incredibly sexy and rebellious. "That's what makes it so dangerous," he said.
Hermione was flattered, but terribly confused. "Why don't we go someplace more...deserted?" she suggested.
"Why? Are you ashamed to be seen with me?" he teased.
"No, but I hate explaining awkward situations."
"Me, too," he said. "How does the Slytherin Common Room sound?"
She got butterflies in her stomach at the thought of being in Draco's territory. "Oh, that sounds exciting."
"Really?" He smiled and gently drew her waist toward him.
Hermione nodded vaguely. She was off in a different world altogether-far away from Hogwarts. She wondered at this unexpected and sudden change of dynamics. Was it safe to continue with this frenzied attraction? For once in her life, she found it just a tad boring to consider all the consequences of her actions. And so, Hermione did away with reason temporarily, for Reason has no place in Nature, and Nature is the place from where her instincts undoubtedly sprung.
Draco had considered her sweetness endearing, but now he admired Hermione's recklessness as well. He gave her another peck on the lips, and they left for his common room without more ado.
At around eight o'clock that same night, Minerva McGonagall was calling an end to a long and stressful day. She slipped into a satin nightgown and took a few minutes to brush out her long, black hair. For professional reasons, she usually wore it in a bun during the day.
Minerva McGonagall was about to get into bed when there was a knock at her door.
She had a good idea who it was, but always on guard for another Hogwarts' emergency, she approached the door and said loudly, "Who is it?"
"It's me, Remus," came the reply.
Minerva smiled, at once relieved. "I don't think it's very safe to let a werewolf in my bedroom, do you?" she inquired playfully.
"Speaking as a former Defence Against the Dark Arts Teacher," said Remus Lupin, "I'd have to advise against it."
Minerva unlocked her door, cracking it open an inch.
Lupin continued, "But speaking as Remus, I'd have to say..." He pushed the door open and gazed into McGonagall's soft blue eyes. "Good evening, Professor."
She smiled and, grabbing hold of his collar, pulled Remus inside. Then she swiftly shut the door.
Meanwhile, in the Gryffindor common room, Harry and Ron were playing with Crookshanks, Hermione's pet cat.
"Go on, go get it, Crookshanks!" Ron cheered. He was holding out a cat toy, a plastic wand with a red feather attached to the end of it. The cat was having fun chasing it, and sometimes it pounced on Ron's feet instead of the feather, just for variety.
Playing with Crookshanks helped to alleviate their boredom.
"Where can she be?" grumbled Harry. Somehow, it wasn't the same without Hermione.
Ron was puzzled by her absence, too. "She hasn't gone home. Maybe she's visiting the house elves. Or enjoying a bit of 'leisure reading' in the library," Ron ended with a smirk.
"Hmmph." Harry reached out his hand and tickled Crookshanks' belly. The cat walked up to Harry and rubbed his knee, purring contentedly.
Hermione waltzed into Gryffindor quarters at about nine o'clock bearing a muffin and a cup of hot chocolate.
"Where've you been?" asked Ron.
"I nipped into the kitchen to get a snack," said Hermione. "I'm utterly famished."
"After you stuffed your face at dinner?" Ron exclaimed.
Harry simply leaned back and listened to their conversation.
"I went for a jog tonight. It made me very hungry," said Hermione.
"You went jogging in this weather?" cried Ron.
"I find the fresh air quite stimulating at this time of year," Hermione explained, her tone of voice still pleasant. She ruffled Ron's red hair and walked up the winding staircase to her dormitory. Crookshanks followed her.
There were a couple of surprises at the Hogwarts breakfast table the following morning.
The first one was Remus Lupin, of course. He had resigned from the school over a year ago, and yet, here he was-spreading jam on his toast as calm as you please. The Headmaster Dumbledore would squeeze in some announcement regarding Lupin shortly.
Then there was the uncanny presence of Draco Malfoy, which came as a shock to everyone but Hermione. She hid her smile behind a linen napkin until the temptation to laugh subsided.
The third surprise was the new tradition of 'Secret Santa,' which we will get to in a moment.
Albus Dumbledore looked around. He was standing at the head of the table. To his left was Minerva McGonagall, the esteemed Professor of Transfigurations. She was sixty years old, which is to say, not very old at all. The silver streaks running through her black hair only made her appear more elegant. To Dumbledore's right sat Severus Snape, expert Potions maker. He was in his mid-thirties, yet seemed older due to the perpetual expression of gloom on his face. Sitting next to Professor McGonagall was her good friend Madam Pomfrey, the Nurse. The other adults present were Professor Trelawney from yonder Divination Department, the Charms Professor Flitwick, Rubeus Hagrid the Ranger, and Remus Lupin.
Students staying at Hogwarts during Christmas Holiday were: Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Draco Malfoy, Ginny Weasley, Jessup (a 1st year), Sylvia and Chrystal (two 2nd years), Marvin and Elizabeth (two 6th years), and Elaine (a 7th year).
Dumbledore spoke, "Good morning. I hope you've all slept well. The first thing on my agenda is to welcome back a former teacher-Mr. Remus Lupin." He looked at Remus, who acknowledged the inquiring faces around the table with a shy smile. "Our first and second year students haven't had the privilege of studying under Mr. Lupin. He hasn't come here to teach, however, but merely to visit. He will, regrettably, leave as soon as classes resume in January.
"Secondly, we're trying something new this Christmas. I've been studying Muggle traditions in the ways of gift-giving recently, and I'd like to adopt one of their practices. After breakfast, everyone-including myself-will approach this cauldron behind me and wait for a slip of paper to pop out. Please read your paper and keep it tucked away from prying eyes. Whatever you do, don't let anyone else read it.
"This little game of mine is called 'Secret Santa.' Whosever name appears on your paper is the person that you must give a present to." Dumbledore's eyes twinkled as he thought of all the mischief this would cause.
"Now, let's enjoy breakfast, shall we?" he said with a flourish.
The assembly cheerfully followed his lead and began the task of filling their stomachs.
First up to the black cauldron was Minerva McGonagall (or 'my Mini Muffin,' as Lupin liked to call her.) She drew the name Trelawney. McGonagall's face instantly registered displeasure, though she kept silent and returned to her seat.
Severus Snape was next in line; he drew Hagrid's name.
Harry drew Ginny's name; Ron got stuck with Snape; Remus drew Minerva's name, and Hermione picked Madam Pomfrey. It was like some sort of poetic justice, really. The number of times Hermione had been in the infirmary definitely warranted recompense for Pomfrey's incredible patience.
Draco read his paper with a mixed expression on his face. It was impossible to tell whose name he had, but it looked as if he got summoned to clean a dirty bathroom. He pocketed the note thoughtfully and returned to his seat.
A delicate tinkle of chimes signaled the end of the meal, and they could now go back to bed if they so wished. Many of them were still in their nightclothes. Draco, for instance, was wearing his black bathrobe over a set of mocha-colored silk pyjamas.
"Minerva, may I have a word with you?" requested Dumbledore as the students were filing out of the Great Hall.
"Right now?" said Minerva.
"I would like to take a walk with you. Maybe in the greenhouse, if there's nobody there to overhear us."
McGonagall consented, and they went for a stroll. Professor Sprout's potted palms were still lush and verdant, and exotic birds were nestled in the canopy above their heads.
"This is becoming a dangerous situation," commented Dumbledore.
"What? You mean..." McGonagall began, hoping the look in her eyes would finish that sentence.
"Yes. I mean dangerous for Remus Lupin, with Malfoy here," said Dumbledore. "He's a meddlesome boy, and the last thing I want is for him to go complaining to his father about Lupin. Because, of course, Lucius Malfoy will complain about me and charge me with harboring a vicious werewolf. And I know that Lupin is taking every precaution against that unfortunate transformation."
"The full moon was two weeks ago!" cried McGonagall. "There won't be another one until after the holiday. We're all perfectly safe!"
"Yes, yes, I know. And if Lucius causes any trouble, I'll definitely mention it," Dumbledore reassured her. "Pardon me for saying so, but you and Remus make a very cute couple."
McGonagall blushed. "Oh, really? Yes, he does have the cutest smile, doesn't he? And the way he looks at me, he's just, aaaawwww... oh, I'm sorry, Albus. I'm being so mushy."
Dumbledore laughed. "No apology needed. You've worked so hard; I can't begrudge you a little romance now. And Remus, poor Remus. He deserves to have some love after all those years of being an outcast."
They were passing by the flower gardens just then, and McGonagall stopped to admire them. "I love those red roses," she said.
"Maybe somebody will give you one for Christmas," said Dumbledore.
Hoping that he was right, McGonagall said nothing. She was thinking about her first husband, who had tragically died fifteen years ago. Because she loved him with a love that could not be put into words, she refused to look at any other man ever since that dreadful day. Clothed in black, Minerva McGonagall went mourning for fifteen long years. Yet, somehow, Remus Lupin was able to break down the formidable barrier that McGonagall had built around herself. He looked at her, and softness came pouring back into her soul. McGonagall folded up her black robes and stored them in the back of her wardrobe, her strict demeanor melted into kindness once more, and the years rolled off her frame like water. She felt like the young woman who had fallen in love for the first time, and when she looked in the mirror, she was happy at what she beheld. Her delightful countenance-smiling and rosy and full of life. It was all because of Remus.
Hermione had agreed to meet Harry and Ron outside for a Quidditch game after breakfast. The weather was clear and sunny-perfect for flying. Harry got out a Quaffle and flew straight up in the air. They were just taking turns with chasing and goaltending, since there weren't enough players to have a proper match.
Draco appeared on the field while they were playing. He was holding his Nimbus 2001.
"Oh look, Harry!" shouted Hermione. "It's Draco! I think he wants to join us."
"His name is Malfoy, not Draco," stated Ron, "and he's not playing with us! You couldn't possibly think of such a thing."
"You're awfully hard on him," said Hermione. "Did it ever occur to you that he might be friendly once you took the time to actually talk to him? You know, have a civilized conversation?"
Ron thought that she was playing weird mind games with him, so he did the only thing that a self-respecting male could do in that situation, which was to ignore her.
Harry watched in bewilderment as Hermione swooped down to meet Draco on the ground below.
Dumbledore retired to his private chambers. "Boy, did this ever backfire," he muttered to himself as he reclined in his old armchair. He held the small piece of paper closer to his spectacles, but it did not make a difference. The letters still read, 'Draco Malfoy.'
"Why must I give a present to that insufferable boy?" the Headmaster grumbled again. "Draco has been nothing but trouble since he got to this school."
Fawkes the Phoenix cooed in sympathy.
"Draco's going to end up just like his father if Snape doesn't stop favoring him."
'And why do you let Snape keep teaching here?' asked the little voice in Dumbledore's head.
"Because without Hogwarts, Snape would be friendless. I'd be powerless to control him, and his actions would no longer be under my surveillance," Dumbledore said aloud. "He bears the mark of the Dark Lord. He depends on me. He trusts me with all his soul. If I were to fire him, he would surely go mad. And if Severus Snape loses his mind, and with nothing left to keep him on our side, he may rejoin the Death Eaters. I shudder to think of that, my dear Fawkes."
Professor Sibyll Trelawney arose from the table shortly after Dumbledore and McGonagall departed. The young psychic preferred to dwell apart from the other inhabitants of Hogwarts in a far tower of the castle where she could use her Inner Eye more frequently, for she found the material plane too mundane for her tastes. She taught classes there and was seldom seen out of it except on special occasions.
Before leaving the Great Hall, Trelawney announced to the remaining staff members, "It was a pleasure dining with you all. One can only hope that this is not the last happy meeting we will have together. I say this because of the omen in my tea leaves. It was quite unfortunate, and I feel I must warn you: terrible things I foresee from this day forth. Little does Dumbledore know how quickly the clouds of darkness gather. Everything is quiet before the storm, and Dumbledore's new game won't be enough to distract us from the deafening clashes to come." Trelawney's voice fell to a soft tremor. She glided out of the hall, her hands still trembling. The teachers gazed at her in silence until she passed out of sight.
"What did she see?" Madam Pomfrey said fearfully.
"Who knows," said Flitwick.
"If you ask me, it sounds as if we're in for a thunderstorm tonight," remarked Snape. He poured another cup of tigersquash tea, oblivious to the leaves in his previous cup.
Hagrid agreed. "Couldn't think of a better explanation meself," he said.
Pomfrey nodded her head. "Definitely thunder showers," the nurse chimed in.
Let it be known that it did thunder and hail that night, just as Professor Trelawney had predicted. The staff took note of this and later put together a dictionary of keywords such as 'clouds of darkness,' 'foggy mysteries of the future,' and 'relentless torrents of Fate.' That is how Sibyll Trelawney came to be the unofficial Hogwarts weather forecaster, though she never knew it.
The young Malfoy kept his calm as Hermione approached him. He did not smile, but there was something friendly in his expression, nonetheless.
"Good morning," said Draco.
"Good morning to you too," Hermione returned the greeting.
"What are you playing?" asked Draco curiously.
"Oh, nothing really," said Hermione. "We're just tossing a ball around. Trying to get past Harry. He wants to be the Keeper today."
"What about the Snitch?"
"We're not using it today. Not enough players," explained Hermione.
Harry and Ron were becoming impatient. Just then, Ginny came running out onto the field, her long red pigtails streaming behind her. "Ron!" she called. "Can I play, too?"
Ron groaned. "You don't know how to play, Ginny. And it's too dangerous. Go back inside."
Ginny, who was only a year younger than her brother Ron, stubbornly stood her ground. "Oh, Ron, you're worse than Percy! You're not even using a Bludger! And I know how to fly-better than you, probably. We learned in our first year, in case you don't remember."
"That may be so, but you can't play without a broom!" shouted Ron.
Harry interrupted him. "Why don't you lay off her, Ron? It's not like we're practicing for the World Cup."
Ginny yelled, "I'm playing one way or another, so like it or lump it."
Draco looked at her with a new idea forming in his brain. "Here you go, Ginny. You can borrow mine." He handed over the Nimbus 2001, and Ginny's eyes lit up with excitement.
"You really mean it, Malfoy? It's not cursed or anything, is it?" she inquired slyly.
Draco laughed. "No, it's not cursed. I'm letting you have a turn because your brother's being a stupid sod. Here, it won't bite."
Up in the air, Ron shuddered in horror. With a grimace he yelled, "She can't touch anything that Draco Malfoy's touched, can she? I mean, really, can she? My own flesh and blood, riding on the same broom that came in contact with Malfoy's bum! And not to mention his sweat, and his-ewww! This is 'orrible, Harry! It's 'orrible!"
"Well, it wouldn't have happened if you just let her play with us," Harry pointed out. "She could've borrowed one from the supply room, like you and Hermione did."
"But did Ginny go to the supply room?" continued Ron. "NO! She settled for Malfoy's! That creep! Where does he get off pretending to be nice to my sister!"
Harry shrugged his shoulders, murmuring, "I don't know." To Ron, a day without a reason to complain about Draco Malfoy was like a day without sunshine. Harry was pleasantly surprised that Malfoy was being nice today, but he was pretty sure there was an ulterior motive. Time would tell what that motive was.
...........to be continued
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