Ginny Weasley slipped silently through the large doors at the entrance to the Great Hall, quickly scanning the room as she headed to the Gryffindor table.
The large room was nearly deserted, as it always was during the holidays. There were never many who stayed; most were eager to spend Christmas with family. Except Harry, of course. Harry was as eager to spend Christmas away from his sorry excuse for a family as the rest were to go home.
And this Christmas the feelings of warmth and of family were particularly precious. The war was escalating further still. Just when everyone thought that the situation couldn't get worse....
But it had. The horrors more horrible, the terrors more terrible. The pressure was taking its toll on everyone; Ginny had spent a lot of time over the past term comforting the younger students. Trying to offer comfort where none could be found, to offer solace and warmth and compassion in a world of cold and hate and fear. And gradually the flow of tears would lessen, but the fright never went away. The threat still lingered. The younger students cried and were comforted. The older students hid their tears and cried in the dark.
Almost everyone had fled the castle this Christmas, hurrying back to loved ones. Seeking affirmation that they were alive and well.
Ginny had intended to go home for Christmas, and Ron too - Molly wanted as many of her babies back as possible. Molly and Arthur had appealed to Dumbledore to let Harry come to them too, but he would not relent. Hearing this, Ron had decided to stay at Hogwarts, not wanting to leave Harry alone for Christmas. Molly wanted him home. And such was the state of affairs, Ron trying to convince his parents to let him stay, when Charlie had been injured. Both parents had gone to Romania, leaving the youngest two children at Hogwarts.
With Ron and Harry staying, Hermione had made the surprising decision to stay as well. The four of them were the only Gryffindors.
None of the Ravenclaw students had stayed for Christmas and there were two Hufflepuffs - a fourth-year boy and his second-year sister.
And one Slytherin.
No one knew quite what had happened between Draco and his father - only that Draco had been disinherited, had turned up at school a week before the start of term, and was now largely ignored by the rest of the Slytherins. Rumours abounded, the most common being that he had grown a spine and refused to follow his father and join the Dark Lord. And that was largely true, although Draco had never admitted or denied a thing.
Ginny had been watching him all term. He looked lonely, always lonely. He presented a barrier to the rest of the school; a cool, calm and collected façade. It said, 'I don't need anyone'. But gradually she had begun to see through it, to see through to the soul underneath. Wounded and hurting and crying out for company.
With the Slytherins treating him like the lowest form of life, and the rest of the school not much better, given his behaviour toward them the previous few years, he was always alone.
The atmosphere in the hall was cold and desolate. Christmas decorations had been put up as usual, desperately trying to capture some form of Christmas spirit, but it was largely unsuccessful.
Ginny took a seat near Ron and the others, sitting just far enough way so as not to disturb them. They were working on some Very Secret Project, as usual, and were very obvious about it. Voices dropped to a whisper, heads bent together, scouring a million books for that vital piece of information.
They didn't ignore her, but they never let her help. She assumed that they thought of her as little, and silly and not trustworthy, because they never included her. She had taken a small measure of perverse pleasure at first in sitting down right next to them at dinner, or creeping up silently behind them before announcing her presence loudly. But after a couple of days that had become boring and so she largely let them be.
She was sleeping up in the seventh year dormitory with Hermione, and the two often talked as they got ready for bed and before they fell asleep. And she had played numerous games of chess with Ron of an evening. She had played Harry once and beaten him soundly and he hadn't played again since. But during the day they spent a great deal of time in the library and she was mostly alone.
She had continued to watch Draco. She had to be more subtle now, with only seven people in the hall, it was a little more obvious just who she was staring at; but watch him she did.
He always came into the hall for lunch and for dinner; he took his customary seat at the Slytherin table, made no effort to speak to anyone, or even to make eye contact with anyone. And once he had finished his meal, he would leave. He was always the first to leave the hall.
She felt an overwhelming sense of pity, the isolation he must have felt, the cold, loveless existence. He wouldn't want her pity, she was sure of that, but there it was.
She picked at her meal. It was not one of her favourites and she wasn't particularly hungry, although she did take a few extra mince pies from the dish. She loved mince pies, there was always room for mince pies. She drained her water glass and stood up, taking the mince pies with her, and she was almost at the end of the table when she realised.
Draco was still sitting at the Slytherin table. He looked like he simply wanted human contact, couldn't bring himself to leave for the dungeons again for another evening alone. He looked like he needed a friend.
Without knowing why she was doing it, she walked over to him and took the seat opposite.
"Weasley." His voice was cool, curt.
"What can I do for you?"
Ginny realised that she had absolutely no idea what she was doing there. She searched for a reason.
"Uh...." Need reason. Need reason. "Uh... I was wondering if you were going to Hogsmeade tomorrow," she said finally.
Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and they had been allowed to go into Hogsmeade for some last minute shopping and a chance to escape the castle. They would be accompanied by a large number of teachers, with the likelihood that the teachers would outnumber the students.
"Why do you care, Weasley?"
She looked down at the tabletop. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. "I was just wondering. That's all." She looked up again and saw a flicker of an unnamed emotion spark in his eyes.
He was surprised that she had spoken to him, and pleased that she had, though he hid it well. He was grateful for the company, however brief. And angry with himself for feeling thus.
"I wasn't planning on it, no." I have no one to buy presents for, hung unsaid between them.
"Oh." There was a long silence. "You'll miss out on the Butterbeer," she said finally, trying to inject some humour into her voice when the silence grew too long and too heavy.
He said nothing.
She got to her feet and picked up her mince pies. "I should probably be going now." That seemed so inadequate. She should add something else. "Night."
Draco turned his head to watch her walk away. His eyes stayed on the door long after she had left.
Ginny was still cursing her stupidity the next morning while she trudged into Hogsmeade behind her brother and his friends.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Good going, Ginny. Way to make a complete fool of yourself. What's his name? Malfoy. Nasty. Bastard. Hates Gryffindors, especially Weasleys.
Stupid. Left foot forward. Stupid. Right foot forward. Stupid. Left foot. Stupid. Right foot.
"Are you all right, Miss Weasley?" a voice interrupted her internal mutterings. "You seem distressed."
"What?" Ginny spun around to see Professor McGonagall walking beside her. "Oh, yes, I'm fine, Professor." She turned back to look where she was going, keeping her eyes on the uneven ground lest she should fall.
They walked in silence for a few moments before McGonagall spoke again. "That was a very good thing you did last night, Miss Weasley."
"I didn't do anything, Professor."
"You spoke with Mr Malfoy."
"Spoke at is perhaps a more accurate term," she said, surprised that her actions had been noticed by anyone at all. Her fellow Gryffindors had not noticed a thing, as evidenced by the fact that they had not come dashing to her aid to rescue her from the evil Slytherin. The fact she had gone to him and started pestering him rather than him going to her and pestering her would have made little difference to them and their over-protective tendencies.
McGonagall smiled, a somewhat wry smile that said she understood all too well what Ginny meant by her comment. "Even so, you made the effort to reach out to him. Everyone is aware of the fact that there is no love lost between your family and his, but still you spoke to him. He speaks to no one except Professor Snape and he is alone in those dungeons. That was very kind of you."
Ginny shrugged, uncomfortable with such praise. She hadn't really done anything. "It wasn't exactly a long conversation, Professor. I didn't do much."
"I think you did more than you realise."
Ginny didn't quite know what to say to that so she kept quiet.
They continued on in silence.
"What happened?" Ginny asked suddenly, surprising even herself.
McGonagall sighed heavily.
Ginny's hand flew to her mouth. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked. It's none of my business."
McGonagall smiled kindly at her. "It is a question that we have all been asking, Miss Weasley. And a question to which none of us know the answer. Mr Malfoy has been incredibly quiet." Her voice lowered somewhat. "I suspect that Professor Dumbledore knows something of what went on but he is very good at avoiding the topic whenever it is mentioned," she confided.
Ginny smiled at that. She knew how evasive her headmaster could be when he set his mind to it. And when he didn't, for that matter.
"Where do you need to go, Miss Weasley?" McGonagall asked then, and Ginny realised that they had reached Hogsmeade.
"Nowhere in particular, I might get some sweets for Ron, but that's about it. I just wanted to have a look around and get out of Hogwarts for a while. Not that I don't like it at Hogwarts or anything," she added hurriedly.
"But it's been a while since summer and it's nice to get out of the castle for a while," McGonagall finished for her.
Ginny smiled. "Something like that."
"Very well. Don't go too far outside the town now, will you? There will be teachers throughout the town, so if you don't feel safe then come and find one of us. We'll meet in the Three Broomsticks in two hours and then head back to the castle."
Ginny nodded. "Okay. Thanks, Professor." And with that, she headed into the town.
Ginny wandered around the town for little over an hour, window-shopping and browsing as she had told McGonagall that she would. She had bought all of her presents already and so there was nothing else to buy. Stopping in the sweet shop, she found a box of 'Christmas Crunch', a selection of mince pie and Christmas pudding flavour sweets, so she picked one up for Ron.
While she was in the (very long) queue waiting to pay, she had seen some chocolate sickles and idly wondered if Draco liked chocolate. She picked up a bag for reasons she was not going to dwell on right now because this was Draco Malfoy.
Having exhausted all the shops, she headed to the Three Broomsticks for a Butterbeer or two. Professors Sprout and Flitwick were sitting in one corner, chatting animatedly about something - Flitwick kept floating up from his chair while trying to make a point. But both nodded in acknowledgement as she walked through the door and tugged at her gloves.
She smiled at them and headed to the bar to buy her Butterbeer. A few moments later, she found a small, empty table at the side of the room and set the glass down. She unbuttoned her cloak and slipped it off, and then tugged off her scarf and laid both coat and scarf over the back of her chair.
She looked around at the other patrons, her eyes flitting to the door whenever someone entered, idly watching and listening as life bustled on around her.
Ten minutes after she had arrived, the door opened and, as usual, she turned to see who entered. Seeing Professor Snape stride through the door - wrapped in black gloves, a black scarf and a heavy black cloak - was mildly surprising. Seeing Draco Malfoy enter behind him was downright shocking.
Snape's eyes slid over the room, much as he did during his Potions classes, and it seemed to Ginny that half of the patrons shrank back from that cold gaze. He made his way over to Sprout and Flitwick. Draco, on the other hand, crossed to the bar and waited to be served.
Ginny realised that she was staring at him, as she had been doing all term, and forced her eyes away, instead looking deeply into the golden liquid in her glass.
"Is this seat taken?" a rich, upper class voice interrupted her intense study of the Butterbeer.
She jumped, nearly knocking her drink over in the process. She looked up into a pair of icy grey eyes, slightly obscured by fine strands of light blond hair.
"Uh." Ginny was taken aback by the fact that he was in Hogsmeade and had voluntarily come over to see her, and did not appear to be insulting her. "Uh, no."
He removed his cloak and then slid gracefully into the seat opposite.
Ginny was itching to ask him what he was doing there but decided that that sounded a bit rude. Plus, it was likely to send him away, and she didn't want that for reasons she was not going to dwell on right now because this was Draco Malfoy.
However, Draco seemed able to read her mind for answered her question anyway. "The idea of Butterbeer was too good to pass up," he said to her, gesturing to the glass in front of him. The answer was not entirely truthful, she knew that, more of an excuse really, but it was an answer. She decided to take it at face value.
She smiled at him. "Good job too. I was about to start believing those 'Slytherins are stupid!' comments we throw your way."
He leaned forward slightly. "Most are," his voice was soft and low. "But don't tell anyone I said that."
"Most?" she asked, refusing to think about the fact that she really liked the sound of his voice when he wasn't being a malicious bastard and insulting anything that moved.
"There are a few exceptions I can think of."
"Ah, indeed. Such as yourself, perhaps?" she asked innocently.
Ginny smiled and rolled her eyes. He was joking - an alien concept when considering Draco Malfoy, but it was true enough. But she could see a glimmer of truth in his eyes; he truly believed that. And not because he got good marks for essays and tests.
She wondered if she should push the issue or leave it be. After a few moments of internal argument, she settled for the former. "Would this have anything to do with the fact that the rest of your house hates you?" There. It was said.
He jerked back as if burned, surprised by her blunt response, nestled as it was in a seemingly innocent question. All the masks he habitually wore went slamming into place, leaving his expression cold. It was only then that Ginny realised that they had not been there at all.
He took a forced, deep breath and let it out slowly; with it his demeanour softened, although his face remained guarded. "I suppose you could look at it that way."
Ginny inclined his head, hoping that he would elaborate but not really expecting him to do so.
"I choose my own path and will not have it chosen for me."
Ginny leaned across the table, filling his vision. "And what path have you chosen?"
Draco opened his mouth to speak, but the next voice Ginny heard was not his.
"Oi, Malfoy! What are you doing with my sister?"
Ginny felt like screaming. "It's fine, Ron."
"No. It is not fine." He came to stand right next to Draco, towering over the sitting boy. "What do you think you're doing with my sister?"
Draco rolled his eyes. "I'll leave it up to you to decide. Anything your little brain comes up with will be far better than any lie I could tell you."
"Look, you poncy git, leave my sister alone."
"I will leave when she asks me to leave."
Draco remained seated.
"Ron." Ginny looked up at her brother. He did not look happy. Harry's face was equally displeased, however Hermione's was more understanding. "It's fine." She looked imploringly at the other girl to try and garner her support, but the older girl said nothing. "He wasn't actually being that much of a bastard."
"Have I just been flattered or insulted?" Draco drawled then.
Ginny rolled her eyes. There was just no helping some people.
A shadow fell across the table, a tall shadow with a hooked nose. "Is there something the matter, children?" Heavy emphasis on that last word, turning it into an insult. Hardly surprising really, since Snape went out of his way to insult Harry and all who dared to associate with him.
"Everything is fine, Professor," Draco delivered calmly. "I was insulting the youngest Weasley and her fellow Gryffindors got a little jealous."
"Ron just came over to see me when he arrived here, Professor. And he and Harry and Hermione were just about to get some drinks," Ginny spoke up, ignoring the confused look on Ron's face. He clearly could not comprehend the fact that she was defending Draco and was not taking the chance to escape from the presence of the evil bastard.
"Very well. Run along then, children. We leave in ten minutes."
Ron and Harry showed no signs of moving until Hermione grabbed the back of their coats and dragged them off towards the bar.
Snape slid away back into the shadows.
Ginny tried to steer the conversation back to the matter they had been almost-discussing when they had been interrupted, but Draco skilfully evaded and avoided. And then Ron and Harry and Hermione returned. And then they left.
Ron and Harry walked on either side of her, with Hermione next to Harry, and so Ginny had no chance to speak with Draco after that.
She loved her brothers, all of them. And she had always been particularly close to Ron since they were closest in age. But sometimes he really, really pissed her off.
Dinner that evening was quiet. Draco left early again and Ginny had no chance to follow him. Ginny left the hall and headed not towards the Gryffindor Tower, but the owlery.
One of the school owls, a small barn owl, glided down to see her, settling on her shoulder and nipping gently at her ear. She brought her hand up to shoulder height and uncurled her fingers, revealing a handful of owl treats. She waited while the owl enjoyed the treats, gently stroking the soft, feathered head with one finger.
Once her hand was empty, she felt another nip on her ear, as if asking what service was required.
Ginny held up a small package and a card. "Deliver this to Draco Malfoy tomorrow morning," she instructed. "But not before."
The owl took the package and card in its claws and flew off. She could have sworn that it nodded at her.
The next morning, Ginny and Hermione were woken early when Ron started bashing on the dormitory door.
"Gin! Hermione! Happy Christmas!"
Ginny forced her eyes open and looked across at Hermione - who was also struggling to stay conscious - and then tried to focus on the clock by her bed. It was just gone seven.
She smiled at Hermione and rolled her eyes. "Seventeen going on seven," she muttered. "Merry Christmas, Hermione."
Hermione smiled back at her as she swung her legs over the side of her bed and fished around for her slippers with her feet. "Merry Christmas, Ginny." Ginny did the same and reached out for her dressing gown, tying the sash firmly about her waist.
Harry and Ron were already in the common room when they arrived, both looking like excited five-year-olds eagerly awaiting the go-ahead to start opening presents. And why did the girls have to take so long anyway?
Ginny was willing to bet that they had been up since five, and had decided that seven was a decent enough hour to wake them.
They unwrapped their presents, joking and laughing as they did so. Ginny scrunched up a piece of wrapping paper and threw it at her brother's head, which triggered a full-scale paper fight. At first it was just Ginny and Ron, but Harry and Hermione soon jumped into the fray.
When they were laughing too hard to have any hope of throwing paper any great distance or at all accurately, they collapsed into the large, overstuffed armchairs around the fire and helped themselves to the mugs of hot chocolate that had magically appeared on the table.
Ginny couldn't help but smile. She loved Christmas. It was such a warm holiday, bright and cheerful and filled with love and laughter.
She stared into the fire, watching the flames leap and dance, and wondered what Draco's Christmas morning would be like. Cold and cheerless, she imagined, with no friends or family to celebrate with.
"Ginny?" It was Harry who interrupted her train of thought. "Are you okay?"
"Hmmm? I'm fine."
He leaned over towards her. "You look sad."
Ginny realised that her smile had faded, and she forced herself to look happy. "I'm fine. Just thinking."
Harry looked like he understood. And, she supposed, he would more than anyone. His face fell briefly, his green eyes clouding over. She could see him force the gloomy thoughts away and his eyes sparkled once again. "None of that thinking business, Miss Weasley," he said firmly. Then he grinned at her. "It is the holidays after all."
They ate a small, early lunch of cold meat, cheese and salad in the common room and spent the afternoon playing chess and doing puzzles. And then they went down to the Great Hall for dinner.
The four long tables that usually filled the room had been removed, leaving only one small table in the centre of the room. A huge Christmas tree dominated one corner, and the hall, heavily laden with decorations before, was now dripping with festive ornaments.
Ginny had hoped to see Draco at dinner, but he was seated at the other end of the table between Dumbledore and Snape and there was no way that she could speak to him. She was strangely disappointed, but also quite relieved as it meant that he could not question her about her gift. She had sent it anonymously, but she suspected that he would have guessed that it was her who had sent it. The slightly odd look he sent her way as she took a seat between Ron and McGonagall suggested that he was certain of the sender.
Dinner was delicious, as it always was. The food was plentiful and incredibly yummy. There was turkey and goose, roast potatoes, four different stuffings, lots of vegetables - including sprouts and Ginny took one, although she didn't really like them, because it was Christmas - and gravy.
And for dessert, there were mince pies and Christmas pudding, with cream and custard and brandy butter, and a sticky, gooey, chocolate-filled confection that Ron seemed to like very much.
Ginny loved Christmas at home, surrounded by her brothers (preferably all) and her parents, the small house was cosy and warm, and the smell of Christmas cooking pervaded the house for weeks. And Molly's Christmas dinner couldn't be bettered. But this dinner at school really wasn't too bad.
Ginny noticed Harry sneaking a look at his watch while they ate dessert, and with increasing frequency thereafter. And finally, just before nine, he whispered something to Ron and Hermione and they made their excuses and left. Ginny suspected that he was going to talk to Sirius (still a fugitive) and Professor Lupin from Lupin's fireplace a little way outside of Cambridge. There secret fireside chats were another thing that Ginny knew, and of which they assumed she was unaware.
About an hour later the rest of the party departed, and Ginny started back to Gryffindor Tower. She was half way there when a voice behind her stopped her in her tracks.
"Weasley?" the voice called. "Virginia?" Uncertainty crept into the voice now.
She spun around to see Draco Malfoy standing in the corridor in front of her, looking faintly unsure.
"Virginia?" she asked. "Only my mother calls me that, and then only when I'm in trouble."
He said nothing.
"Ginny is fine."
He spoke again. "Thank you for the chocolates," he blurted.
"Chocolates?" Ginny feigned innocence.
Draco's eyebrows shot up towards his hairline and he stepped closer. "For 'everyone should have something to open on Christmas morning'. Sound familiar?"
They were the words from the card. Ginny said nothing, simply watched as Draco moved closer still.
"Thank you," he said again. He was standing right in front of her now, in serious violation of her personal space. He was a few inches taller than her and so she had to look up to see his face.
His white-blond hair fell in fine strands across his forehead, just out of his eyes. His skin pale and smooth. His grey eyes serious. Grateful. Warm. Strangely warm.
"You've been watching me all term." It was a statement, not a question.
"Uh... well. Sort of." There was a long, heavy pause. "Well, yes. I guess. I didn't mean to, it just happened." She looked down at her feet and then back up at him. "I didn't think you'd noticed."
"Oh, I noticed."
"I don't mind. It made me feel like someone actually cared." His voice was barely above a whisper, as if it pained him to admit to it.
Ginny realised suddenly that she did care. She really cared.
"And then you sent me chocolates."
"I... well.... Yes."
"Thank you." He was leaning in now. Closer... closer.... And then his lips were on hers, warm and soft and yielding. So warm and soft.
He was always so calm, so cool and collected, presenting a cold, hard front to the rest of the world; the warmth and softness of his lips surprised her.
His hands settled on her waist, pulling her close, and her arms wrapped around his neck, her fingers wrapping through the fine strands of hair at the nape of his neck, keeping his mouth on hers.
They broke apart briefly for air, and then moved back together. Draco's tongue ran across her lips and she parted them to allow him entrance. He tasted of mince pies and cream, and of port and coffee. She wanted more. She couldn't get enough. Her head was spinning and her heart pounding and she never wanted him to stop.
They drew apart again, breathing heavily, and he took a step back from her. "I didn't actually intend for that to happen," he told her. "I only meant to say thank you."
"Well, that was some thank you."
He smiled at her then and she thought that her knees might give way. She had never once seen him smile like that before. He sneered and he smirked but he never smiled. Never let true happiness show on his face.
"Wasn't it just!" a voice exclaimed and Ginny jumped, startled. Nearly Headless Nick floated through the wall next to her and pulled his head off of his neck in greeting. He moved closer to Draco. "But it's mistletoe, not holly, my boy. And one should be standing underneath, not nearby." He gestured to a nearby statue - a bronze figure of a previous headmaster, with a wreath of holly and ivy around his neck - and floated off down the corridor.
They watched him leave and then turned back to face each other. They said nothing, simply standing and staring at each other.
"I should probably be going now," Draco said finally.
Ginny reached out and took his hand, her fingers intertwining with his. "For what it's worth, I think you're walking the right path."
His squeezed her hand tightly. "I hope so."
"And... and I do care."
"Then I know so."
She stepped closer and pressed a firm but chaste kiss on his lips. "Merry Christmas, Draco." His name rolled easily, naturally, off her tongue
She dropped his hand and turned away then, continuing on her way back down the corridor, the memory of his kiss burning on her lips. The feel of his lips on hers, his hands on her waist, his hair under her hands, filling her senses. And she could feel his eyes following her every step, watching her walk away.
And just as she was almost at the end of the corridor she heard him speak. "Merry Christmas, Ginny."