eep, I'm terrible. I meant to post this weeks ago! :( My most sincere regrets and apologies

This story is my entry for the 2020 Dramione advent on AO3... probably my favorite fest! Thanks as always to my glorious team In Dreams, Lightofevolution, and Mcal. And thank you to all of you for reading and sticking with me through this strange year.

"So, I know they can't just be Christmas crackers," she says, twirling the brightly decorated package in her fingers. "What makes these Weasley exclusives? Other than being on the large side."

Hermione lays the oversized cracker back on the pile amongst dozens more and looks back at George Weasley.

A much more subdued George Weasley than that with which she was raised. She hates seeing the dark bruising beneath his eyes, the smile that doesn't quite light his face. But he's trying, and so she doesn't mention the ways in which he's not himself because being one half of a broken set isn't what anyone plans.

"This is Freddie-boy's legacy," he says, attempting his signature devilish grin and falling a little short. He picks up one of the items, a garish purple and blue selection, and tears it in half.

Hermione expects a soft BANG, perhaps a loud POP, and a rainfall of sweets or trinkets to litter the floor. Instead, the cracker falls apart evenly, two intact halves left behind.

"Fred and I, we used to love getting these for Christmas. Always had a big showing of pulling them apart and then fighting over what was inside." He looks wistful, staring at the two pieces in his hands.

"Last year, sometime when there was no fighting to be done, and we had a minute to breathe, Fred said, 'it's a shame really, fighting over treats and the like. We should have our own Weasley version that brings people together instead.'"

George looks at her again and shrugs. "So I thought I'd make that happen. Introducing the Weasley Wizard Wheezes Matcher Crackers. Guaranteed to help you find your other half."

"Oh, George…" Hermione's eyes prick, and she dives at the redhead, engulfing him in a desperate and healing embrace. He returns it, almost to her surprise.

"He'd like it, I think," George whispers into her hair. She nods, tears trailing over the rounds of her cheeks. "But I didn't make them explode when you match them up like he wanted," he adds with a chuckle, and they both laugh a little as they pull away.

Looking at the large trunk beside them, Hermione brandishes her wand and levitates the crate into the air. "Well, how should we distribute them? I want to make sure everyone has their half before the ball."

The "ball" as it were, is a party meant to unify the whole of Hogwarts, faculty and students alike, and create a sense of goodwill and healing before the train leaves for the holidays.

A waste of cunting time if you ask Draco. The Ministry wants unity? Maybe take this fucking collar off his neck that inhibits his magic. Maybe let his mother, who saved Harry Potter's worthless life, leave her own home. Draco isn't sure what sort of unity is meant to come from mediocre hors d'oeuvres and tone-deaf music, but he doesn't hold out much hope for the results.

Laying on his back in his private room, Draco is tossing a Snitch in the air, catching it easily in spite of the odd angle. So far, a matter of months beyond the final battle of the only war he hopes he has to face, his life has taken a turn for the mundane. He attends classes, picks his way through meals, steadfastly ignores the combination of pitying and angry looks sent his way… and catches this Snitch.

The same one he caught in the last Quidditch game he was allowed to play. He loves the sound of it slapping his palm. If he closes his eyes, he can almost feel the wind whipping around his face and the thrum of his own heart pounding in his chest. The little gold ball —SLAP— stinging ever so slightly against his exposed skin. He had caught this one without a glove, the gold sphere making an appearance out of the blue as he was adjusting his straps. Rather than waste time, he had dropped the gloves to the earth, far below, and dropped into a dive.

Slytherin won that day. The last game before the war made normal life impossible to live.

Draco isn't sure his life will ever again be what he considered normal. Parents under house arrest, the Malfoy fortune halved, friends dead, enemies dead… and not entirely sure which is which anymore.

Now here we are. The fucking holidays. The Snitch flutters and falls into his palm again and again until finally, bored of the monotony, he lets it drop, bouncing off his chest and onto the rug beside his bed.


Glancing toward his closed door, Draco sighs and then sits up, rubbing his palms against his knees for a moment, steeling himself. His visitors are far and few, but he knows that voice. Stubborn sod won't seem to let Draco wallow in self pity for long.

"What is it?"

The door creaks open, and the tall but unsure stature of Neville Longbottom is standing in the frame. "You're not dressed."

Draco looks down at his casual trousers and buttoned shirt, the collar loose and tie draped across the headboard. He shrugs. "What time is it?"

"Half-six," the wizard answers, sweeping into the room and snagging the tie from the bedframe. "Here, tie this. Accio dragonhide boots!" The pair flies across the room and smacks into Neville's outstretched hands. He drops them on the floor beside Draco's feet and swirls his wrist, the universal sign for 'hurry the fuck up, you tosser.'

Draco huffs and shoves his feet into the shoes, tying his tie all the while, making a perfect Windsor knot.

In his peripheral, Neville pulls out some sort of package and thrusts it into Draco's field of vision. "Here. You missed them passing these out at lunch."

"What is it," he asks with a sneer, not moving to take the item and looking every bit as though it has an odor.

Neville shoves it closer, shaking it around a bit to encourage Draco to take it. Draco does not feel encouraged.

"It's from Weasley's shoppe. Some sort of game for tonight. You have to find the other half of yours."

With a snort, Draco stands and steps around the man he must reluctantly call a friend. "No thanks. You can have it."

"It doesn't work like that. It's supposed to… anticipate or something. Whatever treat is inside is tailored for you and whoever has the other half. Come on, take it."

Draco is going about his business, shrugging on his dress robes and checking his platinum hair for imperfection (of which he finds none) as Neville continues to cajole and plead. Finally, Draco has had enough and interrupts as politely as possible (which probably isn't terribly polite, but he's doing his best here).

"Look, I'm not interested, alright? No one will want to find they have my other half anyway. Probably some sodding second year who'll piss himself when he sees me coming."

"It doesn't work that way. It will be someone you at least know. It might even be me. Here, let's try mine."

From his pocket, Neville pulls out another garishly colored half-cracker and then once again shoves the first at Draco. With a sigh, he finally takes it and holds it up.

Neville butts his crackers against his and they wait, nothing happening until finally Draco pulls his away and tosses it on the bed behind Neville. "This is stupid. I'm not doing this."

"Malfoy, it's not a big deal. Just ask a few people. Maybe Nott or Pansy. I'm sure you'll find your match soon enou-"

"I'm not going to run around this whole fucking night, asking the barely handful of wizards who can stand to look me in the eye if they have the other half of some child's toy full of tchotche. This is the stupidest-"

"Draco. Please."

He stops what he's doing, eyes finding Neville and seeing something stern but pleading in his expression. Draco offers his attention, waiting for whatever it is the man will say.

"It would mean a lot. To George. This was Fred's last concept for the joke shop. Just… do this, alright? He deserves that much from all of us."

Draco presses his lips together, a deep cleansing breath passing through his nose. There is a still-angry part of him, a vicious, entitled little boy, that thinks he doesn't owe anybody anything. His whole world was shaken as much as anyone. But, fuck, if George Weasley doesn't deserve the incomplete life he's been left with.

And so, he holds out his hand once again and bites out, "Fine. Give me the fucking thing."

Neville smiles that irritating, toothy smile of his that Pansy Parkinson says makes him look "fuckably boyish", and tosses the cracker his way.

Walking into the Great Hall, Draco slows his pace, letting Neville speed ahead to a waiting Dean Thomas and Mandy Brocklehurst. House lines have become far more blurred after the war, at least amongst the blue, red, and yellow set.

Green is still more often than not segmented from the rest.

Draco looks around, taking in the decorative trimmings and milling student body. Witches in gowns giggle, clustered together, making unsubtle eyes at wizards around the room. Established couples have paired off in quiet corners or staking their claim on a portion of the dance floor, some speaking in small groups with other similarly matched lovers. The odd witch or wizard is picking over the food tables or standing near walls, trying to appear casual while watching the room. All in all, it's pretty well what Draco had expected, except for the individuals fluttering around, shoving bifurcated Christmas crackers at their fellows.

A Ravenclaw Draco barely recognizes as a sixth year flounces into his personal space, huge grin on her face. "Let's try you," she asserts, bubbly and all together too intrusive.

He sneers down, giving her a pointed and unpleasant once over. "I'm really not interested."

The color drains a bit from her face, and her eyes drop to the cracker in her hand.

Oh. That.

With a sigh, Draco jerks his cracker from his pocket and slams it none too gently against her own. Nothing happens, the halves remaining separate, and he just raises his eyebrow at her in challenge.

"Right then. Well... Oh, Nancy! Try mine!" Spying a friendlier face, the 'Claw runs away from him as though he wore a Dementor shroud. This is the worst fucking idea, and Draco hates it implicitly.

"I see you're well on your way to changing hearts and minds as always."

To his left, an obnoxious snake is sipping loudly from a glass of punch, somehow managing to slurp louder than the music coming from the dais.

"Fuck off, Nott. I'm not in the mood."

"But, Darling, it's Saturday," the other boy mocks at him, making a show of batting his short lashes. "You promised me a date night."

With a groan to drown out his friend, Draco stalks toward the refreshment table and snags a glass of Champagne. He is absolutely sure it will be low quality, but he needs something to do with his hands, lest he strangle Theo to death on the dance floor.

"Come on, Malfoy. You could at least try to have a little fun."

"You sound like Longbottom," Draco accuses, sipping at the wine from his glass. Definitely mediocre, and definitely not actual Champagne. Some sparkling monstrosity with too much nose and not enough taste.

Probably from fucking California.

"I could do worse than that," Theo says with a snicker. "Bloke seems to be doing well for himself." He nods across the hall, tipping his glass toward Neville. He's standing with three witches surrounding him, tittering and flipping their hair as he rubs the back of his neck. Draco wonders if that innocent façade is genuine, or if he's playing it up for the attention. Surely the man who cut a head off a giant evil snake, tainted with dark magic, and spent the better part of nine months taking torture curses and spitting in the face of known Death Eaters cannot be that nervous around a wet blanket like Hannah Abbott.

He's watching the interaction and has nearly forgotten he's not alone until Theo nudges him in the ribs.

"Oof. The fuck, you git?"

Draco glares at his friend who indicates with his chin to glance across the room. There, the gilded three have just entered. Potter looks his typical mix of sheepish and entitled, an odd combination Draco has never really understood. Beside him is the ever-gangly, ever-awkward youngest Weasley brother, looking around with some level of excitement, likely hoping his entrance has been noted, attention seeking as he is.

And floating just behind, a chiffon gown dripping down her lithe figure, is Hermione Granger. She looks a little eager, a bit nervous, and, as always, utterly captivating.

Draco hides a frown in his glass, choking down more of the fermented abomination that is American wine.

Weasley lays his hand on Granger's back, guiding her forward, and Draco's hand tightens on the stem of his glass. He was under the impression they were no longer an item. What right does that primate have to touch her like that? He's lost in his thoughts when Theo makes a spectacle of himself, waving to Neville as he approaches.

"Longbottom. A lovely evening, would you not agree? Witches in low cut silk as far as the eye can see, eh?"

Neville flushes as he glances over his shoulder. The three witches he has just left have watched him walk away, one biting her lip with her eyes trained a bit farther south than is appropriate.

"I could do without so much attention, actually," he confesses to the two Slytherins. As pretty well the only Gryffindor who will speak to them, Draco and Theo have accepted his friendship as the surprise and gift it is meant to be.

Even if sometimes he is an irritating ponce.

"Surely one of them must've caught your eye," Theo goads, peering over Neville's shoulder with a leer. "That one in red is a bit fetching."

Draco identifies the "one in red" as a seventh year Hufflepuff. In fact, the whole gaggle of them are 'Puffs. He can only imagine the simpering Longbottom had to endure.

"He's not interested," Draco mutters into his half-empty glass, "because he has his eyes on someone else."

Immediately going red, Neville smacks Draco's shoulder, a testament to how far their relationship has come. "Oi, I do not."

Draco's grimace becomes a grin. He wasn't sure, but now he knows for certain there is a witch playing a starring roll in Neville's very safe (no doubt missionary and vanilla) fantasies. "Please. It's quite obvious. Whoever she is, you could probably have her eating out of your hand anyway. What's the problem?"

Watching the exchange, Theo tosses in some of his ten-sickle wisdom. "My guess is she's not the type to eat out of anyone's hand, and our boy here isn't interested in a girl who would." He gestures to the group of three still gossiping. "Sycophants, the lot of them. No." He slaps Neville on the back. "This fucker wants a challenge."

In what appears from Draco's perspective as a desperate attempt to redirect, Longbottom gives him a haughty glance. "And what about you, Nott? You holding out for someone special to sweep you off your feet? I don't see a date on your arm either."

Grinning in his signature off-putting way, Theo confirms, "Absolutely. I will settle for nothing less than being positively swept. My energy is out there in the universe, ready for said sweeping."

"You can't just wait around for what you want."

The three wizards all look over to find George Weasley sidled up beside them. He is refilling a glass with punch as he talks, sneaking a flask from his robes to top off with something extra.

"The world doesn't just hand you things. More often it takes them away. So whatever it is you're looking for, go fucking get it, boys. And if you're having trouble…" He points at the half cracker in Neville's hand and winks. "...Maybe let magic lead you somewhere new."

The former twin walks away after that, tossing points and winks and nods all around him. If you don't know him well, he seems the happiest wizard in the room. Draco doesn't, in fact, know him well, but he knows the melancholy, recognizes the sorrow in his eyes like an old friend.

Attention snapping elsewhere once again, Draco's focus is dragged from George Weasley's retreating back to a first year Slytherin and another witch who can't be more than Second year, a bright flash in Draco's peripheral drawing his gaze. The young students are staring, looking down at the floor between them, a shredded half of a Weasley Matcher held by each student.

The Slytherin girl ('Beatrice' Draco believes is her name) bends down and picks up the item. It's a Sherri's Sharable Sugar Wand, the newest fad sweet at Honeydukes. Draco watches as the two girls look at each other in question. Beatrice opens the package and snaps the wand in two, offering the slightly larger piece to the other witch. She smiles and accepts, snapping off a bite into her mouth and saying something to Draco's housemate. They both laugh, and then they are walking away together, joining a group of other students that probably haven't said three words to a Slytherin all year long.

"That's... actually pretty nice."

Draco looks to Neville who is also watching the exchange and grunts by way of reply. Yes, he thinks, it is pretty nice. Draco might have to rank George as the least-worthless Weasley, bumping down the dragon tamer to second place.

Because really, dragon tamers are fucking fantastic. Of course he held top rank before.

Around him, Draco notices more pairs of students coming together, encouraged by the first few brave attempts. He finds the Ravenclaw girl that had tried her luck with Draco. She has just matched up with a wizard that Neville identifies as a Gryffindor, and they are both blushing slightly over what looks like a small board game of some kind. More flashes of light, tiny delighted shrieks following, and the groups of students milling about start to swirl and meld into wholly new clusters. Draco sees his housemates, often wary and closed off, smiling openly and venturing into conversations with other houses.

Glancing to his right just in time, Draco catches Pansy as she barrels into their space. "It must be one of you. Here, try this." She holds up her cracker for Draco to try. With a roll of his eyes, he lays his end against hers.

Nothing happens.

"Theo?" she says with challenge, hardly a request, and he offers his as well. She literally growls when they are left inert in their hands.

"What am I supposed to do? Run around begging like a charity case. I'll just walk up to Potter, shall I? Sorry about being that evil cunt that tried to give you up, but maybe there's a sweet inside our party favours? Ridiculous fucking game."

"You didn't try mine."

Draco watches Pansy glance at Neville, her prickly attitude devolving into what he can only describe as nerves. "I'm sure it won't work," she answers back, looking away.

Neville shrugs, offering her a lopsided grin. "Couldn't hurt to try though, right? Here?" He offers his half and waits as she studies his face.

With a sigh, she bites out, "Fine," and thrusts her end against his.

To see it close up, Draco can assess the depth of the spell work. Neville's green and red decorated half joins with Pansy's silver and blue, both swirling with color and coming to land on an impressive mix of matte and high gloss gold. The center of it bursts, shreds of paper floating softly to the floor, and then a thunk as something drops between them.

"What is it?" Theo is peering around Draco, seeming oblivious to what appears a fairly profound moment for his friends.

Bending over, Pansy snatches the small box and opens the lid. Her immediate reaction is surprised laughter, and Draco enjoys hearing it from her lips. She hasn't laughed like that in ages. Not the hollow, suffering, indignant scoffs she has adopted in recent years, but the joyful, almost melodic sound from their youth. He smiles in spite of himself.

Brandishing the treat, she holds up a bottle of rather popular liquor. Affectionately called "Couples Cordial," this particular brand of Firewhisky is said to increase energy and... stamina. If that's not a sign from the cosmos, Draco isn't sure what is.

"What do you say to a toast?" Neville asks, and Pansy twists off the top with no ceremony, taking a quick chug after glancing around the room.

" , before it's confiscated." She offers it to Neville who takes his own slug and then pockets the bottle.

"Hey! That's half mine, you know," Pansy tells him, screwing up her face into a bit of a pout.

"Well then, I guess you'll have to stick close, won't you, Parkinson? Come on, I told Seamus and Boot I'd bring them a drink over. You can help me deliver."

Draco expects protest. At the least, he does not anticipate that Pansy intends to willingly visit with even more Gryffindors, and be forced the indignity of 'delivering' something, but she accepts a glass of swill for herself and another for Terry Boot while Neville grabs two more.

As she goes, she sends Draco a look. He's not sure if she wants to be congratulated or rescued, but he answers her with a shrug that can mean a lot of things, not the least of which is that he hopes her night is better than he expects his to be.

"And then there were two."

Draco glances at Theo before griping, "Oh, are you still here? Why don't you toddle off, find your holiday soulmate or whatever the fuck."

"And leave you here to wallow all by yourself? You need a wingman in your depression, Draco, lest you might forget to brood and have a good time. Can't have that," he finishes with a mutter into his glass.

Draco turns fully to face his friend. While he may have developed an odd camaraderie with Longbottom, Theo will always be his oldest and most trusted confidant.

That doesn't mean he always likes the prick.

"Something to say, Theo?"

Placing his empty glass down with a bit more force than Draco thinks is entirely necessary, his friend squares off and takes a breath. "Look, I know you have had a rough go of it. We all have," he adds quickly, interrupting Draco before he can protest, "but not everyone is out to get you. Look at Neville," he says, gesturing to where the wizard in question is standing rather close to Pansy. "If anyone should hate you to the end of days, it's him, and he somehow weathers your moods almost as well as I do. It's time to take a step forward, mate. Or I'm afraid you never will."

Draco studies him, noting the earnest expression on his usually irreverent face. "You've been thinking about this a long time, it seems."

Nodding, Theo tells him, "I have. I know you think the whole school hates us and a lot of them do, but look around you." He gestures again and, maybe Draco's image of a segregated school was a little more pronounced than reality. There's Tracey Davis and Millie Bulstrode, but Michael Corner makes the third of a social trio. Blaise is holding court with the Greengrass sisters, but one of Astoria's Ravenclaw friends has joined the group now and is engaging with the lot of them. The lines are melding, maybe more than he gave credit.

He could concede the point, but he's not quite out of self-pity. "None of them," he says with a jerky flip of his wrist around the room, "have the Mark. It's not the same... for any of them."

"No," Theo says, "it's not the same. Which is the only reason I'm still here holding your bloody hand. But I'm not going to indulge this forever. What better time than the holidays to give it a go? Find the other half of that bit of paper and see where it leads. Can hardly be worse than this, can it?"

"Worse than you and Longbottom nagging me to get out more? No, it can't hardly decline from there," he answers, dripping sarcasm but a bit of mirth all the same.

"Let's go then. I'll even lead; you can just tag along."

Draco offers Theo a two finger salute behind the tosser's back, but follows just the same.

Hermione is not exactly excited about the ball, but she, on a cerebral level, understands the positive effects it can have on morale and the social aspects of Hogwarts. As such, she had taken pains to look the part, taming her curls as best she could into soft waves, and donning a white gown with its chiffon skirt split to the knee. It's an elegant and understated look, but she hopes her efforts are appreciated by... well, someone.

Harry and Ron wait for her in the common room so they can walk together. None of them having a date for the evening, it seemed appropriate to attend together. Harry will be doing his level best to avoid the disgruntled Ginny Weasley, who was just certain they were soul mates, and Ron's last relationship is the short-lived affair with Hermione herself. Amicable as their split was, he has nothing to fear from angry witches and has hardly hid his excitement to play the field.

Hermione would be offended if she were not the one who called an end to their brief relationship. As is, she's relieved he has not been bitter, angry, or difficult as they settled back into their friendship. Things between the three feel just like they should, and Hermione is so proud to walk in as part of this trio she thinks of as family. When Ron guides her forward with his hand lightly on her lower back, it no longer feels out of place. Just the ghost of her first love lingering in the shadows, harmless and faint.

The Great Hall looks beautiful, and she is heartened to see some of the students rushing about, pressing their cracker halves at their friends'. Hermione hopes George is pleased, but a quick pass around the room does not reveal him in attendance. She wonders if he decided to leave after all, despite that the Headmistress had invited him to stay.

"Look, there's Neville." Harry points across the room to their friend and all three shift their gaze.

Ron snorts. "With Malfoy. What else is new?"

"I think it's lovely he's been so forgiving and open this year," Hermione defends their friend. Perhaps a little hypocritically since she herself has been known to hold some pretty nasty grudges, but Draco Malfoy is not one of them.

If anything, this year's version of Draco Malfoy is a quiet, woodenly polite version of the boy she has known nearly half her life. He is reserved and often keeps to himself. He has his moments of social interaction, mostly with Slytherins, but by and large has lived a solitary existence the last few months. Hermione had watched Neville reach out early on, nervous for her friend that Draco would lash out, only to be surprised when the efforts were, at least in a very small way, reciprocated.

Neville doesn't bring him around Gryffindor gatherings or otherwise put anyone in a position of forced interaction, but he is steadfast in making sure the Malfoy heir is never truly alone. She suspects he would not be in attendance this evening at all had Neville not dragged him here.

As Hermione muses, Harry and Ron have continued their conversation, leaving the topic of Draco Malfoy behind in favor of people watching the attendees and getting a lay of the land, as it were. Hermione watches as Neville is dragged away by Pansy Parkinson, the pair seeming to have found their Cracker Match in each other. The two snakes left behind speak a moment more and then take off into the fray, skirting the edges of the dance floor and delving deeper into the room.

"So how do these things work, exactly?"

Hermione glances over to Harry who is eyeing his Cracker, turning it over in his hand and studying the smooth service of what had been the center.

"You just hold them together and see if they open. "Like this." To illustrate, she presses her half against his, not surprised when nothing happens. If the point of these is to bring people together, she is not surprised her half doesn't react to someone who is already her closest friend. She tries Ron next to the same results.

"Bloody George," he mutters. "Probably matches you with someone dreadful. No Weasley product has ever been anything but a terror."

"Be nice," she admonishes, complete with a light backhanded smack to his stomach. She knows he feels the sting of Fred's death as much as anyone. Unfortunately, kindness does not seem to be one of his stages of grief.

"Harry, Harry! Try mine!" A simpering Romilda Vane has the audacity to approach, thrusting her half against the Cracker still aloft in Harry's hand. She looks crushed when nothing happens. Ron, still unkind, snorts at her.

"You actually thought you would have a connection to Harry? After the stunt you pulled?"

"That was years ago," she argues back. "Just because I made a mistake doesn't mean we aren't meant to be." She turns soulful eyes on Harry who backs up a literal step.

"Well, sorry," he tries, waving the cracker around. "I guess it's not meant to be. Come on, Ron, Hermione, let's get a drink." He's darting away, a half-hearted wave to Romilda in his wake, before Hermione can process what's happening. Miss Vane looks equally stunned and just stares as Ron and Hermione make to follow.

"Obsessive, that one," Ron comments. Hermione can hardly argue with the assessment.

For a while after that, Hermione's evening continues as expected. A healthy amount of students approach Harry, Ron, and herself, hoping to be the lucky few to Match with the heroes of the war. Even a few Slytherins, especially in the younger set.

Ron is shocked when his cracker matches against the other part held by Padma Patil. After the disaster that was their fourth year Yule Ball experience, no one is more surprised than the pair of them. Inside, they find a game that even Hermione does not recognize. "It's Ashtapada," Padma tells him. "A board game from India that predates chess. I'm excellent at it," she tacks on, swinging her black hair over her shoulder.

With a slow grin crawling across his face, Ron asks, "Like chess? No contest, I can win it. Just tell me the rules."

That's the last Hermione will see of him for the night, the pair bickering as they walk away to find a quiet corner to play. Exchanging a quick look with Harry, she is silently applauding George. This game is brilliant.

Draco is watching Theo stare intently across the room and not at all liking where his gaze is aimed. The witch in question is alone with Potter, the third of their trifecta having separated off with one of the Patil girls. He's honestly surprised the witch would give Weasley the time of day, but when he sees them later staring down at some sort of game between them, their knees are pressed close together, and they both have a faint blush to their cheeks.

So far, Theo dragging him around from group to group has produced no sign of a match, and it seems most pairs have already been discovered. All around, he sees mingling witches and wizards that seem to be finding friendship or sometimes more, and he would be lying if he didn't admit he is somewhat envious. Equally, he is irritated and a little bored, all of which has him in an even more foul mood than he started.

"Come on." Theo is still staring, intent and focused, and starts walking even before Draco agrees. He swears to Merlin, if Nott is a match with Granger, Draco is burning this whole fucking castle to the ground. Wouldn't that just be perfect? His closest friend matched right before his eyes to the only witch that has had Draco's attention for months. Probably years, if he's honest. And Theo, fucking charming idiot that he is, will just waltz up and toss his cracker at her. Smirk that disarming smirk of his and sweep her away to laugh and dance and who the fuck knows what else...

His feet are heavy as he follows, desperate for escape. He holds out an infinitesimal hope that he's wrong, that his brainy, studious, unassuming friend won't be a perfect match to brainy, studious, very assuming Hermione Granger. It's likely in vain. He's long suspected they would be fast friends at the least, a thought that seems quite positive if Draco were to pursue her. At least one of their mutual friends wouldn't want to crucify them both for daring to cross house and battle lines. Theo would be supportive.

Would have been, at least, if Nott wasn't apparently also in love with her. But the looks he's been glaring to that side of the Hall are far too reminiscent of the longing and agitation Draco suspects sits on his own face most days.

So here he is, following along to his own heartbreak. He will watch Theo shove that fucking cracker against hers, grinning and shrugging like a complete clod when their halves meet, bursting forth into some incredible gift that just so happens to be both of their favourite things.

"Oh," he will say, put-on surprise oozing from his pores, "can you believe it, Granger? Who could have guessed?"

Draco, that's fucking who.

They are close now, and Theo is hardly slowing. By this time, Granger has caught sight and is eyeing Theo with confusion as he barrels toward her. Soulful brown eyes blown wide with anticipation. Draco curses under his breath. He should have made a move before now. Should have at least laid groundwork. Maybe instead of glaring at her, knotted up with jealousy at her easy friendships, he could have fucking spoken to the witch.

Draco hears Theo call out, "Excuse me, Granger," and closes his eyes, regretting following along. Wishing he'd stayed across the room. Wishing even more he was back in his dormitory, catching his Snitch and wallowing in self-pity. A normal Saturday night, not this overarching disappointment.

But his eyes fly open when the following comment is, "Oi, Potter. Ten Galleons says we're a Match."

Theo has skirted past Granger and sidled up beside her friend instead. Potter is looking at him with a bit of incredulity, and Granger is watching the whole thing with a subtle smirk on her lips.

"You're on. I can't imagine what we would even have in common-"

Potter cuts off, the holiday favour between them glowing white then falling into two black and red plaid pieces.

Theo bends over and picks up the odd contraption that has dropped to the ground.

He turns it over in his hand and looks up in question. "Muggle?" he asks, guessing, as Potter reaches for it.

"It's a Game Boy," he says, and fuck if he doesn't sound reverent. Looking up at Granger, he says, "Dudley had one. I wasn't allowed to touch it of course…"

Theo interrupts, snapping his finger in Potter's face. "Nuh uh. I'm your match. So tell me about this… Dudley's your cousin, right?"

All three of the rest of them are shocked he knows that.

"Yeah, grew up with him. But the family… Well, I never got a Christmas present. Not until I came here, to Hogwarts." He studies it a moment longer then gives Theo his full attention. "Why match with you? You don't know anything about Muggles games, I'm sure."

Watching carefully as Theo searches for words, Draco now knows exactly why they were Matched. He schools the reactions on his face: pity and indulgence and relief, as Theo answers.

"Seems something we had in common, Christmas not being anything to look forward to. Not much of anything to look forward to when your mother is dead and your father forgets you live there unless it's the odd day he reminds you you're to blame for your mum's passing."

And in this, they have found someone who can share a childhood that was far from charmed. Though Draco and Theo can commiserate as friends over their difficult teen years, their overbearing responsibilities, Draco's childhood was idyllic. He is fully aware that his own paltry trinkets that he gifted Theo were the only presents he ever received, Nott Senior finding no time for such things as holidays.

"Let's um…" Potter searches the room a moment then points to a small cluster of empty chairs. "...there. We can sit, and I'll show you how to play… if you'd like."

Theo nods and makes to follow.

"You coming, Hermione?"

Draco glances over to see her shaking her head but smiling at her friend. "I wouldn't want to show you up. Have fun."

In the most good natured way someone can offer a rude gesture, Potter does, and the two Gryffindors laugh.

Then suddenly, they have left, and Draco Malfoy is alone with Hermione Granger.

They stand there in companioned solitude, looking around and not interacting. Draco thinks he should slip away as she obviously has no interest in speaking with him. Why he thought differently is a mystery.

She surprises him when she speaks, very softly, and gestures with a nod to her friend. "He needed that, I think. I can never truly understand what it was like for him. Ten years being treated worse than a family pet by people who are supposed to take care of you."

Hesitating only a moment, Draco plunges into one of the first real conversations he will have had with Granger directly. "Theo as well. My family hosted him sometimes. Mother sent cakes, and I always had the House Elves deliver some new toy or something, but it's not the same when your father literally regrets your existence."

"How awful for him," she breathes out, and though a younger, angrier Draco might have mocked her for her bleeding heart, all he sees is beautiful sincerity on her kind face.

"And for Potter," he agrees, though the words choke a little on their way out.

Another pause, another long awkward moment, but Granger is the brave one, so she tries again to fill the void. "Maybe we should..." He sees in the corner of his eye that she lifts her cracker half and shakes it gently in his direction.

He snorts. It's a knee-jerk reaction that he couldn't help if he tried. "I find it highly unlikely we will have anything in common."

Flinching at his own tone, Draco regrets shutting her down so completely. All his internal animosity, mostly directed at himself, just spilled out between them, and he's sure this is the last time they will ever speak.

Ever surprising, ever brave, Hermione Granger doesn't let Draco Malfoy wallow in the confidence of his own flaws. Instead of agreeing or yelling at him for his presumptions, she smiles and disagrees with quite a bit of pluck. "But we already do."

She points, one dainty, feminine hand coming into his field of vision, and extends her pointer delicately toward Theo and Potter, the former looking over the shoulder of the latter, odd contraption held in Potter's hands. "We both take care of people we love when they need it. Or did you not just brave your least favourite wizard on earth for the sake of your friend?"

Cheeky witch.

She's not entirely wrong, but Draco doesn't feel safe admitting it. Not yet. "I think you give me too much credit. The path of least resistance, and all that…" He waves his hand around, showing the flippancy of his comment.

"Please, that would have been not showing up at all. You're not going to convince me you're as heartless as you pretend."

With that, she shakes the cracker in her hand again, taunting and playful. When he doesn't immediately react, she teases, "Path of least resistance, Malfoy. I'm tenacious enough to keep at it."

Draco groans, eyes rolling back into his skull. "Ugh, fine. Here, just go ahead. It won't work, you know. This whole exercise is fut-" He stops abruptly when everything changes.

To Draco's amazement, the two halves glow bright and fall apart, a perfect brown box appearing and dropping softly to the floor.

Granger, for her part, looks smug as fuck.

"Nothing in common? No possible way we could be a Match?"

Feeling wrong footed, Draco moves to pick up the small parcel and takes back the upper hand with confidence. "Alright then, one thing. But it looks like I get to school you for once, Golden Girl, with the finest of all Wizarding chocolate-"

He's interrupted once again, this time by a rather rude laugh. "That's Muggle chocolate, Draco. You can buy it at Muggle department stores. Or their Piccadilly store front.

Shaking his head, Draco shows the top of the box. "No, this is from La Maison du Chocolat. In the Wizarding district of Paris. My father used to bring this to me when he made trips for the Board."

"I'm fully aware you can find it in Paris, though I didn't know they had a magical store. But I'm telling you, this is fully Muggle. My father used to bring it to me as a treat, and he's never been to a wizarding anything except Diagon with me."

They stare at each other a moment, then both glance down at the box. He doesn't need to voice it for them to both know she was right. It seems they have something in common after all.

Not knowing what else to say, he tries to hand the box over. "Here. Have one."

"Only if you do," she says primly through grinning lips.

Draco drags the box closer again and unties the brown ribbon that lays across the top. He's not entirely sure what to do with it. Unable to Vanish it, he looks around the room. But of course, Hogwarts is not exactly known for rubbish bins, what with the entire populace being able to magic away anything they need. How fucking embarrassing… the collar on his neck itches beneath his robes.

"I'll take that." Granger reaches over and plucks the ribbon from his hands. She draws her wand and casts a simple charm so it ties itself around her neck, a dainty choker to match the dark tone of her eyes.

Draco isn't sure if she did it to rescue him or if she even realizes his struggle, but her eyes go right back to the box, and she bounces once on the balls of her feet like an impatient child.

He bites his lip to swallow a groan at how fucking adorable she is.

Lifting the lid, Draco reveals twelve perfect truffles, all dusted in deep dark cocoa powder.

"How decadent," Granger breathes out, leaning into Draco's space. "All dark chocolate."

"As it should be," he quips and is rewarded with an honest chuckle in response. "Shall we?"

Suddenly she seems a little nervous. "I better not. That powder is impossible to get out, even with cleaning charms. Ugh, I shouldn't have worn white," she laments.

"It's your color though," he retorts before he can stop himself. Granger gives him a strange look, but he's gone this far…

"With your complexion. You should wear white more often. It sets off the darker tones of your hair and eyes."

"I… thank you?"

"You're welcome", he answers a bit clipped and returns to the question at hand. "Now, for these little confections. I suppose you could change, though I think that would be a mistake. Perhaps I should just eat them for you," he adds with a smirk.

He makes to reach into the box, but the little witch smacks lightly at his hand. "Oh no no, we are meant to share, and I expect at least six pieces, seven if you're feeling gentlemanly."

That tricks him into what is probably the first honest laugh she's ever heard from him. She answers with a bright smile that lights her eyes.

Fuck, Draco is in deep.

Struck with what is possibly the bravest, stupidest idea he's ever had, he reaches for the box again and plucks one from its nest of paper. "Here," he says, quickly before he can regret it, "open up."

Granger gives him a strange look, but is hardly confused by the intent. It's more that she is hesitating... Which of course of completely fucking understandable. He's not sure what he was thinking, starts to lower the truffle back into the box, when she steps a half pace closer and opens her mouth.

Bad plan, Draco. Terrible idea. It shouldn't feel lewd or intimate or anything else, but fuck if it doesn't. Her pink tongue is a taunting presence, and for a moment he can't move. Remembering himself, he reaches forward and lays the chocolate delicately at her lips so she can nibble forward, taking it between her teeth.

He holds in a sigh of relief that his gamble worked, that he didn't dump the whole package down the front of her dress, fumbled by the sight of her, warm mouth open and inviting. He's patting himself on the proverbial back when she moans in a most inappropriate way, eyes fluttering closed.

"So good," she mutters after she swallows it down, licking her lips. Her eyes open to find him stare, and she flushes. "Sorry. I haven't had one of those in at least two years."

He shakes his head in a sort of acknowledgement, in a response that says she has nothing to be sorry for, but she gestures to the box and urges him, "Go on. It's your turn."

"Oh, right," he stutters out, having completely forgotten anything but the sounds Hermione Granger makes when she's in ecstasy. Pinching another chocolate between his fingertips, Draco tosses one into his mouth, the bitter cocoa immediately offset by creamy, sweet ganache as he chews. "Fuck, that is good," he says, almost to himself, and Hermione chuckles a little in turn.

"Isn't it? See, we have at least a few things in common. Hopeless best friends, adoration for fine sweets, and fathers who indulge us more than is probably healthy." She's thoughtful for a moment before continuing. "You know, these little party favours were pretty clever. I wonder what else we might find we share."

Draco would like very much to say something smooth, something to endear her further. So far, he has basically bumbled his way into a friendly conversation, but imagine if he could advance the connection. Something sauve and unforgettable. Unfortunately, all he manages is, "Well, I look terrible in white, so not that."

She laughs once again. How many is that? Three? Four? Draco grins in response.

"Are you certain? I'd have thought you might look angelic."

Does she now? He preens a little that she has any favorable opinions on his appearance, but responds with good natured self deprecation. "Washed-out, I believe is the word you're looking for, but I appreciate it nonetheless."

"Anyway," she says, moving the conversation forward, "if we had everything in common, it would be dreadfully boring. I quite enjoy the company of individuals who might introduce me to new things."

He smirks down at her and counters with, "Want to play some Quidditch? Pretty sure that's something else we don't share."

"I think I'll pass, thanks," she answers back with a mock sniff. She pauses before looking back his way, a bit of color in her cheeks. "But how do you feel about dancing?"

No way. No fucking way she's implying what he thinks. Draco is careful here. He doesn't want to presume but he is mindful not to close a door he very much wants to go through.

"I'm fond of dancing. Father insisted I learn, along with other 'finer' pursuits. But that was one lesson I actually enjoyed."

"For me, it's about the music," she answers back, thoughtful. "Like this song for instance..." She pauses, presumably so he can tune in to their surroundings. "I quite like this. Could absolutely dance to it."

Is that an opening? Fuck, how can he be sure?

Draco is making all efforts not to acknowledge the nerves fluttering through him, trying to shudder his face from near panic. Should he ask? Invite her for a dance? What if he's reading this all wrong, and this is just Hermione Granger, great intellect, waxing philosophic?

He could ask and have her scoff and bite out her decline. Or she might look at him with damnable pity before excusing herself entirely.

But if he doesn't, and that was her aim? This might be his only opportunity, one single chance to advance this evening into something new; a beginning.

"Or we can just watch, of course. I can still enjoy the music from here."

Now that is clear as day. Looking down at her once again, she's watching the few couples as they sway to the music, resolutely keeping her eyes off him as she waits.

"It's always more fun to play Quidditch than sit in the stands, Granger. Let's get the full experience."

And he offers his hand, extended and hoping his palms are not clammy with his trepidation. When she takes it, a smile on her lovely face, he would swear the music swells to new heights.

He guides her just to the north of the dance floor center, an empty spot open between other couples, and pulls her closer by her hand. His other lays on her waist, her face tilted up to his, and then he takes a step. Another. She follows his movements and keeps in time where he leads.

And he's dancing with the prettiest witch in the room before he knows what's happening.

Draco doesn't assume they will speak now. A quick turn and then back to the side lines. He begins searching his mind for new topics; something to grab her attention when they've finished so she might stay for more conversation. Instead, just before this song ends and carrying them into the next, she picks up right where they left off.

"So what were the other 'fine' pursuits your father insisted on? I'll trade you for stories of Frank Granger insisting I learn to change the oil in our car. Or my mother dragging me to cooking class." She grins and adds conspiratorially, "Neither of us were very good at it, but she enjoyed tasting what everyone else made."

As the music changes tempo, so too does Draco, redirecting their movements. They flow seamlessly from one song into the next, he regaling her with stories of the summer Narcissa took up painting and insist he join, Hermione following with tales of her father's model ship building. The music fades, only the vague rhythm driving them on as they twirl and step, laughing and talking as the evening grows late.

He wants to kiss her, and maybe he will, but right now, learning about who she is and who she's been, sharing parts of himself that have nothing to do with war or the ink staining his arm, he's not in a hurry for anything, savoring every moment she smiles up at him.

A lone figure stands beside a foreboding lake in the dark, the lights of the castle dimly lighting the night sky in the distance.

"You did very well, you know."

He turns slightly, and for just a moment, the hairs standing on the back of his neck, he was hoping he would see a transluscent reflection of his own face behind him. But, no, Fred wouldn't hang around this dump. Not even for his brother.

"He would be very proud," the voice continues, and George gruffs a bit in reply, not interested in putting on his usual impish mask.

He thinks that will be the end of it, but apparently she's out for blood and tears.

"You were never half of someone, George. Fred knew that. It's why he went on. You shouldn't think that you can't be a whole person without him."

And that does it. George Weasley, puckish, irreverent, laughing, loveable George, chokes on a heavy sob and buries his face in his hands. When they are pulled away gently moments later, the petite features of a witch he hardly knows greets him. "Where's your Christmas cracker? I know you kept one for yourself."

He wipes his hand down his face before reaching into his robes and pulling out two halves of a small cracker, the first one he made. The prototype he started before he lost Fred.

Reaching forward with a soft, "May I?" Taking one from him gently, Luna holds it up to the other half, a soft glow shining over them as the two parts fuse then fall away.

Left in his hand, George finds an otherwise perfectly smooth stone, only five small words etched into the face. See you when you're done, it reads.

Glancing down at the stone, Luna cocks her head and tells him, "Just because he didn't stay doesn't mean he isn't watching."

As he stands there staring, his heart crashing against rough stone, stripping some of the sorrow away, she reaches for his hand and he lets her take it. "Come on. You'll never guess who's snogging Draco Malfoy on the dance floor."

He grins and follows, this time the crinkle reaching all the way to his glassy eyes.