December 31st, 1998
That was the first thing she felt.
It was the only thing she felt.
Shaking arms wrapped around a shaking frame and a small, tired face tilted upward to look at the massive iron gates in front of it. It had only been a few months since Hermione had seen those gates last, but in her mind... it had been an eternity.
She exhaled slowly and watched the cloud formed by her breath dissipate into the air like smoke. Smoke. Fire. Spells. Screams. All she could see was metal, and snow, and against the bruised black and purple of the sky, the faint silhouette of a castle, highlighted by a thousand smudges of gold.
There wouldn't be many heads hiding behind those windows today. Most of them would be at home, with their friends, with their family. Family. Parents. Blank eyes. Gone. Hermione should have been with her loved ones, too. She should've been spending every moment possible of her time with them, the special moments particularly. But she'd already been with them for Christmas. Christmas, which was a time of love, of giving. Of old memories and new memories and trying to summon from the beyond some bit of magic, something that, despite living in a world of wizards and witches, had been greatly lacking in supply recently. But today was different. Today was supposed to consist of fun and celebration, nothing more. She didn't feel like celebrating. She did, however, recognize the significance of it, of the War's year peeling slowly away, of new beginnings dawning. And so she was here. Because what better way to bring in new beginnings than at the place that needed them most- what better escape from the past than the place where it had happened? A whole new generation was starting their lives here, free of the haunting ghosts of a battle won at a too-steep price. The ashes were fleeing and a beautiful new start was arriving. It was a start she wanted to be present for.
The noise cracked through the winter air like a whip and Hermione's upturned head snapped around, sending tendrils of thick hair flying against her already pink with chill face. The sound of Apparition was one all too familiar to her (hadn't she only experienced the sensation herself moments ago?), and like the motion of a robot, without even a thought to catalyze it, her wand was instantly out of her pocket and stretched in a defensive position toward the intruder.
The intruder being, as fate would have it, one Draco Malfoy.
She blinked at the pair of wide, shocked grey eyes in front of her. Grey eyes. Scared grey eyes. Older, hard grey eyes. Black eyes. Laughter. Blood. Pain.
"Malfoy." The surprised notes of her voice rang against her own ears. She didn't lower her wand. "What are you doing here?"
He gave her no answer for a few seconds. Just stared, his body rigid at the predicament of finding himself in the presence of someone else. The fact that this was the first time either of them had laid eyes on the other since the war was also probably a contributor to his temporary freeze-up. His jaws finally worked their way open.
"None of your concern, Granger."
Hermione narrowed her eyes and cocked her head. Memories swam through her mind, of a cruel boy taunting her and cutting her down with no weapon but a simple name, of a troubled boy that despite everything she just hadn't been able to believe was a Death Eater, of a docile boy standing obediently but with trembling hands in the shadows while she was tortured on the floor of his home, of a fearful boy calling out his dead friend's name.
"Odd time to be lurking around outside the Hogwarts grounds, isn't it?" Her lips turned down in an only partially genuine scowl. "You should be out celebrating with your gang of Slytherin snakes."
The wand in her hand was still raised. She was suspicious. She had every right to be.
Malfoy set his jaw stubbornly, but his eyes dropped to the snow-covered ground, like he was too frightened to look at her, like he was ashamed.
"I could say the same for you and your obnoxious Gryffindor dog pack," he said, managing to sound derogatory despite the evasive way he was dodging her gaze.
Well, Hermione thought, touché, mon adversaire. She wasn't very well going to tell him the real reason she was standing in front of the gates of their old school on New Year's Eve. Not when it was such a personal thing. The serpent would be given no incentive to sink in his fangs.
"I hardly think I'm in a position that requires me to tell you anything, Malfoy." She let the word out slowly, like it was something bitter he'd fed her and she wanted to stretch out her vomiting of it so he could see just how disgusting she thought it was. "It should be obvious that whatever I'm doing, it isn't wrong. My motives don't exactly have a reputation for being prone to impurity. I'm sure even you have enough brain cells in your thick head to have retained that. Your motives, on the other hand..."
"Oh, sod off and leave, Granger, why don't you," Malfoy hissed, his eyes back on hers and flashing with irritation now.
Hermione raised her eyebrows and made an indignant noise. "Me leave! I think not! I may not have enough faith in your abilities to believe you could harm the school in any way on your own, but I certainly don't trust you within throwing distance of it. Besides, I was here first. If anyone's leaving, it's you."
Perhaps he might've left if she hadn't said that, she realized two seconds too late, but as it was, her words only appeared to ingrain the resolution to stay more firmly into his brain.
"You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?" he snapped. "That you can just point your wand and snip at me and I'll disappear. Well, you're sorely mistaken. I'm not going anywhere."
The pair glared at each other. Just then, the musical bang of a clock sounded in the distance, carried to them faintly amidst the flakes tossing on the icy wind. It was almost inaudible, but both of them heard it. The first stroke of midnight.
All the anger left Malfoy's face. He stared at Hermione, expression unreadable. She stared back.
Noise. Chaos. Panic.
"You really want to spend the start of the year before a new millennia bickering with me? You should run home to your Potter and Weasel while there's still time." It was a feeble attempt. Obviously, it didn't work.
Panic. Shooting. Falling.
Falling. Leaving. Death.
"Honestly, Granger, why are you even here? It's not as if you're doing anything useful. Did you come to Hogwarts just to watch 1999 arrive?" Malfoy sounded desperate. His strained eyes were clearly trying very hard not to look at something- what, she didn't know- and as she watched them she saw realization dawn on him that that was exactly why she was there. The realization grew slowly replaced by panic.
"Get out of here, Malfoy. The way I choose to spend my New Year's is none of your concern."
It seemed he could no longer help it. His eyes turned toward the school. Hermione's did too. After all, it was what she had come here to look at.
"So," she said quietly. Her wand arm finally lowered. "We're here for the same thing. Just not for the same reasons."
"I don't know. Can't know, seeing as your reasons don't happen to fall under the list of Things I'm Aware Of. But I really... I don't think they're that different." His voice had grown strangely low. Hermione turned to look at him, bewildered at this sudden lapse into what almost resembled vulnerability. He was staring at the castle with a blur of emotions stirring his eyes into whirlpools. His face was still blank and passive, which was contradictory, but after all. The eyes were the windows to the soul.
Only two more strikes to go until midnight. And Hermione had to spend it with Malfoy, of all people. Her luck was just dizzying.
Maybe this was no accident.
Maybe it was fate that she was experiencing this shift in time with such a messed up person.
She was messed up. The world was messed up. And wasn't that why she was here? In the hope that maybe all of that mess- or not even all of it, just some of it, just some tiny little bit of it- could be swept back together and mended up in the year to come? New Year's was about new beginnings, like she'd been thinking earlier. Fresh starts. Maybe... maybe Malfoy deserved one of those too. Not her full forgiveness, mind. But a second chance. A choice. An option to earn that forgiveness.
She made her decision. She wouldn't judge the infuriating boy standing next to her based on the past, as easy as that was. She would try to see him for who he was now, and what he did now. If she ever saw him after tonight, that was.
"Happy New Year's, Malfoy." The words startled him, and he looked away from the site that had shaped their lives, and so did she. The year flew in on imperceptible wings while their eyes were glued together by a minuscule phrase.
The last echoing knell of the giant clock in Hogsmeade swept into their ears and died out inside them. Silence fell again. As Hermione watched Malfoy, she could tell, as he could, that they both knew the other's reasons for being here on this frigid twist from night to morning and that the reasons were, if not identical, then nearly so.
Malfoy's white lips seemed as if they'd never part. Hermione had no reason to believe they would. She waited for the lift of a wand and the sweep of a heel that would announce his second Apparition. Instead, she saw those frozen lips pull away from each other, and heard words spill out.
"Happy New Year's."
His face closed up after that, and his grey eyes stopped churning and became an impenetrable steel wall. He did Apparate away then. No more could've been expected of him. He'd opened up far too much as it was. But Hermione had seen his moment of openness, and heard his brief leak of civility, and she was satisfied. She even allowed herself a tiny smile. There was a chance for Draco Malfoy. A small one.
But a chance all the same.
December 31st, 2005
Hermione set the last tediously unprofessional essay down on the stack she'd been grading and rubbed her burning eyes wearily. Well. That was that. She'd finally finished marking the last parchment to be graded over winter break, and now she could go enjoy it like everyone else. All the other professors had finished grading ages ago, but Hermione... well, she wanted to be thorough. This job meant everything to her, and she'd be damned if she didn't do it well. She did everything well. Or at least, as well as she was able. A light rap sounded at her door and she rubbed a just-starting-to-throb temple.
The door opened partway and a familiar blonde head peeked in. "Professor Granger?" the knocker called stiffly, raising an eyebrow. "Are you still grading papers?"
Hermione sat up straight and levelled a cool look at the head. "Not anymore, Professor Malfoy," she replied imperiously. She twirled the quill still clutched in her hand carelessly. "Why? Did you need something?"
"Not particularly." He managed to look aloof even while remaining bodiless. "Just wondered if you were aware of the time."
She checked the clock on her wall and started. "Oh, goodness! 11:59 already, is it really?"
"Once again, you've allowed your habit of obsessively focusing on your work to get the best of you, Professor." A glimmer broke through Malfoy's solemn facade and his mouth twitched. "It would seem that it's doing a very good job of distracting you from your personal affairs."
"Personal affairs, my foot, you old ham," Hermione muttered, dropping the act completely and grinning as she shoved her chair back and got up to join Malfoy. She stood on tiptoe to link her arms around his neck. "It's not personal if the whole world is doing the same thing."
"True, but the whole world isn't doing it with me." He smirked at her and she stomped on his foot. A loud 'OW' started to rail itself into the air, but it was cut off by the very efficient stifler that was her lips. He kissed her back for a generous twenty seconds (a very wonderful twenty seconds) before pulling away in mock disapproval.
"Hermione, I'm shocked," he tutted, ignoring how she was rolling her eyes. "The biggest stickler about rules on the planet, and you break the universal tradition of kissing someone on New Year's. You didn't wait for midnight!"
The cacophony of muffled whoops and cheers from the common room above Hermione's office announced the turn of the very hour he'd been referencing, and she smiled at Draco as he grumbled about bloody Gryffindors never changing.
"There," she said. "Now it's midnight." She leaned back in and connected their lips again, much more slowly and gently, savouring it and letting him do the same. This time, they stayed together for a whole five minutes.
"Happy?" she asked when they broke apart, trying to sound exasperated but only succeeding in demonstrating her breathlessness. A smile lifted Draco's handsome features, and she drank in way the grey eyes she'd come to love sparkled, glittering like fresh-fallen snow. Snow. Reunions. Gates. Beginnings.
"Very," he whispered.
For the eighth time in a row, the new year rolled in as a chance-giver and the receiver of a chance stared into each other's eyes.