Title: Fire Forgives
Word Count: 1650
Prompt: Yule Log
Summary: Tradition demanded that the Yule log never burn away completely, that there would always be something left to carry over to the next year, to start the flames anew.
A/N: Had a lot of fun researching my prompt, planning something humorous, and then this happened. I didn't intend melancholy, but apparently that's what my brain wanted. XD
The days grow short in winter. The night is cold and crisp, where every breath fills his lungs with frozen fire. The tips of his ears and the point of his nose are red as holly berries as he trudges through the knee-high snow. He flicks his wand, left to right to left, melting away the highest drifts in his path. Eyes watering, nose running, fingers and toes freezing - every inch of him feels like he's been coated in a layer of frost and left in the meadow under the moon through the dark hours of the longest night. Cold and aching in a wide expanse of blinding snow, with the weak sun making the stiff branches and bare limbs of the hedges lining the hidden drive sparkle with a rime of ice, he walks up the hill and around the bed.
There, nestled into the embrace of a small, shallow valley, is the stone cottage with the ivy-covered roof. Despite his chapped lips and icy cheeks and trembling heart, Draco smiles. He looks over his shoulder, one last check of the ground behind him, his footprints already filling in with fresh and powdery snow, then makes his way into the valley. He knocks on the cottage door, his thick leather gloves muffling the thud of his knuckles on the wood, black and cracking with age.
He stomps his feet and pounds his hands together, waiting for the slow footsteps on the creaking floor. The door squeaks as it opens, and he silently reminds himself again to oil the hinges before he leaves. He always tells himself this, every visit, and he always forgets, too busy, too distracted, too relaxed. The last time he left, he was too angry. He swears he won't leave with any business unfinished this time.
Hermione opens the door and looks up to his face, her arms folded under her breasts and her hands tucked into the baggy folds of her faded lilac jumper. Her cheeks are flushed, her eyes are dark. Her lips, full and rosy and stained with ink in one corner where she sucks on her quills when she thinks, part in surprise. Before she can speak, he cups her cheek, brushes his thumb in the dip below her mouth. Her eyes darken even further. She lifts her head as he lowers his, and the warmth of her lips soaks into him as they kiss. He hadn't planned on that, hadn't expected it, hadn't even dared to hope for it, but he wouldn't turn away from the opportunity when it was given to him so freely.
He draws back, ready to apologize for the kiss, for his sudden appearance, for so many things, and she lays her fingers over his mouth before he can speak. "Don't," she says, her throaty voice as rich and warm as spiced cider. It's one word, only one, but it sends a shiver down his back worse than the chill winds that drove snow beneath his cloak. She steps back and looks at him, then away, her hands slipping into her sleeves and balling the fabric up in fists. "Don't say you're sorry."
He nods. It would have been a lie anyway. He's never once been sorry for a single one of their kisses. Not the first, years ago, at a holiday party after the heat of too much cinnamon wine. Not the second, the next morning, over coffee and toast soldiers and confused, hopeful glances from under lowered lashes. Not any kiss after that, not even their last, two months before, when she'd given back his ring and walked into the crowds of a train station in London. He'd regretted what he'd said, but he'd never been sorry for the kiss.
"May I come in?" he asks, and she looks at his eyes for a long stretch of seconds before she steps away from the door and lets him in. He stomps the snow from his boots and tugs off his gloves. Cloak on the hook next to her red trenchcoat. Hat in the basket beside her knitted scarf. Gloves on the low table beside a stack of post, envelopes in the cheery colors of the season, with silver ribbons and golden bells sprinkled in glitter like snow. She always has dozens of cards, every holiday, dozens of letters from friends sending her greetings and love. He'd sometimes get one, but usually not even that. Her old schoolmates treated him with civility, but his had no time for blood traitors.
She leads him into the small sitting room and curls up in the corner of the settee near the fire. She pulls a blanket over her legs and picks up a circular needle, yarn stretching to a woven basket on the floor. "Hat?" he asks, one hand resting on the top of the wingback chair opposite her. They'd argued over that, spatted and grumbled. She thought it was pretentious and out of place in her house. He just looked at her, wondering how long it would take before she noticed that was the point. When she got there, she laughed and laughed and pushed him into the chair for a long, lingering kiss, christening the chair and welcoming him home. It's familiar, comfortable, a little bit of him still in her world. The fear that this time she'd removed everything of him from her house disappears as he rubs his palm over the oxblood leather. It warms his heart and calms the shake in his hands, giving him a little hope.
"Hat," she says, her eyes focused on the clacking needles and the pale green yarn. "Sit."
"Monosyllabic today?" he asks, making a token attempt at a joke. She doesn't smile, and he hides a sigh as he takes his seat, the thick cushion still shaping to him despite the months gone past. "Hermione--"
"How many times?" she snaps, her needles clicking furiously. "How many times, Draco? How often do I have to forgive you?"
He leans back in the chair and stares into the fireplace. An ash log burns in the center of the hearth, the ends of it nearly white from heat and flame. He watches as a bit of bark sparks and flames, falling away into the grate. One corner of his mouth curls in a smile. They cut their first Yule log together, tramping through the crunching snow in the woods at the end of the valley. She shoved snow down the back of his neck; he rubbed snow into her long curls. She fell into a drift, laughing, and waved her arms and legs to make an angel. He flicked his wand and made icicles sing like a harp. Back in the cottage, with the snow melting from their boots in the entry hall and their cheeks still pink from the rushing winds, she tugged him down onto the braided rug in front of the hearth, and he made love to her as the ash log roared in the flames.
He watches the log burn, fingers drumming on the arm of his chair. Tradition demanded that the Yule log never burn away completely, that there would always be something left to carry over to the next year, to start the flames anew. Faults and mistakes are burned in the fire, purified and cleaned to start over with fresh hope. Draco closes his eyes and takes that meaning to heart. He laces his fingers together, rubbing his thumb over the ring she'd given back to him, and says a line from a film she'd made him watch a dozen times. "At least once more, Miss Swann."
She snorts and he flicks a glance at her. Her lips are pressed together, but they're twitching, and there's a glimmer in her eyes when she lifts her head to look at him. "Never should have introduced you to the cinema. Do you still talk back to the screen?"
"Dunno. Haven't been in a while. Stopped going at all, really." He turns his head to her, meeting her eyes. "Isn't any fun to go it alone."
Hermione watches him for a minute, then looks back to the knitting in her lap. "So I've discovered. Going it alone. Not fun in the slightest." She chews her lip and her voice softens. "I missed you, Draco. But I don't know if I can ... if we should...."
Her eyes glimmer with tears. "But we fight so much. I'm tired of war."
"We're always going to fight, Hermione." Draco gets up and moves to the settee beside her. He takes her knitting from her unprotesting hands and puts it in the basket. He slips his arm around her shoulders and she leans against him, her head pillowing on his shoulder. "We're always going to fight and argue. We knew that from the start. Hell, we fought that first night, remember? The trick is getting past the fights."
She stays quiet for a long time, then sighs, reaching for his hand. "I don't know if I can keep doing that. It's so hard."
He bends to kiss the top of her hair. She's warm in his arms, like heavy woolen blankets and a cup of hot cider to welcome the winter traveler home. "I heard once that it's better to do what is right than what is easy. This is right, love. It's not easy, and it never will be, but it's right."
Hermione pulls the ring off his hand and slips it onto hers, settling it firm against her knuckles. "You sound like a Gryffindor."
"They say couples do start to sound alike after a while." Draco shifts to lean back in the cushions as Hermione burrows against him, her ear pressing to his heart and her arm sliding around his waist. He tips his head down to hers and watches the Yule log burn in the hearth.